This is a tale about my dear Dadda, and for my Dadda too. It is set years ago, when my Dadda wasn’t as old as he is now, nor was I so old neither. And it’s about how he was so brave, and saved our lives from the cold, twice.
I have never written it down before. I have always told it to my father straight, using the sort of words that come out of my mouth. I think it’s a tale he used to enjoy. He seemed to recognise the exciting bits, his eyes used to water. He doesn’t show much interest any more. It may be because he’s getting on. It may be because it’s the only tale I know, and he’s tired of hearing it, that’s a possibility. I try to keep it fresh, I’m always putting in new bits. But still.
I’m setting it on paper now, so that if I don’t tell him it again, if he never finds the appetite for it, it’ll still live on. In some way. And I’m cutting out all the bits I know I’ve made up, this is the truth as it really happened – or, at least, as far as I can recall. If it feels a bit too bald when I’ve finished, why, I’ll just come back to it, put in extra detail. It’ll be all right.
I say it’s a tale about how he saved us from the cold, but we never called it the cold back then. Cold was what you felt when the fire went out, or what the porridge turned if you didn’t eat it fast enough. Cold like that didn’t kill. We had another name for the killing cold.
But nowadays the cold is different, smoother, nicer, I suppose. It comes regularly enough, it seems to fit it in somewhere between the blissed out heat of summer and the coming of spring. There might be snow, and there might be ice, but they’re not cold as I understand cold. And for a start, the snow looks soft and peaceful like a blanket, and in a sheen of white, and the ice might be see-through like a mirror. The snow and ice of my childhood didn’t have colour. Colour is just Nature’s way of trying to talk to you, to let you know when something is tame or good to eat, so animals can tell when another is randy and up for a bit of fooling. The snow and ice of my childhood were colourless because they had nothing they wanted to talk to us about – they didn’t care about us one way or another.
Dadda used to call the cold, the proper killing cold, Jack Frostington – or The Slap – or Old Man Kinne. I don’t know whether that’s what everyone called it, or they were just names he made up himself. Maybe he did it to make the cold less scary. It didn’t work. “There’s a bit of Old Man Kinne on the wind,” he’d say, or, “Do your chores or Old Man Kinne will get you,” or, “Old Man Kinne stole the life out of your Mamma last night.” I always used to imagine Old Man Kinne as a thin bastard, you know, thin and cruel? And in his hair would be icicles, and his eyes would be dead and staring, and he’d have long talon fingers, and tusks for teeth. And if he got too close, his very breath would be sharp enough to gut you. But then, I used to imagine that the Devil had a forked tail, and God was an old man sitting on a cloud, and I don’t suppose I was right about them much neither.
He killed my Mamma in the night. He could do that. You had to be careful. You had to wrap yourself up snug and tight underneath the bed clothes. You were allowed to stick your head out, just so you could breathe, but nothing else. Mamma had had a foot poking from beneath the sheets, or maybe just a toe, and he’d had his way with her, and when my Dadda woke up beside her in the morning she had turned to ice so thick we had to chop her up with an axe to bury her.
I don’t remember Mamma well. I ask David sometimes about her. David is my brother, he’s a little older. I ask him to tell me about Mamma. “She was quite nice,” he says.
I’d ask Dadda, but of course he can’t say anything now. And I don’t think he remembers much. I don’t think he even remembers my tale when I tell him it, his eyes water up at the exciting bits, and if he doesn’t remember it’s hardly fair he gets so bored.
Sometimes Dadda would take us fishing. Up the big hill, then down the big hill, straight on to the fishpond. It isn’t far, maybe two or three miles. Dadda had made David a fishing rod almost as big as his own. And he’d made me a little fishing rod, because I was still just a babby.
I’ve been fishing thousands of times since, of course, but those fishing trips with my father and my brother are my fondest. I suppose it was because there was no pressure. Dadda would catch fish, and David might catch a few fish too, and that would be our supper for a week. And no one expected me to catch any fish, but if I did, and I did sometimes, Dadda would laugh and look so proud and he might carry me on his shoulders all the way home.
One day we were fishing, and Dadda suddenly said, “Old Man Kinne is coming!” And we thought he must be joking, because Dadda joked about Old Man Kinne sometimes, even after Old Man Kinne had killed Mamma. And it was a warm day too, it wasn’t yet summer, but it was the height of spring, and there was so much colour about as animals tried to fool with each other, and Kinne liked to keep away when the sun was burning, the sun and Kinne had never been the best of friends.
But Dadda was in earnest, and he pointed, and we could see for ourselves. There in the distance the sky was broken, and its fissures were edging their way towards us like skeletal fingers. And beneath the fissures, for miles around, we could see that the earth was churning itself up, that the trees were being blasted hard into statues, or blasted right out of the ground. We saw deer caught in that blast and turned to ice, we saw birds crash down like stones.
“Run!” cried Dadda, and he started fast up the hill. And David and I were right behind. And I remember the distant air being frozen, and the sound it made was like a dull crack, not like the crack you get when you put your foot through ice crust on a puddle, there is something delicious about that – no, this, there was such a lifelessness to it, as if the air had just given up, as if the whole world had resigned itself to death and the still and the unfeeling unending cold.
We ran for our very lives. Though I knew we could not outrun Old Man Kinne. Though I expected at any moment to feel his talons stick sharp through my back, and then I would be frozen to the spot, then I would be dead just like Mamma was, and I wondered whether it would hurt, and I wondered whether it would burn. And I think too I was so excited, it was almost fun, I think David and I whooped with the very thrill of it. Though I might be wrong about that.
Then Dadda halted right in front of me. And I thought, that was it, he’d been caught, he’d been frozen. And I wondered why it had overtaken me, how it had reached him first. But he wasn’t frozen. “Stop!” he said. “Both of you. We’ll never reach shelter. There’s no time.”
And he was right. Home was miles away yet, and all we had in front of us was the hill, which now looked so steep and slowing, and all we had behind us was the pond and the fish and Old Man Kinne outstripping life itself.
“I’ll keep you warm,” he said. “You’ll have to trust me.” And we did, we always did.
Dadda took a deep breath, as if he were trying to steel himself. And then he opened his mouth wide. I thought he was trying to scream, but no sound came out. And then he gulped, and I saw him strain some more, and the mouth got wider still – his jaws drooped down to his chest. He began to cry. Silent tears rolled down his face, down his elongated face. Another gulp, and the jaw fell yet further, and this time I heard the bones splinter with the force of it, his mouth fell open down past his waist. One more breath, his last breath, because the cold was nearly upon us, I could feel it begin to prick at my skin, I could feel all the heat to the day being scorched lifeless close by, the storm was coming, the storm was coming fast. One of last breath, and he couldn’t help it, my poor Dadda, he gave a cry of pain that was muffled through the distorted parody of his face, and his mouth reached the ground, the chin flattened hard against the grass and the tongue flapped like a dying thing and seemed to pool out rather.
He couldn’t speak to us. He couldn’t even gesture – I think every spare reserve of his strength had gone into opening his mouth that wide. But it was clear what he wanted asked to do. David and I looked at each other, there was nothing else for it. And we pulled apart his stretched taut lips, and we climbed into the warmth.
We were very lucky. The storm raged for no more than a few hours. If it had lasted longer, and the wind had turned, we would have been done for. Kinne would have reached inside the shelter of our father’s mouth, and grabbed us, no matter how snug we hid beneath the blanket of his tongue with only our heads peeking out.
I had caught a fish. Even in all the panic, I hadn’t dropped it. We ate it now. I had never eaten anything that tasted so good.
At one point David tried to leave, he thought the storm had passed, and I grabbed hold of him tight, begged him to wait a little longer. I was right to do so. The storm had lulled, but I think only as a trick, as soon as we’d stepped back through those lips it would have fallen upon us. An hour or so later David tried to leave again, and I once more tried to make him stay, but he shook me off. This time it turned out he was right. We were safe.
I used to think David resented our Dadda for saving our lives that day. He told me once that in that moment his childhood ended. Now he had to be the one who went out fishing, and kept house, and took care of me. He could no longer allow himself the luxury of being a little boy, and he hadn’t done with being a boy yet.
I remember how angry he used to get. Sometimes he would take me fishing, but there was no sport to it any more. He took me fishing because he said it was high time I learned how to do it properly. He didn’t talk to me much, and rarely kindly.
That was all long ago, of course. David left one day, he wouldn’t look after me forever, not once I was old enough to look after myself. He went into town. He comes back and visits Dadda and me at Christmas, brings his wife and his two little kids. He’s got a job in textiles now. I ask him, “So, how’s the world of textiles?” – he laughs when I ask him that, and it makes him happy to try to explain, but I don’t really follow it.
I sometimes ask him about what happened that day in the storm, and that’s the only time he gets impatient with me the way he used to.
At first I thought my Dadda was dead. But this is a tale set years ago, when he wasn’t as old as he is now, and when he was so much stronger. His eyes had frozen into hard pebbles, and all over his body jutting out were jagged icicles that made him look like a porcupine. But, “He’s alive,” said David, as he inspected him. “We need to get him home so he can thaw.”
But how to get him there? He could hardly walk back, even if we managed to free his legs, which were now heavily encased in ice. His distended mouth dug deep into the snow and this meant his body couldn’t even stand upright without tottering.
David considered. Then, without asking me for my opinion, because what was my opinion worth, I was still the little boy – he went over to Dadda and gripped him hard by the shoulders. He struggled with him, rocking him back and forth, and I thought at first he was wrestling with him, and David gritted his teeth with the effort, it made him look so angry. Then with a grunt he succeeded, he pushed Dadda over on to his back. Dadda crashed to the ground, and I heard something smash, and I hoped it was just the ice about him shattering, I hoped it wasn’t any of his bones.
“Help me,” said David.
And he took hold of Dadda by the bottom lip. I didn’t like to do it. He glared at me. “Help,” he said again, so I did. I took hold of Dadda too. I gripped on to his lip tight. I dug my nails in deep for purchase. The ice on the lip was thin, and underneath it what I felt seemed warm and blubbery.
“I’m sorry, Dadda,” I whispered, and I thought David tutted, or maybe it was just the wind – and David didn’t look at me the whole while. And together we began to climb that hill, steep and frozen as it was, dragging the weight of our Dadda behind us.
It was slow, painful work. I sang a song to lift our spirits, but David didn’t join in. David barely spoke to me. I think even then he knew his childhood was over.
By the time we reached the summit, it was nearly dark.
We could see our house directly beneath us, right at the bottom of the valley. But David despaired. “It’s all been for nothing,” he said. Because from this vantage point we could see the storm was coming back. And this time it was coming from both sides – Old Man Kinne was all around us, we hadn’t escaped him, we were in the palm of his hands, and he was going to clap them together and squish us flat.
But even in all the panic, when I hadn’t dropped my fish, I hadn’t dropped my fishing rod neither. And I had an idea.
I wrapped the line around Dadda’s neck, tight and fast so the knot couldn’t loosen, the way Dadda had always taught me. And we climbed on board Dadda’s chest, and we used that fishing line as a rein, we rode our Dadda right down that hill like a sleigh.
Dadda’s frozen body’s sped down so fast, and there was wind in my face, and tracks cut into the snow, and the snow was spitting up into my face too, and we yanked on the rein from left to right to avoid trees. Dadda took us safely home. It was the second time he’d saved us from the cold, and I think the most fun.
Because for all our fear, and all our grief, it was fun, somehow, I think David and I whooped with the thrill of it, and it was the last time we could be young and silly and free.
It took a few days for Dadda to defrost. His icicles snapped off. His eyes warmed and softened and turned to water. (And his eyes can still water now, sometimes they water at the exciting bits.)
In time his mouth began to shrink back as well, but that was slow progress. By the end of the year it had retracted as far as his ankles. A year later, it was brushing against his waist. It didn’t seem to budge so much after that.
David was a good brother. He taught me how to fish, to cook and to clean. And when the storms came, as they always did sooner or later, then, then at least, he would be kind to me and give me comfort.
Dadda couldn’t speak, of course. Not whilst his mouth was so big. I sat by him. I told him stories. I told him the story I thought he’d most like, the one where he’s a hero and saves his sons from harm.
One day his mouth will finish shrinking back, I know. Then he’ll be able to talk again. He’ll tell me stories, it’ll be his turn. He might tell me a story where I’m the hero, where I stay at home for years and years and years to save him. That might be nice.
I’d listen attentively, and react at all the exciting bits, and I’d never be so bloody rude as to look bored.
It’s not just Dadda who gets to hear my tale. David used to bring his children over at Christmas, I might tell them too. David’s wife doesn’t like me doing that, she says it scares them – but I say there’s nothing to fear from the truth. David hasn’t brought his children the last few Christmases. This year, once more, he came quite alone.
He was up to his old tricks again. “Come back with me,” he said.
“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t leave Dadda.”
“Dadda left us a long time ago,” said David. “He did his best, but he left us to it, and there’s an end to it.” But I don’t want to think about that.
David then said, “Do you think this is what he wanted? Do you think this is why he sacrificed himself for us? So that you could sacrifice yourself right back? What do you think he would say?”
This made me angry. And when I get angry I don’t shout. I can be as quiet as Dadda, I don’t have to say a word for ages.
David didn’t stay long this year. “Come back with me,” he said again. And then he left. That was yesterday.
This is a tale about Old Man Kinne, and for Old Man Kinne too. It’s a tale about how he fought my dear Dadda, and how he bested him. And how he bested my brother David, and how he bested me.
When it’s dark, and it’s cold, and the snow is on the ground, I go outside to tell my tale. I think it’s a tale he used to enjoy. He seems to recognise the exciting bits. He’ll howl and blast and freeze, whenever he feels it appropriate.
He’s not as strong as he once was. His ice is see-through like a mirror. His snow looks like icing sugar, it looks like a soft blanket, there’s colour to it, like it’s randy and is ready for a bit of fooling.
I tell him Old Man Kinne my tale, and then I say, “Tell me a tale back.” And this time he does.