It’s never been my favorite – or so I tell myself each year; I am geared more to the sticky exuberance of Halloween – but then the actual day arrives and I am blindsided by its sheer beauty. Early morning eggshell sky, scent of new grass and wet earth, hallelujah hymns vibrating stained glass windows. Joyful, joyful noise and color and . . . well, Easter. It has its appeal.
This year, I began early in Lent a project that would keep me busy throughout much of the season. I wanted to write about the miracle story of Lazarus. Too often, his story feels to me as though it is overlooked, that glorious shout “Come forth” boiled down to something that sounds a lot more like “blah.” It’s unfortunate, I think, that so often the reader of the scripture is merely going through the motions, and the listeners are asleep - but that’s a story for another day.
My initial attempt went south rather quickly, and I found myself mired in the small details that are the backbone of any properly told tale. Landscape, language, wildlife – all alien to me. The story, I realized, might best be told in our time, and from the perspective of someone who needed to hear it as badly as myself.
My characters John Rush and Padre Paul won’t be strangers to anyone who has dabbled in my writing, but if you are new, this will hopefully work as an introduction to them, as well as to my writing style. And so, without further ado, I give you my short, “Come Forth.” I hope you love it!
Detective Rush and The Miracle Story of Lazarus
Pussy Willow evening, soft and silver and belying the day’s tragedy. Detective John Rush felt the roll of pea gravel beneath his boots and thought that he could still discern the Eucharist on the back of his tongue, lying there like a skin of old milk. Not so much the taste of blood or love, it was neither tangy not sweet, only faintly evocative of sun-drenched Holy Days long gone by.
The banality disturbed him, but it wasn’t the first disturbance of his day, not by a damn sight. He wrenched the Jeep door and sat with it open while he lit his last Marlboro and watched the church crowd disperse. Little River folks were universally poor - blue-jean clad and red-knuckled. Factory workers, truckers, and the unemployed, their women solid and round-shouldered, their children squalling. Amazing that he could incite alarm amongst them, but he could feel their fear even with his eyes closed, and he knew how he looked to them. Scary street Latino with his jet hair slicked into a ponytail. Tattoos over hard lean muscle, a vulgar diamond earring.
He sighed smoke through his nose, and at last stood again, slamming the door into a quiet grown onerous in the absence of the faithful.
The interior of the church was already darkened, penny candles like fireflies hovering low above the side alter, lavender twilight bent and diffused through the leaded glass windows. Rush found Father Paul lacing his tennis shoes in the sacristy and frightened him with his habitually silent approach.
“Criminy, Johnny.” The priest’s eyes were a startling blue in his swarthy Italian face
“Do you have to sneak around like a thief?”
“Lo siento, Padre.” So undercover now that the Spanish words came first – no matter, the apology had been tongue-in-cheek.
“What do you need?” The words were abrupt, and nine parts dread; Rush and Father Paul were close enough for one man to have discerned the other’s mood.
What did he need? A release of sorrow and doubt, resurrection of something too long dead? Something as primitive as solace – really?
“I lost an informant today,” he started to say, and did not. The child might have been a cog in the wheel of Rush’s disquietude, but certainly not the hub. Greasy little gang-banger, Jojo been a runner for the Disciples, and had landed in juvy for the rape of his own sister. Had been sprung by Rush and subsequently used until his untimely demise, on this, the fourth Saturday of Lent.
“You were tired tonight,” he told Father Paul instead. He could have blunted the sting with a smile, and in fact, that had been his intention, but in the end he couldn’t make it work; his lips felt stiff, immalleable.
“I’ll do better next time.” The measure of sarcasm did not escape Rush, and he noticed the fine lines bracketing Father Paul’s mouth, the exhaustion pooling like lividity beneath his eyes; tonight, the priest looked every tick of his fifty-two years. “A long day, Johnny.”
He had, Rush knew, buried the Ricci girl that morning. A seventeen year old heroin overdose. Rush knew the supplier - had in fact eaten supper with him the night before - but it wasn’t time to bring him in yet.
He crossed the altar with the soft carpet giving like grave dirt beneath his boots and sat in the front pew, elbows on knees. Candlelight drenched the walls and bathed the face of the dying Christ, gentling his agony into something more palatable, and Rush felt a flicker of impatience, harsh and bright.
“Lazarus,” he said when Father Paul had settled beside him. “Not a dry story, Padre.”
“Not by any means.” Father Paul crossed his ankle over his knee and massaged the bone above his rucked black sock as though it hurt him.
“Came across like Cracker Jacks.”
“What the hell, Johnny?” The quick, sharp bristling was typical of the man and this time Rush did smile.
“I needed to hear it right,” he said. “Try again.”
Father Paul sat back, fixed Rush with a long look, and finally chuckled, shook his head.
“My mother had a fascination with Lazarus, Padre.” Rush’s fingers flexed, worrying the absence of his cigarettes. “Maybe with death in general, after my brother died. And Lazarus came back – it used to keep me awake at night.” Nine years old and too big to sleep with his sisters. And Paco asleep forever. Not dead, his mama said, never say dead, our Lord said Lazarus only slept. And Lazarus came forth from the tomb and he lived, Juanito, he lived for a long time after that.
But when Paco came back he would be in the ground, the dirt piled over him, casket lid closed He would wake up in the dark, and Paco hated the dark.
Hush now, Jesus works the miracles
“He worked miracles, Johnny.” Father Paul raked fingers over his unruly cowlicks and settled deeper into the pew, slinging one arm over the back. “The loaves, the blind man. We’re inured to it, and that’s a shame. At some point, we forgot how to be amazed.”
Rush could not have said at what juncture the miracles ended for him. Nor did he know why Paco had settled so close in his memories today, stirring up the scent of baby powder and the unremitting wails of the victimized. Paco had been two when he died, and Rush had hidden in the closet, not emerging until the silence had been complete.
And too late sorry.
“Lazarus was already been dead when the word of his illness reached Jesus,” Father Paul began. “Of course, Jesus had no way of knowing that. He was twenty miles away, teaching, across the River Jordan, and he put off traveling for another two days.”
“So that Lazarus would be good and dead.”
“Understand that by then the leaders of Jerusalem very much wanted to see Jesus’ head on a platter. Coming back for Lazarus was like walking into the lion’s den.”
Across the desert by day, the land spread out like a shallow golden bowl, edges curled into the sapphire horizon. Wind and sunshine. Tired limbs and sore feet, and all the while an ache within him, sorrow and anxiety burning in his chest like a draught of bad wine.
Ah God, not Lazarus, not his friend.
“Jesus had followers, but few friends.” Father Paul’s voice had become hypnotic, settled into the rhythm of the story, and Rush listened with his eyes on the altar candles.
Lazarus and his sisters had been different, a welcoming touch, listening ears. Bright as kingfishers, intent upon his words. And they had believed. They had believed to the point that now they bled
The disciples were fearful and hesitant and so very human. Don’t go back, he only sleeps. They tried to kill us there.
But Lazarus and his sisters had made Jesus smile at a time when laughter was a precious commodity. They had shared his soul and his vision, the hunger that never left him - and in the end, he knew that he would have faced a thousand enemy soldiers for their love.
And so. Onward.
“Bethany sat on the slope of the Mount of Olives, little stone and brick houses clustered near the Jordan River. The middle east is a beautiful land, Johnny, but it’s harsh, as you know.”
Rush chuckled acknowledgement; his tattoo burned with the memory of Blackwater days, slaughter and annihilation, a blue and boundless sky, indifferent.
“So it was in Jesus’ time. A hard beauty, defined by violence and lust.”
But the houses had shown like fire opals in the dying light. Jesus crossed the River Jordan while the sun seeped into the long horizon, and he almost didn’t see Martha until she was upon them.
Angry, her face swollen with tears and her hair escaping its hijab, such an excess of emotion in this small and practical woman that Jesus felt an answering surge in his chest.
Dead, he’s been dead two days now and you didn’t come.
Where is Mary?
She won’t come out of the house, she’s that upset. Lazarus is gone.
Gone. His smile, his clever ways, his beautiful, generous spirit.
“Jesus wept. The strongest passage in the Bible, Johnny. I think he was finally just so exhausted.”
Weighted down with the terrible knowledge of who he was and how much it had cost him. Burdened with an understanding that never left him, a gift that would kill him.
Take me to him. Anguish choked his words and hurt his chest, a slow and terrible bleeding within him.
Ah Lord, he’s been gone all these days. The stink will be incredible.
Take me to him.
“And there it was, Johnny, death reeking just on the other side of that stone, and Jesus clenching himself against it. Imagine what went into that shout, all the fear and anger and maybe even a little doubt. Lazare veni foras!”
“Lazarus, come forth.”
“And he did, Juanito. We know that he did.”
Outside, the evening had rolled into night, a soft sweet air that caressed the skin and breathed promises of a thousand springs to come. Paco’s memory subsided, his little body curled in sleep, wet pink thumb resting just outside a puckered mouth.
Rush cranked the Jeep’s engine over and turned into a dying twilight, the first bright stars scattered low in front of him, thick as angel dust on the horizon.