Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal

Chapter 12


Chapter 12
Well, by pretending to have an overactive bladder, I've managed to sneak enough time in the bathroom to finish reading this Gospel of Matthew. I don't know who the Matthew is that wrote this, but it certainly wasn't our Matthew. While our Matthew was a whiz at numbers (as you might expect from a tax collector), he couldn't write his own name in the sand without making three mistakes. Whoever wrote this Gospel obviously got the information at least secondhand, maybe thirdhand. I'm not here to criticize, but please, he never mentions me. Not once. I know my protests go against the humility that Joshua taught, but please, I was his best friend. Not to mention the fact that this Matthew (if that really is his name) takes great care in describing Joshua's genealogy back to King David, but after Joshua is born and the three wise men show up at the stable in Bethlehem, then you don't hear from Joshua again until he's thirty. Thirty! As if nothing happened from the manger until John baptized us. Jeez.
Anyway, now I know why I was brought back from the dead to write this Gospel. If the rest of this "New Testament" is anything like the book of Matthew, they need someone to write about Joshua's life who was actually there: me.
I can't believe I wasn't even mentioned once. It's all I can do to keep from asking Raziel what in the hell happened. He probably showed up a hundred years too late to correct this Matthew fellow. Oh my, there's a frightening thought, edited by the moron angel. I can't let that happen.
And the ending? Where did he get that?
I'll see what this next guy, this Mark, has to say, but I'm not getting my hopes up.
The first thing that we noticed about Balthasar's fortress was that there were no right angles, no angles period, only curves. As we followed the magus through corridors, and from level to level, we never saw so much as a squared-off stair step, instead there were spiral ramps leading from level to level, and although the fortress spread all over the cliff face, no room was more than one doorway away from a window. Once we were above the ground level, there was always light from the windows and the creepy feeling we'd had when we entered quickly passed away. The stone of the walls was more yellow in color than the limestone of Jerusalem, yet it had the same smooth appearance. Overall it gave the impression that you were walking through the polished entrails of some huge living creature.
"Did you build this place, Balthasar?" I asked.
"Oh, no," he said, without turning around. "This place was always here, I simply had to remove the stone that occupied it."
"Oh," I said, having gained no knowledge whatsoever.
We passed no doors, but myriad open archways and round portals which opened into chambers of various shapes and sizes. As we passed one egg-shaped doorway obscured by a curtain of beads Balthasar mumbled, "The girls stay in there."
"Girls?" I said.
"Girls?" Joshua said.
"Yes, girls, you ninnies," Balthasar said. "Humans much like yourselves, except smarter and better smelling."
Well, I knew that. I mean, we'd seen the two of them, hadn't we? I knew what girls were.
He pressed on until we came to the only other door I had seen since we entered, this one another huge, ironclad monster held closed with three iron bolts as big around as my arm and a heavy brass lock engraved with strange characters. The magus stopped and tilted an ear to the door. His heavy gold earring clinked against one of the bolts. He turned to us and whispered, and for the first time I could clearly see that the magus was very old, despite the strength of his laugh and the spring in his step. "You may go anywhere you wish while you stay here, but you must never open this door. Xiong zai."
"Xiong zai," I repeated to Joshua in case he'd missed it.
"Xiong zai." He nodded with total lack of understanding.
Mankind, I suppose, is designed to run on - to be motivated by - temptation. If progress is a virtue then this is our greatest gift. (For what is curiosity if not intellectual temptation? And what progress is there without curiosity?) On the other hand, can you call such a profound weakness a gift, or is it a design flaw? Is temptation itself at fault for man's woes, or is it simply the lack of judgment in response to temptation? In other words, who is to blame? Mankind, or a bad designer? Because I can't help but think that if God had never told Adam and Eve to avoid the fruit of the tree of knowledge, that the human race would still be running around naked, dancing in wonderment and blissfully naming stuff between snacks, naps, and shags. By the same token, if Balthasar had passed that great ironclad door that first day without a word of warning, I might have never given it a second glance, and once again, much trouble could have been avoided. Am I to blame for what happened, or is it the author of temptation, God Hisownself?
Balthasar led us into a grand chamber with silks festooned from the ceiling and the floor covered with fine carpets and pillows. Wine, fruit, cheese, and bread were laid out on several low tables.
"Rest and refresh," said Balthasar. "I'll be back after I finish my business with Ahmad." Then he hurried off, leaving us alone.
"So," I said, "find out what you need to from this guy, then we can get on the road and on to the next wise man."
"I'm not sure it's going to be that quick. In fact, we may be here quite some time. Maybe years."
"Years? Joshua, we're in the middle of nowhere, we can't spend years here."
"Biff, we grew up in the middle of nowhere. What's the difference?"
"Girls," I said.
"What about them?" Joshua asked.
"Don't start."
We heard laughter rolling down the corridor into the room and shortly it was followed by Balthasar and Ahmad, who threw themselves down among the pillows and began eating the cheeses and fruits that had been set out.
"So," Balthasar said, "Ahmad tells me that you tried to save a bandit, and in the process blinded one of his men, without so much as touching him. Very impressive."
Joshua hung his head. "It was a massacre."
"Grieve," Balthasar said, "but consider also the words of the master Lao-tzu: 'Weapons are instruments of misfortune. Those who are violent do not die naturally.'"
"Ahmad," Joshua said, "what will happen to the guard, the one I..."
"He is no good to me anymore," said Ahmad. "A shame too, he was the best bowman of the lot. I'll leave him in Kabul. He's asked me to give his pay to his wife in Antioch and his other wife in Dunhuang. I suppose he will become a beggar."
"Who is Lao-tzu?" I asked.
"You will have plenty of time to learn of master Lao-tzu," said Balthasar. "Tomorrow I will assign you a tutor to teach you qi, the path of the Dragon's Breath, but for now, eat and rest."
"Can you believe a Chinaman can be so black?" laughed Ahmad. "Have you ever seen such a thing?"
"I wore the leopard skin of the shaman when your father was just a twinkle in the great river of stars, Ahmad. I mastered animal magic before you were old enough to walk, and I had learned all the secrets of the sacred Egyptian magic texts before you could sprout a beard. If immortality is to be found among the wisdom of the Chinese masters, then I shall be Chinese as long as it suits me, no matter the color of my skin or the place of my birth."
I tried to determine Balthasar's age. From what he was claiming he would have to be very old indeed, as Ahmad was not young himself, yet his movements were spry and as far as I could see he had all of his teeth and they were perfect. There was none of the feeble dotage that I'd seen in our elders at home.
"How do you stay so strong, Balthasar?" I asked.
"Magic." He grinned.
"There is no magic but that of the Lord," Joshua said.
Balthasar scratched his chin and replied quietly, "Then presumably none without his consent, eh, Joshua?"
Joshua slouched and stared at the floor.
Ahmad burst out laughing. "His magic isn't so mysterious, boys. Balthasar has eight young concubines to draw the poisons from his old body, that's how he stays young."
"Holy moly! Eight?" I was astounded. Aroused. Envious.
"Does that room with the ironclad door have something to do with your magic?" Joshua asked gravely.
Balthasar stopped grinning. Ahmad looked from Joshua to the magus and back, bewildered.
"Let me show you to your quarters," said Balthasar. "You should wash and rest. Lessons tomorrow. Say good-bye to Ahmad, you'll not see him again soon."
Our quarters were spacious, bigger than the houses we'd grown up in, with carpets on the floor, chairs made of dark exotic hardwoods carved into the shapes of dragons and lions, and a table that held a pitcher and basin for washing. Each of our rooms held a desk and cabinet full of instruments for painting and writing, and something neither of us had ever seen, a bed. A half-wall divided the space between Joshua's room and mine, so we were able to lie in the beds and talk before falling asleep, just as we had in the desert. I could tell that Joshua was deeply troubled about something that first night.
"You seem, I don't know, deeply troubled, Josh."
"It's the bandits. Could I have raised them?"
"All of them? I don't know, could you?"
"I thought about it. I thought that I could make them all walk and breathe again. I thought I could make them live. But I didn't even try."
"Because I was afraid they would have killed us and robbed us if I had. It's what Balthasar said, 'Those who are violent do not die naturally.'"
"The Torah says, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. They were bandits."
"But were they bandits always? Would they have been bandits in the years to come?"
"Sure, once a bandit, always a bandit. They take an oath or something. Besides, you didn't kill them."
"But I didn't save them, and I blinded that bowman. That wasn't right."
"You were angry."
"That's no excuse."
"What do you mean, that's no excuse? You're God's Son. God wiped out everyone on earth with a flood because he was angry."
"I'm not sure that's right."
"'Scuse me?"
"We have to go to Kabul. I need to restore that man's sight if I can."
"Joshua, this bed is the most comfortable place I've ever been. Can we wait to go to Kabul?"
"I suppose."
Joshua was quiet for a long time and I thought that he might have fallen asleep. I didn't want to sleep, but I didn't want to talk about dead bandits either.
"Hey Josh?"
"What do you think is in that room with the iron door, what did he call it?"
"Xiong zai," said Josh.
"Yeah, Xiong zai. What do you think that is?"
"I don't know, Biff. Maybe you should ask your tutor."
Xiong zai means house of doom, in the parlance of feng shui," said Tiny Feet of the Divine Dance of Joyous Orgasm. She knelt before a low stone table that held an earthenware teapot and cups. She wore a red silk robe trimmed with golden dragons and tied with a black sash. Her hair was black and straight and so long that she had tied it in a knot to keep it from dragging on the floor as she served the tea. Her face was heart-shaped, her skin as smooth as polished alabaster, and if she'd ever been in the sun, the evidence had long since faded. She wore wooden sandals held fast by silk ribbons and her feet, as you might guess from her name, were tiny. It had taken me three days of lessons to get the courage up to ask her about the room.
She poured the tea daintily, but without ceremony, as she had each of the previous three days before my lessons. But this time, before she handed it to me, she added to my cup a drop of a potion from a tiny porcelain bottle that hung from a chain around her neck.
"What's in the bottle, Joy?" I called her Joy. Her full name was too ungainly for conversation, and when I'd tried other diminutives (Tiny Feet, Divine Dance, and Orgasm), she hadn't responded positively.
"Poison," Joy said with a smile. The lips of her smile were shy and girlish, but the eyes smiled a thousand years sly.
"Ah," I said, and I tasted the tea. It was rich and fragrant, just as it had been before, but this time there was a hint of bitterness.
"Biff, can you guess what your lesson is today?" Joy asked.
"I thought you would tell me what's in that house of doom room."
"No, that is not the lesson today. Balthasar does not wish you to know what is in that room. Guess again."
My fingers and toes had begun to tingle and I suddenly realized that my scalp had gone numb. "You're going to teach me how to make the fire-powder that Balthasar used the day we arrived?"
"No, silly." Joy's laugh had the musical sound of a clear stream running over rocks. She pushed me lightly on the chest and I fell over backward, unable to move. "Today's lesson is - are you ready?"
I grunted. It was all I could do. My mouth was paralyzed.
"Today's lesson is, if someone puts poison in your tea, don't drink it."
"Uh-huh," I sort of slurred.
"So," Balthasar said, "I see that Tiny Feet of the Divine Dance of Joyous Orgasm has revealed what she keeps in the little bottle around her neck." The magus laughed heartily and leaned back on some cushions.
"Is he dead?" asked Joshua.
The girls laid my paralyzed body on some pillows next to Joshua, then propped me up so I could look at Balthasar. Beautiful Gate of Heavenly Moisture Number Six, who I had only just met and didn't have a nickname for yet, put some drops on my eyes to keep them moist, as I seemed to have lost the ability to blink.
"No," said Balthasar, "he's not dead. He's just relaxed."
Joshua poked me in the ribs and, of course, I didn't respond. "Really relaxed," he said.
Beautiful Gate of Heavenly Moisture Number Six handed Joshua the little vial of eye drops and excused herself. She and the other girls left the room. "Can he see and hear us?" Joshua asked.
"Oh yes, he's completely alert."
"Hey Biff, I'm learning about Chi," Joshua shouted into my ear. "It flows all around us. You can't see it, or hear it, or smell it, but it's there."
"You don't need to shout," said Balthasar. Which is what I would have said, if I could have said anything.
Joshua put some drops in my eyes. "Sorry." Then to Balthasar, "This poison, where did it come from?"
"I studied under a sage in China who had been the emperor's royal poisoner. He taught me this, and many other of the magics of the five elements."
"Why would an emperor need a poisoner?"
"A question that only a peasant would ask."
"An answer that only an ass would give," said Joshua.
Balthasar laughed. "So be it, child of the star. A question asked in earnest deserves an earnest answer. An emperor has many enemies to dispatch, but more important, he has many enemies who would dispatch him. The sage spent most of his time concocting antidotes."
"So there's an antidote to this poison," Joshua said, poking me in the ribs again.
"In good time. In good time. Have some more wine, Joshua. I wish to discuss with you the three jewels of the Tao. The three jewels of the Tao are compassion, moderation, and humility..."
An hour later, four Chinese girls came and picked me up, wiped the floor where I had drooled, and carried me to our quarters. As they passed the great ironclad door I could hear scraping and a voice in my head that said, "Hey kid, open the door," but the girls made no notice of it. Back in my room, the girls bathed me and poured some rich broth into me, then put me to bed and closed my eyes.
I could hear Joshua enter the room and shuffle around preparing for bed. "Balthasar says he will have Joy give you the antidote to the poison soon, but first you have a lesson to learn. He says that this is the Chinese way of teaching. Strange, don't you think?"
Had I been able to make a sound, I would have agreed, yes, indeed it was strange.
So you know:
Balthasar's concubines were eight in number and their names were:
Tiny Feet of the Divine Dance of Joyous Orgasm,
Beautiful Gate of Heavenly Moisture Number Six,
Temptress of the Golden Light of the Harvest Moon,
Delicate Personage of Two Fu Dogs Wrestling Under a Blanket,
Feminine Keeper of the Three Tunnels of Excessive Friendliness,
Silken Pillows of the Heavenly Softness of Clouds,
Pea Pods in Duck Sauce with Crispy Noodle,
and Sue.
And I found myself wondering, as a man does, about origins and motivations and such - as each of the concubines was more beautiful than the last, regardless of what order you put them in, which was weird - so after several weeks passed, and I could no longer stand the curiosity scratching at my brain like a cat in a basket, I waited until one of the rare occasions when I was alone with Balthasar, and I asked.
"Why Sue?"
"Short for Susanna," Balthasar said.
So there you go.
Their full names were somewhat ungainly, and to try to pronounce them in Chinese produced a sound akin to throwing a bag of silverware down a flight of steps (ting, tong, yang, wing, etc.) so Joshua and I called the girls as follows:
Number Six,
Two Fu Dogs,
Pea Pods,
and, of course,
which we couldn't figure out how to shorten.
Except for a group of men who brought supplies from Kabul every two weeks, and while there would do any heavy moving, the eight young women did everything around the fortress. Despite the remoteness and the obvious wealth that the fortress housed, there were no guards. I found that curious.
Over the next week Joy tutored me in the characters that I would need to know to read the Book of the Divine Elixirs or the Nine Tripods of the Yellow Emperor, and the Book of Liquid Pearl in Nine Cycles and of the Nine Elixirs of the Divine Immortals. The plan was that once I became conversant in these two ancient texts, I would be able to assist Balthasar in his quest for immortality. That, by the way, was the reason that we were there, the reason that Balthasar had followed the star to Bethlehem at Joshua's birth, and the reason that he had put Ahmad on notice to look for a Jew seeking the African magus. Balthasar sought immortality, and he believed that Joshua held the key to it. Of course we didn't know that at the time.
My concentration while studying the symbols was particularly acute, helped by the fact that I could not move a muscle. Each morning Two Fu Dogs and Pillows (both named for their voluptuousness, which evidently came with considerable strength) would pull me from bed, squeeze me over the latrine, bathe me, pour some broth into me, then take me to the library and prop me in a chair while Joy lectured on Chinese characters, which she painted with a wet brush on large sheets of slate set on easels. Sometimes the other girls would stay and pose my body into various positions that amused them, and as much as I should have been annoyed by the humiliation, the truth be told, watching Pillows and Two Fu Dogs jiggle in paroxysms of girlish laughter was fast becoming the high point of my paralyzed day.
At midday, Joy would take a break while two or more of the other girls squoze me over the latrine, poured more broth into me, and then teased me mercilessly until Joy returned, clapped her hands, and sent them away well scolded. (Joy was the bull-ox concubine of them all, despite her tiny feet.)
Sometimes during these breaks, Joshua would leave his own lessons and come to the library to visit.
"Why have you painted him blue?" asked Joshua.
"He looks good blue," said Pea Pods. Two Fu Dogs and Tunnels stood by with paintbrushes admiring their work.
"Well, he's not going to be happy with this when he gets the antidote, I can tell you that." Then to me Joshua said, "You know, you do sort of look good blue. Biff, I've appealed to Joy on your behalf, but she says she doesn't think you've learned your lesson yet. You have learned your lesson though, haven't you? Stop breathing for a second if the answer is yes."
I did.
"I thought so." Joshua bent and whispered in my ear. "It's about that room behind the iron door. That's the lesson they want you to learn. I got the feeling that if I asked about it I'd be propped up there next to you." He stood up. "I have to go now. The three jewels to learn, don't you know. I'm on compassion. It's not as hard as it sounds."
Two days later Joy came to my room in the morning with some tea. She pulled the tiny bottle from inside her dragon robe and held it close in front of my eyes. "You see the two small corks, a white one on one side of the vessel and a black one on the other? The black one is the poison I gave you. The white one is the antidote. I think you've learned your lesson."
I drooled in response, while sincerely hoping she hadn't mixed up the corks.
She tipped the little bottle over a teacup, then poured some tea down my throat, with half of it going down the front of my shirt as well. "That will take a while to work. You may experience some discomfort as the poison wears off." Joy dropped the little bottle down into its nest of Chinese cleavage, then kissed me on the forehead and left. If I could, I would have snickered at the blue paint she had on her lips as she walked away. Ha!
"Some discomfort," she had said. For the better part of ten days I'd had no sensation in my body at all, then suddenly things started to work again. Imagine rolling out of your warm bed in the morning into - oh, I don't know - a lake of burning oil.
"Jumpin' Jehoshaphat, Joshua, I'm about to crawl out of my skin here." We were in our quarters, about an hour after I'd taken the antidote. Balthasar had sent Joshua to find me and bring me to the library, supposedly to see how I was doing.
Josh put his hand on my forehead, but instead of the usual calm that accompanied that gesture, it felt as if he'd lain a hot branding iron across my skin. I knocked his hand aside. "Thanks, but it's not helping."
"Maybe a bath," Joshua suggested.
"Tried it. Jeez, this is driving me mad!" I hopped around in a circle because I didn't know what else to do.
"Maybe Balthasar has something that can help," Joshua said.
"Lead on," I said. "I can't just sit here."
We headed off down the corridor, going down several levels on the way to the library. As we descended one of the spiral ramps I grabbed Joshua's arm.
"Josh, look at this ramp, you notice anything?"
He considered the surface and leaned out to look at the sides of the tread. "No. Should I?"
"How about the walls and ceilings, the floors, you notice anything?"
Joshua looked around. "They're all solid rock?"
"Yes, but what else? Look hard. Think of the houses we built in Sepphoris. Now do you notice anything?"
"No tool marks?"
"Exactly," I said. "I spent a lot of time over the last two weeks staring at walls and ceilings with nothing much else to look at. There's not the slightest evidence of a chisel, a pick, a hammer, anything. It's as if these chambers had been carved by the wind over a thousand years, but you know that's not the case."
"So what's your point?" Joshua said.
"My point is that there's more going on with Balthasar and his girls than he lets on."
"We should ask them."
"No, we shouldn't, Josh. Don't you get it? We need to find out what's going on without them knowing that we know."
"Why? Why? Because the last time I asked a question I was poisoned, that's why. And I believe that if Balthasar didn't think you had something that he wants, I'd have never seen the antidote."
"But I don't have anything," said Joshua, honestly.
"You might have something you don't know you have, but you can't just go asking what it is. We need to be devious. Tricky. Sneaky."
"But I'm not good at any of those things."
I put my arm around my friend's shoulders. "Not always so great being the Messiah, huh?"