Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Christmas Oranges

December 6, 2023

Glynn Young

You’re late, Samuel David McClure!” his mother said, calling from the kitchen. “It’s our Christmas dinner! And if your boots are muddy, you take them off before you take one step in this kitchen.”

Sam set his bow on its hook in the mud room, removed his hat, and set his sack on the floor. His boots weren’t muddy; whatever mud there’d been, it was frozen. 

“I’m sorry, Mama,” he said, sitting between two of his nieces. “I met a family traveling from Florida. Broken axle on the wagon and they needed help.”

The table was full. His sister Martha and her five children, four girls and a boy. His sister-in-law Emily and her three girls. His sister Cora Beth, whom Sam dearly loved, sitting in her permanently muted silence, unable to speak from birth. Next to Cora Beth sat his father, presiding at the head of the table. Franklin McClure was 62 and looked older, still mourning the loss of two sons and a son-in-law, two on the same day at Shiloh and one the year before at Franklin near Nashville. 

One of the other two chairs was occupied by the Widow Pettigrew, whose husband had been Brookhaven, Mississippi’s only doctor until his death the previous year. She now took most of her meals with the McClures, completely lost when her house slaves disappeared the day after her husband’s funeral. The McClures had never owned slaves.

Sam’s mother, Louisa, was 28 years younger than her husband, a second wife resented by his adult children. The worst thing was her being a Yankee from Pennsylvania. Worse still, her brother had served in General Sherman’s army. The only child from this second marriage was Sam, and he, too, had occasionally suffered at the bullying hand of his siblings.

“Everyone needs help, Sam,” his mother said. “There’s no end to the need, and you can’t do it all. And no family should be traveling on Christmas Day.”

“He thought it might be safer today than most days, Mama,” Sam said. “I told him to get into Brookhaven and wait for people headed west.”

The family quieted. They’d all heard the stories, real and imagined, of unsafe roads. Social order had broken down even before the end of the war, except for areas with federal troops. Unless they traveled in groups, people knew that any road might offer up deserters, criminals, and runaway slaves to the unwary.

Sam was now the only son left bearing the McClure name.

He’d run away to enlist in the Confederate Army at 13, and he’d been believed dead until he surprised his family and the town when he returned one early September morning. Now 15, Sam, with his deep knowledge of the woods and his legendary hunting skills, had become the family mainstay for a considerable amount of their food.

After praying a private blessing, Sam passed his plate to his sister Martha, who ladled rabbit stew from the tureen. They’d eaten a considerable amount of rabbit and catfish during the past few months, but no one complained. They were eating better than most in Brookhaven this first winter after the war. With ammunition and gunpowder scarce, Sam was relying more and more on his hunting bow. 

Hoping to expand the food supply, he’d fashioned a bow and had been teaching Martha’s boy, 10-year-old Littleton, how to hunt. The lessons had extended to fishing, learning the woods, basic carpentry, and other skills the family needed. Littleton, his own father buried in an unmarked Shiloh grave, considered Sam the next best thing. And maybe the best thing.

Somehow, Martha and his mother had dredged up enough meal to make cornbread, sufficient for each of the family to have a small piece.

They ate slowly, making the food last as long as possible. If any additional was available, the children were allowed a second helping, usually just the remaining broth. 

“I can still taste those old Christmas dinners,” Mrs. Pettigrew said. “We had turkey and dressing, a heap of fried chicken, ham, and there must have been five different vegetables and a mountain of potatoes. And bread from white flour, and cane syrup for the cornbread.”

“And pies and divinity fudge,” Emily said. “And applesauce cake, and orange cake with raisins, and the best apple pie. And those minced sweetbread pies. And vanilla custard.”

“Remember,” Martha said, “what coffee tasted like before we had to use chicory? And shelled pecans. And that year we had deer meat, too.”

“I remember,” Franklin said, “pecan pies so sweet they made your mouth pucker.”

His bowl of stew empty, Sam cleared his throat. “The family whose wagon had broken down were traveling from Florida to Texas. Waco, I think. I got the man to town, and we roused Ephraim at the blacksmith’s. He actually had an axle that would work. It took all three of us, and we had to unload the wagon, but we got the new axle on. The man didn’t have any money to pay Ephraim, but he offered him a crate of oranges.”

“Oranges!” his mother said. “I haven’t seen an orange in years.”

“As you might imagine,” Sam said, “Ephraim accepted his offer and lit out for home. Then the man asked if I might accept a gift for the help I’d provided.”

Sam stood and retrieved the bag from the porch.

“He gave me seven of them,” Sam said, “and I reckon if we cut them in half, everybody can have a piece.” He found a sharp carving knife in the utensil drawer and began to cut each in half.

Fourteen pairs of eyes followed every cut he made.

The smell of the oranges began to pervade the kitchen.

Sam doled out a half to each person, with the last orange divided between his mother and Cora Beth. 

At first, they all stared. Then Martha’s youngest daughter, 4-year-old Angelina, licked hers. That set the family to devouring their halves.

Except for Littleton. 

“Where’s your orange, Sam?” Littleton said.

“I’m fine, Litt. The smell is more than satisfying.”

Littleton stood and walked to Sam’s place at the table, handing him his half.

“Cut it in half, Sam,” Littleton said.

“Littleton, I’m fine. You sit there and enjoy your orange.”

“Cut mine in half, Sam, or I will,” the boy said.

Sam stared at his nephew for a moment, then quickly turned away before he could see the tears in his eyes. He cut the half in two. With Sam still sitting and Littleton standing beside him, they both began to each their orange slices.  

Cora Beth waved at Sam to get his attention and began talking in her sign language. Sam was the only family member who knew the signs.

“What is Cora saying, Sam?” his father said.

Sam smiled. “She’s saying that, of all the Christmas desserts and sweets she can ever remember, the orange here is the best.”

The featured image is courtesy of Raspopova Marina via Unsplash. We are grateful for her generosity.


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  1. Glynn, you have created a short story here that begs for more! I’m already in love with the characters and the situations that will flesh them out and challenge them in the future. Believe it or not, you’ve also inspired me to challenge myself to do more serious writing.
    Merry Christmas blessings to you!

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