Too long, thought Mary. We lingered too long in
At first, Joseph insisted they remain in the City of David long enough for her to rest after the birth. And then they decided to let little Jesus grow a bit stronger and hardier before undertaking the hard trip back to Nazareth. It wasn’t long before Joseph found work, though, and he did have family ties in Bethlehem.
Secretly, Mary was relieved that she did not yet have to face the gossips and scandal-mongers of Nazareth, the head-wagging old women who counted to nine on their fingers and then smiled knowingly.
Bethlehem was a pleasant little town, not too far from Jerusalem. Mary’s life had settled into a comfortable normalcy there. Until the arrival of the strangers. Foreigners from the East. Star-gazers who swept into Mary’s placid life with extravagant gifts and talk of a baby king. Then they were gone again and took Mary’s peace with them. The whole town was talking and wondering.
Two days later, Joseph woke her gently. He had a sad look in his eyes. “Get our things together,” he said. “I’ve had another one of those dreams. We’re leaving tomorrow. For Egypt.”
Jesus stirred in Mary’s arms and moaned softly. She brushed sweaty hair from his forehead. “Rest a while longer,” she whispered. “We’ll be stopping soon.” Miles ahead, barely visible, was a slash of greenery which bespoke a watering hole. Old Ishma, the caravan master, had promised they would camp beside fresh water tonight. And although she did not particularly like the rough and grizzled leader of the caravan, she had to admit that he was as good as his word.
They were fortunate to have attached themselves to a caravan with such short notice. They could have moved more quickly on their own, but in the desert numbers meant safety. So they had joined up with Ishma’s group: several dozen camels and donkeys carrying a few families and quite a bit of trade goods. Of course, Ishma had not welcomed them entirely out of kindness. Much of the gold from the wise man had ended up in the camel-driver’s purse to pay for their passage.
They reached the oasis before sunset. The animals were unloaded, watered and provendered. By dusk, cooking fires were burning throughout the camp as each family prepared its own meal. The caravan hands ate together, and after supper most of the travelers gathered around the central fire for conversation. Joseph and Mary found room on the outskirts of the group, but Jesus toddled into the inner circle and settled beside a few other youngsters who were sitting at Ishma’s feet. The camel driver fancied himself a lively story-teller, and he loved to regale the children with tales from his travels.
“What I tell you now is true,” Ishma was saying. He lifted one dirty hand as if under oath. “These very eyes have seen it. Once each year in Jerusalem, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest puts on sack-cloth and asks God to forgive the people. He takes two goats. One of them he kills.” Ishma drew one finger across his throat and made a gurgling sound.
“Then the High Priest carries some of the blood into the Holy of Holies and sprinkles it around. That cleanses the Temple of all sin. But the people are still dirty with sin. So the Priest goes to that second goat. He ties a red cord around its neck. And then do you know what he does? On, no, he doesn’t kill the beast. He does something worse.
“He puts his hands on that goat’s head. And he begins to pray. He prays out loud and in that prayer he names all the sins of the people. And as each sin is named the priest lays it on the head of that goat. Poor beast, carrying all that sin on his back when he didn’t do a thing wrong. By the time the priest is finished praying, the guilt of a whole nation is weighing down on that one little scapegoat, and believe me the people are eager to be rid of him.
“So they drive off that scapegoat. They kick him. They hit him with sticks. They pelt him with stones. They grab handfuls of his hair and they yank it out. They spit on him and shout at him until the scapegoat runs off, carrying all their sins. And where does that goat go?” Old Ishma paused. The youngsters leaned forward, scarcely breathing. Satisfied with the effect, the story-teller continued.
“The desert,” he whispered. “Right out here where we are.” He swung one arm to embrace all the wilderness around them. “They drive that goat to Azazel, a demon that lives out here in the sand. Oh yes, this land we’re traveling through now is thick with demons. Why do you suppose that no one lives out here? There’s Azazel. And there’s the old night hag who steals children in the dark. And the hairy-legged things that dance when the moon is full.”
At this the eyes of one boy grew so large that his eyebrows nearly disappeared into his shaggy hair. He looked into the sky and said, “But there’s a full moon tonight!”
“Humm,” grunted Ishma. “So there is. But I wouldn’t worry about the hairy-legs. If I were you, I’d watch out for that scapegoat. He’s out there somewhere, maybe just beyond the reach of the firelight. He’s lurking out there somewhere, all battered and bloodied and wild with sin. I wouldn’t want to meet him. Would you?”
The children shook their heads solemnly.
“In that case,” said Ishma, “you should go straight to bed now, and not make a peep all night long.” Ishma rose to his feet in dismissal. No more stories tonight.
Mary fumed as she and Joseph led Jesus back to their own blankets and dying fire. “Such stories! Hardly what I want my son listening to!”
“It does no harm,” said Joseph. “Jesus is too young to understand much of it. He just likes sitting with the other children. Besides, there are terrible things in the world, Mary, and the sooner our son knows that the sooner he’ll be able to take care of himself.” With that Joseph stretched out on the groundcloth, pulled a blanket over himself, and began to snore almost immediately.
Mary lay down, too. She placed Jesus between them and sang softly to him until she heard the even breathing which meant he was asleep. Sleep did not come so easily to Mary. Her thoughts roamed back to Bethlehem and ahead to unknown Egypt. She must have slept for a few hours, for when she opened her eyes again the full moon had moved from the horizon to a position almost directly overhead.
She reached beside her to make sure that Jesus was still covered and sat suddenly upright when her hand found only emptiness. She looked wildly around and then shook her husband awake. “Joseph!” she hissed. “Jesus is gone!”
Joseph was instantly awake. “Have you looked for him?” he asked.
Mary shook her head. “I just missed him.”
Joseph stood up. “Let’s take a quick look around ourselves before we raise an alarm. He’s got to be nearby. You look through the camp and among the gear. I’ll go check the oasis.”
“What if something has happened to him?” Mary felt that something was squeezing the breath out of her lungs.
“I’m sure he’s alright,” Joseph told her, although he didn’t look sure. “But let’s not waste time.” He headed toward the oasis. Mary turned to the camp and quietly picked her way among sleeping families. She tip-toed around the few tents where the well-to-do were sleeping, and searched around the packs and goods that had been piled in the center of camp. There she found the night guard, snoring softly through his beard.
She made two circuits of the camp just to be sure, then made her way toward the tangle of vegetation that surrounded the spring-fed watering hole. Most of the plants were low and bushy, but here and there a struggling tamarisk or acacia rose above the undergrowth. The plants were tinted in silvers and greys in the bright moonlight.
She was halfway down a well-worn cattle path when Joseph blocked her way. He held a finger to his lips. Without a word, he took her arm and drew her into the brush. He pulled her into a crouch and parted the bushes so they could see the pool. A dozen yards away, near the water’s edge, stood Jesus. The boy was staring fixedly at something. Mary shifted slightly to improve her view, and might have screamed then had not Joseph’s strong hand clutched her shoulder in warning.
Scarcely an arm’s length from Jesus stood a wild goat. The goat’s head was down and it pawed the rocky earth nervously. Its breath came in shuddering snorts, which flung flecks of foam to the ground. The beast’s hide was stained with blood and here and there were bald patches where the fur had been torn away. The goat’s head was particularly bloody and as Mary looked more closely she discerned that its curving horns were tangled in some kind of bush. Around its neck was a slender rope the same color as the blood.
Mary turned to Joseph. “Let me go. We’ve got to get Jesus away from that beast.”
“Be still!” Joseph commanded under his breath. “If we go charging down there we might startle the animal so much that he will tear loose from the thorns and throw himself upon the boy. So far, they’re just looking at each other. Let’s wait and see if Jesus won’t move away a bit.”
Mary acquiesced and Joseph released his grip. At the water’s edge, the goat and boy continued to study one another. The goat was scarred and wounded all over. Its head was particularly bloody. Apparently the goat had been struggling to escape from the bush that had seized its horns and the thorns had repeatedly stabbed its head. It trembled visibly as the boy took a tentative step forward. The goat tried again to pull itself free and failed. Jesus took another slow step. And another.
Once more the goat struggled to escape. And then, strength spent, the animal collapsed to its knees. The boy knelt beside it and gently touched the bloody hide. He patted the goat as he peered at the running wounds and the bald patches. Then he reached both little hands into the thorn bush and began untangling the twisted branches. He worked silently and intently. His arms were short and he had to lean into the bush until the briers scratched at his own face. But he kept on working.
Finally, with one hand on each blood-streaked horn, he carefully steered the wounded head out of the thorn bush. Some of the wildness had left the goat’s eyes now and he nuzzled his rescuer momentarily before laying his head on the ground to rest. Jesus looked at the goat uncertainly and then tottered to the pool of water. He dipped into it and brought back a few drops of water in cupped hands which the goat lapped at eagerly. Twice more the boy brought water by hand before the goat climbed painfully to its hooves and followed the delighted child back to the pool.
There the goat drank deeply. The boy dipped into the pool again and began to lave water over the goat’s wounded bloody hide. The goat snorted once as the water ran into the open sores and swung its horned head to glare at the boy. Then it relaxed, rubbed its nose gently against the boy’s arm and returned to its drinking.
When the boy was finished he tugged the scarlet cord from the goat’s neck. For a long moment the boy and the goat looked at each other. The boy threw his arms around the goat’s neck in a joyful hug. When he let go, the goat stepped from the water and shook its proud horns at the stars, as if some crushing burden had been lifted from its head. With one last glance at the boy, the goat bounded away through the oasis vegetation. Mary watched it caper into the desert. Just before the goat disappeared over the crest of a dune, some trick of the moonlight made the animal seem whole and without blemish.
Then the goat was gone and Mary was racing down the patch to sweep her son into her arms. “Oh, Joseph,” she cried, “he’s been hurt!” The thorns had pierced his hands as he freed the goat and drawn droplets of blood on his forehead. As Joseph examined his son’s hands he thought of the escaped goat running free and the cost of such freedom. Unexpectedly, the words of the prophet echoed through his thoughts. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
But Mary had no time for pondering. She pressed Jesus against her chest and hurried back to camp to salve her son’s wounds. After one final look at the still water, Joseph followed silently in her wake.
Too long, thought Mary. We lingered too long in