"I am with child” – says Mariam, her eyes downcast. In the murk he could not tell if her cheeks are flushed, but the tremor in her voice and her posture are signs enough. They are betrothed, he having paid the mohar to her family two moons ago with witnesses aplenty. She was a virgin then: the elders of both families made sure and vouched for her. At 14 years of age she was no beauty, but her plainness and the goodness of her heart appealed to him. She was supple and lithe and a hard worker. He liked her natural scents and she often laughed, a bell-like tintinnabulation that he grew fond of as her presence insinuated itself into his dour existence. By now, she has permeated his abode, like silent waters.
Yoseph was somewhat older and more experienced than his wife-to-be. Short, stocky and hirsute, his only redeeming feature was his eyes: two coals aglow above a bulbous, venous nose in an otherwise coarse face. Originally from Judea, he found himself stranded in Nazareth, an outpost, half watchtower half settlement of crude and stony-faced peasants. He traced his ancestry back to King David and wouldn’t marry one of theirs, so the locals mocked and resented him. Mariam’s tribe was also from Judea and her barren cousin, Elisheva was long married to a Temple priest. Mariam was well-bred and observant of God’s commandments. He could not imagine her sinning.
As was his habit, he laid down his tools, straightened up and stood, frozen in contemplation. Finally he asked: “Who is the father?” There were bewilderment and hurt in his voice.
Mariam shuffled her bare, delicate feet: “You are”, she whispered.
He tensed: “Don’t lie to me, Mariam.”
“I am not!” – She protested – “I am not!”
A shaft of light penetrated the hut and illuminated his table and the flapping corners of her gown.
“We are not to be married until after the harvest. I cannot know you until you are my wife. I did not know you, Mariam!”
She sobbed softly.
“What have you done, Mariam? If this were to be known ...”
“Please, please,” – she startled – “tell no one! No one need know!”
“It is not a thing you can hide for long, especially in Natseret” – he sniggered bitterly.
“I swear before God, as He is my witness: you had me, Yoseph, you knew me at night time, several times!”
“Mariam!” His voice was cold and cutting and he struggled to regain control and then, in softer tones:
“I will not make a public example of you, Mariam, worry not. I will give you leave tomorrow privately. We need only two witnesses.”
She fell silent, her breathing shallow and belaboured.
“You fell asleep and tossed and turned all night. I could hear you from my chamber. You then came to me, your eyes still shut. You ... you had me then, you knew me. It is the truth. Throughout the deed you never woke. I was afraid. I did not know whether to resist would have meant the end of you. You were as though possessed!”
Yoseph mulled over her words.
“I was asleep even when ... even when I seeded you?”
“Even then!” – Cried Mariam – “You must believe me! I didn’t want you dead or I would have done to rouse you! But you were so alive with passion, so accomplished and consummate ... and yet so numb, so ...” – Her voice faltered.
Yoseph crumbled onto a bench: “I walk at nighttime, Mariam. I know not whence and whither. I have no recollection. People have told me that they have seen me about the house and fields, but I remember naught.”
“I saw you at times,” – said Mariam – “so did Bilha the maiden servant whom you expelled when it was found she was with child.”
Yoseph drew air and exhaled.
“Have you told this to anyone?”
“I did,” – said Mariam, kneeling beside him and laying her calloused hand on his – “When I found out, I went to visit with Elisheva.”
Yoseph nodded his approval: “She is a wise woman. Had she some advice to give you?”
“She had,” – answered Mariam.
Yoseph straightened up and peered ahead into the penumbral frame of the reed door.
“She said I have a son,” – Mariam recounted softly – “your son, Yoseph! Our firstborn. Her husband, Zacharia, had a vision in the temple and was struck dumb by it. Elisheva is pregnant, too.”
Yoseph chuckled in disbelief: Elisheva was way past childbearing age.
“An angel appeared to Zacharia and told him that she will bear a son, a great man in Israel. I had a similar dream after I have returned from her. I saw an angel, too.”
“Woman, don’t blaspheme,” – exclaimed Yoseph peremptorily, but he was listening, albeit with incredulity, not awe.
“An angel came to me,” – persisted Mariam: “He said that I am the blessed among women and that I need fear not for I have found favour with God. He knew that I am with child. He promised me – us – a son and ordered that we should name him Yeshua. He shall be great, the fruit of your loin, and shall be called the Son of the Highest and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David and he shall reign ...”
“Enough!” – Shouted Yoseph – “You have gone mad, woman, you took leave of your senses! Not only do you blaspheme against God, the Holy Blessed be He, but you also incite rebellion! You will bring upon us the wrath of the mighty with your troubled speech!”
But Mariam pressed on, her diminutive frame ablaze with the crimson dusk, her hands held high:
“He shall reign, Yoseph, over the house of Yaakov forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end!”
Deflated, she crumbled onto the bench beside him, respiring heavily, supporting her bosom with one hand, the other palm again camped on his sinewed forearm.
Yoseph stirred: “How shall this be, seeing that you knew not a man?”
Mariam implored: “I did know you, Yoseph! Believe me, please, for I am not a harlot!”
He knew that. And he remembered Bilha’s words when she left his household, Hagar-like with her baby. “You are the child’s father!” – She protested – “You came upon me at night, aslumbered! I could not wake you up no matter what I did! There and then you took me and you knew me many times and now you cast me out to destitution!” And she cursed him and his progeny terribly.
“Zacharia told Elisheva that the Holy Ghost shall come upon me and the power of the most High shall overshadow me. Our son will, therefore, be the Son of God!” Yoseph recoiled involuntarily: this was high sacrilege and in his home, he who observed all the commandments from the lightest to the harshest!
“What did you answer?”
Mariam responded instantly: “I said to him who was surely the messenger of God: behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
Yoseph kept quiet for a few moments and then rose from their common seat:
“Mariam, tomorrow, in front of two competent witnesses, we will part. You will go your way and I will go mine. I cannot invoke the name of God, blessed be He and blessed be His Name, in vain. Not even for you and your child ...”
“Our child!” – Mariam screamed – “Our child, Yoseph! Curse be upon you if you abandon us and your firstborn son as you have Bilha’s!!!”
He swerved and left the shed, forsaking her to the shadows and the demons that always lurked in him and his abode.
That night, he slept and in his sleep he dreamt an angel. And the angel regarded him with great compassion and said to him:
“Yoseph! Fear not to take unto thee Mariam thy wife for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit and she shall bring forth a son and thou shalt call his name Yeshua for he shall save his people from their sins.”
And in his slumber, Yoseph turned his face from the terrible sight and cried, the tears rolling down his cheeks into the stubby growth that was his beard and onto his blanket. Even then he knew that he would marry Mariam and father Yeshua and that he will not live to see Him die a terrible death.