THE WORLD IS NOT A MIRROR: A CHRISTMAS STORY
THE WORLD IS NOT A MIRROR:
A CHRISTMAS STORY
by TIM KAIL
I had said goodnight and “Happy Holidays” to my co-workers, locked the office door behind me, checked my email and texts one last time before pocketing my phone, and I was on my way to the parking lot when I inhaled the smell of candy-canes.
Only this wasn’t any normal candy-cane smell. This had the sharpness of freshly picked peppermint leaves. There was a smokiness to the aroma, as if they were burning in an open fire. The snow started coming down again in heavy clumps, the snowflakes collapsing into one another. The Weather Channel predicted this would be one of the snowiest winters on record. For once, they were right. There were lane closures on I95 every other day. Getting home was a deliberate, sometimes frightening adventure.
But that night, the snow brought that inexplicable stillness in the air that I remembered as a child; a quiet hum that signified time was slowing down. And the smell of the burning peppermint cleared out my nostrils, pouring through the canals of my body and washing them clean. I followed the scent, the snow high enough to crunch under my boots. I could hear the distant chatter of some of my co-workers pulling out of the parking lot. Some of them might have even said goodnight to me again, or asked where I was going, but I did not care.
I was moving toward the stretch of trees just past our building. The aroma grew stronger as I neared the tree-line, and beyond the screen of falling snow, I noticed a faint glow. I don’t know why I did not hesitate to enter these woods. It’s not that I wasn’t afraid (because I was, a little - it was dark and cold and I’ve never been an outdoorsman), it’s that I was compelled to keep moving forward, my body overriding the rational controls of my mind. I watched all of this through my eyes, the glow inside the woods getting brighter and the peppermint smell intensifying, as if seated on a comfortable chair in the recesses of my skull, sipping cocoa and curious about what would happen next.
It was a trance, and not necessarily of the pleasant variety (it’s unsettling to lose control of your body when you’re not expecting it), but it wasn’t altogether unpleasant either. It felt as though someone had hit the reset button on my senses. My mechanisms for understanding reality were suddenly more efficient than ever before. It was as though taste, touch, sight, and smell were all susceptible to an echo-effect within these woods.
I looked back and the office was hidden behind the falling snow, nothing more than a collection of faint window-lights slowly flickering out of existence. I kept pushing forward, the snow getting deeper. As I approached the glow it fragmented into sharp blades of light, revealing a campfire. The smoke was black, curling upward into the forest canopy and dissipating into the clouds. It looked like a cartoon campfire, the circle of grey stones surrounding the flame too picturesque to be real. I leaned down and saw a collection of dark, half-burnt leaves spilling out of the flame. These leaves curled around the kindling, and when they burnt, they sparked like firecrackers, showing bursts of red and green light.
I held one of them under my nose and inhaled. Definitely peppermint, with a dose of something extra that I couldn’t quite explain.
“Nice isn’t it?” a deep voice spoke behind me and I fell down on my backside. I spun around, clamoring to my feet. I saw a large man in a brown duster and a black, frayed cap. My feet gave out and I fell onto my back. A twig jammed into my side, and I groaned.
The large man hurried over to me, apologizing, “Oh no, I’m so sorry to have startled you. Are you alright? Yes you’re alright!”
He grabbed my arm - his hands were massive but boney - and pulled me back up to my feet.
“Can’t be too careful in the snow. Always good to have someone around to help. Then again you wouldn’t have fallen if I hadn’t been here in the first place,” the large man laughed.
When I looked into his eyes I saw two black pupils. They reflected the campfire, barely visible behind a pair of bushy, grey eyebows. His nose was large and thin, his cheeks drained of color, his lips chapped. In fact, it seemed at any moment, one big smile or one big frown would tear a hole in his weathered flesh, and his ancient face would unravel. His beard spilled over his neck and chest in unkempt clumps, and his clothes smelled like garbage.
“Thanks, I should get going, I was just worried that there might be a fire in the woods,” I said.
“Well there is,” the old man smiled, and lumbered over to a tree-stump. It was his improvised throne, a thick, sharp piece of wood that somehow managed to support his frame. It was at that moment when I noticed just how big this man really was, bigger than any man I’d ever seen. Maybe it was the duster he wore, or the beard, but I don’t think that explains it really. The curious thing about his size was that his face and his fingers were gaunt. He had a massive torso, large enough to take up your average-sized love-seat, but the sharp cheeks, sagging skin, and thin fingers told a different story. He was full and emaciated at the same time.
“Want a drink?” the old man held up a canteen, and poured a brown, milky liquid into a tin can.
“Come now, have a seat, it’s warm by the fire.”
The old man’s words had the same hypnotic effect as the smell of peppermint. I just couldn’t help myself. I sat down on a short log next to his, and picked up the tin can he’d set down for me. I took a sip. This curious drink certainly had a strong bite to it, but the familiar pang of alcohol was followed by a cool, chocolatey balm. It was like liquified cookie dough. The cold vanished, and I stared into the campfire light and I felt as though I’d discovered home.
“What’s your name, young man?” the old man asked.
I snorted, “I’m not young.”
“How old are you?”
“Forty-five. I feel sixty.”
“That’s young,” the old man threw a rock into the campfire and it exploded into a puff of blue dust.
“How you figure?” I asked, taking another sip. The me that was lounging in the back of my mind wondered why I was sipping a drink of unknown origin from some crazy woodland creature. This is how cults find new members, after all. But the me that was seated in front of that fire, was certain there was nothing abnormal at work. The drink was just too good, the fire too warm, and the man too weirdly calm for this to be an elaborate trap. He was just an old, homeless man, having a nice night out in the woods, trying to keep away from those who might do him harm.
“When you’ve been around as long as I have, you realize you’re young every day except the day you’re currently living.”
I had to think about that for a moment. I’m still not sure if it makes any sense to me. But I like it. For some reason I like it.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Do you mean young is state of mind.”
“Maybe. I’m not sure what I mean. I’m not sure it matters, to be honest.”
“I guess not,” I said.
“But how do you know you feel sixty if you haven’t been sixty. You’re forty-five. All you know is how one through forty-five feels. And you probably can’t even remember most those, am I right?”
“Yeah,” I said, glaring at him from the side of my eye, “you are right. I don’t remember being a one-year-old.”
This made the old man laugh. He laughed so hard that I smiled, suddenly feeling good about being funny. It seemed a disproportionate response, though. It wasn’t as funny as he seemed to think, and yet he laughed and laughed.
“What is your first memory,” he asked.
“Oh man. At this point it’s probably just a memory of the memory - like I remember telling people my first memory more than the memory itself, if that makes sense.”
“It does. Go on.”
“Well…I was four. At least I think I was four. No. Two actually, wow. Yeah I was two and my mother was holding me, and it was winter. And I know it was winter because I was wearing a Mickey Mouse scarf and hat and mittens, and I remember how close she held me. And we had stopped at a gas station and there was this guy selling dogs. And they were in a cardboard box, these puppies, and he was selling them for twenty dollars. So my dad got us this puppy. He got us a dog and we named him Abby.”
“Abby was a he?”
“Yeah - we didn’t know he was a he for the first few weeks. The vet said he was a girl, but then a few weeks later…it became obvious he was a boy.”
“You didn’t change his name?” the old man asked.
“No, he was Abby his whole life.”
The old man laughed again, “That’s a good name. That’s a good memory.”
“Yeah - but like I said, I remember telling people that it’s my first memory more than remembering the moment itself now. It’s like looking back at a journal and reading the sentences, and just interpreting those sentences rather than recalling the moment they describe.”
“That doesn't make a difference.”
“I suppose. What’s your first memory?”
The old man picked a twig out of the fire and pulled a marshmallow out of his dirty pocket. He put the marshmallow on the twig and handed it to me and gestured toward the flames. Without thinking, I put the marshmallow just above the fire and rotated the stick slowly. He grabbed another twig and pulled out another marshmallow, and suddenly we were roasting marshmallows together.
“I was a little boy,” the old man said, “and things were very different back then, but people were mostly the same. Days were longer. Slower. My father was a shoemaker. And I would help him work the leather and shape the heels. I remember the day he smashed his thumb with a hammer. It was a shock, like the universe suddenly came into sight, contained in the tip of his red, bleeding thumb. He put the thumb to his mouth and sucked the blood away, and I remember imagining what it tasted like, and how much it seemed to hurt, but how he hid the hurt. He didn’t yell. He didn’t say a bad word. He just took it. And then he put his hand on my shoulder and he told me to get back to work. He said it was important to always get back to work.”
The old man’s eyes changed color then - they were green, still reflecting the campfire light. He spoke as if he'd succumbed to the hypnotic crackling of the flames. It was reassuring that even he was susceptible to the allure of this place. We were in a warm bubble of unaltered reality. It felt like it would break with the slightest disturbance. And neither of us wanted it to break. So we were careful in our movements and in our speech.
He plucked the marshmallow from his stick, charred black and crispy, and popped it into his mouth without waiting for it to cool.
“Mmmhmm,” he moaned, chomping down, his furry jaw moving in great rotations. The sound of his lips smacking was oddly comforting. It reminded me of the way my father would eat a steak. After swallowing a bit of meat, he’d purposefully flick his lip and click his teeth in a “schtick” sound. Perhaps he did it to loosen something that got caught. Perhaps he didn’t even know he did it (until the day my brother told him to “Please stop doing that!”).
I ate my marshmallow too, but I let it cool first.
“I wish I had a graham cracker and some chocolate,” the old man said. “And a glass of milk.”
“Oh yeah. I love s’mores. We had them all the time when we went camping as kids.”
“What’s a s’more?” the old man asked.
I looked up at him, confused, and he seemed to be a bit closer. He was on my log now, or my log was closer to his stump. Or I was just imagining it. Either way, the distance between us had shortened, and I did not know what to make of his question.
“Well…a s’more is chocolate, marshmallow, and…” I explained.
The old man burst into laughter again, this time so hard that his head went back and his hands settled on his bouncing belly.
“You should’ve seen your face!” he pointed at me, slapping his thigh. “You think I’m a mad man don’t you?”
“Well,” I shrugged, “you do seem a bit strange.”
“Strange isn’t mad, is it?”
“No, but you’re also out here in the woods, in front of a fire, in the middle of a snowstorm.”
“This is hardly a storm. This is barely a flurry by my measure. But where better to be in the middle of a snowfall than by a fire, drinking and eating with good company? This is the most logical place to be, my boy.”
The old man stood up with some effort and tossed another log on the fire. A few logs shattered under the weight of the new one, giving off sparks of orange and red light. The embers danced in a spiral, taken up by the wind toward the trees, and, for a moment, I thought the embers and the snowflakes entwined to form the shape of a ballerina. But it was gone too quickly to be sure.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
“Of course I did,” the old man said. "I see it all."
“It’s starting to come down more. I can’t see my feet anymore.”
“That is true.”
“I think I should get back to my car. I should get home. My wife will be worried.”
“That is good,” the old man said, and he waddled over to me, and held out his hand. I grabbed it for a shake, but he tugged at my wrist, ripping me off the log and pulling me up to my feet as if I were a child. It was then that I realized, looking up beyond the barrel of his chest, that he could throw me like a shot-put if he wanted. He leaned down, and spoke in a soft voice.
“It’s good that you have people who love you. Very good.”
“I know,” I said.
“No. You do not. I can see it in your eyes…”
And that’s when he said my name. I do not remember telling him my name, but I must have told him my name. There's no other way he could have known it.
“…you think you appreciate your wife. You think you appreciate your children, your brothers, your sisters, your mother and your father. But, I can see, you don’t really. You are up here most of the time,” the old man pressed his index finger against the center of my forehead. I could feel the gnarled tip of his fingernail against my skin. I was worried it might break. “The entire world is like a mirror to you, reflecting you back to...you. Everywhere you look, you see you. That must change.”
I did not say anything back at first. I must admit to you, a part of me was a little worried he might kill me then (he was very close), another part of me was insulted that he would dare be so presumptuous, and then another part of me believed every single word he said. Because he was absolutely right.
A shiver started in the back of my head and then rolled down my spine like an electrical current. Every pore expanded. Ever hair stood at attention. I became rock and I became putty all at once.
“Well, how do I change?” I asked.
“If I told you,” the old man grinned, “then you wouldn’t do it.”
I sighed, and took a step away from him.
“That’s too easy,” I said. “You can’t say something like that to someone, and just leave them wandering in uncertainty. Being vague isn’t the same as being wise.”
The old man’s eyes crinkled. The wrinkles on his forehead were more pronounced now. His hair seemed to grow a few inches in that moment. He pulled open his duster and reached inside his breast pocket. He pulled out a small pocket-mirror and held it in front of my face.
“You see this?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
He set the mirror down on the stump and then smashed it with the heel of his boot. The glass exploded, the plastic shattered, and the debris vanished into the snow.
“That’s seven-years bad luck,” I said, a little worried for the old, homeless man.
“Luck isn’t real,” he said. His certainty was convincing. “There’s only what you do. The world is not a mirror. It’s just the world,” he was whispering now, his right hand clamped down on my shoulder. “Be less up here,” he pointed at his temple. “Be more in here,” he put his hand over his chest.
“Have a good night,” he said, and turned away from me.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"Work. Have a nice holiday.”
“You too,” I mumbled. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” the old man replied, gathering up some trinkets that I hadn’t noticed before; an old sack that seemed to be bursting with pots and pans and wires and indiscernible clumps. He started toward the trees, moving deeper into the woods.
“Hey!” I called out, “You didn’t tell me your name!”
He laughed at this, and as he moved deeper into the woods, his laughter grew louder and louder.
“What about the fire?!” I yelled. I didn’t want him to go.
“Keep it!” he yelled back, and he kept on laughing and laughing. His tall, dark frame faded into the snowfall, and the laughter was traded for the gentle swaying of bare branches and the faint patter of footsteps in the deep.
I kicked snow onto the campfire and the flames died down to black and white ash. I scooped up a handful of the ash to keep for later, and I ran out of those woods as fast as I could, and I got in my car and drove home to my wife.
When she asked me where I’d been, I told her this story. And then I looked into her eyes, and I kissed her.
That was a good Christmas.