Not the Marrying Kind

Every December 14th for the past seven years, I’ve re-written a holiday story through a queer lens, retelling it as a way to retroactively tell stories to my younger self that include people like me. The first year, I wrote “Dolph,” (a retelling of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Then I wrote “Frost,” (a retelling of Frosty the Snow-Man), “Reflection,” (a retelling of “The Snow Queen”), “The Five Crowns and Colonel’s Sabre,” (a retelling of “The Nutcracker and Mouse King”), “The Doors of Penlyon” (a retelling of “The Christmas Hirelings”), “A Day or Two Ago” (a retelling of “Jingle Bells”), and then last year, “The Future in Flame,” (a retelling of “The Little Match Girl.”)

I flailed about for a good deal of time this year, hunting for another holiday story, and then bumped into “The Romance of a Christmas Card,” by Kate Douglas Wiggin, which was a new-to-me story, but told the tale of two men who’d left their small town, the sister of one of them burdened by his children, and how two Christmas Cards designed and versed by the minister’s wife brought them back together. A single line from one of the men on the train—which became the title of this retelling—settled in my head, and over the weeks, I ended up with this.

All the verses and poems and even some of the dialog I’ve left untouched from the original, but obviously the tale itself veers—queers, rather—in a different direction. I hope you enjoy!

A cabin in the dark of winter, from which light beams from one window. Image from Pixabay.

Not the Marrying Kind

I — Dick Larrabee

I’m told it was on a Christmas Eve and a Saturday night that Mrs. Larrabee—who, it is important to note was not my mother but rather my step-mother, having married my father the minister after the death of my mother—came up with her notion of putting her talents toward a Christmas Card.

It’s also important to note, in fairness—and I do wish to be fair in this telling, wherever I can, given how unfairly most had treated us—that Mrs. Larrabee was a fairly lovely woman. She certainly brought cheer to our home after my mother died, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say it the first time that emotion had joined the Larrabee household. My mother—the woman who’d birthed me, not the newer Mrs. Larrabee—hadn’t much room for joy. 

No, she’d kept most of the space in our home for Godliness, which was more-or-less a synonym for Castigation and Correction and Disappointment, really. 

Specifically, disappointment in me.

When you grow up feeling you can do no right, it’s not a far step from that initial position to deciding you might as well do wrong. Not to excuse most of my behaviour, of course, but I was a young boy with a minister for a father, a joyless critic for a mother until I was six, and the eyes of the entire town watching me for the slightest misstep, especially in the twelve years that followed my mother’s death, before the arrival of the woman who would become the second Mrs. Larrabee. 

But all that was years ago, and the night in question I wish to describe was more about my step-mother than my mother or my father, and began with her declaration of two plans.

“Luther,” my step-mother said, “I’m going to run down to Letty’s.”

That was her first plan, and it involved visiting Letty—Letitia—because the twins, Letitia’s niece and nephew, seemed to be coming down with something and it might have been the measles, and my step-mother knew full well that Letitia Gilman, despite the help of Miss Clarissa Perry, the town’s childless expert of bringing-up of babies, was often of a maudlin nature, and might need a dose of Reba Larrabee’s joy to make it through the night. 

My father, I imagine, made noises of assent, and perhaps even genuine ones, if I credit him a positive mood for the evening. 

Which I can do, having not witnessed it firsthand, but as I am already trying to be fair, it seems not too much further a step from that initial position to decide to also be kind to the people of this town. 

“And oh! Luther, I have some fresh ideas for Christmas cards and I am going to try my luck with them,” Mrs. Larrabee said, which was her second plan. 

It might sound near flighty for a minister’s wife to suggest she intended to pen a Christmas card, but my step-mother’s verses had been picked up in the newspapers a few times now, and she did have a way with words that was both pleasant and pious, alongside—far rarer, in my experience—a rather authentic intent to follow-through on any promises inherent in the platitudes.

My father suggested she speak to Letty about the second plan, this Christmas card notion, because Letty’s half-brother David—most notably and notoriously to all in the small town as the father of the twins in his half-sister’s care—had once been involved in some sort of picture business in the city, and Letty might know where to send a potential card for publication.

Ah, David

If I’m to continue with fairness and kindness in mind, it’s perhaps not the right time to speak of David Gilman beyond those two things: his twins being raised by his half-sister, his presence being elsewhere.

It’s perhaps also simply my habit not to speak of David Gilman. My father’s Lord knew that wasn’t a problem anyone else in our town had. Old Maria Popham, who I’d once heard most accurately described as ‘the town’s professional pessimist’ thought nothing of reminding anyone who’d listen how David Gilman had done his half-sister so wrong, and didn’t seem to own a shred of guilt besides. Her husband, Ossian—everyone called him called Osh—who rarely allowed his wife’s cruel observances much time before countering with a softer touch on any topic with the notable exception of when that topic was me, the minister’s son, didn’t rise to David Gilman’s defence, either. It was like that throughout the whole town, I knew. If there was a race run on bad reputations through the centre of town, I’m not sure which of David or myself—the scandalous Dick Larrabee—would take the ribbon, but once it was announced which of us had come in first, I would certainly know where to wager my money on a runner-up.

Indeed, even my step-mother found little good to say of David Gilman.

My father, though, I’m told, often cautioned those who would simply brush off David completely as a lost cause. In fact, I’m told he did so in my name, remembering how, for quite a few years, Dick, Letty, and I ran in the same circles as friends, before…


I want to say it again: ah, David

Never mind. I promise, more on him later.

For now, first, my step-mother visited Letty Gilman, and when she arrived at Letty Gilman’s home, she saw a sight that inspired her. 

Letitia Boynton’s one-storey gray cottage wasn’t much. Behind it, a clump of tall cedar trees for background in front, bare branches of elms, though laden now with snow. And at the parlour window, a single candlestick with lit candle illuminated the view of Letty Gilman sitting at the window, which was open despite the winter night.

The rest of the parlour was lit only by a hearth-fire, bright enough to show the portrait of Letty’s mother long hung over the mantel. The angle of my step-mother’s approach allowed one more view: past the edge of the fireplace, through a half-open door, the flames granted just enough light to halo the heads of two sleeping children, snuggled together, their blond tangled curls flowing over one pillow in the bed that took up nearly the whole of their tiny bedroom.

 In her chair by the open window, and wrapped in an old red-brown homespun cape, waited Letty. And it did look like she was waiting—her chin in hand, head turned—to hear my step-mother tell it, she was a creature designed entirely of waiting, hoping, and something so very much full of longing that in that moment, Reba Larrabee, second wife of the minister of the small town I’d left as soon as I could, knew what she wanted to draw and paint on her Christmas card.

II — David Gilman

I swear I never intended my half-sister to bear my burdens, nor had I ever intended to live down to the expectations of everyone in our home town, but sometimes I think my entire life could be served up by those three words—“I never intended”—and a sour smile beside. 

You know how you can get off on the wrong foot with someone, and you never quite seem to find your balance again in their presence? That was me, but not just with someone, with the whole damn town itself, and the world beyond, if I care to admit it. I misstepped at birth, and then every stumbling stagger thereafter only seemed to make it worse for me, my father, my half-sister, and everyone I touched. 

A smarter man would have stopped touching people, no? I suppose I can put some of that down to being a boy, and having a lot more hope then than later in life, but I tried, tripping up over and over again with the people of my town until, in the end, I don’t believe there was a single soul in that town who could have honestly said they weren’t glad to see me go.

Not even my half sister, Letty, or…

Or anyone else.

The night my sister had banked the fire warm enough she didn’t mind an open window in winter, and Mrs. Reba Larrabee came to visit her, I’m told Letty admitted to having put that candle there for me.

There! I can hear your words. It’s not true no one wanted you back in your home, and you’ve just admitted it!

Well, yes—but also no. Because I can’t blame Letty for wanting her half-brother to return, what with what I’d left behind, but it’s what I’d left behind that made her want me to return, you see, no abiding love or welcome. Had I been the one walking in the snow that night and coming across Letty in her wrap at her table, waiting, a candle in the window, the light of the cottage’s parted door offering a place to stop in welcome, with the portrait of our mother so visible I might have stopped, true, but then I would have caught a glimpse of beyond that table, that woman in the wrap, that portrait, and seen…

Two children. 


Well. As I said, I stepped wrong from the start with everyone in that town, and my sister was by no means excepted from the list. And so it was a good thing it wasn’t me walking past that night, but rather Mrs. Reba Larrabee, because she had such goodness in her, and stopped to speak with my half sister, and—of all things—ask her permission to draw and paint that very scene as her attempt to publish a Christmas Card.

Poor Letty. In the face of one as joyous and—I’ll sound crass and bitter for this, but there’s no other way to state it—relentless as Mrs. Reba Larrabee, it’s no wonder the permission was given. 

I have no trouble imagining their conversation. Imagining conversations is, in fact, a cursed gift of mine: to replay what was said, or done, and to imagine not a single misstep? Many an evening I should have slept well was instead taken up by my knack of playing those games with myself: What David Gilman should have done. Especially when it came to Dick Larrabee. 

“Your house looks so quaint, backed by those dark cedars,” my imagined Mrs. Reba Larrabee would exclaim.

“Oh, but—” Letty might have tried.

 “And with the moon and snow making everything shimmer so, Letty?” Mrs. Reba Larrabee continues, because surely Letty simply didn’t understand.

“Reba, I—” Letty’s second attempt.

“And the firelight through the open door danced so, Letty!” I imagine Mrs. Reba Larrabee using her hands to speak, as she so often did. Gestures sweeping away all concerns my half-sister might have.

“Well, that’s—” A third attempt, aborted.

“And your charming Hessian soldier andirons, your mother’s lovely face…”

“My mother?” Defenses crumbling now in the face of such a reference to our mother.

“In the portrait! And oh, oh, Letty, behind it all, the children sleeping like angels resting, and then you, Letty!”

“Me? But I—”

“You! Wrapped in your cape waiting vigil for someone. It’s so perfect!”

And here, Letty would simply have nothing left but to agree.

No, there wasn’t a soul alive who could withstand the targeted joy of Mrs. Reba Larrabee, and Letty relied on her for company, and conversation, and so much more—what with me not providing any of those things with any regularity, most especially the ‘more’—and so Letty agreed to it, I’m sure in no small part because Mrs. Larrabee suggested it only proper they split any earnings. 

 There was a poem intended to go with this picture of Letty with her face turned away in vigil, the twins sleeping, our mother’s portrait, and the light and the snow and the candle in the window, one of Mrs. Larrabee’s own crafting, and it was this:

My door is on the latch to-night,

The hearth fire is aglow.

I seem to hear swift passing feet,—

The Christ Child in the snow.

My heart is open wide to-night

For stranger, kith or kin.

I would not bar a single door

Where Love might enter in!

If you have any doubts of Mrs. Larrabee’s honest and pious character, I figure those words will settle it, even if you’re of the misstepping sort as myself, and can’t help but hear the words of the poem in your mind’s voice with a cadence of scorn. 

The thing was, though, Letty hadn’t lit that candle for Christ’s boy, or a stranger, or any friend or acquaintance. No, Letty Gilman had left that candle for kin—me, though I don’t deserve the word—out of desperation or anger or well-earned bitterness, as it was three years to the day since those twins had been born, and it had been three months since I’d written, and before that half a year, both with a five dollar bill, and neither not nearly adequate enough.

Cracking her cottage door ajar, opening the window, stoking the fire, revealing the twins through their bedroom door, all of it was a kind of prayer, really. A prayer for the arrival of her awful, selfish, life-destroying half-brother. 

And such a typical prayer for my half sister Letty: unspoken.

And, I suppose, even more typical for her?


III — Dick Larrabee

Ah, David.

I suppose to understand David it’s best we start with his sister, Letitia—Letty—and work our way forward. Letty Boynton’s father had been the village doctor, though she’d never recalled much of him and had admitted to me that she thought what she did recall had been made up from stories others had told her so often she simply believed she remembered. Her mother had remarried, an older man, John Gilman, who was a curious mix of respected country lawyer while completely incompetent at nearly anything else. One assumes the marriage might have started out of sheer pity for the man, but it flourished into love, and Letty’s mother and Letty’s step-father had brought kindness and joy, and three years later David himself, but it seemed to be purchased at a heavy price. 

First, John Gilman declined in health, and it was left to Letty’s mother and Letty herself to often care for him. 

Then, when Letty was but eighteen, her mother died, and in all ways that truly mattered, it was Letty left to care for everyone, including the fifteen year-old David. 

And, the final blow, John Gilman’s death.

Ah, David.

I’m not sure I can do David’s verve justice. He had a way of leaping at life—true, without looking—which was infectious. He was handsome, possessed of dark hair, dark eyes, and a winsome smile as good as any logical argument ever was for convincing others to partake of a particular path. His mind was sharp, and he picked up new ideas easily. He was, despite being four years younger than myself, as constant my companion as Letty herself, and no matter our intent to have our own fun with no bother to others, somehow we bothered others in a fashion most constant.

And as the elder of us—not to mention being the minister’s boy—the blame landed squarely on my shoulders, in the eyes of most of the town.

I won’t put all that down to David, of course. Letty was too young to run a household, I was too angry at a town full of people determined to see me with as unfriendly a gaze as my own mother’s had been, and I absolutely played my part, both in temperament and action, to earn the foundation of my reputation.

But the town built storeys upon that foundation with unbridled enthusiasm every time they so much as aimed their gaze at Letty and David or myself, and they seemed to like to do little else. My father’s sermons, that bloody Deacon Todd… all I endured, before I chose otherwise, wasn’t intentionally the fault of myself, or Letty, or David, but somehow the blame was most often on me.

And in a small town, anything known by one is soon noticed and known by all. There needn’t even be much maliciousness in it, though I’d posit a healthy dose of that flavour was indeed added by Maria Popham and Deacon Todd. It simply becomes acknowledged. Truth or nuance have no place in a small town.

That David, one would have said, with a slow shake of head.

Ah, yes, but what can you expect? Another would say, matching the slow shake of head. After all, Dick.

Indeed. Their heads shake in unison. And he the minister’s son.

It diminished David, and it quieted Letty, and it furied me. And then… 

Ah, David.

If it hadn’t been Deacon Todd, would it have been someone else? I’m never sure if it was his version of events which had been passed to Mrs. Maria Popham, which she soon shared around the town beneath a guise of genuine concern. I couldn’tbelieve Mrs. Popham’s talk ever meant to be her version of a pious sort of kindness, nor if Deacon Todd simply hadn’t seen things as they’d been, but with my name on everyone’s lips, and David’s sudden departure, I’d been a thread ready to unravel as it was.

Father tried to be patient, again; my step-mother entreated me to be the person she’d seen me be with others with my father; Letty bent her head to the role of family matriarch and so rarely showed happiness unless in our company, and even then, I think Letty knew there was little time left.

I did try, for Letty as much as David, even absent as he was. They were…

Well. Everyone has a reason for enduring, no? Though I think I did no one a favour.

Then Deacon Todd had opened his mouth in a public prayer on my behalf—making a mockery of me and my father’s parish both—and I could bear no more. 

My mother had left me a small house and farm, if no warm memories, love, nor nostalgia, and by this time, I’d finished my college education. It was assumed I would stay in the town, earn my keep, live in that home and perhaps even work that farm or hire others to do so but the moment I was offered a share in a good business—most notably in a city twelve miles away—I rented it all away and left.

First, though, I let the anger stoked so long quite free. I raised my voice to my father, condemned the town, parish, and all its people, and I won’t lie and say I took no joy in it. My father’s patience exhausted in the face of my fury, and he returned condemnation in kind. 

And so, I left. 

I left this town. I left Deacon Todd, and Mrs. Maria Popham, and my father, and my step-mother. I left Letty Boynton, and…

Everyone who’d already left me.

After I, the notorious Dick Larrabee had all but twain the parish in half and left this town in total disarray—at least to hear Mrs. Maria Popham tell it—the town then witnessed Letty’s despondence, until some time later, when they saw the return of David Gilman from Boston.

David’s return must have seemed divine vindication for Deacon Todd and Mrs. Popham, given the state in which he returned. I’m sure both believed David Gilman’s situation all they needed to declare the ruin of the man, for his return came without his verve, but instead with a head bowed, and it was soon said—whether or not it was true—that his time in Boston had done him no good and much ill, and his dark eyes rarely lifted from the ground. He had no money, no job, but to the town’s further talk, he’d asked his sister for board in their childhood home.

But not for himself.

No, David Gilman left again, but in his place he’d left Eva.

David’s wife, pregnant, near the time of birth, and who—it was said, which in this town again meant it was said often and thereby taken as truth—was colder than the bitter winter itself.

Raven-haired, darker than even David himself, Eva was by all accounts sour, bitter, and ill. Letty did her best to rally as I’m sure only Letty could—always the caretaker, always before her time—and if not for Miss Clarissa Perry, the town’s childless expert in the bringing-up of babies, the house itself would have been woefully unprepared for the birth of a child, it was said, as David Gilman had left meagre funds behind, and nothing in the way of a crib or of swaddling. 

Eva held no joy, and much anger in its place, and Letty could not understand it. They even quarrelled—I cannot imagine Letty so aggrieved to quarrel with an ill, pregnant sister-in-law, so it needs must saying Eva’s countenance to have been beyond the pale—but in the end, when nothing seemed to lift Eva from the darkness and the time grew ever closer for the birth, even the town doctor took Letty aside to tell her a truth perhaps too harsh but no less true.

He believed it was up to Eva herself to find peace, but it was possible no matter if given the chance, Eva might not choose to do so. The child might help, and would be their last hope of it, he believed.

This all happened after I’d left. I don’t remind you as to excuse my part in it, but so that, perhaps, you’ll do David the favour this town never did, and not judge him before the story is finished.

It occurs to me I’d promised to tell you about David, and all I’ve done is tell you about myself, and Letty, and Eva, and even Mrs. Maria Popham and Deacon Todd and my father. It’s unfair, and as typical of the town, frankly—eyes on him turned to judgement on me; thoughts of him turned to talk of me.

I’ll have to try again. 

IV — David Gilman

It’s a coward who misses the birth of his children, and a rogue who doesn’t provide for them, and I can’t deny many times in my life I have lived as a coward and a rogue both. When I did make it back to the only cottage where I’d ever felt at home and had that feeling unspoiled, I found only my sister and the twins, Eva buried, and I had but a pittance to offer as the results of my efforts.

“When we showed her the bairns,” Letty said to me then, “she shrieked, David. A noise without love nor joy. The way she shrieked, David…” Letty, who never said a bad word where silence might be occasioned. “You’d think the babes the worst of all creation. I… I admit to having uncharitable thoughts about her, and about twins, if we’re to tell truths. Doctor Lee, he said the very sight of them seemed to turn her away from life, and she did turn away, David. She simply stopped living.”

It wasn’t hard to see what Eva had seen in those children, even wriggling and pink and the way of babies so recently born, and all my effort, my attempt to make something right of it all simply froze and crumbled around me, and I knew with an utter certainty that this wasn’t just stepping wrong in life. This wasn’t one of my usual misplacement of a foot, or a word loosed with too little thought beforehand. I hadn’t misstepped.

I had begun a ruinious path I couldn’t turn back from. 

But I couldn’t take those children with me, either. 

And—God judge me, for it is true—I could barely look at them, for they were the most unwelcome reminder of the life I needed to return to, and as quickly as possible were they to survive. 

And so, with no fatherly pride and—in truth, again, God judge me—more insult than goodwill, I left them with my sister, and I returned to Boston.

As I’ve said, I have always seemed to have the perfectly imperfect knack of placing my first foot wrong, and then spending my life in an increasingly difficult dance to put my steps back into alignment with those around me. It’s a losing battle, a fool’s errand, and a pattern repeated no matter how far I went from my home, this attempt to regain some balance. Most people know the sensation of a misstep, if only in the literal sense, but I’d wager the vast majority of those of us who live and breathe have experienced that yawning chasm of a moment between acting wrong and seeing the recognition of that act in the eyes of everyone gathered. 

Humiliation is what I’m speaking of, I suppose. Speaking the wrong word. Shaking the wrong hand while speaking the wrong name. Knowing that no matter how sharp your mind might be, the simple act of navigating an aimless and weightless conversation will no doubt leave you verbally sprawled on the floor in front of those gathered, exposed in some way as wrong.

It was that I returned to, and more, because I returned to my work in Boston and my work in Boston had been where I’d placed my foot wrong in the first step on the journey to where I was now.

There is a sort of person for whom misstepping is never a concern. Though it brought him no great peace in his youth, Dick Larrabee was one such as that: he knew his mind, knew his business, knew his words, and knew his direction. Those people are a map and compass to those like me, a way to see the world we might never navigate on our own, but at least acknowledge exists for others. They see those of us who stumble around, trip over our own self, and offer a hand and find something to like in our harum-scarum ways. In the company of one such as Dick Larrabee, my life never did seem quite as off the rails at it would otherwise be.

And so I, of course, ruined it. 

There is also a third sort of person who seems much the same as the map and compass sort, but is not, and this is where the true misfortune began for me. This third sort are also there to offer a hand and find something to like in the harum-scarum way, but it is not to lift us so much as to know—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that they could lead us anywhere they want, which in and of itself is enjoyable to them, and that there will be no consequence to them for wherever they might leave us. 

Sir Alfred Crenshaw—call me “Freddy”—was that to me, and more fool I, I didn’t realize it in time to stop… Well, any of it.

So, as I left Letty with a barely mumbled, “I hope the children will be good,” and they screamed and wailed in the back room in an obvious unified declaration to be anything but, I could barely hold my head upright, as my only hope to have a way to offer my dear sister any aid in the raising of those twins was to return to Freddy Crenshaw, and continue working for him as though none of this had happened. 

Clarissa Perry, a childless woman who nonetheless was an expert in the bringing-up of babies, had already offered her aid, and in the face of one such as Clarissa Perry, what more could I add?

Only money. And for money, I needed work.

And for work, I needed Freddy Crenshaw’s firm.

Not a blond hair out of place despite the curls, not a crack in his smile and simple, softly spoken, “Welcome back, David,” upon my return. He simply nodded to my desk, and I took my spot feeling as off balance and unsuited to living any sort of life at that desk as ever, not that I could fathom a life where there was a sense of suitability. 

“The wife?” he said, waiting until I’d sat, as though to underline my lower position in comparison to his, and he could cast his soft blue eyes downward to match. Such dispassion in the words. The wife. Not even your wife. Eva an object to him, not even a person.

How had I never seen how he looked at those around him in that way, you might wonder. But the truth is, Freddy could look at you and make you feel seen, when he wanted to.

But only when he wanted to.

“She…” I had to swallow after a word, as so often, and I saw the little curl of his lips. Yes, that curl said. You know your place, I know mine, and we shall move past this ugly business and return to what was, at my leisure and for my pleasure. “Died,” I managed.

I watched, and when that smile did not alter in the slightest, and his voice didn’t change in the least when he replied, “Condolences, David,” I knew that even my own stumbling self would never take this man’s offered hand again. 


Never had come too late, was cold comfort, and when Sir Alfred Crenshaw realized he didn’t need to simply reapply the pleasant facade he’d first used to gain my friendship, loyalty, and—yes—intimate company, he instead made work impossible, assigning tasks I had no hope of completing, and ultimately, at the end of three miserable years I endured for the sake of those twins and my sister, ending my employment and leaving me with no way to offer even the ten pound pittances I’d been sending back to Letty.

My lodgings went next, as I tried to find new income, and if some part of me considered acting on what it would take to regain my employment with Sir Alfred Crenshaw, I can at least speak this much of my character: in the cold at night especially, the temptation would come, but I never gave in.

I would never give in again.

And so it was I went hand-to-mouth, scraping by as I could, and though I should have written Letty, every attempt at a letter began so wrong I could not recover. 

Dear Letty, I am afraid I have lost my job

Dear Letty, I am afraid I must find new employment

Dear Letty, I am afraid

I worked when I could, tried to gather scraps into a whole, and when I closed my eyes, I hoped I wouldn’t see the falsely smiling face of Freddy Crenshaw.

Then, as though what I might need most was another way to land a step wrong, my health, too, fled. I had no choice but to retire the publishing position I’d been able to procure for myself, and adjourn to St. Joseph’s, where I learned some piece of me was wrong, and badly so, and would need to come out.

I inhaled the gas and thought, How will they ever know which wrong and badly gone piece to take?

The rest was silence.

V — Dick Larrabee

T’was nearly Christmas the year I saw David Gilman again, for the first time since he’d fled our town and everyone in it—not the least of which being me—and I could scarcely have come up with a less comfortable notion as to finally make my way through the North Station in Boston, step into the train car at one end, and find myself face-to-face with a slender Ghost of Christmas Past regarding me with as much shock as I no doubt had upon my own countenance in kind. 

He’d entered the car from the other end, and our eyes caught across the middle, and both our words were pulled from our chests in unison.

“Dick Larrabee, upon my word!” David’s voice was soft, and wan, and it seemed to me he looked like a man made fragile over the years.

“Dave Gilman, by all that’s great!” I could hear the forced cheer in my own voice, and had the oddest sensation of being unsure of my balance and words both. To whit, I turned. “Here, let’s turn over a seat for our baggage and sit together.”

I did so, David’s smaller cases much less grand than my own, but tucked together, and then we sat. 

“Going home, I suppose?” I said to him. An inanity for sure, for where else could he be going on this train, at this time of year, on course for exactly that place and a few others he’d have even less interest in? But the question gave me time to look at him, to really look, and…

Wan. Fragile. Pale. He’d always had a trace of scrappiness to him, had Dave, but now it looked like most of the fight had been taken from him. And the way he looked back at me? I was not so foolish as to believe there would be a freedom of delight at seeing me, nor even perhaps should I have expected even a smile, but the way he assessed me with his dark eyes was so thoroughly beyond the worst I might have imagined. 

The dark eyes of David Gilman wondered, Are you still a threat?

“Yes,” he said, and it took me a breath to remember the question I’d asked of him. “I’m going home”—here his voice caught on the word—“for a couple of days. It’s such a journey.” This last was accompanied by that wan smile of his. “A one-horse village that a man can’t get to but once in a generation.”

“It’s an awful hole.” I found myself agreeing, though at the same time, I wondered of David’s scarcity of time there. I knew of his wife, her death, of his children—ignored the ache in my chest—and even far removed, word occasionally traveled to me, and none of those words were kind to David Gilman, even now. “I didn’t get that town out of my system for years,” I said, then flinched as I heard how the words might be taken.

David, though, simply nodded, gently. “Married?” he said.

He would ask that. He should. It was well his right. 

“No,” I said, swallowing, and I will not dissemble to say meeting his gaze on that crowded train was anything less than a Herculean task in that moment. “Rather think I’m not the marrying kind,” I said, then, aware of our surroundings and those dark eyes of his both, I couldn’t hold my tongue. “Though the fact is I’ve had no time for love affairs—too busy.” I wanted this conversation to end, but I didn’t know how. “Let’s see. You have…” I wanted to swallow the words as soon as I’d said them, knowing they weren’t kind, but I couldn’t quite stop the flow. “You have a child, haven’t you?”

Why did I say such a thing? Why even a child when I knew it was two?

But all he did was nod again, in that wan, pale way of his. “Yes,” David said. “Though Letty has seen to all that business for me since my wife died.” 

Some silence fell, and this time I was determined to let it. I didn’t know how to navigate with this new David, who didn’t seem to leap at life the way he’d once done, and needed even less my help to do so. 

“Wonder if there have been many changes in the village?” David said, after a time.

I dismissed that with what I hoped was a laugh far more humour than bitterness—As though Old Mrs. Popham would deign to die and make the world a happier place, nor Deacon Todd, when he could instead preserve his high opinion of himself—and for the first time, I caught a glimpse of spark in David’s eyes. “But it’s possible I’ve a trace of animosity colouring my thoughts on the subject.”

“That’s true enough, I’d wager,” he said. 

This time, when the silence fell, I couldn’t stop myself.

“How—” I almost asked him plain, How are you?, but lost my nerve. “How’s business with you, David?”

“Only so-so,” David said. “I’ve had the devil’s own luck lately.” He went on to tell me how he hadn’t found a position to suit—and certainly none to live on—and while he had some hope of a new connection he’d recently made in publishing, he seemed almost afraid to speak of it, as though words might break the hope in some way. 

Then he let out a soft breath. “I’m just out of hospital.” 

At my jolt of surprise, he explained again. He’d had not one, but two operations—he joked, though I could see effort in the humour, that they’d missed the right target on their first account, and as such he’d spent two months there recovering from not one operation, but two. Finally, his dark eyes found mine again, his story finished.

“That’s hard luck,” I said, then found myself offering a précis of my own life. I chose to purposefully note that my own luck had only truly changed in the last few months, though I’d certainly not begun in as tenuous a position as he’d just described, in hope that he’d maybe see things could change. 

Then, I recalled how things could indeed change for the worse, as well. “No trouble at home calls you back?” I asked. “I hope Letty is all right?” I watched him carefully, wondering if this new David would admit anything of the truth if it were the case she wasn’t.

“Oh, no. Everything’s serene, so far as I know.” He admitted to being a poor correspondent—more so when he had no bright news to share—and then finished with another soft breath. “I suppose I’m just here to surprise Letty.”

I looked at David again, and I began to think I didn’t like this new version of him, who was cool and calm and seemed to be bracing for an impact of some kind. As a child, Dave had been a shadow, and a companion, and a friend, and…

David caught me looking, and I dare say he caught the turn of my thoughts, something he’d had the skill at in our youth as well, and—more importantly—the courage to simply act

Ah, David. I thought. There you are.

He looked away first, and I wondered what else had happened before he’d brought that unaccountable wife home and foisted her and her babies on Letty. Back then, I’d allowed myself to rather turned on him—which wasn’t fair, and I think I knew that even then. Now, to look at him, it wasn’t as easy to find the young man he’d been those years ago, especially now he was so pale and thin-chested.

Though his mouth was the same; soft and pretty. David had a good face, too; straight and clean, with honest eyes and such a likeable smile when he let it out. 

It flickered now, there-and-gone-again, when he turned back and found me still looking at him.

“And you, Dick? Your father’s still living?” David glanced out the window into the dark and snow. “I haven’t kept up with our town.”

I assured him the minister was hale and hearty.

“Do you visit every Christmas?” David said.

Admitting it was my first seemed to surprise him, but he chuckled.

“That’s about my case, too.” He hung his head a little, and my fingers twitched with the desire to lift his chin, which… No. But how they twitched.

Instead, I laughed. “I was a hot-headed fool when I said good-bye…” I laughed again. “Well, I never did say good-bye, even. I gave the town my fury and I left. It’s taken me all this time to lose that temper, and even so, I never thought I’d return, but then…”

“Then?” David said.

“There’s—there’s rather an odd coincidence, really,” I said. “That’s what’s brought me here, I suppose.”

“Coincidence?” David said, and for the first time, the full wide smile of the Dave I knew returned. “I can beat yours, I’m sure.” Even his cadence was back to that of his youth, of daring me, tasking me, asking me to rise to his challenge and knowing he’d meet me there.

I bit my lip. “How so?”

Then the most remarkable thing. He reached into his jacket and he pulled out a Christmas Card. “Do you see that?” he said. “It was my late mother that drew me back.”

I’m afraid I didn’t look long, because the word coincidence didn’t do it justice, in fact. He held a Christmas Card, and called it his reason for returning, and I reached into my own coat to pull out the very same thing—the Christmas Card responsible for my taking this trip. It had the same cut, the same paper, and though the two designs were not the same card, they were the same artist, and style, and even their subject matter, I realized.

David’s card showed the same cottage as my card, one I’d have recognized as David Gilman’s childhood cottage at a glance, but his card pulled in tight to the view, with a door open and his sister—I recognized her wrap and her hair and her ear—head turned away, two children sleeping in a room beyond, a fire in the mantle and the portrait of David Gilman’s mother above the fireplace. My own card was of the cottage as well, though further aback, though once again there was the impression of a woman in the window that could only be Letty to my mind. 

And the verses.

My heart is open wide tonight

For stranger, kith or kin

I would not bar a single door

Where Love might enter in!

“It was that picture of my mother,” David said, tapping where the portrait hung above the fireplace. “That’s what drew me back, though the whole of the picture was the charm. And Letty, though I didn’t recognize her right off, I’m sad to admit.” He delighted in pointing out each part of the image—the andirons, the sitting-room, the door ajar, and I listened to him, just as delighted to hear such life in his voice. “When I’d studied the card five minutes, I bought a ticket and started for home.”

“It’s prettier than mine, I think,” I said, comparing the two images, though they were both quaint and lovely.

“What really affected me, though,” David said, “was the verses. I liked that open door. It meant welcome, no matter how little you’d deserved it.”

He took another breath, and I realized he wasn’t as sure of this welcome.

“Where’d you get your card?” I asked, if only to chase that look away from his eyes, and to stop myself from wanting to do something about it myself. He’d married. He’d had children. He’d left town, and I knew why. 

I’d been why.

“A nurse brought it to me in the hospital just because she took a fancy to it.” David laughed with some darker humour. “She thought I might like it, and instead it sent me into a relapse.”


“Yes. I guess Nora will confine herself to beef tea now,” he said, with another wry chuckle. “But it was worth it, I think.” He looked at my card again. “Where’d you get yours?”

“Nothing so dramatic. I picked it up on a dentist’s mantelpiece when I was waiting for an appointment.” I’d been idling my way round the room, hands in my pockets to keep from boredom, when I saw the card standing up against an hour-glass. The color had caught my eye, and then… “I took it to the window,” I said, shaking my head in remembered bafflement. “It certainly was Letty’s house. The door’s open you see and there’s somebody in the window. I knew it was Letty, but how could any card publisher have found the way to our town?” I opened it, and read the verses, which were less religious and more popular.

Now here’s a Christmas greeting

To the “folks back home.”

It comes to you across the space,

Dear folks back home!

I’ve searched the wide world over,

But no matter where I roam,

No friends are like the old friends,

No folks like those back home!

David nodded, looking back at his card as though the thought of the cards having made quite the journey to find them hadn’t occurred to him. Maybe it hadn’t.

I tapped the corner of his card. “Then I discovered my step-mother’s initials snarled up in the holly, and remembered that she was always painting and illuminating.”

David breathed. “I’ve always liked your mother’s verses. She always had a knack of being pious without cramming piety down your throat.”

I had to agree there, and I did. Not like my mother at all, was Mrs. Reba Larrabee.

“Life is odd,” David said, putting the card back in his pocket. His dark eyes had returned to me. “A strange, queer job,” he added, and then his lips parted as though he had more words for me, but none came. He closed his lips, and I would have done anything for them to open of his own accord. But they didn’t.

“You’re right,” I said. “A job. And one we can’t shirk, isn’t it?”

David glanced away, nodding, and once again it occurred to me I’d said something that might have sounded like a judgment on his character. “Still, those cards brought us back here. A sort of magic, aren’t they?” I eyed my own card, then slipped it back into my pocket, only to realize the next station was our town. “Jiminy! Is it the next station?”

No. No no no. I needed more time with David, I needed to talk of a thing, not all around it, and I needed—


“Yes, here we are,” David said, with that trace of grim humour that seemed to be with him most of the time now. “Seven o’clock and the train only thirty-five minutes late.”

Had he been aching to be done with me? I couldn’t tell. It occurred to me, far too late, that this whole conversation might have been nothing but a reminder of pain to him, and that, more than anything else, spurred me on to try again.

“Never mind!” I said, as bright as he’d been grey. “They’ll have tucked away the food, but it won’t be so far gone—just in the pantry. They’ll bring them back out again, and mince pies too. And cheese.” I winked at him, tapping my pocket where my card rested again. “The folks back home will be there.” 

“They won’t be at home, Dick,” David said, and the way he said my name brought that twitch back to my fingers. “We’re so late. If nothing has changed—and it never did, not here—they’ll be at the Christmas Eve festival. In the church.” The last three words he were so soft he might not have spoken them. 

The train had pulled into the station, and we gathered our cases, stepping off the platform. He was right, of course, about where everyone would be, but I didn’t like the maudlin way he’d spoken of it.

“Maybe they can have me for Santa Claus then,” I joked. I flagged down one of the two sleighs available, and the driver drew it up beside us. “I’ll be the merriest Saint Nicholas in the town.”

That earned me an odd look from David, but then we both fell silent at the view around us, which was, as he’d said, unchanged, and yet with the peculiar charm of a white Christmas, it somehow seemed bright and new, nor even as cold as it should be, given the late hour and the snow. 

“Look at the ice on the river,” I said, remembering how we’d skated together in the past. “What skating… and the moon.” She was full and bright and that was why the world was so bright, I realized. 

When I turned to him, he was looking up at the moon and smiling, and it seemed to me there was surprise in that smile, like he’d never expected anything of a delight to be had in this town. 

I opened my mouth, but then the baggage handler was tossing my other packages out from the  train with the casualness of someone long accustomed to knowing just how far and with as little effort as possible one could accomplish a passable job at doing so. I started to load them into the sleigh.

“Are you spending the winter?” David said, watching the parcels add up around me. A slyness in his tone and eyes both delighted me as much as the teasing itself. He stood just a step away, though the lean of his body made it clear he was about to depart

I didn’t want him to.

“Presents, if I’m in time for the tree,” I explained. “I’m going to give those blue-nosed, frost-bitten little youngsters something to remember!” I drew as much of the vaunted Saint Nicholas’s tone into my words, proclaiming it with deep and resonant cheer, and that made David’s head shake in wonder. “You know, Dave, I feel I could shake hands with Deacon Todd.”

That made him laugh, and it was such a sweet sound of mirth I cannot tell it.

“Better you than I. Well, Merry Christmas to you, Dick,” he said. “I’m going to walk—”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Help me pack these onto the sleigh and I’ll at least drop you mid-way.” I turned my voice to a casualness I had to force with will, but he agreed readily enough, and soon we were in the back of the sleigh together, side-to-side, the driver ahead of us and a bright moon above and all for the magic of two Christmas cards.

I faced him, resolute, and found the dark eyes of David Gilman were already facing me.

VI — David Gilman

I wanted to explain. I wanted to open my mouth and let every word of these last three years—and more beyond—spill from my mouth until Dick Larrabee would quit aiming that look of pity in my direction, but I couldn’t help but wonder if every word I had would still end up leaving him in that same place regardless. 

We’d only have a few minutes before the old sign-board marking the path to the town centre in one direction would appear, and then I’d be off the sleigh and heading down a different route. 

And Dick Larrabee was looking at me, and my words were as frozen in my throat as if the lap blanket covering us both wasn’t there, and the heat from Dick’s body beside mine wasn’t there.

Both were, and yet frozen I was.

“I—” I began softly, as he said, “Well—” in his usual voice.

“No,” he said. “You.”

“There’s a lot to say,” I said, and found I couldn’t withstand his expression. I adjusted my gaze downward. “And I needs say it, but there is someone owed the truth more than you, Dick, and I won’t rob her that dignity.” I took one more shaking breath, watching my previous words skitter away like clouds in the night air. “I intend to tell her all of it, Dick.” 

There. It was said, and if it was a decision I’d not been successful in making ever since I’d seen that Christmas Card, ever since the very idea it might be possible to walk through Letty’s door and be welcome had taken such root in my mind, it was made now. 

Only fair to warn Dick, as his unwilling part in it would also be known, and as sorrowful as I was for that, I needed this. Needed that door unbarred, even just for a single holiday. 

I already knew I wouldn’t stay. Not after, but for a while, this town—or, no, that cottage—might once again be a home for a spell. 

Beneath the lap-blanket, Dick’s hand took mine and squeezed in urgency, and I could not choose if it meant to be a warning, an acceptance, or even a comfort, so I raised my gaze and found him regarding me with none of them at all—instead with something akin to concern, or perhaps just a compassion that might share a room with it.

“After your wife died,” he said. “I thought of you unkindly. I am sorry for that.” 

“After my wife died,” I said. “So did I.” He was still holding my hand beneath the blanket, and I curled my own fingers around his and afforded him a squeeze in return. “You should know more about her, about all of it, and I wish there were time and the privacy, but I owe those both first to Letty, too.”

Indeed, the sleigh was slowing. We’d reached our intersection, where his path went to the town and church and people beyond, and mine to a small cottage where—I hoped—I might find that door unbarred after all. 

I let go and jumped down from the sleigh.

“Merry Christmas again, Dick.” I waved.

“Same to you, Dave,” Dick said, then leaning forward, blurted out a stream of words so quickly and so oddly I barely had time to take the measure of them. “I’ll come myself to say it to Letty the first minute I see smoke coming from your chimney in the morning, okay?” His eyes met mine, and he kept going. “Tell her you met me, will you? And this visit, this visit is partly for her as well, but my father had to have his turn first.” He paused again, and I knew he was thinking about all the things I intended to tell Letty, and his part in it. “And Dave? She’ll understand. Make sure you tell her about the cards, and perhaps we—”

“If you’re coming tomorrow,” I said. “Tell her the rest yourself, will you?” I gave him no time to answer, and in truth hadn’t wanted to hear more about what might be coming in regards to Dick Larrabee’s thoughts for my sister. Instead, breaking into a run with my cases in hand, I headed down the path that would lead me to Letty’s door. 

By the time I’d reached the path to the cottage itself, my run had faded into something closer to a march, and my heart was pounding as much from the anticipation of what might lie ahead as the effort. And then I came round the final bend and…

The snow covered the earth as though it had intended to imitate Dick’s card for my initial view, and yet as I drew closer I saw it was more the scene of the card I’d squirrelled away in my own pocket that was before me: a candle burned in the window of the parlor, sending a shaft of light across the snow like a matt of gold upon the cold. Firelight danced from the hearth, and—just as in the card—the front door was opened enough to reveal the slice of the inside, including my sister, who sat at the table, her wrap around her shoulders and sat at the table.

I’d later learn she hadn’t gone to the church festival because Clarissa Perry’s niece had a part to play in the festivities, and thus wanted to fulfil familial duties rather than sit for Letty, but in that moment, my heart simply leapt that she was here, she was at home, and I was but steps away and… 

And she might bar that door yet.

I approached, remembering the words on the heavy paper beside my heart. 

My door is on the latch to-night,

The hearth-fire is aglow.

I seem to hear swift passing feet,

The Christ Child in the snow.

My heart is open wide to-night

For stranger, kith, or kin;

I would not bar a single door

Where Love might enter in!

Stranger, kith, or kin. I’d more claim to the first than the latter, but I crunched my way forward through the snow, as far as the gate, before my nerve failed me so much I had to stop, and then—knowing she’d hear me from where she was, and my footsteps if nothing else—I raised my voice to her.

“Don’t be frightened, Letty,” I said, though I was the one struck with fear, truth be told. “It’s David.” A breath drifted from my lips as a cloud, and then, I made my plea. “Can I come in? I haven’t any right to, except that it’s Christmas Eve.”

The door, already ajar, opened wide, and there she stood.

“Come in, David,” she said, and her voice was as hoarse on emotion as mine. “Come in.”

You’d think we’d have so much to say to each other, and she especially to me, but instead we hugged and held and made little noises of something that might have been crying but was also somehow laughter, and we stood a long while in this way, until finally we pulled back to take each other in, and I imagine I came out the worse for that inspection than she did.

She gripped my hands in hers, and I squeezed back just as tight. Both our cheeks wet, both our lips turned up in smiles, and her brown eyes so full of forgiving warmth for me I nearly lost all my resolve to tell her the truth of things.

But no. The door was not barred yet, and if it were thereafter? Well, that was as it might be, but it would be for things I’d done, at least.

“Come,” she said, and with a little tug led me to the door behind which two children lay deep asleep, their blond curls spread across the pillow, and their hands entwined with each other even in the depths of dream. 

I waited for what had come over me the first time I’d seen them to return, bracing myself for it, in fact, but… No. Perhaps time, perhaps distance, perhaps…

Oh, who knew, really? Who could ever know?

I cried then, again, and let those tears take as much of the bitterness from my heart as I thought possible. Then, wiping away the worst of it, I returned to find Letty at the table, by the fire, her eyes searching mine with so much hope I couldn’t wait a moment longer. I needed to explain.

“As God is my witness, Letty, there’s been something you couldn’t have known up until this moment,” I said, and though she gestured to the other chair, I didn’t dare sit. “I tried, but I never thought of them as my children, not before, and now…” I was telling it out of order, but I couldn’t stop myself. “They were never wanted, is the thing, and I’ve never given you enough for them, Letty. What they are is owed to you, Letty. I’ve done nothing for them, not really. It’s been you, and no one else, and…” 

“It was easy enough to love them, David, though I’ll make no claim on the ease of raising them, as you know. But they do take after our mother, you know,” Letty said, but then she stopped, as she must have seen something on my face. “David?”

“If they take after her,” I managed, “then it is from your temperament, for my wife’s children have no relation to her.” 

I saw her eyes darken, and raised my hand to halt her train of thought before it could leave the station down a rail it might never return from.

“Please, Letty, let me tell it all, because it’s bad enough, but not at all likely where you’re taking it.”

She nodded slowly. 

“You see, Letty, I married Eva when it became clear the man who should be standing by her had no intention—had never the intention—to take that place. My name seemed better for the child—children—than no name at all and scandal besides.” 

“But why?” she said. “She held no love for you, I could see that plain even before she said as much, and you no love for her. If her situation wasn’t yours, then… why?”

“There’s some who’d say that since she’s in her grave and can’t tell her side, that I shouldn’t give you mine,” I said, and when she leaned forward, I raised my hand. “But I want to, Letty, and I hope you’ll hear it out?”

“Of course,” she said, but not in an offhand way. Letty knew she was entering into a bargain she might not come out the better of, and in that moment, it struck me how much she’d changed. Though it should never have been her lot, motherhood suited her, and though the cottage was not nearly enough, it was comfortable and clean, and there were touches of love everywhere. Stockings hung, plump with what I could only imagine, as she’d rarely any extra money beyond what I could so feebly offer, and in only a trickle. Letty Boynton was not broken, nor defeated. 

I hoped this wouldn’t tip those scales.

“When I say the man—Alfred, Sir Alfred Crenshaw his name is—had no intention, it’s because he made it clear to both of us, you see, when she learned his attentions weren’t for her alone, and I learned the same, which is—to say it plainly, Letty—that his attentions weren’t for me, either. At least not as I’d assumed them to be.”

I hadn’t know it was possible for words to hold time still until I’d spoken, but they could, and they did.

Letty swallowed, but otherwise held still.

“I’m not the marrying kind,” I said, and the tiny nod of her head—and was I mistaken, or was there also a ghost of a smile in there, too?—bade me to continue. “But this man was my superior at the firm, and thus the source of any income I might have, and…”

“The Boston firm?” Letty said, as though scandalized this could happen in so good a place as Boston. Or maybe the scandal was that someone of good society could be such a cad? I wasn’t sure.

“Yes,” I said.

A tiny exhalation from her joined the creasing of her brow. “But you remained there for years. Nearly three years, even after…” Her gaze drifted to the small room where the children slept.

“That I could, at least, send you something.”

“And he..?” she said, clearly unable to continue the question. 

I answered what I thought the query might have been. “Would have liked to continue as before, even after I’d seen him cast Eva aside, and after I’d married her. Even then, he thought so little of me…” I had to pause. “When I told him Eva had died, he offered condolences for my loss,” I said. “And when it was clear I had no intention of…” I swallowed, skipping past words I couldn’t utter, not to my sister. “He ended my career, though it took him a few years, and it seemed word traveled all through Boston’s firms that I was not a clever man, nor a very good worker.”

“Vile,” she said, the word almost spat. 

But not, it seemed, at me.

“And the bairns?” she said, shaking her head.

“I never told him,” I admitted. “He knew there should have been a child—never two—but I believe when he offered his condolences he thought it was not just the mother who’d perished.” I exhaled. “I never set him to right on his assumptions.”

“I’ve spent these years wishing their father would return,” Letty said, shaking her head. “And now I learn that would have been the cruellest injustice. Such a man.”

She did not seem to have the same disposition toward me, though, and so I finally took the seat across from her, and when she tipped her chin, ready for the rest of it, I continued.

“When they were born,” I said. “I looked at those babies, and all I could see was him. Letty, I won’t lie—not any more, and not for his behalf least of all—but I… loved him, or, I suppose as near as anyone could love someone given his temperament was so false to everyone else, myself included. Those children seemed as retribution and reminder had come together as living things. Their screams were condemnation of my nature, of my lies, of trying to fix what was wrong with me by exchanging those false vows with Eva for a future neither of us wanted, not really, and then…” I lifted my shoulders. “And then I fled. Again.”

Letty regarded me for a good while now, and I forced myself not to hide. I let my feelings show, plain and clear, something I’d only done twice before, and both times to my chagrin. 

“They were never retribution, David,” she said. “I’d rather think they were compensation.”

I couldn’t stop the tiniest of scoffs, and she placed her hand over mine on the table.

“No, do listen.” She took a breath. “I ought to have written to you of how clever, and kind, and beautiful they were, but you never asked, and I have too much pride.” She shook her head. “I had it in my mind that a man should want to be a father to his own flesh and blood, even if they were dull, and unthinking, and ugly; that’s what I believe. But I didn’t know.”

“You have done none of the wrong here, Letty,” I said, hearing the pain in her voice. “I’m the one who’s been frozen and numb, making whatever ends meet I could, forcing my heart closed—I think that’s what drove me into the hospital these last two months.”

“David!” Letty said. “Hospital? For two months? And you didn’t send word?”

“You’re not the only one with pride,” I reminded her, and she scoffed the same noise back at me I’d loosed at her. “It was far. And I was ill so suddenly. They operated twice, and I was all but useless most of the time.”

“Oh, poor, poor Buddy!” she said, and her use of my childhood nickname, one brought out to tend scraped knees or bloodied elbows was a balm. “Did you have good care?”

I couldn’t have asked for a better opening. She would have had every right to have ended this conversation three times over already, to bar her door with me on the other side of it, but here she was, listening, asking, and already knowing so much of me.

“I had more than good care, I had Ruth Bentley. She was the nurse that brought me back to life, really, and made me see what a useless creature I was being.”

Letty’s eyes flicked then, and I suppose she heard something in my voice. I could almost see another puff of smoke from her train of thought, but again on the wrong rail.

“No,” I said, holding up one hand. “Not like that, though in a fashion. A long illness is a time you’re forced to look at yourself—there’s scarce else to do—and I was never one to walk where I could stumble, was I? I spoke, in my fevers, of regrets and losses and the bairns, and Eva, and…” I paused, not quite ready for that final piece. “And Miss Bentley saw me clear enough.”

“That you’re…” Letty’s blush rose. “Not the marrying kind?”

She truly was grasping this clearer and easier than I’d expected.

“That,” I agreed. “But in part, because Miss Bentley herself is not the marrying kind.”

“Oh. Oh, I see,” Letty said, and she glanced at the wood in the fire, then back at me. “I see.” 

Was that smile back again? I couldn’t tell. 

“Through her, I’ve met others. In fact, I’ve met a Mr. Brunswick, who writes, and he’s found me a position in publishing come the new year.” And with that, everything that chance meeting with Miss Bentley brought my way came tumbling out for Letty—a place to live, a new position, friends who didn’t see me as a ruin and a pauper, but rather someone in need of bracing up, that I might take another run at the battle of life. They were good people, these friends, and they looked out for each other as sure as kin would. 

“They’re stronger than me,” I confessed. “But I draw comfort in that, being who I am. And it was Miss Ruth Bentley and Mrs. Reba Larrabee who sent me on this path home—though neither intended it, I’m sure.”

“Reba?” Letty shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“When I was laid up, even weaker than I am now, Miss Bentley brought me a Christmas card.” I pulled the card out of my pocket, and Letty’s eyes grew bright and wide to see it. “It was such a shock to see this place I fainted dead away, and had a relapse.”

“You did no such thing!” Letty gasped.

“I did,” and now it was in the past, I could laugh, the way one often could at misfortunes quite worrisome at the time. “When I was better, though, that card drew all the story from me. Alfred Crenshaw, Eva, the children, you, father, mother, this town…” I’d been delaying too long, and needed to place the last piece clear on the table. “Dick Larrabee.”

Letty had always been a sharp-eyed woman, and her attention no doubt caught on my voice. 

“After you were away so suddenly, those years ago,” Letty said. “He wasn’t but soon after gone himself.” 

“I’m sorry for that,” I said. “I know you and he were close.” 

Letty’s eyes—and that there-and-gone-again smile, this time I was sure of it—didn’t turn away.

“He’s back too,” I said. “And thanks to another card of Reba Larrabee, with a similar view of this one, but from further away.”

The folks back home?” Letty said.

“The very one,” I said, surprised she could quote the verse in the card.

“So one of Reba’s cards—the one the publisher thought wouldn’t sell—found you, and the other—which Reba herself thought trite and popular—brought the minister’s son back. How good!”

“I hope it is,” I said, wondering at the genuine delight in her voice a bit. “He said he’d be by in the morning, and that his visit wasn’t only for his father, but in part for you as well, and I can’t know his mind, Letty, but he was fit as any a man whose life has turned in the right ways.”

“Dear David,” she said, taking my hand on top of the table again. “I look forward to exchanging cheer with him.” Then, finally, that smile which had so played hide and seek with him throughout their talk by the fire returned, and this time didn’t flee again. “But I daresay we both know better than to think Dick Larrabee the marrying kind.” 

I swallowed. My heart was unaccountably light and glad, and there’s no doubt she could tell. 

“Now, David,” she said. “About the children.”

“Once I have position and income, I will send for them—”

Letty scoffed again. “Will you? And is that to be my Christmas Gift?” Her tone was light enough that I realized my misstep without complete mortification, only a partial one. She loved those children. To take them from her would be cruel indeed. And yet, what was I to do?

“I cannot stay,” I said, because that much was very much the truth. My tenuous new position—and my life, with those people who were as much kin as Letty herself—were elsewhere. What else could I offer? “I will send money. As often as I can.”

“And you will visit,” she said. “I won’t lie and claim the money unwelcome or unnecessary, but it’s your company I’d like the most, even if it will send the town to talking that your children stay here, while you don’t.”

“I’ll confess, I don’t see much of a solution there,” I said. “Though it seems to me the town likes having me as its chosen villain, really.”

“And I the martyr,” Letty said.

“I don’t want to leave you without help,” I said. 

“Well,” Letty said, and this time, her eyes darted to the table, the fireplace, and anywhere but my own gaze. “Miss Clarissa Perry is quite often a help, David. And has been.” Her gaze flicked back up. “For years.”

“I see,” I said, then, with a hide-and-seek smile of my own, I inquired, “She’s still unmarried, then?”

“Oh,” Letty said, waving a hand, her gaze still flitting about like a spark from the fire. “I don’t think she’s the marrying type, David.”

VII — Dick Larrabee

I stopped at home long enough to discover the key remained under the doormat—unthinkable to a city man such as myself, but to my fortune nonetheless—and the place deserted, as would always be the case on Christmas Eve. I sent the sleigh away, as t’was easy enough to make my way to the Church on foot given the path my father had long-cleared and long-walked. I found myself a mince pie and some cider applesauce and washed both down with tea heated on a stove unchanged in a house unchanged for years.

I took the path, David’s words still inside my ears. You should know more about her, about all of it, and I wish there were time and the privacy, but I owe those both first to Letty, too. Was it fair to hold a grudge this long, for a slight he’d had every right to make—if one could call living ones own life a slight at all, which one couldn’t, not really…

Ah, David.

It was fitting to be thinking of grudges as I came upon the Church, at nearly eight o’clock, as by chance my approach coincided with the opening of the door and the appearance of Deacon Todd’s wife, and I dare say I gave her half a fright with my greeting. 

“Dick Larrabee? Was your folks lookin’ for you?” The poor woman was astounded. “They ain’t breathed a word to none of us.”

I assured her my visit was a surprise, and to my amusement she asked me to wait a spell, as the younger children were doing their recitations, and Lord knew even the slightest interruption would bring that house of cards down right quick. 

So we stood in the snow, and she watched me, then turned her head and called for the man I’d least liked to have seen in the world, her husband the Deacon, explaining he was behind their “stage,” helping poor John Trimble to feel well enough to play Santa, which involved a mustard plaster, some cajoling, and—it seemed to me—no success to be had regardless, given how dour and unpleasant a man John Trimble might be in the best of days.

Deacon Todd, though, left his charge long enough to take sight of me.

“Here’s Dick Larrabee come back, Isaac,” Mrs. Todd said. 

Deacon Todd stayed atop the highest step, the better to aim that grey face of judgement down at me, and if I’d expected no quarter, I was not to be surprised. 

“Well,” the man said, “Found your way home? Just soon enough, I suppose, if you want to see your father while he’s still alive.”

I’d come with such a desire to make good by my father, but so very much of why I had that task at hand lay at the foot of his grizzled, grey excuse of piety, and I found my words to David playing back, mocking me now: You know, Dave, I feel I could shake hands with Deacon Todd.

“If it hadn’t been for you—and all those like you—I’d not have left in the first place,” I told him, and my voice came out with heat, but not fury, and with the assurance of a man grown and settled, rather than the younger Dick Larrabee who’d been so wholly humiliated by this man.

Not one to eat his words, he attempted a defence of his opinions and actions both—sparing details now as he had then, as likely out of care for his wife as anything else—but I found myself able to stare the old man down, and as he railed about my playing cards, my poor reflection on my father, and his contemptuously muttered “worse” to tie it all together in a pious ribbon, I simply waited him out, and when he fell silent, I lifted a single shoulder in careless disconcern of his thoughts.

“I never did a thing I’m ashamed of but one,” I said, and when his eyes flashed, I shook my head. “No, not your worse, neither. Only the way I spoke to my father before I left, and the fuel to those words came from you, Isaac Todd, and your deciding to humiliate me in the eyes of everyone with that public prayer for my immortal soul.” I took a breath when his lips turned a grim line, but it was his wife who came to my rescue.

“There,” she said. “I’ve told you time and again you did Dick wrong in that way exactly!”

“Prayin’ ain’t a deadly sin,” he said, saying more than that, of course, but aimed at me in words his wife couldn’t hear. 

“Prayer ain’t a weapon, either,” I said. “And you wielded it as such.” From beyond, in the brittle silence that followed, we heard a deep an mournful groan. 

“John Trimble?” Mrs. Todd said, as much changing the subject as of concern, I thought. 

“He’ll make it,” Deacon Todd said firmly, but that groan repeated, and I exchanged a look with Mrs. Todd. 

“Dick,” she said, with a soft note of pleading. 

“For you,” I said. “And for my father, as well.” I eyed Deacon Todd. “And the children. But not for anyone else.” 

And so it was I was the Santa Claus who finished off the Christmas festival in the Orthodox church of our town, and if I hadn’t been wearing a false beard, nor a costume, nor a pillow for a belly, I’m not sure as I’d have had the courage to go through with it, what with being surrounded by those who’d heard Deacon Todd pray to heaven for minute after minute to save my soul from eternal damnation for a sin he’d never named. 

Every pillar of the church was here, and every person free to attend, and I confess I was of two minds of the whole thing. One, that these people would never have invited me in, had they known, and two, that I would show them such a joyous Santa they’d never be able to recant a welcome on grounds of wrongdoing on my part. 

Truly, I wasn’t spiteful. I did want those children to have some laughter and pleasantness, and there was true happiness to be found in the giving out of all I’d brought—that, too, took them all aback, and I could see such puzzlement in their faces. I’d simple dolls for the girls, tin trumpets for the boys, and to each one tied with a ribbon a copy of that very Christmas Card that had brought me here—to the folks back home—and more beyond that. Simple linen handkerchiefs for the adults, too, and that was a genuine surprise. 

I’d gifted everyone in the Church, with two exceptions, and those I’d snuck into the bottom of the sack, knowing they’d be the final ones. A lace scarf I placed around Mrs. Reba Larrabee’s shoulders, and then a fine beaver collar to hand to my father in hands that shook so much I nearly dropped the thing. 

He looked at me, then, and I think he saw my eyes, or perhaps beyond the beard and silly hat, but either way, I heard him say “my son,” beneath his breath, and so, as it was done, and the children were already on their way out the doors and I could pull my father a step or two back behind the curtained area where I’d dressed, I did so, then pulled the hat and beard away. 

“Father,” I said, hoping it said enough, that word. 

Enough of the adults were there to see, and even if they’d not been, Mrs. Reba Larrabee had, and that would be enough to share the story of how John Trimble hadn’t had a complete change of disposition at all, but rather Dick Larrabee had returned, and it was he who’d brought such cheer and presence to the Festival. 

And I found I didn’t care in the slightest what they thought. This gesture, those gifts, even the way I’d spoken to Deacon Todd meant little. 

“My son,” my father said again, and behind him I saw Mrs. Larrabee raise her handkerchief to her eyes. “You look well,” he said. 

“I am,” I said. “I came to apologize, first.”

My father nodded, and that nod, with fresh tears present in his eyes, was all the absolution I needed. 

“It’s a shame Letty isn’t here,” Mrs. Larrabee said. “Clarissa Perry came to watch her niece’s recitation, so Letty had to stay with the children. More’s the pity, the recitation didn’t go to plan, and I’m afraid Clarissa Perry had to take the girl back to her parents, so distraught was she, so it might have been better had Clarissa and her niece both skipped the festival.”

“She’s at home, now?” I said. “Letty?”

“I expect so,” Mrs. Larrabee said. “I’m sure she would have liked to see you, though.” 

It was late, but knowing David Gilman would have had his chance to speak already set a burn in the centre of my chest. 

“I’ll meet you both back at the house,” I said. “And I’ll try not to be too long.”

My father’s lips curled up in the faintest of humours. “Not years, this time?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “No, before sunrise, at the worst.” 

I hugged them both, and then set off for Letty Boynton’s cottage.

IX — David Gilman

A knock at the door startled us both from our mutual confessions, and Letty rose, folding herself tighter in her wrap and rising with an effortlessness I thought had come from the unburdening, and opening the door with a delighted smile.

“Clarissa!” she said, and I turned to see it was, indeed, Miss Perry at the door, looking somewhere between amused and chagrinned, but there was no mistaking the delight in her eyes for my dear sister.

“The night I’ve had, lo—” she began, and then her eyes lighted past Letty and to me, and all that delight and amusement and chagrin fell away as though coated in coal black dust.

Miss Clarissa Petty, it appeared, had no favor to bestow upon me, Christmas or nay. But through her eyes, who could blame her? I, the rogue who left Letty Boynton with his own whelps, who never so much as visited, who sent triflings and…

And still I smiled, for I knew where that aborted word she’d almost spoken was to end. 

“I’ll leave you two a spell to talk,” I said, drawing my coat around my shoulders—there weren’t many other options but to vacate the cottage itself, given the twins still slept in the back room—and such a frosted gaze did Miss Perry aim my way as I passed her and tipped my hat I don’t think I could describe. 

Outside again, under the bright moon and somehow not cold despite the winter night, I took a few steps away from the door as to not hear any words through the cracked window, though I’d already heard a few choice ones from Clarissa Perry, who, it seemed, was not just an expert in the bringing-up of babies but also in a rather crass vernacular.

I had such fatigue. It had been so since the operations, and this had been a long day of trains and confessions and emotion. I wouldn’t rush the conversation behind me, but I would welcome its closure.

Still, I smiled. And when I turned to look back at that cottage, I saw the view from the card, albeit now the door was closed, but I knew there was welcome behind it from my sister at least. Bless the card, I thought. Bless the card


At the voice, I turned, and despite knowing full well the time of night, I aimed a glance at the horizon, wondering if the sun should be rising and I’d somehow misplaced hours upon hours. But no, the moon was high, the stars were out, and Dick Larrabee stood not five paces away from me.

“Dick?” I said. “It’s not the morning.” 

“No, it’s not, but I was at the Church—I was Santa Claus, if you’ll believe it—and I may not have made full peace with my father as yet, but the foundation was laid, only then…” His words created clouds in front of his fine features. “Only then I knew I needed be here, to do the same.” 

Oh no. I glanced back at the cottage. I could barely hold myself upright, I was so tired, and behind me, in that building… “The thing is, Dick, Letty isn’t free to talk just this moment, and—”

“Not her, David,” Dick Larrabee said, and he’d closed those five paces now, and was face to face with me. “Not her.”

Right. Well. I knew this was to come, and I’d braced for it, though I’d hoped for a night’s sleep first. “I apologize, Dick,” I said. “For my—” Words fled like mice in a pantry to the sound of a sudden step, and I snatched out at the first tail I might catch. “—unwarranted declarations and attentions both.”

“But that’s just it, David,” Dick Larrabee’s gaze had always had a way of shoring me up, even when I felt the ground beneath me tilt and sway, and it did so now. “I don’t think you know the whole of it. That shove, Dave, wasn’t what you think.” 

Shove. All the shoring in the world couldn’t have kept my eyes open at the word. My declaration, my tentative closing of the distance between us, a single, terrified kiss upon the lips of Dick Larrabee, minister’s son, and then—

Then his hands at my shoulders, pushing me away, his eyes wide and flicking anywhere but at my own.

Shove. Such a simple word for what sent me running from him, from Letty, from this whole town. 

“David,” Dick said, and I forced my eyes to open, to wait for the next words from him, however devastating they might be. He’d come here in part for Letty, he’d said, and woe on the horizon that might be, if his intentions were—

“Deacon Todd,” Dick Larrabee said.

“Wh-What?” I quite lost myself to a swoon, and nearly my balance, too, as I physically stumbled at the words I could have expected not at all less than any others at all. Deacon Todd

Dick caught me again, holding me up by my shoulders.

“He was watching me. That afternoon. When you were so brave to say all the things you’d kept hidden, and then, when I said nothing in return, braver still to…” He lifted his hands from my shoulder, and pulling off his glove, touched my lips with one fingertip. 

“If he’d seen us, then…” Dick said, shaking his head. “He saw me, clearly enough, but you behind a tree meant, I think, that he mistook you for your sister, or some other girl, and thought me a defiler of an innocent.”

A rogue laugh escaped me. I had never cut a particularly manly figure, but that descriptor was far-fetched. “I hardly think innocent has been a word ascribed to me before, Dick.”

“I tried to get to you, I did, but you’d left,” Dick said. “And then he led a prayer for me, that man, in front of the whole orthodox church…” Dick shook his head. “My pride, and my fury, got the better of me and… I imagine you know the rest.” 

I did, though now I knew the start of it. 

“When you married,” Dick said, swallowing and looking down. “I suppose I saw it in as poor a light as I could muster, really.”

“Oh, but Dick,” I said, shaking my head. “There’s more to that tale than you know, and—“

“Please, Dave.” The weight of his hand, now on my shoulder, was the only thing keeping me from floating off into the stars above us to join the moon. “Let me try to say it all, would you? You’ve been the brave one, not me, and I’d like to even the balance.”

How I managed to silence my tongue I don’t know, but I did.

He took a deep breath. “Your declarations and attentions were never unwarranted, Dave Gilman. And I would like it very much for you to know that, even if the time is wrong and past in all other measures.” He took another breath, in fortification of bravery, I quite thought. “And I should be as honest with your sister, who—I must admit—I allowed, along with the whole town, to think there might be more than our friendship, which I do treasure.” 

“You’ll have to wait a spell,” I said, unable to stop another of those laughs—how long had it been since I’d laughed like this?

“Wait,” Dick said, as though he’d just realized where we were. “You’re outside, on Christmas Eve, and you’ll pardon me for saying so but you look ready to faint dead away, Dave. Surely she didn’t bar the door?”

“Oh, oh no, Dick, we’ve spoken, and I’ve told her all—more than I’ve told you, which we need to even out—but you see, I think it might take time for Letty to engender some of the forgiveness she’s sent my way in the heart of Miss Clarissa Perry, who is right now no doubt reminding her of how I’ve spun her life in orbit of those twins these last three years and more.” I managed a wan smile. “I’m out here to give Letty time for the attempt, though I agree I’d rather it be sooner than later I was back by the fire.”

 “Oh,” Dick said, with an odd frown. “How queer that Miss Perry should drop by tonight, though.”

“Dick,” I said carefully. “I rather think Miss Perry’s visits are never unwarranted.” 

The widening of his eyes, and the curl of his lips came first, then a laugh of his own, which he smothered with one hand. 

“I see. Oh! I see! You know, I told Deacon Todd I had but one regret,” Dick said. ”And that was how I’d spoken to my father. But I think I have at least one more.” His hands returned to my shoulders, and he held me firm.

“I would like to tell you all, about Eva, and someone else, a man who was the ruin of her, and nearly of me, and—” I watched his eyes, which widened once again the more I spoke. ”—the father of those children. But it’s a long story to tell, and I’ve told it once tonight already, and I am quite out of breath, I’m afraid.” 

He might have felt the shiver in my shoulders, or seen the paleness in my countenance, but he pulled me up against his chest and wrapped his arms around behind me. 

“Take a little warmth then, Dave,” he said. “Take a little warmth.” He chuckled into my hair. “Miss Clarissa Perry, then?” 

“You must act pleased and surprised, Dick,” I said, realizing yet another misstep. “If it’s told you.”

“I promise,” Dick said, pulling back enough to examine my face. “I’m about to knock on the door, truth be told. You need to go inside.”

“Another minute or two,” I said. “I’d rather their conversation be done before I do.” 

“Well,” Dick said. “If we must wait for that, then I’ll take it in trade to not wait for anything else.”

“I’m sorry?” I said, for my tired mind didn’t follow where his thoughts might be going.

At least, not until he returned a kiss I’d left many years in his possession. My heart opened wide at that kiss, and this man, no stranger, nor kith or kin, entered well enough. It was as simple as it could be, and I knew there’d be complications in the dawn enough for both of us, but in that moment, I allowed myself what I hoped might be the grandest misstep of my life, to love Dick Larrabee and have him love me. 

The rest? That was for tomorrow.

At the end of the kiss, quite breathless, Dick Larrabee lowered his forehead to mine, pressed one hand against my chest, and said, “Bless the card.”

I laughed again, knowing that sentiment quite well myself. 

Bless the card, indeed.

4 thoughts on “Not the Marrying Kind

  1. Adorable! I had never heard of Wiggin’s novel, so read it first and then your retelling/AU back to back.

    I read “Frost” every year as part of my Christmas time ritual reading. I love your growing anthology (wreath?) of Christmas stories and come back to them every year, with great anticipation to see what you’ve added! Thank you for sharing your lovely garland of tales with us.

    Liked by 1 person

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