by Danyelle Wolfe Read
“…to give them the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” Is 61:3
In the days before the Light defeated darkness and took back the keys to the lower kingdoms, a dark lord held earth captive, blocking all recourse to truth by deception. A stalwart remnant still remembered that God is good.
+ + +
Nazareth, 0 A.D.
Anna dropped the basket, heavy with wet clothes. The corners of her lips curved upward at the image in her mind – even as her chest heaved – of her three-year old daughter reaching for the handles of that same basket. “Hep you, Imah,” she would say. Anna bent, and rested her hands on her knees. Her eyes roved the horizon, across the fields and pastures colored with Spring wildflowers. She wondered where her Miryam might be, whether she was even alive.
The sun was reaching its zenith. She needed to finish setting the clothes to dry before the brick of the village became a reflecting oven. The rooftop where she stood had many uses, among them as a place for drying flax. Anna had learned the skill of transforming the bare stalks into a linen so fine, patricians in Jerusalem and Joppa reserved her pieces with signed notes. She brushed aside some stray stems as she spread several wet garments out.
Her head bent while she recited a prayer she had been taught by her mother, whose mother had taught her, all the way back to the house of David. “Thank You, Blessed Sovereign, for the power and the means and the strength to provide for my family.”
She flattened and pulled the clothes into shape, straightening the shoulder of a heavily embroidered tunic. She treated her husband’s clothing as if it were that of the son of Jesse himself.
A movement from the road below caught her eye. A swirl of dust rising from the southeast. She shielded her eyes to see it more clearly. The ephemeral shape of a figure astride a donkey was within the transparent cloud. The rider’s head rolled upon her shoulders, revealing either exhaustion or illness. Concern gave way to recognition. Anna leapt to the ladder, nearly flying the two stories down to the courtyard. She was on the street and through the gates of the village in seconds, her sturdy calves flinging her skirts awry.
Anna caught the beast three hundred spans from the village, grabbing its reins and twisting them beneath her toes. She shouldered the girl off its back and found she could stand, with support. Anna kept her arm around the young girl’s waist as they walked, towing the ass behind.
Inside the stone-cool interior, shaded by the floor above, Anna laid her daughter on a sheepskin blanket. She tethered the sturdy little donkey in the shade beside the milking goat, which chewed its cud without a glance at its erstwhile companion. Anna unhooked a bulging bladder from a post. She held it to the tender lips. The young face contorted in protest against the cool water on her sun-cracked mouth, but soon the liquid gurgled down her throat in gulps. Gauging the amount with a mother’s instinct, Anna pulled it away.
“That is enough for now, my Miryam, my precious one.” She cradled the girl’s head in her lap. “Oh, how I have prayed for this day, that you would find your way back home, my darling girl, my sweet girl.” She pushed back the shawl that covered the young head and sprinkled her face with water from an open cistern, drying it with a cloth. The girl’s eyes blinked open.
“Imah.” She struggled to push herself up to sitting, leaning against the cool stone wall for support. Anna offered her the water skin again, but she refused. The girl gazed upon her as if she could see through flesh to the soul. “Imah, I’m sorry—”
Love and relief swelled within her mother’s heart. “Shhhshush now,” she interrupted, “It is I who should be apologizing, your father and I. No more talk of shame. We will redeem your honor with a lamb, a ram if we can afford one. Miryam, you and your child, my grandchild, will always be welcome in this home. No matter who—,” she stopped herself. “No matter what,” she said firmly.
Miryam’s steady eyes registered comprehension. The bulge at her belly became more apparent as she bent to lean on her mother, while out of the depths of her came an immense sigh. Taking this as a sign that her words had comforted her daughter, Anna held her and sang a song she had often sung to her.
“Be strong, for I am with you. I will never leave you, no, never will I forsake you.” The melody was one many Israelite women sang to their children. They were startled when a large form blocked the gateway of the courtyard. A deep voice boomed.
“The prodigal daughter has returned, I see.”
Miryam clung closer. “Welcome home, my lord Heli Joachim,” Anna said. “We did not hear you approach.” She spoke courteously, but arched her thick eyebrows in a meaningful warning.
Joachim removed his sandals, leaving them outside the gate, then crouched beneath the wooden lintel. Carefully, he latched the simple gate after him, for it had been left half-open by Anna in her haste. Crossing the courtyard to where they sat, he squinted down at the pair. Finally, he reached out and rested a thick palm upon the teen’s head. “It does my soul good to see you, Miryam, my daughter. Blessed are you in returning.”
Miryam leaped into his arms. “Oh, Abba, I love you, too!”
When they pulled apart, Anna saw moisture on Joachim’s lashes. “I was just about to make the noonday meal. Come, both of you.” The mention of food galvanized them. They climbed the ladder to the loft.
Joachim slid a heavy board which leaned against the wall onto the wooden floor. Miryam smoothed a clean cloth over it, tucking the ends under. Anna sliced cheese from a pungent wheel at the counter. She lined a wooden plate with the thick wedges, then pulled a cloth-covered basket from inside a wooden box. It was full of grapes, sticky dates, and olives. She heaped clusters of each on top of cheese. Joachim lifted a dark bread loaf from the rafters and waited, watching her.
“It would be nice to know where you have been these last three months, daughter,” Joachim said. Anna noted that he kept his voice casual.
“To Juttah, Abba,” Miryam replied.
Both of them stared at her, though she seemed oblivious of this, smoothing wrinkles from the table cloth with her agile fingers.
“I suppose you are familiar with the route,” Joachim said.
“Familiar enough, after all these years, I could probably recount the ancient wagon ruts from memory.”
“But you have always traveled it with the group of your kin, for the Passover or the other feasts! A hundred miles, on your own. The robbers!” Anna turned back to arranging the platter of food, her lips tight. Joachim remained silent. She regretted not having her husband’s restraint.
“There were many Roman soldiers, Imah,” Miryam replied. “They were mounted on fine steeds, or marching on foot. More than I’ve ever seen. The robbers, if there were any, kept themselves hidden.”
“Romans.” Anna shook her head. “Worse, even.”
Joachim laid a hand upon his wife’s waist. “They are making more of an effort to keep the Roman Peace, especially on the Way of the Patriarchs, although it’s still no highway of holiness, to be sure.”
“Our Lord looked after me,” Miryam said calmly. “Herders from Samaria welcomed me into their caravan on the first day of my journey.”
“Oy, Samaritans, now?” Anna asked.
“They welcomed your story-telling, you mean!” Joachim chuckled. “Better Samaritans than thieves, love,” he said to his wife.
“They did enjoy stories from the Torah, once they discovered that I knew them.” Miryam folded her legs and sat on the floor beside the table.
“My girl, the spinner of yarn, in more ways than one.” He balanced the loaf on top of the full platter once Anna was done arranging it, setting it on the makeshift table and seating himself beside Miryam.
“And the return trip?” Anna asked, joining them.
“Nehum was with me the entire way. We said goodbye at Nain.”
“When I found you, you were half dead from thirst!”
“It was my fault, Imah, he asked me if I had enough water. I only discovered my skin was empty after he and I parted. It seemed silly to return to Nain again, an hour from home. Before I knew it, I was parched.” She looked down, waiting.
Anna filled a pitcher with water. She took a few deep breathes to compose herself, then set it and some wooden cups on the table, settling on the floor with her family.
“The main thing is that my daughter has come home.” She held her hands out and each clasped one.
“Baruch atah Adonai elohaynu melech ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz,” said Joachim. “Praised are You, Adonai our Lord, Sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
“Amen,” they said in unison as he recited the blessing.
“I have news,” said Miryam.
“More news?” Anna wasn’t sure she was ready to hear anything else.
“Speak, daughter,” said Joachim, filling his mouth with bread and cheese.
“Elizabeth has had a baby.”
Anna nearly dropped the piece of bread she had torn from the loaf. “Wha-at?”
“At her age?” Joachim worked hard to swallow so that he could get the words out.
Miryam laughed at their reaction. “Elizabeth was so excited, she told everyone the Lord had blessed her with the anointing of Sarah. The baby Yohanan is very strong! I nearly cried out when he gripped my finger!”
“Yohanan? But why not Zacharias? Or Nathan? Could he not carry a family name?” Joachim asked.
It took a few moments for Miryam to answer. She traced a finger on her palm. “The Archangel Gabriel told Zacharias and Elizabeth to name him Yohanan.”
Fresh chaos roiled inside Anna. Here it was again, the delusion of angel visits, not just any angel, mind you, but Gabriel himself! Anna popped an oily olive into her mouth to stop herself from blurting something she might regret. She looked at Joachim, but he avoided her gaze.
It wasn’t just the fact that she had gotten pregnant while betrothed to a fine young man of the house of David. But to claim such an excuse! A baby conceived by G-D! The sacrilege! And now, she was asserting that Gabriel had spoken to her cousins, as well! Anna chewed the olive vehemently, rolling the pit so that its pointy ends pricked the soft tissue of her mouth, enough to hurt but not bleed. Better to keep her mouth busy that way than with the speaking the words that were trying to get out. They would join Zacharias and Elizabeth in Yerushalem for the Feast of Trumpets in a few months. She would clarify things with them, have them talk with her daughter, bring her back to reality. Surely the high holy days would make that possible, if anything could!
Joachim took the pitcher without waiting for either of the women to do it. The trickle of the water into their cups punched at the tense silence. At last, he spoke. “Then I guess it is a good thing they obeyed the Archangel’s instruction.”
Her husband’s response was wise. Anna felt the bubble of frustration pop. What good would reason do? Had they not tried logic? And had it not led to vehemence, arguing, to Miryam running? The thought of the young teen being alone on the road made her nauseous. She needed to just give thanks that G-D has preserved her.
“Eat child,” Anna said, focusing on the fact that her daughter was not only still a child but carried one herself. “You must be starving.”
Miryam bit into a ripe, purple grape and pensively chewed.
+ + +
Miryam offered to help her mother finish setting the clothes to dry. Anna insisted she rest. They finally agreed that Miryam could spin, since she could do it sitting inside, out of the afternoon sun, “to protect the baby,” Anna said.
Joachim kissed his wife and daughter and departed for the temple, where his presence was needed to make a quorum for midday prayer. Afterward, he would lend a hand to Anna in tending their modest flock, then sit with the other elders at the gate until supper.
With her mother and father performing the routine of their daily duties, Miryam sat in a room adjoining the courtyard, surrounded by the familiar spindles and a loom. She sorted the baskets of sheep wool according to their pattern and hue. She knew the name of each donor, for she had shepherded them on many occasions. Daylight filtered through the lattice of a high window. The cool clay floor felt good against her burgeoning body after a day and a half of riding on the hot, ridged back of a donkey.
She pinched a strand of wool and wound it around a wooden spool, maintaining the tension without pulling too tightly. With a practiced hand, she wrapped, and once the spool was full, she laid it aside and started a new one.
Her mind turned to when she last sat spinning in this room. The blame and disbelief of her parents had wounded her, but less deeply than the way her fiancé had looked at her. Miryam’s hand trembled. She forced herself to remember Elizabeth and Zacharias, her cousins’ warm reception and support, the thrill of the coming of the baby Yohanan, the witness of Elizabeth to the baby in Mary’s womb. Unlike her family, they had believed everything she said.
She would inevitably see Joseph. He would ignore her. Months and years would pass, he would choose another girl, lavish his love upon her, her child would play with their children. He would be kind to her child. But his children would have a father, hers would have none.
The Promise and the Blessing, a voice whispered in her head, the Most High will not forsake–
The whispering of the Holy Spirit was comforting. She had thought that she was ready to return home, yet now that she was with those who had lost faith in her, her unhappy thoughts grew louder. Fear shouted down the blessing. Cold seeped into her legs from the floor. She shivered. Her hands were wet with tears before she realized she was crying. She dropped the spool into a basket to spare the wool.
“My husband has disowned me,” she sobbed as she lay upon the floor, “my parents think I’m a whore and a heretic. Lord, you should have struck me dumb as you did Zacharias. Then maybe they wouldn’t have thought me crazy.” The salty tears came fast now. “What have I done, what has my baby done, to be cursed with this shame?” As soon as she said it, she regretted it. “Adonai, forgive me, it is not You who has brought this on me, but the blindness of man.”
Miryam lifted her head. A ray of light coming through the window grew until it filled the room. Miryam’s trembling subsided. She went to her knees, bowing low. “Lord Gabriel.”
“God’s Chosen, look at me,” Gabriel said. She lifted up slowly and her eyes met his.
“Miryam, do not lower yourself before me. You are of the House of David, child of El Elyon, the Most High. I am but a servant. It is I who should kneel before you, Favored One.” He dropped to one knee and leaned forward.
Miryam sat back, pushing one ropey, tear-soaked hair strand from her face, smeared with dirt from where she had cried into the clay floor.
“Dear Gabriel, tell me, why has the Lord sent you here to me a second time?”
“Beloved, the Lord Sabaoth, He Who puts the stars on their courses, Who knows the pathways of the wind, says to you, ‘Stand and see how the Lord will fight for you this day.’”
“I have stood and I will stand, as my God commands.” Miryam replied, feeling instantly composed at the impartation of the Holy Spirit.
“There is more to His purposes for you, and to His provision. This very day will you see it with your eyes and hear it with your ears.”
“I will wait upon the Lord, for He alone is able,” acknowledged Miryam.
Gabriel folded his wings and departed through the walls of time. A different light lingered in the room after he was gone.
+ + +
Miryam combed her hair and splashed her face with water from the cistern, checking her reflection in a polished bronze disc on the wall to remove the dirt streaks. She climbed to the second-floor loft, found a fresh dress and applied a blue sash about her expanding belly. She covered the bulge with her hands. The baby had been active during the archangel’s visit. Now it was still. Immense peace enveloped her. She crooned a lullaby to her child.
A knock came at the gate of the courtyard. Who could be visiting in the heat of the day? Miryam descended and crossed the yard, opening the gate. There stood Joseph, stopping slightly to see beneath the lintel. Deep creases around his eyes revealed he had suffered nights of sleeplessness.
“Miryam – I – I – I know!” His expression was one of desperation and hope.
“I – “ he looked upwards and prayed, “Oh Adonai, give me the right words – I had a dream, yet it was no dream. I was lying on my bench, I fell into a trance. Hashem’s Angel shone inside the room, brighter and brighter. I wanted to cry out, but I could not move, neither tongue nor limb. He said that your child is the creation of Adonai Himself, but we are to raise him as our own.”
“An Angel of the Lord has visited me, as well.” Miryam said.
“Yes, you tried to tell me, Miryam, but I – disbelieved.” His eyes welled with tears.
“This was another visit. Just today.”
Joseph raised an eyebrow. “The angel who visited me this afternoon was Gabriel himself.”
A slow smile brought its light to Miryam’s face. “It seems the Archangel Gabriel has had a busy day.”
“He showed me the scripture,” Joseph continued, “where the prophet said that the Messiah will be born of a virgin. That’s when I saw it! The way the rebbes would teach it, we learned it meant simply that He would be the first-born. Now I see that when He is born, she who gives Him human life will be a virgin still! Miryam, you have never known a man and yet you are with child! You are to bear the savior of our people! I believe you now, with all my heart and soul I believe – Your child is the long-awaited Deliverer of Israel!”
“I know, Joseph, I’m glad you know it now, too.”
Joseph grew somber. “My darling, can you ever forgive this wretch of a fool?”
She raised her head to the sky. “Blessed be the King of Heaven! His mercy endures forever!” She looked at her betrothed, and took his hand. “I forgive you, Joseph, though how could you know without an angel speaking to you?”
Joseph ducked under the low door. He took her in his arms and spun joyously around the courtyard with her. The goat and ass crowded together to avoid being kicked. Suddenly he stopped, taking her by the shoulders. “Archangel Gabriel instructed that His name is to be Yeshua, for He shall be our salvation!”
“Then that is what we shall call him, my Joseph.”
Voices approached from the street, one deep and calm, the other high and spirited. They paused at the still-ajar door. The familiar faces Miryam had known and loved throughout her young life peered into the courtyard. Their surprise turned to glee. Joseph moved closer to her and they both smiled.
“Joachim,” Anna said, loud enough for the neighbors to hear, “we need to trade sheep for flax, and very, very soon. There will be a wedding in this family, after all!”