Old Kenton Donegan pulled his jacket sleeve up his left wrist and looked at his watch for the sixth time in the last half hour. Four thirty at last. Even at the ground the wind was blowing cold and hard, and Kenton, at the top of an eighteen foot ladder, was chilled almost too stiff to climb down out of the apple tree.
He laid his ladder securely in a crotch between two limbs, and carrying his pruning shears, trudged home for the night. The sun had set half an hour ago, and the tall spruce trees around the Burelli’s big white house jutted up black in front of the last yellow of sunset. Kenton walked the other way, toward the small cluster of old house-trailers where he, the Fraziers, who were also black, and the Rodriguez family lived.
Mr. Burelli had contracted to have his orchard mechanically pruned that winter. The big tractor with circular saw blades mounted on its boom was working its way, farm by farm, up the valley. Kenton had seen it once, and his craftsman’s eye had been dismayed by the ugliness of the trees it had pruned. But to the growers it meant money in the bank instead of money spent on paychecks.
Thus, not really needing old Kenton’s help in pruning the orchard, Mr. Burelli had decided to lay him off. But the old man had looked so lost when he told him that Burelli had taken pity on him and agreed to pay him for a day of work every week.
So although tonight was Christmas Eve, and all the others to whom the little trailer camp was home had gone for the holiday, Kenton had stayed behind. For not only did he have no relatives to invite him to their homes, but he also had no money to get there.
And so the most wonderful night of the year found old Kenton Donegan walking home alone, alone in an aloneness as deep as the north wind was bitter and icy.
Once home, he turned on the stove, put on a can of soup, set the water boiling for macaroni, and peeled and cored a McIntosh apple for dessert.
Although he was alone and fully expected to remain so for the next night and day, he could not escape an unusual feeling of expecting company, and he found himself setting two spoons, knives, cups, and soupbowls on the kitchen table.
The soup had started to bubble, and he poured half of it into each bowl. He waited a few minutes for his guest, but a long day’s pruning had rewarded him with ravenous hunger if little else, and so he set to and soon had finished the soup. Still no guest. The macaroni was ready, and Kenton did not want that to get cold, so it quickly followed the soup; and when he had swallowed the last bite of apple, there was still no knock at the door.
He washed his own dishes, ate the guest’s soup, macaroni, and apple, and then washed those dishes too. And still the silence of the night outside remained unbroken, save for the wind howling around the little trailer.
The little flock of goldfinches huddled shoulder to shoulder in the big hemlock tree. It had been cold that day, flitting from burdock to orchardgrass head among the apple trees. So fast had their little internal fires burned up fuel that they had scarcely managed to garner enough food to last the fifteen hours of darkness. But their day in the orchard had served not only their own need, for, whether they knew it or not, their company and cheer had done much to brighten, lighten, and shorten the day for the old man pruning the apple trees.
Kenton pulled on his boots and mittens, tugged his woolen beanie down over his ears, and stepped out into the night. The feeling of expecting someone was so strong that he had decided to go and find the newcomer if the newcomer wouldn’t come to him.
The earth, which the sun had warmed slightly during the day, was rapidly re-radiating the heat back into space. It was so crisply cold already that the snow jumped away from his feet at each step, just as white sand on a beach might in a warmer month. The moon, two nights past the full, had risen now, but for all its brilliance it could hardly dim the myriad blazing stars. For all it was bitter cold, Kenton admitted that the night was exhilaratingly beautiful.
His feet led him north along the orchard road, between the two long hills over which the Burelli orchard was spread like a white quilt with purplish-gray tufts. The next orchard to the north was the Hoffman farm. Hoffman had once raised poultry, and when he had sold all his chickens, he had converted the chicken coops to living quarters for the help. One of these coops sat near the south edge of the property, just north of Burelli’s and just west of the woods. It had been occupied since August by Rene and Amanda Hernandez.
Kenton had only met Rene once. He had noticed how quiet the young man had been, seeming to know that the void between men could not be bridged by human words.
The yellow light in the window of the Hernandez’s hut shone steadily on the hilltop half a mile away. Thither Kenton made his way, first along the road and then up the hill through the drifted snow. His mittened hand thumped lightly on the door, and from within Rene bade him enter.
The great horned owl, like a big silent moth, flapped through the forest. Having already eaten, she now looked for a place to sit out of the wind and begin to digest her meal. She glided noiselessly into a big hemlock tree, and alighted. On the branch below sat a row of roosting goldfinches. The owl’s impact dislodged some snow, which fell on and awakened one of the goldfinches. Startled, it flitted off into the night.
The first thing that Kenton noticed when he entered was a Christmas tree that reached all the way to the ceiling. The second thing that he noticed was that the room was rather chilly. But the third thing made him forget all about the first two: A new child had been born, and it looked not but a few hours old.
The child lay in a large cardboard box, amply packed around with blankets. A long wisp of black hair lay across the new little brown forehead. The fresh little face was calm, and its pure new little owner was fast asleep. The parents sat on either side; their faces filled with wonder and joy, and held the tiny hands. On a fourth chair was an electric space heater, directed so as to warm the three.
Kenton gently closed the door, and walked softly to the carton-cradle. He knelt down in joy and admiration, for his heart was a child’s, notwithstanding its life of loneliness. But no sooner had he knelt than there was a soft thud at the window.
Kenton rose again and went to see what it was. There on the window sill sat a goldfinch. Kenton wondered that it had not stunned itself against the glass, but he quickly opened the window.
The little greenish-gray and black bird hopped in and Kenton lowered the sash again. He marveled that although the bird seemed quite alert and awake, it showed no fear. For a moment it regarded him with its black beady eye, and then, seeming to fully comprehend everything in the room, it flew to the cardboard box. And December though it was, it burst into a song of joy such as is seldom heard even in the springtime.