This story was inspired by a Russian folk tale called “Baboushka and the Three Kings,” in which the Wise Men invite an old widow to join them as they search for the Christ-child on a frosty winter night. Although the poor woman extends to them what meager hospitality she can offer, she tells them she is too busy, too tired, too old to join them, and they leave without her. To her dismay, she cannot think about anything else after they leave, and she sets out on her own to find Him. Legend holds that she wanders the world still, sad and hopeful, peeking into every child’s bedroom, looking for the Christ, so she too may offer Him her gift. Children look forward to finding a little toy from Baboushka on their pillows each Christmas morning.
Matt sat straight up in bed, listening. It must be the deer again. Mom will be so mad. Matt couldn’t understand why Mom was so concerned about those barren, crooked sticks she called rosebushes. Matt had offered to put his broccoli on the porch as an alternative for the doe, but Dad had been against it. Apparently broccoli was only good for those who didn’t care to eat it.
Matt was tired of seeing only hoofprints. He wanted a peek at the original article, and tonight, he was determined to score one. He tiptoed into the hallway to peer through the window at the top of the staircase.
The moon was bright on the white snow. For a wild moment, he wanted to run outside and leap wildly in that soft whiteness, stirring it up like a huge snow globe all around him. But as he leaned close to the glass, the bitter cold seeped through and bit at his warm cheeks. Brr, never mind. Matt tried to hold his breath so it wouldn’t fog up the glass.
There, the crunching again. She must be nearer now. He could see the rosebushes– well, what was left of them. His eyes bored into the stillness, waiting to pounce on the tiniest movement. Suddenly, a shadow moved near the edge of the porch. He leaned closer and angled his head to get a better view. Definitely a shadow, and moving– but not exactly deer-shaped.
Coming up the porch steps was a figure. Two legs, not four. The shadows hid the details, but Matt understood all at once. So this is it! I wait up for a deer and accidentally get to see Santa! He glanced around the room wildly to see if there was anywhere where he could hide and still have a clear view of the Christmas tree downstairs. He considered for a second trying to sneak down there, but he knew the creaks would betray him tonight, as they always did, and then? He’d wake up Mom and Dad, and scare off Santa Claus for sure.
Funny that I didn’t hear sleigh bells or reindeer on the roof like in the song. And since when does Santa come to the front door? Maybe their roof was too steep. And they didn’t exactly have a chimney– just a pipe from the wood stove. A wave of panic swelled through Matt. The idea of Santa finding him there on the stairs, waking up his parents with a jolly laugh of surprise, and finally, the three of them– his Mom, his Dad, and ol’ Saint Nick himself– standing over him, discussing suitable punishments for a sneak, was simply too much for him. He ran for his bed.
His bare toes gave him nearly silent purchase on the cold wooden floor. He dived under his covers, and pulled them over his head. The only sounds were his heavy breathing and the pounding thump-thump-thump of his heartbeat. A few tense seconds passed. He pulled the blankets up to make the tiniest horizontal crack, through which he could see his bedroom doorway, and beyond that, the hallway he had just fled. Then a sound made his heart stop– that traitor of a sixth step and its signature creeee-unk. He knew the noise by heart. It couldn’t be anything else.
Mom could always tell when he was faking sleep. She never failed to poke him through the covers and find his ticklish spots. Would Santa know? Would he know about that underarm tickle that Matt could never, ever survive without a telltale squeal escaping him? This time though, he would do it. He’d lie so still, breathe so softly, that Santa might wonder if he was even alive. It was his only hope. Matt concentrated. He squeezed his eyes shut and focused every muscle into perfect stillness. Not a rustle of the covers would betray him.
It was stuffy under the blankets. His foot began to itch; gently at first, then mercilessly. He gritted his teeth. Another creak, this time the one right in front of his toy box under the window. Santa was very near his bed now.
He could hear breathing, very slow, very soft. Then a hand was pulling back his blanket and he was staring up into the face of someone who was horribly not Santa Claus. He thought to scream, but the sound died in his throat. The face was not that of a white bearded old man with pink cheeks, although it was old, and the hair was as white as the snow outside.
But, to his surprise, the face wasn’t frightening, although it was unfamiliar. It was an old woman’s face, the oldest woman he had ever seen. She was wrapped in a fur-lined hooded cloak that covered every bit of her. She leaned closely over him. Her tiny, age-silvered eyes, which seemed to have spent ages squinting, peered down at him. Suddenly her face filled with an unspeakably tender sadness.
Matt was overcome by it. Her sadness seemed to spill out of her eyes into him, filling his tummy, his chest, and then his throat with a weight that stole words from him. It filled him right up to his eyes where it overflowed as tears. He couldn’t stop them; they flowed onto his pillow and ran down his nose. He turned away from her and squeezed his eyes shut again, hard. For a moment, everything was perfectly still.
He opened his eyes again, and the sunlight nearly blinded him. He squinted. Christmas morning! Presents! He was halfway out of bed before memories of the night before slammed into him. He pulled the covers back up and curled into a ball. Had it been a nightmare? Something poked him in the ear, something sharp and cold. It was a toy on his pillow; a very small wooden horse, painted intricately with red, gold, and black. He’d never seen it before. A Christmas ornament, maybe. Matt picked it up and turned it over in his hands. There was some weird writing on the horse’s belly. Matt could only barely read, but he knew those letters weren’t like any he’d ever seen.
“Mom, Dad!” He scrambled down the hall and threw open the door to his parents’ bedroom.
“Matt! You know the rules about knocking-” started Dad.
“Honey,” Mom soothed, “It is Christmas. I’m sure he’s just excited–”
“No!” shouted Matt. His parents looked annoyed, then alarmed. He continued, now that he had their attention. “I know I’m supposed to– I mean, I’m sorry I didn’t knock. Look, it’s not that. I was in the hallway last night, and then Santa came– I mean, I thought it was Santa, but it was this really super old lady instead, and–” He paused, checking his parents’ faces for a reaction.
“What were you doing out of bed, Matt?” His mom sounded tired, and she had that dangerous you-know-the-answer-to-this-question-already tone in her voice.
“Matthew, we’ve told you over and over–” His dad was starting on a tirade he’d heard a hundred times before, and if Matt didn’t stop him quickly, he wouldn’t get a word in edgewise for hours.
“I’m not kidding! There was someone in our house! They came up the stairs and into my room! She was inches from my face!” He was in earnest; they had to believe him.
His mother rolled her eyes and fell backwards onto her pillow. “Turn up the thermostat on your way out, Matt. It’s freezing in here. We’ll be down in a minute to open presents, okay?” She sounded exasperated. Why don’t they ever listen to me? His face got hot, but he couldn’t think of what he could say that would convince them.
“No, honey, I think we oughta hear him out.” Dad! The voice of reason. Relief washed over Matt and he climbed up on the bed next to his father. “Tell us what happened, little man.”
Matt took a deep breath. “Well, I was thinking I’d like to see the deer–”
“Damn that deer,” muttered his mother. “I ought to wait up for it myself– and shoot it.” Dad shushed her, and Matt continued.
“So, I snuck out of my room-” he paused here, expecting to be interrupted again. No one spoke. “I went to the window in the stairway, ‘cuz I can see the bushes really good from there, and I saw someone moving near the front of the house.”
“Someone? Did you get a look at their car?” Mom jumped up, threw her robe on, and hurried to the hallway. “There’s no tire tracks out there, John,” came her voice, more quietly.
“What did the person look like, Matt?” His father urged him.
“She was wearing a long cloak, with a hood. It looked like a really old cloak, and she smelled–” he paused to find the right words– “like a dusty Christmas tree. And she had the oldest face I’ve ever seen– older than Grandma, even. Way older.” He heard Mom stifle a chuckle. “I’m serious! And she had the saddest eyes. When she looked at me–”
“Wait,” interrupted Mom, “she looked up at you from outside? She saw you awake? That must have been why she left.” Mom was still peeking between all the curtains, walking from window to window with her robe pulled tight around her.
“No, Mom, she came into my room.” Dad, who had been tensely listening up to this point, now relaxed and settled back into his pillows. He smiled at Matt, and hugged him close, but he stiffened. “She came into my room,” he insisted, “and looked at me.” He looked into his dad’s sympathetic face, into his eyes. “She was this close.” Matt’s eyes started to fill up with tears again.
Dad pulled him close. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. That sounds just awful.” Matt sniffed, nodded, and buried his face deeper in Dad’s neck. “When you have a scary dream like that, remember you can come and talk to us about it. You don’t have to wait till morning. Just knock first, okay?” Matt couldn’t help it anymore. He started sobbing. They still didn’t believe him. He clenched his fists in frustration, and then remembered: he still had the little toy in his hand. He brought it up to his father’s face.
“She left this on my pillow.”
“Honey, where did this come from?” Dad took it carefully from Matt and held it up for Mom to examine. “Is this ours?”
Mom sat down on the bed and took the toy horse. “I’ve never seen it before. Looks like a handmade ornament, some folk arts-y thing. There’s some writing on the bottom here–” she held it for Dad to see. “Looks like Russian, maybe?”
Dad nodded. “Maybe my mom sent it in the Christmas box and we just didn’t see it in the packing peanuts. Still, though; Matt seems pretty convinced somebody was here last night. You two stay here.” Dad slid his feet into his slippers, pulled on a sweater, and grabbed his cell phone off the dresser. “I’m gonna take a look around.”
Mom looked hard at the toy, turning it over in her hands. “I don’t know,” she murmured. “I suppose it could be ours, and I’ve just forgotten about it. We have tons of old ornaments… I don’t always unpack them all. But usually we write the date on them, at least.” She peered at it, checking each tiny hoof for some scribbled sign of ownership, and shrugged.
“Mom, please, you have to believe me. It was real.”
“Okay, well, suppose it was real. Why didn’t you call us?” Matt hated it when she tied him up with questions she knew he couldn’t answer. He hated it more that he didn’t have any answers for her. Why didn’t I scream? When did I fall asleep? Why can’t I remember?
Dad came back into the room. “Honey, it didn’t snow any more last night. My footprints are still the only ones out there, the ones I made when I got home from work last night. The doors and windows are all still locked, no mud or wet tracks in the house anywhere. Nothing seems to be missing– my iPod is sitting by the front door, and that would be an easy target for a burglar. No one was in here last night but us, Matt. I’m sorry. We’ll call Grandma Joanie and ask her–”
Matt suddenly flushed with embarrassment and frustration. The last thing he wanted was more stupid grown-ups asking him stupid questions, making him feel stupid. “No,” he said emphatically. “We don’t need to call her. It must just have been a dream,” he finished quietly.
“Hey, when we were watching the Grinch last night, he brought his pillow and blanket out into the living room, remember? It must have been under the coffee table where he was laying, maybe got tangled in his blanket when he carried it back upstairs.”
“Yeah, most likely. I’ll ask Mom about it when she calls next. I’m sure that’s all it was.” As far as Matt’s parents were concerned, that was the end of it. His mother wrote the year on the horse’s hoof with a black marker, and hung it on the Christmas tree. Soon, Mom was making pancakes, Dad was building a fire, and Matt was tearing into the pile of loot under the tree. The events of the night before became more of a dream to him with every hour that passed.
Matt sat in his apartment, a little box on his lap. It was from his mother. Every ornament he had been given as a child lay inside, each carefully wrapped in festive tissue paper. A note read:
I hope you get this in time. I dunno if you even got a tree this year- I know there’s not much reason to do so before you’ve got kids of your own- but I thought that you might want them anyways. Your little sister came over and we were going through her old things, and she reminded me that I hadn’t sent you any of yours yet, so here you go. Another box to follow– you think I would forget to make your gingersnaps? I hope we get to see you soon, and I’m sorry you’ll be spending this Christmas so far away from us. Know that we love you.
Thinking of you now and always,
Mom (and Dad)
He knew they were not aiming to make their disappointment conspicuous. Another year since he’d been out of college and still no plans made: no ‘serious career,’ no home purchase, no wife-and-kids in the works. Matt sighed. Even their considerate avoidance of these subjects made him feel like a failure. He wasn’t avoiding this stuff. It just… hadn’t happened. Yet.
Matt looked around at his apartment. Small, but clean. Well, besides the laundry on the floor and the dishes on the footstool he used as a coffee table. Untidy, but comfortably so. That’s a good word; comfortable. I’m a comfortable kind of guy. He smiled to himself a bit, and found suddenly that his eyes were full of tears. His hands fiddled with something idly as he swallowed the self-pity trying to wriggle its way out of his throat; it was his little wooden horse ornament. Matt turned it over in his hand. All the memories of that night came back to him in little jerky pieces, like a rough-cut movie trailer. A snip of scene here (cold toes on a wooden floor), a tense moment there (moonlight in an empty hallway), and a close-up on a mysterious character (an old woman’s face). Eyes cloudy with cataracts like milk spilled in a puddle, wrinkles so deep you could hide lifetimes of regret in them. Matt could remember perfectly the smell of her: sharp, sweet, spicy. Like fresh-cut evergreens, campfire smoke, and papery cinnamon sticks. Gingerly, he sniffed the ornament. Yep, just right. I wonder…
He set it down on the sofa and dug purposefully through the box. Here it is! A small stuffed kitten, “MATTHEW” embroidered in red thread on its side. Grandma Joanie had made it for his sixth Christmas. He put it to his nose and sniffed: dust, that pine-scented stuff Mom sprayed everywhere at Christmastime, and– there it was– Grandma. Musky, faded like a wilted bouquet of lilacs. Hugs and cookies and Easter dinner. Not at all the smell of that wooden four-legged mystery.
Confounded, he shook his head bemusedly, and laid it aside. If he was going to have ornaments, he’d need a tree to hang them on. The light outside was steely; snow was on its way. Better get a move on. He grabbed his heaviest coat, his knitted muffler—another lilac-and-dust-scented relic of Grandma—and his keys, and scuttled out the door.