“He isn’t real,” I said. The year I turned seven a lot of things went away. I figured Santa Clause did, too.
“How can you even say that?” My oldest brother whispered. We watched the black sky over the creek. Sometimes you could see the Northern Lights up over Herbie’s Hill from here, though it might be too early for that. I always checked, just in case.
My brother was 14 this eve of Christmas Eve, two years from getting his rubber wings. I dreaded the thought of him not being at the house. I pushed the feelings away to a box within a large box I had started building in me. This is where I would store emotion and time until being diagnosed with a stage four cancer over fifty years later.
We kneeled at the window, elbows on the sill. It was so quiet. It was as if your brain cells were audible as they directed sensory traffic, collected thoughts, words and images. The water wasn’t visible though I could hear it – I loved hearing the water without seeing it. I loved his room. He had the best room in the house, and it was the only one which was not “shared.” I used to think that window led to another world – if I jumped out of it, what would happen? While I was there the control overwhelmed me and I was never brave enough to find out.
The wind pushed curling tendrils of cold into the window as our warm breath rolled out beneath it. We watched it cartwheel away in silence. He and I, we never needed words to be spoken. These two years had stolen our childhoods and probably most of what was left to our parent’s relationship.
“He’s fat,” I said in my “new” voice. Flat and unyielding. Just like a thin piece of steel that fell off something, laying in the road where it got hit by each passing vehicle, its shape unchanged; it just rolled end over end with each blow.
“He’s fat, flies reindeer, makes toys and lives at the North Pole with a bunch of small elf people. And that whole present thing,” that just exasperated the piss out of me. “Tell me I am not good? I have been so good – I’m always good,” I brought my clenched fists to my thighs. I stopped, caught my breath, realizing I was allowing myself too much self-expression. Even with him. Go flat, get hit, box it on the fly as you roll away.
“I guess,” I drew a long breath returning to my flat voice. “I am just not seeing a trade-off.”
I could feel his sadness at my words and didn’t have to look at him, though I met his eyes. In later years I often noticed the same odd sense of bewildered loss in my parent’s eyes. After a while it didn’t matter any longer and I felt that whatever was once there that would have filled that spot again, had left for good with no one knowing what to fill it with or how.
He watched me for a moment, scowled a little and then motioned me to leave. “Go to bed,” he said softly, closing the window. “Tomorrow, I will show you a secret. I know because I saw it once too, when I thought my magic ended. And then I remembered what I saw and after that I believed. I still do.”
About five years prior he had nearly died. I clearly remember him on the couch with his back to me. I would only bother her if he quit breathing, I decided. I watched the old green blanket with the holes and the soft green ribbon hem rise shallowly and fall back to his thin body. I stared into his back, willing him to live, while I heard my mother’s voice on the phone in the dining room asking the doctor if he was “sure he was that sick.”
I met his eyes again; our sadness chain locked us into our reality. We both knew though would never, ever discuss the alloy of our chains until six weeks before he left me for good. It has had to be enough.
“I will show you why you should always, always believe. But you can’t tell anyone. It’s just for you. Your magic. To keep in your pocket for when you really need to believe,” he looked at me sternly, meaning it.
Early on Christmas morning as I woke, his face hovered above mine, one finger placed over his lips, another over mine. His cheeks were bright red. The freezing air swirled around him. It was pitch black. We felt along the upstairs hallway, around the banister, to the window where he motioned me to the look out to the roof of the porch below. I crept to the open window.
I froze. I looked back at my brother. He nodded, his eyes and grin considerable. Two large swipes of sleigh runner tracks and the amount of tiny hoof marks indicated a perfect landing and take-off on the porch roof. The boot prints traced the route the fat little elf took to the hallway window. Fireplaces were not conducive to two-hundred-year-old tinder box houses. Santa, apparently, was quite adaptable.
I immediately understood the magnitude of this special gift my brother gave me that Christmas morning. Believe, he used to say. Just believe.
I felt my “small self” return into me and realized I could summon her at will. I touched the fresh snow on the windowsill. I was always in awe of how snow was so cold, yet it left no trace of existence with the most minimal, fleeting contact of human warmth. I looked down, noticing snow on the old black and brownish-red squares of linoleum flooring from elf boots.
I looked back to the porch and quickly counted hoof marks, carefully checking for eight tiny reindeer. My head gave way to the magic. Our discussion was had in excited whispers, making sense of the missing track of the ninth reindeer. The clear night sky had allowed Rudolph to stay at the North Pole. Probably working dispatch, I whispered, my brother agreed, and we continued to spin our yarn like we always did, me taking a paragraph and then him weaving his. We could play the game for hours. Sometimes, days.
I pulled away from the sill giggling and covered my mouth. I couldn’t keep the joy down I felt swelling up in me. I thought, nodding to myself, it was so good to know she was still alive in me, that quirky, weird little girl with wild hair who saw things others did not and who loved natural magic.
I motioned, shaking my head with my hands in my hair and keeping my laughter behind my lips as I danced from one foot to the other. He laughed silently. I pointed to the tracks and raised my hands to my face and pulled my mouth downward, indicating my astonishment with motions and no words, not wanting to wake the others. This was our magic – magic he gifted to me, this secret, not to be shared with the others.
“Merry Christmas, little sister,” he whispered to me as we nestled back at the window, shoulder to shoulder, to weave our story web. “Each and every moment. Merry Christmas.”