A CHRISTMAS TALE FOR THE DISENCHANTED – Part I
It was a December twenty-fourth unlike any December twenty-fourth in recent memory. The ground was blanketed with ice from a snowfall two days earlier, and it was quite cold. They even predicted more snow by nightfall.
Imagine that. A cold and snowy Christmas Eve just like the old snapshots in the family album! What a relief. Maybe this year’s holiday conversation wouldn’t center around how pollution and its ensuing global warming trends conspired to take the “feel” out of Christmas.
These thoughts flashed inside Moira’s head as she and Joad slowly made their way up Fairview Avenue in Jersey City. Moira liked the crisp smell of the cold air, but the ice frightened her. She hoped her fear wouldn’t be transmitted to Joad. She tried to relax her grip on him.
When they reached the corner, Moira leaned over and patted Joad’s head. The dog barely felt his master’s affection.
The ice and traffic were making him too nervous to cross the street. Crossing streets was once an easy feat for Joad, but now he hated it. He’s hated it for several years.
They stood on the corner of Fairview Avenue through two complete traffic light changes, waiting for Joad’s decision.
Each time Moira heard the traffic stop and felt people next to her cross the street, she directed Joad to move forward. He refused. The dog could feel Moira’s impatience as she fidgeted with his harness.
Joad was breathing heavily when he finally took his first step. Perhaps the cold steam from his breath obscured his vision, or maybe it was his owner’s anxiety that clouded his judgment. Nevertheless, he proceeded to lead Moira into the street.
She smelled the first hint of danger — a blast of diesel fuel. “Stop!” “Stop!” shouted pedestrians from both sides of the street. Moira yanked back on Joad’s harness and froze.
A turning bus cut right in front of her, missing them by inches.
Moira’s abrupt stop caused her to lose her footing on the slippery pavement. Down she went. Joad’s tail drooped between his legs and he lowered his head as a rush of people came to Moira’s aid. As they helped her to her feet, she heard a man say, “What’s wrong with that stupid dog?”
“It was my fault, not the dog’s,” said Moira. She patted Joad on his shoulder and thanked the people for helping her.
Joad’s tail remained folded underneath him as they cautiously made their way to the sidewalk. If Moira could see, she’d know that her dog’s tail was usually tucked away. He worried so much of the time about her safety it’d been ages since he was able to wag it in joy or relief.
The block just ahead of Moira and Joad was one of the most treacherous in the city. It was lined with abandoned, burned out buildings. This meant that no one had cleared away any of the snow. It was ignored. The entire length of the block was one shiny sheet of thick, slick ice. Other pedestrians simply avoided this dangerous stretch of sidewalk by crossing the street.
Moira knew nothing of the peril she was approaching. But Joad knew. He could see how crowded it was across the street. It made him shiver to realize that he and his master were completely alone. Not one soul was nearby. If something should happen, Joad knew there would be no one around to help Moira this time.
To steady her footing on the sidewalk Moira took short, heavy steps that crunched into the ice. She believed that these crunching sounds were the ice screaming out in pain as her boots cracked its spine.
“I’m sorry,” Moira whispered to the pavement.
Joad, who was much lower to the ground, knew the ice couldn’t hear her apology above her crackling footsteps.
At the beginning of her blindness Moira thought that her hearing had, and would, become more potent. But as she matured, she understood that her ears hadn’t grown more powerful, only her concentration. And as her concentration grew, so did her imagination.
She enjoyed making up stories based on sounds, especially the sounds of nature. Without visual distractions, sounds became pieces of puzzles whose final outcome would be dictated by her tastes and moods. Moira totally disregarded where or how they had originated. And if these sounds produced paintings in her mind, then wind was her favorite color.
A delicious intimacy flourished between Moira and the wind. Sometimes it whistled at her, or tried to seduce her with soft spring breezes. Other times she’d capture and cage it, like on hot summer days when she’d pull out her electric fan and force the wind to serve her. Moira would listen to the breeze spew out between the thin bars that protected her from the rotary, begging to be released from this unnatural act. More often than not she’d take pity on this artificial breeze. Her finger would click off the fan and she’d sit in her hot apartment, sweaty but satisfied.
Winter winds were fickle. Many people thought of winter winds as bitter, but Moira knew better. They weren’t bitter, just mischievous—and protective. Its mischief could be seen in the formation of ice. The wind and the water loved playing together during winter because nothing delighted water more than to be turned into ice.
Moira appreciated how water was always at work replenishing, refreshing, and cleaning. Yet despite this terrific workload, it disturbed her that the only time water seemed to be acknowledged was when it was cursed during droughts, vilified as acid rain, or slandered when it could no longer carry away the foul-smelling wastes dumped into it.
During winter rainstorms or snow sprinklings, Moira would listen to the drops of moisture beg for an increase in the wind chill factor so it could freeze over. The wind, who was quite sophisticated because of its intensive travels, understood the water’s need to develop a thick, protective skin against the criticism people threw at it. And if that skin was an exquisite icicle or a slippery patch of ice, so be it.
The dog hesitated as Moira urged him forward. But what could he do? There was absolutely no way of avoiding that terrible stretch of ice. He thought of directing Moira into the street in order to bypass it, but that was too dangerous.
The traffic was too heavy. He tried to get Moira to cross the street to safety, but she didn’t understand his nudging.
“Come on, Joad. Stop acting so silly. Why do you want to cross the street? You know Uncle Charlie’s building is on this side of the street! Don’t let that bus scare you. We’re not in any danger. It’s just a sidewalk. Let’s go.”
Joad tread lightly on his paws, but it made no difference. The thoroughness with which Moira, out of necessity, crushed the ice in her path could not be ignored.
The ice’s crackling anguish caught the wind’s attention.
Moira heard a bellow, and then felt a violent gust of air drop down on her. It raked across her face like a sharp pair of scissors; she felt certain she had frostbite. The wind then swerved off to the left, gathering up chunks of ice that it hurled against Moira and Joad like exploding bits of shrapnel.
“Stop it! Please!” Moira called out. “It’s not my fault.” But the wind simply absorbed her words into its increasing roar.
Joad knew Moira couldn’t stand up to this barrage much longer, and if she fell, the wind and the ice would surely do her serious harm. So the dog began to dig furiously with his claws.
His old legs ached as they tore at the ice until he had broken through to the pavement.
Joad then lifted his head and howled, howled so mightily that the wind had to take notice. He returned to his digging until a bald spot appeared on the ground, free of ice. Then the dog howled again at the wind, threatening to make the bald spot even larger if it did not stop its attack.
The wind died down.
Moira was stung by the cold, but she understood why the wind had retreated. Joad had rescued her. Uncle Charlie’s apartment building was just on the corner, so she quickened her pace. Joad limped along on his torn and frozen front paws, trying to keep up.
When they entered the building, Moira crouched by Joad. “Are you okay, boy?” Joad licked her face as her fingers deftly examined him. When she touched his raw paws, she gasped. Once inside her uncle’s apartment she insisted he give her warm towels to wrap around Joad’s bruises.
The Christmas Eve party was pretty much like all the other holiday parties she had attended there for the past four years. Moira would sit in an overstuffed chair by the living room window with Joad stretched out across her ankles.
“That’s a beautiful Labrador Retriever,” said a woman with a smoker’s husky voice.
“Yes he is. And he’s very bright, too,” replied Moira. An uncomfortable silence followed until Moira heard, “It’s a lovely Christmas ribbon you’ve threaded ‘round his collar.”
“Yes, he seems to enjoy it.”
“Can I get you anything to drink, Moira? You are Moira, Charlie’s niece?”
Moira giggled. “How did you recognize me? Did Uncle Charlie complain that I wear the same old Christmas Eve outfit every year?”
Moira heard the sizzle of a struck match as the woman nervously lighted a cigarette. She did not want to make the woman uneasy. It was so tiresome to have sighted people take everything she said so seriously. If someone at the party was to ask her what she wanted for Christmas, Moira would answer it would be a sign she could hang off her back that would read — BEWARE – BLIND PERSON WITH A SENSE OF HUMOR.
“Thank you for offering me a drink,” said Moira, “but I’m not thirsty. I would appreciate it if you could get Joad a bowl of water.”
Moira liked being by the window because it was always drafty and she enjoyed listening to the wind force its way inside. It would make gurgling sounds as it delighted in sneaking a chill into the warm and cozy room.
The warmth felt wonderful to Joad, but he was too nervous to really enjoy it. All he could think about was the trip home. He’d have to lead Moira through that minefield of ice and wind — and do a better job of it this time. And those traffic lights — red and green. Green and red. Even though he was color blind he knew they were Christmas colors.
Uncle Charlie’s girlfriend played his piano as all the guests joined in the singing. Moira disliked her voice so she silently mouthed the words. Everyone laughed when Joad yelped to the final chorus of Little Drummer Boy.
“Moira, is Joad being critical of our singing or has he been overtaken by the Christmas Spirit?” asked Uncle Charlie.
“I think he’s just anxious to chew on that drumstick we’re all praising,” grinned Moira.
“At his age?”
Moira frowned and did not answer her uncle.
“How old is your dog?” asked a male voice Moira couldn’t identify.
“I hope I look as good when I’m —let’s see, thirteen times seven— ninety-one.”
“He’s thirteen not ninety-one,” replied Moira.
When everyone retired to the living room to play a board game Moira declined the invitation to join in.
She preferred to sit in her chair stroking Joad.
Moira enjoyed listening to the clicking of dice as it passed from hand to hand. But she loved those fractions of a second silences after the dice cleared the player’s fingers, before they hit the board. Anything was possible during that brief pause, that split second before good news or bad news bounced on the cardboard.
Believing in possibilities was Moira’s favorite Christmas activity. During the eleven and a half years since Joad came into her life, she established a secret Christmas Eve ritual based on an ancient legend and a lot of hope. Moira had to be home before midnight.
“What time is it, Uncle Charlie?”
Her uncle looked at his watch. “Eleven-twenty.”
“My God, I have to go!”
Uncle Charlie grinned and shook his head. “This is where my niece turns into Cinderella. She has to return home before the clock strikes twelve.”
“I must leave. I’m sorry.”
“I’m the one who’s sorry,” said Uncle Charlie. “You never stay to help us trim the tree. I only wine and dine my guests so I can turn all of you into my personal labor force.” Everyone laughed except Moira. It was getting late.
“I don’t want to be rude, Uncle Charlie, but I have no choice.”
Uncle Charlie hugged his niece. “I’ll give you a lift home.” Joad’s ears perked up and he barked his approval.
Continue reading in Part II.
About the Author
Mark Blickley grew up within walking distance of the Bronx Zoo. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Scholarship Award for Drama. His latest book is the text-based art collaboration with fine arts photographer Amy Bassin, Dream Streams.