by Ariel J
It is not a pleasant evening to be in town. The streets pour with people – most of them irritable, and most of them voicing their annoyance. Here a child who won't cease his shrill whine until hoisted on his mother's shoulders; there two men arguing heatedly about who ran into whose cart and subsequently toppled its contents into the dirt; everywhere people pushing, crowding, yelling for a relative, trying to keep their sanity amidst the cacophony.
And that's not to mention the animals. Chickens in little cages squawking pettishly at the unsteadiness of their transportation; horses bearing children compliantly and donkeys being pulled along by red-faced men; and cows following slowly, unconcerned about the whole matter.
The resulting racket is unpleasant, to say the least, but what choice does anyone have? If the king said to go to your hometown … well, you went to your hometown. And quickly.
Every other minute a new sign is put out in front of yet another inn: No Vacancy! Somehow, though, these signs don't seem to deter people from pounding on the poor innkeepers' doors.
Amidst all the chaos, who would notice a frail, elderly man hunched in a little corner between two wedged buildings? No one – and no one does. He simply sits there, skinny arms and legs tucked under a frayed blanket, inches away from the swarm of human beings but seemingly untouched by it. His face is placid, yet almost a little sad. But then perhaps not, as his bushy eyebrows are relaxed and his wrinkly face unagitated.
But now – something seems to get his attention. He turns his head slightly to the right, to look at the inn right next to him. There's a younger man at the door once again, pleading with the owner. Nothing out of the ordinary, but the aged man continues to watch.
The younger man, who is lean and strong though not handsome, gestures to a donkey a little ways away. The creature carries a woman who is heavy with child. The man continues to plead with the host, who is still shaking his head. Then the innkeeper disappears inside for a few moments. The old man still watches.
The man emerges with a couple blankets and a lamp. He steps out into the dusk, closing the door firmly behind him. The younger man, looking grateful, moves to get his wife. He takes the donkey's reigns and gently leads the animal forward, following the host. As they pass by the old man, the woman offers him a feeble smile. As if startled by this, he simply watches her with a blank face as they disappear around a corner.
Then, slowly, a lopsided smile spreads on the lined face. It remains there as he slips lower into his blanket, the sky growing ever darker.
Deep into the night, the old man awakes with a start, as a woman's cry fills the air. He blinks, eyes wide, listening. Again a outcry, this one more like a shriek, breaks the silence. The man calms a little, realizing what is happening. He almost smiles and looks up at the night sky. The stars shine effortlessly in the deep darkness, those stars he has seen thousands of times before. Softer groans greet his ears now, but he keeps his eyes on the stars.
Then the man frowns. He squints, looking into the distance. A strange sort of glow comes from near the horizon. It is like someone dropped a bit of the sun's radiance into the black sky. The man is still peering intently at it when it bursts into greater luminance, as if multiplying itself. He stares, wide-eyed, the gleam from the radiance faintly lighting up his face.
He looks astounded as soft strains of some kind of music creep through the dry, cold air. Or is it music at all? It's too quiet to tell, but whatever it is, it is warming. Yes, it is a sound that is warming.
Then, as if finished with its errand, the bright glow vanishes abruptly. For two seconds a soft light hangs in the air where it had been, but that soon disappears as well.
For a whole minute, the old eyes continue to stare at the spot, perhaps hoping the radiance will return, or perhaps doubtful it even occurred. Then the man shakes his head slightly, his face baffled. He leans his head against the ill-painted wall beside him and closes his eyes.
Not five minutes later, he is once again roused from sleep. This time it is by talking. The deep voices are hushed, but still a disturbance at this late hour. Blinking drowsily, the old man looks around, as if slightly confused. Then he looks right as footsteps grow louder …
Four men run by – in a rather disjointed run, for each looks this way and that, searching for something. It is too dark to see who they are, but the fact that they are awake at such a time of night suggests them to be some sort of night watchmen. Their words are too quiet to be understandable, so the old man simply watches them, silently.
Then they are gone, the voices and footsteps getting quieter until someone shouts. Abruptly the running feet stop. The old man's face is in concentration, as if listening for some other sound. But none comes. The men must have found what they were looking for.
Seeming to be a little miffed that this second interruption was not as grand as the first, the old man quickly resituates himself and once again closes his eyes.
Laughter wakens the ancient man. Oh, but laughter, indeed! Who laughs in the middle of the night?
As if genuinely displeased this time, the man stubbornly keeps his eyes closed, unwilling to be awakened. Four men run by him, talking in intense voices, and – yes – one of them laughs. As they energetically pass through the street, one sees the sleeping man. He slows, as if unsure whether to wake him. Apparently he decides it worth the disturbance, for he runs up to the feeble man and shakes him gently by the shoulders.
“Wake up, old man, wake up!” Obediently the man's eyes pop open. He looked surprised, and slightly scared.
The younger man grins at him. “He has been born. He's been born tonight!” he says eagerly. His listener watches him, brows furrowed. “He has finally come to us – the Messiah!” He stands, raising his hands to heaven. “Praise Jehovah, the God of Israel!”
As if unable to contain his joy while standing still, the younger man rushes off in the direction of his companions, leaving the old man with a stunned face. Slowly he reaches for his blanket, which slipped off him in the other man's exuberant shaking. He draws it back up around himself, and his expression slowly changes to awe, wonder.
Then he allows the full effect of the words to overcome him. The crooked smile, which earlier appeared tentatively, now covers his face in an instant. For the final time, he closes his eyes, but the smile does not go away.
Perhaps, just perhaps, it was a pleasant night to be in town after all.