It didn’t start out as it usually does.
I slept with my sister in those days. She can tell you no one ever crept into our room, not even at harvest time when the moon was full and the village was swollen with itinerant threshers. We used to hear them singing sometimes on their way back from the fields in the evening. And once, when it was my turn to do the early morning milking, a group of three passed our gate just as I was walking to the goat pen. One looked my way and I held his look a bit longer than I should have, but I never spoke to him or to any of them.
I never knew anyone. Not even that old man my parents jostled up against me when they saw with their own eyes that I wasn’t lying about what had happened. He was warm next to me at night, smelling pleasantly of fresh-cut wood and honest sweat. Sometimes, depending on what I’d fixed for supper, I’d catch, too, a vapor of lentils or a sigh of fish. Sleeping close in the climate of his body was the nearest I came to knowing him. He never even tried. I think he was a little afraid of me and, later, of the boy, too. Not much passed to soften his fears, either.
Now that I’m an old woman and have seen all that I have seen, I can understand how we were an unsettling pair, the boy and I. I’m not afraid of anything myself, not any more at least, but I know there are things people do fear and should fear. The old man stood by us, I’ll give him that, and it wasn’t an easy thing to do.
I wasn’t given a choice, you know. I was just told what was to be, and that after it had already begun. I guess you could say that’s the lot of most women. At least, there’s plenty who’d say that. But a hard fact’s a hard fact, no matter how grand the messenger. It was, in a way, the most natural of things in a woman’s life, but unusual, too, so unusual that it marked me apart from every other woman, from every other person. Apart, as I’ve said, from my timid, kindly old husband; apart also from my sister who shied from touching me in the weeks before my marriage even in our narrow, shared bed; apart from my neighbors with their clusters of children; apart from my worried parents and the mistrustful rabbi.
It’s no wonder, then, that I stayed so near to my son, in his boyhood of course but when he’d become a man, too, and was out in the world, going places I was not always welcome, drawing about him friends who did little more than tolerate me, who could not fathom me, nor how he was mine in a way he could not ever be theirs or anyone else’s, however much they wanted him to belong to them, wanted him to care for them, to make them his only reason. They hung on his every word, repeated his stories. Even today there are people who hunger to hear those tales again and again and who object if the teller puts a phrase out of place or substitutes one word for another. They are trying to make up for not having been there in person, I guess, for not having faced the force of his living presence. Some brooding ones seem to feel cheated, too, at having missed his dying presence. They can not know that his presence called up not only hopes, but also envy and frustration, and not just in his enemies. The repeaters of his stories never tell that part.
But I came to explain about me, not about him. Too many are already on that task, anyway. They will fail in their explanations and descriptions. They want him to be about rewards and punishments, but he was never interested in what a person might deserve or not deserve. He made promises he couldn’t keep so that he could give what he did give, face-to-face love with no expectation of return. There’s few brave enough to follow him in that.
It shouldn’t be so difficult to understand about me. Just discount the angel and imagine the life of an ordinary woman with a bent for contemplation; a mild, disinterested husband; and a bright, well-meaning, attractive son who died too young. An ordinary woman who met with extraordinary loneliness and grief. Though it did mean I got to witness directly the whole prophesied journey. Full of grace, and all that.
I read along wondering what would be revealed, and then it came (upon a midnight clear). How clever, how interesting. I had to read it again – now more closely, now with the “secret” revealed.
It could be a preface (and explanation of a sort) to a book by Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary.