Updated: Jul 25
A white blanket of shimmering snow drifted down on the brisk winter wind, like a grandmother’s quilt laid across the rolling hills of the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. Little pockets of crackling warmth flickered in the shadowed pockets of the frosted mountain range, silver plumes of chimney smoke floating up from the humble villages dotting the valley like pinpricks of starlight poked through the tattered fabric of an old favorite sweater.
Though the main streets of these one-horse mountain towns were nothing fancy, the tilted wooden houses and the oil-flame streetlamps glittered with a humble charm when wrapped in handsewn garlands of emerald holly leaves and adorned with a gentle layer of frost. When they paint Christmas Eve in the storybooks or on the side of cookie tins, these are the little places that are brought to life on their canvases.
On one such storybook evening in one such hidden hovel village – a town named Mercy – the townsfolk were making their preparations to walk down the snow-dusted street to the old meeting hall, where the annual Christmas Eve dance would be held. They doffed themselves in their best second-hand waistcoats and thick scarlet scarves, unfolded their delicate lace from their hallowed hiding places in their closets, and strolled arm in arm as they followed the lively fiddle tunes and caramel spiced scents of mulled apple cider that wafted forth from the welcoming glow of the hall, drawn like mice from their hidey-holes by an enchanting melody.
But at the far end of town, in a darkened corner where the oil lamp glow and the fiddle music did not reach, there sat wooden house more crooked and sallow than the rest, seemingly devoid of the Christmas cheer that saturated the rest of the postage stamp village. The house’s shudders were shut tight and no garland hung above the door to welcome weary travelers home for a holiday respite. No, this was Joanna Parsons’ house, and no one held their frosty breath in the hopes of seeing the Widow Parsons at this evening’s festivities.
Instead, Joanna sat inside her shadowed house with only her ancient mother, Agatha, and their calico cat, Mumple, for company as she tended to the meager blaze crackling in her dented, coal-black pellet stove. Joanna was quietly gorgeous beneath her melancholy, with rosy freckled cheeks that dispelled any misgivings about her being a wizened old crone like the widows in the fairytales. But sadness stained her brow and dampened her sapphire eyes, radiating from her like a cold spot in the waters of an otherwise warm mountain spring. Joanna let out a sigh after prodding the crackling embers and sat back in her wilted armchair – even the rumbling purr of Mumple in her lap could not rid her of her gloom.
“You should go out tonight,” her mother said, looking up from her knitting, ice blue eyes gazing at her daughter from behind a pair of bent half-moon spectacles. “Even if you don’t dance, it would be good to see the rest of the village. They ask about you at church, you know.”
“I would be the only person there alone,” Joanna replied coldly. “I don’t wish to be served cider cups full of my neighbors’ pity.”
“They love you,” Agatha assured her daughter, placing a feeble finger atop Joanna’s hand, circling her knuckle as she once did to soothe Joanna as a baby. “They would understand your choice not to dance.”
“It’s not a choice,” Joanna pulled her hand away, resting her nervousness on Mumple’s furry forehead. “You think I wouldn’t love to be dancing on Christmas Eve, like everyone else? Like I’ve done in all the years before? But without Wayne…”
Joanna disappeared inside herself for a moment, her stare affixed on the last crumbling embers in her humble stove as it cast distended shadows through the room. They reached out towards the young widow, as if to pull her deeper into the darkness with them.
Joanna had married Wayne, the town stableman and her sweetheart of many years, just before the Great War broke out across the sea. Dutiful as he was stubborn, Wayne had volunteered to ride with the cavalry in France – but this was a new sort of war no one was prepared to fight, least of all the noble cavalrymen that rode out to meet new beasts of iron and death that churned the battlefield beneath their horrible treads. Before the fighting ended, Joanna received a letter from the War Office informing her that her Wayne had been killed in action. He would never again walk through their door and waltz with her under the mistletoe – in all the chaos, they never even recovered his body from the battlefield, so the widow had nothing to bury in the cold West Virginia dirt. She had been denied even that small kindness.
Agatha nodded – she knew all about her daughter’s misfortunes, and she knew there was little to be done to free her from the grip of her gloom. She creaked to her feet, gave Joanna a kiss on the top of her head, and whispered:
“Dancing shoes don’t gather dust forever.”
With a motherly melancholic wink, Agatha retired to her bedroom, leaving Joanna alone in the firelight with Mumple and her lovesick ghosts.
But Joanna was not as alone as she thought – for you see, these mountains have been full of old magicks and legends hidden amongst the roots and stones since before the very Blue Ridge itself was born. Back across the ocean, the English once called them faeries and sprites, and the natives of these lands have as many words for these woodland spirits as they have languages with which to name them.
But on this hallowed evening, we will call the ghostly woman in white watching Joanna through her shutters “The Snow Queen”, for that is what she crowned herself.
The winter spirit’s frigid heart broke for the young widow – even though the chilled gray skin pulled tight over her sharp bones, iridescent azure eyes, and frozen icicle crown atop her regal head gave her a haunting visage, like a wraith wandering the moors of the Old Country, The Snow Queen had a tender soul. She longed to help mortal folk just like her bubbly, beloved sister Titania – “The Summer Queen”.
Titania was heralded as a champion of sunshine and romance while Snow was talked about in fearful whispers when the January chill swept the valleys and nipped at children’s noses. For all her many lifetimes, the Snow Queen had been seen as a harbinger of doom – but through this one yuletide widow, the lonely monarch would do her best to bring joy instead of frost to thaw this mortal’s heavy heart.
Drifting back into the twisting briars and branches of the woods beyond, The Snow Queen vanished in search of her Christmas blessing.
As the silver moon climbed higher in the vast December sky, Joanna rocked back and forth in her chair, painted in the fading firelight’s glow with Mumple curled up into a slumbering calico pillow in her lap. But just as the antique clock in the kitchen chimed eleven times – just one hour until Christmas Day – Mumple suddenly sprang awake, his ears flattening and his hackles bristling as he sensed some invisible disturbance. Joanna followed her yowling companion as the spooked cat stalked its way over to the frosted window on the opposite side of the sitting room.
“What is it, Mum?” Joanna asks as Mumple sprang up to perch on the windowsill. Gazing through the fogged glass, Joanna was stunned to find a pale white gift box balancing on the snowy ledge outside her window, wrapped in a scarlet spidersilk ribbon.
Joanna cracked the window, shivering at the winter’s touch as her thin fingers reached out into the night to pull the box inside. It wasn’t large, but it was heavier than it looked. Placing the mysterious gift down on the side table, Joanna gently undid the ribbon and removed the snug, snow-frosted lid to reveal… a pair of severed hands inside!
Joanna yelped, dropping the box lid and sending old Mumple caterwauling as he sprinted across the room! But the hands didn’t move, nor were they a gruesome sight – instead, the fingernails were clean and the hands were stitched up with a fine thread, crossed one atop the other on a small bedding of silver cloth. The left hand wore a simple brass wedding band, scratched but sturdy, on its ring finger.
“What do I do?” Joanna whispered to Mumple, who had now taken refuge under her rocking chair. Was this some sick joke? Something to torture the poor widow further on this miserable Christmas Eve? Before Joanna could think to wake her mother or go screaming to the constable, she heard a sharp rapping at her door. But it wasn’t the sound of a knocking fist – it was closer to a burrowing woodpecker tap-tap-tapping as it impatiently awaited her reply.
Cautious as a fieldmouse, Joanna tiptoed her way to the door and swung it open on its creaking hinges, hoping to catch this ghoulish prankster in the act! But she found no one waiting for her on her darkened stoop – only another box wrapped in a scarlet ribbon, this one much larger and as long as a broomstick. However, as she gazed around her yard, she saw no footprints marking the deep snowbanks that cascaded across her front path, nor any leading to the windowsill where she had found the first box. Who could have dragged such a large box up to her door without leaving so much as a dent in the delicate frost?
Nipped by the winter night and morbidly curious, Joanna dragged the long gift box into her front hall, groaning with each step. The box was heavy – at least fifty pounds by her guess – but the women of the Blue Ridge had always been hearty folk. Carefully undoing the twirling bow atop the box, Joanna removed the ribbon and lifted the lid, this time finding… a pair of disembodied legs, cut at the waist and dressed in a pair of fine trousers!
Again, Joanna recoiled from the bizarre sight, doubly baffled by the pair of polished buckle shoes that sat snug on the legs’ motionless feet. The pants were tailored, hemmed with the same spidersilk from which the ribbon had been sown – who had gone through so much trouble for a prank as macabre as this? But before Joanna could investigate further, the same sharp woodpecker knocks came again, this time from the back kitchen door.
Snatching a candle from the mantle, Joanna left Mumple to sniff as the strange body parts as she made her way to the rear of her dark house – in all the chaos never realizing that she had left her front door ajar.
Upon throwing open the kitchen door, Joanna found yet another white and red box, this one bulky as well, but wide and square rather than the legs’ long and narrow packaging.
“Is there someone out there?” Joanna called into the frigid evening, her candlelight dancing across the shimmering, ice-choked branches of the shadowed woods. But no reply came, save for the gentle howl of the distant winter winds.
Joanna again dragged the dubious gift into the firelight of the sitting room – this one was even heavier than the last – and when she opened this box, she found a man’s torso inside, complete with long arms and a broad chest, but missing its head and hands!
This corpse-piece was dressed in fineries as well, adorned in a crisp white shirt, a wrinkleless tuxedo jacket complete with long spiraling tails, and a scarlet bowtie synched around its collar with delicate precision – it was almost enough to distract her from the stitch marks circling the body’s proud neck where its head had been removed.
But as the Widow Parsons gazed around her sitting room in abject bewilderment, she realized the room was different than she had left it: frost tipped ivy hung from the mantle and doorframes of the room, dotted with crimson berries and white flowerbuds; the pellet stove blazed far brighter, with licks of pale blue flame rather than the typical dull orange tinge of natural fire; and at the corner of the room, a great pine tree stood tall and proud, its emerald branches adorned with holly garland and little flecks of carved ice that shimmered in the firelight like a cache of glinting diamonds in the halls of some storybook king. It was a Christmas tree – there could be no doubt – but closer to what a Christmas tree might look like if it grew naturally on the Blue Ridge hillsides, tinsel and all.
At the foot of the tree, two final gift boxes sat, stacked one atop the other – a pair of hat boxes, by the looks of them.
Her fear warring with her morbid curiosity in the light of the unnatural azure fire, Joanna left the tuxedoed torso where it lay and approached the two hat boxes. She gingerly unwrapped the top box and let out a shuddered sigh of relief as she found not another disembodied bit of the mysterious man, but instead a fine felt top hat inside.
Lifting the hat free from its silken confines, she found it soft to the touch – matte black upon first viewing, but twinkling with indigo highlights if one looked for long enough – with an impossibly blue carnation pinned to its band alongside a sprig of holly and a small note.
In a delicate calligraphy script, the note read: “Put me on.”
Hesitant, Joanna followed the directions of the unknown letter-writer and lowered the top hat onto her own head, expecting to either be zapped with some unholy power or just struck stone dead… but after a few moments, nothing happened. The hat sat crooked on the crown of her head, a bit too large for Joanna’s proportions, but there was nothing nefarious as far as the young widow could tell.
Setting the queer top hat aside, Joanna set about unwrapping the second and final hat box beneath the Christmas tree. But as she removed the lid, Joanna fell back on her hands with a gasp as a scream caught in her throat and hot tears burned at the edge of her shimmering eyes – for inside the final box she found the head of her dearly departed husband, Wayne, sitting pale and motionless, his vacant gray eyes staring through her!
Who could do such a horrid thing, on Christmas Eve of all nights? And even if this was a prank by neighborhood children or a wrathful neighbor seeking vengeance for some unknown slight, how on God’s Earth had the tricksters been able to recover Wayne’s missing body from the muddy fields of France, all just to torment her? No, that was too wild for Joanna to believe, even in her frazzled state – there must be another explanation.
When Joanna had finally steeled her nerves enough to gaze back into the box, she realized that, like all the other ghoulish gifts she had received on this most auspicious eve, Wayne’s head was not a hideous sight – the stump of his neck was neatly sewn, his hair brushed delicately to the left of his part just like he used to style it himself each morning in the mirror, and though his eyes registered no life or sight beyond the veil, his visage was one of serene peace. In comparison to all the many horrors Joanna had imagined might have befallen her beloved, there was an odd comfort in seeing him at rest in this way.
As Joanna’s thoughts swirled, she remembered the tag on the blue flowered top hat, and trepidaciously allowing herself the slightest sliver of hope, she lowered the mysterious hat onto her husband’s proud, motionless brow. For a moment, there were no sounds in the Parsons house save for that of the swirling night air against the clattering windowpanes… but just as Joanna leaned forward to remove the hat once again, Wayne’s eyes rolled forward and blinked!
“Wayne!” Joanna yelped with a mix of shock and frantic joy as Wayne’s head began to shift in its box, blinking his dry eyelids and moving his stiff jaw to-and-fro as the nerves in his handsome, grave-gray face started to regain their life, impossible as that might seem.
“Good evening, my dear,” Wayne finally spoke, cracking a grin up at his stunned wife from the inside of his hat box, his voice hoarse as it echoed from his neckless throat. “Just give me a moment to right myself. It’s been a minute…”
Just as the head was restored to life by the magicks in the hat brim, so too were the other body parts scattered around the sitting room granted impossible life: the legs stood from their box, clumsily stumbling over to the tuxedo torso, who hoisted itself up and affixed itself on the place where the waist had been cut and stitched. The hands crawled with eyeless sight, fingers tick-tick-tapping across the wooden floorboards and scaling the pantlegs until coming to rest on each wrist, bonded by some mysterious force to the places they had once belonged. With the rest of his body assembled, Wayne’s hands gently picked up his reanimated head and placed it atop the neat neck stump, giving it a twist to lock the final puzzle piece into place.
And finally, standing in the middle of the firelit sitting room, was Wayne Parsons, smiling down at Joanna as he had all those many times before. It was a sight she had never dreamt she would see again, and despite the ghastly circumstances of his resurrection, Joanna Parsons embraced her long lost love all the same.
“I prayed and prayed, but my hope had nearly run dry…” Joanna spoke breathlessly as she gazed up from her embrace, meeting her husband’s kind, silver eyes. They had been hazel when she had last seen him alive, but like much of the rest of his new form, it seemed that the color had drained from him after an entire year in the Lands Beyond Life – if that’s indeed where he had been. Perhaps the color had bled from him into the French dirt long ago, and even the Snow Queen’s power had been unable to return that lifeblood to him – save for a jaunty tint of pink at the tip of his nose, like Wayne would have on chilly evenings when he got the sniffles.
“How is this possible?”
“I don’t know, Jo – I wish I did,” Wayne admitted, using Joanna’s pet name. Even though she could feel no heartbeat in his chest, Joanna could feel a tenderness radiating from her resurrected husband as he spoke. “My nana always used to say ‘spirits roam far on Christmas.’ Maybe it’s as simple as that.”
“Spirits… so you’re still dead then,” Joanna spoke, her voice soft as realization settled heavy in her stomach. “You’re not here to stay.”
“No, I don’t think I am. Even now I can feel little whispers, far off somewhere, calling me back. Besides, it wouldn’t be right,” Wayne confessed, never dropping his contented smile despite the vast uncertainty of this auspicious eve. “But that’s alright – we have tonight.”
“Yes,” Joanna nodded, a taut smile breaking across her face like a sunrise emerging through the dawn mists, soft but unstoppable nonetheless. “Yes, we do. So, let’s use it.”
As the two star-crossed lovers swayed in each other’s arms, the songbirds joined their voices with the howls of the lonely wolfpacks and the yips of the snow-white fox pups in the brush beyond, carried on the cello-string winds as they sailed through the night and carried the woodland melody into the Parsons House – a midnight orchestra, just for them. The clouds parted and the silver-speckled moonlight cascaded through the prismic icicles and swirled glass windowpane, showering the humble sitting room in a heavenly glow that would put even the greatest halls of Europe to shame.
And from afar, a warm smile thawed its way across the frigid face of the Snow Queen as she watched Joanna and Wayne dance, and dance, and dance. Perhaps the winter faerie’s heart was not a chilled as her summer sister might have led the rest of the world to believe.
The pair danced in the spectral symphony for hours, spinning each other round for as many times as the number of days they had spent apart – and then many more times over. Joanna did not mind the coldness in her husband’s fingertips as he cradled her pink palms in his own, nor did either think of what would come next. Those were worries for Christmas morning – tonight, love and magic had blessed them with one last dance on Christmas Eve.
When the morning’s approach began to chase the moon from its skyward pedestal, as was its unending duty, the animals ceased their singing and returned to their nests and dens to greet the yuletide morning with the rest of their woodland kin, until only the lilting of a single mourning dove remained. As a wash of gray morning crept its way across the Blue Ridge Mountains, the lovers’ swaying slowed and finally came to an end, for they both knew that their dance was over – at least for now.
Though Wayne did not say it, never wishing to dilute the joy in his wistful wife’s eyes, he could feel the Lands Beyond calling him back. His joints had begun to stiffen, his deft footsteps clumsy and his legs heavier with each passing hour. Whatever or whomever he had borrowed this time from, his benefactor’s generosity was nearing its end.
Joanna walked her pale husband to the back kitchen door, where the three of them – Joanna, Wayne, and Mumple, purring as he flit his tail betwixt their legs – watched the dawn crest the ridgeline, casting the Blue Ridge in a rare and fleeting beauty. Rare and fleeting, just like their dance – but their love was not such a finite thing. This blessed, ghoulish, glorious evening had proved that.
“I’ll miss you, like I always have. Like I always will,” Joanna spoke softly as she held her husband’s hand, now growing stiff as rigor mortus crept back through his limbs.
“Don’t miss me too much, darling,” Wayne reassured her, and in doing so, hoped to assure himself. “I won’t be far. I never am. It’s like those stories that you would read to me, late at night in front of the fire: of the hero lost in the impossible maze and the brave girl with the red twine who showed him the way home.”
“Theseus and Ariadne,” Joanna smiled as she remembered the weathered yellow pages of her storybook. Joanna had always been a voracious reader and had taken to reciting her many tales to Wayne during the cold winter nights during their tender courtship. Romance and myths – those had always been her specialty – because more than any other stories, they felt timeless. Maybe because Joanna hoped love was timeless too.
“You are my Ariadne,” Wayne whispered to her as he took a step across the threshold into the snow-dusted yard, all the while never letting go of his wife’s hand. “And I will always have your red string wrapped around my finger.”
With a melancholic smile, Wayne slipped his hand from Joanna’s grip, their ring fingers the last to brush against one another as he stepped away. It was time.
“I love you,” Joanna mouthed, her voice choked by a cathartic clash of joy and tears.
“I love you,” Wayne replied, his voice hoarse, but the twinkle Joanna adored so much never leaving his gray eyes. “Merry Christmas, darling.”
And with that, Wayne turned away, walking across the virginal snow before coming to rest at the base of an old oak tree at the very edge of the wood. He sat and closed his eyes, drifting into an impossibly deep sleep as the winter winds laid a snowbank atop his motionless body like a peaceful shroud, until finally Joanna could see him no more.
With a wilting, wonderful smile, Joanna dried her tears and returned to Mumple and her mother as the light of Christmas morning showered all West Virginia in its shimmering mercy.
As time went on, Joanna returned to town, to church and the meeting hall and the trading post, where she had not been seen for a long time; she was greeted with warmth by old friends and neighbors, and to her own surprise, found herself greeting them back with a smile of her own.
Yes, the shadow of death never left her, but Joanna Parsons now chose to walk beside the dark spot rather than beneath it, grateful that the absence she felt in the corner of her heart was put there by someone who had made such heartache worthwhile.
And when the Spring came and finally chased the last remnants of frost from the mountaintops, Joanna found a bed of beautiful snowdrop flowers growing from the spot beneath the oak where Wayne had fallen asleep for the final time – and beside them, a stone carved by some deft, unknown hand that read simply:
“A Love Remembered”