january, 4 b.c.
Outside, a thunderstorm raged. a great wind frightened the animals and bent the trees low to the ground, shaking their leaves almost off their branches. But inside the house of just-married Simon and Esther, there was light and laughter. A long table covered with a striped cloth was pushed up close to the wall, and it was laden with earthenware platters decorated by palm fronds and piled high with eggplant and olives, with spit-roasted beef and lamb and fish, with rounds of flatbread, with grapes and oranges and figs and sweet cakes.
Beneath the table, sixteen-year-old Joseph sat cross-legged in silence, watching sandals and ankles and hems of tunics go by. No one had seen him—he was almost totally obscured by the tablecloth—and he enjoyed the anonymity. He was of course a man now, but he could not resist on occasion returning to the pleasures of boyhood. This was one such pleasure: to sit hidden and watch the elders as they drank ever more wine and acted ever more foolish. In the corner, he saw old Samuel weaving as he stood with his feet far apart, trying to focus on the face before him. Wine had sloshed from his wooden cup to dribble down his mantle. “You will soon be on the floor,” Joseph muttered, and was startled to hear a voice say, “I am surprised he is not already.”
Joseph turned to see a girl squatting just behind him. “You have found the seat of honor,” she said. “May I join you here?”
There was something familiar about her. “We are known to each other?” he asked.
She nodded. “You have seen me many times. And you spoke to me when last you saw me. You came to the well when I was there last summer. I was gathering water with my mother; you were passing by with your father, Jacob.”
“Your memory serves you well. And I remember now, also. You are called Mary.” She was a wonder to behold, with her black curls escaped from her braid, her cheeks flushed dusky rose, her gaze so direct and yet mysterious. She tucked her hair behind her ears, and he saw the lines of her high cheekbones beginning to assert themselves. Her lips were full and pink. He was suddenly dry-mouthed, his heart knocking about in his chest like a caged animal wild to be released.
“Yes, I am Mary,” she said. “And you are called Joseph.”
And her voice! Low and musical, laughlike. The utter completeness of her beauty was astonishing; it made for a rush of emotion in him so strong it felt like anger.
“You have . . . grown,” he told her, and his voice cracked, causing him to blush to the center of his soul.
She appeared not to notice but instead stared calmly into his eyes. “And you also.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Newly thirteen. And you?”
“Seventeen in two days.”
They regarded each other carefully, and then he ducked down and pointed to the people before him who had joined hands and made a circle to dance. They whooped and called out to one another, stamped their feet, threw their heads back and laughed. “They rejoice so!” Joseph said, caught between wanting to admire them and to ridicule them. “It is as though King Herod has died and the Messiah has come, both together!”
She came closer and peered from beneath the cloth to see the dancers, then sat next to Joseph. “It makes me happy, their happiness,” she said, and there was in her
simple statement a truth that made him ashamed of his
“Of course it makes me glad as well,” he said. What was it that she smelled of? It was a scent of air and water, of salt and bread, of the white blossoms that flowered on the olive branches. Of apricots and nuts. Of earth. He felt himself growing dizzy. He leaned back onto his elbows and looked at her. “Where are you from?”
She cocked her head, puzzled. “Nazareth.”
“No,” he said.
She raised an eyebrow. “No?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“I am from Nazareth! Unless you mean . . . ah. I was born in Sepphoris, but I came to Nazareth when I was just—”
“No,” he said yet again.
She stared at him, then lowered her eyes. “I believe you must know of my extraordinary circumstances.” She looked up again. “Is that what you mean to say?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps.” He didn’t know what he was saying. The girl confused and unsettled him.
She smiled, a warm, rich thing, full of its own intention—he had never seen such a smile. But then her face grew serious. “Behold; by a way known only unto you and God, you have come to know of my great secret, of my strange beginnings. I have never spoken of this to anyone, nor have my parents. But I will reveal all to you if you promise never to tell another. Will you promise?”
He smiled uncertainly. She remained somber-faced and did not speak, waiting for him to agree to what she had asked. “I promise,” he said.
She nodded and resettled herself, sitting back on her heels and again anchoring her hair behind her ears. “So be it. We have agreed that this will be known only to you and to my parents, now and forever, unto the end of the earth.”
“Yes.” His chest inflated with his importance.
She leaned in closer and spoke quietly. “I was found beneath a date palm tree at the edge of the great Plain of Esdraelon. I was wrapped in cloth spun of gold, wearing a crown of jasmine flowers. Beside me were gifts of incense and linens, of spices and jewels, left for the one who would take me unto herself and raise me as her own.”
He tried not to laugh.
“Ah,” she said. “I see that you cannot believe. You must not feel ashamed. It takes a man of rare qualities to—”
“I believe,” he said. “I do! I believe!”
Now she laughed. “Then you have believed a lie. But the circumstances of my birth are yet more miraculous than what I have told you. My mother, Anne, was barren; but late in her life, an angel appeared before her and said—” Mary stopped and turned her head in the direction of a voice calling her name. Her high brow, her strong nose. “I must go,” she told him, pulling up her head covering and starting to crawl away from him.
He put his hand on her back. “Wait!” When Mary turned to him, he found himself frustratingly wordless.
Again, they heard her name being called, more insistently this time.
“I must go!”
“Until the next time!” he managed.
She rose too quickly and knocked her head against the underside of the table, then turned back to Joseph, giggling.
He did not smile. He would kill the table, for hurting her.
He lay down on his stomach to watch her walk across the room. Her gait was slow and easy. She moved with her back straight and her head high, and her bearing suggested something beyond the normally erect posture seen in Nazarene women, who were so used to carrying heavy loads upon their heads. Mary took her mother’s hand, then turned to look in Joseph’s direction and smiled. His breath was tight, his belly aching. He watched as she and her parents headed out into the rain, then sat up and returned his attention to the flush-faced revelers and silently invited them to his own ceremony, now that he knew with certainty to whom he would be betrothed. It was as though it were written in the stars, and always had been. And always would be.
“mother?” he called. It was late into the night, and Joseph could not sleep. He had lain for at least an hour turning from one side to the other on his pallet, staring up at the ceiling, occasionally reaching out his hand to run it slowly along the mud wall, cool after the storm. Also he had touched himself, lightly and with wonder, understanding now the reason for his manhood.
“Mother!” he called again.
It was his father’s frame that suddenly filled the low and narrow doorway. Joseph’s mother had become an
increasingly sound sleeper. Also she had begun to grow a mustache.
“What is it, my son?” Jacob asked. “Are you ill?”
“Then why do you call so persistently, when your mother and I need to take our rest?”
He did not answer, and his father moved closer. “Joseph?”
“When will we see those people again?”
“The people who came to the wedding party tonight.”
His father lifted his shoulders and made a sound deep in his throat. “We all live in the same small village. We see one another often.”
“No, but . . . the people Anne and Joachim, and their daughter, Mary. When will we see them again?”
“Ahhhhhh,” his father said. “Have you interest in Mary?”
Joseph said nothing.
His father clapped his hands together and his voice rose high and tight in happiness. “I have waited long for this moment! I shall invite them to Sabbath dinner next week, that you may look again upon your Mary. And then we shall see what will happen.”
“I know already,” Joseph said.
His father scratched at his side and yawned. “We shall see. And now you must sleep, that you may grow strong and healthy and into a husband fit to father many sons.”
Joseph turned onto his side and closed his eyes.
“I am happy for you, my son.”
“And I too, Father.”
“Good night, Joseph.”
He listened to his father’s footsteps move away from him in the dark. Had his father felt this, this reeling sensation, big as all of the heavens, for his now snoring wife? Impossible.
Joseph drew in a deep breath and let it out. He closed his eyes tighter. But still he did not sleep. He saw again every move she made, heard again her every word. And waited for morning, which would bring him one day closer to his own wedding day.
Joseph’s mother, rachel, lit the two candles on the table, then passed her hands slowly over the flickering flames and back toward herself, welcoming in the Sabbath. Covering her eyes, she began reciting, “Barukh atah Adonai, Elohaynu, melekh ha-olam . . .” Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe . . .
Mary sat with her eyes fixed on her lap, trying to pay attention, but it was of no use. She was too excited: her heart thumped so hard she thought it might be audible, her mind was racing, and she kept feeling as though she might cry out. She drew in a breath and unclenched her fists that she might at least appear calm, sitting here at the table across from the young man to whom she was so strongly drawn.
She and her parents had all but run through the
village’s narrow alleyways to the home of Rachel and Jacob, but still they had arrived late, thanks to a neighbor’s ailing donkey that her father had delayed their departure to attend to. Joachim had a gift for curing animals, and someone was forever coming to him—no matter the hour— with chickens, with sheep, with cows. Once, a little neighbor boy had brought over a sparrow with a broken wing. With meticulous care, Joachim had set the wing, using a twig and a thin strip of cloth. He had then told the child to leave the bird with him; he would watch over it that night. The bird had died, as expected, and at dawn Joachim had buried it. Then he had hidden in the bushes until he caught another sparrow, which he placed in a covered basket and presented to the boy. Joachim told him his bird was cured, and now he should set it free. The boy complied reluctantly; he watched with Joachim as the bird flew furiously away. But then the child began to weep and stomp his feet, saying, “I wanted it for myself!”
Joachim gently admonished the boy, asking, “Which is greater, your desire to have the bird captured, or the bird’s need for freedom? Belonging to everyone, as it now does, does it not also belong to you?”
Because Joachim had assisted the donkey in giving birth, the sun was soon to set when Mary and her parents arrived at Joseph’s. There had been no time to be shown graciously around his home. But no one could fail to notice that the downstairs of the house had not one room but two, and that it was equipped with many oil lamps; Joseph’s father had olive orchards. One could not help but see that Rachel wore a mantle dyed red with madder root, and that the linen of her tunic was whole and without the patches so familiar to Mary and her parents. Joseph had immediately risen higher in Mary’s esteem, not only for his family’s riches but for the kind way in which he welcomed both her and her parents. He had about him an air of easy confidence that Mary knew her parents admired; they had looked at each other in an
approving way after he had spoken to them.
The table had been properly set with two loaves of challah covered with plain white cloths, and with earthenware cups. Rachel had politely accepted the wine Joachim had brought, made with grapes from his own vineyards, and then everyone had sat down immediately so that Rachel could light the candles at the proper time. Now she completed the blessing and uncovered her eyes to look at the candles and to smile at her guests. The light in the room was a pinkish orange from the sun hanging low in the sky, and there was in the air the rich scent of cumin and garlic, of lemon and coriander.
Mary stole another look at Joseph’s mother—interesting how in candlelight everyone looked beautiful, even Rachel, whose countenance was overly long and wide, more a man’s face than a woman’s. But Mary had seen already that Rachel’s heart was good and generous, her manner lively, her faith deep. And for all her plainness, she had produced a very handsome son. Joseph was too lean, perhaps, but he was wonderfully tall, with reddish-brown hair and copper-colored eyes fringed with dark lashes a woman would envy. His beard was already thick and even.
After the evening service the parents performed the blessing for the children, placing their hands on their offspring’s heads and exhorting Mary to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; for Joseph to be like Ephraim and Menasseh. During the kiddush that followed, Mary felt a rush of longing, as she often did during this prayer, to go home, though not to the abode of Anne and Joachim. It was to another home, to a place she could not even imagine, much less describe. “Kiy vanu vacharta v’otanu qidashta mikol ha’ amiym,” she said softly, along with the others. Indeed, you have chosen us and made us holy among all peoples.
Mary felt deep inside herself, felt it more and more, that all people were holy, that indeed all the earth, with its humans and its animals, with its rocks and rivers and trees, was holy; and that all the things upon the earth were given to one another in an act of such spectacular grace it was impossible to comprehend. Yet an attempt at such understanding should be what life was devoted to, should be what life was for, she believed: let there be a joyful fullness in taking, and also fullness in giving.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Handmaid and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg. Copyright © 2006 by Elizabeth Berg. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.