Christmas Story

December 6, 2006 at 4:35 pm (A Stranger Christmas)

By T. Ryan

 

My first memory of my grandpa was when my parents drove my sister and me out to visit Grandpa and Grandma at their cottage in Montana.  I was quite young at the time and only have one recollection of that trip.  My dad thought it would be “character building” for me to accompany my grandpa when he went out squirrel-hunting one morning.  We trekked across several acres of forest, fall leaves crunching under my small rubber boots, without any sign of squirrels.  I wondered if Grandpa would grow tired from the weight of the rifle slung over his shoulder, but he looked as strong and stoic as ever.  I was just beginning to wonder when we would be heading back when we heard an odd crying sound just over a hill to our right.  Grandpa perked up, looked at me, then gave a small nod of his head towards the direction of the noise, and we headed up the hill.  On the other side of the hill there was a strange scene.  A fluffy white cat lay against some leaves, crying horribly.  Its stomach had been cut open, as if in a scuffle, and its claws were bloodied.  The cat had been trailing blood across the leaves until it had run out of energy and collapsed, crying out pitifully.

 “Dogs,” muttered grandpa, “Wild dogs.”

I started crying.  Grandpa eyed me disdainfully.

“Suck it up boy.  Tears ain’t got no use.”

“Grandpa,” I cried, tugging at his corduroys, “you gotta help it!”

My grandpa shook his head, then unslung the rifle.

“Only one thing you can do,” he said.

I didn’t understand.  Not until grandpa had loaded a bullet into the chamber of the bolt-action .22 and leveled the rifle at the wounded cat.  Suddenly understanding, I screamed out.  Grandpa looked at me.

“If you’re a boy, turn away.  If you’re a man, watch.”

I couldn’t look, and shamefully turned away as the single gunshot rang throughout the forest.  The cat made a gurgling sound then fell silent.

Later, back at the cottage, little Susie and I sat in the kitchen sipping from two big cups of cocoa that my mom had just made us.

 “So Timmy,” my mom asked, “did you and Grandpa have a fun time in the woods?”

Not knowing what to say, I nodded dully.  Just then my dad, decked out in a sharp sweater and ski-jacket, came in from the living room.

“Hey Timster,” he grinned, “what would you think if for your birthday we got you that nice little kitten you always wanted?”

To my relief, I didn’t see Grandpa for several years after that.  Not until my grandma died of cancer and Grandpa sold the cottage and moved in with my family for the winter.  Grandpa mostly kept to himself at the beginning, leaving his room only on short trips to the bathroom or kitchen, mumbling to himself as he went.  Mom and Dad talked about how Grandpa’s “condition” was getting worse, but I didn’t understand what condition that could be, since physically Grandpa looked pretty healthy for his age.

Grandpa had developed one particularly strange habit.  After every dinner, Grandpa would wait until Mom and Dad were out of the kitchen, load up a plate of food as if he were giving himself a second helping, shuffle over to the back door, and toss the entire plate of food into the backyard.  Grandpa might forget where he left his toothbrush, or how many Krauts he killed at Vimmy Ridge, but he never forgot to throw out that last plate of food.

“Grandpa,” Susie asked one day when Grandpa was making the platter, “what are you doing?”

“Givin’ it food!” Grandpa muttered angrily, “how you ‘spect the snow to come if it ain’t got nuthin to eat!”

Susie merely stared at him, then quietly walked away.  Even for her age she was wise enough to avoid further inquiry.

When snow started falling Grandpa wandered around the house with a smug expression on his face.  As if it didn’t matter what those fancy weathermen in their high weather towers said- he knew what brought the snow.  The harsh weather caused Susie and I to stay indoors, so Mom encouraged Grandpa to spend more time with us, and had him tell us bedtime stories.  There stories were invariably about Grandpa’s experiences fighting the Kaiser in the Great War, though Dad told us he never actually went overseas.

Grandpa would continue to throw food out after dinner, sometimes after breakfast too.  There was one particular snow bank in the backyard, next to the tool shed, which Grandpa would toss the food into.  “I’m feedin’ the snow,” he would explain, “else it gets angry.  See how hungry it is?  Watch; it’ll damn near gobble up this muffin!”  Then Grandpa would walk carefully outside and hurl a cinnamon roll into the snowbank.  The cinnamon roll, of course, would disappear in the snow.  “See?” Grandpa would tell Susie, “that’s why you can’t go outside; if you don’t keep the snow happy… lil’ thing like you, it’ll eat ya whole!”

I wasn’t at home when the men in white coats took Grandpa away.  My dad had told my mom to take us Christmas shopping, and when we came back Grandpa was gone.  There weren’t any signs of struggle.  That night over dinner Dad told us about what had happened.

“No, no,” he reassured my mother, “they were very polite.”

“So Henry went willingly?”

My dad nodded, “Yeah, he said he ‘wouldn’t cause no trouble long as ya’ll don’t forget to feed the snow.’  I assured him it would be taken care of.”

At this mom laughed, “Well as long as you don’t feed it the Christmas ham I’m saving you can do whatever you want.”

After dinner I noticed that Mom and Dad weren’t preparing a plate of food for the snow.

“Mommy,” said Susie urgently, “aren’t you gonna feed the snow?”

Mom laughed, “Of course not dear.”

“But… but Grandpa said…”

“Grandpa was crazy dear,” mom said, “and now he’s with all the other crazy people.  Now who wants some apple pie?”

To our surprise, Grandpa was home by Christmas.  Shortly after he left there was a particularly warm spell, and the snow melted away.  The doctors told Dad that Grandpa’s condition had been “in remission” since the snow melted, and to call if Grandpa had another breakdown.  The night that Grandpa came back he started tossing food out again even though Mom had told him not to.  He smiled at Mom smugly when the weatherman said that later on there would be a huge snowstorm.  Dad made a fire that night and we all stayed up late by the Christmas tree.

When we woke up in the morning everything was covered in almost a foot of snow.  Before Mom and Dad woke up I shook Susie awake.

“Timmy!” Susie said excitedly, “I want to sled!”

Susie and I bundled up in our coats and mittens and had just opened the back door when Grandpa stopped us.

“Hey!” he shouted as he came down the stairs, “where ya think yer goin?”

“We’re going sledding,” I said boldly.  Grandpa became wide-eyed and grabbed us both by the ears.

“Don’t you kids listen to a damn thing I say?  That snow’ll eat ya alive!  They damn near killed it when I was at the crazy house and now it ain’t been fed in two weeks!  It’s hungry ‘nough to eat a caribou!”

Susie twisted away from Grandpa and ran towards the open door.

“I don’t have to listen to you!  Mom says your crazy!” 

And with that, she bolted out the door and towards the tool shed where the sled were kept.  She almost made it to she shed when she suddenly fell over, as if she had tripped on something.  She fell face first in the snow, in her overstuffed pink coat.  As she tried to get up she tripped again, this time sliding feet first into the snow bank.  When Susie realized where she was she started screaming and screaming, tears flowing down her face.  She pawed ineffectively at the snow around her with her little mittens, like some rabbit that, seeing itself in the car headlights, is too scared to think and hops directly into the tire.  I wanted to help my sister but my body was immobile with fear.  Tears started flooding down my face.  I noticed Grandpa was gone, and when he came back he was carrying a long canvas bag.

“Grandpa!” I screamed, “Grandpa help!”

Grandpa didn’t say anything at first.  Then, as Susie’s knees disappeared into the snowbank and her wailing became louder, Grandpa turned to me.

“There’s only one thing you can do.  Tim, it’s time ya became a man.”

Then Grandpa pulled his old .22 out of the bag, chambered a bullet, and handed me the rifle.

●●●

“And that,” said Tim, standing in front of his 7th grade English class, “was my worse Christmas ever.”

The class sat in awkward silence.  Some time passed.  The teacher didn’t move.  Then, suddenly, Mr. Bublin, the principal, burst open the door to the classroom and stuck his chubby, grinning face inside.

“Hey kids,” he said excitedly, “it’s snowing!”

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