Tiny gently placed his hand under his brother’s neck, and lifted his head while he gave him a sip of water from a tin cup.
“Marcel said when Mom was sick she told him that dying was just like changing your clothes. Sometimes your clothes just plain wear out and it gets time to change them. She said not to worry. That we would all be together again. No doubt about it. And she said whenever we wanted to talk to her, she would hear us.”
Marcel struggled to say, “Tell Gabriel – about the Christmas tree,” and for a brief moment Marcel was present, engaged in the conversation as he anticipated the description.
Tiny wriggled in excitement as he relived the memory, getting up on his knees to better tell the story. “Every Christmas at the orphanage, they put up a tree that reached to the ceiling of the assembly room. All week the nuns decorated it, but they kept the room locked so we couldn’t see. Then a couple of days before Christmas –” Tiny slowly spread his arms wide. “They opened the doors, and there it was!”
Once again, Tiny was rapt with awe, his eyes traveling up limb to limb of the tall tree. “A huge Christmas tree, with shiny ornaments and red ribbons – and an angel on top. And streamers all around the room. We always knew it was going to be there, but it was always a surprise.”
He sat back down on his heels, and was silent for a few moments. “Then on Christmas Eve we’d sing carols around the tree, and go to bed knowing that the next morning, at each of our seats in the dining hall, there would be presents. Wrapped up in Christmas paper, just for us.” Tiny and his brother exchanged glances, and Marcel pointed to the book.
“Yep,” said Tiny, handing the book to his brother. “This was one of brother’s gifts the last year we were there.
Marcel rested both hands over the book, and fixed his eyes on Tiny.
“Those nuns, Gabriel. It was like having thirty moms. Sure, some of them were strict.” He raised his eyebrows at his brother. “Sister Sebastian? Man, oh man. But she was fair. And she read to us every Friday afternoon. She knew of some good books: On the Run, Huckleberry Finn, Corporal Downing Takes the Trail, Connie Morgan in Alaska – that was a great one. Most of the books were for boys.”
Tiny laughed at a memory that came to him. “One time, some of the boys goofed off, and Sister Sebastian announced that just for that, she was going to read Heidi – a girls’ book! We all moaned and groaned. But then we liked it so much, we asked her to read it a second time. Yep, that was a really great story.”
Tiny smiled, as if he were right back in the schoolroom, hands folded on his desk, once again seeing Heidi and her grandfather, and Peter and his goats, his blind grandmother and…
“Did you stay at the orphanage all the time?” asked Gabriel.
“Sure,” said Tiny, returning from the Alps. “Where else would we go? A lot of kids were half-orphans and some of them went home over the summer, but most were like us. No parents. But summers were all right.”
He looked to his brother for confirmation, and nodded. “There was a huge playground, with a merry-go-round that held about twenty kids. We’d run and get that thing spinning, and then all jump on. We’d go so fast, our caps would fly off. And some kids roller skated in the courtyard and down the driveway. I only had one skate, but I got pretty good at it.”
“Where was the other skate?” asked Gabriel.
Tiny shrugged, as if the small detail didn’t matter. He clasped his hands around his knees and rocked, pushing off with his toes, thinking about the good ole days.
He tipped his head to his brother. “We were lucky. Most of the kids were alone. But we always had each other. Ever since I was born I had my brother.” Tiny’s voice quivered a little, and he reached inside the bag for another piece of toffee, and gave it a firm crunch.
“This tastes exactly like Sister Rosetta’s. It’s like you brought us our old Christmas back. Thanks, Gabriel.”
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