A special Christmas Eve teaser from the story
By J.L. Oakley
Christmas Eve in Seattle can be dreary, often with rain or fog in the forecast. But when there is snowfall and Mamma’s Christmas julenisse figures are in the window, I remember a time long ago on this very same night in Norway and the man in the cave.
I was just thirteen, Mamma’s only child left at home. Pappa was gone on a trek to the next village, but promised to be back in time to open presents and then go to Christmas Eve Service. Despite rationing and the harsh conditions under the German occupation, no one in our mountain settlement was going to forgo Christmas. Before he left, Pappa had cut a small pine tree and put it in our living room. We decorated its fragrant branches with red ribbons and angels made out of wheat straw. A candle was put on a table by the window that faced the snowy street. Normally, before the war, candlelight would cast glimmering light on the snow, but everyone was under orders from German command to keep the blackout curtains closed.
This night I was in our living room making wheat straw angels to give as presents to our neighbors. In the kitchen, good smells of precious cinnamon and cardamom came from the oven and the pots simmering on our wood-burning stove. Mamma had been busy for the past week as she prepared food with the few things she had on hand. Sometimes she sang as she worked—it was her favorite time of year—but I noticed that when German soldiers came through the village in their hated Kübelwagen, she would grow quiet and furtively look at the clock on the wall. If the vehicle stopped, we both held our breath. Tonight, she was singing until the phone rang.
“Allo?” I heard her answer. There was silence as she listened, then she gasped.
“Mamma?” I rushed to the kitchen doorway, slipping a finished angel into my sweater pocket.
She waved me back, then put a finger to her lips. An urgent voice leaked out from the earpiece pressed to her head. Mamma nodded, then hung up. For a moment she tapped her fingers on the wall phone box. When she turned to me, her face was white.
“Mamma, what is wrong? Is Pappa in trouble? Have they arrested Per?” My big brother had left months ago to go for trade school, but I wondered if he had joined the Resistance.
“Nei.” Mamma looked at the clock. “Pappa has been delayed. There has been a razzia in Trondheim. Patrols are expected to come all the way to our valley.”
The phone rang again making Mamma jump. I never had seen her so unsettled. My strong Mamma, the oak tree in our family, was seldom shaken. Tonight, she was. She took a deep breath and then answered. After listening carefully, she said, “God Jul” and hung up. She wiped her hands on her apron.
“Birgit,” Mamma said in a steady voice, “you are a good daughter and I know you can keep a secret. Tonight, I need you to be the courageous young woman I know you are. We have no choice.”
Mamma took off her apron. “Come. Put on your warmest clothes and boots. We are going out into the forest. After tonight you may never speak of what you’ve seen. While you dress, I’m going to put some things into my rucksack. When are you done, vær så snil, could you empty your rucksack and bring it to the kitchen?”
When I remember that night, I recall the hurried actions of Mamma putting hot soup into a thermos along with bread and cheese into her rucksack. She placed a pack of candles, a first aid kit, and matches on top. Into mine, she stuffed one of Pappa’s sweaters, a pair of socks she had knitted last year and a felt cap. On top, she laid a scarf. As she put on her coat and mittens, she instructed me to do the same. It was all in a blur, but soon after, we were out the back door and into the bitter cold and snow.
Julaften—Christmas Eve—is a special time in Norway and I so wanted to open the small presents under the tree, but on that night all celebrations were delayed. We gathered snowshoes from the shed in the back of the house.
“It’s too dangerous to go down the street on skis,” Mamma explained. “We’ll go through the forest. We need to move quickly without being seen. Our neighbor, Herr Ericksen, is a Nazi. He would be eager to discover where we are going.”
“Where are we going?”
“I can’t say right now, but you may recognize the way.”
That long-ago Christmas Eve was sharp with air that stung my cheeks, but thankfully there was no moonrise. As we slipped through the forest of pine and birch, my breath hung in the air like fog. My snowshoes sank into powdery snow that glowed with its own light that helped us find our way. I did begin to see where we were going: to the part of the thick forest that rose up toward the mountain where there were many rock outcrops. And caves. My heart pounded at what we might find there.
The Man in the Cave
Sometimes during the darkest times, people can find a way to celebrate Christmas. A Norwegian-American living in Seattle, remembers a difficult time during the German occupation of Norway and the gifts exchanged.
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has established a reputation for writing outstanding historical fiction set in the mid-19th century to the Second World War.
In 2013, she received the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and the Chanticleer Grand Prize for Tree Soldier, a novel set in the Forest Service, a Depression-era program in the Pacific Northwest. In 2017, Janet won the Goethe Grand Prize for The Jøssing Affair, the 2018 Will Rogers Silver Medallion and two WILLA Silver Awards.
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