“The beasts talk,” Grandmama said. “While we’re down in the village at Midnight Mass, they talk. God grants them the gift of speech. Because they were there when Jesus was born, the beasts, they nuzzled him and loved him and the babe touched them with his hand at that sacred hour, and ever since, at midnight at Christmas Eve, the beasts talk.”
Every year Grandmama told him this, but not this year. Now Grandmama was buried, in the graveyard next to the little church in the village where everyone else on the farm was right now. Josef was not with them; he had told Mama he felt sick and managed to convincingly cough up a gob of vomit (really just old cream from the Christmas Eve cake) and she left him.
Josef was twelve, on the brink of boy and man. Next year he would be too old. He missed his Grandmama, and he would know the truth of what she told him. The midnight hour was near, he could feel it, tucked under the thick feather bolster. He crept out into the freezing room and dressed. He would see if it was true, hear their words with his own ears.
The kitchen was empty, the ovens banked after their Eve feast, preparing for tomorrow’s gorge. The Christmas tree, whose candles had been brilliantly lit an hour ago, sat dark. He skirted through the empty kitchen, though the empty house. Out to the barn.
The smell, the smell of rich manure, the smell of hay he helped cut. The snow stung his face. He plastered himself to the east side of the barn, and listened.
Amid the flickering of the wind came voices.
“Can we go now?” The sound was like that of a fat man eating lemons.
“I don’t see how. The gate isn’t open,” said another voice, this one like a washboard brushed over a haystack.
He couldn’t bear it any longer. He crept to the end of the barn wall, right next to the barnyard fence, and let one eye out over the edge.
The goose spotted him right off.
“A man!” it yelled, running in a panic around the barnyard and flapping its wings. “A man listening to us! Byonkbyonkbyonkbyonk!”
All the other animals ran out into the yard: the cow, the pigs, the sheep, and behind them Majesty, the immense black plow-horse. They all saw him now.
“Be quiet!” the horse ordered the goose, and his voice was like the crackling of a mighty Yule log as it burned. The fowl sank down and put her head under her wing. Then Majesty turned to him. He trotted right to the fence and stared down at Josef.
“Well, boy,” he said, his hot breath steaming into Josef’s face. “as long as you’re here, why don’t you open the barnyard gate?”
Josef scurried to obey, running around to the gate and swinging it wide. All the animals moved toward it.
“Where are you going?” Josef asked.
“To the pond,” Majesty replied.
“When I was, but a colt, my dam told me that long ago, when the angels came to the shepherds with their flocks, there were pixies nearby. They wanted to go worship the Christ child as well, but the angels forbade them. So as consolation, they decorated a Christmas tree. Now every Christmas Eve, the pixies come out and decorate another Christmas tree. I want to see this with my own eyes, so do we all.”
“Can I come?”
“If you promise to be quiet.”
The animals and Josef struck out by the forest road. The flurry had stopped; walking was easier. The sheep and the cow tried to gossip, which thrilled Josef, but Majesty shushed them, and there was no more talk.
They approached the pond behind a screen of trees. Josef peered through the underbrush and gasped.
Around the stately pine that overshadowed the deepest part of the pond, tiny winged women flitted. Some of them hung small apples, which glowed red like coals. Others wove chains of light which they wrapped around the boughs. A few touched the tree with their wands, here and there, and everywhere they touched, a tongue of ice and fire arose, like an reverse icicle, lit from within. One pixie flew to the top of the tree and stood there, arms out to heaven, and she blazed with light like the Christmas star.
The animals made various noises, and though they were unfamiliar sounds, Josef could tell they were as moved as he was.
“What a tree!” screamed the goose. “It’s so beautiful! Byonkbyonkbyonkbyonk! Hooray! Byonk!”
Majesty tried to put his huge black hooves on the flailing goose, but it was too late. The pixies, startled, came at them like a swarm of bees. Josef tried to run, but one of them halted not a nosebreadth from his face and scolded him vigorously.
“How dare you spy on us!” the little woman shouted. “All we wanted to do was finish the tree in time to go see!”
“Go see what?” Josef asked.
“Our nest mother used to tell us that on the first Christmas, an advanced material scientist came among the Wise Men to see Christ. And ever since then, every Christmas Eve, advanced material scientists hide in hilly hollows and practice their craft.”
“What? Who?” asked Josef.
“Forgive us. We did not mean to intrude,” said Majesty. “Your tale is intriguing. May we accompany you?”
“I guess,” said the pixie. “As long as you’re ever so quiet.”
The animals followed the pixie swarm over the ridge of the hill. On the other side, in the hollow of the brook, an unearthly light penetrated the cold winter dark. Josef’s heart rose into his throat, but he kept up with everyone else.
They made their way down the other side and hid behind a house-sized boulder. Josef climbed on top of the rock, keeping himself prone. Next to the stream a pair of figures was operating on a metal hut, a hut that glowed with heat. Bent figures dressed in white, they crouched over strange boxes. Josef thought of kobolds luring miners to their doom, and his skin puckered in fear.
“It’s true!” said one of the pixies into his ear. “They’re experimenting with an industrial magnetic kiln! It’s true!”
“They’re what with a what now?” Josef asked.
But just then the strange pair cried out with joy and embraced each other. “Hooray! Two-three-four-eight Kelvin!”
“Two-three-four-eight Kelvin!” honked the goose. “Hooray! Byonk!”
“Hold that thing down while I sew its beak shut!” hissed the pixie to Josef, but it was too late.
“Who’s there?” one of the white-robed figures shouted into the woods, toward them.
Josef slid down the rock and they all walked into the eerie glow of the kiln. “Pardon us, sirs, we didn’t mean any harm.”
“You’re lucky you didn’t disrupt the melting process! What’s your name?”
“Josef Kleinknecht, sir.”
“Merry Christmas, young Kleinknecht. My name is Dr. Silas W. Green IV, PhD. I suppose you’re wondering what we’re doing out here in the woods, mmm?”
“Yes, Herr Doktor.”
“When I was about your age, my father, Dr. Silas W Green III, Lucretius Mudd Professor of Chemistry at Tremontane University, told me a story: that on the blessed first Christmas, the Christ child put his hand onto a lump of pure boron and heated it to its melting point. And ever since then, every Christmas Eve, boron melts at a temperature one full degree Kelvin less than normal. I wanted to see if this was true, and look!” He pointed to a group of blue numbers, strange boxy blue numbers that read K2348. “The boron has melted at two thousand, three hundred and forty-eight degrees Kelvin, one degree less than it should need! It’s true!”
The door of the metal hut flew open, flooding the hollow with a searing heat. Inside sat a ceramic container filled with a yellow sludge. As all watched in horror, a face formed on the stuff, two bulbous eyes and a maw, and then a pseudopod extended from it, pointing right at Josef.
“You!” said the molten boron, in voice that sounded like porridge cooking. “Where is the nearest crossroads?”
Trying to still his knocking knees, Josef lifted his chin and responded “If you follow the brook down a little ways, you’ll come to a bridge. There’s a crossroads right next to it.”
The boron oozed out of the crucible and onto the ground, searing whatever it touched. “My mother told me that on Christmas Eve, great works of modern art assemble at remote country crossroads and sing carols,” it burbled. “I must know if this is true.”
Dr. Green fell to his knees before the boron. “I am your mother!” he screamed.
“Nay!” the boron roared defiantly.
Dr. Green wept with rejected maternal affection.
The boron formed itself into a ball and rolled down the bank of the brook, melting a path through all obstacles. Josef followed, and behind him came Majesty, and the pixies, and the other animals, and in the rear Dr. Green, sobbing, with the other advanced materials scientist trying to comfort him.
They exited the woods onto a grassy rise that came up to the bridge, right next to the crossroads, where the Salzburg road met the country lane that led to the farm. Here was a gap in the hills, and one could see all the way down to the village. The squall had ended, and the clouds cleared; moonlight lit the whole valley. Josef could see the church steeple in the distance, the many candles within mingling with the glowing snow.
Josef shuffled his feet. The cow started chewing her cud. The pixies, tired, sank onto Majesty’s back.
Josef bent down to the ball of glowing metal. “Herr Boron, are we waiting for something?”
“Yes,” the ball replied. “Look!”
Down the Salzburg road they came, paintings, walking somehow, and not just paintings, assemblages of wire and large glass things and constructions more bizarre than he had ever seen.
“There’s Piet Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie-woogie’!” blurped the boron excitedly. “And Jackson Pollack’s ‘Autumn Rhythm!’ Ooh, there’s Ernst’s ‘L’ange du foyer!’ And a Miro mobile! How wonderful! It’s true!”
The parade of art crossed the bridge, passed through the cheering crowd, and formed a circle around the crossroads. The animals, the pixies, the now-recovered advanced materials scientists, the boron, and Josef took places among them.
Down in the village, the church bell tolled. It was Christmas. Between the deep tones crept the sound of singing.
Silent night/Holy night…
And as had been foretold, the art joined in, somehow.
All is calm/All is bright…
And the animals and pixies, too, even the boron.
Round yon virgin/Mother and Child/Holy Infant/So tender and mild…
To Josef’s left was a sheep, to his right the artwork the boron identified as “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even.” Grandmama hadn’t said anything about this. But she had pointed the way. It was baffling. But it was true.
He sang, too.
Sleep in Heavenly Peace/Sleep in Heavenly Peace.