Christmas in Central Cove, 2015 First Place Adult Division
By Margaret Koger
It was the night everything changed.
We had ridden the Interurban from Boise in time for Christmas Eve at Grandma Caroline and Grandpa Ward’s in Central Cove. The stars were so bright that I felt almost like Dorothy on a flight into a strange world. Mother had read The Wizard of Oz to me not long after it came out in 1900, and when the city lights faded into the deep dark of the countryside, I nearly burst with excitement. That evening I never could have imagined how trouble would make this Christmas one I would never forget.
Going to the ranch usually came after spending Christmas day in the city, but this year Father insisted we all go earlier to spend Jesus’ birth night on the farm where he grew up. We’d hop on the railway to Caldwell where Uncle William would meet us with the wagon.
Even as old as I was, I couldn’t help being thrilled with the celebrations at Christmastime. I dreamed of hooves clattering on the roof and Santa secretly filling our stockings with oranges in the toes and ribbon candy and chocolate creams layered over the top—treasures that couldn’t be made at home. I was too grown up to believe in Santa, but my little sisters, Mandy and Claire, would be alarmed if I didn’t join in.
“Winnie,” Mother had said earlier, “You’ll have to take over putting up decorations this year.” I was thrilled that she trusted me, although I felt sorry she wasn’t her usual self. I wondered if it was a good time for us travel out of town because she’d stayed in bed a lot during December and her body had thickened. I suspected there might be a new baby brother or sister on the way. I knew that real babies grew in their mothers’ tummies and I’d heard whispers about “complications,” so I didn’t let on to the little girls that Mother might be expecting.
The napkins and decorations at baby showers all showed a stork with a funny top hat and a bundle that held a baby hanging from his beak. Some mothers would say that babies came like foundlings tucked under the biggest leaves in cabbage patches. For myself, I liked the stork tale with babies flying down from heaven.
When the children’s pageant finished on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Mandy and Claire took off the fuzzy heads they’d been wearing as lambs. The program director looked at Mother and said, “Be sure you feed and water these Little Shebas every day so they’ll grow up to be saints living in heaven with the Virgin Mother!”
“Do you think it’s fair,” I asked, “that Mary and Joseph and the angels all get to wear halos when the sheep and cows have to go plain?”
“We can fix that,” he replied, picking up three little golden halos and handing one to each of us. “Wear these on your trip and you’ll be reminded of how Jesus came to earth as a baby … away in a manger, no crib for his bed!”
Grandpa and Grandma’s house was already crowded when we got there. Our cousins Darrell and Even had been born less than a year apart so they were both eleven. I was twelve and a whole head taller than either of them, so they were still little boys to me. There were five of us children in all and Aunt Ruth sent us out of the house right away so Mother could rest. She’d been shaky and sweaty on the trip and didn’t feel at all well.
I led everyone to the bunkhouse and we played fox and geese along with hide and seek amongst the beds and washroom fixtures until we heard these scary sounds coming from the house like someone screaming and yelling. I was afraid it was Mother having trouble—those complications maybe. Mandy and Claire started crying and the boys got real quiet, so I said we should go in.
Aunt Ruth started helping us hang stockings in the sitting room, chattering loudly all the while so as to take our minds off the cries coming from the bedroom. After my stocking was hung, she told me to see if I could help Grandma with Mother.
I’d just opened the door to the bedroom when the men came. They’d been stripping the hide from a heifer that’d been slaughtered late that afternoon. After they finished stomping their feet, they looked up with questioning eyes.
“Well?” my father asked as he pulled off his gloves and slapped them together. “How is my wife?”
“Tell us the news!” Uncle William insisted.
Aunt Ruth stuck her hands out, palms forward with her fingers held wide as if to say Stop! Shaking her head No and pointing to the children on the floor she stepped forward. You could’ve heard a mouse run across the floor in the silence that followed, until Grandpa said, “Shall we head back out? If you’ll take care of the meat we brought in, we’ll go clean up the barn some more.”
“No, no. It’s too late and too cold. Go into the parlor and I’ll bring you some hot cocoa.”
“How is Emma?” my father insisted, “We heard her clear out to the barn!”
“She’s not ready for company,” Ruth said. She shook her head in his direction because he seemed stuck in place. When he finally headed into the parlor, she called the children to follow her into the kitchen. She stopped long enough to give me something of a mean look, nodding her head and pointing with her eyes at the bedroom door where I still stood, wondering what lay in store behind it.
I’d just started my monthlies a bit after I turned twelve and I knew about birthing. Grandpa had let me stay in the barn once during spring vacation, and I’d seen a calf come. I was scared at the grunting and whimpering of the cow and by the way the sweaty men tugged and pulled on the calf, shouting things like “Push up against her side there will you?” and “You’ve got it? Pull now!”
Mother had only told me that my periods were cycled like the moon’s phases and that they’d make me a woman. “Now you’ll need to be careful around boys because you might become pregnant. You’ll find out more when it’s time for you to get married,” she added. “Use these old towels and rinse them until the water is clear before you put them in the wash.”
When I stepped inside the bedroom I saw Mother lying back, her forehead covered with a washcloth. Grandma nodded toward a dresser drawer on the floor with something inside—a dishtowel wrapped around an oval shape, something like a small loaf of bread.
And that’s when I heard the cows. I rushed to the window and opened the curtains. Glossy moonlight and glittering stars had turned the familiar world into a silver and gray transparency, an enchanted land. Black pines loomed over the yard, throwing off deep, pointed shadows where I half expected to see a ghost gliding along. Then I saw the herd gathered in a semicircle facing the barn.
They looked like great gray hunks of stone until I saw movement, a hoof shining out from a lifted leg, the shadow of a tail swinging sideways. Most of the time cows only moo and sometimes you might see tears flowing from their big eyes. Now they stood here, snorting and bawling, their cries echoing in the calm night air so that the sounds built up into a fierce rumble.
“Grandma! What’s happening?”
“They know about the heifer,” she said. “Never mind about them.”
“I don’t understand. Please, tell me.”
“Stop yourself this instant, Winnie. Your mother’s lying here in trouble and you’re worried about the cows? I need you to do something and you’ll have to act like a grown-up woman. Pick up that bundle by your feet and take it to the barn. Put it in the manger beyond the stanchions we use. Cover it with the straw and Grandpa will take care of it in the morning. And Winnie? You mustn’t look inside. Not even a peek, do you hear?”
Mother stirred then and propped herself up on her elbows. “Not Winnie, Mother Caroline,” she whispered. “Not Winnie …”
“Don’t be silly, my dear,” Grandma said. “There’s only Ruth to help and she’s busy with the other children. You just lie still and don’t fret.”
Grandma patted Mother’s shoulder and then lifted the blankets. She pulled out a mess of cloth soaked red and shoved it into a basin. “Get more towels, Winnie. Then do as I said.”
“Is this a baby, Gram?” I asked, looking down into the drawer. My heart was beating fast and my breath pushed the terrible question out of me. I didn’t want to ask, I didn’t want to hear, but I couldn’t help myself. Of course I knew better, it had to be a baby. If only it would not turn out to be real baby. I stared down at the bulging dish towel, thinking of storks, and how the babies’ heads and feet would always show at the ends of their bundles. Sometimes the stork would be winking as if he were smiling.
How I wish now that I’d followed Grandma’s instructions. I made it appear that I’d done exactly as I’d been told, and yet there turned out to be one thing I couldn’t resist.
When I stepped into the sitting room Ruth was waiting at the kitchen door. “Towels,” I said. She brought out a pile and I handed them in to Grandma. Then I took up the bundle and brought it out.
“Oh Winnie!” Aunt Ruth moaned, pulling her apron to her mouth. “I’ll take the … You mustn’t …”
“No,” I said. “Gram said for me to. It’s my …” I flushed with fear and anger. If this burden had stayed inside my mother, I’d have been the helper raising it. “I’ll do it!” I said. “It’s mine to see to.”
Aunt Ruth reached out and touched my cheek. “The lantern’s still in the mud room. Be careful lighting it and don’t wander off the path to the barn.”
I’d forgotten the cows’ lamentations for their butchered comrade until I stepped outside. The deafening nature of their protest had eased; however, they still kept watch around the barn where a lifeless member of their herd hung in the cool room. At least they won’t see the lifeless body when milking time comes, I thought.
I laid my damp bundle into the straw as Gram had told me to do, and then, as if an evil imp had set my hand in motion, I pulled a corner of the towel loose. A tiny foot, its little half-moon toenails completely formed, stopped me. I’d seen enough to treasure the way a new life came like a spring bud opening, one that took a whole world of water and soil and sunshine as well as a woman who could put her body to use. All of it was so far removed from storks and Santa and elves and tin men and white witches! Womanhood looked to be a lot harder than I’d ever dreamed.
The girls and I stayed at the ranch until Mother finally recovered enough to make the trip home. On New Year’s Eve, I helped Grandfather and Uncle William with the milking. Whatever grief the cows went through hadn’t stopped their milk or even caused them to be impatient with us while we pulled their teats and filled the pails with warm milk. We were quiet. All you could hear was the zip, zip, zipping of the milk spurting into the pails. Near the end, Uncle William let a calico mother gather her kittens around the hooves of a placid old bossy. He aimed a stream of white into each little tiger’s hungry mouth before we trudged into the house. Grandma fixed a rib roast for New Year’s Day dinner, and Mama even dressed and came out of the sickroom for the meal, but I had to excuse myself. I didn’t feel hungry.
Aunt Ruth followed me into the sitting room. “What’s the matter, Winnie?” she asked quietly. When she put her hand on my shoulder I wished so much I could tell her how I’d disobeyed Grandma, how I’d looked inside the tea towel, how I knew there’d been a real baby, and that I couldn’t stand everyone behaving as if nothing had happened. “The cows don’t act any different than they did before,” I finally managed to whisper. “All that moaning on Christmas Eve and now, nothing!”
We were quiet while Aunt Ruth thought for a minute and then she said, “Cows and people may have more in common than you imagine.”
“I looked inside the bundle when I took it to the barn.”
“Oh, Winnie. Why didn’t you tell me? What did you see?”
“Just a little pink foot, but it was so perfect …”
“Babies are mysteries, Winnie. Living means changing and some babies can’t survive outside the womb. The rest of us do what we can and we keep faith.”
“That’s horrid!” I cried. “And to just throw it away … How could Mama have let them?”
“Have you seen the two little crosses on the hill behind the far pasture? When you come in the spring, tell your mother you’d like to walk with her. She’ll be strong enough to want to see then and maybe your Grandma will come along.”
I raised my eyes in shock as I realized there’d been others we couldn’t keep. “There’ll be another cross, won’t there? Three of them? I don’t want there to be babies buried up there!”
“You have to learn the meaning behind the gifts we give at Christmas. They help us remember how seasons and cows and people all pass and that we don’t have time to let secrets and heartaches take over. Cows need to be milked, girls need to learn hard lessons, and people need to eat. And your family doesn’t like having an empty chair at the table, Winnie. Shall we go back in?”
After that one night at Grandma’s and what followed, I didn’t really enjoy The Wizard of Oz production I’d been looking forward to when we got home. Winged monkeys flew like birds and Witch Glinda glowed while Dorothy sang and danced across the stage, charming the audience with moves not to be found in Baum’s book. But I knew before the end of the second act that a storybook girl like Dorothy couldn’t change. She never would.