Out of the Mist
Snow fell during the morning of Christmas Eve and by dusk was two feet deep. Ancient cedars bowed their weighted branches to the Christmas tree inside Pam’s conservatory. Tiny white lights cast reflections on the panes of glass, creating a myriad of other sparkling trees.
Pam sat at the wrought iron table under the glittering canopy, nursing a cup of coffee. It had been a challenge to cut down the twelve-foot tree, heave it onto the roof of their Subaru and then anchor it upright in the conservatory. Her husband, Tom, had almost toppled off the ladder securing the silver star at the top. They were not as young as they used to be. He had decided to take a nap before their family arrived.
“I need to recover before the onslaught,” he shouted, as he clomped upstairs.
Their son had called from his SUV to say they should be there in a couple of hours.
“The kids are plugged into IPods and whatever,” he told Pam, laughing.
It would be great to have the family here and the house full once again.
The heady scent of pine combined with the fragrance of jasmine and rosemary wafted towards Pam and she recalled the dream; the horseman digging his spurs into the animal’s flanks and galloping away into the mist. She could remember certain things about him; the way he had appeared from nowhere and how he calmed her--but not much else. The dream always left her sad, unsettled.
. . .
One damp afternoon in Wiltshire, England, during World War II, Pam and her older sister, Charlotte, dressed in their finery, were ready to walk the mile to the village for the children’s Christmas party in the church hall. Charlotte had outgrown her dresses and wanted something less childish for a twelve year old, so their mother took a forest-green velvet dress of her own and made it into one for Charlotte.
“Mum, I love it.” Charlotte said, preening in front of the wardrobe mirror. “Thank you, thank you!”
Their mother placed an arm around her and the two stood for a moment, admiring each other’s reflection.
“You look like twins,” Pam said. Only seven, she felt left out.
Her mother and sister both had hazel eyes and chestnut-brown hair that curled softly, framing their pretty faces. Pam’s sandy-colored hair was blunt cut and thick glasses hid her blue eyes.
“You look quite nice too.” Her mother gave Pam a hug. “I always liked that blue-checked dress on Charlotte. It suits you.”
“I don’t think so.” Pam knew the dress was too tight for her sturdy frame. Why wasn’t she pretty like Charlotte? And why were their precious clothing coupons wasted on boring school uniforms instead of party frocks.
“It’s time for you to leave,” their mother said. “It’s a pity we can’t go together, but my fruit cake’s taking forever to bake. The gas pressure’s low today. Darn this war!” She sighed. “I wish your father had been here to see how beautiful you both look, but he’s still up at the farm. Never mind, we’ll pick you up later.”
“Alright,” Pam said, impatient to leave
Their mother gave each girl a hug, tweaked Charlotte’s crimson tam’o shanter and walked with them to the black wooden gates that opened out onto the road.
Water dripped from trees and shrubs and their feet squished on the muddy path.
“Charlotte, be careful, dear,” she said. “Don’t over-do it.”
“Mum, stop fussing. I’m fine.” Charlotte flashed her mother a reassuring grin.
Opal mist swirled across the fields, clinging close to the ground and shrouding their stone cottage. Drops of water on hedgerows of hawthorn, blackberry and holly sparkled like tinsel whenever the sun broke through leaden clouds. The girls walked down the hill towards the village, turning to wave at their mother before the bend in the road hid her from view
Anticipating the excitement of the Christmas party, Pam skipped along her hair swinging like a bead curtain. They had such fun last year, when the women from the village festooned the musty church hall with holly and ivy and camouflaged the water-stained ceiling with streamers of red, green, purple and yellow. Pam felt she had entered a fairy-tale Arabian tent. Father Christmas, overwhelming in scarlet, had given each child a present. Of course, when she went up to receive her gift, it had been a bitter disappointment to recognize Mr. Millgate, the butcher, hidden under the silvery beard and whiskers. But now, nearly eight years old and no longer babyish, she looked forward to being with school friends and, who knows, they might even ignore Father Christmas altogether. She hoped the ladies had made shortbread this time as well as jam sandwiches and lemonade. With wartime rationing you never could tell what would be served at a party.
Pam knew Charlotte was also looking forward to the fun of seeing friends. Her sister did not attend school and missed the companionship of other girls. As a young child she had had rheumatic fever and nearly died. After her recovery the doctor declared her, “delicate.” Their mother taught Charlotte at home and fretted over her in an overly-protective way. Because they spent so much time together, a special bond existed between them, which, at times, Pam felt excluded her and their father. This annoyed him. He felt that Charlotte should be more active. Before he left that day, he had exploded.
“Grace, for heaven’s sake, leave Charlotte alone! You carry on so. Charlotte is a big girl and doing fine. Let her be!”
The sisters walked in companionable silence for a few minutes until Charlotte said, “Daddy was really mean to Mummy today. I heard him shouting.”
Pam leapt to her father’s defense. “He was in a hurry to get to the farm. When Sir Ralph needs him he has to go.”
Their father managed Sir Ralph Finlater’s property, and in part payment the family lived in the gatehouse on the estate. This Christmas Sir Ralph had a large hunting party coming down from London and needed to discuss final details.
Pam, a robust child, loved to ride around the property with her father. She managed a horse well, and Sir Ralph told her she was welcome to borrow the piebald pony, Starlight, any time.
“Birds of a feather,” her mother laughed when father and daughter trotted off together.
“I really, really want to ride Starlight to the party,” Pam had said at breakfast.
“Nonsense! I never heard of such a thing,” her mother replied “You’ll be dressed up. Besides, Charlotte would have to walk there alone.”
“I don’t see why she can’t. She’s twelve. Why do we always have to do everything together?” Pam slammed her porridge bowl down on the table. “Please let me!”
“Pam, that’s enough!”
Dawdling along the road, Pam daydreamed what fun it would have been to canter into the village, arriving at the church hall with Starlight, tossing his head and doing a skittish dance on the pavement.
Charlotte interrupted this reverie. “If we see any planes we’d better hide under the hedge until we know if they are ours,” she said.
Pam stopped and scanned the gray skies. Living in the country they did not always hear the wailing of the air-raid warning. By now she could recognize German bombers and British fighter planes. The boys at school had taught her how to spot the difference and warned her if the planes were Messerschmitts and not their own Spitfires, she should run for cover.
“Well, take off that silly red hat or they’ll see us straight away.” Pam said, jealous that their mother had crocheted Charlotte a hat but not one for her.
She looked at her sister and noticed how lovely she was. In the damp air her hair clung to the chenille of the tam o’shanter. Overcome with remorse, Pam added, “You look so grown up.”
“Silly old thing,” Charlotte gave Pam’s arm an affectionate squeeze. “Let’s not worry about Mum and Dad’s quarrels. We have each other. You and I will be sisters forever.”
“I know.” Pam, who hated mushy stuff, started to run, then turned to wait for Charlotte. “Come on, we’ll be late!” she called.
Charlotte trotted alongside her for a while and then stopped. She pressed her left hand against her chest and told Pam to go on without her. Pam jogged along for a few yards, anxious to get to the party, but when she turned around to urge Charlotte forward she saw her sister lying on her side in the middle of the road.
She dashed back.
“Charlotte! Are you all right?” She knelt and shook her sister’s shoulder.
Charlotte did not move. The red hat lay limp beside her and without it her face was as pale and blue as watered milk.
“Charlotte! Charlotte! Get up! ” Worried they would miss the opening games, Pam looked up and down the deserted road, wondering what to do.
She remembered that when people fainted it helped to splash their faces with water. Cricker Brook ran through the meadow on the other side of the hedge. Pam clambered over the stile, raced through stiff stubble to the stream and scooped up icy water in cupped hands. By the time she got back to Charlotte all the water was gone, so she rubbed her sister’s cheeks with frigid fingers. Charlotte did not even flutter her eyelashes.
Panic-stricken, Pam jumped up. Should she run home? Looking down at her sister, she hesitated and realized she better not leave her alone. Not knowing what else to do, Pam started to scream. She screamed for what seemed ages. When no one answered she sat on the road beside Charlotte and, whimpering, struggled to put the hat back on her sister’s heavy head
“Please Charlotte, wake up!” She shook her.
Then, out of the mist a horseman cantered towards her across the meadow. He leapt off his black stallion and bounded over the gate. Steam rose from the animal and Pam caught a whiff of the stables. As the man knelt beside the girls, the sun broke through behind him, creating a golden halo around his unfashionably long hair. Pam smelled sweat and damp wool. His dark brown eyes bore into hers. “
What happened here?” he said.
“My sister won’t wake up,” Pam answered, tears now coursing down her face.
The horseman put two stubby fingers on Charlotte’s neck and checked her pulse. He lifted her hand with its tapered fingers.
“What‘s your name, child?’ he said. When she whispered a reply, he asked. “Pam, where are your parents?”
“The first house over there,” Pam pointed back up the road. A lump as sharp and heavy as shrapnel settled in her chest. “Why won’t Charlotte wake up?”
When he did not answer she began to sob.
“Pam, you must be a brave girl and stay here with your sister. Do not leave her alone. Not for a minute. Someone will be here with you soon. Stay with her!”
The man stood and fetched his horse, which snorted and pranced when he put a foot in the stirrup and vaulted into the saddle. With hooves clattering he wheeled the animal into the middle of the tarred road. Towering above her he assured Pam, “It won’t be long, I promise you.”
Then he dug his heels into the horse’s flanks and, hunching over its neck, galloped away until the mist swallowed them up and the metallic drum of the horse’s hooves faded into silence.
Pam had very little recollection of what happened in the hours and days that followed, except for one clear picture. She stood at the door of the guest room where Charlotte lay still and pale on the bed wearing the shimmering green dress. In a shaft of sunlight, dust motes moved in aimless swirls above her sister’s head. Her mother had braided winter jasmine into Charlotte’s loose hair and scattered sprigs of rosemary on the white counterpane. The flowers’ scent wafted towards Pam as in slow motion she backed away down the stairs.
Over the years Pam had wondered who the horseman was and how he happened to be there. After the funeral, she had asked her parents and later Sir Ralph, but no one knew the man’s identity. It seemed he had materialized from nowhere-- then vanished. It was not until Pam was grown and had children of her own, that the horseman stopped invading her dreams. Although relieved, she did in fact miss him; he was her last link with Charlotte.
. . .
The phone rang. Pat woke immediately. Icy roads! Snow drifts! Had there been an accident? She hesitated before answering, willing her family to be safe. “Yes,” she breathed into her cell phone.
“Hey, Mom! I’ve just pulled off the Interstate. We’ll be there in five minutes,” her son’s voice boomed. “Are you okay, Mom? You sound strange.”
“I’m fine.” Relief flooded through her. “Thank God you’re alright!” She snapped the phone shut and, looking up at the star glittering on the top of the tree, whispered, “Thank you.”
Then, she was sure she heard Charlotte’s voice murmur, “We’ll be sisters forever.”
They would. With a joyful heart, Pam went to wake Tom.