To Drive the Cold Winter Away
Winter, and the Parisian skies are bitter and bleak; the earth, a ruthless stone. Outside is a no-man's-land to be traversed quickly on the way from hearth to hearth. You trekked here with head down, collar up, and hands stuffed in pockets, moving briskly because if you stood in one place too long, it might steal all the heat from your bones.
The barge, though, is blissfully cozy, like the slow golden dream of warmth that presages death by freezing. It's toasty hot, in defiance of the damp winds raking the quay, and your concerns begin and end with the couch in front of the fire. It seems to have liquefied your entire body, and you don't think you could get up out of it if you wanted to. Fortunately, you can think of no compelling reason to do so. It's a slow, quiet afternoon, and the air is redolent with wood smoke and spices from the mulled cider Duncan made in a kettle on the stove.
Even half-asleep, there's a part of your brain you can never quite shut off that's been tracking his movements all afternoon. Your lack of scintillating conversation doesn't seem to bother him, and he's just been going about his business, with an occasional grin for you in passing. He's at his desk now, writing something — Christmas cards, knowing him.
Duncan loves the winter. There's a subtle glow about him when it comes time for wool sweaters, roaring fires, and recipes that require hours of simmering. He's like one of those draft horses in the beer commercials, the ones who actually look happy about enforced runs across snowy mountainsides.
You don't hate winter, exactly. There's not much point in hating any season, inevitable and fleeting as they are. But winter is not your friend. Winter is an ordeal, something to prepare against and endure. In the old days you stockpiled food, light, warmth, and settled down to wait it out. You remember dances and cheery songs, wassail with pomanders and fireplaces big enough to stand in. Those were the good times, the years of plenty, when feasting and revelry filled the long cold nights and the emptiness they left inside. In the lean times, you only prayed for spring.
Last year you prayed for spring. This year, it's too soon to tell.
Right now that all seems far away. You can't hold on to a thought for more than a couple of seconds, and after a while, you stop trying. You've been undone by the drowsy heat from the wood stove, the nearly subliminal humming up and down your spine, and the soft rocking of the barge, which you vaguely suppose you ought to complain about but actually think is kind of nice. It's almost too hot for the sweater you're wearing, but you can't summon the will to sit up and peel off a layer. You feel heavy and warm and ludicrously safe. You sink deeper into the couch.
Abruptly, you open your eyes. The light from the portholes has moved, and Duncan is right here putting wood on the fire. For a moment you wonder how he snuck up on you.
"Mmmm." The sound of his voice seems to be calling for some response; you didn't actually parse the words. Moments later you're sitting up — sort of — and a stoneware mug is pressed into your hands.
The cloying sweetness is like a first breath, the heat of it shocking as it hits your belly and radiates down to your toes. There's that unique sandpapery feeling that you've burned your tongue, but it doesn't last. You yawn prodigiously and feel your brain spinning back up like a hard drive, banishing that vaguely wild, bright-eyed feeling you always seem to have after a nap.
Duncan settles in the nearby armchair with his own mug and a stack of whatever he's been working on. They were Christmas cards. And now he's affixing them with Christmas stamps. You shake your head and smile.
"That isn't one of those ghastly form letters, is it, MacLeod? 'Dear friends, it's been a great year! Tiny Tim is getting straight A's, and I've taken half a dozen heads —' "
He just gives you that look, the fondly exasperated one. You smile sweetly back.
"La poste closes in half an hour. Think you can pry yourself off the couch before then?"
"What, and trudge across the frozen wasteland to spread your formidable good will toward men? Only if there's dinner involved. Café Rim?"
"Well, then!" You're off the couch and on your feet in one smooth motion, so quickly that Duncan just sits there for a moment and then shakes his head at you. Which, after all, was the point.
Coats, cards, and keys are gathered; the stove is turned down to a slow burn. When you open the door, an icy blast of wind slaps you in the face. The couch seems more and more attractive. But you're committed now, and anyway, there's really good pasta in the immediate future. You burrow your hands into your pockets, curl around the warmth at the center of yourself, and walk out into the grey.
This time of the year is spent in good cheer
And neighbors together do meet
To sit by the fire with friendly desire
Each other in love to greet
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot
All sorrows aside they lay
The old and the young doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away
Author's Notes: The lyrics are from "In Praise of Christmas," an 18th-century English carol arranged by Loreena McKennitt. This story was written November 24 and 28 and December 1, 2007. Thanks to Applacres and Café Rim for inspirational flavors.