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Tuesday 4 January 2011

WISE MEN, RICH MEN AND LEPERS - Excerpt From Fifth Gospel - A Novel.

JESUS walked the road that led from Nazareth to Judea with his feet moving of their own accord and his thoughts vacant in his head.

During his conversation with his stepmother, what had lived embedded in him like a seal on wax had begun its leave- taking. This had made him feel bewildered and abandoned. As he walked now, he could no longer think coherent thoughts, and his movements followed only a predetermined design, towards the man who would take his destiny further.

At daybreak, a wind-storm announced itself in the anger of a red sky. Soon the air had picked up around him to sting his eyes. He stumbled and fell. Two men dressed in white garments with hoods over their heads and scarves over their faces, came from the road ahead, leading an overburdened mule.

The taller man helped him up, and said loudly over the din, ‘What is this? Jesus of Nazareth, is that you? Where are you going alone, my son?’

Jesus looked up at him, trying to understand words that no longer made sense. When his voice came from his mouth it sounded hollow, as if it came not from him but from the wind, ‘I am going to where people like you do not wish to direct your vision, where human pain can find the consolation that comes from what you have forgotten!’

‘Jesus of Nazareth!’ the other man shouted. ‘Do you not remember us from Engaddi?’ The man took the scarf from his face momentarily. ‘Do you see who I am?’

The shorter did likewise and said, ‘I once sat with you in the grotto...do you remember?’

Jesus did not see them. He saw only what they represented.

‘Come away from this scorching wind!’ the taller one said, ‘The Lord is a storm come to sweep away the world.’

‘You are lost lambs!’ Jesus coughed, walking away.

‘We are all lost, Jesus!’ the shorter one cried, ‘It does not matter how many psalms we sing, or how many temples we build, God continues to deny us our Messiah!’

Jesus stood in the tempest of elements and looked at them. ‘And when I become your shepherd,’ he said, ‘when you realise who I am, you will run away again and become lost, just as you ran away from me long ago.’

The men put scarves to their mouths to ward off the dust and debris. The shorter man said, ‘you must come with us...you are not well, there is a house of the order not far from here, where you can rest.’

‘Leave me be!’ he said to them. ‘I won’t go to your secluded house! You wear white, and you pretend to be pure, but you are not pious men in your hearts, because in you burns a fire that has not been kindled by God, but by your own ambitions. You bear the mark of the tempter! It is the tempter that has made you arrogant, so that your wool glitters with his fire!’ He put his fingers to his face. ‘The hair of this wool pricks my eyes but it will not blind me!’

The taller man shouted, ‘Rest assured, Jesus, it is the dust that pricks your eyes! You know we have shown the tempter the door, he has no part in what we do...you should’ve stayed with us, now look at what the world has made of you! Let us help you!’

‘Oh what arrogance and pride! You are only greater than others because you stand on their backs!’

They did not know how to respond to this, and he left them standing in the desert. Behind him the mule made its loud complaints, shaking its head, as the breath of Jehova carried the world away to blot out the sun.

The storm abated, and days passed without beginning and without end.

It was night.

Fatigued and cold, Jesus wandered towards a light in the distance. When he drew near to it, he saw a man sitting by a fire preparing to eat a meal. When the man looked up, he stood in a hurry, afraid, and called out to him with a mustered boldness, ‘Who are you? I am alone but I have a knife, and I shall not be afraid to use it!’

Jesus showed him his empty hands. ‘I thirst,’ he said, knowing he must pause, for his legs would soon give out from under him.

The man came to Jesus and helped him to a place beside the fire. ‘Forgive me...I am constantly afraid of being robbed by thieves, or killed by bandits! I see you are no thief, and no bandit...come...be my guest...eat at my table. I have made soup,’ he said, showing him the watery stew which he was pouring into a bowl. ‘There’s crow in it and wild mushrooms,’ he pointed out those meagre morsels with an approving eye, ‘and some other wild things I have no name for....once, you know, I would have spat at the thought of such a meal, but now I shake with anticipation. Look at my hands how they shake. Because of the crow, I have made it boil a good long while to kill the poison...that is what it has come to...still...thanks be to God, I have something!’ He sighed. ‘Israel mourns...Israel hungers...its people cry out in pain for deliverance, but first I must cry out for something to feed the hunger of my body! Something to put in my belly! After that, a man can turn his mind to the hunger of the soul. Until then, we are all animals...’ he looked at Jesus, ‘You need something in your belly too I’ll wager...you look like you have eaten nothing in days...come...it's good you will see, I have let it boil long to kill the poison...’

Jesus shook his head, ‘I want only water.’

‘Only water...!’ the man said, peering at him with more intensity. ‘Are you a prophet? Yesterday, I heard tell from a holy man, of a prophet in these parts...So help me God! He was described to seem just like you! Many don’t trust prophets, they think them mad people with one foot in heaven and the other in hell...but I believe it a good thing to know a prophet who can speak to God.’ 

The man gave him some water, which Jesus drank with gratitude. ‘I thank you for the water...but I am not a prophet.’

‘What a shame!’ The man’s spirit drooped. He took a thoughtful gulp of his soup. ‘If you were a prophet,’ he continued, ‘I would ask you to speak to God on my behalf...on account of the paths my soul has taken.’

Jesus was directed to an apparition that loomed large and red over the man. ‘What are these paths? I have seen you before...a thousand years ago. You were different then!’

The man grew fearful. ‘What do you see? Oh, dear God of Abraham, what do you see? Is it the Devil sitting on my shoulders? Is it? Yes...?’ He shuddered and moaned, and shuddered again. ‘Would you send it away? It hounds me. I have given up everything, and yet it follows me! I admit that I was never a pious man. My heart was always bent on acquiring riches and high honours. I thought that I was of greater value than others. One day I had a terrible dream. I saw what had made me rich. It was not I, myself, it was a black angel with huge red wings, and I was terrified because I knew that it was the devil! I took to my heels to escape him, abandoning everything, and I have been going about for a long time, fleeing from what sits on my own shoulders...’ when he said this, his eyes clouded with tears and he seemed to be lost in a vision of his own wretchedness.

‘I have seen this spirit that hounds you before,’ Jesus said to him, ‘at the pagan altars...it is the spirit of pride and arrogance!’

‘Yes...yes...!’ the man said, with eyes wide. ‘Pride and arrogance! Exactly! That is my weakness!’

Jesus could not help him, he could not help anyone, not yet...something was waiting for him in the Jordan and he had to go. He stood and with a heart full of woe, left the man in his misery.

He walked day after day with the sun’s fingers on his brow, and spent the nights huddled, trembling from cold, with his teeth chattering and only his thin, white robe wrapped around him. On the morning of the thirteenth day when the fire-ball came out of its rocky bed he was up again, walking, and came upon the disfigured shape of a man sitting beneath a solitary tree.

Already the world was a furnace and he knew he must have shade, but as he neared the tree the man sitting there raised his head and Jesus could see that his skin was covered in pustules, leaking with suppurations, that his nose was a hole in his face and that the lids over his eyes were gone missing, giving him the look of a living cadaver. The leper tried in vain to cover his malignancies with a hand eaten and ravaged. ‘Go away!’ he said to Jesus. ‘I am foul! Hurry! Don’t come near, for the path I walk is not your path, my son. I beg you to leave while you can...!’

Jesus sat near the man and wiped his brow with a sleeve and said. ‘It is hot.’

‘Yes, yes...it is hot...but please, save yourself! Must I take upon my soul your death on top of everything else I have to bear?’

Jesus heard snakes hissing behind rocks and when he looked at the leper he saw blue wings and a cold eye. He had seen this eye before in the faces of those Temple priests. The eye looked at him while its wings enfolded the man.

‘Tell me,’ Jesus said to him, ‘where has the path your soul has taken led you? I know you, I saw you thousands of years ago, but you are now changed, you are come down to earth!’

The leper was terrified. He sucked in a breath through the purple edged crater that was his mouth, and from within this cavern he emitted a strangled voice, ‘Do you see it? Oh the misery! Where is the Messiah? When will he come to release me from this dreadful thing that claws into my flesh? He came so gradually, you know. At first I thought he was the Archangel Gabriel and I adored him but I soon realised that he was another...I realised he was the angel of death! Death itself gnaws at my bones and feeds on my flesh...look at me! Me, a learned rabbi, a powerful man in the synagogue! Now I am defiled and no one will have me near them, and I have to
walk alone in desolate places like this, scarcely able to beg for what scraps people will give me at their doors.

‘When you came I was waiting for death to tear me to pieces with his jaws...I have waited! But he wants to torture me more...’ He began weeping then into his ulcerated hands.

‘I have seen it,’ Jesus told him, putting a hand on the man’s shoulders, ‘It is the sharpness of your dead thoughts, rabbi...these are like corpses and rotting carcasses.’

The man was so frightened that he put both hands over his face to ward off the picture of it.

Jesus pointed his head to the sun and bellowed an ‘Ahhh!’ into that white light that blinded his eyes. ‘I am a grain of sand in the desert! What can I do?’ he said to it. He got up, hot tears falling on the dirt, and with exhaustion in his limbs went on his way.

And like the wise men and the rich man, this leper did not see him go until he was a speck on the horizon.