Mary lifted the last dripping cloth out of the water and wrung it hard. Then she opened it and placed it gently onto the rosemary bushes. The garden looked like a miniature field of cotton, each of the bushes lifting something white toward the hot sun. Everything would be dry in half an hour.
Mary was all alone in the laundry project today. She kept one ear attuned to the goings-on inside --- deafening shrieks issued regularly from the room where Elizabeth and Zechariah slept. Elizabeth was having her baby.
"Oh, Miss ! Oh, my! Just breathe! Oh, yes! Oh, yes! Just breathe, now! Oh, yes, there you go, just breathe like a good girl." Joanna's voice was as calm as Joanna's voice could be, but it was a loud voice under the best of circumstances. Mary went back inside with the empty laundry basket.
"Let me lift you up a little,Elizabeth," Anna said, "Just sit up a bit. It's really better to do it sitting up. It's almost time."
Elizabeth flopped back down on her array of pillows and screamed loud enough to wake the dead. "I can't get up."
"Here we go," said Anna, ignoring her, and gesturing to Mary to take Elizabeth's other arm. Together they lifted her into a kneeling position, while Joanna knelt in front of her and held her shoulders. Joanna was like a smallish mountain, and within seconds Elizabeth was holding onto Joanna's shoulders and pulling against her for all she was worth. She had stopped screaming about what she couldn't do, or about anything at all. The groans of her great effort were answered by encouraging shouts from the other women. "Here he comes! Here's his head! He has lots of hair, Elizabeth! One more! And just one more!"
A thin cry from the new arrival and a final groan from Elizabeth, who collapsed on the bed. Mary wiped the tiny face clean with one finger wrapped in a cloth, while Anna and Joanna busied themselves with the cord. Then they plopped him on Elizabeth's chest, where he immediately began searching for something to eat. His mother smiled, quiet for once, and Anna settled a soft blanket over the two of them.
The men were sitting on the bench in front of the house when Anna came out with the news of the baby's birth. Joachim slapped old Zechariah on the back.
"Well, what's the baby's name?" Joseph asked, handing Zechariah his tablet. Zechariah still wasn't speaking.
But now the old man cleared his throat. "His name is John," he croaked, and cleared his throat again. "John," he said again, shaking his head, and got up and went slowly into the house to see his wife and his first child, leaving the others outside.
They hadn't been talking about babies. They had been talking about taxes. And the strange Roman idea of a census. Why did it matter to the Romans exactly how many people there were in Judea? Why did they want to know? Why weren't our own temple records enough, and people's own testimony about their families? Most things the Romans did turned out badly for Israel one way or another; this one would be, at the very least, a monumental convenience for every Jewish family.
""Who will watch my shop while I'm off getting myself counted?" Joseph asked no one in particular. "Why can't they take my word for it that I'm getting married? Something is very strange about this whole matter."
"I believe they are doing it because they can," Joachim said thoughtfully. "I believe they think it's a good idea to keep us mindful of their power to make us do things we don't want to do. I think they want to keep us a little afraid, all the time."
"And they want our money," Joseph said. "We'll see a tax on each family member, within the year after they're finished with this count. Mark my words. They want us not to get married and have children. They think we won't if they tax each one of us. I think they're secretly afraid of us if we grow too numerous and too strong."
"Well, my dear son," said Joachim with a smile, "any second thoughts, then? Can you afford to marry my daughter? She'll cost you more money, and you'll have more children. Lots more, if God is good. More money to the Romans. Not backing out now, are you?"
"No, my noble father, I am not backing out. I'll just make more money. James and I will build more houses and make more furniture, and then all the little ones who come along will help us and we'll make even more. There won't be a person in Judea who doesn't live in one of my houses. I'll be so rich, your daughter won't be able to count the number of her servants."
"That's all right. Let the Romans count them. And when are you building me a new house? Your dear father-in-law?"
"Well, I'll need to add another room to my house, for all my gold. So I'll let you know."
Joachim was silent for a moment. Then he spoke.
"When do you leave?"
"At once, really. I must be there before the end of their year, they say. I don't know how long it will take once we arrive, and it's a long journey."
"You are walking, of course."
"Of course, I am walking. And James is walking. And your daughter is riding."
"Riding? On what?"
"Do you think I'm going to let my new wife walk along in the dust for a week? I bought her a little donkey, and she is waiting for a name and a lovely little mistress."
Joachim's eyes filled with sudden tears. "That's nice," he said. "Nice. You take good care of our girl, now."
"I will. You know I will. And we'll be back very soon, as soon as we can." Joseph put one hand on Joachim's shoulder. "She'll be just a morning's walk away."
Laughter and the clatter of dishes sounded from inside, and the men got up and entered the house. Joachim was seated at the new table with Anna, a large array of food spread out before him. Joanna was padding back and forth from the cupboard with dish after dish, while Mary folded dry clothes. Occasionally there was a little cry from the back room, and one of them would run back to see if all was well. All was surprisingly well; not a complaint had been heard from Elizabeth since the baby's birth. More food was brought, the new table admired, the miracle of Zechariah's voice remarked again and again. Twice Mary went into the back room and came back with the baby for the men to admire. Neighbors came and went until well after dark, and finally it was time to sleep. Mary, Joseph and James had a journey ahead of them.
And in the morning, before the roosters of the town had awakened, Joanna was up, packing an immense basket of food for the travelers. Elizabeth lay in bed with the baby, who had already finished his breakfast and gone back to sleep. Mary and Anna and Joachim sat on the bench outside waiting for Joseph.
Mary was dressed warmly against the cold of the early morning, the cloak her mother had made her wrapped tightly around her body. She leaned against her mother on the bench in the dark, and Anna held her in both arms.
"You'll be safe. Keep warm, though."
"He is such a good man."
"Yes, he is. He's funny, too."
"Like you. I wanted you to have a funny one."
"Papa's funny, too."
"Yup. We're all funny. All thirty-seven of your babies will be funny, too, just wait."
Mary thought of the fluttering in her belly. She thought of its new hardness, that nobody knew about. Nobody knew about this, not even her mother, not even Joseph, but somehow she was not worried about any of it.
"I don't think about thirty-seven anymore, Mama," she said. "I'm thinking about one right now."
"One at a time. We do every thing one at a time. Every day, one at a time."
The clip-clop of hooves sounded on the street. Joseph and James were coming.
"Be good, girl," Joachim said, hugging Mary and Anna together.
"I will, Papa."
"One day at a time, Mary," Anna said.
Joseph lifted Mary up onto the donkey's back, took Mary's bundle from Anna, and kissed Joachim on both cheeks. He nodded to Anna and smiled.
"We'll be very careful. We'll be back as soon as we can. I'll send word if I meet anyone you know."
Anna reached up and placed her hand on Mary's forehead. "God bless you in His Holy Name," she said.
James picked up the lead and began to walk, with Joseph walking beside the donkey to steady Mary and all their bundles. Joachim and Anna watched them as they walked away, and stood on the doorstep until they couldn't see them any more. The sun was just beginning to rise in the East.