The Mangers

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She had been on the donkey’s back for so long, but she was a small girl, excluding her huge belly, so they made it to Bethlehem. Her back hurt. The ride had been agonizing towards the end, but she bit her lips bloody, veiled her face against the cold, and said nothing. He walked beside her with the donkey’s lead loose in his hand. The poor thing wasn’t going to bolt. She had cared for it since she was old enough to do chores.

She and Joseph had been engaged since her fourteenth birthday. He was thirty. He was sweet and handsome, even with his prematurely graying beard. It ran in his family, he said. He had built a bridal chest for her, but they had to leave it behind. The census gave them an excuse to disappear. She had packed only a tiny cedar box that he made for her trinkets, her earrings, a pair of carved wood dolls.

Joseph stopped walking. She woke from her half-sleep. She had been dreaming of a fortune-teller who foretold a journey and a separation. The fortune-teller was real, and the prediction. She started her menses last year. After the first one, when she came back into society, a woman walked boldly up to her at the well and gave her a story. She asked nothing in return. She wore an amulet that was a symbol of one of the old goddesses. Mary kept the conversation in her heart, with many other things.

Joseph went from inn to inn and came back each time with the same despairing look. Mary tried to sit up straight. Her back ached dreadfully, and she was thirsty. The donkey made little huffing noises of distress.

“We can sleep in that stable,” Joseph said, pointing across the roadway. It was a large stable, and bright. Then Mary Salome came out, carrying a lantern. She had traveled with them, walking the entire way. She was a midwife.

“It’s clean,” Mary Salome said. “And warm. There’s plenty of hay, and the well in sight.”

Mary slid down from the donkey into Joseph’s arms, and was immediately embarrassed. She had been riding for so long that her water ran down her legs. She looked up at Mary Salome, but she was looking at Joseph.

“It’s time,” the midwife said, and Mary understood, but suddenly she was bent double, and Joseph picked her up and carried her into the stable. The animal smell was not too bad. The innkeeper must have had it cleaned when he ran out of rooms.

Because she had been in labor for most of a day, the birth went quickly. Mary Salome was expert even though she was still officially an apprentice. “Your boy,” she said, holding up the child so that Mary, resting in a bed of hay, could see him. But then there was more pain, waves, like the sea, and Joseph with his fine, slender hands was almost fumbling with the boy when Mary Salome held up another baby. This one had red hair. This one was a girl.

A tabby cat with a new litter of kittens had occupied one manger. Mary nursed both babies. Joseph went to the inn and bought bread, lentils, and salted fish. Mary Salome talked quietly to Mary about the twins. When Joseph came back with the food, Mary Salome was gone, on foot, with the red-haired twin, Mary was weeping, and it was thirty years until Mary and Joseph saw the girl again, grown into a woman, troubled, driven nearly mad searching for her twin.

(A bit of explanation: the midwife didn’t steal the twin. It was part of the old woman’s prophecy, that the twin would have to be hidden for her protection, so that she wouldn’t be harmed when people turned against Jesus. It was just an odd thought that came to me on Christmas Eve–what if Jesus was so close to Mary Magdalene because she was his twin sister?)

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