The first flake fell with a gentle rocking motion, lazily making its way downwards before settling on the end of a small branch of a sapling that was reaching out from under the canopy. A large white winter moon hung low in the night sky, its luminous form muted by heavy cloud, casting an ashen glow all around. The air was still and cold and expectant.
The Earth paused.
A second flake of snow drifted in the frosty air, turning slowly, silently. It was soon joined by another and then another until a downy cascade filled the air.
The edge of the small wood cast thick misshaped shadows in the muffled moonlight over the pathway that ran along its edge, marking a boundary between the trees and the dark, still lake that lay motionless in the night.
This was the third fall of snow in as many days.
The path was well used and so still visible despite the heavy blanket of white that lay around. Footprints and tracks wound their way along in both directions, though at this late hour there was no one to be seen and the snow was filling the dips and grooves left by the travellers and animals that had passed.
For two hours or more it continued to fall thick and heavy, swaddling the shapes of the trees laid bare by winter, hiding low shrubs under soft mounds and dissolving into the black mirror of the surface of the water.
The horse blew out heavily through its mouth, steam rising rhythmically from its nostrils, its muffled steps slow and heavy. The bells on its harness the only clear sound in the sharp night air as they shook in time with the animals’ gait. The rasping glide of the sleigh it pulled followed behind.
It was difficult to discern the height of the man hunched over on the faded leather bench. Worn pelts covered his knees and a thick, plain blanket was wrapped tightly around his shoulders, held firm at his chest by a course metal pin. A brimmed hat was pulled low over his face, his hands hidden in mittens that could just be seen under the blanket holding lightly on the reins. He looked straight ahead. Now the snow had stopped and the cloud had cleared, the moon shone brightly on the path ahead. The dark expanse of sky to his right was peppered with stars, the water was still. To his left the silent grey wood faded into a black abyss. The world slept. A clump of snow slipped slowly from a burdened bough and landed with a dull thud on the ground.
It had been her stillness that he’d first noticed about Margret. It was on a visit to Hyde Farm, a remote dwelling some distance along the lake from the town, beyond Taylor’s wood. Jenny Hyde, the grandmother of the household, had been taken ill. He’d arrived in driving rain on a cold night in March, just as winter was crossing into spring, and having shaken off his great coat and broad-rimed hat, he’d been shown into a small room at the back of the house.
The cloying heat struck him as he entered, wood smoke mingling with the smell from the tallow candles that dimly lit the space and added to the thick, enveloping atmosphere. The old woman had been lying in the centre of a broad, wooden bed, the sagging mattress emphasised her frailness, blankets tucked neatly to her chest, papery hands lying motionless at her side.
Margret had been standing in the far corner, behind the frontier of family members that had lined the opposite side of the bed from where he stood. And her stillness came not from the fact that she did not move, for it was she who quietly saw to all requests and requirements; it came from within, from a calm and assurance that shone out to him from the gloom and sorrow of the sick room.
There was little he could do for Jenny Hyde, save make her comfortable in her last days and hours. She had all but passed – a sudden seizure robbing her of her sense and time. He quietly explained this to the woeful group gathered around her. While he spoke, Margret had appeared at his side and leaned over the old woman, gently dabbing at the corner of her mouth with a piece of worn linen where an ooze of spittle was slowly escaping. He’d noticed her thick plait of hair that hung down her back and slid toward her shoulder as she stooped to her task. In the half-light he could not make out its shade. It was only on a later visit that he was to see that it was a dull brown in colour, like well-worn oak, smoothed with use, and that it was greying a little where it was drawn behind her ears, ears which were surprisingly small and childlike – a detail which he would later wonder at and marvel that he should have noticed.
Mrs. Hyde, the farmer’s wife and daughter in law of the dying woman, had given him hot coffee and whiskey, fresh grinds added to the pot in his honour. Jeremiah, her husband, had pressed a dollar into his hands and expressed his thanks. The talk turned to the farm, the coming spring and the expectation for the year. He in turn spoke of the town and those within it with whom they shared a common acquaintance. Margret had not been there. She had ushered three young boys from the room, presumably to their prayers and then bed. But it had been she who had helped him on with his coat as he readied to leave, still steaming from its time by the kitchen stove. He had mumbled his thanks, and she had addressed him as Doctor Markham and wished him a safe journey home, speaking with a quiet yet firm voice. She had held the lantern for him as he readied his trap. The rain had stopped, but the damp clung to the cold night air. Nothing more was spoken, there was nothing to say, but he knew that she had waited at the open door until he’d crossed into the lane, turning towards the wood and the lake and fading into the cloudy night.
The man was startled from his thoughts by a swoop and a cry. The dark shadow of an owl, swift, purposeful, swept out from the wood. The muffled thump as it dove its talons into a mound of snow encasing a forlorn clump of bulrush belied its force. The owl extended its wings in an exaggerated arch and flapped and danced briefly. It then looked around expectantly as if awaiting praise or comment before bending its beak to the prey beneath. He watched in fascination as he passed, shifting his position in an effort to draw the blanket in closer. The owl cared little for his contemplations.
The path drew him a little further into the woods as it swung in an elegant curve to his left. The soft swish and glide of the sleigh small comfort as the murk of the night closed behind him and the light “ting, ting” of the harness bells was swallowed and lost. But still there was the crispness in the air, the utter stillness of the night and the impenetrable silence of snow.
The woods in spring were a different world. The sunlight would flicker and dance through the branches that carried sweet smelling blossoms and unfurling leaves, fresh green and bright. The ground beneath gave off a sweet, damp scent full of the promise of the emerging carpet of primrose and bluebells that would cover the hollows and rises of the undulating earth. Birdsong and all manner of life resounded with a tumultuous joy.
The Earth breathed.
He would not see Margret again until late April. Jenny Hyde had lived a fortnight more, and he had returned to the farm on one occasion to offer what little help he could and had paid his respects when she’d left them. Margret had been elsewhere. Since then, his world had been his and hers, her own.
Spring had brought a renewed bustle to the town. Work began in earnest, doors opened and the inhabitants ventured forth to meet, talk, share and put a shoulder to the wheel of the town to drive it forward into the year. Chatter returned to the streets as people went about their day to day, and it was here that he would often catch glimpses of her – running errands; with the boys; church on Sunday; and on occasion they would speak – small talk, unimportant, polite – but talk they would and she would always call him Doctor Markham and ask after his time and wish him the best of the day.
Margret Fettle, for that was her name, was a cousin, though distant of Mrs. Hyde. Her age, he guessed, was around 30, a few years younger than himself and it seemed her fate was that of many an unmarried cousin and sister – to do the fetching and carrying and caring of those in her family who had need of her. But her silent strength still spoke to him. Her calm grace, soft voice and unassuming ways lifted his being, and as the days lengthened into summer, so his heart grew until the thud, thud, thud of its beat was so loud that he was afraid that others about him would hear.
He would have called himself a quiet man. He liked the company of others, but found it hard to see himself beyond the self-imposed image of his profession. Respect he hoped he had and perhaps a measure of admiration too, but having joined the town rather than growing up within its community, he never quite felt as if he belonged, no-matter how much he dearly wished it. Marriage had never crossed his mind. He was not a handsome man; this he knew well enough and he lacked the confidence that many a less favoured man displayed. A childhood pox had marked his face and any whiskers that he tried to grow were sparse and course. He was neither short nor tall, though he held himself well and his mellow, brown eyes often shone with warmth. But, he was above all, a man of great patience and showed an understanding of his fellow man that meant he was much loved – though he himself was unaware of this. All that he was aware of now was Margret, and he felt lost.
Back beside the lake now, the summer meadow opened out before him a vast plain of white dust, a great contradiction to the oil black lake and the clear night sky. He could see lights from the town in the distance and the horse, sensing it was nearing the end of its journey started moving with more speed, pushing its way through the fresh drifts with renewed energy, jangling bells, blowing steam. Earlier that day the children from the town had run shrieking across this sparkling wonderland, churning up the snow, building and dressing snowmen, tossing snow at one another. Now their games lay blanketed under a fresh layer of soft powder, renewed promise for a new day.
The summer fayre was always a great occasion. The town and surrounding communities would gather in the meadow at the edge of the lake where they would picnic and drink, listen to music and dance and enjoy as one the warmth of the sun and the cool waters. He had wandered through the groups of families and friends and had been invited to join many. So, he would sit and talk a little, sip lemonade and smile and then take his leave and wander some more.
He had come across the Hyde family later in the afternoon, Jeremiah and his wife, the three boys and Margret. The boys had run, splashing at the water’s edge, laughing and shouting at the shock of the cold water before running back, their feet pink and tingling. He had sat and spoken with Jeremiah for a while as the women tidied their belongings and then it seemed that they all fell into a companionable silence, content in the warmth of the afternoon. He found himself looking at Margret as she watched the children play. Her face had been coloured by the summer sun, a faint cluster of freckles lay across her cheek and a trace of perspiration followed the line of her hair. She smiled to herself, the corners of her mouth caught in a twitch and then seeming to sense that she was being observed, she turned her head and looked back at him.
He held his breath, caught out, exposed. His blood popped and fizzed in his ears and he felt himself tremble as he watched for a response. Would she frown in a confused, embarrassed way, not wishing the attention from the man that gazed on? Or she would smile self-consciously and turn way, dropping her chin and blushing at his directness? Margret had done neither. She had steadily, silently held his gaze, calm and unchallenging, strong and sure. He felt his shoulders drop as he slowly breathed out, the sounds around him seeped into the silence that had enfolded him with his fear. Hope crept into his heart, for she had seen him he realised, as no one before had. In her silence she had looked at him and into the depths of him and he could not turn way.
The Earth Sang.
His horse had been stabled and he now sat by the warmth of his hearth, much as he had sat by the hearth at Hyde Farm earlier that evening. He had visited often since the summer and Jeramiah had been glad of his company. It had taken his wife to point out that perhaps it wasn’t entirely for him that the town doctor had chosen to spend so much time there, and Jeramiah hadn’t minded.
He had been shy at first, stumbling over his words as he still often did. But she had been calm and kind and had shown the same patience and understanding for which he had come to be known. And soon the words had not mattered, her calm silence and his mellow eyes spoke all for them. They passed the evenings together, that drew ever longer as winter approached, in quiet communion, watching and waiting as the hard frosts and first falls of snow gathered them to this night.
No one had expected the snow fall again so soon and there was some concern as he prepared for his return to the town. But he was confident in the way and his horse that would guide him. He knew these woods and the lake as he now knew his heart.
Her breath had been warm and sweet as she’d pulled the old blanket around him, pinning it at his chest and arranging, once more, the pelts over his knees. He had looked into her face, framed by sparkling pricks of light in the dark expanse of sky.
“Margret, I….”, he began, his nervous words tumbling into the night.
She had lain her warm hands on his and a calm washed over him as she had looked into his eyes.
It was snowing once more as a new peace settled within him. Thick flakes, dancing, swirling as he gazed out of the window at the muted moonlight in the street below. Silently turning, rocking, falling, silently drifting snow.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
“The Silence of Snow” comes from a series of five interlinking stories, collectively entitled “Wolfe Lake”. Each story is a stand alone piece, but together they give glimpses into the lives of three generations of the same family living in a small rural community between 1870 and 1920.
The story’s fully-scored (original music) audio file was produced by myself and the composer, Richard Nye.
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.