A short story by Bryant Burroughs
Noise surrounds me as if the sun itself were shouting. Ahead of me, bier carriers trudge with a rhythmic crunch on the stony road. Wailing women trail a step behind me. Some are there because it is expected of them, others are mourning my pitiable life, and the honest ones are crying for fear that my fate will fall on them one day.
I’ve lived fewer than thirty-five summers, yet I’m walking a fourth time to bury a piece of my heart in the graves on the hillside outside the village. There is no word for a mother who has lost her only child. No word for a woman who has lost everything. I tell myself that my suffering is no greater than the suffering of other mothers and wives for a hundred generations, but such a community brings no comfort. The entanglements of love that make life worth living have all come unthreaded.
Outside the village’s south gate, the road before us is straight and gently downhill. A hundred paces ahead, the road curves around the boulder-strewn mountainside and winds toward the fishing villages of Galilee. Opposite this curve is the place of the dead, a rocky hillside pocked with graves. Nain may be a small village, but people have lived here for centuries. In time, most have been borne to this hillside and entombed, their bodies covered with sand and gravel and smaller rocks, then roofed by slabs. It is a spirit-haunted slope.
But only one grave matters to me. Up near the crest of the place of the dead, in the section where lie the poorest of this poor village, lie the bones of my two little girls. The first did not survive the womb. The second I held in my arms for only a handful of days, my tears flooding her face as she breathed slowly, slowly, then was still.
In that grave, too, is Joel. My Joel.
How much we loved each other. With only thirty families in the village, young women have little choice in marriage. Some marry in hope. Most marry to produce sons to labor in the barley fields and the small groves of olive and fig trees. How, then, do two people find a lifetime of love in this place, where few people arrive, and none leave? My Joel proposed as we sat under a fig tree. “Life in Nain is simple,” he said, looking into my eyes. “We sow barley, dig up weeds, harvest barley, trim the trees, and pick olives and figs. What makes it endurable, what makes it worthwhile, is love.”
We fit each other. His laugh and arms and strength comforted me and helped me survive when I buried my two little angels in the cold grave high on the hill. In time, I gave him a son: a son who howled from his first breath, a sign of his strong spirit, a spirit that not even a poor farming life could break. We named him Hiphil, “boisterous one.” From the time he stood only to my waist, he worked side by side with Joel in the fields, proud to become just like the man he worshipped.
No more children joined us. I longed for a little girl, longed even as my hope unraveled. But we were happy. Then more than hope unraveled. A woman who has lost two little daughters should not have her husband taken away. But God does not think of these matters, and there came a dark day when Joel was carried to the hill of the dead.
How long, how long must we kneel
and cry to you, until our appeal
is heard and you are stirred?
Do the ears of God hear no sound?
Are the hands of God bound?
Are the eyes of God blurred?
The only voice I heard in return was my son’s. The son who had smiled at me from my breast when he was seconds old. The son who had idolized and emulated his father, working side-by-side with scythe and olive basket. The son who took my breath away because he had Joel’s eyes and smile.
It was my son who helped me step back from all-consuming grief when Joel died. It was Hiphil who worked our fields. It was Hiphil who confronted the village men who promised to help me, but whose leers made clear the price--one I would never pay.
I sigh “My son!”, and my memories flee, and reality settles into place. My son has not moved from his funeral bier. All is still and silent. There is no crunching of feet in front of me and no wailing behind me. No one is moving. Could it be that God has stopped time and set things right? No, it can’t be.
The crowd at my back comes alive, whispering as if fearful.
“Who are these people?
“Have so many walked here for this boy’s burial?”
“How will we feed them?”
“They’re blocking our way!”
“Who do they think they are?”
“Who is that?
Moving a few steps, I peer around Hiphil’s bier. A huge crowd approaches us, a host of men and women and children stretching beyond the road’s curve, people panting and puffing from the uphill climb. Where are they from? Capernaum? But why?
Three steps ahead of the crowd is a man whose eyes are fixed on me. His stride is purposeful, as if this is precisely the place he needs to be at this moment: in this lonely town, under this dazzling sky, interrupting this burial.
I stand unmoving as he stops directly in front of me. His eyes are fixed only on mine, never looking at the bier or the procession behind me.
“Child, don’t cry. Wipe your tears,” he says.
The throng swells around us like a stream pushing past two fixed rocks. One of the men behind him complains, “We were in Capernaum yesterday. Climbed here a day and all night. He wouldn’t let us stop for even a moment’s sleep. And as usual, he wouldn’t say why.”
Other complaining voices rise from the crowd.
“Why have we stopped? Surely he knows we’re thirsty?”
“Doesn’t this place have a well?”
“We never should have left Capernaum just to follow this nobody from Nazareth.”
“Where are we?”
“What’s going on up there?”
“What’s he saying to that woman?”
The man in front of me waits patiently for my words, though I suspect they may not be what he wants.
Looking into his eyes, I tell him, “You say ‘don’t cry,’ as if my tears and fears are foolish and will flee at your word.” I wave toward the hill of the dead, a hill I can no longer see as the crowd surges around us. “Look! Up there in cold earth lie the three people I love the most. I called God – I begged, I pleaded. But he was busy elsewhere. Too busy for a nobody.”
The man doesn’t release me from his gaze. “You are never outside God’s attention,” he says softly, as if he and I are two friends talking alone under a fig tree. “We circle around God all our lives, pulled and kept close to him. He never loses us.”
“I’ve heard that our days and nights are full of angels, running to bring us to the attention of God,” I say. “Love lured me to place my hope in this promise, but love has been overrun. I have no husband and no children to love. Does God know this?”
The man now glances at Hiphil’s bier and returns his eyes to mine. “Those you love are not dead. They are more than bones and memories. There is no separation of life into this life followed by that life. There is only life because God is life. One day you will be reunited forever.”
Ah! It’s the same trope I’ve heard in the synagogue. It brings no comfort. If they are not alive here, then what good is any talk about being alive one day? I lash out at the man: “I hope, then, that being dead with God is better than being alive with God. I hope he is caring for my husband and three children better than he takes care of me.”
Despite my insult, the man’s eyes remain soft. But I feel no urge to make our conversation easy for him. Sweeping a hand behind me, I say, “Look! Here in this place, I’m nothing. Everyone I’ve held dear, God took away from me. I’m left alone. My neighbors are stealing my crops because I have neither husband nor son to defend me. I have no way to resist. I have no one who will keep me safe. I’m without help.”
“Child,” he says again, “the Father of all things loves you. He protects widows and orphans and poor.”
“Words come easily to you, don’t they?” I retort. “Tell me – does your father have another son he will give me?”
A smile joins his kind eyes. “Yes.”
I sense he had known from the start this is how it would be.
“Dear one,” he continues. “You are right that words and actions should never be apart. But, for your heart’s sake, also remember that hate and hope cannot live together.”
I’m empty of words. His gaze has exhausted me. With widening eyes, I watch him half-turn and indicate to the bier carriers that they should lower their load.
“No!” I gasp. “Don’t do that to him! Isn’t it enough that he is dead?”
Turning to face me again, the man reaches out and touches me, holding my clasped hands in his hand. I feel weak and sink to my knees. He follows me down, keeping my hands in his, kneeling with me on the stony road. My tears rain on his hand as the bier carriers place their burden on the ground and step back.
With one hand on mine and the other stretching to the edge of the bier, the man calls over his shoulder, “Hiphil, young man of such tears, I say to you, rise!”
Time and sound stop. No one in the crowd moves. All eyes are fixed on the bier.
I half-hear a soft rustle, so whispery that it seems to come from the far back of my soul. Despite its softness, it demands attention. I sense that something is being knit together on the bier, as if unraveled threads are weaving together for reuse.
Then my son moves. He is moving! He sits up and looks around, as if the part of him that had been unraveled is now whole. The eyes that were Joel’s pinpoint me, and the smile that was Joel’s flashes into my heart. Hiphil is alive!
Hundreds of shocked people inhale simultaneously. Those standing nearest the bier fall back in wondrous fear, clutching their hearts or faces or someone’s arm. Then everyone begins shouting or crying, some jumping and others kneeling. This little village, a day’s walk from anywhere, has never seen such a wonder.
Even as their cries swirl all around me, I am too weak to rise from the stony road. I watch as the man who had been holding my hands rises, takes my son’s hand, and helps him stand. And into my arms, my son runs! Into my arms! Just as he had run as a child when he and his father returned at dusk from working in the fields. My tears and joy and arms envelop him. “Mother,” he whispers, “I’m here. I’m home.”
“Hiphil, my son, my son!” I cry, rocking with him in my arms. It’s not a dream! My son is back! And my heart whispers, “Thank you, God.”
The crowd’s celebration resounds off the sky and hills and village gate and hill of the dead.
“Surely God has visited us!” they cry. “Surely God has come near!”
“Yes, he has,” I cry as the man walks away through the jubilant crowd. “Yes, he has.”
Bryant Burroughs is a writer and lives with his wife Ruth in Upstate South Carolina with their three cats. His work has appeared in online sites such as Faith, Hope and Fiction and his blog Guide for the Mostly Perplexed.
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