The Winter Festival
By Evan Berkow
The morning of the Winter Festival, I woke to the dull pounding of hammer on nail on wood. The Michigan winter made the sounds thick and sluggish, as if even noises needed to keep bundled.
My brother Joe was already up, tugging idly at his eyebrow ring and staring out the window.
“You keep pulling that, it’ll get infected.” I corrected myself. “More infected.”
Joe laughed. “Thanks for the warning, little sis.”
I swiveled out from under my covers and tested the bedroom floor. Even with footie pajamas it was frigid. I danced over icy wood to my brother and stood beside him at the window.
We lived in a February Town miles north of the Detroit ruins. Our home was just townhouse in a larger block, about twenty of them arranged in a ring facing outward against the world. The block was a closed loop, a circle of wagons defending a raggedy little park where a swing set slumped in trampled winter grass.
The park was full that morning, the block parents all working together to prepare for the evening’s festivities. I immediately made out our father. He was hunkered over a long slice of lumber in a way that seemed impossible given his chubbiness, his thick padded coat making him look like a yellow marshmallow. He was hammering a series of wooden triangles, like dragon’s teeth, into the plank. His face was flushed from exertion and the bite of the lake wind.
Other parents were equally busy. Some were painting slats, others were assembling a great iron skeleton in the middle of the park. No way to make out its shape, but it seemed so familiar, like something out of an almost-remembered nightmare. It made me shiver.
There were other faces in windows. My friends staring out at the work being done from the backs of their houses. I could see Kelly, a shy girl whose crush Joe tolerated with a cool reserve, making a tight ball of herself in a rooftop crook. She was recognizable only for the bright red hair that burst from beneath her cap. I tugged on some strands of my own mud-brown frizz, feeling just as jealous as every other time I saw her.
I couldn’t help but look behind her, to that thick pillar of dark cloud that rose from the lake. The Occupiers’ ship or castle or whatever. It was always at the edge of our vision no matter how hard we tried to look away. Bright lines of red and purple lights were wending upwards within its depths. From this far away, they looked like ants scaling a blackened tree trunk.
Down in the park, Kelly’s mom slipped on a toy car. Her curses rose to us on the puff of her breath.
Joe smiled, wan and joyless.
“You okay?” I said.
His reply was a shrug, another tug at his eyebrow ring. It was going red around the punctures, the skin swollen and pushing back against the intrusion.
I stayed with Joe for a few more moments. My hand strayed close to his, close enough to feel its warmth, when he suddenly grabbed my fingers, squeezed hard enough to hurt, and let me go.
“I’m ready,” he said.
In the kitchen, Danny was spooning sugary cereal into his mouth. Mom was wiping off a plate with whirlwind fury, her eyes darting everywhere but the window. Voices outside made a wordless buzzing beneath the sounds of construction. She looked up from her work, met my eyes and motioned to the living room without turning her head. My mission was clear: Grandpa duty.
I grabbed a banana and made my way to the living room, where Grandpa held court in the corner I had dubbed “The Library of Boring.” History books by the pile, surrounding him like useless but loyal minions. It looked like he was waiting for me, for anyone.
He scanned me up and down like some evil comic book supercomputer and cursed.
He grinned, revealing yellowed teeth. “You’re what? Thirteen now?”
“That’s old enough.”
I sighed and took my place on the couch. It was time for Grandpa’s usual lecture about how it all went wrong. The sad tale went on forever, long after I finished my banana and made a three-point shot of the peel into a wastebasket by our fireplace.
As he droned on and on, I played games with my feet, waving them in time to a tune I was silently writing. It was a theme song to my friends’ park-bound adventure from the previous day. The Amazing Adventures of Helen the Squid-Killer, with her stalwart companions Seahorse Cavalry Commander David and Swordfishmaster Seth. We had just stormed the Occupiers’ watery gates and were about to deal the killing blow when Dad called me back home for dinner.
“We should have fought…” Grandpa was winding down, chin sinking to his chest, his anger exhausted into the air and fading like steam. “When they came down from the skies. When they took out half our cities. Made their ridiculous demands. We should have fought back.”
His eyes drifted shut. There was a ticking clock, the sounds of the house groaning against the wind, and Grandpa’s shallow breathing. I didn’t move, didn’t want him to take the shuffle of my butt across the couch as an insistence he continue.
“Useless.” It was an under-the-breath mutter. He shook his head and looked straight up at me. There was an enormous sadness in his face that made him look twenty years older.
“Useless,” he repeated. He let his head drop and clasped his hands together over his belly like some mopey Santa.
I slipped away at his first snore.
“Yuck,” Seth said, poking his boot at half-frozen mud.
“Gloop.” David mimicked its wet, hungry sound. “Sucking you down to the deep deep deep.”
“I wish I could go on the swings.” I marched in place to keep warm, my snow pants making a polyester zippering sound as I cricketed my legs together.
“Yeah right,” David said. “My dad would whack you with a two-by-four. You’d be going backwards and, WHAM, your brains are suddenly flying out of your mouth.” He put on his big-man voice, a rolling baritone more convincing each day he crept closer to puberty. “I’m sorrrrrry, Helen, didn’t see you there.”
The iron skeleton was taking flesh under the noon sky. It was still an incomprehensible jumble, but the bright colored planks of wood at least made the abstraction more cheerful. They were arranged in wavy stripes that undulated across the structure like muscles in motion.
“It looks so cheap,” Seth said.
David agreed. “Our block’s always the worst.”
Out of the twenty-six blocks in our February Town, we always came close to last at the Winter Festival. It had something to do with the dragging steps of our parents, their reluctance to “get in the spirit of things,” as Joe put it. Ultimately, it boiled down to a simple fact: Their hearts weren’t in the competition. They’d tolerate the tradition, but they wouldn’t give themselves over to the pageantry.
It used to really get to me. I’d cry into Mom’s chest when the mayor announced the results at midnight, our block always near the beginning of the countdown. But I was getting older. Maybe inheriting some of my brothers’ cynicism. I was inching closer to seeing the contest for what it was: A feeble attempt to take some sort of control over that arbitrary, unknowable day. It was a revelation that would come sudden but expected only years later, once I had the proper vocabulary.
Dad walked by us cradling a big iron swirl covered in rainbow spurts. The back of a throne, I realized. Seeing us, Dad held in his tired wheezing like an unwanted burp. Some pride thing, I guessed.
“Joe alright?” he asked. “Danny?”
“Danny’s watching cartoons,” I said. “Joe’s in his room.”
“Good, good…” His words drifted off with his thoughts, lashed together and sucked down to the deep deep deep.
Seth dipped a toe into unfamiliar conversational waters. “Can we help, Mr. Brown?”
Dad was a soft man. Soft around the edges. Big soft belly. He exuded “gentleness” like a smell.
But he got tough that morning.
“Oh man,” he said, shaking his head. “No way. No. Way.”
Joe paced his room like a boxer as the sun began to sink. His thick blue robe shifted open, his skinny chest almost concave beneath. He was shaking his head, adding tiny hops to his steps.
I sat on his bed and watched, fascinated by his wiry energy. He stood before his mirror, raised his chin, and pursed his lips like some TV tough guy.
Outside, our neighbors’ murmured voices were a passionless chanting. The crackle of torches sounded like lake-ice at the first hint of spring.
Joe whirled around to me.
“Okay, little sis. Let’s do this thang.”
There was one entrance to the center of our block, a small alley that let out to the main drag. We squeezed through, our families a bulging mass surrounding the huge wheeled float our parents had built that day. Mr. Dabney was at the lead, pulling the thing with his truck.
I stood between my parents. Mom engulfed my hand in hers, our thick gloves affording no actual contact between us. Dad limped beside us. Ten hours of hard physical labor took a vicious toll on his accountant’s body.
Danny was towards the front, with Joe. I could make out his floppy curls bobbing among woolen caps. My own hat, a lop-eared hunting cap I commandeered from Dad, constantly threatened to fall over my eyes. I had to pull it back every few seconds.
When we reached Main Street, Joe finally took his place on the float. He leapt onto the wooden frame with an assured lack of self-regard. The wood shifted and creaked, but held.
Finished, the float flagrantly defied shape. You could make out bits of recognizable forms – a shark fin here, some squid-like tentacles there – but they were all smooshed together into a great big swirling vortex.
Dad said all the floats were designed to look like the Occupiers or their pets, but he never claimed they were exact representations. After all, few had seen those creatures since they locked themselves up in their towers near thirty years earlier. Apparently it was hard to remember what they looked like, since every float looked profoundly different. Varying degrees of crazy.
In the center of our float was an iron seat. My brother’s seat. He took a moment to contemplate his swirled and paint-spattered throne, but then he sighed, pulled his robe around himself, and sat down. I guess it was supposed to look like he was being devoured in the bizarre maw of an Occupier, but intentions never meant much to our block when it came time to actually build the thing. Sitting there, motionless but for his eyes, it looked like he was caught between the teeth of some huge but dopey-looking sea monster. A persistent annoyance, refusing to go down. Ever my brother.
As we made our way down the street, the other blocks joined us touting floats each more insensible than the last. Some were strung with lights that flickered in the dark like anglerfish. Some had moving parts, tumor-like outgrowths that seemed to breathe with each revolution of their float’s wheels. The parents from our block grumbled at some of the more extravagant ones.
On top of each float, an adolescent huddled in his or her robe. Some robes were thicker and plusher than others, but that was to be expected.
We trundled through downtown, folks from other Monthly Towns filling bandstands that lined the street. Residents in the March and April Towns were required to be there, taking notes about what they liked or didn’t like about our floats so they could prepare for their own upcoming Festivals.
Other blocks in our procession waved to the spectators as we marched down towards the lake. People blew kisses to the stands, their grins perhaps literally frozen in place. Some of the teens riding atop the floats would rise from their seats and raise fists to our out-of-town guests. Others begged for applause, made exaggerated clapping motions above their heads and called for the crowd to mimic them.
Most of the tourists ate it up. They cheered and shook noisemakers that made a watery gurgling sound. But there were a few who abstained. They just stared with quiet intensity, memorizing the faces of each of the teens who rode atop the floats, ready to bear witness and bring the story back home to their neighbors.
I couldn’t feel my feet by the time we entered Lakeside Park and passed under the platform where our mayor stood with his judges conferring about the twenty-six floats that rolled by them.
“Mom, I’m numb.” I tugged at her sleeve and repeated myself.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’ll be fine. Just like when you got that cavity filled, remember? You couldn’t feel your mouth for hours, but you also couldn’t feel the drill. It’s a good thing.”
Lakeside Park looked haunted, with wispy snatches of fog stalking its grounds on the whims of the breeze. The lake lay before us, its middle obscured in a phosphorescent cloud. We could barely make out the tower through that column of mist, it was just a great hulking shadow waiting for us in the water. Shallow waves lapped at the shore. They seemed to be beckoning us forward.
Mr. Dabney pulled our float to its place on the beach, right between blocks thirteen and fifteen. Our crowd took station around it, huddled and looking miserable in the torchlight. On top of the float, Joe held the same tough-guy look he had practiced earlier in the mirror. He stood and squinted at the lake’s center.
It was almost time to begin. Our whole town remained still, bathed in the silence of the evening. We couldn’t hear the slap of the lake against the shore or the tireless winter winds, just the throbbing hum that constantly emanated from the Occupiers’ tower. This close, I could feel it vibrating in my skin and bones. It made me shiver even worse than I already was.
Mom clutched my hand. Dad stood statue-still, facing Joe with a stony expression. My heart beat a runner’s rhythm as we waited for the call. I promised myself that I would not cry.
“I will not be afraid,” I whispered. “I will not. I will not.” I mouthed those words over and over beneath my scarf. The wool tickled my lips with each recitation.
My efforts were useless. The call began, like a whale’s song turned up to the highest possible volume, screaming in our ears. It shrieked out from the fog and rolled over us like a truck. Too deep to understand, too shrill to bear. My tears came involuntarily and I shut my eyelids in a desperate attempt to stop the flow. I bunched my fists at my side and vowed to keep my eyes closed until it was all over.
But then I head Dad gasp and knew I had to look.
My brother was in mid-air. He must have leapt from his seat, because now he was bolting across the float, jumping as far as he could out onto the beach sand, and running straight for the water. My breath caught in my throat as he barreled away from us, his skinny limbs flailing in the cold.
The teens from the other floats, who had no-doubt been making a solemn procession across the beach like every other year, stood slack-jawed. Most just glanced at each other like they had no idea what to do, but farther down the line another teen followed Joe’s lead. She chugged into a staggering lope and followed my brother towards the lake.
Joe reached the waterline first, wavering at the edge like Wile E. Coyote on the verge of a cliff, and cast his robe onto the sand. Beneath, he wore only yellow boxers. He stepped into the lake and continued walking, his body disappearing into the water with each step, his hands grazing the surface like hovercrafts until they too submerged.
The other teens weren’t far behind. They followed Joe in a line, yards apart from each other as they marched into the frigid wet. Some took tentative steps forward, froze as they acclimated to the water’s temperature, and only then continued. Not Joe. I could make out the muscles in his back shuddering, could practically feel the lake’s bite, but he never stopped, never hesitated.
One girl – from block twenty-two, I think – stopped cold. She stared up into the night and howled. It was a sound that fell somewhere between rage and sorrow.
In the distance, I could just make out Joe’s head. It was the only part of him not submerged.
And then, in an instant, he was gone.
The rest of the teens followed. The last one to go under was a tall girl whose wavy black hair coiled at the top of the water for a brief moment before it was pulled beneath the surface.
There were tense seconds after she vanished. I knew what would happen next, and I dreaded seeing it. A cold boil began in the lake, a bubbling nearly indistinguishable from the weak pops of held breath arising from where the teens had disappeared. It gained in intensity, joining the spots where the submerged teens stood, until the whole lakefront was churning.
Mom’s grip on my hand was crushing. Dad hyperventilated beside me.
We spent five minutes locked in rapt attention as the lake warped inwards on itself. Lights broke up from beneath the water and raced across the surface in fluorescent sheens. These waves of light absorbed each other and gave birth to painted slicks that began the race anew.
Those dancing colors were mesmerizing. I tried to follow their rapid movements, but it only left me dizzy. I leaned into Mom, pressing my small body against her strong, rooted legs.
As quickly as it had started, the roiling waters went still. All was dark except for a pulsing yellow glow that skulked away from the shore, back towards the center of the lake where the Occupiers’ mist-shrouded spire stretched from water to sky.
The surface breached. Figures rose from the water like fingers clenching towards shore. They pulled themselves to the lake’s edge, crawling onto the beach, and as each came forward, their families — their blocks — bound towards them. Hooting, hollering, sobbing, they fell upon their children and bundled them in thick blankets. They clasped their hands to the sky and gave thanks.
Danny was the first to see Joe. He was slumped and heaving, staggering onto the sand. Danny bellowed and pointed and we followed his lead. Mom dragged me out onto the beach and the world became a tumble of legs, my hat ever-threatening to block my view.
I’m not sure who reached Joe first, but the crowd made sure there was a wide berth for my mother. She swooped around her oldest boy like a bird of prey. He was blue, eyes pinwheeling in his head, gasping. She clutched at him, held his head to her breast. Dad collected blankets from our neighbors. He shook their hands and accepted hearty pats on the back.
Mom was crying. She kept saying the same thing over and over. “You gave him back to us. You gave him back to us.”
Our parents spent the next morning cleaning. They tore into our float with axes and hammers, shoveling its broken pieces into sacks they would leave on the curb for the garbage truck. We had no more use for the thing. Block three won the annual contest. We came in twentieth.
By noon, our little park was back to its usual state of serene disrepair. I idled on a swing and waited for Seth and David. I felt the shift in air that signaled someone beside me, and Joe slunk into the swing next to mine. He kicked at the ground and clucked his tongue in greeting.
“Can’t believe you’re out of bed,” I said. “I would’ve made Mom bring me soup for a week.”
“Surprising, right?” He stretched, his body still uncoiling from his dive. His face looked a little bluish, cheeks more sunken than usual. He had lost his eyebrow ring somewhere underwater. The punctures were like tiny craters above his eye.
“You remember anything?” I asked. It was a morbid curiosity on my part. I didn’t necessarily want to know what awaited me when I turned sixteen, but the question spilled out anyway.
“Yeah, kittens. Millions of kittens.”
“For serious, doof.”
He laughed. “Listen sis, it was cold, wet, and then Mom was all up on me like a mama bear. That’s all I got.”
“Probably better that way,” I said.
He ran a thumb over his eyebrow, fumbling for his missing ring. “Can’t say I disagree.”
The previous night, twenty-six went in. Twenty-five came out. Missing was some boy from block seven. Kevin. We could hear his mom shouting his name half the night as if he was merely sitting in the deep waiting for her call.
Overall, a good year. You could never tell. Mostly it’d be one or two that were gone, taken, whatever. One year it was sixteen, Seth told me. But that was long before I was born, right at the beginning, when the Occupiers first came from beyond the curvature of the earth to tear this land into pieces and take their proper place in what remained. They demanded offerings, a selection of adolescents to choose from each month, and then retreated back to their towers.
What came next was all us. Dividing those who remained into the Monthly Towns. Establishing the Festivals, the parades and the contests. All attempts to make ourselves feel better about our swift defeat, our immediate acquiescence to the Occupiers’ terms and conditions.
We lived in an ugly time. I only realized it years later, after the Colonel appeared with his crazy inventions and started to fight back. After we won our emancipation and the fear underlying every day of my life fizzled out like a doused flame.
Still, as bad as things could get when I was young, we did find our moments of joy.
“So why’d you run?” I asked my brother that day on the swings.
“Why not?” he said. “Figured I’d just get it done and over with. Didn’t have to actually think about any of it.”
My response was about as graceful as the rest of my eleven-year-old self.
“You looked dumb.”
Not much to say to that. He chuckled and hugged his coat tight around himself. Even under three layers, I could see his body trembling in the cold.
When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet, distant.
“You know what kills me? For those of us who came back, I have no idea if we were chosen or rejected.”
The thought had never occurred to me. I responded in the only way possible: “Oh.”
I dragged my toes along the dirt, the seat always too high, myself always too scrawny to fulfill the swing’s purpose. Wordlessly, Joe strained to his feet, took his place at my back and began to push me. Gently at first, then harder. I was laughing by the time my head went all spinny and my feet were cruising up past my nose.
Glancing back, I could see Joe was smiling.
He pushed me until the roofs of our houses slipped beneath my feet, until all I saw was the pale expanse of the winter sky. For those brief seconds I was arcing upwards, headed towards worlds beyond our own.
It seemed, if my brother pushed just a little bit harder, I could go anywhere I ever wanted.
About the Author
Evan Berkow is a writer of speculative fiction in the hours when he’s not lawyering. His fiction has appeared in a bunch of places, such as Strange Horizons, Escape Pod and Crossed Genres Magazine. He’s a member of SFWA, Codex, and the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers critique group. He lives in Pleasantville, NY, with his wife, kids, and a small menagerie consisting of two enormous gray cats and one adorable rescue dog.
About the Narrator
Kate Baker is the Podcast Director and Non-fiction Editor for Clarkesworld Magazine. She has been very privileged to narrate over 400 short stories/poems by some of the biggest names in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
She has been nominated for a Parsec Award, and a World Fantasy Award. Kate won the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine in 2011 and 2013, the British Fantasy Award for Best Magazine in 2014 and the World Fantasy Award for Special Award: Non Professional in 2014 alongside the wonderfully talented editorial staff of Clarkesworld Magazine.
Kate is also currently lending her voice to The Dark Magazine podcast and has also read for various other audio venues such as Cast of Wonders, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Podcastle, StarShipSofa, Escape Pod, Nightmare Magazine, Mash Stories, and The Drabblecast.
She has completed a few audiobooks too, all of which can be found on her narrations page.
Kate is also a professional SFF genre writer. You can find her short stories at various venues. Check out the writing tab for links.
Kate is currently situated in Northern Connecticut with her first fans; her wonderful children. She is currently working as the Executive Director for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).