I paced the living room with devolving holiday cheer. I started The Gift of the Magi and then irritably pushed the book away; it had fit with my scheme of Christmas reading, but I couldn’t actually bring myself to like a story in which everyone behaved like a fool. I poked the fire once more, and it crumbled at me. Finally I seized Emma’s telephone and dialed my cell. After four rings, a confident, laughing voice said, “Emma’s phone.”
“Dammit, Martin, I want my phone back.”
“You had only to ask,” he replied with mock solemnity. “Will you come fetch it, or shall we deliver it to you?”
“You can throw it across the yard for all I care!” I yelled, but he had already hung up. I stood immobilized in a fine fettle of furious anticipation. The words of O. Henry rattled around in my head: “You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy. I was trying to decide between yanking out my own hair or the curly cord of the phone when I heard a rustle in the hall.
“Hi, honey,” quavered Emma, standing in the doorway and trying to pat down her fluffed hair. “Smells like something’s cooking.”
“Right you are!” I growled heartily. “Here, come sit down and let me get you a cinnamon roll. How do you feel today, Aunt Emma? You had quite a night.”
“I’m still kicking,” she said, taking my proffered arm. “Did those folks come over last night?”
“There were some people here, yes.”
“Howard came back, didn’t he?”
“No, Aunt Emma, that was Peggy Harriman’s nephew Martin. He helped you get home last night when you went out.”
“What a nice young man,” she said thoughtfully, placing herself in the chair I held out for her. “Did you say that Howard was coming?”
“No, Emma. Here’s your roll. Peggy made them just for you.”
“Oh, Peggy!” Her face was wreathed in smiles, and she started to stand up. “I’d better call that gal.”
“Let’s call her in a bit,” I said smoothly, sitting her down again and sliding in her chair. “You look like you could eat something.”
The doorbell rang. I flew to the door and held the knob for the count of four cell phone rings before I opened it. There stood Martin, laden with plates of food. Beside him was a child with the most amazing red curls I’d ever seen. They sprung out from her head in riotous array. Buried somewhere in the mass was a headband or a barrette, but it was effaced by the volume of glowing hair. It had been my intent to destroy Martin upon the doorstep with some withering remark, but instead I stood undone by the glory of the child’s tresses.
“May we come in?” Martin inquired as a gust of cold air swirled about us. I swallowed and stepped back a pace to let them pass. The little girl was solemn and clung close to his knee.
“Well, look who’s here!” Emma exclaimed, carrying the cinnamon roll on a plate into the living room. “Sit down and put your feet up!”
“Hello, Aunt Emma,” said Martin, nodding at her. “We’ve brought you something to eat. Perhaps I could put these on the table?”
“I’ll take them,” I murmured, seizing the plates and the opportunity to flee the room for a moment. I pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, laid the plates on the table, and counted to ten twice before I stepped back in to face Martin and the serious child with the hair. Emma was clearly entranced by the little girl. “Here, honey, you look hungry,” she coaxed, trying to draw the child out from behind her father by offering her the cinnamon roll. “You come sit down by me and eat up.” Martin bent down and whispered, “Can you say ‘hi’ to Aunt Emma?” The girl shook her head and shrank away from the elderly woman with the trembling hands and milky eyes.
“Aunt Emma, look who’s come to visit you!” I interposed, crossing swiftly over and taking the plate from her. “This is Grace, Peggy Harriman’s great-niece. She’s come with her father to bring you some dinner.” I bent down too, to put a barrier between Emma and Grace. “Hello, Grace,” I said. “Thank you for our dinner. Did you know that we were very hungry?”
She shook her head again, but she didn’t hide. Her eyes were gray shot through with green, just like Martin’s.
“Well, it was very nice of you to bring it over to us.”
“Daddy said that maybe if we brought you some food, you wouldn’t throw him out on his ear,” she said clearly. Martin had the grace to look slightly abashed.
“I’m sure he was right,” I answered. “Will you help me bring Aunt Emma to the table?”
We processed into the kitchen, and I seated Emma again. She exclaimed over the ham and potatoes as I cut them into smaller bites.
“My grandma cuts up my food for me,” Grace observed, watching Emma with a wary fascination. “But I don’t like that. That’s for babies.”
“Aunt Emma isn’t a baby,” I told her. “But it’s easier for her to chew it up when it’s in small pieces. “
Aunt Emma ate mechanically, with her eyes fixed on Grace. “What a pretty little girl,” she said longingly. “You’re a pretty little girl.” She reached out to touch Grace’s curls, and Grace pulled away, putting her hands over her head.
“No, Emma!” I chided. “I don’t think that Grace likes having her hair touched.”
Emma was hurt. “I want that pretty little girl to sit by me,” she fretted. “Where’s that little girl?”
“Daddy,” moaned Grace, trying to clamber up Martin. He picked her up and comforted her, but Emma was growing agitated.
“The little girls were here,” she said. “They were running up and down the hall, always running. Where are those folks?” She started to push the plates angrily around the table, and one fell off the table and shattered, spilling food.
“Daddy, I want to go!” cried Grace. Martin, stroking her head, looked helplessly at me.
“Grace, would you like to see a game that helps calm Emma down?” I asked her as I moved to the drawer and pulled out the jar of string. “This is Emma’s string game. Look how she plays it.” Stepping over the mess on the floor, I sat at the table by Emma and put the jar in front of her.
“Here, Emma, here’s your string,” I crooned, placing several pieces in front of her. “Let’s see what we can do with them.” I lifted a string and let it spiral down on the table. Emma studied it for a moment, and then moved it by one end so that the string snaked around the table. Grace looked up from Martin’s shoulder.
“Now here’s what we can do with two pieces,” I told them both, laying one string across another. Emma took a third piece and added them to the design to form a star. Then she pressed her finger over the crossed strings in the center and created a new pattern by swirling the shape around the table.
“Would you like to try it?” I asked Grace. She nodded almost imperceptibly. I put some string on the table in front of the chair beside me, away from Emma, and Martin sat with her on his lap and helped her make a circle with her piece. She took the string and opened it up into a semicircle, then hooked the end toward the center.
“What is it?” I asked her.
“G for Grace,” she announced.
“Want to see my name?” I took several pieces and arranged them into letters. “Do you know those letters?”
“E-M-M-A,” she read, then appealed to Martin.
“Let’s sound it out,” he encouraged. “Put your finger under the letters and I’ll help you.” Grace pointed to each sound and Martin read, “EMMA” slowly. Grace whispered to him.
“It’s her name too,” he whispered back.
Grace watched Emma shaping her strings, and pawed through the jar. “I want to make a heart,” she said. “But I can’t find a pink one.”
“There’s plenty more,” I told her, rising from my seat. “Let me see if I can find you something pink.” There were several jars in the drawer, and I examined them to determine whether it was possible to find the proper color without having to empty the contents onto the counter.
“I thought you said you’d never dealt with children.” Martin had settled Grace before a small mountain of yarn and ribbon and twine, and was now leaning against the fridge beside me.
“I haven’t,” I answered, poking purposefully through the jar. “But you never mentioned that you had.”
“And you think that was dishonest of me?” he asked coolly. He faced me, lowering his voice to be out of earshot of the two at the table. “Sometimes, Emma, I enjoy the chance to get to know people on terms of equality. I realize that being a single father isn’t the most alluring element of my character, but I don’t think that obligates me to make a full disclosure of the fact the moment I first meet someone attractive.”
I put down one jar and started on another. He took it out of my hands.
“Emma,” he said. “You seem angry with me, and I’m sorry for that. You seem like the sort of person who has too much sense to make stupid mistakes, and I admire that. But I won’t apologize for Grace. She’s very much more than just the proof of my faults.”
“Martin, I never said that,” I protested, meeting his gaze now. “I hope you don’t think I’m a narrow person simply because I don’t have any dark secrets or back history.”
“I never said that either,” he replied.
Emma had been chatting at Grace, and suddenly there were peals of laughter from the table. Martin turned back and asked, “What’s so funny, baby?”
“I pooped like a princess!” she howled. I turned a fine shade of red.
“The chamberpot is the great equalizer,” Emma finished, with aplomb.
“Aunt Emma,” I asked hastily, “what if we went to the couch and I read to you? Grace, do you like stories about Christmas?”
“Okay,” she said, climbing down from the chair. “Daddy, is it all right if I go in the living room and hear a story?”
“That’s fine, as long as you don’t touch anything. Sit right next to Miss Emma.” He started picking up the pieces of broken plate. “Where do you keep your paper towels?”
“Now here’s a book that Aunt Emma used to read to me when I was a little girl your age,” I told Grace, snuggled on my left. “It’s about a girl and a doll who find a family together.”
“I have a doll that Grandma gave me,” Grace told me. “It has red hair like mine, only you can brush it and it goes smooth. My hair will never go smooth.”
“My hair won’t brush smooth either,” I assured her, and held the book where both she and Emma, on my right, could see the pictures. “Now, this is The Story of Holly and Ivy.”
This is the story about wishing. It is also about a doll and a little girl. It begins with the doll...
Halfway through the story, I glanced up to see Martin standing in the doorway, quietly watching the three of us on the couch. As if caught out, he stirred himself and crossed over to the fireplace. I retreated behind the book and read steadily on, but I could hear the sounds of branches snapping and shifting.
The window was in between and the toy-shop door was locked, but even if it had been open Ivy had no money. “Hoo! Hoo!” said Abracadabra, but, remember, not only Holly but Ivy was wishing now.
The toys woke up. “A child,” they whispered, “a child.” And they wished too.
Wishes are powerful things...
Grace shivered with anticipation and pressed her fiery head against my shoulder. Warmth began to radiate from the crackling fireplace, and Martin squeezed onto the couch next to Grace.
“But if you had not found the key,” says Peter to Ivy.
“If I had not come to look at Holly,” says Ivy.
“If I had not gone to Mr. Jones,” says Peter.
“If Mrs. Jones had not bought the Christmas tree”... If Ivy had not slept in the shed... If the baker had not lit his oven... If Ivy had not got out of the train... If Barnabas had not laughed at Ivy... If Holly...
“If I had not wished,” says Holly
I told you it was a story about wishing.
Aunt Emma leaned against the arm of the couch, smiling quietly and murmuring to herself as she turned the pages of the finished story. Grace lifted her head and asked me, “It that a for-real story?”
“Do you mean did it really happen?” She nodded. “No, I think the author made it up from her imagination.”
She pondered. “Maybe my doll wished for me.”
“I think she must have.”
“Do you wish?”
“Yes,” I said. “I wish for lots of things. I wish Aunt Emma didn’t have so much trouble remembering. I wish I could see my sister. She’s going to have a baby.”
“I don’t have any sisters,” said Grace philosophically. “Grandma says I have enough hair for two children. She said my mommy’s hair was just the same way.”
“Then your mommy must be very beautiful.”
“She’s probably in jail,” sighed Grace. To this I had no answer, and we all sat silently regarding the fire, except for Emma’s humming.
“Well, baby, what do you think?” asked Martin to Grace, after a time.
“Can I go to sleep here?” she mumbled.
“No!” I laughed, extricating myself from the couch. “I do not run a boarding house for Harrimans. But I would like it if you would come back and visit me sometime, Grace.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’m glad you didn’t throw us out on our ears. Grandma says I can get my ears pierced when I’m eight.”
“Grandma has another think coming,” her father warned. He steered her into the front room and zipped her into her coat, then yielded to her entreaties to carry her out. I opened the door for them.
“Goodbye,” Grace said sleepily.
“Good night, Grace.”
“I hope you get more rest tonight than last night,” said Martin as he started down the steps.
“You’ve forgotten something.” I stepped outside in my slippers and drew my sweater tight about me as I caught up with him on the path. He turned back toward me, and Grace murmured on his shoulder.
“What have I forgotten?” he asked me. I slid my hand into his coat pocket, and drew out my phone.
“Ah.” He grinned at me. “I really did forget, this time.”
“I’m curious,” I remarked. “Is it just schtick, or are you really insufferably arrogant by nature?”
“Oh, I assure you I’m entirely genuine.”
“Well, at least you’re honest.”
“Lying has never been one of my faults.” He bore the slumbering Grace down the path. “I’ll call you.”
“You don’t have my phone number.”
“I had your phone all day. Of course I have your number.”
I went into the house, closed the door, and kicked it. “Arrogant bastard,” I repeated, but the kick was gentle and the words were soft.