Saturday, December 25, 2004
the strangers in town
***a story i've had in mind to write for years now...***
*it occurs to me that i should include a sensitivity warning on this story, as it describes a childbirth. i tried to be tactful, but some may still find the part about the birth a bit too... well... icky*
Oy! What a mess, what a mess! Too many relatives, all crammed into the house, spilling out into the yard...
Rivkah was making bread as fast as her well-practiced hands could move. Dvorah was stirring the soup; Miryam was working on the vegetables. Busy, busy, busy!
And all because of that Emperor, miles and miles away in Rome. Hmph! Him and his census, sending everyone in Judea back to their ancestral hometowns to be registered. Bethlehem was bristling with people here for the census, and so was Rivkah's own house. So many relatives!
Just for a few days, she reminded herself. A few more days, and they would finish with the registering, and then all the house guests could go back to their own homes.
'At least,' Rivkah muttered under her breath, 'no one's close to having a baby just now. That would really be too much!' There were a handful of young mothers-to-be that she knew of, but none close to their time, not at the moment. To be called out right now to attend a birth... Oy!
Quickly, quickly, Rivkah finished making the loaves and set them aside to rise. She draped a cloth over them and looked about. What next needed doing? 'Miryam...' she began, turning towards her younger daughter.
When a breathless young face appeared at the doorway. 'Where's the midwife? We need the midwife, up at the inn!'
The boy from the inn led the way back, chattering all the way. A young couple, he said, here for the census. The wife was impressively huge. The inn-keeper had turned them away, since the inn was full and then some for the census. But they were so young, and so pitiable...
'So Moishe sent them out back to the stable,' the boy was explaining. 'Better than nothing, and no need to clear half the inn to make it private enough for... well, you know...'
Rivkah nodded. Yes, you didn't want any men present for this. And most of the inn was little more than one huge room, the floor lined with pallets each night. The stable though...!
'Here we are,' said the boy. He stopped short of the door, not wanting to get too close to where a woman was in labor. That was for other women, not for men, not for boys.
Rivkah bustled forward and called out at the stable door. The door sprang open, and a young and anxiously frazzled man peered out. 'You're the midwife?' he asked. 'Please say yes.'
She muffled her smile. 'Yes,' she said. 'I'm the midwife. I'm called Rivkah. It's your wife in labor, I'm guessing?'
'Yes.' The young man held the door open for her to come in. Spotting the boy beyond, he nodded his thanks to him for fetching the midwife here. The boy nodded back, then hurried away, back to the inn, back to safety.
Closing the door, the young man said, 'I am Yoseph, and Miryam is over here...'
Miryam. The same name as her younger daughter. Rivkah followed along past the stalls of oxen and horses. There, in the backmost corner, there was a young woman, sitting in a freshly swept patch of floor, her head down, deeply involved in her labor.
Oy, so young, so young! Hardly older than her own Miryam! Setting down her bag and the birthing stool she had hurriedly brought with her, Rivkah rushed to the mother-to-be's side.
Young Miryam looked up, dazed, confused - startled even - at the appearance of this strange woman. 'This is the midwife,' Yoseph murmured soothingly to her. 'She is Rivkah.'
'Rivkah...' the young woman repeated. 'Good day to you. I apologize for not rising to greet you...'
Rivkah smiled. 'It's all right, Miryam,' she said. 'Everything is going to be all right. Did not the Blessed One promise us, through Isaiah, that He does not bring the time of birthing without causing us as well to bring forth? Now...' And Rivkah glanced about. 'Yoseph. Is there water?'
'I can fetch some.'
'Please do. Some water, to bathe your wife's face right now. And to heat up, to bathe your baby once it's here.'
Yoseph nodded and went for water. Rivkah opened her bag and brought out a large cloth. With a snap of her wrists, she spread the cloth on the floor and then helped Miryam to move on top of it. Much better. More comfortable. Murmuring, half-praying, half-soothing, the midwife sat with the laboring woman, holding her hand, talking her through the fright of the pangs, watching the signs in Miryam's face and manner, gauging how soon it would be now.
Yoseph came back with the water. He hunkered down near to his wife, touching her face gently. 'Miryam?'
There was something so sweet, so protective, in his way towards his wife! Rivkah had to blink away tears. And Miryam - ah, how she leaned into that touch! Oh, such a sweet love there was between this pair!
'She's all right?' This question he posed to Rivkah.
'Oy, of course she is. We women have been doing this since Eve. No need to fret - though you men have been fretting through the births since Adam, I'll be bound! She'll be fine. Just fine. No worries, my son. Just prayers, yes?'
His eyes locked with hers and he smiled. 'Ah. Once again, the Blessed Father shows His hand, leading to us a praying midwife!' And he relaxed, visibly.
And mostly to himself, he added, 'He has been leading us, every step of this way...'
'Where are you from?' Rivkah asked.
'A long way from here. Nazareth.'
Rivkah blinked. 'In Galilee? That is a long way!'
'Very long. Especially for Miryam. But the Emperor will have his way, won't he?' A rueful smile. And then, very softly, not intended for the midwife's ears, he added, 'How little the August one would guess, how his orders bring about the will of the Blessed...'
But Rivkah did catch his odd words. She frowned, and began to ask him what he was talking about...
...when Miryam seized her hand hard and bowed herself for another pang.
This was moving fast now. The pangs were coming quickly on young Miryam. Rivkah held her hand while she gently bathed the sweat from the soon-to-be-mother's face.
Yoseph had made a fire to start the water heating, and was now pacing, up and down, back and forth, all along the long row of stalls, his prayer shawl round his shoulders, his fingers twisting the tassels as he poured forth his prayers.
The latest pang released its hold, and Miryam sagged against the midwife. Lifting her tired eyes to Rivkah's face, the young mother whispered, 'I can't do this much more.'
Rivkah smoothed a sweaty strand of hair back from Miryam's face. 'You won't have to much more, my daughter. This part is nearly done now. And you're doing very well. And soon...' She pointed at the birth stool she had brought with her. '...you'll be pushing. And then comes the baby.' Rivkah smiled. And Miryam did her weary best to smile back.
Yoseph's pacing brought him back to this far corner. 'How goes it?' he asked.
'It goes very well,' said Rivkah. 'Your wife is nearly ready to start pushing, and your baby nearly ready to be born.'
Rivkah smiled patiently. Many a time had she dealt with a new father like this young man. Why would a man know what birth would be like? 'Yes,' said she. 'Her body will tell her to push the baby out. And that's what she will do.'
'Oh.' He stood there, wavering. 'Do I stay? or go?'
'This is your baby. It is up to you, what you want to do.'
'My baby,' he repeated. And gave such an odd smile, and a sound that might have been a laugh. 'Miryam? What do you want me to do?' he asked.
What an odd question! Rivkah thought. How many men did she know, who would ask their wives such a question?
But Miryam did not give an answer. Instead, she bowed herself under another strong pang. 'Yoseph!' she whispered. And then spoke no more.
He sprang to her side, grasped her hand. This one was the most powerful yet! And again the oddness struck Rivkah - how quietly Miryam was taking this, barely crying out through the anguish of even the hardest part of labor.
The pang seemed to last forever. And towards the end, the exhausted young woman began to make little grunting noises. When at last Miryam relaxed, Rivkah asked her, 'Feeling the need to push, my daughter?'
'That's what it felt like, yes,' she answered.
The midwife nodded. 'Time for the stool then.'
Together, she and Yoseph helped Miryam to get up and sit on the stool. The young man ran a hand over the wooden stool, his practiced eye examining the workmanship. 'I've never made one of these before,' said he. 'But I see what the idea is. The cut-out in the seat, to let the baby come through. And the little rests here, halfway up the legs in front?'
'For her to rest her feet on, as she pushes. You are a carpenter, my son?'
A nod. 'Yes.'
'And looking forward to your new apprentice here, I'll be bound,' Rivkah joked.
'New appren...? Oh! The baby.'
'If it's a boy, that is.'
'Oh, he's a boy. Miryam's firstborn son.' And he gazed fondly again on his wife.
'Oh, now. Might be a girl, you know...'
Yoseph shook his head. 'Not this baby. We've been told, both of us, that this one is a boy. And told by... by those who would know for sure. Right, Miryam?'
'Little Yeshua,' she murmured in reply.
Rivkah's eyebrows arched across her forehead. 'Ah! Salvation of the Blessed One. That's a good name you've picked out.'
An exchange of glances between the young couple. 'That's the name his Father chose for him, yes,' said Miryam. And then her eyes widened. 'Oh! This feels different,' she said. And then she brought her feet up onto the little rests, and she puuuuuuuushed.
She had grabbed Yoseph's hand, so he stayed at her side. Rivkah moved around to kneel in front, a cloth held ready in her hands. Not that she expected the baby to arrive in just one push; not with a first-time mother, especially. But this was her place now, and she got her hands into position. She also ducked her head a bit to have a look. Sometimes the cord would come first. You didn't want that, of course. It was something to watch for.
The waters were still intact. She could see them, beginning to bulge out...
Rivkah was so startled by what she was seeing that she literally fell over backwards. Yoseph, his one hand still firmly in his wife's laboring grasp, tried with the other hand to catch the midwife.
Too late. Stunned, she sat down hard on the hard-packed floor and gazed round-eyed at this couple before her. Her hand, quite on its own, came up and pointed at Miryam.
'She's...' Rivkah cried, still not quite able to believe what she was saying, 'she's a virgin!'
'You can tell?' said Yoseph.
'Tell? Of course I can tell! That's a hymen, and perfectly intact, or I'm a, a Roman soldier!' Gathering her wits, as well as her feet under her, Rivkah managed to stand up. 'But how can this be? Pregnant, and a virgin?'
'You know what Isaiah said.' That was Miryam. The first push past now, she was leaning back against Yoseph.
Oy. Yes, yes, Rivkah did know what Isaiah said. About a virgin conceiving and bearing a son. 'Immanuel,' the woman whispered, 'G-d with us...'
'Yes,' said Yoseph. 'Exactly.'
Rivkah shook her head. 'But how? How could... No offense, my son, and none of my business either... But how on earth did you - oy! - did you get that baby in there without breaking your wife's hymen?'
They exchanged looks. Blushed. Joined hands.
'I didn't,' said Yoseph.
Rivkah was taken aback. 'You didn't? This isn't your baby? But you two - you are so loving towards each other. And this is another man's baby she carries?'
'Not another man's, no,' said Miryam. And she bowed herself into the next push.
Rivkah, baffled, got back into her place. The waters still had not broken. The hymen was bulging as well, the delicate skin stretching under a pressure no other hymen had ever known - the pressure of a baby bearing down on it. Not Yoseph's baby? And not another man's baby either? Then whose baby was this? the midwife wondered.
She held the questions till Miryam relaxed again. And then, then she asked.
'Who is his Father?' Yoseph echoed. And again the exchange of glances.
It was Miryam who gave the answer. 'The Holy Ghost came upon me,' she said softly, demurely, 'and the power of the Highest overshadowed me. And so this holy thing which shall be born of me - He shall be called the Son of G-d.'
It was a birth like no other. On the third push, the hymen broke, torn in two from the inside, a thing never before done nor seen. The waters broke. And soon the baby came. Slick as usual - pink as usual - plump and healthy, praises be to the Blessed One! Rivkah received him into a cloth and wrapped him quickly against the sudden chill of the outside air on his wet skin. Once the afterbirth came out as well, she settled into the regular routine. The cutting of the navel cord, the washing of the infant, the salting. She was about to do the swaddling as well, when Miryam appeared at her shoulder.
'Up already?' Rivkah asked, stunned.
The new mother smiled. 'I want to do this,' she said. 'Show me how to wrap him.'
And so the midwife helped Miryam to swaddle her new-born son. Taking him up, Miryam put the baby to her breast and ah! the little one began readily to suckle.
Miryam went back to sit alongside Yoseph. They leaned together, looking in rapture on their little son. Rivkah sighed in satisfaction. Such a sweet smile there was on the face of the new mother! And such a proud and relieved smile on the face of the fa...
Of the father. And now Rivkah frowned, thinking. They all looked so perfectly normal now, the three of them. Had any of this strangeness really taken place?
Turning away, the midwife threw herself into the task of cleaning up everything from the birthing. The remaining hot water she used to wash up from all the liquids of the birth - and frowned again at that unique stain of blood from the breaking of the hymen. Blood was usual for a birth - but not that blood!
She gathered all that was her own and packed up, ready to go on her way back home. Glanced over at the happy little family again. Yoseph was busy at the manger there in the corner. And what, she wondered, was he doing?
Ah! Having filled the manger with the cleanest straw he could find, he turned to Miryam and helped her to get up and settle the now-sleeping babe into this little nest he had made. Sweet looks again passed between the two of them, the man and his wife.
Rivkah pushed a tear away from her cheek. And gathered up her bag and the birthing stool. Time to go.
'What do we owe you?' Yoseph asked.
'Owe?' Her usual fee for midwiving quite flew from her head. 'Just keep on loving your wife and the baby. That's pay enough,' she said.
And she went out. It was night now, and the stars were wheeling overhead. As she walked away from the ordinary little stable with such an extraordinary little family within...
...Rivkah heard a commotion. And here, to her amazement, came a group of shepherds, loudly moving through the streets of the town, darting here and there.
'What are you doing?' That was the innkeeper, stepping out and drawing the door closed behind him. 'You're making noise enough out here to wake the dead! And where have you left your sheep?'
'The sheep are in the fields,' said one of the shepherds, 'like they always are at night this time of year. And fine they'll be without our protection for now. No doubt of that!'
'We saw an angel. An angel! And it told us a Savior had been born.' That was a second shepherd, his eyes sparkling even in this light.
And a third said, 'The angel said to look for a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. A manger, of all things! So we've been checking every stable all through town. Where's the next stable?' he asked.
Wordlessly, the innkeeper pointed them to the stable behind the inn. The one Rivkah had just come from. The one where Rivkah knew the shepherds would find exactly what they were looking for.
A Savior! Immanuel! All praises to the Name, to the Blessed One!
Amen and amen!
diff way of telling the story. i liked it :)