Once More to Mount Crumpit
She thought every day since about the encounter that night so long ago. Shed heard the tinkle of glass against stone, sly and silent mutters. Thirsty, too, shed left the bed. Shed seen him deep in the shadows at the hearth, four cold moon prints squared on his back from the window. Shed seen him the next day all smiles, much like the smiles hed given the night before. Hed sent her away. Shed felt good getting into bed with that water, holy water, backing from the cold into the warmth of her brothers sleeping bodies, imagining the morning and the songs shed sing with love in her throat and thinking of the encounter and the miracle, of seeing a thing so wondrous.
She sat with her husband at a picnic table by a river running black with ice-melt from the higher country. Youve gotten too used to my cooking, she said.
His fingers were long and dirty from gathering wood. He held a fork above the sausage shed cooked over the grill. She got up, stood at the edge of the water. The water reflected the trees on the opposite ridge. She could smell the wood smoke from town on the wind. You were saying? But not about the cooking.
In all the rush that morning I told no one about the encounter, how hed been standing with his back to me. I wasnt scared. At first, Id thought dog then thought maybe maybe him and it had been. For a moment, when he turned his face, I thought I might cry out, but the monster turned to grandfather fast. That face through the lie. Did we ever lie to Bess and Linus that way?
She heard his fork strike the plate. She listened to him chew and swallow. Hed always been a loud eater, clumsy with his utensils. But he grew out of it, he said, made up for the lie. He brought all the gifts back, the food. Wed been singing to him all along.
And then he became part of us, she said. How could he go back? He built a house in the square. Set us on his knee after super and told us stories about the old days and about the morning his heart burst from his chest like a sun. It all became about the old days or nothing at all.
Did we ever pretend more than we should have? The kids are grown. Does it matter anymore?
A ball of cloud rose over the trees. It sank into the surface of the river. Evidence of the world dividing. She kneeled and lowered her fingers into the water. The water split, joined on the other side of each.
I went back to bed with the knowledge of him in the house, and this knowing grew and grew, as if Id stepped into a miracle first the size of a puddle then spreading to the width of a lake then an ocean, the kind of thought you drown in. Imagine it. Of all the houses and their people, I alone had seen him. Wed heard the stories and still tell them.
That he came back is all that matters, he said.
I know. But I went back to bed with that water, which I couldnt even drink because it had been drawn by him. I no longer had to believe because what I had believed became fact. I was too little to think beyond the moment, first the incredible fright then the kindness and the thought of a broken light in the tree, him fixing it. He came back as something else, bouncy, beaming, blowing happy notes, serving up the platters of steaming beast to us.
Her husband went to the cooler by the wagon and drew out a can. He sat and opened it, watching her. Its not the same anymore, he said. I know that. But should we lament this? He cut the meat, married, became mayor, died. It was a long time ago. Youre not what he was. All that matters is that I see you again.
Im not what he became, she said. But next year Ill come back, stir a small child from her cotton sleep and draw water for her, steal all that you own, then drive a poor old hound to the top of a mountain and wait to hear you sing.
What the Mothers and Fathers Did
Five happy children gathered around the tree to watch the lights to go on; its what they expected Christmas Eve. Father flipped the switch. Out of the soft, cold, and silent dark the tree bloomed volcanic red, yellow, white, the walls with their strings of ornaments washed now with the same light Mother remembered from her youth. The OOS followed. The WOWS. The smallest child, with little more than two strands of hair on her head, put a white hand to her mouth, her eyes the size of eggs.
Jee wiz, Timmy exclaimed.
Jimmy said, But can we open just one present, Mama?
No, Mother said with firm but gentle slyness. Its time for bed, child. Time for dreams. We have to give Santa room to play.
Red and blue-bowed presents spilled from under the tree. They were stacked on the couch. Stockings hung from the fireplace, thin and hungry as snake skins. Mother smiled at them, watching them appear and disappear in the blinking light. Father did too. The children were hustled to their beds, tucked in, kissed, told about sugar plums, reminded of the succulence of roast beast after song.
At two AM, as had been planned, Mother and Father woke to gemlight trapped in the lunar ice at the windows. They dressed quietly in jackets, hats, thick snowsocks and mits. The boots would go on later. They tiptoed downstairs, and at the sight of the blinking lights of the tree, at the sight of the glad variety of boxes, the opulent sheen of ornaments on the walls, Father said to Mother, You are wicked as plum wine.
Mother smiled at him. She slid a mitted palm down the thin bones of his face.
Then they got to work.
They carried expectations through the kneedeep snow cover to a sled readied before hand. Inside, Father took down the stockings one by one: Jimmys, Pablos, Little Tikes, Timmys, then, finally, Cindy-Lous, biggest because she was the smallest, not more than two, named after her mother, who was in the kitchen filling a cooler with hashes and beasts and beans and puddings cooling for the mid-day feast. Mother and Father carried out the food.
Back inside, they took the glass balls from the walls, leaving just the hooks, just the wires. They ignored the eyes of mice.
Then time for the tree. Mother entered and found Father buried under it and struggling in the dark. She almost dropped with laughter. They froze, heard a sound from the bed room where the children slept. Silence crept out of the mouse holes. From some far away place, they heard the haunted, cold throat of an owl. After a moment, they carried the tree out the front door to the sled.
Mother waved across the square to Mother. More wore a Santa hat and waved back, raising her fists to the moon in excitement. She jumped up and down in the snow. Under the gaslamps and through the light snow that had begun to fall you could see the other Mothers, the other Fathers. There, Father burdened under boxes. There, Father with armloads of bags. There, Father with tags in his mouth, a sacked beast in a fist. He paused to wave at Father who now stood beside Mother, admiring the piles on the sled.
Did you get every stocking? Mother asked.
Yes, Father said. And you every morsel of food?
Every last crumb, you know the joke.
The snow fell thick now. The lamps began to dim with the new light on the snow, a bluer fire glowing over the mountain. The Mothers and Fathers joined at the center of the square drawing their bloated sleds groaning on their runners. They looked at each other as if meeting again after long years of separation, perhaps briefly taken by their own strangeness. Some shook hands, spoke softly. Some hugged. They pulled their loads to the stand of trees near the courthouse, hid the sleds under tarps and bedsheets. Then they waited for the children to wake up.