The chair creaked and groaned as if crying out for an unrequited answer. Anna ceased her relentless rocking, unaware of how long she had actually been sitting there. A slight memory of a crackling fire burned through her mind as the frigid cold took hold of her immediate thought. "The fire…" She murmured to herself, "It's gone out."
As if expecting a reaction from the nearby furniture, she paused a moment, contemplating the last few minutes of intense thought that had made her let the flames die. Excusing her momentary lapse, she managed to bundle up the fabric of her dress and make her way towards the last bits of wood that would keep her warm this Christmas Eve. Placing her small frail hands on the logs of oak sitting next to the fireplace, she took in the fresh smell - one that had once enveloped her handmade home with fragrance and constant comfort. It had faded, along with the fire.
Finishing her chore, Anna gathered up the bottom of her dress, and sighed with the creaking of her favorite rocking chair as she settled in next to the born-again fireplace. Young but frail, the raven-haired beauty smiled at the small space around her that remained her home during the holidays. Filled with the homely touch of a Western woman, the cottage was a replication of her childhood cabin - safe, warm, and comforting.
She slowly reached to the floor, feeling herself slip back into sleep. Grasping for the small, wooden box she spent many hours stroking, she placed it over the newly found blanket in her lap and opened it carefully. Tracing the delicate carvings in the box, causing her to remember the moment she received it as a late Christmas gift. Anna smoothed out the folds of paper within, clinging for a random few and slowly reading them one after the other.
"My love -
This senseless war will never end, and yet I feel myself growing closer to you. It seems it's true what they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. And yet my heart grows weak the longer I spend without your smell, your touch… even your taste…"
Having memorized the written words long ago, Anna knew it was time to skip this one - it only grew sadder the further it read. The war had torn many families apart, and as the poet had specified, it was becoming rather senseless. A Civil War was not her idea of obtaining civility, but in these desperate times, it wasn't her decision to make.
Still, she wasn't as desolate as some. Left with a protective home, she needed only a few chosen pieces, and the fabric of her small rooms became alive and hopeful. Towards the direction she was facing, the tiny niche in the wall served as a homely fireplace… slightly desaturated and colorless through her eyes, despite the flames. The two, large stockings she'd made by hand hung overhead as a tradition. She smiled solemnly, filled with a happy memory and an inevitable regret.
Carvings were a bit of a repetition throughout the one-room building, and the mantle over the fireplace was no exception. Delicate, intricate, and somewhat amateur, she marveled at the shadows the small crevices cast and how they played around each other to create puzzles and paths she could not follow. Forming shapes of elves and tiny fairies, Anna traced a decorative line all the way to the end of the mantle, she found herself glancing over a nearby table covered in bits of holly centered around a praying angel.
Anna related to the angel's solemn expression and pleading hands. It was as if she were staring into a mirror made of wood and paint. Breathing deeply, she fumbled through another page, searching for a fresh letter with new words to relive.
It snowed today. The other men around me laughed like little children, enjoying the new coming season as if it were a godsend. For me, however; the snow only reminded me of your face and how fair you remain even in the hottest summers. And as the cold set in, I remembered that coat you promised me, made from the animals I hunted last year. How I wish I had it now… how I wish I had you."
Anna folded the page quickly, almost tempted to finish his words… but managing to avoid the heartache it would inevitably cause. Gracing her eyes over the corner desk covered in holly, she found herself watching the twin rocker sitting next to her as if expecting a slight movement to signify an unknown, yet comforting presence.
A bit larger than hers, the plain, lightly toned rocker sat silently and motionless, betraying her expectations. Not nearly as detailed and delicately carved, the chair remained a silent partner to her continuously creaking one. Quickly glancing away, Anna fought a silent tear as a beam of frosted light pierced a frozen pane. The only window in her home, the thin panes protected her from the small flakes flailing around outdoors. She grew blissful in their dance, wishing for a unique, simpler existence that a snowflake must have.
Passing over the closed, heavy, oak door quickly - she turned her gaze towards the fur coat hanging next to it. It longed openly for an owner, though it had yet to find its rightful place. Anna shuddered at how awkward it made her feel; making a coat that no one wore, and leaving it to thrive alone. She smiled sarcastically, even inanimate objects must find their home.
In the furthest corner across the room from where she sat, she glanced over the bedside table and the small mattress and frame within which she slept. The quilt, handmade and full of greens and reds, would seem festive in normal times… but it only appeared desolate and forsaken. Decorating the table was a small oil lamp left unlit along with several homemade Christmas cards standing on end, flashing their cliché notes and greetings to the world.
Two pairs of slippers laid hidden beneath the bedspread, as if sneaking away to a better home. Half covered in darkness, she recognized the soft pink cloth that represented her shoes, but grimaced at the sight of the large, brown, warmers that belonged to an absent presence who could no longer claim them as his own.
Sniffing silently, she glanced at the last wall, gracing her eyes over the black piped stove. Smoke scrambled from it, warming the small bit of food she managed to scavenge for her Christmas dinner. The smell suddenly enflamed her nostrils as she realized it would soon be time to feast. Letting her eyes roam over the remaining delicately carved cabinet and dresser that held two sets of clothing and utensils, half of which was no longer in use… she ignored the half-lived home and continued on to the next letter she grasped. To her sheer surprise and immediate mistaken regret, it did not read quite the same.
"To Miss Annabelle Burnham,
We are sorry to inform you that within the past month your husband, Mister Charles Burnham, has become missing in action and assumed deceased.
The Union Army"
Slowly, what color was left in the room drained from her vision and soon her soul. Clenching the thick paper in her hands, she felt her body cringe and wrack with grief. The flames seemed to whimper out of existence, forcing the room into a darkness and deep, depressing cold.
EVERYTHING was in place; the pair of stockings and house shoes, the decorated holly and carved angel, the past Christmas cards and the coat that would be a gift. Most importantly, the lonely chair that longed to creak in response. Everything was ready for the holidays - everything was in its place… but him.
Repressed tears poured from the widow's face as she plunged her eyes into her papered hands and wept. The darkness around her was pierced only by the ghostly light cast by the frozen pane. It darted through the room as if lighting her form, reemphasizing the sadness she exuded.
But what was that gust of wind? The window may have been thin, but it had not been so easily blown open. Slowly Anna raised her head, her eyes glancing about, suddenly aware of the amount of light allowed into her little room. It was an unnecessary, impossible amount of illumination that she strived to explain. As another gust of wind blew a few straggling brown leaves into her point of view - Anna finally turned towards the door, hoping another animal had not managed to sneak away from the cold.
It was an animal of considerable size.
His large, black boots were worn and frost covered, tracking in endless amounts of thick, melting snow. Standing in the doorway, Anna's eyes had to adjust as she recognized the long lanky legs covered in a shade of blue; the thin, uniformed torso that struggled to maintain the weight of an overstocked knapsack. His long brown hair and unshaven stubble let loose from the long lost army cap, she hardly recognized Charles so unkempt and disheveled.
Finally managing to rise to her feet, Anna stared wide-eyed at the unexpected visitor as he stared back, worried and somewhat relieved. Each step forward brought her closer to the realization and further from denial. Each step forward made her realize he was real, and breathed life back into her little room. The fireplace suddenly flourished again, the red of their stockings shown fierce and bright. The small angel opened her eyes and reached for the heavens in praise and the frosted pane cleared to show the white snow shining brightly in the awoken rays of sunshine.
Her reading lamp blew back to life and the small slippers came into view as if finally returning home from their escape. The smoky stove filled her home with smells of a hearty holiday meal, and the coat hovering next to the doorway rustled slightly in the wind as if awakening from a deep sleep.
Finally coming to a stop in front of the cottage's visitor, Anna stared at the man - still slightly shocked. His face was formed in an intense sense of relief. His forehead creased, and his lips quivering, Charles fought back tears… understanding his wife's confusion and denial.
Slowly she graced her thin fingers along the base of his chin. He leaned into her touch, eyes closing, almost blissful and free. She jerked away slightly, her eyes opening in recognition. Glancing down shyly, she reached towards the fur coat, and offered it to the returned hero.
As he accepted it from her… Ana raised her head, her face filled with a sad happiness, endless tears beginning to form in her eyes.
"You forgot your coat."
Charles smiled weakly, running his hands along the stitches, marveling in its warmth and the pleasant memory it revived in him.
"Oh Annabelle. But I… I didn't get you anything."
Almost as if those first words convinced her it was him, Anna began weeping uncontrollably and threw her arms around the returned lover. Wrapping his arms around her small form, he dropped the large bag recklessly behind her, then continued to clasp her face in his hands and kissed her fiercely as if he'd never have the chance again.
As they pulled away, Anna began giggling happily, and smiled at Charles' slightly confused expression.
"Oh Charles. You did. You really did."
As she clung to the other half of her soul, Anna smiled with the happy understanding that now the other stocking, the clothes-filled dresser, and brown slippers would never fall into a useless existence. And, more importantly, the other rocking chair… would never go silent again.