Hoofprints In The Snow

Illustration: Shutterstock © Rudolph illustration Illustration: Shutterstock

By Hazel E Kendrick

Even after Twelfth Night, the magic can sometimes linger…

As usual we had a real tree at Christmas. As usual, I was the one taking it to the recycling plant on a cold, grey January morning. As I drove up to the giant shredder, I saw other women dragging bedraggled Christmas trees from their own car boots.

“Will its needles drop?” I’d asked the lad in the garden centre almost three weeks ago. He’d regarded me pityingly.

“Oh, no, madam, it’s treated. Special stuff sprayed on the branches. No drop. Guaranteed.”

Maybe our tree missed out on the special stuff because the fall of needles began the day before Christmas Eve.

Harry, my husband, and I were snatching ten minutes to relax after our children, Lucy and Simon, had gone to bed when there was a sudden rustle and a soft plop. Harry looked up from the newspaper.

“What was that, Amy?”

I stared towards the tree so lovingly decorated by us all. Something was missing – the red bell with its pattern of silver stars. In its place was a bald patch on the branch. On the floor was a scattering of pine needles. The red bell had disappeared under a pile of presents.

I vowed to myself then, as always, that next year I would not be persuaded into buying another real Christmas tree. I would return to the garden centre in the New Year and buy an artificial tree in their sale.

Right now, I had to get our wilting tree from the car boot and hand it over to be shredded.

There was an absolutely bitter wind which found its way through my warm buttoned coat and woollen beret. January was my least favourite month. Harry was back at work, the children had gone back to school for what was laughingly described as the Spring term. Our home looked as if a runaway tank had driven through it following the arrival and departure of many festive visitors.

As I heaved the tree from the boot, an absolute avalanche of dry needles detached themselves, clinging to my woollen gloves, sliding into my boots. I muttered something rude.

“Why do you do it all, eh?” a male voice said from somewhere behind me.

Surprised, I swung round. “Sorry?”

“Go out full of the spirit of Christmas every year and get the biggest tree at the garden centre. Believe that rubbish about it being specially treated. Lose half the decorations as the needles fall off. End up here, frozen to the marrow each January.”

The voice was deep and mellow and sounded as though it chuckled a lot.

Its owner wore a vast scarlet jumper straining across a generous girth. I grinned at him.

“Not you, then?”

“Gracious, no! We have one of those little silver things. Complete with pot. Takes up no room at all in the landing cupboard all year. We just take it out, ruffle up the branches, stick on a few baubles, job done.”

Suddenly my tree was whipped from my arms by a man in overalls and tossed without ceremony into the shredder.

I began to think pleasurably of returning to a warm house and having half an hour with a coffee and a magazine before tackling the post-Christmas muddle. But my companion stopped me in my tracks.

“Didn’t see a reindeer on your way here, did you?” he asked.

I thought back to my route here. Lots of people had put model reindeer in their front gardens, or on top of porches, before Christmas. But it was past Twelfth Night now, they’d all been taken down. It was a rather strange question, wasn’t it?

“I’m sorry, no,” I said, closing the car boot and trying to stamp some circulation back into my feet. “What did it look like?”

“Oh, the usual. Brownish with a bit of white here and there. Antlers, of course. A rather red nose.”

“Like Rudolph?” I asked uncertainly, wondering uneasily if my companion wasn’t a little, well, strange? He seemed harmless enough but you never knew these days. Best to jolly him along before making my escape.

“You’ve guessed it!” the man said, glancing around. “It is Rudolph.”

He’s the youngest. Playful. He will escape when we’re supposed to be settled back home. Last year I found him here at dusk, watching the shredder at work. He’ll turn up.

“I’m sure,” I agreed hastily, opening my car door.

I drove home thoughtfully, idiotically glancing out of the car window for any sign of a missing reindeer.

As I later got busy with bin bags and vacuum, thought of Rudolph vanished from my mind.

Until early next morning.

It was pitch dark when five-year-old Simon appeared by the side of my bed. Four forty-five am, to be precise.

“Mummy,” he said urgently, tugging at the duvet. “You have to come now.”

“What is it, sweetheart? It’s not getting-up time.” Bleary-eyed, I hauled myself up on one elbow. The room was distinctly chilly.

“You have to come now. There’s a reindeer in our garden.”

It was my own fault, of course, for telling Harry about the strange man at the recycling centre in Simon’s earshot last night. My heart softened as I looked at my small son, his unruly curly hair standing on end just the way Harry’s often did. Simon was the image of his dad, who lay sleeping beside me.

“No, Simon, of course there isn’t,” I said firmly. “You’ve just had a dream because we were talking about reindeer yesterday. Go back to bed, darling.”

Simon’s small face set obstinately.

“You need to come now!” he insisted.

If I didn’t want Simon’s cries to wake Harry and Lucy, I had little choice.

Simon’s bedroom overlooked the front garden, shrouded in darkness but for the glow of a street lamp.

To please Simon I went to the window.

The first thing I noticed was that a fall of snow had created a winter wonderland. The second was a mass of small hoofprints crossing the lawn.

And the third thing was the shadowy sight of an animal curled up under the flowering cherry tree. A faint pinkish glow surrounded his antlered head.

“See!” Simon said triumphantly. “Told you!”

“You did,” I agreed faintly. “We’ll go down. On tiptoe.”

“He’ll be hungry,” Simon said in a fever of anticipation five minutes later as he struggled into his coat, hat, scarf and boots.

I glanced down at the big bowl in my hand, wondering if instant porridge was a suitable food for a lost reindeer.

“Ssh! We have to be very, very quiet.”

Also muffled and booted, I gently unlocked the front door. Hand in hand, Simon and I advanced cautiously towards the reindeer. His breath steamed in the icy air, as did Simon’s and mine.

Carefully, I set down the porridge in front of him, which he gulped eagerly.

“He’s hungry, Mummy,” Simon whispered tragically.

Rudolph must have got left behind when Santa came on Christmas Eve! Oh, poor Rudolph!

Simon’s upper lip trembled ominously as he prepared to let out a howl of dismay. Hastily, I gathered my little boy into my arms.

“Hush. I need to think.”

I was still thinking when I heard the sound of footsteps crunching through the snow towards us.

“This really won’t do, Rudolph,” said a warm familiar voice, which sounded as if its owner chuckled a lot.

Then, turning to me, he added, “Oh, how kind. You’ve fed him porridge. What a treat!”

To Simon, standing awestruck beside me, he said, “Good boy, Simon. I’ve one chocolate snowman left. Bit squashed, but all yours.”

The chocolate snowman was transferred from a deep fur-lined pocket to Simon’s small gloved hand.

Far out on the horizon appeared the very faintest line of paler light. In an instant the reindeer unfolded its slender legs and scrambled up.

I felt my hand clasped in a warm, strong one and looked briefly up into a merry, white-bearded face with bright blue eyes.

“Thank you, Amy, my dear,” he murmured.

How on earth could he know both our names?

Rudolph pawed the ground with impatient hooves as his owner leaped lightly up on to his back.

“We really must fly now, Simon!” he called cheerily.

Then, suddenly, they did just that.

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We’re sharing a selection of uplifting winter-themed short stories from our archives, every Monday and Thursday during November. Look out for the next one – and pick up My Weekly magazine for lovely new short stories every week. Subscribe here – and you’ll recieve a free gift too!

Allison Hay

I joined the My Weekly team ten years ago, and I love the variety of topics we cover both online and in the magazine. I manage the digital content for the brand, sharing features and information on the website, social media and in our digital newsletters. I also work for Your Best Ever Christmas - perfect as it's my favourite time of year!