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Authors: Michelle Houts

Winterfrost

BOOK: Winterfrost
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Christmas Eve

Order

Forgotten

Winterfrost

Mischief

Something in the Air

Winter Nap

Restless

Panic

Search

Epiphany

Confession

Gone Again

Chase

Discovery

Small

Breakfast Underground

Rounds

Remorse

Visitors

Action

Swept Away

Witness

Sent

Crossing

Askø

Facts

Ulf

Spoken Truths

Promises

Obstacles

Plans

Persuasion

More Mischief

Reunion

Home

Acknowledgments

From the outside looking in, it might have appeared to be an ordinary Christmas on the Larsen family’s farm, nestled among the flat, snowy fields of an island called Lolland in the south of Denmark. The scent of kringle fresh from Mor’s oven mingled with the woodsy smell of the wispy white pine that Far had brought indoors just hours before. Packages with neatly tucked corners and perfectly tied ribbons lay tempting beneath the tree.

Bettina Larsen secured small white candles to the tree’s now-drooping boughs as little Christmas nisse decorations on the mantle conspired to lift her spirits. They tumbled and teased in their tiny brown coats and boots, their red stockings and pointed caps.

There was a fine duck roasting in the oven. There were family and friends and neighbors stopping by. Lively music filled the house as the Larsens circled the tree, hand in hand, their voices raised with songs the children learned early and the old would never forget. And despite the heaviness that weighed upon Bettina’s heart this Christmas, there was a hint of a smile as she watched her baby sister twist herself up in ribbons and bows. What a gift baby Pia had been almost a year earlier, bringing new life to a home that had just said farewell to an old one.

Yes, it looked like an ordinary Christmas Eve, but it wasn’t. Bettina wondered if there would ever be an ordinary Christmas without Farfar.

And then came the phone call. The phone call, which brought the news. The news, which was followed by the flurry of suitcases and last-minute instructions.
Feed the animals; keep the wood-fired furnace going; call if you need us. Everything will be just fine.

It should have been an ordinary Christmas on the Larsen farm, nestled among the flat, snowy fields of an island called Lolland in the south of Denmark. But it wasn’t. And if it had been, well, we wouldn’t have much of a story to tell, now, would we?

In spite of the chaos of the evening before, everything appeared to be going quite well the night after Christmas Eve. Bettina made a respectable supper for herself and baby Pia from holiday delicacies left from the previous day’s celebration. She stacked the dishes neatly to dry after washing them — just as Mor would have done if she were there.

After supper Bettina took care to bundle Pia tightly before braving the bitter December air to feed the horses, goats, and chickens. In less than a week, the family would celebrate Pia’s first birthday. There would be a big celebration with layer cake and neighbors and loved ones. Sorrow and joy played a game of tug-of-war inside Bettina’s heart. This had always been Farfar’s most beloved time of year. He loved Christmas, and he would have loved that Pia was born so close to his favorite holiday. Bettina remembered how he had taught her to fold red and white paper hearts when her tiny fingers were barely coordinated enough to crease the paper. He’d taken her to the barn and shown her how to twist slick yellow straw into sleek little
juleboker
or Christmas goats, with tightly braided horns. But in the year since Farfar had died, Bettina’s joy for the holiday had disappeared, stored away inside her like the paper hearts and straw goats in the attic. Christmas at the Larsens’ could never be the same without Farfar.

And yet time moved forward and, with or without Farfar, Christmas came as it always did. And Bettina had smiled. Some. And she had sung holiday songs. And to her surprise, she’d heard her own laugh when Pia had come downstairs in Mor’s arms, dressed in a nisse costume, her right thumb in her mouth and left thumb in her ear. If ever there was a real-life nisse, Pia was it. Of course, nisse were among the many things that were debatably real in the life of a Danish twelve-year-old. But to Farfar, there had been no debate.

“The forests are full of tales unheard, if only humans would pause their busyness to listen,” he would say, his voice thick with all the seriousness of a Sunday-morning vicar, but his eyes shining as bright as the eastern star. And never was Farfar as insistent about his beloved nisse as he was at Christmastime. “Although it’s our holiday, not theirs, our wee friends delight in celebration, too,” he would say. “Sure as I’m standing here, the nisse are out there, having their own Christmas party.” And then he would turn his head to one side and listen, as if he could hear tiny nisse boots on the haymow floor while they danced and sang long into the night.

Farfar would have rejoiced in Pia’s costume. He would have rejoiced in Pia, period. Everyone had said that it was tragic that little Pia would never know her grandfather, that she arrived not long after his passing. But Bettina had often wondered if they hadn’t met somewhere in the place in between, her beloved grandfather and her new baby sister. She pictured a magical encounter, a tiny hand wrapped tightly around a wrinkled old finger for just a moment before one let go to glide gently toward the world the other had left behind. She never spoke of it. It sounded like something only a dreamer would imagine. It sounded like something Farfar would have believed.

And now Pia was nearly a year old, speaking a language only she could understand. And she was on the verge of walking — though still too young to be of any help with the chores.

Bettina shifted her sister on her hip and pulled a warm woolen hat snugly over the baby’s blond curls before opening the door to the barn.

Felix, the Larsens’ gray-blue hound, greeted them, leaping and tossing his body in circles with excitement.

“Down!”
Bettina commanded, imitating Far’s deep voice.

Felix jumped playfully at the girls, and when Bettina leaned down to scold him, he licked Pia’s face and darted away before she had a chance to react.

“Oh, Pia!” Bettina cried. “I’m so sorry!”

But baby Pia didn’t seem to mind the frantic dog’s attention. She giggled and wiped her face with a pink-mittened hand.

Inside the barn, Bettina discovered her work was going to be more difficult than she had expected. She knew how to do the feeding. That wasn’t the problem. Bettina had spent many an early morning and frosty evening helping Far. But carrying water and feed in buckets while keeping an eye on a baby — how would she hold her sister and carry a heavy bale of hay at the same time?

As she eyed the hay bales, Bettina came up with a plan. She quickly constructed a four-sided playpen of straw bales. Then she set her sister down in the middle. Little Pia’s wide blue eyes peered up at her older sister with uncertainty. Soon enough a passing kitten caught her attention. The tubby orange tiger kitty first jumped up on the edge of a bale and then joined Pia inside the new play area. Pia squealed with delight, calling,
“Mee, mee!”
and Bettina set about her work in the barn.

BOOK: Winterfrost
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