Colette swung open the chicken coop door and stepped into a floor of feathers. Orange, gray, and black and white-striped ones lined the ground. Downy-white feathers floated in the air. Winter approached. But though the hens molted feathers, they continued to grace Colette with eggs. She tucked her long, gray braid into her shawl then bent to reach the nesting boxes. As she filled her apron with ten eggs, she considered sharing with neighbors.
Were they in need? Colette wondered, for seeing neighbors these days felt out-of-style. Gatherings were rare. Church meetings postponed. The village prickled at the threat of occupying German forces. Colette guessed her neighbors hid behind locked doors with curtains drawn as the future loomed uncertain.
Colette’s little patch of French countryside sat near a stream that gurgled when other farms lay listless from a hot summer. Almond trees stretched out into an orchard, and the grass surrounding it stayed green into fall. From these fields, Colette’s flock of chickens found grasshoppers and plump caterpillars. And when Colette had gathered up the almond harvest, her hens had gobbled up les cigales, the giant insects that fell from the trees. Colette had laughed at seeing the greedy hens run around, then she’d determined to share the stone fruit crop with her neighbors. I’ll leave them on doorsteps, she thought, since no one wants company. And no neighbor did, for she received neither a greeting nor a thank-you, merci beaucoup.
Then frosty nights smothered the landscape. Colette, widowed for thirty years, found purpose in tucking heavy quilts around her chicken coop at sundown. When she discovered their water dish frozen solid, she chipped at the ice and refilled it with the kettle. Never had she known a winter like this. Hens scratched at the dirt, but no bugs surfaced. So, Colette sprinkled almond hulls at their feet for breakfast, and the hens pecked as if it were a feast of shiny beetles. The task of caring for the hens lifted her in the absence of neighbors and in the absence of her grown children.
Eggs and almonds piled up, and one day a knock sounded on Colette’s door. On the stone step there stood a family of four, or so she guessed them to be family. She welcomed them into the warm foyer, then shut out the cold with the seal of the heavy farmhouse door.
Colette saw they had thin coats but carried no luggage. The little boy’s name was Aaron. The girl, a year or two older, they called “Macqueline,” perhaps a mix of Jewish and French. The parents helped unlace the children’s worn boots because the girl cried when she tried to bend her fingers.
Colette rushed upstairs and returned with crocheted wraps and mittens and more of her quilts. Then she cooked broths from root vegetables. She fried omelets with dried herbs from the yard. The family whispered, huddled together, but in a week’s time their posture rose. Tense faces and taut cheekbones began to soften as they gathered at Colette’s kitchen table. They talked together and began to share fractions of their story with Colette, though still in hushed tones.
Their family had diminished in a matter of months. Aunts, uncles, and a grandmother had disappeared. When their hiding place in a remote village had become compromised, they’d fled in the middle of the night. With only hands to hold onto their children, they’d abandoned their belongings and hurried into the covers of a wooded valley. They’d walked together for days until Colette’s farm surfaced. They’d seen smoke rise from her chimney and felt compelled to defrost.
Mac and Aaron now sat and watched their father carve a wood block into a dreidel. Dried orchard branches sat in a bin near the fireplace. As he painted a Hebrew letter on each side of the dreidel, he explained tradition and history, how the name “dreidel” came from a Semitic root word, meaning to turn. When completed, Mac spun the dreidel. She showed Colette how to play the game, and they used buttons from Colette’s sewing box for gelt. Warmth radiated the length of the stone floor where the five of them sat near the hearth.
Colette decided to bring out the nativity figures from the attic. Her husband had carved almond wood into brilliant statues, once branches from the same orchard that still fed Colette. She set the Mary and Joseph on a low table. Mac and Aaron came close and watched her arrange the rest.
As Colette hung stockings, she mused about the past. Was it already four decades ago her own children decorated the mantle? They’d find things like pine branches and berry garlands. They’d cut paper snowflake shapes and string them together. They’d open books by the firelight.
A soft rain now froze to a sheet of ice. It settled on fields and on the almond orchard, where ancient trunks and branches twisted and groaned. Even the gurgling stream stilled as ice crusted its edges.
Macqueline slid into Colette’s oversized boots to check on the hens’ water dish. Before she shut the door behind her, headlights appeared up the road. She ducked back inside and hoarsely stumbled over words.
“Here, quickly!” Colette ushered them under the kitchen table where an embroidered tablecloth skimmed the floor. They heard tires rolling over crunchy bits of gravel on the driveway. The children stiffened and grabbed their mother’s hands. Their father clutched the iron fire-poker. No one dared to breathe.
Outside, voices yelled. Then flashlights aimed at the windows, but Colette had closed all the curtains long before. Only dim circles beamed through like eyes unable to glare.
Colette skimmed the room for traces of the family. Her eyes landed on the wooden dreidel. Rushing over, she scooped it up along with the baby Jesus nativity figure. Two items who’d sat side by side, in a swoop, were stuffed into her apron pocket.
The soldiers pounded on the door. This home had provided shelter for generations of Colette’s family. She glanced at the bolt which fastened them inside. The children stirred under the table when the fireplace crackled and embers popped. But Colette stood upright, unmoved. Only her lips twitched as she prayed.
And then came a shriek and a thud. A soldier had lost his footing on the sleek doorstep. He hit the ice and flew into the side of Colette’s stone threshold. More voices sounded, this time arguing, angry shouts. The car roared its engine and skidded on gravel-flecked ice.
The following days passed without event. The children played dreidel but with downcast faces. So, Colette began a batch of cookies. Did she have enough flour and sugar? She went down to the cellar and returned with sugar. Next, she cracked almonds and ground them to flour. The cookies baked and the children paced the kitchen. Then they watched as Colette arranged them onto a plate.
“What do you call these?” Mac asked. She turned the cookie over and examined its cake-like texture. A frosting filled the middle of two sandwiched almond cakes.
In that moment Colette remembered Jewish families eat food of a certain sort. Why hadn’t it occurred to me? she wondered. They’d never mentioned it nor complained.
The cookies slipped off the plate one by one. Colette decided they needed naming. Cookies crafted in desperation, yet delicious. God attending, God providing, she thought. She looked at Mac and said, “Mac-Aarons. Let’s name them after you two.”
The children agreed. They went back to their game, and the fireplace flickered, illuminating lifted countenances.
When the sun dipped behind orchard branches, a cool wind stirred. Colette went and covered the chicken coop. She heard the hens peep and chirp as they nestled into their boxes for the night, and then Colette retreated to her own warm cottage. There sat the family, together by the hearth, and the father held Colette’s Bible. He looked up when Colette entered and gave her a nod. Then Colette joined them, and he read aloud the story of the angel telling shepherds about the birth of Jesus.
‘“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”’ *
Later, Mac and Aaron leaned over the nativity scene. Small hands reached for angel, shepherds, sheep, and then repeated the scene from the story. “Christ the Lord,” the children echoed, as they played with the hand-carved nativity figures.
* from Luke 2:10-12 ESV Bible
Almond orchard photo taken by my friend, Mandy Perry.