Merry Christmas, everyone, from the Green-Walled Treehouse, even if it is a few days late. Such is life in 2020. But, despite unusual circumstances, it is still Christmas and the meaning of Christmas remains the same.
Christmas in the Dark
It was never silent in the cave, but it was always night. Caleb lay in his tent, looking up at the absolute blackness and listening to the drip and splash of a thousand trickles of water that came from all sides. Before descending into Red Spider Cave, he had never experienced darkness so complete that it was almost physical.
He saw a light come on in his sister Ashley’s tent, silhouetting her sitting form on the tent wall. Caleb pushed the button on his watch to light up the face: 5:05am. He might as well get up if she was up.
Time had lost its meaning down in a world where the only lights were artificial, but their mother had insisted that they stay on a 24-hour schedule. It had kind of worked.
Caleb pulled on his jeans and sweater and climbed out of his tent. Red Spider Cave was always 16 degrees Celsius, not too cold but not warm enough to sit around in shorts and T-shirt either.
Ashley was sitting in her collapsible camp chair in front of the LED lamp that sat on the rock they had made their dining table.
“Is Mom already gone?” Caleb asked, sitting down next to her.
“Mom?” Ashley called softly. The echoes came back in waves, dying to a murmur. Mom om om om mm m. There was no reply. “She must be,” Ashley said.
The two teens had accompanied their mother down into Red Spider Cave for a week-long expedition as part of their mother’s doctoral research project on the blind red-legged spiders that had given their name to the cave. She always went out alone to collect specimens and do observations since she insisted that there be a minimum of noise and light in order not to disturb the spiders’ habitat. Ashley and Caleb helped with data entry as well as cooking, cleaning, and keeping the equipment working.
“It’s your turn to cook today,” Caleb said. “What’s for breakfast?” When Ashley didn’t respond, he poked her shoulder. “You okay?”
“Do you know what today is?” she asked.
He did a mental calculation. “Is this the fourth day already? The 24th, then?”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Ashley said. She sighed and crossed her arms.
“Yeah, so? This was the only week Mom could get off work. Plus, would you rather spend Christmas with George and Vanessa? They have the weirdest foods.”
“You don’t have any friends, so you wouldn’t understand,” Ashley said. Caleb punched at her arm, but she batted him away. “This is my last Christmas in high school. This time next year, everyone will be scattered. I just wish I was back there. Maybe the dark’s just getting to me.”
“You make us sound like cave trolls,” Caleb said. “We’ve only been down here four days. But yeah. I know what you mean. If we only had some Christmas lights. But that wasn’t a necessity.”
Since they were coming for a week, they had only been able to bring the absolute necessities and even then, the amount they had to carry was staggering. Going out would not be any better. They could leave absolutely nothing behind in the cave. Even their urine and poop were bottled and sealed to be carried out.
Ashley started making breakfast while Caleb went down to a small waterfall not far away to switch out battery packs. The batteries ran everything from their lights and computer to their camp stove. It was Caleb’s job to always keep two of the three battery packs charged with a small water-powered charger that ran continually.
A small red light appeared out of the darkness, bobbing in a regular gait. It was their mother’s headlamp. She switched to white light as she got closer.
“Merry Christmas Eve!” she said, stepping over the stream and giving Caleb a one-armed hug. “Sleep well?”
“Yeah. Ashley’s depressed she’s missing Christmas though.”
“Shut up, I am not!” Ashley called from inside her tent. She emerged with the plates and cutlery.
“Down the road, this will be one of your most memorable Christmases,” their mother said. “It could be worse. I spent one Christmas on an airplane and another one in the hospital.” She put down her collection case and wiped her hands and face with a camp towel. “I’m glad you are here with me.”
Ashley handed out the plates and served the food. “If only we had some lights,” she said. “Something to make it festive. But it’s okay.”
Their mother looked thoughtful. She set her plate on the table rock and went over to her tent. She returned a minute later with a small package. “I was going to save this until tomorrow but maybe we need it now.”
“You said we couldn’t pack anything special!” Ashley cried. She reached for the package but Caleb snatched it up and tore the plastic open. “Only necessities, remember?”
“Yes, but that was because I was bringing this,” their mother said, grinning. “It’s a necessary extravagance.”
Inside the package was a coiled string of tiny Christmas lights, a figurine of a Christmas tree the length of Caleb’s forefinger, and two oblong packages wrapped in Christmas paper.
“There’s one for each of you,” their mother said. “You might as well open them now.”
Caleb carefully opened the package with his name on it. Inside was a Swiss Army knife. On the side was engraved: To Caleb: Christmas 2023, Red Spider Cave. Ashley got the same, but her knife was black and Caleb’s was red.
“But we didn’t get you anything,” Caleb said. “That’s not fair.”
“You’re all I need,” their mother said, smiling and wrinkling her nose as she did whenever she said something sappy. “Now finish eating and we can decide where to hang the lights.”
300 meters above, snow was falling and the air was biting. In the nearby town of Harper, people did last-minute shopping and Christmas carols played in every store. As the day wore on, there were parties and people gathered in churches for Christmas Eve services.
Down below the snow and wind, the parties and festivities, the tiny colored lights twinkled in the unending blackness, showing that even there, it was Christmas.