The heavens fold shut again, suddenly full of the absence of light and angels and soul-seizing music. The shepherds gasp into the silence, each breath a wordless plea for mercy already given, until the echoes still shuddering in their bones force them up and away. For this one night, the sheep will guard themselves; their keepers have other business until morning.
The night seems both darker and brighter than before, each pin-prick star a new and terrifying possibility; it is easy to talk of God’s messengers and hard to actually face them. The night seems darker, but their dazzled eyes see the road more clearly than in highest noon. They run to Bethlehem as if driven, though no onlooker could say if by fear or great joy. (One or two laugh as they go, shock having settled into euphoria; these know their prophecies better than the others. One weeps, and he knows them best of all and wishes he didn’t.)
In town the shepherds knock on the door of every home large enough to have a place for the animals to winter, earning them more than a few curses and threats and accusations of drunkenness. But the angels’ song still carries them, washes all that away, propels them finally to the town’s inn, where they crowd the courtyard, peer into the stable.
There’s a cow or two, and a small pack of donkeys, and a young man and woman bent over the manger. Despite the deep shadows cast by the torches in the yard, the two are visibly travel-worn and exhausted, the woman on her feet only because she’s being held up.
But when they turn at the shepherds’ entrance, their faces are radiant, and when the shepherds crowd around, drawn close by the music of eternity, the infant looks up at them with eyes both young and old and deep as infinity.