By ROB KEZELIS
This story is intended to warm the hearts and souls of all dear readers. It comes in five chapters, four of which are completed. Tis best read to a loved one or one’s child in bed.
She turned nine just a week before. She didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get any presents then, not even a special meal. No one had ever given her a present before. She never even tasted any birthday cake either. But then she never had cake, not one in her entire life. Not even for anyone elseÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s birthday. In fact, she had never been to anyoneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s birthday party.
The only place she had even seen a birthday cake was in a book. It had candles and icing and sweets and pretty blue flowers on it. If she closed her eyes, she could still see it whenever she wanted.
It was cold outside. It had been bitterly cold all winter. The wind howled angrily around the house. Her friend Old Mr. PineÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s longest limbs kept knocking against the edge of the house, right above her roomÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s tiny window. She would have said something, but her dad was a very strict man. He would not change his days to listen to a little girlÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s worries. He would get angry if she mentioned it, so she just hoped that Old Mr. Pine wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t hurt himself with all of that banging around.
Regimen. That is what he called it. She liked that word. It rolled off the tongue like oil, but without the bitterness that MotherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s castor oil had. She didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t blame her dad. He always said that times were tough and their bills were too high. Maybe that was why he yelled so much.
She liked words. She knew many of them. She just didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have a chance to see them in books. Once she heard a new one, she savored it until she fully got its meaning and flavor. For her, words were another universe. She once looked at the dictionary at her school, but found that all the words after R were missing. She often wondered what mysteries or treasures could be found in U, V, or even W. The letter Z seemed so far away, that she couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even imagine what words starting with Z were like.
There was a candle on the little table next to her bed. Her room had only the one window, a little one above her tiny drawer that held her all of her clothes. Except for the slightest corner of the barn and a little bit of sky, most of what she could see was a willow and a pine tree. Those trees and their many guests had become her best friends. There was Mr. Robin Red Breast and Mrs. Blue Feather and that tiny little wren she called Blinky that sang to her in the Spring, even if her window was closed.
She had read all of the books in her school library, all 14 of them. She had always done her schoolwork, and while she could still walk, managed to finish each school task early. For some reason, her father was not pleased. Quite often he would come home late at night, smelling of that tavern smell and shout, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need some sick, brainy girl. I need a SON to help me in the field.Ã¢â‚¬Â He would glare at her as if it were her fault that she were a girl, then stomp off to the meal table. After he ate, he would sit quietly, looking into his drink, until finally Mother led him to their bedroom.
Many months ago, sometimes late in the night, her father would come, and kiss her on the forehead. But that stopped as she got more ill. In the last few months, he hadnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t done it at all.
For some reason last year, her legs quit working. Quite suddenly, and without any warning, she could not walk anymore. Her mother tried camphor, castor oil, hot bindings, all of the old wivesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ treatments, but nothing worked. She could hear her mother plead with her father to call in a Doctor, but it always ended up in a fight, with him stomping off back to the tavern.
She never had seen a real Doctor. In her mind, the Doctor would be a huge, terrible man, all dressed in white, with a mean look in his eye and an evil tube around his neck, ready to search all the way to her inner soul. He would have the most horrible needles and other strange devices. Of course, armed like that, the Doctor could read her mind and all of her innermost dreams.
Still, as her pain got worse, maybe she really did need to go see a doctor. But last month when her mother asked again, her father refused. He began shouting, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Doctors cost money. I wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t waste my hard earned money on a little girl.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The little girl knew that Mother could not argue against Father. If Mother tried, bad things would happen to her. Only after Father had gone to bed, Mother would come in and bring her meals and help her wash.
Her Uncle Ivan was nice, though. She wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t quite sure how he was an uncle. He couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t always make it, but when he did come visit, it was wonderful. One time, he even made it three times in a week. She felt like a little angel. And he brought the most fantastic books to read to her. She used to be able to read them herself, although she needed help with some of the big words.
But with the first snow, Uncle IvanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s visits seemed to fade away. Last month, she heard Father and other voices arguing. She recognized her MotherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s voice, but after Father started yelling, she lost track of all the other voices. All she knew was that they were arguing about her, because she heard her name again and again. She felt small and sad.
Lately, she was having problems holding the books up so she could read them, so when he did visit, Uncle Ivan had to read aloud to her again. She looked out of her little window at the snow blowing through the trees. Even with all her blankets and her warmest winter night clothes, she always felt a chill.
It was still snowing out when Uncle Ivan came by for a visit. She had not seen him for many weeks. Seeing Uncle Ivan again filled her with joy. Even the snow falling outside seemed brighter.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“So my little one, how are you?Ã¢â‚¬Â He wiped the snowflakes still clinging to his bushy grey and brown beard before kissing her on the forehead. He was large, much larger than her Father, but to her, he was as gentle as a lamb. She always thought of cuddly, big brown bears when he visited. His cloak was glistening with snow. He shook it off and laid it on her dresser.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Uncle Ivan! Thank you for coming! Did you see the snow? Is there much outside? Is it very pretty?Ã¢â‚¬Â Her little round face beamed with happiness.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Oh, yes, it is beautiful snow, and there is so much of it, my dear. Even the horses and cattle are coming inside. The snow is almost as tall as you are, my little one.Ã¢â‚¬Â When Uncle smiled, his whole face seemed to radiate warmth. Just then, he gave her a big one, one with a twinkle in his eye. She recognized that twinkle. Uncle Ivan had a trick up his sleeve.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“So, what shall we do tonight? May I sit on your bed?Ã¢â‚¬Â
She nodded politely. Somehow his smile made her feel stronger. With Uncle Ivan sitting this close, she could smell his smoking pipe, made out of this milky white stone he called meercham. The pipe had this wonderful scary birdÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s claw carved into the bottom. Parts of his pipe had turned a rich color from his smoke, a beautiful yellow brown that somehow looked warm. Uncle loved holding his pipe in her room, but he would never light it. This smell was much nicer than the nasty cigarettes that Father smoked.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Today, my little one, I brought you a little something, as well as a very special book. May I read it to you in a bit? Do you think you can stay up while I read?Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Yes, please, Uncle. I would love that.Ã¢â‚¬Â She nodded eagerly.
Uncle Ivan sat next on her bed and nestled himself against the wall, so her candlelight could shine on the pages. He moved closer to her so she would be able to see the words as he read to her. He lit the candle, and pulled out two extra ones if this one should go out.
He pulled his rucksack from the floor and pulled out something floppy wrapped in bright red, shiny gift paper. There was a pink ribbon with a tiny bow on top. He handed it to her without a word.
She carefully opened up the paper. Inside, she saw a beautiful rag doll with orange hair made of yarn and a painted mouth and eyes. She was so surprised that she couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t say anything to Uncle, not even thanks. She hugged the doll as hard as she could. She had never gotten a toy before. This doll was just beautiful. Tears started running down her face. Her first present Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a wonderful, beautiful rag doll, all her own.
Uncle Ivan gently smiled at her. No words in the world could explain just how she felt. With her eyes closed, she rocked back and forth with the doll held tightly in her tiny arms.
After several minutes, Uncle Ivan reached back into his rucksack and pulled out a large, old, leather-bound book. He opened it to the very beginning. He looked over to her. She nodded at him, as though she were ready. The doll was still deeply in her grasp. Her tears were replaced with a wide-open, happy look.
He cleared his throat and began the story:
(Robert Kezelis is a lawyer, sculptor and writing curmudgeon based south of Chicago.)