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Chapter 23

Declan asked Elder Pondyakov, head of Citizen Services, if he could do an extra stint with the Phulake Guards rather then move on to the Caring Center for Young Children for their next intern requirement. He was convinced that he would not be much good directing children seeing as they wouldn’t take him seriously. “They’ll mistake me for a toddler and bury me in the sand box,” he argued, but his request was denied.

Andre wasn’t that fussed about it. He had enough past experience with his cousins to know what to do with a diaper wearing, drool-faced infant. He could think of better things to do with his time, but like everything else, went along with it because he had to.

Since it was nearly Christmas, it was the interns’ job to not only learn what it took to nurture and care for dozens of demanding children, but to provide them a little holiday cheer with some arts and crafts and maybe a little song and dance. Glitter and glue became their new friends. Colorful stickers were a hit with the three- and four-year-olds, and the classroom swarming with crawlers and teethers was easily subdued with crackers. Svana turned out to be a hit with her endless energy and fearless imagination.

“They love you, Svana.” AJ laughed while watching her crawl around on the floor chasing ten two-year-olds with a purple elephant hand puppet. “I think you’ve found your calling.”

There was at least one positive which could be said about interning in Child Care. They might end each morning exhausted and smelling of diaper pails, but they were leaving with hug after hug from tiny pudgy arms full of gratitude for snacks and attention.

The interns spent their last morning at the Caring Center catching snowflakes on their tongues with excited pre-schoolers in the play yard as a swirl of festive white fluttered to the ground. The first snowfall of the year arrived just before Christmas, and the interns moved into their holiday break looking forward to some much needed rest and celebration.

On Christmas Eve, Andre and Davi rose early to help Laken in the barn while the girls joined Demi in the kitchen to prepare breakfast. There would be more baking and roasting throughout the morning. The weather was breezy and overcast with a thin layer of snow remaining on the ground from the first fall, but it was cozy indoors by the stove with cups of cocoa and board games to enjoy.

Demi took a break from the oven to visit her sister in the afternoon. She enlisted the help of the kids to transport an armload of wrapped gifts and baked goods. Laken and Andre took advantage of the quiet to enjoy a leisurely walk around the farm. They checked on the sheep and completed a few small chores before returning to the warmth of the house. After helping themselves to a few of Demi’s coquitos meant for the feast the next day, they fell asleep in comfy armchairs in the sitting room.

For the evening meal, Andre’s aunt put together a roast chicken with beans and rice followed by sweet bread and custard for dessert. They sat around the table long after the food was gone, drinking cider and listening to the girls recite their song pieces for the children’s program at the Alleluia House in the morning. Feronia continuously changed the words to Away in the Manger just to infuriate her older sister until she was in giggles. Viva screamed and chased her into the adjoining room where there was a crash as they collided with the Christmas tree.

Demi jumped up, shouting in Spanish for them to stop their nonsense before they destroyed the tree and put an end to Christmas.

Limpie y ayudar a su madre en la cocina,” Lakin instructed lightly, too relaxed to get worked up over his daughters’ behavior. “Did you hear me girls?”

Si, Papa!” they called from the sitting room and hurried to obey.

Demi reached for the broom and dustpan from the hall closet and handed them off with a suppressed smile. “Hurry and sweep up the mess,” she told them. “I can handle the dishes. You need to bathe and prepare for bed. Your stockings are not even up in the window. Would you want Papá Noel to forget you?”

The girls jumped to life, rushing to clean up broken ornament pieces before running down the hall to the washroom.

“We’ve got this, tía,” Andre and Davi took the dirty plates from the table and insisted that Demi and Laken leave them to the washing.

As their aunt and uncle found comfortable seats in the other room, laughter and splashing drifted down the hall from the tub. Laken handed Demi her guitar from its case in the corner, and she strummed a carol and sang in a rich, low alto.

“Noche de paz, noche de amor,

Todo duerme en derredor.

Entre sus Astros que esparcen su luz…”

The boys took their time at the kitchen sink with their elbows deep in hot suds, careful not to make too much noise so they wouldn’t miss the song. Aunt Demi sounded very much like Imani when she sang.

Christmas dawned bright with light flurries of flakes melting on the window panes. Squeals of delight rang from the sitting room and woke Andre from a deep sleep as the girls discovered their stockings full of treats and presents. He lay under the warm covers as long as possible before the aroma of Demi’s omelets and fried sausage made it impossible to doze any longer.

The girls were allowed their stockings, but the gifts needed to wait until they had sat down to breakfast. Laken gave thanks for their many blessings, and they dug in while Demi made a verbal list of all the things she needed to bring to the village. There was no more time for leisure. They would need to hurry if they were going to make it to the morning service at the worship house on time.

Feronia took the job of gift bearer and passed out packages from under the tree to each family member around the table. Andre was thankful for his aunt and uncle’s gift of a suitcase for his Therapon trip next year, and Davi was pleased for a new pair of soccer cleats he sorely needed. Viva and Feronia exclaimed excitedly over new skirts and dolls dressed to match before they rushed off to prepare for the program.

Even though the Flacos thought Christmas belonged to the kids, the boys had not forgotten Laken and Demi. They had spent some time on the Agoge computers in the art department and came up with a personalized family crest with a ram horn design and a delicate quill feather as a backdrop to signify Demi’s abilities as an author. They had stenciled the design in wood, and Davi had used a jigsaw and chisel in his industrial arts class to cut the intricate pieces, adhering them to a polished plaque to be hung on a wall.

Their aunt and uncle were well pleased with the gift. Demi grabbed them each in a fierce hug with moist eyes while Laken proudly got out a hammer and nail and found the perfect place to hang it on a sitting room wall. “Feliz Navidad, my boys.” Demi held them close with an arm around both. “I love it.”

With the gift giving over, they hurried to get dressed and packed the vehicles with what they needed to bring to town. The roads to Kentro were busy with traffic filled with the smiling faces of well-wishers waving out of open windows and calling to friendly faces. The chime of “Merry Christmas!” rang like bells around Metoche as the Koinonians gathered beneath the open beams of the Alleluia House before the start of the Christmas service. Benches were filled and blankets laid out on the floor for seating. The overflow stood around the fire troughs and warmed their hands in the flames as the musicians tuned their instruments at the center of the worship house. Demi disappeared with the girls to get them in line with their classmates before the start of the children’s portion of the service. Laken joined one of the groups around a fire, and Davi slipped into the crowd to find his friends.

Andre spotted Declan and AJ across the courtyard but did not join them before finding Costa to wish him a Merry Christmas.

Buon Natale, Agabus.” He shook the prophet’s hand without standing from his seat near one of the Alleluia House columns. The holy man was with his people in good spirit but did not have the strength to share a message quite yet. Komer Turay would continue his duties and speak to the congregation in Costa’s absence.

“You’re looking well,” Andre observed, sitting at the edge of an open bench close by.

“I feel sufficient,” Costa responded with an expression not unpleasant. “It is a beautiful day to be alive.”

They had not spoken about the cave-in since Andre gave the komer the news over the phone. Neither of them had even brought it up with any of the elders. When Laken and Demi had mentioned it at home, Andre had refused to answer any questions and they quickly understood he would not address it in any way. The elders were the heads of society. Their choices were their own.

“I have learned that you no longer visit your mother,” Costa spoke, shifting his bad leg to a more comfortable position.

“Oh, yeah,” Andre responded. “I thought it would be better. For her,” he added.

Costa nodded slowly while considering this. “Yes, I have thought of this myself,” he responded vaguely with his gaze drifting dreamily to the ceiling of the worship house and remaining there. “Don’t let me keep you, Agabus. I am honored by your company, but I believe there are others who desire to give you their Christmas greetings. Tell Jora I say hello.”

“Yes, sir.” Andre smiled and got up. “Will you be staying for the party?”

“For part of it, yes,” the komer replied.

“Good. I’ll see you later then.” He hesitated as if expecting Costa to look at him again before he left, but he did not. Nodding, Andre gave one last quick goodbye and worked his way through the maze of benches and people to where he had last seen his friends.

A choir joined the accompaniment of the musicians and began to lead the people in worship by starting the service off with a familiar Christmas hymn. Declan and AJ had joined the twins at the Kirkeby bench and they slid down to make room so Andre could stand beside Jora for the singing. She surprised him by reaching out and hugging him briefly, speaking close to his ear so he could hear over the music.

God jul, Andre.”

“Merry Christmas,” he responded as she stepped back with a twinkling smile, looking pleased with herself, and joining in with the chorus of voices rising to the rafters.

Andre was beginning to have an even greater appreciation for Christmas, and he sang along with the others despite the fact that he was not a very confident vocalist.

The services lasted well into the early afternoon with performances from the musicians and choir, the procession of young classes with their rehearsed recitations and songs, and Komer Turay’s message on the Greatness of Theos’ love. No one paid any attention to the time or length of the service, moving in and out of the shelter of the Alleluia House when they got tired of sitting to stand near the fires or remove their children to let them run off energy in the Metoche garden. Eventually the last hymn was sung, and Turay released them with a departing prayer. The Community Center was opened where tables held an array of refreshments and a buffet style arrangement of food. Games of soccer and cricket were arranged in the streets, babies were bedded down in the Care Center, and benches and chairs were spread out all across Metoche Circle for groups to gather and fellowship. Old men grabbed gear and walked down to the pier to toss in their lines, and young people jumped into dinghies for leisurely rides around the bay within the Hupsoma boundary. It was an all day celebration, and everyone made the most of it.

The clouds cleared by sundown; the sky was a brilliant dome of winter stars, easy to see since the moon had yet to rise. The fires were built up in the courtyard and the Koinonians gathered from every corner of the village to reunite in songs and good cheer late into the night. Andre requested permission from Mr. Kirkeby to sit with Jora on a bench against the north facing storefront of a book distributor some distance from all the bustle and noise within the worship house. He kept her tiny hand warm within his where they rested on the bench between them.

“Oh, Dre look!” She pointed to the sky beyond the tip of Bethel Peak. “The Northern Lights! We never get to see them here, the sky is never clear enough.” She sank contently against the backrest of the bench with a smile. “That’s amazing. Papa always tells us about how brilliant they looked from his farm when he was little.”

Andre couldn’t help laughing out loud. He was watching the sky as she was but seeing a completely different picture.

“What?” Jora looked at him with the glint of the Market lanterns catching in her eyes.

“Nothing, it’s just, Chesed—the…the Panoplia like the lights too,” he told her while Chesed and Shamira flew in front of the stunning arcs of the aurora high above the northern tip of the island.

Jora looked from him to the sky and back again. “What are they doing?” she asked. “Tell me what it looks like.”

It was not that easy to describe. “Well, they’re racing.” He traced a line in the air with his finger as if to mimic the action in the air. “They like to do that. They’re kind of competitive sometimes.”

“The spirits like to have fun?” Jora was trying hard to picture it.

Andre laughed again, “Of course. They’re creations of Theos aren’t they?”

“What else?” She draped his arm around her shoulders and scooted closer.

Andre tried hard to concentrate on the sky and the Panoplia’s version of a Christmas party. “They’re singing,” he told her.

Jora released a small gasp of delight. “Like carols?”

“Sort of.” He didn’t know how best to describe the sound. “But more sad.”

She looked back at him with eyebrows nit in confusion.

“Christmas isn’t exactly a happy remembrance for them,” he explained carefully, wanting to express the Panoplia’s mood correctly. “It’s like…” he searched for the right comparison, “like recalling the day a King goes off to war.”

Those stunning eyes opened wide in understanding and awe.

“You should hear them at Easter,” Andre added. “That’s pretty awesome.”

Jora looked up at the color-filled sky with longing. “I wish I could.”

“You will,” Andre told her with certainty, “someday.”

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