Not exactly a Christmas story

I spent the day hanging out with my nieces and nephew. Most of the time involved playing in Emily’s “house” in the magnolia tree out front. There was a weird discomfort for me about that. See, though I acknowledge that it is a superior space for a pretend house, as a child I never, ever played in that tree.

Not after the incident with the turtle.

I’m not sure how old I was, but probably between five and eight simply because I was doing what Emily was doing today. I was “exploring” or playing house. This magnolia tree is great for that because it’s actually a single large tree surrounded by a crowd of magnolia saplings. They grow so slowly that it doesn’t look much different from when I was little.

I remember pushing through the tightly bunched trunks and the waxy feel of the leaves. The slender branches feel like cinnamon sticks. It is dark and quiet in the center of the grove, even at noon. I step over a branch and my bare foot comes down on a dead turtle.

This is my first scream of abject terror.

The turtle’s shell had collapsed so that the inside is visible. I remember trying to run out of the grove, but the branches were so tight that I couldn’t push through. Robby, my grandmother, came running out of the house and made everything safe somehow. Later she said that she’d known that I was really frightened and not just pretending to be upset because of the way I’d screamed.

This is a very sharp memory for me and this is the place that my niece wanted to play with me today. I’m a good thirty years older than I was, but I had so much dread going in there today, even though I know, I know that the turtle skeleton is long gone. I kept trying to find reasons for the Scientist Fairy and I to go play someplace else, but after the expeditions to discover dinosaurs and to throw parties, we kept coming “home” to that blasted magnolia grove.

She’s got no idea how much affection I was demonstrating by playing with her there .And you know, it probably wouldn’t have been as weird and uncomfortable if I weren’t trying to remember what it was like to be her age so that I could play with her.

Such a Halloween story, eh? It was like a nightmare before Christmas in real life. Other than that, today was lovely. We baked and did other Christmas prep. Rob has made eggnog.

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4 Responses

  1. Vy

    It’s funny how those things condition us at a very young age. When I was four, I stepped on a sharp piece of bone in my friend’s yard. The next week, I stepped on a bee, which stung me. I never went barefoot outside again (and almost never went barefoot indoors either), a habit which I maintain to this day.

  2. -e-

    I love this post Mary. I’m right there with you, remembering my own first visceral, fetid brush with a dead thing. Dark and primal stuff. You are a brave and wonderful aunt to let yourself gigglingly go there with Emily.

    Merry Xmas,
    -e-

    p.s. Mmmm. Rob’s eggnog.

  3. Mary Robinette Kowal

    I can tell who has tasted Rob’s eggnog…

    Vylar, oddly, my second real scream was also barefoot. But that was a nail through the foot. Same grandmother came running even though we were at the house in Raleigh. Huh. I never noticed that before.

    -e- Thank you for recognizing my bravery. Merry Christmas!