It’s Christmas Eve sometime in the distant past, and I’m in a ski cabin in the Kootenays that my roommate Todd and I rented with the last of our summer tree planting money. With both of our families in remote places, we decided to “get away from it all” this year. At this point in our lives, “it all” equals night shifts at Binos, a mountain of dirty laundry, and a sinkful of festering dishes.
Todd’s cousin Susan and three year old daughter Angela have driven up from Kelowna to spend Christmas with us, so we’ve swept the empty wine bottles into the shadows beneath the bunk bed, and hidden the baggy of high grade chronic atop the medicine cabinet. We’ve also got a few presents wrapped up and hidden in the back of the closet, and a string of pink lights that we’ve wrapped around a rubber plant. The Tiki Tiki Lounge at the nearby motor hotel is offering a Hawaiian-themed All You Can Eat Christmas Buffet, so everything is set for a real traditional Yuletide.
Around suppertime, we’re preparing to serve up the Christmas Eve buffet of canned smoked oysters and chilled Kokanees, when Angela wonders whether Santa will be bringing the Christmas tree with him when he comes down the woodstove chimney later that night. Something about the look in her eyes tells us that he had better, or else.
After Angela’s tucked deep in the recesses of her sleeping bag, Todd and I tell Sue to “leave this to us”. Not wanting to cut down anything on the campground property, we set out in Sue’s pick-up truck (Todd’s Malibu, as we discovered on the way up, is badly in need of maintenance, and is only reliable when driven really fast for really short distances), and head off into the icy darkness armed with a handsaw and the intention of finding the “perfect Christmas tree”.
After a driving for two or three miles along the icy road searching for a likely spot to pull over and head into the woods, Todd–who has been on a two-week bender–is fast asleep and snoring. I’m trying to light a cigarette and find something good on the radio, when a fawn suddenly leaps out in front of the truck. It’s one of those times when everything moves in slow motion. I swerve to avoid the collision, then try to pull out of the slide. Fortunately I manage to miss hitting a tree, but the truck is off the road and stuck in deep snow and ice. Incredibly, Todd is still snoring. Somewhere far off down the road I can see something that may or may not be a mailbox, so I leave the truck running and head off to try to find a telephone.
It’s one of those winter evenings when the dimmer switch of the nearly-full moon is turned to full intensity, and you can see every ripple and pebble on the road, every blade of grass in the ditch. It’s about twenty below, and the trees are caked with frost and ice. There’s something frozen to the surface of the road that I think at first is a discarded red and black sock, but turns out to a dead crow crushed beneath the wheels of a car. Suddenly, I get this strange feeling that something is watching me from the trees. Have you ever had the feeling that passes like a wave through every nerve of your body that says you’re in some sort of imminent danger, and that something terrible is about to happen? It’s a feeling that I’ve had once or twice in my life, but never as strongly as at that particular moment. I truly felt as though something was moving abreast of me in the woods, tracking me and waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
I find myself half-running down the icy road, trying to keep down a rising sensation of panic, my boots nearly slipping out from under me with every step. Finally I get to the mailbox (thankfully that’s what it is), but then look in dismay at the winding driveway closed in on both sides by densely packed trees. The branches are overhanging and blocking out most of the moonlight, so it’s like walking into a shadowy cave. Nothing else for it, though, so I step into the shadows and try to keep from stumbling. I have no idea how far it is to the house, or whether anyone will be at home. I’m cursing myself for not bringing a flashlight, and I notice that I’ve bitten into my lip and I can taste blood on my tongue.
Without warning, I come out into the open at the end of the driveway, and I’m confronted by a magical scene. The house and all of the bushes around it are encrusted with brilliant white lights. There are red and white paper lanterns hanging from the eaves, and a ring of four-litre milk jugs filled with frozen water and lit up by multi-coloured bulbs. I feel like Bilbo Baggins coming across the elven bonfires in the darkness of the woods, and my irrational fear suddenly evaporates.
The owner of the house is a retired logging company accountant. She lets me use her phone to call B.C.A.A. I don’t want to leave Todd in the truck any longer than I have to, so she sends me on my way with a cup of microwaved Ovaltine and some homemade shortbread.
On the way back, the frozen moonlit mountain world seems almost impossibly beautiful. Back at the truck, Todd’s a few feet away sawing down a slender six foot tree. Half an hour later we’re sitting in a tow truck, sharing a joint with the driver who looks like a member of Z.Z. Top, or maybe the Unabomber. We’re singing Life During Wartime and Silent Night.
At the cabin, Sue is asleep on the couch. We set up the tree, plug in the lights and crack open some beers. Ah, Christmas is here.