The Birthday

The Birthday

By Margaret E. Sangster

 

The boy sat quite alone on the hilltop, his shepherd’s crook across his knees, his small square lunch basket beside him. He made an odd, distorted shadow in the white light of the moon, for even the fringed shawl that his mother had woven from the lamb’s wool could not hide the ugly hump that lay, a burden much too heavy for so young a lad to bear, between his shoulders.

Far below him, dotting the hillside with other irregular shadows, were the sheep. The majority of them slept, but a few wandered aimlessly up and down the slope. The boy, however, was not watching the flock. His head was thrown back, and his wide eyes were fixed on the sky.

“Perhaps it will happen again.” he was thinking “Perhaps, though a third of a century has gone by. Perhaps I shall see the great star and hear the angel voices as my father did.”

The moon riding high in the heavens, went under a blanket of cloud. For a moment the world was dark. The boy sighed and lowered his eyes.

“It is an omen,” he breathed, “an omen! Though it is time of anniversary, there will be no star this night. Neither will the angels sing.”

The time of anniversary. How often had the boy listened to the story of the miracle that had taken place so long ago! The boy’s father had been a lad himself then. He had been the youngest of the shepherds on that glorious occasion when an angel anthem sounded across the world and a star shone above the tranquil town of Bethlehem. The boy’s father had followed the star, with the other shepherds he had come to the stable of the inn. Crowding through the narrow doorway, he had seen a woman with a baby in her arms.

“But,” the boy’s father had told the story so many times that his family and the neighbors knew it word for word, “she was no ordinary woman! There was something in her face that made one think of a lighted candle. And there was a tenderness in her smile that the very cattle felt, for they drew close to her and seemed to kneel. It was not her beauty, although beauty did she possess! It was a shine from within—“

“And the baby,” the boy always prompted his father here, “what of the baby?” The father’s hand touched his small son’s shoulder at this point; touched it and drew away.

“The baby,” he said, and his voice grew hushed, “was as unlike other infants as his mother was different from other women. Scarce an hour old when first I glimpsed him, there was a sense of wisdom—no, do not laugh—on his brow, and his tiny uncurled hands seemed—indeed, I do mean it!— powerful. I found myself kneeling, as the cattle knelt, and there was the damp of tears upon my face, and, though I was a lad tall for my age, I was not ashamed.”

Alone on the hillside the boy could almost hear the sound of his father’s voice in the stillness. His father’s voice telling the story of the marvelous infant and the wise men who had come from the east, following, also, in the path of the star. They had shivered at the tale of the great cruel king who had ordered death to all male infants. Often he had thrilled to the saga of a worried young mother and her sober husband, who had stolen away into the land of Egypt with her child.

“Many of us thought,” the boy’s father finished, “that the child had been captured and slain by Herod. Until a decade passed and we heard rumors of a youth who bore his name, and who lectured in a temple at Jerusalem to a group of learned doctors. A few years ago we heard that this same youth, grown older, had organized a band of men, that with them he was journeying from place to place preaching and teaching and aiding the needy. And,” here the boy’s father had a habit of lowering his voice and glancing furtively around the room, “there are some who say that he has become a Messiah, and that he does more than champion the cause of the common people. There are some who say that he performs wonderful deeds; healing the sick and the blind and lepers, even raising the dead.”

Once at this point, the boy interrupted. “I would like to meet him,” he said with ill-masked eagerness. “I would that he might take the hump from my back and make me strong and straight like other children.”

It was growing cold on the hillside. The child drew his shawl closer about his tired body and wished that he were not a shepherd. Shepherds led a lonely life; they did not fit into the bright places of the world. Rooms gaily lighted at eventide were for the men and boys who worked hard by day and earned their moments of ease; they were not for shepherds. But what else could a crippled lad do to justify his existence? What else than tend sheep? A crippled lad who could not undertake physical labor and who had no talents.

Yawning wearily, the boy glanced at the sky. From the position of the moon he judged it to be middle night— it was still a long while before sunrise, still hours before someone would come to take his place and he could limp home. But the middle night had its compensations! For at that time he could break his fast and partake of the lunch that his mother had packed so neatly into a basket.

As he reached for the basket, as he opened it slowly, the boy wondered what had been prepared for his refreshment. He found to his satisfaction, that there was a flask of goat’s milk, and nearly a loaf of crusty dark bread, and some yellow cheese; that there were dried figs, sugary with their own sweetness. And wrapped separately, he came upon a real treat. A cake made of eggs and sifted flour, with citron in it, and raisins!

He had expected the bread and the cheese and the milk. Even the figs he had expected. But the cake was a surprise, the sort of surprise that happened seldom. His eyes gleamed as he surveyed it, and some of the sadness went out of him. Carefully he sat the basket down and spread on the ground beside him the square of linen in which his mother had folded the lunch. Carefully he laid out the flask of milk, the bread, the cheese, but not the cake, which he left tucked away in the depths of the basket. He left it there so that he might not be tempted to eat it first!

“It is good to be hungry,” he said aloud, “Yes—and to have food!”

From somewhere just behind him a voice spoke. It was not a loud voice, and yet the music of it seemed to carry beyond the hillside.

“Indeed, yes!” said the voice. “It is good to be hungry. And to have food, and to—“

Startled, for he had thought he was quite alone with his thoughts and the drowsing sheep, the boy glanced back across his crooked shoulder. He saw a man standing upon the brow of the hill, silhouetted against the night sky. Ordinarily he would have known fear, for there were cruel robbers abroad often at middle night. But somehow the sight of this man, who was tall and muscular, failed to frighten him. He did not know why he instinctively completed the man’s unfinished sentence.

“And to share it!” he murmured, as if in a dream. “You are a stranger sir?” “A stranger,” the man said slowly, “never a stranger. As it happens, my journey started not far from this very place–started years before you, my lad, saw the light. I am completing a circle.”

Although he couldn’t imagine what the man meant, the boy made a swift response.

“I was about to eat my lunch,” he said, indicating the square of linen on which he had arranged the contents of his basket. “One grows ravenous on the hillside. I am a shepherd, sir. I tend to my father’s flock, and each night my mother packs for me a simple repast. Will you be seated, you who have journeyed so long, and break bread with me? Perhaps,” he hesitated slightly, “you will talk with me as well as eat. It grows lonely on the dark hillside—I pine at times for companionship.”

The man continued to peer down from his impressive height. His eyes held a warm glow—it was as if a candle burned somewhere behind them the boy thought and remembered words that his father had spoken when he described the woman in the stable. He felt so comforted by the man’s glance that he smiled up into the kindly face, and the man spoke again.

“It is a strange coincidence,” he said, “the fact that you are a shepherd, for I also tend my father’s flock! And, I also”, his smile was luminous, “have often grown lonely waiting for the gates of dawn to open. Are you sure,” he seated himself upon the ground, “that you have enough for two? I should not like to deprive you of anything.”

Gazing, fascinated, into the man’s face, the boy replied, “But, yes! I have a large flask of goat’s milk, and some yellow cheese, a loaf of bread and ten figs. And,” for a second he hesitated, “that’s a great plenty.” he finished lamely. He did not mention the cake still wrapped in the basket. For a cake, a cake made of sifted flour and eggs, and citron and raisins, was a rare delicacy. And it was not a very big cake.

The man bent forward to retie the thong of a sandal. The boy saw the sandal was covered with dust. He tried to keep his eyes from glancing toward his lunch basket as he tore the crusty dark bread into fragments.

“Perhaps your feet are aching,” he ventured as he placed the fragments in the center of the linen cloth. “This hill is hard to climb. I am close to being spent when I reach the summit of it, but I must need sit high so that I can watch all the sheep.”

The man said slowly, “l have climbed steeper hills than this one, my lad, and know there are steeper hills to be. My feet do not ache. How long,” abruptly he changes the subject, “have you been cripple?”

Had it come from an ordinary person, the boy would have resented such display of curiosity. From this man the question seemed a natural one, to be answered naturally.

The lad said, “I have never been without a hump between my shoulders. I hate it but,” he was quoting from his mother, “what must be must be! Still,” his childlike face was a trifle un-childish, “it is hard to go through life looking like one of the camels that the Wise Men rode when they came from the East with their caravans…“

The man interrupted. “What lad,” he queried, “do you know of the Wise Men from the East? How does it happen that you should mention them to me on this night? It is,” he bit into a piece of the crusty dark bread, “very curious!”

Laughing silently, the little boy answered, “I suppose the Wise Men are on my mind,” he said, “because this is the time of anniversary, and I have been thinking of the baby that was born in a stable. I was hoping, before you arrived, that once again the great star might shine and that the angels might sing. I have in fact, been watching the sky rather than the sheep.”

The man asked another swift question. “What,” he queried “do you know of these holy things, about the star and songs. You are so young!”

The boy explained. “All Bethlehem,” he said, “heard about the star and about the infant who lay in the manger because there was no room at the inn. I know perhaps, more than the others, for my father, a child himself, was one of the shepherds who saw the light from the heavens and heard the angle music… Will you,” the boy had taken the flask of goat’s milk into his hands, “will you share with me this cup sir! For perhaps you thirst?”

The man took the flask from the fragile hands. His fingers were powerful and sinewy, but gentle as a woman’s.

He said, “I will share the cup with you, my lad, for I do thirst.”

As he watched the man drinking deeply, the boy thought, “It must be tiring to tramp from place to place.”

He said on impulse, as the stranger set down the flask, “Will you tell me, sir, of some of the towns in which you have stayed?”

The man answered. “One town is very like another, my lad, with poverty and pain rubbing elbows against wealth, with greed taking toll, all too often, of humanity. With so few gracious deeds that one can do to help the sore distressed,” he turned his face away, “and a lifetime in which to do them so desperately short!”

In a low tone the boy said, “Sometimes, when I was a tot, I hoped that my life might be short, but already I am ten years old. How old, sir, are you? I feel older than my years…”

The man’s voice was muted as he replied, “I am more than three times your age, lad, but l, too, feel older than my years.”

“You shouldn’t because you’re so strong,” the boy exclaimed. “When is your time of birth, sir? I was born when it was spring.”

The man smiled his beautiful luminous smile. “It is odd that you should ask, dear lad,” he murmured, “for this is my day of birth. You quite unknowingly are giving me an anniversary feast, and never has a feast been more welcome. I was weary and forlorn when I came upon you.”

Weary and forlorn! As he stared at the man, the little boy queried, “Haven’t you any people of your own? People with whom you can make merry on your day of birth? When my birthday arrives, Mother prepares a real feast for me and gives me figs. This shawl I wear she wove for my last birthday. The year before she pressed a sheaf of bright flowers into wax. Once, when I was smaller she made wondrous sweetmeats of honey and grain.”

The man reached over and rested his hand on the little boy’s knee. “I fear,” he said, “that I have grown too old and large for birthday gifts. Furthermore, my loved ones are not near enough just now to make merry with me. But maybe, who knows, there will be a gift for me at my journey’s end.”

The man did not meet the child’s gaze. He replied, “Perhaps, very soon!”

The boy was worried. He said, “You don’t look happy about it. Don’t you want to come to the end of your travels? Don’t you want to reach home and see what gift they have in store for you?”

The man hesitated ever so slightly. “Yes,” he said at last, “l want to reach home. But the gift, it may be too beautiful to bear. Or too heavy for me to carry. I suppose,” his face looked drawn in the white moonlight, “I should be getting on. You have made this birthday very sweet, my lad!”

Peeping down at the white cloth with its remnants of bread and cheese the boy thought, “There seems to be as much food as ever! He couldn’t have liked it.” Suddenly he was swept by a turning sense of shame. He spoke impetuously, one word tumbling over the other.

“You did not enjoy your food,” he said, “and you have had no true birthday feast. That, though you have no way of guessing, is because I have been selfish and mean! I”, he gulped out his confession, “have a cake in my basket, a cake that I was saving to eat alone after you left me. It is a cake of sifted flour and eggs and citron and raisins and I love cake. But,” the boy’s voice quavered, “l would not enjoy it if I ate it in a solitary fashion; it would choke me! Sir, I desire to give the cake to you as my gift. Perhaps you will munch it later, when the chill of early morn has set in and you are on the road.”

The man did not speak, but his eyes were like stars instead of candles as he watched his small host lift the cake from the basket and display its rich goodness. It was only when the boy extended it toward him that he broke into speech. “Ah, my lad,” he said, “you have sustained me with your bread, and we have drunk of the same cup. So, now we will share this cake, which shall be, through your bounty, my birthday cake. We will apportion it evenly and deftly, and we will eat of it together, you and l. And then we shall wait for the dawn, and I will be on my way. But as I walk along the road I shall see a little lad’s face and shall hear a little lad’s voice, and shall remember the little lad’s generosity.

Gravely, as if he were handling something infinitely precious, the man took the cake into his fingers. Carefully he divided it so that the two sections were equal. He said, “Bless unto us this food, my father,” and the boy was startled, because there was no one else upon the hillside.

Then he said, “This is the cake of life, lad. Enjoy it to the last crumb!”

So he and the boy ate the cake together, and the boy thought that he had never tasted such fare. It was as if the cake’s richness were verily the richness of life! As he licked the last crumbs from his fingers he felt that he was gathering force and vigor and purpose. In his mind’s eye, for no reason at all, he saw a picture of himself robust and handsome and brave, striding down the road with his weakness cast from him and his chin high.

“It’s like a vision!” he said, but when the man queried, “What do you mean, lad?” he hung his head and was unable to answer.

Indeed, he was silent so long that the man’s hand came to rest lightly upon his shoulder–lightly but, oh, so firmly! There was something in the touch that made tears hang on the boy’s lashes; that wrung from him quick words.

“Oh,” he cried, “do not leave me, sir! We could be such friends, you and l. Come with me to my home and dwell with my family. My mother will bake many cakes for you, and my father will share with you of his plenty. And you may have my bed and my waxed flowers, and even this fringed shawl that I wear. Do not journey on. Sit, stay with me, here in Bethlehem.”

Bowing his head in his hands, covering his misted eyes, the boy was aware of the man’s firm fingers traveling up from his shoulder until they touched his hair. But now he couldn’t speak, for a pulse drummed in his throat, and a strange rhythm was hammering in his ears. When he raised his head, finally, the man was gone, and the hillside was empty, save for the shadows that were the sheep.

The boy sobbed once, and sharply, with a sense of loss. He struggled to his feet. Only he didn’t have to struggle, really, for there was a curious lightness about his shoulders.