Holiday fiction by
S now sugared the lawn and whitened the balsam wreathes at the twin bay windows flanking the front door painted red as holly berries. Lacy flakes drifted to earth, one tethering itself to the sleeve of the old black wool jacket that Delwyn Edward Morgan wore. At eighty-seven he still got around, but not without assistance. Delwyn stopped mid-shuffle up the walk and leaned on his son, Duane, and he raised his snowflake-frosted sleeve toward his squinting eyes. The snow particle was a perfect paradox, such delicacy and yet an unearthly ability to slick highways, close schools and factories, and even seize entire cities into states of emergency. Up close, though, it was a thing of beauty. “Angel feathers,” Delwyn said, tipping his face upward to a benediction of frosty wet kisses.
“Careful, Pops,” said Duane, fifty-three and for the first time bringing only himself and his father to Christmas at his sister Meredith’s house. His wife—ex-wife, officially, sometime in the new year—was in her new condo where their two college-age children had spent the night. Reaching over, he brushed the snowflakes from Delwyn’s arms and shoulders, breaking them into faint traces of crystal powder.
“Of course, real feathers are strong,” added Delwyn, who had always been Del to his friends and his late wife, Martha, dead five years already, and Pops to his three children and eight grandchildren. “Needs a strong shaft, but hollow so it’s not too heavy. Amazing how they work.”
“First step, Pops.” Duane held his father’s folded walker, careful not to get snow on the bottom of it, or else he’d face the wrath of Meredith for trailing slush on her hardwood floors.
Meredith with her built-in double ovens and gourmet six-burner stove hosted Christmas Day dinner every year. No matter that Sharon, the youngest sister, wanted a turn, or that Duane and Beth, when they were still married, might have tried hosting it one year, Meredith claimed her hostess rights by birth order and the status of her neighborhood. To keep the peace they came, without question or argument, but with enough resentment until they fell into their childhood roles: Meredith, the bossy one; Duane, middle child and only son who tried not to take sides; and Sharon, the youngest, who teased, joked, and fawned her way into the center of attention.
Pops took the second step, his hand digging into Duane’s forearm. Feeling his father’s weight, a surprising solidness, Duane thought how good it was that Pops was still with them. Last summer, congestive heart failure caused Pops’ body to swell with fluids, swamping his internal organs. Yet, here he was, ready to dig into Meredith’s dinner.
“Last step,” Duane added. Delwyn grunted with the effort of raising his foot.
Meredith opened the front door and pushed up the sleeves of the red velour top she wore with black slacks. The apron she wore read, “Kiss the Cook,” and was covered with mistletoe and lipstick prints. “Merry Christmas, Pops,” Meredith said loudly, reaching to steady her father as he navigated the wide threshold into the foyer. She looked behind Duane toward his car. “Where are the kids?”
“Coming later,” Duane said. “Or so I’m told.”
Meredith pursed her lips. “I set for fourteen.”
Duane could picture it from years past: antique table extended with three leaves and laden with the good china and a full set of silver, including tiny forks for eating oysters and odd knives for spreading pȃté. “Hey, I don’t have much of a say here, okay? They’re 20 and 21, remember? Last night they were with Beth.” He’d spent Christmas Eve eating dry turkey and gummy dressing at Oakwood Acres with Pops, who’d recently moved to the fourth floor, the transition to full-time nursing care.
“They’ll come,” Delwyn announced. “It’s Christmas. Kids always come.”
Sharon came to the door, her blond hair still shoulder length and held back by a headband. “Hi, Pops.” Sharon kissed Delwyn on the cheek, wrinkling her nose at the feel of whisker stubble.
“Hello there”—Delwyn paused just a second or two to catch his breath—“Sharon. Happy Holidays!”
“Merry Christmas,” Meredith said. “That’s what we say in this house.”
Sharon elbowed Duane. “He didn’t know me for a second. Did you notice that? He didn’t say my name right away.”
Duane unzipped his leather jacket and reached for the closet door. “But he did say it.” If Sharon could see the others at Oakwood, she’d realize their father’s pause was nothing. Last night, a resident had believed with such conviction that Duane was her cousin, he had no choice but to play along.
Meredith reached for the walker that Duane still carried, unfurled the legs, and positioned it in front of Delwyn. “Where’s that nice North Face coat we got you?”
“This one’s still good.” Delwyn paused, coat half-unbuttoned, and stared agape at a six-foot artificial tree decorated with metallic gold ribbon and red ornaments in the foyer. “That where you put it?”
“No, Pops. This is just a decoration. The real tree is in the living room, like always.” Meredith gave a head shake of concern in Duane’s direction.
Delwyn took a step in his orthopedic shoes that fastened with Velcro and pushed the walker across the floor. He’d once stood six-foot-two, taller than Duane and his two sons-in-law, Charles and Bill, but time had shrunk him and age curved him earthward.
“Pops!” Charles, a beefy sixty-one, had a double chin that wiggled over the lip of his turtleneck. “You’re looking well.”
Delwyn looked up into Charles’ face. “You, too. Peace on earth.”
“And goodwill to men—or should I say, to people.” Charles reached to greet Duane with a handshake. Duane surrendered the bottle of wine he’d brought; Charles gave the label a glance.
“Let’s taste this one,” Duane told his brother-in-law. “Guy at the store said it had spicy overtones.”
Charles paused. “Okay, but I do have a nice Bordeaux open—a perfect sixty-degrees. This feels a little cold.”
Duane positioned Delwyn in an armchair between the kitchen and the living room so he could see everyone, and followed Charles to the bar set up by the fireplace where a stack of logs flamed and crackled. Along the wall, stood seven-and-a-half feet of Frasier fir studded with hand-blown glass ornaments and roped with garland. At the top perched an angel, a foot-and-a-half tall from the edge of her brocade robe to the top of blond curls molded around her resin head. Her hands spread in beneficence, holding a miniature spray of artificial pine and berries.
“They don’t look like that,” Delwyn said, pointing a gnarled finger toward the figurine.
Sharon scurried over. “What’s wrong, Pops?”
“Angels don’t look like that.”
Sharon looked at the figurine that was better dressed than all the rest of them. “Well, Meredith goes for that kind of thing.” Showy, she added silently. Meredith had been like that since she was a kid.
Meredith passed by with a tray of crab puffs. “You’ll like these, Pops. But they’re still a little warm.” She handed him one with two napkins.
“Peace on earth,” Delwyn replied.
Meredith widened her eyes in Sharon’s direction over their father’s nonsensical reply. “We’re blessed to be together as a family,” she said.
“Will be when Duane’s kids get here,” he added.
Meredith glanced at the clock. Dinner was in forty minutes; her perfectly timed roast beef waited for no one. She brought the crab puffs into the family room, where Charles and Duane discussed sports with Bill, Sharon’s husband. The kids—three each for Meredith and Sharon—were in the family room in the basement, occupied by a pool table, big screen TV, and smartphones.
Alone in the hive of separate activities, Delwyn decided he’d tell them today. Not just the story; they’d heard it every year since they were children. Today he’d tell them the part he’d kept back from everyone except his beloved Martha, who believed him without proof the first time he told her. Over the years, if he told it once, it told it three hundred times, never wanting to let go of an event so improbable, so miraculous, even he wondered at times if it had really happened. And he told it to remember his twin brother, Edwin, who contracted polio that year and died. Fraternal, light to his dark, Edwin had the same pale blue-gray eyes that sometimes startled people when the brothers turned in the same direction simultaneously. For seventy-seven years since Edwin’s death, Delwyn looked at the world for two: keeping watch, making mental notes, and collecting stories that he’d tell Edwin when he saw him again one day. Most likely, one day soon.
The doorbell rang. Meredith called for Charles, who made his way to the foyer. Duane’s son and daughter arrived bearing a loaf of cranberry bread baked by Beth, their mother. Delwyn saw the tears brim in his son’s eyes that his children had come. They were all together, the old man smiled, just as he knew they would be.
The dining room table, as big as a river barge, carried more food than Delwyn had seen in a week. Charles toted a tureen to the head of the table where Meredith laded bowls of celery soup for everyone, even those who looked askance at the green creamy liquid. The salad had cranberries and walnuts in it, and a bit of gorgonzola cheese, which Duane’s daughter, Lily, picked out with her fingers, declaring she’d become a vegan. That newfound fervor kept the roast beef off her plate, along with the green beans almondine with herbed butter sauce and the cheddar cheese-and-spinach pie Meredith had made from scratch that morning. “Vegetarian,” Meredith protested. “That’s what your dad said. Vegetarians just don’t eat meat.”
“I’m a vegan,” Lily stressed the word. “No dairy at all. No milk, butter, cheese, or eggs.”
Duane threw up his hands in surrender. “It’s new. I didn’t know.”
Sharon passed Lily the sweet potato and cranberry casserole she’d brought; there was triumph in her gentle smile. “Just apple juice in here—not even sugar.”
Delwyn watched the plates fill, knowing that conversation would quiet once their mouths were full. He smoothed the napkin in his lap, gathering his thoughts. “It was real, you know,” he began.
“Is there any more of that spinach stuff?” Robert, one of the grandsons, asked.
“I have another pie in the kitchen. I’ll slice it and bring it out.” Meredith got up from the table.
“The angel, I mean. You thought it was a story, mostly ’cause that’s how I told it. But it was real—he was real.” Delwyn felt his lips move and knew he was speaking the words aloud and not just to himself. But lately he wasn’t so good on the volume control, mumbling when he thought he was talking in a normal voice.
Sharon leaned over. “Do you need something, Pops? More beef?” Before he could answer, she raised her eyes to her husband, Bill, across the table, who was reaching to pass the breadbasket and about to knock over his glass of wine. “Be careful! Red wine stains!”
“Since we’re all here,” Delwyn said.
One of the granddaughters squealed at a text that landed on her phone, announcing that some friend had just gotten engaged, which set Sharon and Meredith into a round of queries about who and how old she was.
Delwyn remembered sitting at the head of the table, wielding the carving knife and saying grace. Martha was at his right and the children around the table, along with Martha’s parents and her brother, Jake, and his wife, Edna. He was the last of that generation, and he had a story to tell.
“I need to say something.” Delwyn gripped the table to stand, but his legs betrayed him.
Duane saw the movement across the table, his father’s fingertips curling around the edge. “Pops, what do you need?”
“Silence!” Delwyn’s voice grew louder and sharper than it had been in years.
Meredith grabbed Charles’ arm. “Something’s wrong with Pops!”
“Nothing’s wrong with him,” Duane snapped. “He just wants to say something.”
“I need you all to listen,” Delwyn began. “The story—you know it as well as I do. The angel and the feather. But it’s true, I tell you. It’s true.”
“Of course it is.” Sharon tilted her head to the side. “We love that story.”
Delwyn raised one hand, fingers gnarled and the joints swelled to walnuts. Flesh and bone hit the linen cloth and the maple tabletop underneath. “I was afraid that you wouldn’t believe me—that it was just a trick. So I never showed you, thinking I’d do it when you got older. But the older you got, the less you listened, because you’d heard it too many times.”
He was tired now, almost exhausted.
“Why don’t you tell the story after dinner,” Bill suggested. “Get your second wind.”
Delwyn pressed on, fumbling at first through the back story of Edwin being diagnosed with polio, and their mother who paced the floor at night and prayed, and their father who had white hair by the time they buried the boy in the spring.
“I used to share the big bedroom in the front of the house with Edwin. But when he got sick they put me in a back room where my mother used to sew.” Delwyn closed his eyes and saw that tiny room.
“Pops, maybe you shouldn’t tired yourself,” Meredith said.
“Do you need some fresh water? I’ll get you a glass.” Sharon slid her chair back.
“Let him be!” Duane snapped. “He’s got water.” He turned to Delwyn. “Go on.”
And so he told the story of how, in that small bedroom, he’d seen a light come at him from a distance, growing larger as it neared, until it burst over him like a wave and filled the room. “I tried to say something, but my mouth just gaped like this.” Delwyn mimicked the gasp of a fish on the shore. “Then he was standing there.”
Delwyn told them what he saw: The figure wore a long gown that seemed to be made of light, yet draped like fabric. The face looked human, except it was as smooth and unlined as a china doll’s. The arm that swept in his direction had a firm bicep and strength in the shoulder, which made Delwyn think of the apparition as male. Then the angel spoke: “Your brother is going to heaven.”
Sitting upright in his narrow bed, he’d found his voice. “How will I know he’ll be all right?”
“Because Edwin will be with God,” the angel said in a voice that blanketed him with comfort.
The light dimmed, like an oil lamp turned down. “Wait!” young Delwyn called. “How do I know this is real—that I didn’t dream this?”
The angel form rematerialized just enough, like a figure stepping into a lighted doorway. An arm stretched toward him, and a hand that had five fingers of light where there should be flesh, deposited something on the foot of his bed.
The room darkened and the boy clutched the hand-pieced quilt his mother had made out of old fabric scraps. There, where his toes stretched to the footboard, was a feather.
The story over, Delwyn paused, his voice spent.
“Such a beautiful story, Pops,” Meredith smiled.
Sharon dabbed her eyes with her napkin.
Slowly, conversation picked up around the table: after-Christmas plans, sales on the twenty-sixth, and parties for New Year’s Eve. Delwyn, no longer ten years old, but eighty-seven, reached into the inside pocket of his sport coat that sagged at his shoulders like it belonged to a bigger man and felt for his handkerchief. He pressed it to his lips.
“You okay?” Duane asked.
Then Delwyn reached into the jacket pocket on the other side and laid something on the table.
Duane pushed back his chair and rose slowly. “Pops, what is that?”
Meredith stopped her story about a friend’s cruise to Alaska. “Pops?”
Sharon’s hand clutched her throat and her fingers worked the chain of her gold necklace like a rosary.
Picking up the feather by the tip of its white shaft, Delwyn rotated it slowly. The gold that tipped each filament caught the light and shone brightly. “It’s true—it’s all true,” he said. The feather, as perfect then as it was three-quarters of a century ago, rested on the Christmas table.
“Peace on earth,” Delwyn said. “Goodwill to all.”