The Hunt (A Christmas Story)
By Stephanie Skeem
I rolled down the window and stared at the weathered road sign. The air was crisp, and smelled of pine. I breathed in the cool air, analyzing the sign with critical eyes. It was a strange sign---one I had never come across before. It had a picture of a station wagon with an X over it.
“What do you think it means?” I wondered.
My sister, Mandy, who was in the driver’s seat, looked at the sign, and shrugged. “I think it means that if we go up this road, we better have a truck.”
I smiled. “Good thing we have a truck.”
“Yeah,” Mandy agreed. “It looks kinda steep, but I think we can make it.”
“I hope so.”
My sister pressed on the gas pedal, and turned the truck onto the steep canyon road. The road was narrow and a little muddy. The higher up we climbed, the muddier the road got.
The truck’s engine strained as it followed the narrow road, up, up, and up. The higher we got, narrower the road became.
“I don’t like this road,” my sister said, holding the steering wheel tightly. “What if someone comes from the opposite direction? I’ll have nowhere to pull off.”
I pressed my lips into tight lines, and nodded. “I think taking this road was a bad idea. Why didn’t that stupid sign say only really small trucks can drive on it?” I peered carefully out the window, and held my breath. We were up so high that we could see the canyon we had come from far below us. It was a spectacular view, but being so close to the edge made me feel very uneasy. “I think we should turn around.”
My sister cast me an angry glance. “Turn around? Where!”
I threw up my hands in frustration. “I don’t know where. Just somewhere. Maybe if we go up a little further we’ll find a place.”
My sister gripped the steering wheel tighter, and stared ahead. “I wish dad was driving. I wish he was here. He used to take us on roads like this all the time.”
“Roads worse than this.” I corrected.
My sister sighed. “Yeah, but he hated looking for Christmas trees. He’d take us, but he wouldn’t ever get out of the truck and help us look for a tree.”
I fogged up the window with my breath, then drew a frowny face with horns on its head. “Why is it that guys in our family are so excited to go hunting for animals, but when we want to go hunting for a Christmas tree, they have to go kicking and screaming all the way? It’s the same principle. You get to go out doors, up into the mountains, and scout for that perfect specimen. Then, when you find it you have to chop it, tag it, and haul it back to the truck. It’s almost the same as hunting a deer.”
“Almost,” my sister replied. “But not quite. When you tree hunt, the target isn’t moving. And you don’t have to kill it.”
“Chopping a tree down can kill it, though,” I said, glaring out the window at the host of tall pine, and aspen trees. The snow was becoming deeper, cloaking the trees in beautiful white tresses. I furrowed my brows and set my jaw, feeling sad that my dad wasn’t with us. When my dad left my mom, everything had changed. My sister and I had to fill the empty spot my dad left. We were tough girls, as my sister liked to say. That’s why we had decided to go plodding out on the mountain alone, looking for a Christmas tree by ourselves. My mom was feeling unwell, and we girls were determined to try and make our first Christmas without our dad as normal as we could make it under the circumstances. We didn’t have much money for extravagant gifts this year, but we had a set of plans to make our Christmas special despite all the bad things that had happened. On the top of the list was finding the PERFECT Christmas tree. Finding a tree meant more to us this year than just any ordinary year. It was something psychological. To find a Christmas tree on our own, meant keeping Christmas despite the change that had happened in our lives. It meant holding on to traditions when deep inside we felt that we had lost our biggest tradition of all. Our dad.
“I’m worried,” my sister murmured, struggling to steady the truck as it slid through the snow. “It’s getting too snowy. I don’t see anywhere we can turn around.”
“Maybe over there.” I pointed to a bend in the road, where there might be a possibility of turning round.
My sister took the truck around the bend. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Look! There is enough space for us to turn around. Thank goodness. I was beginning to think we would never get off this horrible mountain.”
“Wait,” I said. “Before we turn back around, don’t you think we should get out and look for a tree? It’s getting kind of late in the day, so this will probably be our last chance.”
My sister nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. If we can’t find one now, we probably won’t ever find one. The trees down lower didn’t look like they got enough water this year. Maybe these ones up here will look better.”
We got out of the truck and donned our gloves and hats. I grabbed the saw, and stuffed a small flashlight in my pocket. Then we took off through the trees down a side trail.
“It’s too snowy.” My sister complained. “There wasn’t so much snow below where we were looking before.”
I smiled and nodded, plodding through the snow. “True. But our Christmas tree wasn’t down there.”
My sister stared at the mountain with critical eyes. “How do you know it’s up here?”
“Because after much tribulation cometh the blessings, right?”
My sister laughed. “Wrong. After much tribulation cometh the blisters, and maybe frostbite.”
“What do you think about this Christmas tree?” I asked, pointing to a tree I had just spotted.
“What do you think of it?”
She folded her arms and looked at the tree. “It looks kind of brown. And look, there’s a big ole’ gap on one side. No. It is not the right tree. Let’s keep looking.”
“Sorry, tree,” I said, casting the tree one last glance before heading through snow, and deeper into the trees. It felt good to be moving. Even though my toes and face were cold, my core was warm and sweaty. The air was fresh, and filled with the smell of earth, snow and trees. It almost felt like the Christmas tree hunts way back when, before the divorce split the family in half, and our family outings included more than just my sister and myself.
“Phew,” my sister panted, leaning against a tree, catching her breath. “I’m hot.”
I stared at my sister, and smiled. Her nose was red as a raspberry, and her cheeks looked like they had been powdered in blush. “You don’t look hot.” I said. “You look cold.”
“So do you,” she retorted, marching past me. “A regular Rudolph.”
“Hey!” I called after her. “Wait for me.”
She came up to a wide, gurgling stream. It was filled with green mossy rocks and glimmered a beautiful warm yellow from the brown earth of the mountain.
I bent down and ran my fingers through the icy water. “Makes me thirsty looking at it.”
“Yeah. Why does being cold always make me thirsty?”
“Because,” My sister said. “It freeze dries you.”
“Sure feels like it.”
My sister walked over a fallen log that rested over the stream. I slowly followed her across the log to the other side.
Here the air felt different, colder, and the light was muted, because the trees on this side of the water were bigger and blocked out more of the sun.
“Wow, it’s so pretty here,” I said.
“Yeah,” My sister agreed, marching ahead, down an old deer trail through the trees that hugged the mountain. To one the side of us was a large outcropping of rocks and earth, covered in moss and trees, to the other side was an empty wash, full of different sizes and shapes of pine trees.
I stepped into the wash and walked from tree to tree. “Oh. Look at all these Christmas trees. It’s like our own little Christmas tree farm.”
I pointed to a decently-sized tree rising out of the wash. It was dark green, beautiful, and perfectly shaped. “What about this one?”
“Oooh,” my sister cooed, her eyes lighting up as she spotted the tree. “It is pretty.”
“Should we cut it?”
My sister hemmed and hawed. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
I got out my saw, and prepared to fell the tree.
“Wait!” My sister said, peering beneath the tree. “It’s more than one tree.”
My eyes grew wide. “What?” I knelt down and inspected the tree’s trunk, and frowned. My sister was right. Growing up from the ground was not one trunk, but three. If I cut just one of the trunks, it would leave a huge gap. I stood up and sighed. “That’s too bad. It’s so pretty.”
My sister waved her hand at the little glen of Christmas trees we had found. “Don’t worry. There’s still plenty more.”
I cast the perfect tree one last glance and marched forward, inspecting the trees. “But it would be nice if it was.” There were so many Christmas trees that I grew critical of each one. One was too fluffy, one too skinny. Others were too short, too tall, too brown, too fat, too spindly.
Onward we marched, with the same purpose of heart. To find the perfect tree.
We followed the wash, deeper into the forest, until at last my sister pointed to a far-off tree on the other side of the hill. The setting sun seemed to silhouette its perfect triangular frame against the sky. “That’s the tree,” she breathed. “I’m sure of it.”
I nodded, my eyes glistening with greed. “Yes. It does look like the perfect one.”
“Do you think it’s too far away?”
I shook my head. “No. Not too far. We’ve come this far, we can go a little ways further.”
We started out once more, struggling to reach our perfectly-shaped tree.
“Wow,” my sister puffed, slipping trudged her way up. “This is pretty steep.”
“Yeah,” agreed, stepping in a snowdrift that reached to my knees. “But I’m sure it’ll be worth it in the end.”
“I hope so.”
We stumbled through the snow, pushing through snaggy bushes, and over slippery rocks. The father we went, the harder it got for us to see our goal. “Where did the tree go?” I asked, looking at the once-illumined spot of ground where our tree had stood.
My sister stopped, and stared ahead. “Ummm…I think it’s over there, behind that tree.”
“I hope so,” I puffed. “Cuz I’m getting tired. It’s sooo cold. I can’t feel my chin anymore.”
My sister wiped her face, and shivered. “My eyes feel frozen.”
I laughed. “I hope that doesn’t mean you’ve lost track of our tree.”
My sister shook her head. “No. It’s just up a little ways. I’m sure of it.”
Nearing the top, my sister stopped and scanned the hill
“Do you see it?” I wondered.
She shook her head. “I think….wait yes. There it is!” She pointed to a tree on the top of the hill. From where we stood, it looked perfectly shaped, just like we had seen from below.
“Only a little ways more!” she said, marching excitedly ahead.
The funny thing was, that the top of the hill was a lot farther than we had thought it was, so it took us a lot longer to reach it than we had first supposed. The closer we got, the bigger the tree grew. I wanted to say something, but I was sure that once we got to the tree, it would magically be the right size. But the closer we came, the bigger the tree loomed. Once we got to the top of the hill, and saw our, “perfect tree,” close up, things didn’t look so perfectly.
We stood under the perfect tree, and stared up.
“Hmmm,” I mused, giggling. “It’s really, really big.”
“Too big,” My sister’s voice was flat, and discouraged.
“I don’t think we will be able to fit this tree in our house.”
My sister stared at me. “Ya think?”
I shrugged. “Well maybe, if we chopped a hole in our roof.”
“Don’t think mom will go for that.”
I walked around the tree’s enormous trunk, smiling. “You never know.”
My sister groaned and sat in the snow, staring at the darkening sky. “What were we thinking? Even if it had been the right size, we would never be able to haul it all the way down the hill, back to the truck.”
I sat down by my sister, feeling comical, and tragic at the same time. “We thought that it was the perfect Christmas tree. And it was. Look at it. It’s beautiful, perfect. It’s only flaw is that it’s only a few feet too tall.”
“Only a few?” My sister shot back. “Only about 50 feet too tall.”
I laughed, though it wasn’t funny. It was getting dark. The air had grown much colder. We were a long ways from our truck, and we still hadn’t found our Christmas tree. I was hungry, cold, and thirsty. On top of that, my boot had a leak, and my toes felt cold and soggy.
“Well,” I said, standing up. “Lets get back. Maybe by the time we get to the truck, we’ll have found a tree.”
“Maybe…” My sister growled, casting the giant tree a sad look. “I’m beginning to think we’ll never find one.”
The mountain grew dark fast. The trip down the hill was very different from our journey up. I got out my flashlight, and shone it at the ground, trying to keep ourselves from falling and tripping in the dark.
“I’m…c...c…old,” my sister shivered. “Why did I have to see that dumb tree?”
I walked through the snow, randomly shining my flashlight at the trees, thinking that perhaps we would still find something. In the back of my mind I was worried that because we had been so picky, so greedy to find the perfect tree, we would arrive home, empty-handed, with nothing to show for our entire day.
Suddenly my sister let out a loud shriek. “Over there! Look!”
Startled, I froze. My heart pounded. I scanned the trees. Maybe it was a bear, or perhaps a cougar. “What is it?” I whispered.
My sister tugged at my arm, and pointed to the side of the hill. “Over there, shine your light! Hurry, quick!”
“What is it?”
I glared at my sister. “A tree? Gosh, you could have said that in the first place!”
“What did you think I meant?”
“I thought you saw something that wanted to eat us, that’s what!”
“Oh. Ha. Well, no worries. Trees are vegetarians, last time I checked.”
I laughed. “Really? Vegetarians. If that was true, they’d be cannibals.”
My sister stared at the tree, with a wide smile of pride. “Who cares? What matters is that I found the perfect tree!” She yanked the flashlight out of my hand and ran through the snow to the side of the hill where a tree stood in the beam of the flashlight, glistening with diamonds of sparkling frost, against the sky.
“I found it!” she cried in delight.
I came up behind her, and stared at the tree and smiled. “You did. It is the perfect tree.” We walked around it.
“No gaps,” my sister said.
I nodded. “And only one trunk.”
“And a perfect top.”
We placed the our Christmas tree tag on one of the branches, claiming the tree.
I started sawing.
The smell of pine gum filled our nostrils. The branches brushed against our cheeks, as if it was angry that we were taking it away from its home. Yet we still sawed.
The moon rose over the mountain, lighting up the snow in a beautiful, enchanting light.
As the moon reached its peak above us, the tree finally gave up its hold, and fell softly against the snow.
“Now the real work begins.” I said.
My sister lifted the half of the tree, and I lifted the end, and we trudged down the mountain, with the moon guiding our way.
“We’re not even halfway down this hill,” My sister complained. “Why don’t we just let it roll down?”
“Might not be a bad idea. But it wouldn’t be the perfect tree by the time it reached the bottom.”
My sister and I trudged onward, with the tree growing heavier with each step we took. We contemplated leaving it. But after all the trouble we had gone through, we were not about to give it up. My sister suddenly tripped, and dropped the tree. The tree was jerked out of my arms, and it rolled to the bottom of the hill, much faster than we could have carried it.
“I guess you got your wish,” I told my sister.”
“Yeah,” she murmured, her voice tight.
When we reached the bottom we surveyed the tree. The fall had bent its perfectly straight top, and a few of its branches had been mashed to one side. Other than that, it didn’t seem too harmed.
“Poor thing,” My sister cooed, picking up one end of the tree, and patting it’s bent tip. “I promise I won’t drop you again.”
We both picked the now-not-so-perfect tree up and, struggled onward through the snow until we found ourselves at the edge of the stream we had crossed earlier.
“How are we both going to balance this tree over that shifty log?” I asked.
“We just will,” my sister said, starting on ahead.
“Wait,” I cried, stumbling over the log. “You’re going too fast! And I’m carrying the heavy end.”
My sister didn’t hear me. I tripped, lost my balance. I fell, and took the tree and my sister down into the stream with me.
We screamed in shock, as the icy water drenched our already-cold bodies.
“It’s freezing!” I cried, standing up, and shivering. The water rushed around my legs, and shoes, turning the skin it touched numb. I steadied myself on the slippery rocks, and helped my sister to stand.
“Oh!” My sister moaned. “I’m f..frozen.”
“I can’t feel my feet,” I chattered.
My sister started to cry. “I…c…can’t f…feel my b…bum!”
I stared down at the our tree. Water was washing over its branches. A large branch at the bottom had been bent completely out of shape. The long journey, brushing through shrubs and branches had knocked a lot of its needles off. It looked as weathered, wet, and miserable as we were. We both managed to pick up the fallen tree, and slogged through the stream, and out onto the snowy ground, feeling very wet, and very cold. We trudged up the side of the road and over to our truck.
“We finally made it,” my sister said, helping to lift the tree into the back of the truck.
We both heaved it into the truck and stood there inspecting it, as we shivered in the moonlit night, icicles clinging to our wet hair, and frost gathering at our soggy pants.
“It l…looks t…terrible,” my sister chattered. “I think the moonlight tricked us. It doesn’t look anything like it did on the mountain.”
I nodded. “I k…k…k…now.”
Discouraged, we made our way to the front of the truck. But before we got in, something a few feet away from the truck caught my eye.
I shone my flashlight through the shrubs. “L...look!”
My sister gasped, and then moaned. “It’s the perfect tree! Look at its feathery branches. It’s beautiful, beautiful. It’s ten times more beautiful than the our tree. It’s exactly the perfect height, fullness, and color. And it was so close to where we were. Why didn’t we see it?”
I smiled, feeling like laughing and crying at the same time. I pondered all the struggles we had been through to find the perfect tree, only to arrive at the same place we had started from. “If only we had just looked over there,” I murmured.
On the drive home we both were very quiet, thinking of our failed struggle up the mountain, in order to obtain perfection. The words, “If only we had just looked,” ran over and over in my mind.
“If only I had looked.” We had looked. But in all the wrong places.
It made me wonder what it must have been like for those who had lived in Bethlehem, who missed the event that would change the world forever. Were the shepherds the only ones in Bethlehem looking for a Savior---were they the only ones in that entire city longing for the Prince of Peace to come. Were they the only ones looking in the right places, ready to hear, and see the Angels?
And out of an entire race of people, were the Wisemen that came from afar, the only wise people in all the world, to see the star in the heavens, and follow it?
Wasn’t anyone else paying attention?
I wondered that perhaps many had been looking, but maybe they had been too busy.
Like the Wisemen of old, we too had been on a hunt.
They, for the Son of God, the Christ child, the perfect Lamb who would redeem mankind from imperfection.
And us, hunting for the perfect tree. But we failed to see it because it was right there within arm’s reach. We had trudged through the snow, up hills and through streams, groping in the darkness, chasing the illusion of the perfect tree that did not exist out there on top of the hill.
I wonder why so many of us struggle in the dark, trying to find perfection, only to become frustrated and discouraged. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we find a bit of perfection, like the near-perfect tree, sparkling in the moonlight, we had found on the edge of the hill. Though an illusion, we struggle to hold on to it, but it soon becomes a burden that is too heavy to bear. Perfection is like that. You can’t hold onto it for very long. Before long, it slips from your grasp and all you can do is try to pick up the pieces.
In your frustration you trudge back home, knowing deep inside yourself that your quest has been in vain, and the tree that had looked so beautiful in the moonlight is now battered and scared.
Then, cold, hungry, and tired you ready yourself to go back home, only to find the illusive perfect tree just a few yards away from where you started your journey.
If only you had looked.
I think of Christ and his ministry and I wonder if I had lived at his time, would I have taken the time to listen, to give him a closer look? Would have I looked at his dirty clothes, and scoffed at his lowly carpenter’s profession. Would I have asked him about his degree and his level of education? Would have I passed him by, in search of a grander, more perfect-looking person? Would I have peered in the manger and recognized a God, a king, a Savior. And perfection?
If the Christ child had been born in my time, would I have scoffed a the sight of dirty strangers sleeping in a cave, and then reported his mother to social services for laying their babe in such dirty conditions?
This question haunts me. Because it’s so easy to pass by the perfection of now, for the promise of an illusion in the future. We pine away the hours, searching for our castles made of gold, while forgetting to enjoy the warmth of the sun that is shining down on us right now.
If only we had looked.
If only we had taken the time.
If only we had listened.
If only I had cared.
If only I had stopped.
If only I had known.
If only I had written.
If only I had taken time off.
If I had only known his cancer was not in remission.
These words are haunting, almost chilling. Yet we forget to look, everyday.
We hunt our whole lives for empty things: for perfect grades, the perfect boyfriend, to be the perfect wife, to find the perfect gift. But we search in all the wrong places.
Yet in with our imperfect sight, Christ sees us clearly. Christ doesn’t demand perfection. He is perfection. He was bruised and broken for us. And if our branches get broken, or our trunk bent, he doesn’t mind.
We may spend a lifetime hunting for perfection and never find it. We may search, and seek and do and give and get and push and wear ourselves out struggling for that divine place of perfection that does not exist. It is only in, and through Christ that we find what ever it is we are hunting for.
For his perfection covers our imperfection. It is not who we are, but who he is. All we need do is look. And once you start really looking, be it in a manger stall, or within your own four walls, you will be amazed at what you find.
Christmas isn’t something you keep. It’s something you find when you’ve stopped searching, and started really looking.