Girl of Song
(An excerpt from the novel in progress, The Songs of Moshe)
I watched Yeshua wipe his face with the cloth his mother had sewn for him from sheep’s wool. The sawdust of the roof to the newlyweds’ home we were constructing clung to his skin-sweat. Before the cloth’s wipe his cheeks appeared as raised wood. When he had wiped his image clean and stuffed the cloth back to the sleeve of his tattered robes, his face was bright, at least as much as his dark complexion would allow from the desert sun. I had watched him wiping his face for years with this cloth his mother had sewn for him. Often the image of his face would imprint itself to the cloth in a patch of the red and brown dust of the desert floor that collected to his skin-sweat. Then, each next day, the cloth would be cleaned from the night before by his mother, ready to be imprinted again and then erased again, just as the day before when the day was done.
The roof was charity. Since the Occupiers came to us they had insisted we carpenters construct arched reed roofs. But we resisted in our own way. Not paying a tax for our labor might result in dying from the sun nailed by iron through our palms to an acacia wood cross and left to the crows nibbling at our flesh. Insisting on a flat-roofed home for newlyweds as part of our tradition would produce only a roll of the eyes from the Occupiers and the demand for a gourd of wine from our reserves.
I was angry with Yeshua. The bronze head of our only hand adz had come loose the day before when we were squaring logs to be used as beams and had disappeared into the riverbed we worked beside. I spent all the hours into dusk searching the waters and it was never discovered. It had been Yeshua’s responsibility to lash the bronze to the head of the shaft and he had been careless with the leather—as always. The cost of replacing it was that of half-a-moon-cycle’s repair of window lattices, and this roof job was a gift we were not even collecting for. With this particular bride’s father one could not expect anything close to a gratuity for the effort. The new head was iron, not bronze. It was the latest fashion, brought by the Occupiers, and was excruciatingly expensive. I had to provide my mark to parchment in both Aramaic and the Emperor’s tongue to ensure I would pay the three pieces I was short when I acquired it. Thankfully, Yeshua had not mis-fastened the saw blade we had crafted from ribbon flints and set to a wooden frame to work together to cut through the tree trunks. Right now I wanted to throw right at Yeshua the matting and straw mud we used to plaster down the gaps in the timber beams once we laid them wall-to-wall. It made me think I should have accepted the offer provided to me three years before to take employment in the olive groves near The City. But I feared I would die again soon, and the conversion from death to a rebirth was always exhausting. To my dismay, Yeshua was much more skilled than me at providing a good finish to winnowing forks and his small hands made it easier for him to create holes with an awl for bronze nails.
I could not recall how many lives I had led since my first. Too many. And this one was the hardest. The process of rebirth was always awkward. Sometimes, as with my first rebirth, I was recreated as a grown man with no attachments. The most difficult had been being reborn a small child and then dying just as I reached manhood. But most times I was born to an already existing body. It was not difficult to assess my position. But it was a challenge if I was reborn to a community with expectations. In my past lives I had begun to wonder if I indeed was the meshia. There was word of several crazed men about the Salted Places with followings believing they were such, and with all of my lives beyond my born name I had hidden, I was determined to not be crazy and had to tell myself that I was not the meshia. I was something else, only I had not yet discovered what.
As me, he was a boy, and yet not: a man, and yet not—somewhere between. He was frail, like his mother, with the ash-black skin that typified the Artisan class of expendable Hebrew peasantry he had been born to. Taken into his father’s trade at an early age, I would work with him the course of my new life, as my reborn father was his father’s hired hand. Nobody in the village had ever heard Yeshua laugh, not once, even as a child.
As children, Yeshua was taunted—by myself included—for being drawn to sitting with girls and combing their hair with bone in his slender, almost feminine fingers; teased for dolls he obsessively carried. And even the man who thought he was my father but was not in this life, the gentlest of men, simply laughed when we village boys referred to Yoseph and Mary’s awkward child as “Doll Boy.”
Yeshua’s hair, as dense as rock, was a constant source of joy for us village boys in our only-recent manhood, still having the occasional urge to toss tiny sticks into the air for amusement, seeing them lodge into that thick mass of hair just to break the monotony of our irrelevant morning prayers to The Only with the elder men of the village.
The man who believed he was my father shared with Yeshua’s the carpentry tent that served the needs of the Occupiers more than our village itself. The business would eventually be handed over to Yeshua. And I would follow after the man who believed he was my father, because I had not been reborn into the Hebrew aristocracy in The City, but into this lot of manual laborers, farmers and occasionally forced-soldiers for the Occupiers, who would pit Hebrew against fellow Hebrew, dividing and conquering at will in a continual spiral bloodshed. Yet, I had greater ideas, grander ambitions. It was this that I loathed most in Yeshua: He was born at the exact second on the exact same day that the village believed I had been born. Yet, it was Yeshua’s lack of ambition that I could not tolerate. It seemed that he was as content in his persecution under the Occupiers—in his birth into poverty while the Hebrew aristocracy collaborated and profited from the occupation—as a flower that might stretch toward a trickle of sunlight. He had no sense of justice. I always wondered about him. Could he not see the cruelty about us and know that only through returned cruelty can one overcome and conquer cruelty itself?
But it was Yeshua’s solitude that perplexed me the most. While working on chariot wheels for the Occupiers in the shade of the carpentry tent, I would occasionally grow dissatisfied with hearing the same jokes and stories told by his father that he had been listening to since the times he sharpened tools as a small boy. I would sigh, turn to Yeshua and attempt to strike a conversation to salvage myself from boredom. Nothing, not a sound whatsoever. The boy never smiled. There was not even a response when I would reluctantly try to speak about The Only, a subject I figured Yeshua would eagerly chat about—or as I hoped, argue about—since he was the only boy in the history of the village to have never been whipped by his father with the branch of an apricot tree for disrupting prayers to The Only led by Rabba Efron at the edge of where the last dust of the village met the desert at sunrise each morning.
There is something wrong about him, I would think. Unlike Yeshua, I will go on to achieve greatness; I will be remembered. I will go to The City when my opportunity comes, and I will be greater than this particular life I was reborn into. Yeshua lacks ambition for even his own physical pleasures. He cannot read; he cannot write. It is my ambition that will save me. He cannot even save himself. This is all he will ever be—silent to the world, offering nothing, never threatening: never smiling. He is harmless, and harmlessness offers nothing to the world. He would still be playing with dolls and combing young girls’ hair if they were not all life-joined by now. And he never even touched those girls who, for some bewildering reason, all wanted him, who all offered themselves to him. He couldn’t even see it. He has always been obtuse to the world around him.
A violent fool.
I took clumps of straw mud in my fists to wedge between the beams as Yeshua approached, his face clean again.
He called my name, plainly. I turned, mud still clenched in my fists. “You will finish with the mud and then you will fasten the ropes to erect the roof with the day-workers by sundown.” He then turned and went to rest by the trees where his mother was waiting with a gourd of water and a wood-carved ladle.
I stood and stared at him. I hated watching his mother kiss his cheek and place the ladle with water to his lips. His father owned the tent. My father was simply his partner and that made me the same. And as always, since we were young, if I refused what I was told Yeshua could beat me as he pleased, as he had done many times before. The village would say nothing. And as I watched him take water, I could still not contemplate why the people of the village believed his mother to have never bedded with Yeshua’s father, even on their life-joining night..
The first time Yeshua beat me was when we were ten. He was obsessed with performing tricks. He would take coins of the Occupiers and make them disappear from his fingers and reappear from behind one of the village girls’ ears. He would have three clay jars fired from the kiln and hide an olive under one, move them around and have village girls guess which jar had the olive. Always girls. The first time he beat me was when he was performing a trick with a bronze coin with Caesar’s image upon it for a village girl we both had fondness for and I caught how he made the trick occur, by slipping the lip of the jar hiding the olive to the edge of the table he had placed his robe sleeve upon so he could control the roll. I pointed it out and the girl began to laugh at Yeshua and asked him what other tricks he thought he could push past me. “If you really want to impress me,” she had giggled, “walk on top of a flat sea of water.” Yeshua had slammed all three clay jars to my head. It took shaving my scalp and caking my wounds with olive-soaked sea-mud for several cycles of the sun to heal them.
I told myself then that I would stand up for myself, as I had not done when my real father took my last breath in my first life, that I would never cower to Yeshua again. But I couldn’t. I simply could not be brave. I wanted to, but I could never find the ability to be so. And I hated Yeshua for it, because he knew I could not be brave.
* * *
She was beautiful, the most beautiful girl the village had known to travel through its small community. She was so beautiful with her long, coiled black hair and coppery skin the color of the desert floor drenched in rainfall that she was almost beyond envy by the young village girls, but not beyond want by the men and especially young boys. She was beauty itself, even though she was barely out of girlhood.
She was a daughter of The City that the people of the village knew little of and dreamed everything about. She was a daughter of the High Rabbas class, a girl too old for irresponsibility and not yet old enough to be given away to a man of her father’s choosing. She arrived on a day that was not out of the ordinary.
The soldiers of the Occupiers in our village greeted the traveling privileged class with slightly more tolerance than the illiterate peasants they used at will for their purposes. The soldiers approached the aristocracy but could not stop staring at the girl, who was accompanied by her four older brothers at every step, because she was known to be beautiful. Yeshua had told us that there was a girl visiting on this day who was known to be more beautiful than beauty itself and we had not believed him. We were wrong. And although no man had ever pursued her, her mother feared that she would be ruined before she came of age to become the possession of another family.
Tents were arranged for the family’s afternoon stop on ther return to The City. Camels were given water; their stench diluted by droplets of perfumes and spices traded from the east, then the filthy creatures were distanced from the makeshift camp in the center of the clearing that acted as the main gathering point of the village where the Occupiers routinely executed captured members of the Hebrew resistance by crucifixion. Hanging was considered too tame by Pontius Pilate, the new procurator of The Land. The new merciless man now governing our lives preferred crucifixion, leaving something for his subjects to think about. And it was said that the family of this beautiful girl were in favor with Caesar’s newly appointed Hegemon.
The soldiers, who had never once gone out of their way to so much as assist one of our village girls off a donkey or pick up a fallen gourd of water upon a child’s return from the well, attended to the needs of this High Rabba’s family, who had supposedly been in the desert meditating for eighteen days to celebrate the early spring month of Sivan, even though the Occupiers were smart enough to know that the aristocracy were now making occasional journeys to harbor provisions in the event that they might lose favor with Pilate, the second-rank general and prefect of all of The Land who governed from The City. Or worse, if the peasantry stopped bickering amongst themselves over calculating their resistance tactics and actually got their act together to revolt, taking The City and hunting down the High Rabbas in retaliation for their collaboration with the Occupiers. The Occupiers turned their eyes away from these desert outings by the privileged. Like all oppressors, the Occupiers had their own fears. A Hebrew riot, let alone a full-blown Hebrew revolt, just couldn’t be tolerated, or even allowed. It had to be avoided, if possible. There was an order to oppression. “If anyone is going to sack The City,” Pilate had proclaimed, “it’s going to be the Emperor’s forces.” But if they ever did lose control of The City they would need somebody to keep us in line once we were systematically slaughtered and the survivors were put back in their place. “You’re lucky your monotheistic little rituals are condoned to the extent they are,” the soldiers of the village garrison would say to us. “If you knew what the Emperor had us do in Germania you’d clean our feet with your tongues and be thankful for what you still have.”
From the manner in which the soldiers entered the tent of we village carpenters, I expected that we were going to be dragged off for another campaign against our own people; an experience that had never seemed to phase Yeshua, who went about killing his fellow Hebrews into submission for the Occupiers whenever they demanded it, as if he were casually fixing a table leg that had been cracked in a trite domestic quarrel.
We men of the tent were called out by the soldiers, who were fumbling in lustful stupor, intoxicated by the very presence of the beautiful girl of the High Rabba class from The City. We were ordered to see the young girl who was now sitting with her mother on a blanket, refreshing herself with grapes and melon from the woven baskets and fired mud-clay bowls held out by the village women who were fatigued by the merciless sun while the aristocrats sat under shaded tarps of the most elegant imported silk. Completely bewildered by the order of these soldiers, whom barely even grunted at us unless they needed something on demand, Yeshua’s father and the man who believed he was my father looked to me and Yeshua, who were supposed to be working on a mule cart, shrugged, and nodded their heads for our work to be temporarily dispensed with.
I tossed my bradawl and bowdrill to the leather bag. I could not keep my eyes from the beautiful girl. The soldiers, who were known to take and ruin young village girls at their every desire, sucked on oranges, juice dripping over lips they wished to press to hers. But even they stood back and simply looked at her. However, it was true; only a man with blood of the Occupiers, blood that was not of The Religion, could shamelessly lust for such a girl; possess want for somebody who was beyond beauty itself.
I stared in contempt at the girl and her High Rabba family, knowing that they were the opposition to the Hebrew Police in The City I dreamed of joining, that they collaborated with the Occupiers for their own profit, that this High Rabba was undoubtedly appointed to his position by the prefect of The City who answered to the Emperor himself. “That Pontius Pilate, charming fellow,” I had heard the commanders of the weekly replacement legions say to each other when they entered the village. “You should see the quality of the Hebrewess concubines he gives us as gifts for our loyalty.” I rubbed my tongue to the extra bump of my tooth I was always reborn with—and hate. I would hold my tongue, clamp my teeth to the tip of it until I could taste and swallow my own pure blood. And I wondered if they would have their way with this girl. And I knew that I was too scared to ever join the Hebrew Police, for I had been frightened of myself for so many lives since my father frightened me when he took my last breath in my first.
I sighed, turned to Yeshua, and was shocked. I took one look at his dropped lower lip, felt the awkward boy’s heavy breath and knew that he wanted this girl; that he lusted. And when I looked back to the striped, sheep’s wool blanket spread out over the bronze-colored ground of the village for the aristocracy’s comfort, I was amazed to see that the beautiful girl—beauty itself—was looking at my rag-covered body through the coiled black curls that dangled over her face.
And she smiled.
She actually did so; she looked directly at me and smiled. And then, the unthinkable—for the Artisan class and the High Rabbas were practically two different species who never spoke to each other unless it was necessary. The beautiful girl, staring at me, said hello. It was all she said. And I smiled back, just before I felt the blow to the right side of my face and my body fall. I felt blood trickle from my temple and looked up.
It was Yeshua.
He stared down at me and glared. And I knew for certain that he wanted her, too.
* * *
I admit, I had been hearing the voice of the beautiful girl for exactly eighteen days since she departed that day with her family proceeding home to The City. Yes, a voice I could decipher from only one word spoken that I had been too terrified to respond to after Yeshua’s blow. I heard her voice in my sleep, while I was working, while watching Yeshua secretly playing with dolls in the carpentry tent when nobody was looking except through the canvas flaps. My brothers call me little sister, but I am already a woman, I heard her voice come to me like a song. You are lovely, the loveliest of men I have ever seen. Come to me, come to The City.
I told Yeshua and my father that I was ill and spent the next three cycles of the sun in bed and thinking of the beautiful girl whose voice was coming to me with greater intensity and frequency, eventually possessing a demanding ferocity. I returned to work, but I would be hammering an iron nail into a chair arm when I would hear her voice pulsate into my eardrums. Lovely man, I yearn for you to touch me. And I would scream piercingly in a mixture of delight and terror, the tent going silent, all heads turning to me, the man who believed he was my father rolling his eyes. I would be eating cucumbers and fired grain with my family when her voice would consume me again. Love me like no other, kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses. I am composing the love we will eventually share; our awakening, I am writing a song of songs that I will recite to you. My beloved is mine and I am his. He feasts in a field of lilies. You are beautiful, my love, majestic as The City, daunting as the stars in their course. Your eyes! Turn them away for they dazzle me. And I would scream out again, half-chewed lamb meat spilling from my mouth over the olive wood table like goat droppings; the woman who believed she was my mother asking the man who believed he was my father, “Has this been occurring at work, too,” then he, “Just a passing phase.”
It happened in the early morning on the first day of the spring month of Tammuz. I was holding the seat of a donkey cart down for Yeshua to nail along the backside of the frame when her voice came again. Lovely one, why won’t you come to me? I am still composing our song of songs. My beloved is milk and wine, he towers above ten thousand. How wonderful you are, O Love, how much sweeter you are than all other pleasures.
I screamed out in that same piercing terror and delight and did not even notice that the hammer I was thrusting missed the iron nail entirely and crashed over Yeahua’s hand. His hand pressed so hard downward that the board vibrated, dust clouding. He strained to pull his crushed hand out from under the iron-crafted hammer, which I was still thrusting down. He was screaming, staring at his blood trickle over the hot wood-dust.
Yeshua proceeded to drag me out of the tent with his one good hand—his other broken, limp and bleeding at his side—into the blistering, dust and winged-insect infested heat of the village.
The Occupiers, amused, giggling, did not intervene as Yeshua pummeled me so profusely with that one good hand that when he was finished nobody could recognize my face. My hair had suddenly gone straight and had turned as white as rare snows. But nobody could see that my hair was now white. It was soaked with my blood to the point where not one strand of white hair was visible. But I was not thinking of my beating by Yeshua, I was thinking of my first-born life when my father had succeeded in taking my last breath.
Finally, with his knees restraining me to the ground, Yeshua reached for a melon-sized rock beside him with that one good hand, held it back over his head like one of the Occupiers’ catapults, and only then did the soldiers stationed in the village stop the ordeal. They placed Yeshua in an eighteen-foot deep hole in the ground for two days without food, water or light, and reluctantly allowed the man who believed he was my father to take me home. Disruptions could only be tolerated so much. If a Hebrew was going to be killed, even by one of his own, one of the Occupiers’ soldiers was going to give the order. There was a certain way things were done. Besides, they knew Yeshua was practically the only Hebrew in the village who never griped about being routinely enlisted to suppress his fellow countrymen’s resistance. If he had killed me the punishment would have been his own life and the Occupiers could not risk losing a willing collaborator.
For three days I lay in bed, being fed by the woman who believed she was my mother, who was also dressing my wounds, administering bandages soaked with her family’s medicinal secrets gathered every year from the desert in the south—herbs and insect feces mixed in olive oil and grape wine. My blood-scabbed, inflamed face attracted winged-insects as if I were a piece of rotting meat. Mosquitoes attempting to highjack my blood died instantaneously during their attempts. And each morning the woman who thought she was my mother would pick the dead creatures from my face one by one, tweezing her fingers, delicate, cautious of my scabbing wounds.
For three days and three nights the girl’s voice did not return to me. But on the fourth night, as I lay awake unable to sleep, her voice announced itself once more. My lovely one, come to me. This time I didn’t scream. And for the first time since my father took my last breath so many lives before, I was not frightened, not of her—not of myself.
“But I am no longer lovely for you,” I whispered aloud. “I have never been lovely for anyone.”
But you are lovely. I know what happened and you are still lovely. Come to me now. Come, my beloved, let us go out into the fields and lay all night among the flowering henna. Let us go early to the vineyards. There I will release myself to you. Bind me as a seal upon your heart, a sign upon your arm. Great seas cannot extinguish our love, no river can sweep it away.
I began to smell the aroma of sand sweeping through the windows of the room, bouncing off the straw mud-brick walls and rust-colored dirt floor, sweltering into a heavy cloud and vacuuming the air from my lungs. The sand slid under my body and lifted me above the mule-hide cot, above the ground, suspending me, then thrusting my body out the window and into the night sky, propelling me toward The City I had only been to in my first reborn life, a city Yeshua was enraged that he had never been to himself.
I was above the ground of the world, floating, weightless, until I was brought back down, now on the outskirts of the distant city. The City! Home, or so I thought. I was returned, descended like a twirling leaf from a tree that was taking its time, no rush, patient, approaching the ground, knowing that she would be there to greet me.
* * *
Her brothers knew she was beautiful. Even the rabbas in their fabricated piety could not help but possess lust for this young girl with the most perfect coiled black hair, even though it was not a lust of want. Her brothers would still tease her, call her “little sister,” say that she did not even have breasts yet when it was obvious that she did and that glances were stolen of them by many of their friends who would stop by the family home in The City’s southern walled-quarter after their studies with excuses that could not conceal the fact that they simply wanted to look upon her.
She was learned. Her father had demanded her education, that she be literate; that she was to be one of the great women of the Temple he assisting in presiding over sacrifices for; a Temple women could look upon but never enter. Nobody but the High Rabbas could enter it, and even some of them were not allowed, including her father, who sacrificed from the adjacent courtyard on the mount.
But her father had not expected her to take her education as her own possession, that she would do anything with it beyond the fabricated devotion to a singular The Only that he and her mother instilled in her, beyond serving her future husband they would select without her approval. He did not expect her to lust, to have passion—to want. He did not expect that she would do anything secretive, even though he knew that there were things girls must do in secret, that his own wife did in secret.
After seeing me in the village, she began composing a poem at night when her family retreated to their dreams, a song that would remain silent for all except me her love—a song of songs. There was the fear, the rumor that her blood was tainted, mixed, diluted. But her beauty submerged all inquiries.
Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! She wrote in oil ink drawn from the secretions of sacrificed animals—imagining. The voice of my love: listen! Bounding over the mountains toward me, across the hills. You are all beautiful, my love, my perfect one. My love reached in for the latch and my heart beat wild.
Then the night arrived when she knew I would come, and she did what she had never done before. She left her family home in the mid of the nighttime, unescorted for the first time in her life, and ran through the narrow, lemon-colored, stone streets and corridors of The City.
She was alone for exactly eighteen minutes as she slipped away and sprinted toward the eastern end of the walled-perimeter with the toes of her leather sandals catching on the protruding cobblestone; tripping her toward her destination somewhere ahead amongst the shadows and dust-filled air that twitched her into a fit of sneezing, causing her to panic with the thought of being caught unescorted, and even worse in the mid of nighttime, perhaps a woman her mother knew looking out a window and eyeing her. She was slightly disoriented when she reached the now empty and silent stretch of pillars where the daily bazaar of vendors and entertainers gathered among statues of polytheistic gods and goddesses memorialized in alabaster. Just as she was ready to panic, to cry, to turn back, she recognized the darkened alley typically illuminated by the merciless sun at high noontime, and dashed for the Great Gate, only to find it closed.
She did not know why she had come in this direction, but she brought her hands to the Great Gate, and, like submerging under water, inhaled one long breath of the nightened air that tasted like heavy sand, and then took a step with her eyes closed. She sneezed one more time, then felt her body seep into the wood of the barricade, becoming part of the Great Gate itself, part of the acacia timber it was construction from, part of the ground that had grown it. She was swallowed in. And then, she fell out the other side of the Great Gate, opening her eyes outside The City. Alone, she ran toward the olive grove that her father owned in the outlying fields, past the hill where the groves were as plentiful as bitter taste in the Sea of Salt.
She was no longer sneezing.
She reached the grove of olive trees, her breath strained, and she bent her head to the sky and saw a sweltering cloud of sand descending me to the ground.
And when the cloud dissolved I was with her—a boy, a man, but neither, somewhere in between. Older than her, but not much. Young, though. I was lying on the ground—returned. She knelt and touched my face, which was no longer the face she had seen in the village. She ran her tiny, birdlike fingers through my now straightened white hair and said, “Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses, my beloved.”
I looked to her, this beautiful girl. And I kissed her with my stitched, still enflamed lips. And she kissed me back. And we had each other that night. And for exactly seven consecutive nights we met in this same manner, sharing love under the colorless sky of The City’s beyond, until she had completed her poem—her song of songs exploring her awakening and whom she had chosen to share it with. Each night I met her and then returned to the village with the sand.
On the last night, after sharing love for the seventh time, we closed our eyes, held each other close, felt the sand consume us together—united—and when we opened our eyes we found that in spite of the split second of elapsed, motionless time, we had been taken inside the walls of The City. We were lying in each other’s arms just inside the Great Gate. She smiled at me, rose to her feet, then brought me to mine and proceeded to show me The City. She had known it her whole life and did not know that I was murdered by my father upon the mount it was built upon in my first life. On this night, the meticulously constructed streets of The City were ours, protected by the shadows of the hanging, bridged-roofs of the narrow alleys and stone walls concealing our fellow countrymen in sleep, in dreams of better times. And as we walked, she recited her poem to me. And she let me know that one day I was to be great, that I would be the one to do what was only whispered of but never done. And perhaps, just then, I believed.
It was on the eighth second of the eighth minute of the eighth hour of the eighth evening of the month of Tammuz that her voice ceased to come to me. And the sand no longer appeared to carry me to her, and I was no longer capable of joining her.
I would never see her again, would never touch another woman again until the one of the Binding Four presented herself to me, would never share love with another like this; would deny I had ever known love like this at all.
* * *
That eighth night I had a dream.
I was with Yeshua at the Sea of Salt. No, I was on the Sea of Salt with Yeshua. I was not in the water, but on it; the leather soles of my sandals brushing the surface of the water next to Yeshua’s. I could hear multiple voices of adoration for Yeshua that were not aware of his cruelty. Yeshua was loved by many as he had never been loved before. I could hear Yeshua think, I could just stay right here and things will be fine. Stay right here atop the water. Safe. This is lovely, I am content, it is accomplished, finally. Then, as he was turning around to see the faces on the shore, to know who was adoring him and why—who was loving him. I could hear her whisper to Yeshua, not to me: as he thought that whisper was coming to him, Yeshua fell through the water. And just then, as his body slipped from above the water, once standing, now descending into the sea—down—dropping straight down down down like a stone, I awoke.
My body shook, convulsed slightly then went still as I found myself lying in my mule-hide cot in my family’s home in the village.
* * *
On the morning I awoke from my last flight to The City, I found that my face had miraculously reconstructed itself; my skin unscathed, my black mound of hair no longer straight and white but what it had been before.
At the request of the man who believed he was my father, I returned to work at the carpentry tent of the village. Yeshua did not speak to me, although this was not unusual. He did stare at me, although. He had been placed in a solitary fire-baking hut the village used for pottery, dropped eight feet into the ground and made to sweat there with no food or water for three days as a punishment for lashing me. I now saw a doll in his robe sleeve. That morning I had seen him comb his fingers through the hair of young girls. For an instant, I thought Yeshua’s father had finally taken his son to the brothel three hilltops over, as the man who thought he was my father had once done for me. But I quickly concluded that it was more likely Yeshua had been at home playing with dolls while my wounds healed.
I worked diligently on sealing a wine barrel’s leak, although I was aware of Yeshua’s stares. But what I could not avoid was Yeshua’s cold avoidance. I wished my boyhood nemesis would speak to me, but he would not. Yeshua was possessed by a fear. But for what I did not know.
And I could not stop thinking of her, of her poem, her song of songs that she had composed over the course of our togetherness, of how she had situated the verse simultaneously in a distant future and recent past, how she had recited it to me as we walked through the silent, deserted streets and corridors of The City. For love is as fierce as death, I thought, its jealousy bitter as the grave, even its sparks are a raging fire, a devouring flame, imagining the accent of her voice.
But her voice was gone.
Each morning Yeshua went to pray with the men of the village and dutifully requested The Only’s forgiveness for his sins, for his lust, for his passion, for his want. I doubted he ever asked for forgiveness for his cruelty.
In every generation, the village had progressed in the same manner. The men, in their youth, would tolerate and succumb to their morning prayers, in devotion to the traditions of tradition itself, simply because it was tradition. And there would always be one who would someday take over and lead the men of the following generation, who would assist the next village rabba, the son of the preceding rabba. And all along, it was assumed that Yeshua, would be that person.
Then the beautiful girl’s voice came to me and through her I turned to Yeshua and could hear what he was thinking. This is a religion in decay, he thought, a system of belief on the way out like a bad cough; that the people once built their lives around, intrinsically tied their existences to. But now it just doesn’t seem all that relevant anymore. These people are stupid. They need me to set them straight. What kind of The Only would bring such hardship and time again?
I could sense Yeshua’s anger. I was just as angry as him, only I never knew what to do with it. He simply took it out on me. Maybe he was right. Not even the High Rabbas in the great Temple on the mount where I was murdered by my father in The City could believe in this camel dung anymore—especially not them. If we Hebrews lasted another two-thousand years nothing was going to be any different. We would be lucky lasting another hundred. This whole thing was empty, so why keep going through the motions?
Yeshua, praying, looked about the gathering of dirt-covered, tattered wool clothed men that morning and knew for the first time where his one acceptance lay. It was here, in the presence of prayer that only a few of the participants actually believed in that his presence might even be desired, that he was—perhaps—loved in a way only the girl of song had loved me. And it was then that I saw him glare at me and I could sense him thinking that it was unjust that I had been loved for eight days straight by a girl beyond beauty itself. His eyes tightened on me—fierce. I heard him thinking, You just don’t get it. A spiral of violence is upon us. It is coming and you must be a part of it or you will be a victim of it. It is upon us now! Have you never experienced a hand against you before mine? You only have one life provided by The Only, and it is best to make it an angry one. It is violence masked as love.
At that moment Yeshua turned his eyes away from me and continued in prayer. I could not even recall what reborn life this one was. My many lives had already started to bleed into one another, all but my first. And since that first I had always been fearful; fearful of my father, fearful of the world—fearful of myself. I had allowed fear to control me and thus had allowed others to control my lives. Yeshua, who had beaten me since we were children, was simply another in a long line of those who saw my weakness, who saw my fear as potential for their own benefit. And right then, I no longer wanted to fear.
I wanted to love.
But I would never again see the girl of song I had shared love with. I made a decision right then. If I could not love, I would hate, and I would begin with Yeshua. If I could not be loved or share love, then I would kill those who did. And I thought of the messenger within the sand that I saw each time my last breath was taken from me and I awaited to be born again. The messenger, each undead moment between last and first breath, had promised me that there would be three more like me to create a Binding Four. And I now knew that to find them, for them to appear, I needed to hate and take life, just as I had been hated and my lives had been taken from me, beginning with my father. So I began to rub my tongue to the extra bump of my tooth for luck.
I could never return to her, I could never again know the sensation of my body becoming one with hers. I could imagine her voice but could no longer hear her say, My brothers were angry with me, they made me guard the vineyards. I have not guarded my own.
I saw it.
Yeshua stopped in the middle of his prayers. He looked, the right corner of his lips curling his badly trimmed beard. And he knew, knew in a way I could not see at the time, that he could one day take over this minor and inconsequential duty for the village, a part of our lives that we once intrinsically bound our existence to, our identities to, but had become completely meaningless, hollow, conducted because a life—especially under occupation—needed some semblance of consistency. He had an idea, and in order to enact it, he would use these people with cruelty masked as love.
Yeshua was to become a false rabba. He believed our traditions needed a solid kick in the behind to wake itself up. He felt it needed something, someone, to give rebirth to it, to bring on the vigor that had dissipated. What it needed was a threat. It needed a threat far worse than the Occupiers’, worse than the Egyptian slave-drivers we had once made a glorious exodus from. It needed something to make us resist, put up an opposition, put up a fight against the notion of victim. It needed something born from itself that every fearful Hebrew could reject in order to revitalize. I’ve got just the thing in mind, Yeshua thought.
If only I had seen the danger, I could have stopped all its evil Yeshua’s actions would unleash upon us. He would eliminate, if possible, the J voice, the Hebrew mind, his very own people’s souls. We could retain our bodies, our breath, our coursing blood that kept us alive. But he would eliminate our very thoughts from the world. He would pose a threat to us greater than any we had ever known before. A threat born from him, one of our own as a false rabba. He would make the occupation over our humanity seem like the desert sunshine on our faces compared to what he had in mind: a threat that would chase at the heels of us for thousands of years to come.
The threat was an idea!
A new spring born out of what we had always thought was ours alone, our gift to the world, our law, co-opted and hijacked. The threat of Yeshua, turned right back at us. He would destroy us.
The Only as man.
That’s what we just wouldn’t tolerate. Idol worship? So be it. But something mutated from our own tradition? Not a chance we would stand for that. He would become the anti-Hebrew breed, the seeds of the ultimate threat. He would be reimagined as another man, another kind of Hebrew that ceased to be a Hebrew at all and simultaneously remained one entirely—born again but not as my rebirths from the messenger’s stayed hand. He would hypnotize, be loved, become something disguised as love that was hate itself. He would fabricate a new love, an anti-love, a counter-love, a what if love, a love against true, shared love, a defense against self-love, a fabricated love for The Only that would become hate against The Only himself. He would tap the ambition he possessed that I never had. With ambition came access to the exploitation of people’s fears. And that was it; he would make we Hebrews fear him, fear what he could threaten us with: a never-ending assault upon our very existence. He would make us fear the extreme possibilities of ourselves. All he needed was a plan: a sign, a voice to come to him, to be reimagined into his own voice, a new voice he had never known. He would never share love with a girl beyond beauty itself as I had because he was born to only love himself and to make others love him back—to worship him, The Only as man. He would have others love him, to love a man as The Only over their own souls.
His gift to us?
The option to reject him in order to reinvigorate ourselves. And he wanted the rejection so he could do to us through others what he wished he could do to all, what he had tried to do to me when he destroyed my face and wanted to take my last breath as my father had so long ago.
For love is as fierce as death, I could imagine her voice. And I bit my lip not to scream as our morning prayers approached conclusion. I knew that if one could die from love, one could certainly be reborn from it. Maybe even reborn from the same sand itself, the same source, the same of the same. And if I was given another life and another after that as I had now become accustomed, I knew exactly what I would do. I only wish I had been able to predict what Yeshua was going to do to the world on that day as he decided he would become the utimate false rabba.
He was ready to birth the greatest fear our people would ever know. And although I would never admit it, although my people would never admit it, Yeshua felt we needed him to provide that something to rebel against, to spark the needed reinvigoration our own identities we were in desperate need of, to provide a jolt of lightening-anger to the possibility for our survival against the decay that circumstance had brought. It would become an identity of opposition, of rejection masked in devotion and allegiance.
Yeshua’s lips spread into a sardonic smirk as he looked about this morning’s gathering. His eyes stopped at me. He smiled, satisfied. And he began to laugh; something that no person in the village had ever known from him. The praying ceased and all eyes turned toward Yeshua’s father son. Yeshua stopped laughing, crinkled the skin surrounding his eyes into crows feet and stepped forward. He pushed aside the other men, nudged through the one or two who were actually devout and believed in this nonsense, and finally shoved the village’s rabba aside.
He stood before the morning prayer session like one of the Occupiers’ polytheistic statues erected by the legion at the center courtyard of the village. This was his rebirth, his new life—his reimagined life—his chance for what could truly be his alone. Time to begin the beginning, start here and take it as far as possible, then push it as many more steps as it would bend, as far as the world would allow, as far as the world would tilt, then let it take its own flight from there. But I didn’t know that over two-thousand years from this day, it would be me and three others making a Binding Four to stop his ultimate effect, that I would do so with a girl who was the only girl as beautiful like song as the one I had just shared love with.
We all watched Yeshua close his eyes and begin to laugh again. And I could hear him thinking to himself as no other in the village could. Right now, right here, he thought. This is where I will begin. They’re all going to get what’s coming to them. They have no idea. They can’t even imagine what I’m going to threaten our entire Hebrew nation with. I will give them something to oppose for all eternity. Eventually, they’ll learn their lesson for putting me in a pit for beating a boy who should have been ended long ago; it’s not like I’m going to set in motion the arms of death reaching for their lives for the remaining days of the world, just for a while. Temporary cruelty—temporary death for their temporary lives. What real harm could possibly happen? Just a little fun, what’s a little revenge without a little fun? They need to unite against something. So let it be me. I’m doing them a favor.
Yeshua knew exactly what he wanted: he wanted to work the crowds. He wanted to one day enter The City riding atop a donkey. No, a mule, he thought. Hmm? Perhaps a camel, stink up the whole wretched place, nauseate all those wretched little merchants polluting the Temple. Yes, definitely a camel. Yeshua then spread his lips into one last smirk as he looked at our people. Guess we’ll see. He was ready to start all over from scratch. And he began to speak.
“Do you want a surprise?” he asked.
All of us men looked at each other. Had the women been with us he wouldn’t have had to ask. But we simply waited until the village’s rabba said, “Dazzle us, Yeshi,” producing an uproar of laughter from all, except me.
Yeshua grinned at the rabba, cold and entempered at having been referred to by his childhood nickname. He opened his mouth. Then we all heard the roar of the chariot and its wheels over the ground leading to the village. All of our heads snapped.
A dozen centurions on horse and chariot were leading a canvas-draped wagon cart into the village center. Our women and children ran as the acacia wood wheels barreled over grain baskets and olive barrels. The caravan finally came towards we men. I thought we would be trampled to death until the lead chariot turned sharp and the caravan encircled us.
The dust of the ground rose fast and strong, forcing all of us to bury our faces into the sleeves of our tattered robes—all but Yeshua. I coughed and spat dirt mixed with my mouth water. It seemed forever before the dust settled enough for us to see clearly. The caravan had encircled us, but the draped cart was directly before me.
I saw them.
They were of the High Rabba class from The City. And they were young. They lifted the tarp of their horse drawn cart.
I saw her.
She was no longer herself but she was still beautiful as I had known her in the olive groves. She was bound by leather straps; her wrists bleeding from the wrap, her ankles crossed and her thighs pressed together. Her dress was torn and shredded. Her left breast was exposed but was no longer as my tongue had touched it for eight nights in the olive groves. Her flesh had been lashed by a hide whip to the point where it was reddened and raw; a mounded scab of blood the size of a bronze coin with Cesar’s image upon it where her nipple had been severed by the slice of a knife.
The centurions drew their swords at attention and we knew not to move. We in the village were forbidden to possess weapons anyway. Only the Hebrew Police of The City were allotted such privilege. And then she looked to me, into my black eyes with hers that were even blacker. My brothers were angry with me, they made me guard the vineyards. I have not guarded my own, I could hear her sing to me again. And her eyes watered, tears streaming down her cheeks mixing with the blood and mud upon her face. Blood still dripped from the right side of her scalp, trickling past her ear I lad sucked my lips upon. My oldest brother broke my skull with a bowdrill handle he took from our wood shop servant, she sang to me, but I did not die and now I can see you one last time, my beloved whom I am for and for no other. Her head bent and her chin met the cup of her neck. She was still breathing, the night-like curls of her long hair draping downward to finally cover her severed nipple where no child would ever suckle.
There were two men of the High Rabba class holding her upright by her armpits and two others who were now walking about the circle of us men who had just prayed. They were her brothers. The two men circled us and looked at each man carefully, never stopping their tempered steps. Until they came to Yeshua, whose right arm was grazing my left since we were packed so tightly together. The shorter of the two men, the one who was more heavily bearded with a decorative shoulder garment of silver lace, stepped in front of Yeshua. His skin was that of tanned sands, much lighter than Yeshua’s Artisan complexion that was dull like simmered olive oil dried to acacia wood.
“Do you like what you see now?” the brother asked Yeshua. “Do you still want my sister now that she is no longer beautiful for you?” Yeshua did not move, he did not show that he was startled. He simply raised his eyebrows slightly and dropped his lips. “It was you. We saw how you looked at her nine days ago.”
“So I did,” Yeshua said.
“And you defiled her. She is no longer pure to life-join for us.”
“Ah, for you. Yes. To increase your wealth. There is great magic in that.”
“Magic? You believe in magic?”
“No, I believe in miracles.”
“Do you think a miracle will save you from your last breath after we take hers?”
“Who said I cared if you take hers?”
And then they snapped their heads when they heard a noise from her, my beautiful beloved who was bending her head back up.
“Cry as you like, little sister,” he said. “Your last breath will cease your cries soon enough.”
“That was not a cry,” Yeshua said. Her brother faced him again, surprised. “It was a cough,” Yeshua said, and then whispered, “I wanted to take your sister. But it was not me who had her for eight nights in the olive groves outside the stone walls of your great palace in The City.”
I could not help myself from turning to Yeshua when every man knew that we were not to look at each other but to face forward. How could he have known about the olive groves? How, even if he had known that she had shared love with me? Her brothers, all of them, saw me turn to Yeshua. But I turned back quickly and tried to look to the ground but instead caught her eyes upon me. She was not letting out a cough. Her breath was wheezing and cupping as she stared at me, until in a scraping tone she breathed out with all her might to me, “My beloved… My beloved… my belov…” and one of her brothers, holding her by her armpits, smacked her face with his hand that was adorned with rings, slicing two lines to her lips. He then stared at me—harsh.
I felt the grip of the brother who had been speaking to Yeshua take my hair hard in his fist and pull my neck back. And it was Yeshua who kicked the back of my calves and brought me to my knees. The brother then pushed me forward, my chest colliding with the rock ground, dirt in my teeth. I lifted my face and saw my beloved, her mouth gaped open, eyes damp. I was not watching anyone or anything but her—only her—and saw the hand of one of her brothers hold a knife to her throat and drag the blade, opening her, her blood drenching her body and staining the ground at her cut feet. And she stared at me, her mouth open, body convulsing—a whisper, a cough attempting to escape her mouth but unable, just as I had felt many lives before when my father brought a blade to my own throat.
One of her brothers kicked a polished boot to her back and her bound body lunged forward toward me. I held out my arms as she tumbled from the draped caravan cart and fell upon me—lifeless, her blood covering me.
I held her.
She was heavy. It was difficult to keep her body from slipping out of my arms from her blood now between her skin and mine. I did not recall her body being so heavy atop me when we had shared love. She was small, had joined with me as light as feathers on a gust of desert air. But now, the life drained from her, her body was stone, and I could not hold it up with her face bent into my chest limp, my eyes set on her blood-dampened black curls atop her scalp, for I could not bear to pull up her head to see her face one last time.
Cold metal touched my own throat, not for the final time.
Then, everything went white, to sand again, and I knew my own last breath had been taken because it had happened so many times before.
* * *
I was ascending again.
It was always painful in the sand as it raised me above. No matter how many times I had been through it, the pain was unbearable. My arms would begin to tingle, and then it was as if a thousand bee stings consumed my skin, and eventually it was as if my entire innards were imploding—pressing from within and bursting outward.
I was gripped by the white sand, the grains swirling like a desert tail whirling about me—spinning, up. I looked down and could see the lifeless body of my beloved draped over my own lifeless body. And my body was headless. The short brother of my beloved who had spoken to Yeshua stood over our entwined dead flesh, one hand holding the head of my reborn body by my hair, blood dripping from my severed neck; a sword of iron with my blood upon its blade held in his opposite hand.
I ascended in the sand, rising from the world into the unknown. And then I saw her—my beloved. She was no longer wounded. She was naked, as I had known her for eight nights. Her beautiful black hair was as it had been when I first touched it: dry and loose like strands of coiled yarn. She looked to me, her small body drifting away, up up up. Her hair was weightless, flailing about the sand, the grains coursing through her strands. And I knew her lungs were consumed by the sand, as mine were. Those arms, her hairless arms that were of the High Rabba class, were stretched out to me as she drifted up up up. She was reaching for me. And I was reaching for her. We were both ascending, consumed by the sand. But she was ahead of me, drifting up and I behind her.
I saw the messenger’s sword cut through the sand and its featureless, sexless body protrude. It extended its sword dripping of poison to my beloved, asking her for her name to take her only life.
“I am the girl of song,” she said, her naked body floating weightless in the sand, her long black curls dangling above her head, her skin returned to its perfection, to beyond beauty itself.
“Girl of song?” the messenger said, its sword brought to the tip of her lips. “I see. But aren’t you Rivka, born on the day of song about The City?”
“Rivka?” she said.
“Yes,” said the messenger. “Do you remember being born as Rivka before you became the girl of song?”
She paused, her arms drifting above her head, extending her shoulders, her small breasts rising. She did not know the consequences. She did not know that this would be the end of her only life, that she would not have another. I wanted to shout to her to take back her name, to give the messenger of The Only another, any other, that if the messenger of The Only did not recognize her name it would not take her; that she could be returned to the world with a new life, a new name—new breath. But I could not speak. My throat was filled. I breathed sand again when all I wanted was to breathe her in like swallowing a song once more.
“Yes,” she said, “I am Rivka.” She then looked directly at me as the tip of the messenger’s sword pressed to her lips with the poison dripped to the end.
And she licked.
The poison touched her tongue and she disappeared.
I ascended to the messenger once again.
I had seen it many times before, but this was the first time I was enraged by it. And it knew it as it extended its sword to my lips.
“Your beloved is gone from the world,” its lifeless face said to me. “But you have been chosen. You will eventually have another Rivka again, but you must pass through many more lives before you meet her. Unless you want the poison of my sword now. You must choose.”
I was scared and angered. But I finally knew the name of my girl of song, her name of birth. I did not want another Rivka, did not want another girl of song whose words came to me in melody.
“You hate me now,” the messenger said. “Because I have denied you, I have taken her to where you should have gone when your father took your last breath but did not. Now you must know what you were born to be. And you must choose.”
“I hate!” I shouted as the sand filled my lungs less. And I meant it.
“Of course you do.” Its many eyes blinked. But I did not flinch. “If you loved so much, can you hate as much?” I did not answer. At that moment I would have given everything to finally die complete, to die with her, to join her in song, to speak with her in melody and breathe her in as sung tunes. But she was gone, passed through the sand to something I wanted to know; a peace I wanted to feel but could not because I would always be reborn. “You were born to greatness. You were born as one of an eventual Binding Four, the leader of a Binding Four. What if I could make you brave? What if I could make you strong, make you hate as you have never hated before? What if that hate would make you love again? And if you hate as is asked, what if I could promise to you that another Rivka who sings would be yours for all eternity in a life to come far off once you have accomplished what must be set forth? Your fear can be eradicated by hate. Hate!”
I had met the messenger of The Only many times before. It had extended my life so many lives I could not remember. But this was the first time I felt it had empowered me. I began to rub my tongue to the extra bump of my tooth. I relented. Against my better judgment. Against the love I still felt for my father who had taken my last breath, the love I was pained by from the loss of my girl of song, my Rivka—my beloved.
“Are you ready to live another life once more?” it asked me now. “Are you ready to wait even longer before you can return once again to being your first self? For if you become angry, if you learn to hate and impose hate upon others I promise you that you will one day have another Rivka to breathe in and you will see your father once more to ask him why he took your last breath.”
“And may I choose who I wish to unleash this hate upon?”
The messenger nodded and asked whom I wished to hate first.
I told it slowly, making sure I was as clear as possible. “Y-e-s-h-u-a…”
The messenger smiled. “Well then, are you Yitzhak son of Avraham? Is that your name?” He held his sword to my lips.
“No, I am not Yitzhak. I am not the one you ask for who has performed the sins you charge him with.”
The messenger nodded with approval and retreated back into the wall of sand. I knew what was coming next because it had happened so many times before. I closed my eyes and felt the pain increase.
Then my body came out from under me and I fell back towards the world. Down, falling, faster.
Finally I rubbed my tongue to the extra bump of my tooth and felt myself slowing until I was dropped on the ground again.
I could feel my new skin shivering. I was naked, on my knees with my back forward and my head in my knees. When I attempted to take a breath I sneezed and the sand spilled from my lungs out my mouth to the ground—now black. It hurt as much as it always had, causing my chest to heave and convulse until I took in the air of the world once more. I held it in my lungs long before releasing it. Before I opened my eyes I knew in my heart that I was near The City. I was outside its walls on the Hillside of the Olives where my beloved had given herself to me for eight straight nights when we shared love.
I opened my eyes and it was nightfall. Sometimes I would be reborn years, centuries past my previous life. Sometimes I was reborn only a year after my last life. I was always reborn as a grown man. And this time, I looked at The City and it was obvious that I had been reborn exactly one second after the end of my previous life. Because The City had not changed at all.
It was time to abandon my fear and no longer be passive, to no longer allow others to hurt me as my father had, as Yeshua had. I had a choice. I could hate for myself or I could hate for everyone. I would not take revenge upon the brothers of my beloved for taking her last breath. Instead, I would make sure that the world could not be hurt by what I knew Yeshua had in store for it as a false Rabba, what he was going to do to his fellow Hebrews that they could not yet see. I would hate. I would hurt. But I would not sing again or hear melody again until another Rikva came to me.
I was going to protect my own people. And the way I was going to do it was to kill. I just needed the chance. And I would start with the man who threatened our traditions the most.
He was wrong. And I knew it.
Yeshua had to be wiped clean from the world. And I would see to it.