What Joseph Felt (A Christmas Story)

Fondazione Cariplo [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

16th/17th Century

When you’re working with wood, sometimes, you’ll be planing or cutting and there’ll be a snag, an unseen snag under the grain that throws you off, and a piece you had almost done will get spoilt. Between one breath and the next it’ll go from something good, something beautiful and useful and what you’re working on to junk, maybe a pile of splinters, or maybe something you can patch, though you know it’ll never be the same.

The feeling you have when that happens, that’s the feeling I had when she told me, except it was my whole life gone to splinters in an instant.

She was the only one I ever loved, and the only one I’d ever thought of loving. The future was something I was working on, something I knew the shape of. We were going to marry in the spring, and of course I hadn’t touched her. If she was pregnant then — well, there were only two rational possibilities. Someone had raped her, in which case I’d have to deal with the results of that whether I married her or not, or — well, the other possibility would mean that she wasn’t who I thought she was, she wasn’t the girl I’d fallen in love with. The third one, the irrational one, which was what she told me, well, it was a fairytale, a romance, something nobody could believe, not really, not when your girlfriend just comes out with it that way.

You see, she got an angel telling her she was blessed among women. I didn’t get anything, except her telling me. I’m only a carpenter.

Patch it, that was my instinct, try to smooth the knot, try to hold things together, this is my life.

So we got married quickly and my mother nagged at me for not waiting and my friends made crude jokes and she spent all her time with her cousin Elizabeth.

Then, just before the baby was due, the Romans called a census. The worst thing about it was that my idiotic father had misunderstood the Roman tax form, and where you were supposed to put down where you were based, which was Nazareth, where I’d lived my entire life, he’d put down Bethlehem, which was where he’d come from originally. I’d tried to change it a million times, but dealing with bureaucracy means you need bribes, which I never had, so every time there was a census, about every ten years, I had to go off to Bethlehem and go through the same stupid ritual about how no, I didn’t live there… you can imagine. It wasn’t so bad when my grandparents were still alive and I had somewhere to stay.

Then she insisted on coming with me, she wasn’t going to be left in Nazareth with my mother, she wouldn’t stay with Elizabeth either that time, she wanted to come.

You’re supposed to humour pregnant women, and I was double humouring her, because of the circumstances. I thought it was rape, and a long road to recovery, after the baby was born. She seemed to believe what she told me, and she’d always been very sensible before.

So she got onto the donkey and we set off, barely speaking, and I walked alongside, quietly, trying to smooth everything, trying to put a patch on it, trying to be calm and rational for both of us and hold on to what we could. We could have other children later, children of mine, and I’d do what I could for this child of hers, which I truly believed wasn’t of her seeking. Whatever had happened to her we could build something together, not what we would have had, but something. That’s what I kept thinking, walking along in the dust and the heat, making conversation about the scenery all that weary way.

You know the rest, the inn, the manger, the shepherds, the kings, the animals talking, the angels singing.

Though if it’s true he’s born to be our saviour he’ll have a hard block to carve, and sorrow at the end of it.

Still, what I thought when the angels were singing and the star was shining was about the way sometimes when you’re carving and you hit a knot in the grain and you realize you were going to make something quite ordinary, but now there’s all this extra potential, all this incredible possibility revealed. You know then you have to go carefully, because it could suddenly all fall to splinters, but there’s this moment when it’s all before you and you could make something, you could make anything.

So she picked him up out of the manger and everyone was crowding around in the starlight and there was the wonderful singing. I didn’t say anything, I don’t talk all that much actually, but she looked over the baby’s head at me and that’s how I felt, at that moment, that familiar sudden shock of joy.

Jo Walton, 25th December 2004, Montreal.