Fantasy Horror Historical Bible references zombies

The Woman of Endor

By Alex Isle
Mar 17, 2019 · 9,220 words · 34 minutes

Photo by Robert Bye via Unsplash.

From the author: This story is what happened when I read the Bible. Be afraid. Also, Endor refers to the Old Testament character the Sorceress of Endor, not the Star wars moon with the unbearable little furry creatures.


We came from the garden, our stories tell us.  Woman and man, banished by God’s anger, working ceaselessly to win back His favour.  Well, most of us did and do, though the Roman Empire rules our people now and demands a certain amount of regard itself.  Some fight against the Romans with sword or by stealth, others choose a more shadowed path.  They seek answers, rather than praying for aid and waiting to see if it comes.  For this, such people are named sorcerer or sorceress, for in this path physical strength is no aid, and for this they are feared.

I am the twenty-eighth of my line in succession from Hannah of Endor whom King Saul visited to learn his future, even though he had tried to wipe out sorcerers from his realm.  Hannah must have been a brave woman, but also a kind one.  Even after recognising Saul, she told him the truth, summoning the spirit of the prophet Samuel who made him king to confirm Saul's dream.  He and his sons would be with the shadows the next day.  And then, seeing his fatigue and shock, she made him stay for a meal before he left.   It's curious how some moments in history can be as clear and real as though they happened moments ago.   Imagine the scene. 

 It is dark outside Hannah's small house.  Only a single lamp hangs inside the door to cast light on the haggard face of King Saul as he sits astride his horse.  His men hang back, still fearing the slight form of the sorceress, who draws her shawl forward to cover her head.

          "I will keep my word,"  the King says to her.  "No harm will come to you for this."

          “I want more than my own safety,”  Hannah says.  “I want my tradition to continue, for it will keep my people safe.”

          "If God grants me a final wish, then this shall be so,”  Saul answers her.

 

Since Hannah, the twenty eight women, mother to daughter, passed down her knowledge, even throughout the years of exile in Babylon and then the return to our land.   Twenty eight women who remembered and taught and healed, where they could and as they dared, until the title and the responsibility of knowledge came to me, Martha, upon the farm where I lived with my younger brother and sister.

I had worried for a long time about whom I could teach in the ways of power.  Though I have had lovers, carefully circumspect, I have no children, perhaps cannot have children, and I may have to wait a long while for any daughter of my sister Miriam to grow old enough for teaching.  Perhaps not so long as I should, considering that Miriam’s main interest in life seems to be men.   In her sixteenth year, this became so obvious that my brother came to me one spring day, very agitated.  "Martha, we have got to do something about her,"  he said, rushing into the house without so much as a morning greeting.

"Her" with no name could only be one person.

"What has Miriam done?"

"She is at the well talking with some men."

"What are they doing?  And good morning, Lazarus."

"Oh - good morning.  They're on their way to the city and asked for water, but that doesn't matter.   She's - she's showing herself to them."

I looked at him.  "Showing what?"

"She's taking off her headscarf and - and laughing."

If my brother Lazarus did not spend most of his life locked up with old scrolls and equally aged priests, I was sure he would have had more appreciation for the young women who had tried to show themselves to him.   Or if our mother hadn't died from a fever when Miriam was five, or our father from a coughing sickness two years after her,  this sort of thing would not land on me.   "Well, ask if any of them want to marry her. She's well-favoured so long as they don't want clever conversation and I think we could afford to dower her with a third of the goat herd, at least."

Laz stormed out as I got to the goats.   That gave me a chance to get on with the work of the house, not too onerous on this pleasant spring day, and with my thoughts.  I might have joked about whether one of the passing strangers might want to marry me, except that I was now well into my twenties and must manage the house for my brother until he came to marry.   Our few coins went to his schooling for the priesthood, long after most young men had done with books.   And Miriam was pretty.  If only she had been bright and curious, I could have taught her as our mother had taught me of the world beyond sunlight, of death and half-death and the healing of sicknesses and pain, but she never wanted to listen to "those old stories".

I paused in the doorway to listen, but the well was too distant, over beyond the field where our goats grazed.   Our land close by Bethany village is small for a farm, but lies beside the Roman road to Jerusalem, two miles away.   Now, there were no Romans on the dusty road, for I would have heard their rhythmic tread.  As I listened carefully, I heard high laughter:  Miriam.  Laz had not succeeded in dragging her from the lure of the strangers, so I decided I had better fetch her in case one of them decided to try to take what was offered.

A group of six or seven strangers was gathered about the well, thirstily drinking the cold water from the bucket.  Miriam stood laughing among them, her scarf dangling from her hand, her hair bright in the sun.  So far she had escaped assault.

The man talking to Miriam appeared benign.  He was lean and strong in the way of someone who walks a great deal, dark-haired, with the sharp large-nosed features of men throughout the land.  Yet he would never blend in.   His eyes were clear and intent, his manner calm, yet he managed not to appear as though he was patronising my little sister.   When I came into view, he looked at me and smiled.  

I stumbled and had to stop walking.

Miriam giggled and pulled her headscarf back into place.

The man looked only mildly concerned and I wanted to shout at him, even though everyone else would only see and hear a madwoman.   You are pretending, I wanted to scream.  I know what you are.  You know!   Why do you pretend?

I had godlight in a small sense, what I could grasp in my two hands when I tried to heal someone.  Headaches, tensions, the small ills of the body.  But he blazed with power.   When this man walked along a dusty road, God would be watching him and behind him, God's enemies.   Here he stood by my well in a patched robe, with a group of wild-looking men around him, calmly drinking from the bucket with a well-scoop, chatting with my little sister.   When he looked at me, the godlight was sufficient to knock me back a step.  When my mother was angry, she'd had the power to inflict headache simply by glaring at me or my siblings, so she would try not to do that.   She said her mother was likewise.  Until I saw Joshua ben Joseph, I had never suspected that a man could have the power and in such measure.

"Martha,"  he said.  "Miriam has been telling me about you."

I should have been angry, with Miriam if not with him.

"And Lazarus, whose name I know from Temple."

"He said our sister was here but he did not say he knew you."

"He didn't come close enough to see,"  Miriam said with a toss of her head.  "He only heard us and went running to you."

Excuse me while I go find my brother so that I may pound him with a grinding stone, I thought.  Laz must have wandered back to his studies in the surety that I'd rescue our sister if she needed it.   I noticed another of the men, not too much older than Miriam, watching her.  "Would you care for some food?"  I said to Joshua.

"Thank you,"  he said and we all went to the house.  On the way, I ascertained that the other young man's name was Thomas and made sure I seated him beside Miriam.  It turned out that his mother Ruth was the same Ruth who had been a good friend of my mother's and had supported me during my first years alone, raising my young brother and sister.  Better yet.

Early the next morning, I was still thinking of Joshua and his band as I walked to the orchard for some early oranges and picked several, intent on the fruit and never realising I had company until a shadow fell before me.

I jumped in alarm and squeaked.

Not impressive.

There was a Roman soldier in my orchard, eating an orange.

He was amber-eyed like a lion, not as dark as I would have expected a Roman to be, though sun-tanned.   At first glance I thought him very young, since he had no beard, then I remembered the Roman custom of shaving for men and added at least ten years to my estimate, maybe more.   He wore the leather and metal armour lightly, standing straight as he regarded me. 

Well, here was my chance to practice my so-far useless Latin.

"Who are you?"  I asked him.  "This is my family's orchard."

He listened intently with a slight frown, as though my curious accent gave him trouble, then rattled something off which sounded like a list of names and something about his Legion.

"Arrius?"  I asked uncertainly, that being all I had been able to pick up.

He smiled as though he knew it.  "Yes.  Arrius."

It reminded me of our name Ari, which means lion, and I wanted to laugh, for my thought about his eyes, but didn't in case he mistook it for mockery.  "May I ask what a soldier of the Eagles is doing in my orchard?   Surely he is not stealing fruit like the village boys?"

"Well," said Arrius, speaking slowly, "it's a hot day and for a moment I forgot that I served in the Eagles."

"I'll take that for a confession,"  I sighed, too relieved that he was not a vagrant or one of the roving bands of men who called themselves patriots and were in fact worse than jackals, since they had to raid for supplies and often kidnapped young girls at their whim.  This was what I had first believed Joshua's group were.  Next to that possibility, an orchard-raiding Roman was nothing much.

Arrius was trying to charm me.  It was a dull day and I suppose I was willing to be charmed, for the sheer novelty of it these days.   So I invited him to lunch and introduced him to my family, then gave him a couple of oranges and sent him on his way.

He showed up a few days later on horseback, just to stop and talk for a moment.  Miriam didn't stop talking about the visits for weeks.  The last thing I needed was word getting about that Laz's unmarried elder sister was entertaining a Roman soldier, so I was not exactly encouraging, even to the extent of keeping Miriam there whenever Arrius showed up.  Despite this handicap, we somehow became friends.   Even Laz was interested when Arrius proved to be a man of some scholarship and interested in learning Aramaic, which Lazarus taught him in return for Latin lessons.

Perhaps a month passed, during which we began to hear stories of Joshua doing wonderful things, many of them involving healing, which surprised me not at all but gave me a sense of dread and a wish to tell him to stop before he did too much and got too much attention.  I'd not spoken of him to Arrius, who in any case didn't show up until the month was nearly over.  When he did, I was busy with my accounts, which Laz kept promising to do and never did.

"I'm sorry.  I meant to visit before now and bring you some wine," Arrius said as though he owed it me.  I looked up to see the Roman pausing in the doorway between bright spring day and dim interior.  My inner spirit seemed to already regard this man as someone I could trust.  It must have; I wasn't even startled.

"It is all right,"  I assured him.  "You could not help it.  Have you been practising Aramaic?  You seem to speak better than when you were last here."

"How else will I know when the merchants cheat me in the marketplace?"  Arrius asked.

"Will it help to know?   They won't stop,"  I assured him.

Arrius laughed.  "I always prefer to know,"  he said.  "Where's Miriam?  You usually call her in."

"An unmarried woman shouldn't be alone with a man unless he's her betrothed,"  I sighed, hating the words even as I said them, for an unmarried woman my age was likely to remain so.  "I don't need any more gossip than I already have.   But Miriam may not be unmarried for much longer.  One of Laz's friends has been persuaded to think about taking her off our hands and so she's visiting him with Laz tagging along to keep things decent."

"One of that band of brigands who sometimes come here?  Joshua ben Joseph's people?"

"They aren't brigands."   Lazarus had, in fact, debated with Joshua in Temple.   His reluctance to report the debates to me indicated he'd lost a few.   I looked at Arrius rather edgily; I'd carefully not mentioned Joshua and he seemed to know all about him.

"They're on the edge of the law,"  Arrius said, clearly uncomfortable as he perched himself on the edge of a couch.

"Why?  They've done nothing that I know about, nothing wrong.  And Joshua, he's...."  I stopped, unable to think of the words.  To say he had godlight would mean little to Arrius, or would it?   But he was looking at me curiously and at last I sighed and said it.  To my surprise he nodded.

"You think he is favoured by a god?"

That was one way of looking at it.  "Noticed, yes."

"Then I pity him."

"You understand me!"

"No need to sound so astonished."

"Men usually don't,"  I said and made myself stop before I really said something I shouldn't. 

Arrius shrugged.  "I've seen gods favour before.  The lucky man usually has wonderful fortune; success in battle, promotions, rich gifts from the Emperor . . . and then it all goes away as though the gods are jealous of what the man has.  The Emperor becomes suspicious of the man, thinks he's getting too powerful, and moves against him.  Or perhaps he becomes suddenly ill and dies.  Or he's even charged with treason.  The greater the favour, the worse the fall.  How do you know this about Joshua?   He doesn't seem particularly lucky to me.  Troublesome, yes."

"I can see his light,"  I said, giving up on caution.   At my age, probably my neighbours would only think:  poor woman, a Roman is the best she can do.  "And he can do things."

"Such as?"

"He can heal,"  I said softly, wondering whether my envy showed.   The power blazed from Joshua, the same power that glowed only faintly in me.  He had laid hands on the dying and brought them back.  The other things I had heard:  the wedding at which he changed water to wine, the time he walked on the waves of the Sea of Galilee, multiplied a few loaves and fishes; those things might be or not.  I didn't know; they were beyond my powers.   I had cast out devils in my time but had been brought to bed, weak and feverish, for weeks afterwards.  Joshua had been weakened, so his people said; he knew when a woman touched him and drained some of his power, but he had nevertheless walked away.  I told Arrius a little about these stories.  He had heard some of them from fellow soldiers.

"Have you ever heard of a man who can do such things?"

"Not in Rome,"  he said flatly.  "Among the tribes in Africa, where I served before I came here - I heard things.  Whispered things in the shadows.   They had wizards who could do this medicine but also, when they wished to do harm, they could do terrible evil."

"Joshua is not evil."

"That may not matter."

We were still talking, over dinner, when I heard the clattering of hooves outside and voices raised in panicked alarm.  Arrius jumped to his feet and would have seized his sword from the floor except I hissed at him not to, recognising the voice of Laz's friend Judah outside.  "Wait here,"  I said and hurried out without looking to see whether Arrius would obey me.  In the courtyard I saw two men standing by a donkey, whose rider sat slumped, held on by their hands.  "Lazarus?"

"Martha," said the nearest man.  This was Judah, thin, dark and rather nervous, always appearing to be on the edge of any group, though he was one of Joshua's inner group of companions.  The other man was Thomas, Miriam's intended, like it or not.  "Lazarus is ill,"  Judah added, rather unnecessarily.

"Wine?"

"No, he hasn't drunk any.  Truly not.   He complained of a fever this afternoon but said it was nothing; he wouldn't let us bring him home until now."

"Help him to his room and while you do, tell me why Miriam isn't here."

"She's with my mother,"  Thomas said, placating me.   He was younger than Judah, but steadier, more reliable, I felt.  It was his mother's home they had been visiting.   "Ruth wants her to stay, for her safety, in case Lazarus is seriously ill."

"Very well."  I followed as they heaved Laz off the donkey and all but carried him inside and down the passageway to his room.  Despite their words, I half expected my brother's illness to be the result of wine, but when I heard him moan, it frightened me.  I touched Laz's forehead and found it hot.  The two men stood awkwardly by until I turned to them.  "You had better go and tell Ruth he's safely home,"  I said.  "I can care for him until he's better."

They fled with indecent haste, something which struck dread within me.  They would not have been frightened of wine-induced illness.   I went to fetch cool water to bathe Lazarus and passed the archway to the dining area.  Arrius was buckling on his armour and sword.  The sight of him made me jump and I was glad he wasn't looking at me.  Too embarrassing to admit I'd forgotten he was here.

"I heard some of that,"  he said.  "Is Lazarus really ill?"

"I don't know yet, but I must take care of him."

"You can heal him?"

"I may be able to help him a little."

"Send word if I can help," he said.  "I could bring our surgeon."

The thought of an Eagle surgeon and the inevitable guards in our house made me nervous anew.  One lone Roman might escape notice but more would attract the attention of rebels who might decide to make an example of our household to the people.   I murmured something and saw Arrius out, waiting barely long enough to say farewell before hastening indoors to Lazarus.

Within a few minutes I knew it was not drink.

By the time an hour passed, I was afraid.  I wished I had asked Arrius to get the Greek surgeon, talk be damned.  I dared not leave Lazarus to fetch a neighbour to help me.   All I could hope was that Thomas or Judah might return.

Lazarus burned, despite cool water laved on his face and body.   I tried to make him drink but he refused.  He began to rave, mistaking me for our mother, and then seemed to think I was trying to kill him, for he shouted and pushed me away.  By morning it was worse.  I slept for a little while, on the floor by his bed, and was woken by his moans.  I walked outside, through the courtyard and the walled gate to the Roman road, looking vainly for someone to send to Ruth.  She could do no more than take a turn by Laz's bedside - my efforts to heal him had been useless, as I'd feared - but I needed someone with me.  The road was empty, but I stood there for a moment, looking towards the city.

"Please,"  I said aloud.  "Queen of Heaven, I have had some small favour in your eyes.  My sister comforted King Saul and he promised to her that her line should be safe, had he any power in Sheol.  Please help my brother.   We need him.  Without him, the priests may send a man to take over this house and farm and my sister and I will be only poor tenants."

I spoke to Her as the mother now distant in my memory, with the voice of the eighteen-year-old girl I had been when she died.  Our powers were not recorded in scrolls, they were a talent in our blood, abilities which could be woken and taught, but I feared that by her untimely death, my mother had failed to pass some of the knowledge to me.  There was no one I could ask.  Because of the secrecy tradition, I did not know other sorceresses and they did not know of me.   The Queen of Heaven had been worshipped in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, but few dared to follow her now.

Then I walked back into the house.

Miriam came home, with Ruth.

I was vaguely aware of them, but stumbling with fatigue and unable to do more than mumble.  Ruth sent me to bed and herself took over the nursing.  When I woke a day later, I dressed and left my room, only to find an odd silence in the house.  I started for my brother's room, but Miriam was in the passage, sitting on the floor.  She looked at me, red-eyed.  Ruth, Thomas' mother, a small dark woman who reached barely to my shoulder, came out at that moment and put out a hand to stop me.  "Martha, he's gone,"  she said quietly.  "I sent a servant to my son, to bring Joshua to help him, but he hasn't come back.  I'm sorry."

I pushed past her into the dim room, where Lazarus lay still and quiet on his bed on the floor.  I touched him and felt the coldness, the lack of presence.  I felt cheated, that my brother had died without saying goodbye to me.  When I walked out of the room once more,  Miriam came to me and hugged me, weeping.  "I'm sorry,"  I said to her, not even clear what I was sorry for. 

"It's all right,"  she said.

We thought it was an ending.

The people of Bethany village came to give condolences and friends from Jerusalem began to arrive.  A priest who had been one of Laz's tutors said the words and our brother's body was entombed in the place set aside for our family, a cave in the hillside with a great stone to close it.  Gradually the last of the visitors faded away and the two of us were left alone for now.  Even Ruth returned to her home.

Laz was four days dead when I woke at dawn, sure that something had roused me but not knowing what.  So I dressed and went outside the gate to see whether someone was on the road.   The early dawn wind plucked at my garments as though to tug me away.  Shielding my eyes against the brightness, I saw a dozen men on foot approaching.  They had nearly reached me before I realised who they were:  Joshua and his people.  "You are too late,"  I said, speaking directly to Joshua.  I had thought my anger dead at last, but now it flared at this man who had in abundance the healing power I could barely raise enough to ease a headache.  "If you had been here, my brother would not have died!"

"Where is he?"  Joshua asked.  Behind us I heard a cry and turned in time to see Miriam running as best she could, towards the tomb.  Silently I pointed after her.  There were, I now saw, more people following after Joshua and his band, probably the villagers of Bethany. 

"The family tomb.  If you want to pay your respects, follow me."

I turned my back on him but he caught up and walked beside me; a long, wiry man used to much walking and indifferent food.  No other man treated me quite as he did, as an equal.  When we got to the stone, Joshua looked at it measuringly.  "Take away the stone," he said.

"He's been dead four days,"  I said, trying to shut away the knowledge that we were speaking of my younger brother.  This was a thing, dead meat.  "There'll be a stench.  You should have come earlier . . . "

Joshua said something, aimed towards his people.  It sounded like a prayer but I wasn't listening, too horrified as I watched four of the men advance and begin to roll the great stone out of the way.  I backed off, but people behind me stopped me getting too far.   I could feel the power crackling in Joshua as though a lightning had struck him.  Suddenly he shouted, "Lazarus, come forth!"  and the power - I know no other way to say it - blazed forward from Joshua into the reeking tomb where my brother's body lay.  There was a shuffling and a shriek from several of the people near me.  "Martha, look,"  someone shouted in my ear.  I did not want to.  The lightning power smelled like burning and the shouting and chanting around me made me want to run for the safety of home.

I opened my eyes.

A man stood before me, his hands and feet swathed in linen, a cloth over his face.  A cruel trick, I thought wildly, but why would Joshua . . . Then it spoke, its voice harsh and waterless and bewildered.  "Martha?   Martha, I'm thirsty."

"Loose him, let him go,"  Joshua said and two of his people gathered their courage and pulled the grave-bindings from Laz so that he stood in his white burial robe.  His skin was dull and yellowish and his gaze wandered.  His mouth was open, the tongue thick and protruding.  He was twenty two.  He looked seventy years old.

Joshua put his arm around me, hugging me.  His body felt feverishly hot, though his eyes were clear.  "Take him home,"  he said quietly.  "I will come when I can."

When I looked around, he was gone.

His people were also nowhere to be seen.

The villagers were screaming of miracle, but Ruth and some other women came to help me bring my dead brother home.  "Close your gates,"  Ruth warned me.  "When this gets about you will be besieged."

All I could think was that Laz had not been dead, but in a state so close to death that we had been deceived enough to bury him.  We bathed him and gave him a fresh robe, drink and food.   We let in small groups at a time to gaze at him and told the story; there was no help but to tell the story.  And the more I looked at Lazarus, listened to him and watched him, the more I became sure that there was something very wrong.  The fear was a still cold thing within me.  I told myself that it was the shock of seeing a man brought from death, or what we'd believed was death.  The doubt was seeded by the fact that I had not been present to see him die.  I had touched him after, I was almost certain but not quite.  Miriam was:  she wailed constantly that "the Master" had brought him back from death itself.

Thomas came with word that Joshua was going to visit.  Miriam and I planned a feast, hoping to be done with the whole business.  We would ask all the people who kept visiting to see the miracle, and afterwards close our gates on them for a year and a day until they went away.   Miriam, I admitted, had been a strong support for me, and I allowed her to go to Jerusalem to buy what we needed for the feast in the company of Ruth and Thomas.

That left me alone with my brother for the first time since the happening.

The house was silent.  I did some household tasks, went outside to tend the goats and chickens and came back, finding Laz in his room.  He was not reading, not doing anything but staring at the wall, but he turned awkwardly when I came in.  "How go your studies?"  I asked him in Latin, hoping to cover my uneasiness by practising the language.   He was far better than I at both Latin and Greek.   Yet now Laz looked at me blankly.  His eyes were discoloured and dull, his skin yellow and dry like a very old man's.

"Your studies?"  I prompted in our language.

"Studies..."  Laz said and drifted off to staring once more.  I left the room, too unsettled to talk further.  

The feast, six days before Passover, was a success despite my worries.  No one else seemed to be aware that the life force which Joshua had passed to my brother was ebbing and slowing, as a river when the rains cease.  The house was crammed with visitors, many almost unknown to me, eating and drinking and shouting about the miracle, laughing that the high priests were most perturbed and did not know what to do about it.  They seemed to take it as a personal victory of Judea over Rome and I did not need Arrius to tell me that was ridiculous, more like a small dog in her yard barking at a passing camel.

I didn't need him, but I wanted to talk to him nevertheless.

Naturally enough, with crowds of Jews about the house and land, Arrius did not come.

Miriam, meanwhile, was giving me fresh cause for worry.  She was ignoring Thomas, her betrothed, and following Joshua about like that same small dog, sitting on the ground by him and pouring expensive oil - which I had not said she could buy - over his feet.  Judah yelped something to the effect that the money should have been given to the poor.  I wanted to yell, "We'll be the poor if this idiot girl carries on," but did not.  Joshua had the godlight, but when a beautiful girl flattered him, he was a man like any other; not, however, anyone I wanted my sister to marry.  He was a homeless wanderer, while Thomas had a house nearby.  Miriam was beautiful, I knew that, but I wanted her wed and away from here.

This urgency, I realised with some discomfort, had come on me as soon as we brought Lazarus home, or what had been Lazarus.     I had a houseful of guests who did not go home for days, but no one to talk to.

Finally, I awoke one morning to quiet.

Miriam was asleep.  I made breakfast for Lazarus, who ate clumsily but with a fierce hunger, then appeared to doze off where he sat.   I went out quietly to feed the animals, just as the gate creaked and Arrius stepped in, in full armour, helmet under his arm.   We looked at one another for a moment.  "I was not sure you would welcome another visitor,"  he said.  "Word has got about."

The way he said it made me hesitate.  "What word?"

Arrius grimaced.   "Is there somewhere you and Miriam and your brother may go for a time?"

"No,"  I said bluntly.  "There is too much to do here.  Why?   Is Lazarus yet in danger?   I would have thought the worst has passed."

"Joshua's followers shout the word, that he has raised the dead and soon will unite your people behind him,"  Arrius said.  "The priests fear the reprisal of Rome."

"Are they right to fear?"

He said nothing.

I pushed it away from me.  It was a great, nebulous unease which I could do nothing about, yet I felt to blame for it.  I had let Joshua do whatever he had done.  "Arrius,"  I said, "will you look at him?"

"The whole of Judea has been to look at him, I think,"  Arrius said, good-humouredly enough when he realised I wasn't going to blame him for the presence of Rome.  "Shall I stand out from the crowd?"

I silently led the way back into the house.  In the dining area, Lazarus was now on his feet, looking in the direction of light through the windows.  He turned slowly, dully, to look at us, but as with all the other visitors, he said not one word of greeting.  Not even to his friend Joshua, or Ruth, or any other friend, had he spoken or smiled.   Arrius stared, his gaze travelling up and down Lazarus' form and finally turning aside.  He walked outside again into the courtyard, breathing in the clear morning air as though my house had contained a foulness he wished to clear out of his lungs.

When he turned to look at me, I saw that he was afraid.

"What has he done?"  he asked me and it took me a moment to realise he meant Joshua, not Lazarus.

"Raised my brother from the dead."

Then Arrius said something which brought that nebulous dread crashing home in a wave of blackness over my head.

"Not enough."

He had always been careful not to overstep the bonds.  The villagers might wonder whether I entertained the Roman in my bed.  There must never be evidence and above all, there must never be proof.  But now, Arrius came to me and put his arms about me as he told me, very carefully, what he meant.

"Among the tribes of Africa, there are sorcerers who do this thing, who raise men from the dead, but they do it to have slaves who will work for them or in revenge for some wrong or because another has paid them.  Those they raise are never again what they were in life.  Something does not return, no matter who calls."

I was vague as to the details of Africa; that great land of many nations stretching beyond the borders of Egypt.  I knew the Romans were there, as they seemed to be everywhere in the world but maps, for the moment, were irrelevant.   We debated here the fate of my brother Lazarus and what he had become.

"How do these sorcerers raise the dead?"

Arrius made a quick, nervous gesture of negation.  "How can I tell what is campfire stories and what is truth?  They would hardly tell a Roman the secrets of their power."

"No, true."   I looked about, smelling the jasmine growing along the white stone walls of the courtyard, yet seeing nothing.

"One thing they said,"  Arrius added. "was that the sorcerers cut out the tongues of those they take and drive a wooden peg thus."  He mimicked driving a peg into his own forehead.  

"Why?"  I asked blankly, horrified yet curious.

"The first, so that they could not tell any what was done to them, I should think.  The second, I don't know.  A means of control, perhaps?"

"And do the dead ever die again?"

"The tribesmen never said.  I imagine they could be killed as any man can."

"Why?  They are dead."   I shivered, thinking of Laz's empty eyes and faltering mind.   "These sorcerers, are they honoured men?    Treated as lords of their people for this power?"

"Honoured?   Perhaps they would call it honour."

"What would you call it?"

"From what I saw in the faces and heard in the voices of those who told the stories, I would call it fear."

"The people call Joshua a god and the son of a god, because he has done this thing."

"And the priests fear him, as I said.   This was not a wise thing for him to do."

"Laz was Joshua's friend.   He heals, Arrius, perhaps he thought he could heal death too."

Arrius shrugged a little.  "Possible, perhaps.   A man of this land may not know of these sorcerers.  Has Joshua ever lived anywhere else?"

I tried to think through what Thomas and Ruth had told me.  "Egypt, when he was a boy."

"The Black Land knows death in all its forms,"  Arrius agreed.

"You said Lazarus may be in danger, didn't you?"

"Word has it - and please accept that I cannot name whose word it is - that certain of your people want him silenced, as well as Joshua, in case he becomes a rallying point."

I laughed harshly and pulled away from him.  "He is as silent as they could wish.  Arrius, he does not remember Latin, probably Greek is lost to him as well.  His brain holds some of his native tongue but he will not speak unless another speaks first and then only a few words.  Will he go back to death?"

"I don't know.  He may remain as he is now,"  Arrius said.

"That is an abomination."

Arrius did not reprove me for speaking so of my brother.  He simply nodded.  I looked at him and said what I could not say to any of my own people.  "Help me."

That night we drank wine and talked late, until Arrius had to return to the city.  We made quiet plans, making sure that Miriam did not overhear, and I walked out with Arrius to see him away.

"I have an uncomfortable thought,"  Arrius said, bending down from his saddle.  "You say Joshua has this great power, which you have a little?"   I nodded, tasting bitterness.   "What happens when he dies?"

I thought of Joshua's supporters, how they would scream and weep, whenever their leader left them.

"When his people cry for him to come back to them, as he demanded that my brother come back, Joshua probably will."

Arrius looked sick.  "Are you sure that Miriam will go along with the plan?"

"No,"  I said, "but I have no other.   Be sure and return when you say, because I don't know how long I can keep him isolated."

"Unless you want to be charged with your brother's murder, do it,"  Arrius said and rode away.

On the evening before Passover, I asked a boy from the village to take a message to Ruth.   She came to my house within the hour, alone; no sign of her son Thomas or even a maidservant.  When I let her in, I saw by the oil-lamp's light that she had been crying.  "Joshua has been arrested,"  she said

"For what crime?"  I asked, helping her to sit upon the couch. 

"I don't know,"  Ruth sobbed.  "No one can get near him; he is being questioned."

I looked at her.  I had meant to speak to her of Lazarus, who sat silently in his room as he had done for several days.  I fed and bathed him there.  He showed no wish to leave and no one but I had seen him since I showed him to Arrius. "And Thomas?"

"He's all right - he brought me the word.  Only Joshua was taken."

A gasp behind me announced Miriam's arrival and she flew to embrace Ruth, both of them crying now.   Once she was reassured of Thomas' well being, Miriam calmed a little, but she was still distraught.   I went to the kitchen to fetch her a drink of water and Ruth followed me.  "How is Lazarus?"  she asked softly.

"The same,"  I said, meeting her eyes.   Ruth had not been trained with the thoroughness of my own mother, but she knew about Hannah and the tradition of my family.  "But I do not believe he will live long."

Ruth nodded, accepting this.  She made no offer of help and I knew I couldn't ask for it.

"Will you take Miriam to your house when you go?  I think she needs some time away from here."

As a fellow practitioner, Ruth could see beyond surfaces and I knew she could see beyond mine.  She didn't even need magic for that.   It wasn't that I lied, but that I told so little of the truth that it was almost irrelevant.  But she only said, "Of course.   For how long?"

"Until after the Passover."

Miriam seemed glad to go with Ruth, but I pushed them from my mind almost as the door closed between us.   Then I extinguished all the house lights except for the two candles in my sleeping room.   I washed myself and combed my hair, then sat naked before the candles on the floor.  Before them I laid a small, sharp knife and a small bag of soil, which looked like any soil but came in fact from the family tomb where Lazarus had been laid to rest.  I breathed slowly and peacefully, fixing my gaze and my mind on the candles standing together before me,  narrowing my power and my vision to this room and the two flickers of brightness.  

Night passed and the morning came.  In the evening the Passover would begin, but I had made no preparations. 

I sat on the hard floor before the candles, which had burned themselves out.  The room was still dim, the sun blocked by shutters.  Deeper I sank within myself until I was no longer aware of the room or even of my own body.   I fell within my flesh and out beyond, a bodiless light, the true heart of my ability to heal.   I travelled out beyond the ceiling into the bright sky, flitting miles in heartbeats, until shouts echoed around me, muffling groans of pain.  Physically I was nowhere, but the mind demands an anchor.  My spirit clothed me in flesh and I opened my eyes to find myself standing amidst a crowd ringing a hill on which stood three crosses.   The people around me had set up such a wailing that I could hear little else.  The nearest were women, none known to me, so I made myself look towards the crosses to find the answer as to why I had been drawn here.

Joshua was affixed upon the central cross.

Part of me was startled and horrified:   he had not killed anyone or broken the Roman law and even if he had, the haste was indecent.  The man had only been arrested the night before.  But the other part, the part which belonged to the women of my line and passed down from Hannah of Endor, that part was not surprised.   Rome knew it had to stop Joshua now.

I looked quickly at the other two men but they were not known to me.   Of Joshua's people, I knew most by sight but they were nowhere about.   Then I dismissed them; they were not important and even if they were, I could not speak to them or otherwise let them know I was present.   I focused on Joshua.  In my present state I could see the godlight as though it was actual sunlight, glowing about him.  I too glowed, but I was as a candle to his sun.  Not that it did him any good at all.   He was dying and that blazing incandescence was bleeding out of him.   If he was making any effort to heal himself, it wasn't working and would in any case be useless.

"Joshua!"  I called aloud.

He looked at me.  I'd been sure he could see me; even without his power, a dying man can always see beyond the veil.

"You know what is happening,"  I said.  "You know that when you die, your people will call for you.  You must not answer, Joshua."

A shocked, very human look flashed into his eyes.  He had not realised and in moments he had gone through all the implications.   There was no more time for him to act, only to be, and as death dragged at him, clarity of thought was vanishing also.   I wasted no more of his time.  I could only stand and watch throughout the day while my body stiffened, untended, in my room.  Towards evening, the onset of the Passover, Joshua and the other two men were taken down.  I saw the Roman guards finish off the other two but with Joshua there wasn't any need.

The last of the godlight bled out with the sunlight.  I wondered where it went.

Then I felt the drag of my body and fled to it with the swiftness of one waking from dream.

Arrius was standing over me, bending down to shake my shoulders and calling to me.   He sounded frightened.  "I was knocking for so long that I finally broke in,"  he said.  "What are you doing?"

"I was at Golgotha,"  I said before I thought.  "Joshua's dead."

"Forget Joshua!   What has happened with your brother?"

"I don't know,"  I said from a dry throat, dry lips. 

Arrius stared at me as I stiffly reached for a pitcher of water and drank from it without bothering with a cup.   Then, I swear it was only then and the dimness of the room can't excuse him, he realised that I was naked.   He immediately swivelled around, muttering something panicky.  I grabbed my gown from the floor.  "You can look now,"  I told him and slowly he faced me again.

"What do you mean, you were at Golgotha?   How could you have got there?"       

"It's a Mystery,"  I growled.  "However I know, Joshua's dead and we have to make sure my brother follows him.   Follows him all the way and does not return.  If you won't help me, I'll do it myself.”       

"You will do it,"  Arrius said quietly.  "I brought the sword, as you asked, but I can't kill a young Jewish man in his own home.   They'd nail me to the tree just as fast, you know, Martha."

"Lazarus isn't alive,"  I whispered.  "Joshua didn't know, he thought he'd saved him.  I saw the look in his eyes when I told him . . . "   Arrius was more bothered by the second, so I stopped.  “Follow me.”   I paused outside Laz’s doorway, only a few paces from my room.  There was no sound from within. "Give me the sword."  Arrius did, its metal weight awkward in my hand.   Silently he reached out to correct my grip and to push my arm forward in a thrust against an imaginary foe.   Then he tapped the area on his chest just below his heart and I understood.

I looked into the dim room, seeing my brother's bed over by the far wall; his robe flung across it.  The pitcher of water I had left for him was tipped over, a stain of water dark on the floor so that I first thought it was blood.   There seemed to be much more water than the pitcher could have held.   The room smelled musty and close and of someone who had not bathed in too long, but over it all was the dry choking scent of the tomb.  All I could think was that he couldn't have left the house, which had been barred, and I doubted he'd still have had the wit to leave the room.  I took a step into the room, then another, finding a sandy, gritty substance beneath my bare feet.  It was cast about the stone floor and Laz's robe and I had no idea what it could be.   It was not the colour of the earth outside;  that was more reddish and this was white.  Bone white.  The robe was draped over something like a rock about the size one could lift with both hands.  I knelt to draw the linen back and saw what lay beneath.

Arrius told me he got me outside the room but had to hang on to me for perhaps an hour before I stopped screaming.

And then he said we were not finished.  There was still Joshua.

"Perhaps Joshua is like Lazarus now,"  I said, but Arrius looked doubtful and in truth I didn't believe my own words.  Joshua had given of his own life force to my brother.  What he retained was far stronger and it might carry him beyond death.   He might be just enough alive not to realise that he was dead.

My hands still seemed to feel the smooth cold bone of my brother's skull.   That was ridiculous.  It was Arrius who had buried the pitiful remains in the folds of the discarded robe, somewhere in the orchard.  When we could, if we ever could, I would have to take them back to the family tomb and put them inside.   Yet how could I ever roll the great stone away from the entrance and back again by myself?

"I'll come back as soon as I know where Joshua's body was taken,"  Arrius said.

"How can you get leave so soon?"

"By calling on favours from my fellows in the Legion, some of them favours nobody owes me yet."

"Thank you,"  I said.

Two days later, very early in the morning, Arrius returned.  With his horse, he was leading another, saddled and bridled.   I could not ride, but he said he would lead the horse.  I left the terrible emptiness of my house behind me.  Miriam had not returned and I had had no word from Ruth to indicate that she did or did not understand what I was doing, but I believe she knew something of it.   She was helping in the only way she could.

When the walls of Jerusalem loomed close, Arrius led us alongside, towards Golgotha.  "The tombs are that way,"  I said.

"He's in Gethsemane.  A new tomb, some rich man who listened to him teach..."   Arrius shrugged a little.  I drew my headscarf closer so that none would recognise me, though few would know me here.   I so rarely left Bethany.   The morning was warming and others were on the road, though there was no execution today and little traffic about the hill.   The light was very clear and peaceful.   I felt the horse stop and heard Arrius dismount.  He came to my side to help me down and I looked at him, for the moment wondering why I saw a Roman soldier here.   Then I slid down from the horse.  "The tomb's got a boulder in front of it,"  Arrius said quietly, holding my arm.  "What do you plan to do?  We can't shift it; we're sure to be seen, even if we were strong enough."

I wanted to smile.  That "we" was pure diplomacy.   "I don't know, Arrius.  Let's go and look at the tomb."

Then we heard panicked breathing and the sounds of someone running, so drew back from the path.  The dark-haired woman who came past looked neither left nor right, nor did she hesitate.  The look on her face was mingled joy and utter shock.   Arrius and I didn't speak even when she was gone, but we looked at each other as though to give warning neither needed.

The boulder was rolled back from the tomb mouth and Joshua was standing there waiting.   His face was pale but his look normal, focusing on me.   He was wearing strips of linen as Lazarus had and his hair was thick with earth.  Arrius muttered something, maybe a prayer to his alien gods, and stayed back to let me take the lead.  I focused on Joshua.  "You know what is happening,"  I told him as I had at Golgotha, saw the recognition flash in his eyes.  The godforce still burned about him, but it was the burning of a sunset, not the continual rebirthing of light that is the living sun.  I seemed to see blurred shadows about him.  Spirits?   Hannah had seen spirits, talked with them often.   No doubt they'd be drawn to Joshua.  Who were they?   Kings, maybe.  Saul and David.

Had Hannah ever had a task such as this, to tell a man he should be dead?

"No," said Joshua.  "Not yet.   I want to see my brothers."

"Who was that who ran?"  Arrius asked behind me.  He spoke in Latin and Joshua grinned, as though knowing the Roman tried to test him.  It was the old smile and I was jolted; he seemed so much alive.

"She is called Mary of Magdalene,"  he said.

"Did you send her to fetch them?"  I pressed and Joshua nodded. Mary had gone on foot; Joshua's band could not be far away.   We had no time to do anything, even if I could have stabbed him or some such.  "Joshua, listen to me.  You know you only have a little time, don't you?   You're stronger than Laz but he only lasted a week.”

Joshua smiled again, a curious thing to do at such a time.   "I know what I must do, Martha,"  he said.  "And I will go to my father soon."

He walked away through the garden.

"Let's go,"  Arrius said and I nodded, pushing my scarf down from my hair.  "Aren't you worried someone will see you with me?"

"That doesn't matter any more,"  I told him.

"What about Joshua?   His followers are going to be screaming that he's risen from the dead.  If you thought it was bad when Lazarus walked out of the tomb . . . "

"I can't stop them,"  I cried at him.  "I can't even tell them the truth.  All I can do - and make sure my daughters do - is make sure this never happens again."

Joshua's followers would hunt me down as blasphemer, now that the years have shadowed the truth.   Joshua remained in life for a short while only; longer than Lazarus, but like Lazarus, he had only that strength with which he had gone to the grave.   He had the chance no one else has, to say goodbye properly to his friends, but it must not come again.

I was the talk of the village after the disappearance of my brother Lazarus.   Miriam married Thomas and moved in to his house with him and his mother.  Arrius' time in the Eagles is almost up now and his land grant will be in Judea, a farm ten miles the other side of Jerusalem.  My neighbours needed something new to talk about and Laz's older sister Martha marrying a Roman certainly will provide them with it.   I suppose my daughter will also, when she is born.  I hope she understands.  I hope she will forgive me for her heritage.

 

 

This story originally appeared in Orb Speculative Fiction.


1 Comment
  • leece
    March 17, 9:51am

    I've been reading a lot of Colleen McCulloch's scholarly Roman books, and more of the more humorous Lindsey Davis's Falco works, it's interesting to see things from the secret magical Jewish side and engrossing as all heck.

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