catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 23 :: 2010.12.17 — 2010.12.30


The woman's story

Editor’s note: “The woman’s story” is part two in a series of three stories.  Read part one, “Heli’s story,” here.

It all started, I guess, when they announced the census. It was an unwelcome announcement, I would say, for most people, even though it sounded innocent enough: “An edict of Caesar Augustus, savior and deliverer, son of a god, pontifex maximus: a decree of Senate was passed that all the world shall be taxed. To that end all men shall return to the city of their fathers.” Underneath such a simple command the whole history of our village lay buried: the stories of years of fighting and famine, the stories of ever harsher taxation and extortion, the stories of farms lost, of young men disappearing overnight to join the bandits, or fleeing to Galilee to find work and anonymity. And now, a census, the empire’s attempt to track all those who were evading her control.

But it wasn’t really bad news for us. You see, we own a small property on the edge of Bethlehem, my husband and I, and we have a guest courtyard for travellers. Not really an inn, nothing quite as nice as that, but enough space for pilgrims going to Jerusalem to find safe sleeping space within our walls, even if they are a little crowded on the ground. 

So we knew that we would do okay because of this census. There was bound to be an influx into Bethlehem; so many young men had left over the last ten years. And, of course, there were no familial lands for them to return to — most of their families dead or enslaved or themselves fled. They would be obliged to seek shelter with the likes of us. And that’s who we take in: the peasants, the dregs, those with almost nothing. There are so many of them that we do just fine.

A week or two later they started coming. Some we recognized, some not. All needing a place to stay for the census. And then they kept coming and kept coming. So many displaced! So many refugees! And, of course, it was more people than the town could handle. So Herod sent more soldiers, and the streets became volatile, tensions running high between Rome and the returned landless peasants, who really had nothing to lose.

And we were full up. No one wants to spend the nights on the streets beneath the soldier’s boots. Soon we had not another square foot in the courtyard to lay one weary head. And, of course, that’s when they arrived.

My husband spoke to them first, but I was hovering in the background and that’s probably why I realized who it was before he did. I pulled him back into the gate as soon as I heard him saying, “Sorry, we’ve no room left. You’ll have to try elsewhere.”

“Do you know who that was?” I whispered.

“No,” he said.

“It’s Joseph, remember? Heli’s son. He helped rebuild the west wall with our Morry that year, remember?”

“Yes,” my husband said, heavily, “I remember. But we have no room. And he had his woman with him. She looked to be with child.”

I thought for a minute. “What about the stable? There are only a few beasts and it was mucked out a couple of hours ago. There is some clean straw in the back corner and they’ll be off the streets there.”

My husband looked at me searchingly. “It means so much to you to put this boy up?”

I knew he was thinking of Morry, our son, who disappeared four years ago. His friends found his body outside the city gates, tortured and crucified. Would it be safe to take this young man in?

“Okay,” he said, finally, “But I don’t know him. His wife is with child and needs a place. That’s all. You call them back.”

It was almost the end of the first watch of the night before I heard the crying. At first I didn’t know where it was coming from, but then I realized that it was the stable. And I wasn’t the only one it had awakened. One of the travellers, a woman, came to find me.

“That sounds,” she said, “like a woman in childbirth. Have you any water and clean cotton rags?”

So began one of the strangest nights of my life. Not the birth itself. That was straightforward enough. And quick! She had walked for almost a week, it turned out, from Galilee — enough to provoke any birth. But when I chided Joseph for allowing her to undertake such a journey in her last month she interrupted between groans, “He…had…to be born in …Bethlehem. I had…to come. This…is the one…who will sit…on the throne of…David.”

“Hush, woman,” said Joseph, quickly. And then to me, “You must forgive her, she is delirious. We thought we had more time before the child was due. Please, do not repeat what she has said.”

And I promised. I knew where talk of the throne of David would end, in the same fate that my son had suffered.

But after — after the crying, the sweat, the blood, when a fine baby boy had wailed his first thin cry into the night air and we’d washed him and wrapped him and put him in the feeding trough, for lack of anything else off the ground and out of the draughts — after all else, they named him. And I knew that I wasn’t to hear, but I did.

“Jesus,” said Joseph, “According to the word of the angel of the Lord.”

Jesus! The ancient name of salvation, Joshua, Yahweh saves! This child was named in the hope of salvation. I didn’t dare ask about the angel.

But that wasn’t the end of it. About an hour later I had just finished washing the rags from the birth, when I saw a group of men skulking along our sidewall.

“What do you want?” I called, knowing my husband was close behind.

“Well, um, we heard there was a baby born here and we wanted to see it.”

“What?!” I wasn’t letting them go any further; the child would be safe here at least.

As I got closer I realized that it was a bunch of shepherds (actually, I smelled them before I got close). And I recognized most of them: Nat, Izzy, Morry and Heli.  Heli. Joseph’s father.

Before I could question them they spilled out some bizarre story about angels singing and announcing a Messiah, a Savior, who would be lying in a feeding trough. Well, what could I do? There couldn’t be that many babies named “Yahweh saves” lying in feeding troughs around Bethlehem. So I let them in.

But I didn’t follow. Somehow, this didn’t seem to be my story. This story of angels and songs and a birth of hope for our people. I have a business to run. I have no time for such hope. It seemed to belong to them: Heli, the shepherd and Joseph, his son. A refugee couple, their baby and a bunch of motley shepherds from the hills.

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