And when they were come into the
house, they saw the young child
with Mary his mother, and fell
down, and worshipped him: and
when they had opened their treasures,
they presented unto him gifts;
gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
King James Bible, Matthew 2:11
From his vantage point on the corner bench, Torrence Giles watched the sodium-vapor lamp cast a yellow cone over the Jesus Box resting silently at the top of Courthouse Hill. Shadows from the nearby oak tree reached out to Torrence, as if inviting him to come meet his savior.
He rubbed his grey, dirty hands together, blowing into them for warmth. Not many users at the box at 10:30 p.m. Christmas Eve. Daddies would be bringing the Santa gifts out from the garage so their little Lauras would squeal in delight when they awoke in the morning. Mommies would be stuffing stockings with socks and underwear. No wait, Torrence mused, that was my mother. Real mommies stuffed stockings with toys and candy.
A stranger emerged from the darkness of Johnson’s Tool Shop to the left of the bench. Was this a ghost of Christmas? Or a reaper to read off Torrence’s list of sins and collect his soul with one mighty swing of the scythe? Torrence didn’t care. Not tonight. He dug his hands deeper into the warmth of his pockets.
The stranger, a big black man with the tightest set of cornrows Torrence had ever seen, took a seat on the bench next to him. The man carried with him a large satchel that rattled the bench when he dropped it on the cold metal.
“I say Goddamn, it’s cold out here,” said the stranger, stamping his boots together.
Torrence nodded at the Jesus Box on the hill. “Watch what you say, you’re in the presence of the Lord.”
The stranger wore a large black overcoat with an orange Christmas scarf wrapped tightly around his neck. It was the kind of holiday scarf that fat, tacky women wore. Hanging from the stranger’s ears was a pair of earrings, solid gold crucifixes.
Torrence made an effort to scoot over, to give the man some space, but his ass was frozen to the bench.
“My name is Caspar,” said the black man. “Are you seeking salvation, my friend?”
Salvation? Torrence eyed the Jesus Box. Was this stranger trying to be cheeky? “You could say that, yes,” Torrence said.
“Done bad things?”
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” Caspar said with a twinkle in his coal-black eyes. He spoke in that sing-song intonation of southern Baptist preachers with which Torrence was so familiar.
“Yeah, he took away my job. No gifts for my family this year.”
A moment of silence passed between the men.
“Why’re you here, Caspar?” Torrence asked.
“The Lord’s work, my friend,” Caspar said.
A confused look passed over Torrence’s face. “Why so? That Box up there lets you talk directly to the Man Himself. You’re not needed here.”
Caspar hefted the satchel between them and pulled back the flap.
“You heard the story of the three wise men?”
“Of course,” Torrence said. “Every Christmas.”
“It was prophesized in the Old Testament that a mighty star would rise over Bethlehem announcing the birth of the new messiah. These three magi, they brought to the baby Jesus three gifts.” Reaching into his satchel, he withdrew a bottle filled with many little sticks. “The first gift was frankincense.”
The sticks reminded Torrence of the kindling he used to set fires. He shifted uncomfortably.
“Like I said, I know the story. The gifts allowed passage out of Bethlehem,” he said.
Caspar chuckled and moved his head back and forth, causing the earrings to sparkle from the sodium lamps. Crucifix afterimages danced in front of Torrence’s eyes. “These days, the mighty Bible holds some nice mysteries. Now why would two of these wise men give a poor family spices and herbs when all they needed was money to escape?”
Torrence grunted. “Maybe the wise men weren’t so smart?”
“Oh no, they were smart. Back then, old healers used them to treat stomach problems. Mary gave the baby Jesus a mouthful of this medicine and the child never cried again. He stayed hidden away from the King’s soldiers.”
“I’d always heard that about baby Jesus. That he never cried. Guess frankincense did the trick.”
“Bet you wish you had some of this for your child when she last cried?”
Torrence flinched, a flush coming over his waxen, pale cheeks. Sweet little Laura cried when he told her there would be no Christmas. Daddy was a failure.
“No matter, Torrence. What’s done is done; nevermore will Laura see the sun. Amen.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Torrence made a move to leave, but Caspar held him back with a stout, massive hand.
“I’m not done with my story.”
The stranger reached into his satchel and withdrew a paper bag. “Now, the second gift was myrrh, used as an embalming ointment by the holy men of the time.” Caspar poured a powdered ruddy substance into his right hand. He closed his fingers to keep the wind from blowing the myrrh away like fine dust.
“Why would a baby need embalming ointment?”
“Some say it’s a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. Many who helped Mary and Joseph escape saw it as an affirmation of faith. Laura won’t need this, will she Torrence? Not the way you left her.” Saying that, he opened his fingers and a fire blazed in his hand that lit the myrrh. A putrid stench filled the air. A scent Torrence recognized…
Caspar grinned and waved his now empty, unblemished hand through the air. He reached into the satchel one last time, withdrawing a block of gold. Torrence gasped at the sight. He reached out to touch the smooth, shiny surface.
“The third magi, he brought the baby Jesus gold. With this money, Joseph and the holy mother Mary would be able to hide in the many houses and inns of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Away from Herod and his evil soldiers. The gold protected the child.”
Torrence bowed his head in his hands. He saw it all again. His wife clutching Laura while he fired the .45 over and over into their bodies, the spasms and screams each shot created. Blood had blossomed over her white blouse, until both were covered with his crimson anger. The constant fights, the look of disappointment in Laura’s eyes, the pity family and friends held for him. He was an utter and complete failure. He remembered turning the gun on himself and pulling the trigger. Click. Nothing. Click. Click. Out of rounds. He spread kindling from the fireplace over their bodies and dropped a burning lighter on top of them. Their clothes burned followed soon by the smell of cooked flesh. He thought of the burnt turkey his mother always served at Christmas. “You loser,” she would say. “The turkey’s ruined and the kids have no gifts. You’re not a man.”
As he watched his wife and child turn to ashes and bone, his courage failed. He could not, would not, be able to die in such a way.
Torrence jerked up from the bench, wrenching the backside of his denim jeans from the frost-covered metal. His hands groped for Caspar’s neck, finding purchase inside the big tacky scarf, finding the man’s arteries, plunging his thumbs into the windpipe. “How do you know so much?” Torrence screamed, shaking the man with his rage-fueled strength. Caspar didn’t fight, but reached for the bar of gold. The gold melted in his hands, forming a slender crucifix that came to a dangerous point at its base.
“Christ sees all,” Caspar gasped. “Laura walks with Christ and they will discuss where your damned eternal everlasting soul will stay.” He plunged the tip of the crucifix into Torrence’s right temple, where it exploded through his skull with a flash of white light. The tip of the crucifix steamed in the night air as it stuck three inches out the other side of Torrence’s head. Blood pumped out from both wounds; slowly, with each dying heartbeat, it fell to a trickle.
“Thy work be done. Amen.”
* * * *
Caspar gathered his myrrh and frankincense and placed them in the satchel. A heavy snow started falling. Large flakes quickly covered Torrence’s freezing blood with a layer of white purity. Caspar smiled at no one in particular, appreciating the fine work of a Greater power.
He slid the satchel over his shoulder and looked up at the lonely Jesus Box.
“Time to get your salvation, Torrence.”
With that, he lifted Torrence’s head, grabbed the cross-bar of the crucifix like a handle, and pulled him up the hill.