1. Sperm tastes like mucus. This I found out the first time I swallowed my own. I did so because I thought it hypocritical to expect women to gulp down something that repulsed me. Sperm is salty. The first time I swallowed sperm I had this nightmare: I could not speak. My brother, fresh from battle abroad, went home, and we told each other no stories.
The morning I woke up from that nightmare, I vowed never to swallow my sperm again. I did so six or seven more times, in each case to rid myself of hypocrisy. After the second time I did not get nightmares anymore. My brother went home from the war a month ago. He was a corpse.
Today I must finish two more crosses. The Romans have captured Barabas and his left hand, whose name I do not know. Curious how a subordinate frequently has no name. Everybody knows Joshua. Does anybody know me?
He is in the shop when I arrive, hammering furiously and sweating like a goat. He grunts a good morning but continues working. The air is thick with sawdust—he really does not know how to saw. I flex my muscles a little, posing in front of him. He pays me no mind, so I hasten to do what I am paid for.
My tools are neatly piled in a corner: hammer, plane, chisel. I own no saw though I should. He owns a saw. His father owns the shop.
We work in silence, a choir of blows and skinning. Lunch comes and he gets up. His cross is finished. He invites me to eat. I know he will be meeting Magdalene. I tell him I am full and he tells me he will be back. He should, he is the one the Romans talk to. I watch him skip and hop away.
I finish some hours later. He comes back. The soldiers arrive. They pay him, he pays me. They thank him. I go home. He calls after me, invites me for a drink. It is the same deal with lunch.
I do not answer. He knows I will be back.
I go to the tavern and buy wine from John. He smiles at me the ways he smiles at all of his costumers. I doubt he even knows my name.
There are a couple of people around. Some faces I know. I nod in their direction. No one returns the gesture. I contemplate throwing my wine at them, but think better of it. A man who makes crosses for his dinner should not go around wasting good drink. I spend my silver well. And tonight I spend it on Magdalene. John should have arranged it. I placed my reservation a week ago. Prostitutes are hard to come by, in our parts. Magdalene, I estimate, serves at least thirty men each night.
I wait for a while, watch Martha dance naked in the middle of the tavern. Everyone else is drinking and talking among themselves. I eavesdrop on those near me. Mary, I do not know which, I know seven of the same name, is pregnant, I hear, Peter’s wife heard it from a reliable source. Foolish rumor mongers!
I should have been a Rabbi. Could have been. I can write. I can think. They cannot read. They cannot think. They listen to whoever speaks. I do not have a tongue for their ears.
After four more cups of wine, I give John a gesture. Paying for a prostitute is accepted, even celebrated, but one does not proclaim its merits out loud. Good thing Martha is singing a song of praise with all the other costumers as chorus.
Still, I keep my voice low: “My order?”
“I just gave you your cup.”
“No my friend, I am sure it was I.”
“Magdalene. I ordered last week. Paid half in advance.”
“You ask for half-paid wine you ordered last week? Forgive me, but J—”
“We agreed last week that I am to have sex with Magdalene tonight!” This is a shout. The merry-making stops and the whole tavern stares at us. I go red.
John is all contemplation. “Yes,” he nods after a millennium. “Yes. These things I never forget.” He taps his head. “She is upstairs, and is probably wondering why I am giving her a break. You must come up at once. She might get anxious, interpret the interval in the way simpletons do, and conclude that men do not want her anymore. God only knows—”
I shove the thirty pieces of silver into his ever-open right palm. I try not to run to the second floor.
“All the costumes are there!”
His holler makes me feel better. Magdalene is always wearing something from Rome, and gets intimidating. The costumes level us. And when we get naked, we are equal.
There is only one room on the second floor. I knock on the door. Magdalene does not answer. I come in. She is sleeping on the floor mat: hair wild, lips red, skin pale dead. I stare at her breathe and then undress her. I thrust and thrust but she only wakes up after I slap her.
Her eyes almost pop out and she slaps me back. “You.”
My forehead knots. “You mean not him.”
“Not even close.”
“It is my silver, not his.”
She nods and points toward the costumes. I completely undress then go to the dresses. They are in a pail of water and some of them are wet. I sort them out and pick some out. I no longer want to be a Rabbi, and all the others are either tattered or have dried blood on them—so I choose the legionnaire’s armor. As I put it on Magdalene stares at me.
Shining I approach her.
“You ape him but you are not him.”
“I am my own.”
“That is not something to be proud of.”
I slap her. “Centurion did not give you permission to speak.” Blood on the gloves. I smile. Games are better realistic.
2. I live with my father. My cousins and friends they are up in the mountains, up in arms, or dead. I make crosses. I believe our revolution will not amount to anything. Only Magdalene sets my heart aflame. I write poems for her. I give them to her at John’s tavern, before our sessions, so that she may not praise them out of fear. Hundreds of verses written over moonless midnights and not a single one she likes. I beat her senseless during our congregation but for her poems should rhyme.
“My hair, black wires?”
“That is not what I meant at all.”
“Why can't you just mount me like he does?”
I beat her but never break her will. She chose him over me, and she is not the kind who changes choices.
Yesterday, Joshua pushed me to make four crosses. He was not feeling well. I made three, he only paid me half my daily wage. Enough for wine but not for dinner. If only I owned the carpenter’s shop.
Last night I had a nightmare. I was a titanic creature with the whole of Israel on my shoulders. Everyone shouted at me, begged me not to fail. I wanted to cry to them, so that they may help me bear the burden. But I had no voice. I carried the weight, and my back gave. Everybody died. The rest of my dream I was immobile on the floor, with nothing to do but recall my sessions with Magdalene.
I wake up and it is day. The sun molests me on the floor. I am in my room. I get up and stare at my bed. I drank last night, but did not get to eat. In the next room, my father is crying for my dead mother. I work up my strength and make it to the kitchen. I fall on my knees and flat on my face. I hear no choir of angels.
When I wake it is my father’s gaze that caresses me. Like in my nightmare I cannot move—even my arms and legs. I tell him to grope my pocket, for the silver coin. He finds it then gives me soup.
With my father staring at me, I cannot think of Magdalene. My father, he used to be a scribe. He taught me everything he knew. Now termites have almost hollowed him out. He teaches me nothing. I ejaculate a prayer. I ask for lamb.
My father goes to find fresh meat and I think about Magdalene. I killed a man for her, but failed to protect her from a mob. She will never forgive that. I will never stop begging for her forgiveness.
It is he! It is he that poisons her against me. He presses his lips against her, and she loves the lies he says. He proclaims great wonders and among the crowd she cheers him. Him! He who never speaks to me but to command. He who makes me do all the work so that he might preach. This is not jealousy. I just want her with me again. He can keep the crowd.
And the coming wrath of the Romans. Carpenters can only be so useful. And a carpenter who preaches—not so much.
But he saved her. I did not. I abandoned her. My heart crushed my lungs and broke my ribs, beating as it did that day. I used a cross. I used a cross to kill her father. He was going to marry her off, to some fisherman! I was a scribe’s son! I faced him, Jesse son of David, at his own shop. He was Magdalene’s father, and she was there watching with her sister. I only meant to spirit her away. But he had a knife. I knocked it from his hand. He strangled me. I kicked him away. He threw all his tools at me: hammer, plane, chisel. He was a good shot. I cried blood and went blind. But the last I saw was his triumphant pose. I charged at him, felt him fell. I grabbed a hand and ran. I dragged Veronica through half the town before I realized who she was. When I got to Magdalene he had already saved her, and I had already lost her love. Her father was dead, his skull cracked open by a cross—the last thing he ever got to work on.
My vision back, I learned about the crowd that almost stoned her. About Joshua’s heroism. Magdalene would not speak to me. I lost my vision once more, this time to tears. I cried for two days and three nights. When my mother died a week later, I could not cry. I no longer have tears.
My father returns, disturbing my sadness. He has the lamb I want. Roast. I can only open my mouth and chew. He feeds me. He brings wine to my lips. Once, when we were young and he was still my equal, Joshua, I, and our friends went to a wedding. We brought our own wine, as Boaz and Ruth had already announced they were only going to serve water. Joshua convinced me to mix the wine with the water. I had contaminated seven jars before I was caught. All our friends left me. Joshua stayed. We were both punished. We were twelve. Now I am thirty-three. I no longer know how old he is.
I finish the lamb and my father takes away the dishes. He tells me he met Joshua at the marketplace. Joshua had just finished preaching. He told father that I no longer have a job. Joshua was leaving carpentry for good. He was closing shop. “With him out and Jesse long dead, how are the Romans to crucify us?” Father laughs and toys with my hair. “Good night, son.”
“The sun is still up father.”
He laughs and he leaves me lying.
Paralyzed I suddenly dread recovering. Maybe I can finally set up my own shop. No. We no longer have money. Father is no longer a scribe. I should have been a scribe. Joshua, he speaks well. Sometimes, when I see him in the marketplace, preaching, I join the mob and listen. Sometimes, he makes sense. Once, one of his teachings I came to believe. I forget now, which one it is.
We met a lifetime ago. I was nine. My uncles brought me near a river. I thought they were going to teach me to swim. They threw me in and left. Joshua knew how to swim. He saw me. I was sinking but could not bring myself to shout for help. He saved me. A nasty habit of his, saving those in need. Now he says he is going to save the world.
He introduced me to Magdalene and became cold when I failed her. He wanted me for her for me. Now he just wants her for himself. I met him near the river, a week after I killed Jesse.
“She wants no part you.”
“She just needs time on her own.”
He shook his head.
I had a letter for her. “Please give her this.” I handed it to him.
He took it. “She does not know how to read.”
“She must know, please. Tell her I love her.”
He nodded, threw my letter to the river and went away.
My mother died. My father gave everything up. I was forced to destroy my hands to make instruments of torture, so I could have silver to pay for an hour with the woman I love. Now I am alone, unable to move—unable to feel my extremities. Unable to feel. I wonder, always I have wondered, if Joshua did deliver my message. The bitterness brings me sleep.
When I wake up, I can feel my arms and legs again. I try sitting up, and succeed. Night has fallen. From my bed I stare at the moon. It fills my room with light. The door rasps open.
“You should sleep.”
“I just woke up.”
Father sets a plate and cup on the table. “Do not lie.”
“Do not start.”
“She does not love you. Not anymore.”
“My heart tells me different.”
“Eat your lamb. She never loved you anyway. She just wanted her father dead.” His breathing is difficult. “And she belongs with him now. Perhaps she always has.”
I get up from bed and throw the wine at him. A puddle forms on the floor. He stares at this, then at me. He leaves and I return to lie. Curse you Joshua! Where will I find money to buy her servitude? If I can no longer pay for her performance at the tavern, what opportunity will I have to convince her to run away with me?
Magdalene. I stare at the moon and see your face.
Once I asked her to pretend that she was she, I was I, and we were back together. She refused. I offered to pay her double. She asked me to leave. “Triple!” She wailed. “I am a whore,” she said, “but you do not own me.”
I stare at the moon and stroke myself. My bed creaks and I whisper your name. I am hard now. “What must I do to know what you are?” I am masturbating and my penis is pain. I will swallow my sperm tonight. I will do so until you are with me again. I position my mouth—
I hear a rasp. And a gasp. My father. He has come back with a rag for the puddle. He closes the door. I ejaculate. My father’s gaze crucifies me. And I cry. But it is not tears that flow down my cheeks. It is sperm. All the sperm in my body. All the sperm I would have produced. It is a stream of sperm. A river. I am completely wet. The room is flooded with sperm. The level rises. Rises. I am submerged in sperm and so is my father. He opens his mouth and swallows my sperm. His eyes are gone. I see everything. Joshua. The crosses. Magdalene. I shout. My sperm enters my mouth and comes out my eyes, my ears, my nose, my anus. I do not stop crying for a long time and by the time I do half of Israel’s women are pregnant.
September 27, 2004