The Christmas Tree Forest
by m. j. cleghorn
Power’s out. Oh well; there’s plenty of wood out back, enough for this winter and next. Her son Ambrose had seen to that last summer, the summer he tuned 17, before he went off and joined the Marines. She had to sign papers because he was under 18 and still a minor. She signed. She signed because Ambrose was a good and caring son and that’s what he wanted. She had done her best, and there was nothing she could do to change it now.
Edna, nicknamed Edie ‒ named after a favorite Uncle Ed, who died before she was born. That’s what her people did, how they remembered their relatives; names scraped on gravestones didn’t mean as much in her family. After her husband was lost in a skiff duck hunting one fall, along with her parents, she decided to stay and raise her boy in the village, even though there was almost no one left. Opportunities for school and a steady paycheck lured the young away. Poverty, disease and depression did the rest.
No one blamed them; living as they did was hard. Salmon run to salmon run and moose season to moose season was always a gamble, and over time that could hardly compete with what town had to offer. If they were lucky, a few would come home in the summer to help with fish camp and berry picking, maybe one or two would decide to come back permanently with husbands and wives and babies. That would be nice. Maybe they would make a new village. One that would rise from 10,000 years of The People’s Way, translated by a new generation. It was sad to see the old ways disappear and be replaced by nothing but a few dilapidated houses and a collection of old abandoned buildings. Gone were the week long wedding “bands” in the old Russian Orthodox church built by the villagers with their own hands, with whatever materials they could scavenge or barter for ‒ discarded two-by-fours torn from weathered barns, windows, sold surplus dismantled and forgotten, leftovers of WWII barracks’. In their skilled hands, piles of rubble were made into a thing of beauty, a snow white sanctuary siting graceful on a high bench between the village and the vast unknown. A place of hope and forgiveness in a cold and unforgiving country. But, now that was gone, left to the weather after her uncle, the church deacon, wrinkled and bent from generation of baptisms and funerals, died. Gone too, were the potlucks and dances. And gone was the Christmas Starring. Edie missed that the most of all. Everyone loved the Christmas Starring. Her uncle dressed in his finest vestments, shimmering gold and red, seemed to float from house to house holding the star, circling and spitting silver fire like a twirling dervish.
People were happy then, sharing what they had ‒ some candy brought from town for a birthday or maybe a few salmon strips. They sang the old songs and visited all Christmas week. Sometimes, if the ice was good on the river, relatives would come to stay for the celebration. “I am the only one left who remembers,” Edie told herself, placing another spruce log in the woodstove. Wiping the dried bark from her hand, she turned her head and glanced at the kitchen table. There in the shadows, Edie could see herself, just a little girl peeking from the doorway into the tiny kitchen. Her mother and father and aunties and uncles… grandpa and grandma, all the faces she knew and loved, all the faces red and laughing. Red from the heat of the black iron woodstove in the corner, laughing because they were just happy to be together playing card games and cribbage, drinking cup after cup of warm rosehip tea, egging her mother on to read their New Year’s fortune in the leaves, and eating canned salmon and homemade Russian Christmas bread to their hearts’ content. Everyone crowded around the worn vinyl table, with its mismatched cracked legs, in the cramped room warm and safe from the cold arctic night.
Looking back, Edie suddenly realized just how poor and shabby it must have been and how hard it was to live, the bad fishing and hunting seasons, no money and no food, just a few bags of flour and rice, cans of beans and maybe peaches. The year the Spanish flu came, more would have died if it wasn’t for her granny. They were buried a dozen deep ‒ men, women, babies ‒ in a shared grave outside the village. Their houses burned. Families separated and quarantined by government doctors and nurses. If it wasn’t for her granny, even more would have died. She knew the old ways. Stripping and boiling down birch bark in enamel pots made healing medicine like aspirin, only better, it was antiseptic and killed disease. Then there was the devils club tea and fish head and ptarmigan soups; those soups could cure anything. “What you need to be well you can find right where you live. Look around,” granny would say, “take the time to learn.” She was Edie’s father’s mother, Granny Mary. As a girl Granny and Edie’s grandfather escaped from a missionary orphanage. She told stories of how acid was poured on the tongues of children who spoke native. One night her brother, a boy of 9, was left out to die alone in the icy winter night, wrapped crying and naked in the wet sheet he had soiled. She and my grandfather knew if they were caught they would be killed, so they ran to the other side of the island. They hid in the caves and climbed the sea cliffs to eat raw gull eggs, until they could hop a boat across the inlet, where some cousins lived.
After working in the canneries for a while, they came here to stay. When they got married, granny taught grandpa how to read and write in English so he could take his sea pilot test and get his own fishing boat. To them, life was good, they shared what little they had with others who had even less. That was good. This was home. They had each other, which was their strength. Their invisible bond was their shield against looming sadness and loss. Each other, that’s what they had.
Some turned to drink to comfort themselves, but not Edie’s people, no. Like her grandmother and aunties, Edie was a teetotaller; her people saw what booze could do running wild through the veins, and turned from it. No liquor. The aunties saw to that, no liquor, not even at the potlatch for her husband and parents, drowned duck hunting one fall.
The wind mounded and rattled its way through the woodstove’s pipe. “Looks like some bad weather,” Edie said to herself as she poured another cup of hot tea. She sat down on the living room couch in the small room, listening to the bellowing winds and breaking icicles. The December winds howling off the Knik and Matanuska glaciers made the little house feel like an old wooden boat being tossed on stormy seas. Edie could see the fat snowflakes blowing sideways outside the window. “Some weather,” she said, humming softly to herself as she picked up the afghan she was crocheting for her son. Her mother taught her to crochet. Her aunties, how to knit. It was a pleasant way to spend the long evenings, huddled together near the fire drinking tea and talking. The yarn and needles came from five-and-dime mail order catalogs around Christmas. They shared patterns, passed down mother to daughter, sister to sister, aunt to niece, and memorized generation after generation. They proudly made hats, gloves, socks and sweaters. For how they lived, you could never buy a pattern for that.
Outside the glass mercury thermometer read 38 below zero, and still dropping. After 40 below, it was impossible to see the little grooves between the numbers. The aluminum had rusted through after fifty-some years of Alaska weather. Edie’s father could tell how cold it was by the sound and feel of the snow when he walked his trap line, how it crunched under his boots. Others would open the door and toss a hot cup of coffee out, if it frozen before it hit the ground… it was cold.
A sudden gale force wind shook the house, rattling the windows. The wind roared down the stove pipe, scattering red embers. Edie yawned, setting down the balls of beige and black fisherman’s wool and her mother’s pink steel crochet hook in the spruce bark basket next to the couch. The wind picked up again, slamming hard against the house and making a shrill whishing sound. “I’ll huff and puff and blow your house down,” Edie repeated to herself, just the way her aunties did on stormy nights. The cold could drain the energy from your bones, but the winds, the winds could carry you away, and you could disappear. The aunties said that some wind storms were so bad, they could blow the door between the worlds of the living and the dead wide open, just look at how the giant trees bow and sway and bend close to the earth.
One thing was certain, this was a monster showing no signs of stopping any time soon. The whiteout and wind chill alone were terrifying. Edie was grateful to be inside the snug little cottonwood house surrounded by acres and acres of old spruce forest. She felt safe. One more gust of wind and she drifted off to sleep.
Edie woke to the noise of something knocking against the door. “Oh, I’ll bet I forgot to close up the shed to the woodpile.” She sat up, listening. There was more knocking. She stood up, pulling her blanket tight around herself, and looked out the window. The glass thermometer had finally shattered into bits. It looked frozen and naked, swaying by a single nail on the post outside. “This is what you call a blizzard,” Eddie thought, impressed. “I can’t see two feet in front of the house. Oh, those are snow drifts! They’re almost as high as the window!” There was that darn knocking again. She walked to the door. “Bet it’s stuck, damn snow drifts, who invited you?” She reached for the doorknob, turning and pulling with all her strength. The door seemed to open up by itself. Edie was greeted by a hard slap of ice cold wind, blowing her backwards halfway across the living room. It knocked the wind out of her. For a moment she wasn’t sure where she was. She closed her eyes. It was like some kind of amnesia. When she opened her eyes, he was there.
Edie spoke with a single tear, staring hard at her son’s face. A face she thought she would never see again. Ambrose. He flashed a big grin at his mother as he removed the hat from his head and gently set it down on the kitchen table. Before he could turn around he felt his mother’s arms wrap around him.
“You came home.”
Edie pulled away, turning toward the window and wiping her eyes. She did not want her son to see her crying.
“How did you get here?” were the only words that she could think of.
“I hitched a ride out of town with some buddies.”
Eddie, silent, stared out at the storm.
“Come here; you have to eat…it’s Christmas Eve…”
Ambrose eagerly took his place at the table, smiling up at his mother. Edie smiled back. It was the smile Ambrose remembered best, peaceful and dignified. Edie hurriedly pulled two cans of smoked kippered salmon and a can of baked beans, a box of pilot bread, and a big can of cling peaches from her makeshift pantry. She was proud of her little kiosk of canned and dried goods. Bought with the money she was paid for her porcupine beaded jewelry, sold at the Native Hospital in town. She could hardly keep up with the requests for necklaces and brackets and headbands. The aunties taught her the old way of beading after their eyes went bad. She still used their old porcupine quill needles, and their beautiful flowered patterns. Luckily her eyes were still good, even in the winter light. Ambrose would not have to worry.
“Tomorrow for Christmas dinner, chicken in a can . . . whole!” Eddie laughed, watching Ambrose happily fill his plate. Then she noticed his clothes. Desert dungarees, a hard helmet, rifle and back pack. His boots were dusty.
“This is Christmas salmon. I saved it for you,” she said, scraping the fish from her plate onto her son’s.
Edie smiled. Ambrose reached across the table and gently patted his mother’s hand. They ate as they always had, in a comfortable silence. When they were finished Ambrose asked, “how about a cup of your Russian tea, Mom?”
“Oh no; it’s hot cocoa for you. Your favorite!”
The two sat close to the woodstove. Edie on the old blue sofa, Ambrose on the floor near her. They watched the fire. The winds had stopped. It was calm. Edie broke the silence. “Your buddies can stay with us.”
Ambrose squeezed his mother’s hand. “Thank you mom, but they went home to their families. Tomorrow they’ll be back for me.”
Edie burst out: “Back for you tomorrow, you just got here; why did you come home if you’re just going to leave?” She closed her eyes and felt ashamed of her words.
“Mom,” Ambrose looked up into his mother’s face.
“I’m sorry,” Edie said quietly. “I am so glad you are here.”
The temperature seemed to be dropping again and the winds picked up.
“Mom, you know I can’t stay,”
“I think it’s time to say goodnight. Tomorrow is Christmas. Don’t worry about me, Mom, I’ll just rest a while here. Get some sleep. Sweet dreams.”
“Sweet dreams. I love you too,” Eddie answered as she drifted off.
Morning broke warm and clear. There was hardly any sign of last night’s storm. The woodstove was still warm, but the cabin was empty. There was an envelope on the kitchen table marked to M-O-M, in capital letters. Eddied ripped it open and slid down into the chair to read it.
Thank you for the best Christmas of my life, because I could share it with you. I love you Mom.
Yours forever, Ambrose
There is a surprise in the back.
Edie carefully folded the letter back into the envelope and slid it into the pocket of her bathrobe. Walking to the back door of the cabin, she found her boots and parka and opened the door to the back woods. Her eyes were dazzled by the sparking spruce tree with its ropes of red and green lights that seemed to go on forever against the black winter sky. The Christmas tree forest! Ambrose. Then, Eddie heard it, the sound of a car. She reached for the letter in her pocket for comfort, before walking back to the cabin to answer the door ‒ the door, where two Marines in dress blues stood waiting.
m. j. cleghorn is the mother of five children who have served or are serving in the military. Her father served in the Army during WWII in the Pacific theater. She was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and her love of poetry is a gift shared from her Athabaskan and Eyak heritage. m.j. now lives and writes near the banks of the Matanuska river in the Palmer Butte, Alaska, where the moose, wild dog-roses and salmonberries provide unending joy and inspiration.