A Gift in Winter – Friday Reads

We’re very happy to be able to present a short story by Jay B. Gaskill – he’s a wonderfully talented writer who can infuse a fantastic story with a realism that resonates with a reader. Jay is the author of THE STRANDED ONES and LOST SOULS COFFEE SHOP (the story below is an excerpt from LOST SOULS), two books based in science and fantasy – two of our favorite genres…

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A GIFT IN WINTER by Jay B. Gaskill

For the first part of his life, he didn’t have a name.

He hid for hours at a time in the Baker’s former coal bin. The basement of the Baker house was an excellent refuge, warm in winter, cold in the summer.  In that dark place, he peeked through a crack in the wall, staring at the flickering images of a television set in the next room.

It was the beginning of his education.

He was drawn to the television because of the fast food commercials. While one of the Baker children spent almost every evening sitting on a cushion in front of the screen, he peeked through his crack, eagerly waiting for the next food pictures. Some of the objects in the pictures resembled the scraps that he’d scavenged from the cans behind the Baker’s house.

One evening when the youngest of the Baker children left the room for a moment, a yellow and red image on the screen caught his attention. Hadn’t he eaten that very thing last night?  Actually, he realized the picture was last night’s meal before it was delivered to the can behind the house.  Oh, the implications!  Apple pie, hamburgers, fries, fish heads, tuna salad and bananas, all these treats and more were appearing on the television in one form and reappearing in the cans behind the Baker’s in another form.  He had discovered the transmutation of food.  And suddenly he knew that last night’s food had a name:

Pizza. Such an epiphany!  Suddenly the universe began to make sense. He had found his Rosetta Stone, the key to understanding television.  At first he didn’t notice that he was beginning to understand television. Then one evening he listened closely to the youngest of the Baker children.  The child opened the back door, leaving scraps of food on a plate on the stoop, and called out, “Here, kitty! Have some food!”

He instantly understood what the little one said.  The little one spoke television.
So he decided to watch everything on television.  Driven by a new kind of hunger, he took his place in the coal bin early, waiting impatiently for the little one to come down stairs and make the television start.

The very next day, he learned the little one’s name.  The little one was called ‘Hey Timmy’.

Months passed, his vocabulary grew and a cascade of insights followed.  So much to absorb!  But one night he discovered something new and very disturbing. It happened when Hey Timmy was sitting in front of the television, turning pages in something called a schoolbook.  Hey Timmy went upstairs, turning the basement lights off, but leaving the television’s bright images flickering in the empty room.

The temptation was too much. He crept out of the coal bin, drawn toward the pictures and sounds. His eyes were fixed on the screen and three small, familiar figures with back and white faces. He approached until the glowing image was close enough to touch. He reached out, hesitating, too enthralled to hear the rasp of the turning door handle at the top of the stairway. Tentatively, he caressed the tiny faces. The screen felt smooth and hard, like the window to the basement.

They… are… like…me!

The surface tingled, and he pulled back from the screen. Then the door at the top of the stairs opened and the basement lights clicked on.

He froze.

The sound of Hey Timmy’s rapidly descending footsteps broke the spell and he scampered back into the coal bin just as Hey Timmy reached the bottom of the stairs. He sat trembling in the darkness while Hey Timmy arranged a plate of snacks in front of the television and settled back against the cushion.

Over the next half hour, he studied the television images and listened closely as it told the story of three ‘urban scavengers’ who found food in the cans just as he had, scurrying across streets at dawn and disappearing into hiding places.

The television’s voice said that the three creatures belonged to a club called ‘procoyn lotor.’  They were also called raccoons.

When the Timmy finally left, this time turning the television off, he sat in total darkness, trying to absorb what he had just learned. It seemed that ‘raccoon’ was just a category like ‘food’ or ‘dog’, not a real club, like ‘club human’.

He was stunned. Raccoons did not even have individual names like Hey Timmy.

He stayed indoors for a long time that night, caught up in the implications of three bleak insights: he was unnamed; he was one of a kind; he was alone. Before dawn, he skulked outside for his nocturnal rounds. He had much more to learn.

He would definitely have to get out more.

The Bakers lived between a Temple and a Church.  These two buildings were on opposite corners of the block. So when he was not observed, he visited each of them when interesting things were happening. And for the better part of the next two years, interesting things were happening every few days.
Even without television.

The season that the television called ‘winter’ returned.  It was a time when snow fell on the ground and stayed.  It was a good time to hide indoors and it was a time when the food provided in the cans in back of the Bakers’ house was harder to collect, especially when it was frozen, and harder still to wash.

He had noticed that people like the Reillys and the Jones attended the church, and people like the Levins and the Markowitz’s gathered in the temple.  Television was spoken in both places, but in the temple he lost the thread of the conversations when something called Hebrew was spoken. Obviously it was a more advanced form of television.

This winter he would discover his name. So he began listening even more carefully to the television and much more carefully to the names he heard in the Church and Temple.

One night, when the moon was very bright, he found his name.  It was a name he had heard used in both Temple and Church.

Abraham.

He loved his name because it had distinction, and because it seemed to mean “first of a kind.”  After that, whenever he visited the Church and Temple, he no longer felt so deeply alone in the entire world.   Not now that he was named Abraham.

In the temple, there were celebrations, and discussions about the Great People who lived before television, and of their special relationship to the Great One.  This was told through stories from a Very Important Book.

In the church, there were celebrations and discussions about the same Great People, stories from a Very Important Very Similar Book. And there were some new stories.  Most of the new stories were about the Son of the Great People who lived before television.  This Son sounded like a former member of the Temple congregation.

Abraham began to understand that the members of club human who attended Temple and Church were all telling and retelling stories that helped them relate to the Great One.  It was obvious to him that the two buildings were just two places to visit the Great One without television.

Abraham also noticed that the people tended to avoid using the two buildings on the same day.  The people probably thought that the Great One would only talk in one building at a time. Otherwise they could have consolidated buildings and left the spare one for him.  Preferably heated.

These members of club human apparently didn’t know about reruns.

Members of club procoyn lotor didn’t have a Very Important Book, or television, but they knew one Very Important Thing: The Great One is everywhere.

It was a season of short, cold days, and longer colder nights.  It was also a season of lights.  Oh the lights!  The colors were like burning flowers, but cool, like the stars.  There were lights in the temple and the church and in the homes.  The winter lights were the gift of club human to the world.

Abraham was pleased.

Late on one chill, white-clad evening, a full moon was rising and deep purple shadows fell across the snow in the alley.  He noticed a car slow on the snow covered street, then stop; it made that low growling noise that dogs and cars made.  Abraham hid in the alley and stared as a cloaked figure slipped out of the car, carrying a tiny bundle. The figure came into the alley, its feet crunching on the frozen crust, its breath smoking. The bundle was carefully placed near the trash cans against the fence, and then the figure returned to the car.

The door thunked and the car growled. The engine noise died.  Silence descended like a snowdrift.

Then Abraham heard a faint, muffled crying sound. When I have heard this sound before?

Abraham trotted lightly over the alley snow, past the Bakers’ gate, past the rows of cans that lined the fences, toward the source of the crying.  Tattered gray and pink blankets were wrapped tightly around a little creature propped up against the fence. Abraham padded to its side and delicately adjusted the blankets around the little head.

He peered at the tiny face, as it paused in its crying to make sucking movements with its pink mouth. He smelled the cub’s newness, felt its gentle breath. Yes, yes. This was a tiny human cub.

A baby.

Then this Very Important New Member of club human began to cry again. Abraham was overwhelmed by a sense of wrongness. He tried to pick up the bundle. The baby’s crying momentarily stopped, but the burden was too heavy. So he gently laid it down, and the crying resumed.

What to do?

Abraham closed his tiny arms around the bundle, trying to warm it.  A gust of wind swept down the alley.  Then he pushed himself against the fence and tried to cradle the baby, covering its little face against the icy air with the corner of the blanket. He began crying himself, a piercing, keening noise.

After a long time, he stopped.  It was very dark and the wind continued to howl. The full moon emerged from a streak of clouds, then dimmed as the wind drove it deeper into the sky. Abraham wanted very much to go to his sanctuary in the basement of the Bakers or to the Temple or the church, to any comfortable nest out of the wind and cold.  But he stayed.
Again, Abraham keened.  A dog began barking. Another. Eventually six dogs were barking.  And cats howled.  It was an animal chorus.  And not one of us speaks television, Abraham thought.

When he heard approaching footsteps, Abraham stopped keening. A human voice? He keened sharply, frustrated that he couldn’t speak television. A flashlight pierced the darkness and he looked away from the brightness, suddenly silent. The lights, Abraham thought, trembling, are the gift of club human.

“What is this?” It was Rabbi Harold Solomon from the temple who had asked. Then the flashlight passed something very unusual.  Harold looked down, moving the flashlight back and forth.  What had he just seen? Abraham was shaking with fear, but he stayed close by the tiny human. Then, in the dancing circle of light, the Rabbi noticed a little bandit-faced creature hovering nearby. One paw –it was almost like a hand – was supporting a blanketed bundle tucked against the fence.

Then the baby began crying again, and Abraham gently pulled a fold of blanket aside, revealing the ruddy, squinting face.

“Look here!” he wanted to cry out.  “See! It’s one of yours!”

“My God, you’ve actually been guarding this baby?” Solomon had blurted it out. As if this creature could understand!  Abraham drew back. “I won’t hurt you,” Harold said. Then Rabbi Solomon kneeled in the snow. Gently, he picked up the baby, opened his own coat and shirt, and held the tiny person against his bare chest.

The rabbi stood slowly, securing the baby. When he looked down at the raccoon, Abraham was sitting in the snow next to the trash cans behind the Temple, staring up with dark, intelligent eyes.

“A miracle,” the Rabbi said softly.  “You called me?” Harold felt foolish because he had just asked a raccoon a question. Yet, Abraham held his little paws out, as if to say, “So, if I could talk, you’d listen?”

Was that a shrug?  But that’s not … Rabbi Solomon quickly dismissed his thought, and the little raccoon trotted away down the alley, vanishing in the shadows.

“Wait!” Harold shouted.

But Abraham was in a hurry to go home.  He had saved a Baby Messiah.

It was his gift to club human.

Abraham was very pleased.

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