Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Hunt

Startling frost on the window, she ran fingers over the crystalline film and trembled, the full shiver running from spine to finger tips.  The barren wilderness beyond remained silent and unmoving in the white morning light.  The sharp stillness in the air set her on edge.  She expected to hear shattering glass at any moment.  With surprise she unclenched her hand from the fist it had become against the window.  The unending stillness had unnerved her; she was drawn so taut she quivered on the window-seat.  Getting up, she began to pace about the room, her skirts dragging across the floor, linen and beads rustling and clicking against the hardwood, then falling silent over the rug.  Her solitary breakfast cooling on the sideboard, barely touched. He should be back by now, something had gone wrong, the men never stayed out all night on the hunt.
The evening was deepening when the snow began falling.  Great fat flakes floating down from a steel grey sky.  She had glanced out the window as she dressed for dinner, a small kernel of concern beginning to form in her breast.  The dark evening wore on, until all color was leached out of the now white landscape and just a faint stony glow remained.  The night sky was thick, there was no moon.  She had long since finished dressing and the dinner that would have been remained in the kitchen, most likely spoiled now.  She didn’t care.  Her concern had grown and flowered into a full sense of dread.  She braced herself for the urgently calling voices, braced herself for the tragedy that would unfold.  She sat in the dark by a fire that raged against the cold, its flickering light illuminating hands working on their own at a small embroidery hoop, and eyes seeing and not seeing into the dark.  Her mind was far gone, already retreating into the happiness of the past.
Her boy her baby her sweet one her darling so eager and dear
Small boots side by side with large ones
An endless photo album of smiles and giggles, wiggles, laughter
Small hands reaching, grasping for her skirts
Following his father out to the stables wearing his overcoat it dragging out behind him in such a comic way she laughed until her corset creaked and she was gasping for breath
Crying like his world was ending when the small wooden toy lay broken on the floor
Appearing at the dinner table with straw in his hair and declaring he was famished from his studies
Small wonder in her arms wailing and filling her heart
Her world

The maid, bustling into the brightly lit room set to gather up the breakfast things, paused when she saw nothing had really been touched since she had left it half an hour before.  She opened her mouth to ask her Mistress if there was anything else she could bring her.  When she caught sight of her mistress sitting in the window-seat steadily gazing at the silent glittering morning she halted the words on her tongue.  She gathered everything up as quietly as she could and backed out of the room.  After she closed the door she paused in the hallway, her face written with concern.  When she first started working at this house last spring people had warned her about the Mistress’s strange fits. That steady gaze, her face so transported, as if she was seeing another time.  The Maid shook herself and hurried down the stairs with the full tray.  When she entered the kitchen and set the tray down, Cook turned around with the large mixing bowl slung under one arm and wooden spoon working in the other.  At the Maid’s stricken face Cook stopped stirring.  “How is she?”
“You knew? that she would be like that?”
“Well… yes and no, it gets worse each winter, whenever there’s a big snowfall.  Sometimes she goes about the day like nothing’s different, she’s as right as rain.  But others she gets quiet and doesn’t eat and just sits at windows gazing and reliving Lord only knows what, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to relive that night. It was so long ago…”
“How long ago?” the Maid asked, she had poured herself a bit of tea as Cook talked and now pulled a stool up to the big table.  Cook had been with the family for a long time, if anyone knew the story it was her.
“Oh, well it’s gone on forty years now I guess, give or take.”
“And it happened in the winter?” the Maid prompted.
“Well twas almost spring, but there was a sudden cold snap and a lot of snow fell.  The Master, and the Young Master had gone out a-hunting that day, birds that would be, with several other men from the village.  I was just a young thing myself back then, but I remember the day, my Da was with them (he had the best pointers in the village), they made a right smart lookin’ party heading out that morning.  Ma and I had been up early packing their lunches…”
A crash and glass breaking in the hall startled her out of her revelry.  She shook herself unsure if she had been drowsing or merely lost in thought.  The glow of the bright morning sun was just beginning to outshine the once fierce fire.  The stillness in which she had sat through the night was gone, and the voices she had waited for with dreadful anticipation now rang out in the front hall.  The household staff, already up and preparing for the day, were moving into action with proper speed and efficiently.  She stood and made her way to the front hall, embroidery left where it fell on the hearth.  It would be days before she would retrieve it again.  She walked swiftly out into the main hallway just in time to see her husband brought in flat on his back and unmoving on a stretcher she recognized from the village.  The men carrying him rushed past her, breathing hard, their breath like smoke in the bright and shining foyer.  He was taken into the adjacent dining room and placed on the long table, and the men fell back coughing, stamping feet, and rushing to warm hands at the fire.  She went to him.  He breathed.  She pulled off one glove to grasp his hand, his fingers were stiff and stone cold.  Soon they would turn a terrible color and have to be removed.  Soon he would not be the man that she had married, he would become shrunken and sickly sullen.  But in that moment she was not thinking of him.  “Where is he?” she whispered in his ear. “Where is he?” with growing desperation.  He opened one eye, a slit through which he saw his stricken wife. 
It was hours before she realized the ceaseless wailing was her own.
“He had gone after one of the dogs, sure that it had scented something.  My Da told me, they had called after him that it was growing dark, but he went anyway.  The dog came back, a’course, but the Young Master did not.  By the time the snow started the village men knew that he wasn’t likely to be found.  They thought he must’ve taken a fall and couldn’t answer when they called.  But the Master would not give up.  He stayed out when all the rest returned to wait for first light.  They found him just after sunrise, he had dug himself a cozy den of sorts, but days later his fingers went black from the cold.  They didn’t find the Young Master, not then.  It was several days later, when most of the snow had melted and Old Jim, the grounds keeper back in those days, found him over in that deep ravine that runs by the Oliver place. “ Cook paused in her narrative, she had pulled up a stool herself and turned her own gaze out the window.  The morning had grown late, the silent and pristine snow scene outside had transformed into an ordinary winter day and the occasional stable hand passed the window.
“How tragically awful,” the maid uttered with a shudder, bringing Cook back to the present.
“Yes, the Master was never the same.  But the Mistress, she bore up well, was a true lady through and through.  But as time went on… well it’s a lot of heartbreak for one person to bear.  The Master couldn’t share her grief, it was the guilt that ate at him, more than the cold, he hung on for just a few years.”
When Cook fell silent this time the Maid didn’t prompt her any further.  She was remembering the far-away look on the Mistress’s face, and she wiped away sudden tears for the young woman who had lost so much.
She finally tore herself away from the window with a shuddering sigh, massaging knuckles stiff and aching from age and the cold window.  She stumbled and there it was, the sound of breaking glass, her vision swam, images cascading past, coming to rest on her boy, her dear boy, bent and broken on the hard frozen ground, and she was crying like her world was ending.
There was a crash and glass breaking and both the Maid and Cook jumped to their feet and rushed up the side stairs.

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