White Christmas

 

Minna was sitting on her grandfather’s lap. They had eaten supper and now they were watching the sky spit shards of ice onto the frozen fields.
“Gramps,” she asked softly, “what’s a white Christmas?”
“A white Christmas is one where there is snow on the ground.”
“Have you ever seen such a thing?”
“No, I have never. I’m eighty-four years old and I’ve only seen snow twice in my life.”
Minna thought for a long time, then asked. “What’s snow?”
Gramps grunted as he marshalled his thoughts. “It’s frozen rain.”
“Like hail and ice storms?”
“No. Not a bit like that. It’s white and it’s soft and it makes everything look beautiful.”
“I wish I could see that.”
Gramps rested his chin on her head. “I wish you could see it too.”
They were quiet for a long moment then he lifted his head and spoke again. “There’s another thing we have to talk about.”
Minna looked into his worried eyes.
“It’s about Father isn’t it? Father has to choose a new wife.”
“Where did you hear that missy?”
“Father came and sat on my bed the last time he was home and we talked.”
Gramps looked amazed and Minna giggled.
“It’s our secret, Gramps. Big strong Hunters aren’t supposed to talk to little girls. But Father said I could tell you because you would understand.”
Gramps gave Minna a big hug then he smiled down at her.
“Oh yes. I understand. I used to have secret talks with your Mama when she was a little girl. Now tell me what you think about Father marrying again.”
Minna wrinkled her forehead. “Does it matter what I think? If it doesn’t matter whether or not Father wants a wife, why would anybody care what I think?”
For a long time Gramps didn’t answer. When he did speak his voice was slow and sad. “It matters to me what you think. And I’m sure it matters to your Father.”
“It’s all right Gramps. Just as long as Father chooses well it will be all right.”

Winter wore on and Minna kept a smile on her face, but inside she wasn’t at all sure it would be all right. She had seen all the unmarried girls fluttering their eyelashes at Father. And she had heard their whispered conversations about her and Gramps.
“Be nice to the brat and the old man.”
“Give him a couple of strapping sons and the girl can be fostered and the old one sent away.”
“Smile at the fool.”
“Make him think you are as soft as the one that died.”
Minna listened and shivered, but she held her peace. Father was having a difficult enough time knowing he had to take a second wife without her burdening him with her fears.

It was nearly time, only days before the Yule Log would be lit in the meeting house, and Father would announce his choice of bride to the world. One girl appeared to have outstripped the others in the race to be that bride. Her name was Annelise, and the families thought her ideal. She was pretty, and clever, and her father was rich. It seemed not to matter that she was cold, and vain and cruel, or that her blue eyes grew as hard and icy as marbles whenever they rested on the child whose stepmother she hoped to be.

Christmas Eve, and Father only returned from the hunt a scant hour before the lighting of the Log. He bathed, and dressed, and Minna combed his beard and braided his hair. He kissed her, then smiled a wicked smile before swinging her up onto his shoulders and heading for the meeting house.

Inside, it was packed to the rafters with all the Families from across the valley. There was music and mead, and laughter. Minna forgot her woes as she and Father shared a sweetmeat purloined from the Christmas tree.

And then the chief of all the elders stepped forward. He spoke directly to Father.
“Hunter. Have you made your choice?”
“I have.” Annelise preened, but his eyes passed over her to where a sweet-faced young widow sat, with her infant daughter in a basket at her feet. He bowed very low.
“Ellath,” he said and his slow deep voice sounded very loud in the suddenly silent room. “Will you be my wife.”
“I will.”
The elder spoke, “Hunter and Ellath are here declared betrothed.”
Minna joined in the joyful congratulations with a full heart.

When Father said it was time to leave, Minna pulled on his sleeve. He bent to listen to her.
“You should stay, Father,” she whispered. “You should stay and dance with your betrothed. I will take Gramps home and make sure he gets to bed.”
Father laughed, but when he spoke it was as if he had a lump in his throat and he kissed her with great tenderness. “Go along then. Take your grandfather home.”

Minna and Gramps carefully negotiated the frozen street, Gramps had his stick and Minna carried a lantern held high. When they got indoors Gramps produced a small flask from one of the capacious pockets of his greatcoat, and a packet of squashy white marshmallows from another
“Chocolate,” he said proudly, “hot chocolate.”
Minna fetched mugs, and before long the two of them were in their favourite seat looking out onto the frozen landscape as they sipped their rare treat. Gramps turned the lamp down low, so they could better see stars in the navy blue of the sky and the skeleton trees in the moonlight. While they watched and sipped the clouds scudded in from the east and the landscape outside the big window grew dark. Just as Gramps was about to turn up the lamp again, a slice of moonlight illuminated the sky, and Minna could see flakes of whiteness drifting down to lie pillowy on the frozen earth.
“Oh look,” she sighed. “Snow.”

© Jane Jago 2017

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