And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm.
That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe,
And all his warrior-guests, with shade and form
Of witch, and demon, and large coffin-worm,
Were long be-nightmar’d. Angela the old
Died palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform;
The Beadsman, after thousand aves told,
For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold.
—John Keats, “The Eve of St. Agnes”
There are ashes there now, playing in the wind. Can you taste them, stuck rough against the curl of your throat?
The secret of course, is that the snow is ash.
The sun sets early on St. Agnes’s Eve. The cold closes in before the day is half over. But that should not concern you, if you journey in the evening, because they say there is a place to stop and stay upon the lake. In the desert that is ice, there are few reasons to travel, but when the sun is dim and the stars too bright at night, remember the castle and the keep upon the lake.
Sometimes those who stop and stay upon the lake, on the darkest hour of the year, or on St. Agnes’s Eve, are holy. Sometimes storytellers. You were one once; can’t you recall? You wandered in the dusk and shivered in the gusts and circling sleet and wondered—you wondered—if their stories were so true. But you found it, in the end. You found the lake that stretched forever and you found amongst the flakes an open door, a welcome keep.
They welcomed you inside and for a while you sat and thawed. You prayed for their lost souls, though how lost you did not know. And you answered their requests and you told your modest tales. And perhaps you made a little, beyond the food and shelter. I cannot remember; perhaps you do? Perhaps you made a little, a bit to take away, but an impression you must have left. An impression you made indeed.
On Agnes’s Eve there is a story. They knew, of course, beforehand, but it being the Feast of Agnes, you echoed their unspoken sentiments and spoke of it yourself. On Agnes’s Eve there is a legend. All know but cannot tell you where they learned it. On Agnes’s Eve there is a rite: Go to bed hungry. Undress in the frost. Stretch your hands under your pillow. And do not look back. If all goes as planned, you may dream your intended. If all goes awry, you may wake to far worse.
A girl in the crowd sat with rapt attention. You discounted it as nothing, though you suspected that she’d try. A ritual is nothing. A rite is soon passed over. What harm is there in dreaming? What harm in youthful love? You know now, to all’s sorrow. There are ashes where it happened.
The girl went to sleep without her supper. But you were fond of supper. And so you sat below the hall, in the warm kitchen and chatted with the maids and elderly domestics. The girl, you learned had had a lover once. He had left the castle and the keep upon the lake. He had not returned, though his stiff and shattered corpse came back and was soon buried. It is cold upon the lake. There is shelter. There is warmth. But not to those denied it. Not when that door is locked. It was a year ago on Agnes’s Eve, you hear, that the bolts were tightened.
A final round of drinks is passed. Before it left the kitchen, you slipped something from your sleeve. There will be no waking, no stirring for the castle’s sleepy populace. Not before the sun rises, on St. Agnes’s Day. You smile to yourself. You smile thickly, darkly. No one needs to wake, except the day itself. You go unlock the bolts. And then you sit and wait.
Upstairs the girl undresses. Her flesh is colder than the snow. Lighter than the ice. Her eyes are deeper than the shadow cast across the rising moon. You know what casts it, but you see no need to tell. Your audience is sleeping. They shall not be disturbed.
It is cold, even in the castle, as the girl discovers, denuded and quite chilled. Her breath comes in steamy puffs, staggered in excitement. Her breasts peek upwards, tightened, they seem to stand on end. You have not left the kitchen, but you know this all the same. She slips her hands beneath her pillows, sprawled exposed above the covers. Her eyes are clenched; she can’t look back. She strains against the draft. But she won’t turn her gaze to see what caused it. She insists she dreams, demands on sleep.
Her wish begins to warm her, as she slides from conscious thought. Someone strokes beneath her hair, traces spirals on her thigh. A tongue that licks her lips. But stops at that. Isn’t ice so chaste? She is starving now, inside her dream, she shakes from more than malnutrition. She seems to see a feast laid out, upon the evening frost. A hand takes hers and sits her down, passing food and faith. A roasted swan, whose fleshy neck still sports its feathers. A bowl of berries, cherry-red, and spiced. A glass of wine—more than her parents let her have, and sweet.
Dripping red, but still unsatiated, she reclines and hears his song. Subtle, quiet, sinuous. A fairy features prominently. And then the dead. She wakes at that, or seems to in the crackling cold. Across the room, in the gaping hearth, a fire burns in icicles. Flickering where you set it, glancing in the light of stars long lost and swirling galaxies. Upon the ice, reflected.
You know what happens next. Her love may be a phantom, but for a shroudless spirit, his claws are sharp. The banquet turns to gore. Her left shoulder is all but gone, as is half her trachea. She’s plucked an eyeball from her face and bitten it in two. Her own blood floods her gouged out gullet. Her lips are scarlet, as are her palms. Tufts of silken hair are strewn across the floor. She swallows herself and cannot stop.
Her lover’s shrunk, and, pocket-sized, his remains rest on her chest. An incubus devoured. His serenade turned to laughter, but not for very long. You see, she cannot stop. One eyeball down, a nipple gnawed, areola bit clean off. But she won’t be cheated of her feast this night, this year’s St. Agnes’s Eve. She takes him between her open legs and pins him so he can’t escape. She rends his wings and as he screams and rakes her face she rips his digits from his paw and stuffs them down her throat. They meld as one, betrothed in offal, awfully affianced. Wedded in open wounds. Consummated in consumption. Trapped, twitching, torqued and whole.
You do not wait for morning to go out again upon the lake. The door stands still ajar, hanging from its hinges, waiting widely where you left it. Did you know before you entered, how the evening’s fest would end? You watch the sun rise slowly, lingering long before it breaks the frigid drifts. It is lazy on St. Agnes’s Day and fat from martyrdom.
They were right about the castle, it appears, about the keep upon the lake. It often welcomes strangers, passersby, and hungry ghosts. (Perhaps not so many now.) It creates its own as well. (Though perhaps it’s birthed its last, at last.) The next storm would bury bodies, if that’s what they would call them. If they could still call them. If you didn’t lick your fingers, too thoroughly for comfort, as the sunrise stains the world in the crimson of the dawn. You did not wait for morning, but recall you mentioned supper. You enjoyed your supper, truly, and you took some for the road.
You do not look behind you. Nor will you return.
There are ashes there now, playing in the wind. The secret of course, is that the snow was always ash.
Image: Reticence by Sofia Dimitriadoy ’20