Our January family book: “The donkey and the child” by Gunhild Sehlin

When I was a child, attending second grade, I was put through a traumatic experience. My family moved across the town in February. I moved from a wonderful school with a wonderful teacher and away from all friends I had grown up with. The school was very old-fashioned, both the building itself but also the way things were conducted. As far as I know, all pupils were happy. I don’t know that there was any bullying. And every morning we stood by our desks while our teacher played the organ. We sang a psalm and said morning prayer. The school I moved to was a modern Swedish school. None of that religious nonsense. I soon got bullied and I missed the morning psalms and prayers. The order, where the pupils had to raise their hands to speak, never existed there either. I became more shy than shy. But in third grade, there was a pleasant surprise in December.

Our teacher started to read a lovely book every morning. A book I fell in love with right away and I looked forward to every morning when she would read a new part from it. I doubt the others felt like I did. That book was called in English “Maria’s little donkey”. I never forgot it. As a married woman, when I came back to Sweden for a visit, I just had to buy the  book to take back to the US.  My reason being that I might never ever get to move back home, but my children were going to grow up with that book. And as soon as J. was old enough, I started to read it to him and T. Every december. I did move back home and every year since 1992, I have read the book to my children and husband. It is a great pity that it is no longer in print which I guess has to do with Sweden being a non-religious country and there not being any interest in such books. But it is a great pity all the same and even worse, the sequel can not even be found in second-hand book shops! These two books deserve better, they deserve to get translated in to English. When I desperately looked for “The donkey and the child”, I did discover that Germany has actually translated them in to German. Good for them! Because these are beautiful renditions of the greatest story ever told.

imageBefore I can tell about, the sequel, I need to talk about the first part. Our yearly December book. The unusual thing about this book, is that it is all about a little donkey, who gets to be part of the greatest event in history, that of the birth of our Saviour. She is a very special little donkey. A very proud one, who holds her head high and who walks in a very elegant manner. Which is not looked kindly on by the other donkeys, since she has some definite character flaws from the beginning. They all live in Nazareth and belong to the richest man there. But the main character has had the misfortune of being placed under the care of the rich man’s most lazy servant. Either he doesn’t groom her at all or just half her body. He is mean to her, so she is mean to him and lets him drag her while she sits on her behind. Everyone laughs at the lazy donkey and the other donkeys feel that she makes them look bad. But everything changes one morning when she gets to the well and meets the kind young woman Maria. Maria sees through the dirt and pets her, she shows the donkey so much love, that the donkey is smitten and will do anything to see Maria again. One day, she gets a stone in her hoof and walks with a limp. Simon the servant doesn’t even notice but Maria does and helps her.

Maria has a long way to carry the water and one day she is taking longer than usual. Her husband, the carpenter Josef, worries. He wishes that he could get Maria a donkey to help her, but a poor man can’t afford a donkey. He gets  an idea though, if he gets up earlier and works harder, perhaps he can buy her one? So he starts working harder than ever. When he finds Maria exhausted by the roadside, he decides that he must buy the donkey sooner than he had hoped. The rich man basically laughs at the sum Josef shows, but then he remembers the lazy donkey, which makes him a laughing-stock and he agrees to selling her to him, for the amount he has brought. Josef gets so disappointed when he sees the donkey and he gets more than upset when he basically has to drag her home, her sitting down on her behind. But Maria is overjoyed and she tells him that this is exactly the donkey she had wanted. Josef worries but Maria tells him that the donkey just has a bad habit of being lazy. She grooms her and tells him that she has wise eyes and she walks so proudly that she will be able to carry heavy loads, alright. Maria’s goats and sheep greets the donkey with happiness and she is confused. Where is she? What has happened? Why is she at Maria’s? But she decides that she will never ever leave.

The next morning Josef makes a harness for the donkey and she has never had such a smooth comfortable one, which has not hurt her. She behaves all the way to the well where all the other women admires the beautiful donkey that Josef has bought for his wife. One girl decorates the donkey’s mane with flowers. They are soon back home and Josef assumes that the donkey has misbehaved too much but Maria shows all the water they have brought home. That afternoon, the lambs and the baby goats, the sheep and the goats, the cicadas and the birds, even the snake, excitedly tell the donkey about the great secret. Maria is going to have a baby. The lambs and baby goats think about the games they will play with the little one. The cicadas want to teach him how to play music. The birds know it will be a baby so they think of lullabies, the goats think of what herbs to stay away from so the milk will taste good and the sheep think about how they must stay clean, so their wool can be used for his clothes. But the donkey thinks about how nice it would be if Josef made a little saddle for the boy and he could ride on her, like the rich man’s son had been allowed to do, on one of the other donkeys. She realizes that she must behave from now on, if Josef is going to trust her.

It’s harvesting time and first Maria has to pick figs every day, for the donkey to carry home. When it is time to rest, Maria decides that they must help their elderly neighbour Judit and pick for her and bring them home to her. So the donkey never gets any rest because then comes the wine harvest. Every day people pick grapes. When it is time to rest, Maria decides to pick grapes for Judit, so no rest this time either. When the olives are harvested, the men help. The little donkey now meets her former “mates” and they do not recognise her, but spitefully say that a poor man like Josef should not be allowed to own a donkey like that! A couple of loads are carried to Judit, every day. When all the olives are picked, then the donkey has to go with Josef to find branches and wood for the winter. Josef has to walk further and further to find wood and suddenly, in the rain, the donkey is tempted to go back to her old ways, till she remembers the saddle she wants him to make for the baby. In the bad rain, they get lost or Josef does. He tries to get the donkey to go in the wrong direction and when the donkey refuses, he thinks that she has gone back to being impossible. She has to tear away from him and run and when he catches up to her, he realizes that he had been wrong. She has taken them home.

The next day, there is a knock on the door. Bad news. Maria and Josef has to travel to Bethlehem to register. Maria pleads and asks Josef if it can not be done in Nazareth, since she is so close to giving birth now. But since he is of David’s line, they have to go to Bethlehem. Maria accepts it and decides to ask her sister to look after her animals since the brother-in-law is from a Nazareth family. The lambs and baby goats had only listened to one part, that the baby was coming soon, but their parents understood the gravity of it all. That the baby will not be born in Nazareth. But they feel good about the donkey going with Maria and she promises to bring them all home again soon. Josef finishes all his jobs and closes his carpentry shop. Maria packs food and mends their clothes. She also packs the baby’s clothes and Judit comes to offer her help, watching after the animals.

The couple leave for Bethlehem and it will take them an entire week. The first miracle which happens is when they arrive to a creek that have been flooded. They do not know how to get over it until the donkey suddenly starts to walk out in to the creek with Maria on her back. Josef panics till he sees them safely on the other side. The donkey saw an angel and walked over on the stones he pointed out. Neither of the humans saw the angel  but Maria is convinced that there is an angel guiding the donkey, since her faith, contrary to Josef’s, is very, very strong. They sit down to eat and the birds sing. Maria says that they are singing about her baby and Josef doesn’t believe her. The donkey has seen the birds all along and can’t believe that Maria has not noticed her birds. But then she is all amazement when she sees who they are. The first night they manage to get to a village and stay with a poor farmer family with lots of children. The children are smitten with kind, sweet Maria and her donkey, so the next morning they walk with them for a while and get to ride. The oldest asks if she can help Maria with the baby, on the return journey and one little boy promises to collect lots of hay for the donkey, till they return.

The next night the angel leads them to a cave. One evening, it looks like they are going to have to sleep outside but the angel leads the donkey behind a block of stone and they find an abode with three rough men. They are robbers. Josef realizes what they are but what can he do. One of them helps Maria down from the donkey and imagines that the fire changes somehow, that it burns brighter and he can smell spring. Maria sits down and blesses the food they are about to share with the robbers. The latter feel awkward since it has been a long time since someone has blessed their food. Maria cleans the donkey and tells the robbers all about their adventures and that the angel show the donkey where to go. They find her very infantile. But one robber starts thinking about how he felt when he helped her down from the donkey. There was something different about this woman. He understood that the brightness was an angel and he had had plans to rob a person guarded by angels. Suddenly the birds arrive and she tells the story of how the birds are traveling with them to greet her child. They find her stupid, but the second robber can not take his eyes off the birds and calls on them. He tells Maria how he has missed birds in the wilderness. He decides to leave the others and go to a place with birds. The first robber asks who she is. Birds follow her and an angel protects her. She tells him that it is not for her sake they do it, but for her baby’s. He suddenly feels happy and good. The youngest robber have not been with them for long. He was a proud man and one day, another man was praised in his case and he decided to become a fearsome robber, whom all would be scared of. He sees how soft his companions are getting over this silly woman Maria, but he decides to take the packing and the donkey when everyone has fallen asleep. They are probably not as poor as they look. Then Maria lifts down the packing and shows all the baby clothes inside, to the embarrassed robbers. He had planned on robbing baby clothes! He tells her that she must tell her son how this robber was planning on stealing his clothes and how evil people are. Maria answers “My son will help those who has got on to the wrong paths and help them get back to the right ones”. They all agree that none of them are going to continue as robbers after this evening. “Tell your son that thanks to him, three horrible robbers decided to become honest human beings.” “I will tell him about three kindhearted men who one stormy night decided to take in two poor wanderers and their little donkey.”

The next day, they get to the camp of shepherds. The sheep are all in a pen and one of the shepherds are laying across the opening to prevent thieves from coming in as well as wild animals. Josef is not greeted warmly but he explains that they can’t get to Bethlehem that night, so they are invited in. A 12-year-old old named Ruben runs up and offers to wipe down the sweaty donkey. This place is full of humble people. They make a little tent for Maria to sleep in, because it is a very cold night, the stars being particularly bright. She falls asleep but Josef sits and tells them about their amazing journey and when he tells them about the angel helping them, they solemnly nod. They ask him if he saw it and he says no, that he and Maria can not see it, but she can feel when it is present. The old one, who is Ruben’s grandfather, tells them that “good people can feel them”. They all agree that in the past, people spoke to angels and that it is sad that it is not so now. Josef tells them that he hopes that they can make it to Bethlehem before the baby is born. All the shepherds come from there and the grandfather proudly says “David was born in Bethlehem. When he was young, he was a shepherd just like Ruben, but when he grew up he became a King and a shepherd to the entire people”. All of them are of David’s family. Josef informs them that so is he and that is why they have come, to register. One shepherd adds “Yes, David was born there but now we are all waiting for the other king, the one who will be born there according to the promise God gave our ancestors.” The grandfather has Ruben quote the scripture and Josef adds that he will also become the Good Shepherd. “Who will lead all people on the paths of God.” says Ruben excitedly. They start complaining about how long it is taking for him to come and the grandfather sadly says that “I have always wished to see Bethlehem’s child,but I do understand that he will not come in my time.” All of them sigh. Except Ruben who says that he thinks he will come soon. That he knows so. The grandfather wonders why he says that. Ruben tells them all that when he put his mantle on the donkey, her eyes were shining in a remarkable way, in a way he had never seen before. “Then I noticed that it was the stars that were reflected in her eyes and the stars were so bright that they could be heard and they sang ‘Soon. Soon. Soon.’ And when I looked at the donkey she knew too.” The others scold Ruben but the grandfather does agree that there is something unusual with the stars that night.

The next morning, the shepherds send them off and hope that they will come and show their baby on the way home. It rains all day so they stay wet and cold. The donkey did not sleep well the night before, worrying about not getting Maria to safety before the baby is to arrive, so she trips and really hurts her hoof. But they do arrive to Bethlehem and the birds call out to the donkey that she has done very well. But in Bethlehem they get to walk around all over, trying to find somewhere to stay. All houses are full, private houses as well as inns. Too many people have arrived at the same time and large families. They just arrived one day too late, according to everyone. The donkey is limping bad but Maria tells Josef that she is sure the angel will guide the donkey. The donkey doesn’t see it waving though, since she is so tired and in so much pain. She is walking with her head to the ground. The angel motions to the birds then instead and they start singing loudly in the dark, so that the donkey finally lifts its head. Maria tells Josef “Listen, my birds are singing”. He finds it strange since it is so cold and dark, but she now knows that the donkey knows where to go.

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Dark clouds have been hanging over Bethlehem that day but suddenly the sky is clear and a bright star is shining. It shines on what looks like a palace, the angel stands in the doorway and the birds sit in the trees by it. First Maria and Josef feel that they can’t go there but when they get closer they see it is not a palace but a humble old stable. It was the star that had made it look so beautiful. In the door stands a man. He heard the birds, so he walked out and he saw a Royal couple move towards him. He had dreamt that he would be visited by a King and had cleaned out his stable and made it look nice. When they got closer, he was very excited and then he saw that they were simple poor people, that the star had made them and the donkey look regal. All of them agree that it is a strange night with the star and the birds singing in the dark.

That night the donkey dreams a wonderful dream, that she is in the paddock in Nazareth and she can smell spring and hear the birds sing and finally she hears a baby coo. Then the sun joins in the dream and she wakes from the light. She wakes and realizes she is still in Bethlehem and in a stable, but she can smell spring flowers, she hears singing and the light is strong. The light and singing are coming from a group of angels standing in a circle around Maria, who is laying on the hay. One angel moves and the little donkey sees Maria caring for her baby. The angels are giving Maria the little clothes Josef has unpacked, and when the baby is dressed she holds him up for all to see and then Josef puts him in the manger. The angels crowd around the manger and sing quietly while Josef and the owner of the stable stand all quiet watching. Maria catches the eyes of the donkey and she begs Josef to lead the donkey up so she can see the baby. The angels leave but the star shines through the roof and lights up just the manger. The old man says that it makes the baby look like he is wearing a crown. “Now I understand why I dreamt that a king was going to come here.” The donkey looks at the beautiful soft baby and she nozzles it, then she sees that he has the same eyes as the angels! The old man sees it too and wonders who this child is, since one can see the beauty of Heaven in his eyes.

Then they hear a loud knock on the door and it is the shepherds. They ask if there is a newborn baby. “Laying in a manger?” asks Ruben. The shepherds kneel at the manger and the grandfather wipes tears. Outside the donkey hears the angels singing. The shepherds ask where the parents are and when they see them, they are indeed surprised since they thought it was going to be wealthy people. They tell Maria and Josef how they had been with their sheep and seen a bright star and then they saw an angel who told them that the World’s Saviour had just been born in the town of David and that they must go there. And then the sky was full of angels singing. They left right away and when they got to Bethlehem they just followed the star, all houses being dark but this one was all lit up by the star. The owner of the stable is so happy, that he did get to find out who the child is. “Think, the Saviour of the World! In my stable!”. And Ruben adds “The Good Shepherd!”.

The shepherds leave and they all fall asleep, except the donkey who stands guard by the baby. She so much wants the animals in Nazareth to find out that here lies this beautiful child with eyes like the glories of heaven, but how can she send a message to them? The birds have woken up and begs her to let them come in. They saw the angels during the night and did not dare to join in their song. They come and sit all around the baby in the manger and admire him. Maria and Josef wake up and Maria tells them all that now they must return to Nazareth, now when they have seen her baby. The donkey  tells them that they must obey and tell all of Maria’s animals at home, that he has come. They sing to him and then they leave. The donkey wish she could go home to Nazareth too but she is exactly where she wants to be, with the baby, Maria and Josef, being their little donkey.

When we had finished reading the book december 2014, T. suddenly said, “what a pity there is no continuation!”. I told him there is, but that I have never been able to buy it. So he headed to the library to borrow it and for the first time, I have got to read the nice continuation to the pretty story of “Maria’s little donkey”, called “The donkey and the child”

imageIn Bethlehem things are going slow for the little family, since they get to wait till the last to register themselves, because everyone else claim that they are in a hurry. Meanwhile, the little donkey has befriended the old cow and the sheep in the stable. They are happy for the company and think that the family should stay till the boy can speak. One night the donkey notices the big star again, above the stable and three strangers arrive. They have arrived with many camels and demand to see the Royal baby. The first one is physically strong, looking like a giant. But when he gets to hold the baby he claims that “I am the strongest of human beings, but holding you in my arms makes me weak.” The second man gets to hold the baby and he says ” I am rich and powerful, people obey my slightest demand but I feel poor and of no consequence because you are more powerful than me”. The oldest man gets to hold the baby and he claims that “Finally you have arrived whom the world has waited for so long. I am full of wisdom and knowledge but when I hold you in my arms, I feel like a child without knowledge, because you are wiser than me”. The three men carry gifts that one gives to kings in their countries. The strong young man, gives the ring of truth to the baby, because it is so interested in it and he explains to Josef how they saw the star months ago and that a new a great king had been born. Maria tells them about the angel Gabriel and what he told her about her son. All of them are amazed.

The slaves crowd in the doorway and Maria invites them in. They find the baby so gentle and hope that he will continue to be so because then he will rule in goodness and it will be good to be a slave in his kingdom. Maria tells them that yes, he will be a king but he will also be the savior of this world and as such, he must serve everyone, even the slaves. The guests tell them that they must travel to Jerusalem the next day and tell Herod of the good news because he was excited to hear about the birth of a new king. A cold wind swept through the stable and blew out all candles, when they have said that. Maria, Josef and the stable owner know that Herod would not want anything good for this baby. Maria is worried and wants Josef to beg the wise men to not go to Jerusalem and Herod. He doesn’t dare to speak to them though but has decided that they must return quickly to Nazareth.

The camels talk to the donkey and ask why they are staying in an old stable if they are rich. The donkey tells them the truth, that they are not rich in anything but kindness and service. She also tells them that the baby is the Good Shepherd which has the camels talking all night between them and in the morning they ask if they may see the baby. In the morning the strangers have all dreamt that they must avoid Jerusalem and go straight home. Josef reasons that God knew how shy he is and that he would not be able to talk to them about his fears. The donkey has not forgotten her promise and starts screaming. Maria comes out and promises to give her water soon. Let’s wait till she picks up the baby, she tells the camels. When they hear the baby, she screams again and Maria comes out to see what is the matter with her. She is carrying the baby and all the camels crowd to sniff on the baby. “You did that well little donkey. We will never forget that you let us meet the Good Shepherd”, say the camels.

One night an angel arrives and whispers in Josef’s ear that he must pack quickly and flee with Maria and the baby. They must go to Egypt since Herod wants to kill the baby. Josef must not be scared since the angels will protect them. The angel moves over to the donkey and tells her “You are going to help me carry the baby to safety”. Josef wakes up and scolds himself about the stupid dream and wants to go back to sleep, but the donkey knows that they must leave at once, so she scrapes her hoof till he is properly awake. Maria wakes up and asks what is going on. She feels scared and that there is something dangerous in the stable. Josef wants her to go back to sleep but she says that something is wrong or the donkey would not scream the way it does. Josef tells of his dream and Maria says they must leave but Josef doesn’t want to. The donkey screams and Maria says ” I think the donkey has seen the angel and knows that it has talked to you. I can tell by the donkey that we are in danger. We must leave at once”. The owner of the stable wants them to stay and says that noone wants to harm a small child. That there are harmful animals about which could kill the baby and Josef answers that they are not the ones which want to take the baby’s life.

As a parting gift, Josef gives the old man a nice olive wood yoke since he had seen that the man’s was worn out and Maria has sewn a mantle for him from cloth that the wise men gave her. He thanks them for having let their son be born in his old stable and that no other place on earth will ever be as big and as holy as his little humble abode. Maria realizes that it is a blessing that they had not found lodgings inside the walls, because then they would not have been able to get out at that hour and it might have been too late then. When they hear a group of soldiers coming riding, they hide behind a tree. They do not dare to take a break in their travels from then on, since they know those soldiers were searching for their baby.

Two days in to their journey, they have reached the desert and it is tough for the donkey to wade in the sand. In a little oasis, they find an inn. A rich merchant has just arrived with a big caravan of camels and their carers. While the inn keeper was talking to him about how many refugees did not survive the trip through the desert, Maria and Josef listen in and worry. The inn keeper wonders if they can pay for lodgings and Josef opens his pouch to give him of the gold, the wise man gave him, when he drops the ring of truth. It rolls in under the table and the merchant accuses Josef of being a thief. Josef explains who gave the boy the ring. Maria has to protect Josef and explains that the ring and the gold were given to the boy by rich men. The merchant sees that she is an honest person. He asks if they want to sell the ring and Josef says that the baby loves it, so no. But the merchant is determined that he must have it. When he hears that they are going to Egypt, he decides that they can travel in his caravan and he will make them so dependent on him that they must give him the ring as payment at the end of the journey.

All the servants travelling with the merchant, say, “what is his plan because he has a heart of stone. He has something in mind.” The camels discuss what a disgrace it will be to travel with a donkey and how will she be able to keep up with their speed? The merchant tries to force Maria and Josef to sell the donkey and Maria tells him no. “God gave us this donkey, without it we are lost. She hears what we can’t hear and sees what we can’t see.” Josef has to add that “She can see the good angels and she has always lead us on the right paths.”

The baby has just woken up and gets excited about the camels. Josef let him pet the oldest one. The camel is all amazed and forget that all the camels had agreed on not talking to the donkey. He wants to know who the baby is and the people. “He is the Good Shepherd.” “Not the one that God has promised to send to earth from heaven?”. “Yes”. All the camels get excited. The oldest one says “When he petted me I felt so happy I could have run through the desert day and night and jump and dance”. “When he smiled” said another, “I felt the most wonderful smell of newly harvested hay and flowers.” The others agreed it still smelled like that. They tell the donkey that she will never be able to carry Maria through the desert. They want to help and she says that they might get to help when she gets tired. They also ask her if she really has seen angels. “Every time there was something dangerous on the road, the angel warned me. It has promised me to help me now too.” When the camels find out that the king wants to kill the baby, they all get worried and their carers don’t understand what has got in to them.

The next morning, they are all ready to leave, but that is when the soldiers arrive. Maria and Josef do not know where to hide but the camels know, they crowd round the two, so the soldiers can’t see them. They burst in to the inn and want to know if a couple with a baby has been there and that Herod wants it dead, since the baby will be king one day. The inn keeper tells them to go search in Bethlehem instead but they tell him that they already have and that Herod has found out that a couple left the night they arrived. That they had stayed in a stable outside the town. The inn keeper tells them that it is a silly notion that a king would be staying in a stable. They leave and the merchant has got some food for thought. Who ever the  baby is, he will not let Herod have him nor the ring.

All the camels head out in to the desert in a long caravan, with the donkey at the rear end. The merchant is sure she will drop dead and told the last camel carer to pay attention. But all the camels have decided to keep a slow pace to help the donkey. The merchant gets mad and so do the carers but nothing could make the camels walk quicker. The donkey still falls behind and the water the merchant is selling to Josef, is of little help. On the second day, when the heat is overwhelming, the donkey sees the angel waving to the left. It follows the angel and screams to the camels. The leading camel wonders what is up and the donkey tells him. All the camels take off after the donkey and the carers and merchant scream that the camels have gone mad. The angel leads the donkey behind some big rocks. “Are you sure you saw an angel. It is common to see things in the desert when you are tired and thirsty.” ask the camels. But the donkey persists that she saw an angel. While the merchant argues with Josef, they notice a big black cloud coming towards them. A sandstorm. The foreman is grateful that they had been lead to safety all of them and tell Josef that he has never felt as safe as he feels when travelling with them. The merchant promises to not talk of them selling the donkey again.

When the storm is over, the merchant, tells Maria and Josef that he wants them to ride on the camels and spare the donkey. They agree and all the camels fight to get to carry them by looking especially humble. A packing camel is chosen and he is so proud over the burden he gets to carry, while the donkey feels depressed and useless. The next morning the camel hurts its foot and another camel is chosen. Every morning the same thing happens so that each camel only gets to carry the baby one day. The carers think it very strange but the camels think it very fair.

One day, hotter than usual, the donkey just collapses. Josef gets off his camel and coaxes her to get up, but when they all reach an expected oasis, it is all dried up. The merchant gets angry and blames them being behind schedule thanks to Maria and Josef. Maria assures him that the Lord will help them. Maria walks over to the donkey, which once again has collapsed and she asks her baby to touch the donkey. The baby gets all excited and the donkey looks very tiredly on him, wondering what he wants to tell her. Then she sees the angel waving. She stands up and stumbles over to the angel and Maria just knows what the donkey has seen. The angel takes the donkey out in to the desert and to a spring of fresh water. The water make everyone well again and the merchant wonders what kind of water that was.

Arriving in Egypt, the merchant can’t stop looking at the ring and coveting it. But a little voice whispers to him “Do you really feel it right to take that ring as payment for the few little things you have done? Did they not help you more? The sand storm? The well?”. But he does not want to listen. But he decides to find Josef a job and the family a house, to deserve the ring more. His heart is not so hard anymore and he realizes that he will miss them all, especially the baby whom he wish was his son. When they arrive in the first village, he talks to a friend and offer a house and an orchard for them to look after. Josef wants to know what he wants for payment and he asks for the ring. Josef says he can’t because it belongs to the baby, but the baby hands the ring to the merchant. Maria tells him to take it but that he should know that it is no ordinary ring. “The man who gave it to him told us that it is the ring of truth.If the person who wears it is honest and true, then the pearl will shine wonderfully. But if the wearer has deceit in mind and is trying to con someone, then it will lose its luster and beauty.” The merchant takes the ring but is too scared to put it on! He looks back at them when leaving and shouts that he will come back and help them home, when the time has come.

Josef and Maria live in the little Egyptian village for many years, all of the villagers thinking them ordinary refugees. Noone in the village know who this extra-ordinary child is of theirs, but the animals soon know. A big dog walked up to the boy and he did no harm to him, asking the donkey who he is because it felt so wonderful to be around him. Is he an angel? The donkey tells him that he will be the good shepherd and the dog gets terrified over having licked him in the face!  The dog calls to the cat to come and the cat thinks it is a trick. She jumps down and immediately starts purring when the boy touches her and she says that being close to him feels like when her mother used to lick her. She is told who he is. Then the birds come to tease the cat but the cat just scolds them and tell them to be quiet because the boy has fallen asleep. They will not go near because of the cat but she promises to not eat them. A couple fly down and look at the boy, saying that he looks like an angel. “Do you know what an angel looks like?” says the cat. Yes, we do, said the birds, because we saw a bunch of them in Bethlehem during the winter, they were there to sing to a child who had been sent from heaven. We also talked to some birds that had come with the mother. You should have heard how the angels sang, we can never learn to sing that way, but we learned a lullaby from those other birds and it sounds like this!” When they start to sing, Maria comes out since she thought it was her Nazareth birds singing. When she comes out, the birds recognise her as the baby’s mother and they realize who the sleeping boy is And then they notice the donkey and the donkey has to tell them all how she and the family got to Egypt. The animals all agree that they must help protecting the boy.

One day, soldiers from Juda come over the border to search for the boy. Maria is cleaning a dirty, dusty old shed built between two dead trees. She thought Josef could store his tools there. The boy is crawling by now and playing with the cat. Josef and the donkey are working in another part of the big garden. The soldiers stop at each house asking for the refugees and none of the neighbours give the family away. Some swallows see the soldiers but do not understand that it means danger until the angel appears and tell them to hide the child. The dog decides that it must be in the shed. The birds fly down and get the boy to crawl in to the shed. Maria wants him out of there but the birds fly around her head and she understands that something is up and walks out to listen. She hears the soldiers. She does not know what to do, since the shed is clean now and will be searched but some swallows drop spiders in there. They make cobwebs in front of the door and the dog kicks in dirt all over the floor. When the soldiers come, the cat lays in the door opening, yawning. They do not want to go in and check and get cobwebs on their helmets.

The merchant visits every time he rides through the village, giving Josef some nice wood, Maria som nice fabric and candy for the boy. The first time he comes, the boy walks, the second time he can say mother and father. The donkey is very homesick knowing how badly they are missed at home. She also worries because her legs have grown stiffer and her eye sight is getting poor. What if she will not be able to see the angel? One day, Josef tells Maria that it is safe to return home. An angel has told him that Herod is dead. At the same time, the merchant arrives, who had been absent for a long time, and tells them he has come to take them home.

The camels are delighted to see them. Every time the donkey feels useless or old, the boy puts his hands on her and she feels better. Same goes for the camels, his hands are healing them. The journey goes better this time but wild animals are never far away. The jackals are screaming nearby all night and the lions roar. The camel carers have fires lit and take turns guarding. One night, the animals are quiet but the donkey notices that the boy has disappeared. She walks out in the desert night. When she gets close to the lions, she hears the boy laughing. The lions behave like big cats around the boy. When they see the donkey they tell her that they will not hurt her that night but they wonder why the humans will not let them meet the good shepherd. She wonders how they know and they tell her that the birds have spread the news all over Egypt and they have followed the caravan to get a sight of him. That night they had all called for him and he came out to them. But wild animals don’t need a shepherd, the donkey says. The lion tells her  that “one day all animals will be friends and live in peace with each other. Panthers and lions will live with cows and donkeys and lambs. And a small boy will guard them.” The donkey wants to know how they know. “God has told us since the beginning of time. The wind talks of it, the water sings of it, if you just take the time to listen.” They say they knew at once who he was, since they felt such peace and serenity when he came to them. One lion lets him ride on him.

Josef has by then woken up worried and all the men are searching when the boy arrive riding on the lion. Josef wants to know where he has been and the boy answers that he has been with the wild animals since they called on him. The camel carers ask who on earth this child is. For three nights the boy goes out to play with the lions and on the last night, the lions bring him to an oasis where monkeys pick fruit for him. The people can hardly believe it when they see the fruit. First a donkey which sees angels and then this.

When they arrive in Juda, the merchant says goodbye. Josef thanks him so much and finds out that the merchant has never worn the ring but will soon dare to put it on. The camels say a sad goodbye, saying that when the family and donkey travel with them, the carers treat them so much nicer than they usually do. To spare the donkey, Josef carries part of the load and Maria and the boy walk.

Many are talking about them and missing them, from the first book. The old man from the stable. The shepherds. The three robbers who left their criminal life behind them. The children of the poor farmer, who has collected hay all these years for the donkey. But most of all the people in Nazareth. Maria’s sister feels it has become a burden to look after Maria’s animals and get food for them especially after old Judit can’t walk anymore and help out. Her husband tells her that they should sell the house and animals. He has a buyer already, the pottery maker. Maria’s sister objects and says that that man is mean and would treat the animals badly. The animals are the ones longing and waiting the most. The little lambs and goat babies are no longer babies. Soon they had babies of their own and their babies have had babies. All of them still talking about the little donkey, Maria and the baby. And among all the birds, every year, new birds were asking “Aren’t they coming soon mother?”.

Their first stop on the way, was to visit the old stable again and its owner who had had a dream that they were coming. He thought the boy looked like the angels who had visited that night, when he was born. The boy sleeps between the cow and the sheep that night. Ruben the shepherd is asking the skies why the good shepherd is not coming back soon. His favourite sheep tries to tell him “Ruben he is on his way. Did you not hear the birds talk of it this morning! They said he is in the old stable in Bethlehem!” Ruben doesn’t understand but feels that the sheep tries to comfort him and that is when he sees  the family and the donkey holding its head so high. He  knows who they are! He did not recognise the boy at first but when the boy shows him a butterfly on his finger, Ruben sees the boy’s eyes and knows who he is. The sheep ask the donkey about their travels and she tells them that she could not have made it without the angel and the camels. They tell her that they always thought them haughty, not at all nice animals, but she tells them that they are very nice and wise.

The boy helps Ruben put all the sheep in their pens and he tells Ruben “I am going to be a shepherd one day, a good shepherd who finds sheep which have lost their way.” “You’re going to be the shepherd of Israel”, said Ruben, “and I will follow you wherever you go.” “Are you really sure?” “Yes”, said Ruben, “I decided that when I saw you in the manger.” The boy tells Ruben that they will be shepherds together.

The three ex-robbers are at their tethers. They are not doing very well and when they see the travelers coming, they talk about robbing them so they can buy tools and easier get a job. The youngest tell them that if they start robbing again, they will not be able to stop and the other  says that he would like to talk to Maria about it, while the third really wants to go ahead and rob the people. He suggests that if they are poor they will let them go, otherwise… While waiting, the first one thinks “Strange. It smells wonderful. Like in our cottage that night when Josef and Maria were there. Like spring flowers. Can the smell really travel here all the way from Bethlehem?”. The second one thinks “Strange. How many birds there are. I haven’t heard such singing since that night when Nazareth’s birds sang to us”. But the third stands ready with a weapon to hit the travelers on the head with, when a little happy boy comes skipping and gives him a bread roll.

The ex-robbers tell Maria and Josef how they have had a difficult time getting jobs. Maria feeds them and Josef tells them that he has heard of jobs in Bethlehem, in a wine yard. But the robbers tell him that their tools are in too bad condition to get employed with. Maria and Josef agree and hand them a gold coin. “A gift gives more happiness by being passed on”, says Josef, when the robbers don’t want to accept the coin. They ask the name of the boy and he answers “My name is Jesus, it is a good name because it means helper”. Who are you going to help, asks one of the robbers. All humans! answers the boy. The robber believes him, since his parents are the kindest people he has ever met.

They are by now getting close to the village where they rested the first night, with the poor farmer family. The boy asks about home, if he will be allowed to help Maria with the lambs and baby goats. She tells him that they will share the animals but that he will also help Josef and learn carpentry. When they enter the village, the donkey hears the little boy’s voice, the one who had promised her hay all those years ago, and she heads for the right house. Maria is shocked that she and Josef had forgot how they had promised to come back and show their son to the family. Maria treats the family to all the food she has in her packing and they are so happy. The night before there had been a party at the richest farmer in the village and they were not invited but this night, they had a much nicer party. In the morning the little boy wonders what to do about all the hay that the donkey did not eat and he complains that his dad will not buy a donkey. Josef gives the boy a gold coin and tells him that they can borrow it and buy a donkey, because it is nice to let a gift be passed on to someone who needs help.

The donkey is by now exhausted but suddenly it starts running. Maria asks her son if he thinks that the donkey has seen an angel. “I saw an angel just a while ago”, answered the boy, “and it waved to us that we must hurry. I told the donkey and she started running.” In Nazareth things has become desperate. The pottery maker wants to buy Maria’s and Josef’s house that day or not at all. He wants to start building his barn and refuses to wait till autumn, like Maria’s sister suggests. Maria’s brother-in-law is in a hurry to seal the deal and is going to sell all the live stock that night as well. All the animals go wild  when the men walk off to finish and that is when Josef lifts little Jesus up on the old donkey and says “You are going to ride in to Nazareth”. The animals are happier than happy to see their mistress and the little donkey coming up the road with everyone in Nazareth, in tow. And Jesus first words to them all are: “Come here all my little lambs.” The lambs and baby goats all find his hands so kind and Jesus turns to his mother and says “Am I a shepherd now mother?”. She answers that he is and the animals all think “The Good Shepherd, Our Shepherd.” The donkey gets to tell all about the journey home and that she no longer can see the angel because her eye sight is too bad. “But it doesn’t matter, the boy sees it and then it is just to walk wherever he wants to go”. The donkey is so tired and they all tell her “well done little donkey”. She deserves her rest! She carried Maria to Bethlehem and back safely.

When I read this final chapter, I did so with tears rolling down my cheek. I have tried to tell the story as well a I could, but reading the books is far more touching. Gunhild Sehlin told it in a very humble and loving way!

 

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