It was Christmas eve and Sarah was at church. It was in full swing. Tonight, was a special gathering. Pastor Reece looked at her with a smile then addressed the room as the choir ceased their singing.
“Tonight,” he said. “Marks the second coming of our lord and savior.”
Everyone cheered, whooped and hollered. So did Sarah. They had talked about it for so many years, studied all the signs and rituals, read all the hymns and stories. Sarah wasn’t sure she completely understood but she believed in God and that was all she needed to be saved.
“Our very own virgin will receive his holy gift,” Pastor Reece said. Then he looked at Sarah. “Someone youthful and pure, as chaste as mother Mary herself.”
The congregation all began to look at her and Sarah began to smile nervously. It wasn’t a secret that she had saved herself for marriage. She remained a virgin by choice and devoted herself to God, focusing on her studies, as the pastor recommended.
This made her pure. This made her special. The congregation were all looking at her expectantly now.
Pastor Reece held out his hand and Sarah walked to him and took it. The pastor smiled. He seemed pleased.
“Tonight, you make the journey,” the pastor said. Sarah didn’t quite understand but she nodded.
“You must be baptized and cleansed first,” he said. “Then you will descend into the cave of Christ.”
She knew the cave. Everyone in the church did. But it was as mysterious as the Lord himself. A large wooden tub had been prepared and filled with water. It sat at the front, just before the choir and pulpit.
“Job,” the pastor said. A youth came forward. “You are to accompany Sarah.”
The boy nodded.
“Job has already been cleansed,” Pastor Reece said. “Step in, Sarah, the water is warm.”
Without a word, Sarah got into the tub. The water was as he said.
Sarah kneeled and the congregation began to chant. The pastor laid a hand on her head and Sarah went still. She tried not to move as he mumbled his prayer. She looked at Job, the youth meant to accompany her. He was no older than ten, just a boy. He looked at her, his big eyes seemed to hold a sense of duty, and fear. Sarah was scared too.
“Amen,” Pastor Reece said.
Before Sarah could say it too, he was dunking her under. Sarah bent backwards, her feet under her and the pastor’s hand on her forehead. He held her under and distantly, she could hear him praying again. The words came warped and muffled by the water.
Soon, the hand on her head lifted and so did Sarah. She came out of the water with a small gasp. She was greeted with smiling faces and applause. The knot in her stomach loosened, but for only a moment.
“Sarah,” the pastor said, helping her out the tub. “The cave is waiting.”
She was soaking wet in her white gown. It was plastered to her body and dripping all over the carpet. The decans all gazed at her. Now they all knew her nipples were a light shade of mocha. Sarah crossed her arms over her chest and thanked God she had shaved herself bare, or they wouldn’t have any doubts on her natural hair color.
“Matthew, Abel. Open the way,” the pastor said.
The choir parted as two decans passed through and went to the organ. Its pipes were huge and golden, rows of them reaching up towards the roof of the underground church. The deccan stood to either side of the organ and pressed keys on the opposite end, at the same time. A deep rumbling sound. The walls and floors shook as the back wall parted into an entrance
A hidden door to a cave. Cold air rushed out of the opening as soon as the doors parted. Everyone looked at Sarah again.
“You will take Job. That is all,” the pastor said. “Look for the three kings. They will tell you what to do.”
Sarah pursed her lips. “Will I have time to dry?”
“No. Go now, just as you are. God will provide.”
Sarah shivered. “How will I know when it is done? How will I find Christ?”
“You will know,” he said, then he smiled softly. “This is what we—the world—has been waiting for. Our souls are in your hands, Sarah. Have faith.”
It was a lot of responsibility, she thought. Still, Sarah nodded. With Job following behind her, Sarah went to the entrance of the cave, barefoot and dripping. She was sure she’d leave slender wet footprints on the stone floor.
The entrance was a giant, gaping hole that fed right into the mountain. Sarah paused and glanced behind her, only to see the faces of the congregation staring intensely at her. Some were bewildered, some nervous, others overjoyed and eager.
She looked down at Job. He had long hair for a boy his age. Brown hair to his shoulders and dark eyes. Sarah held her hand out and Job took it. After all, he was still a child.
The cave waited. Sarah paused, then with a small breath, both of them entered the Cave of Christ. Inside was as she thought it would be. Cold, dark and damp. As soon as they took the first step inside, the congregation began to sing behind them. Slow, almost solemn in tone. Highs and lows, languidly flowing together in an eerie, vocal howl that echoed after them down the cave.
Chills ran down Sarah’s spine. Her hand tightened around Job’s.
“It’s so cold down here…,” she said.
Her small voice echoed in waves. A strange imitation that sounded soft and close and loud and far. Sarah had no clue how long the cave was. She glanced back and saw the entrance to the church was fading, a dull glow that got smaller with each step. The sounds of the choir were now but distant echoes. And like before with her voice, they echoed oddly, near and far, soft and loud.
“Don’t look back,” Job said, tugging on her hand.
Sarah looked down at the boy and smiled. She nodded. “Thank you for coming with me.”
Job looked at her.
“Why did you do it? Aren’t you scared?” she asked.
Job shook his head. “They told me it wouldn’t hurt.”
Sarah gave Job a confused look and the boy pulled out a wrapped bundle. They stopped and Sarah watched as Job opened the bundle to reveal a plant.
“Mistletoe…,” she whispered. “Why—”
The sound of shifting rocks caught their attention. Sarah turned to peer down the dark cave. She squinted and blinked at the dim glow she saw forming in the distance. It was some sort of light.
“Do you see that, Job?”
“Yes,” he said.
Sarah led him once more. They began to head toward the soft, glowing light at the other end of the cave this time. Sarah braved the darkness with her bare feet. Her body was damp and freezing. Her breath was white on the air now. The farther they got, the more unbearably cold it became. Sarah panted. Her toes were numb but her sole’s burned and the light didn’t seem any closer. Still she kept walking, steadily forward, trying not to slip or lose her footing. Her knees and bones ached with the cold and her teeth chattered along with Job’s. They kept walking, they kept walking for several minutes and still the light didn’t seem to be any closer.
Both of them walked in silence. Job didn’t say anything. He quietly shivered, his breath coming in small, white puffs in the air. Occasionally, Sarah would see him clutch the bundle of mistletoe to his chest. She wondered why he wasn’t spending Christmas with his family instead.
Sarah stumbled, her body weakening, but Job was there to help balance her. Sarah caught herself, her heart beating faster.
“We-we’re going to freeze in here,” she said.
Job said nothing but Sarah could see the hint of worry in his eyes. She doubted he knew anything more than she did. They both should have been with their families. Sarah had no idea what to do, but she had to get him back by morning. She smiled at Job and started forward again and to her surprise, the light seemed a lot closer this time.
Sarah walked faster, trying to keep their bodies from freezing. She desperately made her way over the icy stone, eyes widening as the cave did. The light was coming from a cavern. Three statues stood in the way but the closer Sarah got, the further she could see. In the cavern ahead, she could see a warm looking manger, glowing gold with straw and hay. Farther than that was another warm light she couldn’t yet make out.
They made their way to the crest of the cavern. Soon, Sarah was upon the three statues they’d seen. They were men, made of some odd, marbled stone. Each statue had a tree growing from within it, shaping the stone into poses that seem to be in action. Each also had an item and wore a crown upon its head.
“These must be the three kings,” she said, shivering.
They unnerved her. They seemed so life-like. She looked past them to see what she knew had to be a fire somewhere nearby. Sarah stepped forward and a warm wind rushed from the cavern beyond. The statues suddenly seemed to glow gently themselves.
“You may not enter,” they said. “Beyond is the manger of Jesus Christ. Only those that give us three gifts may pass.”
Sarah knew this had to be what Pastor Reece spoke of.
“Are you the three kings then?”
“Yes,” they said.
Sarah was so cold. She had to get to the manger. “What do I do? What can I do to get past?”
“For Christmas,” they said. “The day of his arrival, we desire gifts.”
Sarah was confused but nodded. Pastor Reece told her the wise men would know the way. She approached the first statue. Half of it was a smooth column of stone but the top half was finely detailed. It was stretched upwards, one arm raised as if struggling to get free. A branch stuck out of its mouth but no leaves graced it. It was a dead branch. In the statue’s other hand was a stone bowl with a wedge that pointed up into a sharp spike.
“Wise king, will you tell me what gift you desire?”
Though the statue had no eyes, Sarah could feel them turn down to look at her.
“Wine,” it said.
“Wine? I don’t have wine.”
But the statue was silent. She looked down at its bowl. Was it supposed to be a juicer? Sarah thought about mass. Wine. The blood of Christ.
She suddenly looked at Job, her limbs gone numb.
“Did they tell you why you needed to come with me?”
Job nodded his head then handed her the mistletoe. She shuddered at the thought of what she had to do but they were freezing. She pinched some mistletoe and crushed it into the palm of Job’s left hand. She held it tight then walked him to the bowl.
“Only a bit okay?” she said. “The mistletoe will numb it.”
“Okay,” Job said.
Sarah placed his hand over the spike then pushed it down. Job winced immediately but didn’t flinch away. Rivulets of crimson blood began to slide down the stone.
“Wine,” the king said, “enough to satiate thirst.”
Sarah put more mistletoe into Job’s wound then pressed his hand down on the spike again. She did it deeper this time. The boy grimaced in pain and frowned so hard, her heart wrenched. His fear was making his blood flow faster. He began to fill the bowl quicker this time.
Sarah held him there. “Is that enough?”
The statue was silent. Sarah pressed harder. More blood filled the bowl. Job’s lips began to quiver and his eyes were full of tears yet to fall.
“Is that enough?”
The bowl was a quarter full by now. Sarah stopped and pulled Job’s hand away.
“Gift accepted,” the king said.
Sarah nodded and looked at Job. He was sniffling and holding his hand. Sarah kneeled. “Are you okay?”
He nodded and she ripped a part of her dress then wrapped the boy’s hand tightly. She smiled and hugged him, trying to make him feel better.
“This is our test. We have to be strong,” she said, hugging Job.
Sarah stood and went to the next statue. This one was kneeling and had a stone box with a contraption of some sort built inside of it. A lever stuck out of the right side of the statue. It worked the gears attached to the stone box.
“Wise king, will you tell me what gift you desire?” Sarah asked.
“Bread,” the second statue said.
Sarah felt her stomach sink. She looked at Job and she couldn’t read him. No one would have prepared him for this. Whatever truth they told him, it was not this. But what choice did she have? She had to have faith. She looked at the box.
“Job,” she said, turning to the boy. “I think you need to stick your arm inside.”
Job looked at her and at the box. He let the fear show.
“Just for a bit,” she said, giving him the bundle of mistletoe. “What did your parents say? Have faith in God. He will not forsake us.” He had to believe. They both did.
“Believe,” she whispered over and over again. “Believe.”
Sarah didn’t know if Job felt any consolation, but he went to the stone box. Because the statue was kneeling, it was just the right height for him to raise up slightly and stick his arm inside. Job grunted and slid his arm in up to the elbow. Sarah walked around to the side of the statue.
She grabbed the lever and began to push forward. It was heavy and hard to move. She began to strain and soon she cried out. A few seconds of pushing and the lever began to budge under her weight. Something snapped and the lever flipped up and the mechanism reacted. Whatever weight it held was released and inside the box, the stone contraption collapsed onto Job’s arm, crushing it with a sickening sound.
This time Job screamed. He went pale and shook violently, eyes wide. Sarah covered her mouth. His screaming terrified her. She could do nothing.
“Job!” Sarah yelled.
Then the third king spoke. “I desire the gift of life,” it said,
Sarah’s mouth was agape. She watched Job beginning to slow. “The breath of Christ.”
Job’s shaking calmed. He was going limp, his eyes rolling back. Sarah went to him and caught the boy before he could fall, saving him as he had done for her. Despite it being so cold, his skin was sweaty and his long hair stuck to his face. She pulled him away from the second king. His arm came away severed. He had only a crimson stump in its place. Blood poured everywhere.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph…,” Sarah whispered.
She held the boy in her arms and walked him to the last statue. It wasn’t even half a body, just shoulders, neck and head with two arms raised up from the rock and holding a small table. Sarah laid Job on the platform. It was just low enough to place the face of the statue over Job’s body. Its face looked to be screaming, mouth agape. Job shuddered and coughed then Sarah watched as the last of him faded away.
He had succumbed to his injuries.
“Your gifts have been accepted,” the kings said. “You may pass but go only as Adam and Eve did.”
Sarah was shaking now too. She could feel tiny ice crystals forming on her skin. She stiffly removed her dress as the kings suggested. The thing was nearly frozen anyhow. She was happy to be rid of it.
Naked, Sarah wobbled past the statues, shivering intensely. She crested the lip of the cavern and was hit with a warm rush of air that felt so good, she sighed in relief. The manger was glowing with warmth. Its wood rose straight from the stone; smooth, chocolate trees whose canopy enveloped into a sloping roof which made the walls of the manger more like a hut. Hay lay everywhere and in the center was a wooden basket filled with hay.
“A cradle…,” Sarah said.
A flickering caught her eye. Sarah stepped out of the manger and found the source of the second glow; a bush set aflame. Sarah began to walk towards it, a burning bush in the middle of the cavern. Though its fire seemed to rage, Sarah heard no noise. Stone turned to sand under her feet and soon Sarah was traveling across sand deep enough to mimic a desert. She glanced back at the manger and it seemed impossibly far for the short distance she had walked.
Sarah licked her lips and continued to walk towards the silent, burning bush. The cavern’s floor changed to dunes of sand as she traveled to the bush. When she came upon it, she stopped close enough to feel its heat radiate towards her. She wrapped his arms around herself, fidgeting in place. A warm wind blew as if she were somewhere outside in the middle of the desert. Sarah looked up and saw twinkling stars. It should have been impossible. She looked at the bush.
“I did it,” she said. “I did everything…”
But the bush burned silently, without a word. Sarah wanted to cry. She sat down in the sand and pulled her legs close to her body, trying to warm herself by the fire. She felt so tired. It couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes, but she felt she had done enough walking for days. Sarah rocked herself till her shivering ceased and her goosebumps went away. The fire was warm and good, giving life back into her bones.
Tears finally ran down her cheeks. She fell over on her side and curled up. She missed Job. She wanted it to be a dream, or for him to resurrect, just like Lazarus. She had to believe that he would. She had to have faith. Wasn’t this what it was all about?
Sarah rocked herself gently and closed her eyes. Even the sand was warm and welcoming. She let it hold her as she rested. Her body and mind felt so tired. She thought of home and quickly fell asleep. She dreamed, or at least, she thought she was because she heard her name being called in a familiar voice that she had never heard before. It was quite angelic.
She thought of Christmas.
She thought of her mom.
She thought she felt hot. A lot warmer than before and it was making her uncomfortable. Sarah groaned and began to wake. She wasn’t imagining it, her skin burned and stung. It was so hot. Too hot. Sarah’s eyes flew open. The fire was no longer burning on the bush, but enveloping her like a lover. Its form matched that of a person’s with two torrents of flame shooting out from its back like fiery wings.
“Sarah…,” a ghostly male voice sung. It was coming from the fire.
Sarah screamed and started batting at the flames that were scorching her skin. She rolled and scrambled wildly onto her feet, ash and bits of embers raining on her. Her flesh felt raw and red as she slapped it.
“Sarah,” it sang, with many voices.
Without looking, she ran straight back towards the manger, screaming and whimpering. She could feel the fire regaining strength. It began to sing in its strange voice again, howling with the voices of a thousand angels. The cavern glowed brighter as it chased after her. She could tell how close it got by the heat she felt on her back. Sarah ran, panting and crying. Her feet sank in the sand and she thought she could smell her hair burning. Sarah cried out and pushed herself forward till her feet felt stone once more.
She didn’t bother looking back. She prayed and was suddenly within reach of the manger again. She ran to it and ducked inside, shaking and whimpering. She could hear it singing. It was coming for her. It was going to burn her alive.
“Sarah,” it sang.
She pressed herself tight into the corner of the manger and pulled her legs to her head. She covered her ears and prayed silently, crying and wishing everything would just stop. She was so afraid. She wanted to have faith but she was scared. She didn’t want to die.
The fire sang and the hut grew hot, so hot, she knew it must have been on fire. The singing was loud now, so loud it hurt. Sarah screamed in terror, she screamed to drown out the singing. Her heart pounding and her skin burned. It was too much. Fear and darkness too her. Sarah passed out.
When Sarah woke, she didn’t know how much time had passed, but the fire was gone and the cave was dark again. She was naked but her skin wasn’t burned anymore. The manger was dark, empty and cold. Sarah stood and saw the bush in the cavern was no longer on fire. She quickly left.
She went back to the three kings. Each still stood there but with branches now green with leaves. The gifts were gone and where Job’s body had been, was only a pile of ash in the shape of a boy. Sarah walked back the way she had come with Job. She moved desperately with her hands outstretched. Walking quicker than when she had descended. But with almost every step, Sarah could feel her body changing. It started with a small ache, a dull pain in her lower abdomen, that was suspiciously close to where her uterus was.
Her aches turned to a cramping and soon, she was stumbling through the cave with her stomach growing heavier. Sarah’s body burned and her skin broke out in a sweat. She nearly ran, searching the darkness for any sign of the church. Something in her stomach moved and Sarah looked down at her virgin body to see it ripe and swollen.
She kept walking, kept fleeing towards home and salvation. Every minute made her stomach grow. A second heartbeat had joined hers. She could hear it and feel it. A baby moved under her skin and it had barely been ten minute.
Sarah looked up as a light flickered ahead. Her stomach grew to full pregnancy the closer she got to the light. She groaned as the swelling stopped and her bladder ached. Her feet swelled but carried her to the entrance of the cave where the light of the church poured in.
Sarah blinked and squinted, throwing a hand up to shield her eyes. She stepped through and into the church once more.
“Sarah,” Pastor Reece said.
She stood naked and at full term. The baby in her stomach moved, turning gently. She placed both her hands on her stomach and looked down at the impossible then back up at the congregation which had not moved. They all stood and watched her as the clock struck midnight.
“Merry Christmas,” Pastor Reece said.
“Merry Christmas,” said Sarah. And then her water broke.
And the choir began to sing.