When I was around ten years old, I wanted a book for Christmas. Now, this would not have been unusual – what was unusual was the title that I wanted. I don’t know in what obscure catalogue or commercial I first saw it; I don’t know in what forgotten library shelf I first noticed it, beyond the reach of my pining, prying hands. In short, I have no idea when or where I first desired “Audubon’s Birds of America (Popular Edition)”.
There was something in the evocative life of the illustrations: they went beyond scientific exploration, Latin phraseology and charts of migratory behavior. What I saw were the clear oceans full of ice; snakes and lizards under attack from angry parental beaks; disemboweled mollusks; empty shells scattered across beaches like chilly jewels. Every plate invited the type of reflection that only a 10-year-old story-teller would appreciate. I wanted to look into the sepia horizons, to absorb them, to drink in their heady secrets.
I coveted this book. And yet…I did not tell anyone about my Christmas desire.
Now, in those days, my brother and I had our own Christmas trees in addition to the family tree, waiting our Christmas attack with glittering trepidation, needles shaking to the floor in fear. Whether our little trees were true, false or flocked, I don’t recall – but I do remember the Christmas Eve from this particular year.
It was late. The light in my room had dimmed to charcoal, and through my eyelashes the tree and surrounding furniture showed mountainous and black.
And then I heard them. Footsteps. Surely my chance had some – surely I could even now hear the boots on the floor? Smell the cookies and snow? Why could I not finally see the Saint himself – and the lovely tiny reindeer stamping impatiently outside?
But I was so scared. I shut my eyes. And seconds later – or so it seemed, as it does to every child – I was awake, joyous in the bright morning.
I ran to my tree and there, amongst all the other – now forgotten – gifts…was my book.
I have the book in front of me now, and while not looking particularly spectral or ethereal, it does have the decades-old cache of being steeped in magic.
Its cover is a fey design of interlocking feathers. Inside is my signature – aggressively curvilinear – and a yellowing book-plate with the eternal declaration, “A book is a new adventure”. Its edges are soft and frayed, and the pages smell dense and delicious.
I had no explanation for its delivery. Nor did I really want one. The drama and wonder of that morning remains a splendid memory; and when I turn the pages of my book – the Great Auk is a particular favorite – the glorious confusion seeps into my bones once more. Further explanations would be gratuitous.
I do hope that your holidays are filled with such gentle mysteries. And should time or chance force you to leave them behind, may they still live in your mind, to keep you as warm and content as mine have.