Alabama, Christmas 1880
Levi Atwood escaped. Freedom. Only a few more steps and he would enter the peaceful
haven of the woods bordering his grandma’s home. It’s not that he hated Christmas; he just
wanted to avoid the chaos. One moment his mother and grandmother wanted his help, and the
next minute he was underfoot. No, he did his part helping his father fell an evergreen tree and
dragged it home. That was all the Christmas prepping he cared to be involved in. Anyway, Levi
knew his family would forgive him when he returned home; after all, it was Christmas.
The cold air turned his breath to mist as he jammed his glove-covered hands into his
pockets. Winter in North Alabama is strange. It can be very cold, but hardly ever snows. And if
snow comes, it usually is just a dusting. But Levi didn’t mind the cold; it made the air feel fresh,
clean and invigorating. He walked among the trees, which, void of leaves, appeared as skeletons
of their warm weather selves. Only the pine and evergreen trees retained their foliage. Levi
relished the silence of the hibernating woods. Dry leaves crunched under his feet only to be
stifled by the occasional spongy patch of pine needles cushioning his steps. The woods he was in
now were unfamiliar to Levi. Every few feet, he stopped, pulled out his knife and cut a notch
into the rough, cracked bark of a tree to mark his path. While he was digging his blade into the
hard bark of an old oak tree, he was startled by a scream piercing the stillness of the woods. Levi
ran hard in the direction of the scream.
There, in a small clearing covered by a canopy of trees, stood a small figure of a girl. The
girl stomped the hard ground, stopping to scream and shake her fists at the canopy above her.
“What did those trees do to you, girl? The way you were yelling, I thought someone was
dying,” Levi said trying to regain his breath.
The girl whipped around in the direction of Levi’s voice. The fur-trimmed hood of her
pale blue coat hid her face
She clenched her fists and stamped her foot in Levi’s direction.
“Get out of here!” she demanded. “This is my spot!”
“I heard you screaming; I thought someone was dying!”
“Well, I ain’t dying, so you can leave now.” The girl placed her hands on her hips.
“You sure are bossy for such a little girl.”
“I ain’t a little girl.”
“You ain’t?” he said. “You can’t be more than ten.”
“I’m fourteen. So now you know how old I am, you can leave.”
“Hmm. Don’t think I will; I kinda like this spot,” Levi said, teasing her.
“You go away now!” the girl demanded and picked up a rock to throw at Levi.
“You better think twice before you throw that rock.”
The girl backed down and dropped the rock on the ground.
“I’ll wait for you to leave.” She sat on a hollow log and folded her arms across her chest.
Levi could hear her sniffle.
“Oh, come on, I was just teasing ya. You don’t have to go and cry about it.”
“I ain’t crying.”
“Sure sounds like you are to me.”
“Well, I ain’t.”
“Okay, whatever you say. How about we be friends?” he said. “My name is Levi
Atwood. What’s yours?”
“I ain’t telling you my name. Why don’t you leave, Levi Atwood,” she said with a sneer.
“All right, I will leave, but it is a shame. I might have helped with whatever has you so
Levi turned to leave.
Levi stopped and smiled to himself. “What? I’m leaving like you asked me to.”
“Oh. I-I just thought maybe you might could help me.”
Levi turned to face the girl. “So tell me what you are trying to do.”
“I’m trying to get mistletoe.”
“Yes. Haven’t you heard of mistletoe?”
“I have. Has something to do with Christmas?” he said.
“Yes, but it grows up in the treetops, and you have to throw rocks at it to knock it down,
but it’s hard, ’cause it has roots growing into the tree.”
“A rifle would be easier than rocks. Sounds like a lot of trouble for a tree-growin’ weed.”
“It ain’t no weed.” She stomped her foot once more.
“What’s it for?”
“Kissing? You must be joking,” he said. “Why would folks need a weed to kiss, and who
would a little girl like you kiss, anyhow?”
“Oh! Just go away,” she yelled. “I don’t want your help! You don’t know nuthin’.”
“I’m just trying to make sense of it, is all. What ya want it for?”
“It’s for my Ma and Pa to kiss on Christmas.”
“Why can’t they kiss without it?” he asked.
“You are a dumb boy. Don’t you know if a girl stands under mistletoe at Christmas, then
the boy that loves her has to give her a kiss? My Ma loves to stand under the mistletoe and wait
for Pa to kiss her.”
“Seems silly to me.”
“Then never you mind, Levi Atwood. I will get it myself.”
“How do you propose to do that? Throwing rocks at it hasn’t worked.”
“I’m gonna have to climb a tree and get it,” she said.
“Wait!” Levi yelled, but he was too late. The girl was already making her way up a tree.
“Hey!” Levi yelled from the base of the tree. “You ain’t a monkey. You need to get down before
you break your neck.”
“Go away. I don’t need your help.”
“Come on, come on. Dang it, what is your name?”
“I ain’t telling you,” she said as she reached another branch.
“Well, since you look like a monkey trying to climb that tree, I will call you Monkeyface.
So, Monkeyface, you better get down. I don’t want to climb up there and get you.”
“You don’t have to; I told you to go away.”
“You are very irritating, Monkeyface. Now get down here.”
Monkeyface stretched her arm to reach a sprig that resembled mistletoe, but lost her
balance and slipped off the limb.
“Ewff!” Levi gasped as he caught the falling girl. “Monkeyface, you sure are a lot of
The girl’s hood slipped off her head, revealing her face, which was nothing like a
monkey at all. She was the most beautiful girl Levi had ever seen.
Her braided hair was a glossy midnight black, which contrasted with the luminous, milky
white skin of her face, her complexion flawless, even with a smattering of pale freckles. Her
cheeks were light pink, maybe a result of the cold weather, but Levi did not think so. Her pink
lips were the shape of a rosebud. But what stunned Levi were her large almond-shaped eyes.
They were piercing with their arctic blue color, and they held him in her gaze.
“My,” she whispered. “You are like one of the knights in the books I read, the ones that
save the lady from peril.” Her gaze became soft and dreamy.
“Do any of those knights spank these ladies, Monkeyface?”
“I don’t know. Wait, what?”
“You heard me, Monkeyface.”
“You don’t have to call me Monkeyface.” She smiled. “My name is Jane Dunn, but folks
call me Janie.”
“I prefer Monkeyface,” Levi said as he placed her on her feet. “I gotta go home. Don’t
climb anymore trees, Monkeyface.”
“Please, it’s Janie, and wait.”
“Please, Levi, um—will you please help me get some mistletoe?”
“What’s wrong with the mistletoe in your hand?”
“Oh!” Janie looked at her hand and was surprised to see mistletoe in her grasp. “I didn’t
realize I got it; mistletoe usually grows high in the tree tops. Was I that high up?”
“No,” said Levi. “You got lucky. So now you can go stand under it and wait for a kiss.”
“Not me, silly, Ma.”
“Oh, that’s right, your Ma gets kissed by your Pa, I forgot,” he teased. “Hey, where did
you find out about mistletoe?”
“I know a lot of things; I like to read.”
“You do?” Levi asked.
“I like to read, too. I don’t know anyone who likes to read like I do. My friends from
school call me a bookworm.”
“A bookworm.” Janie laughed. “I suppose I must be a bookworm, too.”
“No, you will always be a Monkeyface.”
Janie smiled. “You are still in school. How old are you?”
“I’m seventeen, and I don’t go to school anymore. I help with the farm.”
“Your folks have a farm around here?”
“No, we ain’t from here,” he said. “We came here to visit my grandma for Christmas.”
“Oh,” Janie said with a hint of disappointment in her voice. “I live in town. My Pa is a
“Janie?” Levi asked, using her real name. “Do you have to go home right now?”
“No, I can stay a little longer.”
“I don’t know anyone who likes to talk about books. Do you want to stay awhile and we
can talk about the books we have read?”
“Oh, I would love that,” Janie answered, thrilled he wanted to stay. “I have a couple of
apples in my knapsack, do you want one?”
Janie retrieved the apples and joined Levi, who was sitting on the hollow log.
“So tell me,” Levi asked. “What is your favorite book?”
An hour had passed before they knew it.
“I need to get home, Levi,” she said. “I had such a good time talking to you. I’m sorry I
was in such an ill temper when we first met.”
“It’s okay, Monkeyface, I wish we didn’t have to go. I like talking to you.”
“I like talking to you, too,” Janie said
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Hey,” Levi said, “we come here every Christmas to see Grandma, I could meet you here
next Christmas Eve.”
“That would be wonderful.” Janie’s face radiated. “And we could write, too. All you have
to do is address the letter to me and put Henderson, Alabama on the letter and I will get it.”
“And you can write me, too, only I live in Ashland, Alabama.”
“Oh, Levi, I’m so glad I met you.”
“And I’m glad I found you under the mistletoe.”
Christmas 1881 – Janie is fifteen years old; Levi is eighteen years old
Janie held the rifle steady as she aimed at the mistletoe. Gently she squeezed the trigger.
Bang! The force of the rifle dug into her shoulder and knocked her to the ground.
“Janie, Janie. Monkeyface, are you all right?” said a muffled voice.
“What, huh?” Janie looked up to see Levi’s concerned face. “Levi?”
“Yes.” Levi held out his hand, and Janie clasped it in hers. He pulled her up. “Janie
Dunn, have you taken leave of your senses?”
“What?” Janie said, still stunned from the gunshot.
“What in the heck are you doing using a rifle?”
“Levi.” Janie beamed.
“Don’t you Levi me. Does your Pa know you have this rifle?”
Janie’s mind cleared at the mention of her Pa and the rifle.
“Janie Dunn, you answer me.”
Janie looked at her feet. “Well, it was your idea,” she said as she drew circles in the dirt
with the toe of her shoe.
“What do you mean, it was my idea?”
“You said, last year, it would be easier getting mistletoe if I shot it with a rifle.”
“Janie Dunn, you know very well I did not mean for you to use a rifle. Do you even know
how to shoot a gun?”
Janie slowly shook her head.
“Monkeyface,” Levi said, “what am I gonna do with you?”
She beamed at his use of the nickname he gave her. “You could teach me to shoot.”
“I could, but I will have to think about it.” He leaned the gun against a tree. “So,
Monkeyface, let me look at you.”
“I ain’t much different,” Janie answered, trying not to show how disappointed she was
that she had not grown much over a year and still had some of her baby fat.
“Oh, I don’t know about that, you mighta grown a little, but wait, isn’t that the same coat
you had on last year?” he teased.
“Ha, ha, so what if it is? If you look close you will see, it is shorter than last year, so I
must have grown some.”
“Why, Monkeyface,” Levi said as he stooped down to exam the length of the coat, “I
believe you are right, it is a whole quarter of an inch shorter.” He looked up at her and winked.
“Very funny, Levi Atwood. Why don’t you straighten up and I can see if you have
Levi stood up, stretching his frame over the small girl. Janie looked up, her eyes,
studying the boy in front of her.
“I guess you grew some, too.”
“Some?” said Levi. “I will have you know that I grew three inches in a year.”
“I guess you did; you are starting to look like a giraffe.” She laughed.
“I guess you have changed some.”
Janie did not want to admit he was taller. The year before he had been slim and lanky,
but he had filled out some over the past year. His shoulders seemed broader than she
remembered and his voice was deeper. But his hair was still the same golden brown, and his eyes
still moss green only now she could see flecks of gold in them. The boyish face was fading, and
Janie could swear she saw beard stubble. He was becoming a handsome man, and she was still a
little girl in his eyes, she wished she could grow up faster.
“Well, I’m glad we can still recognize each other,” Levi said and chuckled.
“Yes, we mighta passed by each other if we changed a lot,” Janie joked.
“Let’s sit on the old hollow log and talk for a while, I want to know everything you’ve
been doing,” Levi added.
“Gee, Levi, I don’t know what to tell you that I didn’t already write to you in my letters.
Did I tell you Ma’s teaching me to knit?”
“No, I don’t think you have. Surely I would remember if you did.”
“That reminds me, I have something for you.” Janie pulled a wrapped package from her
“Well, what is this?” Levi said as he took the gift from the girl’s hands.
“It’s a Christmas present,” Janie said and beamed. “Open it, Levi.”
“But, Monkeyface, it isn’t Christmas yet. I think I should wait until tomorrow when it is
“No, Levi,” Janie’s face turned red with anger. “I want to see you open it.”
“Calm down, Janie, I was only teasing.”
“You tease too much, Levi Atwood.” Janie pouted.
“Oh, come on, Monkeyface, how can I give you your present if you are angry with me?”
“You got me a present?” Janie’s eyes danced with excitement. “Where is it, can I open it,
Levi laughed. “What happened to you wanting to see me open my gift?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Levi.” Janie reined in her excitement. “Of course I want to see you open
your gift first.”
“I’m not gonna open mine first. I want to see you open your gift, Monkeyface.”
Levi reached into his pocket and retrieved a small wrapped package. Janie grabbed the
gift, giggling as she ripped through the paper. Her eyes widened.
“Oh, Levi,” she said with a soft tone, “it’s s-so beautiful.” In her small hand, she held a
small wooden figure of a monkey.
“I’m glad you like it. I wasn’t sure you would ‘cause you know, you don’t like your
nickname very much.”
“What makes you think I don’t like my nickname? I love it because you are the only one
that calls me Monkeyface.”
Levi smiled. “Yes, you are my Monkeyface, my little friend. Oh, here.” Levi produced a
small chain from his pocket. “There is a small hole in it if you want to wear it.”
“I do, I do. Please, Levi, if you could fix it for me.”
Levi took the small monkey and hung it on the chain.
“Turn around, and I will latch it for you.”
Janie looked down at the gift that hung around her neck. “I will love it forever. Thank
you, Levi. Hey, what about your gift?”
“I have it right here.” Levi held up the package.
“Well, open it.”
“I suppose I should.” Levi chuckled and tediously began to unwrap the gift.
“No, Levi, not like that, you need to rip it open, or I will die waitin’.”
“I’m pretty sure no one has ever died waiting, but since I don’t want to take a chance I
will do as you ask.”
Levi ripped the paper and held up the soft, moss green scarf.
“You like it?” Janie’s smile beamed.
“Oh, Monkeyface, it is perfect, thank you, did you make it yourself?”
“Yes, well, Ma helped a little, but most of it I made.”
Levi wrapped the scarf around his neck. The green color highlighted his eyes just as Janie
hoped it would.
“My, we both have done well this Christmas, haven’t we?” Levi said.
“Yes, I would say we have.”
“Well, you said you learned to knit, anything else new you want to tell me?”
“I can’t think of anything, and it’s your turn to tell me about yourself, have you learned
“No, well, no, never mind.” Levi turned different shades of pink.
“My, my, Levi Atwood, you are blushing, now you have to tell what you have been up
“Okay, my ma has been teaching me to dance.”
“Dance?” Janie laughed. “What in the world for?”
“Well, they have dances every other week where we live, and Ma says I should be
looking for a girl to marry someday. She said she and my pa met at a dance so she reckoned it
would work for me.”
Janie felt the blood in her veins go stone cold. She wanted to scream, to yell, “Wait for
me!” but she couldn’t. She looked at the ground and tried not to cry. “Did you meet a girl?” she
asked in a soft voice.
“Good.” Janie could not believe she said that out loud and began to blush. She looked at
the ground, hoping Levi did not hear.
“Oh wait,” Levi said with a sly grin. “There was this one gal I met, but not at the dance.”
“Yep. She was kinda pretty, too.”
“Sure was. She had this long flowing blonde hair, looked like gold. And her eyes, well
they were an amazing, sweet, soft brown.”
“I don’t want to talk about your girlfriend anymore, Levi.” Janie got up from the log and
folded her arms across her chest.
“Why not? She also had the softest nose I ever felt.”
Janie whipped around and glared at Levi.
“What? Why did you feel her nose?”
“Cause I always petted her nose after I gave her a carrot.”
“You feed this girl carrots?” Janie’s fists laid on her hips as she cocked her head to the
Levi howled. “Yes, and she likes sugar cubes, too, but she ain’t much of a dancer with
Janie scrunched up her face. “Levi Atwood, are you talking about a horse?”
“Well of course I am. What else would I be talking about?” He gave her what his pa
called a shit-eatin’ grin. “And her name is Nellie.”
Levi dodged a pinecone that was lobbed by Janie.
“And,” Levi cackled, “she is a palomino.” A second pinecone whizzed by. “But,” Levi
said as he got up and grabbed Janie’s arms, “she isn’t as cute as you, especially when you are
“You are evil, Levi Atwood, you are always teasing me, and I don’t like it.” Janie
stamped her foot and pouted.
“Oh, come on, Monkeyface, don’t be mad.” He tickled under her chin to try to get her to
“Stop it,” she protested, “stop it.” Janie could not stifle her laughter.
“Good, there is my Monkeyface and her sweet laugh. Come on, let’s talk before you have
to leave and then I can shoot down some of your precious mistletoe.”
Levi tried to teach Janie how to shoot the rifle but said she was too small to handle the
kick. He took the rifle from her and managed to shoot down some mistletoe for her.
“I wish I coulda done the shooting.”
“Don’t worry, you will one day.”
“I suppose so, but I am happy, I have some mistletoe for Ma.”
“I’m hungry, you didn’t bring any apples with you, did you?”
“No.” She grinned. “I brought something better.” Janie ran over to a nearby tree and
pulled out a picnic basket. “We can have a winter picnic while we talk.”
“That is an excellent idea, and I will make a small fire, so we don’t freeze out here.”
“Oh, and so you will know, I made the food, not Ma.”
“I am sure it will be wonderful.”
Levi helped Janie clean up after their picnic, then he put out the fire.
“Monkeyface, I guess it is time to go.”
“Yes, Ma and Pa will worry if I don’t get home soon, but I hate I will have to wait
another year to see you.”
“Don’t worry, we can still write.”
“I know, I’m glad for that. Merry Christmas, Levi, I will see you next year.”
“Merry Christmas, Monkeyface, see you next year under the mistletoe.”
Christmas 1882 – Janie is sixteen years old and Levi is nineteen years old
Levi prayed Janie would be waiting for him. He was late leaving his grandma’s house,
and it had to be this year, he was mad he couldn’t get away, why had his father decided to get a
tree this morning instead of yesterday?
I hope she is there, it’s been two months since I’ve heard from her, please let Janie be
The cold air burned the back of his throat as his feet pounded the frozen dirt. He burst
through the woods, into the clearing and spied a figure sitting on the hollow log; it was Janie
waiting under the mistletoe.
Levi slowed to a walk. “Janie,” he said as he approached her. “Janie, honey, it’s Levi.
Monkeyface, you okay?”
Janie slowly lifted her head; tears flowed down her mournful face. She stood and raced
into Levi’s arms. Burying her head into his chest, she cried.