“The Christmas Rose”
By Rus VanWestervelt, December 2014
If you would prefer to download ‘The Christmas Story” as a PDF file, you may do so HERE.
Dedicated to Patrick and Sandra, whose sons Ryan and Danny, respectively, passed away far too early in their young lives. May their spirits, and their love, live on forever in the hearts of all who loved them – and you.
Dear Alice and Anna:
It is very early Christmas morning. You are both still asleep, and I have just returned from what was (I am fairly certain) my final journey to and from the Big Hill. The two white roses that will go in your stockings are next to me, along with two gifts wrapped in white paper adorned with small, hand-painted roses. They are beautiful, as always.
Tonight, though, they have even greater meaning. Last Christmas, for the first time, you asked me about those white roses and the gifts wrapped in the pretty white paper. Do you remember? I smiled, and I told you to simply enjoy their beauty and that, someday, I would tell you the full story when you are ready. At that time, I thought that I had plenty of time to wait for you to get a little older.
I was wrong.
I don’t think you are old enough yet to understand any of this, and I certainly don’t think I could just sit down and tell you (I am sure that my tears would get in the way far too much, and it would take away from the beautiful story of the Christmas rose and its legacy that is bigger than any of us). So, I think I’m going to do my best here on these blank pages and write it all down for you. It’s time that I do this now anyway. I can’t trust my memory for too much longer. Things seem to be progressing pretty fast now and, well –
No. I think I’ll just stick with the story behind the beautiful Christmas roses. Like I said already, none of this is about me, anyway.
This town has changed very little since I was your age. Old Emily’s Estate on the Big Hill (at least that’s what we used to call it when we were kids) is as beautiful as ever, and although our house is part of a newer development here in Luther’s Village, the rest of the town has remained true to its good, traditional feel. Your great-grandparents (that would be my Grams and Pop Pop) were the original owners of what is now our home, and your bedroom was the very same room I stayed in when we would come to visit them every Easter and Christmas.
The view from your window is the same, too. I could see Old Emily’s Estate lit up at night, just like you can now. Funny how that name has held up, even long after she passed away. Those single white candles in each window mean a lot more to me now than they did then. Believe me. One day, they will seem even more beautiful to you, too, as you will see them from a very different perspective.
I’ll get to that soon enough, though.
Old Emily was legendary to us while she was still alive. She died about a week before we arrived that Christmas when I turned 17. For years, all of the kids had believed the tales that had been spread about her. Emily Starling, lone inhabitant to the mansion that rested on the highest point here in Luther’s Village, was a wealthy, lonely old woman. For 364 days every year, those big iron gates that separated us from the winding driveway to her home stayed shut—locked tight for so long that we believed they would rust themselves shut forever. But on that one day, December 24, she would open those black, rusty gates and allow a select few to enter on foot.
On that night before each Christmas, a handful of town elders would make the mile-long pilgrimage up the winding driveway to her house. As kids, we would watch them from a distance as we made snowmen along the wooded ridge (when we were fortunate enough to have snow on the ground). Each elder brought a single wrapped gift (they were all quite small) and homemade, aged spirits (your great grandparents would always take their own Quarant Quatre). Once, I saw them return just after midnight, and their arms were filled with so much more.
We never knew exactly what they took up, and we definitely never knew what they brought back. All we could ever see were single white flowers peeking out of the bags they brought down. My Pop Pop was an elder, and he would make the trek every year, though we never spoke of it. Nobody did. That’s just how it was.
The rumors among us kids were wild. Some swore that the elders brought offerings, like sacrifices, to Old Emily. (I’m not going to go into too much detail about that here, though. You girls are just too young to hear about that.) Others believed that she was older than the town itself, and that she would never die. Every Christmas Eve, she would receive something from the elders that made her live another year.
I’m sure that, in time, you will be able to imagine what that was. But like I said before, I’m not going to be the one to talk to you about any of that.
In that year when I was 17 and Old Emily had finally passed on, everything was different here at Grams and Pop Pop’s house. They were sad, for sure, and very reflective, as if they had lost one of their own relatives. They both hugged me more than they had ever done before (and since, for that matter, until the year when they died themselves long before you were born).
My parents and I had arrived on the 23rd of December that year, like always. When we pulled into the driveway, many from the town were walking back from the graveyard. They had just laid Emily Starling to rest, and there sure were a lot of quiet people milling about the streets. It looked more like the third week in a hard Winter’s January than just a few days before Christmas. Their sadness was just too heavy, I guess. They wore their grief like a heavy wool blanket, unable to shake the bitter chill of the winter air.
When my Grams and Pop Pop returned to the house, they both did their best to put on a smile for us. Your grandparents hugged them as I stood awkwardly by. Soon enough, we were all ushered into the house, and a sense of routine seemed to return. At least for a few moments.
Just after the sun had set and the fire in the living room had brought some warm comfort to me, your Great Grams called me into the kitchen. She was a round, fastidious woman who was always happy about the food she was cooking, and she was preparing a feast that smelled just delicious.
“Andrew,” she said, “I decided that this year, on the occasion of you turning 17, I would make you two of those pecan pies you love so much.” And she held up two fingers crippled with arthritis, and danced them in the air like crooked sticks.
I gave her the gentlest of hugs (she seemed so fragile then – but compared to who she had become the year she died, I guess she was okay back in the day).
“Thank you, Grams,” I offered, but the smile she offered turned to concern very quickly.
“There has been a lot of change around here this year with Miss Emily passing on,” she said. “But you’ve changed a little too since we saw you in March. You are growing up too quickly, Andrew, and I can tell that you are itching to get out of high school and move on to bigger things.”
Grams could always get right to the point with me. I liked that.
“I am ready. You’re right,” I replied. “I just don’t know what that means. Where we live in Solomon’s is beautiful, but I’ve never felt any real affinity for the place since we moved down there. Something’s missing.”
“Most people feel that way at your age. Don’t fight it,” she smiled. “But don’t let it consume you, either.”
I hugged her again, and I could feel her fragile fingers wrapped around me, fighting for just another second before finally letting go. When she did, she held me at her thin arms’ length and looked directly into my eyes.
The hazel hue in her own eyes captured colors that I never even knew existed.
“There’s something else, Andrew, about this Christmas Eve that we haven’t shared with you yet,” she said. “Pop Pop and your father will explain everything to you – what they can, at least.”
And here is where everything changed for me.
“It looks like you have been invited to join them tomorrow night up to the Big Hill.”
Immediately, I could hear the fears, the resistance, formulating in my mind.
Me? To the Big Hill? Why? And why is anybody going up there at all? She’s dead now, right? –Gosh, that sounds so cold. I didn’t mean it like that. But if she’s not there anymore, why does anybody need to go back up there?
“Your grandfather will explain most of it to you, along with your father. The rest of it, though? Good luck, Andrew. I don’t think they even know what to expect.”
That night, stuffed with pecan pie and Grams’ classic steamers made with pure vanilla, I sat on the edge of my bed and looked out of my window, staring at Emily’s home atop Big Hill. The single white lights were in each window, as they had always been, but every window on every floor had now been draped shut. No additional light. No movement. Nothing.
The house itself looked as if it had been in mourning for Emily’s passing, if not dead itself.
There’s nothing more we can do, Luther. The house – all of it – is no more. I am so sorry. We did our best. . . .
Of course I didn’t believe any of it. I knew that somebody had to be in that house, someone who probably had a lot to do with whatever was going to happen tomorrow night.
How much will I be allowed to know? I wondered.
I tucked myself under the covers, and as I drifted off to sleep, I was sure that a single curtain in one of Emily’s windows had been pushed aside, and a woman dressed in white watched over me as I dreamed of the next night’s journey: a Christmas Eve tradition of secrecy that I was about to join on the hallowed grounds of Emily Starling’s estate. Continue reading