The Christmas Garden
Alyssa Chandler stretched to hang an ornament from the highest branch of her Christmas tree. She cringed when a sharp pain in her side reminded her of the incision still healing after her recent surgery. The procedure had been successful, but her doctor had warned her not to “overdo.”
I thought she meant racquetball, not a little decorating.
Her friends and family had been relieved when they’d heard the prognosis. There was no cancer; there would be no need for additional surgeries or therapy. The danger, as her family saw it, was gone. But so was her ability to have children.
Children—running, screaming, laughing, crying children—my children; children that will never be.
Some of her friends already had kids. Some of those kids were old enough to start school. Her friends complained about the cost of supplies, sporting equipment, and childcare. She envied them and their expenses. In college, she’d devoted herself to study. After graduating at the head of her class, she’d landed the job of her dreams for more money than she had imagined possible. She could afford to postpone marriage until her career. Her position with the firm was established.
Aly had thought she had more time.
She’d always thought she had more time.
She gently placed the ornament down on the glass coffee table as she slid into her sofa, holding her stomach. She wanted to get an early start on her holiday decorating, and the eve of Thanksgiving seemed the perfect time. She would not be expected at work until Monday.
She looked at the pendulum clock on her piano: eight o’clock. She could have the tree finished by ten if only her body would cooperate. Her San Diego townhome would sparkle this year, every year a little more than the year before, she wished. She tried.
She always set up and decorated the tree first. At one time, it had belonged to her parents. They would have thrown it out when they bought the new one, but Aly had wanted it. The tree that had witnessed so many happy Christmases could not end in a landfill. But there were broken limbs that she strategically placed toward the rear and below her bay window. Some were so damaged that they hung upside down, no matter how many times she twisted or bent them.
Around and through every branch, she laced tiny white lights that year after year knotted themselves into a mass of wire regardless of how carefully she had stored them the year before.
She’d collected dozens of ornaments, more than she ever used. Some were made of crystal and glass, and some were quite old, antiques that broke when they fell from even the lowest branch. Some were cartoon characters like Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny. And she had ornaments that featured tiny mice roasting marshmallows or sleeping in matchboxes with little candy canes in their hands. She had already hung most of them, each slowly and deliberately, reflecting on the moment she’d either purchased or received it.
After a brief rest on the couch, she felt renewed as if the pain had never been nor ever would be again. She wondered why she’d ever sat down, to begin with, but when she reached to hang that final ornament, she paused.
The tree looks pretty good to me—no need to overdo.
With all the lights in the house turned off except those on the tree, she experienced a mild tingle of awe.
The Christmas garden was next.
She set it up beneath the tree every year as her father had done before her and as, until this year, she had hoped her children would do after her.
Her daddy’s turn-of-the-century Victorian-era village was authentic to the smallest detail. Aside from his children, there had been no greater joy in his life. Every Christmas season, he had added something that somehow hadn’t been missed the year before but was essential for that particular year. Once, it was a railroad engineer. Another year it was a group of carolers clustered outside the open front door of a home while a family of four stood in the doorway, watching. The last piece he’d added, the year before he’d died, was a tiny figurine of a man holding a little girl’s hand.
The train that ran around the perimeter and through a mountain at the rear wasn’t the big kind that ran on the silver track, track that looked nothing like a real railroad. It wasn’t a tiny train too hard to see and too delicate to handle. It was the in-between type that made neither too much nor too little noise.
When the garden was in place, she added three drops of what the hobby-shop sales clerk told her was liquid smoke to the engine’s red smokestack. Then she switched on the transformer and watched the train inch its way around the quaint little village. On the second pass, smoke began to huff from the chimney like tiny breaths in cool air. Satisfied that the mechanics of the garden were in good working order, she switched off the transformer and made some minor adjustments, moving the miniature postman from the front of his sandpaper-rough redbrick building to the cool leather seat of his horse-drawn cart, shifting the one-room schoolhouse a little farther up the hill, and clustering the ladies on the street into groups of pastel parasols and filigree lace.
Every character in the garden had a history, a memory associated with it, and a story that only it could tell, and only Aly could hear. She closed her eyes and listened for faint voices, singing, laughter—the sounds of a village, a village very much alive, if only in her imagination. It was a new season, a new time to tell their story again.
The man and the little girl were positioned by an iced-over pond. Aly imagined that they were expecting someone. They both seemed happy, yet something about them felt forlorn and incomplete. Perhaps they were lonely, as there were no other people around them. Perhaps the person they were waiting for was his wife, the little girl’s mother. Maybe they were weary from a long journey but had no home, no place to rest on this eternal Christmas Eve in the garden.
“Hello.” She reached out and stroked the man’s tiny face as she might stroke the feathers of a dove, not wanting to rouse or frighten it.
Of all the characters in the garden and all the stories they could tell, year after year, the man by the pond with the little girl intrigued and fascinated her. She wondered why her father had positioned them alone, separated from all others. She’d once tried to place other people in the park, but they didn’t belong. It was as if the two needed to be alone as if they needed to continue their long wait.
“Who are you?” she asked the small figure.
It was nearly midnight, and her eyes were heavy. Her body urged her to bed, but the garden needed some minor adjustments, so she convinced herself that working beneath the tree would give her energy to make the long climb up the stairs to her bedroom.
Again, she touched the man in the park. She was sure it was his daughter next to him.
Her eyes closed, her head drooped, almost bounced, and then her eyes opened again. She stretched her body on the fuzzy, soft living-room carpet and rested her head on her arm.
Just for a moment…
She closed her eyes beneath the softly glowing lights of her tree. When she opened them again, she was in the middle of Main Street in the center of her garden. The buildings and people that surrounded her were all familiar. She’d positioned them year after year. She knew she was dreaming, but it was a delightful delusion. She could hear the carolers singing, and gentle flakes of snow fell all around. The pine and evergreen of Christmas were thick in the air, as was the happy laughter of people passing by.
“Merry Christmas to you,” one jolly man greeted her with a friendly tip of his top hat.
“Welcome home, Alyssa,” a young lady said as she passed, escorted by a handsome young gentleman in a gray suit with a matching gray hat and tie, pointing a thin, black cane in the direction of his walk.
The church service was ending. She could hear the people thanking the pastor for his splendid sermon as he wished them a merry Christmas.
Everyone was dressed in classic Victorian attire.
I’ll stand out for sure.
Then she noticed that her clothing matched the period. Her gown was long, her leather boots tight. She had a wide-brimmed hat on her head, held in place by a long pin that ran through her hair. A lace veil covered her face, and her gloved hands clutched an umbrella. Around one wrist, a small drawstring purse was tied. Her ribs felt tight as if held in the grip of a mighty hand, and she found it difficult to breathe.
A corset. I’m wearing a corset.
She squinted into the night sky to get a glimpse of the tree—her tree, the one that loomed godlike above the garden—but there was nothing but flakes of snow falling out of the darkness. She walked toward the church. She might have run, but the bulk of her clothing constrained her movement.
“Alyssa.” The pastor paused to greet her while shaking a parishioner’s hand. “The service is just ending. Wherever have you been?”
“I do apologize, sir, for my late arrival.” It would be fun to play the part. “I so wanted to worship on Christmas Eve. May I have a moment inside?”
“Why, yes, of course,” he replied. “Our doors will be open all night.”
As she squeezed past those making their way from the tiny sanctuary, many greeted her, some with a “How do you do, Mrs. Arden?” and others with a “Merry Christmas to you, Mrs. Arden.”
Mrs. Arden? Who is Mrs. Arden?
The name sounded vaguely familiar, but she didn’t struggle to recall. She simply accepted that she was Mrs. Arden, whoever that was.
What intrigued her most was the mystery of Mr. Arden. Who was he? In which home did he live? Where could she find him?
The mixed aroma of fresh-cut evergreen and melting candle wax bathed Alyssa’s senses as she stepped inside the church. No worshipers remained, but she felt surrounded by an infinite intelligence, by pure love, by a being wholly other, yet near and familiar. Only once before had she felt this presence so strongly. She had been eight years old, alone on a hillside at dusk. It was summer, warm but cooling rapidly. The earth was settling in for the evening; even the birds had ceased their singing and flying. White clouds reflected the orange and red of the setting sun as they sat motionless in the sky. She’d felt it then, in that still and quiet moment. It had surrounded her and engulfed her as it did in this place. It inspired in her a blend of awe and peace while it made her feel loved and held.
In that little church, the soft light of dozens of candles reflected in the stained glass to create an atmosphere more inviting than any she’d ever known. The altar was draped in garland and red bows. The pews were shaped from solid wood, and in each, a vine with ripened grapes had been carved. She walked slowly to a pew on her right side. She slipped within and eased herself down to muffle the creak of the wood beneath her.
Her heart and mind were in perfect peace. She closed her eyes and imagined that the remarkable presence she felt was incarnate, standing at her side, and reaching out to hold her.
When a hand did descend upon her shoulder, it startled her.
“I’m so sorry,” the pastor said. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“Not at all, Pastor,” she said. “Have the others gone?”
“All to their homes, all with merry hearts and God’s blessing.”
“Would you like me to leave?”
“Not until you’re ready,” he said. “You can remain all night if you like, but I suspect your husband and child might miss you. Do they know you’ve returned? Have you seen them since you arrived?”
Husband and child?
She looked away from the pastor and brought her hand to her mouth in a gesture made to look like a yawn but designed to shield her shock.
“No,” she said. “I haven’t.”
“I suppose you came here looking for them. They left early.”
“I see,” she said. “Well, I should be going then.”
“May I pray with you?” he asked as he sat in the pew next to her.
He reached out his hand, and she placed hers into his. It was a calloused hand, the way her father’s used to be, not at all the hand of a clergyman. In such a small village, he probably had his own farm to tend to or did some other form of work to support his own family, maybe even other members of the congregation. She wondered if her family was one he had labored to help.
Each rough knot in the pastor’s gentle grasp reminded Aly of her father’s skill and care, whether he was building a modern house from the foundation to the drywall or reconstructing the finest carved panel to match an original Victorian piece. The warmth of the pastor’s voice as he began to pray echoed the paternal love of his touch.
“Heavenly Father.” The pastor squinted his eyes shut, as if with effort. “I give you thanks for my lovely and healthy sister, for seeing her through this past troubled and dark year in her life. I thank you most of all for bringing her home safely to us and to her husband and daughter. It’s been a long journey, but you have brought her home now, and we thank you for the gift she is to all of us in our village. God, I ask your richest blessing on her this evening. I pray that you will give her a Christmas filled with joy, as she has never known. Amen.”
“Amen,” she echoed. “Thank you, Pastor.”
“Now seek him, my dear,” he admonished her and patted the top of her hand. “As much as I treasure your company on this sacred evening, your happiness lies out there with him, not in here with me. I will see you in the morning, I’m sure. So go now and find them.”
As he rose, he gently pulled at her hand, then squeezed it warmly with the grip of one accustomed to much handshaking. His robes were long and white, and his eyes were kind.
“I’m so glad you came,” he said.
“Thank you, Pastor.”
“Merry Christmas, Aly.”
“And to you, sir.”
The people from the church were dispersing, each to their own homes. She followed one family a short distance until they too turned into their home. The gentleman paused at his door and glanced in her direction.
“Mrs. Arden, my dear,” he called. “You should not be out and about alone, even on this most holy night. May I escort you home?”
“No, sir,” she said. “I do not wish to take you from your family.”
“It is no inconvenience, I assure you.” He closed the door behind him and walked to the fence that enclosed his tiny yard. Passing through the gate, he extended his arm to her.
“How long have you lived here?” she inquired as she slid her arm into his, and they began to walk.
“Why,” he laughed, “the same as you. All of my life, I have walked these streets, attended this church, and loved these people.”
“It is a lovely family you have.”
“Indeed, it is,” he said. “I am a most fortunate man.”
As they walked, they passed the group of carolers that were serenading the last house on the street. A family in nightclothes and robes shivered at their door with wonder on their faces.
“My word,” he said as he brought her to a stop.
The house before her was dark but not abandoned. Each window was adorned with a wreath and each wreath with a ribbon of red. A tree stood in the largest window behind curtains of white lace.
“It appears your dearest has gone in search of you.”
“I believe I know where he is,” she assured him. “You need trouble yourself no further on my account.”
“As you wish.” He bowed. “May you and yours have a very merry Christmas. I shall return to my home at a leisurely pace. Should you have need of me, simply call, and I shall appear.”
“Thank you so much,” she said. “You are most kind indeed, and a merry Christmas to you.”
When he had gone, she looked into the dark woods that began just beyond the end of the street, just beyond what the gentleman had identified as her home.
Could her “dearest” be the man by the pond? Her heart began to race. It mattered not if he were the one to whom others had referred; this was her chance to meet him face to face, to unveil the mystery of so many years. But to do it, she must venture into the dark woods alone on this Christmas Eve. And what would she find when she reached the pond? Would he know her as everyone else in this town had? Or would he be as much a mystery to her in greeting as he’d always been?
She walked toward the trees tentatively, the unbroken snow yielding under her foot with a crunch and then another. The air was fresh and clean, rejuvenating, clearing her mind, and inspiring hope and optimism.
Her pace quickened.
She had no wish to remain in the darkness alone. Soon she emerged at the edge of the pond. There were no moon or stars overhead, no source of light, and yet there was light: blue, as if from a full moon in a clear midnight sky.
There he was.
He strolled along the edge of the water, the little girl beside him swinging his hand merrily.
Her heart quickened; her mouth ran dry. She stood still in the snow, frozen in place as if part of the landscape. Could she walk if she tried, could she speak if spoken to? She looked around for a place to hide, but it was too late.
The little girl saw her first.
She broke free of her father’s hand and ran toward her.
“Mommy,” she shouted.
Oh, the sweet sound.
She knew this could never be, but for this one moment, it was her reality, and she was determined to treasure it. In this little girl’s embrace, motherhood would finally belong to her.
She knelt at the girl’s level and held out her arms.
My wish, my dream is running to me now.
The little girl’s face was radiant with love.
In Aly’s deepest longing, this was the child she’d always believed she’d have, and when the little girl wrapped her arms around her neck and squeezed, Aly had no more doubts. She was the little girl’s mother. This was no dream; this was her life, the life she was meant to live. The other life: that was the dream. She would never awaken, never again. She belonged in the arms of this little girl, now and forever.
“Oh, baby,” she said. “My precious child. Did you miss Mommy?”
“Don’t cry, Mommy. We’re together now.”
Her eyes were shut, but she could hear him advancing. Hot tears warmed her cold cheek. At first, the snow crunching beneath his feet was distant, but as he drew closer, his steps slowed until the sound was next to her, and the warmth of his body conveyed his proximity. She’d wondered about him for years, and by simply opening her eyes, she would wonder no more.
She held her little girl, and with their heads pressed together; she looked up at him.
His eyes sparkled as if a light came on inside of him when near her, his face chiseled and bronze. His hair was sun-streaked, his build strong and solid. She stood but kept a grip on the girl’s hand with her own.
“Welcome home,” he said as he leaned forward to kiss her cheek.
“I’ve come from church,” she said.
“Have you been home that long?”
“The service was ending.” Her heart beat even faster now as they began to walk. Her daughter gripped her hand to one side, and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and hugged. “I stopped in. The pastor prayed for me.”
“He is a good man. Our village is blessed to have him. The pastor and I did some work together while you were away. He’s a fine carpenter, you know.”
“Is that what you are?”
He kissed her head again. “Always the teaser. I missed you so much.”
Walking along in deep snow, she should have been cold, but she wasn’t. It should have been too dark to see him clearly, but it wasn’t. The walk to the pond had seemed longer than the walk from it.
He opened the gate, and she passed before him to the door. It was open. He struck a match and set a lamp ablaze. Then he started on individual candles.
“If you don’t go to bed soon,” he said to his daughter, “Santa might not stop here.” And then to Aly, he said, “Go on, honey. Take her upstairs and tuck her in. I’ll finish with the candles and heat up some cider.”
She knew the way. She knew where her daughter’s bedclothes were stored. She knew where the lamp was and how to light it. If she paused to consider how she knew, she feared she might forget, but if she simply acted, one step led to the next, and her daughter was securely tucked into her high canopy bed. She’d always wanted a bed with a canopy that required a stool to climb into, but the ceilings in the homes of her other life were too low to accommodate such luxuries as were commonplace not so long ago.
She folded the blankets under her daughter’s chin. From the neck down, she was buried beneath an array of blankets and sheets. Her face protruding above gave her the appearance of a bookmark in a large book. The girl’s long, black hair sprawled loose upon the big, white, fluffy pillow.
“Can I get you anything?”
“My song, Mommy,” she said. “Don’t forget my song.”
She began to sing a lullaby she’d never heard before:
Lay your head to rest on your pillow
Sweet dreams I pray for you, dear
Till light shines once more on the willow
And again, I comfort you here,
And again, I comfort you here.
Though the night seems long and foreboding
An angel will guard you until
Our hands join again in holding
And the night is wonderfully still,
And the night is wonderfully still.
Her daughter’s eyes grew heavy under the melody. Aly ran her middle finger across the little girl’s brow, and when the song was over, she kissed her daughter’s head, picked up the lamp, and went back to her husband.
The tree sat in a bay window, and on its branches, every candle was lit. Beyond the window, snow fell softly. Her husband was positioning presents beneath the branches of the tree. The gifts were packaged in reds and greens with wide lace bows and ribbons. She stood for a few moments on the bottom step to enjoy the living room and the man working so hard in it. The heat of the lamp in her hand, the smell of the tree, the chill of the wintry air all worked together to support her illusion, to convince her that everything before her was real.
“Aly.” He looked over his shoulder at her. “Is she asleep?”
“I think so.”
He came to her, removed the lamp from her hand, and placed it on a nearby table, where its soft flicker made the shadows feel comforting and warm. Then he swept her up in his arms, and before she knew what to think, she was tucked into his lap on the sofa. He wiggled his nose against hers, and then he kissed her. His lips were coarse and chapped from too much time in the elements.
“I’ve missed you,” he said.
She gently rubbed the side of his face with her hand. He hadn’t shaved. His bristles were like sandpaper. Tough and gruff, he closed his eyes as she stroked him. She kissed the other side of his face, and then his nose, and then she sealed her lips around his. Their fingers interlaced, hers smooth and his callused.
“I’ve missed you too,” she said. And she had. He’d always been here waiting for her. There was a place in her heart hidden to the light of day that knew this to be so.
“You’re frisky.” He grinned. “If this is how you come home to me, perhaps we should be apart more often.”
“Not on your life, mister,” she said. She still didn’t know his name. “I won’t be leaving again anytime soon.”
“You always say that.” He shrugged. “But I’m proud of you. You follow your dreams until they come true. So many give up. Some lose heart. Some grow weary. But you never quit. You inspire me, Alyssa Arden, and when I’m with you, I’m the happiest man in the village, no doubt in the world.” He ran his fingers into her hair, to the back of her head. “Tell me, though, do I make you happy? Have I built a good home for you? Do you want for anything?”
“I’m complete,” she said, and for the first time in her life, she understood the meaning of the word. “I neither need nor want for more than what I have in this very moment. I love you, you love me, and our daughter is happy and healthy, asleep in her bed, dreaming of Santa Claus. What more could there possibly be?”
She slipped her arm around his shoulders and rested her head upon his chest. Her eyes grew heavy, and then she remembered with some apprehension: sleep. She was asleep, but if in this present state she remained alert, she might never return to what she had left. She forced her eyes to open as wide as she could, but the crackling fire, the scent of embers and holly, and his rhythmic breathing proved hypnotic. Her eyes closed, but against her face, his coarse shirt provided reassurance of his presence, of his reality.
In that moment, she stretched, and suddenly his shirt reminded her of the carpet on the living room floor of her townhome. She reached for him, but the surface upon which she lay was flat.
“No,” she moaned. “No, it can’t be. I won’t open my eyes. I won’t, and you won’t go. I won’t leave you again. Now that I’ve finally found you, I’ll never go. Please, God, don’t let it be.”
The scent of embers and holly lingered, but faintly and growing more distant with each moment. She knew she had both awakened and returned, but she struggled to retain the vivid details and emotional satisfaction of her journey. When she opened her eyes, all that remained to her were fragmented images and sensations.
She closed her eyes again.
A tear escaped and ran cold upon her nose.
She tried to force her mind back into the dream, but like a stubborn mule, it wasn’t moving. She tried to remember, to commit the images, fragrances, and sensations to memory. She couldn’t let this wonderful gift drift into oblivion like so many other pleasant dreams.
She pushed herself up and looked across her Christmas garden. The first thing she saw was the man standing near the lake with the little girl beside him.
“I’ll come back to you. I promise,” she told them.