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Sheaf, Loxley, Porter, Rivelin, Don

She counted to ten, unpeeled her fingers from the handlebars and rubbed her hands together. Winter had arrived overnight like the crack of a whip. The previous week's rainfall was still pouring down off the Peaks, current too swift to freeze. She stopped and watched the foam, felt the dull roar of the Rivelin in spate. One of the five rivers of Sheffield. Her favourite, of course.

The frost on her window pane had been sign enough. 'Jack's morning', her mother had always called it. It was just the first day to her. A way of marking time, of continuing the cycle. 'A duty' maybe. Her mother's words again. Words she had ignored these last few years.

She'd hoped to get further along the valley this morning, but she'd realised the kids would need something when they got in from school and there was nothing but condiments in the cupboards. That had meant a trip to the shops, so she'd set off later than planned.

At least she'd managed to make it out this year. It would have to do.

Leaves were piled up against thick trunks, white-rimed, caught out in the mistaken belief that it was still autumn. She shook her head at their foolishness, plucked up the few that seemed suitable and arranged them on the frozen mud.

A blackbird stopped to watch her, its head tilting to follow her movements, beak full of worms. She glanced up at the sound of a plane, its timbre distinct from the steady groan of car engines and the water's rush. The blackbird took flight, off into the skeletal woodland.

Twigs and branches were next. She rummaged below the bare bodies of oaks, beech, birch, amongst fast fading brambles, always the last to vanish, and gathered an armful based on the quality of their bark, the personality of their kinks and twists. Each a chapter in the tale, the mark of a life, if only partial.

When she was happy with the arrangement she pulled out her flask and poured a cup of Earl Grey. She'd always drunk it with milk, much to the disgust of her ex-husband. It was her winter drink and she savoured every sip, its smoky qualities not quite masking the faint trace of old thermos plastic.

Almost as an afterthought she scrambled down the bank, scooped a cupful of the torrent and poured it onto the intricately constructed pile. She screwed the lid back on tight and tucked the thermos back in her pannier. The snow was falling thicker now, settling in drifts against crumbling stonework. Not another soul moved in the valley.

"Sheaf, Loxley, Porter, Rivelin, Don."

She repeated the names over and over, let each word bleed into the last, until all that she was left with was the trees, their discarded leaves and branches, the pluming snow, her breath fogging the air in front of her, the rush of water.

This was the moment her mother warned her of, the moment when she had to balance herself between the body stood on the frozen river bank and the mind moving back through time with those names.

"Sheaf, Loxley, Porter, Rivelin, Don."

Slowly, other sounds rose to greet her chant. The old mill wheels. Their creaking rolled out from the point where she stood upstream, downstream, to encompass the whole Rivelin, into the Don and back up its tributaries; Sheaf, Loxley, Porter. Back past the mills she pushed, to earlier sounds; fisher folk, hunters and travellers, the unintelligible noises of the non-human world.

And then back so far she saw him, his white banner snapping in the wind, frostbitten fingers gesturing, flakes whirling from their tips. She smiled, gestured at the nest of leaves, branches and river water at her feet. He nodded his acceptance, released her with an imperious flick of the wrist. Her mind rolled back along the wave of sound, back towards the warmth of her body.

She smiled as the world refocused around her. Winter would stay in the five valleys, would drive the animals underground, the people into their houses. As it had done for her mother, and her mother's mother before her.

The wind was picking up, the snow thickening. The kids would be home from school soon. She climbed back onto her bike and set off, those five names muttered under her breath.

"Sheaf, Loxley, Porter, Rivelin, Don."

About the Author
Dan Grace lives in the UK. His BSFA long-listed debut novella, 'Winter', is published by Unsung Stories. You can follow Dan on Twitter @deeronthecurve.