It's Christmas Eve in the high Sonoran desert of Arizona. A shivering woman watches the darkness approach at the heels of a lone rider.
December 24th, 1892
The lone rider approached with the dusk.
To Clara's tired eyes, the plodding horse and slumped figure of a man seemed to be dragging the nighttime along behind them. Huddled against the trunk of an ancient and gnarled mesquite tree, guarded by its low spreading branches, her body quivered with the effort to warm itself. No longer fighting to keep her eyes open, she pressed her pale lips to the head of the baby carefully swaddled and secured to her chest with her shawl. The rider would move on, leaving only the darkness behind him.
The man shrugged his shoulders and flipped up the collar of his sheepskin coat, pulling the brim of his hat lower to protect his face and neck from the cold wind blowing off the Kachina Peaks. Snow already capped the mountain, and tonight that wind was cold enough to bring an uncommon flurry to the valley. Stretching his fingers in their thin leather gloves, he wrapped his reigns around the pommel of his saddle and stuck his hands into the warm sheepskin pockets of his coat. "I don't suppose you'd like to go any faster?" he asked his horse.
Folly glanced back at the sound of his voice but maintained her rhythmic plodding.
"I didn't think so. You remember that Mesquite is just two miles from home, if you can't manage at least a canter; I'm getting off and walking. I'd be warmer and beat you there to boot."
Folly shook her head, jangling her bridle.
Damn, it was cold. Looking up at the clear sky, stars chasing the sun away behind the sandstone cliffs, the shades of blue, purple pink and red streaking the sky, he felt humbled by so much beauty for his eyes alone. He took a deep breath of the silence and thought about the quiet little homestead waiting for him. At his father's death, he'd inherited his fathers homestead and now was the proud owner of 320 acres of desert they had worked for the last ten years. This week he had ridden to Flagstaff, the first time he'd been off the homestead since his father's death. It was a pointless trip, a waste of money and time.
Folly's ears perked, her paced slowed, and then she stopped altogether.
He looked around, "What is it girl?"
She whinnied nervously, shaking her shaggy head. Sliding off her side and pulling his rifle from beside the saddle, he listened but heard nothing except the cold north wind. Catching the bridle, he pulled forward, but the old horse set her feet and refused to move a step.
"Fine, have it your way. I'm cold, tired and hungry. I'm going home." With a last look around at the shadowed landscape, he strode away from the horse, his long legs eating up the remaining distance between himself and the looming tree. It was a majestic old Mesquite tree, its trunk split low near the ground and its graceful branches sweeping the area and stretching above. He'd almost built his home here near this tree but finally opted for the site where he was able to dig a well. There were mesquite trees there as well, but none so beautiful as this.
He'd made it about five steps past the tree, when he came to an abrupt stop. His brain finally telegraphing to him what it had registered. His hands tightened on the stock of his rifle and he turned back, eyes searching the v of the split trunk. There, a shape he'd not noticed at first glance and if it were any darker, one he would have completely missed tonight. For a moment, he thought someone had left a bundle of rags there but when the wind gusted through the close branches, it fluttered the edge of her wrap and showed slim, elegant fingers underneath. They were cold porcelain white, gleaming in the near darkness. He stepped under the twisted boughs, dropping to a knee in front of the figure, not wanting to uncover what he was afraid he was about to see. Stripping off a glove, he grasped the edge of the shawl and eased it back, uncovering her ghostly face.
He dropped his hand, muttering a curse. "This God forsaken desert!" Looking at the ground for a moment, he felt a longing for home, a warm fire, dinner and wondered if it was the ghost of this woman's last breath against his cheek. Sighing he straightened, thinking what needed to be done. He was shocked when he looked down at the girl once more and met her somber gaze. She made no sound nor moved, only lowered her head as her eyes drifted shut again.
He bent and touched her hand, only then realizing it cupped a tiny head. He swore again, this time with a bit more color. "Fuck."
His shrill whistle brought the previously reluctant Folly trotting forward. Lifting the woman, took far less effort than it should have and he settled her shaky form on top of Folly, climbing up behind her. Giving his horse an encouraging jolt with soft side of his spur, he said, "No more slacking, Folly, it may mean her life." , and with that the old horse managed a respectable canter the two miles to the barn.
December 25th, 1892
Clara felt the heat of the sun finally warming her again. She tightened her hand gently around her baby's head; felt him still tight against her. Refusing to open her eyes, she took a shaky breath, so exhausted but not dead yet. How was it possible she'd survived another night? How many had it been? She'd lost track. No water for at least two days, and her food had run out days earlier. How many nights had she shivered in the desert with only her shawl and little boy to keep warm? She pressed her lips to his tiny wrapped head. "One more night, sweet boy," she whispered. Lifting her face toward the warmth of the sun, she opened her eyes, and found herself looking at neatly fitted ceiling boards, following down a wall of carefully mortared adobe bricks, to a small cheerfully burning fireplace. She registered the scent of burning Mesquite. Closing her eyes again, she shook herself, perhaps she had died after all.
Cradling her son, she rolled to her back, felt the give of a soft feather mattress, a pillowcase that smelled like...peppermint, under her cheek. She opened her eyes again and saw him, a man sleeping in a rocking chair near the foot of the bed. His head bowed, dark hair dented from the band of a hat, curling at his neck. His long arms folded across a broad chest, long legs stretched out in front of him booted feet crossed, a book lay face down across one leg. He was snoring softly.
Clara looked more carefully about her. The iron-framed bed, the rocking chair, a small table and steamer trunk were the only furnishings. The neat little brick fireplace had a beautiful wood mantel but nothing sat on it. Her eyes wandered back to the man, now awake and watching her.
"I'm supposed to be dead now." Clara said her voice broken and raw from lack of use and thirst.
He lifted his head at her words, nodding slowly. "I'm going to get you a cup of water, alright, ma'am?"
Clara stared as he unfolded his legs and stood, walking into another room then quickly returning with a cup. Her arms tightened around her son as he sat beside her on the edge of the bed.
He slipped an arm under her back, helping her to sit up. When she made no move to take the cup from him, he pressed it to her lips. After the barest of swallows, she turned her head.
He set the cup on the small side table and gently laid her back.
Clara trembled at the primal urge to grab the water and drink it all, but that would simply postpone the inevitable.
He went back to his rocking chair, sat down, and leant his elbows on his knees.
"I won't give you my son, don't ask," her broken voice was harsh in the gentle quiet of the room.
The man asked, "How old is he?"
Clara met his eyes, surprised. "Not yet seven months old."
The man nodded, looking down at his hands, "How long have you been out there, where-"
"I won't tell you where because we won't go back."
"Alright." He leaned back in his chair and picked up his book, opening it and started reading.
Clara watched him suspiciously for a few minutes, glancing guiltily at the tempting cup of water sitting within reach. "I'm not crazy."
She flexed her fingers against her child's cold little head. "They wanted to bury him by the side of the trail."
He paused in the midst of turning a page, set his book carefully back on his leg.
"I wouldn't leave him in that shallow hole by the wayside like he was something that could just be dropped and forgotten, as if his weight was too much to bear anymore. Do you know what happens to bodies left in shallow graves?"
"Yes, ma'am, I do know." He let her look her fill at his brown eyes, sure to let her know he knew exactly of what she spoke.
"I won't leave him."
"Of course you won't, you're his mother."
The spike of tears that filled her throat and eyes at this quiet truth, made a terrible sound of choking in her breath. She coughed, looking away.
"Would you like another sip of water?"
"How can I!" Clara cried, "I'm his mother!" She couldn't believe she still had tears to fall.
"You will because you're the only one that can tell me what I need to do for him."
Clara stared at the man in disbelief.
He waited patiently for her word, seemed as if he would sit there as long as she needed him to. Something clicked inside her as his words registered, what does he need? What wish for the poor little thing now? "He needs a warm bed," she whispered.
"Yes, ma'am, I've already thought of that. What else would you like him to have?"
"A place, close by, where he won't be disturbed."
The man nodded.
Clara's eyes were burning but she refused to blink. "His named, carved in wood or stone."
"I can do that. What is his name?"
"Like the ancient king." He said.
The man stood and excused himself, "I'll be right outside the door, if you need assistance. It will be sunset soon. They are particularly beautiful here, fit for royalty. I'll bring in some warm water and clean towels, if you wish to bathe and swaddle him."
"Thank you," Clara said.
A little more than an hour later, Clara tucked the last bit of elegantly embroidered linen under his tiny curled fist. His golden hair lay softly on his brow, long dark lashes resting on his pale cheek. He was curved into the gentle ball he so preferred whenever she carried him at her breast. Now he would sleep that way forever.
She picked him up one last time, held him to her chest and stepped into the other room.
The man stood next to a small table, upon which sat a tiny wooden box.
She stepped closer, almost blinded by her tears.
He stood quietly, hat in hand.
Clutching Arthur close, she touched the edge of the box, peeking inside. It was lined with the soft grey and white fur of a rabbit and a small pillow of linen was folded for his head. She laid him inside, on his tummy. His cheek on the pillow, a little fist curled near his chin. She patted his little round bum, and stroked his hair one last time. Tears escaping down her cheeks, she set a tiny rag bear next to him and nodded at the man.
He looked at her for a moment, twisting his hat before saying, "With all respect, ma'am, I think he'd like one other thing."
Clara looked up at him, surprised, as he disappeared in into the bedroom, returning with her worn and patched shawl. Clara shook her head, about to disagree; it was so shabby compared to the linens and fur he'd provided. However, she found she couldn't speak as his capable hands tucked the battered knit close to the baby's cheek and around his feet.
"There," he said, "babies sleep better with something that smells like their momma." He cleared his throat and Clara nodded.
He fitted a small lid on the box, "May I? He asked.
He lifted the tiny box, tucking it under his arm and held out his other hand to Clara. She laid her cold fingers in his warm hand and he squeezed gently.
He led them to a little hill, where he had dug a deep hole. A simple wooden cross lay near by, with the name Arthur engraved on it in simple but beautiful script.
He set the box carefully aside and dropped into the hole. Looking up at Clara, he asked, "Will this be sufficient?"
Clara's throat closed on her words, but she nodded.
"He won't be bothered here."
She nodded again.
He set the box carefully near his feet and climbed out, he sat down near the edge, holding his hand up, "Would you join me?"
She sat on the cold ground beside him and he pulled a small bible out of his coat.
Clara lifted her eyes from the sturdy little box to the blazing glory of a desert sunset.
The man's quiet voice read, "I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety." He turned a few pages, then "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." He looked up at the orange, red and pink streaking the western sky.
Clara's soft voice completed the simple benediction, "For this child, I have prayed, and the Lord has granted the desires of my heart."
He closed his bible and set it in Clara's lap. Standing he picked up his shovel and with whatever gentleness the lonely, heart worn man could muster, he filled the hole a shovel full at a time, mounding the dirt up and standing aside to allow the woman to pat it smooth. He had picked some Desert Chicory that was still blooming nearby and he offered it to her to lie at the foot of the marker.
She thanked him and laid it carefully. "This is a beautiful place," she said, looking around. As the last light of the sun began to fade, she brushed her fingers across the vibrant red blooms of a large bush next to the new grave. "How is it possible this bush is still blooming at Christmas?"
"It's called Eremophila. My father brought the seeds with him from Australia years ago. It marks where I buried him, nearly three years ago."
"The Greek, eremos, meaning lonely or desert," she said.
He smiled, "Yes, and philos, meaning dear or beloved. It blooms every year from December to March."
"Even if it snows?"
"Well, it's been a few years since I've even spotted a singe snowflake here, but yes, even if it snows."
The woman looked north toward the distant mountain peaks, "It was unbearable, the thought of him in a shallow hole, shivering under the snow. But now, now it would seem like God's blessing, a shroud of crystal for my baby boy."
He picked up his shovel. "You're shivering; we should go back to the house."
They walked back in companionable silence, toward the glowing little home.
"I need to check the animals before I come in, please help yourself to whatever you need."
She watched him walk to the small barn, setting his shovel just inside the door. Looking back at the hill, she could just make out the little cross and it comforted her. Stepping over the threshold into a warm kitchen she admonished herself, she had much to think about, decisions to make. She walked to the fire and automatically checked the stew bubbling there, finding a spoon nearby to stir it. She picked up a poker and spread the coals, moving the hottest bits to the corner, away from the hanging cast iron pot.
Straightening, she walked to the counter built under the window, looking at the ingredients arrayed there. Her eye lifted to the beautiful glass panes and once again to the little hill and the cross she could no longer see but knew was there. She touched the smooth cold pane, then looked back down at the pan on the counter.
The cast iron skillet already had a bit of bacon drippings in the bottom and Clara took it to the fireplace to warm. Back at the counter, she combined the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt and egg. Looking around for the milk just as the man stepped in.
He seemed a bit surprised to see her in the kitchen, noticed the bowl in her hands and nodded to a corner, "The milk's in the bottom shelf."
Clara turned and found the tin milk can, pouring just enough into her bowl to mix the ingredients. Feeling a bit self conscious under his eye, she walked to the fireplace and poured the now popping bacon grease into her batter, stirred, then poured it all back into the pan. Raking a few select coals over, she set the frying pan on top and straightened, wiping her hands on her skirt.
The man's brown eyes followed her every move, he spoke slowly, "I have no expectation of you; I want you to know that."
Clara looked at him, "I have no reason to believe that, but I do." Her eyes dropped to his hands, the brown and red Arizona clay staining them. "The cornbread will be read in about fifteen minutes, if you'd like to wash, Mr. -, I'm sorry, I don't know your name."
"James, James Nicholas."
She lowered her head in an almost queenly manner, "James. I'm Clara. At one time, I was Clara Banks."
"I am mindful that I owe you a great debt, I doubt I can ever repay."
He regarded her for a moment, "Share dinner with me, and we'll let the rest sort itself out, how it may."
He turned to the washbasin and Clara looked back out the window, catching her breath and stepping closer. She lifted her fingertips to touch the beautiful crystal that rested there before floating away. She looked out at the sifting flakes falling silently.
"Merry Christmas, Arthur." She smiled past a falling tear, whispering a little prayer of thanks.