Christmas was the time when it was believed that the world shifted ever so slightly, in a rotation just pivotal enough to tickle the senses into knowing that some miracle would occur. Time operated on a different continuum during the Christmas season, and nothing was quite as it seemed. A spirit of limitless possibility pervaded, swirling in circuitous, rippling whorls with the chimney smoke and the sparkling flakes of snow, which dusted the outstretched tongues of children below. Anything could happen.
Frost tingled on the eaves, and embers glowed amber in the auriferous hearth. Amos McBean was outside, desperately trying to make a dime shoveling the path in front of his neighbor’s house. For a grown man, the task would’ve proved not only difficult, but totally lugubrious, an unappealing chore, like eating stale oatmeal for every meal, months on end (which Amos had also done).
Amos, however, reveled in the feat, which had turned into a kind of performance for him. As he tucked his enormous shovel (belonging to his father) under the thick, hardened crust of snow, he wiggled and dipped, shimmying as he hauled the snow over his shoulder, behind his back.
Whenever any patches of snow were removed, they revealed ice beneath, which the always agile Amos would purposely slip in, engaging in histrionics as he slid, skating across, to the amusement of the small, but steadily growing, crowd he had attracted. Adding to the levity was the fact that he so expertly handled a shovel of comically gargantuan proportions, at least two times the size of the plucky boy.
Just as he was really getting into his groove, waggling his bony hips a la Elvis, and moonwalking, he felt a rough, sturdy hand yank him by the back of his coat collar. Reflexively, he thrust the pile of snow accumulated in his shovel backwards, drawing stunned, scandalized gasps from the crowd instead of the laughter he intended.
Turning slowly, like a graceful ballerina on a music box, with the utmost dread, Amos faced the leering countenance of his father, fixed in a scowling sneer unlike any Amos had seen before, and unquestionably portending a rebuke. Perhaps that was because he’d never seen his father dripping with ice-encrusted snow, which clung to his face like a beard, causing him to resemble the Abominable Snowman. If he weren’t so terrified, Amos would’ve laughed. But these weren’t normal circumstances.
“Amos Quincy McBean,” his father growled menacingly, and Amos gulped, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a buoy in the choppy waters of the sea. He felt just as helpless. Rising to his full height of 6’5”, Arthur McBean snatched the shovel from his son’s hand, the last few ice crystals fluttering from the shovel like lace paper doves.
“Dad, I can explain! I’m sorry, but look, I did the job, and-” The futile gestures towards the minuscule hill of shoveled snow, approximately the size of a dilapidated sand castle, failed to impress Mr. McBean, who interrupted Amos with accomplished aplomb. He’d had plenty of practice with chastising him.
“I don’t want to hear it, Amos. I’ve spoken to you about this before, and you know the rules. This is hardly a finished job. It’s halfhearted. Embarrassing. You’re not taking pride in your work, son! I didn’t raise you to be this way. We McBean men work hard. We get jobs done. Efficiently. Heads down, eyes focused. We don’t bring unnecessary- unwanted- attention,” this said with special emphasis, he pointed brusquely to the onlookers encircling them, whispering hoarsely as the cold, or perhaps their shame, ruddied their cheeks, turning them the color of cranberries, slightly frostbitten. Arthur whirled irately, yelling louder now.
“In fact, why are you people still here?! Go! Now! None of this concerns you. You never should’ve been here gawking at my son in the first place! Go!” Arthur shooed at the group with clumsily scooping hands. Like Quixote and Panza, father and son could not have contrasted more in their juxtaposition.
Lean, wiry, and wielding considerable brawn, Arthur McBean was a gruff laborer who worked the land with rigid, unfaltering expertise. Laconic and tough, he was wizened by dirt and sun, with clear eyes that squinted, lined at the corners, that seemed as pinched as his unsmiling lips were. Perpetually clothed in flannels, he camouflaged with the populace, aside from his hulking frame.
Amos had never seen a skyscraper, but he imagined his steely father as being akin to one. Otherwise, he thought of him as a silo, unwavering in prairie dust, holding everything stoically, unspeakably, inside. Meanwhile, Amos was a born showman, flashing a charismatic grin to all the world, which was his stage.
When his father enlisted him to odd (really, they were often unenjoyable, strange, or both, like plucking chicken feathers or taste-testing liverwurst samples for local townspeople) jobs, he usually ended up receiving tossed coins and chuckles not for the work itself, but for the impromptu entertainment the small, lithe boy, so much like a smooth-walking, resilient alley cat, provided in the process.
Young Amos, jolly, witty, and bright, kept everyone on their toes, bringing much-needed humor and light to the best people trying to make the best of trying times. In this recession, everyone was tenser, especially his father. Indeed, the two were far from being two peas (one could say beans) in a pod, unless one was rotten, while the other was ripe and alive with the flavor, but unlike Panza and Quixote, they had not reached companionable understanding.
Once, long before Amos could vividly remember, his father had possessed a tender heart. All that remained was his unflinching sense of duty and integrity; just not to his son. Before, Amos’ mother had been the glue, binding all fabrics into a beautiful tapestry, but that was too painful to remember. More excruciating than the snow his father flung at him in his rage, stinging Amos’ cheek, even as he turned the other one.
“Is this why you wanted everyone to leave? So you could punish me? Well, they saw what you were like already. Your reputation is nothing to speak of, either. At least I try to make people smile.” Amos, pride torched, grabbed the shovel back from his father’s hands defiantly. Arthur’s grimace deepened, face stiffening like marble, his cheekbones deep gouges in the long, rectangular face like a Great Dane.
“You, young man, will not speak to me like that. You, who is barely fourteen years of age! Times are tough, Amos. We need the money more than ever. Every cent counts. You will finish the job, and go home. Never will I trust you by yourself again! I thought you had grown out of such foolishness. What would your mother think?” His face softened, tears glistening at the eye corners. “This Christmas, she’ll be ten years in her grave.” he murmured, eyes fixed on a distant point, a far North Star.
“Okay, Pops, I get it, but you’ve seen how people eat up my vaudeville. I want to be an actor, Dad! Singing, dancing, the whole nine yards. I can join the troupe tomorrow, travel the world! I could be making more money than I would be shoveling, or-”
The face darkened austerely again, reverie burst. A candle extinguished. “Absolutely not, Amos. No son of mine will be an actor. I need another set of hands on the farm. That at the very least, if not brains, which you seem to lack,” he grumbled. “You will follow in my footsteps and be a farmer. That’s what your mother would’ve wanted you to do. Not defying me with this poppycock you call ‘art.’”
Amos turned up his chin indignantly, not allowing tears to rise to his eyes like clouds above the mountain peaks. Like Napoleon, he faced his father, challenging him, though Arthur towered feet above.
“You might look like her, but you will never be like your mother, boy. She had dignity, class, self-respect. She didn’t strut around the streets like you do.”
Amos bristled. “Mama would commend my choice. Applaud me, like everyone else does, except for you. You forget that she was an artist, too. Arthur laughed bitterly, a terribly cruel, choking sound, desecrating the beauty Amos spoke of. The memory of his mother.
“Evangelina is- was- a woman. She was raised to appreciate classical traditions, singing, playing piano, painting, needlework. You have a responsibility to provide, to work. Acting is not a real job. Accept your lot, as the world does!” Arthur howled, and a door behind him slammed. For a fleeting moment, father and son were identical, faces of equal parts terror, consternation at being interrupted, contrition, and concern creasing their faces as they turned to face the new party privy to their quarrel.
“Mr. McBean,” a sweet voice croaked, low and ragged with age, but not without the kindly sympathy of a grandmotherly woman. Their elderly neighbor, Mrs. McCreadle, tilted her head concernedly. “I do appreciate the nice job Amos has done.” They all glanced, unconvinced, at the few inches of paved driveway Amos had shoddily managed to clear in his ballet for the public.
“Really, I have just enough space to walk. I don’t need anything else. Thank you,” she gently touched Arthur’s shoulder, like a mountain above her, and some of the ice melted. “I don’t mean to pry, you understand, Mr. McBean, but… I don’t think you should be so hard on Amos. He’s a good boy, doesn’t mean any harm. Why, he’s doing the best he can. Poor child gives us the joy we all sorely need in the world right now. And no mother to guide him? If anything, someone should be trying to bring a smile to his face.”
Amos’ lips had ever so slightly upturned at his defender’s speech, until she pinched his cheek with what she imagined to be maternal benignity, but which was actually quite forceful, causing even Mr. McBean himself to wince, before bemusedly raising an eyebrow, and remembering to justify his position.
“Mrs. McCreadle, I thank you for your sincere concern, but my son’s behavior is unacceptable. I genuinely apologize for Amos’ lack of foresight and care in this job. Next time, I will shovel myself, as I should have from the start. My son disappointed me tonight, and you shouldn’t have to endure the aftereffects. I am so sorry for this disturbance. I hope we didn’t wake you.”
Mrs. McCreadle chortled knowingly, disconcerting Arthur in his cool reparations. “The driveway doesn’t mean an iota to me, Mr. McBean. It’s you I’m worried about. I’ve been praying, you know. And as for Evangelina? She’s mighty proud of her son. He’s more like her than you think. Good night, boys.” She disappeared behind the door with a wink, the door seeming to close of its own accord.
The McBeans turned to each other, their anger forgotten in favor of curiosity and wonder. “How did she-?” they echoed in awe, before Arthur McBean shook his head, pointedly clearing away the distraction like a dog clearing water from its fur after a bath, jerkily, decisively.
“She’s a senile old lady. Forget it. Foolishness, just like yours.” Arthur definitively lifted the shovel again from Amos’ hand, taking final ownership. “Let’s go, Amos. No looking back.” Without further argument, the two trudged off in the snow, candlelight from Mrs. McCreadle’s window trickling behind them like a breadcrumb trail. This time, Amos’ head lolled down, chin on his chest, but not because his father had told him to keep it that way.
Arthur McBean rubbed his eyes, squeezing his fingers across the closed lids until they met at the bridge of his nose. He sighed from the depths of his diaphragm, sounding like a grumbling bear waking from hibernation. Sliding from his bed, his feet hit the floor woodenly, his body half melted in sleep still. Trudging down the hallway, his slippered feet sliding on the hardwood floors, he braced himself to open the door.
“What kind of person would be ringing the doorbell at this hour?” he griped, slowly pulling back the front door, like someone cautiously peeling wrapping paper back from a present. Immediately, he regretted that he had, as his ears were assaulted by a wall of sound. “Carolers? Really? You guys couldn’t have waited until tomorrow?” Arthur stood blearily in his robe, a grim expression on his face.
His frown deepened when he noted that Amos, next to Mrs. McCreadle, was among the merry singers. When Amos winked at him jovially, his cheeks, tinged to a warmly dimpled cranberry hue in the briskly cold night, Arthur scoffed, glaring at the carolers all the while in the half light of the streetlamps, which backlit the candles held by each caroler.
They continued flipping the pages in their songbooks, moving from one tune to the next. Arthur was drifting off to sleep, when suddenly, he noticed that the music had dissipated.
“You done?” he mumbled sleepily.
“Not quite.” He heard a bright, chipper voice intone. Arthur’s eyes popped open upon feeling elbows and shoulders brushing past him. They were coming inside?
“Hey, what are you doing? Don’t you have another house to visit? It’s like trick-or-treating… you don’t get all the candy from one house… this is trespassing!” he exclaimed, a frantic note rising in his voice.
“It’s tradition to welcome carolers into your home after they’ve sung for you,” Mrs. McCreadle helpfully explained. “It’s customary to have cocoa and baked goods prepared for them, as you would for weary travelers, guests who are coming in from the cold.” Arthur was livid.
“If it’s a tradition, then why is this the first I’ve heard of it? And if you’ve made all of these other stops, like Santa, then how are you even still hungry?” he sighed morosely, muttering, “And of course, you pick the poorest guy in the village to pillage from.”
Mrs. McCreadle laughed. “Singing from house to house does burn a lot of calories, Arthur. And open your heart. Have some Christmas spirit. Tis the season for miracles. The more, the merrier.” She winked again at Arthur, which irritated him even more.
She left her still-burning candle on the entry table beside Arthur, where he usually placed house keys when he first came into the house from outside. Perched on a shallow silver dish with a tiny handle like a teacup would have, the thin white candlestick glittered brazenly, in an impish way, at Arthur.
He shivered, watching Amos stirring mugs of cocoa for the other carolers in the kitchen. Amos added peppermint sticks to each steaming mug, as Mrs. McCreadle helped fix plates of sugar cookies for her fellow bastions of Christmas cheer. When had she baked those? Arthur hadn’t seen her carry those in…
And where had she gotten those sprigs of evergreen and holly berries that she festooned the plates with? Once more, his skin was wracked with goosebumps as he realized that the door was still open, with the howl of the winter wind hissing into his ears as the carolers huddled snugly in the warm kitchen, laughing and feasting together.
Just as Arthur was closing the door, the most leviathan wind of all galed forth like a tidal wave, gnawing at the bare skin of his face. Amazingly, the candle did not so much as flutter, burning with more fortitude than ever. To Arthur’s horror, it expanded, bubbling into inferno heights.
“Fire!” he began to shriek, but the wind consumed his voice, so that no one else heeded him. He was on the outskirts of a dream… or perhaps they were…
“Arthur, darling? Is that you? You look so… cold…” the voice whispered, cascading melliferously, like no other. An incomparable music that warmed the blood frozen in his veins. But his ears deceived him. Ghosts had a way of breathing down his neck around the holidays. He wrapped his robe more tightly around himself, resembling a mountaineer battling the very thin air he breathed. A force beyond himself. It was folly, but it was unleashed from him nonetheless.
“Evangelina?” he softly uttered, nearly inaudibly. Glancing around him, he espied no source for the voice. That is, until he faced the candle, and nearly screeched in anguish again. It was her face, unmistakably glowing in the candle flame, her face honeyed by its warm light. Her expression was as tender and heartfelt as it had been in life. Intuitive, and yet searching.
“Erma McCreadle was telling me about her concerns for you. Now I can see why. Arthur, why has your heart hardened so?” Arthur turned away.
“This is totally inane. You expect me to believe this is real? I was just woken up in the middle of the night. I’m still dreaming. That, or this is just the old woman’s tricks,” he snarled. “I’m going back to bed.” The candlelight extended, reaching in long fingers like tree branches that skimmed his face.
“Arthur, wait.” A soft, yet firm, command. Her eyes beseeched his, from mere inches now. “You mustn’t let your grief put a wall between yourself and the world. Things will not always be like this, but your heart must be open to the change. Our son needs you. To support him. To guide him. He needs a father, Arthur. Not only a disciplinarian. He needs love.”
Arthur chortled dispassionately, his eyes glinting with some recognition, a light he refused to acknowledge, or to allow to replace the dullness that had settled there after the loss of Evangelina. “Yeah. And I suppose that if I just believe, and leave cookies for Santa and his little caroler elf minions here, everything will get better? Good one. I don’t even know why I’m talking to you. A candle. I’m clearly overtired.” He felt a scalding tinge lightly touch the side of his ear. “Ow!”
“Arthur, you’re not listening to me. Evidently, not much has changed. But that’s just it. You need to change. Being apathetic, numb to your feelings, your hurt, your fear, will not make you feel any better. You’ll only keep descending into darkness. Please, Arthur. For Amos. For yourself. For me. Live by the light of the candle.”
Against his better judgment, the tears slithered down his face in creeping rivers like melting icicles. “Evangelina, I’ve missed you so much. You always knew exactly what to say to Amos. You were perfect, you were the center. The cornerstone. You complemented each of us. I haven’t known how to live without you. I’m afraid to… to… show love. It reminds me of you, and it makes me miss you more.”
He was sobbing more now, but the warmth of the candle seeped into his skin, beyond muscle and bone, sinuous tissue, to his heart, soothing him like a familiar lullaby.
“Arthur. Your love will heal you. Strength is in showing your emotions. Not hiding them. You don’t need to be afraid. I’m still here. And I’ll always be with you.” The light burned more fervently in his heart. “Celebrate the beauty and joy of the season. Honor me. Open your heart.” Blooming like a pink-gold rose, the flame waved once, in a kind of salute, Evangelina’s voice a sibilant whisper like the hush of the low tide, before the candlelight swooshed out on a gush of wind that shuddered through the window.
Arthur stood in speechless awe, blinking, as Amos bounded up to him, a half-eaten sugar cookie shaped like a snowflake in his hand, spidery blue veins of icing fanning forth across it. “Dad, you’ll never believe it! Danny invited me to join the village acting guild’s troupe! I can be part of the touring company! Tomorrow, I’ll audition!”
Still in thunderstruck astonishment, Arthur turned his head slowly to face his son, whose ecstatic face was glowing brilliantly. Just like hers had in the candle. He smiled gently. A look Amos had never seen. “That’s great, son. I know you’ll get the lead role. You’re so talented, like your mom. Just don’t forget about your old man when you’re famous,” Amos stared up at him in stunned disbelief. “Don’t worry. I’m serious. I’ll be at every performance.”
“Dad, what happened to you? You heard what I said, right? The caroling didn’t throw off your hearing, did it?”
Arthur chuckled. “Your happiness means more to me than anything, Amos. Things will get better if we can work together. It is the season for miracles, after all.”
Amos hugged him, quite bone-crushingly for someone who was half the size of Arthur. “This is such a gift. Thanks, Dad.” Arthur hugged him back.
“You’re a blessing to me, Amos. The best gift.”
Mrs. McCreadle smiled as she sipped the rest of her hot cocoa, basking in the merriment of the other carolers, whose candles were ringed on the kitchen table, illuminating the joy and love of the family.
Kathryn Sadakierski is a 20-year-old graduate student whose writing has appeared in The Bangor Literary Journal, The Ekphrastic Review, Nine Muses Poetry, Teachers of Vision, Dime Show Review, The Decadent Review, Visual Verse, iō Literary Journal, the Zimbell House Publishing anthology The Marshal, Truth Serum Press’ Indigomania anthology, and elsewhere. Her poems are forthcoming in Northern New England Review, Auroras & Blossoms, Halfway Down the Stairs, and The Voices Project. Kathryn has had a lifelong passion for literature as well as for art, often combining her interests through writing ekphrastic poems, though she also enjoys writing essays and short stories. She graduated summa cum laude with her B.A. in 2019, and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree.