Out of the Storm

The park close to Mary’s  new condo was a great consolation. As her daughter had put it so persuasively, “It’s very convenient, Mum. To your right the shopping centre and to your left the lovely park for your nice walks.:

Like coaxing an old dog, Mary had thought, “Walkies girl, come on!” They were all right, of course. She couldn’t quite manage her house and the garden any more. The condo was close enough to her daughter’s place – but not too close for both their sakes.

She soon learned that the turn to the right always meant chores; boring shopping, trudging along with her wheeled cart. But the way to the left had opened up unexpected beauty.

It was one of the biggest parks in the city. If it was a little more manicured than Mary liked, there was still enough wildness, enough unofficial paths through the brush close to the two big ponds, enough birds and once, magically, a fox who held her gaze for just a moment before he plunged into the undergrowth.

By noon on Christmas Eve, Mary had spent hours gazing out of the big patio window hoping against bitter reality that the storm would abate. Hail, freezing rain and wet snow had been pelting down for over twenty-four hours. The weather channel was blaring in an orgy of self-satisfaction. Every hour or so an earnest police officer would interrupt to urge citizens to stay at home and wait out the storm.

At three o’clock the phone rang and Mary resigned herself to the expected reassurance from her daughter that if she would “just sit tight, the kids will be over tomorrow to walk you over to our place for Christmas dinner.”

Of course, there was no question that Mary would go to the Christmas Eve service.

“Stewart’s not even going to try to get the car out until this all dies down and anyway, I just looked on your church website. The service is cancelled. Imagine, first time in 62 years.”

Mary sighed , “ Right, be sure to tell Angie to bring her old sleigh tomorrow. The kids can drag me through the park to your place.”

Come on, Mum! I know it’s disappointing but at least we have electricity. Some people can’t even cook. OK so we’ll see you tomorrow. Keep snug, Bye.”

Mary turned on the TV and scrolled to a channel that showed a burning log fire. Christmas songs were playing. This year was so different.  For the first time in decades she would not open her kitchen door in the dark and step out into her little city garden with the grape arbour decorated for Christmas Eve. If she opened her kitchen door now she would be in an empty carpeted hallway impeccably vacuumed and silent as the graveyard.

She fell asleep, lulled by the howling wind and the saccharine crooning of ancient Christmas pop songs. At a little before midnight she awoke with a start. The televised fireplace had emitted a few extra-loud crackles that had convinced her that her place was on fire.

The storm was less impressive now. The spindly tree that stood between Mary’s building and that of her neighbors was thick with untouched snow. Large heavy flakes still fell but the wind had died down.

She was wide awake and stiflingly hot. On impulse she opened the patio door and stepped out onto the sheltered balcony. It was not enough. She turned, shut the door and headed for her closet. She fished out her boots and a thick jacket with a fur-trimmed hood. There were her keys hanging on the special hook her daughter had installed for her.

“No more losing your keys, eh, Mum?’ and that knowing look that meant yes, we all know you’re on the slippery slope but for as long as possible we’ll keep you out of “the home”.

The halls and the elevator were deserted. The snow on the steps was well over her ankles and the wind had driven it up into great drifts beside the ornamental tree that stood at the end of her short pathway.

She turned to the left and, walking down the middle of the deserted street, made straight for the wide entrance to the path. The snow was stopping but a few large flakes still clung to her hood. As she entered the park she noticed a small dog trotting in front of her, his slender paws skimming over the deep snow.

“Here boy,” she called, “Are you lost, come here. Who let you out on such a night?’ The little creature held his bushy tail erect, stopped for a moment and turned to look at Mary. She recognized the pointed muzzle and ears of a fox.

“Oh, what do you want, I wonder?’ Mary was quite startled. The fox sat for a moment until she had almost caught up to him and then with a lively little bound, he trotted off again, turning now and then to be sure she was following him.

“Where do you want to take me?  A strange outing for Christmas Eve!” She chuckled to think what her daughter, even her grandchildren would think of her, trudging through the thick snow alone in a deserted park to follow a fox!’

It was wonderful to walk solidly, at her own steady pace along the wide path. There were a few signs that city skiiers had been out earlier but now she only had the clearing clouds and a few stars for company.

The little fox trotted along ahead of her, just keeping his distance. Some parts of the park were very dark and Mary tried to stay on the well-lit paths but now her little companion turned off towards some rough sheds where park tools and equipment were kept.

“I think I must go back now, Foxie,” she whispered. “I must get home and go to bed.” But just as she went to retrace her solitary footprints, she noticed a faint light in one of the sheds. She could hear someone softly singing and, surely not, was that the cry of a little baby?”

She stood uncertain at the fork of the path. Perhaps there was a homeless person there, a mother with a young child. Anyone, a criminal, a drug addict, could be there.  Was it really her business? Mary stood hesitating for an endless moment and then the sharp yap of the fox was overpowered by the mooing of a cow!

 Lured on by her own curiosity, Mary approached the shed. A soft glowing light enveloped the place. It was quite crowded. A young girl sat on a rough wooden box, rocking a tiny baby while a man standing beside her shone a beat-up flashlight. Mary’s fox and a couple of racoons were curled up in a corner and a blue-jay, a cardinal and a knowing crow looked down from the rafters. And yes, a cow and a sheep with a little lamb stood chomping on one of the hay bales normally used as barriers on the toboggan run.  Three uniformed Park employees, one in a red turban, one in the park regulation cap and the third in a traditional Palestinian Kufiya stood guard at the door.

“Don’t worry, Ma’am.” murmured the gentleman in the turban. “We’re taking care of things. Everyone will be safe here tonight. Not the first time homeless people have taken shelter here, but it’s the first time we’ve had a newborn.  Christmas Eve, you know. I don’t celebrate myself, but this little family didn’t want to be rushed off to a shelter. Time enough for that tomorrow.”

“May I see the baby? ”whispered Mary.

Just as the young girl lifted a soft blue blanket from around the child, Mary felt the rush of great wings, a flurry of soft snow and a gentle power lifting her up and carrying her down the familiar park path. In an instant she found herself trembling at the foyer of her condo block, her keys in her hand.

It was just midnight. Normally at this moment Mary would have been struggling to make her rather thin soprano voice heard over the booming alto of the choir director’s daughter. This Christmas Eve had turned out quite differently. She touched the little figures of the crèche on her night table. Time to sleep now. On Christmas Day she would sort out what was real and what was a dream.