As weary and achy as Mary had been in the night, she was full of energy in the morning: up before Joseph and James, feeding Elizabeth, filling their leather bags with water for the continuation of their journey. She missed not cooking -- not having your own kitchen is the worst part of traveling, she thought to herself. Much worse than sleeping in a stable, which she had actually come to enjoy. She wondered what the kitchen was like in Joseph's house. Would she be using the same pots and bowls Joseph's wife had used? Of course she would. What a foolish question. A pot is a pot.
The baby within her had long ago ceased his gentle flutters -- he was kicking away like nobody's business now. Mary felt enormous: she could no longer see her own feet when she looked down. Gabriel had never mentioned that part.
There were so many things she hadn't known. The shocking hardness of her belly. That her navel would almost disappear -- the angel hadn't mentioned that, either. That she would waddle around like old Joanna.
That she would need help getting on and off Elizabeth. Mary was used to running and climbing anywhere she chose. It was odd to have to stop and consider whether she could or could not do something. She had stopped offering to walk. Joseph and James had never taken her up on it, anyway.
There certainly were a lot of political people in Joseph's family. They were meeting more and more of his relatives as they got nearer Bethlehem, and the men talked by the fire far into the night each night. Always the same topics: the census, the tax, the Romans. Some of the women sat and listened, but Mary was usually too tired to stay up. She had come to feel quite safe and at home with the animals every night, cuddling against Elizabeth's furry body until Joseph and James came down to bed at last. Then all four of them slept in a row, donkey and humans together on blankets over a thick layer of warm-smelling clean straw. It was a comfortable way to rest; Mary would never have expected it to be so. She wondered what her mother would think if she could see her. She wondered about it every night.
She thought her mother would like it just fine. She was like her mother, she thought: taking what came. Anna was like that, and Mary was like that, too. That's a good way to be. You can be surprised by things, but you don't have to be scared. Things don't have to be exactly what you expect.
"When will we be in Bethlehem?" James asked his father late one morning as they walked along a steep path up a hill.
"Tired of walking?" Joseph asked.
"Nope." James said quickly. "Just wondering."
"Well, we might reach there tomorrow by sundown. I think it's just beyond that row of hills. Or the one beyond that. If it's the next one, then I guess it'll be the day after tomorrow. We're almost there, though."
"Do they have stables under the houses?" Mary asked. She hoped so. She didn't want to have her baby at an inn, in front of a bunch of soldiers.
"Some of the stables are for more than one house, maybe lots of houses," Joseph said. "People come and get their animals and bring them back in the evening. And lots of them don't even own cows or sheep themselves. They buy milk and things from other people. Most of them do it that way."
Well, this would be different, thought Mary, a little uneasily. So many people in Bethlehem. So many more now, too, with all the families traveling there to be counted. They had been in the countryside up until now, or in tiny villages. The nights had been quiet. The people had been friendly. There had been women to talk with and children to play with. and the animals, of course. Being in a stable had been the same thing as being with a family. This would be different. Maybe the baby would wait until they were finished with their business in Bethlehem, and they could get back on the road through the countryside. That would be good.
They made it by sundown the next day. Bethlehem was noisy and full of a million smells: cooking food from a hundred kitchens, hot metal from the anvils of the blacksmiths, leather from the saddleries, spices from the shops alongside the street, the excrement of animals and people mixing in the gutter. The main street wound around through the town forever, it seemed, until Joseph stopped and studied one doorway.
"This may be my cousin's place," he said. "I'm not sure."
Mary sat up straighter on Elizabeth, so she didn't look like such a waif. She felt just like a waif, though. Like a waif, or maybe more like a pumpkin, she was so round now. Yes. Just like a pumpkin.
Joseph knocked and, after a moment, the door opened. A broad face peeked out from behind the heavy door. "Full up," said the face. "No room. Sorry."
"This is not the inn of Micah bar Eleazar?"
"Hasn't been for years. Micah's been dead for ten years. Maybe more."
"Ah. I didn't know. I am his father's cousin's son."
"My wife was married to Micah bar Eliezar. Now I have the inn."
"Ah. And the wife?"
The fat man laughed and opened the door wider. "And the wife! Ha! Yes, I have the wife, too! She came with the inn! Come out, Miriam, and see...what did you say your name was?"
"Joseph ben Jacob. My wife is called Mary, too. "
"Come out and meet your cousin Joseph!"
A grey-haired woman poked her head out of a nearby window. "Well, don't make them stand out in the street, you old fool. Where are your manners? Get that worthless boy out here to take the donkey downstairs. Mattias! Get out here this instant! He's a worthless boy, that one. Mattias! I'm going to kill you when you get out here, so hurry up, won't you?
Mary's heart leapt at the word "downstairs." This would be the stable. Under the house, just like out in the country. The four of them in the comfortable straw. Joseph lifted Mary onto the ground. Her legs buckled under her a bit. She was so tired.
"Hello, dear. Let's get you inside and give you a cup of tea." She caught a glimpse of Mary's belly. "Oho! Lord, Lord, look what we have here! A baby coming for sure. This very night, by the look of you, dear. Some tea. Bring you around for sure. Come along."
A boy about James' age appeared, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He and James stared at each other for an instant, and then James handed him Elizabeth's lead and they all disappeared down the alley that led to the house's back entrance.
Joseph and their host, whose name was Jared, went into the house and the two women followed, making their way to the kitchen. In no time the men were drinking tea together in the front room, while Mary and old Miriam sipped theirs in the large kitchen.
"Seven children, I had, dear, and a terrible time with each one of them," Miriam said as she set little raisin cakes out on two plate. "Such pain! Tea is what you need, dear. Get you through it somehow. Oh, Lord, I never felt such pain as I felt with my first. He just about ripped me in half, that boy. Have a little cake, there's a good girl."
Suddenly Mary wasn't very hungry. She took one of the cakes and nibbled at the edge of it. "The first one is always the worst," Miriam was saying as she helped herself to another cake. "Oh, Lord! Forty-one hours hard labor, that was me with my first. You could hear me scream on the other side of town. And the blood! Oh, Lord. You should have seen the sheets. Bright red, they were, like there'd been a war."
Mary put her raisin cake back on her plate. Even a war sounded relaxing compared to Miriam's description of childbirth. "Is there anything I can do to help in the kitchen?" she asked, feeling a little desperate.
"Oh, heavens no, dear. You just relax and make yourself comfortable. That no-good boy of ours will bring blankets down for you. Are you tired, dear?"
Mary was so tired she could hardly see. And her back hurt, too, in aching waves below what had been her waist. "I think I'd like to rest, thank you," she said. "The tea was lovely."
"You'll need it, dear. That's all I can say. Rest while you can."
Mary arose and turned to climb down the ladder that separated the kitchen from the stable below. Just then Joseph appeared in the kitchen, an inquiring look on his kind face. "Going to bed so early?"
"I'm just so tired," Mary mumbled.
"I know. I'll be along in a minute."
James and Matthias were down in the stable, playing a game with little smooth stones on the hard dirt floor. But James had already fixed their beds in the straw, and Elizabeth was already snuffling in her sleep beside the thick, high bundle upon which Mary would lie.
"Thanks, James," she said. "You're truly a great man."
"Sure am," James said. "Do you mind if we keep playing?"
"No, I like it. My brothers at home were always playing some kind of game while I was drifting off. Do you mind if I go to sleep?"
"If you don't snore."
"Well, how would I know if I do or not?"
"I'll wake you up and tell you."
Mary pulled the soft blanket over herself, poked and rearranged the straw under her sheet until it felt just right under her back. She stared at the ceiling. Elizabeth sighed, and Mary reached over and stroked her fuzzy flank. One of the older lambs nuzzled at its mother's belly, searching for a teat, and the mother gave a low bleat as she flopped over on her side. The pebbles fell again and again on the floor, as the boys commented softly on their game. Outside, the street noises continued: people walking by, people arguing, a drunken man singing, soldiers marching.
Hours must have passed when Mary jerked suddenly awake. Joseph was beside her now, and James was asleep on the other side of Elizabeth. The boy Mattias was sleeping over in the corner of the room. The street outside was quiet.
But something was happening inside. The sheet underneath Mary was wet, and so was her skirt. A strong wave of pain passed through her back, like the clenching of a fist, and then it was subsided. Another one. And another. This must be it.
The clenching felt better, Mary discovered after a few more, when she breathed hard out through her mouth in short little breaths, like the panting of a dog. But she would need to get up and do something about the mattress and the sheet and everything. What a mess.
She wanted her mother. But her mother wasn't there.
Somebody was, though. Something in the corner of the room shimmered and came closer. Something she had seen before.
"It's time now. Don't be afraid."
"I'm trying not to be." But Mary was afraid. Terribly afraid. Suddenly it seemed clear that this wasn't going to work, that there was no way what was in her belly could ever escape. "I can't do this!" she wailed, and Joseph awoke.
"I can't!" she cried again.
"Get up, Mary and hang onto Elizabeth," said Gabriel.
"Get up. Hang on."
Suddenly Mary was on her knees, her hands clutching the mane of the little donkey, who braced herself calmly against Mary's weight. Suddenly she remembered the birth of the real Elizabeth's baby, and of all the other babies she'd seen enter this world. Suddenly she knew she could do it. Suddenly she felt like pushing hard and she pushed, hard, again and again, each push forcing a deep groan from her lips. In between pushes she closed her eyes. Never had she pushed so hard, pushed and been pushed from within.
"I'll get Miriam," Joseph said, struggling to his feet and heading for the ladder.
"No-oo," Mary wailed, and then a savage sound came from her throat, a command: "NO! You stay!"
Joseph's eyes were round with fear.
"My back! Help me do this! Hold my back! Hold it! Help me!"
The glimmer that was Gabriel came closer. He whispered something in Joseph's ear. Joseph gave no sign of hearing him, but he turned back to Mary and knelt behind her, his hands bracing against her thin back.
James and Mattias cowered in the corner, watching in frightened silence.
Jared and Miriam were stirring up above, wakened by the noise. Heavy footsteps sounded across the ceiling from the kitchen, and Miriam's face appeared in the open trapdoor at the top of the ladder. Gabriel glimmered over to where she was and whispered in her ear. Miriam became as one frozen, silent and motionless.
Now it didn't feel like pain. It felt like work. Good work. Great work. Mary pushed with every ounce of her strength, and pushed again. and again. "You're such a strong girl," Joseph said, smoothing her hair from her eyes. "Good. Good, Mary. Good!"
"Good!" Mary shouted. "Good!" She gave another mighty push and then a great sigh, flopping forward on Elizabeth's soft flank and reaching under the blanket. "Give me," she whispered to Joseph, and he reached under the blanket and brought something tiny and purple. "His face," she said, and Joseph took the corner of his robe and wiped the baby's face clean. There was a tiny cry, and another. "In my bag," Mary said, and Joseph rummaged for the clean cloths she had brought with her from home.
Joseph tied one cloth in a hard knot at the top of the baby's cord and cut the rest off with his sharp knife. "Now wrap him up hard," she said, and they wound the baby in more clean cloths, until he looked like a little mummy, with just his head visible. He had a head of black hair. Then Mary leaned against Elizabeth and untied the strings of her blouse.
"How do they know what to do?" she wondered dreamily, as she watched her baby find his dinner. For that matter, how had she known what to do? She looked for Gabriel, but he was nowhere to be found.
She was so tired.