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Peace on Earth: in two stories of people who have lost hope, Alice Camille reminds us that sometimes peace on Earth comes in small packages.

LYING INSIDE A SLEEPING BAG ON THE FLOOR OF AN abandoned house, Matthew took another puff on his cigarette and stared out at a single star in the night sky. He could go back to church. He I could do that.

It wasn't an idle thought. Not that religion had played a significant part in his recent life. He had had a big bite of the American dream, and for someone who started out as a farm boy in the boonies, that had been quite an adventure. He had snagged a terrific-paying job driving a semi, and it had earned him the good life.

He'd lived in the sort of house his old man would have considered a mansion. He had the wife, the kids, the respect of the men under him at the company, and more money in the bank than he'd ever imagined. Matthew had everything, and he could do anything.

Then he started drinking. He'd always had one or two, but this was different, more time-consuming and focused, more like a dedication. Soon it had become his primary relationship, the one that mattered. The marriage died, and he lost access to his kids. That hurt, but he didn't blame her of them. He just kept drinking as the perfect life slipped away from him and down a hole till it was gone from view. He lost his family, home, job, and best friend down the same hole. Nights like these, looking at a star through the window of a shelled-out building, he had to wonder about that.

He didn't have to sleep on the floor like this, strictly speaking. It's just that it didn't seem to matter where he slept, what he did. Things had lost their assigned meanings, like someone had pulled the plug on reality and all the significance in life had dribbled away.

Maybe that's why church had popped into his mind tonight. It was the last place Matthew remembered going in expectation of the Big Picture, the cosmic take on things. It was a long time ago; he hadn't even been married in a church, so it must have been when he was back on the farm. Church was the place where God told you what's what. Nobody had been able to tell him anything recently. He wasn't listening.

The silence tonight had him listening, though, it was close to Christmas--even he knew that, and he wasn't paying attention to much. That was another reason that God was on his mind. All those cattle troughs with babies in them scattered around town, and the baby was the Savior. He stubbed out the cigarette, wrapping his mind around that word, Savior. Wouldn't it be nice to be saved?

TERESA WANDERED THROUGH THE STORE TO THE BACK corner where she knew the sale items would be. Three days before Christmas she was bound to find some cheap things with the kind of selection that wouldn't be available during the post-holiday sales hysteria. She picked up a box of cards. "Peace on Earth," the card reported in large shining silver letters.

Teresa put it down hurriedly, as if she'd inadvertently handled a snake. What a stupid message. No wonder it was on the discount table. You couldn't sell that idea to a flower child, not even this close to Christmas. "Peace on Earth" was one of those notions the world should be ready to retire. As far as she could tell, it had no meaning.

She held up another box of cards and considered the image on it. At first she thought it was a nice grouping of animals, a cheery nature scene. "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" she said to herself. But then she saw it. Along with the wolf and the lamb, the cow and the bear, she saw a majestic lion and a small girl snuggled together like old friends. Another failed prophecy, she thought angrily. Another disappointed dream.

If she was going to have to settle for holiday fictions, she'd rather take them straight up, not on the rocks. Where were the Santa cards? Bring on the reindeer and the elves!

She shuffled through images of snowmen with carrot noses and teddy bears on ice skates, and finally found what she was looking for. The card bore a wreath on the front and inside a bland greeting: "Best wishes for the new year." It was as optimistic a statement as she cared to make to anyone.

THAT ONE EARLY STAR HAD BEEN JOINED BY OTHERS. THE sky sparkled and danced with countless lights. Matthew was surprised by the lump that rose in his throat at the sight of so much wanton beauty. Why give it all away for free like this? Why was the universe so dang generous when people were such rotters?

That did it. He was crying now, not even trying to hold it back, not able to contain the notion of all this gorgeous sky being wasted on an idiot like him. Yes, he was a royal jerk, throwing away a good woman's love and the trust of two boys who had been counting on him, depending on him. He had cried about this before, but it was different this time. He had cried for himself, for the discomfort of having his world in upheaval. But this time he knew he was crying for them, and asking for something, too. He didn't know what it was, but he wanted it, needed it, couldn't go on without it.

Could there be--was it too much to ask for?--after all the bad choices, all the missed chances, the love lost, and the past in ruins--could there be peace? he found himself asking the night sky. Was it possible to make peace with the past, admit his mistakes, beg forgiveness from all the stars in the sky and move on?

She might never forgive him. The kids might, someday, when they were old enough to make their own mistakes. But he couldn't wait on that, he couldn't sleep in empty buildings forever waiting for someone else to determine his late. He had to find a way to forgive himself, but he wasn't sure if that was any more possible than performing his own surgery.

Forgiveness had to come from somewhere else, from someplace large and kind and good. Better than the poor small space of his own heart, where self-hatred about his drinking drove him to take up the next bottle.

BACK HOME ONCE MORE, TERESA SAT AT HER DESK AND STARTED addressing the envelopes for her Christmas cards. It was late, she knew, and people weren't going to get these on time, but it didn't matter. There was a statute of limitations on holiday greetings that ran until the end of January, she presumed.

She pulled out the first card--"Best wishes for the new year." She rested her gaze on the message as if she were waiting for it to continue. It sounded unconvincing, even to her. Whose best wishes, mine or theirs? she asked herself. My best wishes would be--what, exactly? That the terrorists would all be found and killed. That life could go on sensibly again. That one wouldn't have to live in dread everyday of what could happen.

The paper was full of violence, the television news was all about war. World leaders smiled and made assurances while the planet went to hell in a handbasket. They were all liars.

Peace on Earth? Sure, she'd like to believe in it. She'd like to manage a faint hope for it, at least. The words haunted her, along with that image of the happy child, her arras around the neck of a tame lion. Teresa would rather be living in that world than this one. But there was just no way to get there.

HE WOULD GO BACK TO CHURCH. MATTHEW KNEW IT, THE way he also knew that his drinking would kill him if he didn't put it away for good. Christmas was a good time to sneak back in without the roof coming down on your head. Lots of people returned to the pews during the holidays. No one would know he was there.

The stars twinkled overhead, prompting him. OK, someone would know. Someone would notice that his long-absent face was in the crowd. A warm feeling stole over Matthew, even though the sleeping bag did little to keep out the chill of the evening air.

It surprised and thrilled him to consider that God might be happy to see him. No one had been happy to see Matthew for a long time, not even the guy at the store where he bought his liquor. It would be good to be wanted, to have been missed, to have someone give a rat's behind about where he'd been.

He was actually looking forward to the service, he realized. To be somewhere that mattered, to be someone who mattered again. To achieve that rare thing, significance.

"BEST WISHES FOR THE NEW YEAR." TERESA FINISHED UP the last card, signing it with a flourish, relieved to have this business over with for another year. This one was to her mother, reminding her of the brittle relationship they'd shared until they just stopped visiting altogether.

They still sent cards on birthdays and holidays, and that pleasantry kept the lines of communication open, though what traveled along those lines was pretty banal. She didn't dislike her mother at this stage in her life. She'd gotten past all that. Now there was just officiousness and obligation.

But at the last minute, just before she sealed the envelope, Teresa slipped the card out again and stared at the wreath. It signified nothing, just a neutral symbol of winter boughs. She flipped open the card. Best wishes, etc.

Without really knowing why, she picked up her pen once more. Underneath her signature, she wrote impulsively, "P.S. Peace on Earth."

ALICE CAMILLE, whose works are included in the short story collections Christmas Presence (2002) and Hidden Presence (2003), both available from ACTA Publications.
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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