‘Twas the night before…12/23/2015
Publisher’s note: Thirty-eight years ago, when Michael Gartner was editor of The Des Moines Register, he walked over to the desk of writer Bob Hullihan and said, “How about writing me a Christmas classic for the holidays?” Hullihan said, “Sure.” And he did. It ran in the Register and years later in the Ames Tribune. Gartner sent the story to me in 2007 and asked that I consider running it in Cityview. I did, and it has been running each year since as part of our holiday tradition. Merry Christmas.
The waterbug had grown old and weary. And he was alone. He was the only one of his kind left in the house. He knew he would never survive the next spring cleaning. He could not scurry away from the poison sprays anymore. Still, the waterbug had been so clever in his youth, and he had lived so long, that now he was the senior creature in the house. He knew that he had a last duty to perform.
So, as Christmas Eve approached, he called a meeting of all the creatures in the house. They met at a dark joint in the woodwork. It was a place that had happy memories of youth for the old waterbug. Once he had gathered with old friends here. Now all the old friends were gone. The waterbug did not recognize any of the young creatures who began to assemble around him.
There was a pair of silverfish, shameless and brazen because they had grown up in one of the popular novels on the bookshelf. An insolent young spider came. Her web was deep in a stereo set. She greeted the old waterbug with: “Hey, old daddy… what’s happenin’?” Three ladybugs arrived, carefully made up and proud of their beauty. A cricket who lived in the television set came in and began acting like a game show host.
The old waterbug looked at the creatures sadly. He knew he was dealing with a new generation. But he cleared his throat and began:
“Now I know you are all new creatures in the house. This will be your first Christmas Eve here. It is my duty to tell you that there must be no stirring on that night. We are under a severe and clear directive. Not a creature in this house may stir on Christmas Eve, especially not the mice. It is a Tradition.”
When he said that, the old waterbug stared directly at a wild young mouse who had come late to the meeting. The mouse had been born in the fields of summer and had only come into the house when the nights grew cold. The old waterbug drew himself up in all of his brittle majesty. He sensed that be would have trouble with the mouse. The mouse was wild and resentful and, yes, he was a troublemaker.
“Wait a minute,” said the mouse. “Whose tradition? That’s a human tradition you’re talking about. It has nothing to do with us creatures! We can stir around all we want to, Christmas Eve or not!”
“Right on, man,” said the spider.
“Stay tuned, stay tuned,” shouted the cricket. The silverfish giggled indecently and the ladybugs batted their long eyelashes.
“And why should we cooperate with the humans, anyway?” the mouse shouted, wild now with rebellion. “They’re trying to kill all of us. Why, right now, there’s a trap set for me in the basement. And you, you poor doddering old waterbug, you can scarcely get your breath from all the poison they’ve sprayed at you! Stir? I’ll show you stirring! I’m going to race around this house all Christmas Eve, and I just hope the other creatures will join me.”
It was a full-scale revolt. The old waterbug could only draw a painful breath and thunder at the creatures: “Stop! This is quite enough. Creatures have always obeyed the Tradition on Christmas Eve. It’s been handed down from generation to generation. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what it means, but there will be no stirring of creatures in this house on Christmas Eve! Is that understood? I am senior creature here, and you will answer to me!”
The old waterbug dismissed the meeting, but he made one more attempt to establish his authority as the creatures left. “And you silverfish,” he shouted. “If we ever have another meeting like this, I want you to come fully dressed. I will not tolerate nudity!” But the silverfish just giggled in their naughty way and wiggled off to get back into their popular novel. The old waterbug watched them go; he had never been more discouraged in his life.
He began to think about the wild, young mouse and the fiery way he had spoken out. The old waterbug did not understand the mouse at all, but he rather admired him. He did not want the mouse to come to harm. The old waterbug thought about the trap set in the basement. He thought about the day when the mouse, being young, would foolishly attempt to take the bait. Perhaps, in an act of bravado, he would try to do it that very Christmas Eve. The old waterbug sighed and thought about what he must do.
He crawled painfully through the rooms of the house until he came to the Christmas decorations. For hours he gnawed away at a sprig of holly until he had removed a small piece of it. He carried it into the basement and found the trap set for the mouse. Risking his life, the old waterbug carefully pushed the cheese bait off the trap and replaced it with the bit of holly. He didn’t get back to his dark place under the drain until dawn. He was exhausted.
The very next night was Christmas Eve. The little wild mouse came bounding out of his hole determined to stir around the house all night. He saw the trap with its bit of holly and stopped short. He knew at once that this was the work of the old waterbug. “Why, the old fool,” thought the mouse, “he knows I don’t eat that stuff.” And then the mouse realized that was the point. The old waterbug had brought a gift of warning and good will. They might never understand one another, but they could wish one another well.
The little mouse thought about that idea as he went on through the house to the Christmas tree, where he was to meet the other creatures. He had promised to lead them “in a night of stirring around in this house that they won’t soon forget.” The silverfish, the ladybugs, the spider and the cricket were waiting for him. But they were strangely silent. None of them had ever seen a Christmas tree lighted before. It awed them.
The mouse looked at the tree and knew he had never seen anything so beautiful, not even in the fields of summer. He didn’t understand what it was. He thought, “This must be the Tradition the old waterbug is so hyper about.” Dimly, the mouse knew that something was on display here that surpassed all the creatures and all humanity. The mouse made a decision and quickly told the other creatures what to do. He knew the old waterbug would be coming out soon to see what was going on.
And, sure enough, the old waterbug came crawling slowly out, but he stopped in confusion when he saw what the creatures were doing. The little mouse stood motionless among the tiny plastic animals around a manger. The spider had spun a brilliant web on the tree, and it shimmered in the lights. The silverfish and the ladybugs hung like glittering ornaments from one limb of the tree, and the cricket quietly sang a simple, peaceful song.
The old waterbug looked carefully at what the creatures were doing. He wanted to remember this sight for all the rest of his life. Then he turned and crawled back to his place under the drain. He slept deeply and, for the first time in many nights, he did not have a nightmare about the dreaded Orkin man who would surely come for him in the spring. He knew that the Tradition had been passed on.
The little mouse watched from the corner of his eye as the old waterbug left. Then he stepped out from among the tiny plastic animals and called to the rest of the creatures. “All right, fellas. Let’s knock it off for the rest of the night, OK?”
All the creatures went quietly back to their places. Something had happened to them when they made their display for the old waterbug. They did not understand it, but they felt good about it.
Not one of the creatures stirred for the rest of the night. CV