They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell. But I am not being hunted now. Not anymore. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. They think that I do not know the elaborate nature of their desires. But nothing escapes me now except sleep. Sleep escapes me. Maybe I am too old to sleep. Or there is nothing further to be gained from sleep. Maybe I do not need to dream, or need to rest. Maybe my eyes know that soon they will be closed for ever. I will stay awake if I have to. I will come down these stairs as the dawn breaks, as the dawn insinuates its rays of light into this room. I have my own reasons to watch and wait. Before the final rest comes this long awakening. And it is enough for me to know that it will end.
They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something vague or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. When I seem not to remember what they think I must remember. They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.
I like it that they feed me and pay for my clothes and protect me. And in return I will do for them what I can, but no more than that. Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say. And I know how deeply this disturbs them and it would make me smile, this earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all, except that I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I had no further need for tears. There was a time when I thought that I had, in fact, no tears left, that I had used up my store of tears, but I am lucky that foolish thoughts like this never linger, are quickly replaced by what is true. There are always tears if you need them enough. It is the body that makes tears. I no longer need tears and that should be a relief, but I do not seek relief, merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.
Of the two men who come, one was there with us until the end. There were moments then when he was soft, ready to hold me and comfort me as he is ready now to scowl impatiently when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained. Yet I can see signs of that softness still and there are times when the glow in his eyes returns before he sighs and goes back to his work, writing out the letters one by one that make words he knows I cannot read, which recount what happened on the hill and the days before and the days that followed. I have asked him to read the words aloud to me but he will not. I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.
I remember too much; I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape. As the world holds its breath, I keep memory in.
So when I told him about the rabbits I was not telling him something that I had half forgotten and merely remembered because of his insistent presence. The details of what I told him were with me all the years in the same way as my hands or my arms were with me. On that day, the day he wanted details of, the day he wanted me to go over and over for him, in the middle of everything that was confused, in the middle of all the terror and shrieking and the crying out, a man came close to me who had a cage with a huge angry bird trapped in it, the bird all sharp beak and indignant gaze; the wings could not stretch to their full width and this confinement seemed to make the bird frustrated and angry. It should have been flying, hunting, swooping on its prey.
The man also carried a bag, which I gradually learned was almost half full of live rabbits, little bundles of fierce and terrorized energy. And during those hours on that hill, during the hours that went more slowly than any other hours, he plucked the rabbits one by one from the sack and edged them into the barely opened cage. The bird went for some part of their soft underbelly first, opening the rabbit up until its guts spilled out, and then of course its eyes. It is easy to talk about this now because it was a mild distraction from what was really going on, and it is easy to talk about it too because it made no sense. The bird did not seem to be hungry, although perhaps it suffered from a deep hunger that even the live flesh of writhing rabbits could not satisfy. The cage became half full of half-dead, wholly uneaten rabbits exuding strange squealing sounds. Twitching with old bursts of life. And the man’s face was all bright with energy, there was a glow from him, as he looked at the cage and then at the scene around him, almost smiling with dark delight, the sack not yet empty.
• • •
By that time we had spoken of other things, including the men who played with dice close to where the crosses were; they played for his clothes and other possessions, or for no special reason. One of these men I feared as much as the strangler who arrived later. This first man was the one among all those who came and went during the day who was most alert to me, most menacing, the one who seemed most likely to want to know where I would go when it was over, the one most likely to be sent to bring me back. This man who followed me with his eyes seemed to work for the group of men with horses, who sometimes appeared to be watching from the side. If anyone knows what happened that day and why, then it is this man who played with dice. It might be easier if I said that he comes in dreams but he does not, nor does he haunt me as other things, or other faces, haunt me. He was there, that is all I have to say about him, and he watched me and he knew me, and if now, after all these years, he were to arrive at this door with his eyes narrowed against the light and his sandy-coloured hair gone grey and his hands still too big for his body, and his air of knowledge and self-possession and calm, controlling cruelty, and with the strangler grinning viciously behind him, I would not be surprised. But I would not last long in their company. Just as my two friends who visit are looking for my voice, my witness, this man who played dice, and the strangler, or others like them, must be looking for my silence. I will know them if they come and it should hardly matter now, since the days left are few, but I remain, in my waking time, desperately afraid of them.
Compared to them, the man with the rabbits and the hawk was oddly harmless; he was cruel, but uselessly so. His urges were easy to satisfy. Nobody paid any attention to him except me, and I did because I, perhaps alone of those who were there, paid attention to every single thing that moved in case I might be able to find someone among those men with whom I could plead. And also so that I could know what they might want from us when it was over, and more than anything else so that I could distract myself, even for a single second, from the fierce catastrophe of what was happening.
They have no interest in my fear and the fear all those around me felt, the sense that there were men waiting who had been told to round us up too when we sought to move away, that there seemed no possibility that we would not be held.
The second one who comes has a different way of making his presence felt. There is nothing gentle about him. He is impatient, bored and in control of things. He writes too, but with greater speed than the other, frowning, nodding in approval at his own words. He is easy to irritate. I can annoy him just by moving across the room to fetch a dish. It is hard to resist the temptation sometimes to speak to him although I know that my very voice fills him with suspicion, or something close to disgust. But he, like his colleague, must listen to me, that is what he is here for. He has no choice.
I told him before he departed that all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty, but it is foolishness that I have noticed first. He was waiting for me to tell him something else and he sat opposite me, his patience slowly ebbing away, as I refused to return to the subject of his desires: the day our son was lost and how we found him and what was said. I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him “him,” “my son,” “our son,” “the one who was here,” “your friend,” “the one you are interested in.” Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.
He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food towards me as though he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit, he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent. And he used all of it, I said, so he could lead a group of men who trusted him from place to place. I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will also get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all—fearlessness, ambition, anything—and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.
• • •
Farina my neighbour leaves things for me. And sometimes I pay her. At first I did not answer the door when she knocked and even when I collected whatever she left for me—fruit, or bread, or eggs, or water—I saw no reason to speak to her as I passed her door later, or even pretend that I knew who she was. And I was careful not to touch the water she left. I walked to the well to get my own water, even if it left my arms strained and sore.
When my visitors came they asked me who she was and I was glad to be able to tell them that I did not know, and had no interest in finding out, and did not know either why she left things for me other than that it gave her an excuse to hover in a place where she was not wanted. I must be careful, they said to me, and it was not hard to reply, to say that I knew that better than they knew it, and that if they had come to give me unnecessary advice, perhaps they should think of staying away.
Slowly, however, as I passed her house and saw her at the door I began to look at her and I liked her. It made a difference that she was small, or smaller than I am, or weaker-looking even though she is younger. I presumed at first that she was alone and I believed that I would be able to deal with her if she became difficult or too persistent. But she is not alone. I have found that out. Her husband lies in bed and he cannot move and she must attend to him all day; he is in a darkened room. And her sons, like all the sons, have gone to the city to find better work, or more useful idleness, or some adventure or other, leaving Farina the goats to tend and terraces of olive trees to watch over and water to carry each day. I have made clear to her that her sons, if they ever should come here, cannot cross this threshold. I have made clear to her that I do not want their help for anything. I do not want them in this house. It takes me weeks to eradicate the stench of men from these rooms so that I can breathe air again that is not fouled by them.
I began to nod my head when I saw her. Still I did not look at her, although I knew that she would notice the change. And out of it came more change. It was difficult at first because I could not understand her easily and she seemed to think that strange but it never stopped her talking. Soon, I began to follow most of her words, or enough of them, and I learned where it was she went every day and why she went there. I did not go with her because I wanted to. I went because my visitors, the men who come to oversee my final years, had outstayed their welcome and asked too many questions and I thought that if I disappeared on them, even for an hour or two, they might learn greater civility, or, even better, they might go.
I did not think that the cursed shadow of what had happened would ever lift. It came like something in my heart that pumped darkness through me at the same rate as it pumped blood. Or it was my companion, my strange friend who woke me in the night and again in the morning and who stayed close all day. It was a heaviness in me that often became a weight which I could not carry. It eased sometimes but it never lifted.
I went to the Temple with Farina for no reason. And as soon as we set out I was already enjoying the thought of the discussion when I came back about where I had been, and I was already working out what I would say to my visitors. We did not speak on the way and it was only when we were close that Farina said that each time she went there she asked only for three things—that her husband be taken by the gods into death before he suffered more and that her sons be kept in good health and that they might be kind to her. Do you really want the first, I asked? Your husband to die? No, she said, I do not, but it would be for the best. And it was her face, the expression on her face, a sort of light in her eyes, a kindness as we entered the Temple, that I remember.
And then I remember turning and seeing the statue of Artemis for the first time; in that second, as I stared at it, the statue was radiating abidance and bounty, fertility and grace, and beauty maybe, even beauty. And it inspired me for a moment; my own shadows fled to talk to the lovely shadows of the Temple. They left me for some minutes as though in light. The poison was not in my heart. I gazed at the statue of the old goddess, she who has seen more than I have and suffered more because she has lived more. I breathed hard to say that I had accepted the shadows, the weight, the grim presence that came to me that day when I saw my son tied up and bloody and when I heard him cry out and when I thought that nothing worse could happen until hours went by. I was wrong to think that nothing worse could happen, and everything I did to stop it failed, and everything I did in order not to think about it failed too, until it filled me with its sound, until the very menace of those hours entered my body, and I walked back from the Temple with that menace still pumping through my heart.
With the money I had saved I bought from one of the silversmiths a small statue of the goddess who lifted my spirits. And I hid it away. But it meant something knowing that it was in the house close to me and I could whisper to it in the night if I needed to. I could tell it the story of what happened and how I came here. I could talk about the great restlessness that came when the new coins began to appear and the new decrees and the new words for things. People, both men and women who had nothing, began to talk about Jerusalem as though it were across the valley instead of two or three days’ journey, and when it became clear that the young men could go there, anyone who could write, or was a carpenter, or could make wheels or work with metal, anyone indeed who could speak clearly, anyone who wanted to trade in cloth, or in grain, or fruit, or oil, they would all go there. It was suddenly easy to go there, but it was not easy, of course, to come back. They sent messages and coins and cloth, they sent news of themselves but whatever was there held them with its pull, the pull of money, the pull of the future. I had never heard anyone talk about the future until then unless it was tomorrow they spoke of or a feast they attended each year. But not some time to come in which all would be different and all would be better. Such an idea swept through villages like a dry hot wind at that time, and it carried away anyone who was any use, and it carried away my son, and I was not surprised by that because if he had not gone he might have stood out in the village, and people might have wondered why he did not go. It was simple really—he could not have stayed. I asked him nothing; I knew that he would easily find work and I knew he would send what the others who had gone before him sent, just as I wrapped for him what he would need as the other mothers did whose sons were leaving. It was hardly sad. It was simply the end of something, and there was a crowd when he left because that day others were leaving too, and I came home almost smiling at the thought that I was lucky that he was well enough to go and smiling too at the idea that we had been careful in the months—maybe in the whole year—before he left, not to talk too much or grow too close because we both knew that he would go.
But I should have paid more attention to that time before he left, to who came to the house, to what was discussed at my table. It was not shyness or reticence that made me spend my time in the kitchen when those I did not know came, it was boredom. Something about the earnestness of those young men repelled me, sent me into the kitchen, or the garden; something of their awkward hunger, or the sense that there was something missing in each one of them, made me want to serve the food, or water, or whatever, and then disappear before I had heard a single word of what they were talking about. They were often silent at first, uneasy, needy, and then the talk was too loud; there were too many of them talking at the same time, or even worse, when my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him, it was like something grinding and it set my teeth on edge, and I often found myself walking the dusty lanes with a basket as though I needed bread, or visiting a neighbour who did not need visitors in the hope that when I returned the young men would have dispersed or that he would have stopped speaking. Alone with me when they had left he was easier, gentler, like a vessel from whom stale water had been poured out, and maybe in that time talking he was cleansed of whatever it was that had been agitating him, and then when night fell he was filled again with clear spring water which came from solitude, or sleep, or even silence and work.
• • •
All my life I have loved the Sabbath. The best time was when my son was eight or nine, old enough to relish doing what was right without being told, old enough to remain quiet when the house was quiet. I loved preparing things in advance, making sure that the house was clean, beginning two days before the Sabbath with the washing and dusting and then the day before preparing the food and making sure that there was enough drinking water. I loved the stillness of the morning, my husband and I speaking in whispers, going to my son’s bedroom to be with him, to hold his hand and hush him if he spoke too loudly, of if he forgot that this was not an ordinary day. The Sabbath mornings in our house in those years were placid mornings, hours when stillness and ease prevailed, when we looked inside ourselves and remained almost indifferent to the noise the world made or the stamp the previous days had left on us.
I loved watching my husband and my son walking together to the Temple, and I loved waiting behind to pray before setting out to the Temple alone, not speaking, looking at no one. I loved some of the prayers and the words read from the book aloud to us. I knew them and they came to mean soft comfort to me as I set out to walk home having listened to them. What was strange then was that in those few hours before sundown a sort of quiet battle went on within me between the after-sound of the prayers, the peace of the day, the dull noiseless ease of things and something dark and disturbed, the sense each week which passed was time lost that could not be recovered and a sense of something else I could not name that had lurked between the words of the book as though in waiting like hunters, or trappers, or a hand that was ready to wield the scythe at harvest time. The idea that time was moving, the idea that so much of the world remained mysterious, unsettled me. But I accepted it as an inevitable aspect of a day spent looking inward. I was glad nonetheless when the shadows melted into darkness at sundown and we could talk again and I could work in the kitchen and think once more of the others and of the world outside.
• • •
They move things when they come, my two visitors, as though this house were theirs, as though re-arranging the furniture will lend them a power in this room that nothing else can lend them. And when I tell them to put things back—move the table back against the wall, move the jugs for water from the floor onto the shelf where I normally keep them—they look at each other and then at me, making clear that they will do nothing I say, that they will wield power in the smallest ways, that they will give in to no one. When I look back at them I hope they see contempt or some reflection of their idiocy, even though I do not feel contempt, I feel almost happy and I feel amused at how like small boys they are in their random search for ways of showing who is the biggest, who is in command. I do not care how the furniture here is arranged, they can move it daily and it will not offend me, and thus I often go quickly back to my chores as though I have meekly accepted a defeat. And then I wait.
There is one chair in this room in which no one has ever sat. Perhaps in the past the chair was in daily use somewhere, but it came through this door during a time when I needed desperately to remember some years when I knew love. It was to be left unused. It belongs to memory, it belongs to a man who will not return, whose body is dust but who once held sway in the world. He will not come back. I keep the chair in the room because he will not come back. I do not need to keep food for him, or water, or a place in my bed, or whatever news I could gather that might interest him. I keep the chair empty. It is not much to do, and sometimes I look at it as I pass and that is as much as I can do, maybe it is enough, and maybe there will come a time when I will not need to have such a reminder of him so close by. Maybe the memory of him as I enter my last days will retreat into my heart more profoundly and I will not need help from any object in the room.
I knew, in their roughness, their way of moving in as though they were making a raid on space, that one of them would select this chair, would make it seem casual and thus all the more difficult to oppose. But I was waiting.
“Do not sit in that chair,” I said when he had moved the table aside and pulled out the chair which I had carefully trapped against the wall so that it would not be defiled by my visitors. “You can use the one beside it but not that one.”
“I cannot use a chair?” he enquired, as though addressing a fool. “What else are chairs for? I cannot sit on a chair?” The tone now was more insolent than menacing, but it had an element of menace.
“No one sits on that chair,” I said quietly.
“No one?” he asked.
I made my voice even quieter.
“No one,” I replied.
My two visitors looked at each other. I was waiting. I did not turn away from them and I tried to seem gentle, someone hardly worth defying, especially on what might have seemed to them like a whim, a woman’s notion.
“Why not?” he asked, with a sort of sweet sarcasm.
“Why not?” he asked again as though I were a child.
I could hardly breathe now and I rested my hands on the back of the chair that was nearest me and I realized from the way my breath came and the sudden slowness in my heartbeat that it would not be long before all the life in me, the little left, would go, as a flame goes out on a mild day, easily, needing only the smallest hint of wind, a sudden flicker and then out, gone, as though it had never been alight.
“Don’t sit there,” I said quietly.
“But you must explain,” he said.
“The chair,” I said, “is left for someone who will not return.”
“But he will return,” he said.
“No,” I replied, “he will not.”
“Your son will return,” he said.
“The chair is for my husband,” I replied as if he this time were the fool. I felt content when I said the name, as though the very saying of the word “husband” had pulled something back into the room, or a shadow of something, enough for me in any case, but not enough for them. And then he went to sit in the chair, he turned it towards himself, he was ready to perch there with his back to me.
I was waiting. Quickly, I found the sharp knife and I held it and touched the blade. I did not point it towards them, but my movement to reach for it had been so swift and sudden that I caught their attention. I glanced at them and then looked down at the blade.
“I have another one hidden,” I said, “and if either of you touch the chair again, if you so much as touch it, I will wait, I am waiting now, and I will come in the night, I will move as silently as the air itself moves, and you will not have time to make a sound. Do not think for a moment that I will not do this.”
I turned then as though I had work to do. I washed some jugs that did not need to be washed and then I asked them if they would get me water. I knew that they wanted to be alone with each other now and when they had gone out and I put the chair back against the wall and then the table against it. I knew that maybe it was time I forgot about the man I married as I would join him soon enough. Maybe it was time to consign this chair to nothing, but I would do this on a day when it was not important. I would break its spell in my own good time.
• • •
I move now between the things of this world that are precise, sharp and close by, and some bitter imaginings. On those Sabbath days once the prayers were intoned and God was thanked and praised, there was always time to wonder about what was beyond us in the sky or what world lay buried in the hollows of the earth. I had a sense on some of those days, after hours of silence, of my mother struggling to come towards me, reaching out from somewhere very dark, reaching towards me as though looking for food or drink. As darkness fell on those Sabbath days I saw her sinking back into a cavernous place, a huge, wide-mouthed space; over her were things flitting and flying and there was the sound of the rumbling earth beneath her. I do not know why I imagined this, and it would have been easier to imagine her slowly turning to dust in the warm earth close to the places that she loved. And it was always easy to switch from these musings on imagined places under the earth to the absorbing business of now, or the things that happened, or the figures who came in daylight to my door.
• • •
Marcus from Cana was not my cousin, although he called me his cousin because our mothers gave birth to us at the same time in adjoining houses. We played together and we grew up together until it was time for us to grow apart. When he came to the house in Nazareth I was alone. I had not seen him in years. I knew that he had gone to Jerusalem and I knew that he had greater talents than many others who had gone and that he had inherited from his father a mixture of shyness and stability, a way to impress people, fool them maybe if there was a need for that, and an ability to agree with everyone and have no opinions of his own on anything, or opinions of his own that he kept to himself.
Marcus appeared at my door and sat at my table. He did not want water or food and there was something new about him, something I would later notice when my protectors, or my guards, or whatever it is they are, came to this house—a coldness, a determination, an ability to use silence, a hardness around the eyes and the mouth which suggested a hardness in the heart. He told me what he had seen, and he told me what, even then, the consequences would be. He had not seen what he saw for no reason, he said; he had been asked by one of his colleagues to accompany him on the Sabbath day to the pool behind the sheep market in Jerusalem because it was known that this was where my son and his friends congregated. This was where, in Marcus’s words, they caused a fuss and made a crowd gather and began to be noticed.
There was an old fool, Marcus said, who used to lie there among all the rest of them, the crippled, the withered, the blind, the lame and the halt, and they were mad enough to believe that at a certain season an angel came down into the pool and disturbed the water and whoever was the first in the pool after the troubling of the water would be cured of whatever disease he had. And my son and his friends, the young men he had come to the house with, were there that day. Marcus saw all the commotion he and his friends were making, whipping up hysteria among the crowds. They must have known, Marcus said, how carefully they were being watched. From all sides, he said, there were spies, informers, middle-men. They were open in their watching, perhaps their being paid or rewarded depended on their being seen to watch. Marcus said that he stood close to the pool, close enough to see that the focus of attention was this idiot, half beggar, half imbecile, who was roaring out that he had been crippled for many years. Marcus heard my son as everyone around came closer. “Wilt thou be made whole?” he was shouting. Some were laughing and doing imitations of his voice, but others were beckoning even more people to move silently towards the voice at the centre, near the pool, the voice booming “Wilt thou be made whole?” And the idiot began insisting that the angel was coming to trouble the water, but because he had no servant to help him, and only the first in the water could be cured, he was doomed to remain immobile for the rest of his days. And the voice rose up again, and this time no one laughed or mocked. There was complete silence from all around as this time the voice said “Take up thy bed and walk.”
Marcus did not know for how long the silence lasted; he could see the man lying there and then the crowd pushed back and still no one spoke as the man stood up and my son told him that he was to sin no more. And then the man moved away, leaving the stretcher there. He made his way towards the Temple with a crowd following him, and my son and his friends following too. They were creating a frenzy on the Sabbath. In the Temple, no one cared about the man and why he was walking, but they cared that he was shouting and pointing and that there was a large crowd following him and that it was the Sabbath. No one, Marcus said, was in any doubt about who had caused this breach of the Sabbath. The only reason my son was not arrested then and there, Marcus said, was because he was being watched to see where he might go next and to see who was backing him. The authorities, both Jewish and Roman, wondered where he would take them, what would happen if they made sure that he went nowhere without spies and observers.
“Is there anything we can do,” I asked, “to stop him?”
“Yes there is,” Marcus said. “If he were to return home, return alone, and not even be seen on the street, not even work or have any visitors, just stay in these rooms, disappear, then that might save him, but even then he will be watched; but nothing else will work and if it happens, if he returns, then it must be soon.”
• • •
And so I decided to set out for Cana for the wedding of my cousin’s daughter, having decided previously that I would not go. I disliked weddings. I dislike the amount of laughter and talk and the waste of food and the drink flowing over and the bride and groom more like a couple to be sacrificed, for the sake of money, or status, or inheritance, to be singled out and celebrated for something that was none of anyone’s business and then to be set up with roars of jollity and drunkenness and unnecessary gatherings of people. It was easier when you were young because somehow those days of smiling people and the general madness made your eyes dart in your head until you could come to love a buffoon if he came close enough.
I went to Cana not to celebrate the joining together with much clamour of two people, one of whom I barely knew and the other not at all, but to see if I could get my son home. For days before, I summoned what strength I had in my eyes and I practised with my voice, worked out ways of keeping it low and insistent. I prepared warnings and threats if promises would not do. There must be, I thought, one thing I could say that might matter. One sentence. One promise. One threat. One warning. And I was sure as I sat there that I had it; I had fooled myself that he would come back with me, that he had had enough of wandering and that he was broken now, or that I could break him with some words.
When I arrived in Cana some days before the wedding I knew, or I almost knew, that I had come in vain. The only talk was the talk of him and the fact that I was his mother meant that I was noticed and approached.
Close to the house of my cousin Miriam was the house of Lazarus. I had known him since he was a baby. Of all the children that any of us had, he was, from the day he appeared in the world, the most beautiful. He seemed to smile before he did anything else. When we visited Ramira, his mother, she would put her fingers to her lips and take us across the room to where his cot lay and when we looked in he seemed to be already smiling. It made Ramira at times almost embarrassed because when we came to visit we would discover that we were not alone in feeling that we had come to visit the boy as he learned to walk and talk as much we had come to see his parents or his sisters. Instantly, as soon as other children saw him, they wanted him in their game; whatever they did once he was there became peaceful and harmonious. I now know that he was alone among us in possessing something strange—he had not been visited by darkness or by fear, by what comes into our spirits in the deepest part of the night or the end of the Sabbath and lurks there. There were years when I did not see him, the years when the family moved to Bethany before they returned to live in Cana, but I always heard the news and it always included something about him—how he was growing up golden and graceful, serious and kind, and how worried they were because they knew they would not be able to keep him among the olive groves and the fruit trees, that something would happen to him, that a great city would call to him, that the charm he exuded and his beauty, grown manly now, would need another realm in which to flourish.
But no one realized that it would be the realm of death he was destined for, that all the grace and beauty, all of his aura of specialness, like a gift from the gods to his parents and his sisters, that all of it was a grim joke, like being teased by a smell of delicious food or the possibility of plenty, when it was really only something passing by, destined for elsewhere. I know that he moaned in pain for a day or two and then he was better and then the pains came again, and they came in his head and they often lasted through the night and that he cried out, he cried out that he would promise to be good. But there was nothing to be done, there was poison growing in his head, he began to weaken and he could not bear light, even a chink of light. If the door opened as someone came into the room, it would be enough for him, he would cry out. I do not know for how long this went on; I know that they cared for him and I know too that it was as though a golden harvest had been mowed down by a night’s dark wind, or a pestilence had come into the trees and shrunk the fruit, and it was unlucky even to mention his name or ask for news of him.
So I did not ask for news of him but I often thought of him, especially as I prepared to come to Cana. I wondered if I should visit him or his sisters. As I set out, I did not know that he had already died.
When I arrived in Cana there was a strange emptiness in the streets. I heard afterwards that for two hours or more some days earlier the birds had withdrawn from the air as though it were night or there were some cataclysm in progress that meant danger to them and made them retreat into their nests. And there was a hushed holding-in of things, no wind, no rustling in the leaves of trees, no animal sounds. Cats moved out of sight, and shadows—even the very shadows—stayed as they were. Lazarus had died a week earlier, and then when he was four days in his grave my son and his followers had reached Cana with their high-flown talk. And when my son told them to dig Lazarus up, remove him from his tomb, no one wanted to do this. In the days before he died Lazarus had become peaceful and beautiful. No one wanted to touch him now, disturb him in the ground, but so great was the frenzy at the arriving horde that his sisters had no choice. The crowd had arrived with news of a blind man who could see and of a gathering where there was no food and which had, as though by a miracle, been filled with plenty. The talk was of nothing except power and miracles. It was as if the crowd was roaming the countryside like a swarm of locusts in search of want and affliction.
But no one among them thought that anyone could raise the dead. It had occurred to no one. Most of them believed, or so I learned, that it should not even be tried, that it would represent a mockery of the sky itself. They felt, as I felt, as I still feel, that no one should tamper with the fullness that is death. Death needs time and silence. The dead must be left alone with their new gift or their new freedom from affliction.
I know, because Marcus told me, that Mary and Martha, the two sisters of the dead boy, began to follow my son once they had heard the news of the lame walking and the blind seeing. And I understand that they would have done anything in those last silent days. They watched helplessly as their brother grew easily towards death in the same way as a source for a river, hidden under the earth, begins flowing and carries water across a plain to the sea. They would have done anything to divert the stream, make it meander on the plain and dry up under the weight of the sun. They would have done anything to keep their brother alive. They sent word to my son and they asked him to come but he did not. It was something I learned when I saw him myself, that, if the time was not right, he would not be disturbed by a merely human voice, or the pleadings of anyone he knew. Thus he paid no attention to what he heard from Martha and Mary and they stayed with their brother so they would be with him when he took his last breath, when he was fully part of the waves of the sea, an invisible aspect of their rhythm. And during those days then, as river water slowly took on the taste of salt and they buried him and he lay fresh in the earth, many people who had loved Lazarus and who had known his sisters came to the house to comfort them. There was talk and lamentation.
And then when they heard that the crowd had arrived, like a carnival with every malcontent and half-crazed soothsayer following in its wake, Martha went out into the streets to announce her brother’s death to my son. She confronted him and won silence from him and those around him and she cried out “If you had been here he would not have died.” And she was ready to go further, but stopped for a moment when she saw how sorry he was, when she saw how he knew, or seemed to know, that the suffering and death of Lazarus was a sadness almost too great for anyone to bear. And now it was a weight that could not be lifted.
Having let the silence linger for some moments, Martha spoke again as the crowd listened. She spoke very quietly, but what she said was heard. She was so desperate in her grief that her pleading sounded like a challenge.
“I know,” she said, “that even now that he is four days in the earth, you have the power to raise him.”
“He will rise,” my son replied, “as all mankind will rise, when time relents, when the sea itself becomes a glassy stillness.”
“No,” Martha said, “you have the power to do it now.”
And she told my son then what the others had told him, that he was not a mortal as we are mortal, but she believed that he was God’s son, that he had been sent to us in mortal guise, but he was not mortal and he had powers, that he was the one we had been waiting for, who would be king on earth and in the skies, and that she and her sister had been among those blessed enough to recognize him, as they recognized him now. For the sake of her brother, she told him in plain loud words, with her arms spread out wide, that he was the son of God.
When Martha found Mary, who had returned to the grave to weep there, she too went to my son and told him that he had the power. As she wept, so did he, because he had known Lazarus all of his life and had loved him as all of us did, and he came with her to the grave, freshly covered with earth, and there was a murmuring from the crowd that had followed, people shouting that if he could heal the sick and make the crippled walk and the blind see, then he could raise the dead.
He stood there silently for a time and then in a voice like a whisper he ordered the grave to be dug up while Martha, screaming now, afraid that what she had asked for was being granted, cried that they had suffered enough and the body would be stinking and rotting after its time in the earth, but my son insisted and the crowd stood by as the grave was opened and the soft earth lifted from where it lay over Lazarus’s body. Once the body could be seen, most of the onlookers had moved away in horror and fright, all except Martha and Mary and my son, who called out the words: “Lazarus come forth.” And gradually the crowd came close again to the grave, and this was the time when the birdsong ceased and the birds withdrew from the air. Martha believed too that time was then suspended, that in those two hours nothing grew, nothing was born or came into being, nothing died or withered in any way.
Slowly, the figure dirtied with clay and covered in graveclothes wound around him began with great uncertainty to move in the place they had made for him. It was as though the earth beneath him was pushing him and then letting him be still in his great forgetfulness and nudging him again like some strange new creature jerking and wriggling towards life. He was bound with the sheets and his face was covered with a napkin and now he turned as a child in the freshness of the womb who turns knowing that his time there is up and he must wrestle his way into the world. “Loose him and let him go,” my son said, and two men came, two neighbours, and they stood in the grave as those around watched in hushed amazement and fright as they lifted Lazarus and then unbound him. He stood up with merely a cloth around his waist.
He had been unchanged by death. Once his eyes opened, he stared at the sun with a deep unearthly puzzlement and then at the sky around the sun. He seemed not to see the crowd; some sounds came from him, not words exactly, something closer to whispered cries, or whimpers, and then the crowd stood back as Lazarus moved through them, past them, looking at no one, being led by his sisters back to their house, the world around remaining stilled and silent, and my son too, I am told, stilled and silent, as Lazarus began to weep.
At first they noticed just the tears, but then his crying came in howls as his two sisters led him gently towards the house, followed all the way by the silent crowd as the howling grew louder and more fierce. By the time they reached their door he could barely walk. They disappeared inside and closed the shutters from the burning sun and did not appear again that day, despite the waiting crowd who lingered hour after hour, even as night fell, and some indeed through the night itself and even as the morning came.
• • •
There was in those first days a strange atmosphere in Cana. I noticed the stalls and the stallholders had more things on display than ever before, not merely food and clothes, but also cooking utensils and locks for doors. And there were animals for sale—monkeys, birds, like jungle birds, gorgeous creatures coloured red and yellow and blue, of a brightness I had never seen before, causing a crowd to gather around them in wonder. And there was a levity about the stallholders and those who walked the streets, as though some burden had been lifted, and there was much calling and yelling and figures on street corners guffawing. Even in Jerusalem on market days, when I used to go to that place before I was married, there had always been a gravity, a sense of people doing business who meant business, or preparing themselves with due decorum for the Sabbath. But Cana was full of raised voices and raised dust, sly laughter, young men laughing without restraint, the air full of whistling and cat-calls. As soon as my cousin Miriam and I removed ourselves indoors, she told me the story of what had happened to Lazarus, and how no one now would even pass the house near by, where he and his sisters lived, but would cross the street instead, and how she believed that he was in bed in a darkened room, that she had heard that he could barely swallow water and barely hold down soft bread which had been soaked in water. The hordes had moved on, she said, followed by an even larger caravan of hucksters, salesmen, water-carriers, fire-eaters and purveyors of cheap food. All were being watched with a ferocious zeal by the authorities, some of whom were in disguise, but others of whom were following openly and then quickly departing for Jerusalem to be the first to arrive with word of some new outrage, some new miracle, some new breach in the great order that was maintained to keep the Romans pleased.
Miriam had sent word to my son that I was in Cana and word had come back that he would be at the wedding and his place would be beside his mother. Then, I thought, we could speak. I remained calm. I dozed and then slept deeply after my journey. I listened to Miriam go over and over the story of Lazarus. I was ready to confront my son and ready also to keep him in one of the inner rooms of Miriam’s house until things grew calm, until some other novelty arrived on the scene, and we could slip quietly back to Nazareth. I noticed in the night before the wedding that the streets around Miriam’s house, normally so quiet once darkness fell, were filled with the sounds of feet and voices. All through the night I heard them, men moving fearlessly, laughing and talking, or calling to each other, or having mock fights or funny arguments and then running back and forth on the street.
Also, that night, before we went to bed, people came to the house, almost hysterical with news of the bride, the lavish gifts she had received, the clothes she would wear. There was much discussion of the bridegroom’s family and divisions within it over protocol and tradition. I did not speak, but I knew that I was noticed and felt that some people had come to the house to peer at me, or be in my presence. As soon as I could I left the room to help in the kitchen. When I returned with a tray to collect empty cups, I stood for a second in the doorway, in the shadows where no one noticed me, and I heard Miriam and one other woman recount once more to others the story of Lazarus.
It struck me on hearing something each of them said that neither of them had actually been there. Later, when I found Miriam alone, I asked her if she had personally been in the crowd that day and she smiled and said no, but she had heard all the details from several who had witnessed it all. On seeing my expression then, she turned to the window and closed the shutters and spoke quietly.
“I know Lazarus died. Do not doubt that he died. And that he had been buried for four days. Do not doubt that. And he is alive now, he will be at the wedding tomorrow. And there is a new strangeness; no one, not one of us, knows what the next event will be. There is talk of a revolt against the Romans, or a revolt against the teachers. Some people say that the Romans wish to overthrow the teachers, and others that the teachers are behind it all, but it is also possible that there will be no revolt or indeed that there will be one against everything we have known before, including death itself.”
She repeated the words “including death itself.” The force of her words held me still.
“Including death itself,” she said again. “Lazarus may be merely the first. But he is alive now in his own house and I can swear to you that one week ago he was dead. This may be what we have waited for, and that is why the crowd has come here and there are men shouting in the night.”
• • •
In the kitchen the next morning news came that Martha, Mary and Lazarus were going to come to Miriam’s house first, and then accompany us to the feast. Lazarus was still weak, we were told, and his sisters had become aware of how afraid people were of him. “He lives with the secret that none of us knows,” Miriam said. “His spirit had time to take root in the other world, and people are afraid of what he could say, the knowledge he could impart. His sisters do not want to go alone with him to the wedding.”
I dressed carefully. The day was hot and the interior of the house was kept dark. We moved slowly in the dense and humid air. Miriam and I found ourselves several times in the main room of the house alone together, uneasy with each other, but not stirring from our chairs and not speaking. We were both waiting for the visitors to come. A few times when we heard sounds we both looked at each other ominously, fearfully. Neither of us knew what would happen when Martha and Mary led their brother into this room. And, as time went by, our wondering became more tense. Finally, in the stillness and the heat and the silence, I fell asleep and when I woke Miriam was standing over me, whispering “They are here. They have finally arrived.”
The sisters looked more beautiful than I had ever seen them. In their solemnity as they entered the closeness of the room and approached me, they were figures of substance, grandeur, immense dignity. It was as though they had been marked and separated from others by what they had been through, it came across in their poise, a depth in the expression on their faces when they smiled. As they both came towards me I realized that I was associated in their minds with what had occurred and that they wished to touch me, embrace me, thank me, as if I had something to do with the fact that their brother was alive.
Their brother stood in the doorway and then moved quietly into the room. When he sighed all of us moved towards him and it was then, just then, that the opportunity came and it was the only one I had, and I think it may have been the only opportunity anyone had, to ask him. It was the semi-darkness of the room, the stillness of the air and the fact that all of us, us four women, would know to keep silent about what we should not speak of. There were a few seconds in which any one of us could have asked him about the cave full of souls where he had been. Was it a place of massive, obliterating darkness, or was there light? Of wakefulness, or of dreams, or of deep sleep? Were there voices, or was there pure stillness, or some other sound like the dripping of water, or sighs, or echoes? Did he know anyone? Did he meet his mother, whom we all had loved? Did he remember us as he wandered in the place where he had been? Was there blood or pain? Was it a landscape of dull, washed colours, or a red vastness, with cliffs, or forests, or deserts, or encroaching mist? Was anyone afraid? Did he wish to return there?
Lazarus stood in the darkened room and sighed again and something was broken, the great chance had escaped us, maybe never to return. Miriam asked him if he wanted water and he nodded. His sisters led him to a chair and he sat alone, utterly isolated. He seemed to be reaching deep into himself for some soft energy which had been left to him and which kept him awake, his sisters said, both day and night.
He did not speak as we set out for the wedding. It was hard not to watch him as he was being helped along by his sisters, moving as though his spirit was still filled with the thunderous novelty of its own great death, like a pitcher of sweet water filled to the brim, heavy with itself. I was so involved in watching him and then trying to look away that I had put no thought into what was ahead until we came close to the house where the wedding feast was to take place and I saw a crowd who I knew had nothing to do with the wedding, not only hawkers and hucksters I had seen before, but young men in large groups, all of them arguing and shouting. Everybody stood back as we approached; a slow silence came over the crowd. I thought at first it was solely because Lazarus was among us, still being led by both of his sisters. But then I realized that the silence was also for me and I wished I had not come here. I did not know how these people knew who I was. That they should stand back for me struck me as almost funny, something I might dream, but it was not funny, it was frightening when I saw the mixture of respect and fear in their eyes so I looked down at the dust and made my way into the wedding feast with my friends as though I was nobody.
Immediately, I was separated from the others and taken to a table which ran along a covered shaded space where I was placed beside Marcus who seemed to have been waiting there for me. He told me that he could not stay, that it would be dangerous now for anyone to be seen with us, and he pointed to a figure standing casually at the entrance, whom we must have passed on the way in, although I had not noticed him.
“Watch him,” Marcus said. “He is one of the two or three figures who move easily between the Jewish leaders and the Romans, that is what he is paid to do. He owns olive groves that run through a whole stretch of valley and he has many assistants and servants and a house of great luxury. He seldom has any reason to leave Jerusalem except when he visits his own land. He is a man without scruples. He comes from the most humble place and the most humble circumstances. He rose at first not because of his wit but because he can strangle a man without leaving a mark or making a sound. That is what he was used for, but now he has other uses. He will decide what must happen and he will be listened to. His judgment will be dispassionate, merciless. The fact that he is here at all means that all of you are lost unless you move with very great care. You must return home as soon as possible. Both you and your son. You and the one they are watching most must slip away from here even before the feast starts and if you can disguise him in some way all the better, but you must not speak to anyone or stop and he must not leave the house for months, maybe even years. It is the only chance that you have.”
Marcus stood up and joined a small group at another table and then disappeared as I sat alone, aware that I was being watched now by the figure in the doorway, who seemed to me too young, too innocuous looking, innocent almost, a man whose wispy beard seemed to have grown only recently to cover a thin jaw and a weak chin. He looked like someone who could do no harm except maybe with his eyes, which had a way of fixing on something or someone, a way of taking in a complete scene as though he would need not to forget it, and then shifting his gaze to a scene close to it. But it was always an animal gaze, there was no intelligence apparent in his face, not even a coldness, just something distant, passive, brutish. For a moment I caught his eye but I turned away and looked only at the figure of Lazarus.
And Lazarus, it was clear to me, was dying. If he had come back to life, it was merely to say a last farewell to it. He recognized none of us, barely appeared able to lift the glass of water to his lips as he was handed small pieces of soaked bread by his sisters. His roots seemed to have spread downwards, and he saw his sisters as you would see someone or other at a market or in a crowd. There was something supremely alone about him, and if indeed he had been dead for four days and come alive again, he was in possession of a knowledge that seemed to me to have unnerved him; he had tasted something or seen or heard something which had filled him with the purest pain, which had in some grim and unspeakable way frightened him beyond belief. It was knowledge he could not share, perhaps because there were no words for it. How could there be words for it? As I watched him I knew that whatever it was had bewildered him, whatever knowledge he had come to possess, whatever he had seen or heard, he carried it with him in the depths of his soul as the body carries its own dark share of blood and sinew.
And then the crowd came and the only time I had seen anything like it was that year when there was a shortage of bread and sometimes a consignment of bread would come but it would never be enough and this meant that people had to crash through the crowd, and the crowd had to surge forward like a solid mass. I knew already that the crowd I had seen in the street had not come for the wedding. I knew for whom these people had come, and when he appeared he frightened me more than any of Marcus’s words had frightened me.
My son was wearing rich clothes and he was moving as though the clothes belonged to him as of right. His tunic was made of a material I had never seen before and its colour, a blue that was close to purple, I had never once seen on a man. And he seemed to have grown, but it was merely an illusion brought about by the way he was treated by those around him, those who followed him, those who had come with him, none of whom was dressed like he was or had a glow like he did. It took awhile before he crossed the room but yet he spoke to no one and did not seem to stop at any time.
When I rose to embrace him, he appeared unfamiliar, oddly formal and grand, and it struck me that I should speak now, speak in whispers before we were joined by others. I held him to me.
“You are in great danger,” I whispered. “You are being watched. When I leave the table you must wait for some minutes and then follow me and you must tell no one and we must leave here, be away from here within the next hour. Wait until the bride and bridegroom come and then I will leave as if to refresh myself and that will be the signal. You must follow me. You must tell no one that you are going. You must leave alone.”
Even before I had finished speaking, he had moved away from me.
“Woman, what have I to do with thee?” he asked, and then again louder so that it was heard all around. “Woman, what have I to do with thee?”
“I am your mother,” I said. But by this time he had begun to talk to others, high flown talk and riddles, using strange proud terms to describe himself and his task in the world. I heard him saying—I heard it then and I noticed how heads bowed all around when he said it—I heard him saying that he was the Son of God.
As he sat down I wondered if he was pondering what I had whispered to him, if once the bride and bridegroom appeared I should make a move and then wait for him, but slowly, as we waited, and more and more people came to touch him, and as news spread of the numbers who were outside, I realized that he had not even heard me. He heard no one in the excitement of that time. And when the bride and bridegroom came and the cheering began, I had to work out what I should do. I decided that I would stay with him now and I would seek out another chance, maybe when night fell or in the early morning there might be a time that he would be alone and open to warnings. And then it struck me as I looked at him again how ignorant and foolish and meek and ill-informed I would seem warning him as if I knew more than he did. I wished just then that Marcus had not gone, but as I glanced over towards the entrance I could see why he had—the man, the strangler, was standing there but now he had two or three men with him, men stronger-looking than he was and he was pointing to figures in the crowd. In that second he caught my eye again and I became even more frightened than when I heard the words about the Son of God: I understood that I had not missed my chance to take my son away from here, I understood that I never had such a chance in the first place and that all of us were doomed.
I did not eat much and I do not remember the food. Although my son and I sat beside each other for more than two hours, we did not speak. It seems odd now, but there was nothing strange about our silence. So great was the heightened atmosphere and the sense of growing hysteria, with shouting coming from outside, that mere speech between two people would have been like crumbs on the floor. In the same way as Lazarus had a glow of death about him, almost like a garb that covered every aspect of his being and that no one could penetrate, so too with my son there was a sense of the fluster of life, the bright sky on a windy day, or the trees when they were filled with ripe, unharvested fruit, a sense of an unthinking energy, like bounty. He
The Testament of Mary
In the ancient town of Ephesus, Mary lives alone, years after her son’s crucifixion. She has no interest in collaborating with the authors of the Gospel—her keepers, who provide her with food and shelter and visit her regularly. She does not agree that her son is the Son of God; nor that his death was “worth it;” nor that the “group of misfits he gathered around him, men who could not look a woman in the eye,” were holy disciples. Mary judges herself ruthlessly (she did not stay at the foot of the Cross until her son died—she fled, to save herself), and is equally harsh on her judgement of others. This woman who we know from centuries of paintings and scripture as the docile, loving, silent, long-suffering, obedient, worshipful mother of Christ becomes a tragic heroine with the relentless eloquence of Electra or Medea or Antigone. Tóibín’s tour de force of imagination and language is a portrait so vivid and convincing that our image of Mary will be forever transformed.