This morning the painting behind the door was of a young girl. She was fair, perhaps aged ten or eleven, and had some sort of cream-coloured material covering her mouth. Her eyes were flat and dull. I always thought she looked dead.
For twenty-four hours, everyone in Morkwood has to be completely silent. If anyone dares to speak, there will be an unpleasant forfeit.
Most years the forfeits for this door are bestowed on excitable children and vulnerable adults. No one is exempt from punishment.
Except for William, of course.
“Enjoy your day, everyone,” William said as the villagers began to walk back to their homes.
Those who worked outside of Morkwood were already emailing or texting their bosses, no doubt claiming a sudden bout of illness. Mothers put their fingers to their lips in an attempt to keep their children quiet – at least until they were out of earshot. And everyone else tread as carefully as possible, almost as if walking too fast could excite someone into speaking.
But I didn’t turn to leave with the rest of them. I remained in front of William and the Advent House, my hands in my pockets to hide the fact that they were shaking.
I filled my lungs with the painfully cold morning air.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
I didn’t need to look behind me to know that everyone had stopped in their tracks. For the first time that morning, William looked me in the eye, attempting to disguise his shock with a wry smile.
“Oh dear, Margaret,” he said. “You better follow me. You too, Arthur, I’m going to need your help.”
Arthur smirked over his shoulder as he pushed past me.
I followed William and Arthur into the woods. I had hoped some of the other villagers would come to watch, to keep me safe, but no one did. The sick, warm feeling in the pit of my stomach had spread upwards and there was an acidic taste in my mouth, but I sunk my fingernails deep into my palms and willed myself to focus. I wasn’t going to be afraid. Not now. I couldn’t allow myself to feel anything until I was back home.
After what felt like hours, but was probably only minutes, William stopped in front of the stump where the Christmas tree had stood.
“Take your shoes off,” he said.
I took my boots and socks off, shuddering when the cold, wet mud slid between my toes.
“Now stand on the tree stump.”
I stood on it.
“Stand on one foot.”
William huffed impatiently. “You heard me. I said stand on one foot.”
I slowly lifted my left foot from the stump and held it out to the side.
“Right,” William said. “I’ll be back at noon. If you put that foot down, it’s another four hours. Arthur will be keeping an eye on you.”
He turned to walk back to the village, hesitated, then turned around again.
“Oh, and Arthur? Pick up that stick there. No, not that one, the long one. Yes, that’s it. Every time Ms Trellers speaks or puts her foot down, I want you to use that stick on the foot she’s standing on.”
William went to walk away again, but turned around one final time.
“By the way, Arthur, Ms Trellers has spoken twice so far, if my calculations are correct.”
William was barely a few metres away before Arthur lifted the stick above his head. I felt his hot breath in my ear as he whispered, “Merry Christmas, Margaret.”
Read yesterday’s The Festivities of Morkwood.