A story for the season—Please share this
Olive Brown’s Christmas Cold by Brian Cool
Behind him, beyond the poplars, beyond the ditch where his bicycle lay hidden, distant traffic rolled implacably along. He lurched a bit clumsily down the brushy bank, but kept his balance at the bottom where it leveled off—having judged the descent right, hadn’t slipped again—and it brought a crooked grin to his crooked face.
The smile was short-lived though, overshadowed by the pain burning up the right side of his neck and jaw, and in the sad excuse for a right hand he’d been born with. He paused amongst the reeds for a moment, and looked at the two-and-a-quarter fingers and stub of a palm, to see that the skin was a deep pink, turning red—was scuffed, but wouldn’t bleed. The cheek though, he wasn’t so sure about.
He brought his foreshortened paw up to feel the side of his face, and thought he might be safe from scabbing there as well, but only because of the scattered black whiskers he’d managed to coax from scarred, but otherwise boyish features. He’d have to look in a mirror to be sure. For the moment it was flame on frostbite, ice on fire, as he pressed the cheek harder. He looked out over the half frozen-pond for a moment as he brought his ‘good’ hand up to cup the other, which served to soothe both wounds as much as he could hope for.
With the pain subdued, he pulled his jacket sleeves down a bit and squared his shoulders with a shake. He wasn’t the type to talk aloud to himself, and he thought so, even as he said, “wear smarter shoes next time you g’looking for ghosts, dumbass.”
He looked around. There was no one to hear him. He pulled the sleeves down further as he muttered, “and gloves’ud be nice.”
The place really wasn’t much of a lake after all. The mill pond in town was bigger. It was nice though, in a neglected and disconnected sort of way.
‘Old Nigger Brown’ had lived close by—he and his family. The shallow pond was named for him, Nigger Brown Lake. This was where the old man had settled when he’d come north after the great emancipation, where he’d built a hearth and homestead. Olive Brown was the last of his descendents on record around these parts. Where she ever disappeared to, more than a century ago, remained a mystery.
As for the actual house, his reason for being here, there were two likely looking spots on opposite sides of the pond, where they might have built. From where he stood, it was hard to tell. All physical trace would be reduced to little more than a disturbed bit of ground. Still, he was hopeful that he wouldn’t leave here empty-handed.
He’d developed the odd hobby of collecting curious relics from abandoned old places around the outskirts of town. On a high shelf in his bedroom at home were displayed the treasures he’d prospected over the years, such things as might survive the decades, and somehow lay hidden in a corner until he came along with a particular talent for finding them.
A part of him knew this would be the last time . . . or at least the last in this manner. He’d soon be an adult, and he sensed that traipsing around other people’s land became trespassing on that day. That acquiring cast-off curios, became stealing. That following the faded whisper of ghosts, became the stuff psychiatrists hear for a living. Maybe he’d pursue a career in archaeology, or take up professional treasure hunting.
Did he really believe that the old ghosts, left behind at such places as these, led him to find the things he took away? It was only a notion, and it always occurred after the fact of the finding. Until this time. Here he had come with the express purpose of keeping it foremost in his mind, to consciously channel whatever wisps of energy might still inhabit the place.
He had no hope of finding such things as mason jars full of old coins. Mr. Brown would have been lucky to have two spare fifty-cent pieces to rub together.
He took a few more steps toward the water, noting the soggier ground ahead. Here he had to part the bushes, and there he had to hoist his lame leg over what the locals everywhere called nigger-heads, affectionately of course, for their singular use to mankind as mini-islands—barely big enough to fit one’s two feet upon, above the surrounding mire. They were usually scattered around the water’s edge in dense enough population to enable easy leaping from one to another.
He just wanted to get a look at his cheek in the spot of open water paces away, but not badly enough to warrant wet feet for the duration of this adventure. He was heading for the fallen remains of a giant pine tree from older days, that had grown up along the higher bank that marked the original shoreline. It had been there since before the days when these lands saw the first whites, stood there during the days of ‘history’ that started when the whites came. Stood through the cutting of his fellows, and the turning of the land to the plow, and the sale of this piece to a man of brown.
A brown man, a tik a tak, a man of black, named Brown. Ol’ Nigga Brown.
The question flashed through the young man’s mind, “how had they treated him—a black amongst all these nice white folks?” (Folks who, up until 50 or 60 years ago, kept even their own kind segregated, “Sveeds stay over here, Yermins over dare.”) The question was close to the core of his being, a place developed in semi-darkness, where only other people were born normal, or close enough to fake it.
He stepped up onto the old log, left foot first, and hoisted the other leg up
He looked forward with mixed feelings to the upcoming series of operations, which promised to help him walk easier. The others had been done with the same hope, hope for balance. Some had worked—some not so much. He often thought that people looked on him as a lop-sided retard—he hung out with the crazies didn’t he, and looked like one, must be one too.
The log extended out into the water, where it was lost beneath the silvered surface, as if disappearing into the December-gray sky reflected there.
He advanced out to where he could kneel over the vast mirror, to inspect the place on his face that had slid down the bark of the oak tree. He’d slipped on one of the patches of snow from two nights prior. The problem was, that he’d instinctively reached out to grab the tree to keep himself from falling, but it was with his phantom arm and hand, that appeared sometimes to fool him, usually when he needed it most.
He inched outward to where he could kneel.
On his knees on the cold damp log, over the murky water, he looked down into the eyes and face of another.
He jerked his head up in alarm—might have pushed himself up to stand, had he been on sturdy ground. He quickly put his mind in order enough to realize that he couldn’t have seen what he thought he’d seen—a woman staring up from under the water. A young black woman.
He knelt forward again, turning his sore cheek down, but again was inclined to jerk his head away—this time at a muffled snapping sound in the brush behind him.
But there was nothing there. No one lurking. None of the nearby trees were big enough to hide behind, none even half the size of the monster on which he still knelt. Maybe a deer had broke from cover into the pines up the bank to the southeast. He’d just missed seeing it.
He bent forward a third time, slowly though, ready for anything, remembering the auspices under which he’d planned to conduct this whole affair. The woman’s head came into view again, as if coming out from under the log. Her dark brow furrowed with indecision, her thick lips pursed with apprehension, as she stared into his eyes with determination and expectancy.
Her hair peeked impertinently out from under an old red rag, which she reached up to peel off her head. Dark ringlets fell and sprang away with a life of their own as she lightly tossed her head forth and back. The hand with the bandana dropped back below the log.
He thought she was pretty, which was his usual cue to lower his gaze, as if he thought that she might think he wasn’t good enough to look upon her, from a body so wrought with . . . physical anomalies. But they stared into each other’s eyes, and he forgot himself as he began to remember his true self. He absorbed her, as she absorbed him, in a mutual gaze of understanding that cut through time, and across space.
He leaned closer, as did she. He put out his right arm to the water, where he encountered a hard glass-like surface that separated them. He saw his phantom hand splayed across a cold wet window. He pushed slightly, knowing it couldn’t be ice—he’d just seen a brown leaf boating the surface, driven by the lightest of breezes, leaving a tiny wake behind.
She held his gaze as a caged animal might. She brought her right hand up to his, and pushed back. She smiled when she felt the warmth of his hand, a mix of emotions filling her eyes.
Her touch was cold, and it tingled, but he kept his hand pressed to hers.
She’d been raped. She’d had a baby. She’d been murdered. He pulled his hand away when the images became too horrifying to watch. She held her hand fast though, reassuring him, but also commanding him, with her eyes.
He soon slapped his hand back down. But he tried to ask her, without speaking, to be easy on him. After all, he’d never hurt anyone—a fact she already knew.
Her painful story was over though, and it wasn’t that she wanted to ask him for a favor from the grave—some sort of bloodline vengeance, five generations removed. She said that she was giving him a gift, that she’d lain too long beneath the waters of this pool, feeding on her anger, that had fed in turn, on her.
She said she’d followed him last Halloween, towards dusk as he conducted one of his dreary forays. That was the day he remembered finding the rusty old ‘eight lever’ lock, just as the day’s last light was fading.
He didn’t normally work with a flashlight, but having found the lock, he was inspired to look for a key. He dug through the debris in each dusty corner of the attic, careful not to fall through the rotted floorboards, careful to keep the beam of his penlight down, away from the cracks in the walls of the old shack, but the search was in vain.
She’d watched him, pondered over him, not seeing his deformities, being herself a phantom. She saw only his spirit. But she could feel his wounds, every operation. And in him, she felt the heart of a kindred soul, kindred in their minority, and in being looked down on from a higher place, by a higher society.
A hundred years, even though sustained on the ectoplasm of anger and frustration, had given her a sort of wisdom that comes from the long perspective.
It had taken but a light touch on the boy’s shoulder for her to call him to her father’s pond. And eventually he came.
She’d been making ready.
She came to realize that it was ultimately her own choice now to stay, or to go, but it must be soon. She’d come to see her lonely existence as a bitter curse, and it had begun to eat away at her in the way an apple is eaten by the worm. By the time you know, the core is gone and the fruit collapses in on itself and dissolves into the earth.
She was slowly fading away from the force of life, but she thought she could do just one more thing, if she would. So, she bundled up the bits and scraps of good still within her; motes of joy and abandon, wisps of curiosity, pebbles of discipline, gems of understanding—a surprisingly large collection when she’d balled it all together.
When he came, she would be ready, but would he?
She’d come to the pond one day late in the year, to get water for the mule, pail at the end of one strong arm, baby cradled in the other. She followed the trail around, humming as she went, until she came to the old mound, which her father had always said “wuz de grave of a ol’ injin chief.”
She sat the child down at the top of the weedy bank, where he would bawl for her, as usual, till she came back with the sloshing pail to scoop him up again.
The wind cut at her cheeks, and she pulled the ragged quilt closer about her. Her feet were wet where there were holes in her boots. She passed close by the giant old pine, but not close enough to see the fiend hidden there behind. She stepped out onto the stones at the water’s edge.
The fiend peered out from his cover and saw the swaddled child first—a beautiful boy, almost the color of his father, paler than his mother, but not white enough. He took a fresh hold on the rock in his hand as he stepped swiftly around the tree. The wind and the sound of crying would serve him well.
Olive thought that she heard the sound of something approaching from behind, but decided that it was just the boy, fussing overmuch—-
Distant memories such as these would haunt him now, would become a living legacy to the dead, and would give him something to carry home from this spot that, though they couldn’t set on a shelf, would fit nicely in the palm of his phantom right hand.
These few flashes were byproducts of the gift she had given him. He would eventually come to live with the memories, just as he would come to treasure the gift.
She Olive, as an entity, would finally exist no more. She welcomed the thought of losing one identity, in exchange for a place in the great Spirit’s mighty consciousness. Shimmering bits of her energies expanded forth to join the heavens, like normal good folk do.
He saw her sinking away from him even as he felt her presence settling into him in the form of something strange, and wonderful, and as impossible as it was tempting. Her image became a distant spark, obscured by clouds reflected in the water. He blinked, and shook his head. Where was she? In him. And gone. At last.
With his good hand, he pushed himself up. He knew that he wouldn’t be bothering to look for the site of the homestead. Besides, it was getting dark unexpectedly early. He remembered that it was the one day of the year with the least hours of daylight, the Winter solstice. Christmas was just days away.
His legs were cramping a bit, so he bent forward to touch the log, to stretch his ‘hams’, before trusting his tingling muscles to work right. He did this twice, and was startled when something that had been pinched in the folds of his jacket fell forth. The red cloth had made him think first of blood, but before it landed at his feet, he saw that it was Olive’s bandana.
Filled with wonder, he squatted to retrieve the item, and stuffed it into his pocket for the moment. It was warm. As he turned to inch his way off the log, he heard again the noise behind him. He whirled around faster than was safe, but too slow to save himself.
A man was rushing toward him, swinging a rock at his skull! He threw his little arm up in a futile effort to protect himself from the descending blow.
He lost his balance, which caused him to jerk forward just in time to duck the rock—-
I hit my cheek on the post by the bed as I woke in a state of panic.
I nearly jumped out of bed. It was still dark. I turned to the clock—4:48 a.m. . . . All was well, seemingly.
Except that I had to pee before I could think about getting back to sleep. As I felt my way to the bathroom, I rubbed the side of my face where I’d just scraped it on the post. Merely a scratch.
I began to replay the strange dream in my head as I sat to relieve myself. I’d mulled over many a dream in such manner. What was the gift she’d given the young man?
I covered my piss with a light scoop of sawdust, closed the lid, and felt my way back to bed. Who had attacked him? And why? And where had I met the young man before? They say that we have already seen every face in our dreams.
I must’ve nodded off again as soon as my head settled into the pillow, because the next thing I knew it was three hours later, and Karen was nudging me with a kiss and a cup of coffee.
I saw through the window the snowflakes gently falling. Several icicles had formed on the eaves overnight. Karen was sitting on the bench at the end of the bed, dressing, and wondering aloud how many people were buying a copy of my new book to give away for Christmas. I shrugged.
“I guess it would be appropriate,” I said, remembering that I’d mentioned Christmas on a couple pages, after all.
“I’m going to do the chores,” she said. “You can make eggs.”
“I’ll do hash-browns too.”
She was about to stand, when she glanced at the clothesbasket. She bent forth to scoop up whatever it was that had caught her eye. “What’s this?” She held up a threadbare cloth of red cotton, puzzling over it as she shook it lightly.
“Let me see it,” I said.
“Your girlfriend’s got to quit leaving her stuff behind.” She tossed me the bandana.
I studied it closely for a moment. I reached into the folds of the knot, and slowly pulled forth a long black hair that coiled back up like a spring, when it came free. “My girlfriend’s a blonde. Must be your girlfriend,” I said, as I held out the dark strand for her to see.
The dream came rushing back to me. I had dreamed it through to its end, continued it from where I had awakened.
The young man on the log had rocked too far backwards, and had lurched forward to compensate. He was going in this time, he knew for sure. And if for no other reason than to pretend he had some control over the situation, he pushed off like a giant frog, launching himself forward out over the water.
For a split-second, he felt as if he could do anything—soar away, a bird on the breezes, or dive under the ice like a fish—until he landed like a stone in the piercingly cold water.
But there was no one else there, no murderer! He had imagined it, out of the stuff of her memory, her last memory. He spat out the pond-water and pushed himself up from the cold muck with some trouble.
His left hand sank deeper as he pushed himself to his knees. Something below his fingers gave a little resistance. He pushed once more and heaved himself to his feet, but as he pulled his hand loose from the muck, he felt pain in his index fingers, as if something were biting him.
He pulled harder and the pain increased, which is when instinct made him pull harder yet. Whatever it was, part of it came free, and was clinging painfully to his hand. He was glad to see that it wasn’t a snapping turtle.
He rinsed the mud off it quickly, to see how he might best get the thing off his fingers. He soon recognized the grayish bone in his hand for the front part of a human skull. He’d pushed his fingers through the thin bone at the back of the eye sockets. There had been just enough spring in the old bone to entrap his fingertips.
He stumbled to the shore, carefully twisting and pulling at what he dimly realized, must have been the front of Olive’s face. The dwarfed digits of his right hand were weak, and worked only so well. He had to cradle the bone to his chest just to reach it. Loose teeth filled his palm by the time he pried it free.
He cast the bone down next to the log, and began to run as best he could.
The overwhelming nature of what Olive had given him, took several days to sink in. He had to get used to the responsibility that she had bestowed on him. Did he have the right to destroy all we had built? He had to come to terms with the awesome responsibility he held in his hands. He was becoming aware of how things would change. What gave him the right to do it?
He thought about how the world had treated him, and he felt that he had all the reason he needed. “Christmas,” he thought! “Be my present to the world.”
It was Christmas Eve, and there was a party that he was going to at the hall. It was a party for all the crazies, so of course he was invited. He could think of no better place or time to begin it. And he could think of no better group of people to spread it to, and through. How fitting it would be.
The gift gave back to him, whenever he gave it away. It went from person to person, like the common cold, a glorious epidemic, spreading through neighborhoods and communities, crossing over boundaries of ethnicity and education, through the rich and poor alike.
Within the year, the world had sloughed off its dictatorships by changing their leaders hearts. Between one Christmas and the next, all war ceased. Cruelty, and cheating one another, became a thing of the past, as pride and prejudice succumbed to brotherly love. All of mankind—all of our ills—began to be healed from within, when Olive Brown’s gift was allowed to flourish there. The whole world was healing itself—millions of acres of wasteland were being reforested, rivers and lakes were quickly becoming clean and pure again, storms calmed, the warming climate even began to cool.
But the strangest thing of all, everyone agreed without exception, when all was said and done, was that the gift had dwelt there within us all, all along, just waiting for us to use it . . . and it was called, compassion.