Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Short Story


Census has always been an irritant. There are many -- I am one -- who feel it to be intrusive, however necessary it might be. And the costs, both to the government and to the individuals it enumerates, should not be discounted.

I have the trust of certain highly placed persons. Because of my reputation for thoroughness and integrity, at the outset of the last two censuses, the tetrarch has assigned me the supervision of a district. I took advantage of this to tell him of the grumblings the census causes. On the first occasion he assured me that the complaints I heard were the braying of asses, nothing more. Census had never caused a revolt and would cause none. This last time he was slower to respond.

On my way back to Jerusalem with my tallies, I decided to take lodging at a country inn rather than travel through the night. The proprietors knew me from previous encounters. Well that it was so, for there was only one room left and a goodly throng clamoring for it. I tried to be unobtrusive about securing it for myself, but a few noticed and protested as vigorously as their fatigue would allow. To avert the disturbance, I slipped out of the common room as quickly and quietly as I could. When I'd divested myself of my bags, I descended the back stairs to wander the hills until my mind had quieted enough to allow me to sleep.

A census marshal has absolute authority over the procedures to be used in his district. Knowing the popular sentiment, I took the inconveniences upon myself. I went from town to town, consulting with local magistrates and figures of prominence, and took the count without requiring anything of the people save their names.

The local officials were always glad to see me go. What would be required of them and their neighbors afterward, of course, was money. Census is always about money: how many folk there are, and how prosperous, and what levy can be exacted of them without provoking an insurrection.

By the size and surliness of the throng on the roads that day, and at the inn, I knew I was passing through a district whose marshal was not so kindly disposed. As the law permitted, he'd ordered the people to come to him. He'd imposed enormous discomfort upon every man of that region, rather than burden himself with the dust and expense of my sort of circuit.

It was not a happy place.

In passing through a crowd, I am forever speculating. Which among these, I ask myself, is known to his neighbors as a person of substance? Which is reviled for his indulgences, or held in contempt for his dissolution? Which among them is known outside his village, and why? Which of them will become known? Which of them, by dint of deeds mighty or monstrous, will climb to stand on the shoulders of history? Which will change our world?

Usually it's a way of passing the dreary times, no more.

The day had provided me with copious fodder. There was an old man in a dirty samite robe, stooped nearly double from years of toil, who leaned so heavily upon his staff as he walked that I feared it might break beneath him. Yet when his wife addressed him in a manner he disapproved, he straightened like a spring suddenly unbound and struck her across the face with that same staff, to send her to the ground bleeding and blubbering. There was a merchant, a large, solid man in a rich cloak of gabardine, who intervened uninvited in a loud dispute between a traveler and a street peddler, to counsel them to moderation. They turned their wrath from one another to him, hurling the foulest of epithets into his face until he left them to resume their profitless quarrel. There was a tall youth of perhaps twenty, with a face of chiselled perfection and a body like unto the Greeks' statues of their gods. He strode smiling through the world as if he owned everything in it, and all marveled at his beauty as he passed. Yet when a raddled old harlot beckoned to him in terms too vulgar even to think them onto this page, he did not respond with derision or scorn. He stopped and went to her, spoke to her softly, pressed a coin into her hand, and passed on.

Of which of these would I hear again? Any? None?

Even if it should happen, I would not know. I did not know their names. My acquaintance with names was a professional one, confined to the tallies I carried in my saddlebags.

The Sun had dropped below the horizon, and the hills were growing cold. The traffic on the road to the city had dwindled to nothing. Outside the inn, the stragglers for whom there was no accommodation crouched and huddled against its southern wall, making what provisions they could for a night of unplanned exposure. In the near distance a shepherd surrendered his staff to his son and trudged back to his hovel for an evening meal.

Movers? Shakers? Doers of mighty deeds? Icons of superlative virtue or courage?

Not likely.

Even those acclaimed as such by the world often struck me as persons elevated to their stations by blind chance, rather than merit. One night, deep in his cups, a patrician of my acquaintance admitted as much to me. He called his chamberlain a more able man by far. In a better world, he allowed, their positions would have been reversed. I agreed, though I forebore to say so.

I passed no judgments. I was no mover nor shaker. I was a functionary, an industrious keeper of tablets with a gift for inspiring confidence in those of higher station, nothing more. No deed of mine would disturb the world's slumbers. My name would not be recorded in an annal of greatness nor praised from a tall tower.

There was some comfort in it.

The night grew cold. The clouds receded from the southern sky, and the stars brought their pale glory to that humblest of places. I headed back to the inn, with no thoughts but of a mug of mead and an early bed.

A faint commotion arose as I passed the stables. The doors were closed, of course, but human sounds issued from within. I stopped and laid my ear against the wind-worn wood. A woman was panting with increasing urgency. A male voice murmured repeated exhortations to courage.

It climaxed with a great cry, followed by a lesser one: the unmistakable wail of a newborn child. The tallies for that district would be augmented by one.

One what? Shepherd? Peddler? Laborer? Surely not a rich merchant, whose hands would flow with gold and whose path would be strewn with obsequies lifelong. Surely not a prince of the realm, whose stern gaze and unblinking eye would strike fear into lesser men and command them to instant obedience. Not a mover nor a shaker. Such were not born in stables.

I swung back the stable door and slipped inside. No one noticed.

There were only the three: man, woman, and child. A single frail candle burned against the back wall of the stable, casting their silhouettes at me like inverted shadows. The woman had wrapped the baby in a loose cocoon of white muslin, leaving only its head exposed, and was laying it in the feed-trough that stood between the rows of stalls. She straightened, stepped back, and wordlessly collapsed into the man's arms.

Around the little tableau, the horses were silent.

I stepped forward, started to address the couple, and stopped. He cradled her in his lap, his arms tight about her, his face ablaze with uxorious devotion. Her eyes, large and luminous, were fixed upon her new child.

It took all my strength to produce a voice. "Do you... require anything?"

Her gaze remained locked upon her child. He assessed me with a glance and nodded with a certainty I could not help but envy.

"Some water, perhaps."

I nodded and started for the inn, but something held me. I bent to the feed-trough, pulled the muslin back from the tiny face and looked into it, not knowing why or what I hoped to see.

The baby's eyes were open.

The eyes of the newborn are never open.

They were large, and dark, yet filled with the light of a million stars, and more knowledge than I had seen in the eyes of any man, high or low. They held recognition and regal acceptance.

I know you for what you are, that infant gaze said. Without knowing, you have sought me, and now I have come for you, and for all those like you. The humble and the just. Though you know not my name, though it be the least of the tallies for this census, and not even one of yours, when you hear it you will know it at once. On a day not far off I shall summon you, and instruct you in the ways of truth and righteousness, and together we will awaken this weary world to a dawn of hope.

The eyes closed. I stood and backed away.

"I'll fetch water," I whispered. Neither husband nor wife stirred. I slipped out of the stable and closed the door behind me.

The common room of the inn was crowded and painfully noisy. There were far too many folk there for its size. Servants moved quickly through the room with mugs, plates and coarse blankets, stumbling here and there, receiving muttered thanks or none at all. I stood at the arch to the kitchen and waited to be noticed.

"Is there water?"

A young girl turned away from the pot she was stirring and looked up at a portly man tending a large oven. He nodded. She filled an ewer from a dip well and presented it to me in both hands. I took it and thanked her.

"There's a couple in the stables..."

The man nodded. "We know."

"She's given birth."

"Is she well? And her baby?"

"I think so."

He took a loaf from a high shelf and brought it to me. "We haven't much left. The first harvest won't be soon enough for me. But we do what we can, as little as that may be."

I smiled. "It will serve."

He nodded and returned to his labors.

The family in the stable was as I had left it. The child was asleep. The man accepted the bread and water with grave thanks. He was dividing it with his wife as I left them.

We all do what we can. For some that is more than for others, but no effort is to be shirked. I was far from my place of resource, but that did not excuse me from my portion.

What of the child in the manger? What would his portion be?

I had met a great one at last. A king of kings, one whose proper place would be at the head of every table.

I hoped I might live to see him rise to his estate, but if I did not, it would be of little moment. I had seen him enter the world. That would be enough.

Jerusalem was a day's ride away. The next day I delivered the census rolls, and remarked again to the tetrarch how noisome and costly the census had proved, not for myself but for the least among his subjects. He thanked me with his usual courtesy, well beyond that owed to a lowly recordsmith, and bade me return to my usual duties. But each day since then I have remembered the child, and wondered what his name, the name I would know as I heard it, would prove to be.


KG said...

The link appears to be broken/misdirected, Francis.

Francis W. Porretto said...

It turns out that Amazon "shared" files aren't really all that shared, so I've posted the text.

Mark Butterworth said...

Thank you. I was moved. I know something about encountering The Christ. Being reminded of Him in such ways always brings me to tears. You see, He saved my life. Well, enough said.