When Joseph disappeared inside the inn, Mary slid off the little donkey. Her legs trembled violently. She leaned against the beast for a few moments to keep from falling. She straightened and reached behind her to push her fingers into her lower back. Oh, how she ached from the journey to Bethlehem! Had it only been three days? It seemed more like three months, or three years.
She looked at the stars and wondered when Joseph would return. Joseph. She thought back to the myriad conversations they had shared on the road. A warmth spread through her. He was such a good man. The Lord had chosen well.
She stood by the donkey's head, reins in her left hand, a scruff of mane in her right.
"Rest, Hannah," she told the creature. "We can rest now. I think. I hope."
Joseph came through the doorway, a man behind him. Mary brightened. A bed, she thought. And a meal. And women, in case . . .
Joseph did not return her smile. Mary's brow furrowed.
"This is my wife, Mary," he told the innkeeper.
"Shalom," the older man said.
Mary nodded slightly. "Shalom, sir."
Joseph put his hand in the small of Mary's back and whispered into her ear.
"There are no rooms to be had, beloved. Here, or in all of Bethlehem. The census has brought--"
Mary covered her mouth, but not before a sob escaped.
Joseph placed his other hand on Mary's swollen belly. "I'm so sorry, my love."
Mary brushed her tears away and lifted her chin. "I'll be fine," she said. "The Lord will provide."
The innkeeper led them on a path behind the inn. In the moonlight Mary saw a bit of pasture with a low stone wall around it. Beyond it, the terrain became hilly and rocky.
"How much farther, sir?" Mary said.
The man pointed. Mary's sharp intake of breath was loud in the silent night.
"It's roomy inside," the man said. "I'll put more hay down for you. We use it as a stable. See? I built a wall with a door across the opening."
The innkeeper held up the lantern. Inside, cattle and sheep responded.
"The heat from the animals will warm you."
He handed the light to Joseph. "Put it on the ledge by the opening."
Joseph took the lamp in one hand and shook the man's hand with his other.
"Thank you, sir. This is far better than bedding down alongside the road."
The man produced a loaf of bread and a wineskin from a sack Mary had not seen.
"It's not much, but my wife--"
Mary's eyes watered. She sniffed. "How kind of her. Please thank her on my behalf."
The man glanced at Mary's stomach. "Your time?" he said. "Is it--"
Mary rested her hands on either side of the bulge. "Soon," Mary said. "Very soon."
The insistent opening of the place between her legs left Mary breathless. She longed to tell Joseph to stop the endless stroking of her hair, but she didn't want to hurt his feelings. He was such a kind man. A good man. He would make a wonderful husband. And father.
She thought of these things when she wasn't delirious with birth pain. He didn't divorce me, she thought. Praise be to the Most High God for that. Everyone had told him to. Oh, she hadn't heard their words, but she didn't need to. Their actions, their eyes, their avoidance of her and her family, said everything.
She spoke over her shoulder. "Thank you again."
Joseph rested his hands on her hips. "For what, love?"
Mary felt her insides quicken with the endearment. She put her hands over his.
"For convincing Mother and Father not to pronounce me dead to them."
"The angel should have spoken with them also."
The white hot heat in her loins returned. Mary panted, like Elizabeth had told her to. She swatted at the imaginary creature in front of her. It breathed her air so she couldn't. Joseph paced left and right. She pointed to her pack. Joseph eyed her shaking finger.
Her intake of breath sounded ragged. "Inside," she said. "Olive branch."
He rooted through the bag. Took out a piece of wood as thick as his thumb. He held it out.
She nodded. He placed it in her hand. She put it in her mouth. Bit down hard, like Elizabeth had advised. She squeezed her eyes shut. A moan rose from a place deep within her. Tears soaked her cheeks. Out in the night, someone, some thing, hissed, "You will fail."
At the beginning of the third watch, the splitting inside her waned. She was able to catch her breath. She leaned back against the cave wall. Turned her cheek to the cool stone. As chilly as the Bethlehem night was, she felt as if she were on fire. She wiped the sweat mist from her brow into her thick, almost black hair.
Joseph held the wineskin to her lips. Let a few drops trickle out. Her eyes begged for more.
Joseph shook his head. "My mother said you should just have a little. Too much might make you sick."
Mary's eyes widened. "You asked your mother?"
She looked down between her legs. "About this?"
"I knew it was possible we'd be alone," Joseph said. "When the baby came. With no women to help you. I had to know what to do."
Mary touched her chest. Such a wise man. A very good man.
The pains became more frequent. Joseph counted between them--100, 75, 60.
Mary sobbed. "Joseph, my husband. Please pray for me. For our son."
She cried out in the night, a keening announcement of despair. Somewhere in Bethlehem, a lone dog answered.
Mary's head turned side to side. "Pray I don't die here in this place."
"Oh, Sovereign Lord," Joseph said. "Instill in my young wife's heart your truth. That weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning."
In that moment, the pain seemed to recede, and Mary slept.
When Mary opened her eyes, she saw Joseph with the babe in his arms. She shook her head and rubbed her eyes.
Joseph didn't hear her. He'd removed his headcovering and used it to wrap the boy. Mary's eyes stung as she watched Joseph walk with the child. He bounced the infant gently as he moved about the cave. She heard his murmured prayers and words of love.
Mary whimpered and held out her arms. "Here," she said. "Let me."
Joseph looked over at her and smiled tenderly. He knelt beside her and carefully placed the babe in her arms. She buried her face in the boy. Breathed his smell. Her smell. She gently laid him on her lap. She unwrapped him, but kept her chest near his so he would not be chilled. She examined him thoroughly. She touched him here and there. Counted his fingers, his toes. She turned to Joseph.
"He looks like any baby. Any boy. No different."
Joseph smiled and nodded. He didn't take his eyes off the child. Mary ran her fingers through the baby's damp, dark hair.
"I thought he would be handsome, maybe even glorious, like Moses when he came down from the mountain of God, but he has no beauty or majesty to identify him, nothing in his appearance to tell people who he is."
"Remember, my love," Joseph said. "Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart."
Mary pressed her middle finger into the center of the baby's chest.
"You, dear one, are not flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. You are like another Adam. You, are made by God alone."
Mary rested a hand on her now soft belly.
"I am-- I was, but a temporary home for you these past months. Me, no other woman. My body held you, nurtured you. I pushed and moaned and brought you forth."
She held the baby up as if to offer him back to his heavenly father. "Lord God over all, here is your son, your one and only son, a holy and living sacrifice."
When she opened her eyes, she saw Joseph at the cave's entrance.
"Mary, darling. You must come."
Mary shook her head. "Why? What is it?"
Joseph pointed out into the inky night. "There is a marvelous light," he said. "Behind this hill. Here, I will take you."
He waited while Mary wrapped the child in linen strips, then she swaddled him again in Joseph's headcovering. Joseph lifted Mary with the babe in her arms and carried them out into the night. Mary nestled her head against Joseph's shoulder. His arms are strong, she thought. And his profile too. Under different circumstances, he would have been a king. Of the house of David.
Outside the cave, Mary squinted at the sky. A star shone in the east, bright as the sun it seemed. She tried to stare into the center of it, but her eyes burned, and she had to look away. She went to cover the baby's eyes, but somehow he had no problem gazing into the center of the glory in the sky. In fact, she thought she saw the corners of his mouth turn up.
Joseph laid an arm across Mary's shoulders. "Listen," he said.
It sounded as if there was a chorus of hundreds upon thousands. Their voices seemed to come out of the brightness. How had she not heard it before?
"Who sings?" Mary said. "Is it angels?"
Joseph shook his head and spoke near her ear. "I have no idea. All of creation maybe? It is that loud."
Joseph carried Mary and the babe back inside the cave.
"Joseph," Mary said. "Put more hay in the manger please."
"Why?" he said, as he complied.
Mary laid the bundled boy on top of the soft, golden straw. She knelt beside him.
"Shalom, my baby," she said. "Shalom, my son. Born of my body and my pain. In your lifetime, you will be loved, even worshipped. And one day you will save all men. "
She held her hand over her mouth and whispered so only she could hear.
"Between the two--the being loved and the saving--you will be hated. Despised. The very ones you came to rescue will kill you."
She picked up the baby and pressed him to her heart. "But not yet," she said into his ear. "For now, you are mine."
She reached out her hand for Joseph's. "Mine and my husband's. Jesus, this is your abba, your daddy, Joseph. He will be your father here on earth. He's a kind man, a good man."