Saturday, April 19, 2014

April 19th


These are three short stories that are not meant to be historical or literal. Perhaps it is something like a written Lectio Divina- that is to say, this is what came up for me when I thought deeply about the stories as I was writing them.


I've deliberately left the endings hanging, in the way that perhaps they would have been in the space between Good Friday and Easter.


We know Easter is coming, but those in the story didn't (except Jesus, naturally) which makes tomorrow morning all the more meaningful when it does arrive.


*


He sat down on a rock outcropping under the shade of a tree. It was very hot and still and this stillness was all around him. He stretched out his aching legs and closed his eyes; even his face was dusty and worn looking.


Each time he breathed, he could feel the heavy, warm bands of flesh that wrapped him round and weighed him down. It was a strange and wonderful sensation to him still. He was unable to take a single physical breath for granted.


Each time he breathed, he could smell the hot stone and baking dust and the scent of water as it wafted up from the well, and above it all, the sky, the blue almost white at the zenith. The physical world wrapped him around as much as his own body and he was always aware of it.


He was sunk down into the heaviness of the present world like a grain buried in the earth, and though he felt weary and pressed in and sick at heart sometimes, pressed skin to skin against the open wounds, the violence and hatred and the faces like stone, still everywhere he looked, he also saw its beauty, sometimes dazzling, sometimes calming and always personal and intimately known.


The stillness around him was broken by the sound of slow footsteps. Smiling, he opened his eyes.


An older, heavy set woman came into view, carrying empty buckets with a kind of stoic determination, her face shut down. She did not even bother glancing at him; she knew she was merely a piece of scenery to this man, something less than the stone he rested on.


“Would you give me a drink of water?” His voice, when he spoke, was slightly hoarse, both from disuse and thirst.


Startled, the woman looked at him, eyebrows raised. She saw a ragged and dusty looking Jewish peasant with work roughened hands, his face shaded by a prayer shawl- either to pray or to ease the heat or both.  His voice carried a northern accent, but his eyes were quiet and full of a compassion that was disconcertingly personal.


“How is it that you, being a Jew, are even talking to me, not only a woman, but a Samaritan woman at that?” she asked. Her voice was direct and no nonsense, but there were some glints of long forgotten humor in her eyes, woken now by the audacity of this Galilean.


“If you knew who was talking to you and what God plans to give you, you’d ask him for a drink of water- and in return, he would give you living water,” the man replied, smiling.

The woman began lowering her bucket. It was clear she was dealing with a crazy person, but he seemed nice enough and she didn’t mind playing along for a while. She didn’t often get the chance to make conversation.

“Oh really?” she asked. “How are you going to get this water? You don’t even have a bucket. This is a deep well, you know. Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well himself and drank from it, and his sons and livestock as well?”

The woman heaved the bucket up onto the lip of the well and turned to look at this strange person, her hand on her ample hip. Even she, even in her circumstances, could be proud of this history.

“As great as your father Jacob was, whoever drinks of this water will get thirsty again,” the man countered easily. “But whoever drinks of the water that I shall give them will never thirst again. The water that I give them will become a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”

The woman laughed, a deep, throaty laugh, generous and not unkind. It was good to laugh; she couldn’t remember the last time she had.

“You should give me some of this water then,” she said, “so I’ll never be thirsty and won’t ever have to come here day after day to draw from the well.”

She lifted the bucket to him and he took it and drank. Even his hair was dusty. She had the sudden, almost maternal instinct to brush some of the dust off, and wondered, on the heels of that, where her boys might be and how long it had been since she’d had word of them.

He looked at her. She wondered, suddenly, if she might have met this man before, and had forgotten about it. But how could she have forgotten such a thing? He didn’t seem like a person one would forget.

“Go get your husband and bring him back here,” the man said quietly.

The woman looked at him, startled again. She thought of the man who waited for her back in the village and sighed. Still, even his scant protection was better than none. She winced away from those memories.

“I have no husband,” she said shortly, turning away from the man.

“That’s well put,” said the man gently, speaking to her back. “You’ve had five husbands and the one you have now hasn’t actually married you.”

The woman turned around slowly, her eyes wide. His words had lifted years of protective scarring and left her wide open. Her heart was beating strangely in her chest and she put her broad hand over it, as though to slow it down.  She felt as if she were standing on the edge of some strange horizon.

Shaken out of her usual strong defenses, a question rose up in her. It was a question she had wondered about all her life, even when she was a girl, standing in the evening, looking up into the hills, wondering where god was and why he wasn’t answering her prayers, why he was leaving her alone in the face of her suffering.

She knew it must be something she was doing wrong. She was all wrong to god and he was punishing her for not pleasing him. If only she could change her face, her name, her heritage, her place, then god would love her and keep her safe, and bless her life. But she was in the wrong place, and god turned his face away from her.

“You must be a prophet,” she admitted, slowly. She had to ask this question; it might be the only chance she had at receiving any kind of answer at all. She took a step toward him, her hands outstretched in an unconscious gesture of pleading. She had to know.


*


She hated him. She had loved him, but now she hated him and she would not go to him, though they told her he was just outside the village. Martha could go to him. Stoic and practical, Martha could handle him. But she never wanted to see his face again.

It was easy at first, to have hope, to be unafraid and confident as her brother lay ill; they had the close friendship of the Rabbi! He loved them. There was nothing to fear. Her brother could even smile about it, though he was weak.

But the weakness kept growing and the Rabbi did not come. Her brother stopped eating, stopped drinking. He slipped farther into the fever and still the Rabbi did not come. They had sent the message and received the reply- this was to be for the glory of God! How could she fear?

Sometimes Mary would stand outside the doorway, looking toward the street, needing to breathe something other than the sweaty, feverish air of the home inside. The road was empty. The figures she saw were familiar faces, but never the one face they desperately needed.

A day later, just before dawn her brother slipped out of the fever and into death. The one breath came, as she bent over him, and the next did not. She waited, holding her own breath until she realized she was, and then she took a deep breath, trying to breathe for her brother, but she could not reach him. He did not breathe again. He was gone, gone down to Sheol, down beyond the reach of such things as breath and air.

Still she was numb. It was not possible. This could not possibly be happening. She did not know how she could tell her sister, sleeping in an exhausted, awkward huddle on the mat.

She could not tell her sister. It would break Martha’s heart, losing her brother and knowing how they had been failed, let down, passed by. Maybe he had chosen to preserve his own life at the expense of her brother’s life- it was dangerous for the Rabbi to come to Judea.

But still there was some faint hope- if he came soon, quickly, it was possible her brother could be raised from the dead. She had heard the stories; she had believed them, and for three days, the soul lingered by the body.

Boyed by this hope, Mary could wake her sister. Surely the Rabbi would come that very day! They would hear his voice outside the door and the murmuring of the crowd, the strong, rough voices of his disciples.

This noise would break apart the darkness that was growing stronger all around them, that made their feet and hands move slowly, that made it difficult to see. They were groping through the shadows of the house, finding things and forgetting why they needed them.

The day passed by, slow and then suddenly gone and filled with movement and people and the Rabbi did not come, and they said the body had to be buried. The body! Her brother was a dead body and this dead thing had to be buried, because of the heat, locked behind the stone so that the odor of death would not disturb the living, for the brief time they had remaining; the living didn’t want to be reminded.

So they wrapped him up and carried him out on a plank and they put him behind the stone. And then they were alone. The house was full of mourners, but they were alone.

The numbness of death wore off slowly, those four days. It wore off and Mary could remember everything she had not said to her brother, all the things she should have said and why hadn’t she? In those brief moments when he was lucid, sweat streaked but faintly smiling, when his eyes had been looking into hers?

She had not because she could not believe that he would die. He had slipped away on a tide of false hope, in silence, without any proper farewell. On fourth day, even his soul no longer lingered.

If only she could go back, tell him that she loved him, how grateful she was for his strong and loving presence, for all the things he had done, for all his hard work. She would tell him that she would never forget him, that she would carry him in her heart always.

But she could not go back and she had said none of those things to him and she would never be able to again.

Mary bitterly regretted all those hours she had spent at the feet of the Rabbi, listening with her heart open, taking in everything he said, even when she could barely understood it and why? Why had she believed him?

He must be a charlatan, a fa├žade of simple words hinting at some truth too large to be revealed in any other way. The promise of love in his eyes had fallen through, dropping her brother into the darkness under the stone.

Mary hid these bitter thoughts from her sister, Martha did not know that they were taking root and growing up through Mary like a new set of bones to hold her up, to hold her together as the rest of her fell apart.

Martha was always the stronger one, loyal and steady. Mary knew that she herself was like an afternoon rain, thundering down in passion and then evaporating before it could soak into the earth. She was a plant that grew up too quickly, only to wilt.

She would not be like that anymore; she would guard her heart. She would not leave it open for any more homeless prophets, anymore would be Messiahs. She would live close to the ground, the ground she would return too, the ground that had swallowed the ones she had loved.


When she heard he had come that afternoon of the fourth day, she wanted to laugh, but it came out like choking and no one in the room knew. They thought she was sobbing. Her hate was almost as bright and strong as her love had been, but still it worried her; she did not know if it would be strong enough to keep her heart closed against him.

She would hide from him in the stuffy room, behind the mourners, behind her hate, stuffing it down like rags in a clay jar, packed down, but her heart was topsy-turvy and wouldn’t stay still, things kept spilling out, and she knew he was dangerous. He came like a thief in the night, coming and laying claim to everything precious. He could do this just with one word, one loving glance toward her.


These were the thoughts that were spinning through her head when the others in the room stirred, and she felt her sister come and pull her aside. Her thoughts stilled with the weight of dreadful anticipation.

“The Rabbi is here and he is asking for you,” Martha said anxiously.

There was no place to hide. She could run away, run into the hills, into the city, but if she did, her thoughts would follow her and she couldn’t stand her thoughts anymore, how they wound her around like grave cloths, how they blinded her.

Lurching to her feet, she went out of the house and into the street. She was walking quickly and then she was running. She was running into the crowd and her heart was beating so fast she could hear nothing else, though she was pushing through people and they were falling away from her in the deafening silence at the center, where he waited. She could not look at his face; she threw herself down at his feet.

In the stillness of this center, the one thought that had been pulsing in her rose up and she spoke it, bitter as bones.

“Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Speaking was like pulling a jagged splinter out of her hand in one swift motion. She did not hate her Lord. The hate was as flimsy as rotten linen. Her love for him was so great that the pain of it and the grief was breaking her heart in two. She could not move and she could not speak- all her bones had melted into sobs that were the farthest thing from laughter.

*

They trickled in slowly under cover of the evening and into the night. They each held a jagged piece of the story, they each were so burdened with grief, bewilderment, shame and fear that they could barely speak to one another.

They stood outside the house, peering this way and that, wondering if this too was a trap, if they also would be taken, dragged away, as he had been…

That moment! That confusion of violence, shadows, cries. The ground had heaved beneath them. It seemed they were all lying on the ground and the next moment, they were all grappling together. Someone cried out and there was stillness and someone was running away, a pale shape of fear in the night.

Some had followed, stealthily, a safe distance behind. Some had run to the house to tell the women. Some of them had formed a loose knot of grief, trailing after the spiraling events, unable to come to terms with what was happening, faster and faster, the horror beyond words, unstoppable. They followed; they could not look, they could not look away. They could do nothing but watch.

Late into the night, John sat in the corner of the upper room. Each time he looked up, grief tore up through his heart again and he could not look up any more. Even with his eyes on the floor, he felt the presence of the furniture, the props, the ashes grown cold, the table laid bare. The absence pressed down on him, the void and the silence, despite his close companions.

Never! Never again to hear that voice, the warmth of his hand, to lean… He could not think of it; he pushed the thought away, shaking his head back and forth, unaware.

Nothing could change it, the weight of that dead body rolling awkwardly, abandoned of life, broken, and that spray of blood and water like a nightmare image clouding his vision. How could he still see? He wanted never to see again.

He wanted to stop breathing, to continue crying, but the tears had dried up hours ago and there was nothing but the dry rasp of his breathing and the chill room, filing up with his companions, but terrible in its emptiness, the one that was not there.

He kept thinking back- if only he had run after Judas, stopped him! Each time he thought of this, pain seized his heart. How could he not have? The Lord had whispered right into his ear the answer to that question so horrible that no one had truly believed it.

He hadn’t thought it through, he hadn’t acted when he should have and he would never have another chance. He had reclined back against the Lord, secure in the warmth and the roasted meat and the red wine and his steady breathing and he hadn’t taken it seriously.

It seemed to John now that he had misunderstood everything. He had been hearing and not grasping the meaning. Something hard as rock and as crucial as blood had been running through the Lord’s words all along, something too bright to see, a doorway too dark to see through.

He had seen things too much for words, the glory terrifying on the lonely mountaintop swallowed by the cloud of blinding light, sending them to their faces, sending them almost to sleep, after a long night of prayer…

Sleep! How could he ever sleep again? He pounded his fist against his temple, his head bowed nearly between his knees, his eyes dry, his heart burning.

Sleep! John groaned, the pain flaring up, his head turning to the side, to the wall, as though to look away from himself. But he could not forget in the garden, the cold air of the spring night oppressive somehow, his belly full, his head hazy and the sorrow that was pressing in on his heart, a sorrow without words, an inexplicable grief.

All the things the Lord had been saying! About leaving them and the agony of birth and persecution to follow, and a whole honey sweet and rich flow of words about love, certain words like coins shimmering out of the tide of this love- a new commandment- rooms in the Father’s house. So much to sort through and John had tried, but it was as though he were swimming in it- carried by the flow but unable to take it in, unable to see where it was coming from or where it was going.

But he could focus on none of it now- those words were slipping through his fingers. All he could remember was how he had slept, every thing waking and sleeping like part of a nightmare. Had he heard the Lord groaning? What had he cried out in the night through the trees sewn in with shadow? John didn’t know, couldn’t remember; he might have dreamed it.

The one thing he could remember was the sight of the Lord’s face a blur in the night as he looked down at him, the grief in it as John had tried to clear his head from sleep. He had struggled upright, regretful, determined this time absolutely to keep watch, but it was no use.

He had failed the Lord in so many unforgiveable ways and now he was dead. The Lord had slipped through the cracks, through his hands, slipped further and further from the reach of any help, receiving blow after blow, hurt after hurt, until driven finally from the city and stretched out and nailed down and strung up like a common criminal, struggling to breathe until he could breathe no more and he had died right in front of John's eyes, but just beyond his reach.

John could not fathom it. One moment, they had all been together, in that very room and the next moment, the room empty of that presence. Never again! Never to hear that voice call his name, to look up and see him ahead on the road, his pace steady. Never again to look up and catch the Lord's laughing eyes, warm with love.

All the hopes dashed, all the vision shattered. Nothing remained but to try and escape the city and to return the shores of home, return to his father’s business, rising early in the morning, casting off from the empty shore into the silvered waters. The lake and its shore at morning would haunt him, when he returned home, and the hills and the villages, the silence would seem to shake through the air.