Incarnation

Karen had just about had enough.

She was pretty patient, or so she thought. She had never raised her voice in public that she could remember. She had hardly ever raised her voice even with her kids when they were at home, even with her husband when he was alive.

Even with Robert. The thought of her husband, gone now for three years, just increased the pressure inside her. Intense loneliness now churned around alongside annoyed frustration inside her chest, trying to burst out from her insides. She was pretty patient, but her patience was about done.

She clenched her jaw to keep it in, balling up her hands into fists to keep it all together, while the teenage girl in front of her nattered away to her friend behind the counter at the food court KFC. It had been a very long day of shopping, Karen was absolutely starving, and she still had hours of baking and cleaning ahead of her. It was December 23, the day before the day before. Her kids and grandkids were coming the next day, and she was desperately trying to pull Christmas together for their arrival.

“You’ve got to come tonight!” the girl in front of her was saying, her red-streaked black hair bobbing with each word as she appealed to her friend. “I can’t believe you won’t come! You’d rather sit around freezing for a measly twenty bucks than hang out with us!”

“But it’s twenty bucks a night for two weeks!” the girl at the till responded with a pained expression. “You know how much I need that money.”

Karen was done with this. She leaned around the bobbing-haired girl in front of her to face the other girl at the till. “Excuse me,” she squeezed, her jaw still tight and her knuckles white around her brightly coloured shopping bags. “Some of us would like to order some food.” The words exploded from her mouth with a force that surprised even her.

The girl in front of Karen gave one of those glances to her friend behind the till, one of those “Isn’t this just like one of them” sorts of looks complete with rolling eyes, threw a “Text me when you’re done” at her friend, and trudged off.

“Sorry about that,” the girl at the till said softly, casting her eyes down slightly, her cheeks flushed against her unruly blonde hair.

The unexpected apology sparked the heat of shame to rise up around Karen’s neck, constricting her throat and strangling her words. She suppressed the feeling, though, quickly placing her order with what she thought was an appropriate sense of noble indignation.

But when she finally sat down at the one seat left in the entire food court, she found she was no longer hungry. The crowds swirled around her, a teeming mass of puffed out parkas, the crying of tired kids mixing crudely with the canned Elvis carols over the mall speakers. Suddenly she was angry: angry at the mall, angry at the girl at the till, angry at herself, at the crowds, at the children, at Elvis. She shoved her chicken sandwich back in the bag for later, grabbed her shopping bags, and began pushing her way through the crowds for the door.

The crisp December air hit her like cool, minted breath. She stopped just outside the door, pausing to breathe, to get her composure before making the three-block walk to the parking lot. A busker at the corner belted out “Jingle Bell Rock.” People shuffled by in hurried procession. The street decorations sparkled in the lights of the cars. The orange glow of the city covered the holiday scene, framing it for a Thomas Kincade painting.

She smelled him before she saw him, the pungent odor of tobacco with a bite of whisky shattering the air’s freshness. It was a grizzled old man, one of the city’s homeless, now standing in front of her, blocking her way.

“Spare some change for some cigarettes, ma’am?” His matted, grey beard was streaked with yellow around his lips. His greasy hair was plastered to his forehead, squeezed out from under an old Jets toque. Underneath his brand-new parka—undoubtedly a gift from some charity or another—his army fatigues reached down to his shoes, a tattered pair of Reeboks.

“At least you’re honest about what you’re going to buy,” Karen muttered dryly, then caught another whiff of the whisky. A thought entered her mind—the chicken sandwich still in her bag—but she pushed it away with an inward spasm of possessiveness and only a small twinge of guilt.

“Here,” she shoved a loonie into the man’s grimy, outstretched hand, then brushed by him to enter the flow of pedestrian traffic on the busy sidewalk.

“Merry Christmas!” the man called out from behind her. Karen glanced back. The man’s smile irked her, welling up those feelings of anger she had felt in the food court. She ignored him, turning back to weave through the throngs of shoppers.

It’s Christmas, she thought to herself. Just get through it, then get over it.

She reached the corner just as the light changed. Halfway across the street, she felt a push from behind. It was a young indigenous woman clutching a bundled baby to her side, clearly in a hurry to get somewhere. Words of reproof were just on Karen’s lips when the pair hip-checked her and she slipped on a patch of ice. She fell hard to the pavement, her bags flying in all directions. Her chicken sandwich spun out, out into the passing traffic, until it was caught by the wheel of a city bus and flattened.

Karen sat there, stunned, on the frozen, snow-pebbled asphalt, people scurrying by to beat the light. The thought came to her instantly, like a dart thrown deep into her heart: This is my life. This about sums it up: all alone, knocked down, bruised, the world passing me by, my life scattered around me, probably broken beyond repair.

She was too shocked to notice the woman picking up her bags, tut-tutting about the rudeness of “those people.” She didn’t feel the woman’s husband reach down and lift Karen up by her arm, then escort her to the other side of the street. When the couple asked if she would be okay, she nodded mutely, her insides frozen, her brain on pause. The man and woman gave each other a glance, assuring themselves that she was indeed fine, before disappearing into the crowds. Karen stood still for a full minute longer, then picked up her bags and began to walk who knows where, anywhere at all, her body pulled along like a marionette.

Karen never could remember how she ended up there. Maybe it was the sweet scent of spiced apple cider wafting into the street that drew her in. Maybe it was the braying of the donkey echoing among the downtown buildings that piqued her curiosity. Maybe it was God. But, however it happened, she found herself standing in a small churchyard, beside a small stone church.

It was a live nativity scene, being played out at the far end of the yard. A few pilgrims were scattered here and there. A father crouched with his young children, pointing out the characters in the scene. An elderly couple sat on a hay bale, humming to the tinny Christmas carols playing from the single speaker in the corner. A young woman stood in the far shadows, intently observing the sacred tableau.

Karen was handed a cup of steaming apple cider by an eager church volunteer. She mumbled thanks as she set down her bags and pulled the cup to her face, drinking in its warm smell.

Silently, she gazed at the nativity scene. It was brightly lit by two floodlights on either side, casting long shadows on the fence behind. A small space heater buzzed and rattled at the front of the scene, right by the manger, doing little more than marking the separation between spectator and spectacle. Beyond the space heater the scene was set off with hay scattered unevenly over the close-packed snow. The donkey stamped restlessly, steam puffing from its nostrils with every breath of the cool night air.

And there were the key characters in the scene. Joseph, standing tall and proud, surveying his little family. Mary, sitting on a small stool, gazing contentedly at the manger. And the Baby Jesus. The Baby Jesus, bundled up in cloths and lying in the manger, a bit of fur fuzzing around his head, a lock of dark hair nudging out.

Karen started: Was that a live baby in the manger? It couldn’t be, could it, in this cold? She had to see for herself. Suddenly this urge was more important than any other need, any other desire she had ever had: to see this Baby Jesus, live, in the flesh.

Karen tossed her empty cup in the trash, then walked forward, snow scrunching with every step. She reached the clattering heater and stopped, leaning forward to peer inside the manger.

Just then Mary looked up at her, and Karen’s heart leapt into her throat. It was the KFC girl from the mall food court, her stringy blonde hair falling out from the light blue cloth wrapped around her head, her eyes filled with an awkward embarrassment. Karen looked at Joseph and saw with a dizzying sense of surreality that it was the grizzled, homeless man, sour with the smell of whisky and tobacco. He winked at her, and her eyes dropped instantly to the baby in the manger. Somehow, she already knew what she would find: Baby Jesus was Anishinaabe. In the periphery Karen saw the shadows move, the young woman watching the scene, the baby’s mother.

Karen felt her insides collapse, as if from an immense weight pressing down on her from above. Her lungs ached with each breath; each heartbeat felt a throbbing agony, like pushing molasses through her veins. The burden was too great. She dropped to the ground, ignoring the cold of the dirt-packed snow under her knees, ignoring the people around her, ignoring everyone, everything, but Baby Jesus, lying in the manger in front of her.

Karen wept. Softly at first, her hands covering her face, the faint whisper of sadness sighing from her lips, trickling down her cheeks. Then bursting out of her in a torrent, deep sobs wracking her body, tears streaming, soaking her scarf. She wept for shame at what she had thought of these people earlier, these holy icons of divine love: a girl, a man, a mother and her baby. She wept for grief at the loss of her husband, a cavernous wound she had never fully explored, never fully healed. She wept for love, a love that washed over her inexplicably, unconditionally, cleansing her shame and sanctifying her grief. And she wept for joy at the new life taking root in her heart, a life lived beyond herself, beyond her doubts and her fears.

And weeping at the feet of the Baby Jesus—weeping, she worshiped.

– MWP 2010; rev. 2017 (Christmas)

This is copyrighted material. If you enjoy this, please pass it around with a mention of my name and a link to this page or the website (www.michaelwilliampahl.com).
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An Epiphany Story

Mary flopped onto the seat, backpack flailing beside her. The bus engine rumbled underneath. She found it strangely soothing, a kind of droning lullaby.

Not that a lullaby would help her fall asleep, not today. She’d got the phone call at six-thirty. She’d listened, bleary-eared, as the voice on the other end said words like “heart attack” and “dying”: impossible, unthinkable words. Then a hurried shower, a few things stuffed in her backpack, a cup of coffee drained over a quick internet search for travel options, and a rush out the door to get to the Greyhound station before eight.

Dying. How could that be? He was always so big, so strong, so…so unbeatable. Unbeatable. Mary frowned at the word. It was the perfect word for her Dad.

“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”

The man standing in the aisle had a kindly smile crinkling at his eyes. His light brown skin was framed by a dark beard, streaked with white. He wore a bright red turban on his head, matching the scarf draped over his white clothes. He motioned to Mary’s backpack, lying on the seat beside her.

“This seat, is it taken? There do not seem to be any others left.”

Mary sat up and glanced around the bus. Sure enough, it was right full. She suppressed a groan and yanked her backpack toward her. “No, it’s all yours.”

He smiled again at her in thanks, his head bowing slightly. He packed his coat and bag in the overhead bin, then sat down beside her.

“It is a good day for travel, is it not?” The man looked across Mary out the window. The January sun was dawning through the downtown skyline as the bus began pulling out of the terminal. Car tops glistened with frost. Puffs of exhaust glowed in the crisp sunlight.

“I find travel by bus to be thoroughly invigorating,” he declared fervently. Mary gave him a glance, assessing him. He was serious.

“Ah, but I see you do not share my view. No matter. I will be invigorated for the both of us.” He laughed out loud. Mary sank lower in her seat and turned her attention to the window. Remnants of frost skirted its edges in complicated whorls and swirls.

A memory came to her, uninvited. She was six years old. They were traveling to her uncle’s house for Christmas. Her Dad was driving, and he was yelling, in a rage. She couldn’t remember why, something about forgetting something. Her Mom was tentatively reaching toward him, trying to calm him down, trying to get him to pull over.

Mary was in the back seat with her sister, trying, as always, to ignore the seething anger, to pretend the danger didn’t exist. She was looking at the frosty window, tracing the pattern with her finger. She imagined it was a map, a map of another world. Elves danced in that world. Dwarves sang boisterous, merry songs. Children played there, unafraid, unscarred.

“I am on my way to see my new grandson,” the man beside her said. Mary shivered, shaking herself from the past.

“That is why I am wearing my best clothes,” he beamed at her. “Red is for joy, and white is for purity—perfect for welcoming a beloved child into the world, no?”

Mary looked at him, at the delight brimming in his face, and softened.

“What’s his name?” she asked, her voice thin.

“Aatma Ramandeep,” he said with pride. “It is a good name, an honourable name. It speaks of light: the soul infused with the light of God’s love.” He turned to her. “It is a good name for a baby, is it not?”

Mary was surprised to see melancholy in his eyes, a tender sadness tugging at his face. “Aatma Ramandeep,” she repeated carefully. “Infused with the light of God’s love.” She smiled at him. “It’s perfect.”

He looked down, his voice quieter, just a murmur. “It was my father’s name, you know. He wanted to be a good man, but he struggled. He struggled against the darkness within himself.”

He smiled again, turning back toward her. “As do we all, no?”

Mary again saw the kindness, the empathy deeply imprinted in the man’s eyes. She thought of her own father. His eyes had been kind once, too.

She remembered her Dad, laughing as they tumbled off the sled together, holding her tightly. She remembered looking up at him when they finally stopped rolling. His toque was all askew, the snow matted in his hair, his ears red from the cold. Her fear had been instantly pushed away by the firm kindness of his eyes.

“My Dad is dying.”

The words hung in the air between them, like frosty breath. A spasm of anguish shuddered through Mary’s body. She swallowed hard, forcing it down.

The man did not seem surprised by her revelation. He reached over and gently patted Mary’s hand.

“I am sorry,” he said simply.

“I’m not,” Mary retorted, surprised by a vehemence in her voice which she did not really feel. “I mean”—she paused, embarrassed—“I am sorry. It’s just…it’s…it’s complicated.” Tears began to pool in her eyes.

“Yes,” the man said, nodding his head, “it often is, with parents.”

He said nothing more, and Mary turned again toward the window. They were well outside the city now. The morning sunlight glittered off the snow-covered fields. Chimney smoke lifted lazily from a farmhouse roof, dissolving in a bright blue winter sky. The hydro poles sped by, dislodging another memory from her mind.

She was twelve this time. Her Dad was driving again, going very fast. She was in the back seat with her sister again, and her Mom was in the front with Dad. But something was wrong.

Her Mom was bent over double, whimpering with pain. Mary and her sister were crying. They were confused, not sure what was wrong. They were afraid, not sure what would happen.

Her Dad’s hand was stretched toward her Mom, hesitant, uncertain. He was speaking to her, words of comfort, words of apology. Apology. For what? He was crying.

He was crying. Why had she not remembered that before? He had been crying that night, the night they rushed to the hospital in a blizzard of fear and pain. The night her Mom had died.

“My Dad wept.”

The man beside her stirred. “I am sorry, what did you say?”

Mary shook herself again with a shiver. “Nothing, I’m sorry, it’s nothing.”

The man turned back to his book. Mary gave him a sidelong glance, assessing the man once again. He will be a good grandfather, she thought. Kind, yes, but also patient, and generous, and wise.

“Tell me about your family,” Mary said softly.

The man regarded her with a tilt of his head, as if deliberating carefully. Then he nodded, closed his book, and turned in his seat to face her.

In a flurry of animated words he told her about his family. He spoke of his elderly parents, who had moved to Canada with his siblings when he was a teenager. There were now living with his oldest brother. He spoke of his wife, who had gone ahead to be present for the birth. He spoke of his children: two sons, one daughter. His sons were in business together in another city, another province, no time yet for marriage. It was his daughter whose baby they were now rejoicing over.

“She is the jewel of my crown,” he glowed, then gave a lopsided grin. “She’s got me wrapped around her little finger—and now, with a son, our grandson, she will have me willingly under her thumb!”

Mary nearly blushed at the man’s unrestrained happiness, but he himself was oblivious to any embarrassment.

She wondered if her Dad had ever felt that way about her. He certainly had never said anything to her like this. For sure he had never acted like this man, gushing with enthusiasm about his daughter. She smiled ruefully, and then frowned as a memory came to her.

It was at her high school graduation, just last year. She remembered walking across the platform, legs shaking in her high heels, black gown rippling, holding her head high to ward off the nervousness. She received her diploma from the principal, then joined her classmates at the back of the stage. She remembered looking out over the audience, looking for her Dad.

And there he was, with her sister. His face was gaunt, his best suit hanging loose on his body. His hair was greying in the temples. Recent years had been hard on him, without her Mom. Why had she not seen it then? But she was looking for love, some kind of sign that he was proud of her.

And there it was. A nod. A nod. And the hint of smile, nudging at the edges of his mouth. A nod and a smile.

She photographed the image in her mind, saving it as a treasure in her heart. It was more than she hoped for, better than she had remembered.

The bus shuddered to a stop. They were in a small prairie town, just like every other, parked at a gas station on the highway.

It was a moment before Mary realized the man beside her had stood up. He was gathering his things. A pang of loss stabbed through Mary, irrational, yet there.

The man closed the bin, then turned to look at her. He held out his hand. In it was a simple, white candle, wrapped round with a red ribbon.

“Here,” he said softly, “I want you to have this. It is my gift to you.”

She shook her head slowly, looking up at him, eyes wide. “Oh, no,” she whispered, “I can’t accept this from you.”

He smiled gently. “You have need of the light more than I. Besides, I have a child to see.”

He pressed the candle into her hand, nodded goodbye, and walked off the bus. With a lurch the bus moved away, leaving behind a man embracing his wife in an icy parking lot.

Mary, however, did not see this: she was staring at the candle in her hand. Her tears began to fall freely now, dripping onto the words engraved in the white wax: Aatma Ramandeep.

– MWP 2016 (Epiphany)

This is copyrighted material. If you enjoy this, please pass it around with a mention of my name and a link to this page or the website (www.michaelwilliampahl.com).