“Cradle of the Heart”
By CJ Dunham
I suddenly looked up and found myself standing in my flannel nightgown outside some ancient Middle Eastern town. It was dark. A strong wind peeled apart the pile of clouds and unveiled the most magnificent and massive star I had ever seen. Gaping, all I could do was stare at it. Was it a comet? No, it was stationary, and yet how could a star be so big? This orb pulsated, as if breathing light. What was it? And where was I?
Shocked, I looked around at this foreign scene. Behind me clay houses crouched and huddled, dark and silent. Before me I saw hills rolling out in an undulating series of fields, dotted with white rocks. Some of the rocks stood up and moved! I laughed at myself when I realized that they were sheep.
How did I get here? Before my mind could form a single possibility, the star was outmatched by an even brighter, all but blinding light. It poured down through what appeared to be a hole in the sky. This was not moonlight!
As my eyes adjusted I began to make out forms in the light. Impossible. But there they were, real as life, wearing shimmering white robes. There was a host of people in the sky! And then they started singing, singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” with such magnitude that their voices echoed off every tile on every roof and resonated in my bones. I trembled, whether from the force of the voices or my reaction to them, I didn’t know.
I stood with mouth open, heart dancing. Soon these dirt streets would be flooded with citizens bursting out of their dwellings to see this air-born choir. I turned, ready to beckon the crowds toward me, but the streets remained empty. Where was everyone? How could they sleep through this? Someone else had to see this!
Unable to contain myself, I ran down the slope looking for a shepherd—somebody, anybody! It wasn’t until I tumbled to the bottom that I realized that this hill was in fact hollow, for I stood at the opening of a cave.
More shocking than the people standing in mid-air were the people I saw inside. I must have gasped as several men turned around, and upon seeing me appeared to be equally as shocked. They just stood there, agape, staring back, wearing silken robes and jeweled turbans. Just beyond them huddled some Arabic or Israeli men in course, bland tunics.
Startled, I jumped back when a donkey brayed, and looking in its direction I saw it tied up to a post. Beside it were geese penned in against the stony wall, and a cow munching straw. Shadows jerked and flickered from a small light. They all stared back at me as I stood stock-still, smelling wet animal hair, perfume, hay, and smoke from a burning clay lamp.
Rain started falling, pelting my back, and I heard the muffled sobs of a woman. Though faint, it was nonetheless heart-wrenching.
“Why is someone crying?” I asked. They all continued to stare at me; the Arabs with their sparkling foreheads and black mysterious eyes; the shepherds with their shaggy beards and creased faces. Looking down, I wondered how I must have appeared to them, wearing a flannel night gown, but oddly they didn’t seem to even notice my attire. Instead, their eyes were forlorn and fixed on my eyes, as if they sought some urgent answer from me.
“Was it only a myth?” trembled the lips of an Arab.
“Could the angels have lied?” choked the man with a staff.
Even the sheep baaaa-ed at me as if asking a similar question.
Their sandals stepped back and I saw another man crouched on his knees, his strong large hands gripping a trembling woman’s shoulders as she lay, half reclined, against him. Her dark hair was slivered with straw. She wept beside a depression that had been carved out of the rock wall, and I perceived that it was a feeding trough, a manger.
There in the straw-filled manger was an empty linen cloth with the depression of a tiny human form where her infant had lain. She raised her swollen eyes and trembled,
“My baby! Where is my baby?”
All the strangers looked at me. Rain poured outside as memories poured in my mind. My tears stung as they trickled down over flushing cheeks. This woman’s lips quivered again,
“Where is my child?”
My body shook: I knew the answer. “I—I—los—I lost him.” Blood seemed to turn to shame as it flooded my being. “I lost him,” I heard myself gasp. And I knew exactly where. “I lost him in the holiday crowds. I lost him while wrapping gift boxes. I lost him in the parties, and in the stress of doing everything right.” My eyes skirted from their probing, disbelieving eyes.
“I held him close—at first.” I weakly tried to justify.
Just like this Israeli town, throughout my hurried, self-indulgent days, I too “slept” while angels sang. I looked into the pleading pain-filled eyes of the infant’s mother and I had to confess, “I don’t know how it happened. I had him in my arms. He was amazing and beautiful. But then something changed. In me. Over the years I –I lost him. I lost your baby!”
I turned and fled into the streaking rain, hitting my face like pounding tears as I ran up the hill and fell into the soggy grass.
I bolted up. The cave and its flickering light were gone. It was still dark but I could see that the grass had changed to floral sheets. The glowing red numbers of a digital clock was all that glared at me. Clock? Sheets? Of course, it was just a dream! I sighed the sigh of my life. I wasn’t wet with rain, I was damp with my own sweat.
But even as I realized that the Israeli mother was only a dream, another horror seized me. My baby! Where was my child?
I ran down the hallway into his room, where I grabbed my surging heart with relief. There, tucked under his blanket was my gently sleeping child. I adoringly caressed his soft head and felt his tiny back rise and fall with each slumbering little breath, yet I was still not at peace. I had lost a child; a precious newborn boy.
I forced my feet to walk down the dark hallway and into the living room, where I stared at the Christmas lights blinking on the pine tree. The presents were piled in red and green and gold as if burying a truth underneath.
What was I to do? Throwing all this tradition out in the snow wouldn’t bring the baby back. Was I to take a plane to Israel and look for an empty cave? As if an invisible hand were pushing me, I stumbled to the coat closet. Reflexively, I slid my bare feet into snow boots and my arms into coat sleeves. There in the back of the closet were two coats I was putting in the trash in the morning. They were perfectly good, merely unwanted, and I reasoned I didn’t have time to take them to the thrift store. The trash can was their fate.
I seized them and my purse and found myself driving down dark city streets. There it was. I pulled over to the curb and shut off the engine. Impulsively, I ran across the sidewalk and through the old wooden door with the coats. And then, not two steps inside, I stopped. I was standing in a room full of cots.
The streetlight glowed through the cracked window and revealed a room full of homeless people sleeping here on Christmas Eve. For them there were no presents under a tree, no family feast waiting, no sparkling plate of sugar cookies at their door.
Then I spied them on the floor: a sleeping mother and child lying in a shadow. I crept over to them, like a shadow myself, and laid the coat over the mother who had neither cot nor blanket. I knelt down and laid the other coat on the child, shivering on the cold floor. I lifted her slowly into my arms. More than my coat, I gave my warmth. She nestled her face into the crook of my arm. I leaned my head against the cinder block wall and my sore eyes gratefully closed.
Say it was only another dream, but I’m sure I did smell straw and animal hair again. I walked into the stable cave in my plaid gown and snow boots. All eyes of the visitors flew open as I held the Christ child in my arms, his body warm against mine.
The woman leaped to her dirt covered feet, tears of relief and elation springing from her swollen eyes. Her husband stood, lips trembling. The Arabs dropped to their kingly knees. The shepherds’ eyes filled with awe, as if they now understood of the glorious song, and they, likewise, lowered to a knee, for this babe was more wonderful than all the hosts of angels.
I looked down into this baby’s face. His eyes looked up into mine. His tiny fingers wrapped around my finger. His tiny lips, his dark eyes, his thin black hair, were precious beyond description. I held my infant Savior in my arms. He closed his eyes to sleep as I gently laid him in Mary’s arms, but still and forever I cradle him in my heart.