Read by Lois Tucker
The first month, she prays for blood. She knows she ought to pray for God's forgiveness, for her own salvation, for the stain of sin to be wiped from her soul: for all the things that had meant nothing when the angel stood before her. But Maryam tells herself that if her monthly blood comes, it will be a sign that God has forgiven her. And so she prays.
The second month she prays for the angel to come back and claim her. She's beginning to suspect he was no more than a beautiful man, but that night, it hadn't seemed impossible, as stupid as it did now, that he might be an angel. His eyes were blue, as the Circassians' eyes are said to be, and she couldn't tear hers away from them. She'd never met a Circassian, nor even a blue-eyed man, let alone an angel. Who was she to say what form such a being might take? He had called himself Ishim. When she'd confessed she was afraid, that she did not want to do anything impure in the eyes of God, he had smiled and reached out his hand; the cleanest hand she'd ever seen.
“Don't you know that whatever an angel touches, he makes pure?” he said gently. And he was right: scripture said it of Moses' angel. Nothing a messenger of the Lord did could be unclean. He stroked her cheek and his fingers were warm as sunlight. And she'd let herself believe.
The third month she prays for blood again. If you bleed again before the third month, so her friend Rebekah whispers, the child has not taken and you won't become great with it. Except for the little hole cut in your heart by hope or dread, all will be as though it was never there. And she will not have to tell her mother, or Yusef, of her sin and her shame.
The fourth month she prays to love her husband. When the longed-for blood does not come she confesses to her mother at last. She doesn't know what to say to her betrothed, Yusef – such a godly man, a little soft in the head even, spiritually speaking – but sincere. They must hasten the wedding, her mother says resolutely, and tell Yusef a version of what happened. “The angel never touched you, only said a miracle would come to pass,” her mother stresses. Maryam's cousin Elizavet, her mother's age, lined around the eyes and with white streaks in her hair like threads of cotton, after decades of barrenness is nearly nine months gone, and believes passionately in miracles. She nods in avid agreement.
“A baby is a blessing, especially a divine child, like ours. Oh Maryam, I'm so happy for you! Did I tell you an angel appeared to me, too?” This would not be the first time staring-eyed Elizavet has seen an angel: she has a reputation for visions and prophecies, but it is the first time one has left any proof behind.
Maryam wonders if their angels were the same, then casts the thought away. She doesn't want to imagine Ishim's strong clean fingers touching Elizavet's withered flesh.
The fifth month, she prays for the endless sickness to pass. Then, as she bends again over the wet dirt, wracked by retching, she feels the first kick; the unexpected, breath-catching bucking of a little fish in the pool of her womb. She clutches her belly, stands up straight. All at once, her sickness is gone.
Halfway through the sixth month, when she undresses to bathe, she sees blood streaking her thighs: once desired, now dreaded. She falls to her knees and prays for the baby to move again inside her. She had not thought to pray for him before; had considered him an inevitable fact, a permanent passenger, snug, secure and settled in her womb. But now the little fish that swam in her stomach is still: not a flicker, and she shuts herself in the bedchamber, glad only that Yusef is not home to see this.
If the baby dies he will know it was not a divine conception but a profane one, as simple and common as beasts coupling in a field. That should matter to her more, she thinks, through the haze, but she cannot bring herself to care about anything but the child. Her eyes spill over with tears, hour after hot hour, as she lies on the pallet cradling her warm belly, not knowing whether it is empty of life again, gently tapping the taut skin as if knocking at a stranger's door. Everything is too bright, too clear: the raw light through the window, the smell of cut onions from the kitchen where the supper waits for her to make it, the goaty itch of the woollen blanket against her wet cheeks.
At last, as evening falls and faint stars unhood themselves beyond the window, she wakes with a start. Someone has kicked her: a soft punch in the gut. Who was it? Why is she lying on the bed, at this hour? Is she sick? She rolls onto her side and sits up, one hand instinctively holding her stomach, and feels it again: the kick. Two, in fact: angry little blows that cry Wake up! There's work to be done!
When Yusef comes home to find the dinner half-cooked, tears and sweat streaking her pink face as she adds more fuel to the fire, he reprimands her as sternly as he can manage (which is nothing to her mother's sternness). She only laughs and kisses his eyes and beard and pours him a cup of wine.
In the seventh month, she dreams almost nightly of the baby that grows inside her; of his round sleeping face, his arms, his fingers, the colour of his eyes. Elizavet's son John is three months old now, a chubby chortling little creature with limbs soft and warm as new-baked bread. Holding John in her arms, she sits him on the firm mound of her belly, short fat legs straddling her sides, and bounces him until he giggles, toothless pink mouth wide. Then her baby starts to wriggle and kick too, and John's dark eyes open wide in surprise. He begins to laugh again, louder than before. When Elizavet swoops in to reclaim her son, Maryam can hardly bear to let him go.
Her boy will be like John, only more beautiful. She sees the curled shape of him in her dreams, the curve of his cheek and the tuck of his miniature toes, red shadows against a warm bronze light.
In the eighth month she prays for the strength to carry the child until he is ready to be born. The simplest tasks are now mountains to climb: as her womb has swollen her lungs seem to have shrunk, and fetching water from the well leaves her breathless as a crone. She can hardly bend over; cannot run at all. If an entire Roman legion was after her, the best she could do would be waddle to the barn and hide with the cows among the bales and byres.
Still, never mind that she can barely walk, never mind that riding is almost as uncomfortable, never mind that Betle'em is days and miles away, Caesar has dictated that they must go there to be registered. Never mind that they know nobody, nor that all the inns will be overflowing. Never mind that her baby is due, and could be born in this strange place, without even her mother or cousins to help … She tries not to blame Yusef: though it's his family, not hers, that comes from Betle'em, she's part of that family now, just as her son will be. The house of David: a proud lineage. The blood of kings.
In the ninth month she prays God (merciful God, loving God, O God – O God!) to stop the pain. Gouts of astounding pain, sweeping over her like a sandstorm or earthquake that cannot be outrun, only survived. They'd warned her, of course they had, her mother and Elizavet and every woman she knew, with a strange, half-longing look in their eyes, that it would overcome her; that it was like no other pain she would ever feel. But how could she have known?
She wasn't afraid when they talked about it, but she's terrified now. Afraid that the hand of God, which seems to be twisting and squeezing her, lifting her up off the straw-scattered stable floor and dashing her down again, as you might knock a fish to kill it, will snap her spine in two. Nobody told her it was so messy, so savage, and no-one is here to promise her she isn't dying; that birth, like death, is violent, except the softly grunting, gape-eyed cows and poor Yusef, white as linen, mopping her sweat and blood with his robe.
Like thunder rattling distant hills, she feels each convulsion coming before the lightning-strike of the pain. She cowers beneath the invisible hand, tries to twist out of its grasp, but it catches and crushes her each time. And each time she prays for this one to be the last, or not the last, depending on whether she's more scared of the next contraction, of the nails being driven over and over into her back and sides, or of dying.
O, she would curse God, curse the child, curse the angel who put him there if she had breath to, but all she can manage is fish-gulps and bovine lowing. Get him out, she prays wordless in her head, O God, get him out, and then the wave of agony surges in her again and she gives a last strangled cry, and goes under.
There is nothing for a long time: a second, perhaps an hour. And then Maryam hears a new sound, a thin keening like a cool stream of water after her panting groans. She dreamed she was drowning in the ocean, but now the sea has drained away, leaving her soaked and tasting salt. Some little creature has been washed up on the beach with her, wet and wrinkled and blood-smeared, but it is warm and soft, not cold like a fish.
She blinks: the barn door has drifted ajar, and against a sky of piercing stars Yusef kneels up between her legs, holding a tiny squirming thing the colour of liver. She feels it touch her leg, then her suddenly empty belly as Yusef gently places the baby on her. It's warm and sticky, and shifts against her the way she knows so well, with movements both jerky and slow, nuzzling blindly into her body.
She doesn't know how she lifts her arms, which were dead weights at her side, but they rise up to hold him. She doesn't know how her numb fingers find the crumpled, puffed flesh of the face and stroke it, soft as new bread. The pink kitten-mouth is open, mewling, but the eyes are squeezed shut. Perhaps they will be brown, perhaps blue. It doesn't matter. She hugs her son against her chest: her two hands cover his whole small body. The soft flutter of his breath laps against her breast. And after nine months, at last Maryam understands what it is to pray.
Let him live, she says silently to the stars. The wetness in her eyes makes them glow and sparkle like comets. Let him live and thrive and be joyful. Let every cry be answered before it has time to echo. Let him never know pain or suffering; at least, no more than any man. Let him laugh more than he weeps. Let him grow to manhood, and have children of his own, and grow old with them about him.
Let me protect him, Lord, from all the evils of this world, and all the angels too.
(c) Abigail Lee, 2015
Abigail Lee likes writing stories almost as much as she does reading them. She's been trying to get one read at a Liars' League for ages so this is a great Christmas present. She doesn't have a website but can be contacted at email@example.com.
An actress and creative, Lois Tucker (left) can often been found performing as her silent comedy alter ego 'Lois of the Lane'. She has penned three solo shows to date and has various other projects bubbling away. Will her recent entry to represent the UK in Eurovision 2016 be successful? Only time will tell... www.loistucker.net