"In Our Normal Voices" appears in my Christmas story collection, Finding December: Christmas Tales.
In Our Normal Voices
My name is Hope. I’m thirteen. My big brother Andre died in June of this year. He was seventeen. It’s been a tough six months.
There’s a massive turkey roasting away in the oven, and the smells of potatoes and beans and gravy are beginning to compete. My parents are sitting at the dinner table and discussing the empty chair. Not arguing, discussing. Usually when they disagree about something important, they argue. Not arguing in a bad way, but like parents do when they love each other, with exasperated facial expressions and tense moments but really loud laughter afterwards. This evening, though, their discussing has followed the harder pattern, quiet, where every word is important. The sort of discussion they have when discussing anything to do with my brother, who was really good at math and was looking forward to college.
— There shouldn’t be an empty seat at Christmas, my mother says.
— That’s the point. To remember.
— It’s depressing.
My father turns away then, his eyes filling, sad and defiant, like they’re mirrors for the thoughts I know he’s having. He’s thinking, Of course it’s depressing. How could it not be, right?
Grandpa clumps down the stairs from his room, his prosthetic leg awkward on the steep steps. He calls it the Gimp leg I left on that mountain, but Mom and Dad refuse to, teaching me and Andre the proper word a long time ago. Some people who have been in the wars don’t like to talk about it – my friend Huda’s dad won’t talk about the desert – but Grandpa does. His favorite story was the one where he lost the gimp leg because of that damn sniper, where the choppers couldn’t come in for a couple of days because of the cloud cover, and the femur shot getting gangrene, but thank Christ for the beer they mistakenly air dropped instead of ammo. I’m old enough to know he didn’t actually leave his leg up there, but that’s where it died. He stops on the last step, looks around the big open space where we hold our holidays, and narrows his wrinkled old eyes.
— Everyone talks so quiet. Too damn quiet. When do we get to speak normally again?
Mom and Dad turn towards him, their mouths wide open. Grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since he lost his voice at the memorial service the high school held for Andre and his three friends at the start of the new school year. Maybe that’s where Dad got the chair idea: the school had lined up four empty chairs in the senior class’s seating area. I remember thinking it looked like a gap in a row of baby teeth. Grandpa was supposed to speak before he stood at the podium and lost his voice. He and Andre were pretty close, so the school asked him to. I don’t think he lost it, though – I think he put it away to be safe for awhile.
— Dad, we’re just trying to decide –
But Grandpa just turns his back on his only daughter and limps towards his favorite chair in the living room. He can stare at that Christmas tree for hours. We’ll call him when the food’s ready.
There’s a squeal from the corner of the table and a gurgle and the sound of plastic on plastic. Silas loves sitting in that high chair, loves throwing his sippy-cup to the floor and banging his baby-safe utensils on the tray like it’s his very own eight-month-old drum kit. He’s grinning to burst, cereal all over his face and smeared through his super soft hair. Mom leans in with a hopeful spoonful of cereal. Silas is awesome. He even gets a smile out of Dad. He was Definitely not part of the Plan my parents say sometimes, but he’s loved in bunches, that’s for sure.
— What do you think, Hope?
Dad’s asking, but Mom nods like it’s okay he brought me in. He wipes his eyes and waits for me to answer. Have you ever had that feeling where you know you’re about to jump into an important moment, but that you have no idea where you’ll land? I’m having that feeling now, so the answer doesn’t come right away. Dr. Chatwell, the nice doctor the school found some spare office space for, says it’s important for me to be honest with my feelings. Sometimes, me and the other kids who lost their brothers in the same crash – there are three of us, a girl who’s in grade six, a boy in grade seven, and me – get together at lunch to talk about our sessions with the doctor. The other kids look at us weird because we’re all in different grades, but we don’t mind.
— I don’t know. It’s a hard question, I say.
I can’t say any more, stuck on what Andre would say about us dwelling on his absence so much. Wouldn’t it be about his feelings, and not mine? Dr. Chatwell suggested I write a letter to Andre and tell him what I’m feeling, but I think that’s kind of a dumb idea because what’s the point of writing someone who can’t answer back? We’re all quiet for a while, absorbed in Mom’s battle with the cereal and Silas’ cluelessly adorable mess.
There’s a knock on the door, so soft you’d wonder whether you missed the first. Mom and Dad look at each other, as if to ask without words Who it could be on Christmas Eve? We haven’t been to church since Andre died, but the ladies were pretty faithful at bringing meals by after the accident with sad eyes and the words We’re so sorry more times than even Andre could have counted. Five o’clock, every time. Enough time to throw it in the oven to be ready in time to sit down as an almost family. Eventually I took it upon myself to answer the doorbell; after a while it seemed like the dishes were too heavy for my mother to carry away from the front step. I open the front door. There’s a man standing there, smiling shyly, hesitantly, with dark skin, incredibly white teeth, and a small cloth package under his arm.
— Can I help you?
— Is this the Reddison house?
It’s a man’s voice, but a young man. I wonder how old he is. My father is suddenly standing beside me in the doorway and looking down at the visitor, who looks up and swallows. My Dad’s tall. Have I ever noticed that before?
— Who are you?
— Sir, my name is Ali.
— I’m sorry, but I don’t –
A sharp four letter word from the dining room table echoes down the hall and into the cold air outside. Dad and I look at each other, surprised – Mom doesn’t usually use that kind of language, constantly worried what Silas might pick up. I’m tempted to laugh. It definitely won’t be prosthetic.
— I completely forgot – it’s okay, let him in, she calls.
Dad and I stand aside as the young man, dressed in jeans and a very expensive-looking winter coat, steps into the hall and removes his trainers. Dad takes the coat and hangs it up in the front closet, then the three of us move awkwardly into the dining area. Mom is in the kitchen busily wiping and rinsing the high chair tray in the sink, having lost the battle with Silas, who sits in the chair, still covered in baby cereal. He smiles up at the visitor and throws the plastic spoon towards his feet. Ali quickly picks up the utensil and hands it back to Silas, who promptly throws it down again. Ali tilts his head and smiles at my baby brother.
— I know this game, young man. No more spoon for you.
Silas gurbles an appropriate response and giggles at Ali, pacified. Dad and I look at each other.
— I have a younger brother, Ali says, noticing our look.
As my mother dries her hands and comes back into the room, hair all a mess and bits of cereal on her sweater, I look at our visitor, trying to guess his age. It’s hard, though, his smooth skin and wispy beard making it hard to pin down. She looks so embarrassed, and explains to Dad about an awkward phone call from one of the church women where she somehow ends up volunteering to host a church-sponsored refugee for Christmas dinner.
— I thought it might help distract us, she says.
A long moment passes as she looks at Dad, waiting for him to say something. I know the look on his face, the one where the shadows win, where he doesn’t really know how to think about anything other than Andre. He won’t want the distraction. He wants to dwell. But then his eyes soften, he takes in a long, slow breath through the nose, and nods at her. Maybe it can, the look says. Mom looks stunned at the reversal, but then some gratitude shines through. She turns to Ali, smiles, apologizes for the state of the house and for forgetting about his arrival, and holds out her hand.
— It is wonderful to have you here. Welcome to our home.
Ali changes a little, like her words are a code of some kind. His back straightens, his chin rises, and he begins thanking her for the incredible privilege of being with our family. My mother responds in the same way as we make our introductions. Formal. Proper. Yet nice, expected. Even Grandpa limps over to shake the young Kuwaiti’s hand. He doesn’t say anything, but he changes. We all do, in the same way, like finding a lost routine, reclaiming some comfort in the meeting of a new person. Even the small talk feels good, which is weird.
— But I have to apologize too – I’m not a refugee, Ali says.
— Mrs. Epping said –
Ali laughs quietly and explains how one of his classmates at college – Mrs. Epping’s son – overheard him talking about having to stay over Christmas rather than returning home. They must have mistaken Kuwait for another country and not heard him talk about how his government allocates some of its oil wealth to educate its youth, paying for tuition and living expenses wherever in the world they choose to study. That must be nice, I think. To never need anything.
— I’m here by choice, and with everything completely paid for, he says.
— They didn’t hear you, Mom says.
— It kind of got away from me, so the next thing I know I’m signed up for Christmas dinner with you.
Everyone laughs, even my father. Now, I know you can’t just erase the bad with a moment of good, but I don’t want this good one to end for a long time. The air seems different, like we’re finally breathing the clean stuff after so long with the bad. Ali responds very politely to all of our questions about his homeland, even when we ask if he’s homesick. He says he feels it all the time, but that he will go home after the special round of projects that is keeping him around over the holidays.
— Speaking of home, this is for you, he says, bowing slightly and offering the small cloth package to her with both hands.
Mom takes the package softly, and begins to untie it. The green, red, and black covering looks like silk. With each layer revealed, a lovely smell, like perfume, gets stronger and stronger. Finally, two small boxes are revealed, one with a photo on the front that looks like a small brass lamp, the other plain and covered in a strange script.
— What does it say? I ask.
Ali lifts the box from my mother’s hand and opens it. Inside lay numerous rough, dark items that look like bits of midnight bark. The smell grows even stronger.
— It’s incense. It’s called bakhour, he says.
— What’s it for?
— Well, it smells nice, of course, but it’s also for chasing bad spirits and memories away.
Ali doesn’t see the four of us looking at each other as he describes the ancient practice of lighting the incense. He doesn’t hear Dad’s painful swallow, see Mom’s eyes fill with tears, or notice Grandpa’s urgent need to blow his nose and wipe his glasses as he tells us to carry it around the house, filling our home with the strong scented smoke. He doesn’t see our faces fall as he tells us to make sure that the vapors are brought evenly into every room, every nook, every space, where the darkest of spirits hide. He does notice the silence when he finishes, the silence we have created, and he stands, confused and concerned, looking at us. You shouldn’t argue with such good intentions, so we don’t speak: there are some bad spirits and memories that cannot be chased away with smoke and perfume.
Grandpa heads back to his chair. Dad mumbles something about burning the turkey and disappears into the kitchen. Mom unstraps and scoops Silas – who has gone oddly quiet – from the high chair and follows Grandpa into the living room. I sit at the dining room table directly opposite Andre’s chair, torn between hiding the tears that are freely running down my cheeks and taking responsibility for our guest.
Ali isn’t saying anything, and looks around, obviously horrified that he has done something dreadfully wrong yet having no idea what it could be. I know he hasn’t, that his gift was thoughtful and good and kind. Normally it would be, anyhow. So I sigh and give him the short version of our family’s sad story, the same one I started this story with. It’s as much as I can manage.
He sits in the nearest chair, looking very much like someone kicked him in the stomach.
— I – I had no idea, he says.
— You couldn’t have known.
A few minutes pass in the silence of the house. There are no sounds coming from the kitchen or living room. I know where Dad will be, leaning over the sink with his eyes closed and his head down. Mom and Grandpa are staring at the Christmas tree and unlit candles on the windowsill. Silas has probably fallen asleep. Ali just looks shattered, the poor guy.
— You don’t speak with an accent, I say, reaching.
— I went to an American school back home. Arabic is actually my second language, if you can believe it.
Another long moment.
— Hope is a nice name, he says, reaching back.
I’d never tell my parents, but I love my name, even though it was popular the year I was born and not terribly original. I wonder if Ali is a Muslim, like Huda. They have the same amazing skin and dark, dark hair. She told me that their god Allah has ninety-nine names, each to describe a separate part of his personality, and that Hope is one of them. I’m not sure how I feel about God right now, but I share this with Ali anyhow. He shakes his head and says he had to learn all ninety-nine as a child, and that he’s pretty sure that my name isn’t on the list. But then he must have seen me frown at this, because he leans across the table.
— I don’t believe in God, but if I did, it would seem, for someone so almighty, that only ninety-nine names wouldn’t be enough. Hope could be one of the others.
It’s a nice thing to say. Andre used to do that too, reach out to make me feel better. He’d stop whatever homework he was doing, or close his laptop, or turn off his phone, just to make sure I had an answer for whatever was bugging me at the time. He was just always full of concern, even when we were driving each other crazy, so why didn’t he step in to take the keys that night? People always responded, waited for his right response – why hadn’t his friends waited for his kind answer, the saving word?
His chair sits to Ali’s right. It’s just a chair, but why can it seem emptier than it really is? If I wrote my big brother a letter, I’d ask him that. Why, Andre, when my eyes are open, is the chair so empty? When they’re closed, why can I still see you sitting there, filling it? Open them and you go away again. Close them and there you are, face so bright it’s like God painted it with his best paint, in his favorite, brightest colors.
— When I close my eyes, I see my brother, I tell Ali.
He looks at the spot where Andre always sat, but says nothing.
— I just want to close my eyes forever, but it’s hard to say that to anyone.
I hear a soft cough behind me, and turn to see my mother there, with Silas sleeping on her shoulder. He’s just so peaceful, draped perfectly limp with his little face against her neck. She’s watching me with a new expression, one I can’t quite figure out. I turn back to the table and see Dad in the doorway, looking at his feet and gnawing at his lower lip. My mother coughs again and taps me on the shoulder, telling me to go wake Grandpa up. In a low voice Dad says the turkey and all the trimmings are ready, and that nothing got burned, not even a little. He sounds pleased. Then he rounds the table, pulls out Andre’s chair, and invites Ali to have a seat, telling him he hopes he likes turkey because there’ll be a mountain of it.
The chair has to be filled, I know, but it’s still so, so good. And by the time the meal is on the table, we’re all there, talking in normal voices and even laughing a little. Laughing, maybe, at every occupied seat and the fullness to come.
For S, G, and the kids.
We’re new here. Moved in a few months ago, renting half of a house near railway tracks, the Corktown Pub, and the Bruce Trail. We don’t know many people.
Corktown is an old neighbourhood, one that has weathered the rises and descents of a steeltown like Hamilton. You can see old century homes on the same stretch of block as faceless apartment buildings, and you can walk from one end to the other in about five minutes and thirty seconds to see the whole range of then until now. And sometimes you can guess who’s renting and who owns their small patch of this railside neighbourhood by how many mailboxes you can see or how well the gardens are tended. The remnants of hard times are becoming scarce, though, as the old homes get bought up by professionals who prefer café-style lattes to coffee from Tim’s.
You can look in through windows, like anywhere, and get the briefest of glimpses into how others live their indoor lives. Especially at Christmas. Hamilton’s a city that hasn’t yet shrugged off the Christian side of the holidays – there’s still a crèche downtown, where baby Jesus looks out at Gore Park and Jackson Square. And for a few weeks at the end of every year, Christmas trees in living room windows shine like friendly beacons, winking at everyone that walks or drives by as if to say, Yeah, us too.
We know our neighbours enough to say hello, maybe hear tidbits about them here and there, about their weddings, their trials, their children. My Lady’s better at the contact – I learn from her. Our little corner generally keeps to itself, which is fine. A typical encounter you might recognize: “Morning,” one of us will say. “Morning.” “How’re things?” “Oh, fine, fine. You?” “Good thanks.”
It’s Christmas Day. Corktown’s quiet. Later in the day, my Dad will say with a smile and a far-off look, “There’s nothing nicer than driving on Christmas morning. Not a car on the road.”
We don’t sleep in all that often, but I manage to make it until 7:15. My Lady makes it another ten minutes or so, with me tiptoeing around in my tan moccasins and trying to make coffee on the quiet. Then I hear a cough and the rustle of sheets as she gets out of bed. I confess that I’m little excited she didn’t stay in bed too long – I was strategic last night as we got into our PJ’s. “Hey, I have an idea,” I said. “Mmm?” “How about pancakes tomorrow morning?” “That sounds nice.” And then I asked her to make them, hoping she’d say yes, planning my offer to make them if she didn’t. She did, of course, but sometimes you need to plan your offer, just in case.
As I sit to read the news, there’s not much going on in the world I care to read about. Christmas even slows the news down, it would seem. I don’t even click on links that talk about politics – even though someone, somewhere had the job of keeping the website updated, the poor soul – and scan straight into Lifestyle. Or maybe it was the wine section. I love the columnist’s name – Beppi – a good wine-trusting kind of name.
“Oh, no,” says my Lady’s voice, muffled by the open fridge door.
“What?” I ask after a few seconds. (I don’t multi-task well.)
“We’re out of eggs.”
Bummer. I’m about to move on and suggest oatmeal, and then I remember who suggested the pancakes in the first place. I ponder an offer to head next door for an egg, wonder if she’ll accept, kind of hope she won’t. I decide I probably should, the whole enterprise being my idea.
I mention I saw our neigbour getting stuff from his car, so they’re definitely awake. “I can go next door.”
Her very quick agreement catches me off guard so I try to hedge a little, throw out another option, delay having to put pants on over my boxers. I point in two directions, two neighbours. “Um, which side?”
“If you saw G at the car, they’re awake. Go there.”
Right. Time to make good. Put on my baggy, striped PJ bottoms over my boxers, which bunch up around my tender bits. “How do guys wear these things under jeans?”
My Lady’s a good sport when I speak banalities. “I know, right?”
I slide on my rubber shoes and unlock the door, expecting a blast of real cold, pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t come. It’s cold, but not cold. Mild Christmas, they’ve been saying, something about 95% of Canadian urban centres not having a white Christmas this year, even frigid places like Winnipeg and Edmonton. I head out, doing that strange walk we do when we’re underdressed for winter temperatures, a stiff, lurching blend of hop and shuffle.
Next door, I climb the stairs and listen for a moment. I smile. There’s a Christmas morning in full swing in there, seven kids, two adults, and 365 days of pent-up anticipation rattling the windows. Mom sounds tired, tells the kids there’ll be no whining on Christmas morning, and the decibels dip for a solid three seconds before I decide to knock. I’m too timid – they don’t hear my first one. The second one prompts a cheer and an excited exclamation from the oldest boy, “Leo is here!”
Five little girls in their best flannel PJ’s in primary colours and cartoon characters and stars all over them, and two boys in boxers and t-shirts, like the man of the house, open the door with one big collective smile. I’m not Leo, but those kids don’t miss a beat.
They all yell it at the same time, blessing someone they don’t really know even though he’s supposed to be someone closer named Leo. The girls are wiggling all over and crowd around me at the door, perfectly pleased with themselves, while the boys hang back, trying to be a little cooler even though their eyes are spilling their excited secret.
“Merry Christmas,” I say, notching up my enthusiasm a notch. “Did you know your house is vibrating because you’re so excited?”
They laugh. That’s so nice.
And then those little girls put a bigger smile on my Christmas morning. They all rush the guy at the door they don’t know from Adam, blessing his legs with a group hug worthy of the angels. I’m a little speechless at the display, but I hug them back, even as I realize I’ll never be able to match the enthusiasm and happiness spilling from five hopped up little ladies who could care less who the bed-headed guy at the door is but who are still going to pile the purest Christmas cheer on him the world has seen since the shepherds knelt beside that squalling baby in Bethlehem.
“Um, we’re making pancakes and don’t have any eggs,” I finally manage. It’s hard to speak normally when your face is smiling itself to split at the seams. “Could we borrow one?”
“Absolutely,” S and G, the Mom and Dad, say.
The girls are still hugging my legs, fiercely, with their eyes closed and their lips grinning, as Dad hands over an egg carton and Mom puts a gift wrapped in Christmas-tree green on top.
“Merry Christmas,” she says.
I can’t stop smiling as I head back to our place next door, shaking my head a little at the goodness that has just been poured all over me. The air is still cool, but I’m walking slower now. I can’t wait to share the story with my Lady – tell the universe, maybe – about ten strong little arms that could’ve lifted this stranger straight up to heaven.