It was colder than usual. Under his blanket, Fox curled up tight, wrapping his tail over his nose. He tugged the blanket closer and slept on, dreaming of the world covered in a white quilt.
Fox was awake. That was how it worked every morning, though he did wonder if other creatures went from asleep to awake so suddenly. Every morning, he wondered the same thing and resolved to ask Monkey at lunch if it was the same for her, but then he never did. He smiled to himself as he got up and tidied the room before going out to meet the twins for their morning exercises. But when he stepped outside, there was something different. Different! It was never different in the yard outside the tea house. Fox looked around, taking in the new scene. It was frosted over, like a dusting of sugar had been shaken over it. He padded through the house to the back and looked out at the pond. It was also frosty. He walked out to the end of the dock and reached down. He had been planning on doing a little fishing, but the pond was frozen solid! So much for fishing.
Out in the yard, the twins were waiting.
"It snowed," they said together. They were wearing matching scarves around their necks, one red with white snowflakes, one white with blue snowflakes.
Fox nodded. "It did," he agreed. "But we can still do our exercises if you like. I can sweep the snow away." How odd, to sweep so early in the morning. But there was snow.
"We brought you something!" the twins said. They held out two parcels.
Fox unwrapped them, one after the other. The paper on the parcels matched the scarves around the twins' necks. Inside one was a scarf, red and green striped. Inside the other was a matching red hat to wear, with a little green bobble at the top. Fox put them on and found that they fit perfectly. He thanked the twins and then got his broom.
Fox was utterly at a loss. Usually, after he did his exercises with the twins and went fishing, he found himself in the yard, tending the flowers. Or he was in the orchard out behind the pond, getting some persimmons. But when he had finished his exercises and the twins had gone home, he had nothing to do without the fishing. So instead he had gone inside and looked through his chests and closets for anything else to do. And then, promptly at eight in the morning, he found himself with a bowl of persimmons on his table and knitting needles in his paws. He was knitting a pair of mittens. Which was odd indeed, as he didn't recall owning any yarn or knowing how to knit.
Still, they did seem like nice mittens and the rhythm of the needles in his paws was soothing in this strangely unpredictable time.
Mid-morning usually meant giving the chicks a bath in the front yard, but the chicks showed up shivering and Fox brought them inside to warm up by the stove. He was just putting the kettle on when the frog arrived at the back door. Fox welcomed her in and poured her and the chicks some tea, then spread out their usual lunch on the table instead of the grass.
"Why did it snow, I wonder?" the frog asked. She was wearing a little hat as well. It was yellow and made of yarn with tinsel woven into it. "Why now, I mean?" she continued. "Is it time for snow?"
That made Fox think for a moment. How did one tell when it was time for snow? He couldn't quite recall.
Tidying up at noon was business as usual. Fox brought his broom inside, shaking it off first and making sure he wouldn't be getting his floor all wet. But no, it was dry enough. So he swept and cleaned and put away the leftovers from lunch and put on a new pot of water for tea.
Usually he took some time out on the pond in the back, rowing, but with the pond frozen over, no rowing would be happening today. Fox got out his knitting again, intent on finishing at least one of the mittens if he couldn't go out on the pond, when there was a knock on his door. When he went to see who it was, the twins were there, with ice skates slung over their shoulders by the laces.
"Could we skate on your pond?" they asked.
Fox looked back over his shoulder, through the house and out to the pond. Then he looked back at the twins.
"Of course," he told them. "I don't have any skates, though."
Except he did. They were sitting right by the back door, ready to be put on and laced up. So they did just that, skating for the next two hours.
While the skating had been fun, Fox was glad to find himself warm indoors when four o'clock rolled around. There were some buns steaming on the stove and the tea was just about ready when there were knocks at both the front and back doors. Fox went to the front door first, expecting his friend Monkey. She came by this time every day for a meal upstairs, but today it was far too cold out to sit up in the open air.
"I brought cookies!" she said, holding up a bundle wrapped in a scarf.
"Wonderful! Please, sit, I'll be right back," Fox told her as he hurried to the back door. A giant tortoise was standing there. It was snowing again, just the barest bit, and some had collected on the tortoise's shell while he'd waited.
"Oh goodness," Fox said, standing aside so the tortoise could come in. It took a while, and by the time the tortoise had gotten all the way through the door, Fox's nose had gotten quite chilly indeed.
After pouring tea for both Monkey and the tortoise, Fox brought some food over and Monkey opened up the bundle of cookies she'd brought. They all sat there together and watched the snow continue to fall over the front garden as the sun set. It seemed awfully early for the sun to be setting, but there it was. Still, it made for a very nice view.
The cranes arrived at six, on the dot. Monkey and the tortoise had left at some point. Fox wasn't sure precisely when, but that was entirely normal. Animals and friends came and went around the tea house. As far as Fox was concerned, that was the beauty of it all. There was always something to do. Always someone to make tea for or talk to or help. So when the cranes arrived, Fox happily invited them in.
"We've already had tea," the tallest of them said. Fox nodded and fetched the cookies Monkey had left instead and fed the cranes bits he broke off.
The snow was still falling outside and after the cookies one of the cranes started to sing. Then the others joined in. Fox found himself singing along without being entirely sure of the words. But they just came to him as they sang.
"We're going to go caroling," the cranes said after they were done. "Do you want to come with us?"
Fox seriously considered it, but then shook his head.
"No, I need to make my supper and someone might come by. But thank you for coming!"
Two hours later, while Fox was sitting down to eat his evening meal, he could hear the singing from down the road. Later, after he cleaned up, he went to stand on the dock outside, overlooking the frozen pond. He could still hear the music in the air and got out his lute to play along. Maybe they could hear him.
When it came time for Fox to light the lanterns outside in the front yard he found that not only did he have the lanterns, but he had a box full of other lights to put up. There were so many options: Big bulbs, small ones, multicolored, white, little lit icicles and stars. Fox went through them and chose a few strings of plain white lights and a few stars to hang, then wove them around the bamboo and other plants in the front garden.
Once everything was lit, Fox stood in the snow-covered yard and looked around. It had gotten so dark so early, and the cold had kept him indoors more than he was used to. But then, he'd had so many guests, and gifts, and good food. They'd gone skating and he had half of a brand new pair of mittens he was making himself. And now the yard looked so cheerful and bright, even well into the evening.
Fox went back inside and sat for a while at the window, just watching as the snow continued to fall, the lights in the bamboo shining through the tiny flakes.
Usually, Fox stayed up late, practicing his calligraphy. Tonight, however, he got out little note cards and his book of addresses. First a thank you note for the twins, for both the gifts and their company. Then one for Monkey that included an invitation to join him for skating soon. The tortoise, the cranes, the chicks, they all got little cards. Fox wrote to each one of his friends in turn. Outside, the snow had stopped and Fox used the view of the snow-covered yard as inspiration for drawings on the front of every card.
They weren't bad, if he did say so himself.
He addressed each card's envelope and quickly padded out through the garden to his post box outside the front gate. He left them inside with an extra note and a cookie in a folded napkin for the mail carrier. Back inside, Fox looked around. He wasn't quite sleepy yet and the sky had cleared some, so he took out his telescope and brought it to the back dock, just like he did every night.
As he set up the telescope he couldn't help but wonder at the snow and the frozen pond, at the knitting and the cookies and the cards and all the strange but lovely things his day had brought. Why now? Why this?
Fox turned a knob on his telescope and then peered into it, aiming it upwards where words swirled through the sky.
Your Order Has Shipped
Someone was getting quite a few parcels, Fox noted. Normally the words that drifted through the sky above him were varied messages about work and lunch and all the things one might expect. Tonight, however, they were all shipments and orders and sales.
A Gift for You!
Fox paused, then focused the telescope a bit better, scanning the words intently now. Line after line described presents and invitations to parties and orders placed.
"Oh. I see," Fox said to himself. He smiled and sat back from the telescope. "That does explain it."
Late in the night, Fox was asleep. It was still cold, so he had wrapped an extra blanket around himself for the night. Outside, the snow was falling again. The ghosts of foxes who had tended the house before Fox drifted through the yard, stopping to look at the lights and the snow and the mail in the mailbox outside the gate.
"Winter," one of the ghosts whispered to the others as they passed through the walls of the house and over Fox.
One of them stopped to hover over Fox and tuck the blanket in tighter. Fox shivered in his sleep and curled up, tucking his tail over his nose. The ghost smiled and followed the others out the back and over the pond, leaving Fox to sleep and wake in the morning to snow on the ground and a day full of gifts and treats and friends.