Marga was old, and this Christmas she would be older than ever. She walked with a crook in her back that got a slight bit more crooked each day, so that it became hard to look at anything but the floor, and she crackled a bit louder each day when she moved. This old woman lived by herself in a big old house, on top of a hill that looked over a village. The house was as old as she was, and had settled into a shape something like hers too. She had not left it in a long time, apart from emergencies, such as when she ran out of tea.
Today was one of those days, for as usual Marga had left the business of getting a Christmas tree till the last minute. She did not want to go out in the cold, especially as it looked like snow, which only put her in mind of happy things, which made her sad. But she had made a promise that she would have a tree each year, and she was a person who believed in promises. So the old woman put on her boots and made her slow way down to the place with the trees.
The round little man was there as always, and he showed her that there were no trees left. Actually there was one, down at the very corner of the wood, that nobody had wanted. They went to look at it. The tree looked as if it had been there for three hundred years. It was short and wide and crooked and half dead on two out of three sides.
The man did not speak Marga’s language and never had. “Greni,” he muttered, pointing at the tree. She sighed and said, “All right,” and he cut it down with his little red axe. Then she gave him a few extra coins, as she always did, so that he would help her get it back to her house and in through the door and up on its stand.
Marga grunted at the pitiful sight of the thing there in her living room. There was no way to hide the fact that it was half dead. But she had to finish the job, and so she went to fetch her lights. They were covered in dust, and once she got them on the tree it turned out that one of the two strings had gone out, which seemed fitting. As she fussed over the tree she spoke to it. “Well then Greni, you’re going to have to do the job this year, there’s nothing for it. I hope you’re up to the job, old man,” and so on.
When she was done the cat Beezel came in, and sniffed around the bottom of the tree, and put a paw up to bat at one of the lights. At that moment a little twig happened to snap off and fall directly on the cat’s head, sending him off to the kitchen in a flurry of claws on the floor. The old woman cackled. “Go on then, silly thing! Ah, Greni, you are an old rascal, aren’t you? We will get on fine.”
It did snow that night. Marga got up the next morning and went down to make tea as usual. But as she made her slow way down the stairs she realized that something was not quite right; there was an odd light in the house that should not have been there. Something very small moved at the bottom of the stairs, and she saw that it was a flake of snow, drifting in from the direction of the living room. Had she left a window open? She turned the corner and found something most extraordinary.
Greni stood there just as he had, but the living room was no longer a living room. There were other trees crowding the room too, younger than he but as tall or taller. Snow covered the floor entirely and draped itself over the furniture. A flash in the corner caught her eye and she turned to see a little gray bird, perched atop one of the trees near the ceiling, pecking away at a nut. Beezel the cat was slinking along the floor at the edge of the snow, reaching his paw out, but afraid to touch it.
This was a new sort of thing, then. But Marga’s mind was not as it had been. She saw new sorts of things sometimes. Anyway there was nothing to be done, as far as she could tell, so she put on her boots and pushed a dry chair in from the parlor, and sat there in her little snowy wood looking carefully at old Greni.
After some time a small face appeared at the window, and then another. These were two of the children from one of the nearest houses, and they had not been able to help themselves, upon noticing this most unusual sight as they played out on the street. Their cheeks were very red and they stared at the wood in Marga’s living room with open mouths. The old woman reached over to open the window, which was not easy to do, as it had not been opened in years. By the time she’d wrestled the thing ajar the children had scampered off in fear.
The next morning the wood was still there. Now there were birds all through it, gray ones and pink ones, and Marga could hear their twittering as soon as she woke up. When she went in to sit she found Beezel the cat halfway up one of the trees, looking out at her sheepishly. She opened the window and saw that there were several children gathered out on the street, pointing, and their parents too.
The old woman shuffled over to the front door and waved them in. They came with some hesitation, and stood in the doorway of the living room shaking their heads, and Marga reached down and made a snowball and tossed it at the youngest child with a cackle. Then as the children all dove in to tumble around in the impossible forest, she went and found a bottle of cider and warmed it up, and it was old and not very good, but everyone smiled as they shared it.
So it went for a few more days. Word spread quickly through the whole village about the curious happening in the house on the hill. More or less everyone came to see, and the old woman greeted them all in her crusty old way, and she learned many names that she had not known. The children made garlands of popcorn to drape over the trees, and the little birds gratefully snatched them up as fast as they appeared, and Beezel the cat pounced at them from every which way but could never manage to catch one, and everyone laughed at his foolishness.
Then came Christmas Eve. No one came to the house that day, for it snowed very heavily, all day long. Marga sat alone in her wood the whole day, sipping her tea, and just looking and looking at Greni the tree. When dinnertime came around she was startled to remember that she was still in a house at all.
In the middle of that night she woke up with a start. Nothing had happened; in fact, everything had gone quite still, as the storm had moved through and the wind had died down at last. She rolled over once with some effort, but could not manage to get back to sleep, so instead she shuffled over to peer through the curtains. And here again was something new.
The moon was full, and in fact looked fuller than full, as though it and the stars were twice as close as they had been. In their light Marga could very clearly see the whole street leading down through the village, which was now lined all the way down by enormous trees that had most certainly not been there the day before. The moonlight made the snow on the trees so dazzling that the old woman could hardly look at them, or tell where the snow ended and the stars began.
She found herself making her slow way down the stairs, and not quite knowing why. When she turned to glance at the living room she saw that it was gone entirely. The trees surrounding Greni had grown right through the ceiling, and in its place were only the stars. Snow covered the whole scene in great drifts now. The lights she had put on her tree were still lit, somehow, but now they caught and returned the moonlight and made him glow with a brightness that made her catch her breath.
Marga made her way down her front walk and found that the street was no longer a street at all. It was covered in ice, and led like a frozen river all the way down through the town, though she could hardly see the town through the towering trees and the snow. The old woman shook her head, feeling somehow more herself and less herself than ever before.
In fact she was hardly surprised when a man appeared by her side, a young man who looked familiar but whom she could not place. He was dressed strangely – in a soldier’s uniform, was it? – and he carried a pair of skates in his hand. He helped her put them on her feet, and she did not protest at all when he gently sent her onto the ice.
As the skates carried her down the hill, scrawling into the ice, she felt as though she were reading a story being written, or perhaps writing it herself. She laughed at the thought, and filled with a sudden lightness, she tried to spin and found that she could. Then more people began to appear, and she laughed as she recognized them.
Here was her ballet teacher from so long ago, who was still the most beautiful lady she ever knew, and she took Marga’s hand and gave her a twirl as she rushed by. Here was the shopkeeper on her old street who hid behind his ugly mustache and smelled of cigars and had never smiled once at her, but he did smile now and even picked Marga up and gave her a little toss. Here was her mother, with her icy gray eyes, and her grandfather, with his floppy green hat, and more people from another time entirely that Marga both knew and did not know, and each of these people in his or her own way shared her dance as she skated down the river of ice.
And at the very end she came to a stop and found another man waiting for her there, whom she knew very well indeed. He was tall and thin and rough-skinned like a tree, and he took her chin in his fingers and studied her closely.
“Marguerita,” he said in his deep, rough voice. “My daisy-face girl. You move like a flower. You always did.”
“You are a rascal,” she said, and they both laughed because it was true. Then she said, “I’m afraid I don’t know what’s happening. Who has done this?” And she let out a little laugh, almost a giggle, a sound that she had not made in a very long time. They both paused to watch the laugh dance out across the snow, ringing out as it went. Then the man waved his big hand at the trees, at the great white moon, at the soft sound of the owl somewhere far off, and laughed his own laugh, short and loud.
“This? It is all you, my dear. It has always been you.”
And he knelt down to help her with her skates, and they made their slow way up toward her house together. There it stood, with the roof half gone. On the doorstep he gave her a kiss on the head and a kiss on the cheek and a kiss on the nose for good measure, and told her happy Christmas.
The next morning Marga woke up and drew the curtains, and saw that the town was just as it had been. No towering trees. Certainly no river of ice. She blinked and then headed down for tea as always, humming a song she had remembered from somewhere. There where her living room had been was once again a perfectly normal living room, with ugly old Greni sitting there in the middle, and Beezel the cat licking his paws in the chair. But the old woman had to blink again, for something was different after all. At the tree’s very tip sat something she had certainly not put there: a single candle, burning bright.
Old Marga did not live to see the next Christmas. But she did live long enough to tell her story to those who wanted to hear it, and they tell it still in that village, about the house that once stood on the hill, and the strange old tree that still stands there, more or less in the same spot. Some say that a crew arrived once, many years after, to try to put up a new house there. But when they fired up their big diesel shovel it could not dig any deeper than a foot. Everywhere it dug there were roots: roots as thick as trunks, as tight as matchsticks, as far as the eye could see. Can’t account for it, said the foreman. Roots every which way and not a tree anywhere, other than this half-dead old thing.
That is the story they tell. Is all of it true? Is any of it true? As true as anything, they like to say. And perhaps even a bit more so, at Christmas.