A sudden thump on the door broke through the muffled swing of pine boughs against the window, rousing Rennia from the jingle of dinner plates on the counter. “You’ll never guess what we just found!” Max’s face blazed with irrepressible delight as he yanked his sister’s hand from a half dry cup. “You can clean all you want when we get back”.
“Make it quick”, she said, grabbing her warmest coat. She never could hold back his stubborn grip when he wanted her to follow him. “I still have to finish the dishes and you need to pick up your Lego’s and video games or Santa won’t bring you any new toys.
“Quit your yapping and come on!” He led her through the twists and snarls of the path behind the log cabin the family had bought two months ago. Rennia rambled down this trail nearly every day, but in the uncertain glimmer of moonlight on the snow, it wore a shroud of secrecy, as if the entire world had forgotten it for years.
“Where’s Jack?” asked Rennia. “You know you shouldn’t have run back by yourself at night.”
“Don’t worry; he’s right over this hill. He wanted to look around to see if anyone could tell us what it was.”
“What are you talking about?” Why did you drag me out here in the dark when Mom and Dad will be home any minute and call out a search party?
“I can’t explain it. Just follow me”, he answered with an unmistakable glint in his eyes. As the path arched up to rub the blackening sky, Rennia glimpsed what appeared to be a pocket-sized village flooded with myriad white lights. Her breath froze solid as Max raced her to the edge of the clearing, where two strings of candles shaped a path in front of them as far as they could see. Around each candle a holly leaf was tied with the utmost care.
“Didn’t I tell you it was awesome?!” Max exclaimed wildly as Rennia stood motionless. It seemed to her that a constellation must have fallen to the earth to pause the world. Silence had conquered the deserted forest and carved it into a land entirely changed from the little wood that she had appointed as her very own.
Trying to wrap her mind around what all of this meant, Rennia spotted the faint glimmer of a lantern, miniscule in the face of the magic before her. Without saying a word, she clutched Max’s hand as she traced the faded footprints about the size of her own to the door of the tiny cottage on which it hung. Her curiosity mingled with her fear of disturbing whoever had sprinkled the air with such unmatched serenity.
A slight woman with lustrous gray curls answered Rennia’s tentative knock. “Hello, my dears, you must be frozen.” Her smile shone deep in her eyes and a startled tenderness rang in her voice. “Come warm up by the fire and help me make Christmas dinner.” Rennia and Max couldn’t speak as they followed her to a fireplace that infused the cottage with warmth that seemed to draw from the lady’s spirit more than the fire itself. Rennia tried to envision how she had come to live alone in the woods.
“We’re very grateful for your kindness”, Rennia said as the lady brought them each a cup of hot chocolate. “My name is Rennia and this is my brother Max. Have you seen our brother Jack, a tall boy with blond hair?” Just then the back door flew open and Jack tossed an armload of wood into the flames. “This fine young man has been helping me with firewood. I saw him outside and asked him to come in and have a hot drink while he waited for his brother and sister. He told me that he and Max had come upon the lights while exploring the woods and asked if I knew where they had come from, and whose footprints lay along the path.”
As Rennia sipped her hot chocolate dusted with peppermint, her eyes wandered to the photo on the mantle, a lovingly polished portrait of a baby girl. “You look so like her”, the old lady murmured, suddenly aged beyond her years. “The candles leading from my cottage…Every day I ask the Lord Jesus to guard her for me, and at Christmas I set the candles upon the path to lead her home. When she was born I wasn’t able to care for her, so I gave her to a lovely couple who dearly wanted a child. When they moved, they told me I would be part of the child’s life, but lost contact when the couple died and she was placed with their relatives. For many years I have lived simply, unable to provide for a growing child, but prayed that God will send her to me in His own time. Since I cannot get around as easily as I used to, He sends me angels disguised as children to welcome into my home and share His love. Long ago He told me that one Christmas Eve He would send my daughter’s children down my path.”
Once again, her eyes glittered with a newborn radiance that had been locked in her soul all these years, and Rennia could see the unfading beauty of her spirit manifest itself. “I know that night is tonight, because He told me that my daughter’s children would be the only ones who could see my footsteps.”