She often wondered whether she really filled the emptiest silences with screams. She made shapes with her lips and felt words swelling in her throat, but her voice forgot to release them: my husband is going to kill me.
She had whispered it to her sister once, after the third baby had crept from her belly before its time. She had woken lying in blood. After his rage, her trembling, after she had rinsed her flanks with cold water and stripped the sheet, after he had cursed her, spat on her and left, she lay back down on the stained bed. She hadn’t cried; she wasn’t sorry. He always wanted her with child, despite the many blows to her stomach. She never knew if that was because he longed for babies, or he just wanted to send his leaden seed into her; a shrub to strangle from inside.
She thought about the stain. He wouldn’t like the stain.
When her sister came with clean cloths and words of comfort, she said that she expected her husband to kill her. Nothing came in return. Her sister fussed with the sheets and coaxed her back into bed to rest. She concluded that she couldn’t have spoken properly. Perhaps she had misheard herself, or had only thought that she’d said it.
Lazarus had married her when she was thirteen. The night of their wedding, when he drew first blood from her, he had promised that it would be the last time. She had believed him. The blows would collect on her like pooled water from a rainstorm, and she had trusted him, loved him. It was a strange love, grown up crooked. She would hardly have recognised it as love at all, if Lazarus hadn’t been there to tell her so. But then he would whisper to her at night, his voice like spiced wine, his alchemic fingers light as the wind over bruised skin.
All wives of Bethany were beaten. Beaten in fury, beaten in frustration, beaten for beating’s sake. It was a violence that could be returned with curses, sour glances, pots slammed on the table. A theatre of mutual contempt, with stock characters of sisters, mothers, wives.
But none of the other wives she knew were beaten the way she was, with the slow delight of the connoisseur. If a neighbouring wife complained about her husband’s boorish slaps, she never mentioned that he might take idly her braid of hair in one hand and a knife in the other, and tell her that she was a little idiot to flaunt her beauty, that he could take it away so very easily. For the wife of Lazarus it happened still, even long after she knew that her beauty was gone. Her pretty youthful face had been an unsightly boil, carefully lanced and cauterised in order to protect herself. Now she was bitter and puckered, a fig plucked in its early sourness and left to rot.
None of the other husbands crushed a kitten’s throat with his finger and thumb, just because in a moment of tenderness she had said she loved it. None of the other husbands slept with a hatchet next to the bed, to enjoy the metallic clang that it made when they set it down at night. Sometimes he would pick it up and hold it above her head, watching her face intently. She always made a show of reacting – the weeping and the begging seemed to appease him.
They lived in the usual fashion. Lazarus grew figs – although he was erratic in his farming habits, and most years would let a good part of the fruit fall off the trees and rot. She would take their crop, whatever there was of it, to the market to sell. She was an excellent saleswoman, although her profit usually wasn’t enough, and the meaning of ‘enough’ spun and shifted daily.
Lazarus had no close friends. He would welcome a man into their home with ebullience, but then there might be a moment when she would look at the friend, or the friend would look at her, and then her husband would change. He would grow cold and say that it was time to leave. Then he would pull her hair out by the fistful.
There was a man from Nazareth called Yeshua, and he loved her husband like a brother. They would sit up and talk long into the night, and Yeshua’s mellifluous tones would lull her to half-sleep as she lay behind the divider curtain. He was the only other man who Lazarus would allow into their home. There was a sweetness about him – a sweetness that reminded her of a good-natured dairy cow. Even Lazarus could see his absolute sexlessness, an absence of carnal desire so complete that there was no fuel for even the most volatile of jealousies. In those evenings, she would see the goodness in her Lazarus again – the man that loved justice. Yeshua would praise the food that she served them, and her husband would look at her with pride. Sometimes Yeshua would kneel at her husband’s feet and wash them, slowly and deliberately, lips parted in a babyish half-smile. They would talk for hours as she scrubbed the pots, swept the floor and crept off to sleep. As she drifted off, the air would grow turgid with righteous phrases, moral truths as hard and simple as daggers.
Then she would feel Lazarus enter, pressing hard into her back, grasping her breast tightly. He always fucked her before he fell asleep, even when the blood from their lost babies was still dried into the creases of her thighs. For the most part her cunt had toughened. It didn’t really hurt any more – she usually felt nothing at all, other than the faintest sting of hurt pride at being so jostled.
When the fourth baby slipped away, she decided to act.
Having no coins of her own, she had no idea how to go about procuring what she needed. Besides, there was precious little time between the end of the market and sundown, and she needed some light for cooking. If she was not home before the shadows lengthened beneath the fig trees, then Lazarus would come to find her. Yet in the end, it was easy.
There was a woman that she knew as a peddler of remedies – things to start or stop bleeding, draughts to help put babies into bellies. The thing that made her take notice was the change that she noticed in the woman one day. The herb woman had always had a long rope of black hair, but one day it had been unevenly cropped, as if a whole braid had been sawed off. Now the strands of hair stuck out at odd angles, floating weightlessly around the head.
‘I need something for my husband.’
Once again, she wondered whether, it a moment of madness, she might have screamed – till her throat was raw – my husband is going to kill me. What had lived, trapped, in some thorny region of her chest for many years – now perhaps had finally flowed away like a viper. The woman had heard her say it. She handed her a powder, wrapped in a small twist of cloth.
When it came to it, killing him felt ordinary. Her cooking had been seasoned with thoughts of poison for so long that it was half-absent-mindedly that she shook the black powder into the pot, in between the pepper and the cumin seeds.
He often refused the food she cooked for him. He would take a mouthful and spit it out immediately, or else stare down at his plate, chewing on his teeth.
‘You expect me to eat this?’
That night, he ate. He didn’t say he liked it, and he didn’t finish his plate, but he ate – just enough to sate his appetite, and threw the rest to the goats. There was only bread left for her.
He took an extraordinarily long time to die.
For three days he continued to torment her with the threat of survival. Right until the moment that his last breath went un-succeeded – and then a moment after that – she had felt herself still crouching in terror. The fear that he would die was second only to the fear that he might live. He died looking straight at her, with a half-smile that told her, beyond all doubt, that he knew.
The look was like a breath over a half-dead ember. For a moment, love burned at the back of her throat like nausea and her every vein readied itself to burst as he shuddered. Then he was still and sweet.
After a few moments, she sighed, drew a linen sheet over his face and stood up. There was an afterlife to contend with, and he would be there forever. But first she needed a good long sleep and a deep laugh before she could think about that.
Now she had things to attend to. Three of the goats died, and she had a funeral to arrange.
She did the appropriate amount of wailing and sobbing when they placed Lazarus in his tomb. Her wifely properness had been carefully staged for so long that she saw no reason to dispel it now. Eventually, she presumed, there would need to be another husband, perhaps a fat old widower. She hoped for a man of more prosaic sadism.
Mary and Martha – Lazarus’ sisters – watched her, granite-faced. They were the kind of girls who, when they were small, would pinch their playmates just to see them wince. Not bred for malice, but never grown into any particular kindness.
They stayed for a long time, and insisted over and over that she ought to return to the family home with them. Our brother is dead, they repeated to varying degrees of pity and frostiness – you cannot just stay in this house. Who will protect you? How do you plan to live?
Eventually they skulked away like a pair of hungry cats, and she was left alone.
That evening she swept the floor, taking her time. The sun slid down easily, making way for a friendly, deep-blue night. She heated water, although there was very little fuel left. She washed her own feet, massaging them with olive oil. She scrubbed the cooking pot. It seemed important that whatever poison might still cling to the old iron would not pass her lips.
It was the first time that she had ever prepared a dish for one person. As she cooked, she felt like a young wife again, uncertain with her seasonings. It seemed incredible that the recipe could be so simple as half of what it would have been before. By the burnishing light of the fire, she ate. The spices sang out, just for her. The ashiness of fear was absent, and she ate her fill for the first time since she was a girl of thirteen. There was a little left in the pot. Just a spoonful. She sat in front of the waning fire for hours, with an exquisite sense of space around her eyes. Never before had she noticed how richly the cooking fire patterned the walls of the house.
He had always put his face so close to hers that she feared he could see her thoughts. But now he was dead, and she was alive.
For that night, and for the three nights following it, the wife of Lazarus slept peacefully.
Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
And there he was again.
For all the time that it took them to walk home, the wife of Lazarus laughed. Or at least, she thought she did.
Jessica Moor grew up in London, reading English at Cambridge before working in the culture and charity sectors. She has written for various print and online publications. In 2010 she won first prize for the Arthur Cotterell competition for her play, The Citizen. Jessica is currently focused on feminist writing and issues surrounding violence against women. She is putting the finishing touches on her first novel, A Version of Love.