The Gift 

By Linda S. Barth

 

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play.

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men.”

 (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

 

The familiar words of a favorite Christmas carol drifted on the hazy air, swirling through twisting passageways and candlelit chambers. As the voices of the children's choir filled the world Below, members of the tunnel community paused in their work to listen for a moment, feeling the weight of everyday cares swept away by the cheerful sound. The lovely music of the season warmed and bolstered tired spirits, offering a sense of peace and happiness to all who dwelled Below.

To all, that is, but one.

In a chamber not far from Father's study, a tall, broad-shouldered figure stooped low over an old storage chest, one large, furred hand holding open the lid while the other rooted about within its depths. Making an uncharacteristic jumble of the contents. Vincent shoved aside an old model train, grumbling as the engine’s metal smokestack crashed against some unseen object. The tinkling sound of broken glass and faint rustle of torn paper revealed the damage inflicted on a small framed lithograph, and the delicate sounds triggered an opposing response from the man whose patience had reached its end. Slamming down the lid of the chest, he straightened and threw back his head as a low, ominous growl rumbled from deep within him.

For several moments he stood motionless, save for the heaving of his chest, as he struggled against smothering waves of frustration and anger. It was useless. No matter how hard he searched, there was nothing to be found. He should have known, but the hope in his heart had been unquenchable.

He slowly became aware of the golden sound of the children's voices lingering in the dusky amber air and found himself almost smiling despite the turbulence that still roiled within. Shoulders sagging, he let his head drop forward as a small, harsh sigh escaped his lips. A few slow steps brought him to the great carved chair near his bed, and he dropped heavily onto its threadbare, velvet-covered seat, looking for all the world like a careworn king of some lost, subterranean world. Cupping his chin in his hands, Vincent leaned forward, resting his elbows against the taut muscles of his thighs, and stared into the candlelit gloom. He listened as the final notes of the children's carol faded to a memory.

Soon the members of his tunnel family would begin their Christmas Eve celebration, and he knew he was expected to join them in the communal dining chamber. Christmas was only one of the many holidays his world shared with the world Above, and yet the differences in this special time Below were remarkable for their honest simplicity and reassuring warmth. There would be a special dinner created by William’s artistry with donations from thoughtful Helpers Above, small but heartfelt gifts provided for the children, and chorus after chorus of favorite holiday songs. Then, as members of his family gathered close, Father would read aloud "The Night Before Christmas”. Everyone cherished the chance to enjoy holiday traditions that some had known and loved in the world Above and some had only learned of since coming to live Below. The origins didn't matter; what was important was that they were loved and shared together.

Ever since he was a very young child, Vincent had looked forward to this holiday, savoring its quiet pleasures almost as much as he enjoyed the more vibrant excitement of Winterfest. But this year there would be a new element added to the festivities, and it was one he faced with unexpected dread. This year Catherine had been invited to join the underworld family for their Christmas Eve celebration. Even the idea of anticipating Catherine's presence Below with anything less than joy filled Vincent's heart with shame and anger. And yet he could not escape those feelings that tormented him.

Sighing heavily, he leaned back in the chair, unconsciously drumming his clawed fingers against its scarred wooden arms as his thoughts turned toward the last time he had seen Catherine. He had invited her to come Below for Christmas Eve, and he remembered how his heart had swelled with pleasure as she'd eagerly accepted. His words had tumbled one over the other as he told her about the ways of their celebration, explaining its simplicity and warmth, hoping she would enjoy it as he always had. Even now, her heartfelt response resonated through him. He had been stunned by the ease with which had she turned her back on the glittering excitement of Christmas Eve in the city Above, willingly trading it all away just for the chance to share that special night with him, in his world and in his heart.

He shook his head hard, returning his focus to the present, and the pervasive despondency he had felt earlier now returned. He knew he had every reason to be happy, and yet he could not shake off the insistent disappointment that haunted him. He looked toward the nearby desk, his eyes darkening to the bruised color of smoke as he took in its empty surface. He had hoped to somehow have a gift waiting there, wrapped in festive paper and colorful ribbons, their shiny surfaces only slightly creased and frayed from years of use. He'd hoped to have a special gift for Catherine.

As they'd talked that night of Christmas pleasures, he had purposely mentioned their gift-giving Below as being only for the children, knowing that Catherine would immediately understand. She had readily agreed to the appropriateness of that practice, never realizing that her brief, involuntary glance toward the living room and the nearly imperceptible sadness that had dulled her eyes only for a moment had given her away. When minutes later she had dashed inside for a warmer jacket, Vincent had moved closer to the glass-paneled doors leading to the living room and had seen resting on a table a large, brightly wrapped package. He had known without a doubt that it was meant to be Catherine's Christmas gift for him, something special and precious because she had chosen it with great care and a heart filled with love. He knew, too, that she would readily put the gift and her own disappointment aside out of respect for his wishes and the ways of his world.

He loved her even more for that, for her immediate acceptance and appreciation of the tunnel community’s traditions and her desire to be part of them. Yet all the understanding and love and gratitude in his heart had not kept him from near obsession once the desire to please her with a gift had possessed him. Even though he knew it was contradictory to everything he had told her, he found he could not let it go. And in the days that preceded Christmas Eve, Vincent had driven himself to distraction trying to find the perfect present for Catherine. He knew full well that she did not expect a gift from him; and even if at one time she had hoped for such a thing, she would not have imagined some sparkling, new object from the world Above, but instead would have treasured a well-loved or handmade gift whose origins lay within the world Below. He knew, too, that even if he never offered her a tangible gift at all, she would not care, for to be with him was what she wished for more than anything else.

That final thought filled him with shame for it only underscored what now seemed like childish sulking on his part.  Since they had first met, he had found so few ways to express his feelings for Catherine, and just once he had wanted to give something special to the woman he loved. But he knew there were gifts still to be offered that were far more precious than mere objects. Catherine meant everything to him, and to know that she wanted to share this special night with his family and with him in their own unique world was a gift beyond measure. Nothing else should matter at all.

Rising to his feet, he shrugged his shoulders and sighed one last time, ready to move past the disappointment of thwarted hopes. It was then that the sweetest music he would ever know filled his soul, and he turned toward the chamber entrance, feeling his heart quicken with joyous anticipation. Within moments, Catherine appeared at the chamber threshold. The reflected golden light of the candles and torches seemed to make her glow and shimmer like an angel he'd once seen gracing the top of a Helper’s Christmas tree. Vincent closed his eyes for a moment and smiled as he remembered the long ago wonder he had felt as he'd gazed upon that glimmering sight, all the while knowing that when he opened his eyes once again, he would see not the gossamer doll of his childhood amazement, but his own beloved angel, his Catherine.

Seconds later she was in his arms, and the beautiful, seasonless music of their hearts and souls resonated around and within them, spiraling higher and higher with the sweetest of sounds only they could hear. It was then Vincent knew they had offered, one to the other, the greatest gift of all, the gift of devotion and unending love which would be theirs for now and for all time.

 

“The best and most beautiful things in this world

cannot be seen or even heard,

but must be felt with the heart.”

(Helen Keller)

 

 

Author’s Note:  The plot of “The Gift” is an original idea that would fit within the First Season of BatB. It was written at the request of Rita Davies, a good friend who was the editor of “Chatterbox,” a letter/anthology zine series that was published in Wales. This original story was included in the Christmas 1995 issue, and the slightly revised and final version is the one you have just read. As always, I love to hear from fellow BatB fans, and if you’d like to contact me, I can be reached at azurite412@gmail.com.