Short Story: The Shrines by Thea Prieto

jack o lantern with light
Photo by Max Saeling (unsplash)

Originally posted in Shirley Magazine’s Double Issue February 2015

The Shrines trudge through the snow with their backs to the forested moon. They
follow a single trail of footprints between the trees, a path leading them deeper into
the night and further from the warm lights of their home. Their crunching footfalls
deepen until their knees are trapped in ice. The wind in the surrounding pines expires
and every needled limb freezes in place.
 Descending flakes fill the footprints.
 The night sky clouds blind.
 Bare shrubs gasp under the snowdrifts, but the Shrines stand with their heads high,
faces alert. With their eyes squinted, they map the remaining footprints to an outcrop
of boulders a short stoning ahead. Hayward Shrine raises his oil lantern and frowns at
the rocks hove out of the woods.
 “Grant,” Ward shouts, “we know you’re out here.”
 The cold deadens his words, swallowing the sound. 
Paige Shrine reaches her mittened hands for her scarfed throat, her lips tight. Her
cheeks match the fractured faces of the boulders, pale rocks split from crept ice and
prying tree roots.
 “Grant, can you hear me?” she shouts. “Please answer me.”
 Frost bristles the forest crust.
 The pines are still and deaf.
 Beyond the gauze lantern light, cracked branches and black stumps cut the snow
banks. With wrinkles carved around his eyes and at the falling corners of his mouth,
Ward matches the shredded timber, the snapped twigs.
 He secures his gloved fingers into fists and braces his shoulders.
 “Grant, I know you want to be alone,” he says, “but we need to talk. You can’t keep
avoiding us.”
 “Is that you, Grant?” asks Paige.
 A smudge, like a dark spill, rests near the boulders. The waned moon shies behind
sinking flakes, but it does not stop climbing.
 “Grant, we know you need time, but you aren’t the only one grieving. We need to
talk to you. Your children need to talk to you.”
 The snowfall dies abruptly.
 The moon glares.
 “Grant, answer us!”
 Moonlight animates the sharp rocks.
 Grant’s body remains shadowed.
 Paige turtles her crumbled mouth into her scarf when Ward’s voice cracks.
 “We won’t get through this if we ignore each other.”
 In the darkness, Grant’s hands are frostbitten purple, his bare stomach gouged
open and packed with icy mud. His neck and the boulder face are finger-scratched. His
 nails are black from all his clawing.
 The lantern swings slightly in Ward’s hand.
 “It hurts you won’t talk to us — do you know that? We all feel terrible, but we can’t
help you, can’t if you won’t talk to us — ”
 Paige places her fingers on Ward’s sleeve, silencing him as she would a child. Ward
lifts the back of his wrist to rub his nose, to wipe his cheeks dry.
 “Don’t know what to do,” he whispers, bowing his head.
 Paige squeezes her husband’s arm and then knots her hands into one. She shakes
the single fist toward the boulders. She points her hands like an aimed prayer.
 “Grant, listen to me, you aren’t responsible for her accident, you have to
understand that by now. You were really sick that day — she wanted to run errands for
 Sleet covers Grant’s body like a shell, the film thickening. His blue ears are hollow
 “Please understand,” she begs. “You’re still so young — you won’t feel this way
 The tired words snap the frost on Grant’s skin, exposing new layers of raw.
 “Grant, you have to stop this,” she scolds. “It’s not your fault, it isn’t our fault, that
the world isn’t safe.”
 Grant’s jaw is frozen shut.
 “Grant, do you hear me — you aren’t the only one blaming yourself! I told you I
didn’t want anything for my birthday, you didn’t need to send her out to buy me
anything, I told you…”
 Ward reaches for his wife’s defeated shoulders as white mist floats out of the
treetops. A dim fog sinks into the forest around the silenced mother and father, and as
 their creased foreheads bow, the lantern light grows vaporous and thin. The boulders
 recede into darkness, the trees vanish, leaving only the strain of heavy branches in the
 Their shadows dissolve as the moon disappears.
 Their clothes sag from their shrunken bodies.
 The woods do not blink.
 The mother unravels her heavy scarf and lifts her chin over her forehead. She raises
her face as one piece, tilting it back until it sits flat atop her head. With the crinkled
mouth, nose, and empty eye cavities pointing toward the sky, the scrunched chin juts
forward like the brim of a hat. Below this brim is a girl’s small face.
 The girl’s eyes are shaded by the brim, but the lamplight reaches her cheeks, which
are the size and shape of apricots. The almond-sized pinch of cold on her nose
exaggerates the blueness of her lips.
 Gracie Shrine cups a hand to her ear and listens. “Is that you, Dad?”
 Ice snaps. In the shadows, Grant’s torso cracks upright, his head angled back.
 Gracie drops one of her mittens and looks at it lying in the snow.
 The father pushes back his wooden face. Under the brim of the old man’s chin, a
boy’s square jaw tapers like a leaf, the downward corners of his mouth slightly creased.
His neck is slight and colorless poking out of his coat, but he musters a finger from his
soft fist.
 Will Shrine points into the swirling dark. “Dad, we know you’re out here.”
 The wind masks the sound of Grant’s footsteps, his knees crunching into the layered
drifts, his skin crackling as he crawls to his children.
 “Dad, I know you’re sad,” shouts Will, “but why are you out here? What are you
trying to hide from us?”
 The fog reels, bringing down an empty sky.
 “I know you miss Mom, but Gracie’s sad all the time. It’s not good to be sad and
lonely too! How can I make it better? How can I help?” 
 The boy lifts the oil lantern, staring into its declining brightness. Gracie watches her
older brother as she would an adult.
 “I want to help,” Will says.
 He twists the knob that adjusts the glowing wick, accidentally dimming the light.
The boy bows his head.
 “Don’t know what to do,” he whispers.
 His eyes avoid the lantern as Gracie sucks one of her bare knuckles, her cheeks wet.
 “Dad, I’m sorry I gave you my flu on Grandma’s birthday,” she says. “I’m sorry!”
 Outside the shrinking sphere of lantern light, Grant kneels, his legs buried in the
snow, clay pouring from his chest like wax. With his face hanging forward and his arms
across his cored stomach, Grant tries to contain his remains and hide the mess from
sight, preparing himself for the eyes of his children. He scrapes at the numbing clay —
both children turn their ears toward the sound — but the thick mud, his only offering,
escapes through stubbed fingers.
 Grant’s neck arches up, his sunken eyes evading his children’s faces now lit with
expectancy, even as the lantern wick darkens to a spark. And gazing into the pines,
Grant wills himself to blindness. He knows the woods will ignore him, will not speak or
remember, but he still fears without the darkness, the fog, and the blind layers of snow,
the ice will stare back, and reflect his face like a mirror.

Thea Prieto's writing has appeared in print or online at Poets & Writers, Entropy,
Yalobusha Review, Propeller, and The Masters Review, among other journals. She is a
recipient of the Laurels Award Fellowship, and a finalist for Glimmer Train's Short Story
Award for New Writers. To learn more, visit Author of From the Caves

A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Thea Prieto

By davidlonan1

David writes poetry, short stories, and writings that'll make you think or laugh, provoking you to examine images in your mind. To submit poetry, photography, art, please send to Twitter: @davidLOnan1 + @feversof Facebook: DavidLONan1

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