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Excerpt from The Whole Fam Damily

Just before Christmas, Gus phoned and said the kids wanted to come for the holidays. Isa had some real doubts that it had been the kids' idea, but whomsoever's idea it was, it suddenly sounded very good to her.

"Are you and Cindy coming, too?" she asked, her voice carefully neutral.

"Nah, we'll just put 'em on the bus and tell 'em to stay sat or else," he laughed.

"Aren't they a bit young for that?"

"Nah, Darelle is Miss Common Sense herself They'll be fine."

Isa didn't figure Darelle for much common sense, and said so to Carol, who shrugged and shook her head slightly. "Maybe compared to the rest of them she is," she suggested. "Whose bright idea was this? Why don't we go down, pick them up, and head back with them the same day. Just whip in, grab 'em, blurt out the sorry, no, really, not even one cup of tea, we've got to hit the road or we'll miss our ferry connection and - zip - we're out again. If the kids get tired or we get tired, well, the highway is lined with motels from Gibsons to Madeira Park."

It worked. It worked so slick a person could have been excused for starting to believe in divine intervention. The kids were waiting, quiet but so eager, their packs by the door. Carol smiled widely, said a brief Hi, how are you to the adults, and lifted the packs from the floor. "Will you help me with these?" she asked, and both kids were up, opening the door, holding it open, fuss fuss fuss.

"Sure you don't have time for a cup of tea? Gus seemed disappointed.

"I wish we did," Isa fudged, "but the way they have the ferries scheduled, if we miss the one we're trying for there'll be a long wait at Earl's Cove."

I thought they went every couple of hours." Cindy's voice was tight and mistrustful.

"Oh, they do; from here to Gibsons," Isa explained, smiling. "But after Gibsons we have an hour's drive to the next one and that's where everything gets bizarre. Oh, here, I almost forgot, I picked up an extra schedule for you, just in case you change your mind and decide to bring in the New Year on the farm."

Cindy looked at the card before tacking it to the wall above the phone, and Isa knew she was checking on what Isa had told her about the schedule. Isa also knew that she would be able to skate around the truth with this woman, but not too far from it.

Gus hugged Isa. "We put a couple of their Xmas presents in their packs. Nothing noisy, though."

"Did you take pictures of them with the tree and all?"

"Yeah, I'll send you copies when they're developed."

The kids sat quietly in the car, wide-eyed, caught somewhere between glee and uncertainty.

"Will we stop for pees?" Donny asked, his voice not quite shaking.

"Oh, you bet we will," Carol said, as she drove easily through the city traffic. "We'll stop for pees and we'll stop for hamburgers and we'll stop for good looks at things. We might stop so many times it'll take us six years to get there. We might stop for so many things we forget where we're going."

"Did Santa come to your place?"

"Santa left a note on our tree. Wait until you see it. The tree, I mean, not the note. I bet you haven't seen such an eensy-teensy ittybitty tree before in your life."

"Does it gots lights?"

"It hasn't got lights. There's no room for lights. Our tree isn't even really a tree. You'll see."

"What did the note say?" Darelle demanded.

"The note said 'What kind of a joke of a tree is this? Those kids will make you get a real one'."

"Did Santa leave you a present?"

"Just a note."

Isa turned to smile at them in the back seat. "And the note also said, 'Nothing for you until you have a real tree'."

"Las' year we went to our auntie's place and had a tree and everything but this year we didn't go because my mom hates my auntie's guts," Donny announced. Darelle jabbed Donny in the ribs with her elbow. Donny glared. Darelle frowned. Donny slumped back and didn't say a word for over half an hour.

On the ferry they had hamburgers and yogurt. They wanted to go out on the promenade deck so Isa took them. But they didn't stay long; the wind was cold and their jackets were not new. In fact, Donny's jacket was about ready for the dog's bed.

"It won't be long now," Isa said. "And when we get home you'll have lots to do. Eggs to gather and cows to feed and if it snows, which it looks like it's going to try to do, we can rig up a slider for you tomorrow.

"What's a slider?"

"It's a thing that isn't a sled but works like one." The kids took one look at the decorated spider plant and burst out laughing.

"No wonder he left you a note!" Darelle giggled, "You're lucky he even came."

"That's what Carol said, too. Well, maybe tomorrow you can show us how to do it properly."

"You know how. Gus said when he was a kid you had a tree one time that touched the ceiling."

"That's true, we did. And we had to tie it to the back of the big chair so it wouldn't fall over on us. We don't want one that big again. "

"Gus said you always have turkey," Donny said hopefully.
"Will you have turkey?"

"Of course. If you want it."

"We didn't get no turkey yet. Mom said if we were going to be up here the lef'overs would just go to waste so we only had some hot wings."

"They were good!" Donny blurted. "But not turkey."

"You just wait until you see the turkey," Carol laughed. She headed for the freezer. "It isn't a great big huge one because, well, your mom was right about leftovers. But we got a fat one. Small and fat. Yum yum.

They stared at the frozen butterball, then looked at each other and grinned.

"We unwrap it, cover it with a tea towel and sit it here on the drainboard to thaw overnight. Then, tomorrow morning, we stuff it. And you guys have to help, okay? And when it's stuffed, we put it in the oven to cook and ... see about that tree we're supposed to rig up."

The kids were borderline exhausted after the trip, but trudged to the barn to help with the chores. They brushed the mare's flanks until even the thick winter fur gleamed and glistened. They weren't nearly as afraid of the animals as they had been on their last visit.

When the chores were done there was spaghetti with Paul Newman's sauce, and then it was bathtime. Donny almost fell asleep in the tub, and Isa had to towel him dry so he wouldn't fall into bed soaking wet. Darelle lasted maybe ten minutes longer, and then was asleep, her face finally relaxed.

The next morning they were up at eight, and so excited their adrenalin kicked the day into overdrive. Everything had to happen at once, and their voices got increasingly shrill.

Over at the next farm the kids were in Junior Forest Wardens and had been selling trees as a fund-raiser. Luckily they had a few left over; the smaller ones, the scrawny or tatty ones with gaps in the branches. "Good," Carol pretended to sigh with relief, "it will fit. I was afraid they wouldn't have one we could tuck in the corner."

"Do you got dec'rations?"

"We have some. And we're going to make more."


They cut the cups out of egg cartons, crumpled up aluminum foil, then smoothed it out and fit pieces over the little cups. They painted other cups, they strung cranberries on a thread, they strung popcorn, and cut stars out of styrofoam cups. While Carol played overseer on the assembly line, Isa whipped into town to look for strings of lights. She thought she'd have hell's own time, but the hardware store had tables of surplus decorations, and at less than half price. Buoyed by her luck, she bought some glittery stars and plenty of icicles and tinsel. She also took half an hour to hit the kids' clothing aisles where the prices were about half what they had been before the great day. When she got home with the booty, Carol looked so relieved Isa knew she had been starting to feel desperate.

"Oh, good on you!" she breathed.

"Aussie rules shopping," Isa laughed. "No helmets, no penalties for using elbows. Here, kids, have a ball," and she turned them loose with the decorations while she and Carol went into the bedroom, closed the door, hurriedly took off price tags, wrapped presents and, finally, blessedly, carried them out to stuff them under the tree. The kids stared.

Then it was into the kitchen, where Carol already had the turkey stuffed and in the oven, and before long the rich scent of roasting butterball was joined by the smell of fresh-baked cookies and mince pies.

"We'll get the spuds and veggies on to cook, and then ... it's open-the-presents time."

"I'll peel," Darelle offered quietly. She looked at Isa, then at Carol, and finally at Donny, who was slowly and very carefully putting presents under the tree, his face glowing with excitement. "And thank you. He doesn't really believe in Santa Claus. Not really, but . . . "

"Oh, I think that's pretty normal," Isa lied. I don't really believe anymore, myself, but ... you never know."

The clothes fit and the toys were an absolute hit. Donny sat on the sofa, togged out in new stuff from the skin out, putting on and taking off his Garfield slippers. It seemed to Isa his body language had changed, he was suddenly more confident, but maybe she just imagined that.

She had forgotten how much food a couple of kids can put away at Christmas dinner. The butterball wasn't going to drown them in leftovers after all, thank heaven. They ate until she half expected them to open down the midline, and then, when they finally announced they were stuffed and couldn't eat any more, they dove into the dessert.

Darelle helped clear the table, Donny stood on a chair and washed dishes and Carol dried and put them away. Isa scraped the scraps into the dog dishes, poured gravy on the dog food, and mixed the mess together before putting it down for the mutts. Then she headed out to the barn to do chores, and when she came back in, the kitchen was dean and tidy and the kids were in the living room playing with their new toys and watching television at the same time.

By the time the kids were in bed, wearing their new pyjamas and stuffed with food, Isa was closer to exhaustion than she'd been in years.

"You okay?" Carol asked quietly.

"I would be if I wasn't so depressed."

"Right. And a jolly ho ho ho to you, too."

They cuddled together on the sofa, Isa with her head on Carol's shoulder, and neither of them was the least bit surprised when, without even looking at each other they both said, at exactly the same time, in exactly the same soft and almost mourning tone, "Ah, bah humbug!"

Snow started to drift from the low-hanging clouds the day before New Year's Eve. And they knew they were in for a good one because the flakes were small and dry, and they stuck to the ground. By mid-afternoon the white covering was ankle-deep. By the time evening barn chores were done there was enough on the long downhill slope of the driveway that the plastic garbage can lid could slide quickly and easily. When the kids finally went to bed, the utility room smelled of damp wool and the clothes-drying rack was covered with wet socks, damp jeans and shirts. Sodden new jackets hung on clothes hangers, dripping onto newspapers on the floor.

Isa went outside for her last check of things, so tired she felt as if she could lean against the holly tree and sleep upright. The flakes falling now were bigger. They hissed as they fell to the ground, and she imagined a light plop when they landed. The dogs hadn't yet managed to stain the snow yellow, there were no muddy bits of cow manureenriched goo, and in the light from the windows the white on the lawn fulfilled every promise of every postcard.

The movie screen on Isa's inner eyes began to run. She tried to turn it off, tried to have the film declared unfit for viewing, tried to call in the censors, tried to send it back to the editing room to be recut, but it was too late. All that takes time, and what might have taken hours in real time became but a few seconds of memory, with an effect that would last for weeks.

Snow falling then, too, and she wakened in a room made bright by clear silver moonlight. Strange noises, but not so strange she couldn't recognize them. And the grunting, the sucked in breath telling of pain, of shock, of fear. She didn't want to get out of bed, she wanted to crawl under her blankets, stuff her fingers in her ears, squeeze her eyes shut until she couldn't see things she knew were happening, and instead her feet were on the cold linoleum floor and she was running across her room. %When she opened her bedroom door the cold hit her like a slap in the face, and at the end of the hallway the door to the outside was gaping open, flakes of snow coming inside, melting on the door lintel, on the shoe-wiping rug.

Nobody in the house, the noise on the porch, more grunting, more gasping, loud hollow thwacking sounds, then thump-thump and she knew someone oh please god not Momma was going down the fourteen steps to the ground and going the hard, hurting way

please, not my Momma

"Oh god, Fred, stop," and it was Momma's voice, but not a hurt Momma.

The snow on the porch burned her bare feet, and she knew she should go get her coat, get her lined boots, but she couldn't turn away, she could only stand there, shivering, feeling her eyes so wide she was afraid the eyeballs would fall out, feeling her face going stiff, stiff, stiffer. She wanted to pee, but not in her Christmas pyjamas. She pressed her thighs together, sucked in her belly, holding the pee inside, waiting for the urge-need-demand to stop.

Momma and another lady, a blonde lady, someone the child didn't know or even recognize, were at the bottom of the stairs, clutching each other's hands, the blonde woman weeping. And Dad and another man fighting, vicious punches, swift kicks. Droplets of blood on the snow and blood smeared on their faces, some of it coming from Dad's nose, most of it coming from the eyebrows and mouth of the man she didn't know.

"Stop! Stop!" the blonde woman screamed, and then she was running, running between the two men, neither of whom wanted to hit her. They stepped back, breathing as hard as if they'd been running for miles, and then Momma was there, her arms around Dad, not so much holding him back as just holding him, her face against his chest, her tears wetter on his shirt than the falling and melting snow.

And then Dad was looking at Isa and he shook his head, but not as if he was denying anything, more as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He put his big bloodstained hands on Momma's arms and pushed her away, not very gently. "Take your daughter back into the house where it's warm," he said. "Go on, woman."

" Please, no more - "

"Fine then, but take the child inside, she's going to catch her death of cold out here."

"Please. . . " and Momma was sobbing.

"For the love of Christ eternal," he roared, "will you do what I said? Get the girl inside or there'll be more than him nursing a thick lip. I said fine then, didn't I?"

Isa turned and went into the house, she didn't want to be the reason why the devil-light in his eyes flickered, didn't want to be why Momma fetched herself a thick lip.

She closed the door and padded to the big sawdust burner, gave the jigger thing a shake to knock down the ash, opened the draft to get the sawdust burning hotter, and only then noticed her feet were almost the colour of grape juice, with white blotches on the top. Momma came in, rushed to her, hugged her tight, stroking her hair.

"I'm fine," Isa-child said clearly. "I'm okay."

"Here, open the oven door, I'll put a folded towel on it so you don't get burned, then you put your feet here and get yourself warmed up. Oh baby, why did you go out in the snow like that?"

"I thought he was trying to kill you again." The child's voice was distant and matter-of-fact.

"You know your Dad would never hurt me," said Momma, who always told Isa god wanted us to tell the truth all the time, no matter what; said Momma who always told Isa telling ties was a sin; said Momma who until then had feet of gold and turned them to something less than clay. She smiled, but her face looked more like she was getting ready to scream.
"Your dad loves us both very very much."

Sound of a car engine, revving, then fading. The front door opened and a blast of cold entered the house first, then her dad, smeared blood congealing on his face.

He moved wordlessly to the kitchen sink, ran water and splashed it on his face, then held his right hand under the flow. His knuckles were swollen, and one of them was cut. He looked closely at the cut, then laughed, a hard, harsh, triumphant sound. He used the strong fingers of his left hand to squeeze, as if the cut were a pimple or a festering sliver. Something came out of the cut and he laughed again, got a small jelly glass from the cupboard and dropped something into it - clink. He held the glass out for Isa to see. "Stupid bugger left his front tooth in m'hand," he laughed. "And look, see there? It was his gold-mended one!"

Fresh blood ran from the knuckle, but he didn't care. He just poured some peroxide on it, wrapped his clean hanky around his hand and went to the icebox for a fresh beer.

"Why were you fighting?" Isa asked.

"Never mind now, dear, it's bedtime, Momma said hastily.

"He was talking when he should have been listening," Dad grinned. "And what he was saying was disrespectful to this house and the woman in it."

"Oh please, no, he didn't mean it the way you took it," Momma blurted. Would she never learn when to shut up? "It was a joke, is all."

His eyes changed to chips of blue ice. "And was I laughing? And if you were laughing, woman, tell me why!"

"No, no, I wasn't laughing."

As the cold left Isa's feet and moved to the pit of her stomach, she promised herself that she would never-never, not in her whole life-end up like Momma. She loved Momma, loved her so much it sometimes left her shaking, but she also knew which side her bread was buttered on, and maybe, just maybe.

"He won't be in a hurry to do it again," she said, and made herself laugh as if proud. "He's going to look funny with eyebrows sticking out like cow horns."

" Bloody right!" and Dad was laughing, lifting her from the chair, holding her with one arm and kissing her cheek.
"Here," he held the beer bottle to her mouth, "have a sip. And then you can't say I never gave you anything, right?"

When she went outside the next morning, the blood was still there on the trampled snow. There was more blood on the porch. And in the middle of it she could see the mark of her own little foot, where she had stepped in it and not even noticed. You'd think a person would know when she was walking on someone else's blood.

Isa never forgot what she had learned that night, even if she couldn't articulate it until later. There are only two kinds of people, the kind who get walked on and the kind who don't. Young as she was, she decided she wouldn't be the kind who got walked on, and if anybody tried, she was fully prepared to go for the throat.