And, so, on Saturday night — after the chapel Christmas concert and last school party on Friday, after Wii, and after pancake brunch with Mommy, and Daddy, and Granny, and Poppy on Saturday morning, and after the college basketball game with Daddy and Poppy on Saturday afternoon, and after a long ride over the Potomac River, the young man and his family arrived at Nonna’s for Yule.
Now, Nonna was a Witch, and so, for Nonna, the Solstice was the most important Winter holiday. It was really, as his teacher had explained, just astrological, but for his Nonna, the longest night and the shortest day were sacred and so everyone in the family was going over to Nonna’s for dinner. The young man suspected that there might be presents.
When they got to Nonna’s, the table was full and Nonna even had root beer. You see, the young man wasn’t allowed to drink soda, but he was, on special occasions, allowed to drink root beer (if it wasn’t the diet kind) and Nonna had gotten good root beer. The young man surveyed Nonna’s table and saw the roasted pork, the asparagus, the mushroom strudel, the spiced pecans, the fondue, the biscuits, the salad, the Noel log, and the tray piled high with tangerines, kumquats, grapes, pears, apples, and nuts. And he looked at the center of the table and couldn’t quite figure out why Nonna had decorated it the way that she had. Well, of course, Nonna was Nonna and she often did things that just didn’t make much sense.
And, so, Daddy made a plate for the young man and the young man ate, and all the grown-ups ate, and all the grown-ups had wine, and everyone chatted, and the young man listened for a while, but then he wandered off to look at the things in Nonna’s ritual room. There were interesting things there: candles, and incense, an athame, which was like a tiny sword and which always attracted the young man, and bundles of dried sage, and tarot cards that seemed to say something, and a ceramic fox that Mommy gave to Nonna, and a glass owl that Nonna said was a Victorian hand cooler, and a carved redwood tree, and Nonna’s statues of Hecate, and Columbia, and Liberty. And there were bookshelves full of books, and magical supplies, and Goddesses, and odd, old crows. And there, on Nonna’s altar, as he’d guessed that it might be, was a card from the elves and it had clues that led the young man to a pile of presents that he brought into the living room and began to pass out to everyone. And there were presents and bits of oddiments for the young man, as well. He’d had a very strong suspicion that there would be presents.
After all of the excitement, the young man said, “Nonna! Why do you have nests with eggs in them on the table, and tiny bird houses, and glasses full of little pinecones, and feathers, and sparkling lights?” He pointed and said, “Everyone knows that eggs are for Easter, but Christmas and Yule are about Winter. Why do you have eggs, and nests, and feathers?”
“Well,” said his Nonna, “I was thinking about how to decorate the table and I was reminded of a tale about a young man. Shall I tell it to you?”
By now, the fire was burning down and everyone had full tummies, presents, and third glasses of wine or, even better, third glasses of root beer, and so everyone was quite content to let the old woman tell her Yule story. And so, being a garrulous old woman who loved to spin tales, both true and nearly-true, she did.
Once upon a time, there was a young man. He was older than seven, but younger than twelve, as heroes often are. This young man lived in a once-beautiful country that had been overrun by trolls. And the trolls, being trolls, had shut down all the farms and all the shops that sold things that actually made people lead better lives and had replaced them with factories. Now, troll factories, of course, belch smoke into the Air, and leach poison into the Earth, and drain filth into the Waters, and drench the Fires in people’s souls by making them work for nothing, in bad conditions, fabricating things that steal the Center from the universe.
One day, in the early Autumn, the young man hiked up a rather small mountain where he and his parents had hiked many times before. Those had always been good times, but, today, there were no birds singing, no sweet breezes blowing, no animals scurrying, no sunbeams dancing, and even the rocks had ceased to sing their old, deep, slow song of the Earth. This made the young man sad, and he sat down on a big rock, put his left hand on the trunk of a nearby tree, and placed his right hand over his heart. The young man said, not even realizing that he was speaking aloud, “I swear that, if I can do it, I will save my land from these trolls.”
Just then, an old, old man came walking along the path. “Well, young man, that’s a worthy oath. I made a similar one when I was young, but I couldn’t keep it. I got enticed by visions of wealth, and power, and reflections of myself that didn’t require change, and so I gave up the quest. But I’ll tell you this: If you can find the bird who lays her eggs in the deep midwinter, she can tell you how to save your land. Now, I’m old, and tired, and cold. This early Autumn wind chills me to my bone. Can I have a bit of the hot tea that you’ve got in that thermos of yours?”
And so the young man, being a courteous and kind young man, gave the old man some tea and sent him on his way, warmed and invigorated.
For days, the young man hiked further up the small mountain, but, one day, the sun set and a winter chill set in. The young man realized that he’d hiked all the way to Samhein and now it was windy, and dark, and truly cold upon the mountain. He cobbled together a tiny shelter of sticks, and vines, and bracken, and wrapping his coat and sleeping bag around himself, went quietly to sleep. Because the veils were thin, the young man drempt of his Ancestor.
He dreamed of an ancient Ancestor, a Viking captain, with a big red beard full of hoar frost from the ocean’s spume, dressed in leathers and lambs’ wool, grasping the ropes of a Viking boat and sailing right into the West wind. “Save your land, will you, my hero?” the Ancestor said. “Here’s a message across the sea and across the many risings of the Solstice sun, from me to the son of my daughter’s, daughter’s, daughter’s, son’s, son’s, daughter’s, son’s daughter’s daughter’s son: Listen to the seabird. She can tell you who lays eggs in deep midwinter. I’ve been from Denmark to France more times than my ladywife’s had daughters, and I can tell you that the seabird speaks true. Make a cairn to me and you’ll learn what you need to learn.”
In his dream, the young man sought out flat, round stones and placed one on top of the other. He held his hand out over them and blessed them for his Ancestor, saying aloud, “What is remembered, lives.”
In the morning, the young hero awoke, half frozen even under his shelter of branches, and vines, and bracken, with his coat covered in hoar frost even thicker than that which had covered his ancestor’s beard. He reached for his backpack and was startled by a seagull, sitting atop the straps.
“Well, you’re a ways off course,” our hero said. “Miles from the sea here, isn’t it?”
“Not so far that I couldn’t fly from there to here and back again, for the old man who used to feed my Ancestors a bit of fishguts in the Winter,” said the gull. “Now, look, you’ve got salmon jerky in your pack, and, well, being an East Coast bird, I’ve never had salmon. But those Canada Geese brag about them all the time, and my own Nonna said that she’d been courted by a gull who brought salmon all the way from Oregon to Maryland and I’ve always wanted a bite of it. So if you’ll share your jerky with me, I’ll tell you where to find the bird who lays golden eggs in the deep midwinter.”
Our hero had learned to be always courteous and so he broke his piece of jerky in half and then broke the gull’s half into little pieces so that the bird from the Atlantic Ocean could eat it, even though jerky can be chewy and tough. The gull hopped from the backpack to the rock, ate every bite of salmon, and then flew to a nearby stream to drink deep and flap his feathers in the morning breeze.
“OK. You’ve treated me fair, as old Hoarfrost did my ancient mam,” the gull told the young man. “Go home. Climb high into the magnolia tree that your Nonna grows. There’s a bird there lays her eggs in the deep midwinter and she can tell you how to save your land — OK, OUR land,” — the gull admitted, looking as if he’d given away too much. “I’m off for the brave Sea of Atlas. You’ll wind up there, yourself, one day, if I don’t miss my guess, young explorer,” the gull cried as he launched himself Eastward.
And, so, the young hero climbed all the way down the mountain, across the plain, over the Potomac river, and into his Nonna’s house. He warmed himself there, sleeping a full day and night in the soft bed his Nonna kept for him, under the heavy blankets that she’d knitted. Then, the young man ate a chocolate croissant, drank a box of chocolate milk, and climbed up his Nonna’s magnolia tree, placing one careful foot after another on the branches full of evergreen leaves and seedcones. The full Moon shone upon Nonna’s snow-covered yard and the young hero could see, as clear as day, a nest full of golden eggs, high atop the tree. He got as close as he could and there he saw a phoenix sitting atop three golden eggs laid inside a snow-glittered nest. He cut up his last bit of salmon jerky and offered it to the phoenix.
“I’ve hiked all the way up the mountain, and down,” he said. “I’ve hiked from early Autumn, to Samhein, all the way to today — the shortest day — and to tonight: Solstice, the longest night. I’m trying to save my land from the trolls, and the troll factories, and their evil mimes that cause people to seek them, even though they don’t help people to live better lives. I’ve given up my tea, built a cairn to my Ancestor, left my shelter, and given away almost all of my salmon jerky, and I want to know if you can tell me why you lay your eggs in the deep midwinter and how that can help my land to be free of the trolls.”
The phoenix looked up from her three golden eggs, sitting snug and secure in their nest high atop the magnolia tree. She looked at the young man and said, “Of course I’ll help you to save your land. The answer was always right here, underneath your feet, inside your Nonna’s land. Connect with what’s here. Inside the dark — in the deep midwinter — is the seed of everything that grows in the light. There’s nothing that blossoms on MidSummer’s Eve that wasn’t here, being warmed beneath my firey breast, in the deepest dark. And so you must look inside the darkness at the heart of your land to find the cure for the trolls. What did your ancestors bring across the ocean that gave the trolls purchase upon these shores? Answer that and save your land.”
“And, so,” Nonna said, “that’s why, on the Solstice, I always like to feed the birds and remember them at my table.”
And, then, everyone, warmed by wine, and food, and, especially by root beer, went outside to throw birdseed to Nonna’s birds. That was fun story for a long night. Everyone came inside to warm up, to have a final cookie, or a last half-cup of coffee, or a penultimate sip of root beer. And, then, the young man and his family got into their car, went home across the Potomac, and began to think of their real Christmas.
But a bit of birdseed remained in the young man’s pocket.
Picture by the blogger; if you copy, please link back.