Curse of the Three-Humped Camel
My mom kept us occupied growing up with a big roll of paper and an old coffee can full of crayons. You weren’t in trouble when she asked you to draw her a picture, but you were getting close. My sisters and I decided coloring was more enjoyable than the alternatives, so we took an interest in art at an early age.
I was getting to be a nuisance around the holidays one year so Mom tore off a healthy chunk of paper and suggested I draw her something. I asked what she had in mind and she said, “something big.” I asked how big. She tore off another chunk of paper and suggested I fill both. “Draw me a nativity scene,” she said. “Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the donkey . . . you know, the wise men and some animals.”
I started with Jesus in the manger. Put some straw sticking out from the edges. Little legs and arms waving around. Mary kneeling beside. I couldn’t remember if Joseph had a beard or not, so I compromised with a mustache. Drew a polebarn around all this, put in some sheep and threw some straw around for effect. The wise men came next on their camels with frankincense, myrrh and . . . I couldn’t remember what the third guy brought so I just drew him holding a sack. Put some hills in the background, drew the donkey, big ol’ star with some little ones around it and there you go, Mom.
She was pleased. So pleased, she suggested I bring it to school for show-and-tell.
My teacher liked it even more. She said it was a wonderful change from the usual show-and-tell Barbie dolls and model airplanes. She encouraged my classmates to follow my example and exercise their creative sides. I thought perhaps I might get beaten up for this, but then she took it to another level and suggested I finish the piece to display at the upcoming Christmas pageant. She offered to give me space in back of the classroom, place all art supplies at my disposal and then show the finished product at the annual Rainier Elementary School winter gala.
I felt exposed in the back of the room with my drawing taped to a rollaway chalkboard. For one thing, I didn’t see how the drawing needed more finishing. Baby Jesus was there. Mary. Joseph. Donkey. Wisemen. Star. What more did she want? Was I supposed to make Mary shed real tears? But my art commission carried an exemption from regular classroom duty so I was free to play with Crayolas while other kids fiddled with penmanship and arithmetic. If it meant skipping math class, I would improve the Mona Lisa with a box of crayons.
I started with a few more sheep. Then other livestock to fill empty space. Oxen seemed good. Pigs. Not sure if horses were around Bethlehem during the turn of the A.D but I threw some in there just in case. Jesus got a glowing radiance thing with a delicate dusting of yellow crayon around the manger and I served halos all around. Can’t believe I forgot the halos. The teacher was right.
I made the halos bigger. Extended the robes on the wise men and dropped their beards a foot or two for that flowing ZZ Top look. Also mustache extensions. These are wise men after all. Put more sheep in there because sheep are good for that sort of thing and the sky picked up new constellations. These seemed to take away from the main star, so I made that bigger too.
It was here I met the limitations of wax crayon as an art medium and discovered you can only layer or blend so much until you hit what we artists like to call The Crayola Wall. Once you’re at the Wall, you can scrape away or add layers all you want but the crayon carrying capacity for any given paper tooth is quite finite and will not be stretched. Once breached, there’s no going back and what once was simple is now a smear.
With the Christmas pageant fast approaching and now too late to start over, my teacher began to insist I join the rest of the class in mundane exercises. There was no other option but to sign my name to a composition I no longer recognized or wished to call my own.
My teacher honored her commitment to hang my picture for the Christmas program, but the sight that greeted pageant-goers was now a grotesque wax-relief suggestive more of a livestock auction gone wrong than a holy scene. Several older ladies crossed themselves when they walked by, but it wasn’t out of reverence.
A fourth wise man had shown up by then and brought a bag of chips. The sheep population was a problem and the star of Bethlehem now stretched half the length of the entire picture, requiring even the angels to wear sunglasses. By the time our twinkle-twinkle-tinfoil-star Christmas pageant was over, the masterpiece I had lost control of was already taken down.
It took time to adjust back to regular school life after my brief art career. Even recess was empty, the playground now a barkchip wasteland where I wandered, bumping into the monkey bars, haunted by the grip of excess and the image of that fourth wise man riding a camel with three humps.