Gift of the Magi
They were newlyweds, and poor in all but love. For the first year, that was enough.
For the second, a tightness came to her face, and he looked a bit less elegant, with his thrice turned cuffs. He looked a bit pathetic, going from one place of business to another looking for work after he lost his job at the bank.
She smiled less and they stopped talking of having children, having them soon, anyway. He made due with patched shoes and shiny, threadbare suits. She mended her dresses and tried to be patient with staying home every night of the week and week-ends too, when they used to dance four nights of the week and dine out three before they were married.
All that remained of his former affluency was his heavy gold watch, the pride of his family for generations. Even in his impoverished state, he was always reassured when he pulled it out, hefted it in his hand, the ever true timekeeper. Somehow, it made him feel a little better.
But now it was Christmastime, their third as man and wife, and by far the hardest. The gas had been shut off, and they lived at night with candles. She sparingly used their meager hoard of firewood only when he was home, freezing beneath a shabby comforter awaiting his return. He was not home a great deal, for he walked the streets vigilantly and diligently each day, searching for work. But none was to be had.
Still, it was Christmas. Outside the carolers sang for a cup of wassail, or for the blessing of good folks.
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the New Born King
He felt very deeply that he should make some grand and noble and sacrificial gesture to brush away, if only for a moment, the sadness, the poverty, the pinch. Perhaps she would be less sad, if only for a smile and a kiss. One of her old smiles.
She felt it just as keenly, and had an idea exactly parallel to his. To make an monumental sacrifice, that they might change their lives together, perhaps before that spark of love was extinguished for lack of fuel, before that fragile flower wilted through lack of the water of life.
There was only one treasure she had worth sacrificing, that would make any appreciable return. She was blessed with long, silken, flowing raven hair. It framed her too pale face, making her beautiful. It was her pride, and his also.
Many times, she had walked past the wig-maker’s shop, with the sign in the window,
‘Human Hair Bought Here, Good Rates.’
But she had always passed by, after considering. This time she resolutely rushed in, before she could lose heart, and sat in the chair and bade the proprietress to do her duty.
Just at that moment, in another part of town, he just as resolutely strode into a pawnshop and made his own sacrifice.
Later that evening, Christmas Eve, after another fruitless day of hunting for work, he entered their tiny one-room flat and closed the door gently. He turned to see her at her vanity, gazing at herself in the mirror. Then, with shock and surprise, he saw her gorgeous locks had been severed into a short, mod page-boy bob.
She smiled wanly, begging with her eyes for him to say something nice, something comforting, that she might be able to keep from crying. Her happiness at her gift for him was hard to keep at the forefront of her mind, she was so disconsolent about her shorn tresses.
“Merry Christmas, dearest, how do you like my new coif?” she said, with artificial brightness. “That long hair was so much trouble, why every night I would have to brush it 100 strokes, and many times you were so kind as to brush it for me, until it snapped with electricity, and…”
Here her voice caught and she kept speaking, too quickly, trying to get through it and give him his gift before she broke down and ruined everything.
“I was just desperate for a new look, so I know I was bad not to consult you, my dearest husband, but I treated myself to a new hair-do. How do you like my bangs?” she threw her arms around his neck and presented herself for a kiss.
“It is absolutely stunning, it suits you so well, and you look as young as a schoolgirl. Ah, your lovely neck and shoulders are so scrumptious I could eat them up,” he lied, kissing her below ears and chin.
In truth her hair had been her beauty, like a feminine Samson’s strength, her character and her lion’s mane of confidence. Without it, a certain glow had gone from her face. Without it framing her in its wavy, raven fullness she was not the beauty he had married. She was merely plain and dull looking. More than ever he resolved not to regret his own actions of the afternoon.
“And now for your Christmas present, my lovely husband,” she said as she forced a cheery grin to her face and ran to her cabinet to fetch his gift.
For she had indeed sold her raven locks, and with the money bought him a handsome watch-chain and fob for his stately gold watch, his own pride, his own treasure.
“Darling, it’s absolutely stunning, you should not have.” he managed to choke out, looking away from her eyes.
“Hurry my dear, let me see how it looks on your watch,” she begged, smiling into his face as she playfully tugged his vest open to find his watch-pocket. “You will look quite the elegant gentleman now.”
Well, gentle reader, I am sure you have guessed the truth of this sad little tale. He had of course, that very afternoon, tragically and ironically sold his watch to buy something to alleviate her own sadness, her ennui, her angst.
He pulled himself up with dignity, and looked into her eyes, so trusting, so fleetingly happy, and he felt his heart break at their poverty, at the dashing of all their hopes, at his own inadequacy and failures, and braced himself to give her the gift for which he had sold his life’s dearest possession.
He reached inside his vest pocket, and drew out the pistol for which he had traded his watch, and quickly, before he lost his resolve, shot his dearest love between the eyes. She fell heavily, an ugly black bruise rising on her forehead, and a smoking, bloodless hole between her brows, her pale, weak face registered first surprise, then her eyes slowly closed and her countenance relaxed into calm, and at last to peace.
He placed the barrel in his mouth, tasting the oily, steely metal, and the last thing he heard before the second shot was the high, sweet, quavering voices of the carolers outside:
Silent Night, Holy Night, All is Calm, All is Bright