Monday, December 15, 2014

A Special Christmas Story

The Travelers
Margery S. Stewart

It was a hot, dusty, turbulent day in Bethlehem.  The narrow, dirty streets were crowded with camels and donkeys and tired travelers.  The women found it hard to draw water from the wells because of the press. There were bitter words spoken and many friendships had their end that day.

At the Inn it seemed more brawling, more noisy, more dusty than anywhere else.  We were filled from courtyard to gate, sleeping spaces as valuable as camels.  It was a grim, endless day for me, for I must superintend the maids and stable boys, and strive to keep a semblance of order about the place.  My husband, Jasper, strode back and forth, shouting at the servants, browbeating the more humble of the travelers and berating me for a thousand and one things that had gone amiss.

My head ached under the yellow veil and my heart ached under my green rode, and my feet ached too, in their thonged sandals.

“Dorcas,” thundered my husband for the dozenth time in an hour.  “More men come seeking shelter.  Turn them away.”

I went swiftly, the anger and impatience in his voice taking seed in my heart and sprouting swiftly into its own dark violence.  “There is no room, “ I shouted.  Without waiting for their request.  “No room at all.”

There were five of them, five dusty, bearded men.  Their leader bowed. “But we have sickness among us, surely that makes a difference.”  I looked to where they pointed and saw an old woman lying in the dust of the street on an improvised litter.  She was like my mother, little and frail, the wrinkles like a veil over her face.  I went to Jasper.

“There is an old one,”  I pleaded, a little old one and very sick.  Let us make room for her.”

Jasper turned on me in rage, clawing his black beard.  “I told you to send them away.  Sick!  There be many sick among them.  That is no concern of ours.  Send them away and ask me no more for any.”  He glared at me, his eyes cold and menacing under the eave of his brows.

I backed away.  “As you say, Jasper.”  I went back to the gate.  “There is no room!”  I shouted.  “No room at all.  Be gone, all of you.  All of you.”

My shouting voice seemed to take away all my strength with it.  I leaned against the gate, shaken and sick, wondering what would become of the little woman in the crowded town.  I was aware of someone standing beside me.  I looked up.  He was a tall man, with a long brown beard, well flecked with grey.  His eyes were brown, too.  He wore a rough robe and carried a staff.  There was a compelling quietness about him for all his dusty clothes, and his knotted hands and the dust upon his feet.  “I must have a room, “ he said.

He did not nod with his head, nor indicate in any way, but I looked past him as though drawn by the force of his concern and saw her.  My first thought was wonder, that his wife should be so young, her face tender as a maid’s with the clear color in it.  She was sitting on a small grey donkey; her blue robes trailed down her side.  She was with child, and I started, wondering that any one would travel in such condition, until I remembered that all the travelers were under a decree and came not of choice.  She smiled at me.  The smile did not plead, it trusted.

I wrung my hands.  “There isn’t room,” I said.  “All day we have had to turn men away.  There is no corner left..”

“I must have a room,” said the tall traveler.  Nor did he plead.  He stated a fact.  He looked at me.  “You are a woman, there is compassion in you for a sister in need.”

“There is no room,” I repeated heavily.  “If I should ask my husband, his anger would lash on me, and for no good reason, for one cannot  make space where there is none.”

The girl said, “I am thirsty, Joseph,”

He turned instantly to her.  “Let us go to the well, Mary.  There be many there.  You shall have fresh water and I will meet with many people. Surely we will find a place for you.”

HE picked up the reins and the small grey beast lifted his head and plodded on.  The river of the street engulfed them, and I saw them tossed among the frantic crowds.  One caught at Joseph’s sleeve, a man, who spoke volubly for a moment. Joseph shook his head.  The man turned away.

I should have gone in—there were linens to be counted, water pitchers to be filled, straw to be strewn.  Instead I leaned against the gate following the blue-robed figure in the maelstrom of the street.  I could not understand myself; it was as if an oil had been poured on the angry sore of my heart.  Once, in the temple at Jerusalem, talking to a very old and wise woman, who spent her days in prayer, a similar feeling had swept over me, so melting, so beautiful that I had wept, turning to hide my tears.  It was like this in a way.

“Why stand you thus, dreaming?” Jasper demanded behind me, his voice rasping,  “There is much to be done.  One of the maids is sick and there is none to take her place at the milking”.

“I will help,” I said, and fled from his presence which was like darkness after sunlight.   

It was quiet and cool in the stable.  It had been built out of a great cave in the hills behind the Inn.  Jasper was a careful man with all his goods, and the stable was no less clean than the Inn.  I caught my breath and stared about me.  With cattle in their stalls, and the floor swept and scrubbed, it would be a place—oh, better than the roadside or other places more dreadful, where the man Joseph might be driven to take the little Mary.

I caught up the bucket of milk and carried it to the kitchen.  I said to Miriam, the cook, “I will go for water this evening.”

She nodded her covered head. “Aye, it will be good for you to go.  The master rages like a lion on the hills.”

I caught up the pitcher and put it on my shoulder and hurried out of the Inn, into the whirling current of the street.  So many strange faces in the familiar doorways, high brown foreheads from Galilee; fierce, brown shepherd boys from the hills; gay, lovely girls laughing and calling one to another, enjoying this respite in the monotony of their days.  The crowd around the well was deeper than it had been at noonday.  The faces were troubled and very tired, the faces of those who have nowhere to go and carry in their eyes their message of homelessness.  I was well familiar with this mark.  The man, Joseph, was talking to Marya, the widow.  She had a large house.  But she shook her head abruptly and turned away from him.

So they still had no place at all.  I stepped forward. “Sir,” I said, “I have a room.”

Even in his great anxiety, his turning was quiet.

“It is the woman from the Inn,” Mary said.     

I lifted my face to her. “It is a very poor place, in the stable, but I will scrub it myself and sweep and prepare a place for you.”

Joseph touched my shoulder.  “You are kind,” he said, "But a stable---for Mary?"  No, I will look further.”

Mary leaned down from the donkey.  “There is no time, Joseph, we must take the shelter and be grateful for it.”

I said, “I will run ahead and prepare a bed for you.”  I forced my way through the crowd about the well, let down my pitcher and drew up the cold delicious water.  It was heavy on my shoulder and when I walked too fast, the water spilled over and ran along my arm.  But I hurried through the crowd back to the Inn.  I should have asked Jasper first. What if he turned on me and ordered me to send them away again?

Jasper was just finishing his supper. “You should have sent one of the maids,” he growled, “what will my friends think when my wife caries the water?”     

Jasper,” I said, giving the pitcher to Miriam who sent me a long look of warning, “There is a favor I would ask of you.”

He threw down his napkin, “Always you come for favors when my mind is reeling with all the things my guests have asked me to do. Well, what is it?”

“The stable.” I said, “It is a clean, quiet place. I thought I might give it to pilgrims for the night. At least they would have shelter.”

“No, “ shouted Jasper, and then his face grew still and speculative. “They would have to pay for it, the same as any room.”

“They would pay, Jasper.  I would see to that.”

He rose and wiped his mouth. “Then fill the stable if you like. I care not.”

All the weariness the day had fastened upon me vanished like an oxen yoke lifted by the master.  I seized brooms and brushes and hurried toward the stable.  Behind me labored Miriam with the steaming wooden buckets.

The floor was still damp when Mary and Joseph bent their heads to enter the low door, but the place had the clean smell of a fresh scrubbing.  I was making a bed of straw. “Miriam,” I said, “Will you run swiftly to the house and get me linens and a coverlet.”  I gave her the key.

“But this is the key to your good linens,” she said.

“You have the key,” I said coldly and went forward to receive the guests.

Mary looked about. “How quiet it is,’ she said, “and cool.”

Joseph looked troubled.  “But a stable,” he protested, “Mary, Mary, this is no place for thee.”

“Peace, Joseph, it shall be well with me.”

I said, “I—I found a little manger you might use. I filled it with straw.”

Mary looked to where I pointed and smiled and went slowly and heavily to the rough, makeshift crib and touched it; her fingers pressed down on the straw.  “I will put my robe under him, folded several times.  It will make a good bed.”

She straightened and was still.  Her eyes closed and the whiteness ran into her lips.  I took her arm.  “Come, sit here, on this stool, until I make your bed.”

Miriam came bustling in, her arms filled with linens.  Together we made the bed and stretched Mary upon it and covered her over with the coverlet, one never used before, one I had woven the previous winter.

“I brought candles,” Miriam whispered, and brought one out from her pocket and put it in a dish.  “Perhaps Joseph would get a flame for it?” She looked down on Mary.  “Poor, poor child, what a pity she couldn’t have had her baby at home, under her own roof, with her people near.”

“The weariness of the journey makes a double portion,” I said.

“Do go swiftly and bring her a cup of your good soup, and some of the bread you baked this afternoon.”

I said to Joseph, “Build a fire outside the stable and put water on to boil. This night will be a busy one for us all.”

And so it was, the hours grinding away, and no noise at all in the stable except the blowing of the cattle and the stamping of their feet and the unheard sound of pain that women know.  I knew.  I had borne two and lost them both---I knew well the wracking of the flesh when they came and the tearing of the soul when they were taken away.  But this I had not known before, that such a hush should come, that the stillness would grow and deepen until we talked seldom, and then only in whispers.  The great hush that was in us all and in the humble room deepened and deepened and grew in intensity, until Miriam and I could only speak with our eyes as we bent above Mary.

We smoothed her forehead in the silence and we held her hands.  Then suddenly in the night, in the hush and the quietness, the child was born.

I held him and he cried, the new child cry, that is like no other in all the world.  My arms circled him about, hungrily, loving his smallness and perfectness.  My eyes marveled over him, seeing in him the seed from which the tree of the man would grow.  Seeing in him the buds of his hearing and sight that would open and unfurl and see and hear, knowing that in him beat the perfect and untouched heart that would grow and know suffering and happiness and grief and be scarred with many scars before it would be still.

“This is not a usual child,” I said to Miriam, as I bathed him.

“They say that always,” said Miriam soberly, “and yet I say with you, this is not a usual child.”

One of the maids came running with the summons from Jasper that he wanted me at once.

I rose and brought the child to Mary.  She opened her eyes when she felt me standing beside her and smiled and held out her hands for the baby.

“It is a son,” I said.

“I know.”

Running along the pathway to the Inn, I marveled that she had said that. How could she have known?  Jasper was in the dining room with four great men of Jerusalem.  He wanted food for himself and his guests.

“Where is Miriam?” he thundered.

“Have you forgotten how well I can cook?” I answered.  “What is it you would like?”

Jasper grunted.  I hastened to prepare a meal and set it before them. They were learned men.  Their conversation delighted my ears as I hurried back and forth from kitchen to dining room.  They were discussing the coming of Emmanuel.  How wonderful it sounded, full of marvel.  This great king who would ride out of the clouds in his golden chariot and disperse the Romans right and left.  Who would deliver the people from their cruel captors.  Then it would be a great thing to be a Jew.  Then we would be conquerors with Him.  Everyone would triumph who believed and waited for his coming in all His majesty and power. Jasper’s voice rolled out thunderously, describing the downfall of all his enemies under the power of the Great One, the Deliverer.

“You have great faith, Jasper,” said one…Almost I hear the thunder of his horses.”

“Aye,” nodded another, “and see the glitter of his golden robes and the blinding riches of his armies.”

They were still talking when I tiptoed away.  But even with my hurrying, two hours had been consumed.

In the stable, all was still – Miriam slept.  I woke her and sent her off to bed.  Joseph sat beside Mary’s bed, not speaking, only looking down on her gently and once reaching out to draw the covers more closely about her.  The baby slept sweetly, small, mysteriously as all babies are mysterious, beautiful as new babies are, with their small curled fists and closed eyes and tender skin.

Suddenly there was a commotion at the door. Joseph rose up instantly, and I went behind him to the door.  We peered out in the darkness and saw the torched coming along the path from the Inn. Joseph stepped out. The men surged toward him.

“Whom do you seek?” Joseph asked quietly.

The leader stepped forward, a great rugged man.  The fire Joseph had kindled at the door of the stable lighted in flame his keen dark eyes, his stubborn chin, his firm mouth.

“We seek a child born this night in Bethlehem.”

Joseph said, after a moment, “There is here a child born this night.”

The four men behind the leader fell back. They murmured one to another and tears gleamed on their harsh, bearded cheeks.

The leader spoke gruffly, tears thickening his voice.  “This night we were watching our sheep on the hills East of Bethlehem…suddenly…suddenly and angel of the Lord appeared unto us.”

“We were sore afraid.” Murmured the shepherds, crowding behind him, “sore afraid.”

The leader nodded. “It is like a sword in the bosom to behold an angel of God.  But he said unto us, to fear not, but to be of great joy, for unto us was born, this night in the City of David, a Savior, who is…” he paused then said slowly, “Christ….the Lord.”

“Oh, no,” I fell back from his words.  I looked from the ragged men in the darkness to the baby in the manger, his small face lighted by the candle burning beside him.  “But the Great One cometh in clouds of glory, in a golden chariot.” I whispered.

The grizzled leader nodded. “So thought we all, until this night. Christ…the Lord, in a manger.  But there was not only this angel, but the skies were filled with a multitude…”  His voice deepened with wonder and tears crowded him, “A multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and singing ‘Peace on Earth, good will toward men’.”

“Peace on earth,” I whispered…”Oh, not the sword that Jasper had thundered would smite his enemies…not the tooth for tooth and the eye for eye…not the chariot of war…but peace…peace…goodwill to men.”

I trembled there in the cave. I trembled and was afraid, with some of the shepherds’ own fear transmitting itself to me. Yet, something in me lifted wings. Love was in the words, and a marvelous comforting…”Peace on earth…good will toward men.”  

Joseph stepped aside.  “The child lieth in the manger.

One of the men pushed forward.  “That spoke the angel, also, ‘And this shall be a sign unto you, that you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’.”

They went at last and the child wailed. In his crying there was abrupt return to normal, everyday things.  I lifted him from the manger and brought him to Mary.  “He is strange in this world,” I said.

She took him in her arms.  I went back to the Inn to see if I could capture a few hours of sleep before dawn.  The town was dark and silent around me, the hills were met at the skyline by the stars that swarmed like bees over the night.  A normal night….a quiet night, no angel song wafting down the wind.

Jasper woke when I crept into the room.  “Where have you been, Dorcas?”

In the stable with a young mother who had her first child,” I told him. “A beautiful boy.”

Jasper grunted.  “There be strange tales that go about the streets. They say shepherds came down from the hills seeking a first born son, saying he was the Savior….Christ, the Lord.”

I caught my breath.  “They came to the stable,” I whispered.  “They worshipped the child.”

Jasper sat up. “Preposterous,” he exploded.  “Blasphemy.  Have no more to do with them.  Do you hear?”

“But, Jasper, I was there.  There was a glory.  I felt it.  Why should it be so strange?  Moses was fished from the river.  Samuel, the Prophet, was a little lad when he herd the voice of God…humble ones.”

Jasper pounded his fist in his palm.  “But I know, Dorcas, I know Emmanuel shall not come in humble fashion, but in a chariot of gold.  He shall ride out of the skies and deliver us from our enemies.”

“Yes, Jasper….but this…”

“You doubt me, weak woman, small woman!  You doubt me?”

“No, Jasper, only….only….”

I lay on my pallet.  The night swept back and forth in my mind, all the small details.  The shepherds’ rough robes and the broken sandal on the leader’s foot.  Mary’s face, pale with pain in the candlelight.  The hush before the birth.  The angel song, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men…not sung to the priests….but to the rough shepherds on the Judean hill. So strange, all of it…like a dream.  Against all this beauty strode the booted feet of Jasper, his fierce beard moving with his words, “Chariot of War…King over all our enemies…An eye for an eye…A tooth for a Tooth.”  I turned on my pillow and prayed for I was only a woman, childless and lonely, not greatly loved of my husband.

Still sleep would not come.  I rose at last and put on my robes and went softly out into the dawning.  The world was very still. In the courtyard, the shepherds knelt in prayer, before they hastened back to the hills. Their lips moved silently in their brown, stern faces.

I went along the path to the stables.  Inside, all was dark, the candle long since burned to the dish.  Joseph slept on a pallet by the door, Mary slept in the bed we had made for her, one arm thrown across her face.  The baby slept, too, the light and lovely sleep of new little ones.

I looked at him for a long time, and then, I too dropped to my knees, for within me, not from without, came the singing knowledge, the beauty and the promise.

I touched the forehead, small and fair beneath my work-coarsened fingers. “Sleep well, little one…sleep well…long lietth the road before thee.”