The Christmas Gift by Northern Michigan Writer Jerry Dennis

Outside, I stomped a circle in the slush and waited for it to freeze so I would have a dry place to stand. The sun was low on the hilltops, the day fading down to pale blue and the cold night air descending. A few other shanties were scattered across our end of the lake, but they sat unused and frozen-looking. I imagined my parents at home, preparing for our traditional Christmas celebration. I thought of Tony’s mother, then of his father. I had preferred death when it was an abstract concept. That summer it had struck too close to home, and I did not know what to think. Tony and I never talked about it, not once. I convinced myself he preferred it that way.

Then Tony shouted. I spun and looked at the shanty. There was a clatter inside, and the shanty seemed to rock and tremble, like a cartoon rocket about to launch. The door burst open, and Tony tumbled out, his spear at waist level impaled through a gyrating northern pike. He could hardly hold it up. Ten pounds, I thought in disbelief. Fifteen pounds. Tony threw it down on the ice and danced in triumph around it.

It was not fifteen pounds. More like ten. Eight, to be honest. But it was large enough for Christmas dinner. Tony’s grin was so broad I thought his face would cramp. He told me what had happened, how the fish had appeared suddenly, without warning. One moment there was nothing, the next there was a northern pike, the largest he had ever seen, hovering in the center of the hole. It had focused intently on the decoy, its fins waving to keep it in position. Tony had pushed the spear off firmly, the way we had practiced.

We walked to shore, stepping in the plugged and frozen footprints we had made coming out. Tony waited while I ran up the hill and took the wrapped grouse from my parents’ freezer. Then we walked together to his house, like wise men bearing gifts.

His mother sat alone in the kitchen, dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, her hair pulled back and pinned so tight it stretched the skin taut on her face. The house was dark, the table empty. No food cooked merrily on the stove. I realized for the first time what Tony had been so determined to do, andit made me ashamed for not taking his efforts more seriously.

I was ashamed, too, because my family was so stable and complete, our Christmas so abundant that the bounty overflowed outdoors. There were wreaths on our doors and an electric Santa on the roof and a two-string coil of blinking blue lights around the spruce beside the driveway. Inside were Christmas music, a crackling fire, dishes heaped with nuts and the chocolate candies my mother made every year. Our Christmas tree was large and full, lit as bright as the night sky, with an enormous silver star on top. I was ashamed and grateful and guilty all at once.

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