by Michelle Isenhoff
Yet another muffler was taking shape under Emily’s hands. In only two weeks she had completed ten of the blasted things. Sometimes she regretted asking Julia to teach her, but when darkness fell at five o’clock in the afternoon, there wasn’t much else to do.
The household had taken to gathering around the stove during the long, snowy evenings. Sometimes Isaac pulled out a copy of William Cullen Bryant, or Tennyson, or Keats, but mostly he read Longfellow, and Emily became acquainted with the great Indian chief, Hiawatha, and with fair Evangeline, the Canadian maiden evicted from her homeland and separated from her bridegroom. She found herself concentrating on the versed stories, even identifying with the poor, banished maiden.
But tonight Isaac stared at his book vacantly, not turning pages, hardly even moving. Suddenly he slapped his cup of coffee down, sloshing it on the table. “A Christmas tree!” he exclaimed. “I am going to cut down a Christmas tree!”
Emily glanced out the window doubtfully. Nothing could be seen but wind-driven snow that flashed across the light of the window. She turned her eyes on him questioningly.
“Tomorrow, of course. For Shannon’s nieces and nephews. A Christmas tree would be just the thing to bring them some holiday cheer!”
Julia harrumphed, setting down the gray garment taking shape under her needle. “You spread too much cheer and you gunna be spreading germs as well. Mr. Milford, you get arrested if you go in dat house.”
“Who said anything about going inside?” Isaac smiled at Emily and Malachi. “What do you say? Shall we bring them a tree?”
“Let’s do it!” Malachi shouted.
Emily was slower to answer. Her compassion struggled to rise above the snowdrifts.
“Emily?” Isaac prompted.
Malachi answered for her. “Course she wants to go. She’s been clacking those needles together till I can hardly stand it.”
“Malachi Watson,” Julia admonished. “Miss Emily ain’t aclackin’ no needles. She knittin’ warm clothes for dem what gots none.”
Malachi gave Emily’s work a doubtful glance. “A fellow would have to be freezing to death before he put on that muffler.”
Emily wadded the scarf into a ball and threw it at Malachi, needles and all.
“You hush!” Julia admonished. “She gettin’ better all da time.”
“Well I should be. There’s nothing else to do when the weather’s so blasted – ” a quick peak at Julia “–uh, blessed cold. Who wears all these things anyway? Seems I’ve knitted enough scarves to wrap every neck in Detroit.”
“They get put to good use,” Julia said firmly. “Tomorrow I’ll show you how to make mittens.”
“Tomorrow she’s helping us get a tree,” Malachi countered. “Aren’t you?”
“All right,” Emily relented.
Isaac grinned. “In that case, we’re going to need some decorations. Julia, would you pop us some corn? The rest of us can search for ribbons, buttons and scraps of bright cloth, anything to dress up the branches and bring a sparkle to some little eyes.”
Emily raided her supply of hair ribbons and cut the lace edging off the cuffs and bottom of her traveling suit. Isaac tore an old flannel shirt into colorful strips to tie into bows. Even Zeke donated a pair of faded handkerchiefs. By the time the corn was popped, they had filled a bucket with pretty decorations. Then they spent the rest of the evening munching popcorn and stringing it into long garlands.
After breakfast the next morning, Isaac appeared with an ax and a length or rope. “Julia, do you think you could find Emily some appropriate clothing while I hitch up Barnabas?”
When Emily climbed in the sleigh beside Malachi, she was covered in so many pairs of woolen socks, woolen undergarments, woolen shawls, mittens and mufflers that she felt indebted to a whole flock of sheep. She practically rolled in, yet the icy air still found her skin.
Isaac tucked a fur robe over their laps and drove out of the yard, guiding Barnabas down roads packed firmly with use. The sleigh runners whisked over the snow with a soft whisper, and the bells on the harnesses jangled merrily. The sun set the world to sparkling as they moved quickly between buildings capped with snow and laced with jagged icicles.
They traveled the route that Coal Dust had carried her all those weeks ago, following Michigan Avenue through a countryside softened by a feathery white covering. It looked so different in winter Emily scarcely recognized it, though she did know the bridge and the field where Coal Dust had bolted. With all the leaves down, she could even see a cabin in the copse of trees looking as mean as the old fellow with the shotgun.
A short way beyond, Isaac turned onto a narrow road that passed through a wood. The bare, gnarled fingers of hardwood trees splayed against the gray sky, and evergreens listed under the weight of their snowy skirts.
Isaac drove the horse into a clearing. “I own a dozen acres in here. They provide me with maple syrup, beechnuts and firewood, and now they will offer up my first Christmas tree since I was a boy. Everyone out! Help me locate a good one.”
Malachi trotted off into the woods. Isaac followed more slowly, and Emily dragged behind, stepping carefully in her uncle’s tracks. The snow was deep and she was freezing. She remembered with longing the mild winters in Charleston.
Suddenly a great gob of snow smashed into her cheek, spraying her clothing and dripping down between the layers at her neck. She looked around in surprise. Isaac still marched steadily in front of her, but Malachi was nowhere to be seen.
“Malachi Watson, you’re going to be sorry!”
Another snowball burst against her shoulder. This time she caught sight of the boy slipping behind a tree. She veered from the trail and bounded through the snowy drifts.
Malachi got off one more shot before Emily rounded the tree and slammed into him. They both fell to the ground. Malachi tried to roll away, but Emily heaped snow on him, rubbing it onto his face and neck. Soon they were both winded and laughing, and looking very much like the snowman the students had erected in the schoolyard.
Malachi paused to dig snow out of his ear. “You know, for a girl, you tackle hard.”
She grinned. “You forget I have a big brother.”
Isaac was nearly out of sight among the trees. They raced to follow him, Emily no longer caring about the snow packing into her shoes and clinging to her socks.
When they caught up, Isaac was circling a tree about his own height, admiring it from all sides. “What about this one?” he asked them.
It was a pretty little tree, straight and even and fragrant. It would look beautiful in Shannon’s yard dressed for the holiday. Emily smiled and nodded, and Isaac began chopping through the trunk.
As they waited, Malachi climbed a stump a few yards away. Spreading his arms, he toppled over backwards like a falling tree. Then he flapped his arms and legs as though he hoped to fly away.
She giggled. “What in the world are you doing?”
“Haven’t you ever made a snow angel before?”
“A snow angel!”
He jumped up and pointed to the shape left in the snow, a figure with outspread wings and a flowing robe. “It’s the only way I’ll ever look so pearly white!” he grinned.
She considered the angel, her brow furrowed in thought. “Malachi, do you suppose there are black angels?”
“’Course there are!”
“How do you know?”
“Everyone knows about the angel choirs, right?”
“Way I figure, God wouldn’t even stop and listen if they didn’t have at least a few black members.”
Emily laughed and flopped in the snow to make her own angel. Overhead, the clouds tumbled like scraps of paper in a breeze. She no longer felt the bite of winter. In fact, she had grown uncomfortably warm beneath all her woolen layers.
“If you two are ready, the tree is already tied to the sled.” The call sounded thin and far away.
Emily rose and threw one more handful of snow at Malachi, catching him on the cheek. He swiped it off and hollered, “Race you!”
Back at the sleigh, Isaac had cut several pine boughs that he laid on the floor at their feet. “I figure we might as well do some decorating of our own,” he explained and turned Barnabas toward home. Then he began singing a song Emily had never heard before. “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…”
The children caught on quickly and joined in on the last few choruses. Emily’s face tingled from the cold, but under the lap robe she was warm and cozy as they moved from one Christmas carol to another. They were still singing when they pulled up in front of Shannon’s house.
The family lived in a shabby row house, and Emily couldn’t imagine how nine people fit in the tiny building. As Isaac nailed two flat slabs of wood to the bottom of the evergreen tree, smiling faces appeared in the front window. Three of the children had hair in shades of red, but the littlest one, a freckle-faced boy with his face pressed to the glass, was blond as corn silk.
Isaac set the tree upright. “All right you two, help me dress this beauty up.”
Together they tied on decorations. Emily fussed with the bows and draped the strands of popcorn in even waves. When they were done, the buttons glittered and the bright cloth blazed against the snow. The tree brightened up the whole drab street.
Isaac called to Malachi, “Help me move it so the others can see it from their beds.”
When the tree nearly leaned against the glass, they piled back into the sleigh. Even before the horse moved, a pair of chickadees landed in the top branches and began pecking at the strand of corn. Emily smiled at the birds, and at Malachi and her uncle, and at the faces in the window, glad she had chosen to participate in the fun.
The three of them made merry again on their way home, but when they pulled into the hotel drive, all the jolly left Malachi’s face.
And then Emily, too, caught the sound of a baying bark.