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Brian Epps returns to blogging….maybe?

The Manger

Posted by Brian Epps on December 25, 2010

The Manger

By Brian Epps

It had been snowing off and on for weeks. The early onset of winter turned the streets of the city white on the first day, but that changed as car exhaust and dirt mixed with the snow to make a gray slush on the streets and sidewalks with gray piles of ice at the curbs, pushed there by snowplows.

When the snow first started, Thanksgiving weekend, people delighted in it. Snowmen appeared on many corners, great battles of white spheres were fought on the streets, and hot cocoa or spiced apple ciders were savored. The delight was quickly replaced by annoyance, though, as snow slowed the morning drive to a crawl and slush made the sidewalks a cold, wet, miserable slog. As Christmas approached, the songs of snow and dreams of a white Christmas rang hollow in the ears of people made cynical by the reality. People weren’t smiling now, as they walked through the slush of the city sidewalks, wanting nothing more than to get to their destinations, ignoring any distraction that might keep them even a moment longer out in this miserable winter.

***

It had been snowing too damn long! Jon Crow stopped and looked up at the grey clouds overhead, dropping snow on the city and promising more through the night, and cursed. Too much snow. He shoved his gloved hands deeper into his coat pockets and continued on his way.

Jon Crow was a big man. A bigness of hard muscle and wide shoulders, the result of being a not-quite-good-enough-for-a-scholarship linebacker in high school followed by ten years at the loading docks. An accident in his first year on the job left him a scar down the side of his face. Add to that the oversized nose, a gift of his father, and eyes too small and set just a bit too far apart, a gift from his mother, and you have the perfect image of an ogre. Almost everyone was afraid of Jon Crow, and he hated it.

Thanks to the snow, he thought, that last truck was late. Now I’ve missed the Christmas show at the Church and I’ve still got to go there to clean up. I promised Reverend Styles I would, but I’d rather be going straight home. The drive to my brother Sid’s house will be ugly – oh shoot! Jenny!

Jennifer Crow wasn’t afraid of Jon. The tiny, blue-eyed, sandy-blonde haired six year-old had her Uncle Jon wrapped tightly around her little finger. Her great big teddy bear uncle was always good for horsey rides, and when she sat on his shoulders, she could see the whole world! Jon in turn loved his niece to distraction. He always kept a picture of her with him.

In fact, it was keeping her picture that led him to his current problem. A little more than six months ago, while paying a bar tab, he dropped her picture from his wallet. Some drunken wit saw it and made a lewd comment, losing four teeth as a result. A plea bargain reduced the charge from assault and battery to drunk and disorderly, and a sentence of community service brought Jon to Reverend Styles.

***
It’s going to snow all night tonight.
The Reverend Doctor Paul Styles, DD, looked out his office window into the night.
If one were to look up piety in a dictionary, many residents in the city would half expect to see the reference: see Styles, Paul. He had been pastor of the Church of Hope for fifty years, and in that time had seen his parish grow from a tiny (and poor) inner-city black church to one of the largest single ministries in the country. This was not due to any personal ambition; the good Reverend seemed to have had his ambition removed surgically at birth, but to his love of God and true joy of spreading the Good News to all who will hear it.

Paul looked out his window, reflecting on the night now passing and the day to come. Dr Paul Styles loved Christmas, from the secular trappings of packages and bows to the Greatest Gift underlying the whole season. This time of year called and inspired him like no other.

He was also waiting for someone. Jon Crow was supposed to come tonight and clean up the offices of the attached community center as his last hour of community service. He had also promised to help out the church by straightening up the sanctuary for the Christmas Day service in the morning. Paul had hoped Jon could make it to the evening service tonight, but Jon had called and said he would be late due to his job.

Paul had met Jon six months ago, when Jon had come to the Community Center to work off his sentence for a bar brawl. It shocked Paul at first that anyone could ever get drunk enough to actually try to fight Jon. It took a month of gentle coaxing to get the story out of him. Jon was not a bad man, Paul thought, just lonely and angry at a world that had not been kind to him.

The Reverend pulled his thoughts back to the scene outside. The weather report said it would snow heavily until four in the morning, and then the show should move on. Paul looked again out the window and whispered a brief prayer that those lost outside in the cold should find warmth and comfort on this night.

***

It had been snowing all of his life.
He walked alone on the sidewalk, barely feeling the ground under his frozen pads, his cream-gray fur making him nearly invisible to the two-legs as he avoided their feet.

He didn’t know how long he had been alone. He remembered a big flat-fronted beast that had pushed ice and snow into the curb beside them, burying him and his littermates. He remembered being able to scramble out of the ice, while his mother kept digging to find the others. He remembered the black round beast that has stepped on his mother. he didn’t know how long he had stayed there, crying as the warmth left his mother, crying for his missing siblings.

The kitten walked slowly on, his big blue eyes searching for food and warmth; finding none.

***

“How could I be so damned stupid!?” thought Jon. He had kept putting off going to get Jenny’s present, hoping to go at a time when it wasn’t too crowded.
Jon approached the church, cursing himself for his procrastination. He hated shopping, especially at toy stores. Mothers would scramble to move their children away from him whenever he went to a toy store. “I wonder if they think I’ll eat them raw or cook them first?” was what he thought when he saw that.

At least he knew what to get her. Sid had told him his daughter had been asking for one of those new baby dolls that look like a real baby.

“Super Shop is supposed to be open till three in the morning for last minute shoppers, and they should have them, I just loaded a bunch of crates of those silly dolls on a truck heading there. Damn! I’m not looking forward to crashing through those crowds!”
“OUCH!”
The sudden sharp pain in Jon’s ankle made him kick his right foot up and shake it forward. Jon got just a small glimpse of a gray something as it sailed through the air and hit the door of the church. He rejected any thought of investigating whatever it was in less than a second and continued around the church to the side, where the community center had its offices.

***

The pain in his left forepaw was worse than anything he had ever known. The kitten heard and felt his tiny bones snap under the weight. He lashed out at the foot of the two-leg who had stepped on it with his claws extended. His claws caught on the two-leg’s fur as it jerked away and then broke loose.

The kitten was thrown ten feet, up a small flight of stairs, to stop upon impact with a wall. There he fell onto his side, panting and dazed with pain.
It took him some time to realize that something at his side was warm. He turned and sniffed at the source. It was a small straight opening in the base of the wall with warm air blowing out of it. He hunched down against the crack, warming his face in the flow.

***

“Well, finally!” Paul whispered to himself as he was Jon coming around the corner. Chiding himself for his impatience, he left his office to meet Jon coming in the door.

“Good evening, Jon. Merry Christmas!”

“Evenin’ Reverend, but I don’t know about merry. Not after slogging through that muck!”

“Now Jon, is that any way to talk? And on Christmas Eve,

“Oh, I’ll be all right, Reverend, after I get home and warm up for a couple of hours.” Jon found it hard to keep a bad mood when the Reverend was around. The spry old man was just too cheerful. “Besides, I get to see Jenny tomorrow; that always cheers me up.”

“Yes, your niece, she looks like a real heartbreaker. I can understand why you put that poor fellow on a liquid diet. I don’t condone it, but I understand it.
” I don’t have much for you to do her tonight, Jon. Just empty the waste bins and then mop the hallway, and your community service is done. I’ve already got the paperwork ready to sign and send, so I’m going to go home and let you finish up alone.”

“Did you need me to clean the sanctuary?”

“A couple of folks stayed after the service to help tidy up, but I’d appreciate it if you’d check all the pews and make sure the hymnals got put up. And leave through the front door, it locks itself.” He didn’t really like the idea of locking up a House of God, but the church had been vandalized and burglarized too many times for him to have a real choice. “Oh! And leave the light on over the Nativity.”

“Thanks for helping me out on this, Reverend.”

“‘Thy neighbor as thyself,’ Jon. Good night and have a merry Christmas. I’ll pray for you.”

“I appreciate it, Reverend. Sleep well.”

Paul walked through the back door of the community center that led to the church hall, up to the front entry way and toward the doors. Before leaving, he stopped once more to look upon the old Nativity set up in the foyer.

The life-sized clay Nativity had been crafted by a parishioner in Paul’s second year at the Church of Hope. The artist, a young man with sickle-cell, had been an inspiration to Paul that God can do great work through His people in even the shortest of life-times. The kings looked a little worn these days, but Mary was still radiant, and the small clay doll representing the baby Jesus still seemed to hold a life of it’s own.
“Or maybe I’m just getting old,” chuckled Paul to himself. “Who knows? Maybe it’s both.” He walked toward the double doors leading to the street.

***

The kitten cowered down as the wall he was pressing up against suddenly moved away from him to reveal an opening – and a two-leg! But the two leg moved past without noticing him, leaving a warm opening behind that was slowly closing.
Without even thinking, he hobbled through the opening into the warmth, and the wall closed up behind him.

{Hello, little kitten.}

They weren’t words he heard, for the foyer was silent. It was more like a thought or feeling sensed rather than heard, but the kitten somehow knew that it came from someone outside of himself. He stopped and looked around for the source.

{You can’t see me yet. Move forward.}

Cautiously, the kitten hobbled forward, approaching the silent group of what looked like several two-legs, but upon closer inspection were only rocks shaped like two-legs.

{Up here.} The kitten had to obey the thought. Bracing himself for the pain, he gathered his hind legs under him and jumped up into the manger. There he discovered the smallest two-legs he had ever seen. It’s furless face and large brown eyes radiated gentleness, kindness, and welcome. It smiled at him, and he knew at that moment what a smile was and what it meant.

The kitten concentrated and tried to send a thought back. [Who are you?] he thought.

{I am… Who I am. I am what was, what is, and what will be. Come to me, little kitten, and I will give you warmth and comfort.}

The kitten didn’t understand all that he heard, but he laid down next to the little two-leg. He felt its forepaws rubbing at his ears, warming them, and the pain in his broken foot faded. Purring softly, he drifted off to sleep.

***

The bins were empty, the hall was mopped, and Jon Crow walked down the last row of pews, checking the hymnal slots.  Reaching the end, he turned toward the altar.

“God?  If you’re there, do you think You could find a way for me to avoid the Super Store tonight?”  He wasn’t expecting an answer, and got what he expected.

As he left the sanctuary, he noticed a light on in the foyer.  It was only when he got to the switch that he remembered that the Reverend wanted the Nativity to stay lit up.

That’s strange, he thought.  What happened to the old doll?

The old clay baby Jesus doll had been replaced by a new one.  It looked like one of those new dolls that look like a real baby.  It also looked brand new.  Jon stopped in front of the manger, thinking.

The Reverend has got to have the old doll around somewhere.  If the door is left open a crack, he’ll think some vandal or kid took it.  And if a replacement arrives in the mail in a couple of weeks, all will be square.  It won’t really be stealing, and I can avoid the Super Store Hell.

He reached carefully into the manger – and jerked his hand away with four small scratches on it.

***

The sound of a two-leg’s footsteps woke the kitten.  He looked out of the manger, saw a huge two-leg coming right at him, and tried to hide.

{It’s all right, little kitten.  He doesn’t see you,} said the little two-leg.

[How do you know that?]

{He only sees me.  He’s going to take me away.}

[NO!] The kitten saw the big paw reaching for the little two-leg and attacked.  He was still exhausted.  He knew he couldn’t fight this thing, but he had to try.  He didn’t want to be alone any more.

He scored the big two-leg on the back of its paw with his claws and fell away as the paw jerked away.  Standing between the little two-leg and the big one, he hissed at the creature as he saw it pull its paw back to strike at him.

***

Jon pulled his hand back to knock the damned nuisance cat aside….and stopped, lowering his arm to his side, looking into a pair of big blue eyes.

Those eyes he saw weren’t framed by gray pointed ears and a pink nose, but sandy blonde hair and a little bow mouth.  Those eyes were sad, disappointed in him.  Then Jon Crow did something he had never in his life done before.  He fell on his knees and he prayed.

He didn’t pray that others would stop fearing him, or for a way out of hardship.  He prayed for forgiveness.  He prayed for salvation.  He prayed for his niece, for his brother, for the Reverend.  He even prayed for that guy in the bar whose teeth he had knocked out.

He stayed there, sobbing and praying, for a long time, while a small gray kitten stood at the edge of the manger and looked down at him.

***

Paul finished his tea and went to his bed.  Kneeling at his bedside, he prayed for peace this night, and joy in the morning for all.  He prayed also that Jon Crow would find his way, not knowing that that prayer had already been answered.

***

Jon dried his face with his sleeve and stood up.  Looking at his watch, he noticed that it was about half past midnight.

“Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus,” he said to the doll.   “May you and your guardian angel have a merry Christmas.”  He picked up his coat, shoved his cap on his head, and went out through the front door.  Making sure it closed firmly.

It was still snowing, and the grey slush of the city streets had been covered over with a pristine white blanket.  It was beautiful.  He walked briskly on his six-block trek to the subway.

I should be able to get home in plenty of time to drive to the Super Shop.  Look out, Super Shoppers!  Ogre Claus is comin’ to town!

***

The kitten waited for the big two leg to strike as it stood up, but it only made noises and left.

[What were those noises?] he asked of the little two-leg.

{He was saying something to me.  He called you an angel.}

[What’s an angel?]

{Someone who serves me and protects my own.}

[Oh.  I’m very tired.  May I go back to sleep?]

{Yes, little kitten.  Curl up next to me and rest.  You have done well.}

The little kitten curled up on the straw next to the little two-leg.  As he slowly drifted off, he thought he could feel his mother near him.

{Rest, my little angel.  I will guard your sleep.}

***

The Reverend Doctor Paul Styles, DD, unlocked the front door of the Church of Hope and went inside.  As he approached the Nativity, he saw that something had changed.  When he got to the manger, he saw the old clay Baby Jesus doll on its side, a smile on its face, and its arm lying, almost protectively, over the still body of a small gray kitten.

The End.

I got this story idea from Rober Heinlien’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  In the book, Jubal Harshaw repeated the story idea, but I don’t think the story itself was ever written.

I first wrote this story, in a different form when I was 17.  My wife, saved it from my old junk for many years, and I ran across it while looking in an old trunk for a baseball.  I read over it and decided it looked like it was written by a teenager.  A few ideas for improving the story came to mind, the above is the result, sort of a collaboration with my younger self.

One Response to “The Manger”

  1. Gina said

    That was so sweet! It made me cry. :-) Merry Christmas!

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