Tag Archives: Christmas

The Pregnable Fortress    

We invite each other to write a Christmas story every year. Here is mine from 2016.

John did not like his new home very much. He thought he should like his aunt and uncle, but he didn’t. And he was quite sure his mother’s sister and her husband did not like him very much either. And it was almost Christmas. And mom used to like Christmas before she disappeared after Dad apparently died.

He still did not quite understand what happened. There was talk about bad heroin and angry phone calls about being a terrible mother. He stood in his aunt’s kitchen one time and listened while she walked up and down the hall yelling. She stopped and looked at him blankly when she came around the corner. He walked silently out the back door.

That cold afternoon, he began to build his fortress of solitude.

He had seen one in an old Superman movie and wanted to fly into the ice and hide there. He was already someplace in the wilderness, still not used to the noiseless nights in the mountains after growing up with sirens and voices in the dark.

They had not told him there was a property line, so he assumed the forest spreading out behind him was a safe playground for a ten-year-old. He stepped around prickly bushes and over fallen trees until he came to a gully and a log that was just right to sit on. Without too much thinking, he began to make a fortress out of fallen branches right there.

After a couple of hours he had a roof and space enough to feel like he had a little house. He discovered he was not out of earshot when his aunt finally called him to find his way back to the house in the dusk.

Everyone in the house was always mad or crying — and irritated with his silence. They called it sulking. He called it nothing, as he sat at dinner eating little and closing in further — like his fortress in the woods.

Soon it had walls through which he could barely see. He took some trash bags from the closet and made it so rain did not get in so much. He put more branches over them so it looked to him like a big bush and he was a bushman, far off in the desert where no one could find him.

But someone did find him.

He went into his fortress one afternoon and turned on his flashlight to decide where to put a piece of foam he had found in the neighbor’s trash. On one of the flat rocks he had brought in for a table there was a cookie and a note. “You better wear orange or you are going to get shot.”

He panicked. Someone knew about his hideout! Someone had been in his fortress. Someone was going to shoot him. There were other people in this forest and one of them could fit through his doorway.

Maybe someone was spying on him right now! He carefully drew back the towel he found in the rag box that served as his door, peeked his head over the edge of the gully and looked around. He wasn’t sure who to be afraid of more: whoever was going to shoot him or whoever was watching him – maybe they were the same person.

He saw no one in the quickly-darkening December light. The forest was smoky and wet, and suddenly he felt very cold and alone. He went into his hut and wondered whether to tear it all down and give up. He ate the cookie.

The next day school was even more annoying than ever. He had been in his class just a short time. Being the new kid was bad enough. But the teacher would not leave him alone. The fact that she felt sorry for him made him feel things and he did not want to feel.

Then his classmates became emboldened and started questioning him. When he answered with one word or angrily told them to go away, one boy mocked him with a loud voice. “Oh, so we have a baby in our class. It’s the fourth grade, baby.” He was glad it was the last day before the break.

That day, when he went to his fortress, he did not know what to expect. He wore an orange vest that was too big for him that he found in the shed with the fishing poles. He drew back his towel and shined his flashlight around the shelter, finding his rock table. Nothing. He lay down on his foam bed and went cold. The darkness seemed to wrap around him like some damp, new skin. He closed his eyes and let it take him.

The next day he did not wear his vest. He did not care if he got shot. When he got to his fortress, he almost kicked it. He wanted to take a big rock and throw it through the roof. He wanted to hurt something or someone. But he didn’t. He just crawled in with a grunt of irritation and slumped down on his foam and looked at the dim light seeping through the spaces between his branches, filtering under the trash bags.

Before long, his eyes were acclimated enough to see the contours of his wooden cave. On his rock table was a sparkle. He turned his flashlight on it and saw a small angel ornament made of thin gold metal. There was another note on top of the first one: same paper, same writing. “This place needs a little Christmas. Hang me up.”

He was not sure whether to be terrified or elated. Someone was waiting for him to leave before they invaded his space. They knew about him but he did not know about them. They liked him.

That night he ate a piece of chicken. His aunt cried. She suddenly got up and left the table with her napkin on her nose. He silently looked at his uncle. His uncle gave him another piece.

It was almost Christmas and dad was still dead and mom was still gone somewhere no one would say. At his new house no one played Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer over and over. No one ever came home and acted silly and danced with him until they fell on the couch laughing and then sleeping. No one came home with little presents that never got wrapped saying, “I could not wait until Christmas when I saw this in the store.”

Instead, there was a very neat Christmas tree with white lights and ornaments that were all red. The packages were all wrapped with the same paper. He avoided that room and usually went to bed after dinner unless they made him watch TV in the den.

Mostly he went to his fortress of solitude.

There were no further angels, just the one hanging at the very top of the ceiling from a twig. He would shine his flashlight on it and watch the reflections. He knew very little about real angels or even if there were real angels. But he began to believe in this one. He even talked to it sometimes. One time he whispered, “I hate everyone and they hate me.” The angel was silent. He shouted it, “I hate them and it doesn’t even matter!” The angel did not reply. But he did not get the feeling it did not care.

The next day was Christmas Eve, mom’s favorite day of the year. People were coming to his uncle’s house. He had to take a bath and wear special clothes his aunt bought. He had to be introduced to a bunch of people he did not know, to whom he did not speak or even smile. His uncle told him he had to do it before they got there and he was too afraid to resist. But inside he wanted to scream, “Do not touch me!”

Before long they drank enough wine to be loud and unaware, so he quietly slipped out the back door and headed into the deep dark of the forest. He took a blanket and wrapped himself against the cold.

His flashlight made a beam that caught the eyes of a deer off in the distance. He did not care if an animal got him. Just as he arrived at his fortress he heard a crack nearby. He froze with fear. Then the sound of hooves and running — he wildly threw his light toward the noise. He thought he saw a flash of orange, but he could not be sure. By then the sound was far away.

He climbed into his dark, dark house and shut the door. He lay on his foam and shivered under his blanket. Dad. Mom. Mom. Mom. Alone. Alone. Cold. Crying.

He had not cried at his father’s graveside memorial. It was chaotic and felt embarrassing. And people kept shuffling him from here to there. He could barely remember what happened. The tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes. He could feel the cold streambeds on his cheeks. No sobbing. No release, just an overflow of sadness in his isolated hut, surrounded by fearsome, unknown things.

He lay there a long time listening to his breathing settle down until he could feel himself exhale warm clouds that were already cold by the time they settled on his nose.

He wondered if he had really seen orange in the woods and looked at his stone table. There was a piece of candy. At least he thought it was candy. He had never seen anything like it. A third note was on top of the others, “Jesus will be born tonight. God sees us. Have a sweet.”

He lay back down and set the sweet on his chest. He wanted to eat it but he didn’t. He felt like he would spoil his appetite for anger if he ate that candy. He felt like he would betray his dead father and his lost mother if he sat in his solitude, free of them, eating sweets. And he knew they would like to share his sweet. So he fell asleep that way.

He awoke with a start and sat up, disoriented. People were shouting his name. He could see light beams crossing his walls. He realized he had fallen asleep in his fortress, which was about to be discovered. He lunged for the door, ready to meet them before they got too close.

Before he could leave he remembered the candy. It had been on his chest. He frantically shined his flashlight on the floor, threw the blanket on the table, stirred leaves. He was desperate.

Finally, he spotted it, just a little brown thing that looked much like the other brown things in his fortress of solitude. He sat on his heals for a few seconds, kneeling in the dirt, breathing hard, candy cupped in his hands, head bowed.

He stuffed it in his mouth and bolted through his towel.

Achmed the Angel — 2017

We invite each other to write a Christmas story every year. Here is mine from 2017 after a trip to California and a year of concern about Syria.

Achmed noticed the old nun sitting in the bus shelter on Brookhurst. This was not unusual since an assortment came to the stop in their unmistakable outfits. Even though she was clear across the parking lot, he could tell she was the same one he saw at the Thrift Store when he was there with his Auntie the previous week — she was the shortest and roundest of them all. At the time, he was showing his mother’s sister and her little children around the shops. They were just in from Lebanon and he was helping them get acquainted with the neighborhood.

Now he saw the nun from his perch on a stack of pallets in front of the grocery store as he attempted to do as little as possible. He was acting like he was not slyly watching people. But he carefully scanned the streetside boundary of the strip mall where his parents had a restaurant fronting on the back lot. He had a feeling his father might kill him if he were caught with a toe off the property, but he enjoyed seeing as far through the boundary as he could. He looked and looked for hours. He also needed a reason not to venture into the back lot, where one of his busy parents would find something for him to do. For instance, he was good at peeling cucumbers, even though he was only nine, and his mother did not mind who knew about it. But he did not want to peel cucumbers. They felt slimy.

The restaurant was doing well enough. He knew this because his parents yelled about how much money each of them was spending and what exactly should be bought for the new baby on the way. There was a lot of fighting. In a way, the name of the restaurant: Aleppo, was a good name, since it often seemed like it was the site of a civil war. Achmed knew all about the war in Syria because his aunt and uncle, who had just arrived, told them all about it. New refugees had basically crowded his uncle out of Lebanon, so he had to come to little Syria in Anaheim.

No one who worked at Aleppo had actually lived in Aleppo. His father was from Jordan, but mainly from the United States. His mother was from Lebanon. She’d been to Aleppo as a teenager, before the war started, and before pictures of starving people and bombed out buildings made everyone cry. Aleppo was an old city. He had heard this over and over when she told the story to old Americans with nice clothes and careful haircuts who came to the restaurant because they had never had Syrian food yet. Aleppo was Turkish, Armenian, Lebanese and who knows what else all mixed together with a cuisine all its own. Aleppo was like a jewel, combining all the many lights of ancient peoples.

So they had a new jewel in Anaheim, a little pocket of memories in a strip mall along with a barbershop, a hookah parlor, a little grocery — which was one of the few places you could find old copies of Lebanese newspapers, and a store where Muslims could buy clothes. Technically, Achmed’s family were Muslims and they did Eid and Ramadan in their own way. But his father did not go for praying and did not own Muslim clothes. He said, “I did not come to America to stay in Jordan.” But when the Imam came to the restaurant for lunch he acted Muslim enough.

Achmed saw a lot and heard a lot. He was quiet and stayed off the radar as much as possible. There were not a lot of kids his age in the families who managed the shops. And since he could not go off the premises, it was somewhat difficult to have friends among the native Americans, many who spoke Spanish and thought he was weird, and many who were as white as Disneyland and stared at him like he was in a display case.

The bus came by and the nun did not get on it. Pretty soon another came by and she still did not get on. Achmed was curious. He secretly thought she might be dead like a character on TV. He had never seen a dead person and did not want to, really. But he also did not want to tell his father there was a dead nun in the bus stop if she were not really dead. So he quietly went across the parking lot and stood right outside the shelter like he was waiting for a bus. His mother would have rather died than see him get on a bus, but he did not expect the nun to know that; besides she might be dead.

He turned his head ever so slightly so his eyes could see her from their farthest right corners. Was she breathing?

She was not only breathing, she was crying.

This scared him mightily. The nuns, dressed in their black and white armor, seemed impervious to bad things. But this nun was proving to be surprisingly human. He could not help himself, and he felt responsible for the honor of strip mall. So he went over and sat on the bench next to her.

She did not immediately see him. But when she turned to get a Kleenex from her sleeve, she was startled. She took off her eyeglasses, wiped her eyes and looked at him more carefully. “You must be an angel,” she cried.

Achmed did not know a lot about angels, so he let that pass. “I saw you crying,” he said.

“And why wouldn’t I? The world is full of sorrow and I have almost no idea where I am!”

“You are on Brookhurst” he said.

“Yes, so the bus says. But I have forgotten my way home. I have become too old to be of any use to a needy world. I have been sitting here waiting for someone to find me and so you did. God must have sent you like a little Jesus to save an old lady.”

Achmed had even less idea of Jesus than angels, although he had heard the Imam say “Isa be praised” a few times.

“Aren’t you a nun?” he asked.

She straightened her habit and said, “What was your first clue?” And for the first time she smiled. “What is your name?”


“I don’t think I have ever seen a more handsome angel. Would you like to save my life?”

Before he thought clearly he said, “I guess so.”

“All you have to do is get me home.”

“But I don’t know where you live, either.”

“Oh, you probably do. You’ll have to think about it. It can’t be far or why would I be here?”

That made sense, somehow. So he said, “OK. Let’s go.” He got up and so did she. When she got up she was not much taller than he was.

“You are not very tall are you?” she said. He wasn’t. Then she took his hand in hers. Achmed looked back at the barbershop to see if anyone was looking.

He usually saw the nuns coming from the direction of the fireworks at Disneyland, to which he had never thought of going. So he crossed Brookhurst. He figured it was OK since he was with an adult. The nun took his arm in the crosswalk like they were husband and wife.

There were two white girls on the far corner. He decided to ask them where the nuns lived. But as soon as they saw him they started laughing. By the time they got across the street, one of them said, “A penguin and a terrorist. Merry Christmas!” Then they ran off laughing.

“Those were nasty little girls. You’ll have to pray for them after you save me,” she said.

They kept walking, even though he had no idea whether they were really going the right direction. Halfway down the block an older man was up on a ladder putting up Christmas lights. He couldn’t see anyone else, so Achmed took the nun up his walk.

“Hello?” he softly said.

The man dropped his lights and grabbed on to his ladder. He looked down on the two little people on his walk and said, “What are you two doing here? You scared me to death.”

“Do you know where the nuns live? This one’s lost.”

He looked at her and she smiled back through her glasses. “No. I make it a practice not to know where nuns live.” And he turned back to his lights.

So they kept going. It seemed like a long way. Pretty soon they were at Euclid Street and Achmed thought he might forget where he lived, too.

She noticed the puzzled look on his face. “God is with you wherever you are,” she said.

“That’s nice. But I’m not sure where you live.”

“I know. It is quite terrible isn’t it? But you shine like a star. I suspect you will figure it out.”

He stood on the corner stuck to a nun who thought he was a star. This was only the first time in his life he would be in over his head. But he did not know how that felt yet. It was terrible.

Just then a Honda van rolled up and out burst three more penguins. They all started praising God, one in Spanish, “Gloria a Dios! Gloria a Dios!”  One in some Asian language, “Vinh danh Thánh Chúa trên trời,” and one in English. “Thank God! Sister Clare, we found you, you naughty woman! We will need a tracking device soon.”

They hugged and kissed and then did it all again.

Sister Clare wrested herself free of their clutches and straightened her habit a bit. She formally turned to Achmed with a little bow, and directed their attention to him with a sweep of her hand. “Sisters, I would like to introduce Achmed the angel. He graciously decided to save me.” They descended upon him.

He did a respectful amount of wriggling, and protested, “I really did not do anything. I don’t really know where you live.”

“We will show you!” And they dragged him into the van.

“Oh my god,” he thought. “I will never see my parents again. I should be peeling cucumbers right now.”

They were only on the road for a minute. “Here it is. We would let you in, but we don’t allow men in.”

“But he is an angel,“ protested Sister Clare, “And I have a tin full of cookies from Michigan.”

The nun who seemed like the leader was having a theoretical problem. “He is obviously a male angel.” She turned to him with a jolly but inquisitional attention, “Where do you live?”


“Isn’t that in Syria?”

“No it’s on Brookhurst.”

Sister Agnes took him home in the van.

When they reached the strip mall she turned to him with tears in her eyes, “Thank you so much for caring for Sister Clare. She used to love this entire area so well. She would still like to do it. But she can’t keep her mind on it anymore. Here, have a sucker. She handed him a red tootsie pop and he popped out the door. She roared out of the parking lot, assuming cars were going to stop. They did.

He sat back down on his pallets and determined to never tell his parents one bit of what had just happened. That would work out as long as no one in the nail salon saw him take a tootsie pop from a nun; if they did, everyone would know within half an hour. He decided it would take about a half hour to dissolve the sucker, so he unwrapped it.

The only problem was, on December 24 his mom came into the restaurant and yelled, “Achmed!” He turned away from the futbol rerun he was watching and saw that she had a shiny red and green package in her hand. She came right up to him as soon as she saw him and showed him the tag. “Do you by any chance know anyone named Achmed the Angel?”

“Um. Uh. I have no idea?”

“Your friends the nuns were glad to meet your mother. One of them took one look at me and called me Mary, then gave me this.” She held up another red tootsie pop.

The Miracle Toy

Members of our family have given gifts of Christmas stories over the years. I thought you might enjoy mine from last year. Merry Christmas!

Grandpa was getting old, so if you wanted to avoid taking a nap and you wanted to do things you weren’t supposed to do with him, it often meant that you needed to sit still and not squirm too much for long periods. He told stories a lot and sometimes he seemed to forget what he was talking about and you needed to help him stay on track. That is some of what the boy knew. He liked grandpa and liked his stories too.

One day before Christmas the boy and Grandpa were sitting by the sparkling tree in his house. Grandma was gone somewhere, so grandpa had just finished blowing some smoke rings with the cigar he had been smoking in the house, which the boy knew grandma forbid him to do.

The boy looked at the tree and said, “I wonder what is in my present. I can’t wait to find out.”

Grandpa said, “What did you pray for?”

The boy looked at him. He finally said, “Why would I pray for a present? I don’t think my dad even thinks I am supposed to do that. I’m not supposed to pray for selfish things.”

“Nonsense,” Grandpa said. “Your father doesn’t know everything.” The boy began to squirm a little and looked at the back door to see if Grandma was listening. But she was still gone. “You should pray about everything, whether you know what you are doing or not. The best prayers are probably the ones that seem the stupidest, since God knows you’re stupid.”

The boy looked at Grandpa to see if he was smiling. He was. But he also looked like he was thinking. He couldn’t decide if he needed to be insulted about being called stupid.

“I know about a boy who prayed for a Fort Apache set one Christmas.” Grandpa continued.

“What is a Fort Apache set?’ the boy asked.

“Well it was a long time ago that this happened. Maybe little boys have stopped praying since that time. But a long time ago Fort Apache sets were quite popular. So he prayed for it.”

“Why? What is it?” The boy sensed a story coming on.

fort apache“A long time ago, little boys, such as yourself, liked to replay the genocidal war between the United States government and the Native Americans.”

The boy had long been accustomed to not stopping a story to figure out what something like genocidal was all about. Grandpa didn’t talk down to kids, but he didn’t care too much about being understood, either.

“Fort Apache was a fort in Arizona. You know what a fort is, right? It is a fortified camp where soldiers put up a big fence to keep out the people who scare them. They put all their guns and equipment in their fort so nobody can get it. Fort Apache was in the Apache Indian territory. You know about Apaches I hope. I suppose that your school is teaching you about leprechauns or something instead of Apaches.” And Grandpa turned toward him.

It was true. He had heard about leprechauns and had no idea about Apaches.

“I thought as much. In the 1870s, that’s about three grandpas ago, the Apache Indians were the tough Indians in Arizona. Ever heard someone say, ‘Geronimo!’? Geronimo was a Chiricahua Apache Indian and he was a tough leader. If anyone ever attacks this house, you might have to be like Geronimo.”

The boy just looked at Grandpa chewing on the end of his put-out cigar, staring into space. He knew that he could not tell his mother that someone was going to attack the house.

“Well, a long time ago when this little boy prayed for a Fort Apache set, playing out the war between the United States and the Apaches was pretty popular. You could get this toy set in a big box. The set had a fort you could put together. There were little soldiers that were blue and little Indians that were brown. Sometimes your dog got a hold of them and chewed their heads off so you had to be careful. You could set up the thing in your back yard and it would be just like Arizona. You could build mountains out of rocks for the Indians to hide in. The soldiers could attack from their fort. Boys made up rules about how the game of war could be played and they got in fights over that. It was a lot of fun.”

“So you knew a boy who had this toy?”

“You better believe I knew him. Getting that toy was a very big deal to this kid when he was just about your age.”

“Why would a toy be such a big deal? I have lots of toys.”

“Well this kid hardly had any toys. He used to make toys out of old socks. One time he stole a sock out of his dad’s sock drawer to make a toy and he got caught. His dad gave him a spanking right on his butt.”

“My Dad never spanks me.“

“Well don’t steal his socks.”

“What toy could someone make with a sock?” He knew he was delaying the story and it needed to get done before grandma got back, but he just couldn’t figure it out.

“There are a lot of things you can make with a sock. If you only have one stuffed bear and you need two for a game, a sock stuffed with newspaper or your sister’s pajama top can be turned into something. But mostly this boy filled socks with dirt and hit people with them. You probably won’t want to do that.”

The boy looked at Grandpa to see if he was smiling. He was chewing.

“Yes, that Fort Apache set was a good toy. The boy saw it in some advertisement that his mother wished he hadn’t seen, since mostly she just had money for beans and not for expensive toys. “


“All they ever ate was beans. And I don’t mean green beans. I mean those pasty beans that look like your kidney — a big pot of them simmering on the stove, filling up the house with a nasty smell unless there was bacon in them. But bacon was expensive. I am going to get grandma to make you a pot of beans and see if you like them. No one eats beans these days, so they are like a delicacy.”

He didn’t know what a delicacy or a genocidal was, but the words were certainly going into a sentence, later in the day.

“I ‘m telling you that this boy saw that advertisement and he just could not get the Fort Apache set out of his mind. He told his mother that he wanted Santa Claus to bring it to him. He asked her to write a letter to Santa for him so it would happen. She told him that she wasn’t sure Santa would bring such a big present, since it was hard to get it down the chimney. The boy said that Jonny had an entire bike in his living room just last Christmas. She said, “We’ll see.” But the boy got the idea that his mom might not get this letter written. So he took the advice of his Sunday School teacher and he prayed about it.

Now, I have to tell you, the boy’s parents did not pray like your parents. When this boy’s family sat down to dinner no one paused to give God thanks, they just went after the food like it was going to get away from them if they didn’t grab it. Even the beans went fast. So the kid got the idea that he had better pray in secret. After his mom tucked him in, he got under his covers, as if someone couldn’t hear him if he was under his covers when he prayed. He didn’t know much about God at that point, so he just said it, “God, I want a Fort Apache set for Christmas.” And he kind of paused a minute to listen in case God said, “OK’ I’ll have it delivered.” God never said that, but every night he got under the covers and prayed that same prayer, even on Christmas Eve. He didn’t tell anyone he was talking to God because he got the idea that they might think he was a nut or something.

What do you think happened?”

The boy was not sure if that was a real question. He wanted to know the real answer. But there was a lot of confusing information floating around about bikes and Santa and parents and Indians and beans. So he just waited.

“He got up on Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought. His parents always made him line up in size place with his two older brothers first and his sister behind him and they went into the living room while dad took their picture with a big movie camera. You’ve never seen a movie camera like that one. This is the old days before they had little cameras like your dad uses. This was a big old thing with big lights that got hot to the touch when you turned them on, so little guys like you had to make sure not to sit on them or they would burn their tush.

So he finally got into the living room on Christmas morning and went over to the chair that was designated for all his loot. Loot is what barbarians get when they sack your city, and it is the perfect application for what kids around here get trained to do during Christmas. Among his loot was…you guessed it: a Fort Apache set.

He got down on his knees in front it. Santa had set the whole thing up. He just looked at it for a while. He was truly amazed. He finally said, ‘Thank you, God.’ Then his parents were amazed.”

“So God gave him the Fort Apache set?” the boy practically shouted.

“Hey, that’s for you to decide. But get this. Later in the morning, his rich aunt got to the house with all his cousins to have the Christmas morning party they always had. She brought him a big present all wrapped up in paper and stuff. When it got to his turn to open up his present from his aunt and uncle, it was another Fort Apache set. After that, it was impossible to convince him that anything you prayed for wasn’t likely to happen. He ended up as a very good Christian, I’d say. That day basically got him going God’s direction. I suppose you will end up as some kind of Geronimo Christian yourself.”

Just then Grandma came in the back door. They went silent and turned to reverently watch her as she bustled through the kitchen and finally came into the living room bearing the candy they suspected she would have.

“Grandma, did you ever hear about the boy who got the Fort Apache set?” the boy asked.

“Oh yes. I know that boy very well,” she said. And she left to go put Grandpa’s spent cigar in the trash.