John took the best part of a week in choosing the right tree and another day deciding which branch would be sacrificed. After a further day he had the sawn-off log cleared of particularly resistant lichen that had taken hold in the crook of a branch. Only then was he ready. He clamped the log tight to his workbench, made sure the chisel was sharp, and began.
He cried as he carved; the memory of her singing always brought tears, her pure soprano climbing above his ponderous chord changes on the wheezing harmonium.
It took a longish time to get her name engraved in the log. The cold didn’t help, biting deep into old bones despite the furnace in the corner of the workshop. After the name was done he had to work fast, for it was already dusk and the log needed to be in the grate before midnight, otherwise it would all have been for naught.
He quickly chiselled out the second line; words long since etched on his memory.
Ae fond kiss.
He carried the log through to the main cottage and took care preparing a fire, using just the right mixture of paper and coal to ensure that the log would not burn too quickly when placed in the front of the grate. That done he went to the dresser and carefully retrieved a charred piece of wood from where it had been wrapped in a handkerchief. He thrust it deep into the bowels of the coal and lit the dry paper with a match.
Once he was satisfied the fire wouldn’t go out, he prepared the next part of the ritual — three fingers of single malt in a glass by his chair, and enough tobacco to see him through the night. The log cracked and spat as he filled his first pipe. Almost immediately he was lost in reverie.
It will take time.
She has gone to a better place.
For most of the year he managed to believe, helped by mindless toil in the fields, hard liquor at night, and the crumbs of comfort that came from faith. But on this, the anniversary of the day she was taken from him, faith proved harder to come by. Everywhere he looked he saw her traces; from the mirror above the mantel they’d got as a wedding present from her father to the walnut pipe in his hand that the same old man had smoked all his adult life.
John did not notice the tears that ran down his cheeks until he was brought back to the present by the church bells calling the faithful to midnight mass.
There was a time when he would have walked the snowy lane to the church, arm in arm with Jackie, stars twinkling in her eyes. Those walks had stopped all too suddenly, the end coming as they got ready for Mass that fateful night. First came a headache, then a fit, and then she was gone. A doctor, a policeman and the vicar, three wise men, ushered her off to the great beyond.
Now John sat, with the log burning, waiting for a sign that another year was worth the effort. Carols whispered in the night across the cold air between his cottage and the church. Snow pattered on the window in an accompanying beat. Fresh tears came, and suddenly John was weeping uncontrollably. The old harmonium in the corner moaned in sympathy.
He looked up from the fire to where a quick movement in the mirror caught his eye.
Cold lips brushed at his cheek, tears freezing in his whiskers.
A high, soprano voice carried through the room, just audible above the moan of the instrument.
Ae fond kiss.
John sat upright in his chair, and in the process knocked the whisky glass over. It clattered on the floorboards. The harmonium stilled. Outside the snow died to a mere rustle. Over at the church the congregation was between carols. Silence fell.
Did I imagine it?
The next thought came immediately.
Does it matter?
He sat in the chair all night. In the morning he took a charred portion of the log from the cooling grate. He wrapped it in a handkerchief and put it away in the dresser. He felt refreshed. As he closed the drawer he sang the words that would see him through another year.
Ae fond kiss.
And then we sever.
WRITTEN BY WILLIAM MEIKLE
ILLUSTRATED BY VINCENT SHAW-MORTON
William Meikle is a Scottish writer, now residing in Canada, with ten novels published and over 200 short story credits. Amongst his work is sci-fi alien novel Invasion.
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