“WHAT’S ON YOUR mind, Violet?” At the sound of her name, Violet jolted a little. She spun, turning just in time to greet Diana’s motherly expression beaming down upon her. “You can tell me if it helps to soothe your mind,” the older woman suggested.
Violet’s hands were submerged in a tub of water, the surface covered in suds. Her fingers had long pruned, soaked a little too long in the cold water as she helped Diana with washing up after dinner. Maddox Haster had been banished into the dining room to clean up the table while the two women handled the dishes. All available duties were evenly distributed and none were allowed to slack off.
However, in the tub of soapy water, Violet hadn’t made much progress with her washing duties. Diana had sniffed her inner emotions out perfectly— her mind was indeed elsewhere.
“I was just daydreaming,” Violet replied. Originally, her intention was to brush off Diana’s concern with a white lie. However, after receiving a pointed look from the older woman, she caved in. “Just… recalling the days in Steinfield Asylum. I had a dear friend that was insistent that it was a haven, a place of protection. I… I didn’t see things the same way she did. I felt like a prisoner.”
Diana silently listened, occasionally nodding in understanding. Once Violet had said her piece, Diana smiled softly in return.
“That’s life for you, dear,” she said. While speaking, her hands hadn’t stopped working. The cloth in her hands rubbed against the cleaned plates, drying and polishing them until they sparkled under the glow of the lamps. “Life is always around the edges. It’s hard to live by and the road is occasionally bumpy, sometimes more than others. However, you can always choose to sand the sharp edges away and what’s left in place is a smooth, shining pebble.”
The stack of tableware on the kitchen counter had all been dried by Diana. As if to emphasize her point, they sparkled more so, practically glittering to boast their immaculateness. No droplets of water could be found on any of the plates and bowls. They were all handled with care, polished, just as Diana said.
“You are no longer stuck in that dark world alone,” she continued. “Now that you are outside, are you willing to move on and look ahead? No one can sand the edges for you. Only you can do that for yourself.”
Although there was a question posed, no answer was offered in reply for Violet couldn’t provide one. She wasn’t sure herself whether she was ready. A part of her was still trapped, locked inside one of Steinfield’s rooms, unable to struggle free. Her physical body might be out in the open world but she was still mentally cooped up. It was, after all, always the hardest to take the first step.
The strength to take that first step was still something Violet couldn’t summon.
“Thank you for your advice, Diana,” was what Violet replied in the end. It wasn’t exactly an answer but she still felt the need to express her appreciation. “I’ve never had a figure I could get guidance from.” Puffing her cheeks, Violet returned to washing, scrubbing at the dirt and grime as best as she could. “I’m glad to have met you.”
Diana’s laughter was light, a tinkling voice that was as charming as wind-chimes swayed by a passing summer breeze.
“Likewise,” Diana responded. “You’re an interesting girl, Violet. And I mean that in the best way possible.”
After she was done with the dishes, Violet was ushered out of the kitchen, urged by Diana to relax by the fire. However, the youngster found it impossible to sit still. It had been an eventful day, to say the least, and the nerves in Violet’s body were all unwilling to rest.
Lured by the decorations in the house, she stood to her feet, deciding to take a spin around the small and humble cottage. The knick-knacks on the countertops were plentiful, ranging from adorable little ceramic flower pots in the shape of woodland critters to random stones and pebbles that shone under the light. Books lay on the table surfaces, some folded with a dog-ear marker on the yellowing papers while others were pristine and new.
As Violet ventured further down the hallway, she noticed a door left slightly ajar just at the end of it. It was already dark out, winter bringing the night in earlier than on other days. However, the darkness was calling her, pulling her forward despite the potential dangers that might lurk within it.
Pushing the door open, Violet stepped out into the cool winter air outside the cottage. The forest floor outside those doors was covered with a layer of powdery snow but none rained from the heavens. The sky was clear tonight and the stars could be seen past the wispy leafless trees. It was a magnificent scene, one that Violet wasn’t used to. For once, the door to her cage had been left open despite the wee hours and she was allowed to venture past the walls.
It was a rare and precious moment.
Across a short distance, Violet’s eyes chanced upon a figure that sat on top of a tree branch. It wasn’t nearly high enough for it to be dangerous but nevertheless, Violet frowned in disapproval. Maddox Haster, on the other hand, didn’t seem like he cared much for his safety. Or, he was so confident in his agility that he wasn’t worried about it. His face was tilted towards the sky, his eyes trailing after the constellations as if there were secrets written within them.
“It’s cold out here,” Violet called out, speaking a little louder than usual just in case Haster wasn’t able to hear her.
She moved towards where he was, the snow beneath her feet crunching with each step she took. The snow wasn’t deep, barely even reaching where her ankles were but she was still careful to raise her feet higher than she would in summer.
Finally noticing her presence, Haster looked down. He smiled, his features illuminated by the silver glow of the moonlight, eyes dazzling brightly like gemstones. Leaning back against the thick trunk of the tree, he watched as Violet waddled over, his eyes trailing after her like a predator watching a prey.
“And?” He prompted, tilting his head to one side tauntingly. “I happen to like the cold. That’s one of the best things about winter.”
“No one likes the cold,” Violet answered pointedly.
“I’m ‘no one’, then. I enjoy it. It makes me feel alive.”
As he spoke, a puff of smoke emerged from his lips. His warm breath mixed with the cool air outside, showing the world whenever he breathed out.
A moment of silence hung above them. Other than the sound of the wind whispering through the night air, none other dared to make even a peep. They stayed like that for a while, enjoying each other’s company in the quiet of the night. For two lonely souls, this winter no longer seemed as bitter and cold as before.
Haster was the first to break that silence.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” He asked. Gesturing to the trees past yonder. Then, he clarified, “The scenery, I mean. It’s so quiet, so calming.”
“It is,” Violet replied sincerely.
It was indeed nothing like how she had been taught the outside world looked like. Instead, the forest that Diana Haster’s cottage was located was in the middle of a winter wonderland. Despite the darkness of the night, there was nothing haunting about the trees. Everything was either illuminated by the silver of the moon or the gold from the flames that blazed from the cottage’s lamps. Frost covered the leaves and the animals had all gone to sleep. It was a tranquil place to be, a perfect place to think.
“Haster, if you could stay here forever, would you?” Violet questioned.
She waited with her breath held, heart thumping against her chest. She wasn’t sure why his answer was so important to her. Maybe it was because she wanted a chance to stay somewhere like this place forever as well. A place she could call a proper home.
“I know it’s cowardly but it is so much easier to live in a beautiful lie than the painful truth,” came Haster’s reply.
He then looked away from the skies, tearing his eyes away from the stars before jumping down to meet Violet on the ground. Dusting the snow off of his pants, he offered Violet a smile. It was much softer than most she had seen on his face, so much so that she might even dare to think it sincere.
“And please,” he said, taking a step closer to Violet. She wanted to instinctively step back but her feet disobeyed, gluing her to the spot. “It’s just Maddox.”