The Mother by Francis Story
When the pain was over she lay slack and exhausted on the straw. By the dim light of the lantern that hung from a low beam overhead she could see the outline of the child resting in the crook of her arm, close up against her breast. It had not cried, only stared at her with strange, new-opened eyes as she wrapped it in a fold of her garment.
The stone outbuilding was cold, with a bitter draught coiling about the floor; and the strong earthy smell of the cattle was in her nostrils. Her husband had done his best to keep out the chill night air with straw and mats from their baggage piled in the corner, but still she did not feel warm. He sat silent beside her now, head sunk on his chest. In her own weariness she pitied the lines of strain in his lowered face, sharply furrowed by the light from above.
She closed her eyes, sinking into a sea of troubled thoughts. At once it seemed as though again she felt the stumbling and swaying of the tired asunder her, the rough chafing of the rug against her legs as they plodded on and on, interminably. Even the sharp pains of her labour could not wash out that memory.
Again she saw the long, straggling line of people, shoulders bowed and hopeless, moving endlessly before her on the road: old and young, the weak and the strong, a slow unchanging panorama of her people.
Drowsing, she woke with a start. A voice rang in her ears, as it seemed from ages of racial memory, that cried, “Absalom, my son — my son, Absalom! My son, my son!”
She eased the position of her cramped limbs and drew the child nearer to her, to the warmth of her body. The lantern was swaying slightly in the draught, so that the hut was alive with stealthy shadows. Hearing the soft movements of the cattle she felt reassured. Their faces were empty, indifferent and without cruelty. She felt a sudden love for them, as though they, more than the oppressors or the oppressed, were her kindred.
The patch of yellow light and the shadows blurred before her eyes. In the confusion of remembered events, impressions and fears her mind reached out for oblivion, for the cessation of feeling, but cessation would not come. The future stood at her side, a veiled threat, and all the time she was aware of the child sheltered in her arm. Her son.
Her thoughts drifted from level to level of consciousness, one impression giving place to another, sometimes two at the same moment, curiously and frighteningly mingled. Once she was on a bleak hillside, dark with a sense of unutterable woe. Shadows stretched on the ground before her, three black, enormously extended fingers. She was searching for her son, but dared not lift her eyes from the ground. And again, a mass of people, seething and gesticulating: in their midst someone whom she thought was her son, yet, incomprehensibly, was not her son. And she was unable to reach him.
With an effort of will she lifted herself to another level, shaking off the terror that surrounded her. Then she was among a group of grave men, priests, in a temple. They were telling her that her son was hers no longer, that he belonged to mankind, to a destiny that was away and beyond her. Fiercely she protested, claiming him, her son, claiming him for the humble, secure life that was theirs. Fiercely, unavailingly; they were too strong for her, and agony swept over her, the bitter, hot tears running down her cheeks. What did they want of him? Why did they seek to take him from her — for the appeasement of their own dark tortured hearts — ruthlessly, with the strength of fate behind them? What did it mean?
She dragged herself out of the sickening dream, to the yellow light and shadows once more. Tears were wet on her aching eyes, and she saw everything through their mist; the stained floor, the beams and the cattle in their stalls. The actuality was less real than the dream. She pressed the child’s small body to hers, protectingly. It moved slightly under the covering, and she tried to see its face in the uncertain light. A great, unspeakable tenderness enveloped her: it had the sharpness of hunger.
Drowsiness again, and once more the confusion of restless images. The acrid smell of the cattle gave place to something different, a heavy perfume that seems to rise and float about her. She was standing in a vast, high chamber, lit with candles and filled with indistinct forms. She tried to move, but it was as though the paralysis of nightmare was upon her; her limbs were rigid. A great weight rested on her shoulders, and a heavy robe, stiff with ornaments, constricted her body. Her feet were tightly encased in embroidered shoes. She tried to break free of the oppression that gripped her, but felt herself powerless to move. The weight of the robes and the thick perfume stifled her, making her gasp for breath. And all the time there was a low murmur of many voices in her ears. Then something told her, with desperate certainty, that she was trapped for all eternity, frozen into stiff immobility by the will of many millions of people. Looking down at her hands, she saw that they had become wax, and a waxen child was lying in them. And the thought came to her mind, “They have taken away my son, and given me — this!”
The heavy embroidered robe was too imprisoning: she must rid herself of it, and of the gripping shoes. With a quick, desperate movement she thrust back the rugs and shawl that covered her, stretching her legs, feeling the blood urgent in her veins once more. The cold air wakened her, but for a moment she lay thus, in the blessed relief of freedom.
The man beside her stirred and looked up. Then he rose and gently replaced the rough coverings. For comfort she put her hand on his as he tucked the rug about her. Once more her eyelids dropped, and the same procession of scenes moved before her. In all of them she was seeking, ever seeking, for her son. But wherever she found herself he was not there; or else an intangible barrier lay between them. She saw him with many people, strangers: some were reviling him, others bowed themselves down to him. Yet whatever they did, she knew them for her enemies —those who placed themselves between her and her firstborn, eternally separating them. And once she saw him led before a man seated like a judge, on a high place. This man’s face was very distinct to her, and she looked at it with eagerness and dread, as though she felt that it held the key to all these mysteries. And what she saw there made her shrink with greater horror than even cruelty would have done, for it was a face of grief and fear and weakness, like the face of one self-damned — the face of Man, who sits in judgment upon himself, and is his own executioner.
A loud clamour sounded in her ears, which she fancied came from a mob in the courtyard. She roused herself, and for a moment the courtyard of her dreams and the courtyard of the Inn became identified. Someone had been knocking on the door.
Her husband came up to where she lay. There were three dark forms behind him. His simple, homely face wore a bewildered expression.
“There are three men here, who have come to see our child,” he said.
She drew back, huddled in the straw, clutching the child to her breast.
“They shall not take him,” she sobbed. “They shall not take my son. I know what they have come for.”
“Hush, my dear. There is nothing to fear. They are not the Governor’s men, but plain, poor people like ourselves. I do not know what has brought them here. They are shepherds, and they say they saw a star ……”
The three men came forward into the lamplight. Silently, without a word, they sank to their knees, shaggy heads bowed.
The mother gazed at them with terror-filled eyes. It had begun.
Ah, my son, my son!
Francis Story (Anagārika Sugatananda) wrote this Christmas tale in 1947. He was born in England in 1910 and became a Buddhist “by self-conversion” when he was 16 years old. He spent more than 25 years in India, Burma and Sri Lanka lecturing and writing on the Dhamma. He died in 1971.
Source: “Gleanings in Time”, BPS, Kandy, Sri Lanka. For free distribution only.