The day had barely begun
, as the young man saddled up his donkey
warm, dank comfort of his barn. The air outside was cold as hate
, and lashed
unprotected with invisible picks, slicing through skin as a warm knife through
, chilling the bone
to the core. Moonlight streamed down on the sleeping
town, providing equally frigid illumination
. The few who dared venture out
this early were brisk of step. Wrapped in layers of fur and leather, frost
eyebrows, like fragile curtains framing the glassy windows
around, searching for shelter. Their breaths took form, hung and disappeared
with every laborious pant. The echoes of their boots against the icy cobblestones
lining Main Street made a racket that sounded like an invasion of a thousand
, all galloping full tilt down the deserted marketplace. The local watchman
was curled up in his little hut by the gates, kettle on the stove, trying not
to freeze to death. There was barely a light to be seen in all directions,
most of the townspeople being late risers. And it was on nights like this,
older folk, that the Devil makes Himself a cup of cocoa and waits patiently
Hell to thaw out
The young man was gaunt, stout and fairly dark for someone who lived so far
north. Square cut features, a slightly protruding jaw and eyes like a cornered
rat’s hinted at a slightly obstinate character buried beneath a face
that otherwise radiated good nature and eagerness to share a joke. His father
got himself flung out of the back of a cart when our young man was only two,
and little if any memory remained. Twenty two good years of his life he shared
with Mom, his only pillar of support for a good part of it. She worked the
looms with a god-given skill few could match. The cloth didn’t sell
for much, but at least it put bread on the table and coffee in the pot till
young man was old enough to do a couple of odd jobs around the town to help
make ends meet.
He grunted as he heaved the last of the bales of cloth over the back of his
donkey. It was going to be a good day’s journey through the mountains,
and bed of roses it wasn’t. He had to set out soon, he knew, or risk
arriving late at the next village tomorrow morning. He had been eyeing a spot
at the impending bazaar for some time now. It was quite prominent, with adequate
shelter and located comfortably close to the village square. If he was got
it, then he could be sure of earning ten, maybe twenty florins an hour, no
problem. The villagers knew their stuff, and paid good money for quality fabric.
With deftness of touch uncommon in those who worked the hammer and hoe,
he extinguished the gas lamp with a quick twist of the fuel knob. The small
instantly went dark, visibility aided only by the bluish-grey light of dawn,
which seeped through the crack between the huge, timber doors. He stuffed the
lamp into a large oilskin bag, which he threw over his shoulder with a muffled
groan. It wasn’t light, and contained, among other things, enough food
for himself and the animal, a bag of spare change, extra clothing in anticipation
of colder weather, and his trusty, weather beaten cooking pot. He flung himself
against the doors and they creaked open with long, drawn out wail. The numbing,
icy wind made its point by slamming into his bare cheeks, raising colour in
them, and flash-freezing his eyeballs as they nestled in their sockets. There
was a sudden onslaught of baying from behind him, and it was a good fifteen
minutes later that he finally managed to coax the stubborn creature out into
The young man reached the town gates, donkey alongside, and pounded a heavy
fist on the watchman’s door. There was a brief period of cursing, and
the old bloke hobbled out, keys in hand. Finding the lock frozen over, he once
again lapsed into a barrage of vulgarities that puffed out into the air around
him and formed rude shapes. He left, returning a moment later with his kettle,
from which he poured a generous amount of boiling water, leaving the rusty
keyhole steaming in the early morning light. Gates breached, the young man
led his donkey from within the security of the town’s solid stone walls
out into the vast, yawning plains bordering it, turned north, and headed
straight for the pass through the mountains. He was no stranger to the route,
taken it not less than four times before, and he was confident that with such
an early start and a steady pace, he would get to the next village soon… oh
yes he would.
As the day went on the young man began to feel the strain of the journey.
It wasn’t easy navigating jagged rocks slippery with the thawing of last
night’s frost. Add to the equation a heavy load and a donkey laden
with cloth and he found himself stopping for a much needed break every few
or so. Water from the numerous creeks draining the mountains provided him with
refreshment while he munched on the crusty homemade loaves of goodness his
mom purchased from the local bakery every couple of days. He had travelled
close to twenty miles when dusk cast its eerie shadow across the broad valley.
He was close to his favourite camping spot, which was a small alcove set into
a rocky cliff known locally as Hangman’s Rock. It wasn’t much of
a home, but it did shield many a weary traveller from the ravages of the
northeastern winds, especially during this time of the year. The young man
pressed on, his
eyes keenly scanning the horizon for the landmark, when suddenly a cold wind
rose, howling through the half-dark valley like a thousand spirits set loose.
He felt his heartbeat quicken, and a tiny voice inside his head whispered words
of worry which flushed his cheeks and made him increase his pace, stumbling
over the treacherous route in the fading light.
It was cold. Bloody freezing cold and he knew he was in trouble. An hour
ago when the first snowflake fell, it fell with certain deliberateness that
of impending calamity. The mountains had gone all silent, and the clip-clop
of the donkey’s hooves recreated the echoes of the night before… when
he was still safe and warm in his barn. Slowly but surely the storm started,
covering everything with a thin layer of white, beautiful at first, then thicker
and thicker till he found himself trudging through a layer of slush just to
keep moving. He had somehow missed Hangman’s Rock, and this puzzled him.
It didn’t matter now. Night had taken over and the storm was now in full
force. The mountains were merciless, staring down at the tiny figure determinedly
pressing on in the dark, aided only by the feeble glow of his gas lamp. With
stiff fingers he fumbled around in his oilskin bag till he found the thick
overcoat he always brought along, but never had opportunity to wear till tonight.
He unrolled a bale of his mother’s thickest woolen cloth and draped it
over the donkey, which, by this time didn’t seem all too pleased with
the state of affairs. The wind tore at his face, and he pulled up his collar,
in a feeble attempt to shield it. It worked somewhat, and staring into the
darkness ahead, he moved on.
Morning broke, and the young man awoke under a small rock shelf that jutted
squarely out of the cliff face. The storm last night had ended as abruptly
as it began, leaving man and animal knee-deep in snow in the dead of night.
He was about to give up any hope of finding shelter for the night when the
glow of his gas lamp, which had seemed so powerful in the barn the night before,
picked out a small strip of rock that stuck out perpendicularly from the
rocky wall, as if Fate had had enough fun with the pair for the night. Sleep
swiftly and easily for both, and it was nearing noon that the man finally
stirred from his dreamless sleep. Limbs numb from the cold, he lay there on
mat fashioned from his mother’s cloth, unable to move for a few minutes.
As the sun beat down on him, he felt the heavy leaded feeling in his legs melt
away, allowing certain degree of movement. He sat up, surprised at the amount
of effort it took. Dragging himself to his feet, he stumbled over to his porter,
which was happily licking the ice off the cliff surface, and searched for his
Which was gone. And he was so certain he tied it fast to the animal last night.
In fact, he made doubly sure that it was secure, before dragging the donkey
through the last two hours of his journey. And now it was gone. Lost. He stared
in disbelief at the frayed cotton twine, which once held his hopes of survival.
The tattered ends wriggled mockingly in the breeze, taunting him with Fate’s
Nightfall, and the young man plunged valiantly on through the darkness.
He had found his bearing by watching the sun on its unalterable course through
the sky, and had found Hangman’s Rock a mile and a half to the east.
He had spent the day headed towards the village, it being closer than turning
back. Hungry and fatigued, the donkey had given up on him earlier on, and
had simply refused to budge from his seat. The young man was forced to leave
behind, its forlorn eyes staring vacantly at the master who once fed it
well. It pained him to see his donkey go. Eight years it had served him, wind
rain, day or night. Even more heartbreaking was its precious cargo of cloth,
bearing the sweatstained labour-mark of his mother. For a moment he wondered
if he would ever see her again.
He fell more than once that night, but picked himself up and carried on, in
the knowledge that death was certain if he had to spend another night in
the cold with no food or shelter. His boots had started letting in water a
hours ago, and now his toes were freezing in the damp. His
vision played tricks on him. He once thought he saw a group of old men standing
ahead. They looked on silently, then vanished. He felt his strength wasting
away as the night wore on, his fingers as good as non-existent, and his
eyes hurting from the dry wind.
He didn’t suffer very long. They found him the following morning,
cold, stiff and lifeless, just 400 yards from the village where he was to have
his wares. Three of his fingers had snapped off as he fell, for the last time,
face down into the ice and snow. They sent him back to his cozy little town,
where he was buried alongside his mother, who had passed on in the bitter cold
of the first night. And as they laid to rest a gaunt, stout, and fairly dark
young man with a slightly protruding jaw and eyes like a cornered rat’s],
the wind started to howl once more.