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The Same But Different

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A short pandemic story

Drama / Other
Age Rating:

The Same but Different

It had been an unusually long and cold winter. He couldn’t recall one in his lifetime that had been so harsh on the land and on the livestock, and he had seen sixty five winters pass. Even the winters end was up for debate. A series of harsh frosts to fool them last week had scorched the grass and taken hope from those dark corners where moss spread invidiously. Cold days are long but cold nights are even longer. As the snow began to melt away, it persisted in small mounds around rotted fence posts, tombstones for a season passing.

Everyone was set upon, nerves frayed and bodies worn. They looked to their priest once weekly for inspiration to distract them through the daily grind, but the severe weather had even forbade this escape. The local parish council had delivered pamphlets promising better times, but details were lacking. There were mutterings and murmurings that the barometer in the town hall had frozen, it had been that cold. The usual forecasters were caught unawares. Just like him, they had never experienced anything like this in their lifetime, and were wary of forecasting an end to the harsh season. He had heard of a mad man in the adjacent county using animal entrails as a method of divination, such was the need for good news. What was more worrying was that too many townsfolk had believed his ramblings. The winter had settled in on minds not ready to accommodate it’s stresses. Their masks had eventually slipped to reveal what lay behind a seemingly sanguine facade.
He had a few tasks to do today. This was what kept him going really. Simple tasks to distract him. The livestock that survived needed tending, the ones that had died needed burning. He had to go into town later, a journey he held some trepidation about. Once a man who would go out and know everyone he saw, now he went out alone and saw no one at all. He walked out and down onto the mud. A biting easterly wind whipped his ears and neck, prompting him to cover his face. Winter was going but not yet gone.
The barn had withstood the elements well with the help of a few modifications and running repairs. The eaves had needed replacement on the western facing side, but the roof had withstood the heaviest falls of snow. There had been three snowstorms in total, the worst in early January. The barn roof was a composite of thatch and mud, but the temperatures had frozen the mud to make it almost rigid. He had placed six support beams under the roof after the first snowstorm, fearing what was to come. These had worked well, although now as he stared up into the murky dark of the roof, he could see fracture lines along as least two beams. He thought briefly of his nearest neighbor, two miles to the east. Parsons owned a much bigger farm, at least twice the size of his. But he had not been so quick to prepare, and he had paid a dear price. He had lost his main barn and a long hundred animals. Four score of these were only bought a season ago.
Still though, he himself had lost many to the cold . He could always expect to lose a dozen or so of the older ones to the cold each winter, that was the cycle of life. But this winter, he had lost more than half that again. And he still hadn’t counted the cost of the frozen ground to the plans for seedlings. The weather might well lift, it’s effects would rob him and many more of the small luxuries they could afford for a few years to come. What was normally just a shade beyond subsistence farming could ill afford this kind of season.
He surveyed the livestock before releasing the gate on the pen, there were no overnight casualties it seemed. Perhaps this was predictable in a sense, a cruel example of Darwinian theory at it’s ugliest. Only the fittest survived to this point, and whatever it was that made them so, would mean they might be better positioned to survive another harsh winter. They ran out, pushing and shoving, hind legs kicking, delighted to be freed from their dark breathless pen. The spring sunshine was trying desperately to offset the freezing wind, the animals breath pluming in the frigid air briefly before being carried away.
He brushed down his mare and laid out some hay for her to eat while he prepared the cart. He hadn’t used it in more than a month, that’s how long he had been snowed in. But he was running short of basics now at the house and word had gotten to him that Vacsaín’s shop was back open again in town. Slowly life was beginning to open up. Instead of curtains twitching to catch a glimpse of the world outside, now they were beginning to be drawn aside fully. Instead of empty pews, there were now sermons to be read. He’d head into town this afternoon, his mind was made up.

The cart rumbled along Murphy’s track as it was known locally, the going was not too slow since the mud was still semi frozen in many parts. He swayed almost rhythmically to the lurches of the wagon, his body completely relaxed into the hard timber of the seat, his mind wandering. The crows cawed relentlessly above him, gathering on the branches of a huge oak. He had left this trip a little late in the afternoon if they were starting their roosting routine now. Nightfall shouldn’t be for another two hours by his reckoning, yet this murder of crows seemed to disagree.
He wondered what would become of their current mayor. As they passed by the first few houses on the outskirts of town, he could see the posters. Anger was rife at the poor performance of the parish council it seemed. There was talk of a conspiracy to horde wheat and seeds to sell on now at extortionate prices. There was even a claim that the shop need not have closed at all this winter gone, that the Mayor had forced it. Whatever the truth of the matter, the cost might not just be in pounds and pennies to the Mayor. There were demands for early elections. Unhappiness was like a fever, it spread throughout the population and even those that didn’t come down with the sickness could pay a price.
He tied up the mare to the hitching post and looked across to the funeral parlour. A small group of souls huddled outside, looking at him. They were the O’Gradys, a local family who worked as labourers on the bigger farms. He had used them at harvest time occasionally, good honest people. They must have lost their father, he had heard of fever in the house. They had worked throughout the winter doing odd jobs, and their faces told the story of it. The eldest has lost the tip of his nose, his cheeks were purple and his lips cracked wide open. But it was in his eyes that you saw the real damage. Deadened and dull, staring through you rather than at you. They would bury their father today but be in the fields again tomorrow. Their toil was never done.
He opened the shop door and immediately was greeted by it’s owner, Sean Ní Vacsaín. He produced his list and the rotund shopkeeper went about gathering the requested goods. After they had loaded the last of the grain sacks on to the wagon, Ní Vacsaín whispered almost conspiratorially into his ear.
“For such a valued old customer, I have a special treat!”
He disappeared into the store and returned around via the side gate, carrying what appeared to be a mid sized bag of coal.
“Continental in origin I’m told. Highest grade of anthracite you’ll see. It will melt the cold away. On the house”
With the the goods packed, he climbed back up on the wagon. He noticed the clouds had parted again to allow late evening sun peek through. The wind seemed to have died altogether, and for the first time in a long time, he felt the need to take off his heavy coat. Perhaps it was all the exertion lifting his purchases and packing them.
He waved over to the O’Grady clan and tipped his hat in respect. The eldest smiled back, and for a split second, he could swear that face had changed. The cracked lips were gone, the purple cheeks now a healthy red, the nose back to it’s full proud self. They turned to go into the funeral parlour, laughter from a shared joke drifting over to him. He looked to see the son’s face once more but he had turned to go in.

He set off again, trundling along, slower this time with the load behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to see a rock of coal had tumbled from the bag to the floor of the wagon. It’s shiny smooth surface sparkled in the evening sun. It seemed odd that all the colours of the rainbow bounced out of something so black, whatever way the light hit it. He had never seen coal so shiny, no wonder diamonds came from the same base element. A warm southerly breeze picked up from nowhere pushing them home now, and he left his mare choose her own pace. As he passed the old oak, he glanced up and was taken aback with what he saw. He could not comprehend it. Not less than two hours ago he had passed this spot to a cacophony of cawing crows. They had been nesting all winter in the tree, but now they had gone, disappeared completely. Instead now, a kettle of swallows swooped and swished, turning on a coin, inside out in a lively dance set against the dark blue sky. He shook his head as if to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. He gave the mare a prod to hurry home.

The last of the herd safely taken in, he set the fire and made his meal. The cold of the night was settling in and he had decided to try out the fancy new continental coal. The potatoes and ham hock were boiling busily on the stove, he had worked up a hunger. The shopkeeper hadn’t lied though; the coal burned furiously and brightly, the red embers seeming to pulsate, radiating their heat throughout the room.

He sat at his kitchen table, pen and notebook in hand. This winter had been the hardest in memory and many had lost a lot, all had lost some. It was a story needing telling and he thought he might know how. He looked out the window and to his dismay, he saw snow flakes seesawing down outside. He grabbed his lantern and opened the door onto to the porch to confirm his fears. Another snow fall would be disastrous for what little he had put in the ground. The flakes were sticking on to the mud outside and yet they seemed almost all exactly the same, completely uniform in size and shape, almost blood tinged? He strained his eyes in the gloom, the lantern providing only a few feet of orange glow.

And then he slowly realised his error, and smiling, turned to face around to the eastern part of his small garden at the back of the farmhouse. He could see the cherry blossom streaming from the tree, billowing gloriously in a strong southerly warm breeze. The winter was over. Maybe hope truly did spring eternal.

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