We had left the porch light on of course, because that’s what you do in winter. I was the one who closed up that night, not being willing to go to my cold bedroom, and I glanced back at the door. A foolish mistake. The light and the snow piled up knee high magnified the glass panels and the gaps beamed in at me. The wind howled. A horror from the outside world.
It was mid-December and I hadn’t been outside for weeks. Nobody had. Nobody here goes outside after the last day of October. The Essentials came once a week with food, and medicines for those who needed them, or oil every fortnight.
There was a figure at the door.
I froze, my heart thudding in my ears. It was a man, a big one, taller than my father. Not as tall as the ginger-haired Essential who sometimes came, but much broader than him.
I knew the silhouettes of all the Essentials. We don’t get much daylight here, and sometimes the snow blindness is such that you only see their figures. I have watched them arrive every Friday since I was a little girl, though I never spoke to them or knew their names.
In our brief summer I would see them, but they showed no signs of recognition, and so I pretended the same.
The latest an Essential would arrive was six o’clock and we had five more days until our next visit.
This man wasn’t an Essential.
I hovered at the edge of the stairs, my slippered foot on the bottom step. Maybe he would go away if I went upstairs. Maybe he was expecting me to open the door.
The flame in the oil lamp flickered, throwing my shadow in monstrous shapes up the wall. What would I do with this man if I let him in? Tell my parents, of course. But would they know what to do? My father would of course, but there was his temper. My mother would panic. I curled my lip in distaste. I did not like her fearfulness.
He would go away. He would find somewhere else. He would have to.
The figure raised his hand. He had seen me.
I raced up the stairs, my blood coursing, my heart hammering. I had never been so scared. Never ever. Fear was a presence in my life, it was for us all as we knew what would happen if we went outside in Winter. Even the odd venture to the cellar to get coal thrummed with worry. But this fear?
I read books. I even read the newspapers Father left lying around from time to time. I knew what a strange man could do.
So, I raced, as carefully as I could, to avoid dropping the oil lamp.
I found myself in my room, out of breath. My exhalation rose in white mists. I gently placed the lamp on my bedside locker and slipped between the covers. Lorna Doone lay open, face down, beside it. On a normal night I would read until my eyes grew heavy and sleep beckoned. The bed was magnificently warm. Mother must have put in a hot water bottle earlier, and the thick tartan eiderdown weighted me with delightful cosiness. On a normal night I would read. It was a normal night. There was no man outside.
I picked up the book, but the wind was really starting to whistle and howl. How frightful for the man outside. What if he was a lost traveller or worse, a lost Essential?
I shook my head and went back to the tight, old-fashioned print. There was no man.
After about quarter of an hour I realised Lorna Doone held no charms for me that night. I was tired, but a part of my brain refused to let the subject of the man downstairs drop.
But I was stronger than that part of my mind. We ruled as a dictatorship, logic and rules, and instinct was not to be trusted. Instinct was to run out in the snow or start talking to the handsome Essential with the easy smile. Father had told me that when the body is gripped by hypothermia, its temperature regulation systems go haywire and the urge is to shed your clothes. Instinct is the enemy.
I put the book aside, extinguished the lamp and determinedly closed my eyes.
I do not know how long I lay there, as the wind howled, getting angrier and angrier, and it sounded as if someone was pounding on our front doors and windows. But really, it was impossible to tell. The shouts I imagined could be the creaks of an old house, the trees bumping against our walls.
I fell into a shallow, useless sleep; my mind still whirring on its circuitous track.
The morning was grey still when the knock came to the door.
I followed her down and we had our eggs and tea as usual and waited for Father to come down.
I was in the kitchen when Father glanced out the door and stopped.
I was sitting on the bottom step of the stairs when a group of Essentials wearing clothes I had never seen before but emblazoned with a word I knew – POLICE – arrived.
I watched as my father spoke with them and they erected a tent of white tarp around the naked body of the man, lying face down in the snow. I understood why they protected him, his clothes strewn around the snow as he had flung them off, but I was disappointed. I had never seen a naked man before and I was curious.
“He must have come to you for help, we found his car a mile and a half down the road,” one officer said. “Seems like he couldn’t find his way back”.
“Snow blindness,” the other said. “This is why we don’t go out after dusk.”
“Poor devil,” Father said. “I only wish I’d stayed up later, I might have heard him. With that damn blizzard last night – my wife and I sleep like logs.”
The police were two men, one tall, one shorter. The shorter one had intense blue eyes and a mouth that drew in a thin line. He looked through the gap in the door to me. “Your daughter?”
Father nodded. “Did you hear anything, Mattie?”
There was a very strange look on his face.
I shook my head. “No,” I squeaked out.
Later I realised it was the first time I’d ever spoken in front of an Essential.
Róisín Tuohy currently lives in Waterford and works in the motor industry when not writing. She has worked in journalism and has had short stories published in a number of anthologies. She hopes to finish a novel someday and not have it live in a drawer forever more. Róisín has been a member of Cupán Fae for 4 years and has contributed to the Fiercepunk anthology.