The Good Thief
It was a raw and damp December day in Paris, and the chill seemed to pervade the space inside the church. Amanda placed two large brown bags on a bench by the door, stripped off her gloves, and waved to Father Liam and the young nun standing next to him. She unbuttoned her coat and shrugged it part of the way off her shoulders before shivering and putting it back on.
Amanda’s footsteps reverberated against the stone walls and ceiling of the little church as she walked toward the altar, pausing at a niche to light a candle to St. Dismas.
Amanda kissed Liam on both cheeks. “Amanda, I’d like you to meet Sister Jeanne Marie. Sister, this is Amanda, the costumer for our Christmas pageant.”
The women’s greetings were drowned out by the noise of a dozen school-aged children bursting into the church. They laughed and squealed and chased each other, and Sister Jeanne Marie gasped and rushed over to them, clapping her hands and trying to herd them together.
Amanda and Liam watched her unsuccessful attempts at restoring order. One of the children careened into St. Dismas’s niche, nearly knocking over the votive candles lined up there.
Liam nodded in the direction of the niche. “I assume it was you who left the sizeable anonymous donation on St. Dismas’s day last March. I never did thank you.”
Amanda gave a smile of recognition. “It’s nice of you to keep him here for me. There aren’t many churches that have room for the patron saint of thieves.”
“Sad to say, Amanda,” Liam said. “He gets more and more visits all the time. The neighborhood’s changing—the whole world is—and I’ve seen some of the women of the parish whose kids have gotten into trouble lighting a candle there. Some of the children who grew up in the orphanage, too.”
Sister Jeanne Marie’s voice was growing louder and more exasperated.
“I think,” Liam said, “that for the first time, Sister Jeanne Marie is wishing that she had joined a contemplative order instead of a teaching order. She’s probably wondering why she was assigned to the orphanage at Sainte Agathe, too.”
Sister Jeanne Marie had succeeded in corralling some of the children. Most of the girls and a one of the boys were seated.
“Let me guess,” Amanda said. “The boy who’s seated is Joseph. The girls next to him are angels, and the tall girl with dark hair is Mary.”
Liam said, “The boy is Joseph, the two blonde girls are the Archangel Gabriel and Mary. The girl with dark hair is a Wise Man. The other two Wise Men are currently eluding Sister Jeanne Marie.”
The nun swooped into a corner trying to pin down two twin boys. She took put one hand firmly onto each brother’s shoulder and was directing them to the pew when a little girl fell. She looked from her bloody knee to Sister and let out a howl. The two boys slipped out of the nun’s hands and started to chase each other again.
“So are you going to help her, Liam?” Amanda asked. “It would be the Christian thing to do.”
Liam strolled over to the children, his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. He put a hand on Sister Jeanne Marie’s shoulder to stop her. Then he crooked his little finger in his mouth and let out a piercing whistle. The children froze.
“Holy ground, kids,” he said. They slithered into their seats. “It’s time to start rehearsal. I want you all to listen to Sister Jeanne Marie.” He indicated Amanda. “Ms. Montrose has brought costumes for you today, and she and I will help you try them on. Sister?”
Sister Jeanne Marie picked up a clipboard. “Archangel Gabriel and the two heavenly host angels, let’s practice your part. Everyone else, get your costumes. Hélène,” Sister looked at the tall girl with dark hair, “would you please help Mary with her lines?”
The angels followed Sister Jeanne Marie, and she began to assign them their blocking—actually moving them like chess pieces when necessary. Liam and Amanda began to dress the other children, whose costumes looked incongruous with sneakers poking out below gowns and robes.
“Let’s do the shepherds next!” called Sister Jeanne Marie. “Hélène, if you’re done with Mary, would you give Gabriel a hand with her lines? Thank you, dear.”
Amanda paused in her search for angel robes and halos. “You know, Liam,” she said. “I think that Hélène would have rather been Gabriel or Mary. She’s obviously bright enough to do the lines.”
Liam pursed his lips. “You’re right. But Sister had already assigned the parts before I had a chance to talk to her. She thinks Hélène would be too tall to be Mary, and she didn’t have enough boys to for all the male roles, so she made Hélène the talking Wise Man.”
Amanda and Liam watched Hélène, shoulders slumped, all long limbs and elbows and knees, demonstrating Mary’s lines with fervor and conviction.
“Maybe next year she can be Mary,” Amanda suggested.
“Next year, she won’t be at Sainte Agathe’s anymore. She’ll be old enough to move to the school across town.”
Sister Jeanne Marie clapped her hands twice. “Shepherd Number Two, finger out of your nose! Hélène? Stand up straight. Has Mary rehearsed enough? Then let’s have Mary and Joseph, please.”
Liam looked at the twin brothers with mild surprise and headed off to them. He found one on each side of the aisle, slid under the back pew, laying on their backs and kicking the kneeling benches. He raised an eyebrow.
“I won,” the twin closest to him said.
“Are you two counting wads of gum stuck under the pews again?” Liam asked.
He hauled the two boys to their feet and brushed off the back of their clothing—a little more firmly over the seat of their pants—and took them to be dressed in their Wise Man robes.
Amanda picked up the remaining outfit and took it to Hélène, who was standing against the church wall, her one foot turned in and rubbing at a smooth spot on the stone floor. She was mouthing Mary’s lines.
“You would have made a wonderful Mary,” Amanda said.
“I’m not blonde,” Hélène said. “She’s always blonde in the Christmas cards. Blonde like you.”
Amanda laughed and brushed her hand over her short hair. “I’m only blonde this week. Sometimes my hair’s dark.” She took a step back and tilted her head to the side, appraising and nodding approval.
“Your hair color’s very good on you, did you know? How old are you?” Amanda helped the girl into a deep green robe.
“Fourteen,” Hélène said.
Amanda adjusted the belt on Hélène’s robe. “Old enough for some nice red lowlights and a terrific new haircut to show them off.”
Hélène shrugged, unconvinced, and picked at a hangnail on her thumb.
“All right, everyone!” Sister Jeanne Marie rose her voice. “Let’s go through the whole thing from the beginning.”
Liam and Amanda sat, at Sister Jeanne Marie’s request, at the back of the church to see if the children with the speaking parts projected loudly enough, but it was Sister’s voice that reached them loudest and clearest.
“Shepherd Number Two! Finger out of your nose!”
Mary stumbled over a few of her lines. Gabriel said all of her lines correctly if without conviction. The heavenly host managed to face forward. The shepherds looked appropriately frightened—although perhaps more of Sister Jeanne Marie than the angelic visitation.
“Stand up straight, Wise Man Number One!” Hélène straightened for a second and then slumped again. Even with her shoulders stooped, she was taller than the other actors by at least a head.
“One more time, everyone,” Sister Jeanne Marie said. “Archangel Gabriel, e-nun-ci-ate! And stand up straight, Wise Man Number One!”
Amanda stood up to go before the second run-through. “I’ll be back, Liam.”
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’m the costume designer, right?” she asked. “I’m redesigning a costume.”
The children had been back to the orphanage, fed, and dressed, and Liam himself had robed for Mass before Amanda returned, a plastic bag under her arm. She found Hélène and took her arm, brushing past Liam toward the sacristy.
Inside the small room, Amanda took the fabric drape from Hélène’s head and pulled from the plastic bag an antique, deep blue silk turban studded with baroque pearls. This she fitted onto the teenager’s head. Amanda pulled out a mirror, and the girl gasped and smiled at her reflection.
Then Amanda put a small, black velvet box in Hélène’s hand. “I’ll need the turban back after tonight, but I want you to keep these.”
Hélène opened the little box. Inside were two small garnet earrings, which Amanda helped her put on.
“And if Sister asks, tell her I said that in the ancient world men wore earrings,” Amanda said.
Outside the sacristy, Sister Jeanne Marie was calling her troupe to order. She lined them up, gave her clipboard one last check, and issued final orders.
“Shepherd Number Two, take your finger out of your nose, please. Archangel Gabriel, please enunciate. Wise Man Number One, stand up str--” Sister Jeanne Marie stopped at the sight of Hélène, poised regally next to the other Wise Men. She smiled. “Never mind, dear.”
She marched the children to their seats to await the beginning of Mass.
“You’ll keep an eye on Hélène over at Sainte Agathe’s school, won’t you, Liam?” Amanda asked in a whisper.
“I’ll keep an eye on her, but I won’t have to,” Liam answered.
Amanda gave him a look of concern. “Why not?”
“Because you’ll be keeping an eye on her. She’s good at math and science but needs a little work in history. Congratulations, Amanda. You’re a fairy godmother.”
“Merry Christmas, Liam.”
Liam adjusted his alb and stole, “Just don’t try to turn her into a fan of St. Dismas, all right?”
“You have my word, Liam,” Amanda said as she walked to a pew.
“Merry Christmas, Amanda.”