The Cherry Tree Carol
By Barbara West
This is an old American carol, the pitches are within the pentatonic scale.
I think it may be from Appalachia, I know it from Joan Baez.
When Joseph was an old man
An old man was he
He married Virgin Mary
The Queen of Galilee (repeat all last couplets)
Then Mary said to Joseph
So meek and so mild
Joseph gather me some cherries
For I am with child
Then Joseph grew in anger
In anger grew he
Let the father of thy baby
Gather cherries for thee
Then Jesus spoke a few words
A few words spoke he
My mother wants some cherries
Bow low down, cherry tree
The cherry tree bowed down
Bowed down to the ground
And Mary gathered cherries
While Joseph stood around
We all know about Gabriel flying in through the window to tell Mary the news. I think she passed out. But he stayed with her, laid his hands on, and talked her through it. Convinced her she could do it maybe or simply that there was no choice.
But no one talks about an angel coming to Joseph. That’s cause there was no angel. It was just Mary that told him and she was no angel. In fact, Joseph’s mother, and others, had raised some questions about her parentage, not the kind of family…
No, Joseph didn’t go for those angelic types, not the good girl Mary’s who are quiet and wait on you hand and foot, it was more the Martha-type of Mary’s that got his attention. And this particular Mary who rarely missed those late-night strategy sessions around Sam’s kitchen table.
Yes, as he neared his fifth decade, Joseph had accepted that he’d never marry, never have a child. It was actually a relief. Even his mother had finally stopped it with the hints, the “surprise” meetings with her friend’s spinster niece at the market. He didn’t really need to leave his mark on this world in that way. Not when you have the satisfaction of the smooth wood under your fingertips, the precision of the joinery, the systematic progress from foundation to rooftop. And the late nights at Sam’s gave him a sense of something larger. Even though Sam was always harping on about his messianic visions, Joseph knew that strengthening the guild, those incremental increases in a day’s wages, insisting that a man could choose freely which work to engage, stopping to observe the Sabbath, no matter how the goyim carried on about their deadlines. Sam wouldn’t let up about some Messiah being on the way, but how could a Jewish visionary even live long enough to get anything done? Surely he would be crucified like so many already. But the Messianic hoopla mixed freely in these late night conversations. And it was part of the coming together, the solidarity, even across the trades as they realized their brotherhood surpassed all illusion of competition. Not just a more united front against the Roman dogs, but something different than what those fancy Talmudic scholars expounded. The 99 percent, they knew something. Hard to put a finger on what it was, but it came from listening to the wood, the well, the donkey and the cobbles under hoof.
So when he realized how disappointed he would be the nights Mary failed to show, or he wondered all day what she might think of his latest attempt to engage the stone-masons, he realized something was different. And even more surprising how this smooth-skinned woman, so full of flesh, her eyes would seek him out in the corner, how she’d twinkle her remarks in his direction. My God, is this what you intend for me?
The engagement was marked by no ring, no party, just him asking so humbly and her saying yes. In terms of a wedding date, they deferred to his mother’s request for springtime. Mary was certainly not the one she had had in mind, even before she had given up. And her son’s foolishness might not last so many months. Or Mary’s pretense of loyalty. No proper woman stayed up late in a room full of men, or meddled in affairs beyond her realm. By springtime, her true colors would show, there would be a chance for saving face.
So it was no angel who broke the news to Joseph. Mary’s body spoke, as it would so often do, but this time in a new language. They had all been a little queasy that month. It seemed the lamb stew at Sam’s had been too long in the pot. But as the days passed, Mary still could barely keep anything down. Joseph brought her broth from his mother’s, and she sipped at it as best she could. As her strength returned, the cravings began. First pomegranate, and then, that day on the road, a cherry tree of all things, she had to have some. Awkward, since they were already late for the gathering, the one where a few masons had promised to show. Really, Mary, the branches are so high, I don’t have my ladder here on this road, can we please just keep going.
And then she burst into tears, he had never seen her cry, hadn’t thought of her like that.
And she told him.
Well what do you expect? No man is going to take that news gracefully. How could he. After so many years of letting it go, seeing other men fall, and descend into the drama, the fighting, the hot-blooded mess. Then the children and more children. Yes, he had seen the joy in that, but also the hunger, the traveling wider for more work to feed more mouths, his friends growing older before his eyes as their lives narrowed down, stooping to shoulder it all. It was why so many had lost sight of the cause, giving in day-to-day.
And then, after all this, him too, finally giving in to what God had in mind, the particulars of the way his body and hers were made, to make more bodies, the endless chain of flesh, him not exempt after all. Lineage in the basest sense, with all its pains and joys. He had submitted to this, the power of her presence irradiating his plans. And now, just as his mother had predicted, she throws it all back in his face. That thing he had never really wanted anyway, she had dangled it there, until he bit, hooked. Now he sees it only was bait.
But she is there in front of him, crying, by the side of the road. The cherries high overhead. Telling him about the angel at the window. Clouds moving quickly. Suddenly he knows that plans are what you make so God can laugh. Suddenly he doesn’t care who it was that might have taken her home or slipped something in her wine. This damn angel at the window. Suddenly he still loves her no matter what. And this child, this puffiness under her dress, this fullness of her breasts, this glow in her face, it is a miracle. And already he is acquiescing to the crazy name she will be choosing – she’s sure it’s a boy. Not something from scripture, no “Samuel” or “Isaac.” Some crazy name like “Jesus,” probably she heard it from those guitar-playing Spaniards.
Suddenly he becomes the man who can accept everything. God knows his family genes aren’t the be-all-and-end-all. Maybe the child could escape the forward-thrusting neck of his father, the nervous rolling of thumbs against fore-fingers, or chewing on the tongue. Maybe this child would be exempt from the family chain of worry, or tall enough to really play basketball?
He is suddenly there at the doorway alongside every anxious blue-eyed father who wonders about his brown-eyed son. The dark-haired man whose bald baby girl’s hair comes in blond, looking so much like his brother. Or the baby born a few weeks too early, when you count the months he had been afield with the sheep last spring. How often they do love anyway.
So Joseph stood around there, with Mary, the side of the road. Some coins found their way out of his pocket, into the nimble hand of the climbing urchin who showered cherries down into her laughing cloak. And Mary’s lips and fingers were stained with the dark red juice. There would be no black-eye, no bruises on her belly. No red letter A. He stood, he stood around, where she was, until she had eaten her fill and they went on down the road, more late than ever, more in love. More tiny in the world whose growing wonder could open doors wider than he had ever imagined. Rolling back the stone at the tomb of hope.