Once upon a time, it had all been so simple.
Donni could remember clearly how it had felt to be blissfully unaware of everything, not ever doubting what they thought they knew. While it hadn’t made life easier, it certainly made living simpler. There wasn’t ever a reason to look deeper into events or to consider how things might be done differently. Nor was there a need to speculate over how Donni themselves were responsible for upholding the lie.
On occasion, that naiveté was cause for shame and regrets, wishing they knew then what they know now. And yet, maybe, they might not have been ready to accept the truth of things. Surely, that was how much of this small Arctic town seemed to react to the news: outright denial. And it was no surprise how so many refused to believe the truth – it was an outrageous idea, after all, despite all the evidence to support it. Even Donni, having come to terms with so much of it, still entertained wishes to return to their former state of ignorance, before the world became so cruel. The possibility of living life as it once was held a certain appeal, with clear benefits like safety and superficial pleasures.
But it wasn’t enough for Donni – not anymore.
Neither was it enough for any of the others there tonight, all two dozen of them working on hands and knees, digging away at the snow with spoons.
There wasn’t much time now, so the conversation dwindled to mostly grunts and short whispers. “Not much longer everyone – we’re almost there.”
Donni sat back on their heels, puffing and sweating, to watch as Vix continued offering encouragement to the rest. Though half their age, Donni thought of her more as a mentor in this struggle tonight. Vix carried a quiet quality of righteousness about her, seeming so secure in the knowledge that what they were doing was justified. Why didn’t Donni have that self-confidence? Yet Donni knew they weren’t envious but just embittered, reminded how it took a lifetime of compromises and disappointments to slowly wear away at their idealism. When their drinking water was contaminated because of the decision to dump the surplus electronic waste, Donni believed that it was an honest mistake. Or when their partner, Olly, had lost both arms in a workshop ‘accident’, Donni accepted the excuses and promises to improve work conditions. Even when the entirety of Block E was killed in a coal mining collapse last year, Donni rationalized it all as unfortunate but unavoidable.
Donni returned to the task at hand with renewed fervour, channelling all those memories into their labour. Taking up a hammer, they began to attack the wall of ice blocking the way. “Easy, Donni…”
Looking over their shoulder, Donni observed how another elder Blit worked with more precision, carefully chipping away at the ice, carving the tunnel deeper and deeper. “I’m just impatient,” Donni confessed, mouthing the words slowly for Blit to lipread. Blit nodded and signed with mitted hands, I get it, we’re all eager to finish Donni. On cue, the sound of an arctic wolf howl alerted the group to evacuate the tunnel in a quick but orderly line, all well-rehearsed by this point in the operation. Within less than a minute, the entire team had resurfaced and dispersed back to their respective Blocks throughout the town. “Almost,” said Olly, appearing at Donni’s side as the pair helped one another dust snow off their uniforms of cheap green nylon. “One more dig like that and we’re home free.” Donni had to stop themselves from pointing out that this was their home, even if it was a prison. Instead, they just smiled and brushed ice shavings off their shoulders.
Like many times before, they staggered the timing of return to their worksite, filtering back inside the enormous gymnasium full of workstations complete with power tools and loud machines. All the others, however, seemed perfectly unassuming to their secret, most too absorbed in the creation of beautiful things. Donni revelled the same as the rest in this craftwork, whether it was in building something from scratch or in painting the finished product. Sometimes they exceeded their expectations, creating something so unique that Donni hesitated to relinquish it, resenting the need to meet the daily quota.
But today especially was a bad day to hold anything back. Supervisors were volatile, sometimes outright belligerent, because the Boss would not accept anything but what was requested. The customer orders were non-negotiable, and the Boss had a reputation to uphold which required exceeding expectations whenever possible.
For Donni, despite having endured year after year of this build-up to today, it was always misery. The work was so constant that most ate and slept at their workstations, compelled to finish or risk the unpredictable consequences of failing to meet the Block’s output goal. And for all the pressure that this job entailed, worsening every day until climaxing tonight, it was unequivocally better than the other work assignments. Donni was not even curious to see the coal mines, where its workers would gradually become permanently stained by byproducts of ash residue. Nor were they interested to try the salvaging operations in the dumps, where broken and outdated crafts of previous years were trashed without a second thought.
Which was why Donni was forced to again question the logic of their decision to leave. After all, everyone they knew, across generations in this small community, had lived and died here without ever leaving, seemingly content with the simplicity of it all. Technically, every single member had the freedom to leave – but who would ever do so?
The Red Wizard kept them warm and safe, provided sweet sugary nourishment for them all, and only asked in return that they help maintain this isolated enterprise tucked away in the Arctic forest. Even more, the risk of being listed as a deviant was an unspeakable taboo for Donni, as it was for everyone.
It was with all this trepidation and uncertainty that Donni finished their shift to quietly return to the bunk hall, curling up on the mattress in the dark hall. Ignoring the anxiety burning in their chest, Donni tried to force themselves to focus on the good right now.
And there was some good – it was happening.
After endless planning and careful preparations, it was finally happening. Tonight, if the Fates allowed, was to be their night before freedom.
The Boss would be away all night and so it was the only opportunity.
“We risk losing more if we stay and never try, than if we try and fail.”
Donni had said that to Olly the previous night as they cuddled in bed, but now the words sounded hollow and meaningless.
And it seemed even more ridiculous to consider the plan of action tonight, a covert exodus right under the nose of the Boss.
At least it was so brazen that it wouldn’t be ever be expected.
Not that it was so simple as that – the entire proposition had come only after Kriz had exposed the truth of things to the town, how the world outside was not at all like they had been told it was and that this isolated town was essentially a slave camp. None in town were financially compensated for all their work, but the notion of money and payment had never been introduced as a serious possibility for any of them. Instead, everyone accepted the unpaid daily labour, in dangerous working conditions, as a normal custom.
Which was why so many had baulked at Kriz’s discovery in the phone memory of reality outside their small world where things could be better.
If most of the town were so sceptical about that, Donni tried to imagine how they would react to plans of a great escape tunnelling through miles of ice and snow to arrive in a strange new world. Donni reminded themselves that all the necessary arrangements had been confirmed: months before, their group had managed to intercept outside communications addressed to the Boss and soon after connected with outsiders sympathetic to their cause. With the promise of sanctuary, strangers offering to harbour them as refugees, the runaways only had to escape beyond the borders of the Red Wizard.
Theoretically, it was a straightforward plan.
The next few short hours, as night fully descended, would determine what would happen. In that time, their Boss would leave, and the town was afforded its annual celebrations, a modest break from the constant toil that otherwise defined their lives. Some would enjoy contraband items, staying up through the night to sing and dance, play games and tell stories. Many nowadays were too exhausted and just slept, trying to savour the reprieve from work to rest and heal their minds and bodies. This option had become increasingly common given the extreme fatigue felt as output demands rose, increasing quotas to outrageous levels. Generations before had performed simple crafts, where now most of the work was better defined as industrial factory jobs, manufacturing products of higher complexity and quantities. Worse yet, since becoming a widow, the Red Wizard had shown no compassion to his workers. He drove them to exhaustion, making them too tired to do anything besides sleep. Donni contemplated doing just that, as slumber tugged at the edges of their consciousness until Vix was suddenly there before them.
“What?” Donni blurted, mind reeling with terrible possibilities.
“No, it’s not that,” Vix said, looking around for any eavesdroppers.
Donni sat up in bed, “Well? What then?”
In the darkness, for a moment, Donni saw past Vix’s confident demeanour to something deeper. Vix scratched at their eyes and Donni noticed only then how tired she looked. Redness rimmed her gaze as she stared at the floor, stuttering for words more than once.
“I… We… This might be a mistake.”
Donni rocked back at the confession, surprise raising their eyebrows and opening their mouth. “What do you mean? This is not a mistake… Okay, it might be a mistake, but it’s too late for that now. We can’t stop this from happening tonight.”
The words seemed to encourage Donni as well as Vix, both beginning to share a smile. “But… the others?” Vix asked, voice sounding small.
Donni held back the grief that rippled inside their chest, already mourning the loss of so many friends and family, coworkers and neighbours.
“We can’t save everyone,” they answered with a cracking voice. “We can only save ourselves.” Vix nodded silently, tears sliding down her round cheekbones.
Pulling Vix to sit next to them on the bed, Donni took her cold hand and squeezed. “You deserve this,” they whispered to Vix.
Donni closed their eyes, desperate to believe it themselves.
* * *
Guiding Olly across the snowy grounds, now bathed in moonlight, Donni could not help but take a moment to study their partner’s face. His childish features and uneven facial hair they had come to know better than their own.
Dressed in all white, Olly wore nearly a dozen layers of clothing, enough so that both their prosthetic arms could not rest at his sides but hung out to either side. Donni found the image comical despite the tense circumstances, having dressed in white as well but with fewer layers. “You look like a snowball,” Donni said with a restrained laugh.
“Better that than a slave,” said Vix, emerging from the snowy landscape in similar attire, a white hat and scarf wrapped tightly around her head.
Donni conceded the point with a nod, smiling inwardly at seeing her confidence returned. Vix was harsh sometimes, but she spoke honestly, Donni knew – she always did. At the tunnel’s hidden entrance, they waited as more members arrived in pairs. Some were crying quietly, tears already beginning to freeze to cheeks.
The weather tonight was frigid, as usual, because the Red Wizard enjoyed dabbling in weather magic, calling up terrible blizzards with relative ease.
Blit blew his nose and signed, I still can’t believe it – a land untouched by snow? Donni shivered in the cold, but this climate had long ago become a kind of familiar pain. Then they were all rolling the snow boulder aside, exposing the small winding tunnel that had been painstakingly carved through the frozen ground.
Donni offered to be the last one, insisting so because of seniority in age.
They watched for any signs of trouble as all the runaways disappeared beneath the surface. Donni took one last glance at their home before turning to descend into the tunnel. Then they saw it.
Flashing red lights, reflecting across all the white boulder of snow, coming from the red airship high up in the sky.
The Boss had returned early.
Donni felt their body instantly go numb in a way altogether different from the cold winter winds. He was early – too early for the others to be safely far enough ahead already. No, this had gone suddenly terribly wrong.
The Red Wizard’s airship gracefully manoeuvred through the howling winds and thick falling snow, coming to a gentle landing on the runway.
Donni fell flat onto their stomach to hide and watch, unable to move.
The airship’s carriage door handle turned as a gust of wind swung it wide open with a bang. Donni watched the wizard’s enormous figure emerge from inside, moving nimbly despite their appearance as one so unnaturally old. His giant frame was accentuated by the monochrome red robes, wrapped about his hunched shoulders, a lit pipe in his mouth.
The Boss stood with his back to Donni only a hundred feet away, seeming oblivious to them and the exposed tunnel entrance. He seemed to be thinking, stroking his long white beard as smoke rings began puffing over his head.
The Boss turned suddenly in Donni’s direction and time seemed to stand still. A booming cry erupted over the silent night, Donni burying their face into the snow as the reverberations echoed on the Arctic winds.
After a moment passed, and then another, Donni gingerly raised their head. They saw the black clouds instantly, rolling overhead, and then they smelt the smoke. Turning their head slowly, they saw flames presently devouring the Red Wizard’s headquarters. The runaways had burned the Lists before leaving, of course.
Those documents, countless files, listed the names of customers with specific confidential information, including home addresses and various incriminating personal details. The Boss threatened his clients with that evidence, extorting loyalty, just as one of many mind-games that he used to uphold his rules.
Without it, the Boss’s whole enterprise would come to a standstill.
The giant tore across the snow to his snowy fortress, cursing the blazing fires, inciting snow spells to stop the disaster in progress.
Before they fully knew what was happening, Donni was standing and rushing to the carriage. Then they were climbing inside it and pulling its door closed behind.
It was cramped, the cockpit littered with garbage and crumbs of food. Only wizard magic could make it so that a giant the size of the Boss could fit inside this compartment not much bigger than Donni.
Smiling through chattering teeth, they took up the reins used for the electronic steeds, gripping the bridle in both mitted hands.
Shaking and pulling desperately, Donni tried to spur the airship into motion. The airship, however, only whined and stalled on the runway.
Heart racing, Donni panicked, desperate for the solution to shift the vehicle into drive. There was a spell used by the Boss, words to trigger the ship to move.
The word had a specific pronunciation in a language they did not recognize, but still, Donni tried to mimic it and began shouting words aloud.
Each attempt was as awkward as the one previous, all without any results. Donni opened the carriage door, seeing the fires extinguished but the Red Wizard was nowhere in sight. Set to abandon the ship, they had one boot in the snow when they heard the words being sung from across the snowy grounds.
Turning about, Donni stared in disbelief to see some of the town people, some of those who had chosen not to escape, were at open windows watching.
Watching and singing, the words unclear to Donni until they felt the ship begin to move. Snow crunched beneath as the vehicle slid forward, forcing Donni to climb back into the carriage, blinking through tears as they watched the faces at the windows pass from view. Then, laughing with victory through tears, Donni repeated the spell-word that the crowd left behind had been singing, risking so much to save Donni’s life.
Donni screamed it louder, again and again, “Ho-Ho-Ho!”
Then the sleigh took flight and the Elf was away.
archie nicholson is a writer of words and sometimes sentences. As someone comfortably asocial, preferring the company of animals and books, archie enjoys residing in a small town in the Arctic. Living with chronic illness, addictions, queer, and subversive inclinations, archie uses empathy and doubt to weave together stories that are worth reading.
This short story was part of the compilation, “6 Good Things About 2020” a collection of short stories of the 2020 Collective Folk Fiction writing competition.