She was clothed with the sun, or so you’d think to see it looming vast and red behind her. The moon was at her feet and a crown of twelve stars flickered around her head; this dying world broken apart and flung all upside-down. She stepped down onto the desolate land and looked about her.
“So who shall stand,” she asked out loud, “on the latter day upon the earth?”
She came walking out of one of the great cracks that had opened up in the earth. Ash on her bare feet, her thin legs dusted with it, silver-white against the black of her skin. Her hair a crown of braids, serpentine. She looked up at the woman clothed with the sun, and smiled.
“Looks like it’s just me and you, sister.”
They stood and faced each other across mountains laid low, storms raging.
Miriam: veiled, the soft blue of her robe fluttering in the hot wind.
Chawwah: all fig leaves and furs and nothing else, her body lean but shapely, silver stretch-marked.
“So this is how it ends,” Chawwah said. “Did he send you down here?”
“No. I wanted to see it for myself.” Miriam watched her warily. “Why are you here?”
“Same, I guess. Judgement’s done, he says I can follow my man on up to heaven. But there’s a couple of my boys still down there in the other place. I’m not decided yet.”
Her eyes were dark with a mother’s resigned sadness; she was the first of all mothers, after all, the first woman. Hers was the original sorrow.
“I’m sorry,” Miriam said.
Chawwah shrugged. “They made their choices. We all did, didn’t we?”
A flurry of hail; Miriam lifted a hand and batted it away, sending the storm spinning south.
“I’m not sure,” she said slowly. “Actually, no. I don’t think I ever did.”
“Even having him wasn’t really a choice,” Miriam said as they sat together on a ridge above the boiling sea. “The angel appeared and said I’d bear a child, and that was that. Then I had to marry, of course, and the whole eternal mother of god thing was kind of inevitable. Not that I regret it, not for a moment, I just wonder sometimes. If I’d have even wanted babies at all.”
“Really?” Chawwah asked. “Me, I had a dozen, would have had more if I could. Just nothing on earth like holding a tiny new one in your arms that first time. The smell of them, their soft little scalp, they grow up so fast and you don’t never get that back. Almost makes you forget what came before. ‘In pain thou shalt bring forth children?’ He meant that all right.”
“He certainly did,” Miriam said with a shudder.
“All right for you, though.” Chawwah glanced at her in surprise. “Or so they say. Didn’t yours just slip out all miraculous, no pain, intact virgin before and after?”
“Is that what they say?” Miriam was appalled. “I didn’t feel very intact at the time, I can tell you. He ripped me to shreds, I’ve never been the same down there since. How can people say that? They must have heard me screaming the other side of town.”
Chawwah winced in sympathy.
“With me, I gotta say, it was usually more like mooing. Maybe they thought it was those cattle lowing. You were in a stable, right?”
Miriam laughed despite herself, but she had angry tears stinging hot in her eyes.
“The pain, though, it was like nothing I ever imagined. Worse than dying, I would have died a thousand times over to make it stop. But I did it. For him. For the world, for them. How can they just say it was nothing? How dare they?”
“Well, that’s history for you,” Chawwah said. “Ain’t much truth in half the things they said about me neither. That’s just the way of the world.”
Miriam looked around at the ruined earth.
“Not any more.”
“No. I’ll say not.”
“He’ll be expecting me back,” Miriam said at last, looking up past the scattered stars.
Chawwah raised an eyebrow.
“Maybe it’s time he learned to cope without his mama. He’s a big boy now, I’d say he can handle the universe just fine. You gotta let go sometime. Every mother does.”
“You don’t understand. It’s not the same.”
“Isn’t it? I adored all mine, every last one my precious baby, always will be. But they grow up. You let them fly the nest, make their own way. Must be harder when it’s your only one, I can see that, but you gotta do it just the same. For him, much as you.”
“I promised him,” Miriam said. “To the ends of the earth, until the end of time…”
“Seems to me we’re just about there,” Chawwah said gently. “Seems to me it’s your time now. Ours.”
Lightning, incandescent, smiting the burned earth.
“It’s getting kind of post-apocalyptic down here,” Miriam said. “We can’t stay.”
“I know a little place.” Chawwah’s gaze was drifting east. “Beautiful gardens, fresh water, orchards. Pomegranates, sweetest apples you ever did taste. Might all be a bit overgrown now, what with no one being allowed back there since the beginning, but I guess that trouble’s all water under the bridge now, and we could fix it up nice. Set up home, just the two of us.”
“No men,” Miriam said softly. “No kids?”
“Hell, no,” Chawwah agreed. “I’m done with all that now. Too old to be running round after others, I had a lifetime and more of that. Just me and you, my sweet one.”
Miriam reached out. Her fingers twined with Chawwah’s, rough and hard against her own soft honey skin, but strong and so warm. She drew her closer, smiled.
“Show me, then. Those apples sound delicious.”
Sarah L. Byrne is a computational biologist in London. Her short fiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in various publications including Silver Blade, Kzine and Stupefying stories. She can be found online at sarahbyrne.org.