The winter of 1597 was particularly harsh. It started snowing in late autumn. Most, if not all were unprepared for the long, cold winter to come. Jacob was such a man. He lived alone in a small cabin in the woods. The autumn was a time to stock the larder and fill the log shed. The early snow had left him with a near empty larder and log supply. Most of what little he had were taken by the landlord’s bailiffs.
Late afternoon and it was already getting dark. The snow was falling as the temperature dropped. Jacob wrapped his last blanket around himself as he sat back in his chair. The cold was making him tired. Just as he was about to doze off he heard a loud thump on his door. Jacob lived a lonely life and visitors usually spelt trouble. Taking the axe from the fireplace he went to investigate. As the door creaked open, a gust of freezing air engulfed his already chilled bones.
At his feet lay the body of a young woman. She was wearing nothing but a dress that was more in keeping with a walk through a summer meadow than surviving the cold winter. He thought that she must have been there for some time as the falling snow had erased her footprints. He carried her inside; at first, he thought she was dead. Only the slightest movement of her fingers had shown her to be alive, just. Laying her by his unlit fire, he placed his blanket over her. Taking his last few remaining sticks from the log store, he lit the fire.
Knowing it wouldn’t last very long, he set about his chair with the axe, chopping it into pieces for firewood. He had already burned most of his furniture. Only his bed and table were left, they would be kept for last. It wasn’t long before the fire was giving up its warmth. Jacob sat on the floor next to her all night, carefully maintaining the fire with the wood from his chair. By sunrise, the last of the wood had been consumed. The snow had stopped and the sunlight through the windows supplied a little warmth.
His visitor lay sleeping by the glowing embers of the fire. Not wishing to disturb her, he carried his table outside and began to chop it up. If he was sparing, perhaps it was enough for two, maybe three nights. By then he hoped she would be at least fit enough to make the journey to the nearest village. Jacob didn’t own a horse; the journey would take a day by foot. At least in the village, she would be better looked after. The church was known for feeding the poor and needy. Jacob, being Jacob, was too proud to avail himself of such offerings.
One thing was for sure, if he didn’t feed her she wouldn’t last the day. His food supply was already low but he would do the best he could. Carrying her to his bed, he laid her down and started to make a broth. There was enough heat left in the fire to warm a small bowl. Sitting next to her on the bed, he carefully spoon fed her the warm broth. Occasionally she would open her eyes. They were the bluest eyes he had ever seen. The sunlight through the window made her long flaxen hair glow.
As the last spoonful was taken, his mystery visitor returned to her sleep. Throughout the day, he maintained a watchful eye. Mesmerised by her beauty, he pondered where she came from and the circumstances that led her to his cabin. There were so many questions, who was she? Why was she travelling alone in the snow covered woods at night? Why was she wearing summer clothes? Nothing he could think of would supply a satisfactory explanation. He would have to wait until she was well enough to speak.
The cruel early winter had shortened the days. Soon it was dark again. Jacob moved the bed a bit closer to the fire and started to burn the wood that was once his table. He didn’t mind, he knew that once the winter was over he would make another. Perhaps this time he would make a better one, and of course a better chair. Once again he stayed guard over the fire, feeding it throughout the night. When morning came, he made her some more broth. As before he fed her, and occasionally she would open her deep blue eyes.
By the fourth day, his visitor was still sleeping. His efforts at feeding her and keeping her warm were showing little reward. By now he was out of wood to burn, and what little food he had was all but gone. He was left with no choice but to brave the cold and go in search of some dry wood, and if possible, some food. A walk to the village and back would take two days. He wasn’t sure he could leave her unattended for that amount of time. Who would keep her warm? Who would feed her? Having gone several days without sleep himself, and eating so little food, Jacob did not believe he would survive the journey anyway.
He put his boots and coat on. Tucking his woollen scarf into his jumper and slipping the axe into his belt, he sat on the bed next to her. He told her he was going out to look for dry wood and she was not to worry, he would return to care for her. As he finished speaking, his visitor opened her eyes and slowly lifted her arm. Placing her hand on his she said, “Thank you kind sir for taking care of me.” No sooner had the last word left her ruby red lips; she was once again in a deep sleep. Jacob was now filled with a new sense of purpose. His visitor had spoken, the first time in four days.
Perhaps his care was working after all. He set off on his journey into the woods. The early winter winds were biting. It wasn’t long before the cold penetrated his clothing. As the day grew on, he was becoming more and more weary. If it wasn’t for his visitor, he felt he would surely have given up. The pain that engulfed every part of his body was almost too much to bear. A day foraging in the woods bore little reward. All he had was a sack full of twigs and a handful of berries. It was too late now; the light would soon be gone. He would have to return to the cabin with what little he had.
The journey back was painful. The lack of food and sleep, along with the biting cold wind was taking its toll. He felt as though he could gladly sleep for a week. But Jacob was a man, if a girl dressed in only summer clothes manage to make it to his cabin, then he surely could. Each painful step took him a little closer. As the sun was laying low in the sky, he could see his little cabin. His heart was racing as he noticed large amounts of smoke billowing from the chimney. He believed his cabin to be ablaze from the inside. Fearing for his visitor his pace quickened.
On reaching the porch, he opened the door. A blast of warm air hit his frozen face and a huge white owl flew out above his head. Quickly inside and closing the door, he could see his fire blazing with logs. A further two large log stacks sat neatly on each side of the fireplace. Above the fire sat his kettle, boiling with water. His visitor was nowhere to be seen. His mind was racing, had he come to the wrong cabin? It looked like his, only, it had somehow changed. It took Jacob a little while to take it all in.
It was his cabin. His chair, table, and all his other furniture had been replaced. His larder was full of all kinds of foods. Fresh bread and butter, game birds hanging from hooks, milk, cheese, and summer vegetables adorned the shelves. How could this be? Where was his visitor? Did her family find her and leave this for him as a reward? Jacob took some bread and cheese and sat to eat it by the fire. His new chair was so comfortable, he quickly fell asleep. In the morning he was no wiser as to the events.
Perhaps he dreamed the whole thing. A quick look around his cabin told him it wasn’t so. His larder was still full, as was his log shed. The furniture had indeed been replaced. His visitor was gone and no note was left. No trace that she had ever been there. And then, as the light shone through the window, he noticed something glistening on his bed. His visitor had left behind a few strands of flaxen hair. On the floor next to the bed was a single owl feather. Jacob had up until that moment, completely forgotten about the large white owl that flew from inside his cabin.
Jacob never saw the owl again, but every winter’s night as he lay in his bed to sleep, he could hear the owl calling from the woods. He never did solve the mystery of his winter visitor. No one he had spoken to since that day mentioned a missing woman. All Jacob knew was that every year since, his log shed was always full and a plentiful supply of fresh food could be found in his larder. Jacob never had much, but what little he did have he would gladly share with those in need.
The cabin, along with much of the forest is long gone. The only evidence that it ever existed can be found in the church that once served the people of that area. In a far corner of its grounds, you will find the graves of the poor people of the parish. The gravestones, although well-weathered, still carry the names of those who perished in the cruel, early winter of 1597. Many young and old were taken that year. Not Jacob though, his grave was the last one there. It shows he died at the grand old age of 102. Legend has it that he was even older.
We will never know exactly how old Jacob was, or what became of his mystery visitor. What I can tell you is that every winter a service is held in that part of the graveyard. No matter how cold or how deep the snow, spring flowers grow from Jacobs’s grave. Locals say that if you go there at night, in the early winter, you can hear two owls calling out to each other. No one has ever seen the owls and they are not native to the area. All I can say is, I live near that church. I often hear the owls when winter comes early.