In a Frozen Field (2017) – Short Story

Where am I? Do my eyelids stick together or is it entirely dark? Have I gone blind? I can still smell it: a mixture of moss and disinfectant. It smells of illness, pain and freedom. It is the smell of being reborn once again, of saying goodbye just to be greeted by familiar faces – in a different time, in a different life. They will not know me. They will not love me as I love them. Why do they never remember?

 

***

 

The day she arrived at court was the day the king’s only son went on trial. Trial by combat had been outlawed for centuries but on this special occasion had been reinstated: a king’s son had to prove himself in body and mind. The king’s brother had insisted on the trial, an attempt to kill the ten-year-old heir to the throne, a boy as sweet as tulips in spring.

 

The witch came to bring the blessings of her kin. She never expected that the king would recognise her but as soon as she entered the tent, he spoke her name: “Mariam?” She bowed to the king like she had never bowed to her lover, although she still remembered the days when the boy’s royal father had not yet ascended the throne and she had lost her youthful innocence to his touch. Again the king said her name, placing his fingers gently on her cheek.

 

“You must have known I would come to you, if needed,” she whispered into his palm. “I would never let our son die.”

 

The young boy stared at his father and the strange woman. He remembered her face from his dreams.

 

The young prince was clad in armour far too heavy for his size. He was a bookish boy to whom a sword was not a reminder of triumph, but an instrument of terror. The king would never learn what the witch said to their son that day but the boy shed his armour, discarded his sword and went into the arena and to his certain death with his head held high.

 

He knelt at the altar, held a short prayer and then again knelt in front of his opponent. The crowd gasped, the king cried and his young queen fainted. Only a strange woman in a night-blue dress smiled at the prince and nodded. And so the black knight raised his sword, aimed at the prince’s head and stumbled. The sword pierced sand instead of flesh. Judgement was delivered. The young prince would live.

 

***

I am dreaming. This is not real. This is not what happened. I remember it now. This is just the story, the fairy tale they later told. I did not do this. I am dreaming. Make it stop. I don’t want this. I don’t want to die. Not again. Please.

 

***

 

The celebrations were long, the wine flowing like a vast river and the king laughed and drank, but as he swallowed his third cup he felt a burning fire in his throat. With lips turning blue, he asked for his valet to be taken to his chambers: all he could think of was not to die in front of his son. The king was taken to his bed, his absence excused by too much wine. All believed it but two: his queen and the witch who had always known his fate.

 

It was late at night when he woke again. He was glad to find her sitting next to his bed. “I am dying,” he said.

 

“No”, she said, “you will not.” He did not understand. The pain ripped through his poisoned body and the memory of a brother he had once loved filled his heart with sorrow. His legs had become numb and his hands tingled. Still he felt how she kissed his fingertips.

 

“Once I promised that I would come back to you,” she said. “I will never regret that it took me this long, because I always knew the next time I would see you, it would be like this. I knew I could only return when needed the most.” Her smile was sad, yet full of confidence. “All these years I have travelled, learned and still never understood,” she said, ”but I do now.”

 

“I tried to forget many things,” said the king, “ but never you. I am glad you are here now. One final time.” A cough disrupted his speech. He could taste blood on his tongue. His time was near. She kissed him on his forehead like a mother would kiss her sweet summer child.

 

It was old and dark magic, arcane knowledge long forbidden: with all her powers she drew the poison from his body. No one ever cheated death without paying a price, she knew that, yet she did not hesitate.

 

***

 

Nothing is real any more. Is this a phantasm, a dream, drops of poison in my brain? Why are you showing me this? Why are you making me relive this memory? This fantasy! The strangest of imaginations! Please let me go. I do not want to see the end. I know what is coming. Not again! I do not want to go. I do not want to see.

 

***

 

The king found her in the first light of morning when he woke up from a strange dream. She was where ancient rose bushes formed a natural cave, where he had kissed her for the very first time, in spring when the rose bushes had been full of leaves and early blossoms. It was mid-winter now and the roses were far from their summer glory – apart from one single rose. She held it in her fingers and watched as it changed colour while her magic fled from her body. He touched her. But neither their long forgotten love, nor his tears could safe her now.

 

Where once breathing had been a natural reflex, it had now become a fight between her unbreakable will and her frail body, the latter refusing to obey. The dark magic embedded in the poison intended to kill the king seeped from her pores with every breath she took. Blood spilled from her nose and her ears. It was the king, who held her in these last moments. He had taken her down to the lake, as she had requested: a last sunrise, so she would not leave the world in darkness.

 

The setting was just like the script demanded: a bit melodramatic but this kind of scene made audiences cry and critiques write raving reviews.

 

Finally the king let go of her body. She looked so tiny now, frost covered and cold. It seemed wrong to leave her at the shore, but it was as she had requested: to be alone at last. The morning was very quiet, only the water made some gurgling noises, the birds still deep in slumber. It was a divine scene on the silver screen.

 

***

 

I am alone now. I am dying. It is the last path and I will have to walk it alone.

 

I am not breathing. My heartbeat is so slow and weak. You might not even feel a pulse, my dear, when you touch my wrist. My hair is frozen to the stone below, the sheer white dress covered in frost. But I am floating. Drifting between worlds. I feel light. Lightheaded.

 

 

“Cut!”

 

 

I remember it now: I am not a witch. I am an actress and I am freezing. I can barely feel the sun on my skin anymore. We have started filming the scene during the night and now that the sun rises, the director wants to film my great exit scene: I am lying on this stupid cold rock, half hidden in the morning’s mist. It is my burial and I can still taste the sweetness of fake blood on my lips. Even the quick cup of tea between takes did not wash it away. I did not warm my body, either. Back to filming: I am positioned on the stone; hair spread around me like a halo, a touch of blue to my lips, retouching the dark bloodstains at my nostrils and ears.

 

The director calls himself an artist, always searching for the right natural light. He says one sees it later on screen. Nothing, he says, compares with natural light. It is his signature style. I think he is not looking for art but for an award. I hope he is right, the critics have not been kind the last time he tried an experiment like this.

 

The wind is painful on my naked feet. Filming a scene like this in winter is cruel to everyone involved. I did not complain, though. The scene will be quite impressive. I close my eyes instead. He has promised me another role if I do well… it is so cold.

 

By now I am so numb I have stopped shivering. The director is impressed. So is the producer. Only my fellow actor looks worried. He is a nice guy. He looks regal in his costume, the heavy woollen coat and a thin ring of gold pressed upon his head. My beloved king, he looks just like I remember him from a time when I was not Alice, the actress, but someone else.

 

***

 

“We have only five minutes in the right light, so there will be only one take. Don’t mess it up!” Johnson was shouting at his young and very inexperienced lead. At least she had stopped shivering and was now lying still – suitable for a corps. The make-up department had done well, she looked as if she had dropped right out of a different world.

 

“Do you think this is a wise idea?” Johnson looked up. His lead actor, the only one with a reputation and blooming career on this set, was still not in position.

 

“She looks truly ill and we have only two or three degrees above zero…” But one look brought him to silence. With Johnson a certain look meant an outburst was imminent. The actors had to learn a bitter lesson in the last few weeks filming and many already regretted ever signing the contract.

 

The actor took another glimpse at the young woman. He had become quite fond of Alice. He would love to work with her again under different circumstances, she was clearly a greater talent than most on this cursed set realised. How she would blossom if her insecurities were not constantly triggered by a man like Johnson.

 

Alice looked half-dead and he wondered how she could keep so still in this incredible cold. He was wearing a coat befitting a king and still he had goose bumps all over his body. The twilight hours were always the coldest.

 

The extras and other actors had assembled at the hill for the final scene and so he prepared himself to climb the hill as well. Johnson was still waiting for the right light. Maniac. Alice must be freezing, he thought and looked at her again. Something was amiss and he could not put a finger on it. His own felt ice-cold and so he tried to warm them up with his breath. Hot clouds formed around his hands. Again he looked at her and finally it dawned on him what he had missed. He begged to be wrong…

 

The actor raced towards the lake, the director furiously shouting that there was no time for such follies and that everyone needed to be at their designated spot in 20 seconds. With every step it became clearer: Alice did not breathe. He fell to the ground next to her, bumped his knees on the rock’s icy surface and picked her up. With a crunching sound her hair loosened from the rock, as did her flimsy white dress. Her skin had turned a pale blue, her lips a slightly lighter shade than blueberries.

 

He pressed her cold body against his warm one, wrapped the coat around both of them and started running towards the trailers. Everyone had fallen quiet, even the director had stopped shouting. Somewhere up on the hill, a young woman started crying. Slowly they all began to understand.

 

He tried to warm her up, he pressed his lips against hers and tried to make her breathe again. Once inside, he put her down and started pressing his large hands over her delicate heart. One. Two. Three. And again. One. Two. Three. One. Two…

 

***

 

I am floating again. Where am I? Not at the lake… It smells of old furniture, of dust settled for far too long and then disturbed by careless hands. I don’t remember. Or do I?

 

My world has become so blurred, like a watercolour painting without clear lines. But I see it now. This is the part I am truly playing: the young actress nearly freezing to death at the shore of a lake. There is a love story involved, I think, with another actor. This is all not real. I am playing, acting, pretending… but why then does it feel like a memory?

 

“Are you all right?”

 

That’s him. My partner. I don’t know his name, but he sounds nice.

 

***

 

Allison was so happy to finally get up from the cold floor, she simply forgot how stiff her limbs had become. She stumbled and crashed into her fellow actor. She still could not believe how much he looked like the man he was playing in this new indie movie. If men would not age… but between him and the character he was playing – a not very well-known actor from the 30s – lay more than 70 years of film history. So it was simply impossible.

 

The story was only half fiction: There had been a young actress – finally claiming a role in a larger movie – who nearly froze to death because of some director’s insane artistic approach. In their movie she actually dies. That was fiction, as was the love affair with the fellow actor. There had actually been a lawsuit filed by a son or granddaughter of said director, but in the end it was settled in some obscure way.

 

Allison did not really care, she was at a point in her career where she had started considering doing something else entirely. She was typecast so often as the pretty young thing, she wondered how long she would actually be able to keep it up. It was such a cliché, yet maybe she should consider herself lucky to even have a job. Most female actors here age struggled – too old to play any character aged between 20 and 50 but too young to grab a role as an old crone. That was how Hollywood worked.

 

Allison wrapped herself in a warm cloak during the break. While the scene played in winter they had actually chosen a bright and already warm spring morning. Still it was cold enough to worry some of her colleagues – and they did not even have to lie on a fucking cold rock for hours! Again the director called… back on the rock, whisked away by the attractive man and dumped into an old 1930s trailer full of dust and a lingering rotten smell. And action. And again!

 

“God, I want a warm bath”, she thought. She felt sick. Her heart was beating too fast from the excessive physical strain and her head ached, as did her body. Especially her left shoulder had bothered her for quite a while now. Her mother had insisted on a doctor’s appointment, but she had found excuse after excuse not to go. She was simply tired, and more so after hours of filming. She had lost a lot of weight the last few weeks…

 

Finally, shortly after lunch, she stumbled into her hotel room. He followed, wanted to talk about the next scene. Why the hell did she agree to that? She could still hear him rummaging around in the next room. He was nice, so why was she so hard on him? Perhaps because he looked so much like this other man. It had actually started to bother her. Why she could not say.

 

She flinched, as she entered the bathtub. The water was not even hot, but she was freezing. She was probably close to hypothermia. Maybe following her and making sure she warmed up had been the actor’s true intention. He was a kind man, after all.

 

“You ok in there?” he asked. “I’ve ordered some food for later.” She let the warm water embrace her body. Floating. Her muscles should loosen up, now, she thought. But still her body felt tight. Drip. Drip. Drip. The water counted the time. Not long now, it seemed to say. Not long…

 

***

 

I have my eyes closed now, floating in the warm water. I hear it splash against the sides of the bathtub when I move my fingers. My toes. It is slowly getting colder. I don’t care.

 

He laughs. “Isn’t it getting cold in there?” It is cold, indeed. I don’t think it has ever been warm. Maybe I should add some hot water, but I cannot. Moving hurts far too much. I think it is on the left side of my chest. Maybe I have tightened my muscles too much down at the lake. It had been really cold…

 

“You are really not looking well, are you sure you don’t need a doctor?” the good-looking actor asks now. What was his name? And what is he doing in the bathroom? A blizzard rips through my chest. It is the second film we are doing together and by now he knows me well. I don’t mind that he is seeing me naked in the water. I am not interested in things like that. I have been acting since I was sixteen und now at the age of 34 I might still look like a teenage girl, but I am no longer naïve. A flirt on set was acceptable, but an affair was always too great a risk. Falling in love was a risk. He has fully come into the bathroom now and looks at me. I think I am shivering or is the water gurgling like that on its own?

 

I am freezing but I like the feeling of floating. It is only thing that feels right. Barely minutes ago I was a mythical being, I could feel the magic hum beneath my skin. Then I was this beautiful young, oh so sweet and innocent actress, who despite the pain had felt so alive. But what am I now that the curtain has fallen again? Who am I now? How stupid I feel that I do not even remember my own name. They are talking about me, now. I can still hear them. The beautiful actor is no longer alone. Someone else is there. Or is he speaking on the phone? It is strange that my brain is so muddled.

 

Someone touches my cheek, my wrist. Again. I know this procedure: me between worlds. I think it is him. Why does he always look the same no matter where I travel? Who is he? Actor, I remind myself. Just as you are. He lifts me out of the tub. I can smell his skin. He even smells the same as I remember. I am wrapped in a towel, put on the floor. He pushes something soft beneath my head, talks to me in strange manners. Who is he? Who is this strange man I can never stop loving no matter where I go?

 

“The ambulance should be here any minute”

 

“She seemed fine and then…” He sounds worried. Why does he sound so worried? Sweet, kind man, don’t worry. I am right here.

 

I would have loved reading the headline the next morning. So melodramatic, so me: “Famous actress dies of heart attack. Filming of ‘The Muse’ cancelled.”

 

I would have loved this, but I am dead. Or am I? Please! Please, not again… Dear Lord, speak to me! Where am I going now?

 

***

 

I finally open my eyes: I am among the stars… and there you are again. I know your face!

 

 

END

 

Liked the story? You could by me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/jessicaholzhausen

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