The Winning of Her, part two of two
I AM not a violent man, but a second did not go by before that man got a look of horror on his face and shut his window before I reached it. I slammed against it and I pounded on it with one fist. “I do not believe it!” I shouted. “And if it is true, she did no wrong; she can do no wrong. Do not slander her!” I gave the shutter a shake for good measure. The hook-nosed man would not slither out into the street. Rightly, too. I was bigger than he. He was middle-aged, but he was scrawny. I suppose, though I felt anger unlike any I ever had before, I would have felt bad hurting him. He was weak-looking. So I walked by his door and said, making sure he could hear me through the wooden cracks, “Anyone who does will have me to reckon with." Then I stomped off to try to cool off.
But really, I wanted to kill something. Gossipers, mostly. Who dared slander my lamb? I burned with hot fire. Anyone who spoke badly of her might as well have spoken badly of me. I felt the insult as deeply. . . no, much deeper. . . than if it was my own name in question. My breast swelled within me. Few things anger me as much as injustice. I only seemed to be working myself into a froth by walking, instead of profiting from a cooling influence.
I reached my house and went in and lay down, but I tossed and turned and I stayed up that night until 3 or 4 in the morning. My anger at the hook-nosed man’s words, and what everyone else might have been whispering behind my back, made me feel like I was laying on a bed of lava.
But it was my future wife and my future mother-in-law’s treatment of me on the street that really hurt. I did not understand it. I squeezed my pillow.
Did my mother-in-law blame me for being at the party - something I rarely indulged in - and for not being there that night? But my betrothed was figuratively under her father’s roof. And until she came into my house, she was to be protected by her father.
She could not have been hurt, could she?
In sum I spent a very confused and dismal night.
I woke up, sure something dreadful had happened. Everything seemed so intense, and mysterious, and dramatic… and that, I knew, was not just the afterglow of the party and the wine. I slipped away to her house, to make sure she was not hurt. I had longed to hold her all night and wipe her eyes.
“Is she here?” I asked my mother-in-law, as if nothing had happened.
“No, she is not,” she said, tight-lipped, standing in the doorway.
“Back in the garden, maybe?”
“Oh. Is she in the market?” I could not help faltering under her gaze. It was gray as iron.
“The. . . well?”
"The vineyard, then?"
"No, sir, she is not."
I was about to ask if my girl was in the barley field, too, but she sighed and said, “Son, forgive my manners. She is not here, I mean. Not in town.”
No girls ever went out of town by themselves. My heart stopped in cold fear.
“Yes. She will be gone for - oh, I don’t know.”
“Days?” I swallowed.
“Weeks. . .?” cringing.
“Months, I think. I am sorry. Want some lentils?”
“N-no, thank you. Goodbye, Mother,” I bowed. “I will visit you and Father soon.”
I walked home in a fog, a daze, a dream. I heard the rumors whispered over the fruits and vegetables.
“A trip now, right after she was engaged?”
“I don’t judge people, and you know I don’t talk about people. . . but for this to happen right after the soldier rumor? -for rumor it may be. But following one after the other: you must admit: together with her disappearance, it looks bad.”
“Well, we don’t know if it was her with the soldiers that night. Only one person saw somebody who looked like her.”
“I know it was her. The girl wore a gold headdress.”
I walked by this, nearly squishing my fingers through the papaya I was holding.
In the weeks that followed, I did not see my parents-in-law. They did not call to see me. I do not know about them, but I myself had too much pain and awkwardness. My bride had left me without a word, to go to. . . they called it hill country. . . to grandparents - aunts - what? A temple? For service? I kicked a stone and sent it scattering far.
Three of my friends came the night I heard she was gone, and sat with me. They were silent for a long time, until suddenly Brown Beard reached his tree-like arm across the table and covered my hand with his.
“Friend,” he said huskily. “Do not fear. We are here only because we care for your happiness.”
“What he means to say is,” said a slender man sitting next to him, with long straight black hair, in a nasally voice (he was never my favorite fellow), “Is your recent affianced’s running away has raised our suspicions that. . .”
“She did not run away,” I said. “She is. . . on a journey. . .” I winced painfully at my own naked lack of information.
“What all three of us mean to say is,” said my nasally-voiced friend, intent on saying what he meant to say, and on sticking the spear in my gut and wiggling it around to push it further, “... Do you think she could be. . .?”
I then looked at Brown Beard, who sat there, his hands unmoving, as if helplessly assenting to the mission of their nightly visit.
Needless to say, my eyes were open long that night in bed. I kept remembering my dove’s chocolate-brown eyes looking up at me. “Do not believe them. Believe me,” her eyes said. I could see them on the ceiling, in the dark. When I saw those eyes, I had no fear. The opinion to the entire town could not move me to any cad-like or lewd suspicion of her. I wouldn’t call myself a man if I believed my lamb possible of foul blot. I would never be so low as to meanly jump to the cruelest assumption when any woman makes an unexplained disappearance from society.
The townspeople were insulting, yes. They made me feel like I had bought a necklace of jewels beyond price, and rejoiced over it, and had foolishly run around showing everyone it, until someone had laughingly said, “Those are counterfeits, you silly boy!”
I defended her as I must: as any other man would do of his girl, and tried to brush it all of as bootless. But what confused me was my precious one’s own silence.
“Why are you parents not explaining this to me? Why are you running away from me?”
“Understand. . . understand me.”
A week went by. A fortnight. Three weeks. Four weeks. Five weeks.
Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.
It was unendurable. I will not begin to tell you my tortures during this time. Sometimes I just laid in bed and cried. It was all I could do.
“Where is my precious lamb?”
“Trust me,” her eyes said.
“Bring her back to me!”
“Believe me, I beg.”
“Where did she go, God? Why would she leave without saying goodbye?”
On the thirteenth week, one mid-afternoon in early July, Brown Beard came and clapped his hand on my shoulder, shaking it slightly. His grasp was heavy and solid. He spoke openly to me for the first time since his visit to me that night, and with no gentle introduction. “Just be prepared, my friend,” he said abruptly, “To see if she is with child or not. I only want your peace.”
I shook him off for the first time. “Enough,” I said. “My dear friend, I am exhausted.”
Brown Beard seemed immediately insulted. “I have always been your mate, and you are snapping at me? I am not the one wronging you.”
“You will see,” I said. “When she has returned, you will see. And then how will you feel? I know you. You will have insulted a pure maid. And my own future wife! Won’t that make future interactions awkward between us?”
“'When she returns'?” echoed Brown Beard. “Man, she is back. She has been back for two days.”
“She is? She has?” I asked faintly. I felt emptied once more, like I was about to see my homeland again after three month’s sojourn. My knees were weak. “Where? Have you seen her?” This new information wreaked such havoc with me, I was afraid I would cry. I could feel it coming. But this was so unsuspected, so looked-for, so unhinging. So much depended on it.
“At home. No, no one has seen her. But I was sure you must have seen her, being her affianced.”
Ignoring his barb, I rushed by him and grabbed my sandals and scuttered out. I ran down the streets the back way, hoping no one would see my foolish attitude. I went to the back of their house. If she is in the garden, I will surprise my love, I thought. “Behold, the rain is over and gone,” ran the words of Solomon in my head. “The song of the turtledove is heard in our land.”
I reached the wall and pulled myself up, finding my emotional weakness somehow replaced by athletic ability and adrenaline. And there was my beauty, my soul’s twin, in the garden, with a round and swelling belly under her discrete garments.
I stopped myself and fell back down to the street, feeling like I had been hit in the gut, and leaned my back against the mud wall, wide-eyed. Hit in the gut - and again and again and again.
O Sister, and this is why you left on your three-month vacation. O Sister! This is what your heart breaking feels like! I had to go somewhere no one would see me. There was an olive grove not far from their house. I went to the outskirts of town, and hid myself in that olive grove, far in to it, so that the silvery leaves kept me from everyone’s view. The shape of her body looked so funny. . . it was as shocking to see an extra stomach on her as it would have been to see an extra head. I pulled my hair, I pushed my face against the bark. I hit the tree and broke branches and squeezed my hands opened and closed at the sky out of the pain of my heart. I gave the bark a few good kicks, so that it sounded scraping and scratchy, and then hot sobs broke out of me.
“I love her - I love her - I loved her.”
I stayed out until nightfall. I dragged myself home through the silent, moonlit, blue streets where only dogs barked and stars shone. I dropped into bed. My life was permanently, permanently broken.
I woke up the next morning, forgetful for a second. It was odd; my first thought was actually a sense of joy. "She is back!" It was as if my body had not yet caught up with my brain and the updated information. But as my mind cleared, I was aware that my heart was completely broken in two - as cloven as a granite rock.
My being was a shattered clay pot, in so many pieces I may as well be dust.
“God,” I whispered. “Put me back together if You can. Heal me. I don’t think I can ever get over her. I don't think I will ever be able to detach my heart and thinking from her. But do what You can.”
For two weeks, I hammered, and heard no word, and saw her pregnant belly, always before me to tell me. . . that she loved someone else more than me? I could not understand that.
I became strong and calm and patient. My passion passed. I hammered and scraped peacefully in quiet sorrow, as gentle and meek as I had once thought her nature to be. I scraped away. Long curls of wood.
On the third week, I was walking the streets aimlessly at sunset and ended up on the north side of town near the gate, near - her - house. I heard screaming. I ran to the olive grove on the outskirts of the village.
There I saw a gathering of people, yelling, and in the middle of the crowd, shrinking against a tree, was - her. She was small and pretty, with her golden headdress and her curly brown hair. And there was something dignified about her body, and the way she held her head up, that roared, "I have integrity," even as her eyes darted like brown-winged swallows, in fear.
"What is she doing?" I thought. "Didn't she know not to come out of the house? She must have been told not to." I felt an unsought twinge of pity for the girl cooped up in the house. "Maybe she thought the secluded olive grove was safe. But they all found her here." They looked like vultures, swooping in. Some reached down and unearthed rocks from the earth. An electric shock ran through me.
"Don't!" I cried. The electricity pushed my limbs to run. I broke through the crowd, my heart swelling. I had the same chivalrous instinct surging through my entire body, as I had that first day at the well. My feet did not touch the ground again - this time from anger. I was walking on air. I stood by her. "Do not touch her," I said. "Do not touch her." I swept my eyes over everyone daringly.
To my sickening, I caught the eye of a couple of my friends. They had rocks in their hands. They could not meet my gaze. They looked away. They had been at the engagement feast.
Everyone else muttered and laughed. “What is he doing?”
I looked at her. "Come with me," I said. But I did not offer my hand, and at the pain of that, I think I saw tears start in her eyes. Her eyes had searched mine, and seeing only anger in my gaze, they trembled and fell.
We walked back, but this time she followed me, meekly, with her head down. We did not talk, just like the day at the well. She was in mute pain. We got to her house.
“Stay at home,” I said.
“How great is your faith in God?” she whispered, half-closing the door. Suspending that door - the edge that I smoothed - there in waving half-certitudes.
“Great; and little. I pray He increases it every day.”
“Joseph, I’m a virgin,” she said, and closed the door on my laughter. She thought I was going to laugh, but I didn’t. I felt blank, and I walked home blankly.
At home I carved and carved and carved until my arms were heavy and my temples throbbed and the wood danced dizzily in front of me.
And I kept seeing her chocolate-brown eyes in the dust, in the little wood chips I carved, on the dark ceiling above my head. You will wonder if I thought of the Scriptures; of course I thought of the Scriptures. But girls had used that as an excuse for ages for their pregnancies. "Believe me; think no wrong of me," her eyes had said. Her tears looking up at me on the street that night had been manipulation. I had been duped; betrayed. How could I have fallen for her? I was stupid. A fool. And now she was trying to use Scriptures to wiggle her way back in to my affection. It was despicable; deplorable.
“But it doesn’t seem right. Something seems so wrong about this. Weren’t her eyes sad, telling me she loved me, and to not believe wrong of her? But perhaps I am a fool, throwing all my belief on a young girl’s tears, on a young girl’s half-hearted promises of love in a garden. The garden! The shadow I saw fall over her in the garden the night we were espoused! What portent was that? Is there evil work at play here? I will kill myself if trouble came to her that night, and I did not go back to see her. Was she assaulted? If she was assaulted, she would come to me, and I would exonerate her and avenge her in the sight of the public. But she cannot - or will not - name her attacker. Therefore she must have an-another lover.”
I was so tired the chips started blearing. I laid the awl down and rubbed my eyes, wanting to weep again.
“Yet everything I remember of her nature speaks against such a thing. I could not have been so completely, shatteringly, tricked. There was no sign of suspicion to vice or corruption, or a weak nature. She was so little, so sweet, so innocent. As pure and gentle as a lamb. I cannot think what to do.” I lay my head on my work table. “I still love her.” Darkness of sleep swelled in. My eyelids felt like ten-pound sandbags. “I cannot think what to do. I - love - her. Yes, then. Yes, then it is clear. I know what I’ll do. No one needs to know anything. She’ll stay -” yawn - “in her house and live her life out quietly with her parents, and I. . . will remove myself. . . honorably.” Sleep overcame me, my head atop my work bench.
It was one of the most refreshing sleeps I ever had. After weeks of exhaustion and sorrow. . . and months before that of anxiety and tense unknowing. . . in only that half-hour I felt my strength renewed. A light seemed to fill my head and my body was warmed. Energy flowed into me. I breathed deeply. Suddenly, as I slept, words starting flapping in my mind… flying across my mind, as if on wings.
“Do not. . .”
“Save. . .”
“Look. . .”
Except that it wasn’t like that; the feeling and words were crystal clear, like my little bride’s heart. I suddenly felt sure as I have never been sure of anything in my life. I couldn’t put her from me - I couldn’t. I saw; I knew. In a burst of Inspiration, I understood.
“. . .which means, ‘God is with us.’” My eyes flew open. I awoke with a start. I forgot sandals and shawl. I flung myself up and outside. Running. Almost frantically. I saw her in the courtyard. I called out her name. I vaulted over the wall.
She was polishing a pot with vinegar, and she jumped up to see a man land so suddenly with a thump inside the garden. But I wasted no second and went to her, and said, "I believe you!"
She immediately began to cry.
“Forgive me,” I whispered, filled with grief and guilt at the bitterness and anger I had had. . . grief almost so that I could not stand it. . . at seeing her delicacy, beauty, and tears.
“No, no - love me!”
“I do; I do; I always have. I never have not.” We were laughing through our tears. “I promised I always would; I promise that again.”
I did not want to touch her; it was the trembling feeling one has before the Holy of Holies. I expected to see her womb glowing - physically emanating light. There was holy fear in me of her body. But she took my hands, lifted them to her face and leaned her forehead against my knuckles. “What will we do?” she whispered.
“I will marry you, turtledove,” I laughed.
“No, but your reputation will be spoiled. If you take me, they will all think - even your closest friends - even Brown Beard will think - that you are the father.”
“The truth stands before God. He knows I have not sinned. He knows you have not. To the townspeople, I say - ‘I present my case to the Lord; let Him be judge.’”
“I thought you would not believe me,” she said. She would not lift her forehead from resting on my hands, as if that is where she wanted to stay, in the tree of my protection. “My own parents didn’t. My mother said to my father, 'She says an angel came to her and told her she would be pregnant virginally with God’s child. I don’t believe her; but I also don’t believe her guilty of vice. Either she was forced into something wicked, by one of those soldiers, or her betrothed insulted her, and she is ashamed. My own daughter would not do this. She had to have been assaulted, and is trying to cover it up.' I sobbed and told her I was covering nothing up, and that I was not assaulted, and that you especially did nothing. That - I could not stand that, more than anything. I did not want your reputation smeared. I went away to visit my cousin in hill country for three months and didn't tell you, so that no one would think you had anything to do with anything. My cousin believed me. Finally my parents are starting to, mostly because I have stayed silent all this time and not changed my story. My closest friends still laugh at me. They say continually, ‘And you were so high-minded.’ ‘And you had such high ideals.’
"But I prayed every day to God to make you understand. I told Him I was willing to give you up if that’s what He wanted - for it seemed His invitation demanded it - and my heart broke at the idea. . . but I asked that you understand. I didn’t want you to think I didn’t love you. I didn't want you to think I had hurt you. And even that, I told God I was willing to suffer, and to have you think badly of me and that I didn’t love you. How many hours in bed I spent, dying from your pain.” She then clung to my sleeves with her small hands and smiled up at me. “This is more than I hoped,” she said. “This is more than I hoped. God is so good... to return so much, to give so much, so much, to me."
I looked down at her gently, intently scrutinizing her eyes. "You have lost a lot, too," I said, with perception, seeing her pain.
"The villagers," she sighed. "It is such a scandal."
"Well, of course, little Mary," I then laughed, taking her in my arms. "What could be more scandalous than this? God Himself has fathered your child."