Friday, December 21, 2012

The Silver Christmas Tree

One of my first publications was a short story - "The Silver Christmas Tree." It was published in the anthology Christmas Blooms by Mountain Girl Press. In the spirit of the season, I wanted to share it.

The Silver Christmas Tree 

            Abby knelt on the old blue couch and rested her chin on its broad back.  Her eyes scanned up and down the hill for the headlights of her daddy’s pick-up truck.  Nothing. And it was getting dark too. The snow fell so fast that it looked like a curtain made of cotton balls drawn across the window.  She fretted that he’d come home empty-handed and somehow the snow would be responsible.

            Mama lumbered into the room and switched on the lamp.  It cast an anemic pool of light across the couch, not quite making it to where Abby perched, turning her head from side to side like a hungry bird.  Mama eased herself into the rocking chair across the room and started rocking. 

“Daddy will be home soon,” Mama said. The rocker’s creaking voice accentuated each word.

“Do you think he’ll bring it?”  Abby asked, never taking her eyes off the window.

Mama rocked for a few minutes. “It’s a good possibility.”

Abby turned around and slid down into a sitting position.  “Tell me again what it looks like.”

Mama stopped rocking and clasped her hands on top of her bulging stomach.  “Well, let’s see. It’s as tall as your daddy and has beautiful silver branches.”

“What else?”

“It has a color wheel that spins around, flashing different colors on the branches.”

Abby sighed and drew her legs up under her.  “What colors does it have?” she asked, even though she knew them by heart.

Mama answered, even though she’d already told her a hundred times, “It has red, blue, green, and gold.”

Abby heard it first. She sprang back up on her knees and peered through the window. Daddy’s truck was creeping up the hill.  The snow had slowed and the ground was asleep under a blanket several inches thick.  Abby watched Daddy pull into his parking spot, get out, and stomp through the snow to the bed of the truck.  He reached in and pulled out a huge box that he hoisted on his shoulder.

“It’s here!” Abby jumped from the couch and headed for the kitchen.  Since her daddy worked in the coal mines, he always came in the back door where her Mama kept a box lined with newspapers for his dinner bucket and boots. He’d already showered and changed clothes at the mine’s bathhouse, but still it was almost impossible to leave all the coal dirt behind.

Just when Abby didn’t think she could wait any longer, the back door burst open and the box slid across the floor, giving the illusion that it magically appeared. “Anybody around here looking for a Christmas tree?” her Daddy shouted, tromping through the door scattering snow all around the kitchen as he shed his winter layers.

“Me! Me!” Abby yelled, jumping up and down in front of the box. “I’m looking for a Christmas tree!”

Coming into the kitchen, Mama laughed at the sight of Abby dancing around the box.  She still couldn’t believe she’d ordered a Christmas tree from the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue. They’d always gone into the woods and cut down a pine tree, but with a new baby coming any day now, getting one of those new silver trees seemed like a good idea.  No pine needles falling all over the floor, no lights to fight with. Best of all, no heavy bucket of sand to haul into the house.

“Eat your dinner, Abby,” Mama said, setting the cornbread on the table.

“But, Mama, what about the tree?”

Mama laughed.  “We’ll put up the tree when supper’s over.”

Abby picked up her fork and peered over the bowls at her Daddy’s plate. “Hurry up and eat, Daddy.”
“You hush, and leave your daddy alone; he’s worked all day.”  Mama sat down and picked up her fork. “You’re the one who better hurry up and eat.  You haven’t touched your food.”

Abby sighed and dug into her soup beans and fried potatoes.  She glanced over at her Daddy, who was eating like he was starved.  He looked up with a twinkle in his eye and reached for another piece of cornbread. “Why don’t we wait till tomorrow to put up that ol’ tree?” he said.

Abby opened her mouth to protest, but it was too full.

Mama laughed, “Don’t tease her. She’s already acting like a hen on a hot rock.”

As soon as dinner was over, they gathered around the box Daddy had carried into the living room. Abby clasped her hands tightly in front of her and watched Daddy take out his pocketknife and slice open the box. Inside, the silver branches lay end to end shimmering under the light of the living room lamps.  “Oh, Mama,” she whispered. “It looks like its breathing.”  Mama’s laugh sparkled alongside the branches.

“Can I touch it?”  Abby reached out her hand but stopped just short of making contact with the box.

“Mama,” Daddy said, “Don’t you think Abby ought to put the first branch on?”

“I surely do.”

Abby reached into the box and took out the first branch.  She swirled it in the air, admiring the way the light danced around it. She ran her fingertips over it and was surprised at how soft it was.

 In no time, daddy had the frame assembled. He moved the couch over so the silver Christmas tree could stand in front of the window.  “Ready?”

Carefully, Abby slid the end of the branch into the first slot on the bottom of the frame. Then, they each took a branch and, in no time, the family had the tree put together. Next, Mama brought out the boxes of glass balls in red, blue, green and gold.  She sat on the couch and laughed at Abby giving orders.

“Daddy! You can’t put two red balls side by side.”

“Why not? I like red.”

Mama picked up a box that was in the floor next to the couch. “Why don’t you put these new ornaments on the tree?”  
Abby whirled around and Mama handed her the box. She tore it open and there, nestled in tissue paper, were a dozen glitter covered balls, each a different color. “Oh Mama, they sparkle.”  She reached in and took out a gold one and held it up to the lamp.  It caught the light and threw it all around, like the sun bursting through the clouds.  Abby hung the new ornaments and Daddy placed a gold star on the top. 

Now, it was the moment Abby had been waiting for. Daddy plugged in the color wheel and Abby reached out and turned it on.  The wheel spun slowly making a soft purring sound.  Red. Blue. Green. Gold. The colors swirled across the silver branches and ornaments. Abby had placed the glittered balls at different places on the tree so that when the light swirled by the balls burst into a myriad of jewels that splashed across the branches.

Daddy turned off the lamps and the family of three stood staring at the tree. Abby placed herself between her mama and daddy. She reached out and took first mama’s hand and then daddy’s. “This is the most perfect Christmas tree in the whole world. And when my baby brother gets here, it will be the most perfect Christmas of all.”

Mama and Daddy laughed.  “It might be a baby sister,” Mama said, rubbing her tummy. 

“No, it’s a baby brother. I just know it.”

And Abby was right. 

 In the middle of the night, Abby woke up and heard voices in the living room.  She got out of bed and padded down the hallway. She saw Mama all wrapped up in her coat and scarf, standing at the door, talking to Mrs. Compton, their neighbor.

“Mama, are you having the baby?”

Mama turned around and held out her arms.  Abby ran to her and gently wrapped her arms around her bulging middle.  For a brief moment, her mother held her tight and then the door opened and her father stepped inside.  “Let’s go,” he said, his breath slicing through the cold rushing in from the night. “The truck’s warm and I got your suitcase.”

Mama kissed the top of Abby’s head.  “Be good for Mrs. Compton.  Your Daddy will be back to tell you when I have the baby.”

And they were gone.

Abby watched the truck creep slowly down the snow covered hill. Mrs. Compton trundled her back to bed, where she planned to lie awake and wait for her Daddy to come home and tell her about her baby brother. Instead, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When Abby woke, she felt embraced by the stillness of the early morning. She got up on her knees and raised the shade over the window behind her bed.  The sunlight mirrored in the snow blinded her.  She blinked and shaded her eyes against the millions of tiny diamonds winking in the new fallen snow. With only a week to go until Christmas, Abby felt the excitement of the previous night returning.  Then she remembered.  She had a silver Christmas tree and a baby brother!

Abby bounced into the kitchen, where she found Mrs. Compton standing in front of the stove.  “Is my baby brother here yet?”  

Mrs. Compton turned around, wiping her nose with a tissue. “I haven’t heard anything.” She turned back to the stove.  “Sit down, Sweetie, I fixed you some oatmeal.”

When she set the bowl on the table, Abby got a good look at Mrs. Compton’s face.  She looked like she’d been crying.  For a moment, Abby sat still, looking at her oatmeal, relieved to see it was full of raisins. Then she asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong, honey.  I think I might be coming down with a cold.”  She pulled a tissue out of her apron pocket and blew her nose for emphasis.  “I’ll tell you what,” she said in a voice that was way too cheerful, “I’ll make you some hot chocolate.”

All day Abby sat in front of the silver Christmas tree and waited for her Daddy to come home and tell her about her baby brother.  Several times, the phone rang. Each time, Mrs. Compton spoke in hushed tones.  When Abby asked who called, she said it wasn’t anything about her Mama or the baby. 

When it got dark, Abby asked if she could turn on the color wheel.  She and Mrs. Compton sat, watching the silver branches change from red to blue to green to gold.  At just past seven o’clock, she heard Daddy’s truck coming up the hill. Thrilled, she ran to the kitchen to wait by the back door.  She heard him coming in the front door so she raced back to the living room.  Abby could never remember Daddy coming in the front door before. But there he was, talking to Mrs. Compton, who already was bundled into her coat and hat. Something about his face stopped Abby from running up to him.  Instead, she sat down in the floor and waited.

When Mrs. Compton was gone, Abby watched Daddy take off his boots and set them on the rug by the door. He still hadn’t looked at her and Abby had to stop herself from jumping up and running to hide. When he turned around, he looked angry. His voice shook. “Abby, you’re nine-years-old, so I think you’ll understand what I’m going to tell you.”  He paused and took a deep breath before continuing. “The baby was born this morning, but he was very sick. He died this afternoon.”

He. Daddy had said “he died.” It was a baby brother.
Abby watched while Daddy took off his coat, and folded it across the back of the couch. Then he dropped down into his favorite chair like his legs could no longer support him. Abby still hadn’t moved from her spot on the floor.

“Come here, Abby.” He held out his hand.

 She jumped up and folded herself into her Daddy’s arms.  He lifted her onto his lap and let go of the tears he’d been hiding from her mother. They poured onto Abby wetting her hair and mingling with the tears that escaped from her heart. Abby watched her Daddy take his big rough hands and wipe away his tears. All the years he’d worked in the mines had left his hands with calluses blackened by coal that nothing could wash away.  

Finally, he spoke. “Mama will be home in a couple of days. Your Mamaw is staying with her tonight, and I’ll go back to the hospital in the morning. Everything will be alright.” 

Abby sat on her Daddy’s lap a long time.  Neither of them spoke.  They just watched the branches of the silver Christmas tree turn red, blue, green, and gold. 

On Christmas Eve, Daddy brought Mama home from the hospital.  Abby almost didn’t recognize this slim pale woman in a black skirt and sweater. She smelled like her Mama and sounded like her Mama, but she didn’t look like her Mama.  Mamaw had been cooking all day and the house smelled like Christmas even if it didn’t feel like it.  It looked like Christmas too, with presents stacked under the tree. The neighbors, and ladies from the little Pentecostal church at the mouth of the hollow, had filled the kitchen full of pies and cakes. A few of them had smiled at Abby and patted her on the head, but most of them had spoken in soothing voices to Mamaw before leaving.  Abby heard them say things like, God’s will, and there can be other babies. 

            Mamaw had their Christmas Eve dinner ready and waiting. Baked ham, sweet potato pie, shuck beans, homemade sour dough bread, and countless other steaming bowls covered the table. The only thing missing was the plate of Christmas cookies Abby and her Mama always made together.  Mama managed to sit at the table with them while everyone picked at their food.  Then she excused herself, saying she needed to lie down.

When Mama came out of her room, Abby was all ready for bed and sitting in the floor by the tree. Her Daddy and Mamaw were in the kitchen talking in low voices. “Mama, you’re up.” Abby smiled up at her. 

“I came to see if you’re ready for bed.  You better be getting to sleep if you expect Santa Claus to come tonight.”

Abby rose and took Mama’s hand.  Together they walked down the hallway to her room.  She climbed into bed and Mama pulled the covers up to her chin and leaned down and kissed her.  “Merry Christmas Abby,” she said and started out of the room. At the doorway she reached for the light switch, but something stopped her hand from turning off the light.  Instead, she turned around and came back to sit on the end of Abby’s bed. For awhile, she just looked down at her hands.

Abby waited.

Finally, she spoke.  “You were right, Abby.  It was a baby brother.  But he was sick.” Her voice shook and she struggled to continue.  “There was something wrong with his heart and the doctors couldn’t save him.”  She looked over at Abby, who nodded, not knowing what to say.  Mama stroked Abby’s face.  “He was beautiful.  He looked just like you.”

“Like me?”

“Yes, he had your little nose, big blue eyes and soft black hair.”

The tears came then, fresh and hot.  Abby got up on her knees and reached for her mother. Mama buried her face in Abby’s softness and wept.  Abby had never felt such sorrow.  She held on to her Mama, trying to save her from being lost in this hollow of grief.  When their tears subsided, Mama stood and once again pulled the covers up to Abby’s chin and kissed her on the forehead. When she got to the door, she turned off the light.

Perhaps it was the darkness that gave her the courage. Abby spoke, “Mama.”


“Thank you, Mama.”

“For what, Abby?”

“For telling me what happened.”

“You’re a big girl now.  I hope you understand.”

“Do you understand, Mama?”

Mama let out a big sigh. “No, I don’t.  But I’m trying, and sometimes that’s all you can do.”

The day after Christmas, Abby woke up to find the silver Christmas tree gone.  The living room had been put back like Christmas had never happened. Mrs. Compton once again came to stay with Abby while her Mama and Daddy went to bury her baby brother.

 Mama and Daddy never spoke of the baby; it was not their way.  When the first snow of winter came again, it brought with it a rush of memories. But the little family was stronger now. The day came when they gathered in the living room around the box that held the Christmas tree. Daddy took his pocket knife and sliced open the box.  When he lifted the lid, an “Ohhhhhhh,” escaped from Abby’s lips. Inside, laid a brand new artificial green Christmas tree.

Abby never saw the silver Christmas tree again.  The joy her family had felt gazing upon its silver branches was tarnished forever. The memories that whirred around like the color wheel were still too tender to touch.  So like the tree, they packed them away and placed them somewhere on a shelf. And there they stayed.

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