Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

Under the Cold

Trace McLaurin

“What’s the coldest part of it all, nomad? The loneliness? The miles of distance between each sign of civilization? The feeling of hope slowly slipping away with every step? What part chills you more than anything else?”

“Probably the snow.”The nomad nodded solemnly as they handed off the rabbit pelt. In return, the shopkeeper handed them a small bag of oats. Plants, a resource that was dwindling more and more with each town the nomad visited, felt like gold in their hands. They had already eaten the meat of the rabbit. The warmth of the pelt wasn’t necessary. They were already used enough to the cold.

The nomad left the town, stepping once again into the snowy unknown. They could remember a time before it was like this. Back when there was green grass, warm rays of sun, and you couldn’t walk a mile without finding someone to talk to. These days, most people would say it’s not worth thinking about the past. All that time and energy could be spent on hunting, crafting, and trying to make tomorrow better than today. Thinking about how things were wouldn’t accomplish anything.

On those long, lonely paths, the nomad didn’t have a lot to do other than think back.

It surprised the nomad when they saw a figure off in the distance. It surprised them even more when the figure noticed them back and started waving. The nomad remembered some advice they were given two towns ago: “Quit acting all stoic, eh? Ya act like yer the only person in the world that matters, and erreone else is some extra there to give you a slice of bread an’ walk off. The next time you see someone, try givin’ them a smile.” The nomad waved back. The two headed towards each other. 

“Nomad! Please, come here! We have a civilization! We have a way to beat the cold!” They’d heard it before. But they’d spent the last weeks wandering and ignoring anyone who didn’t have something useful to offer. This stranger’s promise of a cure was intriguing, but more likely just some religion. People had a knack of finding footholds where there weren’t any. This was probably nothing, just like all the other nothing surrounding the two. 

The nomad shook their head. That pessimism had gotten them nowhere up to this point. Anything was better than that nothing. They decided to hear this stranger out.

“We have a group, uh, a town of people. Well, not as much a town, but we have a lot of people. A couple hundred. We’ve found this way to beat the cold, too! Please, join us, won’t you? It’s hard enough with just the few of us. Every new person we get is a blessing. Don’t let yourself just pass by us, please?”

The nomad nodded and followed the stranger to the new civilization. 

The village surprised them. After seeing a dozen ruined towns, with people clutching to the remains of whatever lives they had, it was refreshing to see something other than houses. These people had built igloos, forts, entire structures of condensed snow and ice. The nomad saw tens and then hundreds of faces pass by them as they walked through the town. Most surprising of all, the nomad swore they could feel heat coming from some of the structures. Heat, and… food? Cooked food. Walking through the town, the nomad felt something they hadn’t felt in weeks of wandering: life.

“Yeah, that sounds about right.” The nomad approached the tallest structure, standing tall in the center of the town. In here was whatever person or group was in charge of the town. And it looked like it was going to be some weird religious scene. A cathedral standing tall in the center of town, the smell of who knows what food these self-righteous barbarians were eating, and standing inside were all the “priests” and “clerics” wearing… lab coats?

The nomad was greeted by one of these ministers of science a few moments after entering the building. 

“I haven’t seen your face around! Are you new, nomad?”

They nodded.

“Perfect! My name is Elaine, let me show you around the place.”

She led them around the town. With every stop in the tour, each of the nomad’s suspicions were dissuaded. They weren’t cooking human flesh, it was fresh deer meat. Each person in this town acted just the same as anyone else the nomad had met, not under any sort of delusion besides whatever caused so much joy in the place. And these weren’t priests disguising themselves as scientists. These were actual, curriculum-vitae-holding scientists. 

“We just like wearing the coats to help act the part,” Elaine commented. “It helps us know who’s who, just as much as any uniform should do.” 

But even as far as they had come, the nomad knew there was a catch. There were too many people out there suffering alone. Everyone here was too happy, too warm. They knew something was up with the town.

Elaine stopped, watching the nomad’s suspicion grow. “You’re wondering what the trick is, aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question. “I’m happy to tell you, but I want you to know, we haven’t done anything that everyone in the town hasn’t agreed on.”

The nomad frowned. In no way did that ease their suspicions.

“We like to think of heat and cold as two forces constantly tugging at each other. In reality, it’s much more of a one-sided fight.” Elaine was stoic as she explained. “Cold takes from heat, and heat gives way to cold. This will keep happening until the two even out. Your tea will never become colder than the room around it, and all that.”

The nomad remembered tea. 

“So, we haven’t been trying to create heat, like I’m sure dozens of others have tried and failed to do. We’ve learned to coexist with the ice and snow. We’ve found a way to… balance it out.”

The two approached a large, flat field on the outside of town. The nomad could see hundreds of holes sinking deep into the ground beneath them.

“Each person has chosen to give up their warmth to get rid of a bit of the cold. Nobody did this without choosing to. Remember that.”

The nomad approached the nearest pit, knowing exactly what to fear, and what they hoped to not see lying at the bottom.

“And, well… we’ve found that the human heart can support a surprising amount of the cold. So, we decided to use it.”

They peered over the edge. Just as they expected.

There was a human body, lying at the bottom, arms and legs spread out, encased in the snow. Their eyes were closed. Their stomach did not rise and fall. But, for one instant, the nomad swore they could see a puff of breath come up from their open mouth. They seemed… calm.

“We harvest the heat from these volunteers, and they keep the rest of us from… freezing to death. They’re brave, they’re remembered, we care about them. They’re the fuel to our town. They matter more than anyone else inside those snowy hills.”

The nomad gazed across the landscape. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of holes. Each one with its own person. Each one holding a still-beating heart.

“They’re not dead,” Elaine explained. “We don’t think the snow alone is enough to kill them. They’re… asleep. They’re just lying there, thinking back about whatever they choose to. The snow helps that, you know. When you can’t feel anything, you start to feel things as small as your own thoughts.”

The nomad was awestruck at the disgusting sight around them. The only thing that snapped them out of it was hearing this person say that thoughts could be small. The nomad had spent days, weeks, maybe months travelling the snowy wasteland, with only their thoughts and memories to comfort them. Those thoughts were enough to drag them away from each civilization they found. Every new friend was abandoned for the cold wasteland, the possible hope of something new, where the only guarantee would be that they could be alone. And they could think. And that would be all.

“We’ve met people like you before, nomad. Most like you decide to move on when we show them this. Some have tried to stop us. But the truth is, everyone is happy here. Like I said—these people are volunteers. Nobody gives up their self without being sure about it. We don’t want to hurt anyone, we just want to live, we want to thrive together. These brave people sacrifice themselves to this cold loneliness for just that—to let us thrive.”

The nomad thought back to each of the towns they had visited before. Each one was so desolate. There was hope, of course, but behind every mother’s smile was a hint of despair, as she knew she couldn’t guarantee a future for her child. All these people in all of these towns needed each other, which was the only thing they couldn’t guarantee.

“Please, nomad. If you wish to join us, come back to the town, and we will give you a feast. We’re sure you’re hungry after all that walking. And if you decide you don’t want to join us, please don’t hurt anyone here. We’re trying to live happily, live together. There’s no fault in that.”

The nomad looked down at the body once again. The wind was still. They could swear they could hear breath, the sound of a heart beating—but there was no motion. This person was alone. They were alive, and they were alone, and they were helping an entire community, and all they had to be was themselves. 

“Where can I join them?”

Elaine smiled at the nomad. “Thank you.” She beckoned to the distance, pointing into the snowy beyond that the nomad was all too familiar with. “You know the way.”


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