The Last Wise Man
About the Writer
Elizabeth Horneber’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, PRISM international, The Open Bar, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She was a 2015-16 Loft Literary Center Mentor Series Winner. She teaches writing in Mankato, Minnesota.
The Virgin Mary is peeking out from behind the edge of the bookshelf, praying for rescue, Anne of Green Gables looming large at her back. I’m six or seven, small enough to kneel beside the ceramic nativity on the shelf of cupboards that spans the length of the room and props up shelves of books. It is Christmastime, and Mary has become the heroine of my small hands.
I import the worlds of our toy room—plastic figurines of Cinderella, the Prince from Sleeping Beauty, a squat farmer figure. Sometimes Polly Pocket flirts with Joseph. Or, more often, what happens is the wise man, the one with a red cape—he kidnaps Mary. So the sheep, the reindeer, and Joseph confer. They enlist the help of the community in a search. Meanwhile, the wise man is terrorizing Mary in a hidden cubby created between books. Even in my young mind, I know the man must want to ravish her. Already I’ve learned women are victims. Mary Quite Contrary from Babes in Toyland is abducted and must be saved by Tom Thumb. Princess Buttercup is kidnapped and must be saved by Westley. The musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers echoes the abduction and rape of the Sabine women. Christine Daaé is taken by the Phantom.
There are chips in the wise man’s ceramic knees, in his robe, the result of years of my sisters’ and my play and abuse. He is the only wise man left. One is lost, and we don’t take the other out of the box anymore because his whole body split in half and he can no longer stand. All of their bodies are earning chips and cracks at our hands. Joseph’s face has grizzle to it, as he somehow lost part of his cheek and nose. It’s almost attractive if you choose to see it that way.
But what is unforgivable happens near the end of the years when we are young enough to be carried away by these bastardizations of legend. Somehow the whole back of Mary’s head chips off. Her face remains intact, but she’s suffered a disfiguring accident. Inside her, in a bed of white material, a long rod, a metal nail is revealed as a stabilizer for her body. For some reason, this is enough to officially banish all illusion, and I don’t play with them after that.
Some years ago, the Vatican created a nativity scene not set in stables—no manger, no hay. The young family was featured in Joseph’s home. The move was a pushback against the bold incarnations of the nativity that had been appearing. In Naples, for example, figures of the Italian Prime Minister and Elvis had been witnessed at a manger.
But such liberties were hardly new. We cannot help but revise, roughen. It’s why some plant GPS chips in Jesus now, so He can be found when He’s stolen. In San Jose, California, some twenty years ago, the Park Board replaced Jesus with an Aztec god. Or take this mischief: the caganer, a figure that for centuries has appeared in nativity scenes in Catalonia, and sometimes places like Spain or Portugal, is a peasant caught in the act of shitting. He wears a red cap. His trousers are around his ankles. But he is never gathered with everyone worshipping Jesus, so it has become a game—find El Caganer! Perhaps he is squatting behind a tree. Perhaps he is in a cow’s stall.
The living nativities—the kind children perform in for Sunday School—can sometimes be the most strange. Once, I was a nine-year-old Mary, and I swelled with pride. I felt the epitome of femininity despite my real-life awkwardness, my short fluffy hair and bony frame. I thought myself a damsel, delicate, brimming with sacred virginity. Mostly I remember I had a crush on Joseph. His real name was Logan and he had a rattail. He ignored me, but I took our pairing as a sign. I took it as divine intervention. I thought legend had imprinted itself on our flesh, remade us, and that we weren’t, couldn’t be, what we’d been before. As though our previous, simple selves were somehow disappointing.
When I was seven or eight, at a worktable in our backyard, I rolled and squeezed forth a nativity made of clay harvested from a nearby creek. I made a Joseph, a Mary. A Jesus. There was no doubt that is what they were, though there were no human-like features to them. Joseph was a tall, phallic rod of earth, and Mary was the same, but shorter. Jesus was a small pellet, the likeness of a thumb at rest in a clay cup. (I made a sheep too—an oval ball with a smaller ball as a head. I couldn’t get the two balls to stick together, so the head simply rested against the body.)
How strange that all it takes is earth and water bound together, and we’ll see it as body, and we’ll believe it’s been assigned one certain narrative. I recently visited my parents and was surprised to see my clay nativity still at rest on their mantle. They’ve never taken it down. Mary and Joseph stand erect beside a cup of Jesus all year long, while the figures my sisters and I played with lay in storage, wrapped in pink, oily tissue, nursing their wounds, mourning their losses in the dark. My clay people stand intact. No one has used or touched them. They are un-confused, un-hurt. I trace fingers over their precious grit, this evidence of a young girl’s emerging selfhood, her urge to create—or maybe mimic—to breathe life and say it is good.
But I am struck by how estranged I feel from that young self, who did not yet know what we’re made of, did not yet know that we need long steel nails to grip our bodies upright, that years of use will chip away at us. I didn’t know how desperate we become to remake our stories, to challenge the familiar, make it strange. Who was that girl who was already so happily committed? What might she have made if she had no point of reference but herself, her own body? But here I’m creating another mythology. These figures without faces seem the essence of naivety, but perhaps I ought to find in them some hope. In spite of everything, there is something two can recognize in each other, even when made strange to each other.