There were too many cousins that Christmas. Everyone said so. There were too many cousins in the kitchen, and too many cousins in the study, and too many cousins snarled on the porch, wrestling on the coats. We clustered into the guest room, and coiled in the linen closet, and tangled in the study. We balanced on the sink in the bathroom, testing out the smells of the shaving cream and the strange soaps and the talcum powder. We crawled underfoot and under chairs and threaded our way around the Christmas tree. We shrieked in our hiding places and howled in the hallways and tumbled through the living room. We looped and twisted and pulled. We were an inextricable, teeming knot. An entanglement of cousins.
My grandmother, with her endless plates of meatballs and relish trays and pickled herring in fluted bowls, was at her wits’ end.
“Get out of my kitchen,” she said to anyone who would listen, but no one did. She lamented our clumsy hands and our sticky fingers now marking up the walls. She chased after us with a wet rag, wiping and grumbling as she went.
“One day you’ll know how hard this is,” she told us. We stared at her in amazement. How on Earth could Christmas be hard? We wondered. We couldn’t even fathom it. Christmas simply was. The tree, the crowded relatives, the bright windows surrounded by rigid ice and forgiving snow were as constant to us as the air and sky and Earth’s firmament. There would always be Christmas. We were sure of it. There would always be us. There would always be this house and these people and every familiar thing. Hard? Christmas? We shook our heads. The idea was beyond comprehension.
Grandma huffed and scolded and smacked our hands away from the dishes. The aunts tutted while the uncles guffawed and egged us on. My grandfather, in his Christmas pants and Christmas socks and bright red cardigan, sat in his favorite chair by the window, his laugh like the staccato heave of a walrus. Truth be told, he was all we really cared about, in terms of adult opinion. He wasn’t really a grown-up, after all. He was one of us. Secretly. Every year he got smaller and we got bigger. Soon we would be all the same. And if Grandpa was happy, well, then so were we.
It was too warm in my grandparents’ house and we were all overdressed. Thick tights and dress pants and jumpers made from material that would not breathe. The adults had it worse. Wool blazers and wool slacks and tightfitting shoes that pinched just to look at them. They undid buttons and turned their napkins into fans. Their faces were red and shining. The children, also too hot, tugged at collars and waistbands and complained. Some of us opted to change into what we’d be wearing later for the Christmas pageant costumes — nightgowns and bathrobes, mostly — just to be in something breezy. Tights and wool socks littered the floor. A couple of the smaller cousins could be found in their underpants. Later there would be performances and readings. Moments of quiet and prayers and singing. But for now, the adults were so loud that their conversations felt like tinfoil scrinching in our ears, punctuated every once in a while by one of them bellowing at the cousins to pipe down already. And so we retreated into the basement.
It was hard to tell exactly how many we were, we cousins. We felt infinite. And perhaps we were. We felt as though we bent both time and space, as if our moments each Christmas intersected with every other moment, at every other Christmas, as though we were seeing ourselves surrounded by mirrors, repeating on all sides as far as the eye could see. We were all 5, and 10, and 15, and every other age that we could possibly be. We had always been this age. We were always every age. We would always be together at Christmas. It would always be the same Christmas. Now and forever. There was no other truth than this.
We crowded around the card tables that my uncles had set up in the basement, and that my grandmother had painstakingly decorated, and gorged ourselves on ham and scalloped potatoes, on green bean casserole and ambrosia salad. We told the same jokes as every other year, and planned the same elaborate pranks as always — pranks that we would never actually complete.
I sat next to my cousin Jake — we always sat together — as we plotted our next move. We were the same age, he and I. Only a handful of months apart. The year before (was it the year before?) we had seen (swear to God … I mean Gosh) Santa and his sleigh, flying across the night sky. Eight bright white lights following one red. What else could it have been? There were even bells. We heard them. We called and called for the others to join us, but they didn’t hear us, and they didn’t see. Our breath clouded in front of our mouths and froze on our lips. We offered to shake on it. Gospel truth, we said. The older cousins were incredulous. The younger cousins were the opposite. We sat in the middle, Jake and I, at the fulcrum between Too Old for the Best Things, and Too Young to Care About. We were the perfect age. We told anyone who listened. We were always the perfect age. Every year.
“We should go outside,” I said. “We might hear the bells. We might see the lights. Then you’ll know it’s true.”
“We can’t,” one of the older cousins said. “We have to do the Christmas pageant soon. Besides. There’s a real baby this year.”
Pageants were always better with a real baby. The adults assured us this was common knowledge. Even though it didn’t really make any sense. When the Baby Jesus was played by a doll, he remained in his swaddling clothes like a good little Jesus and didn’t make a fuss. Not so with a real baby.
“No crying he makes,” we all sternly reminded the baby, who was sitting in the lap of one of the older cousins, wearing an overfilled diaper that was beginning to reek. “You have the simplest job in the whole play. Don’t screw it up.” The baby shoved a closed fist into a drooling mouth and smiled around it. The baby had no intention to remain in its swaddling clothes. That was obvious. The pageant was going to be a disaster.
“We have time,” Jake and I insisted. “Let’s go outside. We’ll make angels.”
No one believed us, so we went out by ourselves.
It was cold that year. Christmas is always cold in Minnesota, but this year was a startling cold — it stole the breath and widened the eye. We layered our layers and wound our faces tight with scarves, and still the chill set in our bones. We shivered.
“Come on,” I said, and we started across the yard, each footprint sinking deeply into the untouched snow. My grandparents’ yard was rimmed by large fruit trees and seemed to extend for miles out the back. It was just a yard, of course, but to us, at that moment, we felt like king and queen of infinite space. We turned our faces up. The stars cut the sky. We lay back on the snow to carve angels as the wind slid across the world.
“Do you see anything?” I asked, my lips and chin going numb.
“Only stars,” he said.
“It was true, though,” I asked. “Last year. It was true, wasn’t it?”
“It will always be true,” he said.
And maybe it was. We looked back toward the orange glow of the picture window, at the whorl of people inside, all coiling around the figure of my grandpa. He was the one static point in a tangled mesh of motion and voices and gestures and singing and noise. He remained in his chair, delighting, as usual, at everything.
It would always be so, it seemed to me. Christmas simply was. I tried to imagine a Christmas without the crowds of carousing cousins or the herds of guffawing uncles or the masses of scolding aunts. It was impossible. Even the removal of a single person made the entire picture fall apart, I thought, like a seemingly inextricable knot magically unraveling to nothing when a single loop is pulled. Erase Grandpa, or this uncle, or that aunt, or that cousin, and the whole world unmakes itself. The windows vanish; so too the orange glow; the dense thickets of uncles and aunts unwind; the plates of ham and herring and shortcake and bars disappear one by one; the smells of pine and berries and bad breath dissolve into the air; each decoration, each present, each insistent voice in chaotic din, and every face replaced by cold and wind and bright snow and pitiless stars. There is no Christmas without all of us, I thought. And maybe that was true.
The door opened and the other cousins called us in. Jake got up first, and offered me his hands. The apple trees with empty limbs groaned in the wind, and the clouds of wind-borne snowflakes whispered as they skittered across the ground.
“Look,” Jake said. “Our footsteps.”
And between the imprint of our bodies in the middle of the yard and the open door on the back of the house with three cousins peeking out and calling our names, there was only the only unbroken sweep of bright, starlit snow. Our deep footsteps, each one, had vanished.
“It doesn’t take much to make things disappear,” my cousin said, his breath clouding in front of his face like a ghost. We held hands, squeezing tight, and trudged back to the knot of relatives waiting for us inside.
Kelly Barnhill lives in Minneapolis and is the 2017 winner of the John Newbery Medal for “The Girl Who Drank the Moon.”