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The darkest light—a Christmas tale

The many-colored, Christmas star lantern hanging from their second-floor window was the most beautiful thing that 9-year old Mira Delos Reyes had ever possessed. Mira lived in the most-underdeveloped and most-neglected area in their district, and behind their house was an alley that nobody dared to tread in the late evenings. The street lights had gone out on that alley ages ago, and the street was never even paved in concrete. Rumors swirled that their mayor held a grudge against one of Mira’s neighbors, whose clan owned several houses along that same alley, and so the political bigwig left the entire length of the alley in disrepair despite the hefty taxes he extracted from them.

On top of the general discontent of civilians against their government officials, many were anticipating a Christmas without the usual fanfare due to the COVID-19 virus. Local governments imposed a community quarantine which introduced restrictions that hampered normal social relations and robbed many of their livelihood. The warmth of gatherings enjoyed by Filipino families and communities, especially during the holidays, was dampened by the government-imposed lockdown, and their ability to afford festivities, was radically diminished.

Mira’s father, Jose, was a junior electrical engineer working for a construction company, until the COVID-19 virus made the rounds in the establishment, and with constant exposure to the rest of the workers, he caught the virus and fell gravely ill. He had subsequently been given a clean bill of health, but not all was right after the tests came back negative for the virus. His heart had been weakened by the disease, and Jose felt unable to get back to work. It was timely and opportune that his wife, Miriam, received a job offer as a caregiver at a UK facility caring for the aged. Worried about her husband’s condition, Miriam took the job with a heavy heart, and so their daughter, Mira, who had no siblings, was left alone to care for Jose. In between household chores, Mira kept herself busy with the lessons in her textbooks.

Stuck at home, Mira had no television to keep her entertained, for they had sold it to help pay for Tatay‘s medical needs. But they had one treasure in the home that they had not yet sold—the Star of Christmas lantern that Jose had fashioned and formed himself. Two years ago, Jose made a project out of that star lantern, beating, cutting, color-staining and soldering the capiz shells to form the rosette pattern of the lantern.

The lantern had copper lines at the joins with whorls of red, blue, purple, white and yellow petals depicted by the carefully-arranged translucent shells. When the lantern was switched on, the lights brightened and dimmed one by one in clockwise order, and then they lit up again in reverse. There were three white inter-locking petals at the center of the lantern, and on their faces the names of her family members were soldered in copper, shining at each turn.

The lights put a smile on Mira’s face momentarily as her thoughts drifted away from her mother’s absence. It was certain that Nanay would not be home this Christmas as she was caring for elderly patients abroad, but as the colored petals of the star lantern bloomed one by one with the warm light that shone through them, memories of past Christmases when their family was together sparked a glimmer of hope in Mira’s heart.

“I hate this lockdown,” Mira thought. “And how I miss Nanay. I wish there were a way for her to be home for Christmas.”

Each Christmas, Tatay took out the star lantern to the window of the second floor of their house, and kept the bright lights dancing to the boisterous tune of “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to bring cheer into their home. This year, Mira took out the lantern herself; Tatay would spend his days resting and praying in his bedroom for the most part.

Mira was seated at the window sill staring at the dancing lights of the lantern. From a distance, she could hear the Santa Ana church bells pealing for the dawn masses, except that these masses were celebrated on the eve of the days of Advent.

***

Mira had never been to the dawn masses before, as she was made to go to bed early in time for school the next day. And when she went off on her holiday break, she had become too sleepy to join Nanay and Tatay for the masses. This Advent, nobody from the family could attend the dawn masses, but something stirred deep inside the soul of Mira, as she watched her neighbor, Nanay Elena, and her daughter, Kristine, emerging from their house to walk to church.

Mira hollered out to Kristine, asking if she could join them. Kristine waved back, and Nanay Elena nodded. They stopped and waited for her, and she remembered to snatch her white handkerchief on a door hook on the way out.

The parishioners sat two feet apart from each other on the wooden pews of the Santa Ana church. The echelons of mass-goers were all masked, and Mira dutifully wore her handkerchief over her nose and mouth to avoid contamination. The pews felt cold to sit on as it was night time, and the gaps between the persons seated on the pews chilled her further as she remembered her parents who could not attend the mass with her. Still, she was grateful to be seated close to her schoolmate and neighbor, Kristine.

Mira sat on the far right end of the pew, next to the Rosa Mystica, a devotional statue to the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the foot of the statue were laminated cards explaining how miracles had been attributed to the Rosa Mystica.

One card taped to the foot of the Rosa Mystica statue read: “The Maria Rosa Mystica is akin to the Darkest Light in heaven’s pantheon of stars, not because it does not shine as brightly in the face of other great supernatural lights, but because it shines in the deepest darkness, such that it blinds those who have walked in darkness and suddenly gaze upon it to behold the Majesty of God in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Spiritual conversions have occurred owing to her intercession.”

Another card at the foot of the Rosa Mystica read: “The title of Mystic Rose also harks back to the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe who cast her indelible image, depicted as being surrounded by a halo of light, upon the cloak of the Mexican saint, Juan Diego, as he unfurled it to reveal another miracle that eventually drew many up to that blessed place in Mexico—where nowhere else in all the land but there, did roses bloom in winter.”

There were three roses affixed on the chest of the Rosa Mystica, and they reminded Mira of the three petals at the center of the star lantern her father had crafted. A thought crossed her mind to ask God for a miracle for their family. Perhaps the Rosa Mystica could intercede for them? Mira imagined the Blessed Virgin holding the named petals of her star lantern close to her virginal breast.

At the end of the Mass, the lector reminded everyone about the annual fund-raising star lantern contest. Each Advent season, the most colorful star lanterns entered into the contest had been displayed in the halls of the church. A panel of judges would rate the merits of each lantern to determine the top prize. Sponsors set up prizes for first, second and third place. And the monetary reward was attractive enough to fill the six dozen contest slots with the most amazing entries from all the barangays within the vicinity of the old church.

As the lector mentioned the monetary value to be awarded to the contest winners, Kristine turned to Mira and excitedly whispered, “Imagine what you could do with all that money!” A thought flashed in Mira’s mind that if she could win first place, perhaps she could afford to pay for a plane ticket for Nanay to fly home for Christmas.

And so the plan was set: Mira was going to enter Tatay‘s star lantern into that competition. Perhaps Nanay could not be home in time for Christmas, but maybe she could be home before the New Year. The next day, Mira joined Kristine again for Mass, and this time, she had her star lantern in hand to enter it into the competition.

After each Mass, Mira would visit her star lantern hung at the post of a long hallway in the parish. She was proud of her father’s work, but as the other star lanterns were displayed, she noted that each had a distinct design that made it stand out. As Christmas Eve approached, she saw more ornate lanterns with spectacular lighting sequences. Some lanterns had lights dancing to the electronic tune of Christmas carols; others had tableaus of traditional Christmas scenes ensconced in the center of the lanterns. Despite the stiff competition, Mira kept hope alive in her heart as she sat beside the Rosa Mystica every day during Mass. Gazing up at the three roses on the breast of the Virgin, she felt that the Rosa Mystica was implicitly on the side of her family, silently interceding for a first-prize win for Mira’s star lantern.

“Indeed, Christmas is known to be a time for impossible miracles that defy human expectation,” the priest reiterated during the sermon, “and so we must not lose hope in the face of disease, of joblessness, or of loneliness. Miracles surround us,” Fr. Joaquin said, “just like they did the Holy Family of Nazareth. A manger opened its doors to the Holy Family when there was no room at the inn. The shepherds witnessed the miracle of the angels heralding the birth of the Messiah. The magi travelled from far and wide to follow a star that shone above the humble manger where the King of Kings was born, and they paid homage to him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

These stories enlivened hope in the heart of Mira.

***

At the end of the Christmas Eve Mass, one of the daughters of the mayor, Cecilia Quatorze, stood at the lectern to announce the winners of the star lantern contest. She was a mere child, not much older than Mira. Three ushers stood by her and carried three trophies in different sizes to hand to the winners. Mira was on the edge of her seat, praying that her Tatay‘s name would not be called for third, or second prize, only for the grand prize.

The third prize was announced, and two brothers stepped up to the lectern to receive their trophy and cash prize. Their lantern was a virtual festival of light and sound, with colored lights dancing to the tune of a medley of popular Filipino Christmas Carols. Fr. Joaquin shook hands with them.

Shortly after, the second prize was announced, and an old man received the trophy and an envelope with the prize money in it. The lantern that won second place depicted angels in blue, white and gold with trumpets announcing the birth of Christ. It too flashed its lights to the tune of a popular Christmas carol.

It was a very pleasant lantern, and Mira felt that the prize was well deserved. She knew that the two lanterns were superb, and somehow she doubted that her lantern could rival them, but she looked up beseechingly to the statue of the Rosa Mystica as the first prize was being announced. And as the name of the last winner was revealed, Mira’s eyes filled with tears.

No, Mira’s lantern did not win any prize.

Kristine grabbed a hold of Mira’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry, Mira. I know this contest meant a lot to you,” she said.

Nanay Elena told Mira, “Now that the contest is over, we can take your star lantern home. Perhaps that will cheer up your father. Let him know that you are invited to join us for Noche Buena.”


***

Mira took the lantern home and proceeded to her father’s bedside to tell him that Nanay Elena had invited them to her house for Noche Buena.

Jose nodded weakly and attempted to get up from bed by himself, and then asked for Mira’s assistance. Mira first hung the lantern on a hook by the window of the bedroom overlooking the dark and forgotten alley. She briefly heard what sounded like persons struggling across the alley, and thought that perhaps someone had stumbled in the darkness. In the spirit of Christmas, she plugged in the star lantern in order to cast some light on the lonely street and help someone find their way home safely.

Mira’s little act of charity in casting a light onto the street had unforeseen consequences. As she busied herself in helping her father get dressed for Noche Buena, heaven was answering her prayers.

That dark and forgotten alley, known for being the darkest backstreet in the whole barangay became the perfect venue for criminal entities to do their dirty deeds. Three men, disgruntled by the loss of their jobs and desperate to raise money for their needs, had abducted a child for ransom. The obstacle to their plan was that this child struggled with all her might: She kicked, bit and tried to wriggle free throughout the ordeal. The girl was untenable, and for fear of getting caught, the men had decided to destroy all evidence, including the girl, and that abandoned street provided the best venue to do away with her—except that Mira had hung the lantern on her father’s window at the precise moment when the girl was able to wrest herself from the grasp of her abductors.

Overlooking that darkest alley where no light had been seen in ages, the colorful, dancing lights of the rosette star lantern shone humbly, but brilliantly. Its boisterous tune had startled the girl’s abductors, and had simultaneously and serendipitously drawn immediate attention from neighbors who opened their lights to witness the star lantern scintillating jubilantly, and blaring its electronic tune unapologetically, breaking the morose silence that hung upon that back alley.

Flashes from cellphones lit up the alley as Mira’s neighbors positioned their cameras to capture videos of the lantern. At that precise moment, the dark alley was flooded as if with starlight, and the girl screamed to draw attention to herself. Jose was just about to unplug the lantern to exit the room as he was startled by the desperate call for help. He looked down at the girl, who seemed vaguely familiar to him, and she looked up at him with a terrified look on her face.

Stunned by the sudden flashes of light streaming from the windows facing the backstreet, the girl’s abductors fell into confusion and scampered away into various side streets, dissipating into the shadows. The girl ran away as the lights from the cellphones of Mira’s neighbors followed her and lit her path, but the crooked, unpaved road caused her to stumble and fall into a puddle. Jose saw all this happening and asked Mira to call the police immediately to report a crime happening to a child on their backstreet.

Jose kept his eye on the girl. One by one, he saw his neighbors gathering around the girl, with the lights from their cellphones lighting up the dark alley. As his neighbors approached the girl, they murmured the girl’s name, Cecilia Quatorze, who was the mayor’s daughter who had just announced the contest winners in church. Nanay Elena was one of the neighbors who quickly made their way into the alley, and she gently took the shell-shocked Cecilia into their house.

***

After Mira had informed the police that something bad was happening in their alley, Jose proceeded to the house of Elena and Kristine, and there, met the tearful, disheveled and shivering Cecilia. Jose followed up on Mira’s call to the police to indicate that they had the mayor’s daughter safely resting in the home of one of his neighbors. The mayor arrived shortly to pick up his daughter and take her to the hospital, but before leaving, the mayor had a word with Elena and Jose, thanking them personally for helping him recover his daughter.

When the mayor asked Mira what she wanted as a reward for being the first to lead the police to his missing daughter, Cecilia, Mira’s eyes twinkled with victory as she had only one wish on her mind that Christmas. But the Spirit of Christmas had invaded the house of the Quatorzes, and not content on merely flying home Mira’s mother for the holidays, the mayor also swore to finally light up the back alley and pave it with concrete. And who better to oversee the rehabilitation of that alley but Mira’s father, Jose, whose Christmas lantern filled the lonely street with light on that darkest of nights to shine upon his lost little girl?

On New Year’s Eve, Mira persuaded her parents to join her for Mass at the Santa Ana church. Miriam handed her daughter garlands of fresh sampaguita buds, and Mira laid these fragrant flowers at the foot of the statue of the Maria Rosa Mystica in humble thanksgiving for many prayers answered.

Maria Therese Nicole Tinio Marbella
Freelance writer and literary contributor

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