Sully's Song - A Christmas Story

It didn’t happen like they tell it.

Well, let me start again: it did and it didn’t. When you only got the space of a couple paragraphs, it’s hard to fit in all the details. That’s mostly why I’ve decided to set it all down now. Enough time has passed that it hardly seems anyone is left who really remembers the way it really happened.

We were half a day away from civilization, driving the sheep to the lambing grounds. It was Randy and Jorge and Hump and me. Jorge and Randy were riding horses, and Hump and I were driving the truck. Well, I was driving, Hump was riding shotgun and turning the dial. We had the dogs with us, too - Shep and Sunny, but they didn’t figure much into the story I’m telling now. They were good dogs, though, best sheepdogs you ever saw. 

We were trying to move the flock to a more sheltered area ahead of a late winter storm, before the ewes were too heavy to move much. It was an overnight job, since we’d be a half day away from the ranch and weren’t going to drive back. So we brought a tent and sleeping bags and cots in the back of the truck.

Driving the flock had been pretty easy, all told. We got them to the lambing grounds without more than a couple sheep bolting and Shep and Sunny having to run them down. Jorge and Randy were getting icicles in their eyebrows and their nose hairs when we stopped so we got a fire roaring and wrapped up in our sleeping bags and roasted a few weenies over the fire while Hump made coffee over his campstove. Pretty soon we were all getting sleepy and we debated whether to pitch the tent or not but we were all pretty beat and decided just to keep building up the fire and sleep right next to it, and we threw the cots down right there next to the fire,

I almost missed the whole thing, truth be told. The guys were still up swapping stories when I turned in, and I’d just drifted off when I heard them all cry out, like they’d just seen a ghost. There was a bright light, too, and I thought one of them must have just gotten up from the fire and turned on the headlights on the truck. 

They hadn’t. It was coming from him.

So, it’s important to me that I get this part right, but it’s the hardest thing to get right, you know? There just aren’t the right words to describe something that doesn’t come from this world. It’s like, when you’re four years old and you draw a picture of a bird and then a bird comes and lands next to you. Which, I guess at four years old, you don’t much care, but you get what I mean: you can tell which one is a bird and which one’s not. Describing this guy is a lot like trying to draw that bird. But I’m going to give this my best shot.

Last summer I watched Guardians of the Galaxy 2 at the cineplex. There’s these aliens in that movie that are all golden: hair, skin, everything. When I saw them, they reminded me of him. So that’s where I’m going to start. He had bronze skin, like those aliens. Not like just-back-from-the-beach bronze, but actual bronze. Burnished, molten bronze. His face glowed, like inside all that bronze was light, nothing but light, so much light he might burst. It flamed out of his eyes, his ears, his mouth. He wore light, too, like somehow it was draped around him, clinging to him. 

Like I said, the words don’t come out right. But it’s the best I can do.

He hung there in the sky, in front of us, like some wire was hooked around heaven and dangling him down. In the light coming from him I could make out Jorge and Randy and Hump all huddled on the ground, covering their eyes, and I’ll confess, I had the sleeping bag up to my eyes. We were all like cornered rabbits.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. And if I had a hard time describing the way he looked, I’ll have an even harder time describing how he sounded. His voice came from everywhere. Above us, below us, from the ground, from behind us, and, strangest of all, inside us. Like we could hear his voice with our ears and our hearts at the same time. 

And suddenly we weren’t afraid. The words filled up our hearts and pushed out the fear, and there just wasn’t room to be scared of him any more. We were listening now, like eager kids waiting for a bedtime story. I remember I sat up and poked my head out a little, and saw the others lift up their heads and dare to look at him. 

“I’ve got good news.” He was giddy, like there was a laugh just threatening to slip out, like he was holding back the punch line to the funniest joke ever. 

“He’s here!” And then the laugh spilled out and rolled through the valley, through our hearts, till we all looked at each other and started laughing too, though we didn’t for the life of us know why.

“He’s the one - the Savior. You’ve been waiting for him all your lives.”

And even though the words didn’t make any sense, I knew exactly what he meant. Savior. That was it. That’s what I was waiting for. The minute he said the word I started thinking back to when my brother died of stomach cancer, all of us family all around him, waiting for his final breath. And then when it came and it went, the howl his wife let out, like an cornered animal, has haunted me ever since. And whenever things get bad, and they get bad a lot, I look around and I think of that howl, pure pain and grief. A cry for a savior, if there ever was one. Sometimes it seems like everyone around's just full of nothing but that howl, and they're just letting it out in different ways, a little at a time. 

Then came the fireworks. The sky exploded: an entire army lit up the night, and the song they sang just laid us out. On the ground. We sobbed and laughed and closed our eyes and let that song just fill us, till we were hollowed out with nothing left inside us but that song. Peace, they sang. Glory to God. 

We got some sketchy directions from the first one who’d spoke, and we ended up driving straight out of that valley and on until dawn, with the truck running out of gas right at the edge of town. Then we got out and hitchhiked, and sure enough, found these two kids and a baby under a bridge. Strange place for a savior, but we knew it was the right place. That echo of the song told us we’d found it when we saw the boy’s face.

Now, I can’t say a lot changed for me after that, but really, everything changed. I didn’t half care near as much as I used to when coming into town and getting the dirty looks, the pointing, the jeers of “the Rez is that way!” I felt that song inside me still. It had pushed out the howl. And I kept tabs on that boy all through his growing up, and nearly left it all to follow him when I heard he was traveling around and preaching, but figured it was probably a young man’s game and stuck with the sheep. 

The day I heard he died was the day the song came back the strongest. Unexplainable, really. I know Hump didn’t feel that way, because he was with me when we were told about the boy dying and he just sat down and cried. But I just felt that peace, the same peace that song gave me, like this was how it was supposed to be. And then, when I found out he came back, boy, I laughed like the shining man laughed when he first told us he’d come. 

Now I’m the only one left, an old man. Hump died last year, and before he went we talked about that night. He remembered it different than I did, which I guess is only right. Something like that, with those kind, well, it wouldn’t be right if we all saw it the same. I’d tell you about what he thought, but it’s not the kind of thing that transfers, if you know what I mean. I can barely tell you my own version; no way could I tell you his. 

I used to spend a lot of time wondering why the four of us got that message, but I don’t much anymore. It was a gift. They came and told us because we needed to hear it. And we needed to hear it that night. And I’m guessing if this is coming to you, it’s because you need to hear it, too, so I’m going to lay it out straight: yes, there’s a savior. He came, like the dirtiest son-of-a-gun among us, born under a bridge to a couple kids. And then he stayed one of us, traveling around like some sort of troubadour with a crew of roadies, and he died like a dog and came back like a God. And if that doesn’t get your heart pumping, boy, I don’t know what else to say. I just hope, in the quiet times, you can hear the echo of the song that crew sang that night. I’ve tried my best to hum the bars all my life, hoping maybe a few folks can pick up the tune and start humming, too.