This is another new fable for Christmas. This time, it’s from the point of view of a mythical midwife, Judith, who assists Mary as she delivers the Christ Child.
The Gospel of Luke, from which most of the details of the Christmas story are drawn, doesn’t mention a midwife, but the services of such a woman would almost certainly have been used.
Last year’s fable is now available in digital, paperback and audiobook versions. The audiobook is read by the estimable Charles Kahlenberg.
The scriptural quotes are drawn from the King James translation of the Bible.
I’ll be serializing the short story, free, for the next few days. The Shepherd, from the book, is briefly mentioned in the story.
I hope you enjoy it.
The Midwife’s Story
“Judith, come quickly, a woman needs you—now!”
Judith rolled over in her bed to face the door where someone was making so much noise in the middle of the night. Dragging her mind out of sleep, where dreams still echoed, was like pulling strands of sticky filament off her face after walking into a spider’s web.
“Judith, can you hear me? Wake up! A woman needs you and your daughter!” the voice said.
The voice was female, and young sounding. Good. Her detractors—or enemies—in the Physician’s Guild probably wouldn’t send a young woman to summon her. They would send one of their own, a male.
“I’m here. Quit yelling and beating on the door. I’ll come soon,” Judith said.
The noise from the door stopped, but the silence was the sort that could easily be broken again. It was almost as if Judith could hear the owner of the loud voice inhaling, preparing to shout again.
She pushed up from her bed, using both hands and held the frame as she stood. Her knees and ankles reminded her, as she crossed the room, that they needed more sleep. She dressed in a robe that would protect her against the chill outdoors.
Thank God my hands, arms and shoulders are still flexible and pain free. I’d not be able to help the women, otherwise.
Yes, of course a woman needs me. Men don’t personally require the services of midwives. Recent days in Bethlehem have been unusually busy ones. It seems that every tenth woman who comes into the city to register, under Caesar’s census edict, has been pregnant and about to deliver. I need sleep, but they need me even more.
She limped across the room to where her daughter slept. The younger woman’s back was toward her. Her breathing was deep and regular. The frantic noise from the door hadn’t awakened her.
The dark room was as familiar to Judith as the fingers on each hand. She found an oil lamp on a table near her daughter’s bed.
After lighting it, Judith touched the sleeping woman’s shoulder.
“Susanna, wake up, someone needs us. Dress and get the birthing stool. I’ll find out who’s at the door and where we need to go.”
She lit another olive oil lamp and made her way to the entrance of their small house.
As she lifted the bar to open the door the sound of heavy breathing was obvious. When the thick, wooden portal swung outward, the lamp illuminated a familiar face. The innkeeper’s daughter.
“Sarah, why are you out here calling for me in the middle of the night? Am I needed to help some woman staying in your father’s lodging place?”
Sarah didn’t immediately answer. She looked down the dark street and up at the sky before turning back to Judith. The lamp she carried was guttering, almost out of oil.
“The woman who needs you isn’t staying in the inn. The family came up from Nazareth and was late arriving. There are so many people who have come to Bethlehem to comply with Caesar’s registration decree that by the time the man, Joseph, came in, all the rooms were taken,” Sarah said.
“So what did your father do? Did he tell them to go rent a tent?”
“No, the man is an honorable man, a carpenter, and the woman, Mary, seems so gentle and sweet—as well as being pregnant— that my father did the best he could. He let them stay, without cost, in the stable behind the inn. It’s secure and built into the side of a hill to protect our animals from the weather— so they’ll be safe and sheltered, though not truly comfortable.”
Susanna came to the door. She was carrying an oil lamp and the birthing stool. She had her long hair pulled back. She smiled as she recognized Sarah.
“Well, good morning. Are we going to the inn?” she said.
Sarah repeated the story she’d told Judith and began to walk down the dark street toward her father’s inn. Judith closed and latched her door and followed. The two younger women walked ahead. They slowed their normal pace so that Judith would not be left behind.
As they walked, the midwife watched her daughter and the innkeeper’s daughter.
Suzanna, her daughter, was almost eighteen. Her dark auburn hair was tied back and swung, side to side, as she walked. She was tall and had the wide, strong shoulders and classical profile her Greek father had bequeathed. He had been a physician trained in the best of the schools of Alexandria. He had taught her to read and had also taught her the profession of midwifery. After he passed away at only forty-two, Judith had become Bethlehem’s most popular midwife. That created a problem in the collective mind of the city’s Physician’s Guild. They wanted her to leave.
Sarah, the innkeeper’s daughter, was probably four years younger. She wore a robe of tan with dark green stripes. She had trouble slowing her stride, and not only because of her excitement. Her legs were long and her stride covered the ground easily. She would soon be as tall as Susanna. Her black hair bounced on her shoulders as she walked.
Judith’s thoughts were interrupted.
“Judith, we are almost to the stable. Please don’t be put off by the surroundings. The woman you will be helping seems to be unusually sweet and kind.”
The midwife wondered if Sarah could see her expression in the dim light. From most people the admonition would be insulting. From Sarah, whose dark eyes flickered in the lamplight, it was simply an eagerness to help.
“No worries, Sarah, I’ve helped many women in unhappy circumstances.”
I could have added that, in secret, I’ve attended many a grand lady who was the wife of a member of the nobility or even the Physician’s Guild.
The stable was, as Sarah had said, a cave—whether natural or man-made—cut into the side of the hill on which the inn sat. Two heavy oxen stood behind a wooden fence near the opening and Judith’s nose immediately told her that there were also sheep nearby.
Inside, down an aisle formed by the wooden rails of pens, there was a steady light ahead. Sarah and Suzanna led the way.
A sturdy man with curly brown hair sat on a stool used for milking. He was holding the hand of a beautiful young woman whose breathing betrayed, to the practiced ear of the midwife, the final stages of labor.
“Madam, I’m Judith and I’m a midwife. I’ve come, with my daughter, to help you bring your child safely into the world.
“I’m Mary. Thank you.”
Susanna turned to the man.
“Sir, please step outside and wait. This is women’s business. On second thought…”
“Sarah, can you take him to the porch of the inn and get him some water while he waits.”
The man’s brown eyes betrayed concern and the sort of helpless confusion common to expectant fathers.
“I’m Joseph. Please take good care of Mary. Her son, I have been told, will be an exceptional man.”
He followed Sarah as Susanna had requested.
Judith and her daughter moved to Mary with practiced expertise and positioned her carefully on the birthing stool. Susanna stood behind, holding Mary’s shoulders.
What did that man mean? He’s “…been told…her son…”? Who could tell him those things? He seems rational and a solid man. No time to wonder.
Judith had dreaded, from the moment she’d heard there was a woman needing her help, crouching down to receive the newborn infant. Her knees and ankles had complained with every step, coming to the stable. Now, she was going to try to squat, flexing her knees and stressing her ankles as she faced the woman sitting on the stool.
Then something strange happened. She felt no pain, and the strength in her talented, gentle hands was multiplied. A glow of youthful flexibility surged across her.
The delivery was unusually simple and easy. When the boy—and it was a boy—was in her hands before she put him on his mother’s breast she felt a power emanating from him like nothing she had known and, afterward, could never completely describe.
Peace flowed from the infant and his mother like a sweet fountain, enveloping and calming her to the core.
Susanna was going about, tidying the area in which they’d worked. The new mother had reclined on a bed of fresh hay, which had been covered with clean cloths, nursing the baby. When mother and daughter’s eyes met, they shifted in unison to Mary and the boy, then back to each other with expressions of wonder. Both smiled.
More to follow tomorrow.