Anthology Sample of “The Midnight Moon” (entire short story featured!)
The rowan berries came out in November this year, three months late. Last year they had ripened too early. Rowan trees, like most life forms these days, seemed to be confused, thought Pam Norman, their natural clocks going topsy-turvy. The rowans’ bulbous, sharp orange shapes dotted the forest outside Pam’s home office window. She was grateful for their vibrancy amidst the falling golden-brown leaves, which had begun to collect on her back deck. The deer, blackbirds, and redwings that ate the berries were finally coming around. But now it was late, and she had to write a column and collect berries for her famous rowan chutney that she made for Thanksgiving each year.
She wore one of Chris’s old t-shirts as she sipped coffee at the large desk that took up far too much room in her study. Surrounding her were wooden bookshelves, with their literary soldiers standing spines out and dusty: classic, reference, children’s, science fiction—all of her favorites. She had collected the books since childhood, and throughout her life these staunch beauties had befriended her, becoming especially important since her husband’s death last year.
Now she had to write. Coffee steamed up her reading glasses. Her boss Shelly had said that she wanted a long essay on winter, what with everyone up in arms about the late and sometimes non-existent winters each year. Shelly had said, “We have to let people escape with words and dream of snow. Whoever heard of Chicago without snow?”
Pam had been feeling cynical. “It’s good though, right? No more god- awful trips to Florida during spring break. We can just stay here.”
“Uh-huh,” Shelly had said. “Make it a good piece. 1,000 words of snow, cold, ice, and—”
“No sports. Let’s keep the franchises out. It’s a dreamy piece, poetic. Make sure there’s a full moon in the frigid sky. You know, that sort of thing.”
Shelly wanted to bring winter back to Chicago through words. At least autumn was almost happening outside, thought Pam, a late fall, sure, but it was there. She thought of the rowan trees, otherwise known as mountain ash. Their berries could also be used for making vodka and wine.
Just as Pam began typing her story, her neighbor Miss Bronson rang. “Yes?” Pam answered.
“We’re doomed,” the old lady said.
“Now, now, Emma,” Pam said.
“The rowan berries are out so late. This is craziness for November.”
“Honey, I don’t like it either. But look on the bright side. You can get a tan this Christmas at Oak Street Beach.”
“I don’t get tans anymore. I get burn marks between my wrinkles.”
“We just have to live with it,” Pam reminded her friend.
“Right. Well, I deal with it by getting numb, just like in that ancient Pink Floyd song, Comfortably Numb.“
“You and your oldies. Get with the times, Emma. You should learn to like the new stuff, the heat wave boogie-blues.”
“Never mind that noise. Let’s get numb tonight. You in the drinking mood?”
“Well, I did have a hot date tonight.”
“If you did,” Emma said sweetly, “I would tell you to go. Go have fun.”
Emma had stuck by her during Chris’s death and the aftermath. “I know,” Pam said softly.
Because Emma loved wine so much, and sitting on back porches under the moon, getting numb, she agreed to come over later—leaving Pam free to write her column for now.
Pam got on a roll with a winter scene set in a deep, forgotten forest. She loved this anti-block, what her writer colleagues would call a good cleanse. Sometimes when Pam started writing, she remembered the most random things. In summoning the perfect snow, she thought of a madrigal choir trip she had made in high school. Wow, was that like already two decades ago? She and the other small group of students were treated to a weekend in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Hindsight made the memory appear in her memory like a bad photo filter with ultra-vivid colors. She recalled arbitrary moments: her discovery, and subsequent enjoyment, of Petrarch; a cloudless day on the banks of the cold waters of Lake Michigan; goats eating grass on a restaurant roof; and a snow- white sonata being composed in the woods outside the student cabins the second night there, as winter set on.
The memory of that peaceful scene prompted her writing now. So did the music. Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” came on her playlist, reminding her to summon lands of ice and snow and Norse mythology into her essay. That reminded her of the rowan trees—type, type, type. A legend of Thor said he had almost died in a strong-moving river but was saved by a low-hanging rowan tree branch. The tree was also said to have made the first woman. Its wood had once been used to make staves and runes—and the tree itself was considered magical. It protected wayfarers and showed lost travelers the way home. Not a bad tree. And it was still used for wine, vodka, and her famous chutney. Not a bad tree at all. And that tree had lived for centuries and centuries, coming back every year like planned. Except for the past few years, now that it was confused.
Pam flipped her mind back to snow. Bone moon. Ice stinging the night. Wind that howled with wolves. A bare tree on the edge of a fast river. An ancient forest, the kind that was so ancient and primeval it would be considered impossible now. What else? How to tie this essay together? Pam didn’t stop cleansing. She even began to feel chilly from her descriptions. Her sliding office door was open. Earlier, it had been so warm, but now she felt that dreadful scratch in her throat, cueing a cold—ug! She sniffled and shut the window.
By the time Emma joined her that evening, Pam was satisfied with a first draft. The thing wasn’t due until Monday morning. Now it was play-time. The women sat out on Pam’s deck, on the north side of the city, watching leaves curl into piles. Emma chose to sit in her favorite rattan chair, which had a big seat and a place to put a drink. Emma’s body was thin and frail, and she folded into the chair like a bird closing its wings. Her long, silver hair was braided on one side, and her angular features were elf-like, Pam had always thought. Her once blue eyes were now gray, but still keen and sparkly. She looked like an old hippie with her flowered skirt and poncho, her bones and droopy skin filling the deep chair of the autumn night. What a graceful lady, Pam often thought. She was so light and wise, even if her sometimes failing memory buggered up her speech and thoughts at times.
Pam sat on a hammock supported by the sturdy branches of two oaks. Her own long hair stung her face as the wind picked up. She tied a bandana around her brow.
“Are you cold or something, honey?” Emma asked.
“No. Well, maybe a little.” Pam tightened a thin shawl around her shoulders and coughed.
“Well, maybe I’m going through the change. I can’t ever tell if I’m too hot or cold,” Pam added.
“You’re too young for the change.”
“Maybe not,” Pam said.
“Fuck the change,” the old woman said. “This is good wine. It’s that Argentinian Malbec, isn’t it? Cheers.”
Pam lifted her glass. “Yes, the Malbec. Cheers to you.”
They talked of life and weather and rowan chutney. It was agreed, like usual, that Emma would come to Thanksgiving, along with Chris’s parents (death did not change family relationships) and Pam’s relatives. Pam also told Emma about her essay.
“You should call it Thor’s Winter,” said Emma.
Pam liked that idea. The night grew cooler, almost cold, at least to Pam. Emma said it was too hot for November. Felt more like August. At one point, Emma said, in a perceived state of wisdom, “What is new is not old, and what is old is gone.”
Pam wasn’t sure if her friend was losing her memory right now or if she was just buzzed. Saving grace, Pam said, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life?”
Emma smiled. “How do you go on when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend.”
Their Tolkien quoting game marked the inevitable conversation that showed its somber unwanted face on drunken nights. Pam’s mind veered from writing, autumn berries, and forgotten winters. She began to slip into the realm of Chris. It was like falling asleep on Nyquil—a void, a black, a disconcerting silence. They’d been married for almost a decade. He had been her perfect partner—he, patient and loving and kind to all, especially her. His solid state subdued her more liquid matter. He had some faults. He liked to drink Kentucky bourbon, which made him fart a lot and sing old Beatles songs, and very badly at that. He was endearing even in his worst moments. Pam could feel him today as if he’d never left, never gone away in some quirk of terrible fate with ‘butt cancer’ as he always joked. It had happened so fast and at such a relatively young age. Pam shivered and said, “I miss him.”
“It feels like he’s in the office staring at us through the window. I can see him there in his Bears sweatshirt.”
Emma arose and said, “I have to go pee, but when I get back, we’ll talk about Chris.”
“No. I can’t keep talking about him. It has been a year. I ruin all of our drinking nights.”
“Bull. No you don’t, dear. Resurrecting Chris keeps him alive. We miss him like we miss winters, only worse. But for now my bladder is going to burst.” Emma practically ran into the house.
Wine had a way of dulling words and sharpening emotions, so eventually, as always, the spoken memories of Chris faded with drink while the unspoken memories came alive. The full, bright midnight moon was his face. The falling swish of leaves signified his ghost. The dim light streaming onto the back deck was his soul shining upon them. When the night was over, when the first signs of dawn became barely perceptible, when Emma sipped coffee before deciding to retire on the leather sofa in Pam’s den rather than making the dark woods journey back to her own house—only then did thoughts of Chris vanish and Pam bid goodnight and crawled into her bed. She shivered again, rose, fumbled around for a comforter in her closet, and nested into the down of sleep.
The next morning, she could barely swallow. When she awoke it was too light and chilly, an anomaly, she hastily recognized when fully awake. Snow. The temperature since early this morning had plummeted unnaturally. From 80 degrees to what felt like far below freezing. Thor’s Winter had come to life, thought Pam. Would Shelly call to cancel the essay? Pam checked in the den and saw that Emma was softly snoring. She then brewed coffee and thought, incredible. It wasn’t just a light brushing but a heavy snow that thundered down from the sky and rode the wind like a wild horse, piling drifts into dead leaf corners. Pam shook the cobwebs from her head, drank two sips of coffee, and then realized she needed to turn on the heat. It was also time for the flannel robe, Chris’s robe of course.
Emma finally awoke and couldn’t believe the weather. “I really should go home,” she said.
Pam asked her to stay. “There’s some cereal and bananas. The cereal is probably ten years old. I believe that’s also the last time I saw snow.”
“Pray tell the bananas are not that old.”
“I picked them myself from Columbia back in the sixties.”
They ate breakfast, watching the oncoming slaughter of winter weather outside the kitchen window.
Pam said, “I don’t think the forecasters saw this coming.” She tried to switch on a small television near her kitchen table. She hadn’t turned that on since Chris died. He used to watch football and hockey games on it. The damn thing stayed dead.
Emma piped up. “There’s this thing called new technology, Pam.” She logged onto her watch and said, “Unprecedented snowstorm hits the upper Midwest. Warnings of high winds, power outages, and dangerously cold temperatures for the next several days.”
Thor’s Winter hit with a vengeance that refused to let go. Emma decided to check on things at home, but she returned within an hour with her cat Radagast.
“I’m glad you came back, Emma,” said Pam, as she pet the big brown cat who then bounced out of Emma’s arms and ran off to hide. “I’m freaked out. It’s like we entered the twilight zone.”
“Do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do,” Emma sang.
They sat again at the kitchen table, trying to clear their hangovers with more coffee.
Emma ran a wrinkled index finger around a coffee ring in the wooden table. “Your kitchen is great,” she said. “It’s was a centerpiece to so many get-togethers in the past years.”
Pam nodded, feeling ill. Winters, kitchen tables, and Chris. Familiar moons.
That afternoon Pam went back to bed. She couldn’t get warm and felt feverish. Her throat seemed to be cracking. She dreamt of a rowan tree hanging over a cold, rushing river. Hang on, hang on, she thought in her sleep. At some point she woke up dizzy and watched the snow continue outside. She closed her eyes and felt an icy chill creep through her bones, like the same bleak injection of truth after Chris’s death. Nobody lasts forever, said the truth. Maybe she was going through the change. Her body’s lifelong ability to control its temperatures was off-kilter. She wrapped more blankets around her thin body, then kicked them off— an endless cycle. Hell, she hadn’t gotten that drunk last night, not enough to feel this shitty today.
Meanwhile, the temperature outside dipped, along with a dangerous wind chill. Chicago had once been known for this weather, but those days had ended. At some hazy point that afternoon, Pam arose to make tea. The cinnamon aroma trailed back to the bedroom. She couldn’t keep her eyes open.
Emma entered Pam’s room later, looking ghostly. “Someone is banging on your door,” she said.
Pam sat up quickly. She had been dreaming of ice chunks hitting the roof, but it must have been the heavy knocking of a visitor.
“Could you see who it was?”
“Some guy,” explained Emma. “I don’t recognize him.”
Pam arose, threw on Chris’s robe, and went to a curtained window in the front bathroom. She peeked out of the dainty drapes to see a stocky, red-faced man who looked nearly frozen.
“We should see if he needs help,” Pam said.
Emma argued. “What if he is here to cause trouble? Your house is too far out of the way. Why didn’t this dude stop at Ken’s house at the entrance to the cul-de-sac?”
“But he’s freezing!”
The impatient man banged on the door again, and despite Emma’s protests, Pam answered the door. The poor soul looked like a frozen statue. Ice clung to what strawberry blond hair was left on his head.
Pam asked him if he needed help.
“My car broke down on Saint Mary’s Road,” he said. “Damn, nobody seems to be home today.”
“Well, come in and get warm,” Pam said. Perhaps she should have listened to Emma. The guy had a glint in his eyes that was just off. Maybe she was being paranoid. On the other hand, she couldn’t not help him.
Emma said, “I am going to get you some coffee,” and with that she marched out of the room.
The man stood inside the doorway long enough to begin melting. He reached inside his pocket.
Please let him be reaching for a glove, his watch, anything, thought Pam. Not a gun. But when he pulled out a gun, Pam almost laughed. It was too cliché. She must be dreaming now. As the stranger pointed the gun at her and lifted it to shoot, Pam thought, rather too clinically, she realized, that it wasn’t a new, shiny gun but an older one. She knew nothing about guns—only that most people today had one.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Pam asked.
“What does it look like? Now, I want you to just give me any cash you have. And some food and warm clothes. Go on. I won’t hurt you if you just help me.”
“Sure,” she said. She should have known, she fumed to herself.
The guy grinned but didn’t drop the gun. His face was that of an overgrown boy’s, with a hint of madness in his slow, blue eyes.
“My gun’s name is Bertha,” he said.
“That’s nice,” said Pam.
“She is dangerous,” he reminded her.
Pam’s mind told her to go get her purse and give this guy the lousy small amount of cash she had and to fill a thermos of coffee and a box of food and anything else she could find. But her body didn’t follow her mind. She felt very dizzy. She began to ask if he wanted a beer while he waited, but her brain gave up. Her body collapsed into the cold marble floor of her foyer.
* * *
Emma came to her bed later with soup. Somehow, the gun guy was gone and Pam had magically been returned to bed. Emma said, “Sorry, the soup is cold. The power’s out. I don’t know what’s going on. The temperatures are still dropping.”
Pam lethargically gazed over to her window. It was getting to be dusk. Snow flew by sideways, stinging the shadows of the trees surrounding her house.
“Where’s that guy? He had a gun,” Pam said. Had she dreamed it?
“Let’s just say I took care of him,” her friend said. “Then had to get you to bed after you fainted. Way to go, girl.”
“How did you take care of him?”
“I gave him some coffee with a heavy dose of sleeping pills that I brought over in case I stayed the night again.”
“Emma,” Pam wanted to chide her, both for standing up to a man half her age and twice her size—and for her dependence on numbness. But Pam didn’t have the energy for lectures. She was sick, feverish, and vulnerable. Times like these she needed Chris. Even a shot of bourbon. It was funny. When someone died you did everything you could to bring them back to you, like wearing their robe. She remembered after Chris’s funeral, after everyone had gone home, she had drowned in his bourbon. She farted. She sang Beatles songs, badly. But that had not brought him back. And there was nothing worse, she thought, than a drunken bookworm dancing around an empty house trying to sing “Across the Universe.”
“What did you do with that guy after drugging him?” Pam asked.
“I walked over to Ken’s house,” Emma said, referring to one of their neighbors, “who was able to radio the police, who came to take sleeping fatty away.”
“Ug. He was scary.”
“Well, he’s gone.”
Pam nodded. Her toes felt ice-bitten despite layers of blankets.
“We are doomed, by the way,” Emma said. “The police said that we are hitting all-time record lows tonight. It’s dangerous, with no power and heat. Look, I’m going to start a fire when the sun goes down, and we’ll get you moved into the hearth room. Do you have any more wood than what’s in the garage?”
“Shed,” Pam said, feeling breathless and woozy. She wanted to tell Emma that she could bring in the wood, but the words failed to come out. She wanted to say the wood was old. She hadn’t built too many fires in the last several years.
Night. A fire. Ken had come over again to help Emma bring in more wood. The fireplace sat centrally on a wall between two facing sofas. Pam laid on one and Emma on the other. Emma had heated up a hot tottie over the fire and given it to her sick friend. Pam kept waking and falling back asleep. Suddenly it was much later, and Emma had finally conked out. Pam awoke to a dwindling fire. She should get up to get more wood. Any moment now she would find the energy. The bay window in her living room was covered with frosted ice except one area that the fire’s heat had cleared, and through that part of the window shone a full moon into the black room, transecting shadows with silver shards of faint light.
As Pam drifted off once again, she felt the moon’s bone fingers chill her face. The sky swirled with icy debris and appeared to be primordial, as if it were a night in Thor’s age. The universe toppled back in time, and bare rowan trees stood like legionnaires on frozen river banks. Cold distant suns and mysterious shadows touched the tallest trees to ever have existed. The climax trees of another era. At their highest boughs were nests of billowy snow. How men had survived back then—heck, how any of us had survived, thought Pam. It was always questionable, but humans had made do for a time.
But the cold, the cold. Pam had never felt anything like it. Emma might prefer this kind of numbness. It entered into the skin, climbed into the bones, pulled up a log to sit and linger. Pam shivered in her sleep. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Just the opposite. The midnight moon burned a hole into a frosty layer of her window. Surrounding the halo were light and ice and hollow things across the universe. The cold settled, hummed, cracked. The night and the moon would not end. Thor was playing a joke on her, on humankind. I promise to take better care, Pam thought in delirium. Give me Chris back. Give me normal winters. I promise I will be good.
Thor’s laughter floated through the night, shaking the moon, his breath the force of a million gales of ice-wind. Buildings and cars turned to blocks of ice, upon which the most magnificent flakes scuttled before springing back into the void. Pam would cease to be. Die. No fires would keep her or anyone else alive. The blankets around her became frigid metal. Blood moved to her core to help her survive. She remembered that from science class. It was called vasoconstriction. She would die before her body actually vasoconstricted.
Bitter death came to the Arctic Earth. Pam’s spirit fell into a twirl of diamond specs that cavorted amid the Earth’s atmosphere. Fall into something meaningful, Pam thought. The endless night marked the end of the time of the sun. No longer would the big star rise or sink or guide human and other life cycles on earth or in the sea. Only the white face of the laughing midnight moon ticked by like a mocking clock. Only far-away were twitches of death and light streaking across the universe. She wanted her spirit to die like a star, to offer light to a someday child’s hopeful gaze upon the heavens.
Thor shook the moon, shook her. Was that Chris in the sky, waiting for her?
Pam, came the long moan. Pam, Pam. It was Emma, waking her up.
“Good grief girl, I thought you were a goner.”
“Huh?” Pam shot up from her pillows. An intensely bright sun shone through her windows. The heat of it nearly burned her skin. She had to close her eyes the heat and light were so strong.
“You’ve been out of it for two days,” Emma said. “And you’ve had the chills. At least your fever finally broke. Doc came over to check you out.”
“You mean…what about the snow?
Emma placed the back of her hand against Pam’s forehead. “You’ve been having some major dreams, my dear. You’re still a little warm, but I think the worst part is over. You need a cool bath, honey.”
Pam was relieved to not have died.
“Today is supposed to be 120,” Emma said. “Weird weather we had while you were sick, and the temperatures are climbing. They are saying there will be brownouts, blackouts, water rations. You better get that shower sooner than later.”
Pam nodded, weakly making her way to the shower, remembering that she had told Thor she would be good—knowing it was too late in many ways, but there were things she could still do, like cleaning up the woods around the house, like doing with less.
“Emma,” she called back to her friend, who now stood next to the bed with an arm full of dirty sheets.
“After my shower, I want to pick some rowan berries. Maybe start my chutney tonight.”
“That’s a weird idea after being so sick. What’s gotten into you?”
“Well, that, my dear, is wonderful,” Emma said.
* * *
Note that this story is inspired by the Twilight Zone’s “The Midnight Sun” episode.
About time some serious writers and artists engaged with the biggest issue of our time–maybe all time. These stories show that engagement fully underway!”
-Bill McKibben, founder 350.org