Some people believe that animals can speak at midnight on Christmas Eve.
I had to wonder. Perhaps it was just a story told by folks who want to know what sorts of things are on an animal’s mind; perhaps it was true in part. Perhaps some animals could speak, but I hadn’t heard them.
And I’d spent a number of Christmas Eves watching the animals I knew pretty closely. I don’t want to call this a battle of wits, because I’m not sure of either of us qualifies for that sort of battle, but my second dog, Cookie, can scrunch up her forehead when I talk, leaning in to hear the parts where my voice goes soft. She’ll raise her chin, like she’s about to answer or offer a comment, you know, perhaps agree, or maybe ask for more details.
There’ve been times when I forget that she hasn’t actually asked, and I’ll find myself answering what are my own questions. “No,” I’ll say. “I haven’t seen one of those Jays all fall. I don’t know where they’ve gone.”
As if that’s something she wanted to know about, and maybe it is. Just as good as any other question, I guess. As much as I was genuinely interested in what went on between Cookie’s ears, I had to admit I was doing the talking for the both of us.
So, I was pretty sure the story was only a story, at least when it came to the animals I had spent any time with.
Then there’s another story, about the animals’ Christmas tree.
That one struck me as not very likely as well. I wasn’t all that concerned about the details of it, what paws and beaks and claws and talons might be able to do when it came to decoration; it just didn’t seem likely that animals would care about having a Christmas tree. I’m not going to get all scriptural here, but not many animals had a chance to get in on the first Christmas, sheep and lambs, I suppose, perhaps a goat, too, since they all would have been driven by the same shepherd, a donkey, maybe. Anyway, even though some animals were around, why would an otter, say, or a lynx come around on Christmas Eve?
You might wonder why I bring any of this up at all, since I seemed to be so convinced that there wasn’t anything to these stories, that they were stories kids might like, nothing more.
Well, I was mostly convinced and pretty much kept to Christmas the way most families do. Sure, over the years, I’d stay up to check on the dogs, but I’d be up anyway, putting out the things I wanted the kids to find on Christmas morning. Just about midnight, I’d stop wrapping and sit as quietly as I could, staying still for as long as I could, but after fifteen or twenty minutes, I’d give up again and head to bed.
Last year, though, both the kids had moved all the way to North Dakota, and the weather was just terrible all across the northern plains. Winds were bad there, and the roads were slick ice. I couldn’t ask them to pack in; I knew I probably wouldn’t get very far if I tried to drive. So we talked on the phone a bit on Christmas Eve, even sang a few songs, then I said Merry Christmas and sat right there in front of the fire.
I must have dropped off for a while because both Bosco and Cookie really needed to go outside, and I didn’t remember putting them out the way I usually do, right about ten. Now, Cookie may be a dog that seems ready to start a conversation, but Bosco’s not a dog with much on his mind; he’s pretty much a creature of instinct; I hadn’t even got the door fully open when he bolted. Cookie took off too, and since there’s been so much talk about coyotes around here, I pulled on my boots and coat and tried to catch up.
I’m at the end of an unpaved road that runs between three of the last big farms around. If they’d stayed on the road, I could have gained some ground, but they lit out over the neighbor’s field, Bosco churning up snow as he lumped along and only Cookie’s flopping ears visible as she followed. My boots filled with snow almost from the start; it was like trying to run with a sack of rocks on each foot. Clouds opened up a bit, letting some moonlight filter through; The craters Bosco left behind were easy to pick out, but I lost sight of the dogs early on and just kept on, hoping they’d get tired and circle back.
I was tiring myself, slowing to a walk. Clouds that had been scutting overhead, slowed and settled just about the same time I did. What little moonlight I’d had was gone. I trudged up a bank not able to see a thing, hoping I wasn’t about to drop into one of the creeks that runs through the farms, my arms straight out in front of me, in case I took a fall.
Getting to the top of the rise, I caught flickering light up ahead. “Dang!” I thought. I could see then that the dogs’ tracks ran straight out ahead. I was about done, and the wind had picked up, but I did love those creatures, and they were all the company I had, so I hunkered down a little more, pulled up my collar and followed the tracks.
I had my head down against the wind, but I hadn’t gone very far before I could tell that the flicker of light had become more steady. By now you’ve probably figured out that it was that tree I was telling you about, a single pine tree way out in the middle of mostly open land. I can’t tell you even now where the lights came from; maybe moon and clouds happened to get together just right. I can’t say.
What I do know is that my dogs were sitting there as calm as could be, right alongside the border collies from the Harris place and the three-legged pig from across the road. I knew better than to get too close, but I could make out horses, cows, sheep, for sure. Other creatures were smaller and sat lower. I could have sworn I saw a cougar and three foxes, but that doesn’t seem likely, given the company they were in after all. What I took for a rough stand of brush though, turned out to be two bears, swaying, half standing, close together.
I can’t swear to it, and I guess I am in danger of spinning a story I had been longing to hear for a long time, but it looked to me, by the way my dogs bobbed their heads and turned from time to time, like they were listening, like they were in a kind of conversation. The wind had picked up considerably back where I stood, blowing right in my face. My eyes watered, almost froze solid in the cold, and my ears had got to that stage where they felt as if they would snap off if I moved too quickly. The way that wind moved across the snow, the way sounds seemed to rise and fall, I could almost believe the strangest, sweetest song I ever heard was coming from across that meadow.
I turned then and picked my way back home through the snow. Didn’t look back for some reason. I think somehow I knew better. I’d hardly shaken off my coat and boots when I heard Bosco and Cookie at the door. I let them in, toweled off most of the snow they carried inside, plumped up the pillows each one liked, made sure they had water, poked the coals down in the fireplace, and went to bed.
I’ve thought about it a lot since then, even tried to retrace my steps, but I’ve never found my way back. The dogs haven’t taken off that way again, and I’ve never seen a moon like the one that night.
I like to think I was invited too, just that one time, just as far as I got to go. Some stories only open once, I guess, and this one came to find me just about when I needed it most.
Maybe your story is waiting for you.