Child of Morning, Child of Night - Christmas
The child stirred, restless in his sleep. All day long he had watched George decorate the house for Christmas - his first Christmas in America. His first Christmas ever, really. He remembered celebrations at home - discreet celebrations because the State frowned upon so religious a holiday, but they existed nonetheless and his uncle had brought him to a few; dressed, groomed and on display. He was "my own little Vertep" his uncle had laughed once and someone else had crossed themselves at the blasphemy. "All right, you don't like that, then he's tonight's katia. Is that better?" And his uncle poured honey from the pot onto the child's head, in his hair, and everybody laughed. The bidding was brisk that night.
But mostly the festivities went on around and without him and he watched, mouth watering at the smells of all the different foods, none of which he was allowed to touch; heart sore as other children - but not him, never him - opened gifts from St. Nicholas.
This year would be different, of course. George had promised him that it would be. Even the date was different in America. Christmas came earlier here but early or late, he still didn't really believe any of it was for him. He and George had gone to church Sunday morning as usual, and the first Advent candle was lit. He had listened solemnly to the lesson, committing it to memory as he committed everything he heard to memory. Here, in this strange place, surrounded by strangers, he wanted to learn and understand everything that he could, as quickly as he could. It had only been three months, after all. It was still so odd to hear English everywhere and Russian nowhere. It was so different. Everything was different. But he had been starting to make sense of it all, finding routines and procedures he was comfortable with, and now here came Christmas.
Christmas had taken over everything. The radio played nothing but Christmas music now. Christmas decorations were everywhere. The church services and Sunday School classes were Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. Even at school the children were making Christmas ornaments and paper chains and decking a great Christmas tree in the hall.
He didn't trust it. He mistrusted the general air of joviality, the promises of wishes fulfilled and dreams come true. George had urged him to make up a Christmas list. George took him to the stores, buying decorations for his room, so now even his room was full of Christmas! A manger scene took pride of place on the dresser, his odds and ends of toiletries banished to the drawer. Red and green lights twinkled in his window, and George had set him to the task of writing out five Christmas cards a day to send to assorted friends.
He complied with all of it and understood nothing. He didn't know what to ask for when George pressed him - what more could he desire? He had a home, a bed where he was safe and no one dragged him out in the night to hurt him. He had a school where he could attend every day and concentrate on his work, not sore and aching from bruises and broken bones, not fearing the return trip home. He had George, who loved him. What more was there? But George was so insistent, and he looked so disappointed when Illya only shook his head in response to his questions. Just that morning George had taken him into the City, to the big department store with its incredible abundance of goods, and invited him to choose what he would most like to find under the tree Christmas morning, what he would like stuffed into his stocking. The child had looked at it all and agreed with George that this thing was nice, and that toy would be fun, but he desired to own none of it. George had even taken him to see Santa Claus but had not pressed him further when Illya shook his head at sight of the overfed man in the red suit. He knew about St. Nicholas, and knew too that while little children thought he was real he wasn't, and that any gifts under the tree Christmas morning would have come from George and no one else.
He did want to buy a gift for George, because he knew that that would be important to him, would make him feel that Illya loved him and Illya did, of course, he loved George with all his being. But he didn't know what he could give George, and didn't know how to find out. He felt he was lost in Christmas, drowning in good cheer and strangers pinching his cheeks and asking him if he was being a good little boy. Of course he was a good boy. Of course he was. What else was there for him to be? He had been good for his uncle out of terror, and he was good now for George out of love and gratitude. But everyone seemed to feel he should be good for gifts and that confused him more. How did it count, if you were only being good for gain? And the song he kept hearing "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake" would have terrified him if he had believed in this supernatural being. He was very glad that he didn't. How did other children sing it so cheerfully? He didn't understand. He didn't understand any of it.
So now he tossed in bed, and dreamed.
He was back at Macy's, in the line of children moving towards Santa. George was nowhere to be seen. Illya wanted to go look for him, but he was pressed in on all sides by strangers, and moved forward step by reluctant step. After a while he noticed that the children did not come back from Santa's lap. They climbed up there and then they were gone. Where did they go? Did Santa Claus eat them? He looked as if he might, with his bright red face and huge bristly white beard. Illya trembled, and turned to flee, but the crowd around him kept him where he was, kept him in line, kept him moving forward. Then it was his turn and the great red figure leaned over and said
"There you are you little brat! You thought you could run from me? Well, HO HO HO I've got you!" And his uncle snatched him up into a crushing embrace and the chair rocked and spun as it sped away, away from George, away from safety and the child screamed, and screamed, and screamed ...
"Illya. Honey. Illya." George was rocking him, holding him close and rocking him, stroking his hair, rubbing his back. Illya caught his breath from the last scream and cried aloud.
"Don't let him get me! George! George! Don't let him get me! Help me save me he's got me no no no no," he was weeping too hard for words now but he didn't need any more words. George had heard him. George had come and saved him. George had him, and George would never let his uncle get him. George would keep him safe. All he had to do was hang on to George with all his might, clinging around his neck, wet face pressed into George's shoulder. How strong George's arms were, how big he was! Big enough to shield him, strong enough to protect him. George was crooning to him, words of love, promises of safety but sleep was pulling at him, dragging him down, dragging him away. He shook his head against it, feeling his grip loosen whether he wanted it to or not.
"Don't leave me," he moaned against George's skin. "Don't leave me, don't leave me George, please."
"I won't," George soothed him and Illya felt the bed dip under his weight as George settled in beside him, lying next to him, holding him hard against his big chest. "I won't leave you, Illya, I promise. You can sleep, honey, it's all right. I'll stay here all night long and when you wake up I'll still be here. Go to sleep, baby, it's all right."
Comforted, he let his eyes close, let sleep take him; wrapped in love, cradled in warmth, held fast against the terrors that stalked him. He slept.
"Tell me about your dream," George prompted him the next morning, over breakfast. He always asked that and Illya suspected that one of the counselors they had tried to make him see in the beginning had advised it. He had refused to talk to the counselors, had eyed them suspiciously from the safety of George's lap and threw such a wild tantrum when they urged George to leave him alone with them that the whole thing had been abandoned. But they had wanted Illya to talk about his dreams, and then George had started asking too. At first Illya had resisted, because talking about the dreams brought them closer when all he wanted to do was leave them behind in the night where they belonged. But it distressed George when he refused, and he wouldn't distress George, so he did talk about them and found to his surprise that it helped, to do so. The illogic of them was evident in the light of day, and that made it easier to see that they were not real at all, not premonitions or otherworldly visitations, but just the constructs of his own memory and whatever events had occurred during the day to stir them. So he told George all about it, and was then filled with remorse when George looked stricken.
"I'm sorry I took you there," he said when Illya had finished. "I didn't think ... I'm sorry, honey."
"It's not your fault," Illya pointed out through a mouthful of cereal. "What are you going to do, keep me home all the time because something might make me think about him?"
"Yeah, but the crowds, and the noise, and it's all so new to you - I thought you'd enjoy it but you didn't, did you. You're not enjoying any of this ... this hoopla, are you." George was peering at him kindly, but he looked disappointed, too, as if he were trying to give Illya some wondrous gift and Illya was refusing it. The child frowned, wanting to take away the disappointment but wanting to explain himself, too.
"It's like a monster," he said finally. "Like a great big monster eating everything else up. That's all there is now, is Christmas. At school, at church, at home, in the car, on the street - and everybody wanting to know if I'm being a good little boy and asking me what I want and ... and what I'm getting you and I don't know what I want and I don't know what you want and I just want it to go back to the way it was when I came! I thought I understood it here a little bit, and now it's all different and I don't understand anything after all!" He made himself stop, then, because George looked more upset than ever and the outburst hadn't made him feel better, in fact he felt worse. He felt on the verge of tears so he stopped talking and ate instead. Eating was good, eating was always good. Eating what he wanted, as much as he wanted, was good so he ate and didn't try to talk anymore. George didn't say anything either, and when they had cleared away the breakfast dishes George drove him to school.
When George picked him up after school, he asked if Illya wanted to go pick out a Christmas tree. He asked diffidently, but looked relieved when Illya nodded. What could he say? George wanted to do it. George liked the Christmas hoopla, as he'd called it, so Illya nodded and resolved to put a good face on it. But then it was fun after all, riding beside George out into the countryside, parking in a lot and walking through a forest of green trees. Big trees and little trees, cut and bundled, smelling very good indeed. Illya sniffed the air and smiled up at George. "I like this," he offered shyly and was inordinately pleased when George grinned.
"Me too," he said, and squeezed Illya's mittened hand. "My dad used to take me, and let me pick. Now it's your turn. Do you like this one?"
Illya admired the stately pine George pointed out, but then his attention was caught by a smaller, fatter tree with little pine cones still attached to the branches. He touched one of them, and George tousled his hair. "This one?" he asked, and Illya nodded. He watched George pay, and watched the tree man tie it to the roof of their car. It seemed incredible to him that they were taking this piece of the forest home with them, and when the tree man offered him some hot cider for the ride he held the cup between cold fingers - cold despite the mittens - and sipped it slowly as they drove. Then George stopped at a small country store.
"I have ornaments," he said. "But my dad used to let me choose a new one every year. I'll tell you all about those when we put them on, but now you can get to choose one. And we probably need new lights."
Another Christmas task? Another thing at which he might fail, might let George down? But Illya had learned that whenever George talked about things he had done with his father that meant it was something very important to him, something he really wanted to do now, again, with Illya. So they went together into the small, nearly empty store, and Illya looked obediently at the assortment of items with which one could decorate a tree. At first he could only stand stiffly and stare without seeing any of them, but then George went off by himself in search of lights, after first promising to meet him right back there in ten minutes. Illya was able to relax now he felt unobserved, and he studied the small ornaments. There were angels, and tiny versions of the manger scene on his dresser. There were animals, and stars, and Santa figures. There were little wind up trains that went around tiny trees. He found himself fascinated, and when George came back to see him still standing and looking, he said "Okay with you if I go check out tree toppers? They're only one aisle over, and I think we need a new one." Illya nodded and when George left he felt no alarm. There was no threat in this quiet little old fashioned store, with the soft instrumental music playing in the background. He kept looking at the ornaments and after a while he saw a tiny house, with an even tinier green wreath on its front door. It didn't look exactly like their house, but when he took it off the shelf he could see through a miniature window and there was a lit Christmas tree visible in there. It delighted him, the small house, the miniscule wreath, just like the one George had hung last week; the window pane no bigger than his thumbnail and, within, the little tree. He turned it around and around in his hand, finding new details as he did so - the tiny chimney, the dusting of artificial snow on the roof - and when George's heavy hand rested on his shoulder he looked up at him and smiled. George smiled back.
"Is that it?" he asked, and Illya nodded. "Well, good. Good. I'm glad you found something you like. Could you help me out over here?" Illya nodded again, and followed him to the lights section where after some discussion they decided on white lights only, and then to the tree toppers where they debated the merits of stars and angels and chose a white star to go with the lights. The storeowner gave Illya a peppermint stick and he sucked it happily all the way home.
They put up the tree after dinner, and true to his word George told the stories behind all the ornaments he took out - the battered crèche his mother had bought, the artificial candy cane he remembered choosing when he was six, the wooden bear his father had bought on a trip to Germany. It was quiet, and peaceful, and when George hung Illya's little house on a branch low enough for him to be able to look in the window whenever he pleased, when George climbed up on a stepstool and put the new star on top, when he turned off the overhead lamp and the only illumination in the room came from the twinkling white lights of the tree, Illya felt that maybe Christmas wasn't so very bad, and that maybe he understood a little bit about it after all. It was, at least to George, like a mirror, reflecting all the Christmases of his past. One after the other they shone; all the way back till he was a little boy watching his own father hang lights. George talked of those years now, and of the empty ones in between, too, when he hadn't even bothered with a tree because it was just him. "I haven't seen some of these ornaments since I moved to the city," he said over hot chocolate and cookies. "Now ..." he smiled at Illya, and the genuine happiness on his face made Illya happy too. He was giving something to George after all, it seemed, was giving him a new reflection in the mirror and in that reflection it wasn't just George all by himself, but the two of them drinking hot chocolate under the tree. He fell asleep there, thinking of that, leaning against George's shoulder and thinking of that, and he didn't even stir when George carried him to bed. There were no bad dreams that night.
Christmas Eve. Illya stood in the church vestibule while the Sunday School director fussed with the paper crown on his head. He was wrapped in one of George's old bathrobes, and carried an empty bottle of George's aftershave. He had been very nervous about this pageant - another test, yet another one and who knew when he might fail, fail disastrously and let George down? But wearing George's bathrobe made him feel much better and after all he knew just what was expected of him tonight. And tomorrow was Christmas itself and surely after that things would - his life would - return to normal. Everyone said that. Even some grown-ups expressed relief at the thought of the quiet months of January, February and March coming up when the only diversion would be the weather. George had shielded him as much as possible from the hoopla - he couldn't help using George's word for it because it fit so precisely - after the nightmare, their talk, and the Christmas tree expedition. George left the television off in the evenings, instead of keeping it on for the seemingly endless supply of Christmas shows and specials. George had stopped asking him what he wanted, and even the nagging worry of what to get for George had been relieved by Mr. Waverly, who had taken him shopping on his last trip into the city for lunch.
He had brought Illya into a small quiet men's clothing store - so quiet that Illya suspected George had been talking to him. He had asked Illya how much money he had to spend, and Illya had shown him the seventeen dollars and thirty cents he had saved from his allowance and the odd jobs George occasionally paid him to do around the house. Waverly had taken it and shown him some items that he said were within Illya's budget. Nothing had a price tag on it so Illya had taken him at his word and selected a beautiful scarf in the brown George favored. It was very soft and when Illya tried it on, tying it around his own neck, he could tell that it would keep George warm on the coldest days. The store had gift wrapped it for them and Illya had carried it all the way home on his lap, putting it under the tree and laughing at George's exaggerated surprise.
George kept shaking it and making wild, improbable guesses - a car? Another Christmas tree? A new house? And Illya had laughed himself silly when George had asked him, with a very serious face, if it was a horse. George had laughed too and tweaked his nose, and put some presents of his own under the tree; three with Illya's name on them and one for him to give to his teacher. He and George had gone together to select a pen and pencil set for Mr. Waverly, and Illya had washed George's car to pay for his share. He was surprised to find himself enjoying all of it. It was fun to think of what George would like, and what Mr. Waverly would like; to select those items, wrap them up and imagine their pleasure. He found himself unexpectedly intrigued by his own gifts and he picked them up and felt them frequently. One was clearly a book, and one a record album, and the third was bulky and soft - a coat? A blanket? And he knew George would have given a lot of thought to each purchase, that George was imagining his pleasure too.
So he bore with Christmas, and concentrated on the nice parts, and the time went on apace. School let out and that was nice too, day after day with George, ice skating and bowling and going to the movies. They saw "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and he enjoyed it thoroughly, although he couldn't resist pointing out the scientific impossibilities to George in a breathy little whisper. He ate popcorn and candy and George predicted he would have no appetite for his dinner, but George was wrong. He ate fried chicken and mashed potatoes and green beans just fine, and a piece of apple pie too.
The Christmas pageant was the last big hurdle. After that was bedtime, and then waking up in the morning to open those gifts. He couldn't wait to see George wrap the scarf around his neck. Mr. Waverly's gift would have to wait until the next time he saw him, but that was only a week away. All Illya had to do now was get through this pageant without disgracing himself, and he was pretty sure that he could. He only had one line, which had been committed to memory days ago. So he waited now in the vestibule with the shepherds and the other two kings, and listened to the music, because that was his cue.
"Angels We Have Heard On High" sang the choir and the crowd of shepherds shuffled up the aisle towards the altar, where the little boy who was playing Joseph, and the little girl who was playing Mary, sat with a doll wrapped in a white blanket. Illya couldn't hear any of the dialog from back here, and he couldn't see George either, but he knew just where George would be, right in the very front pew. George had promised him. "Just look out and you'll see me," he'd said while tying the sash on Illya's robe. "You can't miss me. I'll be the one grinning fit to split."
This was important to George, Illya knew. It was part of what he called `a normal childhood', that thing he was so determined to give Illya. "A normal childhood, like other kids have," Illya had heard him say to Waverly once, while they both thought Illya was engrossed in a book. "I won't let that bastard take that away from him." `That bastard' was Illya's uncle, he knew. It was the only way George ever referred to him. Despite George's caution about using bad language around Illya, and his very real threat to wash Illya's mouth out with soap if he ever used any, he called Illya's uncle `that bastard' without apology. Illya liked it. It seemed to make him less; not a monster or a giant or an ogre; not even Illya's relative by blood, but just `that bastard'. That bastard who couldn't prevent Illya from having a normal childhood. And evidently normal children acted in Christmas pageants, just as they played baseball and ate their vegetables.
So here Illya stood, in robe and crown, and now the strains of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" came to his ears. He was the third king, so he followed the other two down the aisle, feeling rather than seeing all those eyes turning to him, watching him walk. He concentrated on each step, concentrated on his hands clasping the after shave which was supposed to symbolize myrrh. To fall, or to drop it, would be catastrophic. They would all laugh, and George would be disappointed in him. So he went carefully and soon enough was climbing up the little steps to the altar.
"We have seen his star in the East," said the first boy, and Illya clenched his teeth, trying to breathe evenly.
"And we have come to worship him," said the second boy and Illya, feeling sick with fear, looked out at the crowded church, seeking George.
And there he was. Right in the front as promised, beaming from ear to ear and ... and crying! Tears were running down his face and Illya straightened and said, not too loudly but clearly, "But we must return home by another route."
The music swelled, and the choir sang "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" while the cast of the pageant solemnly filed back down the aisle; Mary and Joseph first, the doll held in Mary's arms, then the shepherds ... and one shepherd fell down! It was one of the littler children and he had tripped over his robe. He wailed and Illya froze in horror, but no one laughed. There were gasps, and expressions of sympathy. Then the child's mother, familiar to Illya from children's church, came and picked him up, carried him back to her seat with her. Promptly two other children ran for their parents. Mary climbed across half a row of adults to reach her father and when Illya looked at George, George was beckoning to him. So he turned and went back up the aisle, to be pulled in beside George's solid bulk. The congregation was laughing now, but Illya could tell that there was no malice in it, it was genuine amusement at the foibles of children and filled with affection. Someone in the pew behind them patted his shoulder, and when he turned around a young couple was smiling at him. He smiled back. George hugged him and Illya rested his head against George's arm, filled with relief and pleasure. It was over, he had done it, he had done it well and now he could relax.
The ushers, who usually came around with collection plates, now brought candles to everyone and Illya held his, wondering. Then the light spread across the church, candle to candle, from the minister to the choir then into the pews as the choir walked down the aisle, light to light, George's lit now. He tipped his own carefully to it, watching the flame catch. The woman next to him put her own wick to his flame and on the light traveled, around the church. Someone turned out the overhead chandeliers and wall lamps and all was in darkness except for the glow from all those candles. Illya held his, mesmerized by the sight and when first the choir, and then the congregation began to sing "Silent Night" he was flooded with such a mixture of emotions that he couldn't even put names to them. So he didn't try. He just listened to the music, and especially to George's deep bass, booming out the words. He looked at his own candle, and at George's, then up and around to the balcony and everywhere. It was so beautiful. And looking at George again he had the same impression of a mirror reflecting images of George on this night all the way back to when he was a little boy listening to his own father sing "Silent Night". Illya rubbed his cheek against George's arm and George leaned over, very carefully holding the candle out in front, and kissed the top of his head.
"You have made me so happy, honey," he whispered. "Seeing you up there - it was the best Christmas present I've ever gotten. Thank you."
"You're welcome," Illya said automatically, but he blinked. That had been a Christmas present? And he had made George happy? He always thought about how happy George had made him, by saving him and bringing him home and loving him. But he made George happy too? Just he, Illya, by being himself? And that was like a gift George had given him, so the gifts went back and forth like a mirror of their own, reflecting love and happiness between them, binding them together. He thought about Mary scrambling over those knees to perch on her father's lap, and the smile her parents had exchanged. He thought about the little shepherd, falling down in front of everyone, then lifted to be comforted in his mother's arms. And it was for him, too, this love and care. For him, too. George had told him the Christmas story, of course, and talked about the baby in Bethlehem being God's gift to humanity, but he hadn't really understood it. Now it was as if a door had opened, just a crack, and he saw quite clearly how God's Gift had reflected in George's heart, so that George had given it to him and he gave it back to George in an endless circle of giving and love and joy. It was only for a moment, and then he became aware that the singing had ended, that the candle had burned so low it was scorching the little paper circle around it, that other people were blowing theirs out. He puffed on his and watched it sink into extinction, then George was putting his coat around his shoulders and it was over. The lights came back on and people were exchanging muted Christmas wishes. He was very sleepy suddenly, and when George picked him up he didn't protest, just tucked his head into that strong shoulder and let George carry him down the aisle. Occasionally somebody patted his back and whispered "Good job" and he nodded drowsy acceptance, and once he saw one of the other kings, also being carried by his father and sound asleep, and then he must have fallen asleep himself because the next thing he knew he was in the car.
He woke up again as George slid him under the covers. He didn't bother with Illya's pajamas, just wrapped the robe more snugly around him. "Here's your stocking, Illya," he whispered, and Illya watched drowsily as George draped one of his own socks on the bedpost. "You can open that first thing but wait for me before you go into the living room, okay? I'll come for you as soon as I wake up."
"All right," he said, and lay there while George said his prayers for him. Usually he had to say them but George must have known he was on the edge of sleep, so George did it and Illya listened, saying "Amen" at the end. George kissed his forehead.
"Merry Christmas, honey," he said and Illya reached up, clasped both hands around his neck and pulled him back down so he could kiss George's cheek.
"Merry Christmas, George," he said, and that was the last thing he remembered.
When he woke up the sun was coming in the window and everything was very quiet. It was so quiet that he got up to look out and see what was going on and to his surprise the world was covered with a blanket of white. It had snowed in the night, and now that he saw it he thought maybe it had been snowing on their drive home, too , only he had been too sleepy to pay it much attention. It had snowed a lot in Russia, of course, so he hadn't thought it would matter if they had what everyone kept calling a white Christmas. But looking at his own maple tree, his own yard and driveway and fence, seeing them covered with snow, made him feel warm all over. He could go out in this snow and not worry - a wash of memory struck him, then, a tidal wave that carried him away without even giving him time to catch his breath.
He stood in the little open courtyard behind the big old house, looking up at the falling snow. It was very beautiful and the child was sensitive to beauty wherever he found it. He extended his hands and tipped his face up, the snow, like feathers, brushing his cheeks, his forehead, his palms. Then he felt a change in the night and when he looked around his uncle was standing watching him. Pleasure drained away, replaced by a sick awful fear. His uncle beckoned and he came over, trembling, wanting to run and not daring ... a horn blared and he blinked. A horn? That was wrong, there was no one around except for his uncle and himself so who could be ... "Merry Christmas!" somebody cried and he fell back into his body with a soundless thud, the body that was wrapped in a warm bathrobe that was way too big for him, leaning on a windowsill and looking outside to where a car had stopped so the driver could exchange cheerful greetings with a pedestrian walking a large black dog. Illya gasped, feeling as if he hadn't breathed in a very long time, and withdrew from the window. He didn't want to look at the snow anymore, didn't want to think about his uncle, and why his uncle had beckoned to him and what his uncle had done ... he was freezing cold, shaking all over so he went back under the covers and something heavy knocked against his foot. He peered out from the shelter of his blankets and saw a black misshapen object lying at the bottom of his bed. Now what? He dove back under the covers and waited there, trembling with cold and fright, but curiosity was, as always, too strong for him so he peeked out again and recognized George's sock. It was just George's sock, not anything to be afraid of and there was nothing to be afraid of anymore anyway. His uncle was far away and far behind him and it was Christmas morning. And what was in George's sock anyway?
Illya pulled it towards him and the first thing that fell out was a big red apple. Oh! What a nice surprise! He didn't even have to get up to eat, could just curl up here and eat this apple and investigate the sock some more. He did so and found, in rapid succession, a game of jacks, a brand new baseball, two pairs of warm socks, new mittens, a warm hat and a copy of the latest issue of National Geographic. His teacher had some old issues in the class library and he had read them cover to cover, fascinated by the glimpses they offered of different places, different societies, scientific expeditions and discoveries and views of the wonders of outer space. Now this was a new one and moreover it had his name and address on a label on the front cover, so he understood that George had gotten him a subscription of his very own and every month another issue would come to his mailbox. What a wonderful gift! He hadn't really thought about getting gifts that he would enjoy, because he had thought he had everything he could possibly want already, but here was this thing and he had wanted it, and he was glad of the new mittens and hat too. Was that all there was? He shook the sock out and a candy bar dropped into his lap. Oh, this was a treat indeed! George was very strict about his diet and candy bars were few and far between. No wonder everybody got so excited over Christmas! This was fun! He wriggled a little in anticipation, propped himself up on his pillows and ate his candy bar while he read his magazine in perfect enjoyment.
A tap came at his bedroom door and he called "Come in!" George poked his head around the corner and grinned at him. "Merry Christmas!" he said just as he had said last night and Illya smiled back at him.
"Merry Christmas, George! And thank you!" He held out the magazine - the candy bar having long since disappeared. "I love it! And the mittens, and the chocolate, and the apple - thank you!"
"Well, there's more out under the tree. Ready?"
More? Oh, of course! He had those mysterious packages under the tree to open, and George could open his! He leaped out of bed and ran down the hall, wanting to hand George his present and watch him receive it. He knew just where it was, right beside the package that had to be a record album.
But things were different. He stopped, stunned, in the doorway and was dimly aware of George maneuvering around him to get a look at his face. A blue bicycle stood propped on its kickstand, with an enormous bow on the handlebars. It was obviously brand new and his name showed plainly on the tag attached to the bow.
He had wanted a bike. Of course he had. All his friends had bikes and while they were generous with loans it wasn't the same as having his own, and when they went on expeditions he had to remain behind. He had never thought much about it, but now that it stood here gleaming in the Christmas tree lights, his, indisputably his, he wanted it with a fierceness that surprised him. His bike. His very own bike. He walked around it, reached out to run a finger over its seat and saw a new sled on the other side of the tree.
He hadn't even thought of wanting a sled. This was the first snow of the season. He had seen people sled back in Russia, but to have one of his very own, to have it as well as a bike, as well as his own subscription to National Geographic ... he was literally speechless. He stared, and stared, and finally George came up to him, rubbing his back.
"Well?" he asked, and that enormous grin was back on his face. "You like?"
He still couldn't speak. He could only nod, then he threw himself at George, wrapped his arms as far around his waist as they could go and squeezed him. "Thank you," he gasped, when he could finally get the words out. "I never thought ... I didn't ... thank you!"
"You're welcome," George said and Illya could tell he was pleased. "Now you be careful on those," he added sternly and Illya had to laugh, it was so like George to issue warnings before the gifts were even out of the house. He laughed, and then George laughed and they laughed so hard together they had to sit down on the floor, from which vantage point Illya could see even more gifts around the base of the tree. He crawled about and found the one he had for George, and gave it to him.
Now it was George's turn to be speechless. He held the scarf and turned it over in his big hands, reading the label. "Tell me again about how you got this," he said and Illya told him about giving Waverly his money, about Waverly showing him which items were within his budget and about his final choice. George looked very hard into his face, as he did when he was trying to get at the truth of something, but since Illya had already given all the truth that he had he only looked back and then George smiled and wrapped the scarf around his neck just as Illya had pictured him doing and there was another hug before George released him to delve into the rest of the gifts.
It was a glorious frenzy of paper and tape, boxes and ribbons and tissue paper and when it was all over he had his record album - Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, because George must have noticed him conducting it with his finger when it had played on the car radio - and his book - 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He couldn't wait to read it, feeling that the movie must have left out the good science bits of it. Plus there were new shirts, and pants, and pajamas,snow pants and a warm winter coat that matched the mittens and hat, and snow boots, and a game of Monopoly.
When it was all over he sat back, panting a little, and then George brought out a trash bag and he helped George clean up, stacking the opened gifts back under the tree, pausing to sit on the bicycle and picture himself flying along the street. George made pancakes and bacon and they ate a hearty breakfast, before Illya got into his new snow pants and coat, his new boots, hat and mittens and George climbed into his own winter gear, tying the new brown scarf carefully around his neck. Then they took the sled and walked down the street to the hill.
It was full of people sledding and Illya never forgot the thrill of that first rush down the snow covered slope, rocketing along, clutching the rope that purported to steer but in reality didn't do much but give him something to hold on to. He rode several times then gave it up to George who took three turns of his own. There were children hanging about without sleds, just as he had hung about without a bike, so Illya loaned it out and watched them ride, then took it back with the first thrill of possession he had ever known. And all around them people cried "Merry Christmas!" and "Merry Christmas!" and "Merry Christmas" again. He answered them, and bore with the inevitable questions of what Santa Claus had brought him. There were small children present so he answered the questions seriously but his eyes went to George each time, and each time George was beaming with pleasure at the success of his presents, beaming with pleasure at Illya's pleasure.
A cold wind began to blow, chasing the littlest children home, and George pulled the brown scarf up over his mouth and nose. Illya thrilled with that same pleasure in his turn - his gift had been well chosen and was well received.
"You know," he said later on, as he and George sat in front of the fire drinking hot chocolate, "I was really afraid of Christmas."
"I know you were. I'm sorry." George was combing out Illya's hair, damp from the hot bath George had insisted upon. The smell of roasting turkey filled the air and the new record album was playing on George's record player.
"I didn't need to be, did I."
"No. But I understood why you were."
"I thought any change must be bad, because everything was so good already and I hadn't really gotten used to feeling safe with you, so I thought if anything changed - anything at all - then I might not be safe anymore. But here we are."
"Yes. And you will always be safe with me, Illya. That won't change - will never change."
"So Christmas comes every year?"
"Every December, without fail."
"What else comes like that?"
"Well, Easter of course, and summer vacation. In June you'll finish up this school year and you'll be off from school for two whole months. That'll be different."
"Where will I go, then, while you're at work?"
"I won't be at work. Just like I'm not at work now. I'll be home here, with you. We'll go to the pool, and to the ocean, and you'll ride your bike ... it'll be fun."
"So it will be different, but the same, too. Just like Christmas was different, but it's the same, with you combing my hair and cooking dinner and all."
"All right. I thought about him this morning."
"Yes. When I saw the snow. It made me think of him, and how he caught me watching the snow and he ... it seemed so real. It was like I could really see him and hear him and in another minute he was going to touch me."
"Did he touch you?"
"No. I heard a car horn outside and I was back here."
"Are you sure you weren't dreaming?"
Had he been dreaming? Had he dozed off while leaning on the windowsill, so early in the morning, and dreamed? Maybe he had. "I must have been dreaming. Because if it wasn't a dream, what was it?"
"A bad dream," George said stoutly. "Next time call me."
"I will." Yes he would. Next time he saw his uncle, or heard him, he would just call "George!" and George would come. He smiled at the thought of it, and his smile widened when George put down the comb, giving his back the little pat that always signified that he was satisfied with the results. And then the oven timer made its `ding' sound and that meant dinner was ready. And after dinner he would read his book, and George would read his newspaper, and when he went to bed he would wear his new pajamas and read National Geographic until he fell asleep.
It all worked out just like that, and when he put the magazine on his bedside table, when he turned over in bed and saw in the streetlight that it was snowing again, his only thought was of pleasure that tomorrow they could sled some more. He had a whole week off of school still, and it would be just him and George, making it a very merry Christmas indeed, each of them, for the other. He fell asleep smiling, while the snow fell outside his window, and George Piper stood watching him from the door, smiling too.
Many Years Later
Illya fell silent, and Napoleon hung the little Christmas house on a branch that was just at Illya's eye level, so he could still look in the miniscule window and see that tiny tree whenever he pleased.
Napoleon hadn't expected to enjoy these Christmas traditions. He had warm memories of Christmases past, of course, but it had been many years since the holiday had meant anything to him beyond the unavoidable seasonable trappings. But on their first Christmas together Illya had brought out a small box of ornaments he had taken from George's home when he moved out. "I used to just put them out on the table when we were so busy all the time," he had explained. "But now ..." he hesitated, and Napoleon lifted one, a little reindeer.
"Now," he said softly, "you want a tree."
"Sure." And that was all there was to it, except that on their way home from the Christmas tree lot Illya had talked about that first tree, and when Napoleon hung the little reindeer on its branch he asked, idly, "So did you like Rudolph when you were little? Is that why the reindeer?"
"No," Illya said, and smiled. He reached out and touched the reindeer with his index finger. "George bought me this the second year I went to camp. We stopped at the Catskill Game Farm on our way home - we couldn't go the year before because we had Smoky in the car," he explained and Napoleon smiled involuntarily, thinking of the picture George had shown him, of that skinny little boy clutching the scrawny grey cat. Illya was going on. "They had camel rides and elephant rides and assorted farm animals, but the reindeer had their own section with fake snow all over the ground, and I was just amazed by them, that they were there at all, so far from where they originated. I watched them for a long time and when we went into the souvenir shop I wanted that ornament even though it was only July. I wasn't supposed to get a new one till Christmas, but George said this could count. I think we bought a Christmas blanket for my bed that year instead." He had added a hand carved crèche made from a walnut shell, and Napoleon studied it.
"What about this one?"
"No, only one story a year. That's the rule."
"What? Why not? What rule?"
"George said one story about the past was enough. He said we should be thinking about the good times we were having right then, and the good times to come instead of always looking back."
"I suppose he had good reason for that."
"Yes. He worried about me brooding about the past, which I did sometimes at first, then not at all for a long time, and then - well, you know." He laughed a little. "Teenage angst."
"Yes. So you won't tell me about this nutshell thing?"
"Next year," Illya had said firmly, and Napoleon had had to be content with that. But he remembered the next year, and asked, and Illya obliged. It became a sweet tradition over time, one they both enjoyed.
Napoleon heard about trips Illya and George had taken, hobbies Illya had cared about, sports he had excelled in. Illya, who talked so little about his background, seemed comfortable recounting these homely little details. And now this year, with this ornament, had come this much longer story, this window into Illya's early childhood that surpassed any view Napoleon had ever been given. He felt honored, and moved almost to tears. Unable to speak for the moment, he put his arm around Illya's shoulders and Illya rubbed his cheek on Napoleon's sweater. They finished trimming the tree and then Illya turned off the lights and sat on the sofa, waving Napoleon over to him.
He sat, amused because Illya always had very definite ideas about how this celebration should go and sitting the dark admiring the Christmas lights was always part of it. He tended to be a bit solemn at these times, as if that little boy was still awed by the whole thing, but Napoleon began kissing his ear, then his neck and very soon, despite the initial rebuffs - Illya pushing him to the other side of the sofa, Illya slapping his hands away, Illya pretending to rise and walk off - this year as every year Illya yielded, sank down onto the sofa, drew Napoleon closer and they finished their private celebration in a storm of kisses and lovemaking.
They drowsed on the sofa for a little while until the oven timer beeped, making them start apart. Then, after a quick shower and change of clothes it was on to the next thing; putting Christmas dinner together, greeting George and Mae at the door, serving them drinks and finally all sitting down around the table together. It was a delicious meal - Napoleon had excelled himself and Mae had brought a sausage and apple stuffing that was so good Napoleon wrote down the recipe. They ate and laughed and talked and exchanged gifts. Mae and George had bought him and Illya a set of Christmas china, and Illya touched the Christmas tree engraved on the display plate and smiled at George, who smiled back at him and Napoleon smiled too, seeing it. He and Illya had bought George and Mae a cruise to the Bahamas and it was very well received indeed.
Later, at the door saying goodbye, Illya handed George a wrapped package which Napoleon knew contained a Christmas ornament in the shape of an open Bible. On the pages were inscribed the words from Matthew 19:14. Illya had ordered it specially, and Napoleon wished he could see George's face when he opened it but he supposed that could wait. When they turned away from the door Illya too had a wrapped package in his hands. He opened it beside the tree and held it up.
It was another little house, more modern looking than the original, and on the front door, in permanent black marker, was written the number of their apartment building, in George's unmistakable hand. Illya hung it right beside the other one and Napoleon kissed the top of his head. Then they turned off the lights and went to bed and it was a very happy Christmas indeed in the penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park.