Monday, 9 December 2013

Under the Little Fir

By Elizabeth Yates

A little fir tree stood on the edge of the woods. It was trimmed - not with tapers and tinsel, but with coconut shells and lumps of suet, while under it were not toys but grains and nuts, greens and crumbs. All day the children had been trimming it, running back and forth between the tree and the house.

Chatting together, they put fingers on their lips for silence as a rustling at the edge of the woods told of furry creatures that might be watching. But perhaps it was only the wind, they whispered, and with a last laughing look ran home across the meadow.

No one came to the little tree until the kind cloak of twilight fell over the world. Then there was a stirring in the bushes. Shy animals, whose tiny movements were muffled by the light snow, stole from their secret places and came hastening to the dark shelter of the little fir.

The rabbit was the first to arrive. Hopping over the snow, he sat on his haunches under the tree and looked around him, whiskers twitching as he saw a long carrot hanging from a branch and a bundle of crisp green spinach.

"Hello," he said quickly, as a squirrel leaped over the snow to chuckle with delight at a pile of nuts. Then a stately pheasant approached the grain. A sound of small twigs snapping caused the creatures to look up, interested but not alarmed.

"Is there anything for me?" the deer asked, wide eyes peering from the screen of brush.

"Some hay," the squirrel said, jumping from a low branch into the sweet prickly mound.

Gracefully the deer stepped out of the wood and thrust her nose into the hay, giving the squirrel a playful toss.

Munching and stamping, chuckling and clucking, the animals feasted while the stars came out in the sky and shone through the branches of the little fir tree.

Then the wind brought a sudden scent.

The deer shot her nose into the air and stood quivering, tiptoe to run. The squirrel darted higher up the tree. The pheasant rustled his wings for flight. The little rabbit sat with ears and nose trembling - while a dark low form moved out of the forest, crouching low to the ground. Nearer and nearer the fox came to the tree while the little creatures' hearts beat fast with fear.

Scurrying over the snow from the house came the mouse. "I'm sorry to be late," he cried in a high voice quite out of breath, "but the children were telling stories by the fire and I crept from my hole to listen - why, what's the matter?"

"It's Fox," the rabbit whispered. "She wants to join us, but if she comes any nearer we must run."

The mouse looked startled, then he smiled, showing his little fine white teeth. "I'm not afraid - nor need any of you be."

"But, Mouse," the squirrel chattered from safety at the top of the fir, "we've always run from Fox. Our fathers and grandfathers did, too," he added a bit proudly.

"Oh, but not on Christmas Eve," the mouse answered quickly, flicking his ears and his wiry tail.

"What's Christmas Eve?" the creatures cried.

"A time when everyone loves and no one fears," the mouse replied, while Fox crept closer and closer, her long tail dragging over the snow.

"Tonight we should wish each other good cheer and show each other our love. For, on this same night long ago, a baby was born in a stable - " Mouse spoke very slowly, - "a baby who was the King of Love. A great ox stood near, warming the air with his breath, and a little gray ass who had carried the mother all that day, while high in the rafters white doves cooed softly." The mouse hesitated. No sound came from the group around him but eyes grown big with wonder were fast upon him.

"Out on the hillside," he went on, "there were shepherds watching over their sheep. Far away, three kings rode on their camels through the night. They had seen a star in the east, a star that had come to rest over a stable. Following it, they knew they would find one who was a King of kings. From the starry sky angels sang their joyous song. 'Fear not,' they said, while men and animals trusted one another.

"The shephers came to the stable and knelt before the babe. And the kings came, kneeling before him and spreading the rich gifts they had brought upon the yellow straw. The ox and the ass bowed their heads, while out in the dark the gray sheep clustered together, dropping on their knees as had the camels on their.

"Then a little boy came to the stable. In his arms he carried a tiny lamb. Creeping close to the babe, he laid the lamb in the straw beside him. The baby smiled and put forth his hand, stroking the wrinkled face of the little lamb. More than all the gifts the kings had brought, he loved the small creature who was gentle and harmless as himself."

"Why was the baby a King?" the squirrel questioned.

Mouse looked puzzled. "I don't quite know." Then he smiled. "But I think it must have been because he brought love to the world, and shepherds and kings and all creatures knew that one day Love would rule the world. So they bowed to the child. And on that night when he was born, no living thing knew fear."

"Never have I heard such a story. How did you come to know it, Mouse?" the deer asked softly.

"It is the Christmas story," the mouse answered simply. "I peeped from my hole and heard them tell it in the house and if it is true for children around a fire, it must also be true for animals under the stars."

Heads began to nod and small paws flutter in cheerful agreement when a low, lonely voice quite close by said, "And if it is true on one night, can't it be true eery night?"

"Oh, Fox!" the creatures cried, love and sympathy for the sad, hunted animal suddenly welling up in their eager hearts. Quickly they made an opening in their circle that the dark one might slip in among them.

Deer made the first move. Thrusting her nose into the tree, she nibbled free the lump of suet and tossed it to the fox. Squirrel dashed down the trunk and sat watching Fox eat. Pheasant walked around Fox, admiring her lovely red coat, while Rabbit hopped over and drew Fox into conversation, and Mouse sat under the tree nibbling one crumb, then another.

Chattering and crunching, the animals took their fill, then Fox said suddenly, "I shall make a mark in the snow to tell the children how grateful I am for all this night has meant."

"So shall I," the others cried, "so shall I."

Forming a circle with Fox, leading, the animals made their marks on the snow - marks of paw and claw and hoof and sweep of bushy tail, while Mouse ran about them, tying them together with the lacy imprint of his tiny feet.

Off in the house across the meadow, the children looked from their window and wondered if the forest creatures had come to the tree for their Christmas.

Under the low-hanging branches they thought they almost saw dark forms moving. But perhaps it was only the wind.

The children drew the curtains and ran off to bed, while over the snow the animals raced to burrow and forest brush and secret hole. And the stars shone through the fir on the little marks on the snow under its dark branches.

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