Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
When we got back to Nazareth we expected to find Joshua's mother hysterical with worry, but on the contrary, she had gathered Joshua's brothers and sisters outside of their house, lined them up, and was washing their faces and hands as if preparing them for the Sabbath meal.
"Joshua, help me get the little ones ready, we are all going to Sepphoris."
Joshua was shocked. "We are?"
"The whole village is going to ask the Romans to release Joseph."
James was the only one of the children who seemed to understand what had happened to their father. There were tear tracks on his cheeks. I put my arm around his shoulders. "He'll be fine," I said, trying to sound cheerful. "Your father is strong, they'll have to torture him for days before he gives up the ghost." I smiled encouragingly.
James broke out of my embrace and ran into the house crying. Mary turned and glared at me. "Shouldn't you be with your family, Biff?"
Oh my breaking heart, my bruised ego. Even though Mary had taken position as my emergency backup wife, I was crestfallen at her disapproval. And to my credit, not once during that time of trouble did I wish harm to come to Joseph. Not once. After all, I was still too young to take a wife, and some creepy elder would swoop Mary up before I had a chance to rescue her if Joseph died before I was fourteen.
"Why don't you go get Maggie," Joshua suggested, taking only a second from his mission of scrubbing the skin off his brother Judah's face. "Her family will want to go with us."
"Sure," I said, and I scampered off to the blacksmith's shop in search of approval from my primary wife-to-be.
When I arrived, Maggie was sitting outside of her father's shop with her brothers and sisters. She looked as frightened as she had when we first witnessed the murder. I wanted to throw my arms around her to comfort her.
"We have a plan," I said. "I mean, Joshua has a plan. Are you going to Sepphoris with everyone else?"
"The whole family," she said. "My father has made nails for Joseph, they're friends." She tossed her head, pointing toward the open shed that housed her father's forge. Two men were working over the forge. "Go ahead, Biff. You and Joshua go on ahead. We'll be along later." She started waving me away and mouthing words silently to me, which I didn't pick up.
"What are you saying? What? What?"
"And who is your friend, Maggie?" A man's voice, coming from near the forge. I looked over and suddenly realized what Maggie had been trying to tell me.
"Uncle Jeremiah, this is Levi bar Alphaeus. We call him Biff. He has to go now."
I started backing away from the killer. "Yes, I have to go." I looked at Maggie, not knowing what to do. "I'll - we - I have to - "
"We'll see you in Sepphoris," Maggie said.
"Right," I said, then I turned and dashed away, feeling more like a coward than I ever have in my life.
When we got back to Sepphoris there was a large gathering of Jews, perhaps two hundred, outside of the city walls, most I recognized as being from Nazareth. No mob mentality here, more a fearful gathering. More than half of those gathered were women and children. In the middle of the crowd, a contingent of a dozen Roman soldiers pushed back the onlookers while two slaves dug a grave. Like my own people, the Romans did not dally with their dead. Unless there was a battle ongoing, Roman soldiers were often put in the ground before the corpse was cool.
Joshua and I spotted Maggie standing between her father and her murderous uncle at the edge of the crowd. Joshua took off toward her. I followed, but before I got close, Joshua had taken Maggie's hand and dragged her into the midst of the crowd. I could see Jeremiah trying to follow them. I dove into the mass and crawled under people's feet until I came upon a pair of hobnail boots which indicated the lower end of a Roman soldier. The other end, equally Roman, was scowling at me. I stood up.
"Semper fido," I said in my best Latin, followed by my most charming smile.
The soldier scowled further. Suddenly there was a smell of flowers in my nose and sweet, warm lips brushed my ear. "I think you just said 'always dog,'" Maggie whispered.
"That would be why he's looking so unpleasant then?" I said out the side of my charming smile.
In my other ear another familiar, if not so sweet whisper, "Sing, Biff. Remember the plan," Joshua said.
"Right." And so I let loose with one of my famous dirges. "La-la-la. Hey Roman guy, too bad about your getting stabbed. La-la-la. It's probably not a message from God or nothing. La-la-la. Telling you that maybe you should have gone home, la, la, la. Instead of oppressing the chosen people who God hisownself has said that he likes better than you. Fa, la, la, la."
The soldier didn't speak Aramaic, so the lyrics didn't move him as I had hoped. But I think the hypnotic toe-tappiness of the melody was starting to get him. I plunged into my second verse.
"La-la-la, didn't we tell you that you shouldn't eat pork, la-la. Although looking at wounds in your chest, a dietary change might not have made that big a difference. Boom shaka-laka-laka-laka, boom shaka-laka-lak. Come on, you know the words!"
The soldier was yanked aside and Gaius Justus Gallicus stood before us, flanked by two of his officers. Behind him, stretched out on the ground, was the body of the dead soldier.
"Well done, Biff," Joshua whispered.
"We're offering our services as professional mourners," I said with a grin, which the centurion was eager not to return.
"That soldier doesn't need mourners, he has avengers."
A voice from the crowd. "See here, Centurion, release Joseph of Nazareth. He is no murderer."
Justus turned and the crowd parted, leaving a path between him and the man who had spoken up. It was Iban the Pharisee, standing with several other Pharisees from Nazareth.
"Would you take his place?" Justus asked.
The Pharisee backed away, his resolve melting quickly under the threat.
"Well?" Justus stepped forward and the crowd parted around him. "You speak for your people, Pharisee. Tell them to give me a killer. Or would you rather I crucify Jews until I get the right one?"
Iban was flustered now, and began jabbering a mishmash of verses from the Torah. I looked around and saw Maggie's uncle Jeremiah standing only a few paces behind me. When I caught his eye he slipped his hand under his shirt - to the haft of a knife, I had no doubt.
"Joseph didn't kill that soldier!" Joshua shouted.
Justus turned to him and the Pharisees took the opportunity to scramble to the back of the crowd. "I know that," Justus said.
"Of course, boy. No carpenter killed that soldier."
"How do you know that?" I asked.
Justus motioned to one of his legionnaires and the soldier came forward carrying a small basket. The centurion nodded and the soldier upended the basket. The stone effigy of Apollo's severed penis thudded to the ground in front of us.
"Uh-oh," I said.
"Because it was a stonecutter," Justus said.
"My, that is impressive," Maggie said.
I noticed that Joshua was edging toward the body of the soldier. I needed to distract Justus. "Aha," I said, "someone beat the soldier to death with a stone willie. Obviously the work of a Greek or a Samaritan - no Jew would touch such a thing."
"They wouldn't?" Maggie asked.
"I think you have something to tell me, boy," Justus said.
Joshua had laid hands on the dead soldier.
I could feel everyone's eyes on me. I wondered where Jeremiah was now. Was he behind me, ready to silence me with a knife, or had he made his escape? Either way, I couldn't say a word. The Sicarii did not work alone. If I gave up Jeremiah I'd be dead by a Sicarii dagger before the Sabbath.
"He can't tell you, Centurion, even if he knew," said Joshua, who had moved back to Maggie's side. "For it is written in our holy books that no Jew shall rat out another Jew, regardless of what a weasel one or the other shall be."
"Is that written?" Maggie whispered.
"Is now," Joshua whispered back.
"Did you just call me a weasel?" I asked.
"Behold!" A woman at the front of the crowd was pointing to the dead soldier. Another screamed. The corpse was moving.
Justus turned toward the commotion and I took the opportunity to look around for Jeremiah. He was still there behind me, only a few people back, but he was staring gape-jawed at the dead soldier, who was currently standing up and dusting off his tunic.
Joshua was concentrating intently on the soldier, but there was none of the sweating or trembling that we had seen at the funeral in Japhia.
To his credit, Justus, although he seemed frightened at first, stood his ground as the corpse ambled stiff-legged toward him. The other soldiers were backing away, along with all of the Jews except Maggie, Joshua, and me.
"I need to report an attack, sir," the once-dead soldier said, performing a very jerky Roman salute.
"You're - you're dead," Justus said.
"You have knife wounds all over your chest."
The soldier looked down, touched the wounds gingerly, then looked back to his commander. "Seems I have been nicked, sir."
"Nicked? Nicked? You've been stabbed half a dozen times. You're dead as dirt."
"I don't think so, sir. Look, I'm not even bleeding."
"That's because you've bled out, son. You're dead."
The soldier began to stagger now, started to fall, and caught himself. "I am feeling a little woozy. I was attacked last night sir, near where they are building that Greek's house. There, he was there." He pointed to me.
"And him too." He pointed to Joshua.
"And the little girl."
"These boys attacked you?"
I could hear scuffling behind me.
"No, not them, that man over there." The soldier pointed to Jeremiah, who looked around like a trapped animal. Everyone was so intent on watching the miracle of the talking corpse that they had frozen in place. The killer couldn't push his way through the crowd to get away.
"Arrest him!" Justus commanded, but his soldiers were equally stunned by the resurrection of their cohort.
"Now that I think of it," the dead soldier said, "I do remember being stabbed."
No outlet from the crowd, Jeremiah turned toward his accuser and drew a blade from under his shirt. This seemed to snap the other soldiers out of their trance, and they began advancing on the killer from different angles, swords drawn.
At the sight of the blade, everyone had moved away from the killer, leaving him isolated with no path open but toward us.
"No master but God!" he shouted, then three quick steps and he leapt toward us, his knife raised. I dove on top of Maggie and Joshua, hoping to shield them, but even as I waited for the sharp pain between my shoulder blades, I heard the killer scream, then a grunt, then a protracted moan that ran out of air with a pathetic squeal.
I rolled over to see Gaius Justus Gallicus with his short sword sunk to the hilt in the solar plexus of Jeremiah. The killer had dropped his knife and was standing there looking at the Roman's sword hand, looking somewhat offended by it. He sank to his knees. Justus yanked his sword free, then wiped the blade on Jeremiah's shirt before stepping back and letting the killer fall forward.
"That was him," the dead soldier said. "Bastard kilt me." He fell forward next to his killer and lay still.
"Much better than last time, Josh," I said.
"Yes, much better," Maggie said. "Walking and talking. You had him going."
"I felt good, confident, but it was a team effort," Joshua said. "I couldn't have done it without everyone giving it their all, including God."
I felt something sharp against my cheek. With the tip of his sword, Justus guided my gaze to Apollo's stone penis, which lay in the dirt next to the two corpses. "And do you want to explain how that happened?"
"The pox?" I ventured.
"The pox can do that," Maggie said. "Can rot it right off."
"How do you know that?" Joshua asked her.
"Just guessing. I'm sure glad that's all over."
Justus let his sword fall to his side with a sigh. "Go home. All of you. By order of Gaius Justus Gallicus, under-commander of the Sixth Legion, commander of the Third and Fourth Centuries, under authority of Emperor Tiberius and the Roman Empire, you are all commanded to go home and perpetrate no weird shit until I have gotten well drunk and had several days to sleep it off."
"So you're going to release Joseph?" Maggie asked.
"He's at the barracks. Go get him and take him home."
"Amen," said Joshua.
"Semper fido," I added in Latin.
Joshua's little brother Judah, who was seven by then, ran around the Roman barracks screaming "Let my people go! Let my people go!" until he was hoarse. (Judah had decided early on that he was going to be Moses when he grew up, only this time Moses would get to enter the promised land - on a pony.) As it turned out, Joseph had been waiting for us at the Venus Gate. He looked a little confused, but otherwise unharmed.
"They say that a dead man spoke," Joseph said.
Mary was ecstatic. "Yes, and walked. He pointed out his murderer, then he died again."
"Sorry," Joshua said, "I tried to make him live on, but he only lasted a minute."
Joseph frowned. "Did everyone see what you did, Joshua?"
"They didn't know it was my doing, but they saw it."
"I distracted everyone with one of my excellent dirges," I said.
"You can't risk yourself like that," Joseph said to Joshua. "It's not the time yet."
"If not to save my father, when?"
"I'm not your father." Joseph smiled.
"Yes you are." Joshua hung his head.
"But I'm not the boss of you." Joseph's smile widened to a grin.
"No, I guess not," Joshua said.
"You needn't have worried, Joseph," I said. "If the Romans had killed you I would have taken good care of Mary and the children."
Maggie punched me in the arm.
"Good to know," Joseph said.
On the road to Nazareth, I got to walk with Maggie a few paces behind Joseph and his family. Maggie's family was so distraught over what had happened to Jeremiah that they didn't even notice she wasn't with them.
"He's much stronger than he was the last time," Maggie said.
"Don't worry, he'll be a mess tomorrow: 'Oh, what did I do wrong. Oh, my faith wasn't strong enough. Oh, I am not worthy of my task.' He'll be impossible to be around for a week or so. We'll be lucky if he stops praying long enough to eat."
"You shouldn't make fun of him. He's trying very hard."
"Easy for you to say, you won't have to hang out with the village idiot until Josh gets over this."
"But aren't you touched by who he is? What he is?"
"What good would that do me? If I was basking in the light of his holiness all of the time, how would I take care of him? Who would do all of his lying and cheating for him? Even Josh can't think about what he is all of the time, Maggie."
"I think about him all of the time. I pray for him all of the time."
"Really? Do you ever pray for me?"
"I mentioned you in my prayers, once."
"You did? How?"
"I asked God to help you not to be such a doofus, so you could watch over Joshua."
"You meant doofus in an attractive way, right?"