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.