There were two brothers who lived on a rented small holding after their parents were dead. But it could not support both of them. So one took the money that was left and went to see the world and the other stayed in that place and inherited the implements and animals which was estimated at about the value of the remaining money. So they were equal. But as his brother left John, who was to remain, gave his brother another shilling that he had earned the season before when he went away to work. For a while John just about survived from year to year, but only just.
Midwinter Day was a day of reckonings. The yearly rent was due. But John was sixpence short and wasn’t sure how he was going to pay. All he had was an old donkey and a cow that was like a skeleton together with with three apple trees. He never grumbled but always cut the grass along the lane to feed the donkey and the cow and gathered a few herbs and apples for cider. Somehow he had kept going but now as Midwinter Day approached he began to wonder how he would pay.
The short days shrank and light thinned early into dark until the eve of Midwinter Day. That night the darkness was entire. There was no Moon for she, too, had waned to nothing so no glimmer of her light could be seen. Clouds covered the stars and rain dripped intermittently from the overcast sky. But John needed no light to guide him around his land. He raked his fire and mulled the last of his cider with a poker and drank a toast for the Solstice and the embers he would keep smouldering through the night. Then he went out with the cup in his hand and followed his senses through the gloom along a path down into the boggy hollow just beyond his fields.
An old lichened willow tree stood down in the hollow shaded by pines on the higher ground around it. No-one remembered when it last had leaves. But mosses grew up its trunk and the fine green lichens over its bark and the hanging lichens from its branches were as good as leaves. Though most thought it dead John knew better. So he went down to the tree and stood and wondered what future there was for those whose wealth was shed and scattered by the winds and withered in the wet ground. Then he poured the remains of his cider over the roots as a gift for the tree. Rain dripped from the hanging lichens as he stood in the dark and felt life ebbing away from him and running away in the trickling streams.
As he stood he heard a voice, though it was not quite a voice but still it spoke to him and he knew that this dark time would pass. He went back along the dark path to his cottage where the hearth still glowed and he banked it up with peat for the rest of the night. Then he slept soundly and awoke not particularly early but before the Sun was up and he went out to greet the first light of day. Later, looking across to the far hills, he saw a figure coming towards him. As it approached he saw that it was a man and as he came even closer he suddenly recognised his brother coming with yuletide gifts and to re-pay the shilling he had been given now that he was doing well in the world. So the rent was paid and the fire burnt brightly in the hearth that Yule and the cottage was warm and bright.
Adapted and extended from a traditional tale about Midwinter Reckonings