Mary Christ (Part 2)

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Evan Eisenberg Author of "The Recording Angel" and "The Ecology of Eden"

This is the second installment of a short novel I'm posting (in whole or in part) during the season of Easter and Passover. For a brief introduction and a glossary of Hebrew and Aramaic words, see the first installment.

yod alef

Hiss of green wood, murmur of river, voices.

Beyond a doubt! Beyond a doubt the Holy Wind is in him. But just between you and me, you don't think maybe he has a half-gust too much?

Laughter from a deeper voice, then speech:

Maybe so. I've met other hasidim, you could say the same about them. But look: if he wasn't a little crazy, do you think men would let their wives and daughters get dunked by him, naked, in the river?

The fire is warm, the young man drowsy and just a little dizzy. He has eaten well, drunk too well. The men welcomed him after his journey, the women bound his bloody feet. How could he refuse their wine?

My wife told me how it is, the deep voice goes on. The women look at him with lust. His broad chest, his mouth. That mane of hair.

The voice -- a lion's roar.

Yes. And they stand before him naked as Hava in the Garden, and he looks right through them. He could be dunking sheep before the shearing.

Laughter: high and quick, deep and slow.

Head pounding at the memory of sunlight, the young man pictures what he saw that day: the men in one place, the women around a bend in the river, sheltered by willows. Yohanan striding between the two places, terrible as an angel. So tall that, wading, he seems to walk on the river's surface.

Still, may God forgive me, I sometimes wonder... Have you ever noticed how many widows come here? With a widow, the rabbis say, it's no sin.

No sin? It's almost a mitzvah!


Cicadas. A bullfrog.

And of course, he could always make a widow. Just take the husband out to a nice deep spot --

As David the King did to what's-his-name, the husband of Batshevah --

Light flickering in the tangled canopy, shadows upon shadows.

When the young man's turn came, the Dunker held him under so long that he thought he would black out. He came up, gasping, in time to see a white dove burst from the thicket, circle above him, and drift out of sight.

That was when Yohanan called out to the crowd, in his voice like the groaning of a great oak:

I dunk you in water, but one comes who will dunk you in the Holy Wind!

The young man jumps to his feet.

Rushes beyond the dancing circle of light, bound feet catching on roots, eyes whipped by twigs.

The valley floor rises toward him.

He vomits.

Kneels at the river with cupped hands. Rinses his mouth, washes his face.

Stands still, very still, and lets the breeze off the river wash him clean.

yod bet

Forty days he has fasted, eating only at night, and then only locusts and field honey.

Forty days he has dunked himself -- at dawn, at dusk -- in the river Yarden.

Forty days he has breathed as Yohanan taught him, calling the Wind deep into his chest, his belly, his loins.

Forty days he has immersed himself in the first chapter of Yehezkel: a text that, since boyhood, has been ready on his lips: but whose every image now is seared, as if with red-hot iron, on the midnight behind his eyes.

A final immersion -- his lungs now so vast that he squats on the riverbed for what seems a night-watch, a fortnight, a lifetime, a deathtime: snails clinging to his ankles, minnows darting between his legs as if they were reeds --

And he is ready.

Cross-legged, still naked, the river still clinging to the down of his cheek and the thicket of his loins, he begins the breathing.

Eyes focused, and not focused, on the water before him: water of earth, water of sky.

The rushing grows louder. Comes closer.

yod gimel

I thank the Holy One they found you in time.

The rushing, the babble of voices has dwindled to one voice, a deep voice.

When they found you, they found an empty husk. Your soul had left your body.

The young man smiles weakly. With an effort, speaks.

Rabbi, I had no need of my body.

The Dunker does not smile.

A moment more, he says, and your soul could not have returned. My lamb, listen to me. I've led you on this path: woe to me if harm befalls you.

A tremor runs down the young man's frame: energy still rushing, rushing. He pulls the blanket tighter.

So, the Dunker says.

Something tugs at the edges of his full, sculptured mouth. He draws closer, black pelt of beard almost brushing Yehoshua's arm.

So, you saw the Chariot.

Rabbi, I was the Chariot.

The Dunker's teeth flash, bright and precise as a leopard's.

Tell me, he says.

Yehoshua tells him: How he was drawn into the beryl-bright wheels, the wheels within wheels, spinning dizzily. How the fire burned him yet he was not consumed. How the four four-winged creatures wore, each of them, four faces: of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a man. How the face of the man was the face of Yehoshua. How he moved with the Wind, was one with the Wind, so that his desire and its desire were one...

When he opens his eyes, the tent is moving gently, as if breathing.

Closes his eyes.

Groan of the tent strings.

Drum of his heart.

At last the Dunker speaks.

Most men, he says, are torn sails. The Wind fills them for an instant, no more. You are a sail without a flaw, without a rent: you will fill, and fill, and fill. Such a vessel can go far, but if the sail is not trimmed when it must be... Do you remember what befell Bar Homa, when he traveled too far in the Chariot, too soon?

He became an apostate.

And Avtaryon?

He went mad.

For a moment the huge hand, brown from the sun, dry from living in water, rests on his shoulder. Then it is withdrawn.

yod dalet

Later, still wrapped in the blanket, in the Dunker's tent, he remembers what he did not tell him.

How the shaking of the Chariot, the rushing of the Wind, filled him with a trembling, a quivering, an energy that welled from his loins upward -- drawing his loins upward in a bliss that he could not name.

That he could not bear.

How on the sapphire Throne above the Chariot there sat, beside the figure of fire of whom Yehezkel spoke, a woman. A woman of fearsome beauty, terrible as an army with banners. Whose right eye was amber, like the eye of Miryam of Natseret. Whose left eye was green, like the stones of Eilat.

tet vav

The sun, nibbled by willows, had just been swallowed by the mountains of Shomron.

Instantly he knew where they were from.

The coarse, undyed homespun of their tunics. Something in their gait, each step firmly planted in earth: not like the quick clipped steps of Yerushalmis, nor yet the nervous picking-between-the-stones of Judaean hill folk. The cedar-scent that clung to them, or so his nose wanted to believe --

When the man spoke, the smell of hunger came from his mouth. Yet the lilt of his Aramaic was like the touch of Miryam's hand.

All four were gaunt: the man, the woman, the two young girls. Their hunger, Yehoshua sensed, had begun before their journey, and so it proved.

The man's one living son, traveling to market, had fallen foul of a Roman patrol and had been impressed into a corvee for road work. Short of labor at the harvest -- no help came from his neighbors, with whom he was not on good terms, though here his story was vague -- the man had been unable to pay his taxes. His land had been seized by the agents of Herod Antipas.

Son of a whore, one of Yohanan's men muttered.

He should have a palace of a thousand rooms -- said another -- and be found dead in every one of them!

The laughter is tight, shackled by fear.

Since the Dunker preached against Antipas for marrying his own wife's sister, he has been a wanted man. For months they have been moving camp nearly every day. They have had only a few fires, and those very small, just for cooking.

Yehoshua moves through the camp, requesting a hunk of venison here, a bit of salt fish there. People give freely. Yet when he sits down to eat with the Galili family, people edge away.

He lifts the cup, blesses the wine.

He blesses the soft round of bread, breaks it, hands the fragments to the man, the woman, the two girls.

The youngest girl, five or six years old, edges closer and looks up at him. Tentatively, she puts a hand on his knee.

She rests it there, as if warming herself on a cook-pot.

tet zayin

Yehoshua, come to my tent.

The Galileans look up.

Man and wife leap to their feet, then throw themselves in the dirt, face down.

In the tent, the Dunker speaks.

My lamb, what are you doing?

Rabbi, they were hungry. I gave them bread.

They may be unclean, Yohanan says sternly. Almost certainly they are unclean. Let them eat by themselves. Tomorrow, after they are dunked, we will all join them.

Yehoshua looks down at his knee, which suddenly feels as if it's been bleeding.

He looks up.

Rabbi, you know I have continued to travel in the Chariot.

The Dunker nods, gravely.

Let me tell you what I have seen.

The face that is like a man's: for an instant, it is my face. Then it changes, like the colors of a dove's wings in sunlight. Quick as lightning, as bees swarming. For an instant I glimpse each one, like a face glimpsed in a chariot on the streets of Yerushalayim. I see the faces of my family, of neighbors I knew in Natseret. Faces I saw on the streets of the Holy City. Street vendors, innkeepers, tax collectors. Men, women, children. Rich Jewesses, dressed like the goyim --

-- he knows he has said too much, but the words are rushing up his spine, buzzing like bees, they pour from his mouth --

-- Whore-faces, painted with henna and kohl. Beggar-child faces with snot running down them. Lepers without noses, with nostrils like swine --

Yohanan raises a hand, a hand so big it could blot out the sky.

This, he says, is a vision of future, not the present. All Israel have a portion in the Kingdom that is coming -- all, if they turn from evil paths. As it is written, I will pour pure waters on you, and you will be pure.

Rabbi, forgive me -- the young man answers -- but my vision is of this day. This moment. At this moment, all the children of Israel are pure. When they see this, the shackles of sin will fall from them. They will turn.

Visions, Yohanan says -- his voice low, a menacing caress -- are like birds of the air. They circle, they hover. When they find a place to alight, they alight. But how do you know your vision is sent by the Holy One?

Now everything -- the Dunker's face, the woolen tent -- everything is swarming, like sand in sandstorm. He feels himself dissolving, melting away like a pillar of sand.

Rabbi, he says, the words almost choking him, Rabbi, your visions -- how do you know they are sent by the Holy One?

As soon as he has spoken he takes a step back -- the dark fire in Yohanan's eyes --

His knee brushes a low table. He looks down, sees the scroll of Yehezkel. A voice says: Have any of your students reached the third chapter?

The voice, his own voice, is chanting:

He said to me, Son of Man, eat what you find. Eat this book, and go speak to the House of Israel.

So I opened my mouth, and he made me eat that book.

And I ate it. And it was sweet as honey in my mouth.

Yehoshua bows to Yohanan -- bows deeply, but does not prostrate himself.

Rabbi, I have eaten. Now I will go and speak.

[to be continued]
copyright 2007 by Evan Eisenberg