Chapter Three - Mrs. Cruickshank’s Secret
That Christmas Eve Jonathan had carefully planned his expedition for the next morning. He would wake up before everyone else and with the winter clothing he smuggled up to his room, dress quietly, slipping out the back door. Waiting and watching for Emily to begin her trek into the bush. Then he would follow her, keeping just out of sight until she reached her destination. He could than quickly backtrack to his house, his curiosity satisfied and celebrate Christmas with his family. Just in case this journey took to long and so as not to worry mother, he would leave a note on his pillow, stating he had gone with Emily to help her.
Quite pleased with these arrangements, he finally drifted off to sleep dreaming about racing down Vinegar hill to victory on the new Flexible Flyer Racer, he felt confident Santa would bring.
He awoke to the first dim rays of sunlight in the eastern sky, and sat up quickly. This sudden change in routine caught the sleepy mice unawares and they stumbled out of their sleeping quarters making a B line for under the bed. Jonathan laughed.
“Aha! The slipper gremlins have been found out.” He pulled on his long johns, a warm sweater, socks and winter breeches. Quietly slipping downstairs, he dressed for the weather a warm coat, scarf, mittens and his old old fur lined boots. He couldn’t resist peeking under the tree on his way out, sadly no sign of a sleigh or package large enough to hold one was to be seen. Oh well I can fret about that later, for now I have more important things to do.
He moved out into the cold summer kitchen and leaning against the woodpile cracked the door open. Her lights were on and sure enough a few minutes later the old lady stepped out into the crisp dawn and she began her trek to the forest. Quietly he exited and hiding behind a drift watched and waited before following her into the dark green of the tree line.
Her footsteps were easily followed, as a fresh layer of snow had fallen the night before. He stayed well behind and the pair trudged on for what seemed like miles. It was a narrow trail, His father had told him it was used by the native people of the region, likely for hundreds of years. Agnes was singing and the sound carried back to Jonathan clearly.
“La la la, la la la la la,
My friends in the forest hear me,
La la la, la la la la la,
I’ve come to visit, on this Christmas day
And we will all meet at the tree”
Eventually they veered slightly off the main trail and came upon a clearing. She seemed to pick up her pace, singing louder as she strolled up to a small maple. It’s branches devoid of foliage. She began to sweep the ground around it and a few feet back from the tree five substantial rocks appeared.
She stood there for a few moments, head down as if in deep thought. Then she turned to the sled and started unpacking the sacks. The ones that Jonathan and Agnes had filled over the summer and autumn.
He stood there in silence, hidden away, watching in wonder as she strung a garland of roots, decorations of carrots, dried apples berries, pine cones dipped in lard and coated with seeds. She laid down a blanket of straw and set on it a mound of hay and a large chunk of rock salt. All the while singing her song.
Jonathan wasn’t sure how long he had been standing there when he saw a gray flash out of the corner of his eye. He turned quickly but couldn’t see anything. Then from the far corner of the meadow a great black bear with a cub lumbered sleepily toward Agnes. He stood frozen and was about to shout out a warning when to his amazement she turned and opened her arms.
“Bear Woman, you have a young one!”
The creature stood on its haunches and to his amazement Agnes embraced the great beast as if it was an old friend. Then a flurry of activity commenced as more and more creatures made their way to Agnes and the tree. Deer, rabbits, a fox, racoons, squirrels and porcupines. Many of them should be hibernating, but had obviously heard the words she sang and stirred themselves from a deep sleep to come to join her on this special day.
There was a low growl to his left and Jonathan froze, his gaze fell upon a large gray wolf peering from behind a clump of cedars.
Then he heard her voice. “It’s okay Gray Wolf, the boy is a friend. Come over here Jonathan, there is no need to hide. I know you followed me.”
“But, but that’s a wolf.”
“Yes, it’s Gray Wolf, an old friend, his mate Two Feathers should be here as well.”
That’s when he saw the second animal, slightly smaller, but still a wolf.
“Come on boy, it’s perfectly safe, they are all my friends.”
He stepped into the path and the two wolves ran ahead of him into the arms of Agnes, licking her face and nuzzling her playfully. He approached cautiously. Agnes rose from her knees and motioned him to join her. And there they stood, surrounded by what seemed like all the creatures of the forest. The mystery of where she went was solved, but a multitude of questions filled Jonathan’s brain.
Snow began to fall, not in great gusts of billowing white or stinging wet, this snow was different, each tiny flake followed its own course, drifting slowly down, and then spiraling back up not wanting to give up the gift of flight. Somersaulting, diving, playing hopscotch with the cedars, suspending in mid air as if drinking in the view until settling down gently, joining millions of its tiny friends. Covering the meadow like a shimmering lake alive with light. All facing the tree and the group assembled there.
A fluttering of wings announced the late arrival of some twenty nuthatches followed quickly by a squadron of chickadees and then many more varieties of birds. It seemed from all around them they could hear the chirping of birds, the last of the forest dwellers to join them that Christmas morning.
The creatures showed no fear towards Agnes. They sniffed at Jonathan, many times before they began to feel comfortable with him. After a while he finally broke his silence and shouted, startling the large gathering. “This is amazing, it’s, why it’s magic. Are you a witch Emily?”
She laughed out loud. “Good heavens no lad! I’m just a friend that they’ve come to trust, and now you as well.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“Oh, a long time, long before you were born. I used to bring another young fellow. He was a lot like you.”
He couldn’t help but notice a sadness pass over her face. “You mean Tommy?” Tommy, Jonathan knew, was her son who had died in the Great War.
“Yes Tommy, he helped me every year before I lost him. She snapped out of her sadness. “And now you can help, if you wish.”
“I’d love to! He cried out, again all the animals stopped short, looking his way. “Sorry! “Didn’t mean to interrupt your feast” he said.
“It’s a commitment, every Christmas morning, without fail and before you do anything else. Every year there seem to be more of my friends so we’ll have to save and carry even more goodies.
“Not problem we can use my old toboggan and carry two or three sacks of goodies. Why Typsy could even help if that would be okay.”
“I’m sure my friends would welcome him.”
After greeting all her friends and spending some time introducing all to Jonathan headed back to enjoy a wonderful day, a Christmas day that Jonathan…
would never forget.
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