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A Christmas Frost

When I was a young boy, we used to take Dad's rusty pickup out to find the perfect tree. Dad always brought ropes because the wretch pines usually put up one heck of a fight. One time, a flailing branch ripped my cheek open so badly Mom had to stitch it up. I still bear the scar. With pride, I should add.
As I grew older, Dad let me swing Fungbrom's Axe. I chopped down my first wretch pine. My arms were torn and bloody, but once the wretches are free of their roots you can wrestle them onto a truck pretty easily. Dad was so proud he gave me a sip of whiskey, and I managed to keep it down.
Now I sit on my back porch, out of work and luck, watching the snow pile up in silver rolls that look so creamy you could eat them with a tablespoon. The wretch pine is already propped up in the living room, and I keep her nourished on skunk water from hollow trees. My boy James is standing in his dirty red snowsuit punching snow off the porch rail. Some cheap canned soup simmers on the stove.
"Dad, when can I play with Fungbrom's Axe?" James says, flinging snow into the air and letting it fall onto his face in some strange child ceremony.
"You don't play with it, son," I explain patiently. "It's a tool, not a toy. Actually, it's a weapon." I take a sip of whiskey.
Linda lets out a yelp. "Brian, your stupid wretch tree has fallen over on top of Bixby!"
If the wretch actually fell on Bixby, our Siamese cat, he was probably fur patches and blood pudding by now.
I stick my whiskey bottle in a snowdrift and head inside. The wretch is lying on its side, the tip near the stove and curling away from the heat. I consider shoving it against the hot cast iron just to teach it a lesson, like my daddy would have, but I'm not that mean.
I pull out the faded couch, and Bixby jumps out from behind it and races off. I stick on a welder's glove and seize the flailing wretch tree. Those damn tree holders never work right. I call in James and together we adjust the tree stand.
Beyond the windows, puffs of glittering, windblown flakes block my view of the woods. The feeling of a harsh frost hangs in the air, three days before Christmas. I glance at my wife and realize it can't get any colder around here, frost or not. But we have one perfect wretch tree and some canned ham, and my TV is picking up two grainy channels. I click it on to see a mountain man getting chased by a bear. I adjust the rabbit ears. The wretch tree's branches seem drawn to it.
Linda gazes at me with eyes full of blame as she stirs the soup, even though it's not my fault. There's just no work out here--maybe anywhere.
I turn back to the wretch tree, admiring it, with James beside me. I put my hand on his shoulder. "Isn't she a beauty, son?"
He nods. "But what am I getting for Christmas?"
My instinct is to remind him of what he does have. But he's too smart to buy into that. "Truth is, James, we can barely afford to eat."
Glaring, Linda slams some dishes onto the table. She's still pretty, but she's all bones and skin and murky underneath. That murkiness drives me crazy, leaves me feeling shut out.
We sit down to a dinner of thin soup and homemade bread. The snow goes on piling up outside.
After dinner, I smoke my pipe while Linda reads a book. A stomping noise startles me from my chair. James strides from my bedroom carrying Fungbrom's Axe. His eyes burn like two angry match heads. He's focused on the wretch pine.
"James!" I yell. "Put that back."
He keeps walking, his shoulders hunched with purpose.
Linda leaps up from the couch. "James, do as your father tells you!"
"I'll chop that stupid tree into bits!" James promises. "I don't care about it. I want something for Christmas."
"I know you do," I say, hanging my head. "But if you chop up the wretch, we'll have no protection from the dark gnome. He'll bring you toys that pinch, poke, bite, and possess."
"Some toys are better than none," says James. But his body has gone limp with defeat, the fire dying in his eyes.
"Fungbrom bred the wretch pines to ward off the dark gnome," I remind James. "And he showed the mountain people how to make special axes to cut them down. My great, great, great grandfather forged that axe."
Tears slide down James' cheeks. He hands me the axe.
I hesitate, and then hand it back. "It's yours now, son."
His eyes light up. "Mine? But I thought I was too young!"
I shrug and smile. "It looked steady enough in your hands. I thought that wretch was a goner." I consider giving James a sip of whiskey, and then tuck it away. Some traditions are better forgotten.
Linda gives me a fearful stare and then looks away, perhaps dreaming of a land beyond the mountains--like New York or Los Angeles--where I could never live. I'm a mountain man through and through, and now so is James.
That night, I sit on the couch with James, and he keeps tracing his fingers over the oak handle and dark iron head of Fungbrom's Axe. Finally, Linda joins us, and somehow I know she won't be leaving. I had been wrong about her. I usually was. The wretch pine leans toward the stove, as if to warm itself and escape the strange pale-blue mountain frost that covers a nearby window. The TV is showing a clear, bright picture of some Santa on a city street, a world away.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Author Comments

Some of my stories are inspired by the somewhat remote Northern Michigan area I grew up in and still live in. "A Christmas Frost" is one of those. While I've read and loved the works of J.R.R Tolkien and other classic fantasy writers, I'm also fascinated by local legends and folklore, and inspirations from the latter sources tend to creep into my stories from time to time.

- Robert E. Keller
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