The Gift  -  A Beauty and the Beast Christmas Story

By Linda S. Barth

 

The familiar words of a favorite Christmas carol rang through the chilled tunnel air, echoing down twisting passageways and resounding throughout candlelit chambers. The vibrant voices of the children's choir swept away the haze of everyday cares and lightened the hearts of all who paused in their work to listen to the cheerful sound and smile in glad response. Everywhere the music of the season warmed and bolstered tired spirits, offering a peaceful happiness to the members of the Tunnel community.

To all that is, save one...

In a chamber not far from Father's study, a tall, broad-shouldered figure stooped low over a large chest, one large, furred hand holding open the lid while the other rummaged about within its depths, making an uncharacteristic jumble of the contents. Vincent shoved aside an old model train, grumbling as its smokestack caught against some unseen object. The tinkling sound of broken glass foretold of the disfigurement of the small framed lithograph it had once protected, and the delicate sound triggered an opposing response from the man whose patience had reached its end. Slamming down the lid of the chest, he straightened and threw back his head as a low, ominous growl rumbled from deep within him. 

For several moments he stood nearly motionless, save for the heaving of his chest, as he struggled against smothering waves of frustration and anger. All at once he became aware of the melodic sounds of the children's voices as they wavered in the dusky air, seeming to brighten its faint amber light to a golden glow, and Vincent found himself smiling slightly despite the turbulence that still roiled within him. Shoulders sagging, he let his head drop forward as a small, harsh sigh rushed from his lips. A few slow steps brought him to the massive, carved chair near his bed and he dropped heavily onto its worn, velvet-covered seat, looking for all the world like a careworn king of some lost, subterranean world. Cupping his chin in his hands, Vincent leaned forward, resting his elbows against the taut muscles of his thighs, and stared into the candlelit gloom. He listened as the final notes of the children's carol drifted on the cooling air and then faded away to a memory.

Soon the members of his Tunnel family would begin their Christmas Eve celebration, and he knew he was expected in the communal dining chamber in less than an hour. Christmas was only one of the holidays his world shared with the world Above, and yet the differences in this special time Below were remarkable for their heartfelt simplicity and reassuring warmth. There would be a special dinner, small gifts for the children, chorus after chorus of favorite holiday songs, and Father reading "The Night Before Christmas" as members of his family gathered all around, sharing in traditions some had known and loved in the world Above, and some had only learned of since coming to live Below. Their origins didn't matter; what was important was that they were loved and shared together.

Always in the past, Vincent had looked forward to the holiday, savoring its quiet pleasures almost as much as he enjoyed the more vibrant excitement of Winterfest. But this year there would be a new element added to the festivities and it was one he faced with unexpected dread. This year Catherine had been invited to join the underworld family for their Christmas Eve celebration. Even the idea of anticipating Catherine's presence Below with anything less than joy filled Vincent's heart with shame and anger, and he immediately directed the harsh, cruel feelings at himself for he knew he was entirely to blame for them.

Sighing heavily, he leaned back in the chair, unconsciously drumming his clawed fingers against its scarred wooden arms as his thoughts turned toward his last meeting with Catherine eight nights earlier. It was then he had invited her to come Below on Christmas Eve, and he remembered how his heart had swelled with pleasure as she'd eagerly accepted. His words had tumbled one over the other as he told her about the ways of their celebration, explaining its simplicity and warmth, hoping she would enjoy it as he always had. Even now the truth of her heartfelt response resonated through him and he had never for a moment doubted her words. So easily had she turned her back on the glittering excitement of Christmas Eve Above, willingly trading it all away for the chance to share that special night with him, in his world and in his heart.

He shook his head hard, returning his focus to the present. There was no reason at all to feel as he did now, he told himself disgustedly, except... Vincent glanced toward the nearby desk, his eyes darkening to the bruised color of smoke as he took in its empty surface. He had hoped to somehow have a gift waiting there, wrapped in bright paper and ribbons, their shiny surfaces only slightly creased from use. He'd hoped to have a special gift for Catherine.

As they'd talked that night of Christmas pleasures, he had purposely mentioned their gift-giving Below as being only for the children, knowing that Catherine would immediately perceive his rather unsubtle message. She had readily agreed to its appropriateness, never realizing that her tiny, involuntary glance toward the living room and the nearly imperceptible sadness that had dulled her eyes for only a moment had given her away. When minutes later she had dashed inside for a warmer jacket, Vincent had moved closer to the glass-paned doors leading to the living room and had seen resting on a table a large, brightly wrapped package. He had known without a doubt the package was meant to be Catherine's Christmas gift for him, something special and all the more precious because she had chosen it with great care and a heart full of love. He knew, too, that she would put the gift and her own disappointment aside out of respect for his wishes and the ways of his world, perhaps finding some other time or reason to offer it to him.

Yet all his understanding and the love and gratitude in his heart had not kept him from near obsession once the desire to please her with a gift had possessed him, even though he had always known it was all so unnecessary. In the days that preceded Christmas Eve, Vincent had driven himself to distraction trying to find the perfect present for Catherine. He knew full well that she did not expect a gift from him; and that even if she did, she would not imagine some sparkling, new object from the world Above, but would instead treasure a well-loved or handmade gift whose origins lay within the world Below. He knew, too, that even if he offered her no tangible gift at all, she would not care, for to be with him was what she wished for more than anything else.

That final realization filled him once more with shame for it only underscored what suddenly seemed like childish sulking on his part. Catherine meant everything to him and to know that she wanted to share this special night with his family and with him in their own unique world was a gift beyond measure. Nothing else should matter at all. 

Rising to his feet, he shrugged his shoulders and sighed heavily one last time, knowing he must move past the disappointment of his own thwarted plans. Then, without warning, the sweetest music he would ever know filled his soul and he turned toward the chamber entrance, feeling his heart quicken with joyous anticipation. Moments later Catherine appeared within his vision, the reflected golden light of the candles and torches making her seem to glow and shimmer like an angel he'd once seen gracing the top of a Christmas tree. Vincent closed his eyes for a moment and smiled as he remembered the long ago wonder he had felt as he'd gazed upon that glimmering sight, all the while knowing that when he opened his eyes once again, he would see not the gossamer doll of his childhood amazement, but his own beloved angel, his Catherine.

Seconds later she was in his arms, and the beautiful, seasonless music of their hearts and souls resonated around and within them, spiraling higher and higher with the sweetest of sounds only they could hear. It was then Vincent knew they had offered, one to the other, the greatest gift of all, the gift of devotion and unending love which would be theirs for now and for all time.