It was a cold night: the wind numbing, chill; leaving fingers stiff and curled, clumsy for their task; white breath whisked away with grunts and curses in its wake. How they cursed! And who could blame them, playing the midwife on a night like that? The old ewe bleated, imploring them to pull harder, “One more time, then” and there I was, steaming on the mud. Someone picked me up and wiped my mouth clear, wrapping me in a fur ripe with the smell of fox. I shivered with fear and sudden cold.
“Picks her moments, that one”, said a voice.
“Too right”, said another.
“And all that for this little runt”, grumbled a third, poking at me with a staff.
“Leave be”, this from the child holding me.
The men chuckled. “Don’t get too attached to it, Reuben. It’s too small to keep.”
“Aye, Best you can hope for is that the Temple man’ll take it off your hands. He’s coming by tomorrow.”
“I’m not giving it to the Temple man.”
“It’s no good for anything else. Besides, the Temple man isn’t fussy as to size, as long as there’s no nasty blemishes, no broken legs or anything. It is all right, isn’t it?”
“It’d be a lot better if you didn’t keep talking about the Temple man. He’s just a cheap butcher, pretending to be important.”
“He’s more important than you or me! Might be worth a few pennies, your runt.”
“He’ll get a lot more at the Temple though. Middle men always have a mark up.”
“You could always take him there yourself, Reuben. Jerusalem’s not that far.”
There was general laughter at that. I could feel the child hold me more tightly.
“Yeah. You’d get a good price for your runt then, Reuben. How about an auction? Reuben’s runt: do I hear ten shekels, ten shekels, ten shekels. Thank you, sir. Going at ten shekels, ten shekels. Do I hear nine? Yes, the man at the back, nine shekels. Now we’re being more sensible, Anybody give me eight?” The laughter seemed helpless by this stage.
“Oh, come on Reuben. People need their sacrifices, otherwise they’d all be wallowing in guilt. We all do bad things; we all get caught up in things, like it or not. You’ve got to dump it somewhere.” The child thrust my head deep inside his coat.
Just then, the world lit up. I could sense it, even wrapped up as I was. The child stumbled and fell to the floor. There was a lot of noise and commotion, then stillness, a sort of suspension of time, a holding of breath without promise of air, which continued long after the light had gone. And just as suddenly, everything moved at once: the sounds of breaking camp, people running here and there, sheep bleating, whistling, shouting, a whirl of excitement and activity.
“Come on, Reuben. Hurry up.”
“You’ll have to leave the runt, you dozy dolt, or you’ll never make it.”
“It’ll freeze out here.”
“Don’t be daft – just leave it. It’ll only die anyway.”
“No. It’s coming with me.”
So we left. Half-walking, half running, jolted up and down inside the fox fur, stumbling down the hillside, splashed with mud and stones, the sound of bleating receding into the distance, until only a single sheep could be heard. It sounded vaguely familiar. Soon the ground levelled out and walking seemed easier, smoother, the panting of the shepherds less audible. We weaved through streets, pushing past people who shouted their objections or waved their fists, until at last we stopped outside a shack on the far side of the town. An argument broke out about who would go in first, until someone pushed the child through the door and then everyone else piled in after us.
It all felt slightly comic. There we were, shuffling nervously by the door, crammed into this lean-to along with a moth-eaten looking cow and an old donkey, three well-dressed men who gave off an odour of joss sticks and embalming fluid and a young couple. He introduced himself as Joe – she didn’t look likely to say anything. She seemed to be suffering from shock. At least it was warm: for the first time in my life I felt warm. And it didn’t seem to matter that I smelt of fox. In fact, you’d hardly have noticed what with the embalming fluid and the donkey, and the shepherds were pretty ripe too.
The whole thing was both strange and ordinary, as though our meeting there in a shed was the most natural thing in the world to do. And there in the middle of it all was a manger, stuffed with hay and a small white bundle, still and quiet. From that centre, a calm extended, a silence, you might say awe, almost tangible in the air. We looked, unblinking and expectant, waiting for we weren’t sure what: understanding? A word? Or was the meaning in the waiting? Slowly, after what seemed a lifetime, we began one by one to leave. No words were spoken, no hands shaken, only an inclining of heads in farewell, or, as it seemed, reverence.
Later, much later, on the journey back up the hill, long and lingering, I listened to the talk. Some spoke of a child, a child like any child, a child like the child who held me in the rank fox fur. Others talked of kings and kingdoms, and a king unlike any other king unless it were the old king, David, but even then….and their voices would trail off and their heads would shake. Yet others spoke hardly at all: when they did, they struggled with their words. They would say, “holy, truly holy, but not as you might think holy” and “God, like God and unlike God, and unlike God as we had thought of God, but like God, and God all the same” and then they would mutter, embarrassed at their words, frustrated that they could only limp along with their language to touch what they knew but could not express and no-one could get anything out of them for ages afterwards.
And I? I had seen something else again, something which perhaps only I could see, being what I am, a runt lamb only fit for the Temple man. For the white bundle, was it not also a lamb, and were there not scars about its body, and did it not lie still as death? Perhaps they saw this too, and could not speak of it for fear and wonder.
At last we reached the hill. All was as before, the sheep had not strayed, the old ewe wasn’t bleating as she had. There was a note under a stone. It seemed the Temple man had been, and finding no-one there, would not be passing this way again.
By John Robertson
Wishing you all a Peaceful and Blessed Christmas