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Mary's abdomen protrudes beneath the loose garments, some of the womb's weight resting on the burro's back, as the burro picks his way over the rocky path. When a hoof slides on one of the stones, the sudden lurching causes her to wince for the baby is head down and waiting to be born. She feels that, remembering the women's talk back home.
The dust is thick, so she has pulled her scarf across her face, wishing for a drink of water, but the goat skin is empty now and Joseph needs to hurry as the sun lowers in the west.
Perhaps this is the day of the birth, although it will soon be night. Already the curious star glimmers in the west, almost as though she and Joseph have been following it to Bethlehem.
There is some sadness in her that she cannot be with her mother as the birth nears, but Joseph is gentle and kind and he loves her with such tenderness, but - it would be good to have a woman her beside her, a woman who has been through births.
All the rooms of all the inns are taken. All of the floors of all of the rooms are taken, for this is Caesar's census. The sun has almost set, that ball of flame streaked with dark blue clouds as it drops and drops and Joseph is told again, again, "There is no room for you here."
Then, the water breaks. The women, her mother too, have told her of just such things, but now it is broken as she sits upon a dusty burro and her clothing is soaked. She feels unclean rather than expectant. She says to Joseph that the time is coming and they must find a place - and soon.
The pains begin and they have told her about pains before this trip, but no one of them imagined she would be on a donkey as the pains begin and, there had been no way to imagine just such pain.
All that talk - about pains far apart at first. This is no far apart. These pains come quick - as though the very earth is being torn from inside her body.
Some half-cry, half-sob and Joseph helps her down to walk, holding her within his arms for some wrenching moments until she can catch her breath. He knows women's stories too and sees in Mary's face and feels in her body, that this birth comes quickly, as though the baby's time has come and it is now.
On the right is a low cave, more like a mud wattle, but there is fresh hay and some few quiet animals and they both know that this is where the child is to be born.
Ashamed, with the cloth clinging to her thighs and buttocks, she moves slowly to the resting place. The pains are too quick and too intense for reflections that this child her God has sent is to be born in a stable, but Joseph puzzles over this as he turns the hay so it will be clean for her to lie upon.
Lying down does not help the pains, insistent now and quicker. What were those stories of all day labors? This is a short tearing, with only Joseph to hold her hand. He pushes her damp-wet hair back from her face and wipes a cloth across her forehead as though that loving tenderness could ease the racking pain.
This child her God has sent, pushing out of her young womb with all the urgency of a Divine plan; this child her God has sent, tearing out of her young body with all the pain of any birth. Every woman in labor knows this moment; every man beside each woman knows this moment.
Then, as though the earth itself was birthed into this night, the child is born - and they call him Jesus.
A carpenter's knife cuts the cord, for Joseph has asked questions too, before the walk to Bethlehem, and now, a carpenter tenderly places a red and wrinkled, a crying, hairy baby in Mary's arms to hold, to nurse, for she has asked questions too.
Joseph kneels beside the mother and the child, his love doubled in this moment. He watches a stained and squalling infant find the breast. He remembers then, the swaddling clothes and goes to find them.
This child her God has sent lies in her arms, arms no longer tired, but aching now with love. A little mouth searches for the breast. He finds it again and hungry after such a birthing, sucks hungrily and she can feel her womb respond; she can feel her love surround him as she half-sits, half-lies - the pain spent, not remembered. She smiles down upon this child called Jesus.
Joseph brings in the clean clothing and lays one cloth over the clean straw, for the bed for the baby is all those broken pieces of wheat and weeds and some have poked through the loose weaving. Joseph watches now as Mary sleeps, so that the prickles will not hurt the baby's head.
After that first nursing, Mary had slept and Joseph had carried the child to the little manger close to where she rested. The child stared, wide-eyed, as though he could see, into the soft light of the oil lamp and those eyes, so wide, so watching, caused Joseph to look once to see what the infant seemed to see.
What Joseph saw, if he followed the infant's eyes was the breath of the animals standing quietly on one side. Their breath, it seemed to Joseph, was like the incense in the Temple and then, a shy man, Joseph ducked his head at such a thought, but, it did remind him of the incense - the breathing of the donkey and of the cow, one crippled sheep. That breath, all rising and going up into the night, the oil lamp making golden motes of the earth's dust caught in the breathing of animals. Then, Joseph slept as Mary slept and the child lay wide-eyed and quiet. He seemed to hear the sound of the breathing on this cold, dark night.
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