Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Slice of Christmas Fiction

In honor of the season (and because I'm too busy grading to offer a substantive post), I thought I'd share with my blog readers the opening scene of my Christmas novel--a kind of fantasy in which the protagonist, a high school senior wrestling with grief and guilt surrounding the death of his sister two years before, finds himself seeking redemption in the world on the other side of a Christmas painting. So, here it is: the opening scene from...yeah, I'm terrible at titles.

When the first snow fell that second year after Clara’s death, it hurt like hell behind my eyes.

It came down heavy—fat flakes, the kind you get when the temperature hovers just below freezing. By dawn there was close to a foot on the ground and almost as much weighing down the branches of the oak tree outside my room. It was the first Sunday in Advent, and the world outside was dressed for the occasion in Christmas white.

It didn’t take long for the neighborhood kids to pour out squealing into the cul-de-sac. From my window I could see them in their yarn-bob hats, their mittens trailing bits of shattered snowballs. I imagined my little sister out there with them, making snow angels on the slope.

Abruptly, vividly, I remembered her calling me bubba as she hurled a hasty snowball at me. I could see it coming through the air, falling apart as it flew, shedding glitter until the last fragments barely dusted my boots.

I’d teased her for it, of course, because that’s what big brothers do. But I remember thinking it was beautiful. I remember thinking, That’s Clara’s kind of snowball.

How many years ago? Five, six. Some of the older kids out in the cul-de-sac would’ve been there. Perhaps she’d thrown glitter balls their way. I wondered if any of them even thought about her anymore.

“Stupid.” The sound of my voice startled me. I hadn’t meant to say it out loud. But I decided to say it again, deliberately, as if that could drive off Clara’s ghost.


The word was swallowed by the silence of the house. Somehow my parents had never received the memo that you’re supposed to be up by seven when you get to be their age. But I knew their alarms would be blaring soon. It wouldn’t do for them to be late for the 10:30 service. Not today.

A few more moments was all I had.

I wandered downstairs and found myself pausing in the living room, staring at the place where, later today, the Christmas tree would stand in all its tasteful, Scandinavian-inspired glory. A small table now sat where the tree would go, and on it was Delilah: the terra cotta sculpture of a young woman’s head, her face tilted upward, eyes mostly closed and lips parted. It was, of course, Clara who’d named her.

“You should be on my side,” I said aloud. “They’re going to put you away for at least a month. Stick you in a closet with nothing but linens for company.”

She seemed to be listening, but my words didn’t ruffle her serenity. “Alright, be that way. I’m just saying it’d be a whole lot easier for everyone if we just skipped ahead to January.”

I squatted down beside her and looked into Delilah’s exquisite features, at the hints of rapture there. “They really should listen to me, you know. I’m a certified genius. Just last week Mrs. Landry said I was the most brilliant student she’s ever had the privilege to teach in her thirty years at Dawson High.”

I imagined Delilah rolling her eyes. “Okay, okay. But just watch.” I made my voice conspiratorial. “Watch my mother. All perky, except that she won’t sit still, not even when everything’s put up. And then she’ll start talking about how beautiful it all looks—not because she’s actually stopped to look at anything. Just because that’s what you’re supposed to say.”

I’d seen her do it last year, that first full Christmas season without Clara: a rigid smile plastered to her face as she darted about the house, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Spirit of the Season turned up way too loud.

“Oh yeah,” I said, patting Delilah on the head. “I forgot. You’ll be packed away in the closet before it gets bad. In fact—” I stared at her suspiciously. “There’s a kind of Clark Kent thing going on here. Christmas comes, you go. Is there some secret identity business you want to tell me about?”

She didn’t answer, but I thought I could detect the trace of a smile.

“Never mind,” I said as I stood up. “Keep your secrets.”

I turned away and that’s when I felt it—so sudden and so total that for a moment I stood paralyzed. The dread was like something in my chest, pressing outward against my ribs. Except it wasn’t something. It was nothing. A great weight of nothing.

I wanted to say stupid again, but I didn’t have the breath for it.

And then something red darted across my vision, and for an absurd moment I was convinced it was a nisse, a little Norwegian Christmas elf hurrying by in his red wool hat and scarf. When I saw the cardinal preening on a snow-glazed branch just outside the window, my relief freed my lungs. But it wasn’t enough to clear away the bubble of nothing in my chest.

I sucked in air and turned from the window, hoping the mundane familiarity of the living room would cure me of this strange dismay. But instead, all around, I saw the places where the Christmas decorations would go. Today, of course—because it was the first day in Advent and by God the house would be decked for the season and the Christmas CD’s would come out, and it didn’t matter that none of us wanted to do it, that none of us could think of anything but Clara, almost two years in the dirt with an angel for a headstone (it had to be an angel, because my mother didn’t believe in subtlety).

There, on the end table—that’s where the red Norwegian candelabra would go. Just to the right the straw Advent star would hang in the window. Atop the low bookcase the brass angel chime would sit, and after dark the heat from four candles would set it spinning. And scattered through it all—perched on windowsills and tabletops, clustered around the hearth like some kind of bizarre Christmas orgy—would be all the little hand-stitched nisses, dozens of them with their white cotton beards and tiny yarn hats.

And the painting.

I saw it vividly, the painting of the Christmas sleigh that Clara had picked out one snowy December four years ago, just before she was diagnosed. I could almost stand the rest of it, but the painting…no. Just no. Somehow, in a way I still couldn’t understand, the painting was bound up intimately with what I’d done.

My parents’ alarms tore through the house. I jumped and let out a screech. Absurdly, both were going off at once as if neither of my parents had trusted the other to set theirs the night before.

I took a breath, sighed, and turned back to Delilah, trying to formulate something appropriately sarcastic. I was stopped by her face. It was as if her terra cotta features had taken on the hint of something new. I stared, and after a moment I saw what it was: she seemed to be looking at something through her half-closed eyes.

I couldn’t help it. I followed her gaze, followed it to the kitchen doorway, and beyond it to the place where the painting would hang.

I could almost see it there, but it wasn’t the sleigh or elves or village houses that I saw. It was the forest in the background. Not the outer edges where gestures of green and white suggested snow-laden pine boughs, but the interior—the dark places where snow and moonlight couldn’t reach.

I told myself, not for the first time, that it was just a painting. Nothing to be afraid of. But somehow I still couldn’t get myself to say stupid.


  1. Hi Eric

    I like the voice here, exactly that mix of smart and vulnerable that makes coming of age stories work. Adolescence is a fascinating time isn't it, both compelling and fragile.

    And an interesting lens through which to view grief because of that quite urgent need to make sense of a world that, they're just coming to realise, won't do much of the work for you.

    Thanks for sharing it.


  2. Bernard,

    Thanks for the feedback. Getting the right "voice"--especially since it's in the first person--has been something I've been wrestling with. I work with college freshmen quite a bit--and they're not TOO much older than my protagonist--but the fact that they have taken that enormous step of leaving their home puts them in a different place than my narrator. And a big part of his struggles lies with the empty space left by his sister-- a space left IN the childhood home where he still lives. Wrestling with grief takes on a different character if you've gone through a major life change in which so MUCH changes all at once.