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Well, It is two days before Christmas and a week until the big Y2K... sorry I was a little late on this one, it is a great Christmas story!

The Christmas Trout By Jay Stewart

This is the story of the Christmas Trout. It has been happening in the Mead family for as long as they have owned the homeplace. Tommy Mead's ancestors settled the remote mountain cove in North Georgia over a hundred and fifty years ago. It is a beautiful, narrow cove of rich land that eroded from the mountainsides for millions of years. At one time the mountains were high and the valley steep, but today the valley has filled, and the once majestic mountains are now the sloping sides of the cove.

The cove is richly forested in cedars, hickories, sweet gums, and oaks. The forest floor beneath the tree canopy is covered with laurel and sumac, and the pastures are alive with grasses, herbs, and wildflowers. A generous animal population of squirrel, raccoon, deer, opossum, rabbit, and bear enjoy this lush area, along with many kinds of birds. Now, as if this were not enough for nature, she decided to mold a small river which winds gently through the cove. The fiver flows about as fast as a boy can walk without running and then slows into deep, emerald pools.

Nature, creating all she could, turned things over to man and the man in this cove happened to be Tommy's ancestor. He originally left Scotland to come to America and, after the Revolutionary War, settled in Virginia, but things there became too crowded so he followed the Appalachian=s south until he came to this cove. He and his son cleared pastures, constructed a house and barn, and made a living farming and making pottery. The land followed the generations. Tommy's grand-father left farming and opened a hardware store in a nearby town. Tommy's father now runs the store, but they still come to the homeplace on holidays and during the summer.

Tommy, a thirteen-year-old boy, of course loved the place. It was a dreamland for a boy. He had all the forest to explore, wildlife to observe, and the small river in which to play and fish for trout. Today, Tommy and his family arrived for their week at the homeplace during Christmas. Tommy's mother was cleaning and making the beds. Tommy and his ten-year-old sister, Laura, were helping their father unload the car. Hambone, their hound dog, was running amuck as usual, sniffing and marking everything in the yard over three inches tall with his scent.

"Daddy," Laura complained, "I wish you would keep Hambone from peeing all over the yard. It's going to smell."

Daddy answered that he was marking his territory and there was not much any one could do about it. Hambone was a character. He could be found most of the time sleeping on the porch in his favorite corner or behind Tommy as Tommy played around the property.

The dog, however, had two useful purposes. He was a fairly good watchdog and a great alarm clock. Now Hambone did not wake every-one like a rooster, but if there were any sleepyheads in the form of two children, he did an admirable job of getting them out of bed. After Mom had called out several times for Tommy and Laura to come to breakfast and heard no sounds of them arising, she would call out "Hambone, Hambone, go wake up Tommy and Laura." This was great fun to Hambone, in fact, more fun than chasing rabbits. Mom would open the door and up in their warm cozy beds the children would hear Hambone's toenails scraping and skidding across the pine heartwood floors. This was a sound that would strike any sleepyhead pale. If you were caught in bed, Hambone would immediately jump on top and lick your face, barking and woofing until Mom called him off. So, if you did not want a very wet face and a forty-five pound dog lying on you, you better be on your feet at the sound of the toenails. Diving under the quilts did not work because ol' Ham would follow you down. As the family finished unloading the car, Tommy ran down to the river with Hambone hot on his trail. It was not the season for trout fishing, but Tommy and his father had a tradition: after Christmas dinner, they went fly fishing for trout. Tommy and Hambone now were scouting out the best trout holes. It was also during this fishing trip that Tommy found his gift from the Christmas Trout. This gift has a great mystery that went back for generations in the Mead family. For every Mead son there was always a small gift at the base of a large hemlock tree that grew by a large trout pool. This happened until the son or sons were eighteen and then, when they had a son, the gift would mysteri-ously start reappearing. No amount of questioning would help find out where or how the present got under the tree, and the odd thing was the daddies did not know any more than the sons. What was even more confounding was that once each son grew older and knew about Santa Claus, the more wondrous the gift became. As a young child Tommy imagined a trout swimming around with a little Santa hat on and a small, white beard hanging off its lower jaw. The Santa trout had a pipe clenched rightly in his teeth and a little round belly. But now that he was older and knew that the Santa-clothed trout did not bring the gift then; who did?

With the car unloaded and everything clean, Tommy and Hambone made the rounds. It was now late evening and time to cut the Christmas tree. So, off they went, the whole Mead family, in the crisp, but not cold air, to a row of cedar trees. Tommy asked his father who had planted these trees. Tommy's father explained that when one saw a straight row of cedar trees, it meant that at one time a fence had been where the trees now stood. He went on to say that the birds ate the small, gray berries off other cedar trees and then lit on the fence. The berry seed passed through the bird to the ground and a new cedar tree grew. Since the fence was in a straight line, the trees grew in a straight line and when the fence rotted away, only the trees remained.

The family cut a nice tree, dragged it back to the house, and set it in the living room. Daddy lit a warm glowing fire in the gray, fieldstone fireplace, and Mom warmed up some special wassail over the fire. They all ate a barbecue supper that Daddy had cooked earlier as they deco-rated the tree. Tommy's mind was on the Christmas Trout.

"Mama," Tommy asked, "what do you think the Christmas Trout will bring me this year?"

"Why," exclaimed Mom, "with all the presents that you get from everyone else, why do you worry about the trout?" Mama was hiding a smile with her hand.

"I don't know," said Tommy. "It is never a gift worth any money, but in a way it is more fun."

Finally, the tree was decorated, tummies were full, and the air was warm from the fire. Mama, Tommy, and Laura stood back as Daddy turned out the lights in the room and plugged in the Christmas tree. All at once everything glittered and sparkled all shades of gold, blue, green, silver, and red. The fire created a small draft in the room that caused the lighter ornaments and tinsel to slowly twist and move until the tree seemed to dance. The heat from the old-fashioned Christmas lights caused an aromatic cedar smell to gently waft across the room, striking everyone at once. "Ah," Mama said like a little girl, "now it's Christ-mas."

Over the next couple of days Mama and the children actively pur-sued all the Christmas traditions. They made ornaments as birthday presents for the baby Jesus, lit Advent candles, read Bible verses on the birth of Jesus, gave Hambone his pre-Christmas bath and generally loved being alive at Christmas. It was these little things that made Christmas wonderful for them.

It was now Christmas Eve and all the family was in a great rush to get everything ready for all the relatives visiting on Christmas. After all the chores and details were taken care of, the Mead family sat down to their Christmas Eve dinner of chili from an iron pot bubbling over the fire. Tommy and Laura were arguing about who received the most presents last year, and who was going to open the most presents this year. Tommy soon started talking about the Christmas Trout again and asked his father which flies they were going to use to catch the trout for Christmas supper. Mr. Mead said that they were probably going to use the streamer flies that appeared to be minnows because there were no flies out naturally in the winter.

All of a sudden Mama called out, "Oh no, I forgot the oil for frying the trout."

Three mouths dropped open and Mr. Mead said, "What will we do?"

Then Mama gave that special kind of half-giggle she used when she was the happiest and said, "Ha! I fooled you."

"Okay, Daddy," Mama said. "You and Tommy clean the dishes while I take my special Christmas Eve walk, and Laura, I want you to come with me." Another Christmas tradition was that Mama would walk in the pasture on Christmas Eve night, just to be close to Jesus at this special time. But this year she was taking Laura with her for the first time.

"Why can't we go?" asked Tommy.

Mama replied, "You guys have your trout fishing, so Laura and I will have our walk."

Mother and daughter stepped out in the bracing night air; they pulled their coats tighter around themselves. The girls of the family walked along the worn path to the smokehouse. Just inside the door, Mama reached up and brought down a small package wrapped in clear blue cellophane. As Mama walked back to her daughter, Laura saw the package and whispered excitedly, "Mama, it's the gift from the Christ-mas Trout."

"This is why I wanted you to come with me, Laura," Mama said. And as they walked, holding hands, toward the river, Mama told Laura the secret.

"Angel," Mama said--her mother only called her angel in special, close moments--"the Christmas Trout tradition started one hundred years ago. When the Mead family settled here they had twin sons. These boys were about ten years old and were playing at the river beside the pool, where we will leave this present, when they fell in the water. The water had washed the bank away under the edge of the pool and when they stepped on it, the ground gave way. One son drowned and ' the other floated long enough to drift to a shallow place and was saved.

However, he caught pneumonia and was not getting any better. The doctor back then thought that the son still living grieved so much for his brother that the disease might kill him. So, to make him feel better, his Mama told him that his brother was in heaven with the baby Jesus, and he would tell Jesus to have a trout bring the living brother a gift every year. To receive this present he would have to get better to see what gift he would get from the trout that Christmas. His mama took a walk that Christmas Eve night, just like we are doing, and placed the first present under the hemlock tree, and this has been going on ever since."

"Who told you?" Laura asked.

Mama replied, "When I was pregnant with Tommy, Granny took me for a walk like we are doing and she told me about it then."

"Well," asked Laura, "why are you telling me instead of Tommy's wife when he is married?"

Mama stopped, knelt down and looked at her daughter. It seemed to Mama as if her daughter had gone from a little girl to an adolescent in the last few moments. Mama sighed and she noticed how the pale moonlight shimmered off Laura's auburn hair and sparkled in her eyes. "Angel," Mama said softly, "I am telling you because someone needs to know about the Christmas Trout in case something happens to me, but, more importantly, I know that you have felt neglected over the years that you did not have a Christmas Trout." Mama continued, "I am proud that you have acted so well about it, but I could tell in your eyes that it bothered you. However, now you have two possessions that Tommy does not have. First, you have a secret--knowledge that neither Tommy nor Daddy will ever have. And also you can now, in helping me with the present, share in the joy that I receive in tradition." Mama then went on to say, "These things are special between only us, and since we share something, we will love each other even more."

Mother and daughter, now joined by a renewed bond of love, walked gently down the path to the hemlock tree of the big trout pool. As they laid the gift down on the dewy, soft moss at the base of the tree, they felt a spirit that connected them to every woman who married a Mead and laid a small gift by the tree.

Mama stood up and took Laura's hand, and they walked slowly, bathed in the moonlight, back to the house and talked about their feelings for each other and their family. As they approached the cabin, Mama turned to Laura and softly said, "Laura, always remember: fathers do most of the fun things with their families but it is the women who do most of the special things."

Christmas was nice and clear the next day. By eleven o'clock the presents had been opened, dinner eaten and Tommy and his father were gearing up for trout fishing. Mama, Laura, and a few relatives were sitting on the porch in the warmer midday air a couple of hours later and noticed Tommy tearing up the path waving a blue present with Hambone hot on his trail, followed off in the distance by a tired daddy lugging fishing equipment and a creel full of trout.

"I got it, I got it," exclaimed Tommy as he held up a package wrapped in blue cellophane. Tommy sat down on the porch to open it, as all the family gathered around him. He tore off the cellophane and opened the little box to reveal several trout flies. Tommy showed the gift to everyone and said, kind of to himself, "! don't know how it happens, I just don't know!"

No one saw Laura as she padded quietly to her mother's side. Mama put her arm around Laura's waist and gave her a little hug. As Mama looked down at Laura and smiled, Laura whispered, "You're right, Mama, you really are."

Many gifts were given and received on that Christmas. Some wrapped in paper, some in blue cellophane, and others wrapped in under-standing and love.

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