Rubbing the sweat from around her eyes with a finger, Lia replaced her glasses on the bridge of her nose, bringing the huts and trees along the path in front of her back into focus. She still hadn’t fully adapted to summers here at the island camp. Right now it would be winter in her native Germany. Perhaps it was even snowing, though she found it hard to believe that anywhere could be cold enough for snow with the sun beating down enough heat to fry an egg. Not for the first time she tried to imagine what Germany would look like today, post-Virus, her town, her street, her home. Were any of her old friends still around? Did they still remember her?
‘Your ears are closed to me,’ her wandering mind translated from the melodic sound she was only just aware of outside her thoughts. Feeling her face flush, she bowed her head slightly by way of apology and turned to her walking companion. The Priestess, of course, was barely affected by the weather, looking radiant as ever with her long hair, kept out of her face by a carved bone comb, and tanned skin, the regalia signifying leadership of her tribe adding to the air of dignity and authority she naturally possessed.
‘I’m sorry,’ Lia said, choosing her words carefully. Neither German nor English translated particularly well into the Priestess’ language. ‘The celebration of my tribe often makes me think of home and remember times past.’ The Mallrats were her tribe now, though she had long since abandoned attempts to translate their name into something the Priestess’ tribe would understand. It had felt like a rejection at first, when the Priestess suggested she join the other tribe, but the older girl had recognized the need for Lia to spend more time with people whose customs were more like her own. The two tribes still interacted of course, and learned to understand each other better with every passing day. If anything, her friendship with the Priestess had become stronger since leaving the tribe. The two were much more free to act as companions, rather than as subject and tribe leader.
‘It is natural for you to feel these things when old customs are renewed,’ the Priestess said sympathetically as they continued their walk through camp. ‘This is why we have maintained our own ways ever since the Sickness. The past must be celebrated along with the present and the future. If we forget it, we forget all that has shaped us. We cannot understand our place in today, and so we are unable to prepare ourselves for tomorrow.’
Lia translated the words as best she could in her head, nodding in understanding as the meaning became clear. The custom the Priestess was referring to, the celebration the Mallrats were having, was Christmas. It had all come about after Salene told the younger tribe members how explorers in the old days had sailed far from home and discovered islands just like the one they now found themselves on. One such island was Christmas Island, which made the younger Mallrats; not to mention some of the older ones; nostalgic for family Christmases from days gone by. The tribe had decided that they needed something like that now, to come together as a family and give thanks for having found a new home and for being reunited with Bray, and to remember all they had been through together in the city. And so, since it was the right time of year, the Mallrats had decided to celebrate Christmas once again.
As Lia and the Priestess entered the Mallrat part of the camp, it became clear that preparations were well underway. Trudy and Salene had been out with the younger tribe members, collecting foliage to make into Christmas decorations. Despite the lack of holly and fir, the wreaths actually looked the part, adorned with ribbons of palm leaf and bunches of wild oranges. Lia couldn’t help but smile as she started to feel festive for the first time in a long time. Beside her, the Priestess looked on with interest. A little further along the row of newly-built Mallrat huts, Lia caught sight of Gel, flitting about like the Sugar Plum Fairy and dusting everything in sight from a bottle of what appeared to be talcum powder. Fearing the Priestess would be less impressed with Gel’s attempts to turn the camp into an artificial snow scene, she steered her friend in the opposite direction, towards the quieter end of the Mallrat camp.
The pair stopped again within sight of the hut where Amber and Jay lived. It was at the far edge of the camp, on a slight ridge that gave a good view of the sea over the treetops. Straight towards the city the Mallrats had travelled from, Lia suspected. Amber was the one person, other than Lia herself, who the Priestess showed a genuine warmth towards. ‘She has a love of the earth inside her,’ the older girl had said to her once. ‘Even though she fights against it.’ Amber herself sat out on her porch, wrapping a small Christmas gift in the leaf of a palm tree. The pair waved, and the Mallrat waved back, but did not engage them in conversation. She looked upset about something.
‘Why does it take the tears of a woman to see how men are?’ the Priestess mused softly.
‘I’m not sure I understand what you mean,’ Lia frowned, not sure if she had translated the Priestess’ words correctly. ‘Are you saying she’s upset because of Jay? He wouldn’t do anything to harm her.’
‘Jay is a good man,’ the other girl agreed. ‘But her thoughts are of another. The struggle is on her face; she thinks of the past. She will realise this soon.’
Lia remained silent. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Amber still harbored feelings for Bray, the father of her child who was taken from her and who had only recently found his way back to his tribe. But she didn’t think that she or anyone else should be interfering in that business, and the Priestess seemed particularly keen to coax the two back together.
Fortunately she was saved from having to come up with a reply by the arrival of Lex, jogging up the ridge towards them.
‘There you are!’ he said, panting slightly. ‘I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Hi Lia!’
Lia sighed softly. It was the Priestess he had come to see; she was only an afterthought. It wasn’t that she was jealous exactly? Or maybe she was a little jealous. She had quite enjoyed him flirting with her when they first met, even if he was a bit of a pain, but he seemed to only have eyes for the Priestess these days. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a leaf-wrapped package like the one Amber had been wrapping. ‘This is for you,’ he said, holding it out to the Priestess. Lia didn’t bother to translate; the meaning was obvious. The Priestess took the package and opened it, revealing a bone comb, similar to the one she currently wore in her hair, only cruder, with less decoration. It was clear that Lex had made it himself.
The Priestess turned the comb around in her hands for a few moments, studying it. ‘It is not pretty,’ she said as Lia translated. ‘But I appreciate the gesture, given your lack of skill in this area.’ She reached up and removed her own comb, deftly replacing it with Lex’s. The other, beautifully made with intricate spiral patterns decorating the head, she wrapped in the leaf and handed back to Lex. ‘Here is a gift for you. Perhaps you can study it so you will do better next time.’
Lex took the gift and removed it from the leaf wrapping. ‘Thanks? I think,’ he said as the two girls left him standing on the ridge looking befuddled.
‘Was that appropriate?’ the Priestess asked once he was out of earshot. ‘Or should I have put the comb in the leaf when he wasn’t looking, so it would be a surprise?’
‘Oh, that was very appropriate!’ Lia replied, allowing herself a small smile. The Priestess hadn’t meant to offend Lex, and it really was a touching gesture from somebody who didn’t celebrate Christmas, but the expression on his face had been priceless.
As the pair moved off the ridge they began to circle back on themselves, taking them through a quiet section of forest before returning to the other side of the camp. The sun was beginning to sink lower in the sky, and, since the Priestess had called both sections of the camp together for a celebration at sunset, a lot of the Mallrats were already here, opening the presents they had given each other. Lia left the Priestess to prepare herself for the ceremony ahead while she joined the others. Towards the centre of the camp, Darryl had thrown his arms around an embarrassed Salene, who had apparently made him a set of hand drums from a couple of gourds stretched over with animal skins fastened with coconut fibre. ‘This is the best present ever!’ he cried.
Lia chuckled as she took a seat on a log next to Bray. The Mallrat often sat by himself, lost in his own thoughts. She often wondered what he had been through to get back to his friends. He very rarely talked about where he had been, at least not to her. Today he was sitting studying some small object in his hands. The way he was hunched over it she couldn’t make out what it was.
‘What have you got there?’ she asked inquisitively. ‘Has somebody given you a present?’
Bray jumped, startled by her presence, and straightened enough for her to catch sight of a small gold-coloured ring sitting on the palm leaf in which it had been wrapped. There was a spiral pattern on the adornment, and it looked to her as though it had been made for a girl?s fingers. What an odd present.
‘She kept it all this time,’ Bray said softly with a smile. ‘Can you believe it?’ He stood up from the log and moved to join one of the groups of celebrating Mallrats. ‘Happy Christmas Lia!’ he said as he left.
Lia sighed. Happy Christmas indeed! All it had succeeded in doing so far was making her realise how much of an outsider she was in both camps. She wrapped her arms around her knees, feeling suddenly alone.
After a short while, she became aware of two figures lurking in the twilight. They bickered briefly before one poked the other towards her. Stepping forward into her field of vision, they resolved themselves into Jack and Ellie.
‘Hi Lia!’ Jack waved. ‘Um? Happy Christmas!’
‘Hi guys,’ Lia replied. ‘Same to you. What’s up?’
Jack looked at Ellie, who nodded impatiently. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘We were thinking about how Christmas would have looked a lot different where you come from so we thought, well, this is for you.’ He held out one of the now familiar-looking leaf parcels. ‘It was Ellie’s idea,’ he continued, after suffering another poke. ‘But I made it, so it’s from both of us.’
Lia held out her hands to accept the package. ‘A present, for me?’ she grinned, carefully unfolding the leaf. Inside was a strange-looking contraption of wire and smoky glass, though it only took her a moment to realize what it was. Removing her glasses, she clipped the device to the frame and put them back on, laughing in delight as she raised and lowered the tinted lenses that would shade her eyes from the Christmas sun. ‘Oh, these are wonderful!’ she exclaimed, leaping up and hugging each of them in turn. ‘Thank you, both of you! Happy Christmas!’
‘Hey, come on, I think Darryl’s about to sing,’ Ellie said, pointing to where the others were assembling around Darryl and his drums.
‘Can he sing?’ Jack asked worriedly.
‘I don’t know, but either way we can’t miss this!’ Ellie replied, leading them over.
Once everyone was settled on logs or on the floor, Darryl started beating out a rhythm on his new drums.
The sun is shining, he spoke along with the beat.
The grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day in old LA
But it’s December 24th, and I’m longing to be up north
So I can have my very own
As he burst into a rendition of White Christmas, everyone began to join in, hesitantly at first as the long-forgotten words came back to them, but soon everyone was singing along heartily.
The island’s Christmas celebration continued long into the night, and the Priestess and her tribe found themselves enjoying the company of the Mallrats and sharing in their customs. Every now and then she found herself touching the comb in her hair that Lex had given her. There was something pleasing in its simplicity, its practicality reflecting the man himself. ‘It did what it said on the tin,’ as Lia might say. Looking over at the other girl, she was pleased to see her smiling. It was good for her to be celebrating something familiar to her. Lia noticed her watching and leaned over to say something.
‘You acted knowingly,’ the girl said, the odd phrasing of her translation to the Priestess’ language making it difficult to understand what she was referring to at first, then she noticed that Lia was nodding towards Bray and Amber, sitting together. Ah, of course. The Priestess smiled in satisfaction. She may have placed those two together on purpose during the ceremony, but there had been plenty of opportunities during the night’s festivities for them to move apart had they wished it. It just proved that some things were meant to be, even if they did need a little helping hand sometimes. She certainly wasn’t going to apologize for it.
Darryl started up another rendition of the song called White Christmas and she tried to listen for the words that Lia had translated for her earlier. She wanted to learn more of the Mallrats’ language if they were going to continue living together. The words puzzled her though. I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Her tribe hadn’t been completely cut off from the outside world before the Sickness, so she had known about Christmas, and she had seen snow during the winter, but why would you wish for it during the summer? Perhaps something had been lost in Lia’s translation. White was the color of snow, of course, but it could also symbolize purity. Perhaps what they were really wishing for was a pure Christmas, free from conflict and selfishness. That was something everyone could aspire to.
And may all your Christmases be white, the singers finished.
‘Yes,’ the Priestess said softly, nodding her head in understanding. ‘Yes, that is how it should be.’