by Ian Donnell Arbuckle
part 1 of 2
|And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” — Matthew 26:39|
The wet leaves would not burn. Simon, who was sometimes called Peter, backhanded the small pile he had collected, scattering it over the dozing Zebedee brothers, John and James. The others were nearby, leaning against the rough olive trunks or pillowed on tufts of grass. Simon watched them, listened to their light snores and deep grumbles. Then, scowling, he squeezed a fistful of leaves into a ball and rubbed them over the notched, uneven blade of his dagger.
It was not quite long enough to be a sword, according to the teacher; it had belonged to his uncle, who had used it morning after morning to repair his nets. After each night of fishing on the sea, there would be tangles and knots, holes and rips, from strong fish or from one enthusiastic tug too many. Before sleeping, his uncle would cut away the wounded patches and tie new webs of thick string in their places. Simon had learned by watching, and practiced with sharp rocks on woven wheat stalks.
John, picking leaves from the mats of his beard, scooted over. “Hey. It’s getting cold.”
Simon grunted and began patting the ground for a whetstone.
John folded further into himself, his huge warmth spreading out around him like a blanket. “Getting dark, too,” he said. Then he leaned in close enough for Simon to smell the thick breath from his words, full of the scent of bad food. “Metaphorically speaking,” said John, winking and nudging Simon in the ribs.
Simon laughed. He had never felt as though he could talk to the other followers. They all — save the brothers Zebedee — seemed wholly uninterested in any words that weren’t the teacher’s. He knew the name of Philip’s father, and that of the woman who had jilted Bartholomew, but that was about it. Other than the jokes and jests he shared with James and John, the only real contact he had had with those the teacher called his brothers was the fist fight he and the traitor had almost gotten into a few weeks ago.
They all had been walking the dusty road to Jerusalem. The teacher had been mostly silent, kicking one small stone ahead of him over and over. Simon, James, and John had been walking close behind him. The brothers had been sharing a story of their exploits on the seas — the time they had caught the deep demon in their nets — and Simon had been listening, laughing at the right times, and watching the teacher’s lips as he did so. They always turned up at the corners, small mirrors of Simon’s rote chuckles, but there seemed to be a delay; rather than responding to the brothers’ wide steady invisible words, Simon thought that the teacher was smiling at the sound of his laughter.
That’s when the traitor stepped forward and tapped the teacher’s shoulder. They tilted their heads toward each other and began to speak in tones low enough to be buried under the tale of the freshwater demon. Simon didn’t like it, being left to listen to the same old stories while something new was happening. He became jealous, and curious, and sped up to walk along the teacher’s other side.
The traitor leaned forward a bit to peer around the teacher’s face. He glared at Simon.
“Do you mind?” he said. “We were having a private conversation.”
“Not really,” said Simon. Judas never could take a joke. “Is that Jerusalem ahead?” From the distance, it looked like white stone, which is never truly white. It squatted on its hill, the slopes spreading out around it like a filthy robe. “I’ve only seen it a couple times before,” said Simon. “Never from this side.”
“That’s it,” said Jesus. “Such a weird place. So many people.”
“You’ll be right at home,” said Simon.
“Simon,” began Judas, but Jesus raised a hand to stop him.
“It’s all right, Judas,” he said. “Go and walk with the others.”
“No, Jesus, I mean: must I?”
Jesus stopped then. Simon and Judas stopped with him. The Zebedee brothers passed them by, waving their hands through the air in front of them as though to weave the words that kept stringing out, longer than a magician’s rope. Jesus didn’t turn to either side; Simon thought he just wasn’t bothering. He smiled again, though Simon hadn’t laughed.
“Yes, Judas. You must. Now go away. I need to talk with Peter.”
As Simon marched ahead with Jesus, he heard Judas mutter, There are things you can’t ask the rock to do. Then Simon had turned, fists raised, and nearly slugged him. It was always like that with that worm. He never understood. He never understood that Jesus chose him, Simon, for whatever tasks might take his fancy. He was jealous for attention.
He never understood that it wasn’t Simon’s own idea to be the most favored, but that he, Simon, would defend his position with his life, his pride, or at least with bruised knuckles and bleeding toes. Fortunately for the traitor, Jesus stopped Simon’s fist with a word, just as he had the stormy sea that night in Galilee.
“He said that I was going to betray him,” said Simon to John. He was staring at his dagger, trying to catch a spot of moon’s light on its blade, but the surface was too worn, the edges too notched to reflect much of anything.
“He said that about all of us,” said John, leaning back on his elbows in the grass.
* * *
Jesus could hear every word. He pretended not to, curled there in the dew and black soil. His fevered head was against the cool ground. He felt sick to his stomach.
Only yesterday, he had gone to the place of the skull to watch a Roman execution, determined that any strength he would show in the coming days would be earned. He watched a forest of criminals rise wailing, watched their bodies drip slowly down the sides of the crosses like winter sap. Many of them were Zealots, those insurrectionists that Judas had once called companions before abandoning them for a place in Jesus’ twelve.
Jesus stood watching them in the sun as their voices cracked and their legs tore and nearly gave out. He turned and left before the first one died; he was unable to stand in the sun any longer.
Now he wanted the sun to return. Its simple heat was abandoning the garden, rising above him and leaving him cold. The blood in his cheeks made warmth feel cold, coldness feel blazing hot, and he needed that last bit of soft leftover light to make everything equal.
He felt the last blush evaporate and huddled further into himself.
“Father,” he said to the dirt. “I am terrified.” And then, because he was not a man who had learned to keep anything to himself, “I am cold.” And, “Why must it be this way? Must it be this way?”
He knew he wasn’t a brilliant tactician. Once, over lunch with his twelve, he had spent the whole meal listening to the stories of those who had been in battle. They used words he didn’t understand, and throughout each other’s stories they would leap in with advice or conclusions that sounded like jests to Jesus. He could have joined in, but they would have laughed, he knew, and he would have laughed with them.
No, he thought. If I were in charge of a rebellion, there would be forests of crosses for a week, and then the Romans would burn them down, and ash would be the only thing left of my followers. It wasn’t an answer, but it was enough to carry the moment of rebellion past.
“Take it, father,” he said.
* * *
There are things you can’t ask, thought Judas. There are things you don’t have to. Those last three words kept circling in the high parts of his mind; like carrion fowl, the words seemed to know that soon he was going to take his last swallow from the water skin and give up. Don’t have to, he thought.
The guard to his right kept dragging the tip of his short sword over the ground, the metal ringing as it bounced off pebbles and over roots. Judas kept hissing at him, but the guard didn’t notice or care. Judas found himself inching a little to the left, nearer to the other guard, the one that carried himself, and his sword, with chilly dignity. Behind them, a quiet rustling of robes and the flap of sandals marked the hesitant progress of the temple hangers-on. They wanted to see a miracle, thought Judas. They’re coming to see the teacher escape, and, secretly, they’re hoping that he won’t.
They’ll be pleased either way.
“How many more miracles do you people need?” the teacher had said, not long ago, to a crowd of formerly bleeders and blinded. “I will not show you what you want to see.” Judas had turned to the teacher in surprise, and not a little confused. Just days before, he had been wandering the countryside by himself, seeing with new eyes the stained cloth that covered the world, and cleaning it thread by thread with the power the teacher had given him. Demons had slipped through cracks in the earth beneath his own feet, cities distant from the teacher’s blessed ones. He had thought the teacher would be glad to give all aid. When he turned, he saw a smile on the teacher’s face.
He saw it again, soon after, when Jesus had said, “It has to be you, Judas. You don’t have to. But it has to be you.”
The soldier on Judas’ left raised a hand to stop the mob.
“What is it? What do you see?” asked Judas.
“There. In the clearing ahead.”
Judas’ stomach felt wide, hungry, and then contracted to the size of a clenched fist. It seemed to open once more, then, as it closed again, a ripple of tightening muscles chased blood through his body.
“You can follow John and me, Judas,” Simon had said, those weeks before when the teacher had sent them out in groups of two to speak with the people and to heal what they could with short words and dirty hands. Judas had been standing by himself, fidgeting a trough into the dusty path, while the teacher stood a distance away, praying. Simon chuckled. “I thought, you know, since you never ask the teacher any questions, you might be feeling a little lost.”
“I grew up here, Simon.”
He had grown up in the dust and mountains. The cool garden felt to him like an oasis, a land of lasting peace and security; answers need never be sought because tomorrow brings as many opportunities to ask as today.
The soldiers were moving forward. Two or three of the temple cronies brushed past Judas before he came back to himself. He rushed ahead.
Just before entering the clearing, the soldiers stopped. “Which is it?” asked the one on the right.
Judas let his eyes widen, scanning the bodies in the clearing. He counted eleven. He took a slight step back, scraped against the sharp edge of one soldier’s sword, and didn’t feel it. He nearly said, He isn’t here. Then he saw the unmistakable bulk of John and, crouched next to him, too small to be the other Zebedee, was Simon. Wordless whispers breezed through the air.
“It has to be you, Judas,” Jesus had said.
“The one I kiss,” said Judas. “That is the one you want.”
* * *
Jesus was counting the number of beats his heart took between waves of fear and comfort. Six, and a cold sweat; six more and whatever had frightened him had burned through his skin and was gone, leaving him cool and still. He stood and all his father’s voices were silent. His knees shook, but his feet fell in the straightest line.
* * *
“Do you hear that?” John had said. Simon had, and had even seen the intrusive glint of dull armor through the thickening night. As they stood, Jesus slipped out of the bushes, sweat breaking his face into dozens of stars. They were none of them looking the right direction when Judas stepped into the clearing.
“Brothers!” he said, smiling and stretching his arms. Simon let his dagger hang at his side, but held it tightly.
“Who have you brought with you, Judas?” asked John, amiably enough for a man who could drag a fishing boat onto the shore by his back and hands alone.
“What do you mean? I’ve come by myself.” Judas caught Jesus’ eyes and wondered if his own were so dark; turning to each disciple as they tightened in a curious ring around their teacher, Judas’ gaze slipped into hole after deepest hole. Jesus took a step forward and straightened his neck. There was a warning grunt from Simon, and the creaking of muscle from John, but Jesus only smiled, as if he wanted to thank Judas but had forgotten the words. Judas lowered his voice. “I saw a young girl who had just lost her father to Pilate’s jail. Now she is orphaned. I gave her what bread I had saved from dinner.” Simon grimaced. Judas lay a hand on Jesus shoulder and squeezed it gently. “What is wrong, brother?” asked Judas of Simon. “Let me say hello.”
Simon’s expression shaded off his face. “Judas, what have you—” Simon began. Judas leaned forward quickly, his lips wet and nervous, his shadow blurred and indistinct. Simon raised his dagger to ward him off just as John leapt forward, fists clenched. Someone cursed and Simon heard the softer sound of metal scraped. A small groan escaped Judas’ throat.
From the trees around them came a cry of, “Light the torches!”
Copyright © 2005 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle