Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Fulfillment

     Dust flew in little moats around Simon's sandal clad feet as he stepped into the only bit of shade he could find in the melting sun. This precious rectangle of cooler air was cast by a neighboring dwelling, its baked mud walls absorbing the piercing sun's rays and allowing the few who found it a break from the thermal oppression. On less busy days, Simon would meet John and Samuel here to talk together while business was slow. Though business was flourishing today and John and Samuel were not even in town, Simon came to this spot to catch his breath for a moment and watch the crowds.
     Some he recognized and many he didn't. Some he had known from infancy and others he faintly recalled from his childhood 30 years ago. By their ragged appearances, some had come a long way. By their lack of ability to pay for a room, some had come at great cost.
     The conversation that wafted in pieces through the dry air was lighthearted, excited recognitions and jovial greetings. Men clapped each other on the back and gesticulated animatedly to each other. The milder voices of the women wove through their more boisterous mate's. A child's high pitched squeal could be heard now and then as their parents snatched their fleeing bodies, trying to keep them from getting lost in the throngs. Simon listened in amusement to the natural rise and fall of conversation.
     In addition to the people, Simon enjoyed watching the animals. They were mostly beasts of burden carrying their master’s essentials to various destinations. A few local men led their sheep and goats through the dusty streets toward the stables. Stray chickens darted bravely between donkey legs and wagon wheels. Simon's favorite were the camels that towered above all else. Not bothered by the activity, their great striking eyes moved lazily over the crowded streets.
     A small wagon rumbled too close to his nose, startling him out of his reverie. He sighed. He must not take more than a minute here in the shade outside his inn. With all of the rooms full, there was much to attend to and the guests seemed to be particularly demanding. Miriam had been cooking since sunrise when the first travelers had arrived and would not stop until well after sundown. She would not have time to attend to the various requests of the guests or turn additional travelers, looking for a place to stay for the night, away. So, Simon took one last breath and turned back to the inn.
    It was late afternoon, the hottest point in the hottest day of the year so far. His guests moved sluggishly about the lower room with nothing more to do than wait for the coolness of evening. Sweat beaded on their brows and soaked their already grimy traveling cloaks. Simon glimpsed his wife, bent over the table finishing up the tenth loaf of bread, her long skirts covered in flour. Miriam’s face shown with perspiration as she smiled at him across the room. Despite the heat, the stress of extra travelers, and her rapidly expanding belly, Miriam could still light up the room with her smile. Simon grinned back, feeling the dry skin on his cheeks crack as he did so.
     “Papa! Papa!”
     A flying bundle of fabric and dirt smashed into his legs and peered up at him through long dark lashes. He pried the vice tight fingers from his cloak and held his daughter out at arm’s length. He couldn’t help but smile at the young animated face.
     A jumble of words poured out so fast from the little mouth that Simon could only laugh.
     “Slowly, Salome, slowly. Now what was that? Did Ananias get into the milk again?” Simon referred to his youngest son, who had been sneaking goats milk from the bucket.
     “No Papa! More people. Come see. Ananias said ‘come see’.” Salome spoke slowly and deliberately this time, her 3 year old voice stressing the very important mission she had been given.
     “Ah, more guests.” For the second time that afternoon, Simon sighed.
     He had already turned away seven sets of weary travelers, knowing they would not find another place to stay in the saturated town. In leaner times, it was Simon’s dream to have a full inn. Many times he had imagined the scene from this morning. Travelers formed a line at his door in hopes of obtaining a comfortable bed in one of his rooms. Coins clinked heavily in his purse, promising full stomachs for his children and wife. This morning had been good. But as the day wore on, turning away travelers had become tiring. Their disappointed faces told him that his inn had been their last hope of finding a place to rest their heads. Simon had referred them to the other inns but knew they were full also.
     “Come, Salome. Let’s go speak with these people.” Simon ruffled the dark hair on his daughter’s head. She bounced excitedly at his feet and started toward the door. Simon knew the activity was exciting for her. More people meant more playmates and she couldn’t get enough play.
     “One of them looks like Mama!” Salome shouted as she wrenched the door open. Simon caught Miriam’s eye and they exchanged a tired smile.
     Ananias stood just outside dutifully holding a rope that was attached to a donkey loaded with various sized bags. A man stood next to the donkey, his hand resting protectively on the back of a small woman next to him. Simon nodded to Ananias, proud of his son for holding the couple’s animal while they waited. Ananias straightened his head, as he caught his father’s approving look, and held tight to the rope.
     “See, Papa! Look, look! She looks like Mama! Maybe she will play with me?” Salome continued to bounce at his feet, pointing her finger toward the small woman.
     Simon did his best to pat Salome’s jumping head. “Alright, small one, that’s enough. Go find your sister and help her with the milking. Go on.” He gently pushed her back through the door and shut it, hearing her desperate pleas for the woman to play with her through its thickness.
     Wondering what Salome had meant, Simon briefly looked at the woman standing before him. Her face was round and youthful with wide brown eyes and a full mouth, nothing like his wife’s thinner, weathered, yet still beautiful one. In fact, there were very few similarities between Miriam and this woman save one. Like his wife, this woman was most obviously pregnant.
     So as not to be rude, Simon turned his gaze away from the woman to look at the man. He was anxious, that much was clear. His fingers nervously moved on his wife’s back and his kind dark eyes were watery in their desperation. The man opened his mouth to speak.
     Before he could ask, Simon spoke, “We are full.” The words were heavy in his mouth.
     Near panic overtook the desperate man's features. Instead of pleading, like most of the other travelers had resorted to this afternoon, the man dropped his head and began quietly talking to the stones at his feet. “The pains started on the road in. It is nearing dark and they are coming quicker.” As if to emphasize his point, the woman moaned and fell against the donkey. The man moved his hands helplessly over the woman’s shoulders, as the contraction overtook her. After a few long seconds her breathing slowed and she clutched her abdomen. The man took a small breath. “I know nothing of childbirth, but I know she cannot have the child in the street. What should we do?”
     His question was earnest and Simon couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. After seeing his wife through eight of his own children, he knew the helplessness that the man was experiencing. But what could he do? There was nothing. Nothing here. Nothing anywhere.
     “I’m sorry. The whole town is full of travelers. The best I can say is to find a field or a quiet place between buildings. I’m sorry, so sorry.” Simon shook his head.
     The man nodded and patted his wife’s arm. The woman was now leaning heavily on the donkey. Ananias handed the man the rope. The couple looked into each others eyes for a moment searching for answers. Simon turned back into the inn.
     These travelers were the hardest to turn away. The woman’s time was near, probably before nightfall, and Simon knew they would not find a suitable place to have the child. He contemplated letting them have he and Miriam’s bed, but couldn’t let his own pregnant wife sleep on the dirt floor. Unfortunate circumstances, he thought.
     Simon stepped next to his wife at the rough table and watched her knead the bread dough. Her skilled hands moved gracefully. She had done the motion so many times it was like breathing to her. She ordered the children at their chores and sang to their youngest daughter, just one year old, as she played with a piece of wood on the table. Miriam smiled up at Simon.
     “Another guest, my love?” Her soothing voice calmed his nerves a bit.
     “Yes. The woman was pregnant and her pains had begun. I hated to turn them away.”
     “That is your nature, Simon. You can not help everyone. God will provide.”
     Simon doubted that God would provide anything, save for the cover of the approaching night, but he didn’t voice his thoughts.
     He took a long drink of the wine on the table. His eldest daughter, eldest son, and Salome came in from the back door carrying the three milking pails. They sloshed with the fresh yellow milk of his two goats. The children were flushed from the heat. They set the pails next to their mother.
     “All in for the evening, Children?” Simon patted his son on the head with one hand and embraced his daughter with the other.
     “Yes, Papa.” His son answered. “The sheep have been fed, the goats milked, and the donkey tied up. Ananias is gathering the eggs.”
     “That’s fine. Very good.” Simon was very grateful for his children’s help, especially on such a busy day.
     “The stable is cooler than outside today, Papa. The animals were happy to be put in tonight.” His daughter sat on the earth next to the pails and started to draw circles in the floor with her finger.
     “Where is that woman, Papa? Is she going to play?” Salome tugged at Simons cloak. When he didn’t answer she continued pulling, “Papa? Papa! Papa! Papa!” But Simon continued to stare at his eldest daughter.
     “Simon bar Levi, your daughter is talking to you.” Miriam chastised him good naturedly.
     “I’ve had a thought, Miriam.” Simon detached Salome’s hand from his cloak and walked quickly toward the front entrance. Miriam looked after her husband, amused, then went back to her bread.
     The couple had not made it far. The woman was now leaning on the wall of his neighbors house, another contraction making it impossible for her to move. Simon let out the breath he had been holding and called to them. The man turned, startled from his concentration on his wife. Simon walked quickly to the man.
     “My stable. It is cooler there. It is not much, but it would be a shelter through the night. If you would, please take it.” As Simon offered up the stable, he hoped it wasn’t an insult to the man. His fears were quickly relieved as the man looked from his wife back to Simon, relief plainly on his face.
     “Yes, that will do. Thank you, Innkeeper, thank you.” The man fumbled with a purse at his side and presented a few coins. “We do not have much, as I am a carpenter by trade and this journey has cost much, but let us compensate you for your help.”
     Simon pressed all but one of the coins back into the man’s hand. “The stable is not fit for human dwelling and so I will not accept payment for it. But I will take this for food. My wife is finishing up bread. We will bring it to you later. Come with me.”
     The man, his wife and their donkey followed Simon to the back of the inn. Simon pointed up the hill. A few minutes’ walk would lead them to a stable. It was made from a cave in the hillside. The animals were in all but one of the stalls. Simon had put fresh straw in them a week ago. The innkeeper wished he could offer them more, but every blanket and scrap of cloth was being used in the inn tonight. Week old straw was all that would be there for the new mother and her child.
     Simon watched them move slowly up the hill to the stable. They had to pause for a minute while the woman had another contraction but eventually made it to their resting place. The sky was darkening as their traveling cloaks disappeared into the cave. Simon went back inside.
     Miriam had finished the bread and was now tending to their youngest who had poked herself with the stick she had been playing with. Great tears rolled down her little round face, streaking her cheeks. Miriam swayed back and forth with the squalling toddler, humming quietly. His other seven children were helping to tidy the lower room before the evening meal, laughing and talking about the camels they had seen in town. A few of his guests were sitting about the room, quietly carrying on conversation with each other. As the sun went down so did the heat, and everyone in the inn was relaxing.
     The evening meal was louder than usual with all of the extra guests. But Simon enjoyed the conversation and news from out of town. The children helped to clean up after the meal before going to their room to finish out the night reading or playing games together. Miriam was not done baking, however, as she needed to start the dough for the next day. While she did so, Simon spoke with the other men.
     The evening passed quickly. Simon had almost forgotten about the couple in his stable. But just as Miriam was finishing up for the night, he remembered. Fortunately, there was a half a loaf of bread and some goats milk left from the meal.
     “I need to take this up to the stable.” Simon told his wife as he gathered the bread and milk. When she looked at him inquiringly he explained how he had let the couple stay in the stable for the night.
     “My Simon.” Miriam said lovingly, “You are a good man.” She picked up the oil lamp from the table and handed it to her husband, “Let them keep it for the night. Come back to me soon.” She gave his arm a squeeze.
     The night was hot but a little cooler than the day. A slight breeze blew the stray hairs on his head as he started up the hill. The sky was so clear, each star twinkled brightly against the inky black of night. With no moon to distract from the stars, it was a wondrous sight. He walked slower than usual so that he could enjoy the peaceful night.
     A dim flicker of light came from the stable and all was quiet as he approached. The couple had tied their donkey to a rock and it lay chewing on a piece of grass at the entrance to the cave. It looked languidly at him through its huge dark eyes that reflected the stars. His animals were asleep inside, as he could hear the snores of their slumber.
     The man stepped out of the farthest stall back, a serene smile on his mouth as he greeted Simon. “The child is born.” He said quietly, the relief in his voice was palpable.
     “Very good,” Simon replied. “All is well then?”
     “All is well,” The man said. “Come see.” Simon hesitated, not wanting to disturb the young woman and new baby. “Come,” The man insisted.
     Simon moved farther into the stable, feeling warm and comfortable with all of the sleeping animals around him. This was a peaceful place at night. He handed the man the bread and milk. The man thanked him and led him into the stall.
     The feed trough sat against the back wall of the stall and was filled with hay from when the children had fed the animals earlier. A small oil lamp was propped against the wall, its light sending odd shadows against the cave walls. The woman sat next to the trough with her hand draped inside. Her hair was slicked back from sweat and a thin garment covered her body. Simon tried not to stare at the dark red stains on her skirts or the matted straw in the corner of the stall. Instead he focused on her face. He had seen his wife after the birth of their eight children and recognized the look of pure contentment that played across her features. An unintentional smile curved her full lips. Her brown eyes were soft and distant as she looked up at him.
     She spoke briefly, seemingly satisfied with little conversation. “Here he is. Thank you for the use of your stable."
     Simon moved closer to the woman and peered into the trough. The newborn was still pinkish blue from the passage into this world. His was face slightly swollen and red. But he was sleeping contentedly, wrapped in cloths. The woman had found the cleanest hay and arranged it under his tiny body. She was slowly moving her thumb around the baby’s head, playing with the dark hair that lay haphazardly on his smooth forehead. The baby moved his rosebud lips in sleep and the woman murmured something unintelligible in the calm cadence of a mother. Simon looked at the man. He was smiling happily at his wife and new son.
     “Beautiful,” Simon said quietly. “You have been blessed.”
     “Yes,” The woman said. “We have.”
     “What is the child's name?” Simon asked.
     “Jesus.” The woman replied, her voice caressing the word.
     They sat in silence for a moment watching the sleeping infant. After a while, Simon moved to leave, placing his oil lamp near the woman. “Stay here as long as you need. I’m afraid it won’t be as quiet here in the morning, but we will try to leave you in peace as much as is possible.” Simon nodded to the couple. “Enjoy the bread. God be with you.”
     “God be with you. Thank you.” The man replied and turned back to his wife.
     Simon checked on his sleeping animals as he walked to the entrance of the stable. He was counting his goats as he exited and so didn’t notice the men that stood at the mouth of the cave. They were dark figures silhouetted against an even darker sky. Four in number, they smelled strongly of lanolin, cook fire smoke, wind and sun. Frightening in their size, Simon stepped back and made a startled noise.
     “Peace, Man.” One of the dark figures said. “We come to see the baby.”
     “Th-the baby?” Simon tried to recover his wits.
     “He is here, right? They said he would be.” Another deeper voice spoke from the dark.
     “Ah, yes. There is a baby here,” Simon stuttered. “Do they know you are coming?”
     “No, but we are here to see the savior.” The man said.
     Simon was trying to think of something to say but didn’t have the time to answer before the men pushed past him into the cave. There was no protest from the couple as the men entered the stall and told them they were there to see the baby. Although the men were not expected, the couple was not surprised to see them. The situation perplexed Simon, but he did not feel it was his business to intrude on the odd meeting. He glanced warily back at the stall before he stepped out into the night.
     As he walked, Simon continued to see the face of the new mother as she looked lovingly at her tiny child. No emotion he had seen before compared to that of a mother studying her new baby. He thought about each of his children, his unborn child, and what a gift each was.
     He was very happy that he had offered the stable. He shuddered to think of the baby sleeping in a field with no shelter but the night. Something Miriam had said earlier popped into his mind. He smiled when he remembered what he had thought when she said it. He never had been a man of very much faith. Once again though, his wife had been right.
     “God will provide.”

No comments:

Post a Comment