"Nostomania" by A.M. Shine / Winner of The Word Hut's 16th Short Story Competition

I reached the county line. This was not my first attempt to escape. The same nauseating sensation; that familiar maelstrom of memories; they all conspired to stop me in my tracks. I had traversed mist-laden glens, crashed through trickling streams and pierced the shadows of wild and fearful forests; all the while focused on my decision – to leave Coldwood and never return. I promised myself that I would not fail; not this time. And yet there I stood transfixed, my legs bound to the spot – two immovable pillars, too weighty for the will of one so frail to carry. Swarthy clouds engulfed the sky above. A lifeless fog patrolled the cold earth below. It chilled the heat of my conviction; a bitter frost did settle on my very soul. I suffered the sudden surge of a thousand doubts; all of them urging me to return home. For that is what Coldwood County was and ever shall be – my home. I will never be free of it. Though I do not understand why, this is my choice. This is my curse.

The town’s oldest archives all bear some mention, however brief, of my family’s presence in Coldwood. In the cemetery there stands a tomb of stone etched with the names of those passed before me. Their ashes are disturbed only when the body of another Blake is ceremoniously scorched to cinders. The dates of their internment extend beyond the reach of our recorded history. From their deaths I gleaned a morbid sense of entitlement - that my family’s unbroken occupation in the land had bequeathed me some elusive standing in society. Such thoughts I know now to be but the folly of youth - an arrogance divined from idle, foolish reverie. I was no different from the county’s other inhabitants. We shared the same fears; we endured the same tragedies. Some of them left to seek out happiness elsewhere. Some of these wanderers returned; others did not. I, however, never left. Why ever would I? All that I cherish is here.

I was blessed to have found love at a young age. A few short months after my eighteenth year of life, sweet fortune’s grace delivered Katherine into my arms. Hers was a beauty untouched by time or sorrow; no romantic vision had ever imagined so angelic a being – the light of heaven itself glistened in her eyes and I could look nowhere else. Our loving union was sanctified amidst the amber leaves of autumn as we stood before the very mausoleum where our remains would someday be sealed together for all eternity. Katherine respected my ancestry and the oddity of such a tradition, and I loved her all the more for it. Surrounded by the ghosts of my family’s past she embraced the Blake name and, for a time, happiness was mine to treasure.

Sadness came with the winter’s snow. Such a crippling chill, no living being was safe from it. Death truly stalked the streets of Coldwood, and its touch extended to everyone – the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor; the reaper cared not. I held Katherine close as we watched so many friends and familiar faces freeze for all time; their bodies perfectly preserved where their hearts beat their last. My parents counted amongst the dead. Though we remained in the confines of our home with ample rations and wood to burn, the cold hand of death had found them.

Never in my lifetime had another Blake died. My despair was all-consuming. The suffocating reality of my own helplessness took its toll on my reasoning. To this fateful shortcoming I do painfully confess. Though the tears froze fast to my cheeks and every utterance parted my lips as mist, I burned their bodies in the grounds of our estate. They were Blakes, and it was my solemn duty to uphold our family’s customs despite all the damnable death which tainted the land – they would find their final resting place amidst the urns of their ancestors. This would have been their wish.

With a sum of coin no man could resist I did procure the hand of Coldwood’s chief engraver. Truth be told, I gifted the chap enough wealth to secure his craft for all future Blakes to come. My wife, Katherine, as true to my cause as indeed my love for her, insisted that she join us; and so we three did venture out into the blizzard to deposit my parents’ ashes and mark their names on the pale tomb which awaited all those who follow my family’s line. The engraver’s hands were scolded by the air’s algid bite, but the job was done. My peace of mind, however, was but an artful calm. Sorrow’s storm was fast approaching.

Katherine and I returned home to find all fires dead and lightless. The air was painful to breathe and despite my efforts I could cast no kindling alight, for all the wood was leavened with a cold damp. We huddled together for warmth beneath the heaviest blankets we could find, but alas, it was not enough. The light of my life was extinguished. That night my love died in my cold embrace.

I am the last remaining Blake. I alone wield the responsibility to secure our existence in this land. I spend my days not immersed in gainful pursuit; I fear my melancholy will not permit me the pleasure of doing so. Rather I dedicate my days and nights to keeping vigil over the resting place of those I love. I run my cold fingers through the letters marking my parents’ names; then I trace the name of the woman I adored more than anything else on this earth – Katherine Blake. I am yet to find the courage to touch the engraving below it, for it spells out my own name, and my family’s legacy will not let me rest. It will never let me leave this place, and oh, how I have tried.