(Jaq and Kate) spent the early hours of the afternoon preparing a traditional Christmas Eve supper of kibbneh and tabouleh and baba ghanoush. It was Jaq’s grandfather Louie, after all, the man in the moon, who had been Chaldean.
Around three o’clock the door chimes rang once again. Nothing had happened all afternoon. Nothing at all. “Do you mind?” Jaq held up his hands, displaying a pair of palms covered with wet burghul wheat.
“If you insist,” Kate said, tossing her apron on the counter.
“Thanks, sweetie!” he called after her. Then Jaq heard a squeal, and it was a happy squeal.
“Jaq! Come here!” Kate’s voice pealed irresistibly, like a silver bell. Jaq wiped his hands and scooted to the door.
Standing on the front porch were Kate and Frankie (the florist’s) man, Walter Johnson. Between them they held a fir tree, measuring seven or eight feet in height. All of the branches extending from the trunk snaked sinuously, giving the tree the appearance of motion. With perfect symmetry, the apical bud corkscrewed heavenward.
Jaq’s mouth dropped. He pointed at the tree.
Walter pursed his lips. “It’s a little different. Yuh-huh.”
“Different?!” Jaq said.
Walter smiled a wide, toothless smile. Walter was old, yet, remarkably, the skin of his cheeks was smooth, except for deep wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, which were a pale, watery blue. Walter always looked as if he had just wept for joy.
“Different, but this here is a Christmas tree. Specifically, a Douglas fir,” Walter qualified, hissing his sibilants. “Strange’un, I’ll grant ya that.” Walter shrugged and flashed gum.
Jaq swallowed hard. It struck him that the idea of having a Christmas tree wasn’t at all as sad as it had been the year before. Last Christmas had simply been too soon. Still …
“Oh, Jaq,” Kate was saying, her face lit up by an enormous grin, “guess who sent it? Father Beele! Isn’t that right, Walter?”
Walter nodded. “Cut it down hisself.”
“Isn’t that wonderful?” Jaq screwed up his face. Kate threw the expression right back at him. “Pick up the trunk, sweetie, and, Walter, would you hold the top.”
“Yesss, ma’am,” Walter whistled over his gums.
“Walter? You said Father Nick cut this down himself?” Jaq asked.
“Yep. Up to Mackay way, by the Lost, I think he said.”
“Looks as if he’s better at growing things than he is at chopping them down. There’s a deep gash just below the bottom branches.” Walter peered over the top of the fir tree and Kate moved to Jaq’s side. “We’ll need to saw the bottom clean, anyway. If you want, Kate, I can cut just above the gash.”
“Oooh, no!” Kate said. “That would make it way too short. Besides, it gives the tree … personality.”
“I think this tree has plenty of personality already,” Jaq said. “It looks like a bushy corkscrew.”
“No, it’s just a tree that happened to have come out a little differently.” Kate smiled weakly.
“Come on now! Don’t you start getting maudlin on me. Not when I’m beginning to warm up to the idea.”
Kate took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. “You’re right. You’re right. I’ll run and get the stand while you boys haul it in. And please be careful.”
Within minutes, the bay windows of the great room were reflecting a large mass of green rather than a flat, blank expanse of white wall.
“Nice job, fellas. Mr. Johnson, may I get you a drink? A little Christmas cheer?”
“Seein’s it’s my last delivery, don’t mind if I do. You wouldn’t have a little Black Jack, would ya?” He held up two fingers horizontally.
“Certainly, Mr. Johnson. Some red wine, Jaq?” He grinned.
Standing in a semicircle in front of the fir, they raised their glasses to it, to a job well done, and to each other. But Walter stopped abruptly as he was tossing back his shot of Jack, raising an eyebrow.
The doorbell rang again and Kate answered. “Dana! Come in, come in! We’ve just put up the most wonderful present from Father Beele.” Signing away, both at the same time, about the marvelous tree, Jaq and Kate stopped when they saw Dana’s jaw drop.
“What’s wrong?” Kate asked.
“How did you get that tree inside?” Dana signed.
Kate laughed and turned toward the tree. “What do you mean? Jaq and Mr. Johnson simply carried it ….” The twisting top now reached a good twelve feet up the wall.
Walter took a deep breath and set down what remained of his bourbon. As he did, he eyed it suspiciously. “I best be goin’. The shop needs to be closed up and Ms. Frankie, she’ll be gone over to Mr. Beeles’s by now. Merry Christmas,” he muttered as he hurried to the door. “Oh, and the Father said that there was a message in the tree, though I didn’t see no note.”
For some minutes after Walter’s departure, Kate and Jaq and Dana stood and stared at the tree. “Regardless, it did come through the front door and here it is,” Kate said at last. “So, let’s decorate it. I only hope we have enough lights.”
“I don’t think so, Kate. If I remember correctly, we only have three and a half or four miles.”
“Funny boy. Dana, do you want to stay and help?” Kate asked. Dana averted her gaze for a moment. “You don’t have to, you know.” Dana rubbed a knuckle. “Is something on your mind?”
“I was wondering if John Faddle was coming,” she signed.
Jaq and Kate looked at one another. “Actually, he was here this morning,” Jaq said.
Kate walked over and touched her friend lightly on the arm, and Dana looked down into Kate’s eyes.
“Dana. I don’t believe he’s had a very good day. He’s probably back in his apartment. I think that he would feel a whole hell of a lot better if you were to drop by.” Then Kate raised her hands and signed, “Go to him.” It actually came out, “Run to him.” Dana squeezed Kate’s hands, smiled at Jaq, and bolted out of the house. Kate and Jaq shouted, “Merry Christmas”, but Dana’s back was turned.
“She certainly is in a hurry,” Kate said.
“Maybe she’s really horny.”
“Oh, stop it, Jaq,” Kate said, smacking him lightly with the back of her hand. “Dana? Really, Jaq.”
“Yeah, maybe especially Dana. I mean, just because you’ve never seen Dana with a man. Just because she’s big.”
“Okay, I’m sorry.” Kate bowed. “I was being thoughtless, embracing a stereotype.”
Jaq moved to Kate’s side and spread his arms. “Say, how about embracing this stereotype?”
“A hug? You want a hug?”
Jaq smiled and shrugged. “I’m trying.”
Kate wrapped her long arms around his shoulders and squeezed hard. “Jaq, you’re not stereotypical of anything.”
“Nor are you, my dear.” He kissed her on the cheek.
“Nor was (Ur),” Kate said.
“Nor is that tree.” He took a big gulp of wine. “So, let’s make it what it was meant to be, a Christmas tree.”
“That’s what we want it to be,” Kate said. “It may have had other ideas.” Kate picked at a finger.
“Don’t they always?” They both were silent for a moment. “Let’s decorate it and see if it looks happy being a Christmas tree,” Jaq said.
“Our Christmas tree,” Kate said. “I’ll go get the goodies.” Kate began to bolt for the basement where the lights and ornaments had been tightly and safely packed away.
“Kate? We ought to give it some water first.”
“Oh, my gosh! You’re right. I’ll get a bucket.”
Jaq crawled under the large lower branches and into the tree. Kate slid a watering can along the floor and held up the big boughs.
“Done?” Kate asked. “My arms are about to break.”
“Crikey!” Kate exclaimed. “I’m not sure it really needs more water. We might have to cut a hole in the roof.”
Jaq rolled out from under the thick branches and gazed upward. “Jesus,” he said, softly. “Well, at least we won’t have to get the ladder out to top it with the star.” The apical branch now reached almost to the upstairs landing, easily fourteen feet off the great room floor. Jaq pressed his face against a fat branch.
“Jaq, what on earth ….”
“I was just looking at the tree real close up. Every branch is twisted. Even the needles spiral.”
“A helical hemlock,” Kate said, cheerfully.
“Cute. But remember, Walter told us it was—”
“A Deoxyribonucleic Douglas, then,” Kate said.
“Or a fractal fir.”
“Fractal fir. I like that.” Kate’s face folded into a frown. She set the empty watering can on the floor. “It’s starting again, Jaq. First your grannies and now this tree. I’m not sure I like all of this. “Kate took a deep breath. “Did you see that note Walter mentioned?”
Jaq shook his head. “He said message.”
“Okay, message. Anyway, Beele—”
“Beele said everything was going to be okay. He said nothing would happen.”
“He said he thought nothing would happen,” Kate replied in a low voice.
Jaq gazed upward again. “Maybe it just looks bigger against the bare wall.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Kate said. But her tone sounded unconvinced.
“Let’s finish watering it,” Jaq said, as he slid beneath the branches. Scrunching himself closer to the base, he dipped two fingers over the edge of the stand and felt the water within a half-inch of the top. “Hey! It’s perfect,” he said.
Then the gash on the fir’s trunk caught his eye. Deep and jagged, it oozed thick, fresh sap. “Boy, Nick sure did miss with that first swipe.”
“I want to see,” Kate said.
“It’s not really all that interesting.”
“Then why are you staring at it?” Kate crawled alongside him. “I’m curious. Where is … Oooh. But it doesn’t look as if it was made by an axe.”
“No, it seems almost like a puncture wound. Odd ….” Jaq said quietly.
Kate stretched her arm out and touched the spot tentatively with her finger. Large globs of sap began to flow from the hole, streaming over her fingers and dripping into the well. Then the sap turned bright red and spilled over her hand. They both jumped back, squirting out from under the tree, and sat on the floor staring at Kate’s arm.
“Blood,” Kate whispered. “Like that day on the Lost.”
“Jesus Christ. He could have used the fucking telephone if he wanted to send us a message.”
Kate’s hand shook terribly.
Jaq sprang to his feet, pulling Kate to a standing position. “Let’s go,” he said simply.
“Go? Go where?”
“The Lost, of course. That’s where this came from.”
“Now?” Kate said. “How do we know Beele’s up there? I mean—”
Jaq put his hand on her cheek. “You wanted answers? I think you’re about to get them. Nobody said they’d make sense. And if this isn’t magic ….” Jaq lowered his hand and rubbed a few small drops of blood between his fingers.
Kate wiped her cheek and stared at the red streaks on her palm. “Do you think she’s there? The fish, I mean,” Kate whispered.
“Something’s up there. Go wash up and I’ll grab some warm things. It’ll be cold.”
“But, Jaq, it’s almost two o’clock. It’ll be nearly dark by the time we get there.”
“Good. Best time for spooks.”
“Jaq?” Kate held his hand. “Do you think we’ll find her?”
“Do you think Ur’s still in trouble?”
Kate shut her eyes for a moment. “Yes, I do,” she said in a matter of fact tone.
Minutes later Jaq found Kate at the front door, scribbling away.
“What’re you doing?” he asked.
“Leaving a note for Vinnie and Clara. We invited them over. It would be rude if they showed up and found an empty house. I asked them to wait.”
“It might be a long wait,” Jaq said.
Kate set her jaw and stuck the note to the inside of the glass on the front door.
In minutes, they were roaring up Trail Ridge Road, racing to reach Mackay before the sun dropped below the horizon.