Story: Pygmalion Contest Winner! “Frigid”
K.N. Johnson’s story won the Pygmalion Contest! You can see the original contest specifications here. KN Johnson’s dark, unsettling, and supernatural writing has appeared in numerous collections. Here’s a tidbit from her Amazon page: “Her volunteer work with headstone restoration and adventures with a ghost investigation team provide plenty of inspiration for her stories where ordinary people grapple with what is real and what is not.” Follow her on Facebook here. Thanks K.N., and congratulations!
Her body called to him. From deep in the woods, from the crack in his soul, she called for him to bring her into being. The snow crunched beneath his tires as he drove his small truck down the forest lane. Dark silhouettes of trees huddled, arched over the forgotten path. He moved slow, searched for a particular spot, one splendid clearing. Coiled rope unfurled and tools bounced in the bed of his truck. A chainsaw, a steel pick, a long-handled hook.
In the dead branches of a bush, a faded scarf of roses hung, knotted tight and tattered. A slight smile moved his lips and he parked the truck. With a canvas tote, he gathered his tools and dragged a snow shovel into the woods. His boots sank into a trail he knew. In the crystalline top layer of snow, the shovel scratched a meandering line. He arrived at a clearing circled in evergreen trees and dropped the bag to gaze at the gray sky, the clouds like a soft, low fog. They preserved the cold air, signaled possible light snow. With the shovel, he skimmed the surface powder, cleared a large, flat square to the snowpack. He kneeled at the center, swept his gloved hands across the smooth snow, rested his ruddy cheek to the ground, and closed his eyes. A blissful resting place.
On the riverbank, he opened his bag of tools. The ice stretched for a mile, the gift of a long, northern winter, tucked between a blanket of snow and a freezing current of water. He stepped onto the river and, to his left and to his right, shoveled snow aside. Wind whispered in a hollow, detached voice across the open space. It moaned, saying nothing. He stretched his woolen hat over his ears. With both hands, he raised his long, steel pick high and pierced the ice. He stabbed, ice chips pulling up with the pick’s small hooked side. Stabbed to sink it deeper, stabbed until the pick hit water and his fists hit the ice with a satisfying thunk. He shivered.
He speared three more holes before jerking the cord of the chainsaw. The engine buzzed, echoed across the river and coughed pale, blue smoke. He angled at one puncture, a tentative cut then plunged, filled the air with the odor of burning oil. Sweat beaded on his face, dangled on the tip of his nose. It seeped between his warm layers. As the chainsaw gnawed through the ice, it threw pieces and slush at his legs. At last, a rectangle floated in the water. He pushed ropes down the crevice, under each end, slid them into two, draping handles. He wrapped them around his arms, his bulky coat sleeves, crossed his chest, and leaned back. Grunting, he leaned and pulled, clenched his jaw, until the block emerged, landed on the solid icepack beside him.
He positioned his shovel and tools on the ice block. The river lapped at the edge of the hole, wept water, slicked the ice. His boots skated, searched for control as he wrestled the block to the riverbank. Reaching the shore, he sat. He removed his hat, wiped his face with it, shook it out and pulled it back on his head. He rested his hand on the block. True, raw ice. No demands, no hidden intentions. Weary, he laid on his back, dreamed of his creation. From the water arose a nymph, a woman shaped by the golden ratio, cool river droplets trickling from the long hair cloaking her face, rolling down her body. He sighed as she dissolved into vapor. She is, was, will be the perfect woman.
Gray as the other day, the sky opened at the pine clearing. In the center, where he last cleared the soft snow, the block waited like an ice coffin. Different tools spilled from his bag. Wire and nylon brushes, a chisel, a fine tooth saw. He sifted through them. Ice picks, claws, a small, sharp knife. He stared at the strings of ice pearls captured in the frozen water, the thin bands and fissures. Good bones. A breeze eased through the pine boughs. He pulled two claws from his bag and straddled the block. With both hands, he hacked at the ice.
As a teen, he had roamed the wintry woods behind his house for years. He trampled through the snow, snapped dead branches. Most wanderings included a visit to the stream. Stomping on its frozen shell made his heart race, the tiny cracks splitting beneath his feet, threatening to dump him into the icy water below. The banks grew steep, so tall along the shore that dead trees crossed like bridges high above him. He spotted something red. A fox. Trapped by the vertical walls of the ravine, stiff from the cold water, the exhausted animal had frozen and the ice closed in. Cloudy eyes fixed open, its face lifted to the sky in a petrified plea for escape.
“You found my muskrat trap.” He removed his glove and stooped to stroke the crispy fur on its nose, between its eyes. “Didn’t think I’d get a fox.”
Further down the stream, the ravine eased into a level bank and he wandered out past hickory, oaks, and quaking aspens. At a huddle of scrubby evergreens, the smell of pine surrounded him. He stepped between the branches, needles pricking his face, and pressed close to the trunk. Sap stuck to his cheek and coat. He peered around the tree to a house with large glass windows, no fabric to block his view. She glided past the glass, from one room to the next, in a strappy top and silk pajama pants. His breath caught in his throat and his cheeks flushed. Her lamplight cast ribbons of light down the silk. With his stillness, his body chilled, his toes curled in his boots. He gripped the tree as she hovered at one window, seemed to look into the woods for a moment, and then bent forward. Her long hair draped, hid her face, and the strap of her silky top slid down her shoulder. He exhaled, releasing a mist that blurred his vision.
The corners of the block now hacked away, he clawed at various spots, hopped back, checked his dimensions. With a chisel, he positioned a rough neck and shoulders, breasts, hips, and thighs. He wore down the coarse edges, rubbed them with a wire brush until they rounded. Excess ice fell clear by the blade of his saw. The ice pick finessed delicate lines, strands of hair. Sliding the blade of his knife down her body, he coaxed a sheen from the ice, a pearlescent luster. Tools aside, he stood. Her curves, her lips, her hair veiling her eyes. His numb fingers fumbled into his pocket, withdrew a yard of silk. He draped her body, positioned the fabric like a strapless dress.
He nestled into the snow beside her. His parka scuffed against her arm, his boots wandered, tapped her toe. Cold air slipped between his coat, his plaid shirt, his long johns. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply and released his breath with an extended, audible sigh. She is, was, will be the perfect woman.
He had stood behind her, clasped his hands across her eyes. She’d smiled, patted his hand. “C’mon, let me see.” She had strained on tiptoes, folded her own hands together against her chest. He dropped his hands and she gasped. “It’s beautiful.” She had taken slow steps around his sculpture, a fox carved from river ice. She touched the tip of the upturned tail.
“You’re beautiful.” He stared at her red hair, her lipstick. He sidled near, closed his hand over hers.
She stepped away from him, tucked her hands into her jacket pockets. “It almost looks real,” she said.
He followed her, wrapped his fingers around her arm and turned her to face him. “We can be real.” He’d drawn her lips to his.
She hadn’t returned his kiss. She had paced backward, clutched her rose-patterned scarf to her pale neck. “It’s really cold out here,” she blurted. “I need to get home.” When he didn’t reply, she added, “Now.”
“But,” he said, “I didn’t show you the muskrat trap.”
A finger traced his face with an arctic touch. The sky dimmed and a chill curled round him, through him. He removed his gloves, ran his hands down her body once, twice, pushing the silk to her feet. The warmth from his palms melted a thin layer into the suggestion of sweat. His fingers, numb and stiff, turned gray. He bit his lip, wiped his hands on his scarf, tossed it. Icy tendrils of hair cascaded, a translucent shroud. His hands shaking, he pulled off his hat to the bitter air, fumbled his feet from his boots, cast his coat to the trees. Of him, from him, for him. He shuddered, his skin prickling with her touch. Stars twinkled through the winter sky as he wadded the silk, pressed it to his face.
His tools bounced in the bed of the truck. Steel pieces peeked from the bag, glinted under the night stars. He pulled into the drive of a cabin where each window glowed, smoke swirled from the chimney. Inside, he dropped his boots by the door, his coat missed the hook. A fire crackled in the fireplace.
“I kept yours warm,” his wife called out between the sounds of a spoon stirring, hitting the sides of a stockpot. “The kids have been waiting for you.” He sank into the sofa, used a remote to switch the television on, the light flashing across his face. She continued, “I warned them you’d probably be tired and not up for much.”
She entered the room, loosened her brown hair from a ponytail. She leaned her tired face over him and gasped. Bits of ice melted from his beard. His skin appeared gray, almost blue. “Weren’t you wearing a coat?” His body shook with ragged shivers. “Did you wear gloves?” She grabbed one of his hands, gave it a brisk rub. She held his face, cupped his frosted beard and kissed him on the lips. He stared at the television. “You,” she said, “are absolutely frigid.”
© 2016 Nina Johnson and K.N. Johnson. The content of this article, except for quoted or linked source materials, is protected by copyright. Please contact the author to request usage.