It was a dry snow; I could tell by the way it swirled in the wind. I shivered.
Old Man Winter wasn’t about to go quietly into the night. Oh, no. He raged outside me window against the coming of the light, huffing and puffing with all of his might. We’d have another foot by morning, or I wasn’t Effie McCray.
At least it would move easily, being so dry. Thank goodness it weren’t packing snow.
Packing snow was heavy, wet stuff, perfect for felling timbers and building snowmen. But we didn’t have any old trees, or even any young ones, to worry about anymore, nor any young’uns itchin’ to build a snowman. The ice storms had already taken care of ’em.
They’d taken care of a lotta things.
I rolled over in bed so’s I faced away from the window. The fire was out in the hearth, and I was out of logs. Oh sure, there were plenty out in the woodshed, but I weren’t about to fetch more. Not after dark, no siree. My Peter had always kept enough wood in the cottage to see us through the long, cold nights, and I wished he were here right now. Lord, how I missed that man. If he were here, it would have been warm enough even without the fire.
But he weren’t, and things were different now.
Not that having a fire would have helped. I could’ve had the biggest bonfire in six counties and I’d still be numb with cold. There’s not a fire in the world can warm a body from the inside out.
I shivered again, violently this time, as Old Man Winter’s devil dogs bayed in the distance. Their ice-blue eyes had been the last things my Peter had seen on this earth, their ice-cold howl the last sound ‘e ever heard. That bone-chilling call could only mean one thing. More ice was on its way.
More death was on its way.
Ice in these parts meant death, sure as shootin’. Ice brought out the devil dogs. They could smell a storm from miles off. The neighbors all said that when they’d start a-whinin’, Old Man Winter’d turn ’em loose on the plains. His beloved devil dogs’d roam the prairie after dark on cold winter nights, hunting anything that breathed. And it never failed – some poor soul’as always lost to their snapping, snarling jaws.
That’s how it was with my Peter, leastways. Course he said that’s how it were with all his kin. Every last one had been lost to the devil dogs, frozen where they stood by the hounds’ icy glare. Some were lost in their newness, some in their prime, some in their gray days, some due to innocence and some due to foolish pride, but always they were lost to the devil dogs.
The neighbors all told the same tale of loved ones lost, but I paid them no mind. Things would go different for me – I was determined on that point. The neighbors all claimed the devil dogs were like sirens, sweet of song till it was too late to run, but I put no stock in it. They were silly old fools, the lot of ’em, and I knew better than to go out after dark.
My Peter taught me well.
I cocooned myself in blankets and closed my eyes. Morning’d soon be here; I could fetch more wood then. I tried to focus on the coming dawn, to will it closer, but the damned hounds’ baying sounded loud and long and low in my ears. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were coming closer. That they were coming for me.
But that was hogwash. Things’d look different come the morn.
The plink-plink-plink of rain on the window roused me from a fitful sleep. The wind still howled. Somehow it had found its way inside.
‘Twas dark as pitch outside, and I thought for a moment that p’rhaps it wasn’t yet morning after all. But fitful though ’twas, I’d slept long. It had to be morning.
I dressed in layers. With no wood in the house, there’d be no breakfast, and I sorely needed a warm meal. Shivering through the night didn’t lend itself to rest, and I sorely needed that, too. But first I had to fetch the wood.
I swallowed hard as I neared the door. My Peter had taught me well, and I was leery of the dark. But surely he’d meant the dark of night. Dark days abounded on the northern prairies, and we’d never had trouble afore.
Basket in hand, I steeled me nerves and ran for the woodshed. It was slow going; the rain had turned that foot o’ snow to sludge. Now it was packing snow, and it was perfect for felling more than just timbers.
Not one to waste time, I filled me basket quick as a wink and dashed back to the house. Still, it would take more than one trip to get enough wood to last till the morrow. By my reckoning, I had three more runs to go.
A howl sounded in the distance, the same long, low howl from the night before. It was the devil dogs, it had to be. As long as they lurked nearby, it would be too dangerous to go out. But I needed more wood…
I sighed. If I were quick, I could make it. Either way was risky, but I’d rather go down swingin’ than sit around waitin’ for death.
I took a deep breath and bolted for the woodshed. Another devil dog called in the distance as I loaded up me basket. I tried to ignore it, but the sound sent a ripple of fear down me spine as I sprinted back to the house.
The first hound howled again. It sounded closer this time.
I dumped the logs on the floor and ran back to the woodshed. The second hound answered as I slammed the door behind me. It was close.
Settle down, Effie girl, it’s just the wind, I told meself as I shoved logs in my basket. But there was no foolin’ meself. I knew the wind, knew it the way a lover knows its other. I knew the wind, its shape and color and tone. I knew the wind, and this weren’t it.
So much for settlin’ down.
In a hurry, I’d thrown the logs in haphazard, and now they wouldn’t lay right. I’d be out of wood again afore nightfall if I didn’t fill the basket proper, and there was no way to get it full the way it was. I’d have to reorganize it.
I upended the whole thing and started stuffing logs back in, movin’ quick like a bunny. As I worked, I’d have sworn I heard my name on the wind. Soft at first, whisperlike, I figured I was hearin’ things. Too hungry, too tired, too lonely. There were a million mundane reasons to imagine something like that, and I didn’t even want to think about the worst one.
The neighbors all said the dogs called to the one they came for…
I dropped the last log in me basket. It landed with a resounding thump, and I took off for the house. Only one more trip to go…
As I headed back to the woodshed, I heard me name again on the wind. Long and sad and low, it almost sounded like my Peter. Almost.
I slammed the woodshed door against the sound; they couldn’t fool me. My Peter was gone.
And he weren’t comin’ back, no matter how much I longed for him.
I packed one last basket o’ wood and steeled my nerves again. Me hands were shaking; they hadn’t shaken like this since I’d found my Peter face down in the snow. And when I stepped outside, they started shakin’ harder.
It was still, too still, and a fog had formed. It was like no fog I’d ever seen, and so thick I couldn’t see the house. I couldn’t see my footprints in the slop on the ground, or even my feet, but I had to keep moving.
That’s it, Effie girl, one foot’n front o’ the other. Step at a time, ‘at’s a way.
I stopped dead in my tracks. It couldn’t be.
“Effie love, you can put the wood down now.”
“No, I can’t,” I said, and started walking. “Not till I reach the house.”
“You’ll never find it in this fog, love,” he said, his voice mournful. “Better come with me now.”
I squeezed my eyes so hard I thought my face’d freeze that way, and prayed my feet would lead me right. “No.”
“Come now, you’ll freeze out here.”
“Don’t you call me that, you devil. My Peter’s the only one called me that, and you ain’t him. Now take your fog and leave me in peace!”
I should have found the front door by now. Where was the blessed door?
“You won’t find it, Effie,” he murmured.
“I thought I told you to go away.”
“It doesn’t have to be like this, you know.”
“You’re right – you could let me alone.”
I stumbled and fell face-first into the slushy slop. The wind kicked up again. If I didn’t find shelter soon, I wouldn’t see noon.
I shoved meself aright and patted a circle around me, eyes still shut tight, but me basket was gone. All that work, and for what? Nothing. Unless…No, that’d bring ruin. Damnation and ruin. I couldn’t, not after I’d promised meself that I wouldn’t.
Still, I couldn’t go back empty-handed. I needed me basket at the very least, if not the logs I’d gone to such pains to fill it with. And a hint to where I stood wouldn’t hurt me feelings a bit.
A violent shiver wracked me poor frame. This was far, far colder than anything I’d ever felt afore. Almost…unnatural.
I opened me eyes at last and gasped. I wanted so badly to close them, but they no longer heeded me thoughts.
Peter, my own Peter, stood afore me in perfect gleaming glory. He held out a hand, and I took it.
“There now, love – was that really so hard?”
“Aye, ‘at’s Miz’ McCray a’right,” Tom Tilboar said. “Better call the preacher.”
His companion looked up. “How long you s’pose she’s been out here?”
“Since the equinox, easy. Maybe a mite longer. Either way, they got ‘er. And not a foot from ‘er own front door.”
“Pity. You’d ha’ thought Peter’d taught her better.”
(c) 2017. All rights reserved.