Saturday, 28 February 2009

The adulterous woman

I was condemned. Found and condemned with no chance to explain. No chance to explain that it wasn’t my fault. That I’d been forced into marrying an older man. A man who didn’t love me or want me for what I was. His only use for me was as a woman; I could have been any woman I meant so little to him. A trophy to be worn on his arm.

But that’s no excuse I know; excuses are meaningless.

I could say that I suspected he visited the local women of the night; that he rarely shared my bed; that he often came home smelling of sickly perfume, not the perfume I used; that other women looked down on me pityingly. I could say all of that.

But I said I wasn’t going to make excuses.

I was guilty. Guilty of the crime.

How could I not be when they found me in the committing of it? When the door of my bedroom was kicked open and they burst in as I lay with my lover. I was guilty.

I grabbed the sheet and pulled it up around me but they tore it away and dragged me, screaming from the bed.

I feel the heat in my face now as I remember how they pulled me from the bed out of the house and into the street as I was. And they would have taken me through the town like that had not my maidservant run after us crying, ‘Let her have her wrap at least, spare her that!’

Begrudgingly they let me draw it around me, but they didn’t stop. As I glanced back at my house, I saw my husband on the roof, looking down on me. I screamed, ‘Husband, help me! For they will surely kill me!’ He didn’t move. He was smiling.

I fought against my captors as we continued the relentless journey to the edge of the town. I knew what would happen there: I would be stoned. It was written in the law of Moses.
I wriggled and squirmed desperately, tried to drag my feet, anything to slow them down, anything that might give me a chance to get free of them. In their hurry, I stumbled and tripped but they didn’t slow down or release their grip on my arms. As we passed through the town, people came out of their houses to watch. I saw women I used to meet in the marketplace. I no longer cared about the humiliation or my pride; I just wanted to live. ‘Ruth, Sarah, help me please, Martha, don’t let them take me, help me.’ But they all looked away.

My shoulders sagged; I ceased to struggle; it was all over. We were approaching the temple now. Were there more of them being summoned to condemn me? What did it matter? I would be dead soon.

Ahead I could see a crowd of people; I thought they were waiting for me and I began to scream and fight again. One of the men dragging me slapped me hard. He spat into my face, ‘Keep your mouth shut, whore.’ As we passed through the crowd, all faces turned to stare at me. I felt the fight leave me again, and when they threw me down, I dropped easily, almost grateful for the end that was coming. I curled up as small as I could and put my hands over my head. And I waited for the first stone. I wondered how long it would take; how much I would have to bear before I could die.

But nothing came. And I realised the crowd had gone silent while the men who had brought me muttered to each other. ‘Why doesn’t he answer?’ ‘What is he writing? I can’t see.’ ‘Why doesn’t he condemn her as the law says?’

I was confused; I didn’t understand why they weren’t throwing their stones. I moved my arm from before my eyes and peered out. The man in front of me was bending down, writing in the sand. Everyone else was watching him; they seemed to be waiting for something. I sat up a little and looked around some more. My guards still muttered to themselves as they stared at this man writing on the ground. Then he straightened up and spoke. ‘If you are without sin, throw your stone.’ Then he bent down and began to write again.

I buried my head down on my chest and brought up my arms around me, waiting for the stones that were sure to come now. This man, with whatever authority he had, had told them to throw their stones. I tried to say my prayers but how could God hear a sinner such as me? I couldn’t even cry. My tears had been used up; I had already wept too much over my sin for any more to be shed. Now I just waited and wished for it to be over. I thought of my child who would grow up without her mother. Of what they would tell her; how she would grow pretending that her mother had died of sickness, how she would live a life of fear and shame, never being allowed to forget what her mother had done. I thought of her smile as she runs to me, her laugh as I spin her round, the soft touch of her skin against mine, the smell of her hair in the breeze and her breath on my face. And I am smiling as I lift myself up. I cannot die bent over, humiliated; for my child, my death at least must be honourable.

I opened my eyes and looked around; I wanted to beg someone to tell my child that I love her. But there was no-one there. There was just me and the man.

He stood and he too looked around, as if surprised. ‘Where has everyone gone?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t anyone condemn you? Throw a stone?’

I shook my head.

‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ he said. ‘Go now. But,’ he held out his hands and took mine as I started to fall to my knees at his feet in thankfulness, ‘don’t sin any more.’

My husband is divorcing me. I am glad though it means I will not be able to see my child. I am alive and I have another chance. I am going to follow this man Jesus. There are men and women who travel with him; they have said I can go with them and learn all I need to know. And one day I will see my child again and I will tell her how my life was changed and maybe one day she will understand and I can make her proud of me.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


I remember the summer of the Carvers’ execution; it was the summer I met Ziggy. Two momentous things happened during those three short months, the first being that I fell in love.

The Carvers were husband and wife. They believed they had a God-given mission to purify American society. At the trial, in his defence against the charge of first degree murder, Jimmy claimed that an angel had appeared to him and told him to rid humanity of the scourge of homosexuality. To accomplish this, he would frequent downtown nightclubs and lure young men back to his fourth floor apartment where Nancy had prepared and left out poisoned wine. Having killed their victims — there was some doubt about how many — they got rid of the bagged bodies in their waste disposal. They were only discovered when one larger than usual victim became wedged in the shute. It was so simple, it’s only a surprise that more people haven’t tried it. Or maybe they have.

The judge sentenced them to death by electrocution. The electric chair. From the moment I heard of the judge’s pronouncement, it obsessed me, filled my brain. What does it feel like, I wondered, to die like that? Is there an instant, just before the power surges through the core of your being, when every nerve ending in your body tingles with unimaginable ecstasy? Or is it all over in a painless flash? These were my thoughts when I met Ziggy.

He took my breath away. Literally and figuratively. New York City was short of air that summer and I was meandering lethargically along the sidewalk, engrossed in the Tribune’s account of the verdict, when he emerged from the subway, jumping the steps two at a time. We collided. His greater momentum meant that I crashed onto the floor. Ziggy stopped, apologised, realised that I was struggling to get up and leant over to help me. I saw myself reflected in his hazel-brown eyes, and I couldn’t look away. It only needed an orchestral crescendo in the background for this to have been a bad Hollywood B-movie, and if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have believed it either.

I tried to stand but the pain surprised me with its intensity and I grimaced and leaned against the railing. Ziggy couldn’t apologise enough. He insisted on calling a cab and taking me to the nearest hospital. The doctor declared my ankle, badly sprained but not broken, bound it tightly for me, and told me to ‘rest up’. I thanked Ziggy and assured him I would be fine now, but it wasn’t enough. He was, I was to discover, both a perfect gentleman, and an anglophile. On learning that I was visiting from England and staying in a cheap hotel in the village, he hailed another cab, accompanied me there and waited while I packed my things. He took me back to his penthouse apartment with its postcard-familiar views of the Manhattan skyline and installed me in the guest bedroom.

When at last I was able to walk without needing a stick, Ziggy took it upon himself to show me round his city. He let me see things through his eyes. Things looked very different from that perspective. From the top of the Statue of Liberty we looked out over the same seaway so many immigrants had crossed on their journey to the land of the free. Ziggy made a passionate speech about rights and justice. His eyes glistened as he spoke about the inhumanity of the few and the filth that had polluted the city he loved.

Each evening, we watched the television news, which was full of the Carvers and their forthcoming execution. It was a quiet summer for news, and the big channels vied with each other for increasingly unusual angles. Like every school kid in the city, we knew the exact voltage of the current that would pass through Jimmy and Nancy. There was to be no appeal, or rather the only appeal Jimmy made was that the end should be soon. They had completed their work on earth. Like children waiting for Christmas, they were impatient for their reward.

The sun shone on the day of death. Ziggy drew the blinds in his apartment, and draped the television with a black cloth. Then we sat, side by side on the sofa, and waited. The killing itself wasn’t televised; all we saw were the victims’ relatives, the protesters, the crowds baying for blood, and the priest and the condemned pair walking through the compound to the enclosed death cell. Tension radiated from the screen. Even the air-conditioned apartment felt claustrophobic.

When it was all over, Ziggy raised his glass.

‘They are martyrs,’ he said, his face wet with tears. ‘I salute you, Jimmy and Nancy. America needs more people like you.’

I thought briefly of what could have been, and watched as Ziggy drained the glass of wine I had poured for him. The whole momentous event took only a few minutes.

I left New York that afternoon.

At the airport, the customs officer said, ‘Hope you’ve enjoyed your stay over here, Mr Fielding.’ I formed my lips into a smile for him.