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The Knock At The Door
A Christmas Tale
Eira stoked the fire, watching the little orange sparkles arise from the logs. The harsh winter breath whistled against the walls of the houses which let out a groan of protest. Eira gazed out the window, wondering if it might snow. She smiled briefly at the prospect, but then stopped, remembering what her father thought of snow. An impediment to getting home. Eira’s grey eyes fell on the door, and she thought of Papa.
She wondered if he had found dinner yet. The winter had come early this year, and the crops had shrivelled before harvest. Any small deer or rabbit they caught had been eaten sparingly and Eira many times found her stomach rumbling impatiently at her. But luckily there were not too many mouths to feed, just her and Papa.
He had been gone quite long now, and she began to wonder if he had caught anything. He promised that he would be back with Christmas dinner. Papa would never break a promise. She began to worry if he was eaten by a bear or frozen to death by the cold.
Presently, Eira found herself wishing her mother were still here. Papa always said Mama greeted fear with a ready smile. If only Eira could do the same, but it seemed so hard to be brave. She was frightened of being alone, of the dark, of its monsters, of this creaking, old house…
Eira jumped and shrunk back when there was a sudden rapping at the door. She thought at first that it was the wind outside, but it was not. It was a knock, made a person. Perhaps it was Papa, but Papa never knocked without announcing himself.
Eira’s terrified little mind began to spin. What if it were a stranger? Strangers were scary. Papa had told her to be careful around them.
The knocking came again, this time softer than before. Eira frantically twisted this way and that, she lunged at the broom in the corner and held it aloft in her quaveringly above her little Titian head.
She crept to the door, quick and quiet as a mouse. She reached for the door handle, thousands of frightening situations twisting in her fanciful mind. What if it were a thief? A wolf? A troll that would gobble her up whole?
She yanked open the door, but what Eira saw was nothing at all what she had imagined.
Standing out in the snow, her dark hair flowing messily in the winter wind, was a young woman. She was pale, thin, and wore a tattered, blue cloak which she kept pulled tightly around her. She looked weary and half-frozen, yet she gave a warm smile which made her eyes sparkle like starlight.
“Hello,” she said politely.
Eira gulped uncertainly and did not answer. She was not expecting her visitor to be someone barely four or so years older than her. Suddenly she wished the visitor were a troll; at least then, she would have known what to do.
“I wondered if you would be so kind as to share your fire. It’s a bit cold out,” the woman added with a quiet smile, and adjusted her cloak a little.
And that was when Eira looked down and saw tucked in the folds of the cloak was a tiny, shivering baby boy. The baby turned its piercing eyes up at the ten-year-old girl, giving an imploring, loving gaze.
Eira bit her lip hesitantly. Strangers were frightful creatures, and that was what this woman was, after all-- a stranger. Yet the girl could bring herself to turn the woman or her child away. There was something about the woman and the child that inspired something other than fear in Eira. For perhaps the first time, she did not feel afraid.
What should she do? She knew what Papa would do.
Eira swung the door wide open.
The woman stepped into the house, and immediately Eira went to work to be a good little housekeeper, just like Mama had taught her. She ran about the house in search of a kettle to make tea. She filled it with water and set it on the fire. She pulled a three-legged stool by the hearth which the woman sank into with many weary thanks.
Eira nodded, but said nothing. She was not exactly in the habit of conversing with strangers. She took the woman’s cloak and hung it by the fire to dry.
The woman held her child close then turned her eyes up at her little hostess. “You have a kind heart, my daughter.”
Eira twiddled her fingers, then thought better of it, and clasped them tightly behind her back. “I-- I didn’t want you to catch your death. Besides, you have a baby.”
The baby boy gave a quiet coo and reached for his mother’s forefinger, grasping it with both hands before pulling it towards his gummy mouth.
The woman laughed at her son, and Eira could not help but laugh herself. She sheepishly stopped when the woman glanced up at her.
The ten-year-old bit her lip, beginning to wonder if she had made a mistake. Behind her the kettle whistled behind her. Eira quickly took it off the fire, poured a cup of tea, and handed it to the woman.
Eira’s fidgety fingers went to her braid, playing with the auburn plaits. “Are you-- are you travelling? Is that why you were out in the cold?”
The woman nodded and sipped the tea.
“Er, from where?”
The woman laughed softly. “Well, that’s difficult. It’s not exactly here, Eira.”
Eira quivered slightly, and the woman gave a remorseful look.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, sweetheart.”
“No, you didn’t,” Eira stammered quickly. “It’s just-- Do I know you from somewhere?”
“In a way, yes,” she answered vaguely, which left Eira guessing; the woman felt familiar somehow. The child, too.
But I can’t have met them, the girl thought. I never saw them before tonight.
Presently the mother was searching about the house. “Where’s your father?”
Eira swallowed. Her hands twisted behind her back. “Hunting for Christmas dinner.”
“It’s a brutal night for a hunt,” the woman observed, glancing at the door behind which came the howling, hungry wind clawing at the door.
“It’s been a tough year, with the crops. We barely have enough, and--” Eira stared at her feet. “I just hope he’s all right.”
The woman looked back at Eira with a confident smile. “He will be, don’t worry.”
Eira’s attention diverted to the baby who began to whine a bit and squirm uncomfortably in his mother’s arms. Eira squinted and leaned a bit closer and saw the little boy infant’s lips and tiny bare feet were an icy blue.
Eira’s heart gave a twinge of sympathy. The poor baby, she thought. How cold he looks!
With her red braid swishing behind her, she rushed off to her room and seized the fur blanket off her cot and brought it to the mother. She accepted the gift with many thanks and swaddled her baby. Eira watched motionless, perplexed. She had never seen a baby so tiny, so frail, so beautiful!
“How old is he?” she asked.
“Today’s his birthday,” the mother answered with a smile.
“Oh!” gasped Eira. “The same as the Baby Jesus!”
The woman smiled quietly to herself. “Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, that’s right.”
Eira leaned over, and the baby smiled up at her.
“Would you like to hold him?”
The question took the girl by surprise. She did not know what to say, and before she could, she found the woman holding the infant out to her.
Eira began to protest nervously, but the mother gently grasped the girl’s hand and began arranging her arms into the correct position. The next thing Eira knew, the baby was being slipped into her arms. The baby smiled and giggled joyfully. He stretched out his arms and clapped his hands together. Eira squeezed the baby close, never wanting to let him go. Nothing could compare to the joy or the love the girl felt that night when that child was nestled safely in her arms.
“Hello,” she whispered, her fingers caressing his soft hair. She dropped a kiss on his forehead.
Eira and the woman passed the hour talking, laughing, playing with the baby boy. It was perhaps the happiest hour of the little girl’s life, and she would have been glad if it never ended. But at length, the mother rose from her seat and insisted that it was time for her to leave.
Eira was disappointed but she understood.
“Will I see you again?” the little girl asked.
The woman wrapped herself in the cloak which was now dry and warm. “I hope so.”
Giving the baby a kiss, Eira reluctantly handed him back to his mother. Before they left, Eira packed the woman a basket of cakes for her journey.
“You need it more than we do,” Eira insisted, and the woman smiled at her.
“Thank you,” she said. “For everything.”
And with that, she and the child left, waving goodbye until they disappeared in a veil of snow and darkness.
As Eira shut the door, she thought about what Papa would say when she told him about the strange woman. It was then to her dismay that she realized she never learnt the woman’s name.
Eira turned from the door with a sigh. Then, her eyes fell on a sight so surprising, she clapped her hands over her mouth to stifle a cry. She took a few steps towards the table to be sure what she saw was real.
And it was! On the table was a gorgeous feast, enough to feed two families. There was ham and turkey, fresh baked bread, candied cranberries and nuts, custard pudding, and thousands of other delicious delicacies that made her mouth water. But where did it all come from? Eira knew she had not cooked any of this food.
She glanced back at the door where the woman and the child had left. Eira cried out in joy and began to laugh. This feast, it was a present from Mary and the Baby Jesus, because she had been kind enough to invite them in when they came.
God is always at our door. Even now he is standing in the cold, rapping at the wood outside, watchful and patient. We only have to be brave enough to answer.