A Cradle for Abigail
Writing Battle - Winter 2023
Assignment: 1,000 words
Genre: Winter Survivial
William no longer remembers what he is searching for. He only knows he must keep going. He’s lost something, but what? Memories skitter across his mind, as elusive as the delicate snowflakes swirling all around him. He sees himself in a suit, looking sharp in tailored jacket and slacks, a handsome tie. He’s getting married. His mind slips, and there’s Caroline, wrapped head-to-toe in silk and elegant lace, beaming at him. She is to be his wife.
He shakes his head and squeezes his eyes closed. His boot-clad feet trudge through the snow, lifting and falling. It’s cold. Hard to think, but no—Caroline was Jacob’s wife. William wore his finest suit to the wedding, stood beside Jacob as his groomsman. He had imagined what it would feel like if Caroline had been smiling at him as she walked down the aisle. But, of course, her smile had been for Jacob, of course, of course.
And Jacob is dead now, and Caroline too. He is not searching for them. He pulls his coat tighter around him. He has been frozen for a long time. He thinks it’s probably why he can’t think straight. Can’t remember things properly.
William…the girl whispers, and he looks around. His snow-burned blue eyes scan the white expanse, broken only by a cluster of trees up ahead.
How long has he been searching? Time evades him. He remembers walking in darkness, bone-tired and freezing, but unable to stop. Perhaps it has been a day, maybe two. Too long for anyone to survive without shelter in this cold, but then, he is still here. Still breathing, somehow.
William sees the girl in his arms—years ago now, only a baby—blonde curls sprouting on her tiny skull. He lays her carefully in the cradle carved with her name: Abigail. He sees his hands, large and well-worn, gently rocking the cradle. It’s made of wood, sturdy oak panels mounted on two rockers; a thing meant to last. His best work. When he smiles, he can’t keep the tears from his eyes. Abigail’s small features are so like Caroline’s. He had imagined what it would feel like if Abigail had been his. But she belonged to Jacob.
Jacob’s blood-soaked face crowds out William’s memory of the rocker he’d built for Abigail, and he remembers everything.
Their party had gotten lost, the line of wagons scattered in the drifts, nearly buried after days of snow. Families had taken what they could carry and set out alone, seeking the promise of shelter and safety just over the ridge beyond the woods. He’d gone with Jacob—his best friend—and Caroline.
William…he hears his name again, but he doesn’t respond this time. He knows not to trust it. For awhile, it was Caroline calling to him, but now it’s the girl. He must find her.
They’d made camp, and he and Jacob had gone in search of food. Caroline and Abigail—eleven years old now, and tall for her age—stayed behind to coax a fire from soggy wood. He remembers Jacob singing, cheerful in the most impossible circumstances, carrying his favorite Hawken rifle. He remembers Jacob slipping, tumbling down a ravine, his gun discharging as it flew from his hands. William had skidded down after him, but it was too late; the gunshot had destroyed Jacob’s handsome features.
It took him nearly an hour to carry him through the snow back to camp. William was so exhausted, he barely heard Caroline’s sobbing and Abigail’s frantic screams.
When he woke, it was still night, and Caroline was shaking him. For a moment, he’d forgotten where they were, and he imagined he was back in Springfield, safe and sound, loving Caroline from afar as he had always done.
“She’s gone!” Caroline screamed, and memories of Springfield receded. They were stranded in the woods on their way to California, and Jacob was dead. Now, Abigail was missing.
William spent nearly six hours searching for her. When he returned, he’d found Caroline frozen to death next to the fire she’d never managed to start. Lost to him for good.
Now, William has reached the edge of the trees, can see their shadows on the snow. He looks for the shape of a girl, a trace of her footsteps, but there is none. There is nowhere to go but forward, so he keeps moving into the woods. He can no longer feel his fingers; he suspects frostbite set in a long time ago, but he’s been too afraid to remove his gloves and look.
He's thinking about his hands and what they must look like now, compared to how they looked on Abigail’s rocker all those years ago, when he glimpses a cave in the distance, it’s yawning mouth a jagged, black hole in the cliffside. His heart lurches with hope. He runs toward the cave, a strength he didn’t know he still possessed powering his legs in long, sweeping strides through the snow. He reaches the cave and thinks he can see tracks after all, here where the canopy of trees captures the bulk of the snowfall.
“William?” He stumbles in the mouth of the cave and falls to his knees. It’s Abigail’s voice, but can he trust it? He’s been so confused, so lost in his search for her, he no longer knows what is real and what isn’t.
But he sees her, crouched far back in the cave and moving toward him. She’s bundled in her father’s heavy coat, and he can see the sharp lines of her face. She’s skinnier than he’s ever seen her before, but she’s alive. She’s shivering when she falls against him, and he wraps his arms around her, rubbing his numb hands against her back. “I’m here,” he says. It’s cold, and he’ll have to get a fire started, or they’ll die. They don’t have far to go now. He thinks they can make it, together. “We’re okay.”
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