A Quiet Miracle
There was an unnatural wind blowing through the valley that evening. The sky was a ruddy brown as the full moon occasionally stabbed through the clouds, lighting their underside. All this was taken in by a little boy who knelt up at the window ledge and peered out at the world before him. This was not the world he belonged to. These high hill walls that were already plastered with white snowdrifts, were like a different planet to the city from which he had been taken. War had driven him from his home, robbed him of his father and mother, and divided him from his brother and sisters. If he closed his eyes tight enough and concentrated hard enough, he could see his family gathered around the table to share a meal. His father, at the head of the table, smiled across at him before turning to thank the man who offered him a platter of food. They had been rich in Syria.
“Shut the curtain, Hassan. It’s freezing in here.”
Hassan awoke from his daydream, losing sight once more of his father. He let the curtains fall closed behind him as he shuffled into the room, and was surprised that the lasting image in his mind was not of his father but of the patient, kind eyes of the man who had been serving him.
“Come on, Sweetheart. I’ve got dinner ready.”
There was no table here to sit around. And no family either. There were just the two of them, Hassan and Kimberley, who was related to his mother somehow. That was why he was here, why he had been rescued while others languished in the ruins of cities or the camps that had been established to house the refugees.
“It’s chips,” Kimberley continued. “Chips and mince. Not very festive, I know. But tomorrow we’ll have turkey, I promise.”
Hassan smiled but did not say anything as he took the tray of food and sat in a deep armchair. He ate in silence and Kimberley did the same, giving him more food when his plate was empty and filling up the small yellow beaker when he had nothing left to drink.
“Have you had enough?” Kimberley asked as Hassan climbed out of the chair and nodded. “Then you had better hang up your stocking so Santa Claus has somewhere to put your presents.”
Hassan looked confused for a moment and Kimberley put her tray to one side as she rose to her feet.
“Did your mum never tell you about Santa Claus? He calls around all the houses and leaves presents for all the boys and girls who have been good. Here,” she added, taking a card from the mantelpiece and showing Hassan the picture on it, “this is Santa Claus. And I’m certain you’ve been good enough to get some presents.”
Hassan took the card in his thin fingers and smiled down at it while Kimberley fetched a large felt bag in the shape of a foot and offered it to the child, pointing out a little hook on the wooden shelf where he could hang it. After he had, with very little ceremony, hung his stocking by the fire, Hassan kissed his guardian’s cheek and padded away, climbing the stairs to his low-ceilinged bedroom. Here, he once more gazed out at the world and smiled slightly as he watched fat flakes of weightless snow flurry past the window panes. Setting the card, with the picture of an old gentleman dressed in a white-trimmed red suit on it, down on the ledge of the dormer window, he looked, waiting to see the arrival of this man.
But there was no one to be seen in the wind-whipped snow. He felt alone and tried to hold back the tingling sensation of burning tears as he recalled playing in the park with his brother and sisters, minutes and seconds before the plane had flown over and light and debris had flashed before his vision. They had been playing hide and seek amongst trees, swings and seesaws. But no one could hide from what followed. His vivid recollection paused and sharpened a moment, just seconds before he knew the strike would begin, as his gaze fell upon another child who he could not remember. He had large, kind eyes and perhaps he, too, knew what was about to happen for Hassan could clearly see a sadness in his patient gaze.
“Hassan?” Kimberley’s voice called gently. “Are you awake?”
Instead of answering, he climbed down the stairs and nodded as he stood before her.
“Hot chocolate and marshmallows?” Kimberley began, her voice a little too full of excitement and enthusiasm to be believed, even by the eight year old boy. “Best thing to help you sleep.”
They sat together, playing noughts and crosses on a Christmas card envelope, and drank the soothing chocolate. Finally, Kimberley collected the empty mug from Hassan’s hand and wished the little boy sweet dreams. She paused as he turned to the limp stocking and his face fell.
“Santa comes when you are asleep, Sweetheart. He doesn’t like to be seen.”
Hassan smiled in return and padded off to the bathroom, brushed his teeth and snuggled under the warm quilts of his bed. He could hear the wind blowing songs across the chimney pot, discordant to the sound of Kimberley humming a carol downstairs as she washed the mugs. Kimberley had only moved into the house a few months ago and each night he would listen to her as she unpacked a couple more boxes, laughing or crying at the memories the objects brought. Every morning an extra bookshelf would have been filled or new ornaments would be standing on any ledge that would support them. It was a comforting sound, pleasing to Hassan, reminding him that he was not alone.
But sleep was a dark place for little Hassan, and in his dream he was in the hospital, the confusion and the pain returning to him. But above it all, the fear. He was afraid, for he didn’t know where he was nor where his family were. There was shouting and there were frenzied cries in the air as doctors rushed through the ward trying to help those who could be helped. One had stopped beside him, placing his hand on Hassan’s arm, and that gesture with the strong, patient gaze calmed the fear that Hassan had felt.
He woke up to the faint sound of someone coughing. It sounded as though it was coming down the chimney, and Hassan rose and walked to the window. Outside the snow continued to be blown by that unnatural wind and, as his eyes focused on the world beyond the snowfall, he saw an old man coughing into his gloved hand. Hassan lifted the card from the window ledge and looked down at the bushy white beard and sparkling eyes.
He knocked on the window and watched as the old man below looked up at him, a smile crossing his features as he beheld the young boy. He waved before coughing into his hand once more. Hassan wasted not a second but sped downstairs and pulled open the door beckoning the old man to enter. Kimberley rushed to help the gentleman and ushered him into one of the chairs before she stoked up the fire and ran to boil the kettle.
“Where are you from?” she asked as she handed him a mug of tea. “Are you lost?”
“No,” he said flatly, but thanked her kindly for the drink. “I’m going to the midnight service at the church.”
“Do you live near here? I didn’t know there was anyone lived up this track but us.”
“Just a way up there,” he replied in a gruff voice, wafting his hand in a careless direction. “But I’ve never missed a service.”
“The snow’s pretty bad between here and the village. This might be the first year, I’m afraid.” She picked up the empty coal scuttle and excused herself from the man’s company.
Hassan stepped forward cautiously, still studying the similarities between this man and the picture on the card.
“You’ve travelled a long way,” the man remarked. “A very long way.”
“Almost as far as I have.”
Hassan frowned, unsure. He had travelled much further than this man. He turned the card and pointed to the picture on it.
“Santa Claus?” the man laughed. “Not exactly. I’m a little older than he is.”
“Older than Santa Claus?” Kimberley laughed as she came back into the room, struggling with the bucket so that the old man rose at once and assisted her with it.
“Thank you for the drink,” he replied. “I must be on my way.”
Kimberley stood back as he walked toward the door, followed by Hassan who still gripped the card.
“Never missed one in the hundreds of years,” the man whispered as he pulled the gloves over his ancient hands. “No matter how hard they try, this won’t be the first. Remember that, Hassan, I’ll always be there for them.”
Kimberley stepped forward as he knelt down before the young boy who reached his trembling hand towards the old man’s face.
“I know your eyes,” he whispered.
“And I yours, little Hassan. I have been there to help and serve you in your home; there to share your burden of grief on that terrible day; and there to comfort you when you were afraid.”
“Hassan,” Kimberley choked, not hearing the man’s words, but snatching the child’s shoulders. “Hassan, you spoke!”
Hassan did not say a word as he watched the old man disappear into the snowy night, the otherworldly wind singing carols. He did not seem to struggle as he had done before, but walked on with a rejuvenated step that left no print in the drifting snow. Recalling the gaze of the servant in his father’s house, the child in the park and the doctor in the hospital, Hassan smiled as he looked down at the card he still carried. But it no longer showed a jolly Santa Claus with a sack brimming with presents. Instead, it was a picture of a baby lying in a manger of hay.