It was the last of twilight. Far to the west, a corner of the sky was orange and teal of an ancient, contemplative hue. Otherwise night had fallen, cold and clear. Stars above and frost below had begun to dust the darkness.
A little bearded fellow — an elf, in the tongue of some, but of many names — was walking around a lake with a lantern. The lake was thinly iced-over. Frozen grass, reeds, and twigs crackled under his boots. Suddenly, he stopped.
Had he seen in the corner of his eye, under the lake's surface, a momentary, darting line of light? He held his lantern out over the lake, bringing it to crystalline illumination. "A reflection," he concluded dismissively.
He resumed walking, now holding the lantern on the other side of himself from the lake. And reeled again to a stop.
An evanescent streak of light under the ice that time, surely? He peered out, straining his eyes against the night. Nothing.
Any yet... there! Further out this time. Like a shooting star.
Nothing. Nothing... Again! And again! Dazzling, arrowing light bursting ephemerally up under the ice as though trying to break through it. Now here... now there! The little bearded fellow stood there a long while.
He then hurried home. Stoking up the fireplace to a blaze, he sat himself with toast and butter before it, warming his cheeks in its glow; pondering.
Not far from the lake stood a single cottage. Inhabited by a still-young husband and wife, its stacked log walls, painted thickly but softly in brown, embodied a hearty humility.
It emanated warmth: in the mellow oil-lamp light of the living room, just enough for reading, which a small rectangular window, with a simple, white wooden frame, diffused for the evening's cheer; in the rhythms of coffee kettle and iron stove. The ashes of the stove would mutter long into the night as the husband and wife slept, preventing the cold from settling in, to be kindled again by the first-up; then water would be fetched in a bucket from the stream, a filled kettle placed on top, and an earthy smell of coffee fill every nook.
The cottage's touch upon the biology around it was light. Bees and butterflies gathered in the wildflowers and grasses which the husband and wife left uncut in the summer. A mouse sheltered in the outdoor toilet shed, appearing on one of its wooden beams if they sat still.
Twice the gentle husband and wife had heard the beat of a nascent heart in the womb of the young wife; twice they had begun to dream joyful scenes of a little one running through the cottage, leaping over its doorsteps; and twice the baby had been lost before twelve weeks had passed — like a plant that had been lovingly potted in faint spring sun, its first green shoots being discovered above the soil with primeval glee; only for a late — too late — frost to sear through its cells, and it have to be painfully, forlornly taken out by the roots.
Yet hope had returned the stronger, for the young wife now bore, for the third time, a life, eight months advanced.
A doctor had called for a routine check. Exchanging advent tidings brightly with the husband at the door, she went in to the young wife, Listening to her stomach, she felt here and there.
But she listened a little too long, felt a little too thoroughly.
"The little one is still lying feet-down," she told the husband and wife at length, who understood the import of these words. It was a considerable way from the cottage to the doctor, and to give word that the young wife had gone into labour would take time — the birth would not be without risk as it was.
"Let us hope that labour will proceed slowly — at least until you arrive; after that, it can gladly go faster!" had been the standing quip of the young wife to the doctor through the pregnancy. If she had spoken those words now, it would have been as an earnest plea.
"I will return in ten days," the doctor said, "try not to worry too much in the meantime. The little one may yet turn."
But until she had left, the husband and wife avoided their eyes meeting: their self-control could not have withstood the intensity of their foreboding.
At the onset of dusk, the little bearded fellow scurried off upon an errand, passing as he did a fine, high pine1 tree, a little set apart within the forest. A light wind blew. In an annulus, around the base of its trunk, lay a broad mesh of frosted needles and cones.
A tiny treecreeper, on the other side of the trunk from the path the little bearded fellow took, was investigating a furrow in the bark. Pecking...
Ruminating, with head askew, upon the best angle for a thin, curved, beak to ascertain whether there lay something in a little hole there...
Proceeding helically a few steps up the trunk...
The treecreeper stopped. Fluttered a few startled inches away from the trunk; and floated back — through a little crevice it saw a pool of light. Like liquid sap, with a mystical hue. A mellifluous infusion of not-quite-orange in transparency.
Bewildered, the treecreeper flew from the furrow to the dense foliage at the top of the tree. What was it, that light?
It resolved, after a time, to try another spot. Finding a likely cleft a little further down the trunk than before, it once more began to nick away at a hole. Dark fell, but the treecreeper continued —
It was through... Again, the peculiar light was there!
The treecreeper peered a little longer this time. Was it just its own breath — warmed by its work — upon the cold air of the night, or did the light seem to emanate fine threads of steam?
Was it just angles of moonlight through the forest upon it, shifting at the caprice of the breeze, or did the light seem to simmer?
The treecreeper took off for its nest and repose. It would dream, deeply and expansively — novel, strange dreams.
Dusk again found the little bearded fellow upon an errand. At quite a clip, he walked a full Norwegian mile1 through the forest, on old pathways, before halting at a house.
He was — in his preferred designation — a clock-tenderer, and it was indeed the house's clock to which his errand pertained. He had yesterday called upon its occupants to obtain a key; today he would expect them to be away whilst he carried out his work. In a sweeping revolution, he ascertained that there was nobody to be seen.
Though only rarely and specifically exercised, the little bearded fellow, as all of his kin, inheld a deep magic. At one moment, the clock, a Baroque longcase, was imperiously standing in its corner of the house; in the next — whoosh! It was in the forest clearing. For our clock-tenderer preferred to work in the winter air: the rush of stream and fistle of leaf heightened his wizardry.
A moment more, and the clock was hardly to be glimpsed amid whirls of white and silver, of fizzes and sparks. Like olive oil upon a hot pan, they seered from the clock's mechanics at its tenderer's magical touch. He was joyously absorbed: a little laugh of appreciative comprehension upon restoring a cog to rotating as freely as it should; a tug at his beard and a chuckled exclamation at the stubbornness of a sprocket.
Unbeknown to the clock-tenderer, a little girl, coming upon the forest clearing, had in the meantime silently hidden herself in the undergrowth, enraptured by the spectacle of the magical overhaul; entranced by the little bearded fellow's engrossment.
Soon the clock was repaired, and whizzed back inside. The clock-tenderer turned his boots and beard for home.
At sufficient distance for her forest-rustling to be noiseless, the little girl followed...
Last night the treecreeper had again dreamed. Uncanny dreams: of light rushing pell-mell through entangled tree roots; up and down the insides of trunks; out to the end of branches and back.
The treecreeper rarely left its forest; with its intricate knowledge of the trees' bark, it thrived in its perpetual hole-prospecting. But today it was restless; unnerved.
It was now early afternoon. In a moment of determination, it dived out from a branch of the tree in which its nest lay, arced under and over boughs — rustling, in its earnestness, right through any particular dense leafage that it encountered — and was out... out of the forest!
The treecreeper flew, intuitively rather than with predetermination, towards the Hazel grouse1 hills — but not point-to-point. At unpredictable intervals, it would circle a time or two; or allow itself to be buffeted back by the wind, as though at the end of a reel that had been drawn taut. Its thoughts wanderered.
Shin-deep in the soft moss of the forest of the lower tracts of the Hazel grouse hills, an old fellow — a gnome, perhaps, if we were to seek a characterisation in common parlance, though he was known only as an elder — silently observed this erraticness. Where and how he lived was unknown to those around, but he would at times be seen, with quotidian frequency, picking berries for hours upon hours: sea buckthorn2, lingonberry3, crowberry4, cloudberry5, raspberry, blueberry, and small wild strawberry. He wore a coarse brown shirt that seemed as though it was made of earth, bound together with thin, hair-like roots; and a thick cardigan that had the appearance of cottongrass6.
With decisiveness, the treecreeper descended to a pine nearby the elder, and begin to fervently prise its way into a little opening in the bark... it broke through...
No other-worldly light! No insects either; ordinarily the treecreeper would have been disappointed... just ordinary sap — but it was familiar; it was what one could expect! The elder noted the treecreeper's relief intently.
It was a steadier course that the treecreeper now took home. But in the instant that it flew off, the elder, who could tell two birds apart by the smallest difference in their feathers, resolved to make that same journey; and before dark fell, for the first time in living recollection, his slow steps had led him beyond the Hazel grouse hills.
After the little bearded fellow had mended the clock, the little girl had followed him for some distance along the way: ducking behind branch and bush; scuttling to the next. It was now morning, and she had made up her mind to find the clock-tenderer once more. Though awed by the clock-tenderer's magic, she was an intrepid, quick spirit, fearless of finding her way: as at home in the forest, in her own free way, as the treecreeper.
The father of the little girl lived far off, and in practice the little girl's mother brought her up alone. If there is saintliness in this world, it is in the sustaining of cheer and exercise of kindness under sacrifice and strain; and so it was for the little girl's mother. Time was taut, frugality was unceasing, sleep was scarce, but, playing with her daughter amongst the tree roots of the forest, she did so with the carefree liveliness of the little girl herself. A calling friend would be met with iridescent delight.
Bidding her mother a cheerful goodbye, the little girl retraced her steps of two evenings before. She then began to query her way forth.
"Do you know the home of a little bearded fellow, about so high?" she asked one of the same kin, opening her palm flat, and holding it up a little above her head.
"I... I believe it's that way," the kinsman replied, with a flustered embarrassment.
"We do not see him, but I suppose it is still that way," another responded haughtily, with a perfunctory flick of the forearm, a little while later.
Thus it continued. But the directions the little girl received were not erroneous, and after a time she arrived at a little cottage. "A cosy cottage," she considered — though this cosiness was of a most idiosyncratic kind, jumbled somehow with extraordinariness. Around the cottage was a preposterously poised fence-cum-clock: its posts stuck out at all angles, and along the top, in a circle, ran a track for a model train which shot around the cottage at a rate of exactly four times per minute — one post every half-second — and unleashed an ebullient blast of steam from its little boiler for each complete traversal.
In a prudently chosen one hundred and twentieth part of a minute, the little girl zipped (in lieu of a gate) under the track between two of the fence posts, and went up to the cottage door, giving it a lively knock. "Not used to visitors, hmm, hmm, no, not used to them, no, hmm," mumbled the clock-tenderer upon opening, but he showed her in, offering her an old-fashioned soft armchair, the kind that one rather submerges oneself in than sits upon; and soon the little girl was warming her hands around a cup of a swirling tea that was as delightful to the taste as it was heterodox, with a streak of licorice as silvery as the sparks that had flown from the innards of the longcase clock, as the little bearded fellow set them to rights.
Children have a way of understanding the cares of one they love without giving the least sign of it, only to suddenly seek a solution in the most brilliantly unexpected recourse. The logic of the little girl's visit to the little bearded fellow was as follows: a virtuosity which could tender a clock could certainly also repair, say, a toaster. For the toaster in the home of the little girl screeched in protest of its call to arms for each slice of bread with the temerity to place itself within it; and the little girl had seen how a grimace would momentarily cross her mother's eyes, a fleeting expression of strain that was not borne of that instant alone, but of the suppressed troubles of years.
"I cannot, you must excuse me, hmm, no, hmm, I tend only clocks," the little bearded fellow said, "we must be very careful in our use of magic; my kin do not indeed like my fixing of clocks, hmm, no indeed, no, I am very sorry, hmm, hmm, very sorry."
Children of the little girl's age also have a way of brushing off the agonies of an adult with obliviating good cheer, and she did not dwell further on the matter, returning to the beguilements of her tea and a large, hot English muffin with raisins that the little bearded fellow had too subsequently placed beside her.
When the time came for the little girl to take her leave, night was falling, and the clock-tenderer proposed to accompany her home. Holding out his lantern, they walked side by side. They came to the lake; their steps bristling in the frost as the little bearded fellow's own had done, five days ago.
There! A firy, instantaneous light... rising under the ice — and gone.
The little girl saw it too, with wonderment. There! There!
They reached the little girl's home, the little bearded fellow stopping a little distance off, but seeing her safely in. He then turned again for home; yet as he walked he felt a pang — this surprising him, he being used to his own company — for the loss of the little girl's sprightly chatter.
Heeding the doctor's advice, the husband and wife were busying themselves in their advent preparations.
During the summer, in a neat square behind the cottage, they grew a few small vegetables and grains, and amongst these was a little patch of wheat. Most of this went to a few loaves of home-baked bread — the most awaited and delectable loaves of the year. But in the course of the harvest they would keep back a few stalks, standing them to dry.
The husband and wife now brought out a wooden pole: a fine, straight branch from which the bark had been removed, and which had been patiently worked to a hard, varnish-like smoothness. Along it were several dreamy whorls and knots, bearing testament to a stalwart life.
Binding the kept-back stalks to a sheaf1, they affixed it to the pole with a simple, thin piece of hemp rope. A few metres from the cottage door, the husband then drove the pole through the hard-frozen topsoil to the more like-minded earth below.
Standing on their porch a long while, they huddled, arm hooked through arm, contemplating the sheaf and pole against the vast afternoon light; white-yellow giving way to pink. There was a reassurance in this meek, age-old, symbol; something of the affirmation that human's find in nurture.
It drew to it the treecreeper. Its foray to the Hazel grouse hills had calmed it to a degree; but innermost its luminescent discoveries perturbed it still.
The treecreeper dexterously extracted a few wheat kernels, and savoured their wholesomeness. But as it slowly ate, something in the fragile leaning of the pregnant wife against her husband, as she looked out upon the fading afternoon, brought for a moment the enigmatic intensity of the set-apart pine's inner light back to mind.
Turning, the husband and wife stepped inside. Apple juice mulled2 with cloves — above all cloves! —, nutmeg, cardemom, ginger, and pert raisins was brought by the husband to an inside-firing pitch upon the stove, and as she clasped and sipped a mug of it, her eight month old kicking familiarly, the line between tragedy and elation upon which their lives teetered was almost — ever so nearly — forgotten.
Dark water swelled... drew itself cavernously, massively up... and flung itself with grim force against the sea wall, crashing over onto the road.
Receded in a momentary lull... gathered itself to a terrible, churning mass... and thrashed against the concrete barrier once more, froth exploding from it in a cascade.
In the forest — a couple of kilometres away, as the crow flies — the elder of the Hazel grouse hills sought signs; the form in which they would appear, he did not yet know. Against the full onslaught of the storm, in his unrushed way, he peered into cavelets; scrutinised stone, bark, and moss. Hail fell, driven into his face in cutting blasts by the gale.
Dark had long since set in, but great, swollen clouds blocked the stars and moon. There were little flashes of light, but not like the elusively beautiful light under the ice or the honey-light of the set-apart pine tree — rather sneering, mocking: the light of will-o'-the-wisps, in league with the squall. They confused the elder, led him falsely, but he stepped steadfastly on.
In due course, the elder unwittingly came upon the set-apart pine. He stroked its trunk — and halted abruptly. He felt an old power. "You have made the acquaintance of elders before me," he observed to it quietly, with deference.
Lightning struck wildly... in that moment a ghastly light filled the night. Rapidly — as desperately as the sea was still summoning its waves to its barrage of the shore — it struck and struck again. It had been a prolonged, precipitation-less cold spell, and the forest was in large parts vulnerably dry. Where it came down upon a tree, the lightning was ruthless, burning it to ash.
But the set-apart pine would survive the night — though he held no sway over the matter, the elder would stay by it, withstanding the storm, to see it.
Yesterday morning, the little girl's mother had cut a pair of slices of bread; one for herself, and one for her daughter. She placed them in the toaster, drew down the metal lever... and it slid smoothly into place, the grills illuminating, with the promise in a minute or two of an invigorating bristling of the tongue, under brown cheese spiced with cardamom, or piquant blackberry jam.
She stopped in her tracks. What had become of the high-pitched scraping to set one on edge, and chastise one with the thought of all the little imperfections of a household?!
She peered down into the toaster for a clue as to the cause of this remarkable metamorphosis, but none was evident. The little girl observed all this, and it was with a loving gladness that she observed her mother's astonishment.
This morning, as the little girl and her mother opened their door on the way out, the mother prepared herself resignedly for the usual tug-of-war to close it again; the lock did not catch correctly, and the hinges were not quite aligned, so that the door would obstinately dig in its heels a millimetre or three short of where its maker had deemed it should reside. Yet... today it swung into place as smoothly as a skater on ice; like clockwork, indeed! The little girl's delight was as heartfelt as her mother's incredulity.
It was now the early part of a very cold winter's night; the night of the December full moon. Expansively, softly haloed, high above the forest, it gave the night an air that was both sharply truthful and inscrutably mystical.
Upon the storm's abatement, the elder had lucklessly taken up again his semiotic search, from ant hills to nests. But in the moonlight, close to the lake, a beautiful juniper1 tree, with profoundly blue berries — three years in the making — now came to his sight. Something in the fall of the light on its frosted, star-like needles invited him to cut off a sprig; and this he carefully did.
At the same time, the little bearded fellow — on his way for a fourth time to the home of the little girl and her mother, with lantern in hand — stopped as he had done before by the lake. Noticing him, the elder silently moved closer, until he was rather near both the little bearded fellow and the water's edge.
It was as though the entire heavens had gathered in constellation throughout the sky, myriad stars shimmering in subtleties of brightness, infinitesimally near to one another in every corner of the night — a night that the ancients would have revered, and which it is the tragedy of the town-dweller to have never experienced.
Under the ice of the lake, light appeared with an intensity that the little bearded fellow had not yet seen: long shafts of radiant yellow, gliding in and out of being. The elder saw, and with all the depth of his feeling knew in his soul that here, in this wintry conjunction of a full moon's celestial array, of a juniper's ripeness, and of a lake's mystery, was at last a sign.
In the fore-midnight stillness of a long, light summer evening, a low mist would rise numinously up from the lake, like the swirling, delicate steam — that one can lose oneself in contemplation of — from a freshly poured cup of hot coffee. Mist would suspend itself too, mystifyingly, in the long grass around the cottage of the husband and wife, merging with a roe deer1 family — two fawns, their mother, and their father — partaking silently of the grass; their head and necks becoming engulfed as they bowed daintily for a new mouthful.
The roe deer bounding lightly through the long grass was as graceful a sight as the husband and wife knew. Yet sublimity touches both the happiest and the darkest in us, and in a bluer mood the leaping fawns contrasted cruelly with the two little lives which the husband and wife had lost.
Today it was as cold as under yesterday's full moon, and the ground was frozen very hard. To scrape down to heather was impossible, and the roe deer had taken instead to nibbling the bark of the forest for food, wandering from tree to tree.
Above them, upon one such tree, the treecreeper was at work. Finishing up, he flew inquisitively down to the deer; his eyes, which were seldom without a playful twinkle, caught those of the fawns. He flew a little arch forwards — and the fawns hopped there too! He dashed a figure of eight — and the fawns hurtled leapingly after, tumbling laughingly into one another at the intersection point!
Hither and thither through the forest, the treecreeper and the fawns danced chaotically after one another. Now the fawns mirthfully took the lead; now the treecreeper!
But as dusk came on, eerie lights began to appear in the shadows behind fallen logs; in the holes between the earth and roots of an uprooted tree: the will-o'-the-wisps. It was as if, long dormant, the storm had awoken them — primal fears, presaging a juncture of momentous import.
Running water was scarce in the winter, and the roe deer would follow well-worn paths, taking them by what sources remained. To be led too far astray from these was to be in peril, and as night's blackness began to fill the forest, the will-o'-the-wisps plied their lures.
A frightened hesistancy, a disorientated faltering befell the fawns. Turning from one preternatural, chilling glint to another, they began to whimper to one another in distress.
The tiny treecreeper, though, was not to be ensnared. The gleams of the will-o'-the-wisps were specks compared to the inenerrable amber glow which had caused him such consternation in the trunk of the set-apart pine.
He flew right before the agitated eyes of the fawns, locking their gaze to him, and drew them away, leading them back to their bed of leaves by their doe-mother; their father standing watch with antlers erect.
Against this the will-o'-the-wisps were powerless, and receded to their hollows for the night — but their roused, lurking menace was far from spent.
Whilst the sign of two days ago irrefutably told that something was afoot, the elder was still clutching at straws. He did not know how events would unfold, or what those events would be; moreover, he expected three signs, if his intuition as to what might be astir were correct.
The elder had sensed from the first that it might be the fate of the treecreeper to conduct him to one of the signs. The day after the December full moon, he had therefore recommenced his roaming through the forest, with a twofold purpose: to find the treecreeper, and to cast about for the third sign.
In this respect, yesterday had been fruitless, and today too, thus far. Turning now, though, the elder encountered a curious sight. Under a low, over-hanging rock face — a metre and a half or so from the ground at its highest point, sloping diagonally down to it at a gentle angle — lay an old branch. It must have been cracked off from a tree in a storm and fallen there some years ago; it had since splayed open, its innards becoming a fibrous, orange-brown mulch.
Growing there, remarkably for the time of year, was a group of puffball mushrooms1. The ground was indeed not frozen there: the rock trapped the air to an extent, whilst thick moss grew around the branch and water dripped from the underside of the rock ceiling, so that a moist micro-climate existed, and changes of temperature occurred only very slowly.
All the same, the elder found the presence of the puffballs there, this far into winter, to be, if not incongruous, then certainly most unusual; walking over to the little grotto, he kneeled to inspect them. They were a mottled grey and white which would have appeared rather ordinary to a transient glance, but which formed in fact, to the elder's discerning eye, a pattern of uncommon intricacy.
With a childlike pleasure in the tactility of the operation, the elder pressed one of the puffballs between his thumb and forefinger... and it erupted not just with smoky spores, but with a fountain of threads of light! Some white... some golden; some with hints of the pink of a winter sunset... some of cornflower blue — as magical a light as that under the lake's ice and pooled in the set-apart pine's trunk.
It is a quality of the wise to be able to forget themselves in a pleasure, to be transported away by it. And crouching under the rock face, the elder went from puffball to puffball, squeezing them with a care that was almost veneration, admiring with wonder the geysers of light that were ejected. This was, he did not doubt, the second sign.
As planned, the doctor called at the cottage of the husband and wife at around midday. Passing on her way up the sheaf of wheat stalks tied to the wooden pole, she was touched by the simple beauty of it; that the husband and wife, for all their apprehension as to their little one's fate, had caringly assembled it.
The doctor was aware of the two little lives that the husband and wife had already lost. "I hope that today I can give them good news," she said to herself and the listening forest with entreaty.
Inside, having been offered coffee or mulled apple juice by the husband, accepting a rousing cup of the latter, she took to her perusal of the young wife's womb, listening and pressing with her fingers, as ten days ago. She sought with all her experience an indication that the little one had turned, or was turning; repeated her work, and repeated it again.
But there was no sign of it. The due date was twelve days away. "I am afraid there is now little prospect of the little one turning before then," she collected herself to tell the husband and wife.
"We cannot shy away from that the birth may prove dangerous both for you and the little one," she continued to the young wife. "But," she urged, looking now at both the husband and wife, "you must stay strong. Send word to me as soon as labour begins; all has gone well many times, and it will do so again in twelve days or so," she finished with a tender smile, to fortify them — though her own considerable unease did not ally with her words.
The husband and wife thanked the doctor courteously and promised to send word, seeing the doctor out past the sheaf and pole — but they were devastated. In their rural home, the chances of the little one's survival, they well knew, were not high; and the husband feared for his wife.
The husband and wife did not speak. The young wife sat down upon the step of the porch, with her head in her hands, staring out upon the sheaf of stalks and the dusk — a dusk in a soft palette, as though all the colours in it had been lightly touched with white. Upon nightfall it would give way to a red moon.
Her husband stayed beside her for a long, long time, alternately stroking her hair gently, then resting his hand upon her shoulder. But he understood too that the young wife needed to be alone a while, and returned finally inside, setting to — seeking solace in toil — sweeping out the ash from the stove.
The little girl who had made the clock-tenderer's acquaintance had today been playing in the forest quite far from home. Spotting now the sheaf of wheat stalks and the wooden pole from a distance, she, like the doctor, was struck by its rustic evocativeness, and sallied up to the cottage for a closer look. She saw then the young wife brooding sadly upon the porch, and with the same openness of heart with which she had sought alleviation of her mother's cares, went up to her with a tender touch of her small hand.
There was something in the little girl's wide-eyed expression that the young wife could not hold out against, and, in a language that the little girl could understand, she related all, placing her hand upon her stomach when speaking of the little one inside. The little girl nodded and nodded fervently, asking only the occasional earnest question in the way children do, with an empathy that almost brought tears to the eyes of the young wife.
With only the last of twilight left, the little girl ran off home; and as the young wife at last stepped back into the cottage, she felt, curiously, that her worries had been a little lightened, more so than the unburdening itself of herself to the little girl could explain.
After a further full day of raking the forest, the elder was no closer to a third sign, nor to finding the treecreeper, whom he hoped might guide him to one. It was morning. At a loss, he thought back: had he overlooked any inkling of a sign?
No insight was forthcoming. Nevertheless, since he had first alighted upon the set-apart pine tree during the storm five days ago, his mind had consistently returned at intervals to it and to the elder-familiar power which he had felt there. "Perhaps its will inspire me," he deliberated, and set off for it, with measured step, right away.
A couple of hours later, he was by the unwonted pine once more... and there, inconspicuous on a branch of a nearby tree, ensconced among pine cones, was the treecreeper too, though the elder did not know it. Whilst its encounter with mysteries within the trunk of the set-apart pine had so bewildered and affrighted the treecreeper that it could not bring itself to land again upon it, the recalling to its mind of the nuances of that glassy, rich sap-light had drawn it back — stopping a little distance away — not once but several times.
The treecreeper observed the reverence with which the elder now placed his hands upon the tree... here a while... there a while... as though getting to know it — learning what the rugged, turning bark could tell of a life. And, admiring the juxtaposition of innocence and sagacity with which the elder proceeded, the treecreeper was suddenly overwhelmed with a wish to join him, notwithstanding his trepidation towards the pine. Fluttering down, the elder recognised him at once! — with delight! — from the Hazel grouse hills. And the treecreeper began to tell him, with wings flapping eagerly, of the hole it had made in the pine ten days ago, and the light within.
The elder, though, heard only beautiful birdsong in a high, trilling, ethereal pitch; tumbling down a note or two a moment, and then rising to the top of its register once more. The clock-tenderer could have understood it — but the elder's gift was wisdom, not magic. Realising that the elder did not understand him, the treecreeper tried all the more earnestly to recount his tale; but the elder heard only ever more heavenly music.
Not knowing how to help the elder understand, and flushed with the enthusiasm of his account beyond the reserve of his rationality, the treecreeper, with a plunge, suddenly leapt to the trunk... and with a few taps of its finely curved beak, so well-adapted for the purpose, it opened up again the hole it made before — a little broader this time. Finally, the elder saw it — the third sign! Light like whisky in a charred cask, a shade of sienna a little lighter than the brown of the pine's bark; beguilingly pellucid!
Tremoring a little from the fervour of his courage, the treecreeper was as discombobulated by this manifestation of the light as the first; but the serenity of the elder, the sharing of the light's unveiling with him, now calmed it. Before long, it took off contentedly for its nest; the elder followed him the entire way with his eyes, his face a synthesis of gratitude and marvel at what the tiniest of souls can accomplish.
As day transmuted to dusk, the elder waited by the forest lake, at the same spot from which the little bearded fellow and he had beheld the light under the ice — the first sign — a little under a week ago. He hoped that the clock-tenderer would today be out upon an errand and would pass this way again — and indeed he was and did.
The elder greeted the little bearded fellow in a manner at once both dignified but cheery. Unused to company as he was, the little bearded fellow stopped awkwardly, his discomfort not ameliorated by the elder's curious soil-like shirt and marsh-like cardigan.
But the elder began to speak of the light under the ice, and the little bearded fellow was soon reassured — the elder's voice had a timbre of wisened kindness: root tones and obscure tones; solicitous notes in a purposeful rhythm.
"Every so often, after many new moons have risen from the old, an event takes place in the forest upon which many a fate depends. An event in connection with which primeval fear and discord struggle with ancient goodness, within us and within the forest.
"The storm of six days ago — raging, terrible as it was — was the quickening of dark tumult; will-o'-the-wisps — harbingers, begetters of dread — were brought again to life, to deceive and waylay from the forest's shadows.
"Unfortunately, I don't know yet the nature of the event which will take place. It was the flight of a treecreeper to the Hazel grouse hills which first suggested to me that the time had come: it was perturbed to a degree that only chancing upon extraordinariness could have engendered.
"Three signs — never the same — augur the event's imminence, and those to whom they are divulged are foreordained to have the event's outcome in their hands. After many days' seeking, I believe now to have found them.
"The first is the fleeting light trapped under the ice here which you yourself discovered. Thus you are one of those upon whom responsibility has fallen this time around. If you will walk with me, I would like to show you the other two."
Though the little bearded fellow was daunted, he felt fortified by the elder's presence; he felt instinctively that at the elder's side, goodwill would prevail. He nodded therefore, and strode willingly alongside the elder. First to the puffball mushrooms, pressing out chandeliers of light like white-frozen deciduous trees; and then to the set-apart pine.
The little bearded fellow and his kind rarely chose to invoke their ability to understand birdsong, believing it best to allow the ordinary nature of things to take their course. Now, though, the elder, knowing where the nest of the treecreeper was to be found, asked him to invite the treecreeper to join them; it did so with alacrity.
At the elder's supplication, the treecreeper, with a few nimble pecks into the hole he had made, evinced the set-apart pine's trunk-barrelled light for the little beard fellow, and the latter related to treecreeper what the elder had told him of the three signs; all the while, the elder heard still only exalted melody.
"It is our task now to find what it is that will take place, to which the signs portend," the elder said, the little bearded fellow translating to treecreeper-song, "and we must do so soon, for once the signs have made themselves known, only a little time remains." And in three directions they embarked, two on foot, and one in the air.
The first few hours of the day brought the clock-tenderer, the treecreeper, and the elder, each traversing the forest, no closer. It was lunch time, and the little bearded fellow sat himself upon a rock by a thin, shallow brook, at the bottom of a long, steep hill down which it plummeted. The surface of the brook had frozen, but the winter was as yet young enough that the fast-flowing water underneath still ran with as much gusto as ever.
The little bearded fellow took out an open-top sandwich, nominally cheddar topped with lettuce, though the several layers of lettuce rather dominated the affair. Popping a couple of firm, whole cherry tomatoes into his mouth by way of a starter, their almost-sweet juice exploding gratifyingly as he bit into them. Settling himself back, his thoughts wandered like the gush of the under-brook below his dangling feet.
He munched contentedly for a few minutes... and then an idea struck him. The little girl! He leapt in one movement off the rock and over the brook into the heather on the other side. She wandered the forest over in play. Moreover, as he well knew, she was plucky, intelligent, observant — if anybody knew of anything of out-of-the-ordinary consequence unfolding in the forest, it was her. He felt sure of this, though he could not have explained exactly why.
He gobbled down the remainder of his lettuce-with-hint-of-cheese-and-bread, gathered some water in a wooden mug from a hole in the brook's ice and tossed it — vivifyingly cold! — back, before bounding off for the set-apart pine, where the three had agreed to reconvene.
Reaching it, he gathered a quantity of the frozen needle and cone detritus around it into a little mound, and with a magical flourish of the arm, like an opera conductor's impassioned lifting of his baton a few bars before the dénouement, sent it high into the air, above the trees, like an inverted ball gown.
This pre-arranged signal was spotted by the treecreeper, who duly flew back to the pine. The little bearded fellow asked it to try to recall the elder — and this too, with the boon of the elder's keen bird-sight, was soon accomplished.
All three together at the pine, the clock-tenderer, still gripped by the first enthusiasm of his idea and speaking excitedly, put it forward. The elder and the treecreeper were not yet acquainted with the little girl, but they put their trust in the little bearded fellow, and agreed to try the plan out.
In a strange, large calligraphy, ornate yet clear, the elder wrote a note to the little girl's mother to bid them to the house of the clock-tenderer not tomorrow, they agreed — for the day was well-advanced and the note might not be read until the morning — but the day after. And the treecreeper took off to deliver it, the clock-tenderer pointing out the way.
Their little one giving no indication of an early arrival, the young wife and her husband continued to find solace in keeping up their advent traditions. Today was set apart for baking, as a day was every year, around this time.
Despite the husband's valiant attempts to defy the impossible, the string of the young wife's apron did not stretch sufficiently to be tied behind, and the donning of it was abandoned. But the husband had put upon his, and was working with the dough.
Sultanas, currants, orange peel, lime peel, and cranberries were organised into patterned bowls by the young wife, and placed upon the kitchen bench. The husband would take a handful from one of them, slip the dried fruit through his fingers, and then mix it in, until the glutinous dough teemed from innermost to outermost.Then, rolling the dough out into a long, thick log, he chopped it into several equal-length parts with the practised hand of one used to splitting firewood to starter-pieces, forming them then with his hands so that they became round. The young wife placed a tea-towel over each, and in the warm air of the cottage — the stove had been chuntering away contentedly all day — they rose to prodigious mounds.
And now they were placed in the oven, one at a time... and a transcendental smell pervaded the house, a subtly, lightly sweet, ever-so-slightly spiced mellowness; a heralding of a taste that would be divine! A smell which drifted out of the cottage, moreover, and into the forest around.
It reached the nose of the little girl, at play in the forest, who tracked it hopefully back to the cottage, all the way to the door. The young wife opened up; and the little girl looked up at her with an ardent compassion in her eyes, as though to silently ask, "How are you?"
Just as silently, the young wife rested a gentle hand for a couple of seconds upon the little girl's arm; in that gesture was at once gratefulness, an acknowledgement that worry still weighted upon her, and a reassurance she was holding up. And the little girl was a given a thick, piping slice, every mouthful of which combined the homely crunch of fresh bread with the soft delight of the fruit.
The duft travelled on the breeze to the treecreeper too, as if summoning it to the cottage. The treecreeper came; and the young wife strewed for it the crumbs of a delicious slice around the wooden pole upon which the sheaf of wheat stalks was hoisted.
And in the air that the dough rose in, the heat that it baked in, the soil in which its ingredients began, and the hands which prepared it and gifted it — notwithstanding the husband and wife's ever-present disquietude occasioned by the impending birth — was more of the essence of happiness, of fulfilment, than in any erudition which language can express.
The metal post box of the little girl and her mother was screwed to a fence at a little distance from their home, but its lid was a little too heavy for the treecreeper to lift; instead, it had placed the elder's note on a wooden stool outside their door, where it was sheltered from precipitation, and built up a little ridge of twigs around its border to hold it in place. Yesterday morning, the little girl and her mother had found the note thus, with more than a little bemusement.
As to how the little girl might be able to help, the note gave no particulars, whilst its mode of expression was as unorthodox as its mode of delivery — not only its extraordinary calligraphic form, but the long, flowing sentences of its linguistic construction. However, the little girl spoke so excitedly of the eccentricity of the clock-tenderer's abode that bemusement soon became curiosity; though the tipping of the scales may — it is not impossible — have been the little girl's description of how the raisins of the English muffin which the clock-tenderer had served melted into its between-roughness-and-smoothness!
Today's afternoon therefore found the little girl and her mother treading through the forest, coming now upon the welter of fence-posts that propped up the track of the little bearded fellow's clock-train; hurtling upon its rounds, it expulsed at that moment a column of steam, as if to greet them. Manoeuvring their way to the cottage door, they were admitted by the little bearded fellow with his customary bashfulness, the little girl beelining for the same armchair in which she had immersed herself eleven days ago.
The elder and the treecreeper had already arrived. The elder was seated upon a high-backed chair of a wood that was almost white in colour, with joints of great craftmanship — made without nails or glue; whilst the treecreeper was perched upon a shelf of herbs. The little girl's mother, at the clock-tenderer's suggestion, sat herself upon a small settee between her daughter and the elder. The clock-tenderer himself would not sit down for the entirety of the visit, flitting instead to and from the kitchen with cups of candescent tea and mince pies with exquisitely shaped pastry, which he appeared to prepare and bake one at a time.
For a time the guests engaged in the pleasant to-and-fro of a meeting for the first time of congenial souls, the clock-tenderer translating for the treecreeper when in the room. (The little girl and the clock-tenderer had an understanding, arrived at wordlessly in the first glances which they had today exchanged, that the clock-tenderer's magical errands to the house of the little girl and her mother should remain secret, and hence they were not referred to.) At length, though, after a little pause in the conversation, the elder slowly set his cup down, and asked the little girl, "From what our host has told us, there are few who know the forest as well as you! Can you think of anything that has happened recently, or which may happen very soon, which is a little special?"
The little girl thought for a while, trying to relate the question, in its rather obtuse generality, to her recent meanderings through the forest. But then the slice of sweet bread which she had received yesterday at the cottage of the husband and wife came to her mind! Though uncertain whether it was the kind of thing the elder had in mind, she told him of the young couple, of their kindness, of the imminent birth of their child; and of what she had understood from the young wife of the complications the doctor had confirmed.
"That's it! It fits! It must be," the elder exclaimed, and the treecreeper gave a little hop of combined relief and anticipation. As he had to the little bearded fellow and the treecreeper, the elder then told the little girl and her mother of the signs, the first of which — as the little bearded fellow had informed him — the little girl had herself already seen.
"I believe that the child, if she lives, will inherit the goodness of her parents; the kind of goodness that in the course of a life will touch, in little kind acts, in caring words timely spoken, that of many others — little deflections from one troubled path to a lighter one; little encouragements to a person towards their fuller realisation. These lives will in turn brush those of others still.
"At this moment, whether the child will live hangs in the balance. There is an ancient, mystical power in the signs, which we who discovered them may be able to bring to bear upon the side of the child's survival — though an as-ancient darkness will vie with us," he continued, turning then to the little girl and her mother to speak of the storm and the will-o'-the-wisps.
The elder reflected a while, the others waiting tensely — the clock-tenderer too, standing stock-still with his hands in his baking gloves. "I sense that it is our purpose to try to free the light that is trapped under the ice, trapped in the trunk of the pine tree, and trapped in the puffballs," he at last spoke anew; and turning to each of them in turn, instructed them as to how he divined they could play their part.
This completed, the conversation, opportunely assisted by a further mince pie or two each, returned to the colloquial; warm and lively as before. And when a while later the guests left, the redoubtable events of which they were a part were on their minds, but they took with them too a little of the amiability of the room; from it, they drew heart.
As soon as it was light — the middle of the morning — the treecreeper flew to where the roe deer family slept. The fawns had long since woken, but as the treecreeper flew near, they stood contemplatively on the impenetrably frozen undergrowth, perhaps casting their minds to late summer, when blueberries would be ripe in the heather. Seeing them thus, the playful in the treecreeper took upon itself to startle them!
Turning ninety degrees so that it was full against the wind, it flew a hook so that the wind was now at its tail, and then approached the fawns from behind, swooping at the last moment virtiginously down, flailing with its wings, in front of their eyes. Shrieking with indignant delight, the fawns leapt helter-skelter after the treecreeper in hope of revenge!
They played merrily a good while. But in due course, the treecreeper indicated with seriousness to the fawns, through little gestures that they were learning to read, that it wished for them to follow it. This they did.
Will-o'-the-wisps, having once succeeded in terrorising the fawns, followed the group malevolently at its side, as closely as they could whilst remaining in the cover of tree, moss, and rock-shadow. But in the daylight, and with the fawns marshalled by the treecreeper, who had conquered the will-o'-the-wisps to steer the fawns to safety on that previous occasion, they did not show themselves.
They reached the set-apart pine. It was now a significant challenge for the treecreeper to explain to the fawns what it had in mind. For a considerable time, the treecreeper, making use of the curvature of its beak, tore off bit after little bit of bark around where it had made its hole in the trunk to reach the aureate light inside; it still felt alarm upon approaching the hole, but its sense of responsibility for the fawns — necessitating, it felt, remaining outwardly unperturbed — along with its greater familiarity with the phenomenon, emboldened it to not succumb to it.
The treecreeper looked significantly and intently at the fawns for each bark fragment which it pared. Then they suddenly caught on — and within a short interval, a neighbourhood of the hole had been stripped of bark.
This was the first part of the task that the elder had yesterday asked of the treecreeper, as sung to it by the little bearded fellow. Where the light was pooled, this would not damage the tree, the elder had told the treecreeper; of this he felt sure.
The treecreeper and the fawns now proceeded further into forest, in search of cousins of the set-apart pine: trying a tree here — the treecreeper incising a hole, and bracing itself for light — and a tree there. The elder had predicted to the treecreeper yesterday that they would find several — and they did indeed, their intuition acuminating as the hours passed: one whose green and white lichen was of particular venerability; or one growing out of a steep hillside, its roots at giddy angles, binding the earth and moss around it. In each case, the fawns deftly removed the bark around the treecreeper's hole, leaving a neat patch of smooth, bare wood.
As dusk began to install itself upon the day, before it was dark enough for the will-o'-the-wisps to assail, the treecreeper led the fawns back to where it had began the day by dropping suddenly in upon them; the task that the elder had given them well-completed.
Two days ago, the elder had given the little bearded fellow directions to the over-hanging rock under which the puffballs grew; for though the elder had led him there some three days prior, the way they had taken was intricate. It would be the task of the little bearded fellow to gather and transport the mushrooms, but, the elder had cautioned, this must not be done too early, or else they would perish.
In the afternoon, the little bearded fellow ducked under his train-clock-fence, and set out according to the directions he had received; though it was not yet time to pluck the puffballs, he wished to determine for himself where the grotto lay, so that he could find it again with ease thereafter.
But what was implicit for the elder — how at a certain fork, say, the recentness of the displacement of fallen foliage indicated which of the two paths was the continuation of the one he was taking — was not always evident to the little bearded fellow. And encountering, say, a shortcut under a natural arch formed by two small trees bent towards one another, their branches intertwined, the little bearded fellow and his kin would always take it rather the long way around, this both bringing luck and evincing respectful esteem for the structure; of such magical lore the elder was unaware.
In consequence, it took the little bearded fellow — frequently retracing his steps; and often stopping, in puzzlement as to what the elder might have meant — considerably longer than he had anticipated to find his way. Now, though, he was at last not far from the over-hanging rock — but night had in the meantime fallen. There was only a weak moonlight, that served to emphasise the darkness more than it alleviated it.
Out of the deep murk between the trees, dozens of will-o'-the-wisps suddenly surged upon the little bearded fellow. With a light that was of a chill spectralness, they appeared right before his eyes, excruciatingly close — he snapped his head back, and stumbled backwards. Other will-o'-the-wisps took up the assault. The little bearded fellow recoiled and recoiled, unable to orient himself.
The will-o'-the-wisps were grimly silent; the only sound was that of the frantic shuffling of the little bearded fellow's feet in the hoarfrost, and fitful cracks from twigs broken in his stumbling. A horror of the mind — labouring, failing to define, to comprehend its antagonist.
The little bearded fellow collided with a stone, and fell painfully into the obtuse darkness at the foot of a tree... but in that instant, the will-o'-the-wisps lost him for a moment, and this gave the little bearded fellow a chance.
As he lay there, a will-o'-the-wisp found him... but the little bearded fellow was ready. He snapped his fingers, and a white spark flew; alight just a moment, but of a blinding intensity that eviscerated the the will-o'-the-wisp's ghoulish gleam. Another will-o'-the-wisp swept suddenly towards him... and scorching white ignited from his fingers once more.
The little bearded fellow rose back to his feet... and a full-blown battle broke out. The will-o'-the-wisps swarmed, diving towards him unremittingly; he met them with burning light, his fingers clacking without cease, his arms thrusting, his hips turning. Flashes of white light cut one after another through the air, fighting.
The little bearded fellow's magic thus provoked, the will-o'-the-wisps could not break through the light-barrage, and the fearsome struggle drew on and on. But at last their force was spent, and the little bearded fellow was suddenly alone again in the winter night.
The moon was now higher, and the frost and frozen branches of the forest glistened a little in it, as they had not done earlier. The little bearded fellow proceeded finally to the over-hanging rock and the puffballs it sheltered; squeezing one between fingers for reassurance, it released three elegant, silvery jets of incandescence as if from a candelabrum — the most exquisite manifestation of the signs' hidden light that the little bearded fellow had yet seen.
It was now only four days until the young wife was due. In the morning, the doctor, her route happening to take her close by, dropped unplanned by the cottage of the young couple, to see how the little one and its hostess were — no miraculous change, alas.
Nor was there any change in the kindness of the young wife and her husband, notwithstanding that their worries ahead of the fateful day were now onerous indeed. Seeing the little girl playing in the distance, as she had been when the arresting smell of baking had reached her a few days ago, the husband called her to him, and, leaning over the porch, offered her a cranberry snap that they had baked yesterday; effortlessly moist, with a hint of sharpness from the cranberries, and a touch of cinnamon for warmth!
The little girl returned home for lunch, and it was there that, a short while later, she opened the door to the little bearded fellow. When upon an errand, his own company was all, for as long as he could remember, he had felt he required or desired; but since they had first met two weeks ago, the little girl's spirit had enlivened him — brought a little extra joy to his work. He now said, looking principally at the bottom of the door he had fixed: "Hmm, perhaps, hmm, would you both like to join me, hmm, in picking puffballs as, hmm, the elder has tasked me?"
For earlier today, the elder had briefly called upon the little bearded fellow. "I sense that there will be a change in the weather tomorrow. It would be best to gather the puffballs today, if you can," he had said, being met with a nod and a hot English muffin of phenomenal proportions, the baking of these being, as the little girl could happily bear witness, part of the lifeblood of the little bearded fellow, that other days of baking were merely a pleasurable excursion from.
The little girl and her mother agreed to accompany the little bearded fellow, and — he now finding his way to the over-hanging rock without error — the three of them soon had collected a large quantity of the puffballs, cutting them carefully at the stalk, and placed them in a wheelbarrow which the little bearded fellow had piloted with zeal through the forest. If will-o'-the-wisps observed them, none showed themselves, their banishment yesterday by the little bearded fellow still fresh.
The three now made their way with the wheelbarrow to the lake. Following the elder's instructions, half of the heap of puffballs was unloaded upon the ice, and the little girl and her mother began to arrange these in a large circle. At that moment, the treecreeper — to whom the elder had earlier given word of the planned harvest — arrived, only to immediately set off again, with the little bearded fellow in tow with the wheelbarrow; the elder had asked that the remainder of the puffballs be placed in smaller circles around the set-apart pine, as well as around its cousins that the treecreeper had found along with the roe deer fawns.
This they did, and then made their way back to the lake once more with the empty wheelbarrow. The little girl and her mother had completed their circle, and were now skating blithely together within it, light on their feet; the little girl spinning a pirouette and almost falling — her mother catching her, both laughing... their hips gracefully rising and falling from one side of the circle to the other, sweeping into a turn, legs criss-crossing behind one another...
And as they swept, and jumped, and turned in what was now approaching twilight, the light of the first sign appeared once more under the ice; in white-golden, refulgent lines, beneath them for half a second as they glided, and in the sparkles — evaporating in a trice — of a scintillating turn under them, in step with their twirling caprice, it seemed to dance with them.
Dawn broke clear and cold upon the solstice, much as it had for the past three weeks. But the temperature rose, and thick, dark clouds amassed; by mid-morning, a gloominess pervaded. There was no wind, and the forest was disarmingly still. The murkiness was such that the little bearded fellow, nipping outside to fetch an armful of firewood from his open-fronted wooden shed — the logs logic-defyingly and convention-disregardingly arranged, several layers high, in zig-zags in it, like concatenated W letters — lit his lantern and took it with him.
Out of nowhere, the wind began to bluster. Wedging itself thickly between the sea's surface and the heavens, a colossal grey cloud advanced like the drawing of a curtain; swept up onto land, and higher up to the forest. Here the procession reached its end; the wind died down, and it began to snow!
The individual snowflakes, as if in suspension, descended so nonchalantly that it seemed they could not be of much consequence. But they filled the air, and in truth fell heavily. To begin with there lay only a thin coating of snow upon the forest floor, that one would not swap shoes for boots for; but for hour upon hour, the layer became thicker and thicker. At last the snow clouds gave way to an ice-cold night, and a firmament decked with stars.
Snow was now wrapped around the branches of the forest's deciduous trees as if they had been dipped into it; and had collected upon the pine trees like flung-up-there white rugs. The night was moonlit, and the glistening of the trees and the undergrowth, like myriad tiny torches being lit, was a light as magical as that trapped under the ice, in the set-apart pine and its cousins, and in the puffballs.
Though night had set in, it was not yet late. Dragging a sledge up a hill, the little girl now leapt onto it and pushed off... with the thrill of cold air rushing into her face, in a swish of displaced snow, she and the sledge hurtled down. The more often she did so, the more compact the snow became; the faster the sledge went; and the more exhilarating it was!
At the cottage of the young couple, the husband shuffled a path through the weighty snow from the porch and out; if his wife should go into labour tonight, they would not now flounder in it to send word. It was heavy work, but to concentrate his mind and body upon it on such a beautiful evening was disburdening.
Amongst the trees, the elder trudged slowly through the deep snow towards the home of the little bearded fellow. The latter was brushing the snow off the track of his train-clock, having painstakingly cleared it from the train itself, and having minutely applied a few drops of lubricant to the train's axles and joints with the help of a little cloth rag; by the time the elder arrived, it was running as exuberantly as ever.
The snow had covered the lake's ice and the puffball rings that had been prepared yesterday, as well as, to a degree, the raw wood which the roe deer fawns had uncovered on the set-apart pine and its cousins. "Tomorrow," said the elder to the little bearded fellow, "we must bring the rings to the surface." He asked the little bearded fellow if he and the treecreeper could meet him at the lake at nine o' clock in the morning; the little bearded fellow replied that he would, and that he would at once walk to the nest of the treecreeper to give word.
Parting from the little bearded fellow, the elder walked steadily off into the night; he planned too to visit the little girl and her mother, but this could wait until tomorrow — a fresh snowfall comes around only every so often, and the joy of making the most of it, as he knew they would, was sacred.
By nine o' clock, as arranged, the little bearded fellow, the treecreeper, and the elder had gathered by the forest lake. There too were the little girl and her mother, preempting the elder's planned visit.
Waking to snow still lying deeply around their home, covering all but the tips of the bushes they would ordinarily see through their kitchen window, they had felt called to excavate their circle of puffballs; and, having made an early start, were now assiduously clearing the snow away from the puffballs with their gloved hands.
The other three thanked and praised them; the elder and the little bearded fellow in words, the treecreeper in enthusiastic song. "I believe, though, that there may be a different way to do it, if we can build up a fire by the side of the lake and collect a handful of dry twigs," the elder said to them all.
The little bearded fellow's cottage being not far from the lake, he offered to fetch logs. He had brought a large snow shovel and a spade down to the lake with him, tied to the wheelbarrow; unloading these, he set off with the wheelbarrow for home.
The little girl's mother picked up the spade, and began to dig a well in the snow by the side of the lake, all the way down to the frozen ground. The treecreeper, meanwhile, took upon itself the collection of the twigs: little, fallen-off branches that lay off the ground amongst the boughs of a pine tree, or on a sheltered stone. The little girl continued to brush away the snow around and on top of the puffballs, one at a time; the elder stood by, encouraging her and, when she was done with one, advised her as to where he thought the next might be found.
At his cottage, the little bearded fellow stacked logs preposterously high upon the wheelbarrow. He struggled to lift it off the ground... but, that accomplished, then shepherded it with virtuosity — not least an extraordinary sense of balance — through the forest back to the lake.
The little bearded fellow and the little girl's mother then built up a pyre in the snow-well; lighting it, it soon blazed. Coming over, the elder took one of the twigs which the treecreeper had gathered, and inserted it into the fire so that it ignited at its end like a large match.
Walking over to where the circle of puffballs lay still four-fifths buried, the elder then held the burning twig, just above the snow, where he thought a puffball might be... and one in that very moment came indeed to sight, the snow around it melting instantaneously away as though boiling water had been poured over it! The emancipated puffball propulsed a little plume of orange light into the air in celebration.
The little girl and her mother now followed the elder's example, proceeding around the entire circle; the flames of the twigs setting off the same magical reaction inside the puffballs.
Whilst the ring of puffballs was being uncovered, the treecreeper had flown to enlist the help of the roe deer fawns once more. It now flew above them as the fawns trotted, at his lead, to the set-apart pine. Once there, the treecreeper began to brush with its wing at the snow which had fallen on the smooth wood which the fawns had exposed four days ago.
This snow had frozen icily against the wood, and the treecreeper had difficulty removing any of it... but the fawns grasped his purpose, and soon the hole into the light — still pooled in honey-transparency — was cleared, and raw wood surrounded it. At all the light-holding trunks which they had discovered, the ritual was repeated.
On their way back to their mother and father, the fawns played catch-me-if-you-can with the treecreeper. In the deep snow, the treecreeper had rather an advantage, and teased them — hovering audaciously close by as they industrially tried to turn. But their protests turned to triumphant delight as the treecreeper finally allowed them to catch him!
By the forest lake, it was now dark, but the elder, the little bearded fellow, the little girl, and her mother had kept the blaze fuelled, warming themselves by it. Will-o'-the-wisps prowled unseen amongst the trees behind them, but the fire and the presence of the little bearded fellow kept them from coming closer.
The little girl's mother had shuffled the inside of the circle of puffballs with the snow shovel which the treecreeper had brought, so that now it was again shimmering ice. And as they looked out upon the circle, the first sign's light danced effusively there, as it had under the skates of the little girl and her mother two days ago.
On this day, the couple always cut down a pine tree to bring into the cottage and ornament, and they were determined that this year should be no different — though it was now but a day until the young wife was due. In the morning, the husband went out into the forest with his axe, and, finding a not-too-high pine dense with branches, needles, and cones, set to felling it.
Swinging rhythmically for a few strokes... pausing — the weight of the tree upon the wedge he had made into its trunk was considerable, and it was not long before it was as much of an effort to withdraw the axe as to wield it — swinging, swinging, swinging... pausing... it was down!
He had to carry the tree to the cottage alone — and this he just about managed, setting it down every few metres, and doing his best to lose as little foliage as possible! At a little distance from the porch, he then levelled the end of the trunk to a clean cut with a bucksaw, driving it backwards and forwards with both of his hands upon the frame. This done, he lifted the tree inside, placing it in a cylinder in the middle of a three-legged, wooden stand, which he then filled up with water.
The husband and wife now decorated the tree together, he standing on a chair to reach its top — she not being permitted: little woollen spheres, knitted with thick white yarn, and embellished with a red or charcoal motif; a chain of white lights; and clusters of small, engraved bells, suspended by knots of thin, red thread.
The husband was setting a pan of mulled apple juice upon the stove — in culmination of their handiwork — when a knock surprised them. It was the little girl, who had run to the cottage with a little star for their tree of overlayed red, green, and white felt, the white embroidered with a winter scene. The young wife felt tears surge — there was something in the fragility of the moment — as she accepted the gift with a soft pat of the girl's head, hanging it upon the tree at once; but not wishing to overwhelm the little girl, she prevented herself from more than a misting-over of the eyes.
As the little girl made her way back home, the husband and wife sat snuggled together, each with both hands around their now-poured hot brew; and regarding the little girl's star amidst the spheres of the wife's own crafting, they felt hope.
At the same time, out upon the forest lake, the elder took out the juniper sprig which he had cut two weeks ago in the moonlight; walking a complete round of the circle of puffballs, he brushed the sprig against each of them. It was as if something of the moonlight was left in the juniper, for tiny white sparkles bubbled a few centimetres up from each puffball as the sprig touched them.
In one, long motion, the elder then swept the juniper sprig across the ice inside the circle... and there appeared under the ice — not lines of light as before — but a great golden-white flare, filling the circle and diffusing beyond it.
The elder next walked to the set-apart pine tree, where, by prearrangement, he met the treecreeper and the little bearded fellow. He now brushed the juniper sprig against the smooth wood which the roe deer fawns had cleared, and white particles again fizzed from it, drifting time this into the treecreeper's hole to the light inside the trunk.
The treecreeper, with the little bearded fellow as lyrical go-between, then took the elder one-by-one to the other fawn-marked pines. At each, the same ceremony was performed.
This completed, the elder and the little bearded fellow walked together to cottage of the young husband and wife. Night had fallen, and will-o'-the-wisps amassed amongst the trees, essaying in grotesquely wan formation towards them; but they dared not come too close to the little bearded fellow, and, at that distance at least, the elder was implacable, simply walking on, as he had during the storm when the will-o'-the-wisps' wiles were yet nascent.
Reaching the cottage of the husband and wife, the elder went up to the sheaf of wheat stalks on the wooden pole, and placed the juniper sprig in amongst them.
There was no certainty, but if he had read the signs correctly, and if they were correct that the event to which the signs were tied was the struggle for life that awaited the child of the young couple, he had faith that they had now made what preparations they could.
It was a cold morning — the sort of cold that sharpens every crystal; in which, with a couple of layers on, it is enchanting to walk amongst trees.
As the husband was washing-up the breakfast dishes, the young wife felt some pain in her back; but it was not severe, and she did not have other symptoms of going into labour, so she assured him that it was not a matter to interrupt washing-up for! The pain ceased again.
Shortly after lunch, though, it returned, stronger this time. Though she gave a a little gasp this time when the pain was its most intense, the young wife dismissed her husband's enquiry as to whether he should send word to the doctor; he should fetch water from the stream and chop a little firewood, as he had been about to.
Within a few minutes of coming back into the house, though, the husband was convinced that it was time to send word to the doctor. The young wife was still uncertain, but, intermittently, the pain in her back was now considerable, causing her to exclaim aloud.
Contacting the doctor necessitated that the husband leave the house for a while to walk to the nearest village, from which the message could be relayed. The husband thus took upon an extra layer of clothing, his coat, hat, and gloves, and fastened up his boots; the entire process from resolution to stepping over the doorstep taking no more than ten minutes at most.
But in that time alone, the young wife's pants of pain had become a little more frequent, and he was loath to leave her; if their little one had not been lying feet-down, he would not have. But his wife urged him to, insisting that she would be fine until he returned; knowing that the doctor's arrival could save the lives of both his wife and their child, he at last agreed.
The elder and the treecreeper had been waiting out of sight nearby; seeing the fluster of the husband as he raced out of the cottage, they realised that the birth was underway. They now put into action a plan that had been agreed upon two days ago.
The elder walked down to the forest lake. From a pile of logs the little bearded fellow had stacked subsequent to several further wheelbarrow-trips to and from his cottage, he assembled a new pyre in the well the little girl's mother had dug, and lit it.
The treecreeper meanwhile flew first to the little bearded fellow, and then, with a note, to the home of the little girl and her mother, into whose hand he dropped it. All four began to make their way to the forest lake too.
Before all had arrived there, the husband was back at his wife's side, having passed on his message to the doctor at the village. And not a moment too soon; within minutes of his return, the young wife was gripping his hand and suppressing a scream as a heavy contraction came. There was then a lull of some minutes, during which the husband fetched her a glass of water, for which she thanked him with a smile, surmounting the exhaustion she had already begun to feel.
But the next contraction was heavier still, and the pause after it was much shorter than the previous one. Within half an hour, the contractions were coming every three minutes or so at most, and the young wife was now screaming through bitten-together teeth with the pain. "This is proceeding too fast for the doctor to arrive in time," the husband thought to himself, white-faced and drawn in the cheeks.
By now the little bearded fellow, the treecreeper, the little girl, and her mother had joined the elder by the forest lake. They had each prepared a torch, and brought it with them; one after another, they now set the ends of these alight in the fire the elder had made.
The little girl now walked around with the circle of puffballs, holding the lit end of her torch just above them, much as the elder had yesterday with the juniper sprig. At the same time, her mother stood in the middle of the circle, lowering her torch so that the flames were just a few centimetres from the ice.
Nothing happened. Disappointed, they made their way back to the others — the elder's face too was one of confusion. Upon reaching the others, they turned to face the lake again...
Light exploded from the puffballs in streaking silver brilliance, high into the sky; a circle of elemental fountains... but dwarfed by a detonation of light from inside the circle, under it and through it, up into a steepling column, as high as the eye could see; myriad corkscrewing amber lines, white-edged with blazing intensity.
The doctor was still some distance from the cottage. The young wife's contractions continued to come rapidly, and with such pain to her back, that she now howled with tears, the husband stroking her hand with the hand of his that was not enclosed tightly in it, telling her that she was brave. He knew of possible complications with the umbilical chord that could arise from their little one's lying feet-down, but he had no way to know whether his wife's pain had its source in this; he could offer his emotional support, inadequate though it felt to him.
Meanwhile, the little bearded fellow had carried his torch through the forest to the set-apart pine, the treecreeper accompanying him. He held the torch up so that the flames were before the hole the treecreeper had made full three weeks ago... waited a while... was about to lower his arm...
Through the bare wood which the roe deer fawns had prepared, diaphanous golden light swept out, rising high up over the forest in successive crashing waves, swelling and falling back a little, swelling higher — froth showering in all directions — and falling back a degree once more, swelling still higher... until it stretched high up towards the stars; with a bluish tint under Saturn, a reddish tint under Jupiter.
At the magical ignition of the little bearded fellow's torch, a diagonal, auriferous light-stream burst too through the fawn-smoothened wood of the pine on the steep hillside, rising up to the heavens, crossing that from the set-apart pine. From the bared wood of the pine with the august green and white lichen, honey-light spurted, folding its way up to the stars in intersection with the effusions of the two other pines. So it was for all of the pines the treecreeper and the row deer fawns had marked; the sky over this part of the forest at last a mosaic of brilliant flows. By the lake, the ice's column and the puffballs' cascades continued to erupt in resplendency.
The doctor had still not reached the cottage, but the husband was no longer at his wife side — he was now before her, hands outstretched, talking to his wife all the while to rally her. The lower part of his child's body was now out! He could never have imagined himself delivering a baby, but instinct took over. Just the head now — the most difficult and dangerous part of all...
At this moment, the column of light from the middle of the puffball circle, the fountains from the puffballs themselves, and the criss-crossing outpourings from the pines shook violently; as one, they then arched down to the juniper sprig amongst the sheafs of wheat, joining to a point...
And the head was through! The husband had a little girl in his arms! "Hello there, little one," he said very softly, looking lovingly into her open eyes; before delivering her to his awestruck wife. "We made it," the young wife whispered barely audibly to her daughter.
Shortly afterwards, the doctor arrived, and with relief and joy toasted bread by the fire — as the little bearded fellow had after his first encounter with the light under the ice — bringing it to the husband and wife on a tray with glasses of milk and juice, then leaving the three of them for a time. These moments of calmness after the tremendousness of the events before it are amongst the happiest and most tranquil that a human being can experience, and thus it was for the little family of three, the baby girl falling asleep after a while upon her mother's breast.
The magical light from under the ice, from the puffballs, and from inside the trunks of the pine trees had vanished, as had the will-o'-the-wisps, and neither the signs nor their antitheses would return until many a new moon had again risen from old. The little girl and her mother would return to their ordinary way of things; the little bearded fellow would return to his clock-tendering — the kernel of friendship between him and the little girl and her mother would flower into a deep and life-long one; the elder would return to the Hazel grouse hills; the treecreeper would return to run-of-the-mill tree-trunk excavation; and the bark would grow back on the pine trees through which the light had emerged.
But a little of the light's magic remained in the hearts of them all, and had become a part of the young husband and wife's daughter. Through them, it would grace diverse lives through many a little act of kindness and goodness, as the elder had foreseen.
Who can tell how profound the roots of our empathy, that greatest of qualities, are?
This is the entire text of a tale written episodically in November and December 2022.
Last updated: 02:07 (GMT+1), 31st December 2022