CHRISTMAS COTILLION

By John Thomas Tuft

Mary Beth slowed her pace as she climbed the stairs to the familiar porch. To the left, the old porch swing, warped and weather beaten hung on a broken, rusty chain. When she was a child, she insisted that it be draped with silver garland for Christmas because “the snow fairies like to play with the wind and the sparkle is their breath” in the cold air. She put the key in the lock and the door groaned when she gave it a shove, stuck fast on the same raised spot on the old floor as always, before yielding to her determination and swinging free so quickly that she stumbled into the front hall, catching herself on the old table where the phone used to sit.   Mary Beth headed first down the hall to the kitchen. In the winter gloom, she could still imagine her mother there at the stove, spending her Christmas break from the college where she taught, busy getting gingerbread men out of the oven. She remembered the worry lines writ large on Mama’s face.

Christmas of 1968 for the family of an Air Force captain meant wondering what was happening on the other side of the world as the nightmare of the round the clock bombing of Hanoi trudged on and on. Mary Beth remembered she was getting home from dance class that evening and babbled on as she helped Mama ice the cookies, about how she was practicing hard for the dance recital next spring when Daddy would be home. She danced a few times around the warm kitchen, all the while popping the tiny cinnamon red dots into her cheeks. She recalled Mama’s smile as she shooed her into the living room to turn on the lights of the Christmas tree. Then they stood by the window, as they did each night, and lit a single candle. “Maybe Daddy will see it from way up there,” Mary Beth said. “Let’s pray he does,” was always Mama’s reply. And then the phone rang. And everything changed.

Mary Beth sat at the piano, trying to play Joy to the World, while also trying not to listen. Something was wrong. Mama hung the phone up and slowly came into living room and sat down heavily on the bench beside her. Haltingly she explained to Mary Beth that Daddy’s plane had been shot down and they were not sure, but he was believed to be captured. The chiming of the grandfather clock in the corner added a mournful note as they went back to the candle and said another prayer. Christmas was very quiet that year. As were the long, uncertain days ahead. Mary Beth stopped going to dance class. The spring recital came and went, but she did not see the point in dancing if Daddy was not there to see it. Yet every night, winter, spring, summer or fall, she and Mama stopped at the window to light a candle and say a prayer.

Mary Beth walked from the kitchen into the old living room, the ghosts of memories still swirling around the tired piano that waited there for someone to bring it back to life, and the old clock, no longer keeping time.  The windowsill was still coated with layer upon layer of candle wax and waiting. Two years passed of no further word from her father. Seasons passed and the Air Force kept saying things would work out. Then one day a car pulled up with an officer and a chaplain. The officer handed Mama a box with Daddy’s brown leather flight jacket inside. She screamed and fell to the floor, heartbroken. Mary Beth was so frightened that she grabbed the box and stuffed it behind the grandfather clock, and there it remained. Now, in the present, this was Mary Beth’s last visit. Mama was in a retirement home, the base was expanding and the old house due to be torn down.

Mary Beth took one last look around. It was time to leave the dead to bury the dead. She was all grown up and living her life now. On impulse, she crossed over the floor, her heels tapping out one last prayer of hope. She felt behind the old clock. The box was still there. She pulled it out, opened it and then, hesitated. Cautiously, she lifted out the old flight jacket and slipped it on. Maybe it was her imagination, but she thought she smelled Old Spice and a tear ran down her cheek. Slowly, ever so slowly, she started to dance. Beside where the Christmas tree used to sit, past the piano, through the kitchen, finally stopping in front of the window. She stood there for a long moment, her hands thrust deep into the pockets. She balled up her fists, wanting to scream, when she heard a crinkling sound. Something was lodged inside the lining below the pocket.

She pulled the pocket inside out, found the hole in the stitching and carefully pulled out a slip of paper. Her hands shook as she unfolded it. It was a drawing, in pencil, fading but still there. A picture, done by Daddy. Of the front of the house. With silver garland on the swing. And to the left, the living room window, the Christmas tree clearly visible. And in that window, the flame of a single candle. Lighting his way home. Always.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.