Friday's eMo is always a meditation on the lectionary texts to be used in church for the upcoming Sunday. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. By happy chance, my retelling of the Christmas story happens to land us in the middle of this Sunday's gospel text. Fancy that.
A Christmas Story
Part IV -- The Visit Continues. The Sojourn Begins.
For someone as weak and ill as Elizabeth proclaimed herself, she ate a hearty meal: eggplant cooked with garlic and olive oil, an entire flat loaf of pita, several spoonfuls of nuts and raisins in rosewater, three or four slices of cold roasted lamb and three or four little dried fish. She drank cup after cup of honey tea as she ate, and finished her breakfast with most of a plate of dates.
"I have to force it down, you know," Elizabeth said in her thin voice. "I'm eating for two now, you know."
"Oh my, yes," Joanna agreed, pouring her mistress and herself another cup of tea. Her plate was piled high with food, too, Mary noticed. Maybe everybody in this house was having a baby.
Mary and Anna ate, too, only not as much. Elizabeth always had wonderful food at her house, and plenty of it: Zechariah was a priest, and people were constantly giving him delicacies to take home. Mary reached for a second date, before Elizabeth and Joanna ate them all.
"You have no idea," Elizabeth was saying to Anna. "This child is kicking me to death this morning! To death! I'm black and blue inside, I know it. Maybe I shouldn't be sitting up. Joanna, I'll be having the rest of my meals in bed today. Just sitting up to eat this little bit of food has tired me out completely."
"Elizabeth, you'd do better to take a little walk around the garden. You don't want to grow weak from inactivity."
"Weak! But that's what I am. I'm so weak."
"Well, if you're going to have a baby you'd better get strong. Mary, take Elizabeth out on a little walk. Elizabeth, go with Mary. Joanna and I will clean up here."
People usually did what Anna said. Mary took Elizabeth's bony arm and led her to the door and out into the garden, murmuring comforts and encouragements as they walked across the stone courtyard and set out along the wall.
"I don't know what it is about you, Mary," Elizabeth said with a slight groan. "Every time you come near me this child just about kicks me to death."
"Maybe he likes me." Maybe he knows the secret, Mary said to herself. Maybe babies know things we don't know.
"I just don't know how I'm going to manage, " Elizabeth said. "I just don't know." Mary thought Elizabeth should manage just fine. She never did housework and she never cooked. She never sewed or spun or wove cloth. She never went to market. She never worked in the garden or fed the goat. Joanna did everything. She'd do the baby. Elizabeth would probably find a way for Joanna to give birth for her.
"Think of the work." Elisabeth sighed heavily. "I just don't know what we're going to do."
"You'll be all right, Mary said. You'll do fine. You'll be such a good mother." Mary hoped God wasn't listening too hard, because that last sentence hadn't been completely sincere. "What a blessing you'll have!"
"Ugh!" Elisabeth grunted. "Did you see that? You could see my belly move, he kicked me so hard. I know it's a boy, I just know it. A girl wouldn't kick that hard."
Mary felt a funny flutter in her own belly. Not the queasy feeling, like before. And not a pain, not a pain at all. Just a little flutter, like butterflies wings. She has never felt such a feeling before. It was such a nice feeling.
"Like butterflies," she said out loud.
"Butterflies, my eye! Elizabeth said. "More like a camel! Ugh! There he goes again."
"No, I meant me. I felt a little fluttering in my own belly just now."
"Well, you'll be feeling more than fluttering when your time comes, let me tell you. You have no idea. But when I dreamed about you and your baby, you were just as calm as anything. And the angel said you were blessed, and your baby was blessed and I wish this baby was blessed, so he wouldn't kick me."
"I want to know more about your dream, if it was a dream. And about your baby. About how it happened. About the angel. Because..."
Anna came into the garden, carrying a large, flat basket of beans. "Feeling a little better?" she asked Elizabeth, crossing the pavement. She sat down on a bench in the shade and began to shell the beans, tossing the pods into the compost heap in the corner of the wall.
"Exhausted. Just exhausted." But Elizabeth looked better, no matter what she said. The walk had put some color into her thin cheeks, and her step was as almost as quick as Mary's.
"Well, the walk has done you good. You need to walk several times a day. Build up your legs and strengthen your back. Hanging clothes wouldn't hurt you. Gives you a good stretch."
"In my condition?"
"Oh, but it's so important, Elizabeth." Anna leaned forward over the basket of beans and looked serious. Only Mary could tell when Anna was joking sometimes. "If you're too weak to have the baby in the normal way, do you know what happens?"
"What?" Elizabeth breathed.
"They cut you open and take it out."
Elizabeth gave a little scream.
"They did that to the emperor. Cut his mother open and took him right out. They did that because his mother didn't take enough walks before hand."
Elizabeth put one hand on her round belly and sat down. Mary rolled her eyes.
"Walk every day, several times a day. And have Joanna bring the clothes to you and you hang them on the bushes yourself. Good stretch. And maybe do some sweeping in the house. Good exercise for the stomach and back. Make you strong. So they don't have to cut you open."
Elizabeth gave a little a whimper. "Oh, my back!"
"Maybe I can stay with you for a little while, Elizabeth. We can take walks together until you get used to it. I could help Joanna put the spring vegetables in --you don't have any in yet, and soon it will be too hot. I could help you sew for the baby -- you're going to need lots of things for him." Mary wanted to learn more about Elizabeth's dream. Somehow, the two of them were together in the angel's errand. Related. Something was going on. "Couldn't I stay for a while, Mama? Joanna could walk you home and then Papa could come for me in a few weeks. I could help out here until Elizabeth feels stronger." Mary herself believed that Elizabeth was strong as a horse. But she needed time find out about the dreams and the baby.
"Stay here?" Anna was puzzled. Mary had been teary-eyed this morning about leaving home and now she wanted to stay with whining Elizabeth for weeks. Girls were so fickle. "Well, I suppose you could stay here for a little while. I need to get home, though. There's nobody to take care of your father."
Thus it was decided. Anna and Joanna set off the next morning, leaving Mary and Elizabeth already out in the garden, draping wet laundry over the bushes to dry in the sun. Elizabeth was beginning to take charge, explaining to Mary just how each piece should be hung over a bush, as if Mary had never done laundry before. It could be a long visit, Mary thought as she listened patiently. But there was a miracle in this house, and Mary was hot on the trail of another one. She would find out what Elizabeth knew and what she had been told. She would read between the lines. She would ponder. The fluttering in her belly was happening so often now that she had almost stopped noticing it. But she was beginning to suspect that it was not butterflies.
Joseph pushed his old plane along the white surface of a long plank of oak, shaving off a curl of wood that twirled around and around itself. He shaved another, and another, until the whole surface of the plank was smooth and the floor was covered with thin spirals of thin. Then he lifted the plank off the worktable and stacked it with the others just like it. This would be a tabletop. The legs were already done, thick posts of the same heavy oak, almost as thick as the tree from which he had cut them. That tree would make three tables, he was sure, maybe four. It was a big one.
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. He thought of that verse every time he planed: that's exactly what happens in planing, he thought to himself. All the rough places are made smooth, and the bumps straightened out. Flat and smooth. Beautiful, like life should be.
And why shouldn't life be beautiful? Why shouldn't there be joy in life? Every time you take a new piece of wood, you start something new. You get a second change every time. If things don't work out with one piece of wood, you go and get another one and you try again. That's the way it is in carpentry. Why shouldn't it be that way in other places?
One of his sons was chopping at what remained of the tree outside the shop. Probably Joseph would let James plane the next one, to give him some practice. Planing takes a lot of practice before you get to be any good, to where the thin curls of wood rise up off the board just right as you go along. At first, you keep angling it wrong and digging into the board, making dents and ruts where you should have a smooth, uneventful white surface. Only one way to learn. James was a good boy, and he would be a good carpenter. Big hands, like Joseph's hands. You need big hands.
Joseph wondered what Mary's hands were like. Small, certainly. She was young. Strong, though: you don't have to be big to be strong. Each of us is strong in our own way, he thought, setting the next board in the groove on the work table and picking up the plane again.
Yes, she cooks as well as her mother, Joachim has said as the two men drank tea together. Bakes all of the bread we eat and has since she was a tiny little thing. And amiable, too. Even funny -- we laugh all the time at her. But never disrespectful, he had hastened to add. Sings like an angel, Mary. Sings around the house like a little bird.
A woman singing around the house again. Fresh, hot bread at supper. Someone to talk to at night. Amiable, her father said. Even funny. Joseph smiled, and a curl of wood came up perfectly off the board.