Writing Resources from Fifteen Minutes of Fiction
The StableI remember, as a little child, being frightened of the abominable snowman in the Rudolph Christmas special. I was always terrified by the scene with Rudolph walking through the deserted snowy landscape, and the monster looking over the mountain peaks. In retrospect it seems silly, but there's no telling what terrors will resonate in the imagination of a child. So when I heard the roar of the snowman on the television, I peeked through the doorway to see how Jenny was doing.
She was no longer sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the television; the Christmas special was playing to an audience of none. Jenny was standing motionless in front of the bookshelves, staring with rapt attention at the wall. I couldn't see what she was staring at, so I entered the living room, clearing my throat quietly so she would know I was there. She didn't flinch or glance in my direction, but continued to stare at the wall.
Then I saw it wasn't the wall she was staring at; one of the book shelves had been cleared, and all the books replaced by a ceramic nativity scene, complete with wise men, shepherds, angels, animals, and – of course – the Christ child and his parents.
"You like that?" I said.
She turned briefly to look at me, but said nothing. Her expression reminded me a bit of the barn cats we used to have when I was a child – skittish, and ready to run at a moment's notice. Instinctively I treated her the same way I used to treat the cats: don't get too close too fast. I sat on the couch on the far side of the room, and stretched out my legs. My relaxed posture said that I wasn't moving any time soon.
Her intense, focused gaze returned to the nativity.
As I watched her staring at the nativity scene, it occurred to me that I should ask a different question. "Do you know what it is?" I asked.
This time she didn't even turn to look at me. She just shook her head once.
Sitting there on the couch, I quietly told her the story of Mary and Joseph, the scared young family that had to travel to a faraway town when Mary was almost ready to give birth. I told her about the innkeeper, the stable, and the manger. I told her about the shepherds on the hillside and the angels who announced the Child's birth. Then I told her about the wise men from far away who had come to give gifts to the child, and about the abusive king who wanted to kill the innocent baby.
Through the whole story she stood motionless, except for tiny movements of her head as her rapt gaze was fixed on different elements of the scene – first the holy family, then in turn the stable, the shepherds, and the wise men. When I was done telling the story she reached out to touch the little manger figurine with the Christ child. I almost stopped her, but my instinct told me that the fragile figure was not in any danger from this strange little girl.
Gently she stroked the manger and the child, then she scooped up the ceramic statue and cradled it in her hands. She began to hum – the first sound I had heard from her.
It was a lullaby.
There was something strangely unnerving about the way the little girl stared at the figure of the Christ child, the way she treated it like a real baby who needed to be touched and stroked, and who needed to hear the sound of quiet lullabies. Perplexed, I wondered what it was that fascinated her so. I grew up in the church, and I grew up with nativity scenes all around, both at home and at church, but I couldn't remember ever being so entranced by the simple figurines that decorated our mantel. Had I become too familiar with the story to see it as this little girl was seeing it?
As I watched and listened, I thought, what a strange parody of a Christmas angel - an angel with dirt on her face, and out-of-tune songs on her lips.
But it was her dirty cheeks and tuneless melody that gave me the clue to what I had been missing. The nativity scene itself obscured my view of the Christmas story. I could never see through the bright colored paints and shining glaze to see the dirt and the grime of a homeless family in a cold barn. I could never feel past the smooth texture of the ceramic to recognize the cruel reality of rough, dry straw rubbing against the skin of a newborn baby. I could never smell past the cheerful holiday smells of evergreen and peppermint, to smell the musty stench that I was so familiar with from our own barn. I could never hear past the traditional Silent Night to hear the dissonant sounds of animals lowing and a baby squalling.
I never recognized them before - the sights, the textures, the smells and the sounds of desperation, fear and loneliness. They were things that this dirty little girl with her tuneless lullaby understood far better than I ever had. This child who had heard the Christmas story for the first time today understood something about it that I - with all my years of Sunday School and sermons and Bible reading - had never grasped.
No wonder Jesus said that he had come to declare peace and good news to the poor; after all, when it comes right down to it, isn't Christmas all about a desperate woman and a homeless child?
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