catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 23 :: 2010.12.17 — 2010.12.30


Heli's story

Editor’s note:  “Heli’s story” is part one in a series of three stories.  Look for “The woman’s story” on December 24 and “The soldier’s story” on December 31.

The quiet conversation ceased abruptly as the old man broke into the circle around the fire. His gasping breath betrayed the haste with which he had climbed the hill into the cave, and the men quickly made a space for him near the fire.

“Now Heli,” said one of the men, “get your breath back and tell us why an old goat like you is running up the hills of Bethlehem at three in the morning. Or is there trouble in the town we ought to know of? With this census going on, and soldiers all over the place, who knows what some young hothead might start.”

“No, Zack, not trouble exactly,” said Heli, finally. “But something that could spell trouble someday. Say, is there anything in that jug? The story I’ve got needs a spot of fortification.” And he took a long gulp from the jug they passed him. But before he could begin one of the other men interrupted.

“Wait a minute, Heli, weren’t you looking after the sheep of that guy who took over your farm? What are you doing here in the dead of night?”

“Well, Morry,” said Heli, “that’s what I aim to tell you if you give me a chance. You see, I was looking after the sheep, along with Josh and Nate and Izzy, just sitting around the fire, much as we are here, when suddenly there was this bright light and this…this…I dunno, angel, I guess, was standing there.”

“Sure, Heli,” the men around the fire laughed and nudged one another, “and the angel promised you a son in your old age, right? Who would be the father of a nation!”

Heli continued slowly, “Well, I’m not expecting you’ll believe me. I’d have hardly believed it myself it if weren’t for what came after. And anyhow, we weren’t looking for promises. We were scared, I tell you, and grabbed our sticks ready, you know, just in case. And then the angel spoke.”

Heli stopped for a moment to take a swig from the jug and then he began again slowly. “The angel said, ‘I bring you good news of great joy for the whole people. Today is born in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’”

“He said what?” The questions came thick and fast but Morry summed up the general feeling. “A Savior? We’ve heard that before. Let me save you and take your land for tribute and thanksgiving! The only saviour we know of wears purple and lives in Rome. Who needs him?”

“Yeah,” added Zack, “and his good news isn’t for the likes of us.”

“But,” persisted Heli, “the angel said that this was good news for the whole people — us too, I guess that means. But there’s more. He also gave us a sign — that we could actually see the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”

“A feeding trough?” they said blankly, surprised at this unexpected ending.

“Yeah,” said Heli, “and then suddenly there was a whole army of angels there in the sky…”

“An army?” said Zack, “That means God has come to fight for us, our oppression is over, our God reigns!”

“Well, now,” said Heli, “I’m not so sure about the fighting. You see, they sang this song ‘Glory to God’” — his voice wavered and cracked as he tried to sing. “Well, they sang this song, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those he favors.’”

“Oh. Peace,” said Zack, in a disappointed voice, “So, like, they weren’t going to lead a battle.”

“Well, no, I guess not,” said Heli, “you see, then they all disappeared.”

“So what did you do?”

“Well, you know, we talked it over. We’d all seen and heard the same thing, me and Josh and Nate and Izzy, so, well, we decided to look for the sign.”           

“But what about your sheep?” interrupted Morry, “You didn’t just leave your sheep!”

“Morry,” said Heli, “sometimes I think you shoulda been a lawyer. An angel tells us that there is a new Savior, not Caesar, who has good news for guys like us, guys with nothing, and who tells us to go to Bethlehem and see the proof, and you think we were worried about our sheep? What world do you live in? We left the damn sheep with the dogs and went to Bethlehem as fast as we could. And we found them.”

“You did?” The men were startled. They hadn’t really expected the sign to be fulfilled.

“Wait a minute,” said Zack, suspiciously. “How could you have found them if you saw this angel earlier tonight and you’re up here now? Bethlehem is crammed with all these people for the census; it’d be impossible to find a couple with a baby that quickly.”

“Well,” said Heli, “we thought that through. The angel said that the baby was in a feeding trough. What kind of people end up with a baby in a feeding trough? Not someone at one of the hotels or inns, that’s for sure. Probably someone in one of the peasant travellers huts on the edge of town. So we started there, in the tents. And really, it wasn’t that hard. Everyone knew of the birth. It’s not like giving birth is a quiet process, and she was out with the animals, after all, not in some private room somewhere. That kind of news spreads like wildfire, that just down the way this girl gave birth and it was so crowded that she had to put the child in a feeding trough.”

“It’s ridiculous,” said Zack, “What’re they doing, travelling in the ninth month?” The others just looked at him. “Oh, I know, I know, not to come and register for tribute would mean crucifixion. But really, this is crazy. Now we’ve got all these landless peasants back in Bethlehem, who left for good reason before…”

“Hush, Zack,” said an old, old man. “If what Heli tells us is true, if he actually saw this child in a manger, then maybe the angel’s words are true. Maybe this is a Messiah to free us from that false Savior, Caesar. Maybe this child born of peasant parents is truly good news for us! Can’t you see he’s one of us — born with the cattle and laid in a feeding trough. He’ll sleep safer in there than you or I tonight on this cold ground.”

Excitedly they began to discuss what it would mean if the angel’s words were true, not even noticing Heli anymore. Until Morry quieted them.

“Why Heli, what is it?” For Heli was weeping.

“I didn’t tell it all,” he said. “It is true, there they were, with the animals, the child fussing in that feed trough and the mother, just a girl really, lying in the corner on some hay. I was treading carefully, trying to avoid the dung on the ground…and then I saw him,” said Heli. “The father was my Joseph, my son Joseph, who left when we lost the farm.” He stopped and couldn’t go any further.

“Well, what did he say when he saw you?” said Zack.

“He didn’t see me,” said Heli. “I didn’t go any farther and there wasn’t really much light, just a little oil lamp with a dimly burning wick. How could I let him see me like this, a shepherd, with nothing more than the clothes on my back? How could I welcome my son and his wife and their baby, when I have nothing to welcome them to, nothing better to offer them than someone else’s cattle barn in which they’ve already taken refuge?”

They were all silent for a moment.  Finally Zack asked, “Where are Josh and Nate and Izzy?”

“Oh, I let them tell Joseph and his wife what the angels said and then they took off to spread the news and I…I came up here,” he concluded lamely.

Slowly Zack got up and put his cloak around the old man’s shoulders. “You’ve come to the right place,” he said, “Welcome home.”

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