The 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
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.