I watch as you squat under the lamplight before the tall, cast-iron gate to remove a wrapped box from a duffle bag. And I note something different about you this year. The setting has not changed: the moon, no matter how silvered or round yet reflects off the metal roof of the old Victorian home she inherited from her grandmother; the slightest movement of air still produces a creak in the weather vane; and the empty maple tree continues to stretch upward toward illuminated clouds, as if in supplication.
No, the setting is the same . . . the same as it was every Christmas she waited for you to return. That’s what happens when you make promises to those with trusting hearts. They wait. First with expectation, then with straining hope, and then . . . well, then with futility.
He said he’d be back by Christmas. How many times in the first years had she spoken those words to neighbors? First with expectation and then with straining hope and then . . . well, then no more. In spite of her silence, I watched her continue to wait.
It had been by chance—while drawing my drapes—that I spied you the first year I moved into the house next door. You stood tall and wiry, grasping the bars and resting your forehead between them. You leaned from the outside, yet you—not the house surrounded by solid-black spires—appeared the one imprisoned. I knew you must be the he of whom she had spoken.
Unlatch the gate—go back to her, I urged, though you couldn’t hear. It was the frost forming on the blades of dull grass, and on the cracked bird bath, and on the collar of your jacket that sent you away—or so I imagined.
But like a sentinel, you returned annually to your post. Always in the shadows, always with the air of tragic longing. How long would it take you to commit? Last year, under the pretext of an evening stroll, I tipped my hat to you at the gate. “Go in,” I pleaded. “She waits.”
And while your controlling emotion seemed a blend of longing and hesitation, mine was fear. Apparently you had never read a certain story, the details of which are murky even for me, who read it twenty-fold before my boyhood moved on. No. If you had read such a story, in such an anthology as sat on our end table, then you, too, would be afraid.
It was the story of Peter Pan, an early version—the precursor to what would become the iconic tale of youthful fantasy. This was the Peter Pan who left his mother for the faeries, and then occasionally flitted back to the nursery window to spy upon her. He was sorry, so sorry, for her misery, but never ready or willing to go back to relieve it— believing the bars outside the window would always be open.
If you had read of him finally returning to be with her for good, but finding her nurturing another babe—the bars locked shut—then you would be afraid. And no abatement for your fear would materialize, because that is where the story ends—at lock-out time.
The metal rooster creaks through a quarter turn, bringing me back to you as you re-zip your duffle and swing it across your shoulder. And suddenly, I understand what’s different. You’ve brought a gift. You intend to go through the gate you’ve danced with for so many years. Your hand hovers, drops, and then with a decided movement, presses the latch lever.
But you are not the only one who found resolve this year.
The first time I saw you, I expected you would find your way home, and a year later, I still prayed. But your continued anniversaries outside the gate whittled the expectation and hope to anger and then to fear until this year, at long last, I pressed the latch to her gate myself and invited her home for this Christmas and every other.
I hear her footsteps pad softly along the carpet runners of my—our house. With a shiver, I take my hand from the drapery, allowing the velvet halves to merge.
“What is that clanging” she asks, coming into the circle of my arms.
Ahh, the clanging—and also the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
“I'm afraid it’s the sound of lock-out time.”
My pity for you is without end.
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