Picture of Innocence

January 29, 2010
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There were years which had passed, years that had yet to come, and seasons all in between, but I truly believed that these winters were the best out of all of them.

Winter meant absence from school, making gingerbread cookies, and playing in the vast empty lot at the end of our street that was much to muddy in summertimes, but just right frozen over, though very little snow covered the ground. But most of all, winter meant Father.

Winters, for myself and Father, were warm.

Father was a military man, and he only came home near Christmas. He had a long scar down the right side of his face, a stubbly chin, and a vague, vacant expression. His voice was dry and he often spoke quickly and precisely, using words I didn’t understand and never bothered to ask about. But around me he was warm and sincere and I fed off of this like a flower off of sunlight.

I fastened the last candle to the tree, stepping back to allow Father to light it. The tree was beautiful, all draped over with garlands of red flowers, bulbs and candles hanging from every limb. I bent down, removed a package wrapped in hand-made paper, and handed it to Father. With a smile that lit up my whole world, he ripped it open. My present to him was a rather awkward-looking felt Christmas tree with a picture of myself in the centre. I hadn’t a picture of the two of us, so I’d drawn his face in beside mine. His lips quivered a moment before he bent to kiss me. I looked back up at him, rearranging my features into a mock-pleading expression. “One,” he nodded, his husky voice unusually warm. As was tradition, I was allowed to open just one gift Christmas Eve.

I knelt down, keenly examining each parcel. I finally chose a smallish box wrapped in floral-print paper, carefully wriggling it out from beneath the others.

Inside was the most beautiful fabric I had ever seen. White, the whitest white I could imagine, and thin, not quite silky, but smooth and soft. Tinsel was sprinkled all over it, tucked between the layers and catching on the seams. As I lifted it up, the folds of fabric tumbled out and opened into a dress. I was breathless at the sight of it: ribbons, and bows, delicate flowers embracing the neckline and cascading down the side - I dared peek up at Father and he was staring back at me - I ducked behind the tree and pulled it on over my nightgown.

I could barely even feel the cloth where it brushed the skin. I twirled all around in a circle for Father, and he caught me in his arms, holding me too tight for just an instant too long before spinning me around and catching me once more.

And then we were dancing, dancing around the living room, letting the moon graze us with her fine silvery touch. We drew closer and closer till we sparkled, all tinsel and moon-shine.

In my bedroom, I fell across the mattress, exhausted, tucked Mother’s photograph under the pillow, and lay back. Exhausted, but it would be a while before dainty, sugar-coated dreams would find me, nightgown, Christmas dress, and all.

It was late when I opened my eyes again. There were noises in the hall - when I tiptoed out of my bedroom, I saw Father, his hat pulled low over his face, stepping outside and closing the front door behind himself.

I scurried to the front window, pushed aside the curtain just enough to see out. It was dark. I pressed my nose against the glass, feeling it vibrate in response to the winter turmoil outside.

I stood a long time there, unmoving, and surmised that Father must have gone out for milk. He had explained many times that he would lie awake in his bed and these strange things would come to him. But my anxiety got the better of me and I slipped out onto the porch.

I couldn’t remember how long I was there, in my dress and slippers, shivering, but even when Father came around the corner, my relief was transient: he was racing toward the house, glancing back over his shoulder, yelling at the car turning behind him. I froze.

Three shots rang out, quick and even, piercing the depths of the night the way nothing else could pierce. The car sped by… and at the far end of our street, Father fell.

With a wild gasp, I leapt from the porch, screaming, nearly tripping, splattering myself with slush. I flew down the street, past three neighbours’ open doors, into the lot on the corner and to Father’s side without a second thought. I fell to my knees, gasping for air, and pushed his long hair out of his face with trembling fingers. I touched a piece of soft material – my little felt Christmas tree, sticking out of his overcoat pocket.

Strangely, this was the thing that made me cry, but even as the first tear rolled down my cheek, anger took the place of sadness. The cold fury I felt confused me… I’d only ever heard of villains described as being afflicted with such emotions.

The world crashed down around me - the sky fell - the earth gave way beneath me. I could see. I had been blind, blinded by my innocence and my ignorance, and now I was trapped, and helpless, and numb. The world burned, and through the burning, a sliver of ice sliced through me.

With a cry I threw the piece of felt as far as I could and turned my face away. Blood spurted from the hole in his heart and onto my new Christmas dress, staining it blue-black.

I lay down beside him, staring unseeingly into a night as black as pitch. I pressed my cheek into the cold mud.

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