"Holly Days"

by LLEWELLYN HOWLAND

1

A LATE-RISING December sun was shaping above a rosy mist that smoked up from a land drenched by yesterday’s warm southwester. Poking my head out of my ivy-framed window of “The Cottage,” the Skipper’s farmhouse on Clark’s Point, I snuffed the cool freshness of dawn, redolent with the odor of wet fallen leaves. Beyond a vividly green field of winter rye the bare branches of a beech clump were etched against the glowing eastern sky. The clangor of a flock of crows in a near-by pine assured good weather for the Christmas oystering.

By ten o’clock that morning the wheels of the wide-track white wagon had rattled the planks of the old Padanaram Bridge with the ebb tide swirling noisily below, and the Skipper had eased Box and Cox, the roan pair, up the long Gulf Hill. tooled us at a brisk pace across the Bakerville Ridge, and after several miles of tortuous, sandy farm lanes brought us to a barway in a walk Beyond this we jolted and rocked over a quartermile of plow and stony pasture to a pebbly reach on the east shore of the estuary known as Pascamanset River. The horses were blanketed and hitched in the lee of a stand of upland cedars. Then Willie, Levi, and I, with our gear of gum boots, gunny sacks, and light hammers, were herded to the water’s edge by the Skipper, who must have noticed my disgracefully chapped hands, for as I started to draw on some cotton gloves before wading he said: —

“Leave those gloves of yours ashore and let the salt water work into your cracked hands. I’ll guarantee if you’ll grin and bear it today you’ll cure ‘em for good and all.” And by the Lord Harry! he was right, for his cure has lasted without a break — fifty-eight years.

Stern to the beach where the Skipper stood directing operations, I could let the tears flow without loss of face, as stooping over I grubbed among the infernally sharp-shelled oysters, elbow deep in the cold water. I soon found there was a tricky art in knocking a cluster away from its stony anchorage without smashing its tough but brittle armor, and although I kept at it steadily until my back ached and my hands were cut to ribbands, my sack, after an hour, looked pitifully lean as it dragged beside me.

“Keep working downstream — not up,” the Skipper warned as we three (Levi, the biggest, well out beyond me, with Willie between us) stooped and stumbled among the weedy shingle. “The oysters above here have too much fresh water and color in ‘em for Christmas eating,” he ended.

By noon the bags bulged and we were ordered ashore to a spot above high-water mark where a broken bank sheltered us from the breath of north wind that sighed through the fronds of the junipers above. Here the sun lay warm and the little fire of driftwood that we kindled burned steadily without blowing about, quickly heating the circle of stones we ranged round it.

When the fire died to a bed of glowing embers and the stones shimmered, we broached a little of our cargo of oysters and set them to roasting. And when, a few minutes later, the Skipper remarked: “The harder they come, the sweeter they chew,” I sensed there was indeed a special seasoning in the dozen or so of fat, salty morsels I was savoring. Our drink, I remember, was smoky China tea from pint bottles wrapped in heavy woolen socks — still piping hot after the journey; and this with slabs of sweet, paleyellow Adamsville cheese and wedges of apple pie gave us, I thought, an ideally balanced ration.

2

Later in the afternoon, farther downstream, in a little land of wooded hillocks that pushed up abruptly from the marshy margin of the river, we came to a mysterious bower. Old and young, large and small, this lovely Stand of holly trees, blazing here and there with clusters of red berries, jinked and glittered as the level rays of the westering sun were caught for an instant by the luster of the evergreen leaves. And here with care for shape and future growth we pruned the sprigs and sprays for our Christmas “trimmery.” Before we finished, the Skipper found on the under side of a single leaf, on a holly sapling, a tiny golden bat, hung up for the winter. The leaf he’d chosen for his long sleep stood with the side to which he was hooked faced south to the noonday sun, while the tougher top side of the leaf shielded him from the cold north. When we tickled his belly with a twig he squeaked and bared his needle-pointed teeth — so, wishing this Scrooge a Merry Christmas, we left him and lugged our prickly spoil out to the wagon.

The drive home in the chilly dusk by way of Smith’s Neck was spiced at its start by the fording of Little River — a small sister of Pascamanset. As we came to the middle, the strong flood tide boiled and foamed over the hubs and into the bed of the wagon. Box and Cox snorted and floundered and there came a moment when we rocked perilously on the edge of disaster. Here the Skipper by skillful use of voice, whip, and reins yanked us out on the further bank in a scutter of stones and shower of spray. Two hours later, as we toiled up the sharp pitch of the home driveway, the dancing reflection of red firelight on dining-room windowpanes was a welcome sight to me, a tired and shivery young mouse.

Filled with such preparations, the days of December had run toward the twenty-fifth — every one with its time-established “job of work,” planned and ordered.

There had been Turkey Day, — a long one, — when we had driven to a distant shore-farm, reached through a succession of barways, where, on the salt meadows, a flock of big fowls grew plump and sweet on a diet of fiddler crabs. Here the Skipper had chosen a fine white bird for the “boiler” and a “busting” bronze one for the “roaster,” and we had brought them home to be slain, plucked, drawn, and hung.

Then there had been Meal Day, when we hauled our own-grown corn on the cob to Russell’s Mills and returned with our bag of meal “cool ground” by the slow-turning stones and in prime condition for Deborah, the cook, to work up into her incomparably rich Christmas dumplings.

On the soft, gray, rainy days there had been mince to be chopped for pies, and party silver and glass to be polished. The long evenings had been spent in the gun room with the Skipper, helping to rig a pair of model sailboats for a brace of cousins expected for the holiday.

And then at last came the twenty-third,— Carriage House Day, — when that dark barnlike building was cleared of the wagons and lumber and warmed and “cosied” by two big woodburning stoves, a long table, chairs, the sundry properties for a feast, and finally was decked and made gay with sprays of holly and fans and wreaths of sage-green dusty miller — true emblems of our December weather.

Ever since Thanksgiving the Skipper’s last rite before bedtime had been the inspection of a stone crock that stood in the cool, damp cellar. The contents — Barbados rum, French brandy, lemons, and preserved peaches — would be gently stirred with a wand of sassafras and a glass “thief” full of it held to the candlelight to make sure the fruit was being properly consumed by and blended with the liquor. A little sip from the thief that evening gave assurance that the Cottage Flip had “come on nicely.”

3

Christmas Eve — and we of that household in hard training from the preceding days were in tune with the spiritual significance of the Holy Festival. Looking back, I’m sure the Skipper approached this celebration as an ardent but thoughtful bridegroom comes to his wedding — “not . . . lightly but reverently . . . and in the fear of God”; and from this approach of his have sprung my evergreen memories of those winter times — unnipped by the snow and frost, weariness and surfeit, of a later custom. What did we care if next day were fair or foul; we were “swept and garnished” within and without, orderedly prepared to give of our plenty to our neighbors and to one another.

This year Christmas Day was fair, — mildly cold and clear, — with a heavy white frost covering the fields, which later, under the influence of brilliant sunshine, was magicked into a myriad of tiny rainbow jewels that sparkled for a moment and were gone, leaving the grass refreshed and vivid. A Bristol County Christmas indeed, and one to spur us to our best performance!

By nine in the morning we had the oysters shucked, the Flip, tempered and blended with black India tea, chilling in a corner of the icehouse, fires kindled in the carriage house and fuel for the day beside ‘em, the chairs dusted, the long table set, the cranberries for garnish polished and strung; and were finally ready to face, with cheerful fortitude, our great ordeal — Deborah’s tindery temper that we suspected would be darting about the farmhouse like forked lightning when we came to help her with the last touches for the family dinner and the neighborhood dance and supper which were to follow. Our anticipations were realized, for the changes she rang on “clumsy” were a revelation.

On the tick of two-thirty the Skipper, in navy blue broadcloth, a sprig of holly with red berries in his buttonhole, entered the carriage house, “Friend Rachel,” our loved and lovely Quaker aunt, on his arm. Suiting his pace to her age, he escorted her to a chair at the end of the long table, facing the door. Here she sat, her pearlgray habit and snowy little house-cap all ashimmer in the yellow light of four candelabra that were ranged symmetrically on the cream-colored damask tablecloth.

After this little ceremony the Skipper stood by his chair at the head of the table, ready to greet the rest of us as we came in and took our seats. Silence fell for a moment as with bowed heads we offered thanks to Heaven for what we were to receive. Followed a slight “chump!” as the Skipper drove his carving fork into the crackling brown breast of the “roaster” that lay before him laced with chaplets of crimson cranberries. Aunt Rachel, at her end, carved the “boiler” with graceful dexterity. My choice then and ever since has been the boiled with plenty of oyster sauce—but tastes differ and many preferred the roast with pounded chestnut stuffing seasoned with sage and onion.

Of course there was mashed Nantucket turnip, white and delicate as driven snow; there were dumplings of gray corn meal — suggesting blanched almonds, only better; tapering columns of cranberry jelly — glowing rubies — tart and frosty; stalks of bleached celery — brittle as ice — full of the savor of rich black soil.

But long before our appetites were dulled the Skipper caught my eye — a prearranged signal that set five girls and boys to clearing the table for dessert. After the flurry of this office I led my band to the scullery to lend a hand with the pudding and a Chinese-red tray of fruit. Heading the procession on our return marched Deborah in a print gown of startling shade and pattern. The pudding, her masterpiece, tricked with holly and so ethereal that the raisins and chopped nuts, the suet and the spices, seemed held together by brown gossamer, was set all glistening before the Skipper, while its proud creator took her seat at his right hand to ladle out the cinnamonflavored, creamy sauce from a silver boat. The tray with its pyramid of pale-green Beurré d’Anjou pears and stalks of hothouse grapes the color of amethysts spread fruitful good tidings from the center of the table. The Skipper poured a generous glassful of brandy over the pudding, the candles were extinguished, the Skipper scratched a match — and we sat dimly revealed by the gold and blue flames of the blazing spirits.

A few minutes after midnight when Walter, the accordion player, had “called the numbers” in the last dance; when the yellow-capped baking dishes of scalloped oysters laced with sherry and reinforced with mince pics had been exhausted and the punch bowl of Cottage Flip had been filled and emptied for the last time, Levi, who was helping me put out the lamps in the carriage house, neatly balled the yarns of our Christmas Day by remarking: —

“I guess it ain’t what you do that counts so much as the way you do it!”