Spring 2024


By Alana Puskarich

Big brothers are the worst people in the history of the world. They spit and pinch and laugh too loud. They sing dirty songs, pick bugs out of their chest hair, and even fart at the campfire. They are gone for weeks on end and come back smelling like the herd of sheep they sleep next to. And worst of all, they won’t let me come with them!

Whenever I beg to come, they laugh at me and say it’s because a puny girl can’t handle the wilderness. But I know that is just a bunch of sheep doo. Ma is a girl and years ago I saw her run and scare off a wolf! Okay fine, maybe it was a large dog, but it was a very, very, large one and angry. I’m sure it’s grandpa that was a wolf. I doubt my brothers ever scared off a wolf while holding a cook-pot and carrying a baby. To be fair the baby was still in her belly then, so I suppose that was in her favor.

Pa is no help in this. He says Ma needs me right now and that I’m too young to take care of sheep anyway. That is ridiculous because I’m nearly ten, or I will be in a few years. So instead of learning all things shepherding with my horrible brothers, I help at the main tent with drying skins, weaving, cooking stew and all sorts of boring stuff.

Ma is okay company. But she never spits, says cuss words or even scratches her bottom. She also never laughs. I’ve not seen one real smile since my baby sister –the one who helped scare the wolf away– was born two years ago.

I think often of how Ma looked when she held this tiniest of babies. Her big brown eyes went wide and soft and lights seemed to shine out from some magic place. Her lips formed the sweetest of smiles showing teeth white and shiny, like stars. She wore that face for a full hour and my heart grew so big just looking at my beautiful Ma.

The baby did not live the day out. And Ma’s joy seems to be buried with her. Now that I think about it, maybe big brothers aren’t the worst things after all.

Tonight my brothers are all home from the fields. It’s lambing season after all, so no roaming around chasing wild animals. However, even here they won’t let me help much except to carry water or wash out dirty rags. I will admit that it’s much better than just weaving or stirring pots of stew.

“It’s going to be quite the night.” Pa smiled at me as he took a bowl of stew. “There are six ewes beginning labor. Six!” He looked at Ma, “We could really use your help.”

Ma didn’t look up from her weaving. Her fingers moved across the loom in a fast and steady rhythm.

“The boys are moving the ewes to the birthing cave. It’s going to be a long and probably hard night. Will you come?”

I looked at Pa, silently begging him to ask me, but he only waited for Ma, who didn’t answer him. It would have been rude if I didn’t speak when spoken to, but when Ma didn’t speak he only sighed with a sad look on his face.

“It’s going to be a better year. You’ll see. The whole flock can’t carry the disease.”

He finished eating quickly and then walked toward the birthing cave. I gave the pot another stir and then started to wash Pa’s dirty bowl. But I found the fire more interesting. Ma would say the wood was wet, but I knew better. The sparkle bugs were back! I got close to watch them for a while. They were orange bits so bright that no dye I knew of could match them. Sometimes they sat still and changed to brown, then black. But other times they unexpectedly popped with a loud crack into the air, flying any way they wanted.

“Hey scruffs!” I could smell my oldest brother Matthew before I saw him. There was blood up to his elbows. His clothing was smeared with thick dark patches and even his face and hair had bits of straw and dirt stuck to it. At least I hope it was dirt.

“Calling me scruffs?!” I said, looking him up and down.

“Ha! One birth down! We barely got her to the cave in time. Twins!” Matthew said, but then added quietly, “though one was spotted.” His mouth was smiling but I could still see the worry in his eyes. I had heard them talk about money enough to know that the spotted lamb would not fetch as much, and diseased ones nothing at all. We didn’t talk about the baby lambs that die.

I grabbed a clean cloth from next to the water jar and handed it to him with a cake of lye. He began to scrub, wetting his hair, neck, face and working hard at the hands and fingers. When he was clean I gave him a bowl of stew, which he took with him back to the birthing cave.

Jacob and Phillip came next. They weren’t more than the usual filthy … yet. Phillip took a bowl without even looking at me. He was probably thinking about a pretty girl or dreaming up some lines of poetry. He was always thinking big like that. However Jacob mussed my hair like he was some grown-up and not just a boy who started working the flocks only a year ago.

While they ate I added another log to the fire. And wow did the sparkle bugs like that! I got on my knees and peered in to get a good look.

“She’s doing it again, Ma,” Jacob said. “She is going to fall into that fire.”

“Rebecca! Come sit down right now. Are you asking to be burned?”

I didn’t realize how close I was, but now I saw a few loose hairs smoking a bit. Whoops!

“I’m sorry Ma. I just wanted to see the bugs that live in the fire.”

Jacob laughed, “You crazy girl! There’s no bugs in the fire!”

“Are too! You can see them right there, if you look at ‘em right!” I insisted. “They are celebrating tonight. It’s that kind of a night. It really is!”

“I see them, Rebecca,” Phillip said with a wink. “I think they are dancing, but maybe we should watch them from over here.” Phillip doesn’t really get it, but at least he pretends to believe me.

Ma just stared at me with eyes round and mouth open. She does that sometimes, like she is surprised and also a little afraid. To tell the truth, sometimes I do strange things on purpose just to see that look, see if I can trick a smile. This is not her prettiest expression, but it is better than her tired and sad face. I see that one too much. I came and sat on the ground next to her and leaned against her warm body.

Suddenly Matthew came rushing in.

“Phillip, Jacob, come! We need you now! Two lambs are beginning to push, a third is nearly there, and a first timer seems to be having trouble.” He looked at Ma, pleading in his eyes. “Ma, please! Can you come? We can’t lose any lambs. You know we can’t.”

Ma looked at the ground. Her face pale in the growing dark.

“I, I, I don’t think,” she looked at me and suddenly said, “Take Rebecca.”

All three brothers looked at her in shock. “Rebecca?! But Pa said-“

“You need small hands. She can help.”

Oh boy! I jumped up. This was my big moment. I was going to show them that I could be the best shepherdess ever!

“Rebecca needs to stop with all her fantastical nonsense,” Ma explained. “It’s time she had something real to think about.”

“I don’t think Pa will like it,” Matthew said, but glancing at me he added, “Well, I suppose she can at least be nearby to carry water.

I proudly picked up a fresh water jar and hurried with my brothers to the cave.

The hours passed in the most interesting night of my life. Jacob slipped on something wet. Phillip caught another pair of twins, though they were both stillborn. Matthew got kicked and then said a very exciting word. Then Pa, in turn, gave Matthew a little kick. There were four live healthy lambs, though two of them were spotted.

There was one more ewe in labor, but it was not looking good. I don’t know much about birthing lambs, this being my first time and all, but from the worried looks on my brothers’ faces and the way Pa was bending over the ewe’s head like he was praying, I knew something was wrong. That and the fact that the ewe was bleating pathetically and her backside was huge and bulging red.

“The lamb is breech,” Matthew said. “But I can’t get my hand in to turn it. She’s too tight.”

“Ma could do it,” Jacob said.

Pa didn’t say anything, just kept bending over the ewe’s head. He was whispering.

I spoke in a tiny voice, “Can I try?” The sudden arguing that erupted made me jump.

“Absolutely not!”

“She would get stuck.”

“Her hand is quite small.”

“She’s smarter than she looks, let her try.”

“If she gets stuck, we’ll have to cut the ewe to free her. We can’t afford to lose this lamb, or its mother.”

“But if we can’t get it out, the ewe will die anyway.”

While they argued I walked over to the lamb and put my hand on her woolly back. I felt her breathing in and out, very fast, afraid I guess. I was afraid too. Boys could be so loud when they disagreed. Ma was never loud, not anymore. I wondered, though, if she was afraid when she had her babies, especially that last one. And suddenly I loved that ewe and her lamb. I was not going to let her suffer any more.

I walked over to Matthew and that strangely swollen end.

“I will do this, ” I said with as much fierceness as I could, as fierce as a Ma facing a wolf. “Show me what to do.”

He looked so surprised that he moved aside, then remembered himself, and glanced at Pa, who was looking at me with a strange expression on his face, like I reminded him of someone, someone he hadn’t seen in awhile. He nodded to Matthew and my first real lesson in lambing began.

What seemed like hours later, I held that slippery newborn lamb in my arms. The smell of blood and muck was all around me, in my nose, my face even. Straw stuck to my dress and hair. I had never been so grimy in my life. My brothers were laughing and clapping my back. Pa had his hands pressed together and then toward the heavens.

“Praise be to God. It’s a male, a firstborn no less, and he’s perfect. Perfect! Not a blemish on him!” I think Pa was even crying, no couldn’t be. Pa didn’t cry. It had to be sweat. I was certainly sweaty, though I didn’t have any coming from my eyes.

“Rebecca, you did good. So good.” He turned his sweat streaked face to me and picked up a cloth. “Would you like to wrap him?”

I must have looked confused, cause I was.

“It’s to keep him safe from accidental injury. This lamb is of great value and will go to the temple in Jerusalem.”

Ah the temple, the place where the important adults use big words like levitical, ceremonial cleansing and that heavy one, atonement. I think of it as the place that smells like roasted meat and incense. That’s where this lamb would go.

Pa showed me how to take the cloth and wrap it around him so his legs were snug to his body. Then he helped me place the newborn in the stone trough, where two other bound lambs lay bleating quietly. My brothers cleaned up the birthing cave by sweeping and changing out the straw. I gave the ewes fresh water and set food nearby. Then I watched Pa as he lifted each swaddled lamb, one by one, and held them to their mothers so they could get their first meal.

When we returned to our tents, red and raw from scrubbing up, Ma was still up sitting by the fire. She handed me a hot drink that tasted slightly spicy, but warmed me to my toes. I sipped it slowly while Pa shared the news about the births with Ma. I watched her face closely while he told about my part. Would she be proud of me? Would she smile? Besides a small raise of her eyebrows and the hint of a twitch around the lips, there was nothing of real joy in her face. Probably she was just tired.

I should have been tired, but I had never felt more awake in my life. True, I was happy to finally be a real shepherdess, but it was more than that. The night felt strange and also really good. If I would have said that there was something alive in the air smiling at us and keeping us up, my brothers would have laughed, and Jacob would have called me crazy. So I kept my thoughts to myself.

But, even so, no one moved to the sleeping tent that night and Ma kept burning wood like she hadn’t spent hours collecting it. And without really knowing why, all of us; Pa, Ma, me and my three older brothers, we waited, and we watched.

Later, Jacob said it felt like “the night before a big festival.”

Phillip said some fancy words like “the heavens were expectant.”

Matthew said it felt like “keeping watch for a dear friend who was returning.”

I felt like the stars wanted to jump out the sky and sing. None of us were close to what happened next.

Suddenly, in a flash of bright light, a man appeared! Well, he had the shape of a man. But I had never seen a person like that before. He stood huge, bigger than a house. His face lit up the night, brighter than a full moon! Was he one of the gods? He seemed to fill the night with a gladness so heavy and strong that I could not breathe. I couldn’t have made him up, even if I tried. But, I know he was real because I heard Ma gasp and felt her fingers digging into my arm.

Then the god-man spoke to us. His voice was at the same time a whisper, a song, a triumphant shout. I felt the words as much as I heard them.

“Do not be afraid.
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
This will be a sign to you;
You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

I understood none of it, but I was no longer afraid. I stood and jumped and stretched my heart within me. Then all around us a whole army of god-men appeared with him and burst into song. Their voices blended in a way I had never heard. It was so perfect. It was so beautiful. Over and over they sang.

“Glory to God in the highest
and on Earth peace to men
on whom his favor rests.”

And this host of heaven weren’t just singing to the sky, they were singing to us, a poor family sitting in the dark. They sang to me, a nobody wannabe shepherdess. I could not bear the intensity of their gazes any more. I lay face down on the ground and listened in wonder as the song rolled over me, and through me, and to me. I clutched the ground in my hands. I needed to feel something solid while laughter poured out of my mouth.

Then it was dark again. The angels vanished, though their song somehow lingered with whispers of ‘Glory to God,’ ‘on Earth peace,’ ‘his favor rests.’ After a time the night chill crept into my skin. Had I been warm? I felt Ma touch my back and I turned to look at her face. She looked confused, but also sort of excited. This was a new expression, and I think I liked it. Pa was helping the brothers stand and he said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”

We left the sheep right there on the hillside, all alone with only the stars and the memory of a host of angels to guard them. Watching the sheep didn’t seem so important anymore. Somehow, we knew they would be okay.

For the next hour we walked toward Bethlehem. Pa and my brothers talked the whole way about what we had seen and heard. I walked behind them holding Ma’s hand, but I could hear snatches of –

“I thought I was going to die.”

“What does good news have to do with a baby?”

“Maybe this is the Messiah!”

“Why would he be in a manger?”

“Do you think anyone else saw this?”

“How could they not?”

I squeezed Ma’s hand and asked her, “What do you think it means?”

She looked down at me, full in my face. “I’m not even sure what we saw was even real.”

“It was real,” I said.

“I hope so.”

I had only been to Bethlehem during the day when the streets were full of activity: people selling interesting things to eat from carts, boys chasing mangy dogs with sticks, mothers yelling at the boys. But now the main road looked strange and still in this gray blue hour before dawn, the crunch of our sandals sounding loud as we walked up and down narrow streets, searching.

After some time, Jacob whispered, “Are we foolish? Maybe it didn’t even happen.”

“But, we all saw him, saw them!”

“How do we explain this to the townspeople if they see us peering in their windows?”

“We just tell them some angels told us to find a baby. Right?”

I could feel their steps slow down. Were they stopping?

Ma spoke. Her voice was clear in the night. “Hush. We keep searching.”

Pa gave the brothers a stern look and we continued on and turned another corner, another alley. That’s when we saw it, a lamp burning from inside a stable. Pa and the boys rushed ahead. They crowded in the open doorway and peered in. The boys together gasped, “oh!” And without asking they went inside. Pa slowly walked back to Ma, who was holding back. His eyes were bright with tears. He gently took Ma’s hand. When did he last do this? His voice shook as he whispered to her, “It’s just like the angels said.” He led her through the doorway.

At the entrance to the stable I stopped. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. At first I saw nothing, though the smell of straw and animal and blood was as real and familiar as my own home, my own brothers. Matthew touched my left shoulder and Phillip took my right hand and brought me inside, with them. Jacob whispered from behind me. “Look and see.”

In the dim lamp light I saw two people sitting on the dirt floor looking at us. The man had his arms around a young woman’s tiny frame. Their faces spoke a mix of relief, joy and wonder all woven together. Then they both looked down into a stone feeding trough, the same kind we used for our new-born lambs. There he lay, a tiny baby, wrapped snug in cloths.

It was better than fighting a wolf, or sparkle bugs, or stars jumping in the sky. The angels sang about a baby so poor he was born among the animals. This baby would somehow be our savior. I could not understand this, but I think Ma might have, for in that moment I saw her face.

Her lips turned upward into a huge smile framing her pretty white teeth. Her big brown eyes went wide and soft. Lights seemed to turn on inside her from a magic place. Ma blinked. A tear, now two, rolled down her cheeks. Her eyes met mine and she giggled through her tears. She reached for me and I went to her as fast as I could, feeling her arms wrap tight around my body. She shook with quiet laughter. Amazed and filled with ‘great joy’, I laughed with her.

About the Author

Alana (Berry) Puskarich worked for a decade producing and writing for National Geographic and Discovery Channel. She was also a co-founder of two tech companies: CloudFactory and Digitap Services, both in Kathmandu, Nepal. Currently, she is living in central Virginia, and alongside her husband Tom is raising a houseful of energetic children, one crazy poodle, a growing number of hamsters and a very patient fish named Sonic. She also writes fiction