The sky of that Christmas Eve morning held the heavy promise of snow. The weak haze of the winter sun was masked by the purple-grey hues of the swollen clouds that hung low over the peaks of the Fells. The wet weather of previous weeks was now held captive in the iron grip of a harsh frost, that wrapped its crystalline fingers around the dormant landscape, imprisoning it in a stark white sheet of still anticipation. Curls of wood smoke rose tentatively from the rough stone dwellings that were cast carelessly across the floor of the small valley, a trifling measure of a hidden world that seeped into the still, breathless air of that winter’s morn.
Towards the end of a foot-worn track a small group had gathered outside a ragged, squat building, hunched together against the cold. Solemn and wordless as heavy white flakes began to fall around them, they stepped back in unison as the door opened. One by one they bowed their heads as they crossed the threshold into the murky darkness of the interior, the door closing behind them with a rasping scrape of wood on stone and the heavy click of the latch falling into place. The snow rocked and twirled as it began to fall in earnest.
Little time had passed when the door was opened once more. The light rhythmic ding of a bell broke the silence, slow and deliberate, muted by the snowy air that greeted it. Two men stepped out, each holding the smooth, wooden handle of a bier. Two more followed behind, the four bearing a burden too heavy for most to carry. The form atop was slight, in death as in life, weighed down by the mort sheet that draped languidly over the body. Summoned by the delicate peel, doors began to open and silent figures emerged to pay their respects as the sorrowful procession made its way towards the head of the valley and the hills beyond, a despondent juxtaposition to the approaching joy of Yule.
There were nine in all. Four bearers, five followers, each carrying a weight of their own. To the rear of the group an older woman, stooped and gnarled with age, determined to follow the road they were taking. It was sadly familiar to her with its twists and arcs, as unforgiving as the life they were all trying to endure. The rocky path was treacherous even in the soft warmth of the summer months and she moved with cautious step, her hand gripping tightly to the rough shawl drawn close around her face. She looked ahead to the bier, the chill of the air mirroring the bite of grief that gripped her heart. The body led feet first, lest a wandering spirit should try to return home.
The sound of rushing, tumbling water greeted them as they turned towards higher ground, the narrow path clinging to the contours of the beck that tumbled over the unforgiving rocks on its journey to the valley below. Behind the bier, the figure of a large, ungainly man led the tattered group of mourners. His shoulders were drawn up to his ears and his arms wrapped close around him against the cold. His unkempt beard bristled with the dew of his ragged breath, which clung to him with a determined desperation as he lent into the rising wind that drove the snow as they emerged onto the open wilderness at the top of the Fell.
Following on were his two sons, one more man than boy. The younger lent into his brother for comfort and support. The darkness under his eyes spoke of the vigil they had passed the night before, watching over the body through the darkest of hours, catching just a few moments of sleep in the shadowy time before the dawn.
More than a few steps further behind walked a young girl. Her face was white and drawn and her sharp blue eyes held a look of quite confusion. The tips of her fingers were red raw from the cold and the rising wind caught at her fair hair that spilled out from under its covering. In her hands she held a single sprig of gorse, the first buds of an early yellow bloom a promise of the spring to come. She clasped it protectively to her chest.
“Can we stop awhile?” The young boy asked. His father relayed the question forwards.
“Not here Lad, there’s no proper place for the bier” one of the bearers replied.
The young boy looked behind him and then to his brother, “Why can’t we stop awhile?” he asked again.
“No!” The cry was shrill, like the call of a solitary Kestrel. “You mustn’t set the bier to ground,” fretted the girl, “spirit might wander off! Imagine being lost up here, all alone!”
The young boy’s back twitched as he shivered. His brother placed an arm around his shoulders and drew him closer.
“There’s a Resting Stone not far on,” called back the bearer, “we’ll let up there a spell.”
The wind had dropped and the snow lightened as they made their way across the bleak landscape. Despite the cold, the ground was still boggy and they had to tread with care to keep to the path. The soft blanket of white was punctuated by coarse tufts of fell grass and the withered mounds of rotting bracken formed gentle undulations in the sparkling winter quilt. The cloud was lifting and the weak rays of the winter sun began to push through, revealing a vast milky terrain that reached out to the horizon.
The Resting Stone was on the leeward side of the hill as they began their descent into the neighbouring valley. They had carefully lain the bier down and the bearers had found a small stunted tree to lean against for a while. The boys sat close to their father, who had turned his back to the stone and was gazing out across the valley below. The old lady approached the bier and carefully arranged the mort sheet that was dragging a little on one side. Then she gently laid her hand on the form beneath and closed her eyes, tears forming under her lashes.
“You mustn’t worry, we still on the path.” She spoke quietly, as if she were comforting a child. The knuckles of her fingers were swollen and there was a slight tremor in her hand as she fussed a little more with the sheet. “Not long now.” The surface of the rock had been brushed clean, sage and ochre lichens knitting together the rough, uneven form that crouched behind a low stone wall. Many a silent traveller had been laid here, many more would.
The young girl smiled to herself as she watched the older woman by the stone. The gentle gesture of affection warmed her and for a brief moment her thoughts returned to the small dwelling in the valley and the holly wreath with its hard red berries that had been placed over the hearth. She glanced down at the sprig of gorse in her hand with its needle-like foliage, and wondered at the early buds that had formed at its tip. She twirled it slowly between her fingers before raising it to her nose and inhaling the sweet, milky fragrance that briefly carried her to a happier place.
They had reached a crossroads, pausing beside a small, weathered stone cross. Frost had crept up from the ground and laid white tendrils across its pitted surface, the snow resting a tender touch on one side. The bearers bowed their heads and murmured prayers, their quite voices clouding as they drifted into the cold air. Their weary acolytes, hands clasped, mumbled an ‘Amen’. No spirit would be returning this way, this journey had but one direction, their task to guide it towards a better place. The young boy lay his head onto his brother’s shoulder as he was gathered into the older boy’s arms, the scratchy wool the softest of pillows on the harshest of days. As his eyes drooped closed, he saw his grandmother wringing her hands for warmth, his father looking on, lost.
The girl observed the ritual from the periphery. The four sentinels before the cross, steadfast in their duties, silent, respectful. The family behind, crumbling, fallen. The only movement, the soft sway of the mort cloth in the cold breath of winter air. The party gathered itself together to move on. She reached for her grandmother’s hand, but the old woman, unseeing, turned away to the path ahead.
The small stone church was cold and damp and smelt of tallow. Unlit candles lined the alter and windows in preparation for the celebrations to come; not lit for them, not this day, not now. The priest’s words had been lost to them, drifting away on the tide of their grief as they approached their final goodbye. Death had been their uninvited guest this Yuletide, he had taken his fill and left. This grieving fellowship had brought their precious burden home.
They gathered around the shallow ditch as the mort cloth was drawn away. The knotted shroud, stains beginning to appear in places, had been gently placed in the cold earth. Laid to rest, laid in peace. Laid west to east to welcome the coming resurrection. There would be no marker, no indication, just a memory that would be passed on. A memory to be treasured, a memory to be loved. The bearers gathered up the bier and cloth and the party prepared to make the soulful journey home along the achingly desolate corpse road. The old lady bent down one final time beside the grave and gently placed something she had drawn from her pocket on the hands that were folded within the shroud. She whispered one last word of love before turning away, turning homeward, leaving one of the party behind.
Christmas dawned bright and clear. The snow of the previous day had settled into the landscape, softening its hard edges, shrouding the ugliness of the winter beneath its billowing, white cloak. The young girl listened to the singing that came from the church, joyous and hopeful. She thought of her family, their pale, drawn faces, and the ache she had felt as she’d watch them mourn her as she lay in the cold, hard ground; the despair she’d felt as they’d turned and left her, returning to a world that was now no longer hers. Christmas had always been her favourite time of year, its simple joys sustaining her through the darkness of the winter to the promise of the spring to come. This year was different. Winter had past and spring was already here. She smiled to herself as she twirled the sprig of gorse between her fingers that her grandmother had left for her, before raising it to her face to inhale its familiar scent, turning her blue eyes to the horizon and drifting towards the rising sun.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Ancient Corpse or Coffin Roads at one time crisscrossed Britain as traditional routes for people in remote communities to carry their dead to parish churches or burial grounds. Shrouded in superstitions, it was considered very bad luck to follow any other route to the burial site and there where many rituals performed along the way to prevent the spirit of the deceased wandering off. Coffin stones were often found along these routes as a place to rest the body without having to place it on the ground. This story is inspired by a route that is close to my home and was last known to be used for a burial in 1736. You can still walk the route over the fells today.
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.