January’s theme was Holiday, so I wrote this story:
It was the strangest assortment of animals. Grizzly bears sat silently next to mountain lions, who in turn ignored the herd of deer that stood calmly by the edge of the clearing. There were small animals too: foxes, pine martins, rabbits and voles. Birds lined the branches, everything from great horned owls to ravens and robins and chickadees.
All around the animals, snow fell steadily, coating everything in a soft, muffling white. In the centre of the clearing stood a tree, an old pine that had watched hundreds of generations of animals come and go. No birds sat on the branches of this ancient forest-dweller; it was by any reckoning the greatest tree in the seemingly endless expanse of woods that housed so many marvellous creatures.
For a long time the assembled animals sat around the behemoth, watching the gentle flakes caress its branches. Finally, as if some hidden signal had passed among the gathered creatures, they left, making not a sound, wolf passing quietly by deer, rabbit hopping beside weasels without worry. And then they were gone, leaving a clearing motionless, save for the tranquil breeze that swirled the still-falling snow.
It was called First Snow, and it was observed by every animal in the forest. Each year, the various denizens that lived beneath the trees gathered at the ancient pine, at the first snow of the season. It was a day of peace, a time for the animals to forget, for one blissful moment, about the coming harsh winter, about where their next meal was coming from, about survival.
The stoat sat looking at the tree for a second longer than the other animals, before turning and trotting back into the forest. She was only eight months old, and had never been to a First Snow before. She marvelled at the assembled animals, at the variety of species before her, most of which she had never seen in her short life.
The stoat’s mother had told her about First Snow when she was still a pup, nestled cozily in a dark den with her brothers and sisters. The stoat had not believed her mother, especially as she grew and began to hunt, letting instincts as old as time drag her to a filling meal. It was impossible, she thought, for so many different animals to gather in one spot without out tearing at each other’s throats, without letting their stomachs control them.
But the stoat had gone to First Snow, and forces greater than instincts had taken hold of her. She had sat right next to a mouse, and the thought of food had not once crossed her mind. She had been enthralled, captivated by the giant pine, and the trickling snow. It was only after the stoat had slipped back into the forest, her white silken coat matching perfectly with the surrounding snow, that she began to feel the familiar hunger in her belly, and the drive to hunt, and to kill.
The rest of the winter passed, with thoughts of First Snow fading from the stoat’s mind as she concentrated all her energy on survival. Spring came, bringing life into the world, and into the stoat’s belly. She watched in wonder as her pups wiggled around the burrow, blind, but still able to find her milk-rich teats.
She taught her pups to hunt in the heavy summer air; at night, she told them stories, and found herself describing the wonder of First Snow. They left her just as the leaves were changing colour, as the crisp notes of fall played softly through the melody of the summer breezes.
And then it was winter again, cold and unforgiving, a desperate struggle for survival for every forest dweller. But as the first snows fell, the animals gathered in front of that ancient tree, silently, peacefully.
It was during the stoat’s fourth winter that things changed. She galloped through the freshly falling snow, heading for the clearing which held the tree that was older than any animal in the forest, the oldest living thing in the entire woods.
She entered the clearing, seeing the familiar melange of animals gathered in front of the great tree. But the tree, the illustrious guardian of the forest, was no longer there. It, and the surrounding giants, had been hacked to mere stumps, the carnage contrasting violently with the peaceful snow whirling around.
The animals sat silently, ignoring each other, as always. But there was an air of mourning in the clearing, a silent tribute to the ancient being that had captivated them for so long. And then, as always, they dispersed into the woods.
The years that followed saw the same scene repeated each winter. In a way, First Snow was the same as it had always been, but it had also changed. For although the day still celebrated a moment of peace before the coming winter, it was now also a day of mourning.
More years passed, and the forest began to reclaim the pine’s tombstone. First came the fungi, toadstools in a variety of colours and shapes. Then small plants, vines and ferns and mosses, started to decorate the old tree’s grave. And finally saplings sprouted from ground, some of which were the children of the great tree itself.
The stoat watched it all, noted the changes from year to year as she attended each First Snow. During the year she hardly thought of the tree and its sad end, her mind occupied with hunting and breeding and where to get water and what burrows were safe and which to avoid. But on First Snow she would sit in front of the stump that had erupted with new life, and a soft feeling of melancholy would wash over her as she recalled a distant memory of the magnificent old pine.
There was another change that the stoat noticed each year, though it was a subtle one. First Snow was coming later and later every year. And then, one year, when the stoat was very old, and her tired limbs barely managed to carry her to the stream to drink, the snow didn’t come. Subconsciously the animals of the forest held their breaths, waiting for the snow that never came. That year no animal visited the tree’s shrine, save for those who wandered passed it by chance.
But in the spring, when the stoat was certain there would be no snow, she gathered her remaining strength and made the pilgrimage to the pine’s meadow. There she curled up at the base of the barely-recognizable stump, and gave her body back to the forest. In her mind she pictured the tree as it had once been, the great-grandfather of the forest, a tree unparalleled in might and majesty, its branches reaching to the very sky. And the moment of peace that had never come that winter filled her entirely, and the old stoat fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.