In this week's story, The Spirit of Christmas, love and loss come together during a magical mountain journey
Suggestions for writing prompts are always welcome! Today's prompt came from more of a random thought about how people can find different meanings in the same statement.
More about Susan Quilty
Susan Quilty mainly writes novels, including two standalone novels and her current YA series: The Psychic Traveler Society. Susan's short stories for Freely Written are created during quick writing breaks and shared as a way to practice her narration skills before she dives into recording audio versions of her novels.
Below is the transcript for Season 1, Episode 46 of Freely Written, a podcast by author Susan Quilty:
Welcome to Freely Written where a simple prompt leads to a little unplanned fiction.
[Light piano music]
Hi, friends! I’m Susan Quilty and today’s prompt is The Spirit of Christmas
As a reminder, here’s how this podcast works: I use a word or phrase as a prompt to write a story—with no planning and very little editing—and then share that story with you.
Today’s story clearly has a holiday theme, though maybe not chock full of holly jolly.
Let’s be real, while some call Christmas the most wonderful time of the year, others dread the stress of strained family relationships or being hit by the holiday blues. The season is a mixed bag and even if we thoroughly enjoy celebrating with our loved ones, we can still feel sad about those we have lost.
Many of us continue to forge new traditions as our personal families grow and change. We find ways to keep the spirit of Christmas in our own ways... even if we have different definitions of what that means.
Those are some of the thoughts that swirled through my mind while sitting down to free-write this story. And here is the result:
The Spirit of Christmas
Snowflakes fell like lace on the mountain. They clung to branches, mounded on fallen logs, and blanketed the open ground. Evergreens sagged beneath the weight of their collective mantle, while holly berries flashed red against their unending sea of white.
Taylor was dusted in snowflakes as well, as she stopped walking to survey the scene. It was a tableau straight from Currier and Ives, less the people and horse-drawn sleighs. Taylor had left the others back at the cabin in front of a fire that hadn’t been cozy enough to quiet her restless feet.
She hadn’t felt like joining in carols or stringing popcorn to drape on the tree. Not that she minded those things. They were lovely traditions and Jason’s family had graciously included her, giving her a knit stocking to hang on the mantle beside the rest, and asking for her favorite cookie recipe to add to their day of baking.
But it was all… a lot.
When they’d pulled out the sheet music and gathered around the old piano, she’d quietly slipped on her coat and boots, and even more quietly slipped out the front door. Though she grew up in a city, Taylor wasn’t afraid to walk around the mountain on her own. She liked the quiet of the snow-covered landscape and the chill that turned her breath to an icy fog.
There were matted steps on the trail she followed, some she’d made herself during their morning walk. Yet, when she reached a bend in the beaten path, Taylor became curious about an inviting break in the trees. With only the slightest hesitation, she stepped off the known path and made her way through the thick blanket of snow.
There were no distinctive borders to show this was a planned trail, but Taylor wound her way along an apparent path, trusting that she could use her own footprints to find her way back to the cabin. She was entranced by a winter fantasy of snowcapped pines and ice-encrusted branches standing in relief against a blue-white sky.
After some time, one side of the path narrowed until it gave way to a steep drop-off. Taylor realized that she’d been walking uphill and was now climbing a higher edge of the mountain. She walked more slowly, as the ground was slippery in places, but she wasn’t afraid. There was a lightness in her chest that expanded with each icy breath of mountain air.
Just when she was beginning to wonder how much farther she should go, Taylor saw an opening in the rocky mountain. It was the mouth of a large cave and it seemed to emit a soft, golden glow. As Taylor crept closer, she couldn’t believe her eyes.
Within the cave, a tidy stone path led to a charming cottage decked in evergreen boughs and holly wreaths. Candles shone from every window and smoke from a chimney wafted up through a natural opening in the rock above. Decorated pine trees flanked the front porch where a green wooden door was decorated with a large red bow.
As Taylor drew closer, she saw a welcome mat before the front door and a small sign that read, “Please knock twice, then enter as you please.”
Enchanted, Taylor knocked twice with her gloved fist and gingerly opened the door.
The entryway was lit by candles and strewn with Christmas decorations. Pine garlands twined with tinsel and glass baubles draped over two open doorways. An empty coat rack beckoned, and Taylor removed her gloves while calling out a cautious, “hello?”
When no one responded, Taylor removed her heavy coat and hung it neatly, along with her hat and scarf. She dried her boots carefully on the doormat and peered through each of the two doorways. One led to a dining room, set for a traditional holiday dinner. The other led to a living room where stockings hung above a glowing fireplace and a trimmed tree twinkled merrily.
Taylor was unsure of which to enter until a painting above the fireplace caught her attention. Stepping into the living room, she saw that the room held three paintings, and, with a gasp, she realized they were images of her own family.
Staggering back, Taylor spun madly and called out to the empty house, “What is this? Where am I?”
But her questions brought no response.
Taylor clenched her trembling fingers and stepped closer to a painting. It showed her family gathered near a Christmas tree. Her brother was happily shaking a present, while her parents watched from the couch. Her mother held a baby nestled in her arms.
Drifting to another image, Taylor saw herself as a toddler. Her brother was helping her open a present while her mother snapped their picture. Her father stood by her mother’s side, waiting for her to look up from the camera at the mistletoe he held overhead.
The next painting skipped forward a few years. Her parents sat on the couch, while Taylor and her brother handed out presents. Her mother looked drawn and tired. Her father watched her with concern. Taylor felt the familiar hole in her heart as she took in the thinness of her mother’s kind face.
“This is crazy,” she muttered to the empty room. “It can’t be real.”
Taylor wandered into the kitchen of the cottage, looking for answers but only finding more paintings. In one, she saw herself sitting on the floor, close to the Christmas tree with her knees hugged to her chest. Her father yelled at her red-faced brother as he scowled at a broken plate of cookies. Her mother was a dark silhouette alone on the couch.
As her stomach churned, Taylor moved to the second painting. Her father was a faded gray shape beside the pale figure of her new stepmother. Her mother’s dark silhouette remained alone on the far end of the couch. Taylor saw her young self in the center of the room, nervously clutching a half-open present as her brother glared from the hall with a backpack slung over one shoulder and his hand on the front doorknob.
“We fell apart,” Taylor muttered to herself, remembering the last few years between then and now. The Christmases they’d spent apart. The Christmases she’d spent alone.
With a heavy heart, she moved into the beautifully decorated dining room. One large painting hung beside the candle-lit table. In it, she was at the cabin with Jason’s family. They were decorating sugar cookies and laughing happily. The silhouette of her mother hovered behind her. The grayed shapes of her father and brother watched from across the room.
Tears rolled down Taylor’s face as she peered at her shadow family. A soft voice floated through the room.
“Why are you crying?”
Taylor wasn’t surprised to see a lovely woman hovering near the entryway door. Sprigs of holly wove through her snow-white hair and her silver dress shimmered in the candlelight.
“I don’t belong here,” Taylor responded sadly. “I’m not part of… this.” She waved at the painting, then widened her gesture to include the festive room as well.
“Nonsense,” the woman answered with a gentle smile. “Look at the joy in this painting.”
Taylor looked at the painting but could only see the shadows of her lost family.
“Jason’s family is so close,” she said bitterly, “I don’t know how to have that.”
The woman raised an eyebrow at Taylor and turned back to the painting where Taylor laughed along with Jason’s family, as if she might belong.
“But look at the sadness I bring!” Taylor gestured at the shadows of her family.
“You carry loss,” the woman agreed calmly, “but you aren’t alone.”
She waved her hand over the painting and silhouettes appeared throughout the image. Shadows Taylor didn’t recognize.
“Who are they…?” she asked, already suspecting the answer.
“I’m not the person to ask,” the woman responded kindly. “But I can remind you of what you’ve forgotten.”
Gesturing Taylor into the entryway, the woman again took her into the living room.
“Look at the happiness your family shared. That’s still a part of you.”
Taylor saw that the paintings had shifted. They were the same eras, yet images moved before her eyes. Her family laughed and talked and teased. They hugged and argued and made up.
When they moved into the kitchen, the images told another story. They were distant, quiet. Sharing space without sharing themselves as they tiptoed around the silhouette of their loss.
“Do you see what’s missing?” the woman asked, though she already knew the answer.
“Yes,” Taylor nodded, though she didn’t know how to put it in words.
“The spirit of Christmas is more than singing carols and decorating cookies. It’s about sharing the human experience. Giving each other the gifts of ourselves. And when you find acceptance for each other, that’s where you belong.”
A pale white glow emanated from the woman as she leaned forward, offering Taylor a loving embrace.
“Thank you,” Taylor whispered in return, the scent of evergreen and gingerbread tickling her senses.
Jason’s family was relieved when Taylor arrived back at the cabin. They hurried to fetch her a warm drink and settle her by the cozy fire.
“I’m sorry I worried you,” Taylor said shyly. “I needed a little time to… well…”
“It’s all right, dear,” Jason’s mother encouraged, being careful not to push.
“I called my dad and brother,” Taylor admitted nervously, while Jason sat close and held her hand. “I was missing them, I guess. And missing my mom…”
Jason’s mother sat beside her on the couch and took her other hand.
“I miss my mom, too,” she confided. “Will you tell us about yours?”
The family settled around the fireplace and Taylor remembered the paintings in the cottage’s cozy living room. “My mom was very kind…” she began slowly.
When she finished, Jason’s mother told a story about her mom, then his uncle spoke about his brother, and soon the room was filled with the silhouettes of loved ones sharing in the spirit of Christmas together.
Thanks for listening and Happy Holidays! If you’re still looking for holiday gifts and want to support an indie author, please consider buying one of my books. You can learn more about them at SusanQuilty.com/books or click on my website link in the show notes.
Until next time, try a little free writing of your own. Let go of any planning and see where your imagination takes you.
[Light piano music]