The bells on the door jingled merrily as Ruth pushed in from the cold. She had taken the long way home, as much to enjoy all the Christmas lights as to put off her inevitable arrival at her cold and empty home. This shop had caught her eye, with the window display of antique nutcrackers and Christmas-themed nesting dolls. Somehow, she hadn’t noticed it before.
She was greeted with a wave of warmth, the smell of cinnamon and juniper, and floor-to-ceiling shelves of seasonal antiques. Christmas carols crackled from a vintage record player next to the door.
“Welcome, deary!” called an old woman’s voice from the back. “Do let me know if you have any questions.”
“Will do,” Ruth called back, but as she stepped around the shelf to properly greet the woman, she found another equally tall shelf behind it. The delightful array of miniature rocking horses, little birds, and glistening glass ornaments quickly distracted her from her concerns of politeness.
Ruth browsed, finally feeling some warmth in her bones again. She lost track of how many shelves there were in the little shop, each packed with innumerable wonders.
A cuckoo clock chimed at the end of the aisle, and Ruth’s heart rose with the merry little tune and dancing children, then sunk as she saw the time. She really did need to get going.
As she stepped to go back up the aisle, she saw something she’d missed before on a shelf she’d passed. A cheerful little plush black cat, no doubt hand-knit, wearing a big red Christmas bow.
Glee bubbled in her heart. She’d hardly decorated at all, and here was something that would bring some Christmas cheer to her dreary apartment all without any tree or effort.
Ruth picked up the little cat and stepped towards the cuckoo clock, not sure if she remembered which way the woman’s voice had come from. She nearly jumped as she came around the end of the aisle and found the shop’s counter right there.
A plump old woman with white hair wearing a red velvet dress sat knitting behind the counter, upon which a black cat slumbered.
“Hello deary,” the woman said, looking up from her knitting. “Find what you were looking for?”
“Y-yes,” Ruth said. “My apartment’s a bit empty this year, a-and—” She realized as soon as it was out of her mouth that there was no way to make it not sound pathetic. “Well, this fellow seemed like some quick Christmas cheer.” She held up the knit cat and hoped she looked cheerful.
The old woman’s eyes twinkled. “Ah, yes. Quite unlike the inspiration, I’ll have you know.” She tilted her head towards the black cat on the counter, who peeled open one yellow eye, surveyed Ruth, then returned to sleeping.
“You made it?” Ruth said.
The old woman nodded. “Most things in here I did. I have this shop as much as a place to put everything as to sell it!”
Ruth then noticed that there was a little doorway behind the counter, and sure enough, it was covered with all kinds of tools—paints, wood shavings, other balls of yarn, and more.
“Well, everything’s so lovely! I’m surprised you can keep the shelves stocked.”
The old woman smiled and shrugged. “This place doesn’t get as much foot traffic as it used to.”
Ruth thought that was odd, since she’d thought this part of town was doing quite well, but as she was far from an expert on local economics, she just offered an apologetic look. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Oh! Don’t you worry about me. I like it that way, honest. Just me and Obbie here.” She inclined her head at the cat.
“Obbie, that’s a fun name.”
“Short for Obsidian, but as you can see, that’s far too noble a name for this goofy little grump.”
Ruth found a real smile tugging at her lips. “Well, Obbie is a dashing model, if nothing else.”
“That he is,” the woman said.
“Do you have any Christmas plans?” Ruth asked, before realizing that she might have to return the answer.
“Ah yes,” the old woman said, “and they’ll look quite a lot like this. I’m a bit of a, oh what do they call it…”
‘Witch’ stirred in Ruth’s mind, but she had no idea why she’d think such a rude thing about such a nice woman.
“A spinster,” the woman finished. “That’s the word.”
“Do you ever get lonely?” Ruth asked.
“Me? Nah, Obbie keeps me good company. And now he’ll be able to keep you company, too.” The woman tipped her head at the knit cat.
Ruth turned to look at the cheerful face and big red bow. She could already imagine feeling a little less lonely with the little knit cat perched on her dresser. A genuine smile found her. Ruth nodded to the woman. “Yes, I quite agree.”
The old woman smiled warmly. “Anything else I can help you find tonight?”
Ruth shook her head.
The old woman nodded, then wrapped up the cat in a paper bag. Her eyes twinkled. “One more thing.” She ducked into the next room and returned with a little glass bottle. “One of my other hobbies. Call it a freebie.” She shook the bottle, then dropped it into the bag with the knit cat.
“What is it?” Ruth asked.
The old woman winked. “Moonshine. You’ll have to tell me if it’s any good. I used to be quite the cook, back in the day.”
Ruth would have immediately believed that the old woman had experienced prohibition first-hand. While she tried to do the mental math of whether that was even possible, the woman finished arranging the bag.
Obsidian stood and stretched, sniffed at the bag, then jumped off the counter and wandered off into the shop.
The old woman shook her head. “See? What a grump.” She handed Ruth the bag.
Ruth blinked and reached for her purse. “Oh, what do I owe you?” In her enthusiasm, she’d forgotten entirely to check the price tag—something both her boyfriend— her ex and her mother would have loved to berate her for. And one of the reasons that she was not presently traveling to visit either of them.
“Hm? Oh, you already paid, deary,” the woman said.
“D-did I?” Ruth said.
The woman nodded warmly and chuckled. “It’s late, happens to the best of us. Be sure to bundle up all the way before you head out.”
Ruth nodded as she pulled on her gloves. “Merry Christmas!”
“And to you too, deary. Just be sure to wish Obbie a happy solstice on the way out, if you don’t want the old grump to hiss at you.”
Ruth nodded and turned towards the labyrinthine shelves, not sure how she was going to find her way out. But while it had taken her more than a half an hour of browsing—and she would have sworn dozens of shelves to get to the counter, she only walked by four on the way out.
And she nearly jumped as she spotted Obbie sitting on top of the record player by the door, staring directly at her with two gleaming golden eyes.
Ruth gulped. “Happy Solstice, Obsidian.”
The cat jumped off the record player, purred, rubbed against Ruth’s leg, and then disappeared into the shelves again.
Ruth stepped out into the cold before the cat could change his mind and come back to hiss at her, then headed home.