Joseph led the ass who carried Our Lady up the road to Bethlehem: she was a light burden, all her thoughts were with the future within her.
The ox followed by himself.
When they reached the town the travelers took shelter in an unoccupied stable and Joseph lost no time in busying himself for their comfort.
“Men,” the ox reflected, “are, after all, wonderful. Look what they can do with their hands and arms! Much more than we can with our hoofs and pasterns. The master has no equal as a Jack of all trades. He can manage to straighten out bent things and twist straight ones and he does it without getting annoyed or depressed.”
Joseph left the stable and came back quite soon carrying on his back a load of straw: but such straw! So gleaming and fresh, a miracle in itself.
“What are they up to?” said the ass. “It looks as if they were getting a cradle ready for a child.”
“You may be needed tonight,” said the Virgin to the ox and the ass.
The creatures looked long at one another, trying to understand her meaning. Then they lay down to sleep.
A faint voice, which seemed nevertheless to come across the firmament, woke them.
The ox rose from the ground and saw a naked child asleep in the manger. Slowly and carefully he breathed over every part of the little body to warm it. The Virgin thanked him with a smiling glance.
Winged beings were flying in and out of the stable. They appeared to be unaware of the walls, for they passed through them.
Joseph came in with swaddling clothes borrowed from a neighbor.
“It’s queer,” he said in his carpenter’s voice, speaking rather loudly considering the circumstances. “It’s all of midnight and as clear as day. And up there I’ve seen three suns instead of one. I grant you they seem to be trying to join together.”
At dawn the ox got up again and stepped carefully on his hoofs. He did not want to wake the child; or to crush a Heavenly flower; or to hurt an angel. Everything had become wonderfully difficult.
Neighbors began to arrive to look at Jesus and the Virgin: poor people who had little to offer but their radiant faces. One came bringing nuts; another left a flute behind him.
The ox and the ass made way for the visitors. They stood together in a corner and began to wonder what sort of impression they themselves would make on the child, now that he was awake and would see them for the first time.
“We aren’t monsters,” said the ass.
“Don’t you see,” said the ox, “our faces aren’t in the least like his, nor like his parents’ either. We might terrify him.”
“The manger and the stable and the beams overhead haven’t got faces like his,” said the ass, “and he’s not afraid of them.”
But the ox was not persuaded by this. He remembered his horns and, as he chewed his cud, he said to himself:
“It’s really very sad to be unable to go near those we love without seeming to threaten them. I’m always having to be careful not to hurt people: and it’s not really in my nature to dislike anyone or anything without provocation. I’m not mischievous or revengeful. But, wherever I go – there I am with my horns. I wake with them in the morning and, even when I am overcome with drowsiness and doze off, there they are – two of them – hard and pointed. They don’t ever leave me alone. I feel them in my dreams in the middle of the night.”
The ox grew terrified at the thought that he had gone so close to the newborn child when he warmed him with his breath. Suppose he had, accidentally, hurt him with one of his horns!
The ass guessed what was troubling his companion and said:
“You ought not even to think of going near the little one – you’d hurt him. And you might let some of the cud you are always chewing drop on him. That would be a nice thing! I’ve often meant to ask you why you water at the mouth so much when you are pleased. Control yourself. There’s no need to let everyone know your feelings.” The ox said nothing.
“I,” went on the ass, “I am going to show him my ears. Two of them. You know they move. They can point in any direction: They are not bony. They are soft to touch. They frighten and soothe at the same time. They are exactly the thing to amuse a baby – and they are instructive as well, at his age.”
“Yes, yes,” sighed the ox. “I understand, I’ve never said the contrary. I’m not stupid.”
Then, as the ass was really looking too much pleased with himself, the ox went on:
“But don’t you go braying in his face. You’d kill him.”
“Clodhopper!” said the ass.
The ass took his station at the left of the manger, the ox on the right. Thus it had been at the time of the Nativity and the ox, being particular in matters of procedure, felt they should keep these places. They stood there respectfully without moving for hours together as though they were posing for some invisible painter.
The child closed his eyelids. He wanted to sleep again. A shining angel waited, just beyond sleep, waited to teach him something – or, perhaps, to be taught by him.
The angel came out of the dream of Jesus and appeared in the stable. First he bowed to the newborn and then he painted a clear nimbus around the baby’s head. When he had finished that one he painted another for the Virgin and a third for Joseph. Then he vanished in a splendor of wings and feathers, so white and rustling as the foam of the tides.
“There was no nimbus for us,” remarked the ox. “The angel must have his reasons for this. We don’t amount to much, the ass and I. After all, what have we done to deserve aureoles?”
“You’ve done nothing, I grant you, but you forget me. I carried the Virgin.”
The ox asked himself how so lovely and slight a being as the Virgin could have hidden so fine a child within her body.
He may have thought aloud; in any case the ass said:
“There are things you are unable to comprehend.”
“Why will you keep on saying that I do not understand? I’ve lived longer than you have. I’ve worked on mountainsides and in the valleys and on the seashore.”
“That’s not the point,” said the ass and then added, “it’s not only the nimbus. I’m sure, Ox, that you’ve not so much as noticed that the child is bathed in a kind of wonderful dust, no: it’s something better than dust.”
“It’s much finer,” said the ox. “It’s like light or a golden mist rising from the baby itself.”
“You’re only saying that to make me think you’ve seen it.”
“Who says I’ve not seen it?”
The ox pushed the ass into a corner of the stable. There on the ground lay a twig, delicately surrounded by shining straws. It was a picture of the divine emanation. The ox had arranged this as an act of worship. It was the first shrine. The ox had brought the straws in from the yard. He had not dare to take a single straw from the manger: just because he could have eaten such straw he was afraid of it.
The ox and the ass went out to graze till nightfall. Although as a rule, stones take a long time to understand anything, a great many of the stones in the fields of Bethlehem knew already.
One pebble, even, by a sight change of form and color, let them know definitely that it had heard the news. Some of the wild flowers knew, and these could not be cropped. It was quite a business to graze on the common without committing sacrilege. The ox felt that eating was getting to be superfluous. Happiness was enough.
Before drinking, too, he asked himself:
“Does this water know?”
Being uncertain he preferred not to drink from the brook and went farther on toward a muddy pond which clearly knew nothing, so far. As he was in the act of swallowing the water there was a sweetness in his throat and he knew he should not have lapped even in that troubled pool; but it was too late. He hardly dared to breathe; the air seemed holy because it knew. He was afraid he might breathe in an angel.
The ox was ashamed because he felt he was not so clean as he could wish.
“Well! I must be as clean as I can be. Cleaner than I was. I must take care. I must watch my feet.”
The ass was not worried about anything.
The midday sun streamed into the stables, and the two creatures vied with one another for the honor of shielding the child from its glare.
The ox thought that a little sunshine might not do much harm, but he was afraid of saying so lest the ass should being once more saying he was stupid.
The child slept a great deal and, sometimes, in his sleep, he frowned as though he were thinking deeply.
One day the ass put down his muzzle and turned the child on its side. The Virgin on the threshold was occupied answering the thousand and one questions put to her by future Christians. Coming back to the crib Mary was alarmed. She could not see her child’s face on the pillow as she had left it. When she understood what had happened she explained to the ass that never, never, must the baby be touched or moved about. The ox agreed in a silence of exceptional quality. He knew how to be a mute rhythm, with delicate, almost punctuated shades of meaning. On cold days it was quite easy to follow the course of his reflections by the length of the stream of vapor from his nostrils. A good many things could be learned in this way.
The ox felt himself authorized to render none but indirect services to the child. He attracted all the flies in the stable to himself, going out every morning to rub his back in a comb of wild bees’ honey. He also squashed insects against the wall.
The ass kept his ears open for noises from outside, and when any sound seemed suspicious he stood across the doorway. Then the ox would place himself behind the ass to give bulk to the barrier. They made themselves as heavy as possible: they felt as though they had filled their skulls and their bodies with granite and lead. And their eyes flashed with the utmost vigilence.
The ox was astonished to see that the Virgin could make the baby smile, merely by going close to the manger. Joseph, in spite of his beard, could do it too without much trouble, either by his appearance, or when he played the flute. The ox would have liked to play on some instrument.
“Come to think of it,” he said, “you’ve only got to blow.”
He did not want to think badly of the master but it seemed unlikely that the good man could, merely by breathing, have warmed the newborn Jesus as he, the ox, had done.
“As for the flute,” he said, “let me get a chance to be alone with the child: when I’m alone with him I’m not nervous of him. He’s just a little creature who needs protection. And an ox, after all, does feel his own strength.”
When they went out to pasture in the fields, the ox would, as often as not, leave the ass.
“Where are you off to?” the ass would ask.
“I’ll be back in a second.”
“But where are you going?” the ass would insist.
“I’m going to see if he needs anything – one never knows.”
“Can’t you leave him be?”
But the ox couldn’t.
And he would go back to the stable. There was a small round window in its low roof; the kind of window which was, later, to be named oeil-de boeuf, just because the ox had looked through it. One day, when he put his eye to the window, he saw that Mary and Joseph had gone out and had left the flute on a bench within reach of his muzzle and not too far away from the crib.
“What am I going to play for him?” asked the ox of himself, feeling that he might, at last, dare to catch the child’s ear by means of this musical instrument. “Shall it be a song of the plough, or the war cry of a brave little bull; or the tune sung by the enchanted heifer?”
Often enough oxen are really singing to themselves when they seem to ruminate.
The ox breathed gently into the flute, and we cannot be sure that an angel did not help him to produce such clear notes.
The child raised its head from the straw and looked toward the place from which the music came. But the musician was not convinced by this sign. He thought that no one but himself had heard his playing. He was wrong. He went out quickly so that nobody, especially not the ass, should come in and catch him so near to the little flute.
One day the Virgin said to the ox:—
“Come and look at my child! Why do you always keep away form him now? It was you who breathed so warmly over him when he was a naked baby.”
Thus encouraged the ox knelt down close to Jesus who, to put him quite at ease, took the creature’s muzzle between his own hands. The ox held his breath: there was no longer any need for its warmth. Jesus smiled at him. The ox was mute with joy. His joy was the same shape as his body, it filled him to the very points of his horns.
The child looked at the ox and the ass, one after the other; the ass, a little too sure of himself, and the ox who felt terribly gross near this countenance lit from within. It was as if, through another in a very small and distant house.
The ox looked so solemn that the child began to laugh aloud. The poor beast did not quite know what this laughter meant. Perhaps the child was making fun of him. Must he try in future to be more self-contained? Ought he to go away at once?
But the baby smiled at him once more and it was such a luminous and brotherly smile that the ox understood it was right to stay by the manger.
The Virgin and her son often looked closely at one another as though they wondered which of them were more proud of the other.
“It seems to me,” thought the ox, “that they ought to be as happy as happy. No one has ever seen so lovely a mother, so beautiful a child. But there are times when they both seem very serious.”
One evening the ox and the ass were about to turn homeward toward the stable. After they had looked carefully in case they could be mistaken the ox said:
“Just look at that star moving across the sky! It seems a particularly fine one. It cheers my heart.”
“Don’t fuss over your heart,” said the ass, “it has nothing to do with the great events we have witnessed these last days.”
“You can say what you like, Ass. I believe that star is coming our way. Look how low it is in the sky! It looks as if it were making for our stable. It is shing down on three noblemen wearing precious stones.”
When they had reached the threshold of the stable the ass asked the ox if he thought something afoot.
“Ass,” said the ox, “who can tell? I am content to watch and wait. It’s as much as I can do.”
“Hurry up!” said Joseph as he opened the stable door. “Can’t you see you are getting in the way of these gentlemen?”
The ox and the ass stood aside to let the Magi enter. There were three of them: one was quite black: he represented Africa. AT first the ox kept a careful watch on the black one. He wanted to be sure that his Negro had no evil designs on the newborn child.
However, when the black king, who seemed to be a little short-sighted, bent over Jesus in order to see him clearly, his face, shining like a polished mirror, reflected the child’s image, and the king knelt there with so much reverence and so great a self-forgetfulness that the ox was filled with delight.
“This must be a very great man,” he thought. “Neither of the other two could do that.”
A moment later he added:
“He’s quite the best of the three.”
That was because he had just caught the two white kings hiding in their baggage bits of straw they had filched form the crib. The black king hadn’t tried to take anything.
Side by side, on a mattress lent by the neighbors, the three kings lay and fell asleep.
“How odd,” thought the ox, “to wear a crown in bed. So hard an object must be far more uncomfortable than my horns. They can’t sleep easily with all those flashing gems round their heads.”
But the kinds slept on, like three statues lying side by side in a chantry, and their star sparkled over the roof of the stable just above the place where the manger stood.
A little before dawn the three kinds go up simultaneously, making identical movements. All three had seen, in their sleep, an angel who warned them to go home at once without letting the jealous Herod know that they had seen the child.
They set out, but the star did not follow them: it remained shining over the stable so that each one of them could be sure that they had been guided to the very place.
The ox was praying:
“Heavenly child, do not judge me by my astonished and uncomprehending mien. One day I may not look so much like a small rock walking.
“As for my horns, please remember that they are more or less ornamental. I will go so far as to assure thee that I have never used them. Wilt though, Jesus, shed a little of thy light on the weakness and confusion that is in me? Teach me a little of they perfection, O, thou whose little hands and feet are so delicately joined to thy body. Wilt thou tell me, my little lord, why, one day, I had only to turn my head to see thee whole? How I thank thee that I am able to kneel before thee, thou marvelous child! And to live thus in company with angels and with stars.
“Sometimes I ask myself if there has not been a mistake and if I ought not really to be here at all. Thou mayst not have noticed that I have quite a long scar on my back and that my coat is no longer very good on one side – which is ugly. Even in my own family, far handsomer oxen might have been chosen to be here – my brother and my cousins are much better looking than I am. Or might not the lion or the eagle have been judged more worthy?”
“Shut up,” said the ass. “What are you sighing about? Can’t you see that you are keeping the child awake? You and your ruminations?”
“The ass is right,” thought the ox. “There is a time to be silent even when a creature is so happy he does not know what to do with himself.”