Read an Excerpt
The Liars' Gospel
By Naomi Alderman
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2013 Naomi Alderman
All rights reserved.
There is a dead boy on the hillside, they say. Or maybe just almost dead. The herder Ephrayim found him when he was seeking a lost lamb, and does not know how long he has lain in the shallow cave between the pathways. Where has he come from? They don't know. The clothes look like those made in Shomron, but the shoes are Galilean. Sturdy shoes, said Ephrayim, laying thereby his claim should the boy be lost. Sturdy, but still he should not have tried to cross the hills alone. It has been six cold nights one after another. Snow has fallen although it is nearly spring.
Still, if he is dead he must be buried, and if he is not dead they must attempt, at least, to care for him. They bring him to Natzaret thrown over the back of a mule. This is where Miryam first sees him. He is breathing, just a little, very shallow breaths, and they have wrapped him in furs. As they bring him in, a crowd comes to see—is he someone's cousin? Someone's nephew? Why did he come to Natzaret at such a time of rough travel? No one recognizes him. They push Miryam to the front in any case, to take a good look. A mother would know her own son, however changed he might be. Though they know there is no hope and he is at least a decade too young. But just in case.
Her youngest son, Iov, tugs on her skirt and says, "Who is it, Ima? Who is it? Why does he look like that, Ima?"
She picks Iov up and passes him to her friend Rahav to hold as she stares intently at the man on the back of the mule. The half-dead man is not her son. How could he be? She notices that two fingers on his right hand are black. He'll lose them, painfully. If he's lucky.
They place him in Amala the widow's house and put him to bed with the dogs, for warmth. He sleeps the night, though they expect him to die, and in the morning begins to rouse, a little, enough to flutter his eyelids and take drips of water from a soaked rag. The pain from his blackened fingers keeps him moaning constantly, even in his sleep, a low keening wail like an abandoned newborn. He shivers and sweats and holds the injured hand like a claw. They fear a fever. They call for the blacksmith, who performs the necessary deed with kindness, that is to say: swiftly. He screams of course, a strangled, terrified howl, but that night he takes a little soup and sleeps deeply. He still has not spoken to say who he is, although he understands them when they say "soup" or "water." They wonder if he is a Jew at all, and not a Syrian or a Greek.
It is four more days until he speaks. They take turns feeding him bone soup or bread soaked in milk. Among themselves, they murmur. He is not as young as the light bundle of him crumpled in the cave had suggested, but not so old as the lines on his face. His beard has not come in yet, except in mottled patches. He is perhaps fifteen or sixteen. And where are his people? There is one obvious answer. Every year, some village rebels against the Romans, refuses to pay the tax, claims they cannot pay—often it is true, they cannot pay. And the tax collectors report the rebellion, and soldiers are dispatched. Every year, some village is burned, its men put to the sword, its women and children to flight. It is not likely that a boy as young as this would have been a ringleader, would be remembered by a soldier. It is not likely that it is dangerous to have him here. Nonetheless, the old men mutter.
On the fourth day, when they come to give him his soup, they find he has woken and is patting the dog with his whole hand, keeping the injured one close to his chest. He is murmuring to the dog in good, intelligible Aramaic.
He looks up guiltily as Amala and Rahav enter the room with his soup. He knows they have heard him speaking. His good hand is twined in the dog's fur and the animal stirs and whines as it feels him tense.
Rahav puts the tray on the floor, just out of the boy's reach. Her arms are folded. She glares at him. Rahav's children are the best behaved in the village, mostly out of fear.
"Well," she says, "we've fed you. Now, who are you?"
The boy glances between Amala and Rahav. He looks hungrily at the soup.
"Is this Natzaret?" he says. "Did I reach Natzaret?"
They tell him it is. He did.
A change comes over his face. He sits up a little straighter, sets his jaw, as if facing a difficult job.
"Natzaret in the Galil?"
They tell him yes, again. And they cannot discern whether he is glad or afraid, such a shining-eyed sharpness comes over his face.
"The village of Yehoshuah the Teacher?"
And Amala and Rahav glance at each other with a sort of sad surrender. Of course, this. Out in the street, the little boy Iov is playing with some of the other children. Rahav sends him to fetch his mother, Miryam.
The rabbis say: when a loved one dies the sword is at your throat, and every way you turn your head it is there, in front of you.
So, this is how she is. When she grinds the wheat, she thinks of him. And when she soaks the cloths, she thinks of him. And when her youngest son, Iov, comes running to her, yes, it is her Iov, the foolish child who got his hand stuck in a jar because he would not unclench his fist to let go of the dried fig he'd found. But it is also that first little boy, her eldest son, the first child who ever skidded to a halt in the muddy place by the chicken enclosure shouting "Ima, Ima!"—"Mummy! Mummy!" She is distracted by the constant double image.
Iov is saying something. He kicks at a stone. The snow has turned to slush and the thin rain will soon wash it away entirely. He digs his toe into the hole left by the stone.
"Don't do that," she says, "you'll wear out the leather."
And he looks at her sadly, because she spoke more sharply than she'd intended.
"But Ima, Ima, did you hear me? They're looking for you, at Amala's house, they're looking for you! They want you to go and see that man with half a hand!"
She asks him why, and his mouth twists and his eyes open very wide and she understands that he does not want to answer. So she has an idea, already, of what it is.
The women waiting outside Amala's home aren't waiting for her. They say nothing when she comes, most of them can't meet her eyes. One or two touch her on the back or shoulder as she passes. The rest are simply afraid. They want to know if this boy is a curse she has brought on them.
Inside the smoky, dark room, he is sitting on a heaped mattress. Someone has given him a woolen jerkin, with a thick robe on top of it. They add bulk to his thin frame. When she enters he stands, a little shakily, to greet her.
She says, "Who are you?"
He looks into her eyes. He has an unsettling trick: that every word he says, he seems to mean with a profound depth of feeling.
"I am Gidon," he says, "from Yaffo."
"And why have you come here, Gidon of Yaffo?"
His eyes are so clear and innocent that she becomes afraid. Innocence can destroy three times as quickly as guile. At least the cunning can be reasoned with or bribed.
"I have come to seek the village of Yehoshuah the Teacher, to find his friends and family here, to meet them and to befriend them."
She breathes in and breathes out.
"He was a traitor, a rabble-leader, a rebel, a liar and a pretender to the throne. We have tried to forget him here."
"Did you know him?" Gidon says.
She remains silent.
"Did you know him?" he repeats.
The fire spits. Some wet log sending a shower of sparks past the circle of stones onto the moist earth floor.
"I was his mother," she says.
A wetness is starting in his eyes, he is shaking.
"Oh, blessings are on you," he says, "blessings are on you, and on your womb and breasts, because of the son you have given the world. A thousand thousand blessings from He Who is in All Places, for your son Yehoshuah."
Her heart is a stone. Her mouth is a closed door.
His eyes are shining. She thinks he might be about to embrace her or kiss her hand or fall to his knees before her.
"Go home," she says again, before he can do any of these things. "We do not want you here."
And she leaves the room before he can say any more to her.
She remembers the screaming trees that night.
She thinks of them many days, and of what happens to those who challenge and fight and argue. And how little this boy seems to understand of where his words will lead.
She remembers the screaming trees and she thinks: if I can bear not to speak to him, it will be better for him. But she knows she does not have that strength.
The boy will not leave, of course. They do not understand how one simple, addle- headed, half-handed boy can be so stubborn. They offer him food for the journey. They offer him the warm clothes as a gift. When Sha'ul the merchant passes by on his way to Jerusalem, they suggest he take the boy with him as a help against bandits, and Sha'ul, whom they have known for twenty summers, is not unwilling—but the boy refuses.
He will work, he says. He will repay the kindness they have shown him. He will sleep in the stone shelter made for the goats. The weather is becoming warmer, it will not be a hardship to sleep there if he builds a small fire. His hand is mending, look, the wound has healed clean. He can work. If they will give him a bowl of food each day for his trouble, he will tend their crops and mind their animals and mend their gap-toothed walls. They shrug their shoulders at last. If he wants to be the madman of their village, so be it.
All of them know which house he will choose to settle by. Which byre will be his dwelling place. Whose fields he will clear of stones. Miryam is unsurprised when, one morning, she awakes to find him sitting patiently on a rock by her door.
He watches her stumble, morning-stiffened, to the well. She lowers the bucket and twists the rope just so, to make it dip under the water and fill, but when she tries to pull it up he is by her elbow.
"Let me do it."
And she is old and tired and her knuckles and wrists ache. It is easy to let him. If he wants to, why not let him? He hauls the full bucket up. He is a little clumsy with his half-hand, but he is adapting quickly, as children do. As she watches, he tests out different ways of gripping the rope, settling at last on using the arm with the injured hand to trap the rope close to his body and secure it, while the other hand works to bring up more. He reminds her of a blind man she saw once, reading his way along a wall with a light and interested touch, as though his fingers were eyes.
He carries the bucket for her, a little unsteadily, slopping out more than she would like. He brings it into the room where little Iov and his sister Michal are still sleeping, wrapped around each other. They do not stir. Gidon puts the bucket by the fire. Looks at her. Like a sheep, she thinks, looking for its flock.
"If you pour it into the pot," she says, "and put the pot on the fire, we can make hyssop tea." She nods at the bundle of dried leaves hanging from the ceiling beam. "There is bread from yesterday still."
Favoring his good hand, he hoists the bucket again, pours the water into the pot. Lifts the pot onto the raised stones over the fire. She pokes at the logs with a stick of wood.
"You do not want to talk to me."
His voice is not accusing. He is calm.
"No," she says.
"But you let me help you."
There is no trace of bitterness.
She shrugs. "Do we not read: 'The Lord will recompense you for the work you have done'?—and so is it not good to work?"
He starts, and stares at her. It is true, a woman of learning is not a common thing, but neither is it entirely unknown. All the people of the village know their letters; one or two of the other women could best her in quoting Torah passages. She knows it is not this which interests him.
"Tell me again," he says, "or again another thing."
She shakes her head.
"If you want to learn, there are better teachers than me. Go and seek out a teacher."
And he says, "I have already done so. My teacher cannot teach me anymore."
The water begins to boil. She dips in a jug, breaks dry leaves into the water and pours some into a small clay bowl for him, and for her. The well water is good, thank God. It is clean and pure and tastes of old stones.
"If you are willing to work then you are from the Lord. If you work then I will feed you, until the spring, when you should go back to your people."
There is such happiness in him when she says this that she knows what she has done.
There is a thing she often remembers. It was a little thing. When her first son was only a baby, and she was a new wife, and her husband was so young and strong that he lifted great boulders to make the walls of their sheep pen. In that part of their lives, she remembers, they passed evenings gazing at their little son sleeping. Every first baby seems like a miracle. The old women laugh and say: by number six she'll forget what name she gave the new one.
But this was their first child. Yosef, her husband, made the baby a cradle of woven branches. Yehoshuah was snug in there, on a bed of fur with a lamb's-wool blanket.
The thing she remembers is that there was a scorpion. It happened between one moment of looking and the next. The baby was sleeping, she looked away, and then there was a small yellow scorpion in his cradle. Poised over his heart. Yellow scorpions are the most dangerous. When she was a child, a man in the village was stung by a yellow scorpion like that, its tail dripping venom. He died of it, shaking and sweating and crying out for his mother. He was a man of forty and strong in himself.
She looked at the scorpion, sitting on the chest of her sleeping child, and there was not a thought in her head. Every mother knows how it is. There is no thinking or weighing one thing against another. She reached her hand into the cradle, plucked out the scorpion, threw it to the ground and crushed it beneath her shoe to oozing yellow muck.
She had been fast, but scorpions are also fast. It had grazed the skin of her hand with its sting, leaving a faint red score on her flesh. As the day passed, her hand grew hot and heavy, her limbs ached. Her heart pounded, her knees buckled. She thought: I shall die like that man in the village, but it is better that I should die than my baby. When Yosef came home from the fields in the evening, expecting his supper, he found her lying on the straw-filled mattress with hot dry skin and glassy eyes and the baby crying in her arms.
It was three days like that. Yosef brought her well water and she drank a little, and vomited, and the baby would not cease from crying though Yosef fed him goat's milk from a skin bag. But at the end of three days the fever broke. Yosef had to bring her a pot to piss in because she could not walk to the stone outhouse. Her right arm and right leg, the side the scorpion had stung, were numb like a fallen branch.
She recovered slowly. It was hard, with a small baby, but she was young and strong then and with God's help she grew well. Her right hand never regained all its cunning. Still it is slower than its fellow, still it will not close into a tight fist only a loose one. She cannot use a needle with the right finger and thumb and had to teach herself to use the left. But she never regretted her action, not as she saw him grow tall and wise and strong. When he was a grown man of twenty she would thank her own hand sometimes for his life. Her hand, and the guidance of God.
But this past year, she thinks: what was it for? What had been the point of all those thousand thousand acts of work and love that go to raise a child? What was the point of any of it, seeing what has happened, and that he has not left even a grandchild from his body to comfort her?
The boy Gidon works hard, there is that at least. Her own grown sons will help her if she is ill, but they have their families now, and Iov, the littlest one, is too small to be much use lifting and carrying. He minds the sheep, but he can scarcely keep his thoughts even on that. Gidon has the single-mindedness that impressed and frightened her the first time they met. He has cleared the back field, which has lain untended since her husband, Yosef, was with them. They will be able to plant wheat in it, or barley, in a month's time.
Excerpted from The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman. Copyright © 2013 Naomi Alderman. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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