Friday, December 23, 2005

At the Inn

Now that Megha has officially decreed the season for Christmas posts, open, I figured it wouldn't do to be left behind. So:

It was a cold night. The wind came howling out of the North like a ghost unleashed, its chilly hands cutting through the clothes of the travellers like some malign fate. And the trees, knowing that resistance was useless, bowed their heads in submission, and prepared to wait out the darkness. It was a gesture the land understood - this land surrendered, this land whose people bent lower each year under the weight of a suffering as nameless and ungraspable as the wind. Above the traveller's heads the sky was as clear as if tears had washed it; the stars shone like a million tiny insults, pricking the night's composure. It was not a good night to be out.

The Carpenter knew this, but he did not know what to do about it. It was too late to turn back now, they had come too far, had wandered too long from place to place, looking for shelter. The truth was, he had not thought about this moment when they were setting out, had never really considered how he would deal with it - the idea had come to him from somewhere that it would all be taken care of, that somehow shelter would be given, and he had simply accepted it, the way a starving man will accept a coin from any passing stranger, and never stop to question where it comes from or why it is given. It was beginning to dawn on him now that this hope of his had been a foolish one. He told himself that the fault was not his, that it was the coldness of the innkeepers, this winter that had settled in the hearts of men as much as over their houses, that was the problem. But try as he might, the guilt would not go away.

It was the guilt that had melted his eyes into a cry for sympathy, so that they were like the light that lives unfrozen in the centre of icicles, like droplets of mist trapped in the heart of a snowdrop. Something small and trembling in those eyes betrayed his soul to you, told you that under the proud demeanour of this hardy workman, lay the heart of a man grown desperate, a man whose very deference was a cry for help. As he knocked on yet another door, it seemed to the Carpenter that the sound of his hand beating against the weathered wood echoed the sound of his own heart, a hollow sound, the sound of something calling that does not hope to be answered.

At the seventh knock, someone answered. The door opened just a crack, offering little more than a tantalising glimpse of the living warmth within, an eye peered out. "What is you want?", a voice said. It was in a hurry. "Shelter for the night", the Carpenter said. The door opened a little more, but only a little. Both eyes were visible now - they scurried between the Carpenter and the woman standing a little behind him, shockingly pregnant. "That your wife?" the voice said. "Yes. She's with child and needs to be indoors. That's why we need the shelter". There was a moment of silence as the men hardened themselves for what they knew was coming, having rehearsed this same scene many times, with other wanderers, other innkeepers. "We have no room", the voice said, "I'm sorry". "But my wife, she's too weak, she can't go on any further". "I'm sorry". "Isn't there some place you could give us? A vacant passageway perhaps, or a place by the stove? Anything, we'll take anything". "Look, I've already told you", the trial in the voice turning to anger now, "I've no room. I'm sorry if your wife is having difficulties, but you should have thought of that before you brought her out travelling like this, shouldn't you? and her with child and all. It's not my problem - I have an inn to run and we're full up and I'm very busy so why don't you move along and let me get on with my work. Goodbye". The door shut. For a moment, the Carpenter just stood there, the silence falling around him like snow, blotting the footprints of those words from his heart. Then he turned wearily back to the road, heading out to the next inn, the next rejection, the next defeat.

Behind him, the innkeeper's wife was asking her husband who it was at the door. "No one, my love", the innkeeper said, "just another of those indigents. Yes, another one. Makes it the fourth this week by my reckoning. There seem to be more of them every year, don't there? Jobless wanderers who think that just because they can't solve their own problems it automatically becomes the world's responsibility to solve them. I suppose the cold brings them out, like cockroaches. I don't know what the world is coming to. This one had a wife too - with child, just imagine. How people in their position can even think about having babies I don't know. Still, it's no using trying to talk sense to these people, they're like animals, they just breed and breed and don't think about the consequences. Oh, I turned them away, of course. Told them we had no room. No point wasting time on their sort, specially not when we have those special guests staying the night. They're rich men, I tell you, they'll pay handsomely. Which reminds me, did you get the lamb done yet? Well, hurry up, woman, hurry up. It's almost supper time and they looked like they were hungry. What have you been standing around talking to me for, if you haven't got that done. Go to, go to."

Two rooms away, three men sat in companionable silence, staring into the fire of the single thought that danced between them. They were tough, weather-beaten men, men who had travelled a great distance, and who carried the weight of their journeys in their bearing, men whose very faces had wrinkled into maps, so that the country of their grief was both immediate and unreadable. They were men hardened by anticipation into expecting little, so that they seemed alien to the room they sat in, alien to its comfort, like figures cut from rougher paper, and pasted clumsily on to the scene.

But just because they had come not to expect luxury, had learnt how to live without it, did not mean they did not appreciate it when it was offered. As they felt the warmth of the fire settle on their shoulders and sipped the wine the innkeeper had brought them (assuring them that it was 'the very finest in my humble home, O reverend sires') they felt a soft glow creep into their bones. At first they were suspicious of it, tried to resist it, as though it were a spy sent to find them out, to weaken them; but soon, seeing it meant them no harm, they gave themselves to it willingly, sank back into its cushioned solace. And when supper finally came, they tore into the lamb hungrily, greedily, devoured it, asked for more and when the meal was done, made loud proclamations about the excellence of the cooking, which made the innkeeper's wife blush with pleasure in the kitchen and put fresh glee into the innkeeper's heart as he contemplated the tip that was sure to follow.

Three hours later, one of them, the youngest, waking with the kind of thirst that only too much cheap wine can cause, stepped out to smell the clean, cold night air, hoping to clearing his head. For a moment or two he walked around in the clearing, slapping his arms to keep the cold out, muttering about the winter under his breath and seeing his breath mist as it left his mouth. Then he saw it. He stood staring at it for a whole five minutes, his mouth open, not even noticing the cold starting to take over his extremities. He even considered pinching himself. Then he ran inside and started to shake the others. "Wake up", he said, "you're not going to believe this".


The thing that's always struck me as strange about the whole nativity sequence, is not that Mary and the infant Christ end up in a manger, but that the Magi don't seem to do anything to help them out of it. I mean, think about it. You're a Magi. You've made this great journey to see an infant who you firmly believe is the Messiah, the Once and Future King and all that jazz. When you finally find him he's stuck in a manger somewhere, it's the middle of the winter, it's freezing cold. Do you try to get him to a better shelter? Do you get him and his mother extra blankets, make arrangements to have them safely escorted from the manger the next day? No! you just hand over a bunch of unpronouncable and frankly useless gifts, mumble a few prayers and take off. Some welcome into the world that is. I mean the kid could have caught pneumonia or something. Bloody stupid lot they would have looked if their Saviour had died of a bad case of the sniffles before he got around to sacrificing himself on the cross to redeem the sins of all mankind. It kind of makes you wonder what the Magi were smoking, doesn't it? I mean all this new star in the sky stuff. I don't know - did they have LSD in 0 AD?


the One said...

Well, they say too much myrrh can do strange things to a chap.

P.S. Er .. singular magus, no?

P.P.S. If only they'd given noodles, boiling water and a tastemaker instead, it would've been the Adoration of the Maggi.

Falstaff said...

The one: :-). Yes, yes, magus. My bad. And trust me, you don't want to get me started on making bad puns about this stuff. Ask anyone.