Friday, December 30, 2011

No Ordinary Joe

She is dead to me. I tried to speak the words. Instead I swallowed them, bitter as bile, moments after Mother delivered the news.
            “Sit,” she said when I entered the room for the midday meal. She pushed a cup across the table. More wine than water. “Drink.”
            Parched from the morning’s work and wood dust, I gulped the contents. Mother used her hip to nudge me over on the bench. Covered my hands with hers.
            “It is thickening, Joseph,” she said.
            My eyes narrowed. “What is?”
            Mother brushed my knuckles with her thumb. “Her waist,” she said. “Your Mary’s.”
            My Mary? At first I didn’t understand. Her waist? What? Then I knew. I coughed. Couldn’t stop. I clutched at my chest. Hacked. Tried to stand but the room seemed to tilt and take flight. My knees felt watery. My cup struck the floor with a clank. Rolled.
            Mother pounded my back several times. My eyes teared. She’d spoken so casually. How could she be calm? Who? Who had told her this thing?
            “I didn’t believe my sisters, so I searched for her, your Mary, in the market. When she embraced me, Joseph, I discovered . . . They were right.”
            I attempted speech. Failed. I summoned spit to wet my throat. Rasped out words.
            “Perhaps her cousin Elizabeth is gifted with food,” I said. “Mary was there for three months, you know. In the hill country.” She was there for three months. A young woman. Lovely. Alone.
            Mother circled my waist with her arms. Laid her cheek against my shoulder. Sighed.     
            “Her girth is firm, my son. Not soft. It is as they say.” Her tongue made a clicking sound. “I’m sorry.”

I stumbled out to Father’s shop. Had to find my way by memory since tears had stolen my vision. I swallowed air in great gulps. Over and over. Prayed my father would be there working. Hoped he wouldn’t be. Inside I collapsed in a corner. Rocked and keened, no care for who might hear. Thoughts churned. Visions tormented. Finally through the window I observed the moon as it settled into position for the night.
           "My Mary," I whispered to the stars. My very own angel. I’d thought. We’d said our vows. She was mine except for the wedding night and the subsequent feast. I’d planned it out. Every last detail. I would leave my father and mother. Go to claim her. The wedding party would see my torch and proclaim my approach. My Mary would drop everything and don her wedding dress. I knew she would be radiant. Shining with purity and anticipation. 
            After the ceremony I would lead her to the home my father and I had prepared for her. There, in a bed made by my own hands, we would become one flesh. Blood pounded in my ears at the thought.
            On our marriage bed I would arrange myself behind her. Remove her headcovering and see her hair, her crowning glory, at last. I imagined she braided and pinned it into a thick coil every morning before she concealed it. I’d release its constraints, watch the tresses tumble free in the lamp light. I would call her my dove in the cleft of the rocks. She would liken me to a gazelle or a young stag. In the moonlight I would fit my front to her back. Our bodies would line up perfectly—curve to curve, swell to swell. My breath would extinguish the lamp and in the night my innocence would find hers and—
            “Another has it!” My words ricocheted around the room gone cold. “Her purity is lost. To him. To a man in the hill country of Judea.”
            I gathered fistfuls of dust and ground them into my hair. Slapped more into my beard. Moaned from a place beneath my stomach. My eyes searched the ceiling. What kind of man must he be? To tempt Mary to sacrifice everything? My Mary. Mary who blushed whenever my sandal touched hers. Mary whose tunics were both worn at the knees due to her copious prayers. In the end I could only fathom that he must be wonderful. Much more so than I. Perfect even.

I awoke when the door to the workshop opened. Father’s form filled the doorway. I rubbed my face. Picked at the dried mud.
            “So Mother told you.”
            I began to sob again, my cries raw and hollow in the workroom. 
            “What now, Abba?” I said. “What now?”
            Father joined me on the floor. Drew me so close I could barely breathe but I didn’t want him to stop. I felt the warmth of him—his compassion, his sorrow on my account, enter through my skin. At last he released me. He reached up and patted his workbench. Brought down a knife and stub of wood. He carved as he spoke, sending tiny curls of wood to their doom in the dirt.
            “In times of trouble, son, I search the scriptures.”
            I dabbed at my nose with my sleeve. “As do I.”
            He smiled at the shape in his hands. “I know you do, son,” he said. “You’re a good man.”
            He used the edge of his garment to remove dust from his work. “It has always been my hope that I, and you, would inherit the wisdom of our forefather—”
            “Solomon?” I said.
            He nodded. “Yes, and today a scripture came to me. For such a time as this.”
            I turned my face to his. Held my breath.
            “Two are better than one, Joseph. If either falls down, the one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”
            I cleared my throat. It burned still. “Actually, I have decided to divorce her, Father. Quietly, of course.”
            I watched Father’s chin push forward, his mouth drop open. “Oh, Joseph,” he said. “Surely not. You cannot leave her alone in her circumstance. The law—”
            I held up my hand. “Hear me out,” I said. “I have to free her from our betrothal so that when he comes for her she will not be bound to me. And he will return for her, Father. How can he not? There is none more beautiful—”
            Father shook his head. “I disagree. If that was the case, would he have let her leave Judea in the first place?”
            He stood. Extended his hand to help me up. He embraced me again and I inhaled his woody fragrance, always a part of him.
            “Perhaps he needs to save money,"  I said to the air behind him as we made our way back to the house. "For the bride price, before he can send for her. Maybe there is more to this than we know.”
            Outside the door my father turned to face me. Took my hands in his.
            “Do not be hasty, my son,” he said. “Promise me you’ll sleep on this. Pray about it. Perhaps we should fast. For wisdom.”
            I squeezed his hands and nodded. “I promise, Abba. I will sleep on it.”

“Awake! Awake, o sleepers!” Two nights later I practically sang the words to my parents as I shook them from their slumber. “The Lord, our God, the Mighty One, has done a great thing! He sent an angel. In a dream.”
            Mother and Father stumbled into the common room huddled under a single blanket.
            I stood before them, wildly gesturing. “’I will die this night.’ That was my first thought when I opened my eyes. I was sure the light of him, this being as massive as Goliath, would consume me.”
            At the table my father rubbed his eyes as my mother brought out bread and water. Their brows were furrowed. With lack of understanding? Or disbelief?
            “He said I am not to be afraid to bring Mary here as my wife. That the babe in her womb is from the Holy Spirit, the Most High God himself! Truly He has changed my mourning into dancing!”
            I scooped my mother up into my arms. Spun her around the room. Clapped and grinned like a fool. I ran to the window and shouted to all of Nazareth.
            “Mary, my Mary, is a virtuous girl. Call me a prophet for I say one day you will all call her blessed.”
            I spun to face my parents. “I am to give him the name of Jesus,” I said. “That’s what the man from heaven told me, commanded me. Because he will save his people from their sins.”
            Mother fell to her knees. Lifted her hands to heaven. “Thanks be to God for he has taken your shame, my son, and refashioned it into joy.” Tears streamed down her face.     
            Father clasped his hands together. Raised his gaze to the ceiling. 
            “This is indeed good tidings. Our Lord is both gracious and compassionate.” He stood and beckoned toward the door. “We will need to finish the addition, Joseph. Quickly.”
            Mother gasped and clutched at her chest. “A feast. I must prepare a feast,” she said. “A week from today?” She extended a hand toward Father. “Can you have their quarters completed in seven days? You and Joseph?”
            My father and I were of one mind. We spoke in unison. “Surely, nothing is impossible with the Lord.”


Catherine said...

Enduring love withstands all tests.

Laura said...

Oh, Diane, this is so beautiful. It's so hard to imagine how it might have really been...what must have been going through his mind. You made me feel the pain of the perceived betrayal vividly. Lovely, lovely.

And thank you for your encouragement recently! I am glad to have that first sermon under my belt. Wonder what the next plan will be...

Pamela said...

I was so blessed to read your story. We put so much emphasis on Mary that Joseph, his pain and what he perceived as lost dreams are forgotten. I'll never think his part of the story the same way again.

writingdianet said...

Hey Gals!
So glad you enjoyed this story. I thought about it A LOT. Researched Jewish wedding ceremonies. Read a couple commentaries. Was struck by one commentary author who said, "How he must have loved her!" That made me think, "Then why would divorce have been a good idea?" That's when I got the idea that Joseph maybe it was Joseph allowing Mary to go back to her lover.
I am so thrilled that you all and others have said that this made you think about the Christmas story in a new way. I'm thrilled for God to use my writing to do that:)

Janet, said...

Loved the story. He certainly was no ordinary Joe.

writingdianet said...

Thanks for stopping by, Janet:) And all of Chris's friends too. Chris B. shared this link on Facebook and sent it to all his email friends too. That is soooo awesome. Thanks, friend:)


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