The Winter Prince

"If you're a fan of fairy tales, you'll love The Winter Prince. Captivating, vivid from the creatures you'll meet to the outstanding dialogue, The Winter Prince will draw you in and hold your attention all the way through the fantastic end." -Erika Beebe, author 

“The Winter Prince is a treasured book in my house - it also has been my children's most requested Christmas story . . .  The story is beautifully paced and masterfully told through the eyes and voice of its young hero, and is always a joy to read. While my Magnificent Offspring have (at least for the moment) moved on to other Christmas distractions, this remains my favorite holiday story. My favorite part to this day is the ending, which I shall not reveal here. Suffice it that even now there are points that move me to laughter or tears, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.” –Goodreads reader  

“It's not a book I would dare to put down, and it's short enough that you don't have to. A charming Christmas story that is oddly appropriate to read in the summer time.” –Goodreads reader  

I. The Catfish and the Winter King  

Once there was a young girl named Margaret whose father was a woodcutter.  They lived in a small house on the edge of a big, deep forest.  As Margaret had no brothers or sisters, and her mother had passed away when she was still in swaddling clothes, she was accustomed to looking after herself.  She’d been playing along the shady paths of the woods as soon as she could toddle, and she reckoned she must know every root, branch and needle for miles around.  

Now she and her father were very poor, but everybody was poor in those days, so it didn’t matter a whit that Daddy only had two pairs of britches and a hat so old the brim had gone all soft and floppy, or that Margaret only had three dresses to wear, (a winter one, a summer one, and a scratchy one for Sundays), or that her old cloth coat was so patched up you couldn’t tell original from mended.  

Every day, Daddy went deep into the forest to chop wood, which he hauled to town in the back of his old stakebed truck to sell for firewood.  By the time Margaret was ten years old, she could chop a whole cord of wood by herself.  But even though they were poorer than most, she knew they were very lucky.  They had a roof over their heads, which was more than a lot of people had in those days.  Everything else, the forest would provide.  Her father hunted, and taught her how to hunt too with his old rifle.  In the summers, Margaret spent long afternoons fishing in the pond a few miles from their house, or picking strawberries in the field, or mushroom-hunting in the undergrowth.  All kinds of mushrooms grew in the woods—morels, black trumpets, puff balls—she knew them all, and how to tell good ones from bad.  They had chickens, and a garden, and they very seldom went hungry.  

The year that Margaret turned sixteen, something very strange happened.  Summer should’ve been over, but somehow, it just kept right on being summer.  September gave way to October, October gave way to November, and the thermometer stayed red.  Folks was becoming downright baffled.  This weren’t no Indian summer.  The farmer’s almanac was consulted, but it did not include a heat wave in its autumnal forecast.  Old women tried their hands at tea leaves and Bible-mancy, but all the leaves just sank to the bottom of the cup and would impart no secrets, and the heads of their pins kept landing on Jeremiah, and nobody could make heads nor tails out of any of it. 

For a while, people endeavored to look on the whole thing as a blessing.  This came easy to the young’uns, for whom it meant more play-time outside, running barefoot through the fields and along the dirt roads, and more time down at the swimming hole.  Sunflowers grew as big as pie plates, plump with seeds.  Bees kept on making honey, and ice cream tasted especially good.  For the adults, too, long days meant more hours to get things done.  Heavy winter coats, long johns, and wool dresses stayed tucked away in their mothballs and cedar trunks.  Even Thanksgiving dinners were held out-of-doors, with the celebrants carrying on like it was a regular picnic. 

But after a time, folks began to wish the temperatures would go down just a little.  They sat more and more on front porches and fanned themselves, complaining about the god-awful heat.  Long days led to long nights, fretful and sleepless.  Instead of dying, pesky bugs like mosquitoes and ticks and chiggers just multiplied and grew bigger, buzzing hatefully on the air, while the bees grew listless and stopped making honey.  The flowers began to wilt and turn brown, even the sunflowers.  Rivers and cricks were low and sluggish in their banks.  The trees grew yellow and sickly, and birds circled overhead, uncertain as to whether they ought to depart for their winter abodes.  The animals of the forest, too, had had their winter rest delayed.  They skulked and prowled about with their claws splayed, white-eyed and skittish.  

Christmas began to draw near, and folks young and old longed for snow.  But there seemed to be no hope of that happening.  

For Margaret and her father, the long summer meant that no one needed much firewood except for cooking.  They went from making very little money to almost no money at all.  Her father kept returning from town with his truck bed full of unsold wood, and he became very unhappy and despondent.  While folding and putting away his spare shirt one day, Margaret discovered a mostly-empty bottle of corn whiskey in his drawer.  

By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, Daddy was in terrible shape.  He came to the breakfast table with bloodshot eyes, and at least four days’ worth of stubble on his chin.  Margaret poured him a cup of strong, black coffee.  Hoping to cheer him up, she asked, “Why don’t you go out and chop us down a Christmas tree?  We can still have us a nice Christmas, even if it is ninety degrees out there.”  She did not add how there was no money for presents.  She had knitted him a new scarf and gloves, but of course it was too hot to wear them, and Christmas dinner would in all likelihood be the crappie she planned to catch that day, served up with skillet potatoes and biscuits.  

He did not respond to her question, but as soon as he’d finished his toast and eggs, he shoved his chair back from the table.  Taking his hat down off the peg, he put it on, pulling it down low over his eyes, then went outside, letting the door bang shut behind him.  Margaret peeked out the screen to see him pull his axe from off the chopping block and head for the tree line.  

She stayed behind to wash up.  When she was done, she hung up her apron and went to gather her fishing pole and tackle.  Then, she, too, went out into the forest, wearing a straw hat to keep the sun off.  Her feet were bare-- never mind that she was sixteen, practically grown up, and ought to be wearing shoes.  Why, she’d had five boys already come and try to court her, but she’d told them all exactly where to go.  She liked things the way they were, just her and Daddy, and didn’t need no boy telling her what to do.  And besides, the grass felt ever so good and cool on her feet.  To heck with being sixteen!  

When she got to the pond, she set about driving a stake with an old metal washer and a rope into the ground near the water’s edge for the stringer, then baited her hook and cast it into the water, all the while humming Christmas carols.  It felt mighty peculiar to be humming “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” while fishing.  Settling down on the bank, she spread her skirt neatly around her legs, and occupied herself with thinking about how when she got home, she would decorate the tree.  She would thread a popcorn string, and cut out paper chains, and make snowflakes and angels out of scrap cloth she had saved.  She might even have enough tinfoil to make a star.  Sitting back she smiled dreamily, thinking on how it would shine.  

Then, just like that, she felt a tug on the line.  She hadn’t expected anything to bite so quick.  She let it run, then pulled.  The pole jerked so in her hands, she almost dropped it.  It seemed she’d hooked herself a big one!  She hadn’t expected that either.  Ordinarily, she would have let it go—too big a fish, and it might snap her pole clean in two.  But this was Christmas Eve, and Daddy needed cheering up.  She wanted to land this one—and how!  

So Margaret stood up on the bank and pulled.   

There was a deep gurgling sound as the surface of the water wavered, then bubbled up like a pot fixing to boil over.  Margaret leaped back just in time, as a giant, speckled catfish rose up out of the pond.  

It was so big—big as a Holstein heifer!  Water poured off its back in rivulets as it writhed and wriggled its way up the muddy bank, its wide, sucking mouth thrust towards her, barbels twitching.  That’s when Margaret caught a glimpse of something in its maw—something that winked and glinted as it caught the light.  

At first, Margaret thought it was her hook, and tried to apologize.  “I—I’m sorry,” she stammered.  “I’ll get it out.”  

The catfish slapped at the water impatiently with its tail and with a final, mighty heave, crash-landed in the reeds.  Raising its head, it regarded her for a moment with flat black eyes.  Tilting its head back, it opened its mouth even wider, stretching it big enough for Margaret to climb inside if she’d of had a mind to.  Which of course, she did not.  All she could do was stand and stare, for there, inside the catfish’s mouth, was a glass bottle standing upright as neat as you please.  

It looked like just an ordinary bottle.  Without thinking, she reached in and grabbed it.  As she did, the catfish’s mouth closed around her arm.  Margaret shrieked, expecting to feel its teeth.  But she didn’t.  

Instead, the air around them went all funny, charged and heavy, like lightning was fixing to shoot down out of the clear blue sky, and on the end of her arm, the catfish changed.  It seemed to melt and shift, the mouth that had had a hold of her arm up to the shoulder slid down, transforming into a large, cool hand.  The speckled hide seemed to flip itself over in sections like playing cards, revealing pale skin underneath.  The head began to shrink.  On either side, the eyes rolling white grew closer and closer together, flat black washing out to a pale, icy blue.  The long barbels unfurled into a vast, white beard.  The fishy body rose up in front of her, fully nine feet long, exposing its slimy underbelly for just a second before, with a rippling and squicking sound, mud flew off in all directions, splattering her all over—face, arms, dress, legs.  “Uch!” Margaret jumped back.  

The last thing she saw before she lost her balance was the dorsal fin – it moved to the top of the head, where it formed a shiny crown -- then down she went.  She managed to hang onto the glass bottle, but landed on her bottom hard enough to make her teeth clack together . . . right in the muck. 

“Uch,” she said again.  Then a crack made her jump all over again.  It sounded like a rifle shot. 

She looked out over the pond, where a pale circle had formed at the center.  It quickly spread out, groaning and crackling as it went.  And just like that, the entire pond had turned to ice right up to the bank.  The reeds and plants at the edges of the water froze solid, their vivid green very bright, as if encased in crystal.  

And there, standing on the bank in front of her, was a tall, whip-thin old man, staring down at her.  He had the most piercing blue eyes she had ever seen beneath white eyebrows so perfectly groomed and pointed, she wondered if he’d used pomade on them.  

The old man was wearing a long, fancy blue overcoat with a white fur collar, and high black boots, also lined with fur.  A silver pocket chain dangled from an inner vest pocket.  His beard came down past his breastbone.  The face under the beard – at least, what she could see of it -- was very creased and ruddy.  But for being so clearly ancient, he was still handsome.  

"Do you know me, girl?” the old man asked in a gruff voice.  

“You Old Man Winter?” she asked. 

“I,” he said sternly, “am the Winter King.”  

Margaret stared at him for a moment, then, without thinking, asked, “Well, where you been?  We’re about a month overdue for a good frost.”  

"The Summer Queen has placed a spell on my son, the Winter Prince,” the Winter King said.  “And turned him into an evergreen.  Unless I can break the spell, it will never be winter again.”  

“Oh,” she said.  

"An evergreen tree,” the Winter King repeated pointedly, “Which, unless I am very much mistaken, your father is preparing to chop down at this very moment.”  

Oh!” Margaret leapt to her feet.  

“I suggest you run,” the Winter King growled.  

Margaret needed no further encouragement, but took off through the trees.  She ran blindly, her legs carrying her on pure instinct to where she thought her daddy would have gone to find a Christmas tree.  She ran and ran and ran until she had a stitch in her side, and still she kept on going.  

At last, she spotted her father in the middle of a clearing, just about to raise his ax.  

She halted for a second in sheer horror.  He was fixing to cut down the most beautiful tree Margaret had ever seen—where everything around it was pale and shriveled, it was hardy and green, with perfect boughs scattered with bright red berries.  

“Daddy, don’t!” she shouted.  

He looked back at her, surprised, but held his ax.  “Why the hell not?”

Running up to him, she grabbed his arm.  “Because . . .” 

“Now don’t be silly,” he said, shaking her off.  “Look at her—ain’t she a beaut?”  

He,” Margaret corrected.  

“He, she, what difference does it make?” her father asked.  “It’s a tree!  And it’s the perfect size for the parlor.”  

“You don’t want this ol’ thing,” Margaret persisted.  “What is that—a yew?  Wouldn’t you rather have a nice fir or pine?” 

“Stand back,” he said and raised his ax.  

"No!” she grabbed his arm again.  

“Margaret!” her father exclaimed, looking her up and down.  “What’s got into you, girl?  And why are you all muddy?”  

"Daddy, please don’t chop down that tree!” she said as he prepared to raise his ax again.  

“But you said you wanted one!” he said, the ax poised to strike.  

“NO!” Margaret flung herself between him and the tree trunk and as she did so, she dropped the bottle.  She’d clean forgot she even had it, but it seemed she’d held fast to it in her dash through the woods.  Now it fell with a light clunk onto the grass between her and her father.  

“All right, all right, now.  Don’t get hysterical,” her father was saying.  “What’s this?”  He bent down to pick up the bottle.  Taking the cork out, he sniffed it and his eyes lit up.  “What’d you bring me?  Gin?”  

Margaret felt a sudden sinking feeling in her heart.  “Daddy, I wouldn’t do that if I were—”  

But it was too late.  Tilting his head back, her father downed nearly the whole bottle in one gulp.  Immediately, his eyes closed and he sank down onto the grass in a deep sleep, his hat falling askew across his forehead, the bottle clutched loosely in his outstretched hand.  There was still a little clear liquid left at the bottom.  

“Oh, no,” Margaret moaned, kneeling beside him.  “Daddy, wake up!  Wake up!”  But no matter how she shook and shouted at him, he would not wake.  

“I’m afraid you’re wasting your time,” a voice said behind her.  “He’s under an enchantment now as well.”  

Margaret whirled to face the Winter King, who stood beside the evergreen tree, regarding her with his icy gaze.   

“You tricked me!” she cried.  

He inclined his head slightly at that.  “Perhaps.”  Walking around the tree, he put his hand out, passing it lightly over the boughs.  A little dusting of snow drifted from his fingers and coated the green branches.  “You seem to be a resourceful girl.  I have done everything in my power to save my son, but it has been of no use.  We have only the Twelve Days of Christmas before the Summer Queen’s spell becomes permanent.”  He smiled a chilly smile.  “If you help me, I will help you.”  

She looked at him doubtfully.  “What would I have to do?”  

“Go to the Summer Lands,” the King said.  “Find some way of persuading the Queen to remove the spell from my son.”  

Margaret stood.  “All right.  How do I get there?”  

The King smiled again.  It was not quite a warm smile, but it was almost . . . thawed.  “Drink what’s left in the bottle.  That should be enough to get you there.”  

Margaret looked at him doubtfully, then down at the near-empty bottle.  She had never been away from home before, had never been away from her father for more than a night.  Picking it up, she sniffed the contents gingerly.  “Is it very far?” she asked.  

“It’s closer than you think,” the Winter King assured her.  “But do hurry.  Time is short.”  

She didn’t give herself time to think twice.  Putting the bottle to her lips, she closed her eyes, tipped her head back, and drank.