CHRISTMAS is lonely on the snow-covered peaks of the Mauroros that rise bank upon bank, like great white drifts piled one upon another. Saint Nikolaos Day, as it is to the Greeks, finds these hills almost deserted, and yet strange things can happen there.
The clouds that at times hang about them at this season are like misty fairy veils, and when the sun lies upon them, they are as resplendent as the fairy palaces of dreams. The shepherds and goatherds with their flocks have been driven down to shelter in the valleys. Most of the watchmen of fields and vineyards descend to the villages to celebrate the festival of Saint Nikolaos with friends and kinsfolk, in wine and steaming food around a glowing hearth. Only here and there on the white hills a lonely watchman remains.
One cold, stormy Saint Nikolaos Day, Vasilis was keeping guard over stretches of silent fields. Just at noon, as he lifted his eyes to the top of the mountain, he saw what appeared at first to be snow caught up in the wind where two mountain paths crossed at the foot of a pine tree. Yet faint, silvery voices, like bells in the distance, seemed to come from the same spot.
Surely no human being would be so high up there on such a day. The sweet voices, the whirling white something and the fact that it was just noon, made Vasilis sure that he was watching fairies dancing in a ring about the pine tree. He started forward eagerly, wishing to see them nearer, but at that instant they vanished and their voices died away.
Perhaps, thought Vasilis, they had left some trace of their presence, so he pressed on through the unbroken snow as rapidly as he could. No footprints were to be seen at the Stavrodromos, cross-road, nothing to mark their visit. Maybe it was not fairies after all, only snow scattered in the wind. Then he discovered a white bundle, beneath the pine indistinguishable from the snow except that it stirred feebly.
Within the bundle Vasilis found a tiny baby, more beautiful then anything he had ever seen, with fine hair golden as sunshine, and skin soft and white like the snow. Its clothing was of the finest, downiest cloth, daintily embroidered. Vasilis knew that this was a fairy child and he marveled to think that he had actually beheld the fairies who had left it.
The watchman hurried down the hill to the village of Skoupa, where he stopped at each house to show the beautiful child and tell his story. The villagers were amazed and at first did not know what to do. They decided after conferring together that they would all help, giving each year what they could of food and clothing, and taking the child into their own homes turn and turn about.
This idea was put into effect. The child was called Nikolas because he was found on Saint Nikolaos Day. He was loved by all the village folk and belonged in a way to everyone. He was given the same care as the village children, was nourished with the same food and dressed in similar clothing. Yet from the beginning there was a difference. Not only was Nikolas handsomer than the rest and taller than any of his age, but he was different also in all his ways.
He was very quiet. He did not play with the children, but he would talk to them for hours, telling them wonderful stories that had never been told him, that had never been heard in Skoupa. Often he would wander away and some shepherd or watchman would come upon him sitting alone in the fields gazing at the sky. Sometimes when he was addressed he did not even hear. Because of his mysterious origin and his strangeness he was known through all that country as the Wonder of Skoupa.
Nikolas became a shepherd at the age of fifteen and no longer needed the help of the villagers. He came down from the hills sometimes to spend a holiday in Skoupa, but even then he did not join in the games or dances, merely watched from a little distance with sad eyes. The people wondered if he were thinking of his fairy mother and the palace he had left; they wondered if he were lonely and longed to go back. But he was a fairy child and they dared not ask him.
It was again Saint Nikolaos Day on the Mauroros. Seventeen years had passed since the day Vasilis found the white bundle in the snow. The old watchman was still guarding the silent hills. Never had a Saint Nikolaos Day gone by without the memory of that strange experience. Vasilis had lived it over each year.
Now again at noon he raised his eyes to the pine tree at the cross-road. There, instead of the fairy ring of swirling white, he saw a man standing in the snow reaching his arms toward the sky. His head was bare and the sun fell upon his golden hair, bright as the sunlight. Could it be anyone but Nikolas? Yet was he not spending the day in Skoupa? Vasilis shaded his eyes against the sun’s glare on the snow and gazed at the strange sight.
The man stood still, like an image. The wind blew wisps of snow about him. Thicker and whiter rose the snow till it seemed to meet and melt into the white sky above the mountain peak. Then Vasilis saw fairies, myriads of fairies in white, dancing in the sky and in the swirl of snow about the motionless form. Faster and faster danced the fairies until the cloud of them obscured the figure of the man. Silvery voices like distant bells floated down to Vasilis. Suddenly a fierce blast wrapped the whole mountain top in a mist of flying snow. When it had passed, the fairies and the man were gone and there was no motion and no sound upon the mountain.
Vasilis climbed again to the spot. This time the fairies had left no trace. Trackless snow and the lonely pine. Vasilis made his plodding way down to Skoupa to look for Nikolas, hoping it was not he who had vanished from the Stavrodromos. All the villagers joined in the search. None of them had seen Nikolas on that day and no one ever saw him again.