Acknowledgements: Thanks for Margie Milan for her very useful information on Spanish Christmas traditions, and to William Foster for historical backgrounds he has supplied for many of my stories.
Disclaimer: the characters belong to Paramount and Fireworks Productions. I just borrowed them and wrapped them up to put under my Christmas tree for a while.
"I was in town, Dr. Helm, and thought I'd drop off the herbs you asked Marta for." Tessa set the earthen jar on a table, frowning slightly as she watched the doctor setting a small tree into a container on the floor. "Why do you have a tree in your office?"
"Tomorrow's Christmas," he answered, turning around to find an expression of confusion on her face.
"Yes. And so...what does this tree have to do with it?"
"It's a Christmas tree." He laughed as he watched her looking at the scrawny little pine tree without comprehension. "Haven't you ever seen a Christmas tree?" He smiled with amusement as her chin lifted haughtily. She didn't like to be mocked, he could see that.
"No-is this an English tradition?"
"Well, sort of. It's more of a pagan thing, but it's been Christianised, and now it's traditional to have a Christmas tree in your home over the Yuletide season." He turned back to the tree, then knelt beside a box in which there was a variety of small objects. Dr. Helm lifted one of the items out and hung it on the tree. Tessa moved closer to observe what he was doing. She smiled with pleasure at the little starfish he lifted out; it was painted a bright yellow. In the box were other ornaments, all collected, she assumed by the doctor, and painted in vivid colours.
"What do these mean? Why do you decorate this tree with these ornaments?" She picked up a sand dollar, its delicate shell now a bright green, and laughed with delight. Dr. Helm raised his eyebrows slightly, surprised she knew nothing about these Yuletide traditions. But then, he reminded himself, she had always lived in warm countries where they had other customs.
"When I was a boy, my father and some servants would go out the day before Christmas and cut down a cedar tree. They'd bring it back and set it up in the main hall. My mother would bring out the ornaments, and the whole family would decorate the tree. It would be brilliant with beautiful decorations and tiny candles. Family and friends would drop by Christmas Eve and we would have a great party-music, food, dancing. At midnight, my mother would get out this old box-it had been in our family for generations- and she would open it. Inside was a beautiful ornament, a golden angel. It was always the highlight of the evening when she would hand it to one of us, and my father would hoist us up to place the angel on top of the tree. That was Christmas." He sighed, smiling wistfully.
Somewhat self-consciously, he turned to look at Tessa, catching an expression of great melancholy on her face before she turned away. Handing Tessa an ornament, he said, "Would you like to help me decorate the tree?" Her face brightened, and in silence they trimmed the tree until it took on a festive, cheerful look.
"Beautiful," Tessa said in wonder. "It is beautiful. This is a fine tradition. No wonder you remember it so warmly."
"What about your own traditions? What do you do for Christmas?" Dr. Helm stepped back to admire their handiwork, smiling appreciatively as Tessa took the ribbon from her hair and draped it across the boughs.
"I have never liked Christmas much; I'm always glad when it's over." She flushed, then added, "That sounds blasphemous. I didn't mean it that way."
"Not like Christmas?" he said in disbelief. "Why not? It's one of the best times of the year."
"Not for me. It only reminds me of what I've never had." Tessa touched the decorations tenderly, and sighed sadly. "On Christmas Eve, Marta and I would leave the church, after the Misa de Gallo, and the city would be alight with farolitas on all the houses and luminarias to light our way. So beautiful!" She sighed, then added, "After Mass, I would see all the families gathering together to go home and celebrate. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents-mothers and fathers. The children would be so excited, running about, laughing. I wished I could join them, have some of that joy for myself. But my mother died when I was only seven, and my father has been absent most of my life. I have had only Marta as a family."
Tessa shook her head and laughed suddenly, an roguish smile forming on her lips. "I do remember one Christmas that was the best I ever had." She turned to face him, a warm rose coming into her cheeks, as she continued. "I was sixteen-a very angry and bitter girl, and I ran away from home. Marta and I had a terrible argument, and I just wanted to get away, to escape, to find something better. It was a cruel thing to do to her; I knew it even then." She watched his face, fearing to find censure, but only saw compassion in his eyes. "Once I was on my horse and outside Madrid, I didn't know where to go. Then I thought of Marta's people, the gitano-the Gypsies, of whom she had told me so much. I found them at their winter camp. Marta eventually joined me and we stayed nearly a year among them." Tessa was silent for several seconds, and Helm thought she had finished her story.
He frowned, incredulous, and said, "You were wandering around Spain alone while there was a savage war raging? You're lucky to be alive!"
"Yes. It was a crazy thing to do. I hid every time I heard anyone coming." Tessa laughed at the disbelieving look on Helm's face. "That Christmas, Marta and I spent with her people, her family, was the most wonderful I can remember. We had feasts, dancing, music. People gave me gifts, and Marta and I made things for others too. I felt I was part of a big, warm family." Her eyes were soft with remembrance as she continued, "Whenever I think of Christmas now, that is the memory that I treasure. It's strange, Dr. Helm, but I've always felt more a part of Marta's people, than my own." Looking uncertainly at Helm, she added, "This has always been a secret between Marta and me. I've never told anyone else before."
He took her hand and patted it affectionately. "I'm a doctor. I know how to keep secrets." He smiled reassuringly into her eyes, moved by the thought of that lonely child with no real family, but mostly by her trustingly confiding in him. He placed a soft kiss on the back of her hand, and felt her shiver slightly as she pulled it back.
"Tell me more about your Christmas, Dr. Helm," she asked, moving a distance away.
"After church on Christmas Day, we would exchange gifts. When I was a boy, there would be toy soldiers, or a drum or a whistle, sometimes a game. And if there was no war with Spain, we would have Seville oranges." He paused and laughed. "Strange, isn't it, that we should be standing here, as friends, when only a few years ago, our two countries were enemies." He shrugged and continued, "Then, if it was cold enough, and the river frozen enough, we would go skating..." He paused, seeing the look of incomprehension in her eyes. "Skating-you know, blades strapped to your boots, gliding on ice."
He watched her shake her head and realized she had no experience with extreme cold. He laughed. "You've never skated, have you? You don't know what I'm talking about."
"Of course I know! I have seen paintings of skaters, by Breughel, at the art museum" She returned him a haughty look and he smiled apologetically and continued.
"My mother stayed behind and directed the preparation of the Christmas dinner. What a feast that was - roast goose, ham, all kinds of special dishes, and of course, the plum pudding!" He could almost smell the savoury aromas they would encounter re-entering his home after skating, their cheeks burning with cold, their appetites keen from the exercise. He sighed gustily. "But, really, Christmas is for children, isn't it? It isn't the same anymore. The magic is gone," he said, glancing at his pathetic little tree, decorated with hand-painted seashells.
"But, at least you still try to recapture it," Tessa said, gesturing at the tree with a smile. She started toward the door, then turned. "If you don't have another invitation, Dr. Helm, would you join Marta and me for Christmas dinner?"
"I would be honoured. Thank you." Lost in thought, for a few moments, he considered all she had told him, how she had given him so much insight into the young woman he had once taken so lightly, even contemptuously. As he watched her reaching for the door, he suddenly said, "Wait. I have something for you." He went to a chest and rummaged near the bottom, finally pulling out an old leather-bound book. Handing it to her, he said, "It's a journal. After you've read it, destroy it."
She tried to hand it back, saying, "I don't think you should..."
But Helm closed her hand on it more firmly and added, "Trust for trust. You've entrusted some secrets to me, now I'm offering you some of mine for safekeeping." He smiled entreatingly, and she nodded, taking the book with her as she left his office.
The joyful ringing of the church bells awoke him as Helm opened his eyes into another day of brilliant sunshine and warmth. "Christmas," he said aloud, swinging off his cot and getting up. He went out into his office, glanced at the tree, then stopped, transfixed.
Atop the tree was an angel, a beautiful porcelain figurine, tied on with the ribbon Tessa had left the day before. He chuckled to himself, thinking, how the devil did she get in here without my hearing her? His eye was drawn to something that was not there yesterday, dangling from a branch. It seemed to be a card. He turned it and staggered slightly. The Queen of Swords!
For a long moment, his mind was numbed by the implication, but as he made the connection, he found he could hardly breathe. He collapsed onto a chair, shaken, and took a deep breath to calm himself. He sat for a long time, unable to move, only stare at the angel and the card. She has taken off her mask, he thought, stunned by the enormity of what she had done, and given her absolute trust to me. He found himself grinning foolishly as he shook his head in amazement. Of all the gifts I have ever received at Christmas, this is the best!
Feliz Navidad - Maril Swan
The Gift ©Maril Swan - December 2000
Your comments on my stories are always welcome - Maril Swan
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