Leila was dying, and she knew it, and death tasted bitter in her throat. She'd really blown it big this time, and now there was no way out. I'm a failure, just like everyone said I would be. Leila shut the blinds in her tiny one room apartment to keep out the lights and general good will of the world around her, the cheer of the stupid holiday she would probably never celebrate again. Some neighbor's Christmas music floated through the walls, and the memories sprang unbidden into Leila's mind.
She could see herself as a little girl again, happy and hopeful. Before everything started to go wrong. She'd always set up the little Nativity scene near the Christmas tree. She pictured the shepherds and the wise men gathered around Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus, offering the Christ child their gifts. All shining softly in the glow from the tree and surrounded by the scent of pine.
Now it was gone, all of it. She couldn't go back to the past and she had no future to speak of. Now there was no way out.
* * *
The carpenter sits in his solitary cottage deep in some forgotten forest, and picks up a shapeless piece of wood to begin carving another figure. What this one will become, he doesn't yet know. He just works as his hands direct him, lovingly and with great care.
* * *
Something about remembering Christmas got Leila to thinking that maybe she should try to set things right before it was too late. She hadn't a phone in her apartment, so now she shivered in the cold at a pay phone on a corner. Trembling, she dialed the phone number that she had never forgotten though she hadn't dialed it in years. Almost, she hung it up when it started ringing, but she stayed on the line.
Leila hesitated for the briefest moment. "Mom?"
Silence on the other end. Cold, deep silence. Then at last a single word. "Leila." Her mother's voice was icy, and Leila could picture her standing at the phone in the gleaming white kitchen with her lips pinched together in disapproval. Just the look that Leila tried to escape when she ran away all those years ago.
"Mom . . ." Her voice caught, and she coughed for a time before she could speak again. Still her mother kept her silence. "I had to call, mom. I'm . . . I wanted to set things right with you. You see, I'm dying. I have AIDS."
"AIDS," her mother said at last. Her words were crisp and clipped. "Good lord, Leila, I always knew it would come to this. You think that you can just desert your family and run wild, and have all the 'fun' you like, and then when it's time to pay for your mistakes, you crawl back to us and expect us to take care of everything. Well it doesn't work that way, Leila. You dug your own grave, now you lie in it."
Leila sat silent through the tirade, then quietly said, "I'm sorry," and hung up. A burning anger flared up in her when she put down the phone. How dare she say those hateful things?
But the anger left as quickly as it had come, as though Leila just didn't have the strength in her body to sustain it. Her mother was right, anyway. It was all her own fault. She had left them. There was no reason why they should accept her now. And she resigned herself to the fact that she was alone in the world. A failure and a disgrace.
* * *
Surrounded by years and years of shavings and the sweet smell of soft pine, the carpenter moves his carving knife skillfully and gracefully across the wood. The figure is beginning to take shape now. The carpenter smiles. It will be another fine work.
* * *
Leila wanted to just curl up on her bed and never get up again, but something kept tugging at her heart, urging her out of her isolation. She couldn't stop thinking of Christmas. In all her years away from home, Leila had forced Christmas from her mind. The memories of happier times were too painful. But now that she was certain that she was seeing her last holiday, Leila couldn't keep Christmas out of her mind.
She found herself aimlessly wandering around the streets, staring at the lights and decorations, watching the busy shoppers move like a sea around her. She felt like she was searching for something, but she didn't know what. And whatever it was, she couldn't find it.
The disease that ravaged her body left her too weak for walk for long, so she simply sat on a park bench and thought. That was the hardest part, thinking. Thinking about all she would miss out on when she died. Thinking about how she would never see her family again, and worst of all, how she would never have a family of her own. She was surprised to find that there was no more room in her heart for bitterness or anger. Only regret and despair.
A light snow began to fall and Leila knew she should go home, but she couldn't seem to remember how to get there, and she couldn't make herself care. As the snow fell harder, her mind became more and more muddled. All her thoughts slipped away before she could grasp them, and tears welled up in her eyes. Not much time left now. Not much time at all.
It surprised her when, through the haze of her thoughts, a little girl stepped up to the bench, and held out a candy cane. Leila took the offered gift and looked questioningly at the little girl with a face like an angel. "Merry Christmas," she whispered then scampered shyly off to grasp her mother's hand. As they left, the little angel turned and waved to Leila. Then they disappeared into the crowd.
Leila stared numbly at the candy cane in her hand. Why would she do that? What was a skinny, sickly looking stranger to a little angel girl, that she would want to wish her a Merry Christmas? She scanned the park to see if she could see the little girl again and thank her, but she couldn't see her anymore.
Instead, her eyes were drawn to a billboard depicting the holy family, all bathed in a soft light. The baby Jesus smiled and reached for his mother, Mary. "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," the billboard proclaimed. Leila stared at it for a long while, and found her thoughts getting muddled again. Her vision blurred until all she could see was the shining face of the Christ Child.
And suddenly she was a young child again, sitting in the warmth of her living room, looking at the Nativity scene while her father told her the story of the first Christmas; of the angels and the shepherds and the wise men and the star, and why they had all come to worship the little baby Jesus. The memory hit her right in the heart.
"Oh, God," Leila gasped. "God, please forgive me. Please help." Then she wept as the cold, numbing snow continued to fall around her.
* * *
The figure is finished now, and the carpenter is pleased. It is a shepherd this time, another humble shepherd. The shepherd is a woman, her face thin and sad. She kneels to worship the Christ Child, and in her hands she holds her gift for Him. Her broken heart.
The carpenter gently sets the shepherd down in his carefully carved Nativity scene to join the countless other worshipers, some shepherds and some kings, who all kneel before the baby Jesus and offer Him their hearts.