The Festival

by Eric Wasserman

an excerpt from the novel-in-progress, The Songs of Moshe

The Festival was approaching. It was always a volatile time in the City. The High Rabbas had convinced the Occupiers to allow we of the Hebrew Police to keep order on the Temple Mount and partially control the corridors and alleys of the City’s walled perimeter. But Pontius Pilate, the procurator of all the Land, didn’t trust us—he didn’t trust anyone. How could the Occupiers be certain we of the Hebrew Police could maintain calm without the brutal crowd control tactics of the Emperor’s legions? Why were there far more people entering the City than predicted? And what about the rumors of Yeshua? How could the Occupiers ensure that his followers wouldn’t get out of hand and assault the tax collectors?

The Occupiers were convinced the situation was going to spiral out of control, and the High Rabbas weren’t too optimistic either. If they had it their way, they would send the majority of the unbathed peasantry back up north to the Salted Places along with their rackety mule carts. Even the pleasure workers in the City were on sabbatical after being over-demanded by the recent population explosion for the Festival. And this especially worried the High Rabbas; the soldiers might snap if their primal needs were not met, the Temple itself might be burned to the ground. It had been done before. And its reconstruction, after the previous sacking, was now finally near completion, even with the depleting funds from the Occupiers’ increased taxes. Risks could not be taken. The Crumbled Temple being destroyed would mean more than even the High Rabbas could comprehend.

And I knew it.

I consulted the men of the Hebrew Police under my command. I felt comfortable with these men; loyal, committed men more concerned with solidarity and bloodline than with a life in servitude to the Only that had given our people nothing but havoc; the Only I was convinced even the High Rabbas couldn’t possibly believe in any longer. I knew messengers existed, but I no longer believed in the Only who had commanded my father to take my last breath from me uncountable years before on the same place where the Temple Mount now stood. If the Only wanted me to believe in him, it could just give me a word.

It never had.

There was a job to do. I had a plan: secure the Great Gate leading to the eastern outskirts of the City that led past the olive groves in the hills where I had once spent eight nights with a girl beyond beauty sharing love in my previous life to this one. If late-arriving worshipers wanted to be on the Temple Mount for the offerings they would be turned away and could worship outside the city’s walls. The Great Gate would remain closed, if I had anything to say about it.

I had met with the High Rabbas, tolerated their trite concerns for the better part of three days before telling them exactly how they needed to approach security matters. “If you want the Festival to proceed the way you like, if you want the Occupiers to keep themselves out of our business, you will listen to me,” I had finally said after the High Rabbas bickered and babbled over everything and anything that had nothing to do with practical concerns for keeping the Festival in order. Not one mention of restricted space and immediate overpopulation concerns was voiced. “The first thing we need to do is close the Great Gate after we reach population capacity,” I had proclaimed with exasperation. “I am the commander of the Hebrew Police. You lead the Festival and my men will take care of the rest.”

The High Rabbas, lounging in their elegant, shapeless robes, sipped their tea with lemon and glanced contemplatively at each other. For all they were concerned, my men and I were only Hebrews by birth. If they had it their way, they’d stay in the coddled existence of the aristocracy and simply lead the masses in offerings when it was called for by tradition, continuing to collaborate with the Occupiers’ garrison for their own profit, power and influence. But they would trust me any day over the Occupiers treading their filthy, idol-worshiping feet onto the Temple Mount. Tax collection was one matter; impurity was entirely another.

“Security infers that there is a possible threat,” one High Rabba stated.

“Threat?” I said, finally beyond patience. “How about this for a threat: if things get out of hand it is you who will have to answer to Pilate, not me.”

Silence.

“Very well,” another High Rabba said, reluctantly. “You have our agreement.” What did they care about the Great Gate or that Yeshua planned to enter through it? But I rarely revealed the information my scouts gathered, especially from the spy I had planted within Yeshua’s following. I didn’t want their agreement, I wanted them to keep to their own affairs and leave practical arrangements to me.

“One more thing,” the youngest of the High Rabbas said. “What are we to do about this Yeshua?” It was the first intelligent thought I had heard voiced in three days of being in the presence of these men. “His slaughter of the tax collectors in the Salted Places hasn’t seemed to faze Pilate, but something needs to be done.”

He didn’t have to tell me that. Two of my own men—strong men whom I had thought held the same solidarity conviction as myself—had joined Yeshua’s following, seduced by the former carpenter’s ambition and manipulation, an ego disguised in a facade of inner life guidance. These two men went home to the Salted Places to visit their families, claimed to have seen Yeshua healing an old man from his loss of sight and when they returned they handed in their swords to me and joined Yeshua by foot, while Yeshua traveled in the comfort of a saddled donkey proclaiming the coming of a new kingdom.

“You know of him, yes?” one of the High Rabbas asked, factually.

I held my words for the moment, rubbed my tongue along the extra bump of my tooth, the only physical feature I possessed in every reborn life. “Well enough to not have any qualms about getting rid of him from the world,” I said.

The High Rabbas paused and looked at one another.

“Well,” the youngest High Rabba said. “We didn’t exactly have that in mind. He is a Hebrew after all, and…”

“No,” I said. “If you want the Festival to go as you like, you will listen to me. Getting rid of Yeshua is the first step to ensuring that the Occupiers leave us alone for eight days. But we’ll need their assistance to do it right.”

The High Rabbas glanced at each other again, this time quizzically. Although they had never met Yeshua, they certainly had no love for the man of thirty-three, whose followers had begun professing him to be the new King of the Hebrews. Can’t have any of that; how do you tap into people’s fears if the deliverer of salvation has already come? They had heard the rumors. A man with ash-black skin born into the peasantry near the Salted Places. Impossible. Some of the High Rabbas’ own children had severed family ties and had joined Yeshua’s flock after hearing about the so-called miracles taking place up north. People were saying that they saw Yeshua standing on the water at the Sea of Salt itself. Actually standing atop it! The High Rabbas were concerned, like their Empire collaborators, with differentiating between the powerful and the powerless, the influential and helpless. Yeshua seemed to be acquiring more popular influence than could be tolerated.

The eldest High Rabba rose from an olive wood chair, set sipped tea on a table. This was the Highest Rabba, Yoseph Caiaphas. He had been the longest serving Highest Rabba in the City since Pilate arrived to replace the previous Praefectus, Valerius Gratus, who had first appointed Caiaphas. I was well aware of the Occupiers’ tactics. They relied on the cooperation of the aristocracy of the Religion, paid well for the political collaboration of the Temple’s High Rabbas, who were discharged and replaced whenever the sitting procurator saw fit to do so for his own advantage. It was a business relationship; one I was disgusted by. I desired a Hebrew revolt, a full-blown uprising. Popular resistance could manifest itself among the people in due time if provided the opportunity. But these High Rabbas wielded Pilate’s will to keep the locals submissive: calm, passive, docile. I was certainly not a Devout Hebrew, but I was a loyal one. I had never found mystic enlightenment but I knew the purpose of the Book of the Only, had even taught myself to read it while the majority of my people remained illiterate, including Yeshua. There were important lessons there: stories. I was so proficient in languages that I had managed to learn the tongue of the Empire as well. The High Rabbas had been impressed so much that I was asked not long before to join their elite sect, and they were shocked by my immediate rejection, that I was more interested in commanding the Hebrew Police, turning down the rarest of invitations given to a dark-skinned of the peasantry.

Caiaphas stared to me coldly in contemplation. I would not leave, and the High Rabbas could not converse openly before me. Caiaphas seemed to be considering the Yeshua matter strategically. But I was well aware of his main concern: how eliminating Yeshua could benefit Pilate. Caiaphas may have been a bureaucratic opportunist, but he knew that Yeshua was potentially ambitious. Yeshua did pose a threat; we Hebrews were certainly better off without him. But Pilate had to be given a genuine reason to arrest and execute somebody, even a peasant with a messianic complex, not that Yeshua was the first in the Land to have such a condition. These movements sprouted like weeds. Several years before there was a local rabba in The Upper Heights who convinced people that if they gave him their coins and walked into the desert without water he would manifest into the deliverer himself. Almost a thousand died. But I knew this situation was different. Yeshua’s following actually had the possibility for longevity and extended influence since it was mutating out of our people’s own tradition.

“This will be your instigation?” Caiaphas asked me. “You will be the one who addresses Pilate about the matter? Crucifixion, that is the sentence he will give Yeshua. You know this, don’t you? A crime must materialize. He must be accused of something. Not even a brute like Pilate will risk uproar from his subjects. There must be cause.”

Nobody present needed any explanation. When Pilate moved his army from Caesarea to their frigid season quarters in the City, he was not as sensitive to our local customs as Gratus had been. Under the cover of darkness, Pilate, who had made it one of his top priorities to begin the aesthetic transformation of the City into a place that would resemble a province of the Empire, had his troops erect busts of Caesar on the Temple Mount itself, violating our law against the making of images. Bronze medallions and plaques of Caesar were also arranged about the walled corridors and alleys, accompanied by inscriptions in the Occupiers’ tongue proclaiming the glory of their deities and Caesar’s greatness. Pilate considered it a strategic symbol of his allegiance, making him worthy of quicker promotion. The next day the locals, who could not be quelled by even the influential High Rabbas, surrounded Pilate’s private residence in a sit-down by the thousands, demanding the images be removed immediately. Pilate then had his troops surround them and the situation remained in this standoff for exactly five days and four hours, until Pilate’s patience dissolved and he threatened to eliminate every single one of them, including women and children, if they did not disperse. The protesters then proceeded to spread out on their backs and proclaim that they would rather die than have the Temple desecrated. The image of living things was outlawed, let alone actual busts of the Emperor. Pilate was actually won over by the resilience of these people, even if it did enrage him. If he had held a command in the Germania campaign the locals there would have run for their lives with the beheading of the first infant. It was obvious to Pilate, at that moment, that we Hebrews in the south of the Empire would have to be handled with more finesse. Although it did mean that he had made a miscalculation, and an explanation had to be fabricated after he let the crowd disperse and had the images removed from the Temple Mount. If he had it his way he would have enjoyed slaughtering them all, but Caesar was specific about just how far Pilate was permitted to implement his methods. In Pilate’s opinion, Caesar was going soft after the Germania campaign’s conclusion. Then again, this would not be Pilate’s first miscalculation. His bungling of the Temple Treasury funds and aqueducts almost cost him his life if it weren’t for his proficiency for cover-up.

“And what are you to do about the people?” Caiaphas asked. “Even those who despise Yeshua know that he is a Hebrew. It could turn ugly if we are responsible for eliminating one of our own.”

“He is not a Hebrew,” I proclaimed to the astonishment of the High Rabbas, my hands clasped together behind my back, tense. “And we will not be responsible. Pilate will sentence him. Blame will fall upon the Empire. Yes, I will do your dirty work. I will be the one to convince Pilate that Yeshua can no longer live. Banishment is not an option. Don’t worry. I know what your chief concern is. Your positions will not be jeopardized.” And I began to once again rub my tongue to the extra bump upon my tooth.

Caiaphas nodded and sat, took tea again, squeezed a drop of lemon into it. “An accusation must be made. What did you have in mind?”

I had already considered that. It had been on my mind ever since the man who had wanted my girl of song and hated me for having her in my life before this one made people believe he was the deliverer. I had just the thing in mind.

 

* * *

 

I arrived shortly before sundown at the palace within the southern quarter of the walled city that was now serving as Pilate’s official residence and administering offices since he had been sent from Caesarea to relieve Gratus from his post and clean up the disorganized mess the previous Praefectus had left.

“The sloppiest governed province in the Empire,” said to be declared by Caesar himself. Gratus was escorted back to Roma Capitale in chains to explain himself to the Emperor’s face, a simple formality preceding his inevitable execution. Pilate was determined not to meet the same fate. His previous command and advice to his friends implementing the Germania campaign had led to his promotion to second-rank general and Hegemon of the Land—a minor territory but certainly one with potential to provide him the opportunity to eventually govern one of the more critical trade routes to the east.

Things took noticeable change after Pilate’s arrival and installment of what he had deemed “necessary tactics of force and intimidation” to remedy Gratus’ leniency that he assessed had been taken advantage of by the locals. Brutal crowd control was Pilate’s known specialty, a reputation that preceded him. It was why he received his commission in the first place, to keep we locals in line, adhering strictly to anti-Hebrew policies.

Before arriving at the palace, I walked along the thoroughfare that ran through the center of the City, an Empire market street created by the destruction of Hebrew homes. I looked with contempt as I counted the marble pillars and statues of polytheistic deities towering along the market’s alleys and corridors, having been erected when Pilate arrived with the intent of beginning the aesthetic transformation of the City that Gratus had failed to achieve. “An Empire city needs to start looking like it belongs to the Empire.” Pilate was more merciless than Gratus, just what the Emperor needed—commissioning a second rank general with ambition and disregard for local sensitivities. But even Pilate knew how temporary extremities could be tolerated. There was only so far he could bend his methods, even by Empire standards. He had already made a few miscalculations when first arriving that had to be washed over and kept from Caesar’s knowing, the worst of which was with the Temple Funds and the aqueducts.

The secret installation of idols and Caesar’s image on the Temple Mount under the cover of darkness and its aftermath in the City, as well as the response to the Emperor’s image etched into the shields of the legion’s soldiers, was still on his mind. “These people are stubborn, these wretched Hebrews,” Pilate would say. “Far more difficult than expected.” But his second miscalculation almost cost him his life, not just his commission.

Highest Rabba Caiaphas was a Hebrew Pilate assessed as somebody he could work with: manipulate, get along with to an extent. Pilate was impressed enough with the City’s sewer system, but was adamant about constructing an Empire aqueduct with hopes of impressing Caesar. When he was denied funding from Caesarea, he took five hundred of his armed troops with him to the Temple Mount and seized funds from the Temple Treasury itself, believing that it was truly the possession of the Empire. After all, when he couldn’t get the funding from Caesarea, he was told to find a creative way of otherwise constructing the aqueduct. What Pilate didn’t know was that he had seized one of our sacred pieces never to be touched, then brought in the water from a great distance only to have a mob of Hebrew protestors sabotage the supply, spilling the precious water to the desert floor before proceeding to another sit-in protest surrounding his private residence and demanding the return of his appropriations of our sacredness. This time Pilate had enough. He had his men, disguised as local non-Hebrews, infiltrate the crowd, and at his signal had them beat the not-yet-rioting, unarmed protestors with cudgels. Just a small lesson. But Pilate had forgotten to specify that the disguised troops were not to actually eliminate any Hebrews, which they proceeded to do as if engaging in hand-to-hand combat in Germania. In the end, Pilate had to seek Caiaphas’ assistance. The two were generally on good terms, but this incident became a serious conflict. Pilate agreed to keep Caiaphas as Highest Rabba indefinitely, and in return, Caiaphas quelled the rioters and the High Rabbas when only half the sacredness was returned. The aqueduct Pilate had planned to build in hopes of impressing the Empire was abandoned.

Two centurions stood outside the gate to Pilate’s residence. They had been expecting me, Caiaphas having sent word that as Commander of the Hebrew Police I would be visiting on official business. I relinquished my sword. The centurions acknowledged me with indifference and opened the gate after searching me with excruciating care to ensure that I was not concealing a small knife, maybe even a smidgen of poisoned powder. They giggled at the skin snip of my manhood after lifting my wool Commander’s waist robe concluding the search.

The lobby of the palace had already been torch-lit for the evening. It was a lavish building of the City, one that had survived the many foreign invasions before the Occupiers’ arrival. Pilate had literally eradicated the strategic light shafts, covered them over, providing the palace a perpetual darkness, even during the day’s high sun. Empire tapestries and candelabras had been situated on every wall and corner, although the mosaic, tiled floor that had been set almost two hundred years before was still intact. Statues of all sizes depicting the various deities of the Empire that even Pilate held no belief in had been strategically situated. Occupying the center of the enormous lobby was an ivory fountain of Jupiter—the Empire’s king of the deities and patron of the state—spilling water from his mouth while in still-motion hurling a lightning bolt. His jealous life-joined one, Juno, was at his feet with one hand reaching upward to her infidelity-plagued life-joined one’s breastplate of a storm cloud. Pilate, a man who adhered to the deities only when it was convenient, had to think the fountain was rather tasteless, but he probably liked how the sculpture depicted Juno’s breasts, accentuating them with etched cherubs. There were pillars that served as decoration alone, having no support purpose for the structure of the building.

“The Hegemon will see you now,” a young citizen of the Empire with cropped hair and a smooth face addressed me, his eyes metallic green—a rarity in the Land. I stroked my brittle, untrimmed, black beard. It was as if the young man was more concerned with the possibility of dust collecting in the tiny crevices between the stone slabs of the mosaic floor. “The Hegemon is an extremely busy man. I suggest that you do not waste his time. Above all, do not look at him while he speaks to you, stare directly at the floor. Only look at the Hegemon when you answer him after spoken to. Even your Highest Rabba, Caiaphas, isn’t stupid enough to be that disrespectful. Address him appropriately as ‘Hegemon,’ and do not question what he says.” The young citizen of the Empire said this as though he should be congratulated for offering the advice. “Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“If you have a tongue, use it accordingly.” The young citizen of the Empire stared at me coldly, one hand holding the end of his blue robe, his fingers arched slightly—slender like a small girl’s. There was no time for such games, not with the Festival beginning the next day, although had I wanted, I could have brought my tongue to my extra tooth bump to teach him a lesson.

“I understand,” I offered. He turned and motioned me to follow with a bend of his fingers to the air.

I was led through a long, stone-floored hallway, past a room with a large alabaster table that I imagined the High Rabbas once sat at with their families for the Festival celebrations in the past and was used for temple funds debates by day. But the Festival approaching would be quite different; even Pilate must have known that. Things had been transforming rapidly in the City, Pilate had to recognize that in the short time he had been Praefectus. Change could bring unrest, and the Empire simply couldn’t tolerate that.

The young citizen of the Empire opened a set of large wooden doors with iron rings to pull from. A candlelit room—Pilate’s private chambers. I was surprised, having expected to speak with him in an official setting. The young citizen of the Empire bowed slightly into the room then walked backwards, his face never turning from the room’s floor until he was out of sight. The doors were left open.

I entered and could see Pilate for the first time—a surprisingly muscular, fit man of middle age. He was tall, even for a citizen of the Empire. His arms appeared defined even more than those of the fighting men of his legions. His hair was cropped short, like layers of black and gray rice pasted to his scalp. His face was smooth, yet showed weathered valleys of skin running his jaw—a man who had seen the world beyond his birthplace, whose exploits in the occupied world were well documented beyond rumor.

He could not see me, but I was eyeing him. He was in the corner of the room, leaning over a marbled table with a much shorter man in a purple cloak with a golden sash. The small man next to Pilate appeared young, though not that young.

“Little Caesar,” Pilate said. And I noticed that he was stroking the backside of an enormous, aged black feline. It was resting on its side, breathing heavily. It spanned the entire tabletop with its legs hung over the side and its tail draped over as well. Its tail was so long in fact that the tip was only a fist-length from the ground. The feline must have weighed over thirty stones from what I could gather. Its breathing wheezed in and out, first fast then slower then quickened again. The pattern seemed to not be affected in the slightest by Pilate’s hand running over its backside and his other scratching under its neck. What I noticed most was that the feline was alive, barely, but its eyes were completely open and not blinking at all. Not one blink from either eye. It appeared to be staring its nightened eyes at me and I did not know what to do. It was criminal to look the procurator in the eye. But what of his dying pet?

“Oh, Little Caesar,” Pilate said again.

“Hegemon,” the small man addressed Pilate. “I explained to you when you brought him with you to Palaestina upon your appointment that it is the local belief here that all felines possess Hebrew souls. It is not written law, but you should have provided him with a Hebrew name—renamed him that is, to protect his life. The deity of the Hebrews is responsible for placing a toxic growth in him.”

Pilate turned, stern, to the small man. “Are you asserting, Claudius, that it is my own blame for Little Caesar’s condition?”

“My sincerest apologies if my comments were not said in proper accord. His state is terminal and you know such, Hegemon. It is this city, Hegemon. I cannot decide if it curses or blesses. And now there is nothing I can do for him.” The small man looked down to the feline.

“I am confident you wielded all of your abilities, Claudius. You are a man of the body and Little Caesar’s body is failing him now. It saddens me. He is my life-joined one’s favorite, after all. When do you believe he shall pass?”

“I cannot say. His comfort is what I now attend to, relieving as much of his pain as is possible.”

“Then do such. Take him now. It may be the last I see him, but let us hope not. Little Caesar shall be provided a proper burial, that of a true citizen of the Empire.” Pilate then paused and looked to the small man. “And no, felines do not have Hebrew souls. Now leave me. I have business to attend to.” The small man took the feline in his arms and exited the room walking backwards.

“Enter,” Pilate said as he adjusted the strap of his sword sheath over his shoulder, draping it about his shapeless, red Praefectus’ robe that was lined with gold thread at the collar. To my surprise, the Hegemon was barefoot, blisters visible upon the tops of his toes, the back of his heels.

I looked to the canopy bed and saw a young, black-haired girl, naked with only looped gold rings pinned through the flesh of her earlobes complimenting her dark skin atop imported silk sheets, her body damp with perspiration. The odor of recent shared love that was not love at all consumed the room. The girl looked at me and spread her lips into a smile. Her brown cheeks blushed as she tossed her long curls of hair from her shoulders to her back, exposing small breasts. It did not take me much contemplation to know she was a kept Hebrewess. Her pierced ears said enough—perhaps sold by her family into Empire possession: more likely just taken by Pilate after he saw her selling spices on market day, the Proctor’s nostrils tingling from his allergies being set off in this dusty province. It was common for a Praefectus to take a woman of his choosing at will, then send her away until demanding her again. She simply lay there now like an ornament on the bed, her parting lips and blinking eyelids the only movement beyond the rising and falling of her chest from her breath, her small breasts exposed without care. I knew she would not be celebrating the Festival on the Temple Mount. But would she be with Pilate, her body a possession, her stomach digesting forbidden foods?

Pilate turned to the bed. “Leave us. You may attend to your bastard child and return to the market tomorrow. I will send for you again soon. Coins will be given to you by the centurion at the gate.”

The girl slipped from the sheets and rose from the bed, not bothering to cover her body. Her eyes fixated on me, smiling, staring as she slowly walked the length of the stone-floored room barefoot with the ease of a song. I had seen that smile somewhere before, I simply could not place it. She opened a small door and disappeared into an adjacent room. I clasped my hands together behind my back, my body straightening, tense as my tongue rubbed along the extra bump of my tooth. I stared at the mosaic floor, thinking that the girl looked familiar, almost beyond beauty itself. I wondered, Where have I seen such beauty before, beauty that is ageless youth, untouchable, beyond want like the purest song? Forget about her, I then thought, there are more pressing matters.

Pilate poured himself a gourd of red wine after draping one side of his Praefectus’ robe over his shoulder, exposing a snake-like scar upon his upper arm he had received during one of the campaigns when he was still a commissioned field commander. He sat in a large stone chair cushioned by a collection of fabrics that had been sent from the Empire for his comfort. He looked tired as he sighed, sinking into the chair as if only temporarily recovered from a violent allergy attack, his barefoot, blistered toes curling at the mosaic floor, stretching. I continued to stare at the floor.

“Caiaphas said you would be coming,” Pilate finally spoke after a long pause of sipping his wine. He leaned back into the chair, sighed again. I continued to hold my hands tightly behind my back. “I was told that you are a serious man. I like that. I was also told that this could not wait until my receiving hours tomorrow, that my pleasure time had to be interrupted. You must be bringing me information I do not want to hear. Caiaphas is like a canine; not coming here himself.”

“Caiaphas is a fool,” I said.

Pilate looked up. Quickly I returned my eyes to the mosaic floor then decided to raise them and stare unprovoked right at him. He sat upright, placed his wine gourd on an olive wood end table and stood. He stared long into my eyes.

“You lack the fear that most of your people reek of,” he said. “You are obviously not stupid, although I could have you lashed for looking at me while I speak. But perhaps you already know that. Caesar may have conquered and may now eternally own all of Palaestina, but it is I that govern all of Palaestina. You are a commander of men. Perhaps we can speak the same language, if you understand?” I nodded. Pilate grinned. “Yes, Caiaphas is a fool. If he were not a Hebrew he might have a promising career ahead of him in Roma Capital’s Place of Governing, had he been fortunate enough to have been born of the Empire, of course. That is why I have allowed him to remain Highest Rabba longer than any other since I took control. Gratus at least made one sane judgment when he appointed Caiaphas. It’s not every day a local in a province can be bought for so little to turn on his own people. You Hebrews will never get your act together. You’re too busy bickering among yourselves—so easily divided and conquered.” Pilate took his wine and returned to his seat. “What is it Caiaphas wants? The little rodent is too timid to tell me himself, so it must be out of the ordinary.”

I stopped rubbing my tongue to the extra bump of my tooth. “What I speak to you about is on my own initiative, Hegemon,” I said. I may not have liked Caiaphas, but he was a fellow Hebrew and it was true that Pilate had kept him in the position of Highest Rabba longer than anyone else, removing and appointing other High Rabbas at will. There was something to say for stability. In truth, I needed Caiaphas to accomplish my own goals. Like Pilate, I had an instinctive sense of the powerful and the powerless and which mattered to my objectives.

“I see,” Pilate said. “But he must support what you are to ask of me?”

“Yes.”

Pilate smiled again, in a rather charming manner I had not expected. “Say what you will, then. I rarely receive during my pleasure time, so at least make it interesting. I loathe being bored.”

“I am here to speak to you about Yeshua. I assume you are aware of him.”

Pilate looked intrigued, although not surprised by what he heard. “Oh, yes. Yeshua.” He rolled his eyes playfully. “I have not met the man but I have heard enough. He can’t even read his own language and his followers believe he is a deity of some sorts.” Pilate waved a hand. “Continue.” He sipped his wine again and swallowed hard, then coughed slightly and yawned. “I said continue.”

“They believe he is the son of the Only.”

Pilate laughed. “So, you are a Hebrew after all. And I thought you might be different. Caiaphas said you were more for your people than a believer. Little does he know that you are all the same. What is it you want concerning this Yeshua? Let us get to the point, shall we?”

A breeze rustled through the open doors from the grand hall, pushing against my back, the candlelight fluttering shadows about the room.

“I assume you are aware that far more people are entering the City than predicted. Yeshua may be the cause. Overpopulation is a great concern. The City does not have the infrastructure to accommodate so many bodies. It is our intention to keep the Festival celebration from turning into chaos. For this, we demand…”

Pilate gazed at me as if in correction.

I gulped. “Hegemon, we…request…your generous assistance.”

“Ah! I see we have a mutual interest, then. But shouldn’t we be saying that I am the one to demand your compliance?”

“There is a threat to the calm of the Festival that you are perhaps not aware of, Hegemon.”

Pilate paused. “And I suppose that threat would be this Yeshua?”

“Yes.”

“What is it about Yeshua that troubles you? Tell me about him.”

I began to fidget nervously, my hands had left my back and were now visually articulating each of my words, cutting the air with my fingernails. “He is a fool, Hegemon; a greater fool than Caiaphas.”

“Now, that certainly is an accomplishment.” Pilate drank more wine and waved a hand to have me proceed. He coughed again, rubbed his nose with the drape of his Praefectus’ robe and adjusted his sword so he could set it to one side.

“Yeshua believes that he was conceived by the Only Itself, born to a virgin mother.”

Pilate laughed, set his wine down and clapped his hands together playfully, releasing a tiny, thundering pitch that echoed off the stone walls and mosaic floor of the chamber. “A virgin-born man? Come now, he must be hallucinating from lack of water in the desert.”

“It is no comedy. The man has denied himself from ever having a woman.”

“Oh, that is too much. He has never had flesh?”

I composed myself, thinking of the almost beyond beautiful Hebrewess concubine Pilate had dismissed moments before. “I speak the truth. He never has.”

“That is probably why he is so fanatical. The man needs to relax.”

“Yeshua is the greatest threat our people have ever known and nobody realizes it.”

Pilate composed himself. “I have little concern for what threatens your people.”

I knew I needed to play into Pilate’s ego, but not grovel as Caiaphas would. I needed to tell the Praefectus what I did not believe. “Yes, but we have a balance. There are ground rules to our interaction.” Pilate looked at me. “…Hegemon,” I added. “Our relationship works because there is structure. For Yeshua there is no structure. He’s a radical and that is a threat in itself. His numbers grow by the day; his followers are leaving their Hebrew lives for a fictitious inner life. If he succeeds in entering the City for the Festival it will be the end of our people as we know ourselves to be. And it will threaten the structure we have with you.”

Pilate remained silent, knowing he could dispose of our people in an afternoon, wipe us from the world completely if the Empire would only allow him to do so. Even by Empire standards, Pilate’s measures were considered brutal and excessive. If he could get rid of the local population, he might be able to tear down the Temple and build a coliseum on the Mount for games. This land was a little too warm for his taste, too much for his allergies. The Empire men of the body had told him a dryer climate would stop his nose from running and his throat from scratching. It hadn’t. But the business prospects and profit potential were endless. If he could uproot all those Hebrew graves with little rocks atop them for reasons Pilate couldn’t understand, the Hillside of the Olives would be the perfect site for an amphitheater. Better to erect a coliseum on the Temple Mount, but that might be thinking too grand.

“If Yeshua is a radical, then what does that make you, Commander? Caiaphas has told me about you. I am aware of how you think: I know your ideas. You are still under suspicion.”

“Yeshua is an opportunist. He was a boy who played with dolls and now he is playing with the minds of our people. If Yeshua enters the City for the Festival there will be a collision of forces greater than you have ever seen. He will hypnotize the weak; take them from our bloodline and tradition. Yes, I know him, well enough not to mourn the thought of his passing. And he must pass.”

Pilate paused, set his wine down and stood quickly. “A riot does not concern me. I could slaughter the lot of you if I wished to. I have controlled your pathetic protests in the past, why should I be concerned about this Yeshua? Do you even know why you fear him? You are quite ambiguous. Is it that he believes he is the son of your deity, that you Hebrews do not believe that deities have children, that you are all subjects? Is that it, that Yeshua may revert you to identifying your deity as a man? I believe that is what you are saying, but I do not think even you understand why you see him as a threat.” Pilate began to walk about, slowly, examining me as though calculating how to swat at a mosquito. “Let me tell you what it takes to govern an extended province of the Empire. I am a general. Brutal crowd control is my specialty. Even my own superiors have reprimanded me for my actions, although I will give you people some credit. Unlike those barbarians in Germania, you are civilized to a degree. A sewer system is nothing to take for granted, let me tell you.” He folded his arms over his chest as he continued to pace. “Fear is what keeps you Hebrews in line. A hegemon must be devout and distinguish between the wealthy and the worthless, the influential and the inconsequential. Tell me, why should I arrest Yeshua? What does that do for me? He may pose a threat to you, but so far I have heard no indication that this should concern me in the least. If you are going to convince me of something I suggest you do it now.”

I sighed. Yes, an accusation had to be fabricated. It pained me that Caiaphas was right in that regard, that he knew Pilate well enough to know that a crime—or at least the idea of one—was necessary.

“What if I told you that, as Commander of the Hebrew Police, I have received information from my scouts that Yeshua is preparing to stage an act that could possibly result in your removal from office, as Gratus was?”

Pilate stopped circling me. He stared down at the mosaic floor, began to rub the snake-like scar on his right upper arm with his left hand’s fingertips, his lips fluttering. He then clenched his left hand into a fist, went to the table and refilled his wine, this time spilling it over the rim of the gourd. He dropped himself back onto the chair, not caring as the wine spilled and stained his Praefectus’ robe. He took a long sip, swallowed methodically. “You have my attention, Commander. Know that to keep potentially dangerous information from the Empire is punishable by death. Continue.”

“Suppose the Temple Mount went into disarray?” That was all it took, a simple reminder that Pilate had made a terrible miscalculation within his first weeks in office and could have been removed right then and there and sent back to Roma Capitale to explain himself, knowing he would be executed anyway. The cover-up was not privileged information, even Caesar had to know about it, possibly let it go unaddressed due to his pre-occupation with the aftermath of the Germania campaign. “Imagine an outbreak on the Temple Mount worse than your troops could contain. I have word that Yeshua plans to destroy the Temple itself the day he enters the City through the Great Gate; tomorrow evening to be exact, when the Festival begins its eight-day celebration.” I wasn’t lying about word reaching me that Yeshua intended to make a triumphant entrance into the City, but the Temple Mount sabotage was of my own imagination. “If he succeeds, the people will not be controllable, chaos will erupt. Keep in mind that the population has already doubled within the last week. We are expecting hundreds, maybe a thousand more to arrive tomorrow. If unrest breaks out of this kind you will not be able to quell it, especially since your second and third legions are still in the Salted Places. One legion of six thousand men will not be sufficient enough to control the chaos that will erupt if the Temple is destroyed. The Empire will hold you accountable for incompetence.”

Pilate slowly finished his wine, followed by contemplatively pouring himself another half-fill from what remained. He was silent, once again rubbing his snake-like scar with the tips of his fingers, perhaps thinking about how it would pain his life-joined one if he were sentenced to death and not given a soldier’s burial in the prestigious site at Caesarea. He dreaded thinking of what she and his oldest daughter might very well have to resort to if the family name was tarnished and their vineyard was appropriated by the Empire. He didn’t even want to think about what would become of his sons and their futures if such hardships resulted from his inability to take action before ramifications were set in motion. He had high hopes for his boys, especially his second son whose clever mind was already being admired by those in influential positions.

“How does he plan to destroy the Temple?” Pilate finally asked, curious. “He is an illiterate peasant. What artillery does he have? That Temple is a ridiculous waste of real estate, but it is the only architectural structure in all of Palaestina that has impressed me.”

I sensed I was losing Pilate. I had to lie more than I originally thought necessary. I had to say what I did not believe and what revolted me to part from my own breath. “He will have the Only’s arm as his ally. The Only’s breath alone can crumble the foundation of the Temple to bring it down and propel the people into havoc.”

Pilate let out his breath. “First you tell me this Yeshua is an imposter, a false prophet. Now you tell me he can ask your deity to sneeze and the Temple will fall to pieces. Does your deity have allergies? It certainly would make sense if he resides in this province. You’re contradictions are worse than Caiaphus’. But why is what I want to know. Why is Yeshua planning to destroy the Temple if he thinks he is supposedly king of you Hebrews?”

“He believes the Temple needs to be cleansed, that it has become impure.”

“Can’t he just water down the place, give it a good washing? After all, the dust here is really unbearable.” Pilate laughed and rose from his chair. “Destroy a whole Temple in order to purify it, how socially revolutionary of him.” He let out another breath, held his wine in both hands like a small child and began to walk about me once again. “I sincerely doubt that Yeshua, even if he has obtained artillery, could bring down the Temple. And if he did, even one-fifth of a legion could annihilate him and all his followers. But the voiced threat to destroy the Temple, to interfere in the proceedings of our governance is in itself a crime. We may be generous enough to allow the High Rabbas to run the Temple, but it is still the property of the Empire. And yes, the situation could become explosive. You have convinced me that something needs to be done, but I am still curious. It seems that you have a personal investment in Yeshua’s demise. Explain it to me again, this threat Yeshua poses to your people, this potential for catastrophe you believe he possesses. I’m quite interested.”

I ran my tongue over the extra bump on my tooth and thought of the messenger. Magic; a tooth of magic. I wondered if it was true. But how? What would make the bump on a tooth magical? I wondered, could it bring down a Temple, just a rub of the tongue to a tooth bump—no artillery or cavalry—just mouth water to a bump and a Temple comes down, or better, Yeshua. What if my tooth could change minds?

“Yeshua will lead us astray from ourselves. We will no longer be who we are; we will become a mutation of our true selves. And Yeshua himself is anything but pure, which is the irony of his want to purify the Temple. Perhaps you do not know that he has been preaching in the Salted Places in protest of the High Rabbas, and that has physically assaulted tax collectors. If he wills the peasantry against the High Rabbas, order will crumble here in the City. Caiaphas and his like will wield no influence over the people, and that will directly reflect upon your ability to govern. If Yeshua lives, we Hebrews will lose our sense of who we are. We will become a facade of ourselves. We will no longer be Hebrews at all. It is the equivalent of a false Caesar, the Empire would no longer be itself and its citizens no longer of it.”

Pilate was still for a moment then took his seat again. “If I arrest him he will be crucified. At least the Emperor has allowed me to execute in a proficient manner, make the proper statement. You are more persistent than the barbarians in Germania—again, I give you some credit. Obtuse to reality, but persistent nonetheless.” He sighed. “I am the Praefectus of all Palaestina. By custom, the sitting procurator releases one prisoner who is sentenced to death on the Festival holiday. I have been advised to make that stay of death for a murderer known as Barabbas. His documentation of commute of execution has already been drawn by my recorders but I have yet to sign. You don’t believe that Yeshua’s followers will demand the stay of their prophet’s death rather than Barabbas, a murderer?  The commute must be official by popular acclaim. The populace of your people will have to pass their favor to this decision. You must have a way to ensure it is for Barabbas and not Yeshua? The crowd must be stacked, so to speak, and that is difficult. A verbal acceptance of my commute of one criminal must be honored and if it is for Yeshua I will have no trouble sending Barabbas to the cross. Even more importantly, what if Yeshua is made a martyr? You do not fear that he will become an even greater threat to you Hebrews in death? It is possible that his blood will be upon you and upon your children.”

I had not considered that possibility, but there was no time to contemplate it. This was my only opportunity. “When Yeshua dies so does his following and his threat to the Religion. And to you Hegemon, of course. His silly following will be extinguished with his last breath.”

“A Hebrew wishing death upon another Hebrew. Fascinating.”

“Yeshua is no Hebrew, he is a wielder of propaganda.”

Pilate studied my face. What could he lose, what did the life of some peasant amateur rabba with a following of imbeciles mean to him, especially if there was even the remotest possibility that his own reputation as Praefectus would be tarnished in the eyes of the Empire?

“This is now clearly personal, it does not serve the Empire well,” Pilate said. “My answer is no.” Pilate then took his chair. “You are excused.”

I stood there and closed my eyes. I could not allow this to happen. I wanted—needed—Yeshua to die. And this was the only chance I would have. Magic. I needed something magical. I thought of the messenger and began to rub my tongue furiously along the extra bump of my tooth, over and over. And I made a promise right then that if the messenger gave me what I wanted, if Yeshua would die, I would wait and live as many lives as possible to be returned to my father who took my last breath many lives before. I rubbed and rubbed my tooth furiously. Then, something I did not expect happened. It began to tingle and I could feel the tingle leave my body and reach towards Pilate. I opened my eyes and saw him still staring at me. It was over. I had failed. I continued to rub my tongue along the extra bump of my tooth and accepted my failure.

I began to back out of the chamber.

But as I turned slightly I head Pilate’s voice. “Very well then,” he said. Pilate grinned. “I shall commute Barabbas’ crime and sentence Yeshua in his stead. You are content to allow Yeshua’s blood to be upon you and your people’s children? As a formality, I must have your confirmation.”

It was accomplished. And I spoke without any forethought or regret. “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.”

Pilate fingered the scar of his arm and then nodded. “Then let us discuss arrangements.”

I stopped rubbing my tooth with my tongue. I had what I wanted.

 

* * *

 

Yeshua approached the City, moving confidently toward the Great Gate. It was opened when the Hebrew Police informed me that he was in sight. His converted followed Yeshua’s every step, humming tunes like small children. Yeshua rode sidesaddle atop a donkey, like a young girl who plays with dolls. From the balcony of the causeway, Caiaphas and the High Rabbas stood sipping tea with lemon, observing from inside the gate at a safe vantage point where their shapeless robes would not risk being smudged.

I was still baffled by Yeshua, a man I had known as a boy in a previous life to be simple in thought, now obsessed with salvation the way some men are obsessed with conquest of the flesh. How did this man who lacked ambition as a child go on to lead a following that believed he was a deliverer?

The men of the Hebrew Police knew their instructions, to cooperate with the centurions once Yeshua entered the City. From atop the Temple Mount, large crowds were expected for the celebration. Sundown approached, the first night of the eight day observance of the Festival only moments away, our people, however oppressed by the Occupation, still insistent on commemorating our liberation from Pharaoh’s bondage. It was so many generations before; so long ago now that it seemed beyond fact, left somewhere drifting in the space between hope and myth—like a lost history of wishes.

A sense of accomplishment came over me as I caught the first glimpse of Yeshua’s face coming up the valley to the east towards the walled perimeter, his followers singing behind him as they came out of the shadows of the olive groves.

Yeshua’s mother was not a virgin. The rumor was that she had taken an Empire lover before life-joining. But her blood resonated upon every visible portion of her son’s skin, of his Empire-featured feminine-like face now hidden by an unkempt beard and rising mound of black hair I once tossed sticks into for amusement, hair now collecting the City’s tepid season dust and winged living things piercing his skin.

“Behold, the City!” Yeshua called out as he approached the Great Gate.

Yeshua’s black eyes were visible as he came out of the valley, his hair riddled with flowers and thorns, adoring women following at the ankles of his donkey, small children dancing about him. The donkey took its first step into the walled city through the gate and Yeshua began to cry, tears trickling from his eyes as if they were dipped in onion juice.

The Empire soldiers emerged from atop the City’s walls and released their flaming arrows upon Yeshua’s followers outside the Great Gate, dowsing fire upon them from the rampways atop the protective walls with slave-constructed catapults.

My men of the Hebrew Police closed the gate quickly, only a handful of Yeshua’s followers having entered the City with him. The Occupiers proceeded to hack the legs from Yeshua’s donkey. Yeshua collapsed to the ground, rolled deliriously in the still-breathing ass’ warm blood.

The Occupiers fell upon Yeshua like vultures to a carcass as the ground was consumed by the blood of his few followers that had made it inside the City. His followers outside the walls first pounded their fists to the Great Gate, demanding entrance. Balls of fire were dropped upon their children, who screamed—their parents shrieking in terror—then abandoning the young to die as they fled for the hills to the east, past the olive groves with flamed arrows launching to their backs.

My officers of the Religion were ambiguously interested. Their work was done, I understood. Some had kin outside among Yeshua’s following, had disowned them as traitors long ago: contributors to the downfall of our people, only ensuring future oppression. They leaned against the corridors of the City’s inner stone walls and observed. The High Rabbas continued to sip tea with lemon, watching emotionless from the causeway above.

But not me. I unsheathed my sword. The centurions had been instructed not to harm Yeshua after taking possession of him, although the few followers that made it inside the gate were now having their limbs severed from their bodies. I approached my childhood acquaintance from a previous life, whose head had fallen to the dusty skin of his dark chest.

“Look up,” I demanded. And Yeshua’s eyes met mine. I expected fear. But his eyes instantly went from tired and beaten to widened curiosity. His pupils increased and connected with mine. He was not looking at my sword.

“Your eyes…” Yeshua said, blood dripping from the right curve of his mouth. “You are…”

I felt my throat contract. “Hold him tightly,” I said to the two centurions restraining Yeshua. I then hammered the butt of my sword’s handle end to the back of Yeshua’s neck.

I wanted a scream, a sign of Pain, helplessness. Instead, Yeshua let out a cough, then blood, his shoulders and head fallen. Then he lifted himself again and allowed his pupils to meet mine. “Your eyes…” Yeshua repeated again. “They are the same as a man I knew who had a girl beyond beauty itself, a girl of song whose own breath was taken with his own.”

I landed the butt of my sword to his neck again, hard enough to force him out of the hands of the centurions, his chest collapsing to the ground, his arms stretched out before him, his fingers clawing at the dirt. He was coughing more blood and a centurion went to take Yeshua by the hair.

“Stop!” I instructed, and the centurion froze.

I still had my sword turned inward with the handle butt out. I bent to one knee and took Yeshua’s hair with my free hand, lifted his scraped cleft chin upward until his eyes met mine again.

Yeshua struggled as he said, “You have come to join me?”

“No, to stop you.” And I took the tip of my sword’s blade, just the tip, and dragged it to Yeshua’s upper lip, splitting his flesh. I wanted to remove Yeshua’s tongue all together, but only the Hegemon could order such a punishment. Yeshua had a worse, more suiting fate awaiting him anyway. “The pollution you have caused our people will end now. Look at me!”

Yeshua finally wailed in Pain, blood percolating from his wounds, sliding down his face, down his chest. “No,” he cried softly, “my message has only begun. With my death will come its true beginning,” he wheezed in mumbled breaths, seeing his dismembered followers lying in their own blood upon the ground, lifeless, their severed limbs scattered about, the stray felines of the City already converging upon their remains. “Love will be reborn from my death.”

I smiled with pleasure, not believing that in death this man could pose the threat he had already wielded. He would only know one death, for I knew he could not possibly escape the messenger of the Only, that he could not possibly be one of the final three of the Binding Four I was to find in my many journeys of my many lives. I returned my sword to its sheath, took Yeshua’s mound of hair in my clenched hands, forcing his bleeding face to look into my eyes again.

“Are you ready for your only death?” I asked.

Yeshua’s eyes cringed. I saw the façade slip from him and his violence and cruelty emerge that his followers would never know. “No,” he said, showing his rotted teeth covered in his own blood and the dirt of the ground. “Are you?”

That’s when I felt the sting and fullness of something foreign to the right side of my torso and knew that blood was beginning to come up my throat, collect in my mouth. I looked down and it was a small olive wood stake dagger handle with Yeshua’s left hand held tight to it. The wooden blade was inside my body, had punctured directly through my liver. I felt the blood collecting in my mouth, warm. And I could not swallow it back into my body. It spilled over my bottom lip and ran down my throat, staining the collar of my Commander’s uniform. I looked to Yeshua’s eyes, eyes widened with delight.

He barreled my body over. My shoulders went to the ground and the back of my head collided with the dirt. The blood kept coming up my throat into my mouth, spilling out the sides of my lips. Yeshua was upon me instantly, his knees pressed to my shoulders, holding my body down. I could not have moved had I wanted to. His face was that of rage—rage I knew better than anyone else. He had his right hand gripped to my hair and with his left was stabbing that small olive wood dagger into my throat and chest—over and over and over, his eyes forever in mine as he did so, my blood releasing with each puncture, my own blood mixing with the blood of Yeshua’s.

I just watched Yeshua’s eyes, feeling the olive wood entering and releasing from my body over and over. All I could think was that I had been denied. I would not be allowed to see Yeshua upon the cross.

The Hebrew Police and the centurions pulled Yeshua from me, but even they had to know that my life was now concluded. I could not hear them binding Yeshua for his trial. It was accomplished. Barabbas would be released and Yeshua would be crucified. A crime had been committed. I believed I had given this life to spare the pollution of my own people—at least that’s what I thought at the time.

Yeshua was off me; I could only see the clouds above the City. It was not a beautiful day for the most beautiful city in the world. It was gray with grayer clouds meshing into each other. Then, Yeshua was atop me again, his fingers to my throat. But I could not feel his tightening muscles. His knees were to my stomach and his eyes were reddened, drawn to slits.

Rage.

But as I stared into Yeshua’s eyes, I saw a parting cloud of dust, then sand—pure, delicate sand within Yeshua’s eyes. I saw Yeshua within those eyes. But in those eyes it was a Yeshua upon a cross, bleeding, dying—slowly.

The future.

Only it was not as I had predicted. It was followed by horror. I saw the forthcoming pass of history, witnessed Pain and persecution in distant lands of the Elsewhere and times I could not possibly imagine, in lives I had not yet been born to. I saw yet to be empowered civilizations; mass deaths, graves, a cult of believers in Yeshua that had populated the world with an unthinkable influence. I could not accept what I saw. Yet I was now dying as I had died so many times before and could not stop the spiral of violence that I might have just set in motion against my own people for history to come if Yeshua was crucified and made a martyr, set against the sons and daughters of my first and only true father, Avraham.

Pilate had been correct.

I saw the image of the messenger of the Only possessing a thousand eyes with a sword dipped in poison, holding the tip out to my own lips; the messenger emerging from a cloud of sand, pure sand from within Yeshua’s eyes.

And my sight went black.

 

*  *  *

 

I was sightless and knew what was happening because it had happened to me so many times before. My body was no longer wounded. It was as pure as when I was born to my first life. I was weightless, rising.

Up…

Then my sight returned and I was ascending above the City into a great cloud of sand where those gray clouds had been. The City was becoming smaller and smaller as I rose, its inhabitants tinier and tinier as I continued to once again go up. I could see the Hebrew Police and centurions dragging Yeshua from my lifeless body, pummeling him. They were not looking at my dead body a man’s length away. I looked at my lifeless self and felt the Pain of the sand consuming me. It always hurt badly and, as always, I tried not to breathe it in until I could hold my breath no longer. I took the sand into my lungs, felt it begin to course through my veins. Up… The City. Small…

Complete.

I was frightened, more so than in any death before this one.

Perhaps Yeshua would never make it to the Temple Mount; never set foot upon it to cause an uproar, a takeover, a movement. Perhaps he never even had a final unleavened meal of the Festival with his disciples commemorating our exodus from bondage long ago in Egypt. Maybe Yeshua had no last supper, his stomach empty when Pilate sentenced him to the cross; perhaps empty when he would hang there in the high sun of the Land that blistered his ash-black skin. Maybe his revolution would come with the fabrication of a crime. Or would it be fabricated at all? And I, who had kept my end of the arrangement, who had imagined a crime, who had convinced Pilate of the threat, was content knowing that the Praefectus and the High Rabbas would perfect an untruth cover-up that would be taken as truth for history to come. Although I had no idea what Yeshua’s believers would do with the untruth as the world began to tilt from this day forward. Who could possibly make such a prediction, unless you were like me and had seen it in the cloud of sand parting in the man’s eyes?

Then again, maybe Yeshua actually walked into the City without being apprehended and I had imagined it. Perhaps without triumph at all, not riding on a donkey, but on foot, stepping alone—completely anonymous, unnoticed. Perhaps he found a quiet stone to sit upon and spent his day before accusation not in inner struggle at all, not even in contemplation, but simply stared for hours uninterrupted, watching a young girl with coiled black hair that was beyond beauty and want itself selling spices in the sweltering marketplace heat on the last day before the Festival. And maybe, just maybe, her beauty that was beyond want reminded him of a girl I had once shared loved with for eight consecutive nights that he had wanted for himself. Perhaps her child really lived; a bastard. And when Yeshua saw this black-skinned peasant from the Salted Places’ eyes—the child glared. Maybe, just perhaps, my beloved had never died! Perhaps I was able to have children even when the messenger had declared I never would. Perhaps at that moment, Yeshua would be compelled to approach the beautiful girl that looked exactly the same as a girl I had shared love with for eight nights in my own forgotten want, but instead rose from the stone to prepare for his final meal. Perhaps at that moment Yeshua would watch as two centurions approached the young Hebrewess, demanding she come with them to please the Hegemon’s appetite for the flesh. Perhaps he would see her kiss her bastard child goodbye, leaving to do what she must do for her survival in a world that would never guarantee survival. It would be certain that Yeshua could hear the beautiful girl dreaming of song she had lost as quickly as it had been spoken to me many breaths before.

Take me by the hand, let us run together!…My lover, my king, has brought me into his chambers…I must rise and go about the City, the narrow streets and squares, till I find my only love, I sought him everywhere, but I could not find him…You are beautiful, my love, my perfect one…How wonderful you are, O Love, how much sweeter than all other pleasures!…For love is as fierce as death, its jealousy bitter as the grave, even its sparks are a raging fire, a devouring flame…I am a wall, and my breasts are towers…But for my lover I am a city of peace…Hurry, my love! Run away.

I could hear her again, now in the sand once more. I could hear her voice of song, the melody piercing me. But I could not see her, could not touch her. I would allow Yeshua to have her at that moment, just to know she was still alive, that she had not died. I would relent. If Yeshua was still alive, even though he had taken another of my lives, I would wish for him to profess my remaining and deathless love and want for her.

Love…

“No,” the messenger said. I could hear its sexless voice again, like glass cracking. I was back. I was back again. The sand before me in the cloud that consumed my body parted by the edge of a sword. No, I thought, not again, I do not want the Pain to continue. “No,” the messenger said, appearing, slipping from the slit in the sand before me with its sword dripping with poison. “You will feel his Pain.”

“I do not understand,” I said, watching the blade of the messenger’s sword reach to my lips and then stop before them, poison trickling down the blade—slow.

“You will help bring Yeshua to his fate.”

“I do not understand. I saw in Yeshua’s eyes what will become of my people. I am ready to taste the poison. I am ready to not live another life.”

“Ah,” the messenger said, “but you have no choice, Yitzhak.”

And the messenger laughed. It laughed as my body fell.

Down, out of the sand.

Back…

To the City.

And I crashed to the ground.

Hard.

Painful.

Sand spilling from my mouth until another new breath could be taken.

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