The Christmas Belle
Bathed in the blue light of dawn, snow swirled and fell in thick flurries, making visibility near impossible. Like ghosts, the outlines of two figures materialized through the haze. Encrusted with ice and snow, their movements are measured.
His aged cobalt eyes recognized the snow-softened edges of a cabin ahead. Heavy laden boots quickened at the familiar sight. His companion also sensed relief was near and bounded forward, barking her excitement.
“Yes, girl, we’re almost there.”
The air felt surreal as he approached the sleeping cabin. He stood at the mouth of the shack, stamping his feet and setting aside the fresh kill. Inside, his thick salmon-colored fingers protruded from the soggy wool of his mittens as he struggled to light the lamp.
A soft whimper at his side caused him to look down. The dark rheumy eyes never failed to melt his heart. “I know, girl.” He patted her. “You’re cold and hungry.”
She rested a huge paw on his leg and nuzzled him with her massive head. The cream-colored Mastiff’s expressive face acknowledged his concern. She licked her chops and lumbered away to lay in front of the stone hearth. Her anticipation for warmth was obvious.
The deep sound of his laughter reverberated through the frigid room. “Belle, my love, you’re as faithful as they come. God love your heart.”
Thump, thump, thump, her tail moved in appreciation.
The old man plodded toward the hearth and busied himself, giving the occasional grunt as he worked. Soon, the cheery warmth from the fireplace spilled across the worn wooden floor and absorbed the chill of the room. This task complete, he peeled his mittens and flexed his fingers.
“Hungry, old gal?”
Her brow rose as she tilted her face. With a quick snort, she let him know her patience was waning.
“You’re tasting that rabbit out there, eh?”
She raised her head and whined.
“Of course, you’re famished. I could eat a bite myself. How’s about I get a snack to tide us over till that varmint is done? I don’t fancy eating that thing raw. Although I doubt you’d be none too picky, eh?”
Intelligent eyes followed him to the cabinet where he reached inside and brought down a linen-covered basket. He removed a cold biscuit and waved it for her. “Ere ya up to it?"
Belle pulled her massive frame to a sitting position in answer; her tail wagged in expectancy. He threw the bread to her, and she snatched it from the air with a quick snap of her jaws. She swallowed and looked to him for another.
His eyes twinkled with delight, and his shoulders shook with mirth. “Ah, you are good!” He tossed several more to her until the basket was empty. He held back one for himself, nibbling it as he pulled carrots and various ingredients from the larder. Under his nimble fingers, small mountains of diced vegetables grew larger. He scooped them up in his beefy hands and deposited them into the pot. Next came the rabbit—cleaned, prepared, and chopped, it too joined the myriad of components boiling in water.
“Ah, so much to finish.” His eyes fell to the wood shavings littering the floor. The latest project sat on his workbench, begging his attention. He gathered the emery cloth and hummed an old lullaby his mama used to sing as he went to work polishing the carving.
Hours pass without a sound but the occasional pop and sizzle of the logs. The stew rolled inside the blackened kettle, permeating the room with a rich, hearty aroma. Belle raised her head, her body at attention. She meandered to the door, sniffed, and gave a small whine.
“What is it, girl? Are they here?”
He set aside his work and was at the window in three steps. With his sleeve, he wiped the frosty glass and peered outside. What he saw made him smile. Several large bucks had gathered. They pawed the snow with their impressive hooves and pressed their noses to the ground in search of food.
“Not time yet, old friend. We still have much to do.” He gave her a wink. “First, we fill our bellies, eh?”
Returning to the cupboard, he secured two bowls and began ladling stew into each. The steam rose and filled his nostrils. “Mustn’t burn your tongue.” He set aside the dishes.
As he waited, he returned to the workbench. He removed the precious gifts he’d labored on, lifted each one, and examined it with a critical eye. When they met his approval, he added them to a burlap sack and placed them by the door.
The loud tick of the clock marked the seconds. Surely, the stew had cooled. He placed one of the bowls beside Belle. She lapped up the meal with fervor and pushed the near-empty dish around the floor with her nose. He stood watching her with love-filled eyes before turning to his own.
The wood squeaked as he settled his burly frame into the rocker and offered a quick prayer of thanks for the rabbit that gave its life. “Ah.” He sighed as Belle padded over to him and rested her chin on his knee. “You would have mine too?” He raised a bushy brow. “You are a heartless wench—shame on you.” He chuckled while he fished a choice chunk of rabbit from the stew and presented it to her. This time, she took a dainty nibble, her velvet lips barely brushing his fingers. She elicited another bite, before lying down at his stocking-clad feet.
He polished off his stew, enjoying every drop, and reached for a tattered old book that he kept ready by his chair. The pages were yellowed by time, but the message was eternal. His eyes absorbed the precious words, most of which he already knew by heart. He read several passages, letting them sink in, before easing his considerable girth to the floor. His knees protested the abuse, but he dismissed the discomfort as he knelt and began to pray. Father, I have not been a good man. I was foolish in my youth—not kind to man nor beast. You have said in your word that who was forgiven much, there is much love, and I ask that you never take this spirit away from me. I thank you on this holiest of nights for your dear son and for allowing me to give these simple gifts to the children. I ask that it will bring a bit of joy to their hearts. At no time have you failed to gather the creatures of the fields to carry my sled and allow me to get down the mountain to the towns below. May all souls be reminded to give of themselves and keep the spirit of giving alive all year long. Amen.
He rose and donned his warmest clothing—Belle’s eyes followed his every movement as he puttered about the cabin preparing for the trip. She was getting old and would not be able to accompany him many more years. Her body quivered with anticipation. She knew the routine as well as he, and she didn’t want to be left behind.
He stepped outside the door, his breath appearing in a huge puff. His heart never failed to quicken at the sight of the majestic creatures that assembled themselves at his crudely made sleigh. It was simple but sturdy. He busied himself with the harnesses, stroked each great beast, and spoke to them as old friends. They responded in kind.
A movement at the window caught his eye. Belle’s large head and paws filled the frame as she watched him. He smiled. As if I could ever leave her. With a final check to make certain all was secure, he returned to the house. She waited at the door. Her tail wagged, causing her entire body to sway. She greeted him as if he had been gone for ages and barked a deep welcome.
As he bustled around the cabin making sure he had all he needed, her massive body bumped into him, knocking him off balance several times. “All right, girl. I know you are anxious to be on our way. I’m excited too.” He patted his leg with his mitten-clad hand. “Come. It’s time.”
He hoisted the sack of toys over his shoulder, and together the two tramped through the snow to the waiting sleigh. She didn’t hesitate but took her position beside her master, eager to be gone. She sat erect, her muscles trembling with anticipation. The moisture from her warm breath produced a misty haze as she barked her enthusiasm. Belle’s rough voice echoed through the night. They were on their way.