I go home for Christmas, and it is a vast cacophony of family, with grandparents and siblings, aunts, uncles, boyfriends, in-laws and all manner of cousins present: first cousins once removed, double cousins, first double cousins, second and triple cousins. There are fires in three hearths, each trying to outburn the others; the house is shimmering with heat. There are logs to be hewn, trees to be raised, beds made, furniture moved, carpets taken up, banners unfurled, icons hung, candles lit; and there is food, food, food! to be eaten at all times and in every location: grilled venison sausages, baked salmon stuffed with spinach and feta, steamed mussels, smoked trout, wild rice, pearled onions, boiled peas, roast duck, mince pies with brandy butter, Spanish clementines, Belgian chocolates, Danish marzipan, fudge as dense as flesh, suckers, lollipops, chewies, stickies, gummies and squirmies.
These last are for the children: children crawling from under beds, hanging from rafters, sliding down banisters, and building forts. Children banging drums, bouncing balls and riding bicycles; snot-smeared children, wide-eyed children, children with earaches and bellyaches and toothaches; children hacking, spitting, whispering and howling. Their little fingers are ceaselessly working, pushing into pockets, manipulating trucks and plucking violins; grubby fingers pinching, gouging and tickling; wet fingers squishing into ears and noses; grabby fingers at your sleeve; greasy fingers in the shrimp; fragile fingers curling and uncurling with each breath when like the sea, finally, the children sleep.
I am unaccustomed to such activity. No longer a child, I carry myself within myself. I want to slow this traffic; I want to pluck moments and preserve or heal or burn them. My frenzy is a private thing, a damnable, maddening, lonely thing. Thus it is that I find myself, late this Christmas day, under the pretext of gathering mistletoe, climbing the thick crotch of a dying maple just to gain some solitude, and to breathe and to think.
We are a family of spies, however, and one of us has followed me out. It is the girl we call Bug, full of questions and sugar. She is an elf-child, all blonde and blue, with eyes that glow and blink and swell, and I can feel them glowing and blinking in the winter grayness. She contemplates my activity from below then calls up to me in the gathering sky. “What are you doing?”
I am thirty feet above her now, standing in the limbs of a tree that was a mere sapling at the end of the French Enlightenment. I feel like an affluent worm when I consider this fact. Time weaves fate. This means nothing to her. “I’m looking for mistletoe.” “Can I come up too?” She carries the scar of an immense and terrible wound upon her belly, something went wrong in the pre-life of her mother’s womb, but she is quick and agile and I would like nothing so much as to haul here into the transcendent heights of this massive, wooden thing.
“No. The ladder is not secure.”
“I’m an auto-didactic climber,” she insists.
The last time I sent her into a tree, she ended up in the topmost branches of a magnolia in full bloom; we lost her in the perfume and the blossoms, and she refused to come down until I directed her out onto a limb from which she could leap into the swimming pool below. Her mother was not impressed.
“No,” I repeat.
“Uncle, are you a teacher or an artist?” she calls up to me.
“The ladder is not secure,” I repeat. “I’m coming down now. Let’s go inside.”
We step into the house and I am immediately set upon by a troll. It is the boy we call Moo-shu, on account of his fondness for pork wrapped in pancakes. He has been standing on the stairway, wearing a cape of curly sheepskin, waiting for me to enter, and he flings himself at me from above as though he is plunging into a gorge. His arms go around my neck and he is trying with all his tiny strength to throttle me. It is a game we play; he is a boy without a father in a family of women and he longs for his dad, but I am not that person, and the best I can do is wrestle with him, entangle arms and legs and hair with him, teach him to fight and to run and mingle my male smells with his. I drop to my knees and roll, dislodging his grip and his cape. Like a crab he scuttles away, but I catch his knee and drag him back into the fray. “Now it’s your turn, boy,” I am saying. “Prepare to meet the Sheep of Parnassus!” I am wrapping him up in his cape, as though it would swallow him whole, and at first he is giggling, then a note of panic creeps into his laughter. “No, Uncle, no!” he shrieks. “It is too late for you boy,” I continue. “No flight for you; fight, boy fight!” With that I give him license, we both know this game, and his fear turns to fury. He becomes a small Heracles, seizing my wrists like the fabled serpents and twisting them back with a howl. Our eyes meet for a moment; his loneliness and fear of abandonment fall away like dust and he is just a boy at play in the world, struggling for triumph, and he delivers a good shot with his knee to my stomach. I roll away, doubled up and moaning, and he stands over me, glowering with a grin on his face and his hands on his hips. “You have wounded me, Moo-shu,” I groan, “but the sheep will return!” I make a grab at his ankle, but he scampers up the stairs and is gone.
A family is like a loaded gun: point it in the wrong direction and someone is bound to be killed. We take our shots over dinner, stuffing ourselves with creamy, sauce-laden dishes, then we belch up our vitriol and fire away. “Let’s play a game,” says my grandmother. She is 90 years old and as mean as a switch, with violet eyes that glimmer like thistles in rain. “Let’s say the most insulting things we can possibly think of to each other!”
“Okay, Joanna,” my father responds. “I’ll go first.”
At the children’s table, meanwhile, one of the boys has tipped his plate into his sister’s lap, and he is moaning over his loss. “Clean it up, fatso,” she says to him. Her mother looks over sharply. “Well he is obese, you know,” says the girl. “You said so yourself. You said you would take us all to Hawaii if he lost thirty pounds. You called him obese.”
A cousin is slugging his wine and barking across the table at someone’s boyfriend. “Our president has said that if you are not with us, you are against us. Well, are you with us or against us?” This is a man who considered joining the priesthood but ended up flying jets for the navy instead.
“As I mentioned,” says the boyfriend, “I am from Switzerland. We are a neutral country and I am here to study science, not politics.”
My mother is having a quiet talk with one of my sisters. “Your son has been doing something odd in the bathroom,” she says.
“Mm-hmmm,” says my sister. “Tell me about it.”
“He seems to have taken to smearing his feces on the wall when he defecates.”
Bug is at my elbow at once, tugging away. “Theses? What’s theses?”
“Yes, I’ve noticed that myself,” says my sister. “What do you think it means?”
“I don’t much care what it means,” says my mother, “but it’s staining the finish in the bathroom and I’d rather not have to repaint it.”
“What’s theses, Uncle?” I want to avoid this conversation if I can. “He thinks his name is Martin Luther,” I say to Bug. “Why don’t you ask him if he’s thrown his inkpot at Satan recently?”
My grandmother is clutching at the boy we call, on account of the size of his head, The Squash. He is 13.
“Don’t ever trust a woman,” she is hissing at him. “Once she gets her claws in you, you’ll never get them out.”
My father is chatting with his vegan/neurotic daughter. “You were, without a doubt, the most obstreperous six year old I have ever met.”
The boy we call Sharp-Tooth is picking a scab, and my sister-in-law is thinking her Republican thoughts.
“Priests are such funny things,” my aunt is saying. “They’re always shaking things. I wonder one day they don’t shake something out of their noses.”
Someone begins to pray. “Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born.” The children are under the mistletoe, performing some weird ceremony. They seem to be making out with one another. The moments we forget likely mean more than the ones we remember. The prayer continues, “…in that hour be pleased, oh Lord, to hear my prayer and grant my desire.”
Bug is at my elbow again. “Uncle.”
“There’s someone in the tree.”
“There’s someone in the tree.”
“It’s just a memory, Bug.”
“…through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Uncle!” Bug’s eyes are so wide and blue they hurt to look into. “Be an artist!” she says.
“…and his most afflicted mother.”
“Come look!” she says, and we flee.