A Holiday Tale from the Heart of the Nine Counties
The StoryTeller’s Gift
The elderly woman sat alone in the old family parlor. The unlit fire lay cold on the hearth. Outside snow-laden clouds hung heavy and painted the world a dull grey. Creeping wisps of late afternoon light struggled to penetrate the gloom through the ceiling height window and terrace door. The impending storm leeched the warm colors from the room until it resembled a dank, abandoned cavern. And still she sat.
Echoes of happy Mid-Winter gatherings past whispered in the smoke darkened rafters and through the hollows in her mind. She shoved the memories away and slumped back against the old sofa, willing herself not to feel. Lili was gone. Feelings and memories only made being left behind that much harder to bear.
Tip-toeing footsteps whispered down the hall outside the door. She knew the servants worried about her. They’d asked her to join them, and once she would have done just that. But those days were past and all that came between had built a barrier she no longer had the energy to break back down.
The wind spit icy snow crystals clicking against the glass. The temperature in the room plunged. She let her mind drift, seeking the soft darkness that had once entombed her sister. She’d been able to touch Lili’s mind then, but the Havens didn’t allow contact with the Earth-Bound. She reached again into the darkness. The cushioning numbness crept around the edges of her mind. A faint smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. At last . . . She drifted and felt nothing. She longed to feel nothing forever.
Scratching and pathetic mewling from the glass terrace door nagged at her and pierced the gloom she’d wrapped around herself. She forced her eyes open and drug her head up off her chest. It took several moments before her eyesight cleared and she focused on the glass.
Two pairs of youthful-colored eyes, one amber and one a deep blue green, peered in through the snow frosted glass. A small, mittened hand had rubbed a clear spot on the door glass. Pert noses pressed against the icy pane. Tap! Tap! Tap!
“Is anyone there?” The girl’s voice sounded sweet and musical, and somehow familiar, to the old woman’s ears.
Before she realized what she was doing the old woman stepped to the door and cracked it open. “Glory child! What are you doing out there on such a nasty afternoon?” Her own voice sounded rusty and unused in her ears.
The girl’s smile lit her face and sparkled in her eyes. “Kitten’s cold and hungry. His mamma pushed him out so’s she could have more. We saw the light and thought you might have a spare spot o’ cream.”
The old woman raised her eye brows and glanced over her shoulder. The faint lamp could hardly have pierced the storm’s gloom. She shook her head. The voice in the back of her mind urged her to turn them away for beggars. Lili’s words whispered from her deeper memories. “You should always have at least a kind word, a crust of bread, and a bit of warmth for whatever beggar taps at your door. You never know when you might be entertaining an ethereal spirit. Give them kindness, and they’ll bless you in return.”
She sighed, shook her head, stepped back from the door, and scowled at the small fire she didn’t remember lighting. “Come in by the fire before you freeze solid.” Her gruff words belied the tiny warmth beginning to grow deep inside her heart. The girl slipped in and scooted over to the fire. She plopped down on a floor pillow and pulled the half grown kitten from her thick shawl.
The orange striped ball of fur let out a yowl. The girl grinned. Soft curls of rich chestnut hair fell across her forehead and tumbled down her back. “Sorry. He’s kinda hungry. Been a while since we last ate.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” The old woman muttered and grumbled as she poured hot water from a kettle hanging above a warmer over dark black tea leaves. She picked an odd chipped saucer off on the bottom shelf of the tea cart and filled it with thick, rich cream. The girl watched her every move.
She handed it to the girl. “Your kitten ought to like that.”
“Not really my Kitten. Just wanted me to bring him.” The girl smiled as the marmalade lapped up his treat.
The old woman piled a plate high with thick sandwiches, added several chunks of fresh fruit from the greenhouse, and gave it to the girl.
“You ought eat too.” Her deep teal eyes met the old woman’s faded blue grey gaze.
She filled a plate for herself and sat in an overstuffed chair closer to the fire. It had blazed brighter while she fixed their meal. Kitten lapped his cream and purred making silly slurpy sounds. The girl’s laughter trilled through the room like bright golden bells. The old woman reached over and stroked Kitten’s soft fur. “I had my own kitten once. His name was Rascal. He stayed with me for almost twenty years before he traveled over the Rainbow Bridge. I never got another.” Her words trailed off into a comfortable silence. She still missed him.
When they’d devoured the sandwiches the old woman pulled the cart closer so all of the lovely sweets were within easy reach. “Help yourself. They always bring this, but I never much feel like sampling.”
“Did you ever?” The girl grinned with beguiling innocence.
“Yes.” The old woman paused as a new memory washed over her. “Yes, a long time ago I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the sweet pastries and biscuits. Papa always slipped us treats to keep us quiet until Mamma said we could all have desert together. She and Pappa always seemed to eat so slow. We could hardly stand the waiting”
“Tell me about that time.” The girl nibbled on a pink cake with raspberry filling and cream cheese frosting.
“Everyone was happy then.” The girl reached up and took one of the old wrinkled, gnarled hands in her own as the old woman remembered and began her Telling.
“We all loved this room best. It was the family parlo, and Mamma kept it comfortable and familiar. The big parlor was all fashion and show for formal meetings and what all, but this room was just for us. Lili and I loved it during Mid-Winter Holidays the best. We spend hours and hours in here. Our last truly happy Mid-Winter Ríona was with us too. She hadn’t gone back to visit her family that year. The snows were too horrid to travel safely. She and Mamma and Pappa had spent most of the night before decorating this room for our Mid-Winter Holiday.”
“When we came down the next morning, the fire blazed and smelled of the cured cinnamon sticks Ríona had the Woodsman imbed in the logs.” She breathed in the rich cinnamon wafting from the now blazing fire as she gazed into the welcoming flames.
“Ríona told us they always did that where she came from. A huge wreath decorated with engraved golden bells, red velvet ribbons, and tiny lit candles crowned the mantle. The pine garland adorning it glowed with more candles. Our eyes nearly popped out of our faces it was all so beautiful. But our favorite was always the towering pine decorated with bells, a multitude of etched glass globes, and more velvet ribbons and candles. Mamma and Pappa always piled our Mid-Winter gifts around that tree.”
The warm golden glow surrounded the old woman, the young girl, and the orange tabby Kitten. “What else did you do that Mid-Winter?” The child gazed at the woman as visions and dreams swam in her young eyes.
“It was wonderful!” The old woman sighed. “That year Mamma and Ríona covered our eyes before they led us in. We still wore our thick, ruffled, flannel sleep gowns under furred robes and sheepskin slippers. Our tummies shivered and jumped with excitement and anticipation. The thing I remember most from that day are the smells: rich, fresh pine warmed by the fire, Mamma’s special perfume that Pappa always brought her from Capital City, the delicious aroma of cherry hotcakes, scrambled eggs and cheese, crispy bacon strips, and hot cocoa, the faint scent of Pappa’s pipe smoke. It always clung to his smoking jacket.” She sighed, remembering how much she’d loved snuggling in the big chair with Pappa while he regaled them with stories of his own childhood.
“It had to be wonderful to have a Pappa like that.” The girl leaned her head against the old woman’s knee.
“He was the best Pappa ever. We loved him so much.” She shoved down the later memory of a far different Pappa and cold impersonal Mid-Winter Holidays. “Mamma and Ríona led us to the table and sat us in our chairs before they took the covers off our eyes. Oh My! That was a feast fit for the Queen, herself. Every single one of our favorites lie spread before us. Everything was so beautiful! Huge candles glowed on the occasional table in front of the Holiday tree. The whole room looked magical. Golden candlelight gilded the very air we breathed. We stared and stared and couldn’t get enough. We wanted to save every moment to savor later. After breakfast we got our favorite treats, sugar biscuits cut in Holiday shapes and painted with colored sugar frosting. We loved those the best. Lili used to tuck several in her pockets to share with the servants’ children. Mamma told us years later Cook always made plenty for them too, but they all loved that we thought to share ours.” She picked up a heart shaped biscuit and handed it to the child.
The girl nibbled on the edge until the sugar frosting turned her lips a soft pink.
“After all of us had eaten our fill Pappa led us around the tree to the sofa. When he stepped aside we saw all of the gifts for the whole family. We loved giving gifts to each other as much as we loved receiving them. We’d open them and squeal with delight even Mamma and Pappa and Ríona. We all had so much joy bubbling out of us. We spent the whole Mid-Winter Day together just celebrating the bounty of love and life. I miss that so much.” She leaned over and laid her cheek on the child’s head. The chestnut hair tickled her face and smelled like young child.
The girl reached up and patted the old woman’s hand. The wisdom of the ages seemed to shine in her eyes and she searched her face. “I have to go now.” She stood and secretly smiled at the dismay that flashed across the old woman’s face. “You won’t be alone anymore. Rascal is staying with you.” She picked up the snoozing Kitten and tucked him in the old woman’s arms. “He missed you too, and your guests will be here soon.”
A quick tap on the hall way door and voices in the hall grabbed the old woman’s attention.
“Remember I warned ye.” The old housekeeper’s voice drifted through the door. She’s not celebrated Mid-Winter Holiday since Miss Lilianae passed on. It’s grey and cold in there.”
A familiar voice brought the old woman to her feet. She turned to face the door with Rascal cuddled against her chest.
“We’re here to see my Aunt. We’ll make what we can of the Holiday no matter how . . . “ The words turned into a gasp when the double doors from the hall were thrown open.
“I don’t believe it! The Housekeeper gasped and gripped the doorframe to steady her faint head and heart.
Glorious, glowing Mid-Winter decorations from decades past surrounded the stunning silver-haired woman. Her eyes shined bright blue and a smile burst across her face. “Come In! Come In! I’m so glad you’re here!”
“Auntie Kayla how did you do all of this?” The lovely carrot-haired, young woman stared around the festive room. “It looks like magic!” She dashed across the floor and wrapped her arms around the old StoryTeller and squeezed tight until they both giggled and cried at the same time.
“It is the gift of a Tale of love.” Kayla kissed the top of Rascal’s head and then her niece’s. “And maybe just a bit of StoryTelling Magic tossed in.”
Picture from a Website with Free Images. Sorry! Can't Remember Which One! I found it years ago.
Cover and End Picture from December "Thrice Prompted" Entry Page, Prompt #3