An Edwardian Christmas
Time stamp: 1:55 p.m., December 26, 2010. The living room camera was nearly out of electronic juice by then. No elves would clink it into submission with teeny mallets. They, like Santa Claus and the very spirit of Christmas, had fled to the North Pole at the strike of midnight only hours earlier. And Jessica, a lone installation artist, had forgotten to tend to the tools of her art. Somewhere an empty gallery wall moaned, the same as Prancer and Vixen groaned about having to squeeze into a stall again.
Jessica gazed wistfully at the pine tree, standing in the kitchen doorway that faced the living room. Just a day before, every member of her “bougie” family huddled around that tree, eating Pringles and Oreos, and engaging with their techie gifts in one way or another. They listened to Christmas albums from Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga on one of the boys' mp3 players. They sent text messages while talking about Kindles. A whirlwind of blatantly circa 2010 icons had defined their celebration of the birth of Christ. Thus, Jessica was not sad that Christmas had ended; she was sad that it had not happened the way she had hoped.
Breaking out her reverie, Jessica flinched at the plastic ornaments swinging from her tree. She had never understood the appeal of Spongebob Squarepants. Regardless of her personal preferences, Jessica had decorated the tree using the ornaments her nieces and nephews had given to her, mostly so they could not accuse her of re-gifting them.
Sighing, Jessica recalled the awkward scene that had forever dictated her tree decorating:
A three-foot-tall girl with gray eyes and scruffy red hair looked up at Jessica as the artist sat at her desk. The girl was small for her age, which added to her overall sickly appearance: wan skin, hollow cheeks, bony hands. Fittingly, the girl spoke just barely above a whisper.
“Yes, Scarlet?” Jessica peered down at the child in her puffy coat. Snot drizzled over the girl's upper-lip and her nose quivered despite the room's warmth.
“Mama said you threw away the card I made you.”
Jessica jumped and pricked herself with one end of the wire she had been braiding. “What?”
“Uh-huh. And she said she saw the present she bought you at Goodwill.”
Jessica put down the wire and swiped a scrap piece of paper from her desk. As she dried the snot from Scarlet's little face, she peered into her niece's round, watery eyes.
“Your mama said that?”
“Yeah. Mama said that.”
“Do you think it's true?” Jessica gulped when the child did not respond right away.
Scarlet tugged at her sleeve and sniffed. “Yeah, I think it's true. Mama showed me the card. It was kind of crumpled and covered in something that smells like you.”
Jessica twisted one of the wires until it broke. “What do you mean it smells like me?”
“Mama says it smells like your wig powder. I don't know what wig powder smells like, but my card smelled like you.”
Nodding slowly, Jessica put a hand to her head. Her hair felt dusty, like powder.
“Did you know I wore a wig, Scarlet?”
“Yeah. And I asked Mama how come. She said it's because you like old-timey things.” The girl shuffled in place until her sneakers began to squeak. After a moment she said, “I cried when Mama told me she found the card. I worked hard on it. I--” her teeny voice started to crack and her cheeks flushed as she coughed out the last part of the sentence, “used my best crayons, too.”
Jessica could not say that the drawing reminded her of something she scrawled at half Scarlet's age. She could not say that it contained far too much yellow for her taste or that she wished her niece would depict something other than Spongebob chasing Jellyfish for all her cards. Nor could she say she had no room for it. She was, after all, the woman who maintained a whole walk-in closet of clutter from the 1910s: opera glasses, silk gloves, canes.
Instead of fabricating some excuse, Jessica proceeded by asking more questions.
“When did your mama see the gift she gave me?”
“Saturday. Before I went to my friend Callie's house.”
“Mama said you didn't like it because it wasn't old.”
Jessica shrugged and returned to braiding wire. Her mind flittered to the hot pink Japanese hair-dryer her sister had bought her. Its box had boasted some special features Jessica knew she would never use.
Avoiding Scarlet's eyes, Jessica murmured, “Why don't you go to my closet and pick out a porcelain doll you like?”
Scarlett did not budge. “So you did throw away my card? And you did give Mama's present away to Goodwill?”
“Do you want one of the dolls or not?” Jessica snapped.
The girl rolled her hands into skinny red fists. “No. Those dolls are old and scary and they smell like you and your stupid wig powder!”
After Scarlet stormed out of Jessica's studio, Jessica clenched her teeth and braided one more piece of wire. Her thoughts flew. She concluded she would bring all of her garbage to the landfill herself. She would also drive to the next town over and donate unwanted presents to the Goodwill there instead. When Jessica finished the braid, she picked up the other other wires and hung them from bitty hooks on the wall in front of her desk. A second later, she picked up her camera.
The camera in the living room knew none of this. It knew nothing of memories or history at all. The camera did not know that it had not existed during the era Jessica loved best. It only knew the time, the date, and its duty. Its duty was to record everything that happened between the tree and the sofa. That was a space about twelve feet wide and nine feet tall.
That sliver of space might have been more regal had Jessica the money to maintain it. The dainty floral wallpaper cracked and peeled. A single plastic rose poked out from the thin glass vase resting on the plywood end table. Books with pictures of teddy bears and kittens in costume were scattered on the floor beneath the table. The carpet, like the sofa, wore an off-putting shade of green-brown.
Rapping her fingers absent-mindedly on the kitchen doorway for several seconds, Jessica suddenly stopped and walked up to the tree. It was fake and smelled faintly of gasoline, though she half-expected it to smell like wig powder.
Jessica scanned all remnants of the presents, too. Nobody had helped her clean up after unwrapping the presents. Twist-ties, instruction manuals, and shredded ribbons snaked out from random parts of the room. The gift wrap—all an ugly shade of red-orange with lime green polka-dots—lied in smithereens with everything else. It had been on sale at the dollar store and complemented the carpet perfectly.
From the gift wrap, Jessica's eyes shifted to her clothes: a ratty, bright-colored hoodie and plaid pajama pants she had sworn she'd only wear to bed. Yet there she stood, out of bed.
Jessica fell into the sofa. Everything was wrong, disgusting, defiled.
Not a second later, her camera began to beep. Jessica bolted up and rushed to it.
“Dammit,” she hissed, “I forgot to charge you!”
Everyday, for nearly the past year, Jessica had recorded what happened in her living room. It was part of a project she called “Life 365” that was scheduled to end December 31st.
Jessica tore the camera from the table where she had propped it and shook it.
“I can't believe it! How could I--? Ugh!”
She continued shaking the camera until her hand started to tingle. Within moments, her arm tingled. Her shoulder tingled. Her neck, her face, her chest—every part of her, right down to her toes vibrated and buzzed so hard that she grew numb.
Upon closer inspection of her body, she realized that she had been pixelated! Every inch of her skin and clothes appeared to be a tiny square. But before she had much time to consider her new form, Jessica found herself standing in a foreign room.
Yet the room was not entirely foreign. It had the same lay-out as her living room. The objects within the room were what differed. The table boasted a build of gleaming cherry wood, not plywood. A fresh and alert mauve rose had replaced the plastic one she knew. Instead of looking at a feces-colored sofa, Jessica looked at a blue silk one instead. Its feet alone were more ornate than anything she had ever owned: gold and intricately curly but seemingly very sturdy. Six plump, tasseled pillows cozied up to the sofa's fine armrests. Jessica feared sitting upon it mostly because she didn't want to disturb a single thread.
Not that she could have sat.
Jessica dropped her head to inspect her strange attire. No longer clad in her beaten hoodie and slouchy pants, Jessica was dressed elegantly enough to have her portrait taken. So elegantly, in fact, that she could barely breathe.
“A corset?” she coughed. “Am I—is this a—what?”
A dark glove encased each of her hands and black lace-up boots trapped each of her feet. A hat rested as neatly on her head as a hen rests on her nest. What most astonished Jessica, though, were her sapphire jacket and skirt. Their lush fabric reflected the tender glow of candlelight coming from the two windowsills. Jessica ran her fingers down the pearl buttons on her off-white blouse. She truly was an Edwardian lady.
She was also an Edwardian photographer. Somehow she had not noticed what dangled from her wrist. It was a Kodak Brownie—a box-shaped camera from the early 1900s, such a far cry from her light-weight video camera.
Jessica felt numb. She picked up the camera with both hands and immediately positioned the viewfinder in front of her eye. That's when she spotted the Christmas tree.
It was a real pine. The scent pervading the lavish room betrayed the tree's true identity. When Jessica approached the tree, she saw that small, ribboned pouches had been tied to each of its numerous branches. She plucked one of the bags from the tree and, slowly, undid its satin bow. The pouch contained sugared almonds. After popping one of the almonds in her mouth, Jessica pulled down another bag. It was full of cashews. Once she opened a few more bags, Jessica discovered that every pouch held a pile of sweet nuts.
“Well,” she said, “So much for Spongebob.”
Jessica took her mind off of the decorations and returned to fiddling with the Brownie, but soon put her fingers to rest.
“It's too dark to really see.”
She shuffled toward the candlelight. Bending down or crouching proved painful, so she picked up a candlestick and balanced the camera against her chest. With such a big camera and such a dim light, Jessica was sure she would drop both objects at any moment and frustrated that she still could not make out everything on the Brownie.
“I just need more candles. I'll brighten the whole room.”
Just then the camera fell. Jessica instinctively lunged for it with both hands, sending the candlestick to the floor, too. She could not save either one. The camera pounded against the hardwood floor and the candle rolled toward the Christmas tree. By the time Jessica had picked up the camera, given it a reassuring pat, and turned around to face the tree, the pine had caught flame.
Beads of sweat already growing on her neck, Jessica tossed the camera and tore her hat off of her head. Hatpins flung against the window and several feathers shot into the air. Jessica fanned the fire and screamed.
“Madame?” called a voice from another room.
“Help me! NOW!”
In rushed a man who could not have been anything but a butler. His attire gave him away. Even though she had never seen him before, Jessica knew better than to ask any questions.
“Put it out!” Jessica cried.
The tree was blazing, emitting the stench of roasting nuts and smoking kindling. The butler furrowed his brow and hesitated before speaking.
Jessica filled the void. “Get some water!”
The butler shot Jessica a bewildered glance. “But Madame! We'd have to send one of the servants to the water pump!”
“The water pump?” Jessica threw up her hands. “Of course!”
“It cannot be saved, Madame. The firefighters shall never arrive in time. Go outside!” The butler started yelling, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” Pots and pans and other instruments of the home clanked and clattered as servants laid down their tools and scrambled out of the house.
Jessica panted louder and louder until her eye caught the Brownie on the floor. She seized it in an instant and shook it as hard as she could, over and over.
Gradually, Jessica's skin grew slick and papery. She felt like photo paper from head to toe until she could feel no more.
Then, as quickly as she had fallen through time, she fell back into place.
Jessica stood in the middle of her living room with her video camera in one hand. Spongebob ornaments adorned the Christmas tree. Baggy plaid pants hung from her hips. With a dry throat, she collapsed onto her lumpy sofa.
She sighed, not out of nostalgia but relief. It was a deep, almost bellow of a sigh. When Jessica glanced at the tree, a tear rolled down her cheek.
“Merry Christmas indeed!” she muttered to herself.
Then she pulled herself off the sofa to charge her camera battery.