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Nowell

This is a story I wrote after doing a bit of thinking on Luke’s telling of the Christmas story, specifically Luke 2:8-20. Enjoy!

Nowell

The plain spread out before him, a sea of brown grass stretching to the hills some miles in the distance. The next day or two would be easy going, he thought. There was plenty of feed for the cattle, so they could take their time before making their way through the hills and the desert beyond.

The sun was starting to get low in the sky. It was a good time of year for travelling. The days were getting longer, which meant more distance could be covered, and the heat was still a few weeks away.

Jackie steered his horse to a small rise and stopped. He surveyed the country in front of him. Off to the east, perched upon a hill at the end of the range was Bethlehem. It wasn’t a large town, but it was well known as the birthplace of a famous politician from years ago. Jackie’s keen eyes could make out a lot of traffic on the road. There wouldn’t be too many beds free in Bethlehem tonight.

The town lay too far off the track to worry about, which suited Jackie. He didn’t agree with towns, or they didn’t agree with him. He never could feel comfortable around large crowds. He’d much rather be with a few mates on the track than around hundreds of people he didn’t know. Besides, an Aboriginal stockman going into town was just asking for trouble. He’d spent a night in the lockup once before for nothing more than being there when trouble began. ”Mistaken identity,” the policeman called it. It was funny how the only black man for twenty miles could be mistaken for the white boys who caused the trouble.

His eyes rested on a small waterhole a mile or so away. That’ll do, he thought. He turned back down the rise, whistled loudly, and rode towards the waterhole. Another horse followed. Its rider was much larger than Jackie, but the horse caught up quickly. The rider drew up alongside Jackie and they slowed to a trot. ”There’s a waterhole just past those trees,” said Jackie. ”We’ll stop there.” They travelled silently for another minute or two and finally arrived at the spot. There was a thick patch of soft green grass about thirty yards from the hole, which looked a welcome relief for the saddle weary stockman.

Jackie dismounted and began to unpack his swag. ”Tell Baz and Warren where we are.” Tom turned and rode off. He was a good worker, Tom. He’d had a quid once, and a bit of land. That’s how Jackie met him — he’d spent some time roustabouting for him, before the drought came and forced Tom to walk off the farm. Years later Jackie was looking after a mob of cattle, and Tom was as good a cattle man as there was.

After a few minutes Jackie saw the silhouette of a cow on the hill top; then another, and another, and before long the whole hillside was covered with cattle, slowly moving toward him. The sun had started to set, but he could see his three mates and a few dogs as well. Jackie pulled some gear out of his pack, and before long there were a few tins of beans bubbling in a pot and a few bottles of beer ready to drink.

Night fell fast. The air was growing chilly, but there was little wind and the fire was warm. Baz rolled out his swag, lay down, and was soon asleep. He would wake well before dawn to begin rounding up the cattle. Warren had gone over to the waterhole to clean up after their meal, and Tom had gone to check on the cattle. Jackie lay down on his swag and looked up into the night.

Jackie remembered camping as a child with his grandfather. They’d leave early in the morning and walk for hours. Sometimes they’d be back at the mission by night, but if not, they’d sleep under the stars. Pa would tell stories about the ancestors, some of whom they could see sparkling in the sky. He’d sometimes wondered if the ancestors enjoyed doing that. It must have been boring, just crossing the sky every night. He said that to Pa once, but the only answer was a slap around the back of the head and ”Don’t be so flamin’ smart boy.”

He wondered where Pa was now. He hadn’t seen him for years, and by now he must be dead. Maybe he was with the ancestors in the stars.

A loud scream made Jackie jump. Baz was having one of his nightmares. Jackie got up and went to him. He was sweating, his face twisted and aghast at a horror only he could see. Then, as soon as it had come, the terror left. Baz rolled around a bit, and soon began to snore. Jackie went back to his swag.

This wasn’t uncommon. Baz had fought in the war, and even had a medal that he carried with him. He never talked about it, but he seemed to relive his worst experiences in his sleep. Jackie thought Baz had accidentally killed a mate during a firefight.

Warren came over from the waterhole. ”What’s goin’ on?”

”Just Baz goin’ off again.”

Warren dropped the pots and pans with an unnecessary clatter, then started to get his swag ready for the night. Jackie trusted all of the guys he worked with, but he knew that Warren was hiding from something. He wouldn’t go into town, unless he was sure the police weren’t there. He was a good worker though, and that’s what mattered out here. As long as he worked and kept his business to himself, Jackie was happy to have him.

The moon had started to rise. It was a good week away from being full, but the pale light was enough so Jackie could see a herd of kangaroos grazing a couple of hundred yards away. They seemed to be heading towards the waterhole. They didn’t seem too fazed by the cattle, but they were keeping their distance from the stockmen. One of the kelpies started to snarl. The kangaroos got the message and bounded off into the night.

The kelpie pricked up its ears again and ran out to greet Tom who was returning from his patrol. Tom tied his horse to the tree and unrolled his swag. ”Ugh,” he gasped. Tom had forgotten about a pair of old wet socks that he’d thrown in that morning, and the smell was putrid. ”Time to do the laundry!” he said. He picked up a large pot from the pile left by Warren and took it to the waterhole. He filled it with water, brought it back to the camp and hung it over the fire. He threw in small bit of soap and waited for the water to heat up.

The water started to boil. ”Anything to wash fullas?” Warren rummaged through his kit and pulled out a few odds and ends, tossing them into the pot. Jackie shook his head. Tom put in his socks and gave the pot a stir. He took the pot off the boil and put it to the side.

Jackie lay back and his gaze returned to the sky. He’d noticed a few meteors before, and there seemed to be even more now. It was almost like the heavens had come to life.

Tom took a pair of tongs and started pulling the pieces out of his soapy brew, hanging them on the tree to dry. It proved to be a difficult task — the fire had started to die and there was little light. He dropped a sock on the ground and swore. ”Where’s your torch Jackie?” he asked. Jackie reached for his bag —

And then it happened.

There was an explosion of light from directly above them. Jackie fell to the ground and covered his eyes. Baz started to scream uncontrollably, and Jackie thought he could hear Warren running off. Then he heard a voice, stern but reassuring: ”Don’t be afraid. I come with good news.”

Jackie peeked through his fingers. He couldn’t see where the light was coming from, but he knew who had spoken. There, right in the middle of the camp stood the biggest man he’d ever seen. He must have been at least seven foot tall and easily half that across the shoulders. He looked as tough as he was big. His clothes were a dark khaki, similar to the uniform of a soldier. Crossed across his chest were two ammunition belts, and it looked like he had a rifle slung across his back. Jackie had never felt so scared in his life.

Jackie looked around at his companions. Tom was cowering on the ground, not unlike how Jackie imagined himself to be. He glanced over at Baz’s swag, which he saw to be empty. He looked back at the stranger, and began to cry.

”Tjakamara, get up.” Jackie hadn’t been called that for a long time, since before he’d been taken from the mission to work. His memory was dim, but he seemed to remember his mother using that name. He felt something odd that he hadn’t felt since he last saw his mother — he felt loved. And he certainly didn’t feel scared.

He pulled himself off the ground. He could see Baz now, standing in front of the stranger. Gone was the contorted look of terror that Jackie had seen just a few short minutes earlier. Instead he looked peaceful, almost serene.

Tom stood up. There was something different here too. Jackie couldn’t put his finger on it, but the tough old stockman looked as innocent and naive as the day he was born.

Jackie looked around. Warren was still missing. He heard a rustling from behind the tree, and Warren stepped out, walked to the stranger and stood beside Baz. The stranger spoke to him, although Jackie couldn’t hear what was said. Warren’s face relaxed. Jackie thought he looked a new man.

”Don’t fear,” repeated the stranger. ”I have come with good news which will bring happiness for everyone.”

Who was this guy? For a brief second Jackie wondered if the beer he’d been drinking was off. Maybe the stranger had done something to their food and he was going to —

”Tjakamara, don’t fear. I am Gabriel, Captain of the Armies of Heaven. I come with good news.”

Jackie calmed down. This wasn’t an hallucination. This was real, more real than any drunken stupor he could remember. But it still all seemed a bit too surreal. Why would anyone come to them with good news? News was for town people and people with connections. News was for society. It wasn’t for stockmen who were happiest away from that malarky.

Gabriel continued. ”Today in David’s town is born a Saviour, who is the Chosen One, the Boss of Everything. This is how you can know I’m telling the truth. In a shed in Bethlehem you’ll find a baby wrapped in a sheet, lying in a trough.”

Then out of nowhere came a huge number of more men, dressed and armed like Gabriel. Jackie looked around, and the plain was covered with these men. There were so many Jackie couldn’t even see the cattle. The dogs, normally quite protective of their masters’ camp site, were bounding around like puppies, sniffing and welcoming the guests. Then as one the men started to speak:

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

Time seemed to stand still. Jackie, still reeling from the strange feeling he’d felt when the man appeared, was happy to sit back and listen. Every good feeling he’d ever had flooded over him, and he didn’t want this to end. Then, as suddenly as they had come, the men disappeared, taking their mysterious light with them.

***

The chill in the air signalled that dawn was approaching. It couldn’t have been any later than midnight when the visitors arrived, but it seemed to the stockmen that the visit should be measured in days, not hours. Yet everything in the camp was exactly how it was before. The embers in the fire were glowing strongly, and Tom’s socks weren’t just wet, but still dripping.

The men stayed silent for a while. It just didn’t seem right to say anything. Eventually, Baz broke the mood. ”What the blazes was that?”

The other three didn’t know how to react. Everyone thought that Baz should probably have stayed quiet, but they were all wondering the same thing, and none of them could even begin to answer. They all looked at each other, and began to laugh. It began as a giggle, but before long the four men were rolling round on the ground, simply not caring about what anyone else thought. They sounded like school kids, and they felt like them too.

Soon, but not too soon, the laughter stopped, replaced by the puffing and groaning of men who hadn’t really laughed for many years. The sun hadn’t yet risen, but there was enough light now to see each other. Jackie looked at his mates, and noticed that every one of them looked at least twenty years younger. He felt exactly the same way.

Baz’s question was still in the air. Nobody knew what had happened. They knew it was big, and they knew it was good, but they didn’t know what it was.

”What do you reckon it was, Baz?” asked Warren.

”Who knows? I thought someone had spiked my beer. But you saw what he did to me.”

Warren, Tom and Jackie looked at each other nervously. Warren had been hiding behind a bush, but the other two still didn’t know what Baz was talking about.

”That Gabriel bloke. You heard what he said to me.”

”I didn’t,” said Warren.

”The stuff about the war not being able to hurt me any more.”

The others replied with blank looks. Warren spoke.

”Did you hear what he said about my sister?”

Again, blank looks.

Rays from the not yet risen sun hit a cloud in the East, and the plain lit up with colour. It was nothing like what they had so recently seen, but in the same instant, they all understood. They all had pasts they weren’t proud of. But in that time outside of time it had all become okay. Somehow, Gabriel had spoken to them each as they had needed. The Warrior of God had brought peace to lives that were anything but calm.

”So what now?”

Jackie had a way of asking the obvious questions. They had been given good news, and it seemed they were expected to do something with it.

But Jackie was also the boss, and he was aware the cattle were starting to wander. The law was clear — droving in this area was allowed, but mobs of cattle could only stop overnight, and had to move on first thing in the morning.

Baz looked at Jackie. ”Well, we go into Bethlehem and look for the baby.”

”What about the cattle? We can’t leave them here alone. Waddya reckon Warren?”

Warren never wanted to go into town. He always watched the cattle when the others went in search of supplies. ”No, I’m coming too.” He surprised himself as much as the others.

Baz spoke again. ”We were given this message for a reason. If God is going to send us on an errand, we should go. Blow the cattle. We’ll leave the dogs here. We don’t have to go for long.”

The others didn’t seem so sure, but Baz was right. They would probably be back before the rangers were even out of bed, and there was no reason for the cattle to go too far, especially with a few well trained dogs keeping an eye on things.

The stockmen quickly packed their gear, mounted their horses and rode off towards Bethlehem. They joined the road about a mile out of town. Apart from a few farmers heading into market there was no traffic here, quite unlike the night before. Before long they were in the town limits. They tied their horses to a convenient fence post and started to look for the baby.

The town was starting to come to life. The market was just inside the town, and farmers, hawkers and buyers were making deals and haggling at the tops of their voices. A little further on was a sale yard, and the stockmen could hear the auctioneer warming up the crowd, hoping for a good commission.

The problem was that there were quite a few sheds in this part of town. Finding a shed with a baby in it could prove difficult, especially since most people locked their sheds overnight. Stockmen poking around in people’s yards were asking for a spell in jail.

They needed help. And help came, but not quite the way they expected. Once they had passed by the sale yard the clamour dropped off, disturbed only by the noise of a crying baby.

The noise, whilst recognisably human, wasn’t like any baby cry Jackie had heard. It was softer, the screams shorter. Tom heard it too, and pointed to a shed next to an old weatherboard house just off the road. ”Over there.”

Tom was the only one of the group who had had children. He hadn’t seen them since he left the farm. Jackie had been around small kids a lot when he lived at the mission, but not babies.

The stockmen, wary of doing anything that would look suspicious, approached. The house itself bore evidence of a rather hard night — the verandah was covered with beer bottles, broken streamers and one or two people who looked like they were sleeping to postpone the inevitable. The shed itself didn’t look like much, but given the revels that had finished so recently it looked like it may have been the better option for a mother trying to get her baby to sleep. Was the baby they could hear the one they had come to see?

The shed was an old corrugated iron number. It wasn’t that big — perhaps twenty feet by thirty — with two windows and a sliding door that ran the full length of the end nearest the road. Baz looked at Jackie. ”Do we go in?”

Jackie thought. He wasn’t known for his grasp of social etiquette, but he knew it would be rude to walk in unannounced. ”Tom?”

”Jesus, I don’t know.”

Baz was impatient, and he wanted to see the baby. So he walked up to the door and knocked.

There was a sharp noise, like somebody tripping over a metal bucket. The crying stopped momentarily, but started again with even more urgency. The door slid open.

Before them stood a man, perhaps forty years of age. He looked like he hadn’t slept for a day or two. ”Yes?”

Baz spoke up. ”Hi. Umm ” He realised he didn’t know what he was after. ”Look, is there a baby here in a feeding trough?” The question didn’t sound as stupid as he thought it would.

The man at the door looked at Baz with a weary, distracted expression. The sound of the baby crying was obviously upsetting him. ”Uh yeah.”

Jackie spoke. ”You haven’t wrapped him in a sheet have you?”

That question did sound stupid. The man’s face tightened. ”Yeah why? Who are you guys?”

The four looked at each other. Baz answered again. ”Well, I’m Barry. This is Jack, Warren, and Tom.”

”Yeah, I mean, what do you want?”

”We’ve come to see the baby!” replied Baz, a little more excitedly than necessary.

The man stepped out of the shed and slid the door shut. ”Look, I don’t want to be rude, but we’ve had a really rough few days and we need to get the baby to sleep and get some rest. Can you come back later?”

That was out of the question. They had already been gone longer than they should have. ”Well ” said Baz. ”We’ve got a message for you.”

”Will it take long?”

”No. It’s this. We were told a Saviour had been born in David’s town. He is the Chosen One, the Boss of Everything. We were told we’d find him in a shed in Bethlehem, wrapped in a sheet, lying in a trough. We’ve been looking everywhere, and we think that might be him.”

The man’s expression softened. ”I think you’d better come in.”

He slid the door open. ”This is my fianc e Mary.”

In the middle of the shed, which was quite full of tools and furniture was a young woman, much younger than her fianc e. The crying was obviously distressing her, and she had tears running down her face. The crying itself came from a forty gallon drum next to her, which had been cut in half lengthways and attached to a wooden frame to make a sort of home brew feeding trough. Jackie moved closer, and saw that the drum was full of hay. Lying on top of the hay was a small parcel wrapped in a striped sheet. The noise was coming from the parcel, which he immediately recognised as the baby they’d come to see.

Mary stifled a sob. ”He won’t stop crying Joe.” Her tone was the tone of a woman at the end of her tether.

”What’s wrong?” asked Tom softly.

”I don’t know,” she sobbed. ”I’ve fed him, I’ve changed him. I don’t know what to do!” The look on her face struck a chord in Jackie, and he had to choke back a tear. He knew how to deal with cattle, but this child and his helpless mother were beyond him.

”Can I help?” asked Tom. This was a side of Tom his mates had never seen before. They knew he had children, but they had never thought of him as a dad.

Joe didn’t look too sure, but Mary nodded. ”Please?”

Tom picked the baby up, and gently put him on his shoulder. ”There, there,” he said. ”What’s a little fella like you doing making such a big noise eh?” He gave him a light tap between the shoulder blades. ”Ah.” he patted him a few more times, and the baby seemed to get a little more distressed. Then everyone heard a loud gurgling noise, and the baby stopped crying. ”Well done!” cried Tom. The baby didn’t hear, because he was already asleep.

”What have you done?” cried Joe, worried that something had happened.

”Nothing. He did it all himself.” He kissed the child on the head, and tenderly placed him in Mary’s arms. Mary looked relieved, but even more tired than before.

Joe’s expression lightened. The baby was clearly sleeping comfortably. ”Tell Mary what you told me.”

Baz recounted the whole story of the strange visitors in the field. He didn’t really expect Mary to take him too seriously. Her reply surprised him.

”I had a similar thing happen when I found out about this.” She looked at the baby in her arms, who was making a light whistling noise as he slept.

”The Chosen One, you say?” asked Joe, shaking his head as if he found it a little hard to believe.

”It’s what the guy said. And he came from God. Had to.”

The nation had spent many years waiting for the Chosen One. Things were the way they’d always been — politicians kept themselves comfortable, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer — but God had promised to send someone who would fix everything properly, once and for all. Nobody knew when or who or how, and there were many who believed the Old Stories were no more than fairy tales to scare children into bed at night. But most people believed, and they’d been waiting for hundreds of years. And it seemed to the strange group in the shed in Bethlehem that their wait may now have been over.

”I don’t mean to sound rude, but why did God tell you guys?” asked Mary.

”Why aren’t his parents married?” retorted Warren, instantly regretting it. ”I mean, why any of us? It really doesn’t make sense.”

They were both, of course, right.

Jackie piped up. ”Well who knows? If we were doing the choosing we’d choose someone else. But we’re not doing the choosing, God is. And God knows we’re nothing like him. Maybe it’s just his way.”

Jackie’s words took a few seconds to sink in. Eventually, he spoke again. ”Well, we’ve come to do what we came to do. We’d better go. You fullas need a rest.”

***

The four stockmen headed back to the road. There was movement inside the house, but experience told all four stockmen that it wouldn’t be a good idea to hang around. Sure enough, there was a shout inside the house. A half dressed man stumbled out the door, swearing violently, and he was followed by three men brandishing beer bottles and an intent to use them. The man ran off, and the stockmen started their march to the field.

Jackie’s mind was racing. He’d seen so much in the last few hours. He was also quite worried about the cattle — the sun was getting high and the last thing he needed was a ranger waiting for them when they returned, or half the herd heading off to God knows where. The contradiction of that thought wasn’t lost on him either — God wouldn’t have sent them on this errand without thought for the livestock.

The main thought, though, was the thought that the Chosen One had been born, and he, an Aboriginal stockman, was one of the very first to see him. It defied all logic and sense. But the love that he had felt for the first time in years last night defied understanding as well, just like the experience of the other men. Yet it happened. This was going to take a long time to figure out. Still it was good, and nobody could argue with that.

A loud ”Yeehah!” broke his train of thought. He looked around for the source of the noise, and realised everyone was staring at him. The yell had come from his own mouth.

Baz let out a coyote call, and before long all four of the stockmen, who were usually so reserved when they ventured into town were hootin’ and hollerin’. If anyone listened to it, and most didn’t, because nobody cared much for the drunken shouts of vagrants, they would have realised that these four men were yelling praises to God. This wasn’t just good news, it was great news, it was for everyone, and they didn’t care who knew it.

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