Usually when a man wants to ponder the intricacies of his life, he seeks the serenity of a peaceful loneliness. A walk in the woods, a boat on a lake, his garage or the manly decorated riches of a finished basement. But on a night such as this, I was thrown into a moment of contemplation that was anything but peaceful. The discordant ruckus of a pre-Christmas family gathering only added to the sudden anxiety I was now experiencing.
Ma and Aunt Harriet were in full Christmas sweater regalia, swinging the many baubles that stretched the aging skin of their earlobes; as colorful as a Christmas tree they were.
Uncle Norm, Dad, and my brother Tom, were sitting on the crocheted afghan laden sofa, leaning forward as though they would push their favorite wide-end receiver down the field. Their shouts crescendoing as their hero made one evasive maneuver after another, sprinting toward the goal line in an epic battle of strength, precision, and stamina. It ended in a rally of cheering and shouting—beer was most likely spilt over ma’s rust colored carpeting. The sound of the Viking horn and the excited announcers could hardly compete.
Amidst the fragrant aromas of pumpkin spiced Yankee Doodle Candles and the remnants of a beef crown roast and stuffing still wafting through the air, the children sat quietly. No more were they running through the rooms laughing and begging for someone to join in their games. Now they just tapped away on their various devices while sorely wishing they were elsewhere. Normally, they would be with their mother, but she was on a cruise with her new husband; the owner of many prominent car dealerships in the Twin Cities, who happened to be twenty years her younger. For months, whenever I saw one of his commercials I became physically ill. I was better now though, according to my shrink… until I saw it, resting on the mantlepiece over the soft red-orange glow of the electric fire and fake logs.
“Ma? Where’d you get this?” I asked, picking up the offending object.
It was a snow globe, average size and made of glass. Not the cheap plastic trinkets you find at the airport souvenir shop. No, this one was… different. Sparkles of fake snow swirled and mixed with bits of pearlescent glitter, over a painted replica of any Minnesota lake this time of year; snow white and frozen, amidst a circle of tiny pine trees. Even smaller were the three figures sitting around the ice hole in the center, each with a pole extended over it, a bucket of bait and a cooler of beverages was beside them. It was quite striking the amount of detail in such a commonly collected artifact. Nothing about it should have raised my hackles, but it did.
“Oh that ol’ thing?” Ma came in with another cup of eggnog for Tom. “We got that… Hmm… I think we picked it up over at that little China shop those sweet Orientals used to own. You know, the one on the corner next to the Beermart?”
“Grandma, that’s rude!” My eldest daughter, Christine, finally lifted her blue eyes from her iPhone. It was the newest model and I had stood in line the day it came out at the Uptown Apple Store in forty degree temperatures for five hours in order to get it. Why? Because it was her sixteenth birthday present, and since ‘Vinny the car salesman’ had already given her a brand new car, the only way I could compete was to get her the newest iPhone—which she promptly dropped in the toilet two days later.
“Rude, dear?” Ma blinked at her, perplexed by her sudden outburst.
“They were Hmong, grandma, don’t say Orientals, that’s rude,” Christine corrected her. I was impatient to get to the bottom of this predicament as the two started arguing the finer points of politeness, political correctness, and the dismissive excuses of those above a certain age.
“Ma, this snow globe, are you sure that’s where you got it? I’ve never seen this before,” I asked again. I was afraid to touch the wretched thing, worried it might actually jump up and bite me.
Dad came over and looked at it. He was only paying us mind because the endless drone of commercials, twice as loud as the Vikings’ victory horn, were still blaring on. The ever familiar sleigh bells pounded out some preordained rhythm to make sure there was no mistaking what time of year it was, while dancing red targets filled the screen, shading the entire room in an eerie glow.
Dad tilted his head back and squinted as he examined it from beneath the lenses of his glasses. “No… I think we picked that up in Boca, remember?”
“Florida?” I said, skeptical. “Why would they be selling a souvenir about ice fishing in the pine trees?”
“I don’ know…” Dad shrugged. “Hey, d’ya hear about Mr. Jimmy?” He turned away, already the matter was forgotten. “I heard he got the lung cancer, or some such…”
“Oh geez, you don’t say…” Aunt Harriet was shocked.
“Oh yaahhh… yah… don’t you know. I heard from Bob at the tavern the other day. Bob says to me, he says, ‘You know the guy in that song? The one about Mr. Jimmy?’ I says, yah, sure, everyone knows him…”
I picked up the snow globe, the weight of it almost too heavy in my hand. I turned it over and watched the small particles swirling around the three figures. As I stared at it, the room and all its nonsense began to dissolve away. And then, the figure in the center turned his head and looked right at me. I swear he did. He pushed his fur-lined cap up out of his eyes and gave me a thumbs up.
A terrible chill ran down my spine. This can’t be, I thought. That wasn’t real. No, way… was that real. Now maybe you think I was referring to the fact that a tiny man in a snow globe was winking at me, but that’s not what had given me the cold shivers. It was something else entirely.
It was exactly a year ago this month, maybe even this week, and most probably was. It had been just after Victoria had run off with ‘Vinny’. I needed some time to myself, a bit of contemplation and deep thinking to figure things out, according to my shrink. I went up to the North Shore; my parents have a small winter cabin not far from Two Harbors. It’s off the beaten path away from the tourists, and all those city folk who come up from Chicago to stay in resorts and pretend they are ‘roughing it’. This place was up aways, a few miles from the lake; in its own little world.
I stayed there for a month, and every night I went for a walk. This night the preferred drink was Aquavit; just something I found in dad’s bottom cabinet, left there for special occasions. At the very least, it kept the cold at bay, though the temperature was a balmy thirty degrees, warm by North Shore standards. I took the same path every night. A treelined snowmobile trail my dad had cut in around the property. It had just snowed earlier that day, about ten inches at least; a heavy wet snow. As I came to the trailhead I noticed the beauty of the place, something I hadn’t thought about since I was a teenager; back when I was mad at the world for not caring anymore. I remember thinking Christine is a lot like me, and that if she wasn’t careful, she could become bitter and angry, and stressed out too.
That night I marveled at the sight. The trees were bowing to me, laden with the fluffy burden that tried to pull them down. I walked among them and bright clumps fell here and there with a soft and muffled thud; carefree tumbles that appeared to glow in the fresh and clear moonlight. The stars were brilliant, continuing the endless glitter from earth to sky.
I carried my bottle and walked for a mile, maybe two, until I was struck by the oddity of my sudden surroundings. I turned; the trail was there, where it had always been, yet laid out before me was a frozen lake, a flat and perfectly round disc of white. Where did this come from? Was it possible I had never been through here before? I stepped out onto the lake, the air so still and quiet. A single light, warm and inviting, beckoned me forward. There were three figures sitting near a bonfire. Above, ribbons of aquamarine, purple, and green danced and shimmered, blazing across a sparkling midnight sky. I knew it was the Aurora Borealis, but it was brighter than I had ever seen it. I felt like I was in a bubble, a bubble that was moving at great speed towards an unknown destination. It gave the strange sense of motion, like I and the glittering disc of white were flying.
As I closed in on the three figures I realized they were ice fishing. They paid no heed, as I boldly stepped to the fire and began warming my hands.
“Evenin’,” I said, with a nod of my head. “Catchin’ anything?” I was trying to be polite.
“Oh, a bit, here and there abouts…” one said. He looked to his companion with a knowing smirk.
“Really? Whatcha’ been catchin’?” I was a little surprised at their secretive nature, and I started to wonder if this lake was still on our property. If that was the case, then they were definitely trespassing.
They didn’t answer, or if they did, it was the man across the fishing hole, who only grunted a reply.
Trying to be good natured, I did the neighborly thing and offered them a sip of my Aquavit. The older man nearest me shook his head.
“Have a seat,” he said. “You can drink wit’ us.”
I shrugged and began walking over to the upturned bucket across from them, a few feet away from the dark hole that had been drilled into the ice. As I went past, the quiet one stopped me with a grab of my arm.
“He says you can drink dis,” the only man who had said anything at this point, tossed me a thermos. I caught it in a very uncoordinated fashion and found my seat.
The three watched with great amusement as I unscrewed the lid. I smelled the contents—a little like whisky and chicken soup—worried this was some newfangled trick to steal my kidneys or some such. I realized, if it had been poisoned, I wouldn’t have known the difference anyway. I took a sip. It was warm and soothing, much better than the Aquavit. I sipped some more and noted that it was also stronger than the Aquavit.
The hours past by us, or maybe it was minutes. The contents of the thermos started to drift over me in a soft haze. The lights in the sky were brighter, the orange of the fire more vibrant. The three men said nothing, no stories, no jokes, not even the occasional lewd behavior that drunken men are wont to have.
I don’t know how long it took me to notice the one or two very odd things about their manner. I was not a fisherman, or even an iceman, but now and then, the quiet, or I should say, quieter one, would reach over to his line, pull it close and then cut it with a small pocket-sized wire cutter. He would watch his bait drift away, sinking most like. The other one, who had yet to even grunt, would then start a new line, add some bait, and drop it in. They did this, over and over again. I stared at them for a long time, trying to understand this technique. As I watched them watching the hole, I realized it wasn’t quite as dark as I first observed. It was… glowing, but not from one single light source, it was as though several small orbs were bobbing and darting to and from their lines beneath the surface of that cold water. Could there be fish in these waters that make their own light, like those often talked about on National Geographic—some kind of ‘Monsters of the Deep’ show?
“Say… What kind o’fish are those?” I asked. “They taste good?”
“Depends,” the smiling one shrugged. “The burnt ones… not so much.” After he said this he jerked back on his pole and the line whipped out of the water. A tiny glowing orb attached to its end, wriggled as though trying to break free.
Instead of removing the hook, he cut the line, and tossed both it and the odd little creature directly into the fire. It hissed as a single line of steam spit into the air and was gone in seconds.
“Well, that hardly looks like a way to cook ’em,” I mumbled.
“Yah, most gotta go straight inta da fire dese days… It’s a shame, doh… they used to be tasty little suckers…” he smiled in an eerie way, eyes a’glow that made my skin crawl.
“What kind of fish did ya say these were?” I asked again.
“Eh… You call ’em souls,” he and his fellows chuckled.
“Souls? Never heard of them, especially ’round here.”
They looked at me shrewdly, as though waiting for me to understand. When a growing dread crept over me, my eyes widened. The man nodded slowly, seeing that I had finally figured it out. He didn’t really mean…
Just then, he pulled his pole back again. Another tiny orb, wriggling helplessly was hanging on its end. He cut the line and I stood in sudden fear.
“Wait!” I called. “Not the fire!”
“No, this one is good, he gets to go up…”
He worked the hook out of the glowing light and then let it go. Instead of falling to the frozen surface, it shot upward, growing smaller and smaller until it couldn’t be discerned from the spectacle of glowing lights and Aurora already sweeping across the sky.
I was thoroughly confused by this point, mind you. Questions of all kinds swirling in my mind. The only one I managed sounded more like the strange concoction I was drinking had taken over my mouth, and possibly my eyes and imagination.
“But wha… How ’bout those?” I pointed to the other gentleman who was pulling out his wire-cutter to snip away at his line.
“Oh, he decides if they’re ready yet or not. He cuts the line and sends ‘em back.”
I switched my view to his nearest companion, the one who was already starting a new line.
“He adds a new soul, fresh and ready to be born… Poor little thing doh, won’t have much time?”
“What d’ya mean?” I was horrified by the thought, and still trying to wrap my drink-addled mind around this odd scene.
“Well, it’s just dat… you know, I think it’s time for a change. Things are goin’ south, if you catch my drift. Too far south… People ain’t what they used to be no more. Could care less about anythin’ but the ‘Likes’ they get; they shout with capital letters from their own little bubbles and never look another soul in the eye anymore. The hate has overwhelmed the hearts of too many… They’d rather hurt someone than say a kind word, ‘cause they think they can get away wit’ it.” He shook his head. “The Balance is shifting my friend. And we must decide the fate of all…”
His eyes, glowing in the light of the fire, bored right into mine. I was speechless. I hadn’t a clue what to say.
“Next year… this time… This will all be gone,” he gestured with his hand, indicating the lake and the trees. “Those up there, they’ve been watchin’ and they don’t like what they see anymore than we do.”
“We? Who are you?”
He shrugged. “Some have called us the Fates…”
“What?” I had heard that term before, and my mind raced through the dusty stores of my memory, searching through endless droning professors of my history and theology classes. One from Greek mythology popped up loud and clear. “No… that’s fake, mythology… ancient stuff… Anyway, they were old women, weren’t they?”
The three men laughed, all of them together. The one shook his head in great amusement, but didn’t answer.
“So… you’re going to destroy… the world?” I asked; it sounded ridiculous off my tongue.
“Yep…” He pulled his line and another blue orb went sizzling into the fire.
“You can’t though. I know things seem bad… but you can’t. We just… we just haven’t figured it all out yet. Ya gotta give us a chance!” I cried. My voice echoed through the cold air and over the lake, the breeze carried my breath away in a pale fog, floating like so many souls up toward the night sky. Could those all be souls up there? He said they were watching, and they didn’t like what they saw. I looked up toward ‘them’, thinking it was those dancing lights with whom I had to prove our worth. “No… You can’t let them do it. There’s good here too. What about… children? And LOVE…?” I shouted to the heavens as though they were listening, crying out in the name of humanity.
The three men regarded the stars before their gazes shifted back toward me, waiting to see if someone would answer.
The one who had thus far, done all the talking, shook his head, and then shrugged. “You know… you could do something about it. You see, that’s the problem… you people are all talk, no one does anything. Sharing a picture isn’t enough… it’s lazy. But… you knew all this right? I don’t have to tell you. You’re gonna be the start of something new, right? You gonna be the one to tell ‘em?”
“You… You’re darn right I will. Damn… I can’t let you do it. I won’t…” The heat in my face rose as my want to change the world and make a difference… save everyone… came out of me in a flood. I was trembling with determination and anger. Everything one would need to start this new path set before me… or so you would think…
The man nodded once. “We’ll see…”
There was a low growl behind me. Shadows were stalking the sides of my vision.
“Looks like it’s time for you to go,” the man said.
I turned to look toward the sound. A wolf, big and silver gray in the moonlight, was standing, hackles raised, not but twenty feet from me. Another, ten yards beside him. And then another, and another. They were all around us. The one closest growled menacingly, his teeth shining as much as his eyes glowed. They didn’t seem to care about the three men, no, they were looking right at me.
I grabbed my bottle of Aquavit and ran. The sound of paws gripping ice, scratching and racing, followed close behind. A howl sounded in the distance, followed by another further away. Their echoes bounced off the trees as they drew closer.
I ran to the tree line, my heart pounded in my ears. My chest hurt, not used to running in the cold. I’m gonna die here! I made it to the trees and found the path I had used. I followed it back, the acrid breath of angry, hungry wolf at my neck. The familiar clearing was just ahead calling out Sanctuary! in my mind. The newly fallen snow glowed with pure blue light, surrounding the cabin like a barrier made to keep out dark spirits. I finally made it and nearly passed out before I reached the door.
Once inside, I shut and locked every portal to the outside world, and then I just sat, thinking over everything I had just seen and heard. Eventually, I fell asleep.
Now, as those three tiny fishermen stared back at me with infinitesimal knowing smiles, I knew it hadn’t been a dream… or a drink inspired nightmare. I looked up from the grim and ominous snow globe of doom, and a terrible foreboding drew over me like a death shroud. I hadn’t done a thing. I hadn’t told a single soul of what might be coming. I tried to justify this fact by telling myself they would just laugh and think me crazy. Who needed another bearer of ‘the end is coming’ news?
I looked over at my mother and my father, casually drinking their traditional eggnog and watching the football game, oblivious to anything other than their sacred little world, the bubble we all created around ourselves. Our lives were no different from this… I held up the snow globe and stared at it in disgust. I wanted to throw the hateful thing away. I had to do it now, I had to start warning them. What the hell was I waiting for?
“Hey, Ma… Dad? Christine and Jim…” I looked at my children, feeling a wash of love I hadn’t felt since they were little. I swallowed stiffly and nodded toward the rest of my family. “Aunt Harriet and Uncle Norm, Tom. I-I need to tell you all something, you know… Something that’s been on my mind for a while now…”
“Hey, what’s that!” My son, Jim, had noticed something behind me.
“Oh my lord, what do you suppose that is?” Ma said, standing in a rush, she headed towards the window.
The rest of the family were suddenly beside her.
“That’s a shooting star!” Christine said, smiling in wonderment at the sparkling object gliding down from the firmament.
“Look another one!” Aunt Harriet called out. “And another!” She was pointing out the newly arrived heavenly bodies falling with various intensity.
It was true, more and more meteors were raining down in a fireworks display of glittering beauty.
As everyone watched the spectacle with smiles and child-like innocence, I felt a prickling of growing dread. The tears started down my cheeks before I even realized they were there.
My dad directed everyone to join him as he took his last cup of eggnog in hand and started out the front door to stand and watch more easily from his porch.
My mother stopped and noticed me. The look on my face must have grabbed her attention.
“Hon… what is it?”
I shrugged, hardly able to make my voice work. “I just wanted to tell you all, that… I love you.”
“Oh, my dear…” She wrapped her arms around me, and the warm feeling of love and hope that had always made all the hurt go away, enveloped me. “I love you too, son, my sweet, sweet boy…”
The ‘oohs and aahs’ that carried through the open door, harkened the growing expanse that was taking shape outside.
I followed my mother out the door, but just before closing it, the latest iPhone commercial was interrupted by the ominous chirping of the Emergency Broadcast System. Somehow I knew that tonight, it was not a test…
The lights had made their decision, and all I could do was sit… and watch.
My name is Melissa Berg, and I am the author of Prophecy of the Stars Book 1 of the Shifting Balance Series. I was raised in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin and went to college for art and design at MATC Madison. I currently live in Minnesota with my husband, my 7-yr-old son, and a crazy border collie named Zoe. I am also an illustrator, and my love of fantasy permeates my artwork as well. Most recently I have decided to drive myself crazy and start learning the art of 3D computer graphics; it is this medium that I used to create the cover of my first book.
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