Mary and her mother were up before daylight. The loaves of bread Mary had baked for her father's breakfast and lunch were on the table, together with some some white goat cheese, a little dish of olives and three fresh figs. Anna tied a few more loaves and figs up in a cloth for their own meal, and slung a leather bag of water over Mary's shoulder. "It'll be a picnic breakfast," she told her sleepy daughter.
Their footsteps sounded through the silent streets as they headed for the town gate. They met two or three women fetching the day's water from the town well, and saw lamplight in the windows of two or three houses, but almost everyone in town was still fast asleep. The black sky was turning to silver as they reached the gate, and then they were on the road.
It was still cold from the dark night, and they walked swiftly. Short, scrubby trees and large rocks emerged from the semidarkness along the road, and the hills to the West were still black and forbidding. They walked toward them, though, and as they walked, the first golden rays of the rising sun began to kiss the hills.
"Do you think the devil really lives in the West?" Mary asked her mother.
"You don't mean Elizabeth?"
Mary laughed out loud, surprising a bird, who flew suddenly up from her perch on a tree branch. "No, silly. The real devil. Do you think he really lives in the West?"
"No, I don't think so. That's just a story."
"And God lives in the East, where the sun comes up?"
"No. God lives everywhere."
"What do you think God looks like?"
"Well, how would I know? What do you think God looks like?"
"Golden," Mary said, remembering the tamarind tree. "Like fire, but not hot. Shining. Too shining to see clearly."
"Well, I guess we'll never know, will we?" said Anna. Mary could be an odd girl.
The sun was beginning to peek over the eastern horizon. "Some people think the sun is a god, you know," Mary told her mother.
"Well, some people aren't you," said Anna firmly.
"The Romans think that."
"The Romans think a lot of things. Let's have our breakfast when we get to that big tree at the bend in the road."
They were making good time. Soon they reached the tree, and Anna untied the cloth and spread it on the ground. Mary sat on a rock and pulled the cork out of the leather bag. She handed it to her mother, who drank from it, and then Mary took a long drink herself.
"We'll be there in time for a second breakfast," Mary said. "I hope Elizabeth has a lot of food."
"I just hope she's awake." Elizabeth was always talking about how tired she was. She took a long nap every afternoon, and sometimes one in the morning as well. She had a serving woman who cleaned her house and fetched her water. Mary wasn't sure what she did all day. She had never known Anna to take a nap.
"I suppose Joanna will take care of the baby for her," Mary said, thinking out loud.
"There's no baby, Mary. I don't know where you get your ideas."
"If there is no baby, I have to wash and braid your hair with my new ribbon."
"I wouldn't take your new ribbon."
"It's a bet, Mama."
"Well, it's a silly one, because there's no baby. Honey, Elizabeth is almost as old as I am."
"And if there is a baby?"
"There isn't," Anna said again.
"If there is a baby, you have to let me see Joseph."
Anna was shocked. "You can't see each other before you're married!"
"He doesn't have to see me. I just want to see what he look like."
"He looks very nice."
"But I want to see him. And if Elizabeth is going to have a baby, you have to find a way to let me see him."
"Well, she's not," Anna said flatly. She got to her feet, picked up the picnic cloth and shook it. "So it's a bet. And you won't see Joseph until it's time for you to see him. Which will be soon enough, Miss."
The sun was up now, and the road was bright. Birds sang to one another from the little trees, and here and there a tiny lizard darted from underneath one rock to another. After half an hour, they could see the wall of Elizabeth's town. In fifteen minutes, they were at the gate, and soon they were at Elizabeth's house. The serving woman Joanna sat on a bench outside the door, grinding dried chickpeas in a mortar.
"Well, well! Look who's here! Come in, come in. Put your bags down and let's get you ladies something to eat." Joanna was round and jolly, with a snow-white braid of hair almost down to her waist. She waddled inside ahead of Mary and Anna. "Oh, yes, I was just thinking of having a little something myself. What do you say to some dried fish?"
A wave of queasiness came over Mary at the very thought of dried fish. That was strange -- the same thing had happened to her yesterday in the kitchen. Very odd.
"Maybe just some water, thanks, Joanna," she said.
"We ate along the road," Anna said. "And where is your lady?"
"Ah, still sleeping. She's very tired these days, let me tell you. Oh, yes, she is. And her back, of course. Oh, yes. But we women know all about that. Oh, yes. At times like this, very tired. Very, very tired. Oh, yes."
Mary stopped in her tracks. "Times like this?"
"Oh, yes. With a baby coming. Oh, yes. Her back. Oh my, yes."
"A baby." Mary darted a triumphant look at her mother, whose eyes were round with disbelief.
"Um, Elizabeth is having a baby?" Anna's voice was a whisper.
"Oh, yes. Oh my, yes. The town is talking, let me tell you. I imagine they're talking about it all the way in Rome. Oh my, yes.
"Having a baby -- herself?"
Joanna shook with laughter. She never laughed out loud. She just shook like that, and you knew she was laughing. "Oh my, yes, herself." She lowered her voice and leaned toward Anna. "And at her age, let me tell you. Oh my, yes. They're talking, let me tell you."
"Joanna!" a thin voice came from the back of the house. "Help me get up!"
"Yes, Miss. Your cousins are here to see you, Miss. Oh, yes, I'm coming. And how are we this morning?" She padded off.
Mary and Anna were alone in the kitchen. "I don't believe it," said Anna. "It can't be."
"Shh!" said Mary. There was a shuffle in the hallway, and Elizabeth appeared, leaning on Joanna's stout arm. She was taller than Anna, and very thin, with hooded grey eyes. Her hair was grey, too, and had been since she was in her twenties. Mary eyed her belly intently. There was a definite roundness underneath her cousin's gown.
Joanna deposited her mistress in a chair. Elizabeth sighed and held out both feet. Joanna slid a footstool underneath them. Elizabeth dropped them heavily onto it, sighing again. "Oh, my back!"
Elizabeth never said hello. Never. She always said "Oh, my back!" instead.
"Hello, dear. It seems that congratulations are in order," Anna said.
"Why I wanted to have a baby is beyond me. What was I thinking? The pain -- you have no idea."
"I've had five children, Elizabeth."
"But I'm so much weaker than other people."
"You'll do fine. It probably wouldn't hurt you to walk a bit. Might help that back."
"Walk? I can barely move. You have no idea. This is God's doing."
"God is so good."
"Oh, my back! You have no idea."
"Cousin," Mary said, coming forward and touching Elizabeth's arm gently. "How did you know you were going to have this baby?"
Elizabeth looked at Mary and sighed. "Never mind."
"No, tell me. How did you know?"
"This you won't believe, Miss Mary. This you won't believe. I had a dream about you. I think it was a dream. Well, I'm not sure it was a dream. I was up in the night -- my back, you know, it's so bad at night, keeps me up half the night. And I saw an angel, all golden. Only I dreamed it was you who was having a baby, not me. And you came to see me, just like today. And I told you that the angel said your baby was blessed and you were blessed, and that I was honored that you came to see me because you were the blessed baby's mother. Then I asked him about my back and he disappeared." Anna hid a smirk.
Elizabeth went on. "And not long after that -- this." She gestured at her round belly. "That's it."
"He was -- golden?"
"Did he -- move, like?" Mary was remembering the tamarind tree again, and the way the golden light had shimmered and moved.
"Child, I don't remember. It was the middle of the night. My back was killing me."
"Is it hurting now?"
"You have no idea."
"Poor miss, let me give your back a good rub," said Joanna, "while Miss Anna makes you some nice ginger tea. It'll help your back, let me tell you. Oh my. yes. Miss Mary, go out into the garden and pull up a ginger root."
Mary hurried out the back door into the little walled garden. She looked up into the fruit trees, but there was no golden form to be seen. Still, she was excited. It was true. Elizabeth was having a baby. That meant that something was happening to her, too, she was sure. The adventure had begun.
Mary plucked a few weeds from around the ginger plants and pulled up a gnarly ginger root. She rapped it against the pavement to shake off the dirt. She was humming a tune, and began to sing as she headed back into the house.
My soul proclaims your greatness, O my God,
and my spirit has rejoiced in my salvation.
For you have looked with favor on your lowly servant.
From this day, all generations will call me blessed.
You, Almighty, have done great things fro me,
and holy is your Name.
You have mercy on those who fear you, in every generation.
You have shown the strength of your arm.
You have scattered the proud in their conceit.
You have cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and have lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich you have sent away empty.
You have come to the help of your servant Israel,
for you have remembered your promise of mercy,
The promise you made to our forebears,
to Abraham and his children forever.