This story was written for the 2017 Advent Calendar – Day 16
Summary: The citizens of Virginia City are treated to The Nativity Play, with the Cartwrights having prominent parts in the production.
Rating: G 4,000 words
You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths,
lying in a manger.”
A Performance to Remember
~~by Puchi Ann
Marie could barely contain her excitement until after her husband had said grace over the evening meal and the dishes began to be passed, but she forced herself to wait. Both Ben and Adam had worked hard all day, and young Hoss, of course, was never as receptive to new ideas before a meal as he was after it. Thankfully, her own wee babe had already nursed his fill and was sleeping sweetly in his cradle by the fireplace. Not that he’d understand enough to be excited anyway, even though he was the major cause, she thought, restraining the urge to giggle.
When everyone seemed to settle into their enjoyment of Hop Sing’s fine supper, she casually mentioned, “Reverend Latimer came by today.”
“Oh, what did he want?” Ben asked between bites of tender beef. It was inconceivable that their pastor would have driven this far out from town just to pass the time of day.
The excitement held in so long came bubbling out. “Oh, Ben, it is the most wonderful news!” she exclaimed. “There is to be a grand celebration at the church on Christmas Eve.”
“There usually is,” Adam pointed out.
“Yeah,” Hoss put in enthusiastically. “They put up a tree with bundles of candy and gifts for everyone . . . well, exceptin’ the grownups. They just get candy and, maybe, an orange.” He hoped someone had thought to bring oranges from California this year, as the tangy fruit was something he didn’t often get.
“Yes,” Marie said, straining to be patient with the interruptions, “but this year there is to be a pageant, as well.”
“What’s that?” Hoss said with a small frown. “Does it taste good?”
Ben and Adam laughed out loud, while even Marie had to stifle a giggle. “Non, mon cher,” she said, reaching over to stroke his wheat-hued hair with a loving hand. “You do not eat it; you watch it. A pageant is a play that tells the story of the Christ Child’s coming.”
Hoss’s eyes widened. “With wise men and camels and everything?”
“Probably not camels,” his older brother chuckled. “Wise men, for sure, though, and shepherds.”
“And sheep!” Hoss crowed, giving a bounce in his chair.
“Shh,” warned their mother. “You do not wish to wake your little brother.”
“No, ma’am,” Hoss whispered, settling down at once. His little brother, small as he was, would raise the rafters with his yelling if he got woke up unexpected, and it could go on just forever. No one wanted to hear that!
“Well, that sounds very interesting,” Ben offered cautiously, for he sensed there was more to be told. It wasn’t likely the good reverend had made that long trip from town simply to impart a piece of news that could as easily have been announced in church the following Sunday. “Does he want your help with sewing the costumes?” he asked, for Marie’s fine needlework was without peer in the community.
“Bien sûr,” she replied, “and he wants your help, as well, Benjamin, and the boys’, too, of course.”
“I suppose I could put together a manger and the frame of a stable,” Ben said slowly. “And, yes, the boys could help.” Adam, in fact, would be a fine helper for a construction project, as he was with so many tasks around the ranch these days, and six-year-old Hoss could, at least, fetch nails and other needed things. Yes, he’d be happy to support the church in ways like that.
Marie frowned. Ben was being obtuse—deliberately so, she suspected. “I believe Clyde Thomas is making those.”
“Ah, good choice,” Ben said and turned his attention back to his beef.
Marie placed her hand atop his. “You have not asked your part in the production,” she scolded softly. “Nor has Adam.”
“I’m happy to help in any way I can,” Adam assured her. The quick answer was not only good policy, but sincerely felt. He loved drama and would happily do anything he could to encourage it in Virginia City, even if the storyline was one as well known as the birth of Jesus.
“Thank you, Adam,” Marie said with a smile that managed to be both approving toward him and chiding toward her husband at the same time. “Reverend Latimer hopes that you will agree to play the part of Joseph, the earthly father of our Lord. It is a major role and a great honor.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Adam’s enthusiasm was genuine, although his grin melted to a tentative smile as he asked, “Who’s playing Mary?”
Marie laughed. “Reverend Latimer did not say, but there cannot be too many to choose from, oui?”
“Oui,” Adam agreed. Unless the pastor went with someone much older or younger than he was, Mary would probably be played by either Ruth Blanchard or Rosemary Wilson. He’d prefer pretty, sweet-natured Rosemary, but figured he could tolerate Ruth.
“What about me?” Hoss demanded. “You said ‘boys.’ That means me, too, don’t it?”
“Mais oui,” his mother said. “You are to be a shepherd boy, mon doux.”
She turned toward her husband. “It is good for our sons to be so trusted, oui?”
“Oui,” he said. If only that were where it would end. He feared—almost to the point of certainty—that it would not end with only the boys on stage.
“And you, mon mari?” She tilted her head meaningfully as she asked, “You will show our sons that you, too, can be trusted with whatever the good pastor asks of you, oui?”
“That depends on what he asks,” Ben stated plainly. “I learned a long time ago not to buy a pig in a poke.”
“There will be no pigs,” Marie said, thoroughly confused by the unfamiliar saying. “Reverend Latimer asks, instead, that you take the role of King Herod. It is a small part, but he feels you are perfect for it.”
“He must have heard about Pa’s thunder-from-on-high voice,” Adam chuckled.
“That’ll be just enough out of you, ‘Joseph,’” Ben grunted. He reached for his glass of water.
Adam clucked his tongue. “The honor of the role must have scrambled your thinking, Pa. I’m not Joseph.” He pointed toward the cradle. “That’s Joseph.”
“No,” Marie inserted, her face glowing with motherly pride as she rested her chin on her interlaced fingers and sighed in pure joy, “that is Jesus. What a precious Prince of Peace he will make.”
Water spewed from Ben’s mouth. “No,” he croaked weakly. “Please tell me you’re teasing, Marie.”
“Mais non,” she said, eyes flashing as the beatific expression vanished from her face. “Surely, you see what a great privilege it is for our son to portray the Holy Child.”
“Or some great cosmic joke,” Adam muttered beneath his breath.
Marie’s eyes narrowed as she spun to face their eldest son. “What did you say?”
Adam raised his voice. “I said, ‘What a great stroke . . . of genius, that is.”
As Marie smiled, Ben arched an eyebrow, but said nothing. Far be it from him to repeat Adam’s actual words, which he had heard clearly and with which he wholeheartedly agreed. Even Hoss, young as he was, was shaking his head from side to side, his eyes wide with disbelief and outright panic.
“Don’t you think Joseph is rather young to take on such an important role?” Ben suggested. He didn’t dare voice his real concern. Little Joe, a happy cherub as long as everything went his way, could transform instantly into a howling bundle of rage when they did not.
Marie turned her hardening gaze from eldest son to father. “I think,” she said sharply, “that the Baby Jesus was even younger when he played the part!”
“Yeah, but he was God,” Hoss put in and immediately wished he hadn’t. Marie, apparently taking pity on his youth, merely said, “Mais oui” and urged him to eat his dinner. With instinctive wisdom, the youngster immediately raised his fork and dug in.
Almost as if he could literally feel the sparks flying at him from his wife, Ben winced. “Yes, well, it’s not his age, exactly,” he mumbled. “It’s—it’s . . .”
“What?” Marie demanded. “Why do you not wish this honor for our son?”
“It’s not that,” Ben protested. “Of course, it is an honor and I’d be happy for him to have it, but, well, Little Joe is such a”—he struggled for the right words and finally landed on “sensitive child.” He congratulated himself on successfully coming up with an expression both apt and, hopefully, inoffensive, even if “sensitive” was a rather generous description of his youngest son’s disposition. From birth onward, Little Joe had reacted explosively to the smallest changes in his environment, whether it was a damp diaper or a colicky tummy or too much sunlight striking his cradle or a feeding more than five minutes overdue or—the list seemed endless.
“You don’t think he’s up to it,” Marie charged, voice distinctly edged with the pain of affronted maternal pride.
“Oh, I’m sure he would handle it just fine,” Ben said. It was the rest of them, every blessed one of them within range of his bellowing, that would suffer. “But it would be hard on the little fellow, Marie. Just think about it for a minute. You know how drafty the church can be.”
“No more so than on those Sundays we attend services with you,” Marie argued, “and certainly no more than the stable of Bethlehem.”
“Well, no, I suppose not,” Ben admitted, “but then there’s the crowd.”
“Little Joe likes people,” his mother said proudly. “He’s very friendly.”
“Yes,” Ben agreed slowly, “that’s true, but that manger certainly won’t be as comfortable as his own little cradle, Marie.”
“We will make it so,” Marie insisted.
“He might get hungry in the middle of the scene.” Ben was getting desperate now.
“I will nurse him just before, of course.” Marie’s color was rising with each objection she had to fight off.
The look Ben cast at his oldest son was somewhat akin to that of a drowning man begging for someone to throw him a rope. Adam obliged by asking whether Marie thought her son would tolerate being bundled up tightly. “The part does call for a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, doesn’t it?” he asked with an air of innocence that might have presaged a career on the stage. “And Little Joe does like his freedom.”
“He sure does,” Hoss risked coming up from his plate to offer. “Tosses his covers off every night.”
Marie had had enough. “You are all most infuriating!” she declared. “I had never thought to find you so . . . so selfish.” Tears filled her eyes as she left the table and went to kneel next to her sleeping son.
Ben blinked. Selfish? How could sparing the congregation from being deafened by a bawling baby be selfish? Wasn’t it more of a blessing to them and everyone else whose ears were within a mile’s radius of the church? Still, he couldn’t bear to see his wife cry, so he left the table and came to squat at her side. “Marie, my love,” he began as he put an arm around her.
She wriggled out of his embrace. “I am not your love,” she insisted. “At least, you do not treat me as such, nor do you treat your son with love.”
“Now, Marie,” he protested.
“Do you not understand? I want everything for him, Ben—everything!” The tears poured down her cheeks. “It will not be for him as it has been for me, people talking behind their hands, saying the vilest things! He will be accepted among your friends. This—this can be the beginning.”
He again put his arms around her, and this time she crumpled into them. “Marie, sweetheart,” he soothed, stroking her golden hair, “you are accepted among my friends.” He laid a finger across her lips to stifle her protest. “Anyone who does not accept you is not my friend,” he said firmly, “and you shouldn’t give a moment’s thought to bigots who insist that everyone share the same ethnic and religious heritage they do.”
“They aren’t worth a penny next to you,” Adam declared.
“Yeah,” Hoss agreed. He didn’t understand about bigots—and, frankly, never would; it was enough for him that those people had made his mother cry. “I love you, Ma,” he said, hopping up from the table and running to wrap his chubby arms around her neck.
“And everyone loves Little Joe, too,” Ben said, adding with a smile, “You know what a charmer he is.”
She looked up hopefully. “Then you agree that he will charm everyone as the babe in the manger?”
Adam, who had walked over to join the others, and Hoss exchanged a panicky look, for both could feel their father wavering. Adam gave his little brother a discreet shake of his head. Speaking up now was simply too risky to be considered, and both boys held their breaths for a long minute. Don’t give in, Adam silently pleaded with his father, though with little hope. The signs of craven caving were all too evident, and for once, he couldn’t even blame Pa; he had a feeling he’d turn craven, too, given the chance.
“Of course, my love,” Ben finally said, albeit weakly. “Little Joe will be . . . charming.” Between now and Christmas Eve, he would, of course, make it a matter of diligent prayer, and surely God, in His mercy, would ordain that his son’s sojourn in the manger would be blessedly silent. After all, miracles had been known to happen.
Ben reached beneath his beard to give his itchy chin a discontented scratch. Should’ve grown my own, he muttered into the gray wool, although Marie would have hated it and he would have hated giving up her kisses until Christmas morning. Of course, like her son, to whom she’d passed on the trait, she was all kisses and smiles, now that she had gotten her way about this pageant nonsense. And speaking of now, where was the woman? The great drama was about to begin, and he hadn’t seen her since she’d gone looking for some secluded spot in which to give the child a last-minute, hopefully silent-night-producing, feed.
Good luck with that search, he might have told her, had he wished to take his life in his hands. The small church was made even smaller by the curtained-off staging area at the front, where all the actors, scenery and stage props were now crowded. And since the Christ Child must not be seen until the climactic moment, Marie must be somewhere back here, along with the shepherds, wise men and the rest of the entourage. (Thankfully, Hoss’s suggestion of real sheep had been overruled.) Luck? She’d need a miracle to even find a place to sit, much less one out of view of inquisitive eyes.
Marie must have found that miracle somewhere, though, for she was smiling as she appeared at the side of King Herod a minute or so later. So, amazingly, was a babe wrapped, however loosely, in swaddling cloths, and thanks be to God, that babe was sleeping. God willing, they just might carry this off.
“You’d better get out front,” Ben whispered.
“Yes, I suppose.” Marie gave her baby one last, fond look and then held him out to her husband.
“I can’t take him,” Ben hissed. “Did you forget I’ve also been roped into doing the Scripture narration? That starts any minute!”
“Oh, I did forget,” she said, looking suddenly panicked. “But what can . . . Hoss? Where is Hoss?”
“Getting ready to go onstage,” Ben reminded her. “The shepherds are there at the beginning, remember? And I don’t think Baby Jesus needs to be in the field with them.”
“Where is Adam, then?”
Ben shrugged. No doubt his older son was somewhere in the group of players crowded behind the makeshift curtains, but where was an unanswerable question.
“I’ll take him,” a young girl offered. “I’d love to hold him.”
Marie, moments ago willing to entrust her baby to a six-year-old—granted, one with especially strong arms—now looked askance at a girl twice that age.
“She is his mother, after all,” Ben pointed out dryly. For goodness’ sakes, who had Marie expected would place her child in the manger?
“Oh . . . yes.” Marie was forced to concede the logic of handing Little Joe to Rosemary, who was portraying the Virgin Mary as Adam had hoped. “Keep him still,” she cautioned and then fled to the opposite side of the curtain before the teardrops trembling on her lashes could spill over. Ben, of course, would never understand the wrenching of a mother’s heart, torn between wanting the world for her son and wanting for herself nothing in the world but him, safe in her arms.
After the pastor went through a litany of thanking everyone who’d had any part in the production (going back to Methuselah, Adam would later say) the Christmas story opened with Ben’s cello-toned voice proclaiming, “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Since he was in costume, he had to remain behind the curtain, but that thin barrier was no obstacle for a man whose voice could move mountains (again, his oldest son’s description).
The shepherds took their places in the field at the far side of the stage, and then Adam and Rosemary were led into the stable by a harried innkeeper. For the sake of decency and the impracticality of staging such a scene with a living child, the Virgin Mary was already carrying her baby, even before the narrator announced that she had “brought him forth.” Ben felt a moment’s trepidation as she laid the swaddled infant in the manger, but Little Joe slept on peacefully.
With everyone in place, the drama moved back to the shepherds. There was little dialog, but Hoss was especially thrilled that he got to point to the sky and say, “Look! Angels!” A very small angel choir (both in number and stature) sang sweetly and, thankfully, softly. Still the babe in the manger continued to sleep. Ben began to wonder if his wife had smuggled a drop or two of his brandy into their youngest son’s wee mouth (a notion she would later indignantly refute) but he felt no inclination to question whatever means she (and/or God) had used to perform this miracle.
The story was progressing perfectly, from the visit of the shepherds to the wise men’s encounter with King Herod to their eventual appearance at the stable in Bethlehem. However, somewhere along their long journey, portrayed by their circling around the audience and turning back toward the stage, the babe in the manger began to stir restlessly, his tiny arms fighting against the swaddling cloths entrapping him. Still, Little Joe’s protests were no more than soft whimpers as he struggled to free himself, and Ben had hope that they could get through the last few minutes of the story before his son’s irritation grew to ear-splitting proportions. After all, he implored his heavenly Father, it’s only a small miracle we’re asking here, nothing like turning water into wine or walking on water.
He almost had his miracle in hand, but as the wise men knelt before the manger and extended their gifts toward the child, Baby Jesus let loose a most ungodly shriek of sheer terror. To the list of damp diapers, a colicky tummy, too much sunlight and a nursing more than five minutes overdue, Ben mentally added strange, bearded faces bending over his—to use the generous description—sensitive son. Little Joe was not happy, and he was quite willing for everyone in town—and possibly California—to hear about it.
Rosemary reached out to pat his tiny tummy, but Little Joe only screeched all the louder. Figuring a familiar face was what the boy needed, Ben started toward him, but then stopped in sudden realization. He was still dressed as King Herod, and to have the man who wanted the infant Savior of the World killed snatch him right out of the manger would make a travesty of Scripture and set the whole room roaring with laughter. Marie would never forgive him for making their son the butt of Virginia City’s jokes. On the other hand, if someone didn’t calm that child down soon, Marie herself would probably march onto the stage to rescue her baby from the nasty wise men making him cry. That wasn’t exactly a Scriptural conclusion to the pageant, either. Perhaps King Herod would create less havoc, after all.
Before the murderous king could move from behind the curtain, however, someone much more appropriate stepped up to the challenge. Somehow with the instinct and the aplomb to remain in character, Adam said to Rosemary, “Here, Mary. Let me try.” He reached into the manger, adding as he scooped up his little brother, “Come to your pa, Jesus.”
Little Joe only screamed louder, and Ben’s hopes died once more.
Then, as he swayed his little brother in his arms, Adam began to sing, “Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”
The baby’s cries slowed, as he stared quizzically into the woolly face bending over him. It was as unfamiliar to him as those of the wise men, but he must have recognized his brother’s voice, for the sobs hiccupped to a halt. Little Joe managed to work one tiny fist free and, reaching up, he grabbed the false beard and tugged. As the face behind it was revealed, the wailing infant suddenly became a chortling cherub. Continuing to sing, Adam held his little brother aloft as if presenting to the world its Savior. The audience stood to their feet and applauded. That song, everyone afterward said, might have been unplanned, but it was the most fitting conclusion to the pageant that any of them could have conceived. From then until he left for college, no one considered any church program complete without a solo by Adam Cartwright. Little Joe Cartwright, on the other hand, was excluded from any dramatic production for years to come, and a nice, predictably quiet rag doll portrayed the Baby Jesus from that time forward.
© December, 2017
When I first saw this prompt, it inspired absolutely nothing, so in desperation I tried my hand at a bit of free verse, a genre I don’t even like as a reader. Thankfully, my muse did finally cooperate with the story posted above. My first attempt at free verse is not great, but hopefully, it’s not horrible, either, and I thought you might enjoy seeing it. So, here’s a second present for you.
When first she gazed upon your face,
Her eyes shone with the selfsame light
That must have sparkled in Madonna’s eyes,
When she beheld her well-loved child.
Yet you were not a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths,
And mercy knows, my impish little brother,
You have no mission to save the world.
Still, I could not imagine my world without you.
Without your cackling jaybird laugh,
Without your boundless zest for life,
Without the love you freely (at times too freely?) show,
While mine stays hidden in my breast.
Despite your never-ending pranks,
The weekly (daily?) need for saving you from slaughter
By shotgun-wielding fathers of marriageable daughters,
I would not change a minute of all that we have shared.
From the moment you first held my reaching finger
Clutched within your tiny, clinging fist,
My heart was captured, too, and held
Within your grasp for all the days to come.
These thoughts I dare not speak aloud,
But now that Christmastide has come,
I write this humble verse, so you will know
How very much I love you, Little Joe.
Link to the 2017 Advent Calendar – Day 17 – Unto Us a Son by Inca
Other Stories by this Author
- Le Réveillon (by Puchi Ann)
- The Christmas Gift (by Puchi Ann)
- A Stranger Came to Stay (by Puchi Ann)
- Contemplations in Church (by Puchi Ann)
- To Set the Captives Free (by Puchi Ann)