by Ellen Fritz
"Look at that," said the roman centurion's grey stallion Darius, to his neighbor as they stood fastened to the tie rail of the inn. "So many people coming from every direction for this taxing business ..., and just look at that!" At last he had the attention of the mare Rebecca, who was standing in the field of the inn adjoining the tie rail. She stared sympathetically at the small thin donkey with the heavily pregnant woman on its back. The donkey did not seem to suffer under the weight while all around the other animals were dripping with sweat.
"That poor woman," she said knowingly as her brown eyes misted over in sympathy. She marveled at the courage of the woman. "Seems as if she's going to give birth very soon. She really has mettle to travel under such conditions!” She turned to Darius. “Why are your owners so ruthless to force everyone in this land to report to his or her town of birth - and that at such short notice? Then they are given only a short time in which to do it too!"
"Oh you are such an emotional old mare,” Darius replied. “It's just because the woman is Jewish like your master that you carry on and on about her. Besides, the baby is probably going to be a boy, which only means it's one more for my master and Caesar Augustus to keep in check," he huffed.
Seeing the gentle mare quailing at his crudeness, he said less harshly: "I'm sorry. And of course I'm sorry for her too. I'm a warhorse you know and think politically whereas you are the most exquisite little Arabian mare, and so noble to feel for the woman."
"See that little donkey? There is definitely something unusual about him," remarked Akid, the centurion's greyhound. "He's not sweating at all and his ears are moving to and fro like that of a fresh horse."
"Yes, I see he's walking briskly - hmmmm, I see what you mean about his ears, but I'm sure he must be sweating," argued the stallion.
"I tell you now, there is not a drop of sweat on that beast!" said the hound irritably and walked to a shady spot.
Rebecca wandered off to the far side of the little field which she shared with two milk cows also belonging to her owner, the innkeeper. The horse and the two cows stood together under a tree, munching hay which their owner, also the inn keeper, had thrown over the fence early that morning as it was winter and grazing was sparse.
"I can tell you something," meowed the lean cat that lived in the inn-yard just outside the kitchen, sauntering up to them. "The inn is so full that single people have to share rooms and still people are coming in from all over. The whole town is overflowing; almost every house has been turned into an inn, in order to accommodate all the visitors. And where do you think are the centurion and his officers? Inside the inn, drinking and eyeing the pretty country girls!"
"That could cause trouble,” said Olive, a heavily pregnant cow. “They are supposed to keep an eye on the people and make sure that they do not cheat or fight. I was wondering why all those stunning horses were standing at the tie rail." She laid down to chew her cud. "I know just how that pregnant woman must be feeling." She mumbled to herself.
Suddenly Rebecca jerked her head up and prepared for an argument as an exquisite Arab mare was released into the paddock. She looked at the newcomer, her whole posture challenging, but the mare was too thirsty to care and walked straight past to drink at the water trough. As she shook herself, she sprayed the other animals with sweat. Rebecca gave her a dirty look and lifted her upper lip, being too preoccupied with what was happening in the inn courtyard to concern herself further with the newcomer. There seemed to be a heated discussion between the inn keeper, the owner of the sweaty mare and the people with the donkey.
"What's the problem with your owner? He looks like a real trouble maker," said Rebecca to the new mare. "Oh, sorry I'm so rude; my name is Rebecca and I belong to the innkeeper."
"My name is Vashti and my master is a rich merchant. He is not a very kind man. He beats me. We got here just before that couple with the donkey. Although the inn is full the innkeeper made sure my master would get the best room. The people with the donkey have nowhere to go and they're arguing about it," she said and sighed.
Darius neighed angrily and shook his head. He was calling the mares and they walked over. "That's shameful." Darius chipped in from the tie rail. "Both your owners are heartless. The innkeeper just took a couple with two children out of a nice room and told them to use the attic. They are very upset as it is too small for them, and your nasty owner," Darius looked at Vashti, "just demands this and that and he insulted that poor pregnant woman too!"
"It's because the merchant is a Roman!" said Rebecca angrily.
"Don't worry," called the cheerful little donkey: "my people are going to sleep in the stable. One of the stalls in there is bigger than the small rooms in the inn."
"How do you know? You have not seen the stable yet?" said Rebecca.
"I told him." said Akid, looking at the door to see whether his master was coming.
"Are you also being put here in the field?" asked Rebecca looking at the donkey.
"Yes, but I do know my manners so you two mares do not have to flatten your ears at me."
Vashti went to roll in the sand in the paddock and then walked to the trough again.
"There's blood on your mouth; the bit, I suppose, and aren't those whip marks on your flanks?" asked Rebecca.
"Oh, that's nothing. At least I can heal and get some rest as my master will be spending a few days here." answered Vashti.
"You look happy and fresh. I suppose your people live near here?" Rebecca asked the donkey called Bilam.
"Actually no, we're all the way from Nazareth. We have been pushing the pace a bit. My lady, Mary, will be having her baby any time now and we just had to complete the journey before she went into labor. I tell you, there is something strange and wondrous, maybe even holy, about that baby, but exactly what, I don't know." he said.
"But you should be dead tired, thirsty and full of sweat, yet it looks as though you’ve just had some oats and you do not have a drop of sweat on you. Good grief! You look better groomed than any of those soldiers' horses over there!" exclaimed Vashti.
"Don't ask me why, but I feel good enough that I could run a race right now. What amazes me though, is that my lady rider was as light as a feather! Every time she stroked me, I felt more energetic and could walk faster. Eventually even my master said that I was going too fast for his tired legs!"
If ever animals smiled, it was those who listened to the donkey that day.
The cat came out again with a wicked glint in his eyes and said: "The latest news is that the pregnant woman and her husband are going to use the biggest stall in the stable. The merchant's mare cannot stay out, so with only five stalls available some of you are going to sleep outside."
"Who is staying outside?" asked Rebecca.
"The sheep, which normally sleep in the big partition, are staying out tonight. They will be joining a flock out in that large field to the east. Those shepherds will watch over them."
"So it will be us and the cows inside and I assume you will be sleeping outside Bilam," Rebecca summarized, then continued. "This could be interesting. Just think how fascinating it will be to see a human giving birth. We have seen one another giving birth, but a human?"
"Well, my udder is very big, in case the woman needs milk," Tana the quiet white cow added.
While the couple was moving in, the innkeeper's daughter was preparing the animals' feed and readying the pale for milking Tana. A white dove flew up to them and perched on a branch right above the cat.
"Those who sleep in the stable tonight will be the most blessed animals on earth and you, donkey, will be the ancestor of another, even more blessed donkey than yourself."
The dove flew off towards the stable.
"How come you did not try and catch that dove?" Rebecca asked the cat.
"Oh, I just didn't feel like catching him." He replied without admitting that a great love for the white dove had overtaken him from the moment it had landed right above his head.
If he told them about his experience they would tease him for years to come.
Darius was looking at the group of animals under the trees and deep in his wisdom-filled Arabian soul he sensed something grandiose: both the mares were pure Arab and both had the wisdom of ages gone by in their eyes; the white cow seemed to be in some kind of trance, while the other was much too quiet for the hour just before milking and feeding. The donkey seemed quietly satisfied. He just went about eating here and there and when he looked up, the expression in his eyes was so peaceful, it made the stallion nervous. Donkeys were either lazy and naughty or greedy and argumentative. But what really baffled him was seeing the white dove almost standing on the cat's head and the cat just lying there ever so relaxed.
* * *
There had been a short sharp downpour and after the rain both mares were pure white. He himself was white too. The thought suddenly struck Darius as odd - so many white animals, all in one place!
It was unusually quiet around the inn and the stable. Even his irritation at having to wait for the centurion had gone. He drooped his head and dozed off in the last rays of the sun. In the stable the cows and horses were fed and given an ample helping of hay for the night. Rebecca and Tana kept on looking over the partitions at the people. Every now and then either Mary, the pregnant woman, or her husband Joseph, would stroke the animals gently and thank them for letting them share the stable.
"As though we had any say in it," grumbled Rebecca, but her eyes were gentle.
Vashti knew ... she knew that deep down Rebecca knew too. Something big was about to happen; something which man and beast had unknowingly been waiting for, for millennia.
"Their stable has twice the amount of straw as ours. I wonder if the lady will give birth tonight? Will they also need to throw the dirty straw out like they do with ours when we calf or foal?" asked Tana who had not eaten much and who could not take her eyes off her human neighbors.
"Joseph wants to go for help but Mary says that she knows everything will be alright and that the “holy baby's birth will not hurt her much," Rebecca whispered to Vashti who stood in the end stall.
There came a soft sound of rustling feathers from the rafters and they saw the white dove sit with its wings spread as if in protection. "Kneel all of you, kneel to honor the holy child." commanded the dove. Obediently and fearlessly the animals in the stable knelt. Through the wooden slats of the partitions they saw the holy baby being born while they knelt, and heard him give his first little cry. Although the white cow and horse on either side of the baby's stall did not know it, their eyes held an expression of infinite peace and love.
"What is it? I could not see from this angle," Rebecca asked. "It will be a boy, a very holy boy." said Vashti from the end stall from where she could see. Nothing and nobody argued as her voice rang with certain knowledge.
"Their water pail is almost empty and surely they will need more water to drink and clean up with," said a worried Tana. As if Joseph understood what she had said he leaned over her partition to scoop some water from her bucket. A joy that this special man had scooped water from her bucket, made Tana lift her head and low quietly. From a corner in their stall, Joseph took some clean hay and filled the manger while Mary wrapped the baby in cloths and carefully laid him down to sleep.
The humans were quiet now. The holy baby asleep with a faint smile on his face; his mother lying on some thick straw, also fast asleep. Joseph had covered her with his own cloak and laid an extra layer of straw over it to keep his sweet wife warm and comfortable.
"There's one devil of a din outside! Singing and music. Goodness this is scary," said Rebecca, blowing nervously through her nostrils, keeping her eyes on the sleeping baby. Somehow all these strange happenings had something to do with Him.
Just then he opened his eyes and gazed into hers, smiling. She almost lost her balance as she became giddy from the sudden feeling of peace that came over her.
The entire stable was filled with His warm presence and each animal was momentarily wrapped in a soft, hazy white glow, which filled them with infinite peace.
Then there was the sound of approaching footsteps. Three shepherds entered quietly. They looked afraid and slightly bewildered, but as they stared at the child in the manger, the fear on their faces was replaced with joy and peace.
"That din must have been angels telling these shepherds about the baby," Vashti marveled reverently.
Darius woke up with a start and looked at the other horses in the military lines. He had just had a dream of a man who told him He will, in a little over thirty years from now, pay the greatest tax for all mankind. He wondered whether this man would be very rich. He lifted his head up in alarm as a white dove, the one of the previous day at the inn, settled on the tie rail at his head.
"The tax that the man who had just been born will pay, will not be with money but with holy blood."