Bobby’s family ran an old-fashioned farm. They had worried about going out of business but with the renewed interest in animal-welfare and natural products, they were becoming very popular again with customers flocking to their farm shop.
Like any farm-kid Bobby helped out as much as he could after school and at weekends. He loved it and knew his future lay in the business eventually so he spent more time learning about farming than he did on his homework.
Grandfather always took him down to the bus-stop at the end of the lane to catch the school bus, and one December morning as the boy was waiting for the old man to wrap up warm, he looked at the almanac pinned to the kitchen wall.
“Gramps, what’s Winter Solstice?” Bobby stuck his finger on the date.
As they trudged down the lane, their breath like smoke from their lips, Grandfather told him, enjoying passing down knowledge he had received from his own father.
“Very special, that. Used to be more important than Christmas. In fact,” he looked around superstitiously, “Some people say that it still is. Say the church nicked it off the old religions. But never mind. It’s the day the seasons change. The earth stands still for a couple of days before the days start to get longer. That was why it was celebrated with feasting n such. Sun comes back, we can grow things again, see?”
Bobby did see. He was a bright child and the importance of the Winter Solstice started to simmer in his fertile mind. Juxtaposing all the Christmas traditions with what his grandfather had told him he was making his own equations, and liked them a lot. As he was feeding the animals, all brought indoors for the winter, a thought struck him. He scratched one of the pigs behind the ears just where they like it, and asked “Is it Solstice that you can speak then? Not Christmas Eve? I bet it is.” The pig didn’t answer, just closed her eyes in delight at the scratching.
There was nothing special happening on the Solstice at home, apart from the shop being busier than ever, and his mum baking as if expecting an army, so Bobby did his homework, washed up and went to bed, He didn’t really. He waited until eleven-thirty and got dressed warmly, sneaked downstairs and let himself out into the barn, where he hid on top of the piles of straw-bales, burrowing down a little so he could see down to the floor.
His first surprise was when Zippo, his big sister’s pony, opened his own stall, and went methodically to each pen, opening the sliding latch with his nimble mouth. All the animals gathered together in a huddle in the centre of the barn, as if waiting, or perhaps they were keeping each other warm?
Suddenly there was a fluttering at the other end of the barn, facing the church, and an owl, followed by several bats arrived to make themselves at home in the rafters. Bobby nearly fell off the bales when the bats began to sing a Gregorian descant song “Solstice Blessings” to which the animals nodded along, rubbing noses or touching each other, the way he had seen people do in church.
The Barn Owl fluffed up his feathers before settling himself more comfortably on the beam and began to speak
“Brothers and sisters, we are gathered to say goodbye to the dark times. It is a new age of clarity and understanding…so you can come down from there, Bobby, because I can see you.”
The child had already started to fall but the kindly Zippo grabbed the back of his pants with strong teeth and set him gently on his feet.
“Upsy- daisy, colt.”
The old sow whose ears he had scratched pushed him from behind, nudging Bobby through the throng of animals to the front.
“Surprised, are we?” She asked.
Finding himself underneath the owl, Bobby couldn’t speak, just gazed in awe. It was true, the animals really were speaking. He turned to look at the assembled animals.
“You can talk!”
There was a universal shaking of heads and the donkey brayed with laughter.
“We can always talk.” She giggled. “You just don’t understand.”
Bobby sat down on the floor suddenly as a Jersey cow nudged him. She looked down into his face and said, very gently,
“We can always talk, Bobby, but you don’t hear. You are listening with your ears.”
Taking it in turns each animal came up to him and touched him on the chest.
“Listen with your heart, Bobby. That is all it takes. That’s why you can understand us tonight.” The owl peered down to stare. “You came here convinced you would and so it happened. Simple as that.”
Bobby lay flat and gazed up at his friends, all their large heads lowered to him. He felt privileged and stupid at the same time.
“Will I always be able to do this?”
A mouse climbed up his arm to whisper in his ear.
“Ain’t no magic trick, listen with what do tick. Don’t listen with your ears, for that way brings you fears.”
Making his way from each animal to the next, Bobby thanked them all and stroked, patted, or scratched them. They all spoke to him and every word was clear as he could hear his own family. A weight on his shoulder alerted him to the Barn Owl landing.
“Time to go now, Bobby. We have our Solstice to keep, and you need to sleep. Remember what we taught you.”
Bobby turned to go, his eyes full of tears, but stopped at the door.
“Solstice Blessings, brothers and sisters.” He blurted
“Solstice Blessings, Bobby” They replied in unison.
Bobby started to work harder at school, where he took a great interest in science and, as his friends advised him, became a very successful veterinary surgeon.