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Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Thimble

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The Thimble

The following Christmas Story appeared inthe December 25th Remnant Newspaper. To read the full Christmas issue, Subscribe Today!
_________

It was Christmas Eve, and the city was quiet. A new virus had struck. Global officials declared a pandemic, warning that the disease was wildly contagious and deadly. Everyone was staying inside. Gatherings were forbidden, and travel was restricted.  The churches were closed, but that didn’t really matter. People had stopped going anyway.

In an apartment on Monroe Street, the living room was dark except for a single light in the window and the glow of the computer screen. Lilly Bergen sat at her desk, mindlessly swirling a cup of coffee while she waited for the online compliance training to begin. Finally, her cell phone buzzed an alert. The session began.

Setting her mug down, Lilly leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes and half-listened as Dr. Ravi Chimalakonda, Director of Health Certification, explained the new protocols in singsong detail.

Lilly forced herself to pay attention. There would be an examination at the end of the presentation. She had to pass. Without an update to her permit, she could not leave her apartment.

Her phone beeped, and she glanced down at it. There was a text from her friend and upstairs neighbor, Jasmine O’Hara, with a one-word message: Busy?

Lilly tapped back: Free at five.

Go for a walk? Jasmine answered. Get some exercise?

Sure.

I’ll come down.

Dr. Chimalakonda finished talking, Lilly took the test, then tapped her fingers on the desk while she waited for her results. The email came through ten minutes later. She’d passed. Breathing a sigh of relief, she typed the verification code into her mobile health app, printed out a card in case her phone went dead, and turned off her computer.

“Can’t stand this stuff,” she muttered to herself. “So stupid.”

It was nearly five o’clock when Jasmine rang the doorbell.

“Hey, it’s good to see a human face!” Lilly cried as she opened the door, then caught herself. Jasmine was masked up to her eyelids. “Half of it, anyway! Come on in.”

“Better not. I’ll wait out here.”

“Brother,” Lilly said. “Nobody’s going to see you.”

“You never know.”

“Are you still working from home?”

“Yeah, I think it’s forever.”

Lilly shook her head. “I’ve been online all day. Just finished that stupid compliance training. Just got my new code. Do you have yours?”

“Yup. Got it yesterday.”

“Good. Let’s get some fresh air.” Lilly grabbed her coat out of the closet. The top button was hanging by a thread; and as she slipped her arm in the sleeve, the button fell off. Frowning, she picked it up and dropped it in her pocket. Can’t fix it now. I’ll have to order some thread. She wrapped a scarf around her neck, put on her gloves and headed back to the open door.

“It’s snowy pretty hard,” Jasmine said.

Lilly glanced down at Jasmine’s mukluks. “I’d better get my boots.”

“And your mask.”

“For what? We’ll be outside.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jasmine said. “New rules. Don’t tell me you forgot already?”

“Sure did.” Lilly scrounged in her coat pocket for a mask. “Bet you can get memory loss from these things … besides acne and eye infections and who knows what else …”

Jasmine pulled her black knit cap down over her forehead. “Careful, girl. You gotta watch yourself. Last thing you want is for the HealthSecure guys to hear you talk like that. Besides, we have to do what we can to keep the community safe.”

Lilly shook the mask at her. “And this is going to do it? Give me a break.”

As they left the building, thousands of LED rope lights flicked on in the trees.

“Hey!” Jasmine cried. “They got the lights back on! Cool!”

Lilly glanced up at the flashing lights, then looked away. They were too bright, and the colors were garish. But that wasn’t all that bothered her. The worst thing was that the lights didn’t mean anything. They had nothing to do with the Christ Child. They were “winter lights,” nothing more. Christmas had been swallowed up.

Nothing matters anymore, she thought glumly, as they crossed the street. The Church was in eclipse. The Kingdom of God was in shadows.  There were no Nativity scenes, no Christmas trees, no carols. But since there had to be something to mark the holidays, the Unity Lamp, a sign of peace and harmony, was introduced.  An electronic light, flickering orange, was to be placed in every front window from dusk to dawn. No household was exempt.

__________

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___________

And just what was that supposed to mean? Lilly wondered. So now people are supposed to believe in a light bulb?

Better not to think about it.

Lilly tucked her scarf under her coat where the button was missing, then held out her gloved hand.

“What are you doing?” Jasmine asked.

“Catching snowflakes,” Lilly said. “Didn’t you used to do that when you were a kid?”

“Yeah. When I was a kid.”

“Isn’t it wonderful, though? No two snowflakes alike?”

“You believe that?”

“Of course I do.”

Jasmine shrugged.

Lilly brushed the snow off her gloves. “Do you ever think about how Christmas used to be?”

“Not much.”

“We used to go to Midnight Mass. Did you?”

“That’s ancient history.”

“I know, but I miss it.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not coming back.” Jasmine adjusted her mask. “There really wasn’t anything to it, anyway.”

Lilly was quiet. Was that true? Her eyes burned. It couldn’t be. Could it?

They were halfway down the block when Lilly noticed that the house on the corner was dark.

 “Look at that house,” she said.

“What about it?”

“There’s no Unity Lamp in the window.”

“Maybe nobody lives there.”

“It doesn’t look abandoned. Maybe their light burned out and they didn’t notice. We’d better go tell them.”

 “You gotta be kidding,” Jasmine said, then pulled out her phone to check the time. “Besides, it’s almost curfew. The ComPatrol is going to be out any minute. We should turn back.”

“Just a sec.” Lilly stood staring at the house. There was no sign of movement inside. “We need to warn them. They could get arrested. That happened to this lady I know. She smashed her Unity Lamp, so they hauled her away.”

“She should’ve known better.”

“Still …”

Just then, the curfew alert sounded, piercing the silence like an air raid siren. It was fifteen minutes to lockdown. Jasmine blocked her ears. “No way am I gonna get caught out here. Come on, let’s go.”

Lilly didn’t move. “I can’t. You go.”

“Would you please just follow the rules?”

“I’m worried about those people.”

“That’s crazy. You don’t even know them.”

“Doesn’t matter. Go on now.”

“Okay, I’m going. But you should come with me ...” She headed back, muttering about people being dumb, then stopped and called over her shoulder, “Text me when you get home, okay?”

“Will do. And, hey, Jasmine …”

“What?”

“Merry Christmas.”

“Sh! Not so loud!”

 The blinds were closed when Lilly got to the darkened house. Feeling a little foolish, she rang the doorbell. No one answered. She rapped on the door. Again, no answer. She was turning to leave, when she heard a cough.

“Is somebody there?” Lilly called. “Are you all right?”

A woman answered. “I’m not hurt, but I can’t get up.”

“How can I help?”

“Would you consider coming in?”

“Of course.”

“There’s a key under the flowerpot.”

“I’ll get it.”

“You’re not afraid?”

“Nope.” Wouldn’t matter if I was, Lily thought.

“I would be so grateful,” the woman said. “Thank you.”

Lilly found the key, opened the door and stepped inside. The room was dim; the only light was a votive candle burning on a shelf beneath a picture of Mary and Baby Jesus. A small Nativity set was beside it. The creche was empty.

A tiny old woman, gray-haired, in a house dress and cable-knit sweater was sitting on the floor, leaning against a cushioned armchair. A sewing basket was on the side table, and a few quilt squares were scattered on the rug beside her.

“Hello,” Lilly said as she closed the door. “Okay if I turn on some lights?”

“Yes, but not the Unity Lamp.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. I lit it before, but I just couldn’t today. Not on Christmas Eve.”

“You’ll get in trouble.”

“I know.” The old woman smiled up at her. “What’s your name?”

“Lilly. Lilly Bergen.”

“I am Mrs. Olsson. Hannah.”

How’d you end up on the floor?”

“It was rather stupid of me,” Hannah said. “I was hemming a patch for a quilt, and I dropped my thimble. I reached to get it and down I went. Slid right off my chair.” She sighed. “It’s been a few hours. I can’t move my legs.”

“Well, let’s get you off the floor,” Lilly said. “You’re pretty little. Maybe if you wrap your arms around my neck, I can lift you to your chair.”

“Perhaps we should ask our angels to assist you.”

“Okay, but…”

“I’m sorry,” Hannah said. “I assumed you were Catholic.”

“I am.

“But you don’t believe in angels.”

“Do you think they’re real?”

“Of course they’re real. Everything the Church teaches is real. Now then, shall we ask them?”

Lilly had never met anyone with such faith. “Sure,” she said softly. “Let’s do it.”

Angels of God …” Hannah began.

As they prayed, Lilly glanced down at the stable. Her eyes fell on St. Joseph, and she blinked. She felt like he was looking straight at her, right through layers of unbelief, through old doubts wrapped around her heart like a shroud. There was a look on the holy patriarch’s face, a look she recognized. It was the same look her father used to have when she didn’t do what he had asked her to do. A look of reproach. Her eyes burned.

She managed to lift Hannah back in her chair, then laid the afghan over her knees. Picking up the quilt pieces, she set them on the end-table.  “There,” she said. “All settled.”

“Thank you.”

“Should I call an ambulance?”

“No,” Hannah said. “They would take me to the ElderHub. I will stay here.”

“But you can’t walk,” Lilly protested.

“It may be temporary.”

Hannah smoothed the afghan, then looked up at Lilly. “Would you like to stay awhile? Have some soup?” she asked.

“I’d like that,” Lilly said quietly. “It’s past curfew anyway.”

“It’s good to have company on Christmas Eve … as we wait for His coming.”

Lilly felt like she never wanted to leave, like she belonged there with Hannah. It was the same way she felt when she was a little girl at her Grandma Agda’s house, sitting on the floor by her chair, sewing, while her Swedish grandmother taught her the catechism. It all seemed so real then, she thought. So true.

Lilly was taking off her coat when Hannah noticed the missing button. “You’ve lost a button.”

“I know. But I didn’t have any thread.”

“Here, give me that coat,” Hannah said. “I’ll fix it for you.”

“You sure?”

“One good turn deserves another,”

“Thanks. The button’s in the left pocket.”

Hannah took a needle and thread out of her sewing basket. “Do you happen to see my thimble anywhere? I’d hate to lose it. A friend gave it to me a long time ago.”

Lilly spotted the thimble at the foot of Hannah’s chair. “There it is!”

She bent down and picked it up. “It’s so beautiful,” she murmured as she held it to the light. The thimble was silver, intricately wrought with tiny symbols of the Faith. Etched at the base was an inscription: Ecce ego vobiscum sum omnibus diebus.

Lilly handed the thimble to Hannah. “What do those words mean?” she asked.

“The Lord’s promise. Behold, I am with you all days.”

“Strange,” Lilly said. “My grandmother had a thimble just like this, with the words and everything. I always wondered what happened to it. I thought maybe she’d give it to me someday, but, well, she died...I was just twelve.”

Hannah looked at her sharply.  “What was your grandmother’s name?” she asked.

“Agda. Agda Bergqvist.”

“This is her thimble.”

“You knew her?”

“She was my friend.” Hannah laughed softly. “We were the only Catholics at the Swedish Cultural Center. She gave me the thimble when she was dying.  Never forget, she said. He is with us always.”

Lilly glanced down at the empty manger. “Well, He sure is hard to find.”

“Not if you really want to find Him,” Hannah said.

“How are you supposed to do that?” Lilly blurted. “The churches are closed. No one can talk about Him. You can’t even say His Name in public.”

“You will know Him in the Mass.”

“How? The Mass is gone!”

“The Mass will endure until the end of time.”

“So where is it?” Tears filled her eyes. “I want to know. I want the old ways back.”

Hannah didn’t answer at first. Finally, she spoke.

“You have shown courage helping me,” she said as she sewed on the button. “And I can hear the love of our Faith in your words. I believe I can trust you.” She handed the coat back to Lilly.

“Thank you.”

“Hang it on the hook by the back door. And then, if you wouldn’t mind serving, we will have some yellow pea soup and limpa bread here in the living room. Later, I will tell you some things you should know.”

After supper was over and the dishes done, Hannah picked up an unhemmed patch and spoke of what was to come, of visions and prophecies, and of the Last Things. “The signs are clear,” she said. “This is the Great Apostasy. The time of Our Lord’s return draws near. We are once again a Church of the catacombs.”

 She paused, considering whether she should say more. She said a silent prayer, then went on, her words swift and clear. “Now, instead of caves, we have attics and basements. The ancient Mass and a Holy Ghost father from Africa.

Lilly was flabbergasted. “Seriously? You have Mass?”

“Each Sunday before dawn. Tonight we will have Midnight Mass. I cannot go, but perhaps you would go in my place.”

Lilly’s hand flew to her heart. “Could I? Oh, could I really?”

“I believe Our Lord wants you there. The brave young man who sneaks out to escort me to Mass will be here at eleven. He will take you there.”  

“But what about you?”

“God has other plans for me.”

At a quarter to eleven, Hannah opened the drawer in the end table and took out a frayed missal. “Take this,” she said.

“Won’t you need it?”

“I have another. Now get your coat and wrap your scarf around your head.”

As Lilly buttoned her coat, there was a gentle knock at the back door.

“Let him in, Lilly,” Hannah said. “It’s Joseph.”

After Hannah explained what had happened, they were ready to go. Lilly leaned down and kissed the old woman’s cheek. “Thank you for everything,” she whispered, and her voice caught in her throat.

Hannah patted Lilly’s shoulder, then slipped something in her coat pocket. “Go now,” she said. “God be with you.”

Lilly and Joseph hurried through back yards and alleys until they arrived at what Joseph called the House of the Catacomb. He knocked, then called softly.

Tumsifu Yesu Kristu.”

Milele,” came the answer. “Amine.”

The door opened, and a white-haired man motioned for them to follow him.

“What was that?” Lilly whispered as they climbed the stairs to the attic chapel.

“Swahili. We use our priest’s language so if anyone hears us, they won’t know what we’re saying.” He grinned. “We’d rather not be caught. It means Praised be Jesus Christ …”

“Oh, I’ve heard that greeting! Now and forever,” she finished happily.

The candlelit chapel was tiny, but perfect. Lily slipped into a back pew. “I’ll leave you here,” Joseph said. “I’ll be serving.”

A few minutes later, the priest came through the door, carrying the Baby Jesus. Lilly couldn’t help staring at him. His vestments were gorgeous, shimmering gold and white in the candlelight. He was tall and dark-skinned, and Lilly thought he looked like one of the Three Kings.

It was a low Mass, quiet with holy dignity, and Lilly could not stop the tears that streamed down her face. She felt like she was in Bethlehem, in the stable, by the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, kneeling at the crib.

 It was over too soon.

Later, over cookies and coffee in the basement, Joseph introduced Lilly to everyone. She told them what had happened to Hannah, then turned to Joseph. “Could I come back again?” she asked.

“Sure. Tell me where you live, and I’ll come get you.”

They left at three, walking in silence. The power had been turned off after curfew, but the sky wasn’t dark. Millions of stars covered the dome of night, lighting their way like in ancient times.

Lilly could hardly contain her happiness, but when they got to Hannah’s house, her heart sank. The windows were boarded up. She ran to the porch, got the key from under the flowerpot, and opened the door. She called out. No one answered. Hannah was gone. “No!” Lilly cried. “No!”

Joseph put his arm around her shoulder. “Hannah would say it’s all working out according to Plan. She knew she was living the prophecies. Remember, Lilly, Hannah Olsson belongs to God. He will never leave her.”

“You’re right, I know, but …” She reached in her coat pocket for her handkerchief, and her fingers touched something she hadn’t know was there. She drew it out, then gasped.

It was her grandmother’s thimble. Hannah had slipped it into her pocket when Lilly hugged her. She must have known what was going to happen.

 Be with her, dear Jesus, Lilly murmured. Keep her safe in your Kingdom. She bit her lip. And me, too, please, I beg you.

As she clutched the thimble, the Lord’s words filled her mind like an answer to her prayer. Deep in her soul, she heard His voice:

Behold, I am with you always, even unto the consummation of the world.

Ecce ego vobiscum sum omnibus diebus, usque ad consummationem sæculi.

tack så mycket

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