Nathaniel and Evelyn went to bed without any complaints. It was the only night of the year when children were even doing their best to go to sleep as soon as possible. Or rather, to go to their room: to whisper anxieties and illusions. And to restrain themselves: If we get up to spy, he’ll see us, and he won’t stop by; and that kind of thinking that kept them in their horizontal, though very shaky, positions.
All morning and the brief afternoon they’d been longing for night. They hadn’t been able to concentrate on games or distractions. They were intoxicated with emotion: they came and went without tact. They went out to the snowy garden, tried some pirouette or a construction or something that would make time go faster, but they only got cold and the funny and condescending gestures of their parents.
In front of the fireplace. Sitting on the carpet. That way they spent most of the afternoon until dinnertime. Their parents, in the armchairs. Listening to one radio program after another: Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly. Anxiety left them untouched – at most, Nathaniel thought, without really thinking about it, it put that silly half smile on them that enraged him without knowing it nor why. On top of that, the damn programs overflowed Christmas everywhere, making it impossible for a child to find any quiet territory. Everything was Holy and white Christmas. And outside, the illuminated pines and fronts, and the other children as agitated as Nathaniel and Evelyn, and the house of the Hainsworth’s that seemed to embody the spirit of the holydays and, above all, of perfection. The local children had always despised the Hainsworth children (Thomas, Frank and Marjorie): they were like old people who had been given the opportunity of a second stay on Earth: but with a tired and conservative mind. They were also extremely pretentious. Fusspots, they were. The only children in the neighborhood who were careful not to become dirty, not to engage in activities that put at risk their integrity (that’s what they said) – and those of others: they were like small hysterical mothers screaming warnings and potential disasters and reprimands. It was a short while ago since had passed for the umpteenth time, the three of them, and two cousins, accompanied by dad Hainsworth (Nathaniel had overheard his father say that dad Hainsworth was “cusclan” or something like that, and his mother had brought face of disgusted horror; God knows what the “coosclan” was, but, he didn’t know why, it fit dad Hainsworth). However, they passed singing Christmas carols: which made Nathaniel hate the boys (because Evelyn, did it mostly to be with them) even more, it that was possible. As they went out of sight, he imagined beating up Thomas (Frank was too little; only 6 years; and Marjorie was a girl and didn’t annoyed him at all). This idea – Thomas over the snow, face up, himself sitting astride on top of Thomas’s chest while hitting him – helped Nathaniel during the rest of the to temporarily calm his anxiety.
It wasn’t just the eagerness to discover the gifts at the foot of the tree that his parents had assembled, as every year, by the side of the chimney. There was something else. Something disquieting. I was the feeling of being the victim of an atrocious deception; a perverse manipulation. He evidently didn’t think in those terms, of course. But that was the idea: he felt something like an immense disappointment; as if someone had let him profoundly down (My parents? he wondered without even pronouncing it).
Weeks before, at school, he had heard something that he had not come to understand – because the children speaking were older, in a group of which he wasn’t part of. He himself and his friends had been formulating some hypothesis – in a confused, elusive way – that they didn’t want to believe. Not yet. But a certain spirit, an unspoken suspicion had remained and had been exercising its relentless action during the holidays. A fraud. By his parents. Yes. It couldn’t be any other way. By the parents against the children, no more, no less. But, why? And what did it consist about? And in the middle of that whole ideation, a word, with all the weight of its meaning, was never even suggested: Santa.
He didn’t say anything of this to his sister. A noble gesture. And, moreover, he would not have been able to find the words that related his dejection, to account to that suspicion without identity; to explain the subversion of his emotions and the inexactness of the ideas that had installed in his head with God knows what purpose.
Nathaniel had gone out early in the afternoon to play football in the snow in the park on the corner. The Hainsworth’s kids watched from behind trees, censoring the recklessness and the bad language that children allowed themselves in such circumstances: a pretended simulacrum of adulthood or maturity; testing their future manhood as if they were already there. Leonard, the eldest of the Lipman’s, asked Nathaniel during one of the short breaks what was wrong with him, why was he so brutal, so unnecessarily tough (especially for a quarterback). There’s nothing wrong with me, it’s you that are becoming a sissy, he replied with a tone that he had been rehearsing for a few days – thou not for these words in particular; for any -, and with which he intended to enter the group of older kids back in school after the holidays.
Later, returning home, Nathaniel felt a pang of guilt or shame (or both), and thought that Leonard was right. He could feel it in his body, like a kind of muscle soreness, like echoes of excessive blows that he had not received. He usually was one of the bravest at the games in the neighborhood park. But today he had played with a new animosity, as if the game was only an excuse to harm. A few days ago, I felt this kind of irritation – that evidently had been clotting around that sense of confusion, of disappointment he’d been experiencing -, he realized on his way home. And he didn’t know against whom this aversion had been growing; so, he unloaded some of its weight with whoever was at hand at the time it happened to overflow to the point of not being able to deal with it.
Nothing is more inscrutable than that which he who pretends to know, hides without even knowing that he does. But Nathaniel did not even hide it that way; he did neither have nor linguistic or epistemological elements to decode the emotions that had become entrenched in him: a small life for such complex incrustations. That and the illegible feeling of having to protect Evelyn. But, from what? From whatever generated that clump of sensitive states. Perhaps the girl was only the symbol of the everyday, natural part that had been broken in him: the Nathaniel before distrust, before doubt without method, without that solid nucleus of questions.
Santa’s coming. Yes he is. Santa won’t come if… Santa doesn’t like kids this way… Santa likes kids that way… And of course, one is that way at the time. Santa. All the way from the North Pole. The reindeer. The elves (those unpaid workers, as he once had heard Elmore Wallace’s dad say – a communist, according to his father and uncle Horace). The list: the good kids and the bad ones (pure McCarthyism, said once aunt Caroline; and uncle Horace go upset and all nervous). The gifts. And the overflowing, exacerbated joy. Joy, yes, but also fear, because until last minute, you didn’t know: Santa, the list;, everything in a night, and until the, an unbearable purgatory in which one has to play an inhuman character and behavior: a child from an imbecile tale, of impossible perfections. And if you don’t eat all the food in your plate, Santa won’t bring you anything. Nothing. Santa, a temporary blackmailer at the service of parents – Caroline again. Santa’s coming. No ethics at all: extortive mercantilism, said Caroline and fierce anger of my father and uncle Horace. If you don’t do your homework… And that fat man, ridiculously dressed, slowly and inexorably becoming a nightmare, a Stockholm-like syndrome.
What are you saying, Nathaniel?
Nothing, Evelyn. Some prayers.
What are you asking for?
The usual. For you, for mum and dad to be OK. The usual.
I can’t sleep either.
Do you think he’ll bring us everything we ask him for?
I don’t know if everything. I don’t think so. But surely, what we want most.
Do you think so?
Of course. Try to sleep.
He wanted his sister to give him back his silence: that region where he and his thoughts – barely mere threads of ideas; a stormy form of nothingness. He wanted Evelyn to detach herself from the realm of nervousness: the sure review of behaviors, instants that would define Santa’s Christmas verdict.
After a while he heard Evelyn’s soft, deep breath. His sister’s dream gave him a sense of tranquility, as if he had one less thing to worry about. Without transition, he found himself thinking of the Chicago Bears and Ken Kavanaugh who, for some reason, was passing through his neighborhood and happen to see him playing football with his friends; he then would come up to him to tell how well he was playing and that he wanted to talk to his parents so that they would give their consent for him to sign a contract; and suddenly he’s playing at Wrigley Field, and just as sudden, Thomas Hainsworth on the side of the playing field, shaking his head in a gesture of denial, of reprimand, and then, abruptly, he mounted on his chest punching him in the face.
What the hell was that? He thought he heard a noise. Like a rumble of scrambled papers. He got up and tiptoed. The corridor was empty. He leaned out of the stairs railing, and the sound became evident: cellophane, or something like that. He went down the carpeted wooden stairs, taking care not to foot on the whistle-blowers steps he knew so well (with their crackles like old groans). The sound was coming from the living room. He peered out carefully. His parents were wrapping presents and placing them under the tree. He felt a strange heat burning his face, eyes and scalp. Everything turned red. And a fury that had been dripping unintelligibly, suddenly spilled: from the inside inwards.
They didn’t even hear him. They didn’t even feel his presence. Barefoot, light, moving on the soft carpet and possessed by an implausible anger that made him extremely calculating, he took the iron poker from the side of the chimney. The mother was the first to notice something: the thud when he hit his father on the head. But she couldn’t do anything because she couldn’t make sense of the sound, the action she that she glimpsed and her side vision of her son. Just astonishment. Absolute incomprehension. And all of a sudden she was hit. He hit each of them several more times. How could they do that to him? Why this deception, this mockery? And the extortion – whatever that mean; although he could feel it. While sitting on the carpet. Between his parents.
He finished wrapping his sister’s presents and placed them under the tree. His gifts seemed inadequate to him, as if they belonged to other Christmases that were and would be no more; to another age. He put a couple of logs to make a civilized and homely fire, and he went back to his room. He needed sleep. He was terribly tired. Perhaps he was falling ill and all that was nothing more than the gruesome dream of fever. He couldn’t tell.
© Marcelo Wio