Mary and Elizabeth by Kathe Kollwitz (1928)
Mary stopped short of the gate. The servants’s daughter was in the yard, bending over a puddle of water. Beyond her was the goat’s pen and then, in the shade of the doorway she saw her cousin. To Mary, Elizabeth’s body looked bigger than before, thicker, bolder. Mary had known her cousin was with child. It was talked about. It was a scandal to their relatives, the ones that they both loved and hated. Elizabeth was old, but God had seen her, so some said. And here she was, bending labourously over her basket of dung, lugging it towards the fire in the yard, talking to someone inside the house. Tears pricked Mary’s eyes. For her cousin, for herself. She felt her tears come easier these days. Everything was changed now, wasn’t it.
She felt her own baby move within her. That churning, that flipping . So close yet so foreign. So known and so strange. Her baby did not show very much but a little. She hadn’t told her older cousin yet. She hadn’t told very many people at all.
Mary looked back at the road and then at Elizabeth again. She was hungry.
The servant girl looked up at the woman at the gate, yelled to her mother who pushed past Elizabeth from inside the house. She came to the gate, opening it with great fuss and loud chatter. Elizabeth looked up, smiled widely and walked towards them. She swayed like a duck. Mary smiled at this fullness.
The cousins embraced. Elizabeth drew back quickly, stared sharply, her eyes narrowing. Her hand fluttered to her own enlarged abdomen. And she knew. She smiled, conspiratorially, but it was also with a sadness that hung just around her eyes. She exclaimed quietly, “My son recognizes the life within you! Feel how he jumps! “ She says it happy and she is—joyful even. But there is always the unspoken knowledge of the cost of life. The cost of bringing life. The life required to be shed to bring life. The knowledge of ten thousand years passed down, always at the back of this joy. But the joy is real too. And Elizabeth looked shrewdly again at her young cousin. The child barely old enough to know about any of this—and yet she knows more, much more, than she lets on, thought Elizabeth.
The older woman did not ask questions. She did not pry. She placed her arm around Mary’s shoulders and shepherded her into the doorway.
“Come in. We will eat together. Our sons are hungry!” She laughed at her joke and brought her young cousin towards the seat closest to the window, closest to the dust-moted light.
Mary smiled and watched her cousin talk to her servant about the bread and she sighed. “I’m glad you are going first, dear woman.”
Elizabeth did not turn around as she spoke, “For such times as these…..” She was silent. And then, “You are blessed among woman. That child will set fire to the world.”
Mary looked outside at the little girl in the yard, now poking the brown puddle with a stick. Some water splashed onto her leg and the girl shook it, sending drops flying.
“My own heart burns first,” She said quietly. And louder she said, “And I am so hungry now. Hungry for everything I can get.”
She waited a beat and then laughed and her cousin laughed with her and handed her some of that morning’s bread and yesterday’s wine.
–This is part of a series I’ve been working on that I’m calling Gospel Incarnated. I love thinking through these old, truly strange stories. The story of Mary and Elizabeth has fascinated me for a long time. I wish I could swirl around in that place with those two women, watching it all unfold, from their view. Can you imagine….
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