Frost

The Frost performs its secret ministry, unhelped by any wind. ~ (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

He was by instinct and habit a man alert to danger but today he was jumpy. Maybe because he'd risen so early and was riding alone. Or maybe because his partner had been reading out loud to them at night from that book of ghost stories. Whatever the reason, the fog he was traveling through seemed to him like a living thing, snaking itself around his horse's hooves, muffling sound, concealing the trail in front of him. He couldn't see more than fifty feet in any direction.

He half-raised one hand to his throat as if to push away a clutching tendril, then dropped it, cursing himself for a fool. He was in a place he didn't know, headed for a town he'd never been to, looking for a man he'd never met. Hell of a note, he reflected. If I tried I couldn't be any more lost.

There was a wisp of movement up ahead, half-hidden in the mist. For a moment he wondered if he was imagining things. Then by some quirk of the wind the fog shifted and he saw her clearly.

What's a kid doing out here alone? Was his first thought.

She wore a striped skirt that didn't quite reach the tops of her scuffed boots, and a knitted coat that might have started out brown but now was a soft mottled pink. A yellow silk kerchief was knotted around her neck and her dark hair tumbled in untidy curls to her shoulders. Her bare hands were red with cold.

She was carrying a mass of leaves and twigs, loosely tied together and half as big as she was. He pulled up his gelding and leaned one elbow on the saddle horn.

"Mornin', sis," he said.

"Good morning." She curtsied.

"Reckon that's the first time anybody's ever done that for me," he told her. "Makes me feel like I'm a king, or the governor maybe."

She smiled up at him, guilelessly. "Mamma says it costs nothing to be polite."

"Don't look like you could afford it, otherwise," he said jokingly, and immediately could have bitten his tongue. "I'm sorry, sis. That wasn't very nice of me."

She gave him a dignified nod. "That's all right."

"Gatherin' firewood?" He gestured at the bundle on her back.

"It's mistletoe!"

"Mistletoe? What do you need all that mistletoe for?"

She gave the strap a hitch. "We tie some ribbon around the nice bits and then I take it out to sell."

"People buy that?"

"Of course they do! Especially today. It's Christmas tomorrow and everybody knows that if you don't get kissed under the mistletoe at Christmas, you won't get married for a whole year."

Christmas tomorrow. He'd forgotten. "Does it bring any kind of good luck with it?"

"I guess if you get married it does."

He shook his head. "I don't plan on tyin' the knot anytime soon. Say, do you know how far we are from Tillamook?"

"About three miles."

"D'you know how to get there? I'm s'posed to see a man about a job."

"I live there. If you are going to Tillamook I would be happy to show you the way."

"I'd like that fine." He gestured behind him. "Want to ride up here with me?"

"I don't think your horse would like the mistletoe," she said candidly, and walked on ahead of him.

Funny little nipper, he thought. Talks like a lady, looks like a beggar. She's got a ma, wonder if her pa's still around.

It would explain the clothes, and the bundle. "Ain't you a ways from home?" he asked. "I mean, don't that stuff grow where you won't have to walk so far?"

"The big boys take all the best places close to town. They sell it to a man who sends it to Portland and Astoria."

"So you hike three miles for a few cents' worth of mistletoe?"

"We made over two dollars last year," she corrected him. "After we took out for the ribbon. People like something pretty to hang up for Christmas."

Two dollars wasn't enough for a turkey and trimmings, but it would probably buy some stew meat and spuds and canned peaches, and maybe even a stick or two of candy. He wondered how many mouths she was feeding with her mistletoe.

The road got more rutted as they drew closer to town, and he had to draw aside once or twice to let lumber wagons pass. They came down out of the hills as the fog lifted and Tillamook was waiting, damp and unwelcoming in the watery sun of the winter forenoon, with air that stank of machinery and pitch.

His guide left him near the intersection of the two main streets, next to a string of brick buildings and a squat clock tower. He offered her a nickel, and was refused with grave courtesy.

"Merry Christmas!" she called before darting away down a muddy alley.

The man he came to meet wasn't there in the dank, cramped office near the railroad yards. He thought of walking around the town while he waited - maybe he'd see that kid, calling out to passers-by and holding up her mistletoe tied with bright ribbon. She'd be something nice to look for in this dirty hole.

He went back instead to the livery where he'd left the buckskin and watched two old men play checkers for the rest of the afternoon, impatience gnawing at him like a hungry dog.

It was several hours before he was finally face to face with his prospective employer. The man was a lawyer, and he circled around the subject, advancing and retreating and not quite saying what the job was.

The weather and the wait and the uncertainty frayed his temper, never the coolest. "We heard you needed a bodyguard."

"Well…ahem…in way. We have what you might call agents among the lumbermen here. Sometimes they are, shall we say, interfered with. When that happens a certain amount of assistance is needed to ensure their freedom of action." The lawyer waved a hand as if the gesture explained everything.

"For five hundred dollars," he said angrily, "I want to know how many men I'd have to murder."

"For five hundred dollars," the other man sneered," We expect you to do as you're told and ask no questions."

He pushed his chair back and stood up, suddenly enough to make the lawyer twitch nervously. He leaned over the desk for the space of a heartbeat, savoring the man's fear in a petty moment of triumph.

"I reckon we got nothin' more to talk about, then."

How long can we keep this up, he wondered as he came slowly down the stairs. Skulking through back streets, haggling for dirty little jobs with dirty little men. Jobs no one else would touch. Sometimes, jobs even the likes of them refused to take.

He wouldn't be making anything off this trip. With the meal and the cup of coffee he'd bought, and the afternoon's warm stabling for his horse, he was out almost eight bits on top of his travelling expenses with nothing to show for it. The failure lay bitter and heavy upon him.

It was late, and the wind cut across the back of his neck like a knife. He resigned himself to the prospect of sleeping in the livery stable, if he could elude the hostler's eye and somehow get into the hayloft. He wondered if there would be another fog in the morning, although he was in no hurry to get back and report that he was returning empty-handed. Down the street he heard a holy roller clanging a hand bell.

"Peace on earth, good will towards men," he muttered. "Christmas goddamn Eve."

He took an intricate route back towards the livery where his horse waited, wary as always of betrayal and pursuit. Somehow he made a wrong turn and found himself in the part of town where the better-off folk lived, in snug houses battened down against the night air. He paused for a moment to get his bearings.

The mistletoe seller came quickly and silently around the corner. She stopped and glanced back over her shoulder, and then slipped into the darkened archway of a gate.

You rotten little twist, he thought savagely, and the bile rose in his throat.

For all her pretty airs and graces, she was part and parcel of this stinking place. It was so simple he didn't know why he hadn't seen it from the first. With her soft childish face and sweet smile, she could peddle her wares from house to house, sharp-eyed for an open window or broken latch, and return at night to steal from her customers.

She emerged from the gateway almost immediately and hurried away, and he followed.

Twice she halted, ducking back into the shadows to hide from a passing wagon and a barking dog. He sensed that they were moving towards the outskirts and he began to run, boots slipping on the greasy cobbles. He caught up with her behind an empty warehouse, where the buildings ended and only cleared fields lay between the town and the pine-covered hills. What the hell, he wondered.

She turned and the startled look on her face lifted when she recognized him. "Hullo! Did you get your job?"

"Didn't work out," he said briefly.

She nodded. That would be something she understood, he thought, looking at her bare hands and patched skirt.

"What are you doin' out here so late, sis?" he demanded.

"I sneaked out. Mamma went to sleep and I climbed out the window."

"Where d'you think you're goin'?"

"To the stable."

He didn't understand. "The livery stable?"

"No, the stable. The barn, I mean. Mr. Bielefeldt's barn. He doesn't just have horses, he has sheep and kine, too. Nobody else has them so close to town."

"Kine," he repeated, stupidly.

"You know. Cows, like in the Bible. They're going to kneel down tonight and I want to see them."

"Horses and cows only kneel down when it's goin' to rain," he objected.

"And on Christmas Eve. I read about it. At midnight they kneel down in the straw."

"Never heard of that. What for?"

"To worship the Christ Child," she gently rebuked him. "Are you coming along? I don't want to be late."

"Wait a minute." He pulled off his gloves and put them on her hands, tugging them down to fit over her small cold fingers. "There. That's better."

He shortened his stride to match hers as they trudged along. She paused to turn her face up to the night sky.

"Wouldn't it be nice if it snowed?"

"Not goin' to happen, sis, not around here. Too close to the water."

She accepted that, for he was a grown-up and her faith in adult infallibility had not yet been torn away from its moorings.

"When I get old enough to work for wages, I'm going to take us to see the snow," she said wistfully. "Somebody told me that there's a train up to the mountains and back on the same day so we wouldn't have to stay at a hotel."

That was her happy-ever-after, he realized. The fairy-tale day when she'd be working in a store or waiting on tables in a restaurant and earning real money, not going from door to door with mistletoe at Christmas, maybe catkins in the spring, then berries and mushrooms in the summer and fall.

"Have you ever been on a train?" she asked.

"A few times."

"Is it exciting?"

"It can be."

"I heard that if you ride backwards you get sick and throw up." She shivered deliciously at the thought.

"I've seen it happen."

"Did it ever happen to you?"

"I never ride backwards on trains," he assured her.

The lights were out in the farmhouse when they got there, except for a hurricane lantern hanging on the porch. They made their way cautiously to where barn loomed, dark and quiet. He put his hand on the door.

"Not yet." She stopped him.

"Thought you wanted to see - "

"Sshh. We don't want them to hear us," she warned. "What time is it?"

He took out his battered silver turnip. "Ten minutes to midnight."

Above them the Milky Way ran from one horizon to the other like a wide and glittering road. He stamped his cold feet absent-mindedly and stopped at her reproving look. A bell began to chime from one of the churches and another joined in, then another, solemnly tolling the hour across the fields and the sleeping town.

"Poor man's music. That's what my grandfather used to call church bells," she whispered. "Are you ready?"

She put her shoulder to the big door and he joined her, lending his strength to help roll it back. They stepped inside. There were horses in the stalls, and a few cows, and even some sheep penned up in a corner. All of them were standing, ears pricked, heads turned towards the intruders.

He didn't dare look down, didn't want to read the shattered hopes in her face.

"They must have got up when they heard us." Her voice was tranquil. "Maybe it's a secret thing. Maybe we're not supposed to see it before we're angels."

That'll be a while, he thought.

A draft horse hung his huge head over a partition and snorted into the frosty air, and she went up and gently stroked the big Roman nose.

"It's like velvet," she breathed. "I'm going to buy my mother a velvet bonnet, some day." She dug down into a pocket and fished out a pale, crumbling mass.

"I sold a lady some mistletoe and she gave me a cookie," she explained. The horse lipped up the sugary tidbit, nibbling softly at her fingers. She laughed.

"He likes me!"

"He likes your cookie," he remarked. Then, ashamed of himself, he added "But I'll bet he likes you, too."

She gave the horse a final pat. "I guess we should be going," she sighed.

They came out of the barn and dragged the door shut behind them. The stars hung in the cloudless heavens, diamond-sharp and pure as snowfall. The road and the open ground on either side were covered with a thick layer of frost and the trees gleamed like glass in the moonlight. She stretched one hand up towards the sky.

"And the glory of the Lord shone around them." The way the words rolled off her tongue he knew she was quoting something.

Darkness and distance cloaked the town with enchantment, hiding the shabby houses and the mills, silvering the church steeples and giving majesty even to the municipal clock tower. He put his shoulders back and breathed deeply of the clear, clean air.

"Funny how everything looks different, at night," he observed. "I'm sorry the animals weren't kneelin' for you, sis."

His companion slipped her hand into his. "There's always next Christmas," she said, confidently.

"You're right," he agreed. "There's always next Christmas."

x – x x – x x – x x – x x – x x

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,

Whether the summer clothe the general earth

With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing

Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch

Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch

Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall

Heard only in the trances of the blast,

Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.