An Excerpt from “A Carpenter's Tale,” one of 12 stories in “Angels in Our Countrysides.”
copyright 2010 Robert John Burke.
In his dreams, it was always dark. He sat beside a crackling fire in a wooded place-- an olive grove, or perhaps a pine forest. Flickering shadows rendered the trees indistinct. Although he never stoked or prodded it, the fire always gave off just enough heat to break the bitter cold; he was not inspired to leave its warmth for a closer inspection of his surroundings. For a time, he was content to watch it, and rub his hands together, and wait.
It was hard to say how long he waited. The fire drew him in, absorbed his thoughts, left him feeling pleasantly blank, a rare luxury for a hard-working man from the troubled town of Nazareth. All his neighbors seemed consumed by worries, each more dire than the last. There was never enough money, enough food, enough safety from the Romans... and now a special trouble, which was his alone. Even the sanctuary he'd once found in his work, the good labor of his hands, was no longer enough to drive off the cares. They danced at the edges of his mind, daring him, mocking him with a peacefulness that seemed to have packed up and left him friendless.
He sighed; or felt himself sigh, for he knew the body he imagined himself to be wearing was only shadow, a little bit of the dream. It wasn't real, but the fire... he felt, somehow, the fire was real in a way he couldn't grasp. From it seemed to emanate the only peace that remained in the world.
The visitor, when he came, almost seemed to speak from out of the fire. "How are you this evening, Joseph?"
In the dream, Joseph would blink, shake himself, and realize that of course he'd been confused. He'd been watching the fire, but the voice had come from his guest, the same guest who always came to him here, in this place outside his daily life. Sometimes Joseph felt the voice was all he knew about his visitor. His face and form, like the trees, remained obscured; they would never quite settle in Joseph's mind. He was a tall, strong, fellow, hardly troubled by the cold, that much was plain. He never seemed to need the fire, and approached it only when he wished to talk. A stranger in every way, but in some ways, more familiar to Joseph than he to himself.
"How am I this evening?" The visitor's manner was easy, sincere, and Joseph always found himself admitting more than he cared to, often things he didn't even know until he said them. "Troubled. Since you ask, I'm a troubled man."
The visitor laughed. "You're always troubled, my friend. You fret about things. It makes you a craftsman, but it's not very healthy."
"What hope have I to stay healthy?" Joseph countered. "I'm barely making ends meet, my customers
barter half the time and forget to pay the other half..."
"You've never insisted they remember."
Lost in himself, Joseph waved off the comment. "The country's in a ruin, and now they talk about this cursed census... how can I return to Bethlehem now, leave my work? How will I survive?"
"Have faith," said the visitor.
"Faith. Faith is well for men in dreams, but those of us who live and breathe still need to pay for things. A man with a family to support can't afford..."
He stopped. The visitor didn't press for more, just waited. His patience proved more effective than prompting.
"I forgot," Joseph said. "That's the way of dreams, too... the world is always how you'd wish it was..."
More patience, more waiting. Joseph sighed. "I won't have a family to support. Not now, not the way I'd hoped. It can never be that way. And even if it could, how can I...? There's so much I wanted to... it's the tradition, is what it is! A curse on Pharisees and their rules and their traditions!"
The visitor seemed to be smiling, though Joseph couldn't have said how he knew that. "It might help us to converse if you would finish your sentences."
"I'm sorry." Joseph studied the fire. He picked up a stick and began tracing absent patterns on the ground. A habit of his, when feeling pensive. "It's my betrothed. It's Mary. She's... I cannot say it!"
The man knelt on the ground, on the other side of the fire. "Before you can decide what to say, you must decide what you believe."
"I don't know what I believe." Another pattern in the sand. Joseph continued, broken, "But she admits... she admits that she is... and we have never..."
The visitor cocked his head, studying Joseph. Somehow, it seemed, his eyes could penetrate the gloom. "I see."
"Apparently so, but I see nothing. My path was clear, I thought I knew what to do. But now... I cannot see my way."
"Everyone's blind sometimes. There's no shame in it." A pause. "Do you love her?"
Joseph closed his eyelids, felt the wetness between them. A drop fell down his cheek. "There is no one like her. Other women... other people... we're all so afraid. Afraid to give or take, go or stay. We scurry around like rats, lost in ourselves. But she... there is no fear in her. Only love. I..." A sob escaped him, quickly swallowed and choked upon. "I do not understand how she could do this."
"Did you ask her?"
Joseph laughed, more bitterly than he'd cried. "I asked her. She told me... what she said was a lie."
"That doesn't sound like the woman you've described." No judgment in that voice, no condemnation.
That alone made the visitor different from anyone else Joseph might have spoken to; perhaps that was why he confided in him. Otherwise he might have kept silent, even in the safety of dreams.
"It cannot be otherwise. What she told me... cannot be." He hung his head. "Don't worry, I will not disgrace her. I could never do that. But... quietly... it has to end."
The visitor nodded. "Is that what the world expects?"
"Not just the world." Joseph hung his head. The stick fell from his hand. "God forgive me, my own pride, as well. She hasn't betrayed me half as much as I betray myself."
Another moment, the fire crackling. The visitor picked up the stick. "Now that sounds like truth."
"Maybe. What difference does it make?"
"What difference?" Joseph's visitor pointed with the stick, indicating the fire. "The truth, like this light, is created by God. It is part of Him; it must be followed." Now he pointed at the ground, indicating the pattern Joseph had drawn. "The lines in the sand are your own. They mean what you believe them to mean. They can be beautiful; they can be ugly. But a brush of my hand, and they are gone."
He swept the stick across the ground, covering the old dirt with new. The two men stared at it from opposite sides of the light.
"Do you understand?"
Joseph started to nod, then shook his head. "Not really. Not all of it. Perhaps very little of it. But perhaps I still know truth when I hear it."
"And where is your truth, Joseph, son of Jacob? In the sand, or in the light? With the world, or with her?"
Joseph squinted through the fire, tried again to make out the stranger's face; the shadows remained too deep. That much truth, he was apparently not destined to behold. Perhaps, for now, it didn't matter.
He said, "I would answer your question, but my heart speaks for me."
The other man sat there, very still, for a moment. Then he rose to his feet suddenly, a decision made. "Very well, then. Joseph, I tell you, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit."
"The Holy...? But you cannot mean...!"
But his visitor was gone. Always he left more suddenly than he arrived; the only sight and sound belonged to the fire, still crackling, still bright. Still real, in the midst of the dream. Joseph settled down beside it and slept.
He did take Mary as his wife, and they lived together while the time for the census approached. By unspoken agreement, they remained apart even in that arrangement, for both now understood something was happening, something important and frankly beyond the control of a poor couple. So they waited, and watched, and Mary grew heavy with child. It appeared respectable enough; the timing worked out well enough for Joseph to claim the child for his own. But it was a near thing, and there were whispers. Some of Joseph's neighbors wondered whether he and Mary had acted shamefully before their marriage, and some of them wondered whether Mary had acted shamefully alone. The latter kind stung the most, because they pricked Joseph's tender pride. They never talked about it, and most of the time he could pretend it didn't hurt, but Mary knew. It grieved her, but only so much; most of the time, she seemed happier than anyone he'd ever known, happier certainly than he'd ever been able to make her. Joseph puzzled over that, too; his new wife had always been a devout and caring woman, but a change had come over her; she fairly radiated the joy of what was happening to her... to them. She'd committed herself to this path, and seemed content with it, ignoring the chatter of people who didn't know anything or have any basis upon which to guess, but were perfectly content to have their opinions on it anyway. Joseph wished he could have shrugged off the gossip so easily.
Life settled down for a while, and for a time he didn't even dream. But then the census came upon them, and with it the requirement for a journey home to Bethlehem, at what seemed like the worst possible time. Autumn had turned to winter, and the weather snapped at them like an angry dragon. Even in the dreams, Joseph could not recall a cold so bone-numbing, and here there was no perfect fire to warm him-- or his very pregnant wife. As near as Mary could calculate, she was due within a few days of their arrival. Perfect timing.
There would be no caravan for them, no protection; everyone else in Nazareth had enough trouble making plans to travel to their own birthplaces. Such collective bad humor had rarely been seen in Judea; everyone was going, and nobody wanted to go. They grumbled about it, but the orders of the royal governor were not to be disobeyed. Painful things happened to those who made such experiments.
We'll have pain enough of our own, Joseph knew. The long road in her condition, and no protection? We may well perish.
No ghostly visitor appeared to suggest it was not so. Fear of death and all, Joseph never strayed from the course he had chosen that night in the dream. It never occurred to him that Mary should suffer alone; she would bear the worst of it by necessity, but he would do what he could to shift the
load onto his own shoulders. For better or worse, his truth now lay with her, along the same road.
Too soon, it was time to travel that road. Joseph helped his wife onto a donkey; she rode awkwardly, painfully, but it was the best he could do for her. He had nothing to ride himself; he'd sold his finest wares, a table he'd been building for months, just to buy the donkey. He would stretch his legs; he would walk.
Provisions were not easily obtained, either. A frugal man, Joseph had preserved what he could long in advance, but it would hardly be enough. Many nights of the journey, Mary ate only what she needed to keep the baby healthy, and Joseph took little, or nothing at all. He lost sleep for fear of bandits, passing the time by whittling a block of wood into what he hoped would make a presentable birthday gift for the baby. It wasn't coming out very well, but working on it was better than closing his eyes. Then, his growling stomach sent him spiraling into strange, half-twisted dreams, none of them containing the fire, or his visitor, or any relief at all. In the morning he woke up hungry, at noon he marched onward with a parched throat, at night he shivered and endured. And the next day he did it all again.
He prayed unceasingly during this time-- prayed for guidance, prayed for strength, prayed for any kind of hope to keep them going, and never really felt that he'd received it. All he had was Mary, and her quiet smile, and her unshakeable conviction that God was with them. As consolations went, Joseph had experienced worse.
At what seemed like interminable length, they approached the final leg of their journey, which was when the next unpleasant surprise made itself known: Everyone in the entire world had been born in Bethlehem, or so it seemed to Joseph from the condition of the streets. People packed elbow-to-elbow. Vagrants even poorer than he slept in the town square. One boy, perhaps eight years old with a dirty face, appeared so pitiful that Joseph gave up on the idea of future presents and handed him the whittled toy, just to make him smile. It worked, but only for a moment. Too much danger here to smile for long. Sickly scents of waste and disease hugged the air. Thugs and robbers haunted the corners. And the inns-- oh, naturally all the inns and boarding-houses were full to brimming. Joseph had never been good at talking to people; he understood wood and hammers and hard work and sweat. But now he learned diplomacy, and after several failed attempts, used his wife's condition to good effect in securing a promise from a kindly innkeeper that they would be permitted to sleep in the stable. It smelled bad, and it was clean only in the sense that Joseph could not specifically identify the source or composition of the worst stains; but it was warm, and there was straw to ease his wife's growing discomfort, and there was food left in his sack to see them through.
He'd never felt more helpless in his life than the night when Mary was delivered; watching her there, in pain, under the occasional and halfhearted ministrations of the innkeeper's wife, while he knew nothing and could do nothing to aid her... that was harder than anything he'd suffered himself. At one point he had to leave; to find water, he said. More to the point, he could no longer bear the tears in her eyes.
Walking to the well, he pulled his cloak about him and looked at the stars. Wisps of clouds obscured the moon; it was very dark. He shivered. Light, and truth. Where were they now? How would he find his way, with no one to guide him? So many people like him and Mary, left on their own in an indifferent or hostile world, and who would help them? The glorious Roman Empire? The Pharisees? Unlikely.
The Messiah may someday save Jerusalem, he thought, but who will come to save us?
When he returned to the stable, a pack of unruly men-- a small mob-- had gathered at the door. Joseph broke into a run, dropped his pail of water, shouldered past the first of them. If any of them had hurt Mary...! How could he have been so selfish as to leave her alone?
But when he got to his wife's side, brandishing his walking stick alternately as a lever and a club, he found the leader of the group... kneeling. Kneeling beside the manger, which Joseph had cleaned and prepared for the baby. There was Mary in the corner, red-faced and dripping with sweat, her smile enough to light the stars. And in the manger...
"Joseph," said Mary's quiet voice, "this is our son."
If he hadn't felt so relieved, Joseph would have cried. Instead he knelt too, embraced his wife, and gave thanks to God for her safety and the safety of the child she had carried-- had brought into the world successfully, against all odds, with his help. And when he looked upon that child, Joseph thought it was the most wonderful thing he'd ever seen, a blessing beyond his wildest dreams. He knew that he would do it all again, and more, to see that wrinkled face.
But there was pain, too, at the back of his mind. Mary had called the baby "their son," but he wasn't really theirs. Just hers.
Soon there was activity enough to take his mind off this or any grief, however; the shepherds left, praising God the same way Joseph had-- though why they cared, he couldn't say; he never was able to coax from them a very intelligible explanation for why they'd come in the first place. Mary seemed to understand, and that was enough.
After that, Joseph and his new family were able to live happily for a while. The census was accomplished, the child remained in good health, and all seemed well.
And then the camels arrived. Magi, their riders called themselves, and unlike the shepherds, they had not come empty-handed. In fact, they brought treasure such as Joseph had rarely seen, gold and rare spices, enough to pay the cost of the trip several times over. Yet they also said strange things, things he didn't understand about the heavens and prophecies and kings. One of them took him aside and warned him that King Herod, ruler of Judea, had shown unhealthy interest in the child's whereabouts.
"But that's absurd!" Joseph protested. "Why should any king want to harm the boy? How can he possibly have enemies? What could his future hold that will make him a threat to anyone?"
The old Magi smiled and patted Joseph's shoulder. "Threats come in many forms, my friend, and enemies are rarely what you expect. But as to the boy's future... the son will take after his father. That is ever the way of the world."
The old man wasn't saying what he thought he was, but Joseph understood him too well. That night, he dreamed again.
The fire was there, and the stranger, but this time there was no peace-- no time for idle talk.
"Get up,” the man said urgently. "Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt!"
"Egypt!" Joseph said. "But how can I go to Egypt? I could pay our way with the Magi's gold, I suppose, but... we know no one there. We'll have nothing left when we arrive. And how long can we--"
"Go!" said the visitor again. "God will provide."
"I can't just..."
Half a step forward. "There is no time! All depends on this! Please, you must trust me."
The man's tone brooked no argument, and Joseph felt someone tugging urgently on his shoulder. He woke, expecting Mary, but she still slept. He was alone, shivering with cold and sweat, and knew with grim certainty that it was time to leave. He would not have admitted to being the sort who trusted in dreams and signs-- certainly not with his family's lives at stake-- but the truth was, he did trust the
man he'd spoken to, trusted in the fire's light to lead him, and so he packed them up on the instant and departed that night.
He'd expected questions from Mary, some of them indignant, but she accepted it all as calmly as ever, bundling up the baby for the trip without a word. Some men became angry if they began to suspect they were not the strong ones in their families; Joseph counted himself lucky to know he was not.
Soon enough, he knew he'd been right to make haste. Almost before he'd finished helping Mary onto her donkey, the screaming began. Women's voices, in the square and around the town. Voices begging, pleading for mercy; the clatter of swords and armor; and occasionally, worse sounds. Children wailing. Children who started wailing, then suddenly stopped. Joseph felt his stomach lurch; if it hadn't been so often empty of late, he would have lost whatever it contained.
Then the crying started anew, all the screaming turned to tears. Joseph could hear Mary, on the donkey, crying along with them. She knew well enough what had happened-- what could have happened to them, had they stayed. The baby, miraculously, remained silent, drawing no attention to them, but he shivered and snuffled as Mary held him close.
Escape turned out to be a matter of luck; turning a corner, Joseph bumped into a runny-nosed child, who was in desperate flight from the soldiers. He stopped the boy and held him close, hand over his mouth, until they passed. He didn't even know what was happening until the moment passed; the soldiers took no notice. Joseph allowed himself to breathe again. Without a word, the boy took his hand and led them down another road, a narrow one overlooked by the soldiers. It opened up on a path leading out of town. Joseph opened his mouth to thank the boy, to ask for details and wonder why he had bothered to aid them. The boy pulled the broken remains of a wooden toy from his pocket, the memory of a kindness shared. With a gap-toothed grin, the boy disappeared into the moonlight. Joseph never saw him again.
TO BE CONTINUED
If you enjoyed this excerpt, the collection “Angels in Our Countryside” by Robert John Burke, containing this story and eleven others, can be purchased in paperback or Kindle formats.