Brian Cleeve 1982
Originally published by Capel Books
This is the story of the Crucifixion, told from the unfamiliar viewpoint of the enemies of Jesus, of those who planned it and regarded it as their triumph.
It is also the ageless story of the conflict between good and evil, of how men and women who never mean to serve evil, who desire only the pleasant things of life, who do only what “everyone” does to obtain them, can be drawn slowly but terribly into the absolute power of evil; until they are destroyed.
Brian Cleeve says that this book is not fiction, but fact, received by him in the same way he received his two other extraordinary books – The House on the Rock and The Seven Mansions. The Fourth Mary completes the trilogy and is in a way even more extraordinary than the other two books. There are things in it that may well shock many readers.
There is sexual love in it, and hatred and sadism, and that terrible perversion of love that we call masochism. According to Brian Cleeve, “Sado-Masochism” is the Black Mass of Love.
Brian Cleeve is a best selling novelist and journalist. His books include Sara, Judith, and Cry of Morning. He has already published two prophetic works, The House on the Rock and The Seven Mansions.
This is the story of my mistress, Mary the Thief, who lived in Jerusalem in the days of Pontius Pilate, and who betrayed Jesus whom they now call the Christ and the Son of God. At least some men do, and I believe that they speak the truth. She betrayed him by means of Judas of Kerioth, and Bar Abbas the bandit chieftain, and many others. And in so doing she brought ruin on herself, and Judas, and on the Cult to which she and I belonged, of which she was once High Priestess.
It is a story I have long known that I must tell, and now that I am an old woman, and my hair that once hung to my waist like ebony is thin and white, I sit in the sun under my plane tree in the courtyard of my house, in the village where I took refuge when I ran away after the death of Jesus and the deaths of Judas and my mistress; I sit in the sun and begin to dictate this to my servant Simon, the son of Bar Abbas, who long ago found me here. He is a scribe and knows how to write down what I say. May it be read by many so that the truth may be known.
And now before I begin, I dedicate this book to my True Mistress, who was and is from the Beginning, Mara the Mistress of All Things, daughter of the Burning Bright. May Her name he blessed. May Her name be praised.
The Fourth Mary
We lived in a house by the North Wall of Jerusalem. It was not a great house although my mistress was rich and very powerful. More powerful than most people knew, because she ruled the thieves’ quarter, and all the thieves and the assassins. She herself was a thief, and a blackmailer, and an extortioner of money. All things that could be squeezed for profit paid it to her. The tax gatherers, the money changers in the Temple, the sellers of animals and doves for sacrifice, the thieves themselves who were subject to her, the receivers of stolen goods, the bandits who had taken refuge in Jerusalem when the Roman authorities began to control the hills, all these and many others paid her tribute. Her lovers; rich Greeks and Romans who told her secrets or simply gave her money and jewels and gold and silver ornaments. Money flowed to her as rivers flow to the sea.
Nevertheless, we lived in a modest house surrounded by a high wall, and I will tell you what the house was like so that if you never saw Jerusalem before the Roman Titus destroyed it you may understand our life there and how it all seemed to me as a young servant, Mary’s handmaid. I was not truly a servant, but almost a friend, and above the other girl servants. But first, the house. It lay four square, with the great gate of the courtyard facing south. As you entered the gate you found yourself in an arched entrance with a roof above, and the courtyard in front of you. The servants’ quarters, for Philip the Eunuch, and Olympias the housekeeper, who was my mother, and the two servant girls Euphrosine and Anna, lay on your right hand. On your left was the ante room, and the entrance to the real house. Beyond the ante room one turned right to find store rooms and such things, or one passed along the loggia surrounding the courtyard, and came to the bathing rooms, first the hot room, with its heated pool, and then to the cold room, almost the same in shape and size, but where the water in the pool was cold. Each pool was made out of one solid block of green marble, six feet long by three feet wide, and three feet deep, and my mistress would spend hours there, while I attended her.
Beyond those rooms one turned right along the loggia. This was the north side of the house and if you turned to your right again you would see the entrance archway across the courtyard. But on your left was the great room of the house, the room of the Fresco as we called it. Here my mistress spent the most of her time, and I would be with her singing or playing the flute or listening to her talk, or sitting silently with her while she thought of the God whose picture was in the Fresco. She was His High Priestess, and I was His initiate, and then His priestess, before all came to an end. But I go before myself.
The Fresco filled one wall of the room, almost twenty feet long. The room itself was sparsely furnished because my mistress liked it so. Polished woods, and carpets both on the shining floor and as wall hangings on the other walls, or on the pillars that supported the roof. Glowing carpets from Persia and eastern cities, and the nomad camps. Caravans brought them to her as tribute and she changed them often.
There were silver and gold ornaments on low tables, and trays and drinking cups and jugs of silver and in the winter a brazier burned by each pillar, with incense on the charcoals to make the room sweet smelling. But the Fresco was the true ornament of the room. It was of Dionysus and the Frenzied Women, hunting a faun. I say “It was”. Perhaps it still is, perhaps it survived the Romans, and someone else lives in that house now, and thinks the painting beautiful, or ugly. Perhaps they have covered it. The God Dionysus, who was our God, was crowned with vine leaves and He was playing a pipe, sitting cross legged on a moss covered rock among the trees of a forest. While he played the women ran half naked, mad with the God’s playing, dressed in leaves and faun skins, their faces hideous, or if you believed, then beautiful with madness, but I no longer believe in Him, or in that sort of beauty. Their hair was tangled like writhing snakes and their eyes started from their heads. Their fingers reached out like claws to catch the faun they were hunting, and you could see the faun’s terror in its eyes, the writhe and wrinkling back of its poor lips, the hunched effort of its hind quarters as it strove to escape. But their hands were already touching it, while the God played for them, and for the faun’s death by being torn apart and eaten.
Some of the women carried lit torches, that glowed red and yellow among the night colours of the wood. Sullen browns, dark greens, and here and there a sudden flash of vividness where torch light fell, bright green of leaves, bright brown of a tree bole or a branch. It was a powerful work. And more powerful than you might think if you were not an initiate. It glowed with power. It had been painted under the inspiration of the God and it controlled the house. When visitors came who should not see it I drew dark red velvet curtains over it They ran on rings and hung heavy and still.
At the far end of this Fresco room. farthest from the bath rooms, there was a part where my mistress ate. and I ate with her, served by Anna the serving girl Anna and her sister Euphrosine were not much more than children, Anna fifteen, and Euphrosine fourteen Tall, thin, pale girls with fair hair Greek from one of the towns of the Decapolis, and always homesick and pining for their mother I despised them very much . But then, I was eighteen, and a grown woman, and superior to them in the house and in every other way. They are not very important in this story, except that sometimes I played with them, or punished them, and they amused me a little, as I think now I amused my mistress.
Beyond the dining part of the room one entered the kitchens through a curtained doorway. The principal kitchen was a square room with a cooking pit in the middle of the floor. Roasting spits lay across the pit, and there were chains and pulleys above it to hang kettles on and bronze cooking pots. There were also tripods with charcoal braziers for grilling meat and toasting cakes. Beyond the main kitchen were other places for the immediate stores, and wine and such things, and places to wash the dishes. I did not concern myself with any of that. All of this was ruled by Olympias my mother, the housekeeper. She had once been nurse to my mistress’s mother, Berenike, and then to my mistress. She it was who taught my mistress’s mother to steal and become a thief and a receiver of stolen things. She did it because she herself liked stealing, and money, and all things that money can buy.
She was short and fat and greedy and breathless and I did not like her much Nor did she like me although I was her child. She dyed her hair black and clacked about the house and the courtyard in old leather slippers, and prevented me from doing what I liked with Anna and Euphrosine. Or as often as she could she prevented it. The only person in the world she had ever really loved was my mistress. As if my mistress was her true child and I was just a stranger imposed on her by destiny. She did not even know who my father was, except that he was a Greek like herself. And she did not believe in the Cult, although she knew about it. She disapproved of it, and would have prevented me from becoming an initiate if she could, but she was afraid of my mistress, who was of course also hers. She herself believed in Zeus, and all the Greek gods, and prayed to them as she went about in her slippers.
Under Olympias the kitchen matters were seen to by the Greek cook, Georgiakis. He came every day at dawn, and left at sunset. For helpers, beside Euphrosine, he had two small boys, Greek children of eleven or twelve years old. I think I remember that they were brothers, but I never had any dealings with them, nor with any of the kitchen arrangements. I was not really a servant as you understand the word. I was a handmaid, an attendant.
But I am telling you about the house. By now you have travelled most of the way round the courtyard, and are coming back towards the entrance gates. Beyond the kitchens lie the servants’ quarters, where Olympias and the two serving girls sleep, and Philip the Steward is supposed to sleep, although he never does. I sleep with my mistress, upstairs in the turret room, at the north west corner of the roof. The stairs to this room rise up from the courtyard on the north side, outside the loggia and the Fresco room.
So, that is the house, except for the courtyard. And of course in the pleasant weather the courtyard is part of the house and the best part of it. It is not large – Simon interrupts me to say that I have changed tenses from past to present, and that this is not right in a book. But I was never an educated woman, and I do not care about tenses. As I reflect about the past it becomes like the present for me, and all comes back as if I was young again, eighteen, and small and plumply made, with dark vivid eyes, and black curling hair that my mistress loved to play with and run through her hands like silk, although it was much stronger than silk, and shining black. Now as I have told you I am old, and my hair is white, and I have grown thin from fasting. But it is well for old women to fast, especially if they have sinned very greatly.
But the courtyard. It is not great. Perhaps it is twenty feet from side to side, and end to end. A square, with a fish pond four feet across in the centre, with a few ancient carp in it, grown white as I have now. Carp live to an enormous age and it could be they are still alive, as I am. But they were old then. Their pond was shaded by an old fig tree. In the north west corner of the courtyard were the stairs, as I have told you. In the north east corner, near the kitchens, there was the well, very deep, with pure water. Euphrosine’s task was to haul up the water in a leather bucket, and fill the house-hold jars, and the kitchen pots and all that sort of thing. She hated doing it, because her arms were so thin. But what are servants for?
In the south east corner there was a tall plane tree. It rose up high above the flat roof of the house, that had a low parapet to prevent one falling off the roof into the streets below, and the pigeons we kept circled round and round the tree all day long, cooing and bubbling the way pigeons do. Their dovecot was on the roof near to it, above the servants’ sleeping quarters. The dovecot is made of stone, with little arched windows in it so that the doves can enter and leave at their will. There are about a dozen of them, and they are sacred to Aphrodite because they love so much. Not the cool Aphrodite of the Greeks, but Pandemos, the Aphrodite who makes men and women burn with lust, and who is herself the Bride of Dionysus. Or was. I think that now they are both dead, and have vanished into nothingness, both she and Dionysus, who was my God.
In the south west corner of the courtyard there was an enclosure for the sacred cockerels, six black ones, sacred to Dionysus, exactly like the ones for the weekly sacrifice, at the Ceremony each Friday. But my mistress would not let these cocks be killed. There were always six, which is the right number. Every morning, as soon as she got up, which was not as soon as it should have been, my mother Olympias would feed these cockerels, and the pigeons, and the carp, feeding all of them with grain soaked in wine. My mistress blessed the grain the night before, or when she felt like it. A stranger coming into the courtyard would have seen only an old woman feeding birds and fish But of course it was much more than that. It was a ceremony, and it helped to protect the house.
Elsewhere in the courtyard there were stone tubs of flowers, and flower beds, and these were attended to by the gardener. Enoch, older brother to Georgiakis the cook. He was thirty four years old, and very handsome, with curly, dark gold hair, and a golden beard. He had grey green eyes, and was tall and very strong. The two servant girls worshipped him, and they used to try and touch him when he passed them and they would tremble and dream about him. They liked Georgiakis too, but not so much, because he was not so big or so handsome, and was fattish from being a cook. I liked neither the one nor the other. I did not dislike them, but I was never made for loving men. Like Georgiakis, Enoch came every day at dawn, and went home at dusk with his brother and the two small boys. After dusk my mistress liked the courtyard to be empty, and free for her. She would sit on a stone bench under the plane tree sometimes, on velvet cushions, and listen to the doves and the cockerels, or simply dream about riches.
I think I have told you now about the whole house, except for my mistress’s bedroom, where she slept and made love, and I slept at her feet. Or at least I did so at the beginning of what I am about to tell you. It is good to know how things look, and what the people were like and who they were, so that you can understand everything perfectly. So. The bedroom was not a great room. No more than fifteen foot in each direction, and all it contained was a huge bed, made of ebony and ivory, five feet across and six feet long, with rugs and cushions and silk covers, and satin pillows, and white furs that were more for luxury than warmth. She liked to make love with such things round her, Her clothes were kept downstairs in cupboards. The only other things in the bedroom were my pallet at the foot of her bed, and a table with a strong iron box on it, always locked, that held her personal jewels. It was a big box, and very full. I could lift it, but only just. She liked to play with precious things, pouring the stones onto the white furs. Red rubies, emeralds, opals that glowed like fire, diamonds, dark saphires, every kind of precious stone, set in necklaces and ear rings, finger rings and bracelets, anklets and girdles. They were worth a ransom, the contents of that box, a great fortune. I know, because I stole them in the end, and have lived on them ever since. They made me a rich woman, although not a happy one. But who can be happy in this life, and when they have seen such things as I have seen? And done such things – but that belongs much later in this story.
Now that I have told you of the house, and of some of the people who lived in it, let me complete my account. First, Philip the Steward. who had been bought by my mistress’s mother, Berenike, when he was already made a eunuch. He was an Egyptian, a eunuch from his childhood, although of the kind that can still give and experience pleasure. Only he could not have children. Which was no loss to him because he did not like women, only boys. When he slept with women, which he did almost every night. it was for business and not for pleasure. He controlled some prostitutes in the thieves’ quarter of the city that lay very near to us. Each night when he was supposed to go to his own bed in his Steward’s small room in the servants’ quarters, he would slip away from the house about his own business as a pimp, and Olympias my mother, or I, would bolt and bar the great courtyard gate behind him, just as someone, usually my mother, would let him in in the morning, at the same time that Enoch the gardener and Georgiakis the cook and the two small kitchen boys arrived. My mistress pretended not to know that this happened, but of course she did. She drew money from the prostitutes herself, in different ways, but it amused her to pretend to be deceived. A great many strange things amused her.
Philip himself was a sour kind of man, perhaps because of being made a eunuch, and known to be one. People despise eunuchs, which is an unjust thing since they had no fault in the matter. But people do, as you know yourself. Philip had also been a slave, and was now a freedman. An Egyptian by birth, with a shaven head, now more bald than shaven although he was not as old as my mother – Simon tells me again about my tenses, but what do they matter? I have never understood grammar. And by interrupting me he makes me forget where I am. Yes, he was an Egyptian with a bald head, tall and rather stooped and thin with bowed shoulders and a yellowish skin and scalp. He was sly and scornful, despising everyone, even my mistress, whom he had seen grow up. He worshipped Isis and felt She would protect him against everything, as perhaps She did. I do not know what happened to him in the end. I suppose he died. He was a thief as well as a pimp, and feared in the thieves’ world of Jerusalem. He thought that this was on his own account, but of course it was not. It was because of my mistress, who was also his mistress. If she had breathed a word, or even smiled that she was tired of him, he would have been killed.
Next of the household that remains, and he was truly of the household, and not just a dog, there was Shaitan the Guardian, the watch dog, chained up to a marble kennel under the stairs leading up to the roof and my mistress’s bedroom. No one could go up to her when she lay in bed without passing Shaitan. And no one could pass him if he did not permit it to be done. He was the largest dog I have ever seen. He too came with me in the end, like the jewels, although I was always afraid of him. He was black from nose to tail tip, and stood higher than my waist when he was on all fours. If he rose up on his hind legs he was as tall as a man. It was he who tore Judas’s arm. My mistress fed him with raw meat, sometimes with pig meat that she brought from the Ceremony, or with market meat. Anna and Euphrosine would not go near him, and even my mother and Philip were afraid of him,
Finally there was Baruch ben Isaac. You could not say that he was of the household, and yet he was in a way. He was my mistress’s chief lover. He was a Jew, although not of the Orthodox kind, a long way from it. He belonged to the Cult, and was a priest in it and a Celebrant. Twenty six years old, and handsome enough, smoothly fleshed, and full fleshed too as I was in those days. He had shining dark eyes like pools of oil and rich red lips that shone through his black curling beard, and his hair was thick and soft and a duller black than his beard. He was quite tall, about five foot six inches, the same height as my mistress. I am only five feet. Less now, that I have shrunk a little with age.
By profession he was a doctor of medicine, of Roman medicine as they call it today, although it was really Greek medicine. Most right things come from Greece. It is the last pride that I have left, being Greek. There are no Greek here in this village. But where was I?
He was a doctor of medicine, as I said, but he did not practise as a doctor. He was an official in the Roman Treasury, which he found more profitable than curing people of aches and fevers. He stole a great deal of money, and enjoyed it. He met my mistress in the Cult, at the Ceremonies, and soon became her lover in bed as well as on the Stones as all the Celebrants did. But I will tell you about the Stones in their place. He would call to the house every day, officially as a doctor, if he was ever questioned about it, to look after Mary’s health, although that was perfect. I would let him in and he would take supper with my mistress while I sat with them and both served them from the dishes and ate myself. What happened afterwards I shall tell you in a little while. But first I must tell you about my mistress.
At this time she was over thirty years old, which is already old for a woman who wishes to be loved. But she was as perfect in her beauty then as she could ever have been. Indeed, I think she must have been more beautiful at that age than when she was a girl. All men said so. When she walked in the City even though her face was covered men followed her at a distance. Until they learned who she was, and if they were wise hurried away, or treated her with great respect. Her name was Mary, as I have told you, just as my name is Mary. She was Mary the mistress, and I was Mary the handmaid. Her cousin, who was also Mary, was known as Mary of Magdala, in part to distinguish her from my mistress. But I will tell you of that Mary in her place. Except to say here that both were born in the town of Magdala which is in Galilee, near the lake. But my mistress had been brought to Jerusalem by her mother Berenike when she was ten years old, and had lived there ever since except for her travels as High Priestess, and Dancer for Dionysus.
To look at she was a tall woman with red hair like dark fire and green eyes. and very supple as she moved. But she was not a woman whose appearance mattered. It was the force in her, the power of the God. She was His High Priestess and she belonged to Him, and to be near her was to know it. It was frightening to be her handmaid, and wonderful. All her power came from the God, and He burned and glowed in her like fire. Even those who did not know all about her, who saw her only as a beautiful woman, felt this power. Those who knew more, who knew her as Mary the Thief the mistress of assassins, they feared her for their lives But those who knew all of her, and Who she was, they feared for their souls.
Her mother Berenike had been a High Priestess before her, for the district about Jerusalem. There were many of the Cult thereabouts, many Jews too, and Greeks, and foreigners. It was a powerful thing. All the thieves who wanted to get on in the world belonged to it, and the prostitutes, and many respectable people like Baruch. It was a way of life, not just a belief like my mother’s that there are gods and goddesses. Our God was real.
But Berenike, who died when I was still a small child, many years before this story, she did not want her daughter to belong to the Cult. There were many reasons for that I suppose. Perhaps she was never truly one with the God. And she never loved Mary. She only wanted her daughter to make a rich marriage with a Greek family, a respectable one of position in the Decapolis, or something like that. Perhaps she even knew what would happen in the end. How can one tell? But the God was too powerful to be denied. Mary my mistress had no wish for any such life. She made love to the slave boys in her mother’s house as soon as she was able to receive them, and by the time she was fourteen she was pregnant by one of them. It was a terrible thing, and Olympias my mother had to abort her, and she nearly died. But she became pregnant again the following year, by another slave, and Berenike her mother realised that there was no help for it, that she belonged already to the God.
She had her trained by another priestess. She herself would not have any part of it. And as soon as Mary’s training began she proved to all that she would be a priestess such as they had never known. They could not hold her back for the steps of initiation. As if she knew beforehand all she must do and say. She began to glow with her power, as I shall describe to you later.
When she was eighteen everyone knew that she must be High Priestess, and that her mother must go to join the God. On her birthday she was chosen, and that friday she celebrated for the first time, and her mother killed herself an hour or so afterwards, as she had to do, cutting her throat with her own moon knife on one of the Stones. There cannot be two High Priestesses for one place, as you probably know. Then Mary set to work to make her authority greater than her mother’s had ever been.
She was a dancer as well as other things, having been trained to that by her mother, because a woman should know how to dance. And she formed a company of dancers, all of them Initiates of the Cult, about twenty women and girls, and another forty servants and flute players and other musicians. She could afford this, because her mother had become rich as a thief and as a receiver of stolen goods, and she herself had made money in the same way. Money always flowed to them. Both to mother and to daughter.
So, taking Olympias my mother, and myself as a child of five years old, and Philip the Eunuch who was then newly freed after Berenike’s death, and other slaves and servants. Mary the High Priestess set out on travels that lasted for five years.
She came back to Jerusalem of course, to see to her money affairs, and to the Cult in Jerusalem, that others looked after while she was away, but most of the time she journeyed with her dancers. She went as far north as Smyrna, in Asia Minor, and as far west as Cyprus across the sea, Aphrodite’s land, and beyond that to Athens, although she always feared the sea and was sick until she thought she would die when the boat heaved in storms. In the East she was in Babylon that was once a great city, and saw the River. And in the south she travelled as far as Egyptian Thebes, and Alexandria that the God Alexander built for himself. That is a country of Gods. Isis lives there. And Her Son. And Her Enemy. Philip told me about them.
On these travels she gave dancing shows, bringing costumes and scenery by the cart load, and on pack mules, all the dancers and musicians riding in hooded carts, while the servants rode on asses, or walked, and the guards rode on horseback, carrying spears. You needed guards in those days, she used to tell me, the caravan trails were not safe. No more they are now of course, and things grow worse. But what does an old woman care if every traveller is murdered? I am not going travelling.
Where was I? The light is going, and Simon is complaining, but I must complete my story very soon and he must write by lamp light if need be. I have the feeling that I have not many days of daylight by which to tell it. I have left it very late. The journeys. Yes. She travelled very far, north, west, east, and south, returning after each journey to Jerusalem both richer and more powerful than when she left. She made money from her theatre shows. From lovers that she and her dancers took in each foreign city. She always made money. But she also made it as High Priestess. For that was why she travelled in reality. To make herself mistress of all the areas of the Cult that she could reach. Dionysus is worshipped throughout the world, or He was once, and each country, and each province in a country, has its own High Priestess and High Priest, its own priests and priestesses and initiates, and no lathering of believers has authority over any other, unless there is some especial reason. Mary’s power was such a reason. No High Priestess had ever had such power, and she wished to demonstrate it.
This she did first in the theatres. The ordinary people, the common audience, they saw only a dancing show, with Mary as its greatest attraction. She would dance at the end, the dance of the Seven Veils. But for initiates, who knew what that dance was and meant, it was infinitely more than a show. It was a Ceremony, and one of great power, the greatest they were ever likely to have seen. They would have seen her as she really was, they would have seen her aura, the dark violet light that surrounded her as she performed the friday Ceremony. As the veils fell one by one they would have seen that light pulse stronger, until it reached out and fastened them to their seats in the audience, and they could not breathe for wonder.
After the theatre show was done, those who had recognised her would bring her their submission, and that of their fellow believers. And money they would bring her gifts of money, and gold and silver, and jewels. She became very rich. By the time she was twenty five years old she was the richest woman in Jerusalem, by far and far. And the most powerful High Priestess in the known world. They say there are other worlds, on the other side of Ocean, but who knows if that can be true? In this world she was the Great One, the bride of the God, His chosen. All others were pale beside her.
So, at twenty five years old she settled in Jerusalem, and a year later bought the house I have described to you, and gave up travelling. From then on she allowed others to travel to see her. They came often, still bringing gifts. I tell you, all the things that men value flowed to her as water flows down hill.
Philip, and my mother Olympias, came with her of course, and as for me, I came back to Jerusalem as if it was a strange place. We had seen so much of the world, and of foreign peoples, and of my mother’s own Greek nation. But I was happy to come back. I was ten years old, and already I loved my mistress as I had never loved my mother. In Jerusalem I knew that I would see her every day, and be close to her, as had not been possible while we travelled and she was busy with her theatre affairs and all that had to be done for them, and for the journeys.
And I not only loved her already, and feared her, and was drawn to her by the stirrings of my body, that even a child of nine or ten years old can feel. I knew that she and I were bound together by something else. That we belonged to the same Spirit Clan, or so I thought of it then. Those Clans that the Egyptians call Totems, and that others call a Binding together of Souls.
We belonged, she and I, as our mothers both did, to the Hornet Clan. It is an old, old belief. Older than Dionysus. Older than Aphrodite of the lusts, or any Cult or Religion that I ever heard of. It is not a Cult, indeed, it simply is. The fact that most people no longer believe in such things does not make any difference to its truth. If a people should cease to believe in the sea because their forefathers had long ago gone to live in the midst of the desert, it would not make the sea untrue. It is living in cities, among crowds of people, that has destroyed belief in the Spirit Cans. But it has not destroyed the fact. Perhaps one needed simplicity of soul to believe, and gain protection and perhaps my mistress and I once had that, and the Mistress of All Things took pity on us even when we lost our innocence, and kept Her protection round us. For that is one of the purposes of the Clans, to have the protection of the Mistress, and some of those creatures that She commands.
But as I say, in these recent times, and for long before I was born, few people still believed. I was blessed that my mother was among those few, and I think that Mary was blessed too that her mother kept the old truth alive, despite what happened in the end. It did not make much difference to their lives, neither to Berenike, Mary’s mother, nor to my mother, Olympias. But they did believe, along with Berenike’s faith in the Cult, and my mother’s in Zeus, and all the pantheon of the Greeks. They belonged. And thought it natural that their children should be brought to the Mother when the time was correct, which is at puberty. Mary was brought to Her when she was twelve, or even less. And I when I was thirteen. I was brought out into the desert and presented to the Hornets, because they are the Messengers, and it was in their shape that we saw our Clan, and our Mother and Mistress. The Lady of the Hornets. So I saw Her then, at least.
I had to kneel in front of a hollow tree that contained a hornets’ nest, and thrust in my hands, and put my face close to the tree trunk, and stay like that for an hour, praying to the Mother, while my mother Olympias watched over me. I was very frightened, I can promise you. The hornets crawled on me, over my arms and body, my breast and my throat, because I was naked to the waist, and I felt each moment that I was going to be stung, and that I would die of it, of a hundred stings that would burn like fire. But my mother told me that the hornets were only acquainting themselves with my smell, and that I must not fear them or they would be offended. They would in my adult life be the messengers of our Great Mistress, and theirs, Who controls all things that creep and fly. And more besides, much more, as I have discovered since. But then I only knew of Her as the Mistress of the Hornets, and of our Spirit Clan.
Of course I knew before this Presentation, long before it, that I was of Her people, and that I would one day be brought to Her, and that my worldly mistress, Mary the Thief, also belonged, as my mother did. I knew that we three shared this secret, so that from as long ago as I can remember, since I was first told the beginnings of such matters,. I knew that more bound me to Mary than could bind ordinary servants. That in this matter we would be, not equals certainly, but like sisters, I younger and she older. And afterwards, after my Presentation, she sometimes acknowledged it, and even called me Sister.
For instance, in the summer, in the courtyard, wasps and bees and hornets would come buzzing about the fig tree and the ripe fruit, or about the honey jar that I would set out for them, and she and I would call them to us. We would hold out our hands and they would come and settle on our palms. and even allow us to close our fists on them as if we meant to crush them. Then we would open our fingers and they would shake their wings a little and fly off gladly. Olympias my mother could do it too, if she wanted, but she never did, and was impatient with me for doing it. She said to me that we should not allow such things to be seen by others. But both Mary and I liked doing it in front of people because it frightened them. And made them afraid even of me. Georgiakis the cook, for example and Enoch the gardener. Even Philip the Steward was a little afraid when he saw such things. They all thought it a kind of witchcraft, and spat over their thumbs at it. Baruch ben Isaac hated to see us doing it, and told us that one day one of us would be so badly stung we might die of it.
But of course we were never stung. Still today I can pick up a desert scorpion by her tail, or one of the little vipers of the rocks, and kiss it, or let it crawl on my body, and it will not injure me. Instead it shivers with a kind of pleasure and gratitude that I have noticed it. Because we both belong to the same Spirit, the same Great Mistress. Only for Mary it was different, as you shall see. But that is to run far ahead of this story.
Where was I, Simon? Of course, of course. I was telling you of our coming back to Jerusalem when I was ten years old, and of how glad I was. Am I not right? And of how I loved and feared my mistress, Mary. Yes, that was it. Go on, Simon, go on. Write all down as I tell it. About my mistress and myself. I was ten, and we were returned to Jerusalem. Two years later I became her servant, and two years after that again, when I was already her Sister in the Clan, she made me her handmaid and attendant, and so I remained until the end, as you will read, if you do read this book.
At that time she was already doing in Jerusalem, among the thieves and murderers, the prostitutes and the tax collectors, the inn keepers and the pimps and the brothel keepers and receivers of stolen goods, what she had done throughout Greece and all our part of the World, among the members of the Cult. With the force of the Cult and the God behind her, like shields and weapons, she made herself mistress of the underworld of the City. And made herself feared throughout it, not only in the underworld and thieves’ quarter, but wherever she wished to be feared. In the matter of our house, for example. She bought it from a Jewish merchant at half its proper value.
One day she saw it, and liked it, and told the owner that he must sell it to her, and at such a price, and not a shekel more. Half the price it should have been, as I have said. He almost died of apoplexy, but he sold to her, and was glad to escape with his half weight of shekels, and his throat uncut. That was how she did all her business. She threatened. Or merely smiled. And those who knew her feared her smile more than her threats. And hastened to do as they were told. Some of them for fear of the Cult and its members, some for fear of the assassins she could buy for the price of a goat skin of cheap wine. And some because they knew that she had such power that she did not need assassins, or help from the Cult members, or from anyone. But whatever the reasoning behind their fear, they feared her, and gave to her with trembling hands, whatever she asked.
And all the while she lived in our modest house as if she was not rich or powerful at all, but merely a woman who had made money as a dancer, and had retired comfortably off to enjoy her middle age, and her lovers and her leisure. So the Jewish authorities thought of her, if they thought of her ever. So would the Romans have done, even her Roman lovers, who saw the proofs of her wealth, or some of them, in the gold and silver of her ornaments, in her bearing, in the bearing of those who spoke to her while they, the lovers, were in hearing.
That kind of pretense of secrecy amused her. Indeed secrecy of any kind amused her. She did not long to show her power to the world, only to possess it, and use it. Just as she did not care to show her wealth and her treasures to the world. Even the place where she kept her real wealth was a secret. The iron strong box of jewels in her bedroom was nothing, it contained only her toys. Her treasure was buried deep in the thieves’ quarter, in a low, unnoticeable house. It was dark, and squalid looking, and I know nothing more of it, because she never brought me inside it. I imagine that there were cellars underneath it, and perhaps they spread out far beneath other houses, and she owned them all. Who can tell now? Even my scribe Simon, who is the son of Bar Abbas, does not know anything of the matter. How should he? He was not even born then.
And for myself, as I say, I was never in the house. She would leave me outside in the alleyway, to wait for her, and go in with Bar Abbas and a mute Nubian slave of his, or perhaps of hers, I never knew that either. The slave would carry in the sacks of coin and precious things that she wanted hidden away and would come out after a time to sit with me in the shade. A time more, and my mistress and Bar Abbas would come out, and he would go one way, and we another, and she would say nothing about it to me, of what was in the sacks, or what she had done with them, or anything about the squalid house and what lay inside it, or beneath it. Although she would quite willingly talk about Bar Abbas. For a long time, almost two years in all, he was her chief helper and captain in the City’s underworld. But I shall tell you about him at another time. Now there is only one other thing to tell you about her past. And that is something so strange that it frightens me again as I prepare to tell it. Truly there is only one God.
I have told you already that her mother Berenike was a thief, and a receiver of stolen things, before Mary was born, and for long after. Olympias had taught her to steal as a child, and she liked it, and made it her way of life, although her own parents had been respectable people, merchants I think. She stole for the joy of it, as well as for gain.
In any event, one day when Mary was six years old, Berenike her mother went travelling on thieves’ business, accompanied by Olympias my mother who was still quite young herself then, and by Philip the Eunuch, and by Mary. They came to a town called Nazareth that is north of Samaria, in Galilee, between the lake and the sea. They stayed in an inn, where they had business with the inn keeper, and Mary went out into the streets as a child would do, and looked for someone to play with. She found a boy. He was five years old, and he was playing in the dust outside a carpenter’s shop. He was drawing signs in the dust and was very quiet, my mistress told me. Not at all like most young boys.
She knelt down beside him, and began to teach him how to make pies out of the dust by wetting it with water, and shaping it with her hands. The boy laughed and was very pleased, and began to make shapes himself, and decorate them with chips of wood from the shop behind them, so that his shapes looked like small animals, with heads and tails, or like birds with wings.
And then his father looked out and saw his son playing with a strange child, and called him in very hurriedly, in case he should be defiled by her. Because the father was an Orthodox Jew, and Mary was clearly a Greek, from her dress. The father called his son “Joshua”, which in Greek is Jesus, although that meant nothing to Mary then, nor for long afterwards. It was only in the last year before her death that it came to her who the child had been. And that the man was not his true father.
As he went in to obey the man, he turned for a moment and said very solemnly, as some children will: “I thank you for playing with me, but I must go in now. I pray that we may meet again.”
She forgot about it for a long time.
Dionysus is – or was – the greatest of the Gods. He controls – my tenses are mixed up again, Simon tells me. Let you be quiet, scribe, and write all down as I say it. He controlled men’s appetites, their lusts, their hungers for food and drink, for strong liquors, for wine. He burned in them like fire, as Aphrodite burned in women. Yes, it is better to say all this in the past tense, I give you your argument there, Simon. They did burn us, men and women. They drew us to them, and drove us with whips of passion. But it was not evil. It was not good perhaps, it has always been better to be chaste and temperate. But young blood burned then as it does now, and Dionysus and His Bride called and called, whispered in the night. Come to me, you who cannot sleep, and I will give you passion, and at the end rest.
Out of this passion, out of this hunger for love, for flesh and wine and the heats of lust, came the Cult. Men heard the God and the Goddess calling them, and ran to Them. They came out of Asia to us, out of the burning deserts and the mountains, and the snow; out of the forests where there are wild beasts with fierce eyes and hunger for man’s blood. They brought us wine to make hearts leap and minds drunk and bodies run naked to one another. They brought us the secrets of release. And in the beginning that was enough. The God and the Goddess walked with men and women, led them into the hills, into the hollow places that are the wombs of the earth, taught them to lie with one another in all the ways of pleasure that men had never known before, or never dared to use. They taught us to drink of passion as we drink of wine. They taught us that here is a path to the Great God who is passionless, and Who waits for us beyond all time.
As I have said, perhaps it was not the finest path, or even fine, but it was a path. Since then – but I must discipline my story. and tell it as it needs to be told, in order.
This beginning of the Cult that I have described to you was long ago. Before men wrote books, I think, although not the oldest time. Not nearly so old as my Lady of the Hornet. But She was before the Beginning. She is from Eternity and belongs to it. Dionysus and Aphrodite belonged to time and died in it, for what they did. Or rather, for what we did, my mistress and I. God be merciful to her soul, wherever it lies now.
You will find stories of the Cult in legends that Greek poets have written down. They did not know much about it. I have heard some of their poems. But they knew a little. Of the maenads who ran in the hills and tore wild beasts with their hands and drank their blood. Of King Pentheus, and the women who murdered him, thinking he was a faun. But all that was long ago, and since then the Cult had become different, and organised as Cults must be if they are to survive. So I will tell you about that now, before I come to ourselves.
The Cult has – or had – believers across the world, as far to the West as Ocean, and the Pillars of Hercules, and to the East, farther than I can tell you, because no one has been there and returned to tell about it. There are high mountains that touch the sky, where the snow never melts they say it you can believe it. And men with slanting eyes who dress in wild beasts skins. What does it matter? The whole world knew Dionysus and Aphrodite, and those whose passions stirred in them believed, and if they were chosen, belonged. Berenike, Mary’s mother, was chosen, by a lover of hers who was a priest of Dionysus. That is how Mary came to the Cult, and I in my turn My mother never belonged to it. Her passions were different, for food and money and sleep. But again I am straying in my thoughts. The sun is growing hot, and we must draw back into the shade.
The whole world I say, knew the Cult, and those who were destined for it were chosen, and belonged. To belong, one had first to become a novice under the instruction of a priest or priestess. This instruction was sometimes very long. Three, four, five years. It was not enough to give one’s body. One had to learn how to give one’s soul. How to see. That was not an easy thing I do not mean seeing as you see the hand you hold up in front of you. That is only illusion. That is all shadows, as the Greek Plato said. You see, Simon although I cannot read or write like you, I have had books read to me, and have understood them, what is more. To be a scribe and to know how to write words down does not necessarily mean that you understand what you write, or what you read.
No, the hand you look at is illusion, as is the body to which it belongs. What is real is the soul, and that is what we had to learn to see. It is like the body, but it glows with light, and the soul is surrounded with light like the edge of the world when the sun rises, before you see His disc, and the horizon flames and burns with coloured fire. It people had such souls as that, like the sunrise, there would be no need for time, and Eternity could come. Most souls burn like lamps with dirty wicks and old, evil smelling oil. A guttering pallor of yellowness that is scarcely worth looking at. When we novices first learned to see, dimly and by moments, losing our sight again a moment later, that is how we saw ourselves. Lamp flames flickering and guttering in the dark.
As we progressed, so our sight grew stronger and steadier, and our own souls brighter. If brighter is the word, for all of us gave off dark light if you can understand how light can have darkness in it. You know how colours are, bright shades, and dark ones? That is how we were. Dark shades of colour. Dark reds, dark crimsons, violet, dark blue. I think – indeed I know now – that there was a meaning hidden even in those sombre lights, but I did not know it then, nor did anyone, and we rejoiced to see ourselves and each other, and longed to show off our new power at a Ceremony.
These Ceremonies took place every friday between dark and midnight. Friday is Aphrodite’s day, and the dark is Her time, and Dionysus’s. We would gather in a certain place outside the City, at the beginning of the third hour of the night. We novices, perhaps thirty or forty of us, collected in the background. And in front of us the initiates, the priests and priestesses, standing quietly, watching the Celebrants prepare. There were six of these Sways. A High Priestess, who was the essential one, without whom there could be no Ceremony. And a High Priest, if one could be there, and four others, priests and priestesses. Ideally, in pairs, two men and two women, but it did not matter if there was one woman and three men, or the other way round. What mattered was their power.
What they prepared first was the Consecration, praying that the Ceremony might be right and holy. Praying to the God and the Goddess to come. Praying for strength, and new power. Praying that the Sacrifice might be accepted. Praying that all present might prosper. For that was another purpose of the Cult. It was not only passion that drew us to the God, but the things He gave to us, Material things. Money, lovers, all sorts of benefits, Which drew to us men and women of every kind who love this world, and its means of pleasure. Thieves came to the Cult, and prostitutes, although neither of those sorts were often called to be novices. They came only as onlookers, seeing nothing but a Ceremony of men and women, and a sacrifice. They did not know the inner realities. They would stand far off on the hill side, far behind even we novices, like poor people at a theatre show, on the cheapest benches, from which it is difficult to make out the masks or hear the voices and all one can see is movement. I do not truly count them as part of the Cult at all. Thieves, prostitutes, assassins, tax collectors, shop keepers who liked to cheat their clients, workmen who liked to cheat their masters; servants who longed to seduce their mistress or rob her storerooms; soldiers who dreamed of a rich widow and escape from service. Scum. When one boils fruit, scum rises and floats. There is no more to it than that.
We of the inner Belief were a different kind. We might love money, as Mary my mistress did, but as a holy thing, a thing that gives power and that controls the world. Not to spend on whores or sausages or a night’s debauch. We loved the God most of all, and the Goddess, and the shivering of the soul that comes from that kind of love. A trembling, and fear, a pricking of the inner self like gooseflesh on the skin, a terror of death and a longing for it, if death comes with passion. I feel it now, even in my old age, and I am near eighty years old and half blind, and have not known a man or a woman in lust since my mistress died. God forbid that I should have done. God forbid. But I can still remember it, that shivering of the soul.
Our meeting place was as I have said on a hillside outside the City. Every group, every centre of the Cult from the world’s end to the world’s end, had such a meeting place. By day it would seem ordinary, there would be passers by, no one need feel that it was a holy place. But at night, those who knew would avoid it. A hollow in a hillside, such as ours. A narrow valley. A clearing in woods. A field closed in in some fashion, so that it had a privacy, an intimacy for gathering. Like a womb.
But our meeting place had a special gift in it. It had the Stones. These were – still are if one went to see them there which I shall not, at least in this life – these were six great stones shaped by men a thousand years ago, or long before that, perhaps, when there were giants who could lift such things and set them in their places. Each Stone was ten or twelve feet long, and squared and shaped by tools, and I think that once they had stood upright with other stones, in a circle on top of the hill. So Mary my mistress told me, and perhaps the God told her, although they were not His stones, nor had it been His temple that the circle made. There were Gods before our Gods, and others before Them. Only the One God is Eternal, Blessed be His Name.
This circle had stood on the hill until the Jews came and threw them down as abominations, because they did not understand them, and feared their power: They had great power those Stones. They drew it from the earth, because the hill was a Holy Place, and the top of it the holiest of all, prepared from the Beginning for holiness, and what would happen there, I think. But there are many holy places in the world, where the earth’s lines of power meet and cross. At such crossing places men in the ancient times planted their standing stones and circles, and placed their stone graves. And the earth’s power filled the stones.
Even when the Jews threw these Stones down, and broke up most of them for rubble and building stuff, the power remained in them. And our six Stones that lay scattered in the hollow of the hillside had such power that you could feel it with your hand. If you tried to lay your hands on them too long they would throw you sideways like a doll, unless it was at the time of our Ceremony. Even then, the Stones trembled under us when it was our turn to lie on them. And during the Ceremony they glowed with their own light not dark like ours, but golden. Pale gold. like gold so ancient it has lost its colouring, and is the ghost of gold. I do not know what they must have been in their own time of power, for their own people.
It was by these Stones that our ceremony took place. Imagine the dark hillside, the City not far off. And the stars, and the moon if it was the moon’s hour, or else pitch dark. The onlookers, the froth of the Cult, whispering half-remembered, half-understood prayers, and shivering and afraid without knowing what they feared. There might be two hundred, three hundred of those. Five hundred at a great Ceremony, every eighth friday, when the Celebration lasted not one hour but three, from the end of the third hour until mid-night. But on ordinary fridays there were enough of onlookers to make a crowd and a murmuring, and then a stillness of waiting. People who did not belong to the Cult at all, or even believe, avoided the hill at such times. They said because of the assassins among the onlookers, but in reality because they knew they must not come near. As for the Orthodox Jews, they were at their Sabbath preparations, and had no business abroad on Fridays after dusk.
So, the hillside, and the dark, and the onlookers. In front of them, trembling with a different kind of fear, we novices. I say “we” in this fashion because I became a novice in my sixteenth year, brought to Dionysus by my mistress. And a year later I became a priestess, an initiate. Although not a Celebrant as yet. That you shall hear of later.
There might be forty or fifty novices, some of whom would never become initiates. Most of whom, probably. I have said, it was not an easy thing, learning to see. And in front of us again, the initiates, the true congregation. Only twenty or so, except at the great Ceremonies, when there would be more; when every initiate who could come would do so no matter what the cost or the distance.
And in the hollow, the Celebrants. High Priestess, High Priest, four others. A brazier burning, glowing dull orange, crimson. A black cockerel, its legs tied, lying on a stone. A black pig, or a young piglet, but black, black. Not a white hair on it. Lying also tied by the side of the cockerel. Both lying quiet, knowing that they must die. On the ground, a pile of white linen, the Celebrant’s clothing, linen robes that they wore as they came there, and took off before they began to pray. Because they must be naked for the Ceremony. Except for the High Priestess’s necklace of white shells, each shaped like a woman’s secret parts, and hanging down to her groin, and her mount of Venus And for the girdles of the others, the High Priest and the priests and priestesses.
These girdles were no more than threads, woven of red cotton from the East. Dark red lines about their waists, if one was close enough to see them. For the rest, they must be absolutely naked, from foot to head. Even in the snow of midwinter, and the Gate of the Year. But it was not a hardship, as I used to think before I became an initiate. The heat of their bodies melted the snow where they stood, and on the Stones when they lay on them. This was the heat of the God, and of the Goddess, and the power in them.
I see that Simon is smiling. Why do you smile like that, scribe? Do you think that I am telling old woman’s tales and fancies, and am gone wandering in my mind in my old age? I shall tell you to set down more wonderful things than this before you are ended with this writing. Do you think that men’s bodies are like clay pots, fashioned out of earth and water and fire only, and that they have no secrets in them? They have the Breath in them also, and can do many things that most men never imagine they could do. Have you not heard of the Fire Walkers, Simon, who can walk across pits of burning coals, and take no harm? Have you not heard of – But why should I convince a Jew? Go to your own Holy Books, and read of Elijah. Of Elisha. Of Abraham and Isaac. Of Moses in Sinai. Let your eyes be opened, Simon, do not smile. Set down what I tell to you, and believe.
Prayer first, calling the God and the Goddess. They do not take long to come. The Celebrants begin to glow with their dark lights, very faint at first, like candle flames behind thick curtains of darkness. That is the sign that the God and the Goddess are pleased, and that They are already there. Then the sacrifice. It is very swift. The High Priest lifts up the black cockerel in both hands, twisting back its head for the knife. The High Priestess cuts its throat, and then she opens it, splits its breast with a stroke. The knife she uses is her own, the moon knife, with a silver sickle blade like the blade of the new moon, and a carved ivory handle. The handle is the body of Aphrodite, her hands behind her back, offering Her love. When the old High Priestess kills herself, she does it with her knife.
Out of the split breast of the cockerel the High Priestess tears the heart and liver and throws them on the brazier. This is the true sacrifice. Before they are burned she plucks them out of the fire and eats them, the blood running down her chin. There is the God in her, and her light grows stronger, begins to burn.
Next the pig is killed in the same way, squealing, to represent the wild boar, and its flesh and limbs torn off the bones and charred in the brazier, before the Celebrants devour it. Again, the heart and liver of the piglet, and its offals and those of the cockerel, are the true Sacrifice. The flesh is only a feast. And they drink wine, which is the blood of the God whom Aphrodite has now slain. They drink it out of silver cups, heavy, massive, shallow cups, with the face and body of Dionysus moulded on them in solid silver, and vine leaves, and vine branches, and the God’s bull horns that He sometimes wears to show His power. These cups belong to Mary, six of them, and during the week days we ourselves drink from them at home. It was something that gave me great power, and brought me to Initiation very quickly.
This eating and drinking of wine and flesh is the Agape, the feast of Love, and when it is finished the bodies of the Celebrants glow so strong that the hollow is filled with light pulsing and shivering, and there are no longer Six, but Eight. The God and the Goddess have made Themselves visible to those whose eyes have been opened. To the onlookers, the scum of the Cult, there are only six of course, and there is no light.
Then the High Priestess takes her bull whip, made of a black bull’s hide, and supple and heavy with oil, with its silver handle shaped like the body of Dionysus, horns curled hack, hands folded across His chest; she takes her heavy whip to draw blood from the High Priest. He lays himself face down-wards on one of the stones and she draws blood from his back with a single stroke, cutting the skin and flesh. He must not flinch, nor cry out, nor move.
When that is done, she must lie there in her turn, for him to draw blood from her. And when my mistress did this she lay down like a woman lying down for a lover, shivering with joy. She loved pain, and the fear of pain, as I did. It brought her to ecstacy as no other kind of lovemaking ever could. And when I was an initiate, and stood close enough to see her face, and her body, as she laid herself on the stone, I shivered with her, and longed for the God’s stroke, longed to feel the whip bite into my flesh.
You think that strange, Simon? For a learned man you are very ignorant of the world. It is the commonest of lusts, to love pain, and the fear of it, and the excitement that it brings. The blood runs quick, and the heart beats faster, the breath closes up the throat. The body trembles at the tread of the Beloved, of the Terrible, of the One who is to be feared. One’s knees turn to water, and one lies shivering and waiting, praying that the moment be delayed, and that it may come swifter. Praying for the pain, and for release from it. No man can reach so deep into a woman’s body as pain does.
Oh yes, Simon, I have heard you boasting to the servant girls of what you would do to them if you got them in the dark. You would do less to them with that poor thing of yours than I could do to them with a thin supple stick and a few words. But God forbid it. God the Eternal One preserve me from it. I have seen where it leads. I have been brought to the edge of the Pit and bade look over, and down into the fire, where such Pain is as no man can understand unless he has felt its breath. I have seen worse than that, and the lusts were burned out of me as leaves are burned in a fire.
But then I knew nothing. Nothing. Although I thought that I knew all things. As you think you know them, Simon, because you have read in books. I have read books too, my friend, or had them read to me, and they do not tell very much. This book will tell more than most if I can reach the end of my story. I feel my time coming on me, and the dark is growing near.
My mistress would lie down on the stone, I say, like a bride submitting to her husband. Joy and fear. And the whip would fall and the welt run blood and I would shiver with the pain of it, and the joy of it, as if my own back was torn. How I longed for that pain! I never longed for a man in all my life, and although I longed for a woman, one woman. Mary my mistress, it was in that way that I wanted her most. To be scourged by her, killed by her love, although I did not think of the killing, only of the love. I was very blind.
When the High Priestess had suffered, the others suffered in their turn, some loving their suffering, some submitting only because they must. It would be the High Priest who would draw blood from the others. While the God and the Goddess watched, and then lay down on Their Stone and took one another. That Stone was tilted up, lying at a slant in the ground so that we could see Their lovemaking, fed by blood. They glowed dark purple, a mass of purple like a cloak, so that it was hard to make out their individual shapes. But one should not look too closely at too much Power as it reveals itself. That too I learned later. And more terribly.
And while the God and the Goddess knew one another, so the High Priestess and the High Priest, and the others, each pair on a fallen Stone, knew one another, turn and turn about, the High Priestess and the priestesses underneath their lovers, submitting to be loved. If the four others, the priests and priestesses, were not evenly paired, man to woman, then the ones left out need only wait their turn. The men had such power in them at that moment that each could have served a dozen women. For they were possessed by Aphrodite, as the priestesses were possessed by the God. And High Priest and High Priestess so utterly possessed that I have seen their intercourse like a death struggle, and heard my mistress scream with the pain of it, and of her back driven and torn against the Stone.
When it was done, she and the others healed one another with their hands, the one lying face down again, and the lover passing his hands, palm down-wards, over the bloody mark of the whip, an inch or so above the skin. After a minute or so the pain would leave, although the mark would remain. And even the mark would fade very quickly, until the next day it was no more than a red line on white flesh, and the day after that it would have vanished. The men healed the women, and then the women the men. That was the Ceremony’s end. The light faded from the Celebrants’ bodies as light dies from a lamp when the oil is finished. It faded down and down, and vanished.
A sigh would rise up from the initiates, and those of us novices who could see, and all was over for that friday. The God and His Bride were gone.
The crowd would break away, silently, only the onlookers talking, and even they in low voices, nervously, unsure of what had happened, and what might happen if they showed disrespect. The Teachers led their novices away, except for me, who went to join my mistress, Mary, the High Priestess, and to take the cups and the whip, and the moon knife, and wrap them in a cloak. Someone put out the coals of the brazier and trod them into the ground. The Celebrants put on their linen cloaks, the bones of the cockerel and the pig were taken up carefully and wrapped in cloth, to be buried, and all was done. We went away to our houses, filled with the God’s joy, quietly.
The days of the maenad frenzies of the dancing women of the wild hunts were long, long in the past. For us of the Cult our frenzies were secret things and we kept the God in our hearts.
I would walk home to the City and our house with my mistress, or if Baruch ben Isaac was with us they two would walk together and I would follow them a few steps behind as a handmaid should. This happened often, because Baruch was one of the Celebrants, and whenever he could, he came to us. Sometimes of course, his duties with the Romans kept him away, or he was travelling, as happened later when he was travelling for several months of the last part of my story. But usually he was with us.
That was how he met my mistress, and became her lover, when he was twenty five years old, and very handsome. She was already above thirty years old then, and looking I think for a new lover who would give her some sense of permanence in love. Someone who would be quiet, and restful, and not demand too much, and would be always there when she wanted him. It did not prevent her taking other lovers, of course it did not, and she might leave Baruch aside for days, or weeks at a time, or he might be forced to go away on journeys, as I have just said did happen. But he was there, a little like a husband of the right kind. And I think she loved him a little, and he loved her more than that, and was hurt and sad when she neglected him, or let him see too clearly that he was not the only man she took to her bed.
Of course in the Ceremonies all lay with all, as they must. He could not mind that, it would have been blasphemy to be jealous of another priest or the High Priest himself. But in the house he did not like it. I knew he did not, and guessed that he must truly love her, although I did not understand that kind of love then. Perhaps I do not understand it now. All is in God’s hands. If I do not know it I shall be shown.
So we would walk home, the three of us, and Olympias would let us into the courtyard, and go back to bed. That would be between nine and ten at night, of course, and the two servant girls asleep, and Philip the Steward out already on his secret business. Or what he thought was secret. But nothing was secret from my mistress, at least of that kind.
In the Fresco room Anna would have laid the great round table for our supper, with wine and fruit and honey cake’s and cheese and bowls of dates and all the things that Baruch and Mary liked to eat before they slept together, and I would kneel at my mistress’s side, between the two of them and serve them both, pouring the wine and holding the dishes on my palms for them. And I would begin to feel the lust gathering in my mistress like a scent, like a great cat that gives off muskiness and heat as it comes to its mate. Not because it was Baruch, but because of what he would do to her while they made love, and before and after. She wanted not his love, but his cruelty.
Although he was not a cruel man and his cruelty was only play compared to another who was to come and eat there with us at that table. And run a dark finger on the ivory inlays, the white Signs of the Zodiac inlaid into the brown surface of the wood. I wonder the ivory did not blacken as he touched it. But Baruch was not that kind of man, although their destinies bound them together in the same enterprise, before the end. I think in reality Baruch’s heart was as soft and gentle as his smile, and he would have been quite happy to make love to a woman as most men do, lying beside her in a bed. But my mistress had no pleasure out of that kind of love. She needed to feel pain, and she forced him to inflict it on her, and to come to enjoy doing it.
So I would kneel between them, serving them, and feel the force of desire gathering, and tremble with it myself. I longed to go up with them, and lie beside her, and let him beat me as he would beat her, with the long cane that he used, or a leather slipper, or his hand.
When they themselves went up to the turret room on the roof, up the stone steps from the courtyard outside the loggia, my hands would shake as I cleared away the dishes, and I could not swallow. I would try to drink a cup of wine, and spill it down my white linen tunic, I would drop fruit as I picked it up to put back in a dish. And I would listen. And imagine. After a time, when I knew it would be safe, I would creep up the stairs to listen out-side the door of my mistress’s room. Kneeling in the dark, or the moonlight, my ear pressed against the wood, my heart beating. I would hear him striking her, hear her crying out, not for pain but for more pain, for him to strike harder than he wanted to. Hear the cutting of the cane and imagine it was my body lying there. Until I could bear it no longer, and I would run down the stairs in my bare feet, and go to the servants’ quarters where the two sisters lay, Anna and Euphrosine.
I would wake them up and tell them that they had done wrong things during the day, and that if they did not submit to be punished I would tell my mistress and they would be truly whipped. Then I would beat each of them with a cane I kept there for the purpose, and threatened them with worse if they cried out and woke my mother, Olympias. If they were good, and stayed silent long enough, I would stop beating them and get between them in their pallet bed on the floor, and be kind to them, as girls are kind to one another in bed, in the dark. Of course, sometimes Olympias heard me, and woke up, and drove me away. But she did not threaten me, because she knew that my mistress would only laugh, no matter what I did to the two girls. It would have amused her to know of it.
So my mother would only scold me, and drive me away. But often enough she slept through everything, and the two girls would stop crying, and let me be kind to them, and I would lie with them for an hour or two, until it was time to go back to the stairs and wait for Baruch to leave. I would sit there in the dark with Shaitan for company, his eyes shining like red fire. I got to know him in those hours and nights. He was much nobler than most men I have met. Nobility shone out of him like that fire from his eyes I feel ashamed often when I think of him and of how his dignity of heart was so great, and mine so little. May the Eternal God forgive me in the end as He has promised. And may my true Mistress have Shaitan in Her keeping and by Her side.
About four o’clock in the morning, that darkest time. Baruch would come down the steps softly, shivering a little with the night air, and tiredness, and spent force. It is not a good way to love, and leaves the lover shivering. I would let him out of the gates, Shaitan growling softly, as if he knew all that had been done, and scorned it in his soul. Then I would go up the steps again to the roof, and my mistress’s bedroom where I too slept. But before I lay down on my pallet at the foot of her bed I would hold up the night lamp and look at her, lying face down and naked, her hair dishevelled, clinging to her head and the nape of her neck with love-sweat. I would look at the marks on her body, and trace them with my finger tip, not quite touching her skin. Her skin like ivory and amber, amber shadows between her legs, between her body and her arm, here in the hollows of her waist, beneath her hair. I have never seen so beautiful a body.
Far more beautiful than the pictures of the Goddess woven into the tapestries downstairs in the Fresco room. I did not know then that such beauty comes only from God and must be treated as a holy thing. I would stand for a quarter hour on end, gazing down at her. Longing to love her, to be loved by her, to suffer the love ecstacies that she enjoyed. I did not know what would come. I did not know anything.
Then I would lie down and sleep, and dream that Dionysus came to me, and scourged me with the bull’s hide whip until I screamed in my sleep with the pain of it, and the joy of it, and died the God’s death.
This is the third day of telling my story, and it is now time I think to tell you what my days were like, and the days of the house where I lived with Mary my mistress. Days other than the Fridays of the Ceremonies, I mean. Once you know what we did each day, then you will know all the personal things that matter about us, and I can tell you what happened to us in the sureness that you will understand how and why it came about. Although as I tell that for Simon to write down, that “why” comes back to me. How a thing happens, that is easy to tell. But why? Oh, that is a different thing. Why should my mistress of all the High Priestesses of Dionysus, of all the thieves that there are and have been, why should she have been singled out? And I for her handmaid and accomplice? Why? But to ask such questions is to question the meaning of the world, and the plans of Eternal God.So, to our common days. The household woke at dawn, to the clatter and outcry of the cockerels. Indeed, their uproar began long before dawn and would have woken most households before sunrise. But Olympias loved her bed, and Philip was usually not there, and the two servant girls, the sisters Anna and Euphrosine, they would have slept through a tempest at sea, and drowned still yawning. While my mistress and I, asleep in the turret room – well, it is servants who are supposed to wake early, not their mistress, or those set over them. I have told you, I was not truly a servant in that house.But by sunrise Olympias my mother would be up and dressed, and she would rout out the two young girls by stripping off their coverlet and cuffing their ears, and they too would begin shuffling about in the courtyard, and pretending to wash themselves in buckets of water drawn up from the well. Often enough when I came down they were still smelly from sleep, the way young girls are, and I would make them wash again, pouring the water over them naked until they screamed. I always believed in cleanliness. But that would not be for several hours. Then, at sunrise, as soon as they were dressed, they had to run and open the gates so that Enoch the gardener, and Georgiakis the cook, and the two young slave boys for the kitchen could enter and begin their work. And if Philip the Steward had been out on his pimping he would slip in as well, with a sly smile, and a purse of money hidden under his tunic.
My mother would be feeding the birds, the cockerels and the doves, and then the fish, as I have told you already I think, feeding them with the wine-soaked grain that Mary my mistress had blessed. There would be a scrabbling, and a fluttering of wings, and the courtyard would be full of bird sounds, cooing and squabbling and fighting over morsels. Very like mankind. The grain is there to be eaten, and yet men fight for it, and try to drive each other away from what God has given. Blessed be the Sacred Name. Blessed be the Mother.
When that task was done, Olympias and Euphrosine the kitchen maid would break their fast very quickly with a cup of wine and some bread, and would go to market to buy what we needed for the day. Georgiakis would begin to light the fires and prepare my mistress’s breakfast, and Anna would prepare breakfast for him, and the slave boys and herself, and Enoch. It was not an important meal for them. Thin wine, and thin gruel. It is not good to feed servants heavily. They grow fat, and will not work, and become insolent. Mark that Simon, and tell the others. A servant with heavy flesh is no good to any mistress. Mary the Thief never made that mistake. Only Olympias grew fat in our household, and that was because it was her nature, and she was very privileged, having been nurse not only to my mistress, but to my mistress’s mother before her, as I have told.
So the day’s work began. Enoch doing what gardeners do, which never seemed to me to be very much. What could he have found to do in a court-yard, with a fig tree and a plane tree and a few stone vases of flowers, and some bushes growing in great tubs, and a fish pond with water lilies and old carp in it? I never yet saw a gardener hurry, or sweat, and you may tell that to our gardener, Simon. I see these things. I have other matters on my mind to occupy it, so that I may not speak about them. But I see them, and note them down.
So, the day begins. A clatter of cooking pots in the kitchen, the sweep of a besom broom in the yard, the doves circling overhead, the cockerels contented for a while, the sun growing warm, then hot. Anna polishing the great round table in the Fresco room, and dusting and cleaning, and doing what house servants do. She would also eat the remains of my mistress’s supper, although she was not supposed to. I used to count the pieces of fruit, and the honey cakes left over, and there were always some missing, although she swore by Zeus and Hera that she had never touched a morsel. That was among the things I used to beat her for, and her sister with her, because I think she stole cakes for Euphrosine, as well as eating them herself.
At ten o’clock, Anna would come up the stairs to wake us, my mistress and I, with our breakfast, of wine – good wine this, well warmed and spiced – with fresh baked sweet cakes, and honey, and perhaps some figs if they were in season, or other fruit, and I would get up and serve Mary on my knees by the bed. And serve myself. Or she would feed me. She liked to do that, putting morsels into my mouth and closing my lips with her fingers. And I would feed her. It was a good time of the day. and she was always her happiest then, as if sleep had washed unhappiness out of her. She was not always happy, far from it. But at breakfast we laughed together. When I think back on my life with her it is those quarter hours I remember with most joy, if I may use that word for anything about our lives then.
When we had eaten she would sometimes pull me into her bed and play with me, making love to me as women do with one another, or pretending that she was angry and that she would beat me for it. I longed for her to do that, and was always disappointed. She was not cruel, you see, not in that way. She would kill if need be, for profit, or to protect herself, or anything dear to her. But she would not do it in a cruel way. She liked to receive pain, but not give it, and she often said to me that cruelty was a sin, almost the only true sin that there is. What neither she nor I thought of then was that no one can receive erotic pain for the lust of it unless someone else delights in giving the pain to others.
If I had known it then, that was a key to many secrets, that interchange of cruelty and submission. The one who submits is as guilty of the cruelty as the one who inflicts it. It is like – no, not “like” – it is a calling of evil into existence, into the world, and feeding it until it grows monstrous, and takes on a life. There are evil spirits that surround us, longing to be fed. And such things feed them. But I did not know, and Mary my mistress did not know it.
Why were we born like that? That “why” again. All the wisdom of books could not answer it. I think to myself that each of us has a temptation bedded into our hearts. For one it is gluttony, like my mother, another perverse lust like Philip’s lust for small boys, and sodomy with his harlots that he kept and robbed and exploited. For another laziness, like Anna and Euphrosine. For another drunkenness, for another greed for gain. And for me it was that love of pain, of terror, that longing to submit to something which my soul could know for evil, and did not, would not recognise.
I think again that each of these sins, and mine above all, is the mirror’s image of a virtue. These lusts for the things of this world are the Perverse image of the lusts we ought to have for Eternal God, and the service of our Mistress. It is at Her feet I should have lain, Her tenderness I should have wept for, not my mistress’s cruelty.
But I am telling too much of my own heart, and delaying the story. So to our breakfast again, and our love-making perhaps, and then down to the bathrooms below. The cold room and the hot room, and the two marble baths which were already filled and the one of them heated by the furnace below the floor. It was Anna’s task, and Enoch’s, to see that both baths were ready. I think I did not mention about the furnace when I was describing the house? Simon nods, and tells me that I did not. In a Greek or Roman house it was so ordinary a thing, and still is. I have no doubt, that I could not have thought it worth mentioning. Here, in this village, and even in Babylon, they have scarcely heard of such things. But we were Greeks. Every good house had its hypocaust, and heated pool, and in winter the whole house was warmed in that way, at least the mistress’s parts of it. Servants should keep warm with their work, Simon, and then go to bed.
In the bathing rooms I would take off my mistress’s linen gown and she would step down into the water, sometimes the cold first, and then the hot, running from one room to the other. Or she might bathe the other way about, hot first, then cold. And I would kneel beside the pool with big white towels to dry her. There would be scents and ambergris and ointments and herbs spilled into the water, and the rooms would be filled with perfumes like a garden, or a bedroom for lovers. Sometimes she pulled me into the bath with her and we would play together and she would pretend to drown me like a kitten. She was very strong. Or else she would simply lie in the water, floating like a white water lily, her legs stretched out, her hair spread on the water in a dark red mass, her eyes shut. Until she would shake her dreams away, and I would help her out of the bath and bring her to one of the couches.
There she would lie down and I would massage her body, beginning at her feet. Rubbing oils and ointments into her skin, freeing out her beautiful, supple flesh. Legs, hips and thighs, her smooth rounded body, her arms, her neck. Turning her over and massaging her breasts and her loins, scenting her secret parts for her as she loved me to do. Until she was satisfied and sat up, and I dressed her hair for the day.
It did not take so long, all this, on ordinary days. Only an hour or so. Before midday I had dressed her for the day’s business in the City, and dressed myself, and we were out in the streets. She would have talked to Olympias, returned from market, and to Philip, giving her orders for the day, and to Enoch too, because he was handsome and she liked to talk to him, I think, rather than for any need to tell him about the flowers and the fish. And we would be out and walking fast towards whatever part of the City she had business in that day.
Often enough it was the Temple, where she had business in the colonnades with the money changers, and the tax collectors, and some of the priests of the Temple, and the animal and bird sellers. Often it was to the Praetorium and the Roman Treasury where Baruch was an official. Both were near us in the North of the City. Sometimes it was to shops in the heart of the City, the fashionable streets, not to buy as rich women do but to look over stolen goods, hidden in the back quarters of the jewellers shops or the silk merchants’, or the covered booths of the dealers in gold and silver articles or precious rugs.
The owners would make a sign to her, and we would go through to a private room where things would be spread out, or set on tables for her to examine. She would know in an instant whether she wanted to buy. She would make a sign to me and I would open the money bag that we had filled in the Temple or at the Treasury, or from another shop where she had extorted blackmail money from some fool in her power, and I would count out gold. She never troubled with silver coins. Gold from Greece, or Rome, or Persia, or Alexandria. She knew the values of every coin that ever was, and could weigh them in her hand to within half a barley grain, and know if they were true weight.
Twenty gold pieces for that, ten for this. Five or fifty for another piece. If the shopkeeper, the small receiver of thieves’ gainings of the night or the week before, the receiver of bandits’ stuff – if he protested, she would either sweep up the coins and pour them back into my bag, or else she would look at him. If she did that he would begin to stammer and offer her the goods at any price she liked. She never argued, or haggled about a price. And most of the receivers knew it. If they forgot they soon learned again. Nor did she ever write anything down. All was in her head. After an hour or so of buying in three or four different places she knew to the grain what she had spent, and what she had bought. Woe to the imbecile who tried to cheat her, substituting one thing for another, after she had bought it and before it was collected. He would never cheat any one again. A thief’s throat is as easily slit as a fool’s.
Again, none of this took very long. She might sit ten minutes with a favourite receiver, if it was near midday, or one o’clock, and take a cup of wine and some sweetmeats with him. Otherwise five minutes did her business. And she would go on to another place. Until about two o’clock we would come to Bar Abbas’s house in the depths of the thieves’ quarter. I have told you already that he was her chief helper in the quarter, her lieutenant or captain, and he thought himself much more. He did not know much about the Cult, and imagined she needed his strength and that of his bandit followers, as well as his loyalty and friendship. Did I tell you that he had been a real bandit, out in the Judaean Hills? Until the Romans brought too much peace to them, and drove the robbers into the City? He never cared for City life very much, and robbing houses at night instead of travellers by day. He liked to sleep a lot and to use his strength rather than his cunning. But he loved Mary, and was proud to serve her.
I hated his house. It was dark, and ill smelling, and there were always vicious-looking men loitering about, who frightened me. Not simple murderers, but men who looked as if they enjoyed murdering, which is a different thing. When Mary went inside I always stayed in the street, squatting down by the wall and covering my face with my shawl. But Mary seemed not to mind the smells. She would go upstairs to the roof and make love with Bar Abbas up there. I know it, although she never told me. I think she was even a little ashamed of it. She would come down looking full-eyed, her eyelids swollen, and her gown disarranged and her hair tumbled. Not everyone might have noticed it, but I did, because I dressed her, and dressed her hair. No matter how carefully she rearranged herself, I noticed.
And I noticed the smell of Bar Abbas on her. His true name I might say here was Simon, like my scribe’s, and I see that you do not like to write these things down about your father. I am sorry for it. I do not want to offend anyone, even a scribe. But the truth must be told. His name was Simon, and he was called by everyone Bar Abbas because that was true of him. The son of the Father, meaning the Unknown Father. Do not mind it, scribe. What man knows his father, except his Father who is God?
He had pale, pale blue eyes, and a flattened nose like a sickle blade, broken across the bridge by someone’s club, long ago. There was a knife scar down his right cheek from the outer garner of the eye down to below his mouth, curving in to the chin. It showed up thin and white in the glossy blackness of his beard. Women have told me that they found even the scar and the broken nose wonderful, promising great pleasure in love. He smelled always of sweat and dirt, and he wore a leather jerkin that had a tannery stench from it and shone with hard wear and grease. In body he was a tall man, near to six feet tall, but for a couple of inches, and broad and powerful with it, very dark and hairy, the hairs curling over the edge of his jerkin and like black fur on his bare arms. He made me shudder.
The men hanging round the house who saw Mary go up to him used to laugh about what would happen to her. “Like a sword” they said of Bar Abbas’s member, “only much thicker. He’ll split her in half.” Until they knew who she was, and then they kept heir jokes very quiet, in case they were overheard. No one made jokes about my mistress in her hearing. As I have told you, when she walked in the streets people drew away from her respectfully, or fearfully, unless they were ignorant of who she was. That used to make me very proud as I walked behind her. But to the story of our day again. From Bar Abbas’s house we would go with Bar Abbas and that mute slave of his (as I said, perhaps the slave belonged truly to Mary, I never knew. I did not even know the slave’s name, if he had one. He was a Nubian with a shaved skull and body, and very strong and strong smelling and purple black, and deaf as well as mute.) – we would go, I say, back to the shops where she had bought, and collect her purchases, already baled up for her, or put into strong sacks.
She never looked to see if all was as it should be. She did not need to. And we would go then to another part of the thieves’ quarter, near the Market, to her treasure house. This was as I described it to you yesterday, and I need say no more of it here. The stowing away of her purchases never took very long. Within a few minutes we were on our way home, Bar Abbas and the slave leaving us immediately. By three o’clock we were in our house, and sitting down to a meal of roast meat and wine, and iced fruits, and cakes, and goat’s cheese and fresh bread, and whatever else Georgiakis had prepared for her. She always ate very greedily at this meal, until she could eat no more. I shared it with her of course, and then she went up to bed and slept until dusk, while I watched her, or slept myself. But if it was hot I must sit by her bed and fan her with the great winnowing fan that I used to cool the room. And watch her asleep.
I do not know whether it was because of Bar Abbas, although I used to think that it was, but at that time she always lay with her mouth open, ungainly, spread on her back, and snoring. And her face grew almost ugly, or as near to it as was possible for so beautiful a woman. Ugly. Thinking back, seeing her face again in those hours of day time sleep, I think I saw not only ugliness there, but wickedness. I did not want to see it, and I would close my eyes against it. And have to open them again, and look again, to make sure what I had seen. I never liked those hours, and was glad when I could sleep through them, and not look at her.
About six o’clock, as dusk fell, we would wake, and go down to the court-yard. That was a pleasant time. We would sit on the marble bench under the plane tree, on the purple cushions with their golden fringes, and the doves would come and peck round her feet. Or the hornets and the wasps and the bees that I have already told you of, that had been feeding at the honey jar and flying lazily about the fig tree as if they were waiting for us, they would come to us and settle on our fingers. We would play with them, as I have said, and talk to Enoch as he prepared to go home, or to my mother Olympias about the day’s gossip, that she had heard in the market, or about old times with my mistress’s mother, when they lived in Magdala in Galilee, in the north, beside the lake.
Enoch and his brother the cook and the two slave boys would go home, and the birds would quieten with the darkness. The stars would come out, and Mary would sometimes tell me of things she knew about them, of the great Signs of the Zodiac that the Magi read like books, and of what they foretell. Olympias would be preparing our evening meal, and at about seven o’clock, or an hour or so after dark, we would go in to eat and as soon as he arrived Olympias would let in Baruch ben Isaac, who always came to share our meal with us before he and Mary went up to bed to make love.
Before that I served them as usual, kneeling between them, and when the meal was finished – and it was only a supper of goats’ milk and bread and honey and cheese cakes – when this brief supper was over I would play the flute for them. It would be late enough by then, if we did not eat immediately Baruch came. Often he and Mary had business to talk of, of the Cult, or the Treasury, or some blackmailing that they were both concerned in, and it might be nine o’clock before we went to the table, and the tenth hour before we were finished and I had begun to play.
Sometimes I would play for a few minutes, and sometimes for a quarter of an hour, while they talked, or fondled one another. And then Mary would make a sign to me, and I would lay down the flute and begin to dance a dance that she had taught me. The love dance that is like the Seven Veils but is not meant for Power. Only to rouse passion. Slowly uncovering my body, and offering it now to Mary, now to Baruch, tempting him to touch me, until I could see his hands trembling and Mary would bring him away to the loggia and the stairs, and her bedroom.
I have already told you of how they made love, of the kind of love she wanted from him. And of how I would creep up to their door and listen, and then run down to beat the two young girls and make love to them. To get up from their child-smelling pallet and sit in the cool dark by the stairs, by Shaitan’s kennel, listening to his low rumbling and growling, and looking up at the stars and wondering what they might foretell for me. Riches? Love of the kind I longed for? Power? I read them all in those stars. But never the truth.
Until Baruch came softly down to me, and I let him out of the courtyard and barred the gate behind him, and went up to my mistress and to bed, and sleep. To dream of lying with Baruch, and my mistress, offering myself to both of them, and to the God. Or lying dreamless, until I half woke to hear the cocks crowing, and fell deeper asleep until Anna woke us at ten o’clock, and our new day began.
Until one of those new days brought us to the Temple, as was usual, and nothing was ever as it had been before. Never again.
Did you ever see the Temple in Jerusalem? In the days before the great war? If you did not, imagine a vast courtyard, five hundred yards from end to end, or more. Six hundred, perhaps. And four hundred broad. All of it surrounded by a colonnade, roofed in and pillared, to make a shadowed walk fight round. In the middle is the Temple itself, and the Gate called “Beautiful” that leads into it, covered by the Veil. No one may go past the Veil who is not a priest. The Veil is a great tapestry, twenty feet high and forty feet long, hiding the Gate, and the front of the Temple. The Temple Maidens weave the tapestry, and it takes twenty years to weave it, many hundreds of women working on it when they are called to that duty because of their descent from the Jewish King, David, father of Solomon the Wise. The mother of the man we saw that day once worked on it, so I was told, because she too was descended from King David. And when the new Veil is finished, the old is taken down and stored away, because it is a Holy thing. It is always dark green in colour, and worked with symbols of the Jews’ God, Jehovah.
I tell you all this in case you never saw Jerusalem and the Temple, before the Romans destroyed the City. It was a great sight to see. And so was everything about the Temple. and the Temple Courtyard. As I have said, only priests of Jehovah might go behind the Veil, but anyone, man or woman, Jew or stranger. might go into the Courtyard, and look at the sights. You could change money there, or have letters written by the scribes who sat at desks in the Colonnade, or consult a lawyer, because there were always lawyers there, both of Roman and Jewish law. And there were Rabbis, teachers of the Jewish Holy Scriptures. There were Orthodox Jews with phylacteries bound to their foreheads, praying to their God as they walked about. Praying aloud, because that is how they pray. There would be Pharisees, which is one sect of them, or was; and Saducees, who do not believe in the soul, or that there is any life after death; and Zealots who would like to fight the Romans; and country Jews come up for the Passover, and to make a sacrifice in the Temple. And men selling pigeons and doves and goats and lambs and oxen to be sacrificed, and making a fortune out of it. And priests who would perform the sacrifices, again for money. (The place stank of money. That was why we went there.) Indeed, very often the priests gained both ways, for they would take the money and carry the sacrifices behind the veil, saying that they were going to kill the animal or the bird in the ritual fashion, and then burn its body, and instead they would do nothing of the sort, but after a time would come out and say it was done. When the country people went away satisfied the priest would fetch the sacrifice, still alive and squealing or lowing or cooing, and sell it back for half price to the dealers in such things. It was quite a trade, and Mary had her share in it. Any priest who did not want to share found himself denounced to the High Priest of the Temple, and the authorities.
Everyone shared with Mary. The money changers who gave false weight. The lawyers who gave false advice. The animal dealers who sold blemished animals, or dying birds, or who bought the sacrifices back again, unsacrificed. The tax collectors who collected the Temple dues and pocketed half of them. They shared with Mary. We never left the Temple Courtyard without having filled our leather money bag, and it only took a quarter of an hour. Except this day.
It was near the Feast of Thanksgiving, only a few days before it, and the Courtyard was full of people. It was always full enough, but now it was packed, with visitors and foreigners, Jews from the Cities of Exile, students of the Jewish Law, followers of great Rabbis come to hear their masters preach in the colonnades. Such an uproar as made it difficult to think, let alone speak or hear.
Temple Guards were hurrying about, trying to keep order, and failing wretchedly. One could see them trying to arrest thieves and pickpockets and blasphemers, but because one could see them so easily they always failed. In all the courtyard and Temple precincts they alone were bareheaded, and as soon as a pickpocket saw a bareheaded young man in a white tunic, with a sword belt, and a sword at his side, he left off whatever he was doing, and ran and hid in the thickest part of the crowd. The guards might have done better if they had watched the priests and the officials instead of the pick pockets and the whores.
But all that was everyday stuff and nothing to be noticed, except that there was more of it. Until in one part of the Courtyard there rose a tremendous outcry, over by Solomon’s Porch, where the animal sellers and the money changers were, not far from the great South Gates. Everyone tried to see what was happening, and crowded towards that corner, and we with them. Even in such a crowd people made way for Mary, and I followed her, burrowing among tunics, and men and women, and sweat and shouting, and priests and Levites and Pharisees and students and whores and thieves and bumpkins and Temple Guards, until I could see what was happening.
A man was driving away the animals. He had unfastened the cattle and the lambs and goats and let the birds out of their wicker cages. He had overset the tables where the dealers in animals for sacrifice sat counting their money, and as I watched him he came to the row of money changers’ booths and overset those as well, so that coins rolled on the marble pavement, and there was such an ugly scramble to pick them up that I was almost swept off my feet. Men were cursing and fighting over the money, women screaming as they were knocked down and trampled, the money changers and the animal dealers were yelling for the Temple Guards to come and arrest the maniac who was driving away their stock and overturning their money tables and scattering their money to be stolen. The Guards were struggling to get through the crowd to see what was happening. I doubt if anything like it had ever happened in the existence of the Temple, or since the first Temple was built by Solomon the Wise a thousand years ago. I am sure it had not.
And strangest of all he was not a big man who was doing this, not someone like Bar Abbas, a bandit who hated the Orthodox Jews and the Temple, and everything to do with God. He was very small. And he did not look like a bandit. He was dressed in a brown robe, like a man from the north, with a rope girdle, and rough sandals. I saw him as clearly as I see you, Simon. Clearer, for my eyes were young then, and very sharp. A small man dressed in a brown robe. And driving away the goats and lambs and calves, as they lowed and bellowed in amazement at what was happening. Even they seemed to know that it was an astonishing thing.
The man had a thin beard and long black hair, and when he stood still for a moment I saw that his shoulder, his right shoulder, was hunched up, although he was not a cripple. I found out afterwards that he was a carpenter, and that hunch of the shoulder came from using a heavy plane on timber when he was young. But it made him look strange. And he stood still for a moment and looked at Mary, my mistress, who alone in the crowd went near to him. Everyone else, for all the fighting and the surging of the crowd, kept back from him, making a clear space round him and the fallen tables and bird cages. Even the men he was insulting had got out of his way, and were shouting at him from a few yards off. Perhaps they thought he was going to strike them, but as I have said, he did not look Bar Abbas’s type of man, although he was very angry, and you could see it in his eyes. He had great dark eyes, very great and dark, and they showed his anger.
I heard him shouting, “Take them away, take these things out of my Father’s house! You have made it a den of thieves!” He had a great voice for a small man, and you could have heard him if there had been twice the up-roar that there was. Then my mistress went close to him, and said something. In all the crowd she was the only one who dared to go near him. He looked at her for a second, but I do not think he answered her. Instead he went on driving the cattle and the sheep in front of him up the long porch towards the gate that gives on to the road to Bethphage and Bethany, and the Sea of Salt.
I do not know what happened after that. I think the Guards were too stun-ned to arrest him, or else he slipped away before they could catch him. I have said they were not very clever. The crowd followed, watching to see what would happen, and I stayed by one of the pillars of the porch, waiting for my mistress to find me. She came to me after a few moments, and her face was white with rage.
“He is a madman” she said. “Worse than a madman. We can do no business here today.” So we went down to the Thieves’ Quarter, and to Bar Abbas’s house.
We heard a great deal about that carpenter during the following year. The whole City talked of him and what he had done, and what he was doing. It was difficult to believe anything that people said. You know what City rumours are. A man makes any sort of name for himself and people will say anything. They told that this man healed the lame and the blind merely by touching them. Less, by saying, “You are healed, go home.” And men who had been paralysed for twenty years were supposed to have got up and walked, and men who had been blind from birth saw the world for the first time. He was even supposed to have raised the dead, which made educated people laugh, but impressed the poor. As for the unclean, the lepers, he cured them by the dozen by all reports, nine and ten at a time, and their skins turned white as they had been before they were afflicted, and they were able to make the sacrifice that Moses laid down for such happenings.And here was a strange thing. My mistress had a distant cousin, named Simon like you, scribe, a Jew, and he had been afflicted. He was an easy going kind of Jew, not orthodox at all, and the Orthodox said that that was why he was struck down by God. You know what religious people are. They have a strange idea of God. This cousin of my mistress’s lived in Bethany, and was married. Newly married I think when he was afflicted, and he had to leave the town, and his wife, and his house, and go and live in the caves among the other unclean ones. And the man I am telling you about, the carpenter, healed him.I know more about it now, and I am not surprised by such a thing, but I was surprised then and did not really believe it although I saw the man with my own eyes. He came to visit us in Jerusalem with his wife Hephzibah to make the sacrifices of thanksgiving I never saw him when he was unclean but he swore he had been and so did his wife and my mistress knew it for a fact. And we saw him clean again not a trace of the disease
“He is the Messiah” Simon said. “He is the Son of God.” Which is what all the poor were saying. We told Simon about the uproar in the Temple when the carpenter cleared out the animals and overturned thc money changers desks and their cash boxes, and he laughed as if he had never heard anything so fine.
“He was cleansing his father’s house” he said, “just as he cleansed me. Blessed be God. Blessed be the Holy Name.”
When they were gone my mistress was very thoughtful. Whatever lay behind it you could not really argue away the cleansing of a man from leprosy. Even she could not do that, She could heal pain, or ease it, on herself or others. But only to a certain point. What Simon had told us was beyond her understanding. Such things belong to the Gods. And this man was a carpenter. From Nazareth in Galilee which made it even less believable. Up there in the North they are as ignorant as barbarians, and even the Jews there are not really Jews, according to the Orthodox. They are more like Samaritans.
It was then that Mary told me of the time when she had played with the little boy in Nazareth, so many and many years before, when she was six years old. He had been a carpenter’s son, and she began to wonder if it was the same one. How many carpenters were there likely to have been in a place like Nazareth? This man’s name was Joshua, or Jesus in our language. Joshua son of Mary, or Miriam in Hebrew, of the House of King David. Perhaps, we thought, it was his descent from the great king that gave him power.
Among the Jews, of course, royal descent does not mean that the person needs to be rich, and it would be quite possible for the carpenter to be both of the House of David and to be as poor as he had seemed to be, from his clothes and his calling. Joshua son of Miriam. There were stories that he was like Bar Abbas, of an unknown father. Now that I think of it again, and tell it to be written down, there is something very strange about that similarity, be-tween Joshua son of Miriam, or Mary, and Simon son of no one. But of course it did not strike us as strange then.
Some rumours said that the carpenter was the son of a Roman soldier who had violated his mother. But that could scarcely have been true, or surely she could not have worked on the Veil which she is supposed to have done long after Joshua was born to her. Perhaps I should explain there, Simon, for those who read this and do not know Hebrew, that the word “maiden” in the Jews’ Scriptures, as when they call a woman a “Temple maiden”, does not mean what a doctor of medicine would mean by it, that the woman has never lain with a man, but that she is a young woman, and fit for certain ritual tasks, like weaving the veil. Miriam the mother of Joshua would have been older than I was at the time I am telling of when she worked on the Veil, and already a mother, as I have said.
But the rumours of his birth. There were some that believed he was the son of Herod, and that Herod had tried to find him and his mother when he was born, and kill him, in case he grew up to claim the throne. And that Herod had killed every new born child he could lay hands on, at the time, in case it was his own bastard. But surely that too was only a story, made up to amaze the ignorant people who like wonders, and stories about kings. I never heard of any kings yet who did not have scores of bastards, and did they go round trying to kill them all? They usually set them up in life and became quite fond of them.
And of course there was the Great Rumour, that this Joshua was truly the Son of God, in the full sense of the term. To us Greeks of course, there was nothing outrageous in such a rumour. Zeus had children by mortal women, more than one, and among the Romans there are families who claim descent not only from the Gods but from Goddesses. Julius the King who reigned before Augustus was descended from the Roman Venus, who was cousin to Aphrodite the Chaste, and all the Julian Emperors became gods because of it.
No, there was nothing impossible to us about even a carpenter being the Son of God. But to the Jews, the Orthodox Jews of course, it was the Blasphemy of Blasphemies. They have only One God, Jehovah, and they will not so much as write down His Name in full, but make special signs to represent it. They will not even pronounce His Name aloud. Only the High Priest may do that, and then only once a year, in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies.
I think now that they were close to the truth in that, although not absolutely. But who knows the Absolute but God Himself? At the time I am speaking of, naturally, neither my mistress nor I thought that the Jews knew anything, the Orthodox, I mean. Jews like Baruch ben Isaac knew what we knew, and he too smiled at his Orthodox brothers, and all their sects.
Yes, yes, Simon, the carpenter. I shall tell more of him now. Where was I? His birth, as the Son of God, or of Herod, or of a Roman soldier. I know now who he was, and what he was, and I believe that he was the Son of God, and I make His sign as I pronounce his name. You see it, Simon? Forehead and heart. Left shoulder and right. The forehead that you may think. The heart that you may feel. The shoulders that you may bear the burdens God chooses to set on them. Amen. Blessed he His Name.
But the carpenter, while he was still a carpenter. We heard the stories, we smiled, we heard Simon the leper’s story, and others like it. And then we heard of my mistress’s cousin, also called Mary, or Miriam among the Jews. People called her Mary of Magdala, to distinguish her from my mistress who was called Mary of Jerusalem, or Mary the Thief, or Mary the High Priestess, according to who it was who spoke of her. Both she and her cousin were born in Magdala, of two sisters, and they grew up there together until my mistress was ten years old or so, and her mother Berenike brought her to Jerusalem as I have told, twenty and more years before the time I am describing.
But the mothers kept in friendship and cousinship with one another, and visited one another, now in Magdala, which is a nothing of a place near the Sea of Galilee, did I tell you that, Simon? and now in Jerusalem, when my mistress’s cousin would be brought to the City for the Passover or another festival, because her father was a Jew. Not Orthodox, of course, or he would not have married a Greek woman, but he still kept the Festivals.
And as my mistress’s cousin grew up, she became beautiful. Not as beautiful as my mistress, but still an astonishing kind of beauty, rather frail, like a flower, with the same red hair and green eyes and pale skin that my mistress had, and almost as tall. She had some of the same lusts as well, although not for suffering. Her lusts were for men, and for ordinary love, and she gave herself to almost any one who pleased her eye. She made money out of it. Her mother saw to that once she saw also that there was no help for it, and that her daughter was born to be a harlot. She kept her away from stupid, penniless lovers, and arranged things with rich Greeks and Romans and Egyptians. Some of these men kept Mary of Magdala for weeks and even months together, so it is not proper to call her a simple harlot. A hetaira. A courtesan. But it comes to much the same thing in the end. Down dark alleyways for a denarius a time, and a pimp to take even that from her as soon as she had earned it. There is no good in giving yourself to men. Mark that too, scribe Simon. I know you. I know how you look at the servant girls, and what you promise them. And what your promises mean.
No, no, no protests, no lies. Write down what I say. Mary of Magdala. A courtesan on the way to the end of all fools of women, with seven devils of lust between her legs to drive her faster towards it. Real devils, too, because she had the falling sickness, and would go rigid and cataleptic in the middle of making love, sometimes, or she would fall down in front of you, foaming at the mouth. And she had another devil, too, of giving her money away. So soon as her mother took her eyes from her, she would give money to any one. Friend, beggar, slave, lover. Men had only to ask her and she gave. It must have come from her father, it could not have come from her Greek blood. All in all she was not a cousin my mistress could be proud of, although she could have been rich enough if she had not been such a fool.
And then everything about her changed. Because of the carpenter. She was visiting Simon the leper in Bethany, who was her cousin too, naturally enough, and there she saw the carpenter, Joshua son of Miriam. And fell in love with him. Or something of that kind. God Eternal knows. She fell at his feet in one of her falling fits, and he stooped down, Hephzibah the wife of Simon told us, and laid his hand on her hair.
“Get up, woman he said. “Your devils have come out of you.”
And Mary was healed. She was healed of the falling sickness and the catalepsy. Healed of her lusts, or so Hephzibah swore. The only thing she was not healed of was from giving things away. The first moment she was healed she ran to where she was staying in Bethany, the inn I suppose, and fetched a jar of ointment that some one had given her – it must have been worth a silver pound, Hephzibah said, it was pure nard – and she rushed back with it and broke the jar on the floor and smeared the ointment all over the carpen-ter’s dusty feet. Then she wept so much that she practically washed them with her tears, Hephzibah told us, and dried them with her hair. It did not sound to me as if she was cured at all. I thought she sounded worse, but Hephzibah was tremendously impressed, and told us that from that day Mary of Magdala never went with a man. but followed the carpenter wherever he went, listening to his teaching, and serving him. As a lot of women did, apparently.
My mistress laughed at that, and so did I.
“I know that kind of Teacher” my mistress said, “that has a company of harlots to look after him. I might listen to him myself if I had the time.”
Hephzibah was so angry that she went away without saying another word, even farewell, and we went on laughing. I think now it was as if we were hoping to find something to laugh at, to find out that it was all lies about him, and that he was no more than the kind of trickster who heals people at Fairs and juggles with fire and things like that, in order to cozen money out of imbeciles.
But soon we heard so many stories, and so many bore one another out, about his healing the lame and the blind, the sick and the paralysed, and even of his raising the dead, that it was no longer possible to laugh, even though most of the stories came from the North, beyond Samaria; from Galilee, and Trachonitis on the east side of the lake, and from farther north still, in Phoenicia, round Tyre and Sidon and Zarephath. You could not laugh them all away.
Even the Orthodox Jews were no longer laughing, and they became very angry at what they heard, although they still claimed that it was no more than tricks, or else that it came from the Devil, and not from God. They began sending men north to trap him into blasphemies, or to show him up for an ignorant workman who had learned some conjuring, or some spells. We heard of all this in the market, or through Olympias, or in the thieves’ quarter, or in the Temple. Even the Romans cocked an ear to listen to the stories, Baruch told us, because they liked to know everything that was going on, that might lead to trouble. As this might. A man claiming descent from the great king, David, and gathering a following in the north; that could be quite an alarming thing for the Romans, who kept a very small garrison in the City, and almost no soldiers at all elsewhere in Judaea. The times of the Maccabees, and the Jewish Wars, was not so long ago. The Romans remembered, and the Jewish leaders, the far sighted ones, were as anxious as the Romans. They wanted no trouble with anyone, and above all they wanted no more Roman soldiers brought into the City, or even into Judaea. If the carpenter was going to make trouble, they wanted to put a stop to it before it was well begun. People still talked of the way he had cleared the Temple of animals and money makers that day. (Of course, the dealers were all back in their places in the Temple courtyard the day after, but what had been done once could be done again, and last longer, and no one was more aware of that than the dealers themselves, and the money changers and the tax collectors, and all the gang of holy thieves who dealt there, and exploited the people. )
The poor were already saying that the clearing of the Temple was only a beginning, and that the rich, and the Romans, had better look out. That a day was coming, that Joshua son of Miriam, the descendant of King David, was the Messiah the Holy Scriptures prophesied about, and that he would make himself King and restore Israel. It was not a kind of talk to please the rich, who also wanted the restoration of Israel, but not for a long time yet, and they would dearly have liked to take every beggar and thief and louse ridden labourer who chattered about such things in public, and have him scourged, if not crucified by the Romans as a trouble maker against the Emperor.
The difficulty was that the Jews’ Scriptures did tell that a Messiah was to come, and that he would become King and restore Israel, and there was no blasphemy in saying you expected it to happen, or even that it had begun, and the Messiah was come. And until the Messiah did something positive to claim his kingdom, there was no treason against Rome, either. The Romans believed in what people did, not what they said. Over by the Dead Sea, at Qmran and their other centres, the Essenes were always talking about the Messiah, and the Teacher of Righteousness, and what the pair of them would do when they arrived. The Romans never troubled their heads about the Essenes.
But then of course, the Essenes never raised anyone from the dead. And if the Romans were not troubled about Joshua the carpenter, my mistress was, and more and more as she heard more about him. Not for herself, and that nonsense of the Temple. Whatever she lost that day she made up the next. It was not that. It was a feeling that she had, that he was an enemy, not hers, but of the Cult. Of the God. And she told me she began to pray against him at the Ceremonies, and to speak about him to Dionysus.
“The God has warned me against him” she said one night, it must have been a year or so after that day in the Temple. “It is as if the God was – not afraid of him but – perhaps He is afraid for us, who love Him?” She was saying this to herself rather than to me. Baruch ben Isaac was away travelling, and she had not replaced him with a regular lover for the nights. Bar Abbas was enough, I think, during the day. So that we often spent hours of the evening together, after supper, and she would play with me, or talk to herself, or even both together, as if I was a doll, and not really there to listen.
“But I am not afraid of him!” she said suddenly. And did talk to me then. “He is coming south, I know it, he is coming to Bethany, to Simon’s house, Hephzibah told me days ago, when we saw her in the market. That fool? That fool of a woman! How I hate the way she looks! Simon was better off as a leper! But she gives us an excuse. Listen, this is what I shall do!” And she began to tell me her plan as if it was already made in her head, and only needed to be told aloud
So that two days later we set off for Bethany, to see him, and see him face to face, at close quarters, in Simon’s house, where he was staying. It was only three miles from the City, and one could walk it comfortably, or uncomfortably given the hot weather of the day time, in not much more than an hour if one went quite slowly. But we travelled in style, with a hired litter and litter bearers, and Philip the Steward walking beside my mistress who lay inside the litter, hidden by the ivory satin curtains, and myself on a donkey behind them, riding on one of those wooden seats with a kind of basket work shelter round and over me, with faded blue cotton curtains to draw across the opening if I wanted to draw them, which I didn’t.
It was like an embassy, and in a fashion it was one. To sound out the enemy, and make peace or war as things should happen. We were prepared for either, with gifts and weapons. Our kind of gifts and our kind of weapons. To leave him in peace to heal his sick and raise his dead, far away in Galilee, and leave us untroubled in the South. Or to loose the full power of the Cult against him, and the God, and destroy him, before he tried to destroy us. Because that was that inner feeling that my mistress had. That he meant to destroy us, that he and the Cult could not exist side by side. Even I could feel it. Even as an initiate and not a Celebrant. A heaviness about the Ceremonies, an atmosphere of – of things coming to an end. Of sadness, and worse than sadness. I cannot explain how it was, only that we both knew we must go to Bethany, and see him face to face.
We travelled through the heat of the morning, the dust rising up as the litter bearers carried my mistress along with their queer, flat footed run, heels kicking up and back and feet scuffling and shuffling forward in the dust. I kept leaning out to watch the litter, and the road ahead, and I could see the back of the rear litter bearer, with a big grey sweat stain in the middle of his white tunic, between his shoulders. I can still see the way his shoulders and head strained back, carrying the weight of the litter, because of course he at the back had the greatest weight to bear, and they used to set the litter down every half mile or so, and change ends. He wore a white sweat band round his forehead. and his legs were bare from the knees down, with bulging calf muscles, and veins like blue ropes sticking out of the skin. It can’t be a happy way to earn a living.
As for myself, I was comfortable enough on the little donkey, sitting on the flattened red leather cushion, that grew hot and sticky under my hand if I rested it there too long. I kept one leg tucked under me and I remember I had stuck a red flower from one of the tubs in the courtyard between the toes of my other foot, to make it look like the jewels my mistress had on her sandal pegs. She had the most expensive sandals in Jerusalem, tooled in gold, real gold leaf beaten into the leather, and huge rubies for the tops of the pegs that fit between her toes to hold the sandals in place. I longed for those sandals of hers, and I got them in the end. But for that Journey I kept my own sandals beside me on the cushion, and stuck the flower between my big toe and the next one. I remember looking down at it as we went along, and admiring the shape of my calf, and my ankle and my bare foot. I thought I had very handsome legs, then, although my mistress told me my calves were too fat, and my feet too broad. Peasants’ legs, she called them, but they have carried me for seventy eight years now, while hers are dust long ago. Peace on her dust, if that is possible.
So, we rode towards Bethany, my mistress and I, with Philip the Steward stamping along beside the litter, carrying his heavy staff, and sweating, and cursing the whims of women, that had him out in the heat, on a dusty road instead of lolling at home doing nothing, as he liked to do during the days. And within an hour or so we were in Bethany, and outside Simon the Leper’s house. If you could call it a house. More like a hut, with a palm leaf roof, and pigs and chickens and children and cats scuffling and rooting and lying about in the dust of the street, and hundreds of other houses very much the same scattered about in an ugly sprawl up and down the one wide street, and away along the hill sides. What a place to live! I have not liked this village much, nor the town of Babylon over there beyond those palm trees, these past sixty years, but at least it was once a great City, and there is always the River. But Bethany! Not even a tree in sight. Not a garden.
Only the huts, and the pigs, and the children, and the hens, and the stray cats, and a few sombre looking Jews, staring at us as if Jerusalem was a thousand miles away, instead of on the hills behind us, and in full sight if we turned to look. As for the pigs I never saw so many. The people there, and Simon the Leper too, raised them to sell to foreigners, for meat. Orthodox Jews would never have done that, the mere touch of a pig made them unclean, almost the sight of one. But as I’ve told you, Simon did not much mind about Orthodoxy, and the people of Bethany were – well they were what villagers are anywhere, with an eye to a small profit on anything, and let God look after His own affairs. I despise that, I must say. No matter what Faith a man is born into, he should keep its rules.
And I despised Bethany. And that house! The roof jutted over the front wall to make a kind of porch, and some shade, the edge of the roof held up by wooden posts stuck into the earth. Plain wood, not even painted, let alone carved. Just greyish poles, polished low down by the pigs and the children rubbing their sweaty backs against them. Even the door of the house was not painted. Grey wood again, and a heavy old door post for it to turn on, the ends of the post set at the bottom in a stone socket in the earth. and at the top in a hole in one of the roof beams. I never saw anything so primitive in my life.
Inside it was worse. Hephzibah the wife of Simon let us in. Into a small stifling, cooking room. You couldn’t call it a kitchen. Just an earth floor, an a flattened kind of iron dish with charcoals in it to cook on. Smoke, and food smells, and darkness because there was no real window, and six or seven other women squatting round the charcoal dish, or else standing against the wall and whispering as they saw us come in. I suppose that none of them in all their lives except Hephzibah had ever seen a woman like my mistress, or even like me, close to. They looked that sort of women. Pious and plain and imagining that poverty is a sign of holiness instead of ignorance.
Opposite the door we came in by there was an opening into a courtyard. More pigs there, and more hens, and a sort of shed for the pigs to live in, I suppose. It didn’t look very different from the house. And on our right, beyond the charcoal dish and the women, there was a bead curtain closing another doorway. Just strings of glass beads hanging down. Not even cloth. Beyond the curtain we could hear voices, and one voice stronger than the others, like a man teaching, and answering questions.
“He is here!” Hephzibah said, her voice filled with pride that she had the carpenter staying with her, and also with a great deal of vexation that we were there at all. She could not very well turn us away, my mistress being her husband’s cousin, but I could see that she would have liked to. She had not forgotten that remark about the company of harlots. And certainly the women in the room would have made a poor living at that trade. They stared at us from under the edges of their head scarves, or their haiks, and in answer I drew mine over my face and pretended not to notice them. I remember I had a new bronze silk haik myself, from Cos in the Aegean, where they know how to weave silk, or used to.
I loved the feel of it, thin, and almost stiff, and then yielding as I settled the folds round my head, rustling under my fingers. It was a beautiful haik. My mistress was dressed in a violet silk gown, a pale violet colour with wide sleeves, embroidered with silver at the cuffs, heavy, real silver thread. And she had a head shawl of thick white silk, as thick almost as wool, that hung down behind her shoulders, and covered her forehead. Philip and the litter bearers and the donkey man had stayed outside in the street, of course, and we could hear their voices too, talking to one another, or answering the villagers, and the children, who wanted to know who we were and where we had come from, and all the things that village children want to know it they are bold enough.
And that voice beyond the curtain The same voice we had heard when he cleared the Temple Colonnades. Very powerful. But he was not shouting now. Talking softly, and yet I could hear every word, answering a question about the Law, and the Sabbath that had just ended and what men might and might not do during it. The Sabbath was made for man he said, “not man for the Sabbath”.
And at that moment Hephzibah went in to the men inside with a dish of meat just cooked on the charcoal, and they stopped talking to receive it. She had already told us we could not dream of going in to speak to him. Nor even to look at him through the curtain. He could not be spied on, she had said, nor accosted without his leave. She spoke as if he belonged to her, and all the other women had nodded and whispered as if he belonged to all of them, and they scented a rival coming to take their Master away.
“Now” my mistress whispered to me, and I gave her the vase of perfume. It had cost three hundred denarii, which is a year’s wages for a litter bearer, or a labourer, and the vase alone, without the perfume, was a beautiful thing and very valuable. Carved out of alabaster, with a slender neck so fine you wonder how anyone drilled through it to hollow out the belly of the base. But they had, and it was filled with the best perfume money could buy in Jerusalem. I guarantee that nothing like that perfume had ever come into that wretched house before.
“In the Name of my Lord” my mistress whispered, and took the vase in both hands. Hephzibah came out through the bead curtain, the strings of glass clashing together behind her. Through the momentary opening I saw the table beyond, and the carpenter sitting at it, on a stool. A low eating table, rough wood, set with a few earthenware dishes and some broken bread, and a wine jug, and wine cups. Another man was sitting near him, I think it was Simon the Leper himself, and I had a glimpse of other men. Then my mistress was through the curtain and into the room.
“My Lord!” she cried out, “My lord!”
I pushed forward myself to look, I could not help myself, and Hephzibah had turned in the same moment, trying to prevent my mistress going in, and then clinging to the curtain as if she was not sure what to do, to follow her cousin in and pull her away from the carpenter, or what. I could see everything. The two men at the table, five or six other men standing about behind them, munching bread, or drinking wine, or simply talking, waiting to sit down again to the meat that Hephzibah had just brought in. And the dish steaming in the middle of the table among the empty dishes that had held fish or whatever it had been for the beginning of their meal. And my mistress standing behind the carpenter like a dancer about to dance. Her arms raised, her head bent forward, the white head shawl falling dramatically about her shoulders, her wide sleeves fallen back to show her arms and the tight sleeves of her white underdress, the vase held up. Then with her other hand she broke the neck of the vase clean off, and poured out the contents over the carpenter’s hair and beard and shoulders. It streamed down, glittered on his brown hair, filled the room with its scent, dripped onto his brown tunic. He was still turning to look at her as the perfume rained down on his face and head, and before he could say anything, or anyone in the room could move she was down beside his knees, pouring the remains of the perfume over his bare feet. Very dusty feet, I noticed, as if no one had given him water to wash them in when he arrived. I even remember noticing how scarred they were from walking on the vile roads of the north, and in the desert. And his hands, as he lifted them in a gesture of protest, or – or I do not know what. It looked almost like a man blessing, rather than cursing, or getting angry. Both hands raised.
They were scarred too, his hands. Or they had that look. Workman’s hands, rough and square from handling heavy timber, and driving the plane, and hammering, and sawing wood. Less like a Teacher’s hands than you can imagine. Most Teachers I ever met had soft white hands, and they wouldn’t have known a hammer from a saw. That lifting up of his hands, while Mary knelt, and bathed his feet with the perfume, and then, imitating her cousin the Harlot, pretending to weep on them. She swept back her shawl, and loosened her hair, and covered his feet with it, wrapped them round as I would wrap hers in a towel. “My Lord” she said again.
And I saw her light. And his. She glowed as she did in the Ceremonies. Dark violet. So dark it was almost purple, was purple, darkened as I looked at her. Not the thin, flame-flickering of light that you see round most people who have any power. But a dense, thick light that made me feel I could touch and feel it if I reached out my hand, as well as see it with my eyes. I thought the woman beside me must see it, and shriek with fear. But she saw nothing, and neither did the men in the room Only a woman kneeling at their Teacher’s feet, and weeping over them and drying them with her hair
They did not even see his light and when I did I came close to shrieking. White. Almost unbearable, like looking into the sun. Such a power of light as I have never seen, and I knew that we had done the most destructive, self destructive thing we could have imagined doing and worse than that. And I guessed who he was, who he must be. I do not know how. Only that I had never seen such light before, never. Never imagined it existed. Had always imagined that my mistress’s light, that Dionysus’s was the summit of all power, the sign of it. Dark light for Godhead. And here was a light so brilliant white that it was unimaginable ungraspable, blinding whiteness of light. Not the white of new bleached linen, not that. The white of white hot iron in a furnace, as the red drains out of it. More even than that. No furnace could give that light.
And in front of it my mistress’s light faded, grew smaller, duller. Like a thunder cloud that has lowered purple in the sky, and then the lightning flashes and the eye sees nothing but the light, and the thunder cloud fades to nothingness, to shadows in the blazing brightness, not even to shadows, and for that moment there is nothing in the world but light.
I saw my mistress begin to be driven backwards to crawl backwards towards us and the curtain, the jar of ointment and its broken top and seal lying on the dusty earth floor. She scrabbled up dust with her hands and poured it on her own hair. “My Lord! My Lord!” she was saying, and I knew from her voice that this was not mockery any longer. She was recognising power greater than hers, greater than she had known existed. One of the men she had been standing by the far wall of the room was coming forward, his fist raised as if he meant to strike her, his face dark, and twisted with anger. He had a narrow, swarthy face with close set eyes, and a thin nose, and a cruel mouth not quite hidden by his beard.
“Out, woman!” he was shouting.
The carpenter raised his hands again, and smiled, or I think he smiled.
“Quiet, Judas. She has done a good deed for me. She has anointed me for my burial. Let her go in peace.”
“But the waste, the waste!” the dark, furious man shouted. “The wicked folly of it! Is she mad?”
“Go in peace woman” the carpenter said to my mistress, She was now by the curtain, at our feet, the strings of beads hanging between her bent shoulders and our knees. Her light faded, and his was no longer pulsing as it had done, but quietly shining round him, like a white dawn. “Go in peace. You have loved many men, and many things, and for that much can be forgiven you. Go now, and think of what you have seen. It is not too late. And what you have done this day will always be remembered, I promise you. May it be remembered to you for a blessing, and not a curse.”
Mary straightened herself, feeling behind her for the beads, and for my hand to support her. But I sensed that she was no longer staring at the carpenter, and his power, She was looking towards the angry man, whom the carpenter had called Judas. And I looked towards him too, and saw that he had light about him. Mary’s colour. Violet. Purple. I saw that he belonged to us, and I felt my mistress’s fingers tighten in mine like talons, hurting me. Holding herself still for a second, looking at the man called Judas, and his dark surround. His eyes holding hers, as if he too recognised her. Then she backed through the curtains, Hephzibah catching her by the arm, drawing her away from the entrance to the room, reproaching her with urgent, scolding whispers, while the other women hissed with anger like a flock of geese. But Hephzibah was not angry, even though she was scolding. Her voice had grown quite soft, and loving as she scolded.
“You should have sold the perfume and given us the money. You could have given it to Judas, to feed the poor! Oh Mary, how could you! I daren’t think what it cost, you are truly mad, as Judas said to you. But it was wonderful of you to do it, wonderful! Although when I think of all that money!”
She was still wringing her hands and scolding about their miserable “poor” when we left. We did not linger, I can tell you that. My mistress still gripping onto my hand as if she meant to break the bones in it. I saw her face, out in the sunlight, and it was livid, bruised with anger, her hair filthied with the dust, her silk head shawl fallen and lost somewhere inside that hovel behind us. Her eyes burning in her head. Rage and at the same time triumph.
”Did you see the dark man?” she whispered, as Philip came towards us to help her into the litter. I nodded, and she let go of my hand and took my cheek between finger and thumb, pinching deep. “I have him! Only wait and see! Within a week he’ll come to us, and then – oh then, let that carpenter watch out for himself, and all that belongs to him! Oh, this is not the end of it. This is only a beginning!”
Philip bowed, and gave her his hand, and she stepped into the litter, Philip closing the curtains. The litter bearers bent their backs to lift, and straightened. The donkey man helped me onto my wooden saddle, and my worn and polished red leather cushion, and we rode away, out of Bethany, and its dust, and its children, and its pigs and chickens, back towards Jerusalem. In the distance I could see the gold roof of the Temple shining in the sun.
Before that week was ended we had not one visit from the people at Bethany, but two, and the first of them was not from Judas. It was from my mistress’s cousin, the one they called Mary of Magdala, who had been the harlot. She came on the thursday, four days after our visit to Simon the Leper’s house, and during those four days they must have been thinking of us, and planning what they would do, as we were thinking and planning on our side, in Jerusalem. Only that my mistress planned faster, and to greater effect. How great an effect even she could not tell then. It was only afterwards that I realised how much she had done in those few days.We came back from Bethany as I have told, my mistress furious with Joshua the carpenter, or Jesus as we called him, since we spoke Greek between ourselves, and furious with herself for the humiliation of that meeting, and at the same time triumphant at the breach we had made in the power surrounding him, through the man Judas. We found out that Judas was the money-keeper for Jesus and the whole group of them, and their man of business as far as they had one. Distributing alms to the poor, as Hephzibah had said; and feeding all the refuse of people who cluster round any teacher who will give them a free meal, pretending to listen to him so that they can fill their stomachs while he thinks he is filling their minds.And of course the crowd of women and disciples who went around with him had to be fed as well, and lodged and given help for their families that they had abandoned, or anyway left at home. Except for one or two all of them were poor people. The men were fishermen, or plain labourers, and if they stopped fishing or labouring they had nothing, and their wives and children had nothing. So they would have to be kept. Judas must have had a lot of money through his hands, and he had looked even to me like the kind of man who could be very fond of money. You may remember what I told you he said when he saw Mary pouring the perfume on his teacher’s head. Not, “defilement!” but “the waste!” A man like that might very easily be got at through money, particularly if he had never had any until now.
And the first thing that Mary did when we got back to Jerusalem was to call Bar Abbas to her at a private meeting place, and set him to finding out about Judas. There was not much to find, and nothing surprising in it. He came from a village called Kerioth, a miserable, lost place at the back of nowhere, and he and his parents before him and their parents before them had been the kind of rigid, furious Orthodox Jews who have no money, and no hope of anything but the Coming of the Messiah to set them up in the world. Too proud to work at anything, or else too religious; digging themselves into the Scriptures like moles into a field. There is no reality for their kind of Jew except the wrongs of Israel, and the wickedness of foreigners and loose-living Jews, and the future Kingdom in which they’ll be great people.
Judas came out of that kind of upbringing to find his Messiah in Jesus. “He’s already bought himself a house here in Jerusalem, out of their funds” Bar Abbas told us.
So, that was his weakness, as we’d already guessed. And the only one, There was nothing else. No women, no boys, no drink. Although secretly he might have had some of Philip the Steward’s leanings, because from what Bar Abbas heard he really hated women, and never so much as talked to the ones who followed Jesus round. He was always trying to drive them away, and talking about the scandal they could cause. That too could show a weakness. If he was afraid of women.
But that was not the only thing we did, finding out about Judas of Kerioth. That same monday, and during the next days, we were in the Temple, and in the Roman Treasury and the Praetorium, and down in the High Priest’s mansion, and in half a dozen rich houses where the handful of men lived who governed the Jewish life of the City. We were in the shopping quarter, talking to the rich Greeks and the Syrians. And in the thieves’ quarter talking to Bar Abbas again, and to all the men like him who could control the crowds, and make them think and do as they were ordered or persuaded. We talked to Romans. Although Baruch was away my mistress knew everyone in the Treasury, and she had lovers or onetime lovers on the Governor’s Staff and in the Headquarters of the garrison. By the wednesday night there was no one of consequence in the City whom we hadn’t visited, or spoken to, or sent messages to, or arranged to influence.
And everything we said and did, and I had my part in it, talking to the head servants while my mistress talked to their masters or their mistresses; everything we said and did had the same purpose, to put an end to what the carpenter was doing. It was not difficult to persuade most of the people we talked to. We had only to explain it, the trouble he was causing, and would cause if he was allowed to go on. A man teaching the poor that poverty was a greater thing than riches, telling them that the rich were turning away from God because of their riches; that the Kingdom was coming and that poor men would inherit it; threatening to pull down the Temple and rebuild it in his own fashion for his own glory. Leading the simple people into imagining that they had only to shout like that other Joshua and his army in front of Jericho, and the Romans would vanish and the Kingdom would appear
It would be the Maccabees all over again. And ruin for everyone. The rich, the priests, all the foreigners, the Orthodox Jews; our own people of the Cult. There would be an uprising, and the Romans would crush it and there would be nothing left of freedom. That was the message we gave the reasonable Jews. And also of course the carpenter was blaspheming God, and would call down God’s wrath. That was what we emphasized to the Orthodox, and we found them willing to listen almost before we had begun. They were full of his wrong doings already, and had their own plans to destroy him. But they were glad of anyone who would help them. I think they themselves were half afraid of him; half afraid that he truly was the Messiah, and that they might be involved in a worse blasphemy than they accused him of.
As for the rich, we only needed to repeat some of the things the carpenter had been saying, and with the Greeks and the shop keepers, the idea of such a man bringing his teaching to Jerusalem, and causing riots, was enough to secure their help. It was all so easy you could not call it “planning” anything. It was only a drawing together of people who already hated everything he taught and represented, and showing them that they must do something before it was too late. As for the few who tried to laugh the matter away, saying “A carpenter? From Galilee Are you mad? What harm could such a man do to us?”, we only had to remind them of John the Baptiser, and the danger he had been before King Herod had him killed. This man was worse. John had never brought men back from the dead, or made the blind see, or the paralysed walk home carrying their beds that they had lain on begging in the streets for twenty years. There were no cleansed lepers running about the villages crying, “John the Baptiser cleansed me, look at me, I am clean.”
But there were a lot of men doing that for the carpenter, and calling him the Son of God, and the new David. When he preached he gathered not hundreds round him, but thousands. Supposing he preached, “Pull down the Temple! Wreck the mansions! Burn the City that has turned away from God!” Just suppose it? How many lunatics does it need to burn down a city like Jerusalem? Lunatics who would be willing to die for that new King of Israel, and wouldn’t care what happened to them as long as they destroyed everything first, because they believed that he would raise them from the dead. He himself, alone, had set the whole Temple by the ears, in one hour. That had cost enough. Suppose he had five thousand ragamuffins with him? With clubs and crowbars and torches and bales of straw to set light to houses? “How does any revolution begin? If you wait till he seems important it may be too late. It will be too late. He’s important now, important enough to destroy.” That’s how my mistress talked to everyone.
It never took very long to convince the doubters. And as I have told you, most of the leaders of the Jews themselves were already furious against him, either as a danger to their comfort, or to their Faith. The only people who were difficult to convince, were the Romans. They were not afraid of carpenters, or ragamuffins They would not have cared if the Temple had been removed by magic overnight, and flung into the Dead Sea. In fact they would have been rather pleased, because they hated everything to do with it, being the one place in the Empire where they were forbidden, and by their own Emperor, to set foot. They hated the Jews, and the Orthodox Jews above all others, because they denied the Emperor’s divinity, and scorned Rome. Anything that upset the Jews was likely to please the Romans, and we found them more prepared to laugh about the carpenter than get angry.
“I wish he would heal my wife” was a general answer. “Particularly of nagging.” If Baruch had been there it might have been easier, because he was used to the way their minds worked. But we were women, and they knew nothing about my mistress except that some of them had been her lovers, and that she was still a beautiful woman. As for listening to her about men’s affairs, and State affairs at that, they could not do it. A woman and a Greek! If you have ever met Romans of the governing sort you’ll know what they’re like, and what I mean. They don’t believe in words – all right Simon, all right – put down “do not” and “you will” – put down whatever your stupid grammarian’s rules require, I am not a scribe, thank God – I’ll say it as I please, and you write down – no. Write down what I say. I’ll not be corrected. I tell as I remember. If you begin to change my words you may change my thoughts and the truth, and this book must tell that above all things. Write down exactly what I say.
They do not – you see, Simon, I am trying to please you. They do not believe in words, the Romans who govern provinces, and rule most of the world. They believe only in actions, in the things men do. “If he makes trouble for Rome” they said, “then, let him beware, your carpenter. We’ve timber enough to hang him on. But so long as he sticks to preaching about poverty, and annoying rich Greeks and fat priests, then good luck to him. There’s even some Romans he could preach to, if he liked. My father-in-law for instance,”
With the people of the Cult of course, there was no question of arguments. We knew. As the days went by we knew as certainly as day dawns that we must destroy him, or he would destroy us. We had seen his light and all we needed to do was to tell the others what we had seen and what had happened. The only question then was how to destroy his power. Or drive it away from us. And before we could decide on that he sent his embassy to us, and solved the matter although not in the way he could have meant. Or –
As I tell you to write that down Simon I am set thinking and wondering again, as I have wondered many times. Did he mean all to happen as it did? Knowing it would happen? Was his embassy not to save himself, but us? From being involved in that ending? The ending might – perhaps must have been the same, but we should have been free of it, and my mistress would have lived out her natural life, or gone to Dionysus in his chosen time, as her mother had done before her. The Cult itself – but to think of all that might have happened differently could keep me wondering here for all the remaining days of my life, and I should come no nearer the truth of things. His embassy did come to us, with its offer of peace and friendship, and we sent it away as I shall tell you, and things happened as they did. Amen. Only God knows the things that will happen, and the why of them.
Mary of Magdala was his ambassador, as I have told you. She came to us on the thursday morning, knocking on the courtyard door herself, unattended. And dressed in a way that annoyed my mistress from the beginning of the visit. We were just finished bathing, and dressing ourselves, and were almost ready to go out, my mistress talking to my mother Olympias about something beside the well, and I with her. We heard the knocking, and as always Philip the Steward was asleep somewhere, recovering from the previous night. And Anna was sweeping, and Euphrosine was dirty in the kitchen, and I had to run and open the small door in the tall gate.
I saw a woman dressed in pale blue muslin, her head covered, and such a strange calm about her, such a wonderful smile as I opened the door to her, that I could think of nothing else but the way she looked at me, and it took me a few moments to recognise how like my mistress she was in the shape and colouring of her face, and to guess who she might be.
“I am your mistress’s cousin” she said, as I stared at her like a fool. “I am also called Mary, from Magdala. Will you tell her that I am here?” She did not try to step inside, or make herself of consequence. There was not even a servant with her, and she had had to knock on the gate herself, That annoyed my mistress too. It did not annoy me, but it certainly surprised me at the time, looking out of the gateway for her attendant, and not seeing any one. Certainly she had earned enough in her time to have a servant carry her basket for her, and knock on doors when she went visiting. But we found afterwards that she had given all her money away when she was healed by Jesus. She gave most of it into his keeping, for his poor, which meant giving it to Judas. Some of it probably bought Judas’s new house. I wonder if she ever knew that? I never saw her again after the times I am speaking of, and I never heard what happened to her.
But that thursday morning all I knew was her name, and her past, and what I saw in front of my eyes. A tall woman, almost as tall as my mistress, carrying a basket of what looked like eggs covered over with fresh leaves, and dressed like some sort of holy woman. Not a jewel, not a ring. Not a breath of perfume. Her feet and the hems of her gown and her cloak looking as if she had walked from Bethany, which indeed she had. And carrying a basket of eggs! If I had not looked into her face as I brought her into the courtyard I might have thought she had been touched in the head by Jesus, rather than healed. But whatever she was, she was not mad.
She had my mistress’s eyes, but nothing of her look. And my mistress’s mouth and chin. And when the two of them stood facing each other by the well, my mother drawing back from them, they might have been light and dark, day and night, my mistress and her cousin. And although I had dressed and perfumed my mistress and arranged her hair with even more care than usual, and she had on some of her most elaborate jewels because we were going again to the Praetorium that day, to make another attempt to convince some high placed Romans of the dangers that Jesus represented for them; in spite of that, it was Mary of Magdala who drew my eyes in the comparison.
I tell you, indeed, I never felt so drawn to a woman in my life, and it was not that kind of drawing you might imagine, from what I have told you of myself at that time, and the kind of loving that I wanted. I felt as if she was my sister, as if I would have given up every hope I had in life, to become her servant, or servant to someone like her, if there was anyone else like her. And she had been an epileptic whore up to a year or so ago! If there was anyone mad in that courtyard it was me, I know it, but I am telling what I felt at the time. And I think that my mistress sensed the madness in me, and gave me an astonished glance that had anger in it already,
We went inside to the Fresco room, and when I went to draw the curtains over the Fresco my mistress told me to leave them alone, and sit at her feet while she and her cousin talked. She fastened her hand in my hair as I knelt beside her, and began to pull it, not in a noticeable way, but very hard, slowly clenching her fingers in it, and making a fist, so that I felt my hair begin to come up at the roots, and the tears coming into my eyes. I knew I must not protest, or show anything, and I had to sit for almost an hour, while Mary of Magdala talked, and my mistress listened, and the hand on my head slowly tortured me until I could have screamed with the pain of it.
It was the first time she had ever done anything like that to me, and I was more shocked by it than hurt, although the hurt was bad enough. I have told you I longed for her to be cruel to me, but only in certain ways, in love–beating and such things which have nothing to do with anger, but are only to increase pleasure. I had never so much as imagined cruelty that sprang from anger with me, and I wanted to cry for that as well as for the pain. And had to sit very still, with my face calm, and even smile at the visitor when she smiled at me.
Her talk was of Jesus, naturally. At first of her own story, and how he bad healed her, and all the business we already knew of. She did not say anything about my mistress imitating her, pouring the perfume on the carpenter’s head and feet. She did not refer to that at all. It was as if she swept it away from between us like a child’s nonsense so that we could talk of real things.
Those real things being that Jesus felt no enmity for us, nor had any wish to harm us, or to put an end to the Cult. She looked at the Fresco as she said that, and smiled again as if she was smiling at children’s games. I felt my mistress’s fingers tighten harder and had to put my hand to my eyes to hide the tears in them, and push them away from my eyelids.
“You mean” my mistress said, “that he knows he cannot harm us, but that we can do great harm to him?”
Mary of Magdala had her hands folded in her lap, and she looked down at them. “The eggs I brought you” she said, as if she had not heard what my mistress said. “What do you think your servants will do with them?”
My mistress stared at her, and her cousin looked towards me. I think she even knew what was happening, and the pain I was in. She had pity in her look as though she longed to help me. “What will they do with them, child?”
I would not usually have accepted that casual word “child” and might have shown my feelings. But I found myself answering her as if she was a teacher, and I must answer her exactly.
“They will use them for cooking, lady.”
“And will that harm the eggs? Or is that their purpose? To be made into a dish to eat, for the household?”
“Why, that – that is their purpose, that is why you brought them, naturally.” My mistress seemed to be getting ready to tear out the whole fistful of my hair and I thought that if she went on another second I must scream, I must catch hold of her wrist and fight to free myself. But in that same instant she let go of me, and clasped her hands together as her cousin was doing. Except that I could see she was longing to sink her nails into flesh and draw blood with them. I began to shiver in the way that one shivers before that kind of love. But not with pleasure, not with the kind of erotic terror that one feels then. Real terror. My body growing cold with it. I could nor think of anything else, or of what the woman meant with her extraordinary question about the eggs. It was only afterwards that I understood it.
The conversation went on for a few minutes longer, but I took no part in it. I felt my mistress’s fury growing. I did not dare look at her, or at her hands, but I knew that they were twisting together in her lap as if they had taken on their own life, and were readying themselves to spring. And my shivering grew worse, so that our visitor noticed it. “The child is cold,” she said, and I wanted to cry with terror.
A moment later she stood up, and the embassy was finished. “He sent me to you with love” she said. “Must I take back hatred?”
“Tell him I do not need a carpenter’s love. I will look to myself without it. Let him look to himself.” My mistress and I had both stood as our visitor got up. My mistress sank her fingers into the softest part of my arm. “Show my cousin to the gate” she said.
I did not say anything as we walked across the courtyard, and neither did Mary of Magdala. But when I was opening the wicket door for her she turned to me and without any preliminaries or arguments said, “Come with me child. Come away from this house. Come now. He will receive you as he received me. This is no house for you, and you are not a slave. You are free to choose.” She looked into my eyes and for a moment or two they were his eyes, not hers. Huge and dark, as I had seen them in Bethany, the lids heavy, but lifting up to show depths on depths of space, like the night sky.
I think – I think I might have gone with her, I might have done. Madness, the kind of madness that comes once in a life to everyone, to throw everything away and gain more than everything. What would I have gained? Only God the Eternal, and the Mistress of All Things could tell me that. And in that same moment or two the Mistress, my true Mistress, the Virgin of the Lightning, sent Her messenger to me, Her child and Her servant. A hornet came flying slowly from the shade of the fig tree behind us, into the sunlight, and then into the shadows of the archway where we were standing. I saw it from the corner of my eye like a shadow, all my mind on Mary of Magdala’s face, and what she had just said to me. But I knew what it was that was coming, and why it came. In that moment I think that I knew everything.
The hornet settled on Mary’s sky blue robe, near to her breast, on the left side. I can see it now. Its wings still, and yet quivering. Huge, and dangerous to anyone except to those of the Clan. But Mary of Magdala did not move. I put out my hand to take the insect away from her, but it would not come to me. Instead, I felt a voice saying “Go with her. Here is My messenger. Go now. Quickly. Do not look back. Run, child, run.”
I think I began to say “Yes, I will come with you.” Began to say it. Or perhaps only to think of saying it. And behind me I heard my mistress’s voice, my mistress in this world, Mary the Thief, calling me. “Come here to me. Now! Now!”
And I felt my body trembling with terror, sick with terror, and yet – and yet that lust in it that turns such sickness into a kind of pleasure, like a longing for death, for self destruction. I almost pushed Mary of Magdala through the doorway, into the street outside. Shut the wicket door behind her, and ran back to the Fresco room, across the courtyard.
My mistress was standing, waiting for me, shivering with rage. I never saw her face like that before. Terrible in its fury. Even her hair seemed alive with it, twisting about itself. She reached out her hands as I came towards her, my steps growing slow.
“Come to me , she whispered, like an echo of her cousin’s words. “Come to me, child. You wanted to go with her, didn’t you? You thought of leaving me?”
I knelt down. I could not think of anything else to do. She bent over me and took the neck of my gown in both her hands, closed her fists on the silk, and tore it. Tore it slowly down until it was opened to below my waist. Then she threw it away from my back.
“Lie there” she said. “Lie still and wait.”
I lay on the stone floor, the marble cold against my skin, against my breasts, and the fronts of my thighs, and I knew what was going to happen, and wanted to vomit with terror, and was held there both by fear and that longing that I have spoken of. I did not have to wait very long, I suppose, but it seemed long to me. While she went up the courtyard stairs to her bedroom, our bedroom, and fetched her bull’s hide whip of the Ceremonies that hung near her bed. I heard her footsteps coming back, swift and light. Began to make myself think, to want to get to my knees again, implore her forgiveness. It was not like this that I had – not like –
And I felt my back laid open as if it had been set on fire. I screamed, and heard the echoes of my own scream, and was on fire again. And screamed again, twisting myself over, and she trod on my neck, forced me face down, once more, and held me there with her foot while I struggled, twisting my body this way and that, and she went on flogging me until the blood ran from my back onto the floor. I had not known there was such pain in the world. Like being burned alive, the skin torn from my flesh and the raw flesh torn again. I think I heard the servants running, heard voices, heard my mistress shouting, “Go away, go away, unless you want this as well. GO AWAY!” And she went on beating me until I fainted, and did not know any more what was happening.
When I came to my senses I was lying on the couch where she must have lifted me, and she was crying. Crying over me and what she had done. Trying to heal my back with her hands. “Lie still” she was saying. “Be healed, oh my Lord, heal her, heal her, I did not mean it. Oh my Lord.” And even in the depths of the pain I knew in the sound of her voice that she really loved me as I had always wanted to be loved, and I think that in that second I belonged to her as I have never belonged to her until then. I did not even mind the pain so much.
The pain did ease a little. It was too terrible for healing, and when later I saw in a mirror something of what she had done to me I wondered that I recovered at all, and did not die of it. I have the scars still, sixty years later. No scribe, write down as I tell. I am an old woman and am past small shames. I have the scars still, a net of thin white lines on old, old flesh, half hidden among the wrinkles and the shriveledness of age. And I can still remember the pain of them, when they were fresh and open wounds. When I think now of the kind of love I used to dream of before that morning, I shudder, knowing what it leads to in the end. And that morning was not the end. It was only the beginning. I knew it. As I made myself turn my head a little, biting my mouth to stop the pain of turning, of moving any part of my body, and looked at my mistress’s face, I saw the change in her. Even in that moment of loving her, of knowing that she loved me, I saw the change. As though something wicked had touched her mouth and her eyes, and she had welcomed wickedness, welcomed evil, as she had never done before. Even the way she touched me was different. And the thought came to me “She will want to do this again. And again. Until I die of it. Even though she loves me.” I began to cry, burying my face in the white lamb skin that covered the couch I was lying on, feeling that in that very moment of gaining love I had lost it, and lost her for ever.
But she went on healing my back, both with her hands passing over the wounds, and then with ointments and herbs and poultices that she knew of from Baruch. She would not let my mother see me, or the other servants, and brought me up to our bedroom, almost carrying me.
“Now you belong to me” she whispered, laying me on her own bed. “You belong to me only. You know that. For ever. For ever. And as a sign of it you shall sleep in this bed with me. Even when Baruch is here, you shall stay with us. Will you like that, little brown one, little weeping one?” I wept again. And she went on promising me things. Love, and to be a Celebrant, to become one of the Six with her. “It is the God who made me do it, He has chosen you, chosen you with blood. Little priestess. Little priestess ”
She fetched cakes and wine for me, and fed me with her own hands, and went on healing me until the pain did die away enough for me to sleep beside her, feeling her arms round me, and her breath on my face as I slept, and twitched with the pain, and the memory of being beaten.
She continued healing me all the next day, until night, and the time for the Ceremony, and I could walk quite easily when the time came. As for the Ceremony itself, I did not think of what would happen at the end of it, I was so proud to be there. My pride growing all the hour’s length of it, until the thought of Mary of Magdala, and what I might have thrown away to follow her seemed like a monstrous joke, and I wanted to laugh, and wanted to humiliate myself before the God, and beg him to punish me again for what I had almost thought of doing. Even if I was to be punished as terribly as I had already been.
It was terrible enough. Even one whip stroke on my back seemed to wake every wound to agony, and then I must lie naked on the stone, and be taken by the High Priest when it came my turn. The first time I had ever been taken, although long ago I had broken my own maidenhead, as girls do.
One must not scream, at such a moment, but I screamed. He ground my raw back into the stone, and I think he knew that he was doing it, and smiled down at me, saying, “Lie still, lie still”, as my mistress had done before she beat me. It was the God in him, I know, punishing me. And I lay clenching my teeth on my lower lip until I almost bit it through, and tried to think of the light with which I was surrounded, my own light, dark red and burning, already powerful. Of belonging to my Lord.
But Baruch was already talking of the thing, and the man, that had brought us there. “He is a madman” he was saying. “Everywhere I have been they are talking of him. Not the ordinary, people, but ours, of the Cult. What does he want? Why is he our enemy? And what gives him such power that we could feel it in Pamphylia, in Antioch, in Smyrna even?”
“You have already felt it? I have been as close to him as I am to you now. Closer, and I tell you I will not like to go close again, until the day he is killed. He is worse than a madman He is filled with something that wants to destroy us all. Is determined on it. He hates us! I don’t know why. Why do the Gods do anything? I only know that it is true. He talks of love. He sent my fool of a cousin Mary of Magdala to me, drivelling about love. And she tried to steal her from me.”
My mistress took hold of my face with her two hands. “Little imbecile. She was almost tricked into going, can you believe that Baruch? My Mary, my little brown egg. I will tell you something about it, afterwards, tonight. It came out very well in the end. But that he should try such a thing! To give him power over me. It was not for your sake, you fool, did you think it was? It was to get power, as we mean to get it from that creature of his, that Judas, if he comes to us. To break into our surround of power, to learn our secrets and how to destroy us utterly. I saved you from dreadful things, I tell you, both you and ourselves. That is why I want to see the Governor. I have tried to tell some of his people what all this means, or the part of it they could understand. Because he is a threat to them, as well as to the Cult. Truly, Baruch, I know it. There is nothing in the world that he does not mean to overturn. The Cult. Rome. The Jews’ own Faith and Temple. Everything. There is no limit to what he means to do. But you can imagine what the people here have said.”
“I know” Baruch said. “I know them too well. But at least the Governor will see you. He said one o’clock. It might be best if we went now, and he could see that we are waiting for him to be ready. He likes that.”
We sat for almost an hour in an ante room outside the Governor’s audience room. There were a great many people waiting there at the same time, and we could only talk of indifferent things because most of the Jews there would have known enough Greek to eavesdrop on us. So we spoke Aramaic instead, and talked of Baruch’s journeys, and the news from Rome, and prices, and fashions, while everyone round us did much the same, in case another delegation should overhear something of value.
But we had no need of any more talk of why we were there. Even in the Praetorium we could feel it. You will not understand that, and it is useless trying to explain it. But in the Cult, as Celebrants, we felt the God’s presence even on ordinary days and at ordinary times, As if His thoughts touched ours. And His were dark with forebodings. So that we knew that He foresaw a great struggle, and great pain, and greater danger.
Perhaps, if you know anything of the Cult, you may smile at that. A God with forebodings of danger from a carpenter? It does sound absurd as I tell it to be written down. A God whose worshippers were spread across all the world. Who held men’s and women’s passions like hounds on leashes, and slipped them at His will? Who gave wine and drunkenness and joy of our bodies to us? Whose worshippers adored Him as no worshippers ever adored such remote Gods as Zeus or Jehovah or Osiris? He did not make the blind see, nor the lame walk, nor the dead rise from their graves. He did not want to. But He made the blood dance and the flesh shiver with excitement and no man or woman who ever turned to Him with their whole being was sent empty away. What they were filled with was not virtue, I know that. Nor what the philosophers call “The Good”. But it was Life, and the fury of life, and the rut and lust of Nature that drives the world on, and that is a kind of conquest over death, and over old age and the misery of the world. I have long ceased to follow Him. I think He is no longer there to follow. And that the carpenter destroyed Him, as he threatened. But I still have a tenderness, a feeling for that old belief of mine, and it would be false to deny it, if prayers can reach Gods who have fallen, I send mine after Him. He fought against One greater than Himself, and was thrown down and humiliated, riven by the lightning. But He was once my Master and I mourn for him in my old age. It is not the Good who need our prayers.
But enough. Our turn came to be called in before Pilatus. A wide, cool room with archways and balconies looking out towards those blue Judaean Hills to the north, (I remember them still, the hills I used to see every day. And how their shadows changed with the hours. There are no hills here to look at. Only the sky and the sun, and the palm trees, and the distant shimmer of the air above the River.)
Pilatus was a tall, thin man, with a balding head, and fringes of grey curls above his ears and at the nape of his neck. He dressed in a Senator’s colours when he was not on official duties; crimson tunic and white toga, and Roman sandals. Bare headed of course, as all Romans are unless they are soldiers. It gave him an air of indifference, as if he did not really care about the City, nor the Jews, nor Palestine. As indeed he did not. But very courteous, with a word to Baruch about his journeys, and welcoming him back, and a word of petting for my mistress, and even a glance towards myself although he did not speak to attendants. Nor to anyone else very much, beyond that first courtesy. There were slaves in the room, busy at various tables, but very quietly, and in wall niches there were busts of the Emperors, Tiberius, and the Divine Augustus, and the Divine Julius. Nothing else. A chair for the governor when he might choose to sit, which in itself was a mark of favour. But no chairs for anyone else, no stools, no couches, no books nor ornaments nor flowers, nor bowls of fruit, nor statues of goddesses, nor bronzes. Nothing. A room for business, and the briefest of business at that.
Baruch began it, by saying that my mistress had news of grave importance. Pilatus waited, already looking over my mistress’s head at a distant corner of the room. A brazier was burning near to where he stood – he did not sit for us, which meant he expected us to be done with our business and gone within five minutes – and he held his hands out over the charcoal to warm them. Long white hands with a huge Senatorial gold seal ring on one finger, a blood red stone set in it. When he did not look into the shadows above my mistress’s head, he looked down into the brazier. Never at her. I wondered if he disliked women. A great many Romans do.
My mistress told him of Jesus, of the miracles or charlatanry that had caught the people’s imaginations, and made them his followers, Of the incident in the Temple. Of the fears of the rich and substantial people of the City. Of the possible uprising.
A room full of silence and emptiness. It made it difficult for visitors to he talkative. They found their words and their petitions dying away in the chill silence.
“And what is your interest in all this, lady?” He spoke Greek quite well, very well in fact, but with a harsh accent that made it sound like Latin, and unpleasant. His tone suggested that she had already begun to waste his time with woman’s hysteria.
“My interest, Governor? I love Rome. And the Emperor.”
“As who does not?” He was looking above her head again, as if he was wondering how soon he could reasonably send us away.
“The man I am talking of does not. He calls himself the Son of God -” The white hands lifted in a gesture of impatience.
“- and of David.”
“You mean the Jewish King? Solomon’s father?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“King David lived a long time ago, lady.” He sighed as he said it, the sigh suggesting that he was well used to the local passion for remembering things that happened in King David’s time, and growing furious about them.
“It is not only the long ago that is involved, sir. It is today. And tomorrow. There are legends -”
Baruch intervened, coughing a courtier’s deference. “This lady knows the man, sir. And his followers. She has good sources of information.”
But Pilate’s attention was already far away. He was looking now towards the doorway, where an official was making discreet signs to him that another delegation was urgent to be presented.
“You have done right to tell me, lady. The Empire is grateful to you.” We were dismissed.
Baruch had warned us to expect no better treatment from him, but my mistress was still furious. We went from the Praetorium to visit the houses of the other Celebrants, here and there in the City. She made the litter bearers sweat for their pay that day, I can promise you. A double litter, and four bearers, since I rode with her. And at each house we stayed only ten minutes or so. Long enough to tell the Celebrants to pray to Dionysus to influence Pilatus, and to make special sacrifices. If it was needed we must think of making the Great Sacrifice, which had not been done for fifty years or more. But somehow Pilatus must be influenced. Must. Because only he had the real power to put an end to the carpenter.
The Jews would talk about it day and night for a year, and still do nothing even though their own Law and the Roman laws allowed them to put a Jew to death for certain crimes. They did not like executions, unless it was of some poor wretch of an adulteress who had cuckolded one of them. They would stone her quick enough. But they did not like killing Jewish men, even if they were heretics. And the carpenter was clever. He might never give them the chance to bring him to Jewish trial. They had already tried to trap him, again and again, and failed every time. No. If he was to be brought to trial and condemned, and put out of the way once and for all, it must be before Pilatus, under Roman Law. The Romans were not afraid of miracles, or miracle workers. They did not believe in them. A good, solid Roman gallows would put an end to all our troubles.
He might raise others from the dead, but he could hardly raise himself, once he was dead. Or so we thought then. But man’s thoughts and certainties are like autumn leaves before the storms of october. Only Eternal God is certainty.
From the last of the Celebrants’ houses we went home to our own house, to make our own sacrifice, and pray, before we ate, or did anything. My mistress meant to take two of the black cockerels that she loved, and kill them before the Fresco, with myself to help her.
But there was no need, The Fresco was making its own Sacrifice. When we went in the figures in the painting had come alive.
I have told you what it was like in ordinary moments. The figure of the God, Dionysus, sitting on a moss-grown rock, his legs tucked under him, playing his pipes for the Frenzied Women. And the faun they were hunting, and the forest trees. The torch light. The shadows. The terror of the faun. Now all was a living scene. The trees whispered in the first stirrings of a storm. Leaves rustling. Soft, soft rustling. The pipes were playing music we could barely hear, but that we did hear, inside our heads. The sky beyond the trees was dark not only with the night, but with gathering thunder. A violet, purple darkness of storm clouds building towards thunderheads, promising lightning. The God looked savage with his pleasure in the hunt, longing to see the faun caught and torn, the blood spurt from its burst skin, the pale flesh opened.
The women were alive. They ran screaming, laughing, their hands reached and caught and clawed at the faun’s body, their hair writhed like Gorgons’ hair, like living serpents. Their faces twisted with madness, with lust for blood and warm flesh and killing. We could feel their screaming. And the faun. The faun’s terror was a living thing. Its eyes cried out. Huge, and dark, and fathomless. And suddenly I knew, The faun was the carpenter, and the God was slaying him. It had the carpenter’s great eyes, and this was his tenor, his flight from the God and the God’s devotees. And he was to be killed in front of us. There was no need for sacrifices. No need for fears. The God had taken it unto Himself, and would avenge Himself. And as we looked the faun was killed.
I heard its scream. As if my head was ringing with its agony. I saw the blood gush out of its side where a hand clawed it open, tearing back the soft skin from flesh and bone. I saw the blood run down onto the marble floor. Saw the faun lifted up by a dozen hands, legs wrenched apart, its body bursting. Saw it dying, torn into fragments, eaten, its heart offered to the God. Saw Him throw down His Pan pipes, reach out His hands, take the still beating heart, put it to His lips. And as His mouth touched the heart the lightning came. Such a flash of it as blinded me, seared the trees, the maddened, screaming women, seared the heart in the God’s hands. I saw the heart burning, crowned with fire. Could see nothing more.
I must have fallen with the shock of it. My mistress was driven back against one of the pillars of the room, her shoulders against a tapestry hanging there. She too looked as it she had been blinded for a moment. I looked at her, and then at the Fresco. I thought that the wall must have been riven with the lightning, burned with it. But there was nothing. Only the Fresco as it had always been. A painting, nothing more. The faun still flying from the painted women, before the painted God.
I stayed for a whole minute on my hands and knees, staring. “What does it mean?” I whispered.
“I don’t know” my mistress answered, her voice shaken. She came forward and touched the wall. And then, her voice stronger, but as if she was forcing herself to be strong, “it means that He has conquered. He has killed the faun. He has burned its heart as it must be burned. All is well with Him. Amen.”
After that we sat down together on a couch and could say nothing for a long time. I had seen many Ceremonies. I had seen the light of the God. I had become a Celebrant, the God had taken me. But I had never seen Him face to face like that. Seen His power naked. I do not think my mistress had either. Perhaps no one had, since the Cult began. When Anna brought in our meal we ate in silence, slowly, not tasting what we ate. We scarcely knew what to do, or if there was any need to do it. And went on sitting together until dark fell. It was then that Judas came, and we realised what the Living Fresco had meant, and had meant to tell us. The God had been showing us the way.
He came like a bridegroom. Anna or Euphrosine must have let him in, we did not hear his knock or anyone going to the gate to open for him. He was suddenly there, and I made a sound half of fright at seeing him. I thought for an insane moment that it was Pilatus, the Governor, come to visit us. He had something of the look of Pilatus about him. The same height and thinness, the same narrow head. And the same crimson tunic, or so I thought for a second. Then I saw the absurdity of the mistake, and there was no similarity at all. It was not a tunic he was wearing, hut a red robe, down to his feet. And over it not a toga, of course, and not white, but a dark cloak, dark purple, almost black. Only his sandals were white, and rather like a Roman’s.
But how splendid he had made himself, since the day we saw him in Bethany in that palm-thatched hut of Simon the Leper’s! He wore ear rings and finger rings, and smelt of perfume as though Mary had emptied her vase on him and not on the carpenter. Exactly like a bridegroom. His hair and beard curled and scented and shining with pomades. Although his beard was still thin and insignificant. as if he constantly plucked at it. He had fine eyes. although they were too deep set, and too close together, above a narrow, long, chiselled nose. Only his mouth gave him away, and it was his mouth I remembered afterwards when I knew him fully. Not his eyes, although they say that all murderers have eyes like that, and all betrayers. In a long life I have known many men with close set sunken eyes who were neither of those things, and as good men as any. But no one with that mouth.
It was small and cruel and greedy, and at that moment wet and trembling with desire. I hated it. I had not noticed it in Bethany. But now I did, and I think that if I had had the authority I should have sent him away and had nothing more to do with him, no matter what it might cost us. But my mistress was holding out her hands towards him as if he was already a dear friend. “Judas ben Simon!” she said, in her most welcoming, warm voice. “I had hoped to see you, but I scarcely dared to hope. Our last meeting -”
“I would have flown to you on wings, my lady” he said, that small mouth simpering, the eyes watching her as if the mouth meant to devour. “But my duties held me elsewhere.”
“Ah duties, duties. You men are slaves to them. Come and sit by me, and Mary here shall serve you with something. Will you take wine?” She knew he did not, from Bar Abbas. He was a kind of Nazirite, as the Jews call abstainers. Abstainers from not only wine, but women. But if he was a Nazirite he meant to give up being one that night, as anyone could see. And he began by taking wine.
My mistress had nodded to me in a particular way and I knew what she meant. I mixed his wine with spices that we kept in a particular box on a table by the far wall. They were spices for the Wine of Sacrifice, and they make the Celebrants close to the God at the Ceremonies. We only take a pinch, less than a pinch, to a full cup of wine. I mixed half a handful in his wine, and it was much less than full. And while I waited for the powder to dissolve I drew the red curtains over the Fresco. It was only a painting again, and one such as you might see in any house that had had a fine painter decorate it. But it was best to take no chances. He probably did not know who Dionysus was, but if he had eyes to see he would see that He was a God, and might see too much. His eyes were close set, but keen.
While I was busy with those things he was paying stupid, simpleton’s compliments to my mistress. On her appearance, on her house, on her furniture. As if he had never seen a decent house before. Perhaps he never had. There was a country snobbery about him, and at the same time a fierce, Jewish pride in his poverty. At one minute he was talking of the property he had bought; “a little place in the City, my lady, nothing so fine as this, but pleasant, pleasant. For a single man.” And the next he was telling her that he despised fine things. That his father had never drunk or eaten from anything but unglazed earthenware in all his life and nor had he himself until a few months ago.
“Since then I have bought some silver pieces here and there. A few. But gentlemanly things. I have a taste for art, I do not know where I got it.”
But all the time he was talking his eyes were stripping my mistress naked, and every now and then he ran a pointed red tongue over those pale wet lips as if he was tasting something. And what he was tasting was cruel, cruel. Not pleasure, not joy. He was tasting death. He did not want to make love, he wanted to kill, and I think that in his narrow heart the two were the same thing. But he went on talking about silver and fine furniture, and jewels, showing her the bezel of his seal ring, a carved black stone with a head on it that I could not see.
“If you like jewels” my mistress said, and I could hear and sense her voice shaking, and her heart beating, and I was afraid for her; “If – Mary could fetch – or no, the box is too heavy, I will – I will go up and open it, and – and in a moment Mary could show you upstairs to – where I keep my few pieces of jewellery and you could – ”
She stood up as she spoke, and I saw her trembling. Not with fear of any-thing, but with desire. Both of them trembling. He was sweating, and I could smell it above the perfumes he was wearing. A thin, vile, acrid smell. She went, and made a sign to me from the archway that said, “Five minutes, no more.”
They were endless minutes. He took more wine, and was already drunk. I could see that although I do not think he knew it. He had never drunk any-thing but water in all his life if it was true about him. Nor touched a woman. Nor a boy. Although I think that may have been at the heart of his cruelty, that he wanted boys, not women, and hated women because of his own perversity. Only Eternal God can know that now.
I took his empty cup from him and led the way out to the courtyard and the stairs, and he followed me, drawing his cloak round him. That saved his life. I had forgotten Shaitan, or rather had never thought of him. Why should I? Shaitan asleep in his kennel by the stairs. He let me go by him without a sound. And the next thing I heard was his deep growl, and the rattling of his iron chain, and Judas screaming, and the tearing of cloth in Shaitan’s jaws.
He had Judas by the arm, and was pulling him down as I turned. I screamed myself, not knowing what to do, and the cloak tore away and muffled Shaitan’s great black head for long enough, and I dragged Judas out of the dog’s reach. But Judas’s arm was torn, and I saw the blood glittering as I helped him up the stairs.
Below us Shaitan howled in fury, leaping upwards again and again to the full length of the chain, falling back with a great thud against his kennel, to snarl, and worry the cloak, and tear it into ribbons as he had wanted to tear its owner.
“Are you mad to keep such a beast?” Judas was shouting. “Give me something to kill it, give me an axe, anything. Kill it! Kill it!”
When I got him up the stairs to my mistress, who had run out at the noise, he was pale with terror and anger, the sweat shining on him like grease, and his mouth trembling like his hands.
“It must be killed!” he kept on crying. “Hang it with a rope. Let me see you hang it now.”
We got him inside the bedroom and sitting down, so that we could look at his arm. It was almost nothing of a wound. Barely the scratches of Shaitan’s fangs, thanks to the folds of the cloak. But for that he must have lost his arm at least. And he knew it, and went on trembling, while we bathed his arm, and fussed over him, and quietened his fears, promising to bring Shaitan to the other side of the courtyard and chain him there when it came time for Judas to go down again.
“But that time is not yet” my mistress said, holding his wrist in both her hands. And very slowly she lifted his arm to her mouth and sucked the blood from the scratches, looking at him over his forearm as she did it. I could see the shivering of his body grow still. She laid his arm in her lap and began passing the palm of her left hand over the scratches, as we did at the Ceremony, to heal our wounds. “You see?” she whispered. “The pain is going. We have our own power in this house. You will not be sorry that you came here.”
I knew it was time to leave them, and went down to do as we had promised, to bring Shaitan away from the stairs and chain him up on the other side of the courtyard.
It was not easy. He would not come with me, and as he was heavier than I was there was no way of forcing him. Philip was out as always, and even my mother and the two young girls combined with me could never have forced him away from those stairs if he had not wanted to come. And I did not want to wake them. It must already have been nine or ten o’clock. Instead I went to the kitchens and fetched all the meat I could, and laid a trail of it across the courtyard, l let him sniff a piece, and threw it a few yards off, and gradually his growling changed its tone and became a whining after food.
I loosed him from the kennel then, holding the end of his chain in both hands, and for a moment I thought he was going to go straight up the stairs and burst in on them and kill Judas. It might have been well if he had done it. But he followed the trail of meat as I had wanted him to and I tied his chain to an iron ring set in the outside of the kitchen wall where we sometimes set torches to light the courtyard. Then I went back to the stairs to wait.
But I had none of that shivering excitement that I felt when Baruch was there. Only a heaviness of spirit, a fear of I did not know what. A sickness at what my mistress was doing, and at the man she was doing it with, and all that we were plotting. I had seen the carpenter and I could not believe that he was evil, or an enemy. I had seen Mary of Magdala and I knew that she could not be anything but good.
How could a wicked man heal the sick and the blind? How could he defeat death, and raise the dead if he was wicked The Jews said that he had a Devil, that he was in league with Beelzebul and that it was by His means that he worked his miracles. Could that be? Does the Devil raise the dead again to free them from Hell? Does He want the blind to see and the lame to walk? Does he love the poor and tell the rich to give away their riches?
I looked up at the stars but they could not answer such questions, or if they could I could not read what they told. I went back into the Fresco room, to make myself busy clearing away our dishes, and the wine cups, and to look at the Fresco again, pulling back the curtain until I could see the faun. Now he was still just free of the women’s hands, as he had always been. But I could remember the moment when he died, only a few hours ago, when the Fresco came alive, and I could see his eyes again. If there was wickedness it was not in him.
I was still thinking of that when I heard my mistress scream.
Not the screams of pleasure she sometimes gave with Baruch, half laughter, half pain, half begging to be hurt again, half begging to be spared, “a moment, a moment, no more for a moment, I implore you, Baruch, I kiss your feet.” Not that kind of scream. This was agony.
I ran up the stairs, my heart pounding. And heard the sound of the whip. And she screamed again as if she was dying, as I must have screamed when she was beating me. I burst the door open, they had only latched it, and saw him standing over her, still half dressed, his face like a demon’s.
My mistress lay naked on the bed, her body twisting, long lash marks curling scarlet round her back and breasts, blood running from them. He struck her again, laying a crimson girdle round her waist, over one buttock. I threw myself at him, and without turning his head he pushed me away so hard that I went staggering back and struck my head against the wall. I struck it so hard that I think I fainted for a second, and fell in a heap on the floor, still hearing the whip hissing, and searing my mistress’s flesh, and her screams of pain.
She threw herself off the bed at his feet, clasped her arms round his legs, and I knew as I came to my senses that even in her agony she wanted this, had always wanted it, as I had wanted the kind of love-play that Baruch gave to her, and that was not enough for her. Like a drunkard who must drink more and more, until he dies of it. I knew in that second, without thinking of it, everything that there was to know about myself and her and what we did and why we did it, and the vileness of it. Seeing her white body hunch and crouch and shudder under the lash, and the blood running, and the white flesh ruined, as she had ruined mine.
I came crawling, caught his bandaged wrist in both my hands, and hung on it with all my force as I had hung on Shaitan’s chain. Gradually I forced him away. He seemed to wake out of a trance, a nightmare. He let the whip fall at his feet, and put his other hand to his eyes.
“What have I done?” he whispered. “Oh my God, oh my Lord and Saviour, oh my Messiah.” And then, shouting, his voice hoarse with rage, “You harlots, you filth, you vileness of corruption! What have you done to me?” He shook me away and went to the door, snatching up his robe, feeling for it with his hand stretched out as if he had gone blind. I heard him stumbling across the roof and down the stairs. For myself I ran to my mistress and tried to lift her. She clung to me, sobbing. Pain, rage, humiliation. The blood running from her shoulders, from her legs, staining the floor, the bed coverings that she had dragged down with her, my white gown. So much blood. He had beaten her as she had beaten me, or almost as badly, but I did not think of that. Or feel any kind of malice. Thank God I did not. I have enough on my soul without that sort of vileness,
I got her onto the bed at last, lying face down, and I bathed her back, and laid gauze on it. But even the touch of the gauze bandages made her scream again. I tried to heal her with my hands, that had begun to have the power of healing. But it was useless in such a case, “Fetch Baruch” she said, her fingers tearing at the silk covers of the pillows. “Fetch him!”
I ran. Judas had let himself out of the courtyard, leaving the wicket door in the gate swinging, and I left it open myself, and ran like the wind. It was not far, and Baruch was awake, He had told my mistress that he could not come to her that night, he had reports to write for the Governor, and the chief of the Treasury, and half a dozen others, and he was sitting at the window of his room, dictating to two clerks, when one of his slaves let me into his courtyard. He did not need any explanations, but threw on a cloak and came with me, bringing his medicine box when I told him it would be needed.
Within half an hour we were with my mistress, and he was attending to her. While he was doing that I went to fetch warm water and oil. And it was then I saw that as he ran from the bedroom and the house Judas had vomited. At the top of the stairs. Again in the courtyard, and by the gate under the archway. Great pools of vomit that stank of wine gone sour. I do not know why I remember that stupid detail from such a night, but I do, As if it symbolised the man, and his self-loathing, and his hatred of our house, and my mistress, and all that she stood for in the world. He must have been so close to holiness, and instead he was a devil, And his vomit lay on the court-yard stones like the wet footprints of his soul.
“There has not been a rising on his behalf before. How can he claim it is nothing to do with him if half the ruffians in Jerusalem are shouting, “Make Jesus our King! Down with the Romans, down with the High Priest!” How can he escape from that?”
“He’s a slippery one, or so I’ve heard. There are stories of how he’s foxed the cleverest lawyers they’ve sent against him. He seems to know what to say without having to think about it, and just as they believe that they have him caught, for blasphemy, or sedition, or that he’ll have to say something to disappoint his followers in order to avoid being caught, he says something that turns the tables on them and leaves them speechless. Like the time they wanted him to commit himself about paying taxes to the Romans. All he said was, “Whose head is on the coin?” And when they told him that it was “Caesar’s, of course” he just smiled and answered them, “Then you had best give it to Caesar, since it is his.” They did not know what to say and all the carpenter’s followers jeered them for a mile back along the road to Jerusalem. You won’t catch a fox like that with a few imbeciles shouting “Jesus for King”.”
“Trust me” my mistress said. And there was such hatred in her voice, such fury and such power, that Baruch stayed still, and I saw his mouth go white, as if he knew what would happen, and could no longer prevent it. I think he would have prevented it if he could. He was never cruel nor revengeful. Only soft and greedy. At heart he always meant to be kind. “I shall make sure that he’s involved” my mistress said. “Beyond all escape. If it means seeing that devil again, and being beaten again. I’ll see his carpenter nailed up on a Roman cross before this Passover of yours is finished, I swear it by Dionysus, I swear it by my soul.” And she took one of the heavy silver wine cups and crushed it in her hands like the shell of a nut until the silver cracked and broke. I still have a fragment of that cup with the God’s head on it. Because I took the pieces the next morning and put them in her jewel chest thinking that one day we must have it repaired. It was not an ordinary cup but blessed, and sacred. It was a strange thing that my mistress should have broken it like that, that very night of the Fresco coming alive for us, and the lightning burning the faun’s heart like a sacrifice, and Judas coming. It was very strange. I was thinking that even while she was giving me orders for what I was to do the next day.
”Mary” she was saying ”tomorrow you must find Bar Abbas for me, and bring him here. I cannot go out like this, and nothing matters now. Bring him here as soon as you find him. And when we have arranged everything with him, then you must go and find Judas for me. I shall tell you what to tell him. What matters about it is that he should bring his master” – and her voice shook on that word – “that he should bring him to Jerusalem on a given day. That’s all I need. Nothing else. Jesus and his people to enter one of the City gates on a given day. I’ll see to the rest. And then let the Romans take him, and nail him up, and by the Eternal God I’ll spit at him as he hangs there. I’d give my soul to drive in the nails.”
She looked as if she would have done it then if he had been in front of her. I did not recognise her face. Like one of the Frenzied Women, only worse, far worse than that. As if she was the Queen of Hell, and burning.
I did not sleep well that night. I dreamed of the faun. He came to me in my sleep and looked at me with those dark, deep eyes, and said, “Come to me, child.” And I wanted so much to go to him that I wept in my dream and woke with my face wet with my tears, to hear my mistress whimpering beside me with the pain of her body, and the humiliation, and the hatred. It was already dawn, and I could see her face. Baruch had left us not long after we made the plan, going back to his reports for the Governor and the Treasury, and my mistress and I had lain side by side, not talking, but her hand holding mine, and every now and then gripping it until I cried out with the hurt in my fingers. Now she lay asleep, her mouth open, and her face – her face somehow ruined. An old woman’s face. Or rather I could see in it what it would be like when she was truly old. And it was a dreadful thing to look at. Not lined so much as scarred. As if wickedness had bitten into the flesh, and down to the bone, and stitched the skin to her skull. The mouth down drawn at the corners, shaped by hatred and by evil.
And she was not evil, not wicked, I knew it as I knew myself. Or did I know myself? Oh, yes, a thief, a blackmailer, an extortioner, but not – not wicked as Judas was, who went to the Jews’ synagogue and prayed to Jehovah, and had never touched wine or women until that night, when he was already thirty six years old. He had probably never stolen a farthing either, until holding the purse for the carpenter’s followers put temptation in his way. And yet he was wicked as my mistress never was, and I thought never could have been. Until they met, and fitted together like hand into glove. Quite ordinary hand, not good, not bad, fitting into a wicked glove lined with pitch, so that the hand could never be drawn out again, never be white again Until at last the glove of pitch would be lit, and burn, and the hand burn with it.
I thought of all that as I watched her face. Oh, my mistress.
Until it was time for me to get up and dress myself and go to the thieves quarter and Bar Abbas. I also had to discover where the carpenter was. He moved about a great deal in those days. Not he himself. I think, but his followers were afraid of the Jewish authorities, and they rarely slept in the same village for two nights running, and never in Jerusalem. During the days he would preach, and sometimes he would come into the City and preach even in the Temple, or answer questions, or tell stories that needed interpreting before any one could understand them, I remember some of them to this day, and still think of them, and find new ways of understanding them.
But they do not matter for now. They are written down elsewhere, I have heard them read. What matters for this moment is what I did that day, for it was the turning point. Before that monday, all could have been changed at least for my mistress and myself, and Bar Abbas, your poor, poor father, Simon. And for many others. Well. I acted as I did, and as I had been told to act, and all went as it did. Perhaps it was fastened from the Beginning, that it should go like that. Who knows what Eternal God has it in His thought to loose and fasten? Who knows whether anything can be changed?
I found Bar Abbas, and told him what my mistress wanted. There was no problem there. A riot? Loot? To burn a dozen houses, rob some shops, kill a few men? It was like promising him a holiday. And to be paid for it? And have his men paid! All praise to the Lord, and to Hermes, God of Thieves. As for danger, I promised him there was none, at least to himself. Perhaps one or two of his men might need to be hanged, but he did not care too much about that. A bandit’s life is not often long. But he would be safe, I swore it on my mistress’s faith. And he was ready to believe me because he knew her for a woman of her word.
He also knew that we knew Baruch ben Isaac, who was a great power in his way, in the Treasury. And he knew too that Baruch had brought us to see Pilatus. Bar Abbas always knew that kind of thing. He knew what the Chief of the Temple Guards had for his supper the night before if he wanted to. I let him think that Pilatus would not be too troubled to see a moderate riot, that could easily be put down after a day or so. It would give him an excuse to do several things the Romans wanted to do, one of them being to hang Jesus the Carpenter without any trouble from the Jews. And to be able to blame the Jews for having to do it.
By midday we were agreed and asking round about in the quarter to discover where Jesus was. As I have said he or rather his followers kept moving all the time. Yes, yes, Simon, I have left a clause suspended and I have broken the Law’s of Composition. I am not a scribe, nor a poet, I am a woman telling what she saw and knew. Write it as I tell. Oh, if you must, if you must go back. I said that the carpenter came sometimes to Jerusalem to preach in the Temple or in the streets but not every day. And every night he would leave the City and sleep elsewhere. Because in the day time, with his followers around him, and the crowd listening, the Jewish leaders were afraid to touch him for fear of what the crowd might do. He was indeed already like a King. An uncrowned king of the poor of the City. And of the countryside too, because hundreds and sometimes thousands of villagers would come to the City to hear him teaching and would sleep in the streets or against the walls of the Temple, waiting for him to arrive. To have tried to arrest him in the middle of such a crowd could have started a riot that would truly have destroyed half Jerusalem, without any need for Bar Abbas and his men. So it was only at night, when the crowds were gone home to eat and sleep, that there was real danger for the carpenter, and his disciples. And at night he too would be gone.
One night to Bethany, another to Bethphage, or as far north as Jericho or Ephraim. Or west to Emmaus, or east to Qumran, where I think the Essenes protected him. He could be anywhere, and the next day he would be back again in the City, or else he would be teaching in the countryside, and drawing huge crowds after him, so that even there he was safe from the authorities. Completely safe, unless the Romans wanted to take him. Because of course what a handful of Temple Guards daren’t do, a couple of maniples of Roman legionaries would have done with their eyes shut. But as I have told you, the Romans had no interest in him, or what he said, or preached, or taught. Unless he could be made to act against them, or seem to.
Which was our plan.
We found out that he had spent the night in Bethlehem, where I think he had relatives, cousins of his mother, Miriam and it was possible he was still there, or at least we could find out in Bethleham where he meant to spend the coming night. He was certainly not in Jerusalem that day.
It is not far from the City to Bethlehem, although it is farther than to Bethany, and seemed farther still to me, riding on one of the hired donkeys, inside that basket thing I have told you of, where you are either stifled by the dust, or by the heat inside the curtains. It was still early in the year, being the Jewish month of Nissan, and spring, but it had grown very hot in the last day or so, as though spring storms were gathering, and the sky was heavy and burning, and it was like early autumn rather than spring.
I rode thinking of what I must do, and of seeing Judas again, and hating the idea of it. Bar Abbas and four of his men were with me, also riding, and it did not take us three hours to reach the village. Olive groves and vineyards, and grey dust, and hovels. An inn where they served vile food and worse wine. Nothing. Except gossip. And all the gossip was about the carpenter, and what he was doing. They were very proud of him there, his cousins, and he was preaching somewhere in the neighbourhood. So we ate and drank what we could, and paid twice its value, or at least I did, out of the purse my mistress had given me, and we went to find him, or pretended to. The man we wanted to find of course was Judas.
They were only a mile or so away, on a hillside among the olive trees, a crowd of several hundred peasants, and villagers, and women sitting in the dust round him, while he sat on the stump of a tree, telling them stories. A small, insignificant, dusty man in a brown robe, like a peasant himself, telling them about a man who owned vineyards, and needed labourers for the harvest.
I told you he had a wonderful voice. He never seemed to raise it or shout, like most preachers have to do to make themselves heard. But you could hear him from the back of a great crowd of people as if he was standing beside you and talking in an ordinary tone. I stood and listened for a minute, while Bar Abbas moved about in the crowd trying to find where Judas was.
The story was a strange one, of this man who owned the vineyards, and how he went into the village at dawn and hired some of the men standing there wanting work. He offered them a denarius for the day, which was a usual day’s wage, and they accepted, of course, and went to work for him. But the owner found he hadn’t enough men, so he went back to the village at midday and hired some more for the remainder of the day, and promised them a denarius as well.
And before it was dark, the same thing happened again. The owner saw the work wouldn’t be finished, so off he went to see if he could find more men. There was only an hour of daylight left, hut he took the ones still standing there, or I imagine that by then they were lying down in the square playing knuckle bones, or sleeping, and he offered them a denarius each! For the one hour remaining for work. You can imagine they accepted.
So the harvest was finished and made safe, and all the men who had worked to gather it went to the owner to he paid. The ones who had worked all day, and the ones who worked half a day, and the ones who had only worked for an hour. And each of them got the same pay! One denarius. Of course the men who worked the whole day were furious, and protested about it. The carpenter acted his stories, not with his hands and body, but with his voice. And you could imagine the men grumbling, and wanting to claim more, and looking daggers at the fellows who had hardly broken into a sweat pocketing the same pay as they had, who were almost dropping with tiredness after twelve hours in the sun, picking grapes with their backs bent and their knees aching, and hefting baskets down the rows to the carts.
The crowd saw it as if it was happening to them, and a murmur of agreement went up, expecting there to be a riot in the end of the story, and the Owner to have his money bag taken from him. Or else the ones who had only worked for an hour would be made give up some of their money to the others. But the story did not end like that. The owner closed up his money sack and merely said, “You made a bargain with me. Keep it. What is it to you what I give these others? Whose money is it? Yours or mine?” Which of course was true, and every one had to agree that it was true but they still did not like the ending.
That was the strange thing about his teaching. Most teachers when they tell stories pick ones that will please the people who are listening and make them happy, so that they’ll go on listening to the real teaching. But the carpenter’s stories, and I can remember a dozen of them at least and there are many others that are written in books, as I have told you – his stories were all strange, and uncomfortable, and impossible to understand. At least at first hearing, and for long after that. The story I’ve just repeated to you; do you understand it, Simon? I think perhaps that I do now, but that is after many years. I think he meant that God does not count the hours of service, but only the heart that serves. And that one denarius from God is all that any man can hope for or deserve, and contains all things, and all happiness. I think that is the meaning, but who could be sure? When I first heard it I agreed with the crowd, and thought that that owner was a cheat, or else a fool, and that by the next harvest no one would want to work for him, at least until an hour before the end of the day.
But by the time the story was over, and he was telling something else, Bar Abbas had found Judas for me, and was bringing him to where I was hidden behind the crowd. (I had left the donkey and the riding basket at the inn, so that we should not be noticed.) I had not thought that Judas would come to me, after what had happened, and was half afraid that the whole business would fail because of that, and half hoping that it would.
But he came, looking as different from that bridegroom self of the previous night as you could imagine. He could not have slept much if he had got from the City to Bethlehem during the darkness and had been with the carpenter all day, but he looked sharp and alert enough. Swarthy, and narrow faced, his head balding a little as I told you, giving him a high forehead that made his eyes look closer and deeper set than ever, and his nose longer, and his mouth smaller and crueller. Why the carpenter ever chose him for a follower I could never imagine. Unless – unless he meant everything to fall out as it did. But does that mean in its turn that what Judas did was fastened for him from the Beginning? And that he never had any chance of avoiding it? That he was lost long, long before he was born? I have thought of that often, and often, I promise you, just as I have thought about his master’s stories. But I have never come to a conclusion.
Then of course, I thought of nothing but how I hated Judas, and how I must pretend to like him, and smile, and charm, and admire. I was plainly dressed, seeing the company I had known I would have to keep. But he was dressed like a labourer. The same sort of robe that his teacher was wearing, and broken sandals held together with plaited straw, and dirty feet, He had been eating bread and cheese, and he smelt of garlic and sweat.
“Judas Ben Simon!” I greeted him. “My mistress sends you her admiration. It was a hard lesson you taught her last night, but she has dwelled on it, I promise you, and learned much from it, and sends her thanks to you. She longs to learn more.”
He had looked at me with distrust at first, and concealed hatred, but at that he began to smile. Not a pleasant smile. A sort of curling of his pale mouth, and a twitching upwards of that ragged beard that now had dust in it and bread crumbs and flakes of cheese instead of perfume.
“All things are possible” he said. “Under God.”
“May that be so. And my mistress sends more than greetings.” I drew him aside then, with Bar Abbas. That may seem strange to you who read this book, a woman speaking so freely to a strange man in the open countryside, in front of or at least in the sight of several hundred people. But the Jews were easier about such things then, and perhaps they still are, than the people here round Babylon, where women keep themselves hidden if they can, and scarcely look at strangers, even if they must go about to do their work. And as I think I have told you, scores of women followed the carpenter wherever he went, listening to his teaching, and looking after his disciples, and there was a great sisterhood and freedom among them. There would have seemed nothing strange to anyone there, seeing me talking to one of the disciples, with Bar Abbas beside us.
And I told him of the plan, or rather of that part of it that he was to know. That if he would bring Jesus to the City on a given day at near enough to a given time, we would have crowds waiting to proclaim him King. And by that night or the next day, we would hold the City in his name.
It sounded a mad scheme as I told it, and I thought he could not conceivably believe in it. I did not really want him to. He had only to refuse, and I could go back to the City with Bar Abbas as my witness that I done what I was sent to do.
But he listened, and nodded, and grew hard featured thinking of it. Looking at Bar Abbas, who did indeed seem like a man who could take the City and hold it if he made up his mind to it, I’ve told you how big Bar Abbas was, and how strong. And his four chief lieutenants with him. I remember one of them, a man called Dismas, who had been in the Hills with Bar Abbas, and had killed more than his share of travellers, and their guards. He looked like it. So did the three others.
“He does not want to be King” Judas said, looking across the heads of the crowd towards the carpenter. “At least not to be made King like that.” He drew us farther off, away from any listeners who might have ears for us as well as for the carpenter, and dropped his voice. “We have all talked of it, again and again. He’s of the Blood, King David’s. He was chosen by John the Baptiser. A thousand people heard John saying it, “This is the One I have been sent to announce. This is the Son of God.” He says it himself, and talks of the Kingdom. But he talks of it as if It would come of Itself without any one doing anything.”
“I’ve met men like that” Bar Abbas said. “They want the loot but they won’t do the killing.” He spat on the ground, and made the shape of a dagger with his toes in the dust. “That’s your only argument if you want him to be King.”
“He will not” Judas said. “I know him. If he would!” His eyes blazed then, and I could see into his mind as if it was an open window. Himself as Treasurer to a King, the wealth of Palestine pouring between his two hands. The power of it. And I knew with a feeling between triumph and sickness that I was succeeding, and that we were going to have our way, and that the carpenter was already lost.
“He does not need to do it himself” Bar Abbas said. “He doesn’t look big enough, anyway. All he needs is to be there.”
“To be there?”
“When we begin. You bring him to Jerusalem, and we’ll do the rest.”
“It should not be hard” I said, cajoling. “Not for you who are so close to him, and whom he must trust like his own brother.”
Judas stroking his beard and smiling, and looking modestly down at his knuckles.
“And he comes of his own accord half the days of the week” Bar Abbas said. “All we want is to know which day, and far enough ahead to be ready for him.”
“Also” I said, “he must come in a particular way if that could be arranged. On foot if he insists on it, but crowds like things to be done in the right fashion. He should come on horseback if he is really to look like a king.”
“He would never do that. Never. I know him. If that is part of it -.’
“Let him ride on something, man. For Hermes’ sake, tell him the crowd want to honour him, tell him anything. Just get him high enough off the ground so that people can see him. They’re not going to shout Hail to the King if he looks like a beggar tramping in from a village. Get him -.”
I caught Bar Abbas’s sleeve and tugged at it to quieten him. I did not want to ruin things now. “You will find a way”, I said to Judas, “I know it. Persuade him. You are his friend, he’ll trust you if you think of the right arguments. Let him ride on something. In a litter – no – in a cart like a chariot. Or – but how can a woman advise you? Will you arrange something, and come to us again when it is settled, and tell us? It is only a little thing to stand between all of us and such a dream as you have.”
He closed his fingers on his beard and tugged at it. “It shall be done” he said.
We left him then, and went back to Bethlehem, and afterwards to the City, and all the way home I felt sickened by the shame of it. I could think of nothing but the faun and its eyes, and its terror. As if we were hunting the carpenter as the Frenzied Women hunted it, and we meant to tear him in pieces and devour him. But my mistress made much of what I had done, and patted me, and we made love together, and she drove all such thoughts out of my head, at least for the time. After all, if the carpenter had not threatened the Cult, we need not have threatened him. It was he who had chosen what should happen, was it not?
Three days later, Judas came to us again.
In the same way, the same bridegroom finery, the same wicked simpering. I do not want to tell about it. We ate together first, sending word to Baruch not to come; that my mistress had her courses and could not see anyone. It was all arranged as we had wanted, Judas said. He would come to Jerusalem the day after that coming Sabbath, that is, in three days time. He guaranteed it. He had told Jesus it was in order to show himself openly to the people of the City as the Messiah, to let them honour him, and in honouring him to bring the Kingdom nearer. “I did not need to lie” Judas said, plucking his beard and smiling. “Only to tell part of the truth and keep back the rest. He will be King before he knows it. As for riding, he will do it. Not on horseback, but on an ass that will look better than any horse. Milk white. I have it stabled and waiting for us near the South Gate, by the Pool of Siloam. It’s very young, barely more than a colt, and that makes it perfect, because it seems to fulfill the Scriptures and the prophecies about the Messiah’s coming. “Fear not, City of Zion, behold, here is Thy King, riding on a young colt.” Anyone in the crowd who knows the Scriptures will see that, and tell the others.”
He really believed in his Scriptures, that was the strange thing. And in his Messiah, and the Kingdom. He was a strange, strange man.
And all the time he was talking, I felt my mistress trembling with lust for him, and for what would happen to her. As if that had become even more important than revenge, or the plan, or the Cult, or anything else on earth. Only to lie at Judas’s feet and let him beat her until she would almost die of it. It was no longer even lust, and as far from love, and Baruch’s silly love play, as the moon is from the sun. It was sacrifice. If it went on it could only end in death for her, and somewhere inside her mind she knew it and wanted it. As if the evil in him had caught her soul and was drawing her into Hell along with it. It did not even matter how it was done. The beating was no longer important, only the submission, the degradation. I felt as if she was no longer my mistress, no longer my Clan Sister, no longer anything that I knew or could recognise. And for myself I felt as if the touch of cruelty would burn my soul, and I shuddered over what I had done myself, and longed to have done to me, as if it was the memory of the vilest wretchedness. Like the memory of eating filth, and vomiting.
Their talk died away, and they sat looking at one another, she with her body trembling, and his grown rigid, his mouth white and set. Now and again he licked his lips with that sharp red tongue. He did not need to be made drunk. He was drunk already, with cruelty and desire. They went out into the courtyard, Shaitan baying and howling where I had chained him, over by the kitchen wall, and I sat waiting.
I had a long time to wait. To my surprise I did not hear her screaming, although faintly, very faintly from where I sat, I could hear the sounds of his beating her, and once a heavy fall, I sat feeling sick and faint, and frightened, thinking that I must go up to them, must try to stop them, and knowing that I could not. I must not, because of the plan. And because I did not want to see.
It was more than two hours before he came down again. He was trembling himself by then, almost staggering, like a drunken man, although he had drunk almost nothing this time. He did not get sick, but he propped himself against the wall with his hand, and looked at me with eyes that did not really see anything but what he had done. “Go up to her” he whispered. “She needs you.” He took his cloak from the couch and went out, feeling his way as if there were no lamps. And I followed him, and let him out of the gate, so that I could put off going up to her.
She was lying on the floor, on a white lambskin rug, stained with blood and other things. He had bound her hands together with a silk scarf, and tied the end of it to the heavy ebony leg of the bed. And he had gagged her mouth with another scarf so that she could not scream.
I thought she was dead at first. She lay unconscious, the blood beginning to congeal on her back and buttocks, and down the backs of her legs. Her hair was filthied with it, and her face was swollen as if he had beaten her with his fists as well as with the whip. I had to kneel for a minute beside her to steady the shaking of my hands before I could untie her. Even then I did not know what to do. Fetch Baruch? He would kill me if he saw her like this again. He would have me arrested as an accomplice to murder. I did not know what he would do. I scarcely thought even as logically as that. I simply did not know what to do and knelt there with the bloodied scarves on my lap as I knelt, pushing the hair away from her face, and crying over her. She did not move, and after another minute I ran and fetched water from the bath rooms below, in a silver ewer, and poured a little of it onto her forehead and her hair, and then her face.
She came to slowly, not able to move or speak. Only to open her eyes and look at me. Her lips tried to whisper, and then she coughed. Blood came and ran down her chin, bright red and terrifying. I thought she was surely dying. She tried to whisper again, and I put my ear close to her mouth.
“Is he gone?” she breathed.
I said “Yes”, still crying, and wringing my hands together.
She whispered “Bring me – down – to the Fresco. Quickly.”
Quickly! It took twenty minutes to get her down those stairs. Still naked, because she could not have born to he touched on her torn body, not even by ointment, by gauze, let alone by silk. When we reached the Fresco room she told me to bring her to the couch, and the supper table, and give her some wine. She drank it standing up, supporting herself on my shoulder. Her voice grew a little stronger after the wine, and she told me to lay cushions and rugs along the bottom of the wall where the Fresco was painted, and help her to lie there, face down again.
“Now leave me” she said.
I did not want to go, but I left her after she began to grow angry, and went up to the bedroom to sit there, and then to clear up the filth as best I could. I did not want Anna to see it if I could help it, nor my mother. I fetched more water, and washed the floor, and soaked the skin rugs in the cold water pool. There was blood everywhere, On the bed coverings, on the ivory bedhead and the foot of it. On the walls, He must have been insane. Perhaps that is the answer to all of what he did, and he cannot be judged like another man. I hope sometimes that that is so.
It was near dawn before I was done and I still dared not go back to her. I lay down and slept for an hour, tossing in nightmares of his eyes pursuing me, of pain, of the carpenter, of the men in the vineyard who had become devils gathering a harvest of souls for Hell, and screaming, “Pay us our Wage, Prince, pay us our Wage in full!”
I woke to feel her lying down beside me. I could hear the cockerels crow-ing and clattering down below in the courtyard. My mistress slid under the covers, and took hold of me. She was still naked, and I was afraid to touch her. “Hold me” she whispered. “Little brown one, hold me, feel my flesh.” She took one of my hands and pulled it behind her back, made my fingers feel the skin. There was nothing there. No welts, no scars, no dried blood. As smooth as it always was, like velvet.
I sat up in my half sleep and stared at her. The lamp had gone out while I slept, and I could only see the shining of her eyes.
“He has healed me” she said. “The God has healed me. Lie down and let me take hold of you.”
But I would not let her. I crawled out of the bed, and pretended that I did not feel well, and must go down to the bathroom and get sick. I stayed there until the household was well awake, and did not come back to her until it was breakfast time, and I could go up with Anna.
I thought that when I did go up I would find I had dreamed that too, and that she would be lying there half conscious and crying in agony. But it was true, There was not a mark on her. Not like the healing after the Ceremonies, when the scar remained, and only the pain had been eased away. There was not a mark there. Not the faintest reddening of her skin. And she lay glowing with power as she looked at me. Angry because I had left her, and contemptuous. But too proud of what had happened to care what I had done.
And that night at the Ceremony – because it was a friday, the friday before the Jewish Passover – that night she glowed with such power as I had never seen, nor anyone else there. Her light had become like flames of purple fire, close to black, if you can imagine a black light, that you could scarcely see, but only feel. The whole hillside, not just the hollow where we celebrated, but the whole side of Golgotha pulsed and vibrated with light and power. So much that even the onlookers could see it – the hangers on of the Cult who came only to watch, and usually saw nothing. People who were not initiates and never would be, and never knew anything of the true Cult and the God, only thinking of the few scraps of gifts He might give them in their daily lives – even they saw it, and I heard the murmuring of terror on the hillside behind me.
The novices knelt and prayed, trying to sing a hymn to the God and losing their voices for terror, I was afraid myself, it was so tremendous an outpouring, so tremendous a coming of the God and Goddess. They showed Themselves more clearly than I had ever seen Them. I saw their dark, burning shapes within the covering of their light. Saw Them join together, felt the ground tremble with it, the Stones shuddering.
It was then I noticed the most frightening thing of all about that Ceremony. The Stones had lost their light. They lay dead and grey, all the glow fallen from then. As if it had been killed by something, or drawn away, like water from a pool by the sun’s heat. And as I lay under the High Priest I felt the deadness of the Stone, and the High Priest’s seed was cold inside me. I had a sudden, insane fear that I would become pregnant by that coupling, and would bear a monster.
Then it was over, and we were going home, Baruch with us. For the first and last time in all my life I drank too much that night, so that I should sleep, and if God was good to me, not dream.
The next day was the Jewish Sabbath. And the day after that the carpenter entered Jerusalem, as we had arranged for him. In triumph, riding on the milk white colt, the crowd screaming, “Hail to the King, all Hail to David’s Son, Hail to the Messiah, Hail to the King. Hosanna, Hosanna.”
He rode through the South Gate, past Herod’s Palace, to the Temple, and all the way the crowd was shouting, “Hosanna, Hail to the King.” At first because a few hundred of them had been given a few pence each to shout it, and then because the thing caught fire, as such things can and we knew this would. The whole City was ready for it, all the poor, and the riffraff, the beggars and the whores and the servant girls and the slaves, They had only to hear the first few minutes of shouting to come and join it, and scream as if they had been paid a shekel each to scream, “Hosanna”. They tore branches from the palm trees to make a carpet for him along the streets. They threw their head scarves and their coats down under the ass’s hooves. They roared and stank and sweated in the sun as if there was no Roman Governor, and no legionaires in all the world, and the Kingdom was come again with Solomon’s glory burning in the sky. I shouted myself.
We were there to watch, and see that our money was properly earned by the first crowd round the South Gate as he entered. And we shouted too to encourage them. But I found myself screaming as if I meant it, “Hail to the King, all Hail to David’s heir.” And at one moment he rode quite close in front of me, and turned his head, and looked at me. And in that second all I could see were the faun’s eyes, huge and dark, looking into my soul.
That night the Rising began. We watched the houses burning from our roof top, and heard the shouting, and the swift tramp of legionaries as they went from the barracks under the Praetorium to put the Rising down,
“The God be praised!” my mistress said. “He will be dead before the Passover. We have won.”
I had to bring her answer to him, going with the serving man who had brought the letter from Judas. He brought me by roundabout ways to a corner of the City I did not know, and a small house with a tiny courtyard, and a garden, and some fruit trees. Judas’s new house. There was not even furniture inside it. A table, a chair, some books, a bed. A servant cooking something on a charcoal brazier. Judas at the table, reading his Scriptures as if he wanted to tear an answer from them. Dried figs in a dish in front of him, and crumbs of bread. A smell of staleness, as if the house had been shut for a long time and was only newly re-opened.
He looked ghastly with lack of sleep, and fury. His eyes red in their deep sockets, the lids swollen and livid, his cheeks horribly pale behind the beard, like stale finds of cheese, and his mouth working. He had plucked and torn at his beard until the flesh was red raw under it.
“Whore!” he shouted at me, as soon as I was in the room. “Liar! Cheat!” He tore the message from my mistress out of my hands and read it at a glance and threw it down and trod on it with his foot as if it was in flames. “Act? Act? I did as I promised! You said that was enough!”
I waited until he grew, not calm, but at least stopped pacing the room and clawing at his beard. He sat down again, slumped in front of his Holy Books, hiding his face in his hands. I could see the fingers bending like claws, as if he was going to tear at his own eyes like Oedipus.
“It is not too late” I said, as I had been told to say. “Bar Abbas -”
“He has been arrested. Did you not know even that much? You fools, fools! Or was it -?” Staring at me, suspicion there like insanity in his red eyes.
“His men would fight all the harder to get him out of prison if they saw any hope in it. But your King must act the King. He did not show himself, he did not fight, his followers did not fight. Where were you these last days?”
“I was with him Praying.”
I laughed my contempt, and felt it. “Praying! Is this a time for prayer. It’s a time for swords! And you need a pair of women to tell you that. A King! What sort of King needs prayers? He needs fighting men!”
He stared at me, uncertain, wanting to shout at me, but not knowing what to say.
“Listen” I whispered. “There is still time, still a chance Bar Abbas’s men would fight again. But you must give them a lead. He must, your Jesus, your King. He must be seen to fight, so that others will fight for him. Make him fight. And the men with him, the others like you, his disciples.”
“He does not want to fight.”
“Then let him be damned! Let him be caught and crucified! How can we help a man who will not help himself? Make him fight!”
He went in staring at me, his mind knowing I was right, if it was that sort of Kingdom that he wanted and at the same time bewildered, He was not really a clever man.
“How can I make him fight?” He spread his hands and let them fall on the scroll in front of him. “It does not say here -”
“Say where? Do you want your God to tell you everything? Does it not say your Messiah shall take his Kingdom?”
I did not know whether it did or not, and at that moment neither did he, but he began to listen, not so much to me, but to something inside his mind, as though my words were only expressing his own inmost thoughts.
“Only one thing will make him fight,” I said, “Or the men round him. If he is being taken by the Romans or the Temple Guards. Would that not make his disciples fight for him?” I had come close to him and touched his arm, It was almost a mistake. He shook me away as if I was unclean, and got to his feet and began pacing the room once more.
“Taken?” he said. “He is too well hidden.”
“Not if he was betrayed.”
He stared at me then, those sunken eyes of his almost lost inside his skull. Like creatures of darkness peering out of their holes.
“You know where he is, always, where he goes at night, where he sleeps. You could – pretend to betray him.”
He put his hands over his face, and hid the red glimmer of his eyes completely. “He would – know.”
“For a moment! Only a moment! Then, when the Kingdom was there, he would know the truth, that it was you.”
“And if it failed?” His fingers at his mouth, at his beard again, his eyes avoiding mine. Filled with a red fire that I could not interpret.
“If you failed” I said, “then it would be because it is written, and he is not the Messiah, and his disciples are not worthy of the Kingdom. That is the only reason it could fail. And you would be safe.”
“From the Romans. From the Jewish leaders. You would have made your peace with them. Whatever happened, you would be safe, you would be safe here in your house, and your garden.” I pointed to it, to the fig tree outside the window.
“But to betray him! Even to pretend to! Even for this.” He looked round. “I loved him. I loved him.” He put his hands to his mouth, and held the shaking of his lips still, by pressing on them with his finger tips. “I love him. Can you understand?” Almost as if he was talking to a friend. And then contempt. “You! A woman! Like a serpent! You are tempting me Get out! Get out of my sight.”
“I’ll go” I said. “Only think of it. Go to the High Priest. Say that you are doing it for money, that you have lost faith in him, that you want to make your peace with the true God. And with the priests of the Temple. Tell them where he will be tomorow night.”
His eyes on me, haunted with fears.
“Then send word to us that you have done it. And tell us where he will be. We will arrange all else.”
There was no good in saying any more. I went out of the room and the house, with its fig trees and its vine, and its pergola. It was on one of those fig trees that he hanged himself, later.
The next morning we had another message from him. That it was done. And that Jesus and his disciples would be in a garden just outside the City, late that night. It was called Gethsemane, and it was beside the road to Bethany. My mistress took both my hands in hers and kissed me. “The God will be pleased with you” she said. “Wait until tomorrow night.”
But before that, before tomorrow’s Ceremony, which was one of the six great Ceremonies of the year, and one of the greatest, being to celebrate the coming of new life, there was something else to be done. Because my mistress did not only want victory over the carpenter. She wanted him to know that it was her victory, and by her doing. She wanted triumph as well as victory, and for him to see it. And she wanted to humiliate him as he had humiliated her that day in Bethany.
I bathed her in the special oils that we used for the Great Ceremonies, a day earlier than I would have done. And massaged her and oiled and perfumed her for hours. She lay on one of the bathroom couches dreaming of her triumph, half asleep, drowsy with the bath, and wine, and massaging, and the scent of the oils. I dressed her hair with nard, and made up her face as it should be made up to receive the God, and represent the Goddess. Kohl for her eyelids, white lead for her face, the scarlet of crushed rowan berries for her mouth. Henna for her cheeks. I painted the green shadows where they should be, of verdigris from bronze, and malachite, and tinted her breasts, and her nipples. Set the ruby in her navel, that is the omphalos, put on her girdle of saphires that represent the hidden stars. Massaged and oiled and perfumed her feet, and painted the toenails dark blue for night. Painted her finger nails dark green, like holly leaves. Until she was as the Goddess should be on a night of triumph, a night of love.
As dark fell I began to put on her veils, each with its own prayers and rituals. Because she was going to dance for the carpenter, and show him her power. The inmost veil of Holiness. The fifth. The sixth. Out to the first veil that is the world we see, the world of illusion that surrounds us in our daily lives. Then I put on her hooded cloak to cover her from all eyes but his, and we were ready.
It was not far to go. We went out of the Jericho Gate, beside the High Priest’s palace, and saw in the courtyard men standing about as if they were waiting for orders. Temple Guards, and palace servants, with that look about them of men who are used to waiting for orders and not having to think about them. Then we were out of the City, and turning right along the wall of the Temple courtyard, that towered above us in the dark. There was no moon, of course, being so near the Passover. But there was starlight, and a kind of milky haze in the sky that made it easy to find our way. Like a frost haze, in spite of the heat of the day. At night in Judaea, during the spring, the cold falls like an axe with the darkness, and we shivered as we walked. Or I did. My mistress was too intent on what was to happen to feel heat or cold.
We found them as if we had had a lantern and a guide. The slope runs down from the Temple wall to the garden, and on down to the river, if you could call it a river. A dry bed mostly, or with a runnel of water in it that the Jews call the river Kidron. And the garden is no more a garden than that streamlet is a river. A few oak trees, moss grown, and withering with age, set far apart, because in the old times men came here to cut the trees for fire-wood. It has only recently been called a garden, and the people have been forbidden to touch the oaks. Some bushes, some dusty grass, and that is the “garden”.
His disciples were lying on the ground, their heads covered, and we made a wide detour round them. They were no more than ghostly shapes lying down. We knew that he would not be there, asleep with them. In his letter Judas had told us that he came to this garden quite often, to pray late into the night and into the next morning. And would be doing that tonight. Further down the slope, away to our left, we saw three more of his followers, also sleeping. One of them propped against a tree, but obviously asleep, unmoving. And we heard the sound of a man’s voice, farther down the slope again, almost at the edge of the deep gully that holds the bed of the Kidron, and that is cut deeper each year by the occasional storm floods from the hill side.
We saw him then. Kneeling and praying. I could not hear his words, only the sound of his voice. We crept down into the gully, and along it, until we were close beneath him. He was praying to his “Father”, by which he must have meant his God. Praying for the Cup to be taken from him. I thought that I understood that too, and that he knew already what must happen, and was praying to his God to save him. My mistress gripped my wrist, and laid her finger to her painted mouth.
“I am going to him” she whispered, and taking hold of a tree root growing out of the bank she lifted herself up, and was standing above me, and in front of him. I heard his prayer falter, and come to a stop. But he did not ask her who she was, or what she wanted. He must have known that too. Then I could not hear anything, but above my head I saw her light beginning to take form. Dark light, Darker than I had ever seen it. Like the God’s light at the last Ceremony.
I caught hold of the root that she had used to lift herself onto the bank, and pulled myself up until I could see without the danger of being seen. It was like the day at Bethany, but in reverse. He was kneeling, as he had been as he prayed. And his light was the same white blaze that it had been then, but all the strength gone from it, like moonlight after the sun’s brightness. And her darkness was covering him. It reached out like the night coming from the East, and his light retreated before her as she danced.
Already she had shed the first veil, of illusion, and he must have seen her reality, since he had the power of seeing. Seeing not her, but the God in her, and the Goddess. I could see them too. Not clearly, for that is the end of the dance, and even those with power cannot always see the end. King Herod did, when his daughter danced for him, the Princess Salome. That is why he gave her the life of the Baptiser, he could not refuse it to her after the seventh veil. But both Herod and the Princess Salome were very powerful in their black version of the Cult, that was like the dark image of ours. Not even the image of it, for they had no kinship at all with us, or had not until now. But as my mistress danced for the carpenter I saw the Others gathering, and again knew what was happening without the need of being told.
The Others of the darkness. Because Dionysus is not the only God we knew, although He was the only one we worshipped. We never spoke of the Other. Never thought of Him as our Master. We only knew that He was there. And that is why I told you nothing of Him when I described our Ceremonies. He did not come to them, and I had scarcely known that He existed, never thought that He had anything to do with us. He and His Bride. I thought that only such as turned away from us, and wanted evil, had anything to do with Him. And now His servants were here, in the Garden with us. I could feel their presence, see their shapes surrounding my mistress, reaching for her veils as they fell. And the God and Goddess within her, They too knew what was happening, and seemed to be afraid.
I did not think all this then, as I watched. Only felt it happening. It is a long time ago, and I have had many years to think of it. And to understand what we were doing, and had done.
As if our God Dionysus, and our Goddess Aphrodite, were children’s toys, dolls to be set up for worship, and given breath, and shape, and voices. To take on what shape we gave them, so that it was we who made them Gods, and not they who made us. Who can make a soul, except the One God? They were our creation, and if we played as children do they remained innocent, or innocent enough. For love is innocent, and all that goes with it. And if my mistress stole, it was not from a love of evil, only love of the world’s goods. Just as Baruch took his percentages from the Treasury, and falsified accounts. And all of us in our measure did the things that all men and women do. It was not wickedness.
But behind the Gods we had created lay the Others, waiting. Waiting until we gave Them their opportunity. And now we had done it, and they had come, and we belonged to Them, as Herod already did, and the Princess Salome, and the ones of the other Path. The true God of our cult had come, to take possession of it, and do what He wanted with it, and with our selves, and with the carpenter. I saw our own doll Gods diminish, fade, and my Mistress filled with darkness. I wanted to scream to her, and I could not speak. She was at the fifth veil, and I could see Him as I see you, Simon. May God protect me from that memory. Blackness shining, like oiled skin. And His power erect, like a bull’s, bursting with evil, his horns burning. I saw the face of Darkness, the eyes shining, and I lay down and buried my eyes against my arms, and I still saw them. I saw the carpenter shrink back, praying, holding his hands towards his Father who did not hear him, or did not choose to hear. And the Enemy come close to him, reach out his hooves to take him.
I saw the carpenter go back, creeping on his knees in the dusty grass, to wake his companions, the three sleepers he had left to watch with him, and who had not watched. I heard him crying out “Could you not watch with me? Watch and pray! Watch and pray!” As Hell’s Master reached out to touch his face, and put out the last of his light. I saw them struggling, as the sixth veil fell. It was not my mistress dancing, it was the Master’s Bride. The Garden was colder than black ice, and I lay shivering and crying, so frightened that I wanted to die, and shrieked inside myself at what would happen to me if I died. I wanted to be saved and there was no one to save me. No God, no Dionysus, no Aphrodite, no Cult. Nothing in Heaven and on earth and Hell but the carpenter and the Master, and we had given the Master victory.
As the seventh veil fell, and Jesus lay on his face, praying, the torches shone in the darkness up the hill side, and I heard the soldiers coming. Temple Guards in their white tunics, their swords drawn. And Roman soldiers, helmeted, glitter of steel in the dark. Temple servants, the ones we had seen waiting. And leading the way, with his quick, hurrying stride, came Judas.
The seventh veil was fallen, and for a moment the Bride and the Master stood in their darkness, triumphant in their victory. Then my mistress was beside me, shivering with cold, naked except for the saphire girdle round her waist. I put her cloak over her shoulders as if I was in a trance. The veils lay on the ground, but they were hidden from sight because they were so dark. The lightest of them is crimson, and the last is black.
Judas came hurrying, like a hound on the scent of a faun. Jesus stood up, and saw him, and the soldiers. And Judas said nothing. No greeting. No shrinking away, he held out his hands and took the carpenter’s hands, and kissed his mouth. I saw it by the torchlight. It was only then that Judas spoke.
“This is the man you are seeking.”
The soldiers surrounded them both, and took Jesus away. There was no sign of his followers. There had been only a dozen of them at the most, and what could they have done if they had tried to save him? Against armed men and soldiers? I did not see where Judas went, I never thought of him until afterwards. Did he really believe that his master would fight to save himself? Or allow his disciples to fight for him? I heard a story later that there had been a struggle, and that one of the disciples had tried to fight against the Temple servants. But if he did I saw nothing of it, from where we were hidden in the river bed, and it could not have lasted more than a moment. All we saw was the torchlight going back up the hill to the Jericho Gate, and the column of pale figures, and the glitter of the Roman helmets, and the drawn swords. Indeed, as for Judas, I never saw him again. They say that later that night he tried to give the money back that he had taken, and flung it down at the feet of the men who had paid him. Then he went to the house he had bought and hanged himself on his own tree. He was a wretched creature.
But I had no thoughts to spare for him then. We followed the soldiers and the guards back to the City, and through the gate to the High Priest’s palace beside it. It must have been long after midnight, but the palace was alive with people, the courtyard full of soldiers, Temple Guards, men servants, women. Half of them had been making the arrest, and the others waiting for them, wanting to know what had happened, what would happen. Half afraid, half excited. Because it was hard to know what would follow when the crowds tomorrow learned what had happened to their Messiah. It was only days since they were still trying to make him King.
We did not see Jesus there of course. He had been taken inside the palace, in front of the Chief Priest, Calaphas, or else before Annas, I’m not sure which of them. Maybe both. They each of them hated everything he taught, and they hated the people who loved him. I imagine that both of them would have wanted to have a share in putting an end to him. But while he was inside the palace I saw two of his disciples in the courtyard. I had seen them both in Simon the Leper’s house, and again in Bethlehem, when Bar Abbas brought me to find Judas. One of them was young, almost a boy still, but the other was a grown man, as old as Jesus, a big rough looking man. Someone had told me that he was a fisherman before he took to following Jesus.
I sidled up to him and touched his sleeve. “Where is your master?” I said to him. He looked like a hare in a net, terrified, and yet unable to run. “Your master, Jesus” I said.
“I don’t know the man” he said, his hand going up to hide his mouth, his eyes looking away from me towards the gate. “He is not my master.”
I left him then, but I went to one of the Temple Guards and pointed hint out, and the man went over and questioned him. I heard the fisherman shouting. “I tell you I don’t know him! Can a man not warm his hands at a fire without being persecuted by lies?”
He went outside the gates of the courtyard after that, but I saw him standing nearby, waiting to see what would happen. He was still there an hour later, as they started to bring Jesus out from the palace. I went out to him and said, “Fisherman, they are bringing your Jesus out now. Do you not want to go to him?”
“I tell you girl, I do not know the man! On my soul I do not know him!”
I laughed at him, tired of tormenting his cowardice. And as I turned away from him the cocks started crowing for the dawn, which was almost there. I think I could even hear our cockerels. They had a peculiar venom in the noise they always made, and our house was not very far away. Behind me I heard the fisherman begin to run. I looked round and he was running like a madman, his hands to his head, crying, “The cocks are crowing, oh my master, oh my Messiah!” I think he had gone mad with fear. I was still watching him as they brought Jesus out of the gateway, and my mistress caught at my arm.
“There is still work to do” she said. She had been inside the palace, talking to some of the priests she knew. “They are taking him to Pilatus, but the Governor will not see him for hours yet. We need Bar Abbas’s men to be ready when he does.”
We had sent messages the day before, warning them that they would be needed, and telling them to have a crowd ready for whatever would happen. But it would have been useless to have them there too soon. Crowds lose their fire as easily as they catch flame. And we could not be sure where Jesus would be taken first, or if he would be taken before Pilatus at all. Being from Galilee he was Herod’s subject, and Herod was in the City. They might have taken him there. Or Caiaphas and Annas might have tried him themselves and condemned him to be stoned. We doubted that, because they were cowards both of them, afraid of their shadows, and terrified of offending Pilatus, but we needed to be sure before we set the crowd into action. An hour too long a delay, or something unforeseen happening, and the people could as easily change their minds and shout that he was innocent, as that he was guilty. We had promised money, but that means nothing in the heat of the moment for a crowd. You probably know what city crowds are like yourself, if you have ever lived in a city.
So we ran to the thieves’ quarter, and down to where the beggars sleep, and sent out messengers. “Come to the Praetorium. There is something happening, they have taken the false Messiah and are going to hang him. Come and shout against him, and you’ll get drinking money. But you’ll have to shout hard.”
By nine o’clock we had the crowd gathering in front of the Praetorium. The High Priest had sent word to Pilatus that the leader of the Rising was taken, and waiting to be judged by him, but nothing so insignificant as that would have got Pilatus up before he was ready for the day, or made him hurry. And in the meantime the soldiers of the Governor’s guard were amusing themselves with the carpenter. There was a pillar at the back of the audience terrace, under a roof garden, and they had tied him to it and flogged him, as a rebel and a Jew. Most of the Roman soldiers hated the Jews worse than they hated anyone in any province they ever garrisoned, and the chance of tormenting a Jewish prisoner was like an extra ration of wine to them. When we came back to the terrace, to join the people from the High Priest’s palace who were still waiting for Pilatus, the soldiers had begun to dress Jesus up as a King.
They had found an officer’s scarlet cloak, and a white robe, and one of them had cut branches from a thorn tree growing out of the palace wall and made a crown out of them. They were forcing the crown onto his head as we arrived, and I could see the blood running down his face. They were screaming with laughter and I thought that if Pilatus did not come out to judge him soon the soldiers would kill him without a trial. They had lost two or three men in the rising, and that added a savagery to what they would have done in any case with such a prisoner.
I say that Pilatus had to come out onto the terrace for any trial he might want to give the carpenter, because it was the day before the Jewish Sabbath, which began at nightfall, and none of the High Priest’s people, nor the Orthodox Jews who wanted Jesus killed, could go inside the Governor’s palace without being made unclean. And they would not have time to cleanse themselves before the Passover began. I think that was an added reason why Pilatus kept them waiting so long. I imagine him eating his breakfast, and thinking of them standing out on the terrace in the sun, and hating them.
But he came out in the end, of course, about eight o’clock, and the trial began. You could hardly call it a trial, though. There was only one question, whether Jesus himself had taken part in the Rising. And even that could scarcely matter. It had been in his name. We expected Pilatus to condemn him straight away. Or at least, we hoped for it. You could not expect anything with Pilatus. Which was why we had made sure of the crowd beforehand.
Our people began to shout as soon as the Governor appeared. “Crucify him! Crucify him! He is Caesar’s enemy.”
Pilatus looked as though he heard nothing. He was dressed for giving judgements, in a scarlet cloak and a white tunic with the Senatorial border of purple. Behind him his staff were in full uniform, gold ornamented breast-plates, plumed helmets, short military cloaks. There were clerks in white togas, and slaves carrying parchments, and papyrus scrolls. Both parchments and scrolls, because the copies that would go to Rome for the Imperial Archives had to be on parchment, while the Jerusalem archives wanted rolls of papyrus such as they had always had since the days of Egypt and the Pharaohs.
It was a huge terrace, with a low parapet a few feet above the level of the square and the streets outside. The mob had to stay outside the parapet, although in any case that stirred them at all they always flowed over it onto the terrace itself, no matter what the Governor’s bodyguard did to stop them. Short of killing them they couldn’t be stopped. At the far back of the terrace there was the palace, which the Romans called the Praetorium, and which was both palace and offices and archives, and barracks for the soldiers, and store house for all the military equipment and anything else that governing required. War equipment, balistas, the beams for crucifixions. A lot of those, because the Romans believed in making examples now and then, and would crucify fifty or sixty men together, and pacify a district for another year.
If you were ever in Jerusalem in the days before it was destroyed, you will not need me to tell you what the palace and the audience terrace were like that day. White stone, and sunlight. The crowd shouting, surging against the parapet and the line of Roman soldiers. Most of the scum of the City in the crowd, because word had gone round that there was money to be had for shouting. All the prostitutes, the thieves, the slaves who could steal time off from their masters; shop boys and apprentices, market women who’d make more by yelling “Crucify him” than by waiting for someone to buy stale eggs from them and a few ounces of dried figs. Servant girls and porters, litter bearers. Men who had never worked in their lives. Every ruffian who could walk and shout got himself to the terrace for that sort of occasion. And scattered among them as we had arranged there were Bar Abbas’s men.
The ones who had gone into hiding had come out of it on the chance of freeing their chief, and the ones who had fled from the City on the tuesday night were back again, because there was nothing to do in the hills, and no food. We had more than fifty of them. They were not shouting yet. Their turn would come when it mattered. For the moment nothing would affect Pilatus, except boredom, and the heat, and his hatred of the Jewish leaders. As for them, they were all there on the terrace, near the judgement seat, a marble throne set on a shallow dais with three stone steps up to it, and purple cushions and draperies. Annas, Caiaphas, their principal assistants. Sweating already in the growing heat of the day, and the weight of their ceremonial robes. Furious to have been kept waiting for above three hours for Pilatus to come out to them. Annas and Caiaphas had not waited on the terrace of course. They had gone back to their own palace, which they shared, the one being the other’s father-in-law, as well as his predecessor and colleague.
But every one who mattered knew that they had just been humiliated, and the two of them were in mortal dread that they were going to be humiliated again, this time in public, face to face with the Governor. The fear of it made them burn to begin, and get it over with, and they started shouting their accusations aloud against the Carpenter almost before Pilatus had settled himself on the cushions, and the scribes were ready to take down what was said.
They made an endless story of it. The miracles that they called devil’s tricks to catch the people’s minds. The preaching against the rich. Against the Temple. The driving out of the animal sellers and the money changers. The mob that followed him about. They would have begun with the prophecies about the Messiah, if they had dared, and tried to prove by their Scriptures that the carpenter could not be him. As it was, Pilatus was shifting on his throne and looking over their heads at the sky before they were half way to telling him about the Rising, and Jesus’s part in it. And all the time the crowd was surging against the parapet, and the spears and drawn swords of the body guard, and shouting, “Crucify him, crucify the Galilean! We want no King but Caesar!”
Pilatus held up his hand at last, and silenced the High Priest and Annas, his father-in-law, if not the crowd. “Where is this man?” he said.
The soldiers who had been tormenting Jesus and crowning him as a mock King brought him forward. They took off the crown and the officer’s cloak they had put on him, and he was in white, the cloth splashed with blood from his head where the thorns had driven into his forehead. There were blood stains showing where they had beaten him, because when the Romans scourge a man, even for fun, they come very near to killing him. And they don’t use whips that simply cut the flesh, and leave scars that heal again. They use heavy vine rods that crack the bone, and smash in the rib cage against his lungs. A man who has been scourged like that doesn’t recover for weeks after, and sometimes he dies of it. I never saw anyone look less like a king.
He stood in front of Pilatus, his hands bound, the right shoulder hunched upwards as I told you it was, his feet bare, and I felt again, as I had felt before we began, that what we were doing was wrong, that nothing could justify it. He looked so small, and so poor, and so insignificant. A carpenter who had taught that the poor were blessed, because he was poor. And who had made the lame walk, and the blind see, because Eternal God had given him the power of healing. We were killing him because of that. I wanted to run away, and not watch any longer, but my mistress had her hand fastened on my arm like talons, and she was drinking it in by the word, and the moment.
“Let him try to use his Power now” she whispered. “Let him try! I have destroyed him, I have ground him under my heel! Now let him die of it!” I was afraid to look at her, for what I should see in her face.
Pilatus was questioning Jesus. I did not hear the question, but I heard Jesus say in his clear, carrying voice, “So you say.” And Pilatus, lifting his hands as if he wanted nothing to do with any of this, turned to the High Priest and said in his cold, bored aristocratic tone, “I find no fault in him. Is he to be crucified because his name was shouted in a riot?” He spoke in Greek because although he knew some Hebrew and Aramaic he never used it, and an interpreter translated what he had said. I saw Caiaphas go white with fury under the great head dress he was wearing as High Priest, and support himself on his staff. The crowd had not heard anything, and went on chanting, “Crucify him, crucify him!”
The noise became deafening as the word spread of what the Governor had given as his judgement, and Bar Abbas’s men began their work. “Bar Abbas is guiltless, free Bar Abbas and crucify the Galilean!” The first of the crowd broke through the barrier and scrambled over the parapet. We were already on the terrace, as Baruch’s friends, and the filthy mob of ragamuffins and beggars flowed towards us like a dirty tide across the white marble floor.
“He called himself King! We’ll have no King but Caesar! If you don’t crucify him you’re not Caesar’s friend.” That was the shout that we had taught to Bar Abbas’s men. Pilatus had power of life and death in Jerusalem, and throughout Judaea, but; if word got to Rome that he had done anything, or failed to do it, that laid the least shadow on the Emperor Tiberius’s glory, Pilatus was a dead man, and his family ruined. He would have had to be very sure of himself to resist it, given all that had happened. That was Baruch’s idea, that shout of, “You are not Caesar’s friend if you let him go free.”
I saw Pilatus wince as if he had been struck near the heart. He understood quite enough gutter Aramaic to understand what was being shouted. Yet even then, his hatred of Caiaphas and his contempt for everything Jewish, made him try to save the carpenter again.
He lifted both his hands for silence, and even stood up. “1 find no fault in him” he repeated. “I find him guiltless of the riot.” At that he looked at Caiaphas, and I think that he suspected something of what had really happened, that the rising had been manufactured simply for this moment. Only he thought that Caiaphas and Annas had done it. He had been a long time in the Provincial Service, and he knew what men like that could do to gain an end. But he never looked towards where my mistress stood, gripping my arm.
The shouting grew louder, and the interpreter had to yell at the top of his voice even to be heard on the terrace.
“I will free him to you for the Passover. Rome frees your King to you in honour of the Feast.” And he gestured to the soldiers to turn Jesus round and show him to the mob. The mob howled for death. And for Bar Abbas.
“Free us Bar Abbas” they were yelling. Every year since he came as governor, and I think in his predecessor’s time before him, the Romans freed someone as a token towards the Jewish Passover, since it is against the Jewish Law to draw blood or punish anyone that day. Pilatus still tried to offer Jesus to them, and the roars of, “Bar Abbas, give us Bar Abbas” shook the air like thunder rolling, and echoed off the buildings and set the pigeons flying round the gold roof of the Temple as if it was a grove of Ashtaroth. Which it used to be, according to Baruch.
There were more yells of, “Are you Caesar’s friend or enemy?” More of the crowd flooded over the parapet, pushing close to the inner line of body guards. There was going to be bloodshed soon, and Pilatus started to waver.
He had not much time to decide. Caiaphas and Annas saw that they had won and went forward, shaking their fists and then tearing their clothes, or at least the ritual white linen gowns that covered their robes. It was a sign of ultimate desolation, and despair of Justice.
“He has blasphemed against the One God. He must die for it, Pilatus, or else we must go to Rome for Justice.”
“Then take him and kill him yourselves,” Pilatus shouted, gripping the sides of his judgement seat so hard that the cloth hangings fell away, and showed the white marble underneath.
“It is against our Law to shed blood so near the Passover. Let him be crucified according to your Law. He rose against the Emperor. He deserves death for it. Crucify him, Pilatus, as an enemy of Rome.”
That was the end of it. Pilatus made a sign of resignation, and spoke to the nearest scribe, and the interpreter. “Let it be done as you wish.” Then he stood up and his Staff made a passage for him, and he went towards the palace and disappeared.
The crowd yelled and roared in triumph, shaking their fists at the carpenter who only five days ago had ridden into Jerusalem to hear the same voices yelling, “Hail to the King, all hail to David’s heir, Hosanna to David’s Son.”
The soldiers took him back to the pillar where they had beaten him and crowned him. They crowned him again and out of hatred of the Jews, and contempt for them, they put on his scarlet cloak before they took him down to the level where the beams were kept and the men who would see to the execution were waiting. The Governor’s body guards never dirtied their hands with crucifixions, or escort duties of that kind. That was left to provincial troops, that the Romans call Auxiliaries. They came out of the lower entrance beside the parapet about ten minutes later. Ten men and a centurion, surrounding Jesus who was carrying his beam on that hunched shoulder of his.
He staggered as he came into the sunlight, and I thought that he would never carry it out of the City, let alone as far as Golgotha, where the executions took place, if there were only a few of them. The beam for a crucifixion, if you have never seen one, is six or seven feet long according to the size of the man who is to be hanged on it, and the timber is half a foot thick and wider again than that. Even the smallest of them would be heavier than I could lift, and I have told you that Jesus was a small man and already broken by that scourging. I could see his face, we were so close to him, above on the terrace. I could see the blood where the thorns were digging into his head. Huge thorns, like nails
I could not see his back because of the cloak and its colour hid any blood that might have showed. But it was running down his legs and his footprints left bloody marks in the dust. I could not imagine him reaching Golgotha, I say, and I hoped he would not. Let God be merciful to him, I thought. Let him die now. He was so small. Smaller even than I am.
But he went on, swaying from side to side as the crowd made way. The shouting had died down, and there were throngs of men and market women and whores and all the scum, clustering round Bar Abbas’s men who were scattering denarii about like grain at a wedding. Behind Jesus and the men escorting him there were other soldiers leading out Bar Abbas, his hands freed, and his face looking stupid with relief that he was free, and not carrying a beam to Golgotha. He must have thought that he was done for, this time. My mistress leaned down to him and caught his shoulder as he went by beneath us.
“I promised you” she shouted, and he made her a sign that meant both triumph, and what he hoped to do to her that night. She laughed like a mad-woman, there in front of everyone, and shouted, “Tomorrow, Bar Abbas. Tomorrow in your house.” She was lost to everything but her victory over the carpenter.
He had no light now, or nothing you could see in that mob, and in the sunlight. Scarlet cloak. Bloody footprints trodden on by the mob behind him. The end of the huge cross beam swaying and tilting, and then falling. The soldiers hauled him upright, and one of them smashed the crown of thorns down over his eyes until it must have blinded him. We followed him, out through the Damascus Gate that’s on the other side of the square facing the Audience Terrace and the Praetorium, with only a few yards of street leading to it. Then out along the road to Caesarea and the North. The mob yelling, Caiaphas and Annas jostled and pushed, their priests trying to protect them. They wanted to see it was really done, I suppose, and that Pilatus would keep his word.
Jesus fell again, and a third time before he reached the hill. For part of the way they got a man to help him, and even then he looked as if he would die before they had him crucified. It was a mercy in reality that they had smashed him so much beforehand, although they hadn’t meant it to be. I saw women lifting him up one of the times he fell, and one of them was Mary of Magdala. She looked as if she was dying with him, her clothes torn, and cover-ed with dust in sign of mourning. Another woman bathed his face, trying to clear the blood from his eyes, and the cloth she used came away the colour of his cloak, as if you had painted his face on it in blood. There was a whole crowd of women, shrieking and clawing at themselves, and throwing themselves down on the ground in despair that their master was going to be killed.
I felt like shrieking myself, I was sickened by it. Never in all my life had I gone with the crowds that watch crucifixions. I wanted to go home, and shut my ears, and not think of it. Instead my mistress dragged me along as if she had forgotten I was there, and her hand was fastened in my arm like a ring driven into a wall.
“Free yourself!” she was screaming. “Call on your God to free you now!” He must have heard her, because he turned his head once to look at us, and I saw the faun again. I wanted to throw myself down then, and shriek like the other women. But we were already climbing Golgotha. Our own hill of the Ceremonies. We passed close to our own hollow where the Stones lay. Up to the crown of the hill where the Stones had once stood before the days of the Jews and their God.
Now it was crowned with gallows. There were two already complete, with their cross beams, and their victims, because Dismas and Bar Abbas’s other lieutenant who had been taken after the Rising had been brought here early in the morning, and were already hanging. Bar Abbas had been kept back in case what eventually happened should happen, and Pilate would need to give him to the Jews for their Passover. It had been a very unimportant Rising. No more than a riot, and neither Tiberius nor anyone else in Rome would so much as hear that the leader of it had been freed, and someone else had been executed in his place. All the reports would tell would be that the carpenter was a rebel against Rome, and that he died for it according to the Roman Law.
Between the two gallows where Dismas and the other man were hanging, there was an upright waiting. I don’t want to tell of it, and yet I must. Do you know how they kill a man, the Romans, when they crucify him? They strip him first, down to his loin cloth, because anything else he is wearing belongs to the soldiers who brought him there. Then they lay him down on his back, with the cross beam behind his head, and they stretch out his arms along it and drive a twelve inch iron nail through each palm and into the timber. I saw him shudder with the pain of that, and his muscles contract until they almost tore the hand away from the nail. But they hold the man fast while they are doing it so that that cannot happen. Then the other hand, and he’s ready to be lifted up.
It takes three men to lift him onto the upright. One at each end of the cross beam, and one at his legs, supporting the weight of his body so that he won’t tear free from the nails. This third executioner fits the condemned man’s crutch over a thick wooden peg that’s already set in the upright, and that’s what takes the most of his weight while he’s dying, not his hands. They’d tear apart in five minutes if they had to hold him there. Then the executioners nail his feet. There’s a lump of wood for the heels to rest on, and take more of the weight, and they drive a nail through the arches of the condemned man’s feet to hold them there, so that he can’t throw himself off the cross and down onto the ground, to die on the earth instead of in the air. I heard them saying in the crowd that usually it takes a man at least twelve hours to die like that. A strong man like Bar Abbas would take more. A day and a night, and another day perhaps. But Jesus would never last so long, and in any case he would have to be finished before dusk, because the Jews would not want him hanging there when the Passover began. They break the men’s legs usually, to hurry it along if they need to hurry things. With a smith’s hammer.
The women who had followed him were still there, and some of his disciples, although not many of those. They must have been still in hiding. But I saw one that I knew by sight, supporting an old woman, and someone told me that that was Jesus’s mother, Miriam. She was the only one of the women who was not shrieking, and I was afraid to look into her face. If I had been by myself I think I might have joined the others, but I would not have looked at her.
And as I stood watching, my mistress shivering with excitement and still holding me, they lifted him up between Dismas and the other man, and I saw him hanging against the sky like a great black letter Tau, as if the shape of the letter had a meaning. I put my hands over my eyes.
“His light is dying” my mistress shouted. “Let it be put out!”
I looked, and it was dying. Very faint, like a candle in the sunlight. It was past midday, and burning hot, but I could still see the white flickering of what had been his blaze of power. It was dying with him, as he died, and I could see the darkness gathering, I could see it like a cloak of the Other, of the Enemy, spreading out to hide him, and carry him into the Other’s keeping. The sky itself was darkening as I watched, black and purple thunder clouds building towards the storm that had been threatening for days, and never breaking. Coming out of the East, from above the Sea of Salt, like black wings, and battlements. People were watching the clouds already, and calculating when they would break, and if they would spoil the day before it was half over.
Families had brought baskets of food to eat while they watched the executions, and there were parties scattered about on the hill top, drinking. I saw men taking bets on how soon the first of the three would die, and on which would last the longest after his legs were broken. The soldiers who had brought Jesus were gambling for his cloak, although it had never been his except in mockery. I suppose some officer’s servant had stolen it, and given it to them for the occasion. Only the women were crying, still clustering round the foot of the cross. Annas and his son-in-law the High Priest had gone as soon as they saw the carpenter lifted up. Perhaps they were ashamed. Or else too hot to stay there.
But we stayed. I know I could not have dragged my mistress away if I had tried. She had sat down on the ground, on a cushion I had brought for her, and she watched him dying as if she was tasting blood and it was like the finest wine. While I watched the storm gathering. And as it gathered, the knowledge grew in me of what we had done. Of what I had seen, those hours before in the garden, in Gethsemane, when my mistress danced for her triumph, calling on Dionysus, and it was the Dark God who came.
With the daylight all that had died in me, like the night’s dreams and nightmares, and I had tried to tell myself that I had never seen it, that what we were doing was terrible, but was needed for the God. And that my mistress and Baruch knew best, and there are no rules of mercy or gentleness for Gods when they are in danger. How could I condemn it, or fight against what we were doing? Was I the only one who knew? I told myself all that for hours on end, all through the hurrying about the City to organise the crowd, and the waiting for Pilatus, and the trial, and the coming here to Golgotha. I still tried to tell myself. And I would not look at the cross again in case he might look at me. Because they stay conscious while they are being crucified. That is the point of it,
And all the time the darkness gathered, and I knew why it came, and from where.
I heard one of the other men who were dying cursing Jesus for a coward and a fool. That he hadn’t fought with them. But Dismas shouted, “Leave him alone, damn your soul. We knew what we were doing, and we were paid for it, but he had no share in anything.” And he said something else in a lower voice that I couldn’t hear. But I saw Jesus look towards him, lifting his head, and whispering an answer. A few minutes after that he worked himself higher on the cross, trying to get his shoulders onto the top of the beam, I think, and his head fell backwards. I told you that I dare not look at him, but after a time I could not look away. He had not seen me there, I think. But I found I had crept closer, leaving my mistress behind me where she was sitting, and I was half way between her and the women round the cross. I saw the heaving of his chest as he tried to lift himself higher still to get some ease, and the blood running again where the wounds in his back were opening against the timber. It ran down his legs onto his feet, and dripped to the ground. The day had grown so dark that some of the Jews began to cover their heads for the beginning of the Passover, and to pray aloud, although the real dark was still three hours away.
I heard Jesus calling out in Aramaic. “My Lord, my God, why have You deserted me?” and I had to push my knuckles into my mouth to stop myself from screaming. Drops of rain were already falling, thick and warm as blood, and one splashed on my face and I was afraid to touch it in case my hand came away stained red. Some men and their wives who had been picknicking were gathering up their things and beginning to run down the hillside towards the road. The soldiers were pulling cloths over their breastplates to shelter them from the rain and getting rusted, and the man who had won the scarlet officer’s cloak was bundling it up small to keep it dry.
” Let him die soon!” I was praying, and I felt the wounds in my own back and in my hands and feet, as I had felt them when my mistress beat me, and as I lay sobbing afterwards. And I knew that his pain was worse, so much worse that I knelt down with the sudden agony of it, I could not stand up.
And I knew Who he was, and beyond all doubting I knew what we had done. He looked down at me, then, at last, and He knew me, and I knew that He knew my soul, and all that I had done, and why, and that there was no corner of the dark in which I could hide from Him. That He hung there for me, and because of me. And for everyone. I think I fainted, and when I could kneel up again he was dead.
Not long after that they took him down. The rain had begun falling like a curtain, and the ground was slippery with wet. My hair clung to my head, and my clothes were sodden with it. So were my mistress’s. Almost everyone was gone from the hilltop, except the soldiers, and the women, and ourselves, and a few men. One of the men spoke to the soldiers, and showed them something under the shelter of a cloak. A letter, or a permit from the Praetorium, I think, because the soldiers gave him the body, and let two men take it away. The other condemned men, Dismas and the one who had cursed Jesus were still hanging there, and the executioners were breaking their legs to get it over with. Then the soldiers marched away, leaving them, and the hill. The two men I spoke of lifted Jesus and wrapped him in a burial cloth and carried him down the other slope.
The women followed them, and we followed the women. No one noticed us. There was a garden half way down that north slope, with some olive trees on narrow terraces. It must have belonged to one of the two men who were carrying Jesus, or to a friend of theirs, and there was a tomb there, cut in the hillside, out of the rock.
They went into the tomb, and laid the body down, and came out again. If it had been another day than the friday, and just before the Passover, they would have stayed I suppose, and prepared the body for proper burial. But as it was they only laid him down, and closed the opening of the tomb with a big stone that rolled along a deep groove like a mill stone, and went away. After a few more minutes the women went too, their heads bent under the weight of the rain, and what had happened. Until we were alone there, hidden among the olive trees. My mistress went slowly towards the closure stone, and touched it, the rain shining on her face.
“It is done” she said. “May he rest in Hell.”
What can I tell of what happened then? How can I explain it to you who may read this book? I cannot explain it to myself. I knew who He was that we had helped to kill, and yet I still did not understand. I do not understand today. How could it have been?We went home, on foot, drenched, the rain running from us in streams. And I bathed my mistress in the hot pool to warm her. She wanted me to join her, but I would not, and she did not care much what I did, she was so self-absorbed in her triumph. She ate and drank, and allowed me to dress her for the Ceremony, and scarcely spoke, only shivering with a kind of ecstacy at what had happened, and at the thought of the Offering she had made, and would make tonight, to the God.I have told you, I think, that that friday was one of the Great Ceremonies of the year. It would last three hours, from nine in the night until midnight. And I tried to think that it would be as she thought it would, and that Dionysus would come, and Aphrodite, and they would lift my mistress up in glory. In the next moment I shook with fear that it would be the Other who would come, and claim us for His. I tried to tell her, and my tongue seemed to stick to the palate of my mouth, and I could not say anything. Only bathe and dress her, and kneel to serve her, and then dress myself and go with her back to Golgotha, and the beginning of the Ceremony.The rain had stopped. The streets were almost empty, since all the Jews were indoors preparing for the Passover, or already asleep. Along the road we saw the white glimmer of the onlookers gathering, and the novices and the initiates, walking towards the hill where the two men must still be dying, or were already dead but still hanging there, for the crows tomorrow.Every member of the Cult in Jerusalem must have been there that night. Five, six hundred of them, more. Every onlooker, every novice, every initiate. Although Baruch was missing. I think that he was so softly cunning that he suspected what might happen. I took his place as Celebrant. And stood shivering in my nakedness while the prayers began.They go on for a long time, those opening prayers at a Great Ceremony. Or used to. And before they were ended the light of the Celebrants should already have grown strong. But this time they ended and there was nothing. Nothing at all. Only the darkness, and the cold, and the few stars overhead as the clouds went racing, taken by a wind high up that we could scarcely feel. I knew already what was happening, or what had already happened. And my shivering grew worse. The other Celebrants saw it, staring at my mistress, at her pale nakedness, the white necklace of sea shells glistening against white skin. The silver knife in her hand as the High Priest brought the black cockerel to her to be killed. Still nothing. Only the brazier’s light, and the smell of burning entrails, and then the scream of the small black pig. And its swift struggling as it died.A dead Ceremony. Dead. Nothing there except the cold. I felt the cold as I had never felt it, even as a novice who has no part in the Ceremonies, except to watch and fear. I saw my mistress shivering, and I saw her growing more and more afraid. But she went on. And still there was nothing. Nothing except the dark, and the cold, and the fear. Behind me I heard the onlookers murmuring, and the novices, and the initiates whispering together. The Ceremony dragging itself like a dying thing.The first stone hit the High Priest in the back, and drove him forward as he was holding out his silver cup for the wine. I turned and saw the onlookers, that scum of the Cult I told you of in the beginning, coming silently towards us. Not running, not moving quickly. But slowly, bending down to pick up more stones. They knew that we had betrayed the Cult. Betrayed the God. And they were going to kill us. They were going to stone us there on Golgotha within a half mile of where he had died, and something in me wanted to stay where I was, and let them kill me.But fear of the body’s death is stronger than all other fears, although you do not think it will be until the moment comes. And I ran, naked as I was, and caught my mistress by the arm, and dragged her away from the brazier. I even caught up our clothes, or someone’s clothes, and we ran like hunted things while the stones struck the ground behind us, and smashed against the rock, sending rock splinters whirring and hissing at our heels. I saw one of the priests fall, and ten men gathering round him, their arms lifted to bring the stones down. He screamed once, and they went on killing him in silence. There were people running everywhere, novices, initiates, and those onlookers who thought the Cult was theirs, and that we had destroyed it for them. How did they know what we had done? But some of them were Bar Abbas’s men. Of course they knew. And had had their chieftain back from us, and their money, and their freedom. Now they turned on us. But I did not think of that, or of anything, as we ran. Only of hiding, and of living, and not dying under their stones. When only a few hours before I would have welcomed death.
We got free of them, making our way right round the hill, among the rocks, and the bushes, and the few olive trees and the oaks that must once have covered it. Until we were out of danger, and could think of what we should do.
“We cannot go home” my mistress said. “Not now, not tonight. They would come and find us, and burn down the house.” I could see her face in what light there was from the stars, and it seemed to have grown old, and haggard. She stared at me as if she still did not understand. “He is dead” she kept whispering, “Do They not understand? He is dead. He is dead.”
And we were outside the tomb.
She went and touched the door again. “Stay there” she said. She laid both her hands against the grey surface that was still wet with rain. “Stay there. I command you. It is all over. I have won. Do you remember Bethany, and what you said? You told them I had anointed you for burial. Now it has come.” She sank down by the stone half laughing and half crying, but neither of them the way a sane woman laughs or cries. I tried to pull her away, and she clung to the stone. “Leave me alone! Leave me alone! I want to tell him how it happened.” And she began whispering, whispering, hour after hour, while her body shivered, and grew still, and shivered again. I could not get her away, and she became like ice, and I felt as if I was touching ice as I touched her. I tried to warm her with my body, and I was so cold that I could no longer feel my hands. I went then and huddled myself against the trunk of a tree, and watched her, too cold to think of anything, too wretched.
She must have stayed like that for three hours on end. The sky cleared, and there were ten thousand stars, frost glittering. It was as cold a night as winter. I could not think, or speak, or control my body from its shivering, I thought we would both die there of the cold, and I no longer cared. Only watched her as she lay against the stone, whispering and raving, and caressing it with claw hands. She had grown old. Old, old. I thought that even her flesh had shrivelled, although it was only shadows, the dark light of the stars.
And then, as if the stars had grown nearer, there was a light in the sky, a soft haze of light like the stars falling, growing, growing, until the hillside was as bright as dawn, and I felt the light taking hold of me, and not my body but my soul shivering, in terror. The light was gathering round the tomb. I saw my mistress flung to one side as if she was rags, filth swept away by the wind. The stone moved, it rolled to one side, and there was such light behind it, such light inside the tomb, that I covered my eyes and I still saw it, as one sees the lightning. A white blaze of fire, and he was there, walking. Only he had grown tall, and beautiful.
But he was still wearing the scarlet cloak they had put on him, or seemed to be, and he was still crowned with thorns. I saw the blood, and the agony of what had happened. I saw His face, and the pain, and the blood running from the thorns, and I knew that the pain was fastened to Him for ever, that we had fastened it. He held out His hands, and I thought that He held them towards me, and showed me the wounds of the nails. There was light from them, and it burned my eyes like the lightning, like looking into the sun I fell on my knees, and lay face down as if I was dying. And I still saw the light, that blazing from His hands, and all His body, and the tomb behind Him, and the haze of light like a net of stars falling from the Heavens. I thought I heard singing, ten thousand voices singing.
And I lay waiting to die of the thing I had done.
Until the rocks hurt my face and my body where I was lying, and I looked round me and He was gone. I knelt up, and my mistress was kneeling. She was no longer mad, no longer whispering. I could see her clearly, see her face and eyes, as if some light had stayed with us. And I saw in her face that she too knew now what we had done. She got to her feet, staggering as he had staggered under the weight of the beam, and began running from me. She ran and ran, stumbling and falling, running down the hillside, eastwards, towards the dawn that was still hours away. And I ran after her. I did not call out, and after a time I had no breath for calling. I caught up with her, and we ran together. And fell into a stumbling walk, and ran again as if we were pursued by Furies, and terror gave us strength. Ran for miles, until we were in the desert, and the dawn was coming. The shadows fled behind us, and the sky grew light. We were near Qumran and the Sea of Salt, and there was nothing but the desert round, us, rocks and sand, and the road, and stunted, salt-withered trees.
One tree by itself, its arms twisted outwards from the trunk, writhing and knotted as if it had hands that beckoned. I could not walk any more and I sank down onto my knees. But my mistress went towards the tree and knelt in front of it. It was so quiet in that place that I could hear the sound of the hornets murmuring, that must have lived in the tree’s hollow trunk. And I knew what she was going to do, and watched her, unable to move, to cry out, even to think it strange that she should find them there, waiting for her. The messengers.
I saw her open the white cloak I had snatched up for her, and lay her naked breast against the opening of the withered tree. I could see the dark flecks of the hornets as they flew out of the nest or round it, disturbed by her, and recognising her scent. I saw some of them on her white shoulders, and her neck. Recognising, welcoming. I made myself stand up, go forward, and I did not know if it was to hold her back from what she meant to do, or to share in it. But before I reached her it was done. She forced both her hands into the nest and tore it open, and the hornets still swarmed about her, bewildered, unable to understand what she was doing, or why, she who came from their Lady and belonged to Her.
Then they stung her. Driving their stings deep into her breast and throat And she knelt there not moving, not crying out, until she died.
In the late summer of 1977 I began to undergo a series of strange experiences – psychic, spiritual, emotional, subconcious, the label one attaches to them is unimportant – that had an intense and lasting effect on my mind, my way of thinking and living, on my ambitions and every thing else I considered important. The most immediate result was to send me back to the Catholic Church and Her Sacraments after an absence of 23 years, which was, perhaps, the last thing I had ever expected.And here it may be useful to offer at least a brief account of what the “experiences” were – and are. I became aware of a presence, invisible, intangible, but real, that wished to communicate with me. If you decide to call it madness, nothing I can say could prevent you. In the “commonsense” world of psychiatrists and greengrocers and politicians it is madness. Spirits don’t exist. No one has psychic or spiritual experiences. They simply have delusions, or nervous breakdowns, or paranoia, or anything else for which one can invent a commonsense label. And – rather oddly, given their profession – priests are as insistent as anyone else that such experiences are unreal.Of course, often they are. The recipients may well be victims of delusion or paranoia. But in such cases the truth of the matter soon becomes apparent. The person involved reveals other symptoms of lack of mental balance. He or she proves incapable of conducting a rational system of conduct.The claimed “experiences” prove insubstantial. They result in nothing of tangible value, or even deserving of intelligent scrutiny. Nevertheless there are other cases that anyone with an open mind must accept as having a real basis, whatever that basis may be. Some influences other than the person’s own mind is clearly at work, and the results are visible. Those results can be various; knowledge that the person could not “rationally” possess, for example, or abnormal powers of healing.In my case the visible results lie in several books that I have written under the influence and guidance of this “presence”. This is the third of them to he published, although it was the first to be written.What is it intended to be? When I began writing it, I had not the least idea I was told by the presence that I was to write the story of certain people who lived in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion. I was overwhelmed by the suggestion, because I had no knowledge at all of the period, or the place, beyond what any one may know from reading the Gospels. I imagined that I would need to spend months if not years researching and reading. In the event none of that was necessary, and I wrote the entire story in ten days, in the interval between writing the two halves of another book. All that I needed to know, down to the names of obscure characters and details of the city and the landscape, was “given” to me as I wrote. So was the story itself. Not word for word but thought by thought, if you are willing to make the distinction. As I wrote, I knew what I had to write. I was never in doubt, never needed to hesitate, or wonder what to write next. Yet each day I had no idea of how the story would unfold that day as I wrote, let alone how it would end.One might be tempted to call this “automatic writing”, which is indeed a well known phenomenon, in which the subject goes into a trance state and writes without being aware of what he or she is writing. But this was not my case. I was well aware at all times of exactly what I was doing. I chose the words. The style is mine, with all its faults or personal characteristics. What is not mine is the story. I was told the story, or rather, made aware of it, and wrote it down in my own words. And it is now here in this book for you to make up your own mind about.However, before offering it to you, and indeed before sitting down to write it, I had to make up my own mind about it, and even more important to me at least, to make up my own mind about the source from which it came, the “presence” that was offering to tell it to me.
I have said earlier that among the many cases of delusion and madness in which victims believe they are being spoken to by “spirit presences”, anyone of an open mind must accept that some at least are genuine. At which point you may have shaken your head disapprovingly, saying “Ah yes, but of what kind are they?”
The answer is “Of course some of them, a great many of them, are evil. And woe betide the fool who follows where they beckon.” But some of them are not evil, and it would indeed be a strange view of religion and of God that believed that while evil spirits were free to approach us, good spirits were not. Indeed, in the New Testament we are given instructions as to how to test any spirit that might approach us, and how to discover where its loyalties lie.
This I did, not once, but many, many times. And satisfied myself by those means, is well as by others, that I was being guided not by evil, but by good. The other means were the things I was told, and was then and later invited to write down. All of them seemed to me good, and designed to help others. If I had not thought so, I would not have written them, or allowed them to be published.
The cynical may say “Oh, an author will allow anything to he published if it earns him money, or gives him publicity.”
This is not true of most authors, and in my case is doubly untrue, because in fact I have never accepted any money at all for any of the books written in this manner. Nor is it a matter of seeking publicity. The kind of publicity one gains by confessing that one is spoken to by God is not of a sort that is either commercially valuable or socially desirable. I have written what I have written because I firmly believed, and believe, that I should. And that it is true.
Concerning the two books that I was given to write after The Fourth Mary, and which have already been published, The House on the Rock and The Seven Mansions, this is easy to understand, even if you disagree with them. Their intentions are obvious: to convey a particular spiritual view and description of this world and the next that is clearly linked to Catholic doctrine, even if the presentation is unorthodox, and even if some of the details may seem at first reading to be in conflict with details of Church teaching.
But what of The Fourth Mary? Even if it is “true” historically, what is the exact point of it? Is it simply a story? Or does it have a much deeper meaning? And if it does, how does that meaning fit in with the much clearer message of the other two books?
I have to confess that this puzzled me for a considerable time. At first, of course, I accepted it simply for what it was, having then no idea of what other books were to follow it from the same source. I regarded it as the whole and sole reason for my “experiences” and was deeply moved by it. It seemed to me that for the first time I understood the meaning of the Gospel story, and I thought that if writing it gave me this better understanding, reading it might do the same for others. The Gospels are so familiar to us that for some people they have lost reality. They consist of words we hear on Sundays, not of real facts, that really happened. We sometimes forget that the blood was real, and the pain, and the terror. That for Him death was just as frightening as it is for us, and far more terrible.
But then as my experiences continued, and the other two books were written, and then published, The Fourth Mary slipped into the back of my mind, as something that perhaps was not intended for publication. It seemed so apart from the other two books, so different, that I wondered if it was intended solely for me, as something to strengthen my faith, but unnecessary for anyone else. I wondered too if it was the servant girl Mary herself who was allowed to tell the story to me, my own “guiding spirit” standing aside for those moments, as a kind of relief, or penance for her, allowing her to unburden herself, to confess to her wicked although minor role in these great and terrible events.
I asked this question, and was told “Yes”. And yet even so, that the obsession of Mary the Priestess and her servant was and is a dreadful perversion of a virtue – the Cardinal virtue of absolute submission to God’s will. We should submit ourselves to God in love and adoration as the Priestess submitted her body to Judas in lust.
But there is another and even greater reason for telling their story, and one that fits exactly with the reasons for writing The House on The Rock and The Seven Mansions. The characters in the story of The Fourth Mary and their situation have exact parallels today. At first glance this may seem a ridiculous assertion. What have in we in common with Barabbas or Mary the Receiver of Stolen Goods, or Mary the Servant who put fear of her terrifying mistress above the call of holiness? What have we in common with the crowd who for the price of a few drinks shouted “Crucify him!”? Or with the followers of Dionysus, whose religion was the worship of power and success in this world?
But on a second glance? Is it necessary to underline the parallels? For a long time it has been a cliche to say that if Jesus returned to us we would crucify Him again. Not out of hatred of goodness, although most of us become nervous and even hostile when faced with it in our daily lives. But out of fear of it, or fear of something else that seems even more powerful. Goodness, real goodness, which is holiness, is frightening. It threatens everything we normally hold dearest. Our pleasures, our lusts, our ambitions, our desires. Holiness seems like a scorching wind from the desert, threatening our small oasis of self-indulgence. Holiness is not soft and wooing, as evil is. It is hard and terrible as a sword, as burning as a flame. Our flesh shrinks from it in terror.
And if for a moment we overcome that terror, allow ourselves to be drawn towards it, as Mary the Servant felt herself drawn towards Mary of Magdala, then a new fear grips us – of what the world will say or do; our friends, our superiors, our families. For each of us that second fear is different according to our circumstances. But underlying the differences is a common foundation – fear of the world’s revenge on us if we renounce the world.
“You cannot serve God and Mammon” Jesus told his followers. And if you choose God, Mammon will not let you go easily, or gently. That is the real theme of The Fourth Mary. If she had had the courage Mary the Servant could have gone with her namesake to be with Jesus before He died, and have remained with those other Marys afterwards, and the apostles, and received the Holy Spirit with them and won her way to Heaven beside them all. As it was she lived out her long life in sorrow and in exile and in bitterness of spirit, half knowing, half recognising what she had lost.
Was she brought to me almost two thousand years later, to make some amends for her betrayal by confessing her story so that others might learn from it? If I say “Yes” you are free to disbelieve me, and to regard this book as just a story. What no one is free to do is to deny that such things still happen, every day. Every day we are approached by holiness, and every day most of us reject it, because we are afraid, or it is not the time, or we fail to recognise it for what it is. This is the story of The Fourth Mary, of the fundamental conflict between good and evil that is the whole theme and story of Creation since the Fall.