After the last decoration has been taken down, after the Fitz & Floyd platters have been carefully shoved into the way-back of the china cabinet, after the programs and pageants and parties have been reduced to cleverly captioned images on Instagram, what is left are the sounds. The real sounds.
Not the over-produced orchestrations of carols that soundtracked every moment of December, the ones with which the crowds in the mall could only hum along because no one learns the words anymore because school children get only thirty minutes a week, if that, of music and when they perform it’s a holiday concert not a Christmas program. Not the ubiquitous jingling of sleigh bells underscoring every commercial on every televised sporting event, of which there were a multitude. Not the mind-numbing beep beep beep of the barcode reader at Walmart, scanning each of the individual items in each of the five overloaded buggies that make up the shortest line available. No, not those sounds.
The real sounds.
I was outside after dark, whispering with every step my gratitude for the balmy weather, smiling to myself over the good fortune of being able to walk around outside in January in shorts and a t-shirt. It was cloudy. No moon, no stars. I walked at the edge of the light, the edge of the darkness, the place where the artificial glow coming from the house faded and my feet were just oblong shadows.
I’d made a couple of loops around the perimeter when I heard a cry, as plaintive a wailing as ever there has been. No banshee keening from the mounds of County Meath could have been more bone-chilling. A single painful note unrolling over the field like a fogbank and it stopped me in my tracks.
There was distance between us and I assumed it was some kind of bird, a night bird, a swamp dweller I had never heard before. I called myself brave and kept walking.
The cry got closer. I stopped again. This time it was obvious that the creature making the mournful sound was no bird. It sounded more than anything like a baby calf. But it couldn’t be because, of course, we have no cows. I suspected it might be a fawn, a baby deer separated somehow from its mother. When I described it later to Keith, he agreed with my suspicion. “Sometimes,” he said, “you can hear the mama answer back. Real soft like.”
I didn’t hear the mama. I can only assume that the baby eventually found her, made its way to her warm and heaving side, and followed her across the field making heart-shaped footprints all the way to the edge of the woods where they would find a soft spot to nestle down and sleep.
I love Christmas. I love the gladness of gathering and the warmth of celebration. I love the rituals of the church and of my family. I love the way the oldest of things – ornaments and relationships and stories – are brought out into the open and caressed with the gentlest of hands.
But I also love the days after. The days when the rhythm of the ordinary returns. The days when the most beautiful trees are the ones lit not by twinkle lights, but by the flame of a winter sunset. The days when the only carol breaking the silence is the song of an invisible fawn.