Winter Harvest

Author: MissKittys Ball O Yarn
Rating: R
Disclaimer: Joss owns Willow, Tara and everything in between.
Summary: With Summer ended came the urge to usher in a new season.
Author's notes: This story is a continuation of the completed: Catching Sunflowers In Bloom and will be continued further at some point in the future.
Note 2: I want to thank Chris for the wonderful graphics, Carleen, Watty, Sally and Mary for their many wonderful comments/suggestion that helped to shape this story. And I want to thank all the others in the group, for being such a supportive bunch of people. It’s really been a great time working with everyone.
Required Elements: Six Geese a’ laying, facing the in-laws, Santa visitation
Feedback: Please leave feedback on the Once More With Fruitcake thread on the Kitten Board.

The star's light carved ancient symbols in the night sky as Tara sat on the front porch rocking lazily back and forth in the antique wooden swing she and Willow had purchased that summer. The slow and even creaking of the un-oiled hinges created the only disturbance in the still, night air.

Tara snuggled down into her woolen sweater, her neck and chin scrunching enough to be covered to near completion inside the thick fabric. She pulled her hands inside the sweater's sleeves, so that just her fingertips remained to grasp at the edges of the roughened, beige material.

It was cold that night and the thin layer of snow on the ground reflected the soft, gray light from the lantern she'd set out on the frosted, white railing that surrounded the weathered porch. Tara could feel her face prickle as the air bit at the delicate skin left uncovered by the scratchy sweater. Her cheeks felt pulled and taut.

The mottled owl that had taken up residence inside the barn's structured beams stuck his head between the large space where the planks no longer fit together as snuggly as before, his eyes shining silver in the dark as he called out a piercing flow of night music to the creatures on the ground below.

The sky above Tara was clear of clouds and cosmic dust. Only the faint wisp of smoke from the far-away neighbor's burn-pile could be seen against the inky backdrop of night; its white tendrils curled through the air in dingy drifts before growing so faint and soft that they disappeared altogether; diluted inside the large expanse of night.

From the front porch Tara could hear the continuous hum of Willow's telephone conversation. Her lover's words carried through the opened space, passing easily through the white and steel mesh frame of the antiqued screen door. Tara thought about the cold air that must have been infiltrating their cozy living space and pondered getting up to close the barrier between the warmth of inside and the exterior's harsher elements, but she liked the way Willow's voice drifted around her, lighting the dark and bringing a sense of life to the stillness of the cold, winter night.

Deciding to leave the door as it was, Tara leaned back against the wooden planks at her back, her eyes closing to the twinkling stars above.

Tara thought about this past summer and everything that had happened since then. The makeshift vet clinic she had set up in the barn over the course of the summer had flourished, surpassing anything she'd considered happening when she had first pitched the idea to Willow. So when summer had come to an end, instead of packing things up she and Willow had made the decision to keep the project going on through winter. If things continued to go well she might even think about opening something less temporary in the spring.

Currently she was housing two cows, three horses and a scattering of field mice and rats that liked to dine on the horses’ grain during the wee hours of the night. Tara didn't begrudge them their midnight meal; winter was a tough season, even for the smallest of creatures.

Even though things were going so well, there was still something about the place that was holding her back-- making her feel unsettled and uneasy. What it was though she couldn't really put her finger on.

Tara had remained at the farm through fall to run things while Willow and Shylee went back to L.A. Shylee's schooling always came first and Tara knew from the beginning that she would have to sacrifice being with them for a few months so that their daughter could start and finish out the advanced placement course she'd qualified for the year before.

All along it had been a given that the family would come together for Christmas and that Shylee would spend Christmas break in Kansas with Willow and Tara, but as the time had neared it became clear that Shylee's winter break was going to come a tad later than expected this year. A week to be exact. By that time Willow and Tara had been on the verge of a major breakdown, and knew that they couldn't spend another day apart, much less a whole week.

They had made the decision then, to leave Shylee to finish out her program in LA with Willow's mother and father, and Willow would make the journey to Kansas alone. Sheila had reluctantly agreed to fly out with Shylee at the commencement of winter break. Willow’s father hadn’t been doing well, these last years and had opted not to make the trip as his doctor didn’t seem to think the cold would be good for his health.

The time spent apart that fall had really began to wear on her and Willow‘s relationship, and it had shown through every time the phone rang. It never failed, by the end of each phone conversation either Willow or Tara would be in tears because they so desperately wanted to hold each other and it was impossible with the thousand miles that separated them.

During that whole period Tara had felt terribly clingy and thoroughly depressed. Not only was she away from the one person she'd made a vow to stand beside for the rest of her days, but there had also been the strange sense of not being alone that permeated every waking moment during the three months she had been by herself in the farmhouse.

On more than one occasion she'd heard strange noises as if someone was walking around upstairs amongst the abandoned rooms or she would hear the sound of doors opening and closing without human aid. But most disturbing was the persistent strange smells that seemed to follow Tara around from room to room. And once, when she'd been in the kitchen washing dishes she even fancied she'd smelled her father's cologne. The ancient smell of her father was the most disconcerting of all the disturbances witnessed that fall and the hardest to explain away as mere imagination or a creative draft.

That first time she'd smelled that musty spice happened the night after Willow and Shylee left for LA and her first night alone at the farm. Tara had been doing the dishes when she'd gotten the perplexing feeling of being watched; it was the same feeling she used to get when her father would come up behind her as a child and watch her at the sink to make sure she was completing the task in a timely fashion. Tara had frozen, her hands lost in bubbles as the hair at the nape of her neck stood on end. When Tara had finally forced herself to glance over her shoulder she had felt both relieved and foolish when no apparition could be found.

Tara had laid awake all that night scaring herself with thoughts of ghosts. She'd never seen one, but she believed in them and she wondered which would be worse: her father lurking in the darkest reaches of the old farm house as a wayward spirit, not even aware of his own passing; or the thought of a stranger ghost in the house with her, someone in life whom with she'd not been familiar...After much thought Tara decided her father as a ghost would be much more confusing and complex a situation than some haunting she had no affinity with.

After many weeks of suffering alone to the tune of strange smells and various noises of which she'd hurriedly attributed to the house being old and settling on its foundation, she'd never imagined a happier moment in her life when she'd seen their red minivan pull into the driveway two days ago and Willow step out. She'd never been so glad to see Willow in their whole time together as she had been in that moment. She had flung her arms around the redhead and it had been quite a few hours before they'd been ready to let go of each other. Since then, to Tara's relief all the sounds and smells had ceased. She wondered if it was the power and safety that emanated from Willow that drove the noisy spirit away or if it had simply decided to wander off into the light, and cross over. No matter what the cause, Tara was grateful that all was quiet and peaceful again.

Now that she and Willow were together, once more cohabitating in the same living space and all the phenomena had stopped, other things had taken up residence in her mind. As Tara settled down into the easy rocking motion of the swing, her thoughts were easily turned from the comforting lull of her lover's voice to the less comforting thoughts of the approaching holiday.

Christmas had always been a special time of year for their small family and Tara usually welcomed each and every one with warm anticipation; yet this year felt different. The holiday joy she usually felt had begun to sour, turning into a bitter tasting melancholy that was flavored with tepid memories of a father that never loved her, a mother that had passed away, and a brother who refused to allow the hurt he still felt from the past to heal.

Of the three, it was the memory of her father that caused Tara the most bewildering feelings of frustration and muted hurt. Why couldn't she stop thinking about him? Maybe it was because she was getting older and had a child to love and take care of that she needed to understand how her father could have treated his own so indifferently. Tara truly knew the value of family and love and couldn't imagine what it would be like to treat Shylee the way she had been treated as a child. Was it that she needed confirmation at the age of thirty-five that she was indeed worthy of love?

Tara had racked her brain over the months trying to remember one good time she'd experienced as her father's daughter and as sad as it was, she couldn't even think of one instance when she felt like he loved her the same way that he'd loved Donny. Tara sighed, thinking about her brother and everything he must also be going through internally.

All summer Tara had implored her brother to make the trip and stay with them at the farm, but he'd always refused to discuss it with her, and his refusal to acknowledge this place really made Tara‘s heart hurt. At least while her father had still been alive, Donny's behavior had seemed understandable, but now it seemed unhealthy. There was so much bottled up inside him and he seemed almost afraid to let himself feel anything about their father and the way they'd grown up.

She suspected Donny still held a lot of guilt for the way he treated Tara and their mother during his early years. Still, she wished he would consider spending Christmas with them at their childhood home. She knew deep down in her heart that if he could just face those demons that haunted him he'd be better for it. But even after all these years when the man Donny had vilified in his own mind was dead and buried he couldn't bring himself to set foot on his father's property.

Tara shivered, pulling her sweater tightly around her body, letting thoughts of her brother slip from her heart like the gently drifting snow had once slipped from the clouds high above. She let her mind move onto other things--like thoughts of her daughter.

Tara couldn't wait to see Shylee. Three months was a long time in the life of an eight-year old and Tara felt like she was missing so much, and even though she spoke to her daughter at least once a day over the phone it wasn't nearly enough.

In addition to wanting to see Shylee Tara was also excited because it was December-- December in Cullison meant snow. Shylee had never seen real snow before and Tara wanted the little girl to know what it was like to see actual snow on the ground, instead of the fake department store snow that she saw each year, or the television snow that flaked and fell as naturally as if it were dumped out of a cardboard box by a band of renegade monkeys.

Moments passed and Tara gradually noted the burgeoning silence from inside the house as Willow's conversation with her own mother came to an end. Tara could only guess at how their conversation had concluded. She knew Willow really wanted her mother to spend the holiday with them this year, for Shylee's sake. But Tara also knew Sheila could be a formidable soul when she set her mind against something. Tara was placing her bets that Sheila would drop Shylee at the front door with a note pinned to her jacket, alerting them that she'd be at the airport waiting for the next flight back to California.

The truth was, Tara had never really understood Sheila. And it wasn't that she didn't get along with her mother-in-law, it was more like her mother-in-law didn't get along with her. Tara had tried everything over the years to get close to and bond with Willow's mother, but the older woman had always kept Tara at a distance, refusing even the smallest gesture of good will. Willow had told Tara not to take Sheila too seriously, that her mother had always been aloof and coolly indifferent, but Tara found that she had a hard time accepting that and moving on. Maybe it was because of her regrets about not trying harder to connect with her own father that kept Tara trying to forge out a peaceable arrangement with Willow's mother-- what ever the reason behind it, Tara knew she would try again this year to ease some of the tension between she and her mother-in-law.

Sheila had made it clear to Tara over the last few months that she didn't agree with Tara's decision to stay at the farm through the winter, and had been giving her the cold shoulder ever since. Sheila refused to even speak to Tara in sentences longer than a few words at a time on the occasions when they had found themselves on the phone together. Tara knew she really had her work cut out for her this year.

Tara smiled when she felt Willow's energy direct itself toward her..."How did she sound?" Tara asked, when she heard the screen door creak to life under the pressure of her partner's hand, focusing on thoughts of her daughter and dismissing the sadness over the currently non-existent relationship she had with her mother-in-law.

Willow's footfalls sounded on the wooden porch with deft thuds as the woman made her way down the length of the outdoor sanctuary. Tara been concerned about her daughter's frame of mind over the few days of which she'd spent alone with her grandparents. Tara knew that much time was enough to bring down even the bravest of souls so she couldn't help but be concerned about her own very sensitive child.

"Fine.... I mean...she sounded a little bored...but otherwise...fine."

Willow sat down next to Tara and in doing so gave the swing a little push with her foot, setting the pace for the next couple minutes of rocking.

"Did you open it?"

Willow turned toward Tara, her brow lifting in a questioning display of impatience. Tara knew Willow was referring to the package that had arrived that day. They'd found the parcel on the front porch when they returned from town this afternoon but Tara had been waiting to open it. After all she already knew what it would be. "No... I was waiting for you." Tara reached under the swing and pulled out the UPS parcel. The brown wrapping stared up at her as a portent of things to come. Tara opened the box, depositing the wrapping, next to her on the swing. She pulled at the tape holding the box closed. Tara let out a breath. There it was... just like every year for the last 16 years. A fat, hardened pecan log. Tara made a face and set the gift next to her. "I think your mother is trying to kill me, Will..." Tara was only half teasing.

"That's not very jolly honey..."

Tara could tell Willow was trying hard not to laugh. The unveiling of the log was a household tradition in their family. Each year Sheila sent them one and on the occasions when Willow's parents would not be visiting for the holiday, Shylee and Tara would take turns coming up with ingenious ways to dispose of it. "Yeah well, I don't really feel all that jolly." Tara took a breath. She wanted to explain to Willow what she was feeling, but middle age had made her complacent, so instead she said; "You do know she loathes me don't you?"

"She doesn't loathe you baby, that's just her way..."

Willow tucked a strand of blonde hair behind Tara's ear. Tara held up the brown-specked log of unappetizing Christmas yuckiness. "Face the pecans Will, she loathes me."

"At least you got a gift... I didn't get anything..."

Willow pout was pulling on Tara's mind, causing her lips to lose focus for a moment, to follow down the path of least resistance. Tara leaned across, taking Willow's pouting lip beneath her own very cold lips. Tara pulled back. "Honey, need I remind you of your Jewish heritage?..."

"I won't get anything for Hanukah either"

"Remember our first Christmas together?" Tara chuckled.

"How could I forget? That was the year my mom gave me a gift certificate to see the softer side of Sears."

"That was the year you stopped wearing bras...remember" Tara had to laugh in remembrance. It had been during their first Christmas together. Willow had taken up the urge to go braless to her mother's chagrin of course and Sheila had been passive aggressive about the whole thing. It hadn't been funny at the time, but looking back on it now they could both laugh.

"I know. It was the only time my Mom ever gave me anything for Christmas."

"Count your blessings..." Tara smiled and was greeted by warm lips pressing into her own. Tara felt her moan start in her stomach and travel the length of her chest. "After all these years, Will, you would think your mother would have come to terms with us by now," Tara said, sweeping her finger across Willow's forehead, a small smile gracing the corners of her lips.

"It takes Mom a while to adjust to things... It's because she doesn't understand about stuff."

Willow had turned her lips into Tara's palm as the blonde touched her face and Tara felt her palm tingle as desire flowed through by way of the joining of Tara-skin to Willow-lips. Tara pulled back slightly, but not before stroking her thumb across Willow's lips, careful to skirt Willow's tongue as it darted out to meet with Tara's thumb. "I liked you without a bra...Easy access," Tara said seductively choosing to ignore her lover's comment about Sheila. Tara reiterated her own words by reaching out and cupping Willow's left breast. She felt the redhead's nipple harden in response. But it was not to be, as the shrill sound of the teapot interrupted the moment.

"I put some water on to boil. I thought you'd like some tea."

Willow smiled, conveying the thought that she'd rather be out there with Tara than in the house making tea any day. But the whistle was unrelenting and Tara knew either Willow or she would have to get up eventually to take the kettle off the burner. But Tara wasn't ready to let Willow go just yet. "Not so fast..." Tara said, a sultry tone to her voice caused Willow to shiver in her arms but not from the cold, Tara was sure. She wrapped her arms around Willow's waist, tugging on Willow's undershirt, her hands slipping onto bare skin as she touched Willow's flat stomach. Even after all these years Willow's body remained the same -- still felt the same as the first day Tara had truly touched her. "I'm so glad we decided to spend Christmas here...together," Tara said, the melancholy from earlier all but disappearing as she gazed into the deep green eyes of her lover.

"You know I just realized that I've never seen Cullison in the snow."

Tara finished her tea. Setting the cup in the sink, she braced herself against the old kitchen counter as she looked once again into the deep blue of the night sky. The stars were gone and the clouds had moved into formation with wisps of gray sweeping across the sky.

The constellations as seen through the clear glass of the kitchen window flickered, beckoning her vision and she lost herself momentarily in the twinkling formations. Tara could hear typing coming from the living room, and the light sounds of Christmas music emanating from the stereo brought her attention into the present moment.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go...

"I see you brought enough work with you," Tara teased as she came up behind Willow. Tara bent, placing a kiss onto of Willow's soft, red hair, her palms resting lightly atop the redhead's shoulders. She felt the soft texture of Willow's festive red cardigan under her fingers.

Tara loved this cardigan; she loved the way the red wool brought out the green of Willow's eyes and accentuated the redness of Willow's hair. She'd gotten it for Willow five years ago and every year the redhead pulled it out of the closet and wore it at least once during the Christmas season-- even though she knew Willow only wore it to please her.

It was at that moment that Tara's heart began to swell with so much love for Willow that she was afraid it would burst under all the pressure. And at the same time she let all her fears about her father, brother and mother-in-law evaporate inside the cleansing power of her love for Willow. For the moment she would be content to let life's little struggles work themselves out and try not to worry so much about the things she could not change.

Tara watched her lover type for a few minutes over the redhead's shoulder, her chin resting on the top of Willow's head, before her eyes grew weary of the glaring computer screen. "I'm going to go check on the babies," Tara said, but all she received from the redhead in return was a mumbled acknowledgment of her words.

Tara came out of the barn, closing the double doors securely and fastening it with a stick stuck between the two handles. She'd just finished checking on the two cows, Henrietta and Lolly, to make sure they were going to be warm enough through the increasingly cold night. She was about to go back into the house when she heard a cheeping sound coming from the bare tree next to the barn. She glanced up to see six cheerful chickadees perched on the slimmest of the branches left on the hibernating apple tree. They looked so playful as their eyes studied Tara; she in turn studied them.

A light dusting of snow began to fall and Tara felt the first powdery soft flakes land on her nose and cheeks. As she looked up at the small birds, they seemed to be chattering back and forth amongst themselves, communicating their joy over the falling snow. Tara smiled. She sensed that these birds knew something she didn't, that they were wiser than they seemed...but at the same time there was a playful, innocent energy in their movements.

A memory sparked in Tara's mind as she stood looking at the chickadees on their barren branches. She tried to bring the memory into focus, but it refused to clear although she felt the memory had something to do with her father.

Tara started to turn away, heading once again for the house when she caught a movement of some kind out of the corner of her eye. She paused, scanning the snow-covered ground, but saw nothing. Thinking it must be her eyes playing tricks on her she started to walk toward the house again. She saw the movement again; this time there was no denying that she’d seen something. Tara turned around slowly, not wanting to startle whatever creature had been brave enough to seek human contact. Tara suspected it might be a stray cat of some kind, hungry and looking for a warm place to sleep and a bowl of milk.

What she saw surprised her. Coming toward her at full speed was a waddling goose. His brown feathered back stood out against his white underbelly, and his orange feet made loose goose tracks in the unmarred snow. “Well, hello there...” Tara crooned softly, not wanting to scare the creature away. The goose came close enough that if she’d wanted, Tara could have reached out and touched his smooth feathers. He stopped right in front of her, his head cocking to the side as he let out a loud honk. She thought how strange it was to see a lone goose. She was fairly certain these things usually stuck together.

Tara thought instantly of Shylee. She knew how much her daughter would have loved to see this goose in all its natural glory.

The goose cocked his head at Tara, as if he were scanning her thoughts, which was ridiculous because everyone knew geese only spoke the language of honk. And since she was alone, save for the curious goose at her feet, Tara smiled at her own joke. ng.

“Well, I think we should name him Sal.”

“Why Sal?” Tara asked as she stared curiously at the goose. He had followed her up to the porch, waiting until she’d gone inside to get Willow.

“Come on...look at him. He kinda looks like my Uncle Salvador,” Willow said turning to Tara “Doesn’t he?”

“I guess in a strange way he does. They’re both balding,” Tara reasoned. She knelt down, extending her hand toward the bird, but he took an awkward step back.

“And ‘cause with the waddle,” Willow pointed out.

“Sal it is then,” Tara said, then turning to the goose she asked, “Well Sal, how do you feel about being named after a balding gentleman with a waddle?” The goose made a sound of what Tara guessed to be appreciation then turned toward the barn. “Well, I guess that’s that,” Tara said.

Every night for the next four days a wayward goose would wander seemingly out of nowhere to set up roost in the barn, quickly and unceremoniously turning Willow and Tara’s solitary goose into geese.

The next two to arrive received proper names. Poots was named because he had a habit of leaving a trail of questionable material wherever he went. Lucy was named after the little girl from the Peanuts cartoons because like her namesake she too sported a curly black ‘fro only hers was grown from feathers. The most recent of the five had yet to receive a name, and it was an unspoken rule between Willow and Tara that Shylee would get to be the one to name it. They knew she loved animals and would be sad if she had missed out on all the fun.

“I’m beginning to feel like we’re running a boarding house instead of a veterinary clinic,” Tara said one night over tea after the fifth goose appeared.

“I know what you mean.”

Willow had crossed her arms in confused amazement. “I think we should start charging rent.”

“Why do you think they’re here?” Tara asked, taking Willow’s hand.

“I think they’re plotting something...something big.”

“Like world domination?” Tara suggested.

“Possibly, or maybe something less how to break into the bin of cracked corn.”

“Devious,” Tara’s eyebrows rose a degree higher.

“And shrewd...”

The next few days were a blur of action. Sheila arrived late the next afternoon with Shylee leading the way. The little girl looked relieved to be out of her grandmother's custody and was bursting with all the energy she'd had to repress at her grandparents' house.

Shylee had clung to Tara for most of her first day back, wanting nothing to do with anyone else -- Willow included. Not even her best friend Kit who'd come over the very moment she'd seen the car pulling into the driveway was granted priority over time spent with her mother. It wasn't until the next morning that Shylee had recovered from their separation and she dared go out on her own for a while, with Kit trailing along behind her.

Sheila had made a steady nuisance of herself since arriving. Tara had tried her best to accommodate her mother-in-law's demands but had found it an exercise in futility. Nothing Tara seemed to do was good enough for the woman and frankly Tara was getting tired of running around for a woman who seemed to need everything yet appreciated nothing.

It seemed Willow had her own way of dealing with her mother, which caused Tara more than one moment of irritation. Willow would retreat into her own world of numbers and ledgers, getting lost in the thick smell of paperwork and technology. Willow seemed to be paying little attention to her own mother, leaving Tara to suffer alone, both physically and emotionally while Willow disappeared for hours at a time immersing herself in her work.

Tara entered the kitchen to find Sheila sipping coffee and eating dry toast-- butter just gave it that flavored flavor so many people were frowning upon these days. Tara mumbled something to the tune of “Good morning” as she passed Sheila on her way to the back door. Tara didn’t really expect a response from the older woman, so she was surprised when Sheila, sounding cheerful, offered a “good morning” of her own in return, even going so far as to smile at Tara over the rim of her coffee cup.

Just then the kitchen door opened and Shylee came in, her face ruddy from the outside air. In her arms, Shylee cradled a solitary goose. Behind Shylee entered Kit, their boots leaving a trail of ice and water with each step. Tara crossed her arms over her chest and gave the children her sternest look--Tara suspected the bird belonged to one of the neighbors, as she didn’t recognize it to be any one of the five they already had. And even though the spectacle was comical Tara kept a straight face.

“Can we keep it mommy?” Shylee said with a nod to indicate the goose in her arms.

“I think he already has a home, sweetie,” Tara said thinking of the farmhouse down the road.

“He doesn’t. Kit and I found him in the barn, making friends with Sal.”

Shylee shook her head, her brown hair falling cutely from under her hat. Tara could see Sheila out of the corner of her eye, looking disparagingly at the situation, which prompted Tara to usher the girls back out onto the frost-covered porch. “We’ll see,” she said, fully intending to get to the bottom of the why and wherefore of all these geese. But for now, she didn’t see the harm in letting Shylee and Kit keep the goose, so long as it didn’t belong to anyone.

“What are we going to do with six geese?” Tara muttered to herself as she slipped into her rubber mucking boots. She was putting on her coat when Sheila suggested that she join Tara in the morning chores.

“You don’t have to do this Sheila, why don’t you go back into the house and make yourself a cup of hot coffee,” Tara smiled warmly at the older woman. She tried not to smile too wide, though it was hard because Sheila didn’t exactly look like she was ready to muck around in horse poop as they cleaned all three stables. Sheila had put on one of Tara’s heavy flannel jackets and a pair of worn jeans, yet she still looked like she was about to attend the company Christmas party rather than shovel horse poop.

“Nonsense Tara, You act as if I am a stranger to hard work.”

“I didn’t mean it that way Sheila, really. I just don’t want you to exert yourself,” Tara pulled the knit cap in her hands over her head.

“What should I do?”

“Here,” Tara picked up a shovel. “All we’re going to do is shovel all this into the wheelbarrow, right here.” Tara pointed out the wheelbarrow. “And then we’ll take it out to be composted in the big bin, over there.” Tara pointed against the far wall to the big black composting bucket.

“Are you saying that you want to keep all this poop over there in that bucket?” Sheila asked, bringing her hand up to her chest in disbelief.

Tara nodded. “You ready?” She didn’t wait for Sheila to respond before cheerfully handing her the other shovel. Tara wondered if Sheila was regretting her offer to help about then.

They set to work, clearing the first stall in record time. Sheila really surprised Tara the way she labored. And despite of the cold out they both broke into a healthy sweat

“Actually, there was something I wanted to discuss with you Tara,” Sheila said. Sheila stopped shoveling and began to look a little uncomfortable. Tara followed suit, leaning against the long handle of her shovel as the smell of the musty barn filled her nostrils. She gave Sheila her full attention.

“I would have gone to Willow with this first, but you know how my daughter has a tendency to over dramatize things.” Sheila laughed lightly, in an attempt to cover the uncomfortable tone reflected in her voice.

“What is it you would have gone to Willow with first?” Tara asked, getting a bit nervous by her mother-in-law’s odd behavior.

“I want Shylee to come and live with me...”

Tara hadn‘t been prepared that “What?” she asked, she was certain she hadn’t heard the woman correctly.

“I think it would be best if Shylee came to live with me, full time that is,” Sheila repeated.

Tara blinked once, then twice. She didn’t know what to say. Tara could feel her blood begin to heat and it had nothing to with exertion. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Sheila must have picked up on the ill-tempered expression on Tara’s face, because she was already following up her earlier demand with an explanation of sorts.

“Oh come on, you can’t tell me you believe this is an appropriate way for a child to live? There’s livestock in your kitchen, for God’s sake!”

“Was livestock,” Tara corrected, though she found it completely absurd that she would be focusing on something as small as tense during a moment like this.

“She didn’t!”

Willow’s face was pressed up close against Tara‘s, as they danced to the music coming from the stereo. “She did,” Tara confirmed, the boiling anger she had felt earlier had simmered into a percolating irritation by that time.

They had stolen away in the upstairs attic bedroom under the pretense of present wrapping in order to get a few minutes alone with each other. Tara felt only mildly guilty because of their dishonesty.

“I’ll talk to her.”

Willow was dropping her arms from around Tara’s waist, as she made a move to pull away. Tara knew there was no way Willow was going to let her mother upset her household, not for all the gold doubloons in Ireland. But she wasn‘t ready to let go just yet. “No. Don’t,” Tara said instantly. Then she paused, her voice softening “I mean, I can handle this one on my own,” she finished, a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips. She reached down replacing Willow’s hands around her waist and felt the other woman grip her tighter in response.

“Are you sure?”

The feel of Willow’s fingers pressing into Tara’s skin was intoxicating her senses and making thinking rather difficult. But she managed a surprisingly sturdy replay. “Oh yes...” Tara said breathily, the formerly percolating irritation had melted all the way down into a warmth, that sat in her stomach and caused her to forget about everything except Willow’s hands as they slid up her bare thigh, the tingle under the other girl’s warm fingers causing Tara to suppress a moan. She had always been fond of Willow’s body and the redhead always seemed to be warm.

Later that night they all sat in the living room, listening to the fire place pop and crackle as the dry wood burned and flames consumed it, casting a red-orange glow about the dimly lit room. Tara looked toward her mother-in-law, who'd promptly fallen asleep on the couch with her mouth open and her arms folded across her chest as if to say: even in sleep I'm disagreeable. Tara sat on the other end of the couch with the phone cradled to her ear as she talked to her brother for what must have been the seventh time in the last five days.

Tara really wanted Donny to join them for Christmas, but she knew that there was a better chance of the Pope dropping by for a friendly visit and a quick game of poker than there was of getting Donny to put aside his dysfunctional feelings for one holiday.

Tara hung up the phone after saying goodnight to her brother. Her eyes scanned the decorated living room until they settled on Shylee. The little girl laid on her stomach, the tan and rusted-red rug underneath her acting as the only cushion between her and the cold, wooden floor. Shylee had been stringing popcorn for the better part of an hour, and though she'd been quiet most of that hour, every once and again Tara would hear the sounds of Shylee singing softly to herself.

She was singing at that moment, her own version of a classic Christmas song Silver Bells. Tara saw Willow lift her attention momentarily from the work she'd been doing only to turn her attention away after a short time. Even though the redhead seemed completely immersed in what she was doing Tara could tell the other woman's ears were attuned to the child's singing as well.

"Silver bells, silver's Christmas time in the...." Shylee paused. "Country," She finished, singing the altered version of the song. "Is Uncle Donny coming Mom?" Shylee questioned, looking up from the popcorn she was stringing.

"I don't know, Shy."

Willow barely looked up from the numbers she was crunching-- "Give it up for the ingenuity of the modern business woman," Tara thought as she watched Willow push the tiny black buttons on the new palm-sized computer she'd bought last week. She could tell Willow was feeling that familiar rush of exhilaration at having a new toy to play with. Willow loved anything technological and was always scouting for the newest and best model. Tara knew her lover couldn't get enough of all the new-fangled gadgets they were coming out with these days.

"I don't believe in Santa," Shylee stated, resting her chin on her fists.

The little girl had directed her statement toward Willow, who by that time had given the child at her feet her full attention.

"Of course you don't darling. Santa was instituted by the corporations to sell merchandise in order to raise profit margins," Sheila muttered in her sleep.

Tara choked back a laugh as Sheila; even in sleep, couldn't resist an urge to make a pessimistic remark.

"No.... that's not why." Shylee said regarding her grandmother as if she'd been awake. "I don't believe in Santa because I've never seen him. When I was little I used to sneak downstairs when I was supposed to be asleep but I never saw him, not once." Shylee turned her attention back to Willow. "What's the point of believing in something you can't see?" she asked, with wide-eyed innocence.

Tara watched Willow move to sit down on the floor next to their daughter then motion for the girl to sit in her lap. Willow wrapped her arms around Shylee before speaking, honestly and from her heart. Tara listened to the words her partner spoke in rapt attention.

"I guess the point is to learn to have faith in the things you can't see..." Willow said. "What do you want for Christmas Shylee?" Willow asked when Shylee remained silent.

"For everyone to be together..."

Tara thought for a long time about what Willow had said to Shylee about having faith in things unseen, deciding it applied to every aspect of life, not just in the land of religion and fairytale. There were things about her father; for example, after all she'd certainly never seen his love for her, but did that really mean it hadn't existed? Tara decided not. Maybe she herself just needed to have a little faith.

"This one is Santa Goose."

"What's happened to Santa Claus?" Tara asked one morning as she sat with Shylee at the kitchen table. It was a rare moment of quiet. Sheila was napping upstairs and Willow had gone into town to pick up a few things for dinner and a Christmas tree, which they'd spend the afternoon decorating together.

Shylee had already begun to string the dried cranberries this morning as she'd done with the popcorn the night before and Tara would go up to the attic later in search of the crocheted snowflakes of her mother's. She was certain her father wouldn't have thrown them out over the years. Tara would have to starch and iron them, she was sure... but it was nothing if it meant she'd have a little piece of her mother with her this Christmas.

"Nothing happened to Santa Claus Mommy, he's just too busy to do everything. So Santa Goose is like a helper. He's in charge of making sure all the animals of the world get gifts for Christmas," Shylee explained.

"I heard what you told Mom the other night." Tara looked softly into her daughter's eyes. "I thought you've decided you didn't believe in Santa anymore, Shylee," Tara said with a knowing smile.

"I changed my mind, I guess..." Shylee shrugged her small shoulders unconvincingly.

"Oh, I see," Tara said deciding to leave the subject as it was. She smiled at her daughter, watching the little girl appraise her own work. She loved Shylee's imagination. "And who are these?" Tara asked, examining the picture closely. She pointed to the other geese in the drawing.

"Those are his elves," Shylee said, as if this fact was terribly obvious. "This one's named Bob, and there's Lucy, this one's Poots, this one's Minnie and that one on the end is Mouse. They help Sal.... He's the real Santa Goose..." Shylee whispered as if she was conveying a great secret.

"He is?" Tara whispered back in the same conspiracy tone Shylee was using.


"And who told you that Sal is this Santa Goose fellow?" Tara asked, playing along with her daughter's game.

"Grandpa," Shylee stated matter-of-factly.

"What, sweetie?" Tara was sure she hadn't heard correctly. Surely her daughter hadn't said her grandfather had told her about Santa Goose. Somehow she just couldn't picture Ira indulging Shylee in anything Santa or Christmas-- this was the man, after all that Willow told her had once banned “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from his home and Willow had had to go to her friends’ house just to watch Snoopy do the Snoopy dance.

"Grandpa told me, Mommy," Shylee said again, this time she formed her words slowly.

"You mean your Grand-dad Ira, right Shy?"

"No... my dead grandpa."

Tara reeled, staring shocked into the ever-widening eyes of her eight-year old daughter's eyes. "What do you mean your dead Grandpa told you, Shylee?" Tara asked slowly, careful to censor the tone of voice she used. "Did you see grandpa?" Tara tried to remain calm and collected even though her senses were on high alert. She'd allowed herself to ponder her father being a ghost and what that might mean to her, but she'd never really allowed herself to believe it.

"I see him all the time."

"Where?" Tara asked, her hand going to her chest as if she could slow the beat of her heart with a simple touch.

"Upstairs, or looking at the sunflowers in the back... he doesn't like them too much," Shylee added more to herself than to Tara. "But mostly I see him in the barn." Shylee said as if it was no big deal to be seeing someone who died months before walking around and apparently talking.

"Can I call Kit and see if she wants to come over and play?"

Tara nodded absently as she tried to process her daughter's words, her thoughts traveling backward in time once again replaying in her mind what Willow had said about faith and believing in what can't always be seen. Why was it that the truth always had way more dimensions to it than one wanted, Tara thought to herself.

Tara pulled on the string, releasing the pull-down stairs that would allow her access to the attic above. She had been a child, the last time she'd seen the contents of that room. Tara distinctly remembered the smell of dust and of the vinyl her mother had always kept stored in long rolls against the wall.

Tara climbed the stairs, worrying momentarily that they would not support her weight. The old wooden stairs made a creaking sound as if they might give way but they held. Tara put her hands on the dusty attic floor for leverage as she eased herself into the small space. It was a lot warmer and more cramped than she'd remembered it being, but then again she'd changed a lot herself over the years. Other than the temperature and the lack of space to stand very tall, everything had remained the same, as if frozen in time.

Tara stooped, nearing the first box she saw, and then paused as she tried to picture where her mother might have kept the precious Christmas stars, but she was drawing a blank. Tara looked around the room. There were at least thirty boxes in the room, some stacked four high, taking up most of the room and leaving only an inch or so of space between themselves and the pitched attic ceiling. Tara blew her bangs from her forehead, and then deciding she had to start somewhere, she opened the box nearest her.

The contents of that first box and the subsequent ten after it were a bit of a disappointment, and had contained only old pots and pans and discarded clothing, moth-ridden and molding from having sat, Tara suspected, under a leak in the roof.

Giving up on any further search of the boxes, Tara looked around for any other likely storage spots. On the other side of the room she saw a few clear plastic storage containers. Tara made her way across the room to them; sitting down on the floor she took the lid off the first one. Pictures--she made a note to bring this container downstairs with her later on. Shylee and Willow might have fun looking through them with her that evening. Tara moved that box to the floor then she opened the lid of the second plastic box. Inside was a collection of old bowling trophies, her father's name etched across the front of most of them. Tara tried in vain to recall her father going bowling.

Tara was about to give up her search to return downstairs empty-handed when she heard footsteps--one after the other, directly in front of her. Tara froze, holding her breath and counting the seconds until her lungs drew in their next breath of musty air. She was feeling claustrophobic--that had to be it...or maybe she'd inhaled too many mold spores from the countless mildewed boxes above and around her.

The footsteps sounded audibly, almost disturbing the thick layer of dust on the floor--so much so that Tara fancied she saw the outline of footsteps forming into it; almost there, yet not. Tara followed the direction of the sound with her eyes, tracking it to a place where it finally ceased, leaving only a dead silence behind it. Tara focused her eyes, squinting in the gray light let in through the dingy windowpane to her left. A painting hung there on the wall and a yellowed box under it where the footsteps had ended, but nothing more. Tara's eyes seemed to get lost in the winter scene painted there, in chipped and cracked oils. The scene was of a barren tree, lightly covered in a fine dusting of snow, heavier in some places and scarce in others. Tara's breath caught, for there on the branches were six cheerful chickadees, locked in curiously consorting poses of playfulness and wisdom.

Tara recalled her meeting with birds of this fashion earlier that week. It was uncanny, the similarities between this painting and what she'd witnessed next to the barn--almost as if these very birds had somehow managed to detach themselves from this perpetual winter wonderland, to spend a few precious moments on the outside...Tara drew in a breath and when she did so there was a creaking of sorts and then the loud banging sound as the painting detached from the wall, and fell to the floor.

She sat there for a long moment before she made a move to touch the painting in any way. Something else had dropped onto the floor behind the painting when it had fallen and Tara had to tilt the painting forward in order to retrieve whatever scrap was resting there.

Tara brushed the dust from the yellowed envelope. It was addressed to her in formal script across the front of the envelope. Tara felt a lump forming in her throat. She instantly thought of her mother and wondered if she had been the one to tuck the envelope behind the painting years ago in hopes that Tara would find it. The yellowed box she'd seen earlier underneath the painting also bore Tara's name. Tara removed the painting, placing it carefully to the side to lean against the attic wall for the time being. She began to read.

Dearest Tara,

If you are reading this letter it means I have died. Even as I sit here writing this, I don't know if you will ever find it amidst the clutter my life has become over the last decade. There are three things in my life that cause me pain to think on for any length of time: thoughts of your mother, your brother and most of all you--I have come to find in my old age that it is the things past that cause the most hurt in this life.

Tara stopped reading. She had not expected that the letter could have been from her father. She felt her heart speed up. She felt the urge to scan the length of the letter but forced her eyes to hold firmly in place to the word at which she'd stopped reading. When Tara felt herself relax a little, she continued to read.

I know I wasn't the best father to you and I know you think I favored Donny, and maybe after a time I did. But I need you to know; it wasn't always that way. You might have been too young at the time to remember this now, but I can recall one must have been three or four...I took you into town with me to buy some feed for your mother's horses--back in those days, you had to buy feed special order by the unit...I always took you with me because you loved to come so much that you'd cry at the door if I took your brother instead of you. Do you remember that? You were so chatty back then and always getting into things, I didn't know what to do with you half the time.

Tara leaned back against one of the sturdier boxes behind her. Her stomach did a flip and Tara thought she might throw up-- not from sickness, but from the unexpectedness of events that afternoon. Tara continued to read.

It was a few days before Christmas as we stood at the counter waiting for old Jeb to fill our order-- you had seen something of interest on one of the display cases and had taken yourself over to investigate, and it was shortly after that I came up behind you to see what you were looking at. It was a tin ornament carved into the shape of a tiny goose. You wanted that goose so badly, but I was in a hurry to get home and didn't buy it for you. I can still see the twinkle in your eyes--the way they had lit up at the site of that silly little goose.

It wasn't until later that night that I took myself back to the feed store. I intended to purchase that ornament for you and surprise you with it on Christmas...But when I got there it had been sold. I’ve always regretted that I hadn’t bought it for you earlier that day.

I know I've always been so hard on you, expecting so much from you and offering nothing in return and for that I am truly sorry. Maybe I didn't deserve to be your father... maybe I still don't. But I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

Love, Daddy.

Tara wiped at the tears that had fallen from her eyes as she faintly recalled that day her father wrote of. She folded the letter, placing it carefully back into the envelope and tucked the envelope back into the card. Tara traced the birds with her fingertips as they danced across the lid of the box. Part of her was afraid to open the box because she didn't know what she would find. This box and its contents represented the only tangible connection she had to her was the only thing he'd ever given her...

Tara took a ragged breath, wiping at her eyes once more with the back of her hand as she knelt in front of this unexpected treasure. She steadied herself, her fingers gripping tightly to the faded, stained cardboard lid. Tara closed her eyes, as she pulled up on the top. The lid came off with a whispered friction and Tara brought her eyes slowly down until she could see what lay inside the box. Inside, nestled carefully amidst crumpled paper, lay six little geese ornaments, carved in tin. Tara could see that they had been painted by hand with careful consideration to detail. Such love was represented there in that box that it made Tara's heart clench in her chest. She never knew...

Tara's fingers were shaking as she slowly reached inside the box. She lifted the first ornament out with delicate precision as if she were holding something so fragile that it might shatter in her hands. It was something of her father; it was something that he'd left her because he had loved her...he really had loved her.

Tara vaguely wondered if the six live geese in her barn had been some kind of sign from her father...if by way of nature he’d tried to tell her something-- something about himself and the nature of their relationship. It seemed like too much of a coincidence now that she knew about the letter and subsequent ornaments her father had left for her.

Tara felt a wonderful sense of peace as she replaced the ornament into the box. She breathed the stale attic air from her lungs and felt lighter, as if the weight of this place had finally been taken off her chest. She no longer felt the ever-present sadness that had lingered, imprinted into every wall of the house. Everything looked brighter and had taken on a new glow of life and of living. And even though she didn’t yet have all the answers to the reasons why her father had been the way he had, she felt better and more loved by him, then she ever had in her whole life.

Tara descended the attic stairs with her treasure grasped securely in her arms. Even the thought of Sheila seemed to have taken on a new glow and Tara could feel the warmth of understanding and patience fill her being as she looked at her mother-in-law, sitting there at the kitchen table. It finally occurred to her that even if she never received Sheila's blessings and approval that that would be okay. She could still accept Sheila into her heart--she'd have faith in the things she couldn't always see and hope for the best in the years to come.

That night, after everyone had gone to bed for the night, Shylee tiptoed down the stairs, all the time telling herself the noises she had heard were just her parents downstairs, but what she saw when she got to the landing made her gasp. Shiny black boots polished and gleaming in the light of the glowing fireplace. And the soft white fur along the edges of his perfectly tailored coat was a slight shade of gray that could only be attributed to the soot of countless dirty chimneys.

The man Shylee saw bent over to stoop under the tree was none other than the real live Santa Claus, she was sure of it! Shylee's eyes grew large as saucers and she gasped when Santa stood up and looked at her square in the eye. His beard curled and swaying as his gaze changed positions.

Santa put his fingers to his lips in a gesture that Shylee should remain silent. Then he used his fingers as legs and made a walking motion with them on the palm of his other hand. Shylee smiled in conspiracy. She would keep his secret-- for now anyway, after all, tomorrow was another story...


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