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TWO CHRISTMAS STORIES

BY JOHN B. WINTERMUTE

Wee Willie the Wayward Star

 

Not since the world was created and God had spoken those awesome words, "Let there be light!" were so many stars assembled together in one spot at the center of the universe.

There were ordinary stars and giant stars, dwarf stars, and super-stars, blue stars, white stars, and very ancient red stars.

Several centuries before, God had sent out His angels to the uttermost parts of the heavens to summon the stars to appear before His glorious throne on the morning of the twenty-fourth of December.

 

Indeed, it had taken several centuries for some of the angels to fly to the ends of the infinite universe and bring back their own particular star.

But even the stars of heaven obeyed the Voice of God and so, on the given day and year each one was present in his assigned place before the Almighty.

The archangel, Gabriel, explained the purpose of this unusual meeting. "Tonight, far off on the edge of the Milky Way, on a tiny planet called 'Earth', the Son of God will be born. Naturally such an extraordinarily divine event calls for something special to herald its birth."

"First of all, we have gathered here so that the angels can become accustomed to your bright light, otherwise your brilliance might blind them and they would not be able to read their music.

Incidentally, if any of you heavenly spheres feel in good voice tonight, you might join with us in the chorus, which goes something like this....."

Gabriel cleared his throat and took a deep breath. After a few false starts, he sang, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of good will!" His voice was rough and gruff and more than a little out of tune.

So much so that it frightened Michael, the heavenly choir director, out of his wits. Was Gabriel planning on singing with the rest of the angels? Heaven forbid such a profane thought. "I think Gabriel, the anthem would be more effective if you'd accompany us on your trumpet," he suggested.

He hoped Gabriel would take the bait. Michael knew that he would never be able to direct another heavenly chorus if Gabriel tried to sing and spoiled this one.

Gabriel's face glowed with the swell of importance. "A wonderful idea! As a matter of fact, why don't I introduce the anthem with a fanfare on my trumpet?" He patted his faithful, golden horn.

The smile faded from Gabriel's face, as he suddenly remembered. I won't even be able to accompany you with my trumpet, much less blow a fanfare on it. I can only blow this horn on the final Judgment Day! Tonight's a time of peace and good will; the night when God's love is to be born into the world, not a time of fear and trembling. I guess I'll just have to sing along with the rest of you," volunteered Gabriel.

Michael was miserable. If only Gabriel would stick to his trumpet and leave the singing to those who could sing. "No!" shouted Michael, without once thinking of poor Gabriel's feelings. He struggled for a divine revelation that would solve the problem. "I know, Gabriel, you can be the Marshal. The Grand Marshal! You'll line up all the stars so that their combined lights will look like a single star, set high in the midnight sky! You'll have to get them all together somewhere out beyond the North Star so they won't burn the earth to a cinder with their heat and light."

"Good," said Gabriel. "But how will I know when it's time for me to begin singing?"

"I guess there's no way to let you know, Gabriel, old pal. You'll have to leave the singing to us."

"But......." protested Gabriel.

"Sorry, but not even an arch angel like yourself can do everything at once!"

Frustrated, but realizing the importance of his assigned task, Gabriel shouted out his orders. "O. K. all of you stars, take a twelve hour break. But be sure you're all present and accounted for, out beyond the North Star at exactly fifteen minutes to midnight."

The heavenly spheres disbanded. Some of the stars hung around the Golden Gates and watched the angels fly off to earth. Others took advantage of their free time to polish their halos so they would shine more brightly than ever, while the tired, old red stars simply laid down on the Golden Streets and took a nap to conserve their fading light for the coming midnight hour. But each one stayed within range of Gabriel's eagle, angelic eye.

That is all except one little star who was so small and dim that no one noticed him. Indeed, he was such a little star and his light was so feeble that most of the angels suspected that he was nothing more than a meteor.

It was the great, giant star U 19 who had named the little star on the day he was born. After looking a long time at the puny, soft, sputtering light, U 19 had said, "Will he shine or will he not? Willie's so small it's doubtful if his little light will ever be seen by anyone, even on the darkest nights."

Feeling completely insignificant, as if he was not needed, Willie wandered off after the heavenly hosts as they winged their way to the earth. At least he might be able to help with the singing.

U 19 was right! Nobody missed him, not even the Grand marshal, Gabriel, whose task it was to see that every star was in place at fifteen minutes to midnight.

Within seconds little Willie, traveling at the speed of light, caught up with the angels. But they, blinded by the glory that was reflected from off their golden wings and robes, did not notice him as he flew along beside them. The wee, wayward star tried his best to attract their attention. He circled the host of angels again and again, turning cartwheels and spinning madly about on his axis, but not a single angel saw him, except for Michael, who tried to swat him. "What's a firefly doing way out here, so far from earth? " the elderly choir director asked himself.

With that poor Willie was completely crushed. He would have broken down and cried except that even a very small tear might extinguish his light. No one cared if he was present or absent. All right, if that was the way they felt about him, he would fly far away.

With a sudden burst of speed he sped toward the earth, arriving there just as the sun was setting in  the west. Said Willie, "I'll just travel from west to east, and make people think the sun's going backward." He flew low over the cold, winter waters of the Atlantic ocean, stopping for a few minutes to watch a pair of dolphins play and a great, gray whale spout water from his snout. "I'd best not stay here, that whale's apt to douse my light," sighed Willie as he started off again toward the east.

The ocean, then the sea disappeared from view and soon Willie saw a low range of mountains just ahead. He slowed his flying speed to climb above the barrier of rocks and trees. It was not too hard, even for Willie, and when he reached the crest of the mountains he saw the golden dome of the Temple of Jerusalem sparkling brightly in the last rays of the setting sun.

He spent some time sight seeing until it got pitch dark. Then cautiously he lowered himself close to the ground until he was barely twenty feet above it. He wandered about in the black of night until he saw a road which ran toward the south from the city. He decided to follow it and see where it went.

"Good night! What's that! There in the middle of the road!" screamed Willie in terror as a long, black shadow stretched out before him. Recovering his wits, he sought the source of the shadow. It was cast by an elderly man who lead a tired donkey, upon whose back rode a frail young woman.

"Hurry, Joseph, It's almost time," moaned the woman.

"I'm traveling as fast as I dare in this darkness, Mary." answered the man. "If only I could see the road........."

"I just might be able to help them," said Wee Willie to himself. It seemed a shame that anyone should be lost in the dark on a night like this, far from home and with nowhere to sleep. He flew south past the couple. In a second or two the wee, wayward star had sighted the village of Bethlehem just ahead. He circled its ancient walls until he saw an Inn. "The very place for them to rest tonight," he cried in glee, pleased with himself for once.

He whirled about and went winging his way back to Mary and Joseph. He stopped a few hundred feet in front of the weary pilgrims, so they would notice his light.

"Joseph, there's a star in the sky!" cried Mary.

"It's not very bright but it sheds enough light for us to see our way."

"It seem to be beckoning us to follow it," said Mary.

"At least we can travel much faster now." Joseph increased his pace, much to the disgust of the donkey who found himself being pulled along much faster than he wanted to walk.

"I wonder why there are no other stars in the sky tonight?" said Mary.

"The sky's overcast. There's a storm brewing on the wings of the winter's wind," explained Joseph who was running down the road so rapidly he almost ran into the wall which surrounded the city. "Bethlehem at last. I wonder where we can stay tonight?" said Joseph.

"Lets follow our own little star. See, it's shining over the building to our left," suggested Mary not knowing what else to do.

 

Willie hovered above the stable of the Inn until Mary and Joseph stood at the door. "Sorry," said the Innkeeper when he finally answered Joseph's call. "The Inn's filled."

"But my wife! She's expecting.... Any minute now! She must find shelter from the wind that whistles about us."

The Innkeeper shrugged his shoulders. There simply was no place within to put this couple. He noticed the little star shining above his stable. "You can sleep out there with the animals It's warm and you'd be alone and safe...."

"It's better than nothing at this late hour," said Joseph.

"Must be almost midnight," agreed the Innkeeper as he helped Mary down from the donkey and over to a pile of sweet, soft hay.

Little Willie gulped. Midnight! He'd never get to his proper place beyond the North Star for the greatest of all events in history. He would miss the birth of the Son of God!

"Everyone present and accounted for?" asked Gabriel as he assigned all the stars their proper place.

"Wee Willie's absent," said U 19.

"Anyone here seen wee Willie?" shouted Gabriel. No one had. "Well, he'll not be missed. He never was a very bright star," said the archangel.

Even as Willie, the wayward star, flew westward from Bethlehem toward the hills above the city, he knew he would be late. There wasn't any sense in trying. He stopped to catch his breath when, without warning, a great blinding light appeared in the sky and the hills echoed to the song of the angels.

Willie glanced down toward the earth. A band of shepherds were on their knees before the archangel Michael, who announced to them in a booming voice, "Don't get all shook up, shepherds. Listen, I'm here to bring you good news! Tonight in the City of David the Savior was born. You'll find him as a baby all wrapped up and lying in a manger."

With that, the heavenly host could no longer contain their joy and broke out into their song, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men of good will."

The frightened shepherds buried their faces in the dirt. They remained in that position until long after the angels had disappeared. Finally they regained their senses.

 "Lets go down to Bethlehem and see this baby who the angel told us was the Savior," said the first shepherd.

"But how will we know what stable he was born in?" asked the second shepherd.

"And how can we safely find our way down the mountain side in the dark," wailed a third shepherd.

Once again wee Willie swooped down low toward the shepherds.

"There's a star in the sky just above us," shouted the first shepherd.

"Lets follow its light," suggested the second shepherd.

"It's just bright enough to show us safely on our way," explained the third shepherd.

Willie turned and started slowly down the mountain side so the shepherds could follow him. "But what stable was the Savior in?" asked the first shepherd when they arrived in Bethlehem.

"All the angel told us was, You'll find the baby lying in a manger. Must be a hundred stable in town," said the second shepherd.

Willie flew on until he shone just above the stable at the Inn. "There's that star we followed down the mountain," said the first shepherd.

"It's shining on the stable at the Inn," said the second shepherd.

"Then that's where the Messiah is," said the third shepherd as they rushed toward the Inn.

When the shepherds entered the cave that served as the stable and saw the baby lying in the manger, they fell down on their knees in prayer. "This baby is the Savior," said the first shepherd.

"The Son of God Who has come to save us all," whispered the second shepherd.

But wee Willie could not hear them for he was winging his way back to his home in the heavens. His work for the night was over. His light was almost out and he could barely fly through the sky.

 He was so tied and sleepy that he almost bumped into a camel caravan that came plodding down the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. "Herod told us, 'In Bethlehem, for so it was written by the Prophet!'" said Melchoir, the Wiseman.

"But how can we find the right house in the middle of the night?" asked Casper the youngest of the three.

"If only our guiding star had not disappeared from sight a few nights ago." sighed Balthazar.

Wee Willie, the wayward star, shook off his drowsiness and turned his light up to 'full bright!' He flew back to Bethlehem once again and shone above the stable at the Inn.

"Ah, look! There's our guiding star!" shouted Casper.

"It's shining down on that stable there," said Melchoir, the eldest of the three.

"A strange place for a king to be born," sighed Balthazar.

"But that's where the star stands!" insisted Casper.

"But is it our star? It seem so small now!" asked Melchoir.

"It's the only star we've seen all night except for that great, white star that shone for a few minutes in the north awhile ago, and that was in the wrong section of the sky," said Balthazar.

 

"I say, lets follow that star to that stable," commanded Melchoir, and that's just what they did!

Once the wisemen were inside, wee Willie thought he should go home to bed, but he had a strange feeling in his heart. Could it be that his work was not finished? Would these wisemen still need his guiding light? Wee Willie had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, so he decided to hang around for a few more minutes.

When the wisemen were finished presenting their gifts and worshipping the baby, they came outside and mounted their camels. "Where to now, my friends?" asked Casper.

"Herod told us to report back to him," Balthazar reminded them.

"I don't trust that old Kind Herod," confessed Melchoir.

"But what shall we do?" asked Casper.

"I say, lets keep on following our star and see where he leads us," suggested Balthazar.

"It's shining in the south and not the north," cried Casper.

"It's leading us back to our homes by a different way," said Melchoir as he spurred his camel forward into the night.

By day break Willie had guided the three wisemen into the trackless wastes of the desert region of the south-west where Herod could not find them. Both they and the Christ child were safe.

The next evening, wee Willie, the wayward star, was once again in his proper place, somewhere out near the edge of the universe.

"Missed you, wee Willie," said the great, giant star U 19.

"I was busy," replied Willie.

"Too busy to help us herald the birth of the Son of God?" sneered U 19.

"You'd be surprised," said Willie. He knew that if he told U 19 of all of his experiences during the past night, the giant star would never believe a single word.

"Well, what were you doing?" demanded U 19.

But wee Willie, the wayward star only smiled. The more he smiled the brighter he became, until he finally had to stop smiling or he would end up as a great, giant star like U 19.

Wee Willie certainly did not want that to happen to him. For he knew that God often used the little stars of light to help some people through their darkest nights. Wee Willie was useful and important in his own small way. 

THE END

Christmas Comes At Least Once

(An Almost True Christmas Story)

 

The little, old lady in her ragged coat worked hard all day, oblivious to the fat, wet snow flakes that floated lazily down from the gray December sky, turning the earth beneath her feet into a veritable quagmire of mud.

All about her were so many wonderful treasures to be taken, simply by stooping down and picking them up - bit of tinsel, a wisp of angel's hair, a bright, red ribbon, the stub of a candle, and a big, blue ornament with only one small hole bashed in its side.

Laboriously and painfully she snatched up each precious prize from the piles of rubbish which littered the city's dump, placing each one carefully and tenderly into her gunny sack. Only after she had gathered as much as she could safely carry along the slippery streets did she cease her searching, and with a sigh, turn home.

She shuffled, ever so carefully and slowly, through the darkening streets. It would never do for her to fall and break a hip. There was no one to care for and nurse her this Christmas Eve - or any other evening for that matter.

Through the storm and the gathering gloom of night, her cataract eyes could barely make out the vague, ghostly shadow of the ancient, two story house where she lived in the back porch.

Indeed, she almost missed the steps that lead up to the terraced front yard, when the wind shifted and an avalanche of snow flakes blotted out every familiar sight.

She pulled off a tattered glove and groped about until her fingers touched the ice coated, iron pipe that served as a hand rail. Pausing on each step to ease her pounding heart, she climbed the steps, one by one, then carefully walked exactly seven steps forward until she bumped into the side of the tenement.

From inside the front apartment came the crash of a chair as it bounced off the side of a wall and broke into splinters. "Oh dear, that nice, young couple in Apartment One are having another fight," muttered Florence. Why anyone who had someone close at hand to love should be filled with hate was beyond her comprehension. If only Florence had someone, somewhere, she would never again raise her voice in anger.

Using her half frozen fingers as her guide, she followed the building around to the back, turned the corner, and walked nine steps to the door of the closed in back porch.

After fumbling about in her purse with fingers so cold they could no longer feel anything with certainty, she finally located her key and unlocked the door. Once inside, she leaned her thin body against the door and the force of the north wind and pushed it shut. Only then did she set down her precious gunny sack on the floor.

With both arms flaying about in the darkness, she walked around until she became entangled with the rope that hung down from the ceiling light and served as its switch. She gave it a gentle tug and immediately the large, naked bulb threw harsh shadows into every nook, creating fuzzy outlines and dim shapes before Florence's fading eyes.

It was too cold for her to take off her coat, as she knelt down on her arthritic knees before the small gas heater and turned up the flame. Florence hated to use anymore gas than was absolutely necessary to keep from freezing. If she did not eat too much tonight and skipped lunch tomorrow she just might save enough pennies to pay for the extra amount of heat she was using.

As soon as the porch was half warm, she took off her ragged coat and laid it across the cot. She would need it tonight as an extra cover.

The winter weather had filled her bones with flames of pain and she felt the need of something hot to drink. She lighted the two burner gas plate and put on a pan of water, standing close beside the stove so she could hear the water when it started to boil.

With a cup of hot, scalding tea on the table beside her rocking chair, Florence sat down and began to dig into her gunny sack of Christmas treasures. She held each one up to within a few inches of her eyes and examined it carefully before deciding what to do with it. 

The bit of discarded tinsel, she tied to the rope that hung from the light switch in the ceiling so that if anyone should come by to wish her a "Merry Christmas" they would be certain to see it in all its glittering glory.

Not that she expected any visitors. Most of her friends had died a long time ago, and if any still remained alive they had not visited her in years. But perhaps Henry, her Case Worker, might notice it when he came to check up on her shortly after the New Year. She would not take down a single decoration until Twelfth Night.

After placing a can of soup on the heater in the corner, she stretched the wisp of angel's hair over the pane of glass in the door. She wondered what she would have done if the Gas Company had carried out their threat and disconnected her heater. They said it was not vented, did not have a chimney to let out the fumes, was unsafe. For some strange reason, at the last minute, they had taken pity on her and decided not to report the violation.

The bit of green bough she put well back on the table where she would not knock it off by accident. Then, ever so gently, she placed the broken, blue ornament on the soft, pine needles. The stub of a candle was put on a dish and set on the window sill. Come midnight she would light it briefly to guide the Christ-child through the dark, snow-filled night.

With a happy laugh, she tied the red ribbon to her gray hair. Although she could not see it, her spirits soared high just knowing she was wearing it. It was the final and right touch for Christmas.

As she sat, soothing out large piece of Christmas wrapping paper to use later as a table cloth, a knock sounded on her door. She could not think of a single person who would be calling upon her at this time of night. Perhaps the middle-aged man, Mr. Moore, who lived at the top of the stairs had too much to drink again, and thought this was the front door to the house. Poor fellow, he, like she, was all alone and forgotten.

The knock was repeated, louder this time. "Coming. Just a moment while I unlock the door," she called out. But first she drew back the shade and peered into the night. It seemed as if someone with a large box was standing there.

As she looked, she could hear the sound of youthful voices singing, "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by......." She heard each blessed word above the roaring of the wind. It must be a group of young people from some neighboring church who had come to serenade her. And she did not have a single thing to thank them with - not even a piece of hard candy. She unlocked the door and the man with the box stepped inside.

"Merry Christmas, Miss Florence. Old Saint Nick was so busy taking care of the children tonight, he couldn't make all of his stops, so we offered to lend him a helping hand." He placed the box on the table.

"Who....? What....?" stammered Florence, whose aged mind had not yet figured things out.

The young people burst into the last verse of the carol, "O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born......"

A sudden pounding on the wall brought the singing to a hasty ending. "Shut up in there, you old fool, you'll wake the baby," screamed the un-wed mother who lived in the apartment just inside the house.

The man, who was now as red-faced as Santa, pressed a bit of paper into Florence's hand, as he beat a quick retreat into the night. "God bless you, Miss Florence. It's a little surprise from the church at the end of the block." He closed the door after him.

They did not hear her as she shouted in her high, thin voice, "Thank you, thank you. And God bless you all." The youth and the man were gone, and he had not noticed the tinsel hanging from the string or the ornament on the twig of green.

She held the bit of paper up to her eyes. It was a five dollar bill. She could afford all the gas she needed to keep her warm tonight and even all day tomorrow. Carefully she tucked the money away in her pocket, then turned to examine the contents of the box.

There were bundles of all sizes and shapes, wrapped up in bright Christmas paper. So many and all of them just for her. She tried to remember what church was at the end of the street but she could not. No matter, whatever its name, it was the home of Christians.

Still, it did not seem right that she should accept their gifts, as she had not been inside a church for years since her clothes were so shabby and out of style. It would have hurt her pride to be seen in such a condition, and all she had left in this world was her pride.

One by one she unwrapped each package and held it up to the light to see what it might be. There was a pound of coffee, a package of tea, five pounds of sugar and several cans of milk, a loaf of bread, butter, a box of hard candy, a carton of milk, and cans of various and sundry fruits and vegetables. At the very bottom of the box, was a large ham.

Like a Pack-rat she scurried about stacking each item in a safe place, primarily in the ancient refrigerator that no longer worked, but whose steel hulk kept her food safe from rats and bugs.

But the ham? Whatever would she do with such a large ham. She couldn't begin to eat all of it.

A childish wail arose from the apartment just inside from the back porch. A slap echoed through the thin wall as the distraught mother shouted "Jimmy! Jimmy, stop that! You'll wake your baby sister!"

Florence knew what to do with the ham. Poor Miss Wills had such a large family and no man to provide for her. She picked up the ham and started toward the back door that led into the long hall. Suddenly she felt selfish. Only a ham when there was the baby that needed milk? Florence returned and took out the carton of milk. It would only spoil before she could use it all. Besides, she would use canned milk for her tea.

She placed the ham in the bottom of the empty box, then the carton of milk. After a prolonged struggle with her conscience, she added a few cans of vegetables and the loaf of bread. She picked up the box and started out, only to stop once again. Children loved candy but so did Florence. Reluctantly she returned to the table and opened the box of hard candy and poured half of it into the box. Unfortunately for Florence, she happened to glance at the stub of a candle on the window sill, which she had placed there in honor of the Christ child. She sighed and scooped all of the candy into the box, along side of the ham.

Again she went into the cold hallway and knocked on her neighbor's door.

"Who's there?" screamed Miss Wills. At once the baby awoke and added her cries to the clamor.

"It's me, Miss Florence."

"Go away, you old witch. I don't have time to sit and listen to you tonight," shouted Miss Wills, who was now busy slapping first one child and then another into silence.

Anger blazed up in Miss Florence's heart. For a moment she was tempted to return to her back porch. She had not come here to be insulted. In addition to her pride, Florence also was stubborn. Once she made up her mind, there was no changing it until the job was done. She pounded on the door with both her fists. "You open this door right now, and let me in!" she shouted.

Some inner voice told Miss Wills that if she did not open the door at once, Miss Florence would stand outside and keep knocking until she did. She opened it and asked, "Well, what's your problem?"

"I brought this..... For the children," said Florence, thrusting the box into her hands.

The astonished Miss Wills, trailed by five of her six children, carried it into the kitchen and placed it on the table.

"Why, it's food! For us?" Her voice was soft and touched with the trace of tears. Already Jimmy had torn the wrapper off the bread and was stuffing it into his waiting mouth and hungry stomach.

"For you. And, Merry Christmas," snapped Florence as she retreated to the hall way.

Miss Wills followed her. "I'm sorry, Miss Florence. I didn't know. Thank you, so very much. And.... And a Merry Christmas to you, Miss Florence."

Florence stepped into her back porch and sat in her chair, rocking furiously back and forth. The idea! The nerve of that woman! She was not a fit mother for one child, let alone six!

From the adjourning apartment came shrieks of laughter, as the children discovered the candy. Florence slowed down her rocking and listened. Christmas was for children. At least once each year, even the poorest child should have a good reason for laughing!

The laughter had washed away all of Florence's anger and had replaced it with a happy feeling she had not known in years. She sat and rocked and in her mind's eye she could see the poor people who lived in the other apartments in the ancient tenement house.

There was Jake Brown and his wife who lived across the hall from Miss Wills. How Jake loved a cup of hot coffee, just before he went to sleep each night and how seldom he could afford to indulge in his favorite luxury.

Florence knew she should not drink any coffee, it was bad for her heart. She just would not feel right with that can of coffee going to waste when Jake loved it like he did. She got up and dumped the last of her treasurers from the gunny sack, and placed the can of coffee along with a couple of cans of milk inside of it.

Poor Sadie, Jake's wife, didn't have a tooth left in her head. Fanny added a jar of blueberry jam, a can of apple sauce, and several cans of vegetables.

As she rested from her labors, Florence surveyed all of the cans that were left on her shelf. She felt generous, since she had been given so much and she lived in a house where so many of the others had so little this Christmas Eve.

The young couple at the front who were always fighting. Sadie said the husband was out of work and the little wife was expecting any time. Perhaps if they did not have to worry for one whole day where their next meal was coming from, they would not be so short tempered with one another.

Florence added a few more cans to her sack. After all, she still had her five dollar bill and her Welfare check would arrive with the New Year. What would the Christ child think of her if she forgot to give all that she could to others on his birthday?

Florence added can after can, until there was barely enough left to see her to the New Year. The sack was so heavy she could not lift it off the floor. She opened the door into the hall and dragged the sack along behind her down to the Browns' apartment. Sadie opened the door and welcomed her.

As they exchanged the latest gossip, Florence wandered about the room, peering into every corner. Just as she suspected, the Browns had not received anything from anyone - the church at the end of the block did not know how many poor and hungry people lived here. Or maybe they could not afford to help everyone. Since they could not, Florence would.

She rummaged about in her sack until she felt the coffee can and the jar of jam. To these she added others from her meager supply. She shouted out, in as deep a voice as she could manage, "Merry Christmas. Santa had so many place to go tonight, he couldn't get around to everyone, so I'm helping him out." With that, she backed out into the dark hall, dragging her gunny sack behind her.

By the time she had paid a visit to everyone who lived on the first floor, the contents had been reduced by half its weight and Florence was able to drag it up the steps to the second floor, one step at a time, Crash! Bang! Clatter!

"What's that," asked little Jimmy.

Instead of her usual snarl, his mother replied, "I guess it's Santa, God bless her!"

"Santa's a 'him'. not a 'her'", insisted Jimmy, proud of his male heritage.

"No, Jimmy. Tonight Santa is a 'her'," said his mother as she warned a fresh bottle of milk for the baby.

Florence finally completed her rounds of the second floor. Her bag was empty, but her aged heart was filled with that joy that only comes through giving. Her only regret was that Mr. Moore, the alcoholic roomer, was out for the evening.

As she walked carefully down the steps, she collided with someone. If she had not been clinging to the rail, she would have fallen. "I'm sorry. I didn't hear you coming," said Mr. Moore, who was sitting on the bottom step, cold sober, his head in his hands.

"Oh, Mr. Moore, I had a present for you, but when you weren't in, I gave it to Peggy Harris at the back."

"That's all right. Besides, I don't have anything to give you. Not a single cent. Here it is, Christmas Eve and I'm so gosh, awful lonely I could die!" He smiled, in spite of his misery as he wondered just what kind of a present Miss Florence could afford to give him.

"There, there," soothed Florence. She could at least give him sympathy if nothing else. Then she remembered and reached into her pocket. "Of course, you're lonely. And I do have a special present for you. Merry Christmas," she said, as she shook his hand and pressed the five dollar bill into his palm.

Mr. Moore blinked back his tears. "But I can't take this.... Not from you! Not tonight!"

"Of course you can. There's a bit more where that came from," lied Florence, so he would not think she was giving him her last cent. She turned and started down the long hall to her porch.

"God bless you, Miss Florence, and Merry Christmas," shouted Mr. Moore as he opened the front door and rushed out into the night.

Back in her room, Florence lighted her stub of a candle and got into bed. For a moment she worried about the wisdom of having given Mr. Moore the money. Like as not, he had bought himself a bottle of cheap wine. She decided if that was the only comfort he could find on Christmas Eve, it was better than no comfort at all. Still, she had tempted the poor fellow.

The wind began to blow harder, rattling the windows and causing the flames from the gas heater and the candle to flicker and dance. Florence pulled her ragged coat up over her as an added cover and finally fell asleep.

Suddenly she awoke with a start. There was something strange in the air, almost as if something wonderful was about to happen to her.

She looked toward the window where the candle was still shedding its soft light. She wondered why she could not see the flame in the gas heater in the corner. With a gasp she knew why. The wind had blown it out. She must get up at once and turn off the gas!

Before she could stir, it happened. A blinding flash of light, a resounding crash like thunder! It seemed to Florence as if she was suddenly picked up and carried away from her hovel and placed on a soft, fleecy, white cloud. It was as if the Christ child had come and taken her home with him.

People poured out of the old tenement house. Someone summoned the fire and police departments. Sirens screamed in the night. Red, flashing lights pierced the darkness. Everyone milled about in confusion, until someone glanced at the back of the house. The porch was no longer there, its flimsy walls were scattered about the yard like kindling.

Fear gripped each heart as they began the search for Florence. It was Mr. Moore who stumbled across her body as he staggered about in a drunken stupor. She lay cradled in a drift of snow. He broke down and cried like a baby. But then he was drunk and that was to be expected.

"Such a terrible thing to happen on Christmas Eve," moaned Sadie Brown.

"It was that crazy gas heater she had. Someone should have made the land lord fix it," muttered Miss Wills.

"What a hell of a place to live, on a back porch next to the city dump," said a policeman.

But Miss Florence no longer lived in such a hell, At last she lived in heaven where everything was quiet, peaceful and warm.

(Note:  This story is based on an elderly woman the author knew who lived on the back porch of a house in Kansas City, Kansas in the 1960's)

 

THE END