celebrating a sense of place

 Their creature comforts were limited to a log bench that served as a table as well as Em’s bed (which she shared with the cats), a backless chair where the hen was usually perched, and an old straw bed in the corner for the one-legged duck. There was never a big enough fire in the hearth or very much food in the cupboards and they were usually cold and always hungry.

Em had very few visitors to her mountain lair except for the occasional band of curious town’s children who came to catch a glimpse of the “crazy old witch” on the mountain. Em was always armed and ready for these occasions and kept two rusted pitchforks close-by. Her unwanted guests would try to lure her from her hovel with the promise of food, calling out for Em to “Come and see what we’ve brought you!” Always on the alert, Em would grab one of the pointy implements, and wielding it like a bayonet, she’d charge outside jabbing wildly at her tormentors, who would scamper back down the mountain in adolescent terror.

“You’re a wild old hag Em Osborne – that’s what you are!” they’d shout.
Em hated children. Not just because she saw them as greedy, pesky, unfeeling little creatures but because she blamed them for something that happened on a Christmas day many years ago. Em was beautiful then and in love. That Christmas Eve her parents hosted a grand party to celebrate her marriage, which was going to take place the next day. There was a fiddler, singing, reels and dances, games, a Christmas play, and a magnificent feast. It seemed like everyone in the village of Pluckemin had turned out for the festive night.

When the guests finally trickled out of her parent’s house, their carriage lamps and raucous caroling fading into the chilly night, Em and her fiancé sat in front of a crackling fireplace still basking in the glow of the evening. It seemed like nothing could happen to ruin such a blissful moment but then her fiance’ brought up a topic that Em had forbade him to broach – children. Em didn’t want children. She had always been jealous of her baby brother and believed that his birth had robbed her of her parent’s full love and attention. Now that she was the center of someone’s again she wasn’t going to let another baby come along and steal her place.

Em’s fiancé never really believed her when she claimed that she didn’t want a family, and even though she had forbade him to mention the subject ever again the romantic headiness of the evening prompted him to ask her one more time. Em turned icy cold in his arms when he spoke the words and pulled away - repulsed. He immediately tried to take the words back and recover the moment but it was too late.

On Christmas morning Em called off the wedding and refused to come out of her room. Family and friends begged her to reconsider but she wouldn’t relent. Em’s fiancé was sick with heartache and tried for weeks to talk to her but she wouldn’t see him. One morning he was seen riding out of Pluckemin and was never heard from again.

Some say that Em’s true hatred for children was born on that Christmas morning. Every year after she dreaded the arrival of the season and resented the merriment all around her, especially the happiness that the holiday brought to children, whom she now blamed for her eternal misery.

As Christmases came and went, Em became more embittered and reclusive. After her parents passed on and the rest of her family moved away, she withdrew to her self-imposed exile on the mountain. She eked out an existence by picking wild berries and selling them door to door in the village. Some charitable folks would buy a quart or two of the shriveled fruit out of pity, but most knew that her berries were usually as sour as her disposition and she was never very successful.

Late one afternoon, in a cedar grove on the opposite slope of the mountain, Em was finding the pickings particularly slim and decided to take a short break. She put her over-sized, fraying basket down and stretched out in the shade along a dirt path called Petticoat Lane, a spot where six mountain roads meet, and soon fell fast asleep.

When Em finally roused, night had fallen and there was a full moon overhead. Still half a sleep she sat up and tried to shake off the drowsiness when she was startled by the vision of two “flaxen-haired” children standing in front of her, a boy and a girl, who began tugging at her hands and asking her to come with them. Ordinarily Em would have reached for the nearest stick and started swatting, but their peaceful countenance and cherubic beauty compelled her to get up and follow.

As Em was pulled along through the grove she noticed scores of other children frolicking among the cedars. They wore strange tinseled clothing that flowed like gossamer and shimmered in the dappled moonlight like a “butterfly’s wings.” When they reached a clearing among the trees, Em stood in amazement as the children formed a huge circle and danced in a ring under the stars. She rubbed her eyes, blinked twice, and even pinched herself but as far as she could tell she was awake. Then one of her sprite-like hosts clapped its hands and the dancing stopped. They all gathered in a line and filed gracefully past Em, each one dumping a giant leaf full of plump berries into her basket.

“We’ve picked you the berries, there’s nothing to pay” they sang out in unison as they danced off into the black forest “and we’ll come and see you on Christmas day.”

The fruit proved to be a sweet as it smelled and for once Em had no problem selling the whole basket load. That night Em and her brood of orphaned animals had their first good meal in weeks and went to bed content. As she lay back on her crude bench, the hairless-tailed cats purring by her feet and her hands clasped to her sated belly, she wondered if it had all been real. Were children capable of being so kind and generous? Could she have been wrong all these years?

“I’ll just have to wait until Christmas to find out” she thought as she drifted to sleep, looking forward to the holiday for the first time in decades.

No one saw much of Em that fall but in late December, she wandered into Bedminster and asked someone on the street what day it was and then shuffled back up into the mountains. When she reached her shack she took down the chestnut stick that served as her calendar and cut the appropriate number of days into the side with a dull knife, there were just three more notches until Christmas.

When Christmas Eve finally arrived, Em gathered up the last of her provisions, which amounted to a handful of corn flour, a spoonful of lard, half a turnip, and a shriveled up apple, and carefully divided it among her hungry menagerie. Afterward, Em saw to it that everyone was hunkered down in their appropriate places. The one-winged hen was perched precariously on the seat of the chair, the one-legged duck flapped over to its pile of straw, and the hairless-tailed cats curled up around their mistress’s feet. Em thought of what the mysterious visitors in the cedar grove had said, “…we’ll come and see you on Christmas day,” and wondered if they really would. She still couldn’t believe that children could be so kind, especially to someone like her, and she hoped they would visit her, not for the gifts they might bring, but to see if it had all been real.

That night she dreamed of Christmases long ago and of big roaring fireplaces, warm clothes, and huge feasts. She could smell the piney scent of the fresh-cut Christmas tree and garlands, and could see the love on her parent’s faces. Everything was as it once was and the big Dutch farmhouse she grew up in was filled with the aroma of the season.

Em was suddenly roused from her slumbering reverie by a thumping on the side of her cabin and instinctively looked for her pitchfork. “Wait,” she thought “can it be…?” but then she heard a familiar harangue outside her door.

 “Come and see what we’ve brought you, Em!”

It was her tormentors and nemesis’ - the children of Pluckemin.

“Come out” they jeered, “or we’ll take these nice things back and eat them ourselves.”

Em, was about to charge at them with her trusty pitchfork, when she noticed something strange, the wonderful smells from her dream were still in the air. She also noticed that the cats, who usually ran for cover when the children came by, were clawing at the rickety door and meowing incessantly. Unable to keep from looking, she clutched her pitchfork and peered through a crack in the door. Whoever had been there was gone but they had left a huge covered basket and a big bundle outside. Em dragged them into the house and shut the door behind her. She carefully looked under the cloth that was covering the basket and discovered a stuffed goose big enough to feast an army, still steaming from the baker’s oven. It was surrounded by roasted potatoes, celery, cranberry sauce, and all kinds of culinary delights. There was a heap of buttered biscuits, a crock full of gravy, mince, apple, and pumpkin pies, and even a plate with a fork and a knife. In the bundle she found warm clothes, a scarf, a new blanket, candles and more goodies, like candies, cakes, fruits and nuts. She hadn’t seen so much food in what seemed like a lifetime. Could it have been the fairies from the cedar grove? She thought.

Just then she heard boisterous laughter outside the cabin. She rushed to a gap in the wall that served as a window, pulled a wad of old rags from the opening and stuck her head out just on time to see that it wasn’t the sprites at all, it was the children from Pluckemin, piling into a horse-drawn sleigh.

“Merry Christmas, Em!” they shouted, as the single adult in the group herded them aboard

Then, according to George Quarrie, who first published this story in 1910, “with a tremendous blast from many horns and cheer upon cheer, away went Em Osborne’s mysterious visitors, with jingling bells and musical bugles making glad the very woods and rocks, down the mountainside, with a dash and a swirl that was worthy of old Santa Claus himself…”


Em Osborne and the Christmas Visitors

By C.G. Wolfe/ © The Black River Journal

Technically, Em Osborne wasn’t really a witch. She didn’t cast spells or conger love potions and she couldn’t fly - but she was a frightening character and though she didn’t have a broomstick, she was fairly handy with a pitchfork.

Em lived in a tumbled down shack perched on the mountainside overlooking the village of Pluckemin. She shared her decaying shanty with a gaggle of misfit pets that included a one-winged hen, a one-legged duck, and two hairless-tailed cats.

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