Infant Jesus, Refugee - Joy Cowley
The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you”.
Neither of them knew how he could sleep through the bombing. Every time the house shook, plaster cracked and fell from the ceiling like fine snow, yet still his breathing was deep and even. Mary held him in her arms, the edge of her shawl raised to protect his face, but she could do nothing about the noise. It filled the night with no space between the explosions, the sirens, the voices that seemed to float bodiless in the chaos.
The entire city was on fire.
“ They told us the planes wouldn’t come this far,” she said.
Joseph didn’t reply. He crouched beside her, arms around his knees, the reflection of the lantern blurring in his eyes. He was thinking of his parents, his brother, sister-in-law, their children, the youngest only six months older than Jesus and not yet crawling. The family home next to the bus station had been one of the first hit.
“ They lied!” Mary drew the baby against her. He stirred and stretched like a cat but didn’t wake up. “They lied to us about everything!” Her words were lost in another explosion, this one so close that the pressure hurt their ears. A picture fell, sending shards of glass across the floor, and one of the shutters came loose from the window. The room filled with a dull orange light.
Joseph looked at her. “We must leave.”
“ No!” She shook her head as she rocked the baby. “The curfew, Joseph. They’ll shoot us. They will kill him!”
“ We’ll die if we stay here.”
“ There’s nowhere else to go!”
Slowly, he slid up the wall until he was level with the window. “The garage hasn’t been hit,” he said. “One of the bikes is fuelled and ready to go. We can get across the border to my cousin’s place.”
“ They have troops at the border.”
“ Yes, but I know another way. It won’t be comfortable.” He slid down again, so close she could feel his breath on her face. “The machine is old, rigid suspension. But it’ll get us over the hills where there are no troops, no checkpoints. God will protect us.”
She took a deep, stuttering breath. “God is great,” she said, but it sounded like a question.
“God is great! Praised be his name!” Joseph said firmly. “Wrap him warmly. Coats and blankets. When we get away from this furnace, the night will be freezing.” He helped her to her feet.
“ You know, my cousin and her husband are very important people. They export carpets all over the world. They have contacts in the West. Pray they can find us a new country that has never known war.”
Mary sighed. Her husband talked like a teacher when he wanted to convince her of something, but she had doubt in her heart. She lifted Jesus in the crook of her arm and kissed the top of his head. “I am afraid for him, Joseph”, she said.
“ We’ll find a land where he can fulfil what has been written for him,” Joseph replied. “He will never have to...”
The sound of a rocket ended his speech. They froze as it went overhead, then, as they pressed themselves against the wall, they heard the explosion, this time further away. Joseph picked up the keys to his Motor Cycle Sales and Service Shop, and went to the door.
“ Stay here,” he said. “I’ll bring the bike around the back.”
“ Be – be careful!”
As he opened the door, orange smoke spiralled into the room. He pulled his shirt up over his mouth and nose, and closed the door behind him, but not before Jesus woke up, coughing and fretful.
Mary sat on the floor below the smoke, settled the baby at her breast and sang to him as he drank away the burnt taste of war. It was a song she made up about a child of God growing up in a free land.
Joseph kept calling it paradise. The refuge house was at the edge of the city and from the back door they could see fields of long grass with black and white cows and willows along the bank of a small stream. The rainfall was still a source of wonder to them. So much water to make everything green! Here, people actually complained when the clouds dropped their gift!
“ A paradise of beautiful empty land!” Joseph said. “We will have our own house and a garden. I will start another repair shop, and he will go to school. This is his chosen kingdom.” He held out his hands to Jesus, who laughed and took a few unsteady steps towards him, before sitting plumply on the rug.
Mary folded the laundry. Many things here were strange. She did not understand the language, nor had she got accustomed to the food. The shops were like treasure chests, so much of everything with labels she couldn’t read. The other women in the refuge went with her, helping her to choose and to count her money. It would take a year, they said, for her to get used to this country.
It had taken Mary almost a month to get used to the way everything in the house worked. Press a switch and a light went on. Turn a knob and food cooked. There was a hair dryer in the bathroom, a toilet that flushed every time, a vacuum cleaner, television, washing and drying machines. The woman Greta who managed the refuge, had a car. She had taken them to a beach of white sand where Mary had gathered shells and Joseph had sat at the edge of the sea with God’s child in his lap. Jesus had laughed and clapped his hands every time a wave broke over his feet.
Yes, this place was truly paradise.
A man came to the refuge to offer Joseph a night job in a fast food place. Joseph took it to earn a little money while they were waiting for their papers to come through. He cleared tables, swept floors, took out the garbage and came home to bed as his wife and son were waking. It was only for a while, he said. When they got their papers, he would find a job servicing motor cycles.
One morning, he did not come home from work. One of the other refugees who could speak English, went to the fast food place and spoke to the manager. The night before, two men had taken Joseph away in their car. What men? No one knew.
Greta, the refuge manager, was away that morning, but she came in the afternoon to comfort a distraught Mary. “It’s the Department of Immigration. They have some questions they want to ask your husband.”
“ Has he been arrested?”
Greta smiled. “No, no, nothing like that. They’ll visit you this evening to explain. I’ll be here to translate what they say.”
“ Please. Is it because he is working?” Mary tugged at Greta’s sleeve. “I told him to wait until the papers were finished.”
“ I’m sure there is nothing to worry about,” Greta said.
The two men who came that evening were pleasant. The younger one picked up Jesus and spoke to him, and they both shook hands with Mary, but their smiles did not go above their mouths. They inspected the family’s room and wanted to know what possessions Joseph had brought with him.
“ They are asking,” said Greta, “if your husband has anything stored at someone else’s house. Papers, letters, legal documents.”
“ No, nothing.” Mary picked up Jesus and held him close. “What are they looking for? I don’t understand this. When is Joseph coming home?”
The men had pulled the mattress off the bed and were now examining the pillows. Greta spoke many words to them and the older man replied, shaking his forefinger in the air.
Greta took Mary’s arm. “They say there has been a security problem. You had forged passports.”
“ What? It was Joseph’s cousin...” Mary stopped. But of course. Where would he have got valid passports? “We left in the night,” she explained. “The three of us. We escaped only with our lives.”
Greta turned back to the men who had finished searching the room. The older one kicked the end of the bed for no reason and folded his arms. He spoke to Greta who looked quickly at Mary.
“ What is it?” Mary hugged Jesus to her. “What is he saying?”
“ He keeps saying it is a security issue,” said Greta.
“ What security? My husband is a good man. He works hard. Greta, I need to know where he is!”
“ You will see him tomorrow.” Greta glanced at the men. “They are sorry to be so strict. They are just doing their job, they say. These days there is a much pressure on their department. It is the threat of terrorism, you understand. Men in parliament are saying there are too many refugees in this country.”
Mary stepped back. “Too many? How can it be? The land is so empty of people.”
“ I’m sorry,” said Greta. “I’m telling you what they said.”
“ They won’t make us go back.” She stared at Greta. “Will they?”
Greta didn’t answer.
“ We can’t go back there!” Mary cried. “There is nothing for us but death. No future for our son. Please, will you tell them that?”
“ I have done so,” Greta replied.
“ Did they understand?”
Greta hesitated. “They told me it is what all illegal immigrants say.”
Mary sat down on the sofa. Jesus wriggled from her arms to the floor and crawled to the tangled bedding. Laughing, he put his head under the duvet and out again. He was playing a game. She smiled at him, although she was shaking right through to her heart. Be calm, she told herself. Joseph will be home in the morning and he will know what to do. He will sort out the problems. God has not brought us all this way for nothing.
She tried not to look at the men who were still talking to Greta. God is great, she said to herself. Holy is his name, and his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him.
Jesus pulled the duvet over his head, peeped out at her and laughed.