Like a clock on the hour, it struck him. Mittens! He was packing a shoebox with presents for Gazan children. Crayons, jellies, small toys and mittens: pink fleece ones, with a cartoon bunny on the top. He had bought them for a sixth Christmas his sister never saw. The bus sent her flying through the air like a stone and the day he kissed her goodbye, her hands cold as snowballs, he couldn’t help wishing that he had gifted them sooner. His mother said her soul would go straight to heaven; that she would be warm there in God’s amber glow. Still, Kevin didn’t care about a soul he never saw and didn’t know. He thought about the hands he had held walking to school, the ones he had played concentration with, the impish spidery fingers that ruffled his hair after he’d combed it; that were now growing hard as iron in the buried dark. Kevin wasn’t stupid, he knew how long people were dead for.
In they went, two pink fleece rabbits in a gift-wrapped burrow, tied together by an umbilical string cable and a note that read: From Galway to Gaza: A Christmas wish that you will be safe and warm. Almost every family in the town prepared a gift-box. When the cars came to collect the packages, piled high as trees in the sacristy, the chorus of whoops and cheers could be heard four thousand kilometres away, as a generator thrummed to life restoring power to Gaza city.
Kevin adorned the municipal Christmas tree with lights that hung like stars above Palestine. Counting down the days left until Christmas, he opened another door on the advent calendar and peered inside. He saw Nasma. Short-haired, brown-eyed and barefoot. She was counting on her fingers, the number of days she had been slowly starving in the dark. Six years old, deaf and mute as a flower, the new light had led her to the kitchen where her mother was returning with bread and a gold box fastened with red ribbons.
‘Five days’, she etched to her mother in the air. Five days to Christmas. Five days since her father and brothers vanished in a cloud of dust and debris, taking their bedrooms with them.
Sitting on the floor on a woven rug, threadbare and frayed as her mother’s wits, Nasma undid the box in noiseless rapture. Cramming coloured jellies into her small mouth, the handwritten note saying nothing she could decipher, she pulled on the mittens which fit as they should but concealed her fingered vernacular, hindering her ability to communicate. But maybe this was the point. Alarmed and under threat, even insects know to stay still, but Nasma began to wonder whether her gesticulations drew the bombs that disappeared her brothers. Thinking this a gift from an angered and absent father, she donned her mittens and stilled her calligraphic hands.
Four days and the church-bells of Galway rang out like a warning in the Gazan night. While Kevin carolled to the Christ-child and lit fragrant candles on the festive altar, Nasma caught the scent of a myth. A birth or a death,she couldn’t remember but it smelled of magic and her grandfather’s farm in Bethlehem. Three men of an ancient tale had travelled here in the middle of the night and she thought that maybe, just maybe, her father and brothers – the three wise men of Jabaliya refugee camp – might have journeyed there too.
Three days and whilst Kevin festooned the chancel with wreaths and golden angels, the first snowflakes appeared and fell as ash from the blitzed and collapsing edifices of Gaza city. Nasma watched as missiles passed overhead, bright and noiseless as meteors. The neighbourhood fled in soundless terror, shadowing hares to their underground hollows but Nasma, whose hands spoke to no-one, hastened in the direction of a star. She trailed it like a maga. Her mother followed too, through perilous streets and hostile meadows. Suddenly, a wrathful and radiant light flashed amber from behind the black-boned limbs of an olive grove. Striking both blind, the bomb cut Nasma in two. It took her mittened hands to an unknown place, where they lay hushed and warm as two sleeping mice. Gifts for the Christ-child who didn’t lift a finger to help. The rest, fell into her mother’s arms, outstretched as a converting Saul; another on a journey toward a birth or a death, no one remembers, but two days to go, the ash continued to fall soft and silent, on a child lying contrapposto in the manger of her mother. Two enigmatic Nyad’s carved in stone, whose deaths, inconspicuous as snowdrops in a river, lay garlanded on Christmas eve beside the wreckage of a distorted myth.
As the lustre of the world slowly ebbed away from Gaza, the nativity came to life at Galway cathedral. Kevin stood before the curious magi from the east, the expectant mother, the propitious future yet to arrive. Then starlight, brilliant and redolent, shot through the gathering crowd, skewering a tiny space beside the manger. He saw them there, two pink fleece mittens, tied together by an umbilical string cable, lying hushed as two sleeping mice. Mittens lost and forgotten by some child’s hands. Some child’s hands lost and forgotten.