Mirriam took a sip of her tepid coffee as she watched yet another group of children and adults pass by her garden gate. Everyone had a sled in tow, a smile on their face and a carol on their lips. Her own smile drooped when she realized that they weren’t Christmas carolers. They went on by, minding their business and leaving her to hers, as they had all year long.
She pulled the heavy curtain over the frosty window panes and turned back to her computer. At first she didn’t want to rent a cottage in Westfarthing, in the middle of nowhere. Her doctor prevailed. The cleaner air would help her lungs heal. The slower pace would temper her type “a” personality. Her company allowed telecommuting.
Mirriam rarely spoke to a single soul other than the delivery boy and the mail carrier. The locals weren’t unfriendly. They just didn’t engage, other than the offhand, cheery greeting on the rare occasions when she ventured out. She didn’t mind all that much. Big blocks of data were always more alluring to her than human company.
The last of twilight came and went, unnoticed by Mirriam until she ran out of coffee. Though it was much too late for anyone to be abroad, she pulled back the curtain a sliver and peered out, something in her yearning for a glimpse. The well-trod path by her cottage contained only snow and starlight.
There was the consolation of reports to analyze, a new year of data just beginning to be born. Her life was predictable, regular, and safe. So what if it was a bit dull at times? She pushed back against a longing she didn’t fully understand and tried to focus on the present and only the present. As she stood impatiently by the old-fashioned drip pot, waiting for yet another carafe of barely drinkable brew, a scratching noise sounded at the kitchen door.
“Shoo!” Mirriam said. “I don’t do strays!” She pulled her ratty pink terry bathrobe tight, worn all day over her clothes as a charm against drafts. The scratching continued. Guilt twinged her over leaving any living creature out in the deep winter night. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to open the door just a crack.
“Please miss. I’m very lost,” said a tiny voice, not much more than a whisper of a wail above the wind.
Mirriam yanked open the door. On her back stoop was a frail girl, not more than ten years old, dressed in nothing but the tatters of an old flannel nightgown. Her feet were blue under the filth of the road.
“I’ll only stay for a little while, if that’s all right,” the girl said, looking up at her with luminous, pleading eyes.
“Yes of course!”
And then there was cocoa to make (bitter coffee abandoned) and muffins to toast over the fire. Mirriam had always wanted to toast muffins over the fire. The girl, who wouldn’t say her name, devoured most of them. It was very late, and the phone was out again. Surely it could wait until morning to call the proper authorities.
The girl wouldn’t get into the shower. They had to make paper boats to float before she got into the giant old clawfoot tub. Mirriam had thought about taking long soaks when she moved in, yet another thing she’d pushed off until “some day”. With the gas fire roaring and Mirriam’s leftover Christmas playlist on full from the computer in the other room, it felt like a party.
She couldn’t sleep on the sofa under the rattly old window, and neither could Mirriam, with her wheezy lungs and bad back. They climbed into the big old brass bed together The girl sang them to sleep with forgotten lullabies, the same as Mirriam’s mother knew. In the morning, Mirriam taught the girl how to untangle her curly hair and dressed her in a velvet dress that she found in the back of a drawer, abandoned by previous residents.
Over the following week, they played all over the house. They made too many cookies and drank too much cocoa. Paper dolls and popcorn strings decorated a very belated Christmas tree, a sad pink tinsel thing found in the cottage’s attic. They played games on Mirriam’s computer, even as her inbox filled with frantic messages from work.
It couldn’t last forever, Mirriam knew. The authorities must be notified. The girl had to be placed in a foster home. But first, surely, they could spend the day together watching movies. The girl looked healthier and more beautiful each day. Mirriam’s heart ached at the thought of her going, of her being returned to the family that had abused her and turned her out into the cold.
A pounding on the front door awoke her from where she lay napping on the sofa, the little girl curled up under a fake fur blanket at the other end. For a moment, Mirriam couldn’t work out what it meant. No one ever came to the front. No one ever came at all.
“Don’t open it!” the girl shrieked. “Don’t make me go!”
Mirriam had lost any words of reassurance. She opened her arms and the girl flung herself into them.
A key turned in the lock and Mrs. Allen, Mirriam’s landlady came in with a bang of slammed door.
“Ah, thank God. You’re alive! Your company called the police station since they haven’t heard from you since before Christmas. Don, he’s the police chief, asked me to check.” Mrs. Allen’s graying eyebrows disappeared under the edge of the red wooly scarf that she had wrapped around her head.
“What have we here? Oh no. No. It can’t be.” Mrs. Allen whipped a cell phone out of her pocket and dialed, then spoke in a rapid undertone, glancing furtively at the pair of them on the sofa. Finally she shoved her phone back into her pocket and nodded.
“We’ll get this sorted out in no time, don’t worry,” Mrs. Allen said.
The girl dove behind the sofa and broke into noisy sobs.
“I don’t want her to go!” Mirriam said. “I can take care of her, surely I can. She needs love, is all.”
“Look around you,” Mrs. Allen replied.
For the first time in days, she truly looked about the cottage. Dirty dishes piled around the little Christmas tree. Clothes and the remnants of the paper doll making mixed with muffin wrappers on the usually tidy floor. The dining table in its nook had been converted into a blanket fort using Mirriam’s best sheets. One edge finished in fine Irish lace drooped into a forgotten cup of cocoa.
Mrs. Allen dragged Mirriam into the kitchen with its sink piled high, then the bathroom, floor covered in damp towels. After reinstalling Mirriam on the sofa, she vanished just long enough to supply them both with a cup of strong tea.
“All right. I’ve let things get out of hand,” Mirriam admitted. “I’ve never had a child in the house before. I can learn.”
“This never happens to outsiders,” Mrs. Allen said. “The child is a deep child.”
“Well, yes, but I think that’s utterly normal for a child of her age. She’s growing into a young lady,” Mirriam replied.
“No, dear, not that sort of deep.” Mrs. Allen took a long sip of her tea. If we had known this would happen, we would have been on hand to help you with her.” She gestured towards the sofa. The girl’s wailing had ceased. “She’s fallen asleep. That’s a very good sign.”
“She’s ever so kind and funny and pretty and,” Mirriam paused, tears filling her eyes, “just wonderful!”
“Of course she is, dear. But you didn’t know how to manage her, and you’ve let her take charge. That won’t do.”
“I can learn!” Mirriam replied.
“You’ll have to. Most outsiders who move here, they don’t get anything. Once in a while, one might get a kitten. But a child, no, that’s never happened, not even to folks who marry in.”
The girl crept out from behind the sofa and stood next to Mirriam, sleepy and subdued.
“In you go, and no more nonsense, missy!” Mrs. Allen said, taking the girl’s hand from Mirriam’s.
The landlady led the girl to the closet door and opened it wide. Instead of its usual contents of coats and umbrellas, the door opened into a huge room. It looked like a Victorian nursery, dominated by a Christmas tree, full of playing children. The girl let out a happy cry and scampered in. The landlady closed the door.
Mirriam got up and cautiously opened the closet. It was once again nothing but closet.
“Where did she go?”
“She’s gone away, with the other deep children. We’ll get Ellen, she’s the local cleaning lady, to help you with your house tomorrow.”
“But she’ll be back?” Mirriam persisted. She peeked into the musty closet again, equal parts relieved and sad.
“Of course! Didn’t you see us all with ours? They must only stay from Midwinter night until 12th night. Past that, they get over-tired and out of control.”
Mirriam bristled, and opened her mouth to make an angry reply.
“Which is how you find yourself with a wrecked house and your employers calling the police to locate you,” Mrs. Allen said dryly. “No worries. Next year will be better. You can come out and play with us! We build snow forts, and sled, and go ice-skating, and there’s a big party in the parish hall. You must come. You’re one of us now.”
“Next year?” Mirriam thought of her half- formed plans to move to a cottage by the sea, or perhaps splurge on a Christmas cruise. Then she remembered the deep child’s happy face as they toasted muffins by the fire.
“You have a deep child. You belong to Westfarthing now,” Mrs. Allen said. She lifted a toast with her teacup, as if it were a cup of wassail.
December 2015, T.L. Ryder