UNWRAPPING RAY BRADBURY'S "THE GIFT"
By Deb Kuss
Ray Bradbury’s futuristic short story The Gift poses a question: what should a gift look like? Must it come wrapped in coloured paper and fancy ribbon? If a gift were offered in another way, would we even recognise it? Might some gifts even come to us in such familiar and everyday wrappings that we’re prone to overlook them as gifts?
First published in Esquire “The Magazine for Men” on 1 December 1952, The Gift reflects the Christmastide hopes and traditions of a generation of survivors – men, women and children who had already survived world war only to find themselves facing the threat of nuclear holocaust. At the time, the West was already eighteen months into another war in Korea, while yet another bloody conflict, in Vietnam, was just over the horizon. However, while penned in the early years of the “space race” and the Cold War, The Gift envisages a time of universal peace and affluence, when families can travel into space for pleasure. I’ve tried to think of a present-day, post-post-modern equivalent: perhaps flying to an exotic location for a family wedding.
This makes The Gift a most unlikely and refreshing contribution to the genre. It was written contemporaneous with the early science fiction works of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. But with its themes of discovery, hope and fulfilling the ultimate good of humanity, the story arguably resonates more powerfully with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise, which at the time was still almost fifteen years away in the future. (No doubt, The Gift will resonate with many of the Trekkies out there!). As a joyful and uplifting Christmas tale, it certainly shines bright amidst Bradbury’s wider and mostly sobering body of work.
American-born Ray Douglas Bradbury (1920-2012) was an internationally-renowned fiction writer and social commentator, best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, with its themes of totalitarian regimes and restrictions on choice of occupation and freedom of speech. Bradbury’s other works include short stories (Hollerbochen’s Dilemma, Pendulum, The Veldt), serialised short stories (The Martian Chronicles), screenplays and television scripts, an autobiographical novel entitled Dandelion Wine, short plays and poetry. He received an Emmy award for his animated adaptation of The Halloween Tree in 1994, the National Medal of Arts in 2004 and a Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board in 2007 for his distinguished career.
In The Gift, Bradbury combines the beloved, familiar traditions of Christmas with his penchant for futuristic space adventures. Will a small child, whisked away on an interplanetary adventure, miss the Christmas he has been anticipating with open-hearted wonder? Or will he discover a different kind of gift, out there among the stars?
In the inaugural edition of inScribe, we’re exploring different kinds of “gifts”. Not just physical presents but gifts of experience, relationship, aptitude and insight; moments that make you think; moments that take your breath away. It is with great pleasure, therefore, that we also offer you to read, and be moved to discover, Ray Bradbury’s classic tale, The Gift.
Deb Kuss is office manager and executive assistant to the national head of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Australia. She edits Women in Touch magazine and dreams of being a “real author”. She is currently studying a Masters in Creative Writing & Communication at Tabor College, working on a family history novel about her great-grandmother (who survived a shipwreck), and dedicated to her family (who are here because she did).
Tomorrow would be Christmas, and even while the three of them rode to the rocket port the mother and father were worried. It was the boy’s first flight into space, his very first time in a rocket, and they wanted everything to be perfect. So when, at the customs table, they were forced to leave behind his gift, which exceeded the weight limit by no more than a few ounces, and the little tree with the lovely white candles, they felt themselves deprived of the season and their love.
The boy was waiting for them in the terminal room. Walking toward him, after their unsuccessful clash with the Inter-planetary officials, the mother and father whispered to each other.
“What shall we do?”
“Nothing, nothing. What can we do?”
“And he so wanted the tree!”
The siren gave a great howl and people pressed forward into the Mars Rocket. The mother and father walked at the very last, their small pale son between them, silent.
“I’ll think of something,” said the father.
“What…?” asked the boy.
And the rocket took off and they were flung headlong into dark space.
The rocket moved and left fire behind and left Earth behind on which the date was December 24, 2052, heading out into a place where there was no time at all, no month, no year, no hour. They slept away the rest of the first “day.” Near midnight, by their Earth-time New York watches, the boy awoke and said, “I want to go look out the porthole.”
There was only one port, a “window” of immensely thick glass of some size, up on the next deck.
“Not quite yet,” said the father. “I’ll take you up later.”
“I want to see where we are and where we’re going.”
“I want you to wait for a reason,” said the father.
He had been lying awake, turning this way and that, thinking of the abandoned gift, the problem of the season, the lost tree and the white candles. And at last, sitting up, no more than five minutes ago, he believed he had found a plan. He need only carry it out and the journey would be fine and joyous indeed.
“Son,” he said, “in exactly one half-hour it will be Christmas.”
“Oh,” said the mother, dismayed that he had mentioned it. Somehow she had rather hoped that the boy would forget.
The boy’s face grew feverish and his lips trembled. “I know, I know. Will I get a present, will I? Will I have a tree? Will I have a tree? You promised—"
“Yes, yes, all that, and more,” said the father.
The mother started. “But—"
“I mean it,” said the father. “I really mean it. All and more, much more. Excuse me, now. I’ll be back.”
He left them for about twenty minutes. When he came back, he was smiling. “Almost time.”
“Can I hold your watch?” asked the boy, and the watch was handed over and he held it ticking in his fingers as the rest of the hour drifted by in fire and silence and unfelt motion.
“It’s Christmas now! Christmas! Where’s my present?”
“Here we go,” said the father and took his boy by the shoulder and led him from the room, down the hall, up a rampway, his wife following.
“I don’t understand,” she kept saying.
“You will. Here we are,” said the father.
They had stopped at the closed door of a large cabin. The father tapped three times and then twice in a code. The door opened and the light in the cabin went out and there was a whisper of voices.
“Go on in, son,” said the father.
“I’ll hold your hand. Come on, Mama.”
They stepped into the room and the door shut, and the room was very dark indeed. And before them loomed a great glass eye, the porthole, a window four feet high and six feet wide, from which they could look out into space.
The boy gasped.
Behind him, the father and the mother gasped with him, and then in the dark room some people began to sing.
“Merry Christmas, son,” said the father.
And the voices in the room sang the old, the familiar carols, and the boy moved slowly until his face was pressed against the cool glass of the port. And he stood there for a long, long time, just looking and looking out into space and the deep night at the burning and the burning of ten billion, billion white and lovely candles….