Snow

By Chantelle Esper (16), Gorey Community School, Wexford

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

The mist was a curtain, echoing the presence of a figure already disappearing into the shadows. Grey leather bled into the ashen background, leaving behind but a faint outline between it and the snow. It breached the hill like a wave, crouching down like a great spider. Blank face surveying, memorising. A flutter of leaves in the distance. Fresh snow started tumbling, tripping over itself in the effort to win its downhill race. Trees drowning in the stream, one went under and didn’t come back. Such a quiet death, gracious yet brutal. A moment passed and silence reigned. Leaves fell from trees, snow drifted onto the ground – if only his end would be so poetic.

The figure tipped forwards and ran, a drop of spilled ink flowing over the landscape. He flitted effortlessly through the trees, towards the lone column of smoke up ahead. His target, a contract. Bandits plaguing a local refinery. Vandalism, sabotage, murder of employees – as mundane as the icy forest around him. Complaints of this size warranted a large group, armed and well organised. Never well enough, though.

He let his body keep running, mind drifting towards the attack – the bloody sonata that he would soon conduct. He saw it all, from the feather-light footsteps dancing on rooftops to the discordant clangs of bullets against barrels, against metal, weaving past the deadly streams. A part of his mind chided this unnecessary process. He was an assassin, after all. But he guessed that in dealing with destruction, the idea of creation was not far behind. He was just after initiating the deafening crescendo – guns firing wildly – when he ran up the final incline to the camp.

A lone hut, squatting in the valley like a lost dog. Plastic sheets stretched, bound with duct tape. A fire, crackling in the pits of a disembowelled oil barrel. A figure as lonely as the hut sat hulking around the flames. Mass of furs, shivering in the cold. He watched it shift, left, then right, then back to the fire. There was no chance of the bandit noticing the creeping leather, manoeuvring over the valley lip. However, he knew exactly how the bandit would react. A curse – surprise. A question – curiosity. A threat – fear. They would be silent before the pleading started – happiness.

You can never call a man happy until he is dead

He liked this phrase. Poignant.

Beside the point.

He checked his map, the co-ordinates he was given for the supposed camp were correct. He stared at the bandit staring into the fire. A minute passed. Memories bumped playfully against the edges of his mind, he tried to piece them together. The truth hit him like a sledgehammer. Stupid, stupid. He checked his records, past contracts. Had he not been so close to the bandit he would have cursed. The attacks had not been orchestrated by bandits, it had been himself. No wonder they were said to be so efficient. He remembers – his blade against an unsuspecting worker’s throat, living violin’s final tune played by a silent conductor. Ah, yes. The childlike freedom of scrawling on every possible surface. Profanities that would make sailors blush.

Focus. Situation needs correcting.

Indeed it does. A contract needs a body. He started to take his rifle from his back, but hesitated. Something of a moral issue. Logic would state that he kill the culprit of the deed, kill himself. Couldn’t do that. Logic would then suggest he kill the original bandit clan, his former employers. Despite the challenge, there was no sense in removing a source of income. Logic would then shrug its shoulders and walk away. He sighed, and the bandit’s fate was sealed.

The rifle buzzed with an awful energy, resting eagerly in his hands. Its feet planted in the snow like a crouching tiger. He lay down behind it, body cooling. Cold hands wrapped around the barrel. Finger on the trigger, cold metal biting into his glove. Crosshairs on the scope circling around the bandit’s head. Circles getting tighter. The wind blew cold in his face.

He squeezed the trigger.

The rifle belched, bucking painfully into his shoulder like a wild animal. The bullet found its mark, burrowing deep through the furs. The bone. Right through into the snow beyond. The rifle’s roar echoed in the grey stillness. The bandit’s head unfurled, bits of bloodied skull and grey matter flying jubilantly into the air. A single poppy, blood red, blossomed into being atop the ruined neck. The body crumpled into the snow in the centre of the carnage. A painting, beautiful, red on white. Pointillism at its most deadly.

Critical killing is an art unto itself, and he was Rembrandt.

He let go of the breath he forgot he was holding in a dragged-out sigh. He continued looking through his scope, surveying, memorising. Time passed and steam rose from the mangled body. The cold seeping through his leather became unbearable, and he stood up, shaking off the accumulated snow. He eyed the lonely hut. If there had been any occupants they would have already shown themselves. Still, he left the rifle crouching on the ground and took the pistol from his hip, advancing towards it.

He tried to avoid the pieces of the bandit as much as possible, creeping up to the shelter. Silky steps crossing the plastic threshold. Pile of blankets against the wall. He leaned down and rummaged through the makeshift bed, hoping to find some bundled cash. Instead of papers his hand found something soft, squishy. Frowning, he stood up. The soft puddle in his hand was pink, fluffy, looking as though it had been dragged to hell and back.

A child. His grip tightened on the toy. They were away, alone. To return and find their guardian in a million pieces. No reason, no explanation. He walked out into the snow, cursing quietly. He took deep breaths, trying to dispel those haunting memories, and failing. Pure rage, swearing vengeance, a grip so tight his hands hurt. Breathe. It was over, there was nothing he could do, save for eradicating this future threat.

This time, logic won, and he trudged back up the slope, back to the rifle. If it had a face he swore it would be grinning. He forced himself to lie down. The ground was much colder than before.

His body itched to leave, to get up and run far away. Who would care if another assassin was created? Only he would know. But he didn’t move. Couldn’t. It was as if his body had frozen in place behind the rifle and the tiniest movement would shatter everything. Snow crunched, he could hear the child coming. A panicked gasp heard behind the trees, and the child came running, collapsing beside the headless corpse, wailing as she shook it desperately. To wake it up. Wake up.

The child’s hurricane of cries approached him at speed. Scope trembling, he had his crosshairs trained on her. Wait for that perfect moment.

Had to come, not there yet.

Cold hands slipped around the barrel, around the guard, above the trigger.

The assassin steadied the sights.

Not yet.

Crosshairs on the child’s head. Cold metal of the trigger against his glove.

Please.

The rifle bucked and recoiled into the assassin’s shoulder, letting loose its much-awaited roar as the bullet burrowed through the much too tiny skull.

A pause, everything still, the body supported by shock, not quite succumbing to gravity. Yet.

It fell with a soft whump, curling around the other corpse.

Two poppies, withered, pulsating against the spotted background.

There was no flower for the third corpse, the snow did not get marred. There was no signal, save for the cold hands putting away the rifle, grey leather moving silently through the mist.

Snow could drift and leaves could fall.

Irrelevant.

Payment was due.