It was a cold December night, close to Christmas. It was late...Dan was asleep in the recliner, tired from waking up at 4:30 several mornings in a row. As I felt bad for him, I decided to leave him in slumber and volunteer myself to head outside for one last time that day.
I grumbled to myself as I pulled on my poop encrusted ski pants over the thin layer of my pajamas. All I wanted to do myself was climb into a warm bed. It had been a long day at the mall, standing in long lines (apparently checking a customer out at Christmas time was the equivalent of performing brain surgery), my back still ached from the miles of walking, searching for the perfect gift for the people who have everything, and I had been close to passing out on several occasions from the heat of my winter coat in an over crowded store...oh and said coat now reeked of mall food from the food court.
"I'm gonna have extra laundry to do tomorrow." I mumbled to myself, then cursed out loud from stabbing my thumb with the baby pin used to close those buttless ski pants. I sucked at the drop of blood oozing from my thumb then pulled on my gloves, thinking not for the first time, that it took longer to bundle up then it did to actually do the work that needed done.
When I stepped outside, the crisp night air stung my cheeks and I hunched my shoulders and buried my hands into my coat pockets. It was a quiet night; the only sound that reached my ears was the soft crunch of my boots on the gravel driveway.
"Not gonna have a white Christmas either." I said sarcastically aloud.
Almost to the barn, I heard out of nowhere, deep and ancient baritone voices sing on the breeze that also blew with it the hint of wood smoke from Mike's chimney across the road:
"O come O come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel..."
I stopped dead in my tracks as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up straight. I felt the goose bumps race over my body even under the thickness of the heavy coat I wore. Now the only sound I heard was the blood hammering in my ears. As puffs of air came from my lips and hung frostily in the winter air about my face, I slowly turned around and looked behind me. All I could see was our house with it's cherry Christmas lights and inviting glow.
I thought of Dan, asleep in the chair, and made a step to go back and get him. He knew how chicken I was in the dark...YES, I'm almost 31 and I'm scared of the dark! But usually it's the thought of the Exorcist chick standing in the glow of the night guard light that scares the crap out of me or that deranged clown on American Horror Story: Freak Show... not men's voices floating on air. In fact, maybe I didn't hear anything after all. Perhaps it was just a figment of my imagination.
But when I turned back around, a huge light shone down on our barn, far greater than that of any night guard light. Again, I heard the voices on the wind, louder this time and yet, less frightening:
"Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven above,
Heavenly hosts sing 'Hallelujah'.
Christ the savior is born!
Christ the savior is born!"
Completely stunned, I walked the last few paces to the barn with my head up looking at the sky. Only when I tripped and fell over the barn threshold, did I come crashing back to my senses. I pushed myself back on my feet, not bothering to brush off the strands of hay and straw that clung to my clothing.
Jimmy and Charlie stood in their stalls, heads over their gates and looking at me. I blinked. They didn't blink. I licked my dry lips and looked over at the chicken coop. All the chickens were out in the kennel, lined up along the fence, quiet as church mice. The steers too were all inside and standing in a perfect line at the fence of their pen, looking in to where we used to store their hay under the low mow in the back of the barn.
My heart sped up again and I began to shake as I crept slowly forward. As I did so, Jimmy and Charlie turned their heads to follow me down the aisle and so did the chickens; as if I were walking down the aisle on my wedding day.
The voices sang again in time to my light footsteps:
"Why lies he in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here,
The silent word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you,
Hail, hail the word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary."
By the time I had walked down to the end of the barn, I thought I was again about ready to pass out. When I stopped and turned to the right, all the blood drained from my face and I had to clutch an old beam for support.
When the voices sang out again, it was with a thunderous boom, louder than any rumble of thunder from the strongest of summer storms:
"Fall on your knees,
O hear the angels' voices!"
And I did. I fell, right there in the loose hay and straw and chicken poop, on my hands and knees. Tears blurred my vision. I shook and sobbed out loud as I thought of own precious son, who means more to me than my own breath and life, pierced with nails and spears and other sickening means of brutality. My own little boy, who was also fast asleep, but warm in his clean crib surrounded with his favorite soft furry toys.
Throughout my emotional outburst, no one said a word. I was aware of the steers, quiet save for their soft breathing, all seven of them standing at the fence with their heads bowed low. I was also aware of the voices, not booming this time -I didn't know how much more I could take-but in a sing-song (happy) way:
"Veiled in flesh the God-head see;
Hail the incarnate Deity!"
Finally, as the emotional storm within me subsided, I raised my head (at the exact same time as the steers), snot pouring forth from my nose and down over my lips. I opened my mouth to try and say something, but no words came out.
She just looked at me and smiled, and as my brain began to process things again, I thought hilariously that she didn't look anything at all like the scandalous Keisha Castle-Hughes who played her in The Nativity Story. When she looked back down at the baby in her arms, her veil and hair covered most of her face. The strong hand of her husband, who stood behind her, rested on her shoulder. I wanted to look at more, but my eyes couldn't budge from the baby.
I have no idea how long I stayed there...maybe only seconds, or maybe it was hours. The cold was slowly seeping in through my winter clothes, my now lack of adrenaline no longer aiding them in warmth. Finally, as if on their own accord, my limbs began to move and I quietly stood up, my eyes never leaving the baby who made no more noise than what a contented newborn makes. Before I turned to leave, she looked back at me with a smile and looked beyond me to the east and nodded. I opened my mouth to ask what she meant, but before the words could be formed, I felt a force pulling me towards the entrance of the barn.
Jimmy and Charlie were still standing at their gates, but their eyes were shut and Jimmy was resting his back foot, clearly relaxed and not wanting to be let outside that night. The chickens had all retired into the coop and I looked at the closed coop door perplexed. As I stepped over the barn threshold, all the electric lights shut off by themselves. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a small dim glow from the back of the barn.
Finally, once out in the driveway again, I looked east and remembered that in the daylight we can see the beginnings of the Appalachian foothills. As their images came into my mind, I heard the voices for the final time that night:
"Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!"