When my son Ben was young, I wanted a story to read to him that would give him some sense of what the winter solstice meant to people who lived in times when surviving winter was a challenge. This story, “Lukas”, is the result. Since I was aiming for a visceral experience rather than a dry explanation, and since I wanted to accomplish it all in a story that could be read in five minutes, I compressed the whole change of seasons into one child’s experience over a single day. It’s a winter solstice story that doesn’t ever mention the winter solstice.
A Story for the Winter Solstice
Copyright © 1998 by David R. Woolley
Once, long, long ago, there was a little boy named Lukas, who lived alone with his mother and father. One day, the family set out on a long journey. Lukas didn’t know where they were going, or why. He heard his parents talking about their journey, but he was too young to care about things like that. His parents walked, and his mother carried him in a sling.
It was a warm, beautiful autumn day. It felt good to be outside, with the sun shining down on him as he bounced along on his mother’s back. Lukas loved to watch the world go by as they walked. He saw trees with yellow and orange leaves, so brilliant they seemed to be on fire. He saw huge red rocks, fields of tall grasses, rushing rivers and little streams. He saw birds flitting through the air and eagles soaring overhead. He saw squirrels and rabbits darting across the path, and now and then a deer.
When Lukas was thirsty, they would stop by a stream and drink. When he was hungry, they would find some fresh berries or apples growing alongside the path, or his mother would give him some bread from her pouch.
Once when a rabbit ran in front of them, Lukas’ father shot it with an arrow. While his mother skinned it, his father built a fire, and they had a delicious lunch of roasted rabbit.
While they were eating, Lukas asked, “How many rabbits are there?” “This meat is all from one rabbit,” said his mother. “No,” said Lukas, “I mean, how many rabbits are there in the whole world?” His father laughed and said, “More than we could ever count.”
Then Lukas asked, “How many apples and berries are there in the world?” And his mother said, “More than we could ever eat.”
When they started out again, Lukas had a nice full belly, and he soon drifted off to sleep on his mother’s back.
When Lukas awoke, the weather had changed. The sky had filled with gray clouds, and a chilly wind had begun to blow. Dry leaves were falling from the trees and swirling about his parents’ feet as they walked. “Mama, I’m cold,” Lukas said. So his mother stopped and wrapped him in a blanket. Then they went on.
The sky got darker and darker. The trees were quickly becoming bare. It seemed to Lukas that it had been a long time since he had seen any birds or rabbits or squirrels. He wondered where all the animals had gone.
As night fell, it began to snow. Just a few flakes at first, then more and more. The cold wind was driving the snow into their faces. Lukas pulled his blanket tight around his face and shut his eyes.
After while he felt himself being lifted off his mother’s back and into her arms. When he opened his eyes he saw that they were all huddled beneath a large rock to keep out of the wind. His mother said, “We are going to stop here and rest. But your father is going out to look for food and firewood.” Lukas was afraid. He said to his mother, “But you won’t leave me here alone, will you?” His mother said, “No, Lukas, I will stay with you. I will stay with you always.”
Then Lukas asked his father, “Will you come back soon?” His father said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back. I will always come back to you.” He gave Lukas a kiss, and then turned to go. Lukas watched as he walked off. He watched his father as long as he could, but soon he had disappeared into the darkness.
Lukas snuggled as close as he could to his mother, and fell asleep.
When he awoke again, the wind had stopped, but it was very cold and very dark. The only light came from a few stars. He saw that his mother was asleep. “Mama, I’m cold,” he said, but she did not wake up. “Mama, I’m hungry!” he said louder, but still she did not wake up. Lukas sat up and felt for his mother’s pouch where she usually carried bread, but he found only a few crumbs. He thought about how warm and bright the day had been. Now it was so dark, so cold, so still. Would it ever be warm again?
Suddenly, Lukas was frightened. What if his mother never woke up? Was she dead? What if his father never came back? It seemed like he had been gone such a long, long time. What if he was lost? What if he had been killed by wild animals? Would Lukas be left here alone forever, with nothing to eat and nowhere to go? What would he do?
He stood up and strained his eyes against the darkness, hoping to see his father coming, but he saw nothing. He listened as hard as he could, hoping to hear his father’s footsteps, but all he heard was a wolf howling in the distance. Lukas threw himself down next to his mother and began to cry.
Then his mother stirred from her sleep and opened her eyes. “Lukas,” she said, drawing him close to her. But Lukas couldn’t speak, he could only cry as he held on to his mother, feeling her warmth.
“Listen, Lukas!” whispered his mother. Lukas stopped crying and listened. At first, he heard nothing, but then came a very faint sound from far away. What was it? It sounded like someone singing. As he listened, the singing slowly came closer. And just as he recognized that it was his own father’s voice, he saw a little light appear in the distance, swinging back and forth. “Papa!” shouted Lukas. “Lukas!” he heard his father’s voice call back. And now the little light began to swing faster and grow larger and brighter, until at last Lukas could see the figure of his father walking toward them, with a torch in one hand and carrying a large bundle on his back.
Lukas’ mother held him tightly as his father stepped into their shelter, throwing down a load of firewood and the carcass of a deer. The torch his father carried cast a warm light that filled their small space. “It will be daylight soon,” he said, as he knelt to embrace his family.
And then Lukas knew that everything would be alright.
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