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A stunning fictional biography, Testament presents the earthly life of Jesus from the perspectives of four fascinating figures. In powerful accounts colored by their own beliefs and desires, the following men and women tell the captivating story:
Yihuda of Qiryat (Judas Iscariot), a freedom fighter working for Rome’s overthrow who is drawn to the charismatic teacher; Miryam of Migdal (Mary Magdalene), a disciple who finds in Jesus' presence the intellectual stimulation that ...
A stunning fictional biography, Testament presents the earthly life of Jesus from the perspectives of four fascinating figures. In powerful accounts colored by their own beliefs and desires, the following men and women tell the captivating story:
Yihuda of Qiryat (Judas Iscariot), a freedom fighter working for Rome’s overthrow who is drawn to the charismatic teacher; Miryam of Migdal (Mary Magdalene), a disciple who finds in Jesus' presence the intellectual stimulation that society has denied her; Miryam (Mary), the mother of Jesus, who has a complex relationship with her precocious son; Simon of Gergesa, a plainspoken shepherd who travels to Jerusalem and witnesses the last days of the Jewish preacher.
With exquisite detail, Nino Ricci offers a vivid and provocative portrait of the historical Jesus, an ordinary man living in a time of political turmoil and spiritual uncertainty.
I first saw him in the winter of that year at En Melakh, a town of a few
hundred just north of the Salt Sea. He had come in out of the desert, people
said—from the look of him, his blistered face and the way his skin hung
from his bones, he'd passed a good while there. He had set himself up now
just off the square, squatting in the shade of an old fig tree; I had a good
of him from the porch of the tavern I'd put up in across the way. Some of the
townspeople, no doubt taking him for a holy man, dropped bits of food in
front of him from time to time, which he accepted with a nod of his head but
more often than not couldn't seem to bring himself to stomach, letting them
sit there in the dirt for the flies to collect on or the dogs to snatch away.
Though the town lay on the Roman side of the frontier, the
soldiers of Herod Antipas often passed that way when they travelled up from
his southern territories. At the time, I was awaiting an informant we had
among Herod's men on his way back to the court from the Macherus
fortress. The holy man had appeared perhaps the third day of my wait,
simply there beneath the fig tree when I awoke; from the joyless look of him
thought he might have been cast out from one of the desert cults, the way
they did sometimes if some bit of food should touch your hand before you'd
washed it or if you missed some pause or half-word in your prayers. His
hair and beard were scraggly and short as if recently shaved for a
gave him a boyish appearance but couldn't however quite take the dignity
from him, which seemed to sit on him like some mantle someone had laid
He wasn't wearing any sandals or cloak. I thought surely he'd had
some cave out there to hole up in, and some brush for fire, or he would have
frozen to death in the cold. Even here in the valley the nights had been
bitter, the little heat the sun built up over the day through the winter haze
vanishing the instant dusk fell. I waited to see if he planned to weather the
night in the open or repair to some cranny when darkness set in. But the
dropped and he didn't move. My tavern-keeper, a mangy sort with an open
sore on one of his knuckles, brought a lamp out to the porch and a bit of
gruel he passed off as food.
'He's a quiet one, that one,' he said, with his low, vulgar laugh,
trying to ingratiate himself. 'Nearly dead, from the look of it.'
Not ten strides from the man some of the boys of the town,
coming out after their suppers, began to get up a bit of a fire, spitting and
holding their hands up to the flames and keeping their talk low lest the holy
man overhear them. The orange haze their fire threw out just reached the
man where he was, making him seem like someone at a threshold,
someone turned away from the room of light the fire formed. Get up and
yourself, I wanted to say to him, feeling I was out there with him in the cold,
with the wind at my ankles and just a few bits of bread in my belly. But still
he sat. It occurred to me that he was perhaps simply too enfeebled to rise,
that his hapless look was his own hunger-dimmed wonder that he could sit
there as his life ebbed away and not be able to lift a finger to save himself.
I had half-resolved to go out and offer him my cloak when I was
headed off by a woman who was apparently the mother of one of the boys
in the square, and who came out chastising the lot of them.
'Animals! Didn't one of you think to give him a bit of fire?'
And she proceeded to purloin some of the precious faggots of
wood the boys had no doubt scrounged for all afternoon in the brush and to
build a little fire in front of the man. When she'd got a blaze going she took
off her own shawl and draped it over his shoulders, then took her son by the
ear and dragged him off home. Within minutes the rest of the boys, thus
humiliated, had begun to disperse as well, the last two or three lingering
defiantly a bit before finally quenching their own fire and shamefacedly
dropping their remaining handfuls of wood into that of the holy man.
The holy man, for his part, had seemed oblivious to all of this. But
when the boys had gone I detected a bit of movement in him, a slight
drawing in towards the fire as if towards some secret it might whisper to
I thought I ought to assure myself that he at least had his wits about him,
and so, with the excuse of further stoking his fire, I took a few twigs from
small bundle that the tavern-keeper kept near his gate and walked out to
him. It was only when I got close to him that I saw what his body had been
giving in to: he had fallen asleep. I wavered a moment over tending to
was always my instinct then in situations of that kind to err on the side of
indifference, as the way of drawing the least attention to myself. But seeing
him helpless like that in his sleep, and even more hopelessly frail than he
had seemed from a distance, I shored up his fire a bit and then for good
measure draped my cloak over his shawl, knowing that I could beg an extra
blanket off the tavern-keeper for my own lice-infested bed. What struck me
as I draped the cloak over him was how peculiar this act of charity felt, how
alien to my nature, as if I had now truly become a man whom I'd thought I
merely feigned to be.
The group I formed part of was based in Jerusalem, and had among it a few
members of the aristocracy from which it derived funds, but also
shopkeepers and clerks, bakers and common labourers, though I had never
been certain in the several years of my own involvement with it how far its
network extended. The truth was that we were not encouraged to know one
another, against the chance of capture and betrayal, and in my own case I
could not have named with certainty more than a few dozen of my co-
conspirators, although there were many others, of course, whom I had met
one way or another or whom I knew only by aliases. I myself had been
recruited during my days as a recorder at the temple, where I had taken
refuge after the death of my parents. At the time it had been rage that
me, and a young man's passion, though afterwards I also had cause to be
grateful for the years of boredom I had been saved copying out the rolls for
the temple tax.
Like the Zealots, we worked for Rome's overthrow though, unlike
them, we did not imagine that only God was our commander or that it was
profanement to know more than what was written in the Torah. So we had a
few men of experience amongst us, at least, who understood how the world
worked and the forces we were up against. But many of those who had
joined us in the hope of imminent revolt had, over time, lost patience with
leaders' caution and our lack of progress. It was our strategy, for instance,
that we stir up unrest in the entire region before risking any action of our
own. Yet the fact was that we did not have the contacts for proper
abroad, and that outside our borders we had won to our cause only the
most minor of tribal lords. So our grand hope of a revolution that would
across the whole of the empire, and be unquenchable, appeared
increasingly the merest fantasy. In the meantime we had begun to descend
into factions, and even those who ought to have been our allies often
over some point of doctrine, our fiercest enemies. The Zealots, for instance,
considered us cowards and collaborationists because we did not protest
every smallest infringement of Jewish law; yet they thus wasted in a
thousand little outbursts the resources that ought to have gone to a single
In the face of our failures abroad we had begun to put our energies
instead into infiltrating the Palestinian outposts, not only those in Judea,
which the Romans controlled directly, but also those in the territories of
their vassals Herod Antipas and Herod Philip, on the reasoning that in the
event of revolt we would need to take the outlying fortresses at once if we
were to stand any chance of holding back the Roman legions based in
Most of us were kept in the dark, of course, about our actual strength,
about our little tasks with hardly any sense of the whole we formed part of,
not only because our leaders so arranged it but because even amongst
ourselves we did not dare to confide in one another or pool our knowledge,
fear of spies. In my own case there were two men I reported to, one a
and grain merchant who lived near the stadium, and the other a lawyer who
worked in the city administration; outside these I spoke to no one except in
the most general terms. For my work, I ran a shop just beneath the Antonia
fortress where I sold phylacteries and also various foreign texts, and where I
offered services as a scribe. It was in this latter office that I made myself
useful to our group—the soldiers from the fortress often came to me to
prepare their letters home, and so I learned the comings and goings of the
procurator and the movements of the troops and so on. In the beginning,
because I had been raised in Ephesus and knew something of the world, I
had also a number of times been sent abroad, even once as far as Rome.
But eventually it grew clear that I did not have the character for diplomacy.
I was given other duties, though from time to time was still sent on small
assignments outside the city, which I increasingly welcomed as the
atmosphere among us in Jerusalem grew more and more oppressive.
En Melakh was barely a day's journey from Jerusalem but
seemed much further, at the bottom of the long, bleak road that led down
from the city to the Jordan plain. I had left Jerusalem under clear skies, but
here a dust-filled wind had daily blown across the flats like the Almighty's
angry breath, blocking the sun and dropping grit in every nook and crevice.
The morning after the holy man's arrival, however, dawned clear. During the
night I had hardly been able to sleep for the thought of him sitting out there
in the cold—I did not know why my mind had so fixed on him except that
seemed an obscure sort of challenge to me, to my own smug sense of
mission, sitting there half-dead yet asking for nothing.
When I awoke, just past daybreak, I did not take the trouble to so
much as wash my hands before going out to check on him. My heart sank
when I saw he was missing from his spot beneath the fig tree—my first
thought was that he had died in the night and had already been carted
away, to prevent the desecration of buzzards alighting there in the middle of
the town. But then I caught sight of him amidst the early morning traffic a
little ways from the square, padding along in the dim red of sunrise towards
the stable that served to house the pack animals and goats of the local
market. It was a shock to see him fully upright, all skin and bones the way
he was, little more than a wraith against the dawn, walking with that strange
light-footedness of the very thin and the very frail that makes them look
almost lively and spry even when they are at death's door.
At the stables he ducked into one of the stalls and squatted to
ease himself. It was only when he had emerged and had begun to move
back towards the square that I noticed he was no longer wearing my cloak,
only the shawl he'd been given, which gave him a slightly comical, womanly
air despite his wisps of beard; and I saw now that my cloak in fact lay
draped over the low mud wall of the tavern's porch. Clearly his wits were
sharper than I had imagined them, if he had known enough to track me
down. But rather than being pleased that the thing had been returned to me,
felt a prick of injury at how speedily he had seemed to wish to rid himself of
it, as if it were some curse that had been laid on him.
He took up his place beneath the fig tree again. There was a little
more life in his eyes than there had been the day before—it seemed he had
crossed back, after all, to the land of the living. From somewhere he'd got
hold of a gourd that he'd filled with water and now he set about doing his
ablutions, with the careful frugality of a seasoned desert-dweller, a few
drops for his hands, his forearms, his face, a few more for his ankles and
feet. When he had finished he leaned in low on his haunches, arms
outspread, to say his prayers.
It seemed shameful to watch him while he prayed. I took my
cloak up and drew it over me against the lingering cold and went into the
courtyard, where the tavern-keeper's daughter, Adah, a girl of fourteen or
was preparing some porridge at the bit of fire there. She was a strange girl,
as unblemished as her father was vile but also not quite present somehow,
bit simple perhaps. Sometimes her father would send her half-undressed to
my room to bring me my meals or wine, with a conniving that chilled me.
'I never see you go out to the market like the other girls,' I said to
her. 'Maybe your husband's there.'
But she misunderstood.
'I don't have a husband,' she said with a panicked look, then
hurried off to bring her father his breakfast.
I was accustomed enough to biding my time in those days but the
holy man had made me restless—simply that he was there, fired by a
sense of purpose different from mine, or perhaps the waste that I saw then
his sort of devotion. I went out after I'd eaten and he was still sitting beneath
his tree, the sun just rising above the houses behind him to cast his
all along the length of the square. Without quite knowing what I intended, I
walked out to where he was.
I tossed a coin on the ground in front of him.
'For your breakfast,' I said. But he didn't pick it up. Up close I
saw he still had a dulled look, his eyes sunken, the skin sagging against
'Bread would be better,' he said.
His voice was stronger than I would have imagined it, seeming to
echo in the hollow places in him.
'With a coin you can buy bread.'
'All the same.'
There didn't seem any arrogance in this, only stubbornness—I
thought perhaps it was part of his vow, to abjure any coinage, or that he
was one of those who wouldn't touch coins on account of the images there.
bent to collect the thing and went at once into the market, where I bought a
bit of stew that I brought back to him. He thanked me roughly and set into it
with a barely controlled vehemence, his appetite clearly returned.
'I lent you my cloak,' I said.
He didn't look up from his food.
'I recognized it.'
And yet did not think to thank me. So it seemed I must wrestle
him for my blessing.
'And you returned it. For which I'm grateful.'
'It seemed so fine I thought you'd miss it.'
'But you haven't returned the shawl you were given.'
'It's less fine. I thought it would be less missed.'
He put me in mind of those barefooted Greeks I'd seen as a boy
in the squares of Ephesus, who lived on air and made it their job to poke fun
at the least hint of pretension.
He had finished his food.
'Should I send another bowl?' I said.
'If you like.'
I paid a boy to bring out more stew, then moved on through the
market. En Melakh was one of the towns that the madman Cassius had
razed when he was in Syria, for failing to pay him tribute, and it had been
rebuilt in crude Greek style with an open market just inside the gates.
There wasn't much of interest to be had in it—a bit of coloured wool from
coast, a few trinkets and hair combs, some dried meat and fruits. At the
back, where the concessions gave way to the narrow alleys of a bazaar, an
old woman ran a shop out of her house that I'd noticed people hurrying from
carrying secret parcels wrapped in sackcloth: potions and charms. A
carved figurine of three wise men wrapped in fish skins stood in a niche
the woman's lintel. These were our Godfearing Jews, I thought, hedging
bets, worshipping icons of old men dressed up as fish.
As I was coming out of the far end of the market there was a
commotion near the town gates. Some sort of detachment was coming into
town—Romans, I thought at first, but then I recognized the standards of
Herod Antipas. I made my way through the gawkers who had already lined
the street to get a better view. They were a bit of a rabble, it seemed,
around a dozen in all, arranged in rough formation around their captain, a
bearded colossus who was the only rider. It took me a moment to see what
was that had caused such a stir: they had a prisoner in tow. He was being
pulled along, virtually dragged, by a rope attached to the captain's saddle,
though because of the soldiers and the crowd I could not get a good view of
him. Then a gap opened up and I saw his face and was stopped dead, for
though he was badly beaten I recognized him at once as my contact.
I did not know how to react. The truth was that nothing in my
experience had prepared me for a situation of this sort, so that it seemed
as if what had been merely trifling until then, playing a part, had become
suddenly real. I moved to the back of the crowd to be out of the soldiers'
path, afraid some look or glance from the man might give me away. But he
looked too far ruined for that. Both eyes were swelled to slits from whatever
beatings he had got; one of his ears had been cut away, but crudely, so
that there were still ragged bits of flesh left hanging, encrusted black with
flies and dried blood. As he went past he stumbled and fell and did not get
again, so that he ended by being hauled along the street on his backside
while one of the town dogs ran barking half-crazed around him and the
townspeople laughed, no doubt taking him for a simple criminal.
His name was Ezekias. He was not much more than a boy, a
messenger for the court in Tiberias who had been scouted out because of
his position and then recruited during a visit to Jerusalem for one of the
feasts. My only dealings with him had been a short encounter in the city at
the time of his recruitment and a further one in Jericho some months later—
he had struck me then as young, loyal, earnest, and entirely unaware of the
danger he had entered into. It seemed more and more we relied on this
who could be easily replaced; indeed, I myself had not been so different
I had joined.
His use to us had been that he was often able to bring us news
from the Macherus fortress, which was second only to Masada in
impregnability, and with it formed the backbone of the southern defences of
the Palestinian territories. We had been working to infiltrate the place for
some time, in which task we had some reason to feel hope since, unlike at
many of the other outposts, there was a large contingent of Jews among
the company there. But there were also many Edomites, whose lands lay
nearby and from whom Antipas's father had descended, and who therefore
could not be trusted. The Edomites held all the positions of command, and
found every means of keeping the Jews subordinate. Yet there were one or
two Jews who by dint of sheer perseverance and faultless service had got
ahead, and these were the ones to whom we had directed ourselves and so
gained a foothold.
The soldiers had come to a stop in the middle of the square.
There were a couple of hitching stones there, near the well; they tied the
captain's horse to one and bound Ezekias to the other with the rope he'd
been dragged by, haphazardly, as if he were a sheaf of wheat they were
binding. After they'd drawn up their own fill from the well, they watered the
horse but left Ezekias untended, not so much out of malice, it seemed, but
more as if he were something they'd lost interest in, in the oafish way of
boys who tired of some creature they'd caught. Ezekias, however, seemed
aware neither that water was near nor that he was being denied it, his head
drooped and his body straining against the rope that bound him so that it
seemed the only thing that held him upright.
After the days of cloud and dust the clear sky now seemed an
assault, the sun already beating down like a hammer. I stood there in the
street but could not form a plan, felt only a general outrage as if some trick
had been played on me. I could not know what Ezekias's capture meant or
who else had been implicated by it; I reasoned the soldiers knew nothing of
our meeting or they would not have come into town so openly, but even that
wasn't certain. They had moved off now towards the tavern where I was
staying, the tavern-keeper hurrying out to greet them, putting on his most
servile of appearances, smiling and bowing and scraping and promising
wine and meat, which I myself had hardly seen a trace of in my days there;
and meanwhile the townspeople were still lingering uncertainly about the
square, in the hope, perhaps, of some sort of violence.
I looked to Ezekias again and thought, He must be killed, for his
own sake and for the sake of those he might name, when the king's men in
Tiberias put their wits to his torture. Then once the idea had entered my
head, there was no putting it out, because of its logic. All of us had heard
the stories of those who'd been taken and the things that were done to
and how sometimes, for instance, to make them name their accomplices,
their children or wives were brought before them and their fingers severed
by one or their eyes gouged out. So it was not simply a matter of sparing
Ezekias—my own life stood at risk if I did nothing, for surely I would be
among the first he would give up, if he had not already done so.
I had a dagger in my room that I always carried among my things.
In all the time since my recruitment I had never had cause to use it; it
seemed a great irony to me that its first victim would now be a member of
my own cause. Thus, even as it grew clear that I must attempt the thing, it
seemed a sort of joke, not the least part of which was that I would need to
find the courage to slit my own throat if I was caught, or I would merely have
put myself in the place of Ezekias. So I stood there in the street and did not
know how to begin, and the sun grew hotter and the flies continued to
cluster around Ezekias's bloodied face. Twenty paces from him the holy
still sat beneath his tree—next to Ezekias he seemed diminished
though I saw how he had watched the soldiers' progress closely.
The company had been too large to fit in the tavern-keeper's
courtyard so he'd had his sons set up awnings in front of the porch and lay
out carpets there. When the group had finally settled itself he sent Adah
out, arms bared, to serve the wine, with the predictable result that the
soldiers, lethargic and dull until then, grew suddenly animated, slipping their
hands on poor Adah's backside as she passed and laughing at her
retreat from them. While their attention was thus diverted I made my way
past them in order to get to my room. Only the tavern-keeper showed any
particular awareness of me as I went in, catching my eye dismissively as if
say he was sorry, he had more important matters than me to attend to at
I got the knife from my things. I had a scabbard for it but had
never been in the habit of wearing it. Strapping it on now I felt like a child
dressing up for a game of assassin. It made a bulge beneath my cloak
I had it in place that I imagined would make my intentions plain to anyone
who laid eyes on me.
I went through my sack then, since I did not think I would be
returning to my room. But other than a bit of cheese and stale bread from
the trip down from Jerusalem there were only some underthings and a
shirt, which I left there.
Stepping out to the porch from the courtyard, I ran full into Adah
as she was hurrying in. The force of the collision sent the jug she was
carrying smashing against the ground and sent Adah herself sprawling
backwards practically into the laps of the soldiers, who at once were in an
uproar, half-drunk by now and pleased beyond reckoning at the mishap.
'I'm sorry,' Adah stammered, 'I'm sorry,' scrambling to collect up
the broken jug before fleeing back into the courtyard.
The soldiers, meanwhile, had now decided that they must make
me their good friend and pulled me down to join them at their libations, with
that brutal jocularity soldiers had, that you knew could turn against you at
the slightest whim. I was worried they would ask me my business—I had
it out to the tavern-keeper that I was expecting some traders from
and would catch me out in some mistake, since I did not know very well the
movements of the traders in those parts. But they did not seem to have
much interest in anything outside their own crude humour. I saw now that
there wasn't a Jew among them—they were mainly Syrians, it seemed,
except for the captain, who was clearly an Edomite.
Because my cloak had fallen open one of the soldiers noticed my
dagger, which had a jewelled handle. He was one of the younger ones,
whose provenance I could not make out, since he spoke neither Aramaic
nor even Greek very well. Without asking my leave he pulled the knife from
sheath and then with a grin made as if to stab me with it, the whole
company bursting into laughter when I started back. He then pulled out his
own knife, which had a curved blade and a handle of tooled leather, and
offered it in exchange. I was afraid this was some custom of his that I would
be forced to honour.
'It was my father's,' I said of my own, which was the truth and
which seemed to satisfy him, since he returned the thing to me.
With each moment I sat there, it seemed increasingly farfetched
that I should carry my plan through; and indeed there was that part of me
that was happy I had been compelled to stop there. The thing was simple
enough—I lacked the courage. Or perhaps for a moment I did not see the
point, of Ezekias's death or my own, the useless pile of bones we would
I asked as casually as I could manage after their prisoner.
'We always carry a Jew to draw off the dogs,' the captain said,
his first words to me.
The soldiers at once broke into laughter, not bothering to restrain
themselves in the least on my account, so that I felt sickened to have sat
down amongst them. I started to rise but one of them held me back,
clapping an aggressive arm around me, until I thought I must draw my
then and there. In the meanwhile, however, the captain's attention had been
drawn to the square. I looked out to see that a small crowd had gathered
there near Ezekias—it seemed the holy man, while the soldiers had been
busy with me, had gone to the well to get a scoop of water to bring over to
him, and people had gathered around now to see if he would get away with
The captain had one of his men out there in an instant, who
snatched the scoop away and sent the water spilling, in the process
practically knocking the holy man over. Some of the crowd jeered him at
that, for it was one thing to torture a prisoner but another to slight a Jewish
holy man; and then someone, it wasn't clear who, threw a stone at him.
soldier drew his cutlass then and it seemed for a moment that there would
be a riot, which however would have suited me very well. But the captain at
once roused his men and hurried them out into the square, where they
with their hands on their swords until the crowd had backed off.
In all this I had quietly made my way back to the edge of the
market, still awaiting a chance if one should present itself. But in a moment
it grew clear that my plan had been truly foiled now, for the captain had
apparently had enough of the place and had begun rounding up his men to
resume their march. He sent one of the soldiers back to pay the tavern-
keeper, lest he lodge a complaint and the Romans bar Antipas from their
roads; some of the others prepared his horse. But when they went to loose
Ezekias from his post, he simply slumped to the ground and did not move.
The captain squatted down to him and held a hand out to feel for
his breath. After a moment he stood and kicked the slumped body over
angrily, then for good measure pulled out his cutlass and stuck it into
Ezekias's side. A trickle of blood seeped up through the wound.
'Leave him,' the captain said, and abandoned him there by the
The captain wasted no time now in taking up his march again,
and in a matter of minutes he and his men were already out the gates. I
stood there in the square and could not believe the way the thing had
nor could I say if it showed the Lord's mercy or his spite.
The crowd around Ezekias had grown again but no one dared to
touch him, fearing who knew what defilement. There were mumbles of
confusion, then the question of what should be done with the body; I cut off
debate by undertaking to look after it. Of the entire crowd the only one who
came forward to offer to help was the holy man.
'I can manage it,' I said, given his state. But he had already
moved to take Ezekias's feet.
We carried him out through the gates. The holy man proved
surprisingly agile, keeping up a brisk pace without complaint. We were
silent until we were a little way beyond the town, but then we needed to
discuss how best the body could be disposed of. It would take a day's work
to dig a hole in the rock-hard earth outside the town there. But I could not
bear the thought of simply burying Ezekias beneath a pile of stones like a
'There are some caves in the hills,' the holy man said. 'Not far.'
But it was two miles or more of barren plain before the hills began,
and the sun still climbing.
'You'll be all right?' I said.
'If not, there are caves enough for all of us.'
It was past mid-morning before we reached the hills. The sun was
relentless; beneath it the landscape looked utterly transformed from the
previous days, stark and deathly and unreal. Ezekias's body was sending
up a terrible stink—from the slit in his side, mainly, though it seemed also
that he had soiled himself at some point.
It took all our effort to make our way up the scree of the first hills.
But the holy man knew his way around, leading us to a small promontory
beneath which were sheltered a few natural caves. A bit of careful
manoeuvring got us down to one of them and we set Ezekias's body inside.
The holy man pulled a waterskin from under his shirt then, and wetting his
sleeve he wiped some of the grime and blood from Ezekias's face. It was
only now that I allowed myself to truly look at it, so mangled, though it had
once been quite handsome. The jaw looked broken, perhaps the nose as
well; the hair was matted with blood where his ear had been severed. But
under the holy man's ministrations the face began to look human again.
'You knew him?' the holy man said.
'No.' But it bothered me to lie to him, nor did he seem to believe
When we had laid the body out and wrapped my cloak around it
as a shroud, we set about closing up the mouth of the cave, heaping rubble
down from the slope above it and scrounging what rocks we could from the
hillside. The work took an hour or more, in a heat that was like a wall
bearing down on us. Afterwards we sat on the ledge that came out from the
cave and drank what remained of the holy man's water. From where we sat
we had a view of the Jordan plain, with the palms of Jericho to the north and
the intimation of the Salt Sea to the southeast. En Melakh, directly ahead
us, looked almost indistinguishable from the rubbled plain it rose out of—it
was a town that defied logic, sitting nearly undefended like that at the
with its houses of unbaked mud that a few good rains would wash to
If it were ever abandoned, the desert would have erased every trace of it
inside of a year.
'Will you spend the night in the town again?' I said.
'I think I'll go on to Jericho.'
We sat talking, in the tired, laconic way that came of our fatigue
and of the gravity of the task we had shared. His name was Yehoshua;
when I asked him what had brought him to En Melakh, he told me, with
surprising frankness, that he had been an acolyte of the prophet Yohanan,
whose camp had been nearby. It was not two months then since Yohanan
had been arrested, by Herod Antipas, though everyone knew it was the
Romans who had put him up to it.
'We heard Yohanan's acolytes had been killed,' I said.
'Not all of them.' Though he wouldn't look at me when he said
Things were clearer now: he had shaved his head to hide from the
soldiers, since it was a mark of Yohanan and his men that they went
unshorn. So we were both of us outlaws, it seemed, joined in that way if no
other. In fact our movement had followed Yohanan's arrest closely, to see if
we could find the way to turn his supporters to us; but in the end we had
found them too leaderless and fanatical and dispersed. In my own view the
Romans had been wrong to see in Yohanan a political threat, for all the
numbers he drew—rather he had been a boon to them, by diverting to
mysticism those who might otherwise have put their energies to burning
With the mention of Yohanan, Yehoshua's mood had turned—it
weighed on him, as I guessed, to have deserted him. He seemed tired to
me, and embittered, like someone at the end of a road.
'If you left him it was to save your life,' I said, 'so that you might
put it to good use.' But the words sounded empty—I was not some wise
man to tell him such a thing, nor even, it seemed, more certain of myself.
He didn't take offence, however, but made light of the thing,
saying, 'He's better off than the man in the cave, at least.'
It was Yehoshua, before we set out, who said a prayer for poor
Ezekias, asking the Lord to look to him. Then, where the hills gave way to
the chalky plain again, we took our leave of each other. He handed me the
shawl he'd been given in En Melakh, and which he'd been using as his
headgear, and asked me if I might return it to its owner. I could not say why
it so moved me that he should make this request of me.
'I'll find her,' I said.
I watched him as he melted into the barrens, not imagining I
should see him again but feeling still bound to him, because he had shared
with me the contamination of Ezekias's death. I thought of the story of the
priest who saw a dying man by the road and passed him by, for fear of
uncleanness—at least that was not the school that Yohanan had raised
him in. It was to prepare God's way that Yohanan taught, as I'd heard it,
though his acolyte seemed to have lost his own. No doubt his courage had
failed when the soldiers had come and he'd run; yet I could not say I would
not have done the same.
He had already disappeared in the haze off the desert when I
turned back towards En Melakh. A wind had come up by then and the dust
was rising. By the time I reached the town it had blocked the sun again.
Copyright © 2002 by Nino Ricci. Reprinted by permission of Houghton