“What are you looking at, Mama?”
Maire sighed, lifted her forehead off the cool pane of glass, and turned to answer her daughter.
“Just the meadow.”
“What’s in the meadow? Are the deer back to eat dinner?” At seven, Cailin Baile was fascinated with any kind of wildlife. A small herd of deer appeared every evening in the meadow like clockwork, lingering into twilight only long enough to nibble the tastiest tender grass and plants. Cailin loved to watch them meander from spot to spot, flicking their long white tails and twitching their ears. Then, like magic, they were gone.
It wasn’t only the deer who were eating well. Most of the wildlife were still roaming the countryside, instead of snug in their winter dens. Remarkably, there had been no snow, even though Christmas was just 2 days away. The days leading up to Thanksgiving had turned strangely warm, remaining warm even as the calendar page turned to December. It wasn’t just the weather; bizarre accidents plagued area residents, global skirmishes had flared up, and the Baile animals were fretful and skittish.
“Well?” Cailin’s voice interrupted Maire’s wandering thoughts.
“Are the deer eating their dinner?”
“Oh!” Maire turned back to peer through the antique, wavy glass, squinting against the gathering gloom of the late afternoon. Strong northern winds whipped up the dirt from the yard and blew it across the porch. The long tendrils of the towering evergreens danced drunkenly, long dangling cones swaying precariously. The sky was a gun metal grey, flat and unyielding. Maire took in the grim vista and ran a worried hand through her curly brown hair. “Umm…no. I don’t see anything, Honey.”
“Too bad. I hope they’re not going to be hungry.” Cailin hated to see anything go hungry. She even left bits of leftover food out for the occasional mouse that found its way into the kitchen, much to the chagrin of Maire, who’d scolded her daughter on more than one occasion for the rodent-luring practice.
After one more glance through the window, Maire finally turned away and wandered through the room, absently picking things up and putting them back down again. She crossed the wide front hall, her footsteps echoing crisply against the old pine floors. Sitting down on the third step of the long flight of stairs, she propped her elbows on her knees and dropped her head into her hands.
Peter was late. Really late. Her husband had fought his last battle and was retiring home to work their land and establish a logging business. He’d been a soldier when they met and married. She’d never known him to be anything else. But now, he was growing too old to fight the wars of great countries. He’d tired of constant moving, shifting territorial boundaries, and missed his little family. Maire was grateful his fighting years were over. She’d never expected him to change. All she could do was pray every day for his safety.
So anxious she couldn’t even cry, she sat on the third step, rocking back and forth. Dark thoughts pushed her faith to the far edges of her heart, clouding her normally positive attitude and shredding her nerves.
Startled, she jerked her head out of her hands. Cailin stood in front of her, whispy blond hair wildly flying with the atmospheric electricity that seemed to crackle through the house. In the distance, a low grumble of thunder rolled, portending shifting, unstable weather for the night.
“What’s wrong, Mama?”
Maire sighed yet again. “Nothing, my baby. This weather just has me jumpy. That’s all.” Maire smoothed back the frizzy blond hair from Cailin’s forehead, and drew the child close. She didn’t want to speak her fear for her husband’s fate. If she spoke it aloud, it might actually become true. As it was, her dread lived only in her heart, where it could do no one but her any damage.
“Digewewerhacrssmswinowsnw?” came a muffled, unintelligible voice, currently snuggled against Maire’s shoulder. Shaken from her melancholy, Maire couldn’t help but laughing.
“What was that?” Maire held Cailin at arm’s length and grinned into the little girl’s face. “I couldn’t understand a word you just said!”
Cailin giggled. “I just asked you if you’d ever had a Christmas with no snow.”
“Oh, of course! A white Christmas is a special thing. It's rare! I’ve seen plenty of green Christmases!” Maire replied.
“Then why are you sad?”
Maire paused to consider the simple question. “I’m not sad, my baby. I’m worried.” In the space of one moment, she abandoned all hopes of keeping her concern inside. “Daddy is overdue. I don’t know where he is. I’ve heard nothing from his commanders, and he hasn’t contacted me.” There. It was out. For better or worse.
The burn of a slow hope spread from Maire’s heart to her shoulders, and down her arms. She gathered her daughter back into her embrace and hugged her close. The certainty of the here and now was balm to her ragged soul. The smell of her daughter’s hair, the feel of her soft, squishy body was what was important this very moment. Gratitude extinguished the flame of fear and dread. She picked up the small child and carried her back to the comfortable den.
Settling Cailin in the big, brightly colored, overstuffed arm chair, Maire stepped to the nearby wood
“I want to tell you a story. Should we have a small fire?” Maire smiled at the little girl.
“Just a small one, I think,” replied Cailin.
“To keep off the damp?” grinned Maire.
“Yes. And can we have popcorn too?” Cailin never missed a chance to have popcorn. It was her favorite snack.
“Popcorn?” teased Maire. “Are you sure you don’t want Brussels sprouts?”
“Well, I like Brussels sprouts too. But not for story time,” said Cailin seriously.
“Popcorn it is, then. Coming right up!” Maire busied herself with the task while Cailin snuggled further into the gaily colored pillows and throw blankets which made the fat chair their home.
Cailin studied the patterns on the pillows as the delicious aroma of popcorn filled the cozy house. It was old, built in the time of Queen Victoria. But it was sturdy and well built, straight and true, just like the young family who lived there now.
“As you so bid, my Lady!” Maire appeared before Cailin, popcorn bowl in hand and bowing low.
Cailin hopped solemnly up from her perch and accepted the tasty gift.
“What’s your story, Mama?”
Maire winked at her daughter. “Don’t you want me to kindle the fire?”
Cailin’s expression told Maire all she needed to know. Gathering loose paper from the special box which held only kindling paper, Maire turned her attention to making a small, cheerful fire. It was really too warm outside for much of a blaze, but a bit of crackling flame was good for keeping off weather that couldn’t decide what it wanted to do. Still, entertaining her daughter with a story, and warming the room for that event, kept Maire from dwelling on her worry and anxiety.
Igniting the fire and adjusting the stove dampers took just a moment. That was alright with Maire- anything to take her mind off her growing concern about the whereabouts of her husband. Pushing a stray tuft of hair out of her face, she backed into the fat, colorful chair, intentionally landing on Cailin, much to her daughter’s squealing delight.
“Mama!! You’re SQUASHING me!!”
“Oh, I’m sorry, does someone already live here on this lilypad?”
“Yes! Yes! It’s me, Mama! I’m living on this lilypad!” exclaimed Cailin.
Maire shifted her weight off the small child and reached for the popcorn. Helping herself to some of the crunchy treat, she leaned back on Cailin and said, “thank goodness! I was afraid I’d be alone out here on this big, big pond!”
Cailin collapsed into rippling giggles.
“Are you ready to hear about The Sky Path?” Maire asked Cailin.
Oma told me this tale, a long time ago,” began Maire. “Things were happening in the world, and she wanted me to know why.”
“What kind of things, Mama?” Cailin knew that Oma was her mother’s own mother.
“Strange things. Mountains fell, oceans rose and washed away villages, accidents happened, homes caught fire. The fire department was kept busy for days putting out blazes. News came to us that countries in the world were turning on each other, and war was predicted.”
“That’s scary, Mama.”
“It is, Honey. And all the while, a mysterious, relentless wind blew- just like it’s blown for the last few days here at our place.”
“Is that why the horses are pacing in their stalls?”
“Probably. The chickens aren’t laying either, if you’ve noticed. It all has to do with the Sky Path.”
“Tell me, Mama.”
Maire picked up a single, glossy, butter-covered flake of popcorn, rolling it between her fingers before she popped it into her mouth. She leaned her head back on the soft chair, gazing out the window at the wind washing through the trees beyond. The little fire crackled softly.
“It all started before anyone came to this planet. There were only stars in the heavens, earth below, and water in between. The Water and the Earth disliked each other from the very beginning. Neither wanted to give up territory, nor share space. The Presence among the stars looked on with sadness.
There was more than enough room for both to exist comfortably. Still, each day began with a battle, the Water washing over the Earth and the Earth pushing back.
After an age of bickering between the Water and the Earth, the Presence among the stars felt moved to stop the squabbling, and placed a Gatekeeper at the bottom of the deepest part of the Water’s home, and a Gatekeeper at the top of the highest peak of the Earth. Together, they kept the Water and the Earth where they belonged, reminding each that they had plenty of space. The Presence dropped down every so often, walking the Sky Path to visit and ensure the Water and the Earth were obeying the Gatekeepers. Peace reigned for untold eras, and gradually the Presence allowed plants to grow and animals to flourish. Then one day, the Presence brought a Man and a Woman to the peaceful place, and everything changed. The Man and the Woman fought the Gatekeepers, and worked to change the Water and the Earth to suit themselves. As the Families of the Man and the Woman multiplied and spread, so did the Spirits they generated. Kind Spirits grew from the goodness some Families created, while evil Spirits sprang from the corrupt and malevolent Family members.”
“What does mah-lev-uh-lent mean, Mama?” Cailin interrupted.
“It means ‘wicked’,” replied Maire.
“Like the time I painted the picture on the kitchen wall?” asked Cailin.
“Well, sort of. Malevolent means really, really wicked. Not just naughty like you were that time. Malevolent means evil. Understand?”
“Ok,” replied Cailin.
“May I continue?” teased Maire.
“Yes!” cheered Cailin, content and happy, the warm bowl of popcorn teetering on her tiny lap.
“Well, as the Families grew, the Presence among the stars became worried that too many good or evil Spirits swirling around uncontrolled would bring chaos to the mostly peaceful planet. So it called to the Gatekeepers, asking them to control the Spirits by containing them within the Sky Path, where the boundaries would keep them from polluting the Planet. The Gatekeepers agreed, but warned the Presence that every so often the surging population of the Sky Path would test the strength of the boundaries, and the barrier would tear, releasing all the spirits, both good and evil, to unleash their power upon the land. The Presence knew it was a price that must be paid to keep constant turmoil and disorder from destroying the Planet. The Spirits were restrained and confined to the Sky Path, where they remain to this day, pushing continually against the veil, trying to break out.”
“What happens when they break out, Mama?” asked Cailin.
“They tangle together as they spill off the Sky Path,” said Maire. “The force of their movement causes gale force winds here on the Planet. Mostly, the good Spirits follow the evil ones, smoothing the damage they do, and righting the wrongs. But sometimes, the good Spirits are free to create amazing and wonderful things that last for eons.”
“What about the evil Spirits? Can’t they make awful things that last a long, long time?” said Cailin.
“Some of the stronger ones can. But the good Spirits have more power. It may take some time, but evil Spirits can always be defeated.”
“What happens to the Sky Path after it’s torn? Do the Spirits stay out forever?” asked Cailin.
“It’s the Gatekeeper’s job to repair the damage, and gather them up again. If they were left to run wild, chaos would take over.”
“What about the good ones? Can’t the Gatekeepers leave the good ones?”
“Everything in life is a balance, Cailin. Evil can’t exist without good, and good won’t endure without the countering effects of evil. It’s both, or nothing, and frankly I’d rather have that, than nothing. It’s where the expression ‘you have to take the good with the bad’ comes from.” Maire smiled.
Silence grew between mother and daughter. Momentarily caught in their own thoughts, neither spoke. Outside, the wind shrieked and howled around the corners of the house and patterings of rain splashed against the old window panes. Cailin squirmed out of the chair and went to the window.
“Is this the Sky Path opening?” she asked, gazing out at the swirling debris caught in the wind.
“I think so, Cailin,” said Maire.
“How can you tell? I can’t see it anywhere. I can't see any Spirits.”
“Sometimes you have to believe something exists without actually seeing it with your eyes. Sometimes you have to feel it.”
"Oh." In almost the same breath Cailin asked, “will Daddy be ok, Mama?”
Maire sighed. “Yes. I have faith.”
"Is faith something you have to feel too?"
"Yes," replied Maire. "As you get older, it gets harder to feel. But it's really important to remember its there."
“So you aren’t scared anymore?”
“No. Telling you the story of the Sky Path reminded me about the power of good in this world. Oma used to tell me the Sky Path was open the night Our Savior was born in Bethlehem. Many of the most important events in our human history happened because of the Sky Path, when the Spirits tumble to Earth. It all just reminds me that there is a greater power at work in our lives, and I must have faith in the power of the good Spirits.” Maire smiled at her daughter, a real sense of peace overcoming her heart. No matter what happened to Peter, there was a reason and purpose behind it.
Cailin hugged herself. “It’s getting cold in here, Mama. I’m going to get my sweater and booties.”
“Cailin!” she called, “Run out and feed the animals before it’s too dark! Gather in whatever eggs those lazy girls have decided to give, too, ok?”
Cailin’s muffled response told Maire her daughter was already out the door. Absently, she hoped the child had stopped to throw on a coat. The day was warm for December, but still chilly and sloppy with fitful rain. Those small worries vanished as the routine of meal-making distracted her.
The urgency in Cailin’s voice startled Maire. Jerking her head in the direction of the shout, Maire dropped what she was doing, and dashed toward the door, nearly running smack into her daughter as she went.
“What in the world…”
“Mama, it’s SNOWING!”
“It’s too warm for that, Cailin, surely it’s just bits of fluff from the meadow.”
“No Mama, it’s already building up in the barn windows!”
Maire went to the nearest window. To her utter disbelief, it was a near whiteout; fat, fluffy flakes floated down to rest flatly in the yard, and wedge into any available crevice and cranny. The driveway and meadow were barely distinguishable in the shades of white and gray made by the whirling, frozen precipitation.
Spinning around, Maire swung her daughter into a circle, dancing an impromptu jig in the joy of the moment.
Finally, it felt like Christmas!
“Mama, can we have a bigger fire now?” grinned Cailin.
“Absolutely! Should we have a dinner picnic in front of it to celebrate?”
“If you think eggnog will be good with cornbread and butter beans, then by all means!” laughed Maire.
While Cailin fetched the picnic blanket, Maire stoked the fire once more and moved around the room pulling the curtains to keep out the draft. As she finished the last one, a flash of movement in the meadow caught her eye. Squinting through the wavy glass, her mouth dropped open. Crossing the open field was a team of white horses pulling a freight wagon. Tagging behind, attached to the back, was a tiny colt. Maire squinted again to see who was driving.
She met the rig in the middle of the driveway, laughing hysterically as her husband jumped down from the driver’s seat.
“Where WERE you! I was so worried! And WHAT is all this?” she blurted.
Peter laughed and embraced his wife, sweeping her off her feet. “Go inside and get Cailin, put on some boots and coats and come help me settle our newest family members!”
The next hour was filled with happy chatter and hugs as the small family made the 2 new horses and the young colt comfortable and welcome. Snow continued to fall thickly, but both animals and humans were at last tucked up in their respective homes, enjoying their evening meals.
On his way home, Peter had heard of the sale of a matched pair of gray Shire horses, along with a new colt belonging to the mare of the pair. Like Peter, the farmer was also retiring and offered to throw in a vintage freight wagon in great shape. The side trip to buy the rig and horses had delayed Peter; the farm where the sale took place was too remote for Peter to get any word to his wife.
“Oh Peter I love them! I’ve always wanted a gray Shire horse- but what are we going to do with them?”
“I’m not sure, Love. All I can say is once I heard they were for sale, I knew in my gut I had to have them; that they were a part of our new future. I know we’ll have to feed them through the winter, but I just know they’re meant for us. We’ll figure it out. I’m sorry I worried you.”
Maire and Cailin looked at each other and laughed. Peter was confused. He looked at the pair like they were losing their minds.
“You know what that sounds like, don’t you, Cailin?” giggled Maire.
“Oh yes, Mama! The Sky Path is definitely open! Hope those Gatekeepers are working hard!”