The old man who sits at the tiny table, in the small, barren room, in the large, crowded building, is very tired.
He has every right to be. He has just coaxed and folded a complete Nativity scene from a single sheet of manila paper, yellow and coarse, well-suited to the rough contours of the tiny stable and the barnyard animals which sit, stand and lie surrounding Baby Jesus, whose tiny manila-paper eyes stare unblinking at his rough yellow halo.
The old man leans forward in his chair, dips his paintbrush into the pool of ink in its saucer, and in delicate black letters brushes the word "Orimagi" onto the floor of the crèche, right in front of the Three Wise Men. He chuckles, seeing Mary or Joseph getting up in the middle of the night and tripping over the "Orimagi." He thinks it is a very fine joke.
The paper of which the crèche is made began twenty-one inches wide and thirty-two inches long--it was the last package of an odd size, and therefore cheaper. The old man on his fixed income is always looking for a bargain, though all in all this has been a good month. It is a real annoyance when the checks don't arrive on time. Then the old man is reduced to folding old newspapers into his daily bird and animal friends. Have you ever seen a frog that read, "50% OFF!"?
The old man takes a bite of his peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise sandwich and a drink of eggnog. The eggnog is just the thing to take the edge off the mayonnaise; there is more nog than egg. The warm smell of rum invades the old man's nose and sets up housekeeping. He doesn't mind, though. He takes another bite of his pb&m to keep from sneezing. It works. His nose waters a bit but the rum (which is now quite at home) just says,
"It keeps the dust down."
The old man offers a bite of his sandwich to one of the Three Wise Men in his Nativity, but he (bluff old Balthasar?) aloofly refuses to acknowledge mayonnaise and peanut butter in the same bed. The old man understands. In all his years he's never met anyone else who likes a good pb&m. He always got funny looks when he ordered it in a restaurant, but he long ago became used to looks. Long ago, too, he gave up going to restaurants.
The Wise Man (Balthasar. It must be Balthasar) stands with bowed head. A bit of myrrh falls from his dustmote-sized box. Baby Jesus lies still, entranced with His halo.
The crèche, which started out a pretty respectable 21 x 32 inches, is now less than three inches tall, wide, or broad - unavoidable, of course, to fit so much detail into the scene - and the old man's eyes, his old man's fingers, are very tired. He takes pride in his work; he never uses scissors, and all his creases are sharp and straight.
The old man yawns widely. Not only his fingers and eyes, but his whole body is tired from the effort of turning a 21 x 32-inch piece of manila paper into the greatest story ever told (a feat some might have deemed impossible), as well as all the peanut butter, mayonnaise, egg, and nog (especially nog) in his belly. After a time unmeasured, not shifting his regard, the old (tired) man fumbles a cigarette out of his frayed shirt pocket and lights it. Before the old (very tired) man has taken more than one puff, though, he has fallen deeply asleep.
His hand rests on the table. The smooth, luxuriously machine-rolled cylinder rests in his hand, burning evenly and continuously, sending gray smoke into the still, rum-scented air. The smoke flutters as the last of the tobacco begins graying into ash.
The old man moves slightly in his old man's sleep. The long ash falls from his cigarette, and the last gasp of burning tobacco lands directly on the halo of baby Jesus. Mary gazes on in frozen horror as the halo starts to smolder.
The halo flickers, and almost goes out, but a brief gust of air from the old man's restless breath fans it alight again. The cradle holding the baby Jesus is starting, flamelessly, to blacken. Baby Jesus just stares at his darkened halo.
Soon Mary and Joseph, closest to the ashy cradle, begin to burn. Joseph rests his hands on Mary's gentle shoulders and they turn black together.
The smoldering fire, never really blazing, nevertheless makes good time. The animals, as they are engulfed, set up such a row of mooing, barking, clucking and so on that it would be deafening, if it were not coming from paper throats. Soon all the animals are black, and silent.
The Wise Men watch the red glowing line creep up the walls of their tiny prison philosophically. They have long ago made their peace - after all, they are Wise. The last to go is our old Balthasar. As he turns into ash, with his last blackening breath he forms the word, "Orimagi."
The old man awakens, and is transfixed by the perfect black Nativity scene which has replaced his efforts. At the intensity of his gaze, the crèche crumbles away like a house of autumn leaves. The word "Orimagi" appears for a moment to hang in the still, smoky air above the table, and in unthinking response the word "Balthasar" comes to the old man's lips, chilling his room like the first breath of winter.
Original content on this page ©1996 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.