The Royal Guard


The donkey had chased us for a mile along the dirt road, nipping at our backpacks. We thought he might be afflicted with something, rabies perhaps. You tried swinging your coat at him, which just seemed to get him more animated.

“Why won’t he leave us alone?” I asked.

“Maybe he greets everyone this way,” you said.

Our hike had been peaceful that morning. After arriving in the small rural town we set out on the road past fields and rolling hills, looking for the trail that would take us up to the mountains, where we hoped to find a cave spoken of in legend. We had come prepared for five days of backpacking. 

An hour out of town we passed a narrow lane that led up to a farmhouse, but didn’t pay it much attention until the donkey came charging out onto the road, braying excitedly. We picked up our pace. He followed, and even tried to get ahead of us, so we started jogging, which was not easy with full packs. The donkey kept after us, intent on chasing us away we thought.

We finally reached the trailhead — an opening in the brush at the edge of a meadow. “This is it,” you said, checking the map.

We looked behind. The donkey stood about ten paces back, staring at us, then he stamped a hoof.

“He gave up,” I said. You weren’t so sure. We backed up slowly and he took a few steps toward us, then stopped again and brayed. 

You looked around. “Maybe this is the end of his territory.”

As we stepped off the road and onto the trail, the donkey hee-hawed over and over, with more hoof stamping. We were doing something he didn’t like, so we paused. He turned and trotted a few paces in the direction of the farmhouse, then came back and looked at us expectantly.

“You know,” I said, “things would be much easier if more animals would learn English. Or even Elvish.” I knew a few phrases.

“Maybe he wasn’t chasing us. He wanted us to stop and follow him.”

Okay, I thought, that interpretation could fit. But I didn’t want to lose any time. We needed to reach the foothills and find a place to camp before dark. We had been planning this trip for a year and I didn’t want some crazy donkey interfering with our schedule. On the other hand, as you suggested, maybe he needed our help. 

I couldn’t decide what to do, so I said, “My choice is one vote to continue on, and one vote to follow the donkey. You?”

“I vote to see what he wants.”

“That makes it two to one.”

“Three to one if you count the donkey.”

“He’s not old enough to vote, but okay.”

We let the donkey lead us back up the road. He trotted ahead and waited for us at the mailbox, then galloped up the dirt lane. We hurried after him. The house had been built about a century ago and showed its age. Off to the left was a barn, also in need of some paint, but still functional.

The donkey slowed to let us catch up. We stopped to take off our packs, then leaned them against the porch steps. The lane had become a gravel driveway that curved around behind the house and ended at the barn, but our guide led us straight back into some trees, to a ravine with a nearly vertical drop-off.

“Down there,” he seemed to say, so we looked over the edge. A figure was sprawled in the bushes about twenty yards below, a woman dressed in work clothes — jeans, boots, light blue shirt. She had long gray hair and her sunhat lay next to her head. She wasn’t moving.

“Go get the rope,” you said. 

I ran back to our packs. The donkey brayed at me in a scolding tone when I left, not understanding, then pranced with enthusiasm when I returned with the rope and our first aid kit. “Good boy,” I said, not knowing what else to say. We had misjudged his intentions earlier. I felt bad about that. Maybe he was sorry about trying to bite us.

You tied the rope to a tree while I looped the other end around my waist. I was able to climb down well enough without depending on the rope, but felt more secure with you keeping it taught in case I slipped. 

The woman was alive, but barely conscious. I checked for injuries and got her to wiggle her toes and fingers. Nothing seemed broken, but she’d had a blow to the head and wasn’t too steady on her feet once I got her to stand up. I looked for a path out of the ravine, but it was thick with brambles and woody shrubs. The quickest way out was straight up the side, the way I had come down.

I put the rope around her and half carried her up the steep slope while you pulled on the rope to help. She wasn’t very heavy. The donkey brayed and stamped when we brought her up, then moved in between us to nuzzle her. Loyal creature.

We carried her into the house and laid her on the couch in what I guessed was the living room. It had a high ceiling, a fireplace supplied with a pile of logs, an assortment of ceramic figurines on the mantel, furniture adorned with floral patterns, and a grandfather clock that kept accurate time. The donkey stayed outside.

The woman regained consciousness and said, “Oh, my ankle.” It was bruised and scraped, so we cleaned and bandaged it. I brought her a glass of water.

She touched your arm. “Someone hit me. He’s after the… the…” then she drifted off again. 

“Who?” you asked, gently shaking her shoulder.

Her eyes fluttered open. “He tried to kill me.” That didn’t sound good. What had that donkey gotten us into?

We heard a noise in the house, then heavy footsteps in the hall. A man appeared in the arched doorway wearing a dark leather jacket and holding a machete.

His eyes flicked back and forth, taking in the scene. He had a grim look and obviously didn’t like what he saw — the woman on the couch being attended to by two strangers. I was on my feet and he focused his attention on me.

“Who are you?” he demanded. He had a thick accent that sounded eastern European. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask the same thing,” I said, stalling, alarmed at his presence. You moved around behind me, edging toward the fireplace. I glanced back at the woman. Her eyes were wide open, staring at him. “Oh, no,” she said. That told us all we needed — this guy was trouble. And he was done asking questions.

He came at me with the machete, raising it high over his head. I couldn’t defend myself against a weapon like that, but he acted like one of those big guys who depend more on momentum than dexterity, so I knew where my advantage lay. 

As he brought down the blade I quickly stepped forward inside the arc of his swing — the last thing he expected. His wrist glanced off my shoulder and I jammed the heel of my right hand into his nose, then gave him a sharp jab in the stomach with my left. He staggered but still clutched the machete.

You had armed yourself with a small log from the firewood pile and held it like a club, so I gripped his jacket and wheeled him around toward you, then leaned my weight into him, forcing him to take a step backward. You saw your chance and whacked him across the back of the head. His grasp loosened and the blade clattered to the hardwood floor. He was about to tumble over but we each grabbed an arm and lowered him into a chair.

You picked up the machete and held it under his chin, while I got the rope and tied him up before he could regain his senses. Now we had two people with head injuries to take care of. This was turning into quite the party. 

The woman had managed to sit up, and watched us as I finished tying the guy’s feet. He was starting to come around.

You said to her, “This is the guy who pushed you into the ravine?”

She nodded. “To make it look like an accident.” She raised a finger to point at him. “That man…”

He got belligerent and made some nasty remarks while struggling to get loose. You poked him in the chest with the tip of the blade and he shot you a look of contempt, like a dare, and continued with his verbal abuse. Without a word you handed me the machete and picked up the piece of firewood again, then stood behind him and tapped it lightly on his head. I don’t think he’d realized who had knocked him out earlier, but he got the idea and quieted down. I could have warned him to have more respect for you.

I asked the woman if we should call the police. There was a phone on the table next to the couch so she picked up the handset and did the honors, talking to someone at the other end like they were old friends.

While we waited for the law to arrive, she told us her name was Sophia and she had owned the farm for nearly fifty years. She wouldn’t say anything about her family, but said she lived there alone now, with some animals. She also had an accent, very slight, which may have been eastern European. I wondered if she and the man had some shared past in the old country, wherever that was, though he was much younger. 

You asked her, “Do you know this man?” She shook her head and looked away.

The sheriff and a deputy arrived and we had to tell our version of the events and answer a lot of questions. They called for another car to take the man into custody.

Sophia was well enough to walk, limping a little, and she showed them the ravine and corroborated our story, including how the donkey had led us to her. They believed that part, because everyone in the county knew about her watchdog, as they called him. She called him Serghei, which is not a typical name for a farm animal. Some private joke I assumed.

We had to go over the attack in the living room several times, then they took the log you had used as a club and wrapped it in a plastic bag as evidence. You made sure they got the right one.

“Sophie,” the sheriff said, “you want to see the doctor?” I noticed he didn’t insist on it.

“No, no. Don’t need that. I’m tough.”

“Yes you are. No one tougher. Well, if you need anything, just call.”

“I have my friends here.” She looked at us.

“Yes, of course,” you said. “We’ll help out any way we can.” 

We abandoned our original plans and stayed a few days, until we were sure she had fully recovered. For us, it was like vacationing at a rustic bed-and-breakfast where we got to participate in the cooking and the chores. I learned how to care for goats and got to use the milking machine on the cows. Serghei supervised my work. 

In fact, part of his job was to help protect the goats and cows from canine predators — coyotes, wolves, sometimes feral dogs. Donkeys are good at that. The rest of the time he kept Sophia company, and was allowed up on the front porch when she sat there to enjoy the view. 

The sheriff stopped by to check on her, and was satisfied she was doing better. About her attacker — our attacker — all he said was, “The guy has priors — a hired thug, maybe organized crime connections. Ukraine, maybe. Or Serbian. Who knows? He’ll probably be deported. We can forget about the incident here — just lose the paperwork — and then you won’t be involved with him.” He looked at us. “You either.”

He and Sophia both thought that was a good idea, so we agreed, though it seemed odd. There was something they weren’t telling us, something we didn’t think we should ask about. Still, we were happy not having our names associated with a case like that.

On the fourth day, as we got ready to leave, Sophia sat us down and said, “You’re good kids. You work hard, you don’t complain, you help me… you saved me.” She paused. “I trust you.”

She pulled out a small bundle, wrapped in a brown cloth. “I need you to take this far away. It’s not safe here anymore. They know about it. You take it, so they won’t find it.” 

She held it out and I took it, knowing not to refuse a request like that. We hadn’t asked what Sophia’s attacker had been willing to kill for, but knew it must be valuable to someone.

“You’ve thought about this,” I said. She nodded. “Then we’ll do what you want.”

“May I… ?” you asked. She nodded again. 

I handed you the bundle and you unwrapped the cloth, revealing a cardboard jeweler’s box the size of your hand. You lifted off the top and drew a quick breath. “Oh.” My heart nearly stopped.

Lying on a dark felt backing and filling the box was a gold brooch studded with gems. The piece had a swirled motif topped with the shape of a crown, and held more than a dozen white diamonds as big as pumpkin seeds, interspersed between purple gemstones equally as big. In the center was a large red ruby, the kind reserved for royalty. The brooch was magnificent, probably made in the 1800s, now priceless.

This?” you said. “You want us to take this?”

I regained my composure. “Why not give it to your children, or grandchildren?” We knew she had offspring.

She made a derisive noise. “What? So they can buy expensive clothes, flashy cars, drugs? A jet plane?” She apparently didn’t care for their lifestyle choices. “No. They get the farm, that’s enough for them.” Then she muttered something about ungrateful children who never visit.

Given its size, the brooch must have been designed for special occasions — fancy balls, weddings, coronations. Not something you’d wear around the palace unless company was expected.

Sophia gave us bits of the story — political changes after the first world war, royal families destroyed or forced to flee, heirlooms smuggled out and passed down in secret from one generation to the next. Her family had come to America when she was a teenager — late 1950s we guessed. They never claimed any regal lineage, nor revealed how they happened to have the ruby brooch — trying to forget the past maybe, or hide their trail.

But someone must have known, or suspected, someone who had a deadly interest in this kind of thing, and who had probably spent decades tracking down treasures like this. 

“What if they come back?” I asked.

She shrugged. “There’s nothing here to find now. It doesn’t matter anymore. Serghei’s my guard. He’ll take care of me.” We believed that.

We said goodbye to the farm, with a special hug for her loyal donkey. All was forgiven between us. Sophia gave us a ride into town and we rented a car for the long drive home. We decided to avoid buses and planes on our return trip, considering what we carried.

Somewhere in the middle of Nebraska I turned to you and said, “She called us kids.”

“Sophia must be in her eighties. She’s entitled. Besides,” you patted the bundle that sat between us, “she can call us anything she wants.”

“Why did she mention buying a jet with it? Just how much is this thing worth?”

You stared out across the plain, letting a few miles go past. “Let’s not find out.” 

That was a good plan.


A Conspiracy of Beeches

A grove of beech trees
“A Conspiracy of Beeches”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

Botanists will admit — when put under oath, or after one too many drinks — that trees communicate in coded signals through their roots.

“Yes, that’s true,” you said to the two government agents who stood over us. 

I sat to your right in the tiny gray room and nodded at your response. We had been brought in as consultants, but were being interrogated like suspects. Maybe that’s how they treat everyone.

“Just as we thought,” one of them said. He switched off the bright lamp that had been shining in our eyes. The other one put a file folder on the table and slid it toward us.

You opened it and flipped through a few pages, then handed the report to me. Sensors in the forest had detected unusual amounts of underground activity, suggesting an increase in chatter among some beech trees as they exchanged messages in the form of chemical signals. Naturally, the government assumed the worst — the trees were planning an attack, or even a revolution of some sort.

We were skeptical. Beeches are the last trees anyone would suspect of plotting to overthrow the government.

That’s what makes them so dangerous, the agents informed us. They stand around all innocent looking, waving gently in the breeze, while silently planning an uprising.

“So what do you want us to do?” you asked.

“And how much do you pay?” I added.

We left there with a certified check and a court order giving us permission to put a wiretap on the root system of an enclave of beech trees. Our assignment was to infiltrate their headquarters, monitor their communications, and find out what they were up to.

The disguise was the tricky part.

“We could go as gravediggers,” I suggested, “so the trees won’t get suspicious when we start digging near their roots. We could be like the two gravediggers in Hamlet — that scene was pretty amusing.”

“The grove’s not anywhere near a cemetery,” you said. “No. They’ll be on to us in a second.”

“But I’ve already started rehearsing my lines.”

No.

After much discussion we decided to go as innocent picnickers who were exploring the forest. We spent a day preparing some crucial pieces of equipment and reviewing our plan.

The following morning found us tramping through the woods, hunting for the conspirators. We came to a stand of beech trees in full spring growth, where the yellow-brown carpet of last year’s leaves smelled faintly of damp decay, with undertones of subversion. We knew we were close.

We recognized the ringleaders in the grove by the way they huddled together and rustled anxiously as we approached. Some of them wore their branches in the European fashion — lower on the trunk with boughs reaching outward in sweeping curves to create wide canopies. Maybe it was a political statement, or an attempt to mask their identities, or just a pretentious fad. Either way, it proved useful to us later.

We strolled toward them and pretended to admire their foliage, to make it seem like we just happened to come upon them. Then we said, “What a lovely place — let’s have lunch here,” and took off our packs for a rest. Nothing suspicious in that, we figured.

Next step: Get the surveillance equipment in place.

We had no real need to set up a lean-to, but it provided an excuse to pound four stakes into the ground. We hoped the trees would think it was normal picnicking behavior — for humans anyway — though they might wonder why their shade wasn’t good enough for us. You pulled out a tarp and some rope from your daypack while I found two long sticks for the frame and whittled off the twigs.

We worked quickly and efficiently, without saying a word. That was a mistake — we should have been making small talk, or arguing about how to set up the lean-to, as any normal couple would. But the beeches didn’t seem to notice.

You tied the ropes to two trees and unfolded the tarp between the sticks. I knelt and hammered in the stakes, our secret weapons.

Each stake held a thin, metal spike inside — like a telescoping antenna — which shot out from the tip when I triggered the spring-loaded mechanism. The probes extended far enough into the ground to touch the root systems, where the receivers could pick up any chemical signals sent between trees. Contrary to popular belief, most tree roots grow in the top two feet of the soil, where all the good stuff is — nutrients, water, oxygen — so the probes didn’t have to be very long.

I attached a wire from each stake to a signal converter, then plugged that into our laptop. We had already installed a Beech-to-English translator, a specialty application that took a significant chunk out of our budget. You finished tightening the ropes and setting up the lean-to.

All we had to do then was enjoy our lunch, record the underground conversations, and act casual so the trees wouldn’t suspect us of eavesdropping. From time to time we looked at the translated text as it scrolled past on the screen.

After a while you whispered, “What’s this about a wind farm? Seems to be a lot of discussion about it.”

A troop of wind turbines had recently been assembled a few miles from this forest, out on the open hills, providing enough power for thousands of homes. 

I looked at the transcript. “They want to destroy it? Why would they do that?”

“Keep your voice down.”

“Why would these trees be against renewable energy? That’s just dumb.”

“They must have some reason.”

We scrolled through the text and started to piece together their intention. 

Trees, as everyone knows, breathe in carbon dioxide. That’s what they use to make glucose to help them grow big and strong. And over the last hundred years they’ve been blessed with an abundance of CO2 in the atmosphere, thanks to modern civilization.

Trouble is, too many trees have become overfed and lazy due to all the fossil fuels we’ve been burning, to the point where they’ve come to depend on us pumping out more and more CO2. And, like an addict being weaned off drugs, losing their sources of carbon dioxide makes some trees a bit edgy — they’ll do anything to keep the greenhouse gases flowing to get their fix.

All the above wasn’t in the transcript — that’s just my commentary. What the beeches did discuss was Article 1 of their Manifesto: 

“Whereas coal was created from plant material, including trees, and whereas burning it to release carbon dioxide for trees to consume is a valid method of recycling, therefore beech trees and other plant life are the rightful heirs to all that stored carbon, and no one shall interfere with the transfer of said carbon.”

“I can see their point of view,” I said.

“No, they’re missing the big picture.”

Trees have long memories, but like most life forms without a prefrontal cortex they don’t think too far into the future. The current threat to their sources of excess carbon was a more immediate concern than any long-term change in the environment. As it turns out, not all trees belong to the Green Party.

“They think this wind farm is going to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants,” I said. “And they’re right.”

“There’s nothing in here about their actual plan though.”

I gave it some thought. “I can’t imagine a group of militant trees destroying a wind farm.”

It’s not as if they could march in like the Ents attacking Isengard. These particular beeches didn’t have the upper-body strength to hurl boulders and tear down wind turbines. They’d be more likely to get their branches caught in the blades.

“Maybe it’s all just tough-sounding talk,” I said. “Rage against the machine and all that, without having to go out and do anything. Though I guess they could still sabotage the power lines.”

You were about to respond when something on the screen caught your eye. “Look at this. There’s an alarm going out. They’re on to us!”

“We can’t leave yet. We still don’t know what they’re going to do, if anything.”

“We have enough for our report.” You shut the laptop and handed it to me, then got up and began taking apart the lean-to.

I packed up the computer and was disconnecting the wires when I noticed the ground starting to churn.

“Something’s happening. Watch your feet.”

“Better get those stakes out.”

I reached for one of the stakes but it was yanked from my grip and pulled under by the tree. The other three disappeared into the earth before I could save them. Damn! We had worked hard to develop those extendable probes. But we could still deduct them as a business expense.

As I stood up to put on my pack, a root grabbed me by the ankle. I tripped and fell to my knees. Another root broke through the layer of dead leaves, like a zombie hand reaching up from the grave, then wrapped around my wrist and tried to pull me down into the damp, crumbly soil.

You shouted something and I glanced over to see you backed up against a tree. I tore the root off my arm and flung the pieces away, then rolled over and wrestled with the one clutching my leg. After a brief struggle I freed myself and jumped to my feet.

You were kicking at the ground in front of you, keeping back a mass of protruding roots that had hemmed you in. I joined you and helped stomp on the woody growths until they withdrew. That gave you enough time to finish shoving the tarp into your pack.

“Let’s go!” you said.

“No, wait. Look.”

Our way was blocked. Dozens of snaking roots punched through the ground all around us, clawing at the air. We’d never get through that. One false step and we’d be brought down into the writhing horde, which would finish us off.

You looked up and pointed — “We’ll go this way” — then shimmied up the tree. You climbed onto the lowest branch, shuffled along it, and leapt to a branch on the next tree over. I would have preferred a vine to swing on, but I followed anyway. Not so easy, given how smooth the bark was.

The conspirators had made the mistake of clustering together, which gave us easier access to adjacent branches and let us avoid running the gauntlet of root tips waving hungrily below. The beeches tried to shake us off as we leapt from one to another, but we were too quick. I only slipped once.

Just when it seemed we had run out of trees — the next one was too far to reach by jumping — you swung down from the branch and dropped to the ground. The path was quiet, not a root stirring. The trees in this part of the grove weren’t part of the conspiracy, and were no doubt amused by a couple of humans playing among their leaves. I dropped down beside you.

“Well that was fun,” you said, eyes bright from the excitement.

“Yes, if by ‘fun’ you mean a narrow escape from death.”

A few days later we met with the two agents and gave them the intel we had collected during our brief surveillance. They nodded and looked grim. 

“The power company will have to beef up security around that wind farm,” one said, “to keep it safe.”

“Damn trees,” said the other. “Always a nuisance. Do you want to press charges?”

We looked at each other, confused. “Why?” we asked. “For their attack on us?”

“Yeah. Attempted murder, however you want to phrase it.”

We declined. The beeches were just protecting themselves from our infringement on their privacy. Besides, it’s a risk we take with assignments like this.

“Are you going to charge them?” I asked. “Conspiracy, or whatever?”

“No,” the first one said. “Only if they willfully destroy property. Nature is always planning something against us.” He gave a low chuckle. “Hell, the whole universe has it in for us — entropy and all that. Can’t arrest every living thing for following its instinct.”

“Even if we’d like to,” the other one added. “Damn trees.”

The beeches never did do anything about the wind farm, and I think they realized it was a lost cause. Humanity is moving away from fossil fuels, so trees are just going to have to tighten their barks and make do with less carbon dioxide in the air. The free ride will be over — in about a century — and they’ll have to go back to working for a living.

“If a beech tree fought a windmill,” I asked you, “who would win?”

“I’m not sure. But let’s just hope the clouds don’t decide to go after solar panels.”

Right. We know who’d win that one.


A Pine Tree’s Winter Dream

A bright green pine tree adorned with starry lights floats dreamlike in a nighttime sky
“A Pine Tree’s Winter Dream”, 9in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

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.

And yet…

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.