Miriam and her husband Yosef had been married for a year in which they had tried to conceive, without success. They lived in a compound in Nazareth with Yosef’s cousins, already with children. When the cousins’ babies waddled around the courtyard with their wailing mouths and dimpled knees, Yosef would watch and laugh, clapping his hands, displaying a tenderness that Miriam had otherwise never seen, including when they had courted, yet when he turned to her, his smile disappeared, his speech short, his heart hardened. She did not want a child but a man who would love her. If her husband would not be that man, then she would seek another.
She did not need to go searching. One summer day at the compound, she was drawing water at the well when she heard a voice echo off the stone walls. At the open gate, a man—a Roman soldier—came running through the archway, shouting, fleeing from some unseen enemy. When he reached the well, he fell at Miriam’s feet, holding his side, writhing in his dull red cape, his curly black hair turning white with sand. No men were around. They were working the fields and building houses. Yosef was laying stone. The women stayed in their homes, minding their own affairs. Miriam got the pail of water and gave it to the man, and he drank. She stood him upright and walked him up the stairway to her home. Inside, she helped him remove his cape and shiny breastplate. She startled at the sight of his sword. The handle stuck out from his belt. She removed the belt and rubbed ointment on his wounds and asked him who had been chasing him. Devils, he said, and passed out. He had been stabbed many times. By whom, Miriam did not know, nor why a Roman soldier would flee into Nazareth, hillside country. She put her hand over his heart. Outside, near the well, the soldier’s blood had stained the earth. The women exited their homes and swept new sand over old.
Three months later, on a blustery autumn day, the wind so strong that Miriam struggled to keep her hood down, she was again drawing water when someone appeared at the gate. It was her cousin Elisheba. Miriam was surprised. Elisheba never left her estate in the city. Miriam abandoned her pail and ran to her cousin, her hood blowing back, hair exposed to sunshine, flowing in the wind. She fell on Elisheba’s neck. They hugged and laughed over each other’s shoulders. Then her cousin spoke seriously. “I have something to tell you.”
Miriam feared bad news but pretended not to notice the seriousness of her cousin’s tone. “Come inside,” she said. They ascended the stairs.
Miriam started a fire. Elisheba again started to speak. Miriam interrupted. “I know my home is simple, but we do our best. My husband has improved it.” Miriam pointed to the ceiling. “He raised those beams. You know he is a carpenter and mason, no priest like your husband. I talk too much. What brings you here? Would you like food?” She went to the kitchen and got bread and olives and water and set the bowls and cups on the table. She sat down on the floor and tapped the table. “My husband crafted this.”
Elisheba had been trying to speak the whole time but now looked down at the floor, looking very old and worried, her fist to her mouth.
“Cousin,” Miriam said, “why have you come? You do not visit. You have never visited.”
Elisheba stiffly moved to Miriam’s side of the table, her lips trembling. She was forty-six and frightened like a young girl, as Miriam, sixteen years old, sometimes felt frightened on nights when the shadows danced in the furnace, nights when Yosef returned home late. Elisheba placed a palm on Miriam’s stomach. “The cloth beneath your garments has been unspotted for a season. So the cousins say. They know there is no blood to wash.” As if someone might hear, she whispered close to Miriam’s ear. “The cousins saw the soldier visit.”
The breath left Miriam’s lungs. Her heart clanged against her chest like a brass cymbal. She needed water and drank quickly from her cup, recalling that day in summer when the soldier returned.
To thank you for healing me, he said and held out an alabaster box containing a bottle of spikenard. She could not accept it, she said, and handed it back to him. He threw the box to the floor where it broke, revealing the smooth-faced jar. He opened the jar and began rubbing the fragrant oil under her eyes. It relaxed her cheeks, tingled, tickling, his fingertips raising the hairs on her flesh. She wanted to move forward and bite his lip. Let me anoint you, he said. She undressed in the warmth of the fire and inhaled the musty spikenard while he rubbed it on her neck, her sides, her legs. She turned around as he massaged her. He held her for a moment. She leaned into him. They swayed. He backed away and undressed. She applied the ointment to his body, stopping to rest her nose on his neck, to inhale his scent. She bit his shoulder. They made love. Afterward, in the crawlspace, she asked him to bring her water. Seeing his bare backside as he crawled from the bed and those awkward dangling parts, she could have felt shame but laughed instead. He returned with the cup of water and propped his head beside her, smiling, as Yosef would have done after making love. It was too familiar. She whimpered.
Here with Elisheba, she whimpered again and drank water from her cup. The sun in the sky tilted, letting too much light through the window, down on both their faces. Elisheba wrapped her arms around Miriam and said, “Hush. Do you not know your life is in danger? The wives here have told their husbands. The husbands have told Yosef. At this moment, Yosef seeks my husband Zechariah’s counsel at the temple. There is no time. Let us seek guidance.” They put their hands together and prayed.
After a moment’s passing, Miriam opened her eyes and rested her hand on Elisheba’s cheek. “God has blessed me,” she said. “I prayed for a man to love me and God brought me this soldier. Surely there is no sin in that.”
“Is that what God has told you?” Elisheba asked.
“It is his voice I hear in my heart,” Miriam replied.
The front door scraped along the floor. Slanted light broke in, scattering across four dusty feet, as two men stepped inside. Miriam looked up. She trembled. It was Zechariah, Elisheba’s husband, with her husband Yosef. Neither man said a word. Yosef reached out his hand to Miriam and raised her up with his sturdy arm.
It was spring. There was smoke. Fire climbed the front door. Yosef wrapped his arm in cloth and spanked the flames that crawled the wood and then the fire was extinguished. Miriam ran out after him and told him to come inside. Turning to the courtyard, Yosef laughed, his voice bellowing, echoing off the brick walls. “Who among you wishes to burn me and my wife out of our home? If you desire us to leave, say it. Face me, cowards.” No one came out of their homes, but traitorous eyes peered through cracked doors. Miriam stood beside her husband. No garments could hide her round belly. Men from Yosef’s family now spoke openly of her unfaithfulness.
The compound had become dangerous. The joy of company with the wives while their children played with wooden horses, the comfort of washing clothes with them and talking, the simple act of drawing water from the well alone—such things the cousins barred from Miriam. Yosef conducted the outdoor chores. He became a man after Miriam’s heart, devoted as he was. When he was not around, she feared attack. When she treaded the familiar places within the walls, even stepping down the stairs, the wives would turn their backs, gather their children, rush them indoors. At night outside her door, she heard murmuring voices. Meanwhile the shadows cast by furnace light danced upon the walls. Those nights, Miriam prayed Yosef would return soon from work. Every night he came home late, she feared he had been killed.
Yosef told her, “Be brave and wait,” and one evening planned for their departure. They gathered a few belongings in a bag, mostly food provisions.
She stopped to rest. “Our burden is too great,” she said.
He leaned his head over hers, his eyes glassy, filled with the furnace flame, and he reminded her of the vision that he relayed to her the past autumn, when he had gone to the temple to meet with Zechariah. Zechariah, who was a priest, had stood before the white and gold and crimson curtain to the inner sanctuary. His fingers fumbled the powdered herbs while Yosef spoke harshly of Miriam. Zechariah said to hush, to wait. There was still the ritual to perform to prepare the temple for the presence of the god of Avraham. They bowed their heads and closed their eyes as Zechariah prayed. Incense billowed dark smoke from the stone bowl. The two men breathed in. Then they both heard a crack like thunder and opened their eyes. The curtain to the seat of God was pulled back and a white light appeared. An angel with flowing blond locks, his face like a boy’s, emerged from the light and spoke to them, saying Be not afraid, and Yosef, do not chastise your wife, who has become a vessel for the one true god. Yosef leaned close to Miriam as he told her this story and wiped away her tears. “No harm shall come to you while the angel of God protects you. I shall protect you too. Have faith in me.”
The next morning, they set out on a donkey. Zechariah and Elisheba came and saw them off at the compound gate. They departed when the sun was weak, Miriam astride the donkey, Yosef holding the reins.
They traveled for what turned into many days, looking to settle down where strangers would become friends. Although they found lodging with fellow sons of Israel, no community would accept them for long, strangers as they were. They moved onward. With the reins in hand, Yosef walked slumped like a man overburdened. Miriam blamed herself for his sorrow. Then one day upon their journey the rain came down in torrents and they were stranded without shelter.
They trekked across the desolate desert, lost in the rainswept landscape, until Miriam pointed to a home, outside of which a shepherd chased a sheep and put it back in its pen. Night fell quickly. Yosef helped Miriam dismount the donkey, and they both trudged toward the shepherd, who quickly went inside. Yosef knocked on the wide door. The shepherd opened it. “Take us in,” Yosef said. He and Miriam stood there in soggy cloaks. The shepherd asked if they were Jews.
“Aye,” said Yosef.
“We are Hellenes,” the shepherd said, “and have no use for you or your god.”
He was closing the door when his wife came to stop him. “Let them in,” she said. “They are wet and cold, and she is pregnant.” The wife motioned to Miriam, who fell and clutched at the earth.
The shepherd helped her rise, and he and Yosef guided her inside. Then the shepherd went to tend to his children, climbing the ladder to the loft where they rested. The main floor, meanwhile, was a barn for feeding animals.
The shepherd’s wife, who introduced herself as Theotokos, let Yosef’s donkey inside to feed. In the light of a flickering fireplace, she laid straw along the floor so Miriam could lie down. She tucked one pillow beneath Miriam’s head and another beneath her back. Yosef stood close by as if to study the fire, asking Theotokos if she needed help. “No,” she said. She had delivered many children, without complication, aided by a god whose name was unknown. She took the reins of the donkey, guided it outside and tied it up, and returned to Miriam’s side.
Miriam lay on the ground, smiling at her husband. Then she heard a crack like thunder. Her eyes turned up and fluttered in her skull. Her body shook. The door blew open. She opened her eyes and rolled her head toward the open door, where the smell of musky spikenard emanated from a man’s sandaled feet. Just outside the door stood the Roman soldier, gold-breasted, red-caped, his sword handle sticking out from its sheath. Her eyes studied the man’s body, but his form would not stand still. At one moment he appeared young, curly-haired, lean, the next moment he appeared old with white hair, a round belly, and in the next moment he appeared like a boy with flowing blond locks—then all three at once. Thunder crashed. The figure sprouted white wings, ancient like the giant birds Joab’s god had conquered. They extended and flapped. His red cape undulated, his eyes burning orange and blue. He unholstered his sword, which blazed with fire, and wielded it upright between his flickering eyes. His armor glistened, and his wings fanned the flames. The furnace was too hot. Miriam’s body was too hot.
She looked down at her body in the dimming room. She felt it. The child had begun to crown. Theotokos was there to catch the newborn. Boards creaked in the loft. Shepherd boys peered over the railing. Miriam screamed. The flame in the furnace had burned too brightly and now it was hard to make out events as they transpired, weak as the fire was. In the shuttering of the light, Theotokos held the baby upside down and smacked his backside. The shepherd boy gasped from the loft. Yosef turned to them. “Have you no sense of privacy?” he said. Theotokos said, “Quiet.” They waited and listened. The baby let out a long cry. The room sighed. Miriam was pleased with herself, laughing with joy at the thought of this boy born of her body and blood. Theotokos swaddled the male child and held him. His cry turned to a moan.
Miriam reached out her arms, longing for her child’s touch. She spoke to him in a tongue reserved for mothers to their children. I never knew why I waited, until this day when I meet you, my little god. As Theotokos brought the baby closer, he stopped crying and closed his eyes. She swung back around. “Let me hold him,” Miriam said. Theotokos lowered her head, looking down at the baby. Yosef left the fire to stand near the child. “Give him to me,” Miriam said. No one else spoke. No one stirred. “Give him to me,” Miriam said once more. Theotokos turned and handed the bloodied child to her.
His head lay still against Miriam’s chest. She rested her chin against the back of his skull. It smelled like milk and honey. She had never smelled a thing so pure. Boards creaked above. The shepherd boys hid themselves. “I love him,” Miriam said. Yosef moved away, back toward the furnace. The fire had extinguished. Theotokos knelt beside Miriam in the darkness. The shepherd boys did not come down from the loft. The shepherd did not come down from the loft. Miriam rubbed her child’s back, ran her hand down his arm, to his fingers. He did not move. He was only sleeping, she was sure of it, in that she had faith. She heard her husband rattle embers in the fireplace. She loved him and had faith in him too. He would try all night, if he had to, to light the fire.