The scary thoughts of the night before were swept away by the soft yellow sunlight that flooded into the windows of Alex's bedroom. Christmas morning had dawned, clear and cold.
Alex woke up and suddenly realized that it was actually Christmas morning. After months of waiting, Christmas really and truly had arrived. Alex couldn't believe it. He felt like the earth was shaking beneath his feet. He jumped out of bed, jumped into his bathrobe, and ran down the stairs.
He found his grandfather alone in the kitchen, making coffee. "Merry Christmas, Grandpa!" shouted Alex at the top of his lungs.
"Well, Merry Christmas to you too, young man!" laughed Grandfather. "But hey! Let's not be quite so noisy! We're the only ones awake so far."
Alex looked at the kitchen clock. "6:20!" he said. "Awwww, it's only 6:20!"
"'Fraid we're the only early risers in the family," said Grandfather. "What do you want for breakfast?"
Alex said all he wanted was cereal.
Alex and his grandfather sat eating breakfast and talking for almost an hour before anyone else joined them, and it was nearly eight-thirty before the entire family was awake and assembled. Alex's two oldest sisters, Lisa and Rose, complained repeatedly about having to wake up so early. They teased Alex, making fun of him for being so excited, and announcing that next year, they were going to sleep in until at least ten o'clock.
Finally, when everyone was ready, Mom allowed them to enter the living room.
Santa had come! Even more gifts had been placed under the tree during the night, something labeled "From Santa" for each member of the family. And the previously empty stockings that hung from the mantelpiece now bulged with candy and trinkets. And on the coffee table was a huge gingerbread castle!
Alex ran immediately toward his gift from Santa, a brand new sled! It was just like the one Bobby had, which in previous years he had envied. It was just exactly what he wanted! He lifted it, enjoying its sturdy weight. He carried it back to the doorway, where Mom stood leaning against the doorframe, watching everyone's reactions.
"See what Santa brought me Mom, isn't it great?" he shouted. Though Alex was often reprimanded for shouting, it was required in this case, so that he could be heard over the din of his sisters' squeals of excitement. His mother shouted back at him that yes, indeed, it was wonderful.
"But now I REALLY wish it would snow," said Alex, in frustration.
His mother laughed. "Don't worry, kiddo, there's still plenty of winter left."
Alex carried his sled over to show to his grandfather, who was admiring the gingerbread castle. The walls of the castle were covered with vanilla wafers, and the spires were crowned with pointy-tipped ice cream cones. At the top of the spires, little flags flapped in the wind. The windows had pink sugar wafer shutters, the grounds surrounding the castle were covered with a layer of green M&M grass, and best of all, lurking inside the castle gate was a fierce looking dragon, constructed from marshmallows and gumdrops. After showing his sled to his grandad, Alex became entranced by the castle, and snitched a few of the M&Ms.
Dad meanwhile had begun sorting through the mountain of gifts, starting a pile for each person. Alex noticed that his pile was already several gifts big, and rushed over to start opening them.
What chaos! Everyone was talking and laughing and tearing wrapping paper all at once. Alex set to work at the gifts in his pile, and discovered some cool toy cars, a great battery powered laser pistol, and a dumb old shirt.
Meanwhile, the other members of his family were opening a wide assortment of gifts. A red scarf, a coffee table book about Alaska, a box of marshmallow Santas, a new wristwatch, a round container of bath soaps, a coffee mug, a yellow and black dress, a canister of flavored popcorn... and t-shirts, books, albums, candy, toys and mountains of other dazzling merchandise. As each person opened a gift, they would exclaim about how great it was, show it to the people near by, shout thanks to the person across the room who'd given it to them, toss it onto their pile of loot, and proceed to the next one.
Soon Alex found himself unwrapping a small gift with a tag that read "To Alex, from Grandpa." The wrapping paper came away revealing a little black drawstring pouch, made of leather. Alex opened the pouch and saw that it contained a bunch of small black tiles. He dumped them out on the floor. Nine tiles, made of wood but painted black, each with a strange little symbol painted onto it, near one end.
Alex looked up at his grandfather, who was busy unwrapping a tie. "What are these, Grandpa?"
"Oh, Alex," said Grandfather, setting down the tie, "I see you've unwrapped my gift." He knelt down on the floor next to Alex.
"What are they," persisted Alex. "Are they dominos?"
Grandad chuckled. "No, not exactly. Actually, I'm not really sure just what they are. However," he said, leaning towards Alex and speaking in a conspiratorial whisper, "I think they're magic."
"Really?" Alex's eyes bulged.
"I think so," said Grandfather. "Ask me about them again later on, and I'll tell you the story."
Alex looked at the tiles with awe, then reverently placed them back into the pouch.
Eventually, all of the gifts were open, reduced to various piles of unwrapped gifts and a colossal mound of torn-up paper and ribbon. Now the family began a more careful investigation of what they'd received and of what their fellow family members had been given. A happy, contented calm settled over the room. For the next hour or so, everyone hung around the living room, playing with and admiring the new things they and the rest of the family had received.
Around one o'clock, Mom announced that Christmas dinner would soon be ready.
What a dinner! An enormous turkey, with stuffing, and cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes garnished with marshmallows, a whole head of cauliflower, steamed, and served on a platter surrounded by green beans, and corn, and apple sauce, and mom's homemade dinner rolls, the best dinner rolls Alex would ever find anywhere. Plus, for dessert, either pumpkin pie or chocolate cream pie, or, if you asked Mom really nicely, a small slice of each.
The family crowded into the dining room. It was a bit of a tight squeeze, shoehorning all those hungry people around the dining room table, but no one complained. After saying grace, the family dug into the food. Serving spoons clattered against plates as the huge platters of food orbited the table, urged on by constant calls like "Please pass the gravy" and "Let's have some of those rolls down at this end of the table!"
Again, chaos reigned. Rarely if ever were there fewer than three conversations going on at once, and often, it seemed like everyone was talking at the same time. However, as the meal wore on, the talking gradually slowed down. As bellies became full, the level of energy at the table decreased, until the primary topic in all of the various conversations was how full everyone had become.
Before the appetites waned, however, Alex and his grandfather had an interesting conversation. They'd been sitting together at one end of the table, and no one paid much attention to their conversation since everyone else was busy with other ones.
"So tell me about the black tiles," said Alex to his grandfather.
"Ah, yes!" said Grandpa. "But first, see if you can get the butter passed down here."
"Butter please!" shouted Alex. Without breaking their conversation, and without even really looking at Alex, or the butter, or the people on either side of them, Lisa, Dad, and Rose passed the butter, bucket-brigade style, around the table to Alex. Alex took the butter and handed it to Grandad. "Here you go, Grandpa!" He said.
"Thank you, Alex," said Grandfather. He split a roll open with his thumb and began buttering it. "Now then, the tiles." He took a big bite of the roll, and chewed thoughtfully.
"Many years ago, when I was a young man, oh, just a few years older than you are now, I spent a year living with my uncle at his cabin in the Catskill mountains. Do you know the story Rip Van Winkle?"
"Sure," said Alex. "We read it in school."
"Well, that story takes place in the Catskill mountains, and I often wonder if that story is just a story, or if it really happened."
"How come?" asked Alex.
"Because the Catskills are a mystical, mysterious place. When you walk around the woods of those mountains, it's easy to believe that strange, magical people might live in those woods, far back in the forests and way up in the mountains."
Grandfather suddenly broke into a fit of coughing. Conversations all around the table halted abruptly, and concern spread across the faces of the family. Grandfather got his coughing under control, then waved his hand at the group with annoyance, indicating that he was fine. Gradually, the numerous conversations resumed.
"Anyway," said Grandfather, after he was certain that no one but Alex was listening to him, "the reason I'm sure that magical people live back in those mountains is that I saw one of them once."
Alex's attention was superglued to his grandfather's narrative, and he was dying of impatience as Grandfather paused to eat a bite of turkey.
"You see, late one autumn afternoon, I was out hiking around those hills. It was late autumn, you know, that time of year when most of the leaves have fallen, but there's still a few trees desperately clinging to brown, dried-up leaves. Anyway, I was hiking along, listening to the leaves crunch under my feet, when I heard someone singing."
Grandfather paused. He closed his eyes, and clenched his left hand into a fist. He swallowed. He fought back the urge to cough, and then continued.
"The singing came from over the top of the hill which I was climbing. As I got closer, I could hear it more and more clearly. It was the kind of singing that you do when you're all alone, you know, when you aren't at all concerned about what someone listening to you might think, because you know there's no one listening to you.
"When I got to the top of the hill, I saw a little man sitting by a fire. He was perched on a big rock and was leaning back, singing like he was crazy. He was wearing this strange little pointy hat, made of leather, and was wrapped up in a thick brown cloak. I stood there for a moment, watching him and wondering what I sound do. I suddenly felt afraid. I had no idea who this little man was; maybe if he saw me he'd throw a knife at me and kill me, or something. So I decided I'd better leave."
Grandfather paused, again fighting back a cough, this time unsuccessfully. Again, conversations around the table lapsed as the old man hacked into his fist. Again, he waited until the attention was off of him before continuing.
"I turned to go, hoping to get away quietly, but I stepped on a branch and it broke with a loud snap. And I saw the little man look up at me. And he looked so terrified, I'll never forget it, he was so incredibly afraid of me, that he just jumped up and ran.
"I wanted to tell him that I wouldn't hurt him, that there was no reason to be afraid of me, so I ran after him. I yelled 'Wait! I won't hurt you!' and I ran down the hill after him.
"He couldn't run as fast as I could, and I nearly caught up with him. Then suddenly, he ran behind a tree, and-" Grandfather shrugged, "-he just disappeared."
"What do you mean, he just disappeared?" asked Alex.
"He just disappeared! One minute he was there, and then next he was gone. He ran behind this big tree, and when I got there, he was gone. I thought at first he might have somehow climbed the tree, but, well, he just couldn't have. He was a short little man, shorter than you are, and the lowest branches of the tree were taller than I could reach. Plus, I looked up into the branches, and he wasn't there.
"It was getting dark, and it was also getting cold. I didn't know what to do, so I went back to the little man's fire. And that's where I found this." He picked up the little black pouch, which Alex had brought with him to the dinner table. "It was just lying on the ground next to the fire. The little man didn't leave anything else behind, so this must have fallen out of his pocket when he ran off.
"I felt really bad about scaring the man away, so I decided to wait for him to come back. I wanted to apologize for sneaking up on him, and I also wanted to give back his little pouch. But he never came back. I stayed up all night, waiting. I sat by the fire, thinking about what had happened and listening for the sound of his returning footsteps. I kept the fire burning brightly all night long. But when dawn broke, I finally gave up, and decided that he wasn't coming back. I still waited for a long time, though. I watched the fire burn down to ashes, and I watched the ashes get cold. But the little man never returned."
"And you kept the tiles all those years?" asked Alex.
"Well, not exactly. I took them, and hid them in my Uncle's cabin. But the next spring, when I went home again, I forgot them. It wasn't until 3 years ago, when my uncle died and we went up to clean out the cabin to sell it, that I remembered the bag of tiles. It was still there, under the floor boards, where I'd hidden it, almost 50 years before. So I got it out, and put it with my things. And then I decided to give it to you. So, that's the story."
"Wow," said Alex. He was dazzled and amazed, and could think of nothing else to say. They eventually started some other conversation, and talked about other things. But the story of the little man dominated Alex's thoughts for the rest of the day. That night, Alex had a dream. He dreamt that he was sitting by a campfire in the forest, and that the little man appeared, and sat down with him, and told him all about the strange black tiles.