The final chapter of the Advent story
Alana is reading Annabelle a story. Annabelle loves to hear stories, and likes Alana’s stories best. In the morning, when the rest of the family arrived at the house and they had exchanged presents, Annabelle had asked Alana instantly to read to her the Christmas storybook that she and Peter had bought her. But Alana had said, Later, after everyone has opened their presents. And so she has waited patiently; now it is almost time for lunch and the rest of the family are scattered throughout the house playing their part in the preparations, and so Annabelle can finally get her story. She sits in Alana’s lap, almost too big now to do so, her head nestled inside Alana’s arms, thumb in her mouth (a habit she has retained despite her mother’ best efforts to stop her), giggling at the voices that Alana does for the characters in the story, some actually contained in the story, some Alana’s own invention.
“And so the donkey said, You can’t sleep here. This is my bed. And the pig said, This is my sty. I’m not sharing it with anybody. And the cows said, Moo moo, go away. So where could they sleep that night? And where would the baby sleep when it was born?”
Annabelle is growing quieter. “They’re not very nice animals, Aunty Lani,” she says, her voice faint but nevertheless cross at the injustice of the situation.
“Well,” says Alana, “how would you feel about having your bedroom room taken over by strangers? Would you like that?”
“But it’s Jesus,” says Annabelle. “Don’t they know that they have to let him sleep there at Christmas?”
“But it isn’t Christmas yet, Belle,” says Alana. “Christmas hasn’t happened yet. It isn’t Christmas until Jesus is born.”
“I know that,” says Annabelle, insulted. “But they should know that it’s Christmas Eve.”
Alana smiles. “Maybe they should, honey,” she says. “Do you want me to keep reading?”
Annabelle nods. Alana can’t see her nodding but feels her niece’s head moving back and forth in the crook of her arm. She starts reading again. But, as often happens, she grows bored with what she is reading, and soon the details of the story have grown wildly embellished, until the donkey and the cows have set up a fortress around their sleeping areas to keep Mary and Joseph out, and the horse is bringing over his hay to help pad out the fortress to make it more comfortable, and Mary and Joseph are standing by watching, wondering what to do; they’ve travelled for days, they are tired and sore, Mary especially, and now even the animals they are forced to share with are trying to keep them out. And Alana is flicking ahead in her mind to how the story ends, wondering how she will draw the action together to fit the actual ending when Sarah comes in and says, “Belle, it’s time for lunch.”
“But Aunty Lani’s telling me a story,” says Annabelle.
“She can finish the story later,” says Sarah. “Come on – let’s eat.”
For a moment Alana finds herself only a little bigger than Annabelle, sitting on the floor while Sarah ends another story for her. She looks down at Annabelle, who has tilted her head back to look at her, pleading with her eyes for Alana to overrule her mother.
Somewhere, a voice comes out of Alana, hesitant, shy, but audible. “Can we just have a moment to finish the story?” she asks.
“Lunch is ready, Alana,” she says, her voice unmoving.
“Just a minute,” says Alana, voice stronger. “We’ll be quick.”
Sarah says nothing. She stands looking at them, as if waiting. Alana’s mind races over the story, finding her place in it so far, doing her best to decide, in that instant, how to bring it to a close. Briefly, she sees a flash from her dream of the night before, of the baby floating in the basket away from her down the river. And, in that moment, the story seems to find its continuation and its ending in her mind.
“And so the animals did their best, just like everyone else, to keep Mary and Joseph. But they found a corner of the stable where none of the animals wanted to sleep; and they they found a feeding trough where the animals would eat and drink during the day. The animals didn’t need it because it was night-time and they didn’t eat at night.”
“Alana,” says Sarah.
“Nearly finished,” she says. “I promise.”
And she continues with the story, her voice speeding up but determined to finish this story, or to let it have its own ending. “So Mary and Joseph,” she says, “put some hay which the horse had left behind inside the feeding trough and when the baby was born they let him sleep in the trough while the other animals fell asleep and snored in their fortress in the stable.” She pauses and looks at Annabelle, who is completely still in her arms. Her voice slows down. “But even their fortress didn’t stop Jesus from being born,” she says, “because our fortresses have never stopped God before.”
And she closes the book. Annabelle pauses, still lying Alana’s arms. Then she says, “What’s a fortress, Aunty Lani?”
Sarah walks over to where they sit and reaches out for Annabelle’s hand.
“Come on Belle,” she says. “Time for lunch. We can tell you what a fortress is later.”
Reluctant, Annabelle slips out of Alana’s lap and walks off into the dining room, holding her mother’s hand. Alana remains in her chair, watching mother and daughter’s backs as they walk; and for a moment Alana fancies she can see a heaviness about Sarah’s shoulders, like something weighing her down. Then it is gone.
“Alana,” says Sarah, looking back. “Are you coming to lunch?”
Alana pauses. There is a look in Sarah’s eyes not unlike her childhood face, a face she has not seen or remembered for some time. In her mind she hears, Sarah is also a child. She stops.
Sarah is not smiling; face and eyes are impatient, her mouth set. And yet, a smile wells up somewhere inside Alana, unexpected, unexplained. She stands up. And slowly she walks towards the dining room, just pausing for a moment to glance back at the Christmas tree, where for a moment she sees a man standing, with the face of a wounded but beautiful child, smiling, in his hands a gift that she knows he is holding for her.
“Yes,” she says. “I’m coming.”
And she walks through the door.