*Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn king...*
Edna groped frantically for the remote and punched the power button. No point trying to watch television tonight. There were Christmas carols lurking everywhere, even in the commercials. Christmas carols made her sick.
This was no simple dislike, but a full-blown social disability beginning with nausea and gradually escalating to gut-wrenching spasms: an unexplained curse that did nothing to alleviate the Christmas Blues.
If she were home this Christmas Eve, there would be no carols, not much celebration at all. Just a quiet evening together with small talk, board games, sometimes a movie on the VCR: whatever her parents could devise to distract her. They had done all they could to ease her through this trying yearly phase, patiently putting up with her misery, knowing that when the new year came, their daughter would be her bubbly self again. When she was eight, and the psychiatrist told them that there was nothing more he could do, they had started calling her by her middle name, "Edna", instead of "Noelle", and had moved her birthday celebration from December 24 to New Year's day.
Now, for the first time, she was alone. She had bravely refused her parents' offer to pay for transportation home for the holidays. She was costing them enough money as it was, and there was no point spending more on an unnecessary trip during the premium price season. It was penance, in a way, for choosing the University of Alberta when Lakehead University was right there, within reasonable driving distance of Kenora.
Her best friend, Alana, had started at U. of A. the year before. She already had a fully-equipped apartment, and the thought of rooming with her was irresistible. Of course, Edna had not mentioned that fact when she pitched the idea to her parents; but she suspected that they knew and quietly accepted the fact that at her stage of life, friends seemed more important than family.
The adventure had gone well. She had found new friends, new activities. She had begun to believe that the Blues had not followed her; that her new life had changed; that she had changed. The first strain of carolling proved otherwise.
Now Alana had flown home to turkey and stuffing and presents and carols; and she was alone with the Blues.
"I don't know if I'm going to make it," she said out loud, as she did every year. Eventually, she would hurt too much to make any sound at all. Maybe it would be easier if she could cry. But she never cried at Christmas. The emptiness was too profound, too paralysing.
Maybe she should have accepted one of the half-dozen invitations she had received for Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner tomorrow. But there would surely be carols. And how could she explain that she was allergic to Christmas carols?
Her hand hovered over the phone. Should she call her parents? With the time zone difference, it would be after midnight there. If they had gone to the early service, they might be in bed by now.
At least they could go to church together now. Rather than leave her alone on Christmas Eve, her father had always gone to the early service, and her mother had gone to the midnight service. Before she left, her mother would light every candle in the house, "so I can find my way home". Edna and her father would sit by candlelight, talking quietly, sometimes playing cards. Her mother would return in the first hour of Christmas Day with a light in her eyes, and hug them and wish them Merry Christmas.
"That's my Christmas," her mother used to say. "Midnight mass and my family: that's all I need." Edna would know by the tender way she held her that she had been praying for her again, and guilt would flood her again.
Sometimes she would say it. "I'll bet you're sorry you adopted me instead of someone normal." Or: "I guess I ruined Christmas again." When the ache became overwhelming, she would wail: "What is wrong with me?"
No one knew. Not her parents, not the social workers who had supervised her adoption, not her teachers, not the psychiatrist who watched her play with dolls and analyzed her drawings. Her mother said it was because she had been brought to live with them on Christmas Day, and the experience had been too devastating for her fragile two-year-old psyche. When she became available for adoption three years later and a judge pronounced them a legally bound family, her parents hoped that the additional security would put and end to this annual agony. However, although Edna became a happier person in many other ways, the Blues persisted.
Edna pushed a pre-programmed button on her phone, and listened Impatiently to the odd eleven-note tune representing her home number. Two rings ... three ... four ... five. She slammed down the receiver. Five minutes later she tried again, ten rings this time. No answer. They must have gone to the midnight service.
So much for that idea. Maybe she should open her gifts. One, anyway. Better leave something for tomorrow, when the Blues would be at their worst.
Alana had left a package for her. A book, by the feel of it. Probably swords and sorcery. That might be just the distraction she needed.
She picked up Alana's gift and sat down in the recliner her parents had given her as a going-away present. She tore off the paper, then shook her head with dismay. Ten Classic Christmas Stories. She flipped through it. What could have possessed Alana to give her a dorky gift like that? Maybe she had accidently switched gifts, and some maiden aunt would soon be staring uncomprehendingly at the cover of Celesta, Warrior Mage of Ashtar.
Edna paused. "The Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. Well, that might be just boring enough to put her to sleep. She did not mind Dickens in the movie version, but the Victorian style and language made his books too wearisome to read. He was paid by the word, and he made the most of it.
She pushed against the back of her chair until her feet were comfortably elevated.
Marley was dead, to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it...
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile...
Dickens must have needed extra cash for Christmas presents. After wandering around sonorously for more than a page, he was back where he started.
There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood...
Edna did not notice that she was dozing off. But when she found herself looking up into the enormous smile of a five-foot-tall Raggedy Ann doll, she knew that she must be dreaming.
"Hello," the doll said perkily.
"Hi," Edna grumbled. She had never liked Raggedy Ann dolls. One that talked was particularly disconcerting, because there was no change of expression as she spoke, and her mouth remained frozen in the same brilliant smile.
"I'm your guide for tonight."
"My guide? I'm not going anywhere." Edna picked the book up from her lap and pretended to read it. Scrooge had dreamed of three spirits taking him on a tour of the past, present and future, and now her subconscious was playing back a variation of the theme. Her fault for reading such a dumb story just before going to sleep.
"Oh? Don't you want to know where you came from?"
"No," Edna said with finality. "Go away." No way was she going to discuss her personal problems with a stuffed toy.
The doll showed no sign of complying. "You mother requested this for you. You should at least try."
Edna tensed. "My mother? You mean my biological mother?"
"No, silly. Your real mother. My department doesn't do requests from the dead."
"My biological mother is dead? How did it happen?" Edna asked in spite of herself. She had always had fantasies about confronting her, demanding to know why she had abandoned her own child. Sometimes, when she was angry with her parents, she had even dreamed about living with her.
"Come with me," the doll said again.
Edna had no intention of coming, but her chair had acquired a will of its own. It snapped smartly into the upright position, propelling her to her feet. The doll took her hand and glided through the wall, pulling her reluctant companion behind her.
Edna gasped as a bitter wind assaulted her. Hardened snowflakes stung her skin.
"At least let me get a jacket!" she yelled indignantly, trying to pull herself back into the warm room. But there was nothing behind her but more wind and snow.
"Oh -- you're cold!" The doll's voice was almost swept away by the howling wind. "I always forget that you humans are so sensitive to temperature. Don't worry -- it won't be long."
Before Edna could think of a sarcastic rejoinder, they had passed through the wall of a large stone farmhouse that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Edna stood still, catching her breath and rubbing her bare hands together to dispel the chill.
"Where are we?" she asked.
The large living room would have been worthy of any Christmas card. It had been decorated within an inch of its life. The fireplace crackled; the mantel overflowed with a convention of Christmas angels; the tree, festooned with popcorn and cranberry strings, bows, glittering birds, shiny balls and every other imaginable kind of ornament, towered magnificently almost to the ceiling. Brightly wrapped packages sheltered under its branches.
Edna sniffed. Mulled apple cider! Yes -- there it was, on the coffee table, in an earthenware pitcher decorated with a holly motif, and matching mugs beside it. There were enough treats piled nearby to serve a dozen people.
The television was on -- a boys' choir sweetly vocalizing carols. The familiar nausea rose in Edna's throat.
A man about her father's age was comfortably settled in a large chair with his feet up, reading a book. On the floor sat a teen-age girl, playing with a toddler. The child squealed with laughter. The man stopped reading and looked up, smiling.
"How's grandpa's little girl?"
"Oh -- she just loves the Raggedy Ann doll you got her!" the girl said. "But you know you should have waited until tomorrow to give it to her."
The man grunted. "Couldn't be bothered wrapping it just so you two could rip the paper off again," he said with mock dourness. "Anyway, this is her birthday, and she should have a present. It's not her fault she was born on Christmas Eve."
"Where are we?" Edna asked again. The scene seemed faintly familiar.
"Christmas Past, of course."
"Christmas Past? I don't remember anything like this!"
"The little girl is you."
"No! How could it be?" The nausea was mounting. "Where's my mother?"
The Raggedy Ann nodded towards the girl on the floor.
Edna's nausea swelled. "How can she be my mother? She's 'way too young!"
"She was 14 when you were born. She was lonely when her mother died, and she thought she had found somebody who really cared about her pain."
"Noelle, Noelle!" The young mother sang as she scooped the child into her arms. "My darling Noelle!"
Edna sat on the couch to watch, too overwhelmed to speak. The two were having a wonderful time playing with the new doll.
"Time for bed!" the mother announced.
Her father looked up from his book again. "She's too excited. Just let her stay up until she falls asleep on her own. That's what your mother always did..."
The cozy atmosphere in the room chilled.
"I wish she were here," the girl murmured. "She would have loved Noelle."
"I'm glad she isn't," her father said, his face suddenly flint. "She would be too ashamed."
The girl stopped playing with her child and sat forlornly, tears running down her face. Her father kept reading, refusing to look at her. On the television screen, the electronic choristers relentlessly continued their celebration of love and peace.
"What went wrong?" Edna demanded, her heart wrenched by the abrupt change of atmosphere.
"They are grieving," Raggedy Ann told her.
"Let's get out of here," Edna urged. She did not want to be around to see what happened next.
"It is not over yet."
Edna hardly noticed the cramps in her stomach while she sat on the couch, watching the drama unfold. Clutching her doll, little Noelle crawled into the corner behind a large wing-back chair. The man's voice swelled against the background of the carols.
"...too damn irresponsible, like all kids nowadays! You'll never have what it takes to be a fit mother! She'd be better off without you!"
Suddenly, the room was empty except for Edna and Raggedy Ann sitting side by side on the couch. Fragments of the apple cider pitcher were scattered on the carpet, and a huge wet stain was spreading outwards.
"Bring them back! What happened?"
Raggedy Ann's fixed smile did not waver. "Remember."
Edna shook her head indignantly. "I was two! Nobody can remember what happened at age two!"
"Remember." The voice was persistent, mesmerizing.
Edna let her mind float. Yes, there was something familiar about the room, about the people ... about the doll ...
"I remember ... you. It was you, wasn't it?"
Raggedy Ann smiled encouragingly.
"I fell asleep. When I woke up ... they were shouting ..."
Suddenly, she was there, huddled behind the chair, too frightened to even whimper, the doll soft against her chest and face. Angry voices, the crash of something shattering, a wail of despair, sobbing. The voices stopped, but the carolers continued: Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright...
The cramps were a huge hand digging in her gut. "I lost you!" she wailed. "They forgot me and I wet myself and you got lost!" She gritted her teeth against the pain. "That's all I can remember. Tell me what happened!" She grabbed the doll by the shoulders, shaking her savagely. "Tell me!"
Raggedy Ann's head snapped back and forth, her cheerful smile intact despite the abuse. "Tell me!" Edna screamed, twirling her around by one arm and throwing her as far as she could. The doll collapsed limply. Edna pounced on her, swearing, punching, kicking. The doll's waist ripped and stuffing bulged out. Edna froze. The sight of the stuffing was triggering another flash of memory. An impatient stranger was stripping off her clothes, ordering her into the bathtub, pulling the doll away from her. She was clutching her treasure tightly, as tightly as she could. The doll ripped apart. The woman exclaimed with annoyance and threw it aside.
"They took me away ... "
"Yes," Raggedy Ann said, picking herself up and pushing the stuffing back in. "Remember when you came to your new home? You were so terrified at first you stayed wherever your Mom put you. She gave you a big honey-coloured teddy bear from her dresser ... remember?"
"Huggy?" She had no trouble remembering him. Huggy had grown progressively more grey and grimy, but she had taken him to school with her for the first two years, and slept with him until she was twelve and had a real dog to sleep with instead.
"I'm sorry I ripped you," Edna said. She touched the torn material lightly. "Does it hurt?"
"No," the doll said. "I absorb pain, but I don't feel it myself."
Edna swallowed. "What happened to my mother?" she asked at last.
"She ... died."
Edna nodded, ignoring the pain that sliced through her. No one had ever told her anything about her mother, but somehow, she had always known that she had killed herself. She sat down on the couch again, her eyes stinging. If she could only cry, a tear, a single tear to relieve the pressure...
Raggedy Ann touched Edna's shoulder. "It was a terrible time. Your grandfather still has the Christmas Blues too."
Edna gritted her teeth, hating him. How many times did he tell her mother she was no good, killing her slowly with his disapproval? "I'm glad. He deserves them."
"He lives in Edmonton, too."
Edna started. "What?""He sold the farm and moved. But the memories followed him."
Edna began to pace back and forth, kicking at the shards of pottery. "She was so young! Couldn't he see how hard she was trying?"
The doll gently pulled her to a stop. "It's time to go."
This time, Edna welcomed the sting of the wind and the snow, momentarily easing the burning pain inside. When they were back in the apartment, she savagely kicked the treacherous recliner and plopped down on it.
"Good bye," the Raggedy Ann said. "Merry Christmas." Her outline began to fade.
"Wait!" Edna exclaimed frantically.
The doll came back into focus. "Yes?"
"What about Christmas Present and Christmas Future?"
Raggedy Ann shook her head. "The past is what it is. The present and future are up to you."
Edna lurched to her feet and held her hands out appealingly. "What am I supposed to do?"
"You and your grandfather can help each other."
"Him? He doesn't deserve any help!" She turned her back to the doll and waited for her to disappear.
"Have you never been thoughtless or cruel?" Raggedy Ann asked innocently.
Edna whirled to face her. "Nobody ever died because of something I said!" she shouted defensively. "He was an adult. He should have known better!"
"He was thinking of his own pain, and forgot hers," Raggedy Ann said. "But that doesn't mean he didn't love you both."
Edna took a deep breath and released it. "Then why did he give me away like broken toy?"
"You'll have to ask him that."
"Well, I have no intention of ever speaking to him." Edna snarled. "As far as I'm concerned, he's dead. Like my mother." She sat down again and reached for the book.
"Christmas is the season of forgiveness," Raggedy Ann said. "After all, that's why the baby Jesus was born ... to bring peace."
Edna did not look up. "I don't buy into that religious stuff."
"All right -- then take your lesson from the sun. In the fall, there is less and less light each day. If it kept going like that, everything would die eventually. But then the solstice arrives. People celebrate. They can't see it yet, but they know the light is coming back. Even though the night is cold and dark, they celebrate, because there will be green grass again, and bird songs, and butterflies." She paused. Edna closed her book and put it down on the table beside her, trying to untangle the meaning of this extended speech.
"What does all that have to do with me?" she asked at last.
"There has to be a turning point somewhere," the doll said softly.
"Oh -- I get it," Edna accused, jumping to her feet again. "I'm supposed to forgive him, like this was some sappy Christmas movie. Let him off the hook and pretend it doesn't matter. Do you call that fair?"
The doll met her stare without flinching. Her smile seemed to hold a great secret.
"It is not my function to judge. My function is to comfort."
Edna sat down, trembling, searching desperately for some to argument to fuel her rage. Comfort! There could never be any comfort for her.
The doll settled softly on her lap. Edna wanted to push her away, but instead, she pulled her close and buried her face in the gentleness of the cloth-covered body. The lump in her throat abruptly dissolved in a flood of tears. She could feel loving hands patting her back as she sobbed...
With a final sob, Edna opened her eyes. Raggedy Ann was gone. The phone was ringing insistently on the end table beside her. It was still dark outside. She grabbed a tissue and hastily wiped her nose before she picked up the phone.
"Mom," Edna said weakly, still trying to shake herself loose from her dream.
"I know it's early, but I just had to hear your voice! And the lines will be busy later. Did I wake you up?"
"It's okay, Mom," Edna said automatically, looking at her watch. It was five to seven. Mom always forgot about the time difference. "Merry Christmas."
"Have you opened your gift yet?"
"I just woke up."
"Open it," her mother said eagerly. "I'll hold."
"I want to say something first," Edna said. The tears were still running down her face, but the hard knot in her stomach was loosening. "Thank you for putting up with me all these years. I don't know why you wanted to adopt a brat like me. And thank you for giving me Huggy. Dad told me he was a valuable antique you had kept for years."
Her mother was silent for a long moment. "I just wanted to give you something to hold." Her voice broke. "You were the best Christmas present I ever got."
Edna dabbed her eyes. "I wish I could give you a hug right now."
"Your present -- open your present!"
There was no escape. Edna put down the phone and fetched the big parcel from under the tree. She tore the paper off as quickly as she could.
"Thanks, Mom," she said, trying to sound delighted. It was a suede jacket. She had bought one just like it two days ago, fifty per cent off, all sales final.
"I got it for thirty per cent off," her mother announced proudly.
"It's great! Thank you. And say thanks to Dad, too!"
"Look in the big button-down pocket on the right." Edna undid the button and reached inside. A long piece of paper -- a round-trip plane ticket to Thunder Bay.
"Ohmygod! Mom, you shouldn't have!"
"Ned and I decided that's what we wanted to give each other for Christmas. It's for tomorrow, Boxing Day. That's the closest we could get." She hesitated. "You will come, won't you? Please?"
Edna felt a rush of pleased anticipation. Snowballs and popcorn and mother's cooking and clutching Dad's waist from behind on the snowmobile, with Rusty racing beside them, barking delightedly. She was going home!
"I'll be there with bells on!"
"We'll have a great time!" her mother promised happily.
"I love you," Edna said. "See you soon!"
She felt almost joyful when she put down the phone. She could spend the rest of the day deciding what to pack. Then there would be the excitement of the plane ride and arriving home. Soon it would be the New Year, her birthday celebration, and everything would be right with the world again.
What was that? Had that envelope with her name on it been lying beside the phone all the time?
Curiously, she opened it. An angel was joyously playing a trumpet in a cloud of silver stars. Peace On Earth.
There was no verse inside, only a phone number and a message printed in childish letters: There has to be a turning point somewhere.
A tingle shivered down her spine. It couldn't be! After all, it was only a dream.
There has to be a turning point somewhere.
She sat for a long time, snuggled against the suede coat, thinking of Raggedy Ann and Huggy and her two mothers and Christmas carols.
Peace on earth, and mercy mild ...
She pressed the numbers on the touchpad of the phone. She was probably crazy. But she had to know.
You and your grandfather can help each other.
The phone rang three times, four, five, six ... Too early in the day. Better hang up.
"Hello?" The voice was sleepy, irascible.
"This is Edna Dalton," she said unsteadily. "Edna Noelle Dalton."
There was such a long pause at the other end that she began to panic. Probably this man had never even heard of her. If he asked what she wanted, what would she say?
"Noelle?" the voice asked wonderingly. "Noelle, is it really you?"
"Grandpa?" she squeaked. She had promised herself that she would never, never use that term of endearment with him, no matter what he said or did. But the word tumbled from her mouth as involuntarily as the tears that flooded her eyes.
"Noelle!" he said again, with a catch in his voice. "You know, I just had the strangest dream ..."
She could hear Christmas carols playing in the background. But she did not mind. The nausea was gone.
Christine lives with her husband and two cats in Hearst, Ontario -- "the Moose Capital of Canada". She spends the long, dark winter nights churning out words on her computer, reading, surfing the Internet, and watching TV from the stationary bike. In the summer, she enjoys biking, walking, battling the flower beds, and travelling west to see her mother and her children.
She's been publishing her fiction, poetry and articles since 1997. One of her favourite fantasies involves walking into a major book store and admiring her blockbuster magical adventure novel on the fantasy shelf. Of course, she'll have to finish writing it first.