The old man had been thin all his life, and very thin since the siege, and the new home in Egypt had not changed it. This illness had. Now he was really, really painfully thin. Yet Baruch saw with relief that for the second day running he was making a good job of the soup. Somehow keeping him warm and fed and propped up had cleared his chest, and his breathing was easy again.
Jeremiah, eyes bright again beneath the bushy brows, laid down the bowl, and reached over to hold the beloved, familiar hand. ‘This time you have me back. For a little. Dear knows why you should want that.’ Baruch, half a lifetime of coping with moods and despair, and exasperatingly unrealistic self-depreciation, still had to fight down irritation. ‘Because,’ he answered flatly.
‘I can remember what it was like before you,’ said Jeremiah helpfully, ‘not good.’
‘Not to have is bad. To have and to lose …’ The self-control acquired living with a difficult, tetchy, anguished genius for forty years was suddenly lost. Baruch’s voice failed. The shaky old hand and the middle-aged ink-stained hand grasped each other. Silence.
‘This time you have me back. But it is no good deluding ourselves. I can’t go on that much longer.’
Reluctantly, and feeling Baruch was suffering enough without this, Jeremiah broke it. Used as he was to saying difficult things, he really did not want to have to deliver this message. ‘The word of the Lord came to me,’ he said, hating the anxiety in Baruch’s face, ‘and the Lord said rather a lot.’ Being Jeremiah, he kept his eyes unflinchingly on the apprehensive face.
‘He said you would live on after me,’ Jeremiah ploughed on, getting the worst over, watching the agony of the face of Baruch, knowing those were exactly the words he had not wanted to hear, however differently Jeremiah felt. ‘He said you would be safe till the end of your days. He said you were my prize, Baruch, my prize for all of it, the struggle and – and everything. I know, I know this is hard for you to hear, but one day, in some distant beautiful land, where there is water, and trees dip green branches into it, you WILL be happy again. And I like to think of you there, sitting beside soft waters. Thinking of it eases me.’ No fool, Jeremiah chose the one path certain to make Baruch determined to go on.
The two hands gripped tighter. Jeremiah was surprisingly strong for a skeleton with a little muscle and skin. ‘He said more, the Lord,’ said Jeremiah, after a pause for them both to regroup. Baruch shut his eyes. ‘He said’ continued Jeremiah, ‘He said it was as bad, worse, for him. The Lord said he was destroying everything he had created, his beautiful city, his people. He said Judah was a garden he had worked on, long and hard. And now he was digging it up, stamping on plants, destroying it, and it hurt him, each step of the way.’
Baruch’s eyes flew open. ‘I never, ever thought of him suffering,’ he blurted out, eyes wide.
Jeremiah’s mouth twisted in his characteristic half-smile. ‘Neither did I, but he is – reliable.’ They both thought of prophesied disasters which had too-reliably arrived. ‘He says it is worse for him,’ concluded Jeremiah grimly, and I suppose, being a prophet, I believe him.’ He closed his eyes. He thought of Baruch, alone. He thought of a woman he had seen in Jerusalem, cradling her dead baby, its brains dashed out by a Babylonian soldier. ‘I suppose I do.’
Then he opened his eyes, and drained the bowl of soup. ‘I don’t suppose you managed to find any of those little birds they hunt down by the marshes?’ he asked hopefully, and Baruch danced up, hugged him, and bustled towards the tiny cooking area.
Jeremiah eased himself back against the wall and the rolled up clothes which propped him up. ‘You are my prize,’ he murmured, ‘yes, I believe that.’