It was the cold pressure of wet snow on my cheek that finally woke me. I was still bundled in Ma’s old patchwork quilt and my red coat and white scarf tucked around my throat but the sleigh was nowhere to be seen. My side was a little tender from a bruise where I must have fallen. Sitting up I looked all around me. Moonight glittered on the soft white snow all around me and evergreens stretched black spear-like sillouettes in the forest all around me. I struggled out of my blanket looking down in both directions of a set of fine sleigh-tracks rutted through the freshly fallen snow. It was a clear calm night and I could see stars shining in the black sky beyond the white puffs of my breath. A gentle breeze blew and cold began creeping in where the blankets had loostened around my shoulders.
I must have fallen asleep once we’d snuggly been bundled into the sleigh after Uncle Martin’s party and being closest to the door prefering to huddle deep among the hay on the floor of the large sleigh it wasn’t unbelievable that I had tumbled out. My eight-year-old mind figured that out fast enough.
Despite the tracks I knew I was lost. I’d sat very still for a long moment holding my breath in hopes I could hear the faint jingle of bells in the distance but only the rustle of evergreen bows and silence of a great big world did I hear. I had no idea which way the sleigh had come from and therefore no idea which way to follow to reach home.
It had been a good hour ride to Uncle Martins and I had no idea where we were in the way back. I got to my feet knowing there was nothing for it but try one way or the other. The chill creeping down my throat and into my sleeves already stung in my cheeks.
Pulling the blanket around me tightly I walked in the direction of the moon following the sleigh-tracks. Silence left no marker for the passage of time and I walked for what seemed to be years. Nothing changed except one patch of solider like pines with quirked branches and icicles dripping from long black bows changed to a different patch of equally intimidating branches.
My feet grew numb and my knees ached. Every so often I tugged hard at the quilt to pull it loose from a pile of soft snow. It dragged on the ground behind me and collected the loose fresh snow until it became an added burden to my little endeavor. I struggled over the cold white carpet and tiny beads of sweat formed on my face despite the involuntary shiver that started in my shoulders and went through my mouth.
A howl of wolf sounded near me and I bit my quaking lip to listen. I stood still and listened hard over the rat-a-tat of my heart. I wasn’t afraid exactly though a queasy feeling squirmed through the pit of my stomach and my whole body trembled. If I had known this would happen I could have imagined so many things I probably would have thought but none of them went through my head in that moment.
Was I going to see my first wolf? I wondered. Again the sound pierced the silence and it was—there. Before my eyes in a flash of white and shining silver in the moonlight stood a great white wolf. I was frozen in awe or terror or both and we blinked at each other. I knew that he saw me as clearly as I saw him for his face was turned in my direction. Like the look of a king on peasant’s obtrusion into his court his gaze glanced over me. He appeared at the crest of a small hill to the left of the sleigh-tracks. The long hair of his winter coat glittered with snow. His wide wild face was dark grey fur outlining a snout and patches around his luminous golden eyes that were white.
The wolf flicked his tail, swiveled his head to look in the direction he’d come and trotted away into a brush of pines. My weak legs crumpled beneath me and I lay on the wet snow unheading. I had seen a wolf survived! Alone in the great wilderness of my home I could die of happiness even now, despite the misery of my little body.
A lump rose in my throat. I was far away from home, no one knew I was gone and I might die tonight. Frozen like little ice sculpture they would find me— tears blurred my vision and froze on my cheeks. My numb hands were too clumsy to wipe them away and I realized in a panic I had to keep moving.
Stumbling to my feet I could barely see through my tears and perhaps what happened next was only an illusion of my crazed state.
A tall white figure appeared where the wolf had just been. A girl garbed in flowing sliver garb billowing gently about her lithe frame in the soft breeze moved towards my in silken movements. In to strides she was at my side and kneeling. I sobbed and hiccupped and tried to blink away more tears so I could better see in her face. Great eyes with long golden lashes; a soft curving cheek dimpled with a softer smile on pale white lips was all I saw. I uttered a cry of relief and joy and flung myself into the beautiful ladies arms. I felt her warmth more suddenly than was possible in such winter night but thought nothing except relief.
Soft hands and velvet pressed in around me and I my aching feet left the ground.
Words I didn’t understand floated around me like a lullaby and the voice that sang them softly in my ear was more sweet and ariel than any human tones I’d ever heard. There was a lighter more windy quality to the voice that made it seem capable of greater warmth and coldness than anything from human lungs.
I yawned into her velvet sleeve and pressed my cheek upon her arm. All the ache and cold and shiver went out of my body and soon a deep drowsyness overcame me.
“Mera! Oh dear God have mercy!” a woman’s piercing cry woke me. Flickering light from several lanterns and the call of men to each other surrounded me.
“Mama?” I said, yawning and looking up around me to see where she was.
“She’s safe.” The sonorous voice of my father said and it sounded like he’d just heaved a mountain off his shoulders.
I was sleepy and cold was once again creeping in under the quilt where I lay on the wet snow by the sleigh tracks. The sleigh was nowhere to be seen but my house was a dark shadow with lit windows not a dozen yards away. Five men gathered around us each carrying a lantern as my mother knelt by my side and drew me up into her arms.
“Oh Mera,” she said, rocking back onto her heels, “I thought—we thought—” I felt her sobs shake us both as she held me close.
“What a lass, asleep under a birch while we’ve all been searching high an low for her.” My father sounded amused and relieved.
I was carried into the house and the men gathered around the fire with mugs of coffee to talk in hushed voices while they warmed themselves by our kitchen stove.
Mother helped me undress behind the privacy of the great quilt hung across one corner of the two room cabin where I slept in a bed shared with my sister. Into bed I went and mother tucked me in with special care and an extra little prayer of thanks. She kissed my forehead stroking my with an extra gentle hand and then slipped behind the quilt.
Sister was already asleep with her little pressed into the big white pillow we shared and her thumb slipping idly out of her parted lips. The low murmur of the men’s voices and clatter of cups made me drowsy again. When I was almost asleep I heard a sound so faint it could only be heard at a lull in the conversation beyond the quilt. It was the high moan of a wolf in the distance.
I was wide awake, my heart pounding again. I stared at the log wall and wondered. In the warmth of my own bed, my toes still thawing from the cold it all seemed like a dream. Had I really seen the beautiful lady?
Again the wolf bayed and I smiled to myself. Questions could wait till the morning, but beyond all doubt I knew one thing for certain. I was lost in the woods and someone had saved me from certain death. Most of all, somehow I knew without knowning how, that that somone wanted no one but myself to know what she did. My eyes drifted closed and I hugged my pillow close. I was fine with that.