“Rudolph! Are you coming? We’re going to be late...”
“I’m coming, Mom. Where are we going?”
“We’re going to visit Mara the Witch.”
Rudolph stuck his nose out of the bushes, glanced at the vast whiteness spread out before him and looked away, grumpily. Snow had been falling all night long, it was everywhere, and not just a little!
“Do we really have to go there today?” he asked in a sulky voice.
“Yes, we do. It’s perfect weather for an outing, not too cold, no wind and bit of sun. Anyway, just look at your brothers and your friends!”
Young reindeer were indeed chasing each other happily around the meadow and beneath their dashing hooves jolly snowflakes were flying in the sunlight. Rudolph looked gloomily at this sight and muttered, “Do I have to come with you?”
“Yes,” his mother snapped back. “Hurry up, get out of that bush!”
Rudolph obeyed verrrrrry slowly. He cautiously ventured one hoof out into the clearing, and it sank into the fresh snow, along with half his leg! How cold it was! And wet! Mom pretended not to see her child hesitating and advanced through the snow, hollering advice to the younger reindeer: “Don’t go too far from the trees! If you see any animals walking on two legs, run to safety in the forest as quickly as you can! Well, Rudolph, are you coming?”
He came out of the thicket warily, looking for the places where the white blanket was least thick. With every step, he lifted a hoof in disgust and shook it to get rid of that cold, sticky cotton wool.
Ahead of him, Mom was in despair and dark thoughts were swirling around in her head. What in Heaven’s name did I do to have a son who doesn’t like running through meadows? What’s going to become of him? He’ll get killed by hunters, or wolves, or bears will gobble him up. It breaks my heart to think of it, he is so beautiful and so affectionate. If he doesn’t toughen up a bit, he’ll not get through the winter.
Mom trotted along by the trees, where the snow was not so thick, and Rudolph followed behind.
She had been trying to urge him out of the thicket for days now, and had used every method she could think of, including encouragement, rewards and punishments. Nothing had worked. Since winter had arrived, Rudolph had looked at the wet ground with a sullen expression on his face and flatly refused to put his feet in pools, mud or snow. If she forced him forward, his legs would go as stiff as wooden posts, his fur stood up on end and he would begin to tremble.
That was why she had decided to leave the herd to their own devices today and go and ask the advice of Mara the Witch. It was her last hope. Mara might have a remedy to toughen her son up and make him less timid and sensitive, in other words to turn him into a normal reindeer!
“Moooom! Is it much further? My hooves are freezing!”
“If you walked a bit quicker you would be less cold and we would be there by now,” she replied brusquely, speeding up her pace. She felt like poking him with a stick, nipping him on the backside, or bellowing so loudly in his ears that they might fall off... but she had already tried these techniques and none of them had worked.
“Alright, alright,” replied Rudolph in a resigned tone.
“Come on, let’s walk a bit further. When the sun is high in the sky, we’ll stop for something to eat and to get warm... Come here, next to me, you won’t be as cold. We’ll cut across this meadow, it’ll be quicker.”
When the little one’s teeth began to chatter, she decided to stop for a break. With an expert move of her hoof, she lifted away the snow to find some tender, fresh moss.
“Here, Rudolph, look, there’s some nice moss for your lunch.”
“Thank you, Mom!”
She blew on her little one’s hooves affectionately to warm them up.
Then they set off again.
“Are we nearly there?”
“Yes, nearly... Mara lives over there, just beyond this clearing.”
At last they arrived under the cover of the trees. Rudolph felt himself coming back to life; the trees were so close together that no snow had gotten through their entangled branches.
“Mara the Witch?” called Mom.
A shrill whistle came in reply, from somewhere very close.
“Hello Mara, how are you?”
“Very well, except for my rheumatism... And what about you, Cella? I’m very pleased to see you. But I don’t suppose you’ve come all this way just to say hello... Do you have a problem?”
“I’ve come about the little one. He’s called Rudolph, he was born last spring.”
“He’s a very good looking young man! You must be very proud of him!” exclaimed Mara, enraptured.
“Yes I am, yet there’s something not quite right... You see, he’s not like a normal reindeer... He can’t bear the cold in the winter, and he doesn’t know how to run in snow... I’ve tried everything, but nothing has made any difference...”
“Oh, I see! That really is a problem... But he doesn’t look ill, he’s quite well-built...”
Mara walked all around Rudolph, whistling softly.
“He has a strong back, sturdy legs, a good thick coat... Lift your feet up, little one... The hooves are well formed... I can’t see anything wrong with him... We’ll ask the fairy of the forest for advice... Rudolph, while your Mom and I are having a chat, you go and find us the nicest tuft of food you can. And, mind you, bring it back here, don’t eat it all yourself!”
A few minutes later, Rudolph came back with a clump of grayish lichen in his mouth. He laid it in front of Mara who was watching him carefully.
“Cella, your son is indeed not just an ordinary reindeer. He is special... quite exceptional... Look, you can see his future in this tuft he has brought... Here, on the left, these are reindeer and there, on the right, is a sleigh...It’s extraordinary... Your little one is going to work for Father Christmas, he’s going to pull his sleigh across the sky!”
Another year has passed. Winter has returned, along with its icy snowflakes. But Rudolph is happy. There’s no question now of his paws freezing on the hard ground of the meadow; he jumps from cloud to cloud with his head in the stars, sinking his hooves delightedly into the fluffy white balls. Father Christmas has congratulated him; he has become the most nimble-footed reindeer on the team.
Translated by Wendy Cross