|Publisher:||Owen, Peter Limited|
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Perhaps what Yeshua meant was simply that he wrote himself into my dream as a way of joining our paths together. After all, he was burdened at too vulnerable an age by all that he dared not reveal about his inner world, and he needed a companion who would listen to his confessions without judging him or betraying his secrets – and who would be willing to wade with him into the murkiest and most treacherous waters of Torah.
Given his knowledge of all that remains hidden to the rest of us, however, he may have been implying that he created my dream and placed it in the sleeping mind of the eight-year-old I'd been. I suppose it is even possible that he wanted me to believe that he had travelled back in time, across a span of twenty-eight years, and planted it inside me so that it would seem as if I – as a young boy – had been able to prophesy the most traumatic events of my adulthood.
If I were to believe that he could foresee the entire scope and shape not just of his life but of mine as well, then I would also have to accept the disquieting notion that he had known for some time where our journey would end. He had been aware that I would be forced to flee my blood-drenched home with my children, pursued by both Pharaoh and Zadok, holding his final gift to me inside my trembling embrace.
'Where you die, I, too, shall die, and there shall I be buried.' Such was the pledge that Rut the Moabite gave to her mother-in-law Naomi, and though the young woman's fidelity always moved me, it was only when I whispered her words to myself on a barren hillside, while gazing past Yeshua's crossbeam towards all that would never now come to pass, that I realized that she may very well have regarded it as an act of kindness for the Lord to end her life.
I would not wish to believe he embroidered me skilfully, and over the course of decades, into the intricate weave of his plans, only to pull out every last thread and stand naked and broken before his executioners. And not just because of the decades of hope that I had placed in him. In truth, I resist that possibility because I have discovered that it is no comfort at all to know that there are men who can accomplish what seems impossible to the rest of us – feats that defy all our attempts at understanding.
Beware of men who see no mystery when they look at their reflection.
It was my father who told me that. He was speaking of a tyrannical Roman prefect at the time, but he believed that all of us are changed for the better – become more humble, at the very least – when we recognize that our identity tends to slide away from us every time we strive to catch it. And if the 'I' who directs our actions is not fixed and permanent, then how can we ever be certain of who we are and what God has asked us to do?
If only I had glimpsed the possibility that the Romans would arrest him. Then I'd have pressured him to flee with me to our homeland – and refused to take no for an answer.
But in the end, dearest grandson, there was no time left for pleas or arguments – which is yet one more indication that we are never truly at home in this world. Though perhaps the Lord, too, wishes that He had more time on occasion. Would it be a heresy to suppose He might? If so, then I no longer care; three decades of longing and regret have earned me the right to speak to you honestly.
* * *
Dear Yaphiel, in order to begin writing this scroll that you now have in your hands, I purchased ink this morning from a stall at your favourite marketplace – the one favoured by our island's flower-sellers that comes to life each dawn beside the Temple of Athena. On reaching home, I locked myself away in my hidden prayer room. Can you see me there? At this very moment, I am seated on my mosaic of Yeshua, underneath the terebinth tree that grows at the centre of my world.
Picture the tip of my calamus as it designs these words.
Picture me endeavouring to tell you of matters that will never be able to fit easily or comfortably on a roll of papyrus.
Picture yourself standing at the endpoint of every sentence.
I am determined to leave nothing unsaid, for you deserve a full explanation from me of why I was so very rude to you the other day. Also, I have realized that the time has finally come for me to tell you of your long-secret place in my life – which means, in turn, that I need to tell you of the man you asked to meet when we were last together.
He is our aleph and our taw and every letter in between, for he is the gift-giver who brought us together.
If I find the courage, I shall also ask you a favour that I cannot ask of anyone else.
A warning: your grandfather is not the man you thought he was. Does that mean that you are not entirely the boy you have always believed yourself to be? Perhaps. Only you, my child, can say for sure.
'Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened to you.'
Yeshua ben YosefCHAPTER 2
How great is the distance between the sunken-cheeked, leaky-eyed old man writing to you now and the swallow-quick eight-year-old he once was? According to the calendar, it is fifty-seven years. Yet, according to my winged heart, it is the nearly-nothing time it takes for me to close my eyes and alight in Natzeret ...
I am perched on the mat in my bedroom. It is the twelfth of the month of Tevet, long past the second watch of night, and in my window is a watchful moon.
It is the sixty-seventh year since Rome's conquest of Zion, and Augustus is our emperor.
When I finally fall back to sleep, I dream that the Lord is a blood-red eagle with a purple crest and jet-black eyes. Standing at the corner of our roof, He gazes out towards the spray of sunrise on the horizon with a stern and wary expression, as if all the world depends on His vigilance.
I want to touch him, but fear of His sharp, powerful beak forms a fist at my throat. Still, I venture a first, tentative step, and, when He – the Eagle-God – shows no anger, I ease closer. On coming to His side, I kneel down and reach out with the cautiousness of a boy who has already witnessed a number of executions. I make the movement of my hand into a whisper of greeting – the proof of my goodwill and righteous intent.
With a graceful bow of His head, the Lord leans towards me, granting me permission. I trace the tips of my fingers across the cool, firm, silken plumage of His back. The feel of him – so compact and forceful – makes me shiver. Tilting His head, the Lord's dark eyes catch mine and ask a question.
'Eliezer,' I tell him. 'Though my father calls me Lazarus.'
He blinks to show me He has understood.
At that moment do He and I pass through an invisible gate? We seem to reside now inside our own time and place. Only a decade later will I find myself able to shape my feelings into words, and they will be these: our silent complicity has created an island for the two of us, and around that island is all that I once was – and all that I shall never be again.
Then, a shift ... I am standing on the defensive wall around Natzeret. The Lord is perched on my right shoulder, His gnarled, rust-coloured talons gripping me tightly.
Invaders will come from across the Jordan River, and we must all be ready to fight. That is the meaning I take from the urgency of His gaze towards the bronze-coloured dawn spreading over the Galilee. As I scan the silhouette of hills around our town, searching out the archers and spearmen of a foreign army, a tendril of flame unfurls on the horizon. Soon it is joined by others, which makes me understand that I have erred in my judgement – the still-hidden sun has not yet announced its return; the enemy is setting fire to our orchards.
With a cry of battle, the Lord takes wing. A few moments later, while soaring above the flames, He is transformed by their heat, growing tenfold in size and tenfold yet again.
All too soon, however, He disappears over a ridge of flaming hills in the distance. Around me now is a sea of fire and smoke.
'Come back!' I cry out in desperation. 'I don't want to die here!' A man's voice behind me calls out my name. 'Eliezer, I am the gate you seek!' He shouts.
The voice is familiar, though I shall be unable to identify it for many years. Before I can turn to see who it is, hands push me forward. Falling, I am engulfed by the flames.
And yet I am not burned. And I do not die. I tumble through the conflagration until I find myself flying through a bruised red sky. I am clothed in silver feathers.
Yerushalayim rises up before me.
The Phasael Tower ... I decide to perch at its rim to assess the enemy's strength, but as I alight there ...
Through that metamorphosis of emotion that marks us for ever as the children of Havvah and Adam, my powerful wingbeats become the leaping heart of a Galilean boy who awakens to find himself in his bedroom, naked, bathed in moonlight, wondering how – and why – he became a God with wings.CHAPTER 3
I must speak to you now of the week that changed my life and sent me into exile here on Rodos – and that brought you into our family. Try if you can to imagine me as the widower and father of two young children that I was then – a man who had celebrated thirty-six birthdays with his family and friends.
One afternoon, I awaken to a confusion of faces unknown to me, lit by the harsh saffron-coloured light of a dozen night-lamps. My heart recoils from so many strangers, and my first thought is that I must quickly make an appeal for mercy. But I do not utter a word; I remain a pair of blinking, terrified eyes waiting for clues that will reveal to me the nature of my predicament.
Out of habit, I speak the Lord's words to the prophet Yirmiyahu inside my head, Be not afraid of them, for I am with you and shall deliver you. And yet, raucous shouts from somewhere unseen make me flinch – and wish to run. Rushed whispers soon reach me as well, but I am unable to comprehend them. The tense, insistent beating in my chest sways me from side to side, and my throat is as dry as sand.
Deep underground – that is where my scattering thoughts seem to have sought refuge.
A long-haired youth holds up a torch and leans towards me, studying me with moist and troubled eyes. His tunic is ripped along the neckline.
When I gaze past him, I find butterflies of shadow fluttering on a ceiling of pale stone. The heavy, sweet, humid scent of myrrh fills me with each of my laboured breaths.
They've taken me to a cavern, I think. I must try to discover what they want of me before I speak.
A small woman with a drawn face and curious, deep-set eyes leans towards me. She holds a small square of fabric over her mouth and nose, and she peers at me as though endeavouring to solve a complex calculation. She says something unintelligible – in Latin, perhaps – and lifts her brows in an attempt to prompt my reply. I wonder why she doesn't address me in Aramaic – or in Hebrew or Greek.
She must be a foreigner. The others, too. And yet nearly all of them wear Judaean dress.
To my left a stooped old man is weeping, his tallith draped over his shoulders. Beside him is a tall long-limbed woman – forty years old, I would guess – clutching a woollen mantle to her chest as if it might jump from her and scamper away if she were to ease her grip. She has the stricken face of a lost soul who has seen too much, and the collar of her peplos is torn. The small scar on her chin – in the shape of a crescent – seems familiar to me.
Something furry folds into my right hand. A mouse? Could I have been taken to a den of wild animals and vermin? I am unable to turn my head to get a look. Below my racing pulse stirs the hope that the little creature will not bite me.
Yaphiel, you might think it comic, but I later discover that the hand of an old friend can feel exactly like a shivering mouse under certain peculiar circumstances.
My shoulders are gripped from behind, and I am pushed into an upright position. The long-haired youth and the woman with a crescent scar unfold a coarse linen cloth that has been wrapped around my chest and legs. Do I fall asleep while they work? I next remember the tearful old man covering my naked sex with his prayer shawl.
A wooden ladle is held to my lips by a slender man in a camlet cape and hood. He is patient with me, this stranger with generous and powerful hands, and I gulp at the next ladle he offers me, and the one after that, and ... After a time, I split into two persons: an exhausted being desperate to slake his thirst and a distant and curious observer wondering why such a simple act has become so difficult.
After I have drunk my fill, I notice an amber necklace around my neck. Its beads are a milky yellow. When I try to grip it, tremors strike my hand again.
My voice will not come, but the long-haired boy reads the desperation in my face and lifts up the necklace for me to see. Could it be the one my mother always wore?
'Give him a look at the talisman!'
A woman's emphatic voice prompts him to show me a roundel of parchment that has also been hung around my neck. Four crude figures are designed on it, graced with oval Egyptian eyes. Their angelic names are written above their heads: Mikhael, Gavriel, Uriel and Rafael. Underneath them is a quote from the Psalms in the handwriting of a child: 'No disaster shall befall you, no calamity shall come upon your home. For the Lord has charged His angels to guard you wherever you go.'
A flute melody – a Phrygian tune, plaintive and mournful – calls me towards sleep, and the slumber inside me is warm and abundant, like a gently swaying sea.
Some time later, the man who helped me drink kisses me on the lips. He has taken off his hood. He has red and swollen eyes.
He has been grieving, I think, and I wish to ask him if a friend of his has died, but I am still unable to find a voice.
He caresses my cheek. 'Shalom Aleikem, dodee,' he whispers. Peace to you, beloved.
He knows Aramaic, which is a comfort.
Stubble coarsens his cheeks, and his shoulder-length brown hair is in a tangle. He shows me a weary but contented smile.
He would like to let himself go and laugh the exhausted laugh of a man who has been weeping, I think.
The mist of forgetfulness inside me clears at that moment, and I recognize him. Yet he looks older than I remember him – and spent in body. Could he be ill?
When I reach up to him, intending to test his brow for the heat of fever, he grips my hand and kisses it as if we had been lost to each other for years. 'I answered you in the hiding place of thunder,' he says, which is how we have greeted each other since we were boys. It is a quote from our favourite verse of Psalm.
Where are we? I shape this question with my lips – at least, that is my intent – but for some reason I fail to make myself understood, and Yeshua shows me a puzzled face. 'You'll be yourself again soon,' he tells me. 'All of us will help you.'
I scan the countenances around me and count them – fourteen. Standing on each side of Yeshua are my old friends Maryam of Magdala and Yohanon ben Zebedee. Yohanon has had his thick black hair clipped so short that he appears to be wearing an Ionian skullcap. He smiles encouragingly at me through his tears.
Maryam's kohl-ringed eyes look bruised. She is wearing her saffron-coloured robe – a gift from Yeshua – though it looks too large and cumbersome on her. Behind her – dressed in an elegant toga, pinching his nose – stands Nikodemos ben Gurion, one of Yeshua's benefactors. He peers at me as if I might be an impostor. Could I have changed in some way that makes me seem another man?
At the back, taller than all the others, are my Alexandrian cousins, the twins Ion and Ariston. Ion, the bolder of the two, waves at me and grins in his boyish way.
Maryam draws my glance from him when she raises her hands and blesses me. I spot a wine-coloured design of the zodiac on her palm and aim to ask her about it, but all that emerges from me is a dry ratcheting sound.
At length, I grow anxious to find my mother and father, but they do not seem to be with us.
I know that I am crying only when I taste salt on my lips. The long-limbed woman – whom I now recognize as my sister Mia – takes my hand and places it over her face, breathing in deeply on the scent of me, though she soon starts coughing. When we were children, she used to say that I smelled like warm barley bread. I remember that now, and my name, but many other things still escape me. Might we have all gathered together for my father's funeral?
'Where are our parents?' I manage to ask her in a hoarse whisper.
'Everything will be all right,' Mia replies. 'You mustn't worry yourself.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Gospel According to Lazarus"
Copyright © 2019 Richard Zimler.
Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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