It is snowing in the Bayou. Big peaceful flakes dance in the still air, silently falling through the still air and painting the drab landscape a fresh, pristine white. The long autumn had seemed to drag on forever with ice cold rain and frequent frost mornings but with no snow in sight. When it finally started to fall, it did so with a vengeance, enveloping the nature in a beautiful, thick white coat overnight…
This year is special, as Arthur Moon is sharing the joy of the holiday with the Grey’s. He has spent the whole day at Bayou Oaks Manor setting up the outdoor Christmas lights, and it is also he who brought them the tree this year. Or rather, the second tree. He had wanted to surprise them, and indeed he did, as they already had their traditional Christmas tree dressed and ready in the dining room.
Granny has, as usual, spent most of the day in the kitchen, busy preparing her homemade cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. It is actually Thanksgiving all over again, Taïga thinks, not a fan herself of turkey and happy to get away from the chore of stuffing it. There is so much to prepare for the feast later in the evening, but she has a bigger responsibility. Arthur’s tree must be ready before the Darer’s arrive tonight…
Granny has taken a few moments away from the busy kitchen to watch her granddaughter fix the most important ornament on top of the big tree. Ceremoniously she hands Taïga a scintillating star she has never seen before. Taïga climbs onto the stool and balances on her toes but barely reaches the top of the huge tree anyway. When she finally secures the star, both her grandmother and Arthur clap their hands. Taïga beams down at them. So corny and unlike her grandmother…
The dogs have attentively followed her movements, intrigued but more quiet than usual, hanging around but not getting in the way. Ruff hasn’t even tried to chase Minuit, even when she provoked him, strutting past with her tail high and red eyes gleaming. Strange…
Christmas preparations have been going on for a few days now and usually the tree is dressed on the 23rd. But everything seems to be a little delayed and off tracks this year. And the tree was a surprise after all.
Taïga is humming Christmas carols to herself as she picks up the familiar ornaments and hooks them onto the waiting branches. Granny must have duplicated the ornaments somehow, she is persuaded she had used them all for the dining room tree. Whatever.
It smells good of evergreen and oranges, of cinnamon and hot chocolate. The fireplace is loaded up with birch wood and the crackling of the fire adds to the serene feeling of the festive season. She is overcome by an odd sensation of peace, but at the same time something is nagging her like a floating memory she can’t really get a hold on.
Arthur motions for her to come and she knows what he is aiming at. Granny’s present. Together they take advantage of Granny busying herself in the kitchen to hang the big painting in the dining room. Taïga steps back and admires her handiwork.
Jeez does it hang askew?… It looks all right. I hope Granny will like it…
‘It’s perfect,’ Arthur answers her silent question. ‘She’ll love it!’
‘Love what?’ Granny unhooks her apron and smiles at them from the doorway.
‘Wait, Granny! I’ve got a surprise for you and you were not supposed to come in here yet. Close your eyes.’ Taïga quickly steps behind her and puts her hands over her eyes to try to camouflage the gift.
Granny humors her granddaughter and lets Taïga escort her out from the dining room. Arthur chuckles at the their awkward walk.
Suddenly Taïga changes her mind. She’s too eager to see what her grandmother will think about her gift. ‘Sorry, Granny – I just can’t wait!’
She steers her grandmother back into the dining room and triumphantly uncovers her eyes, impatiently waiting for a reaction.
Granny stares at the picture on the wall. A trembling hand fiddles with her pearl necklace and she clears her throat.
‘I just couldn’t wait,’ Taïga says again and shrugs to excuse her haste. ‘I’ve painted at Arthur’s, to keep the secret…’ she lets the sentence trail, worrying about why her grandmother doesn’t say anything. ‘Don’t… don’t you like it?’ she finally whispers.
‘Like it? Oh, no… I… I… I love it. It’s… It’s… beautiful. It’s just-’Granny massages the ridge of her nose and sniffles. ‘It’s just that it’s Christmas, and… and… It’s perfect!’ She turns towards Taïga with eyes glazed over by emotion. ‘I’m so happy. This is the best Christmas present I’ve ever had.’ She can’t help herself but starts crying, so touched by the beautiful painting.
Taïga let’s out her breath and hugs her grandmother. She knew Granny would get a little emotional, what with Shasta on the picture and everything. But to see her stern grandmother overcome like this almost makes her cry herself. Arthur really has a good influence on her, she thinks.
‘I recognize the portrait on the wall, behind the sofa, it is of Ailey Thornton, but I can’t for my life remember when we took this picture,’ Granny says, leaning in to scrutinize the painting in detail.
She is sitting on an unknown sofa dressed up in full witch gear, hat and all, next to Shasta in a classy designer suit. A young Taïga is sitting at their feet, cradling Tramp in her arms.
Taïga looks at the picture, feeling a strange emptiness. ‘I guess I painted it from memory. It just felt right…’
‘It is beautifully made and the models are just as amazing. Maybe we should take a real picture, with my camera?’
Arthur doesn’t wait for them to answer but hurries to the little office to retrieve his old Leica.
He is soon back, motioning for them to stand next to the painting.
Taïga makes a heart with her hands ands and smiles a selfie smile, while Granny gives a thumbs up, giggling.
‘C’mon, could you both be a little serious? This is an old fashioned contraption, and it is difficult to come by film rolls nowadays.’
Granny pulls Taïga closer and they both compliantly smile into the camera.
‘There. That’s perfect…’
They take a few more pictures, then Taïga excuses herself and rushes upstairs to get changed for the evening.
She takes up position by the window where she has an unobstructed view of the bend of the road. She doesn’t have to wait very long. At the sight of two parallel tunnels of faint light piercing the falling snow she calls out to her grandmother and Arthur to get the eggnog ready.
Ruff and Valkyria start barking, confirming the Darer’s arrival and she rushes to the door, flustered and excited. Valkyria runs through the snow and starts turning around the newly arrivals, trying to sniff little Athan who Missy keeps just out of reach in her arms.
Juan pats the dogs and holds up a big totebag, stuffed with presents.
‘Where do I put these?’
‘Under the tree, of course,’ Missy says, shaking snow off her boots before handing Athan over to Taïga.
‘Yeah. I figured that much. But which one?’ He looks from the den to the dining room, unsure.
The little boy struggles to get down, eager to meet the dogs. Ruff is not interested in noisy, boisterous children and keeps a safe distance, but Valkyria bends down on her forepaws, ready to play. Taïga kneels behind Athan to show him how to interact with the huge dog, a little worried he’d get hurt should the dog become too excited.
As soon as the dinner is over and done with, the family settle in the den to open Athan’s gifts before the Darer’s have to return home.
The floor is soon littered with paper in all the shades of the rainbow. Arthur adds a log to the fire and throws on some stray paper, making the flames reach high to Athan’s delight. The little boy grabs a box of Lego and without warning throws it into the fireplace. Arthur is surprised but grabs it just before it lands in the flames. He blows on his fingers, trying to divert the little boy’s attention from the fire to something less dangerous.
‘Such a nice horse! Have you seen it?’
Athan rushes over to Rowan’s old rocking horse to pet its head and rock it violently.
‘Maybe your father could show you how to ride it…’ Granny looks pointedly at Juan who has been nursing an eggnog, comfortably installed on the couch with Missy’s feet on his lap.
To Taïga’s surprise, the grumpy man gets the hint. He doesn’t even finish his half full glass, just puts it on the table and grins to Missy who grins back from her laid back position on the couch.
Athan has already abandoned the rocking horse. His attention is diverted to yet more giftwrapped boxes and the sheer joy of tearing off the paper. Screaming with excited delight, he tears into the paper and throws it in the air.
Juan kneels on the floor with his son, trying to canalize the energy some, but to no avail. Athan is on a gift opening spree and there is no stopping him.
Not even Juan trying his best to look stern is working.
Athan just laughs and claps his hands, making the gruff old man smile too. The boy’s enthusiasm is contagious and they all give in to opening a few presents of their own. Missy and Juan have taken a knitting course, and so they all get hand knit sweaters in fanciful colors and patterns. Her sweater is in warm greens and oranges. To her surprise it is really nice, even if it is rather big and more like a short dress than a sweater, and not itchy at all. She decides to follow Arthur’s example and keep it on.
She taps with her index on the little wintry snow globe from Athan, waiting for the snowflakes to settle on the tiny snowman. Her huge ruby on her engagement ring glimmers in the faint light. She is wearing it on her right middle finger as it is too big to be worn on her ring finger. She looks at her left hand on her lap. Derek’s mother’s thin silver ring seems pale and insignificant in comparison but so much truer. She stares at it until her vision becomes blurry. If only Derek was alive… Would he have saved her from the upcoming marriage? She toys with the thought as she so often has. If only…
Arthur pokes the fire a last time and sits down next to Granny on the sofa. He puts an arm around her shoulders and whispers something. Granny smiles up at him contentedly.
Suddenly Taïga feels like crying. Will she ever be happy like that? Without Derek she doubts it. She bites her lip. She can’t give in to the pain that is unexpectedly overwhelming her. She just can’t destroy everyone’s happiness with this sudden gloom of hers. Maybe she should just get away a few moments. Let her sorrow pass without anyone noticing.
‘Huh?’ She is pulled back to reality by her great aunt. Missy has said something, and is puckering for an answer. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t get that.’
She looks up at her great aunt from across the coffee table. Missy has spent most of the evening on the antique sofa, a cliché of the pregnant lady who is not able to lift a finger and requires everybody’s attention. Well, Taïga thinks, she is kind of old to go through this change in her body after all. But still…
Missy huffs and puffs, hoisting herself up on her right arm so she could look at her over the rim of her glasses. ‘I think it’s time to put Athan to bed.’
‘Uh… Sure. He doesn’t seem very tired though.’ Taïga looks at the little boy rummaging through heaps of discarded paper, seemingly having more fun with the wrapping than the gifts themselves.
‘He’s overexcited and if he doesn’t sleep soon I’m afraid I might go into labor here and now.’
‘Geez, Missy. You’re not due before sometime in April,’ Granny says. ‘The fourth and fifth months are supposed to be the least restricting. When I was pregnant with Shasta-’
‘That was a while ago, dear.’
‘I don’t think things have changed much, dear sister.’
‘Maybe not. But you can’t possibly remember what it was like. It was awfully long ago.’
Granny’s eyes widen and she forms an outraged “o” with her mouth, but she doesn’t have the time to say anything before Missy wails plaintively and falls back against the cushions.
‘The stress.’ Missy holds a protective hand over her slightly swollen stomach and the other over her forehead. ‘Stress is not good for the baby.’
‘You’re the least stressful person I know,’ Granny says under her breath.
‘I think some eggnog would do miracles.’ Missy opens an eye and looks at Granny.
‘Well. I don’t. Alcohol is definitely not good for the baby.’
‘I can fix you a cup of hot chocolate, if you want.’ Taïga stands up, happy to get away. ‘Anyone else up for some hot chocolate. Or tea, maybe?’
When she comes back again carrying a heavy tray laden with cups and the traditional Christmas cake, Athan is sleeping in Juan’s arms. So is Missy. She stands for a few seconds in the doorway, taking in the picture of bliss emanating from the two old couples.
It is too much for her. She puts the tray down with shaking hands and excuses herself, hurrying away before no one notices her tears.
She stops a while with her back against the door to her room, letting the inexplicable black hole of sorrow engulf her, tears running freely across her cheeks. She has never felt as empty. As lonely.
Something draws her out onto the little balcony and she dries her tears before they freeze on her cheeks. It is all dark and silent outside. The only light is provided by the hanging Christmas decorations and the windows reflecting rectangles of yellow light on the thick snow. It makes the so familiar landscape seem dreamlike and spooky.
Does she really want to continue like this? Has she got the strength to face day after day after day with this pain in her chest? Back held tears constantly burning. A lump in her throat making it impossible to talk, to sing…
She has heard somewhere that freezing to death is the gentlest death. The brain shuts down and gives you the illusion of warmth and security, lulling you into a treacherous sleep you’d never wake up from. She could stay out here, on the balcony, until that happened. She sighs. It would be so easy to let go. To avoid this constant ache…
She realizes she has laced her hands together in prayer. But who should she pray to? The Goddess? God?
And what should she ask for?
Her eyes stray upwards. It has stopped snowing and something is glimmering through a hole in the clouds. The Pole Star. Of course. And then she knows what to ask for.
‘Please…’ She clears her throat. ‘Please, bring him home to me…’ She knows her request is senseless, but she can’t help herself. ‘Please. Just let him be alive. Somewhere…’
Arthur’s voice calls her back to reality.
‘You’re going to catch your death out here without a coat. Or at least a pneumonia!’
She looks at the kind elder man who is leaning out from the balcony next to hers, wondering how long he has been there.
‘I guess you’re risking a pneumonia yourself.’ She smiles at him. ‘If you don’t get lung cancer first, of course,’ she adds, nodding to his pipe.
‘Yeah, I know. Your grandmother doesn’t approve either…’ He chuckles and lights it, sucking on the stem.
‘Don’t worry. I won’t tell. But you’re right, it’s freezing…’
‘You’d better get back downstairs, get something warm inside you. Maybe there’s some hot chocolate left.’
Taïga nods. She doesn’t want to go back downstairs but follows his advice anyway. There’s no sense in giving up. She has to fight this. Derek would never have wanted her to give in to self-pity…
She has totally regained her composure by the time she reaches the bottom of the stairs. Minuit precedes her into the den and jumps up on Granny’s knees, eager for some attention. Juan is kneeling in front of Missy, carefully waking her up. He seems to have undergone some strange Scroogey Christmas change of character tonight. His usual gruff ways have switched to attentive kindness, even towards Athan.
Well. Missy seems happy enough and as long as he is kind to Athan, who is she to object? Talking about leaving – where is the little boy?
‘He’s over there.’ Granny nods with her head towards the rocking horse, all the while trying to make Minuit settle on her lap before the cat has completely destroyed her dress with its intensive clawed kneading. ‘He refused to leave before saying goodbye to Rowan’s old horse.’
Granny chuckles and pets the cat who finally settles, purring happily.
With his green pacifier firmly stuck in his mouth, Athan is petting the old rocking horse and talking in his incomprehensible baby language.
‘Why don’t you bring it with you? The horse, I mean,’ she asks Juan.
‘There’s no room in the car,’ he answers. ‘I’ll have to get Missy and Athan back home too, not just fill the car with toys in all sizes and shapes.’
‘Well. You can always take it next time you visit,’ Granny concludes.
Taïga helps them carry toys to the over snowed car, watching the Darer’s pile in. It starts on the third try and rolls away spluttering and coughing. It makes her wonder if it will hold the whole way back to their home. Missy has solemnly promised to call first thing upon arrival which should be in about twenty minutes with the bad weather.
Taïga recognizes her bossy grandmother when she, as soon as her sister is out of the house, sends Arthur upstairs to change out of his Christmas present. He grumbles a little, but vanishes soon enough and Taïga suspects he’s taking advantage of a quiet smoke on the balcony again. Exhausted after gathering paper and empty boxes in a big sack together with Taïga, Granny gives in to the comfort of Arthur’s arms and a last cup of tea while they settle to wait for Missy’s call. Taïga kisses them both goodnight and whistles for Valkyria. She hopes she will fall asleep fast, she is just as tired as her grandmother. But then again, it is Christmas Eve and she has always had trouble resting peacefully on this special night…
‘Don’t forget Santa’s cookies,’ Granny calls after her.
She fills a glass with milk and puts a few biscuits on a plate that she carries outside and puts down on the porch. She throws a glance through the window to the den. The sight of Granny and Arthur’s grey heads close together is so peaceful, so cozy and welcoming.
The lump in her throat is back again and she hurries back indoors and up to the comfort of her room.
While she gives in to a dreamless sleep, someone shows up on the porch and inspects the soon to be frozen goodies with interest. Sprinkler decides it can’t do fat Santa any harm if he just nibbles a little. He could probably take one little biscuit without Santa even noticing. Or two…
When he leaves the porch a few minutes later the glass is half empty and the plate… Well, it is entirely empty.
Taïga’s eyes pop open and she lies staring into the darkness a while, wondering what has awaken her. The Christmas decorations are turned off but a faint stream of yellow light is filtering into her room from under the door. She looks at the alarm next to her bed. Almost 2:30. She can hear Granny’s soft snoring from across the landing, and another, more insistent sound approaching that of a saw which must be Arthur.
Could it be Sprinkler and if so, what is he up to this late? She swings her legs over the edge of the bed and fiddles with her toes for her old, worn slippers. She hopes there is a new pair among the gifts left to be opened in the morning.
Silently she sneaks downstairs, soon regretting not having taken the time to put her robe on. Derek’s old team shirt is definitely too cold for the drafty old house in winter and the chill gives her goosebumps on her bare arms and legs.
She stops at the base of the stairs. The light is coming from the dining room. Granny must have forgotten to turn off the lights in the tree…
She stops on the threshold and draws her breath. A familiar silhouette is leaning against the window, thoughtfully watching the slowly falling snow.
Time seems to have come to a standstill and she doesn’t dare to move, afraid she might break the spell. Derek slowly turns his head and looks at her with bloodshot, febrile eyes. A fresh scar is leaping across his pale emaciated cheek and he looks extremely tired. And sick.
Their eyes lock. His lips move, but she more imagines than actually hears him whisper her name.
He is looking at her hungrily, drinking her in. Her legs starts moving without her thinking about it. She stops a few inches from him. With her heart hammering madly she stands motionless, starving for his touch. They are so close she can feel the heat emanating from his body. She swallows, unable to tear her eyes from his. So amazingly blue. Like the clearest sky and the deepest ocean all at once…
He reaches out and pushes a strand of hair behind her ear and she shivers. His thumb slowly traces a line along her jaw. Feathery light and soft, but the intensity of his touch almost scorches her and she catches her breath, briefly closing her eyes. His face approaches hers and she vaguely notices the thin film of sweat on his forehead and his upper lip which confirms her doubts about him running a fever.
Then her brain stops analyzing and she lets herself be steered by emotions alone as his feverish lips finally reach hers…
Part II – End of Chapter 46