We were living away from home by then, but that particular Christmas my brother and I decided to spend the holiday with our parents, for two cogent reasons: our maternal grandmother was to be there, serving as she always did as balm to the familial irritation we knew would spread faster than diaper rash; and our parents had finally bought a house in the country.
It sat on a hill above a valley that early Spanish explorers in our region of gold rush California gave the name “el Vallejo de las Vocas,” Valley of the Voices. That the valley certainly was: a haunted place, especially toward its upper hilly rims, from which even someone not paying attention could hear voices from a mile across the gorge as clearly as if they were emerging from the next room. And there were voices, too, that seemed to have no obvious source: strange cries and cracks and other unexplained aural phenomena that were probably just ordinary sounds magnified by the area’s sensitive natural acoustic but were still unnerving in a pleasurably shivery sort of way.
Our parents’ place could be reached only via a winding dirt road that at one point shot up at a steep angle before leveling out to the flat area where the pond was and, above it, the house. From the house’s second floor deck the view was amazing: above the dark amphitheatre of hills and valley created at nightfall stretched a sky almost too big to take in at a viewing, too enormous a visual bite of stars and moon to be comfortably chewed, let alone swallowed. I loved sitting out there on the balmy December evenings, my gentle grandmother nearby, and ponder with her the various meanings of life (as well as writing bad Spenserian poetry, which my grandmother sweetly professed to admire). The peaceful quiet of the place was almost terrifying, particularly to city slickers like my brother and me, who lived just above Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, where a surf’s noise of traffic assaulted us day and night.
It seemed too good to be true, and we soon had confirmation of that when, come Christmas Eve day, a dark element was introduced into the otherwise sunny atmosphere. My mother’s brother, a troubled man who had had a tough time in Vietnam and seemed bent on visiting his incurable Angst on everyone around him, arrived at the house to offset a debt he owed my father. Or so I understood the explanation for his poor timing; he intended to effect a repayment by clearing and burning brush from the hill behind the dwelling. To help him he had brought along his stepson, a bright, handsome boy on whom he proceeded to vent his spleen, ordering the young man around and confusing him with conflicting orders delivered on strong whiffs of whim.
My father, brother and I grumbled about this, but my mother and grandmother ignored it, a pattern of longstanding vintage where my uncle was concerned. Then we all forgot about the annoyance because my mother and grandmother began preparing Christmas dinner, which by early evening made the house redolent of a swarm of delicious aromas, the top note of which was my grandmother’s lemon pie.
The only problem was that it soon became apparent that my uncle was not yet ready to join us at the table. Again and again, he sent his harried stepson indoors with the message that he was still busy, that there was a little more to do. The stench of burning brush began to mingle jarringly with the aromas of the delayed dinner. Again, my father, brother and I grumbled, suggesting we should start without him. Again, my mother and grandmother shared comments that intimated we were not thankful for the work the poor blighted man was doing for us, and on such a day, etc., ad nauseam.
Just when tempers were about to boil over like the gravy being kept warm on the stove, the stepson ran madly into the house, throwing open the door so wildly it slammed against the wall. His white face smudged with soot, he stammered something about calling the fire department. My father, ex-chief of the local volunteer company, rushed out the door, my brother and me in tow, and we saw to our horror that the hill behind the house was slowly going up in sheets of bright sparkly orange, cheerful as our Christmas tree, silhouetting the black cutouts of smoking oak trees.
The stench of incinerated brush had intensified to include the throat-choking smell of burning grass and trees. “He tried to put it out himself,” the boy cried, teeth chattering. “He told me to light too many bonfires. He wouldn’t listen to me.”
By then, he was talking only to my brother and me, because our father had run back to the house to call the fire department. He came back outside. Grabbing a shovel, he shouted to us to turn the hose on the hillward-facing sides of the house, then disappeared into the smoking undergrowth. By now, my mother’s and grandmother’s horrified faces could be seen between the draperies, and we could also see the Christmas tree through a downstairs window, twinkling as Christmas trees do, as if the world did not in fact contain a surfeit of murder, mayhem and such acts of surpassing stupidity as now threatened my parents’ home.
We urged the women to close all the windows and began spraying down the house. Within minutes the quiet valley was shrieking with echoes of approaching sirens, which deafened us as the fire trucks came up the drive and screeched to a dusty halt. With the trucks came a bus full of grim-faced young men: guys in their late teens and twenties, blacks and Latinos and a few surly whites, who were consigned to this grimy detail as part of their county jail sentences. Dressed in coveralls and helmets and bearing shovels and pickaxes, the young men fanned out as they were told, up where my father and uncle were fighting the blaze.
Inside the house, dinner was ruined, and in my mother’s angry face I saw, to my surprise, a glimmer of understanding of what, and who, had brought not just this evening upon us but several other such misadventures over the years. My stoic grandmother tried to make the best of a bad situation, concentrating quite sensibly on the welfare of her son and son-in-law. Throughout, the Christmas tree continued to sparkle stupidly, like a sequined showgirl.
It was then that it occurred to me, as the firemen left the labor corps behind to clean up, that not only was the house now reeking of acrid wood smoke, our dinner and the holiday ruined, and the hillside charred to within feet of the house, but the property was populated by young males with criminal records, carrying sharp tools and probably plenty of grudges against the world in general and us in particular.
When my grandmother, worried about her son, and my mother, worried about her husband, peered out the window, I looked with them, and saw the better part of the labor crew sitting on the lawn and front stoop, coughing and talking in low voices to each other while staring up at the house and its brightly lit Christmas tree. I looked at my grandmother, wondering how she was taking the scene. To my surprise, she was smiling. I watched her go to the kitchen and emerge with slices of pie, along with the “good” china and silverware, which she carried downstairs. We found her at the front door, handing surprised young men plates of lemon pie and asking them about their families, while our still-nervous mother hurried down with reinforcements. A chorus of “Thank you, ma’am,” in bass and tenor tones, floated up from the yard, along with a few murmured wishes of “Merry Christmas.”
By midnight, the air was cooler and cleaner, the stars polished bright, and the labor corps had left. My father had returned to the house to wash up and be fed, and we had decided to leave the presents till morning — it was enough of a gift to know the house had not burnt to the ground. My uncle, embarrassed at the mess he had caused, pulled a well-rehearsed disappearing act, escaping to the local pub to drown his sorrows. It was interesting to see, on a night of the unexpected, how some things never change.
Meantime, my brother and I climbed up a fire trace, past blackened fields we knew would be sad to see by daylight, to investigate a glow we had spotted past a stand of scorched trees at the top of the hill. We found the charred remains of a dead oak, fire still burning hot and brilliant in its cracked trunk, a sort of last torch of triumph for the god of fire. Standing there, blanketed in a silence compounded of the late hour, the setting, the absence of birds and insects put to flight, with just the tiny fire crackling in the heart of the tree, my brother and I realized that for the first time that day, and around a very different sort of glowing tree, we sensed the true presence of Christmas. We turned to each other and almost with the same breath, whispered, “And to all a good night.”