Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Epiphany

It has been five years since I wrote this story, and it's still how I like to imagine the visitation of the travellers from the East to the Holy Family. But this morning when I read it, it dawned on me that the wise ones probably gave away their all, so I made a small adjustment to my tale. Do you know what it is?

This story seems extra fitting this year, with all our Syrian refugee families arriving daily.

Happy Epiphany!

Monica’s Epiphany

Christmas was a week away, and Monica was in miserable martyr mode. Hurrying along the mall concourse, she chanted a litany of the things she still needed to find: new Christmas candles, some slivered almonds, two new pillows, and—oh dear, she had forgotten something. What was it? What was it?
Sighing deeply, Monica paused at the food court, racking her brain for the missing item. Seeing an empty table for two, she found her way through a crowd of shoppers having late afternoon snacks. She sat down and slid her bags and parcels onto the table top. There was already more than an armload; how was she going to lug all this and two pillows home on the bus? Frowning, she picked up her purse and rifled through it for her shopping list.
The search was fruitless, and her mood worsened -- she would never get everything done without that list! Looking at her Christmas purchases, she thought hard about each store she had visited and where the list might be, but there was no way of knowing whether she’d find it if she back-tracked. Besides, she didn’t have time. Her bus home was less than an hour away.
This business of Christmas was highly overrated as far as Monica was concerned. Holding a commercial festival that had nothing to do with anything was ridiculous, really. Not being religious in any sense of the word, Monica couldn’t for the life of her understand why thinking adults would put themselves through the yearly chaos surrounding the birth of a mythological biblical character who was supposed to be God, but she grudgingly went along with it. Her husband and kids seemed to sort of believe in something about it all, and she couldn’t refuse them anything. For her own part, Monica was ready to call it quits entirely.
Furious with herself and the missing Christmas list, Monica scanned the noisy crowd around her until her eyes halted on a group of three elderly men sitting in the midst of the hubbub, grinning at her. Unnerved, she turned and looked behind her, thinking they might be amused by something going on at the Chinese food counter. When she turned back, their eyes were on the playing cards they each held in their hands. The old Asian fellow was laughing at something the white-haired man of African descent was saying. The small, grey-goateed Middle Eastern-looking gent threw his cards on the table with glee, and Monica actually heard a roar of mock disapproval from the other two over the noise of the crowd. They were clearly having a good time, while she was having everything but.
Monica shook her head. It wouldn’t surprise her if the old roosters’ wives were running themselves ragged doing Christmas errands while the men didn’t lift a finger. Husbands were all the same. Wasn’t Al home reading the paper or watching TV? He complained that he hated mall mayhem this time of year. Well, so did she, but someone had to prepare for Christmas.
An hour later, Monica sat on the bus, her parcels taking up the seat beside her, causing frowns among the passengers who were stuck standing in the aisle during rush hour. Avoiding their eyes, she checked her bags one more time. A sweater for Al, gift cards for the grandkids, pine potpourri and the new pillows (suggested in that Debbie Travis article), chocolates (for the boy who shoveled her sidewalk and any extra friends who might show up with a gift that had to be reciprocated), new Christmas towels for the bathroom, slivered almonds for cookies, three extra Christmas cards (for the friends she had crossed off her mailing list because they didn’t send cards last year, but who sent cards this year), and earrings for her friend Teresa.
 Not bad a bad haul, though she hadn’t come up with a gift for her daughter Janie. As Monica closed the last bag, she spotted her Christmas shopping list slipping to its bottom, crossly snatched it out, and didn’t have to read further than the first item. Silver polish! She had forgotten the silver polish! Her head dropped as angry tears filled her eyes, but she blinked them back and looked up, right into the face of one of the men she had seen playing cards at the food court.
His dark brown eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled at her, and he removed his hat to reveal thin, curly white hair that contrasted with his dark skin. “If I held the biggest bag on my lap,” he said in a deep voice with a faint but unmistakeable accent, “would you mind if I sat beside you?”
Surprised, Monica shuffled the smaller bags aside as the man lifted her bag of pillows and slid his lanky legs beneath them. His hands were black against the downy whiteness of the pillows peeking out, and the tender pinkness of his palms and fingernails embarrassed Monica somehow.
“I forgot the silver polish,” she confessed quickly, then wondered why she had said it.
“Silver polish?” the stranger repeated. “Is it important?”
“Well, yes,” Monica replied. “I polish the silver every year for Christmas.”
The man considered that for a moment, then said, “Why?”
“Well, it gets tarnished. It’s a wedding gift, and we’ve always used it for Christmas dinner.”
“What would happen if you didn’t use it?” her seatmate asked, looking her in the eye.
“I don’t know. I suppose that as long as everyone has knives and forks, that’s all that really matters.”
“So who are you polishing the silver for?” he asked, smiling.
Monica’s mouth dropped open. She was about to protest, but surprised herself by saying, “I’ve always hated polishing the silver.”
“So why not make a change?” the stranger said gently. “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine,” he grinned, wiggling his white bushy eyebrows.
Monica almost rolled her eyes like a teenager faced with Mom’s advice, but smiled instead. “I guess you’re right,” she said.
“Here’s my stop,” said her seatmate. “Thanks for the seat.” Leaving her pillows beside her, he shuffled past others to the front of the bus and disembarked. As the bus pulled away, Monica watched his figure recede in the darkness.
Someone touched her shoulder. “I sit?” said the small Asian man she had also seen at the food court.
“Of—of course,” Monica said, and looked past him to see the third card player, the one with the goatee, holding onto a handrail. The Asian man took her pillows and held them on his lap as he settled beside her. He beamed, nodded, and pulled a folded newspaper from under his arm. “I going to Christmas concert tonight,” he said, pointing to a notice in the paper. Handel’s Messiah. “You go to Christmas concerts?” he asked.
“I used to, when my family was younger,” Monica replied. “But now that they’ve left home I have too much to do to get everything ready for Christmas. Tomorrow, I need to put up the tree and get going on my Christmas cleaning, and after that I have to decorate. Oh, and bake almond cookies.”
“Ah. Why you do so much things? Husband, children no help, or you not like help?” he asked. “Why they don’t help so you can enjoy Christmas, go to concerts?”
Monica was speechless. She had never really asked for help. But now that she thought about it, Al probably wouldn’t mind setting up the tree, and Janie would likely be willing to come over and wash some walls and clean the china cabinet for her. Monica's daughter had always loved that cabinet and its porcelain statues. Come to think of it, Janie should choose one or two of those dust-collecting treasures as her Christmas gift this year. And her twelve-year-old daughter, Sara, would probably love to make almond snow drops for her Girl Guide badge, since she swore they were her favourite cookie.
“I suppose I could ask for help,” Monica murmured.
“Confucius say, “They must often change who would be constant in happiness and wisdom.” Yes, ask for help. Go to concerts,” her seatmate said, pointing again to his newspaper as he tucked it in with her pillows and stood up. “My stop, good bye.”
“Oh. Goodbye,” Monica murmured, too late, as the little man hustled forward and stepped gingerly off the bus. He waved at her as the bus pulled away. When she turned back from the window, the third card player was sitting beside her.
“What is it with you guys?” she said.
The grey-goateed man smiled and shrugged, saying with a thick accent, “We have been friends for many years. But we noticed you didn’t seem to be enjoying yourself this afternoon.”
“No, I wasn’t,” Monica admitted. “I misplaced my Christmas shopping list, and couldn’t remember the things I intended to buy. So I forgot the silver polish… and -- oh no! Spicehill Farms gift boxes for my neighbours.” She cursed internally.
The man shrugged again. “Do you like your neighbours?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t buy them presents if I didn’t.”
His eyes twinkled. “So who needs sausages and cheeses? Do something different instead. Our only true security is our ability to change. Why not invite your neighbours over for some Christmas cheer?”
Monica laughed. Years ago, when Christmas was simpler, didn’t she and Al host a neighbourhood Christmas party? And invite the Magnussens, Wongs, Chomiks and Leighs? How had that tradition been forgotten when it was such a good one? Oh yes, Al had pneumonia that one year, she had the flu the next…
“Good idea,” Monica said, smiling. “Why are you and your friends so wise?”
The man smiled, shrugged, and put his finger to his lips. “Please excuse me. This is my stop.” He stood and handed Monica her pillows. “Have a Merry Christmas,” he said.
“Thank you,” Monica smiled. “And thank your friends, too. You all gave me good ideas.”
When Monica reached home, she was surprised to find Al in the process of putting up a Christmas tree. “TV got boring,” he said, as she gave him a kiss. “I thought you might like some help. And I’m warming last night’s casserole leftovers in the oven. I hope that meets your approval.”
Monica felt like applauding, but settled for giving him an extra kiss. “How would you feel about taking in Handel’s Messiah tonight?” she asked.


After an incredible evening of letting Handel’s glorious music wash over her, Monica had the most vivid dream of her life.
She dreamed she was walking a rugged path in a cool, dark valley, the sky above her sparkling with more stars than she had ever seen, though the edge of the horizon held the palest glow of coming dawn. There was just enough light that Monica could see the path ahead of her for a short distance. Somewhere behind her, there was a gentle jangling of bells.
Suddenly, the bells became louder, and Monica turned to see a large beast come over a rise in the path. A tall man in a turban was silhouetted against the sky where it had begun to lighten. He limped along, leading another man on a camel. A second man walked behind them. Instinctively, Monica stepped off the path into some shrubs to let them pass, but the procession came to a halt.
The elderly black man in the lead looked familiar to Monica, but she couldn’t place him. He began to speak to her, but she didn’t understand a word. He paused, and tried again, a different sounding language, and again, another language she couldn’t begin to recognize. He turned to his friends, and they each tried to speak with her, but nothing they said resembled English in any way. So the leader reverted to sign language, pointing toward a small village ahead, and to the camel, indicating that he wanted Monica to ride.
“Oh, no, no,” she replied, and then remembered that he probably didn’t understand her. “You’re limping, she said, pointing to his foot and doing an imitation, then gesturing from him to the camel. “You should ride.”
But the goateed man on the camel had already dismounted, and the two of them pushed Monica toward it, making clucking noises against her protests, helping her into the saddle. The two men linked arms and hobbled slowly down the path toward a sleeping village, the beast below Monica tossing from side to side in an ancient rhythm unfamiliar to her. She turned to the Asian man who walked behind her, and he shrugged and smiled encouragement. Why did they all look so familiar?
The single-camel caravan stopped as it reached the outskirts of the little town, and the men gathered to confer in a soft-sounding language. The goateed man drew some instruments out of a sack that was fastened to his belt, and seemed to take a reading from the fading stars. After a short discussion, a point in the direction of the far end of town, and quiet murmurs of assent, the three men resumed their positions.
Somewhere a rooster crowed as the light increased, and a few more joined in chorus. The little procession passed through the shadows of the dusty town, only the sounds of harness bells and the camel's footfalls echoing from stone walls. The group was almost at the last home in the village when they stopped. The men came to help Monica down across the camel's saddlebags before unpacking some beautifully ornate jars and boxes.
Monica stood alone, not knowing what to do next, but the three men beckoned that she should come with them to the door of a tiny house with a dim light in one of the windows. Curious, she followed them, standing to the side as the goateed man rapped on the door. The light in the window increased, and a moment later, a tousled-haired girl bearing a lamp peeked through the door. Surprise registered on her face as her eyes travelled from face to face. Nodding to Monica, she murmured a moment in the soft-sounding language Monica had heard the men speaking, and disappeared for a few moments. The goateed man made a comment, and all three chuckled as the girl returned to the door, pulling a robe around her slim body.
The girl opened the door and held the lamp aloft, gesturing that the visitors should enter. Monica found herself swept into the tiny home with the rustle of the three strangers’ robes. She was standing in the middle of a single room. A man on a mat in the corner raised himself onto an elbow, and a tiny child peeked out from under the blanket that covered the two. The girl set the lamp on the room’s only table, turned to a shelf on the wall and brought down a pitcher and bowl. She was reaching for a towel when the man with the goatee said something that made her stop mid-reach. He gestured toward the two on the bed. The child had sat up, his dark curly hair standing on end, his eyes reflecting the lamplight, and the man put an arm around him and spoke what seemed a soft challenge to the visitors.
The child looked intently at Monica as the man with the goatee took a step back, waving one hand in dismay, speaking softly. Monica scrunched her eyes at the little one the way she had with her own grandbabies, and he grinned, put a finger in his mouth, and scrunched his whole face as his father and the stranger spoke to one another. The girl put one hand to her mouth and sank to the table’s bench, following the conversation with her eyes. Monica wondered what was being said, but continued to exchange blinks and winks with the little tyke.
Suddenly, he wiggled out from under his protector’s arm and stood up, taking three steps toward the girl. Almost as suddenly, the three men standing in the doorway dropped to their knees, smiling, reaching toward the little one. The child toddled to the girl’s knee, and she lifted him to her lap, smoothing his hair, but he wiggled and slid to the ground again. Then he went to Monica, who had crouched to his level.
Silence filled the room, and the lamplight seemed a little brighter, Monica thought. The child looked into her eyes questioningly, and smiled. “Ah, you’re a charmer,” she murmured, reaching out to tousle his curly hair. She let herself down onto the floor, and he plunked down in front of her, legs akimbo.
“I don’t suppose you know Patty-cake, do you?” she said, and he wrinkled his nose in a quizzical fashion. “Here,” she said, taking his hands and smacking his palms in gentle rhythm, “Patty-cake, patty-cake, baker’s man…”
The next thing she knew, the girl was sitting behind the little one, pulling him into her lap, listening intently to the rhyme. Once the cake had been put “in the oven for baby and me,” the child clapped as if to say, “again,” and Monica repeated it. When she finished, the girl smiled shyly, and began to clap her son’s hands in a different rhythm and sing a little melody, pausing for the child to fill in syllables now and then. Monica looked over at the other visitors, and they too were sitting on the floor, eyes shining, watching the clapping game, smiling and nodding at the child.
His eyes moved over the three strange men, and he clambered off his mother’s lap toward the one who was closest to him. He touched the Asian man’s wrinkled cheek, and the old man touched the child’s cheek and murmured what only could have been appreciation. The little one then moved to the one with the goatee and touched the tip of his rather bulbous nose with one finger. He laughed, and the goateed one laughed, and flattened his nose with his own fingertip, crossing his eyes, making the toddler giggle. Finally, the boy reached the darkest one. The old man closed his eyes, smiling as little fingers traced his bushy white eyebrows. Then he opened his eyes, took the child’s hand, and kissed it gently.
The young man on the mat had tied his thin blanket around his waist and moved to the table. He unwrapped a few crusts of bread in a towel, offering them to the three visitors. They shook their heads, the goateed one responded at length, and then turned to the others in conferral. The three then removed from the folds of their robes the ornate boxes and jars that Monica saw earlier, and held them out to the young couple. The girl shook her head, but the old one with the goatee slowly got to his feet and went to her, pressing his boxes set with stones into her hands before returning to help his fellow travelers to their feet so they could do the same with their jars. The goateed one spoke with some urgency to the young man, and a look of alarm crossed his smooth face. He swallowed hard, making eye contact with the girl. The two nodded almost imperceptibly, and the girl scooped up the child and gave him to Monica.
Confused, Monica and the child watched from their place on the floor as the young couple moved uncertainly about the room, seemingly in a panic. The black stranger grasped the blanket the young man was wearing, and Monica averted her eyes and began playing Pattycake with the little boy while the young man dressed and the old one folded up the bedding. The Asian man wrapped up the bread that had just been offered him and handed it to the girl as the goateed man took a rough cloth sack from a hook on the wall and gave it to her. The young man brought a hammer and chisel, and a small shirt that he passed to Monica so she could dress the child while the rest hurriedly but carefully packed the few things from the room into the sack, including the gifts the strangers had brought. When the child’s head and arms emerged from his little shirt, he clapped his hands and made grunting noises to the patty-cake rhythm, and Monica repeated it again, smiling in spite of the anxiety she was feeling.
The girl interrupted the game by wrapping a blanket around her son’s shoulders. She spoke softly to him for a few moments, and he raised his arms to her. She picked him up, and he snuggled into her neck as she rummaged in the top of the sack for the bread. She broke off a crust and gave it to him, and he offered it to Monica.
“Ah, no, little one,” she smiled. “It’s your breakfast.” The young woman smiled an anxious smile, and before Monica knew what she was doing, she held both mother and child in a wordless embrace.
The young man appeared at the girl’s elbow, speaking rapidly as he hefted the bag and gestured toward the door. But the tall black man held up a hand for a moment, opened the door a crack, and looked out. Cautiously pushing the door open, he led the young couple and child out into the slanting early morning light. Monica and the others followed.
The young man made a deep bow toward the three, put his arm around his wife and child, and was about to walk along a path that led into the hills when the Asian man became quite agitated, pointing toward the horizon, where a cloud of dust could be seen advancing toward the village. Waving his hands, he spoke quickly to his companions and grabbed the young man’s sack of belongings. The other two men had hurried to the camel, unloading bedrolls and satchels before tying the young man’s sack and their own canteens to the camel’s saddle and handing the young man the beast’s lead.
The Asian man took the child from his mother and gave him to Monica as the other two visitors helped the girl mount the saddle. Monica kissed the child's curly crown and lifted the little one up to the girl, whose eyes were misty as she spoke words of what seemed to be gratitude to the three visitors and Monica. The men smiled and bowed, and Monica followed their lead, then crinkled her eyes at the child, who responded in kind. 
The goateed man spoke seriously with the young man for a moment, pointing first one direction, then another. The young man nodded, gripped the older man’s arm, and hugged him tightly for a moment. Then he nodded to the other two, who coaxed the camel to its feet and began shouting and slapping its backside. The young man led the lumbering beast up the path without looking back. The girl and her child, their eyes dark, their smiles bright, turned and waved to the strangers who had come to visit. Then the girl wrapped herself and her child in her cloak, and the two turned to face their seemingly uncertain future.
Monica stood watching until the little family disappeared over a rise. When she turned around, the three old men were standing with the things they had unloaded from the camel that had just left. The goateed man threw up his hands in disgust and spoke to the Asian fellow in a rather irritated tone. The Asian rolled his eyes and shrugged, and the black one guffawed. A moment later, all three were laughing. Their laughter rang like bells, peal after peal, and Monica was laughing too, even though the joke was beyond her. As she turned toward the horizon, her laughter caught in her throat and her smile faded. Her companions’ eyes followed hers, and Monica heard the sound of marching echoing through the streets.
“You—you saved them, didn’t you?” she said, pointing toward the hill where the young couple had vanished. “You knew they were in danger, and you warned them. Your camel was probably the best gift you gave them. How will you travel now?”
The goateed one reached for Monica’s arm, lowered it to her side, shrugged, and put his finger to his lips. Then he whispered, in a thick accent, “God grant me the serenity to accept the situations I cannot change, the courage to change the ones I can, and the wisdom to do what must be done.” 
Monica woke, and wondered.


Though she never saw her three wise men again, Monica took their words to heart. Her silver was donated to a charity sale, she now involves her family in pre-Christmas preparation (and has discovered that they actually enjoy helping out), and she has stopped worrying about buying her neighbours gifts and has started inviting them over more often.
Since then, every year during the Christmas season, Monica approaches an inner city charity and asks for the name of a needy young refugee couple with a small child. She buys blankets, food, and a Patty-cake book, and leaves them on the family’s doorstep on Christmas Eve.
Monica is a changed woman.

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