By John Thomas Tuft

Noctilucent clouds caressed the horizon as twilight deepened into night. The travelers kept to the shadows, fearful of any and all movements, lest they be betrayed. The temperature dropped precipitously as the moon began its ascent. “Kyrie eleison!” muttered the leader of the small group as he peered around a corner. “Maybe in there,” he whispered, motioning toward a dark warehouse. The woman behind him, clutching a bundle of swaddling clothes, nodded. The leader disappeared into the alleyway leaving the rest of them to stomp their feet for warmth as the wind picked up, tugging at the corners of the hospital and army surplus blankets wrapped around their bodies against the bitter cold.

“Where’s Chester? Did he run away?” asked a short, bald man who nervously pulled at his bottom lip. The woman holding the bundle shushed him with a look. A woman in her 30s, standing slightly apart from the others, began a low keening: “We’re lost. We’re lost. All is lost. Repent and drown. Repent and…” The other two in the group began hopping around, so wrapped up in blankets it was hard to discern their sex. “Hell is freezing, the streets are on fire. Somebody help us!” The pair spoke with one voice. They all fell silent at the sound of breaking glass. Then a scraping sound. Suddenly Chester appeared from the dark alley.

“Kyrie eleison! Can’t I leave you bonkeroos for two minutes? You’re making enough noise to raise the dead!” He looked at each one, threw up his arms in exasperation, and took the woman holding the bundle by the arm. “This way Marci. The rest of you, follow me. C’mon, trust me. I found the inn.” The group huddled together and followed Chester. With the woman who keened keeping a slight distance from the rest. The short bald man noticed and hung back. The twins noticed this, and they stopped as well. Chester got Marci to the doorway to the warehouse before noticing. He turned around and saw the dark shapes huddling in the middle of the alley. “Gloria in excelsis Deo, you’re going to drive me crazy!” he shouted, startling some stray cats who yowled and ran off

He went back and herded his sheep toward their shelter. “Are you mad, Chester? Don’t be mad at us. We just want to help the Christmas Panda,” said the keener. Chester regained his calm. “No, no, Penny. It’s gonna be midnight soon and we’re all freezing out here.” Penny followed them all to the door. “I know inns. And that’s no inn,” exclaimed the bald man, pulling himself up to his full height. “Roger, shut up!” the twins said in unison. Marci spoke quietly, “Do you want to go back to…to that hospital?” and she burst into tears. Chester reached through the windowpane he’d broken out and opened the door. Everyone tried to enter at once, resulting in nobody getting through.

“Stop and behold! Christe eleison!” Chester yelled. They all stopped and beheld. In the struggle some of the swaddling clothes in Marci’s arms had come loose. A black and white fuzzy sleeve protruded. Marci carefully recovered it and led them all into the dark interior. “Lights!” shouted the twins. “We don’t have lights. We’re doomed to darkness, I tell you. Doomed, I say.” A match flared, throwing Chester’s face into eerie shadow as he lit two large candles and set them on the floor. Marci sat down on an overturned janitor’s bucket, gentling cradling the bundle, pondering the dancing flames.

“So, we’re here. Now what do we do?” asked the short bald man. “I told you this was crazy. I’m the only sane one here. I only came along because someone promised candy. Where’s the candy?” Marci studied the flames. “I thought there’d be puppies,” Penny said. “But nope, no puppies.” The twins started to gather up old newspapers and dirty rags. “We’re making a bed for the Christmas Panda,” they announced. In unison, of course. Chester threw up his arms, proclaiming, “Kyrie eleison! Don’t you people know anything? I brought you this far, didn’t I?” Marci pondered the light of the candles.

And then she lifted up her eyes.

As she began to unwrap the bundle of swaddling clothes to lay it upon the bed of dirty rags and newspapers, a loud wailing filled the room and a great light shown all about them. Suddenly the door was thrown open and police officers rushed in, filling the inn with confusion. “Where’s the baby? Do you know how much trouble you’re in!” Then they stopped and beheld the child. Dressed in a warm, fuzzy panda sleeper with a hood that had panda ears and a panda nose. No crying she made. One of the officers knelt and asked, “What’s her name?”

“Mercy,” Marci said, smiling. “Her name is Mercy.”

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.