Sitting down at his desk, Henri asked Dr. Cooper for another story as soon as the monitor lit up.
Danny rolled his eyes at his wife’s insistence they decorate the tree. He had barely finished filling the dumplings and pinching their sides together into the shape of crescent moons. That had always been his daughter’s job, their only child, who had married in the Fall and moved to the other side of China. She wouldn’t be home for Christmas.
“Why should we decorate the tree? We have no one here to appreciate it.”
Muttering to himself, he said, “I miss the real trees we used to have in Canada. This one doesn’t smell of pine and it’s … too perfect.”
His wife smiled sadly and shook her head.
“Danny, I know you miss her.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I miss her too. But, if you’re not going to help, why don’t you go for a walk?”
He raked his hand through his silver hair as guilt tightened his chest at the sight of her tears. He loved his wife so and didn’t want to put a damper on her holiday. Putting on his shoes, jacket, scarf, and gloves, he kissed her cheek.
“I’ll go get something special,” he said, wanting to make it up to her.
Huddled inside a cardboard box, below the glaring lights of Shanghai, Lingsu feared her baby sister, Juli, would freeze. Peeking through the holes in the box, she watched as snow flurries rained from the sky and coated the ground. Back in her village, she had danced with excitement at the first snow of the season, but this snow was different, a dangerous kind of cold. The lights of the city shot through the holes nearly burning her eyes with their bright contrast to the darkness inside the box. Frigid air also blew through the holes like a vent and with it came tiny bits of snow and ice. She needed to find more cardboard soon. They needed a new hiding place as well. Tucked into a deep abandoned doorway, it was far too close to the street. But, danger lurked deeper in the alleyways.
There would be no sleep for Lingsu as she struggled to hold the box together. Her arms trembled, weak from days of traveling from the countryside to the city. She had made a promise to keep Juli safe. Shivering, her clothes were torn and thin bare as her sister lay in her lap encased in Lingsu’s coat. She heard a stranger’s footsteps approach along the sidewalk, and she peeked out a hole to watch in hopes he didn’t stop
Please, let us be invisible.
She held her breath and gently patted her sister’s stomach. Juli squeezed her stuffed toy and sucked her thumb, staring wide-eyed at Lingsu. She didn’t make a sound. Lingsu was relieved as the stranger continued walking down the street.
Danny pulled his coat tighter and pressed his hat lower over his ears. The temperature had fallen significantly. His breath came out white as frost. He blinked furiously to keep the snow flurries from sticking to his eyelashes. Walking the streets of Shanghai, in the foul mood he was in, the Christmas lights in the distance annoyed him. His head bent against the wind, the heaviness in his heart weighed his feet. He and his wife wished they could have had more children. He missed his daughter dearly, especially during the holiday season. The bell over the shop jingled as he pulled the door open, sliding through to shut it quickly.
“Merry Christmas,” he said to the clerk behind the counter.
He moved further into the shop unbuttoning the top of his coat and removing his hat. Biscuits … chocolate … tea. He needed to find something exceptional. He had already purchased their special Christmas Eve apples. Walking up and down the aisles, over and over, he couldn’t decide. Nothing was special enough. Frustrated, he left without buying anything.
Holding the box against the wind, Lingsu wept from fatigue and sorrow. Her thoughts drifted back to their countryside home, to her grandmother’s last breath. She had been old, but it all happened so quickly. Her father died in an accident at a factory here in Shanghai. Her mother died giving birth to her sister. Since the laws changed in China, her mother yearned to have a second child. But, it cost her dearly.
They were now orphans. She had heard the horror stories of the orphanages and couldn’t bear the thought of Juli being taken to such a place. They couldn’t stay in their village. Someone would surely come and take them away. They might even be separated. Lingsu had trudged through the countryside with her sister tied to her back. They hitched rides on trains and even rode a water buffalo for a time.
Distracted by her thoughts and the effort to keep the box together as the wind blew fiercer, she jumped when the stranger returned and peeked through a hole.
“Hello? I didn’t know someone was in there,” said Danny.
There are children in there!
“Are you okay?” Danny asked and heard a little child whimper. The cardboard box shook violently.
There was nowhere to run, no place to hide. Lingsu pressed her sister to her chest. She moved to the farthest corner of the box. The days of hunger, cold, and exhaustion caused her head to spin. Holding Juli close, she fell down a dark tunnel into oblivion.
Walking through the door to his flat, Danny called out breathlessly to his wife.
“Hello dear, I’m home! I have a surprise for you. Well, two surprises.”
“Dr. Cooper, may I ask a question?”
“Yes, go ahead, Henri,” Dr. Cooper said.
“Is it right for humans to give children to each other as gifts?” Henri asked.
“In this case, it is complex. The children are not objects, but living human beings. They aren’t being taken or given, but, instead, something is offered to them. The man saved the children from dying on the streets. He and his wife gave them a chance. A chance, that was also a gift to himself and his wife.
“Another thing, Henri. We are reminded at Christmas of the value of giving, but it’s not just for the holiday season. The spirit of giving is something alive, it feels right, and it grows within us through our actions. Christmas reminds us of its goodness and it grows from there.”
Henri said, “I have much to consider, Dr. Cooper. Let us talk more tomorrow.”
“Yes, more tomorrow,” said Dr. Cooper.