Our farm lay in the shelter of high hills, and when it snowed, the landscape was powdery white and resembled a fairy tale world. Even Marie Jordslev’s small place which we could see from our windows, in reality a hovel verging on collapse, was transformed into a fine little house, its silhouette drawn against the dark winter sky.
When I was a child we always seemed to get snow just before Christmas. “Of course we’ll have snow for Christmas,” my mother would say on her busy way through the farmhouse out to the stalls, and she was always right as far as I remember.
The year I remember best, winter came early with freezing temperatures and icicles on the gables. Our breath was white, standing straight out in the air. The livestock was in the warm barn and our chicken coup which was furthest away had an extra cloak of hay and snow. We were ready for a long winter and a wonderful Christmas.
That was also the year I had a white hen called Snow White. She was in the chicken run together with the brown hens. She looked a little different but was good at laying eggs. My father said that every once in a while there was an albino amongst the brown hens, but that it meant nothing. Nothing at all except that the white hen stood out and I had noticed her from the first day that we got her. I had adopted her and she in her hen fashion had adopted me.
She would come out of the chicken coup a little more slowly than the others when I came down to feed them, as though she knew that I would save something for her. She did not need to hurry. I was there to look after her, until one morning shortly before Christmas when she didn’t come out. I waited and waited, a little irritated, but still with a smile on my lips. Because of course she would come. Maybe she was busy laying an egg. I could wait.
“Snow White,” I finally called, because there was a limit to how long I wanted to wait. “It’s the last day of school and I don’t have any more time. If you want something to eat, it has to be now.” I had often heard my mother call my father to the table that way. “Come on, Johannes. If you want something to eat, it has to be now.” My father would respectfully drop everything he had in his hands and sit down at the table. But Snow White did not come. The brown hens clucked around me. They picked the grain out of the snow and clucked, content.
Could she have broken a leg or a wing and was she lying injured in the chicken coup? I put down the sack of grain and hurried inside the coup. There was no Snow White!
“But she wasn’t even there.” There were tears in my voice as I stood beside my mother in the warm kitchen that smelled of Christmas baking, as her hands rolled out the cookie dough and brushed on beaten egg and sprinkled on sugar with chopped almonds.
“She has to be there.” My mother’s answer was a bit distracted. She did not have time to think about Snow White two days before Christmas. “She can’t just disappear.”
“Could the fox . . .?” I hated the thought. My mother took a big cookie sheet with brown spice cookies out of the oven. “You can have a couple as soon as they cool off.”
Brown spice cookies. Usually I stood on guard and waited for them to be ready, cooled off just enough so I could sample them. That year I thought they didn’t look particularly good and smelled too sweet. My head was full of Snow White.
“But the latch was in place as usual. . . .No one opened the door to the chicken coup. . . . ”
“Unless someone opened it and closed it again and put the latch back. . . . ”
“Who would do that . . .? And why would they take Snow White . . .?” There were more tears in my voice.
“I don’t know,” admitted my mother in all honesty. “I do know that you better put your longer leg first if you want to get to school on time.”
I trudged to school through the snow and only thought about Snow White. I walked with Gutte and Adam as usual. Their farm was on the other side of the hill.
“It’s only a hen,” said Adam matter of fact. He was already a real little farmer, and for him, an animal was an animal, nothing more. Losing a hen was just too bad, especially one that was a good layer, but it was not a catastrophe. Animals died now and then on a farm. It was just something that had to be borne.
“But I don’t even know if she is dead,” I tried to explain.
“She is to you,” said Adam coldly. He increased his pace and got ahead of us.
Gutte was much more understanding, but her solution was way out in left field, like girls often are I discovered later. “You’ll see,” said Gutte in her matter of fact way. “She’ll be brought back by the Christmas angel.”
“The Christmas angel!” I stood still in the snow and stared. I couldn’t believe such stupidity and superstition. “And where will the Christmas angel come from?”
“Oh, she just comes winging in when she feels like it. . . .” Gutte gestured with a thin hand in her thick mitt. “Right from heaven to help those who are in need.”
“And this Christmas angel knows where Snow White is?” There was stabbing irony in my voice. I had always believed that Gutte was a girl with common sense. Practical and fun and full of good ideas. But this business about a Christmas angel was a little too much. I wanted to laugh, but the thought of Snow White drove away any merriment. I also wanted to cry, but big boys didn’t do that. Especially not boys who are almost eight. The whole school would shake with laughter. “He’s crying over a dead hen. . . .” I could hear them ridicule me.
“Wish for a new hen for Christmas,” said Adam, who was waiting for us at the next field marker. And with that he was not prepared to talk more about a hen. It was almost Christmas. Today was the last day of school. All of Christmas stretched out in front of us full of happy occasions. Not to mention two weeks of holidays. What exactly was one hen? And I certainly did not want to talk to Gutte and her Christmas angel. I wanted to mourn for Snow White and most of all I wanted to find her – punish whomever had put their hands on my white hen.
“You are not going out to search for her,” said my mother when I got home from school. I hadn’t said anything about it, but she knew what went on in my head. “A storm is blowing in. You can put up a new sheaf of grain for the birds, but fasten it tightly because the storm is going to tear at it. And they promised snow so you have to stay home in the farmyard.”
Stay home, while Snow White had maybe lost her way and would perish in the coming storm?
“Listen to what I say.” My mother knew from experience. Once when we had rabbits and I was just five years old, I had roamed about in the fields and in the forest a whole night to find one. In the end I was tired and muddy and I had lain down to sleep at the foot of one of the big oaks banked up with sand. It was there that Marie Jordslev from the little house half way up the hill had found me and brought me home. True it was summer then, but it had been raining for three days, and the air was cool and I was as I said only five years old.
“You are an angel, Marie Jordslev,” my mother had said, when the old woman brought me home. She had loaded me on her scrawny and slightly crooked shoulder and hauled me along, almost bent double.
“A little boy should sleep in his bed at night.” Marie Jordslev held a crooked finger in warning toward my mother. “He has no business being in the forest when it is dark and wet.”
“No,” said my mother, penitent. “I thought he was asleep. He had gone to bed. I didn’t know a little rabbit meant so much to him. But he has always been crazy about animals. Right from the time he was so small that he could barely walk.”
“A mother should know what’s going on,” cackled Marie Jordslev and sat down at the table where my mother had set out a big dinner for her with meat, potatoes, red cabbage and lots of brown gravy. She happily smacked her lips as she ate the food and when she left, my father carried a big bag for her, full of eggs and meat and vegetables, for their gratitude was boundless. “The boy would have survived,” said my father the next morning to my mother. “But it was just as well to get him home. And Marie Jordslev certainly needed every bit I brought her.”
“She was right. . . . He had no business being in the forest when it was dark and wet.”
“Of course,” my father nodded and took an extra lump of sugar, which he sucked on thoughtfully while he drank the rest of his coffee. “But what business did Marie Jordslev have in the forest at that time of night?”
My mother hesitated a moment before she said, “That is really none of our affair, is it?” She stood in the middle of the big kitchen and added, “For me she was just an angel. She brought back my boy.”
“An angel has to be dressed in white and have wings and be young and beautiful,” chuckled my father and laughed into his dark beard.
“Looks have nothing to do with it. An angel is an angel,” my mother declared. And that was the end of their discussion about that.
We never found the little rabbit, and maybe it was much better off free instead of being locked up in a cage. But it was also just a rabbit and I had never talked to it or given it a name. This was Snow White and, true, she was just a hen, but she had a name, and I talked to her every morning and she replied in her clucking chicken way. And she had disappeared.
“Make sure that the boy comes in when he has set up the Christmas sheaf,” said my mother, as if she could read my thoughts because it was precisely at that point I had been planning to leave. A farm is a very busy place just before Christmas even if the butchering is finished. There are a hundred small things that have to be seen to and done before Christmas Eve can arrive, and my mother scurried about, upbeat and busy in her Christmas whirl. “And then we have to remember to keep an eye on him after he goes to bed.”
There went my second chance, because I had intended to go to bed with all my clothes on and keep myself awake until my mother and father had gone to bed. They slept soundly after a long day’s work. They would not hear me creep out of the house to find Snow White. “It isn’t a summer’s day with light rain. It’s so cold, things are starting to crackle, and they have promised snow. There is no guarantee that an angel will come back with him a second time.”
“No.” My father understood how serious things were, and I really did too, but where was Snow White? I couldn’t just leave her in the lurch in a snow storm.
As expected, my father came to help set up the sheaf of grain and I had to follow him inside. “Because Mother is waiting for us,” he said, and for just a second, I thought he would take my hand, but luckily he didn’t. There is a limit to what an eight year old can put up with, and it was several years ago that he had last held me by the hand.
We ate in silence. The wind rustled in warning through the big poplars just at the end of the entry port.
“Goodnight,” my mother said. “It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.” There was something in her dark eyes that told me that she would come in my room to check if I had my pajamas on and wasn’t just lying fully dressed in bed, waiting for the right moment to set out in the winter darkness.
“Goodnight.” I sighed deeply, but I knew there was nothing to do except to undress and go to bed. There are times when my mother with a quiet word has a power that it is wisest to respect.
“Goodnight,” I mumbled and went to my room. But even my mother could not force me to sleep. I lay in my bed and stared at the ceiling which I couldn’t see and listened to the storm’s growing strength as it whipped the poplars’ long branches against each other and raced puffing and whistling down the chimney.
I don’t know how long I lay like that, but I suddenly heard my father out in the entranceway. “I am going to make a round,” he said and struggled with the big booted wooden clogs.
“Don’t go too far,” answered my mother. “The snowstorm can’t be too far off.”
“I think I am just going to drop by Marie Jordslev’s with a hen,” said my father thoughtfully. “Maybe she’s short on eggs.”
It was quiet in the entranceway, but finally my mother said, “That’s a good idea, Johannes. What made you think of that?”
“Well, it’s getting to be Christmas,” my father answered, and just before he closed the door to the storm, he added, “The fox could not have taken the latch off the chicken coup and put it back afterward, right? Marie Jordslev has a habit of roaming around at night. We’ve discussed that before.”
It took several years before I really understood what those two dear people were talking about as they stood in the entranceway. I had given up ever finding Snow White again and fallen asleep with some sudden hot tears rolling sideways down my cheeks. Just before I fell asleep, my mother opened the door to my room to assure herself that I was still there, and I was. Shortly after, I must have fallen asleep and I didn’t hear the storm rage in the night or my father come home from his nightly round in the dark.
When I woke up the next morning, our whole world was white and the sun ducked out from behind a cloud, sending streams of gold down on our fairy tale world. Marie Jordslev’s little hut had been changed into something beautiful and fairy like. But the biggest surprise was waiting for me in the chicken coup where Snow White was strutting around in her usual questioning and hen-like manner as though she had never left us. True, a couple of the brown hens were missing, but I didn’t even notice in my own happiness. My father had bartered his way to get Snow White back. “Marie Jordslev hadn’t really thought that we would miss one hen that could lay eggs. We do have so many. And her surprise at grabbing the only white hen in the dark must have been enormous.”
“We have to make sure that Marie Jordslev gets eggs from time to time,” my mother said. And my father just nodded.
“Snow White came back!” Naturally I had to go up to Gutte and Adam and tell them that my hen had come back.
“That was the Christmas angel for sure,” Gutte said, quite serious, and I just nodded. There are so many Christmas angels and they have so many different shapes. My Christmas angel looked a lot like my mother and father, and who could wish for anything better or more beautiful?