Mercy stood on her back stoop for a moment with her eyes closed, breathing in the smell of December. It was too cold to be doing this, but she had always loved the clean scent of snow, the metallic tang of winter. She breathed in through her nose but the air was so cold that it settled in her teeth, causing them to ache. She didn’t care. It is a day made of ice, she thought.
She opened her eyes and looked upon her backyard. The world was blinding today in spite of the gray sky, which shone above like the back of a shovel. Snow drifted down like damp feathers, so slowly that it seemed it might never touch the ground. The sun was a perfectly round plate of silver seen briefly through the streaks of clouds. The trees looked black against the whiteness, and the only hint of color left on Earth was that of a redbird who flitted around on the snow. It pecked at the frozen ground and then threw its head high, as if swallowing. Mercy couldn’t imagine what it might have found to eat; there was nothing but snow. Even the creek was covered in it, stacked up on the sheet of ice that had formed there. She was 70 years old and had never seen the creek freeze in December. But it had this year, and it wasn’t even Christmas yet. People were saying it was because of the century turning. They said the weather was showing that the end of the world was nigh.
She held onto the porch post with one hand and the coal bucket with the other, then stepped down into the yard. The snow came up to the top of her boots, frosting the hem of her long skirt. She listened to the crunch beneath her feet and regretted having to track up the snow. She loved it when the whiteness went undisturbed. Before her boots made their marks, there was nothing but the tracks of the little redbird to give away the fact that life still stirred between these mountains. The cow had not found it necessary to make its way past the door of the little barn, and the chickens were quiet in their house.
She made her way toward the lean-to that covered her coal pile. The wind had piled a drift all around, so she took the coal shovel from its nail and grudgingly pushed the snow away. The coal was beautiful, black and solid and rich-looking. She wanted to feel her hands upon it, so she put the shovel aside and piled the chunks into the bucket. Her work made a pleasing ring against the metal of the bucket.
And then she sensed some movement on the mountain. She thought it might be a deer coming down to hunt for water. She squinted her eyes and focused on a red coat slowly stumbling near the cliffs halfway down the mountainside. She couldn’t tell if it was a woman or a child. It was too small for a man. Mercy became very still and could hear feet stamping in the snow. Each foot-fall made a crack like wood splintering.
“Up yonder!” Mercy called. “You’ll freeze to death on that mountain!”
The red coat made its way on down the mountain slowly, careful not to slip on the frozen rocks, and when it came out of the trees Mercy could see that it was a girl. Not more than 16 years old, her black hair covered by a man’s fedora. Her hands were buried in the deep pockets of the coat and her dress was too short — not much longer than the coat — so that her wool stockings showed. Her eyes looked as if she had been crying without shedding tears. Perhaps it was too cold to weep. Her lip trembled and her nose was so pink it was close to turning blue.
“Mam,” the girl said, as if out of breath. “Help me.”
When they were in the house the girl stood so close to the fireplace that Mercy feared her coattail might catch on fire. As soon as she took out her hands and began rubbing them fiercely before the flames, she started crying. She heaved with the tears that were finally allowed to flow freely.
Mercy put her hand on the girl’s back and drew in her breath at the coldness held within its fabric. “This coat’s got too much ice on it,” Mercy said. “You have to shed it.”
The girl made no motion, so Mercy turned her around by the shoulders and began to unbutton it. The girl drew her chin down into her collar and continued to shake with tears.
“It can’t be all that,” Mercy said. “Tell Mam what’s the matter.”
The girl’s teeth chattered so much that it took her a long time to spit out her words, but Mercy was patient as she unlatched the big round buttons on the coat. When she peeled it back the coat revealed that the girl had on a simple cotton dress, not fit for fall, much less December. The fabric was dotted by tiny purple flowers that made Mercy think of springtime. It seemed an eternity away, and for the first time she was aware that she was already looking forward to it.
“My papa run me off,” the girl said, and managed to move her hands around to settle on her belly. “I’m carrying and got no ring.”
Mercy eyed the girl’s belly. There was not so much as a bulge there. She wondered why the girl had made her confession to her father so early before it was evident.
“Christmastime and still, he turned me out in this big snow,” she said.
“Christmastime and the end of the world nigh. And your mother? Did she not step in?”
“Long dead.” Somehow this seemed to calm the girl. She brought her hands up and wiped her face with her palms, leaving blackness streaked across her face. Mercy guessed the filth was from hanging onto tree trunks as she made her way over the mountain.
“Where you from, girl? Why don’t I know you?”
“We live over on Wisdom.”
Mercy turned the girl back around to the fire and stood there with her, looking at the flames. It didn’t seem right to look into the girl’s face. It held too much shame.
“Lord God. That’s on the other side of the town. What in the world you doing over in these mountains?”
“I didn’t know what to do. So I kept walking. Walked since midnight, trying to think where I should go. I’m starved to death and froze solid.” Then she turned to Mercy and her eyes were so pitiful, they held more misery than a young person should know. They contained all the pain that Mercy had felt in her own long life. “I got nobody in this world.”
Mercy grabbed the rungs of a ladder-back chair and pulled it close to the fireplace. She directed the girl to sit and moved across the room to her cookstove. She mixed meal and milk and in minutes there was corn bread frying in a skillet. She reheated the coffee and shuffled across the floor and gave it to the girl, who put both hands around the cup and sipped from it with her shoulders arched high.
“What do you go by?” Mercy asked as she made her way back to the stove. She still had tenderloin from the last slaughter and had fetched it from the smokehouse last night. There was only enough for herself, but she fried it for the girl and supposed she could eat something herself later.
“I’ve always loved that name,” Mercy said, trying not to show how much the name meant to her. “It sounds like music in your mouth.”
When the meat was done she tipped a streak of coffee into the grease and made redeye gravy. She assembled everything on a pie pan and took it to the girl, who perched the plate on her lap and ate in a prim way, although it was obvious she was famished. She had been raised with manners, it looked like, and remembered them even while starving. Mercy didn’t talk to her while she ate. She thought the girl deserved to enjoy it without interruption.
“Where’s the boy?” Mercy said when the girl had finished. “The one who is the father.”
“He denies the child. Told everybody that it could be anybody’s. And him knowing good and well he’s my only. Papa is a preacher, Mam. When he found it out, he lost his mind.”
“Olivander Walker. He brought the tent revival up here last year, I believe. He’s took that revival all over these mountains.”
Mercy remembered him. He had set up his tent right at the mouth of Free Creek, and had preached there for a whole week. One evening as she walked to check her post office box, she had seen him. There had been such a big crowd that they couldn’t all fit in the tent and stood outside, leaning on the poles and sitting on quilts. She saw him holding up a copperhead, his head shaking wildly. He had been slain in the spirit and ended up running the aisles before he slid the snake back into its box and fainted dead away on the stage. At the time she had thought he was too pretty to be a preacher. Black wavy hair and blue eyes. Mercy had walked on past and when she came back all the people were bowing for the altar call while a homely woman sang. Walker had been anointing people’s heads with oil. She hadn’t been to church since the baby had died, and didn’t intend to go back.
Mercy went to the fireplace and stabbed at a log with the poker. “I’ve heard tell of him,” she said.
Mercy didn’t ask anything else of Susannah and before long the girl had fallen to sleep, right in that straight-backed chair. Mercy was still strong for her age — she had lived here alone five years without any help from anybody — but she was not able to carry the girl, despite how little she was. She roused Susannah enough for the girl to lean against her as she walked her over to the bed and put her within its covers. Mercy sat by the fire watching the girl sleep as darkness fell on the holler. She looked out the window and saw that the snow was falling fast again. By the time it melted, it would be far past Christmas. Her grandson would never be able to make it here all the way from Pineville, a half-day’s ride even without the snow. He was the only one left living, as Mercy had outlived everybody, and he came to check on her every now and then. On Christmas he brought his whole family: his children and his slim little mouse of a wife who barely squeaked. There would be no such commotion this year.
Mercy had buried two husbands, a daughter, and two sons. All her other grandchildren were strewn out across the country. Two of them dead in the war, buried in some unknown place in Cuba. Sometimes the grief was too much to bear. When she dwelled on it too much she was unable to get up in the mornings, and several times she had spent the whole day in bed, mesmerized by her heartache.
When this snow melted it would not only be a new year, but a new century. She tried to not think about that, either. She wondered how she would ever get used to saying nineteen instead of eighteen when she spoke the first two numbers of a year. It was hard enough to quit saying the last two digits. She stood at the window and wrote on the frosted glass: 1899. 1900.
Mercy awoke to the smell of biscuits. She found herself in her bed, the quilt pulled up to her chin. She looked at the fine print of the newspapers on the wall to let her eyes adjust, just as she did every morning. Today she settled on this year-old headline: War Imminent. She had a vague memory of being awakened in the night. She had fallen asleep in her rocker but the girl had helped her to bed — just as Mercy had helped her earlier — and they had slept there together, like mother and daughter. More like grandmother and daughter. She felt the familiar pain shoot through her bones as she sat up on the edge of the bed.
Susannah stood at the stove, unaware that Mercy was awake. She cracked an egg and its sizzling sound filled the house when it hit the skillet. She was wearing her coat again although the fire crackled in the fireplace and the stove door was red with heat. After a long while the girl sensed Mercy watching her and looked over her shoulder. “Good morning, Mam. I’ve no way to repay your kindness but to cook your own food for breakfast.”
“It smells good.”
Susannah cracked another egg on the edge of the skillet. “Cold as it is, and them old hens still lay.”
They ate together in silence and Mercy felt as if she was in the company of an old friend. The girl was clever. The biscuits melted on Mercy’s tongue, and the syrup she had boiled up was so delicious that Mercy closed her eyes to savor it. Susannah was cheerful this morning, too. At the stove she had been humming “Simple Gifts.” Mercy guessed that the girl was happy for warmth. Susannah seemed like an old soul to Mercy. They could sit here together like old sisters, eating biscuits and syrup, sipping their coffee. It felt like she had known this girl her whole life. She thought of the baby she had buried. She did not tell the girl, but the child’s name had been Susannah, too. Named for that old song: Oh Susannah, don’t you cry for me. She had died when she was only six months old. Mercy could still smell the dirt from the day they had buried her. It had been August, and so hot that the earth seemed to steam up from the open grave. She could remember everything about that day, standing on the mountain while they put the little casket into the ground, mockingbirds calling in the chestnut trees, sweat running down her forehead to mix with her tears. She had gone crazy for an entire year after the baby died. She had ground up glass and swallowed it, trying to kill herself, but she had chopped it up too fine and it had not worked. Susannah, she thought. She wondered if the girl had seen her go pale when she had told her name. She thought about confessing this now — telling her that she had had a baby named the same — but it didn’t seem right. She didn’t want the girl to think she saw her as a ghost.
“Do you think the world will end on New Year’s, like everybody says?” Susannah asked. She moved about quickly, gathering the dirty dishes from the table and sliding them into the dishpan.
“Why no,” Mercy said. “They been talking about the end of the world since I was a child. When I was little the sky rained fire for three days and everybody thought it was Rapture. Turned out to be falling stars.”
“It is scary, though,” Susannah said, her forehead wrinkled. “You’d think if Jesus wanted to come back he’d do it on the turn of a century.”
“You think the Lord operates by our calendar?” Mercy said and laughed quietly.
“I suppose not,” Susannah said. “Papa goes on about it a sight during his services. He never mentions it at home, though. And if he thinks it’s the end times, why does he even worry about next year? He had me put up so many cans of beans and kraut, you never seen the beat. I asked him one day: ‘If the world’s to end come January, what do we need with such victuals?’ He slapped my face.”
Mercy put her fork down and pushed her plate toward the center of the table. “Child, I hope you don’t go back home. Nobody needs to put up with such as that.”
Susannah’s eyes were quickly wet, but she did not cry. Her words were choked. “Oh, no, Mam. I can’t bear to think of not seeing my little brothers and sisters again, but I can’t live there no more,” she said, and pinched at the folds of her skirt.
Mercy felt a change in conversation was in order. Slowly she stood and put her hands on her hips. “Well, tomorrow is Christmas, and I ain’t never had Christmas without me some greenery. I’m bound to go to the mountain.”
Susannah jumped up quickly and ran around the table, standing very close to Mercy. “It’s too cold for you to be out on that mountain. You let me, to pay you back for your kindness. I won’t be beholden.”
Mercy took her coat from the bedpost and shook the sleeves onto her arms. “God moves on the mountain,” she said, “and I always go out on Christmas Eve, no matter the snow.” She took Susannah’s red coat from the chair and held it out. “You go with me.”
They took the long walnut baskets and a butcher knife and fastened their boots. The cold air hit them like a slap in the face when they stepped out. Today was overcast — there was not even a hint of the sun. The sky moved overhead very low, reminding Mercy of a gray soup that bubbled and spun in the pot. The mountain out back was very steep, but somehow the snow made it look smaller, as if it had shrunken into the December earth. The climb was hard and they had to stop several times for Mercy to catch her breath. This embarrassed her greatly, although she didn’t know why, and she tried to change the subject when Susannah put her kind hands on Mercy’s shoulder and said, “Should we go back, Mam?”
“The best holly is halfway up the mountain,” Mercy said. “And the cedars grow thick-limbed there.”
Finally they made it to the thickest part of the mountain, where the laurel hells grew large enough to be lost in. From here they could look down on the holler and see Mercy’s little house, where a crooked line of black smoke pumped from the chimney. The world looked so perfect from up here. Mercy did not look at the graveyard that rested on the mountain opposite, although she knew it was plainly visible without the leaves on the trees.
She took her butcher knife and chopped into the branch of a holly limb that was heavy with berries. The bark was tough and very yellow when she cut into it. Susannah stood close behind, holding out the basket. Mercy filled the basket with holly and then eyed the forest, aware of the complete silence on this mountain. She saw a perfect cedar tree. The finest limbs grew close to the ground, perfect for cutting away. She moved toward the tree and even though Susannah was holding onto her elbow, she lost her footing and fell heavily onto the ground. The mountain was so steep that she rolled over a couple times before she came to rest against a broad-trunked hickory. She felt the pain shooting up her back immediately, but then it faded away. She didn’t think her hip was broken. Really, she felt fine after a moment. There was snow in her mouth and eyes, and somehow she felt very relaxed. She thought it would be nice to lie here in the winter air and rest for a moment. She let her head fall back against the cold ground.
“Mam!” Susannah said, her hair hanging down and fluttering around Mercy’s face like a flock of small birds. “You’re hurt, hurt bad.”
“No,” Mercy said. “Just knocked the breath out of me. Set here with me a minute and I’ll be fine.”
Susannah sat down right in the snow. She took Mercy’s hands in hers and bowed her head and prayed silently. “I don’t know what to do,” she said, and Mercy didn’t know what she meant. Did she think Mercy wouldn’t be able to get up? Or was she speaking about her lot in life? Mercy brought out her arm and put her big hand on Susannah’s belly. Yes, life stirred within. It was small, but Mercy could feel it. On this still, silent mountain it was easy to discern the juices flowing within, the sizzle of blood and the faint knuckle of a little heartbeat. She would live to deliver this baby. She could see herself now, leaning over the bed and bringing it into the world, cutting the cord and laying the baby upon Susannah’s belly. The child would come in springtime, when purple flowers crowded the mountain path.
“You’ll stay here with me, Susannah,” Mercy said, savoring the pleasure of speaking this name aloud. “From now on, if you want to.”
Susannah took Mercy’s hand from her belly, and wrapped it up in her own. After a long while she leaned down and kissed Mercy’s hand. Her breath was warm against Mercy’s fingers.
Silas House is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including A Parchment of Leaves. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and a former commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. His writing has appeared in Time, The Atlantic, Ecotone, Garden and Gun, and Oxford American. For more, visit silas-house.com.
From A Kentucky Christmas, edited by George Ella Lyon. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2003. Reprinted by permission.
This article is featured in the November/December 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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