On the twenty-fourth day of December

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 sheaf of wheat stalks, 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 twenty-fourth and final part of an episodic tale written in November and December 2022. Previous part.

Last updated: 10:19 (GMT+1), 31st December 2022