This is the third 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.
They say he heals the sick.
They say he leads the women into the hills and performs orgies, abominations.
They say he drives away demons.
Yes, and some say he controls them because he's a servant of the chief of demons, Samael.
The Holy Wind is in him, they say. Wisdom drips from his lips like honey.
They say he preaches revolution.
What's wrong with that?
Shut up, idiot! We're in the marketplace.
Miryam sets down the rolls of wool she is carrying. She motions to Yehuda and the boy stops, too.
Look what happened to Yohanan, the fishmonger says.
No, Yohanan the Cobbler! Of course the Dunker, you ninny.
Yes, I know, the cobbler says, he's in Herod's dungeon.
Yes, and if he comes out with a head on his shoulders, I'll give you a whole carp.
What does one have to do with the other, the salt vendor asks.
Well, first off, the fishmonger says, Yohanan was his teacher. But the real point is, if you're going to make enemies you'd better pick them carefully.
From what I hear, the oil merchant puts in, he's made enough to fill the Sanhedrin ten times over. Romans, priests, merchants, even some of the other rabbis.
Granted, the cobbler says, but look at his friends! Hundreds, thousands. Like Moshe in the desert, they swarm after him.
Precisely! He takes perfectly good fishermen from the Harp Sea and makes them "fishers of men." What good is that to me? Adoni! Adoni, your servant has excellent carp today, very fresh!
Miryam nudges the boy, who stands with his chest pressed against a honeycake cart. She picks up her bundles and they move on.
He's a disgrace to the family, Yaakov says.
Miryam looks fiercely at him, then at Yosef.
Well, Yosef says, I wouldn't go that far. He's making a name for himself, as I always said he would...
But, he could put us all in danger.
Not only us, Yaakov says. The whole Galil.
For an instant, she has a vision: the men of the family, slouching at the table, are clouded in wool. Their voices are nasal, bleating.
With a blind thud, she slams the stone bowl she's oiling down on the table.
It doesn't break, but the pine is gouged.
The men look at each other in terror. They have never seen her angry -- well, not at them.
You know what danger is?
They stare at her, mouths open.
Danger is letting evil spread itself like a great bay tree! You know what disgrace is? Disgrace --
She is almost screaming --
Disgrace is lolling around under the tree, telling stories!
A dragon with a thousand scales snakes up the hillside.
Each scale, they see as they come nearer, has the form of a human being.
Five or six stand in the shade of a terebinth, watching a Phoenician juggle bright purple balls.
A few paces farther, from the brush, comes the sound of twinned breathing, ragged, quick.
Yaakov takes Miryam's arm and hurries her onward.
A beggar, his rags of a strange cut, his Aramaic harsh, archaic: For the sake of the Yeshua the Natsrati, vouchsafe me alms!
From the Shomron, Yaakov says. He reaches in his purse and drops a small silver coin into the man's cup: which, Miryam now sees, is clasped between two wrist-stumps.
As the crowd thickens, they hear music: from the left, a Song of Ascent:
When Adonai repealed
We were like dreamers!
Then out mouths
Filled with laughter,
Our tongues with joy!
From the right, an Aramaic drinking song Yaakov once heard in a tavern, whose slurred words he hopes Miryam can't make out.
A large knot of people is watching a Cretan tumbler do backflips. Miryam sees a furtive figure with his hand in someone else's purse.
The pickpocket jerks back his hand, empty, and runs off.
Farther on, girls dance in a circle while young men urge them on, singing and waving lulavim -- bundled boughs of palm, willow, and myrtle -- though the feast of Sukkot is months away.
This is disgusting, Yaakov says. It's worse than the rumors.
Miryam wheels around.
How dare you judge him? You haven't even heard him speak!
As Abba says, you can tell a tree by its fruit.
Then go back! I'll go alone.
Yaakov grabs her arm.
Ima, it's not safe for a woman!
She breaks free and slips into the crowd.
She stumbles on someone in front of her, who has stumbled on someone else.
All around her, bodies bump against bodies.
The head of the dragon has stopped beneath a great oak.
People start running, trying to outflank the crowd. The serpent cleaves in two -- like the Sea of Reeds -- and each tail swinges toward the head, coiling around it.
What is he saying?
That rabbi asked him a question.
What did he say?
I don't know -- you, did you hear him?
He said, Renderings of Caesar are for Caesar.
He's right! Roman coins bear the graven likeness of a man, we should not touch them.
Goods for goods!
Yes -- barter, as our ancestors did!
What did he say?
As Adonai lives, there's a man with balls. Resist Caesar!
What did he say?
He said if she resists, seize her!
Now there's a man who talks sense. Women these days don't know their place.
Amen and amen!
I'm no friend of Herod, but give credit where credit is due, he stood up to that Nabataean bitch...
The Wind rushes toward him from the crowd. It seems to lift him off his feet, so that his sandals barely scuff the ground. It flows up his spine and out his mouth -- back to them.
And they cheer:
May our teacher Yehoshua live forever!
A beautiful story, Rabbi, says Shimon, but what does it mean?
Yehoshua turns to him and laughs.
Rock, you ask too many questions. You should be like this baby --
He is handed the infant by its smiling mother, whose vast brown breast-tip is still wet with milk --
Unless you become like this baby, he cries to the crowd, you will not enter the Kingdom of the Skies!
The crowd is silent, full of wonder.
No questions come from his mouth, for the whole of the Law and the Prophets is in his smile! He does not seek the Holy Wind, for he knows the Wind is always in him!
The infant begins to cry.
Yehoshua hands him back to his mother, who rests him on her shoulder and thumps his back.
Let us break bread here, Yehoshua says.
Some of the crowd sit, unwrapping their bundles of food, while others move toward the vendors plying the edge of the crowd. But many seem too busy to eat: they are singing, dancing, playing timbrels and flutes. On a level terrace, Persian Jews spin like dreydels, their faces a furry blur.
A slight, white-bearded man hands Yehoshua the cup for Kiddush.
The disciples exchange knowing looks: Rabbi Yosef of Ramataim is a great scholar, a member of the Sanhedrin. Such an honor is almost unheard of.
Yehoshua lifts the cup.
Before reciting the blessing, he chants: Kos yeshuot esa, uv'shem Adonai ekrah! While the scholars smile -- or raise eyebrows -- at the pun on his name, he repeats in Aramaic:
I will lift the cup of salvation, and call on the name of Adonai!
As he puts the cup to his lips, he catches sight of a face in the crowd.
A face not young, yet as beautiful as the face he saw in the Chariot, beside the figure of fire.
It is his mother, beaming like the sun.
Your family are here, his student Yohanan says, handing him the vessel for washing. Your brother Yaakov asked me to tell you.
Yehoshua feels a darkening in him. The Wind is caught in his throat.
He looks out at the crowd.
Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?
He sweeps his arm in a great arc, embracing the whole multitude.
Look! Here are my mother and my brothers!
You think you are a teacher. They think you are a god.
They are sitting in Gaius's garden.
As always, Gaius has offered food and drink. As always, Yehoshua has refused, since even grapes and quinces may, in their trajectory through the household of a Roman centurion, become unclean.
As always -- in a gesture whose nobility is not lost on his guest -- Gaius does not eat or drink, either.
I have seen such revels among my own people, Gaius says. Among the Greeks, too. Have you heard of a god called Dionysus?
Though his mouth is dry, his eyes seem to be feasting on unclean things. Stone images of men and women, naked as the Dunker's clients, stand among the shrubbery. Gaius has assured him that they are not idols: but if not, then what?
Bacchus, perhaps. That is another of his names. Never mind, Gaius continues in his formal Greek (oddly formal, since Koine is a language of the street), I will enlighten you.
Even the bushes and trees have been shaped into images: lions, wolves, serpents. To Yehoshua, these seem even more unclean, like a fish that creeps on the sea-floor: one thing pretending to be another.
From Asia he came, says Gaius, trailing behind him his Bacchants, women in leopard skins, bearing thyrsoi -- staffs wrapped with vines, somewhat like your lulavim. In Thebes, the men denounced him, saying he lured the women into the hills and led them in orgies. Then, of course, the men went, too.
The inhabitants of this land before us did such things, says Yehoshua, and the land vomited them up.
Perhaps, Gaius responds, but Greece has not vomited up the Greeks, nor Rome the Romans: though vomiting is a specialty of ours. In any case, the followers of Bacchus would dance, and sing, and fornicate, and drink wine -- he is our god of wine, among other things -- and undoubtedly vomit. As their excitement mounted, they would tear sheep apart with their bare hands and eat them raw. If their madness was strong enough, they might tear apart a man. Once, long ago, they tore to pieces the sweetest singer who ever lived, a man named Orpheus.
Yehoshua glances at Gaius, searching for some sign of emotion on the centurion's square, clean-shaven face, in his cool sky-colored eyes.
Nor, Gaius continues, is the god himself always safe. Some gods -- you have heard of Adonis? Tammuz then, since your own prophet mentions him -- some gods must die at the hands of their own celebrants.
You treat your gods badly, Yehoshua says.
So do you, Gaius says, or so your prophets are always claiming.
Both men laugh.
I should add that, in such cases, the god is reborn each year, so the tale has a happy ending.
Well, I told you: I am just a rabbi. A teacher.
Teachers can get in trouble, too. May I tell you another story from Greece? In Athens, there was a man named Socrates. A philosopher, which means a lover of wisdom. He would go to the marketplace -- or the gymnasium, for he was wise enough to enjoy the sight of naked young men --
Quickly, Yehoshua turns his gaze from one of the statues --
-- and he would ask questions. About good and evil, truth and falsehood. And when he had asked so many questions that everyone was exhausted, he asked a few more. Finally, the people of Athens were so exhausted that they condemned him to death. As his students stood around him and wept, he calmly (for he had no fear of death) drank an infusion of hemlock, and died.
Do you have hemlock here? Gaius asks.
It grows in the woods, or near water, he says, and looks rather like wild carrot.
A crowd has followed him to the graveyard.
He's in one of the tombs, the elder of the city says.
Yehoshua follows him. Yehuda the Twin and the Shimon the Rock follow Yehoshua.
The rest stop at the gate.
Herod has built a road through the graveyard, says the elder, who holds a lantern. Many graves have been defiled. Uncleanness is abroad, spirits that have no rest.
Already they hear the din from the tomb -- banging, screaming.
Bracing themselves for the stench, they bend down, entering, and stand in the floor-pit.
On ledges, in niches receding into darkness, bodies in various stages of decay.
Before them, a man half-dead.
Bruises, gouges, bloody shreds of clothing, bits of rope tied to his wrists, his ankles, torn ends whipping as he pounds his arms and head against the stone.
To their amazement, he turns to face them, staring at Yehoshua with eyes that are caverns.
Like a doll he is thrown face down against the dirt floor.
Twisted as if by unseen hands, his mouth opens.
PEACE UNTO YOU MASTER JESUS
KING OF GOD
SON OF THE JEWS
NOW GO AWAY
LEAVE US IN PEACE
YOUR KINGDOM IS NOT COME
OUR MASTER YET RULES THIS WORLD
OUR MASTER RULES
Yehoshua turns, looks at the men behind him.
Do you hear them?
Yes, Rabbi, Shimon answers, his face pale. Many voices come from his throat. Terrible voices, all speaking at once.
Do you understand them?
No, Rabbi. If they speak a tongue of men, it is one I have not heard, even in the Cardo.
The others shake their heads.
Yehoshua turns, faces the one possessed, who has risen to his feet, his limbs resuming their trembling.
As if by contagion he feels a shaking, a rushing rising in his own spine.
Places his hands on the man's trembling shoulders -- feels heat and cold rushing from bone to bone, confused--
In the name of my Father, I force you to leave this man.
Feels himself forced back, down, his own knees about to buckle --
The mouth opens. A howl bursts forth that fills the crypt, loud enough to wake the dead. And then:
YOU CAN DRIVE US OUT
OF THIS JERK
BUT WHO WILL DRIVE OUT YOUR DEMONS
WHO WILL DRIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT OUT OF YOU
WHO CAN MAKE YOU SPEW THE GHOSTS OF YOUR PARENTS
ALL THREE OF THEM
DOC YOU CAN'T HEAL YOURSELF
With a last, fading screech the man collapses, a puppet, strings released.
[to be continued]
copyright 2007 by Evan Eisenberg
Note: An astute reader of the first installment objected to the word "dreydel" in the glossary; since it appears in this installment I thought I had better respond. It is, of course, a Yiddish word, derived from a Germanic root, and therefore an anachronism here. But it is so much more evocative than "sevivon" or "top" that I decided to use it anyway. (Besides, I believe the word "sevivon" is a modern Hebrew invention.) Though I have tried to make the setting reasonably accurate from an historical point of view, my main purpose is literary. The Sufi-like whirling of the Persian Jews, which I liken to the spinning of dreydels, is probably an anachronism, too, but I think it is the sort of thing that would have been going on in the carnivalesque train of a charismatic teacher like Yehoshua.