With one hand on her hip, Lavinia Dressler inhaled a deep breath and surveyed the spreading chaos. Two of the three wise men were pounding out “Heart and Soul” on the grand piano while one of the shepherds attempted to tie the belt of his bathrobe to the cow’s tail. The two halves of the cow, a freckle-faced ten-year-old and her equally speckled brother, shoved and pushed, refusing to stand near each other, while the lamb kept wailing that her costume made her nose itch.
Lavinia blinked at the commotion.Whatever had made her think she could pull this off with only one dress rehearsal? She clapped for her cast’s attention, then nodded at a watching parent—Arlene Jessup, if memory served, mother to the wise man who kept trying to tickle Joseph’s neck with straw. “Can you help me establish order in here?”
Arlene rose from the front pew and snapped her fingers in her son’s direction. A couple of other parents followed Arlene’s example and waded into the confusion, pulling characters, animals, and angels into position.
Turmoil, Lavinia reminded herself, was the risk one took when working with children and animals . . . and probably why she had neither children nor animals of her own.
“All right.” She forced a smile as a headache began to tap on her temple. “When Mary and Joseph kneel by the manger, the rest of you will come in humming ‘Silent Night.’ Once everyone is standing in the proper spot, we’ll sing. Everybody clear on that?”
She glanced at the three magi, who shuffled in the straw next to a band of bathrobed shepherds. Tommy Andrews, the tallest of the wise boys, lifted the lid off his mother’s crystal candy dish and sniffed.
“Tommy? Do you have something in your bowl?”
The grinning boy tilted the contents in her direction. “Want a Jelly Belly?”
“No, thank you.And I’msure the wise men didn’t bring candy to the baby Jesus, so let’s lose the jellies before tomorrow night, okay? Parents? Can we make sure the wise men aren’t carrying any surprises?”
Arlene and the other adults nodded.
“Good.” Lavinia clasped her hands and gave the young thespians her brightest smile. “As you sing, children, I want you to look at the baby Jesus. Mary, I want you to hold on to the baby as if he’s the most important thing in the world. Can you do that for me?”
Jessica Harper, who’d been chosen to play the virgin, nodded, her blue eyes glowing. She tucked a strand of golden hair behind her ear, then clutched the doll to her chest as if he were the last available sweater at a Nordstrom’s 90-percent-off sale.
Lavinia sighed. Jessica meant well, but she’d had no experience with babies. Joseph looked as if he’d rather be out skateboarding than standing beside an overstuffed manger, the magi knew more about Nintendo than stars, and though the shepherds could operate a computer, they couldn’t find their way to the restroom and back without trailing straw down every hallway in the church.
But though her young actors may have lacked life experience, they knew this Christmas pageant. The holiday play had become a tradition at their small church; every year the pastor awarded the leading roles on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. Christopher Stock, playing Joseph, had memorized the most Bible verses at middle school camp, and everyone quietly acknowledged Jessica Harper as the congregation’s prettiest fourteen-year-old.
“All right now. Everyone stand perfectly still.” Lavinia held up her hands, framed the stage between her extended forefingers and thumbs, and for a moment was struck speechless at the charming tableau: baby, manger, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, magi, animals, and angels, all fresh faced, scrubbed clean, and ready to smile for the camcorders.
How had the story become so . . . attractive?
She lowered her hands as a more realistic image supplanted the artfully arranged actors: a reeking animal pen in the dark of night, crowded by livestock and rats. . . .
“Children.” The cast stopped fidgeting as Lavinia sank onto the stool in the center aisle. She took a moment to gather her thoughts, then looked out over the sea of immature faces. “I’m so glad you’re willing to be a part of our Nativity play. You know your lines; you know the story. Some of you have seen this drama a dozen times.”
Her gaze fell upon the blank-eyed doll in Jessica’s pale arms. “But our Christmas pageant tells only a small part of what happened in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph had experienced fear and exhaustion by the time they arrived in the city. The shepherds were the last people anyone expected to receive an invitation to visit the newborn baby, and the wise men traveled many dangerous miles to find the infant king.”
Lavinia shuddered, imagining the perils of a first-century journey through untamed desert territory.Then she lifted her gaze to find Mikey Jessup watching her. The pint-sized wise man’s eyes had gone as round as globes.
What was she thinking? These children were too young to hear about the terrors of travel and bloodthirsty tyrants. They didn’t need to learn about shame and scandal and oppression—not yet.
Never mind that the virgin mother had been about Jessica’s age when everything happened.
Lavinia shook off her thoughts, slipped from the stool, and lifted her hands. “On the last verse of ‘Silent Night,’ you wise men exit toward the piano, remember? Shepherds and animals, you follow them. Angels, hover around the baby Jesus until the music stops.”
As their pure, youthful voices rang among the rafters, Lavinia shivered in anothermoment of vivid imagination. All was not calm on that long-ago evening in Bethlehem; all was not bright. For desperation shadowed the hearts of men, and evil fully intended to blot out the light.
At the sound of voices,Mary pulled a square of linen over her hair, then scooped up the other three pieces of cloth and sprinted across the furrowed ground. All four girls had left their veils on a rock by the side of the road, certain they would be reaping alone in their families’ fields. They had been left to themselves for most of the morning, but now the sun stood high overhead, and the voices that had reached Mary’s ear belonged to men.
“Naomi!” she hissed, cupping her hand to her mouth. “Rebecca, Aliyah! Someone comes!”
The other girls, who had been laughing and calling to one another as they cut the tender heads of barley from the stalks, stopped and turned.
“Who comes?” Naomi wanted to know.
“I’m not sure,” Mary said, tossing a rectangular cloth to her, “but they’re men.”
Rebecca and Aliyah left their rows and hastened to smooth their veils over their tumbling tresses.
With her back to the road, Mary felt for the edges of her own rough veil, then tucked a rebellious hank of hair behind her ear. No virtuous young woman would dare be so immodest as to publicly approach a man with her hair exposed, but each of the four friends had only recently entered womanhood. The habits of freewheeling childhood clung to them like vines.
Rebecca smoothed her veil and wiped a trickle of perspiration from her forehead. “How do I look?”
“You’ll look better without seeds on your brow.” Mary reached up to wipe a speckling of barley from Rebecca’s damp forehead, then nodded. “You look fine.”
“I only hope whoever it is deserves the trouble we’re taking,” Naomi groused, repositioning the leather strap of the bag on her shoulder. “If it’s Josiah and his friends . . .”
Mary suppressed a smile as the girls moved toward the road. Naomi always made a fuss when Josiah came into view, and Mary suspected that Naomi complained far more than necessary. Surely it wasn’t natural to spend so much time thinking about a boy unless you liked him more than a little.
Her thoughts scattered as a knot of young men crested the hill, Josiah among them. Mary saw Naomi blush when he looked her way.
“Greetings,” Rebecca called to the group. “Come you to the fields to work or to play?”
“To work, of course.” Josiah scowled in Naomi’s direction. “As long as you girls don’t get in our way.”
Naomi stepped forward, her eyes blazing above a demure smile. “I do believe the four of us can work faster than the—” she paused to count—“six of you.”
Josiah’s scowl deepened. “Tend to your family’s plot, woman. Your father sent me out here to keep an eye on you.”
Naomi placed a hand on her hip as her lower lip edged forward in a pout. “And what business have you with my father? I can’t believe he would speak to you, let alone permit you through our courtyard gate.”
“He speaks to me often.” Josiah left the other boys to step closer.
“And he groans and moans most piteously because he has a headstrong daughter, one who will almost certainly never be married—”
“I will be married but certainly not to the likes of you!” Naomi’s words would have stung if not for the smile on her lips and the challenge in her eyes.
Mary stood back, watching in amused wonder as Naomi took off across the field, barley spilling from her bag with every step.
Not willing to be dismissed, Josiah took off after her, catching the girl before they had run half the length of the field.
“I’ve seen her run faster,” Rebecca whispered.
Mary laughed, and something stirred in her heart as Josiah caught Naomi by the waist and pulled her down.
“Should we . . . help her?” Aliyah asked, her voice small.
Mary kept her eye on the pair but shook her head. “They are only playing.”
Rebecca turned, a look of wonder in her dark eyes. “Do you think he’s really been talking to her father?”
Mary watched as Naomi and Josiah smiled at each other; then she shifted her gaze to the older boys, most of whom had already waded into their families’ fields. “I think our fathers have begun to talk a lot about the future. We have begun our monthly courses, so we are old enough to make our fathers anxious about finding us husbands . . . and providing a dowry.”
The three girls stood in silence under the cloud-heavy expanse of sky. Then Rebecca whispered what Mary had been thinking: “Sometimes I wish I could remain a child forever.”