Christmas Contentment
Jess Mercer
( 2009 by the author)

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Only the most resolute seeker would have ever stumbled across the small log cabin perched high on the side of a low mountain, for it sat in a thicket of towering trees, all but hidden by a heavy under-growth of rhododendron and mountain laurel. No path marked its existence, for over a century had passed since the roughly cut stones of its foundation and the peeled logs of its walls had been pulled to the spot by a team of oxen and patiently turned into a snug dwelling.

Though it now listed slightly; the logs turned silver-gray; the red clay chinking between the logs, renewed during the summer and now dried to a pale pink; the cedar shake roof layered with lichen and moss grown rank in the moist shade; it remained as sound a shelter as the day it was first completed. It looked abandoned at first glance, then one noted the neatness of its surroundings. A rocking chair, the wood gray with age, sat on the narrow porch; an ancient hand pump stood on its pipe at one end; a bright tin bucket on the shelf below the spout awaiting a crystal flow.

Inside, taking up the windowless north wall, an old but handsome and well-blackened Franklin stove sat on a hearth of dark hand-made brick. Comfortably near the stove, a bent-wood rocker of peeled willow and beside it a small table holding an oil lamp, a clay pipe in a shallow pottery bowl, and a well-thumbed paperback. Below the window facing south, three long shelves of planks separated by more of the dark bricks sagged under the surprising load of books. At one end of the top shelf a Bible, its leather covers cracked and split with age, stood above the many worn paperbacks, at the other end a water-spotted dictionary. Anyone expecting westerns in this setting would have been astounded, for the titles ranged from philosophy, Cherokee studies, physics, primitive architecture, mechanics, to classics of American literature.

A painstakingly crafted hutch near the stove served as the kitchen. Against the other wall stood a sturdy handmade bed with taut rope-springs topped with a thick feather tick covered by a down comforter layered by an age-dulled Indian blanket. Next to it a small chest and on it a candlestick decorated with a sprig of holly lifted a few inches of red candle. An ancient steamer trunk at the foot of the bed completed the furnishings.

The comforter and blanket mounded slightly. Long sooty hair spread over the pillow where a sharp featured rosy-tan face reposed. He awoke, his breath steam in the cold gray dawn. He snuggled back under the coverings, feeling the feather tick beneath him remold to his shape, surrounding him with warmth. He dozed a few minutes longer then threw the comforter and blanket aside and sat up, reaching for a heavy wool sock and pulling it on, a T-shirt, a heavy woolen shirt. His worn jeans draped the foot of the bed. He reached for them and slipped them on. His foot found the moccasin and slid into it. He lifted the wooden peg from the floor, and, grasping the post of the bed, pulled himself up. When his left knee found the grove worn in the leather covered padding, he buckled the two straps that held it firmly.

Crossing the room in the near darkness, he opened the doors of the Franklin stove and placed kindling on the embers, watching the fat pine splinters blaze up with an audible hiss. Once they burned well, he placed a couple of small logs on top and closed the doors. The warmth beginning to temper the chill in the room. He pulled on a heavy, dark-colored mackinaw, then stumped to the door.

In the light dusting of snow, the outline of a moccasin and a round hole left a trail to the old privy, hidden in a clump of rhododendron. Having quickly relieved himself, he returned to the cabin where the iron kettle gurgled on the stove. He put a handful of herbs in a brown pottery teapot with a chipped spout and poured the boiling water over, then placed a small cast-iron spider on the stove making a bowl of cornmeal mush which he sweetened with honey dipped from a small stoneware crock. His breakfast finished, he filled the mug again with the herbal tea and sat in the rocker his grandfather had made.

The evening before he had taken his hatchet and walked into the woods to cut a small fir he'd seen while taking his walks in the fall evenings. With it thrown over his shoulder, he'd made his way back home and nailed a scrap of plank to the bottom and set it up near his chair. From the trunk at the foot of his bed, he'd taken a small box of old highly cherished ornaments and decorated it. Before going to bed, he opened his Bible and read the Christmas story.

Now, he looked at the tree fondly, remembering. When he drained the mug, he placed it on the hutch, and crossed to the tree to pick up his gift. He returned to his chair and leaned back, propping his foot and the peg on a stool he'd made from poplar, weaving rushes for the top. In alternating years his only gift, a gift made for himself, was always the same. As he stroked the silky smoothness of the wood, the supple softness of the buckskin straps and padding, a bittersweet smile creased his face. It felt so smooth, so natural. He knew the fit would be perfect, for it was as much a part of his daily ritual as slipping his foot into the moccasin. The one from the two years before would be kept for work, the one from the period before that, now so battered and worn that it now barely accommodated him, would be discarded. He never gave it a thought, except to feel reborn on this one day when he gave himself a new one.

His eyes closed as he remembered the anticipation he'd felt as a six year-old, sitting at his grandfather's feet, watching the old man carefully shape the wood with the worn spokeshave, the care with which he finished it, using strips of tanned buckskin to make the soft sturdy straps. The gentleness of the old man's hands the first time he strapped it to the stump of his leg. It had been long, but without unstrapping it and while he balanced on his foot, his hand on the old man's shoulder, his grandfather had lifted it across his knee and whittled minute bits from the end until the length was perfect. He had relished the sense of freedom it gave him, able to discard the clumsy crutches. And though his gait was awkward, he soon was able to keep up with the other kids. He'd never known two whole legs, for he'd been born with his left leg ending just below the knee. He looked across the room to the corner near his bed where the tiny peg-leg still stood, a reminder of the old man's love.

He stood and, loosing the old peg, strapped on the new one and took a few steps. As always, it would feel a little strange until the pressure of his knee molded the padding, then it would feel as natural as his surroundings, for he was home, the only home he'd known.

As a child he'd been loath to leave it each day for school, but grandfather had insisted. When he entered his teen years, he worked after school as a carpenter's helper, learning the craft, and becoming a valued employee. On occasion, he still put in a few days each month with his former employer, working only so long as the job at hand required, then quit, the few dollars pay sufficient to fill his larder with those things nature did not provide, and more second-hand paperback books. He felt uneasy in the presence of others, even at going into the small country store to satisfy his scant needs.

He opened the door once more and stepped out. He looked up at the rising sun and smiled, an unexpectedly sweet smile on such a brooding face. He faced east, as did the door to his cabin, and spoke: Thank you, oh Mother Earth; thank you, oh Father Sky; thank you, oh Holy Child, for all your blessings, for all that I have been given.

Feeling that Christmas had been fitly celebrated, he returned to the cabin to refill the cup with herbal tea, light the old clay pipe, and resume his reading, content within himself.

Posted: 12/04/09