Moonlight blossoms

It was the long stretch of winter when walls of cold seem to close on the mind and the days are gray with little sun, only frost scratching at the crack under the door and the leaks in the window. As I paused with the broom in my hand, I felt tired as though a dusty string of rooms might be my main monument. Outside, freezing rain was beginning, tinkling slowly on the roof as night fell, and I sat alone on the hearth and lit a fire.

A faint meow aroused me and I let in my charming young friend, Little-White-Prince, a saucy, independent cat all white curves and smiles, with a gorgeous tan tail pinned on like a banner of victory. He assured me he was immensely brave, as anyone could see from the fine flourish of that tail, but the night was a terror of slithery muck that offended his exquisite feet, and he needed me and - O yes - ah, a fire! - and with a luxurious sigh he jumped into my arms. Tapping my face with one tentative paw and purring profoundly, he curled up in my lap and dozed instantly, though still keeping one smart eye on the fire. We would keep each other company, and I was grateful for this vivid, little bundle of affection. Though obviously, in his magnificence, he expected me to look after the fire, it did make me feel needed - and that was a curious comfort with all my babies grown and gone like beautiful summer birds I would only glimpse now and then.

I threw on some more logs, and as the fire crackled with the hot pine pitch, I realized this was the end of the Christmas tree, neatly sawed and stacked; and for a minute I saw, in the flames, dots of Christmas lights spinning the glass balls that had hung from the green boughs, twirling reflections from the laughter and the love and bright faces, and all the years gone by.

The rain had changed to snow that swished against the window, and outside the moon was shining on the ordinary world made radiant in iced jewels - every twig a splintered silver with diamonds hanging stiffly from each leaf, and the black earth now a curve of new-shining snow. I remembered back as a child on the farm, slipping away from the chores one early winter morning and, down in the woods, stumbling on a hollow by the brook. Here the hemlocks glittered shadows across the white stillness that was limned in the trickle of water spilling over frozen , pale green watercress. My mind was hushed by the sudden perfection of that spinning, separate moment, and as I looked back to it through this night of snow , it seemed a beauty pure and untouched by the years. And somehow my heart was gentled, and I caught my breath as I had as a child, startled and wondering.

With a sigh, I turned back to the familiarity of my room and its homely comforts - the warm hearth and dozing cat, the presence of my children's absence. Here was my small history with all the things I had learned since a child, and I thought of Luther's exultant cry of hope to the high winds, ''Though the world ends tomorrow, still today I plant my apple tree!''

The phrase had run through my mind when I had bought an amaryllis bulb of apple blossoms to shield the kitchen table against this winter's gray time. Slowly, slowly it had grown, a fragile slip stretching from the blank soil, swelling into a sheath divided magically into five paper-thin leaves, and then abruptly the stalk, rising mysteriously out of dark secrets, soared to a crown of three tight buds. There, softly, breath by breath, faint rose curves unfolded , turning wistfully to the light.

Out of expectation's habit, I glanced through the open door to the kitchen. The moon pooled shadows over the center of the table and, against the shimmer of snow out the window, the dark stalk stood trembling in beauty like a rush of joy. The buds had opened - three glory trumpets of apple blossoms gleaming like sweetness in the heart. It was a radiance I carried with me to bed; and as I fell asleep, my thoughts wandered downstairs to the brightness in the kitchen - apple blossoms in snow - a winter's prayer for that shining glimpse of hope, without which days are routine, slipping by unnumbered. It was like a chariot of fire crossing my sky.

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