The Testament of Mary By Colm Tóibín
It is 20 years after the Crucifixion. Mary, Jesus’s mother, is being held or protected in a house in Ephesus by two figures, one of whom may be St John, another who may be an early version of St Paul. All around is a Greek landscape. Thus there is a new language, an unfamiliar form of worship, a vastly rich culture and a sense of the slow growth of something else, something new. All around too is a strange, insistent force that comes from the goddess Artemis, statues of whom dot the landscape, exuding power and mystery.
All around too are the theatres and temples, the public spaces that cause awe and fear in a woman from a village, someone who has come traumatised and terrified to this place on the edge of the sea. No one is sure what should be done with Mary, if she is merely the mortal mother of Jesus or if she is, as she will later be declared at the Congress in Ephesus in 431 to be, Theotokus, the Mother of God. Although Matthew, Mark and Luke in their Gospels do not deem it necessary, or indeed wise, to dramatise her presence at the Crucifixion of her son, John, who has seen Greek theatre and writes later, understands how powerful this image of the compliant and grieving figure is. For the moment, however, her two guardians need to control Mary’s testament, they need merely her account of the childhood and early manhood of her son. But more than anything they need her silence, the reverberations of which they will ensure will last for many centuries.
THEY APPEAR MORE often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell.
But I am not being hunted now. Not any more. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. They think that I do not know the elaborate nature of their desires. But nothing escapes me now except sleep. Sleep escapes me. Maybe I am too old to sleep. Or there is nothing further to be gained from sleep. Maybe I do not need to dream, or need to rest. Maybe my eyes know that soon they will be closed for ever. I will stay awake if I have to. I will come down these stairs as the dawn breaks, as the dawn insinuates its rays of light into this room. I have my own reasons to watch and wait. Before the final rest comes this long awakening. And it is enough for me to know that it will end.
They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something pointless or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. When I seem not to remember what they think I must remember. They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.
I like it that they feed me and pay for my clothes and protect me. And in return I will do for them what I can, but no more than that. Just as I cannot breathe the breath of another or help the heart of someone else to beat or their bones not to weaken or their flesh not to shrivel, I cannot say more than I can say. And I know how deeply this disturbs them and it would make me smile, this earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all, except that I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I had no further need for tears.
There was a time when I thought that I had, in fact, no tears left, that I had used up my store of tears, but I am lucky that foolish thoughts like this never linger, are quickly replaced by what is true.
There are always tears if you need them enough. It is the body that makes tears. I no longer need tears and that should be a relief, but I do not seek relief, merely solitude and some grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true.
Of the two men who come, one was there with us until the end. There were moments then when he was soft, ready to hold me and comfort me as he is ready now to scowl impatiently when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained. Yet I can see signs of that softness still and there are times when the glow in his eyes returns before he sighs and goes back to his work, writing out the letters one by one that make words he knows I cannot read, which recount what happened on the hill and the days before and the days that followed. I have asked him to read the words aloud to me but he will not. I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.