What follows is the first installment of a Christmas story written by my second son Ryan who is currently stationed in Afghanistan. He posted it on his Xanga site. I think it is very good (of course I would, I'm his mother.)
Saturday, December 22, 2007
A Christmas Story: I always fell like writing a Christmas story around Christmas, and this year I did. We got in from a mission to a strange FOB, and I went and sat down at the computer for about three hours and finished this. I wrote it several years ago in Korea, and then it was lost in a computer crash. Lately I started it again, saving it on yahoo.com so that I would be able to access it no matter which FOB I was at. I finished it, but it is too long to post all at once, so I will post it serially. Hope you like it.
Margaret's Christmas Present
"Grandpa, tell me again, how old our house is," the little girl asked.
"I'm sure I've told you many, many times before, my Dear," the old man said, smiling fondly.
"Yes, but tell me again," she pleaded, her brown curls turning gold in the firelight and her eyes turned up to him in the look that he could not possibly have resisted.
"Well, Margaret, it is nearly a hundred years old."
The little girl wrinkled her nose as she tried to comprehend such a vast expanse of time. She knelt at her grandfather's feet, marching her tin soldiers across the lap of his dressing gown, and the old man thought, for the millionth time, that she looked more like an angel than a human girl.
"That's even before you were little, Grandpa."
"Yes, a great deal before that." He laughed a little.
"And you had to wear a dress when you were a little boy?"
"All little boys did back then."
"I can't imagine you as a little boy. Did you wear glasses?"
"No, I didn't wear glasses until I was getting old and my eyesight started to go."
"And these are your toy soldiers." It was more of a statement than a question. She knew very well that they were his toy soldiers. She pushed a miniature cannon up over the mountain of one of his knees and marched a rifleman without a bayonet up the other.
"Yes, I molded and painted them when I was a boy. Your mother and her brothers used to play with them as well."
"But Mama liked the dollhouse best, right? The one you made for her when she was my age?"
"And the china Angel Doll with the blue eyes?"
"That very one," the old man nodded, tears filling his eyes. He wished his daughter could be here now.
"Now Mama's with the real angels, right Grandpa?"
"That is true, my Dear."
"I wrote Papa a letter yesterday," she said. "Do you think he will come home for Christmas?"
The old man frowned. He wished he were young and strong again so he could go to Manhattan and knock some sense into his son-in-law. He didn't like the way she continued to write to him, no matter how many times she was disappointed when he never replied or came home. "I don't know, little one. But even if he doesn't we will be happy together, won't we?"
Margaret sat back, curling her bare feet under her and leaning back against her grandfather's leg. She chewed on her lip, her little face sad with a sadness that had no business anywhere near an eight year old girl. "But he will come this year, Grandpa, I know he will."
The old man cursed his age and wished he could reach down and pick her up, set her on his lap and hold her close as he used to when she was smaller and he was stronger. Back then a man got out and did what he could to fix the problems that were hurting his loved ones. Now, crippled, consumptive and useless, he reached down with one paper thin hand to ruffle the curls on her head. She hugged his leg and said nothing.
"All right then, young Missy. It's time for bed," Martha the ancient housekeeper/nurse/confidant bustled into the room. She was nearly as old as the old man, but instead of age weakening her and withering her away it had merely sharpened, pinched, shriveled and wrinkled her until she was a dry, tough, bright little woman with a needle sharp eye and tongue and a heart the size of the ocean.
The little girl quickly put her toy soldiers in their box in the china cupboard, and ran over to her grandpa, tiny white feet twinkling under her nightgown as she jumped up and put her arms around his neck. He wrapped his arms around her and held her smooth fresh face against his old, gray, wrinkled one. "Bless me, Grandpa," she whispered.
He kissed the top of her head and prayed:
"Angels of God, I pray you keep,
Your watch over her, and guard her sleep,
Through the night be beside her, and gently guide her,
Through beautiful dreams of quiet and peace.
Let silence enfold her and day's clamor cease.
If nightmares should wake her, then do not forsake her.
Let your love be around her, may it fill and surround her.
Ward off the devils that trouble the night,
And hold her and bless her, until morning's light."
"Does Mama like it when you pray her prayer over me?" Margaret asked.
"Of course she does. I blessed her with that prayer when she was in her cradle, and now I bless you with it. She is watching over you every bit as much as the angels."
"That she is, to be sure, Missy." Martha unfolded her arms and clapped her hands. "Now kiss your Grandpa goodnight and it's off to bed with you."
"Goodnight, Grandpa," Margaret kissed him lightly on the cheek and ran to Martha. She put her hand in the housekeeper's and allowed the old woman to lead her away to bed. The old man watched after her until she was out of sight, and then breathed a sigh. Tomorrow he would write another letter to Tom and try to reason him into coming home. He doubted it would do any good, but it was all he could do.
Margaret was the only child in that old house. It was not a mansion by any means, but it was big for a town house and full of odd rooms that didn't seem to belong. The little girl was raised by her Grandfather, though in reality Martha did most of the raising. The Old Man would have spoiled her if it hadn't been for the housekeeper's stern and often heavy hand. The other two men on the place, James Marsh the manservant and his son Dick the part time groundskeeper, worshipped the little girl and would likewise have spoiled her. They considered her a little angel, and thought that Martha was much too hard on her, since she was after all as sweet a little girl as ever you saw. The housekeeper only told them they were big soft ones and kept at it. Despite her prickly appearance she loved the little girl like her own daughter. She had never married and she poured out her missed maternity on Margaret. She loved the little girl, far too much to let her be spoiled. So it was the housekeeper who saw to it that she went to school and made friends, rather than stay at home with the private tutors her father would gladly have provided. It was Martha who gave her daily chores to do and saw to it that she did them and did them well, and kept James and Dick from helping her at them. It was Martha who shooed her out of the house to play out of doors instead of sitting and reading all day as the little girl would gladly have done. And it was the old housekeeper with her worn leather bound Bible and Book of Common Prayer under one clawlike arm and Margaret's hand in the surprisingly gentle hold of the other, who marched the little girl to Church every sunday. The little girl was a pensive child who thought deeply and often non-plussed the old lady with her questions, the answers to which could not be found in the catechism. Many was the time she thanked her stars that she was a second cousin some few times removed from the Episcopal minister. Whenever her small store of knowledge ran out, she fell back on her inexhaustible and childlike faith until she could consult with the elderly reverend gentleman. The two of them would laugh or shake their heads in amazement at the little girl's innocence and perspicacity, and then the Reverend would give his thoughts, and the old lady would take her new found wisdom back to feed Margaret's curiosity. So, while Margaret loved her Grandfather best of all living people in the world, Martha was the closest thing to a mother she had ever known, and she loved the old lady from her prickly attitude all the way to her warm, boundless heart.
It was Martha's doing that Margaret was not a solitary child. Fearing that she would come to be lonely and knowing that she needed companions of her own age, she saw to it that the little girl met the families of a few good neighbors who had little girls her age. The house was always open to any of her friends, after she had done her chores, and sometimes, on very rare and memorable occasions, Martha even unbent the rule about not eating except at meal times and allowed the children to have a cookie or one of her famous tarts.
It was a thursday, a few weeks before Christmas, and Margaret and two of her friends, Annie and Jessica, were playing tag in the back yard, which was of a very decent size, an acre and a half. They were so intent on their game, running back and forth and shouting, that they didn't notice at first that they were not alone. It was Jessica who saw him first. She had made it to "safe" which was at the corner of the old stable. Pausing to catch her breath she looked out to the hedgerow that separated the yard from the moor. At a break in the hedge there was a gate and standing at the gate, leaning over it with a casual air, was a boy.
He was older than any of the girls, he looked to be about twelve or thirteen. He was scrawny and tall with carrot red hair and freckles startlingly bright against his pale skin. His toes were sticking out of his boots and his clothes were raggedy, and he was supremely dirty. The girls stared at him in horrified fascination, never having imagined that any human creature could look so disreputable. He stared right back with an air of casual superiority, but there was a keen, interested look about him.
"Who are you?" Margaret queried. It was, after all, her yard and it fell to her to do the honors.
"Perry," the boy answered laconically.
"Perry who?" Annie asked.
"Just Perry," he replied.
"You don't have a last name?"
"Stanton," he supplied, "That's my old man's name."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Stanton," Margaret bobbed politely. "I'm Margaret St. James, and this is Annie and Jessica Farmer."
"You're a bit swell, aren't you," the boy remarked with a grin. "I ain't 'Mr. Stanton' I'm Perry."
"Do you live around here, Perry," Margaret asked.
"Naw, just passing through. On my way to the city, see?"
"Are you lost then?" Annie asked, innocently. "The train stop is on the other end of town."
"Not taking the train."
"Do your parents have an automobile?" Jessica asked.
The boy laughed scornfully. "Don't have no parents."
"No parents?" the three girls gasped together.
"Well, least no mother. She run off when I was a kid, and Dad's in prison, so he ain't much help. He isn't driving no automobiles, that's for sure."
"So you're practically an orphan," Margaret said.
"If you like," he shrugged cheerfully.
"Does that mean you live at an orphanage?"
Just then, Dick, the groundskeeper came around the corner of the house with a garden rake over his shoulder. "Here, you be off. Don't be bothering these young ladies, or I'll give you something to take with you."
The boy jumped back and laughed impudently before darting off across the fields.
"He wasn't bothering us, Dick," Margaret protested.
"Oh, he isn't the right sort to be around you, Missy Margaret, not the right sort at all. His sort would steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes."
"But how do you know?" she asked.
"Missy Margaret, you're too young and innocent to know about such likes. Just let him go and don't worry about it." He went off whistling about his work.
To be continued....