Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Favorite Christmas Story

[This is a story I enjoy reciting aloud to groups of people. It usually gets a good reception, if they stick with it and get past an opening that sounds like it's just a rude joke. It's a retelling of a story I read in an anthology some years ago -- no idea of title, author or publishing history -- does anyone recognize it?]

Our story begins on a cold, wet, slushy Winter night, many years ago, when a group of impoverished swineherds were sitting up with their charges, cursing and quarreling and fighting over the jug, when the ground before them suddenly split open, and with a gout of flame and a roiling cloud of sulfurous smoke, a hideous demon rose before them.

"Are you scared? Good. Now listen close: five miles to the south there is the ruin of an abandoned tavern, and in it you will find a whore who has just given birth. Bow down before her child and worship him, or I'll break your heads."

The demon vanished, and the swineherds hastily hurried off. Soon they came to the ruined tavern, and in it they found a skinny, ragged girl clutching an ugly little baby covered in black hair. They bowed down before him and then hurried off as quickly as they thought safe, except for one of their number who paused to take off her shawl and tuck it around the child, saying, "The mite looks cold."

Once they were alone again, the child said, "Mother, those people bowed down before me because they were afraid of Father and Father's demon, but I don't think that is why the woman gave me her shawl."

"No, dear. I think she did that out of friendship."

"Is friendship important?"

"I think sometimes it is."

Soon after, the mother and child were joined by new visitors, this time three Princes out of the East.

They too bowed down before him, and then the first approached and set down an urn full of silver coins, saying, "People will do almost anything if you give them enough silver."

The second Prince then approached, and opened a chest of opium, saying, "People will do things for opium that they won't do for any amount of silver."

The third Prince offered the child a vial of arsenic, observing, "If you meet someone who can't be bought with silver or opium or anything else, you can always get rid of him."

Then the three Princes bowed low and retired, leaving the mother and child alone again.

Eventually, the child said, "Mother, the Princes bowed down to me and gave me gifts, but they did that because they thought they could gain power by helping Father, didn't they? I don't think any of them was a friend."

"No, dear. Princes seldom have any friends."

Last of all from out of the West came the child's father himself, a far more terrifying creature than his servant. He looked down on his son and said,

"It is good. This child will grow and be loved and feared by all for his powers of illusion-making and prophesy, and he will be sought by all kings for their courts. And soon the Great King will be born, and you my son will be his teacher and counselor, and shape him into the king I need, to conquer the realm I need, to raise the army I need for the final battle, and all will occur as I desire."

Saying this, he departed, and the mother and child knew they would not be disturbed again that night. After a long silence, the mother finally spoke, saying,

"Dear, is it true what your father said, that you have the gift of prophesy? Can you see the future?"

"Yes, Mother. I can see the future more clearly than Father can, and I know something important that Father doesn't know."

"What's that, Merlin?"

"I know that Arthur will be my friend."

[I love that story.]

No comments: