Cold Spell

Don Katnik


HUSBAND AND INFANT MISSING – Laura Fennel, recently moved to Hampden, reported yesterday that her husband Aaron and their five-year-old daughter Ellie have been missing since Friday. Jacob Williams, the Fennel’s neighbor and a long-time Hampden resident, saw a plumber’s truck at the Fennel house earlier but nothing else unusual. Police are investigating.

Hoping for a miracle, Aaron glanced through the frosted kitchen window at the thermometer outside — twenty-six below zero. On the television, the weatherman said, “It’s b-r-r-risk out there, Mainers! Temps near minus thirty. That’s a record! It hasn’t been this cold on January 31st since 1870 when it dropped below minus thirty!”

The anchorwoman said, “That’s cold, Pat.”

“Well, Jen, that cold spell in 1870 only lasted three days, but our Weather-Tracker Radar isn’t predicting any relief that soon this time. So bundle up and think warm thoughts, folks!”

“And let your faucets tinkle a little,” advised Jen, “or they might freeze up!”

“Bite me,” Aaron said as he used Laura’s hairdryer to blow hot air under the kitchen sink. The faucet was wide open but nothing was coming out. Twenty minutes later the ancient gooseneck convulsed and coughed out a blast of air then spat out chunks of ice and water. After a few more spasms the flow strengthened to a steady stream. Aaron closed the tap handle. Once the water stopped drumming in the porcelain basin he heard it splattering beneath the floorboards. He leapt up and raced for the cellar. Ellie started to cry. “Back in a minute!” Aaron called as he raced by. The infant wailed.

The newlywed Fennels had been charmed by the eccentric cellar door in their bedroom closet. Sometime during the Cape’s two-hundred-year history, “Hobomok” had been scrawled over the closet door frame. Now Aaron fumbled through Laura’s clothes and rushed down steep wooden stairs. He stopped short when the door slammed behind him, but he had greater concerns than a cranky door. The sound of gushing water was louder down here. Ducking under low joists, he pushed through spider webs to a big, red valve on the main water line. It squealed in protest, but grudgingly closed. In the sudden silence, Aaron heard Ellie screaming. He started back upstairs but paused on the steps again. This side of the door was gouged with deep furrows like claw marks. Had Hobomok been a dog? Christ, they’d kept it down in the cellar? Ellie wailed again and Aaron forgot about the dog.

Aaron and Ellie waited in the living room for the plumber. The wide pine floorboards were faded except for a newer middle section. The walls were thick with coats of off-white paint — lead-filled, no doubt. Aaron’s initial enthusiasm for their quirky fixer-upper had faded as every simple home-improvement project had fallen into a deep, dark, expensive hole. When Ellie dozed off he swaddled her in a blanket and went outside to open the gate. Within seconds, his ears were burning and nostril hairs frozen. The houses along the silent street hunkered in stoic hibernation; the smoke spiraling from their chimneys the only signs of life.

“Ayuh,” Avery Cavendish said, “I’ve had fawty calls this mawnin’. Git a cold spell like this,” the plumber said, “an’ pipes freeze up quick.”

“We just moved from Miami a few months ago. This is our first winter in Maine.”

“I figgered you was from away. Where’s ya cellar?” Aaron led him downstairs where the bright beam of his flashlight reflected off cobwebs, corroded pipes, and cloth-covered wiring. “Gory, she’s an old one!”

“Built in 1820.”

“You git the water turned off?”

Aaron showed him the red valve on the main line. Cavendish followed the pipe with his light. It ran along a joist towards the huge, old furnace where a smaller line branched off and went behind it.

“That ain’t good,” Cavendish said. The pipe ran through a hole in a thick beam that lay across the top of a rough wall of mortared fieldstones. “That pipe might get to your kitchen from here, but we sure can’t.”

“What idiot built a wall across the cellar?” Aaron asked.

Cavendish laughed. “That’s your original foundation. Rest’a the house was added on later. Houses up here ain’t built — they grow. Probably another way down to the other side.” But they searched the rest of the house and even outside without finding one.

“So how did they get the pipes under the kitchen?” Aaron asked, blowing to warm his numb fingers as they retreated back inside.

Cavendish shrugged. “Put ‘em in from above before they put the floor down. Looks like you’re gonna have to tear it up.”

There was a large, cast-iron woodstove at one end of the kitchen. That morning, Laura had suggested making love there tonight in the hot, red glow of the fire. “I’m not tearing up this floor,” Aaron said.

“Then ya got some diggin’ t’do.”

Aaron was gathering tools when the neighbors, Jacob and Lizzy Williams, appeared. They were nice but older than dirt. He wondered how their wizened bodies withstood the frigid air. “Having some trouble, Aaron?” Jacob asked.

No shit, Aaron thought. “Frozen pipe.”

“You should get that wood stove going,” Lizzy said.

Aaron glanced at the cast-iron monster. “I haven’t cleaned it out yet. It was my plan for today, but . . . ” he threw his hands up.

Jacob nodded. “The house had different ideas. That stove used to be in the living room before this part was added on. It was built on an older foundation — the servants’ quarters that burned down in 1850.”

Aaron wasn’t interested in a history lesson. “The pipe burst under the kitchen — but the only way to get at it is by either tearing up the floor or tunneling in from the cellar.”

A knock at the door interrupted them. “Mrs. Gray,” Aaron said. Her smile disappeared when she saw Jacob and Lizzy. The chill between his neighbors was colder than the arctic air outside. Ellie woke and started crying. Aaron fetched her from the living room. “Isn’t she precious!” said Mrs. Gray. “How old?”

“Five weeks,” Aaron replied. “She was born on winter solstice.”

Lizzy clucked. “Winter babies are bad luck.”

Mrs. Gray snorted. “Old wives’ tale!”

Hoping to head off a geriatric brawl, Aaron said, “Well, I’d better get to work. At least I’ll have Hobomok to keep me company down there!” he finished, explaining his theory that the cellar had once been a doggy’s den.

Mrs. Gray surprised him by hissing. “Demon!”

“Hobomok was a bad dog?” Aaron asked.

Jacob shook his head. “A spirit worshipped by the local Chippikwaks. They believe he controls the weather.”

“What’s that have to do with my cellar?” Aaron asked. No one knew. “Maybe I should pray for warmer weather!”

Mrs. Gray snorted. “I’ll be next door if you need anything.” She left them in another icy blast. Lizzy offered to take Ellie and they left Aaron to dig beneath a suddenly silent, empty house.

Aaron was examining the foundation wall behind the furnace when the hulking machine roared to life, hot and loud in the confined cellar. He yelped, then laughed at himself. He wedged a crowbar between two stones at the top of the wall just below the beam that the pipe ran though. He pulled on the bar, expecting the stones to pry out easily, but the ancient mortar resisted. When it finally gave way with a loud crack, Aaron fell and was showered with dust and sharp bits of rock. The loosened stones fell out and Aaron scrambled to avoid being hit. He cursed, got back up, and peered into the gap he’d made. Aaron’s breath plumed into the black void beyond it — no wonder the pipe had frozen. He reached through the opening, felt down behind the foundation wall, and touched solid earth. Apparently there was no cellar on that side, just a shallow crawlspace. He pried out more stones until he’d made a hole large enough to wiggle through. He wormed his way into it but saw that the ground ahead sloped up to within a foot of the joists. He would have to dig a trench to go any farther. He backed out and traded his crowbar for a shovel.

Aaron scooped dirt out, pitching it against the furnace, which it rattled against like graveyard earth on a coffin lid. He stood on the growing pile, reaching further through the gap between the stones until he could lie in the growing trench with his legs hanging out into the cellar. He pulled dirt towards him, shoved it under his body, and ejected it behind him. As he dug, Aaron considered the layout of the house. The master bedroom with the cellar steps was at the far end of the original structure. Next was the living room, which sat over the furnace. Beyond that was the dining room that apparently had been added on later. The kitchen was past that.

Despite brand new batteries, his flashlight’s beam was swallowed by the darkness. All Aaron could see were more low joists and the pipe hanging beneath them. There weren’t as many cobwebs under this section of the house, but strange detritus littered the ground. White toadstools grew in patches like miniature stands of albino trees. Rodent droppings were everywhere. His nose wrinkled at the musty, noisome odor. When something skittered down Aaron’s back, he dismissed it as loose dirt until it reversed direction. He jerked, trying to dislodge it, but succeeded only in cracking his head against a joist. While stars exploded in Aaron’s brain, feet tickled across the nape of his neck. A mouse jumped from his shoulder into the crawlspace ahead. Aaron screamed obscenities at it, voice cracking in his dry throat. He considered taking a break and returning upstairs for a drink — getting out of this dark, dank crawlspace sounded wonderful. But he had work to do. Aaron sighed and resumed digging. He was too far from the cellar now to push the loose dirt back out into it, so he began pushing it out into the crawlspace on either side. It quickly piled up, making tight space even more claustrophobic. He worked his limbs mechanically — digging and pushing dirt, crawling forward, losing track of time until he realized that he could no longer see the pipe overhead. He backed up. The loose piles of dirt blocked most of his view. He backed up further and still no pipe. How far had he come? It felt like twice the length of the house but it was hard to determine distance down here. Panic fluttered in his throat and Aaron quashed it. At the worst he’d just back out to the cellar — and screw this and the friggin’ floorboards. He wasn’t going to have the energy to make love on them anyway.

The idea of giving up and getting out bloomed bright in Aaron’s chest. His breath came easier. Then Aaron found the pipe. He could see now that his trench curved off to the side. He groaned and rolled onto his back, a scene forming in his mind — Laura staring aghast at the demolished kitchen floor, her beloved old pine boards torn apart, asking, “How could you get lost under your own house?” The real question — “what poor excuse for a man are you?” — unspoken but hanging in the air between them.

Aaron signed and began following the pipe again. Sharp pain burst in his knee. Aaron felt down his leg and found something sharp protruding from the ground. He pried it free. It was a rusty metal knife. He squinted at a crude, dirt-encrusted engraving on the handle — a pentagram. The creepy blade was now wet with his blood. He wanted to drop it but loathed the idea of the bloody dagger laying somewhere behind him — between him and freedom — so he tucked it under his belt and resumed digging.

Again he lost track of the time but this time not the pipe. Finally Aaron came to a brick wall cutting across the crawlspace. The pipe went through it. If the house had been expanded in sections, then this was probably another growth-spurt foundation marking the end of the dining room and the beginning of the kitchen. He’d have to go through or under it. Aaron’s neck screamed from craning forward. He’d left the crowbar back in the cellar. Going back for it would end this project because once out into the open air, Aaron knew he wouldn’t be able to force himself back into this tunnel. So he sighed and began digging under.

Too tired to dig deep enough, Aaron tried to squeeze through a gap too small for his beer belly and got stuck. He would have cheerfully taken an axe to Laura’s fucking floorboards now. She was so skinny, she would have squirted through this crawlspace no problem. Why was he the one who always gets stuck doing this shit? Aaron wriggled and found he could just barely move. He snaked forward an inch at a time until he popped out on the other side. To his relief, there was more room in this crawlspace and he could scrape underneath the joists. He followed the pipe and was not really surprised when, after what felt like hours later, he came to another foundation — this one made of fieldstones again.

Aaron tried to reason this out even though he knew it was unreasonable. If he was at the back end of the kitchen then he’d passed the sink and the broken pipe, which he’d lost again. There were no pipes in sight, broken or otherwise. And the kitchen foundation was supposed to be cinderblock. Aaron had seen that when he and Avery Cavendish had circled the house looking for a way under it. So where the fuck was he?

Aaron flashed his light around. The joists were rough-hewn beams instead of the smooth pine two-by-tens that had been under the dining room. This section was older. White sticks littered this crawlspace. Aaron picked one up — it was a bone. Gooseflesh erupted on Aaron’s arms even though the bone was too small to be human. The light flickered. Aaron turned, trying to avoid touching the bones, and retreated. The light went out. Aaron slapped it and got a feeble glow. He hit it again, harder, and the light flared, illuminating three carefully crafted, miniature stick people impaled on corroded, square nails protruding from a small rise in the earth floor of the crawlspace. Aaron stared at the Golgothan tableau. One figure was smaller — a child? Aaron saw that the bones surrounding him spiraled out from the crucified figures. Then the light went out again. He slapped it furiously to no avail. Aaron bolted in blind panic and immediately slammed into something hard. Stars exploded in his head and he sagged to the ground. When his head cleared, Aaron knew he was done. All he wanted now was to get out — to hell with the pipe, to hell with the floorboards, and to hell with Laura. He groped forward, feeling for the foundation. Once he found the foundation, he’d follow it around until he found his tunnel under the brick foundation. Then he’d wriggle back through it and all the way out to the cellar. As fast as possible.

First things first — find the foundation. Aaron started moving again. His hands and knees hurt from pressing down on strange, hard objects that he couldn’t see in the darkness but could picture horribly in his mind. Long minutes or hours later when he finally found the foundation, Aaron was so convinced that he never would that at first he didn’t believe it was real. He placed one hand on the solid stones, sighed with relief, and began following them.

They went on forever. Aaron lost count of the corners he’d encountered — the kitchen above had only four, like any square room, but Aaron had passed at least twice that many. It seemed impossible that he kept missing his tunnel. Real despair — not the paltry uncomfortableness he’d felt before, but black, heavy, smothering despair — was settling over him when suddenly Aaron fell into his tunnel. He gratefully wiggled through.

When he came up on the other side, a strong, bitter wind numbed Aaron’s face and he saw stars overhead. He was outside! His clothes, damp from hours of crawling through dank earth, steamed in the open air. After the impenetrable crawlspace, the moonlight was blinding. A structure loomed above him, but it didn’t look like his house. Shivering so hard he could barely stand, Aaron staggered around it until he found a door. He knocked. No one answered. He tried the door. It was unlocked. His clothes were beginning to freeze so he opened the door and stepped inside. “Hello? Is anybody here?”

Silence that was not just a lack of sound but a deeper, darker emptiness was the only response.

The room he’d entered was hot. An orange, hellish glow flickered across it from a wood stove at one end. It was large, like the one from their kitchen, but new. The floor before it was new as well — freshly hewn, thick pine boards with a large ring of darker wood set in the center. More dark lines crisscrossed it, forming another pentagram. The extent and location of the whole ghastly design reminded Aaron very much of the section of replaced floorboards in his own living room. A hand grabbed Aaron’s arm and he screamed.

“Aaron! We have been looking for you.” The man wore a heavy cloak with a hood, but Aaron recognized Jacob’s voice.

“Jacob! I’m so glad to see you. Christ, what a crazy day! I hit my head under the house and now . . . well, I’m confused. Where am I?”

Jacob regarded him for a long time. “Where do you think you are?”

Other than the glow from the wood stove, there were no lights on in the house and none to be seen outside it. “Did the power go out?” Aaron asked.

“Power?” Jacob’s voice was strong and firm, not the thin and trembling old man’s voice from that morning. “The power is always here, if you know where to find it.”

“You have a generator? I only came in because I was freezing. Thirty below? Hell, it feels more like a hundred below.”

Jacob nodded. “We are going to do something about that. Look — the others are gathering.”

Aaron followed Jacob’s pointing finger through a hard-frosted window and saw candlelight behind the house. Shapes moved inside. “I don’t feel up to a party,” he said. “My head hurts. And I should check on Ellie.”

“Lizzy will bring the child,” Jacob said. The room suddenly was crowded with people who, like Jacob, wore hooded robes. Burning candles soon lined the shelves around the room. Jacob pushed his hood back and in the flickering light Aaron saw a different man. Jacob was young! Before Aaron could digest this latest insanity the crowd began chanting. He couldn’t understand the guttural syllables, but they chilled him more than the air outside had. “What are they saying?” Aaron asked.

“They are praying to Hobomok to end the cold spell,” Jacob answered.

“Hobomok? The cellar dog?” Then Aaron remembered Mrs. Gray’s word for it — demon.

A fresh icy draft batted the candle flames as someone else entered the house. When the newcomer swept her hood back, Aaron saw that it was Lizzy. Not frail, gray, sweet Lizzy from the morning but a young, voluptuous woman who for all her beauty looked more evil than angelic. Lizzy opened her robe and brought out a squirming bundle that cried.


Aaron started toward her, but Jacob restrained him. Lizzy unwrapped the blanket around the baby and set her naked on the floor at the center of the pentagram.

“What the hell are you doing?” Aaron asked.

No one answered his question as they passed a goblet around the room. When it had made the rounds, Jacob nodded towards Aaron’s midsection. Bewildered Aaron felt there and his hand found the knife he’d picked up under the house only now it wasn’t corroded and dirty like it had been before but new and gleaming in the firelight. Jacob stepped behind Aaron and forced him down to his knees over Ellie and the pentagram radiating out around her. Jacob gripped Aaron’s hand holding the knife and raised it up as the chanting grew louder. “Hobomok, hear us!” he cried. “Take this blood as sacrifice and cease blowing your cold breath!”

The candle flames flared, brightening the room’s interior except over the floor where a murky shadow suddenly swirled over Ellie. The darkness congealed into a long face, its mouth gaping.

“Hobomok hears us!” Jacob cried.

The chanters exulted.

Aaron was so caught up in their insanity that he wasn’t prepared to resist when Jacob drove his arm down. The knife punctured Ellie’s tiny chest. Her eyes widened and she convulsed. She coughed out a blast of air, then chunks of dark, red phlegm and blood. After a few more spasms, the flow of blood strengthened to a hard, steady stream. The shadow-face darted down as if to gobble the infant, but it passed through Ellie and the floor. Before it disappeared, Aaron saw a huge, evil grin stretched across Hobomok’s murky face.

Lizzy scooped Ellie’s steaming body from the floor and swept towards the wood stove, followed by the chanting worshipers. Jacob said, “I am sorry, Aaron, but it had to be this way. You brought this cold upon us with your winter baby. The sacrifice had to be yours.”

Aaron was sobbing now. “How could you force me to kill my own child just to change the weather?”

“We live and die by the weather, Aaron. Folks can survive a few days of bad cold, but longer than that and it seeps through everything, freezing up wells and hardening the soil so deep we won’t be able to plant our fields until June. The crops won’t have time to grow and the people who didn’t freeze to death this winter will starve next fall. Before you came here with your winter baby, all the signs showed this was going to be a mild season.”

“I don’t understand any of this! How can you be so young?”

He frowned. “Young? What do you mean?”

“This morning you were like ninety!”

“I won’t be ninety until 1944,” Jacob said. “Is that what year you think this is?”

“It’s 2014,” Aaron told him. “Or it was until I crawled under the house and everything went crazy.”

Jacob smiled. “Fourteen years after the millennium? I’m going to live to see the turn of two centuries. Thank you, Hobomok!”

He nodded, and Aaron realized someone was still behind him. The knife he’d used to kill Ellie slashed across his throat. Bright, red blood sprayed out. Aaron heard its icy splatter as the droplets bounced off the pine floorboards.


UNEXPECTED THAW BRINGS RELIEF – The recent spell of bitter cold broke overnight when a fast-moving storm from the south brought milder temperatures to the region. Subzero temps froze pipes across the state, but resulted in no weather-related deaths.

HUSBAND AND INFANT MISSING – Laura Fennel, recently moved to Hampden, reported yesterday that her husband Aaron and their infant daughter Ellie have been missing since Friday. Jacob Williams, the Fennel’s neighbor and a long-time Hampden resident, saw a plumber’s truck at the Fennel house earlier but nothing else unusual. Police are investigating.


PLUMBER MAKES GRUESOME DISCOVERY – The body of Aaron Fennel was found frozen in the crawlspace under his house yesterday. Laura Fennel, his wife, reported him missing with their infant daughter the day before. A plumber made the discovery while repairing pipes broken during the recent cold spell. According to police, Aaron Fennel died from a throat laceration. Although the injury could have been accidental, the Fennel child is still missing and police are investigating.


TRAGEDY STRIKES AGAIN – In a bizarre twist to a strange story, Laura Fennel, whose husband was found frozen under their home yesterday, discovered the bones of their missing daughter in the ashes of her wood stove. Police are considering this a murder-suicide but Laura Fennel claims her husband would not have killed their infant daughter and himself. Neighbor and long-time Hampden resident Jacob Williams said that Aaron Fennel was “a nice young fella” and wondered whether there’s something to that old wives’ tale about winter babies being bad luck.

DON KATNIK is a wildlife biologist who resides in Maine with his wife Misty and three dogs Jedzia, Copper, and Noah. Besides writing he enjoys playing guitar, working on their 200-year-old Cape, and cooking. And drinking beer. Yes, he’s overweight — but who isn’t? He believes that words matter and despairs that full sentences may become a thing of the past. His writing is genre-challenged. If you want to see his published work, just Google him like everyone else does.

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