When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
I can’t scream any more. Except for a lifetime. So I will keep on shouting out.
There isn’t any sound. It is pitched far too high, and it echoes around the empty cavern that was my heart.
My throat is too raw for screaming, but I keep on screaming. I will let my cries go on unceasing, till they come and tear my tongue from my mouth. And then I will probably laugh, and let the dogs lick it up. Because I don’t care. I don’t give a shit about what is decorous or right. I am all pain. All horror. I am red hot chilli thrust into your eyeball. I am hot coal in your loins. I am everything you fear, your darkest nightmare.
You know that terrible, hurting numbness when you hit your thumb with a hammer, or trap your finger in a door. that is me. Everywhere. Always. My eyes emptied of tears, dry like a desert, parched like the river you walk to in the hottest hour of the day and find empty. And my heart also, drained of hope, just a twitching corpse hung up in the chamber of my flesh. My brain shaken like a maraca, banged and pounded like a drum. Even the hairs on my head are aching with grief. there is a burning anger in my bones that makes me want to tear my own flesh to pieces. I am blind rage. I am deaf futility. I am dumb, numb pain. I am horror.
And now you want me to explain. But I cannot explain, there is no explaining. I will tell you my story, but I will tell it with howls of grief, and I will not be consoled. I don’t want the hope you think you can offer, because it is not hope at all. I am on fire, and you cannot put me out.
Or shall I tell it like a witness statement? Bland and matter of fact. I was there. I saw what happened. It was ghastly. Unspeakably so. this was the time. that was the place. these were the persons involved. this was the outcome. I see the images in my head. I turn the horror over. But it didn’t happen to me. It is someone else’s nightmare. I just saw it, and now I’m telling you what I saw.
But it was me. And even though I keep on thinking that it is possible to go back to those moments before it happened and change the future, I cannot go back, except to that single moment of terrifying intrusion. So I will tell you in the staccato rhythm of repeated hammer blows on your skull, or like a body flung from a cliff and bouncing on the rocks, or like your fingernails being pulled out one at a time.
They came. out of nowhere. Swift feet upon the pavement in that early hour when the light begins to come and there is a smudge of vermilion on the eastern sky.
There was no warning. the order had been given and, no sooner given, carried out.
Fists beating on the door. terrified foreboding in the air. ‘Who is it?’ ‘What is the matter?’ and ‘Why are you calling at this ungodly hour?’
I remember my voice as they hammered on the door, and it feels like it belonged to someone else. Another woman in another lifetime.
More pounding. Insistent. Unrelenting. My mouth dry. the door pulled an inch ajar and then thrust open. Hands push- ing me aside. Eyes darting this way and that. Staring and searching with cold calculation. three stolid men towering over me. Sweat pearling their brows. the smell of cloves and tannin on their breath. Faces close to mine. one of them has a glob of sticky spittle at the corner of his mouth. Another a single, large stubby hair on his nose. Hands grip my shoulders. Shaking. Demanding. And then, words of dread: ‘Madam, don’t delay us any longer. We have our orders. Where is the boy?’
Then, in a horrid moment of recollection, swimming in my fuddled brain, my mind filled with the noises of the night, the whimpering and helpless crying of other mothers and of other sons.
And how do you hide a baby boy in a noisy house in the first light of a new day? Even as I trembled in their presence, too terrified to breathe a word, wanting to throw myself across my child or tell them they were mistaken, there was no boy here . . . he is calling me, gurgling and fluttering to life in the makeshift cot at the end of my bed, smiling at the fingers of light that have inched their way into the room through the netting by the window, speckling the room with a hazy brightness and catching in singular definition the motes of dust that are thrown up in the room.
They turn. they push me away. I scream. one long, terrible cry that comes from the centre of my bowels and can never be silenced. I jump up to stop them, and one of them holds me down. Holds me and grips my throat like it is nothing, just a pod he could snap open.
It happens. In terrible slow motion. one of them moves to the cot. He picks up my little child, my firstborn son, my joy. At first he is holding him fondly, for who cannot be brought to silly wonder by the gentle eagerness of a baby. And only ten months old. not yet learned to walk or speak or fear. the world is to be trusted, and here in your mother’s house, in your mother’s presence, is all safety.
And I remember holding him. Remember it now in this evening’s terrible emptiness. I stare into the night and cradle the hollow desperation of the day, rock back and forth humming the lullabies that soothed him to sleep and are all I have left for comfort. And it is no comfort at all.
I remember his birth. the exultant cries of life sliding into the world when the cord was broken and he was delivered out of the floodwaters of my womb and onto my breast and into my arms. I held his little face next to mine. I smothered him with kisses and told him he was dearly loved and wanted more than he could ever know. Each day I held him, and whispered stories of tenderness and beauty into his tiny ears. I wanted him to overflow. I wanted him to know the joys of loving and of being loved. For there is no life, except we know security and affirmation; and too many of the world’s wrongs stem from never knowing you are loved. I wanted him brimmed over. I wanted, for him, no doubt that he mattered, that the world was his.
And he grew. Suckled at my breast, he received everything he needed. My warmth and my love and my nurturing made him. My body fed and provided for his body. And though the cord was broken we were still one, held in a grip that only sons and mothers know. His eyes would sparkle when I came into the room. His little hands would reach for me. His pleasure was complete in me.
Then, in that dreadful turned over and turned over moment – just this morning and already an eternity away, the echo of another lifetime in another land – his little fingers curl around the rough flesh of the man’s big hands. I wonder how it feels to do what this man did. Do you put it to the back of your mind? Another day’s work done. Brutal, but necessary.
Or does it pick away at your soul, hollowing out your heart from the inside, till you are just a shell of a man, an empty vessel; what seems like a man, but only a walking ghost; the outer remains of a man, when inside there is only emptiness and hurt.
Now he is giving that same emptiness to me, taking what is vital, what matters most.
We will share this terrible emptiness: he through the callous cruelty of his work, me through the rage and disappointment that is rooted in my soul and is already eating it away.
What hope is there for us? How can any of us be forgiven? Me, the sinned against, and he, the sinner? Does he do his work so well because his heart is also numb? Is he the product of pain? Will I become like him? Is this where suffering ends, giving it out to others?
There is ominous silence. outside, two crows begin to caw at each other across the street. A dog starts barking. there are other fearful sounds of crying beginning to fill the air. It is all horribly predictable. Unstoppable. I am overpowered. the forces of something beyond me are upon me.
For there is another child. And I have heard of this other child. He is danger and threat. He is danger and threat to my child. the rumours and the gossip even reached our little village. A new king born in Bethlehem, just as the prophets had said. And Herod’s pride erupted. His anger kindled. And when he cries little children die in the streets. there would be no rival to his throne. And it didn’t matter if a thousand little boys perished, if this little life could be extinguished. And now. now, here and now in my house, my security invaded, every little light must be snuffed out to serve the bigger vanity of a weak king. And who cares if God has visited his people, and, if the prophet’s words are true, we can even stop God: after all, how many regiments does God have? A pogrom across the land, which I had heard of but not believed. I thought that it would spend its energy before it reached me – like a tempest turned to a breeze. I thought that our little world was safe. A terrible devastation has visited me. I am over- powered. I am helpless to stop it.
He, the man who held my child, held my future. He turned and looked at me. And I looked at him.
And I wanted to say to him, ‘You don’t have to do this’, because I could see that’s what he was thinking. But no words came out.
The outside world was very noisy then. I knew what it was, the screaming, the barking, the retching, It was other mothers mourning other sons in the awful massacre of a bright new dawn. How could I have been so blind to the horror? I will blame myself for ever.
But there was a silence between us in that moment. We both knew what the other was thinking and what the other would do.
My eyes pleaded with him. there was no other way to speak. He saw my begging, my utter helplessness in that moment. I was held down. I was squeezed out. Even the screaming stopped for a moment. And he just said again, ‘We have our orders.’ then he pulled a slim, steel blade from beneath his tunic and quickly, like you might slice a fig on a summer’s day, slit my son’s throat.
Oh, the warm flow of his blood. His brief life briefly shed. the milky film of tears across his closing eyes. A sigh. And gone. Extinguished.
I shuddered then and choked. Gasping for air, I knew there would never be any hope for me. I stare, silently raging against the gathering blackness of the night. My light has gone out.
I don’t hate this other child. Jesus, they say his name is. I desire him no ill. But I can’t help wishing he hadn’t been born. His birth has brought death to me, has brought my little life into the centre of things and snuffed out the brief life of my little son; and though I cannot see what good it would do if he was killed as well, I know they are after him, chasing him down. I know his mother’s fear, as I know the fear of so many other mothers hiding their children away. In the end they will get him. these earthly powers are not quenched. they have their way. they persist. His blood will be spilled as well. And what good will that do?
• Which person in the story did you most relate to?
• What surprised, shocked or delighted you the most?
• How has this changed your understanding of the Christmas story?