Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Gift

By Joseph Cunningham

I wrote this a long time ago when I was a seminarian, obviously. It won the Christmas short story competition at my college and, even though there were only two other contenders, I still take advantage of the bragging rights.

I concocted the story from two sources: the first, two great short works of literature: one, no doubt, most will recognize; the other needs slightly more of a hint of an explanation. The rest comes from personal experience. As to the gap between what is true here and what is fiction, I will leave for you that mystery.

It was the twenty-second of December and the first blizzard of winter. I remember trudging through snow drifts to the train station on my way home to Buffalo for the holiday. We had left Stamford at a quarter to seven and were making our way up the Hudson when I suddenly became aware of a tall, clean-cut gentleman in a trench coat sitting in my cabin in front of me. I had been so enthralled by the Times that I hadn’t noticed his entry. He was middle-aged, as was I, of fair countenance and complexion, and sat silently staring out the window as if mesmerized by the storm. I thought I’d break his reverie with a word or two.

We discussed astronomy and astrology, the finer points of Irish eggnog, the average annual snowfall in Buffalo, and the incoherence of modern man. He said that his brother would be waiting for him in Syracuse and, if I didn’t mind – which I didn’t – he’d tell me a story of his childhood there and of a Christmas long ago, a Christmas never to be forgotten.

It was my 10th birthday,” he began, “St. Nicholas Day, December the 6th, in the morning, when I awoke and ran to where I had left my shoe for St. Nick the night before, as was our family custom. Santa, we were told, would come not only on the Eve of Christmas, but also on the Eve of his feast and drop chocolates and other goodies into the shoes of good little boys and girls, as he had once left gold in the shoes of poor cobblers and the like. My many siblings and I all fought for one of father’s shoes – because they could hold more chocolate – and that year I had gotten one, naturally, being the second oldest and the oldest of the boys. My elder sister Lucy got the other. On inspecting the treasure that morning I was in for a surprise. For there in that dark hole I saw nothing, and after quickly reviewing the past year’s misdeeds and finding none that in my mind merited such cruel punishment I reached my hand inside the shoe and felt something.

It was paper, some sort of card, and I pulled it out quickly. On the front was an old Byzantine icon of St. Andrew, and on the back, the words of a prayer.

A Prayer to St. Andrew,’ it read:

For whosoever shall recite this prayer thirteen times a day from the 30th of November [which is the feast of St. Andrew] to the midnight bell of Christmas, SHALL OBTAIN any favor asked.’

There was one lonely chocolate quarter taped to the bottom. ‘Any favor.’ I looked down the hall. Apparently we had all received the same from Santa and my brothers had all discarded their holy cards and candy wrappers and were running across the hall in pajamas with chocolate smeared across their faces. But Lucy’s door had shut quickly and I surmised that she had had the same idea as I.

I closed my door as well, quickly crossed myself and prayed, pausing at the end of my words to decide just what it was that I would ask for. Anything. My mind became a giant toy store, and I floated through the seemingly endless possibilities. But why just toys? There was an entire world of marvelous objects I’d never imagined, never mind the things on the far-off planets they’ve not yet discovered? This was an ingenious trick indeed, for Old Saint Nick knew a boy’s chief desire could change 371 times before Christmas, and surely no one knew the very best thing to ask for. I would not be fooled. I simply stated,

For the best and most magnificent gift, um – in the whole world – no…ever!’ And I added, ‘Please,’ to seal it. ‘Amen.’

Thus the countdown to the holiday began. Thirteen times a day, without wavering, I prayed my St. Andrew prayer assiduously. I had asked my father and mother, who were infallible on these matters, and they had both assured me that the fact that I began my ritual a week late did not disqualify my efforts, since I could not be blamed if I hadn’t received it on time. That was Santa’s fault, not mine. When they asked me what it was I prayed for, I wouldn’t tell them, since that would surely jinx it. Besides, I didn’t want them to worry whether or not I had been suddenly transported to the Taj Majal when they found my bed empty on Christmas morning.

Finally, Christmas night arrived: the night on which it seems no child in the world gets any sleep at all, and I was no exception. I lay silently in my bed, listening to the muffled bumping and banging of Santa Claus downstairs, as was my custom. What sort of shape and noise had my prize package? I knew not, but listened. Then, I heard something I had never heard before: slow and heavy footsteps on the stairway, which stopped outside my room. The door opened. My heart began to pound. Whoever it was turned on the light and walked over to my bed. I had shut my eyes and was feigning sleep, trying to muster up the courage to suddenly open them. But I couldn’t. I felt a rough and gentle finger trace a cross upon my forehead and then I felt a kiss; and the most spectacular things that followed will remain forever in my memory.
I suddenly felt icy wind rushing by and I opened my eyes to find myself in a sleigh, not a tiny, two man sleigh – but a great flagship of the sky, flying high above the sparkling cities down below. To my right and left, in back and as far as my eyes could see were children, all dressed in nightgowns like me with giggling glows upon their faces. I saw Lucy, and I called out to her, but she did not hear me, we were traveling so fast. Far ahead I could see a shiny red ray of light, followed by reindeer, galloping wildly through the sky.

When we reached the place we were expecting, we were escorted to the main square by elves that looked and talked just as I had imagined: dressed in green and brown and scarlet, with pointed hats and pointed ears, and varying degrees of whiskers – looking like short, grumpy old men with all sorts of smiles on their faces. The chief elf, nearly as tall as a man, introduced Santa Claus, who drew a wild applause from the audience. We clapped and cheered for what seemed like a full five minutes.

But then, instead of a long speech and presents for one and all, Christmas songs and magic; instead of the ringing of bells, and a showing of the reindeer – he looked at me. I turned and looked at the boys and girls around me – everyone seemed frozen, gazing at the Toymaker. His lips did not move – he spoke not a word, but looked deep into my eyes with a mysterious smile, and I heard these words:

In the morning.’

I awoke suddenly. Bright light filled my eyes and the scurrying of my siblings in the hallway rang in my ears. It was Christmas morning! I sprang from my bed and threw my robe on. Downstairs my parents led us into a children’s paradise. We dove into the pile of presents and tore and squealed with glee for the most joyous half-hour of the year. When the giggling died down and all the big and mysterious packages had been opened, I sullenly piled up my new sweaters and my undershirts, and patted the stuffed teddy on the head, to charm my parents, who exchanged happy and exhausted glances. There was still Aunt May’s house in the afternoon, but I was certain I had not gotten what I had wished for.

We dressed, shined our shoes, combed our hair, and left – late, a family tradition. I grumbled into church that day, and sat through a high-pitched, off-key choir and a sermon that was much the same. They sang my favorite carol for communion, but I didn’t care, until my eyes caught my sister kneeling at the rail. She had just received, and was still kneeling there after a good thirty seconds, before walking back to the pew like an angel. She hadn’t looked like that since First Communion, and even then it was only just for show.

I went up to the sanctuary and knelt. The priest came with the altar boy and I opened my mouth, closed my eyes, and felt the host lie there on my tongue. I didn’t open my eyes for a long time. I saw a bright light at first, and then figures in the light moving to and fro, but their features were indiscernible. At the center, where it seemed the light was coming from, I saw a child in a manger, and the most beautiful young lady I have ever seen beside him. She was very young; her skin was somewhat tan and her hair, the darkest brown; her eyes were pure and she was smiling. She looked at me, pointing to the infant.

I felt a hand take mine and lead me back to the pew. I still kept my eyes shut, and peered into the crib. No words can properly describe the warm sensation of joy that flowed through me. His face was sweet and his infant skin soft; he opened his eyes, and I knew – it was something akin to faith – I knew I had him in me, and I had gotten what I’d asked for.”

There the stranger stopped and smiled, seeing the incredulous look upon my face. I searched for words, but found none. Then the whistle blew for Syracuse and the storyteller stood to go. Before exiting the car, I caught one last glimpse of him that shall be ever engraved in my memory; for that story and what I saw made of me a fervent churchgoer ever since. He gave his, “Merry Christmas!” and the scarf that had been wrapped so tightly round his neck opened for an instant, and I saw a Roman collar underneath.

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