Children’s author, or just author in general, Lesley Barklay provided me with a chapter of her book, Road to Bethlehem for today’s Fiction Friday.
Road to Bethlehem is part of the Bible Adventurers series for children.
‘Dear God’, Hannah prayed. ‘I wish I knew what it was like on that first Christmas morning . . .’
When Hannah goes to bed on Christmas Eve, the last thing she expects is to wake up in a dusty shed with her brother and a chicken. With no time to search for their parents, Joseph and Mary take the children with them on the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Will they reach the town in time? And how will Hannah and Joshua ever get home?
A delightful story about the first Christmas.
You can find more info about Lesley and her work on her social media sites: Instagram @authorlesleybarklay and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authorlesleybarklay
Road to Bethlehem – Chapter 1
The first thing Hannah noticed was the strange smell. Had Mummy left the window open? Was there a sheep in the front yard? Then, she heard the noises.
A rooster? She stirred sleepily. We don’t have a rooster any more. When she rolled over, her hand touched something strange. Something scratchy. What? Her eyes opened. She froze as she took in the small, dark room. Where am I?
“Mummy?” she called. “Mummy?”
Hannah sat up and looked around to find Joshua sitting on the far side of the room, panic in his eyes. She ran to her brother, flinging her arms around his neck.
“Where are we?” she whimpered. “Where’s Mummy?”
“I don’t know.” Joshua sounded scared too.
A shuffling noise made them cling to each other more tightly. Then a brown chicken jumped out of the shadows.
“Argh!” Hannah shrieked. She clutched Joshua tightly.
Everything was silent for a moment as the chicken regarded the intruders and then gave—almost—a little shrug and started pecking at the straw. Josh laughed. After a second, Hannah joined in. It was a little funny, being scared by a chicken.
A low voice singing made them both jump to their feet. “Mummy!” they called as they ran out of the small door and straight into a young woman. They flung their arms around her, clinging frantically.
“Mummy, we didn’t know where you were,” Hannah said.
“We thought we were lost,” Josh said.
It took a moment to notice the woman was not hugging them back. Another second, and they realised that this woman had a baby in her tummy. Hannah and Josh looked up, and suddenly saw that she was not their mother at all! She was short, like Mummy, and she had brown hair, but the similarities ended there. This young woman had dark skin, dark eyes, and dark hair covered by a brown veil. And she looked young, like a high school student.
“Children?” she said with a strange accent. “I am sorry, but I am not your mother.”
Hannah and Josh let go of the woman. Hannah’s eyes blurred as tears started to fall.
Josh squeezed her hand so tightly it hurt, and made the face he always made when he was trying not to cry. He opened his eyes really wide, and pinched his lips together.
“Oh children, do not cry. It will be all right. We will find your mother. Are you hungry? Have you eaten? Why don’t you come with me and I will get you some food?”
Hannah looked at Josh, and he looked at her. Mummy and Daddy always said that they should never go with strangers, but they were lost and scared, and this woman seemed kind. Mummy did say that if they were ever lost, they should find a policeman, or a shopkeeper, or another mummy to help. Surely having a baby in your tummy counted?
“I’m hungry,” Josh said slowly.
“Me too,” Hannah said.
The woman seemed to take this as consent, because she put down the bucket of grain for the chickens and waved for the children to follow her. Arriving at her house, they found it was like nothing they had ever seen before. It was small, and dark. The roof was very low. The floor was made out of dirt.
“Come, children, sit,” the woman said, pointing to a low wooden table, with cushions on the ground around it. Still holding hands, Hannah and Joshua sat obediently.
The girl put a strange-looking bread roll in front of them, and broke it in two with her hands. “I have a little olive oil, if you would like.”
Hannah bit her lip, trying not to cry. This bread didn’t look like the bread that Mummy bought, and Mummy used olive oil in cooking, not for eating.
“No thank you,” Joshua said.
Hannah shook her head.
Joshua looked at the bread for a moment. “Do you have any peanut butter?”
“Or white bread?” Hannah added.
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know what peanut butter is, and I have never seen white bread.”
“That’s okay,” Hannah said, and bravely took a bite of the grainy bread. The texture scratched her throat. She coughed when she swallowed.
“Here, let me get you some water.” The girl went to a clay jug and poured water into two brown mugs. Hannah’s finger caught on the rough edges as she traced the edge of the mug. It looked homemade.
The girl sat down across from them. “Now, tell me why you were in my shed. Are you here for the census? Where are your parents? Where are you from? Your clothing is so strange.”
Hannah blinked at all the questions. Her mind fixed on the one word she didn’t understand. “Census? What’s a census?”
A shadow crossed the woman’s face. “The Emperor, Caesar Augustus, has called a census. Everyone must travel to their family’s birthplace to register and pay the tax. I imagine that is why your parents brought you here. They didn’t talk to you about it?”
Joshua looked like he was thinking hard, so Hannah decided to ask the question that had been on her mind since they met the woman. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, how rude of me,” the woman said. “My name is Mary. What are your names?”
“I’m Hannah and this is Joshua.”
“What beautiful names. Like Hannah and Joshua in the scriptures.”
“Yes,” Hannah said excitedly. “Joshua is like Joshua who led Israel when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, and I’m Hannah like—” Here she stumbled. What was the story again? Mummy had told her, but it was so long ago that she didn’t remember.
“Like the Hannah who prayed for a child?” Mary asked.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And you’re like Mary, the mother of baby Jesus,” Joshua stared at Mary’s swollen stomach.
Mary’s hands dropped to cradle her bump. Her mouth fell open. “What—what did you say?”
In her excitement, Hannah didn’t notice her new friend’s dismay. “You know, in the Bible? The angel told Mary she was going to have a baby boy who would be the Son of God and save the world from their sins.”
Mary’s face paled as she stood. “How could you know that?”
Joshua looked curiously around the room, then back at Mary’s face, then around the room again.
“Hannah,” he said quietly.
“I think this might be the Mary,” Joshua said.
“What do you mean?”
“I think we’re in Nazareth. I think the baby in Mary’s tummy is Jesus,” Joshua said.
Hannah’s eyes went huge. “Seriously? Are you the Mary in the Bible? Did you see an angel?”
Mary hesitated, watching the children like they might be ghosts. “I don’t know this Bible you speak of,” she said finally. “But yes, I did see the angel Gabriel. He told me not to be frightened, that I had been chosen by God to bear his Son. When I told my family and my betrothed, no one believed me. Joseph nearly divorced me.”
“Until he had that dream from God,” Joshua interrupted.
“Yes,” Mary said. “Even though he married me to preserve my reputation, the other women still laugh at me when I go to the well. How is it possible that you know all this?” She stared at their clothing once again.
Hannah squirmed self-consciously in her pink princess nightie. At least Joshua’s shark pyjamas had long sleeves.
“Are you angels too?” Mary asked.
“No!” Joshua said.
Hannah stood up and did a little pirouette, almost falling over. “But I would make a good angel.”
Mary laughed. “I’m sure you would, little one.”
“Or a ballerina,” she added, but that made Mary look confused again so Hannah sat down, feeling the tears return. For a moment she had almost forgotten that she missed Mummy.
Mary sat beside Hannah and placed an arm around her shoulder. “If you are not angels, and you are not here for the census, then why are you here?”
“I don’t know,” said Josh. “But I think we have travelled here from the future.”
“I asked God what the first Christmas would be like, and then we woke up here. Maybe he answered my prayer.”
“Of course,” said Joshua. “Time machines aren’t real, so a miracle is the only explanation that makes sense.”
“But how will we get home to Mummy?” Hannah asked. “We can’t stay here, and she’ll be so worried about us!”
“I know,” Mary said. “I shall take you to the town gates to see the elders. They will know what to do.”
“Wait,” said Josh. “If God brought us here, then no one else can really help us except God. Maybe we should pray that he will send us home.”
“Good idea, Josh,” Hannah agreed.
Hannah reached out for Joshua’s hand then closed her eyes.
“Dear God,” Joshua said in a sweet, clear voice. “Please take us home to our Mummy and Daddy now. They will be worried about us, and we are a little bit scared. Amen.”
Hannah cracked her eyes open. Nothing had changed. She added her voice to her brother’s prayers.
“Dear God,” she said. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t really want to see the first Christmas anymore. I just want to go home. Can you please send us back? Amen.”
She waited a beat before opening her eyes. Her lower lip trembled when she saw they had not moved.
“It’s all right.” Mary patted Hannah’s arm. “If, as you say, God has brought you here, then He will send you home when He is ready, and not before. You can stay with Joseph and me. We will look after you for as long as God keeps you here.”
A sense of peace descended on Hannah’s heart. Mary was right. God must want them here for a reason. She still missed Mummy and Daddy, of course, but she was safe. Now that she thought about it, it was rather exciting. She might get to see the very first Christmas!
“Okay,” Hannah said.
“Thank you,” Josh added.
“I can only act as God leads me,” Mary said. “And for some reason I feel that he has led me to you. Now, who wants to help me feed the chickens?”
“Me!” they both said excitedly.
“We have three chickens at home,” Hannah added. “Brownie, Book-Book, and Cranky. Brownie’s the brown one.”
“You named your chickens?” Mary said.
“Yes, of course. Don’t your chicken have names?”
Mary gave them a confused look. “No, they don’t.”
The children helped Mary with chores all day long. They fed the chickens, cleaned, and watched Mary prepare the meal. The food looked strange, but they did not complain about what she put in front of them. Hannah wrinkled her nose. The food here was different, but she preferred to eat than go hungry.
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