Welcome to the final chapter of Tales from the Irish Garden. I hope you have enjoyed your visits to the magic garden to meet all the characters who live there.
I appreciate the we are slightly out of sync with the time of year… but there is no reason we cannot have Christmas in May.
Winter: Chapter Twenty-One – The First Christmas
On Christmas morning, the queen awoke and luxuriated in the warmth of her goose-feather mattress and cover. Beside her, she felt Prince Ronan begin to stir, and she reached out and touched his hand. He raised himself up on one elbow and smiled down into her beautiful face.
‘Are you sure that you have the strength for the long day ahead my love?’ He gently moved a stray lock of hair that covered her eyes.’
‘I will be fine my darling, my appetite is much improved and in fact I think that I could even manage a quail’s egg omelette and some oat cakes this morning.’
Ronan leant over and rang the bell on his bedside table, and within seconds there was a discreet knock on the door, before one of the ladies of the chamber entered with a fresh pot of chamomile tea and ginger nuts.
Half an hour later the couple relaxed with a last cup of tea before dressing in their red and blue finery for the Christmas celebrations. The Storyteller had invited the couple, and their courtiers, to a special service with his family at the chapel of the forest. Out of respect for their dearest friend and their new country’s customs, they accepted and were looking forward to the experience. They collected the old man and his family in their coach drawn by two pink and white rats and headed off deep into the woods with winter sun and crisp air invigorating the whole party.
The large clearing was surrounded by trees that were hundreds of years old and stretched to the sky with strong and gnarled branches. If they could talk, they would have astounded the congregation now staring up in awe, by tales of dark and golden days, kings and queens who scorched the earth and those that tended it. Suddenly there was a rustling in the undergrowth and slightly alarmed, the queen and prince turned to the Storyteller for reassurance.
‘Please do not worry your majesties,’ he smiled at them with a twinkle in his eye. ‘It is just the forest dwellers arriving to give thanks on this day for all that we have been gifted.’
He began to walk around the perimeter of the clearing and parted bushes and long grass to beckon out the inhabitants. Slowly, all varieties of creatures from furry foxes to slithering earth worms gathered in a circle around the humans. Once all were assembled, a gap appeared, and an old man with a long white beard and simple linen shift walked into the centre, holding high a long staff which he banged three times on the ground.
‘We gather today to give thanks for the protection of the forest, the warmth of the sun, the life giving rain and the bountiful food in the forest and magic garden.’ He paused and cast his eye at those surrounding him. ‘There is a season to all things, and this is a time of short days and long dark nights, but it heralds a time of rebirth and reflection. Give thanks for our bounty and vow to preserve the wondrous environment we have been blessed with to ensure that the circle of life is unbroken.’
As the gathering bowed their heads, the birds in the trees began to sing a joyful chorus that filled those listening with emotion and delight. Queen Filigree clasped the hands of both her husband and the Storyteller; filled with renewed hope for the future. She also knew that it was time to inform the court of the reason behind her recent ill health and face the future whatever it may hold.
Back at the palace the preparations for the Christmas lunch were in full swing. The princesses’ betrothed were coming to stay along with their parents, so the guest chambers had been touched up with paint and dusted thoroughly. Bedding was aired out in the winter sunlight on branches of the magnolia tree, and mattresses and pillows pummelled with paddles to ensure no unwelcome visitors had crawled into the feathers.
Chef Marcelle was beside himself with stress, and Doctor Doesugood had been dosing him with various calming and soothing potions for the last week. Thankfully there were excellent stores of dried fruits, grains, plant oils and nuts, and provided the quail’s egg and goat’s cheese soufflé, which was the main dish of the feast, rose to the occasion, there would be no problem.
Dessert was a deep and rich pudding made from fruit and nuts served with custard flavoured with vanilla. Traditionally little gold nuggets were placed in the pudding mix and were much sought after by the diners, however Doctor Doesugood was dreading the aftermath and two or three days of dentistry before him.
As always, the generous Storyteller had provided bottles from his stores. In honour of his host’s Spanish connections he had arranged for two bottles of the finest Jerez to be sent from a cousin who lived in the region. A warm amontillado, it was the perfect aperitif for a cold bright Christmas morning. There were three bottles of white wine which had been chilling overnight outside the Storyteller’s cottage, and three bottles of Rioja, decanted into small but perfectly blown cut glass crystal pitchers that would be placed on the table. There was plenty to go around the 200 guests that were expected, and there was always the Amber Nectar to fall back on.
In the last few weeks the seamstresses and the Dapperman had been working overtime to get all the outfits ready in time, and the royal party would all be in blue and red velvet whilst the staff would be wearing white and black with red tasselled hats. Then there was the small matter of the gifts! Being the first Christmas in their new country had made this quite a challenge, as their normal suppliers were thousands of miles away.
However, with a little ingenuity and some sneaking off to the local markets by the younger royals, parcels of all shapes and sizes had been carefully wrapped and placed beneath the pine tree that had been brought in from the forest. It was a first year sapling, and reached high up into the vaulted ceiling of the chamber. It sat in a large gold pot that was filled with the rich earth from the magic garden, as this tree would be planted back in the forest once its glorious decorations had been removed.
When the royal family arrived back from the ceremony in the forest, they gathered in the anteroom for a glass of sherry and the distribution of private gifts, as well as an opportunity to meet the parents of the two young men now joining the family. They seemed as delightful as their sons, and there was much laughter and chatter as they got to know each other.
The queen was feeling a little fatigued by the morning’s activities, but she was determined to make it through the day and not spoil the fun. She sipped on some cold ginger tea to invigorate and settle her stomach whilst prince Ronan stayed by her side, one arm protectively around her waist. The gong sounded for the main event to begin and the royal party filed into the dining room and took their places at the top table. The guests had already been seated and before the first course, the Storyteller was invited to say a few words.
‘It is with great honour that I invite you to join us today to eat and drink and be merry. We give thanks to the forest and to nature for this wonderful bounty. And to our gracious hosts, Queen Filigree and Prince Ronan.’
Two hundred guests picked up their knives and forks of silver and tucked into the first course of roasted mushrooms with fried courgette flowers stuffed with almonds and truffles.
The magnificent meal took two hours to enjoy, and there was much merriment around the table as voices got louder and louder. As the last spoonful of custard was scraped from the plates, Prince Ronan clinked his spoon against his crystal glass. It took a few shouts from various guests down the long tables to get the chatter to stop, but eventually they all looked to the top table expectantly.
The handsome prince stood and invited his wife to stand beside him. With a flushed face and look of love she took his hand and faced her court.
‘We have some news that we wish to share with you.’ The prince was clearly very emotional and took a moment to compose himself.
‘You will have shared our concerns about the health of our beloved queen in recent weeks.’
He looked out across the sea of faces, clearly anxious about what he was about to say next.
It is with great joy that we announce that her majesty is expecting a baby to arrive in the summer and we hope that you will join us in celebrating this greatest gift with us today.
Queen Filigree gazed up into her husband’s face and found it hard to believe that it was less than a year since she and her court had fled Spain to this suspiciously green island. Little had she known then, she would find love and such deep friendship. Her happiness at her daughters’ upcoming marriages and alliances with other fairy kingdoms were completed by the news that she, at her rather advanced age was to have another child.
She reached down and asked the Storyteller to stand beside her, and she kissed him gently on his cheek. If it was not for this kind, wonderful old man, none of them would be standing here today. She looked out across the room at the smiling and laughing faces, and felt deep joy, knowing that the future was bright with new dreams and possibilities.
©Sally Cronin Tales from the Irish Garden.2018
My latest short story collection is Life is Like a Bowl of Cherries: Sometimes Bitter, Sometimes Sweet.
One of the recent reviews for the collection
I’m guaranteed to experience laughter and tender emotions when I read a book written by Sally Cronin. In her latest, Life is Like a Bowl of Cherries, she shares a dozen or so short stories and a few poems that focus on the absurdities of life and all the moments that live to teach us something new. I try to convince myself to only read one each night, but an hour later, the book is finished. Perhaps her next collection will include a theme of patience!
Undoubtedly, my favorite is the first story in the lot. All the rest had something amazing to live up to: Sometime in the future (hopefully VERY distant), an automated device is hooked up to EVERYTHING the narrator does. When she wants to order a few grocery items that might have a little too much sugar and fat in them, everything falls apart. Seriously… how many times have we all had this scenario happen in the most briefest of moments — the one where someone says, “Buy the diet item” or “You don’t really need to eat that, do you?” Take it up or down a million notches in this story. No matter what angle our protagonist tries, the computer has her beat.
Life is definitely like a bowl of cherries. It is sweet and sour, you’ve got to go through a hole bunch to find the best one, and if you consume too many pits, I hear there’s an arsenic concern to consider. Luckily, if you devour this particular bowl of cherries, you’ll have some witty stories to share at a dinner party or a fun little tidbit to announce on your next conference call. Cronin completely had my in hysterics over what happened in the first story, and at other times, I smiled and laughed… teared up a bit at the generosity of some and the thoughtfulness of others.
This is everything you want in a short collection of tales about the reality of life. Well worth the purchase and download. Highly recommended. And it reminds me why I’ve grown to love this author’s work. We all need a little bit of her wisdom and humor.
You can find out about my other books and their most recent reviews: Sally’s books and reviews 2019/2021