He ran from room to room, a blur of blue, little legs bouncing in small jerky steps, sliding on the linoleum and sucking butter from his finger tips that had so swiftly dipped into the bowl. He kept looking back over his shoulder, his pale blue eyes both joyful and afraid. As young as I was I knew this was a triumph for him, something much more significant than it appeared. Was it Mother’s look of fear that told me? Yes, it must be that, or was she more sad than afraid? Finally her hand roughly caught hold of his blue jumpsuit and his forward momentum was halted like a tiny bird flying into a window. My heart pounded as I waited for her to spank him for running away from her and for stealing the forbidden butter. I wanted to cry out, “He’s just a baby, he just wanted to taste it.” As I held my breath, remembering the sting of her hand, I was amazed to see her start to cry holding him close while he wiggled to free the buttered hand and get it to his mouth.
Not wanting to see any more, I returned to looking at the toys in the Montgomery Ward Catalog. As a first grader I had little understanding of calendars like the one hanging on the wall in front of me. But, I did know that it was December and December meant Christmas which reminded me that I had a letter to write to Santa. Mother said my baby brother, Phillip, wanted a teddy bear and I should tell Santa, since Phillip was too little to write. I guess she hadn’t noticed that I couldn’t really write either. It seemed a better plan for our big brother to do the letter for both Phillip and me, but maybe at twelve he was too big, because he sure didn’t seem interested in Santa Claus. So, I guessed it was up to me. The days passed and when we were almost half-way through December according to my teacher, I could think of nothing but Christmas. It didn’t look like Christmas or even feel like it at our house, but I knew it would come, because nothing can stop Christmas. It was there near the bottom of the calendar and each day brought us closer to that magical morning. On the day that the calendar said thirteen, for the first time, that I could remember, my Mother sent me to bed without tucking me in. It was okay, because I knew Phillip had been crying a lot and I believed that his stomach hurt. He needed Mother more and anyway, I was a big girl.
The next thing that I remember was a big rough hand shaking my arm. “Wake up, wake up, now,” my Daddy said. I must be dreaming, my father never woke me up and besides I could see through the slits of my eyes that it was still dark. The covers were warm and I sank farther into the featherbed hoping the bad dream would stop. There it was again, “Wake up, now,” and then the covers were drawn back and I was assaulted by blinding light, cold air and the acrid smell of burning wood. Even sleepy and confused, I understood, suddenly, that this was no dream. My father’s face was not familiar. His eyes, usually smiling for me, were solid black and his mouth, under his large humped nose, was drawn down tightly. I was afraid when he started to push my arms into my coat. What was he doing? Where was Mama?
Before I could figure out any answers he did the strangest thing. He wrapped the bed covers around me and even partly over my head and he began carrying me through the house. It was then that I saw where my mother was. She was holding Phillip and washing his little naked body. Surely he was cold, even in front of the glowing wood stove. Why was she bathing him when it was still dark outside? He didn’t seem to mind. He was just lying across her lap, not kicking or even looking around as she stroked him with the wet washcloth. Before I could say a word my daddy walked right out the back door, still carrying me. The covers fell from my head and I felt ice cold wind hit my face and my bare feet, which by now were dangling out of the bottom of the mound of quilts. My daddy pulled me tighter and I was comforted by the smell of stale tobacco and fresh
soap which I knew so well.As he carried me through the yard, the grass crunched under his feet and he was holding me too tightly. With one eye and my nose buried in his neck, the other eye could see the stars. Smoke was curling from the chimney in the center of our little house and the smell of the burning wood, from out here, was more pleasant. I felt him bend forward and heard the car door open and then felt my quilt-wrapped body touch the car seat. I wanted to ask where we were going and why we were alone, but I could not make words hook onto the questions and even if I could have, my mouth would not have spoken them. I was shaking hard and the smell of gasoline from our old car made my throat burn. Then I glimpsed huge snowflakes swirling in the two white trails of light coming from the front of the car. Snow! Could it be Christmas?
Finally, Daddy told me, “I’m taking you to Miz Sea’s” and I felt a little bit warm. The car sped over the gravel. I bounced on the seat because I could not move my arms pinned deep inside the covers. We didn’t have far to go and soon we were turning into my grandparents’ gravel road. Before we reached the top of that short winding road, the porch light came on and showed against the brown siding of the tiny house. As my Dad set me inside the front door, he said to Mammy, my grandmother, “His fever won’t come down. We’re leaving for St. Joseph’s.” Without a word she put me in bed beside my grandfather, who didn’t say anything, although I knew that he was awake. Mammy tucked me in and I watched her kneel beside the couch where she slept, close enough that I could reach out and touch her. She began to pray. As I went to sleep she was saying, “Not our will, but yours’ be done.”
At Marlow School later that day, the snow stopped for a while and we children were allowed to go out for recess. I stayed on the porch and watched the kids who had boots playing in the schoolyard. A girl who was just getting there was walking straight toward me. This was unusual, because the kids from the big room, grades five through eight, never paid attention to first graders. She stopped, looked at me for a moment and said the two words that punched me in the stomach and sent me falling. I fell back and back with my arms held wide as though I was trying to fly in reverse. All the time I floated my feet somehow stayed in contact with the concrete floor. As my back touched the clapboard of the building I melted and ran down the cold boards, my warmth causing steam to sizzle and then rise when it encountered the icy floor. The cold seeped into my body then, freezing it solid so that her words could no longer penetrate. Now, the only thing that could pierce me for the rest of the school day was the stares from dozens of eyes. The eyes belonged to the students who had witnessed the words that knocked me down, her words that caused me to freeze into a block of ice.
An icicle was stuck in my throat, causing my brain to hurt like it did when eating homemade ice cream that my mother made in the summer. I thought about Mother and wondered if she knew that girl would say those words to me. I wondered if my big brother had heard them, too. Then, I remembered that he had not been on the bus that morning. Where was he? I had always felt safe knowing that he was in the schoolroom right next to mine, the one with the other big kids. They had a man teacher with an arm that didn’t move and I was glad that I was not old enough to be in that room. Both my teacher’s arms could move and once today she used them both to hug me. Mrs. Morgan was pretty and she was kind, but why had she let that big girl say those hateful words? Why didn’t she make her take them back?
The bus ride home was much quieter than usual and I missed my big brother being there with me. Even though kids were all around me, I was alone and still frozen solid. Most of the children were staring but not in a mean way. I think that a girl offered me gum, but I am not sure. I sat, cold and hard, and watched the scenes passing the frosty window of the bus. The farms along Crooked Creek Road, where we lived, had turned to a thick blanket of white since I rode the bus from my Grandparents’ home that morning. The hills, trees and barns looked as though they had been covered with vanilla ice cream. I felt my heart begin to soften and to thaw a little, as the snow reminded me that nothing could stop Christmas.
When the bus stopped in front of our house I saw that the snow in our yard was not smooth, but messy with footprints going off in all directions and there were cars that I did not recognize parked next to the road. Strangest though were the tire tracks that went right up to the front porch. That didn’t make any sense. Neither did the little white coffin that stood in our living room when my Mother met me at the door.