The Holiday Gift Exchange
by Calendar Hacksaw
It was Christmas eve, and a light dusting of snow covered the Twisted Sisters Ranch as I busied myself in preparation for the following day. Betty had been gone for more than two weeks, and I was feeling just a tad lonely. All I had for company was an old transistor radio. Batteries were at a premium, so I rationed myself to just 20 minutes of "listening pleasure" each day. I was in the midst of singing along with the carols when I heard the sound of heavy boots pounding across the front porch. This signaled the arrival of Sidartha, my Russian immigrant neighbor, for one of her infrequent visits.
Sidartha would never presume to set foot inside another person's home, so it was incumbent upon me to step out onto the porch for what could hardly be described as a "chat."
I hadn't seen Sidartha for about a month, since she had summoned me to help clear a sewer drain pipe in her cabin. I don't know what the blockage was, for it defied all efforts to dislodge it, including plungers, snakes, roto-blades, and what Sidartha called "chemics." All I got for my effort was a sore back and sore arms. Since it was Sidartha's cabin, it would have to remain her problem to solve.
Cupped in her outstretched hands was a dirty old milk carton, with the top cut off. It was filled three-quarters full of some strange, steaming, hot mess of semi-solid, semi-liquid, red stuff. Sidartha coughed loudly, but said nothing. I waited. She coughed again. I waited again. It was only after the third or fourth "cough" that I realized she wasn't coughing at all. She was saying something that sounded like, "Borscht!" That's it, I thought, old Sidartha was bringing me an old milk carton three-quarters full of hot borscht. "Merry Christmas," I thought.
"Verry Cricktoss," Sidartha said, then turned abruptly and pounded her way back down the road.
I took the offering inside and poured it down the latrine, then threw the milk carton on the fire.
The snow fell with increasing determination through the early evening, and it looked like I would have to take the four-wheel-drive down "the hill" Christmas morning to pick up Betty. Her little car would be no match for our 12-mile long "driveway" in a snowstorm. But that goes with the territory; you do what you've got to do.
By about 10:00 p.m., the storm had intensified, and it was obvious to me that I'd better get off the mountain right away, rather than wait for morning. The blowing snow impaired visibility, but driving through it wasn't too difficult with my knowledge of the road and its many turns and nuances. About a mile from the ranch, the road traverses a long meadow and I was able to get my speed up to about 30 m.p.h., on the straightaway. That was my big mistake. I had no chance at all of avoiding the four-point buck that darted out from behind a stand of manzanita. The resulting collision left the Jeep's radiator wrapped around the fan blades, and 300-pounds of prime road-kill more or less impaled on the bumper.
In spite of the storm and the late hour, I knew what I had to do. I had no choice. Using the headlights of the disabled Jeep for illumination, and the heat from the engine to occasionally warm my hands, I set about to field dress the buck. The work was done in about an hour. I wrapped the meat carefully in some dusty old newspapers that I found in the back seat, and buried the packages in a nearby snowbank.
I stayed in the Jeep for the remainder of the night, just on the chance that someone might happen by to rescue me from my predicament. My folly was evident. It was Christmas Day, and surely no one would have cause to venture into these remote mountains on a holiday during such severe winter conditions. I worried about Betty, worrying about me. What was I to do?
By dawn, the cold was unbearable, and my growing hunger was a close second. I knew I would freeze to death if I stayed put any longer. There was only once chance: If I could make it to Sidartha's place, I would survive. I dug into the snow bank and retrieved a good sized package of venison steaks.
Then, with the package of venison safely tucked under my arm, I set out for Sidartha's cabin, three miles away, all uphill.
As I trudged through the snow, I had a lot of time to think. I thought about how I had viewed Sidartha the night before, when she visited my cabin. She had brought me a present, without pretense, and I had given her nothing in return. Worse than that, I had disparaged her offering as being something too inferior in quality or value to even consider keeping. I had poured it down the latrine without giving it a second thought, and incinerated the container as though it would pollute my environment. It was indeed a cause for shame. And a cause for hunger, as well. I could only dream about how nourishing and fulfilling a hot bowl of borscht would taste right then. All my stomach contained was the pain of hunger and guilt; a terrible feeling.
It was just past noon when the cabin finally came into sight. Dim lights illuminated the solitary window, and smoke curled from the chimney pipe. The last hundred yards were the worst. My hands were so cold I didn't dare knock; I could only kick at the door with a soggy boot.
Sidartha opened the door wide, stared at me, and beckoned me toward the fire. I held out the package of meat, and said, "Merry Christmas, Sidartha." It was the first time I had ever seen her smile.
I looked around my surroundings. The cupboards had no doors, and it was plain that there was no food in the cabin, except for a pot of borscht on the stove, most likely the leftovers from her earlier visit to my place. It seemed obvious that in her holiday spirit of goodwill, Sidartha had given the bulk of her meager food to me, keeping only a small portion for herself. The absence of any dirty dishes told me that she had not eaten in a while, even though it was now past noon. She immediately set about to cooking the deer and warming the pot of borscht.
We sated our appetites, but I stifled my hunger as best I could lest she think I had not eaten her offering of the day before. After dinner, I commented, "That's all I can handle, Sid; I'm still full of borscht."
"Is it that you are cooking the borscht as well?" she queried in that broken English that had taken me several years to learn to understand.
"No," I replied. "The borscht you brought me."
"Brought it you?" She sounded confused. Her face was momentarily blank, but then I saw her expression light up with sudden understanding. I felt relieved.
"It was not that which was borscht I brought to you," she exclaimed. "It was this, the chemics and crud from the pipes of the sewer that are the things for the clogging of it! I thought you are wanting tosee them!"
I almost made it to the outhouse. Almost.
* * *
(Merry Christmas, from Calendar, with a big ol' smile!)