It was three days until Winter Solstice, and Sean was pleased with having crossed nearly everyone off his list. The last gift to buy was for his wife, Sophie. They’d been together fifteen years, and still, he struggled with a gift that would make an impression. It wasn’t so much that she was difficult to buy for, it was more that she enjoyed simple tastes, and sometimes those were difficult for merchants to price. She was easy to please. All she ever asked for was one glass of wine at dinner, chocolate chip cookies whenever she needed to celebrate, and a soft, small dog to cuddle when he was away on business. They rarely argued and shared a love of children. Even though Odin hadn’t seen fit to bless them with a child yet, Sophie never lost hope that one day, he would.
Sean walked the aisles of the Holiday Market, hosted by the local Lion’s Club, searching for something that couldn’t be found in the shopping malls and high-priced boutiques. After so many seasons together, he knew the gift had to be special, a real stand-out, and he knew he wouldn’t find that at some franchisee.
After passing rows of tables containing displays of hand-made quilts, hand-blown glass, beeswax candles, and the like, he was beginning to become discouraged. Although each item was unique and crafted with love, nothing he discovered was distinctive enough to match Sophie’s delicate nature.
He was all but ready to leave when a diminutive elderly woman with bright hazel eyes caught his attention. She sat at the end of the last aisle, behind a table adorned with a red and gold tartan tablecloth and several small, hand-crafted wooded boxes in front of her. The boxes were beautifully carved, lacquered, and finished to a polished sheen. The woman sat quietly sipping tea and stroking a tabby cat that sat upon a green cushion on a nearby chair. She wore a rough woolen coat and gloves without fingers.
“Is there something I can help you find, dear?” she asked gently.
“I’m searching for a Solstice gift for my wife. She loves unique presents and beautiful things. I saw your lovely boxes and thought that one of them might be a perfect choice. How much are these?”
“The cost of the boxes is very inexpensive,” she said. “Yet, what’s inside… well, that son is quite a bit more significant.” She gave him a wry smile, and her eyes twinkled as she took another sip of her tea.
“Really?” Sean asked, his curiosity piqued. “What do you have hiding inside?” He moved to pick up a box and open it, but she gently slapped his hand away before he could get the chance.
“Oh, you mustn’t fondle the merchandise, dear. You might upset the gift, and that could be disastrous. These are special gifts and must be handled with the utmost care and concern,” she tutted.
Sean was shocked and now, even more, curious by the old woman’s words and actions. She was more agile than he’d imagined, even as her fingers were crooked with the effects of arthritis. “These boxes are indeed lovely,” he said. “But what could they possibly hold that could be so delicate. I see you don’t have signs...”
“We don’t need signs,” she interrupted, stroking the sleeping cat. “The gift you need is inside the right box, and there’s never any confusion if it’s the right one for you. Look them over carefully, hold the image of your wife… her heart, her soul, her dreams, in your imagination, and you will know which box holds the right gift for her.”
Sean looked at her questioningly. When he set out that morning, he wasn’t anticipating stumbling upon an old gypsy soul… but that’s exactly what she seemed to be. It made him a bit wary and a bit amused, simultaneously. Well, this is weird. She must be going senile. I’ll just play along and give the old woman a little holiday money. No harm done. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and regarded the boxes carefully. They sat in a haphazard collection, with no specific display intention… yet beautifully presented. There were squares, trapezoids, octagons, rectangles, circles, stars… every shape you could imagine. Each was made of inlaid teak of every shade of the tree rainbow.
He thought about his dear Sophie and how she would be captivated by this old woman, her cat, and the conundrum he now faced. He could hear her say, “This is so much fun! Would you ever imagine this would happen to us! Which box should we choose?” She had the pure heart of a child, untarnished by the negativity surrounding her daily life as an oncology nurse. Even though Sophie experienced so much pain and death every day, she never allowed it to diminish her love for life or her optimism for what the future would hold. Often, he wished he had her outlook and perseverance. Too often, he allowed his frustration to get the better of him. He felt like an incompetent husband because he couldn’t give her a child – the one thing in life she wanted more than anything else. He would have given anything, including his own life, to make that dream come true for her. There were times when he was annoyed with Odin for refusing her such a gift.
Sean continued to study the boxes, unsure of which to choose. The old woman noticed his apprehension and tried to help him along. “Don’t take too long, dear. You don’t want the gift to grow stale. You must be careful with your choice, but don’t over-think it. Life offers up consequences for those who ask too much and delay the inevitable.”
Stirred out of his musings by the old woman’s comment, he selected a box. “I believe I’ll take this one,” he said, pointing at an octagonal box with an alternating pattern of three shades of teak.
“A marvelous choice,” the old woman crooned. “That’ll be twenty dollars.” She carefully wrapped the box in white tissue paper. She gently placed it inside a red velvet drawstring bag as he retrieved the money from his wallet.
“Thank you very much,” Sean said, gently laying the money in her creased and crooked hands. “I’m sure my wife will adore it.”
“’Tis certain she will, young man. Remember, do not give it to her until Solstice night, else the gift will not have time to mature. In the meantime, cradle it carefully, and after she opens it, help her to care for it.”
“I promise I will,” he said.
“Be certain, young man. Such a promise should not be hastily made.” The old woman was sincere in her instruction, and he could not avoid her gaze.
“I promise,” Sean said again, in full earnest and with a broad smile.
“Very well,” she said, handing him the package. “Happy Solstice.”
“Thank you, Happy Solstice to you and to your cat.” At this, the cat looked up and blinked. The old woman stroked its back. Contented that its presence had been acknowledged, it laid its head down and went back to sleep.
Three nights later, Sophie and Sean sat together enjoying their festive meal on the soft carpet near the stone hearth. He waited for just the right moment, and then he presented her with the elegant gift bag.
“What’s this?” she asked, a gentle smile on her face.
“Happy Solstice,” he said.
“But we agreed we wouldn’t buy each other gifts this year,” Sophie said with a playful agitation in her voice.
“I know,” Sean said. “But I saw this, and the old gypsy woman who I bought it from was certain you’d enjoy it.”
“Gypsy woman? Where?” she asked.
“At the Holiday Market in the Square. Oh, you would have loved her.” Sean’s eyes lit up as he remembered the encounter. “She was terrific. She made me promise to take special care of this gift and only give it to you on Solstice night. She claimed that if I didn’t, the gift wouldn’t have time to mature. She had a cute cat, too.”
“What’s inside?” Sophie asked.
“I don’t know,” Sean replied.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? You bought it for me, right?” She was puzzled by the whole affair. Although she loved surprises, in her line of work, she rarely encountered them. So much in the cancer world was predetermined. Even though each individual’s illness was different, it usually led down the same path. There was little room for deviation where outcomes were concerned.
“I don’t know what’s inside… she made me promise not to open it, but she said that if I waited, she was sure it would be the right gift for you. You would have loved her, Sophie; she was a distinctive soul. I went back yesterday to see if I could find her again and maybe buy another box, but the director of the market said that she’d done what she came to do and has moved on. I’m not sure what that means, except that we probably won’t be able to find her. The director said she paid cash for her table.” Sean returned Sophie’s puzzled gaze and added his own inimitable smile.
Sophie remained a little dumbfounded, still holding the gift in her hands, silent and still.
“Well, are you going to open it?” he asked with a smirk.
“I… I guess so,” she said. Slowly and carefully, she untied the drawstring and reached into the pouch. She pulled out the tissue-wrapped box and tilted her head at her husband, smiling again.
“Keep going,” he said with a nervous giggle. “The suspense is killing me.”
She unwrapped the tissue and revealed the beautiful box. “Oh Sean, this looks really expensive. You shouldn’t have…”
“Just open it, will you… I can hardly stand the anticipation!”
Carefully, Sophie lifted the lid of the octagon box. Inside was a small fortune cookie. Silently, she lifted the cookie. Sean nodded his encouragement. With one smooth, gentle movement, she broke the cookie in two. Sophie set the empty half back in the box and pulled a small slip of paper out of the other half, then set that part of the cookie back in the box as well.
“Odin is pleased with your love and patience,” Sophie read aloud. “By Autumn Equinox, you will receive the gift of life in triplicate, reflecting the strength, kindness, and love you share. Take care as you wait. Don’t expect too much, and much will be given. Rush your heart, and consequences will be yours to endure.”
The two looked at each other, down at the tiny fortune, and back at each other again. A bemused, quiet excitement enveloped their souls. They hugged and kissed, each sharing tears as they delighted in the wonderment of the season.
Nine months later, at Fall Fest near the Autumn Equinox, three tiny souls, Ian, Megan, and Connor, made their Earthly debut amidst songs of praise to Odin, and his promise of a life fulfilled.
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