Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
Since my escape attempt, I can't get the angel to leave the room at all. Not even for his beloved Soap Opera Digest. (And yes, when he left to obtain the first one, it would have been a good time to make my escape, but I wasn't thinking that way then, so back off.) Today I tried to get him to bring me a map.
"Because no one is going to know the places I'm writing about, that's why," I told him. "You want me to write in this idiom so people will understand what I'm saying, then why use the names of places that have been gone for thousands of years? I need a map."
"No," said the angel.
"When I say the journey was two months by camel, what will that mean to these people who can cross an ocean in hours? I need to know modern distances."
"No," said the angel.
(Did you know that in a hotel they bolt the bedside lamp to the table, thereby making it an ineffective instrument of persuasion when trying to bring an obdurate angel around to your way of thinking? Thought you should know that. Pity too, it's such a substantial lamp.)
"But how will I recount the heroic acts of the archangel Raziel if I can't tell the locations of his deeds? What, you want me to write, 'Oh, then somewhere generally to the left of the Great Wall that rat-bastard Raziel showed up looking like hell considering he may have traveled a long distance or not?' Is that what you want? Or should it read, 'Then, only a mile out of the port of Ptolemais, we were once again graced with the shining magnificence of the archangel Raziel? Huh, which way do you want it?"
(I know what you're thinking, that the angel saved my life when Titus threw me off the ship and that I should be more forgiving toward him, right? That I shouldn't try to manipulate a poor creature who was given an ego but no free will or capacity for creative thought, right? Okay, good point. But do please remember that the angel only intervened on my behalf because Joshua was praying for my rescue. And do please remember that he could have saved us a lot of difficulty over the years if he had helped us out more often. And please don't forget that - despite the fact that he is perhaps the most handsome creature I've ever laid eyes on - Raziel is a stone doofus. Nevertheless, the ego stroke worked.)
"I'll get you a map."
And he did. Unfortunately the concierge was only able to find a map of the world provided by an airline that partners with the hotel. So who knows how accurate it is. On this map the next leg of our journey is six inches long and would cost thirty thousand Friendly Flyer Miles. I hope that clears things up.
The trader's name was Ahmad Mahadd Ubaidullaganji, but he said we could call him Master. We called him Ahmad. He led us through the city to a hillside where his caravan was camped. He owned a hundred camels which he drove along the Silk Road, along with a dozen men, two goats, three horses, and an astonishingly homely woman named Kanuni. He took us to his tent, which was larger than both the houses Joshua and I had grown up in. We sat on rich carpets and Kanuni served us stuffed dates and wine from a pitcher shaped like a dragon.
"So, what does the Son of God want with my friend Balthasar?" Ahmad asked. Before we could answer he snorted and laughed until his shoulders shook and he almost spilled his wine. He had a round face with high cheekbones and narrow black eyes that crinkled at the corners from too much laughter and desert wind. "I'm sorry, my friends, but I've never been in the presence of the son of a god before. Which god is your father, by the way?"
"Well, the God," I said.
"Yep," said Joshua. "That's the one."
"And what is your God's name?"
"Dad," said Josh.
"We're not supposed to say his name."
"Dad!" said Ahmad. "I love it." He started giggling again. "I knew you were Hebrews and weren't allowed to say your God's name, I just wanted to see if you would. Dad. That's rich."
"I don't mean to be rude," I said, "and we are certainly enjoying the refreshments, but it's getting late and you said you would take us to see Balthasar."
"And indeed I will. We leave in the morning."
"Leave for where?" Josh asked.
"Kabul, the city where Balthasar lives now."
I had never heard of Kabul, and I sensed that was not a good thing. "And how far is Kabul?"
"We should be there in less than two months by camel," Ahmad said.
If I knew then what I know now, I might have stood and exclaimed, "Tarnation, man, that's over six inches and thirty thousand Friendly Flyer Miles!" But since I didn't know that then, what I said was "Shit."
"I will take you to Kabul," said Ahmad, "but what can you do to help pay your way?"
"I know carpentry," Joshua said. "My stepfather taught me how to fix a camel saddle."
"And you?" He looked at me. "What can you do?"
I thought about my experience as a stonecutter, and immediately rejected it. And my training as a village idiot, which I thought I could always fall back on, wasn't going to help either. I did have my newfound skill as a sex educator, but somehow I didn't think there'd be call for that on a two-month trip with fourteen men and one homely woman. So what could I do, what skill had I to gentle the road to Kabul?
"If someone in the caravan croaks I'm a great mourner," I said. "Want to hear a dirge?"
Ahmad laughed until he shook, then called for Kanuni to bring him his satchel. Once he had it in hand, he dug inside and pulled out the dried newts he'd bought from the old hag. "Here, you'll be needing these," he said.
Camels bite. A camel will, for no reason, spit on you, stomp you, kick you, bellow, burp, and fart at you. They are stubborn at their best, and cranky beyond all belief at their worst. If you provoke them, they will bite. If you insert a dehydrated amphibian elbow-deep in a camel's bum, he considers himself provoked, doubly so if the procedure was performed while he was sleeping. Camels are wise to stealth. They bite.
"I can heal that," Joshua said, looking at the huge tooth marks on my forehead. We were following Ahmad's caravan along the Silk Road, which was neither a road nor made of silk. It was, in fact, a narrow path through the rocky inhospitable highland desert of what is now Syria into the low, inhospitable desert of what is now Iraq.
"He said sixty days by camel. Doesn't that mean that we should be riding, not walking?"
"You're missing your camel pals, aren't you?" Josh grinned, that snotty, Son-o'-God grin of his. Maybe it was just a regular grin.
"I'm just tired. I was up half the night sneaking up on these guys."
"I know," said Joshua. "I had to get up at dawn to fix one of the saddles before we left. Ahmad's tools leave something to be desired."
"You go ahead and be the martyr, Josh, just forget about what I was doing all night. I'm just saying that we should get to ride instead of walking."
"We will," Josh said. "Just not now."
The men in the caravan were all riding, although several of them, as well as Kanuni, were on horses. The camels were loaded down with great packs of iron tools, powdered dyes, and sandalwood bound for the Orient. At the first highland oasis we crossed, Ahmad traded the horses for four more camels, and Joshua and I were allowed to ride. At night we ate with the rest of the men, sharing boiled grain or bread with sesame paste, the odd bit of cheese, mashed chickpeas and garlic, occasionally goat meat, and sometimes the dark hot drink we had discovered in Antioch (mixed with date sugar and topped with foaming goat's milk and cinnamon at my suggestion). Ahmad dined alone in his tent, while the rest of us would dine under the open awning that we constructed to shelter us from the hottest part of the day. In the desert, the day gets warmer as it gets later, so the hottest part of the day will be in the late afternoon, just before sundown brings the hot winds to leach the last moisture from your skin.
None of Ahmad's men spoke Aramaic or Hebrew, but they had enough functional Latin and Greek to tease Joshua and me about any number of subjects, their favorite, of course, being my job as chief camel deconstipator. The men hailed from a half-dozen different lands, many we had never heard of. Some were as black as Ethiopians, with high foreheads and long, graceful limbs, while others were squat and bowlegged, with powerful shoulders, high cheekbones, and long wispy mustaches like Ahmad's. Not one of them was fat or weak or slow. Before we were a week out of Antioch we figured out that it only took a couple of men to care for and guide a caravan of camels, so we were perplexed at why someone as shrewd as Ahmad would bring along so many superfluous employees.
"Bandits," Ahmad said, adjusting his bulk to find a more comfortable position atop his camel. "I'd need no more than a couple of dolts like you two if it was just the animals that needed tending. They're guards. Why did you think they were all carrying bows and lances?"
"Yeah," I said, giving Joshua a dirty look, "didn't you see the lances? They're guards. Uh, Ahmad, shouldn't Josh and I have lances - I mean, when we get to the bandit area?"
"We've been followed by bandits for five days now," Ahmad said.
"We don't need lances," Joshua said. "I will not make a man sin by committing an act of thievery. If a man would have something of mine, he need only ask and I will give it to him."
"Give me the rest of your money," I said.
"Forget it," said Joshua.
"But you just said - "
"Yeah, but not to you."
Most nights Joshua and I slept in the open, outside Ahmad's tent, or if the night was especially cold, among the camels, where we would endure their grunting and snorting to get out of the wind. The guards slept in two-man tents, except for two who stood guard all night. Many nights, long after the camp was quiet, Joshua and I would lie looking up at the stars and pondering the great questions of life.
"Josh, do you think the bandits will rob us and kill us, or just rob us?"
"Rob us, then kill us, I would think," said Josh. "Just in case they missed something that we had hidden, they could torture its whereabouts out of us."
"Good point," I said.
"Do you think Ahmad has sex with Kanuni?" Joshua asked.
"I know he does. He told me he does."
"What do you think it's like? With them I mean? Him so fat and her so, you know?"
"Frankly, Joshua, I'd rather not think about it. But thanks for putting that picture in my head."
"You mean you can imagine them together?"
"Stop it, Joshua. I can't tell you what sin is like. You're going to have to do it yourself. What's next? I'll have to murder someone so I can explain what it's like to kill?"
"No, I don't want to kill."
"Well, that might be one you have to do, Josh. I don't think the Romans are going to go away because you ask them to."
"I'll find a way. I just don't know it yet."
"Wouldn't it be funny if you weren't the Messiah? I mean if you abstained from knowing a woman your whole life, only to find out that you were just a minor prophet?"
"Yeah, that would be funny," said Josh. He wasn't smiling.
"Kind of funny?"
The journey seemed to go surprisingly fast once we knew we were being followed by bandits. It gave us something to talk about and our backs stayed limber, as we were always twisting in our saddles and checking the horizon. I was almost sad when they finally, after ten days on our trail, decided to attack.
Ahmad, who was usually at the front of the caravan, fell back and rode beside us. "The bandits will ambush us inside that pass just ahead," he said.
The road snaked into a canyon with steep slopes on either side topped by rows of huge boulders and wind-eroded towers. "They're hiding in those boulders on top of either ridge," Ahmad said. "Don't stare, you'll give us away."
Joshua said, "If you know that they're going to attack, why not pull up and defend ourselves?"
"They will attack one way or another anyway. Better an ambush we know about than one we don't. And they don't know we know."
I noticed the squat guards with the mustaches take short bows from pouches behind their saddles, and as subtly as a man might brush a cobweb from his eyelash, they strung the bows. If you'd been watching them from a distance you'd have hardly seen them move.
"What do you want us to do?" I asked Ahmad.
"Try not to get killed. Especially you, Joshua. Balthasar will be very angry indeed if I show up with you dead."
"Wait," said Joshua, "Balthasar knows we are coming?"
"Why, yes," laughed Ahmad. "He told me to look for you. What, you think I help every pair of runts that wander into the market at Antioch?"
"Runts?" I had momentarily forgotten about the ambush.
"How long ago did he tell you to look for us?"
"I don't know, right after he first left Antioch for Kabul, maybe ten years ago. It doesn't matter now, I have to get back to Kanuni, bandits scare her."
"Let them get a good look at her," I said. "We'll see who scares who."
"Don't look at the ridges," Ahmad said as he rode away.
The bandits came down the sides of the canyon like a synchronized avalanche, driving their camels to the edge of balance, pushing a river of rocks and sand before them. There were twenty-five, maybe thirty of them, all dressed in black, half of them on camels waving swords or clubs, the other half on foot with long spears for gutting a camel rider.
When they were committed to the charge, all of them sliding down the hillsides, the guards broke our caravan in the middle, leaving an empty spot in the road where the bandits' charge would culminate. Their momentum was so great that the bandits were unable to change direction. Three of their camels went down trying to pull back.
Our guards moved into two groups, three in the front with the long lances, the bowmen just behind them. When the bowmen were set they let arrows fly into the bandits, and as each fell he took two or three of his cohorts down with him, until in seconds the charge had turned into an actual avalanche of rolling stones and men and camels. The camels bellowed and we could hear bones snapping and men screaming as they rolled into a bloody mass on the Silk Road. As each man rose and tried to charge our guards an arrow would drop him in his tracks. One bandit came up mounted on a camel and rode toward the back of the caravan, where the three lancers drove him from his mount in a spray of blood. Every movement in the canyon was met with an arrow. One bandit with a broken leg tried to crawl back up the canyon wall, and an arrow in the back of his skull cut him down.
I heard a wailing behind me and before I could turn Joshua rode by me at full gallop, passing the bowmen and the lancers at our side of the caravan, bound for the mass of dead and dying bandits. He slung himself off his camel's back and was running around the bodies like a madman, waving his arms and screaming until I could hear the rasp as his throat went raw.
"Stop this! Stop this!"
One bandit moved, trying to get to his feet, and our bowmen drew back to cut him down. Joshua threw his body on top of the bandit and pushed him back to the ground. I heard Ahmad give the command to hold.
A cloud of dust floated out of the canyon on the gentle desert breeze. A camel with a broken leg bellowed and an arrow in the eye put the animal to rest. Ahmad snatched a lance out of one of the guard's hands and rode to where Joshua was shielding the wounded bandit.
"Move, Joshua," Ahmad said, holding the lance at ready. "This must be finished."
Joshua looked around him. All of the bandits and all of their animals were dead. Blood ran in rivulets in the dust. Already flies were collecting to feast. Joshua walked through the field of dead bandits until his chest was pressed against the bronze point of Ahmad's lance. Tears streamed down Joshua's face. "This was wrong!" he screeched.
"They were bandits. They would have killed us and stolen everything we had if we had not killed them. Does your own God, your father, not destroy those who sin? Now move aside, Joshua. Let this be finished."
"I am not my father, and neither are you. You will not kill this man."
Ahmad lowered the lance and shook his head balefully. "He will only die anyway, Joshua." I could sense the guards fidgeting, not knowing what to do.
"Give me your water skin," Joshua said.
Ahmad threw the water skin down to Joshua, then turned his camel and rode back to where the guards waited for him. Joshua took the water to the wounded bandit and held his head as he drank. An arrow protruded from the bandit's stomach and his black tunic was shiny with blood. Joshua put his hand gently over the bandit's eyes, as if he were telling him to go to sleep, then he yanked out the arrow and tossed it aside. The bandit didn't even flinch. Joshua put his hand over the wound.
From the time that Ahmad had ordered them to hold fire, none of the guards had moved. They watched. After a few minutes the bandit sat up and Joshua stepped away from him and smiled. In that instant an arrow sprouted from the bandit's forehead and he fell back, dead.
"No!" Joshua wheeled around to face Ahmad's side of the caravan. The guard who had shot still held the bow, as if he might have to let fly another arrow to finish the job. Howling with rage, Joshua made a gesture as if he were striking the air with his open hand and the guard was lifted back off his camel and slammed into the ground. "No more!" Joshua screamed. When the guard sat up in the dirt his eyes were like silver moons in their sockets. He was blind.
Later, when neither of us had spoken for two days, and Joshua and I were relegated to riding far behind the caravan because the guards were afraid of us, I took a drink from my water skin, then handed it to Joshua. He took a drink and handed it back.
"Thank you," Josh said. He smiled and I knew he'd be all right.
"Hey Joshua, do me a favor."
"Remind me not to piss you off, okay?"
The city of Kabul was built on five rugged hillsides, with the streets laid out in terraces and the buildings built partly into the hills. There was no evidence of Roman or Greek influence in the architecture, but instead the larger buildings had tile roofs that turned up at the corners, a style that Joshua and I would see all over Asia before our journey was finished. The people were mostly rugged, wiry people who looked like Arabs without the glow in their skin that came from a diet rich in olive oil. Instead their faces seemed leaner, drawn by the cold, dry wind of the high desert. In the market there were merchants and traders from China, and more men who looked like Ahmad and his bowmen guards, a race whom the Chinese referred to simply as barbarians.
"The Chinese are so afraid of my people that they have built a wall, as high as any palace, as wide as the widest boulevard in Rome, and stretching as far as the eye can see ten times over," Ahmad said.
"Uh-huh," I said, thinking, you lying bag-o'-guts.
Joshua hadn't spoken to Ahmad since the bandit attack, but he smirked at Ahmad's story of the great wall.
"Just so," said Ahmad. "We will stay at an inn tonight. Tomorrow I will take you to Balthasar. If we leave early we can be there by noon, then you'll be the magician's problem, not mine. Meet me in front at dawn."
That night the innkeeper and his wife served us a dinner of spiced lamb and rice, with some sort of beer made from rice, which washed two months of desert grit from our throats and put a pleasant haze over our minds. To save money, we paid for pallets under the wide curving eaves of the inn, and although it was some comfort to have a roof over my head for the first time in months, I found that I missed looking at the stars as I fell asleep. I lay awake, half drunk, for a long time. Joshua slept the sleep of the innocent.
The next day Ahmad met us in front of the inn with two of his African guards and two extra camels in tow. "Come on, now. This may be the end of your journey, but it is merely a detour for me," Ahmad said. He threw us each a crust of bread and a hunk of cheese, which I took to mean we were to eat our breakfast on the way.
We rode out of Kabul and into the hills until we entered a labyrinth of canyons, which meandered through rugged mountains that looked as if they might have been shaped by God out of clay, then left to bake in the sun until the clay had turned to a deep golden color that reflected light in a spray that ate up shadows and destroyed shade. By noon I had no sense whatsoever of what direction we were traveling, nor could I have sworn that we weren't retracing our path through the same canyons over and over, but Ahmad's black guards seemed to know their way. Eventually they led us around a bend to a sheer canyon wall, two hundred feet tall, that stood out from the other canyon walls in that there were windows and balconies carved into it. It was a palace hewn out of solid rock. At the base stood an ironclad door that looked as if it would take twenty men to move.
"Balthasar's house," Ahmad said, prodding his camel to kneel down so he might dismount.
Joshua nudged me with his riding stick. "Hey, is this what you expected?"
I shook my head. "I don't know what I expected. Maybe something a little - I don't know - smaller."
"Could you find your way back out of these canyons if you had to?" Joshua asked.
"Not a chance."
Ahmad waddled over to the great door and pulled a cord that hung down from a hole in the wall. Somewhere inside we heard the ringing of some great bell. (Only later would we learn that it was the sound of a gong.) A smaller door within the door opened and a girl stuck her head out. "What?" She had the round face and high cheekbones of an Oriental, and there were great blue wings painted on her face above her eyes.
"It's Ahmad. Ahmad Mahadd Ubaidullaganji. I've brought Balthasar the boy he has been waiting for." Ahmad gestured in our direction.
The girl looked skeptical. "Scrawny. You sure that's the one?"
"That's the one. Tell Balthasar he owes me."
"Who's that with him?"
"That's his stupid friend. No extra charge for him."
"You bring the monkey's paws?" the girl asked.
"Yes, and the other herbs and minerals Balthasar asked for."
"Okay, wait here." She closed the door, was gone only a second, then returned. "Send just the two of them in, alone. Balthasar must examine them, then he will deal with you."
"There's no need to be mysterious, woman, I've been in Balthasar's house a hundred times. Now quit dilly-dallying and open the door."
"Silence!" the girl shouted. "The great Balthasar will not be mocked. Send in the boys, alone." Then she slammed the little door and we could hear her cackling echo out the windows above.
Ahmad shook his head in disgust and waved us over to the door. "Just go. I don't know what he's up to, but just go."
Joshua and I dismounted, took our packs off the camels, and edged over to the huge door. Joshua looked at me as if wondering what to do, then reached for the cord to ring the bell, but as he did, the door creaked open just wide enough for one of us to enter if we turned sideways. It was pitch black inside except for a narrow stripe of light, which told us nothing. Joshua again looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
"I'm just the stupid no-extra-charge friend," I said, bowing. "After you."
Joshua moved though the door and I followed. When we were inside only a few feet, the huge door slammed with a sound like thunder and we stood there in complete darkness. I'm sure I could feel things scurrying around my feet in the dark.
There was a bright flash and a great column of red smoke rose in front of us, illuminated by a light coming from the ceiling somewhere. It smelled of brimstone and stung my nose. Joshua coughed and we both backed against the door as a figure stepped out of the smoke. He - it - stood as tall as any two men, although he was thin. He wore a long purple robe, embroidered with strange symbols in gold and silver, hooded, so we saw no face, only glowing red eyes set back in a field of black. He held a bright lamp out as if to examine us by the light.
"Satan," I said under my breath to Joshua, pressing my back against the great iron door so hard that I could feel rust flakes imbedding in my skin through my tunic.
"It's not Satan," Joshua said.
"Who would disturb the sanctity of my fortress?" boomed the figure. I nearly wet myself at hearing his voice.
"I'm Joshua of Nazareth," Joshua said, trying to be casual, but his voice broke on Nazareth. "And this is Biff, also of Nazareth. We're looking for Balthasar. He came to Bethlehem, where I was born, many years ago looking for me. I have to ask him some questions."
"Balthasar is no more of this world." The dark figure reached into his robe and pulled out a glowing dagger, which he held high, then plunged into his own chest. There was an explosion, a flash, and an anguished roar, as if someone had killed a lion. Joshua and I turned and frantically scratched at the iron door, looking for a latch. We were both making an incoherent terrorized sound that I can only describe as the verbal version of running, sort of an extended rhythmic howl that paused only when the last of each lungful of air squeaked out of us.
Then I heard the laughing and Joshua grabbed my arm. The laughing got louder. Joshua swung me around to face death in purple. As I turned the dark figure threw back his hood and I saw the grinning black face and shaved head of a man - a very tall man, but a man nonetheless. He threw open the robe and I could see that it was, indeed, a man. A man who had been standing on the shoulders of two young Asian women who had been hiding beneath the very long robe.
"Just fuckin' with you," he said. Then he giggled.
He leapt off of the women's shoulders and took a deep breath before doubling over and hugging himself with laughter. Tears streamed out of his big chestnut eyes.
"You should have seen the look on your faces. Girls, did you see that?" The women, who wore simple linen robes, didn't seem as amused as the man. They looked embarrassed and a little impatient, as if they'd rather be anywhere else, doing anything but this.
"Balthasar?" Joshua asked.
"Yeah," said Balthasar, who stood up now and was only a little taller than I was. "Sorry, I don't get many visitors. So you're Joshua?"
"Yes," Joshua said, an edge in his voice.
"I didn't recognize you without the swaddling clothes. And this is your servant?"
"My friend, Biff."
"Same thing. Bring your friend. Come in. The girls will attend to Ahmad for the time being." He stalked off down a corridor into the mountain, his long purple robe trailing behind him like the tail of a dragon.
We stood there by the door, not moving, until we realized that once Balthasar turned a corner with his lamp we'd be in darkness again, so we took off after him.
As we ran down the corridor, I thought of how far we had traveled, and what we had left behind, and I felt as if I was going to be sick to my stomach any second. "Wise man?" I said to Joshua.
"My mother has never lied to me," said Josh.
"That you know of," I said.