Additional Christmas tales for 2010 are posted atThe Gift of the Magi, Revisited By C. Lear
Jessica stared at the change, scattered on the coffee table. After all of their expenses that month, only a few coins remained. She often skipped lunch, and she never ate out. She scrimped and saved for months. Yet, this is what remained.
The demand for tiny apartments on the surface was high and so were the rental rates. The underground cities were bursting with families, anxious to find their place in the sun. Even with a lottery system, it was often the highest bidder who won, but Jefferson Hardy's distinguished service earned them a place. However, in the midst of a city struggling to build new upon the ruins of the old, even the combined income of an officer and a medical tech didn't stretch very far.
The apartment was tiny. Jessica didn't mind. It was not often occupied. When it was, there were few walls to separate them. Jefferson was stationed at the lunar base and Jessica spent her days, and many sleepless nights, in the library of the emerging university, pouring over physiology tutorials. That is, when she wasn't under the strict tutelage of Doctor Sane and Nova Forrester.
Her tuition took the majority of what they saved, but Jefferson never complained. He even took assignments to earn hazard pay. He simply asked her what she needed for tuition, books, and supplies and told her not to worry. To ease her guilt, Jefferson smiled at her one day and said jokingly, with his charming Southern drawl, "This is an investment! After you become a real doctor, I can retire, and you can support me in the way in which I would like to become accustomed."
Jefferson was a fine, fine man. He would be home that evening, after six months of service on the moon. Tomorrow was Christmas Day. It was their first Christmas together. Loose change wouldn't do. It simply wouldn't do. He deserved so much more than what loose change could buy, but even after Jessica's extra shifts at the hospital, loose change was all she had.
She spent many an hour contemplating a gift for Jefferson… her beloved. She imagined something exquisite, something rare and divine, something truly worthy of his ownership. However, even the smallest and most delicate of things were shamefully expensive. In a post-apocalyptic world, they could not be easily replaced. A once mass-produced trinket, which might have procured only a few euros before the bombings, was now rare and unique and equally expensive.
Jessica leaned back on the tattered, second-hand couch. Tears of frustration slipped down her cheeks. A good cry and a quick wallow in self-pity seemed in order. So, she got right to it. Pressing her hands to her face, she leaned over on her side and began to sob pitifully.
It was in that very moment the usually resourceful young woman came upon an epiphany. She gasped as she sat up straight. Her eyes, although glistening with tears, flashed brilliantly with purpose. Running to the tiny bathroom, she removed the band securing her braid. She quickly plucked her hair loose, allowing it to fall to its full length over her shoulder.
It is important to note, there were two possessions within the Jefferson Hardy household, which were esteemed above all others. The first was Jefferson's antique chronograph, passed down to him through generations. It originated with his great grandfather, an aviator in the Second World War. He used the sturdy timepiece for navigation and synchronizing mission protocols. Nearly three hundred years later, it served Jefferson faithfully in a similar capacity. It was his only surviving link to his ancestry and a source of conversation and envy among his fellow pilots. Thus, he carried it with love and great pride.
The second of these treasures was Jessica's luxurious mane of hair. When she failed to subdue it into a long braid, it was a cascade of finely spun gold, streaming down her back. Jefferson brushed his fingers through it one day, admiring it, as it was blown about by the wind. He lovingly told her it resembled the rippling wheat fields on the outskirts of the city. Remembering his words, she took great pleasure in brushing it out each night, flourishing in its delightful femininity.
Now, her source of pride, her finely spun gold, fell in soft waves across her shoulder and past her small waist. Lavish and thick, it was almost a garment, in and of itself. She touched it tenderly; taking a moment to admire what had taken years for her to achieve. She blinked, and a tear rolled down her cheek. She gathered her strength. With renewed determination, she quickly manipulated her pride into another braid.
In a flurry of excitement, she threw on her old jacket, which served her well, but had seen far too many days of use. She wrapped a tattered scarf about her neck and shoulders. Then, with child-like exuberance, she scooped up the change on the coffee table and skipped down the stairs into the bitter cold.
Her pace was rapid and swift, fueled by her newfound exhilaration. She vaguely remembered a small shop she passed many times on her way home from work, but she took different routes, depending upon the time of day. Early in the afternoons, she took the shortcut through the park in the center of the city. Late at night, she walked along the well-lit streets. 'What was the name?' she thought. 'Miss Couture's? Miss Clouitier's?' She remembered it sounded French.
The streets were still bustling with last minute shoppers and casual strollers, enjoying the modest, but festive adornments of the city. She moved passed couples holding hands and parents, with their young children. She paused to admire a child of four or five, clasping the hand of his distracted mother. He stared at her with inquisitive brown eyes. He had a head full of auburn hair, just like Jefferson's. It made her smile and the child smiled back.
When she turned, she glanced across the street. There, in front of her, was 'Madame Couture's Fine Hair Products'. She hurried across the intersection, dodging traffic as she went. She was breathless when she threw open the door to the little shop. A dangling bell rang, announcing her entrance.
"I'll be right with you!" Came a voice from the storage room in the back. Jessica was far too anxious to enjoy the warmth or the smell of cinnamon, which drifted from lit candles. As her eyes passed over the elegant little room, adorned with velvet draping and brass appointments, she envisioned Madame Couture as a tall, willowy woman with pale skin, black hair, and an accent of European origin. The woman who emerged from the back was short and heavy-set. Her gray hair was swept away from her plump face and into a loose bun.
"Will you buy my hair?" Jessica asked anxiously.
"I buy hair," the woman replied. "Let me see what you have there."
Jessica loosened the scarf from her neck and pulled the band from her braid. She quickly picked it apart and allowed the hair to fall to its full length. Without the manufacturing of synthetic wigs, hand-woven, human hair was very much in demand. It was strangely comforting to know familiar things like vanity still thrived, even in the shadow of worldwide disaster. For Jessica, vanity was a luxury these days.
The woman walked around her, inspecting her hair with a critical eye and an experienced hand.
Then, she finally made Jessica an offer. Having little experience in the fine art of negotiation and being pressed for time, she accepted it without complaint.
Jessica dashed out the door and into the waning sunlight of the afternoon. She felt giddy and light. Was it because the weight of her hair had been lifted from her or was it the bubbly exuberance she felt while clutching her newfound wealth? She didn't know. She was high with excitement and it felt so very good.
The next few hours floated by on silvery, gossamer wings. Of course, the afore mentioned analogy is far too polite to accurately describe what transpired. Jessica was unapologetically ransacking the stores for Jefferson's perfect present!
It was late afternoon when she found it, but there it was, lying among the remnants of old family wealth. Certainly, it was meant for her Jefferson. There was nothing else like it in the city. Of this, she was certain.
The box was exquisite, hand-tooled leather, modestly etched with gold leaf. The gold hinges and the locking mechanism were polished and bright in the flattering light of the store. It had served someone well for many years, but they had cared for it. There were only slight signs of wear. Perhaps it was sold to fund a family's passage out of the underground cities. Perhaps it was liberated from a household before the bombings. The possibilities of its history were endless. Now, it lay amongst similar antiques awaiting its next home.
These dialogues, these narratives, were the precious things she and Jefferson found in old artifacts. It was a game they shared while strolling through the city streets, hand in hand. They would admire something in a shop, which they could only dream of buying. If they could not own the artifact, they would own the story of its origin. Money didn't fuel imagination.
She carefully opened the little box and found it was lined with buttery, soft suede. She touched the interior with the tips of her fingers, because such elegance begged to be caressed. When Jefferson wasn't wearing his antique timepiece on his wrist, he stored it in an old sock. Jessica knew an old sock was not a proper resting place for something so precious. The lovely treasure in her hand was more befitting an heirloom. She imagined the two of them crafting the story of its origin over the fine meal she would prepare. Oh, to see the look in his eyes! She could hardly wait!
When she returned home, she tempered her intoxication with her responsibilities. She set the oven for dinner and pulled out her brush and her curling iron and set about repairing the damage, born from the furrows of generosity and love.
She curled and brushed and fussed. An hour later, her head was full of wavy curls, dangling down to her chin. When she fussed enough, she inspected herself in the bathroom mirror with a critical eye. She silently wondered if Jefferson would still find her beautiful. 'Maybe I can simply avoid mirrors for the next year or so,' she thought. She sighed and set aside her concerns. She was too busy to worry with them now. Instead, she went to the kitchen to distract herself with work.
Fresh fruits and vegetables were rarely in the budget, but a visit to the farmer's market proved to be worthwhile. New potatoes were on the menu, but she could only find canned corn. She would wash and slice the strawberries very carefully. They were still very rare and expensive, but they were Jefferson's favorite. A light sprinkle of sugar over them would make them the perfect surprise for dessert.
There was enough light through the small window in the kitchen to nourish herbs and small tomatoes. The pots were now empty. The tomato plant stripped bare. All willingly sacrificed for the sake of a fresh herb salad and the love of a good man.
She checked the meat in the fridge once more, beaming as she inspected the beautiful specimens. It was real meat. Not the meat substitute derived from algae. Red and marbled beneath a light seasoning, they were beautiful to behold. They might even be enough to quell the anger she anticipated from Jefferson about her hair. What could she do with loose change anyway? After six months, she couldn't welcome him home with canned vegetables and mystery meat. She wanted their first Christmas to be wonderful!
Seven o'clock was approaching. The table was set, the candles were lit, and the salad was made. The vegetables and strawberries were cleaned and sliced and the pan was warming on the stove for the meat.
She took one more satisfying look at her prize before she wrapped it in the plain brown paper she salvaged from the grocery bags. She secured the wrapping with her favorite red ribbon she often used for her hair. The ribbon matched the tablecloth, so she set the present in the center of the table. Then, she sat quietly and admired her handy-work. Even with mismatched plates and utensils, the tiny folding table had never looked so elegant.
With nothing more to do except wait, she touched what remained of her hair. 'Please,' she thought, 'please let Jefferson think I'm still pretty!'
She heard footsteps on the staircase outside, and for a moment, she felt ill. The blood drained from her face and her legs were weak, but she kept her composure and managed a smile as the door to the apartment opened.
Jefferson was always very handsome in his dress-blues. This time was no different, except he seemed tired and very serious as he crossed the threshold. He set his bag down and closed the door behind him. He turned and just as he began to remove his jacket, his eyes fell on Jessica. He suddenly froze, his eyes wide and completely vacant of emotion.
Jessica couldn't decipher his reaction. She couldn't read him in that moment, and it frightened her. There was no surprise, no anger, and no disapproval… She wriggled free of the table and ran to him.
"Jefferson!" She threw her arms around him and held him tight. "Welcome home!" She leaned back, smiling at him, but his expression hadn't changed. She looked deep into his eyes. "Please don't look at me like that!" She bit her lip as she tried to read him. "Don't be angry! Please, don't be angry! I sold my hair! I sold it, so I could give you a wonderful Christmas!"
Jefferson's jacket was only halfway off, dangling from his arms. "You… you sold your hair?"
"It'll grow back! It grows so fast! I… I simply couldn't go through Christmas without giving you a present!"
"You sold it?" He said slowly, as if he was still trying to grasp the concept.
"Yes, Jefferson! Cut it off, and sold it!" She pulled his jacket from his arms and drew it over the bend in hers, nervously straightening the lapel. "Oh, but you should see what I found for you! It's perfect!"
"Your hair is… gone?" he said laboriously. He glanced around the apartment, as if he might find traces of it somewhere.
"It's gone! Just like that!" She brushed the lint from his jacket with her hand and placed it neatly on the arm of the couch. "Don't bother looking for it! You won't find it here!" She managed a nervous smile. "It's Christmas Eve, Jefferson! Don't be angry with me! Say 'Merry Christmas' and let's be happy together!" Jefferson still seemed dumbfounded, so she took him by the arm and led him to the table. "I'm still me, aren't I? I'm still me… just without my hair! It grows back so fast…"
He pulled away from her and she watched him anxiously as he went back to his jacket on the arm of the couch. He held it up and extracted a cheerfully decorated package from the inside breast pocket. He was silent as he regarded it for a moment in his hand. "I'm not angry, Jessica." His voice was gentle and soft, almost a whisper, as he met her eyes. Finally, he held out the box to her. "I just… I love you… that's all."
She came to him. With an air of hesitation, she accepted the package with trembling hands. She was overcome by the fearful weakness in her body, so she sat down on the couch. Carefully, she pulled away the elegant ribbon and the lovely wrapping. When she removed the lid from the box, her eyes widened and she softly gasped. She was deathly quiet. She didn't even breathe. Her eyes shimmered with tears in her awestruck silence. Suddenly, she began to sob hysterically. Jefferson touched her shoulders and spoke soothing words. It was everything he could do to console her.
Lying within the delicate cushioning of the box were… The Combs! The exquisite combs she had longed for in the window of a local antique dealer. Hand-forged in silver and adorned with colorful sparkling jewels and inlayed mother-of-pearl, they were the perfect embellishment for long, beautiful locks resembling wind-blown wheat fields. Each time she walked passed the shop on her way home, she paused to admire them. She desired them secretly; silently knowing she had no hope of possessing them. It was enough to simply see them each day.
"What do you think?" Jefferson asked her, so many months ago as she lingered to appreciate the fine adornments through the glass.
"I think…" She paused, as ideas formed in her mind. "I think a man was madly in love, and he commissioned these for his wife! I think in his mind, there was nothing in the world that could complement her beauty except something so unique."
They were gone from the window one day. Purchased. The shine and luster she found in her walk home was gone. She didn't look forward to it anymore.
All of those months, they were with Jefferson. She finally composed herself. Pressing the bundle to her chest, she woefully looked up at her beloved and managed soft, trembling words through her tears. "It grows back so fast, Jefferson. So fast…"
Jefferson smiled and gently touched her face, wiping away fresh tears from her cheek. Her eyes suddenly sparked with renewed excitement. She blissfully sprang from the couch and retrieved her gift from the dinner table. She pushed him gently until he flopped backwards on the couch, then she presented it to him with her exuberant smile, balancing it on her open palms.
"Wha' have you been up to?" He took the box from her and she softly clapped her hands in rapid succession. Jefferson laughed at her child-like excitement.
He tried to remove the wrapping with care and respect, but Jessica couldn't wait. Her anxious hands pulled at the ribbon and paper. It fell away, and he held the exquisite treasure in both hands. Jessica dropped to her knees beside him. She watched in silence as his admiring eyes traced its handsome detail. "Jessica…" He couldn't seem to find the words.
"It's for your watch, Jefferson! Your heirloom! You don't have to keep it in an old sock anymore!" She gently opened the box and revealed the finely crafted interior. "Isn't it perfect? What do you think?"
"Ah think…" He paused for a long moment, studying it with a reflective look in his eyes. "Ah think a woman was madly in love with her husband, and she had this made for him. Ah think in her mind, there was noth'n in the world that would be more perfect for him than someth'n so unique."
The smile she gave him was so bright and beautiful; it was as if there were no tears at all. "Get out the watch, Jefferson!" She tugged his arm. "I want to see it in the case!"
He smiled at her, but it wasn't the appreciative smile that she expected. It was… a smile portraying a sense of irony, and she didn't understand it. Her face dissolved into confusion as he touched her hand and held it tight.
"I can't, Baby… the watch is gone…"
"Jefferson? What do you mean?"
"I sold it… I sold it, so I could give you a wonderful Christmas…"
"You sold it… to get the combs." Tears welled in Jessica's eyes once again. She threw her arms around him and embraced him with all of her strength. "Not your precious heirloom, Jefferson! Why?"
He embraced his sweet Jessica and stroked the soft waves of her short hair. "Aren't we a pair? I wanted you to have an heirloom. Merry Christmas, Jessica! I love you!"
"I love you too, Jefferson!"
The magi, as you know, were wise men-wonderfully wise men-who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
~ William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), The Gift of the Magi