A longer version of “Christmas Ex Machina.” Merry Christmas to all!

“Christmas Ex Machina.”

M.J. Downing

On a cold, gray Christmas Eve, while Sam Cooper was home, at work, when the ghost came. Sam, surrounded by computer screens, was in the midst of a video conference at the same time he answered several questions from clients who paid him well. His talent was making software behave. Yet, all at once, the screens on his computer system flickered, went bright blue, then red, green, and yellow. Then, the colors faded, and a rugged, old face resolved on each monitor, even his laptop, off to one side, unused. The face that stared out at him was bearded, with grizzled, short-cropped hair. Sam knew the rugged countenance at once: it was his uncle, Tancred Ogier Cooper, who had been dead for nearly two years. Uncle Tank clenched his sandblasted, black pipe in his teeth and sent smoke curling around his weathered face.

            “Avast, Samson Cooper,” his Uncle Tank said. The voice was unmistakable, deep, harsh, one used to shouting over gales and sandstorms. Sam stared back at him, and, wonder of wonders, smelled the smoke of his uncle’s pipe, which was impossible, yet tickling his nose at that very instant. Part wood fire, part spice, the scent was one he remembered from his childhood. That scent forced him back to a dim memory of his childhood, taking him far away from his work, his expertise, the very identity he had created for himself. It was all impossible.  Yet, there was his Uncle Tank staring out at him, where his data and associates had been seconds before.

            “’Ware, lad! I am coming!” the old man cried again, making the speakers rattle on the desk.  In the next instant, Sam’s data, his Slack platform, and distant colleagues returned as though nothing happened. Sam’s fingers shook as he ran his malware. It took less than a second to tell him that his system operated at peak efficiency.

            “Sam?” a voice called to him from his speakers, making him jump.

            “Wh…what…do you want?” he murmured: shock left him goggle-eyed and made the hairs on his neck stand, tingling.

            “Uh, your thoughts on the data vulnerability, Sam?” the voice came again. It came from his conference call.

            “Oh,” Sam said, covering his face with his hands and rubbing hard. “That. Yes…” Sam gathered his wobbling thoughts and turned, shaken, back to his business.  Within minutes, he explained his proposal, then shut down the video call, the Slack platform, and powered down his system, mumbling to himself, “I knew I should have sprung for the ViewSonic monitors and the Radeon graphics card.” In his heart, though, Sam knew that such omissions could not account for what he had seen.  He continued to mumble “impossible,” despite the memory of Uncle Tank’s face—plus the scent of the man’s pipe—which made strong arguments against his sense of what was possible. His system appeared to be fine, though he ran several diagnostics. Each turned up exactly nothing, making him conclude that, somehow, the appearance of his uncle’s face on all his screens, simultaneously, had nothing to do with his computer.

            “She told me that I’ve been working too hard,” he muttered, remembering the words of Audra, his wife, before she and his grown children took off for a day of last-minute Christmas shopping.  As that thought went through his mind, a sepulchral voice in his living room cried out, “Samson Cooper! Attend to me, lad!”

            He dashed toward the sound of his Uncle Tank’s voice, when rang off the walls of his father’s old house. Sam rushed down the hall with the scent of the old fellow’s pipe again in his nose.  A whisp of smoke lay in the still air of the hallway, but when he turned into the living room, no one was there. The tree lights were off, the mantle lights, too, and the fireplace stood cold. Sam shivered.

            His hands shaking, Sam went to the kitchen and brewed a pot of mint tea, thinking that, perhaps, his caffeine intake had gotten out of hand. “Stress…gotta be stress,” Sam said aloud to the empty room, as though to argue with the obvious reality that he might be losing his mind.  However, he did some breathing as he waited for the kettle to boil, which helped calm him and slowed his hammering pulse. Like most men, Sam would not entertain the notion that he was haunted.  However, like all men in present days, he lived with fear daily.  His fears came from familiar sources: the divisive hate that marks public discourse, the pandemic, the anxiety about the world he would leave to his children. Before this moment, though, Sam Cooper’s haunting had lacked a specific ghost.

Sipping his tea, Sam grew calmer. He took out his smartphone, thumbed up his emails, and these instantly dissolved, as though a strong wind had blown them, like leaves, from branches. All the words and frames broke apart and fell into a clutter at the bottom of the screen. There, again, was Uncle Tank, smiling at him, now, nodding, and puffing on his pipe. Once more, the scent of the pipe tobacco came and mingled with the scent of his tea.

            “I’m counting on you, boyo. Let your uncertainty guide you to that which is lost!” his dead uncle cried.  Sam dropped the phone as though it had shocked him. It clattered to the floor and slid underneath the refrigerator, where Uncle Tank’s voice went on,

            “You’ll not be shed of me that way, boyo!”

            Sam moved the refrigerator away from the wall.  His hands shook as he retrieved his phone.  It was whole, still, screen and body undamaged, and when he opened it, his emails popped up just like normal. With a shiver that ran from his head to his feet, Sam decided that his business was concluded for the day. He hurried upstairs, got beneath his covers, shivering.

            Sam Cooper, a large, well-knit, middle-aged man, was not given to fanciful notions.  He was quite wealthy, had learned well how to take care of himself, physically, mentally. He was often at the gym and spent a small part of each day in mindfulness meditations—at least ten minute’s worth. He had a lovely, devoted wife, Audra, and two nearly grown children, Daniel, in his first year of college, and Annie, a year away from following her brother.  His family, indeed, all who knew him, considered him a man who had it all together.  In fact, in yesterday’s mindfulness time, Sam had congratulated himself on this standing, for he experienced success in all his endeavors. He’d won the respect of all who knew him.  However, seeing the ghostly visage of his Uncle Tank on all of his screens unnerved him. If dead men appear on a man’s screens, he does not, likely, have it all together. In a short time, Sam Cooper’s identity had all but faded away in the face of the impossible.

True, he said to himself, the past years in the pandemic had been hard, for he had lost his dad to covid, as well as several distant family members and friends from college.  As he lay beneath his covers, Sam sought comfort from the fact that such stressors like these could pile up on a guy. “I’m…okay.  Just…too much stress…working too hard. Not going crazy.  Nope. Not at all.” However, he did not let himself think about having smelled his dead uncle’s pipe tobacco.  Seeing strange images on a screen was one thing. Smelling a dead man’s pipe tobacco lay beyond the border of what Sam considered truly crazy.

      Trying to think why Uncle Tank haunted his screens, Sam remembered that his father, Hector Cooper, a Lutheran pastor, had told him two years ago that he learned of Uncle Tank’s death.  Word had come from Arranmore, Ireland, from the only woman whom Tank had loved, that Tank was gone. Hector had said, “It just won’t be Christmas without Tank.” Now, Sam wondered what sort of Christmas he was going to have with Tank’s ghost.

Hector and Tank had a special bond, one forged in the crucible of a harrowing family, which had deserted them when they both came of age.  Their father had been a tyrant when he was around. He’d insisted that all his children be named after famous warriors. There was a much older brother, Achilles, who disappeared before the old man. They had a younger sister, Boadicea, who ran off with a biker gang when she was twelve.  Hector’s mother, Helga, died, he said, “from terminal mean- ness.” Hector had followed the Gospel, while Tancred had followed his wandering feet.

Uncle Tank, Sam knew, had traveled the world in the Navy, then in merchant fleets. Tank had been blasted by the bitter winds of both poles and burned in the sun of the Gobi and Sahara. Hector told young Sam bedtime stories about Uncle Tank’s wanderings, so that Sam imagined his uncle as a modern Viking. Tank had fought in foreign armies, traveled the fabled Spice Road out of Samarkand, gone to Timbuktu and Abyssinia, looking for gold.  Those stories intrigued young Sam, though his first meeting of his wayward uncle in person had terrified the boy.  This, indeed, was the very feeling which had returned to Sam in full force with the old fellow’s appearance on the computer monitors.

               As Sam grew warm beneath his covers, he remembered that meeting. It came on the eve of his seventh Christmas. Hector and family had just moved to the house where Sam now lived, just down the tree-line avenue from his father’s church. Young Sam and Hector, just back from a Christmas Eve service, stood in the front yard, looking for Santa’s sleigh.  While they looked up at the cold stars, Sam turned his glance to see a dark figure lumbering down the sidewalk beneath the bare branches of the old oaks and sycamores that lined the street. He nudged his father to look.

“Holy Lord, son. It’s Tank,” Hector whispered to the cold air. Hector called out to him and ran to embrace his brother, with Sam tagging along behind,  and Tank answered him in his booming voice. His black pipe ablaze in his teeth, Tank loomed over both of the calling,

“By the seven seas, Hector, I’ve come home at last!” as he picked up Sam’s father, who was no small man himself. Well over six feet,  Tank lived up to his name, a bear of a man, clad in dungarees, rough boots, a weatherproof coat, and a heavy Irish sweater. Both men were about to burst with fierce joy as Tank held his younger brother aloft. The scene unnerved and intrigued young Sam, who watched the reunion. His father’s rejoicing at the presence of this huge man Sam feel shut out from something, something like the joy of Christmas itself.  His father’s attention was all given to Tank.  Sam had to stand behind them, with the scent of Uncle Tank’s pipe surrounding them all,  feeling shut out. Hector hurried Tank indoors and shouted for the rest of his family to come and see.

As he lay beneath his covers, Sam recognized that there was something true about Christmas in their love: it was a time set aside to recognize how the risks of life were overcome by a special love, one that came to dwell with us, make our home His home.  Hector and Tancred had learned it together, even coming from a hard, bitter past. Yet Sam’s fear of Uncle Tank’s ghost still held him, as he recalled being introduced to his gigantic uncle.

Tank, upon their first meeting, scooped up young Sam in hands that seemed the size of shovels, swung him high in the air, taking Sam’s breath away. Tank’s weathered face, his fierce gray eyes, and loud voice terrified the boy, who had run and hid after that. That terror returned with Uncle Tank’s shocking visage and booming voice on his screens. Tank’s presence, in the flesh and as the ghostly apparition on Sam’s monitors, vibrated with frightening power. A man could get lost in such power, especially with the confusion the ghost’s words caused: “Let your uncertainty guide you to that which is lost!” How is that possible? It was enough to make Sam doubt his sanity and be unable to what this might mean. What could his dead uncle want him to find? And how does one find anything in the midst of uncertainties?

Samson Cooper had conquered his world, the realm of computer software, and had traversed its domain, with business contacts across the globe.  His certainty about that world was Sam’s security, which availed him of nothing in the face of this haunting. 

            Sam sat up and tried to pull himself together. Christmas was coming, and his family expected him to be his usual, solid self, not a frighted boy, which was how he felt.  Sam forced himself to get out of bed and get away from the house for a bit. Perhaps he needed to be away from what he knew in order to know what his frightening uncle seemed to want him to know. Sam donned his coat and hat and hurried out onto streets on which he’d played as a child, which were no longer familiar. He, Audra, and Annie had only been back in his father’s house for less than a year.  Audra loved the old place and delighted in fixing it up, even more so than their rambling estate in the next county.  He wondered if his father’s old place had always been haunted by Uncle Tank, who came for Christmas when he could.  As Sam walked along the streets he once knew, he thought back to his seventh Christmas again and pushed past gear of his first meeting with Uncle Tank.

Hector had coaxed his son out of hiding, letting him stay up well past midnight as both men settled down around a blazing hearth near the Christmas tree.  Sam stayed well away until Uncle Tank got settled in a wing-backed chair by the fire. Sam remember his dad and Uncle Tank sitting close to the fire, each smoking a pipe, and talking in quieter voices about all that had transpired since they’d last seen each other.  Sam’s dad brought up all the letters that Tank had sent and asked, especially, about this woman Tank had mentioned.

            “Ah, she’s the best lass ever, is my Sara Flaherty.  Knitted me this sweater, she did. I’ll marry her someday,” Tank had said.

            “Yes, you should, if your wandering days are over,” Hector replied.  Meanwhile, young Sam approached this giant uncle, admiring the sweater. Tank picked him up again, gently, and sat him on his lap. He even handed Sam his black pipe to hold.

            “And have a son as fine as this one?” Tank had said, stroking young Sam’s hair. “I’d like to think of that, but it’s a thing that I’ve lost, you see?” He looked at young Sam with those fierce, gray eyes, smiled, and asked, “Maybe I can count on this one to give me a place to wander to, no matter how lost I might be?” he’d asked.

            “Will you bring me something?” little Sam asked in return, intrigued by his uncle’s stories. It was a child’s question, no more, certainly not an invitation for a haunting. Yet Sam remembered his uncle’s answer:

            “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, young Samson. I’ll bring you this pipe and this sweater, lad,” Tank had said, his eyes shining, “for they are the only things of value that will likely outlast me.  Is that fine?”

               Sam walked along in the cold, remembering that moment, staring into his uncle’s eyes.  A tremor had run through him then and it did again now, for Sam recalled thinking that this bond of love was something important about Christmas, when wandering souls seek home and hearth to celebrate the risk that God took, incarnating in a helpless child.

There was little risk in Sam’s world, as he knew it, at least until Uncle Tank’s had taken it over. Sam knew, then,  that he should never have feared the presence of that face on his screens. He longed, then, to return home and see his uncle’s face again, though he doubted that the miracle in his machine would repeat itself, just because he wished for it.

Grateful tears ran from Samson Cooper’s eyes, making him stumble and look up.  His wandering feet had taken him to the front steps of his father’s church, a solid, stone edifice that had been home to many of Sam’s earliest memories. He had not been through those doors since before his father’s death, too busy, too much in demand, too overcome by the fears that haunt men. All those thoughts rose again and broke like a wave on that rock of that church. The light coming through the stained glass soothed him. More tears fell from his eyes in a sudden longing to see Uncle Tank again, though, like Hector Cooper, he lived now only in loving memory.

Sam decided to ask Audra if she and the kids would like to come back to the church for services this very night.  There was time yet, so he set his feet towards home. The street was more familiar to him, then. “Maybe, at Christmas, you can go home, though the folks there are gone,” he said to himself in a sad voice.

               The lights of his own decorations lit up the house his father had left him, which warmed his heart with the hope that, turning on his computers again, he might yet see Uncle Tank’s face. It was a foolish hope, but in that moment, Sam stood ready to be open to Christmas, the wonder of the world come home. It was a thought that made his feet feel heavy.

  Sam mounted the steps, listening to the voices of Annie and Dan within. In the shadows of the porch, his feet kicked a box. It must have just been delivered. It was addressed to him, though it had only his street name, city, and state. Its battered brown paper wrapping bore witness to its a long journey.  The return address told him it was from one Sara Flaherty, Arranmore, Ireland. Sam’s heart leaped. He took it inside immediately. With shaking hands, he opened it. He knew what he’d find within before the paper came away.  But there was a note that stopped him. It said, “Himself wanted you to have these things, which I’m glad to give. I had him for a good, long while and loved him as best I could. I hope you can find some of him, still, in these things he left for you.” It was signed Sara Cooper, nee Flaherty. The sweater fit him and the pipe, strangely, was warm in his hand. 

Sam knew, then, that it was time for Christmas, for it came through a machine that was connected to the wide world in which Uncle Tank traveled. It had come with Uncle Tank’s ghost, though it had taken all the years of the pandemic to arrive. Sam Cooper had an aunt to claim and Christmas to share. He smiled as he ran to tell his wife and children.

Merry Christmas!

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