Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sheep: A Christmas Fable

It's been a strange news season this Christmas. All of the news stories seem to be saying "nobody is spending anything on Christmas this year," and yet the truth of the matter is a lot closer to the NYT story "Woman Sacrifices Designer Jeans For Herself So Child Can Have A Garage Full Of Presents," or, of course, to "Wal-Mart Worker Trampled In Rush For Flat-Screen TVs."

So I wrote a short story about it, sort of. A Christmas fable for economic hard times. Suggestions for improving the ending are much encouraged.


She took it from him while he was racing to the bathroom, eyes turned the other way, hands focused on unsnapping his little blue jeans in time to reach the toilet. She bent to pick up a sock while she was at it, then put it back; to make this work, she couldn’t risk making it look like anything else had changed.

There wasn’t much time to do anything but shove it into the top shelf of his closet before he finished; when she heard the flush the sheep was stuffed behind a tiny suitcase that hadn’t moved, otherwise, for a year. Then the bare feet came racing back and she asked, automatically, tiredly, “Did you remember to wash your hands?”

He hadn’t remembered, thankfully, because the tired reminder she gave him then and the stern walk back to the bathroom was still in both their minds, she hoped, when he went to bed an hour later and first noticed his sheep was missing. She told him he must have lost it somewhere; that he was careless, that he needed to take better care of his things. She let him throw his pillow down from the bed and look under all of his blankets, then under the bed itself, then into the corners of his sock-strewn room. She had to tell him to stop, so they could sleep, and that they would look again tomorrow.

After he went to bed she turned to the bills. It should be obvious at this point in the story that she was the kind of woman who had a lot of bills, and no husband, and a mother who had died sometime in the last year, which explained why the child-size suitcase hadn’t moved. There wasn’t anywhere for them to go, and no money for Christmas, and the kid had created a list of toys that filled two full pages. She blamed the school for that; they had given up on the cable a few months ago, but some teacher had the brilliant idea to steal an hour away from classroom management by having her students write out letters to Santa (can schools still do that?) and the stupid school believed in having students “learn in clusters,” which meant that her kid had sat at a little table with five other kids and spent the entire afternoon talking about toys.

So she took the sheep. She sat there, with the bills, trying to remember if this had ever been done before, in some Chicken Soup book or something, but the closest she got was a vague memory about a woman cutting off her own hair to buy her husband a watch combined with Charlie Brown buying that sad, stupid Christmas tree. They did have a Christmas tree this year, the same plastic tree that had sat in the laundry room, in its box, squeezed next to the washer, since last Christmas. There were no presents. She had told him that Santa would bring the presents.

Which meant that every day, in the six remaining days until Christmas, she had to remind him about that stupid sheep. It wasn’t hard, the first night; he woke up, in the middle of the night and couldn’t find it, and she had to re-remind him he had lost it and they had to re-search for it while she tried not to look at what time it was. The next evening, before bed, he remembered it himself and took the initiative to continue the search by taking the cushions off of the couch. The third day the couch cushions were still on the floor but he seemed to have forgotten; she had to ask “did you find your sheep yet?” and was gratified by his look of remembrance, then guilt.

He slept poorly without his sheep, and was cranky in the mornings, but she made him talk about Santa, about how Santa had the power to make magical things happen, and about how he could grant the Christmas wish of every good little girl and boy. At this point, of course, you can see exactly where the story is going, if you hadn’t seen it before; and yet the kid persisted, for the first several days, to talk about video games and racing cars and toys that required double-A batteries. Finally she brought out the memory of Grandma, who had given him that sheep when he was born, and then the tears came. It was about time.

The sheep was now wrapped in a box in her own closet, and on the evening of Christmas Eve itself she got her son to sit down and write a letter to Santa in which he asked for nothing for Christmas except his very own lost sheep, the one she had reminded him of every day. She let him put the letter in the mailbox and took it out again when his back was turned.

At this point it might be appropriate to invoke the Great Shepherd, or at least that shepherd who left his ninety-nine sheep strewn across the hillside like discarded socks while he went looking for the missing one. But this mother hadn’t considered that far into religious metaphor, and took her son to church that night mostly because she felt like she ought to do so. Exhausted from the nightly searches for his sheep, he fell asleep halfway through.

And the next morning, when he saw the box underneath the tree—the only box that Santa brought, to fulfill his only Christmas wish—can you imagine how excited he must have been at that Christmas miracle? I think he was excited, despite the manipulation and deceit which led him to that excitement; despite the fact that he was duped into believing that it was his own fault to begin with. I think in that moment he was happier than any other child on God’s green earth. Certainly he took much better care of his sheep after that.

The place this story has to conclude, of course, is with a step into the future: the son, older, realizing what his mother did that year so that he could have a happy Christmas. The trouble is that there are two parts to that realization: the part that came first was when he was a teenager, and it caused him to say some very uncomplimentary things towards his mother. But we’ll skip over that and go straight to the part where he was an adult, where the story ends, where—in another book—he would have climbed up the windows into his mother’s house so he could cradle her while she slept and sing “I’ll love you forever.” Instead, he surprised her one Christmas morning with a single gift in a red-wrapped gift box: and as a good reader you should be able to know exactly what it was.


maya said...

Are you sure you're supposed to be making me cry three hours from Christmas Eve? It reminded me of so much of being alone with Li'l A all those holidays when we would be with extended family during the day, but still had to come back to our lonely flat.

maya said...

I'm glad things seemed to have worked out for mother and son though!