A Story for Christmas
This is not a Christmas story. It is a story I wrote a few years ago as a Christmas gift. After the story was finished, I printed several copies, and then, using old fashioned cut-and-paste, I made a little book of it. Several books in fact. Then, I bought Christmas bags and in each I put the ingredients in Sam Tsir’s bag. The little book and the bag were my Christmas gift to a gang of people who had meant much to me that year. As a writer, one should never write a story and deliver it unedited. But, here it is, nonetheless.
A story for Christmas
written in the 24 hours between
December 18, 8pm and December 19, 8pm
Once upon a time, when the Khmer ruled Asia and Angkor was the most revered of all cities, a young boy sat in his village near the Siem Reap River. He could not hear the men clearly from his place behind the wall. Boys his age were not allowed close to the adult conversations except in the presence of their fathers and Sam Tsir’s father had died two rice harvests ago. His father had been a brave man, a guard for the Prince. Had he been there that day, Sam Tsir would have walked proudly to the middle of town and listened to every word spoken – even those spoken by the wisest elder in his village. But with no father, he could only hope not to be caught and beaten for his insolent curiosity. His mother had warned him many times to stay away, but Sam knew his father would not have cowered before one hundred warriors. He would not cower before a dozen gossiping old men, even if he was only 6 years old.
When Sam’s father was alive, the men in the village treated him and his mother with great respect. But within weeks of his death, they had taken their home from them and made them stay in a leaking hut in the jungle with the other widows and “worthless ones.” As he strained to listen, he could sense that someone had just come to town with some important news. “The Prince! It is something about the Prince,” Sam thought. Sam Tsir crawled down from his perch and hid under the table of a man who sold baskets. He had been caught trying to hide there before, but today, even this untrusting vendor was distracted by the news. Yes, it was about the Prince. He was staying in a village just three days journey from Sam’s own.
“The Prince!” Sam thought. “If I could see the Prince, I would tell him whose son I am. I would tell him how the men in our village have treated my mother. I know he is a good man – or my father would not have loved him. If he hears my story, he will help us!”
At least Sam Tsir thought he was just thinking – but in his excitement, he must have actually been speaking out loud, for when he looked up, Sam could see the vendor coming toward him with a very angry look. Sam pushed over a large stack of baskets and ran from the village as fast as his legs would carry him.
As he ran home, Sam noticed the jungle was beginning to darken. He knew the way well, but he knew that the jungle is no place for a boy so small, especially at night. He was ashamed of his fear of the dark, but his shame made no difference to his knees, which trembled as he ran. When Sam Tsir got to his house, he spoke so quickly, his mother could hardly understand him. “The Prince,” he stammered. “Must see him. He will help us.” And no sooner had he said the words, than he ran back into the jungle.
Gifts! Sam knew that a man so important must be given gifts. To bring no gift would be a sign of disrespect.
So Sam Tsir started to gather the best treasures the jungle offered a small boy. And before long, Sam was running to his mother with his arms loaded with the most colourful and delicious gifts he could find. As he burst into the room, his mother watched as he laid his treasures on the table – a yellow kiwano (horned melon), a red pitahaya (dragon fruit), a purple brinjal (eggplant), a sprig of Inji root (ginger), and three small green bananas.
“What are you doing Sam Tsir? Where have you been?” his mother asked him in a very firm tone.
“I have been listening in the village. The Prince is near us, only three days journey. I have gathered these gifts for him. He will speak to me and he will punish the men who have treated you so poorly!” Sam knew he had to speak as fast as he could, for if he paused, even to breathe, his mother would not let him finish.
“Sam, you silly child,” his mother’s voice sounded sad and proud all at once. “You could never make such a journey. You are too small. The jungle is too dark. The river is too treacherous. And I will not lose you as I lost your father. Now, away to your bed!” With that she gave his nose a good tug and his bottom a firm swat and sent him off to where he slept. Even though it was Sam’s nose that hurt – or perhaps his pride – it was his mother who was crying. Sam gathered the treasures he had collected, placed them under his hammock, and crawled up to sleep. But Sam could not sleep, he could only think of the journey he would not be taking and the hope he no longer had. He joined his mother’s lament with tears of his own. His tears fell from his cheeks, through the strings in his hammock, and onto the floor, washing the colourful fruits he had collected. He wept in silence until he was fast asleep.
But as Sam Tsir slept, the treasures he had gathered began to – move. At first, just so slightly. Then, just a bit more – until the movement startled Sam from his sleep. He looked down at the floor and rubbed his eyes at what he saw. Bumping, rolling, and tumbling, his treasures were making their way toward the door. He was certain that the noise would wake his mother, but as he peeked over the edge of her bed, it was as if she heard nothing at all. He quickly took his cloth bag off the peg on the wall and began collecting the clumsy dancers.
The Inji and the bananas were not hard to catch as their shape kept them from moving too fast. The pitahaya spun mostly in one place for fear, it seemed, of bruising its shoots. The kiwano was very fast as it bumbled along on its prickly skin, but because of its bright colour, it could not hide very well. So Sam managed to collect the bunch and place them carefully in his cloth bag.
That is – all except for the brinjal. It had bounced out the doorway and down the ladder by the time Sam had turned his attention to it. And because it was so dark outside, the brinjal could cloak itself in deep purple making it almost impossible to see. As Sam Tsir looked and listened, he thought he heard it bouncing down the hill toward the river.
“Oh no!” thought Sam – still trying to be very quiet. “If it reaches the river, it will be carried away and maybe eaten by a large turtle.” But before Sam had even finished thinking about the turtle, he saw the brinjal twirl off the bank and into the dark waters of the Siem Reap.
Sam sat down by the water. He knew better. The waters were filled with dangerous creatures – crocodiles, python snakes, and soft-shelled turtles whose strike was as fast as any cobra. He had seen a soft-shell break a fisherman’s finger with one bite at last rice harvest. But Sam just sat there. He was too confused, too tired, and too sad to care. “If I had a boat,” he said out loud, “I would go down this river and find the Prince.” His words echoed through the trees and were soon swallowed by the jungle sounds.
But as Sam sat on the bank, something began to rise up from the water. At first, he thought it was a water buffalo. But it was no buffalo. It was – purple. And it was floating. Sam Tsir rubbed his eyes and looked. Then he rubbed his eyes again. It was the brinjal – much larger, of course – but his brinjal had turned into the most beautiful dugout boat he had ever seen. “What a wonderful boat,” he thought to himself. This time, he was quiet, not because he didn’t want to wake anyone, he was quiet because he thought he must be dreaming and didn’t want to wake himself.
“But,” he thought again, “The river is filled with dangerous creatures. Even if I did float down the river, I could not be certain that a crocodile would not overturn my boat, or a buffalo would not attack me.” He had no sooner thought that thought when the kiwano wriggled its prickly self to the top of Sam’s bag and tumbled into the water. This time Sam did not take his eyes off of the spot where it went in. And just as quickly as it had disappeared, the yellow fruit reappeared. But it was no longer a kiwano. Now it was the largest puffer fish Sam Tsir had ever seen. It was yellow and almost as big as his boat. Its spiny skin looked like a porcupine. Its eyes moved independently so that it could see both directions at the same time. Sam knew that no animal that shared the river would dare bother his boat with such a creature guiding it.
“But, it is still so dark,” Sam thought. This time, he was certain not to speak, for he was afraid and this was not the time to admit it. Just then, the pitahaya, the fruit of the moonflower, worked its way to the top of the bag. But instead of falling to the ground, it began to – fly. As Sam looked, he could hardly believe his eyes. The “fire dragon fruit” had become a real dragon – not a big dragon – but a dragon the same size the fruit had been. And the glow from its red skin lit the river right to the banks as if it were under the brightest of full moons. And so, the boat, with Sam inside, began to move along the water with the bright yellow puffer fish swimming ahead of it and the small dragon flying above it, lighting the sky. Sam sat and smiled. No one would ever believe this story. And even if the old men in the village asked him to tell it, he would wonder aloud if they were worthy of such a fine tale.
At that moment, there was much that Sam did not know. Sam was not certain where the river was taking him, or how far or how fast they were traveling. What he did know was that he wished his father could see him. He also wondered if his mother would worry. She always feared that someday he would be carried off by a tiger. He felt badly that she would be alone when she awakened. But what an adventure he had been brought into.
As the boat continued to move and Sam looked at the changing landscape, he began to recognize where he was. He was nearing the village where the Prince was staying. In just a matter of hours, he and his companions made a journey that would take an ordinary man three days!
And just that quickly, the boat began to slow and move closer to the shore. Sam could see an opening in the jungle where a wide trail ascended a hill above the river. “Would that trail take me to the Prince?” he wondered. Just then, at the very spot where the trail began, under the guidance of the bright yellow puffer fish, in the light of the glowing dragon, the deep purple boat came to rest. Sam got out of the boat and placed his bag over his shoulder. Then, as he turned toward the river, before he knew what had happened, the purple boat was gone, the puffer fish was gone, and the sky no longer glowed from the red light of the fire dragon. All that was left was a pitahaya, a kiwano, and a brinjal.
For a moment, they floated on the surface of the river and then, just that quickly, disappeared into the dark water. It was dark again, but there was just enough light to be able to follow the wide trail climbing above the river. Sam wanted to cry. But it wasn’t the darkness that saddened him. He would miss his treasured companions – for when you share such a journey together, you share something more than just distance traveled.
Sam decided it was time to hurry, so he climbed the trail until he came to the edge of a beautiful village. He could see many campfires. He heard the neighing of the horses ridden by soldiers. This WAS where the Prince was staying! And Sam could see the four large elephants that always traveled in the Prince’s procession. His father had told him stories of how those beasts would strike fear into the hearts of the Prince’s enemies as they trumpeted and trampled their way through even the densest jungle. Just as Sam was about to lose himself in his fascination with the elephants, a large hand grabbed his arm and lifted him off the ground. It was one of the Prince’s guards.
“Where did you come from, little boy?” His voice boomed as Sam’s legs dangled in mid air. “And what is in your bag?”
With that, the soldier reached his hand into Sam’s bag and took hold of the small bunch of green bananas. But when he pulled his hand from the bag, to his amazement, he was holding three of the largest emeralds he had ever seen. His mouth opened, his eyes widened, and he lowered Sam to the ground. For a moment, they both stood in wonder at the jewels as they glistened in the light of the nearby fire.
Then Sam saw a large tent in the center of the village. There, by a large camp fire, stood the Prince. He was just as striking as Sam had imagined him. Tall, wide-shouldered, dark skinned – his eyes flashed as the fire reflected off of them as if they contained a flame of their own. Slowly Sam walked toward the Prince. He was frightened again, but this time not for fear of the dark. This was another kind of fear he had not yet experienced in his few short years. He couldn’t quite understand it, for he somehow feared the Prince, yet he was drawn to him so strongly that his feet would not stop moving him closer.
When the Prince saw the boy, he looked surprised. “Who are you boy? Where do you come from and why do you stand there so quietly? Are you an enemy or a friend?” Sam understood every word the Prince spoke. He knew he was expected to answer, but try as he could – he could not speak. It was almost as if he could not even breathe.
After a moment, which seemed much longer to Sam, the Prince spoke again. “If you are an enemy, you are not a very good one.” Then the Prince smiled and motioned Sam closer. Two soldiers, who had closed in behind Sam with very serious looks on their faces, now relaxed and moved into the shadows.
Then the Prince, as if he could think of nothing else to say, asked, “And what have you in your bag?” For a moment, Sam hesitated. What DID he have in his bag? What would the Prince think if suddenly his Inji root turned into a bird or a beast? What would his soldiers do? But because he could think of nothing else to do, Sam slid his hand into the bag. He would offer the Prince the only remaining treasure he had. When he pulled his hand from the bag, there, just as it had looked when he found it in the jungle, was the Inji root. Sam slowly lifted his hand to present his gift to the Prince. “Ginger!” the Prince seemed to laugh as he said the word. “This fine root will make a wonderful tea.” And with those words he summoned one of his guards who prepared a pot, shredded the little root, wrapped it in a piece of fine cloth, and dropped it into the boiling water. As the oil from the root seeped through the cloth and into the water, the air began to be filled with the sweet smell. A soldier approached the boiling pot and dipped two clay cups into the sweet water. First, he handed a cup to the Prince and then – he handed one to Sam. “My silent friend has brought me a true treasure,” said the Prince to seemingly no one in particular. “This is the tea we once drank to prepare ourselves for great conquests.” The Prince paused. His face became more serious. Almost sad, Sam thought as he looked at him. “The last time I drank such a tea, I drank it with one of the finest men I have ever known – a brave man – a loyal friend – Sam Tsir.”
Sam could not believe his ears. Like a sky filled with fireworks, Sam exploded in a frenzy of words and motion.
“Sam Tsir? That’s my name! That’s my father’s name!” Sam jumped up and waved his hands as he ran around the fire. The cup of tea he had been holding sailed into the lap of a surprised soldier and all of the silence that had held Sam’s mouth closed suddenly was transformed into a cloudburst of sound.
Sam told the Prince everything. He told him about his father. He told him about his mother. He told him about the village and the unpleasant men and his leaky hut in the jungle. He told him about the fruits and the purple boat and the glowing dragon and the yellow puffer fish with the eyes that moved in different directions. He told him about how the green bananas turned to emeralds and finally, and finally, when he told him everything, Sam fell into the Prince’s arms and wept.
Princely protocol means little to an exhausted boy after an impossible adventure.
As the Prince held the little boy in his arms, a soldier placed the emeralds into his noble hand. And the Prince shed a tear of his own.
Then, the Prince lifted the little boy by the shoulders and set him on his feet. When he was standing on his own, the Prince looked into Sam’s eyes and spoke.
“You, my young friend, have been on a remarkable adventure – an adventure worthy of the son of Sam Tsir.”
As soldiers drew near, the Prince’s voice took on the tone of one who weighs his words as if they will be remembered decades into the future.
“When you began your journey, Sam, your bag was filled with ordinary things.”
“But the ordinary became extraordinary,” said the Prince, “when they became part of a great story.”
So it is with plants and roots. And so it is with little boys.
With that, the Prince called one of his guards and placed Sam in his arms. He made a small bed in the Prince’s tent and lay Sam there. Then he stood at the doorway so that Sam need not be afraid.
For several minutes, Sam did not think he could possibly sleep. But soon the warmth of the blankets overtook his reluctance and Sam drifted off into a deep sleep. He was so weary from his great adventure that he slept for six days without waking. When he did awaken, his mother was sitting beside him. The Prince had ordered her brought to the village. “For,” he said to his guards, “only a truly remarkable woman could raise such a truly remarkable boy.”
When she had arrived, the Prince gave her a fine home in the village. He gave her the emeralds the soldier had found in Sam’s bag. He told her the stories of her brave husband and of her courageous little son. And, as the old men tell it, Sam Tsir and his mother lived under the protection of the Prince for as long as they lived.
“The ordinary becomes extraordinary when it becomes part of a great story.”
And so it was that first Christmas. Ordinary shepherds, an ordinary girl, in an ordinary stable, under an ordinary sky, became extraordinary – for they had become a part of the most extraordinary story of all. And so it is, as well, with ordinary people – like us.