A Christmas Wish

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2000

By Alex Iyker, Illustrated by Jessica Libor

“Scruffy! Where are you?” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “Where could he be?” I asked in dismay. I turned around to make my way to Hickory Hill where I thought Scruffy might be lurking. Just then I heard a faint bark and in the next moment a little furry husky had tumbled into my arms. “There you are, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Well, you’re here now and that is all that matters. Come on. Grandma told me to be home before supper and it’s getting dark.”

Scruffy and I headed down the mountain toward our house. It was winter and the bitter cold was creeping in. By the time we got home it was pitch black, and the smell of warm stew and a blazing fire welcomed us into our home. It was almost Christmas and the house was as cheery as it had ever been.

My name is Lily May Matthews, Lily for short. I’m seven years old. I live in a small cabin nestled in the woods with my grandma, grandpa and Scruffy, my puppy. My grandparents like the isolation and the independence of living away from the town. We don’t have transportation or contact with other people unless we take a weekend trip into town, which is a long and tiring walk by foot.

I had just gotten back from my expedition with Scruffy to the dark shadowy cave up in the northern part of the forest, but in the midst of our expedition Scruffy had run off, and I spent the rest of the expedition chasing after him.

A Christmas Wish petting the dog

Just then I heard a faint bark and in the next moment a little furry husky had tumbled into my arms

“This stew is delicious, Grandma,” I said to my grandma, as the warm, tasteful liquid touched my tongue and scurried down to my stomach.

“Thank you, dear, now eat up so you can get a good night’s rest.”

“Where’s Grandpa?” I asked, noticing the empty rocking chair with warm soup that was waiting, untouched.

“He started out on his fishing trip late this afternoon. I know he promised to take you but we couldn’t find you. I’m sorry, sweets.”

“Oh. It’s all right. I’ll go next year,” I said, trying to hide my disappointment. As I sat sipping my soup, I noticed Scruffy pawing the door.

“Oh, Scruffy, you know you’re not allowed out after dark,” said Grandma as she sat by the fire warming her mint tea.

I stared at Scruffy for a long while, holding my spoon in midair, just staring. Something was wrong, I could feel it. Something told me that Scruffy didn’t want to go out, but he needed to go out. Something was definitely wrong.

“Grandma, something’s wrong,” I said, getting up from the chair and pushing the soup out of my way.

“What’s wrong, Lily?” Grandma asked, gesturing for me to come sit in her lap. I declined the invitation and went to the door. I opened the door and looked out into the somber, windy night. A crescent moon was hanging in the sky, clouds steadily devouring it. Scruffy barked, scurried out the door, and disappeared into the dark.

“There’s a storm coming,” Grandma said as she walked up behind me to peer out into the night. “I do hope Grandpa gets back soon,” she added. I began to feel Grandma’s uneasiness with the situation and I began to worry.

“He’s just enjoying taking his time. He’ll be in soon; you know Grandpa.” She forced out a meek smile and hurried me into the cabin. I crawled into bed without bothering to wash. The mattress was comforting and soft and the blanket was warm and gentle. Grandma kissed me goodnight, went and sat by the fire and started to knit. Every few minutes she glanced out the window in hopes that Grandpa would come trudging over the hill with a sack full of trout hanging by his side. But he never came, and the old rocking chair lay empty and untouched.

About a week had passed since Grandpa had disappeared, and in that week everything had been destroyed. Grandma, the blooming flower that she had once been, had died and turned into a sad, weeping weed. She just sat by the fire day after day, never speaking. When I tried to comfort her, she would try to smile for me, although as the days went by it became harder.

I couldn’t bear the sadness of the house, but the more I tried to be cheery the more I missed Grandpa. There was no laughter and no happiness. It had been killed and all that remained was an unbearable pain that would not leave.

“Dear God, I wish Grandpa will come home for Christmas. Nothing is the same without him. I need him here and so does Grandma. Please help me. Thank you. Amen.” I prayed like that every night the same prayer. I had to see my grandpa. And even worse, Scruffy had not returned home since he ran off that night.

Later on, I went up to Blueberry Field to pick blueberries for the pie that Grandma was making. As I was picking, I heard a rustling in the bush behind me. I froze. It stopped. I went back to picking. Then it moved again. I cautiously turned around to see if I could get a glimpse of the creature. All I saw was fur. A bear! I slowly crept toward the creature, hoping he would not notice me. But it was too late, the creature had attacked. I screamed as the so-called beast ferociously licked me.

“Scruffy! You came back,” I cried. “Come on, let’s go home.” We ran around Blueberry Field, through the woods, and down Hickory Hill. I slammed the door as we ran into the house, gasping for breath. We must have startled Grandma because she had apparently spilled her tea.

“Grandma, look! Scruffy came home.”

“Why, hello, little one, and might I ask where you have been?” She smiled. The house already seemed more cheery. I went into the bedroom to change out of my hat and scarf and mittens. When I came back out, I noticed that Scruffy was waiting at the door.

“Oh, no, you’re not going anywhere,” I said, as I grabbed Scruffy and whirled him around in my arms. Scruffy seemed unsatisfied with my response and began to whine.

“Oh, fine, but you’d better come back.” I opened the door and Scruffy raced out. When he was halfway out of the yard, he paused and looked back, waiting for me to come.

“I’m not going out now, Scruffy. Go on.” He continued to stare at me, waiting for me. He wanted me to follow him. He really wanted me to follow him.

“Grandma, I think I’m going to go out for a little while,” I said, as I started to throw on my boots, gloves, and hat.

“All right, sweetheart, just be back before supper.” I grabbed some muffins and a little jug of cider. I ran out the door. Scruffy waited patiently for me as I carved a path through the snow to get to him.

We started off on our journey, up the mountain, through all of our regular expedition spots. We passed them all and just walked until finally we didn’t know where we were going and we didn’t much care. I was determined to find out why Scruffy was making me follow him. The sun was melting away over the horizon. It was cold and the snow was whipping against my flushed cheeks. My hands felt like long clear rods of freezing ice and the rest of my body felt like it had been beaten up and no longer was capable of movement. The wind was picking up and was now thrashing my body violently around. It was too late to go home now, I had to find shelter. Scruffy shivered in my weak, tired arms. I walked on through the storm, snow pouring over me, devouring my body as I slowly sank to the ground. I fell and landed head down in the snow. I suddenly burst into tears. I couldn’t move. My body was cold and motionless.

A Christmas Wish in the house with grandma

When I came back out, I noticed that Scruffy was waiting at the door

Take me now, I thought. Take me away from this place which no longer has a meaning to me. I lay there thinking of my grandpa and how he used to grab me in his arms and hold me tight. His strong, sturdy, reliable arms that I would never forget no matter what I did. I remember how they used to give me warmth and happiness when I was sad. Grandpa wouldn’t let me go, he would pick me up with his arms and make it all better. But he isn’t here anymore, I thought. I have to pick myself up and this time no one is going to do it for me. I pulled myself up out of the snow and brushed all of the snow away, along with that I brushed away fear, and sadness which I never thought would or could leave.

“Come on, Scruffy, let’s find a place to stay.” My heart was glowing with warmth that kept me going until my legs were numb. The warmth had been trapped in there waiting to glow and shine for a long time; now it was free. I knew not what time it was and I didn’t care. I was going to live and that’s all that mattered.

What lay in front of me was endless trail to be walked upon, and what lay behind me was trail that had already been walked upon. It was pitch black outside and the silence of the air was evil. My breath was all that was heard, a heavy, steady beat that didn’t change. I like things that don’t change, I thought. Scruffy lay wrapped in my arms.

Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw a tint of light gleaming in the woods. It was blurred and hard to make out, but it was light and I could see it. I tripped over myself, almost squashing Scruffy. I caught myself and skidded toward the light. I stopped as the light grew larger, too afraid to find out if it was real or just my overworked, too hopeful imagination. I was too cold and tired to care. I bounded toward the light, tripping over stones and branches that lay hidden in the snow as I went. Then, as I got closer, I saw what it really was.

“A cave!” I whispered. I wanted to scream with joy but the cold gusts of wind were waiting to freeze my mouth as soon as I opened it. My joy was too startling for my body to handle. I was too tired and happy to think of unnecessary information about what might be lurking in the cave.

I crept into the cave. It was cold, damp and hollow. As I walked, I could feel my body begin to tingle like it was thawing away all of the cold and dampness in my body. I came to a large cavern and decided to rest there since I had already ventured deep into the cave, deeper than I had wished. It was dark and isolated and, although I was scared for my life, I was relieved. Scruffy’s fur had clung to me from the dampness and he was no longer shivering. I lay there listening to the sounds around me. I could no longer hear the grueling, insufferable sounds of the thrashing, ferocious winds. Only a faint rasping sound could be heard. I listened to it. It seemed sad and lonely more than ferocious and evil. The wind was picking up for the sound became louder. . . or was closer? Tension was building inside of me. I tried to remember which direction I had come from, but I couldn’t see or think in the darkness. The rasping sound was coming closer. I clung to Scruffy, my one comfort. The sound was now too close to bear and I silently crept farther away. I knelt to the ground and froze, trying to hold my breath. My mouth was pushing against my legs to hold in the fear that was about to explode. I listened. The sound was weak and tired, maybe even ill. The rasping of its breath was scared and old. It was now only a step away from me. I heard a hesitation and a fumble for something. And then a blazing light shot up out of nowhere. I screamed and froze. There, in front of me, was the face of a ghost, a wrinkled, white, shriveled-up face, staring at me with blank, hollow eyes.

“Lily?” I heard a voice say. “Is that you?” With caution, I slowly opened my eyes. I stared at the face with emptiness and confusion.

“Who are you?” It was more a plea than a request.

“You don’t recognize me?” The man seemed sad and resentful. “Lily. It’s me, it’s Grandpa.” There was a long silence and no one spoke and then I spoke.

“Grandpa?” My voice was shivering with fear. What if it wasn’t Grandpa? My mind was whirling with thoughts and emotions that I couldn’t handle all at once. I had to think of what had happened. How was Grandpa here? Why had he not come home? Was he even Grandpa?

“Why are you here?” I raised my voice and sat up. Something had come over me that I could not control. I was angry. “Why didn’t you come home to us?” I started to cry through my anger. Tears were streaming down over my flushed, enraged face. “We, we, we thought you were dead!” I could no longer hold it in. I turned my back and sobbed. I sobbed until I couldn’t see straight. Grandpa awkwardly walked toward me, outstretching his arms. He wrapped his arms around me and I didn’t refuse, I couldn’t. Beneath the anger and sadness I was the happiest girl alive. I had found the reason that my family, my life had been torn apart. He held me and hugged me for a long time. His strong, sturdy arms brought back so many memories. I clung harder to him, making sure he wouldn’t disappear again. Then he stumbled backwards and fell. He moaned in pain. I stared in horror.

“What’s wrong, Grandpa?”

“It’s a long story, Lily.”

“You can tell me. We’re not going anywhere until tomorrow, anyway.”

“I was trying to get to my campsite before dark and I was having trouble walking since the snow has been very deep lately. I stopped to have some of the delicious dinner your grandma packed for me. As I was eating, a little grizzly cub came tumbling out of the bushes nearby me. I knew I wasn’t supposed to get near it since the mama could be lurking anywhere, but it looked hungry so I left some food in the snow. I was surprised that it wasn’t hibernating, it being winter and all. Then . . .” He paused and took a deep breath, seeping in the dampness of the glowing cavern.

“I was walking through the woods toward the way the cub had come. Then I heard a growl and . . .” Grandpa knelt his head toward his leg.

“Oh, Grandpa! How did you get away? What happened?” Guilt flooded me once again that I could have misjudged the person I loved the most.

“Well, Lily. You must always remember that grizzlies can’t see very well, can hardly see at all, in fact. They have excellent smell, though. My leg was wounded but I could still crawl. I crawled under a bush and buried myself in snow to isolate my smell as best as possible. She eventually went away. This cave saved me. It was lying in the middle of the woods while I was looking for shelter. It was a miracle. I also had a bit of first aid from the first-aid kit I brought fishing with me. I would have bled to death without it. I have no more food and I don’t have the strength to go and try to find firewood, let alone get some food. And, the storm has been horrible.”

I stared around me in the cavern. The storm should be dying down by now. It was already morning, I was sure. I hadn’t noticed it before, but, in spite of the cold, dark cavern, the room seemed lighter. I knelt toward Grandpa and lifted his pant off his wounded leg. It was wrapped in bloody gauze that needed to be changed. I looked in the first-aid kit and found nothing. I felt a sharp stab in my upper stomach and once again realized how hungry I was. I searched through my coat pocket and pulled out a crumbled muffin. (I had dropped the jugs, since they were too heavy, and the other muffin lay in crumbs at the bottom of my pocket.)

I lay down on the rough surface of the cavern. I thought of my mattress and how I missed home. I lay there staring into nothing, just dreaming, and as I did I fell asleep.

When I woke up it was just as dark as it was with my eyes closed, indicating that it was night. I sat and looked over my shoulder. Grandpa lay sprawled out on the cavern floor. Every few minutes he’d go into an uproar of hacking, and it almost seemed as if he was choking. The wound had made him sick and he needed medicine fast. I had to do something. I silently inched toward the sack Grandpa had next to him. I gently lifted it and pulled out the Swiss Army knife Grandpa had brought.

I quietly crept out of the cavern and through the cave. As I came to the opening I paused. The storm had stopped. As I made my way out into the snow I realized I needed to hurry before Grandpa and Scruffy realized I was gone. I trudged through the woods carelessly. After a few minutes I stopped at a low branched tree. I hope the Swiss Army can do it, I thought, as I hugged the tree and started cutting away at the branch. It was stressful and tiring, and I do believe that that was the most ornery branch I have ever stumbled upon. I got it down, nonetheless, and I brought it back to the cave before Grandpa and Scruffy had even moved.

I then carved off the side twigs so that it was smooth and clean. After that I split the branch into two so I had two branches. I stared, pleased at my creation. I then remembered that I was not yet done and needed to focus, so I went back to my work.

I forcefully yanked off a thin strip of material from my pants. I had tall boots so the snow wouldn’t bother me if one of my pants legs had been cut shin-high. I then laid out the material on the floor and cut it into two thin strips.

“There. That ought to do it,” I whispered. I then woke Grandpa and showed him the brace I had made for his leg. He smiled as though my effort had been hard but the chances of it getting him home were slim. I ignored the expression and refused to believe him. It would work. It had to. I gently put the branches on either side of his leg and tied it together with the strips. Scruffy then woke up. It was as if he knew something was going to happen. I then gathered our things and Grandpa slowly stumbled up. He got his balance and started to totter toward the entrance of the cave. When we got there Grandpa got out his compass to see which way to go.

We walked for a long time in silence, taking breaks every few minutes. I counted how many days Grandpa had been in the cave. I counted a week and two days which meant . . .

“Grandpa!” I shouted. He looked up at me with surprise and interest. “Christmas is tomorrow!”

“It can’t be. Can it?”

“It is, it is.” I was so caught up in everything I had completely forgotten. Wait until Grandma saw us. I couldn’t wait to see her face.

We walked all day until our feet were aching. The sun was going down and I began to worry. We wouldn’t be able to get home in the dark. Somehow we had to pick up our pace. And somehow we just managed to do that. Just then Grandpa sat down. I didn’t know what to do. The sun was disappearing in front of our eyes.

“I can’t walk anymore,” he moaned. He looked white. Scruffy looked at Grandpa with sadness. He wanted to go home just as much as we did.

“All right, we’ll rest under this tree.” We walked over to a tree and sat down. I looked around and took in the view. Something looked familiar but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. We must have passed it on the way through the storm, although I was certain it was something else. I stared at the bushes in front of me, trying to remember. And then, I did.

“Grandpa! This is Blueberry Field!” I exclaimed in delight. Those bushes were the bushes Scruffy had jumped out of when I was picking blueberries!

“This is what?” he asked. I was astounded that Grandpa didn’t know what it was, although he never went around the west side of the woods, and if I wasn’t mistaken Blueberry Field was in the west region.

“Grandpa, follow me.” I helped him up and we walked. I was breaking into a run.

“Slow down, Lily. I can’t go that fast.”

“Sorry, Grandpa. I can’t help it.” We came to a hill, and Grandpa paused.

A Christmas Wish a white dog

“I’ll help you. We can make it over if you go slow. We did it before.” We slowly walked up the hill. I let go of Grandpa and walked in front of him. As I came to the top of the hill I froze. My body couldn’t move. There in front of me was an old lady wrapped in scarves staring up at an evergreen decorated in ornaments. She was kneeling on the ground holding a picture, as if she was praying. A few feet away was her cabin, my house.

“Grandma!” I screamed. The woman looked up and froze. She dropped the picture and got up. She started running toward me at a speed that I didn’t know she was capable of. As she approached me I flung my arms around her and we both burst into tears. My emotions were wild and uncontrollable. I was too happy to think. Tears were running over my face and my vision was blurred. Then I heard a voice I had not heard in a long time; a voice that it seemed like I waited to hear my whole life.

“Mary.” It was the voice of my grandpa, not a tired, old, wounded grandpa, but my grandpa. Grandma unlatched me from her arms and stared with glowing eyes at Grandpa. All was silent.

“John?” she cried as a tear rolled down her cheek. Her cheeks were rosy and warm like usual, and Grandpa was comforting and gentle, just like always. As they embraced me in their arms, I thought how wonderful life was. I had my family back. My thoughts were blurred from the emotions and I couldn’t speak. But in the midst of everything I managed to whisper something that made me smile.

“My Christmas wish came true.”

A Christmas Wish Alex Ivker

Alex Ivker, 11
Wayland, Massachusetts

A Christmas Wish Jessica Libor

Jessica Libor, 13
Worcester, Pennsylvania

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