This month, I’ll be giving away the first three chapters of the first book in my Reflections series. That’s right. If you follow the blog, you’ll get to read the first three chapters (one per week) without investing more than your time.
Of course, I hope you get invested in the story. I hope you love it like so many readers who’ve left ONLY POSITIVE reviews about the story.
Reviews like this one:
But now, as I’ve promised. Here is chapter one of A Pondering Heart, Reflections Book One:
The day my world changed began like every other day in recent memory. An orange sun rose over the brushy hills. Pasty clouds chased each other across the blue expanse of sky. A refreshing chill from the autumn air nipped my cheeks.
I meandered along the worn dirt path. My destination was the same as every morning: the cave beneath the terraced hillside where my father planted his crops. Over the past three years, the path had worn to little more than a rut beneath the constant traffic of my sandal-clad feet and the goats’ sharp hooves.
At the mouth of the cave, I swung the wooden gate toward myself and ducked to keep from knocking my forehead on the rocks. Not that I was tall, but the entrance wasn’t even six spans high.
When I entered our makeshift stable, the milk nanny rubbed her nose against the wool girdle that secured a water bladder to my hip. I pushed her away, scratching her forehead to ease the rebuke. She whined. One look at her engorged udder explained her urgent desire to follow me out of the pen. With one hand on her leather collar, I secured the gate behind me. Not a moment too soon. The other goats pressed their faces through the wide rungs. Their persistent baas echoed around the cave.
I patted a few of their heads. Pushing the shawl back onto my shoulders, I knelt to begin the task of milking. A hummed tune lifted my heart and kept the bleats of the kids in check. My thoughts wandered to the dream I had about my wedding last night. Rather than my face being hidden, the face of my groom was covered with a veil. Some say dreams have significance. If that’s true, what did this one mean?
Soon, the udder hung limply, and the nanny pushed her nose into the enclosure. I never had to tie her as long as her kids were penned up. Most of the young ones were meat goats, not her babies at all, but she seemed to adopt them anyway. The goat knew mothering better than Anna, my father’s wife. But I shouldn’t complain. It would harden my spirit, and if my stepmother had taught me anything, it was that I didn’t want to become bitter.
I carried the pot of milk through a narrow tunnel into a cool room. Light filtered through several fissures. I strained my eyes to make out the large pot and small jar sitting on a ledge in the wall. I placed the fresh milk beside the other containers and reached into the large pot.
The sour smell of curdling milk stung my nose. The curds were still too small and soft. At least one more day before the cheese would be ready for draining. One less thing on my list of responsibilities for today. I sighed. I loved making the cheese almost as much as eating it, but I hated listening to Anna complain about the smell when I brought it into the house to mix in the herbs and salt.
I scuttled back to the main cave, wiping my hands along my skirt. The goats bleated as I opened their enclosure. My little flock surrounded me, snuffling at my girdle, hoping for a treat. I laughed, fondling their ears while leading them into the scraggly grass surrounding our home. Now that the harvest was well past and Father’s winter wheat plucked its head in the midfields, foraging became a chore. There wasn’t much fodder, since they had been grazing these fields for a month. The time for selling the young ones neared. Luckily, the market for goat meat never waned in Nazareth.
With a critical gaze, I studied the three male kids. I would need to choose the most perfect one and keep it for Pesach, still four months away. Since I had begun caring for the goats, Father always let me decide which one was unblemished and fit for sacrifice.
Gamboling, frolicking, nipping at each other, the kids led the way to the watering hole. Adults pulled chunks of grass, wayward leaves on the bushes, and even strips of bark along the way. All around me, the pasture looked forlorn. It was nearly time to stake my herd closer to the house, where they would clean up the remainder of Anna’s vegetable patch. Of course, I would need to be doubly certain she was finished with it. For such a small woman, her rants stung like a whip. At least she saved most of them for me or my sister, Mary (how confusing to have two Marys in the house), leaving my not-quite eight-year-old brother Jesse unscathed.
The sun rose, and my breath no longer misted in the cool air. I glanced at the sky, measuring the height of the sun. Still plenty of time to sweep the floors before Anna trekked to market, leaving me in charge of the young ones and preparing the midday meal for Father.
I herded the goats back into the cave, promising to give them another chance to graze before dinner. Maybe I was crazy for talking to them. They weren’t human after all. But life could be lonely on a farm.
I pulled the jar of fresh milk from the cool room. Amazing how a single hour in the dark space dropped the temperature. I carried it in the crook of my elbow.
When I left the cave, a draft pushed the scents of goat, manure, and moldering straw away from me. I didn’t mind the smell of the goats, but fresh morning air always relaxed me. My shoulders sagged, and I trudged away from the cliffs, never too anxious to return to Anna’s domain.
As I rounded the bend, I glanced up at the dusty track leading to the house. What I saw froze me in place.
A most unusual man blocked the path. His white flowing robe reflected the sunlight. Golden-white hair haloed his sharp, pale features, which sparkled with iridescence. Eyes the color of the sky, seeming illumined from within, pierced me as easily as a sharp knife.
“Hail, thou that art highly favored.”[Luke 1:28] His voice shook the ground. Or maybe that was just my legs trembling.
My heart thumped against my ribs, and my breath gurgled in my throat. I clenched the pot, unwilling to let my morning’s work fall prey to my terror.
“The Lord is with thee,” the man continued. “Blessed art thou among women.”[Luke 1:28]
My mind spun, waking, at the strange greeting, from the paralysis his musical voice caused. How was a farmer’s daughter highly favored? Certainly the dung caking the soles of my sandals sang a different tune. Who was this man to assure me of my relationship with Jehovah? Yes, I prayed each morning and night, as Father had taught us all, but how could this one know that?
Most disturbing was the final part of his greeting. Only one woman would be considered blessed among the daughters of Eve and Sarah. I was not that woman. I was just a girl.
“Fear not, Mary.” He extended a pale hand toward me. “For thou hast found favor with God.”[Luke 1:30]
Was this a heavenly messenger? I loved Jehovah as much as any of my friends, but why would the Almighty give honor to a girl like me? A haze of unreality veiled my mind.
“And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”[Luke 1:31]
Now I knew the messenger had the wrong house. I couldn’t have a baby, because I didn’t have a husband. Yet. Was he accusing me of being intimate with a man? My face flushed.
“He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.”[Luke 1:32] I admit I gasped at this. “And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”[Luke 1:33]
My stomach dropped to my feet, and my arm lost all strength, sending the clay pot plummeting to the earth. It splattered near my toes, sloshing goat’s milk onto the barren ground. The words proclaimed by this messenger echoed the prophecies of old and the promises made to my father’s great-grandfather. The phrasing matched words spoken by my father’s deep, warm voice during our evening devotions. A similar thrill evoked by those recitations tingled along my skin.
This messenger spoke of the Messiah, but what he said couldn’t be true. I could prove it to him.
“How shall this be?” When I asked about this delicate subject, heat flooded my face, and I couldn’t look directly at the man. “Seeing I know not a man?”[Luke 1:34]
I was betrothed, yes, but I remained innocent. I might be a simple farm girl, but I knew how children were planted in a woman by the man’s seed. And I had never been with any man in the intimate way reserved for married couples.
I pictured the kind face of my betrothed, and my heart skipped in my chest. He was godly, handsome even, but we had never even touched hands. To lie with him as a married woman? I couldn’t imagine it.
The Lord’s messenger didn’t seem surprised by my question. He continued without pause.
“The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.”[Luke 1:35]
A verse Father shared from the prophet Isaiah rang in my mind: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”[Isaiah 7:14]
My mouth dried like summer-parched ground. I forced saliva in, swallowing past the pomegranate in my throat.
“Immanuel?” It still came out as a whisper.
The angel-I can hardly believe Jehovah sent an angel to me-nodded and said, “That holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”[Luke 1:35]
My mind, whirling and bucking, refused to process the full meaning of these words. Even as I’m jotting the whole thing down now, it seems so unreal. A fantastic dream.
“Thy cousin, Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age,” the man in white said. “This is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.”[Luke 1:36]
Elisabeth? She had been an old woman when last I saw her. Older than Father. Women that old were beyond childbearing years.
The angel gave a slight nod of his head. He must have seen understanding glimmer in my eyes.
“With God nothing shall be impossible,”[Luke 1:37] he said.
Elisabeth had miraculously conceived. According to Jehovah’s messenger, I would experience a similar conception. Similar, but not the same. The Spirit of God would father my child. My hand flew to my flat stomach. With fingers buried between the folds of my gray robe, I wondered how it would be possible. Had it already happened?
The man in glistening white garments waited. Did he expect me to have a return message? My throat constricted again. What could a poor girl say to the King of Glory?
Finally, I found my voice. It sounded stronger than I felt.
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” I said, bowing my head toward the angel, “be it unto me according to thy word.”[Luke 1:38]
When I looked up, the path before me was empty. The house was only a few steps away. My foot throbbed, waking me from my stupor. My smallest three toes had blackened ends. A puddle of thick white liquid slowly soaked into the ground.
Who can I tell about this? I can’t tell Joseph. He would never believe such a tale. Who would?