Excerpted from "The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from Around the World for the Winter Solstice." Copyright 2000 by Carolyn McVickar Edwards. Appears by permission of Marlowe & Company.

La Befana is a tall old woman with a red shawl and a bent branch broom that goes sweep-swep-sweep. She lives in a thin wooden house with a round-topped door in the shadows of the dark purple mulberry trees. La Befana sweeps the mulberry leaves, sweep-swep-sweep, into piles. Crunch-crackle-crunch.

La Befana has a long nose and a hump on her back. Her hands are speckled with pale chocolate. She pins the white billow of her hair with bone combs. Befana's kitchen shelves are libraries of jars and tins. Honey, almonds, hazelnuts, and the skins of lemons and tangerines. Cloves, vanilla beans, and cinnamon. Hills of sugar and silky flours, with chipped china teacups for scoops.

Up until the winter of our story, La Befana had swept and baked for no one but herself. Sweep-swep-sweep went her broom, year after day, day after year. Spicy, doughy smells curled out of her windows as she baked: beat-bet-beat, knead-knod-knead went her hands. Clack-drack-clack went the sticks for her stove.

La Befana never spoke. People heard her noises, but they never heard her voice. At least, people could not remember the last time they had.

But one year in wintertime, when the leaves dried in yellow-brown piles, Befana had a conversation. Everyone heard her. And then, La Befana's story changed forever.

One fine morning, a strange parade marched down the mulberry street. Everyone watched, shouting and crowding at the edges of the procession. La Befana stayed inside, but she parted her curtains and stared.

She saw enormous, clopping brown beasts with knobbed knees and bumps on their backs. Cases carved with suns and crescents thumped the sides of the brown giants with each huge mincing step they took. Jewel-colored flags. Old man in red turban at the front; a younger, head in a pillow of purple, at the middle; and a third, robes green as orange tree leaves, at the rear. A boy jigging to the song of a stringed box, another shaking a belled stick with red ribbons. Befana's breath frosted her window. She rubbed it clear with her fingers. At that moment--everyone saw it--a child sprinted out of the throng straight to Befana's door. He hopped from foot to foot there, knocking--knock-kneck-knock--at her door.

La Befana cracked the door, then opened it wide enough to show herself, her hand clutched around her bent branch broom. The music stopped. The parade paused. It was as if even the strangers knew that La Befana needed silence to try out her words.

Everyone saw the little boy reach for the hand that held the broom. People saw La Befana's hand tighten on the old bent branch. But she gave him her other hand, closing his little one in her own.

People puffed with breath they did not let out.

The child spoke first.

"We're looking for the Child of Light, Nona. We're looking for the Royal Child who will light up the world."

People's breaths went out and in.

"Eh?" said La Befana.

"We're looking for the Child of Light, Nona. Come with us. We're bringing the Royal Child our gifts."

La Befana was silent.

"Come, Nona," said the boy.

And then La Befana spoke, voice husky with years of no use.

"I have my sweeping," she said.

"Come," said the boy.

"I have my baking, child," said La Befana. "I have to gather the wood."

And then the boy wrapped his arms round her gray skirts and clung. Everyone watched La Befana set away her broom. La Befana rested both old hands on the child's small back.

Then, somewhere in the clear air, the music started again. Like dancers, the people and the animals in the parade pivoted, began to jostle, to call out to one another.

The boy unstuck himself and plunged away. La Befana stood for moments before she clenched her broom and shut her door hard.

If you had been listening at her door, you would have heard the sounds again of that bent branch broom. Sweep-swep-sweep, sweep-swep-sweep. But the sound would have smudged a little: Sweep, swep, swep. Swep. Swep--as if La Befana were leaning and thinking.

If you had peeked in the window, you could have seen her dreaming there, leaning on the broom. Her eyes like chocolate melting; tiny images of La Befana mirrored again and again in the library of kitchen jars, now very still. Then, suddenly, La Befana and all the mirrored La Befanas began to move. And all around, the kitchen moved, too.

Lids clattered from tins. The rolling pin dancing. Eggs bursting themselves in red and green bowls. Beat-bet-beat, knead-knod-knead. Cloves and cinnamon swirling through the air. Rinds of lemons and oranges scattering like commas and parentheses onto pages of rolled out flour. Vanilla beans shivering in snowy sugar. Almonds and hazelnuts cavorting in honey. Cream frothing. Chocolate slivers spinning from the backs of La Befana's hands. Drifting onto balls, twists, and mezzaluna rolls of cookies and cakes. The hot oven mouth closing on them all.

Then, in a careen of perfume, La Befana packed a basket. Layer after layer, lie-lo-lee, of cookies, cakes, and candies.

Then--are you watching?--La Befana smoothing her hair and pinching her combs tight. Pinning her red shawl at her throat. Resting her fingers on her eyes. And finally, taking up the basket and opening her door.

La Befana has her gifts for the Royal Child. But it is twilight now, and a red ribbon on the street is all that is left of the parade. Can Befana catch up? A mulberry leaf settles like a crown at her feet.

La Befana disappears and returns with her broom. She begins to run. The basket bounces at her side. She wheezes. She runs and runs, and then, suddenly, a gust catches her. The broom tilts and lifts. La Befana flies away up high into the stars.

La Befana is a tall old woman with a bent branch broom that goes sweep-swep-sweep. She lives in the shadows of the mulberry trees, and she bakes and gathers wood and talks not much at all. But ever since that winter, La Befana packs every year a basket of gifts--cookies, cakes, and candies--for the Royal Child of Light.

La Befana never catches up to the parade. But she flies each year across the sky, stopping at every house below. She is looking for the Child who will light up the world. La Befana is never sure what the Child may look like. So she leaves her gifts at every home, in case the girl or the boy within is the Royal Child of Light.
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