Old Gods Pt.4

Winter has visited me three times in my life.

I first saw him on my wedding night. The whole day had been a beautiful affair. My parents must have spent half their savings on me, and I could see that there was absolutely no expense spared. Dappled sunlight spilled into the courtyard where the priest, dressed in the finest silks and gold-threaded vestments, weaved the ribbon between my husband and I. Tables were laid for our meal as the festivities continued and countless well-wishers eat our food, but my love and I were blind to them all as we sat down.

Soon enough, the meal was served, and we dug into a starter of crayfish prepared in garlic and soft butter. A fresh, succulent lamb was slaughtered before the gods and roasted above an open pit, before we gorged ourselves on lemon cakes that drooled and oozed with honey. Traditional wines and biscuits were given to us by my father, and the merrymaking went on long into the dusk.

All the while, my heart burst with love, and I was entirely content when it finally got to the time where my husband lead me to my new home, and, with solemn duty, led me to bed. I was young, but not naïve. My mother had told me what to do, and I knew that the gods demanded it, but it still hurt. Eventually though, my love was finished and the uncomfortable act was done. He showered me with compliments and kisses for a while but, soon, he was asleep.

I could not join him, though. I was happy as a girl could be, of course. My handsome man had taken me to my marriage bed and I had pleased him as far as I could tell. There was no physical problem that made me stay so alert, but for the life of me I could not join him. I remember now, I was watching the moon gibbous and colossal and distant as I stood nude on the balcony, when Winter walked in.

My first thought was to cover up, but as he looked at me I knew that he had no interest in my naked form. He was dressed in fine clothes, a black ensemble broken only by the shocking white silk scarf fastened tight around his neck despite the warm spring night. His hair and beard were dark, though the silver moonlight picked and highlighted the sparse white hairs that salted his hair. Laughter lines traced a filigree of shadow across his face.

I should have been scared, or at least woken Harry, but I didn’t fear the man. In truth, he seemed kind. He simply looked at my love, draped across the bed and then looked at me. Sadness crossed his face momentarily, and I felt such compassion for this man, this stranger. All I wanted to do was to go to him, to talk to him, but as he turned and left the room, I knew that that could never be. I shivered and, suddenly, felt the true extent of my vulnerable nakedness.

Twenty years on from that night, a messenger came with news to my husband’s door. My Harry bade me dress in a grave voice, and we received the boy in our garden. He told me that day of my father’s death. In his advanced age he often went to stay with friends out in the country who owned a modest farmstead. He’d been ill for a couple of years, and the asthma he’d had since childhood worsened with time, so I naturally assumed he’d died of illness. That, however, was not the case.

According to the boy, my father had been accustomed to taking a quick walk around the farm every morning. Yesterday morning he had been on this walk when the barn had caught fire, the summer heat having dried the hay to a tinder. Without any concern for his own safety, despite his age and frailty he rushed in to help, but soon the smoke overcame him and, when the barn collapsed over him, there was no way to help. Only charred bones had been found. Later, I learned that it was difficult to tell him apart from the horses.

I still feel bad now, but I did not at once pay attention to thoughts of my father, or to the youth who had ridden night and day to tell me what had happened. Instead, my mind focused upon something I could see beyond the apple tree, past the thick hedge and across the broad, slow river. The man standing there looked at me with eyes so grey and pale that they seemed devoid of colour. The man with the shocking white scarf and the dark, heavy clothes despite the heat. The man who’s face exuded compassion and sympathy. It was only when he left that I began to scream with grief.

He left behind a huge amount, my father. I was his only child and, aside from a sizable sum he promised the priesthood, all became mine. I spent my days in black mourning clothes in the garden I had grown up in, in the sweltering heat of summer. My husband and I had never been better off.

Much later, my husband died too. It did not surprise anyone who knew him well. Over years I watched him become thin, watched the smiles become rarer and the laughs become less sincere. As the skin pinched around his jagged cheekbones and his chin, I begged him to see a doctor. Harry, though, was an old world man, stubborn and religious to the very end, and his end it did become. He didn’t even have the grace to die alone, ultimately, didn’t even say goodbye to his wife of thirty-five years. His last moments were spent at an ancient altar in the woods, surrounded by falling, copper leaves, where one last priest tried to pray him back to good health.

I hadn’t spent a night apart from Harry, excepting those dark summer nights streaked with bright, purple grief after my father’s death. That hurt perhaps more than anything else that day, when I lay down on the same bed I had thirty-five years ago, when I was young and beautiful and full of hope and, now, knew that it had come to nothing. Thirty-five years with a man I loved, and now I had nothing real to show for it. No children, no grandchildren, and I would never feel his arms around me like I did that first night.

Winter joined me in my bed that night, and I knew that what he did to me, he did for me. I lay with him time and time again, blurring into each other until dawn, when he put on his dark clothes and his white scarf, and left into the crisp autumn morning. I knew then that I was at last with child.

When you were born, my son, I knew that you were the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen. You had your father’s beautiful dark hair and pale eyes right from that first day. I have never stopped loving you.

Tomorrow, you may see him. I am old now, and my bones have seen too many springs. My skin has been warmed by summer winds and my blood chilled by the first bitter rains of autumn. Tomorrow, I will have my Winter, and he will have me.

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