Endless Winter Months

By Lauren James

Her hacking cough sends a creature darting further into the forest as she bends over to undo the latch of the gate. Stepping through, she immediately turns and shuts it behind her, the groan of the iron mixing with that of her back as she stoops to retrieve the basket of wood at her feet.

She always does this; it is a nightly routine. Walk from the old manor house, along the stream to the edge of the woods, open the gate which stands alone, no borders on either side of it, nothing to open up to, close it, collect the wood from the forest, and then, retreat the same way. She pays particular attention to go through the gate and relatch it on the other side. She doesn’t know why but she always has, ever since she was a little girl trailing her mother around in the manor’s kitchens. It feels right to walk through, not around it, and almost necessary to adhere to the little wooden sign that dangles from its post reading, “Please close the gate behind you”. She used to wonder why it was there, who had erected it, and what it used to lead to, but after more than half a century of taking this route it became an accepted normality.

Through the thick fog she can barely make out the mud-soaked path which the river threatens to overflow. It had rained almost continuously for three weeks and everything was sodden. Only today had the deluge relented, replaced instead by a frost which hangs the air with white and feels so heavy upon her shoulders that she is convinced it only means more rain to come.

Tucking her neck as deep as possible into the itchy woollen scarf she had only just managed to find funds to purchase the wool for, she braces her shoulders against the icy wind. It is endless, this wind. It permeates every pore in the material she swaths her body with, every crack in the floorboards of her cellar room, every beam of the house creaks and shakes with it and it leaves her awake every night, shivering with her thin blankets about her, listening to the continuous moans and protestations of the manor’s frame and the sighs and pops of her own as her muscles tighten and spasm against the chill, trying desperately to warm her.

The roar of the river drowns everything else out, even the wind. She remembers being only a small child when it last burst its banks. Her mother had told her they were not to collect the firewood for a while and she recalls the hushed tones of the other servants as they talked about the rage of Master Rothchild and the water damage to the carriage house.

Muttering to herself about frivolities and taste, she presses on, desperate for the little warmth the kitchen embers will offer before she will stoke as much of a fire as the mistress will allow; just enough to keep it lit throughout the night but never enough to warm the cavernous stone rooms of the servant’s quarters. At least the chill will be kept at bay, she consoles herself.

Upon nearing the servant’s quarter, she glances back over towards the main house. There are only two windows lit, both belonging to the same gilded drawing room. When she hovers near the door, if she cranes her neck a little, she can just make out the fair hair of her master as he pours over some book. She supposes the scene would look quite charming, cosy even, to an outsider, but she knows better.

Only she knows that the darkened window at the very top of the manor is purposefully shaded, that Miss Rothchild locked herself up there and permits no one entrance, not even for meals. They were to be left outside her door along with clean bedding, clothes, the whole lot. She can only guess at the familial secrets and strife which keep her mistress at the other end of the drawing room, quite as far away as she could get from her husband as possible without drawing his attention, casting furtive glances up towards the attic every now and again. Only she knows that that orange shaft of light casts no warmth or love or companionship, only a façade to benefit their own sense of duty for those who might wander along the village lane and happen to glance over.

Tutting away, she lets herself in through the doorway and turns with relief to bar it behind her. The candles she had left have almost burnt down to the wick so, with fumbling fingers, cracked and hardened by the daily repetition of washing with cold water in freezing temperatures, she lights a few more before stoking the stove fire.

Huddling as close to the stove as she can get without touching it, she begins to peel off the sopping rags of itchy cloth. She doubts that they would catch fire, soaked as they are, but she lays them just out of reach of any spitting embers anyway.

She can’t bear the thought of moving further away from her tiny bit of warmth, not even for the lumpy soup that stands on the other side of the kitchen, waiting to feed her. She thinks about dragging her mattress from the neighbouring room in front of the fire, but the thought of having to leave this small comfort, feeling the chill pierce her flesh and take deeper roots in her bones, stills her movements. She thinks of dragging the weight of the mattress and feeling it pull at her shoulders, knees, spine, catching on every bump on the stone floor, scuffing it after she’d spent so many hours polishing on her hands and knees that very morning. Instead, she simply lays her damp coat underneath her and settles down on it, ready for another night of shivering and uncomfortable, interrupted sleep. At least tonight she will have some warmth. She shudders to think about the many long winter months ahead.

Image Credit: László Mednyánszky via Wikimedia Commons

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