I found myself alone on the streets this year on Christmas Eve, alone that is except for the company of my dog. I had cheated on my husband and upon the discovery of my indiscretion, he changed the locks to our home and shut down my access to funds. My family was also angry – my parents and siblings – deeply religious all and furious, believing me damned. They refused entry into their homes. I didn’t have money for a hotel or even a tank of gas to drive to the beach. I set up camp in a stand of trees behind a garage apartment I used to rent as an office. I knew how to hide, for homeless people used to hide there. When I was working in the apartment I would make brownies in the tiny efficiency kitchen, package them, and throw them down from balcony and into the woods, down on top of their blankets and luggage. I hoped they would find them and at least have enough calories to sustain them overnight. And now I was among their number.
I had enough gas to get to this spot and enough to make it back to the house on Christmas to beg for forgiveness and hopefully, re-secure a place with a roof and shelter, a fire in winter. I had brought a big plaid flannel blanket given me by my late Granny, a tarp to secure to trees for a roof, my sleeping bag, a pillow, a small doggie bed, a mix of nuts and chocolate, a jug of water, pain pills, several bottles of wine I bought on sale, cigarettes. I lived in a mild climate, though it could get cold in winter. There would likely be other homeless seeking shelter around me. I might have to buy peace or my life with extra provisions. I established camp in the undergrowth of an ancient twisted oak and its smaller brethren – scrub oak – as well as palms, pine trees, low hanging Spanish moss. Except for the rumble of cars over brick streets, it was quiet in this little patch of woods. I set up the tarp to be as unobtrusive as possible and sat underneath it on my sleeping bag, my dusty little dog curled up on her bed. An acorn fell on the tarp, startling me, but I felt I would be alright and knew it was wise to at least camp in a familiar area. That choice had a calming effect.
As dusk neared, I laid down on the sleeping bag and covered myself with Granny’s red plaid wool blanket. How devastated she would have been been to learn of my indiscretion, my sin. And how sad she would have been to learn of her granddaughter sleeping in the woods, disgraced, away from the warm shelter of her husband’s home. When we stayed with her at Christmas as children, she would gather us around her chair by the fire and open the dark picture pages that told a story of the twelfth night and Frau Perchta, a haggard old witch with a long pointed nose, sharp teeth, devouring eyes, a hunched form, claws for hands. Frau Perchta scoured the world to check on children: Were they spoiled little brats lazy with their chores? Or did they help mother and father? Were they polite and kind and good? Or were they the worst children in the world – mean, disobedient, shameful? There were pages where Frau Perchta enters the house to inspect the children’s rooms as well as the children themselves, to ask the parents questions. Then there was a horrible page, a page containing a picture of Frau Perchta gripping a child with one of her large claws and scooping out his insides with the other, the poor child’s face and limbs black with death, x’s for eyes while his good siblings watched with large saucer eyes, tearful and afraid. Then Perchta stuffs the bodies of the bad children with garbage – leftovers from Christmas feast, carcasses and bones of dead animals, ripped packaging from presents. She sets the bad, stuffed children up near the Christmas tree and they dully look at their surrounding with unseeing, button eyes. On the next page, good children – rosy cheeked and smiling – hug Perchta, and she embraces them in her thin, frail arms draped with rags. She gives them gifts and candy.
A baby pine tree was brushing the top of my tarp. Shadows danced and played overhead. The sorrow of my grief for what I had done, whom I had hurt, and a new feeling inside – a burning self-hatred – overtook me. I felt myself slipping into sleep despite my resolve to stay alert through the night, to protect my turf should the need arise.
I later awoke in the night to the sound of my dog barking frantically. There was something scratching insistently on the tarp, something sharper than pine needles, something alive and moving, a creature or person. A flickering candle revealed a silhouette: A woman with a hunched back, long dripping hair, sharp protruding face, ragged clothes. She set down a huge sack which rattled along the ground and then there was an overpowering smell of rotting carcasses, decaying flesh.
I bolted upright from my sleeping bag and felt around for my sweet dog. The poor little thing was outside of the tarp with the old woman. I managed to escape out the opposite end of my temporary shelter. I fled, the wind in my ears, car keys jingling, but my dog was captured. I cried and yelled out for her but she cried out sharply in pain and fear. I knew she had been caught, crushed to death, my proxy for my sin. I fled to the home of my husband, hopeful for shelter. I apologized profusely on the threshold, begging, pleading, crying but I was not granted entry. Instead I was given forty dollars and told not to return.
The night was dark and strange. There was chaos and shooting in the place I managed to afford. I barricaded the door with the bed and slept on the floor of the bathroom.
There is always a plan for those who stray: a dirty, seedy, dark underbelly life. So listen my children: Stay on the side of light. Do not neglect your duties. And God grant you and your children health, happiness, and peace this holiday season and all Christmases to come.