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Go Back to: 1. Fiction Central   2. Short Fiction
A Gift for the King
by
Rick Sutcliffe
(a retelling of an old Christmas legend)

This is a very old story and has probably been told many times in many ways, and by many tellers. But, the best tellers of all are not the forgetful humans, but some who were there who saw and heard and remember. For on a certain night of the year, the wind speaks, and the rocks and trees answer, and this is the story they tell.

Most of the time, the boy was not really unhappy, for he had no way of knowing that his lot was the poorest and most miserable of any person in the town, or indeed for many towns around. All his life, he had been beaten and cuffed about, ordered this way and that, and treated as something less than the dirt on the stable floor. His master, these last three years, was the vile-tempered and worse-mannered owner of the low inn on the edge of town who made his living offering a bit of space for dusty travellers to lay a few blankets on, and by selling foul tasting drinks to anyone foolish enough to part with a few coins for the sake of what passed for fellowship in the dimly lit tavern. This innkeeper was one with his customers--rough, often drunk and of the most surly disposition, whose chief method of reward or punishment was a kick in the ribs or a slap across the face, and who got no more enjoyment from life than he gave others, which was precious little. Indeed, experienced travellers usually avoided this man's misnamed hospitality and scheduled their journeys to end in the city, some two hours walking distance hence, leaving him with the company of local ruffians and thieves and a few of those sad, quiet drinkers who there spent all their little fortune before going home to beat their dogs and their wives.

For his part, the boy was perhaps a reminder of all that was wrong with this world, and it may have been that the innkeeper and his customers found it all the easier to take out their hatred on him because his very presence seemed a reproach. You see, though the child was not uncomely, he could not speak -- not a single intelligible word had passed his lips in his entire short lifetime. Oh, he would sometimes try to make himself understood when he was especially provoked or frightened, but all that ever came out of his misformed throat were a few unintelligible squawks and squeaks--nothing that could ever be understood. And so, to add indignity to insult, he did not even have a name--those who wanted his services called him "boy", or even "creature". If anyone would have cared to think about it (and no one ever had), they would have taken him for about nine years old.

No one knew where he had come from; the innkeeper had found him wrapped in an old blanket and sleeping in the animals' feeding trough in the stable at the back of the inn one morning, and, not wishing to turn down what he said was a reward for a righteous life, he at once set the child to hard labour.

"If anyone ever does claim it, the creature won't be able to tell what's been done, and in the meantime, it may as well earn its keep."

And serve the boy did, sweeping the stables, and scraping and washing floors and windows.

He would carry buckets of kitchen scraps to the barn, pick through them for his food, and then fill them with manure and transport them to the rubbish heap outside the town where he could expect to meet several wild dogs anxious to nose through what was left.

Once in a while, when business was brisk, he would carry the cups and bottles of what passed for beer and wine from the store room at the rear to the drunk and sprawling customers in the common room at the front. These times were particularly hard on the boy, for the regular customers knew they could say or do anything to him with impunity and in their drunken self-loathing they usually did.

"Here you creature, get up on the table and sing us a song", one of them would yell, and the others would take up the chorus and force him to perform. Then when the miserable noises that passed for a voice came from that pathetic throat they howled with laughter, taunting and jeering until their eyes filled with tears--not at the child's plight, but at their own drink-sodden wit. Then they would turn angry, as if realizing the extent of their own sinful cruelty and, calling him vile names, cuff him about, so that in the end, the innkeeper would put him outside to mind the stables, lest the boy's continued presence interfere with business.

One particularly cold winter night, after just such a session, when the inn was much fuller and busier than ever, a man and a woman arrived, just as the boy was being rudely shoved from the room. He couldn't hear over the noise what it was the man asked the innkeeper, but the response was loud enough, for it was shouted to the whole gathering.

"I've no room here, I tell you and that's the end of it. Let her have the baby in the street, for all I care."

But as he turned away from them, preparing to slam shut the door in their faces, he caught sight of the boy's form departing at the opposite door, and turned back to the visitors with a laugh and a sneer. Tell you what, for two denarii you can have a stall in the stable where the creature sleeps. Put your child in his feeding trough for all I care. Take it or leave it. Somehow, the thought of forcing one more cruelty on the boy, insulting the travellers, and making a profit at the same time appealed to his twisted mind.

The boy didn't wait to see what happened next, for he was interested only in escape. The last thing he needed was to be batted about by yet another rough traveller, this time in the stable--where at least the animals could be counted on to leave him alone.

With fear and hurt giving him wings, and running for all he was worth, he escaped to the hills outside the town and there lay down among the rocks. The thin blanket which did double duty as his coat and was his only possession was barely able to keep the chill night air from him. The only other clothing he had was a piece of an old tablecloth the innkeeper had thrown at him one day to cover his nakedness, and which, he constantly reminded him, actually belonged to the inn, and was being provided out of the goodness of his charitable heart. And now the boy smiled, for out here were the only friends he had -- the wind, the rocks, and the trees. And there in the quiet they spoke to him and comforted him as no human voice ever had.

The voice of the wind was soft and billowy, and it sang a sweet song in his ears--a song of how the Lord God had made all things, and surely cared for all his works--He would be with a little boy even if all men's cruel hand was raised against him. Yes, and the trees answered the song and told the boy of the love of God and how his Holy Spirit had always protected those who served The Lord of Israel in the past--he mustn't ever despair or give up. And then the rocks spoke in their low, strong, clean voices, reminding them all that they had been there longer than boys, wind or trees and so knew the promise made long ago of the Messiah who would come to save men from sin and set all wrongs aright. The strong rocks took over what was by now a song and calmed the boy, telling him that if he put his faith and trust in the salvation of the Lord, he would live with God one day in the resurrection of all souls, far longer than even rocks would last.

The boy had often come here, and he loved these kind friends, though he could never tell them so in plain words. A few times, and tonight was one of these, he spoke a few of his unintelligible squeaks, and it seemed his friends understood his hurt and pain, for they never criticized him, but continued to sing calmly and carefully of God's power and love, despite all evil. So at last the boy, safe with the comfort of his old friends, his only friends, soon fell fast asleep.

But this night was different, for after a time of calm, there came a growing excitement, with whisperings among the rocks, and rumours among the trees, and finally the wind spoke the truth aloud: "It is tonight. The Christ is born and he is even now at the inn. The Messiah has come, and God has proven himself faithful! And the wind, trees, and rocks sang together joyfully for a long time their praise to God. But, after a while, they slowly grew sad and became quiet again,--for they could not go to the stable to worship, and they had nothing to give the Christ, their Lord and Creator on this His birth night as a human child. Much time passed, as they whispered among themselves, wondering what they could do to honour the Lord--so close by, yet out of their reach. They had much to say to the Lord of glory, but no means of entering his rude birthplace to say it. Eventually they formed a plan, and with their satisfied agreement, there deep silence came over the dark night.

The boy awoke with a start to the unaccustomed quiet. Off to the West, there were strange lights in the sky, and for a moment, his keen ears seemed to hear the distant sound of voices carried by the wind--but the rocks were still, the wind itself quiet, and even the trees had no more words for him. This quiet was so new, so unnatural, that it brought a twinge of fear at the prospect of remaining out in that isolated place, and so, feeling more alone then ever, he decided to go back. Perhaps the strangers who had taken his meagre bed would be asleep by now and he could curl up in a corner where no one would notice. Wearily, he made his way down the hillside and trudged back to the inn.

He entered the stable cautiously, for a light was burning, a donkey was tethered in one of the stalls, and a man and woman were there too. He recognized them at once as the strangers who earlier had been at the door. They were kneeling in the clean straw, leaning over the feeding trough, his manger, and looking at something. Anxious not to be seen, but with all the curiosity of a nine year old eating him up from earlobe to toenail, he crept silently forward to see. There, in his own bed, if you could call it that, lay a new born baby. For a long time, the boy stood transfixed, looking at the little face, and no one moved. Then, even as he watched, there was suddenly a noise outside the stable and a group of shepherds burst through the door. They went at once to the child, stopped, and stood over him in tears of joy. When they finally collected themselves, they related to his parents how angels had come to them and told them that the Christ, the Messiah was here in the stable and they must come and worship him. The baby's parents said nothing, just nodded knowingly, and with eyes only for the child, the shepherds too knelt in the straw in wonderment, giving praise to God for the wondrous work done here.

Even as they did so, the ragged boy who had watched all this from behind the manger looked down at the little child wrapped just in a few strips of cloth. The baby opened his eyes and looked up at him. For a long time not a sound was made, and no one moved. But as the child gazed at him, the boy knew the truth of what the shepherds had said, and he remembered all the lessons the rocks, trees and wind had taught him. He knew that this child was indeed his saviour. So, in the worshipful quietness that followed, he gave him his heart forever that very night even as they had taught him he must. And, somehow, there came a growing determination about what he must do next. Without further thought for himself, he took off his blanket, his one possession, and standing there clad only in the little cloth the innkeeper had thrown at him, he reached out and placed the blanket over the child. Then, feeling compelled to do so, he opened his mouth to speak, but it was no squawk or squeak that came out, for he found himself saying in a little whisper:

"Here Lord, take my blanket to keep you warm". And finally, marvel of marvels, he sang a song, and his voice was deep like the rocks, and smooth like that of the wind, and it rustled like the trees. For it was then their song, a song of praise and worship to the Almighty God that they had taught him, singing it to him these many years. And, while he did so, the rocks, the trees, and the wind outside remained silent, for they had used all the knowledge and wisdom they had ever possessed to give their voices to the boy for this moment. They listened, they approved, and they knew their treasure well spent, their song well sung, their worship well received.

And although this boy eventually grew old, and one day he died, so that his voice went back into the earth along with the rest of his body, it is said that to this very day, the wind, the rocks, and the trees may speak to certain small children who listen very carefully, but they can do it on only one special day of the year.



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