Ruth gazed at the blur of passing Christmas lights, and wished they were going anywhere but to her family’s house. She knew they only had minutes before the critical moment arrived. She and her husband Darin had been married for two years, and last Christmas, they spent exclusively with his family.
“Did you bring the present?” asked Ruth.
“Of course. You must have asked five times already.”
Ruth sighed. “Sorry. I’m just nervous. I haven’t seen them since the wedding, and I want to make a good impression.” She chuckled at a sudden memory, “I can’t believe you suggested Christmas ornaments.”
Darin grinned. “They would have found some use for them. Don’t they have a Hanukah bush?”
“Watch it, mister. While I find your quirky wit funny, I doubt my father would take kindly to lighthearted comments about religion.”
“Hey, before I met you, I thought all Jews lived in Jerusalem and wore little round hats. I’ve come a long way.”
“Yes, I hope it’s enough.”
In a few minutes, they parked in her parent’s driveway. “This is it, Ruth. Ready?”
“As ready I will ever be. Follow my lead, and please…no cute comments.”
Darin nodded and they both exited.
The house was a simple brick structure with a one-car garage, a flower plot in the front, and a roof sagging with snow. The porch light remained dark, and they could hear nothing from within. Darin turned to Ruth. “They know we’re coming, right? Maybe they moved and forgot to tell you.”
Ruth sighed, “This is the place. My father wouldn’t move on threat of his life. He always used to say it was time for our people to stay put for a change.” She gestured up to the dark porch light, “And he’s very frugal. It doesn’t even have a bulb.”
Darin’s finger hovered over the doorbell. “Go on,” urged Ruth.
He pressed the doorbell, and a scampering of feet sounded from within.
The door flew open. “Ruthie!”
Her siblings pounced on her in a gigantic group hug. Ruth laughed and greeted them individually. There were two older girls, Rachel and Mary, and twin boys, Joshua and Jasher.
Ruth’s mother appeared in the doorway. She looked like a taller, version of her daughter, with the same dark eyes and hair. She stepped forward and embraced Darin. “Welcome to our home. It’s so nice to have you here at last.”
“Thanks,” said Darin. “I’m not quite sure what to expect.”
“Well,” said Ruth’s mother with a straight face, “the interrogation room is to the right, and the torture chamber is to the left.”
She let this sink in for a moment before bursting into laughter. “I’m joking. That’s the kitchen, and that’s the study.”
They stepped inside and made their way into the kitchen. “We’re grating potatoes for latkes,” announced Ruth’s mother, “Would you all like to help?”
Ruth, Darin, and the two older sisters positioned themselves around the table on wooden chairs. Each person received a knife from the mother and commenced slicing away.
Ruth smiled and took her place behind Darin. She placed her hands over his and walked him through the motions. After a minute, he started taking over. “I think I’ve got it. Thanks.”
Darin hacked away at the potato, having only limited success in retaining what he had just learned.
“So, where’s father?” asked Ruth.
“Out being the Rabbi,” said Ruth’s mother.
Ruth glanced at her husband as he took off a golf-ball sized chunk of potato, and placed a hand on Darin’s shoulder. “Why don’t you leave this to us? Go meet my brothers.”
He slipped out and found the boys huddled over a table in the living room. They were spinning something between them, laughing and arguing with each other. “Hey guys, what are you doing?”
One of curly-haired boys looked up. “Playing dreidel. Wanna play?”
Each boy possessed a stack of golden coins. The wooden dreidel lay on one side with one symbol showing. “Sure,” said Darin, “how do you play?”
The boys’ eyes went wide, “You mean you’ve never played?”
“No. Is it hard to learn?”
“Not really,” said one. “But you don’t have any gelt.”
Darin gestured down to the coins, “That’s gelt?”
“Yeah, it’s money!” said one.
“It’s candy!” said the other.
“It’s both!” they said together.
“How do I get some?” asked Darin. “Do I have to go work in the chocolate factory?”
“Father always gives us some during Hanukah,” said one brother.
One brother slid a few coins towards him, “Here, you can borrow a few of mine to start with.”
“I’m Jasher,” by the way, said the brother in a blue sweater, “this is Joshua.”
“Darin. So, what do these symbols mean?”
Jasher showed the first symbol, “This is ‘nun’-you get to take one coin from the pot.”
“The second one is ‘gimel’,” said Joshua. “Then you have to put one of your own coins in the pot. That’s ‘hey’-you get to take half of the pot.”
“And the last one is ‘shin,” finished Jasher, “which means your turn is over. Understand?”
Unsure, Darin sat down in front of his pile of gelt. They spun over and over and, for the life of him, he could not make sense of it all. His turn came around again, and he was sure he had rolled the one to take half.
Jasher held out his hand, “That one means your turn is over.”
“But on your turn—“
A voice from the kitchen interrupted the dispute.
The two boys disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. Darin glanced down at the candy currency. Had he misunderstood?
Darin sauntered into the kitchen, his mood immediately brightened by the smell of savory food. The table before him was loaded with latkes, slices of cheese, fried pastries and other unfamiliar delights. In the center stood an elaborate candlestick with a line of eight candles.
They seated themselves and suddenly, the door opened revealing a short figure. He wore a dark coat and hat, and wore a full beard with side curls framing his face. He nodded as he entered, but did not smile. “Hello family,” he said, “I hope you are as hungry as I am.”
Darin rose tenuously to shake his father-in-law’s hand, “Uh, hello, sir. Mazel Tov.”
“What are you congratulating me for? Something I should know about?”
He glanced at his daughter, who shook her head. His face relaxed. “Good. I thought I was going to be a grandfather before my hair has time to gray.”
Ruth’s father, Zachariah, raised his hands for silence. “Before we partake of this bounteous feast, let us pause to commemorate the goodness of God in preserving his people as we light the last candle of our menorah.”
He lit a candle that was raised above the others. Then, he used this candle to light the others. Ruth’s mother dimmed the kitchen lights, so that only the light of the menorah reflected off their faces.
Zachariah began to speak rhythmically in a language that Darin guessed was Hebrew. The other family members joined in, and Darin felt a strange longing.
“Boys,” said Ruth’s mother, “perhaps you would like to tell Darin why we celebrate Hanukah.”
“There was this evil king guy,” said Jasher, “who took over the temple.”
“And there was this other guy, Judas, who had these huge muscles,” said Joshua. “He went in and threw the evil guy out.”
“Judas was supposed to keep the candles burning in the temple, but the bad guys messed up most of the oil,’ said Jasher.
“And it had to be special oil,” said Joshua, “It takes eight days to make…so they thought that they would run out.”
Jasher leaned in across the table. “But then, the miracle. The oil lasted eight nights. Just like the eight lights on our menorah.”
Their mother beamed. “Good job boys. Any questions, Darin?”
“From the way they tell it,” said Darin, “someone should buy the movie rights.”
Ruth nudged him on the arm.
“I’m just saying. They made it sound exciting.”
They blew out the candles, turned on the light, and then passed around the food. Darin took a latke and a slice of cheese and looked around the table. “Aren’t we supposed to have unleavened bread?”
“No,” said Zachariah severely. “You have confused this with a Seder service. That is for Passover.”
Darin sunk down into his chair, content to keep his mouth shut.
“So, do you have you plans for the rest of the evening?” asked Ruth’s mother.
“Yes,” replied Ruth, “It is Christmas Eve, and we promised Darin’s family we’d have dessert with them.”
Zachariah grunted. “That’s a strange plan.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ruth.
“It’s fine now, before you’ve started a family. But with children? What will you teach them?”
“I was thinking we could adopt traditions from both of our families,” said Ruth.
“What?” asked Zachariah. “Would you have them put up a Hanukah bush? Talk of dreidels and flying reindeer in the same breath? Put gelt in their stockings?”
“No,” said Ruth, “We’d keep them separate and teach them the importance of both stories.”
“Santa Claus too! The thought that they could get something for nothing.”
Ruth excused herself from the table, claiming a stomachache.
They rode in silence through the frosty night. Finally, Darin reached out and put a comforting hand on his wife’s knee. “Are you all right? Was it my potato grating?”
“More like my father’s people skills. I know he can be blunt at times, but I thought he’d tone it down a little. We even forgot to give them the present.”
“It’s okay,” said Darin. ”I’m glad we went. It will just take some time.”
They turned off onto a street where every house blazed with a Christmas light spectacular. “It’s even bigger than last year,” said Ruth. “I’m glad I don’t get the power bill.”
Darin pulled into a cul de sac and up to a brick house, strung up with enough lights to be seen from space. No sooner had they left the car, but they were tackled by a stream of siblings, seven in all, stretching in age from seven to twenty. They all tried to speak at once. Darin took in everything effortlessly, while Ruth felt as if she’s been dropped in the middle of a rock concert. Darin embraced his parents and went immediately for his mother’s coconut cream pie.
Ruth hung back. She had no idea what half the things were in front of her, though she figured that anything would be good. She turned suddenly as she felt a tug on her sleeve, “Hey, Ruthie. My brother said that your family gets presents every night for eight nights. Is that true?”
Ruth smiled and bent down to answer the little blonde girl. “Well, yes, but they’re small presents, like candy.”
“I told daddy we should do that.”
Soon, Darin’s father held up a hand. “Now that we’re fat and happy, it’s time we got on with the pageant.”
“Couldn’t we open presents first?” suggested one sibling.
“No,” said his father, “pageant first. Mollie, get the costumes. Everyone else figure out what parts you want to be.”
What ensued was anything but a silent night.
All the girls wanted to be Mary, but all the boys favored the “wise guys.” Once this skirmish had been resolved, a hot debate erupted as to the proper ratio of angels to shepherds.
Ruth leaned in close to Darin, “Isn’t this supposed to fun?”
Darin shrugged, “It works out eventually.”
A good half an hour later, the youngest sibling approached Darin and Ruth with a grin. “There are two parts left. Darin gets to be Caesar Augustus, and Ruth gets to be the donkey.”
Ruth’s eyelids disappeared, “Excuse me?”
“You get to carry Mary to Bethlehem. It’s very important.”
Ruth nodded reluctantly. “Uh, thanks.”
The pageant finally proceeded, and Darin’s sympathy part was finished in the first 15 seconds, after declaring that all world need to be counted and taxed.
The donkey, however, had a much harder time. After setting off for Bethlehem, the younger children loudly informed her that she was going the wrong way. She swung around, and Mary lost her balance. The audience looked on in wondering awe as Mary tumbled to the ground, and had to be rescued by a flock of shepherds.
Later, in the stable, she did not look like one of the friendly beasts.
When the pageant finally drew to a close, she came and sat next to her husband. “What’s next?”
“We all get to open a present.”
The family settled around the tree and each grabbed a present. Darin’s father held up a hand, “On three! One, two—“
Wrapping paper dissolved into confetti, tissue paper shredded into fluff, and each hand grasped a long-coveted prize.
“I wanted the blue one!” All heads turned to one of the younger girls who held a shirt in two fingers, as it if had come from a dumpster.
“I thought that you picked that out yourself,” said Darin’s mother. “You tried it on.”
“No,” said Darin’s sister. “I wanted the blue one. This one is ugly.”
Darin’s mother tried to console the girl, and the others tossed their gifts to the side, looking hungrily at the mountain of gifts under the tree.
“Off to bed with you,” said Darin’s father.
One by one, the children slunk off to bed and Darin and Ruth to their car.
Darin didn’t start the ignition. It was Christmas Eve, but they felt as if they’d been served a piece of cake full of creamed spinach.
“So, what did you think of tonight?”
She rested her head against the headrest, “I don’t know what to say.. Interesting.”
“But not really in a good way.”
“What went wrong?” asked Ruth, “We have good families, but everything seemed…wrong.”
“Yes,” said Darin. “I couldn’t wait to leave after your father started grilling us. I respect his traditions, but you know.”
“I do,” replied Ruth.
“And my family,” continued Darin, “that was embarrassing. I wish they had a little respect. ”
Darin let his mind wander. Unexpectedly, he saw a place in the woods where his family used to pick a Christmas tree. They would go at night, tramping through the snow under the brilliant stars.
Peace accompanied the memory-something that he hadn’t felt all night. He wished he could wrap it up in a box and give it to each of his siblings, or as a reward for a dreidel game.
“Darin, let’s go home.”
Darin turned to his wife with a peaceful smile. “No, not yet. Wait here a moment.”
Darin briefly explained the idea to his wife. He jumped out of the car, and disappeared into the house. He emerged a few moments later with his parents in tow. “What’s this about?” asked his father.
“It won’t take long,” assured Darin.
They stopped next outside Ruth’s house, and waited tensely as Ruth slipped inside and convinced her parents to join them. Ruth’s father grumbled as he entered the car, and Darin wondered how she had convinced him to come at all.
They left the main road for the forest, and stopped when they reached the secluded clearing. When Darin gestured for everyone to get out, Ruth’s father was not the only one who reverted to some grumbling.
Darin led the way, creating deep footprints in the untouched snow. They formed a circle in the middle of the clearing, and stood shivering in the silence.
“Would you mind letting us know what we are doing here?” asked Zachariah. “My daughter said it was something important. I hope it entails building a campfire.”
“No,” said Darin. “That would defeat the purpose.”
“What? Have you lost your mind?” asked Zachariah, “Perhaps too many Christmas cookies and talking snowmen have addled your brain.”
Darin turned to Zachariah. “Tell me, why do you celebrate Hanukah?”
Zachariah blinked repeatedly. “We explained that.”
“Yes, you explained the story, but what is the underlying reason that makes you want to celebrate?”
The rabbi remained silent.
Darin turned to his own parents, “And what about you? Why is Christmas such a special time?
His parents’ eyes fell to the snow.
“Everyone. I invite you to look up.”
They did so, and drew a collective gasp. The night was cloudless and clear, far from elaborate Christmas light displays. The undistracted sky provided an incredible view of the cosmos. Each star stood out like a miniature campfire, and the constellations could be traced like a child’s coloring book.
Darin smiled and took in everyone’s reactions. “Why did God create the stars? There’s only one we need. Others are simply gifts of beauty and light.” Darin stepped boldly into the middle of the circle.
“And they are for everyone from the richest businessman to the lowliest bum, regardless. Perhaps he gives these simple gifts because he loves all of his children?”
He gazed intently at his father-in-law, “Is this gift of light so much different than the one God gave the Israelites in Judas’s time?”
“No,” he answered reverently, “not at all.”
Darin then turned to his father, “And is it so different than the gift of light that God gave at Christ’s birth?”
“No,” said his father, “it was even marked by a new star.”
“I know our families have different traditions,” said Darin. “I feel like the expert after tonight. But we both agree on the reason we’re celebrating: we know that God loves his children and that he always will.”
His words faded into the stillness. In their faces, Darin saw many things: wonder, sadness, guilt, reverence, but most all, gratitude. No one said a word as they gazed into the jeweled heavens. For a moment, they forgot even that they were of different families.
Ruth took Darin’s hand gently. “That’s what we will teach our children.”
“Yes,” Darin agreed, “And it’s the best present we’ll ever get them.”
What I liked best: Great comparison between the two families and their approach to the season.
Publication ready: Not yet. First, you have a timing and probability issue. See Jennifer Ricks’ comment. Also, the POV jumps from Ruth to Darin. I think you’d be better sticking with Darin, since he’s the one that brings resolution to the story. Watch out for comma and dialog tags. I’d like to see a little more characterization to Darin and Ruth, as well as Darin’s family. Ruth’s family is pretty well done.
I think with some changes, this could be really good. Rewrite and resubmit for consideration in the anthology.
4 thoughts on “02 The Clearing”
What a delightful story!
This is cute. The author is trying to grapple with a real dilemma, which is neat and intriguing. I especially like the believable tone of conversation between Ruth and Darin.
I do feel like some of the specifics in the story need some filling out. Here are some issues that came to mind as I read:
– Is it really realistic that Darin has never been Ruth's parents house or met her siblings when they've been married for two years and live a short drive away?
– Would Ruth's dad really be so awkward about Mazel Tov? I like how the story is trying to grapple with Jewish stereotypes but embraces them at the same time (i.e. Ruth's father's name is Zachariah and all). It may be more realistic for them to be well aware of stereotypes and very practiced in dealing with them.
– It doesn't seem very realistic that they would visit both sets of parents on the same night.
– It feels like they're at Darin's for the first time too, but the beginning of the story says that they've spent Christmas with them for the past two years. Maybe making this Ruth and Darin's first Christmas together would solve a lot of these problems. Then it would be realistic they feel like they're meeting for almost the first time.
Even though this story could use some brushing up, I really liked the comparison of the two families with two traditions. The story would resonate with anyone who's married. Although Ruth and Darin's situation of having to blend Jewish and Christian traditions is a little extreme compared to most marriage situations, using this case in fiction explores the problem of blending two family traditions that every couple has to deal with.
This is my favorite line: "What ensued was anything but a silent night." Ha! So great!
I vote for this one.
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