This story originally appeared in Fantasy, Folklore, and Fantasy. It's placed here by permission of the author.
by Paul Schilling
Joseph sat back in his chair and looked around his one room home so he wouldn't be looking at Mary; her beauty only made her betrayal more painful. Each mud brick in the walls was of his own placing, each piece of the sparse furniture built with his own two hands.
"I'm sorry, Joseph." Her voice trembled. He stood and walked away from her towards the window and looked out at the clear night sky. Running his hand through his thick black hair, he gripped it. He wanted to yank Mary's out.
"Who was he?"
"A merchant. He was passing through."
"Why?" Why did you do this to us? Why to me? Why at all? We were to be married in the summer. I held to the law. I didn't betray you, even in ways men are expected to.
"He was very handsome." I am not. "He was charming."
"He was rich, and you hoped to do better than me." The voice was a whisper; he didn't know which of them he was condemning.
"Oh, Joseph. Don't you know me better than that by now?"
"I thought I did. Then you did this."
Mary stood up and kicked the table, yelling through her tears. "I wanted to do it! That's why I did it! I wanted one thing that was my choice! Our parents choose us for each other! You're a wonderful man, Joseph. You will be a great husband and father, but I didn't choose you."
His jaw clenched, but Joseph forced it to work. "Then why are you here?"
"You deserved to hear this from me." She put her hand on her still flat belly.
Joseph looked her in the eyes. "Why aren't you with him?"
Mary held his gaze a moment, then looked down at the floor. Contemplating her smooth skin under the grime of their daily lives, the strength of her hands and the grace he knew them capable of when sewing. He imagined them touching himself someday, and shook his head.
He didn't want you. You were both fools. You for thinking a rich man would marry you, and he for not marrying you. "I need to go for a walk. Don't go anywhere."
As he passed her in the candlelight he saw a growing redness under her eye, and realized she might not have anywhere to go. Her father was not a forgiving man, and Mary was always breaking rules. Was this one rule too many?
Leaving the small town, he wandered among the dry, grassy hills until he tired of hiking. He rested on an out-cropping of rock. Joseph was a healthy man, and on a good day could have walked forever.
It was neither good nor day.
Then it was not just night either. Another light enhanced his vision. He still saw the stars, but everything was sharper, clearer. This light let him see even while he remained in the dark.
A man in white, clean robes sat next to him, light flowing around him like translucent wings in a breeze. There was no sign of physical passage. Joseph started to get off the rock to prostrate at his feet, but the angel put a hand on his leg. "The time for that will soon be past."
"I do not understand."
"It will soon be time for a new way."
"The Messiah is coming? The Romans will be vanquished?"
"The Romans will fall of the weight of their own sins, but yes, the Messiah is coming. You have a role in this, Joseph."
"Anything Oh Angel of the Lord Most High . . ."
Joseph nodded. "What do you wish of me?"
"To stay with Mary. The Holy Spirit will descend upon her child, who will be the Messiah."
"But . . . but the Messiah is supposed to be a Prince who will drive out the Romans."
"That is not role the Prince of Peace will play. It is time for a new way."
"What is that?"
"A way of peace, instead of war. Of love, instead of law. Of spirit instead of gold."
"But why Mary's son? The people of the village can count the weeks, and will suspect. Why would they think a bastard the Messiah?"
"That he is a bastard is why he is chosen to be the Messiah. His life must reflect his message."
"What message is that?"
"That love transcends the law. That laws should be broken if love demands it. Mary broke the law when she betrayed you, but the law should not have bound her to you without her choice."
"Did she love him?"
"She loved what she thought of him. She recognizes her error now."
"Why do you need me?"
"Do you love Mary?"
For the first time Joseph looked away from the Angel; he didn't want him to see the tears in his eyes. "Yes."
"The son of Mary will also need your love, Joseph. He will know he is not of your seed, the gossips of the village will see to that, but he will also know you are his true father. He will see that your love of Mary transcended the law, and that your love of him does, too. He needs to see in action the way of love, so that he may preach it from his heart."
"Do you know that I will love him?"
"You love his mother who wronged you under the law. The child will be innocent, except under the law."
Joseph nodded. "Then why are you speaking to me, if you know me so well?"
"So you will understand that the suffering you and Mary are going through, and will go through, has a purpose. That knowledge will give you comfort in the dark days ahead."
"Gabriel is talking to her. She has a love to match yours, Joseph."
"I know. I think we love each other, despite all this."
"This is one reason why you two have been chosen. Out of human errors, divine miracles will be born."
The sadness in Michael's voice surprised Joseph, but the light was gone. Joseph looked back to the town; it was too far away to see. He pictured Mary waiting alone in his house. Is she crying? Is she afraid?
He stood up alone, and made the long walk back home.