by Aaron Alford
On the outskirts of town, the crackle of a modest campfire could be heard from a distance. Working men’s hands stretched out towards the fire, their eyes gazing at the inviting flame.
The small circle of four enjoyed each other’s company. Jake stroked his beard absently, his round face a picture of contentment. He meant to take a deep breath of the night air, but the breeze shifted and instead he took in a lungful of smoke. Coughing and laughing, he waved his hands in front of his face, the smoke stinging his eyes. His friends looked on and seasoned the night with another healthy smattering of laughs.
“Daaaah!” he said with a wheezy chuckle that shook his big frame.
He wiped his eyes with one more chuckle, glancing around at his friends. Jake’s soul needed a good, strong laugh right now. His wife was not living with him at the moment. She had the girls with her. Sometimes the other guys saw Jake bite his bottom lip while he worked. They knew this meant he was missing them. Phillip sat next to Jake, and had noticed that familiar lip-bite several times this evening.
Phillip was older than Jake by two years, and shorter than Jake by two inches. He was Jake’s closest friend. Slow to speak, it seemed that words formed somewhere in Phil’s dimples before he spoke them, and they were always worth waiting for. He seldom offered a solution to a problem, but he always offered a shoulder.
Jake was the first person Phillip told when Phil l found out he would be a father, and that night they drank bad wine to celebrate. Phillip went to Jake sixteen years later, when that first born son stormed out of the house, cursing his father and making an oath never to see him again. They drank bad wine that night, too.
Phillip glanced around the hills at the animals they were minding and reached for the communal jug. David beat him to it and with a wry smile, and took a deep, warming swig. David, thin on top and thin in the middle, had been a widower for almost as long as he’d been a father. When he spoke of his little girl, married now and expecting David’s first grandchild, his eyes became thin slots of joy. When he spoke of his wife, those eyes were wide and thoughtful, and it seemed he had married her yesterday morning. When he spoke of her death, they were distant, and it seemed she had died last night. The wound left by her absence had never truly healed; it ached in cold weather.
But he knew how to tell a good joke badly, and he laughed twice as often as he cried. Dave licked his lips and placed the jug in Phil’s waiting hands. Phil took a large gulp and set it next to the kid of the group, a young man they called Turtle. Turtle lifted the jug close to his lips, but didn’t take a drink.
They had nicknamed him Turtle quite simply because he was slow. He was young for his age. He began working with these men two years ago, when his father gave him the scar above his right eye. He told his son never to come back, and Turtle, though crushed, obliged. He felt no bitterness to his father; he was too simple for that. He simply felt sadness. But Turtle had begun to make something of his life. He had even found a young woman with far-off green eyes and wispy brown hair who seemed to him to be God’s messenger on earth. Her name was Zoe, and to him she was Life itself.
“She’s really pretty, huh?” blurted Turtle, absently holding the jug in his hands.
He liked to talk about her. Whatever the actual topic of conversation was at the moment didn’t matter. When he got to thinking about her, he went to a place far away. Talking about her was an invitation to join him there.
“She sure is, Turtle. Very pretty,” said Jake with a knowing look to the others.
“I know, huh,” said Turtle, smiling.
Silence came upon the four friends again as they stared into the fire.
David sighed deeply.
Phillip coughed quietly.
The fire crackled and popped, and suddenly an angel stood within it, and said Hello.
The men jumped, falling on their backs as if hit by a blast. Jake screamed girlishly. Phillip tried to run but only tripped over himself. David scrambled backward on his hands and elbows. Turtle didn’t move.
It stood as tall as a fig tree. It was a fiery green, flickering with the campfire’s flame. Though the men were scattered, the angel seemed to gaze on each one of them. Mighty dread pounded in their ears. Their impending death seemed apparent.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angel said.
But Turtle had stained himself, just a little.
The angel’s voice was both deep and light, like the rushing of water and the babbling of a brook.
“I bring you good news,” the angel smiled, “of great joy, which will be for people of all time, everywhere. Tonight, just over there in David’s town,” and the angel held out a flaming hand and an outstretched finger, “a Saviour has been born, who is the Anointed One, the Lord.”
Turtle, being the simple one, accepted the situation with remarkable speed. “Wow,” he said, “Can we see him?”
“Yes!” The angel smiled as if sharing an inside joke. “This is how you’ll find him. He’ll be wrapped in swaddling bands, and laying in a feeding trough.”
The absurdity of that image didn’t strike them until much later. For now, face to face with an angel, it seemed perfectly natural. Then the angel hunkered down, as if he were bending low to whisper in a child’s ear. Later, when David told the story, he swore the angel whispered, “Watch this!”
It seemed a curtain was drawn back, and the shepherds saw something once seen by the prophet Elisha. Standing on the hills, as far as their new eyes could see, were angels. Thousands upon thousands, millions, more than could be counted, line upon line, arrayed in the swirling, perfect order of nature itself. There were figures of flame, like the one in their campfire, and beasts with strange faces; there were creatures with enormous eagle’s wings, and creatures which eluded all description.
The campfire angel stood to his feet again, and bellowed with a voice as big as the sea:
“Glory to God in the highest!”
The angelic horde shouted back with the sound of a million trumpet blasts: “And on earth, peace! Good will towards men!”
The sound of their acclamation shattered the shepherds’ souls, and they trembled with a terror that felt like ecstasy.
Again the angel shouted, even louder, and the earth itself thrummed with his voice:
“GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST!”
The legions of beings called in return, deeper than thunder and higher than music.
“AND ON EARTH, PEACE! GOOD WILL TO MEN ON WHOM HIS FAVOUR RESTS!”
And in an instant, they were gone. The curtains closed. The campfire angel disappeared with, what Dave would later claim to be, a wink.
The four men stood there in the silent hills, the night air whisping across their faces, drying the tears they hadn’t realized they had cried. They had never been so scared, and they had never known such peace. They felt like men born anew. They felt like men on whom God’s favour rested. And they laughed all the way into town.