On the second day of December

Not far from the lake stood a single cottage, with stacked log walls, painted thickly but softly in brown. Inhabited by a still-young, gentle, husband and wife, the mellow oil-lamp light of its living room, just enough for reading, emanated warmth; a small rectangular window, with a simple, white wooden frame, diffused it for the evening's cheer.

Amongst the rhythms of the cottage were those of kettle and iron stove. The latter's ashes would mutter long into the night, as the husband and wife slept, preventing the cold from settling in, to be kindled again at morning (by whoever was first up). Then water would be fetched, in a bucket from the stream, the kettle would be filled and placed on the stove's roof, and the hearty earthiness of boiling coffee would spout.

The cottage's touch upon the biology around it was light. Bees and butterflies gathered in the wildflowers and grasses which the husband and wife left uncut in the summer. A mouse sheltered in the outdoor toilet shed, appearing on one of its wooden beams if they sat still.

A nascent heart had twice beaten in the womb of the young wife; twice the husband and wife had dreamt tentatively of a little one running joyfully through the cottage, leaping over its doorsteps — and twice the baby had been lost before twelve weeks had passed, like a plant that had been lovingly potted in faint spring sun, its first green shoots being discovered above the soil with pure glee, only for a late — too late — frost to sear through its cells; and for it have to be painfully, forlornly taken out by the roots. Yet hope had returned the stronger, for the young wife now bore for the third time a life, now eight months advanced.

A doctor called, for a routine check. The husband met her at the door; they exchanged bright advent tidings, and then she went in to the young wife. Listening to her stomach, she felt here and there. But she listened a little too long, felt a little too thoroughly.

"The little one is still lying feet-down," she at length told them. They understood the import of these words — it was a considerable way from the cottage to the doctor's, and the birth would not have been without risk as it was: to give word that the young wife had gone into labour would take time.

A standing quip of the young wife to the doctor through the pregnancy had been that they must "hope that the labour proceeds slowly — at least until you arrive; after that, it can go faster!" If she had spoken those words now, it would have been as an earnest plea.

"I will return in ten days," the doctor said, "and the little one may yet have turned by then". With kindness, not perfunctoriness, she added: "try not to worry in the meantime."

Until she had left, the husband and wife avoided their eyes meeting. Their self-control could not have withstood the intensity of their foreboding.

This is the second part of an episodic tale written in November and December 2022, lightly edited in December 2023. Previous part. Next part.

Last updated: 02:50 (GMT+1), 5th December 2023