Her days were busy, full of activity with little time to think. It was better that way. Better to fall into bed each night ready to sink into an uneasy sleep than to stare into the grim darkness that reflected the black hole in her heart. Better to fall into oblivion than to be crowded by the empty space beside her. Her heart was shattered, broken into shards that pierced and stabbed in every waking moment.
She rose with the morning light, filled with the ache of unshed tears for the loss of her beloved husband, Jacob. She moved through the day, caring for the needs of her guests. Rooms filled at a steady pace because of the egotistical whim of far-off Caesar. It was a nuisance, this census, but it was great for business.
Morning turned to afternoon and as the sky darkened, every room was taken. A knock sounded at the door and she went to answer it, a refusal already forming on her lips. The inn was full. She’d rented out even her children’s room, placing a mattress on the floor in her bedroom for them to sleep on. These travelers would have to find somewhere else to sleep.
She opened the door and saw a young man with tired, desperate eyes.
“Please” he said, “we need a place to stay for the night.” He gestured helplessly towards his wife.
The innkeeper’s eyes fell on the young woman leaning against her husband. One hand protectively cradled her enormous belly. The innkeeper looked into the woman’s face and read weariness in the drooping mouth and eyes ringed and dark. A question formed in her mind and was answered unspoken as the woman closed her eyes and clung to her husband. When the woman opened her eyes and returned the innkeeper’s gaze a flash of womanly intuition passed between them. The innkeeper sighed.
She knew that her hotel was full to the brim – there was no room anywhere. But how could she turn away travelers with such a compelling need?
“There’s the stable – it’s dirty, but the hay is clean and the animals provide some warmth. It’s all I have,” she offered hesitantly.
Relief washed over the faces of the young couple.
“Thank you,” they said as they turned towards the small cave behind the inn. “Thank you so much.”
The innkeeper’s thoughts strayed often to the young couple throughout the evening. When the pace at the inn slowed down, her guests replete and quiet, she collected clean linens and a container of hot soup and walked out into the starry night towards the stable. With only her husband there, the young woman might want some female companionship, someone who knew a little about giving birth.
In the hours that followed, the innkeeper and the husband bathed the young woman’s face, held her hands, and encouraged her labor. Their reward came as a squalling but perfectly formed child slid into their hands. The innkeeper wrapped the baby boy tightly, then, with a smile, handed him back to his mother.
An amazed look of joy filled the parents’ faces as they gazed at their son. The sight took the innkeeper back to the memories of Jacob’s exuberance at their children’s births. But there was something different here - the innkeeper sensed that she was in the presence of someone extraordinary. She, too, admired this little child. He looked like any other tiny, wrinkled newborn, yet there was a tenderness about the scene that gently touched her raw, oozing inner scars. A single tear trickled down her face to the corner of her mouth. She bit her lip hard but was unable to stop the salty water from covering her face. Seeing her emotion the young couple told her the story of the child’s conception, and the promise that he was the hope for whom they had longed, that somehow he would be the one who could ease her pain.
“Could it be?” The aching woman reached out to touch the baby’s soft skin. “This child? My hope?”
The innkeeper walked back to her work, her emptiness filled by the healing presence of hope breathing softly in his mother’s arms.