Trial by Combat

     Shannon Frost Greenstein

God had a black eye.

Becca knew she should feel proud of that. She had gotten in one good shot; she had made God reel.

But she was dizzy, and the air was burning in her lungs, and the acid was burning in her muscles, and she couldn’t feel much of anything beyond the pain.

Vaguely, in some corner of her consciousness, she heard the ding of a bell.

“Corners!” barked the ref.

Becca trudged over to Will, who mopped up her blood and rubbed her shoulders and gave her sips of water to spit in a bucket like a sommelier.

An ethereal white noise was competing with the sound of Will’s frantic coaching; the chorus of infinite voices in harmony, drifting from behind the shimmering bars of the massive gate erected beyond the ring, locked tight. It was a cacophony of laughter and excitement and delight and the barking of dogs whose owners have just come home, and a flash of light broke through the haze of Becca’s agony as she remembered what it felt like to be happy.

She leaned back against the ropes and closed her eyes, feeling the rough fibers biting into the flesh of her shoulder blades.

“Becca!”

“What?!” she snapped without opening her eyes.

“Don’t give up,” Will demanded urgently. “You’re so close.”

“I’m losing,” Becca said through gritted teeth, and then her mouthpiece was in place and the chime of the bell echoed and she stopped thinking as she pushed herself off the ropes to her feet.

God came out swinging, and Becca attempted to dance out of His reach. But she was tired, and He was strong, and she found herself on the floor with her ears ringing before she even felt the right hook.

“One…,” she heard the referee begin. “Two.”

Vaguely, she wondered if she was dying. She wondered, when the ref reached 10, if it would all be over at last; she wondered if she would finally know absolution.

She wondered if Gideon had hurt this badly at the end.

Becca heard, above her own panting, above the lonely sound of blood rushing past her ears, the soothing exaltations echoing from beyond the iridescent gate. They promised peace and sleep and, above all, a respite from her omnipresent grief. They promised to fill the gaping hole in her soul. .

“Three…four…”

“Get up!”

Will’s distant voice suddenly shattered the pleasant numbness drifting through her as she waited for the ten-count to end.

“Get up, Becca!”

Still lying prone, Becca turned her head to look at him, safe in her corner. She felt a sharp pang of resentment at his command, at his glowing good health, at even his unconditional support, because none of that was going to make her feel less broken. None of that would bring her baby back.

“…five…”

“You can do it! This is your chance!”

Bleary-eyed, Becca struggled to align the multiple versions of Will currently dancing at the periphery of her vision. Chance? She knew there was something significant – some reason she was entered in this fight – but her head was throbbing and the thread of this thought was dangling out of reach.

“He hurt you, Becca! He didn’t care!” Will was shouting, and the referee was counting, and sound waves of pure joy were drifting from behind the glowing gates, and it was all too much to process at once.

“…six…seven…”

And then, through the roiling din in which she was drowning, Becca heard a tiny peal of laughter. She heard a single voice, from tiny vocal cords, from a stranger. It was a voice she should not have recognized, because she had never before heard it flit through the air; he had died before he could take a breath.

“Gideon?” she whispered.

“…eight…”

“Get up, Becca, keep fighting!”

With Will’s voice in her ears and Gideon’s laughter in her heart, the fuel her empty body so desperately needed, Becca struggled to her feet. She stood, swaying, while the ref looked at her pupils and dark clouds – heavy with tears – hung in the sky, and God presided over it all, a smug look on His all-knowing face.

“Do you want to continue?” the referee questioned, and Becca considered.

She considered Will, still in her corner, always in her corner, sharing her grief.

She considered Gideon, on the other side of those lustrous bars, laughing.

She considered God, always her motivation, always her moral compass, through youth group and Divinity school and her work as a Pastor.

She considered, and she made her decision, and she took a deep breath, and she spoke to the referee.

“I want to continue.”

The ref steadied her, took a step back, nodded at God. Becca looked in His face and saw everything; the oceans and viruses and the Great Wall and sea horses and fire and her congregation and her infant son.

With a second wind, she rushed at Him with gloves raised. He was nimble and omnipotent, but she was mourning and filled with rage; women scorned have reason to rise again.

“This is for taking my son,” she thought, jabbing God in the chest. “This is for making me infertile afterwards.”

God was landing punches, too; through her anger, Becca could sense ribs breaking and flesh tearing and her nose bleeding again. With each of God’s blows, tectonic plates shifted and tsunamis crashed and entire galaxies were born, but she stayed upright.

“This is for calling me to you and then abandoning me,” she shouted silently in her mind, landing a mean left-hook against God’s chin. “This is for leaving me in the dark.”

Becca fought. She punched and weaved and fell and got up and punched again, pouring out her desperation, her pain, her resentment at being abandoned and her fury at God for denying her any chance at motherhood. 

Seconds ticked by, but time had no meaning. Only Gideon’s laughter had meaning, all the way on the other side of the gate, and it meant that her crisis of faith was warranted; it meant her fury was justified.

The bell again, and the match was suddenly over, and Becca found herself slumped on the stool in her corner with no recollection of how she got there. She felt strangely empty, or flat; like she’d lost a whole dimension.

“What happened?” she asked Will dully.

“It’s a technical draw.”

A draw. A draw.

Becca knew she should have an opinion about that; she knew she should be elated or devastated or mildly annoyed or anything, really, except indifferent. But he only thing she wanted was to hear Gideon’s voice again, and the harmony from beyond the gate had ceased; she heard only the heavy silence that is left in the wake of hope when it dashes by.

Will was forcing water between her lips, and Becca let it dribble absentmindedly from her mouth and down her throat. She had no idea what was supposed to happen next; she had never felt so alone. 

“Fighters!” invited the ref, standing in the center of the ring. He extended one arm to Becca and one arm to God; they would share this victory and this loss.

God smiled, and it was beautiful. Becca could barely stand the beauty, like she could barely stand the joy when she read the pregnancy test all those months ago, like she could barely stand life without a child. Tears fell from her eyes, and she could not inhale for the briefest of moments.

Feeling like she was moving underwater, Becca rose to her feet and met God in the center of the ring. She stared at His black eye, wishing she had done more damage.

The ref gripped her wrist in one hand and God’s in the other, raising them up, acknowledging each as both victor and loser.  The match had been futile; Becca had no more answers than she had had before.

She sighed, defeated; somehow, she had still lost.

After a moment, God benevolently took back His hand, stepped around the referee, pivoted to face Becca head-on. She stared in His eyes and lost herself; then she lost everything else.

God reached out slowly, as if she were a cat He didn’t want to spook, and placed his palm upon the crown of her skull.

“You are loved.”

She didn’t hear the words in her ears, but rather in her capillaries; in her carotid artery and her toenails and the pulse of blood in her wrist.

“You are exactly who you need to be.”

She felt warmth flow through her aching joints, a dopamine rush that soothed her overtaxed nervous system. Gideon appeared in her mind’s eye, as he had been in his sonogram; before he had been hers, when he still belonged to God.

He was never yours, spoke her inner monologue, the predominant voice in Becca’s head ever since she lost her faith; the voice that urged her to sin and destruction, the voice that had replaced God.

“I am. I am here.”

You are forsaken, her inner monologue continued. You are alone.

Becca clamped her hands over her ears to block out the competing forces echoing through her temporal lobe. She felt close to madness; or, at least, felt as overwhelmed as she had been in the dark weeks after Gideon’s funeral, when sunlight felt no different than starlight and the Bishop suggested she stand down from the pulpit for a while and she surrendered the ability to love. 

“I have always been with you.”

At that, all noise ceased and the quiet became a sound of its own.

God kissed her gently on the forehead; then He walked away, unlacing his gloves and untaping his hands, pausing to wait as the opalescent gate swung outward, vanishing from sight as it closed behind Him once again. The latch caught, and the echo of the lock rang out like a gunshot.

Becca flinched at the sound.

“Becca?”

Will was calling her tentatively from beyond the ring, looking as if he feared her reaction; it was a look he had been wearing often, lately, as her hormones regulated and her postpartum depression increased and she grew restless without her congregation to lead.

She exhaled, exploring the new flatness inside her chest and stomach and fingertips, the new sense of being emptied. Becca felt, deep within her fundamental self, the scars of her grief; they were ugly, and permanent, and as much a part of her as Gideon had been.

But she also felt grief’s absence.

The cavernous void now within her soul sang out, begging for sustenance like a hungry infant. Her intuition, numb all this time, awakened with a jolt; her brain, sludgy with atrophy, tried to start spinning.    

Becca gazed at her husband measuringly; she walked slowly back into her corner where he waited.

“I’m ok,” she answered, and it wasn’t totally a lie.

Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and cats. She is the author of “Pray for Us Sinners,” a collection of fiction from Alien Buddha Press, and “More.”, a poetry collection by Wild Pressed Books. Shannon is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, a Contributing Editor for Barren Magazine, and a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Cabinet of Heed, Rathalla Review, and elsewhere. Follow Shannon at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre.