Hans usually enjoyed road trips, especially late at night in the snow. He liked the quiet hush of the engine, the shush of the tyres on the wet streets. Father played the radio low, little more than a murmur. Something local with lots of talking. A comforting sound. Hans could doze in the back of the car just as comfortably as in his bed at home. Better, thanks to the gentle rumble of the engine and the careful way Father drove. It was cold outside, nearly Christmas, so the heater was on as well, adding to the background hum, filling the car with a snug warmth so that Hans barely needed the blanket draped over him. He tried to watch the scenery as it passed, the dark lines of pines beside the autobahn, but the warmth of the car and its steady motion made his eyelids heavy. He didn’t mind. He liked the dreamy quality it gave everything as they drove.
It had taken Hans a while to get used to all the travelling. Father was a sales representative, an area manager, and it meant he was always on the move. That used to be okay because Hans would stay with Mother, but now Hans had to come too. Sometimes he couldn’t because of school, and that made things awkward for Father, but often he went along anyway. He liked to imagine he was learning the job, that he would take over from Father one day, travelling the country in his own car. Maybe even beyond the country; this was Europe, and you could drive almost anywhere. Father was all the way from England. It would be good to go there.
Hans usually enjoyed road trips. Usually. But during this one his comfortable doze couldn’t hold him for very long and he kept waking from it abruptly. Father was singing the same song whenever he woke, something in English. It was called ‘Driving Home For Christmas’.
“Are we nearly there?” Hans asked. He’d asked a few times because asking about where they were going got him no answer at all.
At some point they had come off the autobahn and the lines of government-planted trees had become the outskirts of actual forest. The dark shape of it passed in upright smudges of ghostly shadow, black at the trunks but white in the branches where snow had gathered. At the side of the road the snow was a dirty slush, blackened and foul, but in the boughs of the trees it was still bright and fresh, sparkling occasionally in the beams of headlights. Hans could easily imagine the light catching the eyes of wolves in there, making them glow like embers in a dying fire. Once, all of this area had been wild and wolves had passed through the countryside and its woodland. Stalking deer, maybe. Maybe even reindeer, this time of year.
“Watch out, Rudolph,” Hans muttered. With his nose so bright, Rudolph would have been easy prey for wolves. Hans had always liked Rudolph. He wondered if the reindeer, unable to play with the others, would have cared about a wolf or two and decided yes, he probably would.
“What did you say?”
Father’s voice was sharper than it usually was. Maybe he was stressed. Hans didn’t know his Father very well because he was always working away, and though his bond with Mother had been strong, sometimes he felt he barely knew this man. Maybe it was work that had him so stressed. Maybe it was the time of year. Christmas could be very hard for some people, Hans knew, and now Mother was gone, so . . .
“Just talking to myself.”
He tried to get his sleepiness back but it refused. He was waking up, curious about the woods, the destination, thinking of wolves and Father’s stress and where they might be going. The inside of the car no longer felt snug. He rubbed the crusts of sleep from his eyes and sat up properly.
The logo of a petrol station lit up the night ahead and Father began to slow. Hans heard the steady tick, tick, tick, of the indicator and they began to pull over. The fuel gauge said they still had nearly three quarters but Hans was getting to know Father’s habits now; he didn’t like to dip beneath half because he had a fear of getting stuck.
“Look, Hans. Christmas lights.”
The station had draped the windows of its store with strings of multicoloured lights and they blinked off and on and ran in flashing patterns. A bright Santa Claus bent down with a neon present, then stood again with it.
Hans was too old for something like that to excite him, and he wasn’t sure he liked it really anyway. Santa looked like he was giving something away then taking it back again. Or taking something and giving it back. It felt familiar and he wondered if he’d seen it before.
“Five minutes,” Father said, getting out of the car. He did it quick, door open just long enough for the dashboard to announce it once, bing!, but a lot of the heat was still snatched out of the car. Or a lot of the cold leapt in quick. Hans brought the blanket up around him again and saw his breath frost briefly before the temperature balanced out.
Outside, Father was watching the numbers turning on the pump. Even though they were climbing higher they reminded Hans of a countdown. He tried to imagine the countdown was to blast off, the car a rocketship on its way to new places, but he kept thinking of a bomb waiting to explode.
Flakes of snow fell slowly outside, rested on the window, and melted. Hans watched them, watched the drops run down the glass until another car pulled in. It was a large car, a family one, and it was full. There were only two children in the back but the other seats were filled with parcels wrapped in colourful paper and tied with elaborate bows. Hans thought of Santa taking them back. For a moment Hans thought one of the children, the boy, was pointing at him. He wasn’t, though. He was drawing pictures on the misted glass of his window. The girl beside him was showing something in a magazine to Mother who was turned around in her seat to see. She was smiling.
Hans smiled too, trying to be happy for the girl, and for the boy, but he still felt sad as well.
The sudden sound of the driver’s door opening startled him but Father didn’t notice. “All set,” he said, slamming the door shut. The car rocked slightly as he settled back into his seat. He didn’t start the engine right away. He breathed on his hands to warm them.
“Where are we going?” Hans asked. This time he hoped he wouldn’t get an answer, though he wasn’t sure why.
Father leant on the steering wheel and put his hands flat to his face for a moment, over his eyes. He rubbed, sighed, and sat up again.
The man winced. “Don’t,” he said. And, “It’s a surprise.” Hans could tell he regretted saying that but then the engine growled back to life and they were off again.
The noise of the car didn’t settle into its usual purr. To Hans the engine sounded loud now, and the shush of each passing car was more like a hiss. Not that there were many other cars out here, not compared to the autobahn.
“It’s snowing,” Hans said, just to say something. He leant forward to watch it. Far away from the car the snow fell slowly, gently, but on the road it moved fast, swept into flurries in the wake of other vehicles. The car was warming up again.
“It won’t last,” Father said.
Hans tried to focus on the slow snow instead of the fast but it was difficult. He watched it settle in the trees, disappearing amongst the rest of the snow or melting into glistening black bark, never to be seen again.
Someone watched them from the tree line. Hans saw them, just for a moment, as they passed. He thought it was a small snowman at first because it was so encrusted with snow but it raised a hand. Hello, maybe. Or stop. Then it was behind them.
Hans turned quickly in his seat and looked back but it was gone, already swallowed up by the dark.
“I just saw someone.”
“In the trees. In the snow.”
“Maybe you did.”
They drove on in quiet for a moment. At the side of the road a sign came up, came up, came up, and went past. Hans couldn’t make out the writing because it was a wooden sign and not a proper reflective one and it went by too quickly, but he saw the dim shape of an arrow painted on it.
“Did they look like they were in trouble?”
Hans was looking behind them again but the sign was gone.
“The person you saw, Hans. Had they broken down? Were they stuck?”
“No,” said Hans. “It was a child, I think.”
“I couldn’t see if it was a boy or a girl.”
They were slowing.
“Where are we going?”
Another sign was coming up. Hans didn’t want to see it. The indicator was tick-tick-ticking like a countdown and they pulled into a slower lane, ready to turn away from one road into another.
“They wouldn’t let kids play out this late,” Father said. He said it as they turned, distracted by the manoeuvre. “Not in the woods. Not so close to the road.”
But Hans knew. A string of white lights had been clipped around the next sign and Hans saw it quite clearly. He recognised the picture and he recognised the name.
“Just for a little while.”
“Don’t call me that. I told you not to call me that.”
Hans unbuckled his seatbelt as if to throw himself out of the car, but they were already stopping.
Hans didn’t want to but he began to cry. “I hate it here.”
Hans may not have known the man well, but he knew the stare he was getting in the mirror. He looked away from it and was quiet.
Cold flooded the car, rushing in through the driver’s door. The man who was not Father, not really, opened the door for Hans as well and the last of the warmth vanished, thinned by the cold air and transformed into chill. Hans put on his jacket. He considered running but even getting out of the car he slipped on the icy ground. He wouldn’t make it very far.
The man gripped Hans by the arm to steady him but did not let go afterwards. He held him all the way to the orphanage doors. He didn’t let go until they were inside.
“You can’t just return him, Mr Stevens. You can’t just drop in, without an appointment, at Christmas, and deposit him back where you got him from.”
“I understand that, but—”
“You have a responsibility now.”
“I know, but—”
“There were forms.”
Father—Mr Stevens—said something in English, something angry, then, “Of course there were forms, there are always forms.”
Hans was looking into the recreation room. His arm hurt from where Fa—Mr Stevens—had gripped it. Hans rubbed his arm and watched the children gathered in the other room beside a coal fire, sitting in a semi-circle before a small television. They were watching other children visit Father Christmas in a pretend grotto, ushered in one at a time by a woman dressed as an elf. Hans couldn’t hear the television properly but every time the child on Santa’s knee asked for something Santa looked awkward and flustered and the audience laughed. Sometimes the orphans watching laughed too but it sounded like they were copying what they heard instead of really laughing and they didn’t do it often.
“Mr Stevens, I don’t know what you expect . . . ”
Hans tuned the adults out to focus on the television and its laughter, but the more he tried to listen the more the laughter sounded cruel. He thought again of that neon Santa at the petrol station.
One of the children was watching Hans instead of the screen. She was chewing on the hair of her blonde ponytail. She raised a hand to wave, slowly, but without a smile. Hans returned it. He didn’t recognise any of them. He didn’t think it was because they were new. He thought it was because he’d decided to forget. Not that his time here had been awful. Nobody hurt him or anything. It was just . . . empty. Empty time. A world on pause, and lonely. The orphanage was a place to wait, and wait, and be disappointed.
“Well, we can argue all day or you can just take him.”
“I have to go.”
For a moment it seemed like there’d been a change of plan because Hans was turned around, steered by a strong grip on his shoulder. Then the hand was gone as his father-not-father moved to open the door and the cold came in, a gust of snow that made Hans blink and squint. His not-father disappeared into it and was gone and Hans stood alone in the hall facing a closed door.
“Hans, dear thing, are you all right?”
The woman that had been angry a moment ago was now pretending to be soft and kind and warm. She squatted down beside him. Hans wiped his eyes. He had snow in them. “He hurt me,” he said.
Hans nodded. He rolled up his sleeve and showed her where he knew there’d be bruises. The woman sighed her sympathy and said, “Did he do this to you?” Hans couldn’t remember if he knew this woman from before or just wanted to. He nodded.
“Did he do anything else?”
Hans cried. He didn’t want to, but he couldn’t help it. “He hurt me,” he said again. And then he said a lot of things that weren’t true. Sitting on the man’s knee, giving, taking. He didn’t want to say these things but he couldn’t help it, he was upset. The woman looked like she wanted to cry too and she gave him a tight hug that wasn’t soft or kind or warm because her uniform was stiff and smelled too clean. Hans could tell she was trying, though.
“Let’s get you a bed,” she said. “We’ll talk about this again tomorrow. I need to call someone first, all right Hans?”
Hans wanted Mother even though she wasn’t really his mother but she was gone now so no, Hans was not all right.
He nodded anyway.
Running was difficult not because the snow was deep but because it had been trodden into ice around the building and his feet slid-slipped as he tried to hurry. He still hurried though, hands out at his sides, until eventually he was on the grass where the snow was fresh and he was held a little by his own footprints. He made for the darkening between the trees and there he hunkered down to catch his breath. It puffed from him in little clouds of frost.
The orphanage was quiet. Some of the windows were still lit and occasionally Hans saw someone moving around inside but no one was coming out to shout or chase him. Nobody was even looking. He thought maybe if it was snowing there’d be a face at the window to watch, but it wasn’t snowing anymore. It was cold, though. He had his coat but it wasn’t very thick and it didn’t stay waterproof for long – it wasn’t that kind of coat. His good one was at home. Or where home used to be. Or maybe it was still in the car in the bag of clothes he took around with him when Father was working and on the road. Hans wished he was in the car right now. He wanted the snuggled warmth of the back seat and the soft drone of the radio. The shadows in the woods were cold and staying still was making him colder.
Hans turned away from the building and considered the deeper woods behind him. There was no such thing as wolves anymore (not here anyway, only in zoos) and he was too old to believe in spookier things like ghosts or witches, but he watched the news and he knew that monsters were real and some of them liked the woods.
He ran into the trees anyway.
At first they were positioned an equal distance apart in parallel lines, but eventually they began to bunch up and cluster, as if whoever had planted them had given up on neatness and order. By the time he noticed, Hans could no longer hear the quiet hiss of passing cars nearby. He had intended to use the traffic sound for his bearings, but somewhere along the way he had forgotten to listen out for the autobahn and now it was lost and so was he.
It didn’t matter. If he became really lost he could always follow his own tracks back, though he hoped he wouldn’t have to. As long as his prints remained clear he should be—
Hans spotted other tracks in the snow alongside his. They were small split circles, like those of a deer maybe. Sometimes, looking back, it seemed as if the deer feet became human ones but it was just his shoeprints treading over some of the circles where the tracks crissed-and-crossed. He liked the patterns they made entwined. Ahead there was only one set. He would add his prints to those as well; he had no other course to guide him, so he followed the trail into the fading light.
The trail didn’t meander much at all except where the foliage became too dense to pass through, the woods thickening with bushes and briars. Hans had to pick his way between tangles of brambled vine and around coarse stumps of ice-sparkled shrubbery. He was concentrating so much on this, and on keeping the tracks in sight, that it wasn’t until the snow brightened with moonlight that Hans looked up to see the trees had thinned around him and he stood in a clearing, crisp and dazzling and open to the night sky. The ground was plump with fallen snow.
And there were snowmen. Lots and lots of snowmen, gathered in a mismatched crowd as if each was a stranger to the other. Some looked to have been there a while, frozen into shapes that shone their silver light from solid ice, but one looked fresh; the ground around it had been swept into long shallow arcs where handfuls of snow had been gathered up for building. Some of the snowmen wore hats. Some had scarves. One had a bright plastic handbag pressed into its side, its branch-arm threaded through the strap. Another had a bonnet like from the olden days. All of them had eyes of stone and semi-circle smiles, grins of coal so dark it seemed the night had split their faces. All of them were small, not snowmen but snowchildren, boys and girls.
“You’re from the orphanage.”
Hans was startled. He hadn’t noticed the girl, either because he was distracted by the snowchildren or because she looked like one herself; her jacket was snow-crusted and the hat she wore pulled down over her blonde hair was made of white wool. Her cheeks were pink though, and she puffed little clouds from her mouth when she spoke. “I remember you,” she said. “From before. Have you come to get me?”
“No,” Hans said. “I’m running away.”
“Me too. Obviously.” She pushed red berries into one of the snowheads. “It’s supposed to look like lipstick. Does it look like lipstick?”
“A bit. But you’re pushing them too far.”
“You can help if you want.”
Hans didn’t say anything. He didn’t move. He looked at all of the snowmen and snowwomen. The snowboys and snowgirls.
“My name’s Gertrude but I hate it and everyone calls me Trudy.”
He waited a while before finally saying, “My name’s Hans.”
Trudy dug the berries free and began setting them back in place, arranging them carefully this time.
“Why don’t you make any adults?” Hans asked her.
She looked at Hans like it was the stupidest question in the whole world. When Hans said nothing she said, “They’d melt anyway.”
“Why don’t the children ones melt?”
She pushed a branch into the snow heap before her, breaking off pieces and adjusting the angle so that the snowgirl looked like she was covering her mouth with a skinny hand. She shrugged. “They just don’t,” she said.
She stepped back from the snowgirl and assessed her work. “I’m not allowed to wear lipstick,” she said. She put her hand over her mouth for a moment, touching her lips with gloved fingers and becoming a momentary reflection of what she had made. Then she took off her hat and fit it to the snowgirl’s head, reshaping some of the snow to hold it in place. “When I had a mum, she said she’d teach me how to put it on when I was older and I’m older now.”
She began unwinding the scarf from around her neck.
“You’ll get cold,” Hans said.
“Not for long, though.” She walked a circle around the snowgirl, wrapping the scarf around a non-existent neck. She took off her gloves as well and put them over stick-fingers as best she could. “Anyway, you’ll get cold too. You don’t have a proper coat on, or gloves, or a scarf, or even a hat.”
She was right. His hands were cold even in his pockets. Even under his armpits. He looked around at the snowchildren.
“Don’t you dare,” said Trudy. “You can’t take theirs.”
“All right, you can only take it if its yours. Which one is yours?”
“What do you mean?”
Trudy pointed at the snowchildren, sweeping her arm around in a gesture to encompass all of them. “Which one did you make to get away?”
“None of them.”
The girl scowled at him.
“I didn’t make any of the stupid snowmen.”
Trudy crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s why you’re back,” she said. “You’re not very nice.”
“Neither are you, Gertrude.” Hans plunged his hands back into his pockets and cut across the clearing with his head down. He zig-zagged back and forth, looking at the snow.
“What are you looking for? Hey, where are you going?”
Hans had found the tracks again. He followed them to the edge of the clearing, his shoulders hunched against the cold. He walked quickly.
“Where are you going?”
But suddenly Hans wasn’t going anywhere. He’d seen something move. A shadow moved amongst shadows in the gloom ahead of him.
There was a rustle in the foliage, the quiet crack and shiver of twigs breaking, leaves shaking. Hans held his breath, one foot still raised ready for his next step. “There’s a deer,” he said.
He could only see some of it. Part of its body was dappled with moonlight, its tawny flank spotted silver-grey. Its head was down in the dark, feeding at something low or catching a scent, but it moved slowly forward with barely any sound, only the ghostly whisper of falling snow as leaves brushed against leaves and the soft fur of its hide.
Trudy was coming to see as well. Hans could hear the slow scrunch, scrunch, of snow trodden flat beneath her boots as she approached. Each sound was drawn out as she tried to be quiet. Hans held his arm out behind to tell her stop and she did, but she said, “What is it?” with a voice hushed to near silence.
Hans was about to tell her when the creature raised its head and the breath he’d prepared to whisper with came out as a gasp.
The first thing he saw was its eyes. It had taken another step forward as it raised into view and that had brought a wash of silver light over its head, neck, and torso. The light gleamed from large dark eyes, black and round like a deer’s but much bigger, and set in a face that was wrong. The face was long like a deer’s but fleshed and featured in a way that was human. The nose . . . the nose descended from beneath the eyes, drawn down to a mouth that was something like a muzzle without fur, just freckled skin and a small mouth that chewed at the leaves protruding from between thin lips. As Hans watched, it dipped its head again to the bushes and took another mouthful of leaves, tugging at the twigs as it straightened, stripping them bare and shaking snow loose in soft cloudfalls. She had long wild tangled hair, swept back from the face and littered with twigs and leaves. It was definitely a she, Hans realised. He could see her breasts and he was embarrassed by their nakedness. Large and heavy, they sloped from a chest that looked smooth and tawny-tanned but was furred in the middle, a triangle of it fanning out from between the breasts into a full pelt at her waist and beyond.
“What is it?” Trudy asked again, so quiet that Hans only heard her because he wasn’t breathing. “I can’t see.”
Hans didn’t know what it was. It, she, had taken a few more cautious steps closer as she chewed her leaves and he could see more now. Occasionally she picked and ate berries, plucking them from bushes with human hands and bringing them to her mouth with slender arms as bare as the rest of her human skin but spotted with large freckles. Her lower body was all deer, fur-thatched from the waist down to well-muscled thighs and calves that seemed to angle backwards. Her feet were hooves, tiny hooves; Hans saw them when they lifted from the snow. They never would have supported her properly except that she had four of them, body stretching out behind to a firm rump and two more legs. He couldn’t see if there was a tail.
She made a gentle mewling sound. Hans looked into that strange face again and she raised her arms to him.
Trudy said, “Hans, move.”
The deerwoman bobbed her head down and sideways; come on, come on.
Hans took a step closer. Cautiously at first. Slowly. But she mewled again, beckoning him with both hands to come, and her small mouth seemed to smile with thin black lips, so Hans went to her. He raised his own arms and reached his hands towards hers and she nodded encouragement. She even crouched a little because she was taller, bending at the waist and leaning on her forelegs. Hans was close enough to see her fur was lighter in places, not with snow but patches of colour. And then his hands were in hers and hers were warm and strong. They gripped him tight and pulled him close to her so suddenly that he slipped a little but she held him easily and he did not fall. She gathered him close and Hans could smell the musky scent of her fur as she pressed his face to her body in a firm full hug. She held him at the back with one arm and tried to cradle him. She used her other hand to guide his head, turning his face to press him to her nipple, but Hans turned his head away. It only made her pull him tighter and for a moment he feared she’d smother him. She didn’t quite have the strength to lift him, though she tried, so as she struggled with his face she pushed her chest to his mouth. He felt the nipple at his lips, soft and wet, and eventually he had no choice but to suckle there.
Trudy gasped behind him and Hans was suddenly released, dropping to the cold ground as he lost his balance. The deerwoman was startled into a series of skittish sidesteps and long ears Hans hadn’t noticed twitched in her matted hair. Hans reached for her from where he lay but she only blinked her large glassy dark eyes and backed away with a bleating sound. Then she turned tail (she did have a tail, Hans saw the white upright puff of it) and she ran, carried away swiftly on four legs that kicked up flurries of snow as she fled.
“Wait!” Hans cried. He scrambled clumsily to his feet, snow filling his clothes and chilling his skin.
“Wait!” echoed Trudy.
The deerwoman was bounding ahead in short bursts of speed that zigged and zagged, springing one way and then the other as she dodged obstacles Hans couldn’t see. She was leading him further into the woods. The darkness was deeper here yet Hans was able to leap over things, duck under things, by following. He often slipped and stumbled, falling and getting up again all at once, and frequently he felt the whip of branches across his face and brambles tearing at his clothes, but what he had tasted was rich and thick and warm and he wanted more. What he had felt was soft and gentle and warm and he wanted that as well.
Hans was crying as he ran. His tears were cold on his cheeks. He tried to call after her but the name he wanted to use couldn’t get past the taste in his mouth and she pulled further and further away from him until eventually, exhausted, he collapsed into a drift of snow that almost covered him. He lay there, panting. He tried to hug himself warm, but the snow blanket was comforting too in its own way. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to close his eyes and wake up in Father’s car. He wanted—
The forest stirred. This time it was the fast snap-and-crack of something moving quickly, something coming right at him from the way he had come, pushing through bushes and branches at speed. Hans felt the ground beneath him thunder.
He stood and shook the snow from his clothes. He thought of wolves and was not frightened. He waited to see their coal-ember eyes coming for him in the dark and when the shadows trembled and parted Hans opened his arms to whatever came.
But it was Trudy’s laughter that came at him. The crash and trample of the woodland sounded far too big for her and yet it was her laughter, her fits of breathy giggles and her cries of delight, that rushed towards him, towards him, in the silver dark.
What burst from the foliage though was a magnificent stag.
“Hans!” Trudy cried.
She was clinging to the creature. Hans saw her held in strong arms, cradled against a firm chest that was muscled and full-furred and scarred, a flash of detail caught in a moonbeam as the man-deer rushed past. Trudy had her arms around the creature’s thick neck. Its head was bent low, thrust forward, and she clutched at antlers that emerged from human hair, a wide spread of horns carrying broken twigs and leaves like Christmas decorations. It leapt past Hans, carried high on huge legs that seemed more horse than deer, and the gust of breeze that came with its passing carried the musky smell of its flanks, the whiff of its sweat-wet fur. A glimpse was all, and then they were past him, a flexing rump and something large dangling between, disappearing back into the dark, swallowed again by the woods. Gone.
His name trailed behind with the last of Trudy’s laughter and Hans was left standing with open arms.
He lowered them slowly. He wouldn’t chase after them, they were moving too fast anyway, but he thought he knew what he had to do.
Hans would follow his own trail back as best he could.
The other children watched as Hans finished his task, a semi-circle audience around the edge of the clearing as silent as the falling snow they were made from. Hans did not have gloves, or a scarf, or even a hat, but he dressed his snowchild as best he could. He gave it his thin coat. He took off his shoes as well and pressed them into where his mound of snow met the ground. He found two suitable branches for arms and he pushed these into each side, open wide, and he pressed stones into the face for eyes. He didn’t have any coal for the mouth so he scooped it hollow and tried to pretend it wasn’t screaming.
He sat down in the snow beside it, shivering, and wondered who it would be that found him.
Originally published in Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow, Ray Cluley.