His life is threefold, in this moment—three words, three movements, and none other. Pump, lift, and pour fill his every thought, and he lets himself go blank, flicker out like a star behind the clouds—still there, but hardly. The water runs over his hands as he pours, washing away the dry and warm and making his fingers slippery so the bucket is harder to hold. But the water is there, is real, and is more than him in this moment. He can see his breath, and it is water.
Pump, lift, pour, and the basin is another drop closer to being full. But that is unreal and far-away, and this is here and now, and the spotted tin of the rings around the bucket reflects scarlet and skin as he lifts it to the edge. The weight makes it real, weighs him down and keeps him here, so he will not blow away. As the water drains out, joining that in the still basin with splashes and ripples, the weight lessens, and he feels the nagging urge to kneel again, to fill the bucket, to pump.
Pump, lift, pour, and he doesn't need to understand it. The handle of the pump is freezing cold no matter how much heat his frozen hands pour into it, and he must only touch the wooden part or his hand will stick and leave his skin behind. He thinks, briefly, that he should repaint it come spring, because the red paint is flaking away and breaking the surface of the falling snow, and the red of rust is ugly and his master would not like it. Up and down, up and down goes the handle with a rusty creak, and the gurgling rush of water hits the bottom of the bucket with a thock-athocka shhhhh that sounds hollow and full all at once. The sound echoes further than his breathing, into the sparse forest and snowy darkness. The world is half black and half white and all water and sound and scarlet.
Pump, lift, pour, and the snow continues to fall, and there is no sound but the splashes of pouring water and the rush of falling water and the back-and forth creak of the pump's handle. There is no time but hours. There is breathing, slow and measured with the motion, and droplets of condensed breath that vanish in the empty air. There is weight, of the bucket and the handle and the water that falls into the basin. There is darkness, light, and snow. There is scarlet.
There is nothing else.
Pump, lift, pour, and everything changes. A door flies open on the other side and the snow lights up with the firelight, and someone tumbles out into the snow, rushing with barefoot steps that crunch fast across the dry snow, running around corners to the back where the pump is. Pump, lift, and pour fade away—the footsteps are more important, familiar and demanding and he straightens, dropping the bucket from frozen fingers to meet them.
She catches sight of him in the shadow, and stops—her feet are bare in the snow, and she must be cold, he thinks, she needs to go inside, but then she runs to him, and grabs his hand, and pulls. She is saying something, scolding him, going on about cruel pranks and frostbite, but it is very hard to listen over the heat of her hands pouring into his fingers, dry against the wet and warm against the cold. She nearly drags him around the corners, marching stubbornly along the path that her footprints carved a moment ago. He follows meekly, silent, and merely listens.
She starts to drag him inside, but he pauses, more out of habit than any sort of fight, to kick the snow off his boots, and he realizes the ice has frozen them on. She pulls on his hand again, and he follows her in.
The children watch them, silent and guilty, and he remembers hours ago how they told him to pump and pour, to go outside in the frozen dark, how they said it was her wish. It wasn't—he can see that now, through hindsight and the snow in his eyelashes. The fireplace is startling in its warmth, and he draws back. She glances back at him, then shoves him down on a bench. She orders him to stay, and that becomes all that matters, and he gladly obeys. A boy hesitantly offers a blanket, and she wraps it around him, muttering something in the nonsense language she uses when she is angry or dealing with very small children.
It is rough, but warm. He settles into it, trying to force the cold out of his bones, listening to her whirl on the children and begin a long tirade about taking advantage of Bird and cruel jokes and could've died and what could happen. They shrink before her like shadows before light—she controls them, creates them, and they cannot exist without her. There is a pause in her tirade, and the fire cracks and jumps, and he leans forward towards the warmth, because the fire is not so startling now.
He remains here, hunched over, for some time, as children are banished to bedrooms and silence and punishment declared for all, before she returns to him. She kneels before him, brushing away the blanket to remove his hands from where they have been tucked next to his stomach. She takes one gently, and rubs it between hers. The warmth is burning, almost painful, and he winces. She sighs, and apologizes. Something halfhearted about the children not meaning any harm and him knowing better follows, but she doesn't mean anything but sorry, and both of them know it.
She picks up his other hand, and rubs it in the same manner of the first. She says the circulation is still alright—he won't lose anything, and he is glad because she is. He puts the first hand to her shoulder, and she looks up, startled, and there are tears in her eyes. Thank you, he whispers, and the tears fall. She puts her head in his lap.