Previous Challenge Entry (Level 2 – Intermediate)
Topic: Christmas Tree (10/09/08)
TITLE: Barking up the Right Tree
By matthew buchanan
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A week before Christmas of 1995, in the small community of Apple Valley, the Steerhorn trailer-house, unlit, stood, an anomaly in a brightly decorated block. When his wife died, John Steerhorn decided that things like decoration, gifts, or other simple joys of the season were too painful. Lights would’ve reminded him of her, of the way that, even when she was bald and weighed sixty-nine pounds, she had insisted on wearing a Santa hat and passing out her hilariously hand-made Christmas presents.
Four days before Christmas, John Steerhorn’s youngest daughter came home from school carrying an angel that she’d made out of paper plates, glue, and glitter.
“Gee, dad,” Carol said, “I wish we had a tree to put this on.”
John looked at his daughter, who had her mother’s eyes. Tears filled his eyes.
“But I guess we can just put it on top of the refrigerator,” she said.
John stopped crying. “I’ve got a better idea,” he said. He gathered her up in his arms, and then brought her to the front yard. “You know, Mom planted this tree hoping it would grow big enough to be a Christmas tree for us all,” John said, looking at the two-foot tall ponderosa pine of spindly trunk and brown needles. “She always said that we should gather around this tree at Christmas time and sing joyful songs.”
John set the angel up on the branch, but the paper-plate angel fell down amidst the golden rocks of the house. John picked it up, set it back on the tree, only to see the angel blown against the fence by a strong wind.
“I don’t feel like singing,” said Carol.
“Neither do I.”
Carol and John didn’t mention Christmas decorations again. When John’s son Crawford came home from college two days before Christmas, the house was still dark, the decorations still stowed in boxes in the shed behind the house. John didn’t even mention taking them out, and Crawford didn't press the issue.
On Christmas Eve, in a house bereft of gifts, John and Carol and Crawford sat staring at their Christmas meal. Crawford had learned to cook the standard fare of Christmas through the years by watching his mother work in the kitchen and asking her “What are you doing?” until she pulled him into the kitchen and said, “It’s about time you try it.” He knew why she had now. As they stared at the food, nobody said a word. John had never been one to pray out loud. The silence was stifling, suffocating.
Carol broke the silence. “Mom always prayed for the meal. I’ll do it tonight. Lord Jesus, thanks for your love that you showed us on Christmas…” Carol broke into tears.
“Honey, I can finish praying for you,” John said.
“No, daddy—I want to be brave. Like mommy. Dear Jesus, please tell Mommy we love her and we miss her and we wish she were here right now and bless the kids around the world and amen.”
At the amen, the silence of the table was broken by the bark of a dog. Or, more accurately, by the howling of a dog that sounded as if it had treed a squirrel and was trying to let hunters know three miles away that their prey was as good as caught. Carol went to the door.
“Dad—mom’s tree is shaking.”
John went out to investigate. There, at the base of the Christmas tree, head down as if trying to hide from the strong wind, was a small Beagle.
“Puppy!” Carol said.
“Mom,” said John and Crawford, simultaneously.
The day after Christmas, the Steerford family put up all their decorations. And, or so neighborhood legend has it, every Christmas Eve a dog can be heard howling with joy around the town of Apple Valley.
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