Writing Resources from Fifteen Minutes of Fiction
The ToyotaToyota might make a nice truck, but it was never designed to be used like this. Maggie twisted sideways in the seat, trying to get comfortable. Next to her Jenny shivered and snuggled closer, sharing her body heat. Her soft snoring turned briefly to a moan, then returned to the quiet, rasping breath of normal sleep.
Out the window of the truck, Maggie could see the dark silhouettes of evergreens burdened with snow. Large white flakes drifted down and settled on the windshield; soon the entire truck would be covered.
Everything here was foreign to her. Everything was a reminder of what she had left behind. She was homesick – desperately homesick. Homesick for warbling birds, tall straight palmettos, and generous, kind people -but most of all, she was homesick for the warmth of her home in the Carolinas.
When she had fled with nothing but two small suitcases and little Jenny in tow, Maine – with its harsh winters and oddly unsocial people - would not have been her destination of choice. But her high school friend Marta had offered to take her in, and Marta lived here in the cold North East. Maggie was confident her husband would not be able to find them here, so Maine - for all its strangeness - was the safest place to be.
But when they finished their long, desperate journey from the south, they found that Marta had moved to Portland, and her new apartment was too small to include a terrified runaway mother and child. With no money, no home, and with two days until Christmas, Maggie and Jennifer were hungry and cold, huddled together, desperate to stay warm in the cab of Maggie’s battered Toyota pickup.
Maggie turned away from the strange winter landscape out her window and looked again at her daughter. She saw that the blanket they shared had slid away, leaving Jenny’s back exposed to the cold. She reached across Jenny’s shoulders, gently tugged the blanket and tucked it under the girl’s slim, shivering form.
This is no way to spend the holidays, she thought. But how desperately hard it was to ask for help from strangers! “Tomorrow,” she said, and that one word was a promise heard by no one but herself and the cold wintery silence.
The Shelter"We're getting new residents today," Maria said.
I looked up from my computer. Today was my volunteer day at the women's shelter. My presence there meant that Maria could answer fewer phone calls, deal with fewer problems, and maybe even sneak away for a bit and have some quiet solitude.
"Oh?" I replied.
"A woman from South Carolina," she said, "on the run from an abusive husband. Drove here last week with her six year old daughter, without even telling her family and friends where she was going. They’ve been living out of her pickup."
I would have said: "What is this world coming to?" except it had already been said so many times before, and we both knew it was going through our minds without saying it aloud. Instead I said, "I'll buzz you when they arrive."
I was just finishing up a phone call a couple hours later when the doorbell rang. I peeked through the curtains before opening the door. The woman standing on the porch was of medium height, and bordered on emaciated. Her face was pale, her eyes were sunken and her hair was long, greasy, and tangled. Though it was not easy to do, I could imagine that – at some time not too long ago – she might have been an attractive woman, but now physical beauty had been chased out by fear, hunger and desperation.
The daughter stood close beside her, with one arm wrapped around her mother’s leg, and her face peeking out from behind her mother’s coat. Her clothes, her face and her hands were all dirty, and her jacket was far too thin for late December weather. I smiled at the little girl, but received no smile in return. Knowing a bit of her history with the men in her life, I found myself wishing that Maria – or one of the other women - could have been there to greet them.
I introduced myself to them, and ushered them in, holding my hand out to the mother. She clasped my hand briefly, but her grip was limp and cold, and she let go very quickly. I said, "Have a seat, make yourselves comfortable; I'll let Maria know you're here. She'll have some paperwork to go through with you."
As I buzzed the apartment to let Maria know they had arrived, Maggie stood in the middle of the kitchen and looked around her with bemusement. I recognized the expression; it was a look I had seen before from other women who had expected to find bare white walls and metal cots and dormitory housing. Instead they discovered a house which looked more like their own homes than their mental image of a shelter. With pictures on the walls, plants on the sills, hastily scribbled coloring book pictures stuck to the refrigerator, and the cheerful sounds of Rudolph and Hermie the elf coming from the cluttered living room, it was hard to think of this house as a place of crisis.
"Jenny," I said, pointing through the doorway into the living room, "there are some Christmas videos playing on TV, if you want to watch those." Jenny looked to her mother for permission before walking with a slow, quiet dignity toward the sound of Hermie's nasal "Why Am I Such A Misfit". She sat motionless in front of the television and maintained an expression of stoic indifference throughout the silly adventures of Rudolph and his pals.
I found her quiet movement, her silence, and her expressionless gaze disconcerting in a child who should have been laughing and prancing, looking for mischief. But I was growing to understand that in a society of ever increasing violence toward women and children, it is no longer the Jenny's of the world who are the misfits.
The StableI remember, as a little child, being frightened of the abominable snowman in the Rudolph Christmas special. I was always terrified by the scene with Rudolph walking through the deserted snowy landscape, and the monster looking over the mountain peaks. In retrospect it seems silly, but there's no telling what terrors will resonate in the imagination of a child. So when I heard the roar of the snowman on the television, I peeked through the doorway to see how Jenny was doing.
She was no longer sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the television; the Christmas special was playing to an audience of none. Jenny was standing motionless in front of the bookshelves, staring with rapt attention at the wall. I couldn't see what she was staring at, so I entered the living room, clearing my throat quietly so she would know I was there. She didn't flinch or glance in my direction, but continued to stare at the wall.
Then I saw it wasn't the wall she was staring at; one of the book shelves had been cleared, and all the books replaced by a ceramic nativity scene, complete with wise men, shepherds, angels, animals, and – of course – the Christ child and his parents.
"You like that?" I said.
She turned briefly to look at me, but said nothing. Her expression reminded me a bit of the barn cats we used to have when I was a child – skittish, and ready to run at a moment's notice. Instinctively I treated her the same way I used to treat the cats: don't get too close too fast. I sat on the couch on the far side of the room, and stretched out my legs. My relaxed posture said that I wasn't moving any time soon.
Her intense, focused gaze returned to the nativity.
As I watched her staring at the nativity scene, it occurred to me that I should ask a different question. "Do you know what it is?" I asked.
This time she didn't even turn to look at me. She just shook her head once.
Sitting there on the couch, I quietly told her the story of Mary and Joseph, the scared young family that had to travel to a faraway town when Mary was almost ready to give birth. I told her about the innkeeper, the stable, and the manger. I told her about the shepherds on the hillside and the angels who announced the Child's birth. Then I told her about the wise men from far away who had come to give gifts to the child, and about the abusive king who wanted to kill the innocent baby.
Through the whole story she stood motionless, except for tiny movements of her head as her rapt gaze was fixed on different elements of the scene – first the holy family, then in turn the stable, the shepherds, and the wise men. When I was done telling the story she reached out to touch the little manger figurine with the Christ child. I almost stopped her, but my instinct told me that the fragile figure was not in any danger from this strange little girl.
Gently she stroked the manger and the child, then she scooped up the ceramic statue and cradled it in her hands. She began to hum – the first sound I had heard from her.
It was a lullaby.
There was something strangely unnerving about the way the little girl stared at the figure of the Christ child, the way she treated it like a real baby who needed to be touched and stroked, and who needed to hear the sound of quiet lullabies. Perplexed, I wondered what it was that fascinated her so. I grew up in the church, and I grew up with nativity scenes all around, both at home and at church, but I couldn't remember ever being so entranced by the simple figurines that decorated our mantel. Had I become too familiar with the story to see it as this little girl was seeing it?
As I watched and listened, I thought, what a strange parody of a Christmas angel - an angel with dirt on her face, and out-of-tune songs on her lips.
But it was her dirty cheeks and tuneless melody that gave me the clue to what I had been missing. The nativity scene itself obscured my view of the Christmas story. I could never see through the bright colored paints and shining glaze to see the dirt and the grime of a homeless family in a cold barn. I could never feel past the smooth texture of the ceramic to recognize the cruel reality of rough, dry straw rubbing against the skin of a newborn baby. I could never smell past the cheerful holiday smells of evergreen and peppermint, to smell the musty stench that I was so familiar with from our own barn. I could never hear past the traditional Silent Night to hear the dissonant sounds of animals lowing and a baby squalling.
I never recognized them before - the sights, the textures, the smells and the sounds of desperation, fear and loneliness. They were things that this dirty little girl with her tuneless lullaby understood far better than I ever had. This child who had heard the Christmas story for the first time today understood something about it that I - with all my years of Sunday School and sermons and Bible reading - had never grasped.
No wonder Jesus said that he had come to declare peace and good news to the poor; after all, when it comes right down to it, isn't Christmas all about a desperate woman and a homeless child?
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