Miriam carries an ancient wisdom. Can she survive the fires to claim her true destiny?
| Pain throbbed up my feet into my calves as I walked along the heavily wooded path. My flimsy shoes provided little protection from the sticks and brambles that covered the forest floor. My teeth chattered hard enough to make my head pound and the gnawing in my stomach reminded me that I had not eaten since breakfast that morning. The suns rays filtered lower through the trees, but I had not complained. I would not complain, or ask when we would stop. I had learned well not to complain, and I did not want Grandmother to think me weak, or frightened. Still, the sun was setting and I found myself afraid to be in the woods at night. "Do not be afraid, Little One," Grandmother said. I startled at the sound of her voice after hours of relative silence.
"I'm not afraid," I lied. Grandmother laughed. "I'm not!" I insisted.
"There is no shame in fear, Miriam. Never forget that." She took my hand to help me negotiate the rugged terrain.
“Why do we walk through the woods, Grandmother?” I asked as I stepped over a fallen log. “Why not stay on the path?” My breath came is gasps as I labored up a small hill.
“The path winds and would add many hours to our trip. This way is more strenuous, but it is shorter, and will allow us to reach shelter before nightfall.” She smiled. "Well be stopping soon. We will stay at the home of a good friend. You'll like her," she promised. “And she will be overjoyed to see you.”
Knowing that at the end of the days journey was a home and a friendly face made the rest of the walk fly by, but I was apprehensive about Grandmother's friend. Grandmother herself was still a stranger to me, and now another new face would be presented to me. In my small village, I did not see many strangers, now, in a day, there would be two new people in my life, and I would be spending the first night I had ever spent away from my home.
It felt as if I had only walked a short distance, but truthfully, it could have been another hour's walk before the woods began to thin and small cottages began to spring up at random intervals along the path. The houses were tiny, almost like miniature toys made for rich children, but they were well-cared for, with real windows glowing with warm lights cutting through the dusk. I longed to stop at one of them, any of them, and beg for a cup of water and a piece of bread. I desperately wanted to sit and rest. But still, I did not complain.
"Here," Grandmother said as we made our way to a house a little larger than the rest. Lights shone from both the front windows, and a small thin tendril of black smoke curled lazily above the roof, contrasting starkly against the pinkened early evening sky. The door flung open before we even reached the walk. "Marian!" A cheerful voice called. I caught a flash of rounded pink cheeks and startling blue eyes before the woman wrapped Grandmother in her arms. "I'm so glad you're here. It's later than I expected you. I was so worried."
"No need to worry, Elizabeth." Grandmother reassured her. "Christ watches over those who do his work, you know that," she chided gently. "I had company on my journey that precluded me from traveling as swiftly as usual." It was only then that Elizabeth noticed me.
"Company?" she breathed, her voice filled with wonder as she looked at me. "Miriam?" She asked. I nodded, afraid to speak. With my confirmation, I found myself enveloped in her massive, soft arms. "Oh, at last," she cried as she held me at arms length, inspecting me. Tears flowed down her face as she looked into my eyes. "She looks just like your mother Marian. You're beautiful, Child, but why is your hair covered?"
"I have always covered my hair," I whispered.
"Her father made her keep it bound," Grandmother said, "As if by binding her hair, he could bind her spirit, bind the truth. She seems loathe to take it down for the journey, and truthfully, it was probably safer for her to keep it covered until we reached this far."
The same hard look that I had seen on Grandmother's face at my father's home came over Elizabeth's soft features, rendering them grotesque in their harshness. "True, Marian. There are those who would wish her harm." As quickly as the mask had settled over her face, it was gone. "Why are we standing out in the night? I have a warm fire and stew." She rubbed my arms briskly. "You must be cold, and hungry, too. Come, Miriam. I'll take good care of you." My eyes filled with tears of gratitude at the unexpected kindness as she led me inside.
The warmth enveloped me like a soft cloak as I entered Elizabeth's brightly lit home. A fire roared in the hearth, and a large black pot steamed from it's hook. The smell of vegetables, onions and an unfamiliar meat wafted from the corner of the room. My mouth watered; I was already savoring the coming of the evening meal.
"Sit down, Miriam," Grandmother, guided me to a small, hard backed chair next to a wooden table. I ran my hands over the smooth top, amazed at the texture. The sparse furnishings in my father's house had been coarse, and roughly hewn from whatever wood he could trade chickens for. Elizabeth set a large bowl of stew in front of me, and I had to resist the temptation to dip my spoon into the fragrant mixture of vegetables and meat and before Grandmother was served and Grace was said. But I sat with my hands folded carefully in my lap, my eyes carefully avoiding the food in front of me.
"Aren't you going to eat, Miriam?” Elizabeth asked.
"I'm waiting for Grandmother to be served and for Grace. I'm not allowed to eat without saying Grace," I whispered. Grandmother and Elizabeth exchanged looks.
"You may say grace if you wish," Marian said, "but I do not require it. If you are hungry, you may eat."
"How does God know that we're thankful for the meal if we do not say Grace?" In my whole ten years, I had never eaten so much as a mouthful without being forced to say Grace. Grandmother pulled a chair close to mine and settled herself into it.
"Miriam, I am going to ask you a question, and you may answer it honestly." She took my hand and it held it gently between her two. "How many times have you felt truly thankful while being forced to say grace? How many times have you truly felt God's grace in your heart?"
How many times? I shook my head. "I can not remember. I suppose I should always be thankful."
"You should always be thankful," she smiled. "But forced blessings are not the way to do it. Insincere prayer is an abomination in the eyes of God. You should only thank God when you are truly thankful. And that grace and gratitude will come as you are allowed to know Him. Do you understand?"
Even though I didn't, I nodded. Grandmother smiled broadly, so broadly that they lines on the outside of her eyes deepened and I heard a low chuckle in her throat. "You have much to learn, young one." She stood and patted my shoulder. "Eat now, then rest. We still have another day's journey before we reach home."
With those words, they stew in front of me drew my attention. I slowly dipped my spoon into the bowl and brought up a potato and a large chunk of red meat. I opened my mouth, anticipating the savory taste when I felt a stirring in the pit if my stomach. I looked over my shoulder to see Grandmother and Elizabeth, sitting in front of the fire, deep in conversation. I was warm, and safe. And there was a bed in the corner piled high with blankets- and before me was food, as much as I could hold. And I was going to live with a woman who could read- who would teach me to read myself. I truly had much to be thankful for. I dropped my spoon with a clatter and bowed my head and said a silent prayer of thanks- the first sincere prayer I had ever said.
I snuggled down into the bed, warm and content beneath the thick blanket. I had eaten two bowls of stew and was given a large mug of fresh, warmed milk. I tried to follow the conversation between the two older women, but my limbs grew heavy and my eyes began to burn. My head bobbed down toward my chin and my eyes closed for a moment. "Miriam," Grandmother shook me gently. "Here, child, you've fallen asleep sitting up." She lifted me to my feet. "Elizabeth has a gift for you, I believe." A gift? My sleepiness retreated instantly. I received one gift a year- for Christmas. What could this strange woman have for me. Elizabeth stepped forward with a white garment cradled in her arms.
"I thought you might like to have new sleeping clothes," she smiled. With trembling fingers, I reached out and touched the material. It was thick, soft. "Go ahead," she urged. "Take it." The material glided from her hands as I pulled slowly. It was fine, as fine as anything I had ever owned. And it was new, no one had worn it before. I had never had anything that hadn't belonged to someone else. It seemed a shame to waste it on just sleeping. I looked curiously at Grandmother.
"Do not you want to put it on?" I nodded, but was shy about disrobing in front of two women who were strangers to me, despite their many kindnesses to me, so I stood still, and stared at them, unable to move. "Miriam? What's wrong? Is there a problem?"
"The priest says we should never show ourselves in nakedness to another," I said.
Grandmother made a sound that was part groan and part curse. "Did the Lord make anything bad?"
I thought for a moment. "All that the Lord made is pleasing," I recited. I had learned my lessons well.
"Did the Lord make your body, or did it just create itself?" she asked.
"The Lord made me," I said. "He made us all."
"If the Lord made you, how can your body be something to keep hidden?" I thought on her question for a moment, but could find no answer. Her questions were contradictory to everything I had learned. I could find no answer for her. "Dear, do not be ashamed of your body, or yourself, or who you are. The Lord made you, and all that he has made is good. Rejoice in yourself, for you are a Child of the Spirit." I didn't know it at the time, but it was my first lesson, one that filled my head as I slept, too tired and confused to even secure my hair in it's customary braid.
I was awakened by soft hands, and a soft voice. "Miriam, dear, it's time to wake up. We have a long journey." Light streamed into the room, illuminating even the corners. Elizabeth stood by the fireplace stirring the morning meal in the same pot that had held the stew the night before.
"Must you leave?" Elizabeth said without turning around. Her voice was strained, and high pitched. "You may stay here as long as you like. At least another day. Miriam needs her rest." She turned, and I was surprised to find her face covered with tears.
Grandmother went to her and pulled the woman into arm arms, an odd looking embrace, as Elizabeth towered over Grandmother. "Do not cry Elizabeth. It pains me so to see you so distressed. There is much Miriam must learn, and she is not safe. The madness will soon arrive here, and truthfully, I fear for your safety as well as Miriam's. You are too learned, and too wise. The fools will suspect you immediately."
Elizabeth shook her head and wiped her tears on her white apron. "No, you're wrong. I have many friends here. I've helped many people. No harm will come to me, but you're right, of course. Miriam is too young, but she is marked. From the tales that I've heard, even children are being slaughtered. I cannot believe that the Lord would allow these things to happen. I can not believe he would allow the truth to die." She began crying anew.
"His ways are not ours, and the truth will never die. It will always live so long as there are those who seek it." A smile touched the corner of her lips. "However, the bearers of truth are not always so fortunate." I was, again, confused by their conversation. What truth? Who was dying, and why? And what did they mean, I was marked? By what? For what? "Miriam, dear, you should eat and we will be on our way."
I hated to leave Elizabeth's small house. The journey before had been long and arduous, and I dreaded the thought of another day, trudging through the woods in silence, tired and hungry. "Here," Elizabeth whispered to me as she shoved a small package in my hands. "Food for the journey. Make sure that Marian stops to eat," she said. "She will push herself to exhaustion, and she forgets that you are a young one, yet." She kissed me on the cheek and hurried back inside. I buried the package deep within my bag and rushed to join Grandmother as she made her way back into the forest.
"Hurry, Miriam," Grandmother's voice was clipped. It was the first time that I had heard her voice anything but soft when she spoke to me.
"Yes," was all I could find breath to say.
"I suppose Elizabeth provided you with food," she said without looking at me.
Heat crept up my neck. I felt oddly ashamed, as if I had somehow disappointed her by taking the gift. "Yes, I'm sorry Grandmother."
"No need to apologize, young one," her voice was suddenly soft again. "But if we eat, we must do so as we walk. We have a long days journey ahead of us, and I wish to reach home before nightfall. These woods are not safe in the night, especially not for you."
I paused for a moment before answering. I was bursting with questions, but I had learned early not to question adults. Still, Grandmother was warm, and seemed to have great care and concern for me. "Why Grandmother? Why am I not safe? I heard you tell Miss Elizabeth that I was marked. What does that mean?" I had heard my mother say the same, but felt it wiser not to mention it. Grandmother's steps faltered, and for a moment she stopped and looked at me.
"I told you once you are special, and you are. You have very special blood in you veins, Miriam. You carry a great secret with you, and there are people who would kill, even a child, to make that secret die."
What kind of secret would be worth the death of a child? "I do not know any secrets, Grandmother."
"It's not what you know, my child. It's who you are." Her words fell on me heavily, weighing on me as if I would drown.
"Who am I Grandmother?" I asked. I stood trembling, somehow knowing, even as a child that the answer would forever mark me, and the course of my life. Already, the secret had ripped me from my home and set me upon a strange course, with strange people and a fearsome journey.
"You are a Daughter," she whispered as she stroked my red hair. "A Daughter of Magdalene."