On the twenty-third of December Frau Mommsen woke up very early. She walked to the window and drew the curtains aside; the humid darkness outside resembled anything but Christmas portrayed on her tin cookie boxes: it drizzled and her whole street – houses, trees and earth itself – looked perspired and sickly. Watching a wet car crossing an empty crossroad, Sabine Mommsen felt like she was the only person left in the whole world, and that it was up to her to decide whether Christmas would come this year – or not. She put on her gown and went to the kitchen; there she set the dough for fifty Vanillenkipferln, hundred cinnamon stars and a few dozen rum cakes. The egg yolk drifted in hypes of sugar and flour like sun floating between snowy hills, whisked whites gleamed like icy peaks, and Frau Mommsen’s cheeks got so rosy one could think she had spent a day sledging merrily off the hill. Two hours later when the last batch of cookies was sent into the oven and Frau Mommsen glanced into the window again, she saw that the temperature must have fallen below zero and that a few feeble snow flakes had landed on the railing of her balcony: a clear boding that the world order was almost repaired, a sign that everything undertaken that day would end successfully. Closing the curtains, Frau Mommsen felt unusually confident, she turned the heat in the oven down and hurried to get dressed and to prepare herself for what she believed to be the most important venture of the year: the procurement of the Christmas tree.
Indeed, finding a Christmas tree that could fill Frau Mommsen’s living room with enough dignity was a task almost impossible to fulfill: with four windows along its’ northern wall and fifteen feet in hight, the room was so big a guest could easily overlook a grand piano nestled in the niche by the fireplace. But it was not the size alone which made one gasp at the threshold – it was mainly the density of room’s decoration and furnishing that made it into a triumph of good housekeeping over transient life. Displayed in glass cases, arranged on coffee tables, hanging on the walls and protruding from the shelves were fossils of various eras Frau Mommsen’s life had gone through. The cabinet between two central windows featured the remnants of the Pottery Age, the eastern wall displayed a few items remaining from the Silkscreening Period, the sofa cushions were manufactured during the Epoch of Crocheting and a few precious objects on the fireplace appeared to be products of a brief Sculpting Era. A Christmas tree could not be simply perched in the middle of a room exhibiting the achievements of such great a civilization; instead, serene and stately, dressed in hundreds of shiny balls, it was meant to remind that all things were perishable and transitory, but a home hearth guarded by an observant housewife. But, alas, either the Nature itself failed to produce a pine noble enough, or Heidenau garden centers were short of supply, but procuring a tree capable of fulfilling a mission envisaged for it constituted a difficulty of such considerable scale that Frau Mommsen never seemed to quite let go of it; it was an iceberg drifting across her consciousness without rest all year round. In summer it melted almost completely, with only a small tip emerging on the surface of her thoughts every time she climbed the ladder to hoover a spider net off the ceiling. However, with every yellow leaf landing on the balcony the iceberg seemed to gain in weight and size so that by the middle of November it occupied Frau Mommsen’s imagination almost fully. And how forlorn and helpless did she feel at the face of a matter she had to resolve! No one seemed to understand her. ‚Just don’t get yourself too hyped about the tree, mother‘ , her younger son Lucas begged her on the phone every winter, and Martin, her other son, was even worse. Two or three years ago a parcel from Martin arrived just a few weeks before Christmas. It was a tall and heavy box, and having spent at least twenty minutes unpacking it Frau Mommsen froze still at the sight of its contents: it was an artificial tree with a telescopic trunk one could expand up to twelve feet high. Watching plastic branches and cones scattered on the carpet, Frau Mommsen cried till her husband crammed the tree back into the box and drove it to the post office on the back of his car, on a seat where his mother would usually throne when picked up from the nursing home for a weekly coffee-and-cake.
That year, finding a right tree was of a special importance: for the first time since he had left to college, Lucas was bringing home a girlfriend. Frau Mommsen saw her on a photograph he had sent a few days ago; it was a tiny, dark haired young woman and on the picture she held a bunch of lilies with an expression of a heavy-weight lifter pressing a bar-bell. Her name was Annie, she was American, and as it had turned out from a telephone conversation she had never celebrated Christmas before.
– What do you mean, she had never celebrated Christmas? – Frau Mommsen asked, baffled. – What does she do on the twenty-fourth of December then? Didn’t you say she grew up in Boston?
– She did, – Lucas said, – But she is Jewish. You know what Jewish Americans do for Christmas? They take out Chinese food and go out for movies, like, they sit in the cinema, eat dim sum and watch old thrillers all night long.
– You mean, they do not even decorate the tree? – Frau Mommsen asked, trying to be specific about things which were really important.
– No, they don’t- Lucas said, and Frau Mommsen heard envy in his voice. Indeed, to him Annie was clearly marked with a distinction no one else possessed, a privilege nothing could tantamount to. Since the moment he got past the age of chocolate Santas, Lucas was dreaming of spending the Christmas Eve as far from home as only possible – but having no other alternative, year after year he returned to his mother’s living room to chant carols with his father and to listen to his brothers’ reprimands about futility of studying philosophy in a world regulated by global market. An empty cinema where he could hide in a plush chair with a box of noodles, an XXL-size coke in one hand and his girlfriend’s knee on the other, sounded sublime. ‚Let’s do it the Jewish way‘, he begged Annie since November, but she had already made up her mind.
– I am fed up of having it Jewish way! – she kept saying, – Jewish, Jewish, Jewish! Every year its the same, Aunt Ruth comes over and sits with my parents in front of the TV, and I and my cousins, we have to go out even if it is minus five hundred outside, eat Chinese trash and watch some crappy films. Everyone knows it is miserable, everyone would just love to sit home by the Christmas tree and stuff themselves with turkey, but no, because we are Jews we just cant be like everyone else. Can you spare me this nonsense just this time? Can I celebrate a normal German Christmas, like everyone else?
– But its a Christian holiday! – Lucas cried, trying to bring her back to reason.
– You are just like my mother! – Annie shouted back, – So what its Christian?! I am not going to pray in the church, I just want to watch. Its beautiful! And even if I would have to cross myself ten times an hour who cares? On Trobrian Islands Malinowski had do worse things, you know. – She lifted her hand and made a gesture meant to resemble a blessing, but got confused in the middle and froze still.
– Anyways, – she continued after a pause, – Just stop being so boring! Don’t tell me what to do just because I am Jewish! Either you take me to your parents, or I will go to Lisa’s place, – she concluded, and it was a blow Lucas had nothing to counter with. Being called boring and suspected of treating a Jew without due respect was only half of the horror, but having to spend Christmas without Annie was even worse – and Lucas gave in.
– She really wants to see a proper German Christmas, – he told to his mother on the phone, – With Plätzchen and everything.
– I’ll see to it, – Frau Mommsen said and hung off feeling a mixture anxiety and pride overwhelming her at once. Deep in her heart she knew that if there was once place on Earth where a novice could imbue the splendor of Christmas at its most – it was her home. But precisely because no one else equaled her in giving Christmas the celestial touch it deserved, she had to do everything alone: even if she would like to entrust at least a part of the matter to someone else, there simply wasn’t anyone around. Herr Mommsen was certainly a great mathematical mind – but when it came to household, he was useless. The last weekend before Christmas he insisted he goes and buys the tree himself. He was so persistent, it was impossible to argue with this foolish suggestion, and Frau Mommsen let him out of the house with a bad feeling. Indeed, nothing good came out of it. The hight of his own living room’s ceiling seemed to be the only numerical that did not hold in Herr Mommsen’s mind, and while his wife was dusting the shelves in the living room, he called home seven times just to be told whether it was fifteen or seventeen feet and making her climb up and down the ladder again and again. By some co-incidence the tree he picked turned out to be of a right hight. But what a tree it was! Sold with a fifty per cent discount, it missed a crown and was almost as bold and thin as Herr Mommsen himself, suggesting that he purchased it out of brotherly sympathy rather than of any reasonable aesthetic and practical considerations. He dragged it upstairs alone, a manly man who does need to waste money on a porter, and needless to say, the moment he discharged the tree on the carpet a pang of smarting pain hit his spine and he could no longer unbend himself. Poor Frau Mommsen was left with two handicaps at once – a mangy tree and a rheumatic husband. Discouraged and disabled by his endeavors, Herr Mommsen spent the next two days in his study with a back warmer around his waist, hardly daring to talk to his wife and burying himself in papers scattered with incomprehensible signs. As for the crownless pine, Frau Mommsen tipped a post man – a young muscly man – to remove it. Another tree had to be procured, and a day before Christmas, having filled every tin in her house with freshly baked Plätzchen, Sabine Mommsen ventured out into town. Luckily enough, she found the right tree after two or three hours. It was a perfectly composed, immaculate and stately item, raising over the other pines like a triumphal column. Without bargaining a minute, she parted with an amount money she preferred not to mention to her husband, and watched a group of men in moon boots appearing from the depths of thicket like a pack of wolves, wrapping her prey in several layers of plastic and stowing it into a delivery car. She followed the cargo from the back, watching the tree tied to the roof and swinging its crown in agreement of its fate. The pine seemed to know what was bestowed upon it, and Frau Mommsen’s heart filled with sympathy and compassion: after all, it was a pity such a beauty was cut and ripped away from its roots, but at the same time, let’s face it, being placed in a living room like hers was quite worth a sacrifice. This pine tree, Frau Mommsen thought proudly, will get the best treatment in town. And indeed, no sooner had the porters brought the tree upstairs and unpacked it than Frau Mommsen was already there, with a holder full of warm water and a pile of cardboard boxes filled with garlands, balls, stars and golden angels.
– Here, – she pointed to a spot in the middle of the room she knew to be the one and only admissible position.
– You sure, lady? – One of the men asked, showing a missing tooth. The others did not move, – We won’t lift it ten times.
– Here, – Frau Mommsen repeated louder and pointed to the same spot again, to the blue squiggle between a yellow flower and a burgundy leaf on the carpet they stood on.
– If you say so, – the man with the missing tooth said and moved the tree holder to where Frau Mommsen’s finger was showing. He made a sign, and his mates leaned to the tree. ‚One, two, three‘, they counted in chorus like a group of ambulance doctors defibrillating an accident victim; the tree boggled and sprung up reaching to the ceiling with its crown just perfectly. „Where am I?“ it seemed to ask, slightly trembling, and Frau Mommsen petted its branches. She had to admit, it was a true masterpiece, a solid cone of pine green smelling of a faraway forest. She couldn’t wait to enmesh it in soft lights top to bottom, to release angels on its’ branches, to scatter stars on its twigs, to sprinkle it with snowflakes and to make golden and silver balls grow on it like magic fruit – but shutting the door behind the porters she felt how great tiredness settled upon her and sensed a dull and sickening pain in her temples. The blood in her veins was raising to her nape – it felt thick and swollen – like tidal water. Hypertension, a curse that took Frau Mommsen’s mother and her aunt to grave, was now choking her with nausea and strapping her knees; she knew she had just enough time to fetch a glass of water, to swallow a pill of Indapamide, to draw the bedroom curtains and crawl between the sheets praying to be on her feet tomorrow.
From his window upstairs, Herr Mommsen saw the arrival of the new Christmas tree, he watched his wife rushing to open the front door, the porters unloading the pine and pushing it into the house, and then, several minutes later, leaving through the same door empty-handed. He stood up from his desk and made a few steps across the room. He was feeling better today, and even though he could not unbend fully yet, he could turn left and right without feeling a spear turning inside of his spine. But his calculations, they were not moving anywhere and the paper he had to submit in two weeks was rubbish. It was unconceivable: he knew all the bits of the equation – it was their sequence that he could not establish. The most important thing – the system – was missing, was slipping from him, and every time he thought he had it, it turned out he had made some silly, almost juvenile error. There was no point in buggering on any longer that day, and once there was nothing else to do, he thought he should go downstairs and help Sabine dress the tree. They did not really quarrel but her bad vibe reached him from the downstairs like a reek of burnt lunch. It would be a good moment to make up for his flip; they would turn on some nice music, open the boxes with all the stars and angels, he would pass her the decoration and there would be no need to say anything. Herr Mommsen threw a last glance on battered papers scattered across his desk, shut the lights off and walked out of the study.
Downstairs was dark and the Christmas tree stood in the middle of the living room naked and unattended. ‚Sabine!‘ Herr Mommsen called but no one answered. He called again but she did not respond. He peeked in the kitchen and in the library, turning the light switches on and off in every room – but she was not there. Herr Mommsen felt irritated; he must have overlooked her leaving the house together with the porters, she must have gone to fetch some bread for dinner and got stuck at the supermarket, as ever. Perhaps, he thought, he should take another try at this equation, after all. For a moment he stood in the corridor, contemplating – and then he heard a sigh from the bedroom. It was a sigh of a person who was certain they were not heard by anyone; the sadness and pain it was full of were of a kind one can only admit to themselves; it was a sigh about all the pounds gained and all the hair lost, about wasted afternoons and rushed mornings, about children growing up and parents growing old – and it was his wife who breathed it. Then, the bed squeaked, and Herr Mommsen heard a gulp. ‚Blood pressure‘, he realized, tiptoeing away. Regret and guilt overwhelmed him at once. She was right when she said he could not do anything properly from the beginning to the end! Why did he have to buy that silly tree the other day? Why could not he spend more time looking for something better? He would now go to the living room and would dress the new tree alone, top to bottom, he decided. And if his back was going to kill him, it would be only himself to blame.
Herr Mommsen hurried into the living room. Boxes with decoration were mounted on the carpet, and he approached them in big steps. ‚There you go‘, he murmured to himself pulling a first silver ball out of the top box, ‚There you go!‘. He arranged it carefully on a twig touching his shoulder, and pulled the next ball out. This one was red; Herr Mommsen placed it a few inches to the right, on the exactly same hight – and the work started. At first it felt somewhat strange and disconcerting to be there all alone, without Sabine picking stars and garlands from his hands and arranging them in a manner she alone knew. It occurred to him, he missed her chatter about where this star came from and whether he remembered the market they bought that angel from – the chatter that usually irritated him so much and seemed so distracting. A feeling of regret filled his heart again, and willing to make up for all his mischiefs, Herr Mommsen hung one ball after the other and soon grew fully absorbed by what his hands were doing. Each ball seemed to be destined for its own hole, and placing it onto precisely the place it was meant to occupy made Herr Mommsen‘s heart boggle. When the first box of decoration was finished, he stepped back to take a look at the tree and saw a huge matrix of red and silver in front of him. He stood and mazed at the clear and elegant pattern, at the grid of color swaddling the tree‘s green, – till the noise behind his back made him jolt. Martin, his older son, was standing in the doors with a suitcase. ,Evening, Dad’, he said pulling a wet woolen hat off and looking around himself anxiously, ‚Is Christmas off?“.
Although Martin had been living away from Heidenau for more than seven years already, he always carried the keys from his parents’ home on the bottom of his briefcase and when coming to visit he usually opened the front door himself. This time, wiping his boots on a straw mat reading ‚Hotel Mama‘ he sensed something wrong about the house but could not quite make out what it was. As always, the floors were polished and the lights were bright, but there was something strange and disconcerting in the air, a kind of void in place of a familiar substance. He looked around and sniffed the air: there was no smell of dinner being cooked, he realized – the smell that would usually envelope him the moment he turned the door knob. There were no pork loins roasted, no onions fried and no dumplings steamed; no risotto al porcini was puffing on the hob, no salmon was slow-cooking in the oven, no lemon sorbet was resting in the fridge. Worse, Martin’s nose apprehended that there was not even any bread cut and not a single slice of cheese awaiting him on the kitchen table. Even on a regular day all that would be enough to suggest something at home was gravely wrong. But no food on Christmas Eve meant a disaster of a scale Martin did not want to imagine.
– Is Christmas off? – he repeated again watching his father almost dropping a silver ball on the floor.
– Weren’t you supposed to come tomorrow? – Herr Mommsen asked, finally, staring at his son like he was a kind of aberration, – Didn’t you write you would come on the twenty-fourth?
- Of course, – Martin said unwrapping his scarf, – I did. But, Papa, it is the twenty-fourth today! Check your calendar! It’s Christmas!
– Rubbish! – Herr Mommsen exclaimed, still not moving from the spot, -It is the twenty-third. I know for sure. Yesterday the research committee was sitting and it was the twenty-second. Frau Schmitz was ill, I protocoled, so I remember.
– That can’t be true, Papa! – Martin replied from the doorway, – It simply can’t. I am not mad, I know when Christmas is. And besides, how would they have let me on a plane if my ticket were for a wrong date?
– That’s right! – Herr Mommsen called, – Check your ticket.
– Fine, – Martin said and shrugged shoulders. From a pocket of his coat he produced a wrinkled piece of paper and stretched it to his father. Herr Mommsen carefully put the ball down into the box and finally crossed the room.
– Of course, – he said, taking a brief glance at the ticket and then lifting his eyes to Martin, a mixture of concern, marvel and relief crossing his face, – Just as I thought, the time difference. It is twenty-fourth in Japan now, but in Heidenau it is still the twenty-thrid. We are a bit behind the developed world here, you know.
– Oh shit! – Martin said. For a moment he stood still; then he fell on a chair that happened to stand nearest to him.
– Shit! – He repeated and buried his face in his palms. Herr Mommsen looked around in search for a surface to drop the ticket he was still holding, but having found none at his arm’s length, turned back to Martin and petted him on the shoulder in a manner a housewife touches a piping pot.
– Come, Martin, come, – He said and opened his arms in an embrace, the crumpled paper still clasped in his left hand – Come, good you are home!
Martin raised from the chair and for a moment let himself be pressed to his father’s chest.
– I just can’t imagine how I could have made such a stupid mistake! – He howled and pulled himself out of the embrace, curling back onto his chair, – I am just tired, tired, tired! Tired like hell! I have no idea where I am, I don’t even know when Christmas is!
Herr Mommsen waited silently.
– I’ve had four intercontinental flights in two weeks, father, – Martin said and lifted his face to his father; there were dark circles around his eyes and his skin looked flaky, – I am exhausted. I have not slept for days!
– Come, Martin, come! – Herr Mommsen repeated and helped his son off the chair, – You go to bed now, and I’ll bring you a sandwich or something. Mother is unwell with blood pressure, – he explained, catching Martin’s stunned expression, – We all go lie down now, – he concluded in a tone he otherwise used to finalize a theorem, – and in the morning we shall all have a nice breakfast together.
Half an hour later Martin crawled into his old bed and stretched on the sheets he remembered from the days he did moon walk at school discos, took a deep breath, closed his eyes – and sat straight up the next second, almost toppling with his head a bookshelf with the ‚Lord of the Rings‘. He was irreversibly and definitely awake, and nothing in the world could make him sleep now, not for another six or seven hours till the sun would start raising in Singapore or setting down in New York. He was in between of everywhere, and it felt like he was still on an endless flight, neither here nor there, tired but not asleep, hungry but with an aftertaste of a ham-and-cheese sandwich in his mouth. For a moment, Martin stared into the darkness. Then he bent down to the trousers crumpled on the floor and pulled his smartphone out of the pocket; the screen lit the mole under his left eye and his receding hairline. There was not much happening out in the world. The stock quotes haven’t changed since he checked them on airport express – in Europe the Christmas lethargy was settling in, and Asia was in bed. At ten o’clock in the evening in Heidenau it did not matter to the world whether Martin was now asleep or awake, whether he was healthy or sick, whether he had anything to sell or anything to buy. It did not even seem to matter whether his plane landed in Frankfurt International or perished somewhere in Mongolia. For the first time in many weeks, Martin Mommsen was on his own.
„Bugger!“ he whispered and hit the bed with a fist. Then he put his feet down, found his slippers and walked out of the room. The corridor was dark, but in the living room the lights on the Christmas tree were twinkling. His brother was not there, his parents were asleep, and the tree waited for him to make a move like a pretty girl in a crowded bar. Martin looked around and making sure there was, indeed, no light coming from anywhere, tiptoed forward; he shut the door behind him without making noise and turned the lights on. For a moment he stood still, musing at the tree: the project his father started was ambitious, but unaccomplished; the top and the bottom branches were hardly touched, and a dozen of boxes stood closed. What was the last time he dressed a Christmas tree? He no longer remembered. Not surprising, he thought, he did not even know when Christmas was. What was he thinking of, buying presents in Tokyo’s duty free shop: for his mother, a perfume he did not even have time to smell; for his father a tie that hung closest to the cashier; and for his brother, a set of chopsticks meant for a sort of rice one could not buy in Europe. What happened to him, to Martin Mommsen who wrote a poem about Christmas star that won his elementary school competition? Slowly and without taking his gaze off the tree, he started singing in a voice so low one would not hear him from two steps away. „Sti-i-lle Na-acht, he-eilige Nacht“ he murmured, clenching and opening his fists again and again. He only remembered the first verse, but that was enough to make him feel better; he opened the top box, pulled a golden angel out of it and tossed it in his palms. The angel took its place between two red balls with dignity and grace; a divine intervention in the perfect particle pattern arranged by Herr Mommsen a few hours before. ‚One‘, Martin counted and fetched another figure, equally celestial. He hung it a few inches lower and counted ‚two‘. Soon Martin’s hands moved in a quick and precise manner; the work gave him pleasure: it was mindless, but meaningful; simple, but rewarding, and with every angel mounted on the tree, his sense of accomplishment was growing and his hands were dusted with golden glitter. He made a break at about midnight and sneaked into the kitchen for a cup of tea. The smell of chamomile, the darkness outside and the silence of the house made him feel tired, his eyes were itching and he yawned, but he knew he wouldn’t sleep yet. In the two last weeks, having spent many nights rolling in beds of Hiltons and Holiday Inns scattered at the distance of ten flying hours from each other, he learnt that the minute he would pull the blanket to his chin, he would be awake, lines of stock charts blazing under his eyelids like lightings of a thunderstorm, his skin burning and his hair feeling greasy. Simply being tired was not enough to sleep; it had to be exhaustion of a Biblical scale – blind, merciless and excruciating – a point he still had to reach that night. Martin rinsed his cup in the sink and went back into the living room; there were six or seven more boxes to unpack. He picked up the ladder and started dressing the upper branches with stars, wreaths and snowflakes, whispering numbers to himself. He made two breaks wrapping more electric lights around the tree’s bottom and having more tea, and by the time the tree was dressed with two hundred and twenty one figures, it was half past four in the morning. Martin’s hands were trembling, and his shoulders were aching badly. Now, he felt, was the time, now and not a minute later. Empty boxes, glitter, pieces of rope and old bulbs were scattered all over the carpet, and the big golden star had yet to be fixed on the the crown, but Martin no longer cared. Nothing in the world mattered now, and even if the floor would open and the earth would swallow the tree that minute, he would not be bothered. He wiped his hands off his pajama trousers, turned off the lights and went into his room, unable to stand upright. No one had seen him; he slipped into his room and fell on the bed. He was asleep before his nape touched the cold surface of the pillow case; he slept vigorously, stretching on the bottom of a black and silent pit, breathing with gusto. It was a deep sleep; a primordial sleep, a sleep tantamount to a shut-down nuclear plant. A sleep that lasted forty six minutes, the eternity before an earthquake kicked Martin from the ocean trench he was resting in. His mother, wrapped in a yellow bathrobe was shaking his shoulder and shouting into his face:
– Wake up, Martin, it is not good to give in to jet lag, you might get insomnia from it. Do you want your eggs sunny side up or scrambled? Get up! Get up!
- 4 –
Unlike his brother, Lucas did not have to work till Christmas day. The university was empty, the library closed on the twenty-second and there was nothing to do. Still, Lucas preferred to loom around his flat alone, hungry and bored, picking on Lebkuchen left by his roommate on a shelf. He told Annie that if he could not avoid going home that year, at least he would make sure they wouldn’t stay too long. On the twenty-fourth of December the train from Cologne to Heidenau was so full they had to sit on the floor between the wagons, but the ride, he had to admit, was beautiful.
– It can’t be real! – Annie kept exclaiming, pressing her face to the window where Rhein was flowing pass tile-roofed houses half covered with snow, pass cliffs and rocks each marked either by a suicide of a poet or a wedding of a prince, pass wine hills, pass churches drowning in lights. Lucas took her hand and she squeezed his fingers in response. He closed his eyes, smiling; if that was what it took to make her love him, he was happy to oblige.
– It can’t be real! – Annie cried one more time, when Frau Mommsen took her by the shoulder and threw the door of the living room open in front of her. A magnificent Christmas tree, tall and enmeshed in light floated in the afternoon dusk, touching the ceiling with a golden star on the top of its crown; the red and silver balls were tingling gently, the angels blew their trumpets and the snowflakes whispered promises as sweet as sugar. Frau Mommsen spent half a day re-dressing the tree – it was unbelievable what kind of a mess her husband managed to make by simply sticking the balls and the angels wherever he pleased, but thankfully, she had a bit of time between smearing the duck in herbs and oil and whisking the eggs for a gateau. Even though she only managed to re-do the front of the tree, she had to admit, it looked majestic. For a minute the three of them – Lucas, Annie and Frau Mommsen – stood still, and the foretaste of miracle to come upon them was so strong that each of them blinked a few times.
– Oh, – Annie exclaimed and freed her hand from Lucas’s, – I almost forgot I have a present for you!
She started rummaging through her backpack while Frau Mommsen stared at her, shaken out of her sweet stupor.
– There! – Annie said and produced a pretty but slightly crumpled box, – It is for you!
Somewhat uncertain, Frau Mommsen took the box from Annie’s hands. It was not the time to exchange presents – the Bescherung was to take place between the main course and the dessert, at least five hours later – but Annie was a novice, and slips like that were to be expected and forgiven.
– Thank you very much, – Frau Mommsen said and started unwrapping the present. – How beautiful! – She exclaimed in a moment.
– What is it? – Lucas asked, stretching his neck.
– A set of Christmas balls, – Frau Mommsen said and showed him the box, – Four pieces. Very lovely!
– Would you mind if I hang them myself now? – Annie asked, – Please, please! – She cried, – I have never decorated a Christmas tree myself before!
An expression of perplex crossed Frau Mommsen’s face. Just now, when she had finally managed to make it all look more or less acceptable, she could not let a dilettante destroy her work. Besides, the balls were pretty, but only a blindman would not see they did not fit with everything else.
– Come on, Mama, – Lucas said and pulled the box from Frau Mommsen’s hands, – Annie’s been dreaming of it for weeks.
Frau Mommsen tried making a smile. ‚Go ahead‘ she said and stepped back.
With the box in her hands Annie walked to the tree and moved the twigs apart; the stars tingled gently. Carefully, she hung her first ball. Her fingers were trembling, and she felt goosebumps on her back. If only her mother and aunt Ruth would see her now. This year she did everything she promised to herself; she read Heidegger, she’d been to a Wagner opera and got as far as she could – decorating a Christmas tree in her German boyfriend’s home. Annie hung the second ball. ‚It was Hitler who did not want Jews to live in Germany!‘, she almost shouted into the pine-smelling darkness, as if she was talking on the phone with her mother. ‚I live where I want to live and if I want to celebrate Christmas, I will! Jesus was a Jew!‘. Annie’s heart was now pounding in her throat, and for a moment she had to hide her face in the green, fixing the third ball somewhere close to the trunk. A great feeling she could not explain overwhelmed her – the same feeling that swept over her in Jerusalem last year when she pushed a note with a wish between the bricks of the Wailing Wall; just like a year ago, pushing her way through a crowd of men and women scribbling their dreams on backs of old boarding passes and on pieces of Kleenex, she felt that she was a drop in the sea, perhaps, a meaningless drop – but a drop with her own will, a drop that refused to dissolve. ‚I love Lucas‘, she decided and hung the last ball right in front of her face; the reflection in the gleaming gold blinked with four eyes.
– 5 –
At half past seven in the evening Frau Mommsen placed three bottles of champagne in the fridge, took two blood pressure pills – just to go sure – and rushed to the library where she had left Martin half an hour ago with a task of choosing a few score sheets for Christmas carols. Just as she expected, she found him dozing in a chair, his head resting against the shelf, his mouth open and a pile of sheets resting on his knees. She shook him strongly, and having sent him to take a shower, hasted to the living room. By seven forty-five, the table was set. She took the last glance at the plates and the silver, shut the door and ran to the bedroom where a sequined tunica hung by the opened window and a pair of lacquered ballerinas rested in the box by the bed – and while her husband was fighting with his tie, she put her shoes and her dress on, touched her lips with red, brushed her hair and sprayed herself with perfume, filling the air with a smell of hyacinths. At five to eight, she fixed Herr Mommsen’s cufflinks and re-made his tie, ran to Martin’s room to make sure he was almost dressed and then rushed back to the living room. The air was still and it smelled of pine; a dozen of beautifully wrapped boxes were resting under the tree. Frau Mommsen opened the piano, – and as the oven timer started beeping eight, the anthem to the Tannenbaum rolled through the house, its’ doors opened one after the other, and dressed in their best suits, freshly shaved and feeling the stiffness of pressed collars against their throats, the three Mommsen men spilled out their rooms. The oldest of them forgot to change into his festive shoes, and his trouser legs were now resting on a pair of Birkenstocks – and as for Martin, his face was puffy; in the living room he slipped into an armchair tucked into the darkest corner and closed his eyes at once. Lucas, instead, gleamed like a lit-up match, tall, narrow and dark-headed. He loomed by the tree looking around restlessly with his arms folded, and Frau Mommsen thought she could hear his heartbeat from her place behind the piano. Finally, there were steps in the corridor – surprisingly heavy for a girl weighting no more than hundred pounds – and in a second Annie emerged in the door. The skirt of her green dress was almost touching the floor; she looked intense like a fresh lime.
Frau Mommsen nodded and put her hands on the keys. „O du fröliche, o du selige, gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!“, she stroke up the first verse, and the next second her husband’s voice joined in:
Welt ging verloren, Christ ist geboren:
Freue, freue dich, Christenheit!
They sang, their faces lit by the light of twelve chandeliers, solemn and dreamy – and Lucas could not take his eyes off Annie. He knew she did not understand most of the words – but nevertheless, she was fully absorbed by something she alone heard now, oblivious to his mother’s yowling, to his father’s lisping and to the fact that his brother was only moving his lips silently, his eyes half-closed. Annie’s eyes were fixed on the star crowning the tree, her face was earnest and tender, and a pang of jealousy ran down Lucas’s back: if only she would ever gaze at him alone like that! ‚Freue, freue dich, Christenheit!‘ he joined in, and for a second Annie turned to him at the sound of his voice. Their eyes met, joy filled his lungs, and he sang louder and louder; every word that came out his mouth had a meaning now; his own voice seemed to attain an unknown clarity and strength, and he felt that his whole life was now heading towards some wonderful curve. ‚Freue, freue dich, Christenheit!‘ he sang for the last time, and when his mother took her hands off the keys, a feeling of regret overwhelmed him for a minute. He glanced at Annie again: she stood still and did not even seem to notice the music stop; she only woke up when an enormous silver plate crowned with a glass lid protruded into the door, Frau Mommsen’s figure hardly visible behind it. The plate descended into the very middle of the table, the duck inside of it pressing its wings to its roasted body and concealing its’ absence of a head under a heap of Rotkohl.
– Dinner! – Frau Mommsen called and plucked the lid into the air.
And as heads started turning to the table, as the duck breathed a cloud of cranberry-scented steam into the air, as Annie’s eyes glided over a mole on Lucas’s nape, as Herr Mommsen’s hand touched the back of an oak chair – something cracked inside of a Christmas tree. It sighed, and with a sound of thousand stars hitting the icy Earth, of angels breaking their wings, of planets walloping from their orbits, and all the rain and the snow pouring down, – with all this roar and brattle the tree crashed on the dinner table, raising a firework of broken glass and smashing the silver plate on a carpet, on a blue squiggle weaved between burgundy leaves and yellow flowers.
– Ho-ly shit, – Lucas said without moving, and Frau Mommsen made a short, choking sound. One could think she was chortling at a pun, wouldn’t her face be so bulged. Tears burst out of her eyes and she fell on a chair studded with pine needles and splitters of glass she did not seem to notice.
– I’ll get the hoover, – Herr Mommsen said and made a step to the door; there he stopped for a second, shifted his feet and looked around the room one more time. Annie and Lucas kneeled down; rummaging through the dust of apocalypses meshed on the floor, they tried to not look at each other. Frau Mommsen was sobbing.
– Put what’s not broken on the table. I’ll be right back, – Herr Mommsen said and stepped into the corridor.
The hoover, he assumed, had to be in the larder by the kitchen, a small dark room where his wife kept her aprons, her brooms and her dusters. He opened the door, and the smell of chemicals filled his nostrils, dozens of sprays, liquids and soap bars were sitting on the shelves waiting to be put to use, promising to make every surface shiny and to eliminate every undesignated life that dared to spring under a sink or in a bathtub. There were piles of terry cloths and wipers, there were sponges packed in dozens, there were rubber gloves hanging off a nail in the wall; there was a force cup and a brand new toilet brush packed in crumpled plastic. There was everything – but a hoover. Herr Mommsen stepped out with the feeling of regret; it was almost sad to leave a place so neat.
– Sabine! – He called across the corridor, – Where did you put the hoover?
He waited for a moment, but no one replied; instead, he heard his wive’s ululation becoming louder.
– Damn, -Herr Mommsen said to himself and scratched his chin. Given that his was a situations of uncertainty, the regression method was to be applied, he decided. In that sense, the living room and the bedroom could be discarded immediately; he had just been to both and remembered seeing no hoover in either of them. It occurred to him that the hoover’s dimensions needed to be taken into considerations as a key condition. A standard hoover, he reckoned, was about one and a half foot long, with a wand of, lets say, three feet high, hence, Herr Mommsen concluded, it was highly unlikely that someone would leave an object of such size simply standing in the middle of their room. Thus, Martin’s and Lucas’s rooms, as well as the library, could be eliminated from calculations, too. With a great probability, same could be said about the kitchen where a hoover would be on the way and interfere with the cooking process. Therefore, there were only two possible places left: a closet under the staircase, or the cellar laundry. Herr Mommsen hurried down the corridor. Plunging between sleeves and scarves in a dark corner under the steps, he thought he almost saw the hoover’s red plastic shining from the dusk – but he was wrong. He stuck his head out, feeling baffled. In fact, he was no longer sure whether the hoover was, indeed, red. Something was vaguely reminding him that the one he had in his mind had been replaced with a different model one last year – a new model, he now realized, he had never seen.
– Damn, – Herr Mommsen said again and pushed the cellar door, and climbed the narrow wooden steps. The laundry door was open; hills of clothes were covering its floor and there were full baskets with socks, stockings and shirts everywhere. He could not see the hoover, but it could be hiding anywhere. Herr Mommsen picked a few shirts from the floor and moved a box with the detergent aside; by the sink he noticed a belt his wife must have pulled out of his trousers before washing them. He was about to pick it up, when something suddenly caught his eye and he threw the belt back on the floor. A thin white book, stained with water and very dusty, was tucked under the heel of the washing machine; someone must have pushed it there to prevent it from shaking on the uneven floor. ‚International Journal of Computational Science and Mathematics‘, Issue 3, 2004, the cover was reading.
– Damn! – Herr Mommsen shouted for the third time in last half hour and fell on his knees, his suit trousers immediately turning white with the detergent dust. With a roar, he pulled the book to himself, but it was stuck.
– Come, – Herr Mommsen growled, – Come!
He spent the next few minutes crawling on the floor, trying to find the best angle to pull the book from under a ton of iron. His tie and his shirt were now grey, and his glasses hung on the tip of his nose. Oblivious to pain in his back, he jumped on his feet and pulled his coat off; he bent down again and budged the corner of the washing machine with a groan, finally, managing to kick the journal from under it with his foot. Purple and choking, he sunk in a pile of sweatshirts on the floor and leafed through the book looking for something he knew was there. ‚A Numerical Approximation for Wood’s Equation‘, he read loud and laughed. ‚I’ve got it, I’ve got it‘, he cried, holding the book above his head and shaking it in his fist, ‚I’ve got it!‘.
With a book open in front of his eyes, his trousers draggled in something sticky and white and his shirt hanging loosely around his aching waist, Herr Mommsen climbed the stairs. Shutting the cellar door, he listened to the sounds in the house: it was quiet now. ‚They’ll get on without me‘, he thought, ‚And if she can’t even put the bloody hoover where it belongs, what can I do‘. He turned on his heels and hurried upstairs; he knew that unless he starts writing now, the equation will disperse again, making a quite ‚pop‘ of a soap bubble. He broke into his study and shut the door. ,This paper gives an approximation of Wood’s Equation based on Variational Method’, he typed hastily in a new file and breathed out. The real work was now to begin.
– 7 –
– Its all your father’s doing! – Frau Mommsen howled in the living room, – First he buys a lousy tree, and who is to take care of it? Me, of course! I have to dump it, I have to pay for it, I have to do everything! And on the top of I have to scour the whole town to find something decent instead! And when I find it, and I lie down for a moment, the one time in a year, what does he do? He goes and spoils everything! He hangs everything the way he pleases, so that in the end the tree falls!
– Where is your father, by the way? – Annie asked, turning her head to Lucas. He shrugged shoulders without lifting his head and keeping on picking glass splitters from the carpet.
– Exactly! – Frau Mommsen cried, – Thats exactly like your father! It’s at least quarter of an hour since he left! It was a hoover he wanted to bring, wasn’t it?Very well, – she shouted and hit the table with a fist, – I’ll go and find him. I won’t not talk to him, I just want to look into his eyes! I just want the bloody hoover.
Breathing heavily, her face red and swollen, Frau Mommsen got up from the chair, and Lucas sprung on his feet:
– Please, Mama! – he said, – Please, sit down.
– Now you are telling me what to do! – She cried so loudly, Martin stirred in his chair and blinked briefly, – Who do you think you are? I run this house, I do! I cook, I clean, I sort his socks! And I decide where I go and what I tell him! You hear me?
– Mama, – Lucas repeated, – Calm down.
- Calm down! Stop fussing! It is all I hear from you, all my life, all my bloody life! – Frau Mommsen shouted back, – Like, you are ashamed of me! And you can’t even wipe your nose without me! Just like your father!
Something rustled grumpily in the other end of the room, and for a second everyone turned their heads to Martin.
– Does it always have to be like you are about kill each other? – He asked, getting up from the chair, – Every time I come here, you two are fighting. Can’t you just be a but nicer, that’s all?
– But he has no respect for me! He.. – Frau Mommsen started again, but Lucas interrupted her.
– You! – he was screaming at his brother now, – What have you to say here, of all people? You think you are such a smart ass, you never say what you think, you just nod, yes sir, no sir! – Lucas took a breath and made a grimace made to portrait someone extremely unpleasant and very servile, – All your life, you just do what you are told, of course, you are fucking paid for it. If your boss tells you to fire seven thousand people somewhere in China tomorrow, you will! All your life you just keep quiet, you Mummy’s little boy!
He breathed out, and there was silence for a moment.
– All I wanted to say is that we should probably have something to eat in the kitchen, and we can clean here tomorrow, – Martin said turning to his mother, – But it does not look like a good idea to me now. I think I’ll better go sleep then. And you, – he nodded to his brother, – Are a little sucker. I told you before, if you want to spend your life reading Immanuel Kant while living off social welfare paid from my taxes, its fine with me, but I just feel like I should remind you, – He made a little pause, contemplating, his face acquiring a concentrated look of an accountant summarizing the balance – I can’t see what she found in you, – he, finally, said and pointed to Annie.
They were now standing in front of each other, two brothers, thin, tall and angry, clenching their fists. Frau Mommsen was howling on her chair.
– Both of you, stop! – Annie cried, sprung forward, and pulled Lucas aside, grabbing him on the sleeve, – Now! – She shouted, hanging on him like a pincher.
– Get lost! – Lucas cried back and pushed her slightly, but she was holding firmly.
Martin snorted and stepped to the door.
– Good night, – he said while his brother was trying to free himself from Annie’s grasp and left the room.
After a minute of silent fighting, finally shaking himself out of the crumpled coat clenched in Annie’s hands, Lucas slammed the door after himself, too. There were now only Frau Mommsen and Annie left in the room – not counting the tree stretched on the floor.
– What a shame, – Frau Mommsen uttered, her face buried in her palms, – A shame!
– Its ok, – Annie said and threw Lucas’s coat on the chair, – I think you need to drink something, – she added, looking at Frau Mommsen’s wincing shoulders. She looked around to find some water, but there was none in the room; the crystal decanter lay on the floor broken, and the carpet around it was soaked.
– We’ll have champagne then, – she said and picked the bottle from the bucket on the table. Peeling off the foil and trying to make Frau Mommsen look at her, she continued, – I’m quite good in opening champagne, can you believe it? I’m actually better than my Dad. You know what he did at my nephew’s Brit Milah? He shook the bottle so bad, the cork almost picked the mohel’s eye!
Frau Mommsen’s shoulders continued wincing.
– Never mind, – Annie said and started untwisting the wire, – Let’s just have a drink.
She wrapped the corner of the table cloth around the bottle neck, her fingers made a slight move – and the cork popped out with a gentle sound.
– There, – she said, stretching Frau Mommsen a full glass, – Drink it. Please.
Finally, Frau Mommsen put her hands down. Her face was almost purple.
– Thank you, – she whispered and took the glass.
Annie filled another glass and lifted it in the air:
– To the ladies! And Merry Christmas! – she said and made a loud gulp.
– Merry Christmas, – Frau Mommsen whispered and touched the glass with her lips. The wine was delightful – it was her special Christmas spoil, slightly dryish, but with a wonderful fruity note in the end. She closed her eyes and made another drink. Suddenly, she hiccuped, and the glass shook in her hand. ‚To stop hiccup, drink in little gulps‘, she remembered reading somewhere and put the glass to her lips again. The tingling bubbles ran down her throat and filled her chest with a long-forgotten lightness. She gulped again, and again, feeling like she was picked into the air and pulled up, higher and higher.
– Can I have some more? – She asked Annie in a weak voice and stretched her glass.
– But of course! – Annie said and poured another glass.
They drank the other two glasses in silence, staring at the tree spread on the floor like a dismembered corpse, and watching the candle lights on the piano tremble. It was the third glass when Frau Mommsen felt something was wrong. Suddenly, her knees shook, and her head became very heavy:
– I think I might need to lie down, – she muttered plunking the glass on the table, – I am feeling a bit groggy, – she said and made her way to the sofa, surprised at how long and slow her own legs had become.
– Are you all right? – Annie cried, but Frau Mommsen did not feel like opening her mouth: the tongue was too heavy to bother, and she only made a sign with her hand meaning that she wanted to be left in peace for another day or two, at least.
But Annie would not let go:
– I’ll call the doctor, – she said leaning over the sofa, and Frau Mommsen’s sleepy brain spluttered a figure of a big-eyed nurse screaming ‚We are losing him!‘ to a crowd of relatives, a picture her mind stored from some American TV-series she watched last year.
- I am fine, – she murmured, feeling Annie’s hand on her shoulder and pulling her knees to her chest, – I took two Indapamide pills tonight. And then, – she yawned like a cat, – I had all this bubbly with you. Ughhu, – she breathed out, stretched her legs and closed her eyes, – Just let me sleep, – she whispered so gently that Annie put her hand down and made a step back. A piece of glass crunched under her heel, but Frau Mommsen did not move.
Annie filled her glass again and walked to the window where other living rooms, full of light and fragrant steam, were twinkling in the darkness. She stood and stared, watching the shadows of other people’s lives flickering behind the curtains of houses so pretty that they seemed to be made of gingerbread. There were more songs sung in these houses, and there were beautiful trees in each of them. People were laughing there, and little boys were clasping their hands over new Lego sets and railway models, and wives were cutting the best pieces for their husbands, and sons were blushing when their fathers were filling their girlfriends’ glasses.
A sound of a hoover rolling on the floor made her turn her head; Lucas was standing in the door, dressed in a pair of old jeans and a sweatshirt.
– Your mother is asleep, – Annie said, and turned back to the window.
– I see, – Lucas whispered and nodded.
There was silence for a moment.
– I’ll get her a blanket, – Lucas said, finally letting go of the hoover, and walked out of the room.
When he came back Annie was still by the window and her back looked a bit too straight. With a corner of her wet eye she saw Lucas swaddling his mother in a patchwork blanket – Frau Mommsen snorted without waking up – and walking to a pile of boxes scattered between the broken twigs.
– I am going to open my presents now, – He said addressing no one in particular, and Annie did not stir.
– I’ll start with Martin’s, – Lucas continued picking up a small narrow box wrapped into golden paper, – Let’s see what this mother fucker has got for me this year. You know, – he kept talking, tearing the paper, – He’s not a bad guy. He just thinks he is the smartest ass on Earth. But he really is clever. And down here, – Lucas pointed to his chest, noticing that Annie has turned to him slightly, – He is ok. I think he is just envious of me, that’s all. All the freedom I have, and everything. By the way, I told you he was gay? Oh Jesus, look at that! – He cried, and Annie, finally, turned her swollen face to him, – Chopsticks! Marti gave me chopsticks!
- I am hungry, – Annie said, and with the tip of her shoe she tipped something soft and brown. It was the duck – pierced by a pine twig and crusted with broken glass, a sacrifice for the Spirit of Christmas.
There was only deep-frozen Chinese vegetable rice on the bottom of the freezer left, and Annie still had a bottle of coke in her backpack. They filled their plates and turned on the kitchen TV. On the first channel Joseph, Jesus and Mary were trying to pull George Bailey off the bridge; on the other Holly Golightly was pressing a cat to her chest and on the third, a man in a silly hat was shouting ‚Merry Christmas!‘.
– Merry Christmas, – Lucas said spitting a few rice corns out of his mouth.
– Merry Christmas, – Annie replied and poured a spoonful of soy sauce into her plate, – L’chaim!