Hannah was seven years old the December her dad turned away so many guests. The census takers, new to town, had taken over the mayor’s house; throngs of travelers converged on the city. Hannah’s folks- Habib and Ruth- ran a bed and breakfast of sorts. There house was plum full. There were guests spread out on camel skins and wool blankets in the living room, a single fellow who had taken up residence in the bathtub and she herself was now sleeping between her parents, as a family of 5 took claim of her room.
Habib woke at 4:30am to get a head start on the chores before his guests untangled themselves from bed sheets and sleep, waking hungry, raucous. Earlier in the week, a maid had quit in a huff, mad about overtime hours, so the family made up for the deficit. Assigned towel duty, Hannah found herself offering guest linens, and inquiring as to the quality of their slumber.
It was on on of those nights, right before her mom had called her upstairs for another Sharharazad tale that the doorbell rang yet again. Habib dreaded this moment of turning yet another away. All week, they had tried to make their home open to as many as possible, offering discount rates and flexible payments to weary travelers. He had persuaded neighbors not akin to guests, the need for hospitality. He had organized volunteers to bring their family tents to the public park so latecomers might have adequate shelter. Habib even let a number sleep free, for fear of turning anyone out into the cold night, alone and unsheltered. And yet, “it’s not enough,” Habib thnks to himself. “We need a NO VACANCY sign,” he mumbles as he opens the door. Hannah nimbly squeezes her small body between her father’s long legs, and the stucco door jam. She wraps her arm around his hip, slipping her fingers into his back pocket.
The traveler introduces himself as Joseph, and gestures to a young pregnant woman seated on a donkey as his fiance - Mary. Though the young woman appears tired, Hannah thinks she looks like a lollipop-round and sweet. Their exchange is quick. Her father explains that not a room, closet or bathtub is left. He truly is sorry, considering Mary’s condition and all. “Unfortunately, the best I can do is let you use the stable.” Joseph spies the neighboring houses, then lifts his hand to Mary’s cheek and murmurs something. Hannah mirrors the gesture with her own warm palm on her cheeky jaw. “That would be just fine,” says Joseph. “I’ll see if I can find you a few blankets,“ calls out Habib. Soon, they wave good night. Habib shuffles into the house, asking his wife, “Ruthie, let’s not forget that young couple come breakfast time, eh?” Hannah leans against the door jam. Joseph jerks the bridle, leading them to the manger, shortly disappearing into the black veil of night.
Hannah whispers goodnight, trudges up the stairs and climbs into the middle of her parents' big bed. Soon the house is quiet and a measured breath fills the room like a familiar melody. She rests her head near her mother’s long chocolate brown hair, inhaling lavender and musk. Years later, she will remember this moment, of hot sleeping breath, the rise and fall or her parents' bodies, and the enveloping feeling of being loved, cared for, safe. For now, she can hear the harmony breath of various house occupants. She lays her hand on her father’s wide back and whispers, "Your heart is big papa.” “ A big heart,” she says out loud to the darkness. Then the familiar sleep song starts singing to her drowsy soul. She falls asleep to the collective breath of the house, chiming in continuous round, “ a big heart, a big heart, a big heart” it sings back to her in time.