Matthew tugged on his boots, put on his mittens, and headed for the clearing on the far side of the cottage. Everything looked different from the way he remembered it. The tall pine trees were now covered with snow. The apple tree he’d climbed last summer looked dark and bare against the winter landscape. Even the pond was frozen over, and Matthew wondered how the frogs and turtles were doing. But the worst difference was the terrible silence that Grandpa’s happy laugh should have filled.
Matthew had never been to the cottage during the winter. But Grandma had wanted to come now. Mom said that it made Grandma happy just remembering how much Grandpa had enjoyed it here.
But being here didn’t make Matthew feel happy. And remembering that Grandpa had died only made him feel worse.
He trudged through the snow to the old work shed and peered through a frosty window. The birdhouse he’d been helping Grandpa build last summer sat unfinished on top of the workbench. The rough edges needed to be sanded smooth before purple martins could move in, in the spring. Now it wouldn’t get done. Matthew walked away feeling even sadder.
He followed a path through the pines to the creek that ran through the woods. In summer the muddy bank held the tracks of all the animals that came out of the woods for a cool drink. Grandpa had taught Matthew how to recognize the tracks of the raccoons, rabbits, deer, and other animals that lived nearby. “All of God’s creatures have their own distinct footprints,” Grandpa had told him.
The only tracks visible in the snow now were those of a lone deer. In the hope of catching a glimpse of it, Matthew decided to follow its trail into the woods. He walked for quite a distance as the tracks zigzagged between the trees. The afternoon sun began to fade, and Matthew’s toes began to tingle from the cold.
Then he spotted not just one deer but a small herd. They were munching peacefully on the sweet bark and small twigs of a cherry birch tree. Holding his breath, Matthew took a few steps forward to get a closer look.
Oh-oh! One noticed him. The herd darted into the woods in every direction.
Matthew sighed deeply. “Oh, well,” he said to himself, “it’s time to go back, anyway.”
But when he looked around, he saw dozens of deer tracks in the snow. He wasn’t sure which set would lead him back to the cottage. He began to feel a little frightened as he realized it would be dark soon and that he was lost in the woods.
If only Grandpa were here! Matthew thought sadly. He’d know what to do.
Then he remembered what Grandpa had told him: “All of God’s creatures have their own distinct footprints.” Matthew looked around to find the familiar shape of his own boots pressed clearly in the snow.
It felt as though Grandpa was walking with him as he followed his own footprints back through the pines, along the creek, and into the clearing. The familiar outline of the cottage ahead filled him with happiness.
As he passed the work shed, he took another look through the window at the birdhouse. There was no reason why he couldn’t finish the sanding himself, he decided. And in the spring he would hang the birdhouse next to the apple tree in the clearing. Then every time he saw it, he would remember Grandpa and all that they had done together. Grandpa would like that.