April 15, 2012

The Messiah's Wife


The Messiah’s Wife
by Bezalel Stern

True believers continued on the quest for the Holy Land, which turned out to be a snake and alligator-infested place near Helena, Arkansas. Bullard apparently died. All that was left of the Pilgrims were his wife and another woman, who lived in a shack.

-David S. Reynolds

* * *

It has been two years four months and seventeen days since the Messiah left us. His ascent to heaven was a thing unimaginable. Now, it is unimaginable that we will carry on.

The wife of the Messiah has been hounding me of late, admonishing me to do my share of the work. It is hard, though, although I try. The land is arid and dry. There are few people among our surroundings, all of them heretics. They do not believe in the Messiah. Of the believers, only the Messiah’s wife and I are left.

* * *

It was three months ago that the last of the men passed on. To heaven, I am sure. Where there is plenty of room. When I think of it, it takes my breath away, almost. Thousands of years this world has been around, and no one was saved until the Messiah came. And no one will be saved but for the few of us who knew him and loved him. The pastures of heaven will be green and wide and empty.

I do not regret the heretics. I understand their ways. It is hard to believe in a Messiah that has already ascended. Or, as they claim, that has died. It is true, I will admit, that our Messiah was buried, that he illed for a time of the malaria, as we call the sickness of the swampy region of this Southern state that is the Holy Land. But although his earthly body disintegrated – I know this because I dug him up, one night, to ask for advice, to seek some solace; the bones were already crumbling in my grasp – his spiritual self has flown to be in heaven with his and my God. I still believe in him, although it is hard.

I do not try to convert the heathens anymore. It is of no use, to them or to us. The wife of the Messiah is angry at me for this. Of course, having had relations with the Messiah, she was above the rest of the flock (that is, me), and did not deign to strive to convert, let alone to speak with the heretics that abound in the world. It has been up to me, then, to deal with the outsiders, to bargain for food and drink and supplies, to trade what meager sustenance we grow, here, in the Holy Land, for what we do not have.

As I said, I tried, for a time, to convert the heathens. But it is hard. They laughed at me, scorned me to my face. It was easier when there were men with us. They would fight, sometimes, with the heathens. Make them recant. Jedediah, my husband, who passed years ago (I hardly remember his face, now) was a strong one, and he made many a heathen recant his felonious testimony. Still, the converts, even at the height of the Messiah’s powers, were few. Now, that the Messiah is no longer with us, the converts too have ceased.

* * *

I must admit, it has been a long time since I believed in the Messiah with a perfect heart. I hope to God this does not make me a heretic, that there will still be a place waiting for me in Heaven, with Jedediah, with the Messiah. The wife of the Messiah is harsh with me, though. It would be a comfort to have a man to help with the work. The wife of the Messiah refuses to do chores. She lounges about the house, commanding and exhorting, reading the Bible and interpreting its verses. Sometimes, when she speaks, I feel as if I can hear the voice of the Messiah through her. Other times, though, I feel as if it is just the wind rushing through the rocks outside.

The venomous snakes killed off my Jedediah. It was the malaria that destroyed the bulk of the flock. I wish I could talk to the wife of the Messiah about this, ask her how the Messiah can treat his few, precious people so unkindly. But I know I must not. The wife of the Messiah herself is a harsh woman. Strong, but harsh. She alone, of all the myriads of us who had the sickness, passed through it unscathed. I myself did not become ill.

As I confessed, I have had trouble of late believing the Messiah with all my heart. This is not, however, because I do not love him. Contrary to this, I have never loved the Messiah more. Sometimes, as I go to bed last night, my legs leaning against the bed-frame, looking at the legs of the wife of the Messiah beside my own face (there is but one bed between the two of us), I think about how wonderful it would be to be her. To have shared the Messiah’s bed and his soul, as she had. And, I must admit, at these times I become jealous. I contemplate the undying love I have for the Messiah – a man of God I have not seen for so long, now – and it ills me to think of it.

Yet, I find myself questioning my belief.

* * *

* * *

It has been a long while since I have felt unlonely here. The wife of the Messiah is a good woman, even with all her hardness. She tries her best to take care of me, exhorting me to always follow the right and the good, reminding me of the last words of the Messiah. They were to her, of course. The light of his life, his mouthpiece to the world in his final days and months.

“Be fruitful and multiply,” he said to her, and she says to me. “And you will live long and prosper on this earth.”

Only now there are but us two. And it is impossible, without another Virgin birth, for woman to be fruitful alone.

Besides, I am getting old. It is past the time of childbirth. My two children, Belthazar and Thomas, died at seven and fourteen months. They were good boys, both, although Thomas did not have much time to manifest his goodness. They are gone, now, to heaven, where I hope and pray they reside with Jedediah and the Messiah, may he always watch over them, forever.

Yet still I doubt. I know it is foolish. I know there is only one way to go in this world – it all leads toward death. This is what the wife of the Messiah exhorts, despite herself, despite the relentless optimism she pushes upon me, saying I will find another husband, will remultiply the flock. Where am I to find another husband? Among the heretics that lie among our outskirts? It is forbidden. And furthermore, I have no desire for them. The wife of the Messiah, of course, cannot remarry. To lie with a human after having lain with God would be a mortal sin.

And so the task lies on my shoulders. Yet it is clearly an impossible one. And so, there is only death. To be taken away from this Holy Land, the land of the living, and to be escorted by my husband into the land of everlasting life is my eternal wish. I do not think I am the only one in this world who prays of dying. Yet I know I am alone, of all the members of this godforsaken earth, who will enter heaven when she dies. I and the wife of the Messiah.

I cannot help having doubts, especially in the dark of night. I return to my questions, as they gnaw at me constantly. It was different when the Messiah was alive. It was so clear, then. His voice, that voice alone, with its melodious harmony and its sing-song beauty, was enough to captivate me, all those years ago, in our shady corner of Vermont. I brought my husband to hear the Messiah preach that very next day. He was preaching daily, then, exhorting converts and potential converts to join him, to let him lead the way to the heavenly city on earth.

Unlike me, Jedediah needed some convincing. In fact, it was only after I threatened to leave him and follow the Messiah on my own that Jedediah claimed he became convinced, and agreed to join us on our journey. By that time, I had already given birth and buried my two boys, and I was ready to live the peaceful life in the heavenly city below, and to join them in death in the heavenly city above. The Messiah claimed, and I believed him then with all my heart, that my conversion would effect my boys, too, who, until that time, had surely been festering in hell. Since my conversion, the Messiah assured me, my children were safe and comfortable in heaven. Safe and comfortable and waiting eagerly for their mother.

Now, though, it is harder. Now that the Messiah is gone, it is hard to remember his singsong voice, hard to retain his endless enthusiasm. When we came to this Holy Land of snakes and scorpions, when we first camped for what we all assumed would be a night, maybe two, before we were on our way, I became somewhat scared. I am not sure why. A premonition, maybe. My husband always told me I was attuned to the spiritual world. It is what finally convinced him to join us on the journey to the Holy Land. That, and his fear of being left alone.

My unholy fears were played out the next morning, as the Messiah announced to us, his eagerly serving flock, that this was, in fact, the Holy Land. The land of our desires. This land beyond the swamp, at the very extremities of human civilization.

Here, where even the savage Indians refuse to dwell.

I accepted it, as did most of the congregation. The weak and the tired among us left, but that was to be accepted. They were the rabble in our midst, and were never fit to enter the heavenly city. The Messiah was glad to be rid of them, and so was I.

When the malaria came, we at first took it as a sign from heaven. The Messiah was weeding out his flock, killing those who did not deserve to live in the city of God. I was among the few saved, and, at first, I was happy for this. When Jedediah took ill, though, it became hard. As a sinner – which he was presumed to be, as he took to the disease – I was forced to abandon him to his fate. He was moved with the other victims outside of the camp, where I hear he died a relatively painless death.

When the Messiah and his wife took ill with the malaria, several months later, a proclamation was given. The malaria was no longer a sign that one was cursed. On the contrary, it was a symbol of blessing. God wanted his Son near him, in heaven, along with his Son’s children, his flock. It was the will of heaven that the malaria take all those who would not survive it. I, being one of the few left in our camp without the disease, was now seen as something of an outcast. True, I was not expelled from the camp. However, my life was not made easy. I spent the bulk of my days tending to the ill, who were now placed prominently in the large wooden meeting house in the center of the camp. It is a wonder to me that I did not become ill, as so many of our flock passed away, one by one, into the glorious kingdom of heaven.

But I remained.

By the time the Messiah’s physical self passed on, there were only a few dozen of us left. I was one of perhaps five who remained untouched by the malaria, and who dug the grave where we placed the Messiah’s body. It was a shallow grave, I knew, so that he could rise again if called upon. He has not yet been called, however. And when, filled with a manic longing, I dug up his bones, and saw how wickedly worm-eaten his remains were, I knew his physical body would not again be made use of.

The wife of the Messiah, unlike the others touched with illness, eventually returned to full health. This was a surprise to me, and a not unwelcome one. At that point, only three of the faithful, other than myself, remained. The rest of the survivors had fled, aiming to return to their ancestral homes in Vermont, abandoning the Holy Land that promised them succor.

It has been hard, though, with the wife of the Messiah healthy. As much as she tries to fill his place, she is not the Messiah. This she knows, as do I. Thus, her exhortations often fall on deaf ears. In my weakest moments, I must admit, I no longer believe in the Messiah. I love him, in truth I have always loved him, but I do not know if he lies beyond.

I have hoped for so long to see my husband Jedediah once more. I had dreamed for so long of taking Belthazar and Thomas once again to my bosom. But I do not know, any longer, as I once did, that this will be the case. I do not know that the Messiah will be my succor in the next world, as I am no longer certain that he was my savior in this one.

I would not speak of my fears to the wife of the Messiah, however. On the contrary, I will continue to serve her, and to speak well of the Messiah and his Holy Land, until the end of my days, or hers. We will live out our lives together, in this godforsaken Holy Land. And whether the Messiah comes, or whether He fails to come, we will continue to preach His name, although we may be the only ones that hear it.

* * *

Bezalel Stern is a writer and lawyer who lives in New York. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Jerusalem Post, City Journal, The New Yorker, Emprise Review, Untoward Magazine, The Rumpus, The Second Pass, and The Millions, and was short-listed for the Center for Fiction's Emerging Writer Fellowship in 2011.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Ideas for my stories come from everywhere. Most often, actually, I get my ideas in dreams. Every few weeks or so I'll have a dream so vivid I'll wake up and know it needs to be written. Other times, I get it from things I read or see. I got the idea for "The Messiah's Wife" when reading David S. Reynolds fascinating book about mid 19th Century America, Waking Giant. Reading about this man who proclaimed himself the Messiah, brought his followers to a literal wilderness, and then died, leaving a wife and one other woman, made me want to get inside these people's heads.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

The answer to this one is easy: I can't not write. When I have a story inside me it gnaws at me until I put the words on paper. Often a first sentence or two or three will float around in my head for a few days and when I write it out the rest of the story just flows. Writing is hard, and it can be very discouraging, sitting there with your thoughts and your words. But it's important to remember that you're writing, ultimately

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?

Giving a real flavor of the time and place, while making the characters the author's own. The best historical fiction - all good historical fiction, really - realizes that the past is another country. I just started watching Boardwalk Empire, which takes place in Atlantic City in the 1920s, and I think for the most part the show succeeds at doing this.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?

I think there's a false and a real attraction. The false attraction, which I think is a real attraction to many, is that you'll learn facts. Historical fiction doesn't (or shouldn't) teach facts. That's why it's fiction. What it does - what it should do - is bring you into another world, one that is unfamiliar, a place that by its very difference enlightens the present.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?

Read. A lot. Not just fiction, but history. It's very hard to write historical fiction without a strong understanding of the period and the place about which you are writing.