On Christmas Morn He Came
A Yuletide Fable by
Charles A. Baumhauer
Dorothy was uneasy. This was no way to spend Christmas Eve. She had told her mother she didn’t want to visit Miss Pandora, but her mother had insisted. She thought briefly of pretending to be sick, but she knew her mother wouldn’t believe her.
“Dorothy, are you ready to go?” her mother asked. “We don’ t have all day. “
“Yes, ma’am,” said Dorothy, buttoning the last buttons on her party dress, while balancing on one foot to put on a shoe. She finished dressing and slouched downstairs to get her coat, dreading every step which drew her closer to leaving.
“Don’t look so glum, Dorothy. You’ re nine years old, time to start acting your age. Before Santa comes, we have our holiday good deeds to do. And besides, we’ll probably have tea and sweet cakes and other yummies. Won’t that be fun?”
“Yes, ma’ am, “ she mumbled.
The afternoon sky was gray with the expectation of snow, and as they drove up the hill toward Miss Pandora’s house, the last of the fall leaves swirled from under the tires and up into the air in reddish brown swirls. The children had never seen Miss Pandora, but they all believed her to be a witch. She never came down to Winterville from her big house on the hill, and there were all manner of tales about what might happen to children unfortunate enough to go up there.
The chimney tops of the house appeared first and then grew taller as they climbed the hill. They seemed to Dorothy like claws reaching out into the freezing air for her throat.
“Do we have to stay long, Mommy?” Dorothy asked.
“As long as it takes. I told you, Miss Pandora has donated her house to the garden club for our charity tea. There’ll be games, prizes, and an auction of Christmas baskets, which I’m in charge of. So, we’ll be there for a while. It’s a nice boost for the club. And it’s not the only thing that dear old woman does for the town. The new slides at your school, who do you think donated them? You have a lot to thank Miss Pandora for, don’t you think?”
The house loomed at Dorothy as her mother drove over the last rise and pulled into the parking lot. Dorothy saw a three-story-high mixture of angles, old moss-covered stone, and tall windows which looked to her like eyes. As they climbed the steep stone steps, double doors festooned with holiday wreaths and greenery looked like a closed mouth. The mouth opened.
Dorothy jumped back and pressed herself into her mother’s side as a tiny woman, short and fat and with skin as pink as a piglet’s, hugged her mother briefly. “Janet, I’m so glad you could come,“ she told her mother in a small, soft voice. She was dressed in black, and she wore a white lace collar around her neck. Dorothy thought she looked like a Pilgrim lady left over from Thanksgiving. There were rings on several of her fingers, and on her breast she wore a jeweled pin that seemed like a teeny waterfall of spun gold.
“Thank you, Emily, “ her mother said, as she and Dorothy entered the house. “Your home is decorated so beautifully. It must have taken ages. Who did the work for you?”
Miss Pandora put a finger tip to her nose and playfully winked. “Oh, the little Christmas fairies, of course. They did it all in under a minute.” Both women laughed. “And who is that hiding behind you? Why, I almost believe there’s someone frightened of me.”
“Of course not,” said her mother, pulling Dorothy forward. “Say hello to Miss Pandora, Dorothy. “
“Hello, Miss Pandora.” Despite her misgivings, Dorothy felt nothing but warmth as the old woman took her hand. She was barely taller than she was and her smile was so pleasant, her voice so calming, and she smelled all cinnamony, like Christmas itself.
“Oh, I’ve waited ever so long to meet you, my dear,” Miss Pandora said. “I just know we’ll become great friends.
Dorothy and her mother were soon seated with dozens of women, some with their daughters, in a large, candle-lit dining hall with a ceiling so high Dorothy wasn’t sure there was actually a ceiling there. They drank tea and ate petit fours, her mother called them, and the adults jabbered away. Within an hour, the warmth of the fire and the food were making Dorothy sleepy. Then, Miss Pandora came to the table and asked Dorothy if she would like to see some of the toys and playthings from her own childhood, take a break from the grownups. “I promise, we’ll have quite a lovely time, dear,” she said.
Dorothy looked at her mother, feeling both curious about what sort of things children had back in olden days and a bit apprehensive about being alone with the old woman.
“She’d love it,” her mother said. “Wouldn’t you, Dorothy? You run along with Miss Pandora, and I’ll get the auction started. “
And so Dorothy found herself holding Miss Pandora’s soft, warm hand and walking down a long hallway to another tall-ceilinged room, this one with shelf after shelf of leather-bound books which covered two walls. At the rear of the room, tall glass doors led into a garden, now frosty-looking in the chill wind which groaned against the house. There was a snapping fire in the large fireplace, and lights from wall sconces bathed the room in muted light which was reflected off the rich wood of the walls. Christmas decorations filled the room, and traces of vanilla smells were in the air. Dorothy was transfixed. It was a Christmas fantasy come to life.
“Sit with me by the fire, Dorothy,” Miss Pandora said, “and I’ll show you amazing things you won’t believe.” A maid brought a pot of hot chocolate and a plate of brownies. Dorothy felt she were in a fairy-tale place. That’s when Miss Pandora leaned toward her and in a whisper said the most frightening thing. “Dorothy, you and the children were right all along, you know. I am, indeed, a witch.”
Dorothy sat upright, the sweet perfection of a bite of brownie caught in her throat.
“Don’t be afraid. I’m what is known as a white witch, or I was. I have all but retired, you see.”
Dorothy swept crumbs from her dress and almost stood up. A witch, she’s a witch, she thought. “What’s a white witch?” she managed to ask, her mind racing on how she might escape.
“We’ re the good witches, my dear. We make nice things happen, not at all like the black witches one thinks of at Halloween. We wouldn’t hurt a soul, and we love making children happy, especially at Christmas. But this must be our secret, you know. “
“Why are you telling me this, Miss Pandora?” Dorothy asked, relaxing a bit after her scare. She felt marvelously adult, as if hearing of real witches in the world was commonplace. Deep down she supposed Miss Pandora was teasing, of course. But how had she known about her and the children believing she was a witch?
“It’s obvious that you’re special, Dorothy. You may not know it yet, but one day you’ll know a great deal more than most about this silly old world. And I will be here to help you, as time goes by. I’ve been aware of you for quite a while. In fact, it might be said that this whole day was arranged just so you could be here. Now, let’s begin your education.”
The old woman moved to a lighted glass cabinet which stood near one side of the fireplace. “We witches operate outside of regular time, you see. You read fairy-tales, don’t you? Sure you do. Well, what’s now become only amusing tales for children, was in ancient times the way the world operated all the time. And it’s still the reality, only it is beneath the everyday world. Adults nod off to sleep and forget little children can still see. Do you understand?”
“I’m not sure,” Dorothy said. “Are you saying fairy-tales are real, Miss Pandora?”
“Yes, exactly. Something happened long ago which made the real world of magic hide. But it’s still the reality, the way things really are.”
“What happened?” asked Dorothy.
“A forbidden box was opened and the world was plunged into darkness. But that’s another story entirely. Just pretend that the everyday world is make-believe and that make-believe is real, because it is. For example, what do you know about Santa?”
At first Dorothy was going to play dumb, but something about the old woman’s kind smile made her tell the truth. “I know it’s really my parents,” she said. “But I pretend I don’t know. For some reason, I think they like to pretend he’s real. So, as long as I make out like Santa is real, he still is. In our house, anyway.”
“What if I told you that he is real?” said Miss Pandora. “I’m not saying he delivers presents to every child in the world, but he does to some. Look at this.”
Miss Pandora removed from a case a long feather stained at the quill end. “This is one of Santa’s old ink quills, completely magical. Put it to paper and the names of good boys and girls would begin to write themselves into a list.
“And look here.” She presented Dorothy with a curved piece of wood painted gold. “That’s the crook from Little Bo Peep’s staff,” she said. “One sweep and all her sheep could find their way to her. She lost her sheep only because she continually misplaced the damn thing. Oh, sorry for my language, but she was a pain in the behind. Anyway, I took it away from her. She was never a very bright girl, that one.” Dorothy started to pick it up. “No, don’t do that, dear, or we’ll be overrun with sheep.”
Dorothy smiled. She was pretty sure Miss Pandora was only trying to amuse her. And it was working.
“And look at this,” Miss Pandora said. She placed into Dorothy’s hands an ancient-looking brass lamp. “Yes, it’s Aladdin’s lamp. You can hold it, but please don’t rub it, or we’ll be invaded by a genie. Genies are far more trouble than they’re worth, believe me. And that whole three wishes nonsense never works out. Nobody has ever had enough sense to ask for anything worthwhile. Not once.”
From out of the case, were Miss Pandora to be believed, came tendrils of Rapunzel’s golden hair—some of which she said were woven into the very pin she wore—a cracked bowl broken by Goldilocks at the home of the Three Bears, a golden apple from east of the sun and west of the moon, the grinder which had turned all the oceans to salt, and a golden walnut shell which supposedly had been Thumbelina’s cradle. But most marvelous of all was a glass slipper which she claimed had belonged to Cinderella. Slipping her foot inside at Miss Pandora’ s insistence, Dorothy imagined she was suddenly a beautiful young woman, and that she could hear the strains of ball music inside her head.
Miss Pandora started to remove yet another wonderful object from the cabinet when Dorothy noticed, near the back of the bottom shelf, the corner of a plain wooden box half-buried under some fabric. It was no larger than a postage stamp, and its lid looked scratched and discolored. “What’s that, Miss Pandora?” she wanted to know, pointing to the box.
Miss Pandora turned and faced Dorothy, her face growing stern. “You mustn’t ever touch that box, child. The world has enough danger as it is, we don’t need to add any more.” She hurriedly began putting her wondrous delights back into the case, covering the box.
There was a knock at the door, and Miss Pandora left Dorothy to make her slow and cautious way to answer it. After all the fun of the afternoon, she still wasn’t sure she believed Miss Pandora was anything but a nice old woman who had managed to entertain her with splendid stories, but her curiosity about the box was one of the strongest feelings she’d ever had. It called to her, and while Miss Pandora was answering the door, she ran to the case and reached under the cloth—Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak, Miss Pandora had claimed—and grabbed it. She felt as if she were watching someone else’s hand palm the tiny thing and push it into her dress pocket. Never before had she done such a terrible thing.
“Sorry it’s taken so long,” her mother said as she stepped into the room. “The auction ran over a little. Have you two been enjoying yourselves?”
“Oh, yes,” Miss Pandora said. “You must bring her again. She’s delightful.” Miss Pandora winked then at Dorothy, and Dorothy felt bad about the box, but it was too late to return it.
“We thank you, Emily, it was lovely. Let’s go, Dorothy. “
When a maid handed Dorothy her coat, she slipped the box into a pocket, where it rested atop a knitted scarf which she’d crammed in there. Her head was full of magical tales as she ran down the steep granite front steps, the box all but forgotten, temporarily. Oh, the stories she’d tell her friends about the splendors of Miss Pandora’s house and about the rich imagination of the kind old woman. A witch indeed. None of the storytellers who sometimes came to Christmas affairs would be as unforgettable as Miss Pandora.
Dorothy was right, this Christmas would be entirely unforgettable, for no one noticed in the darkening of twilight the tiny box bounce from her coat and spring open as it hit the edge of a stone. No one observed the three pale seeds fall onto the starved earth of winter. Unseen under crystal stars was the thick trunk rising skyward in the light of the moon, the green tendrils filling heaven with their grasping climb. But everyone young and old felt the earth-trembles of the first footfalls. And everyone heard, and would never forget, in the flakes of the snow which descended with the new Christmas dawn, the booming thunder of the impossible greeting which awakened Winterville on the last Christmas many there would ever know, a terrifying, deep and elongated bellow which was both absurd and all too familiar: “FEE-FI-FO-FUM!”
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com