Author’s Note: This piece has been edited and now appears in “Angel Songs, 20 Christmas Short Stories and Poems, plus Recipes” by Dona Watson. Click here for more info.
Time for the next installment in my December Writing Challenge. Today’s topic is: Bright.
As I wrote this short story, it occurred to me that brightness can have two effects — it can hurt the eyes or warm the heart. With that thought, I invite you to read on. I hope you enjoy it.
by D.L. Watson
Eric screwed up his eyes and squinted out across the frozen valley. The bright sunlight on the snow stung, filling his eyes with tears, and he shaded them with his hand. It’d take almost all day to cross it, a distance that he used to be able to travel in much less time. That was before his bones grew so old and achy.
“Well, we won’t get there standing here all day.” He scratched Tundra on the head and the Malamute licked his hand in reply.
Clutching his walking stick with a fresh grip, Eric headed down the slope. Behind him came the scratch of the small sled Tundra pulled.
How long had it been? Maybe 15 years? Eric wasn’t sure. There hadn’t been any need to keep track up on the mountain by himself.
But now he was old…and lonely. The only place he knew to go was back to his brother’s. He just hoped time had healed the wound caused by their argument all those years ago. Eric shook his head. He should have listened to Luke. He shouldn’t have run away and buried himself after the death of his wife. But run he had and pride had kept him from coming back.
Now time had forced his hand. He was worn out and his choices were to die up on the mountain–cold, alone and broken–or swallow his pride, ask his brother’s forgiveness, and hopefully spend the rest of his days with the people he loved. He didn’t know what he’d do if they refused to take him in.
The snow crunched under his boots, the moisture seeping in through the holes until his feet were numb. And yet he plodded on. Surely it would be Christmas Day soon and he hoped he hadn’t missed it.
Around midday he paused for a break, sharing a portion of venison jerky with Tundra, much to the dog’s delight. Then collecting his things, he started off again. A couple more hours and he should be there.
Topping the last rise, Eric looked down the gentle slope at the two-story house he and Sarah had shared with his brother, Luke, and his wife. Even all these years after the fever had taken his love, the sorrow twisted his gut like a knife. Below in the growing dusk, candle light shone through the windows. He swallowed hard, hoping Luke and his wife still lived there.
“Come on, Tundra. Time to pay the piper,” he croaked and began pushing his way through the snow drifts that had collected on the shady side of the hill. Within a few minutes, he stood uncertainly at the foot of the steps and looked up at the front door. He collected his courage and mounted the steps. Tundra gave a soft whine behind him. “Shhh.” He shushed the dog and motioned for him to keep quiet.
At the top of the stairs, Eric stomped the snow from his boots, took a deep breath and was just reaching out to rap on the door when it opened.
When Luke saw who it was, his jaw dropped, eyes wide. Eric snatched the ragged hat off his head and tried to smooth down his shaggy hair. He tipped his head in greeting.
“Hello, Luke…Been a while.”
From inside, a woman’s voice called, “Who is it, Luke?”
Her husband worked his mouth a couple of times but no words came out. Footsteps clicked through the house and soon a woman peeked around the corner. Eric clutched his hat tightly, rolling it in his hands.
“Claire. Good to see you.”
Her eyes grew round. “Eric? Is that you?”
“Yes, ma’am. I hope I’m not comin’ at a bad time.”
“No! Not at all.” She tugged on Luke’s sleeve and glanced up at her husband. “Aren’t you going to let him in?”
“Yes, of course. I-I’m sorry.” Luke jolted to life and stepped back, opening the door wider.
Eric stepped through the doorway and Tundra woofed an anxious bark behind him.
“It’s all right, boy,” Eric called out to the dog. “I’ll be back.” With a whine, Tundra sat down to await his master’s return, still strapped in his harness. No sense unhooking him if they couldn’t stay. The old mountain man stepped into the warm house and Luke shut the door behind him. Shifting from one foot to the other, Eric looked into his brother’s eyes.
“Luke…” his voice cracked, “I wouldn’t blame you if you told me to leave, but before you do, I just want to say I’m sorry. You were right–I shouldn’t have drowned my sorrow in a bottle when Sarah died. I should’ve stayed here at the ranch like we’d agreed.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t expect you to take me in as a partner like before. I just wanted to apologize for leaving y’all with so much work and…” Eric swallowed his pride deep. “I was wonderin’ if I could stay in a corner of the barn out yonder for a few nights. It’s been mighty cold of late.”
A bittersweet smile crossed Luke’s face and he shook his head. Then, to Eric’s surprise, he stepped forward and wrapped his brother in a bearhug. “You old coot. I can’t believe you actually came back. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. Welcome home.” To Eric’s ears, his broken voice sounded like the sweetest music. As Luke released his brother, Claire swept in and gave him a hug of her own.
“And you are not sleeping in the barn!” Her tone let the men know the matter was settled. She motioned with her hand. “Come warm yourself by the fire.”
Just then a teenage boy strolled into the room, his younger sister following a few paces behind. They looked at their visitor with curious gazes.
Luke cleared his throat. “Eric, I’d like you to meet our children, Garrett and Sarah.” He turned to the two teens. “Children, this is my brother, Eric.”
Eric’s eyes filled with tears when he heard they had named their daughter after his beloved wife. He and Luke exchanged a look that confirmed his thoughts. It had been Luke and Claire’s way of keeping her memory alive–of dealing with the grief in their own way. For the first time, he realized Sarah’s death may have hurt them almost as badly as it had him and the realization humbled him. He had been so wrapped up in his own pain that he had never seen theirs. His voice too broken to speak, he simply nodded at the children.
After a few moments, he cleared his throat and managed, “Can my dog curl up on the porch for a spell?”
“Of course!” Luke reached for the door. “He’s probably frozen out there.”
Sarah’s eyes lit up. “You have a dog?” She rushed to follow her father.
Eric nodded. “Old Tundra’s been with me for a few years now.”
With a grin, Sarah rushed to the door. “Can I pet him?”
A smile grew from deep within to see her joyful enthusiasm. Eric shoved his hat back on his head as he followed them out the door. Tundra lunged to his feet and barked once, tail wagging. As Eric unharnessed the dog, Tundra lifted his nose in Sarah’s direction and sniffed the air curiously.
“It’s okay,” Eric said. “He won’t hurt ’cha.”
Sarah slowly extended her hand and let the Malamute sniff the back of her hand. Before long she was kneeling on the ground, running her hands through the soft gray and black ruff around his neck, heedless of the cold snow beneath her knees. Tundra licked her face in reply and she giggled.
Garrett handed his mother a couple of old blankets. Thanking him for fetching them, she arranged them on the porch by the door. Eric, Tundra, and Sarah headed up the stairs and the two women helped settle the dog onto the makeshift bed.
“You’re spoilin’ him,” Eric said gruffly but with a smile.
“Well, he’s cold too,” Sarah protested. “Aren’t you, Tundra?” She pulled the blanket up around the dog.
Luke and Garrett leaned against the porch railing side by side, smiling as they watched her–and looking every bit like father and son. Seeing them like that, Eric realized how much he had missed over the years.
“Come on in, Eric,” Claire urged. “And Sarah, don’t stay out too long in the cold. Tundra might have a coat, but you don’t.”
“I won’t be long,” Sarah called back as the others stepped inside. Claire directed Garrett to take Eric’s coat and as she rushed back to the kitchen, she called over her shoulder, “You’re just in time. Dinner’s almost ready.”
Eric self-consciously handed his crudely stitched beaver coat to the boy and followed Luke into the parlor. There in the corner stood a small pine tree, decorated with red and white gingham bows and a long string of popcorn.
“It’s still Christmas.”
Luke chuckled. “Yes, it is. You didn’t miss it.”
Eric sighed in relief and held his hands out to the crackling flames in the fireplace. A couple of lanterns lit the room cheerily, the brightness chasing the shadows from Eric’s heart. He was home.
This story is part of a Writing Challenge I have undertaken to write something every day in the month of December on a pre-selected list of topics. Photographer Jacqueline Ashford is keeping pace with me on the same list of topics, her with her camera and me with my keyboard. You can see Jacqueline’s gorgeous photos here. We’re having way too much fun with this mutual challenge. (You can see the list of topics here.)
Tomorrow’s Topic: Ornament(s)
Credit for the photograph above: Robert Caldicott [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons