A Yuletide Garland of Stories
This week brings you touching and inspirational stories of Christmas, with a barbaric touch. God Bless.
The Magic Snowman
It was the first real snowfall of the year, one that stuck and piled up drifts. The snowplow raised four-foot ramparts on both sides of the streets, instant forts for children to defend, mountains to brave, great walls of China to explore.
The Babsley twins, looking like panda bears in their goose-down filled snowsuits, toddled after their sister Belinda. She was five and they were only two-and a half, and she was their god, their oracle, their idol.
"Well, if you babies must follow me, then try to keep up. We will miss all the best coasting." she exhorted the mightily struggling mites, who ran as fast as their chubby, padded legs could go to match Belinda's pace.
Behind them they dragged tiny plastic sleds, miniature replicas of the real Radio Flyer Belinda pulled. It was her older brother's cast-off sled. He was in junior high school now, and coasting was beneath him. So Belinda had happily claimed it and was anxious to try it out, before the best hill was rutted and scraped clean of snow, leaving only muddy sleet-snow that made your runners dig into the dirt and didn't coast properly at all.
"Come babies, hurry." she demanded as this thought crossed her mind.
But Belinda worried in vain. The hill was in perfect shape, and hilarious with children. Boisterous boys snowballed each other and girls they liked, who shrieked prettily and ran after them. Tobogganers, sledders, coasters and here and there a snowdisk flew down the variously steep or easy hills and hillocks
Belinda tried first the smaller hills, then the larger, but dared not attempt the biggest. The children called it the Matterhorn, a steep and icy slope that only the larger boys (sometimes with a courageous girl's arms around their waist) would attempt.
Coasting for a bit with the twins on the baby slope, Belinda looked wistfully up at the Matterhorn
She had fallen in love with speed, the wind blowing her hair back, the exhilaration and even the stab of fear when you reached the fastest arc of the hills, and you flew like a bird across the snow. It was freedom. It was danger. It was heaven, and she became intoxicated with the beauty of it all and the adrenaline pulsing through her veins.
The babies were uneasy, for they sensed her yearning, and they wished to help her, but they knew not how.
Belinda did not lack the courage to try the big hill. No, mostly she feared the scorn of the big boys if she even tried to make the ascent. Soon the smaller hills had lost all charm for her, and she sat uncoasting, disconsolately, watching the big boys and the lucky girls who rode with them. She of course was too young for any of the boys to offer her a coast, and she was too shy of them to ask.
Suppertime came, and parents or children whose houses were within shouting distance of the hills were shouted home. The early dusk of Northern late afternoon was setting in, and the grey sky was rapidly darkening. Belinda knew that she and the twins would be missed soon, and her older brother would be sent to fetch her. She had forgotten her parents were dining out that night. Her older brother, employed with the diversions of teen-age boys, might remember the children before morning, perhaps.
Still, Belinda waited as the gaily gadding crowds thinned, and finally the last big boy rode off on one last coast, and continued up the path toward his home.
The twins were cold, and their feet were wet, and they wanted their dinner and some hot chocolate. But their worship of Belinda forbore them from asking her to go home. They could sense she was waiting for something.
Bracing herself up, Belinda trudged up the Matterhorn, slipping back a step here and there, but manfully making way to the top. The babies watched from the foot, out of danger to the side beside a giant lop-sided snowman some children had built and christened. Their gazed upward at their sister's ascent, mouths open in wonder and astonishment. Even as Belinda climbed on, their infant minds could not comprehend she meant to coast the monster, the Everest, the Matterhorn.
Belinda, reaching the starting point at the furthest peak, just where the hill flattened at the top, took a moment to enjoy the anticipation, then kicked off.
As if in slow motion, the sled began down the mighty hill, seemingly holding itself back, gathering itself, then with a rush like a springing panther, Belinda was suddenly hurtled ten times faster than any hill she had tried that day.
Far from being frightened, she was elated, excited, full of a fierce joy and the rush of speed and wind. She let out a triumphant whoop of victory as she hit the fastest, iciest part of the slope, nearing 30 miles an hour (a quite prodigious speed on a sled, do not think it is not.) as she flew like a bird across the well-packed snow. Her light, frictionless weight and the constant slickening of the snow by the many riders that day made it a faster run than anyone, even the high-school boys with their highly-polished runners, had taken.
The twins were agog at the spectacle. They sat pop-eyed and stunned at Belinda flying down the hill, and their eyes fairly bugged out of their heads as the sled left the contact with the ground, hydroplaning out of control, then spinning, then rolling, then crashing toward them. Belinda, now petrified with fear and hysterical with terror, felt a sickening jolt of pain as she spun into the twins, throwing them all into a thick oak, bouncing off the barrel of fire the children had used to warm themselves, careening off a concrete bench and finally coming to rest halfway buried in the lop-sided snowman.
Belinda felt warm blood run down her foot, and was sick to see she had broken her leg above the knee. One of the twins was lying twisted unnaturally to one side, crying loudly and screaming for Mama. The other was beneath Belinda, and though mute with fright and shock, appeared unhurt.
The pain was almost more than Belinda could comprehend, but her overarching fear for the safety of the twins gave her a burst of strength, and she dragged herself out of the snowpile she had erected in her willy-nilly slide and gathered the stricken toddler to her.
His arm was broken, and maybe his collarbone as well, but he was too far in shock to realize the pain. The other twin sobbed and hiccoughed forlornly, sucking her thumb. Belinda felt her feet going numb, and the pain, only slightly dulled by the intense cold as the sun disappeared, began to warm her until it began to scald, and she moaned with despair and misery.
"Don't cry, everything will be all right," said a kind, deep voice.
Belinda was too relieved to be startled, and grasped the straw of security the voice offered.
"Please help us. I am hurt. Where are you?" Belinda gasped out.
"I am here. I have always been here." It was the large snowman, whose coal eyes glowed with concern and strength. "Do not worry, I will watch over you until help arrives. I will ease your pain for now."
Belinda was not even amazed to see the snowman gather up the injured twin in his arms and lay his great snowy paw on the toddler's arm, setting it right. The baby stopped crying and smiled up at the gentle, snowy face looking down upon it. The other twin stopped sobbing and crawled closer to the snowman, putting his little arms around Snowy and burying his head in the snowman's shabby greatcoat.
"And now you, Belinda," said the Snowman kindly.
He slightly shifted his great bulk, and somehow came up under her, lifting her onto his great snowy lap. Belinda was not surprised he was not cold at all, but warm and comforting. He engulfed her in his arms and her pain lessened, then disappeared completely. She cuddled her head to his breast, and sighed with relief. The babies were both asleep, and all three of them were held easily in the Snowman's strong and gentle arms. He sang softly as he rocked them into a peaceful slumber.
An early coaster was out just as the sun was breaking the far hills the next morning. He was horrified to see the ice covered faces of the three children, blue, peaceful and smiling, their bodies half-covered with snow, sticking out the the remains of a lop-sided, ruined snowman.
They were very poor. The mother worked very hard, but somehow there was never enough food for the little girl, let alone the mother.
Even the rats and roaches that tormented their first months in the shabby room had left them alone now, for there was nothing in the house to eat.
The mother looked at her child's hunger-drawn face, and felt despair at ever having enough to fill out those cheeks, bring light to those beautiful eyes. She herself had not had a real meal in over a year. And now it was Christmas, and she had no job, and no food, and they were starving.
The young mother decided she could no longer stand to see the child dying before her eyes. Something must be done, and she would do it.
"Well, do you know what day it is, my darling? It's Christmas." she said with a great attempt at gaiety, hoping to cheer the child.
The child said nothing, just looked back with eyes so hunger-filled, their was no room for hope, for love, for imagination, for play, for cheer. Only hunger.
"And since its Christmas, I have decided we must have a Christmas goose. And I am going right out to select a fat one now." said the mother, wrapping her thin, ragged shawl around her shoulders and stepping into her broken shoes. "Now you get the table ready, and I will bring back a Christmas supper such as which you have never seen."
She kissed the child and left the hovel.
The child did not, in her heart of hearts, believe her mother was coming back with a goose. Still, she was so starved it eased the pangs to move about, so she began setting the places for a dinner she had not had since she could remember. She had always been hungry
She set out the cracked cups, and the mismatched plates, one with a sunflower, faded and spidered with cracked glaze, another with a moon and stars. She laid their two bent spoons and the sole fork, the only one they had. Optimistically she set out the chipped creamer and hatless butter plate as well. There was no sugar bowl.
Perhaps they would need the teapot, long unused in the top cupboard. She stood on a chair, piled a book, then an upturned wastebasket until she could reach far back into the topmost cupboard shelf.
She pulled out the pot, then behind it she saw a gay red bit of color. Her unbelieving eyes widened as she saw it was a bag of striped candy bobs. Afraid it was a only a hunger induced mirage she reached out her hand slowly and touched the bag. They were real. She pulled them down, in her haste almost toppling the tottering tower of chair, book and wastebasket
The little girl laid them on the table, not daring to tear the bag open. Her mother must have hidden them there as a Christmas treat after their dinner. Now she truly believed in the feast to come, for why else would Mother hide these sweet, sugary treats and let her go hungry unless she was to eat all her meat, vegetables and pudding first, then have a bon-bon.
It was very hard not to open the bag, but she was a good, obedient girl, and she waited, not patiently but panting and in agony to open the bag and taste the sweetmeats within.
She did wait a good long time, by her own lights, but a youngster's hunger is unknown to adults, a body eating itself alive trying to stretch her growing bones. It gnawed with an insistence that overcame her stolid, good-hearted will to obey her sweet mother.
At last she could wait no longer, and tore open a tiny corner of the bag and cozened out one bon-bon. Even then she hesitated, then in one gulp, swallowed the treat whole. Then another, then another, then on the fourth, she left it on her tongue to savor the sweetness. It was so good and satisfying the sugar tasted almost bitter, almost like almonds. Then she felt a pang, then twisted in a rictus of agony. She fell, convulsing, staring and foaming at the mouth, then quickly, mercifully dead. She had eaten cyanide-laced bon-bons, thought hidden safely out of her reach by her mother, there to kill the rats which until lately had tormented them so.
And there she lay - poor starved body and cruelly tortured eyes staring unblinkingly at the door- awaiting the return of her widowed and sickly mother who, when she opened that wooden door and took off her shawl, would find - oh, too sad for words. Thank God the mother was spared that most heart-breaking of scenes.
For the mother hadn't planned on ever coming back anyhow.