Very late at night, or so it had always seemed for the girls under ten, they’d slowly sneak out of their beds and into Lucy’s. They’d prod her awake tentatively, as if they were afraid to offend, and then lean back with their fingers still outstretched, waiting for her to open her wide green eyes.
Almost every night, Lucy would wake in the cold dark to half a dozen ringleted girls sitting on her narrow, comfortless bed, their eyes lit with anticipation.
“Alright, ladies. What’ll it be tonight?” she’d whisper as she propped herself up on her elbows.
It had been that way for at least a year, ever since Lucy had been steered, at only six years old, to this particular orphanage in the tiny hamlet known as New York City. The orphanage opened onto Park Avenue South, so that some glitter from the electric lights down on the street filtered in through the windows. It always provided the perfect atmosphere for Lucy’s clandestine late-night storytelling.
On this particular night, snow swirled around the windows, as if the snow globe of New York had been shaken. The white snowfall hardly reached the pavement, and when it finally did, it dissolved without a trace. In the outside world, New York was only a week and a few hours away from ringing in 1925. It was Lucy’s second Christmas at the orphanage, the second without her mother and brother.
Lucy lay sleeping just before nine o’clock. Her green eyes were hidden behind eyelids so pale you could see the blue veins through the thin skin, while her dark curls snaked over the tattered pillow. She was dreaming.
Out of the shadows around her came the tiptoes of twelve nimble feet. Six girls in spartan nightgowns danced over the cold wooden floor, leaned toward the slumbering Lucy, and like they had done hundreds of times before, they prodded her awake. This time, it was tiny Helen who lent her index finger to the cause, and the shy child hid behind Theresa’s broad backside after performing her duty.
Lucy stirred, her eyelids fluttering. Theresa poked again, and finally Lucy’s eyes flickered open.
“It’s Christmas Eve, heathens. Go back to bed.” Lucy mumbled. “Santa Claus shan’t come if you’re all up and about.” She rolled over.
“Lucy. Lucy, tell us a story. It’s Christmas Eve.” It was the voice of tiny Helen, peeking out from behind Theresa.
Hearing Helen’s quavering voice made Lucy stop trying to return to sleep. She propped herself up on her elbows, sighed dramatically, and motioned for her entourage to join her on the rickety old bed frame. “Oh, fine. Come here.” The girls scrambled onto the bed, finding any place to sit.
There was Helen seated closest, eyes glued to Lucy as if she were her own mother. Theresa sat with her arms around Helen, while Imogen, Sue, Evangeline, and Sarah formed a semicircle on the bed, all in various states of sleepiness. In all of their eyes, Lucy could see the same disappointment, the same sadness, and the same hopeless sense of drudgery that she knew was mirrored in her own. Orphanages were a grim place to spend a Christmas. But Lucy also knew, young as she was, that stories helped kindle something else in her fellow orphans: hope. She saw it in little Helen’s eyes more than in any of the others’ tonight, and so she decided to fan that flame.
Anyway, little Helen with her white-blonde hair helped Lucy feel like the color yellow, a color she hadn’t felt much since before the train accident. And wasn’t Christmas Eve the best day of the year to feel yellow?
Lucy rushed to think of a story, not sure how it would begin, and definitely unaware of how it would end. The girls were at attention nonetheless.
It was Lucy’s two hundredth story since arriving at the orphanage in October of 1922, and it wouldn’t be her last. Not even close. She looked into Yellow Helen’s eyes, round and blue, and began.
“Upon a Christmas Eve…” As she spoke the words, Lucy could feel them on her tongue, and could see flashes of color in her vision. Christmas Eve was a wonderful mix of purple and crimson red: lush, rich colors she associated with royalty. With wealth. As she said them, she also felt them on her tongue—Christmas was spiky and spicy, while Eve tasted like buttermilk: sour and thick. Lucy’s own little superpower made her the best storyteller these girls had ever known—better than their mothers, if, indeed, they had ever been fortunate enough to have known a mother. She started again.
“There was once a honeysuckle man named William. He had wispy, blonde hair that looked like summer, and tasted like the wind. The rest of him was the color blue, the bluest blue you ever saw. He was really quite like a bright summer sky in July, clear and sparkling.
“This man William, who was the color blue, went out walking at twilight, and soon met a young woman named…” Here, Lucy thought of the names she knew, and picked one that tasted like apples, and smelled like pine trees. “Elizabeth.” What a beautiful name to taste, Lucy thought. “Elizabeth was apples and the smell of pine on Christmas morning, and she was beautiful. William went out walking and bumped into her, knocking her clear to the ground!” Helen smiled, while the others imagined a girl who tasted like apples meeting a man who smelled like honeysuckle. It was a dream.
“William said, ‘Oh excuse me, my lady,’ because he was terribly old fashioned, and he offered Elizabeth his hand and they walked down Park Avenue arm in arm, watching the twilight sky slowly turn to a bright shot of red and purple, and the sky seemed to be happy to see them. Certainly, it was beautiful enough to have been happy.”
Here, Lucy paused. Everything she could see, she could also taste, but it was always the what that stumped her. What exactly happened to Elizabeth and William? And so, very tired on this cold night, she remembered the story her mother had told her, about a place in Ohio she’d once known. A place where her mother had met her father.
"Forget that. It wasn’t twilight at all. It was noon, a buttery noon with spices in the air, and as Elizabeth and William walked down Park Avenue, William told her of his adventures, and of his dreams, and of all the places he’d go once he got married to the right girl, and got out of this town.” Hadn’t that been what her mother had said about her father? But instead of going with the girl, her father had left the girl there.
“And soon, Elizabeth was madly in love, as was William with her. They made a beautiful couple strolling in their Sunday suits in the butter noon, and with their hands intertwined, they tasted like cinnamon. It was all very beautiful, and if you could have seen them, you’d have seen the warmest shade of gold.”
Indeed, it seemed to the girls that they could see the gold, cinnamon couple bathed in buttery sunlight walking through the city’s streets—the streets they’d never truly known and could only imagine. As for Lucy, she imagined a different outcome for her parents, one that ended not in a train crash outside Albany and a dark orphanage, but in a house in Ohio that smelled as much like honeysuckle as William did. Except her father’s name was George, and that name tasted like slick metal.
“Soon, Elizabeth and William found themselves on the edge of Central Park, and there they made their lunch among the grass and trees, on a wide meadow filled with wildflowers. Wildflowers—like chocolate and cranberries, they tasted like, and there, on the bittersweet, candied grass, they made romantic plans for the future. They spoke of a trip to gingerbread Paris, a visit to the lemony Venice, and finally, a wonderful weekend in the islands, thick with the taste of salt and tangerines.”
Truly, the whole company could see it now, and taste it all on the tips of their tongues. And as she spoke, Lucy’s white cheeks, almost porcelain in their paleness, turned a faint pink with some unnamed, fierce emotion. Her green eyes grew greener, and she became more animated, engaging the young girls with such rich sensory description that the ward disappeared, the snow vanished, and even their threadbare shifts seemed warmer, as if they were all sitting in that sunbathed meadow in the middle of a magical Central Park. Lucy was so invested in telling her parents’ alternate ending that she didn’t realize that the girls were all on the edge of sleep. There was only the end now to tell.
“By the end of their picnic, Elizabeth and William were engaged. William told his bride, ‘I’ll never leave you. Now, your home is with me.’” The girls all sighed sleepily, thinking of a home that would never change, one that was tied to a person you loved. Could they truly imagine that kind of magic?
“The end.” Helen’s eyes fluttered closed last of all.
Lucy didn’t know that what she could do was once known as “taste-hearing,” nor that one day, she’d be diagnosed a synesthete in her old age. Some of the girls would never know what it was that made Lucy’s stories so wonderfully vibrant. Lucy’s stories were dreams, and she was nothing short of magical—and that was that.
Outside, the flurries of snow degenerated into a spitting rain, but for all the notice the children took, New York may as well have been the moon. For every single one of them now half-slumbering in the dark, pre-midnight chamber, William and Elizabeth’s Central Park meadow, tasting of chocolate and cranberries, was more real than anything they would face tomorrow. For another night, nightmares and worries were held at bay.
Lucy watched them all fall asleep. “Merry Christmas,” she whispered. By then, she was crying just a little.