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Friday, December 6, 2013

The Christmas Spirit (a short story in the Dickens tradition, by Dave Swavely)

Show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.   Hebrews 13:2
       Since we had been left alone, each winter seemed colder and longer than the one before.  The Carolina mountains were not the easiest place for a mother to raise two children by herself, but it was the home we had made.  Of course I had thought about moving away from the weather after Joe deserted us, but this was the only life I had known, and I was fearful of trying to make my way in another.

             So I did the best I could.  And God knows I did the best I could trying to hide my hurt, and the anger that seethed inside of me toward my husband.  But even after five years, it was still very alive, and Harrison had eventually picked it up from me.  His twelve-year-old mind did not understand much more than the simple fact that daddy had left, but his feelings seemed every bit as strong as mine.  I caught him cursing his father when he had to brave the snow to get wood for the stove, or when he was cleaning the remains of a fire and preparing a new one. 

             Sometimes, when it came time for this chore, he would just sit in a chair or on the floor, silently refusing to do it.  Out of sympathy for his state of mind, I would do it for him, wishing that he would be able to forgive Joe and move on.  But as I stumbled through the biting cold on my way to and from the woodpile, I would find myself cursing too.  So in that way, and in many others, we had to live with a man who was not living here anymore.

             And then, on one cold night during the holiday season, on the same date that he had left, Joe came back.  Not the same Joe that had left us, however, but someone—or something—different.

             Harrison and I were at the table, making paper ornaments for the Christmas tree, when we heard what sounded like a knock on the door.  We weren’t sure because of the crackle of the fire, and the wind whipping outside, so we sat still and listened for another.  When it came, I headed for the window to see who it was, while Harrison asked if he should get the gun.  I squinted my eyes at him and told him no, then peeked out the window. 

       In front of the door was a large shape that I didn’t recognize, but something inside told me it was okay.  For some reason I felt a strange peace about opening the door.  So I did, and was greeted by a huge man in a long, fur-collared coat.  He was pressing the ends of his long curly hair against the top of his ears in an attempt to protect them from the bitter wind, but was smiling nonetheless.

       “Good evening, ma’am,” he bellowed in a deep voice.  “I know that we are strangers to you, and perhaps my companion here is a stranger of the worst sort, but we would be very grateful if you let us in.”  This speech seemed to have been prepared, and he went on.  “You know the Good Book says to show hospitality to strangers, because you might be entertaining angels unawares.” 

       He winked at me, very obviously.

       “Your companion?” I asked, glancing back at Harrison to make sure he hadn’t gone for the gun.

       “Yes,” said the big man, gesturing to his left and behind.  But then he spun around when he noticed no one was there.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” he added with a nervous laugh.  “You can understand why he would be hesitant.  Wait a moment.”

       He trotted back toward a pickup truck that was parked a hundred feet from the house, but was hard to see in the darkness.  Then he redirected himself toward the woodpile when he caught sight of another man, who was coming from there with his arms full of kindling.  I couldn’t recognize the smaller form in the dark, but again something inside told me that it was safe to let these two in.  So I retreated back to the table, sat down in a chair, and brought Harrison near me, wrapping my arms around him.

       Momentarily the big man appeared in the doorway, furiously wiping his shoes on the rug and shaking the snowflakes out of his mop of hair.

            “Thank you,” he said merrily.  “I hope you’ll have an open mind.”

            Then he moved further into the house, and I gasped as his companion stepped into view.  It was Joe, but it wasn’t Joe.  The man looked like my husband, but he was cleaner, healthier.  Sort of like a better-bred brother, although Joe had never had one.  I watched as he wiped his feet off carefully (something Joe would never have done), and then quietly carried the wood over to the stove, where he proceeded to improve the fire.

            “Words may be difficult for him,” the big man said, taking a seat near us without being offered one.  I began to be worried that the wooden chair might collapse under his great bulk.

            Staring at the man working on the fire, Harrison suddenly squirmed out of my arms and ran into his bedroom.

            “Excuse me,” I said, and moved after my son.

            “Tell him that I’m a minister,” the round man said.  “Maybe that will help him feel better.”

            “Oh,” I said, and nodded.

            I went into the bedroom, and closed the door behind me.
            “Is that dad?” Harrison asked immediately.

            “I think something strange may be happening,” I answered.  “You know how you learned about angels in Sunday School?”  He nodded.  “Well, that man—he’s a minister, by the way—he said something about entertaining angels when he was at the door.  Maybe this is a test for us, or a way for us to put this all behind us…”

            “You think dad is an angel?” the boy asked, then added quickly:  “Is he dead?”

            “I don’t know what has happened to your father, but that man seems different than your father.  I lived with him for years, I should know.  So I think maybe it’s an angel, made to look like Daddy.”

            “Can they do that?”

            “Well, we know angels can take on human form, so I guess they could take on the form of a particular human.”

            “Weird,” the twelve-year-old said, rolling his eyes.

            “Maybe this is God’s way of helping us to forgive him,” I offered.  “So we can move on with our lives.”

            “Okay,” he said, his mouth still hanging open.  “Who’s the fat guy?”

            “I don’t know, maybe he is some kind of special pastor, who works with angels.”

            “Okay,” said the boy again.

            “So let’s go out there.  Whatever it is, we’ll face it together.”

            “Should we wake up JoJo?” Harrison asked.

            “No, she wouldn’t understand.”

            “Mom, I don’t think I understand.”

            “Let’s just let her sleep.”


            We returned to the main room and the same position we were in before.  The man who looked like Joe was now seated next to the fat man, but his head was in his hands and it looked like he was crying.  It amazed me that an angel could be so human, but it convinced me more than ever that this was not Joe.  I couldn’t remember ever seeing my husband cry.

            “Well, this is a special night,” the big man said, glancing around at the tree and other Christmas decorations.

            “Why is that?” I said cautiously.

            “Well, this is the night that the spirits of a Christmas past will be exorcised.  At least we hope so.” 

            So that's the idea, I thought to myself.  We need to forgive this creature masquerading as my husband, so we can put it all behind us.

            “What should I say to it?” I asked.  “I mean, to him.”

            The merry man looked at me askew, but said, “Well, he has to say something to you first.”  He then bopped the distraught man on the shoulder with his hand.

            “Joe” looked up, wiping tears from his eyes, and asked us for forgiveness.  Something else my husband had never done.  Despite myself, I started getting choked up.  I knew this wasn’t Joe, but it looked so much like him, and I had so often dreamed of hearing those words…

            “So now we say, ‘I forgive you?” I asked the curly-haired man, who looked at me funny again.

            “No, now you forgive him from your heart.  And you should also say it to him.”

            “Oh, so you’re saying that we actually need to forgive Joe, and not just act it out with…him,” I said, gesturing to the angel.  Now the man adjusted his colossal body in the seat, looking as irritated as such a jolly person could be.

            “Of course you need to forgive Joe—“ he started to say, but was interrupted by the other man.

            “Lauren, Harry, I know that this is hard—“ he said, but then he was interrupted too.

            “I don’t like being called Harry anymore,” the boy said.  “My father called me that.”

            At this the smaller visitor returned his head to his hands, and started sobbing again.

            “Well, this is going well,” the fat man said.  “Where is your little one?  Perhaps she can break the ice, or bridge the gap, or make the peace, or… whatever!  Where is she?”

            “Josephine is sleeping in her room,” I said.  “I don’t think she needs to be a part of this.”

            “Of course she does,” said the big man.  “She just might be your only hope, because she hasn’t been tainted by the hate and bitterness in this house.  In fact, I imagine this is the reason why God made her like He did.”

            “She was also the reason that Joe left,” I spat, resenting his reference to how my daughter was made. 

            “Right,” he said, pointing at me and smiling in a way that disarmed my aggression.  “And Joe is very sorry for all that.  Aren’t you, Joe?” 

            The other man nodded his head, which was still buried in his hands.

            I was now more confused than before, but before I could ask any more questions, we all noticed JoJo standing in the doorway to her bedroom, rubbing her eyes.  She was a beautiful blond-haired Downs Syndrome child, ten years old going on three.  Her father had left us when she was five, largely because his selfish heart couldn’t stand the thought of taking care of her for the rest of his life.

            JoJo stumbled across the room toward her Mama, but when her eyes cleared she caught sight of the smaller visitor, and stopped in her tracks.  Then she yelled “Dadda!”and ran straight into his arms.     

            I stood to my feet, saying “That’s not your Dadda, Jo.”

            The fat man stood also.  “What do you mean that’s not her Dadda?”

            “It’s my Dadda!” the little girl yelped, hugging the crying man.

            “Is that her Dadda?” I asked the big man.

            “Of course it’s her Dadda,” he said with a condescending frown.  “Who did you think it was?”

            “I thought he was…an angel,” I said.

            “An ang—“ the man started, then pursed his lips, raised his eyebrows, and started laughing.  He sat back down on the chair, and the whole thing shook violently as he continued to be amused, well beyond propriety.  Finally he calmed down, and said, “He’s no angel, sweetheart.  But he is a new man.”

            “I reached the end of myself, Lauren,” Joe said, recovered from his despondency by the embraces of his little girl, who knew no bitterness toward him, nor unforgiveness.  “I ended up in a homeless shelter, with no one in the world and nowhere to go.  This is the short version, of course, but I found the Lord there.”

            “Actually, the Lord found him,” the other man corrected my husband, nodding and knitting his brow like it was a very important point.

            “I knew I had to come back, to make things right,” Joe continued.  “But I felt so bad, I didn’t think I could face you.”  He snuggled with JoJo again, to refresh his courage.  “That’s when I met the minister here.  He was there at the shelter one day, and we talked about my situation.  He encouraged me to come back, and even told me he would drive me up here in his truck.  I don’t know if I could have done it without him.”

            “Well, I just wanted to help him make it here to ask for forgiveness,” the big man said to me, and to Harrison.  “But I also wanted to be here to help you to forgive him.”  He stared intently at us, as though waiting for an answer.

            “I do,” I said finally.  “We do.”  I looked at my son, who nodded soberly, realizing as I did that we should have done this long before.

            “Well, it won’t be easy to keep that promise,” the curly-haired stranger said. “But you can do it.”  Then he rose and moved toward the door, and before Joe and I could even talk about what was happening, we were seeing him off.  He refused our offers to stay, saying that he had other people to see before the holidays were over.

            He even left his truck for us to keep, insisting that he would not need it.  He walked off up the road into the darkness, holding his hair against his ears, but smiling despite the cold.

Are not all angels ministering spirits, sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?  Hebrews 1:14