There’s something familiar about this place.
This was a strange thought, considering the sky was made of sapphire blue cellophane paper and the stars of gleaming aluminum foil. A casual breeze was wafting over the top of the hill on which I stood, playfully tousling my hair, and the lime green blades of tissue paper grass covering the slopes were dancing along with it. I took a deep breath. A plethora of mixed scents—not surprisingly, paper was about the only one I recognized—rode the restless night air, adding to the already odd atmosphere of my whereabouts.
Where am I?
I started down the path on which I had found myself, in the hope of learning more about my surroundings. The path seemed to be made of orange colored sand, and above me shone a moon broader and brighter than any I had ever seen, a perfectly rounded, fluorescent lightbulb hanging over my head. On my left, half the sky was missing stars, and I was looking out into nothing but empty space, unlit and boundless. Perhaps tonight, our celestial neighbors had forgotten to turn on their porch lights.
The bottom of the hill was cloaked by a mantle of cardboard pine trees, painted in a variety of green shades—pear, shamrock and moss. Snow had powdered their tops and gathered in small mounds on the ground around them, sparkling under the albino moonlight with a metallic, unnatural luster. I scooped up a small amount in my hands, but it quickly trickled through my fingers. Glitter. Some of the tiny reflective flakes stuck to my palms, impossible to brush off.
Apart from the occasional whoosh of glitter-snow sliding down from the treetops, and a few scampering critters (composed from paper or cardboard), nothing disrupted the graveyard silence as I continued to walk. But despite the mystifying nature of the place, the unshakable sense of familiarity persisted.
Was this some kind of memory?
At last, I stepped out of the forest onto an open prairie of rolling hills, although thankfully not nearly as steep as the one on which I had started. Pockets of bushes and fields of tall grass spread out all around me. I cleared the first hill and stopped at the unusual sight—or rather, what would have constituted one at any other place but here.
At the side of the trail was a blue shoe box lying on its side, its lid still on and intact. The box was tattered and slightly faded, and at easily seven feet high, it towered above me. A flock of sheep were grazing lazily around it, only a couple of them even noticing my presence. The pair’s thick coats were made of cotton wool, the one table salt white, the other dyed coal tar black. They gazed at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to do something. Having never encountered a giant shoe box before, I did the only logical thing: I grabbed the edge of the box’s lid, and pulled until it fell to the ground.
Inside the box, a tall man seemed to be sleeping soundly in a standing position. He was wearing long robes, a bright yellow cape, and a kind of shawl on his head that, together with the animals outside, made me think of a shepherd from somewhere far in the biblical past. He had brown cardboard skin, a curly black beard, and a pointy, angular nose. Slowly, his painted eyes opened, blinked a couple of times, and then came to focus on me.
“Is it time?” he asked, rubbing the sleep from his face.
For some reason, I neither questioned this cardboard shepherd’s existence, nor the fact that he was clearly speaking to me.
I simply answered, “Time for what?”
Without replying, he stepped out of the box and surveyed our surroundings.
“If I may say so, the sky is still a little . . . lacking.”
“Could you tell me where we are?”
Again, no answer. Annoyance was starting to take over from my bewilderment. He turned to face me once more.
“Did you happen by any chance to come across my crook outside?”
I shook my head.
“I developed a rather bothersome limp a few years ago,” he explained. “It has become somewhat laborious to walk without support since then. Oh well.”
A short distance away, next to a small, unassuming pond, chenille stems had been shaped into a variety of waterside flowers—lilies, irises and lotuses—as well as into clusters of cattail rushes. They looked like the results of a gigantic school art project. I plucked the largest stalk I could find—about the same height as me—out of the tufted marsh, and bent the top into a hook.
“Here,” I said. “This might work.”
The shepherd took the improvised crook from me, leaned on it, and smiled. “Ah, yes. Much better. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I answered. “What’s your name?”
He thought for a moment, his cardboard brow creasing.
“Hmm. I do not believe I was ever given one.”
Before I could form the next question, he started walking down the sandy path away from me, the white and black pair of sheep following behind. He peered back over his shoulder.
“Come with me,” he beckoned.
Without knowing what else to do, and keen to stay with the one person I could talk to in this place, I decided to go with him.
“Where are we going?”
“To see what awaits us at the end of the path, of course.”
As we trod the gentle, sinuous hills, we were joined by a chirping, croaking chorus emanating from deep within the swaying prairie grass. I reflected upon my current situation. How long had I been here? Was this all happening inside my head? Was I ever going to get back to . . . to where? Whatever there had been before this, it was a prologue I had no recollection of ever reading. There was only this dream, only this obscure yet captivating place.
For a while, we walked in silence.
Then, without really expecting a response, I asked, “I don’t suppose you know why I’m here?”
To my surprise, the shepherd looked back at me and replied.
“I do not know. But I have a feeling we will find out soon. Look.” He gestured ahead of us. “We are almost there.”
We were leaving the prairie now. Ahead of us loomed an austere, barren ascent to the crest of the next hill.
After a short but arduous climb, another copse of trees came into view, followed by the outline of a roof. Though I could not see it, I could hear rushing water; a river had to be only a short distance away.
“We are here,” the shepherd said softly.
We had arrived at an ample clearing. At its center was a humble structure, surrounded by a square fence made of gnarled branches. I opened the gate and we stepped through. In front of us, slabs of dark cork had been used to construct the back and side walls of an open-fronted, single stall stable. A thick layer of moss was growing on its roof and mounds of chopped hay covered the floor. Old-man’s beard, tangled and tufted, dangled from the eaves. Another small flock of indifferent sheep idled on the other side of the building, and a papier-mâché ox and donkey lay placidly in the hay.
Under the green-carpeted roof, a cardboard man and woman were kneeling on either side of a blanket that had been spread out on the floor. With his long beard, staff and tunic, the man looked very much like the shepherd, although the cape on this man’s back was a rich crimson. The woman was dressed in sky blue robes and had a white veil covering her head and shoulders. Somehow, despite her cardboard flesh, her features seemed soft, benign. Her eyes were shaped like almonds, and there was a distinctive motherly quality about her.
She looked up at me, and, without knowing why, I instantly averted my eyes. When I dared look up again, she was smiling warmly at me, and then her gaze returned to the blanket.
It wasn’t just a blanket though. There was something underneath it.
Something I . . .
A memory stirred in my mind and the words jumped from my lips.
“I know where I am.”
The shepherd had not been certain of anything much, except for this: the man was supposed to realize where he was by himself.
“That’s baby Jesus,” the man gasped. “Under the blanket. I remember now. We had this tradition that he’d stay covered up until the twenty-fifth. This is the nativity scene I made when I was twelve!”
His retreating hairline and emerging crow’s feet were a testament to the passage of time, but, for the shepherd, the wide-eyed man in front of him would always remain a child.
“Where are the Wise Men?” the man asked. His eyes darted around, as though trying to take in everything at once. “Ahh, of course. They’re not supposed to arrive until January.” His joyous laugh echoed around the clearing. “I’d completely forgotten about this. My mother never cared much for our neighbors’ nativities, you know. They all looked the same, like the models you could find just about anywhere. She encouraged us to make our own, to make them special to us.”
The shepherd remembered well; the woman certainly used to do things differently. Every December, she and her children—three boys and a girl—would sit around the dinner table and craft nativity figures. They made everything from scratch, including Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, the Wise Men, and the occasional shepherd. Cardboard, chenille stems, papier mâché and even plasticine were among the many materials employed by the family over the years to bring their creations to life. It was part of their own Christmas tradition, and one for which the shepherd had a particular affection. After all, it was how he had come to be.
The child-man was shaking his head.
“That year, I somehow got it into my head that I needed to create the most amazing nativity scene ever. I worked non-stop for two weeks straight, including late into the night the day before Christmas.”
He laughed again, and his face was once more, if only fleetingly, the one the shepherd remembered so fondly. He could picture the boy now, hunched over his project for hours on end, until his young back ached and his face had become pale and expressionless.
“You were very dedicated.”
This whole place had, in fact, been the boy’s idea. Besides the obligatory stable, his nativity scene had been intended to include arresting landscapes full of star-strewn skies, rolling hills and snow-covered forests. Unfortunately, he had seriously underestimated the amount of work needed to put together a display of such sweeping scale and lavish, elaborate detail. Even beyond that Christmas, it had remained forever unfinished, evidenced by the area of sky devoid of stars.
“Sometimes,” the shepherd added, as gently as he could, “you were a bit too ambitious for your own good.”
The man’s smile was bittersweet, drawing fine lines around his mouth. This new detail brought home to the shepherd just how much time had passed since he had last seen his once familiar face.
Those few weeks every December had always been particularly wonderful. He could enjoy being outside the confinement of the dust-gathering shoe box, outside the stuffy, cobweb-riddled attic, in which he was otherwise entombed along with the other Christmas decorations. The rest of the year, there was nothing but dark indifference, but, in December, his world was full of love and light.
The final days before Christmas were always hectic, but also full of magic. In addition to helping her children craft nativity figures, the woman would spend whole days preparing the ingredients needed to make hallacas, the traditional Venezuelan dish for the holidays, hundreds of them. The whole family would then convene in the kitchen, overrun with mountains of smoked, washed and trimmed olive-green plantain leaves, and get to work wrapping them—assembly line style—around the enticing concoctions of corn dough filled with meat stew, bell peppers, olives, capers and raisins.
Although the shepherd had never eaten anything himself, his painted mouth had always inexplicably begun to water when the delicious smells started wafting from the kitchen. He would also contemplate the side table, permanently crammed throughout the holidays with torrones, colorful Jordan almonds, pan de jamón and homemade chocolates.
“There was always so much food and music in your house,” he said to the man. “But what has stayed with me the most is . . . how much your mother loved you all.”
The man’s jaw tightened, lips pressing into a harsh line. His eyes became clouded, gray, and somber, a storm gathering behind them.
“Yeah. She sure did.”
He turned sharply and stalked out of the enclosure, heading down the continuation of the sand path towards the river. The shepherd followed, concerned by this sudden change in mood, the white and black sheep staying close by his side.
Bright blue threads of yarn were hurrying downstream, impatiently weaving around worn, polished rocks. White yarn churned where the water reluctantly split around the boulders before rejoining the flow.
A paper bridge spanned the width of the river. The man was standing in the middle, watching the current disappear beneath his feet. There was a new tightness in his shoulders.
The shepherd quietly walked over to him.
“Is something wrong?”
The man didn’t take his eyes off the water.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Why don’t you try to explain?”
The man sighed.
“Alright.” He took a moment, seemed to gather his thoughts. “I know she did the best she could, and it couldn’t have been easy, raising us all by herself. I know money was tight sometimes, and that she never let us really feel it. There was always a roof over our heads and food on the table. I’m fully aware of how ungrateful everything else I say will sound . . .”
His voice was pained. This was no mere thought just sprung to life. This was a splinter lodged deep in his mind. Perhaps momentarily forgotten in the joy of discovery and recognition, but, in the stillness, reemerging.
“Maybe it was because I was the eldest,” he continued. “When my father . . . Well, I unofficially became the man of the house, didn’t I?” He glanced up at the shepherd, as if seeking affirmation. The shepherd nodded. His companion turned back and leaned over the bridge’s paper ledge. “It sometimes felt like she’d actually forgotten I was her son.”
He took a deep breath, as if the next thing he wanted to say had a physical weight to it.
“There was one night . . . It was quite late. The two of us were out in the backyard, putting out the fire we’d used for cooking. I finally worked up the guts to ask her if she—” He looked up at the foil stars. “If she loved me. You see, that’s when I realized she’d never actually said it, not to me at least. I just had to hear it, just once.” He laughed, but this time it was hollow and humorless. “She rolled her eyes and called me silly, but the fact she was so dismissive just made it worse. It fed the doubt. She simply refused to say it, not even to humor me. After that, I never asked again.”
The man fell silent and gently tapped the bridge wall with his foot. The black sheep trotted up to him, nuzzling his leg with her nose, and he absentmindedly stroked her fur.
Here it was, at last.
The shepherd allowed the silence to linger a little longer, and then cleared his throat.
“Let me tell you a story.”
The man’s posture did not change, but his head turned slightly.
“One morning, during the December in which you decided to create this world, your aunt came to see your mother. She was beside herself; her husband had decided to leave her, and she could not afford a place of her own. Your mother told her to calm down, and, when she did, gave her a generous amount of money to help her get back on her feet. Unfortunately, helping her sister meant she no longer had enough money to buy presents for you children.”
“What are you talking about?” the man asked, frowning. “I got a BMX GT Performer that Christmas. I know that for a fact, because there was nothing I wanted more that year than that bike. How did she get me one if she didn’t have enough money? And how on earth would you know?”
“Because I happened to be present when she asked to borrow some from your father.”
“It was your last day of school that year. He came by the house while you children were all out, and she explained the situation to him. He agreed to loan her the money . . . If she knelt down and begged him for it.”
The man’s mouth fell open.
The smirk on the ex-husband’s face—a man who had been absent by every significant measure from his children’s lives—would forever be etched on the shepherd’s mind. His eyes had been wide and gleeful when he spoke that vile condition, tantalized by her humiliation, the chance to test the boundaries of her pride.
“She did not hesitate. Not for a second.”
Momentarily unable to speak, the man finally stammered, “I-I didn’t know. She never said anything to me.”
“Your mother was a tough woman. She had to be. Perhaps she wasn’t as affectionate as you would have liked her to be, but that never meant what you understood it to mean.”
The shepherd let himself relax a little. He had guided his charge on the journey he needed to take, and now his task was done.
“You asked, earlier, if I knew why you were here. I do now. It was so that you could understand.”
The stiffness in the man’s shoulders was melting away, the intangible weight he had been carrying for so many years finally lifted. He looked almost limp, and, for a moment, the shepherd wondered whether he would need to step forward and catch him.
Around them, the night burst into bright colors. It was as if some invisible hand had switched on a set of Christmas lights above them, and their benevolent, multicolored glow was now bathing every corner of this little world.
The man looked up, his face softly illuminated in amber, red, green, and yellow.
“I forgot about these. My mother always drowned everything in . . .” He trailed off, then looked down at the river again and smiled.
“It is nearly Christmas,” the shepherd said, gazing at the full moon up in the sky.
The man abruptly turned around and began hurrying back up the sand path, towards the stable.
“Where are you going?”
When he turned to look back, the man’s smile filled his entire face.
“I’ve got kids of my own, you know. It’s not too late to help them make their own nativity scenes.” His smile became a little more earnest, but no less warm. “Thank you.”
With that, he turned once more, and continued his path up and over the hill, heading in the direction from which they had first come and eventually disappearing into the landscape he had created so many years ago, when he was just a twelve-year-old boy.