Snordwich Chronicles, LXVII: Afraid of Ghosts

On All Soul’s Eve, Rikilde asks Robert to take their nephew James out gathering soul cakes.

He finds the boy just where he expected, playing with the horses with his little sister Sabina.

Robert gives the old mare’s a nose an affectionate rub before reaching down to hug his nephew and niece.

He is happy to be out with James, collecting the warm, flaky cakes from the village wives and daughters, and hearing all about the riding lessons the boy is to have from his Uncle Mark. But Robert always feels a little frightened on this festival’s eve, with so many spirits roaming.

The strange mood in the village this year does not help. Every household has lost someone since last winter. It started with Old Man Yates, followed by their own mother, and then Rikilde’s father-in-law John, then Henry and Francis Brewer, and finally the baker, though not, to everyone’s surprise, his long-ailing wife.

Robert looks nervously around as the evening shadows lengthen. He wants them both to be safely indoors before sunset.

Soon enough they are back at the brewery again. Robert drops James off with his family, politely refusing his sister’s invitation to stay for a bite to eat.

On his way home, he pets the horses one more time. That always calms him down a bit.

He has his supper back home at the Cotters’ house. Hugh’s brother Peter has left to seek his fortune, so Robert now lives with just Hugh, Rikilde, Hugh’s younger sister Emma, and Old Widow Cotter, Hugh and Emma’s mother.

Rikilde sets aside two portions of their supper for the departed.

Robert does not like the idea of spectral figures sitting down to a meal at their table. He is afraid of their mother especially. She was formidable enough in life; the last thing he wants is a midnight encounter with her restless ghost.

Reading his fear in his face, the widow calls him over. She tells him that she was once uneasy at the thought of All Souls’ spirits too, but now that she is old it is a comfort to her. Their loved ones will not harm them as they pass through the village, or even pause to eat the meal left out for them.  It is the gesture of goodwill that nourishes them, not the food itself.

Her words make Robert feel a little braver. He is glad too of the extra light cast out by the All Souls’ candles.

But as he lies in his bed he hears a frightful storm begin outside. Thunder crashes, rain comes in through the windows, and the spluttering candles cast strange, shifting shadows across the walls.

At long last, morning comes. Robert sleepily follows the family to church.

After the sermon, he and his sisters stop by their parents grave. Robert cannot remember his father, but he knows that Aelfgiva and Rikilde loved him dearly. About their mother they each try to find something charitable to say. Rikilde reminds them it must have been difficult for her to raise the three of them on her own.

Aelfgiva recalls how fierce their mother was in her defense when she fell pregnant with her first child. Without that invention, she might never have had her dear husband Richard, their second child Sabina, or their lovely home. She invites them all there for lunch.

Over the meal, they continue to talk about their parents, and Richard’s too.

Richard’s mother was the very opposite of theirs: patient, good-humoured, and nurturing. His father Robert never could quite make out. He was a focused man, determined that everything be done just so, with no time for idle chatter. Everyone says Richard and his sister Aphra both have his look about them—his auburn hair, strong arms, and wide eyes.

Robert blushes whenever he looks across the table at Aphra. He sees her out riding from time to time, and always thinks how fearless and beautiful she looks. But she could not be more oblivious to him.

They dine again at the brewery two days later, on the Feast of the Children. Hugh has new wooden toys for the little ones, a sheep for James and a cow for Sabina. Both are delighted.

Then comes the Winter Penitence. Rikilde’s cooking does not change too much: the family could rarely afford meat or milk or butter, and their hens have hardly been laying since the cold weather set in.

To make ends meet, Hugh takes Robert out fishing almost every day. Robert would rather be doing anything else. He does not like to see the poor fish flap and gasp upon the hook.

Things will be better once the winter has passed, he thinks. Then there will be wildflowers everywhere, and baby animals to play with, and the first spring greens will come in.

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