The woman stepped into the small spaces between people in the crowd, standing on tiptoe trying to see over shoulders of men. The look of determination on her face was giving way to desperation. Her face bore other signs as well for anyone to plainly see had they had bothered to look. They would have marked how pale she was, how clear the blue veins in her temples were, how thin and gaunt and tired she was. It might have moved them enough to step out of her way, but as it was no one looked at her interested in no plight but their own.
This was her last hope and her heart felt like a burning lump of coal first in her chest then in her throat as she weaved through men and women and children. Her movements were almost frantic now as the crowd began cheering and jostling forward. Her destination was the outside edge, she wanted to at least see this man that she had heard so much about and upon whom she had placed her last waning hope. To see him would be enough she had convinced herself but she longed to be touched by him. Over and over the stories had poured into the city that a single touch from this man could heal the body, cast out evil spirits and restore the mind and soul. She knew there was no reason for him to have pity upon her and that was why she kept her hope tightly reined. She barely allowed herself to think that she might get close enough to touch the Healers’ robe. She knew to well the bitter disappointment of dashed hopes. That she was able to summon any hope at all was a miracle in itself.
She was no stranger to disappointment and it was equally true that she was on intimate terms with physical and emotional suffering. Counting the years of pain she had endured would require at least one more hand than the two she possessed. The years of loneliness that accompanied the suffering she could count on her both hands and the number of doctors and midwives she had seen during these years couldn’t be counted at all, better to guess the number of stars in the night sky than the number of charlatans that lived under them. She looked up realizing she had a clearing in front of her. Bodies pressed in on each side but the street was in front of her now and the determination that had brought her this far she now used to keep her coveted spot.
Was she too late? Had the bitter memories and reality of her situation blinded her from seeing the one she had come to find? Had she arrived too late? She looked to her right and saw only more crowds of faces but these were turned looking in her direction, she quickly looked to the left and felt her breath leave her body. A throng of men of mixed ages and bearing were walking towards her. Many of the men’s faces looked harassed and frustrated but one face shone from the center of them. He looked oddly out of sync with the other men. He looked tired and dusty as they did, he looked as hot and sweaty but something set him apart. A sense of patience and compassion seemed to override his other emotions. Breath she had lost at the sight of these men quickly rushed into her lungs as she saw him reaching out to the crowd touching a shoulder here and caressing a brow there. Her heart gave a leap, he was really here.
The hope she had forced down to the bottom of her heart, out of reach and out of sight, exploded back into the center of her being. She knew it was still impossible that he would touch her or even set eyes on her, but oh, just to touch his robe! She would not even contemplate what she would do if this did not work. She watched the men as they slowly made their way through the crowd toward her. If she found no healing here, then she had resolved to end it all once and for all. Surely there was a charlatan out there with a more permanent, final cure, for a price of course…there was always a price.
Against her will she recalled the face of the midwife as she delivered her first silent baby into the world. The midwife’s assistant had taken the small bundle and wrapped it in the swaddling blanket she had weaved all during her pregnancy. She recalled their faces, how they looked at each other over the bundle as she raised her arms to receive her pride and joy. She remembered the growing horror as she watched the assistant move away from, not toward, her waiting arms. The midwife was talking to her but she refused to believe what she was hearing. Dead? The midwife was telling her the baby was dead. How? Yes the birth was difficult and long but she was young and strong and had felt the baby moving during the early part of labor. How could this be happening, how could this be true? She closed her eyes against the memory of her husband’s face as he came to her. She did not want to remember the look of pity he had worn as he leaned over her and kissed her brow.
Her breath caught in her throat as she remembered that same face two years later no pity to avoid anymore, only sorrow and impatience etched lines there now; sorrow from the knowledge that his wife would clearly bear him no sons, not even daughters and impatience over the continued bleeding illness that wracked his wife’s body. He had not spoken the word divorce but it was inevitable. He was from a wealthy merchant family and sons, even daughters would be needed to continue the family business. She made a wry face as she thought of him, married now to a woman younger than she and seemingly capable of delivering only daughters. Well, daughters could at least bring son’s-in-law.
He had been generous though about the divorce, he was not an unkind man he was simply a business man. He wanted heirs for his business, not just a loving wife. If it had not been for the illness that sapped her body and tapped her purse with each new doctor and with each new more costly cure; she would have had no difficulty in maintaining a modest life for herself. But the promised cures were as empty as her womb and the price just as demanding. She had endured the implications of this condition being a curse of un-repented sin. She had made many costly sacrifices and offerings at the temple to no avail. She had tried in vain every cure that had presented itself. Some had made her sick beyond belief others, most, had simply made her throw up or given her an unhealthy dose of diarrhea. She had finally given up last year. She had resigned herself to the small but steady trickle of blood that increased with the fullness of the moon and slacked when the moon hid its luminous light from the city below. If it had only been a matter of bleeding, she would have resigned herself years ago, but the cramps and back pain was almost unendurable during the heavier flows.
She remembered being relieved when her husband had informed her of his decision for divorce. She had grown too tired of putting on the brave face anymore and of muffling her nightly sobs in her pillow. “It was better this way,” she told tell herself during lonely evenings when anyone’s company would have been a welcome distraction. The social stigma of divorce had brought its own brand of pain into her life. Her loneliness was at times harder to bear than the pain. She pushed a lock of hair out of her tearstained face and forced her attention back on where she was this moment.
The approaching men were almost to her and she tried to think of a way to get close enough to touch him. It wasn’t as difficult as she thought it would be with the crowd pressing in from behind, pushing her into the circle of men guarding the one who held her hopes, her very life in his hands. She reached out with the others and to her amazement her hand touched the back of his robe. It was coarse wool but smoothed with wear and she felt the heat of his body surge through her fingertips into her hand spreading rapidly through her arm and into her chest. She closed her eyes against the flush of warmth spreading up her neck and down her legs as she let the robe flow through her fingers.
Never had she felt anything like this. The physical joy she had known with her husband had made her feel treasured but this was a soul-encompassing flood of love. She was so lost in the current coursing through her that she only opened her eyes when she realized the crowd had grown silent. Not completely silent, one voice was demanding an answer. “Who touched my clothes?” Her eyes flew open and she looked into the group of men surrounding the Healer; the crowd was now pulling back from them as if each were guilty of the trespass. A young man from his group spoke to the Healer clearly astonished at the question. The Healer was scanning the crowd a wrinkle touching the brow that had been smooth as he had approached this knot of people. She was aghast at what she had done. Her mind convicted her of theft while her heart convicted her of unworthiness to have even contemplated touching the Healer without his permission.
The crowd continued its back-pedaling withdrawal. She forced herself forward before fear could make her flee. The Healer looked at her as she drew herself out of the crowd and dropped at his feet. She meant to only glance at his face, to see the owner of such power one last time before whatever fate befell her, but as she looked up, her eyes met his and was held. She swallowed against the tears choking her and found breath to tell her story as quickly as she could. She spoke of the years of pain and blood, loss and loneliness. She spoke of her last hope in seeing –touching him, how news of his power had awoken within her heart a dim candle against much darkness, she begged for mercy. The frown that had creased his brow was replaced by crinkles at the corners of deep peaceful eyes as he smiled at her. He reached a hand down and clasped hers he helped her to her feet and spoke gentley to her. “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Peace be to you, be of good cheer now, all is well.” He spoke to her of women who followed him and where they could be found, encouraging her to seek them out and join them, that she would be welcome there. Before she could reply men jostled into his core group demanding his attention he released her hand and turned away, the moment of intimacy over as quickly as it began.
She knew without inspection that the blood curse was lifted. Her face once pale with so much loss and suffering was now flushed; eyes dulled with pain now sparkled with inner light. The skin once stretched too tightly over nose and cheekbones giving her a pinched look now relaxed into softer lines. She wrapped her arms across her chest, trying to hug the warmth that still filled her veins. She marveled at the change inside herself, unaware of what was happening on the surface. What had begun as a foolish and vain hope, a single candle flame of belief had ended not just with the desired miracle but with an unlooked for beginning. She lifted her shoulders and breathed deeply suddenly reminded that she was not as old as the illness had made her feel. She smiled at the sky, at the people dispersing around her now that the Healer had passed. She felt unexpected stirrings of anticipation for a new beginning, a new life. Now where were these women her healer had spoken about?