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.
This is the twenty-third and penultimate part of an episodic tale written in November and December 2022. Previous part. Next part.
Last updated: 12:20 (GMT+1), 24th December 2022