Jesse’s daughter Greta was invited by a classmate to see Panda-Yodel-O-Dee-Oh, the animated musical film based on her mom’s autobiographical children’s book, Yodeling for Life: the Panda Miracles. They never made it to the Cineplex. A fight broke out in the car after the classmate said that Greta’s mother’s eyes looked big on the poster, even for a cartoon. Shouting elevated to pushing, then kicking. Eventually, Greta bit her companion on the wrist.
The furious mother scolded Jesse on his front stoop after returning his daughter. “She nearly broke the skin—there are tooth marks and bruising. Your child’s a bully. The other children are terrified of her—those things she writes. Nazi this and Nazi that—she needs help.”
Jesse had frowned. “She’ll be getting help. When we move. But the Nazi thing is unfair. The report topic was ‘animals,’ and Greta wrote about her mother’s grandfather. He was a dog trainer.”
The woman’s voice quavered. “Trained Hitler’s dog, you mean. And she could have written about her mother and all the good she did with those pandas.”
“Blondi,” Greta blurted from her hiding place behind Jesse. “Hitler’s dog was Blondi.”
The woman jerked back her head as if she’d been slapped. “You can’t play the ‘motherless child’ card forever,” she snarled. “It’s been three years. Get her out of public school.” She pivoted and marched back to her car where her child’s head floated in the passenger window like a Mylar balloon. When Jesse looked at Greta, she was chomping at the air.
Of course they were moving, and why not to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where they’d vacationed, where there was a school—a “wellness center”—with programs designed for “children adjusting to devastating losses”? Nothing bound them to their Boston suburb. Greta’s grandma Janet had finally passed away at the nursing home Jesse had visited weekly. Janet hadn’t uttered a word or opened her eyes for five years before her death, surviving only because of what the doctor termed “an abnormally healthy appetite.” No job tied Jesse down. The royalties from his wife Briggie’s book, the sale of the film rights, and the insurance money from her accidental death made employment optional, at least for a while. He’d earned double on the sale of his house what he expected to pay for a place in Nag’s Head. As for Jesse’s younger half-brother Austin, he’d cut his few New England ties when he moved down to Baltimore for college. And since the community had already decided that little Greta was a pariah, there’d probably be a celebration when news got out that she’d be moving.
Cartons lay everywhere, and, except for the sofa where Greta had wedged herself next to her father, all the furniture in the den had been wrapped in sheets for the movers. Greta held a CD that featured music from Panda-Yodel-O-Dee-Oh. Greta glared at the CD’s cover. “The songs are stupid. The singer doing Mommy sounds like Dracula. That’s not a Swiss accent. And those aren’t Mommy’s lullabies. Why isn’t Austin here?”
“Austin doesn’t need to come up here,” Jesse said. “He took everything he wants to college. He’s driving straight to Nag’s Head. We’ll get to meet Sarah.” Jesse took the CD from Greta. The cartoon version of his dead wife Briggie showed her arm in arm with a smiling panda couple—a pink bow distinguished the female. Cartoon Briggie’s gigantic blue eyes peered up at a happy baby panda perched atop her head—it held her blond braids as if they were reins. Musical notes poured from Briggie’s open, presumably yodeling, mouth.
“You and Mommy have the same nose, don’t you think?” Jesse asked.
Greta snatched the CD back and squinted eyes as big and blue as her cartoon mom’s. “There isn’t any nose, Daddy!” She tossed the CD back onto the trash pile and frowned at her father. “Austin said it’s a man who’s doing Mommy’s voice. And I still haven’t seen the movie.”
“We’ll go with Austin at Nag’s Head.”
“You saw it. Tell me about Panda-Yodel-O-Dee-Oh.” Greta laid her head on Jesse’s shoulder and cuddled against him. He remembered when his baby girl slept between him and Briggie, and he’d been jealous that he couldn’t nurse her. With Greta latched to her nipple, Briggie would lift her knee to touch Jesse’s thigh, and he’d cup his daughter’s warm head in his hand and feel the rhythm of her sucking. Now Greta ran her hands up Jesse’s arm and gripped his bicep. Her fingers tightened like a blood pressure cuff.
Jesse exhaled. “You heard the songs,” he said. “The movie’s not like Mommy’s book.” He looked over the stacked boxes and displaced furniture. “It’s kind of a mess in here.” He scanned the naked walls. Which packed-away pictures had been on which nails and hooks? Neither Yodeling for Life nor Panda-Yodel-O-Dee-Oh finished Briggie’s story. Both book and movie ended with the promise of future happy reconciliations between mother pandas and rejected infants. But, shortly after the book’s publication, a panda-mom committed to the extinction of her species had bitten Briggie on the shoulder at a zoo in Brussels, poisoning his wife’s blood with the “one-in-a-million” infection that confounded doctors and killed her a month before Greta’s seventh birthday. The latest edition of Yodeling for Life, available for holiday purchase, substituted silly pictures from the movie for photographs of Briggie and pandas. The original back cover author-photo of Briggie, showing her laughing on a beach with Jesse and baby Greta, had been replaced by a picture of a cartoon panda licking an ice cream cone.
The pair of urns still sat on the mantle over the fireplace. These, along with a couple of suitcases and some Christmas decorations and gifts, were among the few things Jesse and Greta planned to keep with them in the SUV on the drive to Nag’s Head. The movers would transport everything else to an Outer Banks storage facility where it would stay until Jesse bought a permanent home. The fancier urn, polished brass, contained the ashes of Jesse’s mother. The other, a tin box, held the remains of Pirate, the rescue dog the family had adopted shortly after Briggie’s death. Pirate had been an unsuccessful experiment—its second day in the house, the dog attacked Greta’s leg when she stepped too near its food bowl. Jesse had to beat Pirate off with a spatula. The tear in Greta’s knee took thirty stitches to close. She’d need cosmetic surgery when she stopped growing. Pirate had been euthanized before sundown.
But Greta held no grudge against the dog and insisted that they keep Pirate’s ashes. “Austin says he’s mixed with the ashes of all the dogs they killed that day,” she said. “Some of them must have been good dogs. So maybe whoever decides about getting into doggie heaven will be confused. Pirate couldn’t help not being trained.”
Briggie had neither ashes nor a gravesite. Somewhere Jesse had a cache of “thank you” letters from individuals who’d benefited from the distribution of her organs. She’d willed whatever couldn’t be harvested to a research hospital. Officials had sent a form letter expressing their appreciation. Jesse planned to erect a memorial which, now that they were moving, would have to be in Nag’s Head.
Greta must have seen Jesse’s attention drift to the mantle. “I have an idea about Mommy’s ashes,” she said.
“Your mother doesn’t have ashes. You know that.” Jesse blinked at the bare wall above the urns. In a scene from Panda-Yodel-O-Dee-Oh, the cartoon version of his wife tiptoed across the concrete floor of a panda enclosure, clutching an over-sized infant panda to her chest and yodeling softly, accompanied by a chorus of zoo employees and animals. Animated Briggie laid the newborn on a bed of bamboo leaves behind the hulking back of its disinterested mother.
Jesse frowned at the urns. At least he and his daughter still had each other.
Greta tugged at his arm. His daughter’s face was inches from his. “No, listen—” she said, “we’ll burn Yodeling for Life—the old one, with Mommy’s picture on the cover. We can burn it on the beach at Nag’s Head. Mommy loved it there. We’ll burn it, and the ashes will blow into the ocean.”
“Austin said you drove him once to Chincoteague to see the ponies on the way to North Carolina.” Greta had pulled out one of her iPod’s earbuds and pouted at her father. “Why don’t I get to go?”
“That was ten years ago.” Jesse stared at the Interstate unspooling to the horizon. “We can’t stop everywhere if we’re going to get to Nag’s Head by Christmas Eve. Six hundred miles in one day, that was the deal. Besides, you were with us at Chincoteague. And we didn’t see a single pony. Just poop.”
“I was a baby.”
“Six months old.”
“Mm. I think I do remember,” Greta said. She pulled out the second earbud and wrapped the wires around the iPod. “Mommy couldn’t go because she had to yodel to some pandas.”
“That’s right. Like on all her emergencies.”
“And you brought Mommy’s milk, and you and Austin fed me bottles. I remember that.”
“Un-hunh. Sure you do.”
“That wasn’t the time… that couldn’t have been the time…” Greta’s voice shrank to a murmur. Silence hung. She shook her head. “I was six years old when Mommy died, not six months.” Greta twisted in her seat, and Jesse caught her looking behind them, where five first-edition copies of Yodeling for Life were stacked between her grandmother’s and Pirate’s urns. One safety belt secured everything.
“You know there’s another herd of wild horses on the upper part of the Outer Banks,” Jesse said. “Maybe they’ll wander down to Nag’s Head.”
“Mommy loved Nag’s Head. I remember Mommy and Austin carrying me up the sand dunes. She lifted me up, and I was on top of the world. I saw a slice of ocean, way off. When I close my eyes I can see it. Like a piece of blue pie.” Greta paused. “The sand dunes are nice, but we should do Mommy’s ashes right next to the ocean. On the beach. So she can be with the spirit of her grandpa. Austin says we’re going to be right where her grandpa was when he saw America from his submarine.”
Briggie’s grandfather, a minor Nazi official, had fled to Zurich and changed his name after the Second World War. Briggie had told Jesse about her family’s “Nazi-in-the-closet” when she’d become pregnant with Greta. “No secrets,” she’d said. “Our family starts with a clean slate.” But it had been impossible to keep stories about “Nuzzi Great-Grandpa” from sneaking into family lore: Nuzzi Great-Grandpa had trained Hitler’s dog; Nuzzi Great-Grandpa had been on one of the U-Boats that torpedoed American oil tankers off the North Carolina coast.
“It would be a good idea to keep the Nazi stuff to a minimum around Sarah, don’t you think?” Jesse asked. His back ached from the hours he’d already spent behind the wheel. “She’s Jewish, you know.”
When Greta didn’t respond, Jesse glanced over. She was frowning. “All he did was look at America and train a dog,” she grumbled with the trace of her mother’s accent she sometimes affected. “Why does everybody hate him so much? Why can’t we just be ourselves in front of Sa-ruh? Hey, look— hello!” Greta waved madly at the van they were passing. The children in its backseat were waving back, pointing at the rear of the SUV and giving thumbs-ups.
“They see our Frosty the Snowman and Christkindli!” Greta pressed against her window, still waving at the van long after they’d left it behind. “They were probably saying, ‘Merry Christmas.’” She settled back into her seat. “It’s nice we brought the Christmas decorations and presents and stuff for when we get there. Do you think Sarah will get it?”
“I mean the ashes and everything.”
“I’m sure she’s smart enough to get it.” Jesse kept his own uneasiness about the book burning to himself. “You know, honey, sometimes there are things inside a family that other people don’t understand.”
“Not exactly. Just things people might not get unless they grew up with them. Those kids who were waving—”
“They saw Frosty and Christkindli in the window.”
“That’s what I mean. Do you think they get Christkindli? I barely get Christkindli.”
Greta sat quietly. Jesse focused on a pair of distant trucks riding parallel, blocking both lanes. “Christkindli is Mommy’s,” she said. “The Swiss don’t have Santa Claus.”
“Right. Nobody’s trying to take away Christkindli. But even the Swiss don’t agree on what Christkindli is—a boy-child? A beautiful angel-woman with a crown?”
“The angel-woman with a crown!” Greta shouted. “That’s why our Christkindli is the Statue of Liberty. Mommy said, ‘This is America. Christkindli is Lady Liberty.’ We bought our Christkindli at the Bronx Zoo souvenir shop, and blew her up on the way home. Remember? Mommy and I took turns. Maybe some of Mommy’s air is still in her.”
Jesse peeked in his rearview at the inflatable Statue of Liberty squashed beside plastic Frosty against the SUV’s back window. “I think you better not make a big deal about your knee scar in front of Sarah either.”
“Well—she needs to know why we killed Pirate. And Jesse says the scar isn’t really a swastika anyway. It points the wrong way. Or the right way. It’s some kind of Hindu symbol for something that’s not so bad.”
“I think you’re better off not mentioning it. It’s another family thing.”
“So Sarah’s not family? Is it because she’s Jewish?”
“I didn’t say she isn’t family. She’s Austin’s friend. She’s a family guest. She’s too new to be family. But she might be someday, you never know. I met your mom when we were Austin and Sarah’s age.”
“Does Sarah know I’m going to go to school in a mental hospital?”
“It’s a ‘Wellness Center,’ not a mental hospital. ‘Nag’s Head Wellness Center.’” Jesse hunched to relieve his back. The road disappeared under the SUV like the belt of a giant treadmill.
“But we wouldn’t be moving if I wasn’t crazy, right?”
“We want to get you where you can be happiest. It’s a fresh start for all of us.”
“I’m hungry,” Greta said. “When’s lunch?”
“I’m Christkindli!” Greta posed at their table in her Burger King crown for Jesse’s phone picture. “Merry almost-Christmas Eve.” She plopped down in her seat and studied the back of her placemat, where Jesse had drawn a rough map of the Outer Banks. He’d made an X where he thought Nag’s Head must be. Greta picked up a black crayon. The hair fringing her crown was sweat plastered to her forehead.
Jesse blew into his coffee, but the sip burned his lips. “I think they turned the air conditioning off. They didn’t expect to be this warm at Christmas,” he said. “This is some kind of record.”
“How do they know what’s a record? What about all the millions of years before there were thermometers?”
“I guess there’s only a record about something when there’s someone keeping track.”
“So there’s nobody keeping records for things like most breaths in a lifetime. Or most heartbeats.”
“I don’t think so.”
Greta sniffed. “I think I want to set the world record for most heartbeats. Can I tell the man sweeping up that we’re going to burn Mommy on the beach?”
“You mean burn Mommy’s books. No, I don’t think telling a stranger about it is a good idea.”
“That’s one of those ‘family things,’ right?” Greta’s blue eyes danced up from her drawing.
“Right,” Jesse said. “Like Christkindli. Like your Great-Grandpa.”
“Nuzzi Great-Grandpa,” Greta purred and went back to work on her drawing. Jesse squinted at the paper, expecting his little girl to add swastika spurs to his X. Instead, she spun a gyre of smoke from the spot. She dotted the coastline. “Ponies,” she said. “You said there might be wild ponies on the beach. Like the ones they hung lamps from.
“Lamps—lanterns—how Nag’s Head got its name—from the land pirates and the ponies they led with lanterns on them so ships would think they were boat-lights and crash on the reefs. And the pirates could row out and plunder-dunder-doo them. Austin told me.” Greta drew little humps along the shoreline—ships or pirates?
“That’s just a legend.”
“Maybe it isn’t.” She bent over her picture—inside the cardboard crown her hair was a nest of gold. “And some of the houses there are built out of wood from the wrecked ships. Can we get one of those houses?” Without waiting for an answer, Greta paused again and lifted her crayon and head. “How does Misty of Chincoteague end? I don’t remember.”
“The ponies win.”
“All the ponies are safe and happy. You don’t remember because you tore the end out of the book. You used to like to rip things up. You tore up most of Dr. Seuss. Some of those books were as old as your grandpa—my father.” Jesse worried that his tone was too accusatory. “But you were just little,” he said.
Greta pressed her crayon against lips as plump as her mother’s. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I still remember the feel of ripping the paper. It felt good in my fingers.” She clenched and unclenched a fist. She switched the black crayon for an orange one and zigzagged it over the X, then stopped and pushed the paper away. “I need red and yellow for a good fire,” she said.
“Well, it’s time to hit the road. We’re going to get there after midnight as it is.” Jesse collected the trash into his tray, and Greta tossed her crown on top of the pile. “You want this?” he asked, tapping the map of the Outer Banks. Greta shook her head no, but when Jesse slid the paper toward the garbage pile, she shrieked “Yes!” and snatched it up and pressed it to her chest.
The SUV crept down the fog-bound roadway. Greta had been asleep for an hour, and Jesse was trying to picture his wife, but it was the shadow-eyed faces of pandas that emerged from the dark.
“I hope he doesn’t melt.”
Jesse flinched at the sound of his daughter’s voice. “Who?”
Greta yawned. “Frosty the Snowman—it’s so warm. Is that why it’s so foggy? Are we almost there?”
The half-lights of closed businesses bloomed around them. Jesse gripped the wheel. “Pretty close.” Scrub oak and pine trees bent toward them out of the fog, as if prying into Jesse’s thoughts. “Frosty’s fine,” he said. “He and Christkindli kept me company while you were asleep.”
“I feel the ocean,” Greta said.
“It’s to our left—the east. You can’t see it now. Our place will be right on the beach.”
“It’s every-where,” his daughter said in her spookiest ghost voice.
A half hour later, they pulled into a driveway behind Austin’s old Taurus with the “Johns Hopkins” sticker on the rear window. “I’ll get our suitcases,” Jesse said. “Carry something in, okay?”
Greta’s fingers were glued to the door handle. “How late is it?”
“Late. Or early—past one.”
“It’s Christmas Eve! We need Christkindli!” Greta jumped out onto the driveway and crunched over the gravel to the SUV’s rear hatch. The fog had blown off, but the ocean was hidden by the beach house. A pale light glowed from the front window.
“Austin’s supposed to leave the back door open. Keep your voice down in case he and Sarah are sleeping.”
The suitcases bumped along on their rollers behind Jesse. Greta carried Christikindli and the copies of Yodeling for Life. A cottony breeze struck them as they rounded the corner of the house, and they saw the black ocean a few hundred yards away.
“Oh—” Greta, hair flapping, stared across the strip of sand. A gust bent Christkindli around her waist. Jesse hoisted the suitcases up the steps.
“Come on,” he said, “we’ll come out later for a look.”
Sliding glass doors opened into a kitchen dining area. A swag lamp over a round table cast the light that illuminated the front window. Exposed beams ran along all the ceilings. Stainless steel appliances gleamed in the kitchen. Greta struggled through the doorway, propped Christkindli against the wall, and spilled her books onto the table.
A Johns Hopkins sweatshirt hung on a clothes’ tree over a black trash bag overflowing with wrapped and ribboned presents. Jesse recognized Austin’s running shoes next to a pair of high-heeled leather boots.
“Quiet,” Jesse said.
“Look—” On the table next to the copies of Yodeling for Life stood a silver candelabra and a box of short candles. Beside them lay a Bic lighter and a pack of Marlboro Lights.
“That’s a Menorah, for Hanukkah,” Jesse said, wondering if the smoker was Austin or his girlfriend. “Remember, Sarah’s Jewish. I think we’re in the middle of the holiday. Tomorrow night we’ll light the candles and she’ll tell us what to do—sing songs or say a prayer, I guess.” When Jesse was little, all things Christmas had been reserved for December twenty-fifth. Then his parents divorced, and his stepfather Robert introduced the tradition of opening gifts on Christmas Eve. Then Briggie came along and kicked Santa Claus out of Christmas in favor of mysterious Christkindli. Now Hanukkah. Jesse felt like a Maypole—holiday trappings tightened around his throat, and his head spun. He found himself counting his dead—wife, mother, father, stepfather…”
Greta hopped up and down. “No—I don’t mean the candle thing. The lighter. Can we go to the beach? I want to burn Mommy’s book. It’s Christmas Eve. We can burn Austin’s copy later, after the sun comes up, and yours. And Sarah’s, if she wants. But I want to do mine now.” Greta picked up a copy of Yodeling for Life. Sticking out of it was the crayon map of the Outer Banks she and Jesse had worked on at Burger King. Briggie smiled from the back cover, and Jesse closed his eyes, but couldn’t stop the image of his wife’s face eaten away by a ring of fire.
“Let’s go to the beach—please?” Greta begged.
Jesse snatched the Bic lighter and flicked it on. Its flame winked in the glass of the deck door.
Greta removed her shoes and socks and stood on the packed sand with her back to the wind and ocean. She held Yodeling for Life in both hands like a serving dish. The Statue of Liberty was pinned under her arm.
“I’ll keep Christkindli,” Jesse said, taking the inflatable and sliding it between his knees. “Hold the book at arm’s length—by the cover—” The placemat map of the Outer Banks blew out and skipped down the beach. Greta stared after it.
“Forget it,” Jesse said. He thumbed the lighter on and off, and he and his daughter watched the twitching flame. “You remember why you wanted to do this, right?
“Ashes.” Greta’s teeth chattered, though Jesse was sweating. Her toes clutched at the sand.
“Right. This was your idea. Mommy’s ashes are for the ocean because she told you she loved Nag’s Head.”
“And her great-grandpa was here.”
“Right. So when I light the book, the pages will blaze up, and you’ve got to move fast—backwards, because if you turn into the wind the fire might burn you. Keep facing me. Back up one step at a time, as if you’re holding a sparkler for the Fourth of July. You’ll feel wet sand when you get close to the ocean—it’ll probably be cold— and when you do, spin and fling the book into the ocean, like it’s a Frisbee.” Jesse’s heart pumped. Would a responsible father let his child play with fire? “But if the book gets too hot, drop it right away. Let it burn in the sand.”
“Look me in the eye. What do you do the second you feel the wet sand?”
“Throw the book.”
“Good. Now spread the covers wide.”
When Greta opened the book, the pages fluttered in the wind. There were pictures, but it was too dark to see Briggie in them. The ocean rumbled and sighed. Jesse ignited the Bic and touched a page, which darkened, then caught fire.
“Go!” Jesse shouted, and Greta stared at him over the small flame, then stepped back toward the ocean, steadily, her elbows high. Her thin body protected the burning book from the wind. A second page caught, and a third, and Greta held a globe of fire. Jesse pocketed the lighter, wishing he’d taken the cigarettes along, though he hadn’t smoked since college. The wind pushed at the inflatable between his thighs, and he pulled it out and tucked it under his arm. He watched Greta shrink back toward the ocean, a glowing bouquet at her waist.
“Careful—move faster—” Jesse called. How close was she to the water? If there were any Nazi U-boats or ships ripe for land-pirate plunder out at sea, she’d seem to them only a tiny eclipse of a girl. He bit his lip, expecting any moment to see a flaming arc when she tossed the book. Had it been a minute? Half that? Illuminated foam sparkled behind Greta, and Jesse gasped. Something lay between his daughter and the ocean. A few more steps and Greta would stumble over it. He shuddered to think what it might be—a bloated carcass, probably, certain to haunt her dreams. He waved the inflatable over his head and shouted.
“Greta! Throw the book—come back! Throw it now!”
The bouquet of fire hung—Greta had stopped. He couldn’t tell if she’d looked behind her.
The voice touched him like a cold hand, and Jesse turned to see Austin, in T-shirt and shorts, standing on the deck. He blinked back and forth from his little brother to Greta and her fire. “Austin. Did we wake you?”
Austin gazed past Jesse. “Too warm to sleep,” he muttered. “Is that Greta out there? What the hell is she doing?”
“Turning her mother into ashes,” Jesse said. Did Austin see the thing in the foam? “Greta!” Jesse shouted. He tossed the inflatable toy in the air. The breeze grabbed it and carried it down the beach. “Christkindli—run—get her!”
The fire fell. Jesse lost sight of Greta. When he spotted her, she was a pale shadow racing across the sand after the wind-blown inflatable.
“Damn, Jesse—”Austin jumped from the deck steps and ran after his niece. He caught her, and together they chased Christkindli down the beach. Back where Greta had dropped the book, Jesse saw nothing. What had he seen? A beached dolphin or seal? Something worse? He heard voices and turned back to see Austin and Greta returning to the beach house. Greta lugged Christkindli. Maybe she was explaining about the fire. Jesse looked again toward the shore but saw only waves cresting and collapsing.
Had Briggie’s ashes reached the sea? Were they still out there with the figure he’d seen lying in the foam? Would they be there in the morning, or would the tide sweep both away? Jesse turned away from the shore. Above him a young woman—Sarah, of course—stood waving. Silhouetted in the deck doorway, she had long hair that fell past her shoulders. Her lifted arm tugged her football jersey to the middle of her thighs. Did she see Jesse? He made a fist around the Bic lighter in his pocket. He remembered rock concerts where the kids had held their lighters like torches to keep the show from ending. Like Statues of Liberty. Full of something, maybe hope, maybe just air, like the inflatable Christkindli his daughter dragged up the beach. Jesse could salute his little brother’s girl with the cigarette lighter. “Welcome to the family,” he could say. Would it be too much?