As twilight faded, indigo shadows bruised the snow piled along the edge of the road. Amber light spilled through the window panes of a tavern, casting a glow on the drifted snow beneath the low sill.
Inside the tavern, an old man leaned over his savoury pie and breathed in the scent of meat and onions. Just like the pies his Libby used to make. He remembered how she would laughingly wave him away from the hot pastries with a floured hand, her cheeks flushed from the heat of the oven.
He shook his head to clear away the threads of memory, chastising himself for allowing his mind to wander into the bittersweet seasons of his past. Foolishness. He stabbed at his pie.
He became aware that he was being watched. He looked about, but there were no other customers, and the tavern keeper was not to be seen. The old man then turned to the window, and there, a young boy gazed at him through the panes, his hands jammed into the pockets of his too-small woolen jacket.
Famished, no doubt, thought the old man, as he took another mouthful of pie. I remember the gnawing hunger and biting cold. Sodden feet and threadbare clothes that were worthless against the winter wind. He warned himself again not to indulge in wasteful reverie, but bitterness was already rising in an icy tide.
He managed a few more mouthfuls of pie and a swallow of ale before looking out the window again. The boy was still there. The rich taste of the pie turned rancid in the old man’s mouth under the boy’s compelling stare. Laying down his fork and a few coins, the old man pulled on his coat and stepped out into the winter chill.
“Hello, sir,” said the boy.
“Are you hungry? Shall I buy you a pie?”
“No, thank you. The vicar’s wife gave me some bread.” With a nod, the boy indicated the stone church a few paces down the road.
“You know the vicar?” asked the boy.
“No. I have no need for a vicar.”
The boy regarded him intently, looking beyond the silver brow and deep into his watery eyes. Disconcerted and feeling a twinge, the man pulled his coat closer around himself. Why was the boy scrutinizing him?
“Shall I take you home? Where do you live?”
“Shall we walk on, then? Until we reach your door?”
“If you wish, sir.”
The two walked silently, the only sound that of their feet tramping in the wet snow. The old man regarded the boy out of the corner of his eye. Something tugged at his memory, but he pushed the elusive thought away. Suddenly, he felt very weary, and he gave a soft gasp.
“Perhaps you should rest, sir.”
The boy gently took his arm and led him towards the oaken door of the church. Inside, candles dispelled the quiet darkness, and the boy eased the old man into a pew. He closed his eyes, and his ragged breathing smoothed as he inhaled the fragrance of old wood and incense.
Reluctantly, the old man opened his eyes.
“I feel quite unwell.”
“Take your ease,” said the boy.
“I haven’t been in a church for many years, you know.”
The boy nodded, his eyes luminous in the candlelight.
“I’m afraid I have been very angry with God. He took my Libby. Before that, He took my parents.” He continued in a whisper, “Anger is cold. Like winter. Dark. Dead.”
Another nod. Something danced at the edge of the man’s understanding. He could hear the boy’s heartbeat. Or was it his own?
“My life’s always been winter. I’m tired and cold. Oh, God, how I hate winter!” A single tear coursed down his wrinkled cheek, a tear from his melting heart, as the pain of breaking and renewal become one.
Libby’s face suddenly rose before him, and he feebly reached for her. The boy clasped his hand instead, and with amazement, the old man saw a crescent-shaped scar on the boy’s thumb and the matching scar on his own. Awareness dawned, radiant and unclouded.
The boy smiled.
“I’ll stay with you while you rest, sir. When you awake, you will be warm.”
In the morning, the vicar found the old man slumped over in the pew, already cold, his snow-white brow softened by the promise of a new spring.
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