Wednesday 20 July 2011

Brother Judas

I stepped out of the tavern, turning quickly to the right and into the narrow alley. It was completely dark at this hour, with only a flickering lamp from the tavern window for illumination. I did not mind the dark. Darkness cloaked me, and the men I wanted were those who preferred darkness.

Samuel was at the far end of the alley, leaning against a wall and prodding at a pebble with a stick. I knew he was watching me, but he didn’t even turn his head until I walked up to him and stood, arms crossed across my chest, looking at him. Finally, with a sigh, he dropped his stick and turned to me.

“Have you brought the money?” It was a typical question for him. Never, in all the years that I’d known him, have I found him anything but mercenary. It had come in useful before at times like this, and I was sure it would come in useful again.

“I have the money,” I affirmed. “But you will get it only when you do what I told you.”

“You are a hard man, Yehuda,” he whined. “I need the money. My old mother...”

“You will get your money tomorrow,” I snapped. “You do as I tell you, until then.”

For a moment I thought he might argue, or even try to fight me. But I was much larger and stronger than him, and he knew it.

“All right, Yehuda, all right. Don’t be angry.” He turned away to pick up his heavy bag of tools.

“Who else have you got with you?” I asked. “I told you to get two men.”

“Yes...I have Simeon and Nathan. You know them?”

“Your cronies? I know them. Where are they?”

“Outside the city gates. Come.”

We walked through the darkened streets of the town. The city was silent at this hour. A single drunkard lurched by unsteadily, and we watched him stumble out of sight.

“The cutpurses will find him easy prey,” Samuel said, and I caught the regret in his voice. If I hadn’t been with him he would himself have relieved the reprobate of his silver. 

We paused a few moments when, from the next street, we heard the cry of the patrol. Those were the only Romans who would be out at night, because the sicarii would be waiting, daggers ready, in the shadows. Yes, the sicarii would do nothing to save the drunkard from the robbers, but if any Roman dared the streets alone, they would merrily cut his throat for him.

We walked in silence. The night was hot and stuffy, and the wine I’d drunk was sour on the back of my tongue. I thought of the last time I’d walked these streets, two nights ago, on the way to the High Priest’s house. Annas and Caiaphas would be happy tonight, I thought, very happy indeed. They thought they had won.

It was up to me to make sure they had not.

We left the city through the small gate Samuel had mentioned, the one which was never guarded at night. The waning moon dimly illuminated the barren ground outside. I had my hand on my knife, ready for trickery, for Samuel could not be trusted.

“Where are they?” I asked. “Simeon and Nathan?”

“They’ll be here,” Samuel said, and whistled softly. From the shadows two slight figures materialised. “There they are.”

I surveyed Simeon and Nathan. I’d seen them before, but had not had anything to do with them. They looked to be typical Galileans of the labourer class, scrawny, with scrubby hair and beards, clad roughly and simply, and carried tools over their shoulders, mattocks and bars of iron.

“You know what to do?” I asked them. “Has Samuel explained?”

“Yes...” Nathan, the taller, glanced at Simeon and back at me. “He did. The rabbi...”

“No unnecessary talk.” I silenced him with a gesture. “Let’s go.”

We set off, walking in the shadow of the wall, the open ground to our right. Except for an occasional camel-dung fire glimmering in the distance, the moon was our only illumination, and we walked carefully so as not to stumble. I made sure to walk behind the others, my hand still on my knife. They knew I had money on me, and one does not take chances with such a crew as this.

We passed Calvary on the right. The corpses had all been long since taken down, and only the uprights stood, three poles dimly seen against the night sky. I could see two or three dim figures huddling around a camel-dung fire near the base of the hill, and wondered if they were from among my former comrades. We pressed ourselves to the wall as we passed them, but they were too busy with whatever they were doing to notice us.

Yosef of Arimathea’s plot was a spot of green, with tall date trees and thick, tussocky grass. I had wondered before why the fat old miser had ever purchased such a place, and come to the conclusion that his wife had forced him to do so. Also, I’d wondered why he’d ever offered his plot for the grave, since he was a Temple official and in Caiaphas’ favour. But a moment’s thought had told me why; Yosef was merely trying to stay in everyone’s good books. He had his sights fixed on political office, and he needed all the support he could get. A canny old fat miser, was Yosef of Arimathea.

The tomb was covered with a large stone, precisely as I’d seen it when I’d come this morning. It took no little effort on the part of my three hirelings to push it aside. I made no effort to help; my job was to make sure they did theirs, and getting too close to them wasn’t in it. I have already said that I didn’t trust them the breadth of a nail.

At last it was done, and the stone rolled aside. The mouth of the tomb gaped wide, a dark hole in the rock. My three ruffians stepped back and surveyed me apprehensively.

“Go on,” I commanded. “Go in and fetch the Rabbi’s body. You knew the terms of the deal. Or else no money.”

Slowly, unwillingly, they entered. I could imagine them fumbling in the darkness, feeling for the corpse on the stone shelf. A few moments later, they emerged with the naked body.

“Where is the shroud?” I asked. “Did you leave the shroud inside?”

“I suppose we did,” Samuel said, white-faced. “Do you want us to go and fetch it?”

“No, leave it,” I told him. Even in the faint moonlight, I could see the Rabbi’s beloved features contorted in the agony of death. The ropes had cut deep into his wrists, which were swollen and blue with clotted blood, and the wound in his side was gaping open. I was glad to see that wound; I had paid the guard well to bring him that merciful release from suffering. There was already a distinct smell of decomposition. Bodies rot swiftly in Galilee.

“We shall go,” I said, “and bury him now, in the desert.”

“Shall we put the stone back?” Simeon asked me.

I considered. I had intended to take the Rabbi with the shroud and to cover the tomb again, but I saw that this way would suit my plans even better. “No,” I said. “Leave it all exactly as it is.”

We left Yosef’s little plot without trouble, Nathan and Simeon carrying the Rabbi on their shoulders while Samuel trudged behind them with the tools. All three looked acutely unhappy with their task, but they shouldn’t have taken the job on if they hadn’t been up to it. We walked out into the desert, away from the town. I intended to get as far away as I could before we buried him, so that nobody could find the body.

As we walked across the desert, I remembered the night when the Rabbi had followed me out while the others among his disciples had been squabbling among themselves. “Yehuda,” he had told me, and put his hand on my shoulder. “Yehuda, you must do it, you know.”

I had felt something inside me turn to stone. “Why must it be I, Master? Why do you lay this burden on me, among all your followers?”

The Rabbi had sighed. “Yehuda. You know why. You are the only one with the strength of mind, the only one I could trust to do this, and it must be done. They,” and he had made a slight motion of his head, “they all hate you, you know that. They will not question that you did this.”

“Yes, I know. I’m the Judean, the outsider. But, Master...” I abandoned the honorific, and grasped his hands. “Yeshua, old friend, I cannot do this. I beg of you, find someone else. I cannot let this happen to you.”

The Rabbi had frowned. One who had never seen him scowl could never believe the fierceness that came over his countenance at that moment. “Do you think I want this? But my father commands, and I must obey. Yehuda ish Kerioth, I command you, do as I have told you. Tonight.”

“It is a heavy burden you lay on me, Master. It weighs my soul down with pain.”

“I know.” The Rabbi had smiled with infinite sadness. “You do not realise the full extent of what I am asking of you. For what you do tonight will stamp your name with the mark of betrayal through the ages. You will be reviled and cursed, for as long as my own name shall endure. ‘Tis more than I have a right to ask of anyone; but I ask it of you, for you alone are strong enough to bear the burden.”

“I have already been called a thief and worse, Master,” I’d replied. “It matters not at all to me what they do call me. What matters to me is the heaviness in my heart.”

“It will pass, Yehuda. It will pass. Shall we go in now?”

That night, after he had made the signal, I had gone to Annas and Caiaphas, and offered to give him up. They had known who he was, of course, and what he looked like; but they needed an excuse to arrest him. They were afraid, you see, afraid of the regard in which he was held by the people. It was my task to give them that reason.

“And he says that he will overthrow the Temple and build it again?” Annas had asked, the lamplight glittering in his eyes.

“That is what he said,” I’d replied. “If you find the information worth your while, pay me what you will. Otherwise, let me go.”

Annas and Caiaphas had put their heads together, murmuring briefly. Then the latter had taken a small leather purse from his belt and handed it to me. “Thirty pieces,” he had said. “Count them well. They will buy you a slave girl, if you have the taste for one.” And the two of them had laughed together, loudly.

I nodded grimly to myself, watching my minions scrape away at the desert, making a grave. The laugh would be on them, with their eager wet mouths and eyes like glittering stones.

Briefly, silently, I offered up an apology to the spirit of the Rabbi. I apologised to him for taking matters now into my own hands. For I had known, as surely as the sun would rise on the morrow, that there would be no resurrection on the third day. Death might give way to a better world; that I knew not, but was willing to take on trust. What I could not take on trust, though, was the idea that a dead man could live again. And before me, in the moonlight, was the evidence. Who – looking on the poor broken corpse before me, rotting away already – who could ever believe that this piece of mortal flesh could ever rise again?

But the Rabbi’s message required a resurrection. Without a resurrection, his sacrifice and the cruel death he had suffered would have meant nothing. I had taken it on myself to give him that resurrection.

“Forgive me, Master,” I murmured. “Forgive me.”

“What?” Nathan, up to his knees in the grave, looked up at me. “Did you say something?”

“Nothing. How much longer?”

“This soil is hard and stony,” he whined. “It is hard work.”

I stared at him silently until he bent to his task again. Soon, the sky would begin to lighten to the east. Before that, we would have to finish and hurry back to Jerusalem, and then I would have to make another call; possibly the most important of all.

His name was Malachi, and I had first come across him years before in the course of some dealings I had with the sicarii. Malachi was a superb knife man, who could slide a blade between a Roman’s ribs so slickly that the pig would be dead before he realised he’d even been stabbed. But that was not the skill I was looking for; it was something much more important. Malachi was not only a knife man; he looked a lot like the Rabbi, and was a superb actor besides.

Tomorrow, in the morning, someone will come to the grave. I think it will be Maryam, for she has always been obsessive about her devotion to the Rabbi. Whoever it is will find the stone at the grave mouth, rolled aside, and the shroud inside. And then they will be met by Malachi, pretending to be the Rabbi.

It will not take much work, I think, to make my erstwhile colleagues make themselves believe that is indeed the Rabbi who is before them. Apart from Thomas, who sometimes shows stabs of reasoning ability, they are an ignorant and superstitious lot, and will soon weave their own myths and legends for themselves. Malachi will not have to appear often. Two or three times should be sufficient to achieve the Rabbi’s purpose, and establish a resurrection. His will be done.

And I? What will I do? Where will I go? What is there left for me, this side of eternity?

I just don’t know, I think, watching my ruffians begin to push the earth back into the grave. 

I just don’t know.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

Note: I've always felt that Judas "Iscariot" is one of the most unjustly maligned figures in ancient religious mythology. While I don't believe that either he or Jesus Christ literally existed, in the context of the Christian mythology, the least he deserves is the status of a saint, because he was the "enabler" without whom Christ wouldn't have been able to work his execution and crucifixion.

In this story I've tried to analyse him in whatever logical way I could.

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