by Amanda Crum
Donetta Cain was an eyeballer.
Everyone else at the factory relied on measurements, and she had too, in the first year. She had poured the syrup precisely, kneaded the sugary mass until her hands ached, rolled it finger-thin against a yardstick to cut perfectly formed candy canes. It had seemed important back then. Now, twenty-six years later, she could glance at the ropes of sugar stretched out before her and slice with near 100% accuracy without ever touching a ruler. What was once important was now just something that got in the way.
It was an odd bragging right, nothing she could perform as a party trick. Still, Donetta took some measure of pride in her skills. She enjoyed her job.
Of course, over the years she had endured countless jokes about her name. It had honestly never occurred to her in the beginning that so many people would find it funny: a woman named Cain making candy canes for a living. For the first few years, she’d weathered the remarks by curving her mouth into a little smile and dropping a line about how it was the perfect job for someone as sweet as she was. Now, as streaks of grey crept outward from her temples and the veins on the backs of her hands stood out in relief, it seemed a ridiculous thing to say. So she said nothing.
Donetta woke up every morning at five, had a solitary cup of coffee and watched the darkened sky swiftly fade. When her shift was over at 3 p.m., Donetta walked the half-mile home, through the trees and up the steep hill where she had lived for over two decades. The journey rarely wavered from the usual; she knew every dip in the dirt path, every branch that hung close enough to tug at her hair if she wasn’t careful.
When October rolled around, she walked home more slowly than usual. Partly because the cold and damp had turned her knee into a swollen and torturous knob, but also because the leaves were finally turning after a long summer. The familiar path was strewn with twigs and acorns and pine cones, detritus from a wood that was giving up its freight of color after a hard and bitter fight. The August sun had scorched everything it touched; fire was of particular concern all the way through September, when the rains had finally come.
Donetta picked up a few acorns and several of the pine cones, placing them carefully in the pockets of her coat. They would make excellent decorations for her wreaths; when she wasn’t working, she was still creating things with her hands.
By mid-November, the path from the road to Donetta’s house was mostly cleared. She had taken all of the usable pieces she could carry, day after day, toting them inside and laying them on a long wooden work table to dry out. Only the broken pieces remained, crunching beneath her boots with every trip. There was so much to work with that she soon abandoned the wreaths in favor of building something bigger. She hadn’t put up a Christmas tree in twenty years, hadn’t seen the point, but this seemed right. Using baling wire and hot glue and twine, Donetta began the tedious process of creating a tree made entirely of acorns and pine cones and a few thin, green branches stripped of leaves. It would sit beneath the window in the living room when it was finished.
On the day before Thanksgiving, Donetta stopped by the Piggly Wiggly on the way home from work and bought herself one slice of pumpkin pie from the bakery, a frozen turkey dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy, and a cheap bottle of red wine. She enjoyed her meal in bed, tucked in between two quilts made by her mother, before falling asleep to the sound of the nightwind sighing through the trees.
By sunset on Thanksgiving Day, the tree was finished. It stood six feet tall, a cone-shaped structure made entirely of offerings from the woods.
The first day of December dawned frozen and barren.
Donetta stood at her front door, looking out over the blue morning. A mist had
crept up around the trees and hovered like a specter, daring her to come outside. She dreaded it. The walk to work wasn’t too bad on a normal day, but she knew that by the time she got to the factory, her fingers would be gnarled and useless, stiff as branches.
The thought reminded her of things best pushed away, so she closed the door and began to dress for the cold.
She wrapped her hands around a cup of coffee in the break room and drank quickly; liquids weren’t allowed on the work floor. On the line, the new girl, Sarah, was already warming up the mixtures and adding color. It was their busiest season, and several shops in the area sold specially-made candy canes that were only available during the month of December. Cherry, lime, grape, lemonade, and watermelon, summer hues that looked out of place amongst all the red and white.
Time was up. Donetta threw her paper cup into the trash and took her place on the line, tying an apron around her waist with effort. The gloves were more difficult, but once she got moving her hands loosened up a bit. She rolled the mixture and began cutting, cane after cane, six inches of soft sugar to be twisted and hooked. Twenty minutes in and she had cut one hundred pieces; at thirty minutes she had one hundred and twenty candy canes at her station, a rainbow in shards.
At forty minutes past seven, Donetta’s hand slipped and she cut a piece too long.
She stopped and looked down, expressionless. It had never happened, not even in her first year.
She pushed it to the side and cut again, too short this time. The next one was even worse, and she stepped back from the work table and exhaled, looking at the cutter in her hand as though it were a traitor.
“Oh,” Sarah said, eyeing Donetta’s end of the table. “It’s okay, just roll those to the side. You can take them home to your grandkids.”
Donetta stared at her for a moment, and then she did something else she’d never done before: she asked her boss if she could take the rest of the day off.
Two hours later, Donetta stood inside a copse of trees, looking down at three tiny gravestones.
Her children had been buried in a row, all boys, all unnamed. They had each come early, small tea-colored faces free of blame. She had felt it anyway, ashamed of her body’s inability to keep her sons safe. Joseph hadn’t cared one way or the other; he drove into town to buy cigarettes and never came back. He had always been quick with his fists, and Donetta was glad to see him go.
She looked up at the sky, shades of grey between bare branches, and recalled doing the same thing after she buried the last baby. She’d stared at those strips of wood lacing up the heavens and vowed to push those memories into a box, to seal the box and keep it in a locked room inside her mind. Sometimes she heard that box rumbling, but she always quieted it. This winter, though…something was different. It had started with the acorn tree, although she hadn’t realized it then. Her mind was opening like a flower in the rain.
The branches above her head clicked together in a sudden breeze and made a sound like bones rattling in a coffin, sending a shiver through her.
On the walk home, Donetta spotted movement on the path ahead of her and slowed down, watching cautiously.
It was a man, a stranger. He had a bag slung over his shoulder and was heading up the hill to her house. When he knocked on the door, she called out from a safe distance, keeping her hands in her pockets.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He turned in surprise and smiled, throwing up a gloved hand to show he was harmless. “Hi, Mrs. Cain? I’m Bertram Peters, the new mail carrier.”
She eyed his bag, which was stuffed full, and nodded. “Ed told me he was retiring, but it slipped my mind. I’ll take whatever you have.”
She stepped up onto the porch and took the bills from his outstretched hand. He had very kind eyes, a nice face. Good teeth.
“You from around here?” she asked. “I don’t think I know the name Peters.”
“No ma’am, my family is from Grover’s Point. I just transferred here to take over for Mr. Bevins.”
“And how do you like our little hamlet?”
“It’s lovely,” Bertram said with a smile. “I bet Main Street is a beauty when it snows.”
“It is,” Donetta said. “The hills get treacherous though. Saw a semi turn over once, trying to turn into that 76 station in town.”
“Gracious,” Bertram said. “No one was hurt, I hope?”
“Driver was pretty beat up.”
“Well, I’ll be careful then. I drive pretty slow, anyway. Can’t see that well in low light. That’s why I took this route, a walking one.”
Donetta smiled. “I don’t drive, either.”
They stood in companionable silence for a moment, and in it Donetta could feel a friendship forming.
“Well, I’d better hit it. Got a few more stops before I can call it a day. It sure was nice to meet you,” Bertram said.
“You, too. Listen, you stop in for some coffee and warm up tomorrow. If you want.”
“I just might take you up on that,” Bertram said, and he did.
It became a standing date; everyday at lunchtime, Bertram brought the mail and stayed for coffee or tea. Donetta started baking again, something she hadn’t done in a long time. Muffins, scones, cookies, brownies. Bertram loved them all and exclaimed over them as if he had never tasted anything better.
He loved her home, her homemade tree. The first time she invited him inside, he stood and regarded the acorn and pine cone structure for a long while, so long that Donetta began to wonder if he thought her mad, but when he turned to her his eyes were shining.
“It’s so beautiful,” he said. “I’ve never met anyone who would think to create something like that. You’re a true artist, Donetta.”
She had never thought of herself as such and nearly said so, but stopped herself before the words could escape her lips. Perhaps she was an artist, of a kind. The title felt good, like slipping into a warm bath on a cold night.
On the day before Christmas Eve, Bertram showed up bearing a gift. He handed Donetta her mail, and with it a small box wrapped in gold foil.
“What’s this?” she asked, taking it from him reverently.
“Just a little something I made,” Bertram said, smiling down at the box shyly. “It’s not much. I thought you could put it on your tree.”
She unwrapped it with shaking fingers and revealed a tiny bird, a robin carved from wood. His dark eyes seemed to see her, much the way Bertram’s did.
“Oh,” she whispered, touching the carved wings gently. “Oh, Bertram. I have nothing to give you.”
“You just gave me all I need,” he said, and brushed his fingers softly against her face. Sweetness hadn’t touched her in so long that she didn’t recognize it until he followed his hand with his lips.
When the sun rose on Christmas morning, Donetta spent time stuffing a turkey and put it in the oven; she was expecting Bertram for lunch. He would bring dessert, he’d said. She smiled at the thought of him baking pies, wiping sweat and flour across his brow. She’d never had a man cook for her before.
The wooden robin sat at the top of her tree, looking down upon her home. Keeping watch. She stood in the kitchen, sipping coffee in her robe and slippers, and knew it was time.
From the drawer beside the stove she pulled three candy canes, all perfectly cut. She’d gone back to using numbers and measurements at work; not because she was afraid of making more mistakes, but because for the first time in a long time, she wanted to make sure everything she created was as good as it could be. These had to be good enough to place on her tree: three perfect candy canes, one for each boy. She had given them names the night before while laying in bed, saw the letters behind her eyes.
Now, she rolled them over her tongue, speaking them into existence for the first time.
Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work can be found in publications such as Barren Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, and The Hellebore. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Amanda currently resides in Kentucky with her husband and two children.