The winter was cold that year and the small village tucked between Beasley’s Forest on one side and the steep incline of Shantz Hill on the other found little comfort from the storm. On that blustery evening, the winds curled down the street raging at every obstacle while in his small apartment on the edge of town, Matthew shivered, stopped his writing and put down his pen. The harshness of the night and his loneliness on this Christmas Eve served only to remind him of their time together. He loved her. This evening especially, he missed her.
With both hands, he carefully lifted her picture from his desk and for the longest time, Matthew stared at her image. He placed her portrait back gently and adjusted his sweater to the draughts in the room. Then somewhat unintentionally looking through the window he became absorbed in the wintry squall. Almost becoming part of the wind moving outside past the spruce trees, he whirled through the years until he saw her once again standing in the garden that warm summer day a month after their wedding. She was beautiful. She was vivacious, full of laughter, intriguing with her brown eyes and mischievous smile.
“It looks like your drink needs refilling.”
“My drink is fine,” she said coyly. “I do think you have another motive.”
“No,” he lied. “I was just inquiring about your drink.”
“Then why did you tell Mrs. Teller we couldn’t come around until eight?”
“Well, I thought we could spend some time writing thank-you notes.”
“You hate writing thank-you notes, Matthew.”
“Well, I could learn to write one, maybe.”
“Then what would we do with the rest of the time?”
“Well, I was thinking we could have another drink and talk about that.”
“Matthew, I really don’t think talking is what you have in mind.”
His face reddened. Sensing her advantage, she tugged at his tie and led him through the patio doors and up to their bedroom.
Mercifully, the rattling of the storm window focused his attention once again. Matthew moved slightly forward in his chair and returned to his letter. Writing her each week helped. He told her of his walks and conversations with friends and the particulars of the season. He told her of the books he had read and how he had taught the chickadees near Ellacott Lookout to feed from his hand. He mentioned his unfortunate meeting with Mrs. Stone in the pharmacy and how he couldn’t escape her scandalous comments about the new minister. He told her how much he missed her. He told her about all these things.
Then as he had on every other occasion, Matthew gently folded his letter into three parts, drew another envelope from his desk drawer and in a deliberate hand simply addressed the outside, “My Dearest Lily”. He put the letter in the envelope, licked it shut and then placed it in the third drawer down on the left side of his desk. And there it stayed with all the other letters he had written her since her death.
It was almost midnight when he got up from his chair. Despite the storm and the late hour, he decided to follow his routine of exercise, which lately had become more of a ritual to finish off the emptiness of the day. He went through the usual struggle of trying to engage the double zipper in his new coat, tied his boots tightly and selected a warm scarf even though he couldn’t remember how to tie it properly with the double flat knot that Lily had once showed him. Finally, he put on his gloves and took a last quick look at the apartment before he turned off the lights. He went down the backstairs, which led to the alleyway between the Spooner apartments in the old Hadley House where he was living and Jessie Clark’s yellow, double-bricked home next door. Eventually, he emerged on the street.
The wind caught him fully as he stepped out between the buildings and twisting away he made a number of adjustments to his winter clothing before turning back into the gusting snow. Finally set, Matthew carefully picked his way through the drifts of snow on the sidewalk and started to walk down the plowed road of the village. There was no traffic and most sidewalks wouldn’t be shoveled until the storm ended.
‘This was the contrast that Lily had often spoken about, he thought. Cold winds, blowing snow and then at the end of the day a warm fire and hot cider spiced with cinnamon.’
He thought about how she had often talked about the need for contrast in life in order to really appreciate the memorable times. Yet, how stinging those words seemed this evening when he thought of the emptiness of his life now. It had been three Christmases since she had died.
Matthew started off slowly following the chain of trees at the side of the road, which stepped down Roos Hill into the centre of the community. The village lay curved beside the old Speed River. It was filled with time worn houses, uneven sidewalks and telephone poles appointed with coloured glass insulators. It was housed with the industry of those who appreciated the roots of their past and by people who treasured the calmness that comes only with lives built upon the security of family and age-old friends. It was the backdrop this Christmas Eve for Matthew as he continued his journey into the night.
Lily had once said that the village was like a book. Each neighbourhood was a chapter. Each house was a distinct paragraph and the final scene was concluded in the cemetery behind the Settlers’ Church. As he walked, he reflected on her words and the pages turned with the passing of each building. At the bottom of Roos Hill he stepped onto the River Road. Miss Toll’s house was the first on the left. It was a simple clapboard construction, with green shutters at each end. It was neatly outlined with hedges and bushes in the summer, pruned to perfection through the eye of a trained gardener whose enjoyment was in predictability and order.
Miss Toll was retired now from the village school after 33 years of continuous service. She had prodded, guided and taught just about every youngster that had been raised in the community. She had once aspired to a nursing career but her diminutive 4 foot 8 inch frame and a chronic childhood illness had left her with a noticeable limp, which in the end undermined her ambitions. The village had gained by this intervention of fate and everyone had come to love Miss Toll because hers was a classroom of gentleness, fairness and values.
“STEWART, just what are you doing?”
“Nothing Miss Toll.”
“Then why are you not following along with the class as we read?”
“I am following along with the class, Miss Toll.”
“With hockey cards?”
“I was just putting them away.”
“What is the class rule about being caught with hockey cards in your hand while the rest of the class is doing a lesson?”
“I have to hand them over and I don’t get them back,” he said sadly.
“That’s right Stewart. What hockey team are they?
“Yes, Stewart. I want to know what hockey team you have in your hands?
“The Red Wings, Miss Toll.”
“Well, you’re lucky Stewart. They’re not my favourite team. You may keep them but don’t let me see them until recess. Put them away!”
“Thank-you, Miss Toll.”
“Don’t thank me, Stewart. Thank the fact I don’t like the Red Wings.”
Miss Toll never changed; even after her retirement. Unabashed, she moved about the village as if she were still in class. She would indulge herself by hugging all her former students whether in the village store or during the Sunday afternoon park concert. This she insisted on, much to her delight and much to their embarrassment. Equally she would admonish those past pupils whom she felt didn’t properly support the local horticultural society’s efforts to raise money or failed to help in the village’s annual spring clean up.
The wind was dropping as Matthew plodded past the undulating, snow capped boughs of the spruce trees. He slipped a little as the snow swirled in funnels in a hundred different places under the scattered light of the street lamps.
The River Road had always been the preferred location for most houses since the beginning of the village’s history. At this time of year all the neighbours kept the village custom, using only white Christmas lights to outline each home, now obscured in the streetscape by the blowing snow. Matthew continued past the various mix of stone cottages, frame houses and Victorian residences, down the main street towards the old town square anchored at one end by Snyder’s Flour mill and at the other by Morley’s Tavern and Bar.
Here the character of the village was defined. There was the Owland General store, Jonas Tug’s grocery depot and Tyler Sharp’s Hardware and Harness. There was Angie’s Baked Goods and Norton Bright’s Fine Custom Furniture, but it was the Smithy, which was Lily’s favourite. She would often say that in order to appreciate who we were we needed to understand and touch those things that shaped our past.
Tom Langford’s Smithy was a piece of village history and it was Lily’s favourite stop. It was the only business which displayed all its goods from the ceiling: horseshoes and fire grates, Christmas tree stands and house signs, patio railings and tavern puzzles. Everything was black and everything was orderly and a fine layer of grit covered it all.
Old Tom worked in the back with his forge, while his young son Will was stationed in the front making corn shuck brooms and tending the brass cash register in the midst of a clutter of cornstalks, broom handles and coffee mugs. The shop was saturated with history. The floor was of rough worn planking and the metallic smell of the forge in back warmed the entire building. There was a working area for the brooms, a few homemade shelves that harboured all manner of collectables and junk that the tourists loved to sift through. It was said that it was the only work place in the province that still made brooms by hand. The fact that it was still standing was amazement to everybody considering the way Tom frequently left the forge unattended for long periods of time.
Matthew could never forget Lily’s excitement that day after returning with her purchase of three brooms from the shop. Each was different. Each was meant for an unrelated job and Lily could hardly contain her delight. She stood each broom up on its bristled end in the middle of the kitchen floor to demonstrate the solid proof of their skilled workmanship.
“Come, Matthew. Look!”
“What am I supposed to be looking at?”
“My brooms, silly. Look. They’re all standing in the middle of the floor,” she said proudly.
“I think you stuck them to the floor somehow.”
“I did not.”
“What good are they standing in the middle of the floor?”
“Why are you worried Matthew, do you think I am going to put one in your hand?”
“Is dinner ready?”
“You’re avoiding my question, Matthew?
“No, I wasn’t.”
“You’re just trying to sweep this matter under the rug Matthew.”
“Clever Lily. Very clever.”
Matthew shivered a little, adjusting his scarf as he continued through the snow. So many places reminded him of her. Towards the end of the main street he finally reached Abe the Barber’s establishment. This was the real information engine of the village. On any Saturday morning experts arrived for both a haircut and the opportunity to profess their mastery on everything. This included how to properly glaze farmhouse windows and which fertilizer was suited to encourage crop growth to remedies for controlling inflation by manipulating the international money markets.
It was here at Abe’s Shop with its peeling paint and worn, brown, vinyl chairs that he had heard the story once again as he sat reading the paper. It was the sight of Abe bending over and whispering into Lorne Beacon’s ear as he cut his hair that caught Matthew’s attention that cold January day.
“I’m telling you it’s true. I know it’s hard to believe. I got it right from Jesse Lynn. Listen. Something really happened out there.” Abe reached over to turn the radio up a little louder. Matthew only caught phrases now.
“It was at the cemetery…through the woods…a strange man …weird things.”
atthew had heard the old tales before in the local coffee shop and during the church gatherings. They were about an old house on the outskirts of town, about things that had happened to people in the village. It was about a place called Christmas House.
It had always been called Christmas House. It was an old farmhouse built in the late 1820’s. It was small. It was assembled with hand-hewn timbers and rubble stone covered with a white plaster. Christmas House had always been interwoven with the people of the village since the early 1800’s. It was worn with the passing lives of countless families and it had been the heart of many Christmas celebrations, which had drawn neighbours from all over the county. Now it lay far removed on Shantz Hill and that distance was kept by the quiet understanding of the local inhabitants that this place was different.
It was different. No one visited it anymore and no one would speak beyond a whisper about Christmas House except to marvel about that strange old man afflicted with a stroke who had once lived there a long time ago and the unexplained events that seemed to happen now.
“I like your hair Matthew.”
“You don’t know what kind of struggle I go through when I’m there.”
“What do you mean?”
“Abe’s always trying to give me a military style cut.”
“Afraid my little Samson, it will sap your strength for later tonight?” she teased.
“ Don’t. You’re embarrassing me. Anyway, while I was waiting I overheard him talking about that house on Shantz Hill.”
“You know. The old farmhouse that’s been abandoned for years.”
“What about it?”
“It’s that Christmas nonsense again.”
“Matthew, you silly, Christmas is a time for miracles but only if you believe,” she said patting the sides of his hair. “Perhaps,” she concluded with a wry smile, “Abe did cut your hair a bit too short.”
At the end of town Matthew turned right and walked down Adam Street towards the Mill Pond Bridge. He stopped in front of the Settlers’ Church and then darted up the steps past the east side of the church to the back. He went through the iron gate with its pointed ornamentation over to the far right of the cemetery beside the large lilac bush where Lily was buried. He quickly knelt and brushed the snow from her flat headstone. He had been the same when she was alive bursting past the nurses, ignoring the intravenous lines and all the equipment surrounding her bed until finally he was gently cupping Lily’s face in his hands, kissing her softly.
Now beside her grave he thought back to that first day they had met. He had stood outside the flower shop in the rain for the longest time looking at her arranging bouquets in the store window. She was so beautiful and he was so shy. Somehow, and yet he never quite understood it even to this day, he had gained the courage to walk into the shop.
“Good morning. It’s quite the wet day,” he said cuffing his hat against the side of his pant leg to shed the water.
“It’s terrible,” the young woman agreed. “You were standing out there for a long time.”
“I was just considering what bouquet to buy.”
“Maybe you might want to consider buying an umbrella first,” she replied with a smile.
Matthew laughed. “No, I need something special for a close friend. I want to surprise her,” he fibbed. I was thinking of something like this over here.” Matthew quickly turned and pointed behind the counter.
“That’s very nice. An excellent choice but I’m not quite sure your friend will enjoy it.”
“Because it’s one of our moderately priced funeral arrangements.”
Matthew stumbled for words. “Oh, really. That’s foolish of me. I should have known by the lilies. They are a rather cold, sickly-sweet kind of flower. Aren’t they?” he said as he turned and belatedly focused on her nametag positioned above her left, blouse pocket. His face reddened.
The cold wind stung the side of his cheek.
His eyes closed. Time passed and whether it was the cold with its long icy fingers reaching into all the crevices of his clothing or the slow, melancholy clanging of the iron gate in the wind behind him, Matthew sensed an uneasy dread he had not felt since Lily’s death.
Someone was watching him. With his every breath in the cold, night air frostily accelerating in front of him, Matthew stood up and reluctantly turned towards the entrance of the cemetery. There in the moonlit evening with the snow falling like a soft, light ash stood an indistinguishable figure holding a lantern face high. Matthew stood frozen. The stranger lowered his light, deliberately gathered his scarf around the bottom half of his face with his other hand and gestured for him to follow.
Numbed by the cold and paradoxically spellbound by a calm sense of preordained fate, Matthew finally agreed. He nodded. “Alright. Alright,” he said quietly. “I’ll come with you.”
He followed the stranger down the sheltered side of the church. Across the bridge they left the village by way of Jacob’s Landing and entered Beckman’s Woods. It was some time before they broke the darkness of the tree line and he could see their destination off in the distance, across the open snow-covered field to the faint lights from a small house. The wind had dropped and the woods behind them were quiet. The two of them marched on, casting long moonlit shadows across the snow.
Matthew studied his unusual friend. He was tall, thin and walked with a slight limp in his step. He was a man in his early fifties with a white beard that encircled his face. There was no moustache, just an eerie, gray, etched face caught by the reflection of the moonlight. There was a host of withered lines around his softly defined eyes and a firm mouth. Yet, it wasn’t just the features of this man that looked unusual, but also the clothes he wore.
‘He’s so different and he’s not from the village,’ Matthew thought to himself. ‘His clothes are so old-fashioned.’
His drab, handmade coat had large buttons up the front. His peaked cap didn’t quite define a shape and his scarf was made of coarsely knitted wool. His trousers were somewhat baggy and he wore large, oversized mitts. He was somehow different in a way that Matthew would only come to understand days later.
Within a short time they approached Christmas House. Up on a gentle knoll, it sat surrounded on one side by fruit trees, some of which still had the odd withered brown apple hanging from a branch. On the other side of the house stood a dozen large evergreens planted years ago to serve as a windbreak on cold winter days. One candle lit every window. There was a Christmas wreath on the front door made of spruce boughs adorned with acorns and pinecones from the woods. The porch across the front was deep and red bows were attached to each of the four, white posts of the verandah.
Up the porch stairs they went. The stranger opened the door and gestured for Matthew to enter. The warmth of the room immediately reached for him as he stepped in. This was a house of rich pine floors, a fieldstone fireplace and low constructed ceilings with exposed beams. His friend motioned for him to sit, take off his coat, and enjoy the offerings of the kitchen and wait.
“This is very nice of you. Are you coming back? You’re coming back, aren’t you? Where are you going?”
His host left through the front door. Matthew hesitated for a moment then he took off his coat and scarf and placed them on a wall hook. Stuffing his gloves in his coat pocket, he surveyed his new surroundings.
In the large kitchen, which took up one half of this very small house was the fireplace with a large pine harvest table firmly positioned to one side of the room. There were various herbs hanging from pegs in the ceiling beams and a hand pump sink at the far end. This was a room meant for comfortable conversation and everyday friends. Through another doorway Matthew tentatively peered into the next room.
“Hello. Is there anybody here?” he quietly inquired.
Then Matthew took a cautious step into a small parlour defined by the glow of a flickering oil lamp. It was a simple room with few furnishings. On a table sat a small Christmas tree adorned with homemade ornaments, candles and berries strung together by string. There were a couple of chairs, a colourful rag rug and a few pictures hung by wire from a nail just above each one. Beyond this room was a small bedroom. Matthew marveled at the simplicity of everything. Yet what struck him was the age of his surroundings. Everything was so very old and plain.
Feeling chilled, he stepped back into the kitchen and served himself from a gray, ceramic jug on the table, which held hot apple cider flavoured with a hint of cinnamon. Then he sat down in a fan-backed chair in the kitchen next to the fireplace. The fire and the candles burning in each of the windowsills dimly lit the room. He warmed to his surroundings. He forgot about the stranger. He enjoyed another sip, placed his cup on the table and then he closed his eyes for just a moment.
It was then he felt her touch. Her hands knowingly slid down his arms as she hugged him reassuringly from behind. Her cheek brushed his and her lips tenderly kissed the side of his face.
“I’m here,” she whispered. “I’m always with you.”
He felt the warmth of her hands on his. He noticed the small, light green emerald in her engagement ring. He felt the softness of her favourite blue sweater and sensed the fragrance of her perfume. For the longest time she tenderly nurtured him with her embrace.
“Lily,” he said softly, “I’m so lonely. I look for you every day and I miss you so much.”
“I know my darling. Don’t be sad.” She hugged him tighter. “ All you have to do is set aside your sadness long enough and you’ll find me.”
“I don’t know how? Every day is so difficult without you.”
“Mathew, just keep loving me and I’ll always be with you.”
Comforted by her words, Matthew relaxed in her embrace. Then quietly, he recalled with her how they had first met and their first night together. He confessed he still didn’t know what coloured socks to wear each day with what pants and how each morning, even now, he would reach out for her in bed, then pretend she had just gone into the village and would soon return.
Gently, he squeezed her hands and quietly embraced the sweetness of the moment. As she often had, she ruffled his hair, lovingly put her hands over his eyes and kissed his head. “Remember Matthew.” His eyes closed. The fire seemed warmer. His mind drifted. Time passed.
It was the noise of the geese overhead that made him open his eyes and look up. It was dawn and he was standing beside Lily’s grave. His coat was zipped up and his scarf was tied with a flat, double knot. Matthew felt surprisingly warm. He smiled. He turned and left the cemetery forgetting to close the gate behind him. The snow broke under his feet. His pace was brisk. It was a beautiful Christmas morning.
Matthew had one more birthday, his 73rd. It was a rich and full year. He stopped writing letters to Lily and he spent more time with his friends. In the summer he went back to Christmas House only to find what he expected…an abandoned home in complete disrepair, which had been uninhabited for many years.
In that same year, just before Christmas, Matthew died peacefully in his sleep. He was buried in the church cemetery near the large lilac bush and next to his loving wife of so many years. As they departed from the gravesite, his friends remarked how happy he had seemed these past months. The Iron Gate was finally closed. The few remaining cars left. The night advanced on Christmas Eve and in the distance on Shantz Hill could be seen the lights from Christmas House. Matthew was not alone anymore.
“When Doug Craig isn’persuing his dreamof being a famous fiction writer he spends his time as Mayor of Cambridge. :)+”Tags: Christmas Eve, Christmas House, doug craig, Fine Custom Furniture, friends, home, Jesse Lynn, Jonas Tug, Lorne Beacon, Mill Pond Bridge, new, Nothing Miss Toll, Remember Matthew, Roos Hill, Settlers Church, Shantz Hill, something, Tom Langford, Tyler Sharp, young