by Grace Andreacchi
When at last he lay broken across her knees, his long body greenish in the lurid light of the torn sky. When at last he lay once more in her lap, helpless as an infant but no longer seeking her gaze with his. When at last he lay quiet, it was then she understood it had all been in vain. In vain to have borne him in her fearful girlish womb, in vain the twelve hours – a whole dark night of pain beyond words as she fought to bring him, struggling against the light, into the world. In vain the midnight vigils when she had held him while he screamed open-mouthed, inconsolable from a place of such darkness it made her tremble. Now he lay in her lap, broken. His mouth hung open, the teeth gleaming between the bearded lips, the lips encrusted black with blood. How heavy he was! She held him, she would not let him go – not yet, though he weighed upon her, a stone as big as the world. She could not yet let him go. She wanted to think, now, while she still held him, one last time, in her arms. It had been so long since she had held him like that! He did not permit it. As a child he had been warm and sweet, even timid, and always fierce. His love for her as fierce as his fight with the world. As a child he had clung to her, sucked angrily at the breast, never satisfied, always crying aloud as though he craved some other food, something she could not offer him. As a child he had needed her. This was her joy, to be needed by him.
When had he begun to vanish from her sight? There was the time she had come seeking him, her heart in her mouth, he was only twelve – what if they had lost him forever? God’s child, a holy trust, fallen by the wayside, killed by robbers perhaps or taken by thieves… for three days and three nights they ran from one house to another, unable to eat or sleep – surely the Lord would punish them for losing his child, surely the Lord would protect him, or else he would not. He was in the Temple talking quietly with the old men, he looked up, vexed with them for disturbing him, and asked her what was she was thinking? Did she not know he would be about his father’s business? Her husband took him by the hand to lead him home, and the boy looked at him coldly. ‘You’re not my father,’ he said. ‘Let me alone.’
Well. He had never been like other children, did not know how to play with them, indeed seemed to frighten them with his strange talk and odd ways. But he was good with his hands, spent hours in the workshop where he made cunning toys from wood – a bird that could flap its wings, a lamb with its mother, a little cross. ‘Look mother, I’m the lamb’, he said, holding it up proudly for her to see. ‘And this one is you, my mother. Shall I make a wolf too?’ He made a wolf, then broke it apart with a hammer, a small line of vexation between his soft brows. His dreams were terrible. Sometimes he told her bits of them, stories of demoniacs and lepers with oozing sores, of crowds of people chasing him through a desert wilderness. Once he dreamed of walking upon a great sea of burning glass, and beneath the sea myriads of tiny fish glinting with all the colours of the morning. The fish were swimming towards him, hungrily, and he had to feed them, and did not know how…
Ah but how to tell of his loveliness? He was not the most beautiful boy, simply her heart and soul. He was always a bit too thin to be really beautiful, always that darkness in his great soft eyes, that restless anxious longing in him. But his smile had been like the small rain upon the tender grass. He was the lily among thorns, the apple among the trees of the wild wood. When he put his thin childish arms around her and pressed his face to her belly she was sick with love.
He was far too clever, and could read as well as a rabbi while the other boys his age were still struggling to learn their letters. She had been proud of her odd, bright, clever little boy. But as he grew up he grew harder to reach, no longer told her his dreams, nor asked her to explain the mysteries of life and death. Why can’t I fly like a bird, mother? Why do the lambs have to die while they are still only babies? Why does the night come and make everything dark? You will fly like a bird some day, my son, when you have found your wings. The lambs must die so that we may live, their flesh is our food, given by the Lord. The night comes so that we may rest from the heat of the day. But he no longer asked her these things. He worked with his father (but ‘You’re not my father’ stood between them always), he sat by himself, he went to the synagogue and to the desert to pray. He fasted and grew thinner, he who had always been so thin. His eyes grew larger, darker, she saw things in them that frightened her. When she asked him to do little favours for her he now pretended not to have heard. When she reached out to stroke his hair he did not draw away, he did not need to, his eyes merely failed to notice her, and her hand came away as if she had burned it. She had seen again the small line between his brows.
When her husband died he left for a while, saying he must pray forty days and forty nights. She sat alone in the empty house. She had never been alone before, it was odd to sit there and listen all day to that silence. The sound of cicadas at twilight, and of small birds at dawn. Mother, why can’t I fly like a bird… You will, my son, you will. He returned from the desert somehow taller, his hair and his beard shaggy as a wild goat’s, and a deep furrow drawn as if with an awl between his brows. With him were two angels, she recognised them easily by their bright garments, but they parted from him at the door and did not come in. There were angels here now, in great number, she felt them standing around her, drawn up in ranks, ready to bear him away but she would not let them have him – not yet. There were angels hovering just above her head, the night sky was thick with them, mourning and weeping tears of blood for him. Let them weep – what were their tears to hers? She held him closer, pressing his broad broken shoulders to her breast. He had been so little once, so soft! And now this. Ah she would not let him go, not yet, not yet, not until she had understood – why had it all been necessary, the sword, the cross, the sacrifice? What did the Lord want from her? Nothing more perhaps. Could she believe that…
One of the weeping angels took hold on her son’s left hand and pressed it to his lips, right there where the nail had left a blue black wound. Another held the iron nail in his palm, showing it to her, his face full of reproach. What did they want from her? Was it her fault he was dead? She had never been a part of this, it was not her plan. Ah but she had been the gate, she the golden door by which he entered. He might have stayed with his Father in heaven, might have spared them all this grief had she only said : No.
Now she bent over him and pressed her lips to his forehead, pushing back the heavy hair with her free hand, mingling her tears with his cold sweat. She kissed his cheek, then his lips – he could not prevent her kisses at last. How she had longed to kiss him like this! He had learned to disdain her, a woman and weak. Now he was broken and she still whole. How was it possible? She would gladly have died in his place, but it was not her plan after all, but the Lord’s. This incomprehensible sacrifice. Look mother, I am the lamb, and this is you. This is you with your one ewe lamb lying dead in your lap. Let me kiss him now with the kiss of my mouth, she thought, kissing him, tasting the terrible odours of blood and pain. He did not yet taste of death, that would come soon, once he was laid in the tomb, but tonight he was hers alone in this garden of pain, and she would kiss him with the kiss of her mouth. She had not known it was possible to weep like this, rivers running down to a sea of burning glass.
The time she had sought him again, now a man surrounded by crowds of hungry people, gorging themselves on his words, his looks, his miracles. ‘Who is my mother?’ he said, looking round at the upturned faces. ‘All of you who do the will of God, you are my mother and my brother and my sister.’ And she went away quietly, and did not seek him any more. Had she not done the will of God? Behold the handmaid of the Lord… When the terrifying angel came with his lily and his tale of a holy child, had she not fallen on her face in the dust? For this I was born, she thought, to this moment I was raised, a daughter of God. She might have said: No. It had not even crossed her mind. As she sat there holding him she could hear the creak of graves opening, and the dread footsteps of the dead. She felt a cool hand laid gently upon her hot cheek. A shower of snow fell from heaven, covering the two of them with a veil as white as wool.
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Grace Andreacchi is a novelist, poet and playwright. Works include the novels Scarabocchio and Poetry and Fear, Music for Glass Orchestra (Serpent’s Tail), Give My Heart Ease (New American Writing Award) and the chapbook Berlin Elegies. Her work appears in Horizon Review, The Literateur, Cabinet des Fées and many other fine places. Grace is also managing editor at Andromache Books and writes the literary blog AMAZING GRACE. She lives in London.
painting by Samuel Barrera