THE CHRISTMAS STRANGER
By Erich T. Richter
We knew it was going to be a strange winter even for Montana. We knew it in the way the stars shone against the blackness with more color than usual; they blazed with pastel blues and greens and the occasional red star looked as if it could warm the snows. We knew also it was an off winter in the way the snow fell and drifted. The tiny sandy flakes formed soft dips and curlicues in the incipient drifts until the snow fields looked plump and confectionary, like thick meringues or soft ice cream, much to the disgust of the burley knuckle-scarred ranchers here. But most of all we knew it was going to be a different sort of winter when the stranger walked into Peterson’s bar December 23rd, on Christmas Eve’s eve.
We are not entirely isolated in Montana, and I would like to think we can recognize the strange when we see it. We have television and dude ranches and sometimes, during the summer, we get the occasional tourist from California. But the stranger that came into Peterson’s that night, not far from closing time, was something else again. He stood tall and lean and like many people in our neck of woods, his hide was sunburned permanently dark and crinkly. He had eyes like pale grey fog, and had thick dark brows and a huge hawklike nose. He wore a belted robe of some synthetic fabric, full of soft tawny colors, like shifting sang, interwoven with thick golden threads. A garment far too cold and rich for this kind of country.
For all his foppish clothes, the stranger looked like a man who had spent long hours in the saddle. He blinked once or twice at the pool tables and the big moose head that covered the doorway and the deer and caribou antlers that decorated the knotty pine wood of the walls and the bar. He stared uncomprehendingly at the restroom doors labeled “Bucks” and “Does” until I was afraid I might have to explain things to him. His eyes then found and rested with delight on Sylvan’s Nude, the big gilt framed picture over the bar of a smug fat girl, dressed in a wisp of curtain, eating dark ripe plums on a Persian rug.
The stranger didn’t say anything, and none of us felt like crowding him any, so we kept up what we could with normal conversation while he sorted drifted around the tavern. He stopped a while to watch the flickering patterns of the Pac Man and Donkey Kong arcade machines, our recent arrivals, with kind of a sad little smile, if such a thing is possible.
Long minutes had passed and conversation had pretty well returned to normal before the stranger seated himself at the bar with a pull and a tuck to adjust his robes to the bar stool. In a thick hesitant voice the stranger asked old Peterson, our bartender, for fig wine. Old Pete, in that soft mild way of his, told the stranger there weren’t no such thing.
“Fig brandy,” amended the stranger, “I would partake of fig brandy then.”
Pete nodded in solemn comprehension. “We got apricot brandy,” he said, “It’s the same thing,” and he poured the stranger a squat glassful, neat.
The stranger tasted the brandy and licked his lips. He smiled a little and somehow extracted some long brown cigarettes from the folds of his robes.
“You like?” asked the stranger, extending his cigarettes to us.
Well, none of us smoked much, mostly we chewed, but we surprised ourselves, I guess not wishing to offend the stranger, and we all lit up the offered cigarettes. We enjoyed a smoke that smelled of that old fashioned incense I remembered as a kid with its rich sweetness that made one think vaguely of warm winds and palm trees, not unwelcome thoughts for the Montana winter.
We all chatted with the stranger about everyday things, the weather and cattle prices and such, but to many of our questions the stranger could only give weak replies or, smiling, little negative shakes of his head.
Somehow it didn’t surprise us when the stranger said he couldn’t pay for his drinks in coins. “I have to conserve what I have,” he explained, “but I have something much better to offer for your friendship: a pinch of farnswax.”
“Farnswax?” asked old Pete, his brows high and knitted.
“The loan of a plate, please,” asked the stranger. “A dish, perhaps, or even a saucer.”
Old Pete grumbled a bit, but he took out one of the sandwich plates from under the bar and placed it before the stranger. The stranger reached deep into a fold of his robe and brought forth a fat inlayed dressing table case, a little chest with silver seams and shell-like colors of nacreous pinks and greens and grays, colors that changed in intensity and position even in the artificial lighting of the tavern.
The stranger opened the case carefully and withdrew a pinch of powder between his long brown fingers and sprinkled it high above the plate. Almost immediately on impact, the powder sputtered and smoked and sent off outsized sparks of cornflower blue that looked like the blossoms of wild chicory. It lasted only a few seconds. The smoke that was left was redolent of the perfume of tropical plants, thickly sweet with the hint of decay.
The stranger smiled deeply, returned the little chest to the invisible seams in his robe, and began tapping sharply on the edge of the plate. The ashes of farnswax bounced and aligned themselves into crazily detailed patterns; it looked like writing or musical notes of the flourishing script of some forgotten language.
“Is that writing?” asked old Pete, echoing my thoughts.
“It’s more than writing, friend. It’s information. Farnswax is one of the great libraries of this world – or any world,” added the stranger thoughtfully.
“It’s got to be worth a lot of money,” said someone.
“It’s priceless,” said the stranger. “It’s a gift for the baby king.”
“Prince William?” someone asked. “Chuck and Di’s little baby?”
“That is one fine baby, but he’s not the one,” said the stranger.
At about that time we saw the camel framed by the darkness of the largest window of the bar, right near the front door. Several of us gasped. It was a huge thing with long creamy hair, large eyes with ruby glints, and a high saddle and blankets and cinch straps that glittered silvery in the reflected snow light.
It had to be a gag.
“I’m under the impression you’re half a world away and about two thousand years too late,” I said.
He closed his eyes and smiled wearily. “Then it won’t be long now,” he said. “I’m getting closer all the time, you know. I just happen to be traveling in a different direction than the others.”
Well, it was late. We weren’t at all sure what the stranger was really talking about. He left us soon after that with us all crowded to the doorway and on the sidewalk. We watched him wade through the sugary snow and mount that camel of his in the glare of the feeble streetlights and the reflected snow light. He waved, said something we didn’t quite catch, and was gone.
Actually, that’s about all there is to it. Old Pete will sometimes show people the farnswax now and then. If you ask him nicely maybe he will even demonstrate the design it forms on a rattled place; but it won’t burn twice, and nobody, not even Pete, can read much of anything in the patterns. As for me, I make it a rule to check the Good Book quite thoroughly, once a year around the yuletide season. I especially read those chapters where I can count the wisemen, and I’m always alert for any reference at all to farnswax.