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The Silver Wren
written by: Sam Jensen
(Transcription of an audio interview with Mr. Connor Allen, age 87)
"Well now, it's been a long while since anyone's asked me about that night. I bet I'd be the last person who remembers it, too. You see, I was just a kid when it happened. Five years old, I was. Far as I know, no one else from back in those days is still around.
(Mr. Allen pauses.)
"Well, all right, let me see what I can tell you. Now, don't go thinking my memory's gone, 'cause it ain't. I know I'm getting old, but I'm still sharp. I pride myself on that. And that night, well, I remember it plain as day. I just need to get my thoughts in order. All right, first you need to know I was living in Fountainstown, which wasn't more than a little village out in the country back then. Far from the cities, we were, but we had one hell of a view of the ocean. It was a quiet little town; a great place to grow up. There was a forest nearby, too, lots of pine trees and some, what do you call them, the ones with the leaves. Deciduous, that's the word. Mostly fir trees, though, and full of all sorts of birds and creatures. Now, that Christmas Eve you want to hear about. As I said, I was five years old at the time, a few months shy of six, in fact. I loved Christmas, ever since I could understand it was special. Least, that's what my mum told me. I don't really remember any of the Christmases before this one, see. I mean, how could I remember anything from before I was five? So this Christmas Eve you're asking about, well, it's my oldest and clearest memory from my childhood.
(He pauses again, and audibly sighs.)
"Now let's see, it was a beautiful sunny day, a little below freezing so there was snow on the ground, but not too cold to play outside. I was beside myself with excitement, I was so anxious to see what Father Christmas would bring me. I was looking forward to the food, too. And my cousins were coming over later that evening. So I spent the afternoon running around in the snow, making snowmen. Standard kid stuff. Around four or five o’clock, the sun started going down, so I turned around and headed home. The streets were full of carollers and people heading for friends’ or relatives’ houses for dinner. I got past the crowd of happy people and continued toward my home.
“Around the church, I stopped for a minute. It had partly clouded over, and big snowflakes were starting to fall from the sky. It was so quiet and peaceful, and the town looked so beautiful, all those little windows and street lamps shining through the snow. So I just sat there sat there and watched for a while. It was well dark by now, and I was alone. Then, I became aware of some kind of noise behind me. It sounded like singing, and I heard instruments as well. Some sort of horn, and some stringed thing; maybe a harp. Now, like I said, there were carollers around the town square, but I was on the hill by the church, and behind me was the forest. That’s where the music was coming from. I thought it was pretty strange, but I wasn’t afraid, mind you. Kids are braver than we give them credit for. I just turned around and watched the woods. The music got louder, and soon enough I could see a flickering light coming through the trees. A group of people emerged – some of them had torches and the rest had baskets and sacks of some kind. They looked heavy, but the people were dancing as they walked. Not like any dance I’d seen before, but they were swaying their arms and their hips as they walked. All of them were singing.
“Just then, the bells started ringing in the church bell tower. A minute later, Father Patrick came out and stood beside me. He had heard the song too.
“Who are they?” he asked me. As if I had any idea. I just shrugged. Father Patrick was a kind man, probably in his forties then. He was quiet, and he wore small glasses so low on his nose that he ended up looking over rather than through them. Gave his whole life to the church, he did. Anyway, I shouldn’t get off track. The priest and I just stood there as this strange group came out of the forest, and they were strange, let me tell you. They were wearing long dark cloaks or robes, with hoods that made it hard to see their faces. In fact I couldn’t see a single face clearly, but we were still far away. I thought maybe we’d recognize them when they were closer. There were men and women together, far as I could tell, but the robes made it hard to be sure. Most of them were fairly tall, but not unusually so.
“They walked from the forest to the little road that lead into town, which ran straight past the church, so we stood there and watched them walking towards us. The way they that they moved, it was odd and rhythmic, and I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t make out the words of their song, either. It wasn’t English, maybe it was some kind of Gaelic, but I didn’t recognize it. Whatever it was, they sure could sing. It was beautiful. Father Patrick was very quiet, and I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He had one of those faces that was hard to read. He most often looked like he was lost in thought. Anyway, as they got close to the church, a few other people from the village came up to where we were standing. Guess they heard the music, too. They asked the Father who the strangers were, but he didn’t say anything.
“In a minute the crowd of people was walking right past us. They never stopped singing and they never stopped walking, they just waved their arms at us, like we was supposed to follow. Now that they were close, I could see that their robes were dark green and blue, or burgundy, like a good red wine. They had big wide hoods and scarves over their faces, so we couldn’t see more than their eyes. They all had these big bags and baskets, like I told you. There were, oh, I’d say maybe thirty of them altogether. As they went by, they kept waving and beckoning with their free arms, the ones they weren’t carrying stuff with. So, we did what they wanted and we followed them.
“They were walking straight into the middle of town, and we trailed a little behind them. Most of the people from town who were walking with us were asking questions under their breath. Who were
these folks? Where were they from? What were they singing? But no one talked too loud, I guess ‘cause
they didn’t want to drown out that beautiful music. As we marched along, more townsfolk joined us. They heard the commotion and came outside to see what was going on. Others watched our little parade through their frosty windows, and I could see them behind the glass asking each other what was happening. So these dancing strangers kept a steady, slow pace through town, and our group of spectators grew.
“We got to the town square, and suddenly the cloaked figures all started spinning and hurrying about. They were putting down their baskets and taking out all kinds of things. They pulled out some tables, I don’t know where from, and started laying out food. All kinds of food – there were turkeys, and vegetables, and baked goods stacked a foot high on bronze plates. They set out a pile of wood in front of the old statue in the town square, and in no time at all they had a big warm fire going. They were heating the food over it. They still hadn’t stopped singing. In fact, once their bags were unpacked, some of them pulled little flutes out of their pockets and started to play.
(Mr. Allen pauses to take a drink.)
“Now we were all dumbfounded; we didn’t know what to think. Here were all these folks we couldn’t recognize, setting up a feast outside in our town. We didn’t know who they were or where they were from, or even what their language was. But they were beckoning us over again, inviting us to eat, by the looks of it. The whole crowd was murmuring. What should we do? Who are they? A lot of people were asking Father Patrick, but he was still silent.
“Then, Albert, a fellow who lived a few houses away from my family, turned to the rest of us and said, ‘I don’t much care who they are. I ain’t never said no to a meal.’ Father Patrick nodded, and Albert headed off towards the feast. Everyone else stood frozen to the spot for a minute, but then slowly a few more people followed him, and soon enough we were all together by the fire.
“About then, my mother found me. She scolded me for being so late for dinner, said she’s been sick with worry searching for me. Then she asked me what on earth was happening and who the people in robes were. I told her I didn’t know. She grabbed my arm and lead me away, but I didn’t want to go. We found my father, a little ways from the crowd, and my parents stood there discussing the bizarre scene in the square. Soon enough Father Patrick joined us and told them how he and I had had been the first to see them come into town, and what had happened as we followed them. I wanted so badly to go and join the people in the square. The food smelled incredible, and the music was so joyous. I just had to be there.
“’Probably folks from the other village down the road,’ my father reasoned, ‘come to give us a surprise and play a bit of a trick.’ My mother still looked a bit uneasy, like she thought something wasn’t right. But Patrick said he saw no harm in joining everyone else in the square, and my parents agreed. They were still a bit wary, though. They had always been careful people, the both of them. Great people, don’t get me wrong. They were just a bit too cautious is all.
(Mr. Allen coughs and blows his nose.)
“So we were all down there together, the whole town. Well, maybe not all of... no, you know what? Even the old folks were there, I think we really all were. Who could stay inside on a night like that? It was a party like no other, I’ll tell you. These strangers in their cloaks were still playing music and singing, but they joined us in the feast too. They were eating and drinking, lifting their scarves a bit to get at their mouths, but never enough to give us a clear look at their faces. Right, I forgot to mention the wine and the cider. They had brought small barrels of each. I only had the cider, ‘course. Mom wouldn’t have liked to catch me with wine, let me tell you. Everyone’s questions had long since died away. It didn’t matter anymore who these people were or where they came from. They were here, they were kind, they had brought us all food and song the likes of which we’d never experienced, and it was Christmas Eve. On a night like that, we’re all supposed to trust each other and act like family, right?
“After everyone had eaten their fill of turkey and veggies, they passed around biscuits and pudding and cakes, and all manner of delicious treats. I could scarcely believe my luck, and I ate ‘til I was nearly sick. The strangers never really talked to any of us, not as such. I suppose that might have given away who they were. They gestured, though, like in charades, and we all got along splendidly. Even with their mouths covered you could see from their eyes they were smiling, and they laughed a lot, those guests of ours. At one point, old Albert had had one cup too many of the wine, and he said to one of his friends, ‘I’ve got to know who these guys are,’ and he leaped up and tried to pull down the hood of one of the strangers. But the guy spun out of his reach, and poor Albert nearly fell face first in the snow, but somebody caught him and propped him back in his seat. Bit of a drinker, he was, but harmless, and people mostly liked him.
(Mr. Allen’s voice begins to crack.)
“Dear me, I beg your pardon. My voice isn’t as strong as it once was. To finish my story... we ate and drank well into the night. Even my parents both loosened up and enjoyed themselves. Thank the Lord it was a mild night. I guess the fire kept us warm too, ‘cause no one complained of the cold all evening, even though it kept snowing lightly. Those big, soft, slow flakes, you know? After everyone was too full to eat another bite, the strangers started up another song. Now, this moment I’ll remember if I live another eighty years.
(Mr. Allen laughs.)
“They all started to twirl around, faster and faster, and their long clothes fanned out and spun around them. It was... mesmerizing. The patterns on their cloaks, around the borders of the cloth, the way they moved around each other in circles with their arms outstretched. The shadows they cast in firelight on the houses. I’ve never seen anything like it, before nor since. They carried on like that for what seemed like hours, ‘til the fire was starting to die. Oh, I wish you could have seen it. How I’d love to see it again. I don’t think I’d ever been more excited, but I was still a little kid, and it was well past my bedtime. Eventually I started to nod off.
“I do remember – and this is a bit hazy now, ‘cause I was pretty much asleep in my mother’s arms – but I remember one of the strange men leaned down in front of me and handed me something small. The next thing I remember, I woke up in my own bed on Christmas morning. I felt something clutched in my little hand. I looked down, and saw it was a small silver bird. A wren, it looked like. I was a bit confused until I remembered the man handing me something.
“I ran to the kitchen and asked my parents, who had just gotten up as well, about the previous night. I was glad to hear they knew exactly what I was talking about, because even with the tiny silver bird in my hand, I had been worried it had somehow all been a dream. Well, in fact, I soon found out that everyone in town remembered the feast and the singing and dancing as well as I did, though we never did figure out who the strangers had been. They had left in the night without a trace, and we never saw them again. My father still thought it must have been folks from one of the neighbouring towns having some fun with us, but no one from the area ever admitted to being behind it. Some said that we had let some ancient band of pagans, who must have been living hidden deep in the forest, into our town, but few took that idea seriously. One old lady insisted that they had been angels, and that we had all been blessed. She wanted Father Patrick to back her up, but he just told her that while we may have been blessed, some miracles have earthly explanations. Ever the diplomat, that man. He had faith, but he was practical, too, and didn’t talk as much about angels as some priests I’ve heard since. The truth is, no one knew exactly what had happened that night. Whether it was an anonymous good deed from some neighbours, or a hidden tribe from the woods, or angels straight from heaven, it was still a miracle in my mind.
“A lot of people don’t believe me when I tell this story. Heck, my own son thought I was crazy once he got older and started doubting everything. You know that phase kids go through. And, to be honest, I’ve sometimes doubted it myself. But whenever I start to think I dreamed the whole thing up, I remind myself...
(There is a sound of clothing rustling, and Mr. Allen removes something from his pocket.)
“...that I have the proof right here in my hand.
The Silver Wren was originally published in a collection of seasonal stories from PEI called Snow Softly Falling.
Sam has studied philosophy and history at UPEI and is an avid gamer.