The man woke in a burrow of snow, his impact framing the large starfish form of his body. He was dressed in black with a dark overcoat wrapped loosely around his thin bones. His feet were bound in burlap sacks tied with course string. The night sky was clear with stars and no moon.
He stood and looked at his surroundings. Snow-covered fields stretched in all directions with long lines of forest framing the fields. There seemed to be no other life but himself. All directions appeared the same, so he picked one and began walking.
A breeze blew and flapped the wings of his overcoat open. He expected to shiver, but felt no cold. Even his feet, being the least protected part of his body, were warm. In fact, as he walked he saw snow melt around his steps, and, looking back, he saw how each step had continued to melt down to black earth.
He stopped and stood, watching his feet. Snow dissolved into water that soaked the burlap, but then began to steam off the cloth the longer he stood, stepping out of the pit in the snow one foot had made. He touched the patch of earth. It was wet and warm. Digging his fingers in, he could feel the permafrost ground beneath the loosened mud.
Steam rose around his hand as he felt the burlap, but quickly dissipated once all of the melted snow evaporated and the cloth was dry again. His feet were not burning, merely warm, though obviously they were projecting heat. He held a hand above the surface of snow and watched as an outline of his fingers and palm carved a depth into the surface. The longer he held his hand above the snow, not making contact, the deeper the imprint excavated.
He plunged a hand beneath the snow and watched as the buried part of his body became revealed, snow melting around it, wetting his hand then clouding it with steam. He picked up a ball of snow and watched it dissolve in his palm. Pressing a hand to his face, it was warm and dry. Combed fingers through his long black hair, curious to see if he would light himself on fire. Nothing. He couldn’t destroy himself with his own magic.
So he kept walking and wondered who he was and where he had come from. Scanned the night sky for an answer, but none came. He couldn’t remember a moment of his life before waking up lying in the snow, and his name was unknown.
He walked through field after field and saw no homes or evidence of any other people. About to enter a patch of forest, he touched the first tree and fire rose off his hand and ate slowly up the trunk. Stepping back into the field, he watched the fire grow to consume the tree at an accelerated speed, though sparks did not jump to consume other trees. The tree that had been touched burned until a pillar of black stood, then slowly crumbled to the ground, leaving only coals that were not smoldering.
He stooped down to pick up a coal. It heated and a small flame popped off its surface. He dropped it from shock, though it hadn’t burned him. He dug a small stick half buried in the snow and held it up in his hand like a wand. It became a torch and burned as he held it, carried it across the field until its wood was consumed by fire and fell in a rain of coals to the snow. Washing his blackened palm with snow, he walked on, avoiding forests.
He reached the town as the sun rose after walking the only road he had come to during the night. Hands in the pockets of his overcoat, he scanned the small town as his steps led him into its centre.
Variety, clothing, grocery stores, a gas station called “Pete’s”, a library called “Library”, a tavern, two small restaurants, the streets lined with light poles bearing wreaths and other Christmas decorations, a church. A normal town, but very small. And in the middle of nowhere. The man would be able to walk through it in a matter of minutes. Houses sat on short streets branching off the main street. If he could see the town from the air he could’ve estimated the population at a glance. No town sign had met him on the road before he entered, no houses or farms resided outside the town ‘limits’ – what meagre limits it had. There was only the road and the town, fields and forest still stretched in all directions, and the winter wind still blew. And, still, he felt no cold.
“Morning,” a man said with a smile and cheeks burned red by the cold.
“Good morning,” the nameless man replied, then shyly glanced away as the smiling man tried to hold his gaze.
People exited stores and homes, cars and trucks passed on the wet road, some honking in greeting, all drivers staring at him. People said “good morning”, even children, all watching him as he passed until a man stopped his steps. A man with a wide-brimmed black hat, though a tight wool cap sat over his head beneath the hat. He too wore a black overcoat, but with black winter boots. He looked like a man of God.
“Good morning, stranger. Your feet must be cold.”
The man recalled the sacks and only then realized that they must be the reason why everyone was looking at him. He smiled and laughed, embarrassed.
“Ah, no, my feet are warm, surprisingly. I suppose I must look odd with these bags on my feet. I woke up last night in a field ... I don’t know how I got there.”
The man of God breathed fog and rubbed his gloved hands together. He removed a glove to shake the man’s hand. “That sounds like quite an adventure. I’m Pastor Vernon. What’s your name?”
Before he could admit to more of his amnesia, he clasped Vernon’s hand, but the pastor wrenched back and cradled his hand as it trembled. Strips of skin hung peeled off his palm and fingers like taffy, curling up as they melted, dripping to the snow-covered sidewalk.
“Oh my god!” the nameless man said, jamming his hand back in his pockets. His words stuttered out, “I’m so sorry ... I don’t know what’s wrong with me ... please, let me help you find a doctor.”
A crowd had stopped on the sidewalk, vehicles halted on the road or pulled to the curb to watch and hear as the pastor held his hand in terror. Bubbles rose in the centre of his palm. A woman grabbed the man of God’s other arm and led him away, fearfully glaring back at the nameless man.
Who could only stand and bear the brunt of the eyes staring at him. He appealed to the crowd.
“I’m sorry everyone. I’m sure you can tell, I’m not from here. I’ve been walking all night ... I woke in a –”
“What did you do to his hand?” a man in a lumberjacket asked, mouth a tight red slit in his black beard, blue eyes piercing.
“You coulda killed the pastor!” a voice accused from behind him.
“Please,” he begged, reaching out with both hands.
The crowd drew back, parents grabbed their children and shuffled them away, watched the scene from a distance.
“Don’t touch anyone!” said the bearded man. “Where’s the knife? That’s how you greet a man? A man of God! You slice up his hand?”
“I didn’t! I don’t know what’s going on.” He held out his hands as though presenting a great gift or a great curse.
A large woman pushed her way through the bodies to confront him, glancing at his hands, ready for him if he tried to do anything, stab people, slice skin off their bodies.
“I’m not afraid of you, mister,” she began, jabbing her gloved finger in the air. “Our town’s been through a lot and we don’t need no more. We take care of our own here – and you’re not one of us.”
“Where am I?”
A thin man with small round glasses moved his head from behind two people to answer. “We’re not on any map. And we intend to stay that way.”
“We don’t like the world,” the large woman said, “and the world doesn’t like us.”
The bearded man spoke up. “We’re the outcasts of the world and we’ve taken this piece of earth as our own. We’ll kill anyone who tries to take it from us.”
“But,” the nameless man began, returning hands to his pockets, staring across the many faces that stared back, “but I don’t know where I’m from ... I’m an outcast too.”
The man with the glasses asked, “How do we know that? You could be a spy for them – the people of the world. We moved here so we couldn’t be found, not even by accident.”
“I bet he is an outsider,” the large woman hissed, stepping close to the man to glare at him nose to nose. “A scout to spy on us, then when he leaves he’ll call in reinforcements. He’s the beginning of the end.” She felt her cheeks burning, but assumed it was caused by her anger or the cold winter wind, not by her proximity to the man. She glanced around at the crowd. “Unless we take care of him.”
Voices rose in anger from all directions, agreeing with her. The man scanned the town, saw the gas station, his mind spinning to find a way to save his life from the mob.
“Wait. What about the gas station? The stores, the restaurants – all of these businesses need people from outside to come in and supply them. How do you exist if you shut out the world?”
The bearded man scratched his neck and smirked. “Those are ours – you don’t touch them. We take care of ourselves – we don’t need the outside world to babysit us. We make everything we need and give it to each other for free. There’s no money here.”
The thin man explained further. “We’re essentially a commune. A large family that lives in its own town. We all share knowledge to create what we need. Our vehicles burn ethanol from the wheat and corn we grow.”
The large woman yelled at him to shut up. “He don’t gotta know nothin’ about our ways.” She turned her glove on the nameless man. “Maybe you need to explain yourself to us. Or if you can’t – or won’t – then maybe you’re a threat we’ll have to deal with.”
“Please,” the man pleaded, hands out of his pockets again, all eyes on them. “Let me speak to whoever’s in charge.”
“We’re all in charge,” said the thin man. “I told you, we’re a commune.”
“Fine, whatever, then tell me how to get out of here – who can take me down the road to the next nearest town? Just drop me off. I won’t tell anyone you’re here. I swear. I still don’t know where ‘here’ is.”
The people glanced at each other, then to the large woman. She only scanned the man from head to foot, considering the problem the stranger presented to the town.
She told the crowd to hush as she stared the stranger in the eye. “Let’s see your feet.” Stretching out her arms, she pushed away the people on either side of her. “Everybody step back, just in case.”
The stranger watched everyone give him space on the sidewalk, expecting from him a miracle or magic, black or white, some form of entertainment. When one was despised by the mob, one had few chances to save one’s skin.
Even he didn’t know what his feet looked like. He stooped down to pick fingernails at the knots. The twine looped several times around his ankles and criss-crossed over the tops of his feet. He unwound the string and peeled open the tops of the first sack, peering in before he showed the crowd.
His foot was as black as old coal with deep cracks like glass-shatter spread from above his ankle to his soles.
He was as confused as they were. He felt no pain, there was no blood, but he had feeling in every part of his foot, even though some toes were split in half by cracks, forming a V. One crack even sliced between his second and third toes halfway up his foot, the burlap under his sole visible through the gap.
“The other one, too,” a voice demanded.
He undid the other sack and saw his other foot equally burnt to black and cracked with a myriad of slices. He stood, feet still open in the burlap, the mouths of the sacks splayed to show what no one could explain. Steam rose from his feet and dissipated quickly with a light winter breeze.
The pastor returned with one hand bandaged, his good hand in a thick glove, and a shot gun wedged under his arm, barrel leaning across the thick white cast of gauze as the muzzle guided his path through the opened crowd and aimed at the stranger.
He looked at the black feet and nodded to the crowd. “Just as I thought. Any man – any creature – whose body emits fire ... is from the devil!” The crowd murmured and whispered as they backed further away from the man with the feet of cinders. “This stranger is an outcast, but not like us. He has been sent from Hell itself to destroy our Eden. His kind has done this before and he is doing it again.”
The man tried to protest his innocence, hoping his amnesia could be his currency of safety from the mob, but the crowd’s single voice drowned out his supplication.
At the barrel of a shotgun, he walked where the mob guided. Each step he took proved his guilt even more as steam and small flames shot up from his feet, bare now on the earth and snow, the sacks left back where they stood, as cursed totems.
The pastor whispered to the bearded man, who then flagged down a truck. He got in with the driver and they squealed a U-turn and raced out of town.
The nameless man tried to beg for his life, but the pastor called out to the people who walked alongside the forced march, “Do not listen to him, my children. He is the Tempter. The Father of Lies. Sing your voices high to the heavens to drown out his demonic voice.”
The townspeople sang “Amazing Grace” as they marched the stranger through town, following the road until it ended at a frozen lake.
“Stop there and turn around,” the pastor told the stranger.
The man turned and faced the mob. Sunlight glittered off the ice where snow had been cleaned to make a skating rink.
“Take a good look at him,” the pastor called out over the people. “We must always be wary of strangers in our town. We have built our life away from the world that drove us out. We have our ways and they belong to us and to no one else. This is the first demon that Hell has sent to us, to tempt us to go back to the world of corruption and iniquity. But we shall not abide the stranger to live. The demon shall be conquered by us, the outcasts.” He stopped within a gun barrel’s length to the man and hissed, “Tell Satan he has not won against us.” The barrel raised high and a blast fired into the sky. “We are victorious!”
The crowd cheered and spat on the man, swore at him, raised their children onto their shoulders who spat their infantile curses at the defeated man.
A truck pulled up and the bearded man got out holding two steel animal traps hanging from chains. The pastor told the people to move back as the bearded man opened and set both traps on the ground.
With one shell left in the gun, the pastor raised it to aim at the stranger’s eyes.
“Step into your new shoes,” he commanded and the people laughed.
Staring terrified at the traps, the man hovered one foot over the trip plate, a circle of triangular steel teeth waiting for pressure to release the springs.
“Step down!” the pastor yelled, firing a thunder crack above the heads of the nameless man.
The shock dropped the man’s foot into the trap and steel teeth bit into the flesh of his leg above the blackened cinder-flesh. He wailed and sat down, trying to pry the teeth from his flesh, but could get no grip. His touch heated the steel until it glowed red, but the pain shooting through his leg threw back his hands as he lay on the ground and screamed.
The pastor dug shells from his pocket and reloaded the gun one-handed.
“The other foot – now!” he yelled, snapping closed the loaded rifle and aiming both barrels at the man’s forehead.
The stranger saw faces leaning over him, felt fresh spit cool his forehead, gazed at the second trap. His shaking foot hovered over as he tried to judge where the teeth would clamp. If they only bit into the black coal-flesh, then maybe he wouldn’t feel pain.
The large woman stepped from the crowd and stomped her booted rubber heel down onto the stranger’s knee, jamming his foot onto the trip pad.
He wailed like the demon the townsfolk knew him to be.
The pastor motioned to the bearded man and the truck driver, who then rushed back to the truck. The man of God told everyone to move far back. The bearded man stood in the back of the truck as it backed up to the stranger. He jumped out with two hooks on chains, his hands encased in thick winter gloves as he hooked each trap and tightened the slack in the chains attached to the back of the truck. He jumped back into the box of the truck and tapped on the glass of the cab windshield. The driver eased the truck forward.
The stranger screamed as he was dragged off the snow-covered earth and onto the ice. Thick enough to support the weight of the vehicle as it towed the stranger far out into the middle of the lake, the man’s body melting a swathe through the uncleared snow.
The bearded man tapped on the glass and the truck stopped. He released the chains and threw them to frame either side of the stranger. A tap on the glass started the truck’s tires spinning on the ice until they gained traction and the vehicle sped across the lake, heading back to shore.
The people heard the distant screams of the stranger before his steaming feet melted through the ice and he sank beneath the cold water, weighted down by the traps and the pain burning through his body.
The mob cheered as water bubbled and steam rose from where the stranger had sank. Proving further that he was a demon, and that they had done God’s will in killing him.
That night, something rose from the lake.
Its body was made of ice and its wings were immense. It flew across the night sky of stark stars and hovered over the town. The lake was water, as warm as a bath, and bubbles had risen all night to the surface as though the entire lake were a volcanic hot spring.
When new people arrived, years later, they would assume it was a hot spring, though geological surveys would not be able to determine the source. But the more odd and fascinating thing that they would see when the future brought them was the town itself – especially what they saw in its centre.
A ghost town, frozen under ice. All the people who had ever resided in the town, which was on no map, stood in the main street, their heads craned upward, eyes open to the heavens. They had all simultaneously looked up, seeing something in the sky, before they were instantly turned into statues of ice.
Most of the people were later identified by authorities. Murderers, rapists, a paedophile priest, drug lords, and a hundred other types of crime were spread across a hundred types of people, men and women of various ages, all of whom had evaded the law for years, escaped from their prisons in different countries, changed their names, vanished in the night from around the world to come to this place. Here, they tried again to have normal lives, to build a town from scratch, get married, have children, live in peace, re-creating their lives and administering their own laws.
Authorities buried the frozen corpses, bulldozed the town, and eventually the ice melted. They referred to it as ‘The New Sodom’ or ‘The Ice Pompeii’, and continued to keep its location off of maps.
Those who remembered it wondered for the remainder of
their lives what the townspeople had looked up to see in the sky. Something
had got the criminals in the end. Rumours and theories abounded, but
there was no proof of anything. Winter came and went, ice and snow blanketed
where the town had once stood, but still, the lake never froze over
Website maintained by Michelle Bernard - Contact firstname.lastname@example.org - last updated March 15, 2014