She is dead to me.
I tried to speak the words but instead I swallowed them, bitter as bile, moments after my mother delivered the news.
“Sit,” she said when I entered the room for the midday meal. She pushed a cup—more wine than water—across the table. “Drink.”
Parched from the morning’s work and wood dust, I gulped the contents. Mother used her hip to nudge me over on the bench, covered my hands with hers.
“It is thickening, Joseph.”
My eyes narrowed. “What is?”
She brushed my knuckles with her thumb. “Her waist, your Mary’s.”
At first I did not understand. Mary’s waist, what? Then I knew. I clutched at my chest and hacked, tried to stand but the room seemed to tilt and take flight. My cup struck the floor with a thud and rolled.
Several times Mother pounded my back. I attempted to focus but tears blurred my eyes. Mother spoke so casually. How could she be calm? Who had told her this thing?
“I did not believe my sisters, so I searched for her, your Mary, in the market. When she embraced me, Joseph… They were right.”
I summoned spit to wet my throat, rasped out words. “Perhaps her cousin Elizabeth is gifted with food. Mary stayed with her three months, you know, in the hill country.”
Circling my waist with her arms, Mother laid her cheek on my shoulder and sighed. “Her girth felt firm, my son, not soft. It is as they say.” Her tongue made a clicking sound. “I am sorry.”
I stumbled out to Father’s shop, found my way by memory since tears had stolen my sight. Again and again I swallowed air in great gulps. I prayed my father would be there working, then hoped he would not be. Inside I collapsed in a corner, rocking and keening with no concern for who might hear.
Thoughts churned. Visions tormented. Mary in the hill country: young and so very lovely. Alone.
Through the window I observed the moon settling into position for the night.
“My Mary,” I whispered to the stars, “my very own angel.”
Or so I thought. Because we had already spoken our vows, she belonged to me. Except for the wedding night. Which I planned out, every last detail. On the night I chose, I would leave my father and mother to go claim her. The wedding party would see the light of my torch and announce my approach. Mary would drop everything and don her wedding garment.
Surely she would be radiant, shining with anticipation. And purity.
After the wedding feast I would lead her to the home my father and I prepared for her, for the two of us. There, in a bed crafted by my own hands, she and I would become one flesh. Blood pounded in my ears at the thought.
Seated on our marriage bed I would arrange myself behind and around her, remove her head covering and see her lustrous dark hair, her crowning glory, at last. I imagined she braided and pinned it into a thick coil every morning before she concealed it. How I longed to watch her tresses tumble free in lamp light!
I would call her my dove in the cleft of the rocks. She would liken me to a gazelle or a young stag. In the moonlight our bodies would line up perfectly—curve to curve, swell to swell.
My breath would extinguish the lamp and in the night my innocence would find hers and—
“Another man has what is mine!” My words ricocheted around the room gone cold. “Her virtue is lost to a faceless man in the hill country of Judea.”
I grabbed fistfuls of dust and ground them into my hair, slapped more into my beard, moaned from a place beneath my stomach. What kind of man must he be to persuade Mary to sacrifice everything? Mary who blushed whenever my sandal brushed hers. Mary whose two tunics were both worn at the knees due to her copious prayers.
I could only fathom he must be wonderful, much more so than I, perfect even.
I awoke when the door to the workshop swung open. My father approached me, his face creased with concern. “So Mother told you.”
Again I wept, my cries raw and hollow in the workroom.
“What now, Abba? What now?”
Father joined me on the floor, held me so close I could barely breathe, yet I did not want him to stop. The warmth of him—his compassion, his sorrow on my account—seeped into my skin. At last he released me. He reached up to pat the surface of his workbench, brought down a knife and stub of wood. His carving sent tiny curls of wood to their doom in the dirt.
“In times of trouble, son, I search the scriptures.”
I nodded. “As do I.”
He smiled at the shape in his hands. “I know you do. You are a good man.” With the hem of his garment he removed dust from his work. “It has always been my hope that you would posess a wisdom like that of King —”
“Yes. And today a scripture came to me for such a time as this.” Holding my breath, I faced Father. “Two are better than one, Joseph. If either falls, the other can help him up, but pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them.”
I tried to growl away the burn in my throat.
“Actually, I have decided to divorce her, Father, quietly, of course.”
“Oh, Joseph, surely not. You cannot leave her alone in her circumstance. The law—”
I held up my hand. “Hear me out. I must free Mary from our betrothal so when he comes for her she will not be bound to me. How could he not return for her? There is none more beautiful—”
Father shook his head. “I disagree. If such was the case, why would he allow her to depart Judea in the first place?” He stood and extended his hand to help me to my feet. When he draped his arm across my shoulders, I inhaled his woody fragrance, always a part of him.
“Perhaps he needed time to save up the bride price,” I said as we made our way back to the house.
“Maybe there is more to this than we know.”
Outside the house my father gathered my hands in his. “Do not be hasty, my son. Promise me you will sleep on this and of course, pray. Perhaps we should also fast, for discernment.”
I squeezed his hands. “I promise, Abba, to sleep on it and to pray.”
“Awake, awake, oh, sleepers!” Two nights later I practically sang the words as I shook my parents from their slumber.
“The Lord our God, the Mighty One, has done a great thing! He sent an angel to me in a dream.”
Mother and Father stumbled into the common room huddled in a single blanket.
I stood before them gesturing wildly. “‘I will die this night.’ That was my first thought when I opened my eyes. I was sure the light of him, this being as massive as Goliath, would consume me.”
At the table Father rubbed his eyes as Mother brought out bread and water. Their brows were furrowed—with lack of understanding, I wondered, or disbelief?
“He said I am not to be afraid to bring Mary here as my wife, that the babe in her womb is from the Holy Spirit, the Most High God himself! Truly He has changed my mourning into dancing.”
Clapping and grinning like a fool, I flung open the door and shouted to all of Nazareth.
“Mary, my beloved Mary, is a virtuous girl. Pronounce me a prophet for I say one day you will all call her blessed.”
I rejoined my parents at the table. “I am to give him the name Jesus. That is what the man from heaven told me, commanded me, because He will save his people from their sins.”
Mother fell to her knees and raised her hands heavenward. “Thanks be to God for he has taken your shame, my son, and refashioned it into joy.”
Father lifted his gaze as well. “This is indeed good tidings. Our Lord is gracious and compassionate.” He beckoned me toward the door. “We need to finish the addition, Joseph, and quickly.”
Mother clutched at her chest. “A feast, I must prepare a feast. A week from today, is that too soon?” She extended a hand toward my father. “Can you have their quarters completed in seven days? You and Joseph?”
My father and I were of one mind and when we spoke in unison, laughter lay between our words.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor.”
(As you can see, I love to reimagine Bible stories. If you’re a fan, here’s another one.)