The workman lay on his side in the shelter with the donkey, in the cool night air outside his house. He suspected the donkey of harboring lice, and the straw bedding beneath him felt alive with the pests, real or imagined. He wanted to wash and go to find his intended wife, but his hurt denied him. Job suffered greater, he thought, lying on his side and staring out toward the blackening mountains in the east.
It was the Sabbath, the night before his wedding. His intended wife and her cousin had come and gone. They had fought again. The workman, strained in his sinews from days of hammering and lifting and gnawed in his bones by her news, could not stop himself.
“Tell me,” he demanded again.
“I have told you,” she said, pulling her simple shawl tighter. “I tell you and you won’t hear. Ask Elsabet.”
He glanced at his fiancée’s oldest cousin, who stood by as chaperone. Her gaze dropped. His hand made a flinging gesture. “As if Elsabet would know any more than what you told her,” he snapped.
Her voice, her sunbleached half-child’s eyes seemed to strike him in the loins. “Elsabet knows how it feels to be touched the way I’ve been.”
That was when he reared away from her and splintered the house door so it would not latch. The two women had hurried out for Elsabet’s home, tears on his fiancée’s face. His hand throbbed less now. He slept in the donkey’s bedding on the pretext that he would guard the house that could no longer be locked, but he might have lain here anyway, to muffle his heavy sighs from the children.
“Sh’ma Yisroel,” he said to start his prayers, and then stopped, feeling the weight again.
His boys slept inside. They’d seen their intended stepmother leave and asked why she was crying. That was part of the gnawing. Only Shimon and Yehudah, the oldest, had clear recollection of their mother, and that would dim. What had slipped away from him, and what had he taken on to fill the space?
Something was curdling in him, in that very space. He lay on his side in part to keep watch out the doorway, but being so curled he could also clutch at his midsection where ragged pain kept biting out hunks of his innards. It came on like the incision of a sawblade every time he crept back to Miryam’s confession.
As a boy he’d once watched his father butcher a steer, and thought the ropy innards that spilled out were serpents. Now those snakes were winding and mating in his abdomen. He groaned and embraced himself, his knees pulling toward his chin.
The donkey leaned in and snaffled at his master’s ear, trying to identify his illness, but it carried no scent. The beast’s humus breath pried his eyes open from their clench and for the first time he saw the stranger clambering up the rise from the east, toward his house. He reached out to where his pack lay open on the dirt and pulled out the hammer. This he buried in the straw close to his head.
The donkey brayed and the stranger halted. He carried no lamp but still found his way surely, and seemed to cross the rough landscape with speed. The workman’s house was just off the route from the inland sea to Caesarea, and he hoped this traveler might just pass by and march all the way to the ocean.
The donkey brayed again and he glanced up at it with a fury caged behind his teeth. When he looked back to the doorway the stranger stood there, crouching a little to peer in. The man was tall, unseemly tall, and unconsciously the workman measured out the dimensions of a doorframe that might admit him: eleven hands high, perhaps twelve. His clothing was white and simply woven. There was no moon, but his face shone as if the moon were on it, gray and unstained.
“Shalom,” the visitor said.
“Shalom, and go away,” replied the workman on the straw, his fist firmly curled around his hammer.
“Today is the Sabbath,” the visitor said. “Put up your tools.”
“What do you want?”
“Shelter, and talk.” The man had not changed his posture since arriving in the doorway.
Yosef ben Yaakov considered. It was bad luck to turn away strangers seeking entry in the desert. They always brought news. He sat up on his bed of straw, nodded toward a stool in the corner. The stranger folded nearly double and entered to take a seat. The donkey brayed and backed up a step, but the guest reached toward the animal and offered what looked like a handful of leaves. The donkey halted, sniffed and chewed the morsel out of the extended hand. The visitor gathered his hands in his lap, holding his clutch of leaves and stalks, and Yosef ben Yaakov noted how the lengths of his body seemed to sit at right angles to each other, spine rigid, long thighbones stiffly parallel to the dirt floor, feet hidden behind the hem of his garment.
“Call me Mal’akh,” the visitor said.
“That’s a task, not a name,” Yosef ben Yaakov told him.
“We are what we do,” Mal’akh said. “The Greeks would call you Aesop Tektonis, for your skill at building.”
His host’s black beard twitched with a frown. “But instead they’ll soon call me Yosef the cuckolded, Yosef the betrayed, Yosef the wifeless.”
“The woman came to you and said she had been visited by another,” Mal’akh said. “Admitted, though she need not.”
“How would she have disguised it?” the workman said. “Given a month her belly would show.”
“With a child that might be yours, for all you knew, had she not been
“I would know,” Yosef ben Yaakov was certain.
“Perhaps. And it gnaws you.”
“She should be stoned,” the workman said. “She could be yet.”
“Then you would give her up in the marketplace?” Mal’akh’s voice was smiling but his unlined face, palely blue and luminous, barely moved. “This hasn’t been your thought. To return her to her family, yes, but not a killing.”
“Someone should die.” He had let go of the hammer but it still lay under the straw, pure potential, and his palm ached for it all at once. He wanted to pound stones, or break this messenger into flint, or splinter the bones in his own hand to draw out the hurt in his bowels.
“She came to you in faith,” Mal’akh said. “She knows you as love and protector and friend of her mother and father, and has since she was seven.”
“My Escha and her mother were friends,” the workman said. “When Miryam was nine she held Yehudah quietly while Escha was sick, after he was delivered.”
“There was adoration in her even then,” Mal’akh remarked.
Yosef’s memory held Miryam in relief like a woodcut, inclining her young ivory cheek toward the infant Yehudah while he slept on her shoulder, eyes closed, love softening her lips in an unknowable smile. Then he circled back to now.
“Show me the man,” he said suddenly.
“You’ll recognize the father in the child,” Mal’akh said.
Yosef’s roar seemed to carry through the valley like a wind. He seized the hammer and swung it against the wall of the shelter, three times. The pine dented and shook shards to the straw. The donkey jerked awake and pulled back as if to rear. Yosef hurled the hammer away from himself, through the doorway, out to the rocks. Then he folded has arms across his knees and dropped his head into their shelter.
“I’m undone,” he cried. “My Escha was gone and Miryam was offered to me. Three years I waited for her to grow up, and she was slight and lovely and sweet for my children. I thought I could never love her like Escha, yet then she made it so easy.”
“Do you love her less now?” Mal’akh said.
Yosef’s face was wet and looked scourged when he raised it again. “Give me his name,” he said. “Was it you? Show him to me. I want him to know what he’s done.”
Yosef thought of someone faceless and overpowering, coming upon the woman he would marry, filling her with glory she’d never known and he had never given her. His stomach felt bruised and leaden, and he wept again.
Mal’akh sat like the face of a cliff. Only his thumb moved absently as it stroked at the petals of the white lily he carried with him. He peeled away another leaf from the flower and fed it to the donkey, whose caramel eyes had never left the visitor. Mal’akh looked beyond the crying man and pictured the maiden lying in her cousin’s house down in Nazret, unstirred by the pounding and the tears.
“Your woman’s lover was moved by her,” Mal’akh said. “Her sweetness drew him. Her adoration. And there was a tide that brought them together, and united to give her a child. It couldn’t be forestalled.”
Yosef scrubbed at his face with his sleeve. “She says he’s gone now. She says she loves me, and she never stopped.” He couldn’t look at his visitor. “I wish I could be certain.”
“Nothing will be certain for you,” Mal’akh said. “Except that they’ll praise your defense of Miryam’s infant. They’ll call you Yosef ben Yaakov and Yosef ben Heli, never knowing your father’s name but all claiming your parentage for their own ends.”
Yosef opened his mouth to speak but stopped, uncertain.
“You’ll think of the child first in all things, and when he’s no longer a child your story will end. The year of your death and the resting place of your bones will be unrecorded, and as you shepherd your wife’s child in his youth, another Yosef will tend to his grave.”
Yosef met Mal’akh’s eyes, hardened gray agates in a bust of stone, speaking nothing. Mal’akh whispered something more to him, gave him a name.
The workman awoke when the sun braised the mountains and fell across his forehead. The visitor was gone. Yosef watered the donkey and went in to wake the children. After breakfast he bundled his smallest son Yaakov in a sling over his back and set the next youngest Yosef on the donkey. Shimon and Yehudah trailed on foot while the family made its way to the house of Miryam’s cousin.
Elsabet met them at the door with her husband, who would manage the ceremony. Yosef went in to his intended wife, who lay reclined on her bed, not knowing whether he would come. He laid his face across Miryam’s belly, and her hand smoothed his hair.
The two walked out into the sun where their families waited. Elsabet kissed him like a sister, blessing him and his charity for her cousin and the unborn child. Yosef, who knew the name of the son he would adopt but was no longer certain of his own father’s, went inside for his wedding, and he marveled at those things which were spoken of him.