It was a blistering and furiously windy, Santa-Ana day when Penelope first came home to her new family. Sick from being overheated by a day out in the sun, she spent most of that first week being carried around by her new big sister and hand-fed by her new mom. Though she loved the attention, Penelope wanted more than anything to be well enough to play. Like all babies, she cried. A lot. Mostly for food, but sometimes because she was lonely, missing the family she was separated from, and not knowing exactly where it was that she had ended up. It didn’t take long, however, for Penelope to fit into her new home, with her new siblings, and her new parents. And fit in, she did.
When Penelope regained her strength, her personality was larger than life. She was a sweetheart, gentle but not completely submissive. She was inquisitive to the point of being in danger: touching what shouldn’t be touched, tasting what shouldn’t be tasted, and sleeping in places that shouldn’t be slept in. She loved to climb things but still needed assistance, being as little as she was. And she was always up for cuddles, be it during the early morning hours when everyone else in her family would rather be asleep, or in the middle of the day, when her mom had other things to do, or late at night, when her brothers and sisters were exhausted and no longer interested in playing or telling her stories.
Penelope, though her early months of life were a struggle she was lucky to survive, learned quickly that a certain cry could get her a certain thing. Was she hungry? She had a piercing shout for that. Was she bored? She had a lazy whine for that. Was she tired? She had a tremendous cry for that. But it wasn’t just her vocal chords that grew along with her body, she also became a very smart girl, who by the time Christmas came, was more curious than ever before. Because something amazing and confusing began to happen in her house.
First, things began to disappear. Her concern was palpable. Was the family moving somewhere else, like her first had done? Would they leave Penelope behind? She couldn’t take care of herself yet, not quite, so the idea that the home she had begun to fit into over the last several months would vanish began to eat her up like a sort of starvation. Her tummy hurt, her cries went from frequent to hushed. Because Penelope didn’t want to upset her family. She didn’t want them to forget about her, but she also didn’t want them to see a reason to abandon her. So, she did what any very young girl would do: she watched. As the things that her family had collected over the years began to be boxed up, Penelope was surprised to see new things appear in their place. Fuzzy things that they wouldn’t let her touch, crunchy things that they wouldn’t let her eat, and round things on strings that were so tempting for Penelope to grab, but they wouldn’t let her have. She began to get so frustrated, that she found herself moving around their feet, curiously cautious, but they always told her, ‘No Penelope’, picked her up, and then set her carefully on the other side of the room by herself or with her big brother, who was completely undaunted and uninterested in the strange chaos happening every day. He told her he’d seen this madness before.
And then, something spectacular came. She’d seen the item of amazement outside their windows before, but not like what her parents began to erect in the middle of the family room. It was a tree, but it smelled funny and felt even funnier. Like a toy, but again, they wouldn’t let her near it. It had poky ends they were afraid would get into her eyes, and it slowly began to get covered with twinkling lights and dangling things that made the temptation to touch unbearable. Mom told Dad that Penelope might get so curious about this new tree, that she’d pull on it, or somehow knock it down and hurt herself or the special dangling things hanging off the branches, so she watched late one night, as her parents put back some of the things they had just unpacked, calling them big words like, ‘delicate’, and ‘irreplaceable’. They didn’t trust Penelope to do as she was told. So, she pouted. When her mom tried to hug her that night, she pushed her away. When her oldest sister tried to cuddle with her before bed, she cried until she was taken into another room. She was no longer allowed to explore the floor on her own. Penelope had become a prisoner in her own home. This simply would not do.
Because she wouldn’t allow herself to be treated like a bother, she became secretly defiant. When her mom wasn’t looking, she poked the tree. When the lowest branch bounced, she tasted it, then quickly spat out the foreign dusty-plastic flavor. It really didn’t taste as she expected, which was disappointing. When her dad wasn’t looking, she yanked on one of the dangling things, knocking it off the tree, and watched it roll across the floor, coming to a stop under a nearby chair. Pleased with herself that she had a secret, she vowed to retrieve the strange object later when no one would notice. Just for safe-keeping, of course, she told herself. This is how it went for the first week. Penelope had managed to gather a small cluster of glittery things, fuzzy things, and round things, and kept them hidden under the living room sofa. In the rare moments when she was in the room alone, she would touch them, play with them, taste them (even though nothing tasted all that great), and play innocent when her mom would question her siblings about the changing appearance of the lower half of the tree. She especially enjoyed the sweet things that Penelope had discovered quite by accident when testing out her baby teeth. She took several of these sour-sweet objects that her mom called ‘candy-canes’ whenever she could, using her limited abilities to unwrap them and get a good lick or two in before being discovered. But the thing she wanted most of all was far out of her reach. A snowman, her brother called it, was perched as a lookout at the very tippy-top of the tree, sitting proudly with his tiny red scarf wrapped around his wide neck above two thin stick arms that Penelope had to have.
Once, Penelope’s curiosity took her too far, and she wiggled underneath the tree and began to climb through the branches. There was nothing quiet about this adventure, including the surprised and concerned sounds that came from her family when they discovered her missing, then discovered her half-way up the tree. They documented the incident with their flashy hand-held devices, laughing but also scolding her, and Penelope was banned from the area for two days. This was a long time to be kept away from a new toy for someone as young and inquisitive as Penelope. She didn’t like it. So, when she was allowed back into the living room, she kept her distance, glaring at anyone who got within arm’s length of the tree, her tree, even though her brother told her it wasn’t even a real tree. She feigned zero interest in it so that her parents began to forget her obsession. And then, just two days shy of Christmas morning, she made her move.
Penelope was going to bring this fake-tree down. The soft and squishy looking plushy toy at the top would be hers. The snowman’s reign over her turf was over. She began to devise a wicked plan, one that she knew would land her in the kind of trouble that would give her nightmares for years, but Penelope thought it might just be worth it. As her family cleaned up after the last meal of the day, she waited patiently for the room to clear. Her siblings, much older than she and therefore busy just before bed, were in the back rooms, cleaning their big-kid teeth, going potty, and getting their beds ready for sleep. But Penelope wasn’t tired. She was invigorated.
Mom was in the kitchen putting food away, so Penelope waited, hidden in the shadows behind a chair, knowing full well that her mom thought she was with her other siblings in the back of the house. Dad was at work late, so the mesmerizing lights wrapped around the tree were left on for him, and they beckoned her like a song, a gently-lulling melody that was asking her to play. Trying not to make a sound, Penelope listened to her mom pass through the room and into the back, where she started to make her rounds from child to child. Penelope only had a few seconds to do the unthinkable before everyone began looking for her.
Slowly, with a fierce determination, she crept up to the tree and let her green eyes drift up the six feet to the top, where the snowman waited for her. It took three lunges, two pulls, and a kick, to sway the tree. But it didn’t move in the direction Penelope had planned. It began to tilt dangerously close to where she sat, and there wasn’t time to move before it came crashing down around her. Trapped and terrified, she began to cry. The cry became a howl, and all the lights in the house were flicked back on, one by one. Her family came running into the living room, shouting at each other, calling her name, and turning in circles, not sure of what to do. It was her mom’s hands that found her first. Hands that until that moment, Penelope didn’t realize were so strong, yet so careful. The mess of a tree was lifted off her and righted back into its place, and Penelope was gathered up into her mom’s arms, safe from harm. Her nose hurt, and her mom seemed to know this, so she kissed it, twice. Mom scolded her something terrible, while somehow also expressing her love and concern, into Penelope’s ear: ‘You could have been hurt, Penelope!’ ‘What were you thinking, Penelope?’ ‘You’re so lucky you’re okay, Penelope!’ And her least favorite, ‘Oh, Penelope, look at what you’ve done!’
The tree had an awkward bend to the branches, but that was quickly fixed. She watched from a distance, held firmly in her oldest brother’s arms, as the baubles and crunchy pieces and dangles were picked up off the ground, and stuck back on the branches, and the lights, still twinkling brightly, were re-aligned. It was amazing, her mom said, that nothing was broken. And during all of this, which was truly remarkable to Penelope, the snowman held his ground at the top. She had never been more upset in her short life. Her family cared more about their fake-tree than her, she worried. All she had done was make a mess, and the snowman hadn’t budged? Her plan had failed. And her nose really was hurt. Despite her sniffles, it was draining like she was crying, though she wasn’t. Because Penelope was angry, not sad. She refused her kisses and cuddles that evening, choosing to sleep on her own. It was cold like that, by herself, and she was tired from all the thinking she did during the night. By morning, her dad had heard the story, and she was once again forbidden from the living room without constant supervision.
Penelope was miserable. It was the day before Christmas, and the weather outside was blustery with hot air and frantic winds. There was another Santa Ana passing through, and the extreme warmth reminded Penelope on Christmas Eve of her first few days with her new family. They had taken her in like one of their own. Fed her, cleaned her, gave her attention and love. They still did this. Nothing had changed, she realized, except for the tree. There was no room to climb beneath it, as it was packed with boxes and bags and other things that Penelope was certain she wasn’t allowed to touch, so she did as she was told. She watched from a distance, still curious, but no longer daring enough to knock the snowman off his throne. And the morning of the special day, when her siblings were gathered together with her parents to talk and open presents, Penelope was picked up and held tightly by her mom, who whispered things in her ear that she didn’t really understand but knew were good things. She was happy. Her family wanted her, just as much as they did the day she came home. Even though she was still little, there was a present under the tree for Penelope too, and a surprise after breakfast.
The snowman, her dashing and quiet foe, was plucked off the tree and set down on the floor for Penelope to investigate. Her family watched as she sniffed him, poked at him, and knocked him over, but unlike when Penelope fell over, he stayed on his side, staring off into the distance, with his red felt scarf flapped over his crooked carrot nose, and she realized something startling. There was simply nothing scary or intimidating about this snowman. In fact, he was hollow, his plush outside hiding how empty on the inside he was. She felt a pang of sorrow for him, that his only time to shine was during the few weeks leading up to that day. Soon, everything on the tree, including the snowman, would be boxed up and put away, where it would wait until Penelope was no longer a young girl before it returned. She chewed on the button that dangled from his stick arm and didn’t complain when her mom scooped him back up and returned him to his post. He had earned his place there, she thought. It was rightfully his, because without him on top of the tree, looking out across the family, there was something missing. Penelope definitely didn’t want his job. For starters, she didn’t think she would fit on top of the tree. Plus, she couldn’t possibly sit still for as long as the snowman did. In fact, she knew as her mom kissed her head and lifted her up to see the top half of the tree, Penelope was more than content to spend her time on the ground. It’s where her family was, and all her snacks, plus, her toys. Lots and lots of toys.
She still had her hiding spot, with plenty of fun things from her first Christmas to keep her busy for months to come. Maybe, if her closest brother was nice enough, she’d show him her special stash so they could play together with the balls and strings and tiny stuffed animals that she had stolen from the tree. But they’d have to keep them a secret, because there were three other siblings, much like her but larger, that would eat these toys, or destroy them with one chomp. The dogs in the house had much less grace than Penelope did, minus the tree-falling incident, of course. Her brother confided in her, long after the tree had been taken down and packed away, that he’d attempted to do the same thing on his first Christmas and several others after, because that snowman just sat there, staring down at him, challenging him to do something, anything. And cats are always up for a challenge.
This didn’t change for Penelope, not exactly. She remained a curious, sweet kitty, but she had no plans to knock down another Christmas tree. At night, when her dreams took her to places where snowmen didn’t rest on branches, she cuddled up next to her eldest sister, a girl of fourteen, and purred her happy cry, because she was a happy cat in a happy home with a happy family, where squishy hollow snowmen only came out once a year. And Penelope was okay with this because a year is a long time for a cat.