A River Christmas Story

By: Tom Robbins, illustrated by Sarah Coate

Volume 16, Issue 12, December 2021

“How about I try to catch us a nice fish for dinner, Sparkle?”

The old tabby cat stretched out on her shelf just above the warmly glowing potbellied stove perked her head up at her owner’s voice. “A fresh bass would make for a fine Christmas Eve.”


Captain John Robbins pulled on his heavy winter coat, tugged a wool cap over his bald head, and reached for his fishing pole. “Got to get to it before it’s too dark with this fog.”

Stepping out of the snug one-room cabin tucked into the woods on a small bluff overlooking Buttercup Bay on Grindstone Island, the elderly man surveyed the dim landscape before him. The River was frozen solid, with thin streams of water vapor rising from its surface, disappearing into the thick fog shrouding the bay. Twilight was almost at hand.

He trudged downward and onto the ice, walking several yards out but being careful not to lose sight of the shoreline. Finding the bore hole he had made when the River was finally frozen over enough for ice fishing, he sat on the old apple crate nearby and lowered his line into the dark water below. “Come on, Lady St. Lawrence—bring us a fish tonight, please.”

A few moments later he felt the tug, and his face brightened as he hauled the line in, with a good-sized bass dangling at the end. “Looks like we have Christmas Eve dinner, Sparkle! And just in time . . .”

Off to his right, a motion from deep within the fog caught his eye, as he finished cleaning his catch. He sat up and peered into the gloom, only to be startled by the appearance of a figure emerging out of the dense mist, walking towards him.

Figure in fog

The man was swathed in a long coat, a tattered scarf wrapped around his long dark hair and beard, and well-worn pants and boots. He held his hands up. “I don’t mean to scare you. I was out here and the fog was getting thicker and I saw the light from your cabin.”

Captain John examined the man closely. “You’re out here, walking? In this weather? Where are you going?”

“Home.” The man gestured over his shoulder, in the direction of the mainland some two miles away across the River.

“Well, you’ll be lost in a matter of minutes with this fog, if you try to reach town on foot. You can’t be out here in this cold and the dark this time of year—if you don’t freeze to death, you’ll drown. Or both,” John replied.

The man only lowered his head and nodded.

“Look, you’re welcome to come in and get warm. I don’t have much room, but it’s better than this,” John said, waving his arm out towards the bleak atmosphere surrounding them.

“I don’t want to impose,” the man answered in a low, soft voice.

“You’re not imposing. I was just getting dinner for me and my friend. Come on—let’s get inside while we can still see the lantern.”

Cabin in the Woods

The two men entered the tiny cabin, and closing the door behind him, John gestured to a small bench by the stove. The man smiled in thanks and sat, rubbing his woolen-gloved hands together towards the warmth.

Cabin Interior 

“I’m John, by the way—and this is Sparkle,” he explained, pointing to the cat now standing on her paws on the shelf and staring intensely at the visitor. “We have dinner, sweetheart. And someone to share it with.”

“I’m known as Nick,” the man replied, rising to his feet and reaching out to pet Sparkle, who rubbed eagerly against his outstretched hand. “Nice to meet you both. And thank you for your hospitality.”

“I have some vegetables we can eat with this bass,” John said, lifting the small hatch in the wooden floor to reveal a root cellar below. The space was only one-third full. Nick silently noted the scarcity as John rummaged among the limited array of vegetables left available.

“I can’t take your food,” Nick replied. “It’s very generous of you, but I’ll be fine. Please – you and Sparkle must be hungry.”

“You must be too,” John answered. “It’s Christmas Eve—everyone deserves a Christmas dinner.”

After carving the vegetables and roasting the fish along with them in a pan atop the wood stove, John served his guest a plate with half the fish. “It’s not much I know, but it’s hot and nourishing. Enjoy. And Sparkle, here’s yours,” he added, placing a bowl on the floor with the other half of the fish in it. “Merry Christmas.”

Nick gazed down at his full plate. “Merry Christmas to you both, as well,” he spoke in a soft voice. “But you have no fish for yourself.”

John waved the comment off. “Oh, we have fish most every day I can catch one. The vegetables are enough.” The twinge of hunger in his stomach belied the words.

The three finished dinner silently, and Nick rose to his feet. Glancing out the cabin’s small, ice-encrusted window, he noted: “The fog’s lifted. I must be going. Thank you again for your kindness.”

John rose to his feet as well. “You’re welcome. Please be careful as you make your way home.”

Nick nodded, opened the door, and disappeared down the slope to the River.

The Lost Navigator Bar

The Christmas bulbs adorning the interior of The Lost Navigator bar in downtown Clayton didn’t do much to offset the perpetual low light inside, but the few patrons enjoying a Christmas Day drink didn’t mind at all.

Among them, Ben Wheelock lifted a glass to his friend seated next to him. “Cheers, John. I hadn’t expected the pleasure of your company today. But I’m glad you’re here.”

Captain John returned the liquid salute, and both men took a long pull of their drinks.

Ben and John 

Setting his glass down on the bar, Ben quizzed his longtime friend. “What brought you out, sailing all the way over the River in that ice punt of yours, on this of all days, John?”

John gazed straight ahead in silence for a long moment before answering in a quiet voice. “I was looking for someone. Wanted to make sure they got across safely.”

Ben considered this for a moment of his own. “Well—did they? You found their boat, or them?”

Another silence. Then: “He walked. Last night.”

“He—‘he’ who? And what do you mean he walked? Across the whole River? In the night?” Ben pressed, shaking his head in bemused wonderment at the thought.

“He just came out of the fog. I was fishing, and he just appeared. Out of nowhere. I gave him dinner, and then he left the same way that he came—on foot,” John described to his friend.

Sam the bartender appeared with two more full glasses and set them down on the bar, despite Ben attempting to wave him off. “I only came in for one drink!” the grinning patron protested.

“It’s Christmas, boys. This drink’s on the house,” Sam retorted, with a sly smile and a wink.
Ben and John lifted their glasses again, clinked them together, and drained them down.

“Darndest thing I’ve ever seen on this River,” John said, looking his friend straight in the eye.

Ben considered this quietly for longer than a moment. “Reminds me of something that happened to me a long time ago,” he offered in a solemn tone. “I’ve never forgotten it.”

John tipped his hands forward, silently asking ‘what?’

“Years ago, when we had the farm on Grindstone, Maddy was pregnant one Christmas Eve. And she was sick—really sick. I was worried to death for her. We were on the island, alone. I didn’t know what to do—I was scared to leave her to try to get to the mainland for medicine.”

“There was a knock on the door. You know as well as me, John—nobody is out and about on the island in late December. When I opened the door, there was this fella standing there—dressed very much like your visitor. He’s got ice on his beard, it’s that cold.”

Bearded Figure 

“He apologizes for bothering us, and asks if he could rest in the barn for a little while, just to get warm in the hay. There was something so gentle about him that I told him no—but he was welcome to come inside and get properly warm instead.”

“So he comes in, I give him a hot drink, and he thanks me. Then he hears Maddy crying out in pain. “Is she alright?” he asks. And I tell him no. He’s very quiet for a bit, and then he reaches into this old satchel he’s got. He takes out a pouch, opens it, and spreads the contents on the table. “The Indians treated sickness with this,” he explains, and grinds the herbs together in his hands. “Put them in hot water and give them to her. She’ll be well soon.” Before I can say anything, he thanks me again and turns and heads out the door.”

“Well, I do give the concoction to Maddy, and the next day—Christmas—she’s recovered.”

Ben paused, staring down at his glass. Then he spoke in a hushed voice. “It was a Christmas miracle, John. I think we were visited by the Christmas Spirit that day. I guess I did a kindness for a stranger . . . and I was repaid many times over.”

River Scene

With the winter's pale sun fading on the River's far horizon, John opened the door to the cabin, shed his coat and hat, and loaded a fresh log into the stove.

“Sparkle, I’m home and I brought you some Christmas turkey for a treat. Sam gave me a plate, and we’re going to share it. I’ll dig out whatever’s left down in the root cellar to go with it. We didn’t get nearly enough from this year’s garden, but it’s Christmas, and we can hope for a better harvest next year.”

John knelt down and lifted the hatch door.

He fell back on his heels, overcome at the sight before him:  the root cellar was full, stocked to the brim with fresh vegetables of every description.

The root cellar

He stared in awe at the wealth of food before him. The Christmas Spirit had visited him as well.

By: Tom Robbins with Illustrations by Sarah Coate

A third-generation summer resident of the Thousand Islands, Tom Robbin's career has taken him from the White House to Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and now Silicon Valley. His lifelong love of the St. Lawrence parallels his personal and professional interests in film production, photography, and writing. See Tom's TI Life articles here.
Sarah Coate is a lifelong River Rat; she attended the Rhode Island School of Design and owns a marketing company for TV commercial production companies. Sarah is also Tom's big sister! (Lucky guy, eh!)

Posted in: Volume 16, Issue 12, December 2021, STORIES+

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