Every year right around the holidays, I knew to expect a lot of stabbings on the reservation. The violence was so reliable that I could mark my calendar. Frank was driving that night and I was sitting shotgun handling the radio and dispatch and Tim was in the back. Even with the hour drive and the empty roads Frank turned the light bar on, and our sirens screamed out through long stretches of painted desert.
“You ever notice it’s always our crew that gets sent to these transports?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” Frank said, not interested.
It was always Cardiac 7. Every single time. When we got those calls I couldn’t help thinking there was some relationship between that fact and my own brutal family history. That there was some deeper order working.
When we hit the fringes of the reservation we started to see broken down pickup trucks and white roadside crosses. There were trailers dotting the landscape, and clapboard shacks with tires holding down corrugated metal rooftops. Christ in his manger did not come from more humble beginnings. There were also Nativity sets arranged with half sized barn animals, and tiny white lights strung out on paloverde trees in square dirt lots, carving illumination through the severe landscape.
The door was opened when we pulled up. It wasn’t our first trip to the property. Joe Ironcloud’s indomitable figure filled the doorway. He moved aside just enough to let us through. There was a muscular dog at his feet that showed its teeth at us, its body tensed in knots of hard restraint. Joe had it by the collar and his feet were planted firmly in an effort to keep it.
This time around it was Joe’s wife LuLu. She was collapsed on the floor of the front room and was leaning against a wooden milk crate that was also a television stand. She held a bundled undershirt tightly to her side. A young officer stood next to her.
“This is where I found her,” he told us, perspiring. “I figured it was better not to move her.”
“Good,” I told him. “You did fine.”
It was only a single stab wound, although it was hard to tell how deep it actually went. But LuLu’s pulse was regular. Her face was strong and russet colored. Her face looked like something carved from the bedrock—iconic as a totem. I thought I would see it again that night in my dreams, carved into the side of a mountain.
When we finished the examination we loaded her onto the Stryker. Frank took the front end of the gurney and Tim handled the back. The officer said to me, “Let us know if she talks, Aiden. I haven’t had any luck. It could be Joe, but I don’t think so. Could be Joe’s brother. Lulu broke his nose once with a leather belt.”
Joe Ironcloud was still standing at the door when we went out.
“KoKo. Shh. Shh,” he whispered.
He looked at his wife with disinterest when she went by, and grabbed my shoulder before I was past.
“What do you need Joe?”
He didn’t say anything. He just pinned me with his look. Finally he spoke. “The crows followed you here, doctor.”
He pointed up at a power line which cut in front of his yard. I could see several shapes on the insulation. They might have been crows. They only stood out to me as deeper black. Then one jumped up lightly, resettled.
“They are messengers to you from the Creator.” His voice was warm on my face and it smelled like Thunderbird. He nodded gravely. His eyes were swimming with drink but there was a hardness underneath that was still intact. I thought the hardness was a thuggish spiritual certainty. I thought it was a self-importance made stronger by a three day drunk of cheap wine.
“They are here for your wife maybe, Joe.” I said. “Not me.”
“No,” he said. “You.” He tapped his finger above his eye, meaning to indicate that he knew about such things. “Your life,” he told me, “is about to knock you right on your ass.” Then he laughed, showing me his yellow teeth.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.” I added, walking away.
I didn’t need anyone to convince me that Joe Ironcloud was no shaman. Still, the crows were in my mind now. They were lined up above me on the wire like dark figurines. They were as still as sentinels. One fowl called into the frozen air, and the sound cut through it like chalk.
I needed to drive. I took the wheel while they finished with LuLu in the back.
When Frank got in, he was smiling dumbly at me. “Fucking Indians,” he said. “My family might be fucked up, but at least we don’t stab each other.”
I just gripped the steering wheel and kept quiet. What Frank didn’t know was, the Ironclouds were saints next to my old man. And tomorrow I was heading home for the holidays.
My uncle had been calling every weekend since October to tell me the old house was in need of repair. I had to do my part, he said. There was rotten siding, and now they were expecting heavy rain and hail. The storm doors needed to be put on for the season. There were a million small things. If I was expecting some payoff I had to work for it. He was already caring for my father, traditionally the role of the offspring, wasn’t he right about that?
It had been ten years since my mother’s funeral in Hagerstown. That was my last trip to Maryland. It wasn’t guilt or obligation that was pulling me home. Not this time. I felt certain there was some larger culmination that I just couldn’t see yet. So the crows stayed with me.
I had been having the same dream of my father for the last five nights now. In the dream he was lying inside of a large hot air balloon in his command shirt and quarter boots, with his badge reflecting the sunlight brutally like a weapon. The balloon was caught up in a tangle of wires and he was on his back in the basket, waving his arms and legs wildly in the air above him like an insect that could not flip over. There were blinking lights in the city below that changed his skin alternately blue, then pink.
My mother had always been so proud of my dreams. She called them, my visions. I could have done without them. They left me unhinged every time.
We were still driving and I heard Frank say, “Don’t forget the river.”
The short bridge at the crossing had a 14-ton limit, and I brought the ambulance to a stop at the center. The stars above us were icy and brilliant, but the moon was hidden. It was still too dark to see the water underneath us although we could hear it. Frank turned and peered into the back of the vehicle and said, “River.”
What it was, many natives required this stop for their prayer. They believed it was more powerful medicine than what we could give to them.
After a moment Tim yelled up to us, “She’s too drunk, Aiden. Just keep driving.”
My plane touched down at BWI late the next night. My frozen fingers burned as they warmed in the cab. The heat ducts of the vehicle clicked and choked as we passed giant neon candy-canes and waving snowmen two stories high. Pedestrians walked beneath the huge pieces of holiday cheer, miniaturized by them, their heads turned against the wind and their hands thrust deep into black wool pockets.
The driver dropped me off on the corner of Mason and 13th street.
“Hello Ken,” I said, when he answered the door.
“’Lo Aiden. Well you made it. ” At age sixty my uncle had the body mass of a grizzly bear. His eyes were bruised blue, almost sheepish among his logger’s features. He extended his hand and I took it. Then he moved aside to let me through.
“Kathy and Ashley have a thing for critters,” he said. “I might have told you.”
I followed him zigzagging through a maze of metal animal hutches and two story rat manors decorated with tinsel and bells for the season. He tripped over a hollowed sphere like a child’s ball on the way to the dining room, setting off a scuttling of nails on the inside plastic.
“Aiden Army,” Kathy said loudly, “Come give me a hug.”
I had met Kathy once, ten years ago, at my mother’s funeral in Hagerstown. Familiarity was just her style. Her feet were propped on the dining table and iridescent polish was drying on her toes. She swung her feet down then stood up to hug me.
“You look more like Ken than anybody,” she said, pulling back.
Kathy was almost twenty years younger than Ken and I thought it showed in the vitamin luster of her hair and skin.
“You’ll meet your cousin tomorrow,” she said. “She’s up much earlier than the rest of us, but she’s quiet.”
Ken brought beer from the kitchen and the three of us talked at the table. No one mentioned my father. The omission affected my nerves. Every creak and buckle coming from the second story drew my attention. My whole consciousness was directed at the ceiling.
“You have Ashley’s room while you’re here,” Ken told me. He held up his hand. “Already sleepin’ Aiden so just take it.”
I hadn’t planned to argue. I just grabbed my duffel bag and swung it over my shoulder.
“Your Dad has the room at the end of the hall,” Ken called at my back. Then he walked into the living room and began flipping through channels for late night television.
I followed Kathy up to the girl’s room and set my bag down on the pink-sheeted mattress. Pictures of frogs and does and manatees were taped to the walls. A small fish tank sat in the corner of the room on a riveted metal stand. Three yellow fish swam in and out of orange coral tunnels in the water. A label stuck to the glass read, BOB HEIDI AND HESTER.
“You can see your father now,” Kathy said, “If you want. Before I get him into bed. I’m not sure how much Ken told you. ”
“Ken doesn’t say much,” I said, “and I don’t ask. I know he’s not well.” I paused. “Well, let’s do it then,” I told her. Then I followed her down the hall.
A blue beaded curtain covered the entryway to his bedroom. I could hear Burt Bacharach playing lowly on the other side.
“Your father broke the door down when he first moved in,” Kathy explained, “like we had locked him in. Of course we hadn’t. He was different then.”
She parted the curtain with a swim stroke and I followed her through.
My father was sitting in the back corner of the room in a dirty green armchair. I recognized the diamond pattern of the chair from the old house. He didn’t move at all. He was petrified and catatonic, poised strangely under a banker’s lamp. He held one hand up to the side of his face, like blocking intense light coming through the window, but it was deep dark out. His head was turned from the glass towards us and his features were clenched hard like the reaction to a blow.
He just sat there in place, not moving a muscle. He might have been cursed to stone.
“Your son’s here John,” Kathy told him. “Aiden’s here.”
She turned back to me. “The doctors call it Glyphic Catatonia. There are only two other cases on record. In each case it is associated with late-onset schizophrenia.” She paused a moment. “I guess what that means is, they don’t know crap about it.” She laughed.
My father was dressed in his old police blues. His aged body looked starved beneath the fabric. The worsted wool of the uniform was chalky blue almost gray from a thousand cycles in the wash, and it hung on him like a sack.
“He changes his position,” Kathy went on. “Sometimes once a day. Sometimes once a week. He relaxes when he sleeps, and sometimes when he eats.”
I moved closer to my father, and I motioned my hand in front of his eyes. They didn’t respond at all. They were as inert as fish eyes. They were the cooled iron cores of dead stars. The skin around the eyes was thin and delicate and I could see purplish blood vessels underneath. I felt nauseous suddenly, thrown out of joint by the un-reality of the whole scene.
There were photographs of my mother pinned up all over the walls of his bedroom. Some photos were bleached and cracked, others were repaired with scotch tape. My father wore her portraits around his neck as well. They were attached with copper wire to anchor-like necklaces of thick cable and bicycle chain. My mother stared out from a gilt frame at his solar plexus, her green eyes tempting the photographer, conscious of their beauty.
“He made those,” Kathy said pointing, “When he was normal.”
I knew normal wasn’t the right word. I knew it was too innocuous for the old man in any state.
“You can stay with him if you want,” Kathy told me, “after I get him into bed. Grab him under the arm like this.”
He was lighter than kindling when we carried him over. If it wasn’t for the photographs like anchors I thought he might float away in the night.
He relaxed on the mattress almost immediately. Then he was just an old sick man lying there. Kathy sat him up on the bed and removed his shirt over his head and threw it into the corner. I could see where the weight of the chains had bruised his clavicle deep purple. She laid him back down carefully, planking his back with her extended arm. She rolled him to one side then the other to get his pants down past his hips.
“He shakes if I take the photographs away,” she explained, undressing him. Then she went for a towel and washbasin from the linen closet.
When I was alone with my father the impulse came to shake him awake. Violently. Some of his heat was in my blood. I didn’t come to Baltimore to confront him, but now I felt he had found a remote amnesty in his coma that he didn’t deserve after all he had done. I stared at his prone body, mealy and slight on the bed sheets, his savage chemistry cured after all these years by age and disease.
I couldn’t look at him any longer. I left the room before Kathy was back and I tried to sleep on my cousin’s small mattress. When I turned the lights off, the walls and ceiling smoldered greenly with a hundred glow in the dark stars.
Ashley came with me the next day to the old house. Her small legs hovered inches above the floorboard of Ken’s F-150. She swung them non-stop.
“Did you check on Bob, Heidi and Hester before we left,” I asked her.
“Yes,” she told me. Then, “They cry when I leave.”
“How do you know?”
She thought for a moment. “Because I hide and I watch them. Their tears look like drops of lemon juice, sinking in a cup of water.”
I turned down Glasgow Street. As soon as I turned I saw the solitary Dutch colonial at the far end of the cul-de-sac. From a block away it sent chills through my blood. I pulled up and just stared at the house with the engine idling.
A For Sale by Owner sign was planted there in the frozen ground. Ken’s number was written across the bottom in red marker. Spoiled weeds black from freeze carpeted huge sections of the gravel driveway. They would need to be pulled after the thaw.
The girl was out before I shut the motor off. She jumped up and down on the frozen ground, and skated the thin ice on the sidewalk. She ran up to the porch, her plaited hair swinging like a pendulum. She took the stairs two at a time in bunny hops, excited for the treasures of the abandoned house.
The lock had some play in it. I had to work the key. I told myself, I would just walk through assessing damage. I told myself that I would keep the technical mindset of a carpenter.
But the air inside was thick and still as a crocodile, waiting for me with its jaws open in the reeds.
The girl skipped through the living room, and she slapped her open palms on the covered furniture, sending up ashy clouds. She left small footprints in the dust on the floor.
“Can I go anywhere Aiden?”
“Not the basement. Or the garage,” I told her, “but anywhere else.”
Ashley skipped to the first floor bedroom. She swung the door open, and I followed her in. There was an explosion of colored pillows on the guest bed, and a thick white comforter that was gray now from dust. There was a television and a dresser in the room, and a framed landscape of the Catoctin Mountains hung from the wall.
I remembered it clearly. My mother had worked so hard to keep the guest room empty. Because a visitor might become attuned if they slept here. They might feel the violence that was reeled in just for company, kept in check thinly like a lid placed over a volcano. They might sense the decay beneath the warm Indian Reds and Semi-sweet chocolate colors my mother had painted the walls with.
The whole house was the same—infused with my father’s bad blood. The festooned banisters, the impeccably cared for polished floors, were meticulous decoys, meant to draw attention in a different direction.
I stared out through the bedroom window. A gang of blue-black crows drank from the cistern in the back. If the birds were messengers, they were keeping it to themselves for now.
The girl came over and she stood beside me. She pressed her face against the glass and gasped, impressed by the large silver maple tree rooted at the center of the yard. Its naked limbs struck up at the sky like wooded stalks of lightning.
“No swing though.”
“No,” I agreed.
“You didn’t swing much?”
“Sometimes,” I said, “At school,” I told her.
We just stood there looking out.
“Be careful while you’re working,” the girl told me. She was trying on skins, and mimicking the concern that adults showed her. Then she ran outdoors, spontaneous again. The yellow rain jacket she wore was much too thin for the cold.
But the girl was right. I had to be careful. This house was full of ghosts. I could see my mother in every room. I could feel her impulses in my blood. She had left a record here.
I walked through room by room. I wanted to check for damages and scribble notes in my composition book. But in the living room I could see her on the bench of the covered piano. Her legs were crossed, and she wore the white pantsuit that she always wore in my memories, drinking her iced tea in small sips from a glass tumbler. The ice in the glass whistled and popped as it melted, and I could see traces of mauve lipstick on the rim.
My mother had always fantasized grace and aristocracy and she built her image piece by piece to match her fine tastes. She built it brilliantly with the style and determination of an artist. I thought it was her rebellion against the ugliness of life with my father. She had always wanted fine beauty.
The china cabinet was emptied out when I walked through the dining room. Ken had struck his claim on the heirloom. He was welcome to it. I didn’t want reminders.
I walked up to the sideboard and I stared into the mirror that hung over it. My face was as severe as my father’s: The wide jaw of a linebacker. Gray eyes. Militant, almost. At work they always said, built like a brick shithouse and cold as ice. Somehow they meant it as a compliment. What it was, I kept things below the surface. I had become a genius at holding it in.
I wiped a stripe of dust from the glass and chipped a flake of gold paint from the frame with my fingernail. I could see my mother staring into the mirror. She touched up a blue contusion on her cheekbone with foundation from a small bottle that she held. The busted capillaries showed through as red as fresh paint in her half-closed eye.
I’m not beautiful, she said to her reflection.
And I stood behind her, twelve years old, caving. I would have taken the worst beating to make those words go away.
I flipped the lights on at the top of the basement stairs, shaky now. The moldering smell was strong when I climbed down. An inch of standing ground water covered the basement floor, and the mortar was brownish down low where water had crawled up the walls. There was an acrid smell in the space of dissolved minerals.
I went outside and I switched the right fuses off, and climbed the stairs to the kitchen for a flashlight from the drawer. I walked down again with my light and I examined what I could. There was water in the crawl space as well. It was cold and humid in the basement, with just the shallow slapping sound of water as I tromped through in my boots.
I stood at my old spot by the water heater. I hung the light on the knob at the top of the stairs. I had sat here like a stone for hours, sometimes days, waiting in the darkness. The confinement had been worse than the beatings, I think.
Back then, I could tell who it would be by the sound of their footfalls. If it was the old man, the door swung open, and the light from the upstairs blinded me like a sun. That meant time to come up. That meant time served. But if it were my mother, the door barely started, a stripe of light there and gone again. She left contraband—a can of white beans or a jar of sliced pears, and with the food a glass of water, the residual smell of cocoa butter, and a phantom trail of white lace.
I knew that she would save us, eventually. The way that she whispered she would when my father was not close by. I loved her the way you might love a god or an angel—with naive trust from an unimaginable distance.
It was quiet in the basement. There was just darkness and the drip of water and an anxiety that kept me glued in place with my toes wooden inside of my snow boots. The memories were intensified by the darkness the way that sound is. All the objects here were talismans: The laundry basin where I drank the metallic water left in the tap—just one or two mouthfuls because the old man wrenched the shut off valve before he locked me down. Then the punching bag he had used for his workouts and the bench against the far wall—the sound of him muttering “Bitch . . .” when he dropped the bar back into the rack, his brutality calmed by exertion and the coolness of the space into a smolder of fantasy violence.
Many years later I had stood here again, and the roles were different. My father was wiping the blood from his mouth like bright red paint. I told him, Never again or I’ll kill you.
I had slept with a shotgun after that. I stowed it between the foot of the mattress and the wall knowing that he would retaliate, but he never did. I left two weeks after that for the Great Basin desert, and I never looked back east until my mother’s funeral three years later. I had left her alone with him.
This place was a gravity well. I felt that the ghosts here wanted to pull me through the standing water and into their underworld.
I made it to the upstairs deck sucking in large lung-fulls of cold air. I thought my heart would push through my ribcage. But the cold air stung my face, and I felt better.
I saw the girl building an emaciated snowman below me in the yard.
“Help me find a good stick,” she called up.
The sun was going down when we arrived back to Baltimore, and I could hear dinner popping and sizzling on the stove. I went straight to Ashley’s bedroom and I didn’t look down the hall. I collapsed on the small pink bed in my clothes and my shoes and I slept there until morning.
The week before Christmas Baltimore was purple grey. The violet tints of the low clouds looked charged, like the sky was on the verge of something, but the weather didn’t come.
The girl read to my father every night. It was The Sneetches or Baker’s Dozen or Cat in the Hat. I listened from her bedroom. The girl’s reading level was much higher, but she only read picture books to the old man. Sometimes in the morning on my way to the bathroom the curtains would be drawn open, and I could see Kathy feeding my father scrambled eggs, or dipping a pocket comb into a cup of water, then parting and smoothing his thin hair.
I stayed away. Still, I saw him in my dreams most nights. In one dream he hung from the ceiling rafters by his extended leg. The other leg was bent at the knee and tucked behind him, and his arms were folded in an X pattern over his chest. His eyes were dark circles with luminous crosses at the center. His eyes were just buttons stitched with light.
In the dream it was like veils falling away and I knew what the posture meant. The knowledge was instant and deep but also tenuous. When I woke up, that understanding was gone, but I held onto the feeling that his poses were part of some ceremonial language that I couldn’t decrypt.
My father was not a flesh and blood monster any longer. He loomed larger than that now. He was a picture of all the monsters in the world. He was an example of what they would become if they stuck around long enough.
At the old house I repaired siding, I replaced roofing, I pumped water from the basement and the crawlspace. I used a sander and plaster to restore the walls in the upstairs bedrooms, but I avoided the garage. Ken would have to find another way. I’d take the basement over the garage. That’s where my father had found her. One detail was all I would need. The penny that had fallen from her pocket, or a scrap of yellow forensic tape. I had too many phantoms to deal with already. I didn’t want to see her lying there, cyanotic from car exhaust.
When I worked, I wished I had the girl with me. Her presence was an antidote to this place. She played, and carried light with her. She wore green and red sweatshirts with iron-on giraffes and manatees. But she had tired of the house after her first visit. She stayed home instead and read in her bedroom while I worked, and she talked to her fish so they wouldn’t forget her. That’s how she put it.
I finished working for the day. I figured I’d need another week to finish what could be done here, without professional help. I needed to call my boss in AZ and ask for more time. I didn’t mind so much. It was getting easier, being home. I liked hanging around with Kathy and Ken and especially the girl.
Outside, the houses on the street were dark and foreclosed. The song-birds had left for the winter, and the resident crows were not at the fountain. I stood under the denuded maple tree and smoked, and the rings drifted easily across the slate sky.
On Christmas Eve the sky opened and new snow came down. The house on Mason Street filled up with the course sweet smell of cured ham.
I heard Ken calling me from down the hall.
“Aiden I could use a hand here,” he yelled.
He wanted to carry the old man down before the guests arrived. There was a method he had used before. I helped move my father from the chair to the bed, and arranged a blanket underneath him so that it supported the length of his frail body like a hammock. I grabbed two corners and Ken grabbed the other two and we carried him down swaddled in the comforter. We sat him up in an armchair by the dining room table and we left the blanket underneath him for the return trip. He sat straight-backed in his uniform. His elbows were cocked and his hands were tipped, like he held two chalices, and was spilling their contents onto the ground.
The guests arrived shortly after that. It was Kathy’s sister Lindsay from Hagerstown, and their childhood friend Sandi and Sandi’s teenaged daughter. The women carried the night. Their voices were the rhythm of the evening. Each topic at the table eased into the next, woven by laughter which was the polar connection and the common thread, bringing the end of one story into the rise of the next.
Ken carved the Ham and kept the beer coming. He smiled at the stories he was a part of and he kept his eyes on his wife. You could see that he followed her signals. That he went by her book. He relied on her as a guide for almost everything. Even when Ashley jumped up to hug him at the table, Ken’s eyes sought his wife over the girl’s shoulder, as if she was a delicate-winged angel who he was scared of crushing with the primal strength that coursed through his blood.
Kathy paused to feed my father green-bean casserole, but he wasn’t eating. “Oh he’s being so stubborn,” she joked, and she threw his fork down in mock exasperation.
The other women laughed politely, dabbing the corners of their mouths with the company napkins. As if the frozen figure in police uniform was just fine at a Christmas dinner.
“He’s not hungry tonight,” Ashley said, keeping her eyes on her plate. “He has things on his mind.” She seemed certain.
Throughout the evening the girl whispered secrets into my father’s ear. When she did, I thought I saw a softening over his body like the start of a reaction, or a wave-like voltage moving through. She danced an elf doll in front of him on the table. It had spiral-toed shoes that chimed little bells as she moved it sporadically. But the old man stayed closed, just a strange piece of furniture.
I couldn’t ignore him sitting there. A full plate of food sat in front of him, untouched like a window display. I felt he had absorbed the nutrients through a kind of demonic inhalation. I thought that if I reached over with my fork and stole a mouthful, the food would have the texture of Styrofoam or iceberg lettuce and would taste like nothing.
“Aiden,” Ken said. He set another Budweiser in front of me. He pulled the tab for me and it hissed. He clapped his hand on my shoulder before he walked away. Maybe he had an idea how I was feeling that night.
I gulped down four beers while everyone finished their meals. It was almost enough to take the edge off.
When we were through eating I helped the girl clear the table. Ken turned off the overhead lights and Kathy lit votive candles and she brought a carafe of steaming coffee into the living room and poured the coffee into porcelain mugs. Then we carried my father in, and Ken turned the tree lights on while drummer boy played. Even with the caffeine we all became lethargic except for the girl. She squirmed with delight, in love with the sights sounds and smells of Christmas Eve. She wanted to run outside in the snow.
“Its dark out.” Kathy protested. But the curtains were open and we could all see that the moon was up. It reflected off of the white ground lighting the empty streets and the snowdrifts. Kathy relented and the girl put on her jacket and whirled out into the yard.
We finished our coffee and the buttermilk parsnip pie, and Ken turned the overhead lights back on. He handed me another beer and he opened his own. I stared at the old family photographs in a multi frame near the bottom of the stair well. A picture of a sharp blue lake dominated the center.
“Where is that?” I asked him.
“Quarter mile from the house where we lived in Damascus,” he told me. “Its smaller than it looks in the picture. Hunters set up their blinds there.” He nodded at my father, asleep now on the armchair. “We could have walked there.”
“Beautiful.” I said.
“Never even knew it was there ‘til after our father died. I moved back for a year after the funeral and went to the lake every week. I don’t think any of us ever saw it. Not back then.” He stopped and gulped his beer, sensing my question.
“You never really look at anything around you,” he told me, “when life is pure Hell.”
The girl woke me up early. It was still dark out.
“Everyone needs to be down,” she said. “To open gifts.”
I found my jacket in the dark room and I bundled it over my sweatshirt. The girl led me down the stairwell by the hand. When we reached the bottom she ran away to the kitchen in her padded feet. She was back seconds later, spilling a tall glass of milk. Ken smiled and yawned at the girl’s electricity, at her pre-dawn excitement. My old man sat beside him on the chaise lounge, a red Santa Clause hat stuck crookedly onto his head.
The girl put a CD into the player, and ran over to her mother, who was reading gift tags and organizing the glowing boxes into piles.
Ashley made sure we were watching before she ripped the first box open wildly.
We all took turns, but it was the girl’s gifts we paid attention to. She squealed with joy at the red Converse high tops she had pointed out in a shop window one week earlier, and she put the shoes on immediately under her flannel gown.
“Aiden,” the girl whispered later, pulling a fuzzy, orange sweater over her head, “You like my outfit?” Then she lay back and cut her feet through the air, admiring the bright red.
“Those are great shoes,” Ken said from the couch.
I stood up from my spot on the floor and grabbed a small box wrapped in golden paper that hung from the tree. I handed it to the girl. It was my gift to her. There was a piece of petrified wood inside which I had found in Monument Valley. I had wrapped necklace wire around the top of the stone into a clasp, and attached it to a chain for the girl. I explained to her how the wood had mixed with quartz and turned to stone. Ashley put the necklace on. It was the finishing touch to her misfit outfit.
“This is so cool,” she said.
“It’s a lucky charm,” I revealed to her.
The floor was a wreckage of paper and boxes when we were through. Kathy rubbed the dark crescents of mascara from under her eyes, and surveyed the mess. Ken slept sitting up on the couch while the girl rested her head on his shoulder, stretching her red feet onto my father’s lap.
But I wasn’t tired at all. I was alert and sensitized. I was right on the edge of something. The sensations of the morning were overwhelming. Everything seemed simple and good and so unfamiliar.
I went into the kitchen and heated a mug of black coffee in the microwave. When I came back, I sat on the armchair and stared at the Christmas tree snow, and at the red cinders that breathed and burned in the fireplace. A car skimmed the wet pavement outside, carving the water and trailing away. The sun started to show through the window, throwing light into the room, and even the old man’s stoniness was overcome by the tones of it, no longer volcanic, penetrated by the softness of the scene. There was a contagion of calm joy in the space and my body swam with it like a narcotic.
I sat and thought about my mother and about Joe Ironcloud and the crows and the sharp blue lake. The elements all worked together, influenced by the spell of that dim Christmas morning, clicking like tumblers and interlocking into a strange formula that worked inside of me. I felt constellations of meaning almost coming together. The smell of the fir tree and the charcoaled timber from the fire called vague genetic memories from my blood of colonial winters, and of much older fires burning in front of rawhide couches. Then, even deeper, of wild meat roasted on spits inside frozen granite caves.
The girl rose from her spot on the couch and I watched her stumble across the floor, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She stood on her toes to reach a small cage that sat on the mantel place. She grabbed her gerbil from the cage off its bed of wood chips and she petted it for a moment. When she was through, she walked to the stereo and picked a CD from the tower of disks. When the music started, the girl began a drowsy dance to the quiet rhythms of the choir.
She danced swaying at first, and then in loose circles tightening into twirls as she came awake. She danced in front of my father while her parents slept. The tall fir tree behind her washed calm colored lights over her skin and her gown. I was certain the dance would wake him. I thought the girl’s stepping and sliding was a ritual of some kind meant to release his jailed light.
But my father was monolithic. His eyes were as empty as crab’s eyes. He couldn’t see the vital dance. He couldn’t receive the girl’s love, or give it back to her. That was his story. He had slaughtered any chance of tenderness, and then turned to stone.
I sank back into my armchair, doubled over with a shattering sorrow for the frozen figure in front of me, and for the failure of his life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mary Renzi works as a wildland firefighter for the National Park Service. She enjoys writing stories in which the invisible and alienated are thrown into extreme situations.