The light refracts softly through the glass, casting quiet ghosts against the walls in muted reds and hushed greens, the colors gently throbbing and pulsing in unseen rhythms as though we are witnesses to the faint memory of an aurora borealis — a thing once glorious and brilliant beyond all reckoning, capable of filling an entire sky, left by the thinning of time and memory to this quiet haunting. Outside, beyond the lights, the night flexes and grows strong, deepening and stretching and filling the world in ways we cannot see and will not understand.
She sits on my lap, her small hands holding my hand, the back of her head resting against my chest. We watch the lights and ride together through these long hours, so very far from the sun.
There is so much that she wishes for. That she has asked for, in letters and soft language, to fill that space beneath the gentle bristles of Fraser Fir and the balls of brittle glass and the climbing spiral of clean white lights that step gently, steadily between the branches and up along the thick axis of trunk as it reaches from that pool of crisp water through a maze of butterflies with tiny glass wings and snowflakes captured in midflight and all creatures, great and small, and the shoes of those who were once infants, cast in metal, but who now look together up and up and up toward the crown of a single, distant star...
She says his name, as if whispering the name of God, and asks if she has been good enough. If he will know.
He knows, I say. He knows because I know, and because there are no words big enough to capture or define the enormity of what I feel I do not say more but let it swell my lungs full and heavy beneath the weight of her head and the aurora of her hair, and I close my eyes and try not to think of anything other than this moment, here, with her, and how I wish only for it to stretch on and on to forever.
Her fingers climb the length of my fingers, tiny step by tiny step. "I'm pretending I'm a mouse," she says. "So my presents will be bigger when I come downstairs." Her fingertips are warm, and I do my best to absorb the impact with the grace and solemnity of a forest floor beneath padded feet. "It's going to take a long time to get to the tree, because I'm so small." I cannot see her face, but in her voice I hear a smile growing broader with each word.
Tiny step by tiny step, she pretends her way through the long night. "Maybe I'll be so small he won't even see me."
My teeth press sharp and tight against the insides of my cheeks, trapping the words. Keeping them from escaping. Of how even the unseen and unknowable can become visible to careful eyes.
If we do not say the words, they are not real.
It is four hours since they told me to come back. Since they had not called, and I was in the building, and I came by to ask. The results of a CT scan, reading the world behind my eyes. Probing for an answer to two months of pain and questions.
Their smiles vanishing, voices suddenly growing somber and low-toned. "The doctor will need to see you." Their eyes meeting mine, steady and unblinking. "Tomorrow." My surprise, and unease, and waiting for them to say something to let me know that...
That it would be okay.
And the drive home afterwards, and the phone calls to my wife and the rationalizations and the counter-rationalizations and the way their smiles vanished and their voices changed and
the trees and thick bushes and steady-toothed fences alight with color and celebration and the anticipation of the days ahead, the countdown to the moment when they would come downstairs and all that was hidden would finally be revealed and
the anticipation of those long days, counting them down, one by one by one, each one feeling like it would stretch on to forever and
the things that grow in darkness, warped and misshapen, paler than the moon, and
my daughter, resting her head against the frail cage of my chest, her fingertips dancing against my skin, the room so softly alight with color and her hair, fanning out gold like the rays of some small and precious sun and
this night, this longest night, as we wished our way through the dark and I tried not to hold her too tightly.