Summary: There are lots of things that could possibly go wrong in a nativity play, but the reverend certainly hadn’t expected that.
Category: General Fiction
Word Count: 2000
Mary and Joseph slowly walked down the aisle. They stopped from time to time, Mary supporting herself on the backrest of a pew, Joseph looking around searchingly. Eventually they made it to the makeshift stage below the pulpit, and Joseph carefully, as advised, knocked at the cardboard house front.
The blanket sheltering the entrance was pulled back, revealing a skinny, black-haired eight-year-old with a gargantuan white apron wound round his waist.
“Yes, please?” the boy asked politely.
Reverend Davies cringed. We’ll have to work on that, he thought.
Joseph straightened his back. “You don’t happen to have a room for me and my wife, Mr. Landlord?”
“Yes, certainly. Do come in.” The landlord made an inviting gesture into the empty space off-stage.
Joseph looked back at the reverend, puzzled.
“Um, Sam,” Reverend Davies said smiling, “you are supposed to say ‘no.’” He raised the papers in his hands and made a show of reading from them. “’No, we don’t have a room for you. Go away!’ is your line.”
“But they look tired,” Sam said. “And I know they came a long way.”
Reverend Davies smiled even broader. “You’re a good boy, Sam, but this is a role you’re playing. You’re the landlord who tells Mary and Joseph that there’s no room in the inn. That’s how the gospel goes. All right?”
Sam looked miserable, but he nodded. “Mm-hmm,” he mumbled.
Davies patted the boy’s shoulder. “Good boy. Now, let’s start again where we stopped. Joseph, you knock—not too hard, remember—or the wall will topple down again.”
Knock, knock. Joseph tapped at the door as careful as anyone ever had tapped at a door.
Reverend Davies opened his mouth, but then decided not to interrupt just then and clapped it shut again.
“You don’t, err, happen to have a room for my wife and me for the night, Mr. Landlord?”
“No.” Sam looked at Joseph, at Mary, and then at the reverend. He heaved a deep breath. “But if you don’t mind it crowded, we can share my room.”
“Oh, no, Sam, really!” Mary cried. “Can’t you just remember that one lous—little line?”
“Now, Caroline, there’s no reason to be mean to Sam.” The reverend waggled his finger at the girl. Then he turned to the desperate landlord. “Sam, don’t you remember your line?”
“I do, it’s just . . . it’s not fair; they’ve come all the way from Galilee and all they want is a place to sleep. That inn can’t be so crowded that there’s no room for them!”
“But that is how the story goes: the landlord sends Mary and Joseph away, and Jesus is born in a stable.”
“My mom would never send someone away.”
“No, your mother wouldn’t. She’s a good woman, and you are a good boy. Listen, it isn’t Sam who’s sending Mary and Joseph away, it’s the landlord. Some unknown landlord, not you.”
Sam breathed heavily. He crossed his arms, high on his chest, and pouted. “It’s not right,” he insisted. “Why can’t we—”
“We can’t because we can’t change the gospel, Sam.” The reverend took the boy by his shoulders and squeezed them softly. “We can’t change the gospel, and we don’t want to, right? We want Jesus to be born in a stable, we want the shepherds to come and adore him, and the heavenly host to come and sing hallelujah, don’t we?”
Sam’s voice was tiny. “Yes.”
“Good. Then let’s try this again.” The reverend clapped his hands and gestured everybody back to their assigned positions. “And, Sam, when you answer the door, you might not want to say ‘Yes, please.’ Just ‘Yes,’ and not too friendly, all right?”
Sam gave him a dark look, and mumbled a nearly inaudible, “Yes, sir.”
The reverend sat down, folded his hands and nodded encouragingly toward the stage.
Joseph knocked, the curtain was drawn back.
“Yes?” Sam tried to look stern, the reverend noted with satisfaction.
“You don’t . . . well, no, you don’t have a room for my wife and me, right?”
Sam stared. His mouth moved without uttering a sound, then he gave the boy before him the tiniest of head shakes.
Joseph nodded contently. “I knew it. Well, then we’ll look somewhere else.” He turned and reached out for his wife, dragging her with him to the next curtain, only half a yard away.
“Wait!” Sam rushed after the couple and tugged at Joseph’s brown cloak. “I’ve forgotten about the attic. You can sleep in the attic. I’ll give you blankets and . . . ” He trailed off, looking apologetically at the reverend.
Davies sighed. He buried his face in his hands. How could he explain to an eight-year-old who was raised by the most kind-hearted woman God had created in a very long time why someone would not open his house and his heart to anyone in need? Perhaps he’d better talk to Mrs. Driscoll, maybe she could explain to Sam that this was just a play.
Just a play? The reverend sighed again. No, this wasn’t just a play, and Sam was right: it wasn’t fair. But fair or not, it was how it had happened, and how it had to be shown. Period. Yes, and he’d talk to Sam’s mother.
“Children, let’s call it a day,” he announced. “We’ll meet again next Tuesday. In the meantime, please practice your lines.” And don’t invent your own, he added in his head.
The talk to Mrs. Driscoll went pretty well: Reverend Davies was entertained with the widow’s famous apple pie and her warm smile; he had a prudent conversation about John the Baptist with her, and he witnessed Sam’s promise to be “good” at the Nativity play.
Tuesday came none too soon; Christmas was approaching fast, and there were only so many days left for rehearsals.
The children slipped into their costumes, the scenery was arranged, and then everyone watched Augustus issuing the census, angrily shaking his fist at the assembled folk.
Then Mary and Joseph entered the scene, made their way down the aisle and onto the stage. Joseph knocked, the curtain swung aside, Sam the Landlord appeared. Everyone held their breath.
“Yes?” It came a bit cautiously.
“My wife and I need a place for the night. Do you have a room for us?”
“Yes.” A wide smile accompanied the word.
Reverend Davies groaned.
But Joseph seemed to be prepared. “Are you sure?” he asked, his voice barely concealing a threat.
“Yes,” the landlord smiled brightly. “I have a room with an oven. Your wife will be very comfortable there.”
Joseph looked over his shoulder at the reverend, his whole face a question mark. Davies motioned to go ahead.
“I don’t believe you,” Joseph said firmly. “Goodbye.” And with that he and Mary turned to go.
“I don’t lie!” Sam stomped his foot. “I’m good!”
Joseph spun around. “No, you’re not!” he screamed. “You’re spoiling our play! Idiot!”
Sam backed off from the fury thrown at him, stared at the raging Joseph and the clearly annoyed Mary, and started to cry, bitterly.
Reverend Davies was at his side in an instant. Putting an arm around his shoulders, he led Sam from the stage and seated him in the front pew. Dabbing at the boy’s tear-streaked face with his kerchief, he spoke low and calmingly. “It’s all right, Sam. It’s all right. I’ve made a mistake, but I’ll make it better, I promise.”
Sam looked up, hope shining through the tears. “I . . . I don’t have to send them away?”
“No, you don’t.” Davies squeezed his arm. “We’ll do it . . . another way.”
On Christmas Eve, the reverend kept his sermon short, then announced the Nativity play and took a seat next to a very proud Mrs. Driscoll.
The play began. Augustus waggled his fist at the congregation substituting for “the folk” while he informed them about his cunning plans to raise even more taxes. Mary and Joseph then made their burdensome way through the church, stopped at the tavern, and knocked.
The curtain opened, and a blond boy told them in not too friendly words that there wasn’t room for them in the inn. The Holy Couple tried some other doors with no success and then settled down on a bale of straw with a crèche in front of it.
Shepherds appeared and made camp, and just when they lay down to sleep, one of them spotted a light at the end of the aisle slowly moving towards them.
It is generally accepted that angels are blond. Golden-blond. But from that Christmas Eve on, the people of Little Water would swear angels were black-haired.
Sam Driscoll, in a white angel’s dress and with a huge church candle in his hands, walked solemnly down the aisle, put the candle down in front of the shepherds, turned around to face the congregation, then spread his arms wide and proclaimed with a voice so clear and sonorous it reached the furthest corner of the church,
“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
Mrs. Driscoll squeezed the reverend’s hand. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“Not at all,” Davies whispered back. “The role suits your son much better than the landlord’s; he’s a born preacher.”
About twenty years later, with clammy fingers Sam Driscoll palpated the hole a .44 bullet had drilled through the Bible he habitually carried in his breast pocket. He had a matching hole in his chest—albeit not nearly as deep and deadly as it would have been had not the Bible stopped the bullet’s momentum; he had awoken sweating from a dream of a Christmas long ago; he was in pain, and he was feverish; but he would live.
“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.” How could I have forgotten that . . . ?
He would live. But he wouldn’t live the life he had been living ever since he had found his mother dead in her kitchen, shot in the back while she’d been baking apple pie. Apparently he needed to nearly die before he finally understood that he would never find the man responsible for her death, and that shooting every man foolish enough to think he stood a chance against him would not bring her back or mute his pain.
“He’s a born preacher.” Mum had told me that. I laughed at her, but secretly I was so proud.
Sam opened the Bible to the first page and read the inscription: “Follow your heart, Sam, and you can’t go wrong.”
“Follow your heart”—wasn’t that what had led him wrong all those years? No. He hadn’t followed his heart; he had followed his stomach, his anger.
Perhaps now it was time to restore the lead of his heart. “He’s a born preacher.” Is it really so easy?
A smile made Sam’s face glow. I’ll need a new name, first of all. His gaze went back to the inscription.
“Follow your heart, Sam, and you can’t go wrong. Affectionately, Reverend Clay Davies.”
Sam Driscoll released himself from doctorial monitoring as soon as he felt his legs would support him. He found a rail connection to the East, and, finally following his heart, enrolled at the Virginia Theological Seminary for the January term under the name of Dave Clayton only three weeks later, on Christmas Eve, 1854.
I will heal their backsliding,
I will love them freely:
for mine anger is turned away from him.
~ Hosea 14:4
For those who are not familiar with Dave Clayton: he’s a character Pernell Roberts played in “Bronco — The Belles of Silver Flats.” To be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNx27eEJmGc
With my heartfelt thanks to PonderosaPal for the excellent beta.