The Winter sun hung low in the sky, tantalisingly bright yet withholding the promise of warmth on the fields below. A murder of crows took to the wing for their last supper before the dusk wrapped a grey blanket over the land. Melisande knew once they returned to roost high in the line of ancient Oak trees it would not be long before night would come riding in. She felt the temperature drop and shivered, pulling her woollen shawl tightly across her thin body. The morrow would arrive with a dressing of hoar frost. Clutching her basket, meagre rations of berries and nuts forlornly rolled around as she made firm strides for home.  The barren fields had no more to give and neither did she. 

The cottage had seen better days. The interior was a grey as her ragged hair. A motley collection of worn out furniture, table and two wooden chairs, a threadbare armchair before an empty and cold grate. A dirty mirror hung above the mantle. There was no need to clean it, long ago she had stopped caring about the reflection looming back. The lonely ghost of the woman who once was remained trapped behind cobwebs and dust. 

Melisande’s bones ached. She longed for warmth, from a lover, a friend, someone who cared. But there was no one. They had all left long ago. She piled applewood logs and kindling into the grate. Reluctantly the fire took, spreading a wan light into the gloomy room. She would make herb tea and maybe try to eat and then sleep, in dreams maybe she would be free, if she could keep bad at bay and the nightmares away. The cawing of crows heralded the coming darkness. She shuddered. 

The fire flickered into life, and slowly sipping the soothing tea she stared deeply into the flames, into the past. 

It had not always been this way. 

Back to vibrant times when she had turned heads, a selfish woman with many married lovers she met at her work in the big city. The cottage in the country was her retreat from the madness and mayhem and greedy life of an investment banker. Treating people badly was her trademark. It didn’t matter, there were plenty more foolish enough to replace the ones she callously discarded. 

A tear rolled down her face. In the flames she watched the scene replay as if it were yesterday. 

Another party, another drunken, drug fuelled night on the town. Worse for wear she had crawled back to her penthouse. Needing to sleep, but wanting just another drink. Ignoring the stabbing pain in her chest, she snorted another line of coke. Another pain, gripping her with vicelike intensity. A knock at the door. It is a handsome man. She asks if he wants her body. She is drunk and drugged. He says no. He is Death. He wants her soul. Shocked she slams the door. The next night he returns. Again she slams the door. The third night he returns and tells her I have not come for your soul tonight. I have brought you a gift. It is in this box. As long as you open the box every night at midnight  I will not return. 

She accepts the box. The handsome man leaves. She begins to fret, death knows where she lives. She moves to the cottage, opening the box at midnight. But still she fears the knock at the door. She thinks back each night to what she lost and what could happen. Every night the crows caw. Many moon-tides pass. Beauty fades; she is old, poor, wizened and lonely. The firewood runs low. Freezing she throws the box onto the fire. Blue sparks. A knock at the door. It is death.

“You said you would not come. I opened the box every night at Midnight. Every single night for the past twenty five years!”

“Yes, but you have now burnt the box. The contents have been destroyed.”

“But there was nothing in the box. It was empty!”

“No, it was full of your fears. Every time you opened it, you let them out. Every time you closed it, you put new ones in.”

“So I have been a prisoner here, of my own making? Trapped by my fear of dying?”

“You should have come when I first called. Happiness awaited you in paradise. But your greed kept you here and then you made yourself a  prisoner of your own fears.  You have not lived but you have died a thousand times…”

He held out his hand. Melisande walked through the open door. The winter sun hung low in the sky, dawn was breaking and there was the promise of a bright new day. 

Eily Nash (2020)