Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
The angel will tell me nothing of what happened to my friends, of the twelve, of Maggie. All he'll say is that they are dead and that I have to write my own version of the story. Oh, he'll tell me useless angel stories - of how Gabriel disappeared once for sixty years and they found him on earth hiding in the body of a man named Miles Davis, or how Raphael snuck out of heaven to visit Satan and returned with something called a cell phone. (Evidently everyone has them in hell now.) He watches the television and when they show an earthquake or a tornado he'll say, "I destroyed a city with one of those once. Mine was better." I am awash in useless angel prattle, but about my own time I know nothing but what I saw. And when the television makes mention of Joshua, calling him by his Greek name, Raziel changes the channel before I can learn anything.
He never sleeps. He just watches me, watches the television, and eats. He never leaves the room.
Today, while searching for extra towels, I opened one of the drawers and there, beneath a plastic bag meant for laundry, I found a book: Holy Bible, it said on the cover. Thank the Lord I did not take the book from the drawer, but opened it with my back to the angel. There are chapters there that were in no Bible I know. I saw the names of Matthew and John, I saw Romans and Galatians - this is a book of my time.
"What are you doing?" the angel asked.
I covered the Bible and closed the drawer. "Looking for towels. I need to bathe."
"You bathed yesterday."
"Cleanliness is important to my people."
"I know that. What, you think I don't know that?"
"You're not exactly the brightest halo in the bunch."
"Then bathe. And stand away from the television."
"Why don't you go get me some towels?"
"I'll call down to the desk."
And he did. If I am to get a look at that book, I must get the angel to leave the room.
It came to pass that in the village of Japhia, the sister village of Nazareth, that Esther, the mother of one of the priests of the Temple, died of bad air. The Levite priests, or Sadducees, were rich from the tributes we paid to the Temple, and mourners were hired from all the surrounding villages. The families of Nazareth made the journey to the next hill for the funeral, and for the first time, Joshua and I were able to spend time with Maggie as we walked along the road.
"So," she said without looking at us, "have you two been playing with any snakes lately?"
"We've been waiting for the lion to lay down with the lamb," Joshua said. "That's the next part of the prophecy."
"Never mind," I said. "Snakes are for boys. We are almost men. We will begin work after the Feast of Tabernacles. In Sepphoris." I was trying to sound worldly. Maggie seemed unimpressed.
"And you will learn to be a carpenter?" she asked Joshua.
"I will do the work of my father, eventually, yes."
"And you?" she asked me.
"I'm thinking of being a professional mourner. How hard can it be? Tear at your hair, sing a dirge or two, take the rest of the week off."
"His father is a stonemason," Joshua said. "We may both learn that skill." At my urging, my father had offered to take Joshua on as an apprentice if Joseph approved.
"Or a shepherd," I added quickly. "Being a shepherd seems easy. I went with Kaliel last week to tend his flock. The Law says that two must go with the flock to keep an abomination from happening. I can spot an abomination from fifty paces."
Maggie smiled. "And did you prevent any abominations?"
"Oh yes, I kept all of the abominations at bay while Kaliel played with his favorite sheep behind the bushes."
"Biff," Joshua said gravely, "that was the abomination you were supposed to prevent."
"Whoops. Oh well, I think I would make an excellent mourner. Do you know the words to any dirges, Maggie? I'm going to need to learn some dirges."
"I think that when I grow up," Maggie announced, "I shall go back to Magdala and become a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee."
I laughed, "Don't be silly, you are a girl. You can't be a fisherman."
"Yes I can."
"No, you can't. You have to marry and have sons. Are you betrothed, by the way?"
Joshua said: "Come with me, Maggie, and I will make you a fisher of men."
"What the hell does that mean?" Maggie asked.
I grabbed Joshua by the back of his robe and began to drag him away. "Don't pay any attention to him. He's mad. He gets it from his mother. Lovely woman, but a loony. Come now, Josh, let's sing a dirge."
I began improvising what I thought was a good funeral song.
"La-la-la. Oh, we are really, really sad that your mom is dead. Too bad you're a Sadducee and don't believe in an afterlife and your mom is just going to be worm food, la-la. Makes you think that you might want to reconsider, huh? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-wacka-wacka." (It sounded great in Aramaic. Really.)
"You two are silly."
"Gotta go. Mourning to do. See you."
"A fisher of women?" Josh said.
"Fa-la-la-la, don't feel bad - she was old and had no teeth left, la-la-la. Come on, people, you know the words!"
Later, I said, "Josh, you can't keep saying creepy things like that. 'Fisher of men,' you want the Pharisees to stone you? Is that what you want?"
"I'm only doing my father's work. Besides, Maggie is our friend, she wouldn't say anything."
"You're going to scare her away."
"No I won't. She's going to be with us, Biff."
"Are you going to marry her?"
"I don't even know if I'm allowed to marry at all, Biff. Look."
We were topping the hill into Japhia, and we could see the crowd of mourners gathering around the village. Joshua was pointing to a red crest that stood out above the crowd - the helmet crest of a Roman centurion. The centurion was talking to the Levite priest, who was arrayed in white and gold, his white beard reaching past his belt. As we moved into the village we could see twenty or thirty other soldiers watching the crowd.
"Why are they here?"
"They don't like it when we gather," Joshua said, pausing to study the centurion commander. "They are here to see that we don't revolt."
"Why is the priest talking to him?"
"The Sadducee wants to assure the Roman of his influence over us. It wouldn't do to have a massacre on the day of his mother's funeral."
"So he's watching out for us."
"He's watching out for himself. Only for himself."
"You shouldn't say that about a priest of the Temple, Joshua." It was the first time I ever heard Joshua speak against the Sadducees, and it frightened me.
"Today, I think this priest will learn who the Temple belongs to."
"I hate it when you talk like that, Josh. Maybe we should go home."
"Do you remember the dead meadowlark we found?"
"I have a really bad feeling about this."
Joshua grinned at me. I could see gold flecks shining in his eyes. "Sing your dirge, Biff. I think Maggie was impressed by your singing."
"Really? You think so?"
There was a crowd of five hundred outside the tomb. In the front, the men had draped striped shawls over their heads and rocked as they prayed. The women were separated to the back, and except for the wailing of the hired mourners, it was as if they didn't exist. I tried to catch a glimpse of Maggie, but couldn't see her through the crowd. When I turned again, Joshua had wormed his way to the front of the men, where the Sadducee stood beside the corpse of his dead mother, reading from a scroll of the Torah.
The women had wrapped the corpse in linen and anointed it with fragrant oils. I could smell sandalwood and jasmine amid the acrid sweat of the mourners as I made my way to the front and stood by Joshua. He looked past the priest and was staring at the corpse, his eyes narrowed in concentration. He was trembling as if taken by a chill wind.
The priest finished his reading and began to sing, joined by the voices of hired singers who had made the journey all the way from the Temple in Jerusalem.
"It's good to be rich, huh?" I whispered to Joshua, elbowing him in the ribs. He ignored me and balled up his fists at his sides. A vein stood out on his forehead as he burned his gaze on the corpse.
And she moved.
Just a twitch at first. The jerk of her hand under the linen shroud. I think I was the only one who noticed. "No, Joshua, don't," I said.
I looked for the Romans, who were gathered in groups of five at different points around the perimeter of the crowd looking bored, their hands resting on the hafts of their short swords.
The corpse twitched again and raised her arm. There was a gasp in the crowd and a boy screamed. The men started backing away and the women pushed forward to see what was happening. Joshua fell to his knees and pressed his fists to his temples. The priest sang on.
The corpse sat up.
The singers stopped and finally the priest turned to look behind him at his dead mother, who had swung her legs off of the slab and looked as if she was trying to stand. The priest stumbled back into the crowd, clawing at the air before his eyes as if it some vapor was causing this horrible vision.
Joshua was rocking on his knees, tears streaming down his cheeks. The corpse stood, and still covered by the shroud, turned as if she was looking around. I could see that several of the Romans had drawn their swords. I looked around and found the commanding centurion standing on the back of a wagon, giving signals to his men to stay calm. When I looked back I realized that Joshua and I had been deserted by the mourners and we stood out in the empty space.
"Stop it, now, Josh," I whispered in his ear, but he continued to rock and concentrate on the corpse, who took her first step.
The crowd seemed to be transfixed by the walking corpse, but we were too isolated, too alone now with the dead, and I knew it would only be seconds before they noticed Joshua rocking in the dirt. I threw my arm around his throat and dragged him back away from the corpse and into a group of men who were wailing as they backed away.
"Is he all right?" I heard at my ear, and turned to see Maggie standing beside me.
"Help me get him away."
Maggie took one of Joshua's arms and I took the other as we dragged him away. His body was as stiff as a walking staff, and he kept his gaze trained on the corpse.
The dead woman was walking toward her son, the priest, who was backing away, brandishing the scroll like a sword, his eyes as big as saucers.
Finally the woman fell in the dirt, twitched, then lay still. Joshua went limp in our arms.
"Let's get him out of here," I said to Maggie. She nodded and helped me drag him behind the wagon where the centurion was directing his troops.
"Is he dead?" the centurion asked.
Joshua was blinking as if he'd just been awakened from a deep sleep. "We're never sure, sir," I said.
The centurion threw his head back and laughed. His scale armor rattled with the tossing of his shoulders. He was older than the other soldiers, gray-haired, but obviously lean and strong, and totally unconcerned with the histrionics of the crowd. "Good answer, boy. What is your name?"
"Biff, sir. Levi bar Alphaeus, who is called Biff, sir. Of Nazareth."
"Well, Biff, I am Gaius Justus Gallicus, under-commander of Sepphoris, and I think that you Jews should make sure your dead are dead before you bury them."
"Yes sir," I said.
"You, girl. You are a pretty little thing. What is your name?"
I could see that Maggie was shaken by the attention of the Roman. "I am Mary of Magdala, sir." She wiped at Joshua's brow with the edge of her shawl as she spoke.
"You will break someone's heart someday, eh, little one?"
Maggie didn't answer. But I must have shown some reaction to the question, because Justus laughed again. "Or perhaps she already has, eh, Biff?"
"It is our way, sir. That's why we Jews bury our women when they are still alive. It cuts down on the heartbreak."
The Roman took off his helmet, ran his hand over his short hair, and flung sweat at me. "Go on, you two, get your friend into the shade. It's too hot out here for a sick boy. Go on."
Maggie and I helped Joshua to his feet and began to lead him away, but when we had gone only a few steps, Joshua stopped and looked back over his shoulder at the Roman. "Will you slay my people if we follow our God?" he shouted.
I cuffed him on the back of the head. "Joshua, are you insane?"
Justus narrowed his gaze at Joshua and the smile went out of his eyes. "Whatever they tell you, boy, Rome has only two rules: pay your taxes and don't rebel. Follow those and you'll stay alive."
Maggie yanked Joshua around and smiled back at the Roman. "Thank you, sir, we'll get him out of the sun." Then she turned back to Joshua. "Is there something you two would like to tell me?"
"It's not me," I said. "It's him."
The next day we met the angel for the first time. Mary and Joseph said that Joshua had left the house at dawn and they hadn't seen him since. I wandered around the village most of the morning, looking for Joshua and hoping to run into Maggie. The square was alive with talk of the walking dead woman, but neither of my friends was to be found. At noon my mother recruited me to watch my little brothers while she went to work with the other women in the vineyard. She returned at dusk, smelling of sweat and sweet wine, her feet purple from walking in the winepress. Cut loose, I ran all over the hilltop, checking in our favorite places to play, and finally found Joshua on his knees in an olive grove, rocking back and forth as he prayed. He was soaked in sweat and I was afraid he might have a fever. Strange, I never felt that sort of concern for my own brothers, but from the beginning, Joshua filled me with divinely inspired worry.
I watched, and waited, and when he stopped his rocking and sat back to rest, I faked a cough to let him know I was coming.
"Maybe you should stick with lizards for a while longer."
"I failed. I have disappointed my father."
"Did he tell you that, or do you just know it?"
He thought for a moment, made as if to brush his hair away from his face, then remembered that he no longer wore his hair long and dropped his hands in his lap. "I ask for guidance, but I get no answer. I can feel that I am supposed to do things, but I don't know what. And I don't know how."
"I don't know, I think the priest was surprised. I certainly was. Maggie was. People will be talking about it for months."
"But I wanted the woman to live again. To walk among us. To tell of the miracle."
"Well, it is written, two out of three ain't bad."
"Where is that written?"
"Dalmatians 9:7, I think - doesn't matter, no one else could have done what you did."
Joshua nodded. "What are people saying?"
"They think that it was something the women used to prepare the corpse. They are still going through purification for two more days, so no one can ask them."
"So they don't know that it was me?"
"I hope not. Joshua, don't you understand that you can't do that sort of thing in front of people? They aren't ready for it."
"But most of them want it. They talk about the Messiah coming to deliver us all the time. Don't I have to show them that he has come?"
What do you say to that? He was right, since I could remember there was always talk of the coming of the Messiah, of the coming of the kingdom of God, of the liberation of our people from the Romans - the hills were full of different factions of Zealots who skirmished with the Romans in hope that they could bring about the change. We were the chosen of God, blessed and punished like no other on earth. When the Jews spoke, God listened, now it was God's turn to speak. Evidently, my best friend was supposed to be the mouthpiece. But at that moment, I just didn't believe it. Despite what I'd seen, Joshua was my pal, not the Messiah.
I said, "I'm pretty sure the Messiah is supposed to have a beard."
"So, it's not time yet, is that what you're saying?"
"Right, Josh, I'm going to know when you don't. God sent a messenger to me and he said, 'By the way, tell Joshua to wait until he can shave before he leads my people out of bondage.'"
"It could happen."
"Don't ask me, ask God."
"That's what I've been doing. He's not answering."
It had been getting darker by the minute in the olive grove, and I could barely see the shine in Josh's eyes, but suddenly the area around us was lit up like daylight. We looked up to see the dreaded Raziel descending on us from above the treetops. Of course I didn't know he was the dreaded Raziel at the time, I was just terrified. The angel shone like a star above us, his features so perfect that even my beloved Maggie's beauty paled by comparison. Joshua hid his face and huddled against the trunk of an olive tree. I guess he was more easily surprised by the supernatural than I was. I just stood there staring with my mouth open, drooling like the village idiot.
"Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all men. For on this day, in the city of David, is born a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." Then he hovered for a second, waiting for his message to sink in.
Joshua uncovered his face and risked a glance at the angel.
"Well?" the angel said.
It took me a second to digest the meaning of the words, and I waited for Joshua to say something, but he had turned his face skyward and seemed to be basking in the light, a silly smile locked on his face.
Finally I pointed a thumb at Josh and said, "He was born in the city of David."
"Really?" said the angel.
"His mother's name is Mary?"
"She a virgin?"
"He has four brothers and sisters now, but at one time, yes."
The angel looked around nervously, as if he might expect a multitude of the heavenly host to show up at some point. "How old are you, kid?"
Joshua just stared, smiling.
The angel cleared his throat and fidgeted a bit, dropping a few feet toward the ground as he did so. "I'm in a lot of trouble. I stopped to chat with Michael on the way here, he had a deck of cards. I knew some time had passed, but..." To Joshua he said, "Kid, were you born in a stable? Wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger?"
Joshua said nothing.
"That's the way his mom tells it," I said.
"Is he retarded?"
"I think you're his first angel. He's impressed, I think."
"What about you?"
"I'm in trouble because I'm going to be an hour late for dinner."
"I see what you mean. I'd better get back and check on this. If you see some shepherds watching over their flocks by night would you tell them - uh, tell them - that at some point, probably, oh - ten years or so ago, that a Savior was born? Could you do that?"
"Okey-dokey. Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men."
"Right back at you."
And as quickly as he had come, the angel was gone in a shooting star and the olive grove went dark again. I could just make out Joshua's face as he turned to look at me.
"There you go," I said. "Next question?"
I suppose that every boy wonders what he will be when he grows up. I suppose that many watch their peers accomplish great things and wonder, "Could I have done that?" For me, to know at ten that my best friend was the Messiah, while I would live and die a stonecutter, seemed too much of a curse for a ten-year-old to bear. The morning after we met the angel, I went to the square and sat with Bartholomew the village idiot, hoping that Maggie would come to the well. If I had to be a stonecutter, at least I might have the love of an enchanting woman. In those days, we started training for our life's work at ten, then received the prayer shawl and phylacteries at thirteen, signifying our entry into manhood. Soon after we were expected to be betrothed, and by fourteen, married and starting a family. So you see, I was not too young to consider Maggie as a wife (and I might always have the fallback position of marrying Joshua's mother when Joseph died).
The women would come and go, fetching water, washing clothes, and as the sun rose high and the square cleared, Bartholomew sat in the shade of a tattered date palm and picked his nose. Maggie never appeared. Funny how easy heartbreak can come. I've always had a talent for it.
"Why you cry?" said Bartholomew. He was bigger than any man in the village, his hair and beard were wild and tangled, and the yellow dust that covered him from head to toe gave him the appearance of an incredibly stupid lion. His tunic was ragged and he wore no sandals. The only thing he owned was a wooden bowl that he ate from and licked clean. He lived off of the charity of the village, and by gleaning the grain fields (there was always some grain left in the fields for the poor - it was dictated by the Law). I never knew how old he was. He spent his days in the square, playing with the village dogs, giggling to himself, and scratching his crotch. When the women passed he would stick out his tongue and say, "Bleh." My mother said he had the mind of a child. As usual, she was wrong.
He put his big paw on my shoulder and rubbed, leaving a dusty circle of affection on my shirt. "Why you cry?" he asked again.
"I'm just sad. You wouldn't understand."
Bartholomew looked around, and when he saw that we were alone in the square except for his dog pals, he said, "You think too much. Thinking will bring you nothing but suffering. Be simple."
"What?" It was the most coherent thing I'd ever heard him say.
"Do you ever see me cry? I have nothing, so I am slave to nothing. I have nothing to do, so nothing makes me its slave."
"What do you know?" I snapped. "You live in the dirt. You are unclean! You do nothing. I have to begin working next week, and work for a lifetime until I die with a broken back. The girl I want is in love with my best friend, and he's the Messiah. I'm nothing, and you, you - you're an idiot."
"No, I'm not, I'm a Greek. A Cynic."
I turned and really looked at him. His eyes, normally as dull as mud, shone like black jewels in the dusty desert of his face. "What's a Cynic?"
"A philosopher. I am a student of Diogenes. You know Diogenes?"
"No, but how much could he have taught you? Your only friends are dogs."
"Diogenes went about Athens with a lamp in broad daylight, holding it in people's faces, saying he was looking for an honest man."
"So, he was like the prophet of the idiots?"
"No, no, no." Bart picked up a small terrier and was gesturing with him to make his point. The dog seemed to enjoy it. "They were all fooled by their culture. Diogenes taught that all affectations of modern life were false, that a man must live simply, outdoors, carry nothing, make no art, no poetry, no religion..."
"Like a dog," I said.
"Yes!" Bart described a flourish in the air with the rat dog. "Exactly!" The little dog made as if to upchuck from the motion. Bart put him down and he wobbled away.
A life without worry: right then it sounded wonderful. I mean, I didn't want to live in the dirt and have other people think me mad, like Bartholomew, but a dog's life really didn't sound bad. The idiot had been hiding a deep wisdom all these years.
"I'm trying to learn to lick my own balls," Bart said.
Maybe not. "I have to go find Joshua."
"You know he is the Messiah, don't you?"
"Wait a minute, you're not a Jew - I thought you didn't believe in any religion."
"The dogs told me he was the Messiah. I believe them. Tell Joshua I believe them."
"The dogs told you?"
"They're Jewish dogs."
"Right, let me know how the ball licking works out."
Who would have thought that Joshua would find his first apostle among the dirt and dogs of Nazareth. Bleh.
I found Joshua at the synagogue, listening to the Pharisees lecture on the Law. I stepped through the group of boys sitting on the floor and whispered to him.
"Bartholomew says that he knows you are the Messiah."
"The idiot? Did you ask him how long he's known?"
"He says the village dogs told him."
"I never thought to ask the dogs."
"He says that we should live simply, like dogs, carry nothing, no affectations - whatever that means."
"Bartholomew said that? Sounds like an Essene. He's much smarter than he looks."
"He's trying to learn to lick his own balls."
"I'm sure there's something in the Law that forbids that. I'll ask the rabbi."
"I'm not sure you want to bring that up to the Pharisee."
"Did you tell your father about the angel?"
"Good. I've spoken to Joseph, he's going to let me learn to be a stonecutter with you. I don't want your father to change his mind about teaching me. I think the angel would frighten him." Joshua looked at me for the first time, turning from the Pharisee, who droned on in Hebrew. "Have you been crying?"
"Me? No, Bart's stench made my eyes water."
Joshua put his hand on my forehead and all the sadness and trepidation seemed to drain out of me in an instant. He smiled. "Better?"
"I'm jealous of you and Maggie."
"That can't be good for your neck."
"Trying to lick your own balls. It's got to be hard on your neck."
"Did you hear me? I'm jealous of you and Maggie."
"I'm still learning, Biff. There are things I don't understand yet. The Lord said, 'I am a jealous God.' So jealousy should be a good thing."
"But it makes me feel so bad."
"You see the puzzle, then? Jealousy makes you feel bad, but God is jealous, so it must be good, yet when a dog licks its balls it seems to enjoy it, but it must be bad under the Law."
Suddenly Joshua was yanked to his feet by the ear. The Pharisee glared at him. "Is the Law of Moses too boring for you, Joshua bar Joseph?"
"I have a question, Rabbi," Joshua said.
"Oh, jeez." I hid my head in my arms.