Knit one. Purl one. Knit one. Purl one. Amy knits her fifth jumper in as many days. Each finished garment unravelled, their yarn re-wound and a new jumper started. Knit one. Purl one. Her aluminium needles click and clack with each new stitch.
This one will be better, she tells herself. Warmer. Her fingertips continue the steady performance, clicking and clacking through the numbness. The muscle memory of millions of stitches guides her hands as she stares out the window.
Ragged tea towels crammed into the gaps between the pine and horsehair walls and the glass window panes keep the worst of the cold wind at bay, blocking the spindly, icy fingers from wriggling inside. Whispers still come through though; nothing can keep the whispers out. Her eyes scan the expansive tundra, squinting over the too bright white of the snow reflecting the sun. The faintest wisp of smoke drifts above the dark mass of pines at the edge of the forest, dancing in the freedom of the sky.
Amy finishes the row and lays the nascent jumper next to her rocking chair. Her fingers keep moving in the rhythm— knit one, purl one— not yet aware that she has changed tasks. She stands and her old bones creak from the slow erosion of fierce winters and the steady whittling of time.
She walks across the front room of her tiny cottage. Her right big toe pokes through the worn darning patch of her tired wool slipper, her nail yellowed and cracked. She could cross the room in three graceful steps when she was a young woman, all those years ago when this cottage held so much life. The warm thrum of conversations with Iris, cheerful clinking glasses, and lilting melody of visitors had always filled the air.
Now Amy only hears the insidious whispers. The fiendish murmurings crawl through her, squeezing into every thought, every moment. The whispers have only grown with the years of bitter cold. Now they are always with her. Always. She hears a crow cry in the distance and looks out, but the sound drowns in the overpowering weight of the snow, the same way all of the conversations, clinkings, and melodies have been swallowed whole.
The earlier wisps of smoke are darker now as streaks of soot and ash spread gossamer tendrils into the sky. There is fire moving through the forest. Amy’s heart kindles with anticipation as she imagines a party bringing torches through the woods. Bringing warmth. Maybe this small cottage will hear conversation once again. She pumps water from the tap over the large metal sink into an ancient kettle. How much water to put on? She fills the kettle to the brim. Careful not to spill, she shuffle-steps the kettle to the small wood-burning cooker. The cooker hasn’t burned in days and only sticks and brambles are left in the wood pile. The cold has rooted so far into her bones that she barely noticed.
Amy stoops down and gathers the remnants of the once brimming container. She lights a small heartbeat of flame.
Wind lashes against the house, cracking against the boards. The window panes quiver, the tea towels absorbing the wicked vibrations. Crystals bloom from the edges of the glass. A snatch of whispers rolls past her ear with a rattling cackle.
Amy ignores the whispers and picks up her knitting; she knows the whispers always lie to her. They try to trick her. She squeezes her eyes shut and concentrates on moving the needles. Knit one, purl one. She looks around. She is alone. But no, that’s wrong; where is Iris? Her memories wilt and she cannot remember if Iris had been gone a day, a month, or a lifetime.
She remembers when she and Iris were lasses. They met each morning at the burned tree on the edge of the forest and walked together to the small school in town. Iris warmed the space of wherever she went. Amy’s heart nearly boiled whenever she saw the gangly girl with hair as pale as the snow leaned against the charred trunk, waiting for her.
The young women had spent countless nights huddled at the foot of the wood-burning cooker beneath a warm knitted blanket in a makeshift bed of pillows and quilts, laughing and whispering until well after the fire had gone out.
As the winters multiplied like rings on a tree, they grew closer. Iris’ radiance bundled Amy, shielding against the worst of the wind and calming the torrent of whispers. Together, the cold hadn’t seemed so harsh. When Iris moved in, they shared a cheap bottle of champagne. Their glasses were never empty that first year, and they had no use for the cookers’ heat. Iris surprised Amy with the rocking chair on their first anniversary. She had gathered the wood from the old forest, cut, sanded, and finished it by carving their initials into the arm rests. Amy’s heart had never been more full.
But after that first year, the halo of warmth began to fade, growing smaller and smaller. Iris seemed less and less able to hold onto her body heat. The wind stalked their tiny cottage as the whispers slowly crept into the recesses of Amy’s thoughts.. Amy knit countless jumpers, hats, mittens, and socks for Iris in that chair, rocking back and forth as her needles click clicked. Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one. Blankets of the warmest wool to bundle against the increasingly harsh winds of winter. Tea cozies and dish cloths in warm hues of yellow and orange. Every stitch was bursting with love. Each wrap and cable promised to keep the cold at bay.
Amy shuffles back to the rocking chair. Her bones rattle and strain as she lowers herself down. Her spotted hands grasp the arm rests, covering their initials with her palms.
Outside the smoke grows into a dark streak. Angry, bulbous formations begin to swell and protrude as new pockets of ash push outwards. A scar of black in the sky traces the smoke’s path. Amy wonders why the kettle hasn’t whistled yet.
She picks up her knitting, wrapping the thick cord around her fingers to keep tension. Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one. Amy settles into the regular rhythm of her needles. Another jumper for Iris. Iris, happy when she comes home. Iris, warm. Amy pauses. She can’t remember where Iris had gone. When did Iris leave?
The wind howls outside. Gusts of cold air snake through the cracks of the window pane. Goosebumps erupt on her forearms and up her shoulders.
Amy watches the edge of the forest, hoping Iris will be waiting for her at the burned tree.
Instead, a dozen bodies march out from the shadows of the forest, filling the air with a cacophony not even the snow can dampen. Heavy black smoke clamours from bright orange torches. Glints from pitchforks and double barrels catch in the firelight.
Her hands keep moving as she stares at the throng drawing closer. Knit one, purl one. The yarn balks as she tries to pull more free. Amy tugs again. The water really should have boiled by now, she thinks. Amy’s chest flutters. Company is here. She hears them calling her name; calling for Iris. The whispers roil through her veins. She searches for her beloved in the crowd. Where is Iris?
The cries grow louder and the bodies come closer. A forceful knock bellows from the door. The old pine door bursts open violently before Amy can lift herself out of the chair. A river of shouts rush inside.
Several figures stand in the doorway, silhouetted by the mid-morning sun. She slowly presses herself out of the rocking chair; creaks and pops of tired joints narrate her effort.
One of the silhouetted figures doubles over and retches outside of the threshold.
Another man steps into the cottage and grows pale. Amy follows his gaze to her feet and suddenly recognises a mottled cord of intestines and entrails at her feet. Flashes of white hair protrude from the body beneath a knitted toque.
Iris, her Iris, lies twisted on the bare floor. The sinewy cords creep out from the bloated stomach of the woman’s body and crawl up the side of the rocking chair like bloodied vines before twisting around the old woman’s knitting needles.
She remembers now. She remembers the whispers, wicked and monstrous. How they lied to her. How they lied about Iris. Amy’s knees give way and she falls into a crumpled heap next to Iris’ corpse. The cold coils around Amy’s heart, smothering its last strained beats with icy fingers.
The man in the cottage covers his nose with a fraying handkerchief. He crouches over the bodies of the old women and inspects them. An undertone of whispers slithers through his ears as a gust of wind rattles the glass window pane.
About the Author
M. E. Sternberg is a maker of cozy sweaters, dresses with pockets, paintings of bucolic scenes, and unsettling short stories. She has always been curious about taking raw materials and transforming them into something novel, with bonus points if the final product causes someone to do a double-take. In fleeting moments of time not dedicated to making something new or mending something loved, she can also be found spending time in southern California with her partner hiking, cycling, rolling d20s, and practicing her gold medal napping routine.