In 1946, on December 24th, it snowed all day and then all night. I was nine years old. My brother was ten and a half. My father liked to say we were almost twenty, put together. In the morning, we opened presents. First me, then my brother, then my father. I don’t remember what I got. Nor what my brother got. But I gave my father a small bottle with a raccoon embryo in it, floating in alcohol, about the size of a mouse. I had used my jackknife to cut it out of the mother that lay beside the road. She was too fresh to be bloated, and so I thought she had to be pregnant. There were four babies, but I only took one. The embryo was easy to see in alcohol. It’s eyes were closed. There was no fur, but the outline of colors, the black mask, brow and snout in white, the black tip of the nose, the dark grey body, and the ringed tail were all there, in perfect detail.
We sat by the fire to keep warm. It snowed so hard that it was dark outside, in broad daylight. My father held the jar up to the firelight and said the baby raccoon was a fine sight with the flames shining through around it. Then he made pancakes and sausage and we pulled the table over to the fireplace and ate there. He made us cocoa. He asked us if we liked our presents. He held up the raccoon every so often and said it was really something to look at.
My brother pouted. Now and then he glared at me. I think he resented the raccoon. Maybe because it was dead. Maybe because it was more meaningful to my father than the present he had given him. From time to time, the house shook when the big snowplow rumbled past. It came by often. As if it was afraid it wouldn’t be able to keep the road open. Finally, toward afternoon, it didn’t come by any more. And then there were no more cars. A little later, we got a call from my Uncle Lawrence, the town sheriff. He said the roads were closed, and he asked if we had enough wood and coal to keep us warm.
It snowed all that Christmas day.
And then it stopped. A full moon came out, and our father said we should go for a walk. My brother opened the front door and said the snow was too deep. My father said, we’d take the horse. And took us through the snow to the barn, holding us around waist, horizontal, like two little pigs, he said, and so we grunted and squealed accordingly, I think just to make him happy.
Our horse Freddy was surprised to see us. He whinnied. I thought in kind of a question. I took my knapsack along. I put the raccoon jar in it. My father pulled a stool up to Freddy, who stood patiently, curious to see what was going to happen. One by one, we got on. My father put me in front, then my brother, then he swung up behind.
We rode without a saddle. My father said that would be warmer. Freddy started forward and waded without effort through the deep moon-glinting snow. We went down the road through the center of town, under the dark maples and elms, past the candles in the windows. Past the dark shutters on the white houses. Past the dark wreaths. We looked down through windows and saw Christmas trees with electric candles on them. Doctor Crum, the German, had real candles on his tree, and his wife was right there beside him, with her arms around his waist.
Then we rode out into the center of the town square, equal distance from all the houses. We sat there, under the full moon, Freddy shifting first this way, then that way. My brother said he could see his breath. My father said he could see his, too. I took the jar out of my knapsack and held it up against the moon. That made the dark shape of the raccoon look cold and alone. My brother held me around the waist from behind. But he reached up and slowly pulled the bottle down from the moon. I obeyed his motion and put the jar away. Then my father reached one arm out past my brother and held me across the stomach with his big hand. Then came the other arm, and the other hand. And we sat that way, warm on Freddy’s back – for a long time. Long enough for my brother to begin to twitch and rest his head heavy against the back of my neck.
That night, we slept in my father’s bed with him. Long after he went to sleep, I heard my brother crying, softly enough not to wake my father. And I thought about the dead raccoon and the bottle, alone on the night table next to my head. And, with my eyes open and looking, I considered the dark corners of the room, where the moonlight didn’t quite reach – and never would. And then I think I fell asleep.