8. Winter Solstice

By Calico

Monday, 21st December 1857 – The Darkest Day 

 

 

ALEX

 

“Oh death – where is thy sting?”

 

I hear the words and I watch the first clod of frozen earth hit the coffin. I want to point – point and shout, ‘There! There! There’s the sting! Can’t you see? It’s blindingly obvious! Could anyone – ever – come up with a more futile question?’ Then – of course – and I almost smile despite everything – the very next words offer up a strong contender for the title ‘most ridiculous enquiry ever’.

 

“Oh grave – where is thy victory?”

 

I resist the urge to butt in with, ‘It’s roughly four foot in front of you Reverend! The grave just won. Did you not notice? I – with the help of three of my neighbours – just lowered into it a wooden box containing all that is left of Sarah. My First One. The Light of my Life. Her and the perfect – perfect – perfect daughter that only managed a single breath.’ I resist, partly because – on the whole – I like Reverend Thomas. When all is said and done, the man is only doing his job. But mainly because I see that Hannibal is thinking – in whatever language six year olds have such thoughts – pretty much the same as me. So …

 

“I held my tongue and spake nothing: I kept silence … but it was pain and grief to me.”

 

Well – that pretty much covered it, Reverend. Could not put it better myself.

 

I take my hands off my son’s shoulders and squat down beside him so our faces are level and I hug him close. And I try to send a silent message, that, however much he wants to shout and rail at anyone and everything – it is better not to do it here and now. Not in front of everyone. Not until this last – terrible – goodbye is over.

 

“And though after my death worms destroy this body…”

 

A shudder goes through Hannibal. He does not like the thought of that, one little bit. I – who have seen exactly what worms can to a body – do not blame him one iota. I hug him closer. Though whether I seek to give comfort – or to find it – I do not know.

 

HANNIBAL

 

“And though after my death worms destroy this body…”

 

I know what that means! Worms eat you – from the inside out.

 

No! They cannot be going to let – that – happen to her. But they ARE going to. All last night. All yesterday. All the night before. Ever since my father carried me out of my mother’s room – then, about an hour later, explained that she had – died. Ever since then – I have been waiting for something to make it not true. But they thud shovel after shovel of dirt on top of her. And it is true. When we leave this place – she will still be here. Alone. Cold. As frozen as the heart of the Snow Queen. And as soon as spring comes and the earth thaws a little, the worms will get her.

 

I feel my father’s arms around me.

 

He murmurs, “Not much more to go, now, son.”

 

And I think – he is the only warm thing here. So I lean back into him. I feel his heart beating – still strong, still alive – even through his coat and mine. I know he does not want me to shout any of the things I want to, at any of the people here. Even if I did – she – she will still be gone. I cannot even see the coffin now. So I do not shout at Reverend Thomas, nor at Doctor Wallace, nor at any of them. I lean back – and try and let a little of his warmth seep into me.

 

ALEX

 

I am – I suppose – trying to do our Reverend the minimal courtesy, of giving the service my attention. But – I am not doing too well. Because – it is not really his voice I hear. I am remembering – her. Her words. And wondering what life will be like, never hearing her again.

 

“Death makest her beauty to consume away, like as it were a moth fretting a garment…”

 

But I hear – her.

 

“You are wholly beautiful, my love, and without a blemish…

Your name is oil poured out, and that is why the maidens love you…”

 

Oh, Sarah.

 

“Come then, my love, my lovely one, come. For see, winter is past…”

 

It is not though. Not past. It is the darkest day. It is the bleakest of bleak midwinter. And this year I will not have her well again in the spring. I look at what I have etched onto the marker above her grave.

 

“Set me like a seal on your heart. For love is strong as Death.”

 

It is not though. Not as strong. Death has won.

 

HANNIBAL

 

Nearly everyone has gone. My father is still talking to Mr. and Mrs Curry. Well – they are talking to him. I have stopped listening. I am staring at the freshly turned earth. My father and Mrs. Curry both squat down to talk to me.

 

“Hannibal,” starts my father, “Would you rather stay with Mr. and Mrs. Curry – and with Esther and Jed – for a while longer? Maybe until Christmas?”

 

I have been staying with them six nights now. Four nights while my mother was ill. The night she died. Last night. Last night, my father stayed too. He spent the night in the barn with Mr. Curry. They were making the coffin. I did not sleep either – though my father carried me up to bed. Eventually – because I knew he would not leave me – and I knew he had to get on – I pretended. But I did not sleep. I spent the night listening to the sounds, from the barn.

 

“Would you rather stay with us, Hannibal?” says Mrs. Curry. She means to be kind. She IS kind. But I do not want to stay. That is – not now. If my mother were alive and well – and home with my father, sure. Then, sleeping over at the Curry’s is a treat. But – not now. I do not really want to go home either. I want – I want to go somewhere impossible. I want to go back to the way it was. I stare at my father. Does he not – want me – back home?

 

I shrug. I can feel myself scowl at him.

 

“It don’t matter none what I want. You’ll just say.”

 

They exchange a look. Mrs. Curry gives him a tiny nod.

 

“Tell him what you’d prefer, Alex.”

 

He speaks uncertainly.

 

“What I’d prefer – is to have you home with me. But it DOES matter what you want. I’m going to be – pretty poor company – son. You might be – better off – with your friends.”

 

I am still scowling – at my boots now, rather than him.

 

“I’ll come with you – if that’s what you want.” For a moment, I think he is going to ask again, if I want to change my mind. If he does – I will know I was right – he does not want me. But he does not ask again.

 

He takes hold of my shoulder and says, “Thanks, Hannibal,” and his voice sounds choked.

 

ALEX

 

We go to pick up Hannibal’s few things, from the Curry farm. Jed is trying to help him fold shirts – not very well. But Hannibal is putting him right – and any distraction for the boy, however short, is welcome. So, I go over to perch on a mule chest and leave them to pack, between them. Jed is throwing repeated looks at me – the way Hannibal used to, at that stage when children know what a secret is – but have no idea how to keep one. I realise what he is doing. He is trying to slip something small and wrapped up, into Hannibal’s parcel, without me seeing. Sometime – before THAT night – Hannibal has made me a Christmas present and Jed is trying to hide it. If it was possible for my heart to sink any further, it would. Because – I keep forgetting, it is only four more nights to Christmas. And every time I remember – I realise there is nothing I can do to stop it being the worst Christmas of my son’s life. Hannibal is nearly done. Then he remembers something. He reaches up to the shelf above the bed. He brings his hand down empty. He reaches up again – and fetches down a package. He puts it into his pocket. He changes his mind and puts it back on the shelf. Another turn – it is back in his jacket.

 

“O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence…”

 

Of course! He has made something for his mother. He does not want to just leave it behind – because, that is one more time, he will have been forced to admit she has gone forever.

 

HANNIBAL

 

I am nearly ready to go home. I would have been ready sooner – but Jed kept mussing up my things. Not on purpose – he is trying to help – he is only four and a half.

 

Jed asks,  “Will ya still be comin’ to help with the tree, tomorrow, Han’bal?”

 

I shrug. I was – kind of – looking forward to it. But of course, that was before…

 

I scowl. Not really at Jed, but because I just thought something awful.

 

I thought, “Christmas is all spoiled – again.” I do not know exactly what it is I am meant to feel – but I am sure it is not that. Not even for the little minute it pops into my head. So – I suppose – I am scowling at myself. Because what does Christmas matter compared to…

 

Jed looks crestfallen. I know he is trying to be nice to me. Not just because his parents have told him to – though they have. But, because he is real sorry for me. And whoever’s fault all this is – it is not Jed’s. So I shrug again and answer him.

 

“Dunno,” I say, “I doubt it – it kinda depends on,” I glance over, to where my father is waiting, ” – but I doubt it.”

 

I remember the presents I made for my parents. I open the drawer where one gift is. Jed tugs my sleeve, glances over at my father and whispers.

 

“I’ll put it in ya blue shirt, Han’bal. I’ll be real careful – he won’t see.” Because I know he is trying to be nice – I let him.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

When we are all downstairs again, Mrs. Curry pulls my father a little to one side. I walk over and pretend to watch Beth and Esther, who are busy cutting gingerbread shapes on the big table. But this is only so Mrs. Curry does not think I am listening and pull him still further away.

 

“You might find him very clingy, Alex, for a long while,” she says, very soft, “If you need us to help out – at any time – you always know where we are.”

 

I must not be ‘too clingy’. If I am – ‘too clingy’ – he might not want me any more. He might send me away. But then I catch the answer though it is real low.

 

“I think I’ll be clinging on pretty tight back, Elizabeth…” He carries on with stuff about being real grateful to Mrs. Curry – and she comes back with stuff about wishing she could have done more – and I see she is crying.

 

Then Mr. Curry goes over to them. He is passing something to my father.  “You might wanna take this,” he says.

 

I am still by the big table, pretending not to eavesdrop. I keep my head down and glance over, under my fringe. Suddenly I know what it is. I knew they were getting a stocking ready for me – just in case I was still here Christmas morning – and that is it. My father gives Mr. Curry a tight, forced, smile to thank him – and he tucks it away. But he looks even bleaker – even more miserable. At that moment, I feel so furious with Mr. Curry I could hit him. Because however little I want to think about Christmas – I know my father wants to think about it even less. I want to shout over, ‘I don’t want it! You don’t have to take it!’.

 

Perhaps Mrs. Curry feels the same. Oh – not furious, obviously. But a bit annoyed.  “For heavens sake, Nathanial,” she says, still very quietly, “We’ll be seeing them again, before Friday. There’s no need to bother Alex with that now.”

 

Mr. Curry gets that sheepish look on his face, that some grown up men wear when their wives tell them off for something.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

It must be real late. I have been alone in bed for – it feels like hours. And before that, my father sat up here beside me for ages. Talking, or just – sitting. But now – in the dark – I am listening to him walk about downstairs. Pacing back and forth. Not quick – like he used to do sometimes, when he was telling my mother something. But slow. Back and forth – over and over. I listen hard. Sometimes I count the steps. Anything. Anything to stop me having to think …

 

ALEX

 

It is late not far off midnight. I am bone tired – but put off going into – into the room where she died. I look at the whiskey bottle – but I am not taking that route. I have seen too many men take that road. If it were just me – perhaps I would not care. But I am not alone – and I do care. I am not alone – she left me a son. Unto us a son was given – and to us he was wonderful.

 

If I were sensible I would turn in – before midnight. So I go into – into the room. And there it is. Our bed. Sheets all fresh and clean. Elizabeth – bless her heart – has remade it. White as snow. But not to me. To me – it is what – SHE – would say.

 

“All green is our bed! … How beautiful you are, my beloved, and how delightful!”

 

Oh, Sarah.

 

“Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth. Your love is more delightful than wine…”

 

I cannot stay in there. I close the door quietly. I go and sit in my own chair by the stove. I stare at – at the room.

 

Then I hear a sound. My son – the only one who lived for more than the breath of an hour – is coming down the stairs.

 

HANNIBAL

 

Part of me knows, I should not go downstairs. It is – ‘clingy’. But my father stopped pacing. There were no steps to count. I was alone up there – thinking. He is just sitting – in his own chair – before the stove. He is not angry when he sees me. In fact – just for a moment – his face lights up with a smile. He looks – like before. So that is – alright. He taps his knee – just the way he used to for me to climb up into his lap. Then he changes his mind. But only to say, “Run back up and fetch your blanket first, son. Don’t want you to freeze.” So that is still – alright. I fetch my blanket, then sit on his lap. He wraps me up – and I snuggle down. I am six and a half – so REALLY I am too old to sit on anyone’s lap. But he seems pleased. And if he is pleased, that cannot be called – ‘clingy’.

 

For a while we just sit there. Then I ask him to tell me about how he met my mother. I have heard it all before, but he usually likes to talk – unless he is listening to my mother talk instead. So he tells me the tale again – though without any of the usual jokes. Because usually – when she was listening – he would start off something like – “It was midsummer. I went into a restaurant – and I saw the most beautiful, most enchanting, most radiant girl I have ever seen in my life. She was lovelier than Helen on the ramparts, lovelier than Aphrodite in the foam, lovelier than the shulamite beloved of Solomon… Anyway – I was just thinking of something to say to this vision … when she stood up and walked straight past me without a second glance. Your mother had been sitting behind her. She wasn’t much to look at – but – there was a chair free at her table. The restaurant was kind of busy … so I decided to make the best of it…” This time he just tells me the real story. And I listen.

 

When he has done, he says, “You know son, whenever I look at you – you remind me of her!”

 

I say, “Nah! She always said I was the dead spit of you!”

 

He says, “She may have expressed the same sentiment. But I can’t see your mother using the phrase, ‘dead spit’.”

 

And I say, “She used to say…’this fair child…’,” But I forget the words.

 

He prompts me,  “This fair child of mine…proving his beauty…”

 

“…Proving his beauty by succession – thine!” I remember. I snuggle down. “Still means – ‘dead spit’ – though, don’t it?”

 

“Doesn’t it,” he corrects. Then, “Pretty much, son.” A beat. “You still remind me of her though. Even if no one else sees it – I do.”

 

We just sit for a while.

 

Then he asks, “Do you know what day it is, today?”

 

“Twenty first,” I say. My voice sounds muffled – because I do not bother to lift my head up at all off his vest.

 

“Apart from that?”

 

I shrug – just a little bit. Because I am comfortable now. And he is stroking my hair the way she used to. Even though I am too old for that really – no one else is looking – so that is alright.

 

He carries on. His voice is soft now. The way it goes in stories, when he is hoping I will go to sleep.

 

“It is the winter solstice. The shortest day. Long ago, this time of year was called Yule – or hjól. Which meant wheel. This day, is when the wheel of the year is at it’s lowest point. Back then – when men lived in the dark of the forests – they feared, at this time, that the sun would never rise again.” I am still listening, really, but his voice is now not nearly so loud as his heart, beating under my cheek. “So trees would be hewn, hauled home with song and great fires would be lit – sending flames into the air to feed the sun. To bring the spring again. To bring the time of Beltaine, when lovers build bowers – and then of Litha, when the wheat aches for the hand of the harvester. The fires were raised high, to the honour of Jólnir – though usually we call him, Odin. He was a god of intoxication and ecstasy. But he was also a god of death…”

 

Tuesday 22nd December 1857

ALEX

 

It is well past noon. I am finishing up in the barn. The routine of the morning – all the chores that need to be done, no matter what – has been a blessing. But, I am uncomfortably aware that – although there are hundreds of things I suppose I could get on with – I am running out of things that are absolute necessities. Pretty soon, I am going to have to come out of automaton mode and think what to do next. This is a problem. Not only because I am incapable of thinking anything. But because, I have to make sure it can include tasks for a six year old, who clearly does not want to be left alone for a minute. At one point, I think he is going to start following me to the outhouse. The way he did Sarah – just for a few weeks, back at that eighteen-month-old stage, where toddlers hate to let their mothers out of sight. That is it. He does not want to let me out of his sight. In case I disappear. Like she has.

 

Or – perhaps – he does not want to leave ME alone. Maybe he is protecting me, in the only way he can. By being there – making sure I keep going.

 

I walk out of the barn and wonder if it is too cold to go up on the hill and mend the north fence. Not too cold for me. I would welcome the distraction of physical discomfort. But too cold for Hannibal. Maybe if I wrap him up real well – and keep him trotting back and forth with nails and one tool at a time. Anything, to avoid going back into the house. The evenings are long enough in there. Then – there is a call – and I hear footsteps. First Zach, Esther and Beth, then Jed, run into the yard, Nathanial striding after them.

 

The children pull up a little when they see me. So I summon up a smile and try and look a bit more like normal. It is enough for Jed, who runs over, expecting to be swung into the air, which is what I usually do. So I do it now.

 

“You’re getting too heavy for this,” I say, which is pretty much what I always say.

 

“No – again!” he shouts, which is pretty much what HE always says, “Again!”

 

“Jed!” frowns Zach – and Jed looks guilty. He has clearly been told not to pester me – but being four – has forgotten. Or maybe, just maybe, he still retains a little of the natural wisdom Zach – like all of us – will lose as he grows up. Maybe Jed knows my arms are not the part that ache – and that even a minute or two of slipping back to normal helps.

 

“Alex,” nods Nathanial. He leaves it at that.

 

Hannibal wanders up. Zach and the two girls smile at him – trying so hard to be nice. He scowls back.

 

“We’re goin’ to fetch our tree – an’ – an’ other stuff,” pipes up Jed. I see the wagon back on the road.

 

“Just wondered if Hannibal still wanted to come?” says Nathanial. He glances at me – unsure whether he is doing the right thing by offering.

 

HANNIBAL

 

Mr. Curry is asking if I want to help haul their Christmas tree. I was – kind of – looking forward to it. They have a sort of contest – boys against girls – to see who finds the best tree. And the winners get to place the star on top. Not that I care about that. But – Jed and I did bet Esther and Beth we would win. And – I know Mrs. Curry will have packed them pie and gingerbread. After they chop their tree – they light a fire – and heat up some of her punch. It is not really punch – I know that. It is kind of spiced lemon stuff – she just calls it punch. And they toast the tree – and eat what she has packed. Not that I care about any of THAT either. But Mr. Curry promised Zach and Jed and I could build the fire – and – long as I was real careful – and he was there – I could borrow his flint and light it. Not that I care.

 

“Are ya comin’, Han’bal?” says Jed. He wants me to come. And I am kind of pleased.

 

I shrug. I glance at my father.  “Dunno,” I say. Then, “Nah – I’m too busy. I can’t.”

 

He – my father I mean – is looking back at me.  “You’ve worked real hard all morning, Hannibal,” he says. “There’s nothing else needs doing that can’t wait. Why not go along?”

 

I can feel my throat tighten up. Does he want me out of the way? Have I been clingy? Suppose I go and – and he gets real, real sad while I am gone?

 

He is still looking at me. Then he asks, “Any room for one more?”

 

“Sure,” says Mr. Curry. He looks – surprised – but then pleased. So do the others. They really like my father.

 

I watch his face and think – even though he is grown up – he still feels a bit like me. He does not really care about this. But all the same, he IS kind of pleased – to be wanted.

 

ALEX

 

I declare the girls versus boys ‘best tree’ finding contest a draw. I am doing my very best to act normally. Because – I see Hannibal running around, climbing, showing off to Jed, getting smuts all over him, distracted by the treat of touching Nathanial’s usually forbidden flint – and I think, ‘he’ll sleep tonight’. I am so grateful to this family that the last thing I want is to spoil their ritual, by being some kind of ‘spectre at the feast’.

 

So after declaring a draw, I look at Nathanial and say, “Guess they need to flip for it, huh?”

 

I pull out a dime.  “Shall we let one of the girls flip, Jed?” I say. He looks at Hannibal and at Zach, as if to ask, ‘Is that OK with you, partners?’ then nods.

 

Beth flips – and Hannibal shouts, “Call it, Jed!”

 

“Heads!” he squeals, “No – tails! No – heads! Tails!”

 

“Think that’s what gamblers call – hedging, Jed!” smiles Nathanial.

 

Beth, laughing now, still has her hand over the coin and looks at me for guidance. I am still crouched by Jed.  “You have to pick one,” I explain. A beat. “Do you want to let Zach or Hannibal call, instead?” I ask.

 

“Uh huh,” he nods.

 

And my son calls, “Tails!” which is what he always calls – because he likes the eagle – and Beth lifts her hand.

 

“You win,” she smiles and she hands me back my dime.

 

Jed, of course, is delighted – and Esther is soothed, by being declared in charge of ‘punch’ distribution. I take the axe from Nathanial. He realises I want to tire myself out as well as Hannibal – so he lets me be the one to strip to my shirtsleeves and chop down the winning tree.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

Now we sit around the fire the boys lit. It is not a particularly tidy fire – but both Nathanial and I resist the urge to re-build it properly. It burns. That is enough for them. They are inordinately pleased with themselves, as the first flames lick upwards.

 

HANNIBAL

 

We are sitting waiting for Esther to finish messing around – stirring the pot suspended over the fire. Once Esther is satisfied the ‘punch’ is warm enough, Beth hands first my father, then me, a tin mug full of the stuff.

 

Mr. Curry draws a flask out of his coat and sends my father a silent question, with a lift of his eyebrows. My father nods and holds out his mug.

 

I sip my own drink. It tastes of lemon and sugar and cloves and nutmeg and cinnamon – and – and I do not know what else is in it.

 

Beth snuggles up beside my father – the other side to me.

 

She asks, “Why don’t you have a tree, Mr. Heyes?” She realises this is a silly question – blushes – and adds, “I don’t mean – this year – I mean ever.”

 

He slips an arm round her and gives her a hug, to show she has not upset him.

 

“We -” he pauses, ” – Sarah and I, never got into the habit of Christmas trees. Her family – when she lived back East – used to decorate with garlands and wreaths of evergreen – and -” he stops again, but only for a moment, “- mistletoe over a doorway. So – we did the same.” I listen. I have heard some of this before – but I still listen hard. I want to hear anything he wants to say about my mother. “I remember her family kept up the tradition of the ashen faggot. Anyone at their house – on Christmas Eve – passed around a bundle of ash twigs – bound with green ash withies. Then it was placed on the fire. As each of the bindings burst, the watchers toasted it. Every unmarried woman chose a withy and the first one whose tie snapped – she would be married the next year.”

 

“And did it work?” says Beth, “I mean – did her…”

 

“Withy,” he supplies.

 

“Withy,” I echo, at the same moment.

 

“Did her – withy – burst first? The Christmas before she married you?”

 

“She thought so,” I feel him hug me a little, but I am not upset – not more upset, I mean – hearing about her. “If you want to know the truth, Beth,” he goes on, “- it’s a bit hard to tell, when you’re watching a whole bunch of twigs go up in flames on a dark evening. I guess more than one girl imagined hers was the one. But – if Sarah thought it was a sign – I wasn’t exactly going to argue – was I?”

 

“What about you?” chips in Esther, “When you were a little boy – did you have a tree?”

 

“No,” he says, “My family were from England, too – and they only really started having Christmas trees in England about – oh, about fifteen or so years ago – long after my parents emigrated.” He drains his mug. Beth leaps up to fill it again, then settles back down, leaning against him. Mr. Curry reaches over – to pour something extra in the mug. “We always had a Yule log – when I was a boy,” my father tells Beth.

 

“That’s to do with the solstice,” I explain. I remember – from what he told me last night.

 

“So is decorating trees and bringing in evergreens,” he says, “Long ago, it seemed – magical – that some plants thrived in the dead forest of winter. In Egypt they brought in green palm branches on the shortest day …”

 

“That was yesterday!”

 

“That’s right son,” he smiles, “- though any time around now would probably do.” He is staring into the flames, so I stare too – and listen. “They would bring in green branches as a symbol of life’s triumph over death. The Romans did the same, with holly, pine and ivy in honour of Saturnus, the god of farming – keeping hope alive of a fruitful year to come. And – from Russia to India – trees were decorated to encourage the tree spirits to return to the forest, so it would sprout again… and be reborn in the spring…”

 

ALEX

 

Hannibal is in bed. I sit beside him. Even before – before Saturday – one of us would always have sat with him a while anyway, because he always had a story before settling down. Of course, Sarah was a better storyteller than I…

 

“Your lips were a scarlet thread, my beloved – and your words – they were enchanting…”

 

I realise I have fallen silent – thinking of her – and that my son is watching me anxiously. I give myself a shake and muster up a smile.

 

“What will it be tonight?” I ask, “Sinbad … Sinbad and the journey to the elephant’s graveyard?”

 

He scowls.  “No!” he snaps. “That’s all – stupid! I’m not a baby!”

 

Part of me wants to snap back, ‘Have a heart, son! I’m doing my best!’ But I do not. Because I realise – too late – he does not want to hear the stories his mother told him. Not yet anyway.

 

So I just swallow back any retort and say, “You choose then.”

 

“Don’t care! You can just leave me – if you want.” He turns his back and hunches his shoulder, “I don’t want a story.” Then, he glances round – and how bleak I feel must show, though I AM trying not to let it – because he takes pity on me. “Tell me some more – ‘bout what you were sayin’ last night. ‘Bout Odin an’ Thor – an’ all that stuff.” He is sneaking another look at me, “If YOU like,” he adds, gruffly.

 

HANNIBAL

 

He is sitting with me. Perhaps he feels he has to. Perhaps he would rather go downstairs. I do not want him to think he HAS to stay. But – if he goes – I will be all on my own. It will be OK while he walks up and down – because I can count the steps. But when he stops…

 

Maybe though – maybe he really does want to stay and talk. He seemed to like it last night. I wish I knew what he really wanted – because then – I could do that. I tell him to go away – so – if he goes – I will know he never really wanted to stay and talk at all. But he does not go away. He starts to stroke my hair – and he starts a story – letting his voice get softer.

 

“Far in the north and far in the past, at this solstice, the Norsemen drew home a mighty log – to burn through the night – and on through the winter – to usher in the return of the sun. As the Yule was hewn and drawn, they walked alongside and raised their voice in song. They sang to the honour of Odin’s own tree – Yggdrasil – the ‘world tree’. For Yggdrasil’s mighty roots reach down to the world of the dead – and this solstice is a Feast of the Dead, watched over by Odin and by his dark nightriders.”

 

I shut my eyes and let the rhythm of the words wash over me.

 

“The Norsemen decorated the log with evergreens. They sprinkled it with grain and with ale. They laid upon it winter flowers and berries, coloured silks and burnished gold. All gifts bestowed on the roaming ghosts of the Dead.

 

All night long the Norsemen feasted, drank wassail and watched the fire leap high and higher. Then – in the morning – the ashes, most magical in power, were scattered on the fields to bring back fertility…To turn again the wheel of the year to rebirth …”

 

ALEX

 

He is asleep. It did not take long at all tonight – he was so tired from the fresh air. I wonder if it will be the same for me. Perhaps – tonight – will be easier. I grasp the door handle. I stand for a moment telling myself it is only a room – only a bed. I go in.

 

It is not – only a bed. It is – ours. Not mine at all – ours.

 

“On my bed, at night, I sought him whom my heart loves… His left arm is under my head, his right embraces me.”

 

I – remember.

 

“I trembled to the core of my being. Then, I rose to open to my Beloved, myrrh ran off my fingers…I held him fast, nor would I let him go, till I had brought him…”

 

Oh, Sarah. If only you had – let me go.

 

Wednesday 23rd December 1857

 ALEX

 

The morning goes the same as yesterday. So – not good – but at least it goes. I start wondering again about whether to walk up to the north fence. It is a good long walk for a six year old. It would tire him. But before I have to make a decision, before I have quite finished the chores that just have to be done every day, Hannibal suddenly speaks.

 

“You know what you said yesterday?” he blurts.

 

This could be almost anything. But the very way he says it, shows he has been building up to this for some time. So I go over and give him my full attention.

 

“What was that, son?”

 

“About – Yule logs.” This has still not narrowed it down completely for me. He realises I need a little more. He is not looking at me. He is making a big effort not to look at me. “About – burning gifts on ‘em. Being able to – send gifts to …” He is kicking up dirt in the yard, glowering at the scuff hole he is making.

 

“To – to the dead?” I help him out.

 

“Uh huh.” He hunches his shoulder away from me, still making sure he does not meet my eyes. “Is that true?”

 

“O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength…”

 

What on earth am I supposed to say?

 

“It is true that people used to believe it,” I manage – and this sounds so inadequate. I try again. “It is like all myths and legends, Hannibal. They are not true in the way that saying, ‘Fire is hot. Water is wet’ is true. But they are not exactly lies. They are trying to say something which IS true – and the story is wrapped around whatever that something is.” I am still not doing very well but he is listening. He is expecting me to carry on. “People used to burn gifts for the dead, for pretty much the same reasons we put flowers on graves.

 

What IS true are the reasons …’I miss you’ …’I wish I could reach you’…’I wish I could tell you how much I miss you’…’I haven’t forgotten’…’I want to show I haven’t forgotten’…” I lay a hand on his shoulder, “I may not believe the Norse dead actually got the gold, nor the flowers. But that does not mean the story is a lie nor that the Norsemen were fools. Maybe the real gift was not to the dead, but to those left behind.”

 

I leave it there. Because – that may not have been particularly satisfactory – but it is the best I can do.

 

HANNIBAL

 

He stops talking. He has not said what I wanted him to say. But – I know he has tried – tried not to just treat me like a little boy who cannot understand anything. I do not look at him – because I am NOT going to cry. And I need to concentrate real hard on that. So I cannot look at him. And I cannot ask. I just – cannot. Then – suddenly – he DOES say what I want him to. So I do not have to ask.

 

“Would you like to fetch a Yule log – and send something to your mother?”

 

I do not answer for – it seems like ages. Because I am NOT going to cry. Then I manage a tiny nod. And I am clenching my hands real, real tight – and even my toes are clenching – hoping, hoping, hoping that this is alright. But only for a second. Because then I am all swept up in a hug so tight it knocks my hat off. And he is kissing the top of my head – which SHE did all the time, but he has not done for years. Not since I got big. And never over and over like this. His voice is all muffled, but he is saying, “That’s fine, son. Don’t worry – that’s no problem at all. Shall we go fetch one right now? Would you like that? To go find one right away?” I nod again. He cannot see because my head is under his chin – but perhaps he can feel I am nodding. I do cry – but that is alright – because he cries too. He is all grown up – so if he cries – he cannot mind me doing it. And – anyway – it is just us two nobody can see.

 

ALEX

 

I am a bit worried I have let him down – breaking down like that, I mean. But after we mop up – and both wash our faces – we seem more relaxed. We are not trying quite so hard to second-guess what the other wants. And Hannibal – he is almost his usual cocksure self, once he starts to give me my orders. Clearly he has been going over plans in his mind all morning. All I have to do – is pretty much what I am told. That is fine with me – I want to be told what to do. Then a glorious thing happens – he leaves me with my allocated task – and trots off to the barn – by himself – to get the harness ready. He leaves me. Not that I want him to leave me, you understand. But I sure do want him to feel he can.

 

HANNIBAL

 

He says, “Shall I go hitch up the wagon?”

 

“No! That’s not right,” I protest, “You said it had to be HAULED home!” He looks confused. I suppose I know you say you haul things on wagons – but SURELY he knows what I mean. “On the ground! Hauled along the ground! Course – it will have to be a horse – not yoked oxen like they sometimes used.”

 

“Oh!” he says. “Like – on a hurdle – maybe?”

 

I think for a minute, “Yup – that’d be fine.” I picture it, “A BIG hurdle,” I add, “- because it has to burn all night – then have enough left to light for twelve more nights.”

 

He blinks – and glances rather worriedly at the stove.

 

“Not in HERE!” I explain, “Outside – so it reaches the sun! And it has to be – you know – up there. Where – where she is.” Now I look at the stove, “You can chop a bit off it, I suppose – to bring in here – ‘to bring life unto the hearth’,” I decide. I go back to explaining the hauling, “AND – we need room for plenty of evergreens too – and for winter flowers.”

 

He looks worried, at the mention of winter flowers.

 

“If we don’t find too many winter flowers – it don’t matter none. Berries will do instead,” I reassure him.

 

He nods, “Uh huh.”

 

“AND … we need more people – cause there has to be folk walkin’ ‘before, behind and to each side’. And there’s only two of us – so that’s no good.” He blinks again. “Ain’t that right?”

 

“Isn’t…” he corrects, automatically, “Fine, son.” He frowns, “Will Zach, Jed and the girls do? I’m pretty sure Elizabeth won’t mind. As long as we get on – so we’re back before dark.”

 

“That’d do,” I say, “Long as we have four … don’t matter if we have more. More is OK … long as we have at LEAST four. AND …” I carry on, “…we all have to sing during hauling. So you better decide on somethin’ – somethin’ that sounds right.” His eyes widen a bit at this. “It’s alright,” I am reassuring him again. “We only need to sing on the way BACK – so you’ve ages to come up with somethin’.” I take a satisfied breath, “THEN – we’ll get the rest of the stuff together – bind it on – and burn it. We need to light it after dark – then stay with it until at least after midnight. Maybe longer – but midnight should be OK. ‘Cause – that’s when it’s next day.”

 

“Tonight?” he says.

 

“NO!” I roll my eyes, “Not TONIGHT! Tomorrow night. So – when it’s midnight – next day – it’ll be Christmas morning.” I look at him, “Ain’t – Isn’t that right?”

 

He gives a little smile at this and ruffles my hair, “You’re – kind of – picking and mixing from a few different stories there, son. But that’s fine.”

 

“You better get the axe an’ saw an’ stuff like that – ‘cause you don’t like me messin’ with them,” I say, “I’ll go get the harness ready – and get some rope.”

 

ALEX

 

We have our log. Nathanial – who offered to come along, though I am sure he has a hundred other things to do – is helping me rope it to the hurdle. He clearly thinks this is all a bit strange. But – I can see him also thinking, ‘If I lost Elizabeth – I’d drag home half the wood, if I thought it might make the children feel any better.’

 

Anyway, it is just as well he came, because the trunk Hannibal picked took long enough to hew with two axes. Now, Nathanial and I perch on the edge of it – and watch my son directing the others in the gathering of evergreens and berries. Zach has been placed in charge of shears.

 

“If nothing else – this’ll tire him out again,” I say. “Last night – he slept like a log.” Nathanial throws me a glance. I realise what I have just said. “No pun intended,” I add, with a little smile.

 

He clears his throat.   “And you, Alex?” he asks. “You getting any sleep?”

 

I shrug and then nod and then shrug again. But all I say is, “Sure.” It is not a lie – I woke up in my chair this morning and it was not far off dawn. Not much more than an hour from dawn, anyhow. So I must have slept.

 

Hannibal comes over, Jed at his heels. He points at the pile of small branches cut by Zach and at the sprigs and sprays, with which the younger children have filled baskets.

 

“If we load up this stuff – we can go,” he says. He has turned away, when he remembers, “Don’t forget – we have to sing as it is hauled.”

 

Nathanial blinks at this. I had mentioned it but I think he was hoping for a reprieve. So now, I throw him an apologetic look.   “Maybe he’ll just let you beat time.”

 

HANNIBAL

 

He has decided we are going to sing ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ as we pull away from the clearing. I suppose – because it is about evergreens.

 

Beth says, “Oh, I know that one, Mr. Heyes.”

 

And immediately Esther shouts up, “So do I!”

 

He smiles at them both. Then he says, “Go on then.”

 

Beth – who has quite a nice voice – sings,

 

“The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown

Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.

Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer

The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.”

 

He says, “That was real nice, Beth. But I’m going to teach you the original words – from the time when it was a song used at the winter solstice fires – is that OK?”

 

She nods. Then he teaches her – and all of us – new – I mean OLD words.

 

“The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,

In wintertime, when all is dead, they bear the living crown.

Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,

The days are short, the night is long, at the turning of the year.”

 

He carries on – and says, “Now – the Holly is supposed to be the boys – so that is you three,” he nods at us, “…And girls – you are the Ivy.”

 

“Is it – a kind of contest, like yesterday?” asks Esther.

 

“No,” he says, “Not a contest. More – more like a dance. It is better when both men and women are around to join in.”

 

Perhaps he sees this is not going down quite so well as a contest.

 

“Alright,” he compromises, “If you like, Jed, Zach and Hannibal – they always sing the word HOLLY – loud as they can. And you – you sing IVY real loud. And, as we haul – we’ll see who sings out strongest – OK?”

 

We nod. Jed shouts out, “Holly! HOLLY!” as a practice. But Esther is frowning.

 

“It isn’t fair,” she protests, “There are five of you!” Which – I suppose – is true.

 

My father says, “Tell you what, Esther – if it’s alright with you and Beth – suppose I shout up for Ivy? To even it up a bit. How’s that?”

 

She considers for a minute, “You won’t cheat?”

 

“Nope. And anyway – like I say – it’s not really a contest.” He looks at the sun, which is beginning to get low in the sky. “Let’s go! I’ll do the rest of the words as we walk along.”

 

So we haul – and he sings the words – and we sing after him. First we sing…

 

“Oh the ivy is the maiden. The holly is her love.

As they entwine at Yuletide, let us send flame above.”

 

Then a chorus – where Jed actually sings, “… the HOLLY, HOLLY, HOLLY …” instead of just once…”

 

And Esther yells, “IVY!” at the top of her voice. But other than that – they do it pretty much properly.

 

Then…

 

“Oh, the holly blooms in glory when solstice day is near.

And ivy weaves throughout the woods, at the turning of the year.”

 

Then the words go back to being more like what I have heard before – but – but still different. We – Zach, Jed and I and Mr. Curry – have to sing…

 

“Oh, the holly bears a blossom – which is white as the cold snow.”

 

And the girls, with my father – though he has to help out Mr. Curry too – ‘cause only he really knows all the words, even for holly – they reply…

 

“But ivy clings so tenderly – to melting warmth bestow.”

 

I watch my father sing – and though it is all about berries – and leaves – and stuff – I wonder if it is like the stories – whether the song is actually about something else. Something that is – not really true, but sort of true, true inside – and all wrapped up.

 

“Oh, the holly bears a stave – which is hard as any bone.

But ivy twines so close thereon – that they do rise as one.”

 

I am still watching him. I remember this is supposed not to be a contest – but has to be sung by both girls and boys – a line each. No! That is NOT what he said first. He said – men and women. In the old days – this was sung by grown ups.

 

“Oh, the holly bears a berry – which is flushed blood red.

But ivy has the darkest fruit – and soft, all strain is sped.”

 

As he sings – his face looks the way it does when he thinks about – her. Is the something – all wrapped up – something about my mother?

 

“Oh, the holly bears a prick, which is sharp as any thorn.

But ivy has the softest leaf – and so his sting is drawn.”

 

The words – if they mean anything – are saying that Holly is better off, when there is Ivy around. Is he really singing about missing my mother?

 

“Oh, the holly bears a bark, which is bitter as any gall.

But ivy’s nectar flows so rich – that she can sweeten all.”

 

At the very end – we no longer take turns – boys then girls. We all sing the same.

 

“Out of darkness shall come dawning. Out of winter shall come spring.

Out of toil and out of striving, comes the peace that rebirth brings.”

 

“Who won?” asks Esther. “Did we win? Did ivy win?”

 

“Both win,” he says, “Both bear a living crown. That’s the point.” His eyes look real sad, as he adds, “Both holly and ivy win – as long as they are together.”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

I am tucked up in bed – and thinking about tomorrow night. I will never know if my mother actually gets her gift. I suppose I – almost – know she will not. But almost is not quite the same as knowing for sure. It might still be – kind of true. Even if it is – just a story – just part of the wrapping – it WILL be true that I SENT it. Like he said – that bit is not a story. That bit is real. We will have shouted – as loud as we can, ‘We want to reach you! We miss you! Please hear! We won’t forget! Please, please – hear! Please, please – see! Please. Please – just look.’

 

“Ready for a story?” he asks. And tonight I do not argue. I just nod. “Same kind of thing again?” And I just nod again. Because speaking would mean moving my head, from out of where it is burrowed into my pillow.

 

He starts off. Partly to talk me to sleep. But also, I think, so he does not have to sit in the dark, in silence.

 

“As they sat around the flames of their winter fires, the Norsemen told stories – to cheer their hearts against the night and the ice and the howling of the hungry wolves.

 

One tale told how, seeking wisdom, Odin hung for nine nights upon Yggdrasil – the great ‘world tree’. This was to gain the secret of the runes – understanding of the past – foresight of the future. As Odin hung upon the branches, which reach far into worlds above the sky, he saw all sorrows and troubles that would ever besiege men. But he also saw WHY sorrow and trouble has to fall upon us…”

 

ALEX

 

I am in – our room. I am even – next to our bed. I cannot – quite – bring myself to sit on it. So I sit on the floor beside it – and I pull her pillow towards me. I lean my forehead onto it. The linen is cold, cold against my flushed skin – and I wonder if that really is the scent of her hair – or is it just – that I want her so much.

 

I want her so much – that I still smell her.

 

“I am held captive in your tresses. How beautiful you are, how charming, my love, my delight…”

 

So much that when my throat tightens – and I swallow – I still – I still taste her.

 

“Let my beloved come into his garden, let him savour its rarest fruits…”

 

I want her so much – that when I walk out of the room – and quietly close the door – my legs shake under me.

 

Thursday 24th December 1857

 ALEX

 

We hauled the log – and the larger branches – up to the grave once all the morning chores were done. Hannibal was satisfied that just the two of us were enough escort for that task. He stated that it is only the journey from the forest, which requires people walking before, behind and to either side. I do not actually remember that coming in any of the tales I told him. I suspect he is drawing on some of the stories – she – used to tell him. As he plans – he is devising a ritual all his own. But – presumably – even the oldest had to start somewhere.

 

Now, he is explaining that we will not be decorating until after nightfall.

 

“So we need to take oil lamps,” he says. He pauses. He looks at me. “We need oil lamps,” he prompts me. I start – realising he is doing fine on the planning, but I am not fulfilling my role as – worker. I fetch the lamp from – our – bedroom and a couple of spares kept in the storeroom. He nods meaningfully at the table – so I place the first of our equipment there. “We better take plenty of spare oil,” he muses, “’cause you might need some to get the fire goin’ too.”

 

“I could take some ordinary dry firewood and kindling too,” I offer, “Use it underneath – till the log catches.”

 

He nods. “Sure – and don’t forget your flint.”

 

I reach it down and place it ready on the table. Then, I fetch one of the big earthenware jars full of lamp oil.

 

He is pacing up and down, as he runs through his mental list. My throat catches as I watch him. Because, although by doing this he really, really is ‘proving his beauty, by succession – mine’. Or – as he more succinctly put it – he is the ‘dead spit’ of me. I still see something of her, as I watch him thinking.

 

“Next, ” he goes on, “We need grain – don’t have to be much. Maybe – maybe half a sack?”

 

HANNIBAL

 

I have decided we will set off just as the sun sets – so we have do not have long to wait. Most of the stuff is now bundled up, on the hurdle. We are not taking the horse. It is not heavy – we can pull it between us.

 

“Ale,” I say, “We need ale to pour on.” He is pleased with himself – because he has remembered that one – and asked Mr. Curry for a couple of bottles of the stuff he makes. I am not sure it is exactly – ale – but it will do. So that goes on the table – ready to go in the final basket. “Wine,” I say.

 

“Sorry, Hannibal,” he answers. “We can take the bottle of whiskey if you like.”

 

I nod. It will do.

 

“Fresh food,” I go on. He brings out a loaf. I look at it for a moment. That should be OK.

 

“We ought to take something for ourselves as well. It’s going to be a long night,” he says.

 

I shrug.

 

“I’ll leave that part up to you,” I tell him. I carry on with the important stuff. “Coloured silks.”

 

He runs his hand through his hair, as he thinks.

 

“The shawl,” I prompt him.

 

He looks at me for a minute. Then, he goes into – their – room and comes out with my mother’s prettiest shawl. It IS silk – she only really wore it in summer – and it has flowers and long tailed birds and leaves stitched all over it. He comes and squats down by me. the way he does when he wants to bring his face level with mine, before starting talking.

 

“Now, Hannibal,” he says, “This was her favourite. If you want to – to send it, that’s fine. But, if you would rather keep it, that’s fine too. There won’t be much else that is silk in the house – but I might be able to find something else you think will do.”

 

I look at the shawl for a long time. Sometimes, she would make up stories for me – about the birds. Part of me wants to keep it. But – she really, really liked it. It is not just part of – the right way to do this – like the ale. This is something worth sending. I know he likes – liked – it too. Maybe – maybe I should not have asked for it.

 

“Do you mind?” I ask. “Did YOU want to keep it? To remember?” I can hear my voice wobble. I hear myself blurt, “Because – because there HAS to be silk – and I don’t think you will find nothing near as good.”

 

“I have plenty of other things to remember,” he says, “Besides I have you!”

 

He folds it up, real careful, and puts in on the table.

 

“Gold,” I say. “Burnished gold.”

 

He shakes his head.  “Sorry son,” he says. “We’ll just have to think of something that’s – shiny. Or something that’s yellow. Or – we’ll have to cut the picture of Ali Baba’s gold out of the book. We haven’t got any of the real stuff.”

 

“Yes we have! You know we have!”

 

ALEX

“Yes we have! You know we have!”

 

I wonder what he means. Then – for an awful moment I think I know. I touch the cord around my neck which holds Sarah’s wedding ring. It has been – I was about to say next to my heart, but that is both clichéd and not anatomically true. It has hung around my neck, tucked – as I thought – out of sight, since late on Saturday. Which is when Elizabeth, after asking whether it was to go with Sarah to the grave or not, brought it out of – the room – and pressed it into my hand.

 

“No!” I say. He stares at me wide-eyed. I am pressing Sarah’s ring into my breast. Pressing so hard it cuts in. Good! I want it to! I realise I am pressing with my left hand. I look down at my own wedding band. “No!” I repeat. Anything else can go in the flames. Except him. And these.

 

“Don’t be silly!” he says and it his turn to lay a reassuring hand on MY shoulder, “Don’t be silly! Not them! I know you won’t take neither of them off.”

 

How – how does he know? I never even mentioned her ring.

 

HANNIBAL

 

He thought I wanted him to take off her ring! Of course I do not expect him to do THAT! He keeps touching it under his shirt ALL the time. Whenever he thinks I am not looking. Or whenever he just forgets to think whether I am looking or not. SHE would not want him to take that off. She – she would be pleased it is round his neck.

 

When he told me what he wanted to write on the grave – and checked it was OK by me – I thought about the ring then. Because I already knew where it was. You can see it, when he takes off his shirt to have a wash, or to shave. It is – sort of – not quite, but sort of – on his heart. So maybe, I thought, that is what he meant – a seal on a heart.

 

“Don’t be silly!” I say. But not to be nasty. What I mean is, “Don’t worry.”

 

I run up to the loft and fetch down what I DO mean to put on the fire as the gold. It is something real precious. Worth sending.

 

ALEX

 

He has fetched down his half eagle. It came as a christening present. A supposedly lucky coin. I had forgotten about that – when I said we had nothing made of gold. I look at it – lying on his palm.

 

“Are you sure, Hannibal?” I say. Because – he treasures that coin. Not only because – in his terms – it is worth a fortune. Not that we would have let him take it out of the house, let alone spend it. But because it is – well – gold. Even grown men, get seduced by the special look and feel. All shiny and silk smooth. He polishes and polishes the eagle on the back. And he made a really big deal of letting Jed even see it.

 

“Are you sure?” I repeat, “Because – I can’t afford to replace it. Not for a good while, anyhow.”

 

“I’m sure,” he says. He gives the spread wings one last rub on his sleeve and places it on the table. He looks up at me. Perhaps I look how I feel – guilty. Because he touches my shoulder again and says, “It’s alright. It wasn’t from her. Not like your ring. I don’t mind.” But he casts a wistful glance at the little piece of gold, which is to be – sacrificed – and adds, “I don’t mind – much.”

 

HANNIBAL

 

It is getting real dark. He lights the one lamp that is not already on the hurdle. I go over to the window and see the sun is almost gone.

 

“Better hurry,” I say, “Nearly sunset.”

 

And I check, again, that the gift I have for my mother – the real one I mean – not the stuff, which is just to do it right, is safe inside my jacket.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

We have set up the log about ten feet from the grave. It is pretty dark with just the lamps. But, of course, once we get the fire going, that will not be a problem. So, we get the branches and berries and the few flowers we managed to find bound on. He has hauled up plenty of kindling – and he uses up a good bit of the oil too. He pours the whiskey on the pile underneath – because he says that will help. We scatter the grain on the log. I put on the loaf and he pours the ale over it – so it soaks in. I ask if that is what you are supposed to do.

 

He says, “I’m kind of making it up as I go along, son.”

 

Since I am making it up too – I tell him that the coloured silk and burnished gold has to wait, until there is a real blaze going. So, we can light the log now. He will not let me do it. He makes me stand back. He says the whiskey and oil might go up all sudden. I start to protest.

 

He says, “You heard, Hannibal. Now – mind me,” in the voice I do not argue with, though it is the first time I have heard it for a while.

 

So, though I do not want to – I stay where he puts me. The fire does whoosh up a bit, as it lights and he jumps back. He comes to stand with me.

 

“Will it catch, do you think?” I ask.

 

“Won’t know for a while, son,” he says. “If the worse comes to the worse, we can always haul another load of kindling and have another try. Plenty of time till midnight.”

 

We watch for a while and move a little closer – and a little closer still. I peer hard into the flames.

 

“I think it IS catching,” I say.

 

He peers in too. He shrugs.  “You might be right. It could be doing a lot worse.” He takes off his hat for a minute to waft away the smoke. “I think we’ll sit on the other side,” he decides.

 

We sit on the hurdle – so we are not right on the ground – and he has brought blankets to go on top of the hurdle and to wrap round me. He makes me sit in between his legs so I can lean back against him. He says I will be warmer that way. He will be kind of a wind-break. After a long while, he gets up to check it is really the log that is alight, not just the kindling underneath.

 

He nods.  “Think we’ve been lucky – it’s caught first time, son.”

 

And I think – does that mean – this will work? Is it a good sign? Because – it cannot be a bad sign – can it? It has to be – a good sign. Unless of course – it just means nothing at all.

 

He sits back down. We stare at the flames a bit longer – and I ask.

 

“Is it nearly midnight yet?”

 

He does not even look at his watch. He just hugs me from behind, where he is sitting and says, “No. Not for a good few hours yet.”

 

I look at the fire and say, “I think it IS time for the coloured silk and burnished gold, though.”

 

And he says, “That’s your call, son.” So we stand up – and I collect the shawl and my half eagle. He squats down and says, “If you want to throw them into the flames – you can do it yourself. But if you want them placed on top – I’m afraid I will have to do that for you.” He repeats, “Your call.”

 

I think real hard.  “Placed on top,” I finally decide, even though I would rather do it myself. Because, ‘placed on top’, just feels right. I want to do it right. I might not be able to tell if it works – but, at least I will know I did my best.

 

ALEX

 

We sit back down. I have got him well wrapped up and of course we ARE close to a roaring fire so he should be okay. He is leaning against me. I am doing my best to fill the time with stories. He is tired out – and though he is clearly trying hard not to, he keeps asking, “Is it nearly time?”

 

“You know, Hannibal,” I say, gently, “If you DO fall asleep, you can absolutely trust me to wake you at midnight.”

 

“I won’t fall asleep,” he says. Then, “Promise?”

 

“Promise.”

 

Five minutes later he is fast asleep. So I just watch the flames and remember.

 

Thursday 24th December into Friday 25th December 1857

HANNIBAL

 

He keeps his promise, because when he wakes me up, he shows me his watch. It is five minutes to midnight. I rub my eyes – and he helps me up. Once more – I check under my coat and inside my jacket. It is still there.

 

He stands with his watch. Then he tucks it away.

 

“Midnight!” he says, “I suppose – I suppose you want to place this last thing yourself, huh?” I gulp and I nod. He might not let me. He is looking at the fire – and I know he is noticing the way hot fragments sometimes spit out of the top – all sudden. If – if he will not let me – I am going to try real hard not to make a fuss. Because, that will spoil it even more than letting him do it for me. And I do not want to spoil it now. Not when we are so close.

 

But he does not say, “No”. He is thinking. What he says is, “Wait”. He takes the knife he used to cut the cords and frees one of the long, long staves from the centre of the hurdle – leaving a little gap. Then he pulls out his handkerchief. He beckons me over.

 

“Listen,” he says, “If you can wrap your gift in the handkerchief we can tie it on tight to one end of this,” He is pointing at the long stave. “Then, if you hold tight to the other end I can lift you up high and let you hold it in the fire – without worrying too much about you getting spat at by the flames. You might get hit by a few smuts and get smoke in your eyes – but that should be about all. With a bit of luck – the cloth will burn through – and let the gift fall onto the log. Will that do?” He lays a hand on my shoulder. “I don’t want to spoil this for you, son. But – I don’t think your mother would appreciate me risking you getting burnt.”

 

I nod.  “That’ll do fine.”

 

So we do that. It burns for a while – then it falls. It seems to fall onto the log. Maybe. I peer real hard through the smoke – and rub my eyes, which are real sore. It is kind of hard to tell as the flames leap around the end of the stave. But – I think it worked. So I squeeze my eyes shut – and though I do not say anything – inside I am shouting as loud as I can.

 

‘Look! We are trying to reach you! We miss you! Please look. Please – just know we tried,’

 

I cannot see any BAD signs. So maybe.

 

It did not go wrong anyway.

 

ALEX

 

He has placed his gift in the flames. I have no idea what it was. Sarah would not have cared anyway. The fact that he made it, would have been enough for her. I set him down and he watches the fire.

 

“I sent it, anyhow,” he sighs. “That bit – is always true.” He tugs at my hand. I look down and he asks, “Did you bring anything?”

 

Even though it is only my son asking – and HE will not think me foolish – I feel the blood rush into my cheeks. Because yes. I did.

 

HANNIBAL

 

It is not a proper wrapped up present. Not like the one I made. It is only paper with writing on. His handwriting. Sheets and sheets of it.

 

“Is it a letter?” I ask.

 

He nods.

 

He rolls it up. I give him my handkerchief to wrap it up in because his has already gone in the fire. The stave is a bit shorter now with the end burnt off. He is allowed nearer than me, though so that is not a problem. Like my present it SEEMS to fall on the log. But it is very hard to tell.

 

We both stand back. I wait a minute – in case he is shouting inside – then ask, “Was it a good-bye letter?” Nothing. “Was it a love letter?” Nothing. He does not look at me. He is still watching the flames. But he slips an arm round me and hugs me to his side.

 

He says, “It was just a letter. I wrote it last night.”

 

“Do you think she’ll – she’ll know?” Nothing. I think he is crying. But it might just be the smoke making him rub his eyes. It is making me rub mine. “I’m real glad you sent it, anyhow.”

 

“So am I, Hannibal,” he says.

 

“We can go now if you like?” I say. “Long as, tomorrow, we come back for a few ashes to scatter on the fields. To help turn the year. So it’s all been done proper.”

 

“Okay,” he says.

 

As we walk back, I ask, “Will it work?”

 

“Oh, yes,” he says, “No matter how dark the winter; no matter how long it takes – the year turns and we get a spring. That part always works.”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

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