Nahara tied the last of her things onto the donkey’s back and waited for her uncle to return from the market. He was running low on food, he said, and would return soon. She tied the donkey to a small fig tree near the trail and found a boulder to sit on. Today they would be going as far as Sychor, if all went well. She stared ahead to the south, at the small hills covered with sagebrush, small cedar trees and rocks. ‘Everything was rocky,’ she thought. She was lucky to have the donkey; her parents insisted on it. At least she could thank them for that. Having to walk another five days over the broken ground in her bare feet would only intensify the discomfort of leaving home and all that she knew. She looked around. Where was her uncle? A hunger pang twitched inside of her. She put her hands on her stomach. She seemed to be eating more than usual. ‘You’ve been traveling for five days already,’ she had to remind herself. Finally her uncle appeared from around the bend. It was time to go.
The rhythmic pace of the donkey and the hot afternoon sun lulled Nahara into a drowsy state. Aside from the other people in the caravan, there was nothing around. The monotony of the trail, the broken ground and the dry heat of the day pulled her eyelids shut. Nahara felt herself tipping over and she let out a shriek. She landed with a thud on the dirt of the trail, with some of her travel bags strewn about. She must have fallen asleep. Her uncle had been a stone’s throw ahead and turned around to help her up. Before he got there, Nahara heard a voice as sweet as the date orchard by her parents’ house. “Are you alright?” Nahara sat up and rubbed at her eyes. She turned to look at another girl about her age. She was wearing a blue mantle over a white garment and looked at Nahara with such serenity. Nahara just sat there transfixed by the girl’s beauty for a moment before finding her voice. “Yes, thank you. I’m okay; I just fell asleep.”
The girl helped Nahara up and gathered her things from the ground. “You must be tired,” the girl said. Nahara paused. It was like the girl already knew everything about her. Her uncle reached her. “Nahara, were you fooling around again? You must not be so careless. Your parents would be most upset if the groom refuses to marry someone with a broken arm or some such thing.” He took her hands and shook them up and down, as if to check for any malfunctions. “You seem fine, though, thank the Holy One. Let’s get you back up.” He smacked the mule on its hindquarters and jerked the reins around, admonishing it with a curse. Nahara got back on and they continued. She looked around for the beautiful girl, but she no longer saw her amongst the long line of the caravan. Where had she gone?
The next night Nahara found the girl by a campfire. She had spied her warming her feet, with her donkey tied to a tree a few yards away. A man was asleep nearby. Nahara took a few halting steps toward the girl. The sounds of pebbles underfoot led the girl to look up and she gave a warm smile to Nahara. She motioned for her to sit down. “Please, sit here next to me. Are you cold?” she asked.
“I am, thank you,” Nahara said. She pulled her mantle up about her and sat down on her rolled-up mat. She looked at the girl. “Thank you for helping me pick up my things yesterday.”
“Oh, you are welcome.” The words came out with such tenderness; to Nahara they were as warm as the fire.
“What is your name?” Nahara asked.
“Miriam. And you are Nahara?”
“How did you know?”
“I heard the man you were traveling with call you by that name when you fell off your donkey.”
“Oh yes. That is my uncle,” she gestured to a spot next to a bend in the path where he was asleep on the ground. Nahara looked at the fire, enjoying the warmth and the presence of another girl. “Where are you going?”
“To my cousin’s house. She is with child, and I am going to help her.” At the mention of a child, Nahara looked away, into the distance. Mary looked at Nahara. “And you?”
Nahara took a deep breath. “I am not sure. Somewhere near Jerusalem.”
Mary was now fully turned toward Nahara and looked at her with a penetrating focus. Nahara felt like she could tell her anything. “My uncle is taking me to the man I will marry, but I don’t know his name or anything about him.”
“Oh,” Mary smiled. She leaned forward. “Are you afraid?” she whispered.
Nahara noticed the firelight twinkle in her eyes. “Yes.”
Mary took her hand. Nahara was grateful that she didn’t ask why. She wasn’t ready to tell anyone yet what she held locked away in the deepest recesses of her being. She just looked into the fire for a time, watching red embers take shape on the small logs before turning white and eventually falling off as ash onto the ground. The flames licked the edges of the wood and climbed into the air before dissipating into the blackness. After a while, in the silence, she got tired and curled up on her mat.
“Nahara! Nahara! Wake up!” Nahara opened her eyes and sat up with a start. The morning light was just over the next hill. Her uncle was standing over her and shaking his finger. “I have been looking for you for five minutes; I had no idea where you were. What would my brother have said had I lost you?”
“I was just over here by the fire.”
Her uncle waved her off and went to get the donkey. She looked around. The girl Miriam and the man she was with were nowhere to be seen. A pit of disappointment formed inside and sank to the bottom of her stomach. Oh, how she had wanted to talk to her. To talk to anyone, really, but especially her. She got up and dusted herself off before rolling up her mat. She hoped to see her again.
As Mary and Joseph made their way south, the caravan had stretched itself to just a very few travelers. People had split off in different directions as they left the last main village and they found themselves in a rocky wilderness. Joseph was walking ahead of Mary and the donkey she was riding on, scouting the best way ahead and periodically consulting a map he had bought from a Roman merchant. Mary thought back to the girl Nahara. She was clearly uncomfortable about something, so uncomfortable she hadn’t been ready to talk about it yet. She hoped to see her again.
After a few more hours of progress along the trail, they came upon two men walking toward them. Rather, one was walking and was supporting the other, who was limping. As they neared each other, they could see that the men’s clothing was dirty and ripped, and that the limping one was bleeding from his head and his hands. Joseph stopped in front of them. “Are you all right? Can we give you some assistance?”
The men stopped so the bleeding one could sit down for a moment. The other one, who was taller, spoke up. “Thank you, we’ll be okay.” He was a little out of breath. “We had a run-in with some Bedouin thieves and my brother here got banged up.”
Mary felt sorrow for them and got off her donkey. She grabbed some reams of cloth from her bag and went down a nearby gully to soak them in the tiny stream at the bottom. Joseph gave the bleeding man some bread from his pack. “What happened?”
The taller one continued. “We rounded the bend up there,” he turned back to motion to a spot three hundred cubits in the distance, “when three brigands jumped out of the bushes and demanded our money belts. My brother thought it would be a good idea to fight and was struck by the hilt of the leader’s sword.” He shook his head. “You never know what you’ll see on the trail.”
Mary returned from the stream and washed the man’s wounds. His brother watched as the injuries healed instantly. Mary looked in awe first at the man’s clean skin and then at her own hand, as if it belonged to someone else. She thought again about the angel’s message to her. The memory of it sent waves of warmth through her body and right out through her fingertips. The men looked dumbstruck at each other, then at Mary. “My lady, you are a true healer,” the formerly injured one said. They both bowed down to her. “We are indebted to you.”
Mary backed away and put the cloth back into her pack. “It is not me. All healing is from the Lord.” She just wanted to shrink and be on her way.
The taller man spoke. “Yes, it is true my lady, all healing is from the Lord. Even so, we are indebted to you.”
“You owe me nothing.” Mary smiled. “Just go and be a healer unto others.” She and Joseph prepared to set off again.
The man put his hand on his heart. “Fare thee well, my lady.”
Mary looked at them as she rode by. “May God bless you.”
The brothers watched as they rode off. “He already has.”
Joseph walked ahead, deep in thought. He tried to process what he just saw. Bleeding wounds became clean, as if nothing had happened. Indeed, something was special about Mary. She was extraordinarily beautiful, there was that, yes, but something else, too. Her outer beauty was matched by an interior peace, a calm, gentle manner about her that could only come from the Lord. He shook his head. He was betrothed to her, but felt unworthy to be her husband. He was just a simple carpenter, a regular man. His ruminations carried him onward through the desert brush, past rocky outcroppings and prickly plants, dirt trails and minute hilltops. He rounded a bend and heard rustling noises in a little copse of creosote bushes. He stopped and found himself confronted by three figures approximately thirty paces away, covered by dirty cloaks cinched up by leather belts. The three men each had two daggers tucked into their belts, and the middle also carried a large scimitar. He lifted it up and pointed it at Joseph, causing the sunlight to reflect off it and into Joseph’s eyes. Joseph squinted and held a hand up.
“Stop right there,” the middle one spoke. His belt was scarlet, and his teeth were the color of the ground under their feet.
Joseph looked at them. Despite the presence of the all-powerful Roman army in the larger cities in the area, he knew that bandits like this often had the run of the empty space between villages in the countryside. He looked back at the trail. Mary was roughly 50 yards back. “What is it that you want?”
The man with the scimitar sneered, his mouth forming a greasy grin. “We’re here to collect the toll, you idiot.”
Joseph seethed, his carpenter muscles tensing. He could have taken these three in short order were it not for their weapons. Oh, how he wished he had his best chisel. “Well then, come and take it.”
The leader frowned, obviously not used to being addressed in this manner. He grunted and approached Joseph with his scimitar raised before stopping short. He and the two with him stared behind Joseph with gaping eyes and slack jaws.
Mary came around the bend, rising and falling slowly with the steady gait of the donkey. The path straightened, revealing Joseph and three dirty men facing him, men with knives. She frowned as she took in the scene. “What is going on here?”
At the sound of her voice, the three bandits dropped to their knees. The leader pointed his sword into the ground and leaned on the hilt, as if he was suddenly tired.
“What is going on?” Mary repeated.
The man with the sword spoke up. “My lady, we…” his voice trailed off. After a long moment, he tried again. “My lady, we are thieves.” At this, the three of them looked down, their eyes boring holes in the ground. After a long moment of shame, the leader looked up again. “Please, take this from us,” he reached under his cloak and pulled out a fairly large sack. A fair amount of things, presumably coins, jingled together.
“We don’t want that money.” Mary’s voice was without a hint of anger, but the tone of sorrow conveyed something that made the bandits almost cower in their clothes.
“What, then, are we to do with it?”
“Give it back.” The simplicity of her direction voiced the sentiment underneath. ‘Wasn’t it obvious?’
The man with the sword looked down while the other two looked at each other. “How are we to find the original people we stole from?”
Mary shifted on her saddle. “How did you find them in the first place?”
The man motioned to the bushes on either side of the trail. We simply hid here and jumped out when anyone passed by.
Mary looked at them. “Well, there’s your answer. Just wait for them to come back the other way.” They started off again, Joseph leading Mary’s donkey, while the bandits just stared at them.
Once they were well past the area, Joseph looked over at Mary. “We need to talk.”
The unending dusty landscape trolled by slowly, lulling Nahara into a daze. She knew they wouldn’t be in the countryside forever, but would be entering the outskirts of Jerusalem soon. The anxiety that accompanied her near the beginning of the journey was back now in full force. She felt it in her stomach with each step of her donkey. Nahara thought back to the events of the last few weeks: first, her mother sitting down to tell her she was to be married, followed by her chance meeting with Achan, his subsequent refusal to talk to her or even acknowledge her, and finally this journey. She thought more about the girl Miriam. Nahara had felt her anxiety and fear of the future melt away when she sat by Miriam near the fire a few nights ago. What would Miriam say about her challenges? Could she help her? More questions surfaced in her mind and then melted into the heat of the day and the dusty ground, intensifying Nahara’s daze. She became aware only of the slight back and forth movement of the animal under her and for a time, closed her eyes, envisioning some other place, some other time.
Her uncle’s shout ripped up her solitude. He had stopped just ahead and was trying to get their pack mule to sit down under a fig tree. “Sit, you stupid ass,” her uncle smacked the animal on its rump. “This is your only chance to rest in the shade of the sun, because who knows when the next tree will show up.” The animal snorted. “Fine then,” her uncle sat down and leaned against the trunk. “I will just have to rest here myself.” Nahara sidled up and dismounted. “Tie your animal up and come sit down,” her uncle ordered. Nahara frowned. What else was she going to do? ‘They take me for a know-nothing,’ Nahara thought of her uncle and her parents. She tied up the animal and slumped down against the tree. Maybe it was better that she be married off.
Mary and Joseph continued on the path. The heat dissipated ever so slightly as the sun high overhead dropped nearer to the horizon. The rocky ground yielded more plant life as they made their way south, giving way to a more colorful landscape of scattered patches of heather and star thistles. The pink and blue flowers grew in spots between creosote bushes and made for a minimalist bouquet that lent a sweet smell to the air. Mary knew they were closer to Jerusalem. Joseph stopped and picked out a spot just off the trail at the bottom of a rocky outcropping and next to a small copse of cedar trees. After Joseph gathered wood and brush for a fire, they sat by it and shared some bread.
“Miriam,” Joseph spoke. He paused, thinking of the right way to ask. “What happened today?”
Mary chewed while looking at the fire. “You speak of the wounded man, and the bandits.”
Joseph frowned. “Well of course. What else would I be speaking of?”
Mary watched the flames curl up and stretch toward the darkening sky. “What happened today were good things, and everything good is from the Lord.”
“Yes, but what happened?”
“There are many mysteries among us.” Mary gestured to the fire for an example. “How is it that flames emerge from this wood?”
They sat for a time, feeling the fire’s heat warm the air and seep into their bones as the desert night gave away the heat it had accumulated during the day. Joseph turned to Mary. “Is there something I should know?”
Mary started to speak when they heard some noises from the path nearby. They grew until they became recognized as the scuffled steps of a donkey and two travelers on foot. A voice sounded out in the night. “Let us stop here Nahara, I see a fire nearby.”
Mary’s heart lifted. She had prayed that she would get another opportunity to speak to the girl Nahara, and the Lord answered! “Joseph,” she whispered, the edge of excitement in her voice, “it’s that girl Nahara I was telling you about.”
“Yes. Please let us share the fire with them, so that I may have a chance to hear what is on her mind and heart.”
“Absolutely.” Joseph got up and called out to the two travelers in the darkness with the invite. Mary looked up with anticipation as the girl’s uncle and the donkey stepped into the firelight with Nahara. She popped up and greeted Nahara with a hug, and in return Mary felt the tight cling of one who wanted to share her burden. After sharing what little food they had, Nahara’s uncle left with Joseph to find a watering hole for the animals. Nahara turned to Mary. “I am so happy to have found you again.”
Mary smiled. “I prayed that we would meet again.”
Nahara looked into the fire. “Do you pray often?”
“Why do you ask?”
Nahara shifted her mat so she could sit on it. “What do you pray for?”
Mary sat back. “Many things. I pray that I can know the Lord’s will for me, that I can carry out my duties so as to give glory to him.” The fire crackled as the dark desert night settled around them. “I even prayed for the opportunity to talk to you again.”
Nahara smiled. “You did?”
“Yes.” Mary pulled her feet into a cross-legged position. “When we talked last time, I got the sense there was a lot on your mind and on your heart.”
Nahara looked down at her hands. “Yes, there was. There is.”
Some sparks jumped amongst the embers. Mary could see Nahara take a deep breath and in the light of the fire, a shiny trail of wetness by her eyes. Mary took her hands. “Do you want to tell me?”
Nahara’s voice quivered as the sounds tried to make it out of her mouth. “I...I am,” her voice quaked. “I am with child.” She sobbed as the last two words came out.
Mary pulled her close as Nahara’s shoulders heaved. The mention of a baby shot straight to her heart and reminded her once again of the new life inside her. She held Nahara and stroked her hair. After a time, Nahara straightened and wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry, I am unloading everything on you.”
Mary looked into her eyes. “Do not be sorry, I am here for you.”
“Oh, thank you,” Nahara licked her lips. “I am so thankful I came across you again.” She put her hands in her lap, as if deciding where to start. Another deep breath. “His name was Achan. He is a shepherd boy and watches his father’s flock on the hillside near my home. One day, while I was down by the stream doing the wash, he walked by with his sheep and noticed me. I had seen him around before, but my parents threatened to lash me if I would so much as talk to a boy without their permission. So on this day, I tried to ignore him. He asked me what my name was, but I didn’t answer. He asked me what I was doing, but I said nothing. Then he started talking to one of his sheep, wondering out loud what my name was. He asked the sheep this and that, until finally I couldn’t help it and burst out laughing.” Nahara looked out at the invisible horizon of the night. “I gave up and started talking to him. We talked for a long time. I knew my mother was on her way to the market in town so no one needed me to be back for a while.” She shook her head. “I was mesmerized by him. Here was someone who actually wanted to talk to me. He said I was beautiful,” her voice cracked, and she continued with a whisper. “He said he should get going but I asked him if he wanted to go to the secluded spot just downstream, and, um, we,” Nahara wiped away a tear, “we made ourselves known to each other.” She buried her head into Mary’s neck and cried.
Mary’s heart burned for her. She pulled her head close and caressed her hair. Her pain, her anguish, her duress, it was all Mary’s, too. She asked God to absorb it all. After a while, Nahara pulled back and wiped her red eyes. “Not until it was over did I regret it. I think he did, too. I was curious how it felt and was just amazed that someone would even express interest in me.” She shook her head. “I saw him a few days afterward, but he barely acknowledged me. He acted like there was nothing between us, like he was ashamed that he even knew me.” A single tear spilled down her cheek. “I was just the pit of an olive to him. Something to chew on and spit out. I was angry, betrayed, but mostly ashamed. And what could I do? I didn’t want to tell anyone. And then a week later, my parents told me I was to be married off to someone I don’t know. And when he finds out the truth about me, I don’t know what I will do…” her voice trailed off into the abyss of uncertainty and dread.
Mary ached inside. She knew full well what Nahara’s condition meant. The law allowed for death by stoning for adultery. She took Nahara’s hands again. “Do not worry.” Seeing Nahara’s furrowed brows, Mary added, “I know what you are going through.”
“How could you?”
“You know that man I am traveling with?”
“His name is Joseph.”
“I am his betrothed.”
“And I am with child, too.” Nahara looked at Mary with wide eyes. “And he doesn’t know it.”
Nahara sat in disbelief. Here was a girl her age, but with something very different about her. She had such gentleness, such compassion, such…Nahara searched her mind for the word. That was it. Such grace. She turned back to Mary, wanting to ask a million more questions. But footsteps nearby and the baying of a donkey signaled her uncle’s return from the watering hole. Mary whispered to her, “Go to sleep. We will talk in the morning.”
Mary then got up and pulled Joseph aside. “What is it?” he asked.
She hushed in a low voice. “We need to talk again.”
After spending the night on the ground, Nahara woke up feeling strangely refreshed. She felt none of the aches and pains that usually accompanied a sleepless night but realized that she slept like a stone. A feeling of calm surrounded her like the floral scents of this desert spot. Although she had so many unanswered questions, it was as if talking to Miriam the night before melted all her worries away. She looked around and saw Mary starting a new fire.
“Good morning Nahara.”
“Good morning.” She looked around. “Where are the men?”
“They are hunting a hare for breakfast.” Mary got up and walked over to her. “And don’t worry, your uncle knows everything now.”
Nahara shot up. “What?”
“I had Joseph talk to him last night.”
“You did what? He’ll kill me!”
“He will do no such thing.”
“How do you know?!”
“Because we have a plan.”
Nahara was incredulous. “Well, tell me then.”
And so Mary did.
Nahara sat back against a boulder, open-mouthed. “How can you be so sure it will happen like that?”
“I just know.”
“How can you know?”
“I prayed to the Lord for guidance.”
“But how can you know?” Nahara emphasized the last word. “Sometimes I wonder if God is even around at all.”
Mary sat on the ground next to her and looked her in the eyes. “Trust me when I say that the Lord is with us at this very moment.”
Nahara was back on the donkey with her uncle leading the way. They had turned around per Miriam’s instructions and approached the long bend in the trail. Her uncle turned to her and shook his head. “I can’t believe you let that dirty thing Achan touch you.”
Nahara looked at him. It had been two hours since they left Joseph and Miriam and silence had ruled the entire way. “I hope you don’t-”
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. I actually think this crazy plan of theirs will work.”
Nahara sat back on the donkey in wonder and relief. Ever since they stopped last night her uncle had been in a good mood. He uttered no curses this morning and didn’t even smack the donkey. As for the plan, they just had to follow Mary’s instructions. Not that Nahara wasn’t afraid. As they got closer to the spot, she felt her heart pound and her breathing quicken. Normally people didn’t search bandits out. “Uncle, I think this is the place,” Nahara hushed in a whisper. He nodded and they stopped. Nahara got off her donkey, turned to face the bushes at the side of the trail and called out.
Her uncle licked his lips as they waited for something to happen. He was ready to run if necessary. After another long moment, the bushes shook and three men in dirty cloaks climbed out. Nahara looked at them. Their clothes and daggers identified them as thieves, but they had something like defeated looks on their faces, looks that drew their pity instead of fear. Nahara cleared her throat. “The woman says to give me the money.”
The bandits looked at each other. Without a word, the one in the middle dug out a large bag with coins and tossed it at her feet. Then they turned and skulked off into the distance. Nahara looked at her uncle, both of them with mouths agape. Her uncle walked over, picked up the bag and started counting. Nahara waited with the donkey in the shade until he was done.
“How much?” she asked.
He looked up. “Enough to repay a dowry, and more.”
As Mary and Joseph made their way through the outskirts of Jerusalem in the midday heat, Mary prayed for Nahara. She prayed that the man she was betrothed to would accept repayment of the dowry and let Nahara go. She prayed for Nahara’s health and that of her baby. After a few moments of silence, as they made their way through a collection of small villages, Joseph spoke. “What do you think will happen to her?”
“After she pays for her freedom, I hope she finds me. I told her she could stay with me at the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth.”
“I hope that they have no objection to that.”
Mary looked at Joseph. “Zechariah is the high priest, and the house at Ain Karim is their second home.” Joseph understood: they had money, and they wouldn’t be put out.
Mary’s thoughts turned to Elizabeth. She couldn’t wait to see her cousin. She wanted to smack the donkey’s rump to get him to walk faster, but couldn’t bring herself to do that to the animal after their long journey together. What would Elizabeth look like? Would she be carrying high or low? The questions swirled about in anticipation of a few months with her cousin. Finally, after winding through another village surrounded by palm trees and olive orchards, they saw Zechariah’s house ahead. Mary got off the donkey and walked as quickly as she could to the front gate. She could barely contain herself. She got to the gate and cried out, “Elizabeth!”
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
And Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1: 46-55)