(Continued from Part 1)
We’ve seldom stopped at all; each day feels longer than the previous. As soon as shadows fall too far across, I balk. Joseph rids me of my load and I dive to the ground, then roll onto my back to scratch. While he and Mary settle, I look for fruity bramble. They have packed straw for me to chew in areas too bare to graze, as well as good hay for my meals. Young Mary also shares her figs with me whenever she has some. We have left the people’s quarrel (and some of her fear) behind us, but if she sits near during rests, I munch on pieces of her hair to make her laugh. Oh, blackberries!
Nights are cooler than days, but colder times are still ahead. The storm I predicted passed us yesterday. We breakfast at dawn and take to the road by sunrise. Near noon, after the sun has stilled above our heads, Joseph lifts Mary to my back so she may rest her feet. That is when I am best behaved. She sits with her legs to the side and (I think) wraps one hand over the growing moon of her belly, as she now always does. I slow my pace, to ensure she will not slide off, and survey every stretch of ground. But Mary never rides for long, and Master Joseph never once. He picks dandelions for me when he sees them.
“Ahton, we have reached Bethlehem,” Joseph tells me days later, brushing the bridge of my nose. As he would not let us through Samaria, we walked along the eastern side of the river, down the left-hand bank. Mary rewards me with stalks of sparrow grass while Joseph arranges lodging. Soon, he shows me through a courtyard and into a pen. There is a water trough between two pillars and, facing it, a manger of fodder. I curl my lip and sniff big gulps of air before treading the trampled straw—which is kept rather manure-free—to meet the enclosure’s residents. One black cow, one piebald goat, and some sleepy-looking but pugnacious chickens (their upper beaks are trimmed). They are discussing our presence. I feign not to hear and they seem to believe it, despite the length of my ears.
For weeks I have sensed that a change was near. I was right. After a night of agony, Mary has birthed a little Boy, to be called Jesus on the eighth. Everyone who heard His cries seemed blissful and in awe. Some shepherds came to us; they bowed and wept, then left. He is now wrapped in swaddling clothes and lies in our manger as in a cradle, for there was no room left to spare. Mary was never so tired as she is now. She sits beside me with a face that glows like tinted glass—as though candles were lit behind it.
For a moment, this strange feeling almost made me forget the hay now out of reach beneath the Child. Still, how glad I am to have come along!
(Continue in Part 3)
- Book: “This Book Will Make You Kinder” by Henry James Garett
- Scripture: Matthew 1
Art illustration by Karen Koh