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I didn’t want to be there. Playing piano for some stupid church thing was definitely not on my agenda, especially when it called for giving up a Saturday night I could have been…I don’t know, watching TV or something, hanging out at Jen’s house. But no.
“Natalie Christine, you are going to play for the church benefit, and that’s final!” My mother had said.
“But what if I don’t want to?” I had whined.
“You’re going to want to, or you’ll be grounded for the rest of the week,” my father had said. I hadn’t responded, so he’d continued. “Is that understood?” I still hadn’t said anything. “Is that understood?” My father’s tone had gone up a notch. “Natalie James, is that understood?” He had asked warningly.
“Yes,” I had sighed. And so, that is how I ended up here, stuck not only playing every Christmas song I had learned in my 8 years of piano lessons for 30 minutes straight, but also being forced into cleaning up. My parents didn’t have to- they had to take my little brothers and sister home. But when our neighbors, the Nelsons, offered to bring me home later, my parents decided that I could stay and do their work.
Mr. and Mrs. Nelson were nice enough. They were fairly new to the neighborhood and had just gotten married last March. Mrs. Nelson was already pregnant and her baby was due in about 2 weeks, so she was pretty big. Mr. Nelson- Jacob, I think his first name was, was a nice enough guy who owned his own woodworking shop and made cabinets and hutches and grandfather clocks for people.
When we finally finished cleaning, I went to the door to get my coat. And then I looked outside. A thick blanket of snow covered the ground, so thick there was hardly a way out. Outside, the wind whipped the falling snowflakes one direction and then another. I remembered the winter storm watch they’d put out this afternoon. This must be what they were watching for. The Nelsons came up behind me.
“Uh oh,” Mr. Nelson said. “Looks like we’ll have to hole up here and wait out the storm.” He smiled wryly at me.
“Uh oh,” Mrs. Nelson said, in a quieter voice with laces of pain through it. I took one look at her and knew this was going to be one crazy night.
“What is it, honey?” her husband asked.
“The baby!” she cried, and then grunted in pain as another contraction came.
“Oh, boy,” Mr. Nelson said. We moved away from the doorway and back into the main room. We pulled a tablecloth out of the boxes we’d packed and spread it on the floor. Mrs. Nelson laid down on it. And then the whole floor was soaking wet.
Oh, cr*p. Her water just broke. Mr. Nelson tossed me his cell phone while he helped his wife. “Call 9-1-1!” he ordered. With trembling hands, I dialed. “Maria,” Mr. Nelson was saying. “Maria, it’s going to be okay…just hang on…” And I got a dial tone.
“No signal!” I panicked. I set the useless cell phone on top of the piano and stood there, gripping its sides as I watched Mrs. Nelson in horror.
Mr. Nelson saw me. “Don’t just stand there, Natalie, do something!”
“Like what?” I was freaking out.
“Play something on the piano! I don’t know!”
I sat at the bench, my fingers poised over the keyboard. My right thumb found an E. My left hand found an a minor chord. I willed my fingers to press and play, faster than lighting. The piece was The Wild Rider by Schumann, and it was fast and had lots of accents, plus it was in a minor key half the time. It was helping me settle down, but I don’t know about anyone else.
“Something calming, Natalie!” Mr. Nelson yelled. My fingers stopped moving on a dissonant chord. I moved my left hand down to a pair of low G’s and my right hand found a B and a G. My fingers began to play last year’s recital piece- Lorie Line’s arrangement of Ave Maria. It was a long piece, but staring at the keys and concentrating on the song removed me from what was going on. I finished Ave Maria and pulled out my folder and opened my music book. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. I started singing. I didn’t know if it would calm Mrs. Nelson or just scare her more, but I was so scared, it wasn’t even funny. And I wasn’t even the one having the baby!
“It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old. From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from Heaven’s all gracious King. The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.”
I couldn’t tell what was going on, so I launched into the next song in my book, a particularly beautiful arrangement of the First Noel. This time I only sang in my head.
“The first noel, the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay. In fields where they lay…”
I was interrupted by a crash and the sound of howling wind. The clump-clump-clump of a man’s snow boots resounded off the church’s tiled floors, followed by the clatter of his donkey’s hooves. At the sound of the donkey, I settled down.
“Lay keeping their sheep on a cold winter’s night that was so deep…”
It was only Mr. Shepherdson, and his forever wayward donkey. He must have had to chase the dumb thing out in the storm. Mr. Shepherdson saw that Mrs. Nelson was having her baby and hurried to help Mr. Nelson. I heard him say something like:
“She’s no cow, but a birth is a birth…I’ll see what I can do.”
“Noel, noel, noel noel, born is the king of Israel!” I continued in my head, then continued on into the second verse. It was accented by Maria’s screams.
“NOEL, NOEL, NOEL, NOEL, BORN IS THE KING OF ISRAEL!” I was screaming the lyrics in my head by the time I got to the chorus again, and my fingers were grinding into the keys playing at the loudest fortissimo I could manage. Maria yelled for all she was worth in the middle of the last “noel,” and by the time I had hit the final note of “Israel!” A new voice had joined hers, harmonizing.
“It’s a boy!” Jacob yelled. I knew I could probably stop playing now, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept going. I chose “Silent Night” trying to calm myself. I got my playing back down to a mezzoforte, then to a mezzopiano. When I finished, I began to play “Away in A Manger” at a piano as Maria rocked her baby to sleep.
“What’s his name?” Mr. Shepherdson said while Maria wrapped her child in a red and white striped tablecloth.
“Christopher,” she answered.
“Christopher David Jacob,” Jacob said proudly, as he went to the kitchen and found the basket the church ladies served dinner rolls in. He brought the basket over and Maria laid little Christopher in this makeshift cradle. Everyone seemed to relax and stopped talking and watched little Chris sleep. I lowered my volume to a pianissimo and began “Coventry Carol,” my favorite Christmas song, which, ironically, was almost a lullaby, I realized as I began to play.
“Lullay thou little, tiny Child, bye bye lully lullay. Lullay, thou little tiny Child, bye bye lully, lullay,”
I played through it again, this time singing softly. I was so tired, but somehow I couldn’t stop playing. I started the song “We Three Kings,”
“We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and mountain following yonder star.”
From the East door of the room, I heard the door open a few men come rushing in. One carried a few grocery bags and was wearing glasses. Another I recognized as Mr. Connel, our resident millionaire, carrying what looked like his donation to our Spiritual Adoption Crib- a whole set of baby clothes, a blanket and a hat, everything. Mr. Connel was very generous with his money. The next man was a professor from Bethel Township College- Professor Miller. He taught history and religion, and his wife had recently had a baby. I was sure that the grocery bags full of diapers and baby powder were for his child. The last man that entered was Jen’s older brother, Ben. He’s in college now, over at Bethel Township College. He was carrying his laptop bag and looked very sulky in his black winter gear, which was now spotted with white from his black hat to his black boots. He kept his black leather laptop case close to his chest, trying to protect it from the weather, while trying to see through fogged up snow covered black rimmed glasses. His best friend was that stupid laptop and he didn’t care about anything other than this stupid computer program he’s been working on. And he never went to church- ever. He didn’t believe in God because science couldn’t prove that God existed, and Ben didn’t even think twice about believing in something that wasn’t proven by science.
“Oh, star of wonder star of night star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading still proceeding guide us to thy perfect light”
They came in and saw Maria and Jacob and Christopher, Mr. Shepherdson and his stupid donkey.
I began to play another song- “O Holy Night”
“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.”
Professor Miller opened his bags and handed Maria a diaper and some baby powder. Carefully, gently as not to wake up her newborn son, she put the diaper on him, and thanked Professor Miller in a whisper, and with one of her brilliant, yet gentle smiles.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Without saying a word, Mr. Connel knelt and unwrapped his gift for Spiritual Adoption. Maria took the long sleeved fleece sleeper Mr. Connel handed her and dressed her tiny baby. Then Mr. Connel covered the sleeping Christopher with a soft warm yellow blanket that made me jealous. I wanted to make it into gloves- my fingers were freezing and numb as I played on, pressing those black and white keys in such a way that beautiful music issued forth.
“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices , for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees. Oh hear, the angel voices.
Ben just stood there, staring. I watched his face, interested, my fingers playing on autopilot now.
“Not that I believe in any of that church stuff, Professor, but doesn’t this scene remind you of something you were talking about tonight at the conference?” He asked.
Professor Miller looked up from baby Christopher. “How so, Son?”
“Well, we have a donkey.” Ben gestured to Mr. Shepherdson’s donkey. “We have a shepherd- or at least a man whose last name is Shepherdson. We have a baby in what looks like a bread basket to me, his father and mother, three learned men, and, heck, we even have the little drummer boy- or rather, the little piano girl. It’s a living nativity.”
I resented Ben’s comment about me being little. Just because I’m his kid sister’s best friend didn’t mean I was 10 years old!
“You’re right,” Professor Miller said with a smile. “Funny how these things just happen. Even though no science can prove that the nativity really happened, people still find themselves in situations that eerily resemble scenes from the Bible. Right, Ben?”
“You can’t deny it, son. You’re part of it. God’s trying to reach you.”
“What’s the kid’s name?” Ben said, trying to deny it.
“Christopher.” Mr. Shepherdson said.
“Really? Really? Oh, come on, this is so not happening…”
“Oh night, divine, the night when Christ was born; O night, o holy night o night divine.”
Ben turned to me, pleading. Finishing my song, I said. “Don’t look at me for help. I’m just the little piano girl.”
“So, this is God, eh, Professor?” Ben said. “And He’s trying to get me to listen?”
“You don’t get any more solid proof than this, Benjamin,” Mr. Connel said, joining the conversation. “God is real.”
The three men turned to look at the sleeping child in the bread basket and I began my next piece.
“What child is this…”