Sunday, July 27, 2014

In The Field of Grace by Tessa Afshar

In The Field of Grace
River North; New Edition edition (July 1, 2014)
Tessa Afshar


Those who walk uprightly Enter into peace;
They find rest as they lie in death.

Death squatted at Boaz’s door, waiting like a vulture, biding its time. He could sense its presence—inexorable, hungry, patient.

Judith—the wife of his youth, the woman he had married for love, his doe-eyed companion, lay dying.

Boaz leaned over to smooth the dark, sweat-stained hair from her brow. Alerted by his gentle movements, her dog, Melekh, lifted its long snout and inspected Boaz’s movements with suspicious intensity before settling its muzzle on its paws again. The dog’s gaze shifted back to the emaciated woman on the bed. It was a mark of the drastic circumstances that the beast had been allowed on the bed. Normally, it didn’t even make it through the chamber door. Yet as soon as Melekh had come limping in through the threshold, the beast had claimed the place like it had every right of ownership. With profound indifference, Judith’s dog treated Boaz as an annoy- ance rather than the master.

Boaz ignored Melekh and lifted his wife’s hand, holding it tightly, willing her not to give up. The woman on the bed had thinning, oily hair, and a face that looked like it had melted in the sun on one side, But that wasn’t what Boaz saw. He remembered Judith as she had been when he had met her for the first time, with thick hair that fell below her hip, and a smile that could melt rock. Not that he had melted. He had been sixteen, a man in his own eyes. His father had sent him north to examine a parcel of land owned by Judith’s father. She had offered him wine and cheese when he arrived. He took the cup from her hands and turned his shoulder on her lin- gering gaze. He had no time for young girls. This was the first time he had been entrusted with an important mission on his father’s behalf and he intended to do well. The land proved fertile, and his father purchased it based on Boaz’s recommendation. The trade went smoothly, and the two families became friends as a result of the new connection. For years, Judith wove in and out of Boaz’s life, though he took his time getting around to noticing her existence.

Judith acted as a shepherdess for her family. Her father had assigned a herd of his best sheep to her care, knowing her compe- tence with the animals to be equal to any man’s. In the end it was her handling of the herd that had first drawn Boaz to his wife. She often teased that he had needed dumb sheep to act as matchmaker between them. True enough. He had admired her ability with the beasts before he had ever taken notice of her beautiful black eyes or her midnight-dark hair.

“How do you keep them so fat in a drought year?” he had asked one day, addressing her directly for the first time.

She had laughed at him, making him redden with self-con- sciousness, wondering what he had said that could be construed as funny.

“What?” he said, not bothering to curb the annoyance in his voice.

“They are not fat.”

“They are, compared to my father’s sheep.” And that had been the start of their attachment. Later, she had confessed that she had loved him the first moment she had seen him.

He had frowned. He knew he wasn’t a handsome man. What would make a pretty young girl set her heart on his crooked nose and ordinary face? But she insisted that to her, he was beautiful. That was the moment he had truly fallen in love with her, he thought.

He brought her hand to his lips and gave it a light kiss. A kiss she could not feel. Her dog growled. Melekh never liked when Boaz touched its mistress, not even after fourteen years of witness- ing them together. The beast wasn’t usually this touchy, Boaz had to admit. Judith’s sickness had multiplied the animal’s possessive instincts.

Melekh was born the year before they married. Judith was pres- ent when the little golden pup first opened its eyes and she liked its spirit from the start. She picked up its wriggling body and held it against her, and they belong to each other from that moment. They welded together in an affection that surpassed the usual bonds of duty between a dog and its shepherd. She named the dog Melekh, king, and as if understanding the exact significance of the name, that animal had never stopped behaving as if it carried royal blood. Boaz owned enough sheep to understand dogs were neces- sary to mind the sheep, to keep the wolves at bay, to warn their masters of potential danger. They had a prominent place in the life of a shepherd. And no part of that place included coming into the house and being caressed and cuddled like a baby. Not from Boaz’s perspective.

“Where I go, Melekh comes,” Judith had said the day they were betrothed.

“Of course. I have a nice field behind the house where he can roam freely.”

Her rounded chin lifted mutinously. For a woman unaccus- tomed to shrill arguments, Judith could be fierce. “If you want me to sleep inside, Melekh sleeps inside.”

A picture of Judith sleeping in the fields at night, with the dog on one side and him on the other, flashed before Boaz’s mind. “It can come inside.” Her dark eyes lit up with joy. Boaz decided he had made the right decision. He cleared his throat. “Never into our chamber, mind. That’s just for you and me.”

Judith had sealed her acceptance with a wide smile. For fourteen years the beast had shared Boaz’s roof and eaten the scraps of his dinner. Boaz had never warmed to Melekh enough to cuddle it and speak to the dog like it was a child the way Judith did. But he had learned to tolerate the beast. For its part, Melekh ignored him most of the time. They had moved past being enemies. But they had never grown into becoming friends either.

The room smelled like fresh blood and the musky scent of spikenard. The servants had used the expensive oil in an attempt to cover the scent of sickness. Instead, the room reeked of a mix of bodily emissions and the pungent odor of perfume. It made his stomach turn.

They should be celebrating, not mourning. Only four days ago, Judith had been large with child, weeks away from delivery. She glowed with happiness even though it had been a difficult preg- nancy. Judith’s pregnancies were always difficult. When her hands and feet started to swell, she and Boaz paid little heed. Even the midwife had shrugged her shoulder.

On the morning of the Sabbath, while dressing in her mantle, Judith fell to the floor without warning. In horror, Boaz watched her body convulse, limbs jerking about in uncontrollable spasms. Spittle frothed around her mouth. Finally, the forceful movements of her muscles relented, leaving her unconscious for over a day.

She awoke with a blinding headache, unable to move half her body. Then the birth pains came. How could a woman, half para- lyzed, manage to give birth? Boaz could not understand how she had survived. The baby, when he finally emerged, blue and silent, lingered on this earth for mere hours and even that was a miracle. He never cried. He simply closed his eyes and gave up the fight.

Boaz did not tell Judith when she awoke for a brief hour. He did not have the words. He forced his mouth to stretch into a smile and tried to protect her from one final horror, worried the knowledge of it would be her undoing. Sick as she was, paralyzed in the right half of her body and out of her mind with a headache that never left, she knew. She knew her little one was gone.

It proved too much for her. She could not cope with a shattered body and a broken heart at the same time. She gave up. Boaz left her side for an hour to see to their son’s burial. He returned to find Judith slipping away from him, one shallow breath at a time, Melekh lying by her side, watchful as if it counted her breaths.

For the first time in fifteen years Boaz reached out and patted the dog. Love for Judith bound them together in her dying hours. They were crushed under the same weight. Unspeakable horror. Grief. Loss. Unaccountably, touching Melekh felt like a comfort. It met a need deep inside Boaz, as he sat next to his wife, terrorized at the thought of losing her. Melekh looked up, its grey eyes filmed over by old age. Then it did something unaccountable too. Something it had never been moved to do. It licked Boaz’s hand.

Boaz swallowed a sob and fell on his face, praying that God would spare Judith. But he already knew the answer. She was going to their children.

She opened her eyes and called his name. Boaz sprang to his feet and ran to her. She tried to smile. Only one side of her lips lifted, the other limp, sloped down, like a permanent grimace of pain. Her face had become divided, half dead, half alive, half smiling, half grieving. He would keep her like this and be happy. If only she would stay with him.

She mumbled something he could not catch. It was difficult to make out her slurring words since she had been struck down. She tried several times and finally he understood her words. “I’m sorry I wasn’t always the wife I hoped I would be. I’m sorry I failed you.”

“Stop, Judith. You never failed me.”

“I let sorrow take me from you. I’m sorry for that.”

Boaz wept. He had left a bit of his soul in the dark, shallow grave, next to his son’s pitifully tiny body. At least the babe wasn’t alone. He was buried next to his older sister, Sarah. And soon, his mother would join them.

It seemed impossible to accept. Judith! Her name reverberated through his mind, a soundless scream of anguish.

They had been happy together for many years even though Judith had been unable to bear children. She had suffered five mis- carriages in as many years. For every baby she had shed endless tears. Every one of her tears had lashed his heart like an iron-tipped whip.

“You are an honored man. You belong to the lineage of Nah- shon, the famed leader of Judah. God has enlarged your land and prospered your cattle,” she said to him one night, holding on to a tiny garment, never worn. “You deserve children so your name can go on. Instead you have become an object of pity among our people.”

“I don’t want children. I want you.”

She shook her head, dark curls spilling down the small of her back. “I am barren. Take another wife, Boaz.”

“I will not! Be patient. Didn’t Abraham have to wait long years for a son? Didn’t Isaac? We have a long time before we match their patience.”

“Take another wife.”

He resisted. He couldn’t imagine sharing his heart and body with another woman. Judith was his wife. His love.

God blessed his patience. Judith became pregnant and this time carried the baby to term. They had a little daughter, with Judith’s beautiful face and a sparrow’s delicate voice.

For six years Boaz was enchanted by his precious girl; he heard her first words, comforted her through her tears, watched Judith put her to bed at night and laughed at her precocious antics. For six years Sarah charmed him, cuddled him, loved him, filled him with joy.

It took only six days of fever for her to be taken from him. Was it a mere year since he had lost her? It felt like a lifetime.

He only knew that he survived that season by clinging to the Lord. His heart was crushed, but his faith grew.

Judith fell apart. The loss proved too much, robbing her of health and hope. Boaz fought for her with a tenacity he had not realized he possessed. He fought for her to go on. To cling to life and persevere.

“For my sake, please Judith, for my sake! Don’t you love me as much as you loved our child? Please fight for us. Don’t give up on me, beloved.” He begged and cajoled. He prayed. He pushed. Anything to get her to hold on to living.

“I can’t bear it, Boaz,” she said one night as she sat on the roof, her feet dangling from the edge, her eyes locked on the bright stars. “I can’t bear this loss.”

Boaz felt a shiver go through him. He grabbed hold of Judith’s fingers and squeezed with desperation. “Judith, Life often brings us more sorrow than we think we can bear. But God is greater than every desolation. He is greater even than death. He will see us through.”

Judith shook her head. “I don’t have your faith, Boaz.” Months passed, months of slow agony as Boaz watched help-

lessly while his wife grew weaker in soul and body, unable to get a foothold in life, unable to hope and be restored. One night she came into Boaz’s bed. “Give me another child,” she said. “Give me comfort in my despair.”

He didn’t fight her. He should have, knowing how physically weak she remained. Instead he gave in. He kept her in his bed until she became pregnant for the last time.

And now, he was paying the price of his weakness. She lay dying because he couldn’t refuse her.

“Boaz!” she called out in her weak, mumbling voice. “I’m here.”

“Promise me.”

“Promise what?”

“You’ll be happy? When I’m gone.”

A fly tried to land on her arm and he swatted it away. No matter how hard they tried to repel them, the flies always came, attracted to the putrid scent that had begun to rise from her flesh. “How can I be happy? You have to stay with me, Judith.”

“I can’t, my love. It’s my time to go. But I want you to find hap- piness. I want you to know joy. Please try. For me.”

Her dog started to howl. Boaz was horrified by the sound. It reflected the scream that had been trapped inside his own heart too closely. He reached out his hand and, softly, comfortingly caressed the thinning fur. “It’s all right, boy. It’s all right.” Melekh’s howling subsided. It gave one last wail and placed its muzzle on Judith’s chest.

Judith gave her lopsided smile. A single tear ran down her left cheek. “I’ve finally managed to turn you two into friends.” She closed her eyes. Took a deep breath and said, “I love you, Boaz. Always.”

They were her last words.

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