A Short Story previously published in Birds of Passage, an anthology of faith
“…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, the dark lord held earth captive, blocking all recourse to truth by deception. A remnant still remembered that God is good.
+ + +
0 A.D., Nazareth
Anna dropped the heavy basket full of wet clothes. The corners of her mouth turned upward at an image in her mind – even as her chest heaved – of her three-year old daughter reaching for the handles of that same basket, saying, “Hep you, Imah.” She bent and rested her hands on her knees. Her tired eyes roved the horizon as she wondered where her Miryam might be, whether she was even alive. The day before she left, she and her husband had fought with her, raising voices, tempted to raise their hands. She could still remember her daughter’s tears, but worse, the look upon her face of her breaking heart.
The sun was reaching its zenith. Anna 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 made sure there weren’t any stray stems to get into the clothes, while she spread several wet garments out.
Her head bent in prayer, as she had been taught by her mother, and as her mother before her had taught her, all the way back to the house of David. “Thank You, Sovereign, for the power to provide for my family,” she said.
She flattened and pulled the clothes into shape, straightening the shoulder of an embroidered tunic. She cared for her husband’s clothing as if it belonged to the son of Jesse himself. Marriage had brought great fulfillment to her life, honor, stability. She only wanted this for her little girl. But it wasn’t looking likely, now.
A swirl of dust rising from the road below caught her eye. She shielded her face from the sun with both hands to gaze southeast. The ephemeral shape of a figure astride a donkey emerged out of the minor cloud. The rider’s head rolled upon her shoulders, revealing either exhaustion or illness. Concern gave way to recognition. Anna leapt down the ladders, nearly flying the two stories to her inner courtyard. She was down the street and out through the gates of the village in seconds, her sturdy calves flinging her skirts awry.
Anna caught the beast three hundred spans from the gate, grabbing its reins and twisting them beneath her toes. She shouldered the girl down from its back and found she could stand, with support. Anna kept her arm around her waist as they walked back toward the village, towing the ass behind.
Inside the stone-cool interior, shaded by the floors above, Anna laid the girl on a sheepskin blanket. She tethered it 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 sweet.” 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 precious girl.” She pushed back the shawl that covered her head and sprinkled her face with water from the cistern used for ritual washing, drying it with a cloth. The girl’s eyes blinked open.
“Imah,” she said. She struggled to push herself up to sitting, leaning on the 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 bull if we can afford it. I promise, 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 listened, her azure eyes registering 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 deep voice came booming from the doorway.
“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. He closed the door after him, for it had been left half-open by Anna. He crossed the courtyard to where they sat, squinting down at them, his eyes adjusting to the half-light. Gently, 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 and beard. “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 stopped to stare at her, though she seemed oblivious of this, smoothing wrinkles from the 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 each wagon rut 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 tightened her lips and turned back to arranging the platter of food. 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. “It’s rumored 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, my dear.”
“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 began wilting in the heat.”
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 down 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. Their heads tilted forward.
“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.
“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? Should 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 meet Zacharias and Elizabeth in a few short months at the Feast of Tabernacles. She would make sure to have them talk with her daughter, help bring her back to reality.
Joachim took the pitcher without waiting for either of the women to do it, and filled his own cup. The trickle of the water punched at the tense silence. Joachim held his peace, as he sipped. At last, he spoke. “Then I guess it is a good thing they obeyed the Archangel’s instruction.”
Anna felt the bubble of frustration pop. Her husband’s wisdom was sound. What good would reason do? Had they not tried logic? And had it not led to vehemence, arguing, then to Miryam running?
“Eat child,” Anna said, ignoring for a moment the fact that her daughter was no longer a child but carried one herself. “You must be starving.”
Miryam bit into a ripe grape and pensively chewed.
+ + +
Operation Christ Child
The heavenly troops maintained their ranks perfectly as they broke through the chronos barrier, led by Lord Mikael. From a distance they could see the cloudy arm of the Milky Way where Earth glistened as a jewel inlaid with sapphire and emerald upon the tentacle of a giant cephalopod. Entering this sector of interstellar space so distant from the object of their journey was a strategy the General had devised for greater stealth. Usually he would lead his troops into the dense regions of time and space at mission ground zero. However, the dark minions had been alerted by the heightened activity surrounding Zacharias, Elizabeth, and Miryam. They would be patrolling the regions around Jerusalem heavily.
Seven thousand seasoned warriors, archangel and angel, not a youngling among them, surrounded a single Messenger, arranged in seven cohorts. Michael had dispatched scouting parties to destroy any demonic scoundrels before they could return to their master to give the warning.
Michael remained uneasy. The loss of Zedekiel was still fresh in all of their minds. He forced himself not to think about casualties, focusing on victory instead. He envisioned his army’s peaceful return to the golden barracks beside the holy courts.
Telepathically, he indicated that the general on his right should take the lead. Michael swiveled in midair, his massive wings carrying him backwards and forwards as he supervised the formation of the legion army. In real time, it only took several millisecond for him to ascertain that the buffer of thousands encircling Gabriel was being maintained, so swift were his movements. The speed at which they travelled was equally swift. They were due to reach their destination in a few short minutes.
Among the orders of the angelic, Messengers were the most vulnerable. Many, like the Cherubim and Seraphim, rarely travelled outside their sphere of influence inside the palace halls. Guardians could hold their own in a fight. Warriors, of which Mikael was foremost, were utterly formidable. A mature Warrior could dispatch three hundred demons with one blow, while one of the Archangel order, a thousand. Warriors had purity of heart to match their strength, and when authorized, could command time, space and matter. Though Warriors could be killed, it wasn’t likely.
Guarding a Messenger was a disadvantage which made it more likely.
Their finely honed defensive and offensive moves, such as realm hopping, time curling, ionic spinning, and a dozen others, were unavailable to Warriors when guarding a Messenger. They required slipping for micro-moments out of the time-space continuum. A micro-moment was enough for a demon to sneak in for the kill.
Without access to their arsenal of moves, Warriors who guarded a Messenger had to resort to meeting demons with brute strength. Again, no problem, except when they were outnumbered ten thousand to one, as Zedekiel had been.
Not that any of them would hesitate to die for the will of the Most High. Their own fate was never of great concern. They felt most alive on a mission, taking much more consideration of their comrades in arms.
They entered the humid atmosphere of the sapphire planet in tight formation. Mikael transmitted a new, more complex rhythm to his captains. Seven thousand synchronized wings would create a cataclysmic wind, even from the numinous realm in which they moved. The result would be tornadoes large enough to empty oceans. The entire battalion adjusted to the syncopated rhythm to preserve the air in stillness around them.
Resuming his place at the head of the legion, his attaché fell back. For eons, Zedekiel had fulfilled the role of sub-commander. From Babel to the Red Sea, Jericho to Jerusalem, they had served together. Mikael had suggested several possible replacements from among his generals. He felt a sense of incompleteness without his number two. Yet, when he mentioned this to the Lord of Hosts, Jehovah had answered that nothing in heaven or earth would take His attention away from Gabriel’s current mission. Replacing the archangel had to wait!
Zedekiel. It would be a challenge to find his equal. Other than Mikael, he was the strongest and fastest of them all. From the after-battle waste, it was estimated that he had killed over twenty thousand before his demise. He had purchased time for Gabriel to escape.
Among thousands of daily missions, why target one to an unheralded Nazarene girl of fifteen? That was the reason Mikael had not done then what he was doing now, loading the escort with massive reinforcements. Doing so would have been like waving a banner over them that read, “This Is The Mission of Missions!”, or so he had reasoned.
It was a strategy Mikael knew he would long regret.
But how could that arrogant wastrel have known to target the small band of travelers? Zedekiel, Gabriel and Mikael were the only ones who knew it was a Priority One mission, not seen since the creation of Adam and Eve. Other than the Sovereign Lord and His Inner Council, no one else was privy to its importance. The despised one had to have been spying from a hidden place within the very throne room. Mikael did not understand why the Adored One did not cast him out of the heavenly realms, but he never questioned the ways of the Almighty.
+ + +
Nazareth, One Day After Miryam’s Return
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 sun, “to protect the baby,” Anna said. At a little over three months, her baby bump was beginning to show.
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 flocks, then sit with the other elders at the gate until supper.
With her mother and father gone on their daily duties, Miryam sat in a room adjoining the courtyard, surrounded by spindles and a loom. She sorted the baskets of wool by pattern and hue. She knew the name of each donor, for she had shepherded them on many occasions. Daylight streamed through the lattice of a high window. The cool clay floor felt good against her burgeoning body after days 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 it too tight. Once the spool was full, she began 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 upon the spool. 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 her own womb. Unlike her family and betrothed, 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, a voice whispered in her head, the Most High will not forsake–
The whispering of her Guardians ceased abruptly as unseen claws silenced their comfort forever. 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, “my parents think I’m a whore and a heretic. Lord, you should have struck me dumb as you did Zacharias.” The salty tears came fast now. “What have I done, what has my baby done, to be cursed with this double 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.”
Cloaked behind the veil that divides the earthly from the astral, a gnarled creature hissed into her ear, “I have los-s-st everything!” Thousands of others took up the chant.
“I have lost it all-l-l.”
Their words came like thoughts of her own, as was their strategy.
“I am alone-”
“-will always be alone-”
“-no mate, a mother unwed.”
“No one believes my baby is-s-s from God.”
Miryam resisted repeating the thoughts out loud, refusing to believe them, even as her fears for her baby’s future mounted. Something akin to butterfly wings fluttered in her belly.
“My baby!” She cried and wrapped her arms around her waist. “I love you, baby of mine.”
+ + +
Over the Mediterranean Sea
Like a swarm of wasps traveling at the speed of night, the lethal mob ripped through Michael’s forward and side cohorts. Screams and screeches abounded, wounds and casualties occurring.
Alert to his Master’s purpose, Mikael scanned the open spaces left around Gabriel. There was a single large wretch flanked by a horde of snarling welps cutting a deadly path to the Messenger! The welps were exploding into flotsam at the touch of his Warriors’ swords. Yet none could reach the scoundrel in their center, who was closing in fast.
Gabriel fumbled to remove Excalibur from the scabbard at his side; the Messenger Archangel seemed doomed. Mikael launched to intersect the demon’s course, knowing even as he did so it would reach Gabriel before he could reach it. Nevertheless, Mikael fell upon the wretch full bore, but instead sliced through a cloud of spume. Gabriel brandished the sword, triumphant. The Messenger had saved himself. Nevertheless, Mikael stayed close to him as the fighting wore on.
Mikael checked in with his captains, some were not responding. Yet he could not leave Gabriel to assist them. Finally, the horrible hordes were starting to thin. He separated the Messenger using all except one remaining cohort. Mikael left that one to finish the battle. They would dispatch the demon army far more swiftly without the hindrance of guarding Gabriel.
As he moved away from the fighting with Gabriel and what remained of his army, Mikael’s keen intellect analyzed the potential for fallout. The satanic army, if it could be called an army, took no precaution to protect earth or its inhabitants, and his supernatural hearing had detected a disturbance in the air over the Mediterranean Sea. Despite his dwindled troops, he dispatched a small team to investigate and mitigate the dangerous winds. Meanwhile, he led what was left of his army toward their destination, covering Gabriel with his own steel-like wings.
+ + +
Mikael’s concern for Miryam spiked. He could hear, smell and see a stench-filled horde of demons working her over long before he could get to her. It was only seconds in real time, but it was too long to prevent them from killing her Guardians.
“I am sssssooooo lossst,” a contorted figure beside her hissed. She responded with a wail. Michael filled with righteous anger.
“I have no future, only a life of miz-z-z-reee,” whined another.
The young woman held a hand to her breast. In a thin, weak voice she said, “The Lord is my shield, my glory, and the lifter of my head.” She was quoting the scriptures! He could imagine the rage of the truth-hating demons. The words physically burned them.
Incensed, a large brute with ridged spine railed at the girl. “You’ll never lift your head in honorable society again, Miss Daughter of David.” A thousand hideous voices joined in, claws swatted at the air around her.
“No-o-o!” Miryam screamed. Michael broke ranks and flew ahead.
The grotesque lout yanked her hair. Miryam cried out, holding her hand to her head. The minions chattered excitedly. Swiftly, it slithered on top of her, wrapping its tail around her torso. It started to squeeze.
“I – Must – Die!” It shouted triumphantly. The others screeched with delight. “I must die! I must die!”
“If I die,” Miryam said between a staccato of sobs, “my baby will die. No, this child is special. He must live!”
One touch of Mikael’s sword, and her tormenter morphed into ashes from tail to beak, turning its pronouncement into a personal prophecy. The inner circle of sordid creatures nearest Miryam were dead before they knew they were under attack. Mikael split two hundred from head to torso in an instant. Each of the Warriors in his cohort did equal damage. The Second Cohort used their swords to dissipate the spume from the toxic horde before their poisonous waste could spread. A large enough dose could send the most cheerful and good-natured human into madness.
The Seventh Cohort rejoined them, having finished the demonic hordes without further losses. The angel army, a bit smaller than originally but still formidable, again formed ranks around Gabriel. The Messenger stood before Miryam and unfurled his magnificent wings. The brilliance of the Most High, given to Gabriel and all angels for to use for momentous occasions, lit the room.
Miryam lifted her head, strangely soothed by the light. Watching the display, the angelic army tried to comfort her, although soothing is not the Warrior’s gift. They called out encouragement to her.
“Be strong, most favored one,” Mikael said.
“Do not be dismayed, neither be afraid,” said another.
Miryam’s trembling subsided. She went to her knees, bowing her head. “Lord Gabriel.”
Gathered around the scene between Archangel and human, the angelic host was entranced. Could she see the blue and gold robes of the Messenger Order, Mikael wondered, or Excalibur, which dangled awkwardly from Gabriel’s waist?
“God’s Chosen, look at me,” Gabriel said. She raised her head and her eyes met his.
“Miryam, do not lower yourself before me. You are of the House of David, child of 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 his own head forward.
Miryam sat back. Her ropey tresses were soaked from her tears, her face stained where she had cried into the clay floor. Yet, there remained a nobility in her bearing.
“Dear Gabriel, tell me, why has the Lord sent you here to me a second time?”
“Beloved One, He Who puts the stars on their courses says to you, ‘Stand and see how the Lord will fight for you this day. He will surely give you comfort on every side.’”
“I have stood and I will stand, as my God commands.” Miryam replied.
“There is more to this victory, and to His provision for you. Wait, you will see it very soon.”
Gabriel folded his wings. His mission was finished. The time to depart had come.
Three Warriors stayed with Miryam in place of the lost Guardians. Mikael led his embattled troops through the walls of time into eternity.
+ + +
Miryam combed her hair and splashed her face, checking her reflection in a polished bronze disc to remove a few remaining dirt-smeared streaks. She climbed to the loft, found a fresh robe, sashing it about herself, then stood, smoothing a hand across her belly. The baby had been very active during all the commotion. Now it was still. She crooned to it a lullaby.
A knock came at the gate of the outer courtyard. She descended the ladder to open it. Joseph stooped beneath the wide lintel. Deep creases beneath his eyes revealed nights of sleeplessness.
“Miryam – I – I – I know!”
“I – Oh Adonai, give me the right words – I had a dream, yet it was no dream. I was lying on my bench, and fell into a trance. Hashem’s Angel shone inside the room, brighter and brighter. I wanted to cry out, but he wouldn’t allow me to move, neither tongue nor limb. He said to me that your child is the doing of Adonai Himself, the Messiah, but we are to raise him as our son.”
“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! When 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! This is part of the miracle. Miryam, you have never known a man – I believe that now, with all my heart and soul I believe – and yet you are with child! Your child is the long-awaited Deliverer of Israel!”
“I know, Joseph, and I’m glad you know 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. “Yes, Joseph, I forgive 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 jostled. 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 looked inside the courtyard. Their surprise turned to delighted, knowing smiles. The young couple smiled back at them.
“Joachim,” Anna said, loud enough for their neighbors to hear, “we need to trade sheep for flax, and very, very soon. There will be a wedding in this family, after all!”