“Come in, Mary. It is empty. There is only an ox.” Joseph smiles. “It is better than nothing!”
28. Mary is on a little gray donkey. She is all enveloped in a heavy mantle. In front of the saddle there is the same fitting and trunk from Her journey to Hebron.
“Are You cold?” asks Joseph when the wind starts blowing.
“No, thank you.”
But Joseph is not too happy. He touches Her feet, which are shod in sandals and are hanging down along the side of the donkey and can hardly be seen coming out from under Her long dress, and he feels they’re cold. He shakes his head and takes a blanket which he has across his shoulders and envelops Mary’s legs in it and he spreads it also on Her lap, so that Her hands may be kept warm, being covered by the blanket and Her mantle.
They met a shepherd, who cuts across the road with his herd, moving from the grazing ground on the right-hand side of the road to the one on the left-hand side. Joseph bends down to say something to him. The shepherd nods in ascent. Joseph takes the donkey and drags it behind the herd into the grazing ground. The shepherd pulls a coarse bowl out of his knapsack, he milks a big sheep with swollen udders and hands the bowl to Joseph who offers it to Mary.
“May God bless you both,” exclaims Mary. “You for your love, and you for your kindness. I will pray for you.”
“Are you coming from far?”
“From Nazareth,” replies Joseph.
“And where are you going?”
“A long journey for a woman in Her state. Is She your wife?”
“Yes, She is.”
“Have you a place where to go?”
“No, we haven’t.”
“That’s bad! Bethlehem is overcrowded with people who have come from all over to register there, or are on their way to register elsewhere. I don’t know whether you will find lodgings. Are you familiar with the place?”
“Well… I will explain it to you… for Her… Find the hotel, but it will be full. But I will tell you just the same, to guide you. It’s in the square, in the largest one. This main road will take you to it. You can’t miss it. Their is a fountain in front if it, it is a long and low building with a very big door. It will be full. But if you do not find room in the hotel, or in any of the houses, go round to the back of the hotel, towards the country. There are some stables in the mountain, which are used sometimes by merchants to keep their animals there, on their way to Jerusalem, when they don’t find room in the hotel. They are stables, you know, in the mountain: they are damp and cold and there are no doors. But they are always a shelter, because your wife… She can’t be left on the road. Perhaps you will find room there… and some hay to sleep on and for the donkey. And may God guide you.”
“And may God give you joy,” answers Mary. Joseph replies, “Peace be with you.” They take to the road again and in a while they reach the houses of Bethlehem. He goes from door to door asking for a room. Nothing. They are all full. They reach the hotel. Even the rustic porches surrounding the large inner yard are full of campers.
Joseph leaves Mary on the donkey inside the yard and he goes out looking in other houses. He comes back thoroughly disheartened. He has not found anything. The fast winter twilight is beginning to cast its shadows. Joseph implores the hotel-keeper. He implores also some of the travelers. He points out that they are all healthy men, that there is a woman about to give birth to a child. He begs them to have mercy. Nothing.
They go out and they follow the wall of the hotel. They turn into a little street which runs between the hotel and some poor houses. Then they turn behind the hotel. They look for the stables. At last, here are some grottos, more like cellars than stables, because they are so low and damp. The best have already been taken. Joseph is utterly disheartened.
“Eh! Galilean!” an old man shouts. “Down there, at the end, under those ruins, there is a den. Perhaps there is nobody in it yet.”
They hurry to the den. Among the ruins of an old building there is a hole, beyond which there is an excavation in the mountain. It consists of the foundations of the old building, with the roof formed by rubble supported by coarse tree trunks.
There is hardly any light, and to see better, Joseph pulls out tinder and flint and he lights a little lamp that he takes out of the knapsack he is carrying across his shoulders. He goes in and is greeted by a bellow. “Come in, Mary. It is empty. There is only an ox.” Joseph smiles. “It is better than nothing!”
Mary dismounts from Her donkey and goes in. Joseph has hung the little lamp on a nail of one of the supporting trunks. They see the vault covered with cobwebs, the soil–stamped ramshackle earth, with holes, rubbish, excrement–the soil is strewn with straw. In the rear, the ox turns its head round and looks with his large quiet eyes while come hay is hanging from his lips. There is a rough seat and two big stones in a corner, whose blackness is a clear sign that a fire is generally lit there.
Mary goes near the ox. She is cold and puts Her hands on its neck to feel its warmth. Joseph takes a large quantity of hay from the manger and makes a bed for Mary. The ox makes room for the little donkey that, tire and hungry as it is, starts eating at once. Joseph discovers a battered bucket and goes out to get some water from a stream for the donkey. He then takes some twigs and tries to sweep the floor with it. He next spreads the hay and makes a bed with it near the ox, in the most sheltered and dry corner. But he realizes that the hay is damp and he sighs. He then lights a fire and patiently dries the hay, a handful at a time, holding it near the fire.
Mary is sitting on the stool, She is tired, She watches and smiles. The hay is now ready. Mary sits down more comfortably on the soft hay, with Her back leaning against one of the tree trunks. Joseph completes the furnishings hanging his mantle as a curtain on the hole that serves as a door. He then offers some bread and cheese to Mary, and he gives Her some water out of a flask.
“Sleep now,” he says. “I will sit up and watch that the fire does not go out. There is some wood, fortunately, let us hope that it will burn and last. Thus I will be able to save the oil of the lamp.”
Mary lies down obediently. Joseph covers Her with Her own mantle and with the blanket that She had round Her feet earlier.
“But you will be cold.”
“No, Mary. I’ll be near the fire. Try and rest now. Things will be better tomorrow.”
Mary closes Her eyes without insisting. Joseph creeps into his little corner, sits on the stool, with some dry wood near him. Although his back is to Mary, he turns round now and again to look at Her, and he sees She is lying quietly, as if She were sleeping. There is only the dim light of the fire–the lamp has been put out and in the half light only the whiteness of the ox and of Joseph’s hands and face can be seen.