Friday, December 23, 2005

To Bethlehem

Last paper thrown and my evening route finished, I pedaled ‘cross the valley dirt road headed for town. The drought had crippled this land, but signs, like the scattered rows of golden wheat that glistened in the fields as the sun set, said change was a-comin’.

The sky darkened by the time I hit the first lights. At a corner store, a Salvation Army vet jingled his bell and crooned “Joy to the World.” I skidded my bike next to his hanging kettle and reached into my pocket. My last two dimes. They rattled the bottom after I tossed them, and the clang halted the singer.

“Tough times,” I commented, nodding at his near empty pot.

“Oh no, son. Best of times.” The old man attempted to stand from his bench, but he faltered and remained. “Go to Bethlehem and see for yourself. There’s a baby there. One that changes everything. Check the motel. You’ll find him if you go tonight.”

Later, midway home after I left the crazy coot, a feeling started nagging me about what he had said. Ma and Pa would be hellfire angry if I came home too late. For a second, I thought I’d try to bring them along. Nah, I knew better’n that. I’d be home for the night, and that’d be that. If I wanted to go, I had to go now, by myself.

Didn’t take long to get to Bethlehem. It never does once you just downright decide to get there. I biked to David’s City in less than a half hour. Stars in the clear country night lit the place up right fine, and they appeared brighter than the semi-lit “Bethlehem Inn” sign with half its bulbs out.

More a home than an inn, the noise from inside the place told me it was full. When I asked the manager about a baby, he said he didn’t know ‘bout any baby, but that a pregnant woman and a man with her accepted a room ‘round back because the place had filled up.

Only thing behind the motel was an old stable. A horse had been tied up outside, and it fed from a tray. Making my way to the stable gate, I knocked a couple hard times not really expecting anyone to answer.

Moments later, the gate cracked and candlelight shown out. As it opened, a haggard man appeared. Clothes drenched with sweat, his gaze met me with a look of obligation, more’n anything else, but to my surprise, he waved me inside. The stench of horse, cow, and dung met my nose, and the dirt and straw floor looked like no place for anyone to be spending a night. Then, I turned and saw a girl not much older than me sprawled on some straw. Exhausted, she barely lifted her head – she was spent.

A cry sounded from beside her, and she lowered an arm into a trough. More amazed was I that two other kids my age stood next to the manger. Staring down, they didn’t notice me. Gently, the man grasped my arm and led me beside the other guys.

“God is with us,” spoke the young lady lying on the straw.

I knelt. The babe lay in tattered rags, and below him remnants of horse oats lined the wood. Swollen eyes peered up at me, and even as the child cried, I knew that Salvation Army guy was right. This one would change everything. He had the world to pay, I could see that from the start, but he’d pay it. In a way, he already had.

I don’t know how long I leaned over the little boy, but I finally rose. The thought crossed my mind to ask the folks if they wanted to come to my house, but they were in no shape to move tonight and my parents might take a switch to me then and there, I come home with three strangers. Still, I’d have asked except…

…this was perfect. This beginning to this story - the one that matters.

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