Extract > The Gospel According to Lazarus
Yeshua (aka Jesus) has wept in this extract from Richard Zimler’s new novel, The Gospel According to Lazarus, a brilliant retelling of the story of the Passion.
Lazarus, himself, awakes …
I must speak to you now of the week that changed my life and sent me into exile here on Rodos – and that brought you into our family. Try if you can to imagine me as the widower and father of two young children that I was then – a man who had celebrated thirty-six birthdays with his family and friends.
One afternoon, I awaken to a confusion of faces unknown to me, lit by the harsh saffron-coloured light of a dozen night-lamps. My heart recoils from so many strangers, and my first thought is that I must quickly make an appeal for mercy. But I do not utter a word; I remain a pair of blinking, terrified eyes waiting for clues that will reveal to me the nature of my predicament.
Out of habit, I speak the Lord’s words to the prophet Yirmiyahu inside my head, Be not afraid of them, for I am with you and shall deliver you. And yet, raucous shouts from somewhere unseen make me flinch – and wish to run. Rushed whispers soon reach me as well, but I am unable to comprehend them. The tense, insistent beating in my chest sways me from side to side, and my throat is as dry as sand.
Deep underground – that is where my scattering thoughts seem to have sought refuge.
A long-haired youth holds up a torch and leans towards me, studying me with moist and troubled eyes. His tunic is ripped along the neckline.
When I gaze past him, I find butterflies of shadow fluttering on a ceiling of pale stone. The heavy, sweet, humid scent of myrrh fills me with each of my laboured breaths.
They’ve taken me to a cavern, I think. I must try to discover what they want of me before I speak.
A small woman with a drawn face and curious, deep-set eyes leans towards me. She holds a small square of fabric over her mouth and nose, and she peers at me as though endeavouring to solve a complex calculation. She says something unintelligible – in Latin, perhaps – and lifts her brows in an attempt to prompt my reply. I wonder why she doesn’t address me in Aramaic – or in Hebrew or Greek.
She must be a foreigner. The others, too. And yet nearly all of them wear Judaean dress.
To my left a stooped old man is weeping, his tallith draped over his shoulders. Beside him is a tall long-limbed woman – forty years old, I would guess – clutching a woollen mantle to her chest as if it might jump from her and scamper away if she were to ease her grip. She has the stricken face of a lost soul who has seen too much, and the collar of her peplos is torn. The small scar on her chin – in the shape of a crescent – seems familiar to me.
Something furry folds into my right hand. A mouse? Could I have been taken to a den of wild animals and vermin? I am unable to turn my head to get a look. Below my racing pulse stirs the hope that the little creature will not bite me.
Yaphiel, you might think it comic, but I later discover that the hand of an old friend can feel exactly like a shivering mouse under certain peculiar circumstances.
My shoulders are gripped from behind, and I am pushed into an upright position. The long-haired youth and the woman with a crescent scar unfold a coarse linen cloth that has been wrapped around my chest and legs. Do I fall asleep while they work? I next remember the tearful old man covering my naked sex with his prayer shawl.
A wooden ladle is held to my lips by a slender man in a camlet cape and hood. He is patient with me, this stranger with generous and powerful hands, and I gulp at the next ladle he offers me, and the one after that, and … After a time, I split into two persons: an exhausted being desperate to slake his thirst and a distant and curious observer wondering why such a simple act has become so difficult.
After I have drunk my fill, I notice an amber necklace around my neck. Its beads are a milky yellow. When I try to grip it, tremors strike my hand again.
My voice will not come, but the long-haired boy reads the desperation in my face and lifts up the necklace for me to see. Could it be the one my mother always wore?
‘Give him a look at the talisman!’
A woman’s emphatic voice prompts him to show me a roundel of parchment that has also been hung around my neck. Four crude figures are designed on it, graced with oval Egyptian eyes. Their angelic names are written above their heads: Mikhael, Gavriel, Uriel and Rafael. Underneath them is a quote from the Psalms in the handwriting of a child: ‘No disaster shall befall you, no calamity shall come upon your home. For the Lord has charged His angels to guard you wherever you go.’
A flute melody – a Phrygian tune, plaintive and mournful – calls me towards sleep, and the slumber inside me is warm and abundant, like a gently swaying sea.
Some time later, the man who helped me drink kisses me on the lips. He has taken off his hood. He has red and swollen eyes.
He has been grieving, I think, and I wish to ask him if a friend of his has died, but I am still unable to find a voice. He caresses my cheek. ‘Shalom Aleikem, dodee,’ he whispers. Peace to you, beloved.
He knows Aramaic, which is a comfort.
Stubble coarsens his cheeks, and his shoulder-length brown hair is in a tangle. He shows me a weary but contented smile.
He would like to let himself go and laugh the exhausted laugh of a man who has been weeping, I think.
The mist of forgetfulness inside me clears at that moment, and I recognize him. Yet he looks older than I remember him – and spent in body. Could he be ill?
When I reach up to him, intending to test his brow for the heat of fever, he grips my hand and kisses it as if we had been lost to each other for years. ‘I answered you in the hiding place of thunder,’ he says, which is how we have greeted each other since we were boys. It is a quote from our favourite verse of Psalm.
Where are we? I shape this question with my lips – at least, that is my intent – but for some reason I fail to make myself understood, and Yeshua shows me a puzzled face. ‘You’ll be yourself again soon,’ he tells me. ‘All of us will help you.’
I scan the countenances around me and count them – fourteen. Standing on each side of Yeshua are my old friends Maryam of Magdala and Yohanon ben Zebedee. Yohanon has had his thick black hair clipped so short that he appears to be wearing an Ionian skullcap. He smiles encouragingly at me through his tears.
Maryam’s kohl-ringed eyes look bruised. She is wearing her saffron-coloured robe – a gift from Yeshua – though it looks too large and cumbersome on her. Behind her – dressed in an elegant toga, pinching his nose – stands Nikodemos ben Gurion, one of Yeshua’s benefactors. He peers at me as if I might be an impostor. Could I have changed in some way that makes me seem another man?
At the back, taller than all the others, are my Alexandrian cousins, the twins Ion and Ariston. Ion, the bolder of the two, waves at me and grins in his boyish way.
Maryam draws my glance from him when she raises her hands and blesses me. I spot a wine-coloured design of the zodiac on her palm and aim to ask her about it, but all that emerges from me is a dry ratcheting sound.
At length, I grow anxious to find my mother and father, but they do not seem to be with us.
I know that I am crying only when I taste salt on my lips. The longlimbed woman – whom I now recognize as my sister Mia – takes my hand and places it over her face, breathing in deeply on the scent of me, though she soon starts coughing. When we were children, she used to say that I smelled like warm barley bread. I remember that now, and my name, but many other things still escape me. Might we have all gathered together for my father’s funeral?
‘Where are our parents?’ I manage to ask her in a hoarse whisper.
‘Everything will be all right,’ Mia replies. ‘You mustn’t worry yourself.’
She puts her arm around the old man next to her. ‘Grandfather Shimon risked leaving the house to be with you,’ she tells me in a cheerful voice. She points then to the small tired-looking woman holding a piece of fabric over her mouth. ‘And Marta is here, of course. Many friends have come. And your son and daughter.’ She summons my children to her with a wave.
Nahara is trembling. She looks as she does when she has been chased out of sleep by thunder. Yirmiyahu, her older brother – the long-haired youth with anxious eyes – lifts her up to me.
Nahara throws her arms around my neck. Blessed be the kindness of the Lord; as she sobs, I still the shaking in my hand long enough to comb her soft brown hair, though my touch only makes her cry harder.
If I’m unable to calm her, then Leah will …
Before finishing my thought, I recall that my wife’s life ended six years before, at the same moment that our daughter’s began. My mind also locates my parents’ graves in a suffocating corner of my memory I rarely visit.
‘I’m sorry I’m so weak,’ I whisper to my daughter.
As she sobs, Yirmi eases her despair with endearments, then leans down and presses his lips to both my eyes, which seems his way of linking the three of us together – and an extremely mature gesture for a youth who only reached manhood a few months earlier.
Yeshua returns to me then. He places his hand on top of my head and presses down, as he does when he wishes to heal a supplicant. ‘“The season of singing has come,” ’ he quotes from the Song of Shelomoh.
He begins to chant, and I flow towards his voice, which I know as well as my own, and, when he lifts his hand from me, I follow its absence beyond the borders of my flesh, and I am in the air now, held aloft by the sound of his words in Hebrew, and I remember my father telling me that our ancestors gather around us when we intone our hymns, and …
‘Do you think you can stand, dodee?’ Yeshua’s question brings me back inside my body. I shake my head, for I am unable to feel my legs.
‘But you know now who I am?’ he asks.
A silly memory makes me grin. ‘Sometimes a teacher and some – times bitter trouble,’ I whisper. It is an answer I invented when we were students in order to put him in his place when he grew too full of himself. It is a play on words: morah means bitter trouble and moreh means teacher.
I expect Yeshua to laugh; instead, he speaks to me in a down – hearted voice. ‘No, I’m the one who pushed you off the wall and into the talons of the Lord of the Sky. Though maybe I …’ Before he can complete his sentence, his eyes flood with tears and he squeezes my hand. ‘Can you forgive me for coming too late?’ he asks.
Too late for what? I wonder.
The Gospel According to Lazarus