by Rhiannon Guzelian
That November night fell swiftly but gracefully, draping the dense New Hampshire woods in impenetrable darkness. Elias panicked. He should have made camp nearly two hours ago. As the wind whipped harder and ushered in an icy cold, he cursed himself for allowing the evening to creep up on him. Though, to be fair, it had an advantage. Elias was moving slowly. Buried deep within his left leg was a constellation of lead and shrapnel that made his thigh muscles scream. His feet screamed right along, searing from 87 days of trekking north to Maine in his worn-out, military-issue boots. And between the weight of the pack and his limp, Elias’s back had taken to joining in with the cacophonous chorus, too. When the pain didn’t slow his pace, the laudanum did. It quieted the burning in his thigh, the ache in his back, and the sting in his feet. It warmed his chest like whiskey and made his limbs heavy and sluggish.
As the wind whipped fat, wet snowflakes at him, the cold seeped into his bones, awakening that familiar ache. He was overdue for another dose and some rest. He turned slowly in a circle, looking out for a suitable place to bed down for the night, but he could see no further than his sniffling nose. Then, blessedly, the clouds parted, allowing what remained of the waning Frost Moon to cast its miserly light through the leafless trees.
That’s when he saw it.
Barely visible, maybe twenty yards off the trail and surrounded by thick woods, stood a small structure. He moved closer, scarcely making out the shape of it. The slant of the roof. A chimney. The rounded contours of the logs that made up its walls. It was a cabin.
If the cabin was abandoned, he could shelter for the night. Perhaps start a fire. He imagined the sweet comfort of warm, dry socks the next morning. If the cabin was inhabited, well, it was a gamble whether he’d be met with charity or with the business end of an eager rifle. As he approached the door, Elias prayed for the former. And as he knocked—twice, firmly—he prayed again for good measure.
The door swung open, and the first thing Elias saw was a person-sized figure silhouetted against the yellow light of a fire. The second was the muzzle of a shotgun—inches from his face. Instinctively, he raised his hands and stepped back slowly. His eyes followed the twin barrels. On the other side of the sights, he spotted a pair of green eyes—one focused tightly on him, the other half-closed. If those moonlit eyes were the last thing Elias saw, he decided, that would be all right with him.
“You poor soul,” the woman at the other end of the shotgun whispered. She backed up into the cabin. With both hands still on the weapon, she gestured for him to come inside. He entered, shutting the door behind him.
As he untied his boots, Elias surveyed the cabin. “I’m Elias. Elias Collins.” He smiled the warmest smile he could manage in his frozen state.
She pressed her lips together, calculating something. Finally, she said a single syllable: “Grace.”
The warmth of the cabin suddenly made Elias acutely aware of how cold his flesh had become. He shuddered. “You’re nearly blue,” she gasped. Grace directed him towards the bed, grabbed the green patchwork quilt, held it up between them for privacy, and instructed him to remove his wet clothes. He did as he was told, and once he was in his long johns, she draped the quilt over him. “Sit there,” she ordered, and scurried over to the stove. Elias pulled the quilt around him and sat. The bed was still warm, a Bible resting on the pillow. Grace must have been curled up in bed just moments earlier. He’d never felt anything more beautiful than her residual body heat warming his cold bones.
After a few minutes, Grace returned with a cup of hot tea and a warm hunk of bread with jam.
“Thank you,” he said, looking into her eyes with an intensity that overwhelmed her. She glanced away.
“It’s the Christian thing to do. ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby…’”
“If one of us is an angel,” he interrupted, “it sure as hell ain’t me.” He disappeared into a memory. When he returned, he looked pained. He gestured to his pack, and she retrieved it. He pulled the medicine bottle out, holding it up to the firelight. There was barely a dose left. Elias downed it and drifted off as Grace read aloud from Psalms—the shotgun still resting within arm’s reach.
That was his last good night’s sleep for a week. A vicious illness overtook him as the laudanum left his body. He was sick, body and soul, his waking mind plagued with memories and his sleep with nightmares. For seven days, Grace held his hand as he writhed and shook. Stroked his back as he vomited. Pressed a cool cloth to his forehead. Fed him sips of broth. She nursed him to back to health and freed him from laudanum’s grip. When he was well enough to continue his journey home, Elias found no words sufficient to repay Grace’s kindness.
Unsure what else to do, Elias offered to take care of any chores before he left. Grace asked if he might help her collect eggs for breakfast, and he happily obliged. She asked if he might chop some firewood, and he happily obliged. She asked him to fetch water from the stream and draw her a warm bath, and he happily obliged.
She joked that if he kept making himself so useful, she might ask him to stay forever.
“No,” he warned. “If you knew the things I’ve done, you wouldn’t say that.”
“You get right with the Lord, you’re all right with me,” she replied.
She took his hand and pulled him up to his feet, wrapped a towel around him, and led him to the bed. She knelt beside it. “Pray with me,” she said.
He knelt next to her, closing his eyes in prayer. When he reopened them, he was new again, and Grace was stretched out naked before him. Together, they worshiped until morning.
At dawn, he led her to a patch of vegetation that had miraculously survived the snow, and they improvised a handfasting, binding themselves together with the stems of the plants as they declared their love before God and nature.
In a few months’ time, God and nature saw fit to bless them with a child. Every morning, Elias kissed Grace’s growing belly, and every night, Grace sang to the baby while Elias built a cradle. He painstakingly carved fiddleheads and other ferns into the pine, painting the engravings an emerald color. When autumn arrived, Grace gave birth to a perfect, healthy baby girl. Life was sweet.
Then, one dark, stormy November night, someone knocked on the door—twice, firmly. Elias glanced at Grace, who stopped rocking the cradle and stood to answer the door.
“Don’t,” he whispered.
“Elias. It’s the Christian thing to do,” she whispered back.
“That’s no angel, Grace.”
“You weren’t either.”
“Exactly. There are things I haven’t told you.”
“What do you mean? Are you back on the laudanum?”
“No, not that. It’s just… Trouble has a way of catching up with a man like me.”
They argued for hours, until Grace could no longer keep her eyes open. Elias placed the chair in front of the door and sat watch all night long.
At the first breath of dawn, with Grace and the baby still asleep, Elias unlatched the door and stepped outside, shotgun at the ready. He looked about, seeing nothing but snow-covered woods. Then, his boot hit something. Glancing down, he saw a patch of fabric in a snowdrift. With his sleeves pulled over his hands, he dug until he uncovered a man’s hand clutching a green bottle.
“Grace!” He shouted, but no one came.
He dug and dug, desperately trying to free the man from the snow. When he’d uncovered the man’s face, Elias paused to rub his own eyes, which were watering in the cold. When he opened them, he studied the man’s face. It was frostbitten, and painted by a strange green light, as the rays of the rising sun refracted through the empty laudanum bottle. But he recognized it.
It was his own.He tried desperately to pull himself from the snow, but his hands were suddenly vaporous and immaterial. He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out. Elias collapsed in the snow beside his frozen body, observing himself. He watched his frost-rimmed eyes flutter open and fix onto something. He watched himself rasp out his last breath, a single syllable: “Grace.” And he watched as the cloud of that last breath dissipated, taking his love, his child, his home, and his life with it.
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Rhi is an emerging screenwriter from Maine. She is an alumna of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where she earned her Certificate in Television Writing in 2022, and of the Writers Guild Foundation’s Veterans Writing Project (VWP). Currently, Rhi is enrolled in Emerson College’s MFA Program in Writing for Film and Television.