“People, Look East” A Story For Christmas Sunday 2017, by Doug Norris (click to hear audio recording )**
Light, appearing on the horizon, where there had only been darkness, was always the first sign of hope. And it was always greeted by the people with a murmur of satisfaction.
A stab of light, punctuating the night, growing larger, moving, now left, now right, up, down. Curves and valleys and hills, the light bobbing and weaving like an uncertain traveller, coming home drunk – now appearing, now disappearing, but most certainly drawing closer.
Now two lights, headlights, moving and dancing together – an intimate constellation. Always a sign, when the two lights could be seen, that the bus was almost there. When the little group huddled at the side of highway 117 could see two lights, they knew it was near – that it would stop, for a moment, like two stars hovering in the night sky – picking up passengers 2 miles away in St Margeurite, then move left, then disappear for half a minute – a full minute on a snowy morning like this, grinding up the hill, then re-appear, close now, so close, then their travel would begin, out of the hill towns of the Laurentians, and toward the city.
Light, appearing on the horizon, was always the first sign of hope. And it was greeted by the people with a murmur of satisfaction.
The old bus that carried its pilgrims on this daily milk run from the mountains north of Montreal had been modified by the years. The newer machines went to the glamourous routes – the Ottawa express, the south shore. Smooth hisses of air brakes were now gasps, shudders, the bus startled that it should be asked to stop yet again, as it makes its way from St Donat, down through Val Davide, Mont Rolland, finally across the grey choppy St Lawrence to the island of Montreal.
A wreath had been wired on to the front of the bus some weeks ago, as December approached, company policy declaring the appropriate greeting in both official languages – Merry Christmas and underneath, Joyeux Noel. Because somebody had complained, they were now looking for someone who could supply the wreath with French on top, and slightly larger letters… For the time, anyhow, the slush and ice on the highway had taken a toll and with a piece missing it now read “Merry Christ”, and then, as if in atheist rebuttal, “Joyeux – No”.
The little band of souls that had left their homes in the dark of early morning and had stood puffing and stamping at the appointed place now made their way onto the bus, thankful for the heat, and settled into seats as forever and always and everywhere weary travelers have settled gratefully into seats – on trains and buses, coaches and donkeys. They would do so again today. This day’s pilgrims would join the unending line of humanity on the move – some leaving and some coming – some craning necks for last glimpses and blown kisses – some gazing ahead over the driver, to the place to come, where people waited, new chances, hope.
Into one of the seats sank, with a sigh, a woman who was, as they say, ‘great with child’. She would also be, as it turns out in the years ahead, great with children, but we are not there yet.
She slid her seat back the 2 inches that it was permitted to go – bus designers content to offer the illusion of recline without the recline itself – and closing her eyes slid into her small CD player a disk that would offer to her and her inner passenger the comforting sounds of the first movements of Handel’s Messiah – Comfort, comfort my people.
Grandma got run over by a reindeer, comin’ home from our house Christmas Eve ! Handel did not write this, was her first thought. You might think there’s no such thing as Santa, but as for me an’ Grampa – we believe ! – the happy Nashville voice continued in her ear. Handel did not write this, she thought, and this is not my CD. Her disappointment was tempered by the thought of her husband’s face when he cranked up the sound in his truck and got the swelling of the string section instead of Holiday Hits with Hank and the Hobos…
What she noticed about the passenger who had just settled in across the aisle from her, a lady in brown, was her hands. Not her hands themselves, but what she did with them. She carried them ever so lightly, as lightly as one might cradle a baby bird, and they were almost but not quite clasped, and hovering as much as resting over her gently swelling stomach.
She leaned across to the lady in brown, gestured lightly to the same swelling in her coat, holding her hands the same way – a universal posture that is part caress and part protector – and said – It’s an early morning for moms and little ones, eh ? At least we still travel light – soon it will be tricky ! And her face beamed to think of the days that were coming. The days of being a mother. The lady in brown nodded and smiled gently.
Taking this as permission to carry on a conversation – which would have to do if her music was not available – she spoke of those days of expectation – of suspecting, then hearing the news – of the joys of telling people – the alternating tides of sickness, delight, wonder – ebbing and flowing.
She talked, and the lady in brown listened – just politely at first, but then genuinely, recognising a kindred soul that was in that wondrous place of carrying a life – understanding the immense life giving power humans have within us – and understanding also the fear and the risk. To hold this life and then to release it out into world… How will I explain the things that scare us ? Will I bring enough love ? One talked and one listened.
And the hills gave way to the farmland, and the black of the night softened at the edges, and the city grew in the windshield, and she asked the lady in brown if they were going to the same place – did they both have appointments to have their babies checked out at the hospital that was tucked just under the mountain, like a chick gathered under the hen’s wing. The hospital ? Baby? There was a look of confusion – she pointed to their bellies. Then a gasp of comprehension.
Oh, there’s a mistake ! – the brown coat quickly unbuttoned to reveal – not an expectant mother – but an old worn Christmas wreath. Not even a pretty one – made of molded plastic, it had places for candles, and had clearly been put away and taken out for many years, and was now long in the tooth chipped and dated. There was a moment of sheer confusion – then laughter.
It was my grandma’s, she said – I have been up in the village where I grew up – I lived with my mother’s parents after she died. I brought this back with me. A souvenir. No, I have no baby. Just this.
They were at the stop now, and gathering their things they exchanged those tentative farewells of travellers who have suddenly been companions and now will be strangers again. They walked off in the grey snow.
But she heard a voice – it was the lady in brown : ‘Wait. Wait. Please.’ She was coming back. “I lied’, she blurted out. I took it – this – the wreath – I took it. It was the Robichaud’s -they lived next door. This week I saw their house was empty – piles of stuff at the curb for the garbage. Old clothes, books, and this wreath was there. And I took it, because I remember.
Our house was no picnic – Grandma didn’t believe in Christmas – no decorations, no feast – they were hard times. She did what she could. But I remember standing on the snowbank, looking in the Robichaud window. It looked warm – frost on the glass from steamy things on the stove, coloured lights, a tree, with envelopes from aunts and uncles who lived far away – and this wreath on the table, every year. A candle added each week – I saw them sometimes – lighting it, singing around it, holding hands, sometimes praying.
This thing has had so much love around it – it must be alive still – I know it is. So it sat there on the curb for days, buried almost – and I took it. I didn’t know why. But now I know. It is for you. She held it out – this cast off that wouldn’t fetch a dime at the rummage sale, but in the space between these two women it was grand and holy, alive indeed, shimmering. And as she took it, the baby in her womb leapt and danced, as if to say – I recognise this life ! Something so soaked in love as this cannot be buried or lost…
And holding the wreath she shuddered a delicious wave of anticipation and hope, as if all of glory were passing to her – something all and entirely alive, like nothing she had ever known, moving through her. When she opened her eyes, the lady in brown was gone, because that’s how it is with God’s messengers when they are done, already moving on through the snow to another place.
And the light was coming back – silver brushes painting the east end of the city – maybe light always comes to rough places first, the frightened places – so that valleys are lifted and hills brought low and among the most unlikely, there is glory. Glory enough. May it be so !
** audio includes song sung by Bri-anne Swan : Winter Song, by Micaelson/Bareilles