How John Beaconsfield Saved Christmas
[Opening story of Born in the Darkest Time of Year: Stories for the Season of the Christ Child]
“Boys,” said Mr. Pickerel, their portly, elderly choirmaster, “this great motet by Luis Victoria begins with an exposed entry, which means that you have to set the tone for the rest of the choir.”
Several boys smirked. John Beaconsfield, head chorister, frowned at them. He seemed to be the only boy mature enough to appreciate the music the choir was singing.
“The Latin words O magnum mysterium mean ‘O, what a great mystery,’” Mr. Pickerel went on. “The mystery, of course, is the birth of the Christ Child, not some detective mystery.”
Some of the boys laughed politely. John wished that Mr. Pickerel would stop trying to ingratiate himself with the young philistines by making bad jokes. He knew better than Mr. Pickerel that the other boys weren’t thinking about the mysterious Christ Child, they were looking forward to the customary snowball fights that followed rehearsals that time of year.
“And so, boys, your entrance should seem to emerge from the primordial silence,” Mr. Pickerel explained.
John tried to wrap his mind around that awesome phrase but couldn’t. Looking up at the high cross-beams of the church helped give him a sense of what the choirmaster wanted. The other boys’ faces went blank. Even some of the men in the choir seemed not to get the drift of Mr. Pickerel’s words this time.
“John, please give us the note,” said Mr. Pickerel.
Proud of his perfect pitch, John Beaconsfield hummed the note softly. The sound melted in the dark church. Mr. Pickerel raised his hand to give the cue and John opened his mouth to lead the other boys in the hushed entrance.
Nothing happened. A sudden fear gripped John. Was his voice breaking already? How could it? He was only twelve! Then he realized that all the boys were standing in a stunned silence. It wasn’t just John’s voice. Nobody had made the entrance.
“What’s the matter?” asked Mr. Pickerel. “Has a cat gotten all of your tongues?”
“The notes are missing, sir” one of the boys said in a small voice.
“What kind of joke is that?” asked an annoyed Mr. Pickerel.
“It’s . . . no joke,” said the boy. “Look!”
The boy slipped out of his choir stall and took his copy to Mr. Pickerel. The choirmaster looked at the copy wide-eyed. Then he looked down at his own score and his eyes grew wider. John looked down at his own copy and thought that a blizzard in the church had just blinded him. He couldn’t believe he was looking at the blank lines of a music staff where he knew that notes had been printed there just a minute before.
“Who did this?” roared the choirmaster.
Silence. John searched the faces of the trembling boys with his practiced eye for the familiar tell-tale signs of guilt but he didn’t see any. The men shuffled their feet and scratched their heads.
“Well, you should be able to sing this without your copies,” said Mr. Pickerel, “so we’ll start again. John, the note, please.”
To John’s relief, he could still hum the D-natural, clear as a bell. But when the choirmaster gave the cue, neither John nor any of the other boys could sing even the first note of the motet. Mr. Pickerel flung his music to the floor.
“Can’t you boys sing?” yelled the choirmaster. All the boys froze. “You know how it goes. . . ”
Mr. Pickerel opened his mouth to sing the opening line in his cracked yet strong tenor voice. To the boys’ relief, he couldn’t sing the opening note of the motet either. The rehearsal instantly disintegrated into chaos.
“Order!” Mr. Pickerel bellowed. “This is a House of God. Even during a rehearsal, we should conduct ourselves accordingly.”
Everybody stopped talking and exchanged uneasy glances.
“Surely you can sing ‘Silent Night,’” said Mr. Pickerel, his face turning fire-engine red. The boys nodded uncertainly. “John, please sing the first verse.”
John was sure this would be a piece of Christmas cake. He opened his mouth to sing the solo verse that started the arrangement the choir used but, once again, something caught in his throat and no sound came out.
“What is the matter, John Beaconsfield?” asked the angry choirmaster.
“I don’t know sir,” John replied. “I’m trying to sing it.”
“All right,” Mr. Pickerel announced, “Everybody!”
Everybody, Mr. Pickerel included, tried to sing the opening of Silent Night, but the carol remained obstinately silent. The boys and men looked at each other helplessly.
“Let me put it this way,” said Mr. Pickerel through clenched teeth. “Is there anything at all that any of you can sing?”
Two of the boys exchanged conspiratorial glances, then broke out in song with a few others joining them:
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout . . .
“Enough!” cried Mr. Pickering. “If you can sing that, why can’t you sing any of the Christmas music that we are supposed to be singing tomorrow night?”
“I think the Grinch stole all the Christmas music,” suggested one boy.
“Then you may interview the grinch and get the Christmas music back by five o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Choir dismissed!”
As the other boys pushed and shoved to be the first ones out, John frantically leafed through all the music of his folder. He heaved a sigh of relief when he finally found a sheet with all the words and notes on it and rushed up to the choirmaster.
“What is it, John?” the choirmaster responded to the boy with minimal patience.
“My copy of Stanford’s Evening Service in C still has all the words and music printed on it.”
“It’s the only thing in my folder that isn’t Christmas music.”
* * * * ***
Maurie Lang pushed the shopping cart, filled with all his worldly possessions, along the street. Snow was falling gently. He wasn’t expecting much of a Christmas beyond a few charity meals at some churches. Seeing a brass band assembled in front of the opera house in the late afternoon twilight, Maurie decided to stop and listen. The leader of the band played a clear note on his trumpet and the other brass players matched it as best they could.
“Excellent!” exclaimed the trumpet player. “Now we will serenade the shoppers and the opera crowd with ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing.’”
“I bet we can drown out the loudspeaker,” said the trombone player.
“That’s easy,” said the tuba player. “There’s no music coming out of this one.”
The brass players paused a moment to listen to the wreath-covered loudspeaker just above their heads and confirmed their observation that no sound was coming out of it.
“Maybe they shut it off ‘cause they couldn’t compete with us,” suggested the trombone player.
“Very smart of them,” said the leader. “Ready? One—two—three—four—”
The brass players blew and spluttered, but not so much as one note of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” came out.
“I didn’t ask you to play the ‘Nothing Carol,’” said the leader. “Next thing you know, you’ll sound like the Podunk Junior High ‘Disconcert’ Band. Try again.”
Just as the leader raised his arms to give the beat, a long white limousine stopped in front of the opera house. When Maurie saw a woman dressed in furs step out, he moved in her direction and held out his begging cup.
“Sorry, I don’t have my change purse with me,” the woman in the fur coat said to Maurie with scarcely a glance at him.
“Merry Christmas anyway,” Maurie grunted.
“Would you like to hear a bit of Christmas music?” the bandleader asked the woman.
The woman looked at the brass ensemble with severe distaste.
“I don’t have time for this! I have a concert to sing!”
Undaunted by the woman’s reaction, the trumpet player gave the downbeat for his fellow musicians and, once again, the brass players spluttered. They looked at each other, trying to figure out what the matter was. The trumpet player looked at the woman sheepishly but she was already through the door.
“Come now,” said the band leader. “No matter what the world’s greatest opera singer says, we know we can do better than make flatulent noises that aren’t fit for mixed company.”
“I’m beginning to wonder,” said another who played the trumpet. “You seem to be having trouble yourself.”
The leader shrugged and then looked at Maurie uneasily, as if he thought the band’s difficulties were all Maurie’s fault. The trombone player played the opening notes of “St. Louis Blues.”
“Very nice,” said the leader. “Now, can we ease into something more Christmassy, like ‘Silent Night’?”
“Sure thing, boss.
The trombone player started out with the “St. Louis Blues” once again, but as soon as he tried to move into the Christmas carol, the music gave out.
“You try it, boss,” said the trombone player.
The trumpet player pursed his lips over the mouthpiece but only managed another splutter. Putting down his instrument, he glared at Maurie.
“You’re not making it any easier for us,” the trumpet player charged, his face getting red.
“Guess it’s going to be a silent night, all right,” Maurie retorted as he moved on with his shopping cart. He walked past the posters on the opera house announcing a Christmas charity concert that night and recognized the woman who had snubbed him and the brass band.
* * * * *
John Beaconsfield held his breath as he put on the CD of Christmas carols sung by the King’s College Choir. His heart plummeted when no sound came out of the speaker. Frantic, John took the disc off and put on the first CD of Handel’s Messiah. He sank back on his bed in relief when he heard the opening chords of the overture. After letting that track play for a while, he skipped to the first chorus. The stereo played that as well. Almost convinced that life was getting back to normal, John punched in the track for the chorus “For unto Us a Child is Born.” Silence rang in John’s ears. His heart felt as if it had fallen to the floor like a stone. The display read off the ticking of the seconds, but the sound of the first chorus that specifically celebrated Christmas was gone.
* * * * *
Everybody in the audience at the opera house was dressed to the nines. They could afford to be, having paid $500 per ticket for the charity benefit. The orchestra was tuning up in the pit. The mammoth choir was assembled on stage. The house lights dimmed as the conductor raised his baton. A timpani roll and the clash of cymbals was followed by squeaks in the woodwinds and an ineffectual sawing on the string instruments. Puzzled whispers floated throughout the audience. The conductor glared at the orchestra. Several musicians retuned their instruments. The conductor raised his baton a second time. In the wings, Lia Paveroni was already in a rage.
“How dare they insult me like this?” she hissed to the stage manager.
“I—I don’t know what the problem is,” stammered the stage manager.
When the drumroll sounded again, Lia Paveroni braced herself for her dramatic entrance to “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Again, the orchestra failed to enter with its fanfare.
“That does it!” Lia cried through clenched teeth. “I’ll just have to show them up once and for all.”
With that, Lia Paveroni sprang on to the stage like a panther on the attack. The diamonds embedded in her red gown glittered under the stage lights, as they were meant to. Members of the audience applauded uncertainly, startled by the singer’s sudden appearance. Lia Paveroni glared at them to show her displeasure at their paltry greeting. Then she struck a dramatic pose and opened her mouth to sing out the Christmas Carol at the top of her range, only to have her throat tighten up and stop any sound from coming out.
* * * * *
The next day, Christmas Eve, Maurie opened the door of the church parish hall and pulled his shopping basket in after him. The warmth was a relief to him. His body ached all over. The line was mercifully short as most of the other homeless people like himself were already slurping their soup. Shoving his cart toward a corner where it gently crashed into a few others, Maurie limped over to the soup line on his numb feet where a boy was ladling out the soup.
“Hello,” the boy said shyly. He still seemed half-afraid of the people he served at the soup kitchen. “Want some soup?”
“Yeah,” Maurie grunted. “What’s your name?”
“John. John Beaconsfield.”
“You can call me Maurie.”
“Okay—Maurie,” John replied awkwardly.
Maurie had the feeling that John wanted to be friendly to him, but he didn’t know how. That was the problem with rich kids trying to help the poor, Maurie thought to himself.
“Kind of you to help,” said Maurie. “Have a merry Christmas.”
John pulled a long face that surprised Maurie. He assumed that only street people like him had a rotten Christmas every year.
“I hope so,” John answered, looking away from Maurie.
“Something wrong?” asked Maurie.
“Well—uh—we’re having trouble singing the Christmas music.”
“Hmm. “Are you in the choir, then?”
“Yes,” said John proudly. “I’m the head chorister.” Then John’s face clouded over. “But now, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“You aren’t the only one,” Maurie assured John. “I heard a band try to play some carols yesterday and they couldn’t.”
“I know that—now,” said John.
John looked away hastily. Maurie suspected the boy was on the verge of tears so he moved on, not wanting to embarrass him. Maurie sat down near a group of people who seemed inclined to ignore him. He downed two or three spoonfuls of soup and had another spoonful at his mouth when the parish secretary rushed up to him. He had seen her often enough behind the soup counter, acting as if she were the one running the church, and not the priest.
“Merry Christmas to you,” Maurie greeted her.
But the angry frown on the secretary’s face suggested that she was not in the mood to have a merry Christmas.
“I hate to have to tell you this,” the secretary began, “but you were seen yesterday prowling round the choir room . . . ”
“I didn’t take anything!” Maurie protested.
Maurie might have blushed if he weren’t so pale from the cold, as the truth was that he was looking about the choir room for loose change carelessly left around.
“Somebody did,” said the secretary. “All of the Christmas music is missing. Since you were prowling around the choir room, we thought you may know something about it.”
“Christmas music!” exclaimed Maurie. “What do I want with Christmas music? I can’t carry a tune and I don’t want to! I wouldn’t steal a note of music if my life depended on it! I can’t eat music, so it’s no use to me. Can’t sleep on it, neither! Newspapers make a better blanket! I don’t need your Christmas music I . . . ”
“So you’re the one who took away all the Christmas carols!” cried a man from the next table.
“You stole ‘Silent Night!’” cried a woman.
“We worked hard on that music!” cried a young choirboy who seemed to have come out of the woodwork just to torment Maurie, “and now it’s all gone!”
“Shut up, Kenny!” John Beaconsfield ordered the boy. “It isn’t his fault all the notes disappeared and you know it!”
But John’s words couldn’t prevent the people sitting around Maurie from jumping out of their chairs, shoving aside the suddenly terrified secretary, and surrounding him while John looked on helplessly.
“Now we know who’s trying to steal Christmas from everybody else,” another street person accused Maurie.
“You can have all the Christmas music you want for all I care!” Maurie cried. “I ain’t had a merry Christmas in a million years!”
“And that’s why you won’t let anybody else have a merry Christmas, either!” cried an alcoholic Maurie knew.
“If you’re gonna’ be this way, I wish you all a miserable, musicless Christmas!” Maurie yelled.
He threw his half-eaten bowl of soup to the floor and limped out of the hall. Only when he was half a block away did he remember his shopping cart. There was no going back to that church and that crowd. He had lost everything. As he trudged through the slush on the sidewalk, he tried to sing “I wish you a merry Christmas” to himself, but the words and music choked inside of him.
* * * * ***
“John! The newscast is coming on!” John Beaconsfield’s father called out.
“Coming!” John yelled.
John really wanted to stay hidden in his room. His first appearance on TV, far from being the thrill of his life, was part of the catastrophe that had destroyed Christmas. He was about to become famous at the age of twelve, but famous only for what he suddenly couldn’t do. By acting like an uncle consoling a child who didn’t get the toy he wanted for Christmas, the interviewer made the ordeal worse than John thought it would be and it was all he could do to keep from breaking down in front of the camera.
“Hurry!” his father called. “You’ll miss your spot!”
Realizing that it meant a lot to his parents that he had been interviewed for the news story, John pulled himself off his bed and took the stairs two at a time. He plopped down on the couch between his father and his grandmother.
“It’s starting now,” said John’s mother from the next chair over.
John hid his face when he saw himself on the screen with the rest of the choirboys trying to sing with no result. John’s younger brother, sitting on the floor, smirked ever so slightly. Posing for the canned shot had been painful for John and for the other boys.
“I assure you that you are not having a problem with your receiver,” Harold Mottley began, “neither is there a problem with the network. What you are seeing but not hearing is a mystery that has even the best of scientists puzzled.” The scene dissolved to a shopping mall where a Salvation Army Band spluttered before a small, derisory crowd. “You know the old story about the Grinch who stole Christmas,” said Harold Mottley. “It appears that the Grinch has returned to steal all the music from this year’s Christmas. For reasons unfathomable to the human mind, nobody, anywhere in the world is able to produce as much as one note of Christmas music on Christmas Eve.”
The picture returned to the choir and did a closeup of four of the more mischievous boys singing:
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout . . .
John sank deeper into the couch, glad he had stood firm and refused to join in the singing of that silly song.
“As you can hear,” said the newscaster, “it is just as possible as it ever was to sing any song that isn’t a Christmas carol.”
“It is a crushing disappointment for the boys,” said an overwrought Mr. Pickerel. “They worked for months on this Christmas music and now their noble efforts are lost for the Season. I don’t know how they’ll ever get over it.”
John half-hid his face when he saw a total stranger who was himself reappear on the TV screen in a closeup.
“Can you tell us what happened inside you when you tried to sing Christmas music?” the interviewer asked.
“It’s hard to describe,” the John Beaconsfield on the TV replied. “It’s like—something broke inside when I tried to sing ‘Silent Night.’ It was almost like being choked in a way.”
“But you can sing music that isn’t Christmas music, can’t you?”
“Sure. No problem.”
“Why should that be?”
“I—I don’t know. I can sing a D-natural if it’s ‘Danny Boy,’ but not if it’s ‘Silent Night.’”
“I take it you love the music you sing in the choir.”
“Yes,” the John answered, his face lighting up a bit. “The choruses in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio are thrilling, and I even like Victoria’s motet ‘O magnum mysterium,’ although the other boys hate it.”
“And yet you can’t sing any of that?”
John’s face fell.
“Are you thinking of being a musician when you grow up?”
“Yeah, if —well—if the rest of the world’s music doesn’t disappear.”
The camera dissolved just in time to keep John’s tears from being exposed to his family and the rest of the country.
“You did that very well, John,” said Father. “I’m proud of you.”
John grunted. He felt that, far from being John Beaconsfield on the television, he had been reduced to the role of generic Little Boy Lost for the sake of a sentimental touch for the public.
“Just wait for the interview you’ll be giving when we get our Christmas music back,” said Grandmother, obviously trying to be encouraging.
John sank into his own thoughts of doom and gloom as the newscast showed a furious Lia Paveroni bound onto the stage and prepare to sing a Christmas carol at the top of her lungs, only to come up empty.
“See John?” said Father. “Even the best opera singer in the world can’t sing a Christmas carol this year.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” John replied.
“Unfortunately, Ms. Paveroni was not available for a comment after the aborted concert,” added Harold Mottley with one corner of his mouth turned up in a smile.
Then a suave, bearded psychologist explained how it was possible to become psychologically incapable of singing any Christmas music, and suggested that the world was caught in a psychiatric epidemic, but he admitted that it was hard to explain how every person on the globe could suddenly be so affected with no apparent exceptions.
“Do you think maybe it is something like a short circuit in an electrical system?” asked the interviewer.
“That can certainly happen to an individual,” the psychologist replied. “It’s something like electrical overload. You start thinking of so many things that suddenly you can’t think of anything.”
“Could this sudden malfunction of Christmas music be a result of too much Christmas music flooding the hearing space of the world?”
“I suppose it could, but now we are speculating beyond what psychology can answer.”
“I’m not so sure this loss of Christmas music is such a bad thing,” said a fiercely solemn clergyman who suddenly monopolized the screen. “We have heard too much of ‘Here comes Santa Claus’ and ‘Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ in recent years. I think God is punishing us until we return to the true meaning of Christmas.”
“I’ve been trying to think of the true meaning of Christmas all my life,” John groaned.
“I know you have,” said his Grandmother. “Try not to be so sad. It’s still Christmas.”
“Yes, Grandmother,” John replied.
“You have a good ear,” Grandmother added. “I’ll bet that if anybody can hear the Christmas music and bring it back, you can.”
“How do I do that?” John asked, with no sense of hope.
“Just listen to the Silent Night.”
“Yes, Grandmother,” John replied as he stared blankly at the TV while the newscaster prattled on with the story about the famous carol “Silent Night.”
* * * * ***
Lia Paveroni picked up her fur coat and flung it across her hotel suite the minute she saw the picture of her leaping onto the stage at the charity concert only to choke on the Christmas carol she was going to sing.
“How could they possibly do that to me!” she yelled to the empty rooms. “How could they have photographed me at the concert when cameras weren’t even allowed?”
“Perhaps we can recall the famous story about the beloved carol ‘Silent Night,’” said Harold Mottley on the TV. “When the organ broke down in his church on Christmas Eve, Franz Gruber wrote a new carol that could be accompanied on a guitar. This year, all of our Christmas music seems to have broken down. Whether or not we find a way to recover our Christmas music within the next five hours will have a lot to do with whether or not we all have a merry a Christmas and a good night.”
“Same to you!” Lia Paveroni bellowed.
She dug her hands into her jewelry box and hurled several priceless gems at the television set until the glass broke. Since the jewels were gifts from her third husband whom she had just left on account of his bad treatment of her, she was glad to be rid the precious stones. As for the damaged television, she could pay for it for less money than the hotel suite cost her.
Then Lia Paveroni furiously punched out the keys on the telephone and drummed her fingers on the night stand as the phone rang and rang and rang. Finally remembering that her lawyer might not be in her office at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, she slammed the receiver down. The television network would have to wait a day or two before receiving notice of the lawsuit she had resolved to throw at them. With that done, there was nothing she could do but sink into the easy chair in a helpless rage and try to make up her mind if she could stand going to church when the music wasn’t likely to be very uplifting.
* * * * *
When John Beaconsfield entered the robing room, several of the choirboys were singing obscene songs as they vested. Unable to put up with the antics of the other boys, John put off vesting and walked out to the hall and down to the undercroft without thinking about what he was doing. He wasn’t looking forward to this midnight service. There would be some music. Mr. Pickerel had decided at the last minute to do some joyful non-Christmas music that the choir knew but it wouldn’t be the same thing.
As he shuffled along, John couldn’t help but think of the homeless man who had been blamed for stealing all the choir’s music. At least he had reprimanded the boy who had added his voice to the secretary’s accusation, but he reproached himself for giving up when everybody else got into the act and drove the poor man out into the cold. No wonder God had taken away all the Christmas music if people were going to act like that, John thought to himself.
Before he knew where he was, John found himself in to the underground chapel. Thinking that it might be a good idea to pray, John dropped to his knees and whispered a prayer that God would restore the Christmas music so that everybody could celebrate the birth of the Christ Child properly. John had said prayers before, but this was the first time he had prayed in the hope that God really might listen and do something as a result of it.
When John finished his prayer, he remained still for some time even though his knees ached. He remembered that Mr. Pickerel had said that the boys’ entry to Victoria’s motet should sound as if it were emerging from the primordial silence. His grandmother had assured John that he had a good ear for hearing the missing music and that he could bring it back. He listened to the silent night and the silent stars; still he heard nothing but the silence.
After a while, John started to shiver. He wondered if the heat been turned off. The kneeler seemed terribly cold. John reached down to touch it with his fingers. What he touched was a tuft of stubby grass. Looking up, John saw the open night sky above him. The chapel was gone!
* * * * *
Maurie Lang stumbled into the church. He knew he would be kicked out quickly enough but he was so desperate for even a minute of warmth that he came in anyway. He heard the organ playing softly. He assumed it wasn’t Christmas music. The church was hardly half full. Maurie guessed that most people thought praying on Christmas Eve wasn’t worthwhile without the Christmas music. The choirboys bustled into the narthex, pushing and shoving each other out of position. An usher stepped up to Maurie.
“May I help you?”
Maurie knew what that meant.
“No, thank you.”
Maurie headed for the door but then turned to the side when the usher turned his attention to a woman in a jeweled gown who had just come in. He took his chance and headed for the stairs to the undercroft where he could keep warm for a couple hours.
* * * * *
Lia Paveroni came out of the ladies’ room and tried to remember which direction to take to get back upstairs. With the service starting, there was nobody else around to ask for help. By this time, coming to church didn’t seem like such a good idea. Deciding she could only be lost for so long before she got back up to the church, she picked a direction and took it. A blast of cold air made Lia put her hands over her arms. If the church wasn’t heated, Lia resolved, she was going to take the next taxi back to the hotel. Since she didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, she turned around. A dark human form moved in her direction. All Lia could make out was a scruffy beard and the smell of an unwashed body. She screamed and ran the other way. She stumbled on rough ground and somebody got a hold of her just in time to keep her from falling.
* * * * *
“There, I’ve got you,” said John as soon as he had managed to steady the woman without falling himself.
“Wha! Who are you?” the woman asked him sharply.
John’s eyes grew wide when he saw the string of pearls in the woman’s necklace.
“I’m John. John Beaconsfield.”
“What are you doing here?” the woman asked him, as if she owned the land they were standing on.
“I—I thought I was in the underground chapel—under the church. I came to pray that God would give us back our Christmas music. Now I don’t know where I am.”
“Praying? Do you mean you think God stole the Christmas music?” the woman asked contemptuously.
“I don’t know,” John replied.
“Hmm. I suppose we’ve dumped so much musical trash on the holiday season that if I were God, I’d take it away, too.”
By this time, John could see just enough of the woman’s face to recognize it.
“You aren’t . . . Lia Paveroni, are you?” John asked.
“Of course I’m Lia Paveroni,” the woman replied in her stiffest voice. “Just because I’m famous doesn’t mean that I don’t appear in the flesh once in a while.”
“I’m pleased to meet you,” John replied awkwardly.
“How do you know you’re pleased to meet me? You’ve just met me! Or do you feel important because you’ve met a celebrity?” The barrage of questions tied John’s tongue into knots. Then Lia Paveroni stopped to take a closer look at John. Her expression changed and suddenly became more sympathetic. “ Aren’t you the choirboy who was interviewed on that abominable news program?”
“Well, then you know what it’s like to be used by the media.”
“Yes, I do.”
“I’m going to file a lawsuit against the station for showing that shot of me trying to sing when they shouldn’t have been taking any pictures in that auditorium,” said the angry singer. “My lawyer can add your name to the lawsuit if you like.”
“That’s okay,” said John. “I don’t have to go to court over it.”
“You’re too nice for this world,” Lia muttered. She looked around with growing worry and turned back to John. “Do you have any idea of where we are?”
“No, I haven’t. We seem to be in the middle of nowhere when we should be in the underground chapel of the cathedral.”
“Maybe God took all the churches away along with the music,” Lia grumbled. “YEE!”
John felt like screaming just as loudly, but he was too frightened to when he saw several ragged-looking men with heavy-looking staffs in their hands surround him and the opera singer.
“Who—who are you?” asked one of the men.
“I’ll have you know,” Lia Paveroni informed the men in a most imperious voice, “that we are two of the most famous singers in the world.”
The men muttered among themselves in a way that was not reassuring to John. Some raised their staffs menacingly.
“Step back right this minute if you know what is good for you,” Lia demanded. “We have legal connections and we will prosecute you to the full extent of the law if you harm us in any way.”
What happened next occurred in such a twinkling of an eye that it was over before John knew it had happened. When the skirmish was over, a man was pinned to the ground, held in place by another man just as scruffy as the others.
“I’ll let you go if you promise not to hurt my friend,” said the man.
John recognized the voice as Maurie’s. That the man would call him a friend and defend him was enough to keep him warm for the whole winter.
“I promise,” said the pinned man.
“Let him go,” John commanded in a shaky voice. “It is Christmas Eve.”
In that still moment, a bright star flashed in the sky overhead. Everybody gasped. Several lambs bleated. “Of course!” John thought to himself, “these men are shepherds.” In the bright light, they all remained frozen in their places for quite some time. John strained his ears for the sound of Christmas music. Then John heard a treble voice sing: “O magnum mysterium, et admirabile . . . ”
The shepherds, Lia, and Maurie looked at John strangely. Only then did he realize that he was the one singing Victoria’s motet. At Lia’s encouraging nod, John continued to sing as a choir from somewhere joined in behind him. A choir of children began to sing “Il est né, le divin enfant” and another choir chimed in with “Silent Night.” A brass ensemble played “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Maurie began to sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in his gravelly, off-key voice. Lia entered with “O Holy Night,” soaring up into the stratosphere on the high notes. Somehow, the mix of all the Christmas music sung by all the choirs in the world sounded just right to John. Gradually, the music faded and the visions of the choirs dissolved. The shepherds were still there, clutching each other in fear. John wanted to say something to reassure the frightened men but before he could say anything they faded from view and the sound of an organ filtered down to the undercroft playing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.”
“Where are we now?” asked Lia.
“I think we’re back in the church,” said Maurie.
“They’re starting without me!” John gasped as he took in his surroundings. “I’ll have to hurry.”
Lia Paveroni looked at the mud on the hem of her dress and her high heels.
“I can’t go into church dressed like this,” she said in dismay.
“Nobody’s holding you here for ransom,” said John as he rushed toward to choir room.
Maurie looked at his ragged clothes.
“Well, this is all I’ve got to wear for anything,” he said with a shrug.
* * * * *
During the reading of the Old Testament lesson, a few people looked surreptitiously at the richly dressed woman and the raggedly dressed man as they slipped into a back pew together. One of the ushers started to approach Maurie but a sharp look from the woman scared him off.
After the lesson, there was a moment of silence while the reader left the lectern and the next reader came to take her place. Before the reader could start, a lone treble voice sang from the back of the church:
Silent Night, Holy Night.
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child,
Holy infant, so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.