She stared at the back of his head as he led the animal down the bumpy, uneven path. She really needed him to stop again, but couldn’t ask. They’d already lost so much time because of her. The baby kicked. She grabbed her stomach and shifted. Everything hurt. Upper back, lower back, head, legs, stomach, bladder. She wasn’t going to think about that, though.
Other than the rhythmic clopping of the animal, it was quiet. A peaceful quiet. Neither of them had much to say. They didn’t really know each other yet. Even still, she pondered his behavior. She wondered how he could look at her as calmly as he did. Her greatest hope had been that he wouldn’t allow the people to stone her. She prayed that he’d divorce her quietly. That he was really as righteous as her family said.
While she waited at her cousin’s house for the news, she wept over his imagined reaction. His shock. His anger. His refusal. When her parents finally sent word, she was astonished to learn that she was still engaged. She wasn’t sure that she deserved such a man.
She was afraid that at any moment she’d do something, or say something and he’d change his mind and send her away. And an unprotected woman with a baby in a foreign land would be in danger. Which made it harder still to tell him that she needed to stop again. So she didn’t.
The cramping increased. Pains shot up her back. She shifted again. Stiffness seared through her body. She fisted her hands and pressed them into her sides. Arched her back. He sensed her movement and stopped the donkey. He turned, read her eyes and reached out his arms to help her down again.
She was sorry. She was so, so sorry.
He shook his head and smiled. He had yet to accept an apology. There was no one on the road other than them, but he shielded her anyway as she relieved herself.
They were on the fringes of a large group when they left Nazareth, but her constant need to stop soon left them behind everyone. And then they were alone. She was glad. She preferred it that way. She’d decided months ago that she wouldn’t care what everyone thought. Or said. Or how they looked at her. But when she was alone, sadness often overwhelmed her.
And she hadn’t counted on the way it would hurt to see how they treated him because of her. As if he’d done something wrong. But all he’d done was protect her. Shouldered her shame. Accepted who she was and her situation. Accepted what that meant for his life. The stares, the whispers, the refusal of business.
He’d saved her life.
He was a good, good man. But still, she feared what would happen when the baby was born. How he’d feel when he looked into the face of a child each day that wasn’t his. How good could one man be? What if it was too much? What if he changed his mind?
She was glad that they were leaving Nazareth. Relieved to get away, even if just for a little while. Part of her heart missed her family, but even they weren’t the same. They wanted to believe her. Some of them did. But it was an impossible story and she knew it.
She never expected that it would be easy. She just had no idea how hard it would be. The looks in the eyes of everyone in her small town. The stories. The voices of the girls who used to be her friends. She had no idea how lonely it could be as the sole owner of the absolute truth.
With the exception of her cousin, the only other person who seemed to fully comprehend and believe her truth was the man leading the donkey. And even she didn’t understand his resolve.
He seemed hopeful that things would be different in Bethlehem. He’d told her parents that they’d remain there with his relatives for a while. Maybe return in a few years. She wanted to believe him, but she had little hope. The town was small, only about 300 people. And while many were relations of his, the large crowd that they’d traveled with would arrive before them. And she was pretty sure her “situation” would make it to Bethlehem before they did. But she kept it to herself. Maybe she was wrong.
The pains started just after they were turned away from the second relative. She’d grown up learning firsthand the cultural obligation of hosting relatives. No one was to be turned away. She’d never seen her family refuse someone in need. But there were so many relatives in town for the enrollment that there simply wasn’t one guest room.
She tried not to be bitter. But she couldn’t help but think that if it were any other married woman about to give birth sitting on the back of a donkey she would be rushed inside. She’d be crowded by every woman in the house, ushered to a spot, made comfortable and assisted.
The pain hit again. It was excruciating.
She was glad it was night. She turned her face so he couldn’t see her expression. She wasn’t going to upset him. She breathed deeply. Her sides squeezed in; fire shot up her back. She forced back the sobs.
When it passed, she looked up as he was turned away from yet another relative. They were staring at her. They shrugged and pointed her husband towards a stable. He arched his back, insulted, and turned away from them. So, it would be no different here. She wept for her husband. What his life turned into. She wept for her child, unable to imagine what his life would be, starting out with the “shame” of his mother. And she wept for herself.
She cried out to her God.
A warm hand clasped her fingers, tangled in the donkey’s mane. She looked up. He smeared the tears across her cheek. He leaned his forehead against hers. He promised her that he’d find a place. That there would be someone among his relatives who would take them in. That it wasn’t her, it wasn’t their circumstance, it was the enrollment. But he couldn’t look at her as he said it.
At that moment, she felt how great his pain was. He wasn’t used to being refused by family. He never dreamed that he wouldn’t be able to meet the basic needs of his wife. He wanted so much to provide comfort, yet he was helpless.
And that comforted her.
She pointed to the stable and asked him for it. Something close, quiet, and away from all of the people. He was appalled. It was unsanitary. It was beneath them. Their child would not be born where animals defecated.
She squeezed his warm, rough hand. For a moment the pain ceased. And she saw him. She saw his heart.
And she was no longer afraid.
She knew he wouldn’t change his mind. He wouldn’t send her away. And at that moment it didn’t matter where the baby was born. Or that their first experience together would be something he shouldn’t have been a part of. She didn’t care. Her God had already provided more than she needed.
She assured him that the stable was perfect. And there wasn’t time, anyway. He nodded his head and grabbed a bag of rags and blankets from the side of the donkey. He lifted her up and carried her towards the low braying of animals.
She leaned her head against his and let the pains consume her.
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