The wind was whistling round the village, there were flurries of cold rain creating delightfully muddy puddles but the children didn’t want to play outside, it was too cold. Winter was sometimes unpleasant even here. This was one of those days, the beams of the Rabbi’s new roof would have to wait until the weather improved and the old carpenter sat by the fire calmly whittling.
“Another wooden man for the child to play with?” Asked his much younger wife, stroking her belly. Her husband was convinced this would be a girl this time.
“Perhaps, or perhaps a flower for you”
“Get away” she laughed “You’ve given me enough presents” and she looked at her belly again, and the three boys, though they knew, only she and her husband knew, he only gave her the younger two.
Beside him, the elder boy was following his lead and whittling at a piece of wood. The second son showed some promise too, something she was grateful for, she felt that the first child was not destined to be a carpenter. She tried to repress the entirely sensible but seemingly selfish fear that when her husband died there might be no-one to take on the business and they would starve. Hopefully James would have learnt enough by then. “James, be careful with that knife”
James laughed and pretended to cut off his finger, crooking it over so it disappeared. Mary held her hands up in mock horror.
Their youngest was getting bored. “Tell us the story”
“Not tonight, I’m tired” Joseph replied
“Tell us the story”
“I’m busy” Joseph knew he would give in eventually, but he held out a little longer.
“TELL US THE STORY” The three boys chorused.
“I’ve got this to finish”
“Tell us the story” Mary asked quietly, her calm face, her placid body overwhelming his last resistance. She had so much within her, he knew, yet she kept herself externally a calm island for the family whilst inside she battled with the hopes, fears and love of a mother for her child, for all of them; but especially for that eldest one.
“Okay, okay” He put more wood chips on the fire, making it flare up. One thing about being a carpenter, the house always had fuel for the fire.
“It was a cold winter I remember. Not the coldest, but one of them. The Bast -” he caught his wife’s warning eye, it didn’t do to be too open in criticism, that could result in one-way re-education with a gladiator “The Romans had called for a census in the coldest time of the year and every family had to return to their birth town, mine was –”
“Bethlehem!” the three chorused together. Joseph was rather proud of his ancestry and may have mentioned it once or twice. He tousled the hair of the nearest and continued.
“Bethlehem, City of David, as you say.
We had not been married long.” Again a warning look from Mary. Odd, she didn’t mind him giving gory details of the birth, but always preferred him to avoid anything that might lead to uncomfortable questions about conception before marriage.
“Long enough for your mother to be big with child. She was travelling on the donkey.
Ah, I loved that donkey, he was the most patient donkey. He was so easy going, so friendly. I swear he knew wood as well as me, he would go to the right tree for chopping with an unerring eye. I-”
“I think you loved that donkey more than me” laughed Mary, “get on with the story, you’d make a useless storyteller” Which they both knew wasn’t true, he could weave in details that the listeners found they remembered days later. He could have done it for a living, but he preferred wood to stories.
“Yes, well, the donkey didn’t answer back” he laughed “Mary, as I say, was on the donkey. I was leading him. We’d walked for 3 days to get there. That last day was the longest. We’d avoided the robbers and the thieves and vagabonds and beggars. But it was dark. We’d decided we had to get there that night. Mary, your mother, told me her time was near. I don’t know how she knew, being her first, but she did.
We dropped down towards the City of David, Bethlehem. It was quiet from a distance. Little lights shone out from the taverns. I can still remember the feeling that we’d arrived; I looked down and felt I was home. Such a feeling of peace.
Then we got closer and the noise began to drift up. The dream was destroyed. Drunks in the street, fights breaking out. There were too many people for this city to soak up, it was overcrowded, smelly and unpleasant.
A drunk fell against Branka and the donkey staggered, Mary nearly fell. I said something like ‘Careful mate’ and this guy rounded on me, red faced and angry. Drink does that to people kids, take note.” Joseph had never got so drunk he lost control; unlike many he had never hit his wife, nor come home late, full of booze and insisted on his conjugal rights. He was a good match for her. “Anyway he swung wildly and I hit him, hard. I would have hit him again, but Mary just said ‘No, leave him, no violence tonight’. And we walked on.
We tried The Blue Boar, The Emperor, The Two Birds. Even the whor-, I mean the lower, less respectable places. Every tavern was full. I was getting a little worried.”
“You were getting very worried” laughed Mary quietly
“I was, as your mother says, getting very worried” He stopped and spat into the fire and then continued “I looked up and her face will stay with me for ever. Water was running down the side of Branka and her face was in pain. But she just said ‘I’m sorry, I can’t wait. Let’s find a doorway’. I was born in a doorway, it isn’t pleasant I understand. Certainly not private for that kind of thing.” The youngest screwed his nose up in disgust and Mary hugged him. “I knocked at a rather good looking tavern, better than we were used to. By then I’d spend whatever we had and work out how we’d eat the next day. It had a proper stable behind rather than a field for the donkeys. As usual the tavern owner told me they were full but I told him I needed somewhere now or we’d be giving birth in his bar. He got the message and a servant girl took us to the back. To the stable!
I ask you, a stable! But as I say, it was a proper building, not just a shelter for the animals if it rained. It had stalls and hay and, more importantly, it was private. Nobody was coming out there, they were all drinking and pissing and fu-” another look told him not that detail, but the boys giggled like they knew anyway “in the bar”
So, there in the stable, and the animal bodies made it surprisingly warm, there your mother crouched down like it was the most natural thing in the world. Well, I suppose it is. And there was lots of mess and muck and groans and goo” The boys all screwed their noses up as if they could smell the smells “and finally there was a baby coming out onto the hay. I helped didn’t I?” Mary nodded “Not something many men have had to do, but I was proud to help in a little way. And ... well, grateful that I was going through it with her” Here he stopped and looked at her, his eyes glistened. He was a man’s man, but he loved this woman and still felt the pain that he’d heard in her voice as the baby had fought its way out.
“Well, the baby came and I cut the cord with this very knife, and I tied it and then I wiped the baby all over with clean hay while it mewled and squawled for its mother” Here was the cue for the younger two to leap on the older boy and tickle him, pretending to wipe him clean with hay.
“Then I wrapped him in some cloths” said Mary and hugged him close.
“Oh, but what about...”