She shivered: a tremble of skin over bone. Icy wind struck her full in the face and stole her breath for a moment. Tucking her chin, she gathered cold air into her lungs. She was determined.
With one foot, she stepped away from home and into the blowing snow. It was deep enough to cover her ankles in the middle of the path, drifting up into slopes that would swallow her calves if she ventured close to any hillocks or shrubs. But she wasn't sure which was more fearsome: the swallowing snow, or the encapsulating darkness. Twilight had covered the forest, more night than day, more shadowy than light, and she tried to trust her senses in this wintry world.
She'd known the weather was turning. She'd snuggled with her daughter for most of the afternoon, calm in the comfort of home. Without a need for any provisions or company, she cared little if the forest became a landscape of ice and powder. She wasn't going to be much affected by it. This time of year, this far south, a winter storm wouldn't last long -- the two of them would rest and eat and be merry, and enjoy the wet, dripping noises of snow melting into the earth in a day or so. Until then, she'd planned to enjoy the alone time. The silent isolation.
But now, surrounded by darkening woods, she cursed that isolation. She doubted her own capability. If she'd been less drowsy, her sweet girl wouldn't have gotten bored and wandered away.
Bunching her shoulders around her neck, she strained her eyes towards the snow-covered forest floor. Where should she search? All of her senses were heightened in hopes of noticing a flicker -- a shift -- a whisper. For as quiet as falling snow could be, it sucked all other noises into itself. A deceptive vacuum, promising soft landings but providing, instead, frigid immobility.
Where would she have gone? The pond? The meadow? The house down by the edge of the forest? They'd visited there before, but...no. It wasn't a place they felt comfortable or welcome to frequent. Surely she wouldn't have gone so far, either, on such a night. Still, if that was an option, she'd explore it: the pond and meadow were on the way, anyway. She'd search all night, if need be.
Her ankles were beginning to stiffen in the snow. She was well-outfitted for a snowy hunt, but the object of the hunt was not one of excitement or fun: she was frightened for her lost little one. Too young to be alone, too energetic to sit idly while her mother dozed.
But self-recriminations wouldn't aid in the search. Eyes to the ground, she kept moving. Light was becoming more and more scarce, and now, the wind picked up. If there'd been footprints even a few minutes ago, they were now filled with wet, icy flakes. Calling out once, twice, she stood still, turning her head away from the wind, listening for a response.
Nothing at the pond but iced-over shallows and grasses ready to shatter at a touch.
Nothing at the meadow but a gray, soundless swirling.
Her brow was flecked with white crystals which her face didn't provide enough warmth to melt. Teeth chattering, muscles clenched, she moved on to the last place she thought her daughter might be: the house.
It was dark now. The snow reflected -- what? Not moonlight: there was none. Some otherworldly glow radiated up from the ground. It didn't highlight any small, motionless form, though. She knew all the rock outcroppings by heart -- all the fallen trees (there were sure to be more after tonight, she thought) were just as they always were -- only now they were covered with sheets of iridescent white. If she hadn't been spurred by panic, she might have admired the frightful power of snow: tiny, insignificant flakes that, when combined, could bring the world to a halt.
She came nearer to the forest's edge. The house would be close, she knew, so she slowed down, calling out again. The snow sucked up her voice, blowing it apart and scattering it into the wind. She opened her eyes as wide as the icy air would allow, searching for her daughter. Feeling the lack of the familiar warm body against her side, she almost gave into the tightness in her throat. Almost. But tears would only blur her vision and freeze against her cheeks.
A dozen more steps and she'd be able to see the house. Surely her baby girl was somewhere close by.
But...the house was different. Creeping now, she stared into what should have been darkness, or at the very least, dimness. Instead, her eyes were filled with light. The house was lined with small points of light, rainbow colors and shining spheres. Some blinked, some faded, and through a normally dim window, an evergreen tree had been wrapped and dotted with colorful lights of its own. Their glow spilled onto the snow, laying a film over everything -- the ground, the trees, even the wind seemed to be covered with gossamer sheets of light.
And there, just at the edge of the light's twinkling reach, was a dark spot on the ground.
Her heart skipped a few beats as she let relief flood through her shivering body. It flowed as warm and smooth as sunshine over her skin.
With a gallop and leap, she was at her daughter's side. She was so small, hunkered down in the snow beside a broad oak tree, that the snow had begun to build around her until only her back and head were visible. When she felt her mother's touch, she lifted her head.
Reflected in small, dark eyes, the twinkling lights of the house blinked and swam.
The mother laid a cold, furry muzzle against her daughter's icy nose. They both stole one last, awed glimpse of the brightly lit house as the small one stood -- stiffly -- under her mother's chin. Their red-gold fur and black-tipped ears shone with a manufactured glow.
But it was time to go. Shaking off the fear that had gripped her on the way to her daughter, she was filled with new purpose. She knew they'd make it back to their den safely. Quickly. And maybe, on another, less snow-filled night, they'd venture near the twinkling house again, to snuggle out of sight at the forest's edge and stare.
She nipped a scruff of fur and skin between her teeth, lifting her daughter from the snow. The tiny fox curled herself under her mother's secure jaw, and they ran into the woods.
Snow furled and swept, soon obscuring them both.
Home awaited. Not brightly lit with buzzing lights and blinking bulbs -- but safe and warm, nonetheless.
Day One submission for 'Twas the Write Before Christmas at Bigger Picture Blogs. Please join us this week as we carve out some time to create during this Christmas season. We'll provide the prompts and a giveaway -- you bring the creativity! And be sure to view what our community is creating as well -- you just might find yourself filled with holiday cheer :)