Aimless: Evensong

This story was written for the December 2017 Monthly Short Story Writing Challenge held by our writing community at the EA Forums. If you write SimLit, we’d love to have you join us! We have a new challenge each month.

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Winter nights, I sit at the piano to play the carols. I have a favorite collection by Melody Bober which weaves a minor interlude through the old tunes, carrying the undercurrent of memory, solace’s shadow.

Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn king!

My mother plays, my sister sings, while we craft confection snowmen and soldiers to guard the Christmas table.

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I pop a marshmallow into my mouth, and the sweetness melds with my father’s words as he reads the end of A Christmas Carol:

“…It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

–Charles Dickens

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We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy New Year!

We rose early, in the chill before dawn, and piled into the old VW van, stacked to the brim with presents and luggage and tins of cookies, so that there was barely room for the five of us. My father wore his heavy hiking boots, the better to press down on the old vehicle’s accelerator, and we all willed the van up the steep mountain passes, whispering earnest prayers as the trucks heaved past us, and singing as Old Trusty left her wheezes behind when we crested the pass and sailed down into the long, rain-splattered valley. After growing weary of travel-bingo, and “I spy,” and after singing Rudolf with every variation we could imagine, and after daydreams of riding each and every reindeer, long after the setting sun, we pulled, wearily into the driveway of my aunt and uncle’s house and the cousins piled out to wrap us in hugs and there was hot chili, hot chocolate, cold oranges, sweet, fresh Seattle water, and kisses, and laughter, and jokes, and then more songs, and stories, and it was time for bed and in three days it would be Christmas.

My sister, nearly a grown-up already, herded us kids on a caroling expedition.

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She sang the lead, we sang the chorus, my brother clapped the percussion, and while we performed, my cousins didn’t fight, my brother didn’t tease, and we joined our voices into one song.

“That was lovely, dears! Charles, come hear this! You must have some cookies!”

We sang and ate our way through the neighborhood, and when we finished at Grandma Earthy’s house, everyone said how clever we were, and wasn’t it fine to keep the old traditions alive! My sister’s eyes shone, lit up with song.

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I wonder as I wander out under the sky 
How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die 
For poor on’ry people like you and like I 
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

I fell in love with Jesus when I was a teen. If I’d been born Catholic, surely I would have wanted to be a nun. As it was, I pledged my soul in the only way I knew: Stay true. Keep seeking. Find what is real. Don’t lose the spark. Give it all over, to all that is.

The year before I came to know Christmas blues, Joe, my brother-in-law’s father, driving me home from babysitting his youngest children, said, in reply to my seasonal cheer, “When you’re young, Christmas brings nothing but joy. When you’re my age, it’s the most depressing time of year.”

I couldn’t comprehend his gloom. “But you were a minister!” I exclaimed.

“All the commercialism,” he said. “It’s a capitalist’s feast, void of meaning. Another reminder of how far we are from anything real.”

The next winter, I snuck out of my sister’s house, where family was gathered, and wandered through the city neighborhood, under the colored lights that dimmed the stars. Old Joe’s words came back to me. The trees, the lights, the roasting chicken, the carols, the cheer–for just this few weeks a year–what relation did they have to the long road, traveled for thirty-three years by foot or donkey, that led from a stable in Bethlehem to a cross?

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That year, I was old enough to know that people would still hang a rebel, even those who, this night, sang of peace and goodwill.

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Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

When blessings abound, cheer can’t be kept down. A steady train of years passed, with Christmas dinners at my aunt’s, and all of us, even the old grandparents, gathering around, and family, still, was family, and home was home. To sit with my grandfather, to listen to his stories of long walks and long nights reading poetry and wondering, the reminder to savor these times, when we were together, kept winter blues away.

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Each year was like the next, until they weren’t.

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen,
und freudenvollere.
Freude!
Freude!
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!

I have spent one Christmas alone. J ventured south to prepare for our move here. I stayed up north to finish out the year of teaching. Our old station wagon wasn’t up to driving across the pass to Seattle, where my family celebrated. So I remained in our small town, nestled in the Channeled Scablands between three rivers. Sunday before Christmas, friends invited me to dinner, and the snow fell and we built a snowman and threw snowballs under the crystal moon.

The snow melted by Christmas, and the sun warmed the sagebrush, though nights brought frost. After my solitary holiday feast of cranberries, baked potato, butternut squash, and a veggie burger, I started the old Plymouth and drove along the Yakima River.

Beethoven’s Ninth played on the radio, and I turned the volume as loud as it could go.

Beside me rolled the deep river, traveling through the soft hills and broad fields. The sky sparkled as tiny ice crystals caught the sun.

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In solitude, my spirit soared and stretched: “Even the worm can feel contentment, And the cherub stands before God!”

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Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

We had no Christmas the year my dad passed. He left the night before Thanksgiving. On Boxing Day, I flew up to spend time with my mom. This was the first time I’d seen her home during the season without a Christmas tree.

We took a long walk along the cold lake shore. We couldn’t talk, but the physical warmth of our bodies radiated between us as we walked side by side.

We spent a night in an old, run-down cabin on the Puget Sound with my sister and her husband. We walked all evening, sharing few words, seeking comfort in the stillness of the cold water and the distance of the wide horizon.

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Oatmeal cookies with cinnamon, hot tea, and a fire in the Franklin stove couldn’t thaw the chill.

In the dark of the empty night, I woke to hear my mother weeping behind a locked door.

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O Holy Night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

We live in a desert town where the sun shines three hundred days a year. On Christmas Day, my garden smells of petunias and rosemary, and thrashers sing and finches dart among the dried stalks of Mexican sunflowers, feasting on seed. 

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We don’t need a festival of lights when the sun wakes us at seven-fifteen and bids goodnight at five-fifteen, for we’ve spent the day beneath its rays, and our hearts are as warm as the afternoon.

We leave the trees growing in the forests. We feast, we sip coffee and tea, we watch the old movies, we look back on thirty-seven winters we’ve spent together, we share our blessings, we remember it all with gratitude.

I play carols on our piano, and I remember.

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I step outside beneath the stars. In me, the spark that I am jumps to the light, joining, in that continuous moment, all the sparks of light that ever are. It is Christmas, and I can hear my father’s voice as he reads the old story, “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

We remember and, in memory, connect with the eternal moment. The light that shines through my father’s eyes, through my sister’s, through mine, it’s the light that keeps us bright the whole year through. May it shine, and keep on shining, in your eyes, too!

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