The man glared at the old woman on his doorstep.
“What are you doing here, you old Crone?” he growled.
“I have come to witness the birth of the Anointed One!” the woman answered defiantly.
“Pah! You are a curse on children!” sneered the father to be, “I forbid you to enter my house! You know you are not wanted here! I want a son! Not a daughter of a Ba’al! Go away, damn you!”
The man closed the door tightly behind him. The old woman stood patiently before the closed door. At the sound of a bar sliding into place behind the door, the old woman turned to look at Yohanna.
“We shall wait,” she announced simply and held out her hand for support from the younger woman.
Yohanna took her grandmother’s hand and led her to the shade of a tamarind tree across the open space from the house. The two women sat serenely on the ground under the low branches, basking in the warm summer sweetness of nearby jasmine blossoms. Yohanna produced a string of figs and the remainder of a round loaf from her sack. She passed the food to the old woman who sniffed first at the figs, then at the bread. The crone closed her eyes in thanks to Mother Earth for nurturing them, and passed them back. Oblivious to the curious stares of the people passing by on the street, Yohanna fed the old woman and herself with the pieces of fruit and bread.
“Grandmother, is this the child they have been talking about?”
“This is not the child they talk of,” the old woman replied, “Nor the child they expect. But it is the child we have all been waiting for. The mother will know it, and the father fears it. It is for us to open the arms of the Great Mother to receive this child when the time comes. I have waited many years to see this baby, and yet, I will not live long enough to see it grow and blossom. That is why I have brought you with me.”
“I am to take your place?”
The old woman shook her head and smiled sadly. “No, Yohanna, you cannot take my place, but you have to nurture this child as if it were your own. You will have all of your Mother’s possessions at your disposal to help you in this task. And I shall be leaving you soon.”
“Before the child is born.”
“Today?” An aching spasm of fear and impending loneliness bit deeply into the pit of Yohanna’s stomach.
“By morning,” whispered the old woman. “Yohanna, you must not be afraid. I am not leaving you forever. I will return.”
“When?” Tears welled in Yohanna’s eyes.
“You will know.”
Immersed in a deep well of sudden emptiness, Yohanna bit her lip in an effort to quell her rising panic. She could not imagine life without the old woman to guide her.
The old woman pulled Yohanna into her arms and held her tight. As ever, her grandmother’s hands always knew when to enfold her and when to let go. “Don’t hold back the tears, Yohanna,” whispered the old woman, “You can cry for me. I am sad that I will not know you again as we are now, but in the Now, we can cry together. We can cry together.”
Fear reigned deep within the closed house which had shunned Yohanna and her elderly companion. The father paced the floor angrily, muttering incantations to Yahweh to ward off the terrible spell that the old Samaritan woman had cast upon his shelter. The man, for all his faith in Yahweh, respected the power of Baal and Ashtoth and the legions of fallen angels that the old woman could command. The old woman’s skills were known and proven. Zebedee had said that her ancestors had commanded the power since the time of Canaan. His deepest feelings, if he could have admitted it to himself, would have caused him to invite the old woman inside to help with the delivery. But he knew for such an act, the wrath of Yahweh would thunder down upon him and his first-born son for dealing with other gods , and destroy forever his chances of resurrection. His fear of Yahweh had already caused him to blame the appearance of the Canaanite woman on his wife.
Afraid of her husband’s wrath, the mother had retired to the bridal chamber at the back of the house with her sisters. There they wiped her brow with dampened cloths, and soothed her with quiet whispers. Things were going badly, she knew. Why had her mother come now? She had called for her so long ago to take Yohanna from the household, and now she had returned. She remembered now, the unsettling feeling she had experienced when the servant had returned with the old crone’s message: “I shall come when our child is ready.”
And now she was here. What have I done? the woman wondered. Have I brought the wrath of Yahweh down upon us? Will the child be stillborn? Deformed? Blind? Lame? I should never have called the old witch!
The woman accepted the blame.
The husband stopped his pacing, and a stillness enveloped the house. An unimaginable sense of waiting and peaceful expectation seeped into the house, as if an invisible angel had entered and was purifying the atmosphere. Subdued, the husband sat down suddenly in a chair, and the woman and her sisters looked around them, as if expecting to see someone.
The grip of her contraction caused the mother to grunt. It had caught her unaware, but the grunt was her acknowledgement that the labour had begun. Her body tensed on its own and she gasped at the power of the child within her. She was coming! It was a girl!
She knew why the old woman was here now, and a calmness enveloped her. She relaxed and felt at peace, floating in a warm soft darkness. Slowly she spiraled within the warm fluid, and an overpowering force pushed down upon her, building within a heartbeat, from nothing to the strength of seven thousand oxen straining at an infinitely large load.
And the peaceful warmth. She floated, stretched slightly, adjusted her position, and again, from nowhere came the unbearable pressure. She revelled in the paradoxical feeling of freedom that the constricting pressure brought, and moved in the direction it was propelling her. From far off, through the pounding of blood in her temples, she could hear the laboured grunting of someone familiar, of a voice she knew, yet could not place.
The scream from the nearby house startled Yohanna. She turned to comment on the sound to the old woman, but a short sword sliced through the air barely missing her head, and the words tangled in her throat. The whole world erupted into the thunder of hoofbeats and she found herself in the centre of a full cavalry charge. She screamed and fell back into the tamarisk tree as a sword flashed again and the old woman’s head rolled from her shoulders and came to rest at her feet. The old woman’s eyes were open and fixed on Yohanna, yet the soul which had possessed the skull a moment before had already fled its abode.
Yohanna scrambled backwards from the street and cowered under a grove of bushes in the lee of a stone wall. The street filled with men and horses, blood, dust and the demonic rage-filled screams of battle. Yohanna covered her ears and hid her face, but at each death-filled scream she winced for the sound was higher and more piercing than the blood-lust cries of the soldiery, and she turned to witness the horror. Stone-honed metal flashed and rained red in the streets, slicing strips of flesh from the villagers trapped by the slaughter. A rabbi stepped from the synagogue across the square and was gleefully hacked apart by a pack of soldiers. The scroll he was carrying unrolled onto the ground and the lovingly lettered leather was trampled ignominiously underfoot. Smelling fresh game, the pack swarmed the synagogue. A small child was decapitated just a cubit from where Yohanna hid. A Pharisee was thrown to the ground and kicked to death. A beautifully ornate cabinet was thrown out through the front door of the synagogue on top of his corpse and the sacred scrolls spilled out into the street. Blood soaked into the holy scriptures. Soldiers pulled a young woman, barely into menses from her house and stripped her robe from her quivering body. Naked except for the veil over her face, she disappeared, screaming, beneath a gang of men. A torch fired the broken cabinet and the written treasure inside it crackled and spit fire.
Across the street, two soldiers heaved a small battering ram against the the front door of the house. The door splintered and cracked open under the assault as the child let out her first breath in a long drawn out wail. Infantrymen poured in from the street. Reflexively, the father leapt up to meet them unarmed. He was disembowelled by a swift slash of a short sword. He gathered his intestines unbelievingly in his arms and collapsed to the floor with a low moan. The soldiers growled and screamed as they spread through the house pulling apart the sparse furniture and overturning anything that might contain valuables. Pots near the stove were smashed and one of the woman’s sisters appeared inquisitively at the doorway to the back room of the house. She screamed and the soldiers turned together and rushed her. Two men threw her down to the floor, and the screams of women through the doorway attracted the attention of the others.
With a roar, men pressed into the sleeping chamber.
Laughing, one of the soldiers returned, holding the wailing baby, still dripping with amniotic fluid, out in front of him with one hand and began bouncing her in the air. Once, twice. The third time he threw her higher and brought up his sword sideways to slice it in two as it fell. In a flash of robes and flying hair, Yohanna leaped and knocked him aside, seizing the child as she flew across the room. In a moment before the soldier could recover, she had passed through the room and into the inner courtyard. Several steps at a time, she took the stairs to the roof. The soldier had regained his feet and pounded up the steps after her. He grabbed for her as she slipped over the low retaining wall onto another roof, tearing her tunic from her shoulder, but she pulled from his grasp.
“Oh Great Mother, save me!” she squealed as the soldier landed on the roof beside her. The roof crackled and buckled at his feet, and they stared in amazement at each other as the entire roof groaned and sank inwards. For a moment they both hung motionless in mid-air, then in a cloud of plaster and dust, they fell with the broken beams and palm leaves into the room below.
Yohanna opened her eyes. The baby lay in front of her, powdered with plaster dust, and she pulled the child to her. Removing her shawl, she wrapped it around the baby, then hugged the child close to her chest. Blood dripped from a large gash in Yohanna’s forearm and as she tried to crawl out from the rubble, sharp stabs of pain pierced her back and right foot. She pulled herself painfully to her feet and crawled over the broken beams and roof wreckage to the doorway. She stepped out into a yard filled with baskets. Desperately, she looked about for one she could hide the child in. As she reached for a basket the right size, a tanned hand grasped her painfully by the wrist and she screamed as she came face to face with the soldier who had pursued her on the rooftop. The fetid sour smell of garlic, garum and stale wine on his breath overwhelmed Yohanna and she gasped for air as the man wrestled her savagely to the ground. The the baby. slipped from her arms and rolled out of reach, and the soldier ripped Yohanna’s tunic downwards, exposing her breasts. The wicked metal rings of his armour cut into her bare flesh, and something hard pressed painfully into her groin. She reached down to push it away, and her hand closed on his dagger still in its sheath. She pulled it free of the scabbard, and he reached down to stop her. His hand wrapped around the blade just as Yohanna jerked the knife upwards and he screamed in pain as the dagger cut through the flesh of his palm and fingers. With no hesitation Yohanna brought the weapon down with all of her strength and buried the blade to the hilt in his neck .
Blood spurted into her face, and the red salty liquid filled her nose and eyes and mouth. Making a strange gurgling noise, the man rolled over on his side and clutched frantically at the dagger. For several moments, he shook uncontrollably and Yohanna slid away from him, panting from fear and exertion. Though the soldier managed to remove the dagger, he dropped it on the the ground. With a small, pitiful last gasp, his body sagged inwards and he died.
Yohanna pulled her tunic across her body. The baby lay motionless under Yohanna’s shawl a foot from her head. Apprehensively, Yohanna lifted the shawl, but to her delight, the baby squinted in the sunlight and began to cry. Yohanna breathed a quick sigh of relief, then realized the cries might attract attention. She sat up and lifted the baby to her breast to quiet it. The tiny head turned and the mouth nuzzled her nipple. In the midst of the turmoil, the cries, the clash of armour, and screaming of war horses, the two girls, Yohanna and the baby were enveloped in peace. Yohanna felt the same peace she had felt with the old woman, and as she gazed down at the tiny child in her arms, the baby opened her eyes. Yohanna’s fingers traced a silver crescent mark on the babe’s forehead and in that brief moment Yohanna recognized her.
“Miriam,” she whispered softly, “Baby sister, Miriam!”
The smell of smoke intruded into her reverie. She blinked, then glanced quickly around her. Already smoke was rising far above her and drifted over the darkening sun. The Kittim had fired the village! She was too afraid to move, but the sound of splintering wood from the front of the building, galvanized her into action. She quickly tied up her tunic and reached for the nearest of the baskets scattered about the courtyard and quickly slid Baby Miriam and the shawl inside it. She stood up, and balanced the basket on her hip though a stab of pain flashed up her body from her right leg. She hobbled to the back door of the courtyard, and pressed her head against the wooden slats. There was no sound from the other side, but at that moment, a young soldier, close to her own age, stepped into the courtyard. Their eyes met, and the two of them froze for an instant. Yohanna flung open the door and fled into the darkness of the covered alley beyond.
She darted into the first turning, but it led back out to the main street. A javelin-armed soldier caught sight of her and called out. She turned and ran. Suddenly, she now had two pursuers and only one avenue of escape. To her dismay, she ran into a blind alley. Heavy running footsteps pounded closer. She glanced quickly around her for another way out. At her feet was a covered well. She slid the wooden cover aside and peered down into the purple-green shadows. Stone steps led invitingly down into the water. With a last quick glance for her pursuers, she disappeared into the gloom and closed the wooden cover behind her. Yohanna shivered in the cold, damp chamber as she steppeded into the water at the bottom of the well. She moved further out into the cool water, she realized she was in a cistern. Waist deep, she let the basket float beside her, and squinted into the darkness.
“Thank you, Mother,” she whispered thankfully. The cistern was connected to an underground aqueduct! She had a way out! Pulling the basket along with her, she swam towards the small opening at the far end of the cistern where the gentle tug of a current pulled at her tunic. The child and the girl drifted into the tunnel just as the cover of the cistern slid open. Two soldiers peered down the steps, and seeing nothing, looked at each other and turned away.
Swept into the main channel of the aqueduct, Yohanna discovered she was not alone. A man floated by and put his finger to his lips. Several people had made their way under the village, and floated silently past like a parade of lost souls in the realm of Hades.
The distance glowed with a greenish light. The current picked up speed, and she realized that the underground water course must have been diverted from an outside stream and now was flowing back into its natural course at the lower end of the tunnel. She could make out rushes beyond the opening. She heard a scream as one of the refugees reached the opening, and panic gripped her. The Kittim were at the end of the tunnel! A woman was pulled by grappling hooks from the water. Then another. And another. Yohanna turned to swim back, and lost her grip on the basket, and it floated swiftly away from her downstream .
“Miriam!” she cried out, but it was too late. She swam desperately after the basket, and came close to reaching it twice, but each time, it bobbed out of her way. Finally on the third try, she wrapped her arm around the basket, but at that moment, she and her precious cargo were swept into the open. A grappling hook caught her arm and the basket spun out of her grasp and she cried out. A huge hand gripped her hair, and she was pulled from the water.
Far from her reach, the basket bobbed in the eddies, and a hook splashed into the water, just missing it, but the basket of reeds and its tiny passenger spun out of reach and away into the middle of the stream.