As the days shortened, a quiet darkness settled into the spaces of the wood like it does near the winter solstice. Juniper and Magnolia were busy preparing for the weeks-long festival of Yule. Throughout both cottages were piles of Yuletide projects in various stages of completion. Decorations on the dining tables were being sorted and hung. Cauldrons of hearty winter stews were bubbling on their pot belly stoves. Knitting needles furiously clacked together in the grey solstice light in hopes for early-finished hats and scarves. They were focused on this hearth-work most of the daylight hours and later into the night, taking tea and naps at odd hours to maximize their time creating. The changelings were left to explore the forest and the creek that ran through it. One afternoon despite pickup games of feather-in-the-thicket with pixies, the changelings meandered listlessly back to where Juniper and Magnolia were bent over a particularly tricky piece of needlecraft.
“Everyone is busy” sighed Azalea as she hung her arms over the back of a round wooden chair.
“As you ought to be, with winter coming fast!” Juniper’s eyebrows lifted as she spoke. “This would be a good time to prepare your gifts for the celebration.”
“We have nothing to give!” heaved Greystone as if those words had been a weight he’d been carrying a while.
“This reminds me of the time Fox gave Owl a gift.” Magnolia Magpie looked up from her work and grinned. “Come next door for cake, and I’ll tell you the story of the time Fox gave Owl a special Yule gift.” Magnolia’s apron swished as she made her way back to her cottage, the changelings skipping after her.
After setting the tea, Magnolia smoothed her chair cushion, sat back and cupped a warm mug between two snarled fingerless mitts, and related the following story.
Owl was always so intensely quiet, and Fox was sure it was because Owl was so considerate and contemplative. She liked being around Owl, because nothing seemed to upset her. Owl’s eyes were magic lakes of intelligence and introspection. Despite this, Fox noticed nothing ever seemed to make Owl excited and silly, either. With Yule coming upon them, Fox knew she wanted to give Owl something very fine. She also knew that she wasn’t going to find a fine gift just laying about. Fox knew that in order for truly magical gifts to appear, she had to go looking for them.
Down by the creek one day, Fox spied a hagstone. It is generally accepted knowledge in Santooshka that naturally occurring holes in unusual places like the center of stones are passages and doorways. Santooshkan hagstones are used often as routes to other fairy realms. This find was unusually lucky because the fairies comb up and down the creek beds looking for hagstones to enchant and create new passageways between worlds. Fox threaded her beautiful tail through the hole in the stone, and trotting along a deer path back through the forest, she came upon a round-faced sweet-eyed dryad leaning against her tree.
“Dryad, dear…” Fox began. “I have found a gift for you.” Fox was clever, and understood the only way to keep hold of magic, was to give it away. A mischievous smile peeled across the young dryad’s face and she beckoned Fox toward her. A drumming began in her heart and soon it rippled up and out of her fuzzy ears broadcasting a syncopated groove tune so loud, even the dryad smiled, nodded her head, and tapped her feet as she waved her hands over the tail-threaded hagstone.
Tumbling rapidly through space and time, Fox awoke moments later in a sparkling frozen field of ice. Her coat had transformed into a thick, silky, snow-bleached white mantle. Out of the glittering sun-sparkled tundra grew tulips of every color imaginable. Fox bowed her head and began to cry at the blinding beauty of it all. As soon as the first tear from Fox’s black rimmed eyes struck an icy tulip, the petals thawed, went tumbling forward, and engulfed our fox in one satiny soft swallow.
She shook herself out of the blossom head on to the ground only to find that she had fallen through to a softer, green moss covered forest floor beneath ivy canopies and honeysuckle vines. Before she could exhale the scent of the sunny blossom nectar, hundreds of tiny jeweled hummingbirds surrounded Fox in a thrumming and buzzing flurry. Through this iridescent blaze, they feverishly plucked the delicate multi-colored tulip petals from Fox’s melting snow-coat leaving behind excruciatingly tiny rainbow feathers. One flew up Fox’s nose and she sneezed herself right into a golden arching forest ablaze with the orange and crimson fire of a season’s release. The delicate fine-boned pressure of fox’s toes on the decaying leafy ground sparked a silent but brilliantly visible chain reaction of fire-topped toadstools that lead through the wood. Fox took off in a flash, chasing an endless chain of glowing ember-mushrooms always emerging just a fraction faster than she was able to run. She flew sure-foottedly right into a hollow of a tree and after running the circular interior, went back through the mouth of the trunk only to arrive in front of the smiling Dryad.
“I thank you for this gift.” The dryad winked brightly and melted back into the oak bark.
Exhausted, Fox let her tongue loll out of her mouth as she trotted toward Magnolia Magpie’s cottage in the clearing of the wood. Outside the door to the glassed-in sewing room, Fox yipped and whined. Spying the bejeweled creature from the window, Magnolia appeared with a comb and a carder and set to work from the animal’s frost tipped- tail. Fox licked her coat and her sable fur wound around frozen silken tulip petals, rainbow hummingbird down and red capped glowing mushrooms. Alternating between two paddles of wire-toothed combs, Magnolia’s deft hands spun the fur-wrapped treasures into a surprise ball for Fox to present to Owl.
With her gift nestled carefully in a hand-sewn messenger bag slung over her shoulder, Fox padded softly through the forest and back to her winter cave. Owl, ever true to her intuition, had laid an elaborate candlelit tea and was perched with a book and was waiting to share the remains of the day with her fire-furred friend. Fairy surprise balls are customarily given as welcome gifts for newly materialized fairies. It was a joyful, unexpected break from Forest tradition to give such a splendid surprise ball for Yule. Owl was overcome with elation as she slowly unwrapped each tiny present in the folds of the plush ball gift. Fox smiled to herself as she contentedly curled her tail around her body and settled in for a candlelit winter’s nap, and drifted off to the sound of Owl’s quiet coos of delight.
After tea and cake at Magnolia’s cottage, the wide-eyed and newly inspired changelings bounded out the back of the house, through the glassed-in sewing room and headlong toward the creek bed in search of Hagstones, and special gifts.