The Rites of Winter
a short story by Christopher Evans
Beneath the suffocating night'
A. E. Housman
There were heavy snows that November, and by the turn of the year Stella's supplies of fuel were running low. She was forced to collect brushwood from the countryside surrounding the village, and celebrated her twenty-second birthday with mild frostbite of the hands. She kept a fire burning in the main room throughout the day, banking it up at night so that a residual warmth and even an ember remained when she rose the following morning. It was just as well that the inn was empty of guests and she did not have to provide extra fires; it would be difficult enough to survive the winter as it was.
The bleak, bitter weather reflected her inner state of mind. Her husband, Thomas, had died that autumn, a withered, exhausted man who looked twice his thirty-six years. He had expired in her arms without a word, as if he was glad to give up the ghost of his life. Their last guest of the season, a woman called Marguerite, had left the previous day. With her had gone Thomas's last hope of survival. Marguerite: pale and blonde, with a smile that enchanted and blue eyes as deep and ancient as an ocean; she had stolen Thomas away, bewitched him then sucked the life from him.
The doctor who had come reluctantly from the village had told her that a wasting disease had killed him. Stella knew better, for only weeks before her husband had been a vigorous man in the prime of his life and no disease could act so quickly. But she said nothing, aware that the villagers had never liked her or her husband. The inn lay on the outskirts of the village, but it might as well have been on the moon for all the contact they had had with it. When she and Thomas had taken over the inn two years before, the previous owner had warned them that the villagers mistrusted anyone who sheltered travellers bound to or from the city. They believed the city to be a source of evil; its inhabitants possessed demonic powers, they claimed, and could conjure spirits from shadows, invade the minds of others, turn their enemies to ash with their gaze, and much more.
She and Thomas had dismissed these stories as superstition born of drudgery; they had never visited the city, but came from a town in the west where all shades of opinion were tolerated but none blindly accepted. Now Stella regretted their dismissiveness; Marguerite was no ordinary woman but a succubus who thrived by draining the lives of those she seduced.
The doctor had departed saying that he would send someone from the village to bury Thomas. But that night the temperature had dropped sharply and there were heavy snowstorms. Thomas was lying in the wine cellar where she had found him dying. The tiny window high in its wall had blown open during the night, and the next morning his body was covered with a layer of snow. Stella bolted the window but did not disturb the body; winter had arrived, the earth would soon be frozen, and there would be no burial for her husband until spring.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, Stella wrote a letter to the authorities in the city, telling them what had happened and demanding that Marguerite be tracked down and dispatched as a witch. She trudged through two miles of knee-high snow to post the letter, but on her return had immediately realised the futility of the gesture. Even assuming that the authorities believed her story, she had no evidence that they would act on it; indeed, if such creatures as Marguerite were commonplace in the city, perhaps these very authorities might be numbered among them and would seek to protect their own kind. There was also a more obvious practical difficulty: if the road to the city was impassable with snow, postal deliveries would be suspended until the weather improved.
She spent the dark, chill months huddled around the fire, feeling strangely secure in her solitude. She hardened her mind against thoughts of her dead husband; if she became restless she would wash linen, iron curtains or take a brush to corners of the inn that had not been swept in years. Some nights she would wake to the darkness and the keen wind outside with the fleeting memory of some disturbing dream which faded even as she tried to snatch at it. Then she would remember how Marguerite had mesmerised Thomas from the moment he saw her and had sapped everything vital from him before vanishing.
One morning in March Stella awoke to find the air milder and the frost flowers vanished from her window. The ribbon of road which led north to the city was visible in patches, and snow fell from tree branches. In recent years the weather had become violently capricious; as quickly as winter had come, it had departed. Soon travellers en route to the city would start arriving from the south.
She removed the caged hooded crow from its winter quarters in a south-facing room and set it on the tall pedestal outside the inn; the bird had been inherited from the previous owner and gave the inn its name. The placing of the crow outside the inn always symbolised the start of a new season, and although she was aware that her responsibilities would be heavy without Thomas, she was determined to carry on alone.
She spent the next few days spring-cleaning the guest rooms. Then, one morning, she was drawn to the window by the fractious cries of the crow and saw a stranger chasing away a small boy who had evidently been throwing snowballs at the bird. When the boy was gone, the stranger turned towards the inn, his long cloak damp at its edges from the melting snow.
He was a good-looking, bearded man little older than herself, with dark hair and brown eyes. He gave his name as Simon and handed her a silver coin. This was enough to pay for one month's board. Most guests usually stayed no more than a few days, but the coin was offered without expectation of change.
"Have you travelled far?" she asked him.
He gave a thin smile and a hint of a nod. "Far enough."
She handed him the key to the guest room next to her own; the fire downstairs kept both rooms warmer than the rest. Later, when she had brought him some cheese and cold pork, she found that the door to his room was locked.
"Leave it outside," he called to her.
He stayed in his room all day, and at dinner she left a bowl of thick vegetable soup outside his door. Late that evening, while she was sitting beside the fire darning a skirt, he entered the room.
She nodded to him and he seated himself in the rocking chair opposite her. It was where her husband had always sat in the evenings, drinking wine and regaling their guests with fictitious stories of his exploits as a youth. Simon produced a white clay pipe and a small knife with which he scraped the dottle from the bowl. He kept his tobacco in a leather pouch attached to his belt; its scent was more aromatic than that to which she was accustomed.
Intent on her darning, she asked, "Are you bound for the city?"
Curlicues of smoke shrouded his head. "Not at present. Do you live here alone?"
"Yes. My husband died last autumn."
He made no reply to this. Stella snipped the woollen thread and inspected the patch. "He's lying in the cellar. The ground froze before he could be buried."
Logs collapsed in the fireplace with a cascade of sparks which were sucked up the dark chimney.
"Are you travelling on business?"
"Of a sort." He began to rock gently in the chair. "It must be hard to be here alone."
Stella rose, laying the skirt over the back of a chair. "The inn has been empty all winter. My only concern has been to keep myself fed and warm."
As if to emphasise this she knelt and added more logs to the fire. But it was not entirely true. She had been lonely.
The logs quickly took fire. She saw his image reflected in the curved brass of the coal scuttle.
"You'll be needing more wood," he said.
"I'll be hoping for a delivery of coal as soon as the road is clear."
As she rose from the hearth, so did he from his chair.
"Well, goodnight," he said.
When she heard his door close, she crept upstairs and entered her own room. She knelt at a spy-hole which she and her husband had discovered soon after taking over the inn; the previous owner had evidently been something of a voyeur. She herself wanted to be sure that this man who called himself Simon was just that: a man. She had been chastened by her encounter with Marguerite.
When he finally began to undress, she had already imagined that he might reveal a body covered with scales or strange growths. But there was nothing: just a leanly muscular frame, with a line of dark hair running down the centre of his belly to the denser hair at his groin.
He withdrew a book from his satchel, got into bed and began to read by candlelight. She waited. He was facing her and once, when he looked up from his reading and stared in her direction, she had the uncanny impression that he knew she was there. But the spy-hole was well concealed and he could not have been aware of her scrutiny. Soon afterwards he snuffed out the candle and all was dark.
When Stella rose the next morning she found that she had neglected to lock her bedroom door. Simon had already risen and she saw him dragging a fallen birch trunk from a nearby copse into the back yard. She watched him from the window as he went to the woodshed and returned with an axe before stripping down to his undershirt.
The axe flashed in the wintry sunlight and the blade bit into the wood. He worked steadily and methodically, tossing the logs into a pile against the wall. Stella went downstairs and took the crow outside. It immediately began to emit its harsh kraaa sounds. Normally she imagined that the bird was soliciting guests when it crowed, but on this occasion the cries seemed less welcoming than admonitory.
The fire was already ablaze in the hearth. She put on water to heat for his bath. When he came inside she asked him if he wanted the water brought to his room.
"As you wish," he said.
She put the bath in front of the fire instead, not wanting him to risk a chill. Then she took her husband's accounts ledger and retired to the vestibule.
A short while later she heard him calling her. She went to him.
"A towel," he said.
She fetched one from the laundry cupboard and held it out for him. He wrapped it around his waist and climbed the stairs to his room.
That evening she also took a bath, adding dried lavender to the water. She was about to take his dinner up to his room when he appeared.
"Have you eaten yourself?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Then join me."
She set the table beside the fire and produced a bottle of wine from the supply which Thomas had always kept in their room.
"A toast," she said, "to the new season."
He drank, and then they ate. Afterwards he sat down in the rocking chair and lit his pipe.
"How did your husband die?" he asked.
"A wasting disease, according to the village doctor." She paused. "More wine?"
He accepted a glass. She had been tempted to tell him about Marguerite but caution had prevailed. She drained her own glass and filled it up again.
Outside, water was dripping from the eaves of the building. She had to bring the crow inside each evening, but the thaw was well advanced now and soon he would be able to spend the night beneath the moon. She drank more wine, studying her taciturn visitor and wondering whether he had a family. Something told her he came from the city, though whether he was travelling to or from there, she could not say.
The bottle was empty, and she fetched another from her room, telling him that it had always been their habit to share a bottle or two with their first guests of the season. He accepted another glass, but when that was empty would take no more.
She fell to talking of the villagers, telling him of their fears of the city and the strange stories they told of its inhabitants. She was hoping it would provoke some revealing comment from him, but he said nothing, puffing on his pipe and staring calmly at her as she spoke.
The wine had gone to her head, and her whole body felt warm. She undid a button at the neck of her shirt.
"Do you have a wife?" she asked.
"I spend much time travelling."
He seemed content that this was answer enough; she did not prompt him.
"When did you marry?" he asked.
"Three years ago."
"What brought you to this place?"
"My husband received an inheritance on our marriage and wanted to start a new life in a new place."
Again he made no comment. She set her empty wine glass aside. "Tell me, should I credit the stories which the villagers tell of the city?"
"It would be better to go there and form your own conclusions."
"But are there such creatures as they speak of?"
"The only creatures I know are humans and animals."
"But some have--special gifts?"
"Most surely. There are few anywhere who do not."
The candle on the table guttered and went out, leaving them in the blood-orange light of the fire. Simon rose and tapped his pipe against the chimney, then bade her goodnight.
Stella sat staring into the fire, watching the flames devour the wood he had chopped for her. Eventually she rose and climbed the stairs. His room was in darkness, and when she knelt at the spy-hole, nothing could be seen.
That night she had a vivid dream of Marguerite and another guest who had stayed at the inn during the summer. Stella had forgotten his name, but he was a handsome young man whom Marguerite led to a large bed covered with tiny, writhing snakes. Then his face changed into that of another young man she remembered, and then another. As they lay down together, the dream slipped away.
The next day she was able to uproot several turnips from the small garden which she cultivated at the rear of the inn. That afternoon she asked Simon if he would help her bury her husband.
She had not entered the cellar since the morning after the snowstorm. Although the thaw was now well advanced, the cellar was still icy cold and her breath misted as she descended the stone stairway with Simon at her shoulder.
She had a sudden image of Thomas making love to her: he was a stout, red-faced man who snorted and panted, flacks of spittle gathering at the corners of his mouth, his eyes bulging. He lay on the stone slab where she had left him. The snow which had covered his body had hardened and crystallised during the winter so that he seemed to be encased in frosted glass. Then she saw that despite the coating of ice, a rat had gnawed away his face.
She tried to dislodge his body from the slab, but it would not budge. Silently she pleaded with Simon to help her, but he watched, unmoving, until finally she ran past him up the stairs.
He made her sit in an armchair and brought her a mug of strong, sweet tea. Then he returned to the cellar and brought the body up on the handcart which was used for moving wine casks. He took it outside and left it in the woodshed.
"We have to bury him," she insisted.
He shook his head. "Not until he's unfrozen."
That night the temperature dropped sharply and it began to snow.
Stella sat at the window, watching the world turn slowly white again. Simon had already retired, leaving his pipe on the arm of the chair. The fire in the hearth was dying; she added more wood before retiring to her room.
Through the spy-hole she saw him reading by candlelight. With the snowfall a pervasive silence seemed to have settled on the inn, and she had the impression that they were two people trapped, frozen in by the weather. She imagined Simon removing her husband's body from the woodshed and chopping it into pieces which he then fed to the fire.
At length she undressed and got into bed. She always slept nude, piling more blankets on her bed as the winter advanced until she felt like an animal cocooned in a deep burrow. To her surprise, sleep came easily.
She dreamt of her husband, remembering the time in summer when a party of six guests had arrived, bound for the city. She had gone to fetch him to help prepare their rooms and had found him asleep face-down on their bed, a winy vomit surrounding him. In her dream the vomit was the colour of bile, and when she rolled him over there was a dark hole where his face should have been. Then the young men of whom she had dreamt earlier were standing in the doorway, pointing at him and laughing. She was smiling at them.
Their laughter grew louder and more staccato until she became aware of a rapping on the door knocker downstairs. She went out into the empty corridor and descended the stairway without haste, her hand on the banister.
The moment she opened the door, the icy wind blew in a flurry of snow. Marguerite was standing there, dressed in white. Her face was as glacially beautiful and as timeless as ever. She smiled her irresistible smile, and Stella felt as if she was drowning in the blueness of her eyes. Then she entered, shaking the snow from her cloak.
Stella followed her like a sleepwalker as she passed through the vestibule, glancing at the empty hook on the key board. The faint aroma of Simon's pipe-smoking still lingered in the air. Silently Marguerite ascended the stairs.
She went directly to Simon's room and turned the handle. It opened without protest, closed behind her without a sound. Stella stood outside, her mind blank. Then a shiver freed her from her numbness. She entered her own room and went directly to the spy-hole.
Everything was dark and silent in the room, but she had the strong impression of movement and life. She waited. Outside it had stopped snowing and a sickle moon shone bright between scudding clouds. The stars looked adamantine. She waited.
Abruptly Simon's room erupted with a brilliant white light which made her recoil from the spy-hole. There was a piercing scream which rent her mind like fingernails scraped on ice. And then silence.
The light continued to pour through the spy-hole as she cowered on the floor. Then, after a long time, it gradually began to fade to orange and then to red. The dimming of the light was slow, but Stella did not move. Nor did she entertain the thought of putting her eye to the spy-hole when it had died completely. Chilled to the marrow, she crawled into her bed.
Dawn seemed to come quickly, and she did not know whether she had slept or not. She lay there, watching the gathering of the light and the movement of the clouds, patterns as fickle and inexorable as life itself. Beyond the wall there was no sound. The cradles of snow on the windowpanes began to melt under the sun.
At length she heard a movement next door. She waited. The door opened and footsteps receded in the corridor and down the stairs.
She crept to the spy-hole and peered through. The bed was unmade and the curtains had not been drawn. She could not be sure whether the tousled white sheets were darkened with shadows or a greyish dust.
She heard the crow give an enfeebled cry, and realised that she had forgotten to take him in that night. She hurried to the window.
Simon was walking through the melting snow towards the city road. She opened the window and found the air possessed of all the mildness which heralded a true spring thaw. His long cloak erased his footprints in the snow as he went.
Then she saw that he had taken Thomas from the woodshed and laid him on a pile of straw under the sun. His body already looked free of its surface coating of ice; a black cloth had been tied around his face. At the bottom of the garden Simon had dug a grave.
Before the sun set she would go down and give him a decent burial.
© Christopher Evans 1983, 1997
This story first appeared in Lands of Never edited by Maxim Jakubowksi (Unwin Paperbacks, 1983).
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