Christmas River Ghost by Paula Cappa
A Christmas Tale, Thursday, December 7, 2017
Merry Christmas to my readers and followers. I give you a free short story by yours truly (flash-fiction, 12-minute read). Snuggle in with a cup of hot spiced cider, a Christmas cookie, and the Christmas River Ghost.
They come—through the icy wind, between the naked trees, walking the bridge, by Eagle Hill River. On Christmas Eve, I come home to call the old time back. Holly wreaths, tea and sugar, apple cakes, a partridge in a pear tree. And a peacock hung dead with its speckled feathers in the pantry. ‘ Take the peacock, break its neck.’ That I remember with a shiver.
Tonight there is the good news of snow falling, the dark village sleeping beneath giant snow drops everywhere as I make my way through Main Street. The church steeple chimes do not sound yet, as it is not midnight. My little girl memories call up images of pixies and elves and the ringing of sleigh bells across the sky.
The house waits for me, shabby with the grief of those passed on. Spending Christmas alone has its virtue, my sister Annabella used to say, whose heart was ever open to charity’s claims and gift-giving. She would know about such solitude; she had spent many a Christmas alone. Too many times, my fault.
A Christmas Eve supper will sooth me: ham and apricots, a fresh biscuit, a glass of warm red wine with a cinnamon stick. The crabbed and wrinkled Scrooge breaks into my thoughts. Maybe I would read a few pages of Dickens. Remind myself of the miserly and cold-hearted man.
Snow pelts arrows at me as I stumble up the hill to the front path. I ring the doorbell just for fun, announcing my arrival to no one. Maybe Annabella will hear it. That is, if her spirit still lives here. Christmas ghosts are common, I’m told. Christmas miracles and all that—the arrival of the holy babe makes a holy night. If true, her presence would certainly reside in the kitchen especially. Her lilac perfume and the green ribbons in her light brown tresses every Christmas day. I can see her at the stove, blue eyes sparkling, her cheeks flushed with the holiday excitement. Home is such a magnet. In the front hall I nearly expect to hear her laughter just one more time.
The kitchen is the same as when I was a girl. Oak table by the frost-crazed window panes. That ancient curly-legged cast iron stove that spouted smoke at the ceiling. A white cupboard, open-shelved where pies would cool and tempt.
‘ Rose, take the peacock, break its neck, cut its throat.’
Again I shiver. “Time to make Christmas.” I warm the kitchen with Annabella’s boiling copper kettle and make a pot of orange tea in her china teapot trimmed in holly. I set my slice of ham, three apricots, and biscuit into the oven. The red wine steams with the cinnamon stick on the stovetop. The savory aroma is exactly as Annabella used to make it. In the library, I stack logs and kindling in the hearth as she did every Christmas when I was a child. Nothing like a roaring fire to set things right. For I must set things right tonight.
As I recline in the giant armchair, I decide against reading Dickens. No need for Scrooge now, nor the reminder of being arrogant and vain and stingy. My tight-fisted hand at the grindstone. Is this really me? I’m done with all that. Music will serve. I find Annabella’s old Christmas records. Sleigh bells ring … are you listening … walking in a winter wonderland.
‘ We cut its throat. Flay him, skin him, feathers and skin altogether.’ I squeeze my eyes shut to blink away the raw images. Such exquisite turquoise- and purple-eyed quills. Peacocks are perfect everlasting beauties. I shoot my vision out the side window. Through the snow, I see the old ice house still stands by the bridge. And that marvelous sledding hill that Annabella and I rode, sisters hanging on to each other at every curve. Veering right, veering left, flying high. I never minded numb fingertips.
‘ Draw him down tight. Keep the neck whole. Mind the dripping blood now.’ My breath catches in my chest like an ice block. I down the wine and head to the kitchen to check the ham. I set out my Christmas supper on the oak table and sit down. Later on we’ll conspire … as we dream by the fire … walking in a winter wonderland. The biscuit is oozing with melted butter. The ham juicy and tender. I add a dash of salt and pepper.
‘ Brine the bird with salt, sugar, a palmful of peppercorns.’ Annabella’s words repeat in my head. She always basted the peacock with beaten eggs and honey. ‘To keep the meat moist and tender.’ And she never believed the folklore that peacocks were bad luck or evil-eyed spirits. ‘ Pure as snow,’ she was certain.
‘ Let’s roast him high as if he is sitting up alive—just like a king.’
Every Christmas she would carry the bird on a silver platter on her shoulder to the table. The breast dripped with golden gravy. Annabella dressed it with the tail feathers struck out in a wild plumage of color. Before we ate it, as was usual from our childhood days, we made the peacock vow of immortality, an honor to the bird’s ‘ love and beauty forevermore.’
Forevermore, Annabella’s favorite word to shout out every Christmas.
“Annabella? Are you here with me tonight? Please be here with me tonight.”
Silence at Christmas time can be unnerving. I listen closely for a moment. “Annabella?”
Words float into my mind. ‘ Rose, remember the flocks in the woods. Remember the dancing peacocks when you were a little girl.’
I gaze out to the vast woods and recall the giant birds’ studded tails, how they twirled their feathers into violet hues. I would practically swim in those exuberant colors, getting lost in them. What loud calls they made, like urgent church bells. Each peacock seemed to walk alone, though, on his own path. I always wondered why. Still, I loved the luster in their eyes as I greeted them good morning and good night each day.
‘ Remember, Rose. The bridge. Our favorite spot by the river.’
Maybe Christmas ghosts are real. If I could be granted just one moment with her. One moment to say just two words. Within minutes I bundle up, hat to boots, and slosh out. Leaving tracks behind me in the snow, uphill toward the sledding hill, I stop at the foot of the bridge. The river is churning slowly with ice patches. Through the snowfall, on the far side, I see a tangle of shadows, pointed shapes, hot-blue barrel chests, and streaming colorful threads. Dark is present. I am not afraid of the dark. I walk across the bridge and stop midway. Only the soft sounds of the snowflakes surround me. And then I see them. The flocks. Hundreds of all-seeing eyes stare straight at me. The woods are full of peacocks, their plumage unfurled and radiant, just like when I was a girl. My heart shivers.
One by one they turn away from me and walk through the trees on their separate paths. No Annabella appears. Nor will she. I know that now. There is no such thing as a ghost. No extra moments to be given. No words allowed to mend the past. Too many years now since the river swallowed Annabella that Christmas morning. Her canoe overturned; her body never found. I should have been here.
We live. We die. Only the peacock’s flesh does not decay when it dies, Annabella used to say. ‘ They live on for all of us, these forgiving souls of wisdom.’
A single peacock comes forward from the woods now. He mounts the bridge where I stand. With his beak lifted, he trails a dusty green aura behind him. Regal beyond words, he holds all the secrets in his vibrancy. I so envy him.
The snow stops. The peacock curls his soft feathers around me and I smell his meaty flesh. He flaps his wings and cries out as if laughing at life. He follows me back to the house, just like when I was a kid. Peacocks are such gifts. “Goodnight, lovely peacock. Goodnight.”
Christmas chimes ring out from the church steeple. Midnight, holy night. His wings flare, his tail swings generously, rocking the darkness. He perches himself up on the backyard fence rail, letting his feathers drip down like tresses.
Inside the house, I sit in the armchair by the window. Does he know I’m watching him? The shifting iridescence of his colors in the sudden moonlight saturate my thoughts. Alone, I drift off to sleep in the chair. Were it not for the church chimes ringing in the holy babe on Christmas morn, I might not have woken from such a deep sleep. Scrambling to my feet, I look out the window to the fence. Is he still there?
Gone. His claw prints are tracks leading back to Eagle Hill River.
I look again, this time my throat tightening. There, in the pure white snow he had shed his full plumage. A wild fan of green-rimmed, blue-eyed feathers are luminous in the Christmas sun—standing upright. Alive like a king.
“Forevermore,” I say aloud. “Forevermore, Annabella.”
In medieval times, peacock was served for the Christmas feast. The bird would be skinned, roasted whole and then redressed in its feathers to look as if it was still alive. Its beak was gilded with gold leaf and a piece of cloth soaked in spirits was inserted into the beak and set alight. It would be served by the highest lady of the house.
By many accounts, it is well known that the iridescence in the peacocks’ colors represent the reality of the spiritual world rather than the imaginary world. In Christianity, peacocks are a common motif representing eternal life, the peacocks’ feathered eyes symbolizing the all-seeing eye of God.
Fra Angelico’s Nativity with a peacock on the stable roof.
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Christmas River Ghost. Copyright © 2017 by Paula Cappa.
All Rights Reserved.