|needlework, a photo by hans s on Flickr.|
When Alis heard fumbling at the door she looked up with greedy anticipation, as if expecting a special treat. Cecily came into the room and shook the shoes off her feet, cheerily greeting her mother and beginning the daily relation of all the news she had picked up throughout the day. She curled up beside the warm peat fire in the center of the room, munching on a bit of bread and cheese while Alis ladled out the soup. It was always a relief to talk to Mum, because it felt as though she really understood every word, even if she said nothing in return. Cecily mumbled between mouthfuls about how she had finally managed to pull up all of the ragged robin flowers that had sowed themselves from one end of the gardens to the other, and Rivens had promised to teach her how to prune the pear trees this winter. Madge Surlaf had been snide again, in an almost cruel way (she had never forgiven Cecily for attracting the attentions of Madge’s then-future husband). Alis murmured little motherly concurrences and condolences, understanding everything as if she had been traveling in Cecily’s sidebag all day and heard every word.
Cecily was about to plunge into the story about how the cobbler’s oldest boy, Bartholomew, had embarrassed himself with a stork that afternoon, when she looked up at her mother’s face and caught herself. There was a line on Alis' brow that wasn’t usually there. A line of pain. “Is something bothering you, Mum?”
Alis shifted on her stool, picking out a few threads from the robe. “Not at all, dearie, quite all right.” Cecily didn’t believe it. Alis put a hand to her chest and gave a little shuddering sigh.
“What is it, Mum? Tell me!”
The older woman reached out her veined fingers to gently touch her daughter’s face. Cecily’s blood pumped harder every moment. I remember that touch. It’s sad. Alis withdrew her hand, curling it up in her lap, and closing her eyes. When they opened again, they seemed stretched and pale. “I’m not getting…any younger, Cessy. I felt…tired…today. More than usual.” Cecily was long accustomed to Alis being a bit more feeble than other women her age, but by squinting in the firelight she could see that her mother was frailer than she had been in a long while.
Alis was weakening again. Cecily knew that she had always been too thin, too hard working, and too susceptible to the illnesses that periodically circulated through the village. Ever since the brutal plague that had claimed her husband’s life she had always been the first to sicken and the last to recover. Gradually, so that not even Cecily had noticed at once, her bones had lately become more prominent, her skin more transparent, her smile more forced.
Worry crawled up Cecily’s back like a cold worm. The thought of the winter ahead was like a sharp piece of ice that she shut up in the back of her mind and tried hard to neglect. Winters were never merciful to the very young, or the very old, or the very weak. A few wet, bitter months might easily—don’t think of that. Put it out of your mind.
Alis clasped her daughter’s hand and knelt down to smile into her face, one graying lock of hair slipping across her cheek. “I’ll be all right, don’t you worry about me. Now, tell me about the stork.” With a sick stone in her stomach, Cecily stuttered through the story, then crawled under her blankets for the night. She watched the firelight hunt and peck over the lines in her mum’s face as she slept on her pallet, until sleep claimed her aching body.