Sunday, December 20, 2020

The return of the light.

Tomorrow is Yule -- the winter solstice -- and that means our annus horribilis is almost over. And not a moment too soon, I say.

It has become customary for me to post a holiday ficlet at this time of year, as a gift to all of you. As I thought about what to write, I realized what I wanted to know most was how the folks from Seasons of the Fool have done this year. Here's what I learned.

Elsie Weber-Dahl reached for the doorknob and paused. “Oh, drat,” she muttered, and reached for the top mask on the stack of brightly-colored fabric masks in the basket by the door. Affixing the elastic straps around her ears, she pulled open the door – just in time to see the delivery boy from Al’s getting into his car. He had left the grocery order on the snowy stoop, though. She waved, and he dimmed his headlights in acknowledgement before pulling away.

She sighed. It had been weeks since she’d been any farther than the end of their driveway. They hadn't even gotten a tree for Yule. She had really hoped to have a chat with another human being, but she hadn’t been fast enough. 

She shut the door partway and called over her shoulder, “Thea, dear, we need to bring the groceries in.”

“Yes, dear,” replied her wife, distracted. Elsie went to the kitchen to find out what the matter was. There was Thea at the kitchen table, her chin in her hands, studying the three-card Tarot spread before her.

Elsie rubbed Thea’s shoulders. “That Tower,” she said bitterly. The Tower was the worst card in the deck. On it, a bolt of lightning shot from the blue, destroying a brick tower and sending those inside it plummeting to the rocks below.

Thea sighed and nodded. “It’s still with us. But at least it’s in the rear-view mirror,” she said, pointing at the offending card on the left side of the spread.

“The present isn’t much better, though,” Elsie said. There in the middle sat the Death card – a skeleton on his horse, with everyone bowing to the ground before him. Elsie knew the card didn’t mean literal death – although with this virus wreaking havoc throughout the world, it certainly could. But what it typically meant was change – the end of things as we have known them – and that certainly fit the events of this horrible year, too.

“I know,” Thea sighed. “We’re still in the thick of it. But look here.” She tapped the card in the future position on the right side of the spread: the Six of Swords. Two figures huddled in a boat, their backs to the viewer, as the boatman punted them toward a distant shore. “Soon we'll be our way out.”

“They look so defeated,” Elsie said softly. Thea looked up at her and put one of her hands on one of Elsie’s, squeezing gently. Then she rose. “Let’s get the food in before everything freezes.”

The two elderly ladies donned their winter gear – coats, hats, and boots – and then took off their hats to get their masks properly affixed. “I’ll be glad when we don’t have to do this anymore,” Thea grumbled as she put her hat back on.

“We could skip them this time,” Elsie said. “It’s not like we’ll see anyone out there.”

“But we can’t be too careful, dear,” said Thea. “Not when the vaccine is so close.”

“I know, dear. I know.” Elsie blew out a breath and opened the front door.

As they brought in the last of the bags, Thea paused, her eyes on the cottage kitty-corner from theirs. A car with Illinois plates sat in the driveway, its sides splashed with road salt, and a light glimmered in the living room window. “Julia’s here,” she told Elsie as she followed her to the kitchen.

“Oh?” Elsie dropped her bags on the counter and hurried back to the living room to peer out the window. “I wonder if she brought the little one.”

“We could go over and see,” Thea said. The two women shared an excited smile. They hadn’t seen their neighbor in months.

“Let me put some cookies on a plate,” said Elsie.

A few minutes later, cookies in hand and masks in place, they walked to Julia’s cottage and knocked on the door. “Just a minute,” a muffled voice came from inside. Then the door opened and there was Julia, her own mask hiding her mouth. But her eyes and voice smiled as she said, “I had a feeling it would be you two.”

“We brought you some cookies,” Elsie said. “Fresh baked this morning.” 

A tiny person wormed past Julia and threw herself on Elsie’s legs, nearly knocking her over. “Ms. Elsie!” she cried. “Ms. Thea!” And Thea got a similar enthusiastic hug.

“Six feet, Raylee,” Julie admonished.

The little girl sprang back reluctantly from the women. “I'm sorry. I forgot.”

“We talked about this,” Julia went on, taking her daughter’s hand. “We need to keep the ladies safe.” Raylee hung her head. 

“It’s all right,” Thea said. “We won’t get sick from you hugging our knees.”

Julie took the plate of cookies. “Thank you for these,” she said. “I’d invite you in, but…”

“Sure,” Elsie said, too quickly. “Can’t be too careful.” She beamed at Raylee. “How have you been?”

The little girl sighed. “Okay.”

“Zoom doesn’t work very well for kindergarteners,” Julia explained. “It’s been a hard year. The school district tried a staggered schedule for in-person learning, but then some kids got sick. So we went back to Zoom.”

“I miss my friends,” Raylee said.

“You’ll see them again,” Elsie reassured her. “The vaccine is coming. Next year will be better.”

“No, it won’t,” Raylee said. “It’s going to be like this forever.” She turned away and flopped down on the couch.

Julia and the older ladies shared a sad smile. “Daddy will be here tonight,” Julia called to her daughter, who didn’t seem to hear.

“Are the older kids coming with Dave?” Elsie asked.

Julia shook her head. “Too much homework. Randi’s in college now, and it’s finals week. And Rich…” She looked away. “Freshman year of high school. He got behind due to all the upheaval. In-person, remote, in-person, remote…” She crossed her arms. “It’s been so hard. I’ve barely gotten any work done this year.”

Elsie’s heart hurt for Julia. She reached out to hug her, but stopped herself just in time.

“Well,” Thea said. “We should be going.”

“Thank you for coming over,” Julia said. “So nice to see you both.” Reluctantly, she closed the door.

As the ladies traipsed back to their house, Elsie said, “We have to do something for that child.”

Thea glanced back at Julia’s cottage. “I have an idea,” she said.

The next morning was still quite dark, and very cold, when the Weber-Dahls approached Julia’s cottage. Thea rapped smartly on the door, and a moment later Dave opened it. His hair was thinner than Elsie remembered, but his eyes above his mask lit up. “Hello there,” he said. “I heard you stopped by. Thanks for the cookies.”

“You’re welcome,” said Thea. “Is Raylee up? We have something to show her.”

Dave laughed. “What, now?”

Right now,” Elsie said with an insistent nod. “You, too. And Julia.”

Dave side-eyed them. “What are you two up to?” He shook his head. “All right. Give us a few minutes.”

“Dress warmly,” Elsie said as he shut the door. Then they went back to their house to wait.

A few minutes later, the Turners emerged from their front door, swaddled in winter gear. Sharing a grin, the ladies went out to greet them. “Good morning!” Thea called. “Follow me!” She stepped off smartly up the street, the others falling in behind her.

“What’s that?” Raylee asked, sidling up to Elsie – but not too close.

“This?” Elsie said, lifting the thermos she carried in her gloved hands. “You’ll see.”

At the corner, Thea turned left, toward the lake. “I knew it,” Dave said. Julia shushed him.

The wooden stairs down to the beach hadn’t been shoveled, of course, but Thea and Elsie helped each other down without mishap. The Turners followed, staying a safe distance from the elderly ladies. The breeze off the lake was sharp, but they had timed it well. They wouldn’t have long to wait.

“Raylee,” Thea called. “Remember how dark it was when we left the house?”

The little girl nodded solemnly.

Thea pointed toward the east. “What’s that?”

Her eyes widened. She turned to her mother. “The sky is orange, Mommy!”

Julia nodded. “It is, isn’t it?”

“Do you think it will stay orange?” Dave asked her. “Let’s see.”

So the five of them stood on the snowy sand, listening to the creak of the icy lake and watching the sunrise.

“This calls for a toast,” Elsie said, unscrewing the thermos lid. Thea produced paper cups from a pocket and held them out for Elsie to fill. 

“Hot chocolate!” the little girl cried as she received her cup.

As Thea finished passing out the cups, Elsie said, “Raylee, do you know what today is? It’s the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. It’s been getting dark so early – have you noticed?” Raylee nodded. “Well, starting tomorrow, the days will begin getting longer again.” She smiled at Thea. “No matter how dark it seems, the dawn always comes.”

“The light always returns,” Thea said, smiling back. Then she raised her paper cup. “To the light!” They removed their masks and toasted the return of the sun.

As they walked back home, Raylee skipping ahead, Julia told the ladies, “Thank you so much. It’s been such a hard year. I can’t wait to get back to normal.”

“We’ll never see that normal again,” Dave said.

“No, we won’t,” Elsie said. “But who knows? Maybe our new normal will be better.”

Lake Huron sunrise | ehrlif | Deposit Photos


These moments of hopeful blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Happy holidays! Stay safe!

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