“Matthew, for goodness’ sake, close the door.”
Matthew McShannon made a face at his older sister as he stamped the snow from his boots. “Chelle, for goodness’ sake, quit bossing.”
Chelle tossed her dark curls and went back to cutting biscuits to go with the beans Ma had baked for supper. Matt deliberately kicked some snow in her direction on his way to the stove. Chelle might look fourteen and try to act twenty, but she was only twelve and needed to be reminded of it often.
The scents of salt pork and molasses wafting from the oven made Matt’s stomach rumble. He pinned his gloves and scarf to the line over the stove, where years of stored sunshine poured from the fire, forcing back the chill of the December afternoon. Winter had come early to the Colorado foothills this year.
Steam started to rise from Matthew’s jacket, carrying the unmistakable smell of damp wool. He rubbed his hands to warm them, then fumbled with buttons. The lamp glowing on the table turned the dark window beside him into a mirror, reflecting the cabin’s log walls, the bright Indian rug on the pine floor and the ladder leading to the loft. Pa had added rooms on either side as the family grew, but this room hadn’t changed since he’d settled here in ’65. Somehow, the older Matthew got, the smaller it seemed. Now, at nearly twelve, there were days when it seemed too small. Today was one of those days.
Lamplight struck the glass ornaments Ma and Ethan were hanging on the Christmas tree across the room. Matt had always loved the glittering blue and gold birds with their tails of real feathers, treasures from Ma’s childhood home in Philadelphia, but not this year. He frowned in the glass at Ma and Ethan’s ruddy heads, at little freckled Abby sitting on the floor near them, and at his own blond, blue-eyed reflection. A hop out of kin, Mrs. Baker at the store called him. Knowing he looked like his grandfather McShannon, whom he’d never met, didn’t help.
He dipped water from the stove’s boiler into a basin, diluted it with cold from the pump and washed his hands. Ma looked over her shoulder, smiling. “Will your father be in soon?”
“Yeah, he’s just checking on Diamond. He’ll be done in a minute.” Matt hung his jacket by the door and curled up on the bunk where Dad used to sleep before Ma had come along. Ethan tucked a paper snowflake among the branches of the little pine and brushed his hands together with satisfaction. “I’m done, Ma. Matt, is Diamond going to have her foal?”
“Pa says any day now.” Matt shrugged, annoyed at himself. What’s wrong with me? Last year I would have been as excited as Ethan about the foal. Why not now?
The lamp flickered in a gust of cold air as Pa came in, banging the door behind him. Now the room felt even more crowded. Matt and Pa seemed to rub each other the wrong way more and more often this winter.
Ma came across the room and slipped her arms around Pa inside his unbuttoned coat. “Trey, you’re freezing.” A little woman not much higher than his shoulder, she stood on tiptoe to kiss him. “Hurry and sit in. Supper’s ready.”
“And I’m ready for it, Beth.” Pa shrugged out of his coat and hurried to wash up. Chelle took her biscuits from the oven and put them on a plate while Ma dished up the beans. Matt took his seat and bowed his head with the others as Pa said grace.
“Thank you, Lord, for this Your bounty and for allowing us to be together on the night of Your Son’s birth. Amen.”
The trace of a Southern drawl in Pa’s voice irked Matt somehow. It made him think of places he’d never seen, and wouldn’t be able to see for years, if ever. Like Ma’s ornaments. He sighed into his plate. Things had come to a fine pass when you couldn’t enjoy a Christmas tree.
Ethan spoke around a mouthful of beans. “It’s my turn to name the new foal, isn’t it Pa? How about Thunder?”
Pa nodded. “Thunder Cloud would be a fine name if it’s a colt.” All the colts born on the place had Cloud in their names after Flying Cloud, Dad’s old stallion. A horseman already at six, in a way Matt knew he would never be, Ethan’s round face beamed with pride.
“If it’s a filly, I’ll call her Glory.”
Matt dropped his fork. It clattered against his plate as words tumbled out like water bursting a dam. “Glory’s a stupid name for a horse. Can’t you think of something that makes some kind of sense?”
Ethan’s quick temper flashed as Matt knew it would. “That’s what you think, mister big-for-your-britches. Speak when you’re spoken to, come when you’re called.”
A warning spark lit Pa’s dark eyes. “That’s enough, boys. Eat your supper.”
Ethan stuck his tongue out. Before Matt could think, he snatched up half of the buttered biscuit on his plate and pitched it at Ethan’s head. It grazed him, leaving a smear of butter on his fore head before hitting the floor with a dull splat. The next thing Matthew knew, Pa’s rough hand grabbed his shirt collar. “Up to the loft. Now.”
With the strength of anger, Matt tried to jerk free and almost managed it. “He – ”
Eyes stinging, Matt scrambled up the ladder and dashed between trunks and boxes. He threw himself on the bed jammed against the back wall. His hands balled into fists as he stared into the shadows that hid the roof’s peak.
Four more years, no more. I’ll scrape the money together somehow, get on the stage and never show my face in Wallace Flats again.
He stayed there, nursing the painful knot in his chest, while the family finished eating. He heard the click of plates as Chelle cleared the table, then Ma’s light step on the ladder. Matt closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. In a moment, he felt her hand on his hair, then heard her soft tread as she retreated.
“He’s asleep. I hope he hasn’t picked up that flu that’s going around the school. He hasn’t been himself today.”
Pa answered, murmuring something about age that Matthew didn’t quite catch. He lay still, listening to the familiar sounds of supper being cleared away.
It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old
With angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.
Chelle’s soprano rose clear and light as a feather above Ma’s lower, richer voice carrying the melody. Pa joined in the next verse, his baritone a touch off key but still somehow pleasing to the ear.
Silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n...
A gift. What gift was there in Christmas when everything worth having was beyond your grasp, like the silly girls’ stuff Chelle oohed and aahed over in the shop windows when they made a trip to Denver?
They sang Once in Royal David’s City next, then O Come All Ye Faithful. The carols went on until the dishes were done and the door of the pantry cupboard clicked shut.
“Ethan, Abby, bed.”
“Aw, Ma, it’s only seven thirty.”
The smile in Ma’s voice carried up to Matt. “Ethan, you know Santa won’t come until you’re asleep. Go on now. Abby, come here.”
The cabin grew quiet. Matt pictured Ethan asleep in the room they shared, curled up in a ball, his mouth open. Abby would be lying on her stomach in her crib, her carroty hair tumbled across the pillow, and Chelle would be on the hearth rug reading, her long legs folded Indian style. The thin rustle of tissue paper and Ma and Pa’s muted voices told Matthew they were wrapping gifts. The knot in his chest grew tighter. Should he even bother pretending he still believed in Santa Claus this year? Last year he’d had his doubts, but now, without anyone saying anything, he knew.
By the time Pa blew out the lamp, Matt’s eyelids were growing heavy. He let them close. The next thing he knew he was staring out the loft window, shivering, his quilts kicked off onto the floor.
A few ragged clouds blew across the remains of an old moon, fading the sharp shadow of the barn roof. His back ached from the lumps in the little-used chaff tick on the loft bed. Why hadn’t someone wakened him to go down to his own bed? Grumbling under his breath, Matt climbed down the ladder.
The dim moonlight showed him the presents under the tree, but he ignored them and padded across the room. He’d acted like a kid and he’d have to say sorry at breakfast, but that wouldn’t cure what was eating at him. Nothing would, until he figured out what the problem was.
It was so still he nearly jumped out of his skin when the front door creaked. He whirled around and saw Pa’s tall shape silhouetted in the moonlight.
“Pa, is it Diamond?”
“Yeah.” Pa’s shadow leapt as he stepped to the table, then vanished when he lit the lamp. He oured a cup of coffee from the enamel pot on the stove and scraped back a chair at the table. “What are you doing up?”
“You left me up in the loft.”
Pa ignored his peeved tone and gave Matt one of his thoughtful looks. “I meant to wake you in a minute. Diamond had a little filly.”
Shame for the way he’d acted at dinner heating his cheeks, Matthew stood rooted in place, torn between going to Pa and turning away. It always seemed to be like that now. “Are they all right?”
“Couldn’t be better. She only laboured for a couple of hours. Come here, son.”
Pa patted the chair next to him. Matt shuffled across the floor, the chill seeping through his socks. Pa still had his coat on; the smell of hay and horses began rising from it in response to the stove’s heat. Pa’s smell. Matt slid onto the chair and parked his elbows on the table, the scent pushing and pulling at him both. He sighed and said what had to be said.
“Sorry about dinner. Ethan just makes me so mad at times.”
Pa sipped his coffee while the silence built between them. Then, with a suddenness that made Matt jump again, he set his empty cup on the table.
“Get your coat on and come out with me.”
It didn’t occur to Matthew to argue. He bundled up and followed Pa out into the star-swept night, into the rich, still, dark air of the barn. Instead of lighting the lantern, Pa just sat on the grain bin, his shape barely visible in the darkness. The soft scraping of hooves in straw was the only sound until he spoke.
“You don’t seem much interested in Christmas this year, Matthew. Last year you were almost as excited as Ethan.”
Matt kept his distance, leaning against the half-door of old Flying Cloud’s stall. “Santa and all that stuff...it’s for kids. I’m not six anymore.”
He heard Pa’s dry chuckle, could almost see the glint in his dark eyes that would accompany it. “You sure aren’t. You’ve grown like a weed this year. At this rate you’ll bealmost as tall as me next Christmas. You’re growing up, and growing up is never easy.”
“Growing up? Hell, I won’t be twenty-one for – ”
Dad didn’t chuckle this time. He roared with laughter, completely drowning out Matthew’s words, ignoring his ‘hell’ completely. “Twenty-one? For Pete’s sake, Matt.”
“What’s so darned funny?”
Pa shook his head, his laughter dying away into the rafters. “I’m not laughing at you, son. In a year or so you’ll understand.” He drew a deep breath and let it out, the steam showing in a patch of moonlight. “Matt, you’re all McShannon on the outside and all Surette on the inside.”
Matthew said nothing. After a pause, Pa went on. “When I was your age, there were times when I felt like the only thing keeping me from everything I wanted to do was time. Do you ever feel like that?”
“Yeah. I remember. Where I was, was never where I wanted to be. Even at Christmas.”
“Yeah, even at Christmas.” Matt pressed his back tighter to the wood behind him and tried to swallow his anger but he couldn’t quiet manage it. I might have been easier if he’d known why he was angry. “Pa, why do people lie to kids about Santa Claus? Because I know he is a lie.”
Dad lifted a heavy dark brow. “Who told you that?”
“No one. I’m smart enough to put two and two together. The tags on the gifts are always in Ma’s writing, and Chelle never even mentions Santa any more. It’s all just a story, like the one you tell about the animals being able to talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. Only, if you wait up to hear them, they won’t. Because it’s just a story.”
Pa let out another smoking breath, Matt’s stinging tone rolling off him like water. “Are you sure? Have you ever waited up to hear them?”
“Of course not. You and Ma would never let us.”
“Well, it’s just about midnight now. Be quiet and listen.”
Pa sat very still on the grain bin. For the next minute or so Matt strained for every sound, but he heard only the sounds of the horses in their stalls and a coyote down in the river valley, a mile or so off.
Just a story.
Then he thought of the books he liked to read that took him to places all over the world, of the stories in carols they’d sung after supper. Of the way Ma had touched his hair when she came up to the loft. Of the excitement on Ethan’s face at the thought of Santa coming. Matt listened with his heart, and he understood.
“Pa, light the lantern.”
A match flared. Pa hung the hurricane lantern on its hook in the middle of the aisle. He held Matt’s gaze for a long moment, then smiled.
“What did you hear?”
“Nothing special, with my ears at least.” He shrugged. “I guess there’s more than one kind of truth, isn’t there?”
Pa nodded. “Yeah. Matt, don’t wish your life away. Twenty-one will come before you know it. And don’t let Ethan get to you. He’s only six, after all.”
“Yeah.” Matt crossed the aisle to look into Diamond’s stall. The black mare lay stretched out on her side. The color of dark chocolate, with the same white star on her forehead as her mother, the new foal lay curled up beside her, her spindly legs in tangle. Pa came to lean beside Matt, his warmth reaching through to dissolve the knot in Matt’s chest. They shared a smile that brought them closer than they’d been in a while, then he turned back to the mare and foal.
“Merry Christmas, Glory.”