A MILKWEED CHRISTMAS

written by PATRICIA PACKARD REED
copyright Patricia Packard Reed

 

artwork by ESTHER TAYLOR

Emily Susan Mouse peered out her kitchen window. It was early December and a recent storm had blanketed the little town of Milkweed, Maine with several inches of white fluff. The pine trees in her backyard were even fatter than usual with coats of heavy snow, their branches drooping under its weight. The mouse lady’s prized rose bushes had turned into giant mushrooms. Her bird feeders hung like snowballs where little chickadees tried in vain to find a breakfast of seeds. All of Milkweed was silent, white and cold!

A sharp knock at the back door was followed by a cheery “Good morning, Emily Susan! Any chance you might have a batch of blueberry muffins in your oven? With this fresh snow outside, it’s definitely a blueberry muffin morning.” Squi Squirrel was always hungry and his favorite place to be when he was hungry was in Emily Susan Mouse’s cozy kitchen.

“Why, Squi, on such a wintry day you can be sure I’ll have muffins baking. They will be ready in just a few minutes. What good timing you have! You always seem to know when I’m baking something.”

Squi grinned and admitted he did keep an eye on her chimney. When he saw puffs of smoke drifting towards his nest in the tall oak tree, he knew something tasty was in her oven. With a wink he added, “I know I’m your most trusted and faithful taster, Emily Susan. I’m always ready and happy to offer my services whenever you’re cooking.”

“Yes, you are, Squi. You are a most cheerful and eager taster. Now, these muffins are ready for you to try. Slipping her front paws into red oven mitts, the mouse lady removed a pan of piping hot muffins from the oven. They looked and smelled delicious and Squi was eager to bite into one.

Emily Susan cocked her head to one side and said, “Squi, I’m surprised you haven’t eaten breakfast already. You are always up earlier than I am.”

“Oh, I have. I had breakfast about two hours ago.” said the squirrel. “But all I ate was a bowl of oatmeal with squash seeds and maple syrup. I was still hungry, so I fixed three slices of peanut butter toast. Now, I’m hungry—again.”

Smiling at her squirrel neighbor, the mouse lady put several hot muffins on a bright blue plate and placed it on the table right in front of Squi. As he stared at them his mouth began to water in anticipation of that first bite. Little puddles of butter were floating across the golden muffin tops and Squi could see lots of tiny, wild Maine blueberries inside each muffin.

Emily Susan never skimped on her blueberries. Every summer she spent long afternoons up on the blueberry barrens filling her pails with as many of the sweet berries as she could find, enough to last until the next summer. All over town she was known for her baking and, being a kind and generous neighbor, she happily shared the fruits of her oven. Everybody in Milkweed knew and loved the little mouse lady.

Emily Susan handed a cup of rose hip tea to Squi and pushed the plate of muffins closer to him. The hungry squirrel didn’t hesitate. He selected two large muffins. First, he bit into one and then into the other as if comparing them to be sure they were the same. Closing his eyes, he let out a happy, contented sigh. With his mouth full of muffin, Squi mumbled, “These are sooooo yummy!”

Emily Susan Mouse helped herself to a muffin and said, “You know, Squi, Christmas will soon be here and we aren’t ready. We must talk with Beverly Bear and ask if she can take us up to the woods so we can pick out our Christmas trees. I like to get my tree early so I have plenty of time to enjoy it.”

“I’ve been thinking about this, too,” said Squi between bites of muffin. “The other day I was in Milkweed and all the stores were putting up their decorations. Even the trees around the town square have been trimmed with garlands of lights and big, red bows. It’s so pretty and cheerful. If we get our trees, we’ll be in the Christmas spirit and that might put you in the mood to do your Christmas cookie baking.”

Emily Susan raised one eyebrow and smiled at her friend. Yes, Squi loved the Christmas season but she knew how much he also loved Christmas cookies. He was especially fond of the peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies she made just for him every year.

Squi popped the last bite of a third muffin into his mouth and looked longingly at the one remaining on the blue plate. He really wanted that last muffin because blueberry muffins were his favorite. Sadly, even a squirrel has a limit to how much his tummy can hold. Instead, Squi leaned back on his stool, braced his body against the kitchen wall, clasped his front paws over his now very round stomach and announced, “Before I do anything else, I think I need a wee nap.” He was sound asleep before the mouse lady could reply.

While Squi napped, Emily Susan continued sipping her tea. She knew Squi would nap for at least a half hour. That would be plenty of time to get her box of ornaments out of the hall closet and check to be sure they were ready to hang on her tree as soon as she brought it home. Quietly, so she wouldn’t awaken the napping squirrel, Emily Susan went in search of her ornaments. As she passed the front window, she happened to see Beverly Bear across the street getting mail out of her mailbox. Quickly, Emily Susan pulled on her red snow boots and wrapped a bright green scarf around her neck. Opening her front door, she called, “Hello, Beverly! Hello!”

Beverly turned slowly and waved at her neighbor. “What a wonderful day it is! Don’t you just love all this fresh snow, Emily Susan? Everything looks so clean and bright.”

The little mouse didn’t exactly love the latest dump of snow but she agreed it was very pretty and wintry. Luckily, Emily Susan was so small and light she could scamper across the space between her porch and Beverly Bear’s porch without disappearing into the white fluff. Hopping up beside Beverly, she asked, “Are you awfully busy today, Beverly? Squi dropped by for a second breakfast this morning. We talked about how it will soon be Christmas and we don’t have our trees.”

“You two must have read my mind,” replied the bear. I was thinking the very same thing while I was eating my breakfast. Guess what I had for breakfast, Emily Susan? I ate every last one of the cookies you brought over the other day. That new recipe is wonderful! You should make them more often.”

Beverly ran her tongue over her lips remembering how tasty the cookies had been with her cup of tea. The new recipe called for oatmeal with blueberries. Like all Maine bears, Beverly was very fond of blueberries and sometimes she helped her mouse neighbor fill her pails with them during the picking season. Of course, she munched as she picked, just to keep up her strength.

“That’s very kind of you to say, Beverly. I think you enjoy my baking almost as much as Squi does. I gave him some of those cookies, too, and I think he ate all of them before he got to his nest. Each Christmas he hopes I’ll make a big batch of my peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies just for him starts talking about them before Halloween as if he’s afraid I’ll forget which cookies he likes best. Why, just this morning, he said we should get our trees and decorate them so I’ll be in the mood for my Christmas baking.”

Emily Susan laughed and Beverly agreed that it did sound as if their friend Squi was eager for his own special basket of Christmas cookies.

Across the street, Squi awoke and, seeing there was one last muffin still on the plate, decided his nap had made room in his stomach for a snack. Muffin in paw, he looked out the front window and saw Beverly Bear and Emily Susan Mouse chatting together on Beverly’s front porch. Snatching up his hat and scarf, Squi ran out to join them.

“Are we going to get our Christmas trees today?” Squi was very excited. His short legs made running nearly impossible in the new snow. He soon tripped over his feet and landed face first. Brushing himself off, he tried again and got a bit closer to the porch before taking another tumble. Finally, when Squi’s hat had fallen off and he was tangled up in his scarf, Beverly took pity on the squirrel and carried him the rest of the distance.

Beverly Bear, with her warm fur coat, was well-equipped for winter travel by foot and she was ready and eager to begin the hunt for their Christmas trees.

Squi, despite being his morning snooze, was very happy to ride with Emily Susan on the red sled Beverly had provided for their comfort. Seated on comfy cushions covered with Christmas fabric, the two friends joined Beverly in a few verses of Jingle Bells. How much easier it was to ride on the sled than to tramp through the snow!

After about an hour, Beverly stopped in a small clearing and looked around. “If I remember correctly,” she whispered softly, “there are some wonderful trees just over there.” She pointed to a small path leading deeper into the woods.

Squi looked at Beverly and whispered back, “Why are you being so quiet? There’s nobody out here but us.”

Beverly looked at her friends and said, “There is an elderly bear couple hibernating in a cave close by. I live in town so I don’t hibernate anymore, but I don’t want to disturb them. If they wake up it might be hard for them to get back to sleep and their winter nap is very important to them.” The squirrel and the mouse nodded in understanding. Beverly was always so kind and considerate of others.

Beverly knew this was the right path because the Christmas ribbon they’d tied to a small tree branch the year before still fluttered in the breeze. What a good idea it had been to mark the entrance!

Soon the friends came to their favorite place in the forest to find Christmas trees. Here, trees of all sizes and shapes grew in abundance. Tall thin trees and short stubby trees stood side-by-side. Short, delicate trees and bushy, tall ones nestled together sharing what sunlight was available. Some trees were soft to touch while others had sharp, prickly branches. Many smelled wonderful yet others had no smell at all. Abandoned bird nests clung stubbornly to branches whipped by the winter winds. Patiently the forest waited for spring and the return of the birds that had abandoned Maine for warmer winter nests. So many trees! How could these three friends choose just one each?

Beverly was the first to find her tree. She chose a huge tree with long bristly quills and a sharp scent of Maine woods. With several swipes of the ax, she cut down the tree and laid it in the snow while the others looked around for their trees. Turning to Squi, who was perched on her shoulder, she said, “It’s your turn, Squi. Let’s find a tree for you.”

“I want a short, thin tree,” declared Squi. “And I want it to be perfect, just like your tree, Beverly.”

The large, black bear carried Squi and Emily Susan from one tree to another while Squi searched for his perfect tree. Finally, just as his companions were about to give up hope he’d ever find it, Squi cried out, “There it is! That one right there.” The happy squirrel pointed to a short, thin tree which was just the right height. The branches were not too wide and the quills were perfectly soft. Best of all it smelled like a Christmas tree. Squi took a deep breath and smiled. This was his very own tree!

“Oh, Squi,” breathed Emily Susan. “It is indeed a lovely tree! Think how beautiful it will be up in your nest. “

Squi jumped off Beverly’s shoulder, hopped over to the tree and ran around its trunk a few times in excitement. “Yes, yes!” he cried. “My tree is perfect.” With that, Beverly cut Squi’s tree and put it on top of hers to haul home.

“Okay, Emily Susan,” Beverly said. “Do you see the perfect tree for your home?”

“Yes, I do, Beverly. This one right here.” Emily Susan pointed to the tree she’d chosen.

Beverly and Squi looked at each other in alarm. “That tree, Emily Susan?” asked Beverly. “Are you sure? That’s not a perfect tree. Why, that’s not even a half-perfect tree. Actually, if you’ll pardon my saying so, it’s an ugly tree.”

Squi shook his head in agreement. “Are you sure you want this one? Why don’t you look around a bit more? We aren’t in a hurry. Surely, you’ll find a tree that’s perfect, one you’ll like better.”

With a smile, Emily Susan replied that this was indeed her choice. Yes, she wanted this tree.

Squi and Beverly refused to give up. “Just look at it, Emily Susan. The trunk is crooked and the top droops to one side. The branches are odd lengths and I even see broken ones that have lost all their quills,” observed Squi. “I think Beverly is right. This is not a perfect tree. It’s a pitiful tree, Emily Susan. Please choose another one.”

Emily Susan Mouse shook her head and refused to be talked out of taking the “ugly, pitiful” tree home. So, with much sighing, Beverly and Squi gave in and the little tree was hauled back to town along with the beautiful trees they had chosen.

After huffing and puffing and digging his claws into the bark of the large oak tree where he had his nest, Squi was able to drag his Christmas tree into his home. First, he fastened it in a holder so it wouldn’t topple over when the winter winds blew and rocked the tree. Next, he wove several strands of gaily colored lights among the perfect branches and placed a golden star on the perfect tippy top. When he was done, Squi made himself a cup of hot apple cider and admired his sparkling, perfect tree. Once more he felt sorry for Emily Susan Mouse and the straggly, little tree she would be trying to decorate.

Across the street, Beverly Bear had placed her tree in the front window where everyone could see it. She’d hung so many colored balls and draped so much tinsel on her tree that the poor thing was almost buried. Tiny lights struggled to shine though the tinsel and to peek around the balls. Because the tree was so tall, there was no room at the top for either a star or an angel, but Beverly didn’t mind. She gave a big, happy sigh. Surely, this was the most perfect tree she’d ever had. It was magnificent! As she admired her tree, the kind bear remembered her dear friend Emily Susan Mouse and the ugly, little tree she had chosen. How could it ever become beautiful?

Emily Susan Mouse did not feel one bit sorry for herself nor was she even a little bit sad. The first thing she did was put the trunk of her little tree into a bucket of warm sugar water. She let it sit there and drink up every drop while she fixed herself a nice lunch of cheese soup and biscuits followed by a dish of warm apple crisp topped with vanilla ice cream. By the time she’d finished eating, the little tree had slurped up all the syrup and guess what? Why, it was taller! The top that had drooped to one side now pointed proudly to the ceiling. Emily Susan smiled. She was excited to hear what Beverly Bear and Squi Squirrel would say about her tree after she had finished decorating it. They were in for a big surprise!

With that, the mouse lady began to dress her little tree for the coming holiday. Humming a Christmas song softly to herself, she carefully hung brightly colored balls, strung lights from top to bottom and tossed strands of silver tinsel on the tree. She sprinkled glistening fake snow on the bare branches to make them appear thicker. Stuffed toys nestled into empty spaces, looking as if they lived there, as if they were home for Christmas. Last of all, Emily Susan placed her grandmother’s angel on top to watch over Christmas in her home. And then, she stood back and admired her tree.

“Oh my, yes,” she smiled happily. “What a dear little tree you are. You are absolutely beautiful. In fact, I would say you’re perfect. Best of all, you’re perfect for me. We’re going to have a most wonderful Christmas together.”

Some might say the mouse lady was talking to herself and the little Christmas tree didn’t understand what she was saying. But you and I know it heard and understood every word. For the very first time it felt beautiful. It was loved. Standing up strong and tall, the tree released a lovely pine scent, filling the whole house with Christmas spirit. Why, it had a real friend, a friend who told it how beautiful it was—and so it was beautiful.

The next morning Beverly Bear baked a batch of gingerbread men and brought a plate of them over to Emily Susan’s home to help cheer her up since she’d chosen such an ugly, little tree for Christmas. At Emily Susan’s front door, Beverly met Squi who had a gift of cheese because he, too, wanted to help cheer up their friend. How surprised they were when the door opened and they saw Emily Susan with a happy smile on her face as she eagerly invited them into her home.

“Come in. Come in,” she urged them. “You’re my first holiday visitors. I’ll make a pot of tea to go with the treats you’ve brought.”

Beverly and Squi looked at each other in surprise and followed Emily Susan into her living room. Suddenly, they stood very still and their mouths dropped open. There, right in front of them, was Emily Susan Mouse’s Christmas tree and it was—amazing!

“Emily Susan,” gasped Squi. “Where did you get this tree? It’s wonderful!”

“Yes,” chimed in Beverly. “In fact, Emily Susan, it’s a perfect tree. Did you buy it in town?”

The mouse lady laughed. “Why, my dear friends, don’t you recognize the little tree we brought home from the woods yesterday? It’s the same tree you didn’t want me to choose.”

“It can’t be that tree.” Beverly and Squi said at the same time. “That one was crooked and had missing branches and fallen quills and it didn’t even smell like a Christmas tree.”

Smiling gently, Emily Susan replied, “Ah, but it is. My ugly little tree turned into a perfectly beautiful tree.”

“How did you do it?” Squi asked as he stared at it in astonishment.

“Was it some kind of magic?” queried Beverly.

“Yes, Beverly, I suppose it was a bit of magic. The magic of a little warm sugar water and a lot of love.”

With that, Emily Susan Mouse hugged her friends and whispered, “Merry Christmas to both of you.”

And the little tree whispered, “Merry Christmas!”, too.

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