No, no room at the inn. Joseph had known there would not be. There was no room anywhere. If the census people had been a bit more organised none of this travel would have been necessary. The rest of the town was crammed to capacity. There were people sleeping on the floor in the inn itself. The innkeeper had just shrugged and said,
“You can doss down in the old stable round the back if you want.”
Nothing Joseph had said could get him to change his mind and toss some of those healthy young louts out there instead.
“Perhaps the dog will show you,” the innkeeper told him with a smirk and went off to supervise the pouring of more wine.
The old stable? Perhaps it would be better than nothing at all. There was nowhere else to go and the weather was getting worse. They could not spend all night in the open. The baby was due any day now and Joseph was worried about Mary. She should not have been travelling at all. He dreaded giving her this news.
“The only available shelter is the stable,” he told her, “The innkeeper can’t even be bothered to show us where it is.”
Mary just nodded. It was as if she was too exhausted even to speak. Joseph looked at the dog. “Can you show us the way to the stable old chap?”
Joseph tried to make a joke out of it but he was feeling tired, cold and hungry and knew it must be much worse for Mary. The snow was beginning to sting their cheeks. Even their donkey, a sturdy little animal, looked exhausted.
Oddly, the dog seemed to know exactly what was expected of it. It rose from where it was shivering in the doorway and began to trot off down the narrow lane next to the inn. The lane was dark and none too clean but Joseph thought that was typical of the town. He was counting the days before they could return to Nazareth. He hoped they did not get snowed in here.
The old stable was at the end of the lane. It was a rough wooden structure, not at all like the other buildings. Joseph ran a carpenter’s eye over it. The place could fall down at any moment but there was a much sturdier looking building next to it.
The dog whined and then pawed at the door of the sturdier building. Joseph looked at him and the dog whined again and then began to paw furiously at the door. Well, no harm in looking.
Joseph lifted the latch and pushed the door open. The leather hinges creaked but yes, here was a proper stable. It was, as stables went, clean. It was dry and, after the cold outside, it seemed warm. Joseph turned to Mary who had slid from the back of the donkey and was looking as if she might slide still further any moment now. He led her gently inside with one hand and then led the donkey in with the other.
Inside it was bigger than Joseph expected. It needed to be. It was already crowded. There were empty amphorae stored at one end and hay was stored at the other. There were several sheep, two cows, an ox and another donkey around the manger in the middle. At least the innkeeper seemed to feed and care for his animals decently. There were even hens scratching around in the hay on the floor.
All the animals stopped eating and looked at the newcomers.
Feeling rather foolish Joseph said, “Hello. There’s no room in the inn so we’ve come to join you if we may.”
The sheep looked at each other and then at the newcomers. The two cows looked at one another and then at the newcomers. The donkey looked the ox and they both looked at the newcomers. The hens flew up to a rail and looked at each other and then at the newcomers. A mouse scuttling across the floor stopped to look at them. Yes, there would be mice. Joseph hoped Mary had not noticed. She was not silly about mice like some girls but she was not particularly fond of them.
The dog just sat there. All the animals seemed to be waiting for something. It took a moment for Joseph to realise what it was but then he felt something brush past him.
A cat. Yes, Joseph thought he might have been able to guess there would be a cat somewhere. The cat was a handsome creature. Joseph knew instantly that the cat was from one of the royal houses in Egypt.
“Just visiting?” he asked the cat.
The cat looked him up and down. It looked Mary up and down. It sat in the middle of the floor and swished a very fine mud coloured tail. It raised a paw and wiped a whisker. Then it began to move slowly around the room. It stopped at the sheep.
Joseph wondered if he was going mad because the cat and the sheep seemed to be talking to one another. The same thing happened with the cows and the ox and the donkeys. Just a few seconds later he was convinced he was going mad because he thought he could see a soft blanket in the manger and another two folded on the rolls of hay. The cat seemed to be milking one of the cows. The dog seemed to be taking a pail of water from the stable donkey and pouring it into a pan while the oxen was breathing over some coals in a brazier and bringing them to life. The hens had laid some eggs and were rolling them towards him.
And Mary was standing there holding the Baby. How had that happened?
Mary smiled as if to say, “Just accept it. This is what is meant to happen.”
The Innkeeper’s wife hurried out and offered Joseph two newly baked loaves. She did not seem to notice anything unusual in the stable.
Mary fed the Baby and settled it in the manger. Joseph boiled the eggs and heated the milk. He offered some to the other animals but the sheep, the ox and then donkeys seemed to prefer hay. The hens went back to scratching for grains on the floor. The dog accepted bread and milk and then went to sleep.
The cat disappeared.