“I want to finger-knit,” Laura said, spying the colorful threads erupting from Silke’s backpack. Guinevere echoed, then corrected herself. “No,” she said, “I want to braid.” Surrounded by a tangle of yarn, pink, purple and a fairytale blend of gold, blue, red and green, Silke was trying to get the children set up before the urgency of the cold set in. I was working on the fire.
“Who took the ball of yarn?” Silke asked, twisting first left, then right.
“Here!” Sebastian answered, passing her the round ball of wool.
“Maybe it was the wichtels,” I said.
“The what?” Peter asked.
“I want to finger-knit,” Laura said, growling impatiently.
“The wichtels,” I repeated, eyeing Silke with a smile.
“Oh, I know about the wichtels,” Pema boasted, a sly smile spreading across her face.
Working quickly, I broke branches into thin little wisps of firewood and fed them to the nascent flames. Silke, having burned most of the paper in one ill-fated attempt, had, once again, ruined my opinion of her fire-making skills. Still, as always, her calm and joyful manner did more to warm the children than my frank appraisals.
Hunkered under a juniper tree, Silke and the children had watched as I scrambled to erect a shelter as the late fall rain turned to sleet, then snow. The tree was better. But now my hands were freezing. Everyone’s were. I had on three pairs of pants, two shirts, three jackets and a hat, but I could still feel the cold seeping in. Where were those wichtels?
“Look, a fire!” shouted Guinevere. The matchstick flame had leapt into the crumpled lunch bag, but I doubted whether the pencil thin wafers of damp sagebrush would ignite. As the bag deflated into ash, the lattice of sage smoldered and sank. Suddenly, a glorious yellow flame shot above. “Fire!” I yelled, smiling eagerly at Guinevere, not daring to stop my hands. Snapping off the thin, dead branches of the juniper above my head, I eased them into the flames, then swiped away a loose thread.
Hands still working, I followed the thread with my eyes as it twisted over the lichen-covered rock and ended in the pert hands of Sebastian. “I like finger-knitting,” he said, mouth cocked in a self-confident smile. Gazing across the fire, Guinevere, Laura and Agnes shivered impatiently. “I want to braid,” Guinevere said with urgency. “Be patient girls,” Silke answered, “I can only set you up one at a time.”
“Here,” I said, “I’ll help you.” My confidence in the fire being sufficiently kindled, I leaned toward Silke and filched a piece of pink yarn. “You want to braid?” I asked Guinevere, “or finger-knit?” Braiding requires three pieces of yarn. Finger-knitting, while a bit more complicated, only one. “Braid!” she shouted, happy to have the attention. Silke quickly cut two more pieces, one purple, one multicolored, and handed them to me. “Thanks,” I said, nodding my head. She nodded back, a look that meant we had crossed the threshold. I turned to climb over Peter, who was nestled next to the fire between two rocks.
Thankfully, all the children were well-dressed, but Peter was the picture of a forest kindergartner. I’ve seen the videos, onesie-clad children romping through the forests of Germany and Denmark. Their boots are exceptional. Befitting New Mexico, we’re more of a motley crew, but at least most of our kids had rain jackets and an extra pair of pants. This wintery storm had caught most of us by surprise, and Peter was the only one truly prepared. Covered head to toe in a neon green jumpsuit, inflatable, impenetrable, in extreme emergencies even edible, he appeared just like those happy children in the forests of Denmark with their pointy hats and solid boots. Maybe those are the wichtels.
“Okay,” I said, tying one end of the yarn to a tree branch, “you can braid here.” Guinevere took the strings in her hands. I glanced at the fire, putting my hand out to gauge its warmth. “Do you remember how to braid,” I asked, “or do you need help?”
“I can do it,” she answered.
Climbing back around Peter, I wedged my feet between two rocks and added a few more twigs to the fire. Hunched under the tree with poor footing, I was growing increasingly uncomfortable, pleasantly so as the urgency of the moment gave way to the fact that I noticed my discomfort. We were alive and irritable. How lovely. By now, Silke had set up most of the kids with finger-knitting, and the chaos of our damp arrival was settling into something approaching calm. The kids were engaged. We were dry (mostly). We had a fire and a growing bed of coals. Turning to the rude shelter I had put up earlier, a camouflage rain fly from a discarded tent, I watched as Shady, Silke’s dog, climbed underneath. At least someone was using it.
“I want to finger-knit,” Peter said. He was draped casually between two lichen-covered stones, as if he belonged in a Dali painting. The neon jumpsuit only added to the surrealism. “I’ll help you,” I said, turning to Silke for a length of string. She smiled cheerfully. “Hey, look at that!” I said, spying a fresh bundle of twigs near the fire, “must have been the wichtels!”
“What’s a wichtels?” Guinevere asked, in her slightly exasperated tone that has become, somehow, endearing to me. Politeness is great, but vitality is better.
“A veek-tul,” Silke said, correcting my pronunciation.
“What’s a veek-tul?” Guinevere repeated.
“Yeah, what’s a veek-dol?” shouted Peter. Pema chuckled.
I watched as the children’s mouths flared and puckered as they began mouthing the uncommon word. There’s something so comical about a letter made out of two V’s, called a double-U, that makes the sound wha. Germans, apparently, don’t have this problem.
“A wichtel is a Christmas gnome,” Silke answered, as if this cleared everything up. “Like a little elf that loves to help people.” I laughed, then fed the fire.
Silke and I had had this conversation a few days earlier. Having grown up without any pretense about fairies and ghosts (I was never even led to believe in Santa Claus), I am decidedly ignorant about the differences between trolls and gnomes, elves and fairies. Thankfully, Silke is a treasure chest of information on the subject, and, amidst our conversation, wherein I expertly expressed my incredulity and she matched my brevity with wistfulness, she not only managed to educate me on the varied traits of such creatures, but even managed to retrieve an illustrated edition of the Book of Gnomes. Aside from their ripe old age, and a certain bosomy appearance of the females, the essential takeaway I got from that book was a map of their habitat.
Much as a map of North America might be drawn to illustrate the extent of a particular bird or rodent, this map of Europe was highlighted in red where gnomes were known to live, yellow where they were not. A hale and hearty creature, gnomes seem to avoid the Mediterranean climes, preferring the cold air and blustery weather of the northern countries. Fully half of the continent was awash with these peaceful, endearing creatures. I had no idea. Turning the page, a similar map of North America shed some light on my ignorance. Markedly yellow, the extent of gnomes in the new world seems relegated to a handful of inclement towns in the Midwest. “Gnomes are out all year,” Silke clarified, “but wichtels only come out during Christmas, when the people have extra chores for the holidays.”
“Silke, my fingers are cold,” Guinevere complained.
“Yeah, mine too,” said Laura, smiling pleasantly at the fact.
“My hands are cold,” Pema whined.
“Put your work down, children, and put your hands near the fire if you need to warm them,” Silke said, taking a half second longer to pronounce the unfamiliar wha sound in “work” and “warm,” producing a funny rhythm to her speech.
“My hands are cold, but…” Peter said to no one in particular. He paused, as if on the precipice of a mountain, then, smiling brightly, added, “…I don’t care,” and fell apart at his own hilarity. Not caring, like poop, is perfectly serious when alone, hilarious when with others.
“My hands are cold,” Sebastian said proudly, “but… spzlatlasslls…” and he fell forward with a flopping motion, his hands and lips giggling profusely. Then, caught off guard by another thought, he sat up and turned serious. “Actually, Silke…?” he said, suddenly calm and matter-of-fact, “if my hands are cold,” and here he held out his hands gracefully for everyone to see. “I wrap them up like this…” he continued, focusing his eyes intently on his hands, which formed a sort of prayerful ball, “…and blow on them…and then…” Here, he released his hands with a magical intention, blowing air out of his open mouth and opening his hands toward the fire. One can only imagine what was going on in his mind.
“Silke, my fingers are cold,” Guinevere repeated, this time bouncing with the urgency of her complaint.
“Here,” Silke answered, taking a stone from the fire ring. “Hold it in your hands,” she said, “like a hot potato…like this…” and she tossed it back and forth to demonstrate. “So it doesn’t burn you… Or, here… you can put it on the ground…” and again she demonstrated, “and just pat it.” Silke held the stone out to Guinevere, who stared at it with wide eyes. No one, presumably, had ever given her a hot rock before. Soon all the kids were clambering for one. “Joe,” Silke said to me, “see if you can gather a few more small stones…”
“Like potatoes?” I asked.
“Like potatoes,” she said, rolling her eyes, but still laughing.
I set down the sage brush, reflecting on how brilliant Silke is, and began stepping awkwardly over the rocks, and Peter. “Papa Joe?” he asked.
“Can you help me? I can’t find the pond.”
The pond was a little loop in the finger-knitting, a simple mnemonic device for teaching the sequencing and finger skills necessary to turn a string into a handsome knit chain. “Jump in the pond and pull out the fish,” Silke teaches, demonstrating with her thumb and forefinger as she slips through the little loop and pulls the thread out from the other side, which in turn forms a new loop. Jump in the pond, pull out the fish. Jump in the pond, pull out the fish. When all is said and done, the children have a colorful little chain, but, more importantly, a refinement in their motor skills and hand-eye coordination. What’s more, they love it.
Like anyone first learning this task, Peter had pulled the string too hard and “lost” his pond, an error that is readily fixed by loosening the most recent stitch. “Um... hold on,” I said, enjoying the gentle downpour of tasks competing for my attention.
Out from under the tree, I stood tall and my back responded with the most wonderful applause. Then I leaned over to pick up a few wet rocks. Potato rocks. My bare hands, now quite warm from the constant activity, felt the grit and slime as I dug through the earth. I turned for a second and saw the children, the juniper covering them like a devoted guardian. Silke on the far side, fire in the center. Gray clouds lingered in my periphery. Kindergarten.