Thursday, December 22, 2016

After the Starlight faded

There appeared in the days of Caesar Augustus, after the reign of King Herod, a woman in the hills of Judea named Mara.

She was not a prophetess, nor did she shout her dreams or share strange visions. She roamed the wilderness in dusty rags along the roads north of Jerusalem, raging at those passing by from behind matted locks of loose, just graying hairs. Those who saw her ran until she was out of sight, though not out of hearing. She shouted at the young and the aged, but especially the very young. She seemed unnaturally old, though only at a distance. Those who felt her tongue lashings at closer quarters could see she was actually a young woman, though touched by fire. There seemed nothing within her to commend. Men shunned her, and women judged her insane and unfit for caring.

Mara had been this way since the dying days of Herod the Great, when the reprobate king had ordered the execution of the children of Bethlehem in hopes of killing rumors of a newborn messiah.

All children, the tyrant had ordered, up to two years old, must be slaughtered without mercy. There is no room in my nation for more than one king, he said, fingering a coin with Caesar’s countenance staring up at him.

And so it was on a starry night that soldiers came to Bethlehem unannounced, the screams of frantic mothers the sole alarm. Mara’s only daughter Liat, a girl who had not yet formed her first word, was pried out of the home, and the point of a sword stilled the light in the child’s dark eyes. No visible angel had attended the birth of her daughter, but like all mothers, Mara felt the subtle yet flesh-tearing power found in the creation of life. Each breath is a miracle, but in the end, a measured blessing.
Mara’s husband prevented her from dying by the same sword, and she would not forgive him. She expected that the world would have no choice but to pull itself apart in the child’s absence. It mocked her by going on. The Scriptures are full of barren women whose prayers stir the heart of the Almighty, and weeping mothers comforted by the arms of their children. But Mara's life was not written down in a scroll. Her life merely drained out of her child’s lifeless body. So she was left to rage by the side of the road, at souls who were oblivious to the life once entrusted to her.

Then one day, a man coming down the highway stopped to look at Mara. He squinted into her face as she lashed him with her nonsensical words. And he smiled. It was the shepherd Betsalel, a man who had known her in Bethlehem when she had still been whole. His smile infuriated her, and she shouted all the more at him. But he would not move on. Not like the rest of them.

“Come with me,” he said. “Haven’t you been here long enough?”

She did not have an answer to this question, and so she followed him north.

Betsalel was a quiet man, dependable in his position; a little older than Mara but, in the way of shepherds, unattached to anyone. He laughed like a man with the songs of angels in his ears, a peace within pouring out and nourishing the parched ground around him. He did not have to ask why Mara had been alone with her invincible anger. He had once watched little Liat blow bubbles by the light of a flickering oil lamp.

It was many miles before Mara asked, “Where are we going?” For the first time in months, her voice was not annoyed.

“You will see,” Betsalel said. “You should meet someone. He has been away for a while.”

For many miles they walked. For more than a day. And over each mile, Mara and Betsalel began to talk to each other. In the night, they paused by the road and she asked about people she had known before – where they were and what they had done in her absence. Betsalel told her in a voice that understood somehow – those Mara left behind had indeed been too quick to continue with their lives after Liat was gone.

Many others had lost their children. They, too, had gone on. The king was dead, but the kingdom went on.

“Why is that?” Mara asked, all of a sudden. “Why should the world continue, just as it always has? Why should I?”

“Come and see,” Betsalel said, and the two began walking again.

They walked without stopping for almost a day before they arrived on the outskirts of a town. Mara had never been there before. Betsalel asked a passing man about a carpenter’s family he knew which had just arrived back in the village after an extended journey. The man eyed the two of them suspiciously from behind his beard – a shepherd reeking of the field and a distracted woman with storms in her face. He then pointed down a footpath toward a narrow house.

The two arrived at the home and Betsalel kissed the doorpost. The woman of the house seemed used to strangers showing up unannounced. Yet somehow, Mara perceived that the woman recognized Betsalel. She wore fabrics from Egypt and was warm in a way that unsettled Mara.

“Is the boy here?” Betsalel asked. The mother pointed into the darkness of the house, and a laugh answered.

“Him?” the shepherd asked in an astonished voice. "Is he already that big?"

The boy who came out of the shadows toddled across the room and stood at a distance from Betsalel. Mara watched as the shepherd put out his hands, as though the boy might recognize him. But instead, the child looked at Mara.

He had pleading eyes, enormous eyes – eyes full of the hidden warmth of the world, wiser than any child she had ever seen. His eyes grasped at the folds of her rags, and encompassed the ends of the earth.

Stay with me, he seemed to be saying, without uttering a word. And the little boy walked forward with an almost ancient, certain step, embraced her leg, and smiled up at her.  

“Is he this way with everyone?” Mara asked the mother, her eyes filling up.

“He is different ways with different people,” the mother answered. “But he is never a stranger.”

Mara squatted down, and the boy embraced her. She felt as though the dirt of the wilderness was gone, the room filled with a mysterious but familiar fragrance. She had no idea how a child could do such a thing, when she had believed a child would never comfort her again. His finger reached out and wiped her wet cheek.

And then she remembered something she had heard once, read aloud in the synagogue: “Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears…there is hope in your future.”

“I came here because I was there the night he was born,” Betsalel said. “I could never forget the sight, or the light. The joy of God glorifying Himself in the sky. Only a gaggle of weather-beaten men such as I on a hill watching. It was all for Him, and we got to witness it.”

The boy cupped Mara’s chin in his hand, and she felt the tears dry against his palm. For a fleeting second, she thought of how old Liat might be, if she had lived so long. The boy’s face beamed at her, and chased the anger from her brow.  

“I wish he were mine,” she said, not aware that anyone else could hear.

“But he is,” the mother replied. “He belongs to us all, and we belong to him.”

© 2016 William Thornton

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Read the first chapter here

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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