my mother's circus/hand-sewn carnival

by Monique Quintana

In the sterile hum of her bourgeoisie kitchen light, I thought him a prince, but one that no one loved for he was too strange. My mother had a Christmas elf that sat atop a stone asparagus on her kitchen counter. His stitched smile was like no other.

In 1987, my grandmother made Christmas ornaments from dried apricots and sugar cookies that she baked with her own hands, a creation upon a creation. They were all tiny women, and she gave them dark hair like us, which felt like a gift to me. She made their hair out of skinny strands of yarn that she curled on super sharp skewers that she had placed in the oven right on the cookie sheets. Sharp pikes baking alongside doll faces and arms and limbs that turned to a deep golden brown, our skin color. She's stitched the hair on gently, and when they were cool enough, they went on the tree, a tree so tall that it hit the beams of the ceiling that my grandfather had built with his very own hands. The dolls made out of apricots looked like ancient ladies, and they peeked out of the pine leaves like they were waiting for their sugar cookie daughters and granddaughters out of foggy glass windows.

That year, my grandma splurged and got tree lights that flickered on and off. The tree might have looked more decedent if they got the white-hot lights or the warm white lights, but my grandmother got the colored lights, and the tree looked like a hand-sewn carnival towered over a train that only ran if an aunt or a distant cousin dropped in to say hello.

Christmas trees always make me think about the difference between a carnival and a circus and why some people use these terms interchangeably. I think my mother's elf is more like a circus. He hung off my mother's stone specked asparagus container like he was waiting for a fire to fall from the sky. I lifted the lid of the asparagus once, thinking I'd find the belongings of the elf—a tiny wardrobe, a silver comb, and a sewing kit. But all I found were a few grocery receipts and used up batteries that had been buried in the place like the dreams of the elf. My mother's elf had a contortionist's body. I'd seen its position change several times and wondered who was to blame for this.

Years after my grandmother died, my grandfather lost his house to a wealthy white family, and we never went back there again. I see myself as a little brown girl ghost, running in and out of the many folds of the house, places where no one can see me, and sliding down the banister on Christmas morning, nicking my hands and kneecaps on the garland that is dotted with plastic berries like little jewel drops of blood. My mother sold her house five years ago and entombed her Christmas elf in a plastic storage container. The prince is crushed under other forsaken ornaments shaped like ballerinas and toy drums and bellboys in red and black suits.

Tonight, I see that my mother's elf is resurrected and meets up with the tree women in my grandmother's house attic. He curtsies before them, his long limbs sprouting in reverse until he is their size. They all become arabesque, and they dance together under a string of warm glowing lights that flicker and then dissipate, until their tiny steps are just shadows, waiting again, bleating against the floorboards, waiting to die like mine.

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