You are twenty-three and already you have two children, a boy of four and a babe in arms. You have a husband too, a handsome man with a moustache like a flourish. He is in Belgium now and you pray for him every night with the boy beside you, on your knees with your heads bent and your hands pressed together. The boy’s knees are plump and dimpled and when you bathe him, you kiss each knee and tell him you could gobble him up.
Your husband has been gone for seven months. He has never seen the baby and the boy no longer speaks of him. Children are fickle; they live in the present and long for the future. You would like to be a child again, but once innocence is lost, it cannot be reclaimed. When your husband was home, he spoke of horrors beyond your imagining, of men drowning in shell holes and choking on gas. You held him until his sobs abated. You have never seen your husband cry before.
Now you are alone, the boy is in his bed and the baby is asleep beside you. Outside, the snow is falling, layer upon layer piling up beneath the windows. The snow has extinguished the stars, and the only sound disturbing the silence is the gentle hiss of the fire as damp wood yields to the flames. You are knitting a scarf for your husband. It is the colour of the forest floor, of earth and moss and fallen leaves, muted colours that won’t attract attention. You hope it isn’t snowing in Belgium. You picture a farmhouse kitchen and a farmers’ wife with flushed cheeks and a welcoming smile. Soldiers are seated around a long wooden table and your husband is laughing as he lifts his glass to toast her. You cannot bear to think of the trenches.
In the darkness beyond the window something screams. The fox is hunting in the snow; you saw his footprints when you went to fetch more wood and now, he has caught his dinner. You have eaten rabbit many times this winter, sinewy meat threaded with bones. When your husband returns, you will buy a goose and serve it with vegetables from the garden. He often speaks of food in his letters, pease pudding, ham, and tapioca with a dollop of strawberry jam. Simple food. At the front, they eat bully beef and stew made with horsemeat. You wrinkle your nose when he tells you this and think of the horses in the field by the cottage, their soft mouths nuzzling your hand when you offer them grass. You would not wish to eat them.
At eight, you go upstairs to check on the boy. The candle flickers as you climb the stairs, casting shadows that part like an ocean as you approach. He is lying on his back and, as you hold the candle aloft, you realise something is wrong: there is a livid rash across his cheeks and his brow is hot to the touch. Fear clutches at your throat and you realise you are holding your breath. You wrap him in a blanket and carry him downstairs; he shivers as you place him in front of the fire. If your husband were at home, he would fetch the doctor, but you cannot leave the boy and the baby alone. To soothe him, you sing him the lullaby your mother once sang to you. Two hours pass. It is no longer snowing and the moon bathes the garden in a silvery light.
You are stirring the embers of the fire when you hear a knock at the door. The knock comes again and your heart quickens; it is too late for visitors. You peer through the window. There is a man on the doorstep, but you cannot see his face.
‘Who is it?’
Your voice trembles as you speak.
You let the doctor in. He gives the boy a draught to help him sleep and says the fever has broken.
‘How did you know to come?’
The doctor is warming himself in front of the fire. You give him a glass of your husband’s porter; you know your husband would not mind. He looks surprised at your question.
‘Jack fetched me. He said the boy was sick and I should come quickly. He went on ahead. Has he not arrived?’
The earth shifts under your feet and you grip the back of the chair to steady yourself. The baby is grizzling, but you do not trust yourself to pick her up.
‘Jack is with his regiment; he hasn’t been home in seven months.’
‘He was wearing his uniform. Perhaps he came to me directly.’
You both know this cannot be true. The doctor is a kind man, wide of girth with a fine set of white whiskers. He attended the birth of your children and your own birth before. He is unlikely to have mistaken your husband for another.
You help him with his coat; it is still damp and you apologise for calling him on such a night, although it was not you who called. You stand at the door and watch as he makes his way down the path, his lantern swinging in front of him. The gate creaks, and you remember your husband said that he would mend it on his return. He is good with his hands.
When you can no longer see the lamp, you close the door and go inside. A draught extinguishes the candle, and the room is in darkness except for a faint glow from the fire. It feels cold, colder than it did before, and you shiver as you lift the baby from her cot. In the shadows, the rocking chair is slipping gently back and forth. You think it is the boy. You step forward to check on him, but the chair is empty. It tilts and lifts and tilts again and you realise the doctor was right; after seven long months, your husband is home.
Frances lives in Oxfordshire in England with her husband, a Greek dog, and an American cat. She loves beautiful writing and all things ghostly and mysterious. She was shortlisted for the HG Wells short story prize and is currently working on a novel.
photo by Rajat Verma (via unsplash)