It wasn’t like the soft snow Jasper’s dad would take him to in the mountains. Within five minutes of making slush balls, his gloves—meant for cold, not snow—were soaked through and the ninety-six percent humidity combined with the thirty-six degree ambient temperature proved a frigid mixture. Jasper didn’t let on to the others of his shivering and how he would rather be at home in front of the heater reading a book, but he did remove his wet gloves and thrust his hands into his pockets.
They sloshed along the pavement as the rain fell. A newspaper, still dry in its pink plastic bag, nested in a clump of grass with a headline that read Hostage Journalist Killed in Syria Three Months Ago. Jasper kicked it.
The three turned a corner onto a short street with a few houses to one side decorated for Christmas in gaudy fashion; one with what appeared to be a deflated Mickey in a Santa hat lying prostrate on the lawn, another with lights not reaching across the entire roofline, and the last one featured a gyrating animatronic Frosty the Snowman that had seen better days. Jasper wished for his old house, done in old-fashioned big bulbs—his father wrapped each window, doorframe, and the pitch of the roof with precision until it looked like something out of a gingerbread fairytale.
On the opposite side of the street stood a single house—set on a hill and surrounded by ancient firs on both sides. Most houses in the city didn’t have so much yard, or forest in this case. The house itself, what Jasper could see from the street, seemed as old as any of the other houses around there—mid-century and white. The firs were much older, swaying high above, thick with old branches that threatened to crack and crash under the slightest breeze. “Who lives there?” Jasper asked.
“Weirdos.” Alan scooped more slush into a ball.
Jasper laughed. “Would have to be. Like who?”
Cassie laughed, “You never heard of the town witch before?”
“He just moved here, remember?” Alan threw the slush ball at Cassie and it exploded against the back of her head.
“I just wanna look.” Jasper climbed the hill. A peek over the fence might collect him some respect points. From the looks of the unkempt state of the shrubs and trees and ivy-smothered hill, he figured the person who lived there must be old and unable to do much. At the top of the driveway he found a stone stairway covered in overgrown ivy. He picked his way up the hill toward the fence perched at the top. The ivy that covered the fence was thick, but he pulled it aside and found a tiny knot where a hole worn through and kneeled, wet hands in wet ground to see beyond.
Behind the weathered fence on the feral hill among the ancient firs were trees of a different sort. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Maybe the angle he looked from gave him distorted vision? Something wasn’t right. The colors were certain, though. And it had to be trees. Yes, peering again through the tiny hole he saw gold, silver, crimson, and pink-leaved trees. The sound of running water. A fountain?
Jasper sat back on his haunches, holding himself with a hand still on the ground. This ground wasn’t cold, though.
Alan and Cassie waited at the bottom of the hill and Jasper rejoined them.
“See anything?” Cassie asked.
That night in his bed, Jasper recalled what he saw on the other side of the fence. It was a quick look and through a small almost pin-prick of a hole, he could have seen anything, he explained it away to himself. A knock on the door.
She opened the door and sat on his bed. “You doing okay? You seemed quiet tonight.”
He wasn’t about to tell her the whole truth. “I’m okay. Just thinking.”
She buttoned the top button of his pajamas that he had missed and grabbed his hand and held it like she had done for as long as he could remember. Her hair was silvering in thin streaks on the sides. He liked these moments with his mother, but he’d never say that aloud. He squeezed her hand back. The newspaper headline reappeared in his mind. He missed his father.
“I’ll need some help tomorrow putting up the lights.”
A bit of silence. He hoped he could remember how Dad had done them. He noticed a tear on his mother’s cheek. Their first Christmas without him.
The next day, Jasper returned to the street to get another look at the house on the hill. He sneaked back to peek again through the hole in the fence. He touched the ground again to make sure he hadn’t imagined its differing temperature from the surrounding world.
A woman with long black hair, barely the age of his mother if not younger, stood on the ivy-covered steps. “Can I help you?” she asked.
Jasper scrambled for words in his embarrassment of being caught. “Sorry. Was a dare. I’ll go. I’m sorry.”
She smiled mixed with laugh. “A dare? To look in my backyard?”
“They said an old witch lived here.”
“Did they now?” She laughed again and gestured with her head towards the house. “Come with me, I’ll show you if you like.”
Don’t talk to strangers gonged through his head, but there was something peaceful and captivating about this. Besides, she wasn’t an old cranky lady about to eat him for dinner—he hoped.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Carra.” She held out her hand. Her skin was cold but he sensed against his palm a tingle like electricity. “The gate in the fence is a bit warped and hard to open, so if you’d like to see the backyard, you are welcome to come through the house.”
He had to see. “Alright.”
He followed her down the ivy steps and across the driveway to another set of steps that weren’t as overgrown, and walked behind her up toward the front door. “You were watching me?” he asked.
“You aren’t the first kid who has tried to see if the house is haunted, or whatever it is you and your friends think.”
“Did you eat the last one?”
“I should have. That would be a better story.” She laughed again. “No. When I startled him, he ran. Almost slipped down the drive, poor thing.”
The inside of the house appeared as normal as any other. Two chairs, a couch, a fireplace, a Christmas tree, a cup of steaming coffee beside an open newspaper filled with bold headlines about Food Shortages, Russia Takes Syria, Banks Fail. Jasper’s gut squeezed in on itself caused by the uneasiness that the real world showed its ugly face even there where the air felt at peace.
She led him through the kitchen and opened the door to the yard. He stepped outside and saw the rhododendrons, stalks of dead plants in bare flower beds, splotches of bright green moss scattered on concrete block walls—the same as any other backyard in the neighborhood, except for the towering firs. The smaller trees he thought he had seen covered in strangely colored leaves were all bare, normal as any tree.
“You seem disappointed.”
“I thought… I saw colors.”
“Did you expect to see them today?”
Jasper paused. “No. I told myself I was seeing things.”
“Would you like to see my wishing tree? It only blooms at Christmastime.”
Jasper looked at her, curious. “Yes?”
She followed a stone path around the corner of the house. He trailed her and saw nothing spectacular. The trees were still bare sticks.
“Close your eyes.”
“Now look if you want to see.”
He opened his eyes and there was one of the trees, bare but seconds before, covered in shimmering gold leaves. He stared and she laughed. “You see it again?”
When he blinked, the other trees’ leaves of otherworldly colors and material appeared as he had glimpsed them the day before. “How?”
“You may take a leaf. With it you may choose any wish you like, but its cost is you will lose something dear to you, or on the other hand, you may choose a completely selfless wish, though the cost of that is not to be taken lightly.”
Jasper weighed his options. He stepped toward the trees and reached for one of the gold leaves. It plucked easily and he held it in his hand. It was light, but heavy enough to realize it was real.
Carra saw him back to the front door.
“How will I know what to wish for?”
“You will know.”
He held the gold leaf in his hand.
“Look up, darling.”
Above him, large fluffy flakes of snow were falling. They drifted to the ground and piled around his shoes, mounding around the rocks and unpruned shrubs and filling the air with their quiet.
Jasper took his leaf home and wrapped it in a sock and hid it in the back of the drawer. He didn’t know what to wish for. Everything he considered seemed selfish. He wished his father wasn’t a headline in a newspaper, but home and at his desk surrounded by his books. Safe. A few days later, Jasper took the sock out and unrolled the leaf. It wasn’t gold. He held a fleshy maple leaf in his fingers. Not ready to give up what he saw as vivid imagination, he tucked the leaf away again. After a few weeks, Jasper forgot the leaf was there, the way you forget a dream upon waking and living in reality again—the way strange things happen to normal people and they eventually convince themselves those things never truly happened.
Over the years, Jasper and his mother adjusted to his father not being there. It was five years after Jasper received the gold leaf, in the December after his eighteenth birthday, when the world began to unravel. Unemployment Reaches Thirty-Five Percent. The New USSR and China Invade Japan. The comforts everyone knew were failing. The cold weather lasted too long and the food that year was in short supply. Jasper had walked earlier in the day with Cassie to the grocer’s.
“Have you heard from Alan?” Jasper asked.
“Only that he’s deployed to the East Coast, somewhere near Newark.”
Jasper sat with his mother that evening in their living room beside the fire and the tiny Christmas tree, a candle lit for his father on the mantle. They watched the news and his mother cried as the somber journalist reported the unthinkable was happening. War was encroaching on their doorstep and it was only a matter of time. Jasper placed his hand on his mother’s back to comfort her. The weakness of his inability to shadow his father’s sure steps before him amplified as he took it all in.
When night fell, he opened the old drawer. He remembered Carra and closed his eyes, feeling foolish but grasping for any hope. He fished into the back and took out the rolled-up sock and loosened it.
He held the golden leaf in his hand.
He considered his options. He could wish anything for himself, but the dearest thing he had was his mother. The witch had never told him what the cost would be for the selfless wish, but perhaps he wasn’t helpless after all.
He kissed his mother and stepped outside into the freezing night. Jasper held the wish in his cupped hands and watched it rise into the air, a glow radiating from the leaf’s intricate, lacy veins. As the gold leaf floated, the light from it blossomed outward, a bloom of golden cloud that grew until it covered the earth. As Jasper collapsed to the warm ground, clutching his heart, he knew the world would rest easy that night.