Read an Excerpt
All summer long the trees had grown tall and full, roots deep in the rich island soil, branches yearning toward the golden sun. The salt wind had blown in from the east, gilding the pine needles silver. Everyone knew that the best Christmas trees came from the north, with the best of all coming from Nova Scotia, where the stars hung low in the sky. It was said that starlight lodged in the branches, the northern lights charged the needles with magic. Nova Scotia trees were made hardy by the sea and luminous by the stars.
On Cape Breton's Pleasant Bay, in the remote north of Nova Scotia, was a tree farm owned by Christopher Byrne. His family had immigrated to Canada from Ireland when he was a child; they'd answered an ad to work on a Christmas tree farm. It was brutally hard work, and they were very poor, and Christy remembered going to sleep with a gnawing hunger in his belly.
By the time he was twelve, he was six feet tall, growing too fast for the family to afford—and his mother had often sacrificed her own food so her oldest child would have enough to eat. He'd need it to withstand the elements. For the north wind would roar, and Arctic snows would fly, and summer heat would blaze into flash fires, and Christy would work through it all. His mother would ring the dinner bell, to call them home from the field. He loved that sound, for no matter how little they had, his mother would do her best to make sure Christy had more than enough love and almost enough food.
His hunger had made Christy Byrne a fierce worker, and it had given him a wicked drive for success. He saved every penny he made, buying land of his own, using the skills and instincts he'd learned from his father to plant his trees and survive the brutal elements. His mother's love and generosity had made Christy a fine man, and that had made him a good father. He knew he was a good father. It couldn't be in doubt; he had a fire in his heart for his children. So that was why this year, cutting the trees on the mountainside in preparation for going south to sell them, he felt such a storm of hope and confusion.
Every year on the first day of December, Christy drove south to New York City. Hordes of tree salespeople would descend upon the glittering island of Manhattan, from the flatlands of Winnipeg, the snowy forests north of Toronto and east of Quebec, the green woodlands of Vermont and Maine, the lakes of Wisconsin, the lonely peninsulas of Michigan. Their trees would be cut and tied, hauled by flatbed trucks over the brilliant garland bridges spanning the East and Hudson Rivers, offloaded on street corners from Little Italy to Gramercy Park, from Tribeca to Morningside Heights, in the hopes of making a year's worth of income from one month's worth of selling.
A scruffy bunch, the tree salespeople were. Dungarees and Carhartt jackets were their uniform. Some arrived in caravans, like Gypsies, parked their trailers by the curb, and lived out December in the vans' cramped chill, carbon monoxide pumping out along with the meager heat. Some would stick a huge illuminated Santa or snowman on the van roof.
When it came to vending Christmas trees, Christy had no peer. He used to leave his family behind and travel alone—set up his stand on the corner in Chelsea, string up white lights to show off his trees with their salt-sparkle, and use his silver Irish tongue to sell every last one at top dollar in time to get home on Christmas Eve—laden with sugarplums, walnuts, fine chocolates, and cheeses from the best Manhattan markets; golden-haired dolls, tin soldiers, silver skates, and Flexible Flyer sleds for Bridget and Danny; soft red wool sweaters and fine cream silk nightgowns for Mary. Why not spend some of the profits on his family? He'd made plenty off the glamorous people of New York City.
He'd go home and tell everyone about it, tell Danny what he had to look forward to. "We'll be partners, you and I," Christy had said. "When you get old enough, you're going to own half this farm. Study up in school, son. You can't take farming for granted. You've got to be a scientist—learn all about weather patterns, and soil acidity, and grubs."
"You're saying it takes book knowledge? To be a farmer?" Mary had asked, laughing. Christy had held in his hurt—she'd never appreciated the skills it took. Her father had done two years of college in Halifax, worked in the front office of a lobster company, and Christy knew she had similar designs for their son.
"That, and instincts," Christy had replied, aware that Danny was listening, wanting him to be proud of his tree-farming heritage. "Running the land takes the best we have—all of it! It's magical work, it is, to make Christmas trees grow out of nothing much more than sun and dirt."
"And precipitation," Danny had said. "Moderate rainfall and occluded fronts." Christy had laughed affectionately at the big words and the serious look in his boy's eyes.
But after Mary's death four years ago, he had had to take the children with him to New York. Danny had been twelve then, and Bridget eight. The school always gave them permission, along with a month's worth of lessons and homework to do while their father hustled the trees. Danny's eyes had just about sprung out of his head, the first time he saw the city: the towers, bridges, fancy stores.
"This is New York City?" he'd asked that first year, mesmerized. "It's so—big, Pa! Like a forest of buildings, all lit up."
"Just don't lose sight of the farm," Christy had warned.
"Never, Pa," Danny had said.
So Christy would rent two rooms at Mrs. Quinn's boardinghouse right there on Ninth Avenue, where he could keep an eye on the trees. A big room for him and Danny, a smaller one for Bridget—he could afford it, because his blue and white spruces, Douglas firs, and Scotch pines were the best, and he could always get the rich New Yorkers to pay half again as much as they would for the trees on other street corners. He would rig a chain around the trees, so no one could steal them—and he'd sleep with one eye open, besides. He'd put nothing past New Yorkers—the street people would take anything, and the moneyed people would get away with what they could.
"It's how the rich get richer," he'd say.
Mary used to chide him for his cynical attitude about the wealthy denizens of Manhattan. "Christy,
they're paying our way the year round. They've been meeting the mortgage on our land, and they're going to pay for college—if you'll ever let Danny off the farm long enough to go. So don't go putting your mouth on them!"
"Ah, they've got so much money, they don't even notice the air they breathe," Christy said, ignoring her dig. "They don't notice the snow, except to complain that it ruins their expensive shoes. They're so busy rushing to get out of the wind, they forget to feel the sting on their faces, letting them know they're alive."
"Well, you're happy enough to take their dollars," she'd say.
"That I am," Christy would laugh. "Believe me, they've enough so they won't miss it. If I doubled my prices, I'd probably sell out twice as fast—the rich people love to spend their money, and if something costs them a lot, it gives them a reason to swagger."
"You're a scandal, Christy Byrne," Mary would say, shaking her head. "Selling Christmas trees with that kind of a mentality is some kind of a sin, it is. It's going to get you in trouble—mark my words."
Mary's family had been comfortable, and she'd never gone to bed hungry. What did she know? He'd ask himself in the tree fields wet with rain, the short, enchanted Nova Scotia summers when he'd walk along the crystal-cool streams, feeling the rapture of summer's breeze as he pruned the spruces' golden growth into Christmas tree shapes, calculating the handsome dividends they'd bring in December.
This year, with the power saws roaring like demons, spitting out wood chips in their vicious, hellish destruction of nature's best, Christy knew that Mary had been right. Last winter Manhattan—for all the money it had given him over the years—had exacted the greatest price imaginable, interest on all his profits, on what Mary had called his greed, compounded beyond comprehension: New York City had taken his only son.
Three years of city lights had proven too much temptation for the teenage boy. And last Christmas Eve, after a banner season of tree selling, Danny had informed his father he wasn't returning home to Nova Scotia with him and Bridget. He was going to stay in New York—find a job, make his way.
"What do you mean," Christy had asked, " 'make your way'?"
"Let me go, Pa—I can't talk about it anymore! You don't get it!"
"Staying in New York? Are you mad, Danny?"
The tension between them was terrible. Christy grabbed his sleeve, felt Danny pulling away—literally yanking his arm back. And that made Christy hold on tighter.
"There's no talking about this," Danny said. "There never was. It's just your way, Pa—the farm. I have something I want to do right now. It's my dream, Pa. And I have to follow it! You've taught me not to waste time talking when work needs to be done."
Danny was serious, and he was right: Christy had taught him that very thing. Talking took up too much time, when there was a whole farm that needed tending to. Of course, what Danny didn't know was that Christy was afraid of talking. He feared his children asking him questions he didn't know the answers to, telling him things that would stir up his emotions. He loved his kids with passion beyond words.
Now Danny was staring at his father with the resolute, not-to-be-deterred eyes of a dreamer. Christy was scathed, wounded. How could his son have a dream, something that would keep him here, in New York, that Christy knew nothing about? Deep down he knew enough to blame himself—he hadn't exactly been an open listener. But more to the point, how could he leave Danny alone in this place? It couldn't happen. Christy tightened his grip. Danny broke free.
Their first father-son face-off—right then and there.
They'd had a fistfight, there on the street corner—Christy had scuffled with his own son and, scrambling to hold on to him, had torn his jacket—the new down parka he'd bought for Danny at the start of the season. Feathers flying, Danny's elbow accidentally cracking Christy's nose, blood flowing as Christy tried to hold Danny still—if he could only talk to the boy, keep him from running—he could get him to see reason. There they were, struggling on the snowy sidewalk, Bridget screaming for the fighting to stop.
The police were called. Squad cars had converged, sirens blaring. The fight had torn down Christy's white lights, and now they lay tangled on the sidewalk, illuminating the bloody snow. One cop had grabbed Christy, handcuffed his hands behind his back—and Danny had used that opportunity to escape.
Christy's last glimpse of his boy had been of him illuminated by blue police strobes, dodging through the crowd of gawkers, white goose down spewing from his ripped jacket like a snow squall.
"It's frigid out," Christy had said to the officer booking him at the station. "He's going to be hungry and cold, with his parka ruined."
"That's the Christmas spirit. Maybe you should have thought of that before you beat him up," the cop said. His name was Officer Rip Collins.
Christy was too proud to protest, to spill his true feelings of grief and terror, to a New York police officer. What did the cop know? What did anyone from this brutal, blazing, glittering city know? With all its false light, its temples to greed, its foolish people so easily tricked into paying small fortunes for simple pine trees?
ROR—released on his own recognizance—Christy left the precinct house. He'd returned to the boardinghouse. His blood was roaring through his veins--he was hoping against hope that his son would be there. But all he'd found was Bridget, sitting on the bed, her face streaked with tears.
Christy had packed up his daughter and, with the heaviest heart imaginable, gone home to Canada. There was a hearing scheduled for March, but Officer Collins spoke to the ADA in charge, telling him what had really happened. And with Danny nowhere to be found—in spite of Collins and other city cops looking for him—the charge against Christy had been thrown out. Where he should have been relieved, Christy was instead soul-sick; to the New York police and court system, his family had become just another statistic of domestic trouble, and his son had become just one more street kid.
Now, one year later, the pickup was packed and ready for him and his daughter to return to New York. They'd had just one postcard from Danny, of the Brooklyn Bridge, with not a clue in the message about where he was living or how he was really faring. Just the brash words: "I'm doing grand—don't worry about me."
Not a word about missing Christy or Bridget or their thirty acres of fir trees on the edge of the world. The boy had come from a magical northern land, inhabited by bald eagles, black bears, red and silver foxes, and great horned owls. He had left it for the urban caverns of New York, populated by players and hustlers. Christy hated the place with a passion, never wanted to set foot in the city again.
But he knew he had to. Had to set up his trees on the same Chelsea corner, had to string up his lights so they'd set the salt crystals on the trees' needles gleaming and entice the customers, had to cock his smile and throw the charm, had to sell out his evergreens and put money in the bank. But most of all, had to be in the same place he always was, so Danny would know where to find him.
"Come on, Bridget," he shouted up the stairs. She appeared at the top, dragging another huge suitcase behind her.
"What's that?" he asked.
"It's my things, Pa," she said.
"Your things are in the truck, Bridget! We're only going for twenty-four days. What've you got in there?"
"Party clothes, Pa." Her green eyes were shimmering.
Christy stared up at her. She was almost thirteen now, a young lady. She'd curled her pretty brown hair by herself, tied it with a burgundy velvet ribbon she'd found somewhere. What the hell did she think she'd be needing with party clothes? Christy worked all day every day until his trees were sold.
From the Hardcover edition.