Saturday, 24 December 2016


Every Year A Christmas Tree
        Christopher McCarthy

At the Christmas tree farm, two middle-aged men burn a brush fire. Families newly arrived and hangers-on stand beside the warmth. Everyone waits for the tractor to come back and take us up the hill to the harvesting field—row upon row of balsam fir.
      We’ve all paid fifty dollars to be driven up the hill, to select our own best tree, to cut it down and have the tractor bring it back. It’s an additional two dollars to have it wrapped in netting afterwards.
     The men burning deadfall build up their tower of sticks. It crackles, sap sizzles and pops. Jolly music plays in the background. The fire and, at its edge, see a child’s snow suit. Yellow, green, and purple, mock primary colours. Orange dances around it. The snowsuit’s collision of colour, its block pattern alone, tells its age.
     The arms of the jacket are just back far enough from the box of flames that they are changing colour, darkening a shade, and stiffening.
     Daylight fire bright which star will we see tonight? 
     The tractor returns with the bimmelbahn, flatbed cars in tow. The driver circles-semi around the fire, then reverses, bunching up backwards caterpillar-style. Hop everyone of us on except the men burning the fire, and older people from one of the other families who sip luke-warm coffee contentedly.
     The driver knocks down a milk crate for anyone needing a boost onto the platform. ‘All on?’
     We turn away, whiplining straight to go. Brace seated. Ride. UP, UP, UP, snow but more mud, evergreen Christmas around our hectic train. Bumps bump. Look up. See a grey-porcelain winter sky. Feel cold. Hear the choke of the tractor smooth-out as its wheels touch dry terrain. Out.
     Step down (some use the milk crate again). Fairytale style forest appeals to us all. The farmers’ rows of fir—dense and brush-cluttered— make magic this man-made wood.
     Still. There’s no breeze. Jovial talk bursts, through gloom clouds light shines ready for the tree hunt. Families break off. Go. Go. Sun shines.
     Our silence breaks bletchley with the crunch, crunch, crunch of footsteps treading on the backs breaking hundreds of snails. There are thousands of snails (not alive) littered on the forest floor. This is odd. Why?
     Move to the clearing. Blue blue up, dark brown down, a Honda stained with earth from the tire up, parked by the tree line. A yellow sign nailed to a pine reads ‘10’, below it and stump-lined on either side, ‘reforestation area’, and on the ground here is a skull. It looks like a rabbit’s head. Pick it up. Hare skull for an art deco piece—a gift for sister—cleaned and sterilized and some jewels in the eyes. It will stand out on the day with all the other glitter and garland green. In the bag with the saw goes it. It goes.

                            *                          *                           * 
     Hoist up trees and attach them to roofs of cars. Stand around. The bell jingles. ‘Available. Available.’ The tractor driver searches for new passengers. No one in the parking lot pays him any attention.  A horse drawn sleigh carrying several tourists passes down a snowy laneway.
     Gloom gloms blue sky with globular grey. Noon settles. Dirty air smolders with the fire on the far side of the lot. Adults aver the ‘lovely, fresh trees’ they now secure to their roof racks. Our one, nearly six feet from stump to star, lost inches to sawdust. Cut fresh and tie tightly. Bow saw bag and bunny trunk stowed, bundled, we bunch into the back seat. Door swung open to tie.
     More and more families get into cars to go. Dirt mixed with snow makes snirted mox. Down each exit each family, each set of tires scrawk banal, gone. Done. Hold breath for exhaust fumes.
     Only two empty cars in the lot now. The farmer’s Dodge pickup with seven or eight trees strapped in its bed, rusts silently.  Tucked in beside the parking lot attendant’s shelter, a yellow VW Bug—almost fifty years old—wheels removed, up on cement blocks, rusting too. It does not go.
    ‘Blue spruce available on this side and Fraser fir at the other end.’ The bell jingles still.
     The fields edge away to become highway.  
     Arrive home. Untie ties. Stand tree in tree stand. Remove net. Get camera. Snap. Snap. The tree must open up. Leave it alone. Branches drop down.
     Out for lunch. Eat eggs and tomato. Chat. ‘Great tree.’ ‘It is.’ Plan a nightwalk in the Christmas market. Those that want it can drink Glühwein at the entrance as we wait to pay six dollars for tickets to go in. Go. Go. Go. Go.
    It is so dark that the personal only looks personal amidst the false light, the large, fake tree predominant, and all her false glimmering stars rising with floating (hanging) jellyfish up the black sky. Hot pots hiss. Boiling maple syrup is poured to glace over icy snow. Chatter rings. Carollers on stage sing.
     Eat smoked meat and Käse-Sandwich. Eat Bratchäs with pickled pepper, sautéed onions, and Schweineschnitzel on a pretzel bun. Eat Liège style waffles and Kartoffelspiralen swaying on swivels. Eat roasted pecans, cinnamon-glazed, and Gebrannte Mandeln. Eat chocolate dipped, dough-fried dessert.
     Twirl around each and every vendor. Shop in shops. Turn to cross through grounds. Skirt round people standing. Avoid people carrying stacks of gifts not looking. Bear left. Bear right. Skate across snowy, salted brick. Snowflakes dance down and disappear over cooking fires, hot oil, over lit grills. Footstep a snowy ballet set to banter and bouncing Bublé. Crack nuts in teeth. Get back in the car. Nom nom’d in exultation.
     He lies in mystery. See black ice on the dark, dark road.
     Skid snowy. Go toward the median. Jaunt into an otherways turn. Turn again. Turn on your side. Roll. Roll. Roll your oats over. Overmix the porridge, seatbelt jolt. Pick those glass shards out. Crash berry blue. One of us has sicked all over the floor of the smash.

                            *                          *                           * 
     Sit on a bench for a long time gazing at real stars. Shock shocks.  How do you know you don’t have a concussion if you have one but think you don’t?
     ‘Thank God everyone is fine.’
     Thank Him. Give thanks the car is a write-off. Give thanks in secret. Give thanks especially that the saw didn’t loose from the saw bag. Retrieve the bunny head. 
     Arrive home. Undress. Untie bandages. Tie new ones on. Stand by tree. Decorate. No one wants to sleep. We laugh-laugh-laugh. This is the fattest fir we’ve ever had. It doesn’t fit in the room. Its shapeless wide is filled with decades of ornaments. Get camera. Snap. The tree has opened us up. Drop down. Most go to bed.
     Fire glows embers to cinders to ashen nothing.
     Downstairs, in the laundry room, in the deep sink, clean the bunny head. Solvents smell. Scrub the eye sockets. Soak gore. Leave it alone for awhile. Watch TV in the side room. Come back.
     Drain the drecky dark liquid. Dry dry. Work the towel into every hole. Sand smooth. Smooth bumps. Take off grit. Apply linseed oil with a rag. Let dry. Wait. Watch more TV. Hours pass.
     Buff every surface. Go back over it with a higher grade paper. Roughen the sites for the bijoux. Play Bowie’s ‘blackstar’ (at a hushed volume). Stick the fake jewels on. Blacken the eye cavities. Dust the skull with glitter. Dull the shine.  Finish.
     Sleep late, late into the morning of Christmas Eve day.
                            *                          *                           * 
     It’s a shrunken head. Wrapped, balled-up in newspaper, under the tree, tied off at the neck, the gift of a skull. Add a green bow.
     O. Henry. Oh Henry.
     All day is for sitting around. Parents phone insurers. Leave to pick up rental car. Wooziness settles in. Sit around. Get up. Sit back down. Is that the concussion or a head rush?
       Watch heads in duffel bags. Decorate the hall. Watch Donnie Gyllenhaals. Make merry for fish supper. Rally. Wear a blonde wig for most of the evening as a joke. Everyone is marked, saddened by thoughts crashing.   
      Watch more after dinner. Crouch in a ball. Curlcrunch (in human approximation) of suitcase square. Every movie seen a hundred times, watch them again with eyes shut.
       Seat-jolt awake. Still morning still. No stirs stir. Winter birdsong, mist moistens each edge of the basement window. Go up from here.   Up the stairs.
     Grown in the night, she has overwhelmed the gifts nestled at her base. The tree and the living room are one and the same being. She overwhelms every ornament hung in adulation. Her bows and brambles, gold beaded, stretch into the hall, scrape walls, climb stairs, darken windows with the force of ancient forests. Thousands of years of growth, grown at a snail’s pace, are, in an instant, covering our house.  She encloses every corridor in evergreen labyrinth. She covers each sleeping family member, wood on wooding the doors to rooms, greening them, greening them in.
     Step. But step where? False steps fir fall greening green underneath green. Her chokehold is an embrace.
     Every year is a different tree, a different feeling, and this year Christmas is sad. Yes! Our bedrooms, beds, and the living room, the same as it has always been. All the best to make amends in.

Christopher McCarthy | Toronto | 2016

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