Authors: Nancy Springer
By Nancy Springer
Copyright 2012 by Nancy Springer
Cover Copyright 2012 by Ginny Glass
and Untreed Reads Publishing
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold, reproduced or transmitted by any means in any form or given away to other people without specific permission from the author and/or publisher. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to the living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Also by Nancy Springer and Untreed Reads Publishing
The Boy Who Called God “She”
The Boy Who Plaited Manes
The Scent of an Angel
Most old women like me don’t bother with a Christmas tree. “Like me” means on a fixed income, which equals poor, and also means getting more lonely and scared each day as the other old women you know die off. Lonely is when you buy postage stamps one at a time, so when there’s something to mail you can walk to the post office and talk to somebody. Scared is when you realize you already own all the clothes you’re ever going to need, including something decent for your funeral.
Show me some “Q-Tip,” some “wrinkly,” some small-town “senior citizen” like me who says they’re not scared of dying, and I’ll show you a liar. No matter how much peace and light some of us talk, we all go around with perturbed shadows inside us. Trust me. If you’re my age, the reason you stop bothering with a Christmas tree is because you’re scared you might not be around for another Christmas, so you try not to let Christmas matter. You make excuses. There’s not enough room in your apartment. Your back aches. It’s too much trouble. Your husband’s not around anymore to cuss and complain while he puts up the lights. Christmas is for young people and children.
You tell the kids not to get you anything. Except I only ever had one child and she died, so that takes care of that. She was hit by a pie truck, of all things. Husband died too, fell over in the middle of a Rotary Club meeting when he was fifty-four. Heart attack.
I think that’s when I started to get old. Such being the case, I have spent one-third of my life being old and I am still trying to get a handle on it.
Which brings me to this either senile or visionary business of the bottle-brush tree. Except I don’t want you thinking it took place all at once like somebody pressed a button on the back of my head, because that was not the case at all. It started way back in early summer, maybe even spring, and I didn’t even know what I wanted the bottle caps for. I mean the plastic ones off cartons of milk or orange juice. They were bright-colored circles, that’s all, and I started saving them because I just plain liked them. They gave me pleasure that didn’t cost me a penny extra. I started keeping an eye on people’s trash and recycling bins during my daily walks, because I had blue, green, orange, yellow, and white but I wanted red, pink and purple. And to make it harder and more satisfying I wanted only bottle caps with no logos or lettering. Innocent, so to speak. I kept them in a bowl in the kitchen and sometimes I’d count them or line them up by color or play with them, making the little circles into bigger circular designs on top of the table.
My little girl, Iris, when she was alive, she used to play for hours with what most people would consider trash, like oatmeal boxes or toilet paper rolls, corn cobs or maple wings. Right up till she died when she was seven, she had magic inside her head that could make just about anything alive.
Except herself after the truck ran her over.
Most people think I named my little girl after a beautiful flower. Which I did, but also I had in mind the Greek goddess Iris, who carried messages from the clouds on top of Mount Olympus to the earth below, as a rainbow.
By the time summer was over, I had bottle caps all the colors of the rainbow and then some, but it turned out I was just getting started. I walked every day, sometimes twice a day, because it had become important for me to find pretty, I mean really perfect lovely little things that the rest of the blind world just chucked in the trash. Like a tiny plastic doll I picked up from the gutter, or shiny paper clips, or those powder-blue lacework circles from kids’ cap guns, just dropped on the sidewalks, forgotten.
When winter set in and it got too cold to walk much, I found a thrift shop with a “FREE” box. You would not believe—well, maybe you would, but I could not believe—the good things they dumped in there. A bright yellow plastic whistle, absolutely perfect, and a tiny toy white bird that just needed to be scrubbed clean, and a lavender plastic butterfly, and—oh, all colors of clips like mini clothespins, and strings and strings of Mardi Gras beads, and I could keep going but I’d wear you out.
Just one more thing: week after week I kept finding jacks like the ones I used to play “ball and jacks” with when I was a girl, except these were plumper and more satisfying and all pretty colors of plastic, not dull metal. I brought them home till I had dozens. They would spin like tops and make a blur of circle color, and such colors I never saw before, even in a sunset. Young people these days don’t know what they
. Pinky orange periwinkle lilac jacks. I would sort them into rainbow caterpillars, or stack them on top of bottle caps like circus acrobats.
Circus is a good word to describe that thrift shop, the clowns who worked there and the midway stuff they sold. I could have bought Chinese pottery nose cleaners and Mexican sombreros and inflatable Elvises and Mount Rushmore paint-by-numbers and a stuffed moose head that sang “Unchained Melody,” but I didn’t. I was sticking to my rules I’d set for myself pretty much out of nowhere and not knowing why. Such as, the things I took home had to be of no cost, meaning no value, overlooked by people in general but cherished by me. Like the baby rattles and teething toys I found in the “FREE” box, barely used. Bright yellow ducks, little pink pretzels, little blue blunt-winged airplanes.
Back when Iris had died, within a year I gave away her clothes and toys. Then after my husband died, within the next couple of years I got rid of all the photos, all the Christmas tree ornaments, all the birthday knick-knacks, all the anniversary trinkets. Some people hang onto memories, but for some people, doing that just hurts worse.
That’s how I thought it was for me. Yet at that thrift shop freebies box, I couldn’t keep away from those tiny baby things. I took a few home—a powder-blue teething doughnut, bright plastic pretend keys on a ring, a circle of chewy plastic beads. I’d lay that one on the table and arrange the bottle caps inside it and try to see how many jacks I could balance on top before they all fell down like the children in the nursery rhyme, ashes, ashes.
Like Iris, dust to dust.
And my husband. Iris was gone, and I had given her ashes back to the sky where she belonged. That’s what a rainbow is, light through dust. But I had no idea what to do with my dead husband, so I kept him in the basement with the rest of the bottled preserves. Red beets and green pickles too old to use, and knew I ought to throw them all out, clean the jars and take them to the thrift shop. After Christmas, maybe.
The month before Christmas, I noticed, people brought in even more donations than usual. It was like they were clearing out junk to make space for more junk incoming. Anyway, along with morbidly obese teddy bears and frosted-glass candle holders and World’s Best Grandpa coffee mugs, the thrift shop filled up with artificial Christmas trees. I never took a second glance at any of them until one day I noticed a miserable-looking little tree, the size you’d put on a table, shoved under the clearance clothing rack.
“I haven’t seen anything like that before,” said one of the volunteers when I picked it up.
I said, “It’s a bottle-brush tree.”
“When they first started, they used to make them like that. Straight branches like the brush you’d clean a baby’s bottle with.”
“Well, nobody’s going to want it. It’s ugly.”
I said, “I want it.”
I had no idea what I wanted it for. I already had something to scrub the john with.
Up until then, one rule of my nameless game was that my finds should be small enough to be stowed like a secret in my purse or my pocket. All of a sudden I was breaking that rule and I didn’t know why.
Of course I didn’t know what the game was for either so it didn’t matter. I sat the tree on the kitchen table—everything that comes into the house lands on the kitchen table—and there it stayed, its bare circles of straight branches rising in dusty diminishing tiers.
Meanwhile the next week was all about red and green and merry ho-ho here and merry ho-ho there. Daytimes if I went to the post office, it was Christmas stamps for sale and clerks in Santa Claus hats. Evenings weren’t any better. I’d try watching TV, but then I’d get disgusted and wander into the kitchen, sit at the table in the dim, flickering fluorescent light—damn things never did work right—and play with my toys until it was time to go to bed and not be able to sleep. I’d circle the jacks like covered wagons in an old western movie to protect the lavender butterfly and the toy bird. I’d make chains of the plastic clips biting each other like yellow, green, purple, blue alligators, and I’d spin the jacks, and I’d stack the bottle caps.
And there stood the bottle-brush tree, with the twisted wires sticking out of the ends of its so-called branches.
Bottle-brush tree, bottle caps, and one night I just stuck the bottle caps onto those branches to cover the wire ends.
White, cream, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, bright green, and all I had to do was just shove them on and they stayed, and I had plenty to fix up the whole tree.
Then I stood back and looked, and that ugly tree was not so ugly any more.
Well, one thing led to another as it always does with me. Next I draped shiny Mardi Gras beads all over the tree, and what the heck, I clipped on a few red clothespins and threw on a few sparkly jacks, but then I decided the jacks would be prettier if they dangled and twirled, so I took some paper clips and bent them into hangers to hang all the jacks from the branches. I put hangers on the pale blue cap gun doohickies too. Lacy plastic things, they looked kind of like snowflakes, and the jacks catching the light looked kind of like stars—
And then I realized what I was doing.
Also, that it was Christmas Eve.
Which I’d been trying not to acknowledge. For days and days, strangers and radios and horse-faced TV announcers had been telling me Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas until it had gotten easy to ignore—
Yet here I found myself decorating a Christmas tree.
Caught myself in the act, so to speak.
Huh. It wasn’t really a Christmas tree, I argued to the arresting officer: me. Not without any lights.
And no real ornaments, just junk.
And no angel or anything on top. See? Look, this was just a joke of a tree. Kind of making fun of myself, I took five of those clips like miniature clothespins, red, yellow, green, blue, purple, and I fastened them to the top of the tree in the shape of a star.
Yeah, right. Some star.
It was not enough for me to be scared, solitary, old and shriveled; I had to be sarcastic too.
But at that moment I seemed to hear a little girl laughing—and the tree lit up.
Like somebody had flicked a switch, it stood all alight with color.
At the risk of repeating myself: there were no strings of electric twinkle-bulbs on that bottle-brush tree, none. Yet it shone all over, branches aglow, like a pot of junk at the end of a rainbow.
Make that the beginning of a rainbow.
And the rainbow was Iris. I knew it. I could feel her there in the dim kitchen with me.