Apr/May 2008  •   Fiction

The First Stone

by Grace Andreacchi

Behold, the Lord God will help me; who is he that shall condemn me? (Isaiah 50,9)

It was the pale hour just before dawn when my husband returned home to find me in our bed with a man—never mind his name, he is not important. My husband is an old man, and unhappy, for after three years of marriage we have no child. He laid a trap for me, saying he would be away from home for a week, that he was off to a distant village to see a man who owed him money. In fact he went no further than the next street, where he lodged with his cousin for the night. The two of them watched the house, they saw the man enter, and at dawn they came for me.

I was awake, lying on my back with my head turned towards the window—a rooster's crowing had awakened me, and I was just listening to the first slight twitters of the early sparrows—and then I heard them at the gate. The man beside me slept, peacefully and deeply, the breath rising and falling in his strong, young chest. His skin smelled so good, like hay baked all day in the sun. I turned and rubbed my cheek against his shoulder, and he rolled over and opened his eyes and smiled at me. It was then we heard the door open and the men come into the house.

My husband had brought not one but half a dozen of his kinsmen. They dragged me from the bed by my hair and beat me. The young man got away; they weren't able to catch him. The whole time they were beating me, I was praying to God they wouldn't catch him. "Run, run!" I said to him. "Run on the wings of the wind!" He ran, all right—he was young and strong—and he got away.

When at last they left off beating me, the sun was well up and shining. A crowd had gathered in the street outside. My husband told me to get dressed, that we were going to the Temple. I washed the blood from my face and combed my hair. Then I chose my dress, the same I had worn for my wedding, of rich, yellow silk. My hands shook so I could barely dress myself, but I managed in the end, and bound up my hair nicely, and even put the gold earrings in my ears. I knew they were waiting outside for the chance to look at me, to shout curses at me, to throw filth at me—Look then! A sinful woman. But am I not beautiful? Who among you, jeering, whistling, staring, shouting, does not desire me in his heart?

I knew at the Temple they would stone me. I will go like this, then, in my dress of shining yellow and gold earrings in my ears, I will go out to meet Death and I will say to Death—Look at me! Am I not beautiful? Do you not desire me in your heart, O Death? And God, who sees into the heart, will see how beautiful I am and will not condemn me. Yeah, though every man condemn me, still I believe the Lord will not condemn me.

I stepped out into the street, my husband holding my right arm and his cousin my left. They did not need to hold me. I would have gone of my own free will. The morning air was cold and sharp, and the sky overhead was a bright blue.

The people gathered outside the house fell silent when I appeared. Then someone threw a handful of mud. It clung to the side of my neck and slid gently down to rest on the soft silk of my dress.

We walked quickly to the temple, the mob in our wake. But when we got there and my husband brought me before the Scribes to be condemned, they were all gathered around a new Rabbi. The chief of the Scribes stepped forward and told the Rabbi what I had done, how I had been taken in the very act. Which was not true. I had not been taken in the act, but in the peace of the morning, in the quiet pale hour when innocent things are asleep, but they did not ask me. They cited the law, that I ought to be stoned, and they asked the Rabbi what he thought should be done with me. He looked at me for a minute, looked not at my dress nor at my hair but into my eyes. No one had looked at me like that for such a long time!

My mother had that same look for me when I was a small child and had done something wrong. I would run to her, crying bitterly, and she would take me in her arms and look at me, this same look.

Time stood still, and I heard my mother's voice singing a little sing-song rhyme she used to comfort me. Because she knew how sorry I was I had done something wrong, she wanted to comfort me, and I heard this song now as the Rabbi looked into my eyes, and time stood still in the Temple grounds, and the hard blue sky opened wide, and the Angels looked down, for I heard their wings rushing through the cold air, and the people all were silent, waiting for the Rabbi to speak. But he did not speak. He did something nobody expected: he bent down and wrote in the dust with his finger. So they asked him again what ought to be done with me, and he stood up and looked at them, one after another, still saying nothing. And after he had looked at each of them in turn, he said, "He who is without a sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." And with that, he stooped down and again wrote on the ground with his finger. Nobody saw what he wrote but me—he wrote my name on the ground, as would a lover.

The men who had brought me out to stone me slunk away, my husband first and then the others. The Rabbi and I were left alone. He straightened up once again and looked around. "Woman, where are those who would accuse thee? Does no man condemn thee?"

"No man, Lord," said I.

"Then neither do I condemn thee: Go and sin no more," he said. I went home to my house, no one following me. I found my husband sitting on the ground with ashes on his head, weeping. I took ashes from the hearth and smeared my face with them. The next winter I gave birth to our daughter. We called her Mary, because she was conceived in sorrow.