In the garden there was a fairy. This was unexpected.
As surprising as the appearance of the fairy was the size of the fairy – because I always thought that fairies were little – members of the Little People. This fairy was about eight feet tall.
I rang my sister. I said. ‘There’s an eight foot fairy in the garden.’ She said ‘We are all getting taller. Look at the Chinese.’
‘You mean that fairies are eating more meat and dairy?’
‘She’s not a fairy – she’s obviously something to do with charity. Go and give her some money.’
I got my purse and went into the garden. I saw that the Fairy had a Christmas tree on top of her head. The tree was small – about the size of a Guardsman’s busby: Sprucy and green.
The fairy said. ‘I am the Christmas Fairy.’
I didn’t say anything because it was the kind of introduction that was more of an announcement. Looking at her, it seemed likely that she was telling the truth – though what kind of truth was less clear.
I said, ‘I am Mrs Snow.’
The fairy looked pleased to meet someone in the right reference range for Yuletide events.
In December, whenever I go about my business and say I am Mrs Snow, everybody makes a joke. When I slipped on the ice last year and broke my arm, the young doctor who strapped me up said ‘Snow has fallen snow on snow.’
We agreed that In The Bleak Midwinter was our favourite carol. Snow on snow on snow is the right kind of repetition because as you say it, or sing it, the snow is falling onto your tongue in unrepeatable fractals of beauty. Say it once and it’s gone forever, that symmetry of snow. I find it hard to believe that every snowflake is different but truth is hard to believe.
Which leads us back to the fairy.
Not that she had gone anywhere. She was standing in the garden, by the pond of ice, with the sprucy Christmas tree busby on her head.
I said ‘Aren’t you supposed to be the other way round?’
She somersaulted into a hand stand. I saw that her feet were bare; strong and clean and bare.
‘Traditionally’, I said, ‘the fairy is on top of the tree.’
She sprung back upright. ‘Traditionally’ she said, ‘there was Santa Claus coming down the chimney and Jesus in a manager. There were Wise Men. There was a Star. There was a reindeer called Rudolph. Traditionally there was a light in the window that was the light of the world.’
‘That’s why I am here’ said the Fairy. ‘I saw your light.’
‘Would you like to come inside?’
‘Possibly’ said the Fairy.
We looked towards the house; towards the open back door. I leaveit open to let out the past and to let in the future; an air-flow of time.
My heart was broken recently and I keep the pieces on the back step in a bucket. A heart can mend but unlike the liver it cannot regenerate. A heart mends but the break line is always visible.
Humans are not axolotels; axolotels grow new limbs. A broken heart will mend in time, but one of the contradictions of being human is that we have so little time for the mending we must do. It takes years to know anything, years to achieve anything, years to learn how to love, years to learn how to let love go when it has worn out, years to find that loneliness is the name for the intense secret you can’t share. Years to share what you can share. Years to be hurt. Years to heal.
I keep my heart on the back step in a bucket because I don’t know where else to keep it. I am not avoiding it – I go in and out right past it every day. But I have duties in the world, like everyone else and for that I need my functional heart. My functional heart is fine. Here is it in my body, under the sternum and to the left, beating once every eight tenths of a second, pumping 8 pints of blood round my body.
But there is more to us than function. The heart is more than a pump made of muscle. Human beings are symmetrical. We have two of everything. My other heart is the one that bleeds and breaks and beats for love. The sacred heart of religion and passion that Cro Magnon woman or man painted on a cave in Spain 50,000 years ago. The mind didn’t put love in our hearts – we found it there.
‘What are you worrying about?’ said the Fairy
It is a strange story. An unmarried woman sits at the table. The men have gone back to work. The house is still. Unwashed dishes wait to be washed. She is reading.
The table trembles. The stack of plates breaks. She gets under the table as the clay wall of the house goes dark like its filling with water. As she crouches there she sees feet. She sees beautiful feet; strong like an animal, bare like a dancer. She touches the toe of the foot and finds it like the stone gods in the Roman temple where she’s not supposed to go but where she goes because of the statues. She talks to them about her troubles not knowing that one day the women of the world will bring their troubles to a statue in her image.
‘Mary’ says the voice that is the feet. ‘Good tidings of great joy.’
She is the first to know that the world will change forever and it starts with her.
The Fairy said ‘Like all important things it happened by chance.’
‘Are you religious?’ I said
‘That’s a category error. I am a Fairy.’
‘It’s a good story, the Christmas story. It starts with a demand for money – everyone goes to their own town to be taxed – and it ends with a gift – the gift of a child. You don’t have to be religious to like the challenge of that – demands versus gifts, money versus what is beyond price.
‘What you risk reveals what you value.’ Said the Fairy.
‘What does the Christmas story tell us about risk?’
‘Risk everything – there is no other way.’
I thought of them in the stable, under the animals’ breath, lying on straw, waiting for a birth, outcast and outside. Drinking water from an animal trough. Soaking the straw under her body with blood and water. Joseph trusting the truth of her body, the truth of the baby, believing the incredible, that this child born under a star will pull the world towards him like a gravity field, unseen, unknown, but felt. The fields outside are silent in the night.
Joseph believes, but his heart is broken too, because this isn’t his baby and all the gold and frankincense and myrrh they bring can’t change that. He will live with this loss all his life.
‘Christmas is the Festival of Broken Hearts’ said the Fairy. ‘Bring your losses here, under this Star’.
‘Are you collecting for charity? Where’s your bucket? Here’s two pounds. I have to go inside and make mince pies.’
‘I’ll come with you’ said the Fairy. ‘And the bucket is by your back door.’
We went up the steps of my rackety porch, its sides sheeted in tin, its roof a rough tin curve where the rain runs off. I wish my heart had such a shelter. I wish I could shelter my heart from loss.
‘Not possible’ said the Fairy. ‘That’s why I am here.’
The Fairy dipped into the bucket and lifted out my heart, beating hard, so hard that if you hold it in both hands and try and stop it, it won’t be stopped. The strongest man can’t quell the beat of a heart held in both hands.
Such pain – long lines of tiny needlepoint script, the punctured language of loss. This rough cloth of my heart is pierced through with holes and stitching. It is a hard-worked heart. The workings of it are visible if you look; the chambers, the aeorta, the live bloody surface with its stories round and round. Turn me over in your hands and read my heart.
‘This is the condition of being alive.’ said the Fairy. ‘This raw mass of feeling pulled into a story. You begin under a star. Your nativity is your own telling – and there is no story that is not a story of a broken heart.’
‘I loved her’ I said.
Is that us in the night-soaked bed? Is that us holding hands under the table? It that us leaving work early to meet where we won’t be recognised? Is that us crossing the bridge from the other side until we see each other I run into your arms in the middle? I love your arms around me – the thud of your heart where you ran towards me. I remember watching you walk up the street until you disappeared into the crowds, and I thought the end of love will be like this, and it was.
In this night-soaked bed with you it is courage for the day I seek. Courage that when the light comes I will turn towards it. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be harder. I love you. The three most difficult words in the world.
December 21st is a fire festival. Light what you can to keep the dark at bay. To say that the dark is temporary and the light returns.
‘This is the shortest day’ said the Fairy. ‘Now the world turns. Turn with it.’
And I thought that they understood the human heart, the ancients who joined the Christmas festival with the older Saturnalia, the festival of light. Human kind cannot bear too much darkness. There must be hope – and hope must be visible. Light the fire, heat the stove, open the bottle, bear the child. Find the beginning.
I went out. Snow was falling, snow on snow. Snow like a reminder, snow like a warning. And in the wood a red fox like a moving fire.
Christmas is a birth story, a love story, a loss story, an impossible story. None of it is possible – star, shepherds, wise men, virgin birth, angels. We celebrate it because we still believe that only the impossible is worth the effort.
‘I have to go now’ said the Fairy. ‘Merry Christmas.’
I don’t know which way she went. The snow was thick outside by now and she left no prints. I took my heart inside, brushing the snow off the top of the bucket. The shortest day. Christmas.
Always a new beginning. A different end.