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Absolute Zero part 4

by  Steerpike`s sister

Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Word Count: 3854
Summary: I would particularly like to know what you think of Snotwhelp's slanguage. I hope to make it more like Danish in the re-write, at the moment it draws mostly on French. But maybe it is just too confusing? Does it work?



Gerda is walking through a cold so hard that it’s visible. Her breath roils before her and she thinks she can see the pattern of her lungs repeating itself again and again into the white stark blankness, as she breathes out. She might be walking up a wall, or along a ceiling, the pressure of the cold over-rides any feeling of gravity.Time seems to have stopped, or drag on through a million years.
She expects every moment to touch the final wall of the alley, Her coat feels like a cobweb, her feet like dragging blocks of ice. Just as in her dream, she keeps putting one foot in front of the other, keeps walking on. At long last the cold weakens, just a tiny bit, and she realises she is coming out of the cloud. But wasn’t the alley a dead end? she thinks. How can I still be walking?
For a moment, she has no idea where she is. But then the mist clears completely, and she sighs with relief. She knows where she is now, the main drag where the tourists go for the fairy illuminations and the marching band and the ice-cream and hot dogs. There must have been a concealed exit. That’s all. And she luckily happened to walk right through it.
She frowns. She wants to feel reassured, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t recognise that shop that stands there, or the fountain in the traffic island – and was there ever a traffic island there? And as she looks around, she finds more and more things that are odd. Why are there bunches of herbs and grasses hanging from the lamp-posts? What is the strange graffiti, like crucifixes, or five-pointed stars? Why is everything so silent and quiet, with not a person on the streets, and bars across all the windows, crossed bars of iron? Why are there neon-lit crosses everywhere? She can see three from where she stands, hitched to the roofs or swinging from balconies.
She stands, perplexed, in the unfamiliar, dead silence. Apart from the crosses, there are hardly any electric lights. There are buildings missing, gap-toothed. There is a dog howling, somewhere. It is too cold, too quiet, too still. Even at this time in the morning, there should be people walking around in Copenhagen, clubbers, tourists, drunks, homeless people. But there’s no one on the streets. Only the barred windows. As if they are trying to keep something out.
The only place that is familiar, the only place with a light in the window, that looks open, is somewhere she doesn’t want to go at all. A corner-shop with a tacky neon sign and the shadows of bottles of cheap schnapps in the window. 24-7-NONSTOP. Chickenfoot’s shop.
It was Bjorn, a boy at her school, who told her the old woman was called Chickenfoot. He said she looked like a bird, roosting on one foot, with her weird, paralysed side.
“She can see things”, he’d said.
“You know. Things other people can’t see. My sister goes there sometimes. For love potions. Go in and see. I dare you. She’s a Greenlander, you know. They worship the devil.”
And then she did the awful thing she doesn’t want to think about. She stole a packet of Polos from Chickenfoot. She just leaned over the counter and grabbed them when he back was turned, and then she ran out of the shop. Because Bjorn was the first person who’d talked to her, at this new school, and she wanted to do something so he would keep on talking to her. Something grown-up and clever and sophisticated.
Except it didn’t actually feel like that, after she’d done it.
She hadn’t even shown him the Polos. She hadn’t shown anyone.
The Polos are still in her coat pocket. Not even opened. It’s not even as if she likes mints.
She stares at the unfamiliar square, uncomfortably trying to get up the courage to set off in one direction or another. There is no sign of the car. She has no idea what to do next. She tries to ignore the changes. She has moved so often that she is used to absent-mindedly mistaking her way and thinking she is walking down a street in one city when really she’s in another. She has only been in Copenhagen a few months, and maybe she is just getting mixed up, she thinks. Maybe they did some building. Maybe it’s a national holiday. There are spaces where buildings she expects haven’t been built, and other buildings intrude on her sight where they shouldn’t be. It’s like looking at a doctored photograph: spot the difference. It’s just another new place, she thinks, light-headed with exhaustion. I’m just moving again.
But then, automatically, she glances at the sky, to check which direction she is facing.
It’s a clear night, and the stars are full and obvious, without the smog of sodium that usually covers them. She stares at them. Fear is in the air, like breath.
The stars are the wrong way round. They’re all there – all the constellations – but they have been twisted. It’s as if someone reached down a giant hand and gave the world a quick quarter-turn to the left.
“That’s not possible,” she whispers. She is terrified. Where am I? How did I get here? What just happened?
The thing has been moving in the corner of her vision for a while, but she thought it was a tree, branches moving, or a passer-by. Now, the shriek comes out of nowhere, and she staggers back as the thing slams into her, scrabbling, going for her face and hands. It is slimy and fast and wet and furry and rabid. She can’t believe what is happening. It is like something in a nightmare, one of her nightmares, where it changes everytime she touches it, twists and turns and gibbers in her hands, as if it is trying to become part of her, trying to eat into her. Blood runs down her face, she strikes out at the thing that is like wind, shapeless and powerful. All she feels is shock and the instinct to fight back. Then, she feels something hit it, something heavy, like an iron bar. The thing screams, and just as suddenly, it’s gone,loping away along the wall, like a wolf but on two feet, with curling, hideous tentacles, and she is punching nothing, cold air.
Chickenfoot drops the iron crucifix and grabs at her with her free hand. With her other, she is balancing herself on her crutch.
Gerda staggers and steadies herself on the woman’s arm. Blood is streaming down her face from the wound on her forehead. Chickenfoot tries to say something, but she can’t speak, or at least, not easily. Words dribble and slur over her twisted lip. Gerda lets her drag her inside the shop, her head is spinning and she thinks she might be sick. The door slams behind them, and a chair is pushed towards her. She collapses onto it, gasping for breath.
“There’s something,” she gasps, “out there! Something… animal!”
Chickenfoot stares at her, her expression unreadable from the twisted face, then opens her mouth and babbles again.
Gerda shakes her head, uncomprehending, and scatters blood. There are no electric lights in here either. Just candles dripping in bottles. Chickenfoot guides her over to the corner, where there is a kettle, and pours water onto a towel, wipes it across her head. It stings, and she presses Gerda’s hand to the towel to keep it on her head.
“There’s a monster,” Gerda says again, clinging to the woman’s arm.
The woman nods understandingly, and presses her towards the seat. She lets herself be pushed down onto it. There’s too much to think about. The car, the language, the monster outside. The stars. If only the stars weren’t wrong, she might start to get a grip on the rest, argue it away. But the stars are too big and horribly wrong to be explained away. And where is Kay?her mind screams at her. There are monsters out there! She lifts the towel from her head, and stares at the red blood on it. She is suddenly terrified that the person in the car may be more than just a kidnapper. Kay… is he still alive?

There is something about waking up in the middle of the day, you are uncomfortable, and tired, and cross, and though the light hurts your eyes, there is no way you can go back to sleep again. I lay on my bed, feeling vulnerable under the harsh light. The floor and walls were so clear that I could see straight through to all sides. To all sides there were the ice plains, and the sloping sides and walls and battlements of our palace. Under daylight, it looked eerie and naked, unfamiliar.
It was not the rustle and murmur of the ghosts in the corridors that had woken me. No, it was something else. The absence of something. Kay. I could not hear his pattering, hot little heart any more.
Ah, I thought, he has finally broken.
I sat up and listened. Nothing. No heart-beat. Suddenly, strangely, I was frightened. I had never been frightened for no reason before, and knowing it frightened me still more. It was as if I was losing my place. Somehow, the most ordinary things, like the rustling of the ghosts around me, and the magic shadows flickering across the walls in a wild hunt, seemed weird and dismal. I hadn’t realised how used I had become to the tick of Kay’s little heart-beat.
So I got up.
The palace was clogged with ghosts. I could not understand it. An eddy of them blew through the corridors – people in trances, people who were asleep, unconscious, dreaming or just day-dreaming. If you didn’t know that they could not see or hear each other, you would think that they were having a strange conversation.
A high, nervous voice: “Did you put the tiger out? Are you sure?”
“Once upon a time. But then it stopped.” That was a man, a very old man, in pyjamas.
“Yes, but he was Indian. I think it was for tea.” That was another of the turbaned women, this time with a yellow crystal.
The monsters should be driving them all out, I thought. But there were no monsters. I had seen just one of the long-faced man things, slinking past a wall of ice, and that was all. What could have happened to them? I wondered. My mother had boiled up so many.
I pushed through the ghosts, like curtains, gathering reality because they had been there so long. They whimpered and sighed in my ears, blind faces staring through me and each other, hands fluttering through bodies. I remembered what my mother had said about the monsters leaking out. She must be right, I thought. I would have liked to wake her up, but nothing wakes her, and if she does wake in the daylight, she is in a terrible mood. No, I thought. I will just sweep them up, in a moment. When I have found out what has happened to Kay.
I went down winding stairs and across narrow bridges of ice, through glassy rooms and over the frozen pool, back to the Room of Bones. Kay was lying in the middle of the hall, surrounded by drifts of snow. He was blue with cold, almost black in places.
“Kay,” I said. “What’s the matter? Kay?”
I knew what the matter was, though. He was dying, or dead already. I thought I had better go away and leave him for her to tidy up. I ought to go back to sleep. It was dangerous to be awake when the ghosts were here, strong in the light, especially now the monsters seemed to have vanished. Mother had told me that often enough. The longer they stayed, the harder it was to move them, and the closer they came to seeing us. But there was a funny feeling in my chest, when I looked at him lying there. In my chest and my eyes and my throat.
I turned away, hoping the feeling would go. I pulled a fur from beneath him, and wrapped myself in it, but it was not very warm.
“I don’t need warmth,” I muttered, dropping the fur to the ground. “I am the Snow Queen’s daughter.”
The Room of Bones seemed a lonely place, suddenly, though I knew it so well, though I had played with the skulls that lay here over and over again, so I recognised each one, and each had a name to me. Nothing seemed right. I paced backwards and forwards, hoping that things would suddenly come right again. It was as if some part of me was hurting, but I did not know what. At first I thought I must be angry, then I thought I was frightened, then too hot, then too cold. Then I went back to Kay. I put my hand to his mouth. At first I thought there was nothing, but then I felt just a little warmth, breath against my hand.
“But who would care to have him back?” I exclaimed. When something is broken, it’s over and done with. I should just leave him. Then things would be normal again. I tried to understand myself, and to my horror I could not.
“Maybe,” I whispered to myself, “now she’s bored of him, he could be my pet.”
The thought was a great relief to me. Of course, all I wanted was a pet, something that would be fun to tease. That was the only reason I did not care to have him die. I really would have preferred a wolf-cub, but maybe a little boy was better than nothing.
I brought some furs down from my bed, and wrapped him in them. I held him in my arms, but I quickly realised I was almost as cold as he was, and I thought I might be hurting him more. Instead, I took his hands and feet and began rubbing them with the fur until the colour came back into them. He shivered and gasped and struggled.
“Gerda, Gerda,” he called out, sobbing. “I’m having a nasty dream.” He tried to pull away from me. I slapped him crossly, and when he cried out I was glad, because it meant he could feel me, and that meant his blood was flowing again.
I kept on rubbing at his hands and feet until he was crying with pain. Then I pulled him to his feet.
“Go on,” I told him. “Go and play. Run around. It will keep you warm.”
I was not sure I had done the right thing. It was going to be such trouble to look after him. How was I going to get to sleep now? I watched him clumsily running and falling and stumbling and shivering, and was disgusted with myself. All that effort to break him, and you have to go and save him just at the last minute. Why, Nina? What was the point?
And then, there was my mother, of course. I wanted to please her. I guessed this was not the way to do it.
It isn’t really like being disobedient, I told myself, uncomfortably. She only said she would be glad when he was over. She didn’t say I had to absolutely make him be over.
I tried to push the thought of my mother away from me. Kay needed food, I could see that, food and warmth.
But the only way to hunt was to take my mother’s sleigh. And that would be real disobedience.

The stairs above creak, and a girl comes through the door. She is carrying a knife. Gerda jumps, and half gets up. The girl stops and stares at her. She is skinny, bow-legged, small, more like a shrivelled boy than a girl. Gerda retreats, keeping the chair between them. The girl’s dark, melancholy eyes are watching her, there is no doubt at all in Gerda’s mind that if she makes a step out of turn, the girl will stab her to the heart.
“Ma,” calls the girl, “what’s this in our shop? Shall I shiv it?” She makes a gesture with the knife.
Gerda bites her lip. She doesn’t try to answer back. The knife is a butcher’s knife, broad-bladed, the handle looks old, like leather and bone.
Chickenfoot comes limping, hastily, back in. Her eyes are snapping with pleasure. She makes a bubbling, half-word sound, like the mumbling of pigeons. Gerda thinks she hears her call the girl Snotwhelp. It could just be her twisted lip. maybe it was something else. But the name seems to suit her.
The girl listens, frowns, frowns harder.
“You with the cross pigs, posh nancy?” she demands of Gerda, pointing the knife right at her throat.
Gerda shakes her head. She means that she doesn’t understand, but Chickenfoot tugs at her daughter’s sleeve, bubbles something that sounds angry.
“Gotta keep the guard up,” the girl complains. “Bring in any muck off street, that’s pazzo, dingo, ma!”
Chickenfoot burbles something else, but the girl isn’t listening.
“Tea,” she interrupts her mother. She goes over to a shelf, takes a loaf of bread off it, looks at Gerda with those careful, animal eyes as she tears off a hunk of bread, bites into most of it, spits some out, crams it back in her mouth, chews, swallows. Gerda sits awkwardly, aware of her own pink, washed skin, her short, neat nails, her clean hair, hoping her disgust does not show on her face.
“You got bit,” Snotwhelp comments.
Gerda puts her hand to her head.
“There’s something out there,” she says. “Some kind of… monster.”
The girl laughs.
“Is she dingo or what, Ma?” she asks Chickenfoot, who is making the tea, and thrusts the rest of the bread in her mouth, and belches. “Haint or gobling?” she says to Gerda.
Moving from country to country, school to school, Gerda is used to not understanding the language around her. It’s actually reassuring, it makes her feel invisible, protected. If she doesn’t understand the language then she doesn’t have to be involved. She can keep her head down, let it all float by her.
But this language, that the girl is talking, is all wrong. It’s not Danish. It sounds like English, but dragged through a hedge sideways, picking up stray words from other languages as it goes.
It’s some sort of slang, she thinks. But the girl is staring at her as if she expects her to understand. Maybe she’s mad. Maybe I’m mad! Maybe it was the cloud! It changed my brain! I’m brain damaged, or something – she gasps, panic setting in, and Chickenfoot hobbles over, grabs her shoulder and presses it firmly, calming her and restraining her, both at once. She pushes her down onto the chair again, the soothing, bubbling noises coming from her like words. But it is not enough. Gerda is too scared.
She jumps to her feet.
“I’ve had enough of all this weirdness,” she says, a tremble in her voice. She drops the cloth on the chair and goes to the door. “I’m going,” she tells them. “Thanks.” She means it for Chickenfoot.
The girl’s eyes widen, and she reaches out and grabs Gerda’s sleeve, drags her back into the shop.
“Dingo?” she asks incredulously. “You’re ganging out to the night with blood on you? Haints’ll have your head off, no stressle.”
“Haint?” says Gerda. “Is that the – thing out there? That monster?”
The girl looks at her very hard and carefully, as she chews the last piece of bread. She swallows, and says, seriously: “Where did you hark from?”
Gerda has to think before she answers. It’s hard enough to understand what the girl means, let alone how to answer her.
“England,” she says.
“You not heard of haints?” says the girl. “You on the gang from somewhere? You from the dinghouse?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she says.
“Haints are everywhere out there,” the girl tells her. “Haints and prites and goblings. Down yourself. Jour up, you can leg it.” She points to the chair, and, quite gently, pushes Gerda towards it.
Gerda resists.
“No,” she mutters, thinking of Kay. “I’ve got to go.” She backs for the door. The girl follows.
“You’re frid, see yourself. And a haint’s bit you, you’re sanguing everywhere. Look.” She dabs her finger in Gerda’s blood. “You’ll frid to die out there, or haint’ll suck your breath, or prite finish the truck, or somewhat. Down yourself, I’m shouting!”
“I’m fine,” says Gerda.
The girl laughs contemptuously.
“You don’t good to go,” she says. “You’ll lapse.”
“I’m fine. Really.”
“You need hand.”
Hand, thinks Gerda. Give me a hand. She says I need help.
But she is not going to accept her help. That would make her feel too awful. She stole from these people. Just last night. And they’re weird, and they smell, and they carry knives…
“No, honestly. I’m fine. I’ll just…” Just what? Walk around Copenhagen looking for a black car she can’t describe? Ask someone why the stars are twisted? Try to work out what it was that came out of the dark, and sliced her forehead open? And stay away from it at the same time?
“I can’t,” she says. “You see – I’m looking for a car. A black car, it looks like… I don’t know, anyway, my brother got into it, and it took him away.”
“I can hand,” says Chickenfoot. It comes out with difficulty, but she forces it through her lips. The girl looks at her, then back at Gerda.
“You can hand? I mean – “
“Shut up, Ma!” the girl explodes. “She could be the cross pigs!”
Gerda goes to Chickenfoot, pushes Snotwhelp aside.
“Please. Please, you can hand?”
Chickenfoot nods. Her eyes on her daughter are sharp. She nods towards the backroom, gesturing for them to follow her.
“You’re ding, Ma,” says Snotwhelp angrily. She looks at Gerda. “If you’re with the cross pigs –“ she picks up the crucifix and waves it at her “-I’ll break you. Knock?”
“What are cross pigs?”
Snotwhelp looks at her hard. Then she says:“She eyes things. Eyes them out. Peers them up. She’s got the Sight.”
Gerda remembers what Bjorn said. She sees things. My sister goes there, for love potions.
“But if the cross pigs find out, you get burned,” Snotwhelp continues. “Alive. Now, you with the cross pigs?”
Gerda shakes her head. She swallows.She looks at Chickenfoot for an instant. Then she puts her hand in her pocket and brings out the packet of Polos. She hands it over without a word. Snotwhelp raises an eyebrow.
Chickenfoot takes it in her good hand. She looks at her, looks at the packet, smiling slightly. Then she nods, and beckons her into the back room.