A Christmas Mystery
I grew up believing that Christmas was a time when wise and royal visitors came riding, when at midnight the barnyard animals talked to one another, and in the light of a fabulous star God came down to us as a little Child. Christmas to me has always been a time of enchantment, and never more so than the year that my son Marty was eight.
That was the same year that my three children and I had moved into a cozy new trailer home in a forested area just outside of Redmond, Washington. As the holiday approached, our spirits were light not to be dampened even by the winter rains that swept down Puget Sound to douse our home and make our floors muddy.
Throughout that December Marty had been the most spirited and busiest, of us all. He was my youngest – a cheerful boy, blond haired and playful, with a quaint habit of looking up at you cocking his head like a puppy when you talked to him. Actually the reason for this was that Marty was deaf in his left ear, but it was a condition that he never complained about.
For weeks I had been watching Marty. I knew that something was going on with him that he was not telling me about. I saw how eagerly he made his bed, took out the trash, and carefully set the table and helped Rick and Pam prepare dinner before I got home from work. I saw how he silently collected his tiny allowance and tucked it away, spending not a cent of it. I had no idea what all this quiet activity was about, but I suspected that somehow it had something to do with Kenny.
Kenny was Martys friend, and ever since theyd found each other in the springtime, they were seldom apart. If you called to one, you got them both. Their world was in the meadow, a horse pasture broken by a small winding stream, where the boys caught frogs and snakes, where they would search for arrowheads or hidden treasure, or where they would spend an afternoon feeding peanuts to the squirrels.
Times were hard for our little family, and we had to do some scrimping to get by. But Kennys family was desperately poor, and his mother was having a real struggle feeding and clothing her two children. They were a good solid family, but Kennys Mom was a proud woman, very proud, and she had strict rules. How we worked as we did each year to make our home ready for the holiday! Our Christmas gifts were handcrafted and hidden away, and ornaments were strung about the place.
Marty and Kenny would sometimes sit still at the table long enough to help make cornucopias or weave little baskets for the tree: but then, in a flash, one would whisper to the other, and they would be out the door and into the horse pasture or sliding cautiously under the electric fence that separated our home from Kennys.
One night shortly before Christmas – when my hands were deep in pepppernoder dough- (shaping tiny nutlike Danish cookies that were heavily spiced with cinnamon) Marty came into the kitchen and told me in a tone mixed with great pleasure and pride, Mom Ive bought Kenny a Christmas present. Want to see it?
So thats what hes been up to, I said to myself.
Its something hes wanted for a long, long time Mom. Marty said.
After carefully wiping his hands on a dishtowel, he pulled from his pocket a small box. Lifting the lid, I gazed at the pocket compass that my son had been saving all those allowances to buy. A little compass to point an eight-year-old adventurer through the woods.
Its a lovely gift, Martin.” I said, but even as I spoke, a disturbing thought came to mind. Kennys family could barely afford to exchange gifts among themselves, and giving presents to others was out of the question. I was sure that Kennys proud mother would not permit her son to receive something he could not return in kind.
Gently, carefully, I talked over the problem with Marty. He understood what I was saying, I know, Mom, I know but what if it was a secret? What if they never found out who gave it?”
I just didnt know how to answer him. I just didnt know. And so the matter was left up in the air.
The day before Christmas was rainy, cold, and gray. The three kids and I all but fell over one another as we put finishing touches on Christmas secrets and prepared for family and friends who would be dropping by.
Night settled in. The rain continued. I looked out the window over the sink and felt an odd sadness. How mundane the rain seemed for a Christmas Eve. Would wise men and kings come riding on such a night? I doubted it. It seemed to me that strange and wonderful things happened only on clear nights. Nights when one could at least see a star in the heavens.
I turned from the window, and as I checked on the ham and homemade bread in the oven, I saw Marty slip out the door. He wore his coat over his pajamas. I knew he was clutching a tiny, colorfully wrapped box in his pocket.
Later he told me what happened to him that night. Down through the soggy pasture he’d gone then a quick slide under the electric fence and across the yard to Kennys house. Up the steps on tiptoes, shoes squishing; opening the screen door a crack, the gift placed on the doorstep; then a deep breath, a reach for the doorbell, and a press on it, hard.
Quickly Marty turned, ran down the steps and across the yard in a wild race to get away unnoticed. Then suddenly, he banged into the electric fence.
The shock sent him reeling. He lay stunned on the wet ground. His body tingled and he gasped for breath. Then slowly, weakly, confused, and frightened he struggled back home.
“Marty,” we cried as he stumbled through the door. “What happened?” His lower lip quivered. His eyes brimmed with tears.
“I forgot about the fence, and it knocked me down!”
I hugged his muddy little body to me. He was still scared, and there was a red mark from the fence beginning to blister on his face from his mouth to his ear. Quickly I treated the blister, and with a warm cup of cocoa soothing him, Marty’s bright spirit returned. I tucked him into bed, and just before he fell asleep he looked up at me and said Mom, Im sure Kenny didnt see me.” That Christmas Eve I went to bed unhappy and puzzled. The encounter with the electric fence seemed such a cruel thing to happen to a little boy while on the purest kind of Christmas mission, doing what the Lord wants us all to do, giving to others, and giving in secret at that. I did not sleep well that night. Somewhere deep inside I think I must have been feeling the disappointment that the night of Christmas had come and it had been just an ordinary, problem-filled night – no mysterious enchantment at all.
But I was wrong.
By morning the rain had stopped and the sun shone. The streak on Martys face was very red, but I could tell that the burn was not serious. We opened our presents, and soon, not unexpectedly, Kenny was knocking on the door. Eager to show Marty his new compass and tell about the mystery of its arrival. It was plain that Kenny didn’t suspect Marty at all, and while the two of them talked. Marty just smiled and smiled.
Then I noticed that while the two boys were comparing their Christmases nodding and gesturing and chatting away, Marty was not cocking his head when Kenny was talking. Marty was listening with his deaf ear, the ear that had slammed into the fence.
Weeks later a report came from the school nurse verifying what Marty and I already knew: “Marty now has complete hearing in both ears.
The mystery of how Marty regained his hearing, and still has it remains just that – a mystery. Doctors suspect, of course, that the shock from the electric fence was somehow responsible. Perhaps so. Whatever the reason, I just remain thankful to God for the good exchange of gifts made that night.
So you see, strange and wonderful things still happen on the night of our Lords birth. And one does not have to have a clear night, either, to follow a fabulous star.
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