Christmas at The Inn
‘Tis the season to be jolly, but we are not, not in the least. Our country has been pulled inside out. Wages have been cut in half. Businesses like mine suffer. Many people have locked their shops and restaurants because there are no patrons, or out of fear of thieves. The banks have closed their cold doors. The hospitals and orphanages are too full to open theirs. Beggar children have multiplied in the streets during the day. Gangs of thugs patrol them at night. The spirit of Christmas is obscured by the hunger in our bellies.
The Inn sits on the hillside of Harissa. The holy hill hugs the seaside, and at the top is the Chapel of Mariam. Pilgrims from neighboring countries visit every Christmas. This season there are few who will brave the terrors of this country, to receive a blessing on the holy site. In front of the chapel is the statue of Mariam. She holds her hands out, like a mother embracing her children. This year she looks like one of us, holding out her hands in desperation.
The Inn was inherited by my late husband from his father. I have taken over it’s management in the past five years, and my daughter helps me. The Inn had always been full during the Christmas season. This year I doubt I can make enough to survive until the middle of the new year. I may be forced to close its doors. Candi and I will have to travel to my parents town, on the other side of the mountains. I fear what might happen to us, a mother and child traveling alone. In the two rooms that are occupied, there is a middle aged couple from Jordan, and two young women from Cyprus. The cold wind haunts the empty rooms. Their old wooden doors creak day and night.
On the morning of Christmas Eve I prepared a simple, yet plentiful breakfast. The guests ate in silence. The country has imparted its depression to all those who come here. The young women spooned their half eaten meals into small cloth bags. I took offense to it. “Are you not satisfied with the meal? It’s been prepared from this summer’s preserves, and my daughter baked bread this morning. You’ll be lucky to find such things outside my doors,” I said to them.
The young woman who had made the reservation said, “Your food is more than satisfactory ma’am, but there are women and children on the road. I can’t pass them without feeling guilty for having a full belly. That’s why we’re sharing our food.”
“Bless you. Out of desperation, most of us have forgotten to be so generous,” I said.
After the guests had left on their pilgrimage up the hillside I cleaned the dining room and kitchen. Candi made the beds and swept the floors, and then we waited for the sun to set and the guests to come back from their pilgrimage. We sat on the porch and sipped our tea. These days have worn out our emotions; we didn’t have much to say to each other. Candi stopped asking questions about the situation. Being together was more important than anything else. Some families had to separate to survive. Husbands had left their wives to find work, and mothers had abandoned their children in orphanages knowing that at least they’d be fed. We were the lucky ones, but I didn’t know how much longer luck would lead us.
“Mom, mom,” Candi was pulling at my sleeve. “We’ve got guests.”
A young couple materialized in front of me. I hadn’t seen them approaching. I’d been lost in thought. The woman was pregnant, and looked like she would collapse from exhaustion.
“Come dear, have a seat.” I stood up and offered her mine. “How’d you get here? You couldn’t have walked all the way.”
“Indeed we did,” The man spoke up. “We’re heading to her family’s house, so that she can give birth there. We left three days ago, but we were robbed along the way. Our horse was stolen too. May you help us?” He looked away from me. I sensed his shame. “Please. It’s only for one night. I’ll pay you back, sometime. I promise.”
Candi looked up at me. I knew what she was thinking; it was Christmas Eve. I thought of all the other destitute people that I had turned away, as I didn’t want to open up a poor house. “Come on in; its getting cold out here.”
The woman whispered thank you, and started to cry. I started a fire in the hall, and Candi dutifully made up one of the empty rooms. The pilgrims came back. The eight of us sat near the fire. We roasted chestnuts, and told traditional stories everyone tells on Christmas Eve. I laughed for the first time in a long while. The Inn had transformed into a homey place. We were like long lost relatives who’d been brought together after many years of separation. Candi was the happiest one among us. She hadn’t lost her childhood innocence. The situation hadn’t jaded her like I thought it had. I felt relieved.
In the early morning, a knock at the door woke up Candi and me. It was the young man. “My wife is giving birth.”
Candi heated up a pot of water, and I scrambled to gather clean blankets and towels. With all my clatter, the other guests had woken up to see what was the matter. All the women gathered in her room, while the father to be and the man from Jordan waited in the hall. The young woman’s labor was slow, but that was to be expected for the first born baby. While we waited, the woman from Jordan whispered to me, “This birth is a blessing.”
At dawn, a baby girl was born. Everyone staying at The Inn held her. The girls’ birth had consummated our bond as family. As the sun rose over the mountains, visitors came to The Inn with gifts for the baby girl and her parents. Strangers, dressed in peculiar clothes, offered her food, spices, oils and stones. Her parents cried at the sight of the bounty that surrounded them. We cried with them.
After the foreign visitors left, the father laid out the foodstuffs. “A portion of this is for us to eat, and the rest will be given to the poor.” He looked at the pilgrims. “Before you leave this country make sure it gets distributed.” Then he turned to me, “This is for you. Thanks for all that you have done.” He pressed a gold coin into my hand. I refused. I insisted that he save it for his daughter.
“Keep it for your daughter. We have enough to get by. The visitors were very generous,” he added.
“Who were those people? Are you nobility?” I doubted he was. He had the face of a peasant.
“I’m a simple farmer,” he said. “Those generous strangers must have been a miracle of Christmas. I don’t know how else to explain it.”
“Thank you,” I squeezed my hand.
One of the visitors had tied up his horse, and then left The Inn without it. I sensed that he had intended to leave it for the couple and their baby, so they could make their way home safely. The four pilgrims, Candi and I piled up our old sledge with food, herbs, spices and blankets. We spent all day distributing the gifts to as many people that we could reach on foot. The Christmas spirit had come to The Inn, and we were intent on sharing it. Our generosity brought a little bit of hope to people who had forgotten it. Hope was the bread that filled their bellies, and made them smile. Hope was a blanket that kept children warm a night. Hope was giving and receiving with nothing between.