Friday, December 24, 2010

All Seated on the Ground

On the outskirts of town, the crackle of a modest campfire could be heard from a distance, indistinct words mingling with short outbreaks of muted laughter, carried across the hills by a calming night wind.  Working men’s hands stretched out towards the fire, elbows resting on knees, eyes gazing at the inviting flame, lingering smiles on lined faces.

The fire invited warmth, and the small circle of four enjoyed each other’s company.  Conversation alternated from the mysteries of life to the mysteries of a good lunch, with moments of gaseous laughter in between.

Jake stroked his beard absently, his round face a picture of contentment.  With a touch of ache, and a touch of whimsy, in his heart, he took a deep breath of the night air. But the breeze shifted and instead he took in a lungful of smoke.  Coughing and laughing, he waved his hands in front of his face, the smoke stinging his eyes with tears.  His friends looked on and seasoned the night with another healthy smattering of laughs.

He hacked himself dry, and wiped the tears from his cheeks.  

“Daaaah!” he said with a wheezy chuckle that shook his big frame.  “Oooh…  Shaaah!”

Another round of laughs.  Jake could easily keep a laugh going with his supplementary curse words.  It was an old joke with these men, but one that seemed to improve with age.  He wiped his face with one more chuckle, glancing around the circle at these men who knew him like no one else.  Jake’s soul could use a good, strong laugh right now, and the levity in this circle had been earned in heartbreak.

Jake’s wife was not living with him at the moment.  She had the girls, Deborah and Sarah, with her.  Sometimes the other guys saw Jake bite his bottom lip while he worked.  They knew this meant he was missing those lovely brown eyes.  Michael sat next to Jake now, and had noticed the familiar lip bite several times through the evening.  

Michael was Jake’s closest friend, and had been with him in his darkest moments.  He seldom offered a solution, but he always offered a shoulder.  He was with Jake now, as he struggled to earn his wife’s forgiveness and make his family a family again.

Michael was older than Jake by two years, and shorter than Jake by two inches.  Slow to speak, it seemed that words formed somewhere in Michael’s dimples a few seconds before he spoke them, and Jake could usually predict the mood of the words if not the words themselves.  

Jake was the first person Michael told when he found out he would be a father, and Jake was with Michael when little Gabriel was born.  That night they smoked their lungs dry and drank bad wine.  Michael went to Jake when, sixteen years later, little Gabriel stormed out of the house, cursing his father and making an oath never to see him again.  They drank bad wine that night, too.

Michael took a cursory glance around the hills at the animals they were minding and  reached for the jug.  David beat him to it and with a wry little smile, took a deep, warming swig of the mixed concoction.  

David, thin on top and thin in the middle, had been a widower for almost as long as he’d been a father.  When he spoke of his little girl, who was married now and expecting David’s first grandchild, his eyes became thin slots of joy.  When he spoke of his wife, those eyes were wide and thoughtful, and it seemed he had married her yesterday morning.  When he spoke of her death, they were distant, and it seemed she had died last night.  The wound left by her absence was a tear, a laceration, that had never healed.  

But he knew how to tell a good joke badly, and he laughed twice as often as he cried.  “I own this town, you know,” he would often joke.  “I got royal blood and someday I’m gonna clean up this city!”

Dave licked his lips and placed the jug in Michael’s waiting hands.  Mike took a large gulp and set it next to the kid of the group, a young man they simply called Turtle.  Turtle  lifted the jug nearly to his lips, but didn’t take a drink.

Turtle was slow.  Young for his age.  He began working with these men two years ago, when his father gave him the scar above his right eye.  He told his son never to come back, and Turtle, though crushed inside, obliged.  He felt no bitterness to his father, he was too simple for that.  He simply felt sadness.

Turtle, simple as he was, had begun to make something of his own life.  He wasn’t sure what a man was supposed to be, but he knew it wasn’t what his father was.  Somewhere, though, in the company of these broken men, he had begun to form a picture of fatherhood, of masculinity, of friendship.  Recently he had even found a young woman with far-off green eyes and wispy brown hair who seemed to him to be God’s messenger on earth.  Her name was Zoe, and to him she was Life itself.

“She’s really pretty, huh?” blurted Turtle, absently holding the jug in his hands.

He liked to talk about her with his friends.  Whatever the actual topic of conversation was at the moment seldom mattered.  When he got to thinking about her, he went to a place far away, and talking about her was an invitation to join him there.

“She sure is, Turtle.  Very pretty,” said Jake with a knowing look to the others.

“I know, huh,” said Turtle, smiling.

Silence came upon the four friends again as they stared into the fire.  The flames crackled from orange to yellow, with sparks of green and blue near the bark of the firewood.  A lamb brayed here and there to accentuate the tranquility of the moment.  If a stranger passed by in the night, he would have seen four good old boys sitting by a fire.  

David sighed deeply.

Michael coughed quietly.

The fire crackled.

An angel stood within the fire, and said, “Hello.”

The men jumped, falling to their backs as if hit by a blast.  David scrambled backward on his hands and elbows.  Jake screamed girlishly.  Turtle didn’t move.  Michel ran several feet in just seconds before turning around to see the figure.  

It was smiling, and stood as tall as a fig tree.  It was a fiery green, flickering with flame, highlighted in orange and white.  Though the men were scattered, the angel seemed to gaze on each one of them individually.    His eyes looked into their own, reading their stories in a moment.  Mighty dread pounded in their ears and fear struck their limbs numb.  Their impending death seemed apparent.

“Don’t be afraid,” the angel said.  

But Turtle had stained himself, just a little.

The angel’s voice was both deep and light, like the rushing of mighty waters and the babbling of a brook.

“I bring you good news, of great joy, which will be for people of all time, everywhere.”

“Oh God,” said Michael.

“Tonight, just over there in David’s town,” and the angel held out a flaming hand and outstretched finger, “a Saviour has been born, who is the Anointed One, the Lord.”

“Wow.” said Turtle, who startled easily, but accepted things with remarkable speed. “Can we see him?”  

“Yes!” The angel smiled as if sharing an inside joke. “This is how you’ll find him.  He’ll be wrapped in swaddling bands, and laying in a feeding trough.”  

The absurdity of a newborn in a feeding trough didn’t strike the men until much later, as at the moment they were talking to a flaming angel.

The angel now seemed to hunker down on his haunches, as if he were about to reveal a wonderful secret.  Later, when David told the story, he swore the angel whispered, “Watch this!”

A curtain opened.  Until that moment, they had been unaware of its presence, but it drew away from them just the same.  What was revealed was perhaps the greatest spectacle ever seen by human eyes.

The shepherds rose slowly to their feet, mouths agape, eyes transfixed upon the quiet hills surrounding the little town of Bethlehem. Tears rolled down Jake’s cheeks.  Michael’s legs shook visibly.  Standing upon the hills, as far as their new eyes could see, were angels.  Thousands upon thousands, millions, more than could be counted, line upon line, arrayed in the swirling, perfect order of nature itself.

An emerald glow rose from the ground to the sky, illuminating each strange, angelic creature from within.  Which were cherubim and which were seraphim they didn’t know, but there were figures of flame, like the one in their campfire, and beasts with strange faces, and men and women with enormous eagle’s wings, and creatures that eluded all description.

The campfire angel stood to his feet again, and bellowed with a voice as big as the sea:

“Glory to God in the highest!”

The angelic horde shouted back with the sound of a million trumpet blasts: “And on earth peace!  Good will towards men!”

Again the angel shouted, even louder, and the earth itself thrummed with his voice:

“GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST!”

The legions of beings called in return, deeper than thunder and higher than music.

“AND ON EARTH PEACE!  GOOD WILL TO MEN ON WHOM HIS FAVOUR RESTS!”

And in an instant, they were gone.  The curtains closed.  The campfire angel disappearing with, what Dave would later claim to be, a wink.

The four men stood there, in the silent hills, the night air whisping across their faces.

Turtle giggled.  Jake chuckled.  David laughed.  Michael burst out in a howl.

They laughed all the way into town.

2 comments:

jean said...

Aaron, I love it. You've captured the very human and practical side of the event, reminding the reader that he or she, any one of us, could have been one of those around that campfire. Please keep writing. Jean

Jim and Kelly said...

Ugghhh.
Thank you. I always wished I had been there that night.
Glory to God in the highest.
Merry Christmas!