A Visit to Bethlehem
from In the Blood of Herod and Rome
by Robert Earle
While Herod continued to brood about which son should succeed him, Archelaus or Antipas, Joanna came to Nicolas of Damascus with disturbing news: the maiden who had come to Herod from Bethlehem to lie with him and warm him when he was sick was pregnant.
“But you mustn’t tell him,” Joanna said. “He won’t let them live.”
“How can I not tell the king about a child who some day could claim he is an heir?” Nicolas cried.
“You say yourself it’s impossible he impregnated her. He was too sick!”
“But you insist he did. You saw them moving.”
“I saw the king moving. The girl’s innocent.”
“You’re certain she’s pregnant?”
“There’s no doubt.”
“Then people will talk.”
“They already talk.”
“What do they say?”
“They say an angel took her away somewhere. When she returned, she wore beautiful clothes . . . and she was pregnant.”
The clothes had been Nicolas’s idea. He thought that if they endowed her with a trousseau, rather than gold, she would be less crassly compensated for her service.
“Has she told anyone where this angel”—Joanna herself, of course—”took her?”
“Well, the king will order us to have her killed,” Nicolas agreed.
They sat alone in Nicolas’s apartment as they had so often done before. Over the years, Nicolas continued to share his thoughts with her, someone to whom he could say anything, even the wrong thing. Joanna had her own gravity and wisdom. She was a moral center in the palace, a not-queen, an under-queen. Joanna held a kind of court wherever she went.
She took his hand. “Nicolas, don’t tell him! She mustn’t be killed.”
“If I don’t, and he finds out?”
They both knew what that would mean; their intimacy was too close to survive a lie.
“I’ll hide her,” Joanna said.
“His spies are everywhere.”
“He’s almost dead.”
“He’s not almost dead. She’s brought him back to life.”
“Should she die for that? I won’t let it happen. I’ll send her away.”
“A pregnant girl alone? How old is she?”
“Fourteen, ready to marry.”
“Marry! She’s carrying the king’s child! Who would want her?”
“I’ll find someone who would want her, but I’ll need gold.” She meant for Nicolas to give it to her for her husband Chuza gave her nothing—ever. She had no jewels or ornaments for her hair while his slippers and stockings were splendid silk and his perfumes were as fine as the king’s. Nicolas immediately thought of his own needs. Where would he go following Herod’s death—Rhodes, Rome? But he couldn’t deny Joanna a few coins for whatever she had in mind to counteract his inevitable conversation with the king.
“Impossible, I didn’t know her!” Herod shouted, his face a mass of pustules and broken veins.
“She’s pregnant, your majesty. The story is true.”
“All right, she’s pregnant! But I can’t be the father.”
“I’m afraid you must be. This girl would not lie.”
Herod stared at Nicolas grimly. “Where is she from?”
“Bethlehem,” he repeated, as if the word, or the place, or some memory of it amused him. “You know there can be no other claimant, Master Nicolas. But at any time she could fabricate a claim, couldn’t she?”
Nicolas insisted that he did not believe she would.
“Perhaps not, but what would your defense be if she did?” He liked to do this to Nicolas, seeing if Nicolas could think swiftly enough to protect him.
“To begin, of course, you did not marry the girl, which you could have.”
“Second, you disclaim paternity.”
Herod nodded. “Good, but the claim could still be made. It is being made.”
“No, sire, as I have said: she makes no claims.”
“Come, come, Master Nicolas,” Herod said. “You will face problems enough in support of this throne.” Did he mean after his death? The thought of continuing to serve in Jerusalem chilled Nicolas—hadn’t he paid for his sins with decades? “Tell the girl in Bethlehem she can accept the loss of the child or she can join it. We’ll hear no more of this except for your confirmation that my wishes have been fulfilled.”
He waved Nicolas away with his twig of a hand. Every movement hurt him, but his hooded look signaled that he would have Nicolas watched and might, in an instant, burst forth in a cold rage whereby he even required the child’s body be displayed to him in a basement cell.
In short, Nicolas must follow his orders, or the consequences would be dire.
The mud brick huts, wattle fences, dry paths, stray children, and animals of Bethlehem no doubt remained as they were from days when David was born there, but a thousand years later, one wouldn’t expect to find another future king in such a place. The people of Bethlehem lived as they could. Most took in pilgrims when Jerusalem overflowed during feast times. Many trekked to the capital each day to do hard labor themselves, often on Herod’s magnificent Temple. Others scratched out a living growing vegetables, barley and wheat in the thin Judaean soil, but it had been a dry harvest; Nicolas could see this in the pinched expressions of those who dared look at him and Joanna and the two palace guards who walked along steering their cart. A man called Rosh held the reins. Another man called Avere was the one with the switch. Nicolas assumed the king had told them to report back to him what they saw. The baby had been born, Joanna had told him that the night before, so the time was right to go take it away. If Mary resisted, then the guards would abduct her, too. But Joanna and Nicolas were not talking about their mission. In fact, to divert everyone, he was permitting the conversation to dwell on a subject that would normally be taboo—the succession.
“Seems to me,” Rosh said, “that it’s all the same, Master Nicolas, one lad or the other. They’ll soon enough learn life’s nothing but enemies.”
“Since when did Archelaus ever learn anything?” Avere asked. “No, Antipas is the clever one. He’ll understand fast that being king is half bribing and half killing. Sweet boys turn sour when they sit on thrones, mark my words. Death and power go together like salt and soup.”
“Unless he kills them both,” Rosh said. “Done in lots of other boys, hasn’t he? No son of Herod has a chance to outlive that old man.”
Joanna began giving directions to the hovel where Mary and the child were lying in. She was very much in command until the moment they stopped in front of a wooden gate and were met by none other than Chuza and his assistant Mordecai coming out of the slumping habitation. Chuza, Mordecai, and Nicolas in their court robes looked like three kings convened to pay homage to a few lambs and a goat tethered inside the fence. No one had told Nicolas that Chuza would be present. The king had outdone himself, underlining his determination to dispose of a bastard claimant to his throne by doubling his murderous envois.
“They’re dead,” Chuza said, “both mother and child.”
The neighborhood was alert to the visitors’ presence, of course. Some children assembled, looking for alms. To Nicolas’s surprise, Joanna, despite the awful news they had just received, drew out a bag of candied fruit and began to distribute it. To one girl she even gave a scarf. The girl’s dark brown eyes gleamed. She ran off to show her mother.
Nicolas assumed Chuza and Mordecai had killed them although he didn’t want to know how. He simply said, “You are quite vigilant, Chuza,” a neutral enough statement of fact.
Then Chuza gave Joanna a queer look, which made Nicolas wonder if she, unable to go through with their terrible assignment, had turned it all over to him. “I claim no merit,” he said. “They were dead when we got here.”
“Should we go in ourselves?” Nicolas asked Joanna.
“Why, Master Nicolas?” she asked. “He says they’re dead. Let the villagers look after them now.”
“But it won’t take a minute. Aren’t there villagers grieving inside? I don’t hear it.”
“No one,” Chuza answered. “We found them alone.”
Even more the pity. The maid’s disappearance and return to Bethlehem must have led to ostracism. In truth, the shack in which mother and child lay was more a hovel than a home. The far wall had collapsed on itself; a few crates of doves were stacked there to make up for it. Mary of Bethlehem had tended doves, then. That was her living—nurturing birds of sacrifice. Well, Nicolas would have to go in because he knew Herod would pointedly ask him, “Did you see her?” The king always insisted on positive confirmation that his instructions were carried out.
“I’m sorry, we must,” he said to Joanna.
They stepped into the animal pen and approached the shack. All was quiet—no murmuring, no weeping or keening. The little girl with the bright eyes to whom Joanna had given the scarf played in the back of Nicolas’s mind, consoling him against the terrible sight he expected to see. All her life the girl no doubt would remember this day and eventually tell her grandchildren how a queen and three kings visited Bethlehem once upon a time and made her a beautiful present. Joanna and Nicolas ducked through the low doorway. The air in the hut was thick and disagreeable. There were no windows, only cracks and chinks in the assemblage of stones and mud-smeared saplings that had been bound together as sections of wall. A dog growled a bit; a chicken with bright yellow eyes cocked its head. On the low wooden bedstead, wrapped in sorry pieces of cloth, they saw the mother and child. The woman had a large head and the child a puny one; it was clutched to its mother’s breast in such a way as to suggest that the mother had been able to hold the stillborn infant for a few moments before she, too, expired. An awful vision, but the woman was not Mary, and the child, therefore, was not Herod’s.
“Joanna,” Nicolas whispered, “will you explain this to me one day?”
“If you make me, Master Nicolas.”
“Does Chuza know anything about childbirth and mothers and children?”
“Not a thing, and he hates the presence of a corpse. He must purify himself twice now, for this is two corpses.”
Two corpses. Once they’d left, someone surely would deal with them quickly. How Joanna had forestalled that until after their visit Nicolas could not say. The Jews, of all people, knew the difference between life and death.
Back in Jerusalem, he told the king he had gone to Bethlehem with Joanna, Rosh and Avere to carry out his charge. Chuza and Mordecai came, too. As they would corroborate, the woman and child they found were already dead, ravaged by childbirth, and they left the matter in the hands of the citizens of Bethlehem to whom they confided nothing about who they were or why they had come.
With more than seventy stories and novellas in print and online literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary writers of short fiction. He also is the author of two novels, The Way Home and The Man Clothed in Linen, and a book of non-fiction about Iraq, Nights in the Pink Motel. He recently moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and has degrees in literature and writing from Princeton and Johns Hopkins. His last three posts in government were as Senior Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Counselor to the Director of National Intelligence, and Counselor to the Deputy Secretary of State.