From Castles to Stables

 The snow fell for what seemed like days.  James stood at the window watching the snowflakes… no, snowballs beam the ground as quickly as a Red Sox pitcher against a Yankee lineup.  He couldn’t imagine there’d been a storm like this since his grandparents’ stories.  According to the tale, they’d walk fifteen miles in snow up to their neck just to arrive in a one room schoolhouse with a pot belly stove for heat and a pot bellied teacher for education, learnin’ them punctuality by beatin’ ‘em with a switch if they were late.  This storm was easily a match and getting beat with a switch would’ve been preferable to the position in which James found himself; Christmas was in two days.

Normally Christmas would fill him with wonderful memories of waking as a child to a new bike under the tree.  Or waking as a teen to the word processor that officially made him a professional writer.  Or waking to his wife, Jenna, on their first Christmas together, only able to afford time together.  Our their first Christmas with Kay and her wild eyed abandon at the presents Jenna and he’d so lovingly chosen, wrapping perfectly.  OK, the newborn didn’t have any ‘wild abandon’ at the presents.  In fact, she didn’t care for them at all.  But that Christmas tree and all its lights were sure fascinating, if only she could fit it into her mouth.

This Christmas, he didn’t have the money to go shopping.  He was working, but as with any freelance job, the money would come in years of plenty and years of drought of the biblical magnitude.  If nothing else, his freelance writing life had forced him to have faith that God would supply his family’s needs.  But Christmas presents weren’t a need.  No, James had grown as a man, a father; two days before the big day, presents were a necessity.

“Hey yo, Jamie Maxwell,” the unmistakable voice of Vernon Van Dyke reached across the front lawn and through the walls, piercing them with cheerful goodness.  “I got something for you!”

In rain or snow, the mail ran.  At least that was their creed, and Vernon was a studious and industrious pupil to its teaching.  He’d found a way to deliver the Christmas cards stacked on his snowmobile in a sack that Santa himself would’ve had a challenge lifting.  But this greeting from Vernon wasn’t for a card.  He was way too happy to be giving James a piece of cardstock paper with a silly little poem, scenic picture of people skating in Victorian England, or the Christ-child and family looking amazingly pristine in a stable that must’ve just been cleared of any unsightly manure.

“I think this is what you’ve been waiting for,” Vernon said, grating James by ending the phrase with a preposition.  James supposed it was Vernon’s attempt at payback for all the jokes told at his expense at the local high school they came from.  “Tell me I don’t know my mail.”

James didn’t tell him anything.  Instead, he stared, mouth agape, at the white envelope that inched its way toward him. His breath slowed.  A hummingbird’s wings beat against the air allowing anyone to see their brilliant color.  The envelope glowed with a heavenly aura surrounding the return address of ‘Lifeway publishing house’. He had received manna from heaven.

The check had arrived.

Like a child on Christmas morning, James awoke from his awe-inspired slumber to snatch the gift presented by his old school chum and tear into its wrapping with equal abandon.  His breath escaped in icy puffs at a frenzied pace as his heart beat furiously. The hummingbird zipped forward and backward in joyous celebration.  In seconds, the envelope was obliterated, revealing the present inside as a check for nine fifty, more than enough to purchase presents fit for a queen and princess.

“I have to get to the bank.”  James said, reaching inside his pocket for his car keys.

“That won’t do you any good, bud.”  Vernon said, a forlorn look crossing his face as if he was leading a funeral procession.  “Everything in town is locked up due to the storm.”  James stared at him, dumbfounded.  No air escaped James’ lungs.  His heart stopped beating.  The snowflakeballs pegged that hummingbird, sending it sprawling into a snowbank.

“It,” James stammered, his mind numb, “can’t be.”

“Sorry to tell ya, pal.  Anything I can do?”

“No,” James exhaled.  “I’m creative?  I’ll think of something.”

“You always did your best work under pressure.”

Vernon was right.  James had built a career of beating deadlines, producing solid work under the toughest circumstances.  He had written articles that exceeded the expectations of the toughest editors in the business.  But that was just an editor, not a six year old.

Dejected, James walked into the house.  He slouched his way to the living room where he heard the television playing.  Turning the corner, he saw Kay, her golden hair needing brushed as usual.  Unkempt as she was, Kay was still his joy, one of the reasons he was put on this earth.  Oblivious to him, she watched her favorite movie – Cinderella.  James leaned against the doorway fearing the words that would dash her holiday hopes.  On the screen, Cinderella danced with her prince in the ballroom of an ancient castle.  On her feet, the glass slippers glided across the floor.  They shone, adding a shimmer to the delicate feet within them, standing out in the grandest ballroom of the finest palace.

“What’s wrong,” Jenna said, her hand reaching up and grasping his shoulder.  James turned to her, trying to formulate the words and then phrases that would sentence him to his paternal doom.

“I,” James finally responded, “I can’t buy any Christmas presents.”

“What?” Jenna asked, trying valiantly to contain her tone.  “You told me-“

“I know…” James paused, his eyes looking away from his wife and to the television.  If only life were a fairy tale, he thought.

An idea raced through his mind as quickly as the neurons could send it.  With or without presents, he would give her a Christmas like no other.  He darted for the back door, hitting the storm-door on the way out.

“What on earth are you doing?”  Jenna shouted from the doorframe.

“No time!”  James shouted.  “Just keep Kay inside.”  James spent the next two days outside.   In the ice and snow, he built it, coming in only to defrost his limbs, allow them to bend again, and then run back to the project.  When questioned by Jenna or Kay, he would only smile and give a mysterious answer.  Late on Christmas Eve, just as Santa was supposed to be taking to the air, James finished the epic undertaking, and walked into the house with a smile frozen on his face… literally.

Christmas morning, James awoke with the sun.  He ran downstairs to finish the setup.  With the last thing in place, Kay galloped down the stairs.  As she neared the tree, she found only one package.

“I thought you said you had Christmas covered.”  Jenna whispered to James.  He smiled and winked before reminding her of their first Christmas together.  “Go ahead, honey,” Jenna nervously said to Kay, “open your present.”

Kay opened it.  Her expression told the story.  She did not want what was in the box.  This expression had not been seen on Christmas morning since Kay was a newborn.  Unfortunately, Kay wasn’t distracted by the lights nor was she interested in tasting the tree.  She pulled out her present, a simple piece of paper with one phrase written in red and green crayon.  “May all your dreams come true.”

“I believe I see your dream outside in the backyard,” James said proudly.  Kay turned to him, her eyes probing his meaning.  With a jump, she shot out the back door and stopped.

“What is it?”  She asked.

“What did you do?”  Jenna whispered.

“I made her an ice cas- -“

It was gone.  The castle that he’d spent two days building had vanished.  In it’s place sat a hole in the ground, buried beneath a clump of snow that fell during the night.  A slab of ice and snow sat where the central keep had been, leaving only a small grotto.

“It was an ice castle,” James murmured to himself.  He turned to Jenna, her own eyes dancing from her daughter to her husband and back again.  The sun was barely breaking through the morning clouds, adding its brightness to the snow’s natural glimmer.  James wanted to say something, to beg for forgiveness.  He had worked so hard but failed.

“I’ll be right back!”  Jenna shouted as she turned to run inside.

“What are you doing?” James asked.

“No time,” Jenna said as she ran into the house, “just stay there.”

A few moments later Jenna returned carrying a book in one hand and one of Kay’s baby dolls in the other.  The doll was plastic, the cheap ones found in any dollar store that seemed to perpetually be without clothes.  Jenna turned to me with a hopeful smile.

“How could we celebrate Christmas without a manger and the baby Jesus?”  Jenna said as she placed the plastic doll in the cave of snow.  Jenna turned to James with a hopeful look.  He focused on his wife, unwilling to turn to see Kay.  “This is the point of Christmas – God’s son leaving Heaven to be born to a virgin in a stable.”  Jenna opened her book and began to read, “And in those days there was a decree go up from Caesar Augustus.”

James watched Kay as she stared at the baby Jesus in the midst of his conquered castle.  It’s moat had been filled with snow.  It’s walls had fallen.  It’s keep had become a cavern.  It was a disaster.   “I’m sorry, Kay.”  James whispered, putting his hand on his daughter’s shoulder.

“But there was no room for them in the inn,” Jenna continued reading.  Kay looked up at her dad and patted his hand.  She produced a weak smile as she pulled his arm around her neck, hugging it tightly.  “You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

“Hey,” Kay said.  Jenna stopped reading.  “You can’t have  baby Jesus in an ice manger without swaddling clothes.”  She looked at both her parents as if they were mad for even trying to leave Jesus naked.  They smiled at one another.  “He’ll freeze.”

“Then go get some swaddling clothes,” James said, proud of the daughter he’d helped raise.  She ran into the house as James walked over to Jenna and placed his arm around her.

“Pretty amazing girl.”  Jenna said.

“Yep,” James said, “we did good.”

“Hey mom,” Kay chimed in from the back porch, “I couldn’t find any swaddling clothes.  Do you think baby Jesus would mind wearing my old Osh Kosh?”

“I think baby Jesus would love it.”

(copyright Warren Fitzpatrick 2004)


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