Is it all warm and fuzzy?
Excerpt from "At Arms Length"
It was one of those early spring days when the sun barely holds back the chill of the wind. By the time the sun disappeared, it might well have been winter again. I was supposed to be in Bethlehem for supper, but the narrow mountain roads were crammed with people. You were too young to remember but that idiot in Rome had called for another census. Everyone was rushing to the place of their birth so they wouldn't be fined. It had already been dark for a few hours when I reached the Inn and there were no rooms available.
I knew the innkeeper, he was a crook like the rest of them and amazingly a room was found when a denarius "accidentally" fell from my hand onto his table. As I was taking my donkey to the stable, I heard some loud shouting and crashing. The innkeeper was throwing some poor fellow out of his room to make a place for me. So what, I thought, one of us has to sleep out in the cold and better him than me.
I suppose it was all that noise that kept me from hearing the baby crying. But As I reached the mouth of the cave that the innkeeper called his stable I heard it clearly. There was no question about it. There was a baby in there squalling like I'd never heard before.I hadn't brought a torch because it was an uncommonly bright night and I couldn't see into the shadows. Now that I think about it, it was one of the brightest nights I can remember. As I stood peering into the darkness the wind shifted slightly and the full stench of the place hit me so I gagged. That fool innkeeper hadn't cleaned the stable in months from the smell of it. I remember thinking, If I put my donkey in here he'll probably get worms, that's what finished off my last one and they weren't getting any cheaper. But alas the donkey needed food and water, so I ventured in, holding my breath.
There in front of me was a man clumsily balancing a screaming, squirming infant in the crook of one arm. He was trying vainly to wash the child with his free hand. The baby had just been born and even in the darkness I could see he was sill covered with blood. The father was dipping a cloth into a trough of filthy water meant for the animals. It was icy cold and each time the rag was applied to the baby's body, he screamed even louder.
The man didn't see me until I was directly in front of him. He jerked suddenly and almost dropped the baby as my presence startled him. We stared at each other .... Finally he asked, "Are you sleeping here too?"... I responded, "No, I'm only here to put Herod to rest"..... "Herod!", he exclaimed... "Yes", I said, "That's my donkey", hoping for the big laugh I usually got when I told people I called my donkey Herod. But the man said nothing and went back to afflicting his child.
I pulled my beast toward a stall full of hay and almost tripped on the baby's mother lying their in a crudely conceived straw bed. She was nearly a child herself. Her wispy hair was matted to her head with perspiration. The birth had obviously not been easy. She was as pale as marble and if she was breathing, I could not see it. I jerked Herod away from her and pulled him towards another stall. The woman occupied the only vacant one, so I shoved Herod into a cramped space with another donkey. They immediately began braying and biting each other.
It was not right for me to see a woman so barely covered especially right after giving birth, so I hurried back to the man careful not to look at the pathetic girl. I asked," Friend, where is the midwife?"... "There is none.", he moaned, "I couldn't leave her alone long enough to find one. It all happened too fast." ... "Then who delivered the child", I added. ... "I did", he responded, " I don't know how, I just did it."
I should have kept my last question to myself but something made me ask, "Is the woman dead?". He pierced me with a look of animal fear. And with a choked cry, handed me the baby and rushed to his wife. He cupped her pale face in his big hands and soon I heard them whispering together.
In the mean time, I was puzzling over how to hold the infant. I had seen them held, but had forgotten just how. I finally settled on putting one hand under his head, grasping his ankles with the other and holding him out at arms length just in case something should happen. I moved the child into the light near the opening of the cave. His face, purple and swollen from struggling out of the womb was even more contorted as he bawled. I wondered what sort of life a child like this could have, born with animals in a cold dark stinking cave. How many thousands come into the world like this? How many survive? How many live out their days begging, stealing, being slaves, field hands or shepherds? How many wish they never were born? I was glad when the man came back and took the child out of my arms.
"Thank You, the woman is all right", he said. He didn't seem very sure of that however. "We had to travel a long way today and the pains began while we were still on the road. It was very hard for her. There was no room in the inn. We were too late." He stared at me for a moment and almost asked me something. I looked away relieved he didn't ask. Slowly, large dark tears began to form in his eyes and then travel down the lines of his face . With choked emotion he added, "This is no way for my child to be born, no way!".
We all just sat quietly in the dark for a few moments, none of us sure what to say. Even the baby had ceased crying, probably exhausted. The woman then called from her bed and instructed the man to get the swaddling clothes out of one of their baskets. She instructed us in a thin tired voice how to wrap the boy in the long cotton strips. I held a scrawny leg out while the man wrapped it and then took it over to show the woman. "Too loose", she said, so we started over this time binding the child as tightly as if he were being prepared for death.
When we finished, only the child's face peered out of the cloths. The man took the child to his mother to nurse but she was asleep again, hardly breathing. He laid the baby in the manger where the animals who usually occupied the stall ate from.I decided it was time to leave and as I backed out of the stall the man said, "Thank you". "It was nothing friend", I responded as I backed out of the cave. I almost added "Congratulations" but it didn't seem appropriate under the circumstances.
The moment I passed through the entrance to the cave I turned around and ran full face into a big sweaty shepherd. There were four others behind him all puffing and panting as if they had been running. Behind them was what must have been 300 sheep filling the courtyard of the inn. "There's no room in there!", I said as convincingly as possible. "Go somewhere else." ..... "Yessir Yessir", they replied bowing low, but as soon as I turned my back they and half the sheep rushed into the cave. "No matter", I said to myself as I walked to my room. And as I went I wondered who would die first as the night grew colder, the mother or the child.