The first year we were married, spouse and I made a Christmas crèche. He built the open wooden barn-like structure and manger, and I sculpted the Holy Family. Every year since, I have added a figure or two: an angel, the three kings, a poor man, a shepherd boy, and lots and lots of animals -- at last check, ox, ass, donkey, goat, camel, chicken, dove, goose, mouse, pig, peacock, lion, lamb, fox, hedgehog, two dogs, three meerkats, penguin (with chick), dancing blue-footed booby, and I'm probably forgetting some.
As you can see, the visitors to the newborn Christ-child have become increasingly... exotic... over the years, mostly at the suggestions of my children. But a couple of years ago, my daughter pointed out, rather indignantly, that "there aren't any GIRLS!" (Apparently the Blessed Virgin doesn't count.) So I added in servant girl. She has a bit of a 'tude, that one; wrapped in her wine-colored shawl, hand on cocked hip, with a basket of bread tucked under her arm.
While chanting the anthem for the day, In the midst of life we are in death, I found myself thinking about that last little figure. She was a servant at the Inn, most definitely. There weren't a lot of female names in first century CE Palestine; Maryam or Salome or Elizabeth or... Johannah. Yeah, I think her name was Johannah. She was young and not very pretty, and although she knew she should be grateful for this position at her cousin's inn, she hoped that very soon her father would find a husband for her. If she had to fetch and carry and cook and clean, it would be better to do so in a house of her own, for her own people rather than for strangers.
But this night, one of those strangers needed her. A young woman, not much older than herself, swollen-bellied, had to go and have her babe in the stable, of all places. No time to fetch the midwife, no money to pay her if there had been; and of course the husband was of no use. So it was "Johannah, fetch water" and "Johannah, bring clean cloths" and "Johannah, can you get her to shut up her howling, the other guests are complaining", and still there was bread to serve and wine to pour and floors to be swept, all with the same pained false smile of welcome, and then all of a sudden silence from the stable, oh no...
...and Johannah ran, not even pausing to put down her basket, but before she reached it, the silence was broken by another thin cry. And there she saw the new mother, exhausted and tear-streaked, while her husband knelt beside her, whispering urgently. And the baby, wailing in the damp straw.
So somebody had to pick up the child. Wash it clean, gently wiping away the blood and stable-dust and that waxy newborn whiteness. Wrap him, oh definitely a "him", tightly, securely in the strips of cloth that had been lain over the basket, to protect the bread within. Place the warm bundle into the safe arms of his mother, where his cries suddenly ceased, as he turned towards her breast, instinctively rooting for comfort. The mother looked down and smiled, a bit tremulously. Then she looked back up and smiled again, a tiny grateful smile, at Johannah.
Johannah stood in that smile, for just a second. But then she heard a clamor from the innyard: "Guests a-coming!" So she followed that shouts, and looked towards the east, where she could see a large, exotically outfitted party on the way. There was going to be a lot of work to do.
Three decades later, there was still work to do.
But not at her cousin's inn -- that had been burned down long ago by the Romans. For "providing aid to the rebels", they had it, as if any man who knew his business would turn away hungry and thirsty men with good coin, or insist on quizzing them about their political allegiance before selling them a meal.
Johannah hadn't been working there at the time. She had been with her husband, a quiet tenant farmer half again her age. He had been a good man, a hard worker, gently affectionate towards their two daughters, never reproaching Johannah for her failure to bear him sons. But he was gone, too; dead of weariness from too many years working another man's land, dead of shame when their eldest ran off with a foreign soldier, dead of grief when the fevers took the other.
His kin refused to take Johannah in, throwing their disgrace and ill-luck at her feet. The landlord's agent gave her a day to leave the home that had been hers, for he had found another family to rent it. So Johannah left for the city, the great City -- Jerusalem. Amid all those people, natives and foreigners, all strangers to her failures, she might find some employment. Or she could beg for coins and food, like so many others, beneath the shadow of the Temple of the God who had turned His face away.
Instead, she found work among the dead. To even touch a corpse was a great defilement, but someone had to prepare their bodies for burial: wash them, rub them with strong spices, wrap them in clean linen before sending them to the family tomb. Rich folk would pay a woman like her, who had no purity to lose, to do that which was needful; and then to follow behind the mourners, beating her breast and wailing like a woman in her pains, making sure all witnesses took note of their grief.
It was not pleasant work, but Johannah found it preferable to her other choices. At least the dead did not complain or try to hurry her, or expect her to be delighted at their company.
This body, though... this body was different.
The man who hired her was even richer than her usual employers. She could tell by his elegant robes, his luxurious scent, the way he looked around her or through but never quite at her, that he was one of the powerful men of the City, to whom she was no more than a dog nosing for scraps among the rubbish.
But the servant he had sent came to her under cover of darkness, like he was hiding a dangerous secret. And the body she had been summoned to attend was that of a criminal.
It was quite obvious. The caked blood at his wrists and ankles screamed mutely his method of execution. She paused for a moment, not wanting to be mixed up in any business with the Romans, then shook her head. It had nothing to do with her, or her work.
Gently unwrapping the coarse cloth covering, Johannah frowned. There was blood everywhere; this man had been beaten, severely. Scourged. A huge red-brown puddle had crusted on one side. His scalp and beard were sticky with matted blood and hair. Smears of dirt and mud covered the rest of him, as if he had been dragged in the road. Like so many who died violently, he had emptied his bowels and bladder, and the sour stench nearly choked her.
This man had clearly made someone very important very angry. Maybe a lot of someones.
No matter. He had been a man. Like her husband. Like the sons she had never borne. Like her father, cousins, long in their graves and forgotten.
She could think of no crime that deserved the horror of being left unburied. To leave a body to rot, prey to beasts and the elements, would be to defile the whole land of Israel. Especially during this holy time, this time of celebration, when all of the Children of Israel remembered how God had acted to save them from oppression and slavery.
Her mouth twisted bitterly. She thought of the silver coin that she had been promised, for erasing the evidence that lay stinking before her, witness to her people's freedom.
Johannah dunked a strip of cloth into the bucket, and gently squeezed a rivulet of clean water over the wreck of clay and spittle that once had been a man. With the brisk efficiency, she began to wipe away the stains of violence and rage and justice. She cleaned the clumps of dried blood between his fingers, behind his ears, with delicate care; she washed away the filth on his feet, his face, his more intimate areas, with painstaking tenderness.
She placed the wad of material, now completely streaked rust and brown, into the basket at the dead man's feet. "I will need more water," she called.
It was while she was washing his hair that the others burst in. Three weeping women and two younger men. She ignored them. They would be of no use to her. Their hoarse grief and fiercely muttered arguments irritated her. She wished they would go away and let her do her work.
One of the women, the smallest and perhaps the eldest -- Johannah didn't know or care -- came towards her, reaching for the wet cloth in her hand. "Let me do that," she said in a voice almost too harsh to be understood. "He is my son. It is my right."
Even as she spoke, the paler of the two men pulled her away. "No. You heard the teacher. I am your son now. Please, let us go from here. It isn't safe."
"He is my son," the woman repeated, her voice raw. "I will not leave him alone in the care of strangers."
Johannah turned her back on the pair, trying to beat down her resentment and focus on her task. Did this woman think she was the only mother to see her child die before her?
A servant came in, bearing a basket of myrrh and aloes. Their bitter scent overwhelmed the stench of death for a moment, and made Johannah's eyes blink away a sudden wash of pain. "My master wishes to know if it is finished."
"I am almost done here." Johannah took a last dry cloth and slowly rubbed the body dry. She tore off a few pieces, pressing them against the wounds, here and here, where the lifeblood oozed, then crumpled the rest in the basket to be buried alongside the corpse. She took long strips of linen from a separate pile, wrapping them tightly, securely, as if she were swaddling a newborn infant, tucking in the pungent spices as she wove and knotted them fast.
She hesitated, then nodded at the silently weeping mother, still stubbornly standing as near as her companions would permit. Johannah would not touch her with her corpse-defiled hands, but thought it only right that the woman should have a chance to bid her farewells.
The woman looked up to thank Johannah with the briefest, most heartbroken of smiles. All her attention was then turned at once to her newly dead son.
Johannah stood for a moment in that smile, then left. There would always be more work for her to do.