A little something different today for Christmas. What follows is a Christmas story featuring two members of the Five: Farm the Half-Wolverine and Notter the Otter. There’s a guest appearance from Mother Hound and a special guest star from the North Pole. The story is included in the first Adventures of the Five novel, THE COMING OF FROST, which was published earlier this year.
To one and all, a very Merry Christmas, and thanks for making this year so successful, both for the novel and this blog.
Originally published in ADVENTURES OF THE FIVE: THE COMING OF FROST, available at Amazon in paperback and for the Kindle.
“Mother Hound’s Silent Night Gone Not So Silent”
Written and Copyright by Mark Bousquet, 2010
Mother Hound lay curled up in a pile of damp straw on the floor of an abandoned barn in the middle of the Meadow. The basset hound was old enough that her joints ached in the cold and it seemed to her that she’d never remembered a winter as frigid as the one that was howling outside her doors at this very moment. “Can’t sleep here, Hound,” she whispered to herself, forcing her body to slowly uncurl and trudge towards the far door, her short legs aching with every step. “Least not while that door is open, letting the weather in.”
Farm had forgotten to latch the door again, and the wind whipped snow into the building they shared. The story of how Farm had come into the lives of the Meadow’s creatures was a long and complex one, but the story of how he had come into Mother Hound’s life was short and simple: He was an orphan and no family would take him in, so the laws of the Meadow dictated that he come to live at the Barn under her care. She never questioned the decision and tried hard not to fault her fellow inhabitants, though there were times seeing Farm alone and struggling to fit in that she thought ill of Corin and Oak and a handful of other Meadow Elders that had the room and resources to take the child in, but refused for reasons both large and small.
Hound said nothing to them about it. While she was in charge of the Barn, she had no seat at the Elders’ Council, despite them holding their meetings here. She was not “of the Meadow,” as the inhabitants liked to say of outsiders, and so while Hound was free to live with them and while few in the Meadow would say a negative word against her, she was not, and would never be one of them.
“Farm should be, though,” she whispered sorrowfully as she reared up on her hind legs to push the barn door shut.
“Farm should be what?”
“Farm should be in bed!” she snapped, jumping back skittishly at the unexpected sound. Her large, dark eyes looked up to see Farm sitting on the ledge of the hayloft.
“But I want to stay up and see Santa Claus!” Farm protested and Mother Hound’s heart melted. She wouldn’t fight with him tonight, or reprimand him too harshly, and she knew that often the best way to get him to do what she wanted was to let him do what he thought he wanted; once he saw the error of his ways he was willing to accept the wisdom of hers. “Please!” he pleaded, clasping his paws together. “It’s Eve’s Christmas!”
“I know what night it is,” she reminded him, taking in his small but already powerful form as he scurried down a post to join her on the floor. “I count my blessings the storm is severe enough to keep you inside and away from chasing her ghost!”
Farm was neither wolverine nor fox, but equal parts of both, and how he came to be what no one else in the Meadow could claim was why none would take him in and none would send him away. He was “of the Meadow” and not, a reminder of both a stranger in their midst and a beloved friend they would never see again.
Farm’s fur was black and his claws were sharp like that of a wolverine, and he had a way of smiling every now and then that sent shivers up the spines of those that had come face-to-face with his father. It was not that he was malicious, for Farm had never committed a hurtful act against anyone, but it was something in the eyes, something that sparkled and hinted at a deeper understanding of the world outside that would forever keep the Meadow from fully embracing him. All of this he had come by way of his father, Jacob.
Farm’s body was sleek and his movements quick, and he had a way of laughing every now and then that sent heavy tears rolling down furry cheeks from those who had known his mother. It was not that Farm mimicked his mom’s laugh note-for-note, for he was truly a unique creature in the Meadow, but it was something in the tone, something that danced and hinted at an adventurous spirit that was so like Dee that the Meadow could never fully turn their collective backs on him.
The result was that Farm looked like a black fox, albeit one whose face was a bit wider than it was sleek, whose tail was shorter than it was long, and whose body was a bit rounder than any fox the Meadow had known (with the exception of Grandfather Kristoff, the Meadow’s oldest resident, who never left his cave and hadn’t done a bit of exercise, it was believed, for five whole years). He wasn’t as quick as the other foxes, but he could climb better than any of them, and he wasn’t as nimble, though he made up for it by being stronger.
Mother Hound’s eyes flashed open in pain at the conclusion she knew was coming for her beloved orphan – with each passing season, Farm was looking less the fox and more the wolverine, and when that balance was tipped too far there might be enough sentiment in the Meadow to ask him to leave. The things Jacob did to this Meadow … Mother Hound shivered and then reminded herself that nothing against Jacob had ever been completely proven.
“Hound?” Farm asked with naked concern, seeing her large eyes focusing on something unseen. “Are … are you okay?” he pressed, staring intently as he approached on four legs. Corin had given him strict orders that if Mother Hound had another fainting spell he was to immediately bolt across the Meadow and get him, no matter the time of day, nor condition of the weather.
“I’m fine, dear,” Hound smiled, drawn out of her memories. She knew of Corin’s orders and didn’t want to risk Farm heading out in this weather on her account. “Of course,” she sighed, “I wish I hadn’t had to come and close the door. I have told you a hundred times a hundred times a hundred times that you must shut and latch the door when the wind howls.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Farm answered, glad that she was okay but unable to stop a frown from appearing on his face.
“What is it, dear?”
“It’s nothing, ma’am.”
“Clearly, it is something, or you would not be frowning on a holiday night such as Eve’s Christmas,” Hound said gently, and then realized the source of his downturn. “You’re worried that Santa will not be able to enter the Barn because we have no chimney and I have made you lock the door.”
Farm wrinkled his nose and flopped down with a soft plump on the dirt floor, his black, furry tail whisking back and forth as his chin hugged the ground.
“There now,” Hound said gently, moving to him and pressing her large, wet nose against his furry forehead. “Santa does not move the way you and I move, dear. He needs neither chimney nor door to get inside. It is not the chimney that lets him in, but the belief in him by those who wish for his arrival. Now, what say you and I head to the horse stalls and get the Barn looking Christmassy for Santa’s arrival? Would you like that, dear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Farm answered, his face rising up and his frown replaced by a sad smile. “I just wish the others could be here for a little bit.”
“I’m sure they wish they were here, too, Farm,” Mother Hound said gently as they moved away from the door and towards the horse stalls that were to their left, in the middle of the Barn’s opposite wall. “Especially, Jasper, I’d imagine.” Mother Hound had done all she could over the years to make the Barn feel like everyone’s home and while there were still gaps in the boards that made up the walls, there was none in the Meadow who did not think of the Barn as a place of warmth and safety. That was thanks to Mother Hound. “Aurora feels the same way, I’d wager,” the elderly basset hound continued, “and Flake, and perhaps even Notter, though,” she crooked her head to smile at Farm, “I am not too terribly disappointed that the harsh weather will keep that one from joining us tonight. I think it will be nice to have a simple, silent night with just the two of us. We hardly have those anymore, with all the comings and goings around the Barn.”
Farm smiled as he walked beside his caretaker. Notter was their group’s biggest troublemaker and every time he visited the Barn something went awry. “A bad influence,” Hound would scold him, but she never tried to stop the mischievous otter from playing with Farm. The truth was that Hound knew Farm had too few friends as it was to deny him one of the four he had.
Even if it was Notter the Otter.
Hound rolled her eyes, wondering what possessed that boy’s mother into giving him such a silly name. It wasn’t like her parents (if she had been allowed to stay with them) would have named her Wound or Mound or Ground the Hound. Aurora wasn’t Flox the Fox, Flake wasn’t Wabbit the Rabbit, and Jasper wasn’t … well, Old Mother Hound didn’t know what rhymed with “porcupine,” but it would be no more ridiculous than Notter the Otter.
She was sure of that.
“Be a dear and turn on the lights,” she said warmly, “while I go and warm up some milk and honey.”
“And toast?” Farm asked hopefully. He knew the Elders frowned on these humanistic touches, but Mother Hound, being from the human world and not the natural world, felt comforted by them from time to time. He decided to push his luck. “With butter made from the peanuts we sto- um, that we were given by the field cats?”
“I’ll see if we have any left.” Hound smiled and turned away to hide her face falling into a sorrowful frown. In truth, she wished her parents had named her Wound or Mound or Ground or anything at all, but they hadn’t. They hadn’t the chance, Hound was told by the creatures who were Elders a generation ago; she had been found shivering in the cold, barely a week old, dropped and abandoned by humans who did not want her in their lives, and did not care what the forest did to her.
The forest cared for her instead of ending her, she knew, because the Meadows’ Elders had discovered her and taken her in. It was said (though Hound didn’t know if it was true or false) that there was an argument over what to call her that lasted an entire spring. (Given what had happened with Farm’s name, she did not doubt these stories.) By the time the Elders were ready to vote, she had begun to respond to “Hound,” and they didn’t have the heart (or, more importantly, the votes) to change it. There were times when Hound wished she had a more proper name (like River or Acorn or Agatha), but she knew if it wasn’t for the kindness of the Meadow she would not have survived more than a night in the forest before the wolves or hawks or weather did her in.
So she had been Hound for all of her life, right up to the moment when she stopped being young, when she looked around and realized there were now more Meadow creatures younger than her by two generations than there were of her own age. It was then she became Mother Hound, and she was fine with that name, too. (Even if Mother Agatha sounded better to her ears.)
Hound tossed a collection of twigs into the fire stove that warmed the Barn and reveled in the flaring of heat that announced their presence. The rest of the Meadow were wild creatures, able to adapt to the cold environment no matter how harsh, but Hound was a domesticated animal. All these years in the Meadow had not changed that and she welcomed the presence of fire and heat (and peanut butter) as if she had never left the world of man, even though she hadn’t even been there long enough to stop drinking her mother’s milk.
As if answering the fire inside the stove, the wind whipped harder outside the Barn, rattling the walls. Mother Hound shook herself, her large ears flapping up and down, up and down. She moved reluctantly away from the stove and shuffled into the small kitchen, which stood on the right of the Barn, opposite the horse stalls. Another difference between the wild animals of the Meadow and herself was that they could use better their front paws like the humans used their hands, while it took Mother Hound many a year to master this feat. Even now, as she opened a small icebox to pull out a bottle of milk, she had to think her paws through their actions instead of taking them for granted. Farm could easily walk to the icebox, open it, take out a bottle of milk, hold it in one hand, walk to the pantry, and take down a jar of honeycomb, but Hound had to do it all in pieces. There was a magic to the Meadow that only those born here possessed, and was not a blessed with its presence. She placed the bottle of milk on the ground and rolled it on its side to the stove, then shuffled over to the pantry shelves to take a jar of honeycomb the bees had given her in the summer in exchange for not knocking down their hive. Rolling that on its side over to rest by the milk, the old basset hound then went back for the bread (still in its pan from baking) and pushed that with her nose across the floor, and finally went back for the cup of peanuts Farm had stolen from the field cats.
Mother Hound didn’t condone stealing, but she didn’t condone the field cats, either.
“How are the lights coming, dear?” she called over her shoulder as she poured some milk into a dented pan.
Farm did not answer.
“That child,” she sighed, shaking her head, figuring he was, as was not uncommon, lost in thought.
In truth, Farm was not lost in thought. Or, rather, he was not lost in the thought Mother Hound thought he was lost in. As Mother Hound was tossing the twigs he’d collected earlier in the day into the stove, Farm plugged in the string of red, green, yellow, and blue lights and dashed up an aged, but still sturdy post. His claws (which certainly owed more to his father than his mother) dug easily into the wood and his black body scurried quickly onto the Barn’s second floor. While the first floor was largely open in order to accommodate Meadow gatherings, the upper floor contained a handful of cordoned off rooms. Farm’s bedroom was on the second floor, as were numerous other unoccupied bedrooms. Technically, the Barn also served as the Meadow’s orphanage, but Farm was its only current resident.
Families sometimes stayed in the Barn, if their home was damaged (that’s how he had met Jasper) or if someone was really sick, or even, once or twice, when someone from outside the Meadow was visiting or passing through, but there hadn’t been any visitor in months. Mother Hound had a room on the second floor, down at the far end of the walkway (the left side of the walkway was against the partitioning wall and the right side was open, allowing you to look down at the floor), but her condition kept her from making it up the ramp most nights, and she slept downstairs, near the fire, in a bed of the freshest straw they had, covered with blankets that had been abandoned by humans who’d picnicked in the Meadow the previous summer.
Farm thought worse of himself for Mother Hound sleeping downstairs, because without her presence on the second floor he could put off sleep, and adventure deeper into the night. Instead of simply honoring her wishes by going to bed, he would take advantage of her absence to hatch plans of great adventure (plans that Mother Hound often called “mischief”) with friends that should have been in their own beds.
Farm smiled, hearing a familiar creaking of wood two rooms down the hallway. Taking a quick peak over the ledge to make sure Hound wasn’t looking up at him (she was absorbed in getting the cover off the jar of honeycomb), Farm pressed closer to the wall and zipped down the walkway.
It was a curious building that the humans had abandoned, the half-wolverine, half-fox mused for the umpteenth time. The bottom was unmistakably a barn for keeping horses and machinery, but the top floor was partly furnished. There were rooms that were portioned off from one another (some containing beds, others chairs, and one big room full of wooden toys), but there were no doors, nor even front walls to the rooms, and there was only a floor on this side of the barn. Opposite his room, it was open save for support beams.
No doors made secret adventuring tough, but the open space gave Farm a sense of freedom none of his friends had in their homes. He’d slept over Jasper’s den a few times and he’d become so agitated at the small space the porcupines lived in that he made Jasper climb the nearest tree so they could sleep in its branches and out in the open. As much as he liked Flake, Farm still shuddered at the thought of spending as much as five minutes inside the Rabbit Warren (unless that five minutes was spent in the library, which he adored, even if being there meant dealing with Flake’s older brother, Pine, who ran the library). Aurora was a fox, which meant on any given night her family could be in one of the four dens they owned (that each fox family had as many as six dens just for themselves was a spot of contention in the Meadow), and they, at least, had some real size to them. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter because Corin would never let boys sleep over anyway, but Farm, Jasper, and Notter had spent a few nights in empty fox dens during the summer and they weren’t so bad. Farm said it was because the fox dens were roomier than the porcupine or rabbit homes and living at the Barn had made him like to sleep in roomy places, but Notter laughed and said it was because Farm had a crush on Aurora, so of course he’d like the fox dens better.
No one ever got to spend the night at Notter’s.
No one ever complained.
No one ever talked about why they couldn’t.
Farm was okay with that, since it meant Notter spent more time at the Barn, and as much as Farm liked adventuring he knew that without the Barn he likely would never have become friends with Jasper and Notter and Flake and Aurora.
“Evening, Farm!” Notter the Otter chirped cheerfully as Farm rounded a wooden post and entered the playroom, which doubled as the secret headquarters for their small group. The playroom, or Clubhouse as they called it, was where most of the planning was done, and where Notter would always sneak in through a loose board in the Barn’s outer wall. The otter had already made himself comfortable on a large green sofa in the middle of the room, stretching out languidly and rubbing his wet body on the old fabric.
“Shh!” Farm cautioned him, peering back over his shoulder and down to the floor. “Hound will hear you!” he whispered harshly.
“Thhhpt!” Notter scoffed cheerfully. “Old Mother Hound can’t hear a lick anymore, you know that, especially with that storm raging outside.”
“Don’t be mean.”
“It ain’t mean if you’re just stating the facts,” Notter smiled absently, rising up on his feet to shake the snow from his brown fur. “Cold out there tonight. Blimey.”
“Notter!” Farm cried, ignoring his own advice to keep quiet. “Don’t shake your fur off on the couch! You’re making it wet!”
“What’s wrong with wet?” Notter asked through a wicked grin.
Farm rubbed his head in his paws. “Just because otters like the water, Notter, doesn’t mean-”
“Yes, yes, sorry, sorry,” Notter apologized quickly without really sounding like he was apologizing. Notter was good at things like that. The otter leapt off the couch and scurried to his seat at the five-sided table. It was (or had been) a card table back when the human’s owned the barn several decades ago, but Farm and his friends rarely had the patience for a card game. Early in the summer they’d gotten Twigs, the Beavers’ representative on the Elders’ Council, to come upstairs and chew the legs of the table down to a height more manageable for woodland creatures instead of humans – roughly two inches. Notter plopped himself down on his pillow (each member of their group – they called themselves the Five – had a pillow instead of a chair, and they always sat in their assigned spots) and rested his chin on the table top.
“No one else is coming,” he announced. “I’ve checked in with all of them. It’s brutal out there, Farm. Mein Gott.”
Farm nodded, expecting as much. Jasper was too slow to get across the Meadow in this kind of weather, and while Aurora and Flake could make it (foxes and rabbits being both fast and used to traveling in the snow), neither would be allowed out of their houses.
“I did hear Corin say that he was sorry he couldn’t get over here and deliver your presents.”
Farm looked alarmed. “Notter! Were you spying on Corin again? You’re going to make him furious! We can’t make him suspicious this close to Eve’s New Year! If he suspects anything he’ll keep Aurora home that night. You cannot spy on him, Notter. Not this month, at least. We agreed.”
Notter looked wounded by the accusation. “Spying is such a dirty word, Farm.”
“Not to you it isn’t.”
Notter’s look of concern grew into a wide smile. “Yeah, you’re right about that. Crikey.”
Farm smiled back; it was impossible to stay mad at someone as enthusiastic as Notter, and as long as Notter had already spied there really wasn’t any harm in hearing about what he discovered. “What else did you hear?”
“Nothing, really,” Notter shrugged, darting off his pillow and towards the rectangular, yellow toy box against the left-side wall. “Maybe we can just take some of these and wrap them up for you. Hound won’t know the difference and that way she won’t feel bad about you not getting anything.”
Farm shook his head. “She’ll know. She’s not dumb.” He watched his friend stare intently at a wooden Nutcracker figurine. The paint had almost completely faded away. The toy’s face was nearly absent of features, the jaw was partially broken, and the once golden jacket was now a dull yellow. Notter was studying the figurine as if he expected the secrets of the universe to come pouring out. Farm thought about Notter’s last answer and his brain started to tingle – Notter was hiding something from him. “What do you mean, ‘nothing really?’” he asked suddenly. “’Nothing really’ means ‘something actually’ or I don’t smell that honey starting to warm in the stove. What did you hear?”
“Ack, Farm, nothing,” Notter frowned, turning his back to Farm in an unsuccessful attempt to hide it. “Jiminy.”
“What?” Farm demanded, his heart starting to race. There was usually only one subject that could get Notter to act like this. “Was it something about my dad?” he pressed excitedly and nervously. “Is he back?”
Notter spun quickly, leaping on Farm and pinning him to the ground.
“Notter, quit it! Get off!”
“It’s worse than your dad,” the otter said in a hushed whisper, his voice unusually shaky.
Farm stopped struggling. “Worse than Jacob’s return?”
Notter nodded, his head darting around and his nose sniffing the air before his eyes came back to lock on Farm’s. “Worse than Jacob’s return,” he nodded, his voice barely audible despite only being inches from Farm’s face. “Forsooth.”
Farm’s voice, too, was lower than the wind that howled outside. “What could be worse?”
Notter’s eyes darted around again, as if looking for something. A board creaked and both Notter and Farm snapped their head toward the wall. When nothing came through, Notter whispered, “Human.”
Farm’s eyes went wide. “There’s a human in the Meadow? Tonight?”
Notter nodded. “An old human, too, Farm, and Corin said he was big and fat and knew the Meadow good enough to know which homes had creatures in it and which didn’t. Corin said he watched the human stepping right past the empty fox dens and entering the ones that had foxes in ‘em.”
“Magic,” Notter whispered fiercely, pushing Farm’s shoulders hard onto the floor. “Human magic, too. The worst kind. Yeah, and Corin said this human’s got something to give a particular fox and isn’t leaving until he finds him.” Notter pushed his face in close to Farm’s. “Or her.”
Farm gasped. “You don’t think … Aurora?”
Notter nodded. “She’s the daughter of the most powerful creature in all the Meadow. If the humans were after anyone, it would be her, wouldn’t it?”
“We’ve got to save her!” Farm shouted, knocking Notter off him with surprising strength and leaping to his feet. Plans were already forming in his mind about where to take Aurora after they rescued her. If this magic human could tell which dens were inhabited and which weren’t, maybe that’s because he was a tracker of some kind. Maybe they could take her to the caves and sneak down through the abandoned miner’s tunnels and lead her to safety? Which safety, though? To another spot on the Western Mountain? To the abandoned mining facility? To the Factory up on the northern edge? To the Crop Fields in the South? They certainly couldn’t go east, to the human settlement of Eastbrook, unless hiding among the humans was the last place the magic man would look for them.
Decisions, decisions, too many decisions. Farm’s mind raced. The mountain had the most places to hide, but they’d be out in the open too much. The magic man could spot them easily just by looking, and besides, Farm shivered, the birds patrolled the mountain. The last thing he wanted to do was rescue Aurora from a human and deliver her to the hawks. It wasn’t Flake, but Farm bet Dancer wouldn’t mind making the rabbit a bit more scared by killing her best friend.
Then again, maybe they could hide her beyond the Old Wall. Even looking at the Old Wall was a violation of Meadow Law (in fact, it was a violation of the oldest Meadow Law), but that meant it would be the last place anyone would look for them – unless the magic man didn’t know about Meadow Law. Did Farm want to potentially lead this evil magic man to -
He shook the thought away; the Western Mountain was out. The North Factory was off-limits, too, according to Meadow Law, but visiting the factory wasn’t as severe a violation as seeing the Old Wall. Maybe that made it the best place to hide. Few would suspect them of going there and the noise and pollution kept the hawks and wolves away. Notter had been in the factory a bunch of times (or so he said) and there were plenty of hidden ducts and vents where they could hide out. Since it was Christmas time, the factory wouldn’t be running for a few days, meaning the humans wouldn’t be around to spot them, either. Hunting was illegal in the Meadow, but humans were allowed to shoot animals that wandered onto their property. They’d have to come up with some way to avoid the alarms, though, or else the police would come and-
Farm pushed the thought aside. The Crop Fields were … he scolded himself. He was spending too much time planning and not enough time acting. First they had to rescue Aurora. The rest they could figure out once they had her.
Farm spun on Notter. “We’ve got to get going! There’s no telling when the mag … ic … man …” He stopped cold as he saw Notter double over with laughter, his paws clenching his stomach as he wiggled back and forth on the worn red carpet.
“Notter! What’s so funny?”
“You’re so easy, Farm!” Notter giggled. “A human magic user walking around the Meadow tonight? Only visiting houses with people inside? With something to give someone special?”
Farm’s anger was blinding his ability to think; the half-wolverine had started to notice that he was getting angrier quicker than he used to get. Aurora was in danger and Notter was here playing riddles. They had to go warn her, or if they were too late for that, to save her. He didn’t see what was so funny about this magical human appearing in everyone’s house with something … to … give …
Farm groaned. “I’m so easy,” he mumbled, flopping back onto Flake’s pillow by the round table. He slapped his paw against his forehead. “Corin was talking about-”
“Santa Claus!” Notter shouted and then burst out laughing again.
This was the way it usually was between these two friends, and that’s why, when Farm had a secret to tell, he told it to Jasper the Porcupine.
“Can you imagine Santa Claus walking through the Meadow?” Notter laughed. “That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Tovarisch.”
Farm turned his back and shook his head, conflicted emotions running through him. He was happy, first and foremost, that Aurora wasn’t in any danger, but he was also angry at being made the butt of Notter’s joke.
Even if it was a really, really good one.
“What’s that word, mean?” Farm asked, changing the subject. “Tovarisch. I haven’t heard you use that one before.” Notter had a way of punctuating the ends of his sentences with one or two words sayings that no one else in the Meadow used.
Notter shrugged. “I think it means ‘friend,’ but I’m not exactly sure.”
“What is it, German? Russian?”
Notter moved slowly but purposely around the card table and leapt up onto the couch, where he started to dig between the ratty cushions. “Neither. It’s comic book,” he said casually, as if that were a language.
“Well, who says it?” Farm asked, his mind already racing at figuring out the next challenge.
“I could tell you that,” Notter replied, his voice muffled from his face being buried in-between the couch’s cushions, “but then that would qualify as your Christmas present.”
Farm snorted. “Like you got me a Christmas present.”
Notter’s hand shot out from behind the cushions and held aloft a small object, wrapped in what was obviously Christmas paper. “If I didn’t get you a present, then what’s this?”
Farm’s eyes went wide and his mind hurried to take back any negative thought he’d had about Notter in the past year. Or six months. Or ever. Excited as he was, his mind put the brakes on that line of thought, thinking instead, “Let’s just leave it at the past few weeks to be safe.” The present was wrapped in a dark green paper covered with images of red ribbons and gold bells. It was perhaps a foot long and only a couple inches wide. Farm’s mind was already trying to guess what was inside. The way Farm thought, the only thing better than getting a present was getting one that you could figure out in-between seeing the wrapped package and opening it.
His mind instantly went back to a few moments ago, when Notter was holding the Nutcracker. Farm thought, “I bet that’s what it is. A new one to replace the old one.”
“Well?” Notter asked, looking down from the couch. “Do you want the answer to your question or do you want your present?”
“Present!” Farm said excitedly, figuring he could get the other information out of Notter later on in the week.
“Good choice!” Notter beamed happily, tossing the present to Farm.
Catching it in his paws, Farm first sniffed at, then shook the gift.
“Just open it,” Notter whined.
“I should wait until tomorrow.”
“Farm, it practically is tomorrow,” Notter reminded him. “Besides, I’ve got to get home pretty soon.”
Notter said these last words sourly, and Farm decided to open the gift right then and there. None of them knew exactly what Notter’s home situation was like, but they all knew it wasn’t as good as theirs. Every so often, when Farm was grumbling about Mother Hound’s rules or chores, Aurora would remind him that he had it better than Notter and he should be thankful for that, even if he did have more chores than the rest of them put together.
Once, Aurora had even whispered, “Sometimes, maybe it’s better to not have a mother than to have one like Notter’s.” Farm pressed her on it, but she absolutely refused to say any more, even though the half-wolverine knew she must know more because she was Corin’s daughter and there were always Very Important People stopping by to talk about Very Important Things.
Pushing these thoughts aside, Farm tore into the present. “This is so great, Notter,” he said genuinely. “I didn’t think you’d get me a present. I mean, unless …” He stopped opening the present and looked up to where Notter was looking down at him intently from the edge of the couch. “This isn’t going to explode in my face or anything, is it? If I get a face full of flour …”
Notter waved the thought away with a paw. “Would I do that to you?”
“You’ve done it to me about seven times.”
“Well, yes, but have I done it to you on Christmas?”
“N-no,” Farm answered, feeling suddenly very nervous about what he held in his paws.
“Look, Farm, if it was going to, I don’t know, spray you with water, or if snakes were going to come pouring out when you opened up a metal can, well, would I be standing this close to you? No,” he said defiantly. “No, I wouldn’t. Now open it up. I’m so excited it’s like I’m opening the present.”
Farm took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He still wasn’t convinced, but there was a certain logic to Notter’s explanation. “Here goes,” he whispered, ripping open the rest of the paper to reveal …
“Huh,” Notter said, sounding surprised. “That’s a bit of a disappointment.”
“Notter,” Farm asked cautiously as he stared at his gift, not wanting to offend, “why did you get me a Barbie doll?”
“Right,” Notter sighed. “There’s a perfectly good explanation for that. I, um … well,” he said, his eyes catching sight of the toy box, “I wanted to give the Nutcracker a girlfriend, see, and-”
“You didn’t buy this, did you?” Farm asked, feeling tired and already knowing the answer.
“Notter! How could you steal someone’s Christmas present?”
“I didn’t steal anything!” Notter answered sharply, sounding hurt. “It was just laying there, ripe for anyone to take it. As far as I know, Santa Claus saw me walking across the Meadow and intended to drop it in my path, knowing I’d give it to you. So, really,” he said quickly, before Farm could ask the question, “you need to ask Santa Claus why he would give you a Barbie doll. Strange gift if you ask-”
Notter’s words were interrupted by a deep, frightening howl from somewhere in the Meadow. “Aaaaaoooooowwwwwwoooooooooooo!” boomed an unknown voice from a creature (man, animal, something else?) unknown. Whoever had made the noise sounded big and in pain.
A deep silence immediately descended across the Meadow. “Who was that?” Farm asked in a quiet whisper, thinking of all the stories he’d heard about the Meadow being haunted and trying to figure out which legend would make a sound like that. It certainly didn’t fit with any of the stories they’d read about Eve, even though she was supposed to be in the Meadow tonight.
“What was that, is more like it,” Notter answered, jumping down off the couch to stand beside Farm. “I knew there was something strange going on in the Meadow tonight. Corin was all kinds of edgy. He might’ve been talking about Santa but his mind was somewhere else.”
“Was it the Ghost Train?” Farm asked, shivering.
“I don’t think so. That’s more of a summer haunting than a winter haunting. Remember, we heard it back in-”
“Do you think the aliens have finally come for Shepherd?”
“Thhpppt,” Notter scoffed. “Ain’t no aliens coming for the crazy old monkey. Zoinks.”
“Rrrrrrrraaaaaaawwwwwwwrrrrrrrr!” the unknown speaker boomed over the howling wind.
“It’s getting closer,” Farm remarked. “It’s coming this way.”
“Well, yeah,” Notter said, as if it were obvious. “The Barn kinda sticks out. It’s right where I’d go. Hey, let’s go out and take a look!” Notter balled his right paw into a fist and slammed it onto his left paw.
“Bad strategy,” Farm challenged. “Why go out in the snow when we can stay in here and peek through holes? Better view.” He paused, scratching his head. “We need to properly assess the situation before venturing out blindly.”
“But if we stay inside we could be too late to stop whatever’s out there from coming into the Barn.”
Farm thought that made sense, but he shook his head anyway. “We’ve got to protect Hound. If there’s something mean and nasty coming this way then we’ve got to know what it is in order to lead it away from-”
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
Farm and Notter looked at each other, fear momentarily popping onto their faces. “It’s here,” they both said as the Barn shook with the thunderous blows.
“Hound!” Farm shouted, then zipped out of the playroom and down the first post in his path. His eyes found Hound moving towards the door and he screamed for her to stop.
“Hush,” she scolded, stopping to look back at him.
Farm was on her in a second and planted himself between Mother Hound and the door. The same door he’d purposely left open earlier in case Jasper, Flake, or Aurora braved the storm and came over to wait up for Santa Claus. If Hound hadn’t latched it, whatever was outside would already be-
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
The large wooden doors rattled as something heavy pushed against them from outside in the storm.
“This is ridiculous, Farm,” Hound protested. “Someone is clearly in need of help. Step aside this instant young man or I will- is that Notter?” she asked, looking at the top of the doorframe, where the otter was holding on tightly.
“Hi, ma’am!” he greeted cheerfully. “Lovely weather we’re having. Mercy.”
“Notter the Otter, does your mother know-?”
Hound’s words were cut off as the doors burst open. Farm, Hound, and Notter all looked to the door with anticipation to see who – or what – would enter. At first, there was nothing but a huge gust of snow billowing in out of the dark. The snow hit Hound and Farm square, forcing them back several steps, while Notter shivered with the updraft of cold.
Hearts racing, they peered into the dark where there was nothing but big, fat snowflakes piercing the darkness of the night.
Then the darkness started to move.
Farm gasped. It wasn’t the night he was seeing, it was a figure. A very large, menacing figure that was blocking out whatever light was out there. His whole world seemed to shake as the figure took one step … then another … then a third …
Farm and Hound took another few steps back. Notter dashed higher up into the Barn’s beams, scurrying around to get a better view of the monster that came to the Meadow on Eve’s Christmas.
Farm could smell something foul (like fish) in the wake of the monster’s roar, and then two eyes appeared higher than Farm had ever seen eyes on a creature that wasn’t in a tree. He stepped in front of Hound and readied his own claws, knowing they’d be useless against what came in out of the dark, but knowing he had to protect the woman that cared for him when no one else would.
A fourth step. Another roar. The darkness rippled as it approached the Barn’s entrance, where light struggled against the night.
A white mass of fur burst into the light and the two largest paws Farm had ever seen thundered onto the floor of the Barn, nearly knocking Farm off his feet. The monster’s face was less than a foot from his, and he got a nose-full of the smell of fish as the large beast exhaled.
The monster was a polar bear.
A polar bear!
He started to speak, but there were no words willing to leave his body at that moment. In the few moments it took Farm to muster up the courage to say or do anything but stare, a curious thing happened – his mind started to process the sight before him.
There was a polar bear, yes, and it looked incredibly large and incredibly fearsome, but it was not the least bit monstrous. The bear was cloaked in a red vest that covered his massive back, and atop his head was a red, triangular hat with a puffy white ball at its peak. Before Farm could give meaning to those images, he looked down from the hat and to the bear’s face, which was not menacing at all, but instead showed a grim determination undercut with a whole lot of pain.
Farm’s ability to talk came back to him at that moment and he knew he would ask this bear if he was okay, when the really curious part of the night happened.
From behind the bear walked two chinstrap penguins dressed in green vests and green hats (with their own, smaller white puffy ball on top), and dragging a large red sack into the Barn.
“Right,” said Notter from the beam directly above Farm, his arms folded across his chest. “I don’t even know what to say. There’s a polar bear and two penguins standing in the Barn, and they’re wearing really silly clothes.”
The large polar bear rolled his head skyward, and spoke in a voice that was rich and warm and knowledgeable. “The words that should come out of your mouth, Notter the Otter, are those that make an apology to Mother Hound for sneaking into her home 481 times these past five seasons. We all know, however,” the bear swiveled his giant head to look kindly towards Mother Hound, “that you will not.”
“You know my name?” Notter asked, completely stunned; that this enormous bear somehow knew his name was even stranger than the bear being here. “How do you know my name?”
The polar bear looked at the otter a second time. “You should also apologize to me for taking a gift meant for another and giving it to Farm.” The bear looked to Farm for the first time. His eyes were a dark grey and somehow both cold and warm at the same time. Farm thought it was like looking at the sky on a cloudy afternoon, when it was warm if you stood in the sun, but cold when the wind blew the clouds overhead.
“Please tell me, Farm,” the bear continued in its deep voice, “if you liked the Barbie doll?”
“No sir!” Farm blurted, feeling his body temperature rise once at the question and then a second time as Mother Hound move to stand next to him.
“Farm,” she asked sternly, “what is the meaning of this?”
“Forget, Farm!” Notter yelled down. “Why is there a polar bear in the Barn? And how does he know who we are and what we did? And, I mean, really, they’re wearing clothes! Ridiculous clothes! Does anyone else not see this?”
It was the penguin’s turn to speak. They dropped the sack they had been tugging along and moved to stand equal to the polar bear, but off to Farm and Hound’s right. Farm did not realize the penguins were female until they spoke. “Of course he knows who you are,” the first penguin scoffed.
“He’s Santa Claus,” the second penguin finished. “Geez. Couple of bright one’s here, eh Winnie?”
“You said it, Minnie. Red coat, silly hat, shows up on Christmas Eve-”
“Eve’s Christmas they call it here.”
“Silly place full of silly people,” Winnie shook her head. “Oh, I know who it is come to give us presents,” she mocked. “It’s the Easter Bunny.”
“No, no, Winnie. It must be the Great Pumpkin.”
“Heavens no. It’s got to be-”
The polar bear cleared his throat. “That will be enough,” he ordered with great finality. “Mother Hound,” he said, looking down at the elderly basset hound, “I am fearfully in need of your assistance. I have gone and gotten myself stuck.”
Santa pulled his body fully into the Barn and Farm, Notter, and Hound all gasped as they saw that the bear’s rear left leg was caught in a rusty bear trap.
“Fitting, I suppose,” the bear remarked of being caught in a trap designed to catch bears, “and sloppy. I was under the impression that hunting was illegal in the Meadow, and that it was empty of bears.”
“Right on both accounts, old one,” Mother Hound answered as she moved down the large body to look at the wound, “but there are still some traps left over from the days gone by when hunting was allowed and bears roamed these woods. You’re lucky,” she said after examining the wound for a quick moment. “The trap is nearly rusted into disuse. It’s teeth are dug into your flesh, the blood tells us that, but the combination of your heavy fur and it’s weakened condition means we’ll be able to get it off, get you bandaged, and get you on your way in the time it takes to … well, I don’t know, I’ve never taken care of a polar bear before. In an hour, maybe. Maybe two.”
Minnie and Winnie chirped up. “Not good enough,” said Minnie.
“We got to get going,” said Winnie.
“And there’s still one present to deliver.”
“Two if you count the one the beaver stole.”
“Beaver?” Notter asked, offended. “I’m an otter.”
“Yeah, well …” started Minnie.
“An otter is just a beaver …” continued Winnie.
“Quick enough to steal presents from Santa Claus,” finished Minnie, looking at him disapprovingly.
“Enough, penguins,” Santa growled, sounding angry for the first time. “If Mother Hound is nice enough to help me in my time of need, we will stay here as long as we must.”
“But the last present,” both chinstrap penguins protested.
“We could deliver it,” Farm suggested before he could think about whether it was a good idea. As everyone turned to look at him with varying degrees of surprise, Farm decided it was a very good idea. He continued, “Me and Notter can do it. I know it’s storming out, but we know the Meadow better than anyone here. Well, except for Mother Hound, of course, but she’s got to help you, Mr. Claus.”
Notter instantly picked up on the benefits of Farm’s plan. “Yeah, we’ll do it. There’s probably a big reward for helping out, Santa, right? Like, what, next year we get whatever toy we want? That’ll be sweet! Mistletoe!”
Santa shook his head and looked at the two children sadly. “That is not how it works, Notter. I am afraid, in fact, that it works in the exact opposite manner.” Santa took a deep breath, noting that Hound was moving towards a number of tools against the wall to his left.
“What?” Notter asked, smelling a bad deal. “We get the present we want least?”
“No,” Farm said, somehow understanding. “We won’t get any gifts from Santa next year. Or ever again, right?”
Santa looked down at the half-wolverine, half-fox with admiration. “That is right, young Farm. My role as Santa to the animals of the world, the penguins’ roles as my assistants (please do not call them elves or we will never get them to cease talking), the entirety of the North Pole, the creation and delivering of gifts, the Nice and Naughty List … all of it is magic.”
Farm nodded, thinking of some of the books he’d read in the rabbits’ library. “And magic has rules.”
“That is an impressive display of knowledge, Farm, for one who routinely fails to read half of his homework assignments,” Santa continued as Farm’s face burned with shame. Mother Hound motioned for the penguins to help her bring some gardening forks to the injured bear as Santa continued to explain the rules of magic to Farm and Notter. “Even magic as powerful as this magic is could not allow me to visit every animal in one night. I am limited to giving gifts only to those who believe in me.”
“Well, heck,” Notter beamed, always happy to point out the flaws in another’s logic, “we’ve seen you, so you can bet your red sack over there that we believe in you.”
Santa looked at Notter with surprising affection. “No, Notter. From this moment on, you will not believe in me. You will know me.”
Notter looked to Farm. “I don’t get it. Do the silly clothes make them stupid?”
“I think … I think it’s the difference between believing and knowing,” Farm explained, and then shook his head at the stupidity of repeating what Santa had just said in order to explain what Santa had said. “Remember in the summer, when we went over to the other side of Big River?” Farm asked, and immediately winced. The other side of Big River was forbidden territory because it brought them within sight of Eastbrook. He glanced to Mother Hound who, if she heard, gave no indication. She was too busy getting each of the penguins to fit the prongs of the gardening fork between the teeth of the bear trap.
“Which time?” Notter asked. “We crossed that river, like, seven or eight times.”
“Try twelve,” Santa corrected.
“Heh,” Notter coughed nervously. “Twelve? Really? Well, erm,” he turned away from Santa’s penetrating gaze and looked to Farm. “You were saying, eh, buddy, ol’ tovarisch?” he asked, clasping him on the back.
“You stayed over on the other side too long and you were being chased by that husky, remember? You didn’t know if you could swim away in the water because the river was down so low. I mean, if you jumped in and hit the bottom and couldn’t swim, the dog would have gotten you. You jumped anyway and discovered it was deep enough and you out-swam the pup. After that, you knew that as long as the river was that high, you could get away, so the next time that husky chased you, you didn’t believe you could get away, you knew you could.”
Notter scratched the back of his head. “Yeah, but, I could still get away.” He looked up at Santa as the penguins were struggling to pull the trap free. “So why won’t we get any more presents?”
Santa looked at them kindly. “Because believing involves risk, young ones. If everyone knew I existed, then the magic spell would be ruined. Belief involves risk, and it is that risk that the magic rewards.”
“So we’re already lost,” Notter groused, folding his arms across his chest. “That’s not cool. Kablammo.”
Santa looked at them seriously. “Perhaps there is a way. If you refuse to bring the gift in the bag and the Barbie doll to their intended destination (for they are going to the same den), I would be willing to continue to bring you gifts for as long as one of your closest friends – Jasper, Aurora, or Flake – believe in me. This way, you can never tell them of this night and allow them to believe or disbelieve on their own.”
Notter looked confused. “That’s what we get if we don’t bring the present? What do we get if we do?”
“You get the satisfaction of doing a good deed.”
Notter blinked a few times, looking back and forth from Santa to Farm. “And …?”
“And nothing more,” Santa said somberly.
“But … but you can’t wrap satisfaction and stick it under a tree!”
“Nor will it ever be left in the snow for someone else to steal,” Santa reminded him gently.
“Bah! Humbug! Bah!”
Farm patted his friend on the shoulder. “We’ll do it, Santa. I mean, it will, well, I won’t like not getting a present from you ever again, but I couldn’t live with myself knowing someone out there’s not getting a gift because of me. I wanted my friends to risk the storm out there to come over and put some presents under our tree because I knew Corin wouldn’t bring the ones Mother Hound had made him promise to bring so I could have a few extra presents. I know that sounds selfish, but I didn’t want her to feel bad. I didn’t care what I got – I really didn’t. I asked them to just wrap up something they didn’t want and I even told them I’d give them all back. I even told them I’d do it for them, if our roles were reversed, and here’s my chance to prove it by bringing someone a present. So yes, we’ll do it, right Notter?”
Notter looked at Farm as if his friend were crazy. “Um …”
Farm sighed. “Spies love having secrets, right? Can you think of a bigger secret to have than knowing that Santa Claus absolutely, positively exists?”
Notter instantly brightened. “That is an excellent point, mi amigo! Let’s do it.”
The friends shook paws and turned to Santa, who grunted in relief as Winnie, Minnie, and Mother Hound pulled the trap from his leg, freeing him of the agony. Santa put that paw back on the ground, to test it, but found it could not yet support his weight.
Mother Hound waddled forward, looking up at the three conspirators. “I don’t like Farm and Notter going out in this weather, Santa, even if it is for the right reasons.”
Santa nodded. “Nor do I, Mother Hound, and I will not let them leave here on this mission without some assistance. If you allow it, I will cast a limited spell of protection on them to aid them on their quest. It will not make them invincible, but they need not worry about the elements; it allows their bodies to step out of synch with time and it is how I am able to travel so quickly across the globe. With this spell they could sleep through the night without feeling cold, though I would not advise it,” he said with a warning, looking down at Notter, “for the spell offers no protection from the wolves and hawks and owls that patrol the Meadow. The spell will last until the sun cracks the horizon and brings Christmas morning to the world.”
Mother Hound nodded, then turned to look at Farm and Notter with love in her eyes and in her heart. “I am proud of you, Farm. And you, too, Notter, though the next time you want some of my honeycomb, ask for it. Don’t think I didn’t realize I was missing one of my eleven jars.”
Notter dropped his head. “Yes, ma’am.”
Mother Hound pressed her wet nose against both of their cheeks. “Keep Notter focused on the mission, Farm,” she advised. “Spell or not, I don’t want you getting stuck out there. You know I’ll worry until you’re safely back inside the Barn.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Farm answered, leaning down to give the basset hound a big hug. “Merry Christmas, Mother.”
“Merry Christmas, my child.”
“Touching,” Winnie gagged.
“So very touching,” Minnie scoffed.
All eyes turned to see Minnie wrapping up the Barbie doll that Notter had taken off the ground and Winnie stepping into and then out of Santa’s sack. Minnie handed the wrapped doll to Notter and Winnie handed her square present to Farm.
“Where are they going?” Farm asked them.
Minnie rolled her eyes. “He can’t read.”
“Children today.” Winnie shook her head. “No education.”
Farm felt his cheeks flush and mumbled out how he could read just fine. He looked down at the tag and his heart skipped a beat. “Aurora,” he whispered.
Notter checked his tag. “Boring Alice,” he chuckled, purposely butchering the name of Aurora’s younger cousin, Borealis. “Right. Let’s do this. Make it so, Number One.”
Farm said good-bye to Mother Hound again, who was instructing the penguins to pour a bottle of river water into a pot to boil in order to clean Santa’s wounds, and good-bye to Santa, who smiled at them warmly (though he still couldn’t put his weight on his injured foot). Farm and Notter stood still as the polar bear chanted a magic spell over their heads, and when he was finished, they started to head for the door, when Farm stopped and turned back.
“Can I ask one question, Santa?”
“You may ask, Farm,” the polar bear answered, “but I may not be willing to answer.”
“Do you live at the North Pole?”
“More or less.”
“Then how,” he looked to the penguins and a confused look covered his face. “I mean, there are no penguins living at the North Pole. Penguins all live in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Santa smiled broadly. “An educated question, young Farm. I can assure you that the humans know of no penguins living in the Arctic, but every so often through the years, a human ship will acquire a penguin while in the Antarctic and transport it north with them, mostly for their own selfish amusement. The waters of the World Ocean are too warm for penguins to swim all the way from one pole to the other, but if a ship brings them they are able to make the journey. Those that do believe they have no home, no family, no community of fellow penguins to bond with in the Arctic. But they do. We are always on the watch for them, and quickly offer them a home at the North Pole, where few human eyes ever come.”
Farm nodded and his black, furry face broke out into a wide smile. “Cool. Thanks.”
Notter shook his head. “That secrets not nearly as good,” he whispered to Farm as they exited the Barn, “but good try.”
“I wasn’t trying to get a secret, Notter,” Farm protested. “I really wanted to know.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Notter shot back.
Farm’s response was lost in the howling of the wind and their bodies disappeared into the darkness.
Santa Claus, Minnie, Winnie, and Mother Hound watched the night in silence for a few moments, and then the polar bear turned to Mother Hound. “Farm is a fine child, Mother Hound. You have done well raising him.”
Hound tried to answer, but her heart swelled with love and she could find no words. She turned away so none could see the tears that they all knew were now flowing. After a few moments of watching the water boil against the stove, Mother Hound said softly, “It is a pity, though, about them two young boys not getting anymore presents from you.”
Santa nodded. “It is, Mother, but I can see that this year’s gift to each of them is something that will make them happy in the morning. And while doing a good deed is its own reward, I think, if you will keep my secret, that we can make next year’s Christmas the most memorable of their lives, and give them something that is not a gift, but is a treasure.”
Mother Hound’s curiosity was piqued. “What would that be?”
“What do those boys, and their friends, like to do more than anything else in the world?”
Mother Hound thought for a moment before answering. She was a contemplative dog and wasn’t going to change just because there was a polar bear in her house. Finally, she answered. “They like to cause trouble?”
“Ho ho!” Santa laughed. “Trouble is the by-product. Well, for Notter perhaps it is the goal,” he said as an aside. “They like to adventure, Mother Hound, and I think I can give them the grandest adventure of their lives.”
“Do you mean …?” Mother Hound asked, astonished at the apparent offer.
Santa nodded. “Yes, but let us not speak of it aloud. I’m afraid Notter, before he came down to witness my arrival, set up a tape recorder to record all that was said in this room.” He turned to the penguins. “Erase the tape, but please, do not destroy the recorder.”
Minnie and Winnie grumbled as the moved to complete Santa’s mission.
“You’d think Santa,” Minnie started.
“Would be a little more fun,” Winnie continued.
“But he’s not,” Minnie finished.
Santa Claus and Mother Hound watched the penguins ascend the ramp that led to the second floor. Outside, the wind howled. Inside, a clock chimed.
It was now Christmas.