He was on his way to the Galilee when he spotted a Samaritan woman in the next valley. She was bent over the lip of a well. Jesus was traveling alone. He had left the disciples down south. They were such loves. Thinking about them gave him a little shiver.
The Samaritan heard Jesus approach and turned shyly. She wore a veil against the dust, her eyes lovely in their sorrow.
I am of a thirst, he said. May I drink from your well?
She dropped her bucket. My father-in-law forbids me to speak to Jews.
Jesus nodded. I have traveled a great distance. My throat is dry.
The girl stared at the ground. Her skin was the color of young olives. From where have you come?
She glanced at him, with just her eyes. Are you the Christ?
Jesus looked away, ran a hand through his hair.
There is an apple grove yonder, she murmured.
He could see the dark hair pressed down under her scarf. Her ankles shone in the sable dawn. These country maidens, they were all the same. The husband (a dullard), the stinking in-laws, the strong, neglected arms.
I shall come for you, she said.
Jesus touched the hem of her sleeve and the girl flushed.
You shall, he said.
He loved them like this: imprisoned in the sweltering chamber of their needs. He would touch her slowly, with great patience. He would tell her what she tasted of –- her skin, her flesh. She would feel a pleasure so sharp as to briefly touch death. When she returned to life she would declare herself saved.
He traveled out of Galilee and into the coasts of Judea beyond Jordan and healed the multitudes. The multitudes: he adored them! So much noise, so much pawing. Often, before he pursued the healings, he would climb onto a stone and hurl himself onto the astonished palms of the assembly. It was like being swallowed by a thousand mouths.
They carried unto him those afflicted with disease and racked with pain: the possessed, the crippled. These were outcasts, grateful for the mortal touch. He lingered over them, in shaded groves and catacombs. He rejoiced in the noises they produced, the swelling of their pale throats, the dank human scents.
It was the lunatics he savored. They suffered no barrier of conduct, imposed no limits on his rites. He wanted to use wooden devices? Hot oil? A paste of figs applied to the intimate regions? They drooled and gibbered. They sobbed. They bit at everything: his fingers, his neck.
There were some children there too, palsied little orphans with huge inky eyes and frayed raiments. The Pharisees had showed up by this time. They had spies across the region, to guard against any outbreaks of joy. Jesus said, Forbid them not to come unto me, for of such suffering is the kingdom of heaven made. He laid his hands on them as the Pharisees beat their wings like angry fowl.
The disciples all had their proclivities. It was what made them disciples. James desired costumes and verse. Bartholomew public acts. Simon called Peter favored the rough cure. They were all insatiable.
He rejoined them in Jericho, at the summer palace of Zacchaeus, the publican, who was out of his mind. They recruited dancing Sadducees, sybaritic Edomites, a passel of low-ranking Romans. They devoured plums and wine. Nobody could see straight for three days. Late at night, an old woman barged into the back room, where they lay with one another. She had her daughter with her. They were Canaanites.
The old woman said, Which of you is the Christ?
Someone pointed to Jesus.
My daughter has the devil in her.
Jesus nodded drowsily.
She is wicked. Her mind has been consumed with iniquity.
Jesus said, Desire is made perverse by the intervention of shame. Do you understand, mother?
The old woman squinted into the sallow light of her lamp.
Go on, Jesus said. We shall tend to the girl.
She bowed deeply and backed out of the room.
Jesus said to the girl, Be calm my daughter. He rose and went to her and gently removed her dress.
She stood, trembling.
Turn around please, Jesus said.
Her back was covered the long, red welts.
Jesus sent his disciples from the room, instructing Philip to bring him ointment.
There is nothing wrong with you, Jesus said. He set his lips to her wounds and they disappeared, one then another.
They traveled north again, to the Gennesaret. They must have seen a dozen stonings along the way. Women mostly, adulterers. Christ went up to a mountain place, so as to be better heard. Good people, he said. Why harden your hearts so? Is violence your only pleasure now? What has the deed of a stranger to do with you? I have given you a new commandment: to love one another, to love thy neighbor and thy enemy alike.
Shall we live in sin? someone shouted.
I am speaking of love, Jesus said. Cease your retributions. Him that takes up the sword shall die by it also. So sayeth the Lord.
He gazed down at the crowd and noticed the long beards of Pharisees to one side. They began to murmur. Catamite. Fornicator.
Jesus asked of these men, Would you trade green valleys for stony places? If so, they await you. Dwell amid the stone, the sackcloth and ashes. The sin before Him is not pleasure, but abstinence, which flushes the spirit with hate.
The Pharisees jeered.
Jesus laughed. Would you smite me for expressing what my heart desires? Who do you suppose filled that part with such ardor? Is it within you, my brothers, to deny His will? I have given you a new commandment.
At this, one the Pharisees shouted, If you are the Son of Man, let a miracle prove your lineage!
Jesus stared down at the crowd. He could see the disciples speaking quietly to selected congregants, inviting them to the after gathering. They would find a field of grass and suck the honey from combs and let the sun wash their hidden skin.
A miracle? Jesus said.
The crowd roared.
He pulled aside his raiment. This is the miracle of the body. He touched himself slowly. Clouds gathered overhead and released heavy drops of wine. The wind brought gales of manna. Gaze upon me now, Jesus said. I am a man. Come closer. Kneel before me and open your mouths and take my flesh upon your tongues. You will call this holy in the great days to come.
They came to Bethany, where Martha lived. They had taken up with a couple of women, both practiced in the sensual arts. The disciples were in high dander, but Jesus was spent. He had engaged in excessive healing. The lame, the blind, the otherwise-dismissed. They came from great distances. Everyone was talking about his loins. His loins this. His loins that. And his hands. He had terrific hands. He was a carpenter. Oh, that explains it. He was public property now.
Plans had been laid for a Passover in Jerusalem. It was the appointed time, the disciples said.
Martha was an older woman, a widow so drawn the skin beneath her eyes looked like ash; it had been years. She grabbed Jesus and dragged him to her bed chamber and emerged, an hour later, glowing like a lantern.
Jesus lay down and one of the whores came to him.
She pulled his head onto her lap and drew a philter of spikenard from the folds of her robe and began to anoint his feet.
Dutifully, he reached for her.
Be still, she said.
And so he lay back and let his body go limp. She rubbed the soles of his feet, the dusty ankles. He fell into a sleep and dreamed he was walking on a field of bones. His mother was there and she came to him and kissed his eyelids. Her scent washed over him: wood smoke, myrrh, the faint traces of her womanhood. He began to weep, quietly at first, then in racking sobs. A mob was coming for him. They wanted his heart on a spit. His mother folded him into her gown and carried him away, into a quiet ocean of sand.
When he awoke, the woman had slipped an oiled hand inside his raiment.
Christ shook his head.
You’re all used up aren’t you, my lord?
Judas Iscariot came to the door – lovely, sullen Judas.
They are outside, he said.
Who? Jesus said.
The reviled, the infirmed. Judas grinned shyly. Will you lie about in luxury while they await your healing?
Jesus shook his head. You shall always have the poor. Me, you shall not always have.
What is that supposed to mean?
Jesus felt the stone of fatigue upon his forehead. He made no reply.
Then Jerusalem. What a touching calamity! He entered the city in a silk vestment, while the mobs set upon him. The streets were crooked and choked with offal. Merchants stood before their stalls, shrieking prices. Soldiers marched about in brass breastplates, cuffing the lame. Donkeys brayed and pissed where they stood. Traders thronged the gates while above, on the verandas of the terraced homes, officials of Rome drank from silver cups.
They came to the Temple. All manner of commercial agent was on hand to greet wealthy pilgrims. Moneychangers lined the stairs, oiled men in the shadow of the lintel. Jesus had quiet worship in mind, but that was impossible. The agents tossed free baubles at his feet and asked after the needs of his followers. They huddled around him with soft fingers. The high priests watched from near the tabernacle.
After a few minutes, Jesus had seen enough.
A crowd formed at the bottom of the stairs. They wanted to touch Jesus. They wanted to be healed.
Jesus spoke to them about renouncing their worldly goods, but they were frantic for his body, his touch, which they had linked, however foolishly, to the brief miracle of wealth. Who could blame them? These were the city’s poor, hardened by a proximity to luxury. The moneychangers continued to bellow their rates.
Jesus looked upon the gilded city which, as a boy, he had dreamed a place of God, and his anguish turned to ire. He leapt for the moneychangers and began tipping their tables. Coins of gold and silver spilled onto the stone: the music of lucre. The rabble descended upon Jesus, the coins, the disciples, while the Romans, summoned by the high priests, leaned in from the edges with bronze spears. This was where Jesus did his best work. The disorder energized him. He shucked his robe and threw himself into a complicated embrace involving three sinners and at least two lepers.
He was naked again on the Mount of Olives and again in the Valley of Kidron. This is what he did, who he was. He believed in love as a revolutionary force. The body expressed what the spirit yearned after. Such were the mechanics of liberation.
On the eve of Passover, Herod sent for him. The disciples lamented. But Herod, afflicted with gout, was smitten at once. They spent a long afternoon in the palace salon, kissing and giggling, a milk bath in the copper tub. Herod with his pendulous belly and his beady eyes, Jesus so handsome it hurt to look at him. This was his unique talent: he saw past the corporeal, the black gums, the foul aromas of age and labor and disuse. He loved the unlovable with a narcotic power.
Herod insisted Jesus observe Passover at his home, but Jesus stole away to join his disciples. They took the meal in a libertine fashion, with much reclining, a surfeit of wine, rich foods. Jesus spoke of Moses with exceptional tenderness. He was visibly upset at the notion that such a leader would die with the land of his dreams in view.
Your fate will be altogether greater, said Simon called Peter.
Jesus stared at him for a moment.
No, he said. The land I dream of resides in a hidden cavern of the heart. Joy is the final terror of man, the unknowable place, and so he has made God the guardian of his misery. Yea, though I have come to light a fire on the earth, the wood lies damp through, for it is easier to strike another dead than to accept the depth of our want.
The disciples, hearing this, began to object. They feared Jesus had lost hope. But he quieted them, saying, Please, brothers, despair not of the truth. I have been sent as a prophet of love, but I shall die as a martyr of shame. Still I say to you who are most beloved to me: we have this night and the blue hours after.
Jesus looked up from the table. Thaddeus and James were crying tenderly. He uncorked another bottle of wine and took a long swallow. Come now, brothers. Let us rejoice in our brief human span.
The high priests had spoken to Pontius Pilate by this time and they issued a warrant for the arrest of Jesus, the Nazarene. Sedition. Obscene crimes. Inciting the populace. Jesus knew what was coming. He was the Son of Man. Of course he knew.
While his lovers slept, he slipped away and wandered into the quarter of the city considered unsuitable for men of God. He lay with the beggars and thieves, the whores and widows, the wretched poor. When he touched them, they came to bloom like flowers of the desert. At dawn, he entered the Garden of Gethsemane, where he had arranged a final tryst. Judas wept bitterly; Jesus licked his tears. They made love amid the watching trees, whose white blossoms dabbed at the raw dawn.
Then came the sentries, and after them the men of the legions. They dragged his body away and the rest of the story staggered on. This was what men desired in a savior: proper agonies, a bloody parade, thorns and vinegar, a piece of meat on a stick.
That was okay with Jesus. His spirit had ascended at the moment of his climax with Judas, and he spent the rest of time suspended in the midst of that sensation: total glee, total forgiveness. He knew they would render his story a public murder. It would become a receptacle for the old human verities of fear and loathing.
Still, on a rare occasion, he missed earth. He missed the suffering. He missed the song of weeping. He missed the underside of the clouds. He missed the dumb hope and sweet confusion, the radiant dreams of each heart before ruin.