This is the fifth 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.
The dervishes keep spinning. He wishes they would stop.
Once the storm bore him along, and he was its calm center. Within the wheel within the wheel, stillness.
Now he is swept along by a force he can't control.
Who is the god Gaius spoke of: Pan? The god of panic.
No longer can his students hold the people back. They swarm about him, touching him, draining power from him. Not just the crowd but all things -- trees, stones, his own limbs -- seem to swarm about him, dissolving into swirling, many-colored dust.
Heaven and earth shall pass away, he cries. But my word shall not pass away!
Creak of the timbers, like the creak of a cradle. Screech of seabirds, muffled.
Murmur of surf against hull, a handsbreadth from his ear.
Smell of fish.
This morning he preached from this fishing boat, which belongs to Shimon and Andreas. Because sound carries well over water, he told his students: but the real reason, as they well knew, was to keep the crowd at bay.
As in childhood, the words come, nudging him awake, rocking him to sleep.
And the word of Adonai came to Yona, the son of Amitai, saying:
Get up! Go to Ninvei, that big city, and shout against her, for their wickedness has risen before me.
And Yona got up -- to flee to Tarshish, away from Adonai. And he went down to Yaffo and found a ship that was bound for Tarshish, and paid the fare, and went down into it, to go to Tarshish, away from Adonai...
A windstorm, a sandstorm, a storm of brightness.
He crawls up a cliff face toward a cleft, perhaps a cave, crowned with tangled growth, where he hopes to find shelter.
Clinging, straining for purchase, hand over ragged hand. Wind tearing at him, his trunk dangling like a ripe citron on fraying stem.
At last, at last --
Thunderous, a voice warns him away.
He feels the shadow of a great hand --
Rabbi! Rabbi, wake up!
The Twin's form looms above him.
A storm, Rabbi! The boat may founder --
Yehoshua springs up from the crate he has been napping on. His feet plunge ankle-deep in water.
Shimon and Andreas are fighting to furl the sails, the ropes straining like the reins of a stallion. Four or five others are bailing.
Yehoshua leans over the side, catches a wave full in the chest. Without thinking, he climbs over and slips down.
The torrent surrounded me
All your breakers and waves passed over me
Seaweed wrapped my head
I went down to the base of the mountains
Earth and her pillars around me forever
Is yanked upward.
Punches through the surface like a whale breaching.
The waters close beneath his feet. The wind dies. With a last tremor the sea subsides, smooth as the floor of the Temple.
He stands there.
The students stare at him.
In some embarrassment, he walks back to the boat.
When he had wandered from Yerushalayim, but before he came to the Dunker, he stayed some weeks with a group of Essenes near Ein Gedi.
Their iron-hard zeal drew him, at first, then threw him into confusion. If these were the children of light -- maybe he was a child of darkness.
In despair he left them, not knowing where he would go. His feet carried him downward -- away from the cliffs and springs, the playgrounds of the wild goats, toward the Salt Sea.
Did he want to be cleansed? To die? To be reborn?
He had no idea.
He wanted -- this much he knew -- to plunge to the depths of the sea. To feel the waters cover him like a womb. To descend, like Yona, to the base of the mountains, the bowels of earth.
But -- he could not descend. The waters would not let him. They bore him up like an infant in its mother's arms, carried him safely to shore.
So, it was true. His Ima was right.
He knelt and prayed, renewed, exhilarated, flush with a sense of his mission.
Only much later, when he had been with Yohanan for several months, did he dare to tell the story.
The Dunker stared at him.
Then, slowly, like an earthquake gathering force, he started to laugh.
He laughed as the youth had never heard him laugh -- a roar that could make the hills jump like rams, the Yarden turn backward in fright.
For an instant he thought the mockers were right, the man really was mad --
They have just emerged from the chamber of union.
Though their faces are flushed, their clothing is not in disarray: two sashes are still wrapped neatly about her gown, one to lift and feature her breasts, one to smooth the curve of her waist and hips. The patterns traced in henna on her face, neck, and arms -- patterns in which her sisters have inscribed their own hopes, their own dreams -- are unsmudged.
It is, in theory, the first time they have been alone together, ever. They have been alone for precisely eight minutes, which according to the rabbis is just long enough.
In the old days, people say, the bride and groom really did consummate their marriage right there and then, in the chamber of union. Her parents would parade the stained bedclothes -- the tokens of her virginity -- before the assembled guests, who would would whistle, cheer, and make lewd remarks about battering rams. Among the Phoenicians, the Syrians, and others of the goyim, that's still how it is done; the rabbis, however, rightly insist that the eight minutes of union are symbolic, a legal formality. One rabbi, it's said, went so far as to slap a bride and groom who had been too literal-minded.
Good for him, Miryam thinks. After all, the guests are waiting outside --
She hurries back and forth between the fire-pit and the tables, carving slabs from the spitted lamb, serving bread and wine. The bride's family, a prominent family in Kana, are old friends and she is happy to help out.
As she carries a great bowl of lentils, the bride's mother touches her arm.
Will he come?
Miryam smiles warmly, betraying none of the anxiety she feels.
He will come.
The woman smiles, less warmly:
He should come before your husband runs out of stories.
When Mashiah, the son of David comes -- that's when I'll run out of stories!
He has just come back from relieving himself: Miryam can see the spatter of spots on his tunic that happens when he shakes himself off. He takes his seat at the head table, takes a long draught of wine, bangs his knife against his wine cup three times.
So -- have I told you the story of the king's son and the harem?
Groans, applause, shouts of No, shouts of Yes.
All right, since you twist my arm, here goes:
Long ago, in a place neither here nor there, there was and wasn't a great king, wise and just. His beard had grown white, his shoulders weary with the weight of rule. He wished to hand the heavy crown to his son, his only son, whom he loved. But first he wanted to test him, to see if he was up to the job.
So, he devised a plan.
He told his counselors he had to go on a journey, an urgent journey, on a secret matter of state. And while he's away, the prince will rule in his stead.
So the king says goodbye to his son, charges him to rule wisely, and sneaks out of the palace. When he's just out of sight of the city, he turns around and sneaks back home. He disguises himself as a eunuch --
Laughter, hooting --
No, don't worry, it's not an exact disguise --
More laughter --
-- Just a plain red robe, with some pillows stuck in the belly. And he takes up residence in his own harem.
Well, the very first night the king is away, the prince moves into the king's bechamber. He summons one of his father's concubines -- the youngest, the freshest, the most delectable -- why not start with the best, who knows when Abba will come home? -- and blows out the candles, and waits. Waits only a moment, for the king's concubines are swift as eagles to do the will of their master.
The moment the girl arrives, the prince gets right down to business, sheathing his dagger to the very hilt. After a moment, though, the girl whispers in his ear: Why does Adoni the King stop halfway?
The prince, puzzled, slows down to a trot. In the deepest, most gravelly voice he can manage, he says -- What are you talking about?
The girl whispers: The King's servant knows he is like a cedar of Lebanon, but she is not afraid -- let the king put it all the way in!
What's the matter? Am I telling it wrong?
Murmurs, rumblings, like an approaching storm.
Maybe one of you wants to take over?
Adoni, it's him, Miryam says. He's here.
Her son has just finished speaking.
A discourse in which, from the week's portion of the Torah, he has drawn lessons for the future life of the bride and groom.
A d'var Torah, a word of the Law, so perfect in its logic, so startling in its language, that Miryam, listening, has been unable to keep tears of pride from running down her face.
As he spoke, the crowd grew.
His appearance was kept secret -- so he had insisted though his intermediary, his student Yohanan -- but once he appeared, word quickly spread.
No wedding feast will turn away strangers; the whole town is welcome, and if the whole Galil wants to come, they're welcome, too. But Miryam can see, from the anxious look on her friend's face, that things are getting out of hand.
Yosef bangs his wine cup:
We are honored to have heard the Rabbi -- the sweet singer of songs of the House of David. I don't like to toot my own horn, but remember what the Good Book says: the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree. The Holy One made him, I clothed him. The thoughts are from heaven, the words are from Yosef.
Cheers, laughter, murmuring -- murmuring, she thinks, from the strangers who wonder: Who is this joker, this jester? What does he have to do with the great Rabbi Yehoshua?
And now, ladies and gentlemen -- a few words about the bride, who has not yet left her husband's side. A few words about the groom, who plucked this flower in its freshest bloom --
Miryam watches her son, who is sitting at a table, trying to eat, while strangers crowd around him. He does not look happy.
The groom hoped to scratch an itch --
Yosef reaches down and broadly, comically, scratches beneath his tunic --
-- but his parents made sure the girl was rich --
Guests are clamoring for wine, and Miryam goes to the cellar.
The bride's mother is there, trying to shake the last few drops from a ceramic vessel.
We had plenty, the woman says... You said it would be a secret.
I didn't tell anyone.
Neither did I.
With a sudden, explosive sob that echoes in the stone vault, the woman begins to cry.
Miryam holds her, soothes her.
Don't worry, she says. We'll do something.
Approaches Yehoshua. Bows.
Rabbi, my son, she says, struggling to speak over the din of flutes, drums, dancing -- our hosts have run out of wine.
He looks up.
Woman, what have I to do with you?
His eyes are cold.
When I'm dead, you will have my body to care for. Isn't that enough?
Her face feels hot, her throat constricted, but she continues:
Their cellars were well stocked, but so many people came to hear you...
Is that my fault? It was your request.
If you ask me, he says, they've all had far too much already. Including your husband, he adds, nodding to where Yosef, in the midst of the dancers, tries to lift the groom on his back.
The tears are welling up.
Yehoshua, please, she says. For my sake. For the sake of the breasts that fed you...
His face is hard.
Let them drink water, he says. And, louder: Let water from the washing vessels be poured into the wine cups.
Music stops, voices trail off.
Pure water. Water of purification. There is nothing sweeter, nothing more holy.
When the people murmured in the desert and Moshe, our Teacher, struck the rock -- was it wine that poured forth?
Head bent, eyes downcast, Miryam lifts the heavy stone vessel and tilts it over the empty cup of the bride's father.
Relieved that virtue has been made of his necessity, the man lifts the cup and cries, To our Rabbi!
To our Rabbi, the crowd answers.
Throwing his head back, begins to drain the cup.
Suddenly jerks forward, sputtering.
The Rabbi is right, he says, recovering. This water is sweeter than wine. In fact...
He pours the remainder into his cupped left hand, and holds it out before the crowd, letting the thick purple liquid drip through his fingers onto the table.
Swept by loud, spasmodic sobs, Miryam throws herself upon her son's legs, pressing her wet face against his knee.
I did not will it.
He walks through the dusk with his two students, who -- having helped him slip out the back and evade his admirers -- are now bursting with pride at their Rabbi's latest triumph, the latest token of his...
The path -- this olive grove, that terrace -- is familiar from childhood, but it brings him no joy. He was tired when he arrived at the feast and he is dead tired now, but not from miracle-working.
I did not will it, he thinks.
In the past, it's true, miracles have happened to him. A chasm opens in the world; without breaking stride, he leaps over, then turns in triumph to the crowd.
But in each instance some part of him -- his pitying bowels, his gasping lungs -- has willed that it happen.
Not this time.
But if not me, then who?
The beggar arrived late, as Miryam helped the family and their servants clean up after the wedding.
She knew him by his wrist-stumps. He knew her, too.
I have not forgotten your beauty, he said in his strange Aramaic. Nor yet your husband's kindness.
The tall man who was with you, in the train of Rabbi Yehoshua of Natseret, on the slope above Gennaseret. He gave me a silver coin. I hoped -- he said, looking around the yard -- I hoped to see the Rabbi, but I surmise that he is gone.
Did you hope he would -- he would heal you?
The beggar laughed, a tinge of bitterness in his voice.
I am not so foolish as that, he said. The lame may walk, but hands do not grow like fruit trees after pruning. No, I hoped to warn him.
Yes, with these hands, he said, holding up his stumps.
Miryam stares, overcome by pity, and by fear.
Like thousands from the Shomron, the beggar said, I followed the prophet Arik to the cave of Mount Gerizim, to find the relics hidden by our teacher Moshe and establish the site of the true Temple. Pilate, may his name be erased, called it an insurrection. I was one of the fortunate: many of our brethren were slaughtered. The leaders were crucified.
Miryam gave him what she could scrape from the carcass of the lamb.
Now she kneels beside her couch, tears flowing, flowing, tears enough to fill the Salt Sea.
Many hands had pointed to the danger. Yosef's. Yaakov's. The hands of neighbors, holding aloft the news of Yohanan's beheading.
But she -- she was serene. She did not see -- because she believed.
Today, two hands that were no hands pointed, and she saw.
Here, in this chamber, the man appeared, the man who called himself Gavriel. A face so radiant that she did not fear the intruder. A voice so pure that she was instantly calm, instantly at peace.
Now, she hates him.
He did not tell her the truth -- not the whole truth.
He did not tell her what the cost would be.
They have drained him, to the last drop.
Now, he returns to the well.
He sits alone by the River Yarden, hidden by the willows. Naked, cross-legged, wet from immersion, breathing deeply.
Once the crowd gave him power, and he gave it back: the circle unbroken, wheels within wheels.
The shouts, the music, the dancing, the love shining in a thousand faces -- everything bore him along, aloft, as if in the Chariot.
Now the crowd draws power from him, wrings him like a washrag, leaves him limp.
And gives nothing back.
Each healing, each exorcism leaves him weaker, a walking husk. The people crowd around him, touch his skin, his garment: he seems to be bleeding from a thousand wounds.
He flees to the mountains of Galil to replenish himself in meditation. But his students find him; lepers find him; even the blind find him.
The Holy Wind still rises in him -- he thinks -- but its mood has changed. Once it was cool, enlivening, like a breeze from the river. Now it is harsh, dry, angry, like a wind from the Negev gritty with sand.
When he is called to speak, words still rise in him, but as a confused babble, the buzzing of bees. From the hive of his mouth, words escape that astonish him -- astonish everyone, and anger many.
His throat is parched all day; he pants like a deer for water.
Now, he returns to the well.
Together the man and woman make an idol, an image of the man. Together they worship it.
The night is chill, but the work of milling keeps them warm. Before each, a great slab of dark basalt like an upside-down saddle, in which the kernels dance. In the hands of each, a dark millstone shaped like a loaf, as if to bring forth, magically, its like.
Rasping of the old woman's voice, growling of the moon-pocked rocks: their interlocking rhythms lull Miryam: her mind wanders.
They bow -- the voice rasps -- they prostrate themselves, they rub their foreheads in the dust.
The old woman rubs harder, with comical speed, making the dark rocks groan.
She pauses: with a dramatic flourish, places the millstone on her lap.
Until her belly swells for the first time. Then the idol becomes unsteady, as if the earth swelled up beneath it.
Look: it sways, it totters.
And when she gives birth -- crash!
Why? Because they both see. That he could never bear such a changing, such a growing inside him -- another being, an invader! That he could not bear the pain she bears in bearing.
Miryam sweeps the milled wheat out of her quern, pours in a new load of kernels.
Before lifting the millstone, she stops to pick weevils and mouse turds out of the grain, which has lain in the granary all winter.
The woman smells his fear. She knows: in his entrails, he wants her to be his Lord.
A droplet falls in the grain.
Strange, for the sky bristles with stars --
He knows she knows, and he hates her. And when -- what? Daughter, what is it?
Miryam lifts her hand to her cheek and finds it's wet.
Surely, the old woman says, rising and moving slowly toward her, you won't let an old woman's jabbering upset you?
Miryam is silent. With an effort strange to her, she traces her tears to their source: a fissure in the solid stone of her, dark, unvisited.
Why? she says. Why does he hate me?
The old woman presses Miryam's her head against teats that feel, through the rough fabric, like dry carobs dangling from a tree.
Yosef is a man like other men, my sweet one, she murmurs. Better than most, if you ask me.
Miryam sobs quietly for a moment, then says, not him.
Well, isn't he a man, too?
Mastering her voice, Miryam speaks.
Grandmother, it's not that I breathed into him the breath of life -- that was a small thing. Grandmother, the soul I gave him was mine.
The old woman rocks her gently as the words and salt tears flow out of her.
Words of Torah I whispered to him as he slept, as he suckled. With every spurt of milk that flowed into him I sent a gust of spirit. I willed it -- don't you understand? I willed it.
Miryam feels the ruined breast rise: a deep breath.
And fall: a long sigh.
Let me tell you, the old woman says, about sons.
To watch an idol fall, my dove -- it's not easy. I'll bet Father Avraham lifted his toy sword a hundred times before he found the nerve to strike. And Mother Rahel, you know, never dared to smash her father's terafim -- the best she could do was steal them.
Miryam listens, feeling the wheeze and rattle of the words as they move through the shrunken chest.
So, when the man-idol shatters, what happens? What happens, as often as not, is the woman shapes another one, smaller but more lovely. Who can blame her? The son -- he will be what the father was not. After all, he took part in the miracle -- he was born.
What joy for him! He basks in her gaze, in sunlight, while the father skulks like a wolf in the shadows.
But all her sunlight, it can't make him grow as great as she wants him to grow. As he feels he must grow, or else --
No, Miryam says. No.
Shakes off the old woman's arms as a snake sheds its skin.
Gathers up her grain -- milled, unmilled -- and walks quickly toward the house.
He sits until his legs are numb, but it's no good.
Something is caught in his throat. There is a binding there, a constriction. When he allows himself to feel the binding -- feel it fully, as Yohanan taught him to do --
-- Yohanan, who for months meditated in shackles, rats gnawing at his shapely limbs --
-- he feels that tears are welling up, massing like waters above the firmament.
But the firmament holds. The tears will not come.
He sits until his whole body is numb. He is dimly aware that a dove has settled in his hair.
When at last he rises -- his legs like stocks of wood into which a thousand tiny nails are being driven -- he smoothes his hair with his hand and feels something wet.
He looks in his palm: a greyish daub.
A pearl. A teardrop.
[to be continued]
Copyright 2007 by Evan Eisenberg