AUNT MORAVIA SAID that she had swallowed a glass piano.
She was my father’s aunt, a stitch of an old woman. She’d come to live with us when I was seven and my brother Robbie fifteen. Mother had been bedfast for a month before the birth of my sister. In the meantime Aunt Moravia saw to our needs.
Mother said that Moravia hadn’t been crazy when she came, just dotty. But as the years passed she’d descended into dementia.
Moravia said the glass piano played a delicate music in her pancreas.
“Do you hear it, liebling?” she would ask my father, pressing a bony hand to her abdomen. “Liebling, canst du hear it?”
Once, while my mother was preparing a meal for my thirteenth birthday, Moravia stalked in and out of the kitchen, pursing her lips and frowning. She pointed an accusing finger at my mother, who did her best to ignore the woman, but failed, set her teeth and grew warm with anger.
At the first knock on our front door Moravia rushed into her bedroom and locked the door.
She had neither eyebrows nor eyelashes. She said they’d been burned away in the Great War. To compensate she drew black eyeliner across the edges of her lids (“A haunt,” my mother said) and eyebrows as high and looped as a clown’s. Her face was a badlands. She wore her hair in a long braid.
We were eating cake when Aunt Moravia burst from her bedroom, booming “Pomp and Circumstance”: BAH, ba-ba-bah, BAH, BAH! Her voice blared with the brass and the drums, both.
The guests fell into a shocked silence. Moravia turned and slammed the door behind her. Mother seethed, but me? I got a kick from my aunt’s performance.
“To shame your mutti’s meat,” she told me later.
“What’s the matter with her meat?”
“Throws the bone gone, what could be soup. Kein Demut! A haughty spirit goeth before a fall!”
She wore black as if mourning for all the afflicted in the world.
Shortly after my birthday Aunt Moravia began a practice that overwhelmed me with sorrow.
I had cleared a small storage room in the basement where I drew pictures in a large, linen sketchbook. Generally I would get up after my sister and parents had fallen asleep. My older brother, Rob, was a junior in college on a football scholarship. I wanted my drawings to be my own private affair.
Then I would hear the creaking of the upstairs floorboards: Aunt Moravia moving from room to room with the flame of a candle to light her way. She wore nothing but an old nightgown, peering in every dark cranny in the house—weeping.
At first I thought she was looking for jewelry she herself had squirreled away. My aunt had a packrat’s habit. Perhaps she’d forgotten where she had hidden a ring or a brooch.
Then she found me in my little cubby-room.
I felt her presence behind me.
She had lifted her candlestick to gaze at my drawings.
Without the eyeliner the woman looked vulnerable, defenseless.
One midnight I felt hot wax dripping on the back of my neck. I jerked and jumped and turned around and realized that it wasn’t wax after all. It was Aunt Moravia’s hot tears.
I put my arms around her wasted chest and held her till the weeping stopped.
“Wilhelmus, Wilhelmus,” she murmured, and I felt a knot of sorrow in my throat.
“Auntie,” I whispered, “what are you looking for?”
“The son of God,” she said and shuffled out of the room.
Ellie was seven years younger than I. A happy child. She would stick the middle two fingers of her right hand into her mouth and giggle around them. When she was sad she’d boo-hoo like any baby until I would kiss her cheek.
Ellie would never grow more than four feet high. She was as round as a basketball: push her over and the child would roll. Her eyes slanted. Her hair was always thin and fly-away. Her cheeks puffed like marshmallows. Her fingers were short and stubby. Ellie, my precious sister, was born with Down’s syndrome.
I am a writer now. The aptitude came naturally. When Ellie was two years old and I nine, I began to make up stories for her. They tickled my sister until she laughed her husky laugh.
“Willie, Willie, you’re so funny!”
In the winter of my fifth grade someone donated twenty typewriters to my school. I learned to type and then began to write my stories down and save them. I wrote at the top of every page “For Ellie.” And on the last page, “The story is Ellie’s story, my sweet, small sister, Ellie.”
When I was ten and my brother eighteen, he used to go camping with his friends, most of them on the varsity football team. Several times he invited me to come along. What a joy that was! He made me feel equal to his friends. We fished and fried our catch. We hiked, and no one went slower on my account. And in the evenings around a fire Rob asked me to tell stories. I fashioned my fiction on particular true experiences—the feats my brother accomplished as the varsity quarterback.
Humbleness was Rob’s charm. He protested that the hero of my tales could not have been he, but a character born altogether of my imagination. In fact, I wove facts seamlessly into the fiction. That he took it all as fiction praised my work higher than he knew. He was right. The story became something that stood on its own. A genuine piece of art.
I described athletic action so accurately that Rob’s friends would whoop with delight, not on my account as much as for the event they had just witnessed.
I never became a jock, though I tried hard enough. Instead I had the admiration of the unable for the able—and by writing it, I experienced what my brother experienced in the flesh. That, too, is a function of artistry. In a story, mine became the strength and the languor of Rob’s long muscles that stretched and tightened like a leopard’s moving under its coat in a smooth rhythm. Mine became the stunning beauty of my brother’s athletic motion, and mine the body that twisted its torso against the flat of the pelvis.
How lithe and lovely and fierce at football was my brother in the dash and lunge for a down-field pass. And yet how serene he was when making decisions and adjustments in the air and in a millisecond.
In those days it was such a pleasure to create and write my stories. But all that changed in my eighth-grade year. Grief killed my imagination and I ceased to write at all. I took up drawing instead.
I sketched things over and over until I thought I got them right, then crumpled the page and started all over again.
Dad was a farmer, his hands hard, his fingers blunt. Except for the fringes above his ears he was bald, clean-shaven, thin-lipped, with teeth like white blocks. Robert Kunst was blind in his right eye. It wandered. It was a wandering eye. But Dad compensated and worked as well as any man. When his equipment broke, he was a mechanic. When Mom wanted something built (a chair, a frame for her quilting) he was a carpenter. He kept his hand tools in the shed attached to the barn.
After my brother entered college, I lost the partner with whom I’d driven the tractor and milked the cows and did that crap-job of cleaning out Mom’s chicken coop. Day and night Father left a bulb burning in the barn, and a cobwebbed radio playing to comfort the cows.
Robert Kunst Sr. Rob had been named after him, but the boy never chose to add the “Jr.” to his name. If Dad was unhappy with his son’s choice, we never knew.
We lived near the little town of Kempton, North Dakota, midway between Grand Forks and the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.
Sugar beets were a common crop in our region as well as our father’s family’s sustenance. When Dad fed our cows the leafy beet-tops, it gave their milk an astringent aftertaste.
Outside in the weather Dad wore a green John Deere cap. Inside, after he’d taken off his boots in the mudroom, together with his overalls and the cap, a perfect line divided his white pate and half his forehead from the brown of his sun-beaten face.
At meals Dad chewed his food slowly, the muscle clenching at the corner of his jaw. With his good eye he would gaze over our heads and would seldom speak.
One thing, however, could hold the man’s interest: his son Rob—who, in his senior year, played wide receiver for Nebraska.
Robert Sr. himself had played a little ball in high school, but nowhere as handily as his son.
On the day before Thanksgiving, the day before the Cornhuskers were to meet the Oklahoma Sooners for the conference championship, my father went out and bought a television set.
The Gartzkes came over on Thanksgiving, and the Baumgartels. Pastor Johnson, too, at Mother’s invitation. Gertrude Kunst was the churchgoer. Robert Sr. figured God would save him for his good deeds. Though the pastor didn’t much care for sports, he enjoyed good company, good beer, a crunchy turkey drumstick, brats and chips and potato salad, amen.
We were ten at the table.
After we’d eaten, the women gathered in the kitchen and the men crowded the living room. I was in the eighth grade and young enough to lie on the floor. Ellie belly-flopped beside me and sucked on her two middle fingers.
When the Cornhuskers took the field the camera fixed on each player who came running out of the chute.
“Robbie!” Ellie squealed when she saw her brother on the screen.
During the half-time show my round, seven-year-old sister got up and danced to the band marching in formations on the field.
And then, catastrophe.
With a minute left in the game Rob raced downfield at a dazzling speed. The Nebraska quarterback dodged two big tackles, slapped the ball, then threw a perfect spiral.
We jumped and yelled encouragement for our Robbie. Aunt Moravia broke into stanzas of the German hymn, Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her!
Rob planted his right foot, executed a quick buttonhook, leaped like a salmon for a high pass. Just as he caught and crouched the ball, before his feet hit the ground, a crimson and cream helmet drove into the side of my brother’s knee.
Even through the television set we heard the crack!
Robbie’s record was simply outstanding. There had been serious talk of the Heisman Trophy—not only for the quality of his game, but also for the pleasure of his person.
Moses, so say the scriptures, was “The meekest of men.” But meekness in his case did not mean weakness, for Moses was a man most obedient to God. Such obedience proves one to be both selfless and bold because the source of his behavior transcends the world’s mutable rules. One who is accountable to God alone, and yet is peaceful in his skin—that one is charismatic.
Rob always had that smiling, shining charisma. Obedience to the hand that created him rendered him, as I insisted, heroic.
In fact, just now as I watched Rob play, a fresh story popped whole into my brain, including its title, “The Heisman Conundrum.” I considered my story until Rob took that terrible hit from the Sooner helmet. My brother somersaulted sideways, his legs clocking through the air above his body. He never dropped the ball. He kept it tucked in the crook of his arm, his other arm covering it—a running back committed to excellence. But without the use of his hands he could not break his fall.
Rob’s head met the ground: Crack!
Mother gasped. Her hand fluttered to her mouth.
Father groaned audibly.
Ellie shrieked, “Robbie!”
Aunt Moravia stood up and howled, “Gottverdammt!”
Rob lay dead-still on the field. The coach ran over, and the stadium fell into a ghastly silence. The entire Cornhusker team surrounded Rob. The coach rose up and shouted to the benches. Soon four paramedics came running with a collapsible stretcher—and shortly thereafter, an ambulance.
Father said, “Neck’s broke.” His bald head burned pink. He got up and went outside. I heard the tractor cough into life. I heard the gears grind, then Father drove his John Deere out to the beet field.
Thanksgiving was cold and bleak. The furrows in the farmer’s fields were streaked with snow. They did not need tending.
Several years before she emigrated to America, Aunt Moravia edited a small newspaper in Rostock, Germany. After the Great War to End All Wars, she took a lesser position at the newspaper as a travel-columnist, posting her observations back to Rostock whereby she covered the cost of her journey. Aunt Moravia became a minor celebrity.
An independent, unaccompanied woman, Moravia set out on her adventure. She wished to be the first female to ride the Trans-Siberian railroad across Russia.
My aunt crossed Poland in a horse-drawn droshky. It was her pride to be given a ride in one of Henry Ford’s automobiles. She traveled from Minsk to Smolensk and Smolensk to Moscow, a formal, formidable lady who arrived in Moscow hardened and unharmed.
In spite of the dirt of her journey, Moravia wore heavy Victorian clothing: thickly padded shoulders, bone corsets, full skirts tight at the waist, and buttons that buttoned up to her throat—all of this a severe restraint on a woman’s mobility, yet mobile she was.
In Moscow my aunt purchased a one-way ticket and boarded the Trans-Siberian rail-train, riding eight days to Vladivostok. It was here that she bought a book of short stories by Anton Chekhov together with a Russian-German dictionary, both of which she kept until the day she moved in with us.
I used to have a newsprint picture of Aunt Moravia standing on a dock in Cordova, Alaska. It was from this photograph that I learned of her clothing and of her proportions. In those days Moravia had been as short as she was now, but stocky, her chin elevated and dignified.
With the photo was a short report:
The woman, Moravia Kunst, was consigned to the good offices of Capt. Austin Lathrop. This morning she went on an excursion to the glaciers. Tomorrow Miss Kunst will try her skill at fishing, as Lathrop has secured a Capt. Rolfe’s yacht named Pansy. Lathrop next plans to take her on a trip to Canoe Passage and then to other points. In the meanwhile she is a guest of the Captain at the Empress theater.
It was my mother’s quiet, uncompromising conviction that the whole family should drive down to the Omaha hospital where Rob lay restrained in intensive care.
My father demurred. He said he’d promised Jim Gartzke to sharpen the tines of his combine. He said he had no choice but to stay behind. My mother Gertrude, therefore, drove us south in the Chevrolet.
As long as my brother lay in ICU, our visits were limited and brief: two persons at a time. Rob’s head and shoulders were locked in a steel brace.
When he was moved into the general ward, the nurses demanded that we keep strictly to visiting hours. One of us, but only one, was allowed to stay the night in a reclining chair. Mother, of course. The rest of us, Ellie, Aunt Moravia, and I, slept in the same room of a motel nearby.
Kneeling by Robbie’s bed, placing a hand on her abdomen, Moravia murmured, “Do you hear it, liebling? Can you hear it?”
Rob came half awake and grew restless. He clawed at the brace. He pulled the drip-tube needle out of the back of his hand. I ran for a nurse.
It frightened Ellie to see her brother “like a bird in a cage.” But when, in his quieter moments, Rob opened his eyes and recognized her, sweet Ellie sobbed for happiness.
Rob tried to talk, though his voice was reduced to the mewing of a kitten. He beseeched Mother to “send him in again.” He was ready, he said, maundering his words; he was strong and ready to play. When she didn’t know how to answer him, her son became very angry. “Bench me? You can’t bench me!”
I could not stay in the room, witnessing my big brother’s confusion. I slipped away and walked out of the hospital, walked down several streets until I happened to see a movie theater. Compulsively I bought a ticket, then sat through the previews. But as soon as the feature began I got up and walked back to the hospital.
On the fourth day of our vigil, my father appeared. Because we had the car, he’d taken a Greyhound from Kempton to Omaha.
He stood by Rob’s bed for no more than fifteen minutes.
“My son,” he grieved. “My son.”
Suddenly a sob constricted his throat.
“Ellie,” my dad commanded, “you’re coming home with me.”
I would have contradicted him, but he was adamant.
Ellie scurried to the far side of Robbie’s bed, but Dad took her grimly by the arm and pulled her, howling, from the room.
Aunt Moravia was preternaturally quiet. She had smeared her mouth with red lipstick and often kissed Rob’s forehead. Immediately Mother would snatch a tissue from its box and wipe the red marks off.
On the sixth day the doctor took Mom aside. “He has developed pneumonia,” the doctor said, “because he’s making no effort to clear his lungs. He should cough. Make him cough.”
But Rob was defiant, so the nurse brought us a plastic device with a mouthpiece and four standing, translucent tubes, each containing a blue ball. Rob was supposed to blow into the mouthpiece in order to raise the balls higher and higher on a cushion of air. Defiant: each time Mother stuck the thing between his lips he batted it away, swearing, “Dimmit, dimmit, bitch!”
Whiskers stubbled his chin and his cheeks. Once Mother tried to shave him, but the head-brace made that awkward and she cut him. She yanked tissues from a box and wiped off the red blood. “Oh, Robbie, oh, Robbie!”
His face was pale. His breathing sounded like bubbling water.
“Make it a game, Robbie,” Mother said. “You’re good at games. I’ll give you ten dollars for every ball that hits the top.”
Rob bit down and crunched the mouthpiece.
Mother snapped, “Do you want to die?”
Rob hissed, “Dim you, bitch.”
Gertrude raised her right arm and tried to slap him, but instead bruised her wrist on the steel frame of the head-brace.
Aunt Moravia stroked my brother’s arm and sang softly:
Müde bin ich, geh’ zur Ruh’,
schließe mine Äuglein zu:
Vater, laß die Augen dein
über meinem Bette sein.
I am tired, time to rest.
Close my eyes, my lids caress
Father, let your eyes tonight
Watch me till tomorrow’s light.
Moravia sang to good effect. Mother’s heart softened. “I’m sorry, Rob,” she said. “I am so sorry.” Robbie closed his eyes and seemed to sleep.
Suddenly on the seventh evening Rob began to speak in a clear, articulate voice. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Mom grabbed his hands and joined him in the prayer. I didn’t. I stood with my back against the wall. The prayer seemed to me a terrible irony.
Mother rushed her praying. She was at “Amen” while Rob was still forgiving trespasses. “Deliver us from….”
He didn’t reach “evil” before he sank into unconsciousness.
The morning of the eighth day, Rob’s body was wracked with hiccups. At noon he took three quick breaths, then stopped breathing altogether.
A loud beep-beeping from the monitor brought nurses rushing into the room. They ordered us outside.
In the end they allowed us to return.
My handsome brother lay composed and peaceful and dead.
There was, of course, no Christmas the year my brother died.
Poor Ellie. For her, ritual was her stability. It gave shape to her joy in life. Now she mourned the lack of a Christmas tree with tinsel and colored lights and presents underneath its boughs—and the carols we used to sing before we opened our presents.
“Willie,” Ellie said. “Oh, Willie, what are we going to do?”
“I’ll draw a picture just for you.”
A Down’s syndrome child cannot be sad without bursting into tears. My little sister broke my heart.
Nor did the family play cards or eat caramel balls of popcorn or listen to the radio:
Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer
had a very shiny nose,
and if you ever saw it,
you would say it glows….
Robert Sr. refused to attend church even for the Christmas pageant; therefore Ellie refused to play the role, as she often had, of the Virgin Mary.
Dad’s single acknowledgement of the season was the gift he gave the church. He’d noticed that the wood of the pulpit had become so old and dry that it was splitting apart, so he spent an afternoon gluing the gaps, bracing them till the glue had taken hold, then sanding the patch.
He wasn’t much interested in domestic things. He kept out of doors. He oiled and honed all his tools. He shot rats in the barn with his .22, and forked silage into the cows’ troughs, which was my job when all was well.
He pinched his lips until they developed wrinkles like darts.
In the spring my father demanded that I cut school in the mornings in order to help him with the plowing and the planting. But Mother intervened.
“School is school!” she declared. “Or how is Will supposed to make his way in the world?”
“Farming! Like me.”
“Farming,” she answered, “may be a noble profession. But William doesn’t have the desire or the aptitude. You’ve said so often enough yourself, grumbling in the mud room. I hear what I hear, Martin.”
“Scheiße! I’ll do it myself if it kills me!”
By summer my father had stopped talking to me. He tolerated my presence as one does a dog’s. Even in the fields he refused to talk. When we milked the cows, he turned the cobwebbed radio full blast.
Let him do what he wanted to do. I closed my face to him too—but suffered the loneliness. I wrote no stories nor told Ellie stories any more. I concentrated on my pencil sketching.
In the August before the beginning of my freshman year in high school, I tried out for the junior varsity football team.
I think the coach accepted me for the same reason I tried out: in memory of my brother. I was developing into a lanky fellow with meatless ribs and legs that loped along like a giraffe’s. Nevertheless, I stuck to my guns.
The coach said, “You’ll break a bone on the field.” Sometimes, when the score was so lopsided that we could not lose, he let me punt, but the best I could manage was a poor dribble. There was a little fellow named Alfred who split the goal posts time after time, so I pretty much watched the season from the sidelines.
Dad never attended my games, of course. Neither did he watch football on the TV. Whenever I switched the set on and lay down before it, the glacial manner in which my father passed through the living room implied that I was breaking some sort of household code.
On New Year’s Day I invited Alfred to come over and watch the Rose Bowl game with me. But in spite of the holiday, Mother busied herself around us, dusting, polishing, rolling up rugs to sweep under them—until Alfred and I decided to watch the rest of the game at his house.
Summer passed, autumn set in, and I turned sixteen.
My father stopped shaving. By the thirty-first of October his beard covered his face as thickly as a lumberjack’s, showing more gray than black. He’d also begun to chew tobacco. The brown juice stained the drooping whiskers of his moustache. In the evenings Father made it a habit to sit in the kitchen listening to the radio, his hands flat on the table, and between them a glass of whiskey.
Mother, likewise, was changing. Her hips thickened. She wore the same two sweaters daily, even when the kitchen was hot with her cooking. She developed a winking tic in her right eye. And she had entered menopause. Even when she was pinning wash on the clothesline outside—where sheets would freeze stiff before they dried—her cheeks would suddenly glow bright red. Then she would throw off her sweaters and wipe sweat from her chest.
By Thanksgiving I had grown bold enough to sketch my brother full-bodied. I drew him with his arms flung up in something like triumph, though the gesture remained ambiguous: it might have been shock, it might have been bafflement, it might have been a howl of defeat or else an easy reach for the football.
I was doing the drawing, yes. Me. But the lines and the shadings of my pencils, and the dark work they produced, remained a mystery to me.
And no less a mystery was it when Aunt Moravia surprised me in my basement cubby-room.
I hadn’t heard the floorboards creak upstairs, or if I had, I was too deep in my drawing to notice. There was just the goose-necked lamp over my sketchbook and the hollowness of the whole sleeping house.
Suddenly candlelight flickered behind me and Moravia gasped.
“Liebling!” she cried. “Liebling, here he is!”
“Rob?” I said. “Yes, it’s him, Auntie.”
The wrinkles in Moravia’s cheeks became sluices for tears. “Lobe den Herren!” she sang sweetly, raising her candle to heaven. “I have found the son of God!”
Autumn and autumn and winter.
Every night when she was told to, Ellie went dutifully to bed. But after I had turned off the light in my cubby and climbed the stairs to my bedroom, there she was, sleeping soundly under my covers and sucking her two middle fingers. So, then: I would lie on my side, and Ellie would curl into a ball and press her little self against my stomach. When I woke in the mornings, she was back in her own bed, our parents none the wiser.
This I remember, that it was the night of the twenty-first day of December that Ellie began to sob in her sleep. I hugged her close and murmured in her ear:
Saint Thomas gray, Saint Thomas gray,
The longest night and the shortest day….
Her sobbing softened. I thought she had sunk into a deeper sleep, but she hadn’t.
“Willie?” she whispered.
“I miss my Robbie. Oh—” she broke into tears again. “Oh, oh. Oh.”
Her crying grew louder and louder.
Dad barked in the other room, “For God’s sake!”
“Ellie?” I said. “Can you keep a secret?”
She nodded her head.
“Come with me.”
We tiptoed into the hall, and through the hall and down the basement stairs.
“Willie, I’m scared.”
“Hush, Ellie. Take my hand.”
I led her through the dark to my sketch-room and switched on the goose-necked lamp. “Do you want to see Robbie?” I asked.
My fireplug of a sister opened her eyes in wonder and nodded.
I lifted the cover of my sketchpad.
“Oh, Willie!” Ellie shrieked.
I put a finger on her mouth. “Hush, hush, girl.”
Like the Madonna about to touch the cheek of the child Jesus, Ellie splayed her fingers and held them a half inch above our brother’s portrait.
“Robbie,” she whispered. “Robbie, Robbie, I love you.”
Early the next morning I woke and blinked and saw Ellie’s face not two inches from mine.
“Ellie! You startled me!”
Staring directly into my eyes she said, “Can you keep a secret?”
“Better than you,” I said.
“Hoo! Willie! Your breath stinks.”
“Hold your nose.”
“Get up! You got a secret? I got a secret for you.”
Busy, busy little sister. She fairly dragged me out of bed and straight downstairs.
“See?” she said with pride.
The sketch-room was cluttered with pictures of Rob. Five, six, a dozen pictures framed. Ellie had gathered them from the walls and the shelves and the tea-table and dresser-tops all over the house.
“Make drawings,” she commanded. “Make a hundred thousand thousand drawings!”
She was so gleeful that I laughed and kissed her.
That same afternoon Ellie found me in the barn, forking straw down from the mow for the cows.
“Willie,” she called. “Look and see! What do you see?”
I climbed down the ladder and stepped to the doorway.
“I see a kid without a coat.”
“No, Willie!” She spread her arms wide like a child who has just tossed out an armful of roses. “Snow!” she squealed. “It’s snowing!”
“So it is.”
And so it was: a gentle fall of feathery flakes which gave dimension to the air.
“Okay,” Ellie said. “Let’s go.”
“Ice skating, you diddle-daddle!”
There was a pond about a quarter mile from our farm. If someone owned the land around it he must have been an easy fellow because no one ever complained when farmers’ kids came to skate.
When we arrived, children and youth, boyfriends and girlfriends were already skimming the ice, scarves blown back behind the speedier skaters, the smaller ones falling on their bums. Kids I knew from school. Kids we saw in church.
Ellie sat down on a stone and pulled her boots off.
“Help me, Willie.”
I worked her feet into her skates and tied the laces, and the girl was—whoops—gone. Ellie had the knack. God knows where she got it. She skated away from me backward, laughing and waving.
I noticed an unfamiliar girl wearing figure skates and a red jacket. She jammed the teeth of a skate-blade in the ice, flew up, executed an endless spin, then came out of it with a grand sweep backward. I memorized her face with etched and even eyebrows, and an intelligent forehead. I thought I might draw her exactly like that, whirling in the air.
Myself, I didn’t skate. I sat on Ellie’s stone.
Soon my sister had attached as the last kid playing crack-the-whip. When the whip cracked, Ellie went careening into a snow bank.
“It’s okay, Willie! I’m not hurt!”
The girl in red skated past me along the edge of the pond, glancing my way. I saw her eyes on mine. She cast me a blinding smile and sailed on.
Two years ago, in his hospital room, I had prayed to God to take me instead of my brother. He hadn’t. He took Rob, and then my father acted as if he wished I had died in the place of his handsome son, and I fell into a depression. Just now, watching the girl in red, I felt a spark of hope.
“Willie?” Ellie stood on her skates in front of me. “What’s a matter?”
“Nothing. I’m just tired.”
She stood looking at me. She cocked her head.
She said, “Are we going to have Christmas this year?”
“I don’t know.”
“Two times and no Christmas tree.”
“It makes me sad, too.”
“Make Christmas, Willie!”
I lowered my head and looked at my hands, folded in my lap. How should I answer her?
She said, “It’s something else, Willie. You got to tell me what else?”
The words came out of their own accord. “I’m mad at God,” I said.
“Oh, Willie. That’s a very bad thing.”
Suddenly the girl in red crunched ice and came to a stop beside my sister. She said to me, “What’s your name?”
Ellie answered. “He’s Willie Kunst. Kunst like me.”
“Willie Kunst,” the girl said. “I think I like Will better than Willie. I’ll call you Will.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Barbara Piper,” she said.
When we’d walked back home Father slammed into the mud room and yelled, “William! Where did you put them? Why did you steal them?”
He had his car keys in his hand. He windmilled his arm and smashed the keys on the floor.
“God damn you!” he cried. “You had no right!” His wandering eye gave him the aspect of a wild beast.
Immediately Ellie shouted, “Stop that, Daddy! You’re a bad man! Willie’s a good boy!”
“I swear!” Father yelled. “If they are not, if every last one of them isn’t back in its place when I come home, I’m going to crush the bones in your thieving hand. You’re not the only one suffering in this family!”
Father picked up his keys and stomped out of the house. He started the pickup and drove away, making the first tracks in the snow on our lane.
Ellie said, “Why is Daddy mad at you?”
“He’s always mad at me.”
Mom ambushed us in the kitchen, the tic in her eye winking rapidly. “Where have all of Rob’s pictures gone?”
Ellie said, “Robbie’s pictures? It wasn’t Willie, Mommy. It was me. I took them and gave them to Willie.”
So my sister and I spent the afternoon returning the pictures. While I was trying to level the last one on its nail in the wall, I felt something like an icepick on the back of my neck and turned around.
Mother was standing in the kitchen doorway wearing her housecoat over her slip and her two sweaters over that, staring at me. She looked stricken, as if I had slapped her.
I said, “We didn’t mean any harm.”
“Well, you hurt me.”
“What is the matter with this house?” I said. “Do you and Dad think that we are all dead?”
“Robert is dead!”
Ellie tugged my sleeve. “Stop it, Willie,” she said. “You look like Daddy.”
I yelled at my mother, “I’m dead, too! You and Father—you have killed me!”
Mom stripped off a sweater, wadded it, and threw it at me. It blew open and fell lightly at my feet.
Aunt Moravia appeared. She pointed a crooked finger at Mother and hissed, “But a prating fool shall fall.”
The sweater: threadbare and so thin, as hard as she threw it, it had merely floated down.
That night while we lay in bed, Ellie said, “When’re you going to take me camping like Robbie took you?”
There was no sunrise on the twenty-fourth of December. Thick clouds hid the sun. They lay so low that a farmer might raise an arm and find his hand hidden in the gloom. It was to be a dreary day.
In the morning I drove into Kempton to buy a Christmas present for my sister. She would have a present this year! I stuffed it in a big box and wrapped it in Christmas paper.
That afternoon I baked a sheet of cookies.
By four o’clock the sky was darkening to night. We bathed, Ellie and I, then dressed for church.
This year, at her own request, Ellie was going to play the Virgin Mary again, wearing a blue bathrobe.
Outside we blew clouds of breath-steam. The zero-degree cold slicked my hair into a carapace of ice. We climbed into the car to drive to church. I turned the ignition, but before I stepped on the accelerator, Aunt Moravia opened the rear-door, got in without a word, and sat stubbornly behind me.
While we drove down country roads, I said to my sister, “I got a present for you.”
Ellie put her hand on my knee and said, “I knew you would make Christmas, Willie.”
Used to be, I played Isaiah in the pageant. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
Tonight I sat among the congregation beside Moravia.
My little, slant-eyed sister knelt so radiantly at the manger that I wanted to weep. We were a family, she and I—and Moravia. We were the family now.
After Gabriel had yelled good tidings to the shepherds, a host of angel-children climbed the chancel steps, turned, beamed, and waved at their parents by scratching the air. They threw themselves into the hymn, “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains.”
Soon the church lights dimmed. Candle-flames were passed down the pews until the church was filled with a glory of stars.
“Silent night,” the people sang.
During the carol Aunt Moravia stood up. She held her candle on high and sang out, “Gottes Sohn! Ja! Da kommt the son of God with healing in his wings!”
Afterward I drove us through the streets of Kempton to view the Christmas lights that outlined the houses, and the decorations they’d set in their front yards. There was one tableau that made me sad: five cardboard carolers cut and colored like Dickens characters, their mouths rounded in song. But no one stood by. No one was listening. They sang their hearts out cold and alone—and even that was only an image of singing. They sang in silence.
Actually, I had a second reason to linger before I drove us home. I wanted Mother and Father to be in bed first, sleeping.
I parked close to the barn. Moravia leaned over the back of Ellie’s seat and kissed her. Then she kissed me.
“Fröhliche Weinachten, Kindern,” she whispered.
Merry Christmas, children.
She left the car and went indoors.
“Wait, Ellie,” I said. “Don’t go in yet.”
I got out and unlocked the trunk. My big, well-papered box fairly hid Ellie’s face when I set it on her lap.
“Open it,” I said.
“Oh, Willie!” she cried. “Christmas!”
Inside the box was a new sleeping bag.
I said, “We’re going camping.”
Father kept a kerosene space-heater under his workbench and a lantern hooked to a low beam.
We entered the tool shed. I closed the door, a fellow full of surprises.
I had already covered the floor with clean straw.
“Willie? Where’s your sleeping bag?”
“Unroll yours first and find out.”
She did and squealed her Ellie squeal. The bag was wide enough for two.
I took out a box of matches and lit the blue flame of the lantern and then the more furious flame of the kerosene heater. Next, I took out a little tin of cookies wrapped in Christmas paper. Finally, a thermos of hot chocolate.
We watched each other’s orange-gold faces as we munched and sipped.
There would be one more surprise, but that must wait for the morning.
“Lie down,” I said. “You want to hear a story?”
“High time for a tale. It’s been too long.”
Ellie scrunched into the sleeping bag. “Okay. Ellie’s ready.”
“Once upon a time there was a sad, sad princess. She was so very beautiful that all the noble young men in the kingdom wanted to marry her. But she couldn’t think about marrying anyone because a dwarf had put a spell on her daddy and had shaped himself exactly like her daddy.
“The dwarf came to her wearing the king’s crown. ‘Look out for me!’ he said to the princess. ‘When you are fat as a pig I’m going to roast you for my supper.’ This is why the princess was so sad, and why she was so scared, too. Why was her daddy so crazy-mad?
“Now, there lived in a hut nearby an old, old woman with a wrinkled face. Her hair was woven into a long, white braid that fell from her neck to her heels. She knew when little princesses were sad and scared.
“So one night she stole into the castle. ‘Take hold of my braid if you want to,’ the old woman screeched. And what do you think? Well, the lovely little princess did just that, and they flew out of the window on a song the old woman sang, as if the song itself had wings.
“So she hid the princess in a kingdom under a well. She gave her wool to spin into thread and a loom to weave the thread into royal robes. And the wonder was that when the princess spun plain wool into thread, the thread turned to gold.
“What do you think of my story so far, Ellie?”
I asked this to see if she had fallen asleep, but she said, “Is the princess going to live happily ever after?”
“Listen,” I said, “and we shall see. On with the story.
“The wrinkled old woman sang another song on which they flew up and out of the well, and straight into the castle. She held the robe in front of the dwarf. ‘See this?’ she said. ‘Proof that the princess is still alive! And not only alive, but more skilled than you will ever be.’
“Well, the dwarf stamped his foot. ‘Give it to me!’ he demanded.
“But the old woman danced out of his reach. ‘This goes,’ she said, ‘to the one who loves the princess the best. Do you love her the best?’
“‘Yes,’ shouted the dwarf. ‘I do!’
“‘Well, then,’ said the old woman, ‘put it on.’
“The dwarf put on the coat, and then it squeezed him so tight that his eyes popped out. And so the woman left him there, trussed up like a sack of potatoes.
“Next, the wrinkled old woman took two iron blades to the princess. ‘Make these a pair of scissors,’ she said. Working very hard, that is just what the princess did.
“So off the old woman went again until she stood before the dwarf. ‘This is proof that the princess is still alive, and besides that, quite healthy. She is better at metal than all the dwarfs in all the world.’
“‘Scissors!’ cried the dwarf. ‘Quick! Cut me loose!’
“‘Well, these must go,’ said she, ‘to the one who loves the princess the most.’
“‘I do!’ hollered the dwarf.
“‘How much?’ said the old woman with the long white braid.
“‘I love her with my whole heart and half my mind!’
“‘Well then, let’s see what they cut.’
“But the scissors did not cut the coat. Instead they cut off the dwarf’s beard and his moustache and all the hair on his head. So she left him there, as bald as a turnip, still trussed up and squealing like a pig in a poke.
“Ellie?” I whispered. “Are you awake?”
“Willie! Hurry up and get to the happily-ever-after part.”
“Okay,” I said. “So then the next thing was that the old woman brought a bushel of grapes to the princess under the well. ‘Mash these underfoot,’ she said. ‘Squeeze out all the juice.’
“As always, the princess obeyed. She dumped the grapes on the floor and lifted her skirt and took off her shoes and trod the fruit until its liquid ran down a sluice into a pretty crystal jar. And it became a deep red wine.
“The old woman spit into the wine, put a stopper in the jar, and flew it to the dwarf. ‘Not only does the princess work gold and silver better than you, she also makes a wine so charmed that good men wake from their drowsy dreams free of all that binds them.’
“‘Give me some of that wine.’
“‘How much do you love the princess?’
“‘I love her better than anyone in my kingdom, but you can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself. That’s what the giants say.’
“‘Well then,’ said the old, old woman, ‘drink and let’s see what we shall see.’
“Ellie,” I whispered to my sister. “Are you still awake?”
But she answered me not a word. My sister had fallen fast asleep.
I was the first to wake that twenty-fifth day of December. That had been my plan. I took an electric waffle iron from Ellie’s big present-box, together with batter in a canning jar and a bottle of syrup and two plates and knives and forks.
Just when the waffles were turning brown and filling the shed with a delicious aroma, Ellie stretched and sat up.
“Good morning,” I said. “And merry Christmas. Hey, Ellie, you want to sing a carol with me?”
She didn’t hesitate. “Away in a manger, no room for a bed….”
The waffles tasted better than I had expected. Ellie’s Christmas present to me was the joy of watching her eat.
At that same time Gertrude Kunst was running through the house in a panic.
“Ellie!” she cried. “Ellie, where are you?”
Robert Kunst Sr. came out of the bedroom in his slippers. “What’s wrong?” he said.
“Ellie’s gone! I can’t find her anywhere!!”
“Oh, for God’s sake! What next?”
They rushed through the house, calling my sister’s name: “Ellie! Don’t play games on us!”
Finally Gertrude said in a frenzy, “Someone kidnapped her. I know it! I’ve heard about men who kidnap children right out of their bedrooms!”
Robert ran upstairs to see if her bedroom window was open or broken.
When he looked outside he saw tracks in the snow. He came thundering down the stairs again.
“Outside!” he roared.
They didn’t wait to put on their coats, but ran outside.
Gertrude said, “What’s that? Do you hear that?”
Ellie’s voice! Ellie, indeed, singing a carol the way she had always sung it: “Round John Virgin….”
Gertrude cried, “Thank God! Thank God!”
Robert shouted, “God damn you, William! What have you gone and done with her now!”
“Robert!” Gertrude shouted. “She’s okay! She’s alive!”
Suddenly an enormous voice boomed from the doorway: “WHEN PRIDE COMETH, THEN COMETH SHAME, BUT WITH THE LOWLY COMES WISDOM!”
Aunt Moravia charged out of the house. With the arthritic forefinger of her right hand she was pointing at her nephew. In her left hand she was holding my sketchbook.
Moravia stabbed a finger in Robert Sr.’s chest. “Pride,” she hissed, “hath taken you, but the lowly”—now pointing to the shed—“abide in there!”
Ellie had stopped singing. She and I cracked the door an inch and peeped out at the drama on the snow.
Aunt Moravia raised her hand and slapped Father in the face. He put his hand to his cheek. She slapped him on the other cheek, then opened the sketchbook.
“That son of yours,” she said, “hath found the son of God!”
Father’s bald head turned pink.
Mother peered at the drawing.
Then she took the sketchbook from Moravia and held it close to her eyes. “Robert,” she murmured. “It’s you. The picture Willie drew—it’s you, playing football!”
Dad was in pajamas and slippers, Mother and Moravia in their nightgowns. None of the three was dressed for the weather. I felt a surge of pity for my father, who stood stung and dumbfounded.
“Willie,” Ellie said, “give Daddy a waffle.”
“I don’t think he’s hungry right now.”
Moravia began to sing: “Aus tiefer Not—”
From depths of woe I cry to thee,
Lord, hear me, I implore thee.
Her voice was a flute of high, tweedling notes. She opened her mouth and made a theater of the russet morning.
Bend down thy gracious ear to me.
My prayer let come before thee.
I opened the shed door. Ellie and I stepped out into the cold. Aunt Moravia was singing for us as well as for our parents.
Ellie said, “Mommy?”
“Oh, baby,” Mother said. She gave Father the sketchbook and opened her arms.
Moravia swelled into a full orchestra, and the song bore on:
If thou remeb’rest each misdeed,
If each should have its rightful need,
Who may abide thy presence?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.