There were eleven caves above the poppy line—a decent choice for these four visitors. Enough room even for the fifth when he or she arrived. The caves were not hard to see. Their darkly shadowed entrances made a constellation of black stars against the copper of the cliff. There were two easily accessible caves at the cliff foot, partly obscured by salt bushes and fallen debris, and then a further four above, opening on to a sloping terrace. Higher still, and less inviting, were three more caves, set far apart. And then, a hundred paces to the left, a further two, halfway up a seam of darker, stony soil.
The first of the cave-dwellers to arrive and startle Miri had been the oddest of them all. Was that the word? Not odd, perhaps, but out of place. He was a gentile, blond-haired and narrow-faced; quite beautiful, she thought. And a touch sinister. A Roman or a Greek perhaps, a traveller. But there was nothing Greek or Roman in his quality of clothes. He wore a local tunic and a high, woven cap which made his face seem even thinner than it was. His skin was dry from too much sun. But he seemed strong, like leather thongs are strong. Designed to carry loads.
And he was heavily and well equipped—a large goatskin for water, a rush bed-mat, a cloak, a walking staff made from an elongated piece of tarbony with ram-horn curls halfway along its length so that when he rested on its nub his weight had to drop and spiral twice before it reached the ground. He’d taken the smallest and the warmest of the middle rank of the caves.
The second chose the middle rank as well; his cave was 20 paces from the Roman or the Greek, the furthest to the right, and in a shallow declivity of the terrace which would protect the entrance from his neighbour’s gaze, and from the evening sun. He was an elderly Jew, wearing a felt skull-cap; yellow-eyed and yellow-skinned, frail and timid beyond his years, short-sighted, tired, running short of time. He busied himself, peering nervously amongst the stones and scree, collecting thorn roots and branches for a fire, and carrying small rocks for his hearth. He talked out loud to no one in particular. Himself? The lizards? Not prayers or incantations as you might expect. But remarks on everything he saw and found. A good supply of wood and that’s a blessing … We’ll live like kings, old friend …
The third was—surprisingly—a female Jew of Miri’s own age, though tall and stout and obviously not used to walking. And obviously not used to cleaning out a cave. She could not bear to touch the bones and carrion inside. She couldn’t make a decent broom from any of the bushes. She’d chosen her shelter badly, too—one of the two caves on the lower level of the scarp, the first she’d found, easy to reach, but hard to protect. The bushes at the front, would encourage flies, and worse. The entrance was a little higher than the chamber itself. It wasn’t likely there’d be rain—but if there were she’d have to sleep in it.
The fourth? A badu villager from the deserts in the south, with silver bracelets and a hennaed beard and hair. He was more familiar. The caravan had often traded with such men; some silver for a dozen goats, some perfume for a roll of cloth, a tub of dates for unimpeded passage through their land. They’d sell their children too, it was said. And their wives. He stood outside his cave, one of the two set at a distance from the others in the darker seam of rock. He pulled and twisted his hair, so tightly that the skin on his skull came up in peaks, and stared at Miri. Finally she had to reach for her discarded headscarf, cover up her hair, and duck into her grave. Why such a man would choose a cave and not a tent was inexplicable. The badus only went into caves to die, and this man—small and unrelenting—seemed too wild to die.
Miri watched the four of them until she and her bladder were set free by darkness. She did not see the fifth.
The fifth, a male, was far younger than he might have seemed from a distance. Not much more than an adolescent, then. Bare feet make old men of us all, on stony paths at least. But even when he reached the softer and more accommodating track above the landfall, he walked not from the shoulders like a seasoned traveller intent on vanquishing the rocks and rises in his path, but cat-like from the hips, his toes extended, pointing forwards, and put down with caution before his heels were committed to the ground. He’d learnt the single lesson of the thorn. His feet were already torn and bruised. So: long legs, long neck, long hands, short leopard steps. And like a leopard he paused frequently, not to rest but to sniff the air as if he could locate—beyond the sulphur rising on the valley’s thermals—that a caravan of camels had passed, that there were gazelles feeding in the thorns, that there was someone dying in the wilderness ahead.
He was open-mouthed. He looped his tongue from side to side, circling his lips, tasting the atmosphere for smells. In fact his sense of smell had been so bludgeoned by the heat and by his thirst that he could not detect the sulphur even. He was parched and faint. His lips were cracked. His legs and back—unused to heat and effort such as this—were aching badly. If he paused to sniff so frequently, that was because he could smell nothing. It worried him. He hoped to clear the blockage in his nose, and shift his headache too.
He was a traveller called Jesus, from the cooler, farming valleys in the north, a Galilean, and not one used to deprivations of this kind. He’d spent the night in straw, a shepherd’s paying guest, and had that morning left his bag, his water-skin, his sandals, and his stick where he’d slept. His quarantine would be achieved without the comforts and temptations of clothing, food, and water. He’d put his trust in god, as young men do. He would encounter god or die, that was the nose and tail of it. That’s why he’d come. To talk directly to his god. To let his god provide the water and the food. Or let the devil do its work. It would be a test for all three of them.
First he had to find a place where he and god could meet in privacy. He’d say, if asked, that god had told him where to go, the details of this very route. He had been standing at the window of his father’s workshop and god had called his name. Every time the mallet hit the wood, his name was called. And every time the mallet hit the wood he took a further step along the road in his mind’s eye, down from the living sea in Galilee to the salt-dead waters in the south, and then ascending to the desert hills and caves.
There were nine days of mallet hitting wood before he found the courage to argue with his family, tie his bag, and leave. The hills were beckoning, he’d said. But as he walked up into the wilderness—his nostrils blocked, his feet raw, another mallet striking on his skull relentlessly—he could not find much evidence of god. The Galilee was full of god at that time of the year—new crops, flowers on the apricot, the lambs, the warmer nights … It was not hard to worship god in the Galilee. But here the spring had hardly made its mark. Jesus was an optimist. Look at the uncompleted land, he told himself, dry-tongued, enfeebled by the labours of the walk: the valleys waiting for their rivers, the browns and yellows waiting for their greens. Creation was unfinished here. This was where the world was not complete. What better place to find his god at work?
Unlike the four who had preceded him that afternoon and set up home amongst the poppies, Jesus did not follow any of the carvings in the rocks which indicated where hermits would easily find caves. He did not mean to leave his imprint softly in the clay. He was looking for much harder ground. He preferred the pious habitats of lunatics and bats where he could live for 40 days, hanging by his toes if need be, and not have any excuse for shifting his eyes from heaven for an instant. He’d seen that there were caves set in the crumbling precipice which fell away abruptly below the camel trail, beyond the ambition even of goats. He’d choose one which was hard to reach and inhospitable, exposed to the sun and wind and cold. He set his sights on the remotest and the highest of the caves, a key-shaped hole. It had no more than a sloping rock as its yard, hardly bigger than a prayer-mat, the perfect perch for eagles. And for angels. But Jesus hesitated at the point where he should start to climb down. He surely had the right to drink before he embarked on his trials. It was not dusk. There was, as yet, no thin and bending moon to mark the onset of his fast. God would not come before day one. So he could drink. It was not a sin to drink. It would not be a sign of weakness, either, if he prepared for quarantine with, say, a simple meal, a wash, a rest.
He’d seen the batwing outline of Miri’s goatskin tent, pitched on the flatland of the valley head. He walked towards it. There was no one to be seen in the open. But there were goats. If there were goats then there was water too. And milk and meat.
A tethered donkey announced his arrival while he was still 50 paces away. Jesus stood, as was the custom, a little distance from the open awning of the tent and waited for the greetings from within, and the invitation to come forward. He could not pay for food and drink. What little money that he had he’d left behind that morning in the keeping of the shepherd. But there are traditions, even in the wilderness. A traveller can wet his face and lips for free.
He coughed. He clapped his hands. He called out greetings of his own. But no one came. That was strange—the tent was unattended, and yet the awnings were still raised. Jesus took a step or two towards the tent, so that he could see inside more clearly. There were the usual signs of domesticity; the rugs and mats, the pots, some bread and dates discarded from a meal and being finished off by ants, the sacks of grain, the remnants of a fire, the skins of water hanging in the shade, the bundled blankets on a bed, the row of shoes. But no one there, as far as he could tell. Jesus looked around for signs of someone approaching, but there were none. He called again, without reply. His patience was not endless. He was keen, he told himself, to reach the cave before darkness and to begin his fast. He was afraid as well. Afraid that he might lose his nerve the moment that he reached the precipice, and go back home at once.
This was not theft. He took a few more steps towards the awning and lifted the nearest and the smallest of the water-skins off its wooden peg. He stooped and picked up the wasted heels of bread, the dates. He rubbed the ants off on his arm. Not killing them. Not trying to, at least. They dropped into the dust and went about their business, unperturbed. He picked some pieces of straw and the small stones from between his toes and off his heels. He squeezed out what thorns he could find. His feet were bruised and sore. His head had not improved. His body ached. Perhaps it would not matter if he went inside, out of the sun, if he sat cross-legged within the tent, those blankets as a seat, and took his final supper in some comfort. Again—with water, bread and dates held in his hands—he took some further steps. He left the sun. His eyes were baffled by the darkness. While he waited to become accustomed to the gloom he heard a whistling throat, as if the bunched-up blankets at his ankles were calling out for drink.
’Who’s there?’ he said.
Again a whistling throat.
’Who’s sleeping there?’
Fevers will allow a period of short lucidity before their victims die. Musa became conscious for long enough to hear that one word sleeping, and then to register the pains throughout his body. His head was spongy like a mushroom. He could feel each vein and pipe, each gut and artery, each bone and nerve, highlighted by his agony. He was a parched and desert landscape, illuminated by lightning. And in that moment when he heard the word he saw the face as well. A Jewish face, young and long and womanly. A Galilean face. A peasant face. A robber’s face, for sure, because the man had helped himself to water and was standing with their water-skin held in his hand. Musa would have struck the man if he’d been well enough. It would have been his duty to make it dear that theft, especially of water, deserved some bruises and a bloody nose. It would have been his pleasure, too. But he couldn’t even clench his fist. He tried to call out Miri’s name. He hadn’t got the breath to make a sound.
‘Allow me water, to soak these little crusts and wet my lips,’ the Galilean said in that compromise of tongues where Aramaic flirts with Greek. He sensed the silent answer he received was No. He knelt into the darkness of the tent, located Musa from the cursing sounds he made, and sat down at his side. ‘Do not deny me water, cousin,’ he said. ‘Let me take a mouth of it, and you’ll then have 40 days of peace from me. I promise it. The merest drop.’
He put his fingertips on Musa’s forehead. He stroked his eyelids with his thumb. ‘Are you unwell? I am not well myself.’ He laid his hand on Musa’s chest and pressed so that the devil’s air expressed itself and filled the tent with the odour of his fever and expelled the one word Musa had already formed, ‘Mi Ri.’ The cloth that Miri had put across his mouth to keep the fever in almost lifted with the power of her name. His tongue was black. Again the Galilean put all his weight—which wasn’t much—on Musa’s chest and pressed. The sulphur of the hills. The embers of the chesty fire. Even Jesus could smell it. No further calls for Miri though.
‘A sip, a sip. And then I’m gone,’ Jesus said. ‘The merest drop.’ He poured a little water on his hands and smeared the dust of his journey across his face. He was immensely cold, but glad to have this respite from the sun. He wet his hair and massaged the water into his scalp so that his headache was somewhat dampened. He resurrected the softness in the bread and dates with water. He ate, hardly touching his lips with those long, craftsman’s fingers. He drank some more. Then—an afterthought—he tipped a little water on Musa’s cheeks and lips. He felt inspirited, newly released from pain, and powerful. He wet the cloth and put it back in place on Musa’s mouth. He shook the water from his hands over Musa’s face, a blessing. ‘So, here, be well again,’ he said, a common greeting for the sick.
What should he do? It didn’t matter much. There were no witnesses or anyone to reckon with. There was as yet no thin and bending moon to mark the first night of his rendezvous with god. So he was unobserved. There is no choice, he told himself. He had to leave this sick man on his own to die. Otherwise he’d never reach the cave; he’d miss the start of quarantine.
He would have run away, except his feet would not allow him to. He hobbled out, an old young man, letting go the water-skin and pulling down the open awnings as he passed. He was embarrassed by his selfishness, perhaps? But Musa did not witness it. He did not witness anything. His eyes were closed. He was asleep at last, and dreaming plumply like a child.