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The manger was empty. Leah Lundberg walked past the nativity scene Providence Hospital put out every year, stopped, and stared. The north wind cut through her like a boning knife as Leah studied the ramshackle stable, her heart heavy, her life more so.
The blue of Mary's gown had long since faded, she noted. Joseph, leaning heavily against his staff, was slightly off-balance, and looked as if he'd topple in a stiff wind. There seemed to be one less lamb this year and one of the donkeys ears was missing. It was a small wonder the structure remained upright with the weight of the angel, yellow now instead of golden, nailed to the top. Triumphantly, she blew her chipped hom proclaiming the glorious news of the Savior's birth.
The hospital had reconstructed the Christmas scene every Advent for the last fifty years, long before Leah was born, long before she realized an entire lifetime of tears could be stored within a single tattered soul.
It was ironic that a woman who toiled as a nurse day after day on a maternity ward would be childless herself. Her work with laboring mothers was her gift, they said, her special talent. Women specifically requested that she be with them for the birthing of their children.
For whatever reason, Leah had been granted the touch, a gentle hand, and a sympathetic heart. Birthing mothers claimed she was inspiring, encouraging, and supportive. Labor didn't seem nearly as difficult when Leah was with a patient. She'd heard it all before, countless times, the praise, the gratitude. What most of Leah's patients didn't know was that she, who was an expert at labor and delivery, had never given birthherself.
Her patients left the hospital with their arms and their lives full. Each afternoon, Leah walked out of Providence alone. And empty.
Tears crowded her eyes and spilled unheeded down her cheeks. She bowed her head and closed her eyes in prayer. "Dear God," she whispered, choking down the emotion, "please give me a child." It was a plea she'd whispered innumerable times over the last ten years. So often that she was convinced God had long since given up hearing. Or caring.
Wiping the moisture from her face, she gathered her coat more closely around her thin shoulders and headed for the staff parking lot. She forced herself to smile. it upset Andrew that she continued to dwell on their inability to have children, and she didn't want him to know she'd been crying.
Her husband had accepted the news with little more than a shrug. He felt bad, knowing how desperately she longed for a baby, but it wasn't nearly as earth-shattering to him. If God saw fit to send children into their -lives, then fine, if not, that was fine too.
It wasn't all right with Leah and she doubted that it ever would be.
Leah's prayer whistled in the breeze, up through the bare spindly arms of a lanky birch tree, winging its way higher and higher until it had ascended the clouds and drifted into the warm winds of heaven. It arrived fresh with the salt of her tears at the desk of the Archangel Gabriel. The very angel who'd announced the news of the virgin birth to Mary nearly two thousand years earlier. His responsibilities had been wide and varied through time, but he felt a certain tenderness for humans and their multiple problems. He found earth's population to be a curious lot. They were stubborn, rebellious, and arrogant. Their antics were a constant source of amusement to those behind the pearly gates. Who could help laughing at a group of people who heatedly declared that God was dead and clung to the belief that Elvis was alive?
"Leah Lundberg,- Gabriel repeated softly, frowning. The name was vaguely familiar. He flipped the pages of a cumbersome book until he'd found what he was seeking. Sighing, he relaxed against the back of his chair and slowly shook his head. Leah was one of his most persistent cases. He'd heard her prayer often, had ushered it himself to the very feet of God.
Gabriel had sent countless couriers to intercede on Leah's behalf, but their efforts had been met with repeated failure. Time after time, their reports came back virtually the same. It was a familiar problem that blocked the answer to Leah's prayer. Herself.
It would have been much easier if Gabriel could sit down with Leah and talk out this matter face to face. Circumstances arose now and again when doing exactly what was required, but generally not when it came to answering prayer. Humans tended to believe all that was required of them was a few mumbled words, then they were utterly content to leave the matter in the hands of God.
Through the ages humans had yet to discover what should have been obvious. The answers to prayer required participation. The people of earth expected God to do it all. Only a shocking few realized they had their own role to perform.
A good example was a request that had come in earlier from Monica Fischer, a preacher's daughter. Monica had asked for a husband. Normally this wouldn't be a problem; she was twenty-five and strikingly attractive, or would be if she didn't choose to disguise her natural beauty. The whole process of attracting a young man was complicated by her self-righteous attitude. Few men, even devout servants of God, were willing to marry sanctimonious prudes.
Gabriel hadn't decided how he would handle Monica's request or the prayer that had come in the unusual form of a letter from Timmy Potter. Gabriel had a soft spot when it came to children's prayers. Timmy was nine, and had requested a father...