It’s been a long day, with so many travelers at the inn. Ira trudges up the hill for the eighth time from the well with water for the stable. He dumps his bucket in the trough and swipes an arm across his forehead. Sweat clings to the back of his neck.
“Ira!” his aunt bellows out the inn door. “Show these people to the stable!”
The twelve-year-old surveys them and hopes they won’t need more water. A woman so fat with child she struggles to even waddle forward, and a bearded man a few years older. No doubt come to get counted in the Roman census.
Confused, he asks his aunt, “Why?”
“No room. Paid to stay anyway.” His aunt beckons for him to lead them there.
Ira sighs. They paid good money to sleep in a cave among animals. At least it will be warm tonight, even if it stinks. He kicks a stone out of his way on the path to the stable. It lies a little way from the overcrowded inn. The man leads a sway-backed donkey. His wife looks pained and rests her hand on her stomach.
Better not have it tonight, he thinks. Not here in this filthy place.
He shows them where to sleep in the straw in the corner, promises to bring them supper, and trudges back up the hill to finish his chores. He would rather be in the hills with his friend Shmuel. Since they are now both old enough to watch the sheep, he spent most days there before the census travelers arrived. But now needs to stay at the inn.
Their customers keep him busy running between tables half the night. It’s late before he remembers the couple in the stable. Ira bundles up a loaf of bread and some cheese, tucks a flask of wine under his arm, and hastens down the path to the cave. Before he reaches it, he hears moans. The boy skids to a halt. His fingers tighten on the skein. He doesn’t want to go in. It’s not his place.
“Ira!” The man has a kind voice, but he can see the concern in his eyes. He steps out of the shadows. “Do you know a midwife? Mary needs one.”
He nods. The same woman that soothed his mother in her last hours.
The man comes to rest hands on his shoulders and meet his eyes. “Fetch her. Quick.” He presses a coin into Ira’s hand. It’s not much, but more than Ira has ever called his own. He slips it into his purse, shoves the food into the man’s arms, and runs into Bethlehem. Since the Romans impose a curfew, he stays in the shadows. He has no time to answer questions. He hammers on her door until her husband opens it. He draws Ira inside before anyone sees him. Mira sits at the table before her oil lamp. Its glow softens the aged contours of her face. Eases the lines but deepens the color of her eyes. They glow like a topaz.
“You must come,” he pants.
“How old is she?” Mira gathers her tools. Her ointments and cloths.
His breath catches in his throat. “Not much older than me.”
She draws her shawl over her gray hair and hastens beside him up the street. The Roman guard knows her on sight and lets them pass. Her sandals slap the path to the cave and she steps into the coolness. Ira knows he should go to bed. He must rise early and the height of the stars tells him it’s late. But he sits on a stone outside and waits. Listens. Twists his hands in his tunic. Prays. Stares up into the night sky. For once, he does not think of the sheep on the hillside.
Hours pass. It grows colder. Ira pulls his knees to his chest and hugs them for warmth. Footsteps on the path turn his head. Light spills around Mira. She beckons to him. “She lived. It’s a boy.”
The knot unravels in his stomach. He pretends not to care, but he knows he cannot fool old Mira. “Good.”
“Fetch them clean water,” she says.
He sighs. Fetching water is the work of a girl, but his aunt and uncle have no children and his aunt is too stingy to hire one. His muscles ache under the weight of the bucket. They scream in protest, since he has done this so many times today. He hauls it into the stable and looks around the cramped space. Sheep and donkeys crowd the stalls. Their stench makes his eyes water. The new mother sits in the last one, her back against the stone wall. She holds a bundle in her arms. Her soft brown eyes rise to meet his. A quiet voice says, “Thank you, Ira. For the water and the midwife.”
Most people do not even notice him, much less show gratitude. A flush rises in his cheeks. He cannot speak for the lump in his throat, so he gives a stiff nod and turns to the door. A sudden shadow looms up in it, and his heart quickens. It eases when his friend steps into the light. Disbelief colors his voice. “Shmuel?”
“They told us a child is born.” His friend cranes his neck toward the family. Soft brown curls frame his face. Ira has never seen him more excited or his eyes more alive. Rather than explain, Shmuel pushes past him to kneel in the circle of light cast by their lamp. The many others who guard the hills outside the town press around him to see the child.
Mary shows them the infant. Small. Wrinkled. Perfect. Asleep in her arms. Ira does not understand their murmur of awe. It is just a newborn, like thousands before him. Curious what makes them so reverent, he moves closer to peer at the boy. His brown eyes open and fix on Ira beneath a shock of fine black hair. He sinks into their depths. Sees the world in them. A quiet peace he has never known comes over him. His heart gives a surge of excitement.
“What will you call him?” he asks.
“Yeshua,” the father says.
It means savior. Messiah. He has heard stories of such a man who will rescue them from the Romans.
Ira reaches into his purse and pulls out the coin. It’s all he owns in the world. He rests it on the stone floor. “For Yeshua,” he says. “From Ira.”
They smile at him.
He sits there with them until dawn, his heart full of wonder. ♦