Winter Woods, by H.D. (as Edith Gray)

"What a little girl she is," thought David. "What a little girl she is, to be sure."

She was propped up in bed, her pink wrapper thrown about her shoulders, her eyes, big and dark, looking wistfully at her brother, her fragile little fingers clinging to David's square-set, boyish palm.

"What a little girl she is!" And he was glad for many things as he looked at her lying there so tired and white -- chiefly that once he had dreamed a strange dream about girls and the things girls love -- that was long ago when they lived in the city. Since that he had learned more and more of this little sister, Ann, and the things she loved. He was proud enough of her now. He was glad that they had called him from the yard where he was coasting with Bert and Harry Weston. He was glad even to leave the joy and the stinging cold, the tingling of it all, to come and sit here and talk to Ann, who was such a very little sister.

The doctor had met David in the hall, put his two hands on his shoulders and looked down at him from his great height, and said: "David, you're a brave lad. Go tell your little sister what a beautiful world it is and how good it seems just to be alive."

So David went clattering up the steps. He wondered why his mother turned away her face as he passed her on the landing.

"It's this way," said David, "it's this way, Ann. You're tired, and you've forgotten how the trees look, and that's the reason that you don't want to get up and run outdoors. Don't you remember how you loved it all when we first came? Don't you remember the white petals on the cherry trees and the pink ones on the peach trees in Weston's yard? Don't you remember how we found violets in the Lynn meadow along the brook, and how Mary Lynn laughed because you asked if you might pick one? Don't you remember it, Ann?

Ann's little head drooped languidly. "Oh yes," she said, "I remember, David, but that was so long ago and it's all spoiled now, there are no flowers--in--the--woods."

"O Ann, Ann," he said, "look at me, Ann." He had slipped down now, kneeling on the floor, his arms reaching about her shoulders. "O Ann, Ann, look at me!" Something seemed to catch in his throat. He became strangely terrified. "The woods are full of beautiful things now--beautiful things!" He was glad that he had walked home from school that very afternoon with Jim Daly--funny Jim Daly who never knew his lessons but could tell the name and history of every field and tree for miles around. It was Jim who had shown him the rabbit track that cut across the meadow-hill field, twisted among the birches and finally disappeared behind the great, gray bowlder [sic] above the mill-creek swimming hole.

"O Ann," said David, "the woods are full of beautiful things. Ann, Ann, look at me! Do you know how a rabbit hops across the snow? Look! He puts his two hind feet forward, and then comes down with his front feet, and on the snow it looks as if he were running the other way. You'd never know unless someone told you." David was demonstrating his point by punching little hollows in the white counterpane. Ann's tired head lifted a moment, her eyes forgot to droop.

"So, he goes, on into his burrow under the gray rock," and David's fingers journeyed across Ann's little knee and, for a moment, snuggled under the pillow by her shoulder, "so he goes, and when you get well, I'll take you out and show you, or he'll tell you, or we can pretend that he'll tell you of all the things one finds in winter woods."

"What things?" asked Ann. There was a faint touch of color in her cheeks; her eyes sought his wonderingly.

"Why, leaves under the snow. You remember the hepaticas, Ann, how blue they were, and how you bunched the dark green leaves about them? Well, those leaves that were so strong and bright and shining last spring were left over from the year before. So, don't you see, they'd be there all the time, hidden underneath the snow. And, oh, the fir trees are as green as ever--greener, it seems, for there's nothing else to hide them.

"Ann, there are brown leaves, too, as fresh and crisp as when they fell. I'll bring some home to-morrow, and you shall tell me which is oak and elm and chestnut, and which is from the little dogwood tree. We'll spread them on the bed. You can pretend they're fairies--all with the newest thing in wood-style wings! I'll bring some roots home, too. We'll plant them in a pot and put them in the window--some bloodroot and some wee anemonies [sic]. Their roots are round, you know--anemonies [sic]--like little acorns or brown chestnuts. I'll have to look hard for them in the winter woods. Ann, are you listening to me?"

"Yes," said Ann, "tell me about the leaves."

"The leaves," said David, "are wrapped tight in their buds now. I think that the horse-chestnut buds are the largest. They're covered on the outside with thick, brown scales, to keep them warm, you know. They're very happy in their tight, little houses, and none of them complain because the woods are empty." Then, seeing that his little sister's head was drooping, David added quickly, "All except one, perhaps."

"Tell me about him, David."

"He was anxious for spring, you see, that leaf. He wanted so to come out. He couldn't wait quietly as the others did, he wanted so to see the flowers again. The great horse-chestnut tree,--she knew each tiny leaf, because she was their mother. She said: 'You must rest quietly here, my little leaf. It won't be spring, you know, until I call you.' But the little leaf grew more and more impatient, and one day he felt the warm sun through his coat, and he whispered to the twig, 'O twig, spring's come and mother doesn't know it.' But the twig said, 'I'm bigger than you, and I know it isn't spring until our mother tells us. Why, even the great branch wouldn't say the spring had come before our mother told him.' The little leaf didn't answer back because he knew he could never convince the stubborn twig, but he thought and thought. And, finally, because the sunlight was so warm, he pushed open the door of his house--forbidden though it was--and poked out his little head.

"All about, the sun fell soft on the leaves. They were gold-brown and fresh, for the snow had just melted away, and, down in the little hollow, the brook ran free, unbound and joyous. The little leaf laughed to himself and quivered in the sunlight. That night he could scarcely sleep for joy, and the next day, early in the morning, he was out again, venturing even farther. But"--David paused impressively and was rewarded by an eager little clutch about his arm: "Go on, go on, what happened? Tell me, David."

"The frost came back that night. It was February still, you see, and he shook the great trees and the small trees and tried each branch and twig. But all the doors were locked, tight locked, all except one, and he laughed and he tossed the brown leaves with joy as he found the tiny little green leaf peering out. 'O mother horse-chestnut, mother horse-chestnut,' he shouted in his triumph, 'you're the only mother in the winter woods that dares neglect her children. Ho! Ho!' And he was about to clutch with his cruel pointed fingers and crush the life out of the little leaf, when suddenly"--

"Yes, David, suddenly"--

"The great mother horse-chestnut woke from her night's sleep and saw the little leaf that had so disobeyed her. And then, what did she do? Instead of saying, 'Well, it served you right,' she sent her warm heart's blood, the sap, and wrapped her warmth round and round the leaf and covered him again in his warm bud. So he was none the worse for his naughtiness except for a nipped nose and a resolve to wait after that in patience for spring. So, shall we look for that very little bud when you are better?"

"Oh, yes, yes," she said, and her head rested against his shoulder, all contentment. "Oh, yes--yes," and Ann was asleep, but smiling, warm and safe like the wee, winter bud.

* * * * * * *

"It was the boy who called her back to life. It was the boy who broke that treacherous languor. You're a good lad, David!"

David turned from the window as the doctor touched his shoulder. "A good lad." That was just the doctor's way. He knew that he was not a good lad--he never seemed to get all his lessons at school, and he was always forgetting to wipe his feet on the mat at the front door.

The doctor was down the path and away with a whir of his big machine. "A good lad." No, David knew that he wasn't really that, but what did it matter, after all, since his mother was kneeling on the floor beside him, her arms about his neck, sobbing quietly against his shoulder.

David patted her hair softly, and stood patient and unquestioning, though he wondered why she should be crying now. Ann was going to get well!

First published in The Comrade. Philadelphia, Pa. : Presbyterian Church, Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work. Vol. 4, no. 9 (March 2, 1912), p.34.

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