"Rats," Bennet said, rubbing his throat, swallowing a couple of times and taking a few deep breaths to test the situation. This was nothing new for Bennet. He had spent much of his young life in oxygen tents and on antibiotics and steroids. Invariably the winter cold brought with its tinsel and carols an upper respiratory infection that drained the color from his mother's face and sent Bennet to bed with honeyed tea and a stack of Spider-Man comics. Winter was his favorite season, the cruelty not withstanding. He always felt close to the edge in winter and he always got a part in the church Christmas Pageant. Nine times out of ten, Keith Adams got to play the part because Bennet was sick, but Bennet always got cast. And he got to attend at least some of the rehearsals and terrorize the little angels with the other boys. He could cope with Mary -- even when Genevieve Farmer, who thought she was better than everybody, got the part; but, that swarm of little angels in white gauze costumes with tinsel crowns made him sick. What kind of self-respecting angel would fly around like that in this day and age.
It was Christmas Eve. As Bennet stumbled out of bed to go and break the news to his sleeping mother, Bennet knew that Keith Adams would be the lead shepherd again. He raised his arm and pointed to the heavens one last time as he walked through the bathroom into the dim gray bedroom of his mother. The sun was creeping its gray winter way up and so was Bennet's mom, Laura.
"Mom," he squeaked, as he stood barefoot on the hard wood floor by her bed. "Oh, honey," she said, her hand instinctively reaching from under the covers to feel his forehead. "Oh, honey," she said again. "You run back to bed and cover up warm. I'll call Dr. Vernon and make you some honey tea and cinnamon toast, OK." "OK," he said. And, as he turned to head back to his bedroom. "And will you give Keith a call? The pageant is tonight." "Sure, honey," Laura said, switching on the light and reaching for the phone.
From his bed, Bennet could hear his mom on the phone. "Vernon, it's Laura, Bennet's down again. Well, yesterday he seemed a little sluggish but he swore he was OK. He spent most of the day in one of Fred's old bathrobes pointing to the sky and saying, 'I got you this time Keith Adams.' Yes. The Pageant. I know but this morning he is burning up. Thank you. I'll keep him in. Thanks, I'll tell Bennet you'll stop by after you get out of surgery. Merry Christmas. And thanks again Vernon. I don't know what we would do without you. By."
Bennet hears his mom fumble for her slippers and dial the phone again. "Mr. Everett. This is Laura. Mr. Everett. Is there any way you could get by without me today? Bennet's sick again. I know it's Christmas Eve but he's burning up. I just don't want to leave him. Of course I want my job, Mr. Everett. I'll try to find someone, but if I can't, I can't leave a sick child alone." She hung up without saying good-bye. More dialing.
"Joann, this is Laura. Oh, you too. Listen, Bennet's down again. Is there anyway you could sit with him for a while? I have to go to work. Oh, that would be great if Frances could come. Even just till noon. I'm sure I can get home at noon if I can just go in now. Thanks. Oh thanks a million. Vernon is going to stop by later and take a look at him. Bye." Laura hung up and Bennet could hear her making her way to the kitchen to make his tea and toast. He lay back on his pillow and closed his eyes. His eye sockets felt like someone was storing hot coals in them. And the familiar pull in his chest was growing. He tried to cough. "Rats," he mumbled.
A few minutes later, his mom came in with juice and tea and cinnamon toast on a tray. "Honey, I've got to go to work this morning. Frances is going to come over and stay with you for awhile. The drug store is sending over some medicine. You take one as soon as it comes. You remember how don't you. Lots and lots of water."
"It's OK, Mom. I remember. And I don't need anybody to stay with me."
"I know honey. I need someone to stay with you, OK."
"OK. Did you get Keith?"
"No. It's still early. I'll call from the store."
"Don't forget. And, Mom, tell him if he wants to use the costume, he can."
"OK, honey. Try to drink your tea and sleep a little more. I'll come and kiss you good-bye."
Bennet drank some of the tea. The steam seemed to loosen his chest a little. He munched on the cinnamon toast and flipped through his newest Spider man comic. Before Laura left the house, Bennet was asleep.
He woke up an hour later. He could hear Frances in the living room watching TV and talking on the phone. He stayed quiet. The last thing he needed was Frances in here harassing him. Frances was a teenager in the worst sense of the word. She liked nothing better than tormenting Bennet and using him to pick up boys.
"Poor Bennet," she would coo into the phone. "It must be so hard to be so sick and have absolutely no positive male role models in his life. I know. I know. Oh, you mean you wouldn't mind coming over and playing with him for a little while? You're such an angel!"
"Barf," Bennet thought. As long as she thought he was asleep he was safe. But he was also bored. After all, how many times could spider man stick to the same ceiling without the glue coming off his boots. Bennet began to play with the quilt. His grandmother had made it. His father's mother. He hadn't known her. He hadn't known his father either, really. He was so young when it all happened and he and his mom had not kept up with the rest of his Dad's family. He knew there was a brother, somewhere and a great aunt so and so but that was about it. He loved the quilt, though. It was a little ragged, but hand pieced and sown from a dozen different fabrics and color, all in squares and zigzags. Bennet would divide the quilt up into nations. Good nations being colors he liked and evil empires being colors girls liked. Then he would plot his conquest, how he would conquer the world for right and decency. It would keep him occupied for a long time.
This morning, as he was plotting his peaceful takeover of the pink stink, a strange thing happened. An angel appeared to Bennet, right there on the foot of the bed, with next door neighbor Frances cooing into the phone in the other room.
"Hark," the angel said.
"Whoa!" Bennet said.
"Hark," the angel said again. "Hark, that's what angels say when they first show up in a place."
"Well, what does it mean?" Bennet asked.
"I have no idea," the angel said. "I don't make the rules. I just go where I'm sent and say what I am sent to say."
"And so, let me get this straight. You were sent here today of all days to tell me 'Hark.' Get out of here. You're no angel. You're a figment of my imagination," Bennet said huffily.
"Nope," the angel said, "I'm an angel all right. A messenger of God."
"Well, you don't look like an angel," Bennet said.
And that was for sure. The angel that sat at the foot of Bennet's bed looked a lot like a donkey. It was shaped like a donkey all except that instead of ears he had wings and his body was covered with fur colored feathers. "Well, angels look like a lot of different things," the angel said. "Angels always come in the form in which they can be received."
"Well, I'm allergic to feathers," Bennet said.
"Not these feathers," the angel responded. "My feathers are made of healing herbs. Nobody is allergic to them. See," the angel said sticking a tufted hoof under Bennet's nose, grazing Bennet's upper lip. Bennet was shocked that the angel had touched him. And he was silent. Then the angel continued, "Bennet Boling Lawson, I have a message for you."
Bennet gulped. "What, I'm going to have a baby?"
"No," the angel snorted, "not exactly." Suddenly the angel seemed to get a little nostalgic. "That was one of my great moments," she said. "Mary. She was a feisty little thing. So sure of herself. So willing to take on anything."
"You're not Gabriel," Bennet thundered.
"Oh!" the angel said, "I think so."
"Where does it say in the Bible that the angel Gabriel was a feathered donkey?"
"I told you already. I come in the ways I can be received. This is my favorite though. I went like this to the stable that night. Only God made me check my wings at the door on account of the innkeeper was a nervous sort. And Joseph wasn't coping all that well at this point. Joseph was a good boy, don't get me wrong, but when it got right down to Mary having this baby, he got a little worked up again. That's why he took so long getting the mid-wife. He was having a little trouble with his 'coper.' People do that when their lives don't go the way they've planned."
"Wait a minute," Bennet interrupted. "You were there. You were there when Jesus was born."
"Why certainly," the angel said. "I wouldn't have missed it, would you? God had to make sure that nothing went wrong with the delivery, human freedom and all you know, so that's why he sent all of us."
"All of who?" Bennet asked.
"The animals. We were all angels. All on a mission. Some quietly and inconspicuously moved clean straw toward Mary when Joseph and the mid-wife were occupied. Some stood in front of the cave door to block the draft. After the baby was born, I stood up right next to the manger to keep him warm while Joseph just held Mary cradled in his arms while she slept. Joseph never slept. He just rocked Mary in his arms and stared at the baby."
Suddenly all around the angel Bennet could see the long ago scene played out right on the nations of his grandmother's quilt. He saw the sheep blocking the door. The small ox pushing straw with its muzzle and the donkey guarding the baby while the mother dozed and the startled father stared.
He could see outside the cave, the bustle of the busy city, full of strangers and foreigners looking for something to feel like home. He could hear the hassled voices of the innkeeper and his staff trying to serve the arrogant out of towners. And in the sky he could see a point of light, somewhere in the universe. It looked like a laugh would look if you could paint its energy silver. And he could see the rag tag band of hooligan shepherds shaking their heads and covering their eyes from the bright white light of God's laugh in the sky. He could see them gathering their scraggly flocks together and heading in the direction of the cave.
And on the other side of the world fancy men in velvet robes took out long glasses to examine the sky and then began to pack for a long journey, leaving their pondering families at home.
All of this Bennet could see in the silver shadow the angel cast on his grandmother's quilt. "Wow," Bennet said, breathing in a little too deeply and feeling the slicing pain in his lungs. "Awesome," he whispered, lying back against his pillow and never taking his eyes from the unusual angel at the foot of his bed.
"You said you had a message for me," Bennet said tentatively.
"You bet I did Bennet. Just like that night so long ago, God sent me here to guard your cradle. To make sure that nothing goes wrong, to make sure that, comes what may, you will be able to be all that God has dreamed for you. I have good news for you, Bennet Boling Lawson. Unto you this night is born a savior. One who comes to confirm all your hopes, one who comes to bring you the salvation of your God, one who is called Christ the Lord. Emmanuel! God with YOU! So from this day forevermore, you can be sure that when you are sick and when you are well, when you fail and when you succeed, when you hurt and when you rejoice, only things more wonderful than you can dream lie ahead because your God has come to be with you."
"Gloria," Bennet said a little weakly with hot feverish tears running down his small cheeks.
"Gloria in Excelsis," the angel said.
"Deo," Bennet said and the angel was gone.
For a moment Bennet was very still. He tested his breathing for a predictable miracle. It was still labored and he was still hot, but the room was filled with the scent of healing herbs and silver light fell all across his grandmother's quilt. At that moment there was a tentative knock on the door and Frances stuck her head in. "Bennet, Keith is here to get the costume, OK?"
"Send him in," Bennet said with a smile. "Maybe I have some tips for him."