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THE PRAIRIE STAR

It looked like it belonged on a New England village green rather than a small town on the front range in southeastern Colorado.  The church was built more than a hundred years ago when the town of Beulah Junction was a boom town and it had clearly won the competition for the most churchly looking church.  Its steeple soared above the town making it the tallest structure by far and when lanterns were lit in its belfry during construction people for miles around described it as a star blazing in the vast prairie darkness. That revelation prompted the founders of the church to name it The Prairie Star and from then on the steeple was lit from sundown to sunrise, first with kerosene lanterns and then electric lights.  Inside, all the lights were on and the Christmas candles lit, illuminating even the darkest corners of the sanctuary.  Ezra stood behind the massive, oak pulpit and looked out at the rows of pews, all of them empty.  Last Christmas eve the entire congregation had been present. All three of them. The Tolberts, who’d been members for as long as Ezra had been the preacher, which was forty five years. It was his first and, at age sixty nine, his last church. He’d married them and not long after last Christmas he’d buried them.  They’d died less than a week apart. The third member, Mabel Pintree, had attended the church for thirty years.  She’d been the postmistress until the postal service decided to close the post office. They said there was no point in keeping it open since with the Internet nobody mailed letters anymore they sent emails or text messages.  It didn’t matter that the information superhighway had bypassed Beulah Junction just like the Interstate. Mabel was offered a transfer to Picketwire and took it. I’d rather be forwarded than end up as a dead letter, she explained to Ezra.   

 

Next to the Bible and hymnal on the pulpit was a thick envelope from the denomination’s board of pensions. It told him what his benefits would be if he retired on his seventieth birthday in January and an application. The pension was modest, but together with his social security, it would be more than his salary. In truth, anything would be more since he contributed all of his salary to the church in order to keep it solvent. He’d started doing that five years before when contributions from the dwindling membership  weren’t able to pay for both his salary and upkeep of the church. Ezra lived off the proceeds from an annuity. When his wife, Louise, died after a long illness ten years before he had opted to the proceeds from her life insurance as an annuity. The annuity was for ten years, just enough, he’d thought at the time, to get him to seventy when he would take his pension and social security. Fortunately the church had a trust account funded from bequests by members who had passed away. Deaths had kept the church alive but that was coming to an end as the trust account was almost depleted. When he retired the church would close and the building would be sold by the denomination. If they could find a buyer, that is, since the other two churches in Beulah Junction had closed and their buildings were on the market.  Likely as not the building would just sit vacant until it collapsed. That wouldn’t be his problem, Ezra sighed and looked at the Bible and the envelope. “Last one out turn off the lights,” he mumbled.

 

“Speak up, I can’t hear you.”

 

The voice startled Ezra. He  looked up and there at the end of the back pew a man was seated.  He could have sworn, if he swore, that a minute ago it was empty. Taking off his reading glasses so he could see more clearly he recognized the man as Ike Elizondo. “Ike,”  Ezra said loudly and then continued with perfect enunciation, almost laughing.  “I was not saying any thing.”

 

“If I wanted a silent night I could have stayed home, Rev.”

 

“But you’re Catholic so shouldn’t you be going to midnight mass.”

 

“You think I’m going to drive fifteen miles to Picketwire through the snowstorm out there to go to midnight mass?  If they’d only kept St. Drogo…”

 

“It’s snowing?”

 

“Snowing.  It started an hour ago and by god, Rev., we’re having a dandy white out Christmas.”

 

“I hadn’t noticed. You can’t see through the stain glass windows. I guess your wife has the sense to stay inside on a night like this.”

 

“Stay inside?  Elaine’s in Florida for the winter. We bought a condo in one of those adult communities.  Can’t stand it there, myself.  I think all those golf courses are just a waste of good sheep meadows.  She’s there, our kids are with their kids and I’m here.”

 

“In that case, I’m glad you’re here, Ike, since you’re not going to make Midnight Mass you’re welcome here.  We’re very ecumenical.”

 

“You’re also very empty. They’ll be packed and I’d be lucky to find standing room but here,”  Ike spread stretched out his arms and let them rest on the back of the pew. “I’ve got plenty of room to stretch out.  Anyway, what passage are you reading?”

 

“Luke Two…”
 

“The shepherds.  That’s my favorite. Of course, that’s not a surprise since I’m a shepherd. So, get on with it.”

 

Ezra started reading aloud and when he got to “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Ike interrupted. 

 

“I always liked that word abiding.”

 

“It means waiting.”

 

“I think it’s more than just the ordinary waiting, Rev.. You know, us shepherds do a lot of abiding.  We’re always watching and waiting. You have to be alert if you’re a shepherd. There’s all sorts of bad things that can happen to your sheep. We’re abiders.”

 

“You think they were waiting, I mean abiding,  so they’d be ready to stop something that might threaten their flock?”

 

“Yeah, of course. Coyotes or wolves and there’s always sheep rustlers.  But look, just go on and read.”

 

“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.”

 

“Afraid? I can understand surprised but why were they afraid?  I mean, angels are the good guys.” 

 

“Maybe they didn’t know it was an angel.”

 

“I think they knew it was an angel but they were afraid because they were waiting for something bad to happen and, instead, something good happened and that really shook them up. You’re expecting it will be something bad, the devil, that you’ll have to take on.  That’s what you prepare for but an angel? I mean, their whole world was turned upside down.  If they hadn’t been out there abiding with their flock the angel would have had no reason to show up and God might have called the whole thing off.”

 

Ezra had to admit that it was an exegesis of the Biblical text he’d never heard before. “Who’s watching your sheep?  I’d hate for anything to happen to them.”

 

“Oh don’t worry, there are only half a dozen in the flock now.  Just keep them for company. Guess I’m a semi-retired shepherd.  Anyway, they’ve got their wool coats on so they’re nice and warm even in this weather and, besides, Rex is watching them.”

 

“Who’s Rex?”

 

“Rex is my dog,” Ike laughed.  “You think the shepherds in the Bible had sheepdogs?”

 

“Good question.  Might be something for Biblical scholars to look into,” Ezra said and then asked.  “Look, Ike, why don’t you come up closer?  There’s plenty of room up front and it sort of feels silly for me to be talking to you back there. Besides, it’s been a long time since I had to reach the back pew with my voice and it’s  making me hoarse.”

 

“Okay, Rev. You know I’ve never sat in the front.  Sort of a back pew guy.” 

 

“You aren’t the only one.”  Sometimes Ezra thought that if church sanctuaries only had back pews they would be full all of the time.

 

Ike got up and walked slowly down the aisle, carrying his barn coat and wide brimmed leather hat. “Say where is everyone? Afraid of a little blizzard?”

 

“I wish, Ike. Our last member moved to Picketwire a few months ago. I’m thinking of retiring.  You’re the first person I’ve told.”  Not that there was anyone else. 

 

“Really, Rev? If you retire why they’ll probably close the church. That’s why they closed St. Drogos, when Father Wolf died.  I never understood why a church named after the patron saint for shepherds had a priest with that name but he was pretty good.”

 

“Yes, he was. He was over eighty and in poor health when he passed away.”

 

“Died with his collar on,” Ike said, shaking his head. “Anyway, everything seems to have closed in this town and now…why you’re the last church. What’s a town without a church?”

 

“It’s only four walls and a roof, Ike.”

 

“It’s also got a steeple, Rev.,  and not one of those short, stubby ones and it’s got that bright light on top.  That light is a comforting sight when you’re out there on the prairie at night.  Like someone’s watching over you. I’m no astronomer, but from what I understand when stars go out they collapse into what they call a black hole where even light can’t escape. If Prairie Star closes, then the light goes out on its steeple there will be the biggest black hole in the sky you ever saw.”

 

“Speaking of steeples, Ike, do you remember the game we played as kids?”  Ezra  locked his fingers together with the index fingers forming a steeple.  “Here’s the church and here’s the steeple, open it up and here’s the people.”  Ezra pushed his hands out so that only the bare palms faced Ike. ““In this case it would be two empty hands. If the church and the light at the top of the steeple are so important then why are just you and me here and you’re not even a member. That says it all.”

 

“Come on, Rev. there has to be more to the story it can’t just end like this.”

 

“There is – top the Christmas story, that is.  Why don’t I continue with the second reading, which is Matthew Two?”

 

“It’s still your church, Rev.”

 

Ezra shook his head and started reading.

 

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Saying, where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.”

 

“When I was a kid I thought magi were magicians,” Ike said.  “You know, magi, magic, magician? I thought they might have performed magic tricks for Jesus.  You know, pulling rabbits out of their turbans or something.  Crazy, huh?”

 

“It’s not really so crazy, Ike.  Magic is one definition of magi.  However, in this case the consensus among scholars is that magi were members of the Persian priestly class.”  

 

Suddenly, there was a commotion from the back of the church.  There was a slamming door and voices then the door to the Sanctuary opened revealing a black woman wearing a quilted, down jacket and a fur hat flanked by two ruddy faced men, an older man in a trench coat and a younger man wearing a thin black leather jacket. “Thank god there’s someone here,” the woman exclaimed.

 

“Two people not counting God,” Ike yelled as he looked back over his shoulder.

 

“Please join us,”  Ezra said.

 

The three started walking single file down the aisle, their winter coats shedding snow on the faded red carpet.  “We’re hoping that you can tell us the way to Santa Fe,” the older man explained.

 

“I need to get there tonight,” the woman added. 

 

“We all need to get there,” the younger man said.  “We were all on a flight to Denver that was supposed to connect on the last flight to Albuquerque but that flight was cancelled because of the weather so we decided to drive.”

 

The older man picked up the story.  “There was only one car still available so we rented it together. It was snowing and I was driving. When we got to Pueblo and then south of that there was big wreck that closed the Interstate.  “

 

The younger man jumped back in and said.  “I looked up alternative routes on Google Maps and it told us to leave the Interstate at the next exit and then we just followed its directions here and then we lost cell service so we’re sort of lost.”

 

The woman interrupted. “Then we saw this light. We thought it was a star but that was impossible because it was snowing so we thought it must be a beacon and we kept driving toward it. The light was on top of this church and the lights were on inside so here we are.”

 

“Can you tell us how to get from wherever this is to Santa Fe?” The younger man asked. 

 

 “Where are we, by the way?” the older man added. 

 

“Beulah Junction,” Ike said.

 

“And where is Beulah Junction,” the woman asked.

 

“Right here.  Well there’s more to the town, but not much,”  Ike answered.  “This is a Christmas Eve service.”

 

“There’s only two of you?”

 

“There’s no minimum number required,” Ezra said. “Besides, now that you’re here we have five.”

 

“How long is it? This isn’t a midnight mass is it?” The younger man asked.

 

The woman looked at her watch.  “It’s only six thirty.”

 

“No, we’ll be done soon, way before midnight.”

 

“Take a seat, or a pew,”  Ike said. “But up front, not the back.  In fact, this pew has plenty of room.”  He scooted over and they all sat down next to him. “I’m Iker Elizondo, but people call me Ike and this is the Rev.”

 

“Ezra,” Ezra said and added.  “Rev. is not my first name.”

 

They introduced themselves.  The woman was Simone , the older man was Stan and the younger one was Todd.

 

“Iker is an unusual name,” the woman said.

 

“Not if you’re Basque.  Then it’s very common.  It means visitation and my last name, Elizondo, means near a church.”

 

She laughed. “And here you are visiting a church.”

 

“Near where I live.”

 

“You’re obviously of Basque heritage, then,” Stan said.

 

“My grandparents came here. I’m a third generation shepherd.  Here, anyway.  The Basque and sheep go back a long way. But look, can we let the Rev. finish.”

 

“We’re all ears,” the woman chirped, turning to look up at Ezra.

 

Ezra felt silly looking down at the four of them so Bible in hand he left the pulpit, walked down the three steps from the raised chancel and stood in front of them.  He decided to start over again with Matthew Two.

 

 “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Saying, where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.”

 

“No wise women?”

 

“You’ve got the Virgin Mary,” Todd replied. 

 

“Let Ezra continue,” Stan said, holding up his left hand so they could see the time on his Rolex watch. 

 

Ezra resumed reading, finishing with, “And when they came into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

 

“What happened to the gifts?” Todd asked. “They gave him gold and although I don’t know about frankincense and myrrh I imagine they were worth a lot back then.”

 

“They were worth as much as gold, perhaps more,” Ezra said.

 

“Wouldn’t they be pretty well off as a result?” Stan asked.

 

“They had to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod, right Ezra?” Ike said.

 

“According to St. Matthew.” Todd said.

 

“So they were like people who come to the U.S. to avoid being killed in their home country?” Simone asked, moving to the edge of the pew. 

 

“I don’t think the Pharaoh would grant political asylum to a poor, Jewish family,” Todd said.

 

“That’s right, they were Jews,” Stan said, and then added. “I’m Jewish, by the way.”

 

“I’m Catholic,” Ike declared. 

 

“I’m nothing,” Todd said. “And I don’t believe that the Bible was written by God, himself.”

 

“Herself,” Simone added. “Why can’t god be a woman.”

 

“Why don’t we split the difference and go with transgender”

 

“What’s that?” Ike asked.

 

 “Whatever you believe…or don’t, you’re welcome here,” Ezra interrupted. 

 

“We’re ecumenical,”  Ike added.

 

“To get back to what Mary and Joseph did with the gifts that they were given…”

 

“The gifts were given to Jesus,” Ike said. 

 

“Maybe Joseph and Mary were supposed to put it into a college fund for him.” Todd laughed.

 

“No, seriously,” Simone said. “If they were like poor immigrants  who come to the U.S. they used it to bribe people to get them across the border and then bribe other people to keep from being sent back.  I came here from Haiti as a little girl to get away from Papa Doc who was like  the Herod of Haiti.  My parents had to pay bribes to get us out of Haiti and then to get on the boat to Florida and it was no cruise ship. We were lucky we didn’t all drown. After paying everyone off when we landed in Florida we didn’t have a penny.” 

 

“Same thing with my grandparents who got out of Poland just before the Nazis,” Stan said. “Arrived in the U.S. without a dime. Not that they complained about it. They were just thankful they’d survived.”

 

“Does the Bible say anything about what they did with the gifts?” Ike asked Ezra.

 

“There isn’t anything in the Bible that says what happened during those years,” Ezra answered. 

 

“So it could have happened that way?” Simone asked. 

 

“I guess so,” Ezra answered.  “Just because it’s not in the Bible doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

 

“So it’s possible that they used the gold and that other stuff they were given to pay off people so they weren’t sent back?”  Ike said.

 

“What I want to know is whether its possible to get to Santa Fe tonight?” Todd asked.

 

“Now that, may be impossible,” Ike said.  “They closed Raton Pass except to vehicles with four wheel drive so unless that’s what you rented you’re out of luck.”

 

“Is our rental have four wheel drive?” Simone asked the men.

 

“It’s a subcompact,” Stan answered. “It’s lucky it has four wheels and we got this far.”

 

“You mean we’re stuck here?”

 

Ezra interrupted by calling out “Welcome.” Everyone turned to the back of the church where a couple had appeared. The woman was clutching a blanket around her shoulders and the man had on a down vest. Their hair was white with snow.”

 

The two walked slowly down the aisle, the woman holding the man’s arm for support.  When they got closer the man answered.  “We were just passing through and our car is running out of gas. We found a gas station back there but it was closed and then we saw this bright light that’s on top of your church lights and we were able to make it here. Would you have any gas?  I can pay for it.” 

 

“Yeah, Chico who owns the place went to Albuquerque for Christmas and won’t be back for a couple of days,” Ike said.  “You can still pump gas on the honor system. You just put the money through a slot in the door. I can go down and pump some into a can and that should get you to the station and you can fill it up.  Where are you going?”

 

“We’re headed to Pueblo.”

 

“Is that your home?” Simone asked.

 

“Yes it’s where I, I mean we, live.”  He clutched the woman.  “She’s pregnant.”

 

“Not a good time to be traveling if you’re about to have a baby.” Ike said.

 

“We were visiting family in Mexico. We came back through El Paso yesterday and made it over Raton Pass even though we don’t have four wheel drive but then there was a big wreck on the Interstate so we had to get off at Trinidad. We were going to pick up U.S. Fifty and take it into Pueblo.”

 

“You should wait until the snow and winds taper off before trying it,”  Ike said.  “You’ll end up in a ditch with no one around to help you.”

 

The woman whispered something to her husband.  He turned to the others and said.  “She thinks the baby is coming.”

 

“Then we need to get her to the hospital in Picketwire, then,”  Ezra said. “It’s only fifteen miles away.

 

“How are you going to get her there?” Todd said.

 

“I can take her in my truck.  It has four wheel drive.”

 

The woman screams in pain.  “Sounds like there’s no time,” Ike said. 

 

“What do we do?” Todd moaned. 

 

“You don’t do anything,” Simone said looking at Todd, “But I can since I’m a nurse practitioner.”  

 

“So you have delivered many babies,” the husband exclaimed with relief.

 

“Not really.  This will be my first but I’ve helped with several.”

 

“I’ve delivered a lot of kids,” Ike said.  “Of course, they were sheep, but…”

 

“Good,” Simone snapped.  “You’re my assistant.”  She looked at the others and said.  “Don’t stand there.  This isn’t a spectator sport. We need to  lay her down on the pew.  Good thing it has cushions.  Then we need hot water and alcohol.”

 

“Alcohol, good, I need a drink,” Todd said.

 

“For disinfectant.” Simone turned to Ezra. “Do you have a first aid kit?”

 

“Yes, of course.  I’ll go get it,” Ezra answered, happy to be more than a bystander.

 

“The rest of you can go sit somewhere else.”

 

“I need to stay,” the husband said.  “She doesn’t speak English very well so I need to translate.”

 

“That’s great…What’s your name?”

 

“Jose.”

 

“That’s great, Jose.  You can also hold her hand while you translate. But, look, you can’t go crazy if she starts screaming, alright, because there’s nothing I can give her for the pain.”

 

Jose nodded.

 

“What’s your wife’s name?”

 

“Maria.”

 

Simone immediately started talking to Maria in a calm, soothing voice, explaining that everything was going to be fine and she just needed to listen to her instructions.  “You’re going to have a healthy baby, Maria, even if it’s in a church, for god’s sake.”  Jose translated what Simone said and with tears streaking down her cheeks Maria nodded.

 

Less than an hour later Maria was smiling and Jose was crying but with tears of relief and joy.   To the relief of everyone else, the baby girl was pronounced healthy by Simone, although she added that she and Maria should be checked out at the hospital by an obstetrician as soon as possible.  

 

 

“Good news,” Ike announced. “The snow has stopped and the roads are now passable and Raton Pass is open.  Just to be on the safe side, I’ll drive the mother, father and baby to the hospital in Picketwire in my four wheel drive, pick up.” He turned to Jose and added.  “Don’t worry, Jose, it has an extended cab so you don’t have to ride outside.”

 

Ezra stood at the door to say goodbye as people left the church. It was something he hadn’t had done for quite some time. You can’t wish people goodbye who were never came in the first place. He wished them all safe travels and Merry Christmas. It was sincere, because he did feel merry.  Something he hadn’t felt in a long time. 

 

As he reached to shake Simone’s hand, she opened her arms and they hugged. “You know,” she whispered in his ear.  “Without that light on top of your church this never would have happened.  We would be stuck in a snowdrift and god knows what would have happened to Maria and her baby. You know, she isn’t legally in this country.  Neither is Jose although he’s lived here almost his whole life. He has fake documents. Jose smuggled her in using fake documents. They wanted to have the baby here so she would be an American citizen. Jose asked me to write a note that he could give to the hospital people saying that I had delivered her here in Beulah Junction, New Mexico in the United States of America. I did and wrote down my contact information. I know I can tell you because you’re a member of the clergy so you have to keep what people tell you in confidence secret.”

 

 “I won’t tell anyone.”

 

Simone released Ezra from the hug, although he had to admit he quite enjoyed it.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been hugged. He looked at Simone as she put on her hat, a pair of gloves and joined her two male traveling companions.

 

Next was Maria, who was in a wheelchair pushed by Jose. Ezra had pulled the wheelchair out of a closet.  It had been the one used by Louise when she was no longer able to walk and he had kept in case a parishioner might need it.  There weren’t any parishioners and Maria needed it.  She held the baby in her lap.  Jose thanked Ezra and then Maria said something and Jose translated.  “She says we were going to name the baby Jesus because she gave birth to it in a church. Since our baby is a girl, instead, we are going to name her Estrella because of the light on top of the church that guided us here.  It reminded us of a bright star.” 

 

Ezra didn’t know what to say so he shook their hands and then reached out and with his right index finger drew a star on the forehead of the baby. 

 

Ike was in the rear and as Jose pushed the wheelchair toward the door, he said to Ezra, “You can’t retire after all this, Rev.”

 

The first shall be last, Ezra thought. “Ezra. Call me Ezra not Rev..”

 

“Sure thing, Ezra, but what I was saying was you can’t retire after what just happened tonight.  What if this had been a black hole, instead? Besides, if you stay you’ll have at least one person sitting in the front pew.”

 

“You’re going to attend?” 

 

“I prefer to call it abiding.”

 

“Then we’ll be abiding together, Iker.”

 

Ezra stood in the front doorway for a long time watching the lights of the cars reflecting on the newly fallen snow.  Above, the sky was now clear and it seemed to Ezra as if all the stars in the heavens were shining down on him.  Finally, Ezra closed the door but he didn’t turn off the light