A chilling wind tugged at the dark curls escaping from her scarf. She shivered and pulled the wool cloak tighter around her shoulders.
Her ankles throbbed. Her back ached. She couldn’t get enough breath, and a little squeeze at the back of her throat threatened to become tears of misery.
But not tonight.
Tonight Beit Lechem would be lit by a hundred lamps to honor the miracle of dedication.
Families would exchange gifts of fruit and twist breads, like the kind she watched her grandmother make when she was a child.
She would send the children out in the morning to collect nuts and berries, then knead them into the lump with her callused hands.
“Do you know why we light a lamp tonight,” she would ask.
“No Savta, tell us.”
Her voice was soft, but every year, her words carried Miriam and her brothers to a time of miracles. A time when oil burned for eight days. A time when Adonai gave men such as Yehuda Maccabi the courage of Melech David to defeat the Greeks.
While her strong fingers, now twisted with age, worked the bread, her dark eyes would shine like onyx as she saw visions of her people’s former glory on the plaster wall.
Miriam’s older brother who said he was too old for stories after his Bar Mitzvah, leaned against the door frame, his eyes shining with enthusiasm.
“Will Adonai anoint another Melech David, Savta?”
“Yes, Ya’akov, he will. Someday.” She sighed. “But will he find an army willing to stand with him?”
She grunted and slammed a fist into the dough.
“We have an Edomite pretending to be king. We have a high priest who bought his most holy office for a pile of gold. We have Jews who are less Jew then the Samaritans, and Theudas robs more Jewish merchants then Roman convoys.”
Ya’akov was silent for a time.
“I think – I know I would be brave enough.”
A wistful smile crossed her thin lips.
“Then I pray he will come soon.”
❧ ❧ ❧
Ya’akov’s voice had shook and cracked when he’d read from the Scriptures before the congregation the first time a month before. Miriam had pushed through the crowd of women to watch him through the lattice.
His back was rigid and his eyes never left the page, but when he handed the scroll back to the Rabbi, he was failing to conceal a crocked grin.
At the feast that night, Abba beamed and Ima wept and Ya’akov did not stop grinning.
He wore that grin the day they’d rounded up the chickens together – yelling and flapping their arms. He wore that grin the day they used his knife to cut bows from the bushes and then strung them with wool thread.
They’d faced the Romans, two against a thousand, but just as Yonatan defeated the Philistines with his armor bearer, they chased them into the sea. They would have purged the land of traitors and half breeds, but Ya’akov had to help Abba with the cows and Ima needed Miriam to fetch water for the evening meal.
They shared a secret grin when Abba scolded them for taking so long to clear the bushes away.
But Ya’akov’s grin was locked tight away, sealed behind bars of righteous indignation and distain, the day he told her to leave.
“Go to Elisheva,” he said. “And don’t come back.”
“ Ya’akov. Please – .”
“No Miriam. You flaunted Adonai’s law and now you blaspheme his name.”
Pressure gripped her middle, then twisted violently, pulling her mind into the present. She doubled over and let out a sharp cry.
Yosef spun around and reached to support her.
“Are they getting stronger? Should we stop for a spell?”
His voice shook. He was as nervous as she was.
The pain released and she straightened.
“Let’s keep going. If we stop, we may never make it.”
He nodded, his brown eyes clouded with concern, and offered her his arm. She stepped into it and he reached around her waist, supporting her with his body.
She closed her eyes and focused on placing one painful swollen foot in front of another. As the birth pains subsided, the other aches from the road and pregnancy returned. She rested her head against his shoulder. It was hard from years of lifting house beams and cutting through hardwood. He smelled of sweat and the dust from a week of walking.
The overwhelming urge to cry washed over her again.
The other foot.
The lights. The town would be lighting them in all the windows just as they arrive. One, then more will flare into existence as one family after another light the first of eight lamps. Eight days to celebrate the oil that would not run out and a flame that would not die.
She loved the first moment every year when the cold Natzrat night was invaded by a sea of lamps. The light would spill from the windows and flicker on the streets. They told her young soul that the days of miracles would come again. They whispered a promise of Adonai’s unfailing love for his people.
Every year, her family would be together, and the children would be given toys she and Ima had secretly worked on for weeks.
The children –
Her heart lurched as she pictured little Ameil’s face. His large brown eyes were puckered and three large tears slid down his brown cheeks. He reached out one chubby hand to pull her to him, but Ima held the other in a grasp tight enough to turn her knuckles white.
“Mir-am,” he bellowed in his tiny voice. “Mir-am!”
Ima just kept walking, dragging him along behind her. Her face was set like stone, her eyes did not flick toward Miriam once.
She could hear Ameil all the way down the street.
The women around her clucked their tongues and whispered while she stood stunned by the well.
Then the tears came, and she fled. Down the road, out of Natzrat.
She sat on the rocky ground and wept, her knees clutched against her chest. That was where Yosef found her.
“R’phael told me.”
She didn’t answer or look up when he sat down beside her. Only when she felt his hand on her shoulder, did she finally meet his concerned gaze.
“This is how Adonai shows favor?”
“The angel. He said I was favored by Adonai.”
Yosef sighed and focused on a point far away.
“I – don’t know.”
She really should be thanking him. He’d seen a steady drop in business since he took her into his home. The day before, she’d seen Ya’akov cross to the other side of the street to avoid him.
Iron hands gripped her belly, and Miriam gasped, clutching Yosef’s arm. He instantly stopped walking and held her until it subsided.
“Are you –?”
“Keep going,” she panted. “We have to.”
“Just over the next rise. We’ll be there before it’s truly dark.”
One step. One more step.
The lights. She wanted to be there. She needed to see them this year more then anything. She needed to feel Adonai’s whisper that everything will get better.
They stopped at the top of the rise. Beit Lechem lay below her wreathed in the growing darkness. People hurried through the streets. They all wanted to be home for the lighting of the lamp.
So did she.
Yosef’s family. She would be with them.
The pain came with a rush of warm liquid this time. It ran down her legs, dampening her tunic and turning the dust on her filthy sandals to mud.
❧ ❧ ❧
Yosef supported her with one arm and pounded on the wood door to his father’s house with the other.
A man with a full beard opened. Lamp light and voices spilled out and cascaded over her. She could smell fresh bread and hear children’s laughter. She fought the urge to weep with joy.
They were home.
The man’s smile vanished from his face when the light fell on Yosef’s face.
“You.” His eye flicked down to Miriam. “Do you have no shame? You appear with her on this night?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You thought we wouldn’t hear about it?”
“Ori, Miriam’s in labor. She needs a midwife. Now.”
“So Adonai’s judgement can fall on this house too.”
She stared at him, trying to not understand what he was saying. From inside came the voice of a young man, raised in psalm of thanksgiving.
“There is no room for you or for that child here.”
This was not home. They were not welcome.
He slammed the gate shut, latching it. The street went dark and silent. Dead.
A light began to glow from a visible window. Then the lamp was set on the sill, and its shifting threads of light reached out into the night.
He stared blankly at the closed gate, stricken. She gripped his arm
Across the street, two more lamps appeared. The lights accumulated and grew, each one adding to the others.
There was no whisper of Adonai in them. Just the laughter of the shedim, mocking her for ever trusting him.
The pain pushed her to her knees.
He spun from the door and knelt beside her, his arms around her shoulders as the pain held her tight.
“Someone will help. I grew up with these people.”
They all knew him, and had all heard. No one wanted to risk sharing in Adonai’s punishment, should he feel vengeful.
Miriam huddled against the wall of a house, wrapped in her and Yosef’s cloaks against the night wind, finally sobbing.
She wanted to be warm and safe with her ima and abba. She wanted the pain to end.
She had trusted in Adonai’s promises. She had submitted to his will. Where was the angel now? Where was the light of his promise?
Yosef appeared out of the darkness, gasping for breath.
“There is something. A lambing cave, just out of town. A beggar told me.”
He held out a hand and pulled her upright. Slowly, they shuffled out of Beit Lechem. The cruel lights now behind. Silent tears slid down her cheeks.
The cave’s sandy floor was strewn with gravel and dried sheep manure. A stone feeding trough ran through the middle of the shelter.
Yosef knelt and brushed an area clear of pellets and rocks for her to lie in. She pulled the cloaks around her, trying to stop shivering.
He helped her to lie down and tucked the cloaks around her, placing the almost-empty satchel under her head.
“I’ll try to find a fire.”
The time he was gone passed slowly. She tried not to think at all. To not feel at all.
Yosef’s return with an armful of wood and a firebrand woke her out of a doze.
“I found a group of shepherds. They gave me some of their wood and fire.”
She heard what he said as he scooped together a pile of sheep dung and placed the wood over it, but she heard through a haze. The world had narrowed to the squeezing, twisting pain, and the exhaustion.
Only about half the smoke escaped out the cave mouth. The other half filled the air with a chocking haze. But it was warm.
She felt her body relaxing as the heat began to flow through her.
“What – what can I do?”
Her eyes focused on Yosef’s worried face. The poor man had never been near a birth before. He was no midwife. He was no mother or sister. But he was a shoulder to lean on.
“Help me onto my knees.”
The waiting began as she propped herself up, leaning on him.
Not until much later did she think about how tired he must have become kneeling there, holding both his weight and hers, but he did it all. He was there to catch the child. He was there to hold her skirt and keep it as dry as possible. He was there to dispose of the afterbirth. He did what no man should ever do, and he never complained.
The pain griped her, then slowly released.
“Is it worth it?”
He shifted so he could look into her eyes.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about the old stories. I wonder if Melech David ever asked.”
He paused as the pain consumed her again. He wiped her forehead.
“Sha’ul wanted to kill him because Adonai had anointed him. He hid in a cave, far from his family.”
“I loved this festival. The gifts. The lights. The food. And,” she started sobbing. “I – I thought –.”
He massaged the small of her back.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She screamed as the pain cut through her like a knife.
“I just don’t understand,” she choked. “I just –.”
She buried her face in his shoulder. Only when she looked up again did she see that he was weeping too.
“Neither do I.”
He came splotched red and purple. His face was pinched and distorted. Mucus filled his closed eyes, ears and nose. And he was the most beautiful thing Miriam had ever seen when Yosef handed him to her, dried and wrapped in his travel stained cloak.
Her heart surged with more emotion then she knew one person could take and still live. She wanted to dance and shout and sing.
She wanted to sleep.
She wanted to show him to Ima and her sisters and cousins. She wanted the world to come running to see him.
But they were alone with the dark night.
Sobs gripped her chest.
“You are exhausted.”
She shook her head.
“I want Ima. I want her to see how beautiful he is.”
Yosef placed a hand on her shoulder.
He eased the sleeping bundle from her arms and placed the newborn in the feeding trough. She lay back, hiccuping.
Her tunic was cold and wet. The metallic smell of blood hung in the air, mixed with something more. Every piece of clothing they owned needed to be washed.
That was when the first head appeared in the cave mouth. A smooth-faced youth with muddy cheeks flushed from running.
The heavy, damp smell of sheep hung about him and the tunic he wore like a cloud.
His eyes grew round, and a huge grin spread across his face.
“I found him,” he shouted to other figures approaching.
They pressed into the cave, carrying the smell of sheep, dirt, and unwashed bodies.
Yosef jumped up to stand over her and the child.
“What is this?”
An old shepherd with filmy eyes and skin like leather gazed down at the sleeping infant.
“Is this the child?”
“What child are you looking for?”
“The angels told us the Mashiach was born this night and is lying in a trough. Is this him?”
Miriam pushed stiffly up to her knees. Her body felt as if her insides had been yanked out and then shoved back in.
“Yes. It is he.” Her voice caught. “Angels?”
He nodded, grinning with every dirt-lined crease.
“They were all across the sky. They came to us! Us! We would have not dared to look for him –.” He shrugged. “But they said he was in a feeding trough, so we figured we wouldn’t be turned away.”
Tears began to glimmer in his eyes as he gazed at the little bundle.
“So many years.” He placed a grimy but soft hand on her head, caressing. “You are most blessed of women.”
A tear slid down toward his matted beard.
“What will his name be?”
Miriam held his warm gaze, as the shepherds swirled around her, dancing, singing, laughing. Then she too began to weep.
She was not alone.
Then the old shepherd seemed to see her soiled cloaks and robe for the first time.
“You both should not be here.” He glanced around the cave. “This is no place for the child. My house is little better, but Hadassah is there.”
He turned to Yosef, bursting with enthusiasm.
“Come at once. We will carry her on our cloaks. You must not dishonor me by refusing.”
Yosef smiled through his own tears.
“I would be honored to be your guest this night sir.”
❧ ❧ ❧
A solitary lamp glimmered in the shepherd’s window, as Miriam lay on the soft, dry mat. The infant nestled against her heart breathed softly.
One flame, bright with Adonai’s promise this night.