Snatching the sound of Manannán's song on the bite of a northwesterly wind
Dec. 24, 2022

The Christmas Heron


It’s Christmas Eve and the perfect time for a canal-side story. Have you ever heard of the Christmas Heron? No? Well, there’s probably a very good reason for that, but I will tell it to you anyway. So, curl up in your special armchair by the stove and I will tell you all about the Christmas Heron.

Journal entry:                       

24th December, Saturday (Christmas Eve).

“Christmas Eve dawns with a silvered light.
 The canal is mirror calm.

A choir of rook song.
 A lone swan flying south.
 The cormorant, cruciform, ornaments the ash.

Tinsel ribbons of memories stream away into
 the distant Christmases of my childhood.”

 Episode Information:

Painting of the Erica in the snow by Pete TuffreyPainting of NB Erica in the snow by Pete Tuffrey

In this episode I sample the following recordings:

‘Harsh cries by one Grey Heron’ recorded by ‘Dobroide’ near Caño de Guadiamar, Doñana National Park (Spain): https://freesound.org/people/dobroide/sounds/65264/ 

Swans in flight recorded by ‘Dibko’: https://freesound.org/people/dibko/

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

·       Mastodon: https://mastodon.world/@nosw  

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

24th December, Saturday (Christmas Eve).

“Christmas Eve dawns with a silvered light.
The canal is mirror calm.

A choir of rook song.
A lone swan flying south.
The cormorant, cruciform, ornaments the ash.

Tinsel ribbons of memories stream away into
the distant Christmases of my childhood.”

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

 It’s Christmas Eve and the perfect night to settle down in the quietness of firelight glow, with a hot drink, and share a story or two. This is the narrowboat Erica narrowcasting to you on a festive night, I was hoping that you could come. Welcome aboard for a very special episode.

[MUSIC]

The Christmas Heron

It’s Christmas Eve day and I’m recording this a little earlier than normal so that you will be able to listen to it on Christmas Eve night.

All the swans and ducks seem to have survived the really cold spell and apparently none the worse for it. We are all stocked up again. The stove is glowing red and I have a Christmassy story to tell.

You see, I wondered, what story could I tell Rory Bruso who listens with her dad, MJ, and I think I might have just the one. But then I thought, ok, but what story would you enjoy? – and, to be honest, that was a bit harder, but I think this one also might do. In fact, it is a story for everyone who still has a little child somewhere inside them.

For Christmas Eve is a special time, richly coloured with so many memories (some happy, some sad) and the fires of hope (often unspoken, even to ourselves). And it’s a time for impossible stories. Because they are exactly the stories that remind us that even the impossible can teach us something wonderful.

So, this is my story. Have you ever heard of the Christmas Heron? No? Well, there’s probably a very good reason for that, but I will tell it to you anyway. So, curl up in your special armchair by the stove and I will tell you all about the Christmas Heron.

It began many years ago just before Christmas, just like this, on a busy street filled with Christmas lights and decorated fir trees and Christmas music leaking out onto the cold streets, just like this one. Mothers and fathers pushed buggies laden with interestingly shaped packages, children looked at all the colourful window displays, the wind rattled and roared, tossing leaves and litter into the air and sending it skittering down the streets. When you thought the street could get any busier a bus would arrive and out of it came even more people. You might think that this is a strange place to meet the Christmas Heron, and you are right. Herons, as a rule, are far too wise to spend sensible silent-thinking and watching time walking up and down busy town highstreets just before Christmas. Well, at least, I have never spotted one there, and I can tell you that I am pretty good at spotting herons on busy town high streets.

Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t really thinking about herons at the time. In fact, herons were the last things on my mind. This was because I had bought all the presents that I needed to buy, apart from one. The present that I still needed to find was for my Auntie Thingamie. I don’t know if you have an Auntie Thingamie, but they are VERY difficult to buy presents for. Every Christmas she always gave me a present, even though it was usually bath salts or an itchy scarf, when, what I really wanted was a dog or a helicopter, or an eagle that would perch on my shoulder and crack walnuts for me with his great big snackery beak. Mum and Dad, always told me to be grateful even though her presents weren’t really what I wanted and that Auntie Thingamies, generally, do not know what to give seven year-old boys. I thought it odd as I would have thought that dogs and helicopters and eagles would have been the first thing anyone (even Auntie Thingamies) would have thought of when thinking about what to give a seven year-old boy! However, I always thanked her gratefully and gave the bath salts a sneaky lick to check if they tasted any better this year. They never did. Why are they called bath salts when they don’t taste of salt? After Christmas I would always write a thank you letter to her to say how pleased I was with the bath salts (I didn’t mention their taste) and hinting that, next year, a golden eagle or a dog would make a lovely present. 

This year, I was now a good bit older and had begun to understand Aunties a little better, and Auntie Thingamies even more, and so, for this particular Christmas, I wanted to get her something really special. But would you believe it? I couldn’t find a thing. I hunted high and low. I went to big shops (with moving staircases and different counters which were lined with little coloured bottles of smells that you could squirt all over your hand and arm until the shop assistant glared at you). And I went to little shops that smelt of dust and wax furniture-polish, and I could not find anything suitable to give her. Choosing a present for an Auntie Thingamie turned out to be just as hard as it was for an Auntie Thingamie to choose a present for a small boy!

I was just about to give up, when I noticed a shop that I had not noticed before. It lay at the end of a very dark narrow alleyway. Halfway down the alleyway was an old-fashioned street lamp that hissed and bubbled with a soft yellow flame. The shop was tall, with a long narrow stable door, the top half of which was open in a welcoming sort of way. It had a large bow window with old bullseye window panes that glowed warmly with light. Above the window swung an ornate metal sign in deep green with a swirl of golden letters that proclaimed ‘OLD NOG’S EMPORIUM OF ANTIQUARIAN SPLENDOURS.’   ‘Aha!’ I thought, ‘just the place to find Auntie Thingamie’s present’ and so I walked down the alleyway and through the little half-door into the shop.

Inside, it just like entering a cave, but not one that is made out cold dripping stone, but out of everything nice and wonderful. In the gloom, I could just make out a narrow aisle that threaded its way between piles of objects that teetered in great leaning columns. The most strangely shaped things lined the walls and hung like summer willow leaves from the ceiling. The interior was so dim that, although I could just about make out shapes, I couldn’t recognise much at all. A couple of candles, in old battered candleholders, wavered and guttered, casting a thin light that sent dancing shadows clawing up and down the walls and scampering around the room, sometimes climbing, monkey-like, up the untidy piles of curiosities, at others, hiding behind them. The room smelt of warm candle-wax, lavender oil, pine resin, and friendship. The strange thing was that as I kept walking, the longer the room seemed to get, with more and more little alcoves and side rooms suddenly appearing.

“Hello.” I said, for, as far as I could see, there wasn’t anyone else in the shop. But there was no answer.

‘Well,’ I thought, ‘if I can’t find Auntie Thingamie’s present here, I won’t be able to find it anywhere."

But strange as it may seem, the more I searched among the great piles of wonderful things, the more hopeless my search was. I would love to tell you all that was there, but the truth of it is that immediately I stepped back outside through that little half door and into the alleyway, I could remember hardly a thing. I DO know there were the most marvellous things there, but quite WHAT they were, no matter how much I scratch my head and try to remember, I can’t. So, my advice to you is, right now – have a good look around and see what fantastic things you can find!

I was on the point of giving up, although, in all honesty, I had little desire to leave this shop and would have happily spent all day in it, when I caught sight of the corner of a picture frame that was just jutting out from under a huge pile of thick leather-bound books, on which yet another candle was sputtering light. And, for some reason, I went over to it and carefully pulled it out.  

The picture was an antique print of a splendid looking heron with her four young chicks drawn by the artist John Gould. The glass was a bit dull and mottled with fly-speck, but the frame was pleasing and it smelt of pipe smoke and mossy woodlands and, when you stroked the glass, you could feel and hear the wind singing among the leaves of the trees in which the heron nest lay. ‘Now, here,’ I said to myself, ‘might be something to please the eye of an Auntie Thingamie on a Christmas morning.’

Immediately there was a rasping wheeze by my elbow and a voice – silvery with age – greeted me from the gloom.

“Ah! Perfect” the voice said. “Yes, yes. A very good choice and just the job, I’m sure.”

I turned and there was a small elderly woman with hair the colour of spun white gold that glittered and shimmered in the candlelight like a halo. Her face was such a mass of creases and crinkles that her eyes seemed to be perpetually smiling, and her deep dark eyes glimmered like elderberries in late summer sunshine. It was a face that made you laugh (not in a nasty way, but with sheer fun and happiness). She reminded me of a very ancient human-hedgehog. My mother always told me that a gentleman never divulges a lady’s age, and so I wouldn’t dream of telling you how old she was (even if I knew), but she was ancient. I mean, she must have been at least 290, if a day! She wore an old, patched pinafore dress, with a large apron pocket in the front, over what looked like, at least, seven or eight more other pinafore dresses. On her feet she wore enormous boots, the kind old working-boat people wore as they tramped up and down the muddy towpaths.

“Really?” I said, more out of surprise than anything else.    

“Certainly!!” she replied, in a way that said, ‘how on earth could anyone in their right mind think that it was not the absolutely perfect present?’

As my fingers ran over the glass, I began to feel a fresh coolness, and the smell of the soft spring rains that began to gently wash the leaves of the trees and trickle in little pearls down the heron’s long neck and back.

“It certainly beats bath-salts and itchy scarves.” I said.

The old lady looked at me in silence for a while. Her eyes clouded like sloe berries velveted in the autumn’s bloom, but her face still smiled.

“Not always, sir.” She said after a while, “Not always. For your aunt, there were times when bath-salts and itchy scarves were the perfect Christmas gift to you. A gift well given is a gift well given. You just have to understand what words the gift is speaking.”

“How do you know Auntie Thingamie?” I asked with amazement.

“I don’t.” she replied, “But I do know bath-salts and itchy scarves!” She pushed her hands deep into her pinafore pocket and I heard silver bells chiming.

“What I also know,” she continued, “is that picture is perfect. Oh yes, there’s no doubt about that, sir. Absolutely perfect. I’ve been an Antiquarian for more years than I dare to remember, and never have I been so sure. And what is more…” she lifted one hand out of her pinafore pocket and pointed her finger at me, “… it has never been more perfect.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because it’s Christmas Eve!” she cried, her face almost splitting in two with her smile and her little black-current eyes crinkled up in merriment.

I was getting more and more puzzled. She took one look at my bewildered expression. “The Christmas Heron, of course!!” She cried even louder, clapping her hands. “Have you never heard of the story of the Christmas Heron? No? Well, there’s probably a very good reason that, but I will tell it to you anyway.”

And this is the story that she told me.

It all happened long, long, ago when she was a very little girl (no older than you once were) and she with her Ma and Pa worked the midland canals, carrying coals from the deep mines under the rolling green hills to the cities that painted the sky black with soot. On sunny days, summer and winter, on the long pounds between locks, she would walk along the towpath with their old boat-horse Dolly, who pulled their boat with a long towing rope – these were the days before motors. And as they wandered alongside the canal together, she would look for four-leafed clovers (which were lucky) and, in the summer, meadowsweet (which smelt sweet) and, in the winter, alexanders and aconites (because they were beautiful).

Well, one Christmas Eve, she was trudging along a particularly muddy section of the towpath so that her boots went slop, splotch, plash, and the hem of her pinafore dress was getting a particularly pleasing splotted look, when she had the feeling that she was being watched. She stopped and looked around, but she could see no one, but a moorhen that went skittery-flapping across the canal with flailing flappy feet. ‘How strange,’ she thought and gave Dolly a hug to say (for the fortieth time that day) that it is Christmas Eve and isn’t it exciting?

But the longer she walked the greater the feeling she had that she was being watched. Now, it wasn’t the nasty feeling of someone or something awful watching you, more of a friendly, curious, watching. But still, it was pretty annoying not to know who it was. They had just passed through bridge 50 and threaded Dolly’s towing rope through the gap in the centre of the bridge, when she heard a dog’s bark. Well, it sounded a bit like a dog’s bark, but wasn’t quite. She looked around again. But still there was no sign of anyone.

‘It’s Christmas Eve, Dolly’ she sang. ‘I wonder what Santa will bring you tonight?’ Although she knew really because she had spent all year knitting three scarves. It had taken her ages because the big needles didn’t do what she wanted them to do and the wool got tangled in a knot and, often as not, the whole thing got dropped in a puddle or the mud. However, she had finally succeeded in finishing them. There was one for Ma, one for Pa and one for Dolly. Ma said horses don’t think much of scarves, but she couldn’t bear thinking that Dolly might feel left out. She was just thinking that she would add a nice round turnip to Dolly’s present, in case Dolly got disappointed, when there was that bark again – twice. It was nearer this time. Perhaps it was a fox or a deer. She’d heard them from her snug bunk, in the little cabin she shared with Ma and Pa in the stern, at night, but not during the day. “It really is quite strange Dolly. All this barking and yapping and no one around.” The fields to the left and right of her were empty, well as empty as fields ever really get in winter. She looked up into the tall poplar trees, but all she could see were some jackdaws and a thrush, and none of them appeared to be taking much notice of them as they passed below.

‘Hmm, I wonder if they know it’s Christmas Eve, Dolly?’ she said.

“Well of course they do!” came a strange voice, coming from the middle of the rustling reeds, quite close by. “Why on earth would they not?!”

The voice startled her and she jumped right out of her skin – although Dolly, who usually took affright at anything unusual, just shook her head in an as a whimsical way as is possible for an old horse.

Then out from the reeds, on very long legs, strode a heron.

“I’m sorry,” he said – after clearing his throat a couple of times with a satisfyingly explosive noise, “to have startled you, but I have been calling out to you for some time. But, alas and alack, like most humans, you seemed too absorbed in the worlds inside your head to hear or see what is happening outside it!”

“Was that you barking?” The little girl said – still rather surprised – as I think you or I would be too!

“Barking?! What impertinence young lady. Barking! I’ve never heard anything so insulting in my whole long life! We, who were the messengers to the gods, entrusted to convey sacred oracles, to  now been reduced to this, being mistaken for a fox or dog! Granted, our voices have become rather croaky from all that talking, but so would yours too. The gods were many and they had a lot to say! It should not be surprising if we have got a little croaky over the years. Let me tell you, young madam, we were once famous for the mellifluous quality of our voices. Gods and humans used to travel for miles to hear us sing.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sure I never meant any offence, Mr Heron.”

“Hmmm, that maybe, young madam. But it sticks in the throat like a plump trout, but not so tasty. I’m glad my dear old mother is no longer alive to hear such a thing.”

The girl, now a little embarrassed and not quite knowing what to say, kicked a stone with one of her big boots. It dropped with a plop into the canal water.

“Oh, that’s right!” the heron complained, “now go and scare my supper away.”     

The heron looked at her crestfallen face and shrugged his nice warm grey cloak. “Oh, don’t mind me.” He said, “It’s just, spending all my days watching over you and other humans come and go, can make a bird a little grumpy at times.”

“Do you?” The girl asked

“Of course! You didn’t know that either?” the heron cried with incredulity – which is a good word, but sometimes difficult to spell. “When the gods went into retirement – and not before time, if you ask me – we were appointed guardians of all travellers. Boat travellers the most, of course. Why do you think we spend all the day standing in the water watching?”

“I thought you were fishing!”

“Hah! Typical. Just because you think about nothing but what you can put in your stomachs you assume everything thinks like you do. True, while we are waiting, we might put the time to good use for a spot of fishing – calms the nerves, you know – but what we are doing is watching over you. Why else do you think we sometimes walk alongside you as you go passed in your big wooden floating nests?”

“Pa says it’s ‘cos you’re catching fi….” She begun to say, but then thought better of it and so quickly changed it to “looking after us.”

Between you and me, I don’t think the heron was convinced that this was what Pa actually said and he looked at the girl quizzically with a gaze fiercer than a blow torch, but in the end, just harumphed and delicately scratched behind his head with one of his toes.

“You were asking,” he continued, in a much softer tone, “whether our friends the jackdaws and the thrush know that it is Christmas Eve and I said ‘Of course they do.’”

“Does Dolly know?”

“Of course she does.”

“I am giving her a scarf that I made. I have been knitting three scarves and it has taken me all year. There’s one for Ma, one for Pa and one for Dolly.”

“I know you have, my dear. For as I have said, I have been watching over you.”

“Ma says it’s silly to give a present to an animal like Dolly, ‘cos they don’t know about things like Christmas.”

“Stuff and nonsense.” Snorted the heron, “we know about Christmas better than any human and we look forward to the presents it brings us more than most.”

“How do you know all this?” asked the little girl, a little worried that this question might also offend the strange old bird.

“You do realise that you are talking to the wisest species of all birds?” He stabbed at a fish in the murky water pooling around his feet.

“I thought the owl was the wisest.”

“Humph. Typical!” he retorted, giving himself a shake which sent watery drops of crystal high into the air. “The owl sits on a branch and says very little, apart from ‘who?’ and every human who has been born says ‘Oh how wise they are.’ No, all birds know that it is we herons who are the wisest. We read the water as well as the wind. Both their currents, their ebbs and flows, their eddies, their stillness and their roaring ferocities. It is why we are entrusted with two jobs. One as guardians of travellers and the other very special one which we do just one night a year and tonight’s the night.”

“Christmas Eve?”

“Certainly!” answered the heron who suddenly looked very old and wistful – like tobacco-smoke curling up from my grandfather’s cherrywood pipe. His eyes seemed to be looking at something very far away and very long ago. “I am,” he said slowly, “the Christmas Heron.”

“Really?” said the young girl in a hushed tone. She was, by now, quite willing to believe just about anything! “What do you do?”

“I help give out all the Christmas presents on Christmas Eve night, when every soul – human and non-human – is sleeping… yes, when even the owl and badger and fox are asleep.”

“You help Father Christmas?” the girl asked.

“Why bless you no. Father Christmas just gives the extra presents, the less important ones, to all you human folk. I help give out the important ones.”

The little girl’s eyes bulged in wonder.

“You see, little one, when humans got the idea about Christmas presents, they wanted more and more and more. Sleighfuls of them, so to speak. More than we could possibly deliver on just one night. And so, it was decided that he would manage the excess with his own small sleigh and eight reindeer. That meant we could get on with the important proper presents for Christmas.”

“Every Christmas Eve as the light begins to fade, I listen for the sound of the wild geese song flying north with ice on their wingtips and I rise into the air and follow them. My strong wings take me over the canals and fields, over towns and cities, little villages and the isolated farmsteads, rivers and hills. I soar with the solo choirboy’s soprano over Kings College and look down on the inkish Backs flowing beneath me. I fly with the Seven Whistlers over the wind-whipped salt marshes and the huddle of fishermen’s boats safely pulled up onto the shingle beach. I fly over the lonely lighthouses and above the howling cliffs. Curlews and terns, bittern foghorn booming, herring gull and Gabriel’s Hounds all join me as we head north to the dark climbing mountains and the night. Together we fly over the great rolling ocean that swells with whale song and cresting green waves, over the caribou lands filled with ice and magic and the sound of bells and singing ice. I go to guide the great sleigh pulled by seven swans whiter than snow. You see, it’s because I am a heron and we herons are expert watchers, I know where everyone lives, from the smallest snail and grub, to the largest stag. I even know where the youngest hedgehog sleeps and hedgehogs can be very tricky customers to find. They have to be, to keep out of the way of fox and badger’s hungry nose!”

For a while, the heron was silent. The little girl thought she saw a tear form in one of his eyes, but she also knew that, if it was a tear, it wasn’t a tear of sadness. For, even though she was still very little, she knew that there are all sorts of tears and some tears spoke words that lips can’t express.

“If it isn’t Father Christmas who chooses the presents, who does?” asked the girl in the tiniest of voices.

“Why Grandmother Christmas, of course, bless your young soul.” He broke into a wheezing laugh. “Who chooses the presents? I ask you!” A moorhen, who was jerkily swimming past lifted up her head and squawked with laughter.

“Father Christmas is her young son.” The heron continues, “A little flighty sometimes, if you ask me, but a nice enough man. But Grandmother Christmas is the one who selects every gift for every creature, and well she does it.”

“She must be old,” said the girl, “What does she look like?”

“Yes, as old as old, but as young as today. Hmmm, what does she look like? Dear me, that is a difficult question to answer, she is beyond words, and she is beyond the telling. But you will know her when you see her and you also know yourself the better for having seen her. Where do you think my little fearful friend, the moorhen, has suddenly got her courage from?” He winked at the moorhen, who gave a few chuckles and scooted into a thick patch of yellow iris leaves.  

He then bent very low towards the girl, so that his beak was almost touching her ear, “How do you think you get your presents every Christmas Eve night? You have no roof on your boat large enough for a sleigh to land, and no chimney wide enough for a grown man to fit. Grandmother Christmas sees to all.”

“Even Dolly?”

“Especially Dolly and the little nest of mice who are wintering under one of your spare canvases.”

“I’ve never seen their presents.” The girl replied whilst, at the same time, making a note to have a careful peek under the pile of spare canvases that were kept in the hold where they carried the coal.

“No, I expect you haven’t.” Sighed the heron sadly, “You are like most humans, too dazzled by the fripperies and fancies that are tied up in pretty paper and bows. Fortunately, most creatures are not quite so shallow – although I do sometimes have a little doubt about my brethren the jackdaws.”

“What are the presents you help deliver then?” asked the young girl.

“In a manner of speaking, just like your own, really.” He replied with a shrug, “Only you don’t know, or have forgotten, that they are presents.”

“What was Dolly’s present last year, then?”

“You remember that really hot week in July and the blow-flies were buzzing around her eyes and it was enough to send poor Dolly mad? Where did you think that cool breeze sprang up from, that cooled and soothed her by blowing away the flies? It came, wrapped as nicely as your scarf on Christmas Eve night. Oh, yes, Dolly loved the gift of that day.
“You see, a gift well given, is a gift well given. A gentle spring rain to the apple tree, an afternoon pocketful of a blustering howling wind for rook to play in, a patch of sun-warmed sand under an old piece of corrugated iron sheeting for my friend the fearful adder so that she won’t have to worry for a day. A squall of snow to cover young crocus suffering from the frost in a warm blanket of spindrift. The sun suddenly breaking through a cloudy sky and a bankside shallow out of reach from rod and pike, for carp to sun herself and doze. A special parcel of morning sunshine after a frosty night to warm Red Admiral’s beautiful butterfly wings. A day of drenching rain for sundew to stretch out her lovely petals in. A spring day of daisied meadows for lamb who is yet to be born. A warm indigo coloured dusk of quiet breezes and a quarter moon for bat, a night of hard frost and a clear full moon for fox, an August rain to wash the wilting leaves of sycamore. I could go on.” The heron’s voice trailed off.

As they were talking, the heavy sky began to scatter large dancing flakes of snow onto them. The little girl gasped and breathlessly looked up into the whirling air with huge wonder-filled eyes.

“Happy Christmas.” The heron’s eyes were smiling. “This is the second part of your present from last year.”

“What was the first?”

“Do you remember that sunset by Bearley lock when the sky was deep red and gold, and the swallows dived low upon the water, and you sat with your Ma and Pa and held hands while the red faded into deep indigo blue? And you didn’t know why, but you never wanted the evening to end and the memory of it will stay with you even when you are very, very, old. That was the first part of your gift. That is why these gifts are always more special than any Father Christmas can give.”

“It was a lovely evening,” the girl said and a tear ran down her cheek. Which she quickly brushed away. “And so is this! Oh, thank you Christmas Heron.”

“Oh, stop that!” grunted the heron bad-temperedly – although I think he was secretly pleased. “I just guide the sleigh I don’t choose the presents."    

As they continued to talk on that snowy towpath, and Dolly contentedly pulled at the winter grass, ‘The only other sounds the sweep/ Of easy wind and downy flake.’ The heron shook himself, as if awakening from a pleasant day-dream and looked around at the tall poplars that reached up and up into the grey sky filled with tumbling snowflakes, their supple limbs softening under deep piles of glistering snow.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ But I have promises to keep,” the heron said with a little sigh (but there was a glitter of excitement in his watchful eye), “and miles to fly before I sleep/ And miles to fly before I sleep.”

And then he was off on his broad strong wings. The snow was coming down even faster now and he had disappeared before she caught his final kwaak that seemed to hang forever among the treetops of this beautiful swirling globe.

Later that night, she lay cosily tucked up in her bunk bed. Her mind was filled with her amazing meeting on the towpath and her conversation with the Christmas Heron. Had it really happened? Had she dreamt the whole thing?

She sat up and peeked through the little port-hole window above her bed. A silvery moon shone coldly on a still white world. Nothing moved except for a few stray snowflakes that drifted sleepily on a soft breeze. She sat for a while, looking at the quiet world outside and listening to Ma and Pa’s slow breathing in the bed opposite to her. The cabin was filled with the warm rosy glow of the stove and its flames painted flickering patterns that danced on the cabin ceiling. She thought about Dolly standing, asleep, under the great oak. Sheltered from the wind and snow and with her net of hay to eat (and a small turnip sneakily added when Ma and Pa weren’t looking). She thought about the three little packages containing her knitted scarves, all neatly wrapped, as carefully as she could, in some newspaper that she had found and saved. She wondered, if it had all been true, where hedgehog was hiding and whether the Christmas Heron could find her. Of course, he could. Herons are the wisest of birds. She knew that now, and the Christmas Heron was the cleverest of them all.

Gradually, her eyes grew heavier and heavier. She lay back down and closed her eyes, but that was no problem, for just then, in the far, far, distance, on the very edge of her hearing, she could just make out a faint kwaak and then came the sound of the wing-song of seven swans beating across the night sky, and with them one final, jubilant, kwaak.

This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and for the year, and wishing you a very merry Christmas. Wishing you very peaceful, restful and warm night. Good night. Sleep tight, Rory.