At our orphanage, Christmas is equivalent to any other day. Caned into silence, we listen to our instructions for saying grace. Our master speaks loudly as he patrols the cafeteria. To punctuate his nearly-sober insights, he often smacks the closest tabletop with his bamboo cane. “He wants to forgive your sins. Yes, even yours!” (Smack!) “How he can ever forgive such a useless bunch of delinquents, I’ll never know!” (Smack!) “While saying grace, don’t forget to beg for forgiveness! He forgives, but also punishes.” (Smack!) “He can punish you as surely as he did your unwed mothers; he sent them to hell for dropping such ugly little bastards.” (Smack!)
He extends his arm, slowly turns, and somehow seems to point his cane at each of us. “As always, I’m watching and listening to make sure you pray earnestly.” (Smack!) “If you want to miss your daily bread, just let me catch you not praying.” (Smack!) “God bless you all. Merry Christmas! (Smack!) Enjoy your dinner.”
Dinner? Stale bread and watery broth do not a dinner make! Each evening, our alcoholic master demands we pray before dinner. Listening to his mandatory instructions is worse than saying grace.
We pray to our drunken master’s imaginary master. At the table for eighth-grade boys, we focus on praying accurately only when he is close enough to hear our individual voices. Failing to notice him approaching, I decide to replace ‘Father God’ with ‘farter cod.’ He smacks his cane across my back so forcefully I nearly faint in agony.
Before I can either scream or cry, my anger overrides my wisdom. Forgetting I am small and thin, I rapidly stand, grab my chair, and then swing it in an upwards arc. Despite our master’s booze consumption, he steps back quickly enough to avoid my chair. His huge fist grabs my shirt just below my throat. Growling like the mad dog he is, he drags me into the air, straightens his arm, and shakes me violently for at least a minute. He finally drops me. I fear to stand.
He tries to speak in a stage whisper, but only achieves a nastier growl. “Well? Now what? Do you wish to try that again? Need I remind you that, as a Corporation officer, I am authorized to kill you? Goddamn you! Stand and answer!”
I finally stand, at attention. “No sir!” I decide to develop a stronger will.
“Even if you dare to disrespect the Almighty, disrespecting me can be fatal. I have decided to not kill you. This time. However, you will not eat dinner. You will stand by the door and watch the others eat.”
He looks at the other boys to make sure they have been paying attention. He begins to smile as he forms an evil idea. “Not only will you miss supper, you’ll also miss our Corporation’s Christmas surprise, which is cake!” The boys cheer this announcement. Though most have never tasted cake, we all know it should be delicious. I wish I could have some. But I must stop wishing. I am determined to grow stronger and stay out of trouble with the Corporation.
As ordered, I stand by the door and watch the other boys fill their stomachs at least partially. I ignore my rumbling stomach because I am determined to control my mind. The master watches me, hoping I will start to cry so he can use his cane again. Growing stronger, I simply stare back, unblinking.
After supper, a few boys start chanting, “Cake! Cake! Christmas cake!” Soon, most join in, “Christmas cake! Christmas cake!” Our master shouts them down, “Christmas silence, you greedy pigs! You want cake? Well. I’ve decided you need to earn your cake.” He walks over to me, turns me to face the wall, and then orders the other boys to form a line. “If you really want your cake, you must each hit him once with my cane, and then return to your seat. Hit as hard as you can, or no cake.”
Fortunately, I am slightly bigger and stronger than most of the other boys. Each strike hurts, but without agony. I neither whimper nor cry. We are all too thin. We wonder why the Corporation doesn’t feed us properly; we know it plans to sell most of us as soldiers.
After the boys return to their seats, our master orders me to face them. I stare at them defiantly. He asks, “Are you all ready for cake?” The boys start to cheer, but he stops them. “Well. You’re not getting any!” (Smack! He resumes patrolling with his cane.) “I ordered you to hit hard, but you merely tapped him. You’re no soldiers! You’re only sissies!” (Smack!) “I will need to grind you up and sell you as dog food.” (Smack!) “Sit silently until I return.” On his way out, he orders me to return to my seat.
My classmates glare at me. One whispers, “Thanks to you, we missed our cake!” I whisper back, “Idiot! There is no cake. If you want it, you need to open our master’s skull because It exists only in his imagination.” Suddenly, our master roars through the intercom, “I ordered you to remain silent until I return! I will then announce a real surprise. Pray for our Corporation! Merry Christmas! Oh. By the way. One more thing. Threatening to open an officer’s skull can be fatal.”