Her hair was boldly beautiful in the ugly room. The soft blue lights of Christmas danced along each strand as the comb caressed the black, black length of it, a raven's wing touching her shoulders. I could hear the clean squeak as her fingers parted the tresses, twisting and lifting them until everything lovely was eaten up and scraped into a tight black knot at the back of her head. It was neater that way, she said. There were a few straggling tendrils that loved freedom too much, and I laughed with them as they sprang away from their jailors.
I stared at all my secret places, looking for beauty in that ugly room. But that night even the flowers on the wallpaper stared back at me, pale and unresponsive when I tried to breathe life into their dead, flat petals and touch their velvet to my cheek.
I hated them because they had been beautiful, but now they were dead, and I locked them up with the blue lights in my mother's black hair.
I longed for beauty. I sought it in the scrubbed and polished floor that sang of marbled halls and crinolines, of twinkling buckles and dancing feet. Red satin and blue velvet of my dream fabric swirled and faded in the tight black knot that was my mother's hair. Just that afternoon she had done the old red tile till it shone, preparing for a special guest who dropped in on most people this time of year. Some said he came in down the chimney, but I could never imagine anyone as beautiful as Saint Nicholas covered with soot. Some said he came only to good children, but I thought that wasn't fair because I always remembered that part too late. I was too big to cry, they said.
Before I could ask what Father Christmas would bring that year, my father's strong arms were lifting me up to his shoulders, and I was a giant walking through the doorway into the cold December night. He pointed to a star in the sky, a star bright as the light in his eyes, and when he spoke there were falling leaves rustling among his words. I caught them as they fell. "Let me tell you a story, Love," he said.
The words of his story whispered of three men who followed the star. Rich men they were, riding camels through the sand, camels with saddlebags holding gifts for a king. I wondered what frankincense and myrrh were, but who could ask such a question when beauty was in the air? My father's voice robbed the saddlebags and gave those gifts to me, and I placed them, gently, among the blue lights in the braided black hair.
We might have gone back through the doorway then, back to the ugly room, but we didn't. Father walked toward the cottage next door and I became afraid, for ghosts and dead men lurked in the tall grass over there, and they'd made tut-tutting noises at me once because they didn't know what children were. Virginia creeper bearded the face of the house and shiny eyes of windows blinked at our intrusion. I held tight as he ducked low in the doorway and we went inside.
The old couple sat huddled at the hearth, as if, like the dying bit of fire, they too had almost gone out. They seemed not even to have the will to lift the poker and shake down the ashes from the glowing coals, and I knew the meaning of a word I had never heard. Despair was all around me. It was heavy in my hands as they slid down from my father's neck. It was heavy in my feet as they touched the cold floor. Hunger, and pain, and emptiness stared at me from their cold, pale eyes, and the wrinkles in their faces did not make a smile around their lips. I became an old, old woman as I sat with them by the fire.
"Merry Christmas," my father said, and they never looked up at him as they said the same.
Silently, gray ashes fell from the grate as the last wisp of smoke coiled slowly up the chimney, the smell of death riding its back. Still, the smile in my father's eyes would have paled a star, and his gentle "Merry Christmas" spoke to me the secret of life. I understood, in that moment, that charity can be given with an empty hand and I felt wiser than the wise men.
Oh what gifts I could have given. The frankincense. The myrrh. Blue velvet and my mother's hair. If only I could make them smile! My heart was bursting with loving and giving, yet I had nothing but myself to give. The gifts were all locked up in my mother's hair.
I wanted to strip the flowers from the wall, petal by petal, without bruising their loveliness. I wanted to shake those frail old people and make them glad to be alive. I wanted them to leap up and dance with me till all the bubbles burst. But they didn't know how to see!
I could have turned them around three times and pointed them to the mystery that would open their eyes. But children don't teach games to grownups.
The star still shone on high, lighting our way back to the ugly room, and I became a little girl again, wanting a doll for Christmas. A doll with pretty blue lights in her long, black hair. And eyes that opened and shut.
And so it has been throughout my life. A searching for beauty. A longing after truth.
The cold, fish-blue eyes of that old man and woman, staring so fixedly into the dying embers of their life together, gave an eight-year-old child a grim picture of what the far distant future might look like when she became old and ready to die. I looked into my father's eyes, which were hazel like mine, for before that cold day I had thought he too was old, as most children believe of people taller than themselves. But no, his eyes were young and alive, alight with another kind of flame that would never flicker and die. Alive, too, with a mystical knowledge of life and love that gently shone from their depths.
I determined that I, too, should have eyes like my father's, even if mine grew dim and could no longer see the beauty that I sought. Yet only after many years of adversity and foolhardiness can I look into the mirror and say, "What took you so long!"
And so begins my story.