Gospel Of Corax

Gospel Of Corax

by Paul Park


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156005173
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/15/1997
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.33(w) x 7.93(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

PAUL PARK lives in North Adams, MA

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In Palestine

The River of Forgetfulness

In the thirteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, mymaster opened his veins with a steel razor during his middaybath, while he was resting at his house near Tusculum outsidethe city walls.

I was with him. I saw him do it. I held his hands. He had arecurring sickness in his prostate, but he was unhappy for otherreasons also. He used to confide in me—this was at the end of along, miserable winter in Rome. The emperor had retired to theisland of Capreae to spend his old age there. In the city he left hisaffairs in the hands of the Praetorian commander, Aelius Sejanus,who had repaid him by seducing his niece and poisoning hisson. Now with the emperor gone, Sejanus conspired against thehealth and character of the new heirs, the children of Prince Germanicus,and he used the emperor's dark, drunken fears to bringabout the downfall of many famous citizens, supporters of Germanicus'sparty. Among these was my master's patron, Titius Sabinus,a Roman knight, who was condemned and executed afterthe first of the year because of a careless overheard remark. Thismurder—for that's what it was—caused a despair among Germanicus'sfriends and those who, like my master, had served withhim on the Rhine.

None of these were my thoughts. My master told me all ofit. After his death I stripped the slave rings from my ears. I hidfor a few days in the Subura slums, shivering in the empty lotsand cellars of the potmakers, until the week before the festival ofLupercalia. In the streets they were splashing red paint on theshop fronts andputting up boughs of pine. There were musicianson the hill, and a crowd of men with painted faces staggereddown from the Cybele shrine. In the confusion of preparations Islipped across the bridge and took the road down toward theport. I walked through the cold night with nothing but a bag ofclothes and a few things my father had left me.

At dawn I came to Ostia, to the Augustan docks. There Ispent the last of the money I had taken from my master's houseto reserve passage on the first boat of dawn, almost the first of theseason—a squat, two-masted merchant ship bound for Caesareain Palestine. It was important for me to get away. For me andmany others: The dock was full of citizens and Egyptians andJews, all escaping from the new injunctions, from Sejanus's tyrannyand hate.

I climbed aboard as the dawn wind came up. The boatgroaned and shifted in her berth, eager as I was to be gone. Theropes were taut with frost. I stood under the torches looking overthe side at the black water, and in my mind I spoke to monkey-headedFather Toth. "Oh you stupid, stupid fool," I said to him,though I was talking about myself. I had not been on a shipbefore.

The sailors moved around me, and I kept out of the way,hidden by their bustling disorder. Later I made a nest for myselfamong the casks of luxuries on the second deck. The ship wasfull of African liquamen, Spanish olives, pickled mushrooms,and vermouth.

I think of that journey now as if it were my passage throughthe darkness after death. Scholars argue over the length of thatcrossing, before we come again into the land of light. I don'tknow how long my passage took; that cold sea was my Styx, thatboat my Charon's bark. I kept a single silver penny from my master'streasure and lay like a dead man. Not once did I go up ondeck. There were other passengers—two families of Jews—butI kept apart from them. I wrapped myself in my blanket. Mysaliva and stool were full of mucus. I carried the pot to a hole inthe side, and in the daylight I could see the water skimming past.At night I lay curled up, listening to the boat, the crash of thewater on its thin sides, the planks groaning apart. Sometimes Iwept. I was in front of the first mast and the galley was nearby;I could smell the stinking food. Sick as I was, I ate only theroasted lentils and barley I had brought with me. I drank onlywater and washed my burns in water. There was a place on myforehead where the burning beam had hit me. It had scabbedover, but I wrapped it every night in a strip of linen soaked inolive oil. In the morning I examined it with my small mirror,praying it wouldn't mark me.

I prayed to Aesculapius the healer. Then without speakingI touched two other powers and held one in each hand. My masterhad given me two images in baked clay—Mithra Tauroctonusand the Egyptian Min, or Pan, or Krishna in my father's language.I held the lord of fire in my right hand and squeezed himtill he came apart. In my left hand I held Krishna, and by the endof the trip I had rubbed him down to the bare figure of a man.His flute and penis were both gone.

One night when the boat was shuddering and rolling, asailor came and stood looking down at me. He had a lantern inone hand, and with the other he held on to an iron hook thatprotruded from a beam above his head. He was from Cyprus likemost of the others, and his Greek was bad, even though it musthave been his native tongue. Few people have my gift of languages,the useful part of foreignness. I listened to him and closedmy eyes. I imagined how his words were shapes, small creatureslamed and crippled by his accent and his heavy mouth, blunderingthrough the shadows on the inside of my lids. "What are youdoing here?" he said. "Why aren't you with the others?"

"I am sick," I answered. I knew it was dangerous to speak,to give him something to remember later, but I was starved fortalking. I was not accustomed to so much time alone. Before,there had always been someone to help me. Someone to serve."I'm sick," I said, needing his sympathy. I wanted both to holdhim near me and to scare him off.

The boat itself was groaning and talking, but I couldn't tellwhat it said. I opened my eyes. The man stood hanging over me,a lantern in his hand. He was an old man with greasy hair, andthe light made streaks in it. In my weakness I imagined his presencemight contain a sign. But he just stood there without speaking,and so after a few moments I turned away. Though I wasdrawn to him, I turned my face into my blanket.

But later when I fell asleep this man was with me, and heguided me with his lantern along a narrow track through theforest. He put his arm across my shoulder and covered me withhis cloak. We crossed a muddy stream, which I took to be Lethe,the river of forgetfulness. In the morning I woke refreshed forthe first time. Tusculum was far away. And I remembered nothingfrom my dream beyond the crossing of the river, which mademe hope I had been taken to some secret place and given somesmall piece of secret knowledge.

Grey light was coming through the planks in the deck overhead,falling like a series of grey curtains. For the first time I wasnot cold. I looked through my clothes, searching for somethingnew. There was nothing, but that was the morning the clay figureof Mithra, my master's god, came apart in my hand. The gift wasgiven in the silent, vacant part of thought. It was given inside.

And that was the night we came to Caesarea Palestinae.Though I had recovered some of my strength, still I was frightenedas the sea grew flat, as the boat turned. I crouched by a holein the ship's side and tried to smell the land. I looked out at thefoam on the water. But I couldn't keep my mind on any of thesethings. I was distracted by fear. I was afraid the old sailor mighthave said something about me to the crew. There were reasonswhy I'd kept myself apart. Some of the cruelest of the Romanlaws, which the divine Augustus had allowed to languish, werenow enforced under Sejanus once again. The markets were fullof slaves with branded faces. There were new bounties for runaways,that was what scared me. I had no document of any kind.And of course my mistress could have had me whipped. Shewould have done it, too, out of jealousy and spite.

But it was the brand that frightened me the most. I haddreamed about it, though in a dream that contained none of theusual signs of prophecy—no birds, no rainstorms, no fish. Itseemed to me I feared the thought of it more than I feared death,because my face had always been my friend, a small support forme and source of strength even after I passed through my firstyouth. But perhaps also it is hard to think of death, hard to thinkof the soul changing. In contrast, at moments I could almost feelthe red brand on my cheek. At other times I felt the mark on mealready, my situation was so clear. Perhaps that was the otherreason I had turned away from the old sailor and hid my face.Or why I picked at the burn on my forehead, as if it were somekind of omen.

But I didn't want to appear so sick that they might speak tothe quarantine authorities of the port, and so at sunset I went upon deck. First I used my master's razor and cut my hair, whichis evil luck at the beginning of a voyage but good luck at the end.When everyone had left the galley, I washed myself and changedmy clothes. I tied my sandals and tied a strip of cloth around myhead, as I had seen on young Jews in the city. I rubbed oil intomy scalp, and then I melted wax from my candle, mixed it withpaper ash, and rubbed the grey ash around my eyes. At first itlooked ridiculous, but then I washed and tried again, and in themirror I could convince myself that I looked older. I rubbed waxinto my earring holes, and at sunset I left my nest behind. I tiedmy blanket over my shoulder and went on deck.

To the east we were skirting a low, brown coast. No onepaid attention to me. The Jews were gathered in the belly of theboat under some torches, and I stood by the rail in the gatheringdark. I stood with my hands hanging over the rail, and to calmmyself I imagined the huge curve of the earth and the land turningto greet me. I could smell the warm air off the desert full ofpungent dust, and I imagined all my life until that point waswasted, gone. Behind, a continent of shame. Ahead, whole countriesfull of languages and hope. In front of me was the Judaeancoast, beyond it Perea and the Decapolis, then the desert, and theEuphrates river and the Tigris all the way to Seleucia, where myfather had been a young soldier. I had nothing but a silver pennyin my belt, but I felt lucky, suddenly joyful, yet wary too whenone of the passengers came to stand beside me. I turned awayfrom him and hid my face. He asked after my health in Greek,and I answered in the language that the Jews had learned in Babylon,the Aramaean language which my father taught me, whichhe had learned in Ecbatana and Ctesiphon and Babylon itself,when he had been a soldier of King Phraates. Before he had beentaken prisoner during the night attack at Apamea—all thesenames were in my memory, and these stories also. I knew howthe Romans had brought him across the sea, chained and bleedingbetween two dead men, when Quinctilius Varus was governorof Syria.

This was the land where he had been free. This was thecoast where he had embarked on that terrible journey, which hadended with his death in Rome. I stood with my hands over therail, answering questions from the man beside me in grunts andsingle words, and with part of my mind I was aware of him lookingat me and wondering where I was from—a Samaritan perhaps,or more likely an Egyptian. Or else he was looking withamazement at the ashes around my eyes.

This thought drew me step by step into a fear, which wasthat there might be soldiers waiting at the dock for me. But atthe same time I was making what my father called a "shadowcloth," and I was making a pattern out of memory and my ownthought, one the warp, one the weft. I thought it was right forme to have sailed in darkness and cramped misery from Ostia,and in some way my journey was subtracting from that otherjourney which my father had taken the other way, untying it andsealing it up into the past, so that I might become my father as Istepped free on the shore, and live the life he might have lived.In fact he died in the sixth year of Tiberius's reign, still not ableto stand upright or talk to my master without flinching. That wasafter he had given me the sacred thread. After I had come of age.

My father had been a captain of King Phraates the Great,who had driven Marcus Antonius out of Parthia with the loss ofa hundred thousand Roman soldiers. During the civil wars afterthe king's death, before Augustus tried to put his creature Vononeson the throne, my father fought against the Romans as theytried to intervene. The shadow cloth covered me, and as I stoodleaning against the ship's rail, talking to the Jew, I could hear myvoice grow loud. I could feel a new recklessness as I turned toface him under the torchlight in the warm sweet wind. I daredhim to look at me. I spoke to him and did not worry that myaccent might be wrong or my verbs crude. For I had a figure inmy mind of my father on horseback in his leather armor with theiron rings, the bow across his back. It was a figure made of memoryand imagination in equal parts, but still it was alive, movingin my mind. The Jew had a fine beard and bright strong eyes,and ridges on his cheeks that might have been from some oldwound. He had his own defenses, but with my new sight I imaginedI could penetrate the bone of his forehead into his mind,and see there as if written on a slate the calculations that werediminishing me, subtracting and subtracting as his face changedand became less friendly, less inquisitive. He knew I was a softcreature as miserable as Vonones had been, Phraates's catamiteson, whom Augustus had corrupted in Rome and then set up onhis father's throne until the people rose against him.

Like Vonones, all my skills were in the world of the musesand the pleasure world. It was not for me to take my father'splace. Though like him I was twice-born of the warrior caste, Ihad never sat upon a horse or held a spear. And all I had to takeme through the deserts and the cities was a soft body that evenas I stood there was racked with sudden pains across my backand chest. A soft body and a skill at languages, and a memory assharp and dirty and intricate as the streets of Rome near MonsTestasceus. A view of the hidden universe arranged in order likethe floors of an apartment block in the Subura. But perhaps itwas the burden of these secret things that made me weak.

The boat was coming into Caesarea, and as we beat aroundthe headland I could see a house in flames. The sun had set intothe clouds behind us, and the sky was dark above the burninghouse. In front of it small figures struggled on the beach, silhouettedby the dancing fire. I thought of my master's villa and Ithought of my dream of sweet forgetfulness; yes, the timber andthe palm thatch burn, but the brick walls stand forever. I felt tearson my cheek. I took from my belt the clippings of my hair, thelong black hair my master loved. And as we came around theheadland and caught our first glimpse of the town, I let it sinkinto the water and spoke a prayer to Mother Astarte, queen ofAsia, goddess of my heart. A scowl passed over the face of theJew who stood beside me. Disgusted, he turned back into the boatand went back to the others.

But the wind in the sail above me was like a whisper thathad come from Rome, from the doors of Juno's temple on theAventine Hill, from Cybele's temple on the Palatine. And perhapsit reached the ear of their sister Astarte, curled and dark andopen on the Asian shore. And perhaps Astarte heard my prayerand stretched her soft arm eastward over the bulge of the world,over the ice mountains, to touch the hand of Mother Durga faraway.

We human beings need so much. We cry out and who answersus? Yet there were no soldiers looking for me at the dock.The customs men were there, the tax collectors. I walked straightthrough the barricade, carrying my bag.

I had not thought what I would do. All my anxiousness hadfixed on that one moment. When it was past I stood there lookingup at the lights of the town, which rose above me on a series oflow hills. I stood looking at the lights while the dockhands bustledaround me. I had a sickness in my stomach. I smelt sicknesson my skin, and I remember thinking I would find the publicbath. I remember wondering if the baths were still open, and pretendingI would go the next morning as soon as I could find themoney to pay the attendant to look after my clothes. I had nomoney to do anything, of course, but even so I must have knownin my silent heart that I had left behind forever my life of baths,of strigils and oiled sponges—unusual for such as I, and which Ihad cherished as a sign of differentness, a special sign of my master'sfavor. But my life here was not to be among the Romans andthe Greeks, the easy nakedness of men. All that was done.

Aimless, I wandered into the streets and up onto the stepsof the big temple at the port. I walked up to look at the statuesof the goddess Rome and the divine Augustus. Small lampsflickered at their feet. Bulky and dark, they loomed above me,facing back toward the sea. They were empty, impotent, incapableof help or consolation. A hundred beggars slept on the coldstairs with me, and many children.

Caesarea had been built by Herod the king. He had builtthe harbor, the temple, the theater, the circus, and the baths. Hehad started other civic buildings too, but they still stood unfinishedin the central part of the town, twenty years after Augustusbanished Herod's son. The bones of one big building lay belowme. Looking down on them the next morning, I thought of thestone skeleton they had found in Joppa, the lizard that hadpreyed on Princess Andromeda, back when giants and enormouslizards ruled the earth. Near it squatted Herod's palace, now thecenter of the province, where the Roman prefect lived.

I turned my back on it. On the other side beyond the synagoguelay the town itself, Syrian and Jewish and Greek mixedtogether, along with other tribes. It was a cold bright morningand I held out my hands, hoping to feel heat rising from a stewof love and anger, while at my back the Roman town was cold.

Later I walked down through the stone and mud-brickhouses to the marketplace, comforted by the chaotic smells, thepushing crowds. I had only a silver denarius in my belt, andthough men sat on the sidewalk frying eggplant in big vats andmixing chickpea paste with olive oil, I didn't let myself feel hunger.In the cold night on the steps I had coughed until my throatwas raw, until something came loose in the bottom of my lung. Ididn't want to spend another night like that, and so I thoughtabout a way to make strength out of weakness, to entice the careof the compassionate gods. I had a plan. Even as the day grewwarmer and my breath came easier, I did not waste my moneyon apricots and other strange delights. Instead, I stole things.

I made a pouch in the blanket around my shoulders andstole what nobody else wanted. There were other thieves in thecrowd, marked with the sign of Mercury, which I saw clearly.Others saw it too, or something like it—the shopkeepers threatenedthem and warned them away. Children threw stones, andin the afternoon the thieves would slink back to the temple,clutching an old piece of bread or a pomegranate. But at the day'send I had in my pouch some straw tubes full of spices, and bundlesof herbs. I had several short pieces of string and, far moreprecious, a length of silken thread. I had thirty-seven flat slips ofwood, a few inches square, suitable for funeral cards. I had fourclay tablets. I had a small, flexible piece of leather. I had nine slipsof Egyptian paper. I had bought things too—some flour, somesalt, a pen and a pot of ink, a brush and some small tubes of variouspowders for making paint.

The marketplace lay behind low, broken walls on a longslope beyond the town. There was a public well at the far end,where I had washed my face that morning. The ground wasmuddy in a deep ring around it. On the near side was the marketfor fruit and bread and meat—not a place for those Jews who stillkept to their laws, but in Caesarea there were plenty of the otherkind. The vendors had their stock laid out on blankets over thepacked ground. A few kept wooden stalls, especially those whooffered livestock, and there were some tents over the open food.It was a cold, clean day.

Beyond the well, along the slope of a low hill rose up theuntouchable section of the town. During the day it seemed deserted—emptystalls and mud-brick shacks. But as evening cameon, the market's center shifted up the hill as more of the vendorspacked and left. Soldiers walked through the crowd carryingtorches, and people followed them up into the shadow world, theworld that exists on the outskirts of all towns and is to the ordinaryworld as dreams are to life, as dark is to light, as desire is tovirtuous duty. Where everything is hidden and revealed: I meantto live in that shadow world for a few months until summer, togather my strength and gather money also, in preparation for ajourney which was still taking shape for me, but which at the endwould bring me to the sacred river Ganges, and leave me wholeand healed. I would say a prayer for my father, who had beenborn upon its banks. And during my journey I would spendwhatever I had gathered or would gather, because strength andpower cannot but make us weaker, as I knew from Rome.

So as the soldiers moved up the slope I followed them. Theyleft their torches in the public stanchions and then spread outamong the shacks, whose curtain doors, as darkness fell, had beenhooked back to admit customers. A bucket of charcoal burned inan open circle of pounded dirt. Musicians played there afterdark-small combinations of flutes and pipes and ceramicdrums. Men sold wine and beer out of clay vats, and they playedknucklebones and dice on low tables. They ate olives and hotnuts, and in time they got up to dance with each other or alone,and then they staggered back among the huts, searching forwomen or boys.

Later still, some of the women came out to watch, and someof the boys also. That first night there was a procession in honorof the god Attis. There was a crowd, and a great deal of drunkenargument, for the Jewish council had protested. The prefect hadsent soldiers, but he had not forbidden the procession; after midnightit took shape out of nothing. Musicians gathered aroundthe fire, and at a certain moment there were horns blowing in thedarkness from the top of the hill. "Who is here?" railed out oneman, and there came a new and ridiculous bleating from thehorns as a crowd of boys and girls climbed down among the huts.These were the famous "spintriae" of Caesarea, modeled on thechildren who provided old Tiberius with his remaining pleasures.They were led by a man with a shepherd's staff, and Ilearned from my neighbor in the crowd that he had been withthe emperor at Capreae until he got too old. If that was so, Tiberius'staste was more peculiar than I had guessed. I couldn't imaginethat the man had been beautiful even as a boy, though perhapsthat was my prejudice. In fact it was hard to tell anything abouthis natural face and body. Though much was exposed, all waspainted and transformed. He wore a wig of yellow German hair,wild on his shoulders, with colored ribbons and beads woventhrough it. His eyes were lined with kohl and Tyrian powder,and his cheeks were painted red. He had pulled the hair from hisarms and legs. He wore a strip of linen over his mouth, and hisdress, though ragged, was made of fine transparent linen gauze,cut high on his thighs and barely covering him. His toes and fingernailswere painted red, and the palms of his hands and thesoles of his feet. His dress was cut down the middle and it lolledapart obscenely on his stomach, there was a painted symbol overhis navel, which I took to be of some mystic significance, thoughI didn't recognize it. Finally he had blown up two pig's bladdersand tied them to his chest, and painted them with nipples. Iguessed he was about my age.

The others followed him down out of the dark, perhaps adozen boys and girls. Some were dragging their drums andyawning, and the youngest boy had gashed his instep on astone—they all looked as if they had come a long way. Many hadcaught colds, and the mucus flowed down freely from their noses,mixing with the paint around their lips.

The older boys dressed like their leader in wigs and veilsand false breasts, which looked grotesque on their small frames.Though it was a cold night, the oldest girl was naked to the waist,and attached to her belt she wore a wooden phallos, or "lingam"in my father's language. She looked around with wide, uncertaineyes, and she was drunk or drugged. She carried cymbals, whichshe clashed together. At the same time one of the singers stoodup near the charcoal bucket and recited in Greek the story of thegod: how his mother had eaten the seed of the almond tree andhad conceived him without intercourse. How he grew up beautifulas the morning, as the flowers, as the water, and as lusciousas the fruit upon the branch. How Cybele—"Asheroth," theycalled her here—recognized herself in him, because the almondfruit had dripped out of her blood. How she loved herself in himand fell in love with his white skin, the shape of his eyes and hisred mouth. And finally, because she could not have him, how sherobbed him of himself, gelded him and killed him.

At that moment in the story we could hear the beast cryingout in fear and rage, and three men wheeled a cart down off theslope. The calf was in it, lying on a nest of reeds, garlanded withcolored ribbons and new leaves, stretched out with its hooves tiedtogether. With it came the priest of Attis with the knife in hishands, whittling a bough of olive to test its sharpness. But at that moment the ceremony was interrupted. Outsideof Caesarea on the road toward Narbata, there lived inthose days a community of Jewish fanatics and thugs called"Essenes." They had some land on the edge of the plain, andthere they lived a life of poverty, hunger, prayer, and frigidbaths. Not content with this, however, they would come intothe town, urging others to join them and follow their laws.They hated all gods but their god Jupiter, or Amon Re—"Jahwah"in the Hebrew language. They took to heart those versesof the poet in which Jupiter explains how, if he chooses, he canhoist into heaven all the other powers on the end of a rope, andthey cannot drag him down.

These Jews were foolish enough to deny nature and theevidence of their senses. But unlike most in the town, theywere not content to protest during the day and then come quietlyup to the hill at night. Their only idea was to provokefighting. That night they came over the hill just as the priesthad caught the calf's testicles in his left hand. Dressed in white,they were carrying torches and chanting, and when theyreached the circle of the fire they spread out among the crowd,striking people with their hands and feet. They were searchingespecially for the Jews, and when they found one they wouldspit on him and strike his head.

There were soldiers in the crowd. They were not Romansbut auxiliaries from Idumea and Nabatea. They lacked the disciplineof Romans, though perhaps they had received special directionsfrom Pontius Pilate. Instead of protecting the people, theyalso began to set upon the Jews, punishing both the guilty andinnocent, and beating them with sticks. The ceremony was ruined.The spintriae disappeared up the hill into the dark, the musiciansdispersed, and the priest was chased away by a big bruteof an Essene, muscular and tall, with a wild beard and wild eyes.He carried a knife. Surrounded by soldiers, he stood by the cart,daring them to approach him while he pulled back the calf'shead. It was screaming and he cut its throat. Then he pushed outthrough the ring of soldiers, marking their faces with his bloodyhands, and disappeared.

the butterfly's way
Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States

By Edwidge Danticat (Editor(s))


Copyright © 2001 Edwidge Danticat. All rights reserved.

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Gospel of Corax 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There are many legends of Jesus traveling to the East. Most involve Jeus not dying on the cross and going East to hide. This story picks up on that theme but has Jesus becoming Christ while going East before his ministry. I found the Jesus character to be an unconvincing one; not because of the non-traditional portrayal but rather because you can't see how this Jesus could evolve into the historical Jesus, let alone the Jesus of Christian dogma.