Blossom — A Christmas Story
©2009, Steve White
This is a work of Fiction. It is based in part on the Alternate History World known as “Dies the Fire,” written and copyrighted by S.M. Stirling in 2004. The author agrees to abide by the Stirling Fan Fiction site disclaimer. This work is copyrighted by Steve White in 2009, except for those parts derived from “Dies the Fire,” and its sequels, which are copyrighted by S. M. Stirling and used here by permission. All characters in this fiction are, in fact, fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
Christmas Morning, CY20/2018 A.D.
Blossom awoke to the gray winter light coming through her frosted bedroom window. She lay in bed the briefest moment. Then she remembered what day it was and flung off the heavy fleece covering. She hopped out of bed, ignoring the creak in her knees and the pain in her left foot as well, long ago broken and imperfectly healed, as she slid her feet into leather slippers.
She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and turned to the mirror on the nightstand. She didn’t like it when big brother Petey teased her about her eyes, the blue of the ‘whites’ showing shiny and bright, especially when he referred to her as ‘fairy-eyes.’ She struggled into her robe and headed for the door. Already she could smell the scent of the candles and she knew that Mother and Father were awake and waiting downstairs for her.
“Did Santa come?” she called. Her parents laughed and Blossom knew. Blossom was not quite sure at the age of nine that Santa was real. She’d heard Petey and his friends talking about it last summer and then hushing when she had limped by where they had gathered in the barn, and she’d heard Petey growling at Billy Bowman, “Don’t spoil it for her or you’re gonna get it and get it good.” But Santa had come every year to their house and had been there again this year. So there!
“It looks like you have quite a haul,” Father called up, “ so come down and join us.”
Blossom grabbed the bannister and stepped carefully down the stairs, one foot to the next-lower tread joined by the other foot as she had been taught. “No more broken bones,” she whispered to herself.
Her eyes widened as she turned the corner of the stairs into the living room and stared at the Christmas tree. The spruce was adorned with ribbons and decorations, and candles large and small, smelling of honey, provided a yellow light that made the room glow. The Franklin stove in the fireplace radiated heat and the cookstove in the kitchen added the promising smells of breakfast.
And then there were the presents under the tree.
“Yippee! He came, he came!” Blossom sang out, never doubting that he would and never believing that goony Billy Bowman. She turned at the landing and threw herself into her father’s arms as he came to embrace her.
“Careful with those bones!” Father said, laughing and smiling down at her.
“It’s just a little jump, Father! I can do that!”
“Hey fairy-eyes,” called out Petey, a lanky, blond teen who slouched on the leather sofa, “Merry Christmas.”
Mother cut off Blossom before she could respond and glared at her son.
“What!?” Petey replied with all the innocence he could muster. “I just said Merry Christmas.”
“Don’t tease your sister on this day,” she scolded him.
She then reached to Blossom, pulled her in and hugged her, and said, “It’s a joyous day for us all, my love.”
Mother ran her hands over her. Blossom snuggled close, the ‘bone-check’ was familiar and comforting to her.
The family took time to open the presents, each wrapped in brown or gray-white paper with cloth ribbons. There was clothing for each member of the family, new hunting boots for Petey whose feet seemed to grow larger every month, new school shoes for Blossom, a silver charm for Mother, and a new folding knife for Father, inlaid with antelope horn and gleaming in the candlelight. Stockings over the fireplace held nuts and sweets. Santa hadn’t forgotten Blossom’s secret wishes, and packages contained clothes for Bitsey, her precious doll, a wooden horse that rolled on small, painted wheels, and a new Sunday hat for church that matched her favorite coat.
The family unwrapped their presents slowly after the first burst of excitement as they enjoyed the pleasure of discovery. They thanked each other, thanked Santa, thanked God, and stacked the loot in small piles at their feet. Petey had just been tasked with collecting the wrapping paper and ribbons, when there was a sound of scrunching of boots outside the front of the house and a ringing of the bells attached to the front door.
“What on earth!” Mother called out. “Whoever would call this early on Christmas morning!”
“I’ll get it,” Father replied, and moved through the front anteroom to the door. There was hushed conversation, too low for Blossom to hear, but it sounded serious. After a few minutes Father came back.
“I have to go out,” he said, and to the groans of his family he continued, “it’s a message from the Dun-Elk farmstead up north near Airlie.”
“Airlie!” Blossom sang out. “That’s so far away!”
Father laughed. “Yes it is. Mackenzies live up there. You know them!”
And Blossom did. The Mackenzie clans were farmers and wore kilts. They laughed and sang all the time and they had great fairs.
Mother shook her head. “Figures it would be on Christmas Day. Is that the young woman you’ve been worrying about?”
Father nodded. “That’s her alright. Their healer hasn’t been happy with the pregnancy the entire time and it looks like things are going sour.”
Blossom looked at Father as he closed his eyes a moment. That meant he was thinking about his patient. Every patient was special to him, she knew, and that was why he was so frequently called away.
“Why not get Aaron to cover?” Mother asked. Aaron was Aaron Rothman, a physician in the Bearkiller lands and one of Father’s closer friends. “He’s not that far away from them.”
“He doesn’t do babies, and I do. That’s why the healer at Dun-Elk has been sending me notes,” Father replied. He held up the note in his hand. “The young women looks like she’s sliding into pre-eclampsia and she’s not due for another month or so.”
Petey was listening in. “Pre-what, Pops?”
Father ignored the ‘Pops’. “Pre-eclampsia. It’s a condition in pregnant women, nobody knows what causes it but if you don’t deliver the baby right away then the mother and baby might both die.”
He whistled softly. “Sure as hell hope they didn’t leave it too long, it’s an all-day drive out there.”
Mother shook her head again. “Who brought the news?”
“One of the boys from the farmstead. Guess he rode most of the night. He’s going to tend to his horse.” He thought for a moment. “I’ll take Mister Mike and the buggy, and I just may beat him back.” Mister Mike was the family horse, a chestnut draft who resided in the stable behind the house.
Mother frowned. “Will you stop over at the hospital?”
“Everything I need is in the kit-bag. If all goes well I can be back in a few days, but I’m guessing it won’t go well, so I may be there a little more than that.”
Blossom had listened quietly to the conversation but at this she let out a moan. “But Father, you were going to be with us the whole day and tomorrow too!”
She slumped in the chair. Her tiny frame, small even compared to children a year or two younger than her, made the chair look large. Father’s clinic at the hospital was always busy but for this holiday he’d promised his family the entire week. That time now was taken away.
“I’m sorry, Angel.” He turned to look at Mother but spoke to Blossom. “Tell you what, why don’t I take you with me. Mackenzies are fun this time of year and you can play with kids there while I handle this little problem. That way you and I can have some quality time on the way and back.”
Petey protested. “Why not me? I can help with Mister Mike.”
His father shook his head and wagged a finger at him. “You had your chance last month, young man, and you went and spent it with your pals at the lake. It’s Angel’s turn.”
Blossom beamed, and when she was sure Mother wasn’t looking she gave Petey an extra-special show of tongue. Serves you right for calling me fairy-eyes! “Yippee! I’ll go pack some clothes!” And she hobbled up the stairs to her bedroom.
With Mother’s help Blossom packed quickly. The brown linen bag soon held her clothes, night clothes, extra winter clothes, and doll clothes. Bitsey came last and was snugged in at the top. “We’re going on a cool trip, Bits!” Blossom told her. “We’re going to take the buggy and the horse and ride with Father all the way to a big farm!”
Blossom always knew always what Bitsey was thinking. “Oh yes, we’ll be warm under a sheepskin! And I have new clothes for you!” Blossom smoothed the yarn atop Bitsey’s corn husk head and peered into the blue, blue eyes that looked just like hers. “It will be such fun! Now I have to pack you in the bag. You must be careful in there because I don’t want you to have any broken bones!” And she tucked Bitsey amongst her pajamas.
Mother added Blossom’s hairbrush and soap and carried the duffel downstairs. Mother packed for Father and carried the bags to the stable behind the house while Blossom followed behind.
Father and Petey were hitching the buggy to Mister Mike, who picked at hay at his feet while Petey adjusted the straps and Father went over the tack, as Mother and Blossom walked in. Above her head Blossom could see strips of meat neatly wrapped in paper by Mother during the fall, smoked venison and hams, beef strips and cheeses that Father had obtained in trade for services at the clinic, hung by twine from the rafters. Several bins filled with potatoes and peas, onions and sweet potatoes sat on wooden shelves to either side of the door, keeping in the relative cold of the winter. Gardening tools and more tack for Mister Mike hung from hooks on the remaining walls.
Blossom slipped between the wall of the stable and the side of the buggy, waiting for Father and Petey to finish, and moved past the tools and tack, careful not to touch anything. She decided to sneak up behind Petey, so she ducked behind the back of the buggy and moved toward the left wheel on her hands and knees — and ran smack into OC, crouched at the wheel, who lashed out at her with its paws. OC was short for ‘Outside Cat’, an orange and white tabby who hung around the house and stable. Mother fed OC at the back porch every morning and OC in turn kept the mice and rats away. Blossom considered OC to be a nasty creature and was more than willing to put up with the mice, but Mother had insisted and even let the the cat rub her legs when she brought out scraps of food.
Now OC flew at her again with its front paws, and claws caught Blossom as she put up her hands and scrambled back to avoid the attack.
“OC! She clawed me!” she squealed and fell. Her left ankle turned under her and pain radiated up, and that caused her to whimper. She looked in fear at the cat, a low growling meow and a twitching tail making clear just who wasn’t allowed under the buggy.
Petey snickered loudly. “Just the stupid cat, fairy-eyes,” which earned him a mean look from Blossom and a withering look from Mother.
Blossom heard Father laugh as well. “I declare, Eleanor,” he said to Mother, “The only person that cat tolerates is you, and only because you feed it!”
Mother shushed them both and lifted Blossom from the floor, checking her leg and wiping her tears. Blossom had been more surprised and embarrassed than injured, and she glared at OC.
“You bad cat!” she said as she wagged a finger at it. “Father, how can I make Mister Mike step on her?”
Mother’s “Blossom!” scolded her for that even as Petey and Father chuckled again.
“I don’t know, Angel,” Father said, “But even if I could teach Mister Mike how to do it I’m pretty sure OC won’t let it happen. She’s pretty fast.”
Father gave one last tug on the tack and lifted Blossom into the buggy, putting her luggage behind the seat next to his own bag and the two leather satchels containing his instruments and medical kit. He took a pike from the wall and slid that under the seat, and then a cross-bow and a leather quiver of bolts that he stowed next to the pike. He then led Mister Mike out of the stable to the front of the house and the street.
Blossom looked at Father standing next to the buggy as he put his arm around her big brother. “Take care of your mother, Peter,” she heard Father tell him, and she saw Father hand him a note. “In the morning run this over to the clinic, it will let them know the situation.”
Petey nodded, and Mother came up alongside the buggy as Father climbed in next to Blossom and picked up the reins.
“Four days at the outside?” she asked.
Father nodded. “Anything longer than that, send the militia. Or maybe OC,” and he laughed. He leaned down and kissed her, then gave the horse a twitch of the reins. OC slid into the bushes next to the house, head poking out from the evergreens, and Blossom was certain the cat would spring up and claw her good. OC didn’t move but glared at Blossom, tail twitching, as they rode by.
Mister Mike moved at an easy trot as they rolled out the northern way to the city walls. There Blossom saw the constable on duty put up a hand to stop them just short of the painted bar that blocked the road. He was a short, stout man, clad in the uniform of the Corvallis police guard, dark pants and a dark blue duster hanging open over a mail tunic, the large orange beaver embroidered on the shoulder of the duster bright in the sunlight.
He waved. “Dr. Hunter, it’s Christmas Day! You should be home opening presents, not taking the air!”
Father grinned at the man but his words were serious. “Gotta head out north, Stan. Have a patient who needs me.”
Stan lost his smile and his thin mustache turned down as he frowned. “Well it just goes to show you. Where to?”
“Dun-Elk,” Father replied. “One of my young mothers is having trouble and they called me out.”
“Dun-Elk?” The constable whistled. “That’s a fair ways north. You sure you’re okay headed up there?”
He pointed at Blossom snuggled against Father and smiled again. “Why bless the Lord! It’s an angel you’ve got riding with you!” He laughed and Father joined in as Blossom smiled shyly, her face just showing above the fleece. “Love those big blue peepers, angel!” he called to her, and Blossom ducked under the cover.
Blossom heard the constable call to her. “No offense, Angel!” she heard him say and she giggled. That made both men laugh, and she heard the constable speak again to Father.
“What a kid! She’s going to be okay out there with you?”
“Just a little quality time together on the road,” Father replied. “I think we’ll be fine. It’s a straight shot up Route 99 to near Airlie, and I’ll take the Maxfield Creek Road in.”
“Well yes, that’s the route to take,” Stan noted. Blossom poked her head out and saw the constable lift a clipboard from a hook on the door of the guardhouse, pull a pencil from the clip, and make notes on a sheet. “You plan to be back, um, tomorrow?”
Father shook his head. “No, don’t think so. Might be a few days. Can’t say just yet.”
Stan nodded at that and made another note. “Be careful. You got an angel with you!”
Father grinned again. “We’ll be careful. See you in a few,” and he twitched the reins. Mister Mike moved forward as Blossom waved to the constable, and they rode past the gate and under the raised portcullis, beyond the wall and the earthworks and into the country.
It was grand. Father and Blossom talked and talked as they rolled down the road. Everything reminded Father of a story or a joke, and Blossom snuggled under the sheepskin fleece and tapped her toes in time to the beat of the horse as she listened to him. They had swung north well away from the Willamette river, grey-green in the morning sunlight, in town and soon left even the out-buildings behind. They passed farm land fallow in the winter glaze and pastures with but a few heads of cattle munching at the green-yellow grass.
Blossom pulled Bitsey from her duffel and starting showing her the cows, the farms, the trees, an old pre-Change building standing forlornly to one side, a hawk circling above, and deer on the side of the road. Her voice was a breathless stream. Father stopped his own stories and she saw the twinkle in his eyes and the quirk of his lips that meant he was holding in a good laugh. Mister Mike’s shoes rang out on the asphalt as he clopped down the road, and every turn showed Blossom something new to tell Bitsey.
At mid-day they stopped at a roadhouse. “We’re making good time, Angel,” Father said to her as he lifted her out of the buggy. Father watered and fed Mister Mike; Blossom giggled with delight at the slobbering of the great horse. Lunch for Blossom and Father was chicken breasts and fried potatoes, purchased inside the roadhouse and wrapped in paper, and they ate as they rolled on north, the green of the pines and spruces pressing up to the road. They had seen a little traffic as they had ridden out of Corvallis but as they pressed on they soon were the only travelers on the road. At mid-afternoon they turned from the main highway onto a narrow side road, graveled and well kept, that would take them the final miles to the farmstead. Father checked a map at intervals and kept Mister Mike moving while Blossom snuggled under the fleece with Bitsey.
The afternoon grew colder and the sky turned grayer, the pale sun moving behind the hills to the west, the trees, spruce and pine, filtering the light and noise as they rode through a big bend in the road. All around them were trees, and as far as Blossom could see there were trees, and more trees, ahead and behind them, left and right, nothing around them but trees and silence.
It smells like snow, Father had just said to Blossom, and she poked her nose out from the fleece to sniff at the air, wondering what snow smelled like and how her father could know it would snow, as Mister Mike began to whinny and slow abruptly, and Father gave him a little jerk with the reins.
The tiger leaped up from the culvert in the road. Mister Mike screamed as the tiger landed upon his withers and bolted in terror, bucking repeatedly in an attempt to throw off the beast. The buggy rattled and bounced behind him. Blossom saw only an orange-brown blur on the horse before she was thrown to the floor of the buggy. It was a tiger and it was huge!
“Daddy!!” she called out, and she heard Father shout in alarm. She saw his hand scrambling near her face trying to reach either the whip or the pike that were on the floor next to her, but he was jerked half out of his seat by the bucking of the horse as he struggled to hold the reins with his other hand. Blossom heard Mister Mike scream again in horror and she cried out, “Mister Mike! Mister Mike!”, over and over. She grabbed the seat above her head and tried to pull herself up from the floor of the buggy but was slammed down as the horse jerked and twisted.
The buggy lurched as the horse staggered, and both horse and buggy landed hard in the culvert to the side of the road. The buggy rolled and pieces broke away.
Blossom flew through the air. She barely had time to cry out, “Daddy!!” before she smacked into the ground and rolled, arms splayed out, and felt the bolt of pain from her left leg as it shattered. She heard a roar and a shout and then nothing as blackness took her.
❀ ❁ ❀
The ground beneath Blossom was cold and damp; the moisture had soaked her clothing and as she awoke she was wet and shivering. She stirred and pain from her leg overcame her. She wanted to scream but no sound came from her mouth, she wanted to cry but no tears came from her eyes, she wanted to crawl but no movement came from her arms and legs.
Blossom stilled herself. She didn’t recognize where she was at first. Then she remembered the blur of the tiger and the squeals of Mister Mike, and then flying through the air. She looked around and couldn’t see Father — he had to be here! But it was so dark that she could barely see around her.
Her leg throbbed. There was a breathing sound nearby in the dark, regular and heavy, and as Blossom listened she decided that it must be a person. It couldn’t be a dog, a dog would pant, it couldn’t be a horse, a horse would snort, and it couldn’t be a tiger, a tiger — well, it couldn’t be a tiger. She decided that she would move to that sound, so she began to crawl, willing herself over the dormant grass, the pain from her leg wracking through her body each time she moved so that she would move, stop, move, stop. After a few feet her hand brushed against something soft in the grass, and instinctively she pulled it to her.
Bitsey! “Oh I was so worried about you, Bits,” she whispered, and felt the doll from head to toe; the corn husk head was attached, the yarn hair was there, and the wooden body was whole. She laid in the grass and comforted her doll; Bitsey was frightened and told her over and again that she just wanted to go home to Mother.
Blossom shushed her. “We have to find Father!” She was scared but Bitsey was even more scared, so she held her doll another minute. Then she stuffed Bitsey into the pocket in the lining of her coat and resumed her crawl. Clouds covered the night sky and blocked the moon and starlight so she moved along the culvert by the road by feel, crunching the grass in her hands, picking past roots and stones, until she came to the sound.
It was Father, apparently sleeping, but he wouldn’t wake even when Blossom squeezed his hand and asked him to do so, not even when she began to cry, this time tears welling in her eyes and splashing down to her own hands. Bitsey cried with her. Father kept making a soft snoring sound, regular as the ticking of the great clock that Mother kept above the fireplace in the living room, and the thought of Mother and home caused Blossom to cry again, sniffles punctuating the night, her sobs muffled in the culvert and carried away by the wind that blew over them.
Blossom quieted. She had to be brave for Bitsey. “We will find a way to get home, Bits,” she told her doll, “And we will find a way to wake Father.”
To Bitsey’s question she replied, “Someone must come down the road and find us, so we shall stay next to Father and protect him.”
The inky night didn’t allow her to see beyond the dark form of Father in front of her, and moving about only produced more paroxysms of pain from her leg, but she could listen, and she did so now. She listened for Mister Mike and didn’t hear anything that sounded like a horse. She listened for the tiger but didn’t hear anything that sounded like a tiger, and then realized that she didn’t know what a tiger could sound like other than the great coughing roar she’d heard just before she had flown out of the buggy. She listened for the sounds of other people, hoping that someone would come down the road, but heard nothing than the sway of the pines in the breeze. She shivered as she listened, and sometimes the chattering of her teeth kept her from hearing anything so she clenched her jaw to stop. Bitsey was cold, too, and Blossom pulled her doll into her coat and smoothed her yarn hair.
She recognized a panting sound, just up a ways in the culvert, a sound similar to that which Father continued to make but unlike him at all, foreign to her ears, deep and sonorous, carrying beyond her into the night, just over the wind-noise, an evil sound, and she realized that the sound had been there all along since the moment she had woken, a sound that she hadn’t wanted and didn’t want to hear.
That was what a tiger sounded like.
As she laid next to Father, her leg throbbing, her eyes swollen, she knew the tiger was nearby in the culvert with her. She wanted to scream out but knew that would only bring the tiger to her. She covered Bitsey’s mouth to keep her quiet as well; Bitsey became scared easily and Blossom didn’t want Bitsey’s cries to carry to the tiger. She hoped that the night would cover her and Bitsey and Father so that the evil tiger wouldn’t see either of them.
The panting became a grunt, the grunt became sounds of chewing and then panting again. This occurred over and over and gradually Blossom figured out what the tiger was doing — it was eating Mister Mike. And the panic returned since she knew, she knew, that the tiger would finish eating the horse and then decide that it was still hungry and that it had a taste for little girls like her and Bitsey.
She realized that the tiger was beyond her father, deeper in the culvert, and she felt the ground around her and Father for anything that would help. Her hands clutched around a length of wood, as long as her small body and rough at one end, and she pulled it to herself. She snugged Bitsey further into her coat and gripped the wood, the width of it just fitting into her hands. She had no thought of what to do with it but holding it helped to calm her.
Bitsey asked her what she would do. “I will protect us, Bitsey,” she whispered back to the doll, “I will protect you and me and Father.”
She snuggled closer to Father. The breeze rustled the tops of the trees around them and clouds began to clear, and light from the moon, high in the sky, allowed her to see that Father’s head was bloodied. She knew now that Father was terribly injured and that was why he had not responded to her earlier pleading to wake up. She wiped her now grimy hands on her coat and pulled Bitsey back out. “You will stay with Father and keep him company,” she said, setting the doll near Father’s head, and when Bitsey protested that no, no, she would stay with Blossom, her blue-blue eyes looking scared in the moonlight as she told Blossom how frightened she was seeing Father’s blood, Blossom replied, “No, Mommy says you must stay with Father and look after him. I must see how close the tiger is.”
She decided that she had to see where the tiger was; it scared her every bit as much as it scared Bitsey but she now realized that Father would not move for some time to come, and that even with her leg broken — she knew was broken, just as surely as she’d broken the same leg the previous summer when she’d vaulted from the swing-set at the school on a dare — it would be up to her to find help for all of them.
She rolled carefully away from Father and Bitsey and crawled past his head, pulling herself up the culvert a few feet. Her leg hurt less now; the foot was cold and numb so that she could move without the terrible pain. She clutched the piece of wood as she slid, first in one hand and then in the other, and with it came around Father and looked down the culvert.
Yellow eyes looked back at her.
The eyes caught the moonlight just enough for Blossom to see and the great head, a head that Blossom could now just make out in the darkness, looked about, the eyes moving in the night, looking at her and at Father. The eyes reminded her of a pennant that Father kept in his study at the house, a black flag with a red eye on it, a cat’s eye, just like the eyes looking at her. She had asked Father once how he had obtained the flag and he had said nothing more than that it was a long time ago. And he had never said anything again to her but she knew he thought about it from time to time, particularly when his friend Dr. Aaron, the one-footed doctor, would come to Corvallis, because the two would sit in Father’s study and drink and talk about the flag and the war and the good friends who had not come home. Father was always happy to see Dr. Aaron but they always ended up being sad together, drinking late into the night while Mother would shoo her and Petey up the stairs to bed.
The yellow eyes came back to her, and she was certain the tiger knew she was there with Father and Bitsey. She was certain the tiger would come over to eat her and then Bitsey and then Father. Blossom heard Bitsey whimper and turned to shush her, and then she drew out the piece of wood for protection, clutching it in both hands, its rounded length solid, the jagged edge protruding forward, and held it out as she saw Petey do when he had drill after school.
There was a sound on the road. At first she thought it was the wind and trees but then realized that it was something else. The tiger heard the sound and turned to face it, then turned back to her, yellow eyes again reflecting in the moonlight, and the pant became a growl and the growl became a roar as the tiger stood directly in front of her, ruffing its neck, tensing its hind legs, ready to spring. The moon and starlight allowed her to see the stripes on the tiger, dark on a dark hide in the moonlight, tail swishing, eyes flashing, head turning to and fro, and the tiger took a step towards her, grayish chest in the light ruffled, then another step, now just feet away from her and Father, as a low growl came from its throat and the yellow, yellow eyes looked straight at her.
Blossom jabbed the stick outward towards the tiger. The tiger took a step back and hissed at her, a sound that spat at her and glued her to the ground with fright, and the sound she had heard in the woods came again, loud, words, words that she didn’t understand —
And other voices called: “Dre-e-e-e-e-g-o-o-o Mo-o-o-o-r-r-n!!”
More sounds, sounds of feet moving over the grass behind and around her, and the tiger roared again, full-throated, and flicked out at her, whisking the stick from her hands as if it were mere string, and she laid in the grass, unable to move further because of her fear, and the voices called again, together, a great roar of their own:
“LACHO CALAD! DREGO MORN!”
Blossom heard the roar of voices from all around her. Then a light appeared on the road, bright and yellow, and the tiger turned towards the light as it bobbed and swayed. The tiger coughed and roared again, not at Blossom but at the light, and bared its fangs as it stood half up the culvert.
There was a noise behind her and then a sudden whump as a heavy weight fell on top of her! Blossom was pinned to the grass and mud and she couldn’t see what was happening. She struggled against whatever it was atop her but the thrashing caused new bolts of pain to shoot up her leg. Something came across her face — it was a hand! It was a person on top of her!
That person hissed “BE STILL!!” and Blossom went limp.
Then she saw people in the roadway, one who held a bright lantern that gleamed yellow above the culvert. That was the light she had seen! She stared at the light and despite the weight of the person on top of her and the pain in her leg she could see that the person holding the lantern was calling to the tiger but she couldn’t make out the words.
Another person, the biggest man Blossom had ever seen, stood on the road next to the person with the light. He was holding a long, long stick that he pointed straight at the tiger, and the tiger turned to him. Blossom heard the tiger cough and roar again as it stepped towards the man. It took another step up the culvert and then it leaped, and the man sank to one knee and cried out as the tiger abruptly stopped. In the moonlight and lantern-glow she could see the man’s long stick had struck the tiger in the neck and chest even as the tiger had lashed out almost on top of the man, and then the tiger staggered backwards and began to turn away, its paws still scratching at the man, and the man bellowed and heaved his arms forward, driving the stick deep into the tiger.
The tiger fell. Sound died away and Blossom could once again hear the wind in the trees. When the tiger laid still on the roadway the person on top of Blossom lifted off of her and rolled her gently to look into her face. The woman peering at Blossom had white hair that reflected the moonlight, and she sat on her haunches a moment, breathing deeply, before turning to look at Father.
The other people came over to them and Blossom could see that there were four in all, the giant man with his stick resting on his shoulder, another woman holding the lantern, and another man a step back with a giant bow in his hands. They were talking but Blossom couldn’t understand them at first until she heard the giant man say loudly, “What do I care for the clawing of a cat!”
Blossom’s blue-blue eyes grew wide as the giant man put down the spear, for she could see now that was what it was, as he drove the point into the ground and then worked his hands open and shut, taking great breaths in and out and trembling as he did so.
The woman with the white hair came into Blossom’s view now, tall and long-faced, and she knelt down to bring her face close to Blossom’s. She reached out a hand, cradled Blossom’s cheeks and said to her, “Dear child, what brings you so far into these woods?”
The moon was behind the woman and the wind that came into the culvert tossed her white hair around both of them. Blossom lay on the ground and asked the woman, “Are you an angel?”
“Yes dear, I am an angel. We will see you and yours safe now.”
Blossom cried softly, once, and then lay still, unconscious.
❀ ❁ ❀
Blossom awoke to the gray light filtering through her frosted bedroom window. She laid in bed, wooly-headed, and as she finally focused she saw her family, all of them, around her bed. Something tickled at the side of her face and she turned to see what it was — it was Bitsey! She smiled and reached to the doll, and saw Mother sitting in a chair at the edge of the bed, her eyes red and swollen, a smile coming to her face, saying to her over and again, “Oh my love, it’s so good to have you back.”
Blossom reached out to her mother. Mother moved to sit at the head of the bed and cradled Blossom into her chest. Blossom looked over the bed, and as she moved there was a shock that went through her, a realization that something was wrong, and she pulled down her hands and darted them under the covers, feeling down her left leg which ended just below her knee. Her stomach lurched and her blue-tinged eyes moistened, and she looked about to see Father, his head heavily bandaged, most of his brown hair shaved, sitting at the foot of her bed, with Petey next to him, grim looks on both their faces.
“Blossom, sweetie, I’m so sorry,” her Father said, softly as he dared, “but your leg is gone. You broke it in the accident and we couldn’t save it.”
Blossom did not cry. Sadness took her instead, and as she murmured softly, words no one else could understand, and grieved for minutes. Then she calmed and then spoke, peeking out of Mother’s arms to look at her father. “I know, Father, I’m fine, really.”
Mother continued to hold and rock her, and Blossom arched her eyebrows at her and said, “Now Petey will just have to carry me wherever I want to go.”
“Anytime, anywhere, fairy-eyes,” Petey replied, and no one chastised him this time.
The bedroom door cracked open, and a slim man with greying, brown hair looked in. “How’s our patient, Pete?” he asked Father.
Father replied to him, “Just awoke. Eyes are clear. We’re, ah, getting used to the situation.”
The man stepped into the room now, and Blossom smiled up at him, the heavy thunk of his wooden foot long familiar to her as he moved to the bed. “Hi, Dr. Aaron.”
That was what she’d always called him when he visited Father. She scrunched her face at him. “I’ll get better, I promise!”
“Hiya kiddo. You’re already getting better!” He chuckled and then spoke softly to her. “Gave us quite a scare, honey. Let me take a look at you, is that okay? I want to check out your leg.”
Blossom nodded and then lay still as his hands moved over her, checking her chest with his stethoscope, checking the stump, squeezing gently, turning her left leg this way and that, and finally nodded and looked at her. “Your leg is better. I think it’s going to heal just fine.”
He paused. “You know, honey, I’m a peg-leg myself.” He reached down and rapped his wooden foot just above the loafer he wore, the sound almost of a knock on a door, and smiled at her again. “Hasn’t stopped me. And it won’t stop you.”
Dr. Aaron turned to Father. “Pete, the amputation looks well, all things considered, the redness is gone, there’s no pus in there, and it’s not crepitant. I think whatever infection she had is clearing.”
Blossom listened to Dr. Aaron. She didn’t know what the big words meant but she knew Father did.
Pete Hunter sighed. “Quite a scare. But you’re right, this is the best she’s looked these past two weeks.”
“Look, she’ll adapt. She’s young and even with this idiot Change,” Aaron paused, waving at the air, “we still do some pretty good prosthetics. We should, we send enough of our people to fight all these stupid wars.”
There was a quiet knock on the door. Aaron opened it and a massive man stood there, hands clasped in front of him, and he called into the room softly, “I hear she’s awake. Might we see her?”
Dr. Aaron looked at the family and rolled his eyes. “My god, it’s the mobile mountain.”
He turned to the big man. “Yes John, come in here, you can have a minute. Upset my patient in the least though and I’ll toss you out the window myself!”
John Hordle came into the room. He was the biggest man Blossom had ever seen! He was clad in a Mackenzie kilt and quilted, tartan tunic, and stood next to Dr. Aaron, who compared to the big man was reed-thin and at least a foot shorter. There was no way Dr. Aaron could throw him out the window!
But John meekly slid past him towards the bed. The white-haired woman came in behind him! She was dressed in town garb and held a tiger pelt in her arms. More voices at the foot of the stairs asked for clearance, and Dr. Aaron stepped into the hallway. Through the open door Blossom heard him call down the stairs, “Criminy, people, this is a sick-house, not a bath-house. You can wait your turn!”
The voices below quieted, and Rothman stepped back into the room and addressed Father. “Is it always like this around here? I might take Blossom with me back to the Bearkillers. At least they know how to be quiet!” He shook his head theatrically. “Mackenzies!”
Blossom giggled at him, and he winked back at her. “I’ll be back tomorrow, honey.”
He turned and left the room, and Blossom could hear his wooden leg clunk as he went down the stairs.
Then Blossom looked at the woman with the white hair and smiled. “You are my angel!”
The woman smiled. “You remember!”
Blossom responded again, “You are my angel!”
Mother looked at the woman, who explained. “I’m Astrid, we’re with the Dùnedain Rangers. My husband — he’s downstairs — and John here and my anamachara, Eilir, and I were in the woods the evening we found your little girl. We’d been told by people at Dun-Elk that they’d seen tiger spoor and tracks earlier in the week and we heard your husband was coming out, so when he didn’t show up by evening we went down the road to look.”
Blossom now realized just how important her father was to all these people, and she spoke to Astrid. “But it was dark! Weren’t you scared?”
“We were a little concerned,” Astrid replied. She said it lightly but Blossom could see her eyes narrow, and in the corner of her eye she could see Mother slowly shake her head.
Hordle picked up the story. “Yes ma’am, we decided to go kitty hunting, we don’t like seeing the big ‘uns sniffing around. So we walked down the road, saying ‘here, kitty-kitty-kitty.’”
Hordle mimed how he would call a tiger, crooking a finger with a ‘come-here’ gesture. Both Petey and Blossom laughed, and Blossom saw Astrid smile and shake her head.
Hordle continued, “Then we smelled the horse — guess that was your horse, wasn’t it,” and both Mother and Petey nodded. “So we figured the tiger was close, maybe had just done the kill, and so we moved in and put the kitty down.”
He crouched down to look Blossom in the eye and said gently, “You were mighty brave, young miss.”
“I was scared,” Blossom said softly to the huge man.
“So was I,” Hordle replied just as softly, and then the smile left his face and the lilt in his voice died away, and Blossom could see the fear on his face, the same fear she had had that night, and now she knew that he had felt it too.
“But you killed the tiger, and I couldn’t.”
“I almost didn’t,” Hordle replied.
He looked to Mother and Petey and said, “She had a big stick in her hands, keeping the kitty at bay, defending her Dad, she was, when we got there.”
Blossom looked over at Petey, who was staring at her, mouth open, in a way he had never done before.
Astrid moved closer to the bed. “Since you had the big cat cornered for us, we figured it was only right that you should have her pelt. She was a Siberian, the biggest of the tigers in our woods, and this will keep you warm at night.”
She leaned closer and whispered low into Blossom’s ear, “Don’t worry about this one ever again, she’s in the Summerlands now and you’re safe with your Mum.”
Blossom reached out and pulled a corner of the pelt to her. The hair was soft, the black stripes alternating with the orange and white, and after a moment she grinned up at Astrid. “It’s beautiful. Can I call this a Christmas present?”
Mother whispered to her, “Oh yes, my darling, it’s a present, and it’s a most remarkable Christmas for us all!”
❀ ❁ ❀ finis ❀ ❁ ❀
I thank Kier Salmon and Karen Black for their helpful critique and many, many suggestions. Anything in the story that doesn’t work is my fault and certainly not hers.
I thank my daughter the junior horse-woman for explaining to me how a horse might sound if it were to be attacked by a tiger. Not that this has ever happened to her, but she knows her horses.
The quote, “What do I care for the clawing of a cat?” is originally attributed to Sir James Outram, a British solider in India about 1833, as noted in the New York Times, August 15, 1880, and also in the book, Heroes of the Indian Mutiny, by Edward Gilliat.