This is the fourth 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.
Don't worry, Yehuda Toma. Wherever you go, I'll be with you.
Forgetting their own worries, the other students laugh. Yehuda the Twin -- some call him the Shadow, so closely does he cleave to his teacher -- looks even more forlorn than they.
How will I know you, Rabbi?
Take a breath: that will be me.
Toma takes a deep breath -- and, sensing, suddenly, how foolish he must look, lets it out with a snort, and coughs.
From their camp near the summit of the mountain they can see light welling up beyond the peaks of Siryon. To the west, the ink of night drains into the Great Sea.
What shall we teach, Rabbi, asks Shimon. Your words are like the rain, we catch some of them...
Yehoshua laughs. He leans over and raps Shimon's bald head with a knuckle, twice.
Now I remember why I called you Rock.
The others laugh -- Toma the loudest.
How can I tell you what to say, if I don't whom you'll encounter, what dwelling you'll enter?
He knocks again, three times.
Use this. Will you tell a fat man to feast? Will you tell a thin man to fast?
Shimon smiles, sheepish.
Take no food with you: let my Abba provide your food. Take no words with you: let my Abba provide your words. The Holy Wind will carry you where you must go. The Holy Wind will rise in you throat and form the words that you must speak.
Rises. His students rise, too, their loins girded for travel.
I have no scroll to give you -- even if all of you could read --
Yehuda Ish Kariot tries to suppress a smile --
All of you have eaten my book. All of you, he repeats, fixing Yehuda with his gaze. Now, go to the House of Israel and speak.
As the stars march in their ranks across the sky, dazzling with their spear-points, he lies awake, arranging words.
Constellations of words to match those of Yishayahu, Yirmiyahu, Yehezkel.
The crowds are so large, so pressing: what if words should fail him?
What if his words should fail the people?
Head unresting on a stone, he gazes up, assembling words in their squadrons, their legions. Words unarmed, to storm the world.
It's a disgrace for us, the stout balding man says, but what can we do?
He leads Yehoshua through the parlor, with its fine rugs and wall-hangings, into the atrium, washed in light.
If the handmaidens manage to dress her, she tears the garments off -- so the demons constrain her. We have no choice but to keep her locked in her room.
He rests a hand on Yehoshua's arm.
But you, Rabbi, he says earnestly, as if trying to convince himself -- you are a holy man, like your teacher Yohanan. Your eyes will be open, yet you won't see.
Yehoshua nods gravely, wondering if the man can hear the beating of his heart.
The man unlocks the door, then turns away.
I will leave you -- God forbid I should look on my daughter's nakedness.
Yehoshua stands for a moment, his hand on the latch.
Shlomo bar Abaya is the richest man in Migdal Nunnaya. The stone holding tanks in the harbor, the Towers of Fish for which the city is named, swarm with his sardines. And his daughter: his daughter must be --
As the door opens, Yehoshua hears: not the shrieking, clanging and thudding he expects, but a sweet, soft voice, singing. Strange, snaking melody, an alien tongue.
The girl stands on a low marble table, dancing.
Black ringlets fall damp across her shoulders, her breasts. Her eyes glitter green, like the stones of Eilat.
My soul turned to water...
He has often imagined her. Yet even with the help of Gaius's idols he could not have imagined anything like this.
Her breast-tips, dusky pink. A color he dimly remembers, from long ago --
Her dance, her song, he seems to remember, too, or something like them. When, having left his family, he stumbled into a quarter of the Holy City that was not, perhaps, so holy. A Greek quarter. "Flute girls," someone called them --
But the song has changed, subtly, though the girl has not looked at him, has not otherwise registered his presence. Gradually, it seems that he can make out the words:
WE ARE YOUR KIDS
KIDS OF THE KINGDOM
BORN WHEN YOUR SEED FELL
ON STONY GROUND
DREAMING OF THE GIRL FROM MAGDALA
TALL AND TAN AND YOUNG
TALL AS THE TOWER OF DAVID
TOWER OF THE SON OF DAVID
BORN LIKE YOU
WITHOUT THE IN
He approaches, seizes her shoulders, which do not cease writhing.
In the name of my Father, I force you to leave this woman!
Her arms snake around him, draw him to her breast with uncanny strength. In a singsong, in his ear:
WE HAVE COME HOME TO OUR MOTHER
NOW WE HAVE FOUND OUR FATHER
HOW PERFECT IS OUR JOY
Suddenly, her arms go slack. She collapses on him, dead weight, moisture of her skin wetting his arms.
He carries her to her couch, covers her with the bedclothes. For a moment, he watches them rise and fall, gently, with her breathing.
Persistent devils, aren't they?
A spring breeze ripples through the garden, toying with the young man's hair, his beard.
Five times you've exorcised them, Gaius continues, five times they've returned.
They may be different demons, Yehoshua says.
Perhaps, Gaius says. But perhaps exorcism is not what she needs from you.
I know, Gaius says, following the young man's gaze, she is not so beautiful as your Miryam -- her breasts are smaller, her waist thicker. But what do you expect? She is a copy of a Greek original, and what did the Greeks know of women? They were far more interested in men.
Do you know who she is, he asks. She is Venus, our goddess of love. The Greeks call her Aphrodite; the Phoenicians worship her under the name of Astarte -- as your people did, when they were behaving badly. But let me tell you the story of her birth.
Uranus, the first king of the gods, imprisoned his own children, the Titans, to keep them from threatening his power. But one of them, Saturn, who had got hold of an enormous sickle, severed his father's testicles and cast them into the sea.
Uranus, the first king of the gods, who reigned before Saturn, who reigned before Jupiter, who is something like your -- no, I will respect your taboo, I will say only Adonai -- something like him, but more inclined to the pleasures of the flesh -- but I seem to have got ahead of myself. Let me begin again. Saturn murdered his father Uranus, severed his testicles, and cast them in the sea. From the foam that bubbled from them, Venus was born. By the way, Saturn learned from his father's error: instead of imprisoning his sons, he ate them. Rabbi, are you quite well?
Well, if you need to vomit there is an excellent spot behind that hedge on the right. But now that I am in the mood, let me tell you another story, or two.
In Athens (you remember Athens) there was a beautiful young man named Hippolytus, who was chaste, scornful of love. To punish him, Venus made his stepmother, Phaedra, fall desperately in love with him. When he spurned her, she told his father, Theseus, that he had violated her. Theseus expelled him from Athens; moreover, he called on his own father, Neptune, god of the sea, to wreak a terrible vengeance. Neptune sent a sea monster to frighten the horses of the young man's chariot, and he was dragged to his death.
But that is the least horrible of Venus's punishments. A girl named Myrrha, who turned away all suitors, was visited with an unnatural lust for her own father. She came to him in darkness, when he was drunk with wine -- like the daughters of Lot, if I remember correctly --
Enough, Yehoshua says.
He rises from the stone couch.
We have one God. He is a god of love, but not of forbidden lust. Our father Yosef --
Your father Yosef?
Forgive me. Go on.
Yosef -- Yosef clung to his virtue, spurned the wife of Potiphar. Like your Hippopotamus --
-- he was falsely accused and thrown in prison: yet all this was only so that, by the will of the Holy One, he should sit at the right hand of Pharoah and save the people from famine. His own people, and the people of Egypt.
And make them landless serfs? Was that part of your God's plan? Well, no doubt it made their agriculture more efficient, which I can only applaud --
We cannot fathom all His ways. But the point is, he honors chastity, protects it --
Did he protect your teacher Yohanan, who denied his lips to the daughter of Herodias? Who was raised from prison, but not to life?
Yehoshua feels a tightness in this throat.
Forgive me, ten times forgive me -- I know your pain is still fresh. I am clumsy as an ox today, Gaius says, rising.
Of a wolf that howls in pain, in fury.
Its nether parts (teats or testicles: he can't see) are swollen, disfigured.
The body is the body of a wolf, but the face is the face of Yosef.
Above, a yellow moon runs wildly through its phases.
You know, Miryam, that story about the angel, the wind -- it's a pretty story. But really, was it necessary?
They stand together in the stream, their skirts gathered about their waists.
So you let Yosef taste the fruit before he bought the orchard. What of it? Most of us did the same; we just knew the paths of the world a little better, that's all.
Miryam lifts a hand from the water and wipes her face, which has begun to feel warm.
Which I've always wondered about -- the rasping, whistling voice continues. You of all people, with your herbs and potions. But perhaps that came later. Anyway, as I say, it's a pretty story, but as far as I'm concerned every birth is a virgin birth. Every one.
With a practiced rhythm they beat the wash against the rocks. Old Yael's arms are withered but strong, so strong that Miryam fears for the threadbare, thrice-mended clothes.
The men, Yael goes on, they have nothing to do with it. They know it, too. They make a big deal about their seed -- the seed of Yaakov, the seed of David. I will make your seed like the sand on the seashore -- as if!
Grandmother, for shame -- the word of Adonai!
May Adonai forgive me, then, but I've buried three husbands and I've yet to meet a man who can make a stain on the couch as big as a kitten makes when it pisses.
Miryam giggles, bites her lip to stop herself.
Though she calls her Grandmother out of reverence for her white hair, the old woman herself has no use for reverence.
Seed, they call it, as if the womb was just a mound of dirt. Seed! Oh, their little speck of sand tickles us, but we make the pearl. I tell you, daughter, they know it. They know it and it makes them mad.
The current is fast today, which is good for the washing. Miryam feels it nuzzle her, press against her; planting her legs firmly, she quickens the pace of her beating.
Oh, the old woman says, they make a big deal about their walls, their towers, their swords. Their words. A big to-do they make, because they know: none of it will last. Even Herod's walls -- I mean Great Herod's, never mind his pisher son -- even those. Let time gnaw on them a while, and you'll see.
How does your Yosef make a living, may the skies bless him? All right, not much of a living, but there are men in Natseret who do worse. How? Time is his partner. He puts a stone in, time plucks it out. A nice little racket they have. And let me tell you, when your rascal Yosef is on his deathbed, time will still be hard at work.
The current presses, eddies, forces its way through the ancient stones.
What we do -- that lasts. We bear daughters, who bear daughters, who bear daughters, and so the wheel turns.
Why do they hate us? The men -- why? They're not as stupid as they seem. In their hearts they understand all this, and rage eats them up.
Miryam's hand stops, hovers in midair, the wash dripping. Her amber eyes fix on the middle distance: on air, on nothing.
What, says the old woman. A boy watching?
Miryam sees her son's face, hung like a jewel above the crowd.
He looks at her: face hard, eyes dark.
My son --
Your son? Which son?
No, she says, rousing herself, resuming the rhythm of the washing. No, not here. Yehoshua.
Yehoshua! Always Yehoshua! Listen to me: your son the rabbi makes a tiny miracle, no bigger than my pinky, and the market is abuzz. I tell you, daughter: every day the daughters of Israel make miracles, great miracles, and no one thinks it worth a whisper. Your son, so they say, can give life to one who is not alive. Even if it's true -- so what? Each day a hundred women do it and no one bats an eye.
She smites the rock with a stained undergarment, making a smack so loud that a water hen starts from the thicket.
[to be continued]
Copyright 2007 by Evan Eisenberg