Song for the Watchers

When I was young, Papa told me not to love the flocks. “They don’t belong to us,” he said. I remember we were in the field with the other men. Papa had an arm around the abdomen of a male. With his free hand he gave the animal’s head a calming pat while next to him another shepherd used a freshly sharpened blade to trim its wool. It was late spring, shearing season. My first season in the fields with Papa. I was still a boy, then, learning my father’s way. The task he gave me was gathering the clumps of wool and stuffing each into a sackcloth purse. These shorn winter coats would be turned over to the overseers; they would soon become blankets or cloaks to warm the wealthy.

“You give them names,” Papa went on. “You mustn’t do that. They are not yours to name. They are not for us. They are meant for others.”

“What am I to call them then?”

Papa squinted against the afternoon sun, beholding me. I imagine he was trying to picture me older, stronger, accomplished in this trade (if you can even call it a trade). What to say to me in that moment? These were formative years, and for Papa everything was a lesson. I was his only son, after all. Who else did he have to teach such things?

“If you must call them by name, this one is kaphar.” He gave the animal’s head another attentive pat. It snorted softly, bearing the shepherds’ grasp, uncomfortable but unafraid. The knife finished its work, and Papa released the male, giving it a gentle shove back toward the grazing flock.

Kaphar, covering. Reminding me the flock was meant for the Temple, for atonement. These were beasts of sacrifice, not domesticity. Papa pointed to several others around us. “That one is kaphar, that one is kaphar, that one is kaphar…”

“I get it,” I replied, gesturing to another. “That one’s kaphar, too.”

“No.” Papa shook his head. “That one is shalom. And so is that one, and, let’s see… that one.” He nodded in the direction of several other members of the flock.

“Why shalom?” 

“Because,” my father said. “They’re female.”

I should have known. A boy, yes, but I was old enough to have learned this distinction, that the males were for burnt offerings – kaphar, for sin – and the females were for peaceful offerings – shalom.

“These are no common beasts,” Papa continued. “They are the most precious animals in all the world. More valuable than all the animals in a king’s stables. Greater than the greatest ofs Roman war horses. These flocks belong to HaShem. It is our duty to care for them. Protect them. And never, ever leave them. Do you understand?”

Looking up from the animals, I met his eyes and nodded. He turned his attention back to the sheep, reached out and took reverent hold of another unshorn. I went back to gathering tufts of wool.  

We abide in the fields. It is far too much trouble to bring in the flocks every night, nor is any village pen trustworthy. The flocks we tend are substantial, and valuable. There are few pens anyway; most folks in Bethany, Ein Karem, Bethphage, and the other towns that lie in the shadow of the Holy City tether their family goat or ox inside their houses at night. Besides, the Law commands animals intended for sacrifice must dwell outside for a full year, even the rainy months. So, our time is spent in the fields around Migdal Eder, the ancient watchtower that marks the Temple pastures. To the south is Bethlehem. To the north, the Mount. We usually avoid both. We’re shepherds, after all.

Throughout my many years of tending, I’ve learned to accept our reputation as outcasts, even if I don’t necessarily understand it. The priests don’t care for us – to them we’re an unfortunate necessity. The rabbis and the lawyers overlook us, seeing in our tattered and smelly garments only a dishonorable, uneducated lot. And most commoners don’t trust us. They think us disreputable carousers, men who’ve chosen a life away from society, contributing not to the good of a local village but only to the industry of the Temple. While some in these villages may eventually purchase one of these animals when they go up for the festivals, most people in this land can’t afford the asking price for an unblemished lamb. Instead, they offer the family goat or a pair of pigeons. To the commoners, we shepherds are nothing more than rich men’s slaves, lurking far too close to their doors for comfort.

If our jobs contribute to big business, we see no returns. Those among us who make sacrifice, who choose to brave the stares and upturned noses and occasional, prejudicial threats of the Temple crowds, can afford nothing. All we have to give is the meagerest of possessions – grain meal, which our women harvest from the wild edges of others’ fields. I’ve often sat under the stars at night, watching as the lights of the nearest village extinguish one by one, and wondered to myself, Are we poor because we’re shepherds, or are we shepherds because we’re poor?

We take turns in the fields. Each month, a few men are given leave to return to the encampment and see their women. The rest of us remain in the fields, awaiting our turn to do the same. At night, we sleep in shifts. To stay awake, those on watch walk amongst the flock. When the moon is but a sliver, we must be vigilant. Predators thrive in these hills. Lions, leopards, foxes, and bears all prowl at night. So do thieves who slink down from the rocky hilltops. An unblemished ram fetches quite a price on the black market. In my years, I’ve encountered them all, and I can’t say for certainty which is the most dangerous. On our shifts, we keep alert. A lost ram, a wounded sheep, even an abrasion caused if the flock scatters… every mistake means less pay, and that means less food to send back to camp.

When the lambs are born, we swaddle them. Like babies. When allowed to move about on their own, newborn lambs are maddeningly prone to accidents. One stumble or nick of the hide renders the animal blemished, unfit for the intended sacrifice. Even the birth canal can cause defects. So, our job is to inspect them and then wrap them. A tedious task, but it’s for the best. When the Temple authorities come out to inspect the flock, they’re nothing if not thorough. They expect every animal, from the lambs to the adults, to be perfect. We shepherds receive no praise for those that pass. Only condemnation when blemishes are found. Ours is a thankless job.

This is the season of long nights. Sometimes it feels like darkness is annexing the day, shaving it off at both ends. Papa is long since passed, but his many lessons haven’t faded from my mind. I have children of my own now, back in camp. A few more years and my eldest will join me in these fields, just as I did with my father. I’ll introduce him to these pastures, to the paths we weave among them. I’ll give him a purse and direct him to gather the shorn clumps of wool. I’ll teach him to use a staff, to read tracks, to discern scents on the wind. He’ll learn our way in full and inherit our place in this world. This will be his life, for better or for worse. I often hear Papa’s voice in my mind, those lessons of my youth. Time is a circle, my son. It always repeats, generation to generation, never changing. As reasonable a notion as that seems, when I was younger, I found such words dispiriting. To me, time was a grand story unfolding. And like any good story, at any moment something extraordinary might forever alter our circumstances. Now, after decades of shepherding these fields, rain, shine, and rain again, I see like most things Papa was right. And yet, under these stars tonight, there is the faintest whisper of longing inside me. Longing for something different. For the cycle to be broken. 

Other words fill my mind, too. Behold, speaks the Lord through his prophet, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up – do you perceive it? I make a way in the wilderness. 

This was a targum – one of the bite-sized pieces of sacred Torah – I’ve held onto since I was small. A good word for any shepherd, I always believed. A call to expectation. To alertness. 

The flock seems restless tonight. Walking among them, I see many shifting about. They don’t doze, but instead pique their ears. They snort and sniff the air, expelling little clouds of frustration. They sense something. Can hear it, or perhaps smell it, drawing close. My hand tightens around my staff. I signal to the others on watch, meeting their eyes. Keep alert, my gaze tells them. Something is near. I can feel my heart quicken. It will be one of those nights.

When it is over, and the fields are quiet again, we stare at one another with stunned expressions. We on watch and the others around the fire, startled awake by the visitation. Some gaze up wonderingly into the starry night, which only moments earlier was filled with a light so bright it is difficult to believe the hills are not now on fire. Around us, the flock calms, chews grass, slips back into a doze. A gentle wind caresses the land. Kaphar and shalom

You must go! I turn as if spoken to, but the other men are still staring, mouths agape. The voice, I realize, is in my mind. Papa’s voice. Only now it is filled with an earnestness quite unlike the man I knew. You must go, my boy! You must see. Now it springs up – do you not perceive it? He makes a way in the wilderness.

When I speak, the sound of my voice in the quiet almost makes me jump. The men look at me questioningly, so I say it again. “We must go. We must see this thing HaShem has told to us.”

“It isn’t for us,” says one of the men by the fire. He’s still clutching the thin blanket that was draped over him before the heavens opened. His eyes are wide, unblinking. He looks to say more – to give reason for his hesitancy – but only repeats, “It isn’t for us. It must be for others.”

I approach the fire. My heart pounds. Those faint whispers of longing from my youth now cry out inside me. All that I ever wished for, which the years in these fields assured me could never be, has indeed broken through and brought an end to the endless cycle, just as I always hoped. How can we – even we – ignore what the Lord wishes us to see?

“It is for us!” I say, wanting it to be true. And then it occurs to me it is true. This message, and this sight, is actually for us!

This will be a sign to you, that extraordinary voice said. A baby, swaddled in cloths, placed in a manger. Like … a lamb. It’s true, HaShem’s face has shined upon us. I step closer to the others around the waning fire. This is no king born in a palace. He will not be found in some wealthy, privileged home. This will be a humble house – the humblest – for the only coverings available to this newborn are swaddling clothes and the only crib an ox’s feeding trough. For whatever reason, this family is hardly better off than we. To us is born an overlooked king, an unnoticed savior. We shepherds, I explain to the men, may be the only ones capable of recognizing him at all.

One of the men gestures to the flock. “Do we just… leave them? How can we?”

“How can we not?” another quickly replies. I see a wide grin spread beneath his scraggly beard. He meets my eyes.

I nod. I realize I’m smiling, too. For the first time, something more precious than these has come. Again, I hear Papa’s voice in my mind. This is kaphar. This is shalom.

Nothing more needs saying. We wrap our cloaks, grip our staves, and set off for the little town lying still and unaware in the distance.

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.”