An Advent Story by Barry Gray
Arno and Barbla were twins, ten years old. They lived in a little village in the Engadine Valley in the mountains of Switzerland. Ever since they were little their mother had read to them the story of Mary’s Little Donkey in the weeks leading up to Christmas. They loved this time of the year when people were in a festive mood, when the old and beautiful Christmas songs were sung and when the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus was almost as real to them and as alive as any of the people in their little village.
Arno and Barbla had a wish, which they had never spoken to anyone except to each other. They wished that they could one day go to Israel, to the town of Bethlehem where Jesus had been born two thousand years ago. They thought that maybe they could find the exact spot where the stable in which Jesus was born had stood. Their wish always got stronger around Christmas time and this year it was especially strong.
But they also knew that it would probably never be possible: their parents were simple mountain farmers and could surely never afford the price of two tickets to Israel. Besides, they had never travelled farther than high up into the next mountain valley to the north of their village and that was only because their father had had work up there for the summer.
Now Advent was here and they could feel the mood of the village changing. There were signs that Christmas was approaching. Pictures, candles, music, everything seemed to say it was time for the story they knew so well about Mary’s Little Donkey. For Arno and Barbla this only strengthened their secret wish and their joy was mixed with strange sadness.
One day, when December was already here but the snow had not yet come and the twins were walking in the hills outside their village, they saw what looked to be a cave far up a hill. They climbed towards it and the closer they came the more they were sure that it really was a cave. They were puzzled because they had hiked in these hills many times before and neither they nor any of the villagers had ever seen a cave up there. As they approached the cave they saw that there was a light coming from within. They looked at each other and, without speaking, each knew that the other was wondering whether or not it was wise to go in. They nodded silently and continued to the mouth of the cave.
Without hesitating, they entered the cave. They could hear the silence as they stood staring into the goldly lighted depths. Crystals of violet and amber, azure and milky white glowed in the light that came from the back of the cave. Barbla and Arno peered past and between the beautiful crystals, trying to see to the source of the light.
They expected to see someone sitting at a campfire or at least at a lamp of some kind at the back of the cave, but it was so quiet that they felt the cave must surely be empty. They walked carefully between the crystals near the mouth of the cave and made their way towards the glowing golden light at the back. Their feeling was right: the cave was empty. But in the middle of the back wall stood a crystal like none they had ever seen before. It grew from a bed of brilliant red like the embers of a fire. The red faded gently to orange and the orange melted into gold and yellow as the crystals reached to the ceiling. Its beauty was great, but what impressed the twins the most was the light that streamed from the crystal.
They stepped to both sides to see where the light came from. They soon discovered that there was neither fire nor lamp: the light came from within the great cluster of crystals. The golden yellow glow streamed out and lighted the walls and ceiling of the cave with a silky, soft light. They saw the glow on each other’s faces. As they watched, the light brightened. The gold lightened to yellow and the yellow to white. Brighter and whiter the crystals grew but curiously did not blind them. Soon the yellow had faded and they stood facing a brilliant white light that did not hurt their eyes at all.
The light began to dim and they saw forms within the light. The forms took shape and became hills. They watched as the light faded and a picture appeared where the light had been. The hills were dry and unlike any they knew in their valley in the Alps. It was a picture of a landscape that was totally foreign to them. Then they suddenly realized that it was no still picture they were seeing but a real landscape, for they saw houses and people moving about among them.
The houses were unlike the pointy-roofed wooden houses of their village. The houses that they saw in the crystal were low with flat roofs and with the colour of the dry land around them. Even the people looked different: their skin was much darker and their clothes were long, like bathrobes only different, and all the people, men and women, had their heads covered with cloths.
Barbla and Arno looked at each other then out towards the mouth of the cave. They could see that the bright light of the Engadine Valley had dimmed slightly as evening approached. They looked back to the crystals and saw the sun shining on the strange, magical, silent picture before them. They stepped closer to the crystal and the images within seemed to grow larger, too.
They stood watching the people, as they would stand watching their own blacksmith as he hammered a tool into shape or as they would watch their father as he turned over the great wheels of cheese in the cheese-house above the village.
Barbla reached forward and felt the crystal with the moving images inside. It was neither cool nor warm. She called out to the people of the strange town: not one looked her way. They went about their business no matter how loudly she or Arno called. Soon they saw a young woman at the well in the centre of the village. Her belly was large and they could tell she was pregnant. She was resting a moment before lifting a heavy jug of water onto her head. They walked beside the young woman as she went towards her house and soon found that they could walk around the great crystal. Strangely, they were able to continue to follow the young woman and as they returned to the front of the cluster of crystals the woman had reached her house.
They watched amazed as a man came from the house and helped her set the jug on a bench beside the low door. The children could see that the woman and the man were talking, but no sound was to be heard. They felt that they were eavesdropping but they couldn’t help but watch, their mouths open as they gazed in fascination at the picture before them. The man and the woman were talking intensely and gesturing towards the little stable, which was attached to their house.
Suddenly they heard their names being called. It sounded faint and distant and they searched the crystal picture to see who was talking. The man and the woman were going into the stable and took absolutely no notice of them. They heard their names called again and realized it was from behind, from the mouth of the cave. They went quickly to the opening and looked out over the valley. They saw the lights of the village dimly shining in the half-light of dusk.
Automatically they held each other’s hand and raced down the hillside to the village. Outwardly, their evening was like any other: they helped prepare supper, they ate their meal with their family, chattering about this and that and they cleaned the kitchen and played and read until bedtime. Not once did they mention what they had seen in the cave. Inwardly they were filled with wonder and awe at the crystals, the cave and the strange people within the glowing light. They promised each other to go again tomorrow.
Late the next morning, it was Sunday, chores were done and they stood again inside the cave and stared into the crystals. The day was just dawning. The man they had seen the day before was leading a donkey out of the stable. Barbla and Arno, at exactly the same time, let out a loud “oh what a sweetie” as they saw the donkey. It was love at first sight. The donkey turned towards them and seemed to be staring off into the distance as if listening for a soundthat only he could hear.
Soon the pregnant woman and the man were tying bags to the donkey’s back as if preparing for a long journey. They set out immediately and walked towards the hills outside the village. Arno and Barbla walked along beside as though they were the couple’s and the donkey’s travelling companions. They lost count of the number of times they walked around the crystals as they followed the travellers through that strange and wonderful land. The hills had changed to small mountains, many with steep sides that were traversed by narrow paths. The couple and donkey stopped for a rest before beginning up an especially steep and narrow track that led around the side of a mountain.
Arno and Barbla stopped and as they stepped back the images in the crystals became smaller so the twins seemed to be seeing them from high above. They could see around the side of the mountain and sawthat the trail was covered with loose rocks and that many sections had slid away. As they moved close to the crystal the images returned to their full size as if they were again right beside the travellers. They yelled and waved their arms trying to warn them about the dangers that lay ahead. The man and woman took no notice of them for of course they could neither see nor hear them. But the donkey seemed to be looking around, turning his ears as if to search for a distant, faint sound. When the travellers were ready to continue there was no way the donkey would take the path they had chosen. He dug in his hooves and pulled insistently back towards a less steep but much longer and lesser-used path around the mountain. All the man’s yelling and all the woman’s gentle coaxing would not get the donkey to go up the steep path and they soon gave in and went the other way.
Arno and Barbla continued their own “journey” walking beside the travellers around and around the great cluster of glowing crystal. When the path they were on reached and rejoined the larger track the man and woman looked back and saw the slide area that the donkey had forced them to avoid. They quickly saw that the donkey had been right in refusing to go that way. They realized that he may even have saved their lives.
Arno and Barbla had begun calling the man and woman in the crystal Joseph and Mary, for their journey with the donkey was so much like the story they loved so much in the book “Mary’s Little Donkey.” They lost count of the number of times they had walked around the crystal but they were sure that Mary and Joseph’s journey was one of many kilometres. The twins stopped as they heard their names echoing up the hills from the village below. The landscape inside the crystal had changed and they watched as Mary and Joseph and the donkey continued their journey across a flat plain and disappeared into the distance.
The twins went home. They knew they wanted to go back and see more. They were happy that the next day was only a half-day at school because they wanted to get back to the cave as quickly as possible.
The evening and the next morning seemed to drag by. But finally it was Monday afternoon and they headed up the hill outside the village. They walked quickly, their eyes searching ahead to find the cave. They looked to where they remembered the cave to be and saw nothing but the smooth, grassy slope of the late autumn alpine meadow. They laughed and said it must be further around the hill. They continued up and across. They rounded the hill expecting to see the cave but all they saw was the short grass of the mountainside where the villagers’ cows had been grazing all summer. They searched all afternoon and never found the crystal cave.
They didn’t know who those two people had been, where that strange land was in which they journeyed or even when it may have been. But Barbla and Arno knew one thing: they missed them. They felt that they had been blessed with a special gift, that they had been allowed to experience something that few, if any, had experienced before. They didn’t know where the cave had gone or if it really ever existed, but they were certain that what they had seen was real and that it had a very special meaning.
The twins also felt that in some way their miracle, which was what they called it when they talked about it alone, had something to do with their deep and strong wish to be able to visit the place where Jesus was born two thousand years ago. They didn’t know how the two things could be connected, but the feeling was as strong as the wish itself.
They looked again another day on the chance that they had somehow missed finding the cave but there was no sign of it. On their way back towards the village they passed by a small stand of old fir trees. They stopped a moment to look up at the majestic giants that towered above them. Barbla felt a particular attraction to the trees (she even had said that the fir tree was her favourite plant) and stared in awe at one very large, very old tree that stood somewhat apart from the others. Arno stood silently by, seeing his sister’s look of wonder and feeling something himself of what she saw.
Barbla walked slowly to the huge old tree as if drawn by some gentle magnet. Arno followed her underneath the long sweeping branches with their flat, dark green needles. They stood listening, amazed at the silence within the space under the tree. No sounds reached them from the village, the wind was still and they spoke no word. The magic of the space was punctuated by the shining faces of dozens of carline thistles that grew under the great tree. The flat, round white flower of the carline, also known as the silver thistle, grew so close to the ground that they seemed to be pressed flat. Arno loved the small, modest thistle and felt the same about it as his sister did about the fir tree.
He had even made up a little poem about the silver thistle, which he said to himself whenever he saw them.
You hold yourself firmly to the Earth.
You cast no shadows on others.
You shine in the shadows of others.
Arno knew that his verse was not good like a true poem. There was no real rhythm and the words didn’t rhyme but what it said meant a lot to him and truly described what he saw in the low flower, which seemed to shine up at him from out of the earth.
The two children stood facing each other and listened to the silence which they could almost touch. It felt like they were back in the crystal cave only that the feeling came from the silence rather than from the glowing crystals. They didn’t know how long they stood listening, they only knew that neither of them had any desire to speak.
They suddenly heard the sound of hooves on stone and they looked out from under the tree expecting to see some villager riding or leading a horse. No one was there and they realized that all around them was meadow with no stones anywhere. The sound of clopping hooves continued and they couldn’t tell whether it came from the tree or from the ground. It was simply there, around them.
Again, that feeling like in the cave. They were strange feelings, unexplainable, feelings that made no sense according to the world they knew yet Barbla and Arno were not afraid and felt no desire to leave and be out of that strange space. The sound of the hooves on stone came nearer. They were not the heavy hoofsteps of the workhorses that they knew. One silent look revealed what the other was thinking: they were the sounds of the donkey’s hooves, the donkey from the crystal cluster within the cave they could no longer find. They heard, too, the sound of human footsteps mixed with the clip-clop of the donkey’s hooves. The soft sound spoke of soft shoes, Arno thought; or sandals, came another thought.
A voice, a soft woman’s voice joined the sound of feet and hooves. They listened carefully to the gentle voice. They knew who it must be; the young, pregnant woman they had seen at the well and who set out with her husband and the donkey into the hills. The woman they called Mary. They listened closely but could not understand a single word she said. They could tell from the rise and fall of the words that she was asking questions and they could also feel worry or even pain in the soft voice. The man answered in that same language of which Arno and Barbla understood nothing. The answers were short but the children could feel the concern for his wife in his voice. They imagined him walking very close to her, helping her over difficult places in the path. His voice was calm and seemed to be reassuring her that all would be well. They heard a sudden scuffling and a thump and a short cry of pain from the woman. They heard from her breathing that she was holding in her pain, not allowing herself to cry. The twins imagined her sitting or lying on the stony path, her husband beside her helping her to her feet.
Another scuffling and rapid clatter of feet, this time from the donkey. Ice, thought Barbla. Surely the way is steep and dangerous if even the donkey is having difficulty with his footing. The journey continued. The couple spoke little, occupied with the difficult task of getting over the steep, icy path. Once the twins heard the sound of a waterfall rushing nearby and often the sounds of wind gusting through and around what must have been rocky crags and crevices.
Suddenly Arno spoke his thoughts: “Oh, I hope they’ll be all right and I hope they’ll find a warm place to spend the night.” They listened again and heard the wind. This time it was the wind in the thick branches of the old fir tree. They listened carefully and heard the church bell from their village and a train whistle far down the valley. The magic of the place seemed to have been broken when Arno spoke. They stood silently, trying again to hear what was happening with their unseen travelling companions, but they heard only the sounds of their own mountain valley. Sadly they left the old fir tree with its shining silver thistles beneath it and went back to their home.
The twins talked together that evening about their experiences of the last few days. They still didn’t feel like they could share it with their parents but between the two of them they tried to figure it out. Where was that place in the crystal? Who were those people they called Mary and Joseph? Where were they travelling to and why were they on foot and not travelling in a car or by train? What did this have to do with the cave and standing among the silver thistles under that fir tree?
They just couldn’t answer each other’s questions.
Next chance they got Barbla and Arno went back to the big fir tree with the scattering of silver thistles under it. They immediately felt the great silence under the tree. They had agreed before they went under the tree that they would not speak in case that was the reason why last time the voices and footsteps had stopped. The children felt that wonderful feeling at being in the presence of their favourite plants. Barbla marveled at the dark green that surrounded her creating a room in which she felt warm and safe. Arno saw the silent little silver faces pressed against the ground that appeared to be looking up at him and giving him strength. He quietly thought about the little verse that meant so much to him.
You hold yourself firmly to the Earth.
You cast no shadows on others.
You shine in the shadows of others.
The twins faced each other and simply waited. The amazing silence was soon broken by the voices that they now knew so well. The talking was calm and the twins could tell from the footsteps that the walking was easy and without stress. Sounds in the strange language began to seem familiar and the two children suddenly realized that they could understand some of what was being said. The man and woman had called each other by name. To the twins it was no surprise that they were named Mary and Joseph. Much was not understood but they heard the name of the town of Bethlehem.
Barbla noticed that there was now only the sound of one person walking beside the donkey but the conversation continued. Mary must be riding the donkey, she thought. She understood Mary to say something about a cave in the hills up ahead where they could spend the night out of the cold and wind. The voices and footsteps faded as if moving off into the distance and soon the sound of the wind in the fir branches again shook the twins out of their almost dreamlike state. They talked about what they had heard and for a reason he himself didn’t understand, Arno gathered an armload of dry branches from the surrounding stand of trees and left a neat pile beside the silver thistles under the old fir tree before he and his sister went home.
The snow started that afternoon and continued heavily throughout the night. Most of the villagers were farmers who kept animals in the barns that were built together with the houses in which the families lived. Arno and Barbla had spent the afternoon and evening like most of the villagers helping to get all the animals in from the pastures where they had been enjoying the unusually warm autumn weather. But now the snow had seriously come and the days of open grazing were over.
The twins’ uncle had brought his two cows, three goats and a donkey into Arno and Barbla’s family’s barn. Theirs was bigger and in the hurry to get the animals out of the snow storm their father and his brother had decided it was wiser to save the time it would have taken to lead the animals to the other end of the village. When Arno and Barbla went into the barn the next day they felt the warmth and peace in the space filled with their own cows and sheep and the animals of their uncle.
Normal life in their valley had ground to a halt. The deep snow had closed all the roads to the village; even the train was not running until the snow slides could be cleared. School was closed and the twins found themselves drawn again and again to the animals in the barn even after all the chores had been done. The feeding was over, the stalls were all clean and fresh bedding of straw had been spread deeply in the central room of the barn where all the animals were either standing or lying.
The twins felt no fear as they walked in among the sheep, the cows, the goats and the donkey. They had known these and other animals all their lives and were ascomfortable with them as they were with each other. They stood near a pregnant sheep that lay nibbling a stalk of straw. Her twin lambs from last year lay near her side, sleeping. The other sheep were standing or lying at various spots around the room. All the cows were standing quietly chewing their cud while the donkey stood with his eyes closed as if sleeping, but his ears were moving about listening to all the sounds of the barn, very aware of what was going on around him without needing to look. Even the normally frisky goats were calm in a corner.
In low voices the twins were discussing what they had seen and heard in the cave and under the great fir tree. They wanted to know what was happening with the travellers, Mary and Joseph and their donkey. Did they find that cave they were looking for and have a warm place for the night? Were they safe from the wolves they thought they had heard howling last time they were listening to the journey? The silence of the snowbound valley and the peace and gentle sounds of the animals in the barn gave them a feeling much like they had had with the thistles and the fir tree, even the feeling they had as they watched the travellers in the great, bright crystal.
It’s almost as though they are right here with us, whispered Barbla. Arno knew exactly whom she meant. I have the feeling they are in that cave we heard them talk about, he replied. Arno then added, it feels like we could just reach out and touch them. As he said that he and Barbla both reached out, his hand rested on the donkey’s shoulder, hers on the head of the pregnant ewe that lay beside her. The feeling of being with Mary and Joseph and the donkey intensified and without speaking they reached towards each other and held the free hand that was not touching the animals.
The barn was still the barn but it was also the cave. They could see and hear Mary and Joseph but could also see their own animals and feel the fur and wool of the donkey and sheep that they were touching. They didn’t understand what was going on any more than they understood the cave or the space under the tree, but they were not afraid.
The twins expected Joseph to be shocked at having someone in the cave with them but they didn’t turn, they didn’t look, they didn’t know that they were not alone in the cave because they actually were alone. The twins were there and they were not. They were in the barn but they were also in the cave. They could see and hear their own animals and they could see and hear Mary and Joseph and the donkey. They were so confused they realized the best thing was just to let go of the confusion and watch and listen to the story that was taking place right there with them. Part of letting go of the strangeness of it all included just listening to this language that they didn’t even know the name of but somehow now understood.
It was early morning outside the cave and the travellers were preparing to leave. Joseph had just thanked the unknown fellow traveller who had left that pile of firewood at the back of the cave, but he was nervous about the silence outside because the wolves had been howling much of the night. He knew that the wilderness they had been travelling through must be coming to an end because where there are wolves there are probably shepherds with their flocks. The donkey stepped out into the morning light and immediately stood facing two hungry wolves a few feet away. Arno thought he felt a twitch under the hand he had on his uncle’s donkey’s shoulder but the animal didn’t stir or even open his eyes.
The wolves sprang. Mary’s donkey’s front feet flashed forward and struck the first wolf. The donkey then lunged forward and knelt on the fallen animal pinning it under his weight and crushing the air from its lungs. The second wolf jumped onto the donkey’s back and tried to bite into its neck but only had a mouthful of fur from the donkey’s mane before Joseph was there, beating the wolf with his staff. The wolf ran off leaving its mate struggling under the crushing weight of the donkey.
Mary stepped forward and put one hand on her donkey’s head and the other on the head of the gasping wolf. Immediately the donkey stood up, releasing the fallen wolf. The wolf looked Mary long and deep in the eyes before turning and walking away. Joseph and Mary knew they must continue on their journey; Mary’s time to give birth to her baby was nearing. They loaded their belongings and left the cave and the hills and walked down into the great plain that lay below them. For Mary and Joseph a half a day passed and they came to a camp of shepherds in a field outside a small, walled town. For the twins it was as if no time passed: they were still standing in their barn shortly after finishing their morning chores. They didn’t try to think about it, they just watched and listened.
The shepherds welcomed the travellers into their midst. They listened with awe to the story of their journey and jumped to their feet and reached for their staffs when they heard about the wolves that had attacked that morning. Mary and Joseph stayed the rest of the day with the shepherds, shared their evening meal, even contributing what little they could from their near empty bags. They were happy for the warming fire in the night and the extra sheepskins that the shepherds shared with their guests.
Arno and Barbla shared the awe that the shepherds felt, not only for the stories told and the beautiful, love-filled gathering around the fire, but also for the very fact that they were safe and warm in their own barn watching what seemed to be so close to the very story that they loved so well: the story of Mary’s little donkey. They had long ago stopped trying to understand with their heads all the wonders they had seen and heard over the last weeks and now just stood and accepted.
How the night passed, they didn’t see. They didn’t see daylight approach or bedding being rolled up and stored away or even the warm parting when the travellers left the shepherds’ camp. The twins only saw them enter through a gate into the town before them. Many people were arriving and the town was very busy. They visited people who seemed to be relatives of Joseph’s but whose houses were already so full that they had no room to take in more guests.
The twins watched as Mary and Joseph and the donkey pressed through the crowds, trying in vain to find lodging for the approaching night. Each inn or hostelry was full and no matter their pleading they were continually turned away. It was obvious that the day was cold and that Mary was in distress, perhaps even nearing the time where she would give birth to her child. They had just again been turned away from an inn and the master of the house was watching them leave. He too saw Mary’s distress and called them back. From the warmth of their own barn Arno and Barbla saw the couple enter a barn behind the inn and stand in the dim light of the innkeeper’s lamp. It was not the warm bedroom that all had been hoping for but the straw in the stall was deep and clean and the warmth from all the animals brought comfort to the tired travellers.
The twins looked at the cows and the sheep and the donkey thinking this was so much like their own barn from which they were watching this wondrous thing. Why, there were even three goats off in one corner. But Barbla and Arno were among them but not seen. The animals and people never looked their way. They were more silent and unseen than a fly on the wall, for a fly could have been seen and heard.
The twins’ feelings and experiences had been so strong that they thought nothing more could surprise them. But when the child was born and they were there they were filled with a joy and a love and a sense of wonder like none they had ever known. They knew they were at home in their own barn but they were also there with the donkey and the sheep and the cows and the goats who could not see them but who also stood and watched the wondrous gift of life in the stall with the people in it.
Barbla and Arno stood beside Joseph, unseen, sharing his love and joy and pride and hope for the future as he helped Mary wrap the baby in the cloths they had brought just for this purpose. Barbla and Arno wanted to shake his hand and hug him and pound him on the back and let him know how they shared his joy, but for Joseph he was alone in the stall with Mary and the baby and the animals.
Barbla and Arno wanted to tell Mary how proud they were of her for her strength and courage on the journey and now, here in the stall with her beautiful baby held close to her breast. But Mary knew nothing of their joy. She was filled with her own and was alone in the stall with Joseph and the animals.
Then the twins knelt down beside Mary and looked at the baby whose face was not only dimly lit by the light of the lantern hanging from the ceiling but also seemed to shine with a light and a radiance of its own. All the surprise, all the wonder, all the awe and all the sense of a great miracle seemed so normal as the baby opened his eyes and looked deep and long into the eyes of first one child, then the other. And he smiled at them.