Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Friday, December 24, 2004

The Christmas Tree

By Mykhailo Kotsiubynskyi
translated by: Aussiegirl

The Christmas Tree

It was Christmas Eve.

Yakim's house was bustling with preparations and activities. The borscht simmered in a big pot over the crackling fire while Vasylko's mother, Olena, prepared the cabbage rolls for their Christmas Eve supper. Vasylko, Yakim's son, sat on the floor grinding poppy seeds for the traditional Ukrainian Christmas pudding called kutya. He was twelve years old and the oldest child in the family.

As he went about his work he glanced over occasionally to where his two little sisters were happily playing with the family cat. He looked over at his father, who was sitting in the corner, and noticed his troubled expression. He wondered if his father was still sick, or if he was worried that there was so little money to buy what the family needed for the holidays.

Suddenly the door creaked and a stranger entered the house.

"Good day to you. I noticed that fir tree growing in your yard. I was wondering if you would consider selling it to me. I was sent to find a Christmas tree for the big manor house, and I've looked around and haven't seen one as nice as yours."

"How much would you pay for it?"

"Let's not haggle, my friend, name your price."

"How about 3 pounds?" said Yakim.

Suddenly Vasylko spoke up in a quavering voice. "But, father, that's my favorite tree. Don't you remember, you said it would be mine after I did so well on my school exams."

Tears welled up in the blue eyes of the fair-headed Vasylko. He didn't want to lose the graceful fir tree which was the only green thing which brightened the winter garden. Yakim gave his son a quick glance and Vasylko sank into silence, having recognized the expression of deep sadness in his father's eyes.

"Wonderful! I'll give you three pounds. Only you'll have to deliver it today as the master wants to have it all decorated for the children before midnight."

"I'm not sure how I can deliver it," said Yakim, "I haven't been well and my son is still quite young."

"He isn't too young." said the man, "and it's not that far, perhaps an hour. He could easily deliver it in time and return before dark."

Yakim thought for a moment and then waved his hand in assent, "We'll manage somehow. It isn't like it's the other side of the moon, after all."

The man paid for the tree and told them where to deliver it.

Yakim was pleased. What a stroke of luck, the three pounds would be just what he needed to get them through the holidays.

He got dressed, took an axe, and headed for the garden. Vasylko ran after him.

In the garden the snow lay deep. Yakim's heavy boots sank into the snow, leaving a necklace of deep holes behind him. Vasylko jumped from one bootprint to the next, raking the white powder with his feet. The bare trees, their branches stiff with frost, stood motionless in the breeze, giving no hint of life as they left a pale lacework of shadows on the sugary-white snow.

Before long the fir tree came into view in a green flash of pine needles.

Vasylko and his father stood and regarded it together for a moment. They were both sorry to lose the young tree. It was so green and cheerful, and it almost appeared to be waving a greeting to them with its graceful branches.

Yakim raised his axe and struck the first blow.� The fir tree shuddered from top to bottom as if it had not expected this sudden misfortune, and a few green needles fell to the snow. Again and again he swung his axe, and with each blow the fir tree shivered as if in a fever. It seemed to Vasylko that at any moment the tree might let out a moan. And then at last, it leaned over, cracked, and, finally severed, fell to the snow.

Vasylko nearly wept with grief as he watched his father take the fir tree by the trunk, swing it over his shoulder, and carry it off. And as it dragged along behind him, the tip of the tree left a long trail, like a narrow thread in the snow. �
As Vasylko looked down at the fresh tree stump, two small tears rolled down his cheeks. He just couldn't bear to look at that place where only moments before his fir tree had stood, and so he quickly began covering it up with a new pile of snow. Before long it was completely hidden from view.

"Vasylko, come here!" his father called from the yard. Vasylko ran to him.

"Get the sleigh ready, son, you have to deliver the tree. But you've got to hurry because it's getting late and you must get back before dark. I hope there won't be any snow," Yakim said, looking intently toward the horizon. "It looks like clouds are gathering." � � �

The fir tree was loaded on the old sleigh and Vasylko began getting ready for the journey. He harnessed the horses, put on a warm sheepskin coat, and drove out of the yard. �


A cold wind was blowing. White, almost milky clouds closed in from the edges of the sky. The mouse-grey horses stepped along, trotting in unison together. The road was slippery, and the sleigh skidded sideways from one rut to another. On either side of the road, as far as the eye could see, the fields spread out, covered in snow like a white tablecloth. The hard, blue-tinged snow sparkled gemlike in the sunlight. Large black ravens swooped down onto the snow in great congregations, and then lifted up again. The wind began to grow stronger. Snow clouds rolled in and swaddled the sky. The sun hid itself behind the clouds. It began to snow.

Vasylko called to the horses and they trotted along faster as they approached the woods that rose before them like a giant black wall. The forest marked the halfway point in their journey, and they would still have to drive a half hour through it to their destination. �

Vasylko drove into the woods. Huge, jagged oaks stood menacingly in large snowy drifts. They were impervious to the cold wind and blustering snow, but the wet flakes struck Vasylko in the face, plastering his eyelids shut and slipping under his collar. The grey horses, caked all over with snow, had turned completely white. In order to protect himself a little from the cold wind and snow, Vasylko pushed his hands up his sleeves, and pulling his cap down over his eyes he lowered his head. He didn't notice when the horses turned off the road and trotted toward the right.

Suddenly the sleigh went into a sharp skid and struck a snowbank. Crack! Something snapped on the sleigh and Vasylko was thrown headlong into the snow. The horses came to a halt.

Vasylko jumped to his feet, and shaking the snow off himself ran over to the sleigh which lay broken. The ancient, brittle runners had cracked from the impact.

Vasylko walked all around the sleigh inspecting the damage, and nearly burst into tears. There didn't seem to be anything he could do to repair it. "I'll just wait for a while," he thought, "maybe somebody will pass by and help me." He scanned the snowswept road, but the forest was empty. Only the wind howled through the trees, blowing showers of snow which obscured the distance in a curtain of whiteness. �

Vasylko took a few steps forward and then stopped, opening his eyes wide with fear and astonishment. In front of him there was a deep ditch that shouldn't have been there. Suddenly he realized that he must have wandered off the road. What should he do? Maybe it would be better to leave the sleigh and the fir tree where they were, and return home. He unharnessed the horses, and mounting one of them bareback, he turned back toward the road.

Dusk settled in the forest. Evening fell. Vasylko rode on through the woods. The horses sank so deeply into the snowdrifts that they were barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Before long Vasylko realized that he had lost the road altogether and and was blindly wandering through the forest. He stopped. "I've got to find the road," he thought. "I'll return to the sleigh and try to find the road from there." He turned the horses around and headed back. He rode for a long time, with the wind and the snow blowing in his face, but he could find no trace of the sleigh. "I must have gone too far in this direction," he thought, "so I should try going back the other way," and he turned to the left.

By now it had become completely dark in the woods. On the ground and in the air the snow swirled about, turning everything white, and the stark, frozen trunks of trees were lost amid the blowing drifts. �

Vasylko rode on, but still he couldn't find the sleigh. The horses, floundering on through the blowing gusts of snow and the deep drifts, grew tired and finally slowed to a halt. Vasylko was lost. He was cold and frightened. He began to cry. All around him the blizzard howled, the cold wind blustered and whirled the snow around, and suddenly Vasylko thought of his warm, cozy house.

The lamps would be burning cheerfully. The Christmas pudding would be set out. His father and his two sisters would be seated at the table as his mother served the Christmas Eve supper. Everyone would so happy, talking together and enjoying the holiday. Village boys and girls would bring holiday greetings and special Christmas foods to share, and they would ask about Vasylko. But -- perhaps the house wasn't happy and joyous tonight. Perhaps his mother was crying because Vasylko wasn't with them -- perhaps his father was worried and sad as he sat at the table not eating his supper.

"I've just got to get out of these woods and find the road and get back home."

Vasylko nudged the horses and they moved on and slowly plowed through the deep drifts. But what was this? Suddenly he thought he saw his house. It seemed to him that he could make out the lights blinking through the small windowpanes. He felt a stab of joy and turned toward it. But soon, it became clear that what had looked like his house was only a snow-covered bush. Vasylko let go of the reins and dropped his arms disconsolately by his sides.

What could he do? He looked around. The giant gnarled oak trees, like frightening scarecrows, stretched out their stiff black branches towards him. To Vasylko they seemed like hideous corpses reaching out to him with their white shrouds of snow. He became afraid. Suddenly, something ripped off his cap and icy snow showered onto his head. � A branch had caught his cap and knocked it into the snow.

No sooner had he worked up the courage to climb down from the horse after his cap than far off in the distance he heard a chilling sound -- awoooooo -- the lonely howl reverberated through the forest -- awoooooo -- came the echoing reply, and the howls rolled and resounded through the forest for what seemed like an eternity. �

Vasylko froze in fear. His hair stood on end and his heart seemed to stop beating in his chest. The thought of wolves flashed through his mind. In a frenzy he drove the horses on and quickly disappeared among the trees.

Soon he found himself on the outskirts of the forest. Beyond the woods lay a field and in the middle of the field stood a cross. Vasylko recognized the cross and felt a wave of relief.

"This must be the road to the village where my uncle lives. It can't be far now." Quickly he urged the horses onto the road.

But suddenly he saw something. What were those strange glowing lights that blinked at him from the edges of the trees? What were those black shapes moving in the snow? Suddenly the horses shied in panic and broke into a run.

Wolves! thought Vasylko. With all the strength he could muster he brought the whip down hard onto the horse's flank and grabbed on tight to its mane.

Terrified, bareheaded, and covered with snow, Vasylko galloped along the road into the icy wind. Chasing after him ran two wolves, arching their silver-gray backs. And the blizzard howled and whirled the snow, sweeping their tracks away.


Having sent Vasylko on his way Yakim breathed a sigh of relief. The fir tree had fetched a good price and the money would come in really handy at the moment, although he was sorry that he had to sacrifice his son's favorite tree.

Olena was busy with last minute preparations for the Christmas Eve dinner.

No one noticed that it was snowing outside.

Suddenly the girls exclaimed, "Snow, snow! Oh, mama, can we go out and play?"

Olena and Yakim looked out the window.

"Oh dear God, how will he get home in this weather!" she said. �

Yakim stepped outside. The sky was shrouded in snowclouds, and a gusty wind took his breath away. He became uneasy. � I hope nothing's happened to him, he thought.�

�"Well, how bad is it?" asked Olena, when he came back into the house. �

"It's a storm -- it might die down -- don't worry, Vasylko should be home soon."

But the blizzard didn't die down. Olena kept peering out the window, sighing deeply and wringing her hands in worry. �

It was growing dark and Vasylko still hadn't returned. �

"Oh, I wish we hadn't sent him so late in the day. We could have gotten by without that money." Olena was imagining all the horrible things that might happen to her son, how he might get lost or attacked by wolves.

Yakim said nothing, but he was no less worried than his wife. Every few minutes he stepped outside, peering into the darkness and cocking his ear to the howling wind, hoping in vain to see Vasylko or to hear his voice.

The neighbors had long since dined, but in Yakim's house they had forgotten what day it was. The girls fell asleep waiting for their supper, and the parents worried and the thought of food never crossed their minds.


In the morning a bright sun rose into the clear sky, revealing the effects of the snowstorm. The wind had died down. The clean, fresh snow sparkled silvery under the blue canopy of the sky. It was as if the earth had put on a fresh, white shirt for Christmas. �

Yakim borrowed some horses from a neighbor, intending to search for Vasylko. Olena pleaded to go with him and they set off together.

The sleigh creaked cheerfully on the new snow, and the horses trotted willingly, even though the road was quite drifted over. But the hearts of Yakim and Olena were heavy. They peered anxiously in every direction hoping to see some sign of Vasylko. But everywhere the landscape was flat and white and the glare from the snow hurt their eyes.

They came to the forest. Olena desperately looked among the trees -- it seemed to her that she was constantly catching sight of either the sleigh, or Vasylko's jacket, or the tracks of horses. �

"If only we could meet someone coming from the forest," Yakim finally said, "then we could ask whether they had seen anything further on." �
At last they happened upon a man riding a horse. Yakim explained what had happened and began to ask questions.

"I did see a broken sleigh with a fir tree on it," the man said. "Just continue on to your right."

"Oh dear God", cried Olena, "where is my child? What's happened to him?" �

From a distance the broken sleigh slowly came into view, and the green branches of the fir tree peeked out from under the drifts of snow.

Yakim pulled up to the sleigh. Olena jumped off first and ran over to it, her anguished cries filling the forest.

Yakim stood and hung his head in grief. "Yes, it must be true," he thought, "my Vasylko must have fallen prey to the wolves."

Suddenly they heard someone approaching. Yakim turned towards the sound and couldn't believe his own eyes. There before him stood his own horses harnessed to a sleigh being driven by Petro, his brother's hired hand. �

"Where did you come from?" cried Yakim.

"Your brother sent me to pick up your broken sleigh and to deliver the fir tree to the master's house. Vasylko's sleigh broke down last night. He wandered off the road, and barely managed to get to our place." �

"Vasylko is alive?" cried out Yakim and Olena in unison. �

"Of course he's alive! Just a short while ago he and his cousin set off for your house."

"Oh, thank God he's all right." they both exclaimed. �

As Petro loaded the fir tree onto his own sleigh, Yakim turned his horses around and hurried home.

Vasylko was already there when they arrived. Yakim and Olena wept tears of joy as they hugged their son. "We thought we'd never see you again!" they cried.

And all the while Vasylko was happily chattering away, telling everyone about his exciting adventures in the woods the night before.


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