A Christmas Gift

By: Daniel “Pendragon

 

Her name was Jennifer Madrid.

 

This kind of story could happen anywhere, especially in this world, and most especially within our fair nation.  Jennifer was a young woman of about seventeen, just short of her eighteenth birthday.  She had loving parents, a good home, a kitty she always loved, and she’d always been surrounded by friends.  But despite all that, she’d always thought her life was hollow, and too demanding.

 

She wanted her freedom.

 

And so, now she walks the cold streets of the city alone, late at night, after having just run away from home three days ago and a hundred miles away.

 

It was that time of year now, practically Christmas, and in a northern city where it snowed.  As it was now, it was very cold outside, and Jennifer’s limited winter clothing wasn’t keeping her nearly warm enough.

 

She needed shelter, food, water, something… and soon, and so it came as a matter of a blessing when she stopped on the sidewalk and turned, only to see a homeless shelter before her.

 

Is that what I am now?  She asked herself.  Homeless?

 

Swallowing her pride, she stepped forward and pushed the door open.

 

A blast of blessed warm heat greeted her immediately as she stepped into the great hall that occupied the inside of the dilapidated old building.  There was evidence that it had been a converted catholic chapel; like old religious icons that were still remarkably shiny.  Everything else was very clean, and it was still quite warm.

 

Despite the chill outside, despite the time of night, and despite the time of year, there were few people here; most of them bundled up on cots, or being administered to by the occasional kind soul.  Jennifer guessed that homeless didn’t remain homeless for long during the winter in the north.  They were either dead homeless people or had managed to move south.

 

Jennifer bit her lower lip for a moment, considering her options; and it was her pride that rose again that forced her to turn around toward the door.  But even as she turned, there was a tall man standing there, wearing old clothes that looked thread-bare and worn; as if they were all a hundred years old.  An old vest, with a pocket watch hanging from the pocket, a cardigan, and a pair of pants that looked as if they had been tailored specifically for him.  But even those had been worn, and there were patches on the knees.

 

“Out from the cold?” he asked, his eyes looking at her most thoughtfully.  Most probingly.

 

He had a deep, solid English accent, but there was something different about it.  She’d heard English accents before, and she had learned to differentiate between and uneducated accent, and an educated one.  His was educated, and sounded as if he were lord of the manor somewhere.

 

“I-I guess,” she managed.

 

He smiled in turn, and placed a hand on her shoulder to lead her back into the shelter.

 

“Have you nowhere to go?” he asked as he led her to a cot.

 

This time she simply shook her head.

 

“Good, for neither do I.  You just sit yourself right here and I’ll go get you some soup.  Made it myself… it was me nanny’s ole’ recipe.  Nice and hearty… guaranteed to fill you up.”

 

Unbidden, her knees bent and she found herself sitting upon the cot, the weight of her bag unfolding to rest upon it beside her, and her hands lifted to remove her hat and scarf.  The old Englishman retreated and then returned with a bowl of soup large enough to practically mix dough in, and a big spoon that would get the chunks out.  He placed it in her hands once she had gotten her coat off, and she took a bite.  And then another and another… before she knew it she was asking for seconds and thirds.

 

“That’s a rather hearty appetite you got there.” English asked, cocking his head inquisitively to one side while a tiny little smile split his age-old features. “Where are you from young maiden?”

 

She looked at him.  His face was young, but those eyes told of wisdom that was older than he looked.

 

“A million miles from here, I guess…” she answered instead of the actual truth.

 

Englishman’s smile faded slightly.

 

“A runaway… aren’t you?” he said quietly, and when she looked up at him, she saw only the deeply fixed gaze that seemed to be looking straight into her head as well as her heart.

 

She lowered her head, and then nodded.

 

There was a pause and then a warm smile crossed his face, and he reached out to pat Jen’s shoulder.

 

“Then before you continue being a runaway, why don’t you stay here and celebrate Christmas with us.” His smile broadened. “It’s quite cold outside, and I’m sure you don’t want to do the usual thing and find a gutter to lay on for the night.”

 

Jen nodded, and then felt a light tap on her shoulder.  Someone, an old, practically toothless woman, was offering a big loaf of unsliced Italian bread to her, along with a plate of cheeses.

 

Jennifer accepted it with a nod of thanks and then turned to face English again, but he had stood up and was attending to the Christmas tree that was nearby.  Taking a break of the bread, she rose to go talk to him while he hung some of the most humble of decorations onto a tree that was rather full of thick, green foliage.

 

“Cut it out of the woods today.” English said. “Do you know of the symbolism of Christmas my young friend?” he asked, looking down at her as he finished hanging one of the ornaments.

 

Jen shook her head no.

 

“Practically two thousand years ago to our best guesses, a child was born, and laid within a manger.  One could not ask for a more humble beginning than that.  To be lain within a feed trough, with only a swaddling cloth for a blanket.

 

“Despite his humble beginnings, he was always filled with love, always filled with forgiveness, even up to his death, when after having been tortured and nailed to his cross, he begged the Creator to look kindly upon them.”

 

“’Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do…’” Jennifer stated, finding a seat on yet another empty cot.

 

English nodded.

 

“Every December twenty-fifth, we celebrate his birth.  I, on the other hand, go so far as to celebrate his life… especially after I think about my past.” He looked down at his left hand for a moment, and then reached down and picked up another ornament to place on the tree. “A Christmas tree is more that a thing to put presents under, it represents eternal life, growth and renewal.  Especially with the evergreen tree such as this pine, whose needles forever point heavenward.

 

“They can live for thousands of years, y’know.”

 

Jen shook her head to reflect that she indeed did not know, and marveled at how full this particular tree seemed to be despite how poor everyone around them was.  Her family used a fake tree, one that was eight feet tall, and fit nicely within the open space of their family room.

 

But then she blinked and watched as English took a small angel out of a cardboard box, unwrapping it carefully from its newspaper, and then lifted it to the top of the tree. It was missing its wings, but it had a trump lifted to its mouth.  It was also of a bright, bright gold color; well tended and immaculate despite the loss of its wings.

 

“On that night,” he continued. “An angel went forth to give good tidings of great joy, lifting up his trump while the host of heaven sang and celebrated the coming of the Lord of the Universe.  It was an angel that guided the shepherds to Christ’s makeshift cradle, and it was an angel, that lifted aloft his trump, and proudly proclaimed the day.”

 

He made a minute adjustment to be sure that it was straight, and then opened a box of old candy canes and began placing them on the tree.

 

“For a very long time, these were thought of just as treats.  But a cane in some cultures stands for wisdom, but it was also the tool that the shepherds used to bring back lost sheep.  Every sheep was precious to the shepherd, no matter the color of their wool.  The shepherd would leave the entire flock to go get just the one lost lamb.”

 

Jennifer took a bite from her bread, watching the tall Englishman, forgetting about her troubles for the moment as she learned about the true meaning of Christmas.

 

“Those lambs, each unto the very last, carried with them a bell.” He said and five small tinkle bells were pulled out of the box and placed onto the tree with care. “They ring so that no matter where that sheep is, the shepherd could find it, and bring it back to be among the others.”

 

Then he lifted a star – a Star of David – from within the box, and hung it just below the angel.

 

“As the shepherds gathered, within the heavens shone forth a new star, brighter and more beautiful than any other star within the firmament, to point as if with the finger of God as to where his Only Begotten Son lay.  Three wise men, each from a different corner of the world, followed that star to give presents of great worth to the Virgin Mary and to her husband.

 

“Christ gave back a gift, however, whose worth was worth more than all of creation: Redemption.  Here, we are meager and humble people, with little money.  So we share our gifts, with food enough for all, and kindness and love.  This is a holy place despite that the church it had been so long ago is no longer.  For here, all are equal.  Here, no mater what your crime, you are capable of forgiveness and being forgiven.”

 

For the second time he looked at his left hand, and this time he clenched it into a fist so tight, that Jennifer thought that she could see the knuckles turn white and hear the knuckles crack.  Then he looked at her again and his fingers unclenched, and his smile returned.

 

“I have something for you.” He said, and from within his pocket he pulled out a neatly folded red ribbon made of silk.  Then taking her hand gently within his own, he tied it delicately about her wrist.

 

“What’s this…?” she began.

 

“A red bow, tied together.  Red, to signify the sacrifice of a lamb without blemish.  A bow, to be as a promise that no matter what your past has been, you may always be forgiven.

 

“A man named John gave this ribbon to me a long time ago.  I’ve not seen him for awhile, but I keep hoping he’ll come back here.”

 

Jen looked at the bow, feeling strangely numb as she swallowed the last bit of the bread that she had had in her mouth when English had presented her with her gift.  Somehow, it felt more precious that any other gift she’d ever had before.

 

“Now,” he grinned rather boyishly. “For the last touch.” He reached into the cardboard box of newspapers one last time and removed a candle in its holder, and a wreathe of holly.

 

He then stepped agilely over to a small table by the door, placed the candle and holder on the table with the wreathed over and then around it so that it surrounded the candle’s base.  Then with a deft movement of his hand, like a magicians pass, he lit the wick.  Jen didn’t even see the match he had used.

 

“A candle flame is the reflection of a star.” He stated sagely. “In many times it is the only thing between the light and the darkness.  For as long as mankind had used ships to sail the sea, even now in this age of computers and satellites, they could look up into the stars and navigate their way to where ever they were going.

 

“Especially on their way home.

 

“And finally, the wreathe… a symbol of everlasting love.  Eternal, without a beginning or and end.  God had loved us all so much, that he had sent his son to die for us.  And the son loved us so much, that he suffered through nothing less than ultimate suffering, taking our sins with him when he died.”

 

Jennifer watched him for a moment, and then turned her head away in shame.

 

“The love of our Father in Heaven… it is much like the love of one’s parents, is it not young one?  Is there no one who would miss you tonight, no one who cares for you?” she remained motionless. “No parents?”

 

Jen felt her jaw set, and then she rounded on English.

 

“What do I need parents for?” she asked hotly, lifting her head to meet his gaze with a heated one of her own. “They treat me like a child, don’t listen to what I say, don’t care what I think.  I never want to go back there again!”

 

“Ah, the wonders of post-pubescent cruelty of the child from the parents.”  He turned and gestured to the people gathered in the hall about him. “What corner of this world does such… cruelty… not happen?”

 

Jennifer looked to the others around her, and she rose to get a better look.

 

English led her to where an old man, a wino, was curled up on a cot.  He repositioned the blanket on top of him.

 

“J.J. here ran away from home when he was twelve.  Over fifty years ago.  He tried to return home when he was sixteen, but it appears both of his parents were killed shortly after he had left.  He was an orphan for a few years, ran away from the orphanage, and has lived on the streets for the rest of his life.  The only decent meal he ever gets comes from when someone is kind enough to give him a few dollars for it.  He doesn’t have much longer to live.

 

“Cancer you see.”

 

Jennifer swallowed as she looked down at the old man, and felt her heart sink into the acidic pit of her stomach as he coughed.  It was a ragged, strained cough, the kind of cough usually heard in the terminal wards of hospitals.  English straightened and then gestured toward the old woman who had given Jen the gift of bread earlier.

 

“They call her Great Mama.  She was born in the gutter because of the Great Depression.  Her mother never knew who the father was, and even the mother didn’t live past Mama’s eighth birthday.  Mama’s been living here out of the kindness of the owner’s heart and it’s because of her that this place is always so clean.  Her biggest regret was that she never knew her parents as much as she wished.”

 

And then English placed his hand upon Jennifer’s shoulders and turned her one last time to where a young woman sat eating some of the stew/soup he had made. “Angelica ‘Angel’ Malloy.  Once a… a ‘lady of negotiable affection.’”

 

“A prostitute.” Jen corrected, noticing how he stumbled around calling her that.

 

“Not any more.” English said. “She’s contracted aids, the plague if this century.  The doctors have given her less than four more months to live.”

 

“So… So what’re you saying?  That I’m gonna wind up like Angel there?”

 

English looked at her for the longest time before finally answering. “Perhaps.  I’ve seen it happen before my eyes millions of times before.  Even the woman I’d loved once upon a time ago, despite that I had offered to care for her, begged her to marry me, still sold her body for money.  Needless to say, it drove me mad.  She…” he choked. “Died too.  In the most horrible of ways: in the dark, betrayed, alone and by the cut of a knife.

 

“That was a long time ago.”

 

Jen stared at him.  He was crying.

 

“I’m sorry.” She said, lowering her head and sitting down on her original cot again beside her bag.

 

“All of us here have sinned in one way or another… some of us more so than others.  We all come here, year after year, hoping to see the man that had saved us all.”

 

“Who… Christ?” Jennifer asked, looking up at English again.  All of a sudden, looking up into this man’s face, she suddenly wanted to go home.

 

“No.  But someone who is very close to him.”

 

He sat down before her on another cot, smiling at her bewildered look.

 

“Do you believe in miracles?” he asked, and she slowly nodded. “That is good.  Then the story I’m about to tell you, you’ll find as truth.

 

“Christ was followed by many people, but his twelve apostles were the closest ever to him.  One of those men, a man called John, John the Beloved, asked for immortality to do the Lord’s work until he came again onto the Earth.

 

“In a single person’s life time, they touch countless lives.  John, never able to taste death, has touched millions of lives, including all of ours.  Especially mine.”

 

“Why especially yours?” Jennifer asked, looking excitedly at him.

 

“To believe in miracles, one must also believe in curses.  Unlike the others here, I have been cursed… and blessed.  Would you care to hazard a guess at how old I am?”

 

Jennifer looked at him, her mind clicking and whirling, settling on the odd sensation as to what he was getting at.  He was actually saying that he was an immortal.  But a cursed immortal?!

 

English continued, but looked at the Christmas tree instead of her.

 

“John came for me during the start of winter.  I had to escape, and it took me two whole months to get here, to the United States.  And here, within this very church,” he looked up and splayed his hands to the old architecture that he held with such reverence. “Here, he found me, and healed me by showing me my sins, showing me what I’d done, and then telling me that I was forgiven of them.”

 

His eyes lowered to his left hand, Jen saw, which was shaking, and he was blinking back tears.

 

“I was forgiven of them!” a tear traced its way from the corner of his one visible eye to his jaw. “Every night, I pray for those women to forgive me for what I’d done.”

 

“What could you have possibly done that was so bad?” Jennifer asked, feeling a little scared now.

 

“Something so bad, that I have lived for over two hundred years in my search for penance.  Two hundred years!” He paused, seeing her confusion. “I have blood on my hands, young maiden.  Five maidens – prostitutes just like Angel over there was – are dead because of me.  And since I had met John, I’ve not been able to hold or even touch a knife or anything even resembling a knife in… in such a long time.

 

“I use forks to cut my meat and to butter my bread.

 

“London.  It seems like such a long time ago.

 

“The police had been on my trail, and I eluded them, went home, took what I could, and headed for America.  Here, in this tiny town, in this very church, I met John.  I’d still been filled with hate and loathing, I felt betrayed by the world for persecuting me instead of raising me up.  Then John showed me what I had done, and for three days, I wept and begged Christ for forgiveness.  John came to me again then, and gave me a choice:

 

“‘Penance you must give for your sins.’ He had said. ‘So I give you a choice.  You may remain as you are, and die, and pay for your sins for the rest of eternity, or you may live for until Christ comes again, and seek your penance until that time.’

 

“Back then I thought that I was a savior, that I was brining release to the world, of removing the taint from it, by making it pure.  I had illusions of becoming a great man, of being remembered as a saint by my fellow man.  But instead of being revered, I was talked about with fear and distaste.  I’d been a lord in England, but no longer.  I’d had wealth and everything that my heart could desire.  All gone.

 

“Instead of being remembered by my true name… as a savior and a saint, the world would only know me as…” he turned to look at her then, ever so slowly, so that she could see the pain in his eyes.  And then he spoke a name, a name that was indeed struck her with fear. “Jack.”

 

******

 

The bus ride home was filled with silence.  From his own pocket, Jack had fed her, brought her to the bus depot, and then sent her home after calling her parents that she was coming home.  All she could remember is of how kind a soul that man had been, and how unfair it was to bear such a name remembered with only distaste, loathing and fear.

 

‘His curse,’ as he explained it, was to feel that sting each time someone called him by his world proclaimed name.  Over, and over, and over again.  Perhaps in this day an age where the sins of Jack the Ripper had been forgotten was perhaps some reward for the work he was doing.  That he was definitely earning his penance.  For those she had spent that Christmas night with had revered him as much as they did John.  Though they called him Jack, it wasn’t with any of the dread she had thought of with that name before meeting him in person.  Jennifer even called him Jack, and he smiled at her whenever she did, though there was still a hurt look in the back of his eyes.

 

He said he didn’t remember his true name.

 

For eight hours she sat unmoving, thinking about Jack, and hating herself how she had screamed when she realized who he was, moving only when the bus stopped and everyone else had pilled out, and then only after the driver nudged her out of her daze.

 

Gathering up her things, she left the bus, and was swept up by both of her parents, and the three of them weeping together.  Jack had shown her what she had done, and she had made her penance, and had gone home.  Her parents were so happy that she was back that they didn’t have the heart to punish her.

 

Jennifer made over a hundred dollars in money sent to her from her many relatives that Christmas morning.  Taking it all, she bundled it up in an envelope, and put it in a cardboard box, filled with a evergreen sprig, a candle, a holly wreathe, a star, an angel, five bells, a candy cane, and a new, red ribbon.  She then sent it as fast as she could back to that tiny homeless shelter, addressing simply:

 

To: Jack