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December 22, 2003
This eMo continues the retelling -- and considerable embroidering -- of the nativity narratives that began on December 15th. It is intended to be readable to children, but interesting to adults. As with all the eMos, preachers and -- in this case -- especially teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.

A Christmas Story
Part V The Table

Life with Elizabeth was about what Mary had expected it would be. She was able to make some progress in helping her cousin become a little more active: they hung clothes together on the bushes, walked in the walled courtyard together and gardened together, which meant that Elizabeth planted one onion set, and then watched while Mary put in the other ninety-nine. Joanna continued to do all the housekeeping, which meant that Mary wasn't working nearly as hard at Elizabeth's house as she usually did at her own. Mary and Anna did all the housework together, and it occupied most of every day. Here, Mary had time on her hands.

She did learn the complete story of Elizabeth's unusual pregnancy. How Zechariah hadn't believed the angel when the baby was promised, and was struck dumb for his disbelief. Now he was having to write on a tablet every time he wanted to say something. This meant that his work at the temple was managing the actual sacrifices, rather than teaching and greeting people as he usually did as a senior priest. In those days in that place, the primary means of worship was the sacrifice of animals: they slit their throats and poured the blood on the altar, then cooked the meat in great metal pans. Blood was everywhere, and the smell was awful. Incense would be piled onto every fire of animal flesh, but it never conquered the reek of the sacrificial smoke. Zechariah was away right now, taking his turn and then someone else's in this grisly business. He would return at the end of the week in a foul mood, with a bag full of bloody vestments for Joanna to wash clean.

"And so he's at the Temple all day, week after week, while I suffer here alone," Elizabeth said, helping herself to another fig at lunch. Mary had been with her for almost three months. Elizabeth was now quite round in the belly, and looked to be in fine health: pink cheeks, bright eyes. She was never sick to her stomach, and seemed to have a limitless appetite for food. None of these happy facts interfered with her complaining in the slightest.

"But you're going to have a baby. Surely that must make you happy."

"I was happy before."

Mary didn't remember Elizabeth ever having been what a normal person would call happy.

"Well, anyway, what shall we do today?" Mary said, hoping to get Elizabeth's mind off her troubles. "We have the mint bed to go through and clean up -- it's already overgrown. And we could put in more eggplants, because we still have some plants from Mama. And Mama said to be sure and cut the hyssop right as it blooms, for the best tea, because that's what you'll need when the baby comes."

"I feel so weak. I'm too weak to garden, I know it. I'd faint for certain."

"Well, then, sit outside with me while I cut back the mint and get the hyssop. You can pull the mint leaves off the stems and we'll dry them flat."

Mary installed Elizabeth in her chair out in the garden, and went back into the house to fetch the large flat herb basket. Before she could return to the garden, though, there was a heavy knock on the door to the street. Joanna usually answered the door, but she was already at the market. Mary set down her basket and fastened her scarf so that it covered the lower part of her face, then ran to the door and opened it.

There stood a man and a boy, each carrying one end of a large wooden table.

"Good morning, Miss," said the man. "Here is the table your master ordered, finished ahead of time."

Mary flushed with embarrassment. "Oh, I don't work here. Joanna is out right now. I'm just visiting. Zechariah is my cousin's husband. My cousin is in the garden. Shall I get her?"

The man started slightly, as if something had surprised him. "Oh, you're Elizabeth's cousin? The daughter of Anna and Joachim?" Mary had turned and started toward the back of the house, but she stopped and turned back.

"Um...yes. I'm Mary. And... who shall I say is here? With the table?" Mary's heart was beating so loudly she thought for certain the man could hear it. This man was a carpenter. He knew her parents. He knew they had a daughter. Could he be...?

"My name is Joseph." His voice, which had been so pleasantly rich and rumbly, was suddenly strained. Suddenly he was looking down at his table top. His son was watching him, bewildered.

"Oh." Mary's eyes were downcast, too. The table top gleamed. Their faces were reflected in it, two people looking down, a bearded man and a veiled woman. They saw each other in the reflection at the same instant, and quickly lifted their eyes from the table top, only to find them locked on each other in the flesh.

"You are Mary." His brown eyes searched hers.

"Oh," Mary said again. She could feel her cheeks turn pink. She wished she didn't blush so easily. She became aware of the boy watching them both with open curiosity, and quickly looked back down at the table.

"Oh, forgive me. Won't you come in?" She couldn't just leave them standing there at the door. Where were her manners?

"Thank you, Miss Mary." Joseph and his son picked up the heavy table and turned it sideways until it could go through the door. Carefully they guided it through without knocking against the doorpost even once.

"It's beautiful," Mary said, stroking the gleaming table top that had so recently caught them both in such a surprising truth. "So smooth."

"All from the wood of one tree," Joseph said proudly. "And the legs are just about as big around as the trunk. This table will last a long, long time, Miss Mary. It will last until you are an old lady; it will last until your great-great-great-grandchild is an old lady. It will last long than that. Long, long after you and I have both died."

"I can't imagine being so old. Or dying."

"That's because you are so young now. Life moves very quickly once it gets going."

Mary lifted her eyes to his again. "Yes," she said, "it certainly does."

Footsteps sounded in the hallway, and Elizabeth appeared at the door. "Oh, my poor back! I was wondering what had happened to you, girl. Oh, hello, Joseph -- I see the table's finished. Well, bring it into the kitchen, then, and move the old one out to the courtyard. I don't know what's keeping Joanna. She knows I have to have my tea in the midmorning, to keep my strength up. I think I'd better just go back to bed. Mary, show him where it should go, that's a good girl. Oh, my back!"

The new table was brought in, and the old one set against the wall outside. Mary made Joseph and James sit down and brought them big cups of cool water with slices of lemons and tiny fresh green mint leaves floating in them and a plate of dates. Nobody spoke much; Mary and Joseph kept meeting each other's eyes and then looking away in embarrassment.

Then Joseph spoke. "I'll be seeing your father again on the Sabbath, when your parents come to get you."

"Mama and Papa are coming to get me now?" Mary had lost track of the time she had spent with Elizabeth.

"Yes. We'll be talking then. You know that I must go to Bethlehem?"

Mary nodded.

"And that my family must be counted?" Suddenly Joseph seemed less confident and self-assured.

Mary nodded again, not trusting herself to speak.

"So -- well, you'll be in my family, then?"

Mary looked down and nodded again. Maybe age didn't matter very much.
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