“Hoar Frost” won an honourable mention in the 2019 Canadian Authors’ Association-Niagara Branch 19th Annual Short Story Contest (https://canauthorsniagara.org/) and, as a result, appeared in the print-only contest anthology Fifteen Stories High.
The body count rises from dozens to millions.
“The Las Vegas concert shooting,” Madison shouts.
“The Orlando night club shooting,” Navid chimes in a fraction of a second later.
Looking it up online, the industrious Tanner provides the official tally. “Fifty-eight in Vegas, forty-nine in Orlando.”
“Not to minimise them but mass shootings are fairly paltry compared to the world’s greatest tragedies,” Mr Khatri prompts, steering his students in a darker direction.
“You mean, like the Titanic?” Everett asks.
“Great. Now you’re reaching back. How many victims, Tanner?” Mr Khatri enquires of the curly haired boy on the far side of the classroom, fixated on his tiny computer screen. Ordinarily, a ‘no device’ rule is in effect, but this is research.
“One thousand five hundred and seventeen.”
“The Halifax Explosion,” Keely suggests.
“Canadian content, very good,” the teacher remarks, his hands always gesturing and pointing.
“Almost two thousand,” Tanner offers without looking up. “I don’t see it spelled out more exactly than that.”
Confident he knows what the teacher is searching for, Jacob proclaims, “The greatest tragedy was 9/11.”
“Two thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven,” is the almost immediate result from Tanner.
Before Jacob gets his expected affirmation, Emily tentatively offers, “What about the Mediterranean refugee crisis?”
“Hold on.” Tapping and swiping with nimble dexterity, Tanner finds a column of tables and mentally computes the total. “Looks like more than fifteen thousand since 2014.”
Tragedies compound endlessly. Mr Khatri strives to keep his students from turning the lesson into a game. “Imagine the suffering,” he implores. “Picture yourself as a survivor.”
Malika weighs in with, “How about Fukushima?”
Tanner completes two separate searches, then announces, “More than twenty-two thousand – earthquake and tsunami combined.”
This stirs Navid’s memory, “Does anyone remember the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami?” A few classmates nod. They’d been in kindergarten, though many saw the movie a few years back.
Tanner responds, “Britannica says two hundred and twenty-five thousand but National Geographic puts it closer to three hundred thousand.”
“Imagine the shock and confusion,” Mr Khatri laments. “Entire landscapes were lost alongside those people.”
Anitha primly raises her hand amid the shouting. Mr Khatri gestures permission for her to speak. She starchily suggests the Rwandan genocide.
Validation comes when Tanner shouts, “Eight hundred thousand.”
A few students express audible surprise, “Ooh,” “Wow,” and “Damn.”
“Hey, hey. Language. But we’re getting closer.” The only one aware of the day’s lesson, the instructor leads his charges deeper into darkness.
“What about, like, World War Two?” Jackson pipes up.
“That is, indeed, where we’re going,” Mr Khatri points emphatically. “Epic devastation and atrocity. A turning point for humanity. But I seek something more specific.”
“The atomic bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima,” Malika softly interjects. Several boys respond, “Cool!”
“Excellent but there was nothing cool about it,” the teacher notes. “The vast majority died from severe burns. How about it, Tanner?”
“Initial blast: one hundred and fifty thousand killed and wounded for Hiroshima and seventy thousand in Nagasaki.”
“I know, I know. Pearl Harbor!” Jacob bellows from the back of the room.
Heads turn to Tanner. “Exactly two thousand four hundred and three.”
“No less heartbreaking, but our numbers are going down.” Mr. Khatri makes eye contact with a thin, blonde, brutally shy girl in the second row. He knows that she knows. “Bina, tell us.”
She looks unsure, imposed upon. Her teacher waits, nodding encouragement. At last she squeaks, “The Holocaust?”
In unison, half a dozen voices exclaim, “Six million,” without waiting for Tanner, who doesn’t even search.
Outside, heavy, wet snow falls on this serene little city and clings to trees, hedges, power lines and parked cars. Inside the classroom, Mr Khatri disrupts the idyll by dimming the lights and introducing a Holocaust film to his twelfth grade, world history students. For the next forty-five minutes, Tanner and the others are deluged with eviscerating images. Trains at Auschwitz. Gas chambers. Ovens. Naked, degraded bodies stacked on carts, thrown in trenches, burned. Grim figures stand barefoot in snow or lie shoulder to shoulder on wooden bunks, three rows high, sixty rows deep. Everyone in striped pyjamas, emaciated.
Even though Tanner and most of his classmates have knowledge of the Holocaust, they are blindsided by the depravity. Eyes glisten. Bile rises.
“We have a few minutes for discussion. Who can start us off?” the instructor asks when the film is over and the room is bright again.
“The Nazis were animals,” Jackson says, venomously.
Tanner leaps to the defence of animals, “Humans are far worse. Animals only kill for food, for survival. A pack of German Shepherds wouldn’t suddenly decide Border Collies are the cause of all their problems, round them up, steal their food dishes and fancy collars, then shave their fur to make blankets, before shooting or gassing millions of them.”
There are nods around the room.
“Do you think this could happen again?” Emily asks. “Are people still so mean?”
Mr Khatri shrugs and sighs, “I truly hope not, but the Holocaust wasn’t an isolated event, it just got the most publicity. We’ve yet to study Stalin in the 1930s and Turkey after World War One. But, for bonus points, please look up King Leopold of Belgium and Pol Pot of Cambodia. You can also search more recent history in Bosnia, Somalia, East Timor and Bangladesh.
“Earlier, when guessing the world’s worst tragedy, I stopped at the Holocaust because those six million lost lives were the topic of today’s film. But we’ve seen worse. Far worse. Guess how many deaths are attributed to Mao Zedong’s so-called ‘Great Leap Forward?’”
Tanner’s fingers tap at his tiny computer. He blinks when the answer flashes on his screen. “Seven and half times as many,” he says with surprise.
Mr. Khatri confirms, “Correct. Forty-five million. Far, far more than the entire population of Canada.”
The world looks different to Tanner when he steps outside during lunch break. Feeling older, he watches a lone snowflake float by; he shares its isolation and precariousness. Without direction, he walks until he reaches a chain link fence. To his right, a hockey game is underway in the parking lot. To his left, a large field is deep with snow.
Facing him, the diamond-shaped, criss-crossing steel pattern appears blurred. The dull grey colour is muted, not by snow, but by a coat of clinging white whiskers. Chains of molecules in long feathery wands resemble the fur of an Ermine caterpillar. Fascinated, he kneels and discovers hoar frost, one of nature’s most transient and temporal phenomena. Tanner knows water vapour particles, under the right conditions, can attach to any sub-freezing surface and produce ice crystals as they transition from gas to solid state, but this is the first time he’s seen it himself.
Enchanted by this exquisite find, Tanner assumes the warmth of his breath is lethal to delicate frost. He inhales and holds it in before leaning closer. The individual crystals comprising each glassy hair of ice become visible. He can’t help himself: he counts.
It is easier than calculating grains of sand on a beach. A strand of ice, long as the distal phalanx of his little finger, consists of more than one hundred crystals. About fifty whiskers coat each centimetre of galvanized steel. Each chain-linked diamond is five centimetres wide. Stepping back, he exhales and calculates twenty million ice crystals per square metre. Tanner surveys the fence and guesses it’s two metres high and two hundred metres long.
His brain churns out a number. Eight billion crystals, he concludes.
Can that be right? Tanner wonders. Awed by the enormity of what he’s witnessing, Tanner allocates one living person to every tiny molecule. If each icy tendril represents a sleek, self-contained office tower, like those he’s seen in pictures from New York, Panama and Dubai, then all humanity can be projected onto this ice-covered, chain link fence – and still have room to spare.
Since this newborn, crystalline world has suffered none of the losses of his own planet, he maps out where forty-five million Chinese citizens or six million Jews might live happily. Preservation is the only thing on his mind. He has a chance to succeed where civilization failed.
Behind him, someone shouts, “Slap shot!”
He hasn’t time to turn when a tennis ball, serving as a hockey puck, whizzes past his head. Tanner follows the pale green comet’s trajectory. He sees a torpedo, a nuclear bomb, a final solution.
Striking metal, it produces a loud clang and jangling rattle as it wedges into the diamond grid. At ground zero, the point of impact, the slack barrier is pulled ten centimetres backward by the missile before connecting links of steel recoil and spring forward an equal distance.
Tanner envisions a thermonuclear blast rippling from the epicentre. The twin towers collapse. Communities evaporate. A tsunami clears everything in its path.
Millions of crystals fall like wasted snow. A thin powder hovers in the air but dissipates as the clatter of shuddering steel echoes over the expanding ring of devastation. With a blinding flash, a patch of fence the size of a school bus is stripped of hoar frost.
In the white winter landscape, Tanner turns to the hockey players as several shout in unison, “Great shot,” and “bull’s eye.” Furious, Tanner realizes human nature is still intrinsically evil. “You fucking Nazis,” he screams.
A sinister black dot appears behind his eyes. It expands. Darkness surrounds and engulfs him. Tanner faints and falls to the ground.
Later that afternoon, noisy students crowd the hallway. Tanner closes his locker and sees the approach of a medium sized boy with dark hair and features. He wears a thick, scratchy red sweater over a yellow and white pin-striped shirt. Both are several sizes too big.
“Excuse me, please. I am Zayed.” He extends his hand.
Confused, Tanner pumps the offered hand and says his own name. He’s never met Zayed but is pretty sure he’s a grade ten student, one of a dozen Syrian refugees who enrolled the previous year.
Zayed looks into Tanner’s eyes and says, “I am glad you are okay.”
“Thank you. I’m fine. Dizzy spells. I probably get them from my mom.”
Above the boisterous shouting, Zayed offers a meaningful, “I am sorry.”
“For almost hitting you. For wrecking your fence.”
Tanner realizes Zayed is the hockey player who fired the slap shot. “The fence isn’t mine.”
“But it captivated you. The look you gave when I knocked the snow from it …”
“Hoar frost,” Tanner corrects.
Not registering the unfamiliar term, Zayed continues, “Members of my community were executed in the street. Children watched.” Pointing to his own eyes, he adds. “The look you gave was equal in hatred.”
“I feel foolish about that now. Sorry for what I called you. You didn’t deserve that. It was just ice.”
“I seek no apology, only to understand.” Zayed pauses, looks away, then back into Tanner’s eyes. “This is my third winter in Canada. I’ve never played hockey until this week. My aim is not so good as my enthusiasm. I meant to shoot straight ahead, not in your general direction. I was told the slap shot is important to the game. So very important.”
“It is, Zayed. It is.” Tanner thinks, then offers, “We have to get you onto a skating rink. Real hockey is played on solid ice.”
Zayed’s innocent eyes widen with anticipation.
About The Author
Dave Gregory is a Canadian writer who worked on cruise ships and sailed the world for nearly two decades. He is an Associate Editor with the Los Angeles-based Exposition Review and his work has appeared in numerous literary publications including Pulp Literature, After the Pause, and Remington Review.
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