ir·i·des·cence, fiction, from the main Hauntings

© 1987 T Gregory; Laloba Press

He watched her in that near sleep that follows the most intimate of lovemaking. She was curled around his body, lower in the bed than he, so that he could rise up on one arm and study her face without disturbing her.

They’d spent the day shopping. Enjoying the Christmas Eve rush in the stores. She had been playful and excited as a child, as though Santa Claus would be coming down the chimney at their house tonight for the two of them.

He watched the flickering of the dozen or so candles she’d lit play in the colors of her hair. When she opened her eyes her lashes cast long, slow-moving shadows across her face, seeming to hide her from him. Quai worried at the look of intensity she saw on Mark’s face, unusual for him after making love. Ordinarily it was she who would lay awake and marvel at the beauty of him as he slept.

“Where are you?” she asked, “somewhere far away?” It was a whisper, and he bent nearer to kiss her: her temple, and then her eyes, gently forcing her to close them and let him return to his reverie. For once she didn’t insist on an answer. Instead, she smiled a lazy, contented smile, shrugged deeper into the covers and turning her face toward his chest, relaxed into sleep.

He was struck again by the delicate iridescent quality he’d discovered in her. The strength that seemed to emanate from her quite hid the frailties he knew she was made of. While he was sure she’d learned the ruse of strength for protection long ago, it was such a habit with her that even he believed it. It surprised him to know this secret about her and frightened him that she had allowed it.

He thought of a Christmas long ago when his father had come home on leave after what seemed an eternity to a four-year-old boy.

Pop had burst into the cheery apartment loudly, calling for each of them in that rich baritone, duffle bag slung over one shoulder, “dixie cup” sailor’s cap jauntily tipped to one side. Mark’s mother, Lee, had walked out of the kitchen and the children had run pell-mell from every room to welcome him home. Squealing with joy, they’d tumbled over each other and him in their rush to touch him. Pulling his cap off and kneeling to embrace the children, he was glad he’d decided to surprise them.

Mark, standing back, suddenly shy, recalled his father’s scent even before he was near enough to renew his memories of it. The cold New England air had given his salty pea jacket a familiar outdoors odor and it mixed pleasantly with that spicy, slightly-tobaccoed smell that was Pop.

“Ah, Marko, comere now,” His father had spied him and when he beckoned, Mark flew to him. He burrowed into his father’s scratchy wool coat and felt the familiar rush of strength and safety in the arms that held him tightly. Too soon, Pop had held him at arms’ length to study the little face that had changed so in the last 18 months. Too soon, because Pop saw the tears Mark had worked so hard to control still falling on his damp face. He’d jerked the boy back to that broad chest, but not before Mark could see that Pop was weeping too. Mark would hold the memory of that reunion to him for all the long months that would pass before his father came home again, much preferring it to the man’s obvious joy at leaving them and going back to the sea.

After the teary welcomes and a feast that his mother seemed to bring about by magic, Pop had called them all to the living room. His bulging duffle bag had been dragged into the room and was under the Christmas tree, an intrusion in this familiar setting, reminding them that he would leave again. And soon.

He told each of them where to sit, including Lee, obviously enjoying this seldom-played role of patriarch. All of the children clamored for his attention and he rationed each of them a measure, insuring everyone’s attention to the ritual he was about to perform. Pop was home and the children knew that meant presents. Presents Pop wouldn’t wait until Christmas morning to have opened. Birthdays, sometimes months away, if not already long past, and Christmases were celebrated the night Pop came home. He’d never been there on a Christmas Mark could remember, and not for many birthdays.

He always brought a special, well-chosen gift for each of the children, and none of them, himself included, were ever disappointed in his taste. But this year he had a special gift for Lee.

As he gave each of the children the presents he’d picked out for them, he watched Lee’s joy in her children’s delight, anticipating her reaction to the surprise he had for her. He took the last gift from the duffle bag and she looked at him with some amount of reproach. The box was large and cumbersome and she presumed rightly that he’d spent much too much money for it.

“For your Christmas tree, Lee. I, uh, hope you like it.” He said the last in a rush, feeling foolish and suddenly very young. He was uncertain that she would understand this special offering.

Lee had taken the box gingerly, expecting it to be quite heavy and surprised that it felt almost empty. She took the wrapping off slowly, not knowing what to expect now, and needing time to prepare a response.

He was as excited over her gift as the children had been over theirs. She knew that and she couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing him at not being thrilled with his choice for her.

She needn’t have bothered to ready herself. When she raised the lid of the plain white box, the gasp that escaped her congratulated her husband’s choice.

Nestled in what seemed a fortune of tissue paper were a dozen ornaments for her Christmas tree. They were made from the finest venetian crystal, each blown and exquisitely detailed in her beloved Italia.

She’d set about adding them to the already-decorated tree, fussing with just the right place for each and moving other ornaments to show off the new to perfection.

He knew she was busy with the tree to hide her tears and he bore it as long as he could. He walked to where she stood and putting his arms around her ample waist, whispered, “Lee, they’re alright?”

She turned then, sobbing, and held him as if she’d never again let him go. “Perfect. You shouldn’t have done it.”

“Of course I should’ve,” he answered, stroking her hair. “I’m sure of it now.”

She smiled at him then, thru the tears, hoping again that maybe this trip would be the last and they’d have a real life. He was convinced of the rightness of them, the oneness they shared, however briefly and infrequently. But there were no thoughts in his mind of making this his life.

They’d sent the children off to bed then. Closing the house up for the night, and turning off the lights, they went to the room that Lee called theirs thru all the times he was away.

Mark crept out of bed when the house had grown quiet and went downstairs to the tree. It was a trip he’d made alone every night since the Christmas tree had gone up, to wish his father home. He could hardly not go tonight when he wanted to thank God and Santa Claus for bringing Pop here this Christmas.

Seeing the firelight dancing in the new crystal ornaments hanging on the tree, the boy was entranced. He hadn’t understood the import of the ornaments to his mother, only that it had made him unhappy to see her cry. He had no real idea of the promises made on Christmases of years before, some in person, some on crackling long-distance wires. Promises to come home to her and stay. To give up the life that was life to him, and help her make a home.

He hadn’t been very impressed with the gift either, until he saw each of them there, lit only by the flames of the dying fire. They turned on the ribbons that held them, the draft from the fire creating a magic show of light and movement for a sleepy child.

He watched them, spell-bound until he could stand no more. He moved to the tree, and on tip-toe, could almost touch the lowest one. Looking around him with the ingenuity that only a small child possesses, he decided to stand on the woodbox to touch the ball that danced maddeningly just out of his reach.

Putting one foot on the outside edge of the woodbox, he sprang up. Catching himself, he put his other foot on the side rim of the box, each little foot gripping the quarter-inch wide boards. From this position he had to reconnoiter, and twisting to reach the tree, decided on another, closer ornament. This one was slightly smaller and incredibly delicate, although in his eyes it just seemed too thin.

He’d had it in his hands for only seconds, and if his father had waited long enough for him to turn around and spring to the floor, his mother would probably still have a dozen perfect ornaments, now nearly twenty years old.

Instead, Pop’s wrath surfaced and when he roared, “Marko!” the boy opened his hands to let go as if the glass were as hot as the fire reflected in it.

They watched, horrified, as it plummeted toward the tiled hearth. The boy was reminded briefly of a soap bubble and hardly had time to wish for a good wind to carry it aloft before it bounced twice, intact, once from a log and then from his foot, before it finally hit the hearth. The noise that it made seemed almost as loud as Pop’s voice had when he’d burst into the quiet room.

The man’s recriminations began almost as quickly as his son’s apologies, but the only person listening to either of them was Lee. She’d followed her husband downstairs and was as startled as the boy when she’d heard his name shouted out.

She swept young Marko into her arms, her tears mingling with his as she carried him back to his bed. He felt he’d broken her heart as easily as he’d destroyed the ornament and he didn’t know how to make it up to her.

He had no idea that she was crying over the impossibility of making things right with him. Or making them right with his father. The explanation that the decorations were too delicate for his touch was intended as a reprisal to her husband for his heavy-handedness with the boy rather than an explanation to the child.

Unaware of the sort of double talk his mother used scolding his father in front of the children, Mark never understood that her choice of words was not really meant for him.

He carried the memory of those words etched in his heart even now. He shuddered when he realized how like Quai was the ornament he’d shattered on the hearth. Fine and lovely, and ready to fly into a million scattered pieces if she were treated carelessly.

And how he feared that it might be he that was careless with her.