by R. Daniel Evans
All the votive candles stood arranged in a circle before Blue Santa. First, Mirta lit the four red and four blue ones. Her favorite candle holders were made from yellow glass colored dark as old cheese. She placed two in front of the dolls with the sap-green insect heads, and two in front of the wooden Santa that she had painted blue the day after the collapse of the Towers.
Mama came into the dimly lit room, luckily not noticing the mess of books and clothes on the floor. If only she would notice the dolls and say how pretty they were.
“Mirta! What are you doing? Just like it’s a statue of the Blessed Virgin, you’re lighting candles in front of that Santa. I don’t know why you painted it that nasty blue—”
Best not to talk about Blue Santa, which Mama had never liked, even when she bought him in that town in Mexico. “Elena, what lovely stockings you’re wearing today. What color are they?” Mama liked to be called by her first name.
Mama smiled and looked down at her legs. “I think the woman in the store called them lilac.”
Mirta pushed strands of her brown hair away from her cheeks, thinking of her mouse Toastie’s whiskers.
Mama said, “Papa and I have a special Christmas gift for you.”
Mirta tried to hide the anticipation in her voice. “You do?”
“We have tickets for The Nutcracker. Isn’t that wonderful?”
What a strange time for Mama to be happy. A frown soured Mirta’s face. “I’ve seen it so many times.”
“Honey, I thought the Nutcracker was your favorite ballet. I would have loved it if I could have seen it when I was ten.”
Mama probably wanted to add, ‘You’re spoiled,’ Mirta thought.
“I do like it,” Mirta answered, the truth lowering her voice with embarrassment. “It’s just the story’s always the same.”
Musical visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy floated in the air, courtesy of the CD player in the living-dining room. “Listen to that,” Mama said, “Papa just turned on the stereo system. Isn’t it beautiful? What are your favorite parts?”
Mama always wanted to share her happiness. What a strange time to be happy, after all the terrible things that happened in the city this year. But Mirta played along and said, “Well, I love the growing Christmas tree, how it gets bigger and bigger…”
“Yes, isn’t it something? It still thrills me. What else do you like?”
“The dance of all those snow flakes in the forest of the Christmas trees. The lights are almost as blue as my Santa.” Though not as sad, Mirta thought, glancing over at the wooden figure, her treasure from Mexico, which she had painted two shades of blue: the face and hands a pastel, and the rest of him a darker, blueberry blue.
Mama said nothing, ignored the mention of the blue Santa. They hadn’t argued about him since last week, when Mama wouldn’t let Mirta place Blue Santa under the Christmas tree. Mirta had felt angry, and that’s when she started plans for the altar of votive lights.
“But my favorite part of all,” Mirta continued, “is when the mice battle the toy soldiers. The music is so swirly there. Only…well, the mice never win.” She pictured the Mouse King, stiff as a fallen log, carried out by the defeated mice after his death.
“Why would you want the mice to win?” Mama asked. “They’re the bad ones, trying to take over little Clara’s room, her house, everything.”
“I don’t care. It’s unfair they always lose.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“If she just had a cat like Rongo that would solve the problem, right Mama?”
“What a thought.” But Mama couldn’t conceal the smile gleaming in her large dark eyes. “Anyway, we’ll eat lunch early Wednesday, so we can be at the theater early.”
“I’m going out to make drinks for Papa. Do you want to join us? I’ll ask Nanny to make your favorite punch.”
“Thanks Mama, but I’ll just finish up in here first. Call me when dinner’s ready, ok?”
“All right.” Mama started to stride away, her satin blouse trailing perfume, her head held high as usual.
“Oh, and Mama?”
“Can I bring Blue Santa to the ballet with me? Please, pretty please?”
“Mirta! Why would you want to bring that…thing? He’s too big for your little red bag.”
“He can fit into the pocket of my coat. Maybe he’ll make something different happen. That’s why I’m lighting candles to him. Don’t forget, Santa’s as powerful as Saddam Hussein.”
“Saddam Hussein! Where did you hear about him?”
“Beth mentioned him. Her teacher talked about Saddam in class.”
“I don’t know what they’re teaching you in school anymore.”
“It’s all right. I like my teachers. They’re good.”
Mama walked away, her heels clattering on the wood floor. “I hope so,” she said softly.
Mirta arranged all the lit candles on the shelf to form a semi-circle in front of the Santa before she said her evening prayer. She felt so sad, and remembered painting Santa blue the day after the Towers fell down. “Make something special happen at the ballet. Something different…pretty please? If you do, I’ll buy you your own chocolate bar. In fact, we can share it…” Did the Blue Santa nod? Mirta hoped so. “See, Toastie,” she said to the mouse sleeping in his cage in the corner. “Blue Santa will come through again.” Unlike most mice, Toastie wasn’t nice to look at, for he had red face patches, raw from nervous clawing. The vet couldn’t help, and now even Papa called Toastie “Scarface.” How horrible. Mirta would never bring Toastie into class again, no matter what. All the kids made fun of him.
The day of the matinee was only a few days before Christmas. The streets, full of rain and fog, felt clammy. Papa would say the bad weather had been caused by global warming. Blue Santa weighed down her pocket, and reminded Mirta of his power. He’d performed miracles before, such as the time Toastie the mouse left his cage and ran across Rongo’s front paws without being eaten. That day Blue Santa had cast some sort of spell on Rongo, so he wouldn’t notice Toastie. At the time Mama said Rongo was too old a cat to pounce on Toastie. But no wonder: Mama didn’t believe much in such things.
Inside the theater, in her seat, the chatter of the screeching violins led Mirta away from thinking about Blue Santa. She would never confess it to Mama, but being at Lincoln Center and seeing the ballet was exciting.
Mama took her hand. Poor Mama. She would be content with the usual story. But tonight it would change, because Mirta rubbed Blue Santa’s head.
Mirta looked around the auditorium for her friend Beth, though she didn’t see her. Beth had sent an e-mail saying she’d be at the same performance.
The curtains, already opened, revealed the cozy parlor. Why didn’t everyone call their living room a “parlor”? Parlor sounded much nicer than “living room.”
Despite not wanting to, leaning against Mama’s shoulder, Mirta became sleepy. But after the first gun shot in the battle of the mice and the toy soldiers Mirta was jolted awake. The gun shot reminded her of those terrible things she’d seen three months earlier on TV about the Twin Towers. How horrible guns were. Just like terrorists, they killed people.
In the ballet, she watched the same old story. The Nutcracker, gnarled and short as any dwarf, though he wore a scarlet jacket with brass buttons bigger than thimbles, would soon defeat the Mouse King. Then he’d turn into a boy-prince and lead Clara to the waltzing Snowflakes in the Enchanted Forest. If only the mice could somehow win and stay alive, the way Toastie had when he ran across the cat’s paws.
The battle proceeded with some losses for the toy soldiers and some rodent deaths, when all at once the tide turned. The mice were cleaning up, mopping the floor with the expiring toy soldiers, who they pulled offstage by their long locks of hair, probably wet from stage sweat. After all, the toy soldiers were played by girls; lucky Beth had been one last year.
Nudging Mama’s elbow Mirta whispered, “Look! The mice are winning.”
At first Mama didn’t seem to notice the difference. “Calm down. It’s only a fairy tale.” This was the most incredible moment ever, and Mama didn’t get it.
But throughout the theater dozens of other kids understood. Squeals of fear burst out all over, above the silky-smooth violin melodies. Mirta sat on the edge of her seat, her knees twitching. Thankfully, she’d visited the Ladies’ room before the ballet started. She took Blue Santa out of her pocket. To think his power had really worked. Just like Papa said, no one would have an ordinary Christmas this year.
The seven-headed mouse king seemed bigger, almost like the Christmas tree had grown earlier in the scene to throbbing strings and low brass braying in the orchestra pit. The rumbling noises sounded unruly, as menacing as the reptile cage at the Central Park Zoo. Next the other mice, the lieutenants and foot soldiers, marched forward. Their fat padded stomachs contracted and they stood taller. The rodents, with teeth pointy as dentist’s drills and yellowed as tea stains, picked up the remaining toy soldiers. Some wounded soldiers limped off stage, dropping their silver stage swords, crying and clearly defeated. But others, not so lucky, were already grasped by the rodent paws. Mirta thought the new version of the ballet was even more frightening than Jurassic Park. The mice warriors twirled their small victims around their heads, holding the children by the feet. The mice wouldn’t throw the limp kids out into the orchestra, would they? Suddenly things looked bad on stage, too horrible to watch. Silently, Mirta prayed to Blue Santa to stop the mice.
Mirta wondered if the police would come, or if most police still worked down at Ground Zero. She’d seen them day after day on TV. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to show up. The orchestra played on raggedly. The deeper instruments, the trombones and horns, blared on, if partly drowned out by people talking in the audience.
Mirta saw that the woman conductor seemed to have a long, twitching snout, rather than a nose. A bunch of prickly, toothpick whiskers sprouted from her upper lip. She glared right and left at the chatty audience members, and she loudly urged on the frenzied orchestra.
Mama leaned over, a frown on her face. “We should leave,” she said. “You look upset.”
“Oh no,” Mirta said, her chin firm. “I don’t want to leave. Not now. The ballet is good today, Mama.” Blue Santa’s magic would work. Mirta’s praying to him would stop the battle.
On stage the fight continued, the mice now piling up the toy soldier bodies stage center, right before the gigantic Christmas tree. The plot had definitely changed from the original one everyone knew. The victorious mice dragged large gold cages from underneath the boughs of the tree. A sweaty fear scented the air as the mice pushed the children, clearly no longer pretending to be toy soldiers, into tall cages.
“Blue Santa,” Mirta urgently whispered. “You have to stop this.”
The Nutcracker-Prince, his contorted mask askew, lay wounded on the stage. Things looked disastrous, and it hadn’t been wise to wish for the mice to take over.
Suddenly the tide turned and the mice were pushed back. The wounded soldiers rose and more of the toy soldiers rushed in from the wings, while kids cheered in the audience. They regrouped as the Nutcracker Prince stood up, a circle of stars lighting his forehead. Blue Santa saved him, Mirta thought. This time the bad ones wouldn’t win.
Mirta blinked, and the scene changed to the huge forest of Christmas trees. The snowflake ballerinas danced on their toes as the air in the theater, showering cold all over. In her head, Mirta saw again the fierce Mouse King, mean as Rongo, advancing on the Prince, and all the candles blazing on the stage from the first scene to the last, each one magical.
Then the curtain came down and the music stopped.
“Mama,” Mirta said, pulling on a sleeve.
“I liked the ballet today. It seemed so different. Thank you for taking me.”
Mama smiled, as they stood, to walk up the aisle.
R. Daniel Evans was a founding co-editor in 1976, along with Louise Simons, of Philadelphia’s long-running literary magazine, The Painted Bride Quarterly. During the seven years that they edited the magazine, they published stories, poetry and essays on music, by many authors including Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Gregory Corso, Lynn Lonnider, and Meredith Monk. During that period Dan published poems in many magazines and anthologies, including Hanging Loose, Hellcoal Annual, America, Gay Sunshine, and over 40 others. Dan’s stories have appeared in magazines such as Peregine, Art Mag, Of Leather and Lace, and Pangolin Papers, which nominated one of his stories for a Pushcart Prize.