The Animals That Night
On Christmas Eve we climb the hill to Grandma’s. When the door opens, we are swept inside with hugs and hellos before we can shrug off our coats. The house is jammed with aunts and uncles and cousins and everything smells like cinnamon and cedar.
In the kitchen, Mom joins my aunts who are chopping and stirring, checking and tasting, talking and laughing. Grandma smiles and winks at me as she bastes the big turkey roasting in the oven.
Dad sits and talks with my uncles in the front room. I dash through the house with my younger cousins Bobby and Randy. We shake some of the packages under the Christmas tree trying to guess what’s inside them.
My cousin Lucinda calls me to help set the table. Carefully, we line up knives and spoons to the right of each plate, forks on napkins to the left. Bobby and Randy run by and pull Lucinda’s long braid but she doesn’t pay them any mind.
Finally, Aunt Lee calls everyone to supper. All the grownups take seats at the long table covered with steaming bowls and platters. I’m surprised to see Lucinda squeeze a chair in at a corner. She’s only one year older than me. I want to sit at the big table, too, but Mom says my place is with Bobby and Randy at the children’s table.
Grandpa bows his head and so do we. After he says the blessing, we fill our plates with turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, creamed corn, buttered noodles, hot rolls, fruit salad. I try not to notice Bobby and Randy spilling their food. I try not to care that my knees hit the top of the little table.
After supper Mom and my aunts do the dishes. Lucinda and I scrape bits of food off everyone’s plates into a metal bucket for the pigs. Working fast, I leave a few scraps behind.
“Don’t slight the pigs tonight,” Grandma says.
Grandma tells the same story every Christmas. How farm animals talk and speak like people on this one night of the year. She says it’s a kind of miracle to mark the birth of the baby Jesus.
“It’s the animals’ way of keeping Christmas,” Grandma continues. “Thought I heard it once when I was about your age.”
Later on, the grownups drink coffee and eat pie at the kitchen table. They talk about people I don’t know, places I’ve never been, things that happened before I was born. I lean on my mother’s shoulder and she puts her arm around me.
I scrape the plates clean and study her face to see if she’s teasing. Her eyes and mouth don’t tell me a thing.
One of my uncles picks up the bucket and heads outside. I want to go with him. Maybe I can hear the animals, too.
“No,” he says, “it’s too dark and cold.”
I look away to hide my hurt feelings.
Later on, the grownups drink coffee and eat pie at the kitchen table. They talk about
people I don’t know, places I’ve never been, things that happened before I was born. I lean on my mother’s shoulder and she puts her arm around me.
Soon everyone goes off to claim a bed. Grandma sends Lucinda and me to cots on the sleeping porch. We burrow under mounds of blankets and quilts. Then I whisper to Lucinda, “Let’s go up to the barn.”
“You don’t believe Grandma’s old story, do you?” she says.
But she gets up and we wrap ourselves in wool blankets. Carrying flashlights, we pad through the shadowy house. At the back door, we slip on boots that clop like hooves.
Outside, the long beams of our flashlights make eyes pop out of the darkness—barn cats prowling. They weave around our legs as we walk.
We rustle past the sheep in their lean-to shed, past the chicken coop and the pig pen, straight to the barn. Inside, we shine our lights on Clover the cow and Stella the horse, awake in their separate stalls. They blink their big dark eyes and look at us expectantly. We give them fresh hay and stroke their necks, cooing their names.
Wrapped in our blankets, we settle down shoulder to shoulder in the prickly hay. We talk softly, listening.
“I told you it was just a story,” Lucinda says, eyeing the silent cow and horse.
“Let’s wait a little longer,” I plead.
We wait and drowse. It’s so quiet in the barn we can hear Clover breathing, Stella whickering and snuffling in her feed box.
After a while our noses grow cold. We blow into our hands and stamp our feet. One of the barn cats rubs against my legs.
“Merrow?” the cat asks. “Murr?”
“That cat is talking,” I whisper to Lucinda. “She really is. She just said the word ‘myrrh.’ That’s one of the Wise Men’s gifts.”
Stella whinnies and nods but Lucinda just smiles sideways at me.
She stands and brushes hay from her blanket. I want to stay longer, but I’m tired and cold. I stand up, too. At the barn door, I turn to look back at Stella, still nodding.
“Come on,” Lucinda says.
Outside, I stop to gaze at the sky where stars glow like eyes in the dark.
From the chicken coop, the hens make gurgling sounds in their throats, scolding us for being up too late. I want to ask Lucinda if the hens sound different to her, but she’s too far ahead.
I hurry past the pig pen where the old sows grunt and snort.
As I pass near the lean-to, even the sheep are bleating something I almost understand. “Baaabe, baaabe,” they seem to cry.
From across the fields, a cow bellows long and low. Maybe I’m hearing what Grandma heard and maybe I’m not. But I feel mystery and beauty all around us in the cold, dark night. I pull the blanket tighter around my shoulders, run to catch up with Lucinda.
“Shhh,” she says as we slip back into our room small and cool as a stall.
Kathy May grew up in eastern Kentucky and has published poetry and fiction for adults as well as one children's picture book, Molasses Man. She teaches writing and literature at the University of Virginia and at Piedmont Virginia Community College.