There were over a dozen deer feasting on apples in the hollow as she approached the sawmill. One was a buck with a beautiful rack. She was glad to see he had survived another hunting season. She pulled her car up beside Oliver's truck but before she could get out he appeared at the door of his workshop with sandpaper in his hand, Toots by his side.
“You're not supposed to work on Christmas,” she said as she got out of her car.
“Who says?” he asked.
She shrugged. “You're supposed to sit around the table with a bunch of relatives, eat way too much, get drunk, and pass out in front of a football game. Isn't that the tradition?”
He laughed and she noticed he looked very good, happy, rested, and content.
“Merry Christmas,” she said as she approached and stood on her toes to kiss him.
“Thanks for what you did,” he said. “I still can't believe it. I'm so happy.”
“It was Father Nick who found them.” She was intensely aware of the feeling of his hand on her back as he guided her into his shop. “And thank you for my beautiful clock. Where did you find that little lady with the quilt?”
He grinned. “Sister Hilda at the convent made it. I ordered a bunch of miniatures from her to put on more clocks.”
“I love it.”
He stood silent for a moment and then he looked at her feet. “I'm glad you have good boots on. I've got something I want to show you. Come on,” he said, pulling on his jacket. “Toots, you stay here. We'll be back in a bit.”
Toots gave a little whimper and curled up by the woodstove.
He walked with her to his truck and opened the passenger side door for her. “Watch your step,” he said.
He stepped up into the driver's side and said, “Fasten your seat belt and hang on.”
They headed off past the sawmill, up the single lane drive that hugged the river. Here in the depths of Opelt's Wood the snow was deeper on the ground. The trees grew thicker and darker almost blotting out the sun.
“Okay, hang on.” He guided the truck off the road onto an old logging grade and they bumped and lurched through miles of bushes so thick they scraped against the sides of his truck. She rolled down the window and captured a juniper bough loaded with frosty blue berries. The trees were wound round with the skeletons of wild grape vines. Hemlocks brushed the windshield leaving scatterings of little cones across the hood of the truck.
“This is my favorite Christmas adventure ever,” she said laughing.
“Just wait,” he said. “This is part of the Seneca Highlands not many people get to see.”
They climbed a steep hill with the truck tipped so far to the side that she thought if she reached out of the window she could touch the ground. Then, as suddenly, as they had entered the deep woods, they emerged into a clearing... a vast field in which the milkweed plants stood as high as the windows and sumac and sassafras bushes were everywhere. Ahead of them, at the crest of a rise, stood a mammoth oak tree, whose bare branches formed a pattern of black lace against the bright blue sky.
“That's beautiful,” she said.
“Wait,” he said, “I'll get us closer.” As they approached the tree he leaned over to her and pointed. “See that?”
She followed the direction of his finger. Though the branches were bare, in the them, on the right side of the tree, low in the limbs, was a ball of brilliant greenery. It looked completely out of place in a tree bare of leaves and yet it swayed and shone in the winter light.
“What is that?”
He smiled. “Come on.” He parked the truck and they hopped out. The dry winter grasses weren't as deep here at the top of the hill and he put his arm around her waist and guided her through the ankle deep snow until they were standing under the tree.
She looked up and saw clusters of small white berries nestled among the leaves.
“It's a parasite,” he said. “It takes up residence in some trees like big oaks and it grows there all on its own. Here...” He bent down and picked up a sprig of the green leaves and clusters of white berries that had fallen into the snow.
“It's beautiful,” she said, touching the berries.
“Let me,” he said and he wove it into her silky blond curls. “That's a perfect place for it. Haven't you ever seen it before?”
She shook her head. “I don't think so.”
“I bet you have,” he said. “It's mistletoe.”
He looked into her eyes and knew, as they stood under the old tree atop the snowy landscape on this Christmas afternoon, that he wanted children of his own and that this woman beside him was the one he wanted to have them with. So he stroked her hair, and drew her to him. He cradled her warm body against his, cupped her face in his big hand, leaned down, and shared with her the tradition of the mistletoe.
Read the rest of the stories, The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall, Boxed Set.