Good morning, everyone...
After spending an entire week working on less creative but far more lucrative objectives, I am finally sitting back down to the keyboard to work on my Christmas story collection for this year. Thus far, I have two new stories in rough draft and one semi-completed which will be posted here over the next few days. This first story, one that first appeared in the year 2000, is actually not fiction at all, but a real-life story of a woman who spent every Christmas with her late husband, long after he had passed on. Last year, after a fitful bout of pneumonia, she, too, succumbed and passed away at home in a cabin above Springdale, Washington. I will never forget her and her late husband and the wonderful bond that tied them in their lives together and then they were gone.
A Christmas Present
Copyright December 2000
by Dave Laird
The weatherbeaten old highway had seen better days, lots of patch jobs hastily done by county employees who didn't care how well it held up. Where it crested the steep grade, the roadway generously overlooked part of the sloping valley to one side, with a tiny creek now frozen hard as a rock in the throes of winter. Down the road a quarter of a mile, there were a set of huge scars where, one spring several decades ago, the creek had neatly bisected the roadway in a flood. The patch job bore mute testimony to the violence of the washout, still to this day.
In the half-hearted sunshine of a cold winter morning, a rattling clattertrap of a vehicle, a faded red Toyota Landcruiser with dented fenders and a spare tire on the back door that jiggled at every bump, began wheezing its way up the hill, desperately attempting to dodge the potholes, and as it reached the scars on either side of the roadway, it momentarily slowed.
Behind the wheel, a woman with hair gone to white, slowed down, carefully downshifting, easing her way over the broken pavement. Although she wasn't that remarkable, really, she was the kind of woman that if you met her in the grocery store, you would remember her brilliant blue eyes and white hair, all soft and downy, and perhaps the gentle lines of humor that tickled at the corners of her eyes. She wore a brown 60's-style Chairman Mao work cap, shoved back on her forehead, and was dressed in a faded pair of bib overalls with a blue nylon down-filled jacket, open at the throat. There were a brace of pencils jutting this way and that out of the front pockets of her overalls, which lent her a rather businesslike air, much like a farmer on his way to town.
It was not unusual that the road was devoid of any other traffic at this hour of the morning. Those few houses scattered throughout the hills on either side seemed vacant, or so it appeared, driving down the road. Having been this way a number of times, she knew better. Since this was part of the Spokane Tribal lands, there were Indian families for the most part, living back in the trees, eking out their humble living hidden in nearly invisible cul de sacs that more resembled dirt tracks than driveways.
Down the road a few miles from the summit, where the valley began spreading out a mile or more on the right side of the highway, there was a wide spot in the road, and easing the Landcruiser off the side of the road, she stopped, turned off the engine, listening to the sound of silence, interspersed with the cooling sounds of the exhaust. A pair of brilliant red cardinals landed on the barbed wire fence to her right, and saluted her with a blast of song before they, too, went along their way, leaving her and silence.
As she opened the driver's door, it complained with an angry squeal of rusty
'I must do something about that hinge', she thought to herself, and she went around to the back of the Landcruiser and opened the rear compartment. Sitting on the rear deck, she began unlacing her brown leather shoes, and putting on a pair of well-worn hiking boots in their place, meticulously making certain to tie double knots.
Inside the open maw of the rear compartment, she fetched a tiny Coleman stove, a large canteen and a slightly-dented teapot, which she carefully set on the rear deck, and fumbling in her jacket, she came up with a book of matches. She lit the stove, poured water into the pan and setting it atop the stove, she then squatted on her heels beside the road, gazing at the snow-covered mountains off in the distance. A meadow lark gave voice, somewhere off in the wheat stubble, but otherwise, there was no sound to break her reverie until the tea pot began whistling.
She made two cups of tea in tiny porcelain tea cups with matching blue flowers around the sides; she used a pair of tiny tea strainers to brew the tea. She carefully set both cups in matching saucers on the rear deck, then turned off the Coleman stove, and taking one of the cups with her, once more resumed her vigil squatting alongside the Landcruiser, leaving the one cup sitting in its saucer beside the stove.
It was cold there in the shadow of the mountain on the other side of the road from the valley. She quietly sipped her tea, and the steam from the tea in the icy cold air quickly built a soft-edged cloud around her head.
The land was hard and cold, with tiny bits of snow and ice hiding in the shadows where the sun would not reach until spring. It was, as she had once read, resolutely sleeping. If you were to gaze across the wheat stubble toward the mountains, you would never know it was the day before Christmas. Nothing moved, not a vehicle in sight and only a few birds chattering in a madcap way from atop a nearby power pole broke the serene silence.
"Time to go', a voice inside her head spoke, and quickly gulping down the last of her tea, she reached inside the Landcruiser and removed a holly wreath from inside, and carefully draping it over her left shoulder, hanging it beneath her right arm, she picked up the single remaining cup of tea, and closed the back door.
She'd been this way for fifteen years, so her feet, unbidden, knew the nearly invisible path that led between the rocks on the side of the road opposite the valley. She moved with care, trying to avoid spilling any of the tea, as she wove her way up into the rocks overlooking the road. Finally, just as she was about winded, she reached the peak of the hill, overlooking not only her Landcruiser parked below, but the entire valley, open at her feet.
A pair of towering fir trees stood back among the rocks, and as she neared them, she could see an empty china cup and saucer were still sitting there where she had left them the previous year, untouched and unmoved. She carefully set the cup of tea sitting on its saucer beside the empty cup, and taking the wreath from around her shoulder, she hung it on one of the giant fir's spreading branches. There was no sign of the previous wreath, but nature has its ways.
Then, picking up the empty cup and saucer, she softly said, "I just came to wish you a Merry Christmas, honey. It's been fifteen years since I last saw you, but I'll never forget our Christmases together. I brought you a cup of your favorite tea, and a wreath, just like always. Oh, how I wish you could be here, with me, again. I miss you so."
She stood, unjudged by any, save a curious blue jay who carefully examined her from the relative safety of a nearby branch, curiously observing the tears silently streaming down her face and onto her jacket.
Then, as soft was the feathery white hair which shone in the morning's light, she walked from that place, her hands brushing the hot tears from her cheeks, as she strode back down the way she had come.
Over fifteen years earlier, at her late husband's request, she had buried him there, between the pair of fir trees, where he could gaze at the valley below. Each year, in good weather and bad, she had brought him her presents, and thus she had become a part of Christmas itself.