Well as the Advent season continues it seems time to share a Christmas story or two…in what is becoming a little tradition on Rattledrum, I’d like to share my version of the Shepherd’s story.
A little bit of background … the Christmas story can seem to be a bit twee and sentimental. We are bombarded with images of the cozy family, the warm stable, the happy ending, snowflakes and the occasional penguin.
But at the heart of the story are many more challenging characters and themes. In my story I have tried to bring some of these to light. There is the rule of the dictator King Herod, struggling to maintain authority as a subsidiary of the Roman Empire. The family at the heart of the story are refugees, unable to find shelter in a time of upheaval and resentment. And I couldn’t help but wonder whatever happened to the Shepherds after the main characters left the stage?
My story focuses upon some of the consequences of the events we are so familiar with, which are often ‘airbrushed’ away from the tinselled tale and their possible impact upon the ordinary people who found themselves involved in both the wonder and the realities of the christmas story.
A Shepherd’s Tale
I was there…
… but I wasn’t involved if you get my drift. Yeah, sure I remember that night. Who wouldn’t? Not many left that can remember it all I should think. So, don’t expect too much. I’ve spent the last thirty years trying to forget. Time was when last thing I wanted was to tell anyone – don’t know how you found me here but I suppose I can give you what I know. As long as you’ll take something from the stall! Who’s going to take any notice of a rambling ex-shepherd eh? No one usually.
There we were, out on the hill, the one just behind Aaron’s patch. It was a cold night. The sun had been hot on our faces all day but you could tell the season was changing. That night Reuben were saying how it would soon be time to take an extra blanket. He’d had a bad day, as usual, and was in one of his moods – now he had the cold to complain about too. Enjoyed it, sad old boy that he was. We were bringing up fire-wood and Reuben just kept on about his knees, the goats that were more stupid than his mother-in-law and how hungry he was; when we see young David stood ready by the kindling wood – that boy could light a fire in the pouring rain, I swear it. Anyhow, he was clearly trying to hear something, listening hard. ‘Course Reuben takes no notice and just carries prattling on until David puts his hand up.
“Peace Reuben!” he said. Well, Reuben’s mouth fell wide like he was choking on a gnat but before he could answer David repeated: “Peace. Samuel, can you hear that?”
“What?” says I, but no answer. We all stood still. Now David had the best ears on the hill so you’d better believe we stood and listened hard into the night. I was just thinking I couldn’t hear anything more than flies, goats and the breeze in the trees when I saw the lights. “Look!” I shouted, “Over there!” They both turned to see the trail of lights over to our left. Now there was only a handful at first but by the time we’d walked over to a gap in the trees to get a better look there were at least fourscore or more, like a snaking firefly.
And now we could all hear what David had been talking about, the throbbing sound; and it was getting closer.
We stood there listening and watching for a few more moments, then Reuben broke the silence by clearing his throat and spitting onto the ground.
“Nothing to do with us. I’m lighting that fire before it gets colder.” I turned away from the hill, walked over to Reuben and put my wood down on the ground next to his. I had a strange sensation on the back of me neck, one I’d felt not so long ago, and I didn’t want reminding of how all that fell out. I was just about to tell David to stop watching and come and set the fire but as soon as I calls his name he just puts his hand out to his side, without turning and says “Shhh! Wait.”
“David, come set the fire.” I said, quiet and friendly like. “No good comes from involving yourself with the business of others. Remember what happened…” He just turned and gave me that lopsided grin of his.
“They’re coming this way.” And he was right too, clever lad. The noise was unmistakably louder now. I walked over to him. The lights had disappeared but that only meant one thing– they were on the road into town. And that, my friend, meant that they would pass right by us.
David started running for the small footway we’d taken up from the track and half- stopped, waving us to follow him. I looked at Reuben stood by the fire and then back at David. I had a feeling see? I had that feeling that this was a moment. One of those that changes everything. What should I do? Go or stay? I checked the herd. Some had their heads up looking at me, as gormlessly as old Reuben, but the rest were munching away or ready for the night.
It was when Reuben looks me straight in the eye and spits again on the ground I decided. I shrugged my shoulders and ran after David. I felt a tingle of fear in my stomach. What good ever came out of Bethlehem?
Old Reuben was right about the weather anyhow. As David and I stood by the road panting I could see the fine mist coming out of our throats and noses. Let the old timer stay with the herd if he was too stuck in his ways. Best if someone did too. I’d been caught out that way before! Oh yes, but that’s another story – lost me herd and nearly my reputation by sticking my nose into something that didn’t concern me, something too big. You know what? I’ve thought about that moment a lot – stood there with David, waiting to see what would come around that bend and you know, I think I was hoping it was something that would put everything right. Something that would show I wasn’t crazy after all. Sometimes when enough folk tell you you’re a fool whose seeing things you can end up believing them.
But there was something hard in my heart as we stood there too. Something that wouldn’t give up hope; that I’d carried with me for those, what, two years? Something that hid itself away from the eyes of others and just waited.
Now David’s enthusiasm had fanned it to flame again, as surely as he set our fire each night. Now my eyes were searching the darkness to see the first of what was coming towards us.
The noise was loud – ha, but not the loudest I’ve ever heard – but I’d never heard so many on the move before. The hooves, the clanking, the snorting horses and the hundreds of tiny sounds – clattering, slapping saddles and pennants all wrapped up by the night and pouring down the road. For an instant I thought they’d ride David down, he was too close to the road. I put my hand on his shoulder to pull him but he had the sense to step back as the riders came past. Well, maybe it’s the benefit of hindsight my friend, but I’ll tell you what I remember the most – the weapons. Armed to the teeth they were. Not that I knew what a soldier should carry but any fool, even me, could see that this lot were about one thing tonight – killing.
“Criminals probably,” My mouth spoke for me, that sense of dread wrestling with the hope inside me. “Someone’s got it coming to them for sure.”
“No,” said David in his quiet way. “It’s worse than that.” He looked past me and I turned to see Reuben standing behind us. The old sod had come down after all. Reuben was silent – he just tilted his chin and pursed his lips. He couldn’t bear to say it but tonight had brought some confirmation to what David and I had talked about many times over the embers, long into the night. What had happened here two years ago, the things we’d seen, the people we’d met… amazing things! You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Nobody did, least of all old Reuben. Anyway, riding away down the road seemed to be the confirmation that what David and I had experienced wasn’t going to go away. Reuben hadn’t been there, hadn’t seen, didn’t understand what we’d been through. But he had seen this.
David looked back at me with fear growing in his eyes.“We’ve got to go down.”
“Do you need to ask?”
“Yes!” I took a breath, summoning all the reasons I could to quell the sickening feeling that this night was pressing us all into some horror we had not had the sense to foresee. But it was old Reuben who spoke.
David nodded as though listening and looked at the roadside. Then he inhaled deeply and looked up, straight into my eyes.
“They were Herod’s soldiers, Samuel. You saw how they were armed. They’re not after criminals. We should be home.” There was no malice or frustration in his voice, just a quiet resignation. I didn’t know what to say. Home? For me there was no home. Or, no-one in it to care about, leastways. I stood silently, waiting.
In the end Reuben and I watched David go. “The Lord be with you David,” I told him, “You take care down there.”
“I’ll be back if I can.” He says. “I have to make sure Sarah and Joshua are alright.”
“I know.” I whispered. And I meant it. If I had family down there I would’ve been going too. Especially if a beauty like Sarah and that fine young boy were mine.
Reuben and me went back to the fire but there was nothing to say. That was the last time I saw David. Or anyone else for that matter.
Left Reuben on the hillside that night when the houses started to burn I did. Walked with my tears for who knows how many miles as the screams and wails flew ghosted around the hills, following me. I don’t know why I ran. I had no family of my own. No pain to push me out.
As I lay under a tree many miles later, exhausted, the sun coming up over my shoulder, all I could think of were that family from two years ago, the ones hiding in my stable. I kept thinking of that little one and his proud dad. I was just glad they’d got away at least. Been gone for weeks, I’d been told.
… So, there you are, I don’t really know much of all the detail. I just kept my head down see? ‘Course, it was all over the district before long. I slept where I could and just tried to make my way to somewhere… else. Somewhere I wouldn’t have to face the night by myself anymore. Each night brought David and his family- imagining how it went, what he came home to. And sometimes when I woke I thought I saw David again, stood on that road, waiting for me to help him. Seeing things again, yeah, that’s me.
Soon as they heard my accent folk would ask me of course. ‘Where you there? Did you see it?’ Never said a word. Not me, no, I wasn’t around. Each time I did it felt like a betrayal. But what could I have done? Maybe I should have held onto him? Maybe I should have seen it all coming and warned him, told him to get his family out. “Follow those others,” I should have said, “Go, go with that child, get out now. Follow them to Egypt. That baby’s at the centre of something big. Who knows what will happen? But you don’t want Sarah and Joshua caught up in it. Go on David, take them and go!” That’s what I should have said.
Instead it was me that left though. Left Bethlehem, left Reuben, left David…but I’m here now. Came to the big city see? No local intrigue here! No sir, nothing much can happen here that ten thousand won’t see, not just me. No-one telling me I’m a crazy old fool! Just keeping my head down. What? Yes, the nightmares have got better… though the wife will tell you I do still wake sometimes. I can’t remember David’s face anymore, ‘course, but I hear those screams coming over the hills and see those horses bearing down on us…
Now, are you going to keep your word and buy that wool or not? Twenty five shekels. Ta. Yes, Came to Jerusalem some thirty years ago now, found a wife, lovely wife, settled down see? Big city life for me now!
Funny thing though, you’re not the first to ask me today. Another chap came along this morning – seems folk here do know where I’m from – asked for the same story! Well, there you go, last sale for today, going to pack up early.
Wife wants to go out and hear this new preacher, you know, Jesus of Nazareth? Tried to say I didn’t want to go but she’s a stubborn one. What good can come out of Nazareth eh? Still, I’ll go along with her…
… anything for a quiet life!
© S.Dyer 2011