The moonlight shattered around the darkness of her shadow on the ground.
In the still air, the silence—peace, or simply violence without a voice?—felt as fragile as a frozen pane of glass, and she breathed softly, lest it fracture. A bird whistled to itself far above, then stopped abruptly, as though it too knew what lay at stake. A whisper of a breeze caught at her clothing, the raking of icy claws across her skin making the tiny hairs stand on end. She fought against the shiver that threatened to rattle its way up her spine: she needed to be still, still and silent.
She was waiting again, below the birch trees spangled with early winter frost, for him to return.
The truth was, she waited every night, certain he would materialise from the shadows beyond the dim glow of the porch light and it would all come full circle again. Then there would be no more waiting. And every night that passed without his return brought them both, she was sure, one night closer to the night when he would. How do you measure time, when it is both all you have, and the one thing keeping you from what is coming?
The woman measured it in the strength of her heartbeats, growing feeble as the hours were eaten away by the darkness and the cool light of dawn eventually crept into the welkin.
And every night, the measurement would begin again.
Logically she knew, of course, of course, that the waiting could go on forever—she wasn’t even sure how she would know he had returned—but her heart flickered a little faster inside the tightly drawn cage of her ribs, every time she thought something approached. The delicate tipping point between knowing and unknowing had terrified her, once; now, it was almost exhilarating. Within the wooden walls behind her, the wind still stubbornly whistled through all the cracks she had tried, tirelessly to block. Eventually, it hadn’t mattered anymore. Now, it mattered even less whether the outside fought hungrily to come in, and she had surrendered the sanctum to the winter.
Her final breath misted the air in front of her mouth like a dragon’s breath, and the shattered light of the moon shifted uneasily as she fell. A bird twittered restlessly and another answered, then another, splintering the silence she had fought to preserve. Laid out, a rag doll discarded in the snow, her limbs sprawled carelessly and the woman didn’t move. Within the cold house behind her, the three small children lay frozen in their beds, waiting for the thaw.
Beneath the swooping hem of her dress, her shinbone protruded like a jagged blade.