By John C. Wright
“Mr. Went, if you could visit anyone in the world, any time, any place, who would you go see? Oh, not for a long time. Long visits are never permitted. But just for a moment, just for an embrace, a long look, no longer?”
His words were not in English, and I did not speak any modern Romance tongues, but he must have been a priest or a scholar, because he and I could make ourselves understood to each other in Latin and in Greek, two living men with two dead languages in common.
I was not sure where I was. The streets in these ancient cities are narrow and crooked, and they don’t put the names on street signs.
The stranger in the top hat and long coat did not linger to hear an answer. Now he paused to listen to some children singing carols — I remember they sang O Come Emmanuel, but the words were not in English — while waiting for me to climb the alley. I had stopped.
It was not that I was tired, it was just that I was used to the broad and flat streets of the Midwest, so, to me, the sight of a cobblestone street turning into broad stairs for part of its climb was a novelty. It was, no doubt, a street older than my whole nation.
I wanted to make a comment to my wife, but she, of course, was not there. In my pocket was a small Christmas gift for her, wrapped in gold paper. I had put it in the pocket of the dark and formal coat I donned for the funeral. I had intended to leave it at the grave, but the idea of bright, cheery, frivolous colors of wrapping paper beneath the granite headstone, on the darkness of the newly-turned earth, seemed unbearably hateful to me.
And I still wanted to make a comment to her, share my thoughts, share my life. And I could not. So I had paused, wrestling with the aching emptiness inside me.
I turned my eyes outward. Between the narrow and dark houses looming to either side, the gap of the alley fell like a stone waterfall (as if the stair were the broken rapids) and in that gap I could see the famous city spread below me, adorned for Christmas. I could see the festive lights in the distance.
The stranger came up next to me, offering me a handful of the roast chestnuts he had just bought from a street vendor. The children singing he had shooed away by passing out the brightly colored banknotes which looked like Monopoly money to me.
I gestured to the view below. We were halfway up one of the seven hills. “There are more Christmas trees than there were years ago.”
He said, “You have been to the Eternal City before?”
“My wife is from here. Was. She—excuse me.”
He passed me a handkerchief, and turned as if to look at the city. “The Christmas tree is a Germanic custom. Such things travel south to the more civilized nations somewhat slowly. It the nativity scene where the Italian genius is manifested! You should see the one was displayed at the Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano. It was commissioned by Charles III of Naples. Six master woodcarvers labored on the scene for forty years, adding new figures each year! And in the Santa Maria Maggiore, where the first Christmas Mass was said, is a presepe, or permanent display of the crib. The reliquary below the altar is said to contain pieces of the original manger. History is fascinating, is it not? Are you ready to go?”
I nodded. The stranger walked a short way up the alley, took out with an enormous key and bent over the lock of intricately wrought black iron gates. The iron gates were decorated with images of roses and winged skulls. With a groaning clang they opened. Beyond was a courtyard shaped like an “L”, closed in on each side by windowless brick walls, and in the midst of the court was a dry well, filled with leaves and dust, rusting midmost under a tiny roof.
Around the corner of the courtyard, up the shorter arm of the “L”, were more stairs guarded by worn winged lions, gaping mouths filled with grit and dust, and the grime of their faces made them seem to weep.
To my surprise, the front door to the old house was not locked. He opened the door and stood in the doorway, fumbling with something on a small table set immediately by the door. There was the click of an electric striker, a flicker of flame, and the stranger lit a candle, which he carefully placed in a black iron candlestick. Inside he went, lighting his way with the candle, beckoning me to follow.
“The power is out?” I said. I could hear the singing of the children in the street below clearly enough, but the door was so heavy and so well fitted to the frame that all noise was cut off when I shut it.
“There is power here,” said the stranger, smiling crookedly. “More than enough to shatter the cosmos. But the site has never been electrified. It would identify the era too closely, and disturb the anachronic echo effect. Come. The machine is in the attic.”
I followed him. A narrow wooden stairway led upward and upward. The walls to either side were painted with figures of satyrs chasing nymphs through patterns of grape leaves, but in the dim light, the figures seemed distorted, and the lolling tongues and goat-horned heads of the satyrs gave them sadistic, blank-eyed expressions.
The attic was brighter than the house, because large and narrow skylights admitted the colored hues of the festively-lit city, and the slanting rays of the moon. In the middle of the blank, wooden floor was a shape covered with a tarp. The stranger handed me the candle, stepped over, and drew aside the tarp with a theatrical flourish, like a stage magician revealing his pretty assistant, alive and unchained. A cloud of dust flew up at the breeze, and it blew out the candle, so the dramatic effect was ruined.
I had no clear view of the machine. In the moonlight, and the flicker of changing Christmas lights from some nearby building taller than this house, I could see there was a small saddle or seat facing two levers connected to a rotating cylinder. The cylinder was connected by a mess of wires to a crystal bar that glinted strangely in the moonlight. This crystal formed the axis of the machine. My eyes could not focus properly on it. No matter how I moved my head, the inside reflections of the crystal bar seemed to be farther away than the body of the machine around it, as if it were not a crystal bar, but a crystal slot or well opening into unexpected depth. Behind the saddle was a large and upright copper disk, connected to a gearbox.
The whole arrangement looked something like a crystal-poled metal parasol lying on its side taking a ride on a sled, and the saddle straddled the pole, and the cylinder and levers formed an offcenter handle.
There were scrollwork and flourishes on the brass, a windrose on the copper disk, and little cherubic faces on the cylinder, which betrayed that this was made in the days when the machines were works of art, and machinists were magicians.
The stranger said, “Unfortunately, the dials are decimal. It is an oddity of the inventor. This dial indicates how many tens of days you have passed through; this one hundreds of days; thousands; tens of thousands. You will have to be clever in your calculations to know the month and the year of your arrival.”
“Or I could my just use my phone,” I said, giving him an odd look. I was sure someone, somewhere on the Internet had set up an application to calculate such things.
The stranger scowled and shrugged. “I am not familiar with such a … gizmo.” (There was no Latin word for “gizmo” of course, he just said the English word. If that is an English word.)
I said. “The book by H.G. Wells never gives the Time Traveler a name. You say he is real. Who is the inventor? Why is he not ruling the world?”
He threw out his chest and spoke in solemn tones. “The Time Traveler is Nikola Tesla. Anyone reading the book by Wells in that day and age would have recognized the man at once—part showman, part madman, all genius.
“The machine itself was built in Menlo Park some time during the 1870′s, with the help, and, to be blunt, despite the interference, of Thomas Alva Edison, who saw no practical use for it.
“In 1895, a man named George Scherff, Tesla’s legal and fiscal adviser, gave an account of Tesla’s voyage into the future into the hands of Mr. Wells to put it into publishable form, since the account would not have been believed as fact.
“The machine was thought lost in the great fire that destroyed Mr. Edison’s great factory in 1914. Mr. Tesla is not ruling the world because a Nazi agent killed him in 1943.”
I gave the stranger a frown. “How could a man as bright as Edison see no practical use for time travel? Anyone would see the advantage of being able to read tomorrow’s stock market results or racing form.”
“The machine did not perform well until it was taken to Scotland. America is a young nation.”
“What does that matter?”
The stranger said, “The machine works by a resonance effect. Think of time as a stream, but certain events are rocks in that stream, rocks that make eddies, ripples, echoes. This is why there is no need for you to physically move the machine to the cottage where your wedding night took place. Merely touching your wedding ring to the forward cylinder will attune the crystal. Your wedding ring is an object that carries time with it. Anything used as a memento is.”
I instinctively clasped my hand over my ring, as if to protect it. “It is just a bit of gold. There must be something else involved. Something more.”
He nodded. “Time will never be understood by any era which divides matter from psyche, and disbelieves in everything but matter. Is eternity not a psychic reality? Mind and body are one, even as time and space are one. Man alone of all the beasts fears the future and regrets the past. Tesla understood this. The machine cannot be operated by any man who is too perfectly satisfied with his own time. The time traveler must yearn for … ”
I had been standing with my back him, inspecting, as well as I could, the half-seen shapes and shadows of the machine. Now I turned, and the motion startled him, for he jumped back, putting his hand in his coat pocket as if there were a gun there.
I said, “So that is why you were hovering like a vulture over the graveyard…?”
He said, “Think of it as a privilege, Mr. Went. Not everyone can operate the machine. No everyone is allowed to try.”
He licked his lips. “There is a certain danger to the operation, of which, ah, perhaps it slipped my mind, and I failed to warn you.”
I uttered a sad, little laugh. “I just buried the only reason I had to live. What should I fear?”
“Well, in that case, there is no need to dwell on…”
“I am not afraid to hurt you if you don’t tell me what is going on.”
“The time machine’s principles are not difficult to understand, and a working model is not difficult to build. It was, or will be, discovered again in 1968 by Dr. Ann McGregor and then again by Dr. Sam Beckett in 1999; then, after the Great Collapse, the Revisionists of the Second Era, and, when they have destroyed themselves, those horrible living machines of the Third Era, who attempted to undo the paradoxes and snarls their predecessors left behind them. The Nexxial Agents, who travel as amnesiacs, form the Fourth Era of Time Travel, and so on, age after age and civilization after civilization, up until the Danellians of the Final Era.”
“I meant, talk while making sense.”
“What do you not understand? If you touch the time machine, if you make any effort to use it, all the events which you will set in motion become, for you, actualized: a real possibility. The events springing from those possibilities become real. And this includes time travelers downstream of you, unhappy with your actions, who seek to revise them.”
“The simplest way, the least complex energy state, as it were, to prevent time paradoxes, is to kill the time traveler just before he starts.”
I said, “And so you’ve never touched the thing? You were afraid someone from the future would pop into existence next to you, and shoot you with a ray gun? Why not go back and prevent your parents from ever meeting? The fact that you are standing here now…”
He shook his head. “Men still have free will. Not until the moment I use the time machine have I stepped into the fourth dimension. They would have to stop me right at that moment. There are time-energy considerations involved.” He looked at the brass and copper machine and sighed. “Oh, I have polished it, replaced old wires, kept the jars charged. I have sat in the saddle and toyed with the levers, yes, and even powered up the solenoid and heard it hum. When I wanted to remember something I’d forgotten, for example. But—actually to attune the cylinder and engage the drive? No. I’ve never done that.”
I said, “But you don’t know me. What if I climb on that thing and just fly away? Become master of the world myself? Why take the risk?”
“I must see if it works.”
“What’s that mean? Must?”
He spread his hands. “Can I explain the agony of living with this thing in the attic so many years, unable to know whether the machine actually works or not? A machine I am afraid to touch? Perhaps everything I read was a lie. Perhaps it is merely a stage magician’s trick. I cannot live just on faith. I have to see it. Have to see it lift off.”
“So if I jump on this thing, this magic time travel machine, every time traveler from hereafter to eternity might come gunning for me? Fine. You picked me because you know how badly I need to see her again. See her alive, I mean. I’ll play along. But there is one condition.”
“What is that, Mr. Went?”
“Tell me your name.”
“It would mean nothing to you.”
“Tell me anyway. If the Time Cops arrest me, I won’t talk.”
“They will not arrest. They kill. It is Professor Pajo Mandic. I am descended from Tesla’s sister Milka.”
I turned again and threw my leg over the saddle. “You said the machine moves through space as well as time? Guided by what, again, exactly?”
Professor Mandic stepped behind the machine and turned a crank, so that the large copper disk behind the saddle started slowly rotating. He threw an old-fashioned double-throw switch and the crystal bar between my legs began to glow.
I wondered if my legs were wrapped around something radioactive, even though it was too late to worry about such things now. I also wondered when I had started to believe any of this might be real. But the fact that I was nervous that the antique contraption might blow up made the hope that it could carry me into yesterday seem possible.
Professor Mandic said, “Touch your ring to the axis of the cylinder, and engage the first lever. It controls how many days per second—subjective seconds—you will be in motion. The second lever controls how many degrees into the fourth dimension you will be rotated. The greater the angle, the less contact you have with the three dimensional world, and the less time, subjectively, your voyage will take. If you stay at less than forty-five degrees, you will see the sun like a ribbon of fire, and winter snow appear and disappear in eyeblinks and a vast panorama. If you find yourself suffering from motion sickness, use that leather sack there. The first time traveler discovered an odd yaw and pitch and sway which made him nauseous. Wait? What are you doing?”
Because it was not my wedding ring I touched to the cylinder then. It was my crucifix.
If I could visit anyone in the world, any time, any place, who would I go see? I had only this one opportunity. Yes, I wanted to see my wife again. I would have given anything to see her again. It would be like an amputee regaining his lost right arm once again.
But there was someone I wanted to see more. I wanted an explanation.
I landed, or materialized, or whatever the word is, at the foot of a cross on which a man hung dying.
The sun was beating down and the flies were crawling on this man, and he cried out when he saw me, such a cry of hopeless pain as I had never heard. Immediately I leaped from the machine, and went to him, so see if there was any way I could get him down without hurting him further. He croaked at me, a word I did not understand.
The nails were not driven through the palms of his hands, as it is depicted in religious art, but right through the middle of his forearm, between the radius and the ulna, which looked even more painful. Other spikes had been driven into and through his lower legs, between the tibia and fibula.
He was also naked, which is also not the way religious art depicts it. I could see the insects crawling through his pubic hair. He did not have a free hand to scratch them or pluck them away.
Only then I noticed he was not alone. There were many more than two hanging to either side of him. The man to his immediate left had died, and hung there, withered like a mummy in the sun.
Perhaps I was still queasy from the gyrating motions of the time machine, or the sudden change from cool night to scalding day, but the sight of so many naked men, all dying, all with bloodstains drooling down their arms and legs, all gasping for breath, and the stench of wounds crawling with flies, made me lightheaded. And some of the men had voided their bowels after being hung up, so smears of fecal matter hung down the base of the crosses or their legs.
Worst of all was the sound, the gasping, grating, harsh, horrible sound. It was all those men trying to breathe.
Not many people talk about how crucifixion works. It is one of the most painful, humiliating and lingering deaths ever invented by man. The victim is hung by his arms to put pressure on his ribcage so he cannot breathe. The exposure will eventually kill anyone strong enough, but, before that, the pressure of all the body’s weight hanging from the dislocated shoulders, after several hours, or days, weakens the same muscles in the chest used for drawing breath until you cannot breathe.
In order to take a breath, the agonized victim has to straighten his legs, which are also nailed by spikes to the cross, and this relieves the pressure for a moment, so he can draw in a ragged, gasping lungful of air. His lungs would fill with fluid. Then, eventually, his legs lose strength, and ever so slowly, ever so painfully, he chokes. The lucky ones die of shock and exposure.
I stepped around to the back of the cross, not because I had any thought in mind, but only because I saw no way to get him down from the front. The splinters were driven into his buttocks and back, which was red, raw, and bleeding. The spikes did protrude through the wood, but I did not have any carpenter’s tools. I pushed at the red point of one spike with my fingers, not because it could do any good, but only because I could not stand by and do nothing.
I looked left and right. There were about twenty-four or thirty men nailed there, all told. Some were children no older than fourteen. Some were graybeards, and they were dead and crows were eating their eyes with stabbing motions of their beaks that looked perversely like kissing. Perhaps some of the others, if they had been flown by helicopter to modern emergency rooms immediately, could have been saved, perhaps after amputation, and being given artificial limbs.
“Hoy! Get away from there!” This was in Greek, which I did understand.
I looked to the left. I saw a group of dull-faced children, bellies bloated with malnutrition, throwing stones at one of the crucified men, whose eyes had been torn out by birds, hitting him in the crotch and belly, grinning little dull-eyed gap-mouthed grins when he moaned and thrashed. They scattered at the voice.
The voice came from a little ways beyond them. A man in the iron cap and leathern skirt of the Romans was standing near a fire of coals, warming some snack on a stick, with an open flask nearby. I remember how impressed I was that, in a place like this, smelling like this, he could eat his picnic luncheon at leisure. A friend of mine who used to work in the morgue could just eat his ham sandwich next to a ripe and newly sawed-open corpse like that. People get used to things; including things they shouldn’t.
There was a second soldier with him, but that man was lying down, having propped his shield up with his spear to form an impromptu parasol, and had his head in the shade.
The soldier slowly picked up his javelin (a four-foot length of wood and iron with a wicked tip) and slung across his shoulder his eight-sided shield set with a lightning-bolt motif. “All traitors’ bodies are property of Rome.”
At this, the other men hanging to the left and right now stirred and began crying out, some in tongues I did not understand, others in Greek and Latin.
They were crying for water.
I remembered reading somewhere that starving men lose their sensation of hunger after a while, but men dying of thirst merely get more thirsty and more as they die.
The mummified man I had thought was dead now stirred to life and called out to the soldier in Latin, “Break my legs, break my legs! Die! Let me die! The land of shadows!”
They were calling for the soldier, their tormentor, for water, or for a merciful death, not to me.
The soldier was now close enough to prod me with the butt of his spear, which was a lump of lead the size of a child’s fist. “Is your head in the air? No gathering the blood, necromancer! We don’t allow black magic. You barbarians are civilized now!”
Even he did not assume I was looking for a way to help the dying man.
I said to the soldier, “I am a stranger here, and have lost my way…”
That is about as far as I got when he stepped close to me, too close, so I could smell the fish and alcohol on his breath, and he backhanded me across the face hard enough to knock me down.
My Latin classes had not studied First Century swearwords, so there was a lot in what he said next I did not follow. But I got the gist. “Is this the way you talk to your betters? I march under the arms of Rome, cur. My children will be citizens. Don’t lift your eyes to me.”
I started crawling backward, inching toward the time machine, but he stepped forward and placed the iron sole of his marching sandal on my hand, driving it into the warm, bloodstained stones of the execution ground, pinning me in place.
“What? Don’t you respect the law?” he said. “I did not give you leave to go!”
“I lost my way, sir,” I said.
Only now did he seem to take in my clothing. “I’ll say. What are you? A Saxon? A Scythian?” He stared at the machine. “Your cart seems to have lost its wheels.”
I did not raise my eyes, not wanted to be beaten again, but reviling myself for being a coward.
“Robbers,” I said, “They took my horse, too.” It is hard to know a man’s mood if you are afraid to look him in the face. That makes it risky to lie, because you cannot gauge his reactions.
“Donkey,” I corrected. Horses were creatures of war, not used for other purposes. This was before the invention of the horse collar. The plough-horse was a thing of the future. Slaves ploughed the fields.
“Why didn’t they take your—what is this?” He was no longer stepping on my hand, but had strolled over to the machine. “This big copper disk?”
“It is for astrology. To read the stars.”
“Ah? You tell fortunes?” He raised his voice and called out to the other soldier. “Hoy! Cratus! Come find out if your wife is whoring around on you! There is a soothsayer!” The other soldier grunted a word I did not know, probably some swearword.
“If I may be permitted, sir,” I said, “I can show you the secret. May I rise?”
He was curious, and waved me over to the machine, and he did not stop me as I slowly seated myself on the saddle. I had never opened the double throw switch, so I need only tap the handle once, clicking the second wheel over, and this put ten days between us.
This time, it was raining, and there were still crosses along the roadside, but no one was occupying them. My landing startled a pack of dogs snuffling at the foot of one, where perhaps some meat had pealed away from a previous use, and they ran off yelping.
The time machine did not have an umbrella or hood, and I wondered how well the works would stand up to being rained on. I squinted at the dials, and added up days by the tens and hundreds, and arrived at a figure, was sure I had made a mistake, and then checked it again.
I had not arrived in 33 AD, the date I expected the memento of the crucifix to land me. I am not sure if I had counted correctly, or added leapyear days correctly, or remembered the date when the Julian calendar switched to the Gregorian. I had landed in 3 or 4 BC—the nativity.
I could see, despite the rain, that the country around here was pockmarked with small caves. I picked the nearest one, and began hauling the machine toward it on its skids, seeking a place to hide it. After about an hour of sloshing through the rain, and, later sweating in the sun (for the shower was brief) I had a bright idea, walked to the cave, looked around, picked up a small chip of rock, walked back to the machine, sat on it, held the rock to the cylinder axis, and tapped the lever lightly.
The world blinked, and I was in the cave. I returned the wheels to their original setting, worked the lever again, and poked my head carefully out of the cave, and heard myself talking to the soldier a hundred yards or so away. I pulled some dry bushes in front of the cave mouth, and walked parallel to the road for some time, afraid being seen by any soldiers, and horrified by the nightmarish line of torture victims dying in the sun.
Eventually, I passed the last occupied cross. Not many minutes’ walk after that, I came across a line of people walking the road, some driving laden donkeys. They were not dressed as colorfully as one might expect from a Hollywood costume drama, and no one there even came up to my shoulder height. I am not sure how odd my clothing looked, in dark trousers and a white shirt (I had removed my coat and tie, leaving them in with the cave with the machine), but no one gave me any close looks as I simply started walking alongside.
I tried once or twice to start a conversation with my fellow wayfarers, first in Latin, then in Greek. No women would talk to me at all, but pulled their shawls in front of their faces and turned away. The men flinched, and mumbled something apologetic in tone, and cast their eyes down, and would not answer more than that.
Something in the footweary way they shuffled, the way they kept their eyes down, reminded me of photos I seen in various war torn times and places. These people looked like refugees.
At one point, we all walked past something that looked something an energetic troop of Boy Scouts had made: tall poles lashed together with line, with a small platform topmost. I almost did not recognize it as a watchtower, until I saw the eagle on a pole above it: the all-conquering eagle of Rome.
At the foot of the watchtower, two soldiers were beating a man and taking his donkey, which was a young, healthy animal. They threw his bundle off its back into the dirt, and drove him back with blows from the butts of their lances. They led the young donkey away, laughing at their good fortune, to a paddock that had that same Boy Scout precision lashed-together-expertly look as the watchtower.
I should mention the clothing and gear of the Romans was handmade (of course) like that of the natives, but it looked as if it were handmade by better hands. It made them look like a superior race of beings, and that superiority showed in their voices and postures and the light in their eyes. It was the immense confidence, no, the pride that comes from knowing you can trample another man’s face, and tell him to kiss the sole of your boot. And he would.
Not refugees. I did not recognize what was I was seeing because, well, frankly, no one has ever conquered Kansas City, or hung up rebels on trees by the roadside to die slowly in the sun with spikes through their forearms and thighs.
They were a conquered people.
All the hope had been beaten out of them. The conquerors simply and methodically killed anyone who caused them trouble, anyone who showed too much leadership, too much initiative. They killed the hopeful ones.
A trio of small raggedy children now darted out of the crowd of the road, and made as if to snatch the bundles and fallen belongings of the beaten man. His head was bloody, and maybe he was dazed, and he did nothing to stop them. I ran forward, shouting, slapped the biggest child, the pack leader, across the back of his head hard enough to make him drop his loot—it was a crudely woven cloak or bedroll, nothing more—and the other urchins screamed like birds and fled. I put the bedroll back with the pile. The pile was more than one man could carry, which was why he had been using a donkey.
He stood there looking at me with big eyes. I saw the look in his face, the empty, wary look. He was expecting me to pick up some choice possession and make off with it. He thought I was a lion beating off jackals, not someone trying to save the deer.
Instead I passed him my handkerchief. I motioned to his head. I pantomimed daubing the wound.
He said something, in a dull, dazed tone.
I said, “Do you speak Greek?” I actually used the word koine which I remember was the word for common Attic.
In the same tongue, he whispered, “Beware. They watch.”
It was true. The Roman soldiers were looking at me with flat, cold-eyed stares. They probably did not like my height, and my straw-colored hair. It is not my fault I was raised in Kansas. We have to be tall enough to see over the cornrows.
“Let’s get back with the others,” I said. “I’ll help carry the load.”
He looked a little stunned. Maybe he was surprised, or maybe he was actually stunned from the blow to his head. He tied the bundles together neatly and quickly with a rope, and I took the larger of the two and slung it across my shoulder.
We stepped back on the road, and the people near us quickened the pace, or slowed, to give us a wide berth.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “Why didn’t anyone else give you a hand?”
He looked confused. “Hand?”
Idioms don’t translate that well. “Help. Aid.”
He grunted philosophically. “They are Sons of Israel, whose false temple is Jerusalem. The true temple was at Gerizim. It was destroyed by Yohanan Girhan called Hyrcanus a hundred winters ago, and now the Holy One wanders the Earth without a home.”
Now it was my turn to look confused. This did not refer to anything I knew from history books or Bible stories. “What, ah, is your kindred?” I used the word genus, which is vaguer, and could mean anything from race to nation to species.
“Ah! I am the son of Sahir, of the sons of Pincus, of the line of Issachar. And how should this servant address his master?”
I was not used to Middle Eastern exaggerations of politeness, so it took me a moment to realize he was asking my name.
“Jonathon, son of Jacob,” I said. It seemed odd to me that, though I was born in a hemisphere not discovered yet, three millennia away, my name and the name of my father sounded normal here. “At your service, sir.” I finished, and realized that his form of courtesy was not so alien after all.
We shook hands. Or rather, when I extended my hand, he wrapped his fingers around my wrist, which was almost the same.
“Why do you walk the road?” He asked.
“I am lost.”
“You must be very lost,” he said wryly.
“I am seeking Bethlehem of Judea,” I said.
“You mean ‘Bethlehem’—” my ear could detect no difference of pronunciation. “It is but a short walk hence. This is the road. Where are you from?” He was looking at my blond hair.
“I am from the farthest north.”
“I have heard of your land! No wonder your hands are softer than a woman’s. It is so peaceful there, so unwarlike, that men kill themselves out of boredom, merely to idle away the time! Yes? I thought Farthestnorth just a story.” He had heard me as if I had said Farthest North as one word, which, in Greek, was Hyperborea.
I grunted, thinking of deaths from drunk drivers and drug overdoses and heart disease caused by obesity. Indirectly, these were all forms of suicide by self-indulgence, which was another word for boredom. “Strange as it sounds, there could be some truth to that story.”
“I am northern, but not so far as Hyperborea. That is why the sons of Israel were pleased to see the Romans fall on me. They walk apart from us, so that any watching Romans know we are easy prey.”
“That is cowardly,” I said. But anger was mingled with pity when I said it. I was from a nation that had never been conquered, dropped down in the middle of a land that had been conquered by practically everyone.
Ben Sahir assumed a wry, philosophical expression. “If it lets them move along the roads without being robbed, who can say a dark word of them? We treat these Jewish swine the same when they are in Shomron.”
Now I understood. “You are a Samaritan! Are you good?”
“Ah. None is good save God alone. When the Romans savage the sons of Israel who walk our roads, we stand aside and look on. Better them than us. And what else can we do? When you fight the Romans, these trees grow fruit.” He nodded at a group of bloodstained and offal-stained crosses topping the rise by the roadside ahead. There were ten crosses together, empty at the moment. But the number of crows hovering in the air, and walking proudly along the ground, fearless of man, was ominous.
“Men should not treat each other so,” I said.
“As for that, it will be the way the world is until the he comes, the Christ.”
That last almost made me stumble. “What do you know of the Christ?”
He rolled his eyes. “Is that not the word in Greek? We call him Messiah.”
“That is the word. What do they say of him?”
“Those who count the generations say the world enters a new age soon.”
“What does that mean? Count the generations?”
“Count the years to the new age. From Father Abraham to David the King fourteen generations, and from King David to the Babylonian Exile fourteen, and it has been fourteen generations since then, so as history waxes and wanes like the moon, the time of waxing is nigh, and the Messiah will be born. He will smite the Romans and the heretical Southerners, and rebuild the one true Temple at Gerizim. The greatest conqueror of all time! But—” Ben Sahir shrugged. “Those who count the generations also said the Messiah was due three generations ago, but then others said we should omit Ochoziah, Joas, and Amasiah from the king lists, because of their wickedness, and God adds another generation of waiting for every evil generation. You know how astrologers argue. We wait, and they give a date, and it rolls by, and nothing changes, and the Romans hang out more fruit for the crows to eat. I will believe in the Messiah when I see him with these eyes, not before.”
“You think he is coming to throw out the Romans? Is that all?”
“Isn’t that enough? No human power can defeat them. Should we hope for something even greater? Not just to restore our kingdom, but also to conquer theirs? Ah! Strange and wondrous indeed if all the Roman world bent the knee and served the God of Abraham! But that will never happen. Never.”
“Don’t be so sure…” I muttered.
“Be that as it may,” said ben Sahir, “My father says the Greeks were worse than the Romans. The Greeks did not enforce their own laws. And they use slaveboys for girls.”
“Uh? Greeks here?”
“You must be from very far north. It was only fifty or sixty years ago. Hyrcanus and Aristobulus fought for the throne when the Queen died, and Pompey the Great aided Hyrcanus, and the rule passed to the Herodians, and Romans, who came as guests, did not leave, but stayed as masters. And it is not as if all the Greeks living here suddenly vanished, or went home.
“Before that, it was Alexander the Great,” he said. He had a little quirk of a smile, but the voice that came from it was infinitely weary. “Before that, Cyrus the Great. And before that, Nebuchadnezzar the Great. All the great man of history march through our land to step on us.
“There is rebellion in the air,” he continued. “The Romans can smell it. They have conquered everyone, so they know the smell of mutiny growing ripe. Why do you think they declared tax gathering time? Never before have we been ordered to march the roads to the houses of our fathers and pay the tax there. It is not Roman law. Come, you are learned man, I can tell from your outlandish accent! You make the mistakes learned men make, you learn the language from books. Why do you think they are taxing us this way, now, at this time? Forcing everyone out of hearth and home?”
I shook my head. I was already sorry I had volunteered to carry his load. The sun was declining to the west, and it was cooler now, but my legs were aching and blisters were developing. What I would have given for a bottle of insect repellant! None of the short and wiry people around me seemed to be having trouble. Call it the soft living of the Hyperboreans. I was too out of breath to ask.
“You might think it was to scatter any whispering groups of young men daydreaming of the days of Maccabaeus,” he said. “I think it is to show us. To show us we are whipped dogs. To show us they could march us to Egypt, if they wished, or off the edge of the world.”
After that, I had no more breath for talking, and we trudged on in silence.
Ben Sahir’s ‘short walk’ turned out to be almost more than my aching legs could carry me.
As we neared the village, the Romans had more corpses on display, but these must have been of people of a higher class than traitors and slaves, because instead of crucifixion, they were severed heads hanging by their hair from the wooden poles of a small fortress surrounded by a ditch outside the town. The fortress had a distinctly Old West look to it, which I did not expect, being made of sharpened logs set upright, with a dry-moat around it.
It was called a village, but it had at one time been larger, because I could see the ruins of walls half toppled over, and naked gate posts with no gate, but with an ox yoke lashed across the top. The huts and hovels, some of stone, some of mud, some (to my surprise) of timber, occupied less than one fourth of the land inside the crumbled line of the ruined walls.
I should mention the climate was not what I expected. Perhaps I had seen too many Hollywood Biblical dramas, and so I was thinking everyone would be dressed in burnooses, and the land be desert. They were dressed more like Greeks, in tunics and cloaks. I was surprised at the number and size of the trees, and size of the fields both cultivated and fallow. Maybe it was a climate cycle, or maybe the Romans would cut down all the trees one day soon to make more crucifixes, but at the moment, there were trees, and many houses were timber. The rooftops were flat, and many had little tents or sails on the top of them. I was not sure what they were used for.
Ben Sahir parted ways with me, explaining that, if I ate pork, I could not stay at the same Inn with “clean” people.
But he gave me a few coins, and pointed at a large house done in a clearly Greek style, as if it had been yanked up from Athens and dropped down here, with decorative amphorae and statues of gods and goddesses on the roof eaves.
There were before the doors also stones decorated with gods with wings for ears at the ground level, but these had been defaced by some vandal. Or maybe it was an art critic, because I saw the broken stone penises, large and erect, which the vandals had hammered away from the stone. There was a wooden sign nearby with two severed hands, a left and a right, nailed to it, and some inscription in Latin and Greek and Aramaic I was too weary to puzzle out. Probably a pragmatic Roman epigram on keeping one’s art criticisms to oneself.
Something in the sight of the careful craftmanship of the obscene statues seemed to me to be as grotesque and inhuman as the sights of torture and conquest, but on a subtler level. What kind of world would adore as sacred such demeaning images, and maim and kill to preserve them?
I stepped into the common room, which was crowded, practically packed shoulder to shoulder, but everyone stepped out of my way when I approached a man standing on a chair, whom I took to be the landlord here.
He was arguing and cursing with knot of bellowing men around him, or perhaps it was an impromptu auction, because all the men were waving fistfuls of money, or something that looked like necklaces of beads, small coppery nuggets of uniform size. I did not know anyplace from history books in this quarter of the world that used beads for money, but maybe some things slipped through the cracks of history, or were not written down, or not remembered.
For some reason, the shouting fell silent when I walked up. Maybe they thought I was a giant. I mentioned before how no one here was as tall as my shoulder, and some were shorter than my elbow. Also, while I was not exactly stout, I was certainly well fed, and so I was broader than everyone here.
I showed the landlord the coins ben Sahir had given me. I had no idea of their value. “Don’t tell me, let me guess.” I said, “There is no room in the Inn. Do you have a stable out back, where you put little kids with glowing halos? Or shepherds who hear voices from heaven, and three wise men from the East?”
He said, “There is room for you, stranger. For strangers like you. We have a room set aside.” He whistled, and a little kid with straight black hair that gleamed as if oiled can trotting out of a short door leading to some sort of enclosed yard where they were cooking a fatted calf over an open pit. (I should mention all the doors were short, and I barked my head on the ceiling beams more than once.)
The kid wore a dirty smock and an iron ring around his neck. The bellhop (or slaveboy, or I suppose I should say) did not look me in the eye, but beckoned, and I followed, and he led me across the courtyard—in this style of building, all the windows face inward, toward a common courtyard, and there are no windows in the outer walls to tempt robbers. Of course, a really motivated robber could just shoulder his way through the walls, which were thin boards roughly cut, daubed with just enough plaster to keep out the wind. Stupid as it sounds, I kept being surprised at how rude and handmade everything looked.
The bellhop showed me to a room the size of a closet, which stank with the rich, ripe odor of the many previous inhabitants, and pointed to a straw mat crawling with lice. The room was also equipped an ewer of water (unless that was the chamber pot—the water was not purified nor chlorinated).
“Presidential suite, eh?” I said to myself in English. I showed the bellhop the coins which the landlord had not taken. In Greek I said, “Do I pay now? Pay later?”
He spoke to me in English. His accent was odd, clipped, almost as if he were used to speaking at a much faster rhythm of syllables. “The natives deem it bad luck to take money from time travelers.”
I spun on him and made to grab him by the throat. But his metal collar made a loud popping noise, I got a shock to my hand and arm like I had grabbed an electric eel. I stumbled backward and sat down heavily, breathing deeply and hoping the dancing black spots in my eyesight would not overwhelm me.
The little noises from the rooms to either side, voice and motions, fell silent, as if the Inn were holding its breath.
“You are late Twentieth Century, or Early Twenty-First.” The kid said in his flat, strangely-accented voice. “Wristwatches and telephonics of that design were not made after the Endarkening. And you have made several temporal disturbances which no one, not even a Revisionist of the Second Age would have made. You are a pre-Nebogipfel chrononaut. A rare find!”
I realized that the people in the room to either side were not holding their breath, or, at least, not willingly. The silence was deeper. I could see over his shoulder where the cookpit in the courtyard was. The reflections of the flames on the wall should have been leaping. Instead, they were frozen. Little bugs in their clouds were as still as a photograph. Someone had hit the pause button on the video tape of the universe.
“Who are you?” I managed to say.
“I am a mote of the Cosmic Sculpture of the Sixth Era of Time Travel.”
“So, everyone in that common room knew I was a time traveler?”
“Of course. Bethlehem, at the time of the retrograde motion of Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction? This is the most thickly investigated spot of all history. But no one has ever found and killed a chrononaut of your early strata.”
“Killed? Wait a minute! I have not done anything to you—”
“Have you not?” And now the flat, unemotional accent, if anything, grew even flatter and more monotone, and the kid’s eyes, which suddenly looked very old and very wise indeed, bored into mine. “The man whose burdens you carried was fated to be helped by someone coming a moment later down the road, whose daughter, by that happenstance, he would met and wed, from whose bloodline sages and sacerdotes would spring, and military leaders, including the founders of an Antarctic Republic in the Forty-Second Century, after the time of the Great Thaw, and the discoveries of polar zodiacal energy will enable the founding of colonies on other worlds. All of this you obliterated with your thoughtless blundering. Millions of lives have been lost, or changed. You have no instruments for detecting temporal potential! You do not know who is important, and who is not, who is crucial to history, and who is not.”
With this, be pulled the collar off his neck, so he held a C-shaped bend of metal, looking like a horseshoe magnet. He pointed the ends at me. “You, for example, have no potential at all. You will never return to your life, and have no effect on history. Therefore nothing remains but to…”
The room was no bigger than a closet, and mote-boy, Cosmic or not, was no taller than my waist. I made a lunge for him, grabbed him by both arms, and smashed his head into the walls. To my surprise, it worked. I was sure he would zap me with some hidden superweapon if I moved. To my bigger surprise, the wall broke instead of the kid’s head. The boards were thin and the plaster, or maybe it was mud, was less than a half-inch thick. His head went all the way threw up to the neck.
The biggest surprise of all was when I yanked him back inside, and realize I was holding a dead body. The top of his skull had been burned away, his face blackened, as if his head had been thrust into a lightningbolt. I could smell cooked brains. This was not something shoving your skull through a thin board could do.
The pause button on the universe unpaused. Firelight in the distance started flickering, and noise of man and bird and beast started up again with a roar. I grasped the semicircle of folding metal the kid had been wearing as a necklace, thinking there was a gun in it, some futuristic laser gizmo which had accidentally gone off. But there was no button, no trigger, no muzzle, nothing I could see.
But I heard a noise in the air above. It sounded like something larger than bird, moving. I stuck my head through the hole—not the first stupid and impulsive thing I’d done that day— I saw only a shadow. It was manlike, but larger than a man, and held a long wand or tube in its hands, disappearing into the clouds of sunset. It seemed to be riding a horse, or perhaps a flying motorbike. Even as I saw the figure, I was not sure if it had not been a trick of my eyes, a shape in the cloud. Another time traveler, from some era after the Sixth? Someone who did not like the way these events turned out?
Professor Mandic had mentioned that, in order to avoid paradoxes, or minimize them, the time travelers would wait to the last minute. That meant something was happening now that the Mote kid had been trying to stop.
It was then that I heard singing. They were not the Mormon Tabernacle choir, but they were better than an average dozen men from my time would have been, because we only sing on Sundays, if that. Whenever we want song, we don’t have to do it for ourselves, we snap on a radio. Even people from my grandmother’s day were all better singers (so she had insisted once) then the folks of my generation.
Whoever they were, that choir, that was the event Mote kid did not want me to hear. But now I found that I was in the ridiculous situation of being held like a prisoner in the stocks. The splinters of the wood I had shoved my head through were now snug around my jaw and ears, and I could not draw my head back without impaling wooden points into my jugular. It was like I had stuck my head through a fish trap.
On second thought, I did not want to go back and explain to the landlord about the bellhop whose skull had been blasted in half lying in my room. And I could already hear noises behind me. I figured I had less than a moment before people without modern man’s ideas of privacy peered into see the source of the meat-smell.
So I just straighten my legs and pounded with my fists and broke my way through the rest of the wall. I did not pay attention to any noise behind me, but I just kept going. I ran.
The streets of the village were narrower and even more crooked than when I had been prowling the alleys of Rome. I kept turning toward the singing.
I smelled them before I saw them. Shepherds. They were even more ragged and work-worn than the people I had seen on the road, or in the Inn. Their hair and beards were long and lank, as if they had never known soap or shears. None of them had anything better woven than poncho-like rough cloak to wear, or a dirty loincloth. But they had sticks in their hands with crooks at one end, or some sort of hook or loop of leather, for drawing lambs back, same as Little Bo Peep. Some things don’t change with time.
I must have startled them when I blundered suddenly into their midst in the narrow street. But these men did not flinch or draw back or slap my face or step on my hand. They were all smiles and cheers like they were happy to see me.
I spoke to them in Greek, and then in Latin. I don’t remember clearly what I said. It might not have been very coherent. I doubt these simple hill-folk, the yokels of First Century Palestine, understood the tongues of their conquerors. But of course they knew what I wanted. I wanted to know why they were singing. What was the news? What was going on? You don’t need language to understand this. You just need to be human.
One of them, thinner and more careworn than the rest, blind in one milky-white eye and with ugly growths on his cheek and neck took me by the hand and led me back the way the others had just been coming.
It was a little ways outside the town. We just stepped through a low spot in the toppled wall, where the growing grass had already made a green path like a stile. He pointed at a cave.
“I am looking for a stable,” I said. “A stable with a baby in the manger! And a big honking star sitting right on top of it! Where three kings of Orient are. Maybe a little drummer boy, too.”
The shepherd just pointed again at the cave. Now, in the gloom (for the sun sank rapidly at this latitude) I saw a flicker of butter-yellow light, like a reflection from the smallest lamp, somewhere in the depth of that cave.
The shepherd gave me a little shove, and went back, grinning. As he skipped off, he raised in voice in song, his hands over his head, twitching left and right with the rhythm. I could not understand a word of it, but I could hear his whole heart was in it. I could hear the gratitude.
As I got closer, I saw there was trampled earth around the cave mouth. I could smell the smell of dung. Then, I heard the lowing of cows, the bleating of sheep.
The stable was in a cave. Who puts a stable in a cave? On the other hand, considering how flimsy the last wall was I broke through, maybe it was not a bad idea.
There was a man standing, leaning on a tall staff, in the shadow to one side of the cave mouth. He was bald on top, but with ringlets of silvery white hair reaching from his ears to his shoulders. A beard as white as snow reached nearly to his sash. His robe was finely made, especially in contrast to what the grimy, half-naked shepherds had been wearing, bold pattern of blue and scarlet stripes, with threads of purple running through it.
He looked up as I approached, and his eyes were so noble and stern that I thought I was looking at some wise king out of a storybook; but they were so sad and kind that, if it had been a storybook, it was a story about a king long banished from his home, a prince whose forefathers in their pride and folly had been toppled from the throne that he would never see. The land under his feet, which was his by right to rule, he walked through as a stranger and an exile.
My mouth was dry.
“I want to see the child,” I said. I said it in Greek. And when he merely looked at me, motionless, silent, sad, and stern, something welled up in my heart I cannot explain, and tears came into my eyes, and I sank down to my knees.
“Please, sir,” I said in Latin. “I need to know. She’s dead. I need to know there is a reason. I need to know there is a hope. I have to see the child. That he is not just a story—a lie. A lie. Everyone says it’s a lie.”
He put his hand on my shoulder, and leaned and kissed me, which I thought was a little gross, and wiped my tears off with his thumb, and pulled me to my feet. But then he tapped the heel of his staff against my shoes, first the left, and then the right, and he nodded, making a little gesture with his eyebrows.
“Oh!” I said. “Like the Japanese, are you? No shoes in the house?”
He nodded. I slipped my shoes off.
He made a wide sweep of his arm, like a king throwing open the doors to a palace for a visiting dignitary, and motioned me to enter what was, after all, a stinking stable.
The ground was cold underfoot, and there was straw and quite a bit of dung, and I wished the light were better so I would see what I was stepping into. Well, sometimes you have to walk without seeing.
In the distance, there was a little light of a brass oil lamp, the kind Aladdin rubs to get a genii, shedding less light than my phone gives off when I pull it out of my pocket to check the time. There was darkness between here and the lamp.
Why he trusted me, a giant stranger whose language he did not speak, to be alone with his wife who had just given birth, that I cannot guess. I barked my head once or twice, so by the time I came to the small flickering circle of lamplight, I was bent and holding my skull. Because I had just stuck my head through a broken wall not fifteen minutes ago, it was covered with dust.
I am sure the young girl thought I was bowing, or had poured dirt in my hair to show grief or repentance, or something.
She was sitting on the ground, and there was at least three other people with her. The closest to the lamp was a smiling and crooked old crone to which the little girl spoke a word that was, even though gently said, was unmistakably a command.
Again, I was surprised. There was, of course, no reason to assume Mary and Joseph traveled alone in this day and age, or did not have servants. In my grandmother’s time even she, who was by no means a rich woman, had hired help come by on washing days and to help with the spring cleaning, and my grandfather had hands for the farm.
The girl was very young. Maybe she was sixteen, or maybe she was fourteen. I suppose in the ancient world, anyone above thirteen was considered an adult. Considering the life expectancy, maybe sixteen was middle aged.
To be honest, I was appalled at how young she was. Who marries a girl at that age? And travel while pregnant? Who makes her bear such burdens?
She rose gracefully to her feet, holding the babe in one arm, cradled against her naked breast. I did not think it was a good idea to stare at a sixteen year old girl’s naked breasts, so I tried to keep my eyes down, but with her free hand she touched my cheek and wiped the dust from my hair, and made me to stand up straight.
There were calluses on her fingertips. Women who do a lot of weaving get them, from pulling the threads in the same way, over and over. Young as she was, she had already seen her share of work. Despite that they had servants, these were not rich people. And I suppose even rich women in these days wove.
I wish I could tell you how pretty she was. Her eyes were calm as a sea which had never known a storm, never felt the slightest wind, but were clear and blue deep into infinite deeps. It was like looking at the crystal bar of the time machine, as if they opened into another dimension. It was like—how can I put this?—as if I were Tarzan or Mowgli, and had been raised by apes or wolves, seeing a real human being, a normal human being, a woman who looked just the way women were designed from the beginning to look, seeing for the first time.
I said something then. I don’t remember what. It must have been asking to see the baby, who was, by the way, very energetically suckling, his little jaw moving as tirelessly as a machine.
The bent old crone came forward with a bowl of water, and offered it to me. I reached to take it, but she poured it over my hands, and then wiped my hands with the hem of her shawl before I could stop her. Then she knelt and splashed my feet, and wiped them likewise. I realized then that not all the water in this land stank. It was just that room at the Inn they had not bothered drawing fresh water from the well.
Another servant, this one a wall-eyed old man in dire need of dental surgery, offered the girl a small clay cup, which she passed to me with her free hand. The final servant, a man with a whip-scarred face whose ears were cropped handed the girl something that looked like a stone. She put it to her mouth and tore it in half with her teeth, offering me half. It was sourdough bread. I drank the wine and ate the bread, grateful for the hospitality of the Middle East.
The wine of this day and age had a grimy residuum at the bottom of the cup, looking all the world like tea leaves in an old fashioned cup of tea. I started to toss the dregs of the wine away, but the girl put her small hand on my hand and made me drink the whole thing. Not daring to offend the custom of hospitality, I drained the cup to the lees. Then the earless man took the cup away.
Without a word, she handed me the child.
I wish I could say newborn babies are cute. No, they are cute after a few weeks. He was still red from birth, and wrinkled like a lizard. The umbilicus had been cut off far from the navel, and tied with a red thread. In case you want to know, Jesus Christ is an outie, not an innie.
I have always wanted to have a child. I always wanted to hold a baby in my arms. I know most women love holding babies and few men do. I am one of those few. My wife, for reasons still painful to dwell on, could not have children. She had led a wild life as a teenager, and had aborted her firstborn, and the operation had had complications. She had picked the name, Darrel, but her boyfriend of the time did not want to leave school or get a job.
Holding young life in my arms, so frail, and so precious, always seemed a miracle. I held him close, delighted with the warmth, the living weight in my hands. The stink of the animals was in my nostrils, but the warmth shed by all the animals made the cave like an incubator. I was already blinking, trying to keep the sweat on my brow from getting in my eyes. It stung, and I my eyes swam with tears. I was wondering why in the world any mother would hand me her child to hold.
The girl looked at my face and spoke in Aramaic to the scarred man. He bowed to me and spoke in Greek, “I am Ehved son of Emeth. My lady greets you and says Peace to you. This is Mariam daughter of Joachim son of Eli son of Levi and Anna daughter of Phanuel the High Priest.”
“Ah. Peace. Peace to you and to your lady. I am Jonathan son of Jacob.”
She spoke again. Her voice was like music.
“She says the child is the son of David. He is the king. The king belongs to the people. Whose arms should uphold the king, if the people will not hold him?”
She must have seen the look of surprise on my face when she handed him to me. Or maybe she could read minds. I had been riding a time machine this afternoon, and almost killed by a time traveler, so I was not sure what to believe.
The baby reached out and grabbed the crucifix hanging on a fine chain around my neck, and tried to put it in his mouth. My hand twitched, because I was torn between the need to get the choking hazard away from baby, but also to support the baby’s head, and I did not have three hands.
The girl must have seen the look of male panic on my face, because she reached up with her small hands and neatly plucked the crucifix from the tiny red fist and hungry little mouth.
The girl inspected the crucifix with a wide-eyed stare, tilting it to catch the lamplight. She said something in Aramaic. Her tone was one of innocent wonder, delight at finding a strange mystery.
The scar-faced man said, “My lady wishes to know what you are, and where you are from, that you would willingly carry an so finely crafted an image of the death by torment only slaves suffer so near your heart? It is an abomination. In what land are such things made?”
The baby in my arms was so fragile. The girl seemed so happy, so serene. I could not say anything.
She spoke again. Ben Emeth said, “He that is hanged on a tree is accursed.”
“No,” I said.
Ben Emeth looked offended. “What do you mean, no? I cannot say this to my lady.”
I thought of my wife’s unborn child, who had never lived, and whom I have never seen, never held, and who had never been mine. There are men who are fulfilled even if they are never fathers. I am not one of them.
I was no longer blinking because sweat was stinging my eyes. Now I was weeping.
I had been seeing it, in my heart, over the grave. A boy I could hold. I would have helped change diapers, and bottle fed him, made sure the apartment was child safe, no pennies on the floor a baby could have put in his mouth. I would have bought the right kind of safety seat for the car, the kind made of lightweight spaceage material, with a basket that unhooks from the seat for ease of carrying. And a stroller. And taught him how to walk. I would have been home for his first word. I would have tickled him and made him giggle.
And, later, ah, later: baseball and cub scouts and boy scouts and first communion and first love and teaching him how to tie a bowtie and how to fold a flag and how to clean a rifle, and teaching him all the words to IMPOSSIBLE DREAM from MAN OF LA MANCHA. How to tell the truth. How to raise a child when his turn came. Everything. I would have taught him everything. Maybe he would grow up to be a doctor, and heal the sick and save their lives.
And if my son, the healer, if he got arrested for a crime he did not commit? I would have done anything, sold the car and the house to hire the best lawyers. And if he was bounced from one kangaroo court to the next, and witnesses got up and lied about him? I would keep hoping someone would give him justice. I would appeal. First to the Sanhedrin, then to Herod, then to Pontius Pilate. Someone would see he was innocent, that he had done no wrong.
But what if no one did? What if the politicians and the powerful people of the world, the priests and the princes and the conquerors decided to kill him? Would I keep hoping then?
“What do you mean, stranger?” said Ben Emeth again. Beneath his scars and the wrinkles of his age, I saw he had once been a handsome man, no doubt young and brave. He did not like people contradicting his mistress.
“I mean no.” I said. “In a time to come, there will be one, who, when he is hanged on a tree, he is not accursed. It will be a curse, but is a blessing. And after that, it will be a blessing for all men.”
The scarred man and the girl spoke in Aramaic. I could not understand the language, but her tone was curious and innocent, brave as a kitten who had never been hurt, and gentle, but gentle like a queen is gentle, who does not wish any hard word of hers to wound her loving and loyal servants. I had only ever heard politicians my whole life, never someone who loved and led a nation as a mother loves her child. There is something in such a voice you cannot mistake when you hear it, because there is nothing like it on Earth.
Ben Emeth turned to me. “My lady asks in what land is the pain and horror of crucifixion a blessing? She asks where are you from? Who are you?”
“I am…I am from … I am lost. My own lady is lost. Tell her my own lady, my very own, is lost.”
I have no idea what my face looked like, or what they were afraid I might do, but the girl very firmly and gently took the child from me, and then and there unwound the cloth she wore as a headscarf. This was linen, and was white and lined with blue.
She turned and put the tightly wrapped child into a little nest of hay in the feeding trough. She said something over her shoulder to me. Ben Emeth was behind me. “She says you will be comforted. One will come who will be your attorney, and speak the word.” The word he used was Greek: paraclete. The word for ‘word’ in Greek was logos.
She smiled over her shoulder, and busied herself tucking in the baby. He was asleep. Even as a baby, was he not divine? How could he not know what was going to happen to him when he grew up? How could he sleep like that?
I was wiping my eyes, feeling foolish, feeling full of wonder, feeling I know not what. I said, “Tell her she should sleep when the baby sleeps.” Ben Emeth translated the comment, and the crone laughed and the girl smiled.
The girl spoke a final time. Ben Emeth said, “Bow your knee, and the mother of the king will give you her blessing, since under the ancient law of David that is her right. You have come far to receive it, farther than the shepherd band. Ask of her with what blessing she shall bless you?”
I got down on one knee, and the kneecap of my pants leg landed right in a plopping of cow dropping hidden in the straw. I suddenly realized that everyone in this cave must be insane, including me. That baby was just a baby, puny, and red and weak. The world outside was a nightmare, a world ruled by sadists who worshiped obscene things, and even the Jews and Samaritans served God by slaughtering each other and slaughtering cows and sheep and turtledoves, a God too pure and remote to do anything, no matter what prayers were said, or how many cows were burnt.
No matter how many prayers you said when the tests came back positive. No matter what you said you would do or would not do, or how much faith you had. He did not listen. Not to you.
I was kneeling in a stinking stable in a cave. My face still hurt from where the Roman solider had slapped me that afternoon.
Nevertheless, I said, “Ask her to pray for me. Pray for me now, and at the hour of my death. I want to see my wife again. I want to hold her, be with her. And talk. I want everything made right.”
The girl stood up, and moved toward me with footsteps so smooth she seemed to be gliding. She put both hands on my head, and said something in her liquid tongue. I felt a flush at her touch, as if my hair were trying to stand up, and the sensation moved from my head down my spine like a warmth through my body. She again touched my chin and bade me to stand up. She smiled and gestured toward the cave mouth. The audience was over.
I turned once to look toward the child. The tiny oil lamp was behind and beneath the trough of hay where the baby slept, and the yellow light slanted through the wide, crude slats and caught the wisps of hay sticking up around his tiny head so that a circle of gold, like a crown of fire, hung there. If my eye had been an inch to the left or right, I would not have seen it. I blinked, and it was gone.
I walked away into the night.
In one hand, I had a fistful of straw that I was using to wipe at my knee, to get the clinging filth off, and then with the other hand I was wiping my face. And now I started to sob in earnest. I had come for answers. I had actually seen the Messiah, held him in my arms, something every Christian has probably wanted to do; but there was no answer for me.
What now? Find the machine, climb on, go back to a year when my wife was still alive? And then what? Knock that version of me over the head and replace him? Pile her on the machine, and find a time in the future when they could cure everyone of everything? Behind me was a little warm cave lit by a tiny light, where the cure for everyone and everything was supposed to be, it had not cured me.
And I had forgotten my shoes.
Feeling like a fool, I turned and walked back over the cold ground, but now it was completely dark, and the tiny glint of light from the oil lamp was gone. Frugal people did not waste oil at night. I could not see the cave mouth. After a few moments walking, I was sure I had gone too far, and now I turned again and went the other way, or what I thought was the other way, but all I found was a land of rocks and darkness where it became cold very quickly in the gloom.
I pulled out my phone and opened it, hoping to use the screen as a flashlight, but it had run out of power at some point. I could not remember the last time I’d recharged it. I had not prepared for a hike, or to go camping, or to go time traveling, and had not even brushed up on my ancient languages or brought a compass or anything. I had followed a crazy man in a top hat, the descendant of an equally crazy scientist, because I was half crazy myself that morning, alone by the grave. Not one of her family had come. Not one.
I stubbed a toe and stepped on a stinging insect at the same time. It was like a white-hot needled being plunged into my heel.
“Jesus Christ!” I shouted in English. Then, hoping God would not notice I had been swearing, I quickly said, “Um, uh, forgive us our sins and save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven, including those in most need of thy mercy.”
Then I had an idea. I closed my eyes and just listened. There were lots of animals in the village, and maybe more than one cave was being used as a place to stall animals, but if I were still near the cave mouth, maybe I could hear something.
Sure enough, I heard bleating. It was a young sheep, complaining about something. I groped my way in the dark in that direction, stepping on every sharp stone and thorny bush in Palestine.
I did not find the cave mouth, but found the sheep. By that time, my eyes had adjusted to the starlight. It was a young lamb, a baby.
The lamb was by itself, in a little hollow, and there were thornbushes all around it. But no cave, and no shoes.
I turned away. The poor fellow bleated so pathetically. I looked over my shoulder, “Believe me, pal, I know the feeling.” I took a step, and he bleated again.
I sighed. Then I sighed again. I took off my shirt, wrapped it around my hands, and used that the push aside the nettles and stingers of the bush. I waded into the thorns for that dumb animal. Why? Because there was no one else around.
Once inside, scratched and bleeding, I said, “Come on, sport.” And I pulled the lamb with a heave-ho up onto my shoulders. Then lamb bleated louder. I was sure he was going to void his bowels on my shoulder.
I was surrounded on all sides by thornbush. Where was the break I had just so painfully trampled?
“Okay, sport,” I said to the lamb. “You got in here somehow. Do you know the way out? And maybe back to the spot where my shoes are, not to mention a warm stall for you, and plenty of yummy Lamb Chow? And why aren’t any shepherds watching you, this time of year? Did they hear voices singing in heaven, and just leave their work, to go look at the Messiah? I did that too. But she is still gone.”
And the lamb said, “No, the shepherd chief, Asher, asked Gabriel to watch us, and see we did not stray. When we were alone with the Archangel, he granted us the power of speech which Adam the Fallen King would have given us from that great tree which fairest Eve the Fallen Queen robbed, so that once and this once only, the paschal lambs could kneel and pray. Now we have a new Eve, and she has born us a new Adam.”
I was too shocked to throw the talking beast from my shoulders. The starlight from one single star above me suddenly grew brighter, or my eyes adjusted, and now I could see the circle of thorns was not a circle, but a spiral, and all I had to do was walk and turn and turn again, to be free. Not to keep the bad course I was on.
I took a step. “Are you a time traveler?”
“No. They are thickly gathered here, but in vain. They are not permitted to see the child.”
“Why can’t they see him?”
“Ah. Gabriel was asking me that just an hour ago. Why can’t they see him?”
This was an insane conversation. I laughed, trying to take things as they seemed. “So! You are a Passover lamb? Do you mind being eaten?”
“All who are loyal to the Master wish to be consumed as He is consumed. For what other purpose was He born? For what other purpose was I? The Sons of Adam were given dominion over us, and named us our names. As you live in Him, we live in you.”
“That sounds wrong, somehow,” I said.
“Your ears are heavy with folly,” said the lamb.
“I must be asleep,” I muttered.
“You will soon wake, as do all who sleep in the Lord.” he said. “Now ask your question I was sent to answer.”
“So,” I said, “I did not see the Star of Bethlehem. Or the three kings.”
“More than three mages will come, and they come first to Jerusalem, the City of David. They are horoscope-casters and astrologers from the ruling clan of the Zoroastrians, and the Lord shows by them that He can turn evil craft to good purposes. This is not for two years to come. But that is not your question.”
I drew a breath. “Are you the comforter sent to comfort me?”
“No comfort is given to the sons of Adam except after tribulation and temptation. You are in the fire. You are being refined. And that was not your question.”
“Why does it hurt so much? This fire?”
“Because my faith is small? Because I love my sins?”
“You say it. Not I. And that was not your question.”
A cloud passed before the bright star. I stopped walking. The thorns were all around me. I could not see the path.
I said, “Will I see my wife again?”
“You will see her again. She waits for you, robed in white linen, by the river of the waters of life which flows from the throne, and a cup of those waters is in her hand, and her hair is woven a crown of the blossoms from the trees who leaves are for the healing of nations. You must first suffer death, as the child will, and resurrection, as he will. Beyond the trial is comfort. Beyond the darkness, light. But she will not be your wife there. They do not marry, nor are they given in marriage. The union is more intimate. And neither was that was your question!”
“Maybe I should ask why you people always speak in riddles!”
“Maybe then I would answer that you people never ask the right questions.”
I knelt and put him from my shoulders.
Kneeling, my face was near his muzzle. I was looking to see if there were some trick. To be honest, I wanted him in front of me, if the cloud would pass away from the star, so I could see whether or not his lips were really moving.
That was when it finally struck me, and despite the tears that still stained my face, and the bleeding scratches all over the rest of me, and the Roman hand shaped bruise running from my ear to my jawline, I started laughing.
I could not help it. It was too funny.
The lamb just looked at me with big, solemn eyes.
“Sorry—didn’t mean to laugh,” I said, hiccuping and trying to control myself. “I wanted to see if—if your lips were moving. And then—then—you see, I met this time traveler in Rome, and he was afraid to use the time machine, and I used my crucifix instead of my wedding ring, so the machine led me here, and then—then there was this dying guy with no pants on, and a Roman socked me like I was filth, a nobody, like you’d kick a dog, and this little kid from the Sixth Cosmic sitcom or something who wears electric jewelry got his brain blasted when I shoved his head through a wall trying to kill me, on account of I didn’t let Antarctica conquer the moon in the Forty Second Freaking Century, and Saint Joseph kissed me on the lips, and I held baby Jesus, and now, and now, and now I want to see if your mouth moves. I am afraid of being tricked. You know, because some things are too hard to believe. Don’t let yourself be fooled! Seeing is believing!” And I laughed and whooped and laughed like a crazy man.
“Listen,” the little lamb said.
And I bent my head toward him, but he said nothing. “What is it?”
The little lamb said, “Do you hear what I hear?”
In the distance, I heard a bell tolling. It was a solemn, slow, beautiful sound.
It was so lovely to hear, that the crazy laughter died on my lips.
The lamb said softly, “That is the alarm bell from the Roman fort, foretelling the downfall of the pagan world and all its love of cruelty. The Christian world to come shall be cruel as well, but a world that will not love cruelty. Every bell on the face of the Earth is ringing this night, from the Pillars of Hercules, to Ultima Thule, to the springs of the Nile, to the Forbidden City and beyond. The bells sing in joy for the Savior’s birth. The stars also sing, but only my masters, the shepherd band, heard them. Asher, Zebulun, Justus, Nicodemus, Joseph, Barshabba, and Jose. They had prayed, you see. They pondered the word spoken to Job, and wished to know when it shall be that the morning stars sing together, and all the sons of light shout for joy? This is that night. There is no war being waged anywhere, on any front, for this one night and this one alone. Will you finally ask your question now?”
I drew a deep breath. “It seems so stupid.”
“God uses the fools of the world to confound the wise, Jonathan.”
I closed my eyes. “Why me? Of all the historians and sages and widows or widowers who suffered a loss, and saints who kept their vows and wise men, and everyone else, everyone in the world, why was I given a ride on that machine, and allowed to come here, and allowed to hold him in my arms, that little baby who holds the universe in his?”
My eyes popped open in shock. “Oh, good grief! I forgot to tell her that Jesus would be in the Temple when he turned twelve! That he is not in the caravan! I could have saved her all that grief! Jesus Christ, what the hell was I thinking!! Whoops, I mean heck. I mean Jesus Christ save me.”
“Be of good cheer,” said the lamb with perfect seriousness. “Your prayers will sustain and comfort her, whether you speak them now or later. Eternity entertains all prayers at once. And here comes the one who will answer you.”
I saw a light in the distance. It was clear enough that I saw the path again, and so, without any more mishaps with the thorns, I came into place where the ground was clear of rocks and nettles. It felt like turned soil under my feet, and the earth was cool and soothed my aches and stings.
The light was a lantern being held in the hand of a being shaped like a man dressed all in white, purer than any white Earth could make. Over his shoulder was a shepherd’s crook. Tucked through his belt was a golden horn. On his head was a hood or veil which hid his eyes, but I could see his nose and mouth.
“Rise,” he said, because I had realized who he was, and my knees failed and I had collapsed in panic. “Fear not. I am but a fellow servant of the same One you serve. See that you bow not to me! I must return the lost lamb to the fold.”
I said, “Gabriel? Were you really watching the sheep so the shepherds could go see the child?”
The great being nodded slowly beneath his veil.
“Why was I allowed to see him? And not all the other time travelers? And not everyone?”
He said to me, “Lost lamb, if you were the only man alive, the only one who had ever sinned, and every other Son of Adam had remained pure and upright, it would all have been done for you. For you the child was born. For you he lives and dies. For you.”
The living being raised the lantern, and I saw it was a spiral galaxy inside the glass, not a candle, and clusters and superclusters of galaxies. “It is all for you. The stars love you, and He who, by his word, lit the stars and set them dancing, from the greatest to the least. Everything in the cosmos, all the light of all the worlds, to the blood shed by the Messiah. It is all for you, John Went.
“And more than a mere cosmos! Eternity and infinity are yours, endless life, unbound joy. You shall be rejoined with the one you love, and all the ones you love, and the love will be greater than mortal tongues can pray to ask or praise in thanksgiving.”
I did not know if he meant I would meet her that very hour, or only after many long seasons of life in this eon or many others. But I knew, then, that it did not matter. Only one question mattered.
“Why? Why?” I cried.
Gabriel smiled and he leaned, and he spoke very softly in my ear.
Do you not give gifts to those you love?