This story is reprinted from Issue 12 (2004) of Ancient Paths literary magazine.
The Celebration by Rachel Norris
Tracy looked at the toes of her new shoes. The black patent winked back in the hot morning sun as she walked between her parents. She smiled down at the shiny leather and almost skipped as she thought how much Uncle Dan must love his new slippers. Though he never complained, those heavy boots must’ve hurt his big feet. And it did seem right, somehow, to wear new shoes to the celebration.
It was odd, though, that they had to use the side door. You’d think they would use the big double doors on such a great occasion. There was Mr. Purdy, looking as if he’d eaten green apples, standing by the ivy-draped doorway. Today the thin lips curved up only on one side of the oblong face, black eyes barely moving. “This way, please,” he said, handing her father a small, white folder.
Tracy felt her mother’s hand tremble beneath the kidskin glove as they followed Mr. Purdy into the dim hall. Floral-scented waves of cool air drifted through a velvet-curtained arch from the sanctuary beyond, washing the sun from her long hair, making goosebumps rise on her arms. She smiled up at her father’s solemn face to let him know she was glad they hadn't left her home.
However, instead of going through the arch, Mr. Purdy opened the door to a small room on the left. Five scarred benches, the color of butterscotch, sat one behind the other, their backs so high she couldn’t see anything behind her when they sat down on the first one.
Tracy had lots of room to spread her skirt of thin white wool. They were the very first to arrive. Aunt Nell wasn’t even there. She shook her arm to let the gold charm bracelet slide down to her wrist, then crossed her ankles and swung her legs a little as she tried to see through a crack in the folding doors that screened the sanctuary.
“Here," her mother whispered, handing her a lace-edged hanky and carefully closing the black bag as though afraid the clasp might snap the silence.
"I don’t need to blow, mother,” she whispered back, turning to smile at Uncle Chris, who tilled the doorway like a friendly bear. He smiled at her, then frowned at her mother, the bushy brows touching over his bulbous nose. He’d almost talked her mother into leaving her at home.
Cousin Jeff came in next. Aunt Jane clutching his arm. His face was as pale as his blond hair. For once, he didn't shoot out his lower lip or wiggle his ears at her. Even Aunt Jane wasn't wearing her usual peas porridge smile. The eyes, frosty as ever, picked at each detail of her mother’s best black and her worn white dress.
Tracy wiggled closer to her father’s side then and almost missed seeing Uncle Bill trail in behind Aunt Jane and Jeff. He seldom came to family gatherings. She smiled a welcome at him, and the shy brown eyes said, “Thank you.”
Other relatives came, too, faces white above dark clothing. No one smiled. In fact, everyone looked as if they’d eaten green apples, just like Mr. Purdy.
Her mother’s soft pinch and motions to turn around in her seat made it hard to see who else came in. But she could hear quiet whispers and the rustle of clothing behind her.
The benches suddenly stopped creaking. Tracy leaned forward to rub at a tiny scratch on the toe of one shoe and saw Mr. Purdy come in with Aunt Nell clinging to his arm.
Now the celebration will begin. Tracy thought. She sucked in her breath sharply when she saw Aunt Nell stumble a little, and all the uncles rose to help her. But Aunt Nell hung on tightly until Mr. Purdy lowered her onto the seat.
Tracy had never seen Aunt Nell wear black before. Uncle Dan wouldn't like it. He loved to see Aunt Nell in pink. And not to wear pink on this day seemed, well, not right, somehow. She felt her face get hot as she remembered how much Uncle Dan hated black. She pulled her eyebrows down to show Aunt Nell she didn’t like it, either.
But it was hard to see the face hidden beneath the heavy veil dripping down from the brimmed hat. All she could see were the delicate, gloved fingers twisting and pinching one another as though trying to see which one could hurt the most.
Tracy drew back quickly, slid down on the bench, and stared hard at the crack.
Harsh wool grazed her cheek as her father drew her gently upright. He let his arm rest around her shoulder. Tracy looked up, searching for the tight wrinkles at the corners of the usual, smiling eyes. The sweet juices went dry in her mouth when she saw that the wrinkles had opened into tiny fans, and the tender eyes gazed at her the way they had the day her parakeet went to heaven.
Uncle Dan had been there that day, too, she remembered. His large finger stroked the bright green feathers before he carefully wrapped Birdie in a clean linen handkerchief. Uncle Dan then led the way to their favorite fishing spot. They buried Birdie under the huge oak beside the creek. It was then, as she was struggling to swallow lumps as big as three acorns in her throat, that Uncle Dan told her not to cry and he would tell her about a fabulous kingdom called Heaven, where Jesus was King.
The acorns disappeared as the soft voice spun around silver towers with emerald trees and gates of giant pearls. Birds and animals were there, and all the people wore golden slippers. Can’t you just see Birdie chattering and hopping around?" he asked. “Why, I bet Birdie’s even found your Grandpa by now. They’re probably celebrating right this minute.
After Uncle Dan brushed the dirt from his hands and went away whistling, "When We Gather At The River,” Tracy decided it would really be too childish to cry when Birdie was so happy, so she lay back on the prickly leaves and gazed up through the sun-dappled green, thinking about the beautiful kingdom.
The next day, Uncle Dan pulled the small gold bracelet from his pocket and fastened it around her wrist. A miniature pair of golden slippers dangled from the chain. He thumped them gently so they danced in the sunlight and then sailed at her as it they shared a special secret. And every time after that when she felt the acorns in her throat, she would look at the gleaming slippers and think of Jesus and the happy place and the lumps would disappear.
Out of the corner of her eye she could still see Aunt Nell’s fingers worrying each other. She looked hard at the crack in the door and rolled a damp palm back and forth over the charm bracelet. She held up her arm to see if the little slippers were still there. They danced, as usual, yet seemed to glow brighter and brighter as she looked, like candles on an altar.
She knew then that Uncle Dan must’ve made it to the heavenly kingdom, just like Birdie. If only Aunt Nell knew it too, she thought. If only she dared to go sit beside the lone figure at the end of the bench.
Tracy squirmed away from her father and felt more than saw Aunt Jane’s cold eyes on her. She ignored a horrified gasp and her mother’s hand as she slid from the bench and moved quickly to sit by Aunt Nell. Her fingers felt thick as she hurriedly tumbled at the clasp and held the shimmering bracelet high.
The delicate fingers ceased struggling as Aunt Nell slowly raised the heavy veil, and Tracy looked into eyes that were dry as the brown stones in the creek after a long, hot summer. Placing the bracelet into her aunt’s palm, she whispered. “You can have it. You can have it, Aunt Nell.”
Aunt Nell stared at the tiny golden slippers. The stony eyes turned a soft, deep violet in the oval face as soothing tears surfaced. “Why, thank you, Tracy,” she said, the fingers quiet as they fondled the glowing chain.
Tracy ran back then to the circle of her father’s arm, acorns large in her throat again. She stared at her new shoes, which looked as though she were holding them under water, and hoped Uncle Dan wouldn’t mind if she cried just a little. It seemed right, somehow, to cry when celebrating this occasion.