Mirabelle kept glancing under the corner of the couch where three days earlier they had found Roger all scrunched up, cold, and lifeless. What a terrible morning that was. For as long as she could remember, Roger had been her companion. Her mother told her he licked her face first thing when she came home from being born. He was there to greet her each day when she returned from school, jumping straight up in the air, one, two, three, four, five times at least and then gently biting her fingers. This silver-gray poodle had filled her with warmth, confidence, and love for the full twelve years of her life. And now he was gone. Just like that, he was gone, and she was the only one who seemed to care. Even though Ian cried like the Missouri, he was only five and seemed to be reacting more to his sister’s sorrow than to Roger’s death.
The family had held a little service in the backyard where Roger was buried and through the day her father and mother had discussed the nature of life and death with her and little Ian. They explained how life and death are mingled with each other like a stream that joins a river becomes a part of that river. Life never goes away. It is always there, part of us, and Roger will always be part of us because he shared our lives. Every time he jumped when he saw us, nibbled our fingers, or rolled over on his back and gave himself to us with such complete abandon, he changed our lives and helped make us who we are. He would never go away. They said that was important and someday she and Ian would understand.
But Mirabelle didn’t understand and didn’t really care to understand. All she knew was that Roger wasn’t there anymore. And to make matters worse, they weren’t even going to be home for Christmas. They were leaving the next morning to spend the holidays with a friend of her mother’s in New England.
“Let us, then, meditate upon the Nativity just as we see it happening in our own babies,” her father read. “Behold Christ lying in the lap of his young mother. What can be sweeter than the Babe, what more lovely than the mother! What fairer than her youth! What more gracious than her virginity! Look at the Child, knowing nothing. Yet all that is belongs to him, that your conscience should not fear but take comfort in him.”
Mirabelle took no comfort, however. She missed Roger and she and Ian would be far from home and among strangers on Christmas Eve.
The little town of Barton, Massachusetts was beautiful the evening they arrived. The white clapboard houses around the common were decorated with Christmas lights that reflected blue, green, red, yellow and white off the snow, and welcoming wreaths were hung on almost every door. Candles in each window said, “Come in! Come in! Sit by the fire and warm yourself.” The small white church was bathed in a light so soft that it did nothing to hide the stars that wreathed the steeple, and behind the church, Mirabelle could see a sprinkle of lights from the farmhouses in the distant valley. It was like a magic kingdom with the snow clinging to the boney branches of the winter trees and the evergreens reaching up to the canopy of stars. Mirabelle was almost captured by its beauty, but then she thought of Roger and anger filled her heart again.
Marble Conner lived alone in a small white Cape Cod style house on the town common. A close friend of Mirabelle’s mother since their graduate school days, Marble had no family and often spent the week following Christmas with the Southerland’s in Maryland. This time, however, she had insisted they come to Barton and give the children a real New England Christmas complete with the live pageant in the common on Christmas Eve.
The house was cozy and warm. A big fire in the fireplace produced dancing shadows on the walls of the living room and made the ruby eyes of the owls supporting the andirons glow fiercely in the dim light. Little Ian sat in front of the fire and stared fascinated at the glowing eyes. The fleeting shadows, the soft glow, the deepness of the black star-filled sky framed by a picture window at the far end of the room, and the ruby eyes following, steadfastly following her movements opened in Mirabelle a feeling of smallness and at the same time a sense of wonder. The room was close, the shadows strange and cavorting all about, and yet it opened on the vastness of the universe. How many mysteries were there to be unraveled, she thought. And the wonder of the room and the presents under the Christmas tree almost made Mirabelle forget her hostility.
The next day was Christmas Eve and there was a lot of work to prepare for the pageant that evening. Marble Conner had been in charge of the event for many years and was proud that people in costume and live animals made up the manger scene. Starting at the church, the holy family, complete with Mary on a donkey, would set out on their journey followed by the people of Barton. After stopping at a number of houses and being refused a place to stay, they would arrive at the crude stable erected in the middle of the common — a three sided shed with sheep, cows, goats, and a donkey tethered in the hay. Mary and Joseph would take their place next to the trough surrounded by the animals and the church choir. The townspeople would then gather around for the reading of the Christmas story and the singing of carols
This particular Christmas Eve was no different except that it was still as death and so cold the snow made a dry squeaking sound as Mary mounted the donkey and started off. The evening was absolutely clear and the stars looked as though they could be plucked from the night sky one by one. Truly, no one would have been surprised to see children empty their pockets of shining stars on going to bed that night.
Holding Ian’s hand, Mirabelle and her mother and father followed the holy family. Except for the squeaking snow, not a sound was made. In the whole crowd, no one spoke a word, not even the children. Mary and Joseph would stop before a house, knock and as the front door opened spilling warm light across the steps, Mary would reach out and with her open hand ask for shelter. A head would shake and the door would close. From house to house the sad entourage moved in silence until they arrived at the manger. With everyone gathered around, the Christmas story was begun. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled….” And then the choir would sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here…”
Mirabelle was standing on her tiptoes holding her father’s hand still thinking all this was foolishness. Ian was held by his mother as the voice read, “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And the angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’”
In the stillness that followed while they waited for the choir to begin the next hymn, Mirabelle said, “I hear a baby crying.”
“Shhhh!” said her father.
“No! No!” cried Mirabelle, “I hear a baby!” And she pulled loose from her father and pushed in front of the crowd to the edge of the crèche. “There is a baby!” Mirabelle said. “I can hear him!” And Ian wriggled down from his mothers arms and pushed through to his sister and took her hand. Then all the children in the crowd began to come to the crèche. One by one they left their parents. By twos they came, and then in whole groups they worked their way forward until all the children were gathered before the crib.
Mirabelle saw that there was only a doll in the manger but still she heard the soft crying of the infant. Then a clear strong voice from among the children began to sing, “It came up-on the midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold: Peace on the earth, good-will to men, From heaven’s all gracious King.”
Mirabelle and all the children then began to sing as if with one voice, “Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.”
In the silence that followed the children’s singing, the infant’s crying softly filled the common, and everyone was amazed — everyone except Mirabelle. She had heard it first and recognized what it was and said to herself, yes. She thought of Roger, and said, yes. She thought of things she had done and the things that frightened her most and said, yes. She shivered at the uncertainty of the years to come and said, yes. She let her mind and body fill with the cold, the quiet, and the mystery of the night and said, yes.
When they arrived back at Marble Conner’s house, Mirabelle’s mother told the children they could each open one present before going to bed. Ian opened a package that contained a red front-end-loader and he clapped with delight. Mirabelle chose a package that displayed some mysterious holes. When she turned it over she heard a curious scratching and out tumbled a little ball of brown fur. Mirabelle was on her knees and the puppy ran toward her, jumped in her lap, climbed up her front, licked her face, and tumbled end over end back to her lap where he nibbled on her fingers for a moment. Then he curled up into a little ball and went to sleep.
Mirabelle looked at her father and mother and said, “What an amazing night this has been.”
“What’s his name going to be?” her mother said.
“Well, he’s not Roger,” Mirabelle said, “But he’s wonderful and he says his name is Ralph.” Then, after thinking for a moment she said, “Papa.”
“Yes Mirabelle.” said her father.
“Please read the story again.”
Mirabelle’s father picked up the book, “How unobtrusively and simply do those events take place on earth,” he read, “that are so heralded in heaven!”