Lord Matthias Waterford entered his fine country manor of Havensbeck in county Staffordshire, removed his hat and was promptly greeted by his butler, Jasper. The stout man looked dignified as usual in his dark blue livery.
Jasper bowed. “How was your ride, my lord?”
“Cold.” Matthias shrugged out of his snow-dusted greatcoat and unwound his woolen scarf. Something caught his eye as he looked up. “Jasper, what is that hideous growth that is even now strangling my banister?"
Jasper wasn’t the slightest bit near-sighted, being no older than Matthias’s own thirty-two years. Yet he squinted up at the stair railing as if barely able to see what his master referred to. "Oh, that? That is a garland, my lord. A braided strand of winter greenery used to impart a sense of the season."
"Yes, I know what a garland is. Why is a garland allowed to infest my house?"
Jasper beamed at Matthias innocently. "Some people consider them very becoming decorations, my lord."
"Some people may, but not I. Take it down."
"Absolutely. Hideous thing. I shall banish it at once, my lord." The butler bowed so obsequiously low that Matthias could see the top of his ginger-haired head. Sarcasm, in his own house.
Matthias handed his black leather riding gloves to Jasper with an admonishing glare. Then he turned toward his study and the bottle of brandy that awaited him there.
Garlands. Blast it! Christmas just kept coming, every year, again and again, no matter how fast he rode or how far he traveled. So he retreated to this place, Havensbeck, deep in the Staffordshire valley, where the icy cold kept everyone indoors and the heavy snow muffled the sounds of their celebrations. And he still walked in on blasted garlands.
Matthias sighed and turned to face his most faithful and trusted and annoying retainer. "Out with it, Jasper."
"The Haven assembly rooms are under repair, my lord. Recall that storm last October? The roof leaked most abominably."
"I don't believe a word of it."
Jasper nodded solemnly. "It is quite true, my lord. Mildew everywhere. The blue velvet chair cushions are positively green with stuff growing on them."
"And yet you drape my house with green growing stuff?"
"That's different, my lord." Jasper's tone was starchy. "That's traditional."
Matthias sighed. "Mildew, eh?"
"It is most unrefined, my lord. The ladies will never sit down all night. You will be forced to dance with every single one, at least three times. That is, you would if you still danced."
Pity tinged the butler's voice. Matthias flinched from it, parting his lips to reprimand Jasper. However, those black days of shouting at his devoted servants were long past. “Inform whomever is arranging this event that I will buy new chairs for the hall.”
Jasper blinked. “Ah. Yes. That is most generous, of course, my lord. But with only three weeks until Christmas?“
“Ah, you were hoping I would volunteer the manor for the celebrations?”
"Oh, it isn't I, my lord. It's the staff, you see. I'm simply the elected spokesperson." Jasper spread his hands in an apologetic gesture. "I'm fully against it, myself. I loathe people. I despise celebrations. So messy. Dreadful nuisance, guests. If it were up to me, my lord, I would keep the house dark and cold and serve only dry toast and brandy for the next three weeks, just as you prefer. Now, that's my sort of Christmas."
Irony, from his own butler. Matthias grunted as he turned away. "Just top off the brandy, Jasper. The dry toast is all yours this evening."
Matthias leaned back in his fireside chair and cupped his snifter in both hands. His study remained quite satisfactorily dark, but it wasn’t cold. Jasper would never allow that. A cheery flame traced blue and gold over the coals in the fireplace. From his high-backed chair, Matthias watched it numbly until its merry dance seemed to mock his misery. He closed his eyes against its optimistic flare.
Another Christmas. Another year without Marianna, without his jolly little Simon, without his family. No happy singing of carols, no giddy hiding of gifts, just this bloody great echoing house and another snowy anniversary of that horrible fiery night.
His eyes opened and his gaze slid to the blotter on his desk. Jasper had left out a stack of foolscap and a filled inkwell. Next to the blotter stood a washed, dried wine bottle and a cork at the ready.
Matthias looked away. He didn’t know why he bothered. The letters never helped. The entire process was maudlin and unwise and useless. If anyone but Jasper ever learned of it, they would certainly think him mad.
So why did the next moment find him seated at his desk, sharpening a quill? Why did his fingertips grasp the pen, dip it into the ready ink and begin to write?
My dearest Simon,
He wouldn't write to Marianna this time. But a man could pen a letter to his own son, could he not?
The snow is falling on the lawn and I think of you chortling away as your mama tried to show you how to make a snow angel. She moved your little arms and legs and you thought she meant to tickle you. And when she lifted you into her arms and pointed at what you made together, you clapped your hands and shouted "Doggie!" That's when she began to call them snow doggies instead and we made them all over the lawn for you to see the next morning when you awoke.
The coals had gone to gray ash and the house was silent by the time he finished the letter. The pages, when rolled, scarcely fit through the neck of the bottle.
“You are a man of few words, my love,” she had told him once with a little laugh in her voice, “but when you take up a pen, you write volumes!
"Only about you," Matthias whispered now. "Only about him."
He corked the bottle tightly and stood, weaving just slightly. He'd been at the desk so long the brandy had nearly worn off, or it would have, if he'd taken the toast. He would have an aching head on him in the morning for his carelessness.
No matter. His step was steady as he left the study and the house. It wasn't a far walk to the stone bridge over the river. His woolen surcoat and weskit would keep him warm enough, even in the snowfall.
The clouds held a glow, for the village was still alight with lanterns and the first round of celebrations. The people of Haven loved a fête, that was for certain. Marianna had adored throwing parties for them all. From baptisms to weddings, she had turned her considerable imagination to pleasing his people. Matthias had always held their respect, but it was Marianna they had loved.
His chest hurt. The hollow pain of loss and helpless fury that smoldered in his heart burned with a special, piercing ache as Christmas Eve approached every year.
The manor had long been repaired. Looking back at it now, no sign remained of the fire damage that had burned the heart right out of its master. Tonight, as the snow fell so peacefully and silently, muffling the faint sounds of fiddle music coming from the village, one would think that nothing bad could ever happen in a place so beautiful.
One would be wrong.
Marianna had loved the river. It was known as the River Churnet, a name so old no one remembered what it meant any longer. “Mundane,” she had stated, and renamed it the River Celadon and declared it chock full of naiads or dryads or whatever spirits haunted running water. Even now, in the harshest of winters, the swift running water had refused to freeze entirely, leaving a rushing stream down the center of the encroaching ice on both banks.
Matthias leaned his elbows on the sturdy stone railing of the bridge and pressed the freezing glass bottle to his flushed forehead. It was a silly thing to do, writing these letters.
"Stupid. Useless." He held the bottle to his cheek and squeezed his eyes closed. "I love you both. I miss you. Merry Christmas."
And he let the bottle fall into the hissing, rushing water yet again.