Shannon here: Donna Schlachter shares an inspiring short story to help us celebrate Christmas. Comment or answer the question at the end of the post to enter the drawing for a print copy of The MissAdventure Bride collection, which includes Donna’s novella, Detours of the Heart. US only. Deadline: January 5th, 11:59 pm central time. Here’s Donna:
A Midwife’s Tale by Donna Schlachter:
Frantic pounding on the door downstairs woke me. In the dim light from the full moon outside, I squinted at my husband. He grunted and turned over, pulling the itchy wool blanket with him.
I sighed. It seemed I would be the one to be roused from my bed to answer the call.
My name is Hannah, and I am a midwife in Bethlehem, I was accustomed to being called out at all hours to help women through their labor, to deliver babies into a world ruled by cruel overseers from Rome. Sometimes it was too late by the time I got there, and all I could do was usher the mother or child, often both, into the hereafter.
No matter how long I do this work, it is never easy to be dragged from my bed in the dark of night. Why does it seem babies always wait until the wee hours to make their appearance? It was almost as if they hold on as long as they could—perhaps these little Jewish babies know where they were best off.
I pulled my day shift on and tied my head wrap around my hair as I trudged down the steps to answer the door. Pausing at the table in the eating area, I lit a small oil lamp that just a few hours before my children had sat around, practicing their letters for school the next day. Grabbing the rough wooden handle of the solid door, I winced at the stab of a splinter in my palm. Pulling my hand to my mouth, I sucked at the spot where the sliver of wood had stuck me. Spitting out the intruding wood, I watched as a drop of blood oozed out, shining nearly black in the dark. Amazing how much that small spike could hurt.
The pounding on the door started again, pulling me from my contemplation of my pain. I wrenched open the door, several sharp words ready on my tongue.
They fell to the ground like dust at the sight of the man on my doorstep.
A hooded figure faced me, clothes dusty, beard slightly unkempt. In the flickering flame of the lamp, I could just barely make out his eyes and mouth. Worry and hard work had lined his face, and the weave of his cloak suggested he was not from Bethlehem.
He clasped his hands together in front of his chest, bowed his head, and fell to one knee. “I most humbly beg your pardon, but are you the midwife?”
Sarcasm and criticism boiled to the top again, threatening to spill over. Anyone who lived in Bethlehem knew I was not only a midwife, but one of the best.
I pointed to the small sign next to the portal. “Can’t you read?”
The words “Midwife for hire” were painstakingly carved into a flat piece of olive wood by my oldest son as a practice piece. The letters may have been crooked, and the last word cramped together as evidence he needed more work on his spacing, but they were clear enough.
The stranger didn’t raise his head. He didn’t answer my question, either. Instead, he reached one hand into a money pouch hanging around his neck and withdrew a small silver coin. “Is this enough?” He held it to me in the palm of his hand.
Enough? A hundred times more was not enough for being roused from your sleep in the dead chill of night. And if it was a difficult birth, a thousand times would not cover my time and energy. But if it ended badly, I would not take even this small morsel.
Still, the unspoken creed of a midwife is, “God gives life freely, and the midwife merely does His will.” As such, I was honor bound to delivery any child, no matter how small the thank offering was.
I pushed his hand away. “We will not defile the labor bed with talk of money. Children are not bought like slaves, even if it will likely live as one.” I pulled the door closed behind me. “Come, let us go. You can express your gratitude to me after the birth” I snatched my supply satchel from the hook near the door, and slipped my cloak over my shoulders.
He turned on his heel and hurried up the narrow path to the main street. Pausing occasionally to look over his shoulder to make sure I was keeping up, he continued along the dusty walk.
I wrapped my cloak closer around me to ward off the chill night air. After several blocks, he paused and looked around, confusion evident on his face.
I stopped beside him. “Which way?”
My breath blew a white cloud in the dark.
“I’m not sure.”
“Not sure? How can you not be sure?”
“I am not from Bethlehem.”
Ah, my earlier observation was confirmed, and my earlier criticism evaporated. “Where are you staying?”
“Near the inn in the market square.”
“This way.” I grabbed the sleeve of his cloak and turned to the left. “The inn is just over here.”
Another turn at the next corner, and we were outside the inn. “Are you here for the census?”
“You were lucky to find a room.”
“I did not find a room.”
Horror filled my heart at the thought of delivering a baby out in the open. “Then where are you staying?”
Now it was his turn to direct me, past the inn, down a dark alley, into a small courtyard behind. He pointed to a small hole carved in the wall.
My heart leaped in my throat. This was worse than I had feared. “In the stable?” Animals, dirt, mold—this was not a fit place for any child to be born.
He nodded, eyes downcast, embarrassment evident.
“If you are here for the census, you have family. Why not stay with them?”
“We were detained on the road because my wife could not travel quickly. When we arrived yesterday, there was no room for us.”
I nodded. The city was filled to overflowing. Even my own small house, tight quarters for me, my husband, and my four children ordinarily, now housed two extra families in response to the decree for everyone in Judea to return to the city of their forefathers and be counted. More than likely a new tax would be implemented as a result. I might be a simple Jew, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew how this evil and oppressive government operated.
The man reached the entrance to the small cavelike structure and stopped. He called softly, almost a whisper. “Mary, it is me, Joseph. I have brought the midwife.”
He stooped over and disappeared inside. I waited a moment, then followed him.
The first thing that struck me was how quiet it was in this small structure. The man lit a small lamp, and the shadows danced in the corners. The strong smell of hay tickled my nose, and the dust stirred up by my feet danced on beams of light. In the far corner, a ewe hovered over its lamb, their eyes reflecting amber in the dim light.
In the center of the small shed knelt the woman. Crouched over, her forehead nearly touching the hay-strewn floor, dust fringed the edge of her skirt. She looked up, her face white. Perspiration glowed on her forehead and upper lip, and an ugly grimace crossed her face as another spasm came over her. I waited until the wave of pain passed, giving her the respect due her at this time.
A low moan escaped her lips, and my eye caught a restless movement in the corner. The lamb stood and pressed closer to its mother. The ewe nuzzled the infant, and it settled to its knees again in the hay.
The young woman moaned again, and my training took over. I knelt beside the woman and looked deep into her eyes. Laying my hand on her forehead, I was glad to feel the coolness of her skin beneath my fingers.
I looked to her husband. “Wait outside.”
He cast an anxious look at his wife.
She nodded then turned to face me again, her dark eyes filled with worry. “Tell me what to do.”
I set my satchel beside her head and loosened the strings. “Is this your first child?”
I pulled a small sheet from the bag. “Have you ever assisted at a birth?”
She shook her head, eyes closed. A tear ran down her cheek.
I forced a smile I didn’t feel. “Fear will steal your joy. Don’t be afraid. You are in good hands. I am one of the best midwives in Bethlehem.”
She opened her eyes and smiled at me. “I don’t know you, but I trust God, and I trust Joseph, and so I will trust you.”
I laid a hand on her protruding belly. Deep inside I could feel the contractions that would soon increase to push this baby into the world. “Sit for a moment, take a rest. This baby isn’t going to come this minute.”
She relaxed onto one hip, and I leaned my head to her stomach and listened. Her heart beat regularly, and there—the baby’s heartbeat, strong and sure.
Sitting back on my heels, I patted her hand. “Everything sounds fine. Now, let’s get you in position to deliver this baby.”
Over the next half hour we worked together, this scared young woman and I, to get her in the delivery position. I went over the stages of labor she could expect, and how long each might be expected to last. As scared as she was, I left out the description of what could go wrong. She had enough on her mind right now not to deal with that.
When she was as comfortable as she was going to get in this dark damp cave, we knelt together, two women alone in the dark, as Joseph paced outside and the sheep in the corner nodded.
In between her contractions, when she could speak, we did what women do, what they have done for eons. We talked.
I learned Mary was a newly married maiden, married only six months before. My eyebrows raised at that, let me tell you. And when she told me the story of the baby she was carrying, about an angel of the Lord, in a dream, and the Messiah, well, I thought she was just trying to cover her indiscretion.
Joseph poked his head in through the doorway, and Mary smiled at him. “She doesn’t believe about our baby, Joseph. Tell her about your dream.”
And so Joseph began relating the details of a most extraordinary dream he’d had, of God confirming Mary’s story about the child in her womb being conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Okay, so I really wasn’t in any position to contradict their story. I wasn’t there. And, I had a cousin who swore she was still a virgin after she had her first baby, even though we all knew better. Who was I to limit God?
The thing that really convinced me was their complete and unshakeable belief that God not only could but would work through them. Joseph was a carpenter, not an educated man filled with prophecy from the prophets, or able to argue the scriptures to prove his point. His hands were toughened by many hours of hard work. His strong fingers bore the marks of chisels and planes.
All he knew was what he believed God had told him in his dream. And he believed Mary when she told him about the visit by the angel.
This was the first time I had seen anyone risk their entire being for their belief in God. I was humbled by their faith.
After another hour of minor contractions, Mary’s labor began in earnest. I ushered Joseph out into the dark. “Pray that God will ease her pain and make this child come soon.”
Joseph’s wan smile filled my heart. “God is already here, in this child. Nothing will go wrong.”
His simple words of faith and his complete trust in God pricked at my conscience. Here I was, a woman whose faith was none too evident in her life, a woman confident of her career, secure in her marriage, successful and comfortable, feeling a little envious of the uncomplicated faith of a carpenter and his wife in a stable in Bethlehem.
I wanted what they had.
Within a short time, Mary had put every ounce of strength she had into pushing a tiny baby boy into the world. His full head of dark hair heralded his coming, and his strong cry soon filled the stable. Joseph came into the cave at the first cry, the worry lines erased from his face. Kneeling beside his wife and new son, tears streamed down his face. He reached for the child, and Mary passed the infant gently to its father.
Joseph stared into the child’s face for several moments as Mary and I watched. The infant reached a tiny hand to his father’s beard, grasping it between his miniature fingers.
Joseph smiled, then raised the child over his head. He closed his eyes and looked toward heaven.
“Elohenu.” Blessed are You, O Lord our God.
I smiled, eyes closed. He was praying the traditional Passover blessing over his child.
“Thank You for entrusting us with this gift from You, Yahweh. You have favored us with Your presence in the form of this child. We will raise him and train him to hear You. He is Emmanuel, and He will save His people.”
I was spellbound with this dedication of the child to God. I knelt before them, my heart full and my eyes overflowing with tears. I may not know much about the ways of God, but at that moment I knew I was in His presence as never before. And for perhaps the first time in my life, I was speechless.
I don’t know how long I knelt there, praising God in my heart. All I know for sure is that when I finally stirred, the sun was peeking over the eastern gate.
I rose stiffly, knees protesting the hours spent on the floor. Mary and Joseph slept side by side on the hay, and the infant lay in a manger, wrapped in some old cloths Joseph had found tucked in a small box. When he’d first pulled out the lengths of rough cloth, I’d been appalled that he would be content to wrap his child in cloths used to rub down newborn lambs. I’d even offered to go to my house and bring back some proper baby clothes.
Joseph shook his head. “Scripture says Emmanuel will come like a lamb to save His people. It seems fitting He should be wrapped in lamb’s cloths.”
A child sent as a lamb? It didn’t make any sense to me. Lambs were used as sacrifices and Jews don’t sacrifice their children, so I knew he didn’t mean that. “How can this child be like a lamb of God?”
“All I know is what God has told us. This child will save His people.”
Outside the stable, I heard the sound of footsteps. I walked toward the opening of the cave and peered out.
Several men dressed in shepherd’s garb paused outside the stable. They looked into the dawn sky and then back to the stable.
The oldest one spoke. “Is this where the Christ child can be found?”
Christ child? I knew about the Christ child. The one promised who would set the Jews free, who would operate in the anointing of God.
“What do you know of this child?”
One of the shepherds stepped forward. “An angel appeared to us while we were standing watch over our sheep. He told us to come here to see the Christ.” He gestured to his fellow shepherds. “Then more angels sang the child’s praises.”
More angels. This couldn’t be any ordinary baby. I looked into the night sky. A large star shone upon the stable. “Is that how you came to be here?”
The youngest nodded. “The angel told us to look for a bright star that would point us to the child, and that He would be wrapped up like a lamb.”
Lamb’s rags. I pointed to the baby inside. “He is in there.”
I wandered out into the courtyard area, listening to the sounds of the city coming awake for another day. I felt sorry for the people. I was pretty sure they had missed a miracle.
Don’t get me wrong. As a midwife, I know every birth is a miracle. As a Jew, I believe the scriptures that say we are created by God, formed by His hand, known from our mother’s womb.
No, the miracle I’m talking about is that God would come to his people in the form of a tiny child, a lamb, to set His people free.
I know a big part of me was set free that night.
I’m going to keep an eye on this Christ-child. I think He is destined to something bigger than His parents, these shepherds, even I can imagine.
And I want to be there when that happens.
About Donna: Donna lives in Denver with husband Patrick. She writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 25 times in novellas and full-length novels. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, and Sisters In Crime; facilitates a critique group, and teaches writing classes. Donna ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management. Learn more and connect:
About the book – The MissAdventure Brides Collection: These seven daring damsels don’t let the norms of their eras hold them back from adventure.
About the novella – Detours of the Heart: A tour guide who wants to move on, a playboy who’s never had a place to call home—can they overcome their own plans and allow God to make their path straight, or will they take yet another detour?
Question for Readers: What’s your favorite Christmas memory?
Come back Jan 1st for Mary Ellis!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!!