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   by Holly Farris

It's the first Christmas we don't have a tree. Mama says, but I don't believe, that Chase is old enough to hunt for an orange in my stocking, play new trains awhile, before he lays in his baby crib, where he wiggles most times without much clothes like a pink fishing worm. She and J.B., that's her boyfriend, say they have a big holiday planned.
     "Chuckeeee," she says, like whenever she wants something, and I see her purse handles grabbed up to go. "He's asleep and I got to get the eggnog." J.B.'s arm hair's sap-glued to his truck window glass, him having chopped a scrub cedar to take up to his Nana's. He guns the motor, in a hurry for Mama to bring the present and get in.
     "Raisin Bran, Mama," I say, thinking back to every year she and I ate it for Christmas breakfast, before J.B. was her boyfriend. Our secret that cereal tastes best stirred with eggnog shaken foamy, yellow and thick enough raisins float, right from the carton.
     Out in the back without a coat, and me not caring it's Christmas Eve and I could take pneumonia or worse, I poke a little and listen for Chase to cry. There's roots and sticks and paw dents, all the ground boys study before they start in school. Not that I've been, but schoolbus comes, it's the end of exploring.
     Far back near some rocks that made a fence for somebody before the trailer was ours, alongside the weepy stump of the tree J.B. cut (Mama anyway not paying attention it grew lopsided there all along), I try rolling the heavy tickly-moss rocks, kicking top ones loose. One ankle wrenches, and then the other, until I set my shoes flat solid. Just messing, still not hearing Chase, I guess they've doubled back to lock the door, like it's been. Me outside, scared of an afternoon ready to curtain dark or a storm nearing purple. Locking out is what they do, Mama and J.B., now that she's his girlfriend. What I don't know is if they cover Chase's baby bed. Maybe a blanket over the bars, his marble eyes awake looking at linty pills, not seeing them touch.
     Anyway, me on the rock pile, and not thinking one thing about a present, some surprise, or it nearly Christmas, I kick a shoe box. And it's mine, I know it, from shoes when Mama said they were for school. Last summer a store lady measured my sock foot, but the bus can't come up our holler for me until I'm six. So I play however muddy I want in these shoes because Mama can't send me in them to school yet.
     The box lid, tied to its bottom with string that rotted, slips a crack. And all the moss and green and wet from the whole pile is in that box, my pink fingers sifting to look for—and I don't know why—more shoes. Might could be I'll find middles that new shoes leave, the wadded tissue from where feet go in.
     First thing I get is a baby head. Very bitty, but eye holes and jaw, nothing nose or teeth. It's parts that looked like Chase early, when Mama kept his fish-floppy neck all times crooked in her elbow. Other bones, drumsticks or wishbone pieces are in there, thin and white as woodstove matchsticks.
     "Found a squirrel, boy," J.B. says, looking when I thumb off the shoe box lid. He knows animals, their trails and claws, and he pinches out what I think is a little hand, its five fingers proof. "Young," he says.
     "The writing," I say, knowing Mama says boys smaller than me go to school who can read. I can't, not even a label.
     "Your good shoes," J.B. says about mud sliming my laces, the rock scrapes, and I wonder if he'll read the box letters outloud or whup me. Instead, he snores after licking the bottle he calls a wild turkey, it brown in our eggnog, the carton near empty.
     "Son," Mama says, that nicer than Chuck she calls me when I pester J.B., "Get ready."
     "The baby, Mama. Let's tell the police."
     She driving J.B.'s truck—me holding wiggle worm Chase, us three—and we come to the police station, it on the way to a stable a church sets up every year. I walk in alone, shiny tile slick under broke-in shoes, the door buzzer letting them know. It's the box like a present, what I reach to the counter.
     And the blue man, he knows, but doesn't look. "Squirrel," he says. "J.B. called." What comes, because he's turning and doesn't wait for my mouth to open, but it's in my head: bones connect me and this baby since I found him, laid jumbled in his squashed box, high on the counter. Mama honks, Merry Christmas to strangers who'll listen, and scrunches slits of her eyes when I get in. "No eggnog for tomorrow, Chuck. Store closed."
     Then we're riding. Chase, who never sees anything, gurgles at lights strung on every house when we run by. At the stuck-together stable, we pitch back from the donkey who kicks and a sheep stink. Geese wander, ending near Joseph in brown, who pitches cornbread crumbs from his pocket. When everybody's ready, after singing and fat candles spit, Mary hangs back, her in blue not-patched robe. She's not got the baby, but she floats out like a bride and all the people hush. Anybody'd know her, playing that baby's mother, holy smile pointed at the knee-high manger.
     Then someone they pick, it's a man who gets to, walks up with the plastic Jesus baby, eyes painted asleep and a white towel wrapped. The helper in Sunday too-short pants dodges big-raisin piles the sheep made, marching sure, though he can't look down. And just as quick as they lay Jesus flat, towel hem snagging loose hay, every little baby around seems home and it's Christmas after all.

Copyright©2003 Holly Farris

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