The worker of wood lay on his back in the darkness, hands behind his head, leathery fingers interlaced, one throbbing. His young wife slumbered to his left, her breathing even and deep. An arm's length from her the baby had begun to stir. Again.
Such a strange child. Only months old now, the boy never slept through the night. When he finally did drift off, his eyes seemed clamped shut, his moist lips tightened in a scowl. Hungry or wet, he would awaken and cry like any other child.
The man's wife tended to him gently, efficiently, at any hour of the night, and then slipped back into sleep. Reaching for the boy, she would cradle him to her bosom, care for his needs, and whisper him back to sleep.
But Joseph knew it was the baby's other crying, his unfathomable, ethereal sadness, that wore on her. These sounds came inexplicably, even when he was fed and dry and warm, the cotton-filled cloth smooth beneath him, resting on a slightly raised wooden frame fashioned by the carpenter himself to keep the three of them inches from the earthen floor.
Neither Joseph nor his wife could predict when the distress would begin. Though they took turns trying to comfort the child, Joseph sensed Mary's pain, the distraction that robbed her of her rest.
First the boy would turn, and a squeak would escape his throat. His parents, both light sleepers, would rouse to watch in the moonlight. Mary would draw a tiny blanket to the neck of the swaddled baby and coo his name.
As she caressed him, Joseph wanted to cover his own ears to block the mournful sobs sure to follow. At times like this, usually deep into the Egyptian desert night, the boy began to groan, to moan, to give voice to some pain so deep it produced wails without tears.
It was Joseph's turn. The humming had begun, the sad, yearning whine. Mary's breathing changed. "I'm awake," he whispered.
"I'm sorry, Joseph. He's fed and dry."
He shushed her and sat up. As if the wonder and the terror of the last year had not been enough, his right index finger pulsed with pain. That morning while planing a huge plank in his temporary shop, he had driven a sliver so deeply into the knuckle that he believed it had struck the bone.
Mary had dug out the wood with a needle, cleansed and packed the wound with ointment, and wrapped it with cloth. Soon, though, Joseph found the wrap a nuisance and removed it. Though he tried to favor the pierced finger the rest of the day, he had continued working and paid for it now. The knuckle was swollen nearly twice its normal size, the finger stiff.
Jesus had begun the sob of the forlorn, and Joseph gently pressed a hand to Mary's side to keep her from rising. He could not have chosen a better wife had it been left to him alone. He stood slowly, stretching, his shoulders and biceps tight, thighs bearing deep aches, the pain in his hand outweighing all.
Joseph stepped over his wife and knelt before the child. Blocking the light from the moon, he could not at first see the dainty face. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he was able to make out the tiny, writhing form. He pulled the blanket away and slid his good hand under the baby's gathered nightshirt, covering the heaving belly and torso with his palm, his breath catching at the feathery softness of skin newer than the full moon.
That baby's body was the most pliant thing Joseph touched every day. His thick calluses didn't seem to bother the boy. In fact, the warmth of his hand always seemed to at least temporarily distract Jesus.
The little one calmed, luminous dark eyes darting in the low light until they stopped on Joseph's face. The carpenter imagined that he looked like a black shape silhouetted in the moonlight, and yet it seemed Jesus looked directly into his eyes.
The baby drew in a long breath, and Joseph knew the otherworldly anguish was not over. With his free hand he groped for a thick shawl and slung it over his shoulders, wincing as the material caught the gash at his knuckle.
As Jesus began the pitiful moaning that would lead to more crying, Mary stirred. "Sleep," Joseph said. "I'm going to walk him."
"Be sure he's-"
"I will," the carpenter said, straightening the baby's clothes and enfolding him fully in the blanket. He gathered the sad infant to his chest and rose.
"Thank you, Joseph," Mary said, her words slurred to where he believed she might actually go back to sleep. How she needed that.