I was living in Sardegna at the time and I wanted to unearth some Christmas story about the island. I used to know an old peasant who knew many of them – a tenant on one of our small holdings down in the valley.
He used to come to visit us in the summer and fall, hunched over his walking stick, a sack slung around his neck, his wispy grey beard dropping into the open end of the bag. He always came to see us late in the afternoon, when the evening star was smiling at us children through the purple twilight. The old peasant seemed like one of the Three Wise Men who had taken the wrong turn and had lost his companions. But he offered things more precious to us than gold and the Wise Men’s crown – fruits and strange tales.
He very seldom came to see us in the winter, and was not so interesting then because he carried only olives, and olives are bitter. Therefore we often went to visit him down in the valley. It was comfortable there, sheltered from the cold wind, with the clouds spreading like a veil over a crib, the water withdrawn and the mountain slopes dry. When the weather was good it seemed like spring. Almond trees were blooming, deceived by the mildness like dreamers, and the olives glistened in the grass like purple pearls.
The old man lived in a tiny hut in the midst of an olive grove that rested on a small plateau protected by harsh grey stones and wild bushes. He had a primitive beehive that had long since been abandoned by the bees. The wild cats loved to lie in it, beautiful like little tigresses.
When we came to see him this time, the enclosure was warmed by the sun, the olives were silvery, and the afternoon so limpid that on the slopes of the opposite mountain one could see shining rivulets and the women collecting acorns hidden in the grass.
The little old man had spread the olives on the ground to let them dry and was picking up those that seemed a little spoiled. He didn’t feel like talking. His tongue had grown stiff from solitude and silence. However, the servant had brought a good medicine to free the rusty words. So the old man drank deeply and began to complain.
“What kind of a tale do you want me to tell? I am old and speak only to the earth that calls me. If you want stories, you know how to read. Why don’t you look for them in the books?
“Drink some more,” said the servant, bending down to select some olives. “Tell us about the time you were going to get married, why don’t you?”
“That’s a true story, not a legend,” he replied. “I’ll tell you that one because it happened around this time, on Christmas Eve. I was twenty years old then, and was engaged. Of course, I was very young to get married, but my father had died, and my mother was always ill. She had heart trouble and was God-fearing, so she said to me: ‘Get married so that when I die you will not have to carry the cross of life alone, or fall in the clutches of the first woman you meet.’
“But whom to choose? I wasn’t rich and I really didn’t care about wealth. All I wanted was a wife who would be honest and God-fearing. We thought this over, asking ourselves who she should be.
“There was a very respectable family living near us, father, mother, and seven children. They were all good workers and went to church and confession as God decrees. Three of the seven children were girls, beautiful, tall, and slim with waists you could span with your two hands. They kept their eyes lowered, the bodices buttoned tightly, and their hands under their aprons. Nor did they walk like you modern girls, looking at people as if you were going to eat them. My mother asked the youngest for me, and I was accepted. When Christmas time came, I had to give her the present with which, as is customary, I engaged myself to marry her. By accepting it she agreed to take me as her husband.
“We thought and thought about that present. Sitting opposite each other near the fire, my mother and I debated as to whether the present should be a gold coin, an embroidered scarf, or a ring. Finally my mother said: ‘Listen, son, I have only a few more days to live and every step is a farewell to the things of this Earth. Take this golden crucifix and give it to her.’
“She gave me her cross together with the mother of pearl rosary to which it was attached. But her eyes were glistening with tears, and her lips were parted with emotion and the aching of her heart. I was so troubled that I tried to give it back to her; but unable to speak she merely pushed my hand back.
“I wrapped the rosary and the cross in a handkerchief, wrapped the little bundle in yet another handkerchief, and carried it in my pocket for three days like a relic. From time-to-time I touched it for fear of losing it and felt, I don’t know why, a strange anxiety, although my heart swelled with love.
“On Christmas Eve I went to call on my intended. Two other young men were there too, to whom her sisters were betrothed. The kitchen, with so many people in it, looked very festive. But everybody was serious because of the presence of the in-laws with their serene but rather somber miens. We felt the same respect for them that one has for the saints over the altar, and the girls came and went with lowered eyes, offering wine and cookies to their young men, answering the compliments paid them in low voices and without smiling.
“I felt at home in such surroundings because I was a serious boy, an orphan accustomed to look upon life seriously. It made me happy to steal an occasional glance at my future wife and whenever she raised her eyes and looked at me, as often as her back was turned to her father and mother, it was as though the sky had opened. The kitchen with the old people, the young men and their betrothed, and the four brothers who were busy skinning a couple of goats for dinner, was like a Holy Court in the presence of God, the saints, and the angels. How happy I was that evening! I have never been so happy since. I was anxiously waiting for the moment when we would return from mass, and I could present my gift to the girl and so be bound to her.
“Suddenly somebody knocked at the door. One of the brothers went to open it and came back with a stranger, a tall man with a sack over his shoulders, a twisted walking stick in his hand. I looked him over carefully as he advanced silently on soft shoes like those worn by the people of Oliano. At first glance he seemed very old, with a short, white beard and light-colored eyes; but then I realized that he was young, fair-haired and tired as though he had come from very far away.
“None of us knew him, and the women stared at him curiously. Everyone thought he was a friend of the father who received him with dignified cordiality.
“‘Take a seat,’ he said. ‘Where do you come from?’
“The stranger sat among us without removing his sack, the stick on his knees, his legs stretched out toward the fire. He looked at us, one after the other, smiling as if we were old acquaintances.
“‘I come from very far and am just passing through the village,’ he said in a voice even calmer than that of my future father-in-law. ‘I thought I’d step in, because I see you are having a celebration.’
“‘Yes, indeed, we are celebrating, as you can see,’ my father-in-law-to-be replied. ‘Our girls are engaged, and here are the young men, strong and handsome as young lions. We are in want of nothing.’
“‘Of nothing, indeed,’ cried the young men, nudging each other with their elbows and laughing. The girls, after so much gravity, also burst into laughter and could not stop. I laughed, too, and so did father and mother. It was like an infectious disease. The only one who remained quiet was the stranger, looking at us like a child, neither surprised nor displeased. Then, when everybody had become serious again, he turned to the women and said:
“‘Many years ago I passed through this same village and happened, as tonight, to come to a house where there was a young engaged couple. And everybody was happy and gay as you are now. But the bride stared at me intently, and when I was about to leave she followed me to the door and said: “You are my true love. I have been waiting for you. Stay here and give me the present.” I gave her the gift, and although I went away and she married another, I was her true husband. Her son will give to you young brides the gift I gave her, and you in turn will pass it on to your sons for their brides.’
“We looked at each other and weren’t laughing and smiling any longer. The man seemed odd to us, almost mad. And after our merriment we almost began to fear him.
“My mother-in-law said: ‘Tell us, what was thy present?’
“‘A golden crucifix.’
“At that I felt shivers run down my back. The son of the stranger’s true love could only be I. I was the only one who had brought my mother’s golden cross as a gift for my bride. I couldn’t open my mouth. My head was whirling. I saw everything confusedly. My ears were buzzing and I couldn’t hear the words exchanged between the stranger and the others. I felt a terrible pain in my heart, and a weight, a weight was breaking my back, just as if the crucifix in my pocket had suddenly become tremendously heavy and were pulling down my shoulders.
“Having warmed his feet at the fire, the stranger rose quietly. Tall and silent, his stick in his hand and the sack on his back, he opened the door and went out into the darkness.
“‘Who was he?’ asked my mother-in-law.
“‘And who would know that?’ answered my father-in-law. ‘I never met the man, though his face seems familiar. Probably I saw him years ago when he came calling on his true love.’
“I remained silent, and once more all of us were as we had been before, serious and grave. The girls went swiftly to and fro preparing dinner; but my betrothed was pale and kept her eyes averted. No longer did she look at me. My heart was beating rapidly, and through the haze that still shrouded my head it seemed to me that the eyes of all those in the room stared at me with distrust. And thus it remained until the time came for us to go to mass. We arose, but I felt heavy and unsteady and moved as though I had drunk too much. We walked in single file, the women in front and then the men.
“When we arrived at the church others mixed with the crowd, but I stood apart. Slowly I moved back, back to the basin with the holy water, back to the door and down the steps. At the entrance I turned my back on God’s house and ran, ran as if chased by demons. I wandered among the fields like a madman until the sun rose. Then I returned to my house.
“Mother was already up. She was lighting the fire and she looked tranquil, but pale as though she hadn’t slept all night. Seeing me in my disheveled state, she thought I had been drinking and spread my straw pallet on the floor for me to lie on. Her only words were: ‘A fine figure you’re cutting, son!”
“I threw myself on the floor, beating my fists against the pallet. Then I got to my knees, took the crucifix out of my pocket and twisted it. The Rosary snapped, and the beads scattered over the floor. It seemed they, too, were afraid of me. My mother gasped. A great lump of pity rose in my throat, and I told her everything. ‘What else could I do?’ I moaned. ‘You were the stranger’s true love. You were that woman. But how could I give your crucifix to my bride? They all looked at me as if they had guessed. I ran away from shame.’
“My mother remained silent. She gathered up the beads in her apron and began to thread them, one by one, on the rosary. She waited until I had calmed down. Then she said:
“‘Why couldn’t the two other young men have been the sons of the stranger’s beloved?’
“‘Because they had gold coins to give to their brides, and not golden crucifixes,’ I replied.
“‘The gold coins also have crosses on them,’ she replied. ‘Listen to me. That stranger comes to the house of each bride, giving her a cross to bear. Do you think that last night the three young girls did not go out after him? Yes, and he gave each one of them a cross, and their sons will be his sons. How simple you are! Don’t you believe in God? Yes, you do believe in God and in Jesus, and you know that Jesus is not dead. He is alive. He is in this world with us, and he enters the homes of those who are charitable, to bless and multiply their loaves of bread. He blesses and turns into sweet wine the water for those of good heart. And to all brides he gives a crucifix, a golden one, but always a cross. He was that stranger and, you simpleton, you didn’t recognize him.’
“So,” the old man said, finishing his story, “the crucifix remained my own.”