The tomten looked over, and came over. Gudrun stepped out the door and closed it. She smoothed her nightgown carefully under her legs as she sat on the part of the step that was still dry.
There he was before her again, with his round moon of a face with the large dark eyes, and his little round belly, and short little legs. Not very tall at all, really. They didn't poke each other this time.
"This is for you," she said, and handed him the porridge, which his eyes appreciated. There was a spoon in the bowl, but he preferred to feed himself a finger and a tongue. Yes, he liked it very much. Especially with the butter on the top.
"Thank you for helping with the fox. I've seen the two of you together. What is it that you talk about?"
Gudrun knew that it's bad manners to talk with one's mouth full, but tomten manners were not so much like people manners, it seemed. He ate and spoke at the same time, and somehow it wasn't unattractive with him.
"I remind him from time to time that the man here hasn't caught him yet. But if he continues to raid the henhouse, sooner or later the man will catch him, because men are like that. And then the fox's babies will starve in the cold. So perhaps (when talking with foxes, it's always better to say perhaps)it's better for him to hunt elsewhere, off in the forest, as his ancestors did, before men and women came with their chickens. But there is more."
"Perhaps you know," he went on, "that I am a part of the spirit of the first of your ancestors to live on this land, and a part of the spirit of all who came after, as well. And if you stay here when you are grown, and bear children to this place, then one day you will be a part of me, as well. And since I have known your ancestors and this place so well, you will understand that I have known the fox's ancestors, too. I tell him stories of those who came before him, and the fine hunts they had, and all the tricks they played on people with their henhouses. He likes that."
Gudrun could see how he would. The tomten continued:
"Then he goes away with a full smile, if not a full belly, which he knows he can get elsewhere."
But the tomten was getting a full belly. His big dark eyes were fixed on what his fingers could bring from bowl to mouth. While eating, he said:
"I can tell stories about your ancestors, too. If you like."
Gudrun didn't even notice the cold. She sat and listened. Some of the stories were familiar, because her mother and father and grandparents had told them to her. The tomten didn't always tell these stories better, but he definitely seemed to know more about what had really happened. And there were other stories, too, about people who lived long ago that her grandparents had known or heard about, and about people before them that only the tomten remembered. But then he stopped, and turned his head quickly to look at the sky.
"They're coming," he said, and turned around to look some more.
"Who?" she asked?
"The Wild Hunt. They'll be here very soon." He looked worried. "I must go. And you must go, and you must be asleep when they pass. Go now! I can protect you from many things, but not from this."
She jumped up and opened the door. Strange noises began to be heard, and the lights in the sky rippled. Looking back, she saw the tomten had dropped his bowl in the snow. She wanted to retrieve it, but the look on the tomten's face told her that wasn't important now. Gudrun stepped inside, closed the door, and bolted it. On the way to her room, she saw the Yule Candle quivering on the mantel as the sounds outside increased. That candle must be strong, she knew. It must survive the night, and so must she.
Worried about the tomten, she looked out through her curtains. He stood and scanned the sky. Why didn't he go away, into his rock? The noises grew louder, and stranger. Still he was there, but staring at her now. Staring at her, asking her silently for something. The lights outside grew brighter, and the sounds now were more like pounding. She couldn't watch anymore. Gudrun jumped into bed and under the covers, and was asleep and dreaming in an instant. In her dream, she saw the tomten safe, and just in time, as the Lord of the Hunt and his riders flew by, scavenging the land for careless and disrespectful souls.
The next morning, Gudrun woke up early. She went to the toolshed for her father's pick and shovel, which she was barely big enough to wield. Out behind the kitchen, she found the place that's always wet in the summertime, where Mother threw the dirty dishwater. But now, in winter, it wasn't wet: it was frozen solid. This made for tough going. But, as you already know, Gudrun is a determined girl. She found what she was looking for, down there in the frozen mud. She took it inside and carefully washed it off. Then she went and gave it to her father: the rare and beautiful marble he had received as a gift at Yule when he was a boy many years ago, and then lost the very next day.
He was flabbergasted! He was overjoyed! This was the best Yule present of his entire life! How had she known what to look for, or where to look?
But Gudrun said nothing.She only smiled. It was that singular smile of children when they know their parents wouldn't believe them, even if they are told.
This story is extrapolated from a picture book I read to my daughter when she was little: The Tomten and the Fox by Astrid Lindgren. Its prequel is The Tomten by the same author. I recommend them both, and I hope you and your children have enjoyed reading where the tomten has taken me since meeting him there.