Lying in bed, my eyes are only half open; it is Christmas Eve after all. Clouds skid across a glassy sky playing peek-a-boo with the moon’s light through my window.
The door to my room opens and light from the hallway spills across my bed. I close my eyes and pretend sleep. It’s Mom. I can tell by her perfume - she let me try it once when we dressed up to go to the theater with Dad to watch The Nutcracker.
“Pumpkin?” Her voice is soft as she sits on the edge of the bed. “This is just a hunch, but I’ve a feeling you’re not really asleep.”
I bite my lip and try not to giggle as she tickles me under the chin.
“I’ve got a surprise…”
I can’t stand it and open my eyes. “What?”
“I knew I was right,” she laughs. She is bundled warmly in a fur-lined parka and riding boots. “You’ll see, but for now look out the window.”
Huh huh. Let me help you get dressed…”
Outside, we walk hand-in-hand to the barn. The snow is falling all around us. It is so quiet and I feel I’m walking in a field of white butterflies. “This is so pretty,” I say.
Mom turns her face to the sky, sticks out her tongue and catches some snow. I follow what she’s doing, thinking how cool and wet the snow feels as it melts on my tongue. “Maybe Daddy can make snow ice-cream…” I catch myself, swallowing my words and rush to the barn door, hoping Mom hadn’t heard what I’d said.
Inside the barn, I see Jasper, Mom’s white Arab in the center of the breezeway. He’s tethered to the wall and standing in a pool of yellow light. Saddled and ready to ride, he shakes his head and snickers. White steam shoots out from his nostrils. Tiny bells, made last year by Dad, are tied to his mane. They jingle softly in the air. Mom enters the barn behind me. I turn and she is smiling.
“Want to ride?”
I hesitate, remembering, but then nod my head.
She leads Jasper out of the barn, helps me up to the front of the saddle and then mounts behind me. I’m trembling and she whispers in my ear. “It will be okay, I promise.” Her breath is warm on my neck and I relax in the sweet smell of her perfume.
She nudges Jasper forward and soon we are on a snowy path to Strawberry Ridge that overlooks Maple Valley east of our house. It is quiet but for the muffled clop of Jasper’s hooves over the building snow.
Soon, we reach the ridge and Mom pulls Jasper to a halt. Jasper snorts and shakes his head, the bells in his mane jingle again. It is the only sound in the chilled air. The valley is covered in a blanket of white. The moon breaks through the clouds, shimmering on the floating snow, bringing the flakes to life. I catch my breath. “It looks like the Snow Dance in the Nutcracker.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Daddy and I used to come here just like this and he said the same thing.” My body tenses and she tells me, “its okay, sweetie - to talk about Daddy. It’s a good way to remember him.” She snuggles me closer. “Daddy loved this spot, the way it looks over the valley…
“How come he had to die?” My words come out in a whisper of cloudy breaths.
She moves in the saddle, the leather crackling under our weight. “It was an accident, sweetie. Rocky spooked when he saw that snake and Daddy fell and hit his head. Nobody, even the doctors, could help him.”
“It’s not fair.” Tears sting my eyes.
I feel the sigh of her breath and the beat of her heart against my back. “No, it isn’t. But I believe he’s not gone. Not really. He’s here in the quiet moments looking over the valley that brings new life every year to what he laid his hands to. Sometimes I can even hear him riding Rocky.” She kisses the back of my head. “Can you tell me what you see?”
I look out into the valley, snow floats in the air like tiny ballerinas and I remember our family together – one moment short of heaven. I hear the jingle of the bells on Jasper’s mane. And then I smile. “Ice cream,” I say. “Lots and lots of snow ice-cream.”
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