Christmas break

Holiday fiction by Zu Vincent

Illustration By Mark Ricketts

About the author:
Zu Vincent’s award-winning novel The Lucky Place chronicles the love and loss between a child and her stepdad, and grew out of one of her annual Christmas stories for the Chico News & Review. A writer and educator, Vincent will present in Boston this spring at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and at Butte College’s Wordfire Conference.

Christmas break homework, English Journal: Dear Ms. Grace. I don’t think I did this right for a couple of reasons, but here is my English homework assignment, an interview of a family member about what Christmas was like for her as a child, compared to my own Christmas today. For the family member I chose my grandma, Noni.

Journal Entry I:

Listen, Gemma. Are you getting this? Noni says. Those soldiers stabbed and stabbed and stabbed the straw around me, but they never stabbed me. Whiz! By my right eye. Whiz! By my left eye. Zip! Across my belly and my dress cut in two. Three days hiding in a hay wagon, and the straw gagged me, moldy and dank. Straw kindled my ears. Stuck up my nose. Raked my throat. But if I cried, I’d be dead. So I didn’t cry.

I stop writing. I look up at Noni and back at my journal page. Being thirteen, it’s impossible to imagine seventy-nine. Not to mention being full Chinese and living in Communist China like Noni did until her escape. My mom is half-Chinese, half-white. I myself have a white father, which makes me a quarter Chinese. Like a sliced-up pie. Sliced up, that’s what Noni would have been, if the communist bayonets had found her. My skin prickles just thinking of it.

And what about Christmas in China? I say. I’m supposed to compare our Christmases.

Christmas! Noni says. Christmas for us was a fresh cup of tea. Fresh tea leaves. Once a year. Not the everyday leftover tea leaves from our father’s cup, soaked and soaked for father’s tea before they became ours. A fresh cup of tea, that was Christmas. And how we rejoiced!

You, Gemma, know nothing of sacrifice, Noni adds. You’re spoiled. You get everything you want. But my grandmother says this happily, as if surely someone like me should be allowed what she wants, without fail. So I don’t tell her that this year I don’t feel spoiled. This year I hate the thought of Christmas. This year I feel like Noni, stuck in the straw, escaping Communist China.

Journal EntryII:

My mom and dad were officially divorced last month. And even though Dad hasn’t lived with us for two years, last month changed everything. When my parents ask what I want for Christmas they ask as if they have no clue. They act stupid about it. I want you to live together again! Take back the divorce. That’s the only thing I really want.

Not likely. Already Dad has a live-in girlfriend. A trophy wife, Mom snarls, even though Dad and Deidre aren’t technically married yet. I picture Deirdre shaped like a trophy, brassy and tight at the waist, which in fact, she is. Mom isn’t tight at the waist, but she did have silicone stuck in her breasts last year, trying to get Dad back. It didn’t work, and now she looks too big up there. She looks out-of-proportion big, like the heads on Noni’s dolls.

Illustration By Mark Ricketts

Journal Entry III:

Noni works in a doll factory. Still. At seventy-nine! Mom complains. Do you think she needs to? No, she doesn’t! She’s going to die working there, Mom says.

The doll factory is busy this time of year. I think of my Noni dying at the doll factory. Sitting at her station where she paints on the eyes and the mouth, the round, red cheeks. Noni shuffles and hacks, her hands quake, but she can paint the most perfect doll faces. She has a talent. And when the factory decided to make dolls from other lands, Noni was so happy. A Chinese doll! I will like painting Chinese dolls, she said.

She ended up disappointed, though, because the Chinese dolls still look white. They have the same big heads, the same little noses, the same rosy cheeks as the other dolls. They are just white dolls with sun-happy eyelashes and black hair.

Journal Entry IV:

Mom is bitter that we had to move in with Noni after Dad left. Sometimes she and Noni fight.

Noni had other children, back in China, Mom tells me. Did she tell you that for your project? Two boys and two girls, Mom says about Noni’s other kids. The boys stayed with their father, her first husband. But the girls. The girls. Mom frowns. She doesn’t want to say what happened to the girls.

What? What happened? My pen is ready.

She smothered them, Mom finally says. When they were born. Women did that back then, in China. Girls were nothing, worse than nothing. A burden to feed and clothe. I would have been smothered, too, if your Noni had stayed put and I’d been born in China.

Smothered and sliced. I imagine my mom in pieces in the hay wagon, not even conceived yet. Although now, what’s the difference? Mom is in pieces, since Dad left. Dad is happy with Deirdre, and that makes Mom cry all the time. Plus having to live with Noni is driving her nuts. She is always raging. It’s like when Dad left he left behind this other mother in Mom’s place.

I could run off a bridge with your children! my new mother screams into the phone at Dad. I could kill us all and it would be your fault!

Illustration By Mark Ricketts

Just like Noni, having to kill her daughters. That’s Mom, trying to get Dad back.

Journal Entry V:

It’s no secret that Mom and Dad are engaged in a fight of monumental proportions. Except for Mom screaming on the phone, they don’t speak unless absolutely necessary. Worse, they’ve got strict rules about what my little sisters and I can take between their houses, which comes down to practically nothing. We can’t take stuff back and forth, and Mom and Dad are opposing armies, their houses each a fortress full of larder. And their fortresses hold our booty hostage when we’re gone.

I have two cell phones, two computers, two TVs in my two rooms, and two sets of my video-game collection. At Dad’s, Dad and Deirdre give me this stuff. At Mom’s, Noni usually does. Noni still works at that factory, but she’s rich from her years in an investment club.

My friend Kate’s parents are also divorced. But Kate’s mom and dad talk to one another, so Kate can bring clothes from house to house, and games and books. I’m only allowed the clothes I’m wearing and whatever is in my backpack. Even the backpack is risky. Mom will throw stuff out if she thinks it comes from Deirdre, and when Dad sees what Mom buys me he smirks and says, So that’s where she’s spending my child support, Kmart?

Journal Entry VI:

So far I haven’t seen any parallels between Noni’s cup-of-tea Christmas and mine, but I do have a conundrum. While my parents are engaged in a fight of monumental proportions, and don’t speak, and are buying me the exact same thing at both houses, they have each bought me a dress for my first-ever after-Christmas dance. I take photos of both dresses and Instagram them to Kate. Caption: which one should I wear?

Definitely the Mom dress, Kate fires back. The trouble being, the after-Christmas dance is on Dad’s weekend. And since I can’t take clothes back and forth, how am I going to get the Mom dress to Dad and Deidre’s?

Journal Entry VII:

I’ve been to the doll factory with Noni. Rows and rows of dolls, lined up for Christmas boxes. Special dolls, but Noni is right, even the Chinese faces look white.

I have a secret about my dolls, Noni says, winking. They look white, but I make them Chinese special.

Illustration By Mark Ricketts

How? I ask, but Noni won’t tell me.

How’s your story of me coming? she says instead.

Noni is convinced I’ll grow up to be famous, like Maxine Hong Kingston or Amy Tan. And then she, Noni, will be famous too, because I’m writing her life story down. She doesn’t get that I’m only writing it for ninth-grade English.

Noni tells me about her wedding to my American Marine grandfather, when she was fresh off the boat. Fresh off boat. Like newly arrived fruit! she laughs. And they were married in a tea ceremony, drinking out of chipped cups in her auntie’s living room. Only her Marine husband got sick and died miserably, and Noni had to go to work in the doll factory, and raise Mom, alone.

It’s a sad story, only I don’t want to feel sorry for Mom anymore. I wish she wouldn’t cry all the time. I wish she was brash and shaped like a trophy so she could have kept Dad home.

Seriously, I’ve never seen such a bunch of morons as Mom, Dad and Deirdre. Already Mom has begun the campaign. She wants me to boycott dressing at Dad’s for the after-Christmas dance. If you want my dress, you dress up here! Can’t I even help my little girl dress up for her first dance? That sort of thing.

In fact, she wants me to boycott the entire Christmas at their house.

You don’t want to celebrate another Christmas with Deirdre, do you? Mom moans.

I don’t, but then again, I do. I know from last year there will be tons of presents. But also that, like last year, I will have to watch my sisters, who are now five and six. Wild Indians, Noni calls them. Hellions, Deirdre says, but only when Dad isn’t listening.

Last year, I was supposed to keep my sisters from jumping on Deirdre’s antique furniture, and from opening their packages too soon. Deirdre invited her entire family. The looming kind of adults who put presents for each of us under the tree. I was so embarrassed, all those strangers staring at me in their low way, expecting something. I yanked a toy from my little sister’s hands before she unwrapped it, and sent her howling. I lay flat under the Christmas tree and looked up, squeezed my eyes so Deirdre’s fancy Macy’s ornaments turned and twisted from the cat’s meddling. I didn’t say a word. I hoped the cat would pull down the tree. But Deirdre saw him too soon and clapped her hands and sent him running.

Journal Entry VIII:

Illustration By Mark Ricketts

I guess I’ve matured since last year. I’m not going to take all those extra presents for granted now. I’m going to ooh and aah over every one. I’m going to clean up. But inside, I wish I wasn’t mature. I wish I was little again, like my sisters, young enough for one of Noni’s dolls.

Those are cheap dolls, for poor kids, Mom says. They’re so cheap they make them here and send them to China for god sakes! She says even my sisters would not get a doll like that, with painted-on eyes and stiff limbs. My sisters get dolls that talk and wet and burp and chew. Fancy dolls you see on TV commercials.

It’s true, each of them gets her one-out-of-two same fancy dolls at Dad’s house on Christmas Eve. I get a new jacket, an iPhone, and a hand-built skateboard.

But I’m still thinking of Noni’s dolls. I want her to tell me what she does to make them Chinese special.

Journal Entry IX:

At Mom’s, the second Christmas is waiting. Another iPhone, another jacket, even another hand-built skateboard. It feels disappointing. I haul the gifts to my room and line them up and count them. Test the weight of each one. They are nice gifts. I should be happy. But I stuff them in my closet under my old jeans and sweaters where they hardly make a bump.

I text Katie: When I was little, presents seemed bigger, the biggest things in the world. The truth is, presents have shrunk.

Journal Entry X:

What do you do to the dolls, Noni? I beg. Tell me! I need to know for my story of you, I add. So finally, Noni gives in.

I imagine one doll, she says. And I imagine the little girl who needs it.

I wait. I don’t get it. And having to figure it out for myself makes me feel tired.

Illustration By Mark Ricketts

Don’t you want to hear about her? Noni asks. For your story?


The little girl who needs this doll I paint, she says.

I guess so. I stretch out. Hold my pen above my journal page, ready to write as Noni begins.

Her name is Su, Noni says. She is too thin for her age. Too skinny. Her grandmother and her mother are dead and she lives with her father. Her father only allows her his sodden tea leaves to make her own weak tea. He beats her. He beats her because he wishes every day she’d been born a boy. Finally, when Su is ten, he sells her to a man passing through the village.

Su is unhappy. The man uses her for his field work. He beats her too, but he feeds her better than her father did because he needs her to work.

Su works all the time. One day she is digging in the field and finds a doll. It is a pretty doll with a big head and eyes with sun-happy lashes. And black hair, like her! She hides it under her clothes so it will keep her company at night.

Su thinks of the doll all day while she’s working in the field. She talks to the doll in her head. At night she takes the doll from her hiding place and holds her to go to sleep. Su has cleaned the dirt from the doll’s skin, fashioned some clothes for her from rags. She names her Beautiful Princess.

She has never had a friend before. She loves that doll.

The farmer uncovers Su’s good mood and is jealous. He searches her bedding and finds Beautiful Princess. He shouts, angry. He swings Beautiful Princess up and dashes her down. Now you will not waste my time on dolls! he yells.

Su cries over the pieces. She buries Beautiful Princess in the earth she came from. But as she is covering the split-open belly with dirt, Su stops. There, inside the doll, is a splendid picture, painted on the doll’s belly and shining moist, like the lining of a new clam shell. A picture of a city she has never been to.

Illustration By Mark Ricketts

Su is fascinated by this picture. The picture swallows her whole. It stays in her head long after her Beautiful Princess is buried. She is so consumed by the picture, that one day, she runs away from the farmer without a backward glance. She has a destination, the city she sees in the shining moist belly of the doll.

I stop writing. Noni is crying, and I have never seen Noni cry before.

That’s what I do, Noni weeps. I paint the bellies. Inside. For that little girl to find. She wipes her eyes. Write that down, she says.

But it’s too hard to write. I will never be able to do it.

Of course you will, Noni says, and very patiently she tells me the story again.

Journal Entry XI:

Dear Ms. Grace, I’m almost finished with my journal project. I know it’s not what you expect. Noni didn’t really have Christmas as a kid, so what am I supposed to compare it to? And anyway, I don’t feel like comparing my Christmas to anything. I hope you don’t grade me down, but I’m going to write about the after-Christmas dance instead.

Final Journal Entry:

My plan was to dress at Mom’s for the dance, then go to Dad’s. Mom and Noni do my makeup and arrange my hair in an upsweep. But when Dad sees me he says I look like Noni’s paint-faced dolls. Get in the shower, he says. And I have to clean up so Deirdre can do my hair and makeup all over again. But I throw a fit about wearing Mom’s dress, so he gives in on that.

Ms. Grace? At the gym, there’s a spangling strobe light and blaring DJ music. Boys hover on the edges and the girls gravitate together. Like we’re iron bits and somebody drew a magnet across us.

We dance in packs, and after the first set our pack rushes to the corner of the gym, where we all throw off our expensive shoes. (I haven’t even told about my shoes. I have new, very fancy Deirdre shoes that, like her ornaments, are from Macy’s.)

But I pitch these shoes in a corner with all my friends’ shoes, until they’re piled high together like a lumpy, fallen-over Christmas tree. Then we run back barefoot in our party dresses colored like balloons.

Song after song, I dance hard. Harder than I ever played soccer, or ran track, or raced my skateboard. Harder than I ever cried about Mom and Dad’s divorce. Harder than I ever imagined. This is my first-ever after-Christmas dance, I think. I’m growing up. In a split second the lights and the music can change me. Kate and my other friends are throwing out their arms, singing and shouting. They smile with parted teeth. They form a wave across the floor. And the wave opens for me like a new world parting, closing me in.

In that center, I am safe. A Beautiful Princess doll. I’m not the destination Mom and Dad are sketching inside me. I’m this other girl, the girl Noni sees, with her secretly painted doll’s belly.

Right inside my shell.