by Kay Carbe

She was cold. So very cold. She wondered how she could feel so cold. She couldn’t feel her fingers or toes. In fact, she seemed to not feel her body. It was the beginning of a new year. 1900 had entered with extreme cold weather. It wasn’t that long after Christmas but why could she not remember it? She missed her big brother William because he had volunteered to fight in the Boer War but why, oh why, could she not remember much?

Why was Sarah not able to picture Mama and Papa in her head as she thought of them? She had lots of thoughts but it was difficult to think of anything as the cold seeped into her. She thought she felt herself shiver, but she wasn’t sure she could feel anything other than this cold feeling all over her little body. She couldn’t open her eyes to see but lots of things were going through her mind.

She loved her eldest brother. He was 19 to her almost 4 years old and she adored him as he did her. William would sit her on his shoulders and bounce her and they would laugh together. Her sister Annie would watch them and giggle. Annie had been the surprise baby for her parents Stanley and Alice who hadn’t planned a 6th child. Nonetheless she was as loved as all the others, if not a little more.

Annie was such a sweet baby with lots of laughs and giggles. She had been a little sickly with the cold weather but Mama was doing the best she could. She would help Mama with the baby and fetch and carry for her. She wanted to help more but Mama said she was already the best helper ever!

She was worried about William because he had gone away and although she was too young to understand fully, she knew it was a dangerous thing he was doing. It was also a long way from home and she missed him. She suddenly had a feeling of missing everyone but that was silly, she was just cold.

She was tucked up in bed wasn’t she? Maybe one of the several blankets had fallen to the floor but she didn’t seem to have the energy to look. This winter was bitterly cold so she never thought any more about it. Her mind was a bit fuzzy with a weird feeling she’d not felt before. Maybe it was the sore throat that was causing her to feel this way. She knew Mama would scold her if she got out of bed but she was too tired to move anyway. She thought she sensed Mama around her and maybe Papa too but she was too cold and tired to open her eyes. Did she hear crying? She drifted off and her mind went dark.

Meanwhile little Annie was being tended to for her cough. Alice was concerned about the children as the winter was so harsh this year. Harold, who had just turned 13, was learning from Papa how to bank the wood in the stove to try to keep the room warm through the night. Sarah wished Mama would hurry up with the bed warmer though because she needed to not feel so cold. Sarah could hear Annie coughing again and wished she had the energy to cuddle her. Maybe that’s what Mama was crying for?

Sarah drifted off to sleep and dreamt that she was walking with William in the newly built cemetery just up the road from their home. She was fascinated by the building just past the entrance where they stored the bodies for later burial throughout the winters. At $1 a month an adult and 50¢ a child she wondered how many people were in there. She was told they were in their caskets on wooden shelves, neatly waiting for burial. She prayed for their souls every time she walked past the octagonal building. She wondered what it was like to be in limbo but was told that their souls were in heaven so that made her feel better.

She asked Mama once what heaven was like. Mama said it was beautiful and your family already there would meet you when it was your turn. Sarah couldn’t understand how Mama knew but she knew not to be scared.

She dreamt she was with William while he read the names from the gravestones. He told her who the important people were like his friend who had succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 16. She wished she could read but she would someday. She asked William why it wasn’t just old people that died and he said it was God’s way. She didn’t think God was fair but William said God had a plan. She hoped God’s plan was to keep William safe in that foreign country.

It struck her as a little odd that she was thinking about William more than usual, but maybe it was just because she wasn’t feeling well. She had temporarily forgotten how cold she felt. She wished she had the strength to pick up the blanket that must have fallen to the floor. She shivered. The house seemed eerily quiet she thought as she drifted off again.

Meanwhile Annie was taking a turn for the worse and she was coughing more and more. She thought she heard Mama saying that Annie had a slight fever but surely not when it was so cold. Things were not making sense to Sarah.

Almost as soon as she wished William was here, there he was in her dream again. This time he looked serious. William was never serious with her. He was always laughing and smiling. He was trying to tell her something but she didn’t want to listen if he was going to be serious. She couldn’t understand it. Why was he not smiling? She couldn’t really see him properly and couldn’t make him out fully. Everything seemed a little hazy. She thought it was because she was so cold it was playing tricks with her mind.

William told her to open her eyes. She struggled with that for a moment. Was he here? She thought he was a long way away. Again, she heard his voice telling her to open her eyes and look at him. She didn’t really understand any of this but as she trusted William, she opened her eyes. She couldn’t believe it. He had come home! How exciting to see him again. Why was he so serious? She thought he would be thrilled to be home again.

He looked at her with such a serious face and asked her where she was. Surely he knew where she was. Didn’t he? He was talking to her calmly trying to explain something to her. She didn’t really want to listen and he kept repeating it over and over, telling her she had to listen. Why would William make up stories like this? She refused to believe him. No it wasn’t possible. What did he mean she was lying in the deadhouse? She’d never been in the deadhouse so how could she be in there right now? None of it made sense. The door was always kept locked and she knew you couldn’t just wander in. He kept repeating it over and over. He said she needed to accept that was where she was.

He said he had come to take her with him. Sarah excitedly asked where they were going. He said he had been waiting for her for a few weeks. She told him she hadn’t seen him and why was he home? He said he had been around her since just before Christmas and was waiting for her. They were going on a journey together. As he spoke she started to realise the coldness in her body was starting to disappear. She started to feel a little better. Maybe she could go on this journey with him? What would Mama and Papa think? He said they would be fine with it. He said they knew he would be waiting for her.

She said she didn’t want to go because Annie was ill. William said Annie would be alright and hers was just a cough, unlike Sarah who had caught pneumonia. She didn’t ask how William knew Annie would be fine because she trusted him. She asked him why he was home and still in uniform. He said he was there to take her home. To her forever home.

It was then that things became clearer. She could see her casket on the shelf inside the deadhouse. Hers wasn’t the only one but it was the smallest one. She had died? Was that why she heard crying? Is that why she felt cold? She looked to William who held out his hand for her. He was smiling so she took his hand.

The waiting was over.