Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

Stonework Journal Home

Letters to the Editor

Stonework Staff

Submission Guidelines

Editorial Philosophy

Our Favorite Links

E-mail Stonework:

  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Troubadours

~ Luisa Josefina Hernández, Published 1973 by Editorial Joaquín Mortiz, S.A. in México, D.F.

(An excerpt from Chapter 1 - translated from the Spanish by Nan Hussey)

She, descended alone in terror of seeing them all gathered together, dreading that she might raise her hand at the first stone. There was the indecision of waiting for them to eat and the fear that once they’d eaten they would lock their doors and turn themselves over to the pleasures of being together, of life in the beehive, savoring the news of the day or saving sleep for the coming dawn. No, she would speak now, while some were still coming down from the hills and others were standing in their doorways.
“Listen to me!” she called. It was a voice that might have promised scandal. “Listen to me!”
Some approached her with their animals and others left their doorways, while the men who worked at the looms came out to the bleating, the gossip, the press of bodies.
“God is among us.” She was a coward but her voice did not tremble. “God is in the threads strung on the loom and in the wooden spindle. He’s right here in the smell of the herds. God is right here and I’ve come to say it so that you don’t forget that He meets you here, so that you’ll sense that your soul is His pure reflection and that you are a work of pure grace.”
They looked at her, their mouths hanging open, and she figured out that the object of their attention was her tunic, abundantly embroidered with threads of gold . . . The women were talking in low voices and she realized that perhaps they were comparing her garments to wedding clothes or party dresses. She covered herself with her cloak.
“Please tell me if you have heard.” With her eyes she sought the village woman who had come with her but was unable to locate her. She got no response. “My role is to walk along the roads and visit the villages, cities and places where people gather in order to tell them that God is among them.”
Silence. The pregnant women, their eyes alarmed and their arms crossed over their bellies, revealing well-freckled skin; their husbands with an air of possession and who knows what discontent standing in front of these colossal figures: All looked at the strange woman with suspicion and with simulated disdain. The children had already taken themselves off to play at persecuting each other and were running between the people standing there, shielding themselves from the stranger among those they knew.
“Listen,” it was an elderly woman whose eyes were clear and whose hands were hardened from work, whose joints were like iron, “many years ago someone like you passed through this town and a great miracle occurred in that we were all left without husbands, raising our children alone. He was a handsome young man, richly dressed, with a clear voice and very like you in every way. He told them to go with him. He said they should follow him in order to go to the mountains to reflect on God. He told them they had do to this in order to erase the traces of sin we harbor in our beds beneath our oat straw comforters. They left …” The elderly woman looked toward the end of the town as if the men were leaving at this moment and the women were watching them go. “They didn’t even turn around to take their leave … I was left with four children.”
“I’m not asking anyone to follow me. I come to deliver this short message and to make sure there are some who have heard it.”
“They’ve already heard it. Leave them be.” The villagers formed knots of people as if this were a feast day or a market day and everyone was prepared to march off to the big town to sell their simple products. “Who are you looking for?”
“For a woman who came with me and who later went on ahead.” She blushed, considering the tale of the elderly woman. They followed her too. She too moved stones from their places and made them roll.
“Ah. Do you know what happened to the men who followed the youth dressed in silver and gold?”
“They stayed in the next city and dedicated themselves to licentiousness and theft. Some of them even became murderers. The young man abandoned them and took off with others.”
“Ah.” She had to blush openly and didn’t dare ask again.
“Do you know where your village woman is?”
“No. I told you I didn’t know.”
“She’s locked in the granary with my son. They’re entertaining each other so well that they haven’t realized you’ve arrived. He lost his wife eight months ago and was left with two children.”
“I wasn’t looking for her in order to take her with me. She’s alone in the world. She can serve as wife and mother.” She looked at the people, some of whom were already turning their backs and then a sharp little cobblestone hit her on the cheek. The wound became a trefoil of blood and she trembled, but didn’t make any movement to leave nor did she touch her face. The elderly woman moved closer to her.
“What a strange wound!” Another cobblestone crossed the air and landed on the forehead of the old woman.
“What are you doing?” The villagers turned around quickly, none having seen what had happened. “You’re stoning this woman and me. You stupid cowards.” Both women were sporting trefoils of coagulated blood like petal-shaped adornments.
“God is here,” said the pilgrim softly.
“It was the children,” a woman answered. “Undoubtedly they didn’t mean to do it.”
“It was this guy,” said a man and pushed a youth forward whose strong, brown hand was holding a slingshot.
“It was me.”
“Why?” she asked. “Did you mean to hurt us?”
“Someone robbed us of the two goats we had. Someone else made off with the blankets my mother and I had woven. She told me, ‘I’m going to ask God to help us,’ and she set herself to praying. Now you come instead of God. And this old lady, instead of telling you to leave so that God Himself can come goes out to tell you her old wives’ tales.” The boy looked at the cheek of the one and the forehead of the other. “On top of that, I believe I missed when I shot as these marks you have there don’t look like they were made by a stone.” The boy was weakened by anger and pale with hatred, his eyes enlarged and glittering, his voice breaking.
A man approached and took him by the arm.
“Nobody took your blankets. Your mother gave them to me in exchange for some money your father owed. I didn’t even ask her for them. She did it because she’s proud and because …;” he turned around toward the other villagers. “Now that she’s a widow I wanted to marry her but she didn’t accept me in order not to grieve you. Come to my house and look for your blankets and don’t speak ill of your neighbor without knowing what you’re talking about. As for the goats you can look through my herd and pick out the two you like best. And tell your mother that she is never again to come asking me to marry anyone who tolerates and protects a runny-nosed brat who pelts defenseless women with stones.”
The man’s anger was growing and the boy’s was diminishing to the extent that he let go of the slingshot. Looking with fear and surprise but without any hatred at the one who was reprimanding him, he made no effort to free his arm while the man continued looking at the signs left by the stones.
“God is here,” said the man, his eyes full of tears.
The villagers heard him and this time they listened. They made the sign of the cross, fell on their knees and every one of them scrutinized the depths of his or her memory and cried with shame.
“Let go of my arm. You’re bruising me,” said the boy. The man did so and the youth wrapped his arms around his body. “Are you going to bring the blankets?”
“I’m going to give them to you.”
“Take them to her yourself and don’t tell her I’m a runny-nosed brat or that I stone women. And I’m going with you.”
“Let’s go.” The man looked at the two women and he kissed the hems of both their garments. “God is here. We’ll see which goats give more milk.”
The elderly woman looked at them and then at the people.
“I too have sinned. I’ve paid, I’ve sinned and I’ve paid again. Now I’m too old and yet my heart is breaking with joy and repentance. All I can do is pray and I have to tell you that I prayed this afternoon.”
“Did you ask for anything?”
“I asked that my son would find a strong, hard-working wife. I’m going to die soon. Is what I’ve got on my forehead the same as what you have on your face?”
“It’s a red flower, a drawing in blood, a sign of … of I don’t know what. I’m going.”
“We’ll see each other again some day. You haven’t taken anything from us. Do you have food with you?”
“Come to my house because the road is awfully long and very hard. If someone with a cart is going to town maybe they can take you.”
“I have to go on foot.”
“That’s your business. Come eat.”
She followed the elderly woman and they entered a small, not very clean house, a house like any other.
“Sit down,” and the pilgrim let herself fall onto a bench. “I notice you’re awfully tired.”
Well, she knew it herself, but she wasn’t the type to make excuses; it would seem more like she was complaining about the effort or her duties and this wasn’t the case.
“I’m not tired. It’s just that I conserve my energy and therefore I rest and sleep whenever possible.” She set herself to eating, remembering the last time she’d eaten, in the home of the woman in the other village. How long ago had it been? It dawned on her that she was losing her sense of time, like someone who slowly grew deaf. She drank the milk with reluctance.
“I suppose that people like you also aren’t allowed to sleep under a roof,” said the owner of the house, with a touch of scorn.
“I’m not sure, but I never do.” The truth was that she’d been clearly told she was to travel wherever her feet took her, but she didn’t receive any instructions in reference to sleeping nor how she was to feed herself. If choosing between her fears it was best to displease well-intentioned villagers. She didn’t dare accept hospitality from anyone nor carry food with her in order to alleviate the hardships of the road.
She began to drink the milk in the bowl, then to eat the bread and honey that the woman offered her in pre-prepared slices, as if she were afraid they would otherwise be rejected. A deep sense of well-being came over her, a solemn sweetness. She closed her eyes, supporting her face in her hands, and she fell asleep at the table. The old woman looked at her with the long experience of having contemplated many sleeping people; deep sleepers, fainters and meditators.
“What a shame,” she said in a low voice, “so young.” Her eyes filled with tears. She had often thought about the spruced up cemetery full of both crosses that were always repainted and of gravestones made of clay whitened with lime to make them look nice. She considered it her future home, the natural place in the end for those born in the village. It was where two of her children, a little grandson and her parents already were, the place that awaited her too when she became no more than a silent, fragile replica of herself. Now she watched those white crosses parade across the face of the unknown woman who looked like a girl when she rested.
She heard steps outside. They belonged to her son and that village woman who had arrived several hours ago, with her open appetites, her voracious gaze and her free and easy gestures. The woman’s hair was loose now and full of the breeze, her respiration rhythmic, her expression satisfied. Her son wore a melancholy air. That’s what men are like once the fever of love has passed and there’s no need to pay any attention to them. He’d presented a far different side of himself this morning.
“Don’t talk too loud. We have a guest and she’s asleep.”
“A wanderer.”
“I came with her,” the village woman explained in a modest tone that concealed both some vague arrogance and the desire to please.
“You? What were you doing with her?” She already knew, but she wanted to hear her answer.
“I followed her and then later I went on a little ahead.”
“In order to eat, no doubt, and for other reasons, as you’ve demonstrated.”
The village woman looked over the old woman’s shoulder in order to reassure herself that the pilgrim wasn’t listening and saw she was asleep.
“Ma’am, your son lacks a wife. I had a son and I lost him. I have no husband. I have plenty of stamina when it comes to work and I arrived with no intention of ending up in the granary with your son.”
“I’m far too old not to know about intentions and what comes of trips to the granary,” she said and looked at her son. “Do you want to marry her? Do you think her capable of taking care of your children and your animals?” He nodded and his mother understood that he wouldn’t say anything with the woman present. “Look, woman, this sky blue house that you can see from here belongs to him and his children, who are certainly hungry. These are the children that would become yours. Look in on them and take care of them. Now, let me talk with him.”
The village woman looked at the man, who wouldn’t look her in the eyes. She then sought the pilgrim anxiously, as if a word, a sign from her would be capable of clearing up any misunderstanding she’d felt arise and begin to grow between her, the man, the old woman and those children she didn’t even know yet.
“Tell her that … I’m staying here.” She set off at a run toward the new house and while she approached it she was thinking about her own son, about her own child, his death and burial, the smell and the feel of him. For the first time his death, which dominated her life, seemed a definite disgrace. Her heart filled with tears but she didn’t release them. What would these strange children be like? What would the other children be like that would come from the savage embraces of that man?
Now alone, mother and son entertained themselves looking at a red geranium in a flowerpot.
“Do you love her?” No reply. “Of course not. I’m a silly old fool. It’s old age. Love isn’t something you can know, but it is something you can guess at. Could you come to love her?”
He thought about the other woman, the one he’d courted for two years and who didn’t talk; the one who for modesty’s sake didn’t writhe in his arms unless he pressed his lips against hers so as to smother the words and her cooing; the one who gave herself more authentically than this frenetic female who animated him and who had awakened his lechery along with his nostalgia for caresses, perhaps forever, and who had also forever awakened his longing for the dead woman …
“She’ll do. There aren’t many. She looks strong, doesn’t have too bad a character, and as we say she’s certainly sharp.” He suddenly smiled. “You never know. It could be that her character’s bad and she turns out to be sharper than you and I together. She isn’t ugly.” The old woman sighed. For an instant she had a fleeting vision of what true love would be; its vocabulary and what it would permit, what silent fits of ecstasy and what ancestral fears … “Can you lean back so I can look at the traveler?”
The mother moved over to one side and went to light the candle in a corner. The son moved gently forward until he could distinguish her white face with its cheek stained with red.
“Mother, what did you do?”
“You have a mark on your forehead that’s just like hers.”
“Some stones were thrown. But that’s over and done.”
“Where is she going?”
“She tells the whole world that God is found among us. She isn’t headed to any place in particular.” The man went to the door and his mother followed him.
“I’m smeared with sin from my head on down. If God sees me He won’t forgive me.”
“God forgives old goats, young lambs and stud rams. God would forgive you if you drank water with your hands or ate your bread in the corner like dogs do.”
“Then God would think He’d created a man instead of an animal with four legs. Thanks for consoling me, but I’ve brought sin into my house before the eyes of God Himself and I have to live with it.”
“That woman came with this one. Perhaps …”
“Take a good look at her. She doesn’t look anything like the other one. It’s enough to look at either of them closely. I already know that one. I left you with this one so that you could make sure.”
The man headed for his house. His step was firm and defeated; the children, the woman, the big young kid with the wounded foot, daily life, nights, mornings, hundreds of words.
The old woman dropped onto the makeshift bed where she passed her hazy nights and covered herself halfway with her black and white blanket, but she didn’t want to put out the candle. She was going to contemplate the sleeper. How was it that things like this happened? This woman and that one. One the one hand, women who arrive out of nowhere to occupy vacancies already prepared for them, if not to their exact measurements; and others, like the one in the cloak, rootless, floating in space, with no bed, no right to daily bread, not allowed to travel in an old cart pulled by an ox. It wasn’t good to even think about the rest of it. This beggar dressed in gold had never shared a bed with anyone and she would be forbidden to under pain of … what? She felt rather shaken up and afraid as logic began to penetrate her. This beggar only strolled around so that others might find food and shelter, spouse and orderly daily activities. As she came to understand it thoroughly, the light of the candle waxed the length of her hand. The room shone in a way that was almost dazzling and she was so old that neither insomnia nor sleep mattered.
She started to think about the many nights of her life. Those of her childhood were barely within reach of her memory. Not even vague, tepid sensations remained: the rafters in her room; the death of her little sister accompanied by the weeping of the hired mourners that had begun exactly at ten o’clock that night and which had ended at six o’clock in the morning. At that point the women, hoarse and exhausted, were barely moaning. Her youth; a party, or was it two or more parties? Sweat, exhaustion, feeling pretty, admired, scatterbrained for not taking the hint sooner via the insinuations caught in looks, in abrupt expressions and in indirect phrases of the man she’d married. The wedding night … more acceptable than lovely, more natural than peopled by phantasmagorias that all in all she didn’t entertain to excess because a shepherdess who lives very close to animals knows what there is to know. The work, the sweat, the exhaustion, the births. Sometimes even the bitterest news, when one of her newborn children died, hardened her less over the course of time because it meant daily activity wasn’t further aggravated and she got her strength back sooner. It had even been possible to become a wet nurse for others and to earn some money doing that and then … the loneliness, the thankless chores that repeat themselves because the children get married and have their own lives and you can’t tell them to get on with making the cheese or to separate the cream from the milk or to put the white, humid wool in the sun to dry. You give up the better part of the herds because it turns out to be impossible to take care of them. When the children are good, they supply all that’s necessary for their mother. If not, she soon finds herself skinny, her legs feeling the cold, climbing mountains with a goat on either side. But her own children are good and she isn’t demanding. She could have asked for a new blanket last year and didn’t do it, as if she ignored the fact that heat produced sweetness or as if sweetness were contemptible.
On the other hand, she liked candles more than ever, preferring them to a good fire or a shawl, even though they didn’t give off heat. Darkness was definitely the saddest thing of all. She was also convinced that there was no innocence in candles: Those twisting flames, those flourishes, that turning back into ribbons wound around an imaginary axis was no empty or senseless thing. It was a revelation, a sign, some thing of admirable magic that many fail to comprehend.
This candle was something extraordinary. It waxed and waned, she directed it with her emotions, with her old thoughts that revolved around the sleeping young woman. Was she sleeping too? Why? Who knew how many nights of insomnia were yet ahead, who knew how many times she would look at the ceiling with tired eyes and sleep not coming. Why now when she had company?
The young woman didn’t exhibit discomfort, nor did she seem cold. Her cloak, with its thick cape of moss, was better shelter than a shawl or a blanket. What would she dream of? Surrendered entirely to rest, the traveler’s eyes were half open and her lips were slack. The old woman could see a white line between her lids and a row of snowy teeth. She had to suppress the desire to wake her. She wanted to talk with her, to ask her everyday things, the questions an old woman asks a young one. But that wasn’t considerate, nor fair, nor even polite.
“Do you have a mother?” she would have asked so that the other woman would say … What would she say? What would become of the mother who thought about her daughter in the middle of the road, subject to offense and insult? No, she should be an orphan, raised in a castle and overloaded with serious obligations from earliest childhood, the daughter of a despotic man, the daughter of God and chosen by Him. This last she thought rapidly, naturally and free of any inner theatricality.
“Chosen by God, may God protect you!” She looked at her feet, injured and white, at her hand, also white, but suave and intact, lying abandoned on top of the table.
How much time has she spent on the road? It didn’t seem like much. Nevertheless, there was no place nearby that she could reconcile with the residence of a women with such fine attire. A castle? A duchy? No, nothing but mountains and the news that arrived now and then, every five or ten years, of an extremely far off city where, it was said, every trade had its own guild including jewelers. Just imagine a guild of jewelers and the quantity of jewels and of people who would wear them!
She could only have come from there. But of course, God, who had chosen her, protected her hands and feet, her skin and her eyes. God was unpredictable, omnipotent, incommensurable in the range of His many powers. What effort had it been for Him to take care of a decent young women whose delicate feet had soles that didn’t toughen up, and whose princess hands didn’t chap? The old woman smiled and she looked at her own hands: freckles, knots, her nails gnawed to the quick. She would never see her hands in total splendor now, given that she used them in order to carry out the harshest chores. What effort could it be for God to give her back her hands or at least to give her new ones? None. She kept her chewed up hands under her blouse and looked first at the ceiling and then at the candle. God is here, waxing, waning, drawing faces clearly in the shadows and reflections on the whitewashed walls. What would she say to God? She turned herself face up in order to think more carefully.
“My Lord,” she didn’t want anything absolutely, as if her desires had gone weak over time. To be young and marry and watch her children grow? No. To be a girl and watch her parents die? No. To grow old so she could wait for death in solitude? All of these things had slowly occurred in five-year spans that now seemed but an instant. She couldn’t ask for anything because she had already had everything, everything with the exception of dying. “Thank you, my Lord,” she said at last. “Send me death whenever you want, as it’s the only one of your gifts I haven’t received yet.”
She said it in a low voice, so as not to awaken her visitor; covered herself with her blanket, positioned herself aright and once again stuck her hands beneath her blouse. She was content and had to restrain herself from singing a fragment of a song under her breath, the one she’d always sung to lull her children and grandchildren to sleep: ‘Here comes a goat, down the mountain pass; poor goat, poor mountain, meditates the grass.’ She didn’t sing it; she thought it and repeated the words in her mind until her eyes closed and she fell asleep at the least expected moment, just like a little girl or a distracted ewe.
The candle continued to grow, converted into a thread of light, and it began to trace pictures in the air around the pilgrim; first a halo, then, concentrating on her head it made her a cuiress. Then it converted itself into tiny rays and sprang up around the contours of her body as if she were an image distilling light from the middle of the altar in a temple. After that it drew signs, signals, keys, riddles for the experts, an alpha and an omega, entire alphabets in the air that kept floating and someone, without knowing either how or when, would perceive them and perhaps interpret them — not exactly, but in truncated messages, conceived in order to agitate the heart and to hope for the answer in this very room, converted into a statue …
The pilgrim woke up and the candle returned to its usual dimensions without any trace of its games, nor of it prior activities. She blushed intensely.
“Poor woman,” she said. “No doubt sleep relieved her and she has finally surrendered to it, not knowing if she was sharing her roof with an adventuress or with a woman of bad intentions who might rob her or mistreat her. Forgive me, my Lord.” She saw the unfinished bowl of milk on the table and drank it in one swallow. At any rate, she’d already grazed the glass with her lips. But she didn’t touch the bread, nor the piece of cheese that the elderly woman was keeping under a cloth. “Those aren’t for me.”
She put out the candle with her fingers and headed for the door. The air was icy and the village dark. It might be three o’clock in the morning or a little earlier. From experience she knew that daybreak is the coldest and darkest point as it’s the closest to tepidness and light. Let it be so.
She passed through the village afraid of bumping into a fence or falling into a hole. The village woman who had traveled with her from the other town saw her pass. She’d been at the window for hours wearing the first wife’s nightclothes and her eyes had long since become accustomed to the darkness. She didn’t call out to her. She cried for her son. Nothing, nothing in the world could press against her heart like this child of hers resting back there in the other village, a prettier village than this one, where the air was milder than here and the nights were clearer and starrier.
“My Lord, forgive me some day. Not today, not tomorrow, nor in the days that follow. Forgive me later and don’t look at me like the woman who’s going to be my mother-in-law does, as if I belonged to some human category that everyone has seen and knows well. My Lord, you more than anyone must have seen this sort of people and know it better than any. You know what it’s like, how prideful and mournful, how daring, how scandalous and stubborn, how feverish we can be. That’s why I’m asking you not to forgive me until time erases these distinguishing marks, until no one can recognize me and you confuse me with others and forget me.”
The pilgrim arrived at a broad path and sensed it was the one leading to the larger town that had been mentioned so many times. This was the town where the villagers had been lost following the passing of the other pilgrim and where so many others were saved. It was colder than ever. Every gust beat against her body with a force resembling hailstones or heavy snows. She closed her eyes and stumbled on. She couldn’t keep them open due to the wind. Her tunic and her cloak had never seemed thinner, her skin seemed transparent too and the cold entered everything including her heart. No, no one had said that she might freeze to death because then she wouldn’t be able to carry out her mission. When morning arrived, if she died she’d be guilty of disobedience, more so than had she agreed to be driven in the cart.
The sky turned grayish and the cold pressed in, but now things could be distinguished. She had made it a rule of conduct after having been in a village not ever to return, and she didn’t think about violating it even now. No one could bear being given a message two days in succession, nor allow themselves to be equally moved by the same person with the same words. She had decided this because she knew about cowardice, about the timidity that nearly suffocated her before speaking. She was aware that she always said the same words, repeated the same ideas and didn’t know how to respond to the questions they frequently directed at her nor how to satisfy their petitions. Upon leaving a village, a sensation resembling that of a child who stole and ran came over her. She stole attention, pulled off the job, squawked out the necessary phrases, ate and left on the run. Therefore she couldn’t return now and the path was ascending. Colder and colder, it wouldn’t be long before it began to rain … maybe this was the first day of the rainy season and she was the only one who wasn’t aware of it. She looked up, saw an overhang and below it a black space that could well turn out to be a cave. That often happened: When everything was going badly, when she was tired, the path itself offered her rest or food. If it was a cave, the truth would be that she couldn’t bear this cold any longer and the best thing to do would be to take refuge in it. She climbed rapidly without noticing that she trod on hawthorn, dazed more due to the temperature than due to the pain that tore into her ankle.
It was a cave and someone was in it. She wanted to turn around but a gust pushed her toward the inside of the cave and almost onto the human figure. He was seated on the floor, resting his head against the rock wall, but his rather widely opened eyes indicated he wasn’t sleeping.
“Excuse me, I thought there was nobody in here.” She recognized him immediately. It was the husband from the first village, the father both of the dead boy and of the live one, the husband and lover, the seductress’s stud and the half-hearted spouse of the woman betrayed. “What are you doing here?”
“What you see.”
“You went home.”
“No, never again. No wife, no son, no goats, no pieces of gold. All of it burned my hands and has no value so I left it.”
The traveler before him trembled so violently that instead of continuing to explain himself he guided her towards the rear of the cave. He laid her down on the floor and removed her cloak in order to cover her with it. Then he noticed that her foot had left a track of blood. She closed her eyes. She was so tired that she softened with the heat of her cloak. It was the softness of helplessness converted by solace.
“You have a hawthorn spine in your foot,” said the man. “I can’t pull it out while short on light. If I try to do it now, I could hurt you.”
“Is it raining?”
“I thought … that it was snowing.”
“It’s not that time of the year.”
“How do you feel?”
“May I ask you something?” The traveler thought he wanted to find out about the fate of the village woman and felt her spirit densely saturated with affairs like that which, after all, were none of her business.
“How did you find out it was you who had to wander around leaving the message in every town? Why not someone else?”
She half closed her eyes. It took a great deal of effort to remember and it wasn’t easy to speak.
“In the first place, all of the other women resembled each other. Ever since they were young they had a set occupation, except for me. I reached the age at which most get married and had no inclination toward marriage.”
“When was this?”
“I don’t remember, about six months ago. There wasn’t anything I did well. I didn’t learn to do the simplest chores in a household where the only thing lacking is someone to sit down and embroider tapestries. If I served wine, I spilled it; if soup, I burned people; if I tried to comb out someone’s hair I didn’t dare do it for fear of pulling it out. In short, God gave me a unique role which it seems I’m able to carry out and I dedicated myself to it.”
“But you saw His face and heard His voice?”
“Are you certain? I’m asking you because out in the country I saw a flock of birds in the shape of an arrow that pointed in this direction, to this cavern that I already knew and then, when I arrived, there was nothing here, neither birds nor anything else. Is that God?”
“God is here, at your side.”
A ray of the sun entered the cave and played over the body of the woman. He noted then the infinite reluctance with which she maintained her eyelids open and the indolence of her hands.
“I’m also a good-for-nothing. What’s that on your cheek?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s the same thing that’s on your foot. Red clover-leafs. I’m going to pull the hawthorn spines out. There’s another cave near here. If you’d like, I’ll go there while you rest in order not to bother you.”
“You’ll go.” She said it as though spelling it out. He was so touched by her somnolence, her abandonment, her weakness, that he didn’t want to oblige her to say anything more. He took her heel with delicacy and saw that in every bloody flower there was a thorn. Then he was filled with hesitation. This was a sign, a sign appearing in the blessed body that he was touching with his dusty hand, a hand that had touched bodies that weren’t blessed and that had also pulled thorns out of the thick hair of goats. Would he have permitted an animal to suffer for a scruple of his soul?
“My Lord, punish me if I’m committing sacrilege.” His hands trembled, he rested his wrists on the rock and pulled out the thorns: There were seven. “Does it hurt much?”
“What are you saying?”
“Nothing, I’m just talking.” He had put the thorns in a row on the hard-packed earth of the floor of the cave and soon it seemed to him that something peculiar was happening to them. Perhaps it was an illusion of tears, because for a long time now his eyes had not been dry. But no, on every thorn there was a flower with four petals, delicate and newly born and the thorns were fixed in the floor as if rooted, and everything was growing right in front of his eyes, and he was frightened, immensely frightened of not being able to embrace the presence of God, not even in this sign, to say nothing of a face-to-face encounter like the one the traveler had had.
“My Lord, your presence is so perturbing, even in an occurrence as small as this one!” He looked at her face and discovered she had died.
Then he put her to one side without leaving the cave, bolder, more audacious, more disposed than ever to anything because he was seeing what God does with those He allows to look upon Him and to listen to Him.
“God,” he said now and then, “God, God, God.”
The thorns cast forth flowering branches that intertwined without touching the body of the pilgrim and formed a sharp and luminous grill from which one could look at her and admire her and watch her distill light in torrents over her beauty, her jewels, the complicated embroidery on her white tunic. The silver flowers on her cloak were covered halfway by the cloth that now looked like the softest, whitest fleece, the fabric most favored for receiving angels.
The spines reached the roof and stopped moving. They weren’t growing any more now. In one hour, or two, they had made a sanctuary, had protected their relic, had preserved her eternally as a sign.
“God,” repeated the shepherd. “I will go down to the village so they’ll all know. Everyone has to come to see the sign, so they’ll feel like I do, so they’ll be touched.”
He took off running toward the village. The shepherds had already left the mountain with their flocks. The smallest children crawled near the sides of their mothers, many of whom were separating the cream from the milk.
He chose one house among the others because he seemed to see more people in it than in any other. He went in. The village woman with whom he’d committed adultery and a man were there kneeling beside the bed of an elderly woman who was dead.
Behind him six mourners dressed in black filed in, their heads covered, their shoulders shaken by convulsive sobs that arose in shrieks. Before they began, the son wanted to kiss the hands of his mother one last time and he found two smooth, white, beautiful hands with flexible, fleshy fingers and rosy, almond-shaped nails.
“Look, everyone,” he said in a low voice.
“A miracle,” said the village woman. “It’s a miracle.” Then she gave a few shouts as if she were terrorized, “It’s a miracle!”
The word began to weave in and out of the houses in the village and to bring people. The mourners wailed the three syllables of mir-a-cle instead of crying without rhyme or reason. The shepherds returned to the mountain and the man remained standing there, completely bewildered. He said nothing about the woman who was in the cavern because no one was paying any attention to him.
“God is everywhere.” Wasn’t that what she said? Wasn’t that it? “Therefore everything is a miracle. This and what happened in the cave, and the birds.”
He returned to the mountain and lived in a cave. While living there, he took care of the cavern where the traveler was resting. At the time of her death, the villagers in those days discovered various miracles and they proclaimed them, without thoroughly understanding.
“It’s a miracle,” they said as they had said before.