This story is by Gary Little and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The hard and grizzled hands of the carpenter, today held no saw, nor hammer nor shave. The hands drove no nail, nor turned no lathe, nor formed neither wheel spoke nor table leg.
This day, those hands of the carpenter, supported Mary, his wife, as she finally rode, after all that way she had stubbornly walked. Near sun set, with the lights of Bethlehem still distant, Joseph had slung their baggage onto his back, not much, just what they needed for a few days, and insisted Mary ride Ayir, the ass that bore their burdens.
He was glad he had heeded Ephraim’s advice and taken the little ass. It had meant extra water but not much food since Ayir had been able to graze where they had stopped for rest and meals or for the night. He had stood sentry every night, whickering at the unknown, but not often, letting Joseph get needed rest after a hard day on the road.
Complaining that she was fine Mary reluctantly agreed but hesitated as Joseph was about to lift her onto the back of the small ass.
“My love,” she said, “might I ride on something softer than a bag of hammers?”
“Huh,” Joseph mumbled feeling the padding he had placed on Ayir’s back.
In his haste to make the ass’s back more comfortable, he grabbed the bag of tools he had brought in case he might find work on their journey. There came a quick shuffle as Joseph removed the lumpy bag of tools and replaced it with the softer blankets they used for the night. He began to make apologies, but Mary caressed those roughened hands and stifled those overflowing words with a smile as she settled herself on Ayir’s back.
Joseph looked up with a sheepish grin and whispered, “All the trouble ye’ve given, woulda served ye right.”
“Oh … and that much trouble have I been,” followed by a breathy chuckle ending in a grunt with hand brought to her stomach.
Joseph touched her hand gently, inquiringly, but Mary smiled, touched his cheek, and indicated all was well.
Those hands, used to the hammer and saw and nail, now gently guided Ayir, leading with the halter, stroking the flank, and murmuring a soft, “shush … shush” as needed to calm the animal and make the ride easier for Mary. Through the streets he sought refuge for his family, knocking on door after door, but always being told no room for them in the inn.
In the distance a storm strobed and flashed, revealing hills away from the town, one hill still bearing the gruesome reminders of Roman justice.
At times Joseph cursed the need for this journey, so near to the birthing of their child.
“Shush,” Mary said, “it is as it should be.” She gently touched one of those rough hands of a carpenter, and gave it a soft squeeze.
The streets were hushed with mystery, the night was cold and still as they passed and knocked, but always heard, “no room.”
Preferring not to spend another night on cold hard ground with a wife close to birthing their first child, Joseph had pressed the final inn keeper, but had received a shake of the man’s head. As he turned, Joseph heard a soft grunt and the inn keeper’s wife say, “But … there is a new stall, with fresh hay and easy access to water and even a manger. It will be warmer, and does keep you out of the weather.”
Joseph looked at Mary, who looked back thoughtfully and softly whispered, “It is as it should be.”
He eyed the stall as they approached and the eye of the carpenter measured its worth. Rough hewn, of good wood, that would do. Well water within a few steps. That would do. But the manger – old wood, rotten and falling apart in places, with splinters everywhere. That would not do.
He settled Mary on blankets in a corner, secured Ayir in a stall across from them, filled their water skin with cool water from the well and started to work on the manger. He broke the old one down and made a small fire with it. Mary objected when he pulled wood from their bundles that he had purchased from a merchant they had encountered on the road.
“Joseph, no, you had plans for that …”
“I have better plans now my, love. Our child will not get splinters from their bed.” The carpenter measured twice, cut once, and drilled and assembled a new manger within minutes of their arrival. The wood, smooth and polished mahogany, now sat with hay for padding and the child’s bedding Mary had brought.
Mary sat, and watched, and smiled that Joseph, her rough and coarse carpenter, had said, “our child.”
“It is as it should be,” she whispered and grimaced as another cramp seized her.
“Yes, my love, it is as it should be,” Joseph agreed and brushed her cheek with his.
“Should I seek a mid-wife,” Joseph asked when he saw that this task would be more than carpentry.
The inn keeper’s wife, Miriam, had been in and out, bringing additional swaddling clothes and checking to see how Mary was doing, not quite trusting this man, nothing but a carpenter, to know how to help birth a child. “Humpf,” she had whispered to Ezra, “this ain’t no plank of wood.”
“No,” Mary answered Joseph’s query, “I think we can manage,” grimacing as another push began.
“Wife,” Joseph said, “If you pushed less with your face the task might be easier.”
“Men,” harumpfed Miriam, pushing Joseph, out of the way. “Go tell Ezra to boil water, and bring it when it is steaming hot.”
As Joseph hurried away Mary whispered, “Boiling water?”
Miriam smiled and said, “It keeps them busy, thinking it is something important, and keeps them out of our way. Now this young’n seems to be ready for this world, young lady, and I believe you are ready to be a mother.”
As Ezra opened the back door for Joseph carrying the pail of water, they heard the first cries of Mary and Joseph’s son. Both men hurried to the manger and Miriam harumpfed as she felt the water in the pail. “This is boiling?”
Ezra gave her a smile and said, “Wife, how many have we birthed and how many times have I fetched boiling water? This should be what is needed to clean this young man and get him ready for his father.”
“Found me out, did ye,” Miriam laughed, and hugged Ezra. “Good, ye brought the soft towels.”
Mary, weak from the labor, let Miriam, who insisted she do little, do what was needed to be done in bathing their son.
“And what is this fine boy to be called,” Miriam asked wrapping the child in the swaddling clothes.
Joseph looked to Mary, who gave a small nod, and Joseph continued saying but one word, “Yēšūa.”
“Ah,” said Ezra, “Yēšūa ben Joseph, a fine name.”
Ayir, whickered his approval, stamped from hoof to hoof, taking a bit of pride in carrying this new child part of the journey.
Moments later, Miriam turned to Joseph and said, “Here, papa, take your son.” She waited for Joseph to calm down, guided him how to hold his arms and how to hold the frail bundle she forced on him. Seeing the tiny form was at last safe in papa’s arms, she let go, was pleased with the look of awe she saw on the carpenter’s face.
Those rough and calloused hands now cradled, from head to foot, a small wriggling form, with feet kicking, hands balled into fists, eyes bright and curious. Those tiny grasping hands found Joseph’s thumb that by hammer had been mashed, seemed to sense the hurt that had been, and the babe chuckled, looked at Joseph, and smiled.