Holidays & Celebrations

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Christmas at Saddle Creek


’Twas the night before Christmas …

Alberta Simms awoke with a start. Her eyes flew open to a wall of blackness. The cozy bedroom overlooking the front field at Saddle Creek Farm was totally dark, and apart from the steady pinging of freezing rain on the windowpanes, totally silent.
Her cellphone read 11:33 p.m.
What woke me up this time of night? she wondered. She slipped out from under her warm covers, and her bare feet felt the cold of the old pine as they touched the floor. She padded the two small steps to the window, pulled open the curtains, and peered outside into the darkness.
Alberta Simms was known by her nickname, “Bird.” At sixteen, she was still slight and sinewy, but rapidly changing from girl to woman. Her skin was the colour of caffe latte, her eyes were a deep chocolate brown, and she wore her shiny dark hair long and loose. Bird was proud to be First Nations, and she looked far more like her First Nations father than her blond, blue-eyed mother of British heritage.
Her eyes began to adjust to the murkiness outside, and with effort she could make out the line of split-rail fencing that followed the laneway. Through the hail and fog she could see the three big maples on the lawn. One stood right in front of the house beside her window, and the others were on either side of the front walk. They looked blurry, but their forms were recognizable.
She could identify nothing that might have awoken her from her sleep.
Tonight was Christmas Eve. Tomorrow was Christmas. So far, her sixteenth Christmas was shaping up to be just like the fifteen that came before — full of disappointment and stress.
Her mother, Eva, was throwing hissy fits and bickering with her latest husband, Stuart. Bird and her little sister Julia joked that “Eva stole Christmas.” But it was true. How much fun is it when somebody in the family is miserable and brings everybody’s spirits down? No fun at all.
Bird groaned as she replayed this week’s scene. Eva, with her face red and streaked with mascara, clothes strewn all over her bed and floor, whined that she didn’t have anything to wear to Stuart’s annual Christmas party. In Bird’s opinion, Eva was right. Nothing in those rumpled piles suited her. She should throw out all the ribbons and bows and flouncy short skirts. It was embarrassing. Add overbleached, overcurled, long blond hair, plus too much makeup, and Eva looked like a cheap, wrinkly teenager trying out for the 1980 high school cheerleading team.
But she shouldn’t have said it out loud.
Here was yet another example of how living with elective mutism can be an advantage. It was a horrible, frustrating affliction, and it had caused her untold misery, but when Bird was not able to speak, she never had to watch what she said.
Bird had been misdiagnosed with autism when she stopped speaking at age six. She was not typical in most ways, with her unusual ability to communicate non-verbally with animals, so it must have been difficult for the doctors, she conceded. But they got it right when they landed on a diagnosis of elective mutism. Her vocal cords worked just fine, but she couldn’t get the words out of her mouth.
Now the words could come out, and her mother had not taken kindly to being called a 1980 vintage, wrinkly teenager. She “thought it best” that Bird stay with Aunt Hannah over Christmas. So Bird had been dumped unceremoniously at Saddle Creek, while thirteen-year-old Julia stayed with Eva. And now, instead of coming to Aunt Hannah’s for Christmas, they were going to Stuart’s parents’ cottage in Muskoka for a big family gathering. Bird pictured an ornate tree, succulent turkey, lavish gifts, and joyful people hugging each other and laughing. But not with me, Bird thought. She sniffed back the aching feeling of hurt.
It wasn’t news that Eva loved Julia more than she loved Bird. Julia was far more lovable, Bird admitted, and a blue-eyed blonde like Eva, of which their mother made a big deal. Bird didn’t miss all the fuss and anxiety that accompanied Eva, but she wished that she could at least spend Christmas with her half-sister.
Bird curled her feet and stood on their outer edges to avoid the coldness of the floor. She was shivering but stayed for another minute at the window, just in case she’d missed something that might explain her disrupted sleep.
She had actually been looking forward to the Christmas celebration this year, but what had started out to be a decent-size dinner at Saddle Creek Farm had dwindled down to four people: Aunt Hannah, her veterinarian fiancé, Paul Daniels, Bird, and her grandmother, Jean Bradley. Not exactly a barrel of monkeys. Now it would be a very small gathering, with a very small turkey.
The real blow was Alec, who was now spending Christmas with his mother, which Bird understood completely. But having Alec there for dinner would’ve made everything great, even if nobody else came. She sighed deeply.
During those times when Bird couldn’t talk and acted out in abnormal ways, Alec had been there for her. Everybody in the entire world thought she was a weirdo misfit, but Alec had always stood up for her. Bird smiled as she remembered how he used to translate for her when she couldn’t speak, and how he’d faced down bullies at school when they were cruel.
They’d had a crush on each other for the last few years.
But now, things had changed. His father and her Aunt Hannah were engaged, and Bird wondered if their relationship might be too awkward. She wasn’t sure how it would work at family get-togethers, like Christmas, which were always difficult, anyway. Alec refused to think there was a problem, but Bird had told him that they should talk about it, and until it was resolved one way or the other, at least they could remain friends.
Friends can’t kiss each other, she thought. That might be difficult for her. Wow. Talk about confused emotions. Anyway, he wasn’t coming for Christmas dinner so it wouldn’t come up, but she was disappointed. Very.
She willed herself to focus on happy things. She loved being here at Saddle Creek with Aunt Hannah, Paul Daniels, and their funny brown dog, Lucky. She loved her cheerful little room in the farmhouse, with red, blue, green, and white tartan curtains and matching bedspread, and lively red sheets. She loved her interactions with Cody, the enigmatic coyote who appeared on a whim, or whenever he was needed, and disappeared again just as mysteriously. He’d been around for as long as she could remember.
More than anything else, she loved being with Sundancer, an undisputed jumping champion and her best friend. He was an athletic chestnut gelding who jumped anything that Bird faced him with and in stellar style. They’d had many adventures together, and they usually came home from competitions with trophies and ribbons galore.
There was never enough time to be around horses, she thought. Sunny gobbled up all her attention and still wanted more. Since arriving, Bird had done nothing much other than ride him, clean tack, and help muck out stalls, which was just how she liked it. If she could choose any place on Earth to be at any given moment, it would be right where she was now.

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