She had never seen the road before.
Snaking its way out of the woods in a steel-grey river of gravel, the road was bordered by spotty, melting snow. Overwhelmed by curiosity, she pulled to the side of the street, put her car in reverse, and rolled back to a better vantage point.
She drove this route all the time; it was the way to church on Sunday. She was also a lifelong daydreamer and vista-gazer, and while certainly unsafe, she was guilty of doing just that when she was behind the wheel. She felt certain that she would have seen the mysterious road before! She knew every house in the village- who lived where, who kept fresh paint, who didn’t. She knew the roads of the tiny hamlet- those that were always free of snow, those that seemed lost at the bottom of the repair list, even the roads that were the steepest or the flattest. She recognized every rock and sand bar of the wide creek which split the village in half. Every year the stones that lined the creek bottom would shift and change with spring floods, and she would memorize the new pattern. She was confident in her keen powers of observation; this road had never existed before. It was almost as though it had sprung up overnight.
Craning her neck to peer through the forest of blue spruce trees, she saw that the road wasn’t really a road at all. It was a long, winding driveway that continued several hundred feet off the main street, and disappeared over a small rise.
The wind washed through the blue-green boughs of the spruce trees and ruffled her hair. It was cold, and there was an approaching storm. The thick clouds overhead were heavy with snow, and she smelled the tangy, almost metallic scent of it on the wind. She should be going, her dogs were waiting for their walk, and she had Christmas gifts to wrap. Annoyed by her uncontrollable curiosity, but unable to resist, she locked her car and set off across the street to follow the serpentine pathway. She was acquainted with the adjacent property owner, so she felt as though she might get away with a little lighthearted trespassing.
The gravel crunched under the soles of her snow boots. She passed under the tall conifers, enjoying their sharp, clean pine scent. Topping the small rise, she saw that the road dropped down into a small clearing at the edge of the creek. She glanced over her shoulder to check on her car, and continued down the small hill towards the creek. As she moved towards the bubbling water, the road came to a sudden end.
She stopped and looked around. It seemed odd that the road would lead to nowhere. Walking to the creek bank to enjoy the sight of the rushing water, she hopped up on an enormous tree trunk which had fallen across the banks, forming a natural bridge. She dropped down onto the log and sat astride it, pretending it was a noble steed. She indulged in a few moments of daydreaming, swinging her feet and savoring the sights and smells of the cold winter forest. A chill shook her, and she jumped to her feet, returning carefully to the bank. As she prepared to jump down off the log, she stopped short. There, directly in her path, was a tall set of brick stairs, partially hidden by thick piles of fallen leaves. Then she gasped.
Just beyond the brick steps was a stout stone chimney, smashed into rubble halfway up. The round river rock was littered everywhere at its base, some stained with black marks, most of it with old mortar still clinging to the smooth sides. She swept the dead leaves off the steps and sat down, hugging her knees.
She started. Patrick?
“Patrick! I know you’re out there! Mama says come do your chores!”
“Awe, Madi,” called the disembodied voice, “I just got a handful of worms! I want to get some fish for our dinner!”
“Put the worms in a basket and go fishing later. Mama’s tired and wants that wood brought in.”
“Can’t you do it?”
“I most certainly cannot. It’s your job”
“Awe alright. I’ll be right there. But after the wood’s brought in, I’m going fishing!”
The wind picked up and the voices were silent.
She strained her ears to pick up more conversation, but the woods were still.
She was intrigued. She made herself comfortable on the top step and closed her eyes, inviting the voices to return.
“Yes yes, we all know fishing is the most important thing to you,” said Madi sarcastically.
“Well, at least I bring food into the house.” He replied. “What do you do besides read and knit?”
“Embroider. And it’s an art. I’ll need it when I marry.” Madi said.
“Dolly Madison Lynch, you know you’ll never get married. You’re far too contrary. Any man in this village would be a fool to trust his feelings and good nature to your keeping.” teased Patrick.
“Not true, Patrick Henry!” Her temper was rising. “I would be a wonderful match for anyone. I’m just waiting for the best one to come along! You’re certainly one to talk. All you can do is fish and hunt. No girl in her right mind would want to hitch up with you. You can hardly be bothered to help Papa with the blacksmith shop. He won’t be able to do it much longer, his hands are so gnarled.”
“Ok, ok.” Patrick knew when he was beaten. His sister, Dolly Madison- who went by her childhood nickname ‘Madi’- was always a force to be reckoned with. He almost never won an argument with her. Their parents didn’t even bother to try debating with their headstrong daughter. Routinely, they gave her free reign since she was generally responsible and respectable.
“Children!” their mother called from the porch, “Stop your bickering and come help get supper together. Patrick, you can fish later. Madi, I need your help with these potatoes, they are stiff as glue!” Mrs. Lynch’s voice was shaky, but loud. She was an older mother; she and her husband had met late in life, and their twins had been born when she was well into her 40s. Folks around the village claimed it was some kind of miracle. Mrs. Lynch just thought it was nature’s reward for a life well-lived.
Patrick headed for the woodpile and Madi high-tailed it to the house. The simple brown clapboard cottage was cozy and snug. Winter was tough in their valley, and the river-rock chimney chugged out the smoke that the big, Colonial fireplace made. The rooms downstairs were roomy and clean, with scrubbed pine floors. The sparkling twelve-pane windows were protected by cheerful red wooden shutters. The kitchen was cramped, but efficient. A white enamel sink supported a shiny black well pump which brought water right into the house.
The upstairs rooms were little more than cupboards. The walls were short and the windows were low in the wall. In the winter the rooms were snug and warm, while in the summer, they were stuffy and hot, and weren’t used at all. Summer was short in the valley, so everyone crowded into the downstairs rooms, and sometimes slept on the front porch. The house was one of the first ones built after the village was established, before the American Revolution.
The fireplace was roaring on the cold, windy day. Mrs. Lynch smelled snow in the air, and added another log to the fire. She hadn’t seen a day like this in quite a while. It was warm in the morning, unusual for the week of Christmas, and had gotten increasingly colder as the day passed. The wind was what concerned her. The branches of the old-growth pines were whipping in the strong breeze, dropping needles and small branches which littered the dooryard of the cottage.
Christmas Eve dawned dark and stormy. The indecisive precipitation had been replaced by heavy, wet snow that blanketed the valley with a picturesque layer of white. As the day wore on, the wind grew stronger and the snow increased. Madi and Patrick watched from the windows as the porch steps were covered and the wind drove the snowflakes onto the porch, which built up against the front door and windows.
“Will Santa Claus be able to get to us, Mama?” asked Madi.
“Well of course, dummy, he’s got a sleigh and 8 reindeer to pull it.” teased Patrick.
“Patrick Henry! Don’t use that language in my house!” admonished Mrs. Lynch.
Patrick was abashed, but undaunted. He scuttled from the room to work on cleaning his hunting rifle and organizing his fishing lures. The way he figured, it was probably better to be on his best behavior on Christmas Eve. In order to do that, he needed to be as far as he could get from his annoying sister.
Mr. Lynch strapped on his snowshoes and went to his blacksmith shop to start the day. There were valley farmers who still needed shoes for their horses and repairs to their iron implements. It was Christmas Eve, so it would be a short day. Christmas was a holiday for everyone, and all but the dairy farmers were free for the holiday. The cows didn’t take any time off. Mr. Lynch was concerned about the weather. The valley residents were no strangers to extreme weather, but this day’s wind and pounding snow was certainly severe enough to attract some notice.
By noontime, village businesses had closed. Villagers made their way through the white-out bundled in heavy coats, hats and muffs. Snow drifts were shoulder high, and the wind was merciless. Branches were ripped from trees and temperatures dropped steadily. Folks on all sides of the village put aside the fact that it was Christmas Eve and started to make preparations against the angry weather. Village Church Ministers and Priests laid out blankets and cots, and dusted off hot water bottles, instead of lighting ceremonial candles and laying out sheets of carol music.
Mr. Lynch shuttered the blacksmith shop and returned to the small cottage to rally his family.
“Looks bad.” He said. “Everyone’s hunkered down and all the Christmas Eve services are cancelled. Father Stephen at St. Michael’s has cots and blankets ready in the cellar of the church. Mr. Brayton over at the Baptist Church has plenty of heat and the Ladies’ Auxiliary has gallons of coffee and barley soup. Even the Methodists have got canned food and their old woodstove to cook it on.”
“Will we have to go to stay with them, Papa?” asked Madi, unusually nervous.
“I don’t think so, Doll.” He answered. “We’ve got plenty of food put by, and with this old engine of a fireplace, we’ll be dry and warm. But some folks in town don’t have what we have. They’ll need to get to one of the churches if this wind keeps up.”
The Lynch family secured the doors and windows against the blizzard, and tucked themselves in. Madi and Patrick didn’t know what to think. They believed wholeheartedly that Santa would visit them, as he had for their whole lives. But none of them had seen a storm of this magnitude. The snow was lashing against the windows and clapboards, and the trees were squealing with strain against the fierce wind. Slowly, the Lynch family drifted off in the dark of the night.
A thunderous impact shook the house.
Madi and Patrick sprang from their beds and dashed into the hall. Mr. and Mrs. Lynch weren’t far behind. The normally gentle glow from the fireplace was replaced by a brilliant and bright light that lit their footsteps as they emerged into the main room to see that an enormous tree had ripped through the roof and landed just inches from the fireplace. The heavy layers of snow didn’t seem to make any difference as the lush boughs quickly caught fire. The room filled with smoke. Mr. Lynch took charge.
“Get out!” He shouted. “The chimney’s crushed! Grab some buckets and get to the creek! Maybe we can save the house!”
The family did what they could to extinguish the blaze. Covering the creek was a layer of ice that had thickened with the cold, topped with a layer of snow. In a last-ditch effort to try to save the cottage, Mr. Lynch tossed bucket after bucket of snow onto the fire, but only succeeded in adding steam to the heavy smoke. The glow of the fully engulfed cottage could be seen for miles. There was nothing the Lynches could do. Relentless wind drove the flames higher and higher and as more of the cottage was destroyed, the family admitted defeat. Standing together away from the intense fire, neighbors joined them at the edge of the ring of light. Even as the blizzard raged, sadness saturated the air. The women cried and the faces of the men were angry and frustrated. The village water, as well as the creek, was frozen. There was nothing to be done as the heartbroken crowd watched the historic cottage and family home burn to the ground.
Village clergy arrived as the last wall collapsed. Suddenly, the wind stopped, and the whirling snow lightened. Condolences were made, and the crowd dispersed. Plans were made to shelter and clothe the Lynch family. Despite the tragedy, the sun came up anyway. The Lynches stood and watched the smoldering timbers release their steam and smoke. Madi and Patrick didn’t think it felt like Christmas Day. They didn’t even think that the sun should be able to rise on such a horrible day.
Her heart was pounding and she smelled smoke. There was no smoke, however, and no cause to be alarmed. The day was still cold, and clouds still scuttled across the sky, continuing to threaten the landscape below with their heavy load.
She blinked. The stones of the crushed chimney seemed unaccountably cold and quiet. Brushing off her pants, she stepped hesitantly down off the steps. The breeze whistled through the trees and it began to snow. The flakes were light and danced across the ground in rolls and whirls. She stepped away from the brick stairs-to-nowhere and grasped a nearby sapling. She gazed back at the ruined chimney and the solitary set of steps. As the snow drifted down, she made her way back down the twisting driveway to the main road where her car was parked. Unlocking the door, she sat down in the driver’s seat and sobbed. The sadness of what she had just seen and felt was overwhelming. She let herself cry, and while she was drying her eyes, a car pulled up and parked on the opposite side of the road. A middle-aged man got out and approached.
“You ok?” he asked.
She opened her door and got out. Together they stood at the edge of the street.
“Yes. I just had a bit of a shock.”
“Oh, really? How so?” he asked.
“ Well, I think I just saw someone’s house burn down.” She admitted.
Surprisingly, he wasn’t concerned and didn’t recommend that they call 911.
“Been down that driveway, have you? Down towards the creek?” he asked, gesturing across the street.
“Yes.” She answered.
“That’s my property.”
He didn’t. Flapping his hand, he brushed off her concern. “Not at all. Any villager is welcome to walk there. Make yourself at home anytime.” He hesitated. “So what exactly did you see?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“I don’t like the word 'crazy'. It’s derogative and insulting to a surprisingly large number of human beings. I prefer sensitive.” He said.
“Yes. In fact, only sensitive people can hear what the world around them is trying to say. Only sensitive people have the right balance of intelligence and heart to notice the patterns that the past leaves behind- to really listen to the echoes of what came before, and apply it to the future.”
“Oh,” stunned and confused, she decided to accept what the strange man was saying, and dissect it later.
“Ah well, now I’ve befuddled you.” He said. “How about going down to the café and having a coffee? I’ll tell you something that might make you feel better.”
In any other situation, she would have hesitated. But in their small village, she felt safe. She accompanied the strange man to the nearby café and settled into a small booth with him.
He didn’t hesitate to get to the point.
“You did see someone’s house burn down.” He said.
“But it was burning and then it was gone! I don’t understand!” she exclaimed.
He raised his hands in a bid for patience.
“That house belonged to my great grandparents. Well, to my great grandmother, her brother and their parents. It has always been in the family- since the Revolution. One Christmas Eve, a blizzard hit the whole region and everything was buried in feet of snow. The wind was just as damaging, and trees were blown down all over the valley. One of those trees grew just feet from my great grandparent’s cottage. A massive, old-growth pine. That night, the wind toppled the old pine, and it fell directly across the ridgeline of the old cottage, smashing the chimney and catching the house on fire. The tree still lies across the creek where it fell.”
She stared at him.
“I think I sat on that tree trunk.” she said.
“You probably did. It’s old now, with moss and mushrooms, but still solid.” He sipped his coffee.
“I don’t understand.” She said, sighing.
He put his coffee cup down and fixed his gaze on her.
“That cottage was built with love and housed a family who lived their life with love. The night it burned down, my ancestors felt horrible loss and grief. But it was only temporary. When you have love in your life, all things are possible.”
“The house was gone. It wasn’t able to withstand the force of that massive tree landing on it- or the resulting fire. But the family was alive and healthy. They were sad, but healthy.” He said. “They spent the night with Father Stephen at St. Michael’s church. Family history says that the following morning, Christmas morning, they made their way back to their cottage through the deep snow drifts. As they approached, they could see that the remains of the cottage was still smoldering. Madi and Patrick ran ahead of their parents and came back breathless. They had found 4 small, silver angels resting on the top of the brick steps.”
“Silver angels?” she asked.
“Silver angels,” he answered. “To this day, no one knows who left the angels or how they came to be left on the steps. Some say it was the village church ladies, and still others think they are gifts from nearby homeowners, in thanksgiving for the lives that were saved that night. But the weather that night was terrible. No one should have been out in that weather, least of all church ladies or well-meaning neighbors.” He paused.
She sipped her coffee and waited.
“It was a Christmas gift.” He said.
“A Christmas gift?” she asked.
“Times can be hard for lots of folks.” He replied. “The loss of this home was not a punishment but a gift.”
“How can you call a house fire a gift?” she was aghast.
“Once it was seen that the old cottage was a total loss, the village trustees deeded a derelict house to my ancestors, the Lynches. The house needed repair, but would serve as shelter for the displaced family. They moved in, cleaned it up, repaired it, and made it a beautiful home. The house came with many acres of land. My great-great grandfather – Madi’s father- was able to move his Blacksmith Shop to their home to be closer to his family. All ended well. Madi and Patrick both married and had healthy and successful families.”
“Madi and Patrick?” she asked hesitatingly. She had never said anything about the twins, and wanted to test his knowledge.
“Madi was my great-grandmother.” He said. “She was determined that the story of the creekside cottage would never die. She felt blessed that she was able to grow up in such a safe and comfortable home, in a wonderful village. Madi never doubted that the 4 angels were left by supernatural visitors.”
“Where are the angels now?” She asked.
“At home on my fireplace mantle.” He replied.
“What a treasure for you.” She said.
“More than a treasure.” He said. “They remind me to have faith in life. Every time I see them, I am renewed in my love of people, and the mysteries of this world. They give me peace, and caution against cynicism and bitterness. They bring my attention back to what really matters, and that is faith and love.”
“You are blessed.” She said.
“So are we all.” He responded, with a smile.
She finished her coffee and bid farewell to the strange man. She returned to her car and drove home to her dogs, and her Christmas wrapping. Passing the strange road again, she merely glanced toward the direction of the old cottage and kept driving, grateful for all things, even the mysteries that required her to have faith and live her life with love and gratitude.