Hockessin, Delaware

Each year I try to tell a Christmas Tale woven from the corners of my mind. I hope you'll like this year's story.

Charles Shattuck

    Henry climbed the bus steps without a coat. His friends were dressed for warm weather too, all shorts and t-shirts. The bus windows were lowered to half-mast. A breeze blew the silver garland looped about the bus, reflecting splintered light across the ceiling. It was December 21, the shortest day of the year, and winter was absent again. Temperatures remained the same as in September.     

    Regardless of the weather outside, school was abuzz with holiday beginnings. A collection box had been placed in the lobby for less fortunate children. It overflowed with coats, gloves, and boots. The music wing resonated with the sound of Christmas carols being sung by out of tune first graders. The Kindergarten hallway was decorated with paper chains of green and red. All appeared festive and the kids were excited but something was amiss. Henry was not looking forward to another holiday in the sun. The warm temperatures were okay when school began way back on Labor Day, but not on the first day of winter. If felt more hot, hot, hot; then “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

     Later that day the school bus dropped Henry off down the street from his house.  He walked passed verdant lawns soaked by chattering sprinklers under the bluest of skies. He envisioned slate colored clouds and falling snow. There would be no snow boots trudging through slush this year.  

      The weatherman on the television exuberantly reported more of the same, record breaking highs and not a cloud on the maps.  He placed a large H and smiley face over the entire state and joyously forecasted sunny skies far into next week.  Henry turned off the television, asking his dad if the weatherman could ever be wrong.  His dad talked of double scan radar and far off satellites that left nothing to chance.  The conversation quickly meandered off topic onto global warming, rising oceans, and swimming polar bears.  His dad never gave a simple answer.  Mom called for him to set the table while dad turned on the radio.  Most stations had been playing Christmas songs since Thanksgiving, but no matter how many times warbling Bing Crosby dreamed of a White Christmas, it just wasn't on the horizon this year. The tunes didn’t mirror what he saw outside his bedroom window, a black sky filled with sparkling stars peeking through the trees.  A wisp of smoke from the neighbor's grill drifted across the rising moon's face.  He wished it was a snow cloud arriving to cloak the heavens.  That night, he dreamed of sledding all daylong and a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies when he came in at dusk.  Henry hoped the weatherman would be wrong just this once so winter might return to his neighborhood.

   Far, far, north from where Henry slept lay the Northwest Territories of Canada.  Just north of the Yellowknife, lonely Highway 3 wanders off to the northeast. The landscape stretches to forever in all directions, it’s a mishmash of trackless swamps, lakes, and stunted forests.  Migrating waterfowl find the waterways and tundra abundant with food during the brief summers.  Throughout the long winters caribou pass across and graze on the sparse grasses.  The towns along highway have strange names like Edzo and Behchoko. Up there the winters are harsh and lonely.  Small clusters of houses seem to huddle together for warmth. The inhabitants find little to do in the long sunless days but survive. A solitary road bravely exits north out of town, it quickly sheds houses along the way. Its first mile is paved in asphalt but quickly changes to gravel before deteriorating altogether into a meandering rutted path to nowhere.  Few venture this far north even in the summer, it lies beyond all imagination.                                                     

     In a cabin along the shores of Daran Lake sleeps an old woman, her head barely visible under a mountain of patch-worked quilts. Only a hurricane of long snowy hair peaks through the rolling peaks and valleys of bedding. Her snores reverberate deafeningly about the room, rattling the glass and blowing the curtains. The faint glow from the wood stove casts the room in soft shadows.  A draft blows through a crack in a window pane, whispering a wish from a sleepy boy’s heart. “Cold, snow, ice.” The old woman’s stirrings begin an earthquake amidst the landscape of blankets.  She grumbles and mumbles.  “What is it now? I’m tired let me go back to sleep.”  Still the wind keeps murmuring “Cold, snow, ice.” “Cold, snow, ice.”   “Alright already, I’m gitting up!”  Her hand reaches for the pipe on the stand.  Its carvings are alive with zephyrs and polar vortexes swirling about the bowl. She strikes a match, illuminating an ancient face as cragged and bitter as the world outside the cabin.  She stamps over to the wood stove and sets down an iron kettle. It takes but a moment for its steamy whistle to sound a shrill note.  She pours herself a cup of tea and settles down into an overstuffed chair. “Now what was that you said?  Someone is asking for cold, snow, and ice?  Well, we’ll have to see about that.”  It had been so long since she was forcibly retired by the naysaying governments down south. It took her a bit to remember what to do.  “Let’s see, I’ll need to put on more clothes for a road trip.” At a glacial pace she moved about the dimly lit cabin. Her wrinkly eyes adjusted to the fogginess.  Mountain chains of colorful clothes lay in drifts and spilled out of the dresser drawers. Slowly she began applying layers of skirts and mismatched tops. Here a pattern of tartan flannel, there a large polka dot print. Large rubber boots peeked from under a graceful paisley trimmed skirt. A knitted cap of purple and green snaked about her neck, embroidered snowflakes seemed to drop off as she walked. Eskimo lore told of ice flowing through her veins and hoarfrost escaping from her lips. A shaman of snow. Locals called her the Winter Witch.

“It’s a long way to? How do you say it ‘Ho…ckessin’?” She pulled a quilt from off the bed. Stitching latticed the front and back with maps of every land. “Now, let’s see. Hockessin, Delaware” She threw it over her lap and began examining the lines with her fingers. She found the spot she was looking for in a fold between Pennsylvania and Delaware. A red knot marked the village of Hockessin. With a chortle she declared “Hee, Hee, Hee. I hope they’re ready for mee!”

    Henry tossed and turned all night troubled by visions of arrows and large letter H’s across a weather map. “No, no, I want it to snow” he shouted at the TV announcers.  In the morning he awoke to another glorious sunrise. The bright light poured through his window, bathing the room in morning warmth. “UGGH!” Henry groaned from his bed. “Is something wrong?” Asked his mom. “No, just another day in paradise” muttered Henry. The landscapers were mowing the front lawn. Kids were riding their bikes up and down the street. The sky was vividly blue. What could be wrong for December, he thought? “Hey Mom I’m going to the library” He shouted. “Okay, just stop by the store and see your Dad.”  At his parent's Wild Birds Unlimited store in Hockessin Delaware the regulars offered various opinions about the weather. The old timer's would declare, "In my day we'd have snow from Thanksgiving until the daffodils of April pushed through.” Some remembered winters past that measured snowfall in feet while others were cheerful about the balmy spring‑like weather the region was experiencing and not having to shovel this year. Very few old timers wanted it to snow.  Henry was tired of adults speculating about the weather he wanted to go sledding. He jumped on his bike and rode into town. The stores were decorated with spray snow and icicle lights. I wonder why people stopped using colored lights he thought. The hardware store was discounting shovels and salt already. It seemed they too had given up on winter in the foreseeable future. Christmas music blared from the tinny speakers atop the poles. Have a Happy Jolly Christmas. ‘Not in this town,’ sighed Henry. He went to the library and took out some movies to make himself feel better. At least he could watch actors on TV having an old-fashioned Christmas with fake snow.

    The Winter Witch opened the front door, it came free with a jolt that set her on her toosh. An avalanche of snow thundered into the room covering her feet and legs. “Now that’s refreshing!”  Outside was a winter land of strange shapes.  The object she was seeking was unrecognizable in all the snow banks. Taking a shovel she plunged it into numerous drifts until it struck metal with a clunk. “Ahh! There you are,” she said.  She scraped off enough to find the handle and gave it a vigorous pull. It open unto a cave of dark, dark, cold.  “Well, let’s see if the old girl will start.”  In past times she would use a sleigh for travel but then the caribou became too scarce. Later it was a Stanley Steamer but that finally quit on a return trip. She abandoned it an Iowa cornfield back in the 20’s after the boiler blew. Her latest mode of transportation was a 1959 Cadillac. It took effort and a little magic before the steel and chrome behemoth turned over. The automobile rumbled to life eventually turned over with a wolf like growl.  The shaking threw off layers of snow in jiffy. A deep black like the night sky in Barrow was revealed. A beautiful mural of the Aurora Borealis was airbrushed on its hood. The massive bumper sported stickers that proclaimed "I brake on icy bridges", "My other car is a dogsled", and "Cold is a figment of your imagination". A rainbow swag of Christmas lights dangled around the interior. Upon the dashboard was glued a bobble head doll of old Saint Nicholas.  The radio glowed to life and began to play holiday songs by the Lemon Sisters, Andy Williams and Louie Armstrong. “Good now all I have to do is pack.” She opened the trunk and all the doors then shoveled the car full with snow. She rolled down the windows and filled the car with artic air, then shut them up trapping the cold inside. She didn’t want to get stranded without her natural atmospheres close by. A mile south of her cabin the wintry landscape stopped abruptly. As her car lumbered onto the rutted muddy trail a transformation began. Whereas blue skies and green forest lay ahead, a glance in the rearview mirror gave an appearance of foreboding doom. Darkening storm clouds packed with snow and ice followed in her wake. She was bringing all the elements of winter along for a ride. First came the plummeting temperatures with a cold that crept under your clothes to sing your skin. Once in it would settle deep into your bones for an ice age. Yellowknife's temperature dropped from 45 to ‑17 in mere hours. Then ice and frost painted the landscape in crystalline textures. Drivers were astonished as an antique Chevrolet heedlessly plowed by, leaving a trail of snow in its wake. A squall of snow burst out from the tail pipe. Blizzard conditions immediately set in blanketing all in cold, snow, and ice.

    The local weathermen for the next two days bantered about a cold front reaching the Canadian border. The high pressure system that squatted over the eastern seaboard since September wasn’t budging. In fact, weather reporting had become so boring as to not be reportable. The forecast sounded rote. Whatever was coming might hit North Dakota, but Delaware was a world away weather-wise.

    It was the last day before Christmas break and school was alive with holiday events. The classroom windows were open and kids could be heard singing carols. Henry admitted they sounded much better with practice. His classmates handed out Pollyanna’s and Mom’s had brought in plates of cookies. Having ten days off from tests and lectures would be nice even if it felt like spring break.

   At home, a path of pine needles lay sprinkled on the carpet. Henry’s dad was in the living room setting up an enormous tree. His dad was known for picking the largest one on the lot. “Hey pal, could you go out to the shed and get me a saw? I have to take a bit off the top and maybe the bottom too.” Decorating the Christmas tree was a family affair. Dad used a ladder for the high branches, while mom got the middle section, and Henry took care of the lowliest boughs. Lastly a train tracks and lighted house were setup around the base. With the lights out in gave the appearance of a little village in the forest. Each evening Henry and his dad played the I Spy game to find ornaments upon the tree. Mom baked cookies in the kitchen. He looked at the lofty angel high atop the tree and whispered a silent wish of snow.

     At an entry point along the Canadian-US Border cars lined up waiting their turn to crossover. They were packed with travelers and presents. An automobile festooned with Christmas lights pulled over at the US side. A patrolman knocked on the driver’s window. From the radio Old Blue Eyes was crooning something about Witchcraft. The window rolled down and out poured the coldest air to be felt in the past five years. Instantly all the lanes behind the tolls went white with snow shutting down the border. The Winter witch looked in the rear view mirror and said “Hee, Hee, you can’t keep out me.”

    An alarm went off at the meteorological station in Washington D.C. It alerted all forecasters that a storm had snuck over the northern border. Code Blue was to be put in action. Weatherman were to immediately begin backtracking on all those promises made for a sunny Christmas. Get out all the cue cards with panicky words of doom: Snowmageddon, Snowpocolypse. Time to spread fear even if it might not happen. Winter was coming. ‘We don’t know where or how much but buy all the bread and milk you can!’

    The cities fell like sugar dominoes. Grand Rapids, Sioux Falls, Des Moines. All succumbed to the three horseman of winter; cold, snow, and ice. Rivers froze, schools closed, tractor trailers pulled over for the night. The sun disappeared behind some serious snow clouds. An ebony Cadillac rolled down I-80, Chicago and the Great Lakes lay ahead.

    At a desolate corner in Ann Arbor a convenience store stood all lit up like a Christmas tree. The clerk thumbed through his text messages. Nothing exciting ever happened on the night shift. A hulking steel dinosaur growled up to the curb. The overhead lights flickered off and on. Out of the car stepped a globe of a person covered in layers of clothes. She was supported by two canes to keep her tottering figure from falling and rolling away. The door swished opened. A tap of her cane on the floor caused the temperature inside the store to plummet 40 degrees. The crony croaked “Tea”. The shivering clerk could barely point to the back wall. Tap, tap, and tap she went down the aisle. She reached inside for an ice tea and took a swallow. “BLAH! Syrupy-corn crap.” She picked up a bottle of unsweetened tea and then proceeded to open all the refrigerator compartments. “That’s better” she said and walked out the door. A lonely clerk stood frozen at the counter clutching his phone. It flashed red with weather alerts.

    It was the day before Christmas and chaos arose on the airwaves. A morning newscaster chimed in something about dicey weather developing stay tuned. Henry turned on his cell phone and searched for radar maps. A screen appeared showing a digital storm stretching from Ohio to western Canada. The mass stayed north of I-80 in a seamless route. A video showed a news person with one leg standing on asphalt and the other buried in a snow drift. The snow just ended at an invisible line. Warm sun on one side of the street and a blizzard on the other. Darnedest weather any one had ever seen. It seemed like a yarn spun by a teller of tall tales. Puzzled forecasters poured over incoming numbers, studied charts, and leafed through the Farmer’s Almanac for answers. North of Pittsburgh a traffic reporter stood alongside I-76. Cars whizzed by as he droned on about one of the heaviest travel days of the year. Behind him a grim cloud rapidly grew. Just as he was signing off a lumbering car with shiny chrome bumpers drove past. The news feed went dark. 

    A newsflash of a possible storm dramatically changed Henry’s outlook. He rushed around the house helping Mom and Dad with last minute holiday trimmings. He gave Mom a hand wrapping the last presents and vacuuming the house. A search for gloves and boots turned up outgrown clothes for donation. Dad dug out the shovels just in case the clueless weatherman was right this time. Henry hummed along to almost every Christmas carol on the radio. Though he still couldn’t listen to the Chipmunks without cringing. Daylight faded earlier than usual, the sun seemed to wink ‘good luck’ before retreating to the west. After dinner Henry looked out his bedroom window. A cloud spread its gray fingers over the moon. Henry easily fell asleep with visions of snow falling.

  The Winter Witch drove along the Pennsylvania Turnpike past old barren corn fields. Perfect ground for snow to settle on. They shut the turnpike down after she got out of the Kittatinny Tunnel. Rest stops became refuge for stranded travelers. Nothing to do but wait it out. The plow trucks were on standby waiting for the blizzard to end. It was along about midnight when the witch decided to pull over. She was about 6 miles out from her destination in a little town called Avondale. A van sat on a corner with tie-dye skirts blowing on a rack. She borrowed a few and left money under the wiper blade for the owner. Christmas lights sparkled across the rooftops. Through a dark window a brightly lit tree cast a rainbow glow on the grass. Everyone was sleeping, eagerly awaiting the dawn. The children anticipating lots of gifts and restless adults hoping the weatherman was wrong. Only one boy wished for winter. Overheard a tinkle of sleigh bells was heard. The Winter Witch returned to her car and headed for the state line.

  Morning broke crystal clear and much too bright. From his bed Henry gazed at the window. “Oh no, not again!” He moaned. Running downstairs he threw open the front door. A bitter wind slapped his face. He squinted at the blindingly snowy world outside. The deepest snow ever covered all he could see. Smoke rose from the chimneys but all else was still and silent. No cars moved. Nobody was mowing grass. No kids were riding bikes. His Mom and Dad came down to see what all the commotion was about. The door stood wide open and Henry was already digging a trench to a nearby sledding hill. He turned around and shouted “My wish came true, it snowed lots.” His parents smiled and went back inside. A horrible rumbling like thunder snow was coming from a black beast driving down the street. It was the only thing not covered with snow. Henry stopped and stared as it passed his house. The window rolled down. A hoary face framed in wild tinsel-y hair peered back at him. The Winter Witch let out a shivering cackle that broke icicles from the roof. For a moment Henry became scared, then it began to snow.

THE END