We knew the orphaned tree wouldn’t be getting any presents for the Solstice, Christmas, or any of the other celebrations that crowd the calendar in late December. Since we were going to be around for the holidays, we decided to visit the woods and bring the tree something nice.
“It’s a miracle the little pine survived that forest fire,” you said.
“You mean that, statistically, it was highly improbable.”
You gave me your I just said that look. “And now that it’s living in the Grove for Displaced Conifers with all the other orphans, it can’t be having a merry holiday season.”
We had gone to see the pine a couple of times after it moved to the Grove, far from its devastated home, and would have adopted it, but it was well into sapling stage — six feet tall, school age, and growing rapidly. Our yard wouldn’t be big enough.
Regarding a present, I thought we could give it a solar-powered train set, but you thought a bag of mulch would be more practical.
“That’s like getting socks for Christmas,” I said.
We went back and forth, arguing over the merits of fun presents versus sensible ones. I was adamant about the train set; you insisted on something useful.
Finally you said, “What if I get you the trains and we give the tree a well-made cloak?”
“Well… sure. As long as someone gets a train set. And I’m willing to bear that burden.” Though I also imagined I’d look rather dashing in a cloak. I mean, what guy doesn’t? A shame they’re out of fashion in our social circle.
But a young tree can always use a sturdy wrap for those extra chilly days in the forest, when the wind blows in from the north and whips the snow all around. We found a dark green cloak of weatherproof wool, embroidered with a map of the constellations in gold thread that seemed to shine from within. I was envious. It was far beyond our budget, but we knew the pine would be pleased.
On a bright day just after the Solstice we drove out to the mountain, parked next to a snow-covered pasture, and climbed toward the forest a mile up the hill. The snow was a foot deep, which slowed us down, though we still expected to be home by nightfall. I carried the heavy cloak under my arm, rolled up in a bundle and tied with a red ribbon.
“We’ve never been there in winter,” you said, as we looked for familiar landmarks to guide us through the woods.
“I suppose it’ll still be in the same place.”
Over the years the Grove for Displaced Conifers had adopted hundreds of orphans to be raised by older guardian trees. The youngsters were mostly evergreens who needed year-round care and attention. However, several deciduous trees — now bare and hibernating — were also included among the dependents, due to a ruling by the woodland council that had forced the Grove to accept a wider diversity of applicants, though it kept the original name.
We didn’t find the pine in its usual spot — just a large hole, as if the tree had recently uprooted itself and left.
“Maybe it’s been assigned to a different section,” I suggested. “Or moved to get more light.” But none of the other trees could tell us where it had gone.
We searched the forest for hours, with no luck — our friend was nowhere to be found. That worried us. The sun had set and the light was fading. Then the treetops started to sway and creak as cold air whistled through the branches.
“I don’t like this wind,” you said. “Not after the trouble it’s been causing lately.”
We had heard reports of the wind running around and vandalizing decorations all over town — blowing wreaths off doors, pulling Christmas lights down, toppling Santa figures in front yards — simply misbehaving in a most unjolly manner. No one knew why.
“Let’s go back to the Grove,” I said. “Someone wasn’t being honest.”
We finally cornered a guilty-looking runt of a fir who admitted the truth. What we learned made our hearts sink.
The confident young pine had run off to join a live Christmas tree farm, in the hopes of finding a friendly home where it could spend the holidays and fulfill a cherished dream. It planned to return to the woods after New Year’s, but we knew what too often happens when a family takes in a live tree and has nowhere to plant it later — chop it up and toss it to the gutter for the yard-waste trucks to collect with all the other discarded trees. We shuddered at the thought.
“We have to go get it,” you said.
“I know where that farm is. We’ve driven past their nursery.”
We headed back through the woods and out to the open hillside. Dusk had turned to purple darkness and stars were filling the sky. Behind us the wind continued to provoke the trees, which thrashed their branches about in protest. The quarter moon offered to light our way as we started down toward the car.
We had barely gone a hundred yards when we heard a whooshing sound and the wind slammed into our backs, nearly knocking us over. It came around for another try. We braced ourselves for the onslaught, taking a wide stance and leaning forward. But the clever wind swooped upwards instead, lifting us off balance and dropping us to the ground.
We sprang to our feet and shook off the snow, which swirled about in a blinding flurry. I realized we weren’t dressed for this sudden attack of arctic weather, so I unrolled the cloak and tried to throw it over us. That’s what the wind was hoping for. It reached in and swept the cloak right out of my hands.
“No!” I made a grab for it — and missed.
It flew a few yards, then got snagged on an old stump. A lucky break. I dove forward, slipped in the snow, then felt you scrambling beside me to help me up. The wind was shaking the cloth, trying to unhook it from the spur of wood. It wanted that cloak badly. So did we.
We both made a desperate lunge and barely managed to grab the hem. Now we were in a tug-of-war, tussling with the wind which pulled with all its might. Our fingers grew numb with cold and began to slip. You nudged me and said, “Ready?” We tightened our grips and threw ourselves backward, tumbling onto the snow, clutching the prize.
We wrapped the cloak around us and over our heads as we crouched close together. The wind was unwilling to give up. It grew stronger — howling like a hurricane — then assailed us with nimble gusts that tried to peel off our covering.
“I can’t hold this!” You had to shout against the noise.
“Don’t let go! We got this for the pine tree. I’m not letting some greedy squall take it.”
You were thoughtful for a minute. “Maybe all it wants is to get a present.”
“Well, sure, who doesn’t? But what has it ever done for…” I grew thoughtful too. You had a good point.
No one ever gives presents to the wind. Some pagans might make it a token offering in the fall, tossing leaves or snack-size edibles into the breeze during their autumn celebration. But the winter wind is thought of only as a nuisance — tempestuous, disruptive, and never on Santa’s “Nice” list. When it comes by, people turn up their collars, scurry inside, and slam their doors in its face. Hardly a joyful greeting in the spirit of the season.
One untold story recounts how the skies were gray and cloudy over Bethlehem that winter long ago. The wind saw the problem and made a great effort to blow those gloomy clouds away, revealing a particularly bright star that attracted much attention, though everyone cursed the wind for rattling their shutters and upsetting the farm animals. It was chased off, and didn’t even rate a mention in popular accounts of the day. It’s been a little bitter ever since.
“So maybe that’s why the wind has been going after those Christmas decorations,” I said. “It just wants to be part of the festivities.”
“I suppose. But I doubt anyone will include it in their nativity scenes.” Another rude gust bumped against us. “Not when it’s like this.”
“Not until it learns to behave…”
“… or is shown a little kindness.”
I looked at you and you looked at me, huddling in the fragile refuge of our cloth shelter. The pine tree wouldn’t be getting its cloak this year. That gift could be put to better use, even if only as a small offering, a gesture of goodwill.
We unwrapped ourselves and stood up side by side to face the icy blast and greet the wind with cheerful hearts, gripping the cloak with hands held high above. It flapped behind us like a hero’s cape, rippling and snapping as the wind stroked it and tugged at it with eager fingers.
“Here!” you shouted, with a laugh. “This is for you!”
We let go and the wind caught up the cloak in its arms. We turned and saw the dark shape of the cloth twist and roll as it was taken up and away, its gold-embroidered stars glittering against the nighttime sky, until it disappeared over the hill.
I waved at the receding wind and quietly said, “Merry Christmas… or whatever you celebrate.”
Then all was calm. The trees nearby stopped swaying and settled down for the night.
“I think it liked our present,” you said, still gazing at the sky.
“Yeah. Better than a train set. Or a bag of mulch.”
You looked at me sideways, then laughed again. “Things work out. But we’re not done.”
We hurried down to the car. The tree farm was around the other side of the mountain, on the edge of town. By the time we arrived the nursery was deserted. A sign hung on the gate: Closed early due to windstorm, though the wind had long since passed by.
“If only we’d gotten here sooner,” I said with an exaggerated sigh, knowing full well we were going to break in.
After climbing the fence, we noticed a lot of damage. Some trees had been blown over, and were grateful when we set them upright. Each one stood with its roots curled up in a half-barrel container filled with rich soil. Live trees were in demand that year — especially firs — but not a young pine with visible burn scars.
We found our friend, alone in a corner and dismayed at being unsold, unwanted. Not the Christmas it was hoping for, but you and I had another idea.
“We’ve come to take you home,” I said, patting a branch, “for the holidays.”
While you went to find a garden cart, I jimmied the door of the sales shack and got the key for the gate. We wheeled the pine tree out, then I went in to lock up and return the key — and leave some money on the desk — before climbing back over the fence. The three of us squeezed into our car and drove off.
Back at home we moved a couch and made room for our guest by the front window. I added a layer of mulch to its soil, then took our Christmas tablecloth and wrapped it around the base of the pine, covering the container, while you draped a string of starry lights over its bright green needles. It was happy to be so festively adorned.
I was sorry we didn’t have the cloak to give it, but you went to the closet and brought out a large package — after removing the name tag — and presented it to the tree. My train set. I nodded in approval.
As we were setting up the tracks under the pine, the wind came by and jiggled the windowpanes. We smiled and waved, but didn’t invite it in.