Advent, Week 1: Good News

He sees her from far off, from above, at first. It is dawn, just light enough to see. She is kneeling in the dusty courtyard of her little house, working hard on something in front of her, pushing at it and pushing again, a movement that rocks her back and forth. She is wearing a long dirty white robe belted at the waist, and a dirty white cloth covers her hair. She is already at work.

She is kneeling at a kneading trough, a long shallow wooden trough with a slick ball of dough in it. He can see her face now. She is frowning at a crack in the trough, a crack that widens with every push she gives to the dough. She is worried. She is thinking. He doesn't know what she is thinking.

He knows what he has been told. He knows her family is getting ready for the harvest, and that all of them can think of little else but whether the harvest will be enough to make the rent and still have enough food to eat this year. He knows it has been like this since she was ten, when her father lost his land to the tax men. He knows she is thinner than she ought to be, and that the reason is that she sometimes does not have enough to eat. He knows that it would only take one lost harvest for her to be seized as a slave for her father's debts. He knows her family cannot afford to replace the kneading trough that is cracking under her hands, and that it is bound to break if it continues to be used this way. He knows it is not repairable anyway. She keeps kneading. Maybe she knows this too.

He watches her.

He does not know what it is like, not to have enough to eat. He does not know what it is like to be hungry at all. To be afraid. To be helpless. He has tried to imagine; and he can't.

He searches her surroundings for any clue to this, to her; this low mud-and-stone house with its doorway of rough beams, the blackened bread-oven on her right hand, the dooryard of hard-baked dust. Around them the everlasting hills, craggy and black against the pale dawn sky. Within an hour that sky will harden into a deep unbroken blue. The rains are over now. The time is near.

Before he can show himself, or speak, a form steps through the dark doorway of the house. It must be her mother. The father is gone to the fields. The mother carries a large clay water-jar on the her head, and does not see what she is looking at. There are deep lines in her forehead. She walks past her daughter with a glance down at her, a swift smile and tightening of her face. The young woman looks up.

“Shalom, Mother,” she says. “I can fetch the water. I'll be done with the bread soon.”

“I'll fetch it today,” says the mother.


“Miriam—did you see him? When you went to the well, yesterday?”

He knows who they mean. He knows she is promised to a young man; a young man with what they call good prospects, which means that they think the work he can do seems likely to get her enough to eat.

“Yes—I mean, he was out there, working on the—”

“You didn't greet him did you?” Her voice is sharp.

“Of course not, Mother!”

“Do you look at him? When he sees you in the street?”

“Oh—Mother—we might have glanced at each other as we passed, nothing anyone would notice—” The rhythm of her kneading grows faster.

The mother kneels swiftly in front of her, the water pot still on her head. “Miriam. You're a good girl. I know you are. But that's not enough. The women at the well have to know it too. Oh Miriam, you have to watch yourself. If they start to talk about you—if they see you throwing glances—”

“I don't 'throw glances,' Mother.” Miriam's voice is low and hard.

“Listen to me.” She says it roughly, her voice cracking, and Miriam stares. “I'm talking about what it looks like. What it might look like to some woman itching for a little gossip. I'm talking about giving them no excuse. Because if they do—if they talk, Miriam, and if he hears them—” her voice is high now, catching in her throat—“we can't, we can't afford it, this is your chance, Miriam, and if we lose it...” He sees the glimmer of tears in her eyes.

Miriam is still looking at her, her eyes wide and open; but dry. She looks down at the kneading trough, and up again, and whispers, “I won't look at him, Mother.”

Her mother swallows, and nods. She looks as though she cannot speak any more. She looks into her daughter's eyes for a long moment, and slowly stands, her water jar still on her head. She turns and walks away, down toward the road to the well. Her footsteps sound unsteady. When she is gone Miriam suddenly doubles over and buries her face in her hands just above the dough she has been kneading.

He stands and watches her.

He watches her. He sees her and she does not see him, though he stands before her, his wings like drifted snow, his eyes like flame.

He sees her, this young woman kneeling in the dust; he who has seen the wild glory of the first creation, he who has heard the deep heavens ring with the endless song. He who has seen God's face. He sees her, and he hesitates. Greetings, he thinks. Oh favored one. Favored one. Chosen.