The June 2018 issue of Furtive Dalliance carries one of my most creative stories. Imagine “Shakespeare in Love” meets the New Testament. It is a tale of the writers’ group who invents the story of Jesus. Furtive Dalliance is a print only magazine but their website can be accessed here. An excerpt is printed below.
I always wanted to write the great Judean novel – a story so compelling it takes on living form and has the power to save lives. I never imagined my own life would be the first one saved.
As a boy, I sat for hours on a rough-hewn wooden stool in a corner of my small room, reed pen in hand, armed with papyrus scrolls from Rabbi Thaddaeus, our closest neighbor, who looked after my widowed mother out of pity. He had good connections and easily acquired such luxuries.
That my father died painfully of leprosy was all I knew. Mother never spoke of his departed soul, leaving me to speculate. So, I invented complex histories. Caught up in my own conflicting stories, I decided to write a unified, definitive text but people knew I’d made it up. “So, your father is the illegitimate son of Augustus,” they said, doubtfully. “And your grandmother was Aphrodite?”
Inspired by stories of Moses, Abraham, David and Daniel, I drafted epic legends of powerful heroes. This set me apart from most kids – so did having a mother who was certifiably mad. Constantly, she mumbled nonsensible things like: “Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote of thy brother’s eye.”
It was complete gibberish. I didn’t have a brother – or a mote in my eye. If Rabbi Thaddaeus made such a proclamation in the synagogue, using that booming, righteous voice of his, it would sound wise, something to be studied and digested but coming from my mother, buying vegetables in the market, her words barely above a whisper, rocking ever so slightly as she spoke, it was hard not to think her woefully accursed.
Yet, to me, she was pure love. We were a family of two: all the love she had, she gave to me. Each morning she’d cross my room, stand at the window, the lone one facing east in our small home, and watch the sun creep above jumbled rooftops. “Good news,” she would turn and say, bands of golden light streaming in, absorbing her.
Awakening, I’d see her in the corner, wrapped in a pale blue robe, her chestnut hair flowing with brightness. “The sun has risen,” she faithfully confirmed. “Arise my son, for you are the light of my world.” This was my daily wake up call, forever followed by a breakfast of figs, goat’s milk and honeycomb.
I took a profession to support my mother. A man from our synagogue, named Josephus, offered me a carpenter’s apprenticeship but I never liked his stinking breath and crooked foot. Instead, I fished and was good at it, even though it required more luck than skill. Most importantly, it left my evenings free – giving me time to meet my writers’ group.
They were a pompous lot, all twelve of them, who never let me forget I was the youngest, unfit to tie their sandals. Yet I liked their creative company. Determined to change the world through words, they wrote with passion and conviction. Mostly they told oral tales, not having the access to papyrus I did, but were writers all the same.
Peter founded the group yet was the weakest storyteller – though no one had the heart to tell him. Focus and discipline were his strengths. He devised exercises to hone our skills. James was another strong character; he overcame family tragedy to become a thorough critiquing partner. Judas invited me to join. He seemed the most honest, a bit of a zealot, but my only friend in the group.
All my work – the twelve never hesitated to point out – sounded like it came from the same blustery pedagogue. No doubt this was Thaddaeus’ influence.
Peter once said: “Look, we’re sick of history lessons from a ranting Hebrew scholar! Why not tell stories in a lighter tone – less preachy. Edgier. Maybe try parables. Or switch things completely and have a Roman protagonist, a hermit, perhaps even a woman. Remember your story about the fellow discovering he’s a direct descendant of King David? Tell it four times, in four unique voices. That’s your challenge.”
Peter’s next exercise involved writing new scripture. “Consider what gusto would be required,” he instructed. “The protagonist must be strong and forceful, well defined but relatable; every action must be laden with meaning.” Writing was the holiest profession and Peter’s voice sounded absolutely beatific.
In my view, most fared poorly in our pseudo-scriptural endeavour. Several presented diatribes lamenting a mighty nation turning its back on God. Others wrote psalms of joy about God’s chosen people. (And Peter said my early work sounded preachy!) All were weak in plot, I felt, but everyone made positive comments. “Such charming dialogue,” they cooed. “Your words sing with life,” they fawned.
Matthew, the tax collector, had his charismatic hero round up all the coinage in Judea. “Since it has Tiberius Caesar’s face on it,” his prophet raged, “ship it back to Caesar on a barge!”
Only Thomas was critical: “I doubt that would be effective. Wouldn’t it make Tiberius wealthier while impoverishing his supplicants?”
The rest said things like: “You transported me. It felt like I was there when currency was being collected.”
Judas, in my opinion, was the first to present a worthy legend. In an epistle, he spoke of a rebel leader, hell-bent on exposing high priests who misinterpreted the will of God. His daring protagonist stole into the temple with a band of followers and liberated the arc of the covenant to remind Jews it was for all God’s chosen people, not just a select group of ecclesiastics.
“Moving and inspirational,” we declared. “Such potent metaphors.”
When presenting my vision of Peter’s theme, we gathered in an olive grove. Slanted rays of light from the setting sun illuminated the faces of my audience. By way of introduction, I said: “I intended to write the ultimate work of scripture.”
“Ultimate?” Thomas questioned.
“As in final,” I replied with conviction. “We are storytellers and stories have a beginning, middle and end. Yet Hebrew scripture lacks an ending. Many texts prophecy the advent of a ruler over Israel – a king, a messiah, one anointed by God. It follows that scripture must end with his arrival.”
“I like it,” Judas said encouragingly.
“Thanks. I borrowed your idea of a rebel leader, took all the prophecies I could think of, then wove them into a unified story.”
Immanuel was the name of my humble protagonist. Born in Bethlehem, unto a virgin, he healed the sick and gave sight to the blind. Toward the end of his days, he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, was rejected by Jews, betrayed, beaten for the transgressions of others and finally crucified among criminals, before being resurrected into eternal life with God in heaven.
The final scenes were tricky. Crucifixion was hardly mentioned in our sacred texts. They were maddeningly specific about something as inconsequential as thirty pieces of silver – the reward for betraying the messiah – but confoundingly vague on his death and resurrection. As a result, I relied on personal experience.
Before revealing my muse, I must confess a detail I never shared with my writing group. Already unpopular, this would have irrevocably cast me as an abomination in the eyes of God and my fellow Hebrews! But I now have Roman protection – and Romans have no issue with this particular proclivity – so I readily admit I have always preferred men for physical affection.
While in Jerusalem, celebrating Passover with my mother and others from our village, I fell violently, earth-shatteringly in love with a condemned man. Not once did we touch. I never learned his name or crime, his history or faith. All I did was behold his gaze, one wretched afternoon.
Whipped before I laid eyes on him, he appeared exhausted. Reeking, drenched in sweat and blood, his back shredded as though ravenous dogs feasted upon it, he stumbled into Golgotha, arms stretched beneath a heavy length of wood. A crowd followed. Some wept, some taunted. Roman soldiers raised him against a tree, hammered the crosspiece into place, then nailed his hands to the cross before removing the ropes binding him to the wood.
Dying and forsaken, he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. I wanted him to save himself and smite his tormentors. I wanted him down from the cross and in my arms, whereupon I’d wash his wounds, shower him with kisses and nurse him back to health and vigour.
The sun disappeared. Billowing clouds rolled in on a fierce wind. Rain fell and dispersed the crowd. Transfixed, I moved to the feet of the condemned man. Our eyes met. He gazed at my face, perhaps wondering if he recognized me, but soon averted his eyes. In his mortal turmoil, I worried my longing presence caused further shame, so I backed away.
My mother met me then. I was wet and forlorn and she put her arms around me as we stared at the crucified man. I kept no secrets from my mother, she no doubt understood my heart ached for this man, but had no idea how to comfort me in such a ridiculous state.
The condemned criminal looked down again. I longed for him to see the passion burning in my heart but his expression grew puzzled. Maybe he wondered why a woman embraced me. Gazing, he must have noticed the difference in our ages. He almost smiled. “Oh, she’s your mother. You’re her son.”
Gently leading me away, my mother found words of comfort; a variation on something she had said my entire life: “Good news, the sun will rise tomorrow.”
I never saw the crucified man again, never learned another thing about him, but I hold him in my heart to this day. He watches over me, constantly.
To read the rest, purchase your copy of the June issue of Furtive Dalliance, now available on Amazon.