It seemed like the dry trees that quivered a mite in the harsh winds of the winter month were the only ones whom felt the sore cold as people walked about their daily activities exchanging a greeting or twain. Or haply they didst feel some few cold, as the women rubbed their gloved hands together, while gripping their shawls tightly around themselves and arranging their feathered hats. The men let their ego best them by ignoring their bodies plea to shiver a bit, but forgot they couldn't disguise their bright red noses that was apparent against their pale skin with just a top hat. Several horses draped with fur gilds trotted down the highway, some pulling long carriages, others carrying lofty men.
Wailing babes clung to their fathers for a change, not wanting to let go of their raincoats. 'Twere almost as would they knew something their parents didn’t. Young and agile men were clad in military fashion, flashing their pearly whites from time to time as their damsels leaned into sturdy arms. They all seemed happy and at ease… well, all did, excepting one.
Madam Aislinn stared from the shadows at the men who were supposed to fight for their beloved country. Her 102-year-old self was the only wise person who noticed something was dreadfully amiss with the armed forces. She didn't even know where to start from. Was it the fact that not a single scar graced their sun kissed skin? Or was it the fact that their bright eyes still held a twinkle when they were supposed to be cold and empty? Mayhap, 'twere the fact that they thought the war was going to be like a game. A game! What humbug! But why didn't she share this knowledge thou may ask? How could she? She was the town's corky crazy hag to 'em, but what they didn't know was that she knew war first-hand. Hell, she knew war better than the clown that that called himself the general of the army. The strong smell of death wafted through the air, and it wasn't just from her frail body. Though it may be from the memory that flitted through her mind of some scores ago...
The lovely glow that young Mrs Aislinn possessed beguiled strangers to thinking her to be seventeen, yet she made no effort to encave her true age of thirty-two to the world. Her wide smile show’d off her dimpled cheeks as she clasped her hands in apprehension, waiting for the doorbell to ring. In her hand, she held a mahogany wooden box filled with letters from the two men dearest to her heart, reading each of ‘em in detail. She re-arranged the royal blue hat on her pate, while being careful not to mess up her straightened brown hair. Her two young sons sat beside her, their legs bouncing up and down, not any calmer than their mother as they waited for the darn doorbell.
Once in a while, Aislinn would get up and ensure the dinner table was set to perfection: that the finely roasted pig that served as the centrepiece of the table still had a death-grip on the deep green apple in its jaw. That the shepherd's pie she had spent all night making didn't spot burns on its mellow cream-coloured crust. That the bottle of red wine sat perfectly in the snow-filled bucket tied hither and there with red, white and blue ribbons. Sighting no blemish to her hard work, she nodded before moving to the front of the mirror to fret about her appearance.
The ninth time of this cycle was interrupted by the ring of the doorbell. Aislinn's poor heart jumped in her chest at the unexpected intrusion, yet it didst nought to falter her broad smile.
After three and a half years of being away at war, her husband and her oldest son of three boys had arrived from France. Nearly tripping o’er her own feet, Aislinn rushed to unlock the wooden door and flung it open but was immediately greeted by a strong draught. The two smiling faces of her son and husband she so desperately expected to see were replaced by the gaunt ones of two soldiers. Their eyes were stone cold and empty, while red blood vessels tangled themselves and formed networks in the whites. Their lack of Vitamin D was made apparent by their dull, translucent skin that gave off a blue hue.
The first one parted his crusty white lips and croaked, “Art thou the wife of Mr Gerald Lloyd?” Cold dread filled Aislinn’s heart as she managed to give a shaky ‘yes.’ “In that case, thou art also the mother of Andrew Lloyd?” She uttered another shaky yes. They both took off their hat, and in the same off-hand and emotionless tone, one said, “They are both dead. Merry Christmas.” The two men put their hat back on and stumbled off to break more women’s heart. Aislinn refused to leave the spot she was standing in, expecting to see her husband and son’s face pop up any time and laugh their pate off at the prank they were able to pull off. One minute brushed by. And another. And another.
Ten minutes… Silly boys, she thought. How doth they expect me to fall for such a prank?
Thirty minutes… Those men were in fact terrible actors. They should have at least had a bit of sympathy in their voices. Acting like I was the hundredth person they had told this same story. She laughed.
One hour… I wonder what is delaying ‘em. Probably the cold. Ay, that ought to be it! This dreadful, bitter cold can fright of the hardest of men.
One hour, seventeen minutes… “Mother,” her youngest son whispered, a cascade of salty liquid produced by his eyes fell down his face. “Mother please come in.” She glanced upon ‘im in askance, the broad smile that she wore not faltering one bit. “Whatever for, mine love? Thy father and brother are coming anon. Why the drops of sorrow? I know thou misses them. They shall be hither soon.” She turned her head back and continued waiting, rocking herself back and forth while humming a tune.
Three hours, forty-two minutes… She sighed. Haply they went to keep at an inn. This cold doth best the best of men. She closed the doors and rounded up her sons to eat the Christmas meal she prepared. She didn’t notice her boys sorry attempt to force the food down their throat in order not to upset their poor, heart-broken mother. She didn’t notice their unsteady fingers, their shaky breath, or their runny nose. She just carried on eating, her food, lost in the euphoric world her weak mind had created.
Her sons watched their mother hopelessly over the next few days. The smiling mask she wore permanently didn’t shift an inch as she carried on working every day. Friends and family dropped by to pay their condolences and share a tear or twain. “But whatever for? Mine husband and son are not dead dear madam. There seems to be just a bit of delay!” Her sanity seeped out of her body as the winters became springs and summers and autumns.
The tiny bit of sanity that was trapped in her head watched feebly as her sons and her brothers were conscripted, and forced to fight a war that they knew not the genesis. It watched as the cowardly masterminds behind the war sat in their glorious manors, protected, while thousands and thousands of more Aislinns popped out all over the country. Blood of the innocent watered the earth and sprouted forth hatred, evil, and stubbornness to fight that which is not thy own war. The elders were right: he whom lives by the sword dies by the sword, but what happens to the brutes who placed the swords in their hands? What happens to the men who sleep with both eyes closed, while other men of the same flesh and blood, die in their numbers for them? They sleep. They wake up. They eat good food. They get see their children grow up. But the soldiers? They meet an ending that is not written in their fate. What an evil, evil -
"Madam Aislinn! Madame Aislinn! Does thou not desire to see the men off? The train is taking off ma'am!" She painted a smile on her face and hobbled into the light. She watched carefully, wringing her gloved hands as she tried to push the dreaded memory out of her mind to no avail. She distracted herself by listening to farewells the soldiers gave to their loved ones.
"See thou towards the 'morrow!" some quoth. "Save me some Christmas pudding!" others laughed. But alas, the pudding that didst wait upon the men became feasts for maggots in the oven, just as the soldiers’ bodies were on the battleground.