Sarah and her brother had made the same walk home from school so many times; she was convinced she had memorized every rock and shrub along the way.
Today was no different than so many others that had passed before in that respect. Ben, walking ahead of her, as usual, looking around for a stone of suitable weight and size that could serve as a projectile against the unsuspecting lizard or grass snake. While she, thinking about the day’s lessons, somewhat, but more about the handsome boy who sat behind her in class.
It was during times such as these that she enjoyed their walk home the most. The air was crisp and cool, yet today the thunderclouds to the west troubled her. Not the rain, mind you. That she could deal with and even enjoyed, especially at nightfall. No, it was the driving wind that preceded the storm which concerned her more.
So today, especially, as she saw the clouds begin to form, she hastened her steps, catching up with Ben.
“Hey sis, when you gonna stop daydreamin’ and start payin’ more ‘tention in Grammar? The ol’ man’s gonna catch ya one o’ these days and I sure wanna be around when that happens!”
Sarah dismissed the remark. Besides, she smiled to herself, she was one of the top students in the class.
And so soon, she thought, the daylight disappears even before nightfall: The clouds had now blanketed the setting sun, leaving a faint glow, almost like an aura surrounding billows of blackening doom.
“Come on, Ben, let’s get going,” she urged her brother, “I think it’s gonna be rainin’ before we get home.”
Ben was almost giddy as he started whirling around in circles. “Whadda sissy! ‘Sides, I ain’t had a good bath in days!”
Sarah shook her head. Why did he have to be my brother – she thought to herself.
The road continued to wind and as soon as the pair made their way to the top of a fairly steep rise, off ahead to the left sat a woman – all alone – sitting by herself on a large boulder. The two youngsters slowed their pace to hesitant steps.
From a distance, especially at this time of day, it was difficult to recognize appearances. As Ben and Sarah walked on, veering somewhat to the right and away from the stranger, they noticed she was more like an older girl. Sort of reminded Sarah of her older sister.
Cautiously the two continued their walk on the opposite side of the road, noticing that the woman was holding a rather strange package, of sorts.
It was kind of big, but not bulky, and looked like an old burlap sack, folded about in half. The kind father used for storing his potatoes.
Sarah thought to herself then whispered to Ben, “I wonder what’s in the sack.”
“Groceries, most likely.” Then it was Ben’s turn to urge the pair onward. “Now never you mind, Sarah, let’s get on home.”
As they approached a point just opposite of the near-motionless figure, the woman looked up, staring right at them. Then she smiled.
“C’mon, let’s go!” Ben tugged at his sister’s sleeve.
Sarah looked at the woman, sitting there all alone, on the side of the road, holding her sack of provisions.
How odd, she thought.
Ben tugged again but Sarah remained unmoved.
Then, for no reason at all, Sarah slowly crossed the road.
“SARAH!” in the loudest whisper he could muster, Ben shook his head as he proceeded toward home. “All right then with ya – see ya later.”
Ignoring her brother’s pleadings, Sarah couldn’t quite seem to keep her eyes off the woman’s face. Or off the smile that just stayed there, smiling.
And then, as unexpected as a bolt of invisible lightning, all at once a thousand freezing darts whipped through her thin dress. And the winds came.
Unrelenting and without warning, nearly pushing her off her feet, the chill was like nothing she had ever felt before.
Sitting before her, the woman clutched her package even tighter, shivering as day turned to twilight in a frigid heartbeat. Yet the smile remained, unbroken.
How puzzling, Sarah thought, pondering the eerie scene as she stopped just an arm’s length away from the strange young woman.
“Hel-lo” Sarah stuttered, more out of nervous embarrassment than cold.
Their eyes continued their uninterrupted union.
“Hello,” replied the stranger, as she looked down at Sarah’s sandaled feet. “You must be cold, my dear.”
“Nah – I mean, no ma’am, I’m fine.” Sarah thought for a moment. “Why are you sitting here all alone?”
“Oh, I’m not alone.” The woman adjusted the package on her lap. “I’m waiting for my husband. He’ll be along shortly.”
Sarah smiled, then turned to leave, then stopped. Looking again at the woman, “are you sure you’ll be okay?”
“Oh yes, I’ll be all right, thank you.”
Then – from no apparent outward or external cause – the package moved.
Maybe she was simply adjusting it on her lap, Sarah thought to herself.
No… there! It moved again!
Sarah bent her head down and was very self-consciously staring as the woman pealed back part of the burlap to reveal a tiny hand and arm.
Sarah’s eyes grew big as saucers.
“You have a – a baby?”
The woman smiled. “Yes, I have a child.”
Sarah stammered. “But … isn’t he, isn’t she … cold?”
The woman smiled. “No – we’re doing all right,” as she cradled the package in her arm. Guess it ain’t groceries – Sarah thought to herself – then breathed a heavy sigh as she turned to see her brother far ahead down the road, looking back himself to see what was keeping his sister.
And the wind – the terrible cold – she hadn’t even given it another thought, until now. She took her scarf and wrapped it tightly around her neck and face.
From here, though scarcely a few more minutes walk, home seemed so very far away.
Then she was off – like a frightened cat on the run, Sarah sprinted to catch up with her brother.
Then, just as abruptly, she stopped.
The wind that had so cruelly penetrated her to the bone had also cleared the air – and, looking up, Sarah saw the stars beginning to emerge, one by one; like diamonds against a curtain of grayish-black.
She looked down, shivering as the wind took its toll on her exposed feet and legs. Then, as if in a dream, she turned back again to the woman, sitting on the rock, clutching the burlap “package”.
Sarah walked up to her; and, without saying a word, quickly removed her scarf – “Here. This is for your baby,” handed the scarf to the stranger then ran to join her brother now far off in the distance.
As she ran, tears filled Sarah’s eyes and her heart swelled.
Much as she wanted to, she could not look back.
However – if she had, she would have seen the woman sitting frozen – not from the cold, but in surprised astonishment at a young girl’s act of unselfish kindness . . .
The days became months, which became years – so many years.
Ben had quickly and entirely forgotten the incident, busying himself with his own life and pursuits.
Sarah, likewise, had grown and matured – but had not altogether forgotten that day, so many years before, that day of the frigid wind.
It was on evenings such as this one, as she looked up at the ebony sky, with its sea of glistening stars, holding the child of her own child in her time-wrinkled arms, when she would pause and ponder.
Reflecting on the singular event of years long past, Sarah could still remember how she felt after she handed the woman her scarf; and how often the feeling would return, but only at very special times.
She wondered what ever became of the young woman, who sat by the side of the road, and the package that she held.
Sitting, waiting patiently and faithfully, in the cold at the end of the day, for her husband to join her, as Sarah and her brother made their way from school, as they had done so many times before, to their home . . .
Critique: You have a good idea. I really like the twist at the end. However, in trying to setting a secret until then, you don’t give us near enough sense of place. Your narrative is very poetic in places, but the dialog feels jarring. You have some grammar and structural issues, and we need deeper characterization. You could add more depth to the story and still have Bethlehem be a sweet surprise at the end. The idea has some real potential, but the delivery needs work.
What I liked best: That we’re not sure until the end that it’s Bethlehem.
Publication ready: No. It needs polishing.