Let Nothing You Dismay
When Elissa woke, ever so gently, not admitting to herself that she had been asleep, she reached for the box under her pillow and, finding it there as always, was not afraid. She thought for a little while of how she never slept, never—and they would not believe her; and then fishing her Dick Tracy tommy gun out from beneath the bed, she pulled the trigger carefully, not making the rat-a-tat-tat, but only lighting the little red glare at the tip. Fire! The room blushed fitfully, blinked like an eye in the intermittent flame: under the lid, the cracked faces of dolls, the brutal shadows of half-disabled toys. Fire! The jumble of a child’s room, half ghetto, half jungle, seemed to her to leap with the lunge of flame at her bed, at her. Fire! She dropped the gun, and the dark, cool as Roy Rogers, rescued her: thumpa, thumpa, thumpa—the hooves dying—dying—. The end.
It was then that she realised that she had been hearing the voice of Mrs. Jovanich, its musical whine, the words strangely altered, to which grown-ups for some reason listened so intently. “It’s like The Castle! Two blocks I have to go—and I am lost! For hours I walk—and then the endless same houses!” Mrs. Jovanich always said things were like duh Kessel and once, when Elissa had asked her father about it, he had laughed and shown her the book, the picture of the man who wrote it.
“Is it real?” she had asked.
“What? Is what real?”
“The Castle,” her father had corrected her, “castle, you know, where a king lives.”
“Is it real?”
“Well—it’s a story, by Franz Kafka. Like A Christmas Carol.”
“Is he real? The writer?”
“He’s dead.” The answer had annoyed her mother, who had cried at that point, “Benjamin!” and he had amended his answer. “He was real.”
“Of course he’s real, dear,” her mother had assured her hastily. “Just like Dickens.” It was important for Elissa to know these things. Roy Rogers was real, Scrooge was real, God was not real, though people had once thought so.
“The Dickens!” Her father had winked at her to be sure she got the joke.
And now she could hear his voice answering Mrs. Jovanich. “This is embarrassing. I should have called for you. The others have already come and gone. The caroling is over. I wanted—” She tried to fit her father’s face to the blurred words, but she could not recall it as it really was, slow and gentle. That other face possessed her, the Castle face, blackish, shining with wet large eyes. From the first, the picture had reminded her somehow of her father, who laughed always and was very sad, but she felt guilty thinking so, though she could not have said why. Remembering it sometimes, she almost cried for loneliness, and would run to touch her mother who knew so surely what was real. Elissa had a word that went with the wet eyes, the loneliness. “Joo,” she said quietly to herself, “Joo—”
“Don’t be disturbed. Please!” Mrs Jovanich was saying with the strange large gestures Elissa could imagine. “I will leave. It is a ridiculous hour. But I was sure that this time, this time I would not be such a—fool. It is already the third time—”
Three times Mrs. Jovanich had lost herself in the two blocks between their houses, two blocks that Elissa peddled on her bike a hundred times a day—lost, a grown lady!
“It is, perhaps—I mean, excuse me, after what we have been through in Europe, the beastliness, we are all, a little, fools!”
It had not always been so; several times Mrs. Jovanich had found their house without difficulty and her little eyes had shone over the wine, the rapid incomprehensible talk. That had been at first, but after that night on which she had been forced to go home with the terrible headache, she had come less often and always complaining at the door: “I have been lost. It is like The Castle!” That night Elissa had come out of her room into the heart of the party at nearly midnight (she could tell time, of course) and, claiming to be hungry, had eaten a bowl of cornflakes very slowly and talked with everyone. Only Mrs. Jovanich had stayed in her remote corner and had said little, though only she had known when Elissa flinched at her mother’s using a dirty word. No other mothers said such words, and though she knew there were only dirty minds, Elissa could not help her shame. Often touching the box, she would pray: Let me believe my mother!
“This is a little Puritan—” Mrs. Jovanich had said softly, but only Elissa heard, for the rest had forgotten the old woman, laughing and laughing at a story Elissa had begun quickly to tell about her third-grade teacher.
“You will excuse me—” Mrs. Jovanich had had to say three times in a low sick voice before anyone would listen. “My head. I would not wish to disturb you young people. Children are so important in America.” She had left quickly, touching Elissa’s cheek with a dry finger to say “good night,” and adding very softly, more with her lips than her voice, “my little Puritan.”
Elissa hated her, and clutching the box in her dark bed, she dared to say, “Let her go away! Please let her go away!” She would not ask though she was tempted: Let her die!
“Anyway, Merry Christmas!” Mrs. Jovanich now said, dismissing Europe, her lost hours in the cold. Elissa had waked without the thought that it was Christmas Eve. “Let nothing you dismay. Yes? It is a beautiful tree, Elissa—magnificent!”
She is talking to my mother, of course, the girl told herself, but she could not help starting at the shared name, shrinking under her covers. “Your father insisted,” her mother would tell her, her pale head so distant on the long lovely neck that it seemed to mock the child. “I told him two Elissa’s would be confusing, but he wanted so much for you to be like me—” And she would smile not in apology, Elissa could sense dimly, as most people would, but in pride and certainty. Before that pride, the girl felt forever shamed; she was not a bit like her really.
“Benjamin did most of it,” her mother said quietly.
“Liss could have done better. She humors me.” She could tell that, in the pause, her father had gathered her mother to him, one hand hanging in incredulous possession over the assured haunch. He touched her always as if to be sure that she was there. “Merry Christmas!”
Elissa trembled a little to hear the words in his mouth, and that other word, wet and large, possessed her: Joo, Joo. At this time of year, her mother used always to talk to her of their Christmases at home, at Grandpa Littell’s, of going out to cut the tree, of the wonderful ornaments that they did not make any more and that small girls could not even imagine, of the splendid presents from people dead before she was born. One year, long, it seemed to Elissa, long ago, she had cried out to her father, who leaned forward without apparent joy toward her mother’s words, “Why are you mad, Daddy?”
“I’m not mad, Elissa.”
“But you look mad, Daddy.”
“That’s my thinking face.”
“Are you thinking of your old Christmases?”
“We didn’t have any,” her father had said.
“Why? Why, Daddy? Were you always bad?” The sudden thought had horrified her and she had been close to tears.
While her father had sought for an answer, the other face had slipped like a mask over his usual look, the Castle face, and her mother had spoken for him before he could begin. “Your father’s folks, Grandma and Grandpa Kaplan, they didn’t believe in Christmas, they—”
“All right!” her father had interrupted, quite loud for him, “they believed, well—other things. Enough!” and he had tossed her into the air the way she loved, the swoop upward forever, the perilous falling, and, at the last moment, his large certain hands.
But that night, awake for a little while, she heard their hushed voices outside her door: “tell—Joo—tell-Joo.” Once her father had cried out, “It’s mine, my crime, my disease, my sore,” and the very end, “If I had thought, marrying you, I would infect you, my children—It’s not fair. Forget it.” “No fairsies!” she had said to herself, and then the strange word that had recurred, so that she might remember it: Joo, Joo—. She had dreamed that she was climbing a tree to reach a nest high in its boughs; in the nest she could see glimmering a wonderful Christmas-tree ornament, like a star, like her mother’s face, but the tree had opened under her into a sudden sore, bleeding, slippery, and she could not hold on—Before that night she had waked to listen for the reassurance of her mother’s voice; afterwards, awake, she waited for—the secret.
At the heart of her Christmases, she was aware of the sore, and when, in school, they would sing about the Christ child, Son of the God in whom one no longer believed, she would remember the other face of her father. “Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day. . . . “ She did not know why she flinched; it was only a story, of course, a story out of the Bible from which her Grandpa Littell would read sometimes in the evenings, an old book that was not (though she was not allowed to say so to Grandpa) real—and that was not even, her father had told her, as interesting as Tom Sawyer.
Mrs. Jovanich stood before her bedroom door now, looking at the sign Elissa had so carefully printed and tacked up: OFFICE OF ELISSA. WALK IN. DO NOT RUN. And above it the number 190837. “Ah, it is—cute, yes. A clever child.” But Elissa, with the precocity of malice, knew that the old woman was a little irked because there were no conventional childish mistakes, no reversed S’s to tolerate. “She is very important to you!” Elissa hoped she would get another headache, but it did not seem worth troubling the box.
“And what is this—this machine?” Mrs. Jovanich must have moved over to examine the presents, Elissa decided; it must be very late if the presents were already out, the caroling over. She wondered vaguely if she would be permitted to sip a little egg nog if she got up, but it was easier to lie quite still in the darkness.
“That’s a Dick Tracy two-way wrist watch radio,” her father explained, and her heart skipped once with the little bound of delight. But why did he sound shy?
“So—Dick Tracy! You have not had yet, poor things, enough violence. You must contrive this comic-page melodrama. It is amusing. As for us-” Elissa knew how she shrugged in the pause, the gold cross about her neck leaping to her bewilderment at America.
“And this is from Santa Claus?” She must have read the tag. “Another irony! Santa Claus? She is a big girl now, your Elissa—nine years old!”
“Eight,” her father said. “Won’t you have a drink. We have—”
“At nearly nine, it is still necessary for her to believe in Santa Claus?”
“Now, Greta,” her mother said, soothingly, using quite uncustomarily her first name.
“But, my dears, Santa Claus!”
“To take that belief away from her,” her father tried to explain, gently as always, as if everyone were himself, “that harmless belief—what would it leave her? It would rob her of Christmas, make her an outcast, a—a freak!”
“Santa Claus!” Mrs. Jovanich insisted on the word as if she could say no more, but could not quite yet leave the subject. She knows I am awake, Elissa thought, she must have heard me; she hates me, she wants me to hear this. But Elissa knew already that Santa Claus was not real, though she had never confessed it, sensing that, for some inscrutable adult reason, it was important for her parents to think she still believed in him. Besides, she was ashamed of the way she had found out; at six, she had crept to a crack in the living room door to see Santa, and had watched her parents wrapping and laying out the presents. Sneaky, she had thought, no fairsies—and had crept back to bed knowing that she had betrayed them, but she did not cry. In the end, her discovery became confused with that face, that word—the secret.
Now, without reflection, she rushed into the bright room, into the midst of Mrs. Jovanich’s climactic sentence: “God they tell her does not exist—Santa Claus, yes!”
“It’s Santa!” she cried in her most babyish voice. “He’s been here. He brought me my presents.” She still clutched in her hand the box, forgotten. “And the tree—how beautiful!”
She went through the small pretense of discovering the Dick Tracy two-way radio, after first unwrapping a doll, and ran to hug her father, her mother—dropping the box behind her.
“It’s Santa,” she cried under the nose of Mrs. Jovanich. “Merry Christmas!”
“Just those presents now, dear; save the rest for morning.” Elissa looked sullen at her mother’s words. “You’ll catch cold: it’s not very warm in here.” The child had wriggled out of her pajamas, as she did most nights, and was quite naked, shivering with delight and the night chill. “Come to bed, dear.”
“Liss, you’re jealous,” Mrs. Jovanich cried mockingly. “The child is even more beautiful than her mother. Please, let her stay a little.”
“I’ll go to bed now,” Elissa said abruptly, and looking up saw that Mrs. Jovanich held the box curiously in her yellowish hands.
“And what is this?” she asked. “You sleep with it, dear?”
“I want it,” Elissa said, terrified, completely without grace.
Mrs. Jovanich began slowly to hand it down, but her father, troubled, said, “That’s no way to ask for it, Elissa.”
“I want it!” she shouted, exasperated at the coming of tears.
“Ben!” warned her mother.
“Ask for it properly!”
“I WANT MY BOX!” Elissa kicked at Mrs. Jovanich’s shins, futilely, with her bare feet.
“It is late. Poor child! For her we are like the Guardians of the Castle—” and the slow arc of the old hand descended to the level of the child’s eyes.
“Elissa!” Her father’s hand touched the box at the moment the girl’s reached it, and it fell to the floor between them, open, spilling onto the rug the skeleton of a bird, a dried flower. The turned-up lid lay beside it in the unshaded light, inscribed in red crayon, “JOO.”
“JOO?” cried her father, and then, “Jew! Elissa, what—”
But the child had grabbed the box, with all her baffled reverence and awe, and screamed passionately from the shadow of her doorway, “Anyhow, he isn’t real. Santa Claus ain’t real!”