Grace Andreacchi

He had never been sick a day in his life. Even as a baby he was strong, stronger than other children. A lovely, sturdy little boy, with arms and legs like columns and eyes as blue as the sky in winter. My only child but so fine other women might envy me this one lamb. He was clever, too, and hard-working, dutiful as well as handsome. All the young women wanted him for a husband. 'You must choose for me, Mother,' he'd say, coming in from the fields, laughing so his pretty teeth flashed in his brown face. His father's eyes, so bright. I'd always have a basin of cool water ready for him to wash, which he did careless as a colt, splashing himself here there and everywhere, rubbing the good linen towel over those rough curls of his. I'd always have the evening meal ready, and we'd eat it together peacefully in the quiet house. We ate it together that night while outside the sun went down pink and soft into the new-turned field. Then he stood up and stretched himself and said, 'My head hurts, Mother.' He lay down and in the morning he could not get up. I saw the Angel of Death standing at the head of the bed, he of the shameless countenance—he rattled his twelve wings and they were full of pitiless eyes, he held his drawn sword over my son and at its tip was a drop of gall. The Angel of Death stood there only waiting for the moment to thrust that sword into my boy's mouth, to force down his throat the poison that would kill him. 'No!' I screamed, and threw myself upon that evil Angel, thinking to wrest him away from that place behind my boy's head. But the Angel only laughed at me, and thrust me to the ground with a single blow of his hand. 'Take me!' I begged, grovelling at the Angel's feet. 'Take me instead!' At that moment my son opened his eyes and caught sight of that fierce and bitter Angel standing over him, his mouth dropped open in horror, and the Angel dropped in the single drop of gall. My boy was dead.

Now I alone must bury him who was to bury me. I must close those bright eyes with my own fingers. Oh my child, my child! Would that I had died instead of you! But he could not hear me any more. These hands that had washed him when he was a tiny baby washed him once more. These hands. My tears ran down like rain and mingled with the spices and the unguents—you are wrapped for burial in your mother's tears, my son. I sat in the dark and prayed over my dead son and the Lord did not hear me. The Lord has filled me with bitterness and wormwood, he has shut out the sound of my voice, he has broken my teeth in my mouth and covered me with ashes. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Now came the mourners and lifted my poor boy onto the bier and carried him out of the house. No! I cried—Take me! Take me instead! But it was too late. The whole of the town was here at my door. Is the Lord utterly without mercy? We carried him through the streets in a cloud of dust and lamentation.

As we were passing through the outer gate we met a small band of travellers about to enter the city. The chief among them began to question me in such a gentle tone, I was inclined to answer him. For he spoke not as a stranger, but with words full of compassion, as if he knew the bitterness of my sorrow. I told him it was my only son who was dead. 'Don't weep, Mother,' he said. It was spoken gently and yet it was a command, for he spoke as one accustomed to be obeyed. This man must be some great Rabbi, I thought. I felt the tears stand still in my burning eyes. He touched the bier and now everyone stood as if frozen in place, watching him. He looked for a while at my poor son as he lay all so still in the pitiless grip of death. Then the Rabbi spoke to him, quite softly, as if to a living person. 'Young man, I say - get up now,' he said. And my son sat up, just like that. 'Where am I?' he said. 'Mother… Mother, where are they taking me?' A few of the women screamed, then there was silence. They were all too frightened to speak. Then the Rabbi lifted him from the bier and gave him into my arms and I held my living boy warm and soft against my heart again. My son, my son! Given to me, born to me again, snatched from the arms of death. And now they were all talking at once, demanding the name of that man, calling him a Prophet and Elijah, saying that God himself had come to visit us. I only wanted to keep hold of my son, to touch his face, to run my fingers through his thick curls, all the time bathing him in my tears, but this time they were tears of joy. He has turned for me my mourning into dancing, blessed be the name of the Lord forever.

Sometimes I steal into my son's room at night just to listen to his quiet breath in the dark. He lies there flushed with life, dreaming the sweet dreams of youth. I have never again seen the Angel of Death at his bedside. We don't often speak of what happened. Once he asked me, 'Mother, why did God give me back my life again?' But how am I to know the ways of the Lord? I know that he put the stars in their places, and divided the waters, and made every thing that creeps on the face of the earth. And he who is mighty did not disdain my tears, but stooping down from heaven had mercy on me and delivered me from all my sorrow, and gave me back my shining son. May he burn like a candle to the Lord all the days of his life.

Grace Andreacchi is an American-born novelist, poet and playwright. Works include the novels Scarabocchio and Music for Glass Orchestra. She lives in London.

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Detail of oil painting on main page: "Hope in the Prison of Despair" (1887), by Evelyn De Morgan.

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