Walking in the cold, Merry would pretend she was a dragon or a pot-bellied stove. Other times would imagine that she could fly high up to where the little puffy birds hovered together on their branches and breathe her lung heat out over their bony yellow feet, warming their toes. She imagined how they would stretch, and coo, and cluck from pleasure, and that they would remember her kindness come Spring and land on her shoulders.
For all these reasons, Merry loved the winter, but mostly she loved it because nobody else seemed to. Her old aunts said the cold made their joints ache, and they would rub their hands into their shoulders and smack their palms against their wide hips, counting how many weeks it was until March.
They would swear about moving to Florida and just selling the lot of it (which seemed to Merry like an awful lot to sell). Surely they would at least pack the blue Chevy truck with their rocking chairs, and suitcases full of underclothes, and the hook rugs rolled up. They would tie everything all together with ropes, and hang and a big sign on the back of the truck with painted red letters reading, “FLORIDA OR BUST.”
Merry thought it felt wrong to think about leaving. To love spring, and fall, and summer without loving the winter too was to love all of everything less somehow. To not love the cold would be like not loving your ugliest dolls. (In fact, Merry kissed the ugly dolls twice as much because they were ugly, and she dressed them in the prettiest dresses.) And so, each year when the winter months came, Merry shivered quiet inside her chest and determined to bless all the seasons equally, except for winter, which she would bless twice because it was so despised.
It came to be the evening of the Happenchance Community Winter Extravaganza. All of the town was gathered at First Church, an old building, wood slat sided, square as a cracker box, and adorned with responsible, slender windows. The Extravaganza had been organized by the founders of Happenchance some hundred years ago to ward of the winter glum. Every year there was a talent show with singing, piano, recitations. There were also booths with games, a cake walk, crafts for sale, and the crowning of an Extravaganza Queen.
Roxy Witherby had proposed a kissing booth this go around. She was twenty-nine and figured it was a good year to kiss as many boys as possible, but the elders of the First Church wouldn’t allow it. She was given charge of the cake walk instead.
This year’s theme was “Glitzing Blitzen,” and the ad in the Happenchance Newspaper had read like this: “Calling all citizens to the 103rd Annual Winter Extravaganza. Be there! Be-dazzle!” Then there was information regarding time and place, though everyone knew both already. There was also a photograph of last year’s extravaganza queen, Candace Thrump. Candace wore long false eyelashes, a wide smile, and a short velvet Santa dress with a furry white collar. In her arms was a little black Labrador retriever puppy. Candace was the first good looking member of the Thrump family for a hundred years, and this was noticeable to the point that the old folks suspected she’d been mixed up in the hospital as a baby with one of the Pollys or the Michelsons. Her Extravaganza crowning was the best thing that had ever happened to the Thrump family, and they had run that photograph of Candace in the paper once a month for the past eleven months, as a sort of genetic redemption.
Now that this year’s Extravaganza had arrived, Candace was wearing the velvet outfit, along with her tiara. The Labrador had grown too much, and he was at that awkward stage of sniffing ladies’ bottoms and trying to steal cake from little boys. Candace kept trying to smile while yanking at his leash, but finally she huffed over to her daddy and handed him the dog before returning to her realm of glory.
From the ceiling hung huge cut out letters. “Happy, Happy, Happy.” There were little kids running around dressed like elves, smacking one another with plastic candy canes. Contestants for the Jr. Miss Extravaganza had their hair curled and sprayed into tight little rods. They wore huge puffy dresses that itched, and all the girls kept pulling them up and scratching their backsides underneath, to the horror of their mothers.
The grandmothers wore knitted vests with jingle bells sewed on the ends. The grandfathers were practicing for the jolliest laugh contest. The mayor was standing behind the podium on stage. He was wearing a red bow tie, announcing winners for the sweetest cider, the most decorated front yard, and the glitteriest tree.
Merry sat quietly in a corner, squinting her eyes at the Christmas lights. The room was noisy, and that made her a little dizzy like the carnival did. Everywhere she looked she saw dangly earrings, sequins, shiny red fingernails, and people with rosy faces, laughing.
Merry’s mother had signed her up to recite a poem. That was really the only thing for Merry to do in the Extravaganza, because she didn’t like to wear dresses, and she didn’t play the piano. Her poem was to be, “I Think I’m in Love with Minky,” a bouncy little ditty about a Christmas fairy who falls in love with a chocolate elf. Merry didn’t like that poem, but she hadn’t been able to think of one she wanted to say instead. And her mother was determined. There was simply no arguing about the Extravaganza.
Miss Marianne Swipp was in charge of the Happenchance Poetry Club. She was a short, soft-looking woman with cropped red hair. She had pinned a turquoise silk flower behind her left ear, and she wore a wide belt tight around her middle so that she spilled herself out over and under it. Being on stage made her the talkative sort of nervous, and while she introduced the recitation she made pouty baby expressions with her face and laughed too loud into the microphone.
One at a time, she called the contestants’ names from the audience, and they walked dodging elves and gossiping grandmothers, up from the church pews to sit in a line of folding chairs in the front of the room. Merry was given number 9. She would be last of all to recite. She safety pinned her number to the front of her green corduroy jumper and crossed her legs under her chair.
Mostly, there were the same poems every year. One could expect “Nimble the Plucky Reindeer” and “Cheery, Cherry Christmas Cheer,” of course. Number six was a bit different this year, Charity Swinborne was attempting to play cello while reciting “Wrap Me Up in Twinkle Lights.” She did so wearing a short skirt and black patterned tights, causing several of the old ladies to gasp when her number began.
Contestant number seven was Doctor Thurbody’s daughter, Jane, a little black-haired girl who couldn’t sing a lick, but she sang in the poetry contest every year anyway because her papa paid for voice lessons, and she was going to use them, by golly. This year, her number was, “I Am a Snowflake.” She ran through it fast as she could, beating the recorded accompaniment track by a good two minutes, with her face deadpan. As soon as the last line was over, she bounded off the stage to get a place in the cake walk line.
Number eight was a teenage boy with an electric guitar playing Elvis songs. While he sang, he shook his right hip and pointed at a girl in the front row. Her face turned bright red, and the audience roared.
Then it was Merry’s turn. Her name was called, and she climbed up the steps with the words of that silly chocolate elf poem rolling around in her head. She had every intention of just getting it over with, but when she got up to the microphone, she couldn’t do it. She looked around the room, taking in all of the glitter and glitz, and it suddenly felt like the walls were too tight around her. She felt hot in her face, and her mouth was dry.
She looked out the window. It was quiet and grey outside. Snow was falling.
She stood up there on stage watching out the window long enough for the room to fall silent. She was doing the Extravaganza wrong. Even the cake walk stopped to listen and see how bad it would be.
Merry touched the microphone with her fingertip and let it pop. Then she said exactly what came to her mind.
“I will tell you the honest truth about the winter.
Do you hear that wind? It pushes against the door like a woman wandering looking for something. The trees out there are all standing bare. They are like lines drawn lonely on a page.
They are like old men with frozen beards, weaving stories together. The little furry things are hiding with their noses tucked under their paws. The leaves have fallen brown to the earth. They look like pages from books, torn off. If you stand out there and breathe in fast, your lungs will burn, and you will cough. That snow falling is the sort of snow that stings when it hits your cheeks. And there is a little creek out back that is nearly frozen. The top is covered over with ice,
and if you kneel down and listen, the ice groans over the water still moving below it. The top of that ice is etched with patterns.
There is a rock on the side of the hill with November's last rain frozen down its side like glass. It makes me lonely when I stand out there. It makes me lonely in a good way, like the earth is respecting every sad thing that happens. It makes me feel like a friend is taking time to be sad beside me. I love winter. I love it because it makes simple things sweet. Like being warm after walking in the cold. Like snuggling up in a soft blanket while the snow falls. Like waking up to the snow and seeing it stretch over the world like a clean sheet of paper. I love how it asks for soup and fuzzy socks. I love how the sadness of the cold waits slowly. Because sometimes sad things are beautiful, too...
and sometimes sad things make other things even more beautiful. Winter is complicated.”
That was all she said. Merry took a big breath and stepped back from the microphone.
The room was quiet. The cake walk children stood on their squares confounded.
Miss Swipp recovered first. She rushed up on on stage, grabbed the microphone, said, “Thanks so much, Merry!” Then she gave her a sturdy push to the side and launched into, “And the winner for this year’s Glitzy Blitzen Happenchance Poetry Recitation is 'Elvis' Brock Brimlot!”
The crowd cheered and collected itself back into its jolly flurry. Merry looked out into the audience and saw that her mother's face was a storm. Merry slipped off stage to the back, out the side door of the church, and stood with her back leaned against the old wood of the place.
The Extravaganza roared behind Merry. She shut her eyes and listened to it. There was the sound of women laughing, then someone calling out, then more laughter. Merry sank down onto her own heels and turned her face up to the night, letting the snow bite her nose and cheeks.
When she opened her eyes again, she saw that there was a tiny man standing a few feet away from her. He looked dry and grey, with pants that seemed rough, as if they had been stitched from sycamore bark. He wore a long, hooded sweater knitted from the fibers of yellow grasses; and he had a beard silver and bright as the moon. This beard hung low, down to his feet, and it came to a point at the tip.
The little man walked up to Merry looking into her eyes as if he were looking for something particular. He was carrying a square, wooden box with a pressed metal latch. When he was nearly a foot away from her, he knelt down on one knee and offered the box up with both his arms reached out. As Merry took it from him, the little old man hurried off into the darkness.
She didn't call out or chase after him. In fact, she just stood there staring dumbly into the woods. Merry had read plenty of good books, but none of those had prepared her adequately for any of the remarkable things which happen in them. Books can only make a girl believe that she is ready to slip off into another world at a moment's notice. No one is ever quite ready to do it, at least not the first time. Not even a girl like Merry.
When her wits finally came round, Merry flipped open the latch. Inside the box was a fat red onion and a little gold knife. There was also a message written inside the lid that read, "Cut me gently."
Mary picked up the onion with one hand and rolled it around. The outer skin was papery and it fell off it bits as she touched it. Underneath was the purple flesh skin, tight, and bright, and full. The onion felt heavy for its size.
The little knife was so light between her fingers that Mary wondered if it had any weight. She had to stare at it to make sure she was holding it at all.
"Cut me gently."
"How can such a thing be done?" Merry wondered.
The church door beside Merry pushed open a few inches, and her mother's face appeared. "Meredith Hope, it is time to go home." Her mother was not happy. Merry shut the box lid, flipped the latch closed, and tucked it all under her arm.
An hour later, Merry was sitting at the desk in her own room with the door shut. She was the only one still awake in the house, but she had already learned to move quietly at such times. Merry loved the hush of night after all the day's hubbub died away, and particularly she loved it tonight, as her ride home from the Extravaganza had not been pleasant.
The contents of the little box were lined out in a row on Merry's desk. On the left was the wooden box, lid opened. Next was the red onion. Finally, the gold knife.
"Cut me gently," Merry whispered.
She picked up the knife and slid its tip lightly in a ring around the onion's ball. It was terribly sharp for a blade so light. The first layer of the onion divided and fell off onto the table in two cupped halves. Merry caught her breath, because the smell was so strong. The onion made her eyes burn, and several tears rolled down her cheeks.
Merry picked up one of the cups, and she held it in her palm. The edges of the onion were weeping from the wound she had inflicted. Merry ran her finger along the dotted juice of those edges, examined both cups all round, then turned them upside down, one on top of the other on her desk.
As she did so, her room began to shift, and seven sycamore trees began to grow up from the floor. Their branches creaked and sighed as they stretched out, and their roots lifted the furniture at awkward angles as they ran long under her carpet. It was winter, and so there were no leaves, but the bare stems intertwined above her head like long-fingered women holding hands. Carved in the trunk of one of those trees, as if it had been writ there by a boy's pen knife a hundred years before, was a heart with these words inside, "Cut me gently."
To her credit, Merry did not scream. She simply sat looking for a good long while at the change. She decided she rather liked it.
At last, she picked her onion up off the floor - it had rolled off when the tree trunks grew - and she took up the little gold knife and cut away a second layer. She blinked when the tears came (she was more ready for them this time), and looked inside the onion's cup, tracing the lines running inside it. They were so delicate. She held the edge of the cup between her fingers, and she pinched it so that the juice ran out. The skin became thin and translucent.
As she did this, the ceiling of her room faded away until there was only a black, cold sky overhead, full of prickly winter stars. A sharp, icy breeze began cutting through Merry's pajamas, and so she put the onion back together as best as she could, then carried its pieces and the little gold knife to her bed.
With the next gust of wind, it began to snow down through the branches, large, round flakes like dancers in twirling white dresses. They caught on Merry's eyelashes. She shivered, for she was chilly, even under her blankets.
Merry let all the cut layers of the onion fall into her lap, and then she used the gold knife to cut a third layer away. It was the prettiest cup so far, a bit of an oval, and vivid purple. Merry tried to fit both halves back together once they were fallen off the ball, but having been cut, the seams would not match. Merry felt a little sad that she had divided something which could not be restored. She wasn't sure she should cut any deeper.
As she was considering the matter, she heard a mighty flutter. A snowy owl landed in the branch of one of the closer sycamore trees. He sat looking at her, fluffing out his wings, blinking, winking. In his talons he held something soft, long, and white.
He dove down to Merry's bed and spread it over her lap. It was a cape of white feathers, warm and thick. Merry was grateful for the heat of it. She reached out to stroke the owl, but at her movement, he lifted and flew off and up into the night air.
Merry lay under her the cape, watching the snow fall, running her toes between her blankets. It was hard to know what to do next. Was it wrong to go too deeply into a thing, to rend a whole so that it could not be stitched back together again? She wasn't sure.
Finally, she took up the onion, kissed it, and ran the knife straight through to the middle, then round it, so that it fell in two equal halves in her lap.
She marveled at how neatly the circles ran round. The tops of the little rows glistened, and Merry crackled their cells with the tip of her knife. As she did so, an old man came walking through the trees with his beard full of ice. A flock of small birds sat upon his head and his shoulders, and his body seemed to be creaking and groaning as he walked. In his hand, he held a little woven vine dove.
With great kindness, he placed the dove on Merry's bed, and for a moment, the little birds alighted all round her, puffing, and piping, and cooing. Then the birds scattered, as the old man stepped back.
For a woman, too, was approaching. Her face was white and lean, and her skin looked as if it had been collected from the soft edges of candlelight. She smiled as she walked, though her eyes looked sad, and and her dress was brown and thin as the fallen autumn leaves.
Merry felt shy when she saw her, but the woman bent down and kissed Merry on the forehead.
"You have been looking into things," said the woman.
Merry nodded quietly. She didn't know whether she should apologize for this or not.
"It is not easy to look into things."
Merry shook her head.
"You are tired, I think.
At those words, Merry cried, not from the onion, but from something lonely and wanting down inside her. The white woman sat down on the edge of Merry's bed, and she tucked the owl's cape snug around the girl. She sat and listened while Merry cried out her cry, wiping the tears from her cheeks, and then she began to sing a song that sounded like the rivers coming to a freeze, and like the branches groaning, and like the last of the hickory nuts falling, only there were words to the song which seemed older and truer than the sounds of the wood itself.
Merry listened to that song until she grew so full of that music that she let out a big long sigh, like the sigh of being understood. She was all at once happy, and sad, and curious, and certain over things she wasn't able to explain. And while the snow tumbled down and melted here and there across her warm red face, Merry fell fast asleep.