A Christmas Story

It was Spencer’s first Christmas alone since his wife had left him. Like his retirement a year earlier, he seemed to be taking it in stride, coping a lot better than the other people he knew who’d been through more than one ‘high-stress life event’ in a short period. in fact, his friends and neighbours were quite worried about how well he was handling it, torn between believing he was in denial (and the shock would soon kick in and overwhelm him), and believing he was an insensitive bastard who was too emotionally shallow to feel grief.

When people pressed him about this, he just shrugged and gave them a copy of a Malcolm Gladwell article, Getting Over It, that argued that people were better able to handle trauma than most psychologists would like to admit. He insisted he had made peace with both events and had transitioned rather effortlessly to life without a job or a spouse. No, he said, he wasn’t interested in dating, or joining social organizations, or doing some consulting work to keep busy, or getting a pet to keep him company. He was happy. He wasn’t sure whether the frowns his assertions of contentment generally elicited from others were frowns of doubt, or of puzzlement, or of envy.

Mostly he liked to go for long walks, often in the woods near his home, something he’d never done while he was working or married. Sometimes, if the weather was bad, he’d stick to walking in the nearby town or just around the neighbourhood, and sometimes, if the weather was ideal, he would get in his car and drive up north and then, with his new GPS toy to find his way back, just wander into the wilderness.

Although he’d never had anything published, Spencer wrote short stories, and found inspiration for them in nature. Today, comfortably bundled up in his snowsuit, he was sitting, somewhat awkwardly because of his lack of flexibility, cross-legged with his back against the trunk of a White Pine, observing and taking pictures of Cardinals. He’d brought some sunflower seeds that he’d tossed out in the snow, and the Cardinals were the first to discover them. He tried, clumsily, to imitate their chip nattering sound and their wheit cheer cheer cheer call, but they just looked at him as if he were crazy. One of them fluttered in the branches around his head, seemingly intrigued by the aroma of the hot chocolate he was drinking out of a thermos.

They were suddenly joined by a new visitor: A skunk waddled quickly across the snow to check out the pile of sunflower seeds, left them untouched, and walked over to the centre of the clearing and began digging furiously in the snow. Spencer had heard that skunks won’t spray you if you don’t startle them, and knew that, with the camera and other stuff scattered around where he was sitting he wouldn’t be able to move quickly enough to get out of the way if she stamped her feet and charged (a pre-spray warning), so he sat still and watched her. What concerned him was knowing that skunks are short-sighted, and thinking perhaps this skunk might not even be aware he was there until he did decide to move.

The skunk dug a pathway down to the grass and moss, sending snow flying in every direction, and then began to dig and sniff more carefully, stopping occasionally to ingest what Spencer assumed were grubs. Within a few minutes the area looked like it had been excavated with a rototiller, and the birds had fled. At this point the skunk sniffed the air and turned her head towards where Spencer was sitting motionless. She waddled closer, head cocked, and then closer still. Spencer had a gloved hand lying on the ground beside him, grasping the cup of hot chocolate, and the skunk sauntered over to the cup, put her sharp front claws on its rim, and stuck her snout into the hot chocolate. She jumped back suddenly, perhaps burned by the strange still-hot liquid, and Spencer closed his eyes, fearing the worst. But a moment later the skunk returned, sniffed the liquid, and walked away.

Had the skunk not recognized Spencer as a human, or was she simply unafraid of the slow-moving human beast? Did the skunk even know what a human was, what it smelled like? Did the skunk realize that chocolate is toxic to her, or was she just put off by the liquid’s hot temperature?

Slowly Spencer stretched his legs, allowing himself to breathe again. The skunk resumed digging and feeding for another fifteen minutes and then starting waddling back toward Spencer. This time she climbed up onto Spencer’s snowsuit-covered legs and began scratching lightly, turning around and finally settling down in the comfort of Spencer’s lap.

Spencer was dumbfounded. Was this creature just naive about humans, or just fearless, having seen wild animals that would prey on her larger but less protected cousins fleeing in her wake? Spencer had no idea what to do, or how to extract himself without alarming the six-pound bomb in his lap. When his legs began to go numb and he had exhausted all other possibilities, he decided to slowly and gently touch her with his still-gloved hand. Gradually, the touch lengthened into a caress, and soon Spencer was stroking the skunk’s fur just as he would that of a small cat. Spencer could not believe what he was seeing, or doing, at the connection he had made with this strange little ball of fur. The Cardinals were back, overhead in the branches and eating the sunflower seeds, chattering away as if neither the skunk nor the human were there. It was as if the rest of the world had fallen away, and there was only this forest, this astonishing connection, the unfathomable wonder of being part of this place, and through it, in a way he had never felt before, never even imagined possible, being a part of all life on Earth. The future and past blurred and there was only now. Spencer could feel the skunk relax, her body almost melting into his hand and his thighs. He sensed she was falling asleep, so comforted by his touch…

But it was he who was lulled to sleep. When he awoke, cold and stiff, it was dusk, and the skunk and the birds were gone. He rose, collected his notepad and his thermos and his binoculars and his GPS, and made his way swiftly back to his car. He was still wondering if the remarkable scene he last remembered had really happened at all, but two things convinced him that it had: He was able to navigate the forest with an extraordinary skill he did not think he possessed, not looking once at his GPS as he made his way confidently back through the thick woodlands in the semi-dark to the road, remembering with total clarity all the trees and signposts he did not recall noticing on his way in. And as he did so, he was accompanied by a small, swift flock of crows, cawing at him, flying ahead and around him, almost as if they were showing him the way home.

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6 Responses to A Christmas Story

  1. feithy says:

    I really loved this. Thank you. :)Feithy

  2. Jon Husband says:

    Hey, Spenser / Dave. Nice walk in the woods, and quite the extra-dimensional experience.

  3. What an amazing story. Sounds as if Spencer was fully enjoying the new part of his life. I would say that the skunk knew exactly what he was, but was used to his scent from his walks through those woods. Wildlife will do that… they’ll determine who is a friend based on frequency of harmless visits. I’m so glad you wrote it up for him, for our benefit!

  4. Mariella says:

    It reminded me this ancient hermetic axiom that says (lets hope the translation is all right)………….. The lips of the master remain close until the ears of the pupil able to understand arrive……….I feel Spencer was ready to listen to the wilderness, he was able to understand the teachings of the skunk and the crows and the natural roads of the forest……..that are always there, patiently waiting, (or maybe just existing) to be noticed by us… when we get to be ready to….—Peaceful Holy Days to you all..!—–Mariella…………… PS (That is what non moderns do : they change themselves to fit better into the world…. instead of trying to change the world to…..)

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