Frozen Charlotte ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This is a repost from a year ago.)
The snow has stopped falling. The temperature hovers at fifteen degrees. The wind is minimal. The air crackles with electricity. The stars twinkle like diamonds on a bed of blue-black velvet. Atmospherically it is the best Christmas Eve on record.
Roads are snow-packed and have been for weeks. The best way to get from place to place is by horse-drawn sleigh. The automobile is still not in common use, as it is 1897, but those days are coming.
Charlotte Little will be attending the party at the Whites on her own, even though she is only twelve. Vardaman will drive the sleigh. He will watch out for her and see that she returns safely.
It is to be a party for adults as well as children. There will be an orchestra, bountiful food and drink, musical acts, caroling, magic tricks, surprises and a visit from Santa. Those who attend the party will remember it all their lives into old age. They will take memories of the party to their graves.
As the best friend of Amy White, Charlotte will be an honored guest at the party. She doesn’t mind that she has to go alone but finds it rather exciting and grown-up. She has a new dress made for her by a real dressmaker. It is white bombazine with red satin trim. It reminds her of peppermint, of Christmas. She has never had a dress before of which she is so proud.
She is to leave at five o’clock. Allowing for no mishaps with the sleigh, she will arrive at the party at six o’clock. She is dressed and ready to go hours in advance. Mother tries to get her to eat before she goes, but she is too excited; there will be lots of time to eat later.
When she goes down to leave, mother and father are waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. Mother has her coat and scarf for her and father her fur hat, gloves and galoshes, but she doesn’t want to put any of them on. She has spent hours getting herself ready for the party and doesn’t want to spoil the effect. The coat will flatten the frills and puffs of her dress and the fur hat will mess up her hair. She doesn’t need the boots at all but will walk in tracks that have already been made. As a kind of concession, she puts the scarf around her shoulders and slips the gloves on her hands.
Vardaman is waiting for her in the sleigh at the front gate, whip in hand. He is so bundled up in his riding accoutrements that only his eyes can be seen. Charlotte gets into the sleigh, piling her warm winter coat and fur hat on top of the lap robes in the corner of the seat. She throws her galoshes on the floor of the sleigh and forgets about them. Who wears galoshes with a fancy Christmas dress?
Vardaman drives slowly at first and then faster. Soon he seems to be flying without leaving the ground. The trees and farmhouses whiz past in an icy blur. Charlotte breathes deeply of the icy air and looks up at the twinkling stars. Already she is having a good time, and she’s not even at the party yet. She spreads her coat over her lap, but that is the only concession she makes to the cold.
She doesn’t speak a word on the way. If she has anything to say, she would have to say it to Vardaman and she rarely speaks to Vardaman unless he speaks first. He is what they call all business.
The trip goes smoothly enough without incident. Vardaman has guided the sleigh expertly and efficiently, as he always does. He pulls up to the side of the house belonging to the Whites and gets out, throwing a blanket over the horse’s back. His back is sore and he is in a hurry to get inside and take off his coat and outer wrappings and warm his feet at the kitchen fire. In his haste, he fails to notice that Charlotte hasn’t moved from the sleigh. She still sits there, not moving, her icy blue eyes staring straight ahead.
Sometime during the trip, Charlotte’s blood freezes in her veins. Her heart stops pumping blood and turns into a useless, frozen muscle in the middle of her upper torso. Her eyes become fixed in their sockets, frozen in place, eyelids opened. How can someone so dead look so alive?
It is the easiest of deaths. She has felt nothing, not even a tingling sensation. From one second to the next, she is here and then she is gone.
The party disperses at eleven o’clock. Those who expected Charlotte to attend are disappointed, but they figure something must have come up unexpectedly at the last minute to keep her home.
Vardaman, sated with food and drink, comes out and is happy to see that Charlotte has taken her place in the sleigh and is ready to go home. He is all too eager to get home to his warm bed. He wakes up the horse and takes the blanket off his back and in thirty seconds the sleigh has taken to the road.
He turns and asks Charlotte if she had a good time at the party. He believes she answers in the affirmative but, of course, no answer is forthcoming.
When they get back home, it is near midnight on Christmas morning. Unknown to anybody, Charlotte has been sitting in the back of the sleigh on a frigid Christmas Eve for seven hours.
He stops the sleigh at the front gate. When Charlotte doesn’t get out as he expects, he turns around in the seat and looks at her, at her blue, staring eyes. Right away he knows something is wrong. He runs to the front door and bangs loudly. Mother and father, both in their night clothes, know that something is wrong and come running out.
When they see that Charlotte is frozen through and through, they take her in and set her by the fire. They try to lay her flat, but she is frozen in a sitting position. They rub her hands and wrists and pat her cheeks. They put more wood on the fire. They believe all they have to do is thaw her out and she will revive and start breathing again. Not knowing what else to do, mother sends for the doctor.
In the morning they send for the undertaker’s men. They come promptly and take Charlotte away. In the afternoon on Christmas Day, mother and father pay a call at the undertaking establishment. They choose embalming for their little girl and, after she is embalmed, they want her dressed in her fancy, red-and-white Christmas dress that she wore to the party. They pick out the finest and most expensive cast-iron coffin with a little window over the deceased’s face. Only the best will do.
Two days before the New Year, a service is held at the Methodist chapel for Charlotte Little. All the same people who were at the White party attend the service, except now they are in black and are no longer smiling. Everybody wants to know how such a thing could happen. How could a little girl go out on a freezing Christmas Eve in only a thin dress and no coat, hat, gloves or galoshes? Some of the ladies look accusingly at mother and then look away quickly when she looks back.
The ground is hard as iron. No new graves can be dug until there is an appreciable thaw. Frozen Charlotte is kept in the frigid sub-basement of the church for the duration. All through the winter, people may come and visit her and pay their respects. They line up and peer into the little window over her face and are subdued into silence by the mystery of death.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp