Friday, December 28, 2018

A Christmas Story

Tilda ran along the creek bank behind her grandmother. Oma was carrying two five-gallon buckets, each only half full. It was easier that way, she said. Her back wasn't getting any younger.  

That smile. 

Oma had the best smile. Her whole face seemed to catch a sparkle when she smiled, like the sun blazing through a break in the clouds on a dreary, gray day. Tilda lived for that smile.

The muddy banks were crusted with snow and ice, and all along, a few feet back from the edge, were junipers. Oma took her sharp knife out of its sheath and easily sliced through some of the branches. Most of them had berries, too. Oma cautioned Tilda that those were berries, but that they weren't to eat, like the sweet blueberries they occasionally found. These were for medicine and decoration.

Oma tucked the juniper cuttings into her bag. The long strap wrapped around her neck and the bag hung loosely at her hip. Once upon a time that bag was probably Oma's purse and held all of the stuff she would need during the day when she was out at a job or shopping: keys, a wallet, assorted writing utensils. Oma joked that her bag also had much of the stuff that could be used in an emergency situation: a pocketknife, matches and tinder for starting fires, carabiners, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, packets of sugar, a tea bag, and an assortment of first aid supplies, like women's hygiene products. Tilda had asked once, what a women's hygiene product was. Oma tried to explain, but Tilda was too young still to understand about the body she had been born into and the miracles it could create. Time, Oma told her, would reveal all.

Oma said that sometimes she'd carried snacks, but mostly not, as she also wished to keep the bag lighter, and since it was for emergencies, those snacks tended to get all crumbly and not good, over time. Oma disliked throwing things away. So, she stopped carrying snacks.

“There's always somewhere to get a bite,” she had told Tilda, and as proof, they stopped under an apple tree. The fruit was small and tart, but edible, and it quieted a rumbling belly. “That's all we need, my dear.”

The bag style was called a messenger bag. Tilda liked to imagine what sort of message one would carry in such a vessel. Oma smiled. That smile. 

“We'll carry messages of health and well being, my dear. Would you like to carry the bag?”

Tilda reached eagerly her fingers opening and closing like lobster claws as Oma set the strap around her neck, adjusting the length so that Tilda wouldn't trip when she walked. The bag dangled in front of her, and she clasped a hand on each side to keep it from swaying as she walked.

Oma stopped, setting the two heavy buckets on the ground on either side of her, stood, and stretched her back. The brook whispered against its bank, and as they stood there, not speaking or moving, Tilda could hear the sounds of others around them. The birds chittering to each other, warning of the two, two-legged visitors to their home. The cold wind licked its icy tongue against the naked tree trunks and branches, which protested loudly in creaks and shudders.

Tilda pulled her arms more tightly against her sides, gripping the messenger bag in her knotted fists.

Taking her knife again, Oma slashed some mushrooms from a rotted stump. She handed the spores to Tilda, and then, trekked off a few feet to a small pine. In one smooth motion, she slashed the thumb-sized trunk. She tucked the tiny tree under her arm, grabbed her buckets, and continued the hike back to home.

Tilda and her parents lived with Oma and Opa in their small house. Well, Oma kept saying it was small, but it was big enough that everyone could go to a separate room for some quiet time and not speak for a whole … ever, if they wanted.

There were two rooms that Oma always called “bathrooms”, but there was only one bath tub. The other room had a plastic enclosure with a glass door. They called it a shower, but Tilda had never seen anyone use it for anything more than washing clothes in the metal tub on the floor of the shower and hanging clothes to dry in the winter – ones that were too heavy to wring out well enough to put on the rack in front of the woodstove. The bathroom with the shower had a wooden seat with a hole and bucket underneath. Oma called it the potty.

She said when she was a little girl, her grandma had an outhouse. That was before indoor plumbing, Oma said. Oma said they were now in the after of indoor plumbing.

Oma liked to share stories about what life was like when she was growing up. Her stories were funny, and she always told them with that smile, like she was remembering a happy time.

Her grandmother's outhouse was a lot like their potty, she told Tilda, only it was a little house outside that had a hole in the ground that they peed and pooped into. It was not nice having to go into that that house, because it was dark, and there were big spiders, and it smelled bad.

Tilda had learned to make sure that she put a scoop of sawdust into the potty after every time she pooped, so that their potty wouldn't smell bad, and she was always very careful to put her used wipe in the wash bucket. They all had their own wipes, all different colors, and there was also a spray bottle. Tilda didn't use the spray bottle, because spraying cold water on her bum didn't feel good.

Every night before they went to bed, Opa or Papa would take the potty bucket outside and dump it into a hole in the ground. Oma told Tilda that it was a septic tank, explaining that it was a big concrete box buried in the ground, and one time, long in the past, when they went potty, it was into a bowl with water, and they would push a lever that would open a valve and all of the poop and pee would whoosh down a pipe and into the septic tank.

“Why did you poop in a bowl of water, Oma?”

“She's gotcha there, Wendy,” Opa roared laughter.

That smile. Oh, that smile. And the laugh, like the little wind chimes dancing happily in a summer breeze. Oma had the best laugh.

“That's a very good question, my dear. I guess, back then, we did a lot of silly things. We weren't as smart as we are now.”

Tilda opened the front door for Oma. They entered the warm house. A fire danced in the woodstove, casting moving shadows on the floor in front of the glass door.  Strings of twinkling lights lined the room interspersed with bows of assorted evergreens adorning the empty spaces between the lights in the crook between the top of the wall and the ceiling. Mama had been busy.

“Hello, Sweet Pea,” Oma said to Mama. Her name wasn't Sweet Pea. It was Penelope. Oma had nicknames for everyone.

“Hi, Mom,” Penelope waddled over to give her mother a kiss on one frosty cheek. “And you! Are you carrying the medicine bag for Oma? That's a huge responsibility! You're such a big girl!”

Tilda beamed! Mama had noticed that Oma had given her the care of the bag. She felt she might actually burst with pride and gratitude for the trust Oma had placed in her. The bag was important, because Oma used it for gathering herbs, and it was the only one she had. Things just weren't as disposable as they once were, Oma told her.

“We have to care for the things we have.”

Tilda hugged the bag against herself.

Her mother reached for the strap around Tilda's neck.

“I can take that from you, Sweetie. You take off your coat and shoes. Friends will be here soon.”

Oma shrugged out of her coat, hanging it next to the door on hooks attached to the heavy wooden Armoire cabinet. Mama said that when she was a young girl, younger than Tilda is now, that used to be a TV cabinet. Tilda didn't know what a TV was. They tried to explain, but it just never made much sense.

“It's like the laptop, kind of. You could see a movie or a television show on the screen, but it was big, and the shows changed all of the time.”

The laptop they could use every now and then to watch DVDs. They didn't get to watch it much, because it had to be powered. That's how they said it. Powered. It took a long time to power it, too, because Opa said the battery was old and had a hard time keeping a charge. On a sunny day, they could hook it straight up to the solar panel they had and watch a DVD, but sunny days were usually busy doing stuff outside, and there wasn't a lot of time to sit around watching DVDs. So, they would try to charge the battery, and some nights, when there was enough of a charge, they might watch a DVD after it was dark, and they'd had dinner.

They had a bunch of DVDs, some of which Tilda wasn't allowed to watch. There was a set of a DVDs that Mama told her was from a used-to-be television show called the Muppets. Oma said that The Muppet show had been new when she was a little girl.

“Wow! It's an old show, then, huh?” Tilda had asked in wonder.

Oma laughed, her twinkling happy laugh and her face sparkled like the bright stars at night.

“Yes, my dear. It is a very old show. They certainly don't make them like that anymore.” Everyone laughed at that. Tilda laughed, too, but she wasn't sure why it was so funny.

The TV cabinet was full of coats and sweaters, now. The bottom half of the cabinet had hats, gloves, and scarves. Tilda was always sure to put her hats, gloves, and scarves back into the cabinet when she came inside … unless they were wet, and then, she put them on the pins on the bookshelves across from the woodstove so that they could dry. Then, she put them in the cabinet, unless she was going back outside.

Oma liked things to be orderly, and she said it was important that they take great care of their things, because making them took time, and it was always better to take care of something than it was to have to replace it.

Oma picked up her buckets and carried them into the kitchen. She poured them both into the big barrel. During the warmer months, the barrel was outside and would fill with rainwater. The water ran through a screen, through a filtering system made up of layers of small rocks, pebbles, sand, old cotton tee-shirts, and charcoal.

Last time Opa had changed the filter, he'd shown Tilda how to do the layers right. He said it would filter out almost anything that might make them sick. When it was rainwater, they weren't as worried about the water being dirty, but that creek water Oma lugged into the house was a bigger concern.

It was unlikely that it was contaminated with tiny animals that could make them sick since it was a running creek.

“Be careful with still water, Tilda. It could have bad germs.”

But without doctors, they couldn't afford to get sick from something as silly as drinking dirty water.

After she dumped the water into the barrel, Oma went over the stove and transferred the boiled water from the pan to a tea kettle, as much as would fit. The rest she poured into glass jars and set out on the porch to get cool. When the pan was empty, she refilled it with filtered water from the barrel and set it on the stove to boil.

Then, she and Mama looked in the messenger bag. Oma pulled out the Turkey Tails.

“We'll make a turkey tail soup to go with dinner. Can you grab the sauce pan?”

She dumped the juniper on the counter.

“We'll put these out as decorations so that the berries can dry. Once they're dry, we can put them in jars to save for if anyone gets the sniffles.”

Oma opened the front door and grabbed the small pine she'd left on the porch.

“Oh, Mom! You got a tree!” Mama exclaimed.

Oma smiled.

“Make me a stand?” Oma asked Mama.

Mama grabbed a plant pot from the room off the kitchen and filled it with sand. Oma stripped the lowest branches from the little tree, saving these aside. She pushed the stem into the sand, and it stood.

“Would you like to decorate, my dear?”

Oma disappeared into the room she shared with Opa. Tilda wasn't allowed to spend much time in that room. Oma said it was her sanctuary, and her private space must be respected, but also, the room was filled from floor to ceiling with all of the tools and assorted flotsam and jetsam they'd collected over the years, and which, ultimately, proved valuable.

“There's just too much clutter, my dear. I wouldn't want some to fall on you.”

She returned with a plastic bin that held all sorts of sparkling treasures. “Ornaments,” she called them. They made an appearance once a year, at this time, and then, they were packed back away until the next time. Mama handed Tilda the decorations, which she carefully placed on the tree, mostly on one side.

“Careful you don't make one side too heavy, my dear. The tree might fall over,” Oma cautioned. The next ornament, Tilda was careful to put on the other side.

The Bourgeois-Langs arrived first. Missy. Bourgeois-Lang was almost as old as Oma. She laughed a deep-in-her-belly laugh and had sparkling blue eyes – like Oma. She was one of Tilda's favorite friends.

She and Oma hugged like bears, and she handed Oma a brown paper wrapped package tied with a bright cotton string.

“For later,” she winked.

Her daughter was Mama's best friend, Aunt Tee. She had long yellow hair and deep dimples that pitted her cheeks when she smiled. Her husband was a skinny fellow named Jack. He had shocking red hair and deep brown eyes, that told stories Tilda was too young to hear.

“He was in the Great War, my dear,” they tried to explain to Tilda when she asked about Uncle Jack's sad eyes.

The Great War had been way down South, Oma said. It started in some place that was once called Virginia. Oma said that Virginia was one of the original 13 colonies and had been named after some Queen of England. England was across the ocean in a faraway place called You're Up.

Mama had some history books and an old book of maps. She showed Tilda the maps, pointing to where they were on the map in a place that was once called Maine, and where Virginia was. It didn't look that far away, which made Tilda nervous. She didn't know what a great war meant, but if it had been what gave Uncle Jack his shadowed stare, she knew it wasn't something she ever wanted to know.

“It's not there anymore,” Oma explained. “None of what was, is.”

Uncle Jack had gone, just like most folks, both men and women. “Boys and girls, really,” Oma had said. “But that's always the way with war.”

Uncle Jack smiled at Tilda. He had a happy face around his sad eyes. Tilda focused on his smile, a white-toothed grin that broke across his face like a warm wave on the beach. She liked that smile. He had pretty teeth.

Mama showed Aunt Tee the tree, and they both squealed with delight. Aunt Tee hugged Tilda tight.

“Tell me, Tilda, are you the artist who so expertly adorned this lovely tree?” Tilda beamed, her head bouncing in an enthusiastic nod. “It's beautiful! And so are you!”

Aunt Tee put her hand on Mama's belly. It was swollen with what Tilda was told would be her baby brother or sister.

“Oh!” Aunt Tee exclaimed. “He kicked me!”

Bright bursts of laughter exploded from the entire group.

Ms. Meeks arrived next. She lived across the way. Her husband had died from the Big C, a disease Tilda had heard the adults whisper as if by speaking it full might infect the rest of them. Oma scoffed and said that his condition was a result of government irresponsibility and corporate greed. He'd been poisoned, she said, in another awful war. Oma's papa had also been in that war. Tilda had never met Mr. Meeks, or Oma's papa. Oma wasn't sure if her papa was still alive.

That wall had gone up. That wall. Only it was so many thousands of miles north and east of where it had been planned, and now, what was is no longer. Oma's eyes got sad, like Uncle Jack's, when she spoke of such things.

Tilda would make a silly face and do a little wiggly dance when Oma got sad. It made her smile. Tilda liked when Oma smiled.

Kami and John came next. Kami was Mama's sister. Mama had a lot of sisters, and a brother, too. Her brother had lived near Oma's Mama and Papa. They didn't know if he was still there, on that other side of the wall. Oma gnashed her teeth and wrung her hands when she said the wall.

“Look Oma!” Tilda called, and turned upside and down and rolled over and the jumped up on her chubby legs and and said, “Ta da!”

They all clapped and laughed.

“Lovely, my dear!” Oma smiled.

Faleen and Andy came next. Oma held them tight. Faleen was a dancer, before. She'd been gone when the Great War started, but she'd come back. Oma's heart skipped a happy step every time she saw Faleen, because she had been so afraid that she was gone.

But there she was, all sleek and beautiful with her gorgeous white smile and her eyes the color a forest in the deep summer.

Faleen handed Oma a package. She opened it, and inside was a painting of a little girl with wings like the fairies Oma says live in the trees and a crown made of flowers and a skirt made of maple leaves.

“Tilda, look! Aunt Faleen has caught you!”

More neighbors filled their small home. Patty from around the corner. Oma hadn't liked Patty in the beginning, back before, because Patty lived in a McMansion where Oma's blueberry field used to be. Tilda couldn't understand why Oma let Patty build her house there. Oma tried to explain that it wasn't her blueberry field, but that she had picked wild berries there in the before there were houses there. In that before, houses were always being built in places where things like blueberries used to be. Oma's face would cloud when she thought of that before.

Tilda liked blueberries, and as it turned out Patty's house wasn't, exactly, on top of the blueberries. It was more beside the blueberries. Or the blueberries just moved over, because they couldn't grow under the house. Even Tilda knew they wouldn't get enough sun there.

Oma took Tilda to pick blueberries last summer, and then, they came home and made buckwheat pancakes with blueberries. Oma said that they should enjoy them, because she wasn't sure if she'd be able to get anymore buckwheat flour. Tilda said she had very much enjoyed them, especially, with a little bit of that maple syrup that Oma and Opa had made in the spring.

There was always a lot of making, and especially, this time of year. Oma had an old sewing machine that Opa had made to run with a foot pedal and a really long belt. Oma had closed herself up in her bedroom for hours at a time, and Tilda could hear the soft whirr of the needle going up and down.

Oma had told Mama that she was happy she had been a pack-rat all of those years, but that she was running low on thread. If she couldn't get more from somewhere, she might not be doing much sewing. She'd been very careful with her needles, as she was pretty certain she'd never find any of those again.

Welcome Friends!” Opa said, raising his glass. “Join us in celebrating the return of the light! Here's to us. The survivors. The pioneers of this new world. May our labor be light and our days be productive. May we find abundance in the less. May these interesting times leave us without want.”

Mama gave Tilda a glass. It was the same wine as everyone else, but mixed with two-thirds water. It was sweet, but also strong.

This dandelion wine is nice,” John told Opa.

We used the last bit of our sugar to make it. It might be a little sweeter than we'd intended. I'm not sure the yeast was strong enough.”

Well, I like it,” Aunt Tee said.

The sky reddened as the sun began its descent to sleep and pushed its light into the room through the uncovered windows. Oma had once-upon-a-time painted the walls in the front room yellow, because she said that the yellow walls caught the light and made the room glow. It seemed to be true.

The twinkling solar lights paled in the waning sunlight, and then, as the lady of the day winked her eye good night, Oma pulled the chimneys off the oil lamps and lit the wicks. The twinkling solar lights, the dancing flames visible through the glass on the woodstove, and the orange fire from the oil lamps gave the room a soft warmth.

Gifts!” Oma said after everyone had enjoyed a meal.

She handed a clothe-wrapped bundle to each. Aunt Tee and Uncle Jack opened a bundle that had two rabbit fur-lined trapper hats. The outside looked like blue jeans. Aunt Tee smooshed hers on her head and squealed. “It fits!” There were two pairs of matching mittens, too – both fur lined.

Kami and John opened a box that held a couple of jars and one bottle. Strawberry jam and strawberry wine. John beamed. It was his favorite.

Faleen and Andy opened their package. Inside was a feather-filled quilt, but it was more than that. When Faleen was a young girl, back before the Great War, she had taken classes at a dance school and every time they did a show, they were given a commemorative tee-shirt. Oma had saved all of those tee-shirts. She cut off the sleeves of the shirts, sewed one side closed, filled it with feathers from an old feather bed she'd been given some years ago, and sewed the other side shut. She, then, sewed the little pillows together.

That should keep you warm in that drafty old house of yours,” Faleen smiled and hugged Oma, tight, like a bear.

Thanks, Mom,” she whispered through her tears.

I love you, baby.”

Opa went into the other room and came back with a big, bulky bag, which he handed to Mama and Papa.

Mama gasped when she pulled the drawstring and peered into the sack.

Oh, Daddy! It's too much!”

She carefully eased the item out of the bag. It was a wooden cradle. Oma handed them a small package.

Papa opened it and found a tiny quilt made with soft fleece.

At last Oma handed Tilda a package.

She carefully untied the bow and unfolded the material. Half a face peered out at her from the folds of the cloth. She pulled the other half of the cloth away, and there in her lap lay a beautiful cloth doll. The face was made from Oma's coveted muslin. The body was made from the tee-shirt sleeves, and Oma had even made her have hair, braided cords of old tee-shirt. The dress was maple-shaped leaves made from one of either Oma's or Opa's old camouflage uniforms, and she had wings, like a fairy, made from some filmy fabric Tilda had never seen wrapped around a wire frame.

She was beautiful. Tilda carefully lifted her from the wrapping, and slowly embraced her.

Can I call her Wendy?” She asked.

Oma smiled.

Of course, my dear. Of course.”

1 comment:

  1. Oh, very nice! Now flesh it out and give us ( me!) a whole book! Lovely to read a post-A story that isn’t all dark and dystopian.

    ReplyDelete