Scents of autumn filled the cooling ir as Amos Hyde emerged from the wood at the edge of the summer meadow, trailing his hands through the tall grass, lost in thought. The evening sun was dipping low over the tree tops, reaching out across the lake with the last rays of the day before falling away into evening. A gentle breeze stroked the soft, green water, rippling its surface to the far shore, where the trees gave way to the rising hills and more distant mountains.
It was a busy time on the farm and he and his brothers spent much of their days helping their father gather in and prepare for the harsher months to come. At 13, he had greater responsibilities than his younger siblings, his sun darkened skin testament to the weeks he’d spent outside. The corn and potatoes had been gathered and stored and his hands were rough and blistered even before they’d started to turn the earth for the winter crop. The apple trees behind the house would be needing attention, but his brothers would play a part in that. Caleb and Seth would soon be going back to the school house, and he envied them that. The small, squat room behind the church was a place of wonder for him, where he soared and struggled in equal measure amongst the children of the town. His return would be delayed as he was still needed at home; his time in school would be less and less in the months and years to come, the reality of his life pulling him away to a different kind of learning.
He’d spent the morning turning out the hogs, for them to roam and forage the fruits of autumn before they would be brought back and slaughtered. His mother, recognising the need in him to still be a child, had sent him off with an apple and a piece of yesterday’s bread to make what he would of an afternoon of freedom. His wandering had taken him in the direction of the town, along the edge of the lake and through the peaceful wood, which was just showing signs of the great change it was about to undertake as it throws off its green mantle in favour of russets and golden hues before finally laying itself bare to the world in the harsh cold of winter.
The breeze stirred the rushes at the water’s edge, a little more urgently than before, bending the taller grasses in reverence, pulling at the corners of the boy’s shirt. He kicked off his dust-covered boots and waded across a narrow strip of cool water, feet sinking into the soft, silty bottom.
Amos climbed onto a spit of rocky land that reached tentatively into the lake and rose to meet the wood in a tangled outcrop of loose grey rock; tufted stragglers and creeping brambles made climbing up it a forbidding task. He settled into a dip that had been worn smooth by weather and many young boys before him and gazed back towards the water that curved gently across the front of the open meadow towards the jumbled buildings of the town, huddled together, as if for comfort, as the day began to fade away.
He bit into the fresh, ripe apple that his mother had taken from the tree that morning, wiping the sweet juice that escaped from the corner of his mouth on the rough sleeve of his shirt. His hair ruffled as the wind grew bolder, and he saw the rolling build of darkening clouds pushing in over the hills.
He was not alone in watching the approaching storm. Further along the foreshore stood a slight, pale figure, arms outstretched as if to embrace the twilight and the advancing turmoil. Her head was thrown back, face to the elements, a gentle smile on innocent lips. Her bare feet were washed repeatedly by the lapping motion of the lake, chalky against the warm earth. She wasn’t wearing a bonnet and her silvery white hair danced and fell around her shoulders as the light was chased away across the horizon, the translucent quality of her skin enhanced by the darkening sky. She turned to make her way back towards the town, gathering up her skirt to prevent a soaking as she splashed and skipped her way along the narrow beach.
Amos stood up, to better watch her go, and hardly noticed the first drops of rain that had begun to fall. She was a little further along the shore, nearing the first low timbers of the town, when she stopped, suddenly, and he wondered what had made her do so, or what the matter might be. She turned back to face the way she had come, and the place he stood, holding her fine, fair hair away from her face as it tangled in the wind. And then, to his surprise, she waved. Her whole arm swaying back and forth, just like the reeds in front of him – dipping, rising, before she was chased back into the town by the coming storm.
He made his way back to the meadow where he sat to tie his boots as the rain began to fall in earnest and the ever-darkening skies seemed to draw in around him, wrapping him in their gloom, heavy and expectant. He glanced with curiosity to the edge of the lake where the girl had stood, the water now cresting and rushing onto the land.
A whiplash crack tore open the darkened veil of sky as an ice-bright light flashed and hovered momentarily in a blinding blaze that lit up the ground and sucked the air from his chest before being washed away by the rolling roar and crash of thunder that followed angrily in its wake. The contrast of the lightning against the inky, storm-lashed land reminded him of the girl, a thought that lingered as he turned to the shelter of the woods and his long, wet journey home.
Cousin Margaret had come over from town. She’d bought with her her usual calm and her unswerving joy at seeing the boys she had once cared for. With her also came snippets of news and small items that Ruth had neither the time nor funds to buy. The two women had spent the afternoon at the table, and as Margaret prepared to leave with the apples and fresh cheese from the farm, Ruth had turned to the task of the evening meal and the noise and bustle that always came with the return of the family. The door burst open, and life came pouring in.
“Ma! There was a ghost in school today, whiter than you’ve ever seen!” The boy ran over to his mother as she bent over the open hearth, intently stirring a dark liquid in which lumps of meat and potato rose and dropped away, one hand digging firmly into the small of her back in an attempt to relieve the nagging ache that had started at sun-up and had stubbornly passed the day with her.
“I could see clean through her to the stool she sat on, she was trans…, trans….” He drew up short as he stumbled over the enormous word that refused to be tamed by his eager tongue. He crinkled his brow, his hair falling further over his face, in an attempt to forage out an alternative. The pot hissed and plopped at his side.
“Clean through her!” he began again, astonished eyes looking up at his mother.
“She ain’t no ghost, Seth!” A second boy stood by the large scrubbed table, hands placed authoritatively on his hips as he looked at his brother with disdain. A year older, he took his seniority very seriously – a year after all was a very long time!
“She comes from a lake high up in the mountains, not ours, mind, but like it! Her Ma took fright at something she saw when she was carrying, and it turned the babe. That, and all the snow here abouts – she’s that white because of the cold. Born in the lake’s freezing water, she was! Everyone knows!” Seth looked doubtfully at his brother, who in turn, pulled himself up in an attempt to give weight to his pronouncement.
“You sure, Caleb? Cos I could see the stool, I really could!”
“Uh-huh,” came the nonchalant reply, “Just ask Issac Cooper, he’ll tell you! Saw her swimming in the lake, at night, in the rain! Who does that?”
The outer door opened and a man strode in followed wearily by Amos. They both began removing their worn, outdoor boots, dragging off the day’s heavy work as the smell of their labours drifted into the room. Jeremiah crossed to the hearth and placed a hand gently on his wife’s shoulder. She briefly covered it with hers, before continuing her task.
“Shan’t be long,” she said.
“Best wash up then,” he replied. “Margaret” he acknowledged as he crossed the room, greeting the young boys with a smile and a brief touch as he passed.
“Pa! There’s a ghost in school!” Seth began.
Jeremiah looked back questioningly at the two women as he left the room.
“Nell Sawyer’s just a girl.” Their mother spoke calmly from her place, “Now go wash up and stop your imaginings!”
Amos sat at the table as his mother began placing bowls and spoons around. A loaf of hard bread was taken out of the cupboard, along with some fresh butter, recently turned.
“Those hands need washing too, Amos!” said Ruth, as she busied herself around the table. “Not God, nor your Pa wants dirty hands breaking his bread. Go on now!”
Amos pushed his chair back and made for the door.
“Will you go back to school in winter?” asked Margaret as he pulled on the latch.
“When the weather lets me,” he replied. “I hope so; depends what Pa thinks.”
“Come visit when you do. William could do with some good conversation!” She smiled at the young boy as he left the room, briefly glimpsing the young man he was growing into.
Autumn was passing into winter when Amos finally joined his brothers in the small room behind the church. It was a Thursday and the dullness of the day added to the gloom in the room as the gathered group struggled over their tasks.
He glanced up at the large chalk board set at the end of the room, scratching at the small tablet before him. Frustrated that the letters danced and twirled, refusing to settle into words that he could recognise with ease. He had looked forward to re-joining the small group in the school room, even more now that Charity Stanford, the youngest of the Reverend’s six, had moved from student to teacher, but his enthusiasm soon waned when he realised that he would be spending the morning on a writing task, rather than the numbers that he loved more. He blew out his cheeks, running a rough hand through his dark, course hair and tried once more to tame the tangle in front of him.
A few moments later he slumped back from his work, annoyed at his inability to focus on the morning’s labour. Being one of the oldest, he sat at the back of the room, giving him a vantage from which to observe the others as they silently worked, the only noise chalk on board, the random shuffle of a stool and the incessant sighs of his younger brother Seth, who also seemed to be struggling, which drew the occasional sympathetic glance from Miss Stanford from behind her table at the front. A small stove warmed the room. He drew his gaze back from his younger brother, passing over familiar crowns until, over to his side, he found himself observing Nell. Her fine, silver-white hair hung in a soft curtain across her back, slipping over her shoulder as she bent low to her writing. She lifted it away without thought as she concentrated on her work. She worked closer to her tablet than others, but he could still see the neat formation of letters and the seeming facility with which she filled her tablet with dusty marks. The cuffs of her blouse closed gently around delicate wrists, in turn supporting slender hands, porcelain white, translucent and fragile. He would normally envy another who found the work so undemanding; he could not remember a time when he himself had worked with such ease, but in place of envy there was curiosity, about what though he could not say.
She straightened in her stool, lifting a slender neck and arching out her back to afford a more comfortable position. He could not recall another like her in the town and knew very little of her family, save that they were recent arrivals and that Cousin Margaret had often remarked to his mother of the skill Nell’s mother possessed in embroidery – of little interest to him!
Lost in his thoughts he had not realised that he was staring until, to his shame, he found her looking with curiosity straight back. He felt a flush of red heat rise from his collar and spread across his face as he ducked his head down, feigning studious thought as best he could. Blood thrummed loudly in his head, and his stomach churned and when he had gathered his nerve to raise his eyes once more, he found himself looking into the brightest of crystal blue eyes haloed with a pink hue, glowing with the softest of smiles.
The school day ended with the loud scraping of wood on wood as stools were hurriedly pushed back and bodies and voices tumbled out into the cooling autumn air. Amos stood a little apart, looking out towards the lake, thinking on the long walk home, pulling his coat around him in anticipation of the cold. Nell came and stood beside him, and for a long while said nothing, sharing his contemplation.
“It is even more beautiful in moon light,” she began. Amos said nothing, aware that she spoke in a way different to others in town. It made him feel somehow less than he had felt about himself before. She turned towards him when he did not answer. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Best after a storm,” he ventured, “new somehow.” He sounded more gruff than he’d intended, keeping his gaze fixed over the dark water.
“Everything seems new after a storm,” she continued with confidence, her voice as light and delicate as her skin. “All the anger and fury passed and spent. Do you remember a few weeks back, how the light crept away as the storm came in over the lake and the rain lashed down? But after, all the stars in the sky were bright and clear and the moon sat low over the water.”
“Do you swim at night?” he asked, remembering what Caleb had said.
“Sometimes,” she replied, unconcerned by his enquiry.
“Not in the day, with the sun warming your back? My brothers and I pass hours when we can!”
“The sun hurts my skin, Amos, so it’s better if I don’t.”
A silence fell between them as he thought on what she’d said. Then, with purpose he turned to face her, looking at her directly for the first time. White. White as the winter’s snow and as fragile as the first flowers in the spring. Pale and luminous against the shadows of the shortening day.
“That day at the lake, why did you wave?” The question poured out of him.
“Because it would have been rude not to!” she replied, her easy manner confounding him.
“But I don’t know you!” he stated, assured by his own knowledge. She looked at him with question and surprise.
“But I know you!” she said patiently. “You’re Amos Hyde of Hyde Farm. Your brothers are Seth and Caleb. You live round the top of the lake. You’re family to the Markhams and you sit just over from me in class, when we’re both there!”
Her tone was not one of condescension or mockery. She looked at him with her aquarelle eyes, her light brows barely visible. He furrowed his forehead, digging his hands into his pockets.
“It’s a small town, Amos.” She smiled, turning away. He had never known to think so before. “I think it might snow!” she called back, as Seth and Caleb came racing over to their brother. He watched her walk away, as before, curious and a little uncentered as the first light flakes began to fall.
The snow fall was light and lasted but a short while, a light covering which soon faded. The shortening days meant that more work was done inside, taking care of the upkeep of the house and barn, replacing the damaged and old, the better to see through the worst of the weather until the first colours of spring begin to push through the warming earth. Some days Amos went with his brothers to study, others he spent with his father, tools in hand, a different kind of learning and one which led him down the path of his future life. In the small room of the school with its chalk dust and ruddy complexions the days were short as Christmas drew near. Nell was often there and he noticed how at first the others were wary of her, despite her open nature. And yet she seemed unconcerned. It drew his attention that, although she was always in company, she was also just a little alone.
“You friends with the ghost, Amos?” Seth asked one morning as he watched his brother sweeping out a dark corner of the barn. “’Cos I seen you talking with her.” His small legs swung underneath him in rhythmic arcs as he waited for his brother to reply. Amos didn’t look up from his task, pushing at the dust and soiled straw. Seth liked to chatter and would often fill the space in the air around him and others when he felt the need. “She cold?” he continued, “’Cos she looks like she would be, all white and such and being born in that lake…”
“You got nothing better to think on?” Amos cut in, turning to look where his brother sat. “Ain’t you got chores?”
“Got chores same as you; just restin’ up, is all.” He jumped down from his seat and picked up a length of twine which he began to coil slowly over one hand. “She looks strange though, don’t she?”
“You need to look at yourself in a glass before you go on ‘bout others looking strange!” smiled Amos as he continued his task. “Ma ain’t going to like the state you in ‘smornin’!” Seth ran his hand through his unruly hair and tried unsuccessfully to tuck a shirt corner into the top of his trousers. “And don’t go callin’ her Ghost; ‘taint a good thing to say.” Seth looked at his brother, “She’s just…” Amos paused, unsure. “She’s just …Nell,” and he turned his attention back to the broom in his hand.
A heavy snowfall a few days before Christmas put their journey to Church in doubt. The morning began crisp and cold, sprawling drifts undulating over open fields. They’d set off early along the edge of the lake, stark shadows of trees softened by white blankets as they passed through Taylor’s wood, silent and expectant. They emerged onto open ground as the Summer Meadow spread out before them, untouched and inviting. Ahead in the distance, the town was gathering outside the church. A blur of colour against the white of the snow that slowly took on the familiar shapes and faces of the people they knew. Reverend Stanford stood at the top of the steps, as was his habit, to welcome the town in. The family found a place with the Markhams as the small space filled with noise and heat. Amos looked around for his friends in the crowd, glimpsing grinning faces and waving hands and a silver-white tumble of hair before his view was obscured by a forest of bodies as everyone rose for the start of the service.
The doors of the church burst open with the joy of the season and the children inside, released from the serious side of Christmas, ran out towards the meadow to find their own patches of virgin snow in which to find delight. His brothers had run off with others to throw snowballs and run screeching with delight, not caring for falls or the cold, warmed by their laughter and expectations. His parents stood to one side in conversation with Cousin Margaret and William, their daughter Eliza holding tight to Margaret’s hand, while Samuel chased after Seth and Caleb. He noticed the Sawyers talking with the Reverend Stanford and searched the faces of others looking for Nell. He found her near the water’s edge, wrapped against the sharp air, a bonnet pulled low over her eyes. The sun had broken through the heavy sky, reflecting dancing light off the surface of the water, making the crystalline snow sparkle with life. He was used to seeing her contemplating the distance, but today she hung her head low as if down-heartened. A beat of indecision held him in his place momentarily, then he set off towards the water’s edge.
“Hello Nell,” he began as he drew up beside her. The dark hue of her clothes stood out against the pallor of her skin and the brightness of the snow.
“Merry Christmas Amos!” she replied, and although the tone of her voice conveyed all the wishes of the season, she barely lifted her face to him. He stood uncertainly beside her. It had not occurred to him that someone could be sad on a day like this, but he was sure that something was not right with her and he hesitated before he spoke again.
“Is something wrong, Nell? Has someone said something amiss?” He searched for something more to say, struggling with the contrast of the other children to Nell’s solitary figure.
“Oh, no! I’m quite well, really!” She turned towards him, keeping her face away from the glare of light. “It’s very bright this morning, that’s all.”
“Don’t you like it?” he asked, “Don’t you want to join the rest? Might think you strange if you don’t! I call it perfect for a Christmas Day!”
“I do like it!” she replied earnestly. “The snow is so beautiful, and you’re right, it is perfect for Yule!”
Amos waited unsure. A voice called over to Nell and he could see her parents looking over from beside the church.
“I love the snow. It makes me feel much more part of the world. But in the day time, if the sun is bright, the light seems to come from above and below. It sparkles so beautifully, like sugar on a cake, but it hurts my eyes and makes my head ache and I cannot look at things as you do. I cannot run and play as much as I would.” She kept her face turned down and he could not see her eyes under the shade of her bonnet. He could just perceive the gentle smile on her face, though it had an air of sadness.
She took a pale hand and placed it gently on his arm, just where his wrist came from his sleeve. The shock of her touch made him catch himself. Not cold, like the snow that lay around her. Both the warmth of her hand and her words as she wished him and his family the best of the season, left him watching her again as she walked away from him, unable to reply.
She walked to her parents, passing Dr Markham as he made his way towards Amos. The older man put his arm around the boy’s shoulder, following his gaze to the retreating figure of Nell.
“We have persuaded your parents to stay in town with us. Christmas is a time for family, don’t you agree?”
“I’d like that,” replied Amos, smiling up at his cousin’s husband, glancing back to where Nell had been.
They set off towards the others, William with his customary silence, Amos with a question on his lips.
“Can I ask you ‘bout somethin’?” Amos asked tentatively, hands in pockets, eyes down cast. Dr Markham paused in his stride, looking down at the young man beside him.
“I think that would be alright,” he replied with a considerate smile, as they joined the family and headed for the warmth of the Markham’s home.
A further fall of snow in the afternoon added to the festive feel of the day, and as night began to fall, the chatter and excitement gave way to the peace and comfort of the fireside. Amos stepped out into the chill air, closing the door softly behind him. His parents had returned to the farm earlier, but he and his brothers had chosen to stay on in town to spend more time with the family and enjoy what diversions could be had. He had not set out with a purpose, but his path to the meadow and the lake took him past Nell’s modest house where he stopped and went no further. He looked at the low door hung with firs and berries. The night sky was clear and bright with stars, and a half moon cast a gentle light on the ground. The house was not yet dark, and he imagined the small family gathered inside. He did not hear the soft scrape of the sash as it opened above him.
“Are you going to the lake, Amos?” She did not express surprise that he was there; her question hung in the air around him.
“Thought I might,” he replied. “You wanna come?” he asked, searching for something more to say before adding, “with the sun gone an’ all.”
“Alright,” she replied, drawing her head in and closing the window in one smooth movement. He dug his hands in his pockets and watched his breath rising in the cold air as he waited for her to come out.
They walked the short distance together in silence, the only sound the crisp tread of their boots in the snow. The meadow lay out before them covered with a soft fabric of new snowfall. Undulating forms cast downy shadows, witness to the play had earlier in the day. In the distance, the edge of Taylor’s Wood swallowed up into a black horizon, the half-moon’s delicate light grazed over the surface of the lake as it gently lapped at the frozen shore. They stopped short of the water’s edge, looking up at the pricks of light sprinkled across the sky.
“Do you know their names?” she asked.
“Some,” he replied. He turned in his place to find his bearings. “See there,” he pointed low on the winter horizon, drawing out a shape with the point of his finger, “that’s the Great Bear.” She followed the pattern he painted from star to star. “And above, kinda upside down?” again drawing from point to point, “That’s the Little Bear. You see em?” He stood closer to her so that she could more easily follow the movement of his hand.
“I do, yes.” They stood once more in silence, heads tilted back at the night sky.
“You wanna build somethin’?” he asked.
She turned and smiled at him. Looking at her then he thought how he was the one who stood out, was misplaced in this winter landscape and how she seemed to fit right in. How the day and night had made them change places and that she was the one who now belonged and not him.
“Snowmen!” She laughed, and they set about their task. As the gentle light illuminated the meadow, they began making mounds and shapes. Spheres of snow topped with smaller globes, ungainly, uneven. A collection of misshapen figures emerging from the ground, dancing in a ring, carefree at the end of Christmas night.
Her light laughter rang softly into the night as they ran and played, until she fell happily back into the snow and he beside her, both smiling up at the sky.
“There is something missing from the sky,” she said seriously, turning to face Amos, her cheeks glowing, breath misting before her.
“Missin’?” He looked into the darkness, furrowing his brow.
She moved her arms and legs in the snow beside him, then jumped up and offered him her hand. He reached out tentatively and let himself be pulled up, standing close to her, still holding her hand.
“Look!” she smiled, “an angel!”
He looked down at the shape she’d made in the snow. The curved wings and flowing robe, etched out under the dark night sky. A smile began to grow inside him as he looked again at the unexpected angel on the meadow, and her sapphire, starlit eyes.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Set in 1900, “Angel” is the fourth story in the “Wolfe Lake” series.
Kate Aranda Nye is a British writer of short stories and poetry. Growing up in Gloucestershire (UK) with her two brothers and an array of pets, she was often found in a comfy corner with her head in a book, and would now describe reading as one of her greatest pleasures. After achieving a degree in English Literature, she spent many years living and working in France and Spain before returning to the UK with her family, and is now settled in the beautiful Lake District in the north west of the country. Much of her work is inspired by the landscapes around her. She often collaborates with her older brother, the composer Richard Nye to produce scored audio versions of her stories and poetry. Her work has appeared in "Writers' Forum" magazine (UK) - "Jenny Hyde" from the "Wolfe Lake" series of short stories - and she has collaborated on winning entries for "15 Minutes of Fame" and the "Kernow Awards" with her poems "John Marrack" and "The Bal Maiden". Most recently her short story "The Corpse Road" was the winning entry in a Christmas Ghost story competition, the audio version of which was published on Facebook.