The Most Significant Gifts We Never Give
With your eyes half shut it looks like stars, flames in a forest sky, scintillating like candles warm in a window. Some are close to one another, nearly overlapping, while some are father apart, forming neat rows that are never perfect, but almost; horizontal and vertical. They form many constellations, if you look hard enough.
Your eyelids lower, and the stars grow. Their gold beams soften and radiate in all directions: north, south, east and west, like a compass, a traveller's guide. Your eyes almost completely shut and it becomes a warm sea, a waterfall cascading. The ocean of light just may lull you to sleep. It could. It would, if you were somewhere else, at home and in a more comfortable seat.
The chair you are in was actually half-decently comfortable forty-five minutes ago, when you first got here. Now it just feels hard. Your legs are stiff. Your bum hurts. You wonder when you're going home.
Tearing your eyes away from the tree and its multitude of twinkling lights, you stare once more into the party before you. It's in full swing. The room is filled with people, men and women old and young, standing in groups of twos and threes and fours and fives, all engaged in jovial conversation. They wear formal-ish attire: sweaters and skirts and two-piece suits and expensive and expensive-looking jewellery. In their eyes is the reflection of the Christmas tree, on their lips is laughter, in their hands are glasses, and in each glass is neggnog.
It's through your dad's work, this party. It isn't the boss' house that you're in, but a close relative of one of the higher-ups in the business. Or maybe a close friend of the higher-up's family... Whoever it is, they invited your dad to come to their great holiday gathering — "And bring your family!" the Whoever-It-Is had said.
Up until about forty-seven minutes ago (two minutes before you'd sat down in your chair), you had thought it was a great idea. A Christmas party days before Christmas, in a big house in Neopia Central. It sounded perfect. And the atmosphere is indeed perfect. The room is large, yet cozy, in gratitude to dark walls and an area rug over hardwood floor, and the gigantic fireplace that takes up more than half the west wall. Outside the frost-covered windows that gleam in the light of the Christmas tree, it is snowing.
To describe this scene with all its festive glory and ambience, it sounds like the nicest, most fun Christmasy thing ever! Of course, you didn't learn until you got here that there would be no one else your age at the party. There are older, older still, even older than that, and younger. But no one your age. How boring. How out of place, how awkward you feel sitting in this chair that grows more uncomfortable every minute that passes.
And the people chatter on.
You look at the clock. You have been here for fifty minutes now. You're about to allow your eyes to wander back to the Christmas tree when you are suddenly aware of someone in front of you: a green Lenny woman with her brown hair in a tight updo, a long skirt flowing down her long Lenny legs. "There you are! What are you doing all by yourself over here?"
You're looking at the Christmas tree, you tell her.
"Do you like it? You might enjoy this, then." The Lenny hostess hands you a small, glass object. It's cold and you can tell it's delicate. A snow globe.
It contains a tiny tree decorated with coloured lights and bulbs, and surrounded with presents. "Yes, it's for you!" the Lenny laughs when she catches sight of your quizzical expression. "You must be bored with nobody your age to talk to. I thought maybe this could brighten your night a bit. Turn the thing on the side." She motions to a little key at the side of the globe. You do, and after a few turns clockwise your ears are met with a delightful little sound. It plays music.
"Pretty, eh?" says the Lenny. "You can keep it as my gift. Merry Christmas!" And with a generous grin the hostess leaves to mingle with her other guests.
You hold the snow globe up to your eyes. It's amazing how much detail has been painted and carved into the minuscular scene. You give it a little shake and watch the snow fall. You turn the key again and listen to its tinkling song. A music box tune, it sounds to you like bottled faeries dancing. It's a very nice gift.
It was kind of her to give it to you.
"He's just tired. It's been a long day for him. We went out shopping today, didn't we Spence?" you overhear a pastel Aisha lady saying to some other pets, in reference, you think, to the child who cries in her arms. The baby, a Chia, is one of the few Younger-Than-Yous at the party. Though considerably younger, you can tell he's feeling exactly the same as you are. His parents are talking and he has no choice but to hang there, trapped until the end of the evening. You give him an understanding smile.
And the strangest thing happens. The baby stops wailing, and smiles back.
"Oho, look at you!" his mother laughs in surprise as her child breaks into a spell of delighted giggles. "All cheered up just like that! That's funny, he doesn't usually stop crying so easily," you hear her say to the Neopian beside her. "Maybe he's getting to that mood swing age."
She doesn't notice you on the chair behind her, but you don't mind. You made a baby smile! You don't need any further thanks than that.
To be honest, it's lifted your spirits a bit. Little you, in a chair against the wall — you don't know anybody and nobody knows you. Yet little you, of little significance, with the little influence you have in this place, were still able to make a baby smile. Just the thought of it is enough to warm your heart like the red flame kindling in the fireplace, and heating the whole room.
You get up and stretch your legs. They feel like stiff sticks after sitting for so long. Or, in the spirit of the holidays, we'll say they feel like candy canes. You go over and take one off the tree. You've seen other people taking them, so it must be okay. As you're peeling the wrapper off, being careful not to break the 'cane, you catch a glimpse of a young girl out of the corner of your eye.
She's a yellow Lupe with her auburn hair, somewhere between brown and ginger, down around her shoulders. She wears a green dress with a silver-flecked scarf that looks really warm. She stands with two older Neopians, maybe her parents, as they talk and laugh with other Neopians. She doesn't talk, or laugh. She just stands, somewhat behind her parents. You think she's very pretty.
"Yes, it's authentic — straight from the Lost Desert. My husband bought it for me for our anniversary." The small crowd gravitates toward a white Draik, apparently in order to ooh and aaah and oh my Fyora! over her gold drop necklace that you can actually see from your chair.
"I just finished reading Augustus Grime's 'Comprehensive History of the Lost Desert'," a middle-aged spotted Ogrin starts to say, but is quickly cut off by the dazzling Draik.
"What do you think, Delaney?"
Delaney, the yellow Lupe girl, steps forward, entering into shy close proximity with the throng. She mutters some words of admiration, and the corners of her lipsticked mouth pull up into a smile that seems hollow from your spot beside the Christmas tree. She assumes her place two steps behind her parents and keeps the same wide smile painted on her face.
But as the conversation goes on, she listens to every word, but doesn't hear. Her eyes are empty, glossed over, distracted. She's perpetually fixing something on herself: straightening her dress or fiddling with her scarf. She doesn't think she looks good enough. You can see all this from your uncomfortable chair.
You find it... kind of sad.
You are young. You don't belong at this party. You're shy. You're close enough to the Lupe, however, that you can say something, to her and only to her, that the others will not hear. You get her attention with a smile, and she smiles at you. You tell her she looks nice, and either she doesn't hear you at first or she wants to hear it again, as she asks you to repeat it.
Her face lights up. "Thank you," her voice squeaks timidly. She looks like she might say something else, but she doesn't. She nonchalantly wanders away. Later you notice her striding about the room with an air of much greater confidence than before. The vacant, almost sorrowful tinctures in her countenance are gone, and she no longer hides behind her parents, but mingles freely on her own. A self-assured smile colours her pretty face beautiful.
You can't help but feel proud.
You tell yourself you shouldn't feel proud. You didn't do anything. It could have been any thought she might have had, anything another person might have said to her. Some kind words, a simple gesture on your part couldn't really have changed the course of her evening.
"Hey." Your dad has excused himself from a conversation across the room, and has made his way over to your chair. "I'm sorry you're not having a lot of fun. We'll go soon, don't worry."
You tell him it's okay. You guys can stay for a bit longer.
"There's a table of goodies over there. Why don't we go check it out?"
You're not about to turn this offer down. You follow your dad to the table where the most enticing variety of pastries, cookies, tarts, muffins and cakes are laid out, free for the taking. You grab a plastic plate and choose the four — mmm, wait, that brownie looks good — five desserts that appeal most to you, and stand in the adjacent corner and eat them. From there your dad is beckoned over by one of his office buddies, and becomes engaged, once more, in conversation. From there you are left alone, once more, standing against the wall.
From your lonely, solitary corner of loneliness, your eyes fall upon a blue Tonu hovering around the table. You think he must want something, but can't decide what. After a moment of observation, however, you realize he's got his eye on one thing, and that is a plate of plain-looking, white, squarish cookies.
Someone approaches the table, and he watches them. They take a gingerbread cookie from the plate beside the one he's eyeing, and walk away. A second person walks up to the table, and he watches. They go for a shortbread and two brownies from the same tray you did. They do not look at the squarish cookies. They walk away.
The Tonu still stares. You're curious now. You haven't finished your plate of goodies, but, in the name of curiosity... (Darn this inquiring mind of yours; always seeking knowledge, always wanting to know the answers! It'll be the death of you.)
You stroll slowly over, stopping in front of the cookies at an angle that allows the Tonu to clearly see what you're doing. Your movements are smooth, precise. You leave no room for imagination as your hand reaches out, and as your fingers close around the hard, crumbly confection you swear you can hear the Tonu draw in a breath. You take a bite. Chew chew chew...
It's actually really good. It tastes like macadamia nut and white chocolate, and it's sweet, but not, like, overpoweringly so. It's crunchy. But you like crunchy. You say how good it is, out loud.
"You think so?" the Tonu asks, visibly elated. "I, uh, I made them myself."
You laugh. For some reason, you knew this. You just had a feeling!
When people see you eating the cookies, they start to eat them, too. The Tonu beams with pride as he listens to the party guests rave how delicious they are. Delaney the Lupe is among the first to compliment him. The pastel Aisha mother tries one, her baby Chia giggling and cooing in her arms.
Suddenly it occurs to you — why just now, who knows? Maybe because they're all here in front of you, like the stars and planets aligned. You have made their day. All of them. With simple gestures: a smile, words. Things that anyone else could have done. But they didn't. Only you did.
It hits you like an epiphany. It's like a door has opened to you, or a light has turned on. Most people haven't opened this door, turned on this revealing light. How do you know this? You wouldn't have been the first one to make these people happy if everybody knew the secret!
"I don't know if you heard me earlier, but I just read the most fascinating book about the history of the Lost Desert."
Standing a few paces away from the treat table is a certain spotted Ogrin whom you believe you've seen before. When you hear her talking about Augustus Grime's 'Comprehensive History of the Lost Desert', you know you've seen her before. Her Kougra companion listens, smiles, nods, listens, smiles, nods... until she decides she can't listen anymore and just smiles and nods. Soon she politely tells the Ogrin that she thinks she hears someone calling her, and wanders back into the crowd.
The Ogrin tries to transfer the conversation to the baker Tonu. "Are you at all interested in history, Mr. Schlapp?" she asks.
"Only know what I learned in school, I'm afraid," the Tonu chuckles lightly. The Ogrin then turns to the next person who comes up to the table. "I was just telling them about this wonderful book about the history of the Lost Desert..."
And you think you've found your next target. You have power now, and you want to exercise it. You're going to be spending the next couple hours here anyway. Why not put it to good use...
And see how many people you can make smile.
This poor woman only wants to talk. It's not her fault no one wants to listen to her, uhh, overtly zealous book review. After witnessing the fourth Neopian shut her down — without any premeditation or consideration for the consequences of your actions — you hold your breath, throw down the gauntlet, step up to the plate.
"You think it sounds interesting?" the Ogrin exclaims, practically incredulous. "Well you're just about the first person all day! You wouldn't believe this, but I've spent the whole party trying to spread the word about this exceptionally ambitious, academically enriching dissertation! Why don't we sit down and I'll tell you all about it?"
And then it all goes black.
Haha, if only!
Blah blah blah, Coltzan, Jazan, Sahkment, Scarab, blah blah blah blah, sand, booby-trap, Razul is the only thing you hear for the next hour. Actually, to be perfectly honest, your ears went numb after the first half hour. So for the latter half of the one-sided conversation you haven't really heard anything. You've just been smiling and nodding. You're impressing the heck out of Ms. Janice. (That's either your Ogrin friend's name, or the name of Princess Amira's mother's late tutor. You're going to assign the name to the Ogrin either way.)
"Well, I must say, I have never met a young person with such a refined taste in literature!" she announces at the triumphant finish of her soliloquy. "Talking to you has been a genuine pleasure. I don't think I've had so much fun at a Christmas party in years!"
You tell her you enjoyed it too. And you did, in a way. It's not that the topic was by any means up your alley, but the way the middle-aged Neopet derived so much satisfaction from discussing it — the way she became so animated when she recounted Coltzan's rise to power, and the way her round-spectacle-framed eyes lit up in utter jubilation every time you agreed with her that the Lost Desert has a richer cultural history than any other Neopian land (she really believes it, too) — was enough to make the past gruelling hour worthwhile.
"Your child is absolutely lovely!" Ms. Janice seeks out and praises your parents. "Kind, intelligent, and very attentive! We had a riveting time, didn't we?" she says to you. You smile and nod, of course.
Ms. Janice is going to leave now. She has to walk her Doglefox before it gets too late, she says. You wonder if she really has a Doglefox, or if her mission is complete and she's ready to go home. In any case, your mission is complete. This particular mission required more exertion and way more time than any so far. Precious time wasted? No. Precious time spent well, you tell yourself. You know it's true.
You look about the room for someone else to talk to. Everyone is already paired off, or grouped, or otherwise occupied. What now?
You're standing idle, still scanning for your next target, when suddenly you remember your snow globe. It's been a tiny lump in the pocket of your sweater the entire party. You pull it out and look at it. You turn the key and listen to its song. You smile.
On the sofa where you and Ms. Janice had been sitting now sits an elderly Acara. She falls into the Even-Older-Than-That category, and as you look at her you think she must be the oldest Neopet you've ever seen. The oldest one at the party, anyway. And she's all by herself. Just like you are, presently. She sees you playing with the snow globe, and she grins.
You walk up to the elderly Acara, snow globe in your outstretched hand. You ask if she would like to see it. It's the only natural, human thing to do.
"Oh, how pretty! Just look at the detail on that tiny little tree." She turns it over in her frail hands, shakes it and watches the snow fall, holds it right before her withered eyes like you did when you first received it. "It looks just like my old tree," the Acara says in conclusion. "We used to always use coloured lights. White lights are elegant, but nothing brings me joy on Christmas morning than seeing coloured lights on a Christmas tree."
You notice she said used to.
"I don't have a Christmas tree this year. I'm afraid it would be too much work for me to put it up and decorate by myself. This is my first year without one..."
When you sit down on the cushion beside her, wordlessly promising to not walk away, she begins to speak of Christmases long past, with her three children who loved coloured lights. She speaks of holidays with her grandchildren as if they were recent memories; but you realize they're far from recent when she tells you she's a great-grandmother. She skips around a lot between stories of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Sometimes she gets their names mixed up, and sometimes she'll start to tell a story she's already told, or ask you a question she's already asked. You find it all a bit hard to follow. But not if you listen well.
Considering she must be almost a hundred years old, her memory is really quite keen. It truly is amazing to talk to someone who's been around for so long. And you can just tell she thinks it's wonderful to have someone so young, in the grand scheme of the universe, to share her stories with.
By the time you and the Acara (Genevieve, her name is) have finished your chat, the room has emptied substantially. It's eleven o' clock. You're tired. You wish the evening could be renewed.
You wish the people would come back, and that you could wake up and coax some more smiles, give some more Christmas gifts.
That's what you've been doing. Giving gifts. It seems everyone has a secret, specific something they want to hear, more than anything else — to light up their life for a night, to store in their deepest memory and dig out on a future rainy day. People would be shy to admit it, but it's true; what good is a nice outfit if nobody compliments you on it? It's not vain, it's natural. Why bake cookies if nobody tastes them, or likes the taste of them? People want to know their work is appreciated. What's a good story if you can't tell it? What's a party if there's nobody to talk to?
You sigh to yourself, a happy, contented, pleased-with-yourself sigh. What an extraordinary night this has been. What started as a holiday bore-fest is ending as a... well, an event you'll probably never forget. You hope you won't forget it. You feel like, somehow, you're different than you were at the beginning of this evening. And to think Christmas Day still awaits! Soon you'll be waking up Christmas morning at the first light of dawn, dashing downstairs to open presents under your own Christmas tree...
You think back to what Genevieve said, about not having been able to put up a tree this year. She really loves Christmas trees, with coloured ornaments and lights. Like the one in your snow globe.
The snow globe. The Lenny hostess gave it to you out of the goodness of her own heart, in the hopes that it would lift your spirits. It did lift your spirits. It made more of a difference than she could've known. It would be a nice keepsake to have, to remember this special day...
But do you need a keepsake? Won't you remember it either way, even without the snow globe displayed on your bedroom shelf?
Genevieve is leaving. Everyone is leaving, you and your parents included. You all stand in the hallway, saying your thank-yous and goodbyes. You don't want to hurt the Lenny hostess' feelings. Of course you don't, especially not after she has been so kind to you. You wait until she's out of sight and earshot to make a gift of your snow globe to the elderly Acara.
"You want me to have it?" Dear Genevieve's silver eyebrows raise. Her Crokabek-footed eyes widen in what you read to be profound astonishment. "I thought you loved this snow globe. It was meant to be a gift, for you."
You tell her, with the widest grin on your face, that it can be her Christmas tree. She needs it more than you do, you say. And you mean it.
"Thank you," she mouths the words, but her voice is barely a whisper. Her wide eyes shine, with gratitude certainly; and, from a certain angle, something that almost looks like tears. "Thank you so very much."
It's midnight when you and your parents cross the threshold of the big Neopia Central house, and it's still snowing. You're not sure if it ever stopped. You pad along the sidewalk in your coat and boots, and when you come to the end of the walkway you turn and wave toward the house. It's completely lit up with silver-white lights. The whole neighbourhood is lit up with white and coloured lights.
Your smile hasn't faded, your newfound knowledge in humanity will not be forgotten. A tune pops into your head from out of the blue, and you start to hum it. After only the first few notes you realize — it's your little snow globe's bottled faerie song.