Every year come the Friday after Thanksgiving, Pawpaw gets to cleaning his shotgun. "Millie Ann," he always tells me, "this is gonna be our best Christmas ever." What he means is we'll eat Christmas sausage for months. That's good. Daddy don't earn much, and we won't take government handouts, so we don't get food stamps or nothing.
Pawpaw is Ma's Daddy. On account of Ma dying when I was four and Daddy's work on the oil rigs keeping him away so much, Pawpaw pretty much raises me himself.
Pawpaw sits there singing "On Comet, on Cupid, on Donder and Blitzen" while he cleans the barrel of his old ten-gauge. He likes carols about reindeer and Santa's sleigh.
"Up on the housetop, click, click, click," as he loads the shotgun shells. Pawpaw smiles at me. "Next year, Millie Ann, when you're thirteen, you can help me with the reloads."
"Thank you, Pawpaw." This seems like a good time to ask. "Can I come tonight? I hate staying with Aunt Gemma. Her trailer smells like cat pee and her cookies are always stale."
Pawpaw smacks his lips as he stares at me. That means he's thinking. "I reckon you're old enough this year, girl."
"Goodie!" Pawpaw doesn't think I'm a little kid any more. I grin so hard my teeth feel like to fall out.
It's real early Saturday morning, so early it's almost still Friday. Our hunting blind is at the edge of some trees above a long, sloping field with more trees at the bottom. There's a few other blinds around. When we got here those folks made a big fuss over my first Christmas season. That was nice, and it made me feel important. Now it's so cold my hands ache. Pawpaw drinks coffee to keep warm, but I can't have none 'cause it'll make me short. After a while, Pawpaw taps his watch. "Coming up on moonrise." He shoulders his ten-gauge.
As the world lights up under the silver moon, a weird barking echoes from the woods. I see a red light drift into the sky, as if an ember had come off a bonfire. Another one winks on, then two more. Suddenly it's like fireflies on a summer evening, only they're big and red, like from a Roman candle. A gun fires. One of the lights drops to the ground with a little shriek, sputtering as it falls. The swarm darts toward us. Pawpaw begins to fire too, blazing away and yelling about Vietcong.
Even with my fingers in my ears, the shotgun is so loud it's scary. I keep looking, though. I don't want to miss any of it. All around, folks are shooting, everybody cutting loose to catch the swarm before it rises too high. One by one they fall, crying like wounded angels, from the moonlit sky.
I weep over a small one. Up close, they're just tiny deer, no bigger than a housecat. Their little noses stop glowing a few minutes after they're dead, looking like cherries set out too long. "It's Rudolph," I say through sniffles. I don't want to cry, because Pawpaw might decide I was a baby after all.
Pawpaw dumps bodies in the back of the pickup. What with all the shooting, there's plenty here for everybody. "Buck up, Millie Ann. You always knew where Christmas sausage came from."
"Yeah." I wipe my nose on my sleeve. "It just seemed to hurt them so much."
Pawpaw sighs. "They breed like crazy, hatch out same as locusts. We kill most of them now, leave just enough to make it north for mating season without wrecking fields and farms along the way. They get a lot bigger up there in the Arctic, come back to breed and start things all over again."
I think about all those other farmers we're helping. I swallow my tears. "We got to eat something, don't we?"
"That's right." Pawpaw smiles. "I love Christmas season."
Copyright © 2002 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family and their books. So far in 2002, his work is appearing in diverse markets such as Ideomancer.com, The Third Alternative, Frequency, and Beyond the Last Star. For more about him, see his Web site.