This holiday season, my friend Elizabeth Koelle suggested a return to the grand old Christmas tradition of telling ghost stories. She’s right — ghost stories are a great way to celebrate the darkest, spookiest days of the year. A roaring fire, good things to eat, a glass or mug of something lovely, and wonderful entertainment … I can’t think of a better way to spend a winter’s evening.
Here is a true ghost story from my collection Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays. Enjoy!
Footprints in the Snow
It was a cold winter afternoon early in the last century. A mother huddled in her cabin on the west fork of the Little Pigeon River in Tennessee. She held two of her children in a tight embrace … but one was missing. Her two-year-old son had wandered away from the cabin earlier that day. Since then, the temperature had been falling steadily, along with a heavy snow.
A neighbor came in, stamping the snow from his boots, to grab a few moments’ warmth by the fire. The mother looked up, hope dawning briefly in her eyes—then looked back down, defeated, at the shake of the neighbor’s head. She was grateful, of course, that all the menfolk were out looking for her precious lost little one. Word had been passed from cabin to homestead, from house to church, and soon the entire community was out looking. Her own husband was off in Europe in the trenches, fighting the Germans. All she could do was pray that one of the neighbors would find her little boy—and soon.
Dr. Thomas appeared at the door of the cabin. He’d dressed warmly for the trudge through the woods. He’d come thinking to help the young mother. One look at her stricken face, though, and he realized that he could best help not by doctoring her, but by finding her missing son. Pulling his heavy overcoat closed, he headed out into the snowstorm with the other searchers.
Dr. Thomas struck off in a random direction, hoping he was looking at ground that hadn’t already been covered. With the snow falling so thickly, the footprints of the searching men were soon being covered over. Dr. Thomas held his lantern high in the gathering dusk as he scanned the area.
The shadows of the evening crowded close under the pines as the last light of day slipped away. The doctor stopped for a moment, listening to the silence of the woods. Somewhere, he knew, men were searching for the little boy with dogs. But he hadn’t yet heard the deep bay of a hound on a scent.
All around him, the snow fell in a silent hush. The branches of the pines swayed with the wind, even as laden with snow as they were. As night fell, the snowstorm grew worse. Dr. Thomas trudged along the dwindling path in the woods, stopping every so often to look closely at any fallen log that might shelter a shivering little boy. His toes were beginning to go numb, even with the three pairs of thick woolen socks he wore. But he kept wandering the woods, his lantern held high in search of any sign of the boy. If he was cold, the toddler would be even worse off.
Dr. Thomas stopped and turned in a slow circle. He couldn’t give up hope, not while the boy was still out there lost in the storm. He held his lantern high … and there on the ground was one footprint. Dr. Thomas bent closer to study it. It wasn’t the track of a deer, or a dog.
It was the footprint of a child. A child who was barefoot.
The doctor’s heart leapt, and adrenaline spun in his cold fingers and toes, warming them briefly. Finally, here was some sign of the boy! The doctor looked around carefully for more footprints.
There was another one, and a third! The bare footprints were just visible in the hard-packed old snow, and as the doctor watched, more appeared, the feathery new snow blowing off of the old prints. Carefully, the doctor followed the prints. As soon as he passed the last one, the next one appeared, leading him further into the woods. The doctor no longer cursed the biting wind, because oddly enough, the wind seemed to be blowing the fresh snow off of the prints, revealing the path the barefoot toddler had taken through the woods.
Dr. Thomas followed the footprints as they led him to a patch of evergreens. The doctor lifted a low-hanging branch, and gasped. There, curled up on a soft bed of fallen pine needles, was the young boy. But the doctor had come too late. The boy’s skin was waxy-white, and his little chest didn’t rise and fall with peaceful sleeping breath.
The boy had frozen to death in the storm.
Dr. Thomas stifled a low moan, and gathered the child up in his arms. He unbuttoned his coat and his woolen shirt, and cradled the boy to his chest. The boy had died in the freezing cold. Although it was too late, the doctor could at least keep him warm for the sad walk home. He rebuttoned his coat and headed back to the cabin.
As the doctor approached the cabin, the young mother came out to meet him. Seeing her there, silhouetted against the yellow glow of the lit cabin behind her, Dr. Thomas felt his spirits sink. How could he break this woman’s heart?
The mother caught sight of the doctor, with his sad burden, and ran to him. Dr. Thomas reached the open cabin door just as the woman came out, crying joyful tears at the return of her baby. The doctor unbuttoned his coat and opened his shirt.
“I’m so sorry. At least I found him …”
And to his shock, the little boy blinked sleepy brown eyes at him. The child turned his head, hearing his mother’s cry of joy. “Momma?”
Stunned, Dr. Thomas handed the toddler to his mother, who cuddled him fiercely. She looked up, tears of gratitude standing in her eyes.
“Thank you, doctor, thank you so much. You saved my little boy. Please, come inside and get warm.”
The doctor followed her into the cabin. His analytical mind fumbled for an explanation. The boy must have been chilled to the point where his vitals had slowed, putting him into a state of suspended animation. The walk back, cuddled against the doctor’s warm chest and wrapped in the heavy overcoat, must have warmed the child slowly, enough for him to recover with no harm done. The gentle warming had brought the child back to life as surely as a violet blooms in the spring. Vaguely, he became aware that the boy’s mother was still talking.
“I’m so grateful to you for finding him!” She kissed the toddler, who sighed sleepily in her arms.
Dr. Thomas roused himself from his thoughts. “Yes, I followed his footprints in the snow. I’m amazed he was able to wander so far with bare feet.”
“Bare feet?” the mother said, puzzled. “But he’s wearing shoes.”
Frowning, Dr. Thomas lifted one of the boy’s feet. Sure enough, the boy was wearing sturdy brogans.
“I have to tie his shoes on tightly, with double knots, so he won’t kick them off,” the mother explained.
“Here, have some coffee, it’ll warm you right up. Good job!” a neighbor said, putting a tin cup into the doctor’s hand. Dr. Thomas accepted the congratulations and heartfelt thanks of his neighbors. The little boy was safe. That was all that mattered.
But the doctor’s scientific mind wouldn’t rest until he’d figured out the answer to the mystery. Several nights later, he woke from a sound sleep, sitting bolt upright in bed, reeling from a thunderclap of realization.
The wind hadn’t blown the fresh snow off of the child’s old prints. The bare footprints had been appearing in the snow, step by step, as he’d been following them. He hadn’t been tracking a living child. He’d been following an invisible child—a ghost, or an angel.