“Open it, Han’bul! Open it!”
Samuel Heyes bounced on his seat, eyes sparkling with excitement. Excitement and impatience. Hannibal suppressed a grin. He knew he was frustrating his younger brother by being a slow unwrapper. Samuel could not understand the ‘make it last’ attitude. Samuel was a ripper. In his opinion folk should tear the paper off presents fast as they could. Stood to reason!
A small bottom slid off the chair and Samuel trotted round to stand beside Hannibal. He remembered the ‘no getting down without leave’ rule and shot a glance at his parents. No, it was fine. Papa was wearing a ‘since it’s Christmas morning pretty much anything is okay’ smile.
David wriggled down too and stretched out a breakfast-encrusted finger to point at the uneven writing on the parcel.
Hannibal had read it out loud once already, but, obedient to his youngest brother’s obvious, though unstated demand,
he read it again. “To HanNbaLL. MerRy CRissmiSS Samuel aNd D…”
“It says, David,” interrupted Samuel. “David wrode that bit himselve. It’s a bit c’ooked but you can see it says David, huh? You can see that’s a D.”
David pointed at his proudly inscribed moniker. A pair of deep brown eyes blinked up at their older duplicates.
“Sure I can see it says David,” said Hannibal, firmly if not entirely truthfully. “Look at the size of that D starting it off. Huge! And another one even bigger at the end. David. No mistaking that.”
A slow, shy smile curved the plump face at this fraternal affirmation. Two little arms went round Hannibal and he received a rather milky kiss on the cheek.
“Hey,” he protested, wiping it off. “No need to get sappy.” But a dimpled grin appeared. It WAS sappy, but Hannibal could not help feeling pleased at the two pairs of eyes – one bright blue, one dark as his owns – fixed on his every move and telling him, clear as clear, that in the opinion of two small boys, he was the best and most admirable big brother in the whole history of the world. Anyhow, it was not as if Jed and the others were there to see all this mush. It was just family, it didn’t matter.
“David just wrode that bit,” explained Samuel. It was one thing giving credit where it was due, but he had to ensure the bulk of the credit remained in the right place, huh? “’Cos – ‘cos he’s only three an’ three-quarters an’ – an’ he only knowsis name letters for wridin’.” Proud swelling of a small chest. “I knows ALL the letters, so it’s me wrode all the rest. ‘Cept…” He indicated a scrawling scarlet whirl to one side. “That says Amy.” He looked at his sister now released from her high chair and now sitting on Papa’s knee. She seemed to be completely absorbed in removing Papa’s necktie, donned because they were going to church later, but Samuel lowered his voice tactfully and leaned in to his big brother’s ear, just in case she caught her own name. “It don’t really say Amy. It don’t really say nuffin’. It’s just sc’ibble. AND she wanted the red crayon – though ev’body knows wridin’ oughda be black or – or dark blue. But she saw us wridin’ an’ she wanted a go an’ – an’ Mama said we hadta let her, ‘cos it’s only fair. An’ – an’ she was gonna scream if’n we didn’ give her the red, so we let her have it. ‘Cos girls don’ dunderstan’ ‘bout wridin’ havin’ to be black. They like girly colours. Coulda bin worse. Coulda bin pink.”
“I like the red just fine,” reassured Hannibal. “Red’s real Christmassy, huh?”
Samuel beamed at this. Hannibal was right. The red did make it look more Christmassy.
“It’s from ALL of us,” he summed up. Once more he leaned in to add sotto voce, “It’s not really from Amy too. She didn’t do nuffin’ ‘cept get in the way. It’s really from me an’ David. WE made it. But – but if you wanna pretend it’s from Amy as well, that’d be okay, huh?”
A solemn nod from David backed up this suggestion.
“Sure,” agreed Hannibal in the same conspiratorial tone. Nice and loud he added, “Thank you, Amy.”
A blonde curly head turned, briefly distracted from paternal throttling – the necktie was being retied, Amy-style, nice and tight – and gave Hannibal a smug beam, displaying both admirable progress on the cutting of milk teeth and a little semi-masticated oatmeal.
“Hurry yup,” urged Samuel.
“I’m untying what looks like a whole ball of string here, Samuel,” demurred Hannibal. “And somebody’s done a real fine job on the knots.”
David tugged his big brother’s sleeve and then jabbed at his own chest. He had helped Samuel a lot with those knots. It had been HIS finger those knots had been fastened around.
“Cut it,” suggested Samuel, beginning to dance with impatience. “Hurry yup!”
Hannibal shook his head, sternly, as he tidily folded away yet another yard of twine into his pocket. Cut it? Never! He could always find a use of string. Always. Finally, he folded back the last covering of much creased and fingerprinted brown paper.
“Well!” he exclaimed, trying hard to keep the confusion out of his tone. “Will you look at that?” Gingerly, trying to avoid knocking off any of the precariously attached decoration, he held up the – er… He held ‘it’ aloft and looked over at his father. “Pa…” The brown eyes sent a mute call for help. “Look at what the boys have made. Isn’t that something?”
“We didn’t let Papa or Mama know what we was makin’,” exulted Samuel. “We kept it real sekkit. You didn’ know did you, Pa? You didn’ see.”
“Nope,” agreed Alex. “I never saw – er – that.” He sent back an apologetic ‘search me’ shrug to Hannibal. Out loud he enthused, “You two must have both worked real hard. Look at those rooster feathers, Gorgeous. Poor old Chanticleer. His rear end must be frozen.”
“And all those currants and dried cherries stuck on,” added Louisa. “Somebody’s been real busy sneakin’ stuff outta my storeroom.” She received a beam from her eldest son. No great mystery who.
Hannibal felt another tug at his sleeve. He bent his head to listen to David’s confiding murmur. “Dat’s a norse. An’ dere…” David pointed with precision to a particularly inky black blob. “Dat’s Balf’zar chasin’ mice. We boff drewed. Sam’ul drewed lines. I yelped colour.”
“I drawed it,” confirmed Samuel. “An’ – an’ I let David help colour. I showed him how. An’ – an’ the red sk’iggles, they’se Amy. They ain’t nuffin’. Just sk’iggles. An’ THOSE – those are bits of shell.”
“Clam shell,” admired Hannibal. “All broken up and fastened on.”
“’Cos the insides is all shiny like – like joowells,” triumphed Samuel the master-craftsman.
“An’ Papa didn’ see,” added David the number one apprentice. Another beam. “We was sekkit. ‘Cos Papa’s ziz nearly der same. ‘Cept, Balf-zar’s climbin’…”
“DAVID!” Samuel was outraged. “Shhhhhhhhh! It’s s’posed to be a surprise.”
“Do you mean,” Alex pulled his own parcel towards himself with every appearance of delight, “I’ve got one of these marvellous – er – presents too?” He read aloud. “To Papa. Merry Christmas from Samuel, David and…”
“An’ Amy,” finished Samuel. “Open it.”
Alex did open his parcel, making a quicker job of the multiple knots than Hannibal had. He refrained from comment, falling back on an awestruck intake of breath, as he showed the boys’ mother his own – er – thing, taking care not to knock off cherries, feathers, bits of shell or… Oh, sheesh. Was that a cat’s coughed up fur ball? It couldn’t be – could it?
“You see NOW,” crowed Samuel, “when you’se readin’ an’ you needs to stop ‘cos it’s bedtime, or ‘cos you needs the ouddows, or ‘cos someone’s visitin’, you’ll know where you’se got to.”
“Of course we will.” Relief at not having to ask filled Hannibal’s voice with genuine happiness. “Because we both have these extra special bookmarks.”
“A man can never have too many bookmarks,” nodded Alex, wisely. “Especially real big bookmarks like this. Not easy to lose you place when it’s marked with this, huh? Thank you very much boys. Thank YOU, princess.” A golden and dark head were ruffled. Papa’s little princess was soundly kissed. Papa’s little princess wiped it off and pushed him away, firmly. She was busy. There were neckties needing looping over ears.
“How do you like it, Han’bul?” checked Samuel.
“I like it fine,” declared Hannibal. It was true – he did. He’d never expected anything usable from the boys, so it wasn’t as if he was disappointed. And – well – it was mushy again, but he kinda saw what his father meant by ‘it’s the thought that counts.’ Mostly Hannibal had doubts about that. In Hannibal’s opinion, the dang present counted too. But… Hannibal watched his brothers glow with the utter self-satisfaction of having chosen the perfect gift. Yeah. There was a lot of truth in what his father said.
“You’se could take it to school.”
“I won’t be taking THIS to school,” declared Hannibal. “This’ll be saved for SPECIAL books at home. I shall carry on using the bookmarks your mother made for school and save THIS for best.”
He looked over at his stepmother, who had in the past embroidered a couple of elegantly sober – Hannibal, of course, did not like anything too ‘girly’ – bookmarks with his name woven amongst hunting and fishing scenes.
“If that’s all right with you, ‘m?”
She did know he liked what she’d made, didn’t she? He’d never said anything but ‘thank you’m’, but she had to know. His bookmarks were smarter than anything that blowhard Tommy Bauer had. He’d told her if she wanted to make one for him to give to Jed that’d probably be okay – and she had. Not that Jed really used it as a marker. He just liked to have it in his reader and look at all the squirrels chasing round and round the branch during lessons. So, the boys’ mother must know that had meant he – Hannibal – had liked her presents after all, huh? Yes, it was alright. She was smiling away. She knew he was only being nice to Samuel and David.
“S’orright,” Samuel gave gracious permission, giving the precious bookmark a slight turn to better show off the already wobbling feathers.
“Is it Mama’s turn to open a present?” asked Alex.
“Uh huh.” Again the golden fringe nodded courteous consent.
“Is this from you two?” Louisa smiled at her boys, pulling a parcel towards herself. Her forehead puckered. Surely this was too neat to be from…
Samuel’s fringe stopped nodding and started shaking. “Our present for you’se on the tree, Mama. I knows you said no touchin’ the tree, but you meant no takin’ stuff off, huh? Puttin’ stuff on’s okay, huh? We’se tied it on. I – ME – I did the tyin’.”
“I wiped der drips,” contributed David.
Louisa’s face registered house-proud qualms. Drips?
“Then this must be from…?” She looked, questioningly, at Alex. She was already wearing his gift and she knew well enough there was no spare money. He responded with a tiny shake of the head. Not him. Louisa turned over the perfectly rectangular parcel. “To… Oh!” she stopped.
“It’s from me,” said Hannibal, gruffly. “Merry Christmas.”
The boys beamed happily at this. They were too young and Christmases too far apart in their short timescales to realise this was a first. Hannibal had never before given his stepmother a gift. Not at Christmas. Not at birthdays. His father considered trying to force a present, like trying to force a kiss or a hug, completely counterproductive.
Hannibal watched her. She was still staring at the writing on the package. She had stopped because… Well, because of what he’d called her on it. He never called her that. He never called her anything, really, unless you counted ‘yes’m’. And, she was staring at the message he’d written. Her eyes came up, met his. She looked half-scared. Why? For a moment Hannibal was confused, then he understood. She was frightened in case he was being sarcastic, in case he meant to ruin Christmas with some trick present. Though it was ages – years – since he’d done anything deliberately mean. Wasn’t it? A couple of memories came back and Hannibal felt his cheeks redden.
“I’m not tryin’ to be funny…” His voice grew gruffer. “I – I mean it. I mean it all. I wrote it down ‘cos – ‘cos no way was I gonna SAY it.” That was true. He’d kept it short, but even so he could never say anything that mushy. He tried for a lighter tone. “After all – if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have these two…” He indicated Samuel and David. “And without them, who’d make me a bookmark this fine, huh?”
His father turned the message to read it too. The brown eyes came up full of happiness.
“There’s no need for either of you to get sappy,” Hannibal warned. “It’s only a dumb present. Not much. Just open it.”
She… No. Not ‘she’ he corrected himself. Louisa unwrapped the parcel. She was being really careful, bottom lip caught between her teeth with concentration. Hannibal realised she did not want to damage a single word on that paper. Indeed, at first when the wrapping came off she did not even glance at the contents. She smoothed the paper and folded it carefully away into her apron pocket. Only then did she pick up and examine the gift.
Her eyes were shining when they looked up. “It’s beautiful, Hannibal. Thank you.”
“S’orright,” he dismissed. “S’nothin’.”
Though it wasn’t nothing. Though he said so himself, it was pretty dang good.
Samuel and David clustered in to examine the carving on the little box.
“You can put – y’know – ribbons or pins or some’n in it. If you like,” said Hannibal.
“Thank you,” she said again. “Oh, Hannibal.”
Her hand went back to her apron pocket, touched the paper with his message upon it. Then her fingertip rested on the rose on the box. Her lip wobbled. She stood up, took a step toward him. She wasn’t gonna cry, was she? Or – or try and kiss him or something? Hannibal gave her a warning look. No, it was okay. She was trying her best not to blub and, if she had been going to kiss him, she changed her mind at his frown. Instead she just filled his teacup, adding the perfect amount of milk and sugar the way she always did. Just the way he liked it. Then she straightened the collar of his new shirt – his current favourite shade of green, with the extra special concealed pocket for secrets she had never forgotten once since Hannibal had casually mentioned the idea.
“I made something for you too, Pa.” Hannibal pushed over the parcel.
“Thank you,” said Alex. “Though, I can’t imagine liking anything better than what I’ve already been given this morning.”
Samuel and David grinned in delight at this approbation of their wonderful workmanship. But, Hannibal, seeing the glowing pride in his father’s glance, understood. He was glad. Even if it had been sappy, he was glad. He wished he’d had the sense to do it sooner. He was so glad that…
Sheesh! Was he so glad he was hearing bells?
“Papa, hurry yup. Open Han’bul’s present,” urged Samuel, “or we’ll be late. He trotted over and shook his big brother. “Won’t we be late, Han’bul?” Shake. Tug. Shake. Ding. Ding. Ding. “We’ll be late, Han’bul. Han!” Shake. Shake. “Han, we’ll be late!” Ding. Ding. Ding.
“Han, wake up. Can’t you hear the bell? We’ll be late down. Han!” Shake. Shake.
A fist emerged from under the rough blankets to rub at a pair of sleepy dark eyes. For a moment, joy still bubbling inside, Hannibal blinked up happily into Jed’s anxious face. Then…
It hit him. Again. Full on.
It hurt so much he gasped, breath lingering on the chill air.
Waking up after a home dream was always the worst. Those couple of seconds before you realised – then, you remembered. And remembering was almost like it happening all over again.
Hannibal sat up and took the shirt Jed held out to him, still his favourite green though a touch tight under the arms now. It was a year old and getting shabby around the collar.
The dream had been all mixed up. Some stuff from other Christmases. Some stuff he musta been thinking about.
He looked at Jed. There were tell-tale traces around the blue eyes and his friend wore that kinda – kinda stricken look Hannibal guessed was on his own face. He reckoned Jed had had a home dream too. Hannibal’s hands stopped buttoning his shirt. He gulped.
“C’mon, Han, you can’t leave it too late…”
He HAD left it too late. Once he’d grown up a bit he’d always meant – one day – to do something nice for her. NO! Not ‘her’. For Louisa. To show he did appreciate all the… Even in his own head he could not quite bring himself to say ‘mothering’. She wasn’t his mother! But… To show he appreciated all the practical, domestic, caring, warm-hearted… Oh, all right. All the love she’d given him over the years.
He kinda knew it’d be the best gift he could ever give his father too. Show him he’d grown up enough to – to…
He’d meant to do it. One day.
Setting his chin firmly, he finished buttoning his shirt and reached for his pants.
“Happy Christmas, Han.”
“NO!” he exploded. “No, it ain…” He stopped. Whose ever fault this all was, it sure wasn’t Jed’s. Besides, whining about what couldn’t be changed was dumb. You had to look forward, make the most of the cards life dealt you.
The friends’ eyes met. A mute apology. A silent, understanding ‘s’orright’.
Hannibal summoned a dimpled smile. “C’mon. Can’t have you missin’ breakfast, huh? Not THIS morning of all mornings.”
Valparaiso. December 25th 1863