By Bryant Burroughs
Her warmth awakened him as the sun peeked through the window of the inn. He rolled toward her, burying his face in her red hair, breathing her in, and reached around to gently cup the swell of her belly. She stirred and curled closer to him. The baby in her womb jerked under his hand. He smiled and kissed his wife’s hair and wondered how it could have been only a year.
His first wife had died trying to give him a son. Three stillborn sons, and the last had taken her away. Distraught by grief, he had wondered how God could be so confused between blessing and cursing.
Then his father—rest his soul—had sent him northward to Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee to secure a good price for a half-dozen barrels of pickled fish. “Every city along the Mediterranean orders Magdala’s pickled fish for their markets,” his father had told him. “Even the emperor has a hundred barrels delivered every year.” Excited by this idea, his father had smashed his right fist into his open palm. “Just think, when travelers find out that we’re the only inn that offers Magdala’s finest pickled fish, we’ll need to add new rooms.”
A few weeks later, his father had smiled when his son returned with six barrels of pickled fish and a bewitching, red-haired woman.
The memory faded as the Innkeeper slipped away from his wife’s warmth. He walked brisky down the steps from their rooftop bedroom, through the area where guests stayed, to the barn on the ground floor. Goats bounded out when he pushed open the stable door that led to the fields behind the inn. He slid open the front stable door, and his curious goose peeked out into the quiet street. As he spread fresh straw and filled feeding troughs, the Innkeeper grimaced. This will not be a pleasant day.
He knew his two uncles would arrive in a foul mood, bristling at being forced by a government they hated to leave the conveniences they loved to return to the small town they had abandoned. But the census decree gave them no choice. Everyone had to register in their birth-village.
He scowled in recalling the fierce arguments years earlier when his uncles had tried to persuade his father to leave with them. “Bethlehem, City of Bread,” they had snorted. “It should be called City of the Poor. There’s nothing here.” But his father had refused their bullying. “No, this is my home. My father and his father before him lived and died here in this quiet village, and so will I.” The Innkeeper shook his head; that had been twenty years ago.
Today, his uncles would be staying in his guest rooms. He recalled his father’s adage that everyone looked down on someone, but rich people looked down on everyone. That’s what I’m afraid of, the Innkeeper said to himself. I won’t have my wife insulted because she comes from Galilee. If they even whisper “Galilee,” I’ll throw them out.
The Innkeeper filled stone troughs that had been rubbed smooth by years of animal feedings. “Why does Rome care who lives here and where we were born?” he quizzed his goose and cows as they ate. “Why bother with us? We’re poor and so far from Rome. We don’t matter at all.” But the only response was a goose-peck.
He looked up as he heard his wife softly singing as she worked. That was her joy—her joyous confidence in the goodness of life and love and God. She chose joy and kept choosing it every day, come what may. That’s how she got into his heart and held him fast.
He heard her switch from song to whispers. He envied her casual conversations with God. They had talked about it once, he in bed watching her brush her hair. It was his favorite time in the day—work done, quiet all around.
“Why do you keep talking to God when it never makes a difference?” he had asked her.
“How do you know it doesn’t make a difference?”
He thought a moment. “If God cared for us, he would be near.”
“Husband, God is near enough that when we call, he hears.”
“I’ve called, and cried, and begged. I don’t know what else I can do.”
That’s when she had put down her brush, came to him, and put her hands to his face. “God listens, generosity listens, kindness listens. When you love me and help anyone you see who needs help, God hears.”
Two goose-pecks on his leg cleared his head. He reached into a rucksack hanging on the wall and tossed pieces of old bread out the stable door. He counted the scores of makeshift shelters that over the past several days had sprouted on the stony land stretching toward the hills beyond the village wall. There was no more room in the village for the crowd of travelers forced to return here to register. Many of them had carried temporary shelters on their way to Bethlehem, but most were forced to rent hovels he wouldn’t even put his goats in and pay a price meant to extract profit from the travelers’ hardships. The Innkeeper would not be surprised if his uncles were among the profiteers.
His landowner uncle showed up in mid-afternoon with his wife, both grumbling about the emperor, Roman soldiers, the registration process, travel, and the weather, and demanding that food be brought to their room. An hour or so later, the lawyer uncle arrived, alone, silent, hostile and haughty, barely greeting his nephew and ignoring the red-haired woman who took his dusty cloak and shoes for cleaning. As she walked away, the lawyer uncle examined her form and raised an eyebrow at the Innkeeper before going to his room.
“Can you believe it? the Innkeeper fumed as his wife ladled food into bowls for their relatives. “Not a word of thanks for the rooms. If not for us, they would be sleeping in one of those tents. And that’s where they should be!”
Her glance was kind but firm. He sighed. “Yes, yes, I know. Generosity listens.”
The day had been long for the couple slowly approaching the inn on the narrow street that wound from the village gate. The man had hoped his young wife’s pregnancy would merit a merciful reprieve from the requirement to report to his ancestral village, but they, too, were forced to trudge the ninety miles from Galilee: through the flatlands of the Jordan River and then through the high hills surrounding Jerusalem. It was an exhausting march for anyone, but particularly for the young woman who was about to deliver a child.
Every day, every mile, every moment, he encouraged her, and his eyes never stopped looking at her in wonder—first, that she had answered yes to his proposal, and second, that she continued to love him after he doubted her most intimate word. He berated himself again. I should not have needed an angel to assure me. How could I have doubted her? He vowed a lifetime of love to repay her for such an unpardonable lapse.
The Innkeeper was working off his irritation by scrubbing the stable when a voice from the open stable door startled him. He turned to see a man with worry and fear etched across his face. Kneeling beside him was the obvious reason for his worry: a young woman, a girl really, and far too close to the moment of birth even to stand. She panted in little gasps.
“Sir? Do you have any room where my wife and I could stay the night? We’ve found nothing in this village. I’m not rich, but I can pay you,” the man said.
The Innkeeper took in the young woman’s hopeful eyes. “Surely you have relatives here who could give you a room,” he replied. “That’s what I’m doing for my relatives.”
The man shook his head wearily. “My family has lived in Galilee for generations. I know no one here.”
Galilee! “Did you bring a tent? Or you could rent one.”
The man stood straight. “A tent in a crowded field is no place for my wife to endure what she will surely face tonight,” he said, his mouth firm.
Silence weighed on the Innkeeper, amplifying the young woman’s panting and her desperate husband’s pleas. He wanted to help and wished he could throw his uncles out to make room for this couple.
“Husband, please help them,” a soft voice called from behind him. Turning, he saw his own pregnant wife laboring down the steps from the kitchen carrying a small chair. He rushed to take it from her. “And please get the soup and bread I left on the table. I don’t think I can take those steps again.”
Her eyes spoke in that intimate, tacit language known only to a wife and husband. He had first seen it in the silence that followed his asking for her to become his wife. In that moment, just a year ago, her gaze had fixed on his eyes, as if examining his soul. Are you sure after knowing me only three days? Can I trust you with everything I am, to leave those I’ve known since I first opened my eyes in this world? Are you that sure?
Now she was giving him that same look. The Innkeeper climbed the steps two at a time and returned to find the young woman resting on the chair, her husband on the floor beside her. The Innkeeper retrieved a bench and set the food and wine on it, then joined his wife, who had moved a few steps outside the stable door into the street. Dusk was falling, the moment when day and early evening marry, and a muted sun slipped behind the mountains. The brightest stars became clear, and one hovered so near, it seemed touchable.
His wife sighed as they stood motionless under the blue and purple and silver sky. She whispered, “Husband, give her our room. She needs a place of rest. You and I can make a pallet by the fire or here in a corner of the stable.”
“No, we can’t do that. You are bearing a child, too, just as she is. And they’re strangers. All we know about them is that they’re from Galilee.”
She held his gaze. “What we know is that they are terrified. And you know we can help them.”
Unable to hold her gaze, the Innkeeper turned and scanned the sky. The blues and purples yielded to inky darkness, and the strange star illuminated the hills around Bethlehem as if it were a smaller version of the sun.
“I don’t know what to do,” he admitted.
His wife smiled. “Yes, you do. You live it every day. We choose to do whatever is in front of us, help whoever needs help, treat kindly whoever comes into our lives. I saw it in you when we first met, and that was why I was willing to give up all that was familiar to build a new life with you.”
The Innkeeper stared transfixed. How did such a woman – this red-haired angel – find her way into his heart? “Yes, you’re right,” he admitted. “We will give them our room.”
As they stepped toward the couple, the young woman shrieked and bent to the ground. “Quickly, husband,” the Innkeeper’s wife urged. “Bring a pallet, cloths, and hot water. Quickly! Our night’s work has begun.”
There was no time to move the young woman up the stairs to their room. The stable would have to suffice. Over the next hours, the Innkeeper raced up and down the steps, fetching all that his wife needed to help the woman in childbirth. He rebuffed his uncles’ demands to know what was going on in the stable.
Finally, there came the first cries of the newborn, the joyous tears of mother and father, and the relief of the Innkeeper’s wife that all was well. In the calm moments that followed, with the newborn resting on his mother’s breast, the Innkeeper helped his wife rise from the stable floor.
All was still. The stable was illumined only by an oil lamp, a firepit, and the star that seemed more a hole in the very fabric of the sky, through which an unimaginably bright lantern beamed.
Bryant Burroughs writes stories and poems as reminders of those things he hopes are real and true. He and his wife, Ruth, live in Upstate South Carolina with their three cats.