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A CHRISTMAS STORY: PART VII - A STORY AND A STABLE
December 24, 2003
 
Mary had no Plan B. The trip would be a long one, and she would have abundant time to tell Joseph about the thing that had happened to her in the garden. And what had been happening since. For no rational reason, she was not afraid to tell him, even though she knew that her news would shock him. Or would it? Joseph did not seem to be the kind who is easily shocked. She would just have to wait and see.

The sun was fully up as they made their way out of the town and up into the hills. It would be a fine day, a day of blue sky and bright sunlight. They would walk until the sun was high above them and then stop for rest and food.

"I can walk, you know," Mary said. "Any time you want me to, I can take a turn walking and you or James can ride. I'm very strong."

Joseph laughed. "Maybe James. Not me. What do you say, James?"

"Not me," said the boy stoutly. He wasn't about to ride if his father didn't.

"Well, I am very strong," Mary said again. She didn't want Joseph to think for even a minute that she was anything like her cousin.

"Good for you, Miss. So your father tells me. And as good a cook as your mother."

"Well actually, I don't think I am. Not yet. But I love to cook and I love to see people eat."

"You're making me hungry," said James. "All this talk about food." James loved to eat. He could drink a pitcher of goat's milk all by himself at a meal, and he ate more than Joseph. James was growing.

"We'll walk to that far hill and then find a nice place to stop and rest. There's be a stream for the donkey."

"What's the donkey's name?" asked Mary.

"Well, now, that's up to you, I'd say," said Joseph. "She's your donkey."

"You mean I get to name her myself?"

It's only right."

Mary smiled. Then she laughed.

"I have an idea."

"And your idea is what?"

"I think I'd like to call her Elizabeth."

Joseph chuckled and his son hooted with laughter. Everyone in town knew Elizabeth.

"What a fine name."

"Elizabeth will never know."

"Never."

Elizabeth's hooves clip-clopped along. She was sure-footed over the rocky paths through the hills, and Joseph and James were strong enough to match her endurance. In an hour they had reached the far hill; a little stream ran down from its top and splashed into a pool at the bottom. Mary slid off the donkey and spread out her shawl to use as a picnic cloth, while James led Elizabeth to the stream, took off her saddle and let her drink. Joanna's farewell basket was full of delicious things: little biscuits made of the must of wine, goat cheese wrapped in grape leaves, some legs of roasted chicken, a comb of honey and at least a dozen flat loaves of bread.

Mary was starving. She ate one helping of everything and looked longingly at the one remaining chicken leg. She should leave it for James. Instead, she spread some honey on a piece of bread.

"Do you have chickens?" she asked Joseph.

"We used to," he said.

"My mother had so many chickens you wouldn't believe your eyes," James said. "She sold the eggs. Some days she had fifty eggs."

"Oh." Mary wasn't sure what to say. She was so curious about Joseph's first wife. Nobody spoke for a while.

"What, um, -- happened to her?" Mary asked Joseph at last.

"She died birthing James' little sister," Joseph said quietly. "She was turned around inside and the midwife couldn't turn her right in time."

"Was it...a long time ago?" Mary was embarrassed. Joseph had loved his wife, she could see. And he had lost a baby girl, too. It was so sad. But she also felt an unworthy feeling of jealousy. What a terrible person I am, she thought to herself.

"Almost ten years," Joseph said. "A long time for two men to be alone."

A wave of tenderness swept through Mary. "Now I can take care of you both," she said. "I'm young, but I know how to keep a house."

"We'll have good times," Joseph said, with a relaxed smile. "We need some good times. We need someone to sing around the house like a bird. Your father says you sing like a bird."

"Oh, I don't know. I like to sing." Mary was embarrassed again. "Maybe Elizabeth can sing with me. We can sing duets. Donkeys have such lovely voices."

James was off wading in the pool, holding his head under the stream of water and feeling it splash on him.

"You're a funny girl," Joseph said, looking at Mary's face. She flushed and looked down at her piece of bread. He reached out and took her chin in his hand, turning her face back toward him. "We'll be happy together." Then he took his hand away. He thought a moment. "I want you to know that I will come no closer to you than you wish, for as long as you wish. I know you are young. You're much younger than I am. I don't want you to be afraid of me. I'm just happy to have you in my family. I've been alone a long time. I can wait. I want you to be glad."

Mary's eyes filled with tears. This was a good man. Anna had been right. But what would he say when he knew her secret? This was his secret, too. It was time to tell him.

"Joseph," she began. Joseph smiled at the sound of his name on her lips. She had not spoken his name before.

"Joseph," she said again, and then she stopped. How to begin?

"Joseph, do you believe in God?"

"What a question, Mary," Joseph said. "Of course I do. Everyone believes in God."

"I mean, do you follow Him?" This was awful. She wasn't being at all clear. "I mean, would you do anything He asked you to do?"

"Well, yes," Joseph said "I'm not sure He's ever come right out and asked me to do anything. But if He did, I certainly would."

"Oh." Mary was quiet, playing with the fringe on her shawl. "Well, so
would I."

"Good for you," Joseph said with a twinkle, trying to get a smile out of her. But he could see that something was wrong. "Mary, what is it? Are you afraid I'm not righteous enough?"

"Oh, no! That's not it at all! It's just that....something has happened to me." And then she told Joseph the whole story: the angel in the tamarind tree, the message about the baby and who the baby would become. The strange coincidence of Elizabeth's baby and Elizabeth's dream. The flutterings in her belly the last few months; Mary's belly was getting round, like Elizabeth's had been, and it was as hard as a rock. It didn't even feel like it was hers. She had longed to ask Anna. Joanna. Even Elizabeth. Somebody.

"But I have told no one until right now. You are the first."

Joseph was silent. Mary did not look down at her hands, or play with the fringe on her shawl. She looked right into Joseph's eyes.

"The baby is coming. The time is now -- soon. I have known this ever since that day. And no matter what you decide to do, I will give this baby life. You are a good man. You will decide rightly. I trust God and I trust you. I can do nothing else."

Still Joseph did not speak. He got up and walked the thirty paces to the road they had traveled, looking down across the valley to the next set of hills in the distance. Somewhere beyond those hills lay the city of Bethlehem and the graves of his forefathers. Behind him lay his home and the grave of his wife and child. In between, here beside the road, were Mary and his son James, everything for which he had hoped through all the lonely years of waiting. A family again. A wife. Singing like a bird through the house.
Every human journey ended in death, eventually. Every day was part of it, and no day was fully known until it was over. He could have Mary as she was, all she was, and he would never know fully what she was. And she would never know him fully. We do not know each other fully. And we do not know God. We just search. Every day.

And now Mary's baby. A second son. A son of whom he was not the father. As Mary was not the mother of James. And yet she had cast her lot in with the two of them, pledging herself not just to Joseph but to the care of his son as well. She would make a home for both of them. She would not be his mother, but she would do her best, Joseph could tell. She could have said nothing, could have allowed him to think the child was his. Women did that all the time. But not this one.

He turned and walked back to her. She had risen to her feet and was watching him. Her lips trembled and tears ran down her cheek, but she paid no attention to them, gazing at him steadily.

Slowly, Joseph held out his hand. As slowly, Mary took it. She brought his hand to her lips and kissed it, still gazing at him. Then he pulled her to him and surrounded her with his strong arms, arms that could swing an ax and fell a tree, arms that could lift a heavy load. She took one of his hands and placed it on her belly, so he could feel its roundness.

+

The trip was long. Mary was tired at the end of each day, more tired than she wanted either Joseph or James to know. The basket of provisions lasted only a few days, and then they had to buy food from farmers whose homes they passed, or from merchants along the way, or from shops in the little towns through which they traveled. Sometimes they slept under the stars, Mary curled up alongside Joseph under his heavy cloak, her head pillowed on his arm, James on the other side, with Elizabeth the donkey making snuffling noises as she slept. And sometimes they slept in the stables of hospitable families along the road.

The stables were underneath the houses here in the hills, for the most part: animals on the ground floor where it was carved into the hillside, and the family up above them. Travelers often slept with the animals, bringing their own inside along with those of thier hosts. Joseph sometimes did a little work for a farmer before they set off again: repairing something, helping with a new fence, advising about the construction of a new piece of furniture. Mary would visit with the wife, and help with chores while the men worked, and then there would be a meal to which they were invited. Afterward, everyone sat by the fire and told stories or sang songs until exhaustion sent them all to bed, Mary, Joseph and James down below to sleep in the warm, sweet straw and the family to their own sleeping quarters.

There were inns, of course. But staying with families was better. Robbers frequented some of the inns, and soldiers, and Joseph did not know the area. Many people slept in one room in the inns, strangers all slept together, and Mary needed her privacy now. In the straw, with the clouds of the animals' warm breath in the night, they were safe and warm.

They were getting close to Bethlehem. One of the families with whom they stayed was of the house of David, like Joseph, and he and James and the husband sat up late in the night, talking about the census and the Romans and the king, while Mary slept, exhausted, down in the stable in the straw, curled up against Elizabeth for warmth, her face buried in the donkey's shaggy coat. She hadn't felt like eating that night, she was so tired, and her back hurt like anything. She knew what that meant.

The baby would be coming soon.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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