The Naming of Christmas
by Cath Barton
It’s the day before the day. Mother won’t tell us what it’s called because, she says, it’s unlucky to name days, or people. She didn’t give me a name. Or my sister. I call myself Mor and my sister is Eslin. But Mother calls us the boy and the girl. I’m used to it now.
On this day before a day which has no name the ground is frozen. In the night white crystals grew on all the plants and they are sparkling in the sun. Eslin and I have wrapped ourselves in our winter skins and we are walking towards the lake. The sunlight is a silver arrow, pointing the way. Eslin has got to the lake way ahead of me and she is walking on the water because it is frozen. I stop and I watch her, a tiny skater on that vastness of white. There are animals on the far side, standing amongst tall trees. I know what these animals are called, because I asked a man in the bazaar. Their name is reindeer. They have velvety horns that grow out of their heads. They are snuffling among the frozen plants, trying to find food.
As I watch Eslin arrives at the other side of the lake and reaches up to stroke one of the reindeer’s horns. I glance away for an instant, distracted by something flashing in the sun, and when I look back they have gone. There are no reindeer; there is no Eslin. My heart turns a somersault and I cry out. All I hear is my voice coming back at me, slivered by the movement of the air. I run towards the lake, but it is difficult to move on the hard ground and I slip and slide. I want, in that moment, to be home by the fire with Mother. But I am the boy and I know that I cannot go home until I have found Eslin.
I take a deep breath of the cold air. And another. I find I can move forward now, and more quickly. In two shakes of my head I am onto the ice and skating across to the trees. I step off the ice into a deep silence. I stand and let it enter me. Then I make the call which the birds know. A small brown bird with a red breast appears on the ground. I know it as Queno. Its nest is nearby, amongst the spines which have fallen from the trees. I call to Queno, she places her beak in my glove and I stroke her head.
I know to trust the birds of the woods. They have helped me before. I know now that Queno will lead me to Eslin. I walk into the wood as Queno flies ahead. The trees get closer and closer together. Soon we are in completeness darkness and I feel afraid. Queno flutters up to my shoulder and nuzzles my ear. I continue walking.
When it becomes so dark that I cannot even see my hand in front of my face Queno leads me to a hollow where I can sleep. My skins keep me warm and I am no longer afraid. When I wake I know it is the day, the most special of all days. Eslin is calling to me from behind a tree. Happy Christmas! Happy Christmas Mor! This is the day!
On the long walk home she tells me the story of Christmas, the day when people come back together. We skate back together across the frozen lake. At the door of our house Mother has hung a branch. There is a small bird on the branch which looks just like Queno. As I look it seems to wink at me.
We go in. Mother behaves as if nothing has happened. As if we had slept all night in our beds and an old man with a white beard had come down the chimney with presents for us, as he usually does on the eve of this day. Or so she has always told us.
Happy Christmas Mother, I say. I see a tear in her eye but she is not cross.
Happy Christmas Mor, she says. Happy Christmas Eslin. And she hugs us, her boy and her girl.