It has been only 7 months since the lights went out, but it feels like forever. Some people call it the Apocalypse and consider it the worst disaster that the modern world has known. At our house, we call it the Change, because my mother says that just because it is different, doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world, and that words matter. Whatever you call it, though, the day the lights went out is the day that everything in our world became dramatically different.
The days go on and on, blending into one another with the sameness of our tasks. I don’t go to school anymore because there is no school. My mother teaches me at night, when we leave the door to the wood stove open to preserve our precious candles, but still have light bright enough to read by.
I never thought I would long for gym class or for the school cafeteria, but I do. I miss hanging out with the other kids, sitting around the table making fun of the food, and being in the classroom, learning about the things that I used to consider incredibly boring. If I had only known then what true boredom was I would have cherished the time to just be a kid. I would have delighted in every bite of food that I didn’t have to harvest myself.
Instead of school, I work to keep us fed and warm. I work in the garden in warm weather. My mother walks with a cane, so it is my responsibility to be her legs. I walk in the woods near our house and look for anything that might be edible or useful. I collect branches and twigs in the cold weather. Staying warm and fed is the focus of our daylight hours, and those two tasks take up nearly every minute that the sun is up.
We have heard from those passing through that the cities are death traps. People there quickly ran out of food and water, and had no way to get more. Violence erupted because people were scared and desperate, and there was no one left to quell it. All the police had gone home to take care of their own families. The people who left right away were the lucky ones. Those left behind are constantly at the mercy of thieves and worse. I’m not exactly sure what “worse” is but when the adults talk, that’s what they say: thieves or worse. I’m glad that we don’t live in the city.
Our home is in a very small town. We have a big fenced yard with an apple tree. My old swing set has become the support structure of a makeshift greenhouse, and the rest of the yard is no longer a yard, but more of a field. I used to think my mom was kind of weird, with her backyard chickens and her garden and her herbs, but now I am glad because we have food. The well water that tastes so different from the liquid that used to come from the taps is our true saving grace, my mother says, because water is more precious than gold.
Other people trade with us for eggs and apples and the seeds that my mother saves from her garden. The man next door with the pale, quiet wife and two rambunctious children gives us firewood in return for 8 eggs per week. We eat a lot of venison because my mother traded her skills and some of her precious jars to preserve some venison for an old man who hunts.
We are safer than most because our home is very small, and it is hidden behind trees. You can’t see it from the road. My mother says that the smallness of our house is a blessing because it takes less wood to stay warm. Since I am the one who goes out to pick up kindling every day I agree completely. I can’t imagine needing even more wood.
The past week has been a break in the daily monotony. It was the week before Christmas.
This Christmas is entirely different from any holiday season I have ever known in my 11 years. There will be no brightly lit tree, half hidden behind a pile of brightly wrapped gifts that were purchased in the months leading up to the big day. We won’t be going to parties or buying useless gifts for the teacher just because I don’t want to be the only one not giving a useless gift. I won’t be getting the newest electronic gadget. We aren’t inundated with Christmas carol muzak at the mall, with people pushing to get around us anytime we stop to look in a window.
The stores are all empty, yawning caverns, littered with discarded wrappers. Anything that could possibly be of use was taken months ago.
Still, Christmas is something to be anticipated.
My mother said that all school children need a holiday, so for the past two weeks, instead of lessons in front of the fire at night, we have been making gifts. Whereas we once would have gone to the store and purchased yarn, waffling between two favorite colors amidst all the choices, this year I have unraveled an outgrown sweater with a hole in it in order to make my mother a scarf. For my next door neighbors’ young children, I have drawn small pictures – one of a kitten, and the other of a puppy. I placed these pictures in little frames made from twigs. Now they will have something cheerful with which to decorate their rooms. For the Smith’s daughter, who is 7, I have made a little book with carefully printed letters and drawn pictures. It is the story of the Three Little Pigs, from memory. For the man who hunts – his name is Roger, but I always just think of him as the man who hunts – I have helped my mother make a warm hat. I embroidered an R on it for his name.
Many of us in the small neighborhood where I live have families from far away. There are no visits to family anymore, because there is no gasoline to fuel the vehicles. If you can’t walk to your destination, you don’t go. So my grandparents will not be coming, and this is the first time I’ve had Christmas without them in my young life. I don’t know if they have survived the Change and I probably never will.
Even though I feel as though I will probably be disappointed in the morning, I have trouble going to sleep on Christmas Eve. I’m still only 11, despite the heavy responsibilities in the world after the Change.
I awaken to bells ringing. Bells?
I sit bolt upright in bed, the heavy covers falling to the floor. ”Mom?”
“Get up, sleepyhead! It’s Christmas!”
I bounce out of my room and I have that oh-my-gosh-it’s-Christmas-morning feeling fluttering around in my stomach.
My mother is smiling from ear to ear, and she has a steaming mug in each hand. One has coffee for her, and the other has….I can’t believe it – cocoa!
“Where did you get hot chocolate?” I ask as I take the first decadent sip.
“Santa must have brought it, ” my mother says with a wink. She picks up the jingle bell ornament from the table and rings it again.
My stocking is not full to overflowing like it was on Christmases past, but I’m just happy to see that there are a few strange bulges in it. Inside I find a ball of yarn that looks suspiciously like an old sweater that I had outgrown a couple of years ago, an apple from our tree that has been covered in a sugary candy coating and placed in a bread bag from before the Change, and a clean cloth wrapped around something mysterious. When I unwrap the cloth, I discover a hair barrette that my mother has decorated for me with a piece of wire and some beads from an old broken piece of costume jewelry. I put it in my hair immediately and preen.
Our tree is from before the Change. It is an artificial tree and its lights remain unlit, since, of course, there is nothing to plug it in to, but it still looks beautiful with the assortment of ornaments that we have used for as long as I can remember. Under the tree is a large, lumpy bag for me, and two small paper-wrapped packages for my mother from me.
I make her open one of her presents first.
She gasps in delight to see the word LOVE made from twigs I found in the woods and tied together with garden twine to form letters. She immediately gets up and places the word on the bookshelf, front and center. Her hug and her smile make me feel warm and happy.
It’s my turn now. I open my bag and find a purple winter coat. I could hardly believe my eyes because I had never expected anything half so wonderful as a coat. “Where on earth did you get this?”
“I traded your outgrown coat from two years ago to the Smiths for their daughter, and Mrs. Smith gave me one of her coats for you.”
“We have to find someone who needs my coat that I have outgrown, then,” I tell my mother. My wrists have exceeded the length of my coat sleeves by about 3 inches. Change or not, I still had continued to grow.
My mother opens the last package, which is the scarf I have made for her from the holey sweater. She dons it immediately.
I can’t help but compare this with the previous Christmas, when there were at least 20 presents to open. Somehow, I feel happier drinking this cocoa made with water, stroking the sleeve of a used purple coat, than I ever felt then.
We are hosting Christmas dinner. My mother says that our neighbors are now our family and that we must love and care for each other if we are going to survive. The old man who hunts brought us a turkey yesterday. It is cooking with garden garlic and onions in a big roasting pan on the woodstove. My mother says that the turkey may not look like the kind we usually have, all brown from the oven, but that it will be an amazing treat. It smells so good that my mouth has been watering since early that morning.
Our home is decorated with pine boughs that I brought back from the woods, and iced with a fresh layer of snow.
We are serving with the turkey with applesauce from the jars of it my mother canned from our apple tree in the back yard. She had been storing crusts of bread and leftover biscuits in the outside cold room for a few weeks to make stuffing, and yesterday she cooked a pumpkin from the cellar as well as a big pot of potatoes.
When the neighbors begin to arrive, we are excited to see that they are also bearing food. This has been a hungry time and we rarely eat until we are totally full, as our food must last until the snow is gone and we can grow more to eat.
The Smiths, from whom my mother got my beautiful purple coat, have peppermint sticks for all of the children. Mrs. Smith found them in her bin of Christmas decorations. They are stale and chewy and the most delicious candy I have ever eaten. I take small licks to make it last as long as possible. The man who hunts, of course, has provided the turkey. The people next door, who keep reminding me to call them Tim and Libby, have arrived their children and a basket of cookies. They are the only people in the neighborhood with an oven that still works for baking. Sadly, their fuel for the oven will soon run out and there will be no way to replenish it. But for today, we have cookies.
For the first day in a long, long time – it feels like forever – all I have to do is play. My mother and the other women will keep the fire going, the men will sit and talk, and we will play in the snow without a care in the world. When you’re playing in the snow, you forget that there is no electricity and no heat except for that from the fire. You are just a kid throwing snowballs and building forts.
At dinnertime, we eat and eat and eat until we couldn’t hold another bite if we tried. My mother uses some of our candles and opens up the woodstove. The living room glows. Mr. Smith reads the original Christmas story in his deep melodic voice, followed by How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which was brought over by Tim and Libby.
Then, the most magical thing of all: Christmas carols.
We have no music except that which we make, but we all sing the familiar songs: Jingle Bells, Come Let Us Adore Him, Silent Night, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – we run out of songs we know and begin to sing them all over again because no one wants the music to stop because then the night will end. One by one, the younger children fall asleep, with their full tummies and flushed cheeks.
I sit there on the floor, leaning against my mother’s chair. The sweet voices of our friends and neighbors surround me like the softest blanket. I’m full, warm, and content. And although it is all by candlelight and my “big” gift is a used coat, it seems as though this day, this brief respite from the battle to survive, has been the best Christmas – a true holiday full of all that is sacred and beautiful.