It is memories like these, of past Christmases, past family gatherings, that circle through Alana’s mind that night as she approaches bed. Her mind is buzzing, like it always used to do on Christmas Eve. Only, this time she knows that it is not excitement over presents and the magic of Christmas morning that keeps her from sleeping. This time she is replaying every argument, every confrontation, every terse, unloving look, ever pregnant silence; and in the story they tell, pasted as they are together in her mind, she can see tomorrow unfolding just as every year has done before.
Looking towards Peter’s faint outline in the light of the nearly full moon, she thinks, as she so often has done before, of waking him. She listens for his breath; it is soft, shallow almost. Perhaps he is still awake.
“Peter,” she says.
“Yes?” he replies, a vaguely startled sound to his voice, as though just awoken.
“I can’t sleep,” she says.
He moves in towards her. “No?” he replies slowly, still not quite awake.
“Can you…do you think you could pray for me?”
“Sure,” he says, a hint of uncertainty still in his voice. She cannot remember when they last prayed together. She knows it is a strange request; yet somehow she feels that nothing else will help tonight. Their stories have worn out their welcome; she knows she would not be convinced by them tonight.
“What do you want me to pray for?” asks Peter.
“That I can sleep,” she replies, simply.
“Okay,” says Peter. “I can try.”
And so, his eyes still half-closed from sleeping, he prays – a quiet, hesitant and simple prayer. The words have little power in themselves, and for a moment Alana wonders if it was absurd to have done this. They are silent, lying there a little awkwardly, wondering what to do next. And yet, something within her begins to feel a little more still, a little more at peace, and so she thanks Peter and once again they lie silently, Peter soon asleep again, Alana not yet sleeping but not as fearful as before.
And slowly, as her mind begins again to play over the thoughts from before, she shifts from the memories of past Christmases, and she finds she is in a room, seated beside the Christmas tree, neither a woman nor a child but somehow both at once, and she knows that this is not a Christmas that has ever happened before. She knows, however, that she is in the living room of her childhood home, and the tree is much like other trees they have had before, decorated just as she and her sister and brothers had always decorated the tree.
Turning her face from the tree she sees a man sitting beside the tree, a little like her older brother, a little like her father, a little like neither of them, and he is holding a basket, like a Christmas hamper but made, seemingly, of hay or dried reeds.
And the man looks at her and says, I brought you your present.
And, feeling inside herself that same surging excitement that always used to keep her awake on Christmas Eve, she takes the basket and peers into it, seeing, at first to her confusion, then to her joy, a baby, sleeping quietly, clearly a new-born. But then her heart sinks, because she knows, in that way of knowing we have sometimes in dreams, that this child is not hers, and she looks back at the man with disappointment, as if to ask him why he has given her this child that is not her own.
Look again, he says.
And so she looks again, only this time the child has changed – still the same baby, yet now covered in blood, as if only just born; and the baby turns a little in its sleep, as though distressed by a dream, and as it turns Alana can see the baby’s face, and she shrinks back in disgust, for the baby’s face is the most distorted, disfigured face she has ever seen. Unable to look any more at the face, she looks up again at the man beside the tree and asks, this time aloud, Who did this?
The man looks into her eyes and says slowly, You did.
And Alana begins to cry, at the sight of the baby and the thought of what she has done, for she sees in an instant not the moments of pain she had seen before, but sights of herself, her insides, and she knows that what the man said is true. As she cries, she looks back at him, though she is sure he will only look at her crossly, just as she feels sure she deserves, but looking at him now she finds that he too is bleeding and disfigured like the baby. And yet – he is smiling, not cruelly, as she feels would surely fit the blood and disfigurement, but peacefully, even triumphantly.
Look again, he says. She can tell from his voice that it hurts him to speak.
And though she cannot bear to look at the baby again, neither can she bear to look at his face, and so she looks down again and sees that the baby’s face has become new again, clean as though just washed, and she fancies that the baby’s face is the same as the face of the man beside her, in the way that dreams can unite two objects that are distinct from each other as if they were one. And she cries; though the baby is now clean, she cries with a pain that she cannot understand but can feel pulsing out of her like a primal energy.
Tears continue to pour and pour down her cheeks, until she fancies that the air around her has become damp with her tears, only then she sees that she is now outside and the dampness in the air is rain – torrential rain. And she finds she is standing waist-deep in a river full of reeds, with the man still standing beside her, and the baby’s basket in her hands is now floating off in the current, but she does not cry now to see it happen. Standing for a moment in the water, she becomes aware that Peter is there too, standing on the river bank, separated from her by the stretch of water; and seeing this she begins to cry again, for it is just like the dream she had only a few weeks earlier. Only this time she does not cry to be separated from him but instead cries at the thought that he does not know or understand what she has seen.
Do not cry, says the man, resting his hand for a moment on her shoulder. I will go to him, he says.
And so Alana stands, watching as the man walks out into the water, walking, waking, until the water seems almost to cover his head, then rising from the water, taking its vastness in his stride, until he is nearly at the riverbank, Peter standing silently, watching blankly, almost as if he cannot see; and though the man does not turn back to face her, she can hear him as though he is still at her side saying once again, I will go to him. And though she sees him there, walking ever closer to Peter, she cannot stop crying; and so she cries and cries, for decades and hours, and stands with the river rushing all about her, with centuries of life washing off around her, and there she stands watching, watching, until night-time comes and she finds herself washed onto the bank to sleep, tears turning to peace, peace turning to sleep. And somehow as she sleeps she knows she is cradled, the sands of the bank comforting her with their warmth.
In the morning, Alana wakes, Peter beside her, the early morning sun now shining. Vivid impressions of her dream linger with her: the child in the basket; the young, old man comforting her, stretching between her and Peter and the water’s vast expanse. Lying there, circling over memories of the dream, she has no answers, no perfect solutions, but a sense of understanding, of being understood, appeased.
“Merry Christmas,” she whispers to Peter while he sleeps.
He does not stir. She lies in bed waiting for him to wake, the gift of her dream still with her as she waits.
End of the Fourth Candle. Go to the Fifth Candle.