Outside the house, Josephus paced. Miriam's screams broke the night, and he pulled at his beard as the city of his forefathers slept on. Screams were nothing new in Bethlehem.
He had forgiven her, of course, when she confided in him. She was young, and he remembered what it had been to be young himself, and to make mistakes. He had buried brothers and sisters, father and uncles, mother and aunts. She was his world.
The town was built on the sloping hills, and Josephus stared far out at the night, the stars unusually bright despite the thin streams of smoke from the houses. The long lines of walls in their rough squares snaked up, rising tier on tier, marking individual gardens, vineyards, and fields. In the distance he could see the little twinkling fires of the shepherds with their flocks, hear the tramp of men and animals moving through the winding streets, even at this hour.
It was a time of gathering, and people from near and far came at the order of the Romans to be registered. The town was packed, and there was no room to be had; Josephus had felt fortunate that a kind man, seeing her condition, had let them sleep in the bottom floor of their house, the kitchen where the animals were kept at night. At least it was shelter of some sort.
The night wore on, and he heard the matron of the house with Miriam, alternately walking and sitting. No one with a heart in her would let a woman bear alone, and he was glad of it. Doubt took him for a moment at the thought of what life would mean without his young bride. Childbirth was hard on women, he knew. Dark fancies took him for a moment, and he berated himself for an old lecher lost in silly vices. Then the screams, and his heart, stopped.
For long minutes Josephus paused at the lintel of the door, careful not to let the nanny-goat escape into the yard. Miriam lay on a birthing-stool, near the fire, face shiny with sweat. The matron busied herself with the afterbirth. And in a manger nearby, wrapped in cloth... He slipped into the room, nudging the goat and her kids gently aside, and with one tanned hand pulling aside the cloth a little better to see. Bloody and sleepy as newborns always look, he beheld Miriam's firstborn child - a son. The babe didn't even cry.
There was not much sleep that night, for any of them. The matron insisted their host break out the wine, and Josephus could only smile at the well-worn bickering of the couple, who chased their own children back upstairs. A party of shepherds came knocking, and were sent away, and then a group of magi, hawking their wares; Josephus had to buy something to make them leave, and presented it as a small gift to his hosts for their kindness that evening. At last after much talking, laughing, and drinking, the darkness crept in, and the host and his wife staggered off to sleep. Miriam, now in her bed, snored softly. The babe still lay in the manger, warm and snug.
Josephus looked once more at the child. Not his child. Not by blood. The boy slept, with that serious look that newborns have. There were things to do tomorrow, and the next day. To stand in line to be registered, provisions for the return trip to Galilee... The details faded as he looked down. Well, who was to know he was not his son, if he told no one? Why should he not be? Lost in these thoughts, Josephus laid down with his wife. And the babe slept.