“It is time, Mary,” Joseph said as he threw the last sack of provisions over the hindquarters of the brown haired donkey for the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
“In my condition I shouldn’t be traveling at all. The road will be long and harsh and the weather cold,” Mary said.
“I have plenty of blankets to keep you warm, Mary, and I’m confident that our young steed here will provide you with a smooth ride,” Joseph replied, giving the donkey a gentle stroke along its mane. “It shouldn’t take much more than a week to get there. We will travel along the flatlands as much as possible ˗ the road of my ancestor’s ˗ then stop by Jericho for one night of safe lodgings. From there, on to Bethlehem.”
As Mary had predicted, the road was long and harsh, but her ride on the donkey’s back was unusually comfortable. The soft clopping of its hooves on the rocky terrain helped put her in a sound sleep. There was no sudden jolt from a misstep just a smooth carrying along as on a drifting cloud.
Their trip was free of bandits and the stop in Jericho much needed. Food on the road cooked over campfires had a wild taste to it. A meal cooked indoors was welcoming. When night came the couple laid down to sleep. Before nodding off, Joseph rested his head next to Mary’s belly and sang a sweet lullaby prayer to her and the baby as Mary gently stroked her husband’s hair.
At Bethlehem, finding respectable lodgings became impossible. Because of the large multitude of people that had arrived to register for the Roman census, rooms at the Inns were at complete capacity. Fortunately, a kindly man offered his stable as a last refuge. After Joseph unpacked the donkey and arranged the stable the best he could, Mary went into labor and gave birth to a son. Mary swaddled him in a blanket as Joseph made a makeshift manager for the child to sleep in. As a calming silence filled the night air, all were sleeping when a voice came to the donkey.
“Abdiel.” The donkey looked around from its kneeling place in the corner of the manger but saw no one. “Abdiel,” the voice called again.
“Are you speaking to me?” asked the donkey.
“Yes,” said the voice.
“Why do you call me Abdiel? I am but a donkey without a name.”
“Oh, Abdiel, you are much more. I call you Abdiel because it means Servant of God. Have you and your ancestors not been my servants?” asked the voice.
At that moment Abdiel knew who it was that was speaking to him. “Yes, my Master. You have made us strong to carry heavy burdens; we are reliable helpers and surefooted on mountain terrains and can survive the harshest environments. I am your Abdiel; for I know my true Master of the Manger.”
“I want to thank you for bringing my son safely to this city and your gentle steps that provided comfort for his mother. There will be a time I will need your services once more. However, before that time comes you will live your years as a servant to many men. Some will treat you justly and some harshly. I will need you to persevere until the time in which I call on you. Can you do that for me, Abdiel?” asked the Master.
“Yes, I can do that for you my Master and Creator,” answered Abdiel. “Is there anything else you require of me?” Abdiel asked, but the voice had gone and silence once again filled the cool night air.
Retuning to Nazareth, Joseph sold Abdiel to a quarry owner to cover the extra expenses the trip to Bethlehem and back had cost. Arriving at the pit, Abdiel saw large beasts with rope harnesses pulling huge blocks of travertine stones along the ground. He later learned the large blocks were for the making of amphitheaters and colosseums, ˗ the industries of man. Across Abdiel’s back, a man threw two deep pouches that hung past his belly on either side and filled them with large rocks hewed from the mountainside. He was lead into dark, damp caves near the quarry where he carried stones from as well. They then chiseled them down for paving the Roman roads. For many years, he labored there and for many years, he endured a whip across his back.
A day finally came when the pit closed due to the lack of proper sized stones. The mountainside and caves had given all that they had and now depleted. Believing Abdiel had outlived his usefulness the owner sold him to a farmer for a mere drachma.
On the farm, Abdiel was happy to carry lighter loads of wheat stalks and barley. He didn’t even mind grinding the grain by pulling the millstone. During the winter months, the farmer housed him in a stable next to a white jenny. The children called her Livna, which means White. Abdiel grew very fond of her over the years. At the stable, the children would come to pet them, feed them hay, and sometimes sit on them, usually at the same time pretending to be Kings and Queens of a far-off land. Abdiel loved the children. They were so kind, full of joy and mostly they had a pure innocence about them.
After a time the farmer became old and sick. Upon his death, the family couldn’t longer afford to operate the farm and sold it. They released Abdiel to the wild, not being able to care for him any longer. They kept Livna as a pack donkey. The new owner brought with him young and energetic livestock. Abdiel stayed at the farm a while longer licking up all the grain seeds from the mill and those that spilled onto the ground until the new owner chased him away swatting him with a long switch. With nowhere else to go, Abdiel turned to the mountains and flatlands in search of anything green to eat, and springs to quench his thirst.
One hot, arid day, the Master of the Manger came once again to Abdiel. “Abdiel, I need you to go to a village near Bethphage. There, you will speak to a young colt and convince him to carry my son, the one whose mother you bore to Bethlehem, into Jerusalem.”
“The journey is three days, Master. The air is hot, the springs are few, and I have hardly anything to eat here in the wilderness. I am reaching the end of my days and have grown tired. Would you not be able to convince him? Does he not know the voice of the true Master of the Manger?” asked Abdiel.
“No. He is very skittish, much afraid of his own shadow. If one of his own would speak to him, tell him of their experience of carrying my son as a young colt, I believe he would be more willing. Will you do this for me?”
Abdiel was confused at the word, “skittish”. “You have made us strong-headed and hard to be made skittish. Has he been mistreated by man?”
“Yes, this is why I would like one of his own to speak comforts to him. Will you do this for me, Abdiel?” the Master asked a second time.
“Yes, I will do this for you,” Abdiel sighed.
“You are blessed among your kind, Abdiel. You will lack neither food nor water on your three-day journey. You will find the colt standing next to its mother.” Then as quickly as the Master’s voice appeared, it was gone.
Arriving in the village it was not hard for Abdiel to find the colt and its mother, their coats of hair were pure white. Striding up closer, he realized the mother was Livna from the farm. He noticed her eyes closed as he approached, laying his head across her shoulders. She opened her eyes and looked back. The scent was familiar.
“Abdiel, is that you?” Livna asked her voice filled with excitement. The humans that stood nearby looked over hearing the braying sound she made.
“Yes, it is I. How long has it been, one, two seasons since we last saw one another?”
“It’s been two years, my dear Abdiel,” Livna said, now laying her head across his shoulders. “Where have you been and what brings you to the village? Is your master around?”
“I have no master but one, the true Master of the Manger,” he answered.
Livna’s eyes grew large. “And you hear his voice?”
“The Master is the one who sent me here to speak with this colt. Does he belong to you?” asked Abdiel.
“Yes, and as a matter of fact he belongs to you as well,” she said with a smile.
“The Master is a sly one, he is,” Abdiel said twisting his muzzle. “I understand now why it is that I must be the one to speak with him. Does he have a name?” Abdiel asked looking down at the colt.
“The children named him Shai. They said it means Gift. Shai, this is Abdiel, your wellspring I’ve told you about.” Shai looked up at Abdiel meeting his eyes.
Remembering what the Master said about him being skittish, Abdiel spoke softly to him. “Shai, you are quite a surprise and truly a special gift.”
“I don’t understand. I’m just a mere colt,” Shai answered.
Abdiel smiled to himself thinking back when he gave that very reply to the Master. “I used to feel the same way until I discovered that I had carried the Master’s son from Nazareth to his birthing place in Bethlehem.”
“He must have felt you to be very important to choose you above all the others,” Shai said.
“Yes, he must have. Would you like to feel the same way?” asked Abdiel.
“The Master of the Manger has never spoken to me. If he did I would more than likely jump out of my skin,” Shai said bowing his head low in shame.
“That is why he sent me to talk with you. He is a very gentle Master unlike any you could find here. Lift up your head and look at me, Shai.” Abdiel gave Shai a leveled look. “There are some men coming. They will want you to go with them. Do not be afraid for they are taking you to do something very special. Something humankind will remember for many ages to come. Will you trust me in this?” ask Abdiel.
Shai noticed the whip marks along Abdiel’s back. “Yes, I think I will.”
“Your mother and I will be close by, just inside the city gate. You will see us and once you are done with your task, you will return to her.” Abdiel hoped this gave the little colt comfort.
About that time, two men came and took Shai away. Abdiel and Livna went to Jerusalem just inside the city gate.
Before long, they saw Shai entering the city with a man dressed in a white robe riding on his back. The people were throwing palm leafs on the ground before them and cheering and following behind them up the street. The cheers sounded song-like to Livna and Abdiel.
“Will you be staying in the city for a while?” asked Livna.
“Sadly, no. I have seen too many days and have grown weary, Livna. I must journey to the mountains and find a place to rest. I waited many years to complete this last request from the Master of the Manger. Like me many years ago, the people will never know Shai’s name, only what he does here today. Take care, my Livna. Abdiel gently rubbed his head to hers then turned and strode out of the city into the wilderness leaving behind the crowds cheering song and the sorrowful brays of Livna.
Abdiel was not sure how long he had walked the wilderness: days, a week, two weeks. He only knew how tired he was. His legs had weakened tremendously. He came upon a palm tree and lay down beneath its shade. He looked up between the palm leafs at the blue sky when a beam of light almost blinded him. Then he heard a voice.
“Yes, Master of the Manger,” he answered.
“It is not the Master of the Manger but one who shared the manger with you.” A figure of a man blotted out the rays of the sun. The man knelt down next to Abdiel and stroked his neck and mane. “You are tired, my old friend.”
“You are the son of the Master, are you not? I can understand what you are saying,” Abdiel said.
With a soft voice, Jesus answered. “Yes, I am he. And I have come to give you rest, if you are willing. I will send you to the springs of the valley that flows through the mountains. You will run in the pasture of every green thing. You will no longer have to endure the tumult of the city or the shouts of the driver. Peace and rest will be yours.”
“I am willing, son of the Master of the Manger,” Abdiel answered.
Abdiel slowly laid his head on the ground with Jesus’ arms wrapped around his neck. Abdiel noticed strange marks on Jesus’ hands. “Are you alright?” asked Abdiel.
“Yes, and so is the world,” Jesus answered. Abdiel closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. His side rose then fell then rose once more.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself lying under a large oak tree in the middle of a green field covered in flowers of different hues. There were animals from every kingdom under the sun roaming and frolicking with one another. The skies were the deepest blue that he had ever seen. A tall, rushing waterfall cascaded down a snow-capped mountain from the east pouring into a pool at its base. From the pool, a stream ran through the field and into a fissure of another mountain far on the other side.
Jesus walked up from behind him placing his arm around Abdiel’s neck and said, “Welcome home.”
Bruce Rowe was born and raised in Shreveport La. where he gained an affinity for wildlife. His curiosity of how life would be in the forest if animals behaved as humans prompted him to write, The Chrysalis and the Creatures of the Highlands. He has had short stories published at Spillwords.com, Dastaanworld and Cafelit. ‘The Rider’, his first short story, was nominated Publication of the Month at Spillwords in October 2018. As well, ‘Grandfather’s Clock’ was a featured piece at Spillwords. ‘The Lonely Traveler’ received a special mention at Cafelit. He has been nominated twice as Author of the month at Spillwords. His poem, 'Twiggy Thin', is published in Clarendon House Publication’s, Poetica. His story, 'Hair of the Dog', is published in Zombie Works Publication, Monsterthology 2. He presently lives in Oceanside California where he spends his time writing, body surfing and playing guitar.