Under the Mistletoe
by Philibert Schogt
Early one morning in central France, a woman was coming down a forest path, leafing through a travel guide. Years ago, when her husband had walked here beside her, there had been no need for written information. Now she read that the paths through this wood, radiating at equal angles from circular clearings, were the very ones taken by chevaliers in Medieval days. She sighed and dropped the book into her shoulder bag. The forest was awakening with bird song, sharp in the cold dawn air. The trees, covered with mosses and ivy, were thinner than she remembered, and in spite of fresh horseshoe prints in a muddy stretch of the path, she could not imagine noble knights passing this way. Looking up at the treetops, she smiled upon seeing the dense, bushy clusters of leaves clinging to some of the branches, clusters she had once mistaken for bird’s nests.
“Those are not bird’s nests,” her husband had laughed. “It’s mistletoe.”
Mistletoe,” she had whispered, savouring the magical sound of the word. She had gone to stand underneath one of the clusters, shy in her flowered dress. “You’re supposed to kiss me now.”
Obligingly, he kissed her on both cheeks, then took her by the hand and pulled her back onto the path. “Come on. We’re expected back at the hotel for lunch.”
“But look at all that mistletoe,” she said, gently squeezing his hand.
“Actually, it’s not as romantic as it sounds, at least not from a biological perspective.
And with a dry little cough he had launched into another one of his lectures. Mistletoe was a parasite. Eventually, those clumps would choke the tree on which they were feeding.
With her husband’s voice ringing in her mind, expounding on the origin of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, on the use of its berries in making birdlime, she arrived at one of the clearings mentioned in the travel guide. She stopped at its edge, hugging herself to stay warm. In the middle of the clearing, jutting out from the bed of rotting leaves, was a small grey stone with a rounded top: an old road marker, perhaps.
“Which way to the hotel?” she wondered aloud. She had walked far enough, and was looking forward to breakfast.
Where’s your sense of direction, darling. Look at how lost you are without me.
She crossed the clearing, stepping carefully around the small stone. To her astonishment, it moved away from her, then froze at a slant, as if it were about to topple over. She bent down to take a better look. What she had thought was a stone turned out to be an owl. It cowered in the bed of leaves, blinking up at her. One leg hung limply behind its body, the talon groping helplessly in search of support. When she moved closer, it puffed up its feathers and tried to retreat, only to sag down farther into the leaves.
She knelt down beside it. Its head and neck were covered with a fine layer of white down. A baby owl. It must have fallen out of its nest.
“You poor thing,” she said, reaching out a hesitant hand.
Don’t touch it, dear. Don’t touch it.
As she stroked its trembling body, the eyes closed. Ants were scurrying around it; a shiny black worm was crawling towards its injured leg. The flesh had torn, the exposed joint was red and seemed inflamed.
“I’ll take you to the village,” she said.
You’ll do nothing of the sort.
“To the nearest farm. They will take care of you.”
You know the French. They’re not as sentimental as we are, honey. The only thing that interests them about an animal is whether it’s edible.
“It needs help,” she pleaded. “It cannot make it on its own.”
Then that’s the way it should be. Survival of the fittest is a law of nature.
She went to the edge of the clearing to pick a few blades of grass. Nothing happened when she held the grass under the owl’s beak. She brushed it lightly over its nostrils. In a dim reflex the beak opened, but only briefly.
A fine mother you would make! Owls are carnivorous, sweetheart. Try feeding it that worm.
She winced. If only she had worn gloves. She should have worn gloves anyway; her hands were becoming numb with cold. Gathering her courage, she picked up the wriggling worm and held it against the owl’s beak. There was no reaction now: the eyes remained closed, the beak would not open.
It’s no use. Even if you feed it now, it will starve sooner or later. Don’t prolong its agony. Leave it alone. Better yet, help it out of its misery. Wring its neck.
She cried out and threw the worm away.
The dampness of the forest floor was beginning to soak through her nylon stockings. She stood up, wiped the earth from her knees, and chose one of the paths leading away from the clearing. One final time, she looked back. The baby owl was sitting where she had left it, motionless as a miniature gravestone.
It’s no use, the whole forest seemed to say. She heard her husband chuckling softly among the treetops. In all her memories of him, he was laughing at her. Even on their honeymoon, here in France, in this very forest, he had laughed at her. About the mistletoe.
She now saw what he had meant. There was nothing romantic about this forest. The trees around her were slowly being choked by the mistletoe, and the ivy winding its way around the trunks would take care of the rest. She hurried on, longing for the comfort of the hotel.
“Bonjour,” the woman said as she entered the dining room.
People looked up from their breakfasts and smiled sympathetically.
The young German couple she had spoken to last night greeted her a second time when she passed their table. In the far corner, a lone man sat chewing his bread while staring out of the window at the hotel gardens. She took her seat opposite him.
“Where were you?” he asked her.
“I went for a walk.”
“So I see.” He leaned over the table to pull a twig out of her hair, then went back to eating.