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The story of a woman fighting against a hard winter and the illness that has stricken her daughter. Though it seems she is fighting a losing battle on both accounts, she refuses to give up hope that the coming of spring will melt away what ails them.

Hope’s Thaw

 

 

Angry winds bend submissive trees to their will, which was much the way of the world in the year 1906; especially in territories as harsh as northern Herkimer County, New York. Nature forced civilized society to contend with its wrath, to build our world around it.

Snow bombards the sides of a lifeless and deserted farm. The homestead stands in poor repair, the shutters hanging off only one remaining hinge, the porch roof caved in from the rotted shingles and the weight of snow and fallen tree branches, moisture having taken its toll on the wretched thing.

The chimney, though crooked, still spouts smoke; the only sign of habitation. Underneath the snow, inside the walls, resided a feeble, drained mother and her sickly young daughter. Alone, the two survived on dried beans, the remainders of salted meats, grit, stale crusts of bread and musty water from sealed canisters.

When the pantry was full, they enjoyed fruit preservatives, maple syrup and fresh milk products; but as the food supplies slowly diminished, so did the child’s health along with her mother’s strength.

The woman devotedly attended her ailing daughter. Sacrificing the remaining nutritious food to the child; consuming only enough herself to function.

As her daughter lay shivering under mounds of animal skins and quilts, a damp towel across her brow, the woman sat running a soft bristled brush through the girls wispy, moist hair which not too long ago shimmered like spun gold in the warmth of the summer sun, now bland and straggly, withering under the melancholy winter clouds.

A pot of mush hung over the small fire, gurgling and bubbling above the flaming embers. Every so often the mother would cross to the hearth to poke the fire or stir the pot. The only occupied spots in the small house, the fireside and bedside, both energies within dwindling.

But as long as a single breath escaped the girls lips, her mother would hold faith that her child would live to see another spring thaw, and nothing would convince her otherwise. And this hope would preserve her life. After all, Hope was her daughters well fitted Christian name, and Hope she would remain.

The throes of a fever-corrupted sleep possessed the girl, but as her mother washed her hot skin from a basin of cool water with a soft cloth, she rests peacefully, barely conscious, in a dreamlike state.

The gentle humming of the woman against the wind howling down the chimney and the crackling of the fire lull the sense of stressed ease where there is no day, only eternal night. These are the hymns that the woman mutters her silent prayers to. Her daughter stirs and groans turning her head to face her mother, opening her sleepy, heavy lidded eyes.

She wrenches her arm out from beneath the quilts and skins, reaching out to her mother’s face. The woman cups her Hope’s hand to her face, placing her other hand to the girl’s hot, moist cheek.

The child’s eyes flutter closed against her tears.

“Mamma,”

The girl is under sleeps spell once again.

Her faith restored, the woman takes up the only book she owns, the only one she had ever read, like her mother before her. She read aloud.

 

“Samuel 20:42

At last Jonathan said to David,

'Go in peace,

for we have sworn loyalty

to each other in the Lord's name.

The Lord is the witness of a bond

between us and our children forever.'"

 

Hours later, the mother awakes; slouching against the wall behind her small wooden stool, the good book leaning against her stomach, and her head lolled to the side. She stretches, wiping sleep from her eyes and sits straight. As she glances to her child she smiles, reaching a hand to push hair from her daughter’s eyes.

As her hand grazes the girl’s forehead; the Bible drops from her lap landing with a heavy thud onto the creaky wooden floor. The woman kneels besides the cot her child slept upon. In a stunned silence, the woman takes her babe in her arms. She pushes her daughter’s hair back, her head sagging against her mother’s bosom, jaw slack and her eyes partially open.

The woman gently shakes her daughter by the shoulder, quietly whispering her name. As the girl remains silent, her mother’s shaking becomes more desperate; her cries more pleading.

The wind and fire alike are humbled against the sounds of utter despair. Even the rasping old house seemed to still in respect.

The woman refused to release her child from her embrace. Long after she had shed all her tears, she remained kneeling at Hope’s sickbed, the child cold in her arms.

As the hours of the day returned to their normal length, the woman continues to sing to and wash her child, as if all was as it was before. The woman, now starving herself, had begun to waste away. Her thin face grows thinner, her cheeks turning in on them-selves, her eyes sinking into the dark holes beneath them.

But as the air grows stale with the scent of death, she awakens to the realization that her daughter would not make it till spring. Nevertheless, she would not allow her child’s spirit to remain on the mortal plane for all eternity.

Her answer came to her, for nature had taken pity on the woman; the winds settled, and the snows stilled. The woman looked to a crack in the shutters which revealed a dull grey sky, but sky nonetheless.

Slowly, she rose from the fireside. She picked up her daughter’s body, wrapping her in layers of quilts and furs. Laying her precious bundle down, she tried the front door, but it would not budge. She pushed and leaned until her hands and shoulders were splintered; she used all her weight against the door, but to no avail.

Exhausted, she sunk to the floor in frustration, looking up at the crack of sky through the shutters.

She took a quilt and wrapped it around her fist and opened the shutters. Then she raised her wrapped fist and busts the glass from a few panes of the window, knocking out the dividers. She gently picked up the girl and carefully slid her wrapped body through the window and down the pile of snow on the other side, then wrapping a thick quilt about her own shoulders, she pushed herself through. The woman then slung the child gently across her back, hobbling through the thick, cold snow and around the back of the house.

There, beyond the blinding glare of white and the sharp frozen air, stood the icehouse. She crawled through the snow, her hands and feet numb and her nose icy cold. Falling again and again, she did not let her determination falter, and she finally reached it.

She swung open the heavy door and tumbled into the empty shed along with the small pile of snow which leant upon the door. Sitting up, she placed her daughter against the wall and began to make a soft bed of snow and blankets in the middle of the small space. When she was satisfied with it, she laid the swaddled body in the center of the makeshift bed.

A while the woman remained with her daughter until she felt herself grow drowsy. Rising creakily, she slipped past the door and shut it tightly behind her. The icy winds had risen and pushed against her as she made her way back. Small icicles speared her vulnerable flesh and her feet dragged in the snow. Her body was frozen beyond pain, or was it her mind that was numb?

As she reached the porch, she crawled back in through the window and tumbled onto the cold, hard floor. Cut and bruised, she stood and closed the shutters, then took a quilt which she pinned best she could over it.

Exhausted, she dragged herself over to the hearth, cupping her hands to her face and breathing hot breath into them. She clumsily poured herself a bowl of broth which sat seeping over the fire. She cupped her hands around it and let the steam warm her frozen nose. She fell asleep there, by the fireplace.

The days passed slowly without the sun, each one blurring into the other. When the first bird sang, and the snow made way to reveal moist soil, the sun returned.

As the first ray of sunlight pierced through the dark winter clouds and made its way past the shuttered windows, the woman awoke. She stretched and yawned, crossing the room and pushed open the front door. Taking out a shovel, she made her way to the hillside behind the homestead under what had been a proud and healthy young oak last spring. Unwavering, she broke ground and started to dig.

For hours she dug into the ground, dirt smeared over her face, arms, and tattered skirts. Six feet in the ground, she threw the shovel to the surface and awkwardly pulled herself up, making her way to the icehouse.

Once she had her daughter, damp from the melted snow, she took her to the grave. She climbed into the pit. Gently, she lowered the corpse down. She stood there a moment before turning and climbing again to the surface.

She began to shovel the earth back into the grave, though her hands were already splintered and raw from frostbite.

 

The sun was setting as she finished the last touch on her daughter’s grave. She staked the wooden headpiece into the base of the grave and dropped the chisel and hammer to the ground. The inscriptionread;

“Here lies Hope; Beloved”

She crossed the grave and kneeled beside it, resting her hand on the headpiece. Her eyes pooled, a tear escaped and ran down her nose.

She curled up onto the fresh dirt, sinking her fingers and toes into the soil. As her tears finally escaped in full force, she let go;


 

Relentless winds a-but the walls;

my child shivers in colds throes,

our home, it groans; my heart it paws;

and as the fire slowly tires;

my dear child, my Hope, shall rise,

Winters chill courageously vanquished;

a-born the sun; my child’s companion;

till the frosts again shall come, a later day,

so Hope again may thaw her way.


 


Submitted: April 22, 2014

© Copyright 2022 Tess Sullivan-Knobeloch. All rights reserved.

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