Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The McNeal Family Christmas Tree


Back left to right: Mom and Pop  Bottom left to right: Me and my sister, Mary

Far left: The Sad Christmas Tree


I’ve told the story about foraging for a Christmas tree before, but I wanted to tell it again now that I’ve found a picture of that tree to show you.


Every Christmas season Mom would want a Christmas tree because she was a believer in decorating for the holiday to the fullest capacity. Naturally, the task of foraging for that tree fell on Pop, my sister, and me. As much as I loved Christmas trees, I dreaded that trip into the pine forest. It required sturdy jeans, warm gloves, layers of clothes, and a pioneer to get the job done. Pop did not allow any whining along the way—and there was quite a way to go.


First, we had to walk past the backyard, through whatever was left in the garden, beyond the orchard, into the woods. Then the real journey began as we went down the hill to the little creek, up the steep bank over old oak trees that had fallen here and there until we reached the briar patch. Our dog, Ember, the Irish setter, was all over the place chasing tiny woodland creatures and cover in beggar lice and cock-a-burrs (getting them out of her fur was a chore for later.)


The briar patch was a wide strip of blackberry vines heavily protected by sharp thorns. No matter how hard we tried, those thorns caught on our clothes, scratched our hands till the blood came, and even pierced our heavy duty jeans. We would have to step high over the bushes to avoid the worst of the thorns. After a while our hips hurt and we were tired tuckered out—and we hadn’t even reached the pine forest. Ember was bouncing around, barking and running hither and yon, so at least one of us was happy and had some energy.

It seemed that every year we picked the coldest day to go looking for a Christmas tree because, by this time, we were all frozen, our hands were numb, and we just longed to get back home and get something hot to drink and warm up.


On this particular year our grump trio finally reached the pine forest and the end of our enthusiasm. Pop was the one who suggested we just get the first tree we came across and scurry on home. My sister and I heartily agreed. Pop and I did this one year when I was the only one still at home. We lucked up finding the best tree we ever had, but this was not that year. We took down the first tree we saw that was the least bit decent and headed home with it. The journey back to the house seemed to take more effort and we grumbled the whole way home. But I’m here to testify to the fact that Mom was happy with that tree. She didn’t complain about how shabby it looked, not even once.


I tried to get Pop to buy a tree one year, but oh my word, I may as well have asked him to turn over his life savings. He stared at me like I had told him I was giving up my citizenship and defecting to Russia for a moment before he let loose on me about the cost of buying a tree and how it just wasn’t American or something like that. I thought he was going to disown me. I never asked to buy a tree again.


For all the aggravation it was going into the forest to find a Christmas tree each year, I miss those days. I miss being in the forest, letting the dog run free, and finding our own tree. I miss the joy on Mom’s face when we brought the tree into the house, and I miss Pop making us take that dreaded trek into the woods to fetch that tree.  I’m glad at least to have these memories to treasure.


Did you have to take these treks into the woods for a tree or did your family have a different tradition? What is your favorite childhood memory of Christmas or the holiday season?

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

My New Release: Legends of Winatuke: Pennytook & Peregrine’s Curse


My New Release by Sarah J. McNeal

Legends of Winatuke: Pennytook & Peregrine’s Curse

Fire Star Press

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My new release is actually 2 stories in one volume which finalizes the Legends of Winatuke series. PENNYTOOK is the first story, a short story about the Gypsy who has helped so many rid themselves of the Witch-Queen through his knowledge wisdom, and courage. In this short story, Pennytook finally finds love again.

PENNYTOOK, Legends of Winatuke book4

Myths are supposed to be false…but some are terrifying and true.



Pennytook is a war weary Gypsy who longs for peace from the past and wants something meaningful in his life.

Esmeralda, a Gypsy trick rider, has harbored a deep affection for the chieftain, Pennytook, for many years. But her dark secret will never allow him into her life.

A mythological creature is about to unleash its horror and change the destinies of Esmeralda and Pennytook.


"Aye. That mare in the ring would be a good match." Sabo tilted his head in the direction of the performer. A crowd of Chergari and Djamba Gypsies had gathered around the riding ring where they stood, and cheered as the performer flipped backward and landed with her feet on the horse's back. When she did the same trick through a ring of fire, the crowd's cheers grew even more enthusiastic.

"Do you know that chi? I must make her an offer for her mare." Pennytook hoped his friend could introduce her to him, but not just to speak to her of horses. "I wonder that I have never seen her before—not even at the annual horse trading in Vel'ka Mulano or at one of the festivals in Valmora. Do you know her or where she comes from?"

A breeze ruffled the eagle's feathers. The creature cocked its head as if it listened to some far off sound. Sabo made a clicking sound with his tongue and the bird settled quietly on his arm. "Her name is Esmeralda Kanaluka."

Something about her seemed familiar, but Pennytook felt certain he had never seen her before. Perhaps she reminded him of his beloved wife. He had lost Anka when they were imprisoned on the Dark Isle so many years ago. The horror of her death haunted him still.


The second story in the duet is a novella, PEREGRINE’S CURSE. This final story was the most challenging story I’ve written so far. Because the heroine is deaf, I had to find ways to make her communicate through sign language, lip reading, and her odd speech. She is also a dancer and I had to find unique ways for her to understand the patterns of music and move to them. Above all, this is a love story.

A musician who cannot love and a dancer who cannot hear …Can they find happiness?


Peregrine McKnight is a successful musician and composer who wants above all things to fall in love, marry a woman who understands him completely, and to have a family as close as the one in which he was raised. Though Peregrine is blessed with unusual music ability, he is cursed. After a foray into the dimension of Winatuke to save a prince from the witch-queen, Peregrine was thrown into the deadly Lake of Sorrows where he suffered a curse from the evil Nivasi king who ruled there. He managed to survive the curse, but its shadow remains preventing him from falling in love.

Parisa Jahida Habuba, a Bedouin, survived the war in Syria along with her older brother after their parents and younger brother were killed in the conflict. Her aunt and uncle, who live near Wilmington, North Carolina, adopted Parisa and her brother when they were children and gave them sanctuary in America. Her Uncle Rahim is a Christian minister and her Aunt Alice raises a line of superior Arabian horses. Her brother, Ahmad formed a friendship with Falcon McKnight and Thomas Zoradia and, through them, she learns of a position for a dancer with the famous musician, Peregrine McKnight, Falcon’s younger brother. It may be her only chance to prove she can dance in spite of her hearing loss.

When she falls on stage in the middle of a performance, Parisa believes she has ruined her chance at dancing. But when Peregrine helped her up and began to dance with her as if it were part of the performance, something unexpected happened between them.

It might take a miracle for Peregrine and Parisa to find love. But, in Winatuke anything is possible.


Peregrine ran his gaze over the filled seats in the audience and grinned. This is what I love; playing my music and having people enjoy it. He placed his violin under his chin and signaled to the small band of musicians and the backup dancers. The audience cheered as Peregrine began to play. 

A couple of tunes into the show everything was going great. Peregrine felt confident that his new album was going to be a success. A glance back over his shoulder at the backup dancers told him Albert had done a terrific job on hiring the choreographer and dance company. The costumes were colorful, ruffled renditions of Gypsy dancers he remembered so fondly from that other dimension and his family’s secret world of Winatuke. He smiled to himself as he thought of his friends in that magical realm: Pennytook, the Gypsy chieftain, his brothers-in-law, Gabriel and Raphael Fionn, both princes in the kingdom of Valmora. The smile faded when he remembered the demon who threw him into the malignant Lake of Sorrows and the curse the Navasi king cast over him. With painful clarity, Peregrine remembered how the curse kept him from ever falling in love. He would never experience the most intimate relationship a human could have or ever hope for a family of his own. His music was all he had.

All of the sudden, the audience gasped, and Peregrine’s thoughts were swept away from Winatuke and his curse when he glanced back and saw one of the dancers had fallen. She glanced up and met his gaze with dark eyes filled with humiliation. He handed his violin over to another musician and signaled for them to keep playing. There’s only one thing I can do.

Peregrine walked casually over to the dancer and stretched out his hand to her. A cloud of confusion moved across her face as she took his hand and allowed him to help her to her feet.

“Am I fired?” she asked in an odd slurred voice.

“My God, woman, are you drunk?” Peregrine wrapped one arm around her waist and held her other hand in his.

The woman shook her head. “No, of course not.”

“We’re going to dance the Samba and make it look like it’s part of the act. Can you do that?”

She nodded her head in the affirmative. Her eyes were wide and alert and she certainly didn’t dance like someone inebriated. The Samba suited this piece of music perfectly and Peregrine was relieved when the audience clapped and cheered as he and the dancer began to move into the sensual dance.



Sarah J. McNeal

Author of Heartwarming Stories




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