The Harrowing

3 min Short Story

The hut huddled beneath raw, wild hills: a last, quiet bastion of light and warmth in that endless wild.

A man was there, huddled beneath ambiguously coloured clothes and a wiry beard that he kept in a careful braid. He was entirely, self-sufficiently alone, a world unto himself; his only company embodied as a watchful husky, and the trees and the rocks and the fierce, biting air, ever-laced with the howling of wolves unseen.

Every night he ate his supper out of a grimy pan enamelled with char, then stared out of the hut's lone window: up, up and out into the fierce tangle of stars that studded the roof of his unbound life, sometimes dancing with the sheen of the aurora as they extended to the horizon where they cut sharp borders into the jagged claws of rock; those that formed the edges of everything he knew, the horizons of reality.

Every night he took a mental comb and tugged it through the knotted strands of his past: memories that lay beyond the edge of that howling dark, ever-snagging on the familiar burrs and tangles. Most nights he was struck by a melancholy so fierce that it brought about a cold of a different, visceral kind, one that clawed icy fingers not at flesh but at the soul; an anvil of emotion beaten against his heart.

After that he'd creak into the bed he shared with the husky that was, at that time, close to his own age (though by a different measure), to warm his flesh and soul until the fierce bright morning when he'd leave the hut behind to tend his grey-green garden and roam the rocks and trees; sometimes sweating and dragging home a broken deer before the wolves had staked their claim. More often, he found their bones.

One night the husky refused to sleep, clawing with dry desperation at the door and then returning to the man, poking his arm with the softness of her nose. Never once had she done this before, and eventually the man worked his way out of the precious warmth and into the fierceness of the room, hands grasping for fire and wax, then towards the window; bordered by timber so ancient it was round and smooth. The single, faintly yellow pane of glass sat between, hesitant, his eye upon the world when it was quiet and dark and dangerously chill.

He watched the night for a time, sitting quiet with the husky manning his side.

For a very long time nothing happened, but he trusted the dog as she trusted him, and knew that she was wiser than he.

The night shuddered to its coldest depth, faint specks of snowy white dancing outside, ducking in and out of the light from his tiny domain, lit by candle's fire.

Slowly, they began to slow and then clear, until there was nothing to be seen but a faint, silent grey that resembled nothing in particular, descending still into the truest of blacks.

Then, all at once, the world caught alight.

The ground and the trees and the rocks and the backs of the man's eyes were bathed in the coldest of fires: the outside of the hut, his entire world, was alight with a fierce glow that filled the valley like a spectral, haunting sun. Every detail of that wilderness was cast into terrible, contrasting detail, a flickering, monochromatic beauty that caused the man to rise with a start, and the worst sound he'd ever heard grated his skull; the husky howled, so hopeless and harrowing that he felt his blood turn to cold, dead stone; rivers and streams of despair grating inside his flesh. Perhaps this was no change, he had time to think.

Then the source of the light burst into brilliant view; a shrill, shimmering ball of white that burned the sky above, arcing forwards and away towards the distant hills, the shadows of the trees and the rocks yawning across the ground as it moved and the husky howled and the man cried and then it was all over as the light disappeared across the hills and plunged the world back into the relentless dark.

The candle was out, smoke wisps curling.

The husky was still.

The man sat motionless for a very long time, breathing slowly as tears crinkled his cheeks, and in his heart was the deepest, quietest sadness to ever be.