George Gilbert pushed open the door of the old stable and stepped into the dark interior. The building sagged, the roof leaked and one corner had slipped off the stone foundation. For years his wife has been after him to tear the old stable down, and George had to admit that the building, no longer fit even for storage, was an eyesore.
George leaned against the rotting sill of the small window that looked out over the farm where he had lived all his life. The sun was down and it was nearly dark. Stars were just becoming visible in the clear sky and it was going to be a cold night. On the other side of a small field where his father had once tried to raise tobacco stood the old house, a dark shape against the trees. His father built that house and George was born there. Just a couple of hundred yards to the east, his father helped build the house where George brought his new wife to live over fifty years ago.
"Grandpaw? Are you in here?"
"Yes, come on in."
"Grandmaw says for you to come. She sent me to get you." George's grandson stopped just inside the door. A scraping, rustling noise came from the darkness behind the stalls. "Grandpaw?"
"It's all right, Paul. Just some birds roosting back there. I have been watching them come and go."
"What do you keep in here? It smells funny."
"Don't keep anything in here now. When I was a boy your age, my daddy kept his two mules in this stable. Their names were Pike and Amos. Pike was a lovely gray mule, and Amos was black. My mother called them Salt and Pepper, but their names were Pike and Amos."
"This is a stable?" Paul looked around in wonder. "They had the first Christmas in a stable. Mary went to it on a donkey. Did you like our Christmas play at church? We didn't have a real stable."
"Yes, I liked it very much and you were a terrific shepherd." George and his wife had driven over to the old country church for the annual Christmas pageant, and George sat uncomfortably in the overheated sanctuary to see his grandson dressed in an old robe and carrying the shepherd's crook that he had made for him.
"Mom said she didn't think you would come but I hoped you would."
"I wouldn't have missed it for the world." They stood in silence for a few minutes. In the dim light, George couldn't see the expression on Paul's face, but the boy seemed lost in thought.
"You know, when I was a boy I used to come here when I was in trouble, or I needed to think. I would lay down over there in the straw next to Pike and tell her all my troubles. She was a good listener."
"Did you talk to Amos?"
"No, Amos was not interested in much of anything except himself and Pike. And besides, he was apt to kick. Gave me some nasty bruises. No, I stayed pretty much away from Amos."
"Where are Pike and Amos now?"
"Come here." George lifted the boy up to the window. "My daddy took care of those mules for many years, even after he got a tractor and they got too old to do much work around the place, and when they died, he buried them over on the edge of this field, just by that far line of trees."
There was a scuffle and flapping of wings in the darkness behind them and then a bird began to sing in the darkness. George recognized the song. It was a house finch, like the one his mother rescued from the cat and nursed back to health the summer George graduated from high school. Unable to fly, the bird spent that summer in a cage on the screen porch. It sang all day.
After a minute the house finch in the stable stopped singing and in the silence, with the warm weight of his grandson in his arms, George stared through the window at the bare winter field. He thought about his father and mother and all the years gone. Suddenly he missed them and he missed Pike and Amos and he missed his mother's crippled house finch that sang from its cage one Christmas Eve many years ago.
George gave his grandson a rough hug and put him down. "Let's go see what your Grandmother has for dinner. You know, I'm not sure, but I think I saw something under the Christmas tree with your name on it."
George pulled the door to the stable closed behind him and watched his grandson run up the worn path to the house. His wife was waiting at the back door. "I'll be right there," he called to her and turned to look out over the land that he had known since birth. In the dark, he could just make out the barn, weathered but still solid and strong, and beside it the machine shed that he and his father had built when he came back from the Army. And all around, the fields, and the night and the stars above. Another Christmas Eve, night of miracles.
George turned toward the house. She's right, he thought to himself, I really should tear the old stable down. Maybe come spring.