The Infant and the Cross
by Isak Romun
Father Bax stood across the street from the Anhalter establishment. Under his right arm, he held his breviary and a manila envelope, the contents of which were stiffened with cardboard. He watched the Paulsburg traffic ascend and descend the slope of Mulberry Road. The road was heavy with holiday cars and, since he intended to jaywalk, the stoplight at the junction of Salvage and Mulberry did not help him a great deal. Even when he had the red going for him he was thwarted by heedless drivers making screeching turns at the light and cannonading up Mulberry.
While he waited, he busied himself by checking out the seasonal displays in the windows of the Road’s businesses, and mentally making some judgments regarding them. At the top of Mulberry, the Hotel Mason bade you the happiest of holidays while the more modest businesses, mostly storefronts, said much the same thing. There was a profusion of the word “holiday,” in both its singular and plural forms, leaving the impression that the season was no more than an extra-long weekend. Even the modest outpost of some obscure sect self-consciously opted to apply a secular cast to an exuberance it tried to feel for the hidden holiday. Such was the power of Paulsburg’s City Council which strove for diversity and the desire not to let anyone think for a moment that he or she was ”left out.”
Father Bax thought the displays were, in their totality, awesome but not for the reasons intended by the displayers. He could have said “awful” as well as “awesome” (same root?). There were artificial firs and lights and ornaments and empty boxes sheathed in gift wrap, and everywhere, even above the road, swirling garlands proclaimed the joys of holiday.
Father Bax’s eye then fell upon the Anhalter glass front and saw there a wild and riotous display of angels and Santas and donkeys and reindeer and sleighs and overflowing bags of toys and decorated trees and, where text was required, the ancient and generally forbidden words (quite simply, these were two in number: “Merry Christmas”). Father Bax said to himself, In the midst of the Philistines, David takes careful aim.
The priest saw an overall design to the Anhalter display; its chaos of objects were arranged as if in the grip of an overpowering eddy and were being swept toward a circular space in which there was a Nativity scene. It was a 9- or 10-piece set with each witness to that singular night standing independent of the others. It was so realistic that Father Bax imagined he could see each character moving as it elbowed its way into the stable so that it could see the—. It was evident that there should have been something else in that fair-sized circle of grace, but there was missing the one object whose presence alone could bring order and sanity to everything around it. Without this object, it was as if the offerings of the storefront display were cut off and set adrift. The one thing that could bring them together was not there.
A break in the traffic gave Father Bax the opportunity to cross while wondering about the level of veniality involved in breaking the city’s jaywalking ordinance. He went to the Anhalter shop. On the storefront glass, he read: D. F. Anhalter, Bookseller & Printer. He pushed open the shop’s festooned door and stopped. He found himself facing a warm, cheery, book-lined room with a doorway leading to further rooms of similar design and purpose. Beyond these rooms he could hear, the whir and hissing of paper being impressed with words and images. Above the sounds of the presses he could also hear, without making out any of the words, a heated discussion in progress. The voices were familiar.
There were three of them. One of the voices was deep, stentorian, a voice used to impress and, ultimately, grind under its listeners. The second voice, dulcet and weasely, the owner of which spoke in placatory tones in a kind of singsong designed to give a false sense of ease. It was a voice the owner of which, you might think, could suck the contents from an egg without disturbing the shell. The third voice was affable and businesslike.
Then the entrance room’s cheeriness was replaced by a pervasive grayness dappled with disparate shadows which the room’s lights could not dispel. Though he thought he could see the lights struggling to do what they were designed to do, Father Bax asked the comely, middle-aged woman sitting at a corner desk, “Do we have on all the lights in here, Mrs. Anhalter? It seems darkish in here all of a sudden.”
She looked up from an order she was assembling and answered, “Indeed, we do, Father Bax. Are your eyes giving you trouble again? The door, please, Father.”
Father Bax stepped into the shop and shut the door to the chill outside. “Depends on which eyes we’re talking about,” he said, and then without hesitation continued, “I see that our esteemed School Board Chairman is with us today Isn’t that the title they gave Mao, chairman?”
“And Stalin,” Mrs. Anhalter remarked acidly. She looked up, her eyes on the entranceway to the rooms beyond, and ultimately to the room of the three voices. “Oh, yes—Krieger,” Mrs. Anhalter said. Father Bax noted the careful omission of the honorific. “Some complaint about school menus we did for him,” she went on. “Always complaining. I don’t know why he doesn’t. go somewhere else.”
“He won’t go anywhere else because your husband provides him with a nagging diversion; a challenge, you might say. David is one of the few merchants in this town who won’t knuckle under to Gunther Krieger. For example, your window display. It’s not characterized by the inclusiveness we’re striving for these days in Paulsburg.” The priest nodded toward the movable partition on the street side of which the window’s seasonal decorations were laid out. “By the way, what happened to the baby?” the priest asked.
“The baby? Oh, yes, the Infant of the manger scene. In the circle at the top of the partition.”
“I don’t know. We were locking up one night last week—and, you know, Dave keeps the lights on throughout the Christmas season. Twenty-four hours a day. So, we could easily see the complete display. I remember the day, Wednesday. The Infant had fallen from the manger and lay at its foot on the small shelf holding the grouping. It was probably due to the vibration of trucks passing on Mulberry. I thought I would put some sticky tape on the Infant to hold it more securely. Well, I did that and replaced the figure in its manger-crib. Anyway, the Infant was gone by the time we left. We looked all over for it, but it was gone. We figured it must have been lifted by someone. Dave was furious that anyone would steal it. Who would do such a thing? ”
“Who, indeed,” Father Bax said. “Tell me, do you suspect any of your customers for that day? Did you leave the room for any time that day?”
“I’m always leaving this room; shelving books in the far rooms or taking or picking up something from the print section. As for suspicious customers, it seems I saw Krieger on several days last week; always in and out complaining,” Mrs. Anhalter added, reinforcing her earlier statement. “ Why anyone would steal a Christmas statue is a mystery to me.”
“The why of it is the easiest part of the puzzle. Without the Infant, the elements of the display ? now remnants—have lost their anchor, are mere swimmers struggling against a tide. The robber, in taking the Infant, has robbed us of our sense of unity; the walls of this glorious season have been further breached by—.”
“Ah, you,” Mrs. Anhalter said distractedly, “a sermon. Out of the air, always a sermon. Sit down Father, I’ll get you a cup of tea while his nibs and his toady, Patch, are dickering with Dave.”
Father Bax crossed over to a reading table. He placed carefully his breviary and the manila envelope on its surface. Before he sat down, he took off his muffler and stuffed it in an overcoat pocket. He hung the coat and his hat on a clothing stand. He sat down then, picked up the breviary and began reading.
Mrs. Anhalter poured tea from a pot she had on a small table to the rear of her desk. She knew Father Bax took it “straight,” so she bypassed the milk and sugar. She brought the tea to Father Bax and set it down. On the way she bumped into the coat stand and mumbled something about situating it elsewhere in the room.
The priest had little time for reading or for tea drinking. Two of the voices from the innermost room became clearer and louder. The speakers had apparently completed their business. They were exiting the shop. But they stopped their short walk to the door when they saw Father Bax.
“So, Father, all set for a happy holiday?” Gunther Krieger boomed in a voice far short of merry. “Got your pagan tree set up and baubled?”
“Few these days are ready for Christmas,” the priest replied in an even tone. “For many it translates out to a list on which each item is checked off as it is bought. Then, on Christmas day, in a storm of paper and plastic, the presents are torn open as if ravening beasts were at work on captured prey. Then, there is the call to a hearty breakfast and everyone rushes to the table and, with the same savagery used on the Christmas presents, attacks the food. Perhaps grace is said, more probably not. Then church, but by then most of the celebrants are stretched out on sofas and beds dreaming of the really big meal that will be served some time during the afternoon.”
[In her corner, Mrs. Anhalter mumbled despairingly, “Out of the air. Sermons!”]
“So, why not just call it a winter holiday and get on with it?” Krieger asked, not expecting an answer.
“There are exceptions,” Father Bax said, answering Krieger, nonetheless. “There will always be resistors.”
“Not around these parts. Not while I’m in a position to advise City Council on what’s good and fair. What you have described is the same situation existing in our good friend Anhalter’s display.” Krieger waved a heavy cane he was carrying at the display partition. “There is a notable desertion. I wonder which of your ‘celebrants’ stole it when no one was looking?”
Mr. Patch, he of the second print-room voice, said, “Perhaps someone important? Someone who would otherwise not be thought to have done it? Someone who held some sort of grudge? I imagine the statuette is long gone in some garbage dump or incinerator.”
“I suppose Bethlehem was something of a shambles, too,” Father Bax mused, “on that cold wintry night.”
“What has that to do with what we’re talking about?” Krieger asked the priest. Then the big man fastened a stare of utter meanness at Patch and said, “And you, when I want your two cents worth I’ll ask for it. Let’s go.”
Patch shrank visibly and ran to open the door.
Krieger strode to the door and said as he sailed through to the street, “Have a nice day.” Some seconds later, he opened the door and thrust an ugly and evilly smiling countenance through the opening. Then he bawled, “I don’t really mean that.”
The door closed on Krieger and Patch. Their shadows left with them. Now only the shadows of the priest and Mrs. Anhalter remained. The room seemed to brighten. She sighed in relief. “You know, he’s not such a bad sort,” she said to the priest.
“No, Mr. Patch. He means well.”
“As a matter of fact, he has a good heart. Not so long ago he made a generous gift to Francis Xavier’s building fund. I can’t imagine what he’s doing running around with Krieger.”
“Like you said, Krieger’s the head of the School Board. Recently he co-opted Mr. Patch to full Board membership.”
“So that’s it.”
Just then a telephone rang on Mrs. Anhalter’s desk. She picked up the instrument, listened, and answered what must have been a question. “Yes they’re gone. Oh, just minutes ago.” She added, “Father Bax is out here waiting for you to be freed up. All right, I’ll tell him.” She hung up and turned to Father Bax. “He’ll be here in a minute, Father.” The priest nodded. Mrs. Anhalter turned to the pot once more and poured a cup of tea to which she added sugar and milk. She placed the filled cup on the reading table across from Father Bax.
Shortly, they were joined by David Anhalter who sat down at the table and picked up and drank from the freshly poured cup of tea. “Pardon my manners, Father,” he said, “but I’ve just come through a trying session with Krieger and that Patch fellow. I needed this drink. Could have been stronger, but I can’t carry beer on the premises.”
“Oh, and what’s the problem today with our Gunther Krieger?” Father Bax asked.
“Nicely put. As if there were a problem at least daily. The latest problem has to do with those school Christmas ? oops, my error. Those school holiday menus.”
“You talk as if I should know about these menus.”
“I thought everyone knew. It was in the paper. Hon, do you have that
clip from the newspaper?”
The priest read—
“Nothing as simple as that. Rather the reprinting of the reprinting.”
“I confess I’m stumped.”
“When they came in for the second printing, I was given a copy of the original menu supposedly marked up with changes to be made. Actually there was only one change: the replacement of ‘Christmas’ with ‘Holidays’ which correction I dutifully made and delivered the order to Krieger.”
“Well, what accounts for today’s high dudgeon?”
Anhalter leaned back in his chair, a wide grin on his face. In the lull between the priest’s question and the printer’s answer, Mrs. Anhalter refilled the men’s cups, then returned to her desk. Anhalter reached into a sweater pocket and withdrew two sheets of paper. Briefly, he examined them, then handed one to Father Bax. “Look at that. Carefully. That’s his marked-up copy for the reprint,” he instructed the priest. “The first reprint we did. Look at it!”
Father Bax did so, a glow of understanding taking over his face. “I see. No one says Merry Holidays; it’s usually that enemy of history, Happy Holidays, that is today’s common coin.”
“You’ve hit the nail on the head. Coin! Money. Expense. He wanted one more correction replacing Merry with Happy. Only thing, though, he didn’t want to spend another cent on the project; not a cent, not a centum, not a shekel, not a lepta. He wanted me to swallow the cost of this final printing. His argument: I should have known better than not to replace the one word with the other. I promptly told him I was a printer, not an editor.”
Father Bax shook his head and said, “So the city is stuck for anther five hundred dollars or so to get these menus printed with their meaningless greeting.”
“It never came to that.”
“You didn’t give in, did you?”
“No, but finally that fellow with Krieger ? “
“Right. Well, Patch said he’d pay the printing costs, if I could give him a break on the final figure and further give him the choice of a cheaper paper stock. He had been looking through my sample books and fixed on a light brown sheet that was marked down. Not exactly a Christmas ? excuse me, holiday ? color but we were getting battle-weary and Krieger approveed the paper with barely a glance at it. I was overstocked on that line and gave Patch a hundred off the bottom line.”
“They can do as they will, except erase memory.”
“And that meansCHRISTMAS MENUS REJECTED
“In time this sacred season shall return to its proper Author,” Father Bax said, almost in a whisper.
“So, you came all the way down from your parish rectory to deliver that message?”
(Mrs. Anhalter, probably thinking she was unheard by the men, muttered, “Sermons still.”)
“No,” said Father Bax, and picked up the manila envelope from the table. From the envelope he took several sheets of letter-size paper. He laid these before Anhalter. “Here’s the copy for the Church Bulletin. It’s a bit larger this week because of the Christmas season.”
Anhalter heard hardly a word the priest was saying. With .professional zeal he was passing a trained eye over the copy delivered by Father Bax. To use another word, he was nitpicking.
“You have a typographical error here,” he said.
“I thought you were a printer, not an editor”
“Do you want me to correct typos or not?”
“Of course I do.”
Father Bax stood up, went to the clothing stand and took his overcoat and hat from it. He searched his pocket for his muffler. He saw the muffler on the floor. He retrieved it and draped it around his neck. He shrugged into his coat, buttoned and smoothed it, then picked up the breviary. “Well, I must go,” he told the Anhalters, “but first, David, I have something for you.”
“What is it? A present? I love Christmas presents. Is it okay to open it today?”
“In the first place, I don’t have it wrapped. In the second place, it belongs to you.” The priest reached a hand into one of his overcoat pockets, and ,pulled out a brightly shining, ceramic figure, arms outstretched and beckoning. It was nothing fancy, but David Anhalter stared at it as if it were a bar of gold with his name on it.
“How did you come by it or perhaps you don’t want to tell me? Or can’t tell me. I hope ? what do you call it?—absolution. I hope absolution was involved.”
Father Bax let an ever-so-slight smile suffice as his response to Anhalter’s comments then held the Infant out to its owner.
Anhalter took the Infant. Then, his eyes still on it, said, “In the past, Father Bax, you have awed me, but never so much as at this moment. I thought this was lost forever.”
”It will never be lost forever,” Father Bax said. “Well, I’ve got
to get a move on.”
Then he was gone.
Outside, Father Bax looked across Mulberry to the public parking lot in which he had left his car. While he was waiting to cross, he saw Patch on the opposite side. The priest sensed that Patch was waiting for him. Ignoring the Mulberry traffic, the man darted across the road and came up to the priest. Patch was clearly agitated.
“Mr. Patch, congratulations on your appointment to the School Board,” Father Bax said, at a loss to say anything else.
“That’s not important. What I did today is important. I did something good for Christmas. Oh, it was touch and go, but I pulled it off. I really did it! Struck a blow. You’ll see. I feel as if I bought more than menus today.”
And with that, he scuttled off in the direction of Salvage. Father Bax, puzzlement astride his features, watched Patch as he went down Mulberry Road and turned left onto Salvage Street, disappearing from the priest’s view.
Inside he found a quite different scene from the one he had seen days earlier. The entrance room was swimming in crepe, decorations, and revelers. There was an ornamented tree, trays piled high with delectations on tables brought into the room for the occasion, bottled and canned drinks in icy galvanized-iron tubs, and, on Mrs. Anhalter’s desk, a massive punchbowl almost full to its top with eggnog. Mrs. Anhalter presided over the bowl, ladling generous portions to all who held out their cups. The center of attention in the room was a rollicking Santa Claus whose whiskers and mustache failed to conceal the sharp lively face of David Anhalter. Father Bax noticed then that Santa Claus had spotted him and was rapidly approaching.
“Welcome, Father, and Merry Christmas,” the jolly one exclaimed. “Say Happy Holidays and you get a bowl of eggnog dumped over you.”
“I could use some of that eggnog right now,´ Father Bax replied.
“Wait, before you join Mrs. Claus, give me your car keys and I’ll have one of the boys put your order in your car.”
Father Bax surrendered his keys and Anhalter gave them to a young elf with instructions on what to do. After that, they separated and the priest made his way to Mrs. Anhalter’s desk.
“Can I help you with the eggnog?” he asked.
“That’s kind of you, Father,” Mrs. Anhalter replied, ‘but I think we have it under control. But thank you, anyway.” She handed him a brimming cup.
“When a compliment comes so cheaply, I grab it.”
“I imagine you get a lot of those. Compliments, I mean. And thanks.”
“Not as many as you imagine. Most of what I get are anticompliments for butting in where I shouldn’t ? well, thaat’s according to the buttees.” Then Father Bax abruptly changed the subject. “When I saw my muffler on the floor the other day, I knew what I would find in my pocket. I’m afraid I wasn’t taken in by your annoyance with the coat stand. Actually, it’s situated perfectly, in the same place it was situated in during my last visit.”
“I want to thank you for that. For leaving the idea with Dave that you came by it from one of your penitents.”
“He left that idea with himself. I’m glad he didn’t press me for a fuller explanation. Are you ready to give me a fuller explanation?”
She looked thoughtfully at Father Bax in much the same manner as you might imagine Eve contemplating the All-Knowing in the garden. Mrs. Anhalter said (in much the same way Eve, transported somehow to the present, might have answered), “Krieger. Krieger, he made me do it.”
“Now where have I heard that before?” Father Bax pressed on. “I still don’t understand. How? Why? When?”
“Everyone has something in his life he—or she ? dooesn’t want brought out into the light of day. I don’t know how he ever found out about it.”
“He has a way of knowing things,” Father Bax said, “what goes in and what comes out. Don’t tell me what he knew. Save that for your minister. So, he wanted the manger statuette in exchange for keeping quiet? What exactly happened between you and him that day?”
“It was on that day that I tried to secure the Infant in the manger. But whatever I did, it kept slipping toward the side of the manger. So I took it down with the intention of taping it to its crib. But I couldn’t find the tape right away. What had started out as a simple job was rapidly turning into one of some complexity. Not to say, perplexity. To add to the confusion, customers started streaming into the shop. So, I put the Infant down on my desk and waited on them.
“After a bit, Krieger came in. He spotted the Infant and said, ‘I’d like that.’ I told him it was part of the window display and wasn’t for sale. Then, he started whispering but I can’t remember seeing his lips moving. And my ears didn’t hear his whispered words, but my mind did. His voice resonated inside my head, always a whisper, endless whispering. He told me things I had long forgotten and did not care to recall. You could actually see what he was saying. It was like a mosaic of writhing figures, each a shred of dark memory. I knew where I was. Through all this, I got the firm idea that if I just gave him the Infant, none of my secrets would get out; all my worries would be over.
”So I pointed to the Infant and said, ‘There He is. Take Him!’
“‘No, no,’ he said, happily wagging a finger at me. ‘I want you to pick it up and slip it into my coat pocket.’
“I did as he said. I had some difficulty. The Infant’s outstretched arms caught at the pocket sides as if in resistance. But I finally wiggled it in.”
When she finished, Father Bax murmured, more to himself than to Mrs. Anhalter, “He is a hunter and gatherer, but what he gathers is those dark memories you mentioned.” In a louder voice he asked, “What happened next?”
“He left the shop. Remember, Father, I told you we noticed the Infant missing when we closed that night? Remember, I told you how furious Dave got? I asked him why he was getting so mad. I recall saying, ‘It’s only an old statuette. You can get another.’ That only made him feel worse. He told me then why he couldn’t get another Infant. The statuette that had been in the window belonged to his mother who gave it to him before she passed on last summer.”
“So, how did the Infant get back into the shop?”
“After he had it about a week, Krieger must have put it in this desk.” She rapped the desk creating ripples in the eggnog’s surface. “I opened a drawer and there it was. You must understand, this is not exclusively my desk. Everyone uses it from time to time. It’s used for storage and for wrapping orders, among other things. If Dave found it, I’d be in the soup. I just couldn’t explain what I was doing with the figurine for a period of, say, four or five days. So, when I saw your overcoat hanging there I thought I’d let you, Father Bax, become part of the mystery.”
“It was worth it just to see the look on David’s face.”
“I thank again you for that.”
“But what about David? Wasn’t he suspicious for that four- or five-day period when the Infant was really missing?”
“I told him someone swiped it off the desk. Which, in a way, was
“What haven’t I told you? You know it all.”
“From the past, yes; but what about the future, what about Krieger? Are you ready for his next demand?”
“Next demand? There’ll be another?”
“Oh, yes,” the priest said, “there always is. Another and another and another. It’s in the nature of the business Krieger is in.”
Mrs. Anhalter filled a cup for someone, then said in a firm voice, “I’ve decided he’s not going to push me around again. I won’t be tempted again even if it means hurting Dave in the process. Next time Krieger puts the arm on me, I’ll meet him head-on.”
“Good for you. From my experience with Gunther Krieger I’ve found that’s the only way to deal with him.”
“There is, at least, one other way. Ask Dave about the school menus and the latest vis-à-vis them.”
Father Bax said, “I’ll do that.” But before he looked for David, he had something else for his wife. “One last thing, Mrs. Anhalter, a favor. Please, don’t take on so about sermons. You’re beginning to sound a lot like Krieger”
“See, you’re improving already.”
Father Bax left Mrs. Anhalter and sought her husband. When he found him, David was without mustache and beard but was wearing all the rest of the Santa regalia. Apparently, he was tiring of role playing, but knew his duty.
“What’s this about the menus?” Father Bax said. “The latest about the menus?”
David answered the questions with a question. “Did you hear the latest about Krieger?”
“That he resigned from the School Board so he could prepare for a run for City Council? Yes, I heard that. I didn’t understand it, though. He could still hold his School Board seat and campaign for Council. It’s done all the time.”
“Would it surprise you to know he got a little push?”
“Come into the printery,” David said. “I can explain it better in there.”
The printery was impressive in its silence. Father Bax had been back here many times before when the machines were running and reams of paper were being turned out with black and other inks filling the pages. A temple of noise. The noise was deafening then. Now the room was quiet, aurally serene.
“To answer your Who question first,” David said. “That whole resignation thing was a save-face gimmick. The entire Board voted and told him to take a walk. He only got one vote for his retention. It was that fellow Patch who voted to keep him. But get this, they voted in Patch to be the new Board Chairman. A reward for spending his own money for the menus.”
“And my Why question?”
David went to a counter that spanned the width of the room. From its top he took two sheets of paper; one had printing on it, the other was blank.
David handed the printed one to Father Bax.
“There, the menu, that’s why he got fired.”
Father Bax took the school menu and examined it. Everything seemed to be in order. The priest held the sheet up to the light “I think I can see something in the paper, but can’t make it out because of the printing,” he said.
“Father are you familiar with the Monastery of the Gray Capuchins in the western part of the state?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve been there several times.”
“How do they sustain themselves and their good works?”
“They have a small paper mill on the monastery grounds. They’re makers of fine papers.”
“Like this?” David handed Father Bax the blank sheet. “That’s what we printed the menu on. Hold it up to the light.”
Father Bax did so. “My goodness,” he exclaimed. “That watermark just about covers the entire surface of the paper.” Father Bax further examined the watermark. There was a Latin motto arranged on a semicircular riband that served as a base for the central object, which was surrounded by a halo of sun beams. He read the Latin motto, mirabile visu, and nodded in satisfaction at its aptness.
Father Bax went on, “Now I know what Mr. Patch was hinting at. He must have thumbed through every one of your sample books until he found just what he wanted, just the right paper to suit his purpose. To suit his purpose. I’m surprised they gave Mr. Krieger time to empty his desk after some sharp-eyed Board member spotted that in the watermark. It’s one thing to botch up a job one time, another to botch it up again; particularly since the final batch of menus actually got distributed, I presume, to the students.“ Father Bax again held up the blank paper and this time shook it at David. “On to Lepanto. We’ll yet have the Turk by his wattles. An unseen cross. Who would look for that in a piece of paper?”
“Unseen, that is, until it’s seen!” David Anhalter exclaimed. “Why should we be surprised?. The paper is the product of a holy house. You might expect to see a cross in their watermark. Maybe not quite so large, though. That one measures a good five inches or more in length. Certainly appropriate, though, for an underground Merry Christmas menu. And to unseat our local dictator.”
Said Father Bax, “Amen to that.”
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