I'll Be Home for Christmas--
by Sue Kite
Neera and Andjen rummaged through the pantry looking at all the cans and boxes. Neera didnít want any vegetables, she picked out a tin of crackers and a can of meat. There was also a jar of cheese spread. Andjen picked out cans of beans and carrots.
"I think I can make something you will like with the meat and beans. We need some kind of vegetable," he said.
"Why?" Neera asked petulantly. "I donít like carrots."
"Then pick out another vegetable you do like."
"Do I have to?"
"Yes," Andjen said softly, as he pulled out a can with a picture of a tomato on the front.
"Doesnít that count?" she asked, pointing to the can.
Andjen laughed softly. "Perhaps this time." He pulled out a small can of bullion cubes.
"Are those for Grandper?"
Andjen nodded. "He needs something to build up his strength. Later we will make something all three of us like."
It seemed to Neera that Andjen was finding words much easier now. Still, he seemed at times to still search for the right word. Later she would ask him. Later, she would ask him many things.
Still rummaging, Andjen pulled out pots, one large and one small, spoons, one of the little can openers that she had been unable to figure out. He dug in another cabinet and found the cans of spices. After he had opened some of the cans and poured the food into the large pot, he sprinkled in some spices and stirred it all together. He stepped back a bit, and looked at the stove. Then he opened the doors, looked into the stove and sighed.
Neera gazed into the stove, too. "Whatís wrong?"
"Wood stove. Never used a large one like this."
"Grandper put the wood in there with some paper and then lit it with matches," she informed him, feeling a little more important knowing something that her angel didnít know. "He made sure that thing was open so that the smoke didnít come into the room," she added, pointing to a handle on the flue pipe.
Andjen made sure the pipe to the wall was open and then built a fire in the place she had pointed out. He murmured something she couldnít understand and then lit it. It started quickly and they could feel the heat emanating from the top. It wasnít long before the large pot began bubbling. "Iím going to get some more snow to melt."
"I can do that, Andjen," she said authoritatively.
"Itís snowing pretty hard," he reminded her. "Are you sure?"
She stuck her chin out in indignation and put her hands on her hips. "Before he got hurt, I helped Grandper a lot."
With a smile, Andjen handed her the pot. "I am sure you did. Thanks." He turned back to check on Grandper as Neera headed out the door. The blast of cold air almost took her breath away, but she didnít go back to get her coat. It wouldnít take but a minute to get the pot filled and she wasnít going to let him think she couldnít do this simple job. Still, Neera didnít go too far from the porch to get some of the fresher snow that had fallen in the past day. The pan wasnít too big, so she just used it to scoop up a big bunch. She smooshed that down and added some more, remembering that when it melted it didnít make that much water. Then she headed in the door.
Andjen was next to Grandper, who was moaning in pain. Alarmed Neera put the pot down and dashed across the room to her grandfather. Before she could say anything, Andjen began, "He has a fever. Have you ever had a fever?"
"Yes. Last summer."
"What did your parentsÖ." There he hesitated. "You are only up here with your Grandper for a visit?"
She looked at him. Obviously if he was an angel, God had not told him much. "This is Grandperís vacation cabin. He comes here when he gets tired of the capital." She peered at him but his face didnít tell her anything. "I live with my mama and papa in the capital most of the time."
"Oh," was all he said to that comment. "Then what did they give you for your fever."
Again, Neera just looked at him, then she went over to where Andjen had left all the medicines and peered at all of the bottles. She picked the one that looked like what Mama had carried her medicine in and handed it to him. "It has Grandperís name on it," she said, pointing to the name on the label. "So I know he can take it. I donít know what else it says. I havenít learned to read much yet." He took it and peered carefully at where she had pointed. "You canít read? Papa said everyone should read." She was just learning, but from the angelís face, she thought that was something else she knew that he didnít. "Canít you read it? Canít you tell if itís right?"
"No." He opened the bottle and shook out a couple of the pills. "At least not all of it. But these look like what I have taken a time or two for fever. It will help his pain, too."
"Iíll get a glass of water so you can give them to Grandper," Neera said, remembering how embarrassed she had made one of the servants when they had admitted they couldnít read.
"Thank you, Neera. And bring a spoon, too. I might have to . . . break these up for your grandfather to drink easier."
"Eeyew, they are nasty when they are all broken up," she said over her shoulder as she climbed up on the stool to get the glass. She heard him chuckle softly. Neera got the glass, poured some water from a pitcher of water and carried it and a spoon back to Andjen. She held it while he tried to coax Grandper awake. The old man stirred, moaned and opened his eyes slightly, blinking at the flickering light of the nearby fire.
"Grandper," Andjen said softly. "I have some medicine that will help you feel better. You must take it."
"Neera," the old man whispered.
"Here, Grandper. Andjen and I are taking care of you. You must take the medicine," she said, keeping the fearful quiver out of her voice. "Please."
He blinked at Andjen, as though trying to focus on him. "Andjen?"
The angel, if that was what he really was, shrugged. "I will not . . .um, argue with what brought me here, sir. But we cannot get you to a doctor for a while, so you must take this," he said. "It will help."
Grandper allowed Andjen to give him the tablets and then drank when Neera held the glass to his lips. But the entire time he gazed at the man helping him, blinking hard to clear his watery eyes. "Take care of my grandchild. Please do not leave her." Grandper said and then moaned, but still his eyes were locked onto those of the angelís. "Please."
Andjen nodded. "I will take care of heróand you."
Grandper sighed softly, blinked some more and then turned his attention to Neera for a brief moment. Then his eyes rested back on Andjenís face. "Andjen, is it?" He smiled wanly. "My dear wife insisted that angels took all forms. Perhaps . . . she was . . . right."
The last word was barely heard and then Grandper was asleep again.
"He will sleep for a while. Letís check the supper," Andjen said quietly. "Every time he wakes up, though, you will need to try to get him to drink something. Water, tea, whatever. And I will get him some broth warmed up."
Neera nodded and put the glass of water on the fireplace hearth. She followed Andjen to the stove and climbed back up on the stool to watch him. The smell coming from the large pot was strange to her but also quite interestingógood. "What is that?"
"Chili," he responded absently. "One of the few things I think I am good at cooking." She didnít say anything. "I want to ask. Please do not think I am . . . uh, well. Why did your grandfather decide to come up into this area alone with you and at this time of year?"
Neera instantly wondered why Andjen was up here, too, if he wasnít an angel, but didnít ask. Her papa had told her once when she had said things she shouldnít that you learn more by listening rather than talking. She would wait, even though there were many things she wanted to ask this Ďangel.í "Grandmere made Grandper promise to celebrate Christmas after she died. She made Papa promise to let Grandper do it, too." Neera almost smiled at the remembrance. Papa had been angry, even while he was very, very sad at Grandmereís death. But as far back as she could remember, Papa had never broken a promise to her, so here she was. Here she wasÖ.
"Your papa doesnít believe in Christmas?" Andjen asked quietly as he stirred the pot.
"No, he doesnít believe in God, either," she said matter-of-factly.
"But you do."
It wasnít a question, but she answered anyway. "He sent you."
Andjenís eyebrows went up a notch. He checked the smaller pot of heating water and put in a couple of the bullion cubes to melt for Grandperís soup. He didnít say anything at all, but kept his attention on the two pots.
"Do you?" Neera asked.
"Which? God or Christmas?" he asked, a slight smile on his face.
Neera wondered for a moment if he was teasing her and asked.
"Not really, Neera. But yes, I do. Both." He looked as though he was going to say more, but he didnít.
"Until Grandper is better, can you tell me about Christmas?"
He stirred the chili a little more before answering. Finally, he said, "I guess so. What do you want me to tell you? You know different people . . . celebrate Christmas in different ways."
"What did you do when you were my age?"
Andjen seemed lost in thought for a few minutes.
"Or are angels ever boys or girls," she asked, still wondering just what Andjen really was. Somehow, she didnít think he was truly an angel, and yetÖ.
"Why wouldnít they be?" Andjen asked. He stirred the pot, took a taste with a small spoon and dug in the spices again. Then he handed Neera another spoon. "Here, before I put anything else in, you try it."
She did. It had a spicy heat that warmed her from the inside out. "Oooh, thatís good," and handed the spoon back.
Andjen put the spices away and then moved the pot a little bit away from the direct heat of the fire and checked the broth. It was steaming but not boiling.
He stirred it and then beckoned to Neera. "Come over here to the window."
She followed him and looked out across the small bare space to the dark woods. Neera wasnít sure what Andjen wanted her to see and looked back up at him.
"Before it gets too dark, see if you can pick out a nicely shaped little tree you would like for a Christmas tree," he told her.
"A Christmas tree?" she queried.
He nodded. "My father used to take us out into the woods where weíd pick out the tree we wanted. We canít do that here. Someone has to watch your Grandperóyou. But if you see one that you like, I donít think heíd mind me cutting it and bringing it inside."
Neera saw her smiling reflection in the window as she gazed into the shadowy half-light of the cloud-laden afternoon. Thereóthere was a little tree. She pointed. "That one."
"Good choice," he replied, looking over her shoulder. He pulled on his coat and grabbed the ax.
"Be careful, please," she said, her voice tight with worry. He hadnít had a problem with the firewood, but still, she saw her Grandperís accident play over again in her mind.
"I will, Neera." He opened the door, allowing a quick blast of air into the room and then closed it again.
Neera looked over her shoulder to her grandfather, saw he was still resting quietly and peered out the window to where Andjen was striding. He pointed to the tree of her choice and she nodded in an exaggerated manner. It only took a short time for him to cut the little tree and then he hoisted it over his shoulder, shaking off the snow from its branches at the same time. Before he came in, Andjen gazed into the forest, listening, or did he see something?
Whatever it was, he was soon stomping snow off his boots on the porch, and coming through the door. The chill wind brought a small whimper of sound from Grandper and Neera turned to check him. She pulled the blanket up around his thin shoulders. Then she turned to Andjen again. The tree was leaning up against the wall near the door and he was looking around. He seemed puzzled about something.
"What are you looking for?" she asked.
"Something to put on the bottom of the tree." He made a cross with his fingers, but that didnít help her any. She did wonder how the tree would stand upright though. Andjen spied the ash bucket by the fireplace and smiled. "If one way wonít work, then maybeÖ." The bucket was empty and he stared at it for a moment before turning to the door again. "Be back." And he was, very quickly, with the bucket filled with snow. "Hope it doesnít leak," he murmured. "But it looked new." Then Andjen rummaged through the cabinet where the food was stored, pulling out most of the remaining cans.
"What are you doing?" she asked, puzzled.
"Something to keep the tree straight," he said as he packed the cans around the tree. "Of course, if we are here long enough," he paused and took in a deep breath. "If we are here long enough, I will have to find something else to keep the tree upright."
"Whatís the snow for? Itís already melting."
"Even cut trees need water. You have picked flowers, havenít you?"
She smiled and nodded. "Oh, I understand." Andjen finished and then checked the chili pot.
"You do have lanterns?" he asked over his shoulder.
She nodded and went into her bedroom where Grandper had left an extra flashlight. "There is a lantern under that cabinet, but Grandper wouldnít let me do anything with it."
Andjen found it and then shook it slightly. "Where does he keep the . . . uh, fuel?"
Neera thought. She remembered Grandper using the lamp when the lights first went out, but she didnít remember him refilling the lamp. She looked up and shook her head. "Iím sorry. I donít know."
"Thatís all right." He put another log in the fireplace, surveyed the dwindling pile he had split earlier in the afternoon and sighed softly. "We may have to use the fire for light as well as heat. I am going to cut some more wood." He gazed at the mess of chips and splinters on the floor and said, "I really should do this outside. More light anyway."
Neera nodded, only too glad. She worried the entire time that Andjen was outside, but it wasnít too long before he was back in, carrying an armful of wood. Several more trips later and there was enough wood for the night. Neera found a candle and lit it, placing it in the middle of the little kitchen table. Andjen found bowls and she got the spoons. Neera laid out napkins, the small tin of crackers and two mugs of water.
"A meal fit for a king," he said, smiling at her as he ladled the chili into each bowl. Grandper moved slightly in his sleep and then settled with a soft moaning sigh. "Weíll try to get him to take some broth when weíre done," Andjen said. He picked up his spoon and started to eat.
Neera gazed at him expectantly, hands clasped together.
"Oh. Sorry. Um, who should say it?" he asked, looking uncomfortable.
She didnít say anything for a moment, only thinking about things that had been said during the dayójust as her Papa had taught her. "But you are an angel," she said with a mischievous smile.
"Now you are teasing me." He sighed. "I never said I was a real angel. Iím not and I think you know that."
"Why wonít you tell me your name? It was the same as making believe you were an angel."
Andjen sucked in a deep breath. "Neera, it is better that you do not know who I am."
"There are things you do not understand. Please, I am not here to hurt you. I promise."
She didnít say anything for several minutes and then she looked up into his eyes. "I believe you, Andjen."