A drizzling, dreary rain began to fall in the evening, breaking through from the depths of the sky draped with heavy clouds. At night, the wind had risen, and now the larger drops were lashing against the windowpane, drumming steadily on the tin eaves. Towards morning, everything ceased. And when the man woke up, the first thing he saw – the street, trees, houses, powdered with a thin layer of snow. The wind, which did not care what make a toy of, now twiddled the white haze, and although it was clear that it was not real snow, but just snow dust, it was still happily to think, “Well, winter has come.”
In high spirits, the man washed his face and began to wake his children. The five-year-old daughter did not want to get up, but when she heard about the snow, she immediately fluttered out of the heated crib and ran to the window, saying with admiring astonishment, “It’s snowing.” Three-year-old son followed her. He flattened his nose against the glass and boomed busily, imitating his sister, “It’s snowing.”
Excited by what they saw, the children obediently had breakfast, dressed and eagerly ran out into the street. They walked together till the corner, and the girl kept trying to get into the untouched snow and collect it “at least for a piccaninny snowball”. The boy squinted against the wind, smiled and hid his face in the collar of his father’s coat.
After handing over his son to the child-minder, the man hurried to the bus stop. Lightly sprinkled with snow, as if floured, people carefully trotted along the treacherous asphalt. In the frosty air, the smells seemed to have intensified. There was a smell of freshness, kindness, and something else inexplicable that created a sense of some nearby miracle.
“The birth of the first snow, like the birth of a child, is an eternal miracle and holiday,” the man thought with tenderness mentally adding, “and the holiday is approaching. New Year’s in a few days.”
At the door of the editorial office, he met an employee from the next department. She was carefully carrying a small but thick New Year tree, holding it by the thorny trunk wrapped in paper. “That’s a beauty!” the man said admiringly, helping the woman open the door.
“I waited in line for two hours,” said she, thanking him.
After making strong coffee, the man began separating mail. Looking through the letters of readers, he felt that he could not concentrate. What happened? He tried again to read the lines more carefully, and suddenly found himself thinking about the New Year tree. Now it was standing in one of the rooms at the end of a long corridor, but it seemed to him that its scent was insistently creeping through the walls, penetrating here, exciting him, distracting him from his work, imperiously reminding him of itself. But why and what for?
They have an artificial New Year tree at home, what is another one for? Somehow it happened that they had never bought a New Year tree before. My wife said that the New Year trees are crumbling, Christmas toys are breaking, and if the plastic New Year tree is too small, they can take it on a metal rod, with paws cut from foil. Yes, they do crumble, the needles falling to the floor next to the broken glass balls. But what can we do: such fragile glass balls are.
Thinking about it, the man suddenly clearly saw those few red, half-forgotten needles and was amazed at how quickly they popped up in his memory. He closed his eyes, and his father appeared in front of him. Having frosted, dressed in a cap made of artificial fur, a long coat made of military cloth, covered with snow, he entered the apartment, smiling, holding a green fluffy miracle in his hand. His mother ran out to meet him, brushing the snow off him, and his little son pressed his cheek against the rough cloth, embracing his father’s legs with one arm, and stroking the thorny branches with the other one.
The New Year tree was carried out on the veranda, and the boy was looking forward a box with Christmas toys. Then a neighbor’s girl would come, and they would all dress up the taiga beauty in a sparkling festive outfit.
And then the celebration itself began – with streamers, confetti, firecrackers, lemonade, sweet pies, with unpretentious gifts brought from distant forests by the fabulous Santa Claus. The children imagined him walking through blizzards and snowstorms to bring them a few fiery tangerines, silver-wrapped nuts, a handful of caramels, slightly frozen apples, and this made the gifts even more expensive for them. And there was no better holiday on earth than this one. And at that time, there seemed to be more snow…
The last time the New Year tree appeared at home, when the boy was twelve. In the spring, their father died, and in the summer they were given a new apartment. Things had already been moved, and they were tidying up their only empty room before finally leaving.
That’s when, sweeping the floor, the boy scooped out a few red needles left over from their last New Year tree. He put them in the palm of his hand and held them up to his face, but he couldn’t see them: they swayed and blurred. And no matter how hard he tried to examine each one separately, nothing came out: a red spot, like a tangerine, jumped before his eyes…
The man opened his eyes, dressed quickly and went outside, snagged a taxi.
A truck was parked outside a large store. But people were no longer crowding around it. The driver, closing the body, for some reason cheerfully replied, “You are late, dear, you should have come earlier.”
The man leaned over the side of the car, but apart from a dozen pine branches crushed by the seller’s boots, he saw nothing. He stood for a moment, annoyed at his slowness, then put his hands in his pockets and was about to leave, when he was hailed.
An elderly woman with a soft, kind face could not bind two small New Year trees together. Perhaps she was afraid of breaking twigs, or maybe her fingers did not bend because of the cold, and she asked him to help. Carefully joining them with a string, he handed them to the woman.
“Well, I was late too, so got the last two, – as if offering excuses, the old woman said, – they are so small that it will be hardly one, binding both of them.”
They were walking in the same direction, and the man offered the woman to carry her burden.
“I buy a New Year tree every year, – the woman said, thrusting her cold hands into the sleeves of her old fur coat. – My friend comes, we dress up the New Year tree and drink tea. The children have grown up, moved away, the grandchildren are also adult and also far away, so the question is: why does the old woman need a New Year tree? You are still a young man, you will probably find it difficult to understand me, but the further we go from our young years, the more we are drawn back to where it was clean and bright, to the happy days of childhood. And no matter how long a person lives, even when completing his life circle, he remembers the past. And this is perhaps the only time when we tenderly remember what we can no longer return. And the New Year tree and snow are some of the most joyful moments of our childhood.”
The woman kept silence for a moment, then asked,
“Have you got children?”
“Yes, two, a daughter and a son,” said he.
“You know what we’ll do? – said the woman. – Take one New Year tree. The other one will be enough for me.”
“No, no,” protested the man.
“Take it, take it. Let the kids have a holiday. She stopped and looked at him with smiling, kind eyes. – Don’t try to offer me money, that’s not what I’m here for…”
She chose a smaller New Year tree, and gave him the thicker one.
Suddenly, he drove to the other side of the city, where his childhood home still remained. When he got out of the car, he noticed that it was getting colder, the snow had stopped falling from the sky covered with dark, bizarre clouds. When he reached the old two-story house, he stopped. Her heart began to beat faster.
He stood and looked at the luminous window on the second floor, and saw a festive decorated, sparkling New Year tree with a star on top. The Dutch oven was burning hot, and the dizzying smell of tar mingled with the smell of his mother’s perfume and the steam coming from the pie. His father put his arm around his mother’s shoulders and read her poems: “Plush hares, wolves, rattles, children are gifted the toys from the New Year tree…”
Then there was something else about a Firebird in a cage, about gold bars – he doesn’t remember. And it ended like this: “Yellow needles fall to the floor, I’m still waiting for you to be gifted to me from the New Year tree.” At that moment he did not understand how the mother, so big can housed on a branch? And his mother, so beautiful, in her favorite dress, stroked his father’s cheek, and smiled sadly. And the neighbor’s girl, whom he invited, laughed, looking at a toy puppy merrily spinning on a string…
He took off his cap and, not being embarrassed that he would be seen by passers-by, that strangers might look at him from the windows, bowed low, turned and walked away.
During several days the tree stood on the veranda, and on New Year’s eve it was set in a large room. It was as tall as a little girl, and she had no trouble pinning to its top a multicolored, iridescent star that her father had got out of a wooden box that stood on the mezzanine. The little boy accidentally dropped a fragile glass ball on the floor, and curiously looked at the chips.
… And real, fluffy snow fell at night. In the bright light of the night lanterns, it glittered solemnly and mysteriously.