Each Christmas, with infinite care and growing absorption, the child chose a gift. He watched her now. She rubbed the back of her hand along a stoneware crock. She peered through the glass at rows of necklaces and enameled pins and counted the feathers in a hat and squinted her eyes at the tiny, perfect bird that was sewn beneath its crown. She picked up flatirons in both hands, balancing them for weight. She ran her finger down the edge of an ax head and sprawled out half the length of a Cleopatra couch, staring at a mounted owl through the bowl of a green stemware glass and then tilting a prism back and forth in her hand so the room was filled with rainbows.
“Can we light the lamps?” she said. She slid her wrist along the rough underside of the horse tackle in the corner and lifted a brass kettle and then a coal hod, and, as the room flickered golden, she twirled a weather vane, sending the cock due north, and opened and fastened a leather trunk and a painted trunk, hitched an entire train of railroad cars together and posed in front of a mirror with a salmon-hued dress, trimmed in peacock feathers, tucked daintily under her chin.
For an hour she was lost in the bookshelves, turning through yellowed catalogues and pushing ripples of goldleafed pages into her cheek. He had lit a fire in the stove, and as the room grew warmer, she took the shawl off. She folded it carefully and laid it on a cane-bottomed chair and spread her fingers out to cover the fan that decorated the chair’s back. She wiggled her fingers, waited and wiggled them again as if she expected the fan to accordion open and shut in imitation. Then, clasping her hands behind her back, she resumed her walk along the aisles.
The afternoon was finished. The windowpanes had turned a mottled black and gray, a mix of outer darkness and frost that had gone thin as the room heated up. The child dawdled at a phonograph. She lifted its arm, her head inclined, and to the man’s eyes she was centered perfectly in the frame of a window, her flushed skin and the purple horn of the phonograph set in its coldness. In a moment, she went on, abandoning the phonograph without settling a record on it to limp in place. She slid between two counters, her elbow bumping a rope of prayer bells and sending it jangling and clinking in the air.
He stirred at the sound, shifting his boots on the fender. Without looking at him, the child seemed to know he was ready for her to make her choice. Her eyes swept in one, long, idiosyncratic course around the room. Past stained glass windows and parking lots of pressed-tin cars, past milk cans and blown glass paperweights, past coffee mills, chocolate pots, ancient surgeon’s rolls of instruments and old photographs in cherry frames, past a Tiffany lamp and stacks of sheet music. Then, after lingering briefly on a hand-carved violin, they settled finally and unequivocally on a butter churn.
“I want this,” she said, crossing the room and squeezing her fingers closed on the top of the dasher. “I’ll learn to make butter.”