Leaning against the attic wall, wrapped in nylon, the little fir tree looked like the big silkworm of a sleeping insect. Freed from the wrapping, it remained there with its branches taut and closed. We had to pull them back out, one by one, until the tree, having recovered its appearance and standing on the fake-wood pedestal, could finally breathe. It was as if we had unbound the wings of a big stuffed bird that kept staring at us both gratefully and with a twitch of sadness, as if it had been caught just when it might have flown off. The same thing must have happened to the embalmed foxes, with one paw extended and their faces turned, as if sensing a smell, a rustling, and to the small rodents stopped at the very instant when, satisfied, they clasp a pinecone. The little fir tree was what was left of a live fir tree reduced to the state of a mummy, covered with a patina that had hardened and taken on the rigidity of plastic and other synthetic materials. This was what my brother and I had ascertained by squeezing and feeling it from the base of its trunk to the tip of its branches. That evening, after we had freed the tree, we decided to leave it bare for the night and to cover it with balls and ribbons the next morning. There were still a few days before Christmas and the little fir tree, with its branches opened to the warmth emanating from the radiators, seemed to have asked us precisely this: “One night, leave me at least tonight to remember my unbound life.” The more we looked at it, the more it seemed to continue, in its sad constrained pose, a plaintive invocation that took on the dry, discreet tone of the needles one by one: “I can’t stand this silliness anymore. Couldn’t you finally finish up with these colored little things of yours?” “But don’t you like to be decorated by our hands?” We thought of the slight tickling sensation on the head when an adult, standing tall behind us, in front of the mirror, combed our hair. But the message from the fir tree had been clear and it continued to be so, as we watched it remaining taut, without any sign of bending in the branches. The taped-up boxes full of decorations which we had dragged from the attic in the afternoon would wait in a corner of the room.
The next morning, once we had awakened, we just as soon went down to see the fir tree. Nestled around its wrinkly, knotty trunk was Spaghetti, our tabby cat, sleeping. He sensed our faces protruding in the doorway and opened his eyes in a snap, his muzzle jutting out to record the slightest vibrations. The little fir tree had something different about it, but we couldn’t tell what it was. It seemed to hold its branches in a more convinced way, even though it still had a scarecrow-like stiffness to it. When we opened the boxes and brought them over to start decorating the tree, that unmistakable smell, which immediately penetrates the nostrils and seems to stick to the skin, enveloped us: Spaghetti had marked the fir tree, recognizing it as a milestone, a boundary mark of his territory. His empire was vast, conquered and defended with battles from which he had always came back unharmed, sometimes with a mere scratch that he flaunted, rubbing his muzzle on our knees, both healing himself in our warmth and justifying those long absences during which we imagined him walking atop the boundary walls, entering the thicket of the hedges, keeping watch over the farthest borders, to confirm what belonged to him. Now that its trace had dried, condensing and giving off its strong odor, no stubborn action of a dishcloth could have completely wiped it away: that area was within his territory. Aware of this and kneeling on the cold tiles of the room, we began to decorate the fir tree. Along with the balls that made up most of the decorations, there had always been small candles, little angels, birds, a few tiny gift packages. We liked to find them in the newspaper wrapping that had protected them over the years, recognizing them in our hands, to go back to Christmases when we were very young and their shapes would blend with the glow that came from the fireplace, would become longer and move with the breathing of fire. Every year some of the decorations that we expected to see reappearing from the bottom of the box, had disappeared: they had been broken or simply replaced with another one that was too shiny, with extraneous reflections, like those of department store windows.
Left to itself, completely passive, the little fir tree lent itself to still another disguise that year. Sometimes we had to tighten a bowknot, at other times simply to thread a thin ribbon from the tip of the branches. “We’re almost done,” we would tell it, “hold on.” The time came for the golden and silver ribbons that must envelop the entire tree, descending from above like trails of dying light. And finally the cardboard star, cut out with our blunt scissors; a vivid yellow, it had edges glittering with golden dust. To place it atop the tree, I had to stand up on a chair to reach the top. “It will last only a few days,” I whispered to the fir tree. The little tree replied with a strained silence, as if with a lump in its throat. The last piece had been put in place, closing up the tree into total inertia, as if its stone season had begun.
In the afternoon, while we were sitting in the garden under the parakeet cage, Spaghetti reappeared. He progressed slowly towards us, as if he wanted to hide something. Once he was nearby, he immediately again rubbed himself against our knees and stretched up his back to our caresses. A slight beating of wings above our heads beckoned us: with their beaks against the bars, the parakeets were asking that the seed tray be refilled. We devoted ourselves to this task, also changing the water and suspending two salad leaves and two apple slices. When we returned to the room, Spaghetti was intently giving little punches, with his paws, to the lower balls of the fir tree, like a boxer striking his target. He had already managed, in this way, to knock down and break two of them.
As soon as he noticed our presence he took refuge under the sofa. It was needless to call him back out, to try to attract him by rolling a ball towards him, or by tossing him some croquettes. We resigned ourselves to going away but, just as we had reached the doorway, we had the idea of hiding behind the door. After a few minutes he again headed towards the little fir tree and struck the remaining lower balls with his paws. We were about to leave our hiding place but something held us back. With a satisfaction emanating from the tip of his tail, Spaghetti passed slowly by the branches, barely touching them, letting himself be caressed. Then, in an instant, he gathered his momentum and made a jump that landed him in the middle of the tree. He stayed like that for a while, as if seeking a nook between the trunk and a branch; finally he managed to knock the pedestal off balance and make the fir tree fall over on the floor. At that point, we rushed over to rescue the tree. On the cold tiles it was shining with an intense green that we had never seen before. We pulled it back up and held it in our arms: a strong smell of resin hit us. Its needles, now sticking outwards to seek nourishment from the air, pricked our cheeks and the palms of our hands. Spaghetti followed us for a few steps while my brother and I carried the little fir tree outside. We placed it next to the old lime tree and the pine, where it would find enough room and light to grow. Soon it would make its branches grow, hear the first fir cones being born. The spell that had bound and closed it up in the attic had been broken. Its sap would again flow as before.
The Form of a Gift
The days before Christmas have thin silver ribbons scattered around the house, glitter on the floor. These are the traces of the large cardboard boxes and old suitcases that contain the nativity scene and the decorations for the tree. They journey down from the attic to the room where they are left taped up or padlocked, with their known and mysterious contents. Objects that emerge only at this time of year and wait wrapped in newspaper, to be freed: they are hung like magical pieces of fruit, left as gifts on the branches, or placed in the soft moss.
Something is growing in the air. Something whose contours and consistency you cannot guess. During these days, desires are taking on the form that reality has determined. You can intuit it from some questions that make room for themselves between your words written in block letters and obeying the recently learned alphabet: your parents are going to buy the presents that you have asked for in your letter. From these childhood Christmases, I remember none of my wishes, only the letter in which I listed gifts for the others: a necklace for my mom, a fountain pen for my dad; for my brother something simple, like a game.
One year, on one of the days before Christmas, when I opened by chance the folding door of the closet below the staircase, appeared four packages wrapped in shiny blue, red, golden, silver paper. They were so beautiful with their reflections shining out from the darkness, that I closed the door almost as soon. During the next days I did not go back to open it, and if I happened to approach that place, I did so without showing any sign of that subtle struggle exerted between the urge to go into the closet and open the parcels, and the waiting and the silent respect that they imposed. The pact had been sealed as soon as they had appeared: what a fairy has allowed you to glimpse can vanish like a rainbow in the sunlight. One must have a butterfly’s footsteps, alight delicately, close one’s eyes for a long time in the darkness from which the magic was born. Inside me the image of the hidden packages expanded and grew, making the time ripe for its revelation. That time did not come. On Christmas Eve the packages were different, none of them resembling the ones I had glimpsed in the dim light under the stairs. Wounded by my gaze like an animal whose lair has been discovered in the thicket, the fairy had taken them back with her, withdrawing them into the darkness.
The gifts are opened at midnight under the tree, slowly, so as not to tear the paper and the tape, or by ripping through all the wrapping and waiting. What I had desired for the others had been fulfilled: my mother tried on the necklace, my father had found the pen, my brother was discovering his game. My present was before my eyes, but I couldn’t say what it was. It wasn’t for me. The gift for me was inside one of those packages that must remain closed. Opening them brings on one’s undoing. It doesn’t matter what they contain; they could also be empty. Mine was delivered like this. From the distance of the room I knew it had reappeared with its silvery reflections in the darkness under the stairs. The fairy had trusted me once again.
When she was a little girl, my mother would play in a garden next to the road. It had a large flowerbed with a lawn and trees, not far from home. She would carry her most precious objects with her—a fairy had told her to bury them. A few centimeters under the ground, dug with her bare hands or with a beach shovel. Wrapped in a cotton handkerchief with her embroidered initials, the objects went down into the darkness and were forgotten. A long time went by, like a night or a winter. Then the fairy came back as a chirping in my mother’s ear. The fairy called her, guided her to the flowerbed. She indicated the spot where she would find a treasure for her.
That Christmas, my cousin had decided not to receive only gifts, like a little girl, but to make one herself for her parents. She wanted to experience the emotion of someone who wraps up something in a shiny piece of paper, tightens it with a ribbon, ties a bow as on a shoe, and then waits to see the look on the face of the person who receives it, weighs it in his hands, opens it slowly. For her mother she bought some chocolates with the loose change she found in the ashtray, the coins her parents would leave there to lighten their pockets. For her father she had to perform a magic trick. One day when he was in the vegetable patch and her mother downstairs in the kitchen, she opened the large wooden chest of drawers in their bedroom. She stayed a few minutes, long enough to make his gift. On Christmas Eve her father found a pair of old socks wrapped in star-covered paper.
—©English translation John Taylor