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Into the Forest

It's strange, writing these first words, like leaning down into the musty stillness of a well and seeing my face peer up from the water--so small and from such an unfamiliar angle I'm startled to realize the reflection is my own. After all this time a pen feels stiff and awkward in my hand. And I have to admit that this notebook, with its wilderness of blank pages, seems almost more threat than gift--for what can I write here that it will not hurt to remember?

You could write about now, Eva said, about this time. This morning I was so certain I would use this notebook for studying that I had to work to keep from scoffing at her suggestion. But now I see she may be right. Every subject I think of--from economics to meteorology, from anatomy to geography to history--seems to circle around on itself, to lead me unavoidably back to now, to here, today.

Today is Christmas Day. I can't avoid that. We've crossed the days off the calendar much too conscientiously to be wrong about the date, however much we might wish we were. Today is Christmas Day, and Christmas Day is one more day to live through, one more day to be endured so that someday soon this time will be behind us.

By next Christmas this will all be over, and my sister and I will have regained the lives we are meant to live. The electricity will be back, the phones will work. Planes will fly above our clearing once again. In town there will be food in the stores and gas at the service stations. Long before next Christmas we will have indulged in everything we now lack and crave--soap and shampoo, toilet paper and milk, fresh fruit and meat. My computer will be running, Eva's CD player will be working. We'll be listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, using the Internet. Banks and schools and libraries will have reopened, and Eva and I will have left this house where we now live like shipwrecked orphans. She will be dancing with the corps of the San Francisco Ballet, I'll have finished my first semester at Harvard, and this wet, dark day the calendar has insisted we call Christmas will be long, long over.

"Merry semi-pagan, slightly literary, and very commercial Christmas," our father would always announce on Christmas morning, when, long before the midwinter dawn, Eva and I would team up in the hall outside our parents' bedroom. Jittery with excitement, we would plead with them to get up, to come downstairs, to hurry, while they yawned, insisted on donning bathrobes, on washing their faces and brushing their teeth, even--if our father was being particularly infuriating--on making coffee.

After the clutter and laughter of present-opening came the midday dinner we used to take for granted, phone calls from distant relatives, Handel's Messiah issuing triumphantly from the CD player. At some point during the afternoon the four of us would take a walk down the dirt road that ends at our clearing. The brisk air and green forest would clear our senses and our palates, and by the time we reached the bridge and were ready to turn back, our father would have inevitably announced, "This is the real Christmas present, by god--peace and quiet and clean air. No neighbors for four miles, and no town for thirty-two. Thank Buddha, Shiva, Jehovah, and the California Department of Forestry we live at the end of the road!"

Later, after night had fallen and the house was dark except for the glow of bulbs on the Christmas tree, Mother would light the candles of the nativity carousel, and we would spend a quiet moment standing together before it, watching the shepherds, wise men, and angels circle around the little holy family.

"Yep," our father would say, before we all wandered off to nibble at the turkey carcass and cut slivers off the cold plum pudding, "that's the story. Could be better, could be worse. But at least there's a baby at the center of it."

This Christmas there's none of that.

There are no strings of lights, no Christmas cards. There are no piles of presents, no long-distance phone calls from great-aunts and second cousins, no Christmas carols. There is no turkey, no plum pudding, no stroll to the bridge with our parents, no Messiah. This year Christmas is nothing but another white square on a calendar that is almost out of dates, an extra cup of tea, a few moments of candlelight, and, for each of us, a single gift.

Why do we bother?

Three years ago--when I was fourteen and Eva fifteen--I asked that same question one rainy night a week before Christmas. Father was grumbling over the number of cards he still had to write, and Mother was hidden in her workroom with her growling sewing machine, emerging periodically to take another batch of cookies from the oven and prod me into washing the mixing bowls.

"Nell, I need those dishes done so I can start the pudding before I go to bed," she said as she closed the oven door on the final sheet of cookies.

"Okay," I muttered, turning the next page of the book in which I was immersed.

"Tonight, Nell," she said.

"Why are we doing this?" I demanded, looking up from my book in irritation.

"Because they're dirty," she answered, pausing to hand me a warm gingersnap before she swept back to the mysteries of her sewing.

"Not the dishes," I grumbled.

"Then what, Pumpkin?" asked my father as he licked an envelope and emphatically crossed another name off his list.

"Christmas. All this mess and fuss and we aren't even really Christians."

"Goddamn right we aren't," said our father, laying down his pen, bounding up from the table by the front window, already warming to the energy of his own talk.

"We're not Christians, we're capitalists," he said. "Everybody in this whangdanged country is a capitalist, whether he likes it or not. Everyone in this country is one of the world's most voracious consumers, using resources at a rate twenty times greater than that of anyone else on this poor earth. And Christmas is our golden opportunity to pick up the pace."

When he saw I was turning back to my book, he added, "Why are we doing Christmas? Beats me. Tell you what--let's quit. Throw in the towel. I'll drive into town tomorrow and return the gifts. We'll give the cookies to the chickens and write all our friends and relations and explain we've given up Christmas for Lent. It's a shame to waste my vacation, though," he continued in mock sadness.

"I know." He snapped his fingers and ducked as though an idea had just struck him on the back of the head. "We'll replace the beams under the utility room. Forget those dishes, Nell, and find me the jack."

I glared at him, hating him for half a second for the effortless way he deflected my barbs and bad temper. I huffed into the kitchen, grabbed a handful of cookies, and wandered upstairs to hide in my bedroom with my book.

Later I could hear him in the kitchen, washing the dishes I had ignored and singing at the top of his voice,

"We three kings of oil and tar,
tried to smoke a rubber cigar.
It was loaded, and it exploded,
higher than yonder star."

The next year even I wouldn't have dared to question Christmas. Mother was sick, and we all clung to everything that was bright and sweet and warm, as though we thought if we ignored the shadows, they would vanish into the brilliance of hope. But the following spring the cancer took her anyway, and last Christmas my sister and I did our best to bake and wrap and sing in a frantic effort to convince our father--and ourselves--that we could be happy without her.

I thought we were miserable last Christmas. I thought we were miserable because our mother was dead and our father had grown distant and silent. But there were lights on the tree and a turkey in the oven. Eva was Clara in the Redwood Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker, and I had just received the results of my Scholastic Aptitude Tests, which were good enough--if I did okay on the College Board Achievement Tests--to justify the letter I was composing to the Harvard Admissions Committee.

But this year all that is either gone or in abeyance. This year Eva and I celebrate only because it's less painful to admit that today is Christmas than to pretend it isn't.

It's hard to come up with a present for someone when there is no store in which to buy it, when there is little privacy in which to make it, when everything you own, every bean and grain of rice, each spoon and pen and paper clip, is also owned by the person to whom you want to give a gift.

I gave Eva a pair of her own toe shoes. Two weeks ago I snuck the least battered pair from the closet in her studio and renovated them as best I could, working on them in secret while she was practicing. With the last drops of our mother's spot remover, I cleaned the tattered satin. I restitched the leather soles with monofilament from our father's tackle box. I soaked the mashed toe boxes in a mixture of water and wood glue, did my best to reshape them, hid them behind the stove to dry, and then soaked and shaped and dried them again and again. Finally I darned the worn satin at the tips of the toes so that she could get a few more hours of use from them by first dancing on the web of stitches I had sewn.

She gasped when she opened the box and saw them.

"I don't know if they're any good," I said. "They're probably way too soft. I had no idea what I was doing."

But while I was still protesting, she flung her arms around me. We clung together for a long second and then we both leapt back. These days our bodies carry our sorrows as though they were bowls brimming with water. We must always be careful; the slightest jolt or unexpected shift and the water will spill and spill and spill.

Eva's gift to me was this notebook.

"It's not a computer," she said, as I lifted it from its wrinkled wrapping paper, recycled from some birthday long ago and not yet sacrificed as fire-starter. "But it's all blank, every page."

"Blank paper!" I marveled. "Where on earth did you get it?"

"I found it behind my dresser. It must have fallen back there years ago. I thought you could use it to write about this time. For our grandchildren or something."

Right now, grandchildren seem less likely than aliens from Mars, and when I first lifted the stained cardboard cover and flipped through these pages, slightly musty, and blank except for their scaffolding of lines, I have to admit I was thinking more about studying for the Achievement Tests than about chronicling this time. And yet it feels good to write. I miss the quick click of my computer keys and the glow of the screen, but tonight this pen feels like Plaza wine in my hand, and already the lines that lead these words down the page seem more like the warp of our mother's loom and less like the bars I had first imagined them to be. Already I see how much there is to say.

Into the Forest
by by Jean Hegland

  • paperback: 241 pages
  • Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback
  • ISBN-10: 0553379615
  • ISBN-13: 9780553379617