The following is from the diary of Bertha Maude Anderson before she became Inzared Queen of the Elephant Riders. The year is 1842, when Bertha was ten years old, seven years before the saga begins.
I woke up, stretched my arms in the cotton nightgown I wore, jumped out of bed and dressed quickly. It was cold in the loft of our cabin and although Ma and Pa were up and building a fire, I knew I had chores to do. It’s Christmas, I thought. Just once I wish we had money so I could buy somethin’ for Ma, Pa, and Ezra. I climbed down the ladder to the main room below, where I could already hear Ma making preparations for breakfast. My brother and me donned coats, hats and mittens and headed for the barn, wading through the fresh snow that had fallen during the night.
“Bertha, Ezra, get your chores done and get in for breakfast.” Could always hear Ma’s voice wherever I was because it carried and echoed through the hills surrounding our home. ‘Course, sometimes I ignored it. We lived in Brower’s Gap, North Carolina, where there wasn’t many folks with money enough to do Christmas for their families.
“Be there in a minute,” Ezra shouted, winking at me. Watched my brother pull the cow’s teat and squirt a perfect line of milk into the barn cat’s mouth. They’d been doing this ever since I could remember and the cat waited anxiously each mornin’ for the milking to begin. In the cold months we seldom took long in the barn, but the cow still had to be milked and fed and the horse and mule droppings cleaned up before we forked down hay from the loft and gave them a little grain. We left the pigs because they got leftover scraps from our meager meals along with some mash. We headed to the Chicken Coop and gathered eggs before we filled the feeders.
I stopped to drink in the beauty of the mountains. As far as I could see there was a world of white. It was wooded all around our farm and our closest neighbor was a couple of miles away. Raised my eyes heavenward and begged God to help me find gifts for my family.
“Come on, Bertha,” Ezra shouted, as he stamped his way to the house. I’m hungry and all you want to do is stand out in the cold. What’s wrong with you, girl?”
“Nothin’”, I replied, as I followed him to the cabin. Must have been about ten years old at the time, as I recollect. Life was hard up here on the mountain and although I loved it I also hated it. Love because it was so beautiful and hate because we were so far removed from the rest of the world and we barely eked out a livin’.
We entered the house and a blast of icy wind followed us in. We shook the snow off our clothes, washed up and set at the table for breakfast. It was just like any other day and I tried to keep my feelin’s to myself. Seemed like Christmas was forgotten.
My Pa blessed the food and we inhaled the hot cornmeal mush and biscuits Ma made every morning. It was warm and filling and I was beginnin’ to thaw out since the fire in the fireplace was putting out plenty of heat by now. Still, snow and wind blew in through the logs of the cabin where the chinking had worn away. We’d grown used to it, but it was uncomfortable, all the same.
Helped Ma clean up while Ezra and Pa went hunting. They hoped to find a fat deer to eat through the lean months of winter.
“Ma,” I said. “Can I go outside for a little while?”
She usually said no and gave me one task or another to help her with, but, strangely enough, she said “You can go out for a while but be back here in time to help me with the noon meal. Your brother and Pa will be hungry when they get in from huntin’”.
Quickly, I put on my damp leggings, hat and mittens. “Come on Beau”, I called to our old dog, who lay on a hand-woven rug next to the fireplace.” Excited to go along with me he bounded to the open door and jumped into the swirling cloud of snow.
We made our way into the woods in the opposite direction from the one Pa and Ezra had taken. Had lots of time to think in this nothingness, this pristine world of snow diamonds that surrounded me.
The snow was gettin’ deeper now and I tired as we trudged along. Suddenly I spied red berries peeking through snow. Holly Berries, I thought. Might be I can make a bouquet for Ma to enjoy and the table will be real pretty. Very carefully I dusted the snow off the tops and carefully picked several stems and held them tightly as I walked, so as not to lose a single red berry.
Old Beau and me traipsed farther into the woods, where I noticed a piece of wood that must have fallen off one of the trees, but now had no branches and looked to be well-seasoned. “Ezra will love this,” I said to the dog. “He’s always carvin’something or other.” I was doing good but saw nothing that my Pa would like. I imagined his work-worn hands as he sat in the old rocker by the firelight, dozing off and on. He was always tired from all the hard work he did. I searched high and low but nothing caught my eye.
Was then I remembered the stone, the special one I’d found in the crick last summer. It was different, with flecks of gold, black and pink. I put it for safekeeping in a hole in a tree by the river so I could rub it and daydream. I called it the wishing stone. It was off apiece, but Old Beau and me turned toward the crick and waded through the snow that had become heavier and deeper than when we left. Finally reached the tree, put my hand in the hidey-hole and retrieved the stone. It glittered in the snow on my mitten and I thought again how pretty it was.
Laden down with our gifts, the dog and I turned for home. Another half-mile of trudging our way through the snow and ice and we’d be at the cabin door. It was hard, but I got through it by singin’ songs and thinking how happy my family would be with the presents I’d found. We came to the cabin and the door flew open.
“Where on earth have you been, child? I told you to be home in time to help me with the noon meal. That time has come and past – it’s late afternoon.” Ma was hard understand. We didn’t get along much because she was so strict and I was a free spirit, forever testing her patience.
“Sorry, Ma.” I hung my head. “The snow was deeper than I thought.”
“Well, git on in here and dry off.” She pulled me inside and brushed me off, taking my sodden coat and boots and hanging them on a rack by the fireplace to dry.
Was then I seen it. A Christmas tree. A real Christmas tree! It was a little scrawny, but I didn’t care. It was decorated with bits of old fabric from clothes too patched to wear, a bird’s nest Ezra found last Spring, strings of popcorn and little pieces of fabric tied to branches. It was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen, and the first in my young life in our cabin.
Ma handed me a cup of hot coffee with plenty of milk to warm me and sat me down to dry off in front of the fireplace next to Beau. I felt warm and cozy. Pa looked at me from his rocker, his tired eyes fixed on me.
“Well, youngun’, he said. “Reckon it’s Christmas Day and we might ought to celebrate like other folks. Don’t have much but our family and that’s reason to be happy. This year is different. Ezra wanted to surprise you and it looks like he did.”
I looked at the tree in awe. “Thank you, Ezra. Thank you, Pa.” I breathed in the scent of pine as I closed my eyes. It was a scent I never tired of and even better inside on a snowy day. I was so happy I had to wipe my eyes so Ezra wouldn’t tease me about bein’ a crybaby.
Once I was warmed up we sat around that tree and sang Christmas carols. The tree seemed to swell and grow bigger and bigger as we sat there.
“Wait, I brought presents,” I exclaimed. Wait just a minute. I stepped outside and dragged in my booty. “Ma, this winterberry is for you. I thought it would look nice on the table for Christmas and then you can use it for your potions.”
“That’s right nice of you.” She took the branches from my outstretched hand and put them in some water. A woman of few words words and little affection, she returned to her seat. I felt a sense of sadness. Maybe she didn’t like it after all.
“Ezra, I found you a nice piece of oak to whittle on. It’s already seasoned, I think, and should be ready to use. My brother admired the piece, and reached over to hug me. “Thanks, sis. It’s a mighty fine gift.” I beamed, knowing he genuinely liked what I had given him.
“Pa, I saved yours for last, I said. It’s somethin’ special I found in the crick last summer.” I handed him the stone and it sparkled in the firelight. “It’s a wishin’ stone,” I said. “You hold it in your hand and wish for what you want. I think it’s so pretty and I held it often last summer. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.”
“Looks like a gift I’ll use a lot,” Pa said as he fingered the stone, turning it over and over in the light to inspect it. He laid his head back in the rocker, closed his eyes and rolled the stone over and over in his hand. I knew he appreciated the special gift I’d given him.
“Well, since you got gifts for all of us, ain’t right you get nothin’ in return,” my Ma said in a sharp tone. She reached behind the Christmas tree and there in her hand was the most beautiful doll I’d ever seen. She had a sock face and I recognized it was one of mine I’d worn through, all darned now. Her features had been embroidered on and she had yarn for hair. She wore a dress from an old shirt of Pa’s and red underwear from the ones Ezra had worn for so long there was holes everywhere. I could do nothing but stare. Ma thrust the doll at me. “Don’t you like it?” she said. “I spent many a night by the coal-oil lantern sewin’ on it whilst you were asleep.”
“Oh, Ma. She’s so beautiful. I love her and I’m going to name her Anna, after you.” I took the doll into my arms and hugged her tight. Thought I saw a glimmer of happiness in Ma’s eyes, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
Pa and Ezra gave us their gifts but nothin’ was as special as Anna. I still have that ragged little doll that accompanied me everywhere I went. I fashioned a sling for her and she did every crazy daredevil thing I did right along with me. At night when I went to bed, hers was the last face I saw and I kissed her forehead. I whispered, “Thank you for a very special Christmas, Ma.” Then I’d go to sleep.
We never had another Christmas like that, which is why I remember it so well. Times was hard and money tight, so we got things like mittens and warm clothes Ma stitched or mended. But I had gotten my wish. I’d found presents that Christmas for all my family, which was the most special thing of all.