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The Littlest Angel by iiiionly

 

“Here?”  I ask, glancing in the rearview mirror at Carter.  “Right here?  You’re sure?” 

This can’t be right.  It’s too big.  Too . . . not what I was expecting.

“You’re going to miss – the turn, sir.”  Carter sighs.  “You’ll have to turn into the neighborhood now and use someone’s driveway.”

She’s right, the truck doesn’t exactly turn on a dime, and I’m staring out the driver’s window as we pass the cathedral - there’s no other word for it - surrounded by park-like landscaping covered in snow and white lights.  Every tree and bush, every branch and limb on the grounds has been outlined with those tiny white lights so it looks like something out of an Arabian Nights fairy tale.  The church itself, crowning the brow of a low hill, is lit from within like a Kinkade painting.

“Oh!  Look at the luminaries,” my mother exclaims as I turn into the drive Carter indicated the first time, after finding a nice dark house with a nice dark driveway to turn around in.  The church driveway is winding, though not steep, and lined on both sides with white paper bags lit with flickering candles.

“Hate to be their treasurer,” my father remarks as we pull into the top parking lot. 

“Oh, John,” Mom sighs.  “Sam, please tell me Jack didn’t inherit that cynicism from his father.  The grounds are beautiful.”

“Didn’t say it wasn’t beautiful,” Dad says equitably.

““Sorry, Maggie,” Carter laughs, “John just beat him to it, only the Colonel’s comment would have been more along the lines of –” she drops her voice to imitate me, “hate to have their electric bill.”

“Hey, it’s the truth.  I would hate to have their electric bill.”

“Which is why their entire house and every bush in the front yard is outlined in lights,” Carter says in an aside to my mother.

“That’s Daniel’s fault.”

“Yes, sir, of course.”

“Couldn’t have him thinking the neighbor’s house looked better than ours.” 

Especially since the neighbor has those chasing lights that make it look like you’re on the whirligig at the fair; makes me nauseated every time I look out our front window.  And I couldn’t have Daniel thinking that was what real Christmas lights look like.

“Well, I think your house looks lovely too, Jack.”

My father snorts.  “Hate to have your electric bill either,” he mumbles, shooting a wink and a grin my way. 

I know Mom says Dad’s changed since Charlie died, but I’m still having trouble getting used to this incarnation of my father.  It’s almost as disconcerting as turning around expecting to see adult Daniel and finding little Daniel. 

“Looks like I’m going to have to park in one of the lower lots.  I’m going to let you guys off at the door.”

“I’ll walk back up with Jack.  You gals better go in and find us seats though,” Dad observes.

“Are we supposed to have tickets, Carter?”

She laughs lightly as she slides across the back seat after my mother.  “No, sir.  We didn’t need tickets.  Want us to wait for you?”

“No, don’t wait.  Dad, go with Mom and Carter.  It’s going to be a hike coming back up that hill.”

“I’m not ancient yet.  I can hike up a little hill.”

“Dad, please.  It’s freezing, the road is slushy at best, icy at worst.”

“Yes, and you’ve already got one broken arm.  Why don’t you get out and I’ll go park the truck?”

“Dad?”  I’m not prepared to take no for an answer on this one.  “Get out.”  He might be in damn good shape for a 70-plus year old man, but I’m not taking any chances on him falling over dead of a heart attack on Christmas Eve, and one broken arm in the family is quite enough, thank you very much.

“Oh, if you insist,” he grumbles, brow lowering in a way I remember too well, but he opens the door and steps out on the running board, glancing back over his shoulder.  “We may very well have trouble finding seats with the parking lots overflowing already.”

“Murray’s saving us seats. Look up front.  He likes to be in the middle of the action.” 

“You’re sure you don’t want us to wait for you in the lobby?” my mother asks, over Dad’s shoulder.

“No.  Murray’s probably having a hard time holding onto them by now.” 

Or not – Teal’c can twizzle your socks with just a look.

“All right, don’t dawdle, the program should be starting shortly,” my mother chivvies.

“It’s church, Mom, nothing ever starts on time.”

“Athelia’s running the show, sir,” Carter obviously feels it necessary to chivvy as well. She’s probably right. It’s unlikely anything Athelia’s running will start late.

“All right, all right, I promise not to dawdle, but I can’t leave until you close the door.”

The door gets slammed and my passengers hurry toward the light and warmth of the open church door to be greeted by a smiling greeter?  Doorman?  Deacon?

Even with the truck windows closed I hear the hearty, “Merry Christmas, folks, come right in,” before I shift into gear and pull away, the noise of the diesel engine drowning out the rest of the greeting. 

There are very few spots left even in the lot at the bottom of the hill, but the one I find has the advantage of being easy to get out of.  An advantage I’m sure we’ll be glad of if everybody decides to leave at the same time. 

Carter says there’s a reception after the program, to which all the performers and their families are invited.  Guess it will depend on what our wise man wants to do. 

For some reason I was expecting a little white, clapboard church.  Does Mt. Zion First Baptist Church sound like a sizeable congregation? Although maybe because Coach’s kid was playing with the Presbyterians and not the Baptists, I just assumed it was a small church.  For cryin’ out loud, a congregation this size ought to have enough teams to have its own league, let alone its own team. 

It’s a brisk five minute walk up the hill from the parking lot.  The sky is cloudless and at this elevation it feels like you’re walking among the stars.  I can pick out a dozen constellations in the first thirty seconds.  If Daniel’s not too tired we should go up to the roof and see if we can find the Christmas star.  Have to bundle him up like an Eskimo, but it’s Christmas Eve, we should have an adventure on Christmas Eve and what better quest than to look for the star over the stable.  Daniel will get a kick out of it.

It’s mind numbingly cold and I’m glad my mother insisted I wear a coat, especially since I wasn’t planning on hiking enough to be eligible for a merit badge this evening. 

The glass door swings outward as I reach for it. 

“You must be Colonel O’Neill,” the gentleman on door duty booms, his bass even deeper than Teal’c’s.  “Dijon’s been lookin’ for you.  You the father of that little wise man?”  

I offer my left hand, lifting the bright pink cast in apology, and nearly go to my knees when he shakes my hand. 

The pressure eases instantly and the old man sighs, “I do be sorry, Colonel.  Years o’ running the presses, I forget sometimes to be gentle.”

“I’ve never been much of a fan of those new fangled, limp fish handshakes, sir.  That’s quite a grip you’ve got there.”

The heavy grey afro dances as bit as he makes me a courtly bow.  “Well, I’m not a mighty fine Sir like you, but that’s a mighty fine compliment.  Thank you very much, Colonel.  I’m Jesse; Jesse James.  Let me find Dijon for you.  He was lurking in the back here just a minute ago.” 

The faint sound of congregational singing swells as Mr. James pulls open one of the many doors across the back of the narthex.  He motions me over and points to a shadow that separates from the wall and comes toward me. 

“Colonel,” Dijon grabs my hand and pounds me on the back at the same time.  “Sam said you were parking the truck.  They’ve saved us seats up front.  Did you want to leave your coat in the lobby?  We’re packed in here like sardines; it might get a little warm.  What’d you do to your arm?”

“Uhhh, long story.”  I slide the rest of the way out of my coat; the cast doesn’t go through the sleeve.  “Was there a place to leave it?  I didn’t notice.”

“Jesse will take it for you.  Jesse, can you hang up the Colonel’s coat in the coatroom.  Thanks, my man.”

“I can take care of it.”  The words aren’t even out of my mouth before the coat’s transferred hands, from mine to Dijon’s to Brother James.

“You go on, you don’t want to miss your boy’s entrance.  The program will be startin’ soon.  You go on with Dijon, I’ll take care of your coat.”

There’s nothing else I can do.  “Thanks, Mr. James.”

“Just Jesse, boy, just Jesse.”

As we start up a middle aisle the length of a football field, the lights go down and a hush descends over the sanctuary. Dijon’s footsteps quicken, but don’t make a sound, even on the slate floor.  I, on the other hand, sound like a herd of elephants all by myself. 

Every head in the place turns to watch our progress.  Quite a few I recognize from baseball and offer a sheepish grin for the volume of my intrusive presence.  Stealth used to be my middle name, wonder when I lost it. 

The music begins as we slide into the seats they’ve saved for us.  It’s a simple melody, but with a pan flute etherealness that twines beguilingly around your soul. 

A ring of light, fire, springs up in the middle of nothingness and a young person’s voice begins the old familiar story.

“And yo . . . I mean lo, there were abiding in the fields, shepherds who watched their flocks by night.”

My mom reaches over and threads her fingers through mine, squeezing lightly, though her focus never strays from the chancel stage.

One by one miniature shepherds begin to drift into the firelight, many of them holding their hands out to the flames and shivering dramatically.  The better actors are rubbing their arms and blowing into their cupped hands.

“It’s cold out tonight,” lisps a shepherd dressed in real sheepskin jerkin, leaning on a proportionately-sized shepherd’s rod.

“Brrrrrr,” growls another, in a high-pitched voice. “I just want to be home in my own warm bed.”

“Me too,” pipes a third.

“Don’t think I’ll ever be warm again.”

“And behold, da glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were sore afraid.  But da angel said unto them . . .”

A lone spot light sweeps the audience’s attention from the shepherds on the platform to the balcony where a host of heavenly angels hover above the scene.

“Fear not, for Behold! I bring you good tidings of great comfort and joy!” 

“It’s not comfort and joy,” a junior angel hisses loudly, “good tidings of great joy,” just before the pipe organ drowns out everything with the opening chords of what must be a congregational hymn.  All around me folks are reaching for hymnals – at least those folks who are following the program.

Me?  I’m watching the shepherds do their fear and trembling thing. 

I lean around my mother to Carter, who’s sharing a hymnal with my Dad and ask, “Is that Tyler as the lead shepherd?”

She nods vigorously but doesn’t stop singing.  By the second verse Teal’c is singing too, a deep melodious bass that makes both Carter and I turn and stare at him in surprise. 

He ignores us.

The music swells to the final ringing call, “Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the newborn King.” 

Over top of that line comes the pure, clear tones of young voices raised in a descant that sends chills chasing up and down my spine. I twist to look up over my shoulder at the balcony again and spot Mallory in the front row, chubby hands clasped together, halo already a little bent, singing her heart out.

The fear and trembling has morphed into awe in the upturned faces of the shepherds.

From the balcony the lead angel’s voice rings out again.  “For unto you is born this day, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  This shall be a sign unto you …. Ummm . . . This shall be a sign unto you, you will find the baby, wrapped in toddler’s clothes, lying in a manger.”

“Swaddling cloths,” whispers the prompting angel loudly.

“S’wadding cloths,” repeats the lead angel, taking a deep breath that reverberates into his microphone. 

Yes, we have Michael, the archangel, leading the heavenly chorus. 

A solitary trumpet peals the first notes of another hymn and with a hushed flurry of fluttering robes, instruments appear in the hands of the angels as a young solo voice joins the trumpet.  “Now is born the divine Christ child, play the musette, play the tuneful oboe, now is born the divine Christ child, sing we all and rejoice this day!” 

The chorus of angels joins with the soloist, backed by tinkling finger cymbals and a smooth as silk oboe anchoring the bass line.  “He was born in a stable bare, on bed of straw how He sleeps so soundly, He was born in a stable bare, let us worship and to Him bow.”  As the last notes trail away, the balcony spotlight scopes down to a pin light and winks out.

“Hey, let’s go to Bethlehem and see if it’s true,” says a shepherd.

“Angels don’t lie, of course its true!  But whose gonna stay here and guard the flocks?”

“I’ll stay,” Tyler announces, “I don’t believe any of that stuff anyway.”

The other shepherds turn on him with looks of horror.  “You don’t believe in angels?”

“Course not,” he declares, thumping his shepherd’s crook for emphasis.  “Pack a lies.  Stories to scare children and make ‘em be good.”

“I believe in angels,” offers the smallest shepherd.  “My guardian angel watches over me every night when I’m out here in the dark all alone with the sheep.”

“Oh yeah?”  Tyler sneers.  “Where does he go when you’re not out here in the field watching over the sheep alllllllllllll alone in the dark?”

“You’re so cynical, Obediah.  You should come with us, you might be surprised.”

“Then who’ll watch the flocks?”

“They’ll watch themselves tonight.  You heard the angels, it’s a special night.  Come to Bethlehem with us.  Come see for yourself what’s so special about this child.”

A battle with indecision wars on Tyler’s face.  This kid is good, he might have a career ahead of him, and he capitulates with a resigned sigh.  “All right, the sheep seem more placid than usual this night.  Perhaps it is the will of Jehovah I journey with you into the city of David.  Josiah?  Matthew?”  Two of the younger children elbow their way to the front of the fire.  “Thought I told you boys to stay home tonight.”

“We can go too, can’t we, Abba?  You’ll let us go with everyone in to Bethlehem, won’t you?”

“Shouldn’t,” Tyler intones, “you don’t deserve to be rewarded for your disobedience, but I doubt I can stop you.”

“YES!” both children roar, pumping fists in the air.

I wonder, momentarily, if that victorious hand gesture really is centuries old. 

“We’re going to Bethlehem, goin’ to Beth’lem!  Come on, Josiah, race ya!”

“Wait!  Wait for me!  Abba, can we take a lamb to the new baby?  As a present?  Please, Abba, please?”

“Oh, all right, if you insist,” grumbles the aged, white-haired Tyler, into his fake beard.

The shepherds, imitating their charges, gambol off stage with much merriment, whistling and singing and calling to each other about their adventure this night and how no one is going to believe they’ve seen angels.

The house lights blink out and the sanctuary is plunged into darkness. 

A faint light glows from behind the organ, which again picks up the ethereal pan pipe melody, so softly it sounds like a whisper of angel’s song floating back to Earth.

The spotlight beams down in a tiny laser dot, widening slowly to encompass a rough-hewn manager, complete with straw and an infant wrapped in toddler, oops, I mean swaddling clothes, lying on the hay.  A beautiful, very young Virgin Mary, long dark hair cascading down her back from under a simple kerchief, reaches out to lift the child from his bed.  “Sweet little Jesus boy,” she sings in a high, lilting soprano that sounds suspiciously familiar.

“Is that –”

“Yes, sir, that’s CoriAnne.” 

The spotlight widens as my baseball buddy ends her solo with a croon for the baby in her arms.  The real, live baby in her arms. 

A sturdy Joseph, pacing to and fro, is wringing his hands.  “We can’t stay here.  It’s too cold, Mary.  We must find another place for you and the babe.”

The spotlight continues to widen until the little stable behind the nativity scene, glowing suddenly with the light of literally dozens of young angels in and on and around every nook and cranny of the shabby cattle shed, sits in a pool of light. 

“This is fine, husband, the babe and I are warm,” Mary assures her anxious spouse.  “Come and hold our child, and you should begin to call him Jesus, Joseph.”

“I cannot.”

I don’t recognize Joseph, though I think suddenly - under different circumstances this might have been Ry’ac. 

“Cannot what, my love?  Call him Jesus?  Or hold him?  You must, you know,” Mary says rocking the baby, who coos into the lapel mic and grabs a strand of hair falling over her shoulder.  “I could not possibly do this job alone.”

I wanna know who wrote this script.  Do the words have more impact because they’re coming from the lips of a seven-year-old?  Or is it just the modern rewrite of an ages old script?

“And it came to pass, dude, as the angels were gone away from them, into the heavens, the shepherds said to each other, yo, let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Okay, we have Mary, Joseph and the baby, all the angels, and I still hear the shepherds.  Where are the Magi?

“Patience, Jack,” Mom murmurs, squeezing my hand again.  “He’ll be along shortly.”

This whole rehearsal scene has been an exercise in self-control, letting Carter and Teal’c bring Daniel, I mean.  We’re not joined at the hip, but I tell ya, it’s difficult to watch him go off with someone else, especially when we’re on the same planet and I could be taking him. 

The noise of the shepherds is growing in proportion to their merriment as they jostle their way up the aisles, threading through the maze of floor seating.  The bleating of live lambs adds to the cacophony of sound coming from every direction. 

On stage, the spotlight picks out the Littlest Angel doing miniature pirouettes along the top of the chancel steps.  Dimpled baby hands hold aloft her sparkling gown so we get glimpses of a pair of Cinderella slippers adorning her tiny feet.  Her wings flutter with each pirouette and her already crooked halo slips down over one eye, but that doesn’t stop her.  

“Mal,” Tyler stage whispers, “get on with it already.”

“Be quiet, Ty, this is my part, sp’cial for me.  Leave me alone,” she stops to inform him, rolling her eyes as she turns back to the audience with a put-upon sigh.  “Brothers,” she shares in an aside to us.  “I’m going to see the Baby Jes’s now.”  Mallory pirouettes her way over to Mary’s side, reaching a hand to push up her drooping halo as she holds her skirt up with one hand to curtsey.  “Is he the baby?”

Mary nods, smiling tenderly at the Littlest Angel.  “Yes, he is.  Would you like to hold him?”

“Oooooo.”  

This is evidently new to Mallory; unscripted.  The eyes fly open wide.  “Can I?”

“Why don’t you sit here,” the little mother says, standing with baby Jesus. 

Mallory scrambles up on the log that’s served Mary for her chair, adjusts her wings, her halo, and her voluminous skirts, and holds out her pudgy arms for the baby. 

“Mal!” Tyler hisses this time.  “Say your lines so we can get on with this!”

“Oh go ‘way.  I’m holding the baby Jes’s.  Look’it his tiny hands,” she says wonderingly.  “Is this the real Baby Jes’s?”  She looks out over the audience, tightens one arm around the baby and lifts her other hand to her forehead to shade it from the spotlight.  “Mama, is this the Baby Jes’s you read’d to me ‘bout?”

A wave of amusement flows over the audience, amusement tinged with a bit of awe.  If there is such a thing as a God with a capital G, we’re surely in the presence of some of his chosen vessels tonight. 

Mary covers her mic and whispers something to Mallory, who sighs. 

“I’d rather hold the Baby Jes’s,” she says sadly, reluctantly relinquishing the baby back into Mary’s waiting arms. 

The roof sitting and window hanging angels are all craning their necks to see what’s going on.  Down on the left side at the front it looks like there’s a greased pig race, only it’s a fairly wooly lamb that’s eluding its pursuers and all the shepherds have rushed to join the chase.  Upstage right, Joseph is doing his best not to laugh hysterically at the lamb who’s trying to escape under the pews.

“Joseph,” Mallory says, fluffing her skirts as she slides off the log and marches over to the young gentleman.  “You and me got some b’ness to take care of.  You got to get this mamma and baby on their way to Egypt.”

“But, but . . .”

“Not buts ‘bout it!” Mallory declares.  “You hav’t take your family and flee into Egypt.  But it can wait ‘til tomorrow.  There’s some wise men coming to see you, and they’re bringing presents and stuff.  Baby Jes’s will need those presents.  And tonight, after this is over, if Baby Jes’s still needs a bed, he can have mine.  Is that all right, mamma?  That’s my mamma over there, see?  She’s bobbing her head, s’okay then, you can come to my house with me afterwards.  I hav’t go meet the wise men now – they’re probably coming soon.  ‘kay?  Bye Joseph, bye Mary.”  Mallory pirouettes back over to Mary, gracefully spreads her skirts and dips to kiss the baby.  “I love you, Baby Jes’s.  Oops, sorry, din’ mean to smack you with my halo,” she giggles, swinging around and breaking into a trot toward the front of the stage. 

While all the drama has been focused up front, we’ve missed the entrance of the wise men.  I’m not sure how, since the smell alone should have announced them.

A caravan of camels, proportionate to the kids, are making their ungainly way down the center aisle, long necks undulating with each step.  Most are being led, but two intrepid wise men are riding, with Bedouin-costumed adults herding those two camels. 

I’m sure Daniel’s irked to have someone else holding the reins.  He sits in majesty, however, enthroned on a jewel-covered saddle over swaths and swaths of gem-colored scarves and rugs.  His robe is a deep midnight blue, strewn with silver and gold suns, stars, and moons, along with a bunch of arcane signs meant to signify his high status as a mystic. 

Not a magician, a mystic; there’s a difference.  Despite the fact I’ve been the recipient of lengthy and erudite lessons on the subject of magicians versus mystics I still couldn’t tell you what it is.. 

He and Teal’c designed and made this entire costume, down the curly-toed shoes prominently on display beneath the hem of his hiked-up robe.  Daniel gives his fake moustache a little twirl as he passes us without deigning to glance over at his subjects. 

My mother’s snapping pictures as fast as her camera refocuses. 

And I see, as they pass our aisle, the baby camels all have little rubber boots adorning their hooves, which would explain why we didn’t hear them clop, clopping their way into the sanctuary. 

Ooops, good thing they don’t have carpet down the aisles.

Soft and low the organ music begins again.  This time it has an undulating quality about it, an exotic, reedy melody that twines up and down and around the scale in a mournful minor key.  Somehow it matches with the undulating tread of the desert ships in full sail up the middle aisle.

Kings from the East, redolent of frankincense and myrrh.  I know that smell, even over the camels.  Our entire house smells of frankincense and myrrh.  Daniel volunteered Teal’c to track down all the gifts.  So, along with the spices, there have been stacks of gold bars on our dining room table for the last week or so. 

I understand they’re Swiss chocolate bars.  They sure look a lot like those gold bars you see all the bad guys heisting in the movies.  My attempts at midnight heists on our stockpile have all been foiled by my own ingenious anti-criminal-minded, Dudley Do-Right in the form of Daniel.

The camels come to a stop at the foot of the chancel stairs and our wise man slides unhesitatingly from atop his camel, while the second rider has to be lifted down by the adult herder.

The iron-bound chest Daniel’s small, turbaned servant heaves over to him is accepted with a solemn nod, undoubtedly copied from Teal’c.  Daniel steps onto the first stair and turns regally toward the audience, waiting for his companions to join him in the pilgrimage up the imaginary rough-hewn stone stairs to visit the new parents. 

I say imaginary because there’s just a hint of stone camouflage decorating the stairs, an invitation to use our imaginations.

The second Magi  is dressed in a flowing forest green velvet cape over silky green harem pants and shirt, the ballooned sleeves slashed with stripes of gold.  The third is wearing a simple, unadorned robe of turquoise and an electric blue turban wound about his head. 

Each somberly receives their gift from their own little page - another chest for one, an ornately carved and chased salver bearing the gold bars for the other. 

Who’d have thought a bunch of kids could achieve the stateliness of awestruck visiting dignitaries come to worship in a stable in the middle of the night. 

Turning, Daniel paces imperially up the stairs, his tread slow and measured as befitting one king coming to pay homage to another.  The chest is lowered slowly to the ground in front of Mary, who exchanges wide-eyed glances with her spouse as one hand goes to her non-existent bosom. 

Daniel pulls an arm into his waist, slides the other behind his back, and bows so low his jeweled turban brushes the ground. 

Mom’s camera is snapping constantly and I’m thinking a video camera might make a good Christmas present.

“I am Caspar.  May I introduce my companions, milady?”  Daniel waits, exuding a Teal’c-like calm that has Carter giggling behind her program.

“Umm,” our impressionable Mary says, wide-eyed still.  “Yes, of course, King Caspar.  Please introduce us to your companions.  Our accommodations are humble, but what we have we will gladly share.”

Daniel inclines his head magisterially.  “This is Balthazar, milady, and our other companion is Melchior.  But you mistake, we do not come to receive; we come to give.  We have journeyed far, following the star in the east, to find you and the babe.  We come to worship, for we have divined your son will be The One.” 

Mary’s pretty little mouth gapes open.  “You know?”

“Of this we are certain,” drones Melchior in a dramatically lowered voice, bowing low as he presents his gilded chest of myrrh.

Balthazar, who I think is one of our baseball kids, though I can’t pull his name out of the hat, glides forward, salver held at chest height.  He bends with all the willowy grace of youth and I have it, because he is a she. 

It’s Riannon, our first baseman.  First base person?  Whatever.   I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, Athelia’s obviously not into traditional casting. 

With stately poise, the Magi sink slowly to their knees, gracefully press their hands together, and salaam before the child king in Mary’s arms.

“May Jehovah bless you with long and fruitful lives . . .”  How come that doesn’t sound wrong coming out a seven-year-old’s mouth?  “And may his light continue to illuminate your path.”  Mary’s small hand rests lightly on the shoulder of each Magi briefly as she calls down God’s blessing on them.

 

“Rise, my friends.”  Joseph crosses the short space in two long, galluphing strides, reaching down to urge each of the wise men up from their knees.  “Rise and do us the honor of sharing our evening meal.”

The very wise men exchange speaking glances.  An economical gesture, a slight nod of the head, and pages are dispatched to collect saddlebags from the little camels waiting patiently at the bottom of the chancel steps. 

“It is we who are honored,” Daniel declares.  “But you must allow us to contribute as well.” 

A wine skein appears, bunches of grapes, a plate of dates, small round cakes and what appears to be pomegranates, join the meager fare of bread and cheese the young couple  lay out. 

Athelia has done a marvelous job with these kids. 

A long, lingering look passes between Mary and Joseph before he picks up a plate of gold and loads it up with delicacies, bearing it carefully over to the mother of the child. 

The shepherds, who’ve been lingering at the edges of the spotlight, are beginning to overcome their gaping awe at such magnificence displayed by the kings from the Orient.  Spurred on by giggling, beckoning angelic prototypes they’re slowly making their way into the circle of light delineating the little stable and the humble family it shelters.

“Oy, whose gonna believe we’ve seen such sights here in Bethlehem,” Tyler complains loudly.  “Kings and such?  Here in Jethro’s stable?   No one, that’s who!”

“Hush, now Obediah, you’ll wake the baby,” one of his underlings pronounces, moving to lean on his staff looking down over Mary’s shoulder at the child. 

Every one of these kids should be nominated for an Oscar – their performances are outstanding.  The look that softens the kid’s face as he stares down at the baby – a look of such genuine awe it’s hard to believe it’s just an act – is indescribable.

Next to me, my mother’s had to put down her camera to fish for Kleenex in her purse.

“We brought a lamb.”  One of Tyler/Obediah’s son’s shuffles forward, struggling under the weight of a not-very-cooperative, loudly bleating lamb.  “Do ya think he’d like a lamb?” he asks tentatively.

“I believe baby Jesus will love whatever you give him.”  Mary smiles on the little shepherd, reaching out to pet the lamb, which inexplicably stills and quiets under the gentle caress. 

“Did you hear the angels?” Obediah asks gruffly.

“Angels?”  Mary tilts her dark head. 

Obediah gives a nod in the direction of the angels tumbling around the stable, laughing and giggling as they slide down the roof into the huge pile of hay mounded up obviously for just this purpose.  “They were loud enough, the lot of ‘em.  Figured you could hear ‘em all over the City of David tonight.

Mary obediently glances in the direction he indicates, but apparently she cannot see or hear the merriment going on behind her.  She smiles anyway and says softly, “Perhaps it is just that all God’s creatures are happy this night.”

The shepherds are invited to supper as well and more food appears on the picnic blanket.

Mallory, wandering in and out of the throng, stops every now and then to take a bite out of Obediah’s piece of cheese, steal a grape from one of the wise men’s cluster.  She gets a funny look as she handily strips the wine skein from the shoulder of one of the page’s to take a long drink. Then with a rolling step and a little wink, she hiccups convincingly and hands back the skein. 

“Gotta go,” she hiccups again.  “Time for beddy bye for the wise mans.  I haveta make sure they don’t go back to see that wic’ed ole’ King Hair-odd.”  Lifting her voluminous skirts, she trots off around behind the stable and disappears.

“Good sir, milady,” Daniel makes another sweeping bow.  “May we share your space to sleep this night?  We must away in the morning and testify of our findings to your King Herod in Jerusalem before we return to our own homes with this testimony.”

“Of course, of course!” Joseph responds heartily.  “Make free with the space, we sleep there.”  He points and I realize there is a donkey standing placidly in a corner of the stable, ears occasionally twitching.  Beside the donkey is a blanket-covered pile of hay.

It sounds a little like the aftermath of one of our baseball games last summer as the crowd around the new parents disperses into the night.  The spotlight remains on that little pile of blanket-covered straw and we see several shepherds tiptoe up to tenderly spread a robe or a scarf over more of the straw.  Each wise man surreptitiously steals over to add a multi-hued blanket to the pile until it begins to resemble something out of The Princess and the Pea. 

The light dims as Joseph eases Mary and the child down upon the straw bed and leans forward to kiss the child, then Mary, on the forehead.

The music begins again, low and sweet, an eastern lullaby once more underscored by the breathy sound of the pan pipes.

A lone spotlight highlights our littlest angel dreamily pirouetting around the stage. It follows her somewhat erratic path in and out of the sleeping shepherds and wise men.  And then abruptly, she stops by Caspar, who is propped half-upright against a rolled-up Persian carpet, hands folded across his chest, snoring softly.

“Mr. Wise Man,” Mallory prods, bending at the knees to peer into his face.  “Pssst, wake up.”  And when he doesn’t comply fast enough, pokes her tiny finger in his chest.  “Wake up, you gotst to go right now.”

“Go where?” Caspar yawns widely.  “What?  Who are you?”

Mallory straightens regally.  “I am the angel of the Lord.  I come to warn you not to go back to that wic’d King Hair-odd.  He plans to kill the Baby Jes’s.”

“What?  What?”  Daniel scrambles from his bedroll with convincing bewilderment.  “Why do you say this?  Is this not your Savior?  The one you have waited for since time began?”

“Of cor’se it is, silly.  Why do you think the wic’d king wants to kill him?  Hurry, hurry!  I got work to do still.  I have to give Joe’sf a dream too.”

“Wait,” Caspar calls after the disappearing Littlest Angel.  “What shall we do?”

“Go home a different way,” the young voice echo’s eerily. 

With quick efficiency the Magi are roused, pages go yawningly about their business and in under two minutes, the baby camels are loaded and swaying back up the aisle, little bells I didn’t notice before tinkling with each plodding footstep.

Caspar, on the last camel, turns to look back, pulling the audience’s gaze back to the star shining brightly over the stable.

Slowly, both the star and the spotlight on the couple snuggled in the straw with the baby between them, fade to black.

From the back and sides of the church the sounds of tinkling, clanking and clomping can be heard.  The strange noise continues to grow louder as the side and back doors burst open, spilling legions of soldiers into the aisles.  The tromp of dozens of small, sandal-clad feet and the tinkling, clanking of armor doesn’t override the ominous silence of this mission.

The spotlight suddenly appears on Mallory again, leaning over shaking a sleeping Joseph. 

“Get up, wake up, Joe’sf, hurry.  That bad king has sent so’drs to hurt the baby!  You have to fly to Egypt now!  Wake up, Joe’sf!  Wake up!”

Joseph rolls over sleepily, blinking at the strange site of the littlest angel still bending over him.  “Whha . . .?  Go?  Go where?  Now?”

“Yes,” Mallory hisses.  “Right now.  Get up, get up!  Hurry, they’re coming.  You haveta fly to Egypt!”  She embellishes her urgency by flapping her small arms, which or course flaps her tiny wings as well. 

“Egypt?  But what will we do in Egypt?  I don’t understand . . .”  But Joseph rolls to his feet anyway, and snatches up the baby, who, on cue, bawls unhappily. 

I tell ya, that Athelia’s really on the ball, even the baby knows its lines.

“Just go.  Jehovah God is watching over you.  He will tell you when the time is right to come home.  Fly, fly, fly!  Away to Egypt where you will be safe!”

Joseph hoists the still crying baby over his shoulder, wakes his wife, who stretches and yawns too, but immediately stiffens as the sound of clanking armor reaches her.

“Oh, Joseph, they’ll find us.”

A pulsing march underscores the sound of slapping sandals, played so softly as to be felt more than heard, the beat and pitch rising seamlessly as the soldiers draw nearer and nearer to the little stable.

A soundless sigh whooshes through the sanctuary, almost as if the audience has been holding its collective breath as the little donkey with its precious burden of mother and child clip-clops off stage.  They’re led away by the sturdy Joseph, leaving the spotlight-lit stable bare except for a single shepherd’s staff leaning against a post. 

The angels have slipped away silently, except for Mallory, who’s planted center stage, both arms stretched straight out in front of her, hands up as if to hold back the tide of evil. 

On all sides the soldiers come to an abrupt halt, apparently fetching up hard against an invisible barrier.  Like dominos the ranks bump and sidle in an attempt to pull up short, shaking heads and rubbing bruised shins. 

The Centurions at the front of each column punch at the inexplicable barriers, grunting and shoving for all they’re worth. 

Mallory stands firm at the top of the steps, hands still out, and the spotlight picks up the glitter of a tear rolling down her cheek.  “I love you baby Jes’s,” she says.

And the sanctuary goes dark.

*           *           *

I hear her coming unerringly down the aisle and wait for the rapid patter of little feet to stop before I turn my head to look at her. 

She glows in the dark.  I didn’t realize it before, but there’s something in the fabric of her dress that literally makes her glow. Her wings are gone and the halo is tipped so far over her ear as to be in danger of falling off completely, but it doesn’t seem to bother her. 

“What’s up, kiddo?”  I felt the need to slip away for a few minutes and spend some time in here getting acquainted with the kneeling bench.  I didn’t think anyone would miss me in the hubbub of the reception, except maybe Daniel. 

I certainly wasn’t expecting Mallory.

She regards me solemnly for a few more seconds before laying her tiny hand on my arm and patting sympathetically.  “Why are you sad, Kernelyak?”

I don’t know why I’m always astounded when Daniel picks up on my emotional state.  He did as an adult too; perhaps it’s just an integral part of Daniel.  But this one too?  Come on, am I giving off sad pheromones or something?

 “Just thinking.”

“’bout what?”  Mallory puts one itty bitty foot on the kneeling bench, then the other, slides in between my arms and stands on tiptop to put her arms around my neck. 

“Din’t you like us tonight?  Wasn’t we good?  Or are you sad ‘cause Baby Jes’s doesn’t got a place to live? My Danny was a beautiful wise man, don’t ya think?”

My unusually cooperative knees don’t even creak as I gather her up and sit back in the pew.  Mallory makes herself comfortable on my lap, leaning back against my arm so she can look up at me.  She expects an answer for every one of those questions and there are probably a dozen more waiting in the wings as follow-up. 

“Yes, your Danny was a bee-u-ti-ful wise man,” I reply, borrowing her pronunciation.  “And you were a bee-u-ti-ful angel.  You were all terrific and I’m going to nominate you all for awards. And I don’t have to be sad about baby Jesus because you offered to take him home tonight, so I know he has someplace to go.”  I’m thinking maybe I can get away without answering that first question, but she waits expectantly through my pause.  No such luck.  “I was thinking about someone else who would have liked to be here tonight.”

“Who?” she inquires curiously.  Tiny furrows crease the unlined brow as she tries to imagine who’s missing from this production. 

“Charlie.”

“Charlie who?” she wants to know, after she’s clicked through all the names of the kids she can think of from the baseball team.  They’re all here, by the way, every one of them was in the production. 

“My son, Charlie.”

“Oh.”  Another few seconds of quiet.  “Isn’t my Danny your son?”  Miss Mallory is running out of steam.  She’s beginning to wilt and with a sigh, she pushes off my arm and leans against my chest.  The thumb goes in her mouth as her other hand comes up to fiddle with a shirt button.  “Well, isn’t he?” she demands when I don’t answer fast enough.

“Yes, your Danny belongs to me too, but once upon a time I had another son.”

“Once upon a time means it’s not true,” Mallory informs me sleepily.

I run a hand over the small head leaned so trustingly against me.  There’s no feeling in the world that comes close to the feeling of contentment when a small child feels safe enough to fall asleep in your arms.  “In this case it just means a long time ago.”

“Is he all grow’d up now?”

A more recent memory of fireflies and a miraculously restored baseball glove flits through my mind, and a slightly out-of focus picture of my kid, all grown up. 

“Yes, he is.”  I close my eyes in an effort to hold onto the memory for a few moments longer and wrap both arms around the gift on my lap.  All my vast experience with kids has been with boys, so it’s a unique pleasure to cuddle this little bit of sugar and spice.  She smells like baby powder and a mixture of her mom’s perfume and dad’s cologne, totally different from Daniel puppy dog tails and snails smell, but just as nice.  “Hey, Sport.”  I glance over as Daniel stops at the end of the pew.

“Mallory’s mom is looking for her,” Daniel tells me, sliding into the row and climbing up on the bench beside me.  He hesitates a moment, looks up at me, and I move my right arm to let him climb into my lap as well.  My little wise man cuddles up too, sighing contentedly as he burrows into his favorite spot under my arm and against my heart. 

“You were great tonight,” I tell him again, giving him an extra squeeze.

“I had fun,” he yawns, wiggling a little because Mallory’s taking up some of his usual space and my cast is not especially comfortable I suspect.  “I liked the camels best.  Did you know they were baby camels, Jack?  We had to get special permission to use them.  You were great too, Mal.  Did you have fun?”

“Uh huh,” she says around the thumb.  “You were beautiful, Danny.  Next year I wanna be a wise man too.”

“You’re not old enough to be a wise man.  You’ll still be an angel next year.”

“Wise ma’,” she insists.

“Angel,” Daniel responds, laying a hand over the tiny fingers still clutching my button.  “Want me to take her back to her mom?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Why are you in here in the dark?  Mrs. Thelia would have left the lights on for you.”

“Yep, probably.  But I like it in the dark.”

“No stars.”  Daniel cranes his neck back to look up at the ceiling.

“Nope, no stars.”

“Window’s pretty though.”

“Very,” I agree. 

The backlit, stained-glass rose window is beautiful.

“I like stars,” Mallory murmurs, more asleep than awake.

“You like it in the dark at home because it’s where we look at the stars.  Why do you like the dark in here?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  I guess . . . maybe . . . sometimes it’s nice to go where other people have prayed and feel their prayers.”

“Were you praying?”

“Not . . . exactly.”

“Then what were you doing?”  Persistent as Hershey with a bone.

Mallory beats me to it.  “He was thinkin’ ‘bout Charlie.”

A heartbeat passes . . . two . . . even three, before Daniel says softly, “Oh.”  And as usual I can feel the wheels spinning.  “Was Charlie ever in a pageant like this?”

‘Yeah . . . he was.”

“He would have liked this one, doncha think?”

“I do.”

“We could go see him again, Jack.  I could tell him all about tonight.  Maybe your mom and dad would like to go see him too.”

“Hmm,” I offer, without making a commitment.  “You ready to go, Sport?”

“I like it in here in the dark too.  Can we stay for a few more minutes?”

“Sure.”  I settle back in the pew with a sigh of my own, though I don’t realize it until Daniel’s small hand reaches up to pat my cheek.  I turn my head to kiss his palm and send up a prayer of my own, of thankfulness for the blessing that is Daniel, big or little.

“Mal?”

“Hmm?” our Littlest Angel slurs.

”Can you turn off your dress?” my Littlest Ancient inquires. 

~*~

 

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