Duck Soup: The Gift of the Chestnut Santa

Not so long ago a woodcutter named Vera lived in a cottage at the edge of the forest just where the scattered houses on the fringe of town gave way to dense thickets of poplar and rhododendron. The tiny house was nestled in a cove, protected from the fierce winter winds that roared over the higher ridges, and cooled in the summer by a nearby stream that tumbled over mossy boulders as it laughed its way toward the distant ocean.Wood cutting consumed most of Vera's life. Even little cottages often come with mortgages, and of course there were tools and the truck and all the other barnacly bills that attach themselves to our hulls. Vera's husband Theo made a little money in his bakery shop, but it still took both of their incomes to cover their tushes.When time allowed Vera's true calling was carving. Her workshop shelves were lined with marvelous birds and bunnies and possums and porcupines, and wonderful wizened old women who looked like they had secrets. Sadly, Vera's time for carving was scant, and she only spent happy hours with her mallet and chisels when the blizzards roared through the notch in winter, or the mud was axle deep in spring, and once in a very long while in the summer or fall when it rained and rained and rained.Those were the hours she loved! She would dawdle over her walnut leopards and cherry gnomes, finding figures in the rich hardwood grain and helping them climb out of the heartwood where they were hidden.Vera had long believed that when the children were grown she would have more time for her craft, but that dream was elusive. Though Dory was off in the Forest Service now, and Bert a senior in high school, Vera seemed as busy as ever. More than anything she regretted never carving something special for her husband for Christmas. One day, when the leaves were starting to turn to fall, she made up her mind."I'll do it." She'd been saving a big chunk of chestnut for Theo's gift, one she'd found in an old barn -- the biggest chunk of chestnut she'd ever seen, nearly three feet square at the base and half again as high. She suspected that Father Christmas was hidden in that burly block and now she started in to set him free.Every night after dinner she would somehow shrug off her weariness, make a thermos of coffee and pick up her mallet. Night after night the chips and sawdust flew. She chiseled and filed and sanded and polished until, finally, on the night of December 22nd the sculpture was finished.His final height nearly matched hers. He was jolly and fat as only Santa can be. Every detail was etched from his eyelashes and whiskers to the buckles on his boots. Vera sat back and smiled, satisfied that she had done her very best. On Christmas Eve, after supper and singing and yule log and candles and dishes and best wishes were over, and the family was off to their beds, Vera went to her shop to haul Santa in beside the tree. When she pulled the tarp off, the figure seemed to jiggle ever so slightly."Ah!" she laughed, "I must be weary." And she wrapped her arms around the gift and tipped it onto a dolly. Halfway across the yard a wheel caught on a rock. Vera yanked and gasped as the figure began to fall. She dove to catch it and landed face-down in the snow. Looking up she saw Father Christmas land lightly on his feet."Ho-ho," he said with a wink. "What is your wish?" "My wish?" she asked in a daze."Your wish," he replied."Time to carve.""You already have that," he spun around. "You carved me!" "But that was time stolen from other things, including sleep." "Time is always stolen. The secret is, to steal it!" He turned a somersault and giggled."But I can't""Have you ever tried?""Tried what?" Vera queried."Just doing what you love?""I guess not.""Then I would say," Santa bent low and whispered in her ear, "Then I would say ... You should!" With that he whooped and whooshed and tumbled and rolled and danced all around the yard and landed back on the dolly, as solid and wooden as ever. Vera gradually got herself together, chalked it all up to a caffeine overdose and hauled the sculpture into the house.In the morning the family made a big fuss about the wonderful Santa, Theo even phoned some friends, and in about a week Vera was famous. Soon she was carving every day she pleased or hiking with Theo when that seemed more fun. A year later she realized her Christmas wish had come true, even if it had been a silly jumble of sleep deprivation and coffee jitters.But that Christmas eve, and on every Christmas eve ever since, just at midnight, when the fire has burned low and no one else is looking, the fat chestnut Santa looks at Vera and giggles and winks. "Ho ho!"

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