Monday, December 19, 2011

The Corner Stool

I was surprised that we had any customers that night. Oh, we were open – we’re almost always open, but that night, well, it was different.
It had been snowing all day, and with almost eighteen inches of the white stuff on the ground already, it showed no sign of letting up. There wasn’t even any cable TV – the weather, I imagine, so there wasn’t even a good ballgame to watch to pass the hours. I guess that’s what made it all so strange. Why were we open during the worst storm in 75 years, and who in their right mind would venture out into the stark, cold, bleak whiteout unless it was some sort of life or death emergency?
To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t even remember seeing him come in. I should have, you know?  I was pretty much alone, and can see the door from anyplace behind the bar, but I don’t remember seeing him enter. I don’t even remember the door opening, and you’d think with all that wind and snow I wouldn’t have missed that. But there he was, all alone on the corner stool.
He looked like the saddest, loneliest man on God’s green Earth
Seated it was hard to tell, but I would guess he would be about 6’2” tall and rubbing noses with 250 pounds. Bar light is a little tricky, especially in that corner, where it’s a little darker than in most other places, but the man’s weather worn face carried the creases and folds of what had to be 60 years of a difficult life, hidden behind a bushy salt and pepper beard that had a lot more salt in it than pepper. Even in this light, I could see that, while he seemed to be trying to hide them, he had piercing blue eyes. He was poorly dressed for the weather, in well worn faded dungarees and an old hooded Carhartt work jacket with patches on the elbows. His feet were barely covered in a ragged old pair of red converse high tops that had seen better days.
Well, I make more money when I talk to the customers, so I worked my way down the bar to where he was seated. “What’ll ya have?”  I  asked.
He looked up, locking those age weary eyes onto mine, and in a soft voice with an accent I couldn’t place, he said, “I hope this doesn’t sound too strange, but do you have any Christmas tea?”
Believe it or not, I did have some. I usually keep it on hand this time of year.  I had even stocked up on it last year when the tea blender that mixes this blend announced that it was being discontinued after this season. I usually ration it out a mug at a time for myself, but since we were the only two in the place, I didn’t mind sharing. I import the stuff from Europe but hey, it was Christmas Eve, after all, you know? Brew it nice and strong, and add a shot of smooth Jamaican spiced rum. I poured us each a mug, and drew up a stool across from him on my side of the bar.
Bing Crosby was singing White Christmas somewhere in the background, although I don’t remember anyone putting any money in the jukebox.
I slid his mug of tea across the bar to him, and asked what in the world he was doing out on such an awful night.
“It’s kind of a long story,” he said, sipping the tea. “Mmm – that certainly hits the spot. Thanks.”
“Well,” I answered, “I’m not going anywhere, and to tell you the truth, unless you’ve got a dog sled or snowmobile out there, I don’t think you are either.”
We both laughed at the prospect of being holed up in a bar during a blizzard, and then he told me his story.
“I’ve been up north a ways, and hitched my way down here. I guess I’ve been on the road for about a week now, but the days all sort of run together after a while, you know how it is.”
He said he’d been married a long time ago, but that she died before they ever started a family. Cancer, I think it was. She was the love of his life, and somehow he just didn’t think anyone could ever take her place, so he never remarried.
He moved around a lot – mostly up north. This was the first time this year he’d ventured this far south. That always sounds strange to me when I hear people say that. My place is in the part of Michigan locals call ‘the palm’ as they hold up their right hand and point to the middle at about the place circus gypsies call the life line. You can’t get much further north than where I am and still be in the United States, but I didn’t see the point of mentioning that little detail to him, so I just kept doing the ‘Cocktail’ thing. That’s me: Tom Cruise minus the good looks and bottle juggling, which is to say he talked, I listened. Bartenders are good at that sort of thing.
He said that tonight, it appeared, the journey brought him to my place. He said his being here sipping Christmas tea in my joint during a raging blizzard on Christmas Eve was serendipitous, whatever that is, but he never really explain why his being here was a serendipitous encounter.  Hey, he way buying and I got to add a new word to my vocabulary. My eleventh grade English teacher would have been proud had she been there to witness my etymological prowess.
We talked for several hours. He told me his stories, and I told him mine. I’m not sure whose were the sadder, but it seemed to me that I was doing more talking than he was.
He said he traveled mostly this time of year, because that’s when and where the need seemed to be the greatest. Mostly, he said, he just listened. That’s usually what I do, but tonight was different.
I guess it was around midnight, and three or four mugs of tea later that he said it was time for him to go. Of course, I tried to talk him out of it. Not that I wanted the company, but the storm, you see?  I had a spare room in the back, and a spare bed, and he was more than welcome to wait out the storm.
He just smiled and said he thought his job here was finished.
He asked how much he owed me, and I told him that it was on the house. I offered to make him one to go, and he agreed.
When I came back from the kitchen, the door was open. It had stopped snowing, and the moon was glowing full on a fresh new carpet of snow, that had to be now very close to two feet deep.
He was nowhere in sight.
Over in the corner, where the old man had been sharing tea and swapping stories with me, there was a small card.
I picked it up, and in a smooth, almost elegant handwritten script were the words, “Sometimes we entertain Angels unawares. Thank you, my friend.”  It was signed, “Nick.”
I never saw him come, and I never saw him leave. And, I never saw him again, but I’ll never forget that strange, snowy December night he stopped in and occupied the corner stool for a few hours.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Park

a Christmas tale in two languages


It is the fifth day of the twelfth month of the first year of the new millennium in this small country, best known for windmills, wooden shoes, dikes and tulips. The otherwise sleepy village is awake with the sounds of festive celebration. An impromptu carnival has erupted at the foot of the town's tallest hill, where children of all ages ride makeshift sleds at frantic speeds down the freshly fallen mantle of white, enjoying the rareness of the moment. The adults among them know full well how special this day is given the usual mildness of the winter, and the location of the village some 25 kilometers west of Amsterdam. They are far enough inland to have snow, yet close enough to the North Sea to be affected by the spiraling downdraft of the remnants of the Gulf Stream as it snakes its way back to its birthplace in the South Atlantic.
The hill is one of only a handful of such natural forest ripples in the otherwise flat landscape, a small park at the easternmost edge of the village. Majestic and proud it stands, an island of nature rising above the ravages of time; untouched by the machinations of civil engineering so necessary in the diminutive coastal nation in which the vast majority of real estate lay below sea level, and much of which has, in fact been reclaimed from the sea.
The topography of park is similar throughout:  compact stances of old growth forest punctuated by thin walking trails and narrow paved roadways. These rolling vistas are among the oldest…and highest in all of the western part of the country.
There is a small windmill there next to the bridge that reaches over the canal at the entrance to the park. At one time the structure had seen service as a tool in the vast national system of drainage and water control, but now serves as little more than window dressing; a silent sentry, guarding the eastern most entrance to the park. Behind the windmill (to the left as you face the park entrance) there is an animal park – not quite a zoo, but more like a petting zoo with deer, ducks, geese, goats, and other ‘dieren,’ as the local residents call them, you can feed and pet.
There is a small street on either side of the canal, each of which is lined end to end with the most beautiful array of chestnut trees. On the eastern side there is a quaint row of single dwelling houses – a rarity in a nation in which most families live in multiple family dwellings, some with thatched roofs. On the western side of the canal, is the park, a small pond, a medium sized grazing field immediately adjacent to the road, from which numerous paths lead into the ‘forest’.
It is the site of many adventures throughout the year.
In the more temperate seasons, one can hike in the woods, taking time if desired to observe nature at it most beautiful. There are flora and fauna here found nowhere else in the nation, much less the world. Even a casual observer can see the more commonplace inhabitants of any small copse of woodland. Rabbits and blackbirds; the variety unique to this area, with the cobalt blue and white wing markings are plentiful. The small zoo has reindeer roaming free behind a box-wire fence, but if you are very fortunate, now and then you also see a wild one scurry off into the woods.
Trails are lined with wild blackberries in the spring and crab apples in the late summer. In the autumn of each year, a small circus calls the field on the west side of the canal home, and in early October, you can easily spend a day dancing in the crisp fall air, rolling in graceful waves of fallen leaves and collecting chestnuts at the feet of the parallel ranks of chestnut trees lining either side of the two lane paved road.
Take a mid-summer stroll down the spider-web thin walking trails woven throughout the dense thickets, and you can see honeybees buzzing lazily about their business. If you were still enough, and alert enough, you might even be treated to the soft flit and momentary pause of a hummingbird, treating itself to a sip of nectar from the bright orange trumpet horns of honeysuckle growing along the way.
This is a magical place for the young…and young-at-heart!  You can build a secret hiding place from the fallen branches of towering pines, or storm the castle you imagine standing high atop the park’s tallest hill. You can climb trees so tall they seemed to scrape the sky, or play hide and seek behind the hunter green and bayberry red of wild holly. You might even imagine that you can hear the soft tinkle of the bells attached to the twin-horned hats worn by the small, elfish people legends say dwelt within the brightly colored toadstools that lay hidden in the shadows of the bountiful oak trees in the deepest part of the forest.
And, of course, if it gets cold enough, in the winter you can skate along the canal and over the small pond at the edge of the tree line.
But this day is a special, festive day that would have been festive anyway, but which is made all the more so for the appearance of the predawn snowfall. While it is all new and exciting to the children, it is all the more so for the adults, because none of them could remember a day in their lifetimes when snow had come on Sinterklaas day!
The day is special because it is the eve of ‘Sinterklaas Dag’. Sometime during the coming night, when, at least in theory, the children are sleeping, Sinterklaas, Saint Nikolas, or simply ‘de Sint - the Saint’ assisted by his ‘Swaarte Piet – Black Peter’ helpers, will arrive. Children throughout the country will leave small wooden shoes outside their bedroom doors, hopeful that in the morning they will be filled to overflowing with ‘snoepjes’ and ‘peppernoten’. There is great anticipation of the brightly colored presents, each with the traditional poem attached.
But, all that happens later. Tomorrow will be a national holiday – no school or work, but today it’s snowing!  No school or work!  For now, there is the park, and the snow, and the brisk morning air, and the promise of a steaming mug of marshmallow covered hot cocoa when you get home.


The girl is ten years old. Her brother, is eight, but for only four more days, he is quick to point out. Their blond hair and pale blue eyes seem somehow out of place when standing next to the mother with the fiery red hair and sea green eyes. It is four o’clock, and she can’t sleep. After what seems an eternity to her, she climbs out of bed to relieve her heavy bladder, but can’t resist first peeking through the curtained window at the foot of her bed.
She is jolted fully awake at the sight of the nickel sized flakes of snow drifting lazily to the earth below. Already there is a coating of wet, heavy snow, 12 to 15 centimeters deep, covering the ground, and weighing down the tops of the big juniper trees guarding the entrance to their small front garden. Forgetting about her slippers and robe, and the bladder that had so rudely awakened her, she darts through the door and down the short hall to her brother’s room, singing as she runs, “it’s snowing, it’s snowing, tra-la-la-la-la-la!”
All around the small village the scene is oft repeated as the sound of excited voices is heard through the muffled dreams of their parents, and tiny feet dance with frantic jubilation in home after home after home. Snow in this tiny land is rare, and tends to disappear quickly on the warm ground below. If you are going to do anything at all, you have to act with haste.
Speed is the order of the day. Mama rouses the children, while Papa starts breakfast. Mama supervises the warm dressing while Papa loads the sleds into the boot. Everyone piles into the car and hurries to be the first to arrive at the sledding hills. Late comers will be disappointed, for the snow will wear down quickly. By time the sun first peers sleepily over the eastern horizon, the hills will be filled with the happy sound of children laughing, sleds swooshing, and parents huddling together in hushed whispers at the foot of the sled paths.
Small fires start popping up in the picnic pits located around the base of the hills. Children stop by for a warming break between frantic dashes up and down the hills, while their parents stand around, engaged in meaningless conversation and tossing occasional glances towards the colorful bundles of energy rocketing gleefully down the graceful slopes.
It is, as has been noted, truly a festive, carnival atmosphere! 
The little blond haired girl slides down the hill on her small steel railed sled while her brother and mother speed past on the blue plastic snow-sail. Blue and green eyes flash while belligerent strands of yellow and red hair wave riotously from under their stocking caps and scarves.
From the bottom of the hill, where they look to see who has had the longest ride, they ease off the sleds, roll in the snow and giggle, only to run to the top of the hill and try again. Other children are off to the side making castles of packed snow from which they will launch blinding arrays of round, white missiles. Still others, older, but not quite adults, lie on their backs side by side, rapidly waving their legs and arms to leave the impression that an angel alighted in that spot.
As is the custom in the whole of the country, most of the people involved in the impromptu festival have brought hot beverages and snacks along, and very soon steaming cups of coffee, cider, hot cocoa, holiday tea and hot, spiced wine are passed among the circles of people huddling cozily around the fires, while large, cottony flakes of snow float lazily from puffy, steel-gray skies, dotting the hats and mittens of the children at play, and sparkling in the soft morning light like the luster of a thousand, million diamonds. And if someone had suggested, however in jest it may be, that if you listen closely you could hear the far off tinkle of sleigh bells, no one would have argued the point.
But all too soon, the ambient warmth of the ground beneath them begins to exert its authority over snowfall and celebrants alike. Much too quickly for anyone’s liking, the sun begins poking pencil thin beams of light through the canopy of clouds. Almost as abruptly as it had begun, the revelry comes to an abrupt, if unwanted end. One by one the sleds and their riders begin to make their way, however reluctantly, to the relative warmth of their cars and dry confines of their homes.
Much to their mutual displeasure, the disappointed children quietly tuck the last strands of blond hair beneath their caps, recover their sleds, and trudge wearily but unwillingly behind their equally weary red haired mother. The first to arrive this morning before Sinterklaas, these three are the last to leave. Protests to the contrary aside, they are both fast asleep before their mother’s automobile passes beyond the windmill standing silent sentry at the entrance to the park.

Een Kerstmis verhaal in twee talen

Hoofdstuk 1

Het is de vijfde dag van de twaalfde maand van het eerste jaar van het nieuwe millennium in dit kleine landje, het best bekend om zijn molens, klompen, dijken en tulpen. Het anders slaperige stadje is wakker van de geluiden van  feestelijkheden..Een geïmproviseerd festijn is ontstaan aan de voet van de grootste heuvel van de stad, waar kinderen van alle leeftijden slee rijden met een enorme snelheid naar beneden over de vers gevallen witte mantel, genietend van het speciale moment. De volwassenen onder hen weten hoe speciaal deze dag is omdat normaal de winter mild is, en de locatie van het dorp ongeveer 25 kilometer ten westen van Amsterdam. Ze zitten ver genoeg in het binnenland om sneeuw te hebben, maar ook dichtbij de Noordzee om beïnvloed te zijn door de neerwaartse spiraal die overblijft van  de Golf stroom die terugglijdt naar zijn geboorteplaats in de Zuid Atlantische Oceaan.
De heuvel is een van de enige van een handvol natuurlijke rimpelingen in het anders platte landschap, een klein park aan de meest oostelijke rand van het dorp. Majestueus en trots staat het, een eiland van natuurlijke verhoging boven de verwoesting van tijd; onaangeraakt door de machines van beschaafde bouwkunde, om de zo nodig in dit miniatuur  kustland, waar de meerderheid van huizen beneden het zeeniveau liggen, en waar veel is teruggenomen door de zee.
Een park ziet er altijd hetzelfde uit: bomen staan altijd op dezelfde manier, in een oud bos, geaccentueerd door smalle wandelpaden en geasfalteerde wegen.. Dat soort vergezichten zijn oud en de hoogste vergezichten in het westen van het land.
Er staat een kleine windmolen, daar, naast de brug die over het kanaal spant bij de ingang van het park. Ooit diende dit bouwwerk als hulp voor het nationale drainage systeem en de controle over het water, nu is het niet veel meer dan een versiering; een stille wachter, die het oostelijk deel van het park bewaakt. Achter de windmolen (aan de linkerkant , kijkend naar de ingang van het park) is een dierenpark – niet echt een dierentuin, maar meer een kinderboerderij met herten, eenden, ganzen, geiten en andere ‘dieren’, zoals de locale bevolking ze noemt, je kan ze voeren en aaien.
Aan elke kant van het kanaal is een kleine straat, elk afgezoomd door de prachtigste kastanjebomen. Aan de oostzijde staat een gemoedelijk serietje vrijstaande woonhuizen – een zeldzaamheid in een land waar meeste families in rijtjeshuizen leven sommige met strooien daken. Aan de westelijke kant van het kanaal is het park, een kleine vijver, een middelgroot grasveld gelijk naast de weg, vanwaar ontelbare paden leiden naar het "woud".
Er spelen zich vele avonturen af door het jaar heen.
In het gematigd seizoen kan men door het bos wandelen, desgewenst de tijd nemend om de natuur te aanschouwen wanneer zij op haar mooist is. Hier komt men flora en fauna tegen zoals nergens elders in het land, nergens elders in de wereld. Zelfs de niet al te oplettende toeschouwer kan de bewoners opmerken in het kreupelhout van het omenland. Konijnen en merels; de unieke varieteit van dit gebied, met het kobaltblauw en de vele witte markeringen op de vleugels. In de kleine dierentuin lopen de rendieren vrij rond achter een hek, maar als je geluk hebt zie je er zo nu en dan ook één in het wild, wegrennen naar het bos.
Paden zijn gemarkeerd met braamstruiken in de lente en wilde appels in de late zomer. Elk jaar in de herfst bezet een klein circus het veld aan de westzijde van het kanaal en vroeg in oktober kun je met gemak een dag dansend spenderen in de frisse herfstlucht, rollen door elegante golven van vallende bladeren en kastanjes verzamelen, liggend aan de voet van de kastanjebomen, die aan elke kant staan van de geasfalteerde tweebaans weg.
Wandel hartje zomer op de smalle paden door de gewoven spinnenwebben en zie de honingbijen zich lui zoemend aan hun taak kwijten. Als je stil en alert genoeg bent kun je zelfs verrast worden door het zachte gefladder van een kolibrie, die zichzelf tegoed doet aan een teugje honing uit de helder oranje trompetbloemen van de kamperfoelie langs de weg.
Dit is een betoverende plek voor hen die jong zijn...en jong van hart zijn!  Je kan een geheime schuilplaats bouwen van de afgevallen takken van hoge pijnbomen, of het kasteel bestormen die je zo voor je ziet bovenop de hoogste heuvel in het park. Je kan bomen beklimmen die zo hoog lijken dat ze de wolken lijken aan te raken, of verstoppertje spelen achter de groene en rode hulststruiken. Je kan je zelfs inbeelden het zachte geklingel van belletjes horen, belletjes die vastzitten aan dde tweehoornige hoedjes, gedragen door de kleine elfjes. Deze worden beschreven in de legendes, ze verblijven in de helder gekleurde paddestoelen die in de schaduw van de eikenbomen staan, diep in het bos.
En natuurlijk, als het koud genoeg wordt, kan je over het kanaal schaatsen en op de vijver, aan de rand van de bomenlijn.
Maar deze dag is een speciale, feestelijke dag, het zou al sowieso een feestelijke dag zijn, maar nu nog meer, aan de vooravond van de sneeuwval. Terwijl het allemaal nieuw en opwindend is voor de kinderen, des te meer is het voor de volwassenen, want niemand kon zich herinneren dat het ooit sneeuwde op Sinterklaas!
Het is een speciale dag, want het is de vooravond van "Sinterklaas Dag". Ergens in de komende nacht zal, wanneer theoretisch de kinderen behoren te slapen, Sinterklaas, Sint Nicolaas, of eenvoudigweg "de Sint", geassisteerd door zijn hulpen, de Zwarte Pieten, arriveren. Kinderen door het hele land zetten hun kleine klompen buiten de slaapkamerdeur, hopend dat die in de ochtend gevuld zullen zijn met snoep en pepernoten. Grote verwachtingen zijn er over de kleurrijk ingepakte cadeaus, elk vergezeld met een traditioneel gedicht.
Maar dat zal allemaal later komen. Morgen is het eerst een nationale feestdag ?  Geen school, geen werk, maart vandaag sneeuwt het! Geen school, geen werk!  Nu is er alleen maar het park, en de sneeuw, en de frisse ochtendlucht, en de belofte van een hete kop chocolademelk als je thuiskomt.

Hoofdstuk 2

Het meisje is tien jaren oud. Haar broer, is acht, maar dat verandert over een paar dagen, en dat maakt hij wel duidelijk. Hun blonde haren en lichtblauwe ogen lijken op de een of andere manier niet te kloppen als ze naast hun moeder staan met haar vurige rode haren en zeegroene ogen. Het is 4 uur, Lianne kan niet slapen. Na wat een eeuwigheid leek klimt ze uit bed om naar de WC te gaan, maar ze kan het niet weerstaan even door de gordijnen te koekeloeren aan het voeteneind van haar bed.
Volledig wakker was ze plots! Ze zag de sneeuwvlokken zo groot als een euro zachtjes naar de aarde vallen. Er lag al een tapijt van natte, maar zware sneeuw, zo'n twaalf tot vijftien centimeter dik, op de grond, maar ook op de takken van de jeneverbessen langs de kant van de kleine voortuin. Ze vergat haar sandalen en haar ochtendjas, ze vergat de WC, ze snelde naar de slaapkamer deur en ging door de kleine gang naar de kamer van haar broer. Ze rende en zong: "Het sneeuwt, het sneeuwt, tra-la-la-la!"
Overal in het kleine dorp gebeurt hetzelfde, als het geluid van opgewonden stemmetjes doordringt door de gedemptheid van de dromen van hun ouders. Kleine voetjes dansen met plezier, huis na huis. Sneeuw in dit kleine landje is zeldzaam, en verdwijnt snel van de te warme grond. Als je er iets mee wilt zal je snel moeten zijn.
Snelheid is het devies van de dag. Moeder helpt haar kinderen, terwijl vader het ontbijt maakt. Moeder zorgt voor de warme kleding, terwijl vader de sleeën in de boot legt. Laatkomers zullen teleurgesteld zijn, want de sneeuw zal snel weer weggesmolten zijn. Als de zon langzaam en slaperig boven de oostelijke horizon verschijnt zijn de heuvels gevuld met geluiden van gelukkige en lachende kinderen, zwiepende sleeën, en ouders dichtbij elkaar, fluisterend aan de voet van de slee paden.
Kleine vuren worden aangelegd op de picknick plaatsen die rond de heuvels liggen. Kinderen stoppen daar om zich even te warmen, hun wilde tochten op en neer de heuvels onderbrekend, terwijl hun ouders daar staan. Verwikkeld in zinloze gesprekken en zo nu en dan een blik werpend op de kleurrijke meute van energie dat zomaar de gracieuse hellingen afglijdt.
Het is, zoals eerder opgemerkt, een waarlijk feestelijke sfeer!
Het kleine blonde meisje glijdt naar beneden op haar kleine stalen slee, terwijl haar broer en moeder snel voorbijgaan op de blauwe plastic slee. Blauwe en groene ogen glanzen terwijl ongehoorzame lokken van geel en rood haar onder de wollen mutsen en sjaals uitkomen.
Aangekomen aan de voet van de heuvel, waar ze kijken wie er het langst over deed glijden ze van hun slee, rollen in de sneeuw en giechelen, maar dan wel om onmiddellijk weer de heuvel te beklimmen en nog eens te gaan. Andere kinderen zijn aan de kant bezig kastelen te bouwen van sneeuw, van waaraf zij een salvo van ronde witte kogels zullen afvuren. Weer anderen, ouder maar nog niet volwassen, liggen op hun rug, naast elkaar, heel snel hun armen en benen bewegend, om de impressie achter te laten dat daar een engel is geweest
Zoals het gewoon is in het hele land hebben de meeste mensen die naar dit geïmproviseerde festival zijn gekomen warme dranken en hapjes meegenomen. Al heel snel worden kokende mokken koffie, cider, hete chocola, thee en Bisschopswijn rondgedeeld in de kring van mensen die zich hebben verzameld rond de kampvuren. Ondertussen dwarrelen grote katoenachtige vlokken sneeuw naar beneden uit dikke staalgrijze wolken, ze vallen op de petten en mutsen van de kinderen die spelen, en ze glinsteren in het ochtendlicht, als de glans van duizend, een miljoen diamanten. Als iemand, misschien als scherts, had gezegd dat je de slee bellen van de Kerstman kon horen, ik denk dat niemand dat zou betwisten.
Maar, veel te vroeg begint de warmte van de aarde al de sneeuw en de feestvierders te overwinnen. Veel te snel begint de zon met vlijmscherpe stralen de wolken te doorbreken. Zo abrupt als het begon, zo plots en ongewenst is de feestvreugde weer voorbij. Één na één gaan de sleeën en hun berijders weer hun eigen weg, met tegenzin, naar de relatieve warmte in hun auto en de droogte van hun huizen.
Tegen hun zin stoppen de teleurgestelde kinderen stil hun laatste blonde haren weer onder hun muts, vinden hun slee terug en sjouwen moe maar onwillig achter hun evenzo vermoeide roodharige moeder. Ze waren de eersten deze ochtend voor Sinterklaas, ze zijn de laatste die weggaan. Afgezien van hun onwil, ze waren alle twee diep in slaap, voordat hun moeders auto de windmolen passeerde, die nog steeds als wacht stond naast de ingang van het park.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Old Man in December

A fiction

It was a bitter cold that greeted him as he stepped out into the endless December night.  It had been snowing for several days now, but there was hope that the storm that settled in seemingly for the duration of winter might break today.  At least, he hoped it would. 
His despair only grew as the snow piled higher.  How long had it been since he had any real reason to be hopeful?  Days?  Weeks?  Months?  He really had no idea.  All he knew is that when the mill shut down for good, that was the end of the life he had known, and the comfort, meager tho it was, he had enjoyed.
He lived alone now, well, alone except for the scrawny cat that also called the small cabin home.  He had never even bothered to give the animal a name.  It just showed up at his door one night (come to think of it, one year ago tonight, in a blizzard not unlike this one) and decided that the old man and his small fire were preferable to the cold and snow.  Even now the cat was asleep in front of the fading embers of the last of the firewood.  He wished he could be as blissfully unaware of the world around him as that damned cat!
He was out of work, and nearly out of money.  His wife of so many years was gone – taken by the cancer that had turned her once lively body and infectious smile into a living skeleton.  Death had been a relief for both of them, he thought guiltily, and he grieved her loss every waking moment since – and often long into his troubled dreams.
The children, too, were long since gone, set off into the world to discover lives and loves of their own.  Two of them, actually.  A boy who looked frighteningly like he did at that age, and a girl who looked so much like her mother that it tore great holes in his heart to see her.
And so he simply didn’t.  Not since her Mother died.  Probably never again.  He knew that there were a couple of grandchildren, but seeing them meant seeing her, and while he knew that he desperately loved his children, the pain of the memory of his wife was too great, and he was just not strong enough to deal with it.
Perhaps next year.
Or, more likely, never.
He shaved today for the first time in weeks.  No reason, really, just that it seemed the thing to do, even if it didn’t make any sense.  After all, he was going out into a storm, in the dark, with the hopes to find a little food and firewood, and maybe, just maybe, a reason to keep going on.
Oh, he wasn’t depressed to the point of actually considering ending things.  To the contrary, he had just reached that place where he didn’t care one way or the other.  If he woke in the morning, fine.  If not, just as well.  At least then the pain would stop.  And the loneliness.  He wasn’t actively looking for that final train to the great beyond, but if it stopped today, so be it.
So he shaved, dressed in his warmest winter fare, and set out into the darkness of the slowly ebbing storm.
* * *
Just how long he had been walking in circles, he didn’t know.  It seemed like hours, but that wasn’t possible!  It was still dark, and if he had been out there as long as he thought he had, the storm was either worse than anyone expected, or he had simply lost track of the time and had not been out as long as it seemed.  What concerned him most wasn’t the seeming strangeness of the way time was somehow stuck, but that he was genuinely lost in a forest he knew like the back of his hand!  What a cliché, he thought – ‘like the back of my hand’.  And yet, it was true.  He had been in around these woods his entire life.  He couldn’t remember ever not being here, so to be lost, well, this was worrisome indeed.  He didn’t recognize a single tree or rock; not a single familiar landmark was visible.  Not that he could see all that far in the storm, but even if he had been out here as long as he suspected, the lack of daylight notwithstanding, he still should have known where he was.
And if he was lost, who would take care of the damn cat?  What a thing to think of!  Here he was, in a part of ‘his’ woods he didn’t recognize, not certain of the amount of time he had been out in the storm, clearly confused and possible in danger of his life, not that ‘that’ mattered to him any more, and all he could think about was who would feed the stupid stray cat!
* * *
He surely must be hallucinating!  It was dark, and he was lost.  There was a storm raging around him, and he was, for all practical purposes, a thousand miles from any sort of civilization.  His small cabin was the only thing for miles, and he wasn’t sure where it was.  But through the howl of wind above him, he thought he heard singing!  It was all around him, coming and going, and there was no way to determine either the source of the sound, or direction, so he just thought it must be snow sickness or something like that.  He didn’t think he’d been here long enough for that, but who knows?  He had reached the place where he had no idea where he was or how long he’d been there.  What’s a little strange music added to that particular mix?
It’s funny how things come back to you.
He hadn’t thought about that December, or that Christmas in years.  It must have been the music that triggered the memory, although he still couldn’t quite place it.
And he was starting to worry.
There was a small clearing just ahead of him.  It seemed vaguely familiar, but only in a mist shrouded sort of way – like what you think you remember in those moments that come somewhere between being asleep and awake.  And it had a shelter, of sorts – a small lee in the nook of a large tree that seemed to be oblivious to the gale around him.  He knew the danger of falling asleep in the storm, but he was beyond caring when he curled up under those inviting branches, and drifted off into that netherworld of the vaguely familiar music, and the long forgotten memory of his distant childhood.

* * *
It was Christmas morning!  How, or why he was here, reliving this particular memory, he didn’t know, but here he was!  Christmas morning!  He was nine years old.  And he was a confused little boy.  Happy and mad at the same time.  And very, very confused about an awful lot of things.
Of course he was excited about it being Christmas, in the naive sort of way children are.  He was old enough to know that with five children, of which he was the eldest, there wouldn’t be much of a Christmas (the gifts were what Christmas was all about at that age) and yet he somehow held onto the feinting hope that maybe ‘Santa’ would come through this year after all.  It was somehow strange and exciting at the same time.
It had snowed last night, despite the forecaster’s promise that there would NOT be a white Christmas this year, and the funny memory of his younger brothers and sisters bemoaning the prospect of Santa not being able to land his sled without snow brought a smile to his face.  For some reason it never dawned on any of them that they didn’t have a chimney for Santa to slide down.
This was the year his Uncle had come to visit.  Before the week was through, he would have shown them how to turn all that snow in the back yard into a real igloo, and after spreading the floor with a huge plastic sheet and about a foot of straw, they would spend the night out there, much to his mother’s despair.
This was the year they took the long trip Christmas day that he always looked forward to: ‘over the rivers and through the woods’ to his Grandmother’s house, a place bustling with activity, noise, and absolutely the best gingerbread cookies in the known universe!  There would be a stocking on his Grandfather’s mantle with his name on it, and it would be filled to overflowing with fruit, nuts and Christmas candy – and not a few small trinkets that nine year old boys love.  And there would be that huge twelve foot tall tree in the big bay window that his Grandfather cut from someplace in these very woods.
Oh, it was a good, exciting time for him.
But there were other things that troubled him.
He adored his Mother.  He worshiped his Father.  This was all well and good but for one tiny little detail.  His Father was no place around, and hadn’t been for several years now.  Of course, he thought it was his fault that his Father had left them.  It was years later when he finally recognized that sometimes in life things just happen, and its out of his control, and, more importantly, not his fault.
He would realize, too, that his Mother missed him as well, and was lonely, and that it was that loneliness that had introduced her to the man he was now supposed to call his Father, although no one had really made much of an issue about it.  He suspected it wasn’t going to change, what with the understanding that some of the children were his.  Not brought with him, as it were, but his and his Mother’s together, so he guessed he might just as well accept that this was the makeup of their family now, like it or not.
And he wasn’t such a bad guy.  A little distant at times, but always kind to all of the children.  Actually, as he remembered, there really wasn’t any of that ‘my kids, your kids’ stuff that he could remember – they were just sort of ‘the kids’.
There was another thing that made this particular Christmas special, he suddenly realized.  It was the Christmas he got the new ice skates!  Of the close circle of friends he kept, he was alone in having to sit on a log on the side of the lake and watch his friends skate.  This year he would finally be able to join them!  It was many years later, when he had children of his own that he finally understood the sacrifice his new ‘Father’ had made to get him those skates, and his sadness that he never really got to thank him for them.
How strange life can be.  He was lying there asleep in the meager shelter of a few branches of a huge tree he didn’t remember in a clearing he’d never seen in a forest he’d known all his life, in the most improbable of circumstances.  He should probably be dead, and, given the nature of the circumstances and the dreams, may very well be.  If this was death, perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all.  But here he was, and here he found himself crying in his sleep over the memories of the happy times from this particular Christmas, and from the sadness that came when he realized how much he could have done; and certainly should have done; but never got around to doing.
If anything, he thought, if this was death, it would be more enjoyable if that particular memory would go away.  But then, maybe this was hell, and the reliving of the ‘should have done’s but didn’t’s’ were what made hell, hell.  He just didn’t know.  He wondered, too, how, if he really was dead, or even just sleeping, why was he crying?
There were other Christmases that he remembered, but for some reason this one, the one when he was nine; the one when he got the skates; the one when he built the igloo and slept out in it; the one when he finally accepted the new man who shared his Mother’s bed and seemed to make her happy; this was the one that seemed fixated in his consciousness for the time being.
* * *
The wind around him had become still, and somehow it didn’t seem so cold.  He didn’t know where he was.  It had all become a blur to him.  He remembered going out to hunt, and perhaps bring home a small rabbit or squirrel for himself and the cat, and gather some firewood to keep the small cottage warm.  He remembered that it was storming.  He remembered that he should have known these woods.  And, he remembered that under no circumstances should he go to sleep in a storm.  But then, he didn’t care.  At least he thought he didn’t. 
The music and the sound of the wind faded into the background of a much different noise.  He thought for a moment that he heard someone calling his name.  That was impossible, of course, he was alone in the woods.  And the voice, that was so familiar, well, that was impossible too.  She left with her new husband, went off and had children of her own, and that was the end of it.  By his choice, because of the way she reminded him of her Mother, he simply chose to not respond to the invitations to visit each year.
Yet, the sound of the pounding was growing louder and more distinct, and he was sure now, that somehow out here in this clearing in the middle of one of the worst storms in years, he heard his now grown little girl calling his name.
Impossible!  They never come here, and besides.  I’m dead – or dying, and alone in the woods.
I hope the damn cat is OK.
These were the thoughts running through his mind, in the strange forest dream he was having, when the cat bit his ear, offering a rather rude awakening from what surely must have been his last moments of life.
There was a pounding at the door, and the voice he heard in his dream was on the other side of it, calling loudly and impatiently for “Daddy”!
That must be her, he thought, as the world around him began to slowly coalesce.  She always called me “Daddy”, he remembered, even as an adult.
It was a while before he opened his eyes, and a few moments after that when he realized that he was not, after all, lost in his woods and dying in a snow drift under some god-forsaken tree.  There was music – the unmistakable sound of children – his grandchildren – singing Christmas carols on his porch, and the still impatient sound of his ‘little girl’ wondering if he was going to make them stand out there all night!
And suddenly it all dawned on him.  It had been a dream!  And the dream was to remind him to take hold of what he had here and now.  To not wait until it was too late to say thank you, and I love you.  To not withdraw into a world of fears and regrets, but to grasp the here and the now and hold on to it for dear life!  To see and love the memory of his wife through the eyes of the daughter who so resembled her mother.  To hear again his own laughter through the voices and smiling eyes of grandchildren he had know of, but not known.  And his son, with his wife and their child, they were also here!
The snow had stopped, and the sun was shining.
It was Christmas day.  A day he thought, at the onset, would probably be his last, and it had been replaced with a new hope, and a new life, and a new desire to venture out boldly into the world and love the family and life that he had been given, and with no regrets.
And somewhere in the midst of all the hugging, crying, and laughter, the cat just sat back on its perch and smiled in the all knowing way that only cats can when they see a miracle.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dusk, Dark, Cold

By David Roth
© 29th November, 2011

It’s dusk
in a bleak November sky
and December’s standing by
but I swear I don’t know why
the darkness comes
to a tiny room
where a single soul
waits the coming gloom
with a heart that’s empty
as a tomb
alone at dusk.

It’s dark
on a moonless autumn eve
winter’s chill begins to weave
what the faithful still believe
and the snow flies fast
on a wind-swept field
over shadows cast
never giving way
ever forced to yield
to the frozen breath
that Decembers wield
in the dark.

near frozen
near froze
still becomes
as stealth has chose
bleak the sullen
dark falls close
when the ‘ber of Novem
stirs to Decem
at dusk
t’ward night
where it’s cold.