After his resurrection, Jesus (Yeshua) returns to Bethlehem. A seasonal extract from ‘Gospel – Rumours of Love’. This is told through the eyes of Jesus.
And so I arrive in this little town of Bethlehem, guided by Devira. She is greeted in the street by women, the elder sort, dressed in black and familiar with loss; though she does not stop to chat. And I have no wish to stop either, for we must find the room and I cannot do it without her.
‘Are you coming home, Devira?’ asks one woman. ‘You’ve been too long in exile. Galilee can never be home for a Judaean.’
‘I’m not coming home,’ she says, ‘But this one is, eh?’ She indicates me with her thumb and I wish she had not.
‘Who’s he, then?’ The woman does not think to ask me. She asks Devira, without a glance my way.
‘Can a man not visit his place of birth without comment?’ Devira speaks angrily, though she has caused the comment. ‘And we’re in a hurry,’ she adds awkwardly and now there is panic in her eyes. She has not played this well.
‘He’s the scandal boy! I knew it. He’d be that age. And is that why you left us, Devira? Too many secrets?’
‘Come on, Yeshua.’ She grabs my arm. ‘Only bitterness is well-remembered in Bethlehem.’
We walk on, figures in doorways, ambling dogs, the streets rutted by rain, but now hardened. Devira leads, stooped like a warrior marching to war. I feel the gaze on my back, the gaze of watchers, it feels harsh. But I do not turn around – no looking back, for there is no scandal here; though, for a moment, my joy is lost; I feel it slipping from my body.
And now we are turning into an alley, closed in and dark, away from the light… and the intense smell of animal – sheep, cattle and mules; though not as bad as spikenard, nothing could be…
‘This is the door,’ she says stopping suddenly and my heart beats faster.
‘This one?’ I ask. It has no special charm; tired slats of wood on a post, with a damaged hinge. I could mend that.
We have arrived sooner than I imagined; I am not prepared. ‘I’ve told them we are coming,’ she says. ‘They agreed, they don’t mind.’ I nod but I am nervous. ‘They did not wish to be here though. When – you know…it is still spoken of. Thought it better you view the place alone.’
‘They wish to be away when the scandal comes to call.’
‘You must remember, Yeshua – many wanted her stoned, they felt the town abused by her, as if she came here to hide. It was the people here from Nazareth, it was them who gossiped, so nasty word got round. They felt cheated when she wasn’t.’
‘I understand; our hosts are afraid.’ The hurt passes through me, barely noticed.
‘Their guest room was full,’ says Devira, pointing to the left. ‘No room there – and there was a bit of a to-do about that, I remember your father being angry because he’d booked that room in advance. He was organised like that. But everyone was in Bethlehem then, the world and his wife, what with the census – and people here making the most of their rooms, any space to spare, where money could be made… I mean, you can’t blame them, promising more than they had, so they were double-booked – simple as that. I mean, I told your father to be done with it and go and stay with Zechariah and Elizabeth – your mother’s cousin. Well, sort-of cousin…you know her?’
‘She has been mentioned.’
‘Decent sort and not so far away, and I mean they’d stayed there before…but your father said no. I don’t know what his problem was, perhaps he didn’t want the journey, but he seemed sure, it had to be Bethlehem, he said – so you joined the family in the family room, bit of a squash; but you three were put at the stable end, obviously. Well, two became three soon after their arrival, you being born and that. Oh my goodness, don’t remind me! And they said the animals would only come in at night if it was cold.’
‘And was it cold?’
‘It was very cold.’
‘Can I be alone, Devira?’
She shrugs – but I need to be free of her. She talks to fill the space and drown questions. I thank her but leave her behind; I leave her at the doorstep, push open the door and step inside. Closing the door behind me, I stop and I breathe the silence as if this is the holy of holies, sudden quiet; though a very common place.
The guest room is to my left, the room my father booked – I sense him again, arguing the case, I could imagine that, my mother tired after the journey; ‘What do you mean, no room?! We agreed!’ And to my right, neither small nor large, the family room and the smell of baking still in the air, hyssop and yeast. And through the family room, I see the rough door to the stable beyond; and by the door, inside the room, a manger.
My legs begin to shake, for it was here, I know it was here; my mother had mentioned a manger, though not to me – to my brothers and sisters, discreet knowledge they could not keep to themselves.
‘Mother says you were put in a dirty manger!’ Judith had once declared, when she wished to attack me, ‘It was all there was. So that’s where you started – covered in mule spit!’ Judith was often vinegar-sour, such an unhappy soul; and I thought no more of it…until now.
And as I look, I see a sturdy piece of work before me, wood kicked and licked by cattle, butted and battered; but standing strong and a safe holding for hay. And was this where I lay? My little skin, my secret room, fresh from the light, my spirit pressed into flesh – thrown into strange company, mother and father far from home; sheep, cattle, chickens and mules…was this my starting out place? And I feel again my wriggling flesh, the noise and the talk, the terror and the light, the smell of sheep – the big-eyed mule, I have always liked mules.
I fall to my knees by the manger; I bend in memory of this strange beginning and feel again the wood… and eternity. The cave inside me is too bright; I cannot cope with the light. I am weeping at the manger, sobbing… but such happy tears. I had to come here; to this town and this place. I had to come and they had to let me in.
And perhaps now I can go; perhaps now I can depart in peace? I wipe my eyes, I stay and I stay, and then after a while, I rise and slowly cross the room, one step after another. I glance back, the manger bed and then turn my face toward the street outside, open the door and begin to laugh.
‘What’s so funny then?’ asks Devira. ‘Something in there you find amusing?’