On a Winter’s Night, by Kate DiCamillo

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Forest with Blood, by Richard Bosman © The artist. Courtesy Pamela Salisbury Gallery, Hudson, New York

[Story]

On a Winter’s Night

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My father told me this story.

He said it happened one Christmas Eve many years ago.

A boy was walking alone alongside a highway and saw the lights of the A&P grocery store ahead of him in the darkness. The boy walked down into a ravine and across the deserted parking lot and stood in front of the store’s automatic doors until they opened and admitted him.

“Hurry up, hon,” said a woman at the register. “We’re closing soon.”

Christmas music played over the loudspeaker and a big display of canned hams sat right at the front of the store. The pile of stacked cans went halfway to the ceiling. Each can was decorated with a picture of a family—a father and a mother and a boy and a girl—all sitting around a table with a ham on a platter in the center of it.

Each member of the family was looking at the ham and smiling like they had never seen anything as amazing and beautiful, as miraculous, as a ham on a platter. The girl seemed particularly out of her mind with joy. She was clasping her hands together, beaming at the ham in ecstasy.

Next to the canned ham display was a gingerbread house resting on a cloud of cotton balls. The boy reached out and touched one of the walls. Styrofoam.

The floor of the A&P had white tiles alternating with red tiles. The boy made his way down the aisle slowly, stepping only on the red tiles.

The Christmas music stopped playing. A man’s voice came over the loudspeaker and said, “A&P shoppers! We will be closing in five minutes. We wish you and yours a merry Christmas.”

The Christmas music started up again, and the boy made it to the end of the aisle, all the way to the meat counter, without stepping on a single white tile.

To the right of the meat counter was a little wooden house. The house had green shutters and a green door and a brick chimney and a wooden chair out front. A velvet rope was strung around the house and the chair, and there was a sign on a pole that said, santa has gone to feed the reindeer. hell be right back!

The boy climbed over the rope and pushed on the green door of the house. It was flimsy, made out of cardboard, and it opened onto a dark interior. There was nothing inside.

But what if he had gone through the green door and found a warm room with a fireplace and a fire? And what if in front of the fire there had been a big, overstuffed chair? And what if there had been something cooking over the fire, like a stew or some soup?

The boy had once seen a poster of a rabbit in a burrow on the wall of the school library. The rabbit had a plaid blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He was sitting in an armchair in front of a fireplace, and his big, furry feet were up on a footstool. The rabbit was talking to a mole, who was standing in front of the fire, stirring something in a big pot. The mole was wearing slippers—green ones. And he looked like he was listening to what the rabbit was saying.

The rabbit held a mug in his front paws. Steam was rising out of the mug, glittering in the light of the fire, and the rabbit’s whiskers and ears were outlined in the same light. So was the mole’s nose.

Two pictures hung on roots emerging from the dirt wall of the room. One of the pictures was of an older mole lady, wearing glasses and a lace shawl. She was smiling down at the fireplace, looking at the mole and the rabbit with approval. The other picture was of the rabbit and the mole in front of the fire, just as they were in the poster. The boy liked the dizzy way the picture made him feel—as if there were worlds hidden inside of other worlds, going on to infinity.

At the bottom of the poster were the words on a winters night.

The school librarian had seen the boy staring at the poster and asked him if he would like to check out the book.

“No,” he said. “It’s all just made up, isn’t it? It’s just a story.”

“Well, yes,” said the librarian. “I suppose so, but it’s a good story.”

He couldn’t explain it to her—what a big waste of time it would be to believe that anything like that could happen, that a rabbit and a mole could be friends and sit around in front of a fire talking.

“A&P shoppers!” said the man over the loudspeaker. “We appreciate your business. The store is now closed.”

The Christmas music stopped, and the only noise was the hum of the refrigerators and freezers.

The boy sat down in the little house and leaned up against the cardboard wall.

Maybe he would just sleep for a while. He was tired.

He put his head on his knees and wrapped his arms around his legs. Curling up like that made him think of Martin Miner.

Martin Miner was a kid at school who rolled himself up into a little ball every time the other kids started to pick on him.

“Less surface area.” That was what Martin Miner had said to the boy when they were sitting together outside the principal’s office. “When there’s less surface area, you’re smaller. And then there’s less of you to hurt.”

Martin’s face was swollen and scraped, bleeding in places.

“It looks to me like you got hurt pretty bad,” said the boy.

Martin Miner put up a hand and touched his face. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess so. But what I’m worried about is my glasses. They’re broken.”

He held them up. The glasses were in two distinct pieces.

“Can you see without them?”

Martin blinked. “I can see some things. But not the details.”

“Who needs details?” the boy said. He was bleeding, too. But only on his knuckles, and it was from hitting someone, not from being hit.

“I like details,” said Martin Miner in a dreamy voice. “I like the patterns in bird feathers and the veins on leaves and those little feelers on ants; and also, punctuation. I like seeing punctuation marks.”

The boy felt a drop of sweat dribble down the side of his face. It was hot in the hallway. They were sitting next to a radiator.

“My mother is going to be mad,” Martin said. “The glasses were expensive. Maybe Santa will get me a new pair. I was hoping for a train set, but maybe he can get me glasses instead.”

“Give them to me,” said the boy.

Martin Miner handed him the glasses.

“I could fix these,” said the boy.

“Really?” said Martin Miner.

The door to the principal’s office opened and the principal stuck his head out and said, “Martin, come in here. We’re going to talk about why this keeps happening to you.”

Martin stood up. The principal pointed the stem of his pipe at the boy. “I’ll deal with you next,” he said.

Martin went into the office. The principal closed the door.

“Sure you will,” said the boy. “Sure you’ll deal with me.” The radiator ticked; the fluorescent lights hummed.

The boy put Martin’s glasses in the chest pocket of his jacket, and then he stood up and headed down the empty hallway and out of the building.

He did not look behind him.

That had been Thursday, the last day of school before Christmas break.

Inside the A&P, in the little pretend house, the boy touched the front pocket of his jacket. The glasses were still there. He pulled the pieces out and held them up and looked at them. He shook his head.

Why would Martin Miner just hand over his glasses?

Why would he believe that the boy could fix anything?

The overhead lights went out in the A&P. The boy stood up. He held himself still for a minute, blinking, waiting until his eyes adjusted to the gloom, and then he went through the little green door and stepped over the velvet rope.

The parking lot lights were still on. He could see them glowing. He walked down the aisle toward the front of the store.

Would his mother wonder where he was?

Probably not.

She probably wasn’t even home. She was probably still at the bar, working. Or maybe done with work and at some party. Who could say? She didn’t tell the boy her plans.

“Nobody tells me their plans,” she had said to him once. “Do you think your father ever told me his plans? Huh?”

At the front of the store, the boy found a section with Scotch tape and notebooks and pencils and pens and masking tape. He held the two pieces of Martin Miner’s glasses up to the light coming in from the parking lot, and then he tore a long piece of masking tape from one of the rolls and wound it around the center of the glasses until the two pieces were joined.

The boy put Martin Miner’s glasses on and looked out at the parking lot.

It was snowing.

Great, fat flakes were twirling down.

The glasses bent the world and made it look like a painting that someone had swiped a hand through, blurring it before it dried.

“Details, huh?” said the boy. “I don’t see any details.”

He stared out at the smeary world. In the whiteness, there suddenly appeared a dark shape.

It looked like a deer.

Not just a deer, but a giant buck.

The boy shook his head. He took the glasses off and folded them carefully and put them in the pocket of his jacket, and then he looked out at the parking lot again.

The deer was still there, its outlines sharper now, more distinct.

The boy’s father had taken him hunting once, before he disappeared for good. The boy was younger then, and it had been cold in the woods.

“The most important thing is that you got to keep your eyes open,” his father told him. “Don’t ever close your eyes.”

The boy was the one who had seen the deer.

He was the one who had pointed him out to his father. But when his father raised the rifle to shoot, the boy had pulled at his arm, trying to stop him, and the shot missed the deer’s heart. A bright patch of red appeared on the deer’s neck, and the deer had looked right at the boy. He had given him a great, sorrowful glance of disbelief before he turned and leapt away.

His father had been furious. “The biggest buck I’ve ever seen, and what do you do? Shove me. Shove me and I miss.”

Now, looking out at the deer in the parking lot, the boy had the crazy thought that this was the same animal, the same deer his father had tried to kill.

The boy watched as the buck moved toward him through the yellow light and the falling snow. He watched as the deer came right up to the automatic doors and stood looking into the darkened store.

“Here I am,” said the boy. “Stay there. Wait there.”

He turned and ran past the canned ham family, past the Styrofoam gingerbread house and down the aisle, past the Santa throne and the empty little house, past the meat counter and through a swinging door into the stockroom. He pushed his way past boxes and pallets. He banged his shin on a shelving unit. He ran toward the exit sign glowing in the dark. He pushed on the handle of the door. An alarm went off and the boy was out and in the alley and running toward the front of the store.

The snow was coming down fast and the boy’s heart was pounding, saying the same two words over and over: Be there. Be there. Be there.

The deer was there.

Standing in front of the automatic doors.

“Here,” said the boy. “I’m here.”

The great antlered head turned in his direction, and then the deer started to walk away from the store, away from the boy. He stopped once, and looked over his shoulder, and then continued walking.

“Should I follow you?” said the boy. “Am I supposed to follow you?”

The deer made his way through the empty, snowy parking lot. The boy followed, staying several steps behind.

The snow kept falling. They walked past houses with yellow windows and strings of bright Christmas lights. The boy’s shoes were wet and his pants were soaked through and the snow was coming so fast and thick that it was sometimes hard to see, but each time they walked beneath a streetlight, the deer’s antlers were suddenly outlined in gold and the boy wasn’t cold or afraid.

The deer walked down the middle of the street and then into the front yard of a small house with a Christmas tree in the window.

The deer stopped and the boy went and stood beside him.

They were both breathing hard.

A face appeared in the front window, next to the lighted Christmas tree.

Martin. Martin Miner.

“I’ve got this kid’s glasses,” said the boy to the deer.

The deer turned and looked at the boy. His eyes were weary and bright. The boy felt dizzy. He put out his hand and touched the deer’s neck, felt his heart pulsing, felt the warmth of him, the reality of him.

Martin came running out of his house.

“Hey,” shouted Martin.

The deer turned and in one fluid movement leapt over the box hedge and disappeared into the swirling snow.

“I saw him,” said Martin. “It was a reindeer!”

“No,” said the boy. “It was just a wild deer.”

“Martin!” shouted a woman from the doorway. “What in the world are you doing?”

“Here,” said the boy. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the glasses.

“You fixed them!” said Martin.

“They’re not fixed. I just taped them together.”

Martin put the glasses on and looked around at the world, smiling.

“Get in here!” shouted Martin’s mother.

“You have to come in,” said Martin. “She’ll be mad if you don’t come in.”

The boy went inside and Martin’s mother made him sit down in front of the fire. “People die from walking around like that, all soaking wet in the cold,” she said.

She put a big, heavy blanket around his shoulders. It was warm, so warm, but the boy couldn’t stop shivering. And then he was crying—great, heaving sobs.

Martin didn’t say anything. He just sat next to the boy in front of the fire. Christmas music was playing.

Somewhere out in the woods, beyond the little house and the lights and the fire and the music, the deer was walking, putting one foot in front of the other.

The deer was alive. His heart was beating. The boy had felt it. He had felt the deer’s beating heart.

He had felt, too, a scar on the deer’s neck, the thickened skin where something had entered him, broken through him, and then, somehow, miraculously healed over. And to the boy, this meant that he had been forgiven, and he thought that this was a very good Christmas gift.

My father told me this story once when I was young, and then again when I was grown and he was very old.

Both times, I asked him the same question.

“Were you the boy?”

The first time I asked him, he told me that it didn’t matter—that it was a story, just a story.

But when I asked him the question the second time, when I asked him again, “Were you the boy?” my father turned to me and said, “I felt it. I felt the bullet inside of him. It was still there.” He started to cry. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you understand how warm it was in front of Martin Miner’s fire?”

“Yes,” I told him. “I understand.”

And I sat with my father and held his hand and let him cry.

’s most recent novel is The Beatryce Prophecy. She lives in Minneapolis.


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