A short story by Linda June
Copyright 2016, The Letterista, LLC, and Linda June
The donkeys, oxen, goats and sheep observed the Birth. It was a quiet affair with none of the usual shrieking and weeping. The Woman strained, of course. All females strain to deliver their offspring. That was nature. Without the need to strain, the issue may not have remained securely ensconced in the womb until it was time to come forth. But this Woman’s labor lacked the common travail. The man had withdrawn, assuring his wife that he would return with fresh water heated over the fire he had built outside.
Noting the singular event of a woman, a human, giving birth in their modest enclosure, the animals marveled at the scene and wondered. Normally, the presence of any human, with the exception of the rare child, filled them with a certain unease. Even the most gentle of humans, except this Woman, harbored an essence, however slight or pronounced, of violence. It was the way of it. It had been the way of it since the day the first humans had defied The Creator. All animals knew this, as their ancestral memories carried forward with each new generation. None knew it better than the snakes.
In that first moment when the humans, encouraged by the serpent, had furtively sought to acquire knowledge not meant for them, everything had changed. All creatures felt it at the exact same moment in time whether they had been present with the humans or far afield.
At that moment, each living thing had suddenly paused in its peaceful activity. Food in mid-chew was left unswallowed, water dripped out of maws, fins and wings stilled, and all became suddenly alert, abruptly experiencing an entirely new, unforeseen sensation within their respective bellies. Horror, fear, dread. What had happened? they had each wondered. Where did our happiness go?
Then, they each spied the others anew. The eyes of some slowly filled with predatory hunger. No longer would the florae suffice as sustenance. For some, vegetation would continue to sustain their vigor, but even the plants themselves had been altered in this startling, tragic, invisible shift in Creation.
Instinctively, they knew it was the man and his wife who had committed a terrible deed. No other creature had the capacity to choose such a thing. No other animal had been admonished by The Creator to choose innocence over the awareness of its opposite. As intelligent as some were, none had been gifted the lights to understand or even to desire knowledge not already knitted within their being.
But the man had been different. Before this moment in time, he had been a delight to them. They had watched his formation and witnessed The Creator breathe a special life into him. They stood mesmerized as The Creator hand-crafted a woman from the flesh of the man while the man slumbered, oblivious.
He and the woman resembled The Creator, and every creature adored The Creator, reveling as they did in the existence He had given them. To exist was to know The Creator, and to know Him was to know complete happiness.
Because the humans resembled The Creator, the animals took a special pleasure in their existence. While they enjoyed each other, too, no other creature compelled them to seek its presence as did the humans. The humans loved the beasts and each other much as The Creator did. It was this love, this enchantment the humans harbored for the animals that drew them near. When the man had named each of their species, the animals accepted their designations with joy. Life for the other living things had been completed by the creation of man.
But that terrible moment changed everything. Now, the animals perceived danger all around and rightfully so. Soon, they began to pursue and kill each other for food. Killing skills, heretofore unimagined, became practiced and honed. None could trust the others any longer. Death had entered. Peace had fled. A dark, ethereal cold settled heavily over the world.
And man could not set it right.
As the Child emerged into their little byre nestled in a hollow within the rocky hillside, the goat bleated. “Is this The One?” she wondered aloud.
One ox replied, “I daresay, it is.”
The ewe expressed what they all experienced. “Do you see the light around him? He is Peace. There is no fear of this little child. Oh, who could have thought we might see His coming?”
“How did we merit this astonishing benediction?” the ram added. “Why is this not taking place in the humans’ habitations?”
“I heard the other humans tell the Woman’s husband that their houses were all full,” explained the donkey who had borne the Woman from so far away to this place. “None would attempt to take them in and disturb their other guests.” The ass shook his head and snorted. “Can you imagine?”
“Why, here He is, the God-man, the Long Awaited, the object of all our yearnings, both man and beast, and yet they refused to allow them into their houses when He was so clearly anxious to be revealed?” questioned the dog who had followed the man from the well to his campfire. Sensing something momentous happening in the stable, he had slipped unnoticed into their midst. “Even I receive better treatment from humans!”
“Of all creatures unable to see, humans can be the most blind,” opined the gentle ewe.
“Yes. At least they allowed them to camp here with us,” remarked a wise old ox. “Let’s give them thanks for this. We have the privilege to witness Salvation emerging. For that, we owe the cold-hearted people a debt of gratitude.”
The others acknowledged this truth. Though the humans knew not what they had wrought, just as the first humans had fallen to their own ignorance, the gathered animals were grateful that the men’s niggardly rejection had become their extraordinary bounty.
Now, the Child had fully entered the world. The man returned carrying a pail of warm water for the Woman. The animals remarked amongst themselves how this was a special man, this husband of the Woman. He was not the Child’s father, they knew, but he was like those uncommon children who sparked no trepidation in them. Somehow, that defect was missing in this adult man.
At the sight of the Child, the man halted, and slowly his knees collapsed, unable to support his weight. Weeping, he worshipped the Child until the Woman murmured to him. Carefully, he rose and brought her the water. Cradling her cheek in his palm, he silently loved her, his eyes searching hers for any sign of damaged health. She gazed lovingly up at him and shook her head, almost imperceptibly, before returning her attention to the baby.
Smiling, she very gently cleansed the Child with the warm water and a small, homespun cloth. The man handed her a larger linen cloth, and she wrapped her baby tightly against the chill night air.
The straw on the ground seemed inadequate to cushion a place to lay the Child, the ewe noticed. So, she nudged her manger, still full of her ration of hay, towards the human family. The man caught sight of her offering, patted her atop her head and toted the manger over to the Woman. She had not beckoned for a cradle, but an interior prompting moved her to lay her baby in the sweetly scented hay.
“Finally,” said the ram, “we will know happiness again. Man will no longer be our terror and task master. We will return to perfect harmony once again.”
“Yes,” replied an ox, “but for a time, our burdens will remain, for us and for men.”
“This Child is no burden,” crooned the donkey. “As I carried the Mother, so I hope my daughter or granddaughter may carry this New Man into His glory. It will be the recompense to expunge the shame my ancestor endured for carrying that Balaam who had embarked on a journey to curse the Jews, and who took three beatings from him because he would not port the fool to his death by an angel’s sword.”
“May it be so,” agreed all the other animals.
“Now that He has come, man and The Creator can resume their first friendship, and we can one day know again that primeval joy with man before he sinned. We will all return to that beautiful garden,” observed the goat.
The wise old ox considered this. Then he replied, “We will have that again, yes, but man will receive something even more.”
“What do you mean?” asked the dog.
“When The Creator fashioned man from the dirt of the Earth, man was not The Creator. He was just man. A special creation, to be sure, yet they were only dirt and water. But this Child is both a man and The Creator. Can’t you tell?”
“Yes,” they all answered as one. At this, the man and the Woman glanced around the byre, wondering at the animals’ lowing and bleating, woofing, neighing and baaing briefly and all at once. They smiled to themselves. Even the beasts sensed the divinity in the Child.
“So,” continued the wise old ox, “it stands to reason that as the first man was created in His likeness, so, too, will the new men to come be re-created into the likeness of this Child, the first New Man.”
As the animals pondered the insight of the wise old ox, some shepherds approached, breathless and flushed. A glorious angel had appeared to them, they reported. He had announced to them that the messiah had arrived at last, they said as they, too, fell upon their knees at the sight of the bundled Child in the manger.
With the Mother, the lowly beasts listened to the shepherds’ jubilant declaration and treasured all of these things in their hearts.