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A Christmas Tale for the Disenchanted
It was a December twenty-fourth unlike any December twenty-fourth in recent memory. The ground was blanketed with ice from a snowfall two days earlier, and it was quite cold. They even predicted more snow by nightfall.
Imagine that. A cold and snowy Christmas Eve just like the old snapshots in the family album! What a relief. Maybe this year’s holiday conversation wouldn’t center around how pollution and its ensuing global warming trends conspired to take the “feel” out of Christmas.
These thoughts flashed inside Moira’s head as she and Joad slowly made their way up Fairview Avenue in Jersey City. Moira liked the crisp smell of the cold air, but the ice frightened her. She hoped her fear wouldn’t be transmitted to Joad. She tried to relax her grip on him.
When they reached the corner Moira leaned over and patted Joad’s head. The dog barely felt his master’s affection.
The ice and traffic were making him too nervous to cross the street. Crossing streets was once an easy feat for Joad, but now he hated it. He’s hated it for several years.
They stood on the corner of Fairview Avenue through two complete traffic light changes, waiting for Joad’s decision.
Each time Moira heard the traffic stop and felt people next to her cross the street, she directed Joad to move forward. He refused. The dog could feel Moira’s impatience as she fidgeted with his harness.
Joad was breathing heavily when he finally took his first step. Perhaps the cold steam from his breath obscured his vision, or maybe it was his owner’s anxiety that clouded his judgment. Nevertheless he proceeded to lead Moira into the street.
She smelled the first hint of danger—a blast of diesel fuel. “Stop!” “Stop!” shouted pedestrians from both sides of the street. Moira yanked back on Joad’s harness and froze.
A turning bus cut right in front of her, missing them by inches.
Moira’s abrupt stop caused her to lose her footing on the slippery pavement. Down she went. Joad’s tail drooped between his legs and he lowered his head as a rush of people came to Moira’s aid. As they helped her to her feet she heard a man say, “What’s wrong with that stupid dog?”
“It was my fault, not the dog’s,” said Moira. She patted Joad on his shoulder and thanked the people for helping her.
Joad’s tail remained folded underneath him as they cautiously made their way to the sidewalk. If Moira could see, she’d know that her dog’s tail was usually tucked away. He worried so much of the time about her safety it’d been ages since he was able to wag it in joy or relief.
The block just ahead of Moira and Joad was one of the most treacherous in the city. It was lined with abandoned, burned out buildings. This meant that no one had cleared away any of the snow. It was ignored. The entire length of the block was one shiny sheet of thick, slick ice. Other pedestrians simply avoided this dangerous stretch of sidewalk by crossing the street.
Moira knew nothing of the peril she was approaching. But Joad knew. He could see how crowded it was across the street. It made him shiver to realize that he and his master were completely alone. Not one soul was nearby. If something should happen, Joad knew there would be no one around to help Moira this time.
To steady her footing on the sidewalk Moira took short, heavy steps that crunched into the ice. She believed that these crunching sounds were the ice screaming out in pain as her boots cracked its spine.
“I’m sorry,” Moira whispered to the pavement.
Joad, who was much lower to the ground, knew the ice couldn’t hear her apology above her crackling footsteps.
At the beginning of her blindness Moira thought that her hearing had, and would, become more potent. But as she matured she understood that her ears hadn’t grown more powerful, only her concentration. And as her concentration grew, so did her imagination.
She enjoyed making up stories based on sounds, especially the sounds of nature. Without visual distractions, sounds became pieces of puzzles whose final outcome would be dictated by her tastes and moods. Moira totally disregarded where or how they had originated. And if these sounds produced paintings in her mind, then wind was her favorite color.
A delicious intimacy flourished between Moira and the wind. Sometimes it whistled at her, or tried to seduce her with soft spring breezes. Other times she’d capture and cage it, like on hot summer days when she’d pull out her electric fan and force the wind to serve her. Moira would listen to the breeze spew out between the thin bars that protected her from the rotary, begging to be released from this unnatural act. More often than not she’d take pity on this artificial breeze. Her finger would click off the fan and she’d sit in her hot apartment, sweaty but satisfied.
Winter winds were fickle. Many people thought of winter winds as bitter, but Moira knew better. They weren’t bitter, just mischievous—and protective. Its mischief could be seen in the formation of ice. The wind and the water loved playing together during winter because nothing delighted water more than to be turned into ice.
Moira appreciated how water was always at work replenishing, refreshing, and cleaning. Yet despite this terrific workload, it disturbed her that the only time water seemed to be acknowledged was when it was cursed during droughts, vilified as acid rain, or slandered when it could no longer carry away the foul smelling wastes dumped into it.
During winter rainstorms or snow sprinklings, Moira would listen to the drops of moisture beg for an increase in the wind chill factor so it could freeze over. The wind, who was quite sophisticated because of its intensive travels, understood the water’s need to develop a thick, protective skin against the criticism people threw at it. And if that skin was an exquisite icicle or a slippery patch of ice, so be it.
The dog hesitated as Moira urged him forward. But what could he do? There was absolutely no way of avoiding that terrible stretch of ice. He thought of directing Moira into the street in order to bypass it, but that was too dangerous.
The traffic was too heavy. He tried to get Moira to cross the street to safety, but she didn’t understand his nudging.
“Come on, Joad. Stop acting so silly. Why do you want to cross the street? You know Uncle Charlie’s building is on this side of the street! Don’t let that bus scare you. We’re not in any danger. It’s just a sidewalk. Let’s go.”
Joad tread lightly on his paws, but it made no difference. The thoroughness with which Moira, out of necessity, crushed the ice in her path could not be ignored.
The ice’s crackling anguish caught the wind’s attention.
Moira heard a bellow, and then felt a violent gust of air drop down on her. It raked across her face like a sharp pair of scissors; she felt certain she had frostbite. The wind then swerved off to the left, gathering up chunks of ice that it hurled against Moira and Joad like exploding bits of shrapnel.
“Stop it! Please!” Moira called out. “It’s not my fault.” But the wind simply absorbed her words into its increasing roar.
Joad knew Moira couldn’t stand up to this barrage much longer, and if she fell, the wind and the ice would surely do her serious harm. So the dog began to dig furiously with his claws.
His old legs ached as they tore at the ice until he had broken through to the pavement.
Joad then lifted his head and howled, howled so mightily that the wind had to take notice. He returned to his digging until a bald spot appeared on the ground, free of ice. Then the dog howled again at the wind, threatening to make the bald spot even larger if it did not stop its attack.
The wind died down.
Moira was stung by the cold, but she understood why the wind had retreated. Joad had rescued her. Uncle Charlie’s apartment building was just on the corner, so she quickened her pace. Joad limped along on his torn and frozen front paws, trying to keep up.
When they entered the building Moira crouched by Joad. “Are you okay, boy?” Joad licked her face as her fingers deftly examined him. When she touched his raw paws she gasped. Once inside her uncle’s apartment she insisted he give her warm towels to wrap around Joad’s bruises.
The Christmas Eve party was pretty much like all the other holiday parties she had attended there for the past four years. Moira would sit in an overstuffed chair by the living room window with Joad stretched out across her ankles.
“That’s a beautiful Labrador Retriever,” said a woman with a smoker’s husky voice.
“Yes he is. And he’s very bright, too,” replied Moira. An uncomfortable silence followed until Moira heard, “It’s a lovely Christmas ribbon you’ve threaded ‘round his collar.”
“Yes, he seems to enjoy it.”
“Can I get you anything to drink, Moira? You are Moira, Charlie’s niece?”
Moira giggled. “How did you recognize me? Did Uncle Charlie complain that I wear the same old Christmas Eve outfit every year?”
Moira heard the sizzle of a struck match as the woman nervously lighted a cigarette. She did not want to make the woman uneasy. It was so tiresome to have sighted people take everything she said so seriously. If someone at the party was to ask her what she wanted for Christmas, Moira would answer it would be a sign she could hang off her back that would read—BEWARE—BLIND PERSON WITH A SENSE OF HUMOR.
“Thank you for offering me a drink,” said Moira, “but I’m not thirsty. I would appreciate it if you could get Joad a bowl of water.”
Moira liked being by the window because it was always drafty and she enjoyed listening to the wind force its way inside. It would make gurgling sounds as it delighted in sneaking a chill into the warm and cozy room.
The warmth felt wonderful to Joad, but he was too nervous to really enjoy it. All he could think about was the trip home. He’d have to lead Moira through that minefield of ice and wind—and do a better job of it this time. And those traffic lights—red and green. Green and red. Even though he was color blind he knew they were Christmas colors.
Uncle Charlie’s girlfriend played his piano as all the guests joined in the singing. Moira disliked her voice so she silently mouthed the words. Everyone laughed when Joad yelped to the final chorus of Little Drummer Boy.
“Moira, is Joad being critical of our singing or has he been overtaken by the Christmas Spirit?” asked Uncle Charlie.
“I think he’s just anxious to chew on that drumstick we’re all praising,” grinned Moira.
“At his age?”
Moira frowned and did not answer her uncle.
“How old is your dog?” asked a male voice Moira couldn’t identify.
“I hope I look as good when I’m—let’s see, thirteen times seven—ninety-one.”
“He’s thirteen not ninety-one,” replied Moira.
When everyone retired to the living room to play a board game Moira declined the invitation to join in.
She preferred to sit in her chair stroking Joad.
Moira enjoyed listening to the clicking of dice as it passed from hand to hand. But she loved those fraction of a second silences after the dice cleared the player’s fingers, before they hit the board. Anything was possible during that brief pause, that split second before good news or bad news bounced on the cardboard.
Believing in possibilities was Moira’s favorite Christmas activity. During the eleven and a half years since Joad came into her life she established a secret Christmas Eve ritual based on an ancient legend and a lot of hope. Moira had to be home before midnight.
“What time is it, Uncle Charlie?”
Her uncle looked at his watch. “Eleven-twenty.”
“My God, I have to go!”
Uncle Charlie grinned and shook his head. “This is where my niece turns into Cinderella. She has to return home before the clock strikes twelve.”
“I must leave. I’m sorry.”
“I’m the one who’s sorry,” said Uncle Charlie. “You never stay to help us trim the tree. I only wine and dine my guests so I can turn all of you into my personal labor force.” Everyone laughed except Moira. It was getting late.
“I don’t want to be rude, Uncle Charlie, but I have no choice.”
Uncle Charlie hugged his niece. “I’ll give you a lift home.” Joad’s ears perked up and he barked his approval.
Although Moira wanted to accept her uncle’s offer to drive her home, she was afraid it might offend Joad. “That’s alright. Don’t bother. Joad and I can make it home fine.”
The dog’s ears drooped.
“It’s snowing pretty hard out there,” said Uncle Charlie.
“That’s all the more reason why you shouldn’t have to move your car.”
Waiting in the lobby as Moira pulled on her gloves, Joad watched a sweetly scented woman enter the building and begin pinching snowflakes off her fur coat. The dog shuddered.
The trip home was a complete success. Enough snow had fallen so that the threat of ice was buried under a white powder of sure footing. The walk from Uncle Charlie’s had gone smoothly, but it took twice as long because of the snow. Moira had forgotten to add this extra time to her calculations.
She was nervous as the elevator lifted her and Joad up to their ninth floor apartment. It was six minutes to twelve and she had to be in her apartment by midnight. Christmas would be ruined if she was a minute late.
A tradition is a tradition, even if it proved frustrating. Ever since her first Christmas with Joad, Moira clung to the belief that animals could be gifted with speech at midnight on Christmas Eve. It was her favorite Christmas legend and she prayed for it each year.
But for the past eleven years she was disappointed. Still, it was unthinkable not to try. The year she didn’t pray might be the year it would come true. Moira Essegian did not want to take that chance.
The young woman and her dog kneeled by the tiny nativity scene displayed on the living room coffee table. As Moira silently mouthed her words, she gently stroked the animals surrounding the manger scene.
Joad raised his head, sniffing the air. He was hoping to detect a different kind of smell. A smell of change. A smell of success.
“Smells the same to me,” said Joad.
Moira opened her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” said Joad. “I don’t mean to be negative.”
“You spoke!” shouted Moira.
“I spoke!” Joad squealed.
What followed wasn’t an excited conversation. The young woman and old dog lapsed into an embarrassed silence. A silence of shyness.
Instead of speaking, they retreated into their familiar closeness of touch. Moira tugged at the back of Joad’s ear. Joad nuzzled his face into the crook of Moira’s arm. She always loved the burst of cold on her skin from his nose.
“Were you born blind?” asked Joad.
Moira shook her head.
"How did you lose your sight?”
“Mexican food,” answered Moira.
“Pardon me?” Joad responded. “Did you say Mexican food?”
Moira giggled. “That’s right. You see, when I was seventeen the state of New Jersey awarded me a driver’s license. I celebrated by inviting three of my closest friends to a Mexican feast in a tiny chili joint by the Jersey shore.”
Moira patted her stomach. “I think I’m still living off the calories from all the chimichangas and refried beans I ate that day!
“After the feast I took my friends for a moonlight drive to Wildwood Crest. But I felt so full the seat belt pressing against my belly irritated me. So I unbuckled it.”
“A harness is a good thing,” said Joad, proudly.
Moira tenderly patted her dog’s harness. “Is it, Joad?”
“As long as it can keep you safe,” whispered Joad. He began to feel uneasy.
“Well, driving at night is much harder than driving in daylight,” continued Moira. “Perhaps that contributed to my collision with the truck. I don’t remember too much about the accident, except for the sound of my head exploding through the windshield. And the darkness.”
Joad started to shake. He suddenly felt like an unbuckled automobile. Moira responded to Joad’s discomfort by rubbing the crest of his neck.
“But that’s not what I’d call a wonderful Christmas Eve story,” smiled Moira. “I’d much rather hear something about yourself before I met you.”
“You mean when I was young?” asked Joad.
“Sure. When you were a puppy.”
“I was born in Boise, Idaho,” said Joad.
“I know that,” laughed Moira.
“But did you know that my mother, Gwyndulyn, was a prize winning Labrador Retriever?”
“No, I didn’t. That’s wonderful, Joad.”
“I was the friskiest puppy in my litter,” said Joad, proudly. “I inherited my mother’s shiny black coat and intelligence. What I didn’t inherit was her aloofness. I guess when my owners saw I didn’t have my mother’s regal bearing they decided I should go into something that was helpful.
“As a matter of fact, I was so friendly my owners weren’t sure whether to follow through on their plan to donate me to a 4-H family to begin training as a seeing eye dog. Overly friendly dogs don’t make good guide dogs because we’re too easily distracted.”
“You’re a splendid guide dog. The best,” insisted Moira.
“Well, after a year with my 4-H family, the Tedescos, I was given to the Guiding Eyes Foundation for intensive training. I guess I kept my friendliness in check.”
“That’s where we met,” Moira grinned. “Do you remember your other problem?”
“What problem?” asked Joad, rather defensively.
“Come on, Joad. Are you telling me you’ve forgotten already?”
“I’m afraid I’ve forgotten many things over the years, Moira.”
Moira jumped to her feet. “Your chewing! You had this constant need to chew that worried the instructors!”
Joad laughed at the memory. “I did have a rather fine bite, didn’t I?”
Moira nodded. “They didn’t want me to take you. They wanted to spend more time on your chewing problem before sending you out in the world. But I wouldn’t let them. I wanted you the moment I first touched you.”
“Your hand was like a mud puddle and a brush all in one,” recalled Joad.
“Thank you...I think,” grinned Moira.
The conversation waned. A nervousness overcame both speakers. Time was running out. The girl and the dog had not said what they really wanted to say. Moira squeezed her hands together and bit down on her knuckle.
“I’m sorry, Joad,” she murmured.
“Sorry? What could you possibly be apologizing to me for, Moira?”
“For the life I’ve forced you into.” There, she said it. Her heart pounded as she awaited his response.
Joad’s jaw dropped open with surprise. He tried to respond, but words stuck in his throat like a splintered bone.
“These past eleven years you’ve been on the job twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes at night I dream I let you loose in an open field. I love to imagine you running and jumping and playing. I wish I could let you play, Joad. I wish I could give you time all for yourself.”
Joad lowered his head into Moira’s lap. “But I’m not supposed to play. I have to take care of you.” When the dog noticed the pain in Moira’s eyes after saying this he quickly added, “I want to take care of you.”
“It hasn’t been fair. I know that,” said Moira.
“You’re wrong,” replied Joad. “You put too much value on play. Any stray can spend the day playing. But I’m different. I’m special.”
Moira nodded in agreement. “And I’m selfish.”
Joad, his tail firmly tucked underneath him, slowly made his way to the end of the room. He turned and faced his owner.
“No, Moira. I’m the selfish one. For the past few years I’ve been letting you down. Whenever you’ve taken me out you’ve put yourself at risk. I’m too old to properly take care of you anymore. But I don’t want to leave. And that’s wrong. My whole life has been devoted to your welfare.
“I love you, Moira. But it’s been a selfish love. I’m afraid I love my life with you more than my concern about your safety. I feel great shame. If I were a true friend I’d run away so you could get another dog, a better dog.”
“I don’t want another dog!” shouted Moira. “You’re as thick as the people at the Foundation! For two years now they’ve been pestering me to retire you and obtain a younger model.”
Joad lowered his head. “They’re right. I can’t do the job anymore.” His tail seemed to disappear from view.
Moira stretched out her arms. “Come here, Joad.” After a slight pause he stiffly walked over to her and into a hug.
Moira tightened her grip on her dog. “So what if crossing a street’s become more of an adventure. What’s wrong with adventure?”
Joad wanted to protest but his speech came out garbled.
“I’m tired of talking,” she said.
Joad licked Moira’s face.
“If you don’t mind continuing to look after me, let’s not ever part,” whispered Moira. “I trust in your heart, Joad. And you can trust in mine.”
The dog barked his approval; the Christmas gift was over.
Joad rolled over on his back and yelped like a puppy. Moira was thrilled. It had been a long time since she had heard her dog so happy.
She leaned over and rubbed Joad’s belly just the way he loved to have it rubbed. Moira’s hands traced a line from his stomach to his chest and back again. Her fingers moved up and down like a speedy typist. It was a delicious massage.
“I’m going to get you a special Christmas treat,” said Moira.
Once again Joad barked his approval.
Moira stood up and went into the kitchen. While she was fumbling inside a kitchen cabinet trying to find the special holiday biscuits she had bought Joad, a strange thing occurred.
Moira felt a slight breeze at her ankles. This puzzled her. There were no windows open and no drafts. The landlord had recently insulated the apartment. But stranger than the breeze was the exquisite music accompanying it. It was a sweet hymn of joy, a song of thanksgiving.
Moira had heard the wind perform thousands of different sounds, but this one was totally new. It made her mouth wreath into a huge smile. She scratched her head and abandoned her search for dog biscuits.
She kneeled on the floor and lowered her head. The sweet breeze washed over her. It’s music poured into her ears. Moira was tempted to track down the origin of this musical breeze, but decided to stay on the floor and just enjoy it.
If Moira hadn’t lost her sight she could have solved the mystery by simply peeking into the living room. There, stretched out on the living room rug, was Joad. His forgotten and unused tail was snapping back and forth, wagging joyfully. It was stirring up a breeze of happiness that sailed into the kitchen.