No one knows where the trains go or what lies beyond the mountains and the forests. They've never seen grass or walnut trees, but they do discover how tomatoes are named. And roses and violets and orchids. There aren't any summer vacations. No spring showers. And as for leaves rusting in an autumn rain?
"What does autumn mean?" asks Sperry. "I'm not familiar with that word."
And so begins the tale of Christmasville.
In a town nestled between magic and miracle, snuggled between dream and deja vu, Mary Jane Higgins embarks on a series of perilous journeys, determined to resolve the riddle of Christmasville. Although it's forbidden, she crosses train tracks, approaches the bottomless abyss, travels through a wilderness that "operates according to a different set of rules." Along the way she encounters a mysterious donkey, a shepherd boy with his lamb and three riders on...camels?
"...[but] camels only exist in myths and fairy tales, like unicorns and giraffes, dragons and elephants."
On the changing checkerboard of Christmasville, buildings and homes are re-shuffled annually according to a new "plan" of things. The calendar consists of only two pages: December and January. But no one gets any older. And the worst of ailments is poison ivy, and color blindness, and signs of that most harrowing of medical conditions: partial baldness.
It's a town perennially covered in new fallen snow, perpetually decorated in yuletide trimmings. It's a town that in many ways is typical, or evocative - one that we might dream of - but one which operates according to three, notably different, phenomena - time, space and memory. And no one - save one - suspects that something is askew.
Prologue: She Bites into a Cookie, Swallows a Mouthful of Milk and Begins
Chapter 1: Christmasville
Chapter 2: A Snowman from China
Chapter 3: Faith
Chapter 4: The Perennial Shade of Trees
Chapter 5: A Game of Checkers
Chapter 6: The Eve of St. Nick
Chapter 7: First Night
Chapter 8: Maiden Journey
Chapter 9: Thirty-Two Degrees of Illumination
Chapter 10: What the Iceman Said
Chapter 11: The House at the End of the World
Chapter 12: Elastic Plastic
Epilogue: A Remarkable Discovery
The following excerpts from Christmasville
(Copyright © 2007, 2012 Michael M. Dutton)
are re-printed by permission of the author.
All rights reserved.
“The Perennial Shade of Trees”
The sledding hill: it’s one of the best places in all of Christmasville. There’s the obvious reason, of course, the reason why more than a hundred kids bundled themselves up and braved the cold and the snow and the wind to make their way here from all parts of Christmasville – to slide merrily down as many as fifteen sledding trails etched into the hillside...like a word...like the word, “excitement,” written quickly across a sheet of white paper. Some of the trails dropped down straight and fast and you had so little time to enjoy the rush of speed before your sled plowed into the deeper snows of the tiny valley that was cradled between the hillside and the ridge on the other side. Other trails swung into a wide arc across the hillside, slipping between trees or skirting around huge boulders that stuck out of the ground like massive noses from a giant face, covered over in snow. There were still other trails that crisscrossed one another halfway down the slope. These were the favorites of the older boys, who played “broadside” on their long, three-man sleds. Two teams would launch themselves from different points on top of the hill at the same time, racing down the hillside to meet each other halfway down the slope. Sometimes the two sleds would collide, causing each team to topple over and to tumble haphazardly down the slope through the snow. At other times they would swing next to each other – to “broadside” – the boys on one sled wrestling with their opponents on the other until one team was upturned while the boys on the winning team glided successfully toward the bottom of the hill, shouting victoriously all the way down.
But there was another word beside “excitement,” which described the view, the feeling that you got from the top of the sledding hill. It was scribbled into the ridge on the other side and you saw it – you felt it – when you were alone and you took your time to look for it carefully. In the evening it was written by the stillness that settles in the leafless trees along the ridge, the barren branches of oak and elm spelling the word in a snowfall that had borrowed some of its blueness from the sky. Or it would be that time just before dawn, the word whispered by an amber silence that rose after the bark of a faraway dog, the word echoed in the lazy smoke that drifted from chimneys; in the tracks of a single fox that had pranced, maybe moments ago, in the snows along the bottom of the ridge; in the measured movement of Stark, the iceman, as he led his horses and hauling-sleigh out of the distant woods and onto the frozen lake to cut broad chunks of ice that he would bring to market, leaving behind holes, gaps, spaces in the surface of the lake which, if you looked carefully, resembled the very same word that had been scribbled and written, whispered and echoed across the hillside. It was the word, “enchantment.”
When I arrive at the edge of the sledding hill, I see Emily as she climbs to the top, pulling herself up with the long knotted rope that stretches from the trunk of a tree down the side of the slope.
“What took you so long?” she says with a sour face.
She catches her breath, pulls her arms from the rope handles that hold her plastic saucer against her back.
“The Christmas tree,” I reply. “It always takes time to dig it up and to pot it. And we stopped for sodas at Link’s Pharmacy, too.”
“Why don’t you just cut your tree down like everyone else does?”
I guess Emily is mad at me because I’m nearly an hour late.
“Because we dig it up – that’s why,” I answer, irritated because it’s not like she had nothing to do while she waited for me, or because there wasn’t anyone else around to sled with.
“Well, I think it’s stupid,” she remarks with a nasty expression, turning her back to me and smacking her saucer down on the icy ledge.
She sits on top of it and crosses her legs, her body duplicating the contour of the saucer – like a circle inside another. She reaches down, her hands fumbling for the rope handles.
“Let me help you, Emily.”
Instead of guiding her hands toward the handles, I put my foot on the edge of the saucer and give her a nice push.
“Mary Jane!” she shouts as the saucer glides to the edge and tilts downward.
I watch her spin and bounce as the saucer races down the slope, her hands groping frantically for the handles. But by the time she manages to grab on with both hands and to lean her body this way or that – to control the direction of her descent – it’s too late. The one half of her saucer catches the launching ramp that’s embedded in the snow about three-quarters of the way down. The boys buried it there at the beginning of December, packing it with snow and ice so you could fly high into the air, just when you thought your ride was coming to an end. Anyway, when Emily slides across the ramp, half-on and half-off, the saucer bends and buckles, dumping Emily one way and then, snapping back, shooting off in the other direction.
“It is not stupid,” I say to myself, turning around and leaving because I suddenly realize that I didn’t want to go sledding after all.
“The Eve of St. Nick”
The first float is always the same. Santa Claus, surrounded by his elves, waves to the spectators, shouts “Ho! Ho! Ho!” and tosses candy canes to the kids who are following along. I can see the twins, who have been off with their friends, scramble toward the float, gathering up as many candy canes as hands and pockets will hold. Such little piglets!
When the float arrives in front of the platform, it stops. The mayor waits until the band finishes its rendition of “Jingle Bells” and then gets up from his seat.
“Welcome to Christmasville – jolly, old St. Nick!” the mayor says.
Santa Claus gets up from his chair and bows. His nose is as big as Mr. Atkinson’s, as red as one of Mr. Wrights’s tomatoes.
A single band member plays a drum roll as an elf from the float jumps down and scampers toward the platform.
“On behalf of all citizens of Christmasville,” the mayor announces at the end of the drum roll, “it is my special honor to present you, St. Nick, with the key to our fair city. May you find us all worthy and be well-rewarded in the dispensation of your generous gifts and goodly favors.”
Holding the huge, plastic “key to the city” up over his head, the mayor turns right, then left, before passing it to the elf. Running back the same way he came, you can hear the bells on his slippers and hat jingle as he returns to the float, presenting the key to Santa Claus.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” says Santa Claus, holding it, like the mayor had, high above his head. “Shank you all show very much,” he says, swaying a bit to the right and then to the left. “Ho! Ho! Ho!”
I turn toward Emily. “I think Shanta Claush had shum of the shame eggnog ash your daddy did.”
Spectators applaud. The band starts playing, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. The float begins moving again, causing Santa to fall backwards into the ample embrace of his chair.
It’s the two fire engines next. With sirens blaring every few minutes or so, the bright red and silver trucks are decorated with garland and strings of light that make the chrome and steel gleam and sparkle. On top of the first truck, the fire chief waves to the crowd as Tucker, with a red elf’s hat tied to his head, barks until the chief gives him a treat.
For the hospital float, it’s as if doctors and nurses are performing a serious operation. They’re wearing their white smocks but have red furry boots and floppy hats with white pompons on them. You can’t see who it is on the operating table because the patient is covered with a white sheet that has a hole in it – that’s where two of the doctors are doing the surgery.
“Sponge,” the one doctor calls out.
A nurse passes him the sponge.
“Forceps,” shouts the other doctor.
Another nurse passes him the forceps.
“Nose,” cries the first doctor.
The nurse looks horrified.
“Nose???” she shrieks, holding her hands up to her face in a panic.
Suddenly all of the doctors and nurses scramble across the float, looking for the lost nose.
“Ah-ha!” says the nurse, pulling a red something or other out of a plastic barrel that’s labeled, “Sour Pickles.”
Running as fast as she can, she hands the “nose” to the doctor, who carefully inserts it into the hole in the sheet. They all step back from the patient. Nothing happens. They look at each other with silly, stupid, dumb expressions on their faces before the first doctor scratches his head and then taps the patient with his hand. Nothing happens. The second doctor scratches his head, taps the patient with a bit more force than the first doctor had. Again, nothing happens. The two doctors look at each other and then, simultaneously, begin shaking the living daylights out of the patient, trying to wake him. And now there’s movement beneath the sheet as the patient stretches before slowly rising up, the sheet slipping from his body.
It’s two people in a costume of “Rudolph,” of course. But, still, something is not quite right. It’s not until the nurse – the one who had found Rudolph’s nose in the pickle barrel – reaches up and gives the reindeer’s red nose a firm twist, causing it to glow brightly, that the operation can be deemed successful.
Everyone laughs and applauds. The doctors and nurses and “Rudolph” bow to the crowd before scrambling back to their original positions so they can perform the same operation all over again.
“Thirty-Two Degrees of Illumination”
On Sunday I don’t have to look too far in The Christmasville Courier because it’s on the front page, right beside the story about the Morrison’s English bulldog, “Duchess,” giving birth to six pups in a bedroom closet. Personally, I think that would have made a much better headline than,
“CHURCH CUSTODIAN SAVES YOUTHS FROM CERTAIN PERIL”,
especially since the Morrisons didn’t even know that Duchess was pregnant in the first place.
The article is pretty accurate, explaining how Mr. Gabriel, trudging through the snows of the deep forest, had stumbled upon our footprints and followed them. That’s how he discovered our desperate predicament.
“Brett Tolliver, an altar boy at St. Nick’s,” the article reports, “took a terrible tumble down an icy slope, breaking his leg in two places. Bleeding profusely, he was on the verge of unconsciousness when Mr. Gabriel, the church custodian, arrived at the scene.
“The girl, Mary Jane Higgins, was battered and bruised and in jeopardy of developing a serious case of hypothermia. Nearly delirious...”
That part’s a bunch of baloney! I wasn’t delirious! I was physically exhausted and in a mental stupor maybe, but who wouldn’t be after an ordeal like that?
The article proceeds to tell how Mr. Gabriel rescued Brett and I from the steep slope, “at great risk to his own personal safety. He dressed Brett’s leg most admirably with a makeshift splint and bandages and secured him to a sled, which he dragged all the way back to his pickup truck near the lake.”
“Were they close to the train tracks when the accident occurred?” the reporter asked.
I was waiting for that one to come up in the newspaper article, but Mr. Gabriel replied: “No, they were some distance away.”
And it’s true, too. We were at least a mile away from the tracks when Brett chased that donkey along the top of the ridge and fell on the ice. But what I really appreciate about Mr. Gabriel’s reply is the fact that he didn’t volunteer any additional information. He could just have easily said: "Oh, no, they were well beyond the train tracks when the accident happened." I’m glad, too, that he omitted the whole episode with the donkey. I mean, if you close your eyes and just picture us – Brett and I – out in the wilderness, in the snow and the fog, him chasing the donkey and me chasing him...well, it looks kind of funny, doesn’t it? Not only "funny," as in comical, but "funny" as in foolish and crazy.
The thing is though, it wasn’t all that crazy because I remember Mr. Gabriel saying that he had seen the donkey several times before.
“The first time was the day after Christmas,” he said as he pulled Brett through the woods toward his truck. “But believe me when I say this, Mary Jane,” he added, “the donkey isn’t the strangest thing that I’ve seen in these here parts.”
But he did not elaborate and, at the time, I was too exhausted to ask him what he had meant.
I stayed in the hospital Saturday night and remain there all day Sunday because the doctors say that they want to keep me “under observation.” In truth, though, I think that the hospital staff kind of enjoys having patients around. They don’t get all that many so, when they do, they have an opportunity to put into action what they learned in all their medical books. It’s entertaining for me, too, watching them scramble around, looking for the manual to the x-ray machine because they can’t remember exactly how to operate the thing. Or when the nurse wraps my arm with the apparatus for taking my blood pressure and sits there, staring at the gauge for at least a half minute before the doctor says: “I think you have to pump the rubber bubble, don’t you? To build pressure up around the arm?”
From one o’clock until four o’clock on Sunday afternoon, I’m allowed to have visitors. Brett can’t because he’s in what they call, the “intensive care unit,” where they want him to rest quietly and without interruption. They won’t even let Mr. and Mrs. Tolliver in to see him. So they come to visit me.
“What in the world were you and Brett doing out there, Mary Jane?” Mrs. Tolliver asks, after we had gotten through the exchange of pleasantries.
It’s the identical question – word-for-word – that mom asked me an hour earlier.
“Exploring,” I reply – on both occasions. “Would you like a malted milk ball, Mrs. Tolliver? Mr. Tolliver?” I ask, holding out the box of candy that mom and dad had brought earlier. “They’re from Sarah’s and they’re really delicious.”
“No. No, thank you,” they both reply.
“But...but exploring what?” Mrs. Tolliver continues, refusing to be redirected from her stream of thought.
“Oh, you know, we just wanted to see what was out there. Maybe a bigger sledding hill or an abandoned house – stuff like that,” I answer.
“I see,” Mrs. Tolliver says rather sternly. “Well I do hope, Mary Jane, that you’ve learned your lesson and will never go out there – ‘exploring,' as you say – again.”
“Oh no! I’m never going out there again,” I reply animatedly. “Not me, Mrs. Tolliver. I learned my lesson!”
It’s true. I haven’t the slightest intention of retracing my journey east, of seeking a passage to New York City through the forests beyond the sledding hill because, when all is said and done, it isn’t the way to go, is it. I mean, in spite of everything that happened, the fact is, I did accomplish what was the principal purpose of my maiden journey, didn’t I? To determine if traveling eastward would provide me a way out of Christmasville. Now I could safely say...well, maybe ‘safely’ is a poor choice of words, but anyway, I could safely say that traveling east would not provide the solution to my problem. Although I still don’t know which way to go, I certainly know which way to avoid unless...unless I went back to that ravine – the ravine that led into the pass where we saw the caves and the footprints.
“What the Iceman Said”
If you were awake and you stood on the front porch and listened very carefully, you could hear him in the wee hours as he led his horses from stable. You would hear him swing the gates of the paddock closed and clasp them shut just as surely as Dawn rolled from her bed at the edge of the world, moments afterward, rising to seal the night away. It would be the hoofs of his horses, clopping on the road; the long, metal runners of his empty hauling-sleigh, gliding light as a feather across the white ice; the occasional bark of his dog, Blink, a spotted mongrel and smart as a whip.
Rising from my bed, I peel the curtain back and look through the window at the frozen stillness of Pine Street, broken only by the passing of the iceman.
Prince of the sleepy town, Stark is known by many things: his wide-brimmed hat, ragged at the edges and pulled down deep along the bridge of his forehead; his beard, curled like strands of fine copper wire; his wild, woolly clothes, which are patched at the elbows of his long overcoat and, more often than not, at the knees of his baggy trousers as well. But what strikes you most of all about Stark – and what you remember long after he’s led his horses and dog away – is the sound of his voice in that pure and simple silence of the wee hours. It is deep and hoarse, but always calm and tender as he speaks to his horses in the language that they know, prodding them along with the satin of his words rather than with the leather of his whip.
The larger horse, Courier, is pine cone brown and has a long, golden mane that splashes down in front of his eyes when he moves. He got his name from the newspaper that Stark’s grandfather started – The Christmasville Courier. The smaller horse, Ives, has the speckled complexion of eggnog after you sprinkle it with nutmeg. He’s younger than Courier, and more rambunctious, and got his name because he was born on the Feast Day of St. Ives. When the two horses move together, pulling the hauling-sleigh across the road and down to the lake, Courier and Ives look so graceful that you would think that they stepped right off the page of a picture book.
Turning from the window, I change into my clothes and boots. I gather up my coat and hat, my woolen scarf and worn gloves, and head for the kitchen. Fixing a breakfast of cold cereal and toasted muffin, I sit at the table and eat.
It is the day of my next journey.
Through the window over the sink is the first sign of Dawn – the folds of her robe, ribbons of pastels against the dwindling canopy of night – the goddess, rising up and stretching, combing stars from her rubicund hair; commencing the single chore accorded her.
It is a day offering the blooms of roses, a day promising the thorns of lightning.
“Falling,” said Esmeralda.
“Darkness,” she forewarned.
And now...now there was to be “lightning.”
“The House at the End of the World”
They house the shepherd boy in the city jail for three days, shipping in hot meals from the diner to feed him – him and the lamb, that is. The police chief doesn’t know what to do with the lamb so he delegates the task to Sergeant Myers. I think the sergeant feels kind of sorry for the shepherd boy, who is no more than seventeen, maybe eighteen years old, and who is unusually calm and complacent – particularly in view of his circumstances. It’s only when you try to separate the boy from his lamb that he gets himself all worked up.
What the lamb likes best from the diner is corn flakes and skim milk, with lumps of chunky peanut butter, strawberry jam and a dash of cinnamon mixed in. He can’t get enough of the stuff, especially the peanut butter.
Anyway, what Sergeant Myers does for the lamb is to get bales of hay that he spreads across the floor of the jail cell. It works well enough because, even though the sergeant takes the boy and his lamb to the fenced-in yard behind the police station three times a day, you can’t train a lamb like you can a dog, teaching him to do his business outside rather than in. So the hay works well enough, catching the lamb’s business and allowing the sergeant to scoop it up and replace the hay without getting the floor all messy and stinky.
“What do you think this is? A barn?” says the police chief, who isn’t all that happy with the sergeant and his solution to the problem.
“OK then,” Sergeant Myers counters, himself hot under the collar, “then you tell me how you want the problem solved.”
The chief is none too happy with the newspaper either. It’s because a reporter overheard the disagreement and writes all about it in The Courier the next day:
“SHEPHERD BOY CREATES RIFT IN RANKS OF POLICE DEPT!”
reads the headline in the paper.
Midway through the article is a photograph that depicts the sad, childlike face of the shepherd boy, framed by the thick bars of his jail cell.
“Do You Know This Boy?”
the caption beneath it says.
I don’t know if it’s the headline or the photograph that suddenly sparks the public’s interest because on Tuesday night they schedule a special town meeting in city hall to deal with the issue. Dad and I sit in the last row of chairs. He brought me along because he wants me to get a first-hand look at “democracy in action.” Mom would have come but she’s busy, helping the twins with their homework. Or – it’s probably the other way around – mom’s doing their homework for them while they help as little as possible.
At the meeting the police chief changes his tune entirely, publicly apologizing for his “inexcusable outburst” involving the sergeant. He also acknowledges the fact that he’s at a loss as to what to do with the shepherd boy and his lamb. “We’re crime fighters!” he proclaims with deep conviction, “not baby sitters and...and lamb tenders!”
“And ya ain’t no pork tenders or tenderloins of chicken either, Roy,” someone shouts, causing the audience to burst out in a round of laughter.
“Here! Here!” exclaims Mayor Thompson, banging his gavel down and suppressing what might have exploded into a big belly laugh if the circumstances were different. “This is a serious issue and we will have order!”
The police chief – red-faced and huffy with indignation – scours the audience, scrutinizing each face for a sign as to who the troublemaker might be.
“Now,” the mayor continues, after the ruckus subsides, “let’s get back to the business at hand. First, is there anybody out there who knows this boy?”