The din seemed to be crescendoing, even as the evening descended. A racking cough took hold of the man standing beside me, a spasm that was evident and caused his body to quiver violently. A pregnant woman sat atop a weary-looking donkey on my other side. She was rubbing her palm over her distended abdomen in small, soothing strokes. Two little children whose dark hair curled lovingly over their dust-streaked faces darted about my legs; one of the grubby hands pulled lightly on my cloak. Their laughter pealed, making obvious their lack of worry for Caesar Augustus’ decree of taxing which had brought us all out to the square. A horse neighed, and the crowd parted at the flash of the red-coloured toga and the glint of the dying sun on the gilded egis.
“Out of the way!” the Roman soldier growled loudly as he steered his horse through the dense throng of Bethlehemites. “Go on home, you fools! Today’s exercise is over.”
The crowd roared in protest.
“I have been waiting here all morning…” complained a wizened woman as she drew her shawl tighter over her graying hair.
“Caesar will hear of this injustice…!” cried another, a man; he shook his fist in the air.
“I left the tending of my sheep to my no-good of a son for this…” muttered the man beside me, before he submitted to another bout of coughing.
“Joseph…” the pregnant woman gasped. I saw a twitch of pain fleet across her face. Her beautiful face with its pale, rosy skin, bright blue eyes, and a shock of dark hair that tumbled to her shoulders. There was something almost ethereal about her looks. “Joseph…” she breathed out again. Her hand clutched at her belly.
This time, she got the attention of the man who stood beside her. He was tall and sturdily-built, with a full beard. “Mary, are you all right?” he asked, his face instantly agitated. “Is it time – it can’t be time…”
Mary, his wife – I want to believe she’s his wife – nodded vigorously, her eyes shut as she rode the next wave of pain. “He’s coming, Joseph…” Sweat dewed her forehead. “He’s coming…”
Joseph went into an instant burst of activity. “Excuse me, please… Please let us pass…” He began steering the donkey around to get away from the midst of the crowd. People grumbled and reluctantly moved out of the way. Reacting to an instinct I could not explain, I turned and followed them.
“Watch where you are going, sir…”
“Keep your wife at home next time…”
“Madam, are you all right…?”
That was the wizened woman. Her shawl fluttered around her wrinkled face as her kindly eyes swept over the distraught couple.
“My wife is heavy with child,” Joseph said urgently. “And the time seems to be upon us. We need to get to a midwife’s home or an inn immediately.”
“But there is none open at this time.” The old woman’s eyes darted upward to the dimming sky and then down at the crush of people, silently giving the reasons why no midwife will be available at this time.
“But – but, where can we go?” Joseph was frantic. “We have journeyed all the way from Nazareth in Galilee for this decree, and we know no one from these parts.”
“I know a place. I can help.” The old woman quickly led them past more people. Responding to that inexplicable instinct, I followed. The setting sun crowned the top of the trees, stretching tall shadows across the ground as the trio hurried along down the road. The ground shot up small pockets of dust upon each hastened footfall. I heard the pregnant Mary give off small whimpers of pain, and I silently commiserated with her. Two years ago, about the time His Majesty King Herod came into power, my wife had gone through the labour of child in the midst of all the political turbulence. Her pain had rivaled the upheaval that had rippled all over Judaea during the exchange of power.
“Where are we going?” I heard Joseph ask.
“Just around the corner,” the old woman replied. “It’s my husband’s stable.”
A stable, I thought with incredulity.
“A stable!” Joseph sounded horrified.
“It’s the only shelter available for your wife’s delivery,” the old woman said defensively, “and safe enough for the newborn when he comes.”
The stable was slightly dilapidated, but stood bravely on the ground. A faint smell of domestic animals and hay blossomed from it as we approached; the trio were still unaware of my presence, and I could not explain to myself why I was still following them. Both the old woman and Joseph helped Mary from the donkey, and Joseph tethered the animal while the woman led his wife into the stable. He went in immediately after. I skulked to a window by the side of the barn, and peered in just as the woman struck a match and lit up the fire torch inside the small ramshackle room. There was a stir and a discordance of various animal sounds as the animals betrayed their agitation at the disturbance. Soon, however, they calmed, and watched, like I did, as the new arrivals set about putting in order a corner of the barn.
Mary was gently laid down against the wall of a stall; Joseph sat by her, cooing comforting words and stroking dampened wisps of her hair from her face. The old woman swatted a small flock of lambs from a small manger and shoved it close to the pregnant woman. Joseph dug out cotton sheets from the saddle bag slung over his shoulder, and laid over the straw in the manger. The old woman squatted before Mary, parted her legs and began urging her on in her delivery. Mary gasped and pushed and screamed and thrashed about. Joseph clasped one of her hands, all the while speaking tender words to her. With every bit of her exertion, I tensed, feeling a deep empathy for her struggle and a strange exhilaration for the end of it all.
“I see the head,” the old woman coaxed the exhausted Mary. “It’s almost over now.”
Mary clenched her teeth and strained with all her might, her face flushed and sweating, her hair wet from the hours of her effort that had gone by. Joseph supported her back and whispered words of encouragement. She pushed one last time, and produced a wriggling, wet babeling. A plaintive wail split the air as the old woman quickly swaddled him in folds of the white sheets that Joseph had produced.
“It’s a boy,” she cooed, a huge smile splitting her withered lips.
Both parents stared in wonder at their creation. They looked at each other, smiled and turned back to the child. I smiled too.
“Here, you can have him.” The old woman handed the bundle in her arms over to Mary. The baby still cried, protesting quite loudly the cold of the world it had been thrust into. But when the warmth of his mother’s arms encircled him, his cries dwindled to a gurgling sound. He squirmed contentedly against his mother and suckled on his fists, gurgling some more.
“Oh, Joseph…” Mary gasped. “He is beautiful…”
Indeed, he was. Even from where I hunkered, I could see the downy silkiness of his hair and the rosy roundness of his cheeks; there was a reminiscent etherealness that seemed to radiate from him. I had seen it somewhere before, glowing on his mother’s face. And now, that luminosity appeared to spread out from the baby, encompassed Mary and haloed around them both. It was an uncanny sight.
On cue, a blaze of light broke through the inky sky, drawing my gaze upward. It was a star, big and stunning in its glory, casting a bright silver glow that spread out for miles. Its tail-end stretched downward, hovering above the roof of the stable, as though placing its mark on the occupants of the room. I instinctively knew it was here because of one person – the newborn child. I looked back inside the barn through the window, amazed and quite certain that someone great had just being delivered into the world.
“What will you call him?” the old woman asked.