The spice of it caught their notice first. As they entered the chapel for the Christmas Eve service, they lifted their noses to scent the air like a pack of curious hounds. The dim place was fragrant with the sharp green tang of holly and fresh air and the undertone of something sweet. Old and young, dean and student, the freshness spurred them to a sprightlier step toward their accustomed pews. Instantly, they spotted the gifts. A chorus of tiny gasps fluttered through the chapel as the people filed in, for perched atop each hymnal was a tiny trinket with a paper folded neatly beside.
Neglecting even to sit or straighten their coats, they pulled off their gloves and reached for the treasures. A tin car, a teacup, a rusted brooch, they cradled the trinkets in their hands and glanced at their neighbors, eyebrows arched in curiosity and amusement. That’s when the laughter began, a polite twitter that sounded like a flock of small birds chirping in the seats. When they opened their notes to find angels laughing, dancing, or waving at them from the paper in their hands, the smiles burned in the dim shadows. A little boy, clutching a tin soldier, pointed from the paper to the ceiling with immediate recognition.
“Look mum, it’s the angels in the rafters,” and his stage whisper reached every ear within six pews and turned every face skyward on the instant. Then the thrum of whispers grew like a gathering storm, and laughter rumbled up and down the pews and giggles flocked up like sparrows. When everyone stood for the first hymn, there was a good deal of jabbing of elbows and pointing of merry fingers and arching of amused eyebrows. The people leaned a little closer to each other, glad to savor an unexpected delight together on so festive a day.
But Eric was the last to notice. He had, in fact, walked his solemn way down the aisle and taken his seat before he realized that something was up. There were chuckles, deep, throaty, smothered laughter coming directly from the pew where the oldest professor and his primmest of all prim wives always sat. Eric craned his neck and caught a distinct glimpse of a pile of buttons on top of the old man’s hymnal, and a silver spoon on his wife’s. Old Mrs. Monroe, next to them, cradled a tin car in her hands and was grinning from ear to ear. But before he could sufficiently absorb the shock of these foreign objects in his chapel, he became aware of a sea-like rustling amidst the choirboys. Their heads bobbed up and down like waves and their robes swished against the smooth wooden pews. They were distinctly sticky; Eric could see it now. Every single boy had a full mouth and most were surreptitiously licking their fingers.
“What in heaven’s name is going on?” he whispered to the choir director, a few seats in front of him. His shock was immense when the sophisticated young man turned to him with a mouth as full as the boy’s and whispered back “chocolate drops on every boy’s books, and ridiculous trinkets on each seat. The dean got a teaspoon! Great fun indeed. Ellie’s idea?”
And he turned back just in time to prod the choirboys to their feet for the first hymn. In helpless bewilderment, Eric sank back into his seat and gazed about him. Every person in the chapel seemed to be smiling or nudging their neighbor as they lifted their voices. Even Ellie was beaming, for she caught his curious glance on the instant, and waved the rose she was holding at him across the aisle.
He dropped his eyes, crimson with embarrassment, and finally spotted his own gift. No trinket for him, just a fat missive waiting on top of his hymnal, his name scrawled across it in big, red letters. Slumped in his seat, with head bowed in mock meditation, he unfolded the paper. His eyes widened and his hands shook. For an angel stared back at him, an angel unmistakably drawn from those hovering in the shadows far above his head. And the angel was winking. With an ear-to-ear smile and wings waving up and down (this was illustrated by an immense number of fluttery lines) the angel stared straight at Eric in an endless, comradely wink.
For one instant that blazed like the noonday sun and filled Eric top to toe with warmth, he felt a bright shot of hope. Perhaps it was all true. How could anyone else know of the wonder he used to glimpse? But Eric dropped the paper and shivered. The sight bewildered him. And then it angered him. Someone had discovered his secret thoughts and set this before him as a cruel joke. He was humiliated to be found out in his childish fancy and need. Of course, none of it was true. He crumpled the paper in both his hands and glanced around at his congregants.
Who, he wondered was at the bottom of this foolishness? Who had scattered cheap toys through his chapel and made a mockery of the angels? Who was it that had mentioned angels? He sat suddenly straighter as he remembered his encounter with old Father Jonas that morning. Crazy old priest. Of course it was him. Eric pulled his robes straight and peered into the shadows for a glimpse of the old man. He was not to be spotted, but the minute the service was over, Eric planned to search him out and give him a lecture that he would not forget, however bad his memory was. Winking angels indeed.
Father Jonas looked distinctly like a small, fierce star as he bid each visitor to his chapel a happy Christmas Eve. He twinkled, he hopped, he laughed, he spun. It had worked. In his marrow, in the very beat of his heart, he knew their scheme had worked. Swathed in shadows by the door, he had spied upon the people as they found their gifts. He saw full rows of eyes turned merrily toward the angels, he heard the murmurs and the laughter, and he saw the lightening that came to darkened eyes. It took every ounce of discipline he possessed to stand and sparkle by the door until the last person had gone. Only then, when it was safe, dared he patter up the stairs to the loft to celebrate with the angel’s boy.
“Bren,” he hissed when he reached the loft, “Bren! Come out lad, it’s safe. We did it!” When no movement met his voice, he entered the first rows of pews. “Bren!” he said it aloud now, “come out!” But his words were greeted with a silence that set the hairs on the back of his neck in a sudden prickle. A low little moan came from the far corner.
“Jonas?” Bren peeked out from his cubbyhole at the foot of an old pew and tried to stand. But he wobbled like a toddler and the old man rushed forward to catch him just in time.
“I don’t feel well,” Bren whispered when Jonas had him settled on the stones, back against the pew. It took only a touch of his hand on the little boy’s face for Jonas to realize that Bren was in a fever. “I felt a little dizzy earlier, but I got so cold sitting here during the service, and the lights look blurry now and I can’t stop shaking.”
The words melted Jonas’ heart within him and made his knees feel like water. Somewhere in the dim past, amidst the blackest thoughts that had fallen from him was another child’s cry, another burning face, and with the memory a sense of grief so great he could still taste its sour tang on his lips. In one instant, it wiped out the joy from his mind. There was no time to think, to wait, or hide and all he knew was fear for the angel’s child.
With the swift insight of terror, he knew that he was powerless to help in this matter and. He must reveal Bren to at least one person. But he knew just the one. Trembling, he forced himself to his feet and dragged Bren up too. Fear lent a taut, wiry strength to his muscles that carried the both of them down the stairs and out of the great door into the freezing air. Bren bent nearly double at the slap of the cold upon his skin, but Jonas wrapped his old arms tightly about the boy and hurried him on. Down silent cloisters under a blackened sky, in an eerie silence with damp and dust all about them, they limped until they came to a tiny house tucked into the far corner of a shadowy courtyard. Jonas rapped upon the door with three hard strokes.
It was opened by a woman with a quiet face. A low, flickering light seeped into the darkness from behind her and danced over Jonas’ face and Bren’s bent head as she looked down upon them from its midst.
“He needs help, the boy needs help, please,” Jonas pled, “he’s quite ill and I don’t know what to do. I knew you’d help.”
Ellie stared just for a second before she pulled both of them into the small sitting room and shut the door tight. In an instant she was on her knees, feeling the boy’s face, chafing his hands, and firing questions at poor Father Jonas.
“His name’s Bren,” Jonas said in answer to her first query. “I don’t know how old he is. I found him in the chapel, the angel’s sent him and we left the Christmas gifts together.”
“The angels?” Ellie lifted an eyebrow at this explanation but led the boy to the sofa and began to cover him with blankets. “Jonas, how long has he been there? And gifts, was it you who left all those funny little things? And the angel drawings?”
“Yes,” admitted Jonas with just a hint of sprightliness. “We wanted to make their thoughts light again. It was his idea,” he finished sadly.
“And you left me a rose, it was so lovely,” sighed Ellie, gazing at the boy with gentled, curious eyes. “But Jonas,” her voice was businesslike again, “how long has the boy been in the chapel? And who is he?”
“I found him this morning, and he had been there through the night. I don’t know anything else,” said Jonas humbly, thinking for the very first time that there might be a tiny bit of truth in the thought that his mind wasn’t quite all there. Both of their eyes shot to Bren as he gave a tiny little moan. His eyes were barely open now, his little body so wracked with chills he could barely speak, but he sat up just enough to clutch Ellie’s hand and whisper “please, please don’t tell them I’m here.”
“Tell who?” she questioned gently, leaning close, but Bren closed his eyes, breathing very hard. Jonas stood back, twisting his hands until they were red and sore as Ellie tucked a last blanket around the child and tiptoed back to Jonas.
“Listen to me Jonas, I think he is very ill. He must have caught cold in that drafty old chapel last night. Do you know when he ate last?”
“We had a chocolate drop,” murmured Jonas with a red face. Ellie rolled her eyes.
“I’m going to ring for the doctor, and you must run to Mrs. Murray and ask her for an extra hot water bottle. I’ll see to the boy. Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of him.”
Jonas hopped to attention and turned toward the door.
“Don’t let anyone take him,” he whispered, hand on the knob, his huge eyes like a child’s in their fear and yearning.
“I won’t,” she promised, “and hurry back. He’ll miss you.”
Jonas slipped out into the darkness. His bones ached and his many years suddenly felt like countless heavy weights upon his back. He got lost almost as soon as he began. The chapel he knew like the back of his hand and the college ways were clear enough in daylight. But the grey, moonless dark, the wind’s hiss, and his own worry muddied his thoughts so that it took three times as long as usual to find Mrs. Murray’s door and ask for the water bottle. But she had none to spare, and he was sent hobbling through two more courtyards in search of another, and by the time he finally began his walk back to Ellie’s cottage it had been almost an hour.
As he neared the house, a strange urgency pulsed through him. The image of Bren’s frightened face filled his thoughts and the fear that the child felt at being discovered beat in his own heart. A great darkness was headed toward the little boy. He stumbled forward with all the haste his old, tired body could muster. He burst in the door without knocking and looked toward the couch. But a tall, dark figure blocked his view.
“I can’t believe you!” came Ellie’s angry voice from the fireside, where she huddled on a stool, staring up with snapping eyes at the stern face of her husband. “A little child needs our shelter, and you are going to turn him right over to the people he fears. What is wrong with you?”
“Why can’t you see that this is a matter of practicality?” Eric growled back. “He’s a runaway. His foster mother came looking for him two days ago and it’s only right we call them.”
“Even though he fears them so much he ran away? Just leave it until later!”
“I can’t. I won’t. He’s already been gone two days, and in that time he’s made my chapel ridiculous. Did you see what he and that crazy old man did? Junk on the seats. A mockery of the angels in those ridiculous drawings. I want him gone as soon as possible. He doesn’t belong here and I will not keep him!”
Jonas’ fierce slam of the door made Eric whirl around. He glared daggers at the intruder, but Jonas did not even look at Eric. Bren was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s the boy?” his question was terse and directed at Ellie.
“I put him in the bedroom. I’m so sorry about this Jonas.”
But Jonas didn’t listen. He bounded across the room and barged into the bedroom, with Eric’s protests nipping at his heels. The shadows of the small room blinded him for a moment, but it took only an instant to see that the bed was empty, the blankets cast aside, and the room filled with the bitter darkness of the freezing night. The window was open and the boy was gone.
Jonas turned on his heel. He was fevered now too, but it was anger that reddened his face and made his very fingers tremble. He marched straight to Eric and stood before him, half his height and less than half his size. But Jonas’ black eyes snapped in his lined face, and his wild white hair made a halo in the firelight as he pointed a rigid, accusing finger at Eric.
“You drove him away,” he shouted, “The angels sent him to us and you sent him away. He was the answer to your prayer!”
Eric raised an angry hand at this and towered over Jonas.
“Angels had nothing to do with it! He’s a foolish, runaway boy! And you know nothing,” he hissed, “nothing at all about my prayers.”
“Oh but I do,” whispered Jonas, suddenly very still. “I hear you there in the chapel. I’ve heard you cry to God so very many times. I’ve heard you pray for him to come, and weep when you thought he didn’t.”
The room grew heavy with Jonas quiet words, each dropped like a stone into Eric’s startled silence.’
“But God heard you. He sent a little boy to answer your prayer. He sent that child to all of us, to lighten our darkness, to make us laugh.” Jonas was moving again from foot to foot, sputtering with anger, “they laughed tonight! They laughed! But you,” his finger jabbed the air near Eric’s face, “all you see is the darkness. You don’t even look at God anymore. You don’t want to laugh or be glad again. Your heart is dark and you drove the child away!” Jonas thundered and turned a circle in his fear and grief and rage before he whirled back to stand in front of Eric and shake his finger good and hard.
“God didn’t leave you,” he spat. “God never left you. But you left him. You turned him out into the cold!” For a moment, Jonas glared into Eric’s stricken face with the steely anger of an avenging angel. But the iciness broke abruptly and he began to wail, “and now he is lost. And he will be so cold. My poor little boy!”
And Jonas wept like a tiny child. He dropped onto sofa where Bren had been and shook with sobs. Ellie held him, her own tears hot on her face as she turned to address her husband. But Eric was not there. The front door was open into the black night and the sound of steps pounded away into the darkness.
Bren knew only one shelter and he made straight for it. Back through the silent cloisters, two turns left, one right, he thought he remembered the way to the chapel. He found the door and stumbled inside. He was shivering so hard now his teeth clattered in his head and drove away his reason. He couldn’t think what he ought to do. He could not plan or protect himself. He turned his glossy eyes to the ceiling, trying to see the angels, but everything blurred together and billowed like waves on an ocean.
He shuffled to the window where Christ had laughed, but tonight no eye glimmered to life, no bell chimed, no voice sounded in the echoing dark. A terrible sense of isolation engulfed him. He ran toward the altar, as the walls seemed to bend and the ground to swell beneath his feet. He stared up at the statues, but they did not speak. Instead, their faces grew long and their eyes seemed to glare at him so that he was afraid. He stepped back, ready to run.
But at that moment, a door slammed in the outer hall and heavy steps thumped down the aisle toward him. He had only an instant to scramble for cover and the first thing his blurred eyes saw was the life-size manger just beside him, part of the altar crèche scene. It was deep and filled with hay. He crept in as quickly as he could, and pulled the hay around him.
“God, God! What have I done? Have I lost you forever?” The chapel was suddenly filled with a terrible cry. It came from a voice shattered into a million little pieces of ragged grief. Sobs echoed in the cold, high spaces of the chapel and the footsteps shuffled closer to Bren’s hiding place.
“Oh God,” it was the voice of the young, angry priest and Bren shivered even harder, “What have I done? Who have I become?” And the steps shuffled closer. Bren heard Eric’s ragged breath as he knelt at the altar.
“I have been blind. I have hated you. All I saw was the darkness. But oh God,” Eric’s voice was just a whisper, “please let me find him. Help me to find everything that I have lost.”
For a moment, a silence that felt as deep and final as death filled the chapel. But then, a sneeze gave Bren away. A sneeze followed by a wild fit of coughing, followed again by a tempest of sobs as Bren knew himself revealed. At any moment, he expected rough hands to pull him out and march him back into the cold, straight into the things he feared. He heard Eric rise and he trembled amidst the hay.
But there was only the catch of a breath, then the scramble of Eric’s feet as he ran to the manger. And then Bren was lifted and cradled in strong arms whose gentleness was like the dream he had of his mother’s touch. Eric lifted Bren from the manger, sat down on the cold stone floor and held the boy, rocking him back and forth. Bren looked up, wondering, into a face in which tears had rubbed out all the hard lines. The dark eyes met his own, and there was a light at back of them that reminded him of the brightness in Jonas’ gaze.
“I found you,” Eric whispered, “God heard me, and I found you, and manger isn’t empty anymore. You’re safe now. Don’t be afraid.”
For the first time that night, Bren felt warmth seep through his body. His eyes cleared slightly and he leaned against the man who held him so gently. He wanted to sleep. But a rustling in the rafters caught his ears and turned his gaze. His eyes suddenly widened.
“Look,” he whispered. And Eric lifted his eyes. An angel waved its wing and winked.