“Flee, Joseph, flee! Turn west and travel south to Egypt. Keep the sea at your right hand. Do not wait for the sun to rise. Flee to the land from which Moses fled. Word will be sent to you when it is safe to return. You must not tarry – not for a moment. Herod’s men are searching everywhere. Go now! Save yourself! Save Mary! Save the boy!” - Painting: The Flight Into Egypt by Luc-Olivier Merson 1879
IT WAS GOOD to sit and share the flat brown loaf. Father and son, tearing off the warm chunks of bread. Passing the wineskin from hand to hand. Washing down the food with mouthfuls of rough Galilean wine. They had been working all morning on a yoke: carved from a single block of cedar; the little workshop’s specialty.
“You have a rare gift with wood, my son. It’s as if you can see already the piece that lies within; as if you’re calling it into being. And your yokes are easy – everybody says so.”
The son, smiled.
“Did I see you talking to Esau’s youngest daughter earlier today? How is she bearing her trouble?”
“All the better for the words you exchanged with her father. She told me how you sat with him the night before last. How changed he was afterwards.”
“Villages can be cruel places, son. A young woman with child and not yet wed – it brings out the worst in people. All I told Esau was that every child is a gift from God. And that it is not given to us to judge the purposes for which He brings life into the world.”
“Wise words, father.”
“Not mine, alas, my son. They were spoken to me a full score of winters ago. As now, this village was rife with rumour and spite. People looked sideways at me. Laughed in their sleeves. Hissed evil words to my back.”
“Concerning my mother?”
“Concerning your mother.”
“Who was it, then, supplied the wise counsel you shared with Esau?”
“To tell you the truth, son, I do not know. I was wrestling with the choices before me in the upper olive grove. It was dark, a new moon hovered above the trees, and he was suddenly there beside me. His tunic was of white wool and I swear it seemed to shimmer – as if masking a light of unbearable brightness.”
“And what did he say, father?”
“That I, and your mother, and you, son, were part of a story that had been written long, long ago. That you were precious beyond the measure of mortal longing. That the world would be changed, changed utterly, by your presence in it. That your mother was the vessel of humanity’s salvation. And that I must keep her safe.”
“Did you ever see him again, father?”
“Just once. It was during those dreadful days following your birth, when the King sent his soldiers to kill all the new-born male children. Those three Parthian wizards, the ones who found us in that Bethlehem stable, they’d told Herod how far they had come, from the eastern lands beyond Rome’s reach, to witness the birth of a king. Not a clever story to tell in a murderous tyrant’s court.
“Neither your mother nor I were aware of the danger. In fact, we were on our way home. I had gone into the trees to gather wood for the fire – and there he was. The same white wool, the same unearthly shimmer.”
“And what were his words this time?”
“Flee, Joseph, flee! Turn west and travel south to Egypt. Keep the sea at your right hand. Do not wait for the sun to rise. Flee to the land from which Moses fled. Word will be sent to you when it is safe to return. You must not tarry – not for a moment. Herod’s men are searching everywhere. Go now! Save yourself! Save Mary! Save the boy!”
“And, you did, father, you did – for here I stand. Safe and sound. For no grander purpose, seemingly, than to whittle yokes for the necks of our neighbour’s cattle.”
“Do you mean to test me, son? By making light of the wondrous circumstances of your birth? Or, do you mean to test the patience of that providence which delivered you? Think you that I have forgotten that your mother came to our marriage bed a maid? That all your life I have called you son and loved you as my own – though mine you are not, and never will be?
“Forgive me, father.”
No need, my boy. You are what you are. Though what that might be remains to be seen. Suffice to say that when you pray, under the stars in the upper olive grove, I cannot help noticing the shimmer.
This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 December 2018.