It’s like I always say. God bless us, everyone. Even Mantula.
After all, Doug made Christmas pretty fun for a little Ukrainian girl named Anichka. He may seem like a grumpy dude who doesn’t like much in this world, but he’s actually pretty cool once you get to know him. I’m his best friend, whether he likes it or not, so I should know. They call me ManQuail, which is a way better name than Glenn. Back to Doug, Mantula, though. Who wouldn’t be grumpy about waking up in the body of a hairy old tarantula? It wasn’t so bad for yours truly. I woke up in the body of a quail. No one screams in terror at the sight of a quail, even one who used to have a meth habit.
It turns out some little girls are less afraid of big old ugly spiders than others. Anichka was one of them. She loved spiders to death. Not in the sense that she wanted to hug them and crush them like that sicko in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, but she loved what they represented. Get this, in the Ukraine they’re hung as ornaments on Christmas trees. Here in America, spiders are only Halloween. Christmas is spider-free in the U.S. of A. Only that’s where Anichka ended up with her grandparents.
I found out later her name means grace in Hebrew. Only she wasn’t showing any of that the night we passed by. It was close to Christmas Eve, I remember that, but I’m not sure what day exactly. Everything was cold as hell and twinkling red, gold and green lights blinked on and off in the windows of nearly every house. Cottonwood, Arizona, doesn’t get a lot of snow, but they were that night. It was coming down like dandruff off an avalanche.
We were out on our usual patrol. I called it that anyway. Doug just thought it would be fun to get out of our crappy little apartment for a spell. He wanted to look at the Christmas lights along the street. I’m sure it had something to do with the family he once had, because he got very quiet, brooding almost, once we hit the road. We didn’t mind the chill really, and it was nice to see the twinkling colors in the snowstorm. It reminded me of my own childhood in Camp Verde. I never got a lot for Christmas, but my pop sure loved those lights. He hung them everywhere, even on the broken-down Mazda in the front yard. I couldn’t tell you about Mantula’s Christmas past. He never mentioned his past often.
We’d gotten about two blocks down Twelfth Street, with Doug riding on my back as usual, when we heard a little girl sobbing. I slowed a little, peering sideways through the falling snow to identify the source of the sound. To our right sat a small single-wide trailer. Like many of the crappy homes on the block, Christmas lights blinked on and off all over it, adding cheer to the poverty. The storm kept the streets clear and quiet. Cottonwood folk aren’t used to big storms, so they were settled inside, near their fireplaces with cocoa more than likely. This stillness in the air made it all the easier to hear the sobbing sounds.
“Should we check it out?” I mentally asked Mantula. I could tell he was interested in the source, so I didn’t wait for an answer. With a quick flap, I got us up and over the chain link fence in the front yard.
Mantula cocked his head to the left. “It’s coming from that partially-opened window at the far side of the building.”
I sprang to the edge of the window. The sill wasn’t very large, and I had to cling to it like a fly, but we were able to peer inside the room. There we could see a little girl in a red sweater and pajama pants sobbing on a small couch. In front it was one of the biggest Christmas trees I had seen in years. A giant crystal snowflake topped the giant, which was so tall I would think they’d need the abominable snowman’s help. Besides the sobbing girl, the place appeared quiet.
At that moment, however, a blonde woman came into the room. She wore a green plaid robe and held a cell phone to her head. As she talked she brushed some of her tangled hair out of her face and looked worriedly at the little girl.
“She speaks so little English, Brian,” The woman said. “It’s hard for me to know. I’m sure she misses her parents and the other members of her family killed in Kiev. My Hungarian is terrible, so I’m not sure what it is exactly. She keeps saying sok szerencsét, something about luck and pointing at the tree. I don’t know what to do and it’s breaking my heart. Anichka? Sweety? Is there anything I can do? She’s not even replying to me, Brian.”
“Poor kid,” I said. “Did you hear what that woman said. Her parents were killed it sounds like.”
Mantula looked around the sill, as if eye-balling a way to get inside. “In the Ukraine’s recent civil war. You might not remember it since you’ve been transformed longer than me. Pretty brutal.”
“And she wants good luck now that she’s here in the states?”
“Something like that,” Doug replied. “It’s funny. I think I know exactly what she wants.”
The adult wandered into another part of the house still talking on the phone. As soon as she departed, my friend jumped from my back, through the opened window, and smack into the living room of the trailer home. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I always trusted in my friend, so I came in silently behind him. I’d barely gotten to my feet before he made his way onto the Christmas tree. Seeing that I had no idea what he was up to, I just watched.
The tree looked beautiful in that small little place. Strings of plastic candy canes circled the full, green branches. Gold-colored garland surrounded it, and stained glass ornaments, mostly of Santa and Rudolph and the rest of the Christmas character hung everywhere. Presents filled the area at the base. Many of them were for the little girl named Anichka. Looking up, I finally saw what Mantula had in mind.
In just a few seconds, he’d covered a good portion of the tree in silky, shimmering cobwebs. I could still see the ornaments and garland through the webbing, but still. Why in the hell?
I cried out mentally. “What are you doing, Doug? You’re ruining the tree!” I could hear the woman chatting on the phone in the other room. Her conversation didn’t get any closer, so I assumed she was sitting down somewhere in there. We had a little time. Anichka’s sobs grew quieter, but she remained on the couch with her back to us.
“Trust me, Glenn.”
“Trust you? You’re covering their Christmas tree in webs!”
Mantula kept up his work. He sprang from branch to branch, spraying a fine webby mist as he went, and soon had the tree nearly covered. Seconds later, with his work nearly completed, he asked me to head over to the little girl. Count to twenty, he told me, and then get her to turn around.
I’d given up trying to argue with the crazy tarantula at that point, so I made my way to the sad little thing. At the count of twenty, I gently pecked at her heels. She stirred slightly, then turned her face to me. For a moment her petite features were blank, kind of like the face I make when I’m just waking up from sleeping all day, but then she grew surprised to see me. Who wouldn’t be a little surprised. She brushed the dark hair from her face, wet with her tears, and sat up. I flapped my wings back to the floor near the window in case I’d need a quick escape route. But then she noticed the tree and gasped in surprise.
Dangling from the highest branches came Mantula. He dropped slowly along the center of the Christmas tree, suspended from a single strand of web. At the bottom of the tree, he dropped to the floor. Anichka watched in wonder, hardly moving, as Doug waved one of his legs in a form of greeting. Surprisingly, the girl waved back, sheepishly, but happily too. She stared at the tree, a smile forming on her cute little face, while Mantula climbed onto my back.
I was shocked. “She likes it. I can’t believe it!”
“We’d better go,” Doug answered. At that moment, the little girl began to clap her hands and shout. Mantula was right. The adult probably wouldn’t be as excited about what we’d done as the girl. I glided to the window sill with Doug on my back and we both dropped into the dark snowstorm.
“Köszönöm! Köszönöm!” Anichka shouted after us. I’m hoping that was “thanks” in Hungarian. By the time the adult came back into the room, we were already back on the sidewalk. I doubted she would find the webbed up Christmas tree as attractive as the little Ukrainian girl, but I also doubted Anichka would let her remove even a strand of the stuff.
“My son had to study Christmas traditions in school once. He chose the Ukraine for his report. Spiders are important there during the holidays,” Doug explained. “There’s folktales about them helping the poor. One particular story is about a woman who cleaned her house so well in preparation for Christmas that the spiders themselves had nowhere to hide. Wanting to see the arrival of the Christ child (part of the holiday tradition there), the spiders hid out in the Christmas tree itself. But they got wild and covered the tree in webs. When the Christ child arrived on Christmas morning, he turned the webs into sparkling treasures to disappoint the woman who worked so hard to make everything perfect. Many believe this tale, of the spider and the Christ child, led to the modern-day tradition of hanging tinsel on the tree. Webs and spider ornaments on the tree are thought to be a sign of good luck.”
I shrugged. “I liked the stained-glass Santa head myself.”
Mantula was quiet for a moment before he spoke again. “She seemed happy, didn’t she?”
I nodded. “Are you ready to go back on patrol?”
“We’re not on patrol, Doug. We’re looking at Christmas lights.”
“We’re looking at Christmas lights while on patrol.”
So it’s like I said at the beginning. Merry Christmas, everyone. Even Mantula.