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The Handmaid of the Lord

by Jared Cook

	The Annunciation. on the left the archangel Gabriel approaches the praying Virgin Mary in her bedchamber, over her head a dove representing the Holy Ghost, in the sky above a figure of God the Father, after Dürer.
"The Annunciation", Marcantonio Raimondi

“Hail!”


The girl stopped her work and listened.


“Thou art highly favored! THE LORD is with thee! Blessed art thou among women!”


These were strange words.


And the man who spoke them, if man he was, was stranger still.


His long limbs were lifted high in a gesture of salute. His face shone like silver with the splendor of youth and energy, but his hair and his beard were white, and they fell onto his chest and shoulders with an easy elegance. He wore only a loose, unadorned white garment, but it conveyed magnificence. His voice, deep and rumbling, but yet high and clear, sounded somehow both old and young. His bright eyes were like deep pools of memory from which grief and joy bubbled up in equal measure.


Tall he was, and strong-looking, though lean and raw. Strong as though with a strength born of long years of hard labor, bearing the axe, the chisel, and the mallet against raw timbers, shaping them, bearing them, and joining them by the force of his will into a thing that the world had never seen before, a thing wherein eight souls were saved, and many cattle besides. His face was hard and determined as with a determination born of having borne the Lord’s message against the whole unrepentant world and having been vindicated. He was an Elias, sent to clear the way for salvation.


His presence troubled her, and so did his words.


“Fear not!” he said, and he called her by her own name. “Fear not, for thou hast found favor with God! Thou shalt conceive in thy womb! Thou shalt bring forth a son! Thou shalt call his name Jesus!”


Her head bowed slightly. Her knees trembled. But her eyes stared at him unblinking and she made him no answer.


His voice faltered. He glanced down, licked his lips and swallowed. “He shall be great!” he continued. “He shall be called the Son of the Highest! The Lord shall give unto him the throne of his father David!”


She stood and stared still for a long moment, still unblinking with head bowed. Then her small voice broke the silence. “Sir,” she said, “what if I say no?”


He exhaled loudly. “Uuuhhhhhh, you... can’t.”


“What do you mean, I can’t?”


“I mean,” he said, “do you want me to strike you dumb? Strike you dumb for, for, for, for...unbelief! Like I did with Zacharias?”


“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Slow down!” she said, her trepidation turning to anger at the accusation. “Are you trying to scare me? What happened to ‘Fear not,’ huh? Unbelief?! I haven’t uttered one word of unbelief. I knew as soon as you spoke that you were the Lord’s messenger, and I haven’t doubted one word of what you’ve said. ”


“Look,” he said, “to, uh, to tell you the truth, I hadn’t really prepared for this. I guess I sort of just... thought you would...say yes.” He paused. “I didn’t count on having to convince you.” He sat down on a low rock, his long legs folding under him like a locust’s, and his arms hanging between his folded legs. He stared at his open palms on the ground, and then turned his face up toward her.


“Okay,” she said, “just let me think.” She paced back forth as she spoke. “Okay, but this is a big ask. I’m barely a woman myself, but I’ve seen what happens to women with child. It’s a dangerous thing—to say nothing of the years of motherhood that come after. I’ve always wanted to be a mother, but I didn’t think it would happen just yet. And you’re telling me that I’m going to be responsible for growing and birthing and raising and feeding and clothing not just my own kid, but ‘the Son of the Highest.’ That’s a lot of responsibility. I’m not saying no! I’m just saying, tell me more, and let me think about it for a minute.”


“Besides,” she said, “how exactly is this going to work, seeing as I’m, you know, not, um, you know, experienced?”


He lifted his chin from his chest and turned his face to her. His white locks, hanging on his shoulders, dazzled in the light of his eyes. “Experienced?” he said. “Oh you mean--”


“I mean: how shall this be, seeing I… you know… know not a man.”


“Right, right,” he said, “this I prepared for.” He stood again and smoothed his robe and stretched out his long arms toward her. “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee! The power of the Highest shall overshadow thee! That holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God!”


Her eyes rolled involuntarily. “That’s not very specific,” she said, “but I’ll take it on faith. Still, I’m scared.”


“Scared? But I told you ‘Fear not.’”


“Well, yeah,” she said, “you did. And I’m willing not to be scared. But I’m scared anyway.”


“The eternal salvation of all the sons of Adam is at stake! You have to say yes!”


“Just give me a minute.” The girl remembered the stories of her ancestors, Abraham, and Jacob. Men who weren’t afraid to wrestle with Angels and even bargain with the Lord himself. She remembered working in the market with her aunt, selling bread, trinkets, whatever. And she thought for a long time. At length she spoke, and her voice was calm and confident. “Sounds like you really need me,” she said. Sounds like I hold all the cards.”


“Okay...” he sighed. “Is there anything I could offer, to, um...help persuade you.”


“I guess it couldn’t hurt,” she said. “What did you have in mind?”


“Well...” he said, I could—” And then he stopped. “Hey! Wait a minute, I’m not going to bid against myself here. You make a demand first, and I’ll consider it and maybe make you a counteroffer.”


“I understand you,” she said, “but first, tell me what kind of authority you even have. You’re not here on your own behalf, but only as an agent of the Lord. Has he authorized you to make such an offer?”


“He has given me full authority,” he said, walking right into it. “He told me ‘Whatever it takes to get it done.’”


“Oh,” she said, smiling, “that’s helpful to know.”


He stared at the ground and scratched his luminous head with bright, sinewy fingers and curled his shining lip. Then he sucked his teeth, sat down again, and rested his chin on the palm of his hand, with his elbow on his knee. He narrowed his eyes and stared at her.


Okay,” he confessed, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender, “you’re right. I have full authority to give you whatever it takes to get this deal done, and I can’t go back empty-handed. So you’ve got me over a barrel. Well, then what will it be? What do you want? A flour barrel that never runs out? Oil jar that never fails? A sack that turns stones to bread? Wine-jug that turns water into wine?” He remembered longingly the taste of wine all those thousands of years before.


“That’s small potatoes,” she said. “If the messiah is going to be my son, I figure I can get that sort of thing from him after he’s born. And anyway, I’m not that interested in wine.”


“Well, then what is it you want? Fame? Praise?”


“No.”


“The destruction of your enemies?”


She thought of the armor-clad men that roamed the streets of her town, but she didn’t speak.


“I can offer you the power to move mountains,” he continued, "to call down famines and pestilences and floods and tempests on the wicked. You will bless and curse in the name of THE LORD and it will be done. But that’s my final offer.”


She thought in silence. And then she spoke. “No,” she said. “I don’t want that kind of power.”


“But I have nothing else to offer,” he said.


She crouched and traced letters in the dirt with her finger, stalling. She sat like that in deep thought for a long while. Finally she spoke again: “Here is what I want,” she said. “Men say that our mother Eve sinned against the Lord and against our father, Adam, her husband, by tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They say that her sin called down a curse on women and girls and that we are forever under its weight to bear the bodies of men into the world, in tears and agony.”


“This is beyond my power to change,” he said.


“I wasn’t finished,” she continued. “That’s what our fathers say. And they say also that Adam listened to his wife and sinned against the Lord when he tasted it too, and that they are cursed because of Adam’s sin, to sweat and toil in the heat of the sun to earn our bread. But are these things altogether a curse? I know the joy on my father’s face after a harvest, and on my mother’s face when my little brother and my little sister were born. I would know that joy, and I don’t ask for this curse to be lifted from me.


“But this is what I ask: that the messiah bear our curses with us. When the messiah shall be born of me, and shall work out the salvation of all with fear and trembling before the throne of God, let him know then what women know now. Let him know the pain and the injustice of our lives. Let him know it not just in his mind, but in his spirit, in his flesh, in his blood, and in his bones. Let him bear the souls of men and of women as we women bear their bodies. Let us be born of God, and let us become his daughters and his sons, as he will be born of me and become my son. Let him deliver us with the pains of his labor. And with that labor, let him not remove the curses of our first parents, but redeem them, that they may become blessings to us, that we may face each other and see eye to eye with full knowledge of good and evil. Let the rich be humbled. Let the poor be lifted up. Let the proud be scattered, and the lowly be exalted. That is what I ask.”


He stood and he inclined his head to her. His bright eyes filled with tears like liquid fire. Wonder sat on his brow. “Many thousands of years ago, I wrestled your father Jacob at the place where he faced God, and I named him Israel, but you are a worthier adversary than he. God has prevailed with you.”


He turned and closed his eyes and searched his innermost thought and there he discerned the will of the Lord. He turned back to her and he smiled. “And you have prevailed with God.”


“Then I say only this,” she said, opening her hands: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.”


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