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Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler (www.karenjoyfowler.com) is the author of six novels, including Sarah Canary, which won the Commonwealth medal for best first novel by a Californian and The Jane Austen Book Club, a NY Times bestseller, in addition to three short story collections. Her most recent novel is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, published by Putnam in May 2013. She currently lives in Santa Cruz.

It sometimes seems that there are more dark and scary Christmas stories than light and fluffy ones. Perhaps, with the dark, wet and cold Northern winter outside your window it’s easy to imagine the dark things that home and hearth keep at bay. Here Karen Joy Fowler plays out a classic fear as only she can.

STORY NOTE

In the last few years, the relationships that have most obsessed me are those between siblings. Twins are an extreme version of siblings and even more fascinating. I’m not a twin myself so there is no constraint of actual experience to weight my imagination. Maybe my version of twins is more like doppelgangers or Jungian shadows. Or stunt doubles. Or maybe I was just trying to write a Christmas story when Halloween was coming on.

Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story by Karen Joy Fowler

Rain lashed the house. Fiona heard it, drumming on the roof and rushing through the gutters. A handful of drops hit the window so hard the glass shook. A sudden sheet of light, and there were the black trees at the end of the yard, their branches bare and tossing wildly about. Underneath the window, in the other bed, Dacey was crying, great gulps of agony because the thunder was scaring her and she couldn’t find Moe Bear. Could there be any two twins so different from each other? Fiona’s knees were bent, the covers tented, so that no one would see the lump that was Moe Bear under her legs.

She wasn’t the only one taking things that didn’t belong to her. Nanny Anne was wearing their mother’s locket. The pendant was hidden under her bulky sweater, but she was kneeling now, looking under Dacey’s bed, and Fiona could see the distinctive chain around the white back of her neck. When the time was right, Fiona would return Moe Bear, pretending to have just found him, saving the day. Fiona loved to save the day. She did it a lot. What was Nanny Anne’s plan? No one was looking for her mother’s locket.

“Nanny Anne is what makes it all work,” Fiona’s mother often said. Fiona and Dacey’s parents were very particular about who took care of their children. “There’s an old soul in that young body. I never worry for a minute. And she’s got a playful nature. The girls adore her.”

“We never planned on twins!” Fiona’s father always said.

But sometimes women asked Fiona’s mother if she didn’t worry just a bit to have such a beautiful, young woman in the house. At eight years old, Fiona was already very good at hearing what she wasn’t supposed to hear.

Fiona’s mother and father had both gone off to a conference to give a paper they had written together and they were both supposed to be home in plenty of time for Christmas. But yesterday their flight had been canceled and they hadn’t been able to book another. Yesterday they’d called and they’d still promised to be home for Christmas, but now Fiona had her doubts. “Let me talk to Nanny Anne,” Fiona’s mother had said, and Fiona wanted to tell them that she didn’t adore Nanny Anne any more, that something was going on with Nanny Anne, but Nanny Anne took the phone away, so she couldn’t.

Now Nanny Anne sat in the big chair between the beds. The light from the lamp fell on one side of her face, turning her hair from black to gold, making her eyes shine. She was giving up on finding Moe Bear and Dacey was slowly giving up on sobbing about it.

“Once upon a time,” said Nanny Anne.

Fiona’s mother and father read to them at night, Frog and Toad and Mary Poppins and Amelia Bedelia, but Nanny Anne said she was tired of those same old stories and would tell them some new ones. Thunder made the lights all flicker and Nanny Anne’s voice was a little flickery, too. She was using the voice she used when she talked to Dacey.

“Make it a true story,” Dacey said gamely. She was still sniffling and gulping.

“Once upon a time, in this very house.”

“With no rain,” said Dacey.

“Once upon a winter’s day, it snowed and snowed and snowed,” said Nanny Anne. “The cats they huddled by the fire, the wind it fiercesome blowed.”

“No wind either,” said Dacey. “No storms.”

“But this was just a little storm. A strange and little storm. It didn’t snow in the town or the school you go to or the park you play in. The only place it snowed was right here, on this house and the yard right here and the little stand of woods behind. The rest of the town didn’t even know it was snowing.

“But right here,” said Nanny Anne, “the snow came all the way up to the nursery sill.” She pointed to the window by Dacey’s bed and the shadow of her hand swept across the wall.

“This isn’t a nursery,” said Fiona.

“Once upon a time it was.

“With a cradle gently rocking and a baby soundly sleeping and the snow it softly falling and the woods a silence keeping.”

“Was the baby a boy or a girl?” Dacey asked.

“A girl. With a little wisp of brownish hair and long, dark eyelashes and tiny fingers. Her mother and father had waited a long time to have a baby, waited and wished and wished and waited.”

#

One day a man in a knitted cap with a point like an acorn came out of the woods with a cradle to sell. He’d said he’d carved it himself, all from one block of oak, and it looked like a leaf and it rocked like a boat and he said that if they bought it, it would fill itself. It was a magic cradle. He asked for a lot of money for that cradle.

The mother told him to go away, her heart was that broken, she’d given up. Anyway, she knew they didn’t have so much money. But the father followed the man into the woods and offered him the money they did have. And the man took that money and gave him the cradle. The father took it home and he didn’t tell the mother what the man had said, that because the money was short, there’d be an owing later.

Soon even he forgot about it, because all the wishing came true and one day there was a baby. They had never been so happy.

#

“The end,” Dacey suggested. Sometimes even Frog and Toad was too much for Dacey. There were lots and lots of parts of Mary Poppins that had to be cut. Fiona imagined that she herself would like those parts best of all if she ever got to hear them.

Nanny Anne paused.

“Keep going,” Fiona told her and when Dacey didn’t protest, Nanny Anne continued. But she switched over to the voice she used for Fiona, which was not so flickery. Before Fiona’s mother and father had left for their conference, she’d had the same voice for both of them.

#

The baby was only six days old, when the mother and the father woke in the morning, surprised to have slept so long. They hurried to the nursery where the bedroom window was open with the wind whipping the curtains and the cradle full of snow. And then the father remembered the owing.

They fell to their knees and they dug with their hands, finding each other’s fingers so they kept thinking the baby was buried there. But she wasn’t. And their first thought was to be relieved.

And their second thought was to be afraid. They looked outside and they could see a shallow indent of footprints leading up to the window and away again into the woods.

They ran outside in their nightclothes. The snow fell on their hair and their faces and into their slippers; it came down fast and it filled in all the footprints, including their own, erased them as if they had never been. They never saw trace of the baby or the person who took her.

Deer and squirrel, fox and crow, left their prints atop the snow. Drifts came down, wind did blow, gone the prints atop the snow.”

#

Dacey drew in a long, shuddering breath and Nanny Anne paused again. But Dacey didn’t speak and Nanny Anne went on. “The police came and they looked, too, and never saw trace, so they didn’t believe in this person who had come and taken the baby. They thought that someone in the house, either the mother or the father, had killed the baby and hidden her body.”

“I don’t want this story!” Dacey’s voice was filled with panic. She was the one with the bed by the window.

“The baby isn’t dead,” Fiona told her impatiently. “The police just think that.”

Dacey was crying again, even louder this time. “I want Moe Bear.”

“Is this the end of the story?” Nanny Anne asked.

“No,” said Fiona.

“Yes,” said Dacey. “Please.”

And because Dacey said please and Fiona didn’t, Nanny Anne stopped telling it. She stood and came and kissed them, first Dacey and then Fiona, on the forehead. She smelled of their mother’s perfume, lily of the valley.

“Sleep tight, Dacey. Sweet dreams, Fifi,” she told them. Fiona’s mother was the only one who called her Fifi. Fiona’s father hated it. He said it was a name for a dog and a poodly-sort of dog at that. They both called Dacey ‘Dacey’ or rarely ‘Oopsa’ for Oopsa Dacey. Nobody called his dog Oopsa.

Nanny Anne had gone, shutting the door. Fiona could still feel the mark of her lips. The door always made a shushing sound as it scraped the rug, but the rain was too loud for Fiona to hear it. Right away, Dacey came and got in bed with her. Her feet were cold and her toenails scratchy. Fiona gave her Moe Bear since she was about to find him anyway. “I won’t tell,” she said. Dacey was the sort of girl who never told. Fiona was a different sort of girl.

#

It was still raining at breakfast the next morning. The herb garden under the window, the one with the dead rosemary in it, was a pudding of mud and water. Fiona and Dacey went into the kitchen and Nanny Anne was already up, had already eaten.

“Today is a let’s-pretend day,” Nanny Anne told them. “Today, let’s pretend I’m your mommy. I’ll make you French toast just the way she does.”

“I don’t want to pretend that,” Fiona told her.

Nanny Anne was pinning up her hair the way Fiona’s mother did when she was going out. Fiona would have thought Nanny Anne’s hair was too short to be pinned up like that. “Don’t be silly, Fifi,” Nanny Anne said. “It’s just a game. It’s not like you won’t know the difference.”

“I’ll play,” said Dacey. And sometimes, as the day went on, she remembered and called Nanny Anne Mommy and sometimes she forgot. They finished breakfast and got dressed and brushed their teeth. Nanny Anne played cards with them, Spit and Fish and Slap Down, which took five decks. Dacey sat in Nanny Anne’s lap while they watched “Come-Again Mulligan” on television.

Their real mother called in the afternoon, but Fiona had her earbuds in, listening to music, and she didn’t hear it. Nanny Anne didn’t tell Fiona until later. “No plane yet,” Nanny Anne said.

Fiona went upstairs and hid in her mother’s closet, way in the back where the laundry hamper was. She cried a little because she hadn’t gotten to talk with her mother and she was more and more sure they would be spending Christmas with only Nanny Anne. She found two sticker books under her mother’s sweaters, sticker books that were probably presents for her and Dacey. She picked the one with jungle animals, and began to do it. The tiger went in the grasses. The giraffe in the trees. She fell asleep.

She woke up when Nanny Anne opened the closet door. Fiona had a strange feeling, as if she were doing something wrong and didn’t want to get caught at it. She held as still as she could while Nanny Anne took a pair of her mother’s shoes from the shoe rack and put them on her own feet. She put them back and tried another pair. She settled finally on Mother’s silver ballet flats. Nanny Anne put her own shoes in their place on the shoe rack, closed the door and went away. Fiona’s mother’s feet were larger than Nanny Anne’s. Fiona had walked around the house in both their shoes on many occasions, so she knew this.

She waited until the room was quiet and then she pushed open the door to her mother’s closet. She saw Nanny Anne’s shoes on the shoe rack and she took them down, hid them behind the little yellow curtain on her mother’s vanity table. She went back downstairs, into the kitchen where Dacey and Nanny Anne were making cookies shaped like stars, decorating them with colored balls and sprinkles of sugar. “What have you been up to?” Nanny Anne asked her.

“Nothing.” Fiona climbed up on a chair beside Dacey. It was very easy to tell which cookies Dacey had decorated and which ones were Nanny Anne’s. She looked down at Nanny Anne’s feet. “You shouldn’t be wearing Mommy’s shoes,” she said.

“It’s just to help with the game,” said Nanny Anne.

“We won’t tell,” said Dacey.

The kitchen was warm and smelled of the baking. The sound of the rain was soft, windless. For just a moment, Fiona could see how it was almost like having her mother home. Only not. She climbed down and went to her room to finish her sticker book. As soon as her mother came back, she was absolutely telling on Nanny Anne.

#

That night they decorated the tree without Mommy and Daddy, but Nanny Anne said they’d told her to go ahead without them. Dacey fell asleep on the couch and Nanny Anne covered her with the knitted afghan. The Christmas lights bubbled and blinked and turned one wall and the photo on that wall, the photo of Dacey and Fiona when they were littler girls, red and then green and then white. Fiona sat on the floor and watched this. She had a horrible, abandoned feeling inside. Mostly sad, but a bit of outrage, too, that she should be made to be sad at Christmas time. “I’m afraid Mommy won’t be home for Christmas,” she said. She’d lost track of how many days were left. She’d lost track of how many times she’d said this. Rain on the roof. Wind in the trees.

“Don’t be silly. She wouldn’t miss it.” Nanny Anne smiled and Fiona saw the tips of her teeth. She had come downstairs wearing their mother’s party dress, the black one with leg slits and a heart-shaped bodice. The pendant to their mother’s locket was now settled in the crease between Nanny Anne’s breasts. The dress was just a little large for Nanny Anne so the straps kept falling off her shoulders.

“I could tell you the end of the story,” Nanny Anne offered. “The part Dacey didn’t want to hear,” and Fiona knew she should say no, but Nanny Anne looked so pretty now she was all dressed up, so much like a princess in a movie, that no words came out of Fiona’s mouth. The colored lights continued to stroke sleepily across the wall, across the faces of little Fiona and little Dacey.

“For two days after the baby had gone, the police kept coming back,” said Nanny Anne, “and they tore the house apart, looking for the baby’s body.

#

They emptied out the closets and they pulled the wood from the walls in the basement. And all the while, the cradle sat empty in the nursery. The father felt so guilty over the owing—that he’d agreed to it, that he’d concealed it from the mother. The police saw that guilt and it made them think he was the one had killed the baby.

But on the third day, a policeman was dusting for the prints on the nursery windowsill when he noticed that the cradle was rocking. He leaned over it and there was the baby, just waking up, stretching and yawning and looking at him with her infant-blue eyes.

He took her to the parent’s bedroom where the father was weeping and the mother was wondering if it was possible she had married a man who would kill his own child. But when the policeman tried to hand her the baby, she screamed. She said that it wasn’t her baby. Everyone wondered at that, because the baby looked exactly like her baby.

Eyes the same, same the hair, child of flesh, and child of air.

#

They all thought that grief and doubt had made her a little crazy. The father told her to nurse the baby, thinking that would bring her back to her right mind. Her breasts were so painful it wasn’t hard to convince her. She opened her soggy blouse and gave the baby her breast. And all the while she said, this isn’t my baby, this isn’t my baby. This baby didn’t smell right, didn’t suck right. But she went on nursing and it did seem to calm her down.

When she had finished with one breast and was about to offer the other, a second policeman came into the room, carrying a second baby. He said he’d heard her crying in the nursery and gone in. The magic cradle had filled again. And this time the mother reached out, weeping with joy, because this one, she said, this one was her own little girl. The two girls were identical, one a perfect copy of the other.

Only the father said he couldn’t be sure which was which and so the police went away and left them both babies. They couldn’t figure out what to charge the parents with; there was no law against producing two babies where there should only have been one. And so they went away.

And the father and mother raised the two girls as if they were sisters. That was the owing the father had agreed to, though he didn’t know it at the time. The owing was to raise the second child as if she were their own.

#

And they lived happily ever after,” said Nanny Anne, switching suddenly to her Dacey voice. Dacey had woken, was sitting up.

“And they lived happily ever after,” she repeated sleepily.

“Let’s get you to bed,” said Nanny Anne. She picked Dacey up and took her to the bedroom, Dacey’s arms and legs loose and flopping, as she was only half awake and almost too big for Nanny Anne to carry. Fiona followed behind, because Nanny Anne had Dacey. Fiona’s feelings were all an unhappy blur, except for this sharp one—that she didn’t want to be alone with Nanny Anne and she didn’t want Dacey to be alone with Nanny Anne either.

“You said a true story,” Fiona reminded her. It was her last hope, that Nanny Anne would admit she’d made the whole thing up.

“I did say that,” Nanny Anne agreed. “Under the covers now, Fifi, and straight to dreamland.” She leaned down, kissed Fiona on the forehead the way she always did at bedtime.

“Which one was the real child?” Fiona asked, knowing she wouldn’t like the answer, whatever it was.

Nanny Anne turned the light off so Fiona couldn’t see her face. “The real child was the one her mother has always loved best, of course.” She moved in the dark like a shadow, back to Dacey’s bed where she kissed her, too.

Dacey wasn’t awake, but she wasn’t asleep either. “Good night, Mommy,” Dacey said.

#

Fiona woke up sometime later and it seemed to her that she could hear Nanny Anne singing even though Nanny Anne wasn’t in the room. The rain came hard and the singing was soft. Fiona had to strain to hear it and even so words were lost. It was something about dreaming and something about the woods. It was something about a mother’s love and a cradle and the snow. It was a lullaby that woke Fiona up. Or else it was another of those things Fiona wasn’t supposed to hear.

Or else Fiona didn’t wake up. Maybe she only dreamed this part. She had another dream that the window was open. It rained on Dacey and then grass grew under her on her bed and she was lying in a meadow with a cat curled under her arm. And then the grass grew over Dacey and Fiona couldn’t see her anymore and she was frightened and calling for Dacey to come back.

When she woke up next, her head was in her mother’s lap on the living room couch and it was early morning. The lights on the tree had all been turned off. “I told you I’d be home for Christmas,” her mother said and Fiona felt a rush of relief. She smelled her mother’s lily of the valley perfume.

“When did you get here?”

“A few hours ago. You don’t remember, but I went in and kissed you. And then you had a bad dream,” her mother said. “You were so frightened. So we came down here to see the tree and you fell asleep again. Do you remember that part?”

Fiona didn’t. She rested her cheek on her mother’s terry-cloth bathrobe. She felt the nubs of the fabric, bumpy against her face. She started to tell on Nanny Anne. But before she spoke, something twisted the words back inside her. “Where’s Daddy?”

“He’ll be home later, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. I couldn’t wait to see you so I took the only seat.” I couldn’t wait to see you and Dacey, is what her mother should have said, but didn’t.

Fiona had a horrible feeling that if she lifted the hem of her mother’s bathrobe, the black party dress would be underneath.

She was too frightened to do it. Instead she got up, carefully, and slower than she wanted. “I didn’t hear you come home.”

“No. You were a-roaming dreamland. Are you ready for breakfast? I’ll make French toast.”

Fiona followed her into the kitchen, and then, when her back was turned, went on through the kitchen and into the mudroom. She took Dacey’s coat and Dacey’s boots because they were the closest and put them on as quietly as she could, listening to the sounds of the skillet coming out of the cupboard, the eggs and milk from the refrigerator, the knife from the butcher’s block.

When she was dressed, she ran out into the rain, which came in slanted under Dacey’s hood and pelted her face and her hair. The door banged behind her.

“What are you doing?” her mother shouted. “Where are you going?” She stood on the porch under the eaves, her bathrobe tightly wrapped around her. “Fifi! Come back inside! You’ll catch your death!”

Fiona turned back to look at her. She wiped the rain from her eyes with her dripping hands. Her mother looked exactly like her mother.

And then she ran for the trees, each step making its own squelching sound, some of the puddles so deep they splashed into Dacey’s boots, turned Fiona’s toes to ice. It was less wet, but more treacherous underfoot once she made the woods. She kept running, but she wasn’t running away exactly. She wasn’t thinking that she would never go back, that she would leave Dacey or miss Christmas. She just needed to see if it was a little storm, a strange and little storm. She needed to know if she could run to where it wasn’t raining.

Location

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P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

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