by Steve Waldrop
The day had turned cold much more quickly than I anticipated, but when the wind shifted to the north and began to whistle through the boughs of the twisted oak trees, I chose to ignore it and kept working even though goose bumps popped up on my arms. I shivered as I whacked harder at the tree I had felled a few moments before. It would not only provide fuel for the next few days at the cabin, but the exercise helped drive away the chill. Sweat beaded on my forehead and dripped into my eyes, the salt stinging and making them water. It blended with the other moisture seeping from my eyes, making vision impossible, so I paused, drawing huge gulps of air as I dropped the ax and sank to my knees in exhaustion.
“Enough,” I panted, “no more.” A glance at the small circle of sky that appeared between the twining branches of the thicket told me that the sun was already far down in the sky and likely close to the horizon, judging by the length of the shadows. “No more,” I whispered again into the chill, my frosty breath seeming to carry the words into the sky. For a moment I was fascinated with how the mist from my lungs slowly swirled before me, gradually dissipating.
My heart twisted. “She’s gone. There, I said it, now leave me alone,” I muttered through gritted teeth. I uttered the words out loud for the first time since the day I buried my Helen six months before, but felt no sense of release. Instead, the icy knot around my heart gripped it as hard as ever just as the winter storm would soon hold Aspen County in its tight clutches.
I scrambled back to my feet and tossed the cut lengths of wood onto the wagon and whistled for Dancer, the plodding work horse who had been my companion for the past few years. SHE had laughed when I bestowed the moniker on the stocky, heavily muscled mare, taking delight in the irony. That was another memory that I wished would go away. With Dancer secured in the harness, I climbed onto the seat and brushed away a few flakes of snow, then clicked my tongue.
Dancer’s head swung around to give me a disdainful look, but she began to plod along back to our cabin, probably thinking of the warm barn and soft hay that awaited her. Over the hills we passed, the creaking of the wagon wheels providing harmony to the whistling of the wind in the woods. What had no long ago been a gentle breeze was by now threatening to become a gale, and the flurries were falling more rapidly. Dancer needed no encouragement to pick up her pace, for once almost meriting her name.
We topped a rise that marked the midpoint of our journey home, and the horse stopped dead in her tracks, ears alert as she snorted in surprise. I echoed that surprise with wide eyes and a muttered, “What the hell?” Before us was a cabin, and as we crossed some invisible line of demarcation, the wind ceased and the air became warmer. It was still chilled, but not like it had been before. I spun on the wagon seat, looking back the way we came, and gasped again. The scene behind me was unchanged, trees swaying in the strong wind, leaves letting go to fly away.
One hand went up to rub my beard as I considered. Weird, but I found no fear inside me as I returned my gaze to the front. Another gasp escaped my lips at the same time as Dancer gave a happy snort and started trotting down the gradual hill, nearly spilling me into the back with the wood. I laughed as I saw a small cottage that I knew for a fact had not been there a moment before.
The cottage was nearly round, and topped by a steep roof that rose to a point like a steeple. One large window, also round, flanked the tall wooden door on one side while a smaller one occupied the same space to the right of the door. A pile of flat rocks had been carefully stacked next to the door and a lantern sat upon them. The cottage was tucked snugly into a grove, their branches still bearing leaves that had turned brown but had not yet fallen.
There was an air of peace about the place in spite of how it had suddenly appeared where there had never been a cottage before. Dancer halted near the door with a snort, tossing her head happily as if anticipating…something. I didn’t know what. She acted like she was home. I simply sat gaping, unable to decide what I thought, but a strange feeling nagged and tugged at my insides.
“Well, young man, are you going to sit there all evening, or are you going to get down and help?” The voice was light and musical, and I nearly fell off the wagon when I heard it, but managed to hold on long enough to get my wits about me and my feet on the ground. “That’s better,” the voice went on as the woman appeared from between two of the trees.
My mouth flew open as I beheld her, and she laughed, “Better close that before you swallow gnats.”
I snapped my jaws shut and snatched the beat up black felt hat off my head and tried to bow, but she shoved a rake into my hands and commanded me to clear the leaves from around the front door. I simply shrugged and took it, the muscles that had been sore and aching from chopping wood seeming to have new energy. As I worked, the woman ducked into the house leaving the door open.
I finished removing the few leaves and stood the rake beside the door, peeking my head in. “Ma’am? Are you there?” “Well where else would I be, youngster?” she laughed, “come on in and hang your hat. Sit, I will pour tea and you can tell me your story. I live for stories, you know. At my age there isn’t much left but stories.”
I shook dirt off my feet and tromped into the cabin, heavy work boots making echoes on the highly polished floor as I crossed to the table where she had set out two small, delicate plates with a strange pattern of vines and roses in a pale blue. Matching tea cups perched atop saucers, her dark brew steaming in them. She motioned for me to sit, so I pulled out the dark ladder back chair and eased myself onto the cushion with a sigh, taking a good look at the woman for the first time.
She was short and sturdy, with a perpetually smiling face and hair that hung down her back, gentle waves and ripples making it shimmer in the light of the oil lamps that were mounted high on the walls around the room. I could not tell what color it was. Red? Auburn? Dark blond? I shrugged and gave up. The way the light and shadows played with it, I could not determine, nor could I decide how old she was.
Her round face was unlined save for slight laugh lines around her eyes, but those eyes, a pale, icy blue, spoke of immense age, as if they had witnessed the turning of centuries. They bored into me with their intensity, but I felt no fear nor discomfort, only…peace. Surprisingly, I truly did feel peaceful for the first time in months, for the first time since, well, for the first time since I had buried Helen.
She wore a green dress with a flower print, pink blossoms that seemed to dance as she removed a tray of small cakes from the oven and set them on the table, sliding onto a seat opposite me. The cakes smelled wonderful, and my stomach growled in anticipation, drawing yet another smile from her lips. The apron she wore was white with tiny green roses embroidered on it. They reminded me of Helen and reminded me of spring, her favorite time of year.
That recollection stung, and my heart started to beat harder until the old woman spoke gently, urging me to take one of the cakes. As I munched on it, weariness began to melt away, and I realized that what I felt was not just the exhaustion of hard work, but of a burden that was far too heavy, one that had been borne for far too long. I wanted to melt into the chair with relief as her voice washed over me, the words unheard but full of life and rest.
Before long, the cakes were gone, and I found myself licking the crumbs from my fingers and blushing. She didn’t seem to mind, taking delight in how much I enjoyed her baking. The old woman cleared away the plates and refilled our cups, then brought out a Scrabble game. I opened my mouth to protest because that was the game SHE had loved to play on those long winter nights together after our chores were done.
We always played late into the night, playfully arguing about words we made, but always loving the intimacy. Somehow the old woman just knew, and she leaned forward across the small table and patted my hand as it lay on the lacy tablecloth, and spoke gently, eyes burning holes down to the depth of my soul. “You must. Trust me, young man, trust me, you must play.”
I gave in, and drew letters as she sat back with a small enigmatic smile on her lips. There was something going on that I could not fathom, but this old woman who seemed at the same time a stranger, yet so very familiar; so ancient, yet young.
My mind was not focused on the game, not like it always was when Helen sat across from me in our cozy kitchen, but I saw a word in my tiles and laid them on the board. I gasped when I took my hands away, for the word in front of me was “beloved”.
That was not what I had placed on the grid. The old woman crossed it with “sorrow” and the next word I laid out, after being altered by whatever magic was at work here, was “anguish”. She began to speak as the game continued, soft words that I really did not hear, but felt down to my bones.
Tears appeared at the corners of my eyes as the woman’s words opened the poorly-scabbed wounds and they bled freely, a flow of red from my soul that felt as fresh as the day I had returned from the woods to find my beloved Helen sprawled on the floor, burning up with fever.
That evening had been a nightmare as I rushed her to the wagon and made her as comfortable as I could, intending to take her to down to the town in the valley so Doc could look at her.
We never made it.
Somewhere along the rutted road, just as we topped a gentle rise, a cold wind blowing over the wagon, she cried out to me and I drew Dancer to a halt in a small grove of trees where we would be partly sheltered from the wind and climbed into the back of the wagon, cradling my beloved in my arms.
More words were played to the board, and the woman continued to speak, the words now cleansing the deep gashes and pulling them closed, binding tightly as they applied salve that made the pain fade away until it was barely noticeable. By this time my head was on the table, and tears flowed freely, their salty balm washing my face and soaking into the lace tablecloth.
The woman’s hand stroked my head as her soothing words washed over me, but I could swear that it was Helen’s voice I was hearing, speaking to me from somewhere beyond. That sweet voice that had always been able to calm me and assure me that everything would be fine. I fell into the voice.
I must have fallen asleep, because when I awoke I was disoriented. I shivered violently and found myself lying on the ground beneath my wagon which was parked in the center of a small grove of trees, and opened my eyes to a world of white.
Everything was covered with snow several inches deep, but the sun was peeking over the tree tops in a clear sky, calling the few remaining birds in the area to wake and sing. Their song filled me with joy. As I raised my head carefully to keep from banging it on the bottom of the wagon, I became aware of Dancer’s warm bulk next to me and laughed out loud.
What had made her lie down next to me I would probably never know, but as I looked at the snow I knew that she had saved my life. The mare sensed that I was awake, and carefully rose to her feet and nuzzled me. “It’s okay, my large friend, I am alive, thanks to you.” I spoke softly as I crawled out into the open and patted her neck.
I stood still for a few moments, recalling the dream, the vivid, unreal dream I had experienced. It must have been a dream, because there was no cottage in the grove, and never had been. I felt around inside my heart and found a scar where the scabs of injury had been, and knew at a deep level that while those scars would never be gone, nor would the memories, the long nights of despair were over. She had come and helped me heal.
A dream. That’s all it was, but it was a dream I needed; a dream that I knew had saved my life and my soul.
I was about to lead Dancer to the front of the wagon when something in the brown grass underneath caught my eye. I knelt and reached for it, brushing the grass flat, I was stunned to see what I had encountered. Tears flowed suddenly, but they were tears of joy this time as I found there on the grass five small wooden squares laid side by side, and the word they spelled was “Helen.”