Pearls From the Past
By Louise Dragon
Outside the wind howled over deepening snow drifts. Choir practice over, we bundled into our wooly mittens and knitted hats. Wind tugged the heavy church doors and smashed them against the sides of the old building. Puffs of cold powdery whiteness melted on my face as we raced into the blizzard, our cumbersome boots rattling buckles like jingle bells.
Christmas Eve, Santa Claus was coming tonight!
So much to do. My mind raced over last minute touches to finish on my homemade gifts and settled on the hanging of the biggest sock in my sock drawer. Maybe I could borrow one of Dad’s socks?
Marianne, my older sister, chugged along beside me while Bess, the youngest of us pranced sprightly through the snow singing in her off-key voice, “ave, ave, ave, Mar-EE-a.”
“I hope I get a new bike,” I said skipping over the frozen wasteland of Railroad Street.
“I hope I get one of those new Barbie Dolls with the hair that really grows,” Bess chimed in. Her cheeks were as red as her scarf. Her little six-year-old legs were having a difficult time keeping up with us so I stopped for a moment to snap a giant icicle from Joe Zarnick’s roof. I used this weapon to stab repeatedly at the sweeping branches of the huge pine tree in front of Joe’s house.
“Deeze, come on, you’ll make us late,” Marianne snapped.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I said pausing to for a few more stabs at the tree. I wonder if trees feel pain, like people do.
“You’ll get the onion again this year.” Marianne stated, hands on hips.
“Will not,” I replied making a mock stab at her with my icicle sword. “You’ll get it for being such a snot.”
“Betcha you get it again,” Marianne taunted. “You’re worse than I ever thought of being and everyone knows it, even Santa. Stay out here and freeze for all I care.”
Unable to come up with a smart retort, I clamped my mouth shut and followed her into our warm parlor.
“Take your boots off.” Ma shouted from the kitchen.
On the kitchen table I found a small square package at my place on the kitchen table. It was wrapped in brown paper and scrawled on top were the words—MERRY CHRISTMAS—TO: DENISE PERRY, 13 WILLOW LANE, FARNUMS, MASS. The return address simply stated – FROM: SANTA.
The package! My rich Godparents must have sent it from Easton. I whispered to Marianne under my breath, “Who cares about the stupid onion. Look what I got!” I grabbed the package eagerly.
“No, no, no,” Ma yelled. “You go put that under the Christmas tree. You know that no gifts get opened until after church tomorrow.”
Reluctantly, I did as I was told, shaking the gift for rattles, and loosening a strip of tape along the way. I stared hard at the small package sitting alone under the huge Christmas tree. What could it be? A gold locket? A watch, or maybe even a camera?
The package haunted me as I tried to force myself to sleep on that long ago Christmas Eve night.
“Oh come let us adore hi-IM, Chri-IST the Lord.”
From the balcony of the old church, I could see Ma, Dad, little Eva, and baby Lukey sitting up in front before the replica of the old manger. From way up here I marveled at the softly glowing faces of the Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. As the final strains of the song left my lips, my stomach tightened – threatening nausea, and my knuckles turned white as they clutched the old railing before me. My mind traveled far from here. It floated back home to gaze with rapture at the stacks of gifts under our Christmas tree at home.
The Presents! So many! In moments I’d be back there in my rightful place beside the worn blue couch tearing at wrappings and trying out that new blue bike I’d seen tucked away in the corner under some brightly wrapped gifts.
The spicy aroma of church incense along with the wet wool smell of too many bodies on that small balcony made my head reel and my stomach flip-flop threateningly. In the distance, a mournful long blast of the train whistle broke through the church proceedings and people tumbled from the small building.
The walk home seemed to take hours. How could parents and siblings move that slow when they all know about the excitement ahead?
I saved the small brown-wrapped package for last. As everyone gathered about, I carefully peeled back the paper to expose a small glass decanter filled to the brim with marble-sized white pearls. The fancy top was attached with a strip of silver tape, which I immediately removed. An aromatic scent of pine and lavender filled the room when I carefully lifted the lid.
“Oh, bath oil beads,” Ma announced. “Aren’t they pretty? Be sure to send a proper thank-you note to Aunt and Uncle.”
Everyone scattered to play with their new stuff. That glass jar of spongy sweet-smelling orbs was fascinating. Easily the most beautiful and grown-up present I’d ever received. Glints of Christmas tree lights reflected from their smooth pearly surfaces. If I stared hard enough, I could even make out the shapes of Ma’s favorite old Christmas ornaments mirrored on the small spheres.
I may have dozed with my little jar of precious gems, right there beneath the tree. Perhaps, oh, I pray this is true, just perhaps the events that followed were dreams. I wasn't that much of a troublemaker—not at that age.
I remember counting out the beads. They made cool little plunking sounds as I dropped them into the jar. Unfortunately, once I’d removed them all, I could not get them to all fit snugly back in their places in that jar again. Since two beads refused to be squashed back in, I took them to the bathroom to try them out.
Steam fogged the windows of our little bathroom as I ran warm water into the big claw-footed tub. After dropping in the two beads, I remember feeling a trifle disappointed because they were so white that they disappeared into the water leaving behind nothing but a hint of pine-lavender fragrance. I leaned my head back against the cool high back of the big tub and let the silky fragrant water caress me.
Suddenly, I sat bolt upright. Something had bitten me. The cooling water had a kaleidoscopic oily coating, like gasoline in a mud puddle.
Ouch, my ankle. Mixed in with the pleasant pine smell I detected an underlying aroma of onion. I wanted to vomit.
Ouch, my knee. I yanked it quickly above the surface to find a small round bead attached to my skin. As I stared at it, a thin trickle of blood ran into the water leaving a thin, wavering streak. I poked at the bead, which produced another bite of sharp pain with a similar trickle of blood. As I studied the bead, its smooth whiteness formed striations like those of a small onion. It bulged and pulsated as I watched.
Smack. I spattered it like a fly. Blood and a viscid-looking yellow pus-like substance sluiced down my leg and began to form a new little round onion shape.
I jumped from the water, my heart pounding. The other bead was fastened to my belly, just above the navel. When I tried to pull it off, it dug in deeper, like a tick burrowing into its host. I tried to scream for help, but only a hoarse croak came out. My throat was locked with fear. The wound on my knee itched maddeningly while the pain in my belly pulsed with each bulge of that accursed bead-thing. Finally, I gritted my teeth and yanked that sucker off. The pain exploded through my being as I dropped the damnable little thing into the toilet and flushed. Horror visited yet again as I watched the swirls of water flow over the thing’s tiny snapping mouth -- smeared red with my blood.
It only took a few minutes to find the other bead pulsing weakly on the bottom of the empty tub. It went into toilet also along with each of the other beads in the jar. I counted them as they plunked into the water and then took a deep breath once they were gone.
I tried to tell Marianne about the beads.
“Don’t be silly, Deeze. Stop trying to irritate everyone with your foolish stories. It’s Christmas. Stop lying and try to behave. No wonder you get the onion every year in your stocking. Santa Claus is trying to teach you a lesson.”
“But . . . But . . . I have a bite on my stomach . . . They tried to kill me,” I said pulling up my pajama top to show the angry welt.
“Oh, wow,” Marianne jeered. “It’s only a pimple. Now shut-up and stop trying to ruin everyone’s Christmas.”
“But . . . But . . .” I said to her disappearing back.
Heeding Marianne’s advise, I kept my mouth shut and didn’t ruin everyone’s Christmas. I dutifully sent a thank you card to my Godparents. I didn’t blame them. Those beads didn’t come from my rich Godparents. Those beads came from Santa Claus, himself. He sent them as a warning that I’d better start behaving, or else.
I tried my best to heed his warning. You see I counted those beads when I dropped them down the toilet that long-ago Christmas day. Counted and there were only twenty-one beads left in the jar. I know that two beads stayed behind to watch over me. To make sure I’m behaving. Whenever I enter that bathroom I hear them skittering around in the corners. Always just out of sight. I know they are there. I know, so now I behave.