THE BLOG
04/08/2007 09:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mary Christ (Part 6)

This is the sixth 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.

mem gimel

Her son was right, of course.

The woman's relatives had brought him to her bedside in Natseret, where she lay feverish, a handsbreadth from death. But the woman herself cursed him, cursed her pain, cursed the day of her birth, cursed God.

If you believe in me, he said, you will be healed. If not--

No prophet has honor in his home town, he said, and left.

He was right. But Miryam could not bring herself to leave. She did not like the woman, but her cries of anguish, though mixed with anger, filled her with pity.

She took herbs from her pouch and made an infusion. The woman didn't want to drink it, but her relatives, knowing Miryam's reputation, forced her. It seemed to calm her, a little.

Miryam made a poultice of burdock leaves for her forehead, to draw the heat. She sat by the couch, her hand on the woman's arm, speaking soothingly to her as to a child.

The woman's ravings subsided, the waves of them less frequent. Miryam knew she was not near death, for she had yet to cry out the word Ima.

This knowledge, at least, was the fruit of many bitter hours she had spent tending the tree of death: those in extremity do not call out to Adonai, or to strange gods, or to their fathers or grandfathers, but always and only to their mothers, whether living or dead.

By degrees, the woman relaxed. She slept -- at first fitfully, then deeply, and for a long time.

Miryam sits with her.

When the woman awakes, the fever has broken.

mem dalet

I've arranged to meet you here, Gaius says, because it would not do for you to be seen in my home.

Though the tavern is dark, Yehoshua can tell he is not wearing the toga he usually wears, but the clothes of a traveling merchant.

Today, the centurion says, I will not bore you with curious pagan lore. I will come straight to the point.

In matters of the spirit, he says, the Romans are a generous people, an indulgent people. Perhaps because, to us, matters of the spirit do not much matter.

As I think I have impressed upon you by now, we have many gods; and our gods are of great vitality, producing numerous offspring both with other gods and with, as you would say, the sons and daughters of men. My God, how do you drink this stuff?

He sets down his cup.

Forgive me, I seem to have left my manners at home with my clothes. Where was I? Yes: we have many gods, and many sons of gods. When Rome encounters someone who claims to be one or the other, she may be amused; but she is not alarmed. Even if such a person could be viewed, in some way, as a threat -- well, as I think I have said before, such people can generally be relied upon to destroy themselves.

We have many gods -- Gaius continues, leaning forward and lowering his voice, so that Yehoshua must struggle to make out his formal, Italianate Greek against the din of the tavern -- but only one of them is Caesar. Hence, when Rome encounters someone who claims to be king -- even king of so negligible, if fascinating, a people as the Jews; even of a kingdom wholly imaginary, located in some cloudy future -- she is not amused.

With a lurch inside him, Yehoshua realizes that throughout the course of their friendship, Gaius has gazed at him with the detached, ironic gaze of a philosopher watching a new species of insect progress through the stages of its short, curious life cycle.

He realizes this because, for the first time in the course of their friendship, Gaius is not looking at him that way.

Instead, his handsome mouth is grim and his sky-colored eyes stare, intent, into Yehoshua's own.

No, he says, she is not amused at all.

mem he

Wheat, tares, mustard seeds -- what is he, a prophet or a field hand? Why doesn't he come out and say what he means?

People are moving down the hillside toward Kefar Nahum, their knees locking at sudden dips in the path.

Maybe he doesn't know what he means -- oy, forgive me, says a stocky man who, stumbling, nearly collides with Miryam.

She stops and catches her breath.

On either side of the path, spring is climbing the hillside. Tulips and red anemones stain the white foam of narcissus, as if a river were turning slowly to blood.

The prophets in olden times spoke in parables, says a woman with a child in her arms.

In olden times -- the tall man says, his beard rushing ahead of him like a storm cloud -- the sun moved slower. Nowadays, who has time for puzzles? Look, it's simple: either we stand up to the Romans or we lie down. All the parables of Shlomo can't change the fact -- you can't lie down and stand up at the same time.

If anyone can do it, the stocky man says, he can.

Laughter.

Miryam watches as the path eats their feet, their ankles.

What's he playing at, anyway? He says just enough to get himself crucified, but not enough to make the people rise up.

Rise up and be crucified with him, you mean?

In all Israel and Judah there isn't wood enough to crucify us all.

A cross is a sturdy thing. Do you throw out your olive press after the first pressing?

No -- nor my wife, either!

They vanish behind a stand of pines, their laughter thrashing behind them like a tail.


Far below, the Harp Sea shimmers, wind thrumming its strings.

mem vav

Miryam dreams:

Her son comes to her couch, leans over her, parts her garments.

Tenderly, he reaches into her bosom and draws out her heart.

He takes it to the courtyard, to Yosef's workbench. Standing on tiptoe, he lifts Yosef's mallet, which seems as big as his head, and tenderly repairs her heart.

Once more he leans over her, returning her heart to its place. But he can't make it fit: it's too big, or too small, or its shape has changed. She waits patiently, smiling, encouraging; but her smile is dimming, her limbs growing cold, her breath thin, quick --

mem zayin

The crowd snakes through the narrow streets of Kefar Nahum.

Most are women. Some skipping, dancing, holding hands. Some playing timbrels, singing verses of Torah in Aramaic doggerel:

And Miryam the Prophetess

Took the timbrel in her hand

And all the women followed her

Dancing on the strand

His cloak drawn up to hide his face, he stops a man and asks, What is this procession?

They're following -- I guess I also am following -- Miryam of Natseret. She goes from house to house, where people are sick, and heals them. People follow her, ask for her blessing. She talks about Yovel -- all debts should be forgiven, even debts to Herod. Great estates should be broken up, the land returned to its original owners, to families, the twelve tribes. Some say she's the Mashiah, the Anointed One, but of course that's nonsense -- she's a woman after all --

Sing to Adonai

For he's done wondrously!

Horse and its rider

He's tossed in the sea!

mem het

The first time they asked her to speak, she was struck dumb.

Words welled up in her -- words that must be spoken. But the ring of faces around her was like a golden band about her throat.

It was not the Roman eagle that seized her tongue, though informers might lurk even in the small crowd gathered in this shabby courtyard. Relatives of the paralytic had come, then friends, then other townsfolk, as the word spread that Miryam of Natseret, mother of the prophet Yehoshua, was healing now without herbs, poultices, or amulets: healing merely with the warmth of her hand, with the light that shone from her face.

The people looked at her expectantly, blinding her with reflected light.

Children had looked at her this way, and she was not discomfited: even, at times, the grown children that were her own. But these -- these were grown men and women, strangers. Men, especially, with their habit of command, their stream of confident words -- how could she speak before them?

Adonai, help me. For your sake, not mine.

Something moved before her: the former paralytic wobbling for a moment, losing and then finding his new-found feet, sparse grey hair fluttering as he clutched his wife's hand like a toddler.

The world shifts.

This man to her left, this man of substance -- in his bullish mouth and peremtory jowls she sees, abruptly, the willful pout of the boy he was. Was, and still is, for the boy has not vanished, the man has merely grown around him like a gall. And this one, the lanky one with satiric eyebrows, who murmurs knowingly in his comrade's ear: she sees him sniggering behind the rabbi's back, cupping a tree-frog in scum-stained hands.

The woman smells his fear, a raspy voice whispers. He wants her to be...

My children, Miryam says. The time is coming.

(Her voice is stiff, unsteady, but it goes on.)

My children, she says, the time is at hand.

It's not me who tells you, it's Adonai: Announce freedom throughout the land, to all who live in her!


mem tet

The same dream, at first:

A blizzard of light, cold as death.

Climbs the cliff face, hand over hand, numb flesh against numb rock.

High above, the cleft beckons, the cave that will hide him.

At last, at last --

His face slams against blank rock, smooth as a wall.

The cave is gone, the tangled growth gone.

Gone, as if it had never been.

nun

Had gadya, had gadya.


After three cups of wine, some of the twelve are sleepy, some are feeling no pain.

One kid, one kid.

They sprawl on cushions, on low couches, in the plush home of Bar Nabba. The Seder is almost complete. They are singing in Aramaic, their mother tongue, a song even the most unlettered of them knows by heart.

And now, a dog

That bites the cat

That ate the kid

That Abba bought for two zuzim

One kid, one kid

And now, a stick

That beats the dog

That bit the cat

That ate the kid

That Abba bought for two zuzim

One kid, one kid

Though they recline in the manner of goyim -- of Greeks, of Romans, of free men -- they have a laugh at the goyim's expense. The song is a parable of the empires -- Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek -- that, having gobbled up Israel, have been gobbled up in their turn. In the time that is coming -- a time, the students feel, that is almost at hand -- the last of them will be devoured by the Holy One. Death itself will burn away like mist in the Kingdom of the Sky.

And now, the Holy One, Blessed is He

Who slaughters the Angel of Death

Who slaughtered the butcher

Who slaughtered the ox

That drank the water

That quenched the fire

That burned the stick

That beat the dog

That bit the cat

That ate the kid

That Abba bought for two zuzim

One kid, one kid

Their joy, their ecstasy -- only their teacher does not share it. He sings, but the words are bitter in his throat.

All that killing, all that devouring -- for what? To make possible more killing, more devouring, another ironic turn of history's screw? Even if, at the end of it all, the kid were to come back to life --

Why did Abba even bother?

With each cup of wine his spirit has sunk another level, another rung. Now it's time for the fourth cup, the last. He chants the blessing, then passes the cup to his students.

This is my blood, he says. Take, drink.

Lifts a round of matza, blesses it, breaks it.

This is my body. Take, eat.

But Rabbi, we shouldn't eat anything after the afikomen, the last piece of matza --

Eat, he says. Eat my body. It's all I have left to give.

nun alef

The moon rests on the flat-topped Herodion like an egg on the Seder plate. Sitting cross-legged, Yehoshua casts a giant's shadow on the new-sprung grass, littered with the decayed remnants of olives missed in the last harvest.

Giant fingers clasp his throat.

Is it the rushing of wings he hears, or just the snoring of his students?

nun bet

Abba, if it's possible, take this cup from me.

As if in answer: a vision, but not of the Chariot.

He sees a rough pine table, two oil lamps, two loaves of braided bread.

He sees the Kiddush cup in his hand, and his mother's face, glowing.

The firmament bursts open.

All night he weeps, as his students sleep.

nun gimel

After a thorough beating in Pilate's fortress, he is transported in fetters to the palace of Herod Antipas.

It is the first time he has ever been in a chariot.

Herod's men, Syrians and Greeks and Idumaeans, are less methodical than the Romans but more patient. They find places on his body the Romans have missed.

When they have proven that his body is no longer his own; when he is no longer a human being made in the image of Adonai, but instead a mottled, blueish beast; when the pain has driven the soul from his body, yet not far enough, so that it seems to trail after him like stool on the tail of a dog -- then, they show him the head of his teacher, Yohanan.

It is carried on a shiny tray by Shelomit, the daughter of Herodias, whose pudenda bristle darkly against her diaphanous gown.

In a part of his soul remote from the horror of this place, he remembers something Gaius told him -- something about a woman, a follower of Bacchus --

The head is embalmed: slightly reduced in size, yet still handsome. A thought comes to him that would be shameful, if he could feel anything but pain: this was a head carved of marble, a head made to be embalmed.

The head speaks.

The voice is deep like the Dunker's in life -- no, deeper, more resonant, the groaning not of an oak but of mountains, of caverns deep in the bowels of earth:

SPEAK TO THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL, SAYING

I HAVE DUNKED YOU IN WATER, BUT ONE COMES WHO WILL DUNK YOU IN MOTHER'S MILK

nun dalet

According to custom, in honor of your Passover I will release one of those condemned to death.

Pilate's voice echoes in the stone chamber. Then, ringing with mockery, resumes:

Reverend High Priest, the choice is yours.


The pause is brief.

Excellency, release the man. The woman is more dangerous.

Yehoshua struggles to lift one of his swollen eyelids. Through a red haze he sees, as if in a dream, his mother, smiling at him with love, with triumph.

So, he is dead already. And she --

Abruptly, the fetters are yanked from his wrists and feet. His arms are seized and he is thrust out, out, into an agony of light.

[to be continued]
Copyright 2007 by Evan Eisenberg