The Frozen Goose: A Christmas Story …
December 4, 2012
( Author’s Note: I am re-cycling this story AGAIN, and wish you all – A very Merry Christmas. Originally conceived as a tale ‘in the style of’ Alistair MacLeod, the intention was to touch on recurring ‘structural memes’ that Macleod uses to solicit ‘sentimental empathy’ … Enjoy! )
The black ice was treacherous and they were lost. Annabelle clung to Lachlin’s little hand and tried to reassure him, “Don’t worry Lory, we’ll be home soon”. The wind howled and the snow was blinding. Lachlin’s tear-soaked face was contorted with fear and Annabelle knew that if they didn’t find land soon they would be goners for sure. The howling drew nearer. She pushed on against that wretched wind dragging her little brother behind her.
She had been wrong, she would now admit, though at the time she was convinced that she had been right. Her step-father had entered the kitchen with his butcher knife. Her mother was beside the stove. He had said that there was no work in town and that it was time to cut their losses and move on. He put the knife down on the table and went towards the fire. Her mother was silent as she continued to stir the soup. Finally she turned to him and said, “You know we can’t go, Daniel. The children are settled, and we must make a life for them here. To go again would only make things worse.” He pulled off his wet boots and then his wet socks. His bare wrinkled feet were turned towards the hearth. “There is nothing here Helen. Nothing that a man can do, nothing that a man can become. I’m finished.” She sighed and came over to him, placing her hand on his shoulder. “We will manage. You will find something.” He took her hand in his and said, “You are a good wife, but it’s not enough. I just can’t do it anymore. I’m just too tired.” She slowly returned to the stove, “Here, have some soup, you’ll feel better.” As she lay out the soup bowls she turned to Annabelle, “Go get your brother, Bella, we’ll eat now.” Annabelle left that sorry rustic kitchen and went up the back stairs to Lachlin’s room.
He was sprawled across the bed reading a book about wolves.
“Listen to this, Annabelle, ‘a wolf can smell fear from another animal up to a mile away’. Imagine that!”
“Come on Lory, supper’s ready. Daniel is in a bad mood, so be careful what you say.” Lachlin made a face and slid off the bed in his floppy socks. He shimmied across the wood floor to the closet and pulled out his worn slippers. “What are we having tonight? Soup and bread again?”
“Sshh. Don’t say that. You know there is no money. We have to eat what we can get.”
“I should work. I could deliver the Flamborough Review again. I fixed the flat on my bicycle.”
“Don’t be stupid. It’s the middle of winter. How could you manage snowdrifts and ice on your dumb bike?”
“Well, I could do it. I could be the man of this house.”
“Lory, don’t worry, I will work. I will go to Uncle Charlie’s store and see if I can do the check-out.”
“How are you going to get there? Do you want to use my bike?”
“I’ll walk. Come on silly, let’s go eat.”
During the meal Annabelle kept looking at her mother. The older woman was worn out and listless. The air in the kitchen was filled with foreboding and despair. Annabelle knew she had to get the job. She was convinced that she was right about that.
The next morning she told her mother she would walk to Uncle Charlie’s store to get some work. Her mother looked at her long and hard, then said, “It’s too far in this weather to walk. Over 5 miles. It’s too far.” Annabelle said she could manage. She put on her toque and scarf and wrapped her warm overcoat around her. Her boots were dry and warm. Her hands well-covered and cozy. “See? Snug as a bug in a rug.” Her mother said, “I will come with you.” Annabelle shook her head, comforting her, “I’ll be there in no time, you’ll just slow me down. I’ll be back before dusk.” With that, Bella opened the kitchen door and stepped out into the mid-morning frozen day.
The air was crisp and bright. Not a cloud in the sky. She began the long crunchy march down the country lane towards the store. She hadn’t gone more than half a mile when she heard Lachlin yelling from behind. “Annabelle, Annabelle, Wait for me, I’m coming too. Daniel said it’s okay.” She stopped and turned around. Lachlin was storming up to her with his scarf flying behind, his mitts dangling from their strings. His head was uncovered and his coat was unzipped. “We aren’t going anywhere with you dressed like that. Come here and let me straighten you out.” Annabelle slipped off her mittens, tucked his scarf around his neck and gingerly zipped up his coat. She pulled up the hood of his jacket. “There, now maybe you’ll make it.” He slipped his hand into hers, “Let’s go this way! I know a short cut!” He pulled her towards the marked trail on the side of the road, “If we cross McCormick’s Pond we’ll be closer to Uncle Charlie’s.” “No, Lachlin,” she pulled her hand away from his. “Not the pond. It’s too big and I don’t know my way around in the woods.” “I do, it’s easy, follow me.” “No, Lachlin, we’re going by the road.” So, on they went.
It took them just over two hours to get there. By the time they entered the store premises, their ears were near frostbit and their noses were dribbling goop into their mouths. Their eyes too were streaming from the bitter cold. The wind had started to come up. Uncle Charlie gave them cups of hot chocolate and listened quietly to Annabelle’s plea for work. When she had finished, he stood and went into the back room, returning with a large twelve pound frozen goose. “Here, Bella, take this home to your mother. Say it is a Christmas present from me. And you can start work here in the New Year.” Annabelle hugged her uncle while Lachlin jumped with joy at the prospect of real food on their table. Uncle Charlie said, “Now off you go. Get yourselves home before this wind really starts blowing. The wolves are out and we don’t want to lose one of you to the pack!” Lachlin howled for fun and then barked like a dog. Annabelle cuffed him playfully on the back of the head as Uncle Charlie put the frozen goose into a burlap bag. He handed it to Annabelle. “Can you manage this Annabelle? It’s not too heavy?” Annabelle took the sack, “I can manage.”
The children left the store around noon.
They had only walked about two miles down the road when the wind whipped up out of nowhere. At the first gust poor Lachlin was almost hurled to the other side of the road. He quickly rebounded and clung to the side of Annabelle’s flapping coat , “It’s too much, we should get out of the wind into the woods,” he said. Annabelle looked down at his torn jacket, the zipper had broken open. “Oh alright, but stick with me, no playing around.”
They stepped down from the road and cut into the sparse woods in the direction of the pond. The wind played tricks with the snow. First it was coming from this direction then from that. Annabelle had trouble seeing her way ahead. Lachlin started whining, “My feet are cold.” She put the burlap bag in the crook of her other arm and took his hand again, “Come on Lory, we’ll be home soon.” They had reached the pond’s edge.
Annabelle knew that if they kept bearing towards the old willow on the far shore they would be close enough to the house. The old willow kept appearing and disappearing between the snow squalls. She had to keep a straight line. They started the march across.
And that’s when they heard them. At first she thought it was only the wind, but there was no mistaking the murderous yap-yap of the on-coming pack. They were close and closing. Annabelle frantically yanked Lachlin’s hand, “Come On!” They began crossing at a run and were two thirds of the way across when the ice cracked, trembled, then banged, like a gun shot. The surface split open two inches to reveal the freezing black water beneath. They skidded to a stop and tried to listen to the ice through the whistling of the wind and the swirling of the snow. Lachlin began to cry. “I heard the wolves. They’re coming. They’re going to eat us!” Annabelle snapped at him, “Stop it. They aren’t interested in us. They want the goose. Just follow me.” She took a step over the large crack and then another step forward and waited. She could see the old willow ahead on the far shore. She took another step. Then waited. And another. She listened to the ice. Lachlin stepped gingerly into her windswept boot prints. They made another twenty yards in this way when the ice shot and cracked again. Annabelle froze in fear. Lachlin whimpered behind her, “Hurry up! They’re coming! They’re coming!” She dropped down onto her hands and knees and pushed the goose sack out far in front of her. “Follow me, Lachlin.” She crawled towards the sack. She shoved the sack ahead again across the patchy black ice, then crawled towards it. “Lachlin, do what I do! Do exactly what I do!” She shoved the sack and crawled slowly forward. She could feel Lachlin push into her boot from behind. The snow blinded her vision. She pushed on. She shoved the sack again then crawled towards it. She put her hand out again to shove. But the sack was gone. Gone. She inched forward slowly sweeping the ice with her damp mitten. The ice was wet. She groped at the air. The sack was gone. Tears filled her eyes.
Daniel bent down and lifted them both up from the blinding white-out. He quickly slid Annabelle around onto his back and clutched little Lachlin tightly in his right arm. The burlap sack with the frozen goose hung from his other hand. Turning back to the willow tree, he trudged slowly home – towards the hearth, and Helen.
(To learn more about Alistair MacLeod, link ‘here’ for a NFB film about the author and his life; and from Wikipedia – which in truth, seems to have the best representative coverage on this author at the moment – link ‘here’.)