A Child of Light
By Jan Fenimore
The weak winter sun slid past the horizon and with darkness came the bitter cold. Tiny wet flakes of snow fell from a heavy sky, touching the girl’s cheeks. The eleven-year-old blew on her hands and stamped her feet, numb from the cold. In moving from one foster home to another, she had long ago lost the gloves her grandmother had knitted for her.
She had been standing on this city street since early this Christmas Eve morning when her newest foster dad had dropped her off.
“Here is your basket full of lighters,” he growled, giving her a push out the car door. “With all these Christmas shoppers milling about, the basket should be empty in no time. Save enough coins so you can call me to pick you up. But don’t bother calling until the basket is empty.”
A corner newsstand caught her eye and she staked claim on a spot nearby. She reasoned people stopping to buy something to read, would see her and buy a lighter. Cheap little things, they lasted for only a couple of smokes. But fewer and fewer people smoked these days. Sales had been poor. She had sold only enough to buy a hot dog at noon and a candy bar before the newsstand closed.
The girl had no money left to call for a ride home and, besides, the basket heaped with lighters. She didn’t want to go back there anyway. Memory of her foster dad, clad in a white T-shirt decorated with permanent food stains, a cigar hanging out of his mouth and his big belly hanging over the top of his pants was something she’d just as soon forget. Her foster mom, a woman who sipped hidden liquor bottles as she moved from room to room, had no regard or affection for her. A stinging slap for chores undone had become the only touching in the household.
If only Grams had lived, she thought. I could still be with her and we could care for each other. Hard as she tried the girl could not bring a memory of her parents to mind. Grams had showed her their picture, telling her of the tragic car accident that ended their lives.
As she backed away from the street, something in a store window caught her eye. On the top rung of a display sat a crystal cat. The girl remembered Gram’s crystal animal collection and how her favorite, a cat with a tail that stood up straight in the air and curled at the end, had been broken. Had Gram been here this Christmas, this cat, an exact copy, would be under their tree.
A price tag of $2.50 hung from the curled tail. If she could sell just one lighter it would be hers, something to remind her of Grams. She noticed a young man on the corner, struggling to get his lighter to work.
“Mister,” she said. “These lighters work just fine and I’ll sell you two for $3.00.”
“Sounds good to me,” he said. “I’m in a hurry and you’ve saved me some time. Here’s your $3.00 and thanks. Merry Christmas.”
The girl smiled, happy for the quick sale. The holiday greeting meant nothing to her, not without Grams.
She hurried into the store, catching the owner counting out his cash register.
“Oh, please, mister. I want that crystal cat in your window. Can I buy it before you close?” she asked, showing him the cash.
“Well,” he said, clearing his throat. “You’ve caught me just in time. Five more minutes and the lights would have been out. A gift for someone special?”
“Yes, very special,” she said.
Outside in the cold once again, she clutched the small box. She decided to walk. With several blocks gone behind her, she stopped at an alley, dark except for a light encased in a wire cage shining above a green door. Below the light stood a woman wrapped in bundles of clothing, trying to light wet paper in a trash barrel. As the young girl watched the woman struck match after match with no luck.
With the matches gone the woman hung her head, looking defeated.
“I have a whole basket of lighters here. Maybe they can get a fire going,” the girl said, holding her basket under the woman’s drooping head.
The woman looked at her then through dull eyes. “They won’t do no good either. Everything’s too wet. I just wanted to warm my hands and feet. I can’t feel them no more.”
“Me neither,” the girl said. “But we need something dry to burn. Those trash bags against the building might have some. Would you mind holding the lighters while I look?” The girl handed them to the woman, not waiting for an answer. She stuffed the box with the crystal cat deep into her pants pocket and pawed through the bags.
Within minutes her arms overflowed with paper, small cardboard boxes and straw used for packaging.
“Look at this,” said the girl. “We’ll have a bonfire going soon.”
She dumped it all in the barrel and took the lighters back. Soon, a roaring blaze danced in the darkness. The two held their hands as close to the flames as they dared, rubbing them back to warmth.
A smile crept onto the old woman’s face and a spark of something familiar touched the young girl. She looks like my Grams, she thought. But the vision disappeared as the fire sputtered and went out, drowned by heavier snowflakes and a gust of wind.
“Now, what’ll we do,” the old woman whined. “I knew it was too good to last. Just like everything good in my life. Too good to last.”
“We’ll start again, that’s what,” said the girl. “We just need more dry stuff.”
Rummaging through the bags once again, the girl found more paper and some wooden slats used to protect something for shipping. These will burn even longer, she thought. But, what with the heavier snow and the swirling wind, it took longer to get the fire going. She used lighter after lighter, throwing them on the ground once they lost their flames. Sparkling in the snow, their dark, shiny colors dotted the white ground like precious jewels.
The flames won the battle for the moment and sparks jumped in the air reminding the girl of a fireworks display. She looked at the old woman closely then, noticing her long gray hair crawling out from beneath her cap and the deep lines etched in her face. She wondered why the old woman lived on the streets.
“What do you see when you look into the flames?” the girl asked, encouraging the woman with her own vision. “I see a room with a fireplace and a Christmas tree decorated with twinkling lights. Reminds me of home with my Grandma.”
“I had a home once,” the old woman sighed. “And a small granddaughter to love but then her drug-dealing parents took her back and I found myself living on the streets.”
The words drifted into the wind as the fire went out again.
“I don’t know how much more I can find to burn,” said the girl. “Those bags are getting pretty empty.”
“Well, try little darlin’. We don’t want to freeze to death tonight, not on Christmas Eve.” The woman grabbed the basket with lighters this time, eager to help in some way.
The girl searched the bags and found enough to get the fire going. But this would be it. They would have to move on after this. Glancing in the basket, she could see only a few lighters left. How could they survive this storm with no heat?
As the flames leapt toward the sky for the third time, the visions in the little girl’s head seemed more real than ever. The old woman was Grams. They sat in their home on Christmas Eve opening their modest gifts. The little girl pulled the box from her pocket. She opened the lid and held the crystal cat near the light of the fire.
“This is for you, Grams. You have your crystal cat again. I’m so happy I found it for you.”
A smile lit up the old woman’s face, melting away years of sadness. She took the crystal cat, then stroked the little girl’s cold cheek. The old woman’s touch warmed the girl, banishing the last of the icy cold. She reached out to hug the old woman. This vision was real. She had her Grams back.
No one missed the two that night or any other night. They had no one in the world to miss them. But they could be somewhere… anywhere, hovering over a small fire in the dark trying to keep warm.