WRITTEN BY KAREN BYROM
A homeland invaded, a family touched by tragedy… and new hope for the world
The boy crouched on the corner of the dank floor beside the door of the inn, arms hugging his knees. All around him in the crush, men drank ale or wine, shouting over each other to be heard as they exchanged news and views.
The innkeeper’s brow was glistening as he dashed between bar and tables. What a night! His inn had never been so full – already his wife was in the kitchen, shouting directions to the beleaguered cook as they prepared dinner for the influx of visitors that had come to town.
The boy’s father secured his drink and turned back through the crowd to reach his son. But a man caught his arm, engaged him in conversation and soon they were drinking pals, arms around each other, swearing curses down upon Caesar and all his ilk for making them take the long journey from their home just to make their mark on a piece of paper.
The boy’s father had turned to drink when his mother died, had lost his job as a vineyard foreman. Now they got by with odd-jobbing – son as well as father. His childhood had vanished with his mother’s love.
Yet not all was bad. He loved his father and his father loved him… even if sometimes it seemed he loved his ale more.
Quick and bright, the boy was a favourite with the vineyard owners and farmers. He could pick grapes faster than any of his peers, winnow weeds from the wheat fields with ease, and still find time to laugh and joke.
His favourite employment, though, was with the shepherds. Out on the plains, he’d round up lost sheep and help with the lambing. Small though he was, his hands were strong and gentle and the shepherds valued his skills. In the evenings he would sit with them, listening to their chat, singing softly while beating time on the small drum given to him by a dark-skinned man from a troupe of entertainers that had once passed through their village.
How he wished he could get back to his beloved fields, away from this noisy town and inn full of strangers. But he knew his father and he had been lucky to find a bed. People were now being turned away.
Another loud knock at the door brought the innkeeper’s wife out from the kitchen, swearing under her breath.
“We’ve no room,” the boy heard her say to the unseen person. He peeked around the door. A young man stood there, head bowed, eyes imploring. Behind him, a lady sat on a donkey. She was drawn and pale and beneath her blue robes her stomach bulged. The boy knew she would soon give birth.
He tugged at the landlady’s robe
“There’s the stable,” he said. “They could go there.”
The landlady looked down in surprise. Then her eyes softened. She beckoned to the young man. “Follow me.”
Though he’d been told by his father to stay put, the boy picked up his drum and slipped out behind the innkeeper’s wife. He trailed the trio round to the back of the inn, where the older woman pointed to the stable, rough and wooden. From behind the doors an ox lowed.
“You can bed down there,” she said. “I’m sorry I can offer no more.”
The young woman slipped from the donkey and caught the older woman’s hand. “You’re so kind,” she said, her voice trembling with fatigue and tears.
The couple disappeared into the stable, the donkey trotting behind. The innkeeper’s wife returned to her duties.
But the boy stayed where he was, a silent guardian in the night. Babies were his domain. Lambs or humans, his job was to see them safely born.
His patience was rewarded when the thin cry of a baby pierced the air. He hesitated, then approached the stable.
The woman looked up, her tiredness gone, her face radiant, a newborn cradled in her arms.
The boy knelt before them. A baby. A boy. In his village it was customary to bring gifts to the family to celebrate the arrival of new life. But he had nothing to offer…
Then he smiled up at the woman.
“Shall I play for him? On my drum?”
The woman nodded. As he played, it seemed to the boy that the ox and ass nodded in time. The beat became music and song – there could have been a dozen drummers there, not one young poor shepherd’s boy.
Safe in his mother’s arms, the baby turned his head to the shepherd boy, and smiled.