Good morning everyone, and welcome to Sunday Griot! Thanks for taking a bit of time on Christmas to stop by for a story.
Today’s story is an original; I’ll tell the circumstances of how it came to be written in the tip jar. But now, without further ado . . . The Innkeeper’s Bodyguard.
When my father wasn’t fighting with my mother, he fought with me.
The kids in our neighborhood sharpened their claws on each other, the better to defend ourselves from outsiders.
When I was old enough I joined the Army of Rome. I fought hard, and I fought well, but in the end I was brought down by the one enemy I couldn’t see or swing a sword at. The arthritic knees that crippled my mother and grandmother eventually caught up with me and made it impossible for me to run and march with my cohort.
Just before he cut me loose, my centurion gave me a tip. He gave me the name of a man in the town near where we were camped who was looking for a bodyguard. He said that even if I couldn’t march, he figured I could still swing a sword.
I imagined myself in the retinue of a nobleman, or a rich merchant. So imagine my surprise when I found myself face to face with an innkeeper. I laughed out loud until he told me that the last three owners of the inn had been murdered in their sleep by the terrorists the locals called “zealots” who aimed to drive the Romans and their sympathizers out of Judaea.
I demanded triple what he was offering for my services. He accepted! And so I became an innkeeper’s bodyguard.
I soon found myself earning my extravagant pay. Three times I thwarted attempts on my employer’s life. I was told I had a price on my head, although I never asked what it was, just in case I was being valued too cheaply.
Then came the Census. Caesar Augustus decreed that everyone was to return to their ancestral home to be counted and taxed. It seemed that every single peasant in the land that Jupiter forgot claimed descent from the royalty that once claimed my adopted town of Bethlehem as its home. The inn was full, the streets were full — I couldn’t turn around without stepping on a couple of natives. Being the innkeeper’s bodyguard was difficult enough, and this made it even more so.
Then one night, I heard a commotion in the street outside the inn. The innkeeper and I went out to find a man, leading a donkey, and on the donkey was a very pregnant woman who was obviously ready to deliver. I knew only a little of the local language, but from the man’s gestures and the woman’s cries I could tell that he was saying that if they didn’t get the woman into the inn right then she was going to deliver her baby on top of that donkey.
This should be interesting, I thought. I’ve never seen a woman give birth on donkey-back before.
My employer told the man to follow him. He took the donkey’s reins and led the couple around to the stable at the back of the inn. I thought he was just going to stable the donkey, but instead he had me help him shoo the cows to the back of the stable and clean the hay out of the manger. We then brought in fresh hay and he placed a clean cloth over the hay.
Two women came along and shooed me out. I wasn’t happy about that, but I stayed close to the door and kept my ears open in case of trouble. Soon enough, I heard the cry of a newborn baby, and then all was quiet again.
A few minutes later the innkeeper appeared at the door of the stable. “Come and see,” he said, so I went in. The midwives had cleaned up after the birth, and the woman was laying asleep on the improvised bed with her child next to her.
I told you early on that my life had been a life of violence, but when I looked down into the face of that sleeping child, a peace came over me. Not like the peace of the battlefield when the enemy is finally defeated, but a peace from deep down within my soul. I don’t know how long I stood there, at peace for the first time in my life.
I remember hearing voices behind me. “There he is!” they said. And in that instant the soldier in me realized: I wasn’t carrying my sword. I must have laid it down when I felt the peace come over me. An hour ago I would have cursed and wondered how many of them I could take barehanded, but now another part of me was saying: Even dying will not be so bad if it is accompanied by this feeling of peace.
Luck was with me that night, though. The men weren’t zealots. They were shepherds, by the look and smell of them, and they were pointing to the child in the manger. They joined me, and got down on their knees and began to pray to the child. I couldn’t understand all of their prayer, but I did hear one word over and over.
When the woman was well enough to travel again they moved on and I never saw them again. My employer died soon after — of old age, I’ll have you know — and he had no one to leave the inn to, so I went from being an innkeeper’s bodyguard to being an innkeeper. I even hired a bodyguard of my own. Over thirty years have passed since that night in the stable, since I had that feeling of peace, and whenever someone who looks like they might know passes through my inn, I always ask them the same question: What do you know of a king who can bring a peace that surpasses understanding?
I’m an old man now, and before I die I hope to find someone who knows the answer to my question.