Authors: Christopher Moore
Tags: #Fiction / General
Jakan stomped like an angry donkey. “You are in league with them.”
“Don’t be silly, my family has only just arrived from Magdala, I’ve never seen these two before, but it’s obvious what they were doing. We do it all the time in Magdala. But then, this is a backwater village.”
“We do it here too,” Jakan said. “I was—well—these two make trouble.”
“Trouble,” his friends said.
“Why don’t we let them get on with what they were doing.”
Jakan, his eyes bouncing from the girl to the snake to the girl again, began to lead his friends away. “I will deal with you two another time.”
As soon as they were around the corner, the girl jumped back from the snake and ran toward the door of her house.
“Wait,” Joshua called.
“I have to go.”
“What is your name?”
“I’m Mary of Magdala, daughter of Isaac,” she said. “Call me Maggie.”
“Come with us, Maggie.”
“I can’t, I have to go.”
“Because I’ve peed myself.”
She disappeared through the door.
Once we were back in the wheat field Sarah headed for her den. We watched from a distance as she slid down the hole.
“Josh. How did you do that?”
“I have no idea.”
“Is this kind of thing going to keep happening?”
“We are going to get into a lot of trouble, aren’t we?”
“What am I, a prophet?”
“I asked you first.”
Joshua stared into the sky like a man in a trance. “Did you see her? She’s afraid of nothing.”
“She’s a giant snake, what’s to be afraid of?”
Joshua frowned. “Don’t pretend to be simple, Biff. We were saved by a serpent and a girl, I don’t know what to think about that.”
“Why think about it at all? It just happened.”
“Nothing happens but by God’s will,” Joshua said. “It doesn’t fit with the testament of Moses.”
“Maybe it’s a new testament,” I said.
“You aren’t pretending, are you?” Joshua said. “You really are simple.”
“I think she likes you better than she likes me,” I said.
“Right, I’m the simple one.”
I don’t know if now, having lived and died the life of a man, I can write about little-boy love, but remembering it now, it seems the cleanest pain I’ve known. Love without desire, or conditions, or limits—a pure and radiant glow in the heart that could make me giddy and sad and glorious all at once. Where does it go? Why, in all their experiments, did the Magi never try to capture that purity in a bottle? Perhaps they couldn’t. Perhaps it is lost to us when we become sexual creatures, and no magic can bring it back. Perhaps I only remember it because I spent so long trying to understand the love that Joshua felt for everyone.
In the East they taught us that all suffering comes from desire, and that rough beast would stalk me through my life, but on that afternoon, and for a time after, I touched grace. At night I would lie awake, listening to my brothers’ breathing against the silence of the house, and in my mind’s eye I could see her eyes like blue fire in the dark. Exquisite torture. I wonder now if Joshua didn’t make her whole life like that. Maggie, she was the strongest of us all.
After the miracle of the serpent, Joshua and I made up excuses to pass by the smith’s shop where we might run into Maggie. Every morning we would rise early and go to Joseph, volunteering to run to the smith for some nails or the repair of a tool. Poor Joseph took this as enthusiasm for carpentry.
“Would you boys like to come to Sepphoris with me tomorrow?” Joseph asked us one day when we were badgering him about fetching nails. “Biff, would your father let you start learning the work of a carpenter?”
I was mortified. At ten a boy was expected to start learning his father’s trade, but that was a year away—forever when you’re nine. “I—I am still thinking about what I will do when I grow up,” I said. My own father had made a similar offer to Joshua the day before.
“So you won’t become a stonecutter?”
“I was thinking about becoming the village idiot, if my father will allow it.”
“He has a God-given talent,” Joshua said.
“I’ve been talking to Bartholomew the idiot,” I said. “He’s going to teach me to fling my own dung and run headlong into walls.”
Joseph scowled at me. “Perhaps you two
yet too young. Next year.”
“Yes,” Joshua said, “next year. May we go now, Joseph? Biff is meeting Bartholomew for his lesson.”
Joseph nodded and we were off before he inflicted more kindness upon us. We actually had befriended Bartholomew, the village idiot. He was foul and drooled a lot, but he was large, and offered some protection against Jakan and his bullies. Bart also spent most of his time begging near the town square, where the women came to fetch water from the well. From time to time we caught a glimpse of Maggie as she passed, a water jar balanced on her head.
“You know, we are going to have to start working soon,” Joshua said. “I won’t see you, once I’m working with my father.”
“Joshua, look around you, do you see any trees?”
“And the trees we do have, olive trees—twisted, gnarly, knotty things, right?”
“But you’re going to be a carpenter like your father?”
“There’s a chance of it.”
“One word, Josh: rocks.”
“Look around. Rocks as far as the eye can see. Galilee is nothing but rocks, dirt, and more rocks. Be a stonemason like me and my father. We can build cities for the Romans.”
“Actually, I was thinking about saving mankind.”
“Forget that nonsense, Josh. Rocks, I tell you.”
The angel will tell me nothing of what happened to my friends, of the twelve, of Maggie. All he’ll say is that they are dead and that I have to write my own version of the story. Oh, he’ll tell me useless angel stories—of how Gabriel disappeared once for sixty years and they found him on earth hiding in the body of a man named Miles Davis, or how Raphael snuck out of heaven to visit Satan and returned with something called a cell phone. (Evidently everyone has them in hell now.) He watches the television and when they show an earthquake or a tornado he’ll say, “I destroyed a city with one of those once. Mine was better.” I am awash in useless angel prattle, but about my own time I know nothing but what I saw. And when the television makes mention of Joshua, calling him by his Greek name, Raziel changes the channel before I can learn anything.
He never sleeps. He just watches me, watches the television, and eats. He never leaves the room.
Today, while searching for extra towels, I opened one of the drawers and there, beneath a plastic bag meant for laundry, I found a book:
it said on the cover. Thank the Lord I did not take the book from the drawer, but opened it with my back to the angel. There are chapters there that were in no Bible I know. I saw the names of Matthew and John, I saw Romans and Galatians—this is a book of my time.
“What are you doing?” the angel asked.
I covered the Bible and closed the drawer. “Looking for towels. I need to bathe.”
“You bathed yesterday.”
“Cleanliness is important to my people.”
“I know that. What, you think I don’t know that?”
“You’re not exactly the brightest halo in the bunch.”
“Then bathe. And stand away from the television.”
“Why don’t you go get me some towels?”
“I’ll call down to the desk.”
And he did. If I am to get a look at that book, I must get the angel to leave the room.
It came to pass that in the village of Japhia, the sister village of Nazareth, that Esther, the mother of one of the priests of the Temple, died of bad air. The Levite priests, or Sadducees, were rich from the tributes we paid to the Temple, and mourners were hired from all the surrounding villages. The families of Nazareth made the journey to the next hill for the funeral, and for the first time, Joshua and I were able to spend time with Maggie as we walked along the road.
“So,” she said without looking at us, “have you two been playing with any snakes lately?”
“We’ve been waiting for the lion to lay down with the lamb,” Joshua said. “That’s the next part of the prophecy.”
“Never mind,” I said. “Snakes are for boys. We are almost men. We will begin work after the Feast of Tabernacles. In Sepphoris.” I was trying to sound worldly. Maggie seemed unimpressed.
“And you will learn to be a carpenter?” she asked Joshua.
“I will do the work of my father, eventually, yes.”
“And you?” she asked me.
“I’m thinking of being a professional mourner. How hard can it be? Tear at your hair, sing a dirge or two, take the rest of the week off.”
“His father is a stonemason,” Joshua said. “We may both learn that skill.” At my urging, my father had offered to take Joshua on as an apprentice if Joseph approved.
“Or a shepherd,” I added quickly. “Being a shepherd seems easy. I
went with Kaliel last week to tend his flock. The Law says that two must go with the flock to keep an abomination from happening. I can spot an abomination from fifty paces.”
Maggie smiled. “And did you prevent any abominations?”
“Oh yes, I kept all of the abominations at bay while Kaliel played with his favorite sheep behind the bushes.”
“Biff,” Joshua said gravely, “that was the abomination you were supposed to prevent.”
“Whoops. Oh well, I think I would make an excellent mourner. Do you know the words to any dirges, Maggie? I’m going to need to learn some dirges.”
“I think that when I grow up,” Maggie announced, “I shall go back to Magdala and become a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee.”
I laughed, “Don’t be silly, you are a girl. You can’t be a fisherman.”
“Yes I can.”
“No, you can’t. You have to marry and have sons. Are you betrothed, by the way?”
Joshua said: “Come with me, Maggie, and I will make you a fisher of men.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Maggie asked.
I grabbed Joshua by the back of his robe and began to drag him away. “Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s mad. He gets it from his mother. Lovely woman, but a loony. Come now, Josh, let’s sing a dirge.”
I began improvising what I thought was a good funeral song.
La-la-la. Oh, we are really, really sad that your mom is dead. Too bad you’re a Sadducee and don’t believe in an afterlife and your mom is just going to be worm food, la-la. Makes you think that you might want to reconsider, huh? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-wacka-wacka.”
(It sounded great in Aramaic. Really.)
“You two are silly.”
“Gotta go. Mourning to do. See you.”
“A fisher of women?” Josh said.
Fa-la-la-la, don’t feel bad—she was old and had no teeth left, la-la-la
. Come on, people, you know the words!”
Later, I said, “Josh, you can’t keep saying creepy things like that. ‘Fisher of men,’ you want the Pharisees to stone you? Is that what you want?”
“I’m only doing my father’s work. Besides, Maggie is our friend, she wouldn’t say anything.”
“You’re going to scare her away.”
“No I won’t. She’s going to be with us, Biff.”
“Are you going to marry her?”
“I don’t even know if I’m allowed to marry at all, Biff. Look.”
We were topping the hill into Japhia, and we could see the crowd of mourners gathering around the village. Joshua was pointing to a red crest that stood out above the crowd—the helmet crest of a Roman centurion. The centurion was talking to the Levite priest, who was arrayed in white and gold, his white beard reaching past his belt. As we moved into the village we could see twenty or thirty other soldiers watching the crowd.
“Why are they here?”
“They don’t like it when we gather,” Joshua said, pausing to study the centurion commander. “They are here to see that we don’t revolt.”
“Why is the priest talking to him?”
“The Sadducee wants to assure the Roman of his influence over us. It wouldn’t do to have a massacre on the day of his mother’s funeral.”
“So he’s watching out for us.”
“He’s watching out for himself. Only for himself.”
“You shouldn’t say that about a priest of the Temple, Joshua.” It was the first time I ever heard Joshua speak against the Sadducees, and it frightened me.
“Today, I think this priest will learn who the Temple belongs to.”
“I hate it when you talk like that, Josh. Maybe we should go home.”
“Do you remember the dead meadowlark we found?”
“I have a really bad feeling about this.”
Joshua grinned at me. I could see gold flecks shining in his eyes. “Sing your dirge, Biff. I think Maggie was impressed by your singing.”
“Really? You think so?”
There was a crowd of five hundred outside the tomb. In the front, the men had draped striped shawls over their heads and rocked as they
prayed. The women were separated to the back, and except for the wailing of the hired mourners, it was as if they didn’t exist. I tried to catch a glimpse of Maggie, but couldn’t see her through the crowd. When I turned again, Joshua had wormed his way to the front of the men, where the Sadducee stood beside the corpse of his dead mother, reading from a scroll of the Torah.
The women had wrapped the corpse in linen and anointed it with fragrant oils. I could smell sandalwood and jasmine amid the acrid sweat of the mourners as I made my way to the front and stood by Joshua. He looked past the priest and was staring at the corpse, his eyes narrowed in concentration. He was trembling as if taken by a chill wind.
The priest finished his reading and began to sing, joined by the voices of hired singers who had made the journey all the way from the Temple in Jerusalem.
“It’s good to be rich, huh?” I whispered to Joshua, elbowing him in the ribs. He ignored me and balled up his fists at his sides. A vein stood out on his forehead as he burned his gaze on the corpse.
And she moved.
Just a twitch at first. The jerk of her hand under the linen shroud. I think I was the only one who noticed. “No, Joshua, don’t,” I said.
I looked for the Romans, who were gathered in groups of five at different points around the perimeter of the crowd looking bored, their hands resting on the hafts of their short swords.
The corpse twitched again and raised her arm. There was a gasp in the crowd and a boy screamed. The men started backing away and the women pushed forward to see what was happening. Joshua fell to his knees and pressed his fists to his temples. The priest sang on.
The corpse sat up.
The singers stopped and finally the priest turned to look behind him at his dead mother, who had swung her legs off of the slab and looked as if she was trying to stand. The priest stumbled back into the crowd, clawing at the air before his eyes as if it some vapor was causing this horrible vision.
Joshua was rocking on his knees, tears streaming down his cheeks. The corpse stood, and still covered by the shroud, turned as if she was looking around. I could see that several of the Romans had drawn their swords. I looked around and found the commanding centurion standing
on the back of a wagon, giving signals to his men to stay calm. When I looked back I realized that Joshua and I had been deserted by the mourners and we stood out in the empty space.
“Stop it, now, Josh,” I whispered in his ear, but he continued to rock and concentrate on the corpse, who took her first step.
The crowd seemed to be transfixed by the walking corpse, but we were too isolated, too alone now with the dead, and I knew it would only be seconds before they noticed Joshua rocking in the dirt. I threw my arm around his throat and dragged him back away from the corpse and into a group of men who were wailing as they backed away.
“Is he all right?” I heard at my ear, and turned to see Maggie standing beside me.
“Help me get him away.”
Maggie took one of Joshua’s arms and I took the other as we dragged him away. His body was as stiff as a walking staff, and he kept his gaze trained on the corpse.
The dead woman was walking toward her son, the priest, who was backing away, brandishing the scroll like a sword, his eyes as big as saucers.
Finally the woman fell in the dirt, twitched, then lay still. Joshua went limp in our arms.
“Let’s get him out of here,” I said to Maggie. She nodded and helped me drag him behind the wagon where the centurion was directing his troops.
“Is he dead?” the centurion asked.
Joshua was blinking as if he’d just been awakened from a deep sleep. “We’re never sure, sir,” I said.
The centurion threw his head back and laughed. His scale armor rattled with the tossing of his shoulders. He was older than the other soldiers, gray-haired, but obviously lean and strong, and totally unconcerned with the histrionics of the crowd. “Good answer, boy. What is your name?”
“Biff, sir. Levi bar Alphaeus, who is called Biff, sir. Of Nazareth.”
“Well, Biff, I am Gaius Justus Gallicus, under-commander of Sepphoris, and I think that you Jews should make sure your dead are dead before you bury them.”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“You, girl. You are a pretty little thing. What is your name?”
I could see that Maggie was shaken by the attention of the Roman. “I am Mary of Magdala, sir.” She wiped at Joshua’s brow with the edge of her shawl as she spoke.
“You will break someone’s heart someday, eh, little one?”
Maggie didn’t answer. But I must have shown some reaction to the question, because Justus laughed again. “Or perhaps she already has, eh, Biff?”
“It is our way, sir. That’s why we Jews bury our women when they are still alive. It cuts down on the heartbreak.”
The Roman took off his helmet, ran his hand over his short hair, and flung sweat at me. “Go on, you two, get your friend into the shade. It’s too hot out here for a sick boy. Go on.”
Maggie and I helped Joshua to his feet and began to lead him away, but when we had gone only a few steps, Joshua stopped and looked back over his shoulder at the Roman. “Will you slay my people if we follow our God?” he shouted.
I cuffed him on the back of the head. “Joshua, are you insane?”
Justus narrowed his gaze at Joshua and the smile went out of his eyes. “Whatever they tell you, boy, Rome has only two rules: pay your taxes and don’t rebel. Follow those and you’ll stay alive.”
Maggie yanked Joshua around and smiled back at the Roman. “Thank you, sir, we’ll get him out of the sun.” Then she turned back to Joshua. “Is there something you two would like to tell me?”
“It’s not me,” I said. “It’s him.”
The next day we met the angel for the first time. Mary and Joseph said that Joshua had left the house at dawn and they hadn’t seen him since. I wandered around the village most of the morning, looking for Joshua and hoping to run into Maggie. The square was alive with talk of the walking dead woman, but neither of my friends was to be found. At noon my mother recruited me to watch my little brothers while she went to work with the other women in the vineyard. She returned at dusk, smelling of sweat and sweet wine, her feet purple from walking in the winepress. Cut loose, I ran all over the hilltop, checking in our favorite places to play, and
finally found Joshua on his knees in an olive grove, rocking back and forth as he prayed. He was soaked in sweat and I was afraid he might have a fever. Strange, I never felt that sort of concern for my own brothers, but from the beginning, Joshua filled me with divinely inspired worry.
I watched, and waited, and when he stopped his rocking and sat back to rest, I faked a cough to let him know I was coming.
“Maybe you should stick with lizards for a while longer.”