When eleven-year-old Julia Russell steps into the great house for the first time and meets Mr. Lafferty, the entire course of her life shifts. He's nothing at all like the rumors she's heard from neighbors and classmates. He's kind and extraordinarily talentedhe also happens to be deaf and use a wheelchair. And when she overhears a secret about him, Julia decides it's time for the town to bring Christmas back to Emerald Crestan act that will change them all forever.
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Sixteen years earlier in late September 2002
Julia, don't waste your time arguing with me. You won't win, and besides, what have you really won if you win an argument, unless it's in the courtroom? You remember that, you hear me?" Dad adjusted his tie and picked up his briefcase.
I planted my feet on that knotty pine floor in the front hall. "But Dad, I could go to Piper's until Mom gets home. I don't want to go out there to that old green house. It'll be boring." I had heard stories about that mansion, and none of them made me want to go there. Grancie said it was a lovely place, but some of the boys at school say the old man that lived there was scary. "I could stay by myself. Nobody will report you for neglecting me. I can just stay here and study. That's not boring. I'm not Jackson, and I know better than to play with matches. I am almost eleven, you know."
"Yes, you will be in ten more months, but what you really are right this minute is exasperating! Get your jacket on. It's getting chilly out there." Dad gave me the look that said I had lost. "Trust me. I promise you, visiting Mr. Lafferty will be anything but boring. Hurry, we have to pick up Mrs. Walker."
"But didn't Mr. Lafferty die?" I looked at my skinny self in the hall- tree mirror and tried to tuck my brown corkscrew curls under the hood Grancie had made for me.
"No. Not this Mr. Lafferty the Second. It was Mr. Lafferty the First who died."
"Wha-at? What happened to just calling him Mr. Whatever Lafferty Junior?" I put on my jacket.
"It's a long and complicated story, and you're not ready for that one. Besides, I don't have time. Let's get going." Dad headed toward the door.
I grabbed my book and my backpack. "But you said we have to pick up Mrs. Walker. Why do we have to pick her up? And tell me why this won't be bo-ring?"
"Julia Russell, with your gift for asking questions, I'm positive you'll be the fourth generation of attorneys in this family." Dad opened the front door just in time for a gust of late-afternoon autumn wind.
I knew he was in a hurry, but I thought I might wear him down. "You may recall, Dad, I didn't arrive here with a brain like some preprogrammed computer you buy for your office — I mean, except for all the autonomic stuff that I never have to think about. We all come wired for that. You know, the stuff like breathing and going to the bathroom and blinking my eyes. But there's so much else I need to learn. So how do you expect me to learn those things if I don't ask questions or maybe read and study, like I could be doing right now?"
"'Autonomic'? Really, Julia. See what I mean? You just asked two more questions before I got the first two answered."
"If you didn't make me go with you, then you wouldn't have to hear my questions, would you?"
"Tell me, oh please tell me, you have a book with you."
"I couldn't be reading a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven if I didn't have it with me, now could I?" I gave it my best German accent. "I think he was a whole lot of genius and slightly crazy. Did you ever read about him?"
"I tell you, never just a simple 'yes, sir' or 'no, sir' out of your mouth. You even answer questions with another question."
We made it to the car before Dad explained about Mrs. Walker. "Listen to me, Julia. You asked about why I needed Mrs. Walker before I got your Beethoven recital. I need Mrs. Walker because she is a sign- language interpreter."
"You mean like language for someone who's deaf?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I mean."
"Beethoven became deaf. But did you know he was deaf when he wrote his last symphony?"
"Julia. Quiet. There's something else you need to know. We don't have much time. So, just listen and no more questions." Then Dad told me about Mr. Lafferty. "Now, don't stare. He uses a wheelchair, and he's deaf. And he doesn't take to strangers. So just sit quietly and read another chapter about Beethoven." Dad paused. "And for God's sake, don't speak loudly to him."
"You mean to Beethoven? He's dead."
"No, I don't mean Beethoven. We were talking about Mr. Lafferty."
"Yes, but pronouns must have antecedents, and the last antecedent you used would have been Beethoven."
Dad raised his voice. "Just don't speak loudly to him."
"You mean loudly like you're speaking to me? And why would I speak loudly to Mr. Lafferty? He can't hear."
Dad put on brakes for the stoplight and turned to the back seat to look me in the face. "You're right. He can't hear, but some folks think if they speak loudly enough he will hear them. He won't. So just don't do that."
"Why are you meeting with Mr. Lafferty?"
"Because I'm his attorney, and I handle all of his business affairs. I've been doing that for years, just like your grandfather was the attorney for the first Mr. Lafferty."
"Well, if you're his attorney and you've been his attorney for years, why didn't you just learn sign language so you could communicate with him yourself?" I could see Dad's face in the rearview mirror. He wrinkled his brow and his eyes got close together. "Then you wouldn't need Mrs. Walker. Good question, Dad? Better than the others?"
"Just do what I say. Sit quietly and read your book, understand?"
"That's weird. So if I can only stare at my book, and I can't speak, why won't this be boring?"
"First of all, you've never seen anything like this house. Mr. Lafferty's a fascinating man. He's highly intelligent, extremely well read, a talented sculptor, and he has a special gift that maybe you'll get to see if you're really lucky."
"You mean his art?"
"Oh, no. You'll see his sculptures. The place is covered with them and his books, but sculpting's not his most unusual gift."
Dad turned into Mrs. Walker's driveway. "Oh, good, she's ready. Punctual as always." He waved at Mrs. Walker, who stood on her front porch holding on to her scarf like it might fly away.
"Or could it be that you're late and she's been standing there for ten minutes waiting on you?" I really wished I hadn't asked that. "So how will I know if I see this gift he has, and is he ... is he like a hoarder? One of those people who doesn't throw anything away?"
"We are only three minutes late, and I repeat myself to make my point: Julia, does anything come out of your mouth that doesn't end in a question mark? No, Mr. Lafferty is not a hoarder. Trust me. You'll know his gift if you're fortunate enough to see it. Now sit quietly until we get there." Dad got out to open the door for Mrs. Walker.
I was quiet for the next few minutes. Mr. Lafferty lived out in the countryside. Folks just passing through on their way to Elkins might never know there was such a house on the big hill on the edge of town, but all the town folks knew about the stone manor. In the summertime, it blended into the trees. But now that the leaves were falling, I could see the house from the road. Dad turned off the highway down a lane that wiggled up the hill. The closer we got, the bigger the house got. It was the biggest I'd ever seen, like a giant green castle plopped down and spread out in all directions. Two stories as tall as the pine trees, and three stories in some places.
Dad parked in the circular driveway out front. He opened the back door for me. "You remember what I said, Julia."
"Yes, sir. No talking, and no questions." I mumbled under my breath, "And no fun."
He walked around the car and opened the door for Mrs. Walker. Dad was just that way. No females were allowed to open doors when he was around. My grandfather was just like him.
I followed him and Mrs. Walker up the green granite steps to the porch. The porch was kind of small for such a big house. I'd never seen green stone like the outside walls of this house. In some places, it was as green as the grass in May, with brown streaks running all through it. All the windows had brown shutters.
I thought it rather strange when Dad rang the doorbell. How's a deaf man who lives alone supposed to know someone's at the door? But the minute that buzzer was pressed, lights flickered through all the front windows.
Dad must have known I was about to rupture with a question, so he quickly explained how the flashing lights alerted Mr. Lafferty that he had a guest.
The big wooden door with brass hinges creaked when it opened. Too bad there were no flashing lights on the door to let him know the hinges needed oiling.
And then there he was: Mr. Lafferty, the ogre I'd heard stories about. He looked like an ordinary person to me. He had kind blue eyes that moved around a lot under bushy eyebrows. His hair was gray and wavy and looked like he might have been wearing a hat on it all day. He looked old, but his skin was a pinkish white with no wrinkles. He wore a plaid flannel shirt, and he had a different-colored plaid blanket across his legs. His plaids did not match. And it was a little chilly, but not chilly enough for that blanket inside the house.
Mr. Lafferty greeted us silently from his wheelchair. When he motioned for us all to come in, we followed him through the doorway. Dad stayed behind to close the door and to pinch my earlobe. That was my you-better-behave-like-a-good-Russell-daughter alert.
Dad was right, like he mostly was. I had never seen anything like this house. The front door opened into a foyer larger than our garage. It looked like an inside forest with dark wood paneling on the walls and green marble floors and sculptures of birds on tables all around. The room was so big and so hollow that our footsteps created echoes as we walked.
Mr. Lafferty wheeled himself into the dining room to the end of the longest dining table I had ever seen. Dad and Mrs. Walker sat to his right. I was still standing in the archway, looking at carved birds hanging by golden cords from the chandelier above the table, wooden birds perched on the windowsills, and a giant eagle looking as if he was about to take flight from the pedestal at the opposite end of the room. I couldn't wait to tell my friends at school tomorrow that I'd been to the green mansion and I'd met the troll.
Dad motioned for me to sit. I had to put my backpack down before I could pull the big wooden chair away from the table. Big houses wouldn't look right with dainty chairs. I sat across from Mrs. Walker, but I never opened my book. I watched Mr. Lafferty's hands begin to move, and I listened to Mrs. Walker speak. Then Dad would say something, and Mrs. Walker moved her hands while Mr. Lafferty watched. Then Mr. Lafferty made odd motions with his hands, and Mrs. Walker spoke again.
Dad was right. I was not bored. I studied Mr. Lafferty's hands. They were scarred, probably from his sculpting and carving tools, and his fingers were knotty like a pine branch, but they moved nimbly like Grancie's with her knitting needles. I moved my hands under the table, trying to imitate what he was doing. I was so fascinated with his hands that I wasn't paying much attention to what they were talking about until I heard Dad tell him about a family in town that needed help for some medical reasons. I liked medical stuff. A sick coal miner, I thought. I didn't know sign language, but I didn't need to hear what Mrs. Walker said. The sparkle in Mr. Lafferty's eye and the flutter of his hands already told me that some poor family would get the help they needed.
I behaved and didn't interrupt until I needed to go to the bathroom. I really needed to go, but I didn't know where it was. Dad was on the other side of the table, and that was like being across the whole room. I couldn't just blurt it out, so I walked around to where Dad sat and whispered, and he whispered back that the powder room was underneath the curved staircase across the hall where we had come in.
I only weighed sixty-seven pounds, but the cloppety-clop of my shoes sounded more like a rhinoceros. I took them off and tiptoed in my sock feet.
In the hall stood two identical doors, side by side, where Dad had told me to go. A house with a boy's and a girl's bathroom? But I didn't know which one was which. The first brass knob I tried was locked, or at least it wouldn't turn. The next one opened. Good. I did not want to disturb Dad again.
Even the bathroom was tiled in green halfway up the wall from the floor and then painted a lighter green above. Pictures of all kinds of birds lined the walls. The mirror above the sink was about the size of a door. The frame looked like golden tree limbs with green leaves made of stone that looked like Grancie's jade Fu dog. These people had a thing about birds. I washed my hands, opened the door, and heard it needed oiling too.
Mr. Lafferty seemed like a nice man to me, not like the stories I'd heard, and I didn't think he would mind if I looked around just a little. The staircase was curved, and the railing was dark carved wood. Beyond the stairs, I could see into a room with large windows. The sun was almost setting, but I could see the garden. It was unlike any I'd ever seen except in my mom's magazines. Trimmed shrubs and beds of flowers and bird feeders were everywhere. Birds flitted around and fed from mesh bags hanging from tree limbs and wooden feeders on top of posts. There were brick-paved paths in all directions. I figured that made it easier for Mr. Lafferty in his wheelchair.
Then I saw it. The piano — the biggest one I'd ever seen, even bigger than my piano teacher's. I supposed a big house needed a big piano. I sat down and raised the lid and ran my fingers over the keys — not white plastic ones, but real ivory keys. I had only read about pianos with real ivory keys. I imagined some poor elephant's misery so somebody could have a piano like this.
I was already learning my music for our Christmas recital, and I really wanted to try it out on a piano with real ivory keys. Then I could tell Mrs. Hawkins all about it.
Now, Jesus, please forgive me for what I'm about to do, but I may never get this chance again. And I really don't think you'd want me to miss it.
I knew how to use the soft pedal, and since Mr. Lafferty couldn't hear anyway, I didn't think my version of "Silent Night, Holy Night" would get much attention. I was wrong. I knew that my footsteps made noise, but I didn't know that sound traveled through this house like an echo chamber. Before I finished two phrases, Mr. Lafferty had come rolling into that room like a bowling ball on its way to a strike, moving one hand like he was conducting an orchestra and pushing his wheelchair with the other. Mrs. Walker was right beside him, trying to keep up and talking real fast. "Don't stop. Don't stop," she was saying in a shrill voice. "Play it again, please. Play it once again."
By then my dad was right behind me, and my right earlobe was between his thumb and index finger.
I didn't know what to do. Mr. Lafferty's face was a picture of pure excitement. I looked up at Dad. His wasn't. But he nodded his head and let go of my ear. I guessed that meant it was okay for me to play. So I did, only this time I didn't use the soft pedal. When I started to play, Mr. Lafferty wheeled himself right into the curve of the piano and touched the ebony wood with his right hand. He closed his eyes, and a smile settled on his face. It was like he went somewhere far away to another time. Every time I stopped playing, he wanted me to play again. I only knew three songs, but he heard them all three times.
I thought it sad that Mr. Lafferty couldn't hear the music, but I was glad he liked whatever he was experiencing that I didn't understand. And I was hoping that his liking it might keep me out of a ton of trouble.
Before we left, Mr. Lafferty invited me back to play the piano for him. For once, I didn't know what to say. All I could do was nod my head. I didn't have language for Mr. Lafferty. Except ... my grancie said that smiles, hugs, and music were the universal language. I had already smiled at him, and I'd made music for him, so there was nothing left to do but hug him. So that's what I did. I hugged him. He was like hugging Dad's set of golf clubs, and he didn't hug back. I think I scared him. But he smiled just a little when we were leaving, and he waved goodbye.
I had about a million questions when we got into the car. I thought maybe, since Mrs. Walker knew sign language, she might know a bunch of other stuff about being deaf. When Dad breathed between sentences, I said, "Dad, you said Mr. Lafferty's deaf, but I think he can hear. He heard me playing the piano."
"I heard you playing the piano and alerted Mr. Lafferty that I needed to go and retrieve you, Julia. That's when he took off."
Before Dad could say anything else, Mrs. Walker answered. "Oh, he's deaf all right, but that doesn't mean he can't experience music."
"So, what is music like when you can't hear it?"
"He feels it. He's able to sense vibrations in the same part of the brain that you use for hearing. His experience with the piano today was every bit as real as the sounds your dad and I heard."
"That's something I need to know about — brains and hearing. I'd like to know how all that works. I know about the eardrum and vibrations. Must have something to do with that."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Silent Days, Holy Night"
Copyright © 2018 Phyllis Clark Nichols.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
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