The Stall

1

I do my best to hide the pain.

The little house is crowded. With the relatives in town, there is hardly a place to sit, let alone a private room or a bed to oneself. I share with Yosef’s younger sisters, but at night I must turn about constantly. Eventually, one of the sisters takes hold of a blanket and moves to the floor, not far from where her brothers sleep. This morning, I wake with an aching back and an odd cramping pain that flares up at random. Throughout the day, I bite my lip, trying not to show how uncomfortable I am.

Lately, the baby seems completely uninterested in sleep. He moves about my womb with a great, bouncing restlessness. The women of the house say he’s eager to be born, that he’s impatient to meet everyone. One of the sisters wonders aloud if all the kicking and shifting means he’ll be a handful to raise. I feign a laugh, but I’m wondering the same thing. The child’s abiding energy unnerves me.

I count it a grace that the women even indulge my presence. None of this has come easily for them either. I don’t begrudge the forced kindness in their tones, or the way they maintain a slight distance from me most of the time. Occasionally I’ll turn my head and catch one of the sisters quickly averting her stare. It’s to be expected. Here in the southern lands there are less whispers, but whispers nonetheless. These women may trust Yosef, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever fully trust me.

It’s difficult not to have Yosef nearby. Everyone is more gracious when he’s around. He has a calm and quiet way. Without saying a word, he can evoke goodness and courtesy from an entire household. But he doesn’t linger in the house. When the morning sun gilds the eastern hills, he’s out the door, his purse thrown over his shoulder and weighed down with tools. The better part of each day he gives to the community – repairs their lentils, patches their roofs, restores the walls in their homes that have begun to crumble. Like his father before him, Yosef is an agent of renewal for this village that has watched him come of age. And now, with the census, there’s more work to be done, more people to shelter, more mouths to feed.

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The odd morning pain has increased. It no longer seems random, nor does the discomfort abate for long. I try to mask it, try to turn my winces into smiles. My heartbeat quickens. I know what’s happening, and I’m afraid.

Not now. Not yet.

Some evenings, Yosef eats with those whose homes he has serviced that day. The others, he appears only briefly, hardly long enough to dip a hunk of bread in the stew and chew, before withdrawing again to the ongoing project outside. From where I sit now, furtively breathing through the contractions, I can hear them on the other side of the house wall – Yosef and his younger brother scraping and packing and grunting from the weight of the materials, and the short statements from their father, Yakov, whose knotted, shaking hands have long-since precluded him from work, but who still points trembling knuckles and offers experienced advice. It is slow work, and now I worry it has been too slow. My throat lumps, and tears push against the back of my eyes. After all, it’s my fault the room hasn’t been finished. Yosef is more than a capable builder, but because of all that has happened, and the way it has happened, he hasn’t had enough time to complete the job.

Yet it seems HaShem has completed his.

2

“Are you all right, child?” Yosef’s mother is gazing up at me from the bottom of the stairs that lead to the lower level of the house. She has been lining the mangers with hay. Behind her, the sisters lead the animals inside for the night – a goat and two ewes freshly sheered, one of which carries a lamb of her own. She walks slower than the other, bleating meekly as she’s jostled inside. I know how she feels.

“I’m fine.” The old woman eyes me carefully. “It’s just… just the baby moving again. There’s no room.”

“Sounds to me like there’s plenty of room,” she replies.

The sisters finish shooing the animals to the troughs. Their mother hands a large clump of hay to one of them to take to the work ox, which is tied up outside – a shared possession among the neighbors. The dog trots inside as well and takes his place at the foot of the stairs. Yosef’s mother closes the door, then steps deftly over him and ascends the three steps to the main level. She meets my eyes and continues. “To be moving about like he is, there must be room enough.”

I nod. A tremor rattles. I exhale nervously. I know Yosef’s mother has been keeping watch over me. She’s nothing if not perceptive. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to conjure peaceful thoughts.

The one that comes to my mind – that has sustained me even as my anxieties have swelled – is the image of Yosef stepping across the threshold. Not the threshold of this house, but rather my father’s house.

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Only four months ago, he turned from me. I had begun to show, and the rumors were spreading. Our confrontation was inevitable. I told him everything, as bewildering a tale as I knew it would be. The more I said, the more those expressive eyes of his flared with stifled fury and humiliation. Of course they did! How do you describe something like that and not sound utterly mad? His warm expression grew cold as he listened. His lips were set like a seal, locking in all emotion. Then my father sent me out of the room, but even from the courtyard I could hear their tense conversation, the shock and frustration in Yosef’s voice. I knew something had been broken. Like water from a cracked well, his trust was draining away.

I didn’t expect to see him again. No one did. But now, in my mind’s eye, the scene unfolds anew, and for a few moments it calms my nervous breathing. I see Yosef at the door of my father’s house, not a month later. His hands are clasped in front of him as he steps inside and removes his sandals. I watch, my heart in my throat, as he kneels in front of my father and asks his mercy. Then I am left open-mouthed when he does the same to me. “Forgive me,” he whispers. “I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.” I want to cry and laugh and speak all at once. I want to tell him that I hardly understand it either. I want to ask him what has changed, why has he returned? But I have no words. Here he is, back in Nazara, back in the home that scorned him, and he is on his knees like a chastened sinner, deferring to me. “Forgive me, Miriam,” he says, and the only response I am capable of is to reach out and take his hand in mine.

I’ve clung to that hand ever since.

3

“When do you think they will finish?” one of the sisters asks as the goat and the sheep nose eagerly at the hay in the mangers. The other sister is about the work of preparing the house for another crowded sleep – spreading blankets on the berths and the floor. Outside, scraping sounds testify that mortar is being spread. Incrementally, the walls grow. Just a few more days is all Yosef needs to finish it. I imagine the privacy such a room could offer. If only it were already finished.

“Soon enough,” Yosef’s mother answers.

“Will someone be able to sleep there?”

“Of course,” the older woman answers. “But not until after the ceremony.” She unfurls a blanket and spreads it below the bed I’m to sleep on. A few feet away, Yosef’s youngest brother is already asleep, snoring loudly. Yosef’s mother surveys the room, a grimace on her face. I know she recognizes how small the house has become. She doesn’t let on, but her concern for the new room to be completed is as heightened as mine. She tosses a fleeting look in my direction, evaluating me with a glance. I try to keep my composure, but I’m sweating now. I wonder if she is aware that time is up. The room is not finished, and there is no place available inside either. No suitable space for what is about to happen.

She turns away to fetch another blanket. That is when I double-over as another wave of pain rolls through me. Gripping the edge of the table, my fingernails dig into the rough wood.

“Will the ceremony be… before…?” Yosef’s sister falls silent. From across the candlelit room, she sees.

“Let’s not discuss it right now,” says her mother softly. Then her eyes catch sight of her daughter’s gaze, and she whirls to look at me again.

4

Before anyone can speak a word, the door to the house opens and in steps Yosef’s father, brother, and, finally, Yosef himself. Chilled night air billows in behind them. Yakov walks right past me, shedding his cloak. “It’s started raining,” he announces with disappointment. “Not long, I reckon, but we’ll have to take a break for now.”

Yosef’s mother ignores her husband. She rushes past him and both brothers to kneel at my feet. She lays her hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right, child?”

“Miriam?” Yosef’s soft voice is tinged with concern.

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I hardly want to move for fear I’ll make the pain worse. My face contorts. This newest wave is horrible. Is it supposed to feel like this?

“Breathe, my dear,” says the old woman, taking my hand. “Breathe long and slow.”

“I can’t… there’s no…”

“Don’t speak. Breathe.”

“But there’s no…”

“Just breathe.”

A shudder overwhelms me, from my shoulders down to my feet. My jaw tightens. I want to speak, to raise a protest – I can’t have this child here! There’s no room! – but my body won’t allow it.

“Breathe, Miriam,” she urges. “It helps to breathe.”

“What can I do?” The inquiries come from all directions, from Yosef’s brother, from Yakov, even from the younger one who, in the suddenly tense and crowded house, has sat up rubbing his eyes.

One of the sisters rushes forward and crouches next to us. “Fetch a basin and as much clean cloth as you can find,” her mother commands. Through squinting eyes, I see her gaze pass over the room once more. Her brow is furrowed. She looks dissatisfied, disappointed. I want to apologize, to tell her how sorry I am, sorry for what I’ve done to their family, for the turmoil I’ve caused, but I’m still paralyzed by the contractions.

“Mother,” says Yosef, kneeling on the other side and taking hold of my other hand. I immediately squeeze it, and won’t let it go.

“Don’t fear, my son,” she says, but she doesn’t look at him. She is still considering the room.

“It’s not finished,” he tells her. “The walls, or the roof. And it’s raining.”

Red-faced, I suck in breath. A moan escapes my clenched throat.

“I know,” Yosef’s mother whispers. “We need space and privacy. There are too many people in this house!”

Finally, the intensity lessens, and I release a long, ragged breath. Tears immediately follow. My shoulders tremble with sudden, uncontrollable sobbing.

Yosef places his other hand over mine. “Miriam, it’ll be-”

“Draw some water,” his mother interrupts, “and heat it. Quickly.”

“No!” I cry as Yosef stands up. I can’t bear him leaving my side.

“Don’t be afraid,” she tells me, taking hold of my hand and working it free. She is surprisingly strong. Yosef hurries away. His brother frantically stokes the hearth fire. “I want you to try to stand up,” she says softly. She’s come around and is already lifting me from the chair.

Somehow, I gain my feet. My knees shake. Where are we going?

Yosef’s mother looks for her other daughter, finds her standing frozen at the foot of the lower level steps, eyes as full and wide as the moon. “Put the animals out,” she says abruptly. “And bring in more straw.”

“But… but where is she going to…”

“Don’t stand there blubbering, girl! Do as I say. We need room, however we can get it.”

“My dear,” Yosef’s father says. “The stall?”

Still holding me tightly, she turns to her husband. “Yes, Yakov. The stall.”

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I’m hit again. Unable to hold back a scream, I collapse against the old woman, but she keeps me upright. “Breathe, child. Breathe.” Then she looks back to her husband. “If there’s no room, then we’ll have to make room. Help us down these steps, and then go give word to the women. Tell them where to find us.”

“Mother,” says Yosef’s brother. “Let me go to the neighbor’s and ask if we might-”

“Enough of that,” the old woman insists. “We’ll not be shooing this poor girl all over Bet Lehem. She is in no condition for it. The stall will do. What matters is the child. Now, be silent and fetch some blankets.”

Yosef’s mother is practically carrying me, an astonishing feat for a woman of so small a frame. Her daughter frantically shoves the animals away. The dog scampers back, and the pregnant ewe gives an irritated bleat as she waddles back through the stall door and into the courtyard. Yakov, soon to become my father, somehow keeps the two of us balanced with his palsied hands. We slowly descend the wooden steps to the dusty, straw-laden floor. The smell of musk, hay, and excrement greets my nose. Nausea floods through me.

“I can’t,” I tell them. “It can’t be here.”

A voice behind me, confident and calming, says, “It will be all right, Miriam. I’m here. I’m going to stay by your side.”

“Don’t be afraid, child,” his mother whispers in my ear as we shuffle toward the rear stall, as private a spot as can be found in the little house. “I know it’s not the way you wanted or the way you expected, but even in such a place as this, HaShem is with you. He is with us all. You’re not alone. You’ve never been alone.”

All the Answers

For The Ink Well Creative Community

Word: Unexplained
Parameters: Write for 15 minutes without stopping

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“The Bible has all the answers.”

Surely you’ve heard this folk saying before, whether stated confidently by someone who actually believes it, or sarcastically by someone who might once have believed it but no longer does because when he or she finally brought a question to the book, nothing in its pages seemed relevant.

Often, when you encounter people of the second group, you learn that they have laid aside their trust in “an ancient book full of superstitions” in favor of science or reason or rationalism or humanism or methodological naturalism. In other words, what they’ve set aside is any form of mysticism. Whether because it failed them in the past, or because it never seemed a viable option in the first place, they are not comfortable with any knowledge that is apprehended outside of the intellect.

This, of course, is perfectly understandable. In the absence of cold, hard facts (though why facts must be “cold” and “hard,” I’ve never understood), having faith in something will always mean holding hands with doubt and uncertainty. Some people would rather avoid the feeling. Certainty is a matter of the will, and if it can’t always be effected, it can at least be feigned.

I’ve talked with people who’ve told me, among other things, that they don’t like how the Bible addresses the formation of our planet and the rest of the cosmos. They claim that if there really was a divine being behind its creation, then certainly the Bible would include more details. But, instead, there’s just a short poem that scientific research has already proven to be inaccurate.

Sometimes, I ask them why they can’t have the kind of unwavering faith in God that they seem to have in the scientific method.

They respond by saying that their allegiance to science has nothing to do with faith, but rather with facts. They tell me that science explains mysteries, while religion merely hopes that one day Someone will reveal the purposes of those mysteries.

I don’t ask the questions that come to my mind next, usually because I already sense the conversation has taken a turn for the worse. I’m not sure they’re mindful of it, but I’ve found that when you begin speaking about faith to a person who has cast it aside in favor of reason, you’ve often encountered a point of view that believes the two are mutually exclusive. That faith and reason have no relationship with each other. This, of course, is a fallacy, but in a culture consumed by competition, it is difficult to see past the versus archetype.

But if I could ask them my questions, I would ask them, “Why do we laugh?”

It is one of the questions I took to the scientific method, but found no reasonable explanation. It is a mystery that has yet to be sufficiently answered

I would ask them, “Why are human beings so often kind to each other?”

It is another question I’ve turned to science and reason and methodological naturalism to explain to me, but the only answer they can give is a shrug of the shoulders and the words, “We shouldn’t be.”

The Bible doesn’t explain these questions either – at least not in the way a rationalist would appreciate – but that is the point. Such fundamental elements of human existence remain unexplained. They remain mysteries. And even if someone rejects mysticism, he or she cannot fully escape mystery. Sure, perhaps one day the scientific method will finally reveal the reason why human beings laugh, or why we offer kindness to others even when no personal benefit comes of it. After all, science has shown a great track record for discovery.

But amidst these answers, other mysteries remain. Because the two are not polar opposites. They are not at odds, but in relationship with one another.

I don’t know about you, but that thought fills me with joy. I’m not sure why.

Within You

For The Ink Well Creative Community

“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck.”
-Rumi

Prompt: Write something in response to the quote.
Parameters: 15 minutes

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They choose a billboard.

Though there is still thirteen years to go, they follow the instructions of their pastor. They put down a deposit and find someone to design the look of it. After this, one of the crews that changes out the facades takes that design, renders it according to the necessary materials, and a few days later the date is displayed for every northbound motorist to see – an intentional eyesore, gaudy in its size and color.

Beneath the date, in smaller letters, they offer a cryptic subject line and provide their website.

And now they wait.

In thirteen years they will fly to Israel. They will bring along suitcases packed solely out of practicality: what do you wear to a Second Coming?

They will do a little sight-seeing first. Who wouldn’t? It’s the Holy Land, after all, and they don’t expect to ever lay eyes on it again. At least not on the way it looks now, all corrupted by non-believers and heretics.

And then, on the determined day announced by the pastor who, in his adamancy, has satiated their hopes for an escape from this corrupt world, they will climb Mount Olivet (as they prefer to call it), pick a nice spot facing the once holy Holy City, and fix their eyes on the vista. They will wait to see it change. To see the clouds do something out of the ordinary. To see Someone split the sky.

And take them home.

And then, once the day ends and that which they have waited thirteen years to see does not unfold, they will look at one another, confused, heartbroken, disillusioned. Some will make concessions, suggesting an innocent glitch in their pastor’s figuring due to time zones or hemispheres. The one who endlessly quotes the Old Testament will suggest that the day the sun stood still, as recorded in the Book of Joshua, could be a reason, and they should stay put one more day to be sure. A few others will feel their hopes – both in deliverance and in the man they have called their pastor – dissolve. The pastor himself will say nothing. Not yet, anyway. Not until he can figure out how to explain himself without losing the bulk of his flock.

They will return to their home country. The deposit will expire. The billboard will revert to the company that owns it, and an advertisement for a truck stop or a local university, or perhaps just one of those “Does Advertising Work? Just Did.” signs will replace their announcement.

And one of them – at least one of them – will turn to her well-worn Bible out of despondency, to the Scriptures she has memorized and manipulated but never respected. On one sunny morning, not long after her return from the Mount, she will sit at her kitchen table, a mug of steaming coffee to her right and a journal and pen to her left, and she will read the words before her with no predetermined agenda. And for the first time in longer than she can remember, the sound of the Savior’s voice will not sound to her like the voice of the old pastor with his curmudgeonly sermons and dire predictions.

Tears will well up, because for the first time in so very long, Jesus will not sound angry or disappointed. He will sound kind. He will sound patient. He will sound like love.

In that moment at the kitchen table with the steaming mug of coffee and the morning light filling the room, he will gently remind her that hoping in his return has nothing to do with predictions and signs and best-laid plans. The escapists and code-breakers and treasure hunters go after such things. “Here it is,” they cry, though they have found nothing at all.

She will pick up the pen and write only seven words in her journal, the shortest entry it has ever received.

“The kingdom of God is within me.”