infancy

      ”It is cold,” she thinks. “And dark.” 
     Her cloak frays at the edges, the long journey and excessive wearing having taken a toll on the fabric. Her husband cleared several small manure piles in order to provide a clearing, and now she sits, cross-legged, against a beam. Rings of dried blood stain both their fingernails, on account of handling the newborn. Joseph regrets not asking the innkeeper for a wash basin. He glances over at the trough, but hesitates before suggesting they wash their hands in the oxen’s drinking water.      
     Despite the chill, sweat appears on Mary’s forehead. She trembles, and chastises herself for doing so. “Don’t shake,” Mary tells herself. “You’ll wake the baby.”  
     “Don’t shake,” she intones, again and again. “Be still.”
     Bits of hay stick to the cloth. Joseph wrapped it, his hands steadier than hers, but his palms felt coarse on her neck and she brushed him away soon afterward. “Carpenter hands,” thinks Mary. “I don’t need carpenter’s hands. I need soft hands; steady hands prepared for a child.” Mary examines the crimson prints on the cloth, wondering which belong to her, and which belong to her husband.
     Joseph, though young, already bears marks of apprenticeship, having worked under an older carpenter for several years. He stands over Mary, who holds their child close to her breast. His eyes shift from the child’s face, to Mary’s crown, and lastly to the beam supporting both wife and child.
     Joseph notes the knots in the wood and guesses internally at the age of the beam, as well as the stable itself. He steps away, as quiet as he can, and examines the pieces of wood which form the stable wall. “Good choices,” thinks the young carpenter, “though many pieces will need replacing soon, especially if it rains as much as it did last season.” His hand traces the lines in the wood.
     He spies a crack in one of the pieces, just below the ceiling. “Ah,” he thinks, proud of himself for noticing, “there’s a piece that needs fixing right now. Maybe I’ll fix it in return for allowing Mary and the baby to stay the night. It wouldn’t take long at all to repair.” Joseph pauses to take in the night stars, shining through the slits in the stable ceiling.
     He hears the baby coo, and his eyes fall down to wife and child. Joseph remembers the steam rising from his child’s infant skin; a chorus of smoke plumes, as if he was born on fire. “Is everything alright?”
     Mary lifts her head to Joseph and nods. “Fine, Joseph, fine.” Her eyes focus on one rose print in particular; one she knows as hers. “Joseph.”
     “Yes?”
     “Did the…the…” The words lodge in her throat. They feel too sharp, too large to speak. 
     “What is it, Mary?” His hands return to her neck, but this time they feel softer, more tender. Mary inhales, exhales. Her eyes turn from the print and meet his stare. 
     “Did the — angel — when it — when he spoke…did his words make sense to you?”
     Joseph’s eyes don’t break from Mary’s. He smiles, and kisses her forehead. “…No.”
     Mary nods, and smiles. And then her sight returns to the baby, whose palm tumbles down the back of her fingers; tide by tide, learning the hand of his mother. A tear falls, landing square on the baby’s forehead, in the exact location where Joseph kissed her own forehead. She laughs, and the baby stirs.
     Mary, warmed by the child, whispers. “Peace, child. Peace.”