Waiting for Christmas
Holiday fiction by Zu Vincent
Trout swim upstream, so Emma does too, wearing the mask and snorkel. Dad calls her his six-year-old, auburn-headed fish. Mom makes them sandwiches on the spit of gravel and sand. They’re the only three people at the creek, which is just how Emma likes it. Mom and Dad and Emma. This is their last day together.
A big brown trout lives beneath the huge flat stone where the water curves. Emma dives down and hangs in the cold rock shadow, waiting. She breathes in and out through the snorkel and her breath whooshes like her heart thumping up the tube. The water sways her, tingles, while tiny pebbles sweep along the current at her feet. The pebbles ping and move off and still, she hangs.
Then she sees movement, gleaming scales. Gills and fins swish, dissolve, swish. She looks for spots. Red and orange, and black and red. Gold dust along the belly and shot through the fins. That’s him, that’s the brownie.
“Salmo trutta, brought from Europe in the late 1800s,” Dad has told her. “They’re finicky eaters, shy and hard to catch.” She opens her arms to try.
This time of year Dad uses a Pale Morning Dun on his fly rod, soft grey body and uplifted, lemon yellow wings. A PMD he calls it. Later he’ll use a Wooly Bugger. She loves those names, Pale Morning Dun and Wooly Bugger, the way they come alive on her tongue. She’s learning to fish with Dad. He shows her how to hold the rod in her right hand and string the line out with her left, lifting the rod up and sailing it back, over her shoulder and away, over and away, like a person cracking a very gentle whip. Only she can’t do it right, not yet.
Whenever Dad catches a fish, he calls Emma to come help him identify it, before he works it back off the hook and sets it free. He never kills what he catches, he always sends them back. He identifies them first, though, that’s how she knows the brownie. German Brown. The only one to have red or orange spots on the small fin above the tail, just as Dad showed her.
It’s miraculous to hang with the brown now, suspended. The brown has wide, flat eyes and a tough, grim mouth. A body made of bend. He opens his mouth for the tiniest bits swimming by, and sucks without seeming to swallow.
The brown has no ears, but Dad says he’s sensitive to vibration, the same way on land Emma can feel the pound of loud music in her bones. Because of the current, rock is always crashing under here. Rock rolling into rock, a wild collide.
That’s what the brown knows.
Emma doesn’t blink behind the diving mask. Her hair balloons out. Her mouth feels round holding the snorkel, tough and trout grim. Underwater, she hears what’s inside herself. How her skull rushes and tocks. Sometimes her belly thunks, as if a tiny person were in there, knocking. Bubbles drift past her eyes and shower up.
She flutters her hands and feet, since she needs motion to hold still. And pretends she’ll stay down here forever. She’ll live in the fish world, the world of Pale Morning Duns and Wooly Buggers. Stay in the shadows surrounded by crashing rocks. And Dad won’t have to leave.
Deployed is the word Mom uses. “And I’ll be home for Christmas,” says Dad. “I promise.” Emma counts the months she has to wait. Six. The number swallows her. She’s never been without Dad for even six whole days before.
After Dad leaves, Emma learns Mom is going to have a baby. A baby that will arrive before Dad comes back. They move to Colorado to stay with Alyson, Mom’s best friend, so they won’t be alone. But Emma feels alone anyway.
Colorado is full of too much blue sky and orange, spiring rocks with jagged edges. The rocks walk around the hills with wind shrieking through. Behind the rocks, when the sun is right, are cool shadows Emma hides inside.
Alyson lives in a saggy house at the edge of a dry grass field. She says the sun shines every day in Colorado, even when it rains. Sun presses the windows of her house, but the barn next door is always dark. Emma’s job is to brush the old pony that lives here. To reach the pony Emma walks a dark corridor branching off into darker ones. All the other stalls are mysteriously empty, and drip like the back walls of caves.
Outside is better. Emma is allowed to play in the dry grass field. She runs through the waist-high crackling weeds as if she herself were a pony, racing down paths that smell of stinky sage. An Air Force base is beyond the field. Emma can’t see the base from here but she knows it’s there because of the planes. Every day when the wind is right, planes take off from the base and fly over the field. The planes tow gliders, which are called sailplanes because they have no engines. The gliders are attached to the planes by long cables that look thin as thread from the ground. Once the gliders are up the cable is let go, and the gliders catch the wind. The higher they go the more they look like shiny white crosses against the cracked blue sky.
The planes towing gliders make a show for Emma to watch. She always holds her breath as the cables unhook, waiting to see if the gliders will take the wind. She feels a second of hesitation, like disbelief, before the gliders make their soft whishing, sailing up. Then they slide like birds, or water skeeters when the water skin is calm, lifted just by their whistling, sun-struck wings.
If Emma were in a glider, she’d conjure a big wind to carry her home to California and the creek and the way it used to be. Emma and Mom and Dad. Pale Morning Duns and Wooly Buggers. But she’s not. She’s stuck in Colorado. And in the end the gliders nose down, out of sight, to the landing strip.
Dad calls from far away, where the war is. Emma doesn’t want to imagine it. Instead, she asks him about the gliders. How can they land without engines? She listens carefully while he explains updrafts and air currents and drift. How gliders sail down on their bellies to land. And that’s how she figures it out. If the wind stops, the gliders won’t have any other way down, except crashing.
It’s so hot Mom walks with Emma through the dry grass field and up into some hills to a reservoir. They climb the hills, hearts pounding. That’s the altitude, Mom tells Emma in a wheezy voice. Altitude makes Emma’s ribs ache and her temples throb. It throws the sky down, squishing her. They find the reservoir sitting between two hills, dark as a cup of tea.
“This used to be for people’s drinking water,” says Mom. “But nobody uses it anymore.” Her belly is getting big with the baby, but Mom doesn’t seem to mind. She strips down to her suit, marches to the edge of the brackish water and jumps in.
“Emma, come on!” she calls. “The water’s great!”
Emma won’t. Not in that black and murky grunge. Something terrible lurks in the slime. Mom strokes clear to the middle and Emma’s bones melt, waiting.
Get back here. Now. Please. She glares across the water. How can Mom be so careless? What about the baby?
Mom and Dad taught Emma to swim in a swimming pool. She used to chug underwater between them before she could even walk. In the pictures, Dad is acorn brown and Mom squints, laughing. Emma’s underwater, and the water is so clear her auburn hair waves out the color of fall leaves, or the sunset reflected scarlet in ocean sand, in the wet places where the tide has pulled back.
Now Emma stands at the reservoir’s edge so the water takes her ankles. Her toes sink into ooze. A black thing floats against her leg and she jumps. She wishes the reservoir had a swimming pool drain. A big plug she could pull to suck the slimy water and floating twigs and mucky depths away so only Mom would be left. Mom with the baby in her tummy, on the bottom like a squirmy pollywog. Round and wet, but safe.
Emma goes to second grade in Colorado, where she doesn’t make any friends. On Halloween, Mom helps her with a costume for the school parade. Emma wants to be a pony, but then she decides to be a reindeer instead, even though reindeer are for Christmas.
For her reindeer head, they spray paint a cardboard box extra brown and cut holes for the eyes and mouth, attach silver tinfoil reins. They stick empty paper towel rolls through the box and cut them to look like antlers coming out of the reindeer’s head. Emma’s excited. She believes if she wins first prize for her costume, she’ll finally make a friend. The other kids will see how nice and smart she is and want to talk to her.
In the school cafeteria on Halloween night, everyone’s supposed to walk in a circle in front of the costume judges. The cafeteria is dim, with spooky little skull lights cobwebby in the corners. There’s a creepy skeleton and the teachers have carnival booths set up to play bean toss and darts, and a barrel to dunk for apples.
Emma can’t do any of it with her reindeer box head on. She just waits for the judging contest to start. Anyway she’s glad for her box head. She likes being behind the cardboard face, where no one can see the real her. She trots around the contest circle, her front hooves pawing air. She’s a reindeer and this is already Christmas. The lights in the corners are Christmas tree lights instead of little skulls. The booths are strung with sharp green cedar boughs and children are getting gifts. You can take your picture sitting on the lap of a man dressed up as Santa Claus. And when Santa takes off his suit it’s going to be Dad, waiting to surprise her.
Being a reindeer is the best part of that school. But even though she wins first prize, Emma still doesn’t make any friends. Instead, she goes back to hiding during recess, at the far end of the play yard where a bunch of the red rocks rise up, their faces warm as the sun from home.
Emma sees two people doing it in the dry grass field in Colorado. She runs around a bend and there they are, naked. A horse stands next to them, much larger than the pony in the barn, stomping the crackling grass. The horse’s reins droop down. The people are in this weird position. Legs and arms, and arms and legs, so you can’t tell which is which. The sun is so bright it bleaches their bodies to stone. They aren’t moving. Only the horse, whose tail flicks. He lifts his head.
He looks right at her.
She hates thinking of Mom and Dad doing it like the man and lady in the field. But she knows that’s what they did to get the baby. She can already tell that people forget everything, though, when it is involved. Like leaving your horse untied, for instance, with the reins drooped down. What if the horse wandered off? Got onto the road, ran in front of a truck?
Emma never used to worry about stuff like that. When Dad was home and they lived near the creek in California, she never worried at all. She never thought about water that can swallow you whole, or people leaving, or having to move to a new place for waiting, alone.
But the worst part of going to Colorado—the most terrible—the thing Emma wishes she could erase forever, is watching the baby being born. She doesn’t mean to. Mom is supposed to go to the hospital first. But then Cara, the midwife, comes hurrying over, and Mom calls from behind the closed door where she’s with Alyson and Cara. And Cara says, “There’s no time left.”
There’s been a thunderstorm, but then the sun comes back, just like Alyson said. They don’t even notice Emma rushing in. Mom’s calling out and scrabbling up Alyson’s arm and Cara purses her lips for puffy breathing. The two women make a tight knot around the bed, one Emma can’t get in to. She stands in the corner by herself. She keeps her eyes down most of the time, or looks out the window toward the field, hoping to see a glider.
When at last she catches a glimpse of one, she feels as if she herself is lifted up, out the window into thin air. The room falls away. The messy noises. The sky opens an astonished blue and scatters with huge, brilliant clouds. She breathes in the clouds, and the wet clouds pinprick her cheeks.
Everything is quiet.
“Is he breathing?” she hears Mom whisper.
Emma shifts to look. Alyson and Cara huddle around the bed. There’s blood all over Mom’s legs and belly; a slimy baby in the blood. Alyson’s face is sorry. Nobody moves.
Cara pulls the baby away and fusses with it. It looks like a tiny, wrinkled, watery seal. Its seal eyes and mouth are squinched shut. Emma feels everyone hesitate. With no current of air to take them, the entire room is going to crash.
Emma holds her own breath forever. Finally the baby squeaks and Mom starts to cry.
Now Emma has a tiny brother.
“The rainbow trout, iridues,” Dad says, “is named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, because of their iridescent color.”
At the creek, Emma has learned that a rainbow fights differently than a brown when you hook one on the fly. The rainbow doesn’t pull so hard but can leap into the air, arch and dive down. Some rainbow trout swim clear to the ocean and back, then they’re called steelhead. Steelheads turn steely blue and only live long enough to spawn their eggs before they die.
Emma has seen lots of rainbows in their creek in California, but not lots of brown trout. The brownie is the rarer one. And the brown that lives in the bend beneath the flat rock is so wily, even Dad has never been able to hook him.
Hanging with that brown in the creek in California, fluttering her arms and legs to hold still, Emma wonders what it would be like to reach out and gentle the brown between her hands. Rock him in one palm as Dad does letting a fish go, giving it time to understand. Only underwater, where the brown still knows just how to breathe, he isn’t afraid. He lies quietly for her, unblinking, offering the colors on his painted side like a story.
Emma hears a rock thunk, and suddenly the fish startles. Quick as an arrow lifting up. For a second she follows his frantic dart. How he finds a cup of water that dips over the rocks on the current, slides and skirts away.
Emma feels a burst of bright light, air. When she stands her feet are numb. Her arms tingle. She has legs again. She wiggles her toes. She stumbles over rocks that feel sharp, since the water’s only smooth if you’re swimming it.
She makes the bank, grips a sunny rock, shimmies up and flops over. The hot granite rises like a whale back. Treetops laze overhead. A breeze fans goose bumps across her skin. Her skin is iced. Her heart still crashes like the underwater rocks and her mind still bends like the fish. But her eyes are fierce with sun.
Sometimes, Emma wonders what would have happened if the baby had died. Or Mom had been swallowed in the reservoir with the baby still inside her. Or Dad hadn’t come home. Not because any of these things did happen, but because now she knows, having once seen the possibilities, that they could.
Which is why, standing in the airport on Christmas Day, waiting for Dad, the stuffy air awash with jingly music, she doesn’t know what to do. It’s like she’s got the reindeer box head on, but everything else is a mask. Behind the mask she sees the fake green cedar boughs dripping down from the airport walls. The smiling electric Santas waving from the countertops. And how plastic the tall white tree is, blurred with tiny lights.
When she finally sees Dad come striding down the escalator, faster than the moving steps, it’s just like he promised. Dad tanned acorn brown as if he never left the creek. As if any minute he’ll tie on a PMD and sail out his line, over and away. He catches Mom up. He lifts the baby in his arms. He looks around for Emma.
But still she doesn’t move.
“There you are!” he says. “Come here.”
Emma can’t. What if he finds out? What if he knows she’s seen things beyond her years and isn’t his little girl anymore? All these lonesome months, right there in her eyes.
And then Dad pulls her to him. A trout swimming upstream. The wild collide of rock crashes into rock. She breathes in and out and her breath whooshes like her heart thumping up a tube. “Merry Christmas,” Dad says, “I’m home!” And Emma finds at last, in the warmth of his arms, she can hang that way, suspended.