Monday, 12 December 2011

Golden Walls Fading Fields.

Joanna stumbled suddenly and unexpectedly upon the field.  Instantly her beating heart became still. The silence scared her. Glancing down, she saw that her angular body was shimmering and, simultaneously, she acknowledged that it belonged to her and that she did not recognise it at all. It seemed to glide and hover in sync with her instincts. With a simple suggestion of her thoughts, she would tilt and rear forward and the swiftness and complete integration of mind, spirit and whatever this thing that seemed to be her body was, scared her even more.

As far as she could see to the east, west, north and south, Joanna could make out four gigantic walls. Gold coloured, they rose at 90 degree angles from the yellow brown edges of the colossal field. Instantly, in collusion with the thought that crossed her mind, she reached the south facing wall and began to examine it with her probing, automatic hands. It seemed impenetrable and as quickly as the thought reached her mind, Joanna had circumnavigated its entire distance, checking for a gap or opening of any other kind. Even as she rose slightly from the surface of the ground to examine the towering walls, a bead of sweat, the first reminder of her former humanity, dripped from her temple as she realised that the field was imprisoning her.

A slight breath of wind whispered through the field. The ankle length grass was tinged with a dusty hue as if it had been starved of rain for a long time. Joanna's mind was racing and her body jerked helplessly in obedience at every hopeless memory of her previous existence. She pictured her final moments, alone in her house in one of the finest hamlets of Capernaum. She had watched as the household servant had positioned her vast collection of goblets next to the fruit bowl and the water pot. It had been the elderly hand's final task for the night, before leaving to go to her sleeping quarters. Joanna had nodded to her as she left, but had not seen fit to utter a goodbye. Her final act had been to fall asleep by the open fire where the servant had found her cold, lifeless body in the chair the next morning.

The memory suddenly sparked hope in Joanna as she recognised that she was, even now, still alive. Her recollections of life were intact and she had not been obliterated in the way that she been brought up to believe she would. From the youngest age possible, after every synagogue trip, her Sadducee father would force her to recite verses contained in the tefillin he wore around his head. The law of Moses clearly stated that there was no afterlife and Joanna had viewed this as a basic tenet of what she believed...

Now a shiver jolted through her body, as a figure appeared suddenly from the wall. As if it had simply muscled its way through. In mimicry of Joanna's previous swift movements across the field, the figure darted forward and instantaneously reached her. Face to face, the recognition was obvious and, overwhelmed, Joanna began to weep. Within a second, her arms had entwined the man. He was silent but his arms guardingly became conjoined to her, giving in to the caresses that Joanna now lavished upon him. As she began to speak, he glanced around and touched her lips with his bronzed hand as if in warning.  Flowing from his touch came spirit residue which sparked Joanna's mind with a series of memories that flickered before her eyes... 

Her seventeenth birthday and her parents leading the boy he used to be, and his father, through their old oak door... The fathers sharing wine in a corner and talking in hushed, business-like tones... Joanna's mother leaving for the kitchen...leaving them alone to find the first fruits of their love...their stilted conversation...My name is Benjamin....I am Joanna...a family meal together...the excited tones of her mother after the visit...a real gentleman, she had said...one week later another visit, with the bride price and offer of marriage...her father's acceptance and the flowing of more wine in celebration of the day to come...and one year later, the wedding ceremony...his widening smile as he peeled back her veil to reveal her perfect olive skin and black hair held tightly in a tiara of violet mandragora... the rabbi's cheerful blessing...the joy of dancing.... and a modest home furnished by Benjamin for her...their seven years there together, alone, but for the final days...the happiest seven years of her life...

Slipping from her grasp, Benjamin suddenly flashed to the edge of the north wall and motioned with his arm for Joanna to follow. All the time his pointing finger hovered near his mouth. Straight away, she was on the move, but, she stopped herself a short distance away from him. As she waited, frozen to the spot, she concentrated on controlling her mind. Any slip and her body could move involuntarily. Her breathing seemed non-existent. As she focused on this, she began to recognise a completely different rhythm to what she had previously known as her heartbeat. It pulsed in waves which could crash inside her or tumble through her body in a way that made her want to run.

Then Benjamin exhaled abruptly. "We're going through."

He grasped her arms and pulled. The sudden motion left Joanna feeling woozy. She was transferring her weight onto both feet at once and the wall seemed to melt into her as she moved. Benjamin's warm arms were feeling for her and grasping around her slender waist and as he was doing so, spirit residue was kicking in again...

...she was with him near the shores of Galilee as a breeze blew across from Decapolis...they were dallying and he was stopping her and holding her in his arms...two lovers at pains to walk at ease...

Benjamin grasped again and they were falling, stumbling and pulling themselves onto their feet again. Sensing that memories were transmitting from his body, he broke himself free from Joanna as soon as they were standing upright.

She looked all around her. It was uncannily similar to the place they had come from. A second field. A second set of giant walls. Yet it was not the same. Joanna twitched, as if to advance and inspect the tall, golden structures as she had done in the first field, but Benjamin stopped her with a motion of his hand as a look of alarm swept his ageless, tanned face. The breeze, which had been so slender and welcoming was now catching her by the throat and an angry, grey sky was frowning down on them. As he touched her fingers again, he transferred the memory of his passing...

...he, lying across their bed...she, by the bedside,  holding his hand as the fever swept the life from him...he, smiling with his very last...she, trying to hold herself together...and knowing she was losing him ...and their knowledge that his brother was standing in the next room...

Benjamin's grasp slipped from her fingers once more as Joanna looked up to see a figure rearing in from the north-east corner of the field. Literally closing in on her at the speed of light...
     
                                          


Benjamin's passing was a peaceful one and Joanna was holding him as his last breath was taken. Outside, the birds continued to sing their sweetest song. Unaware that their melody should have been minor, they continued to ply the sky with happiness. 

Caleb's footsteps were slow and deliberate as he moved towards Joanna with the sombre advance of an undertaker. Scuffing dust, he creaked through the doorway and, without a word of condolence, announced his intentions:  "I am willing to perform the rite of yibbum. The maamar ceremony can take place as soon as Benjamin is buried. You will come to live with me. We will sell this small-holding straight away."

The second eldest son of the ben Moshe family had already, by the age of 27, made a name for himself as a landowner. Collecting taxes on Jewish properties to pass to the Roman ruling party had been the source of much of his wealth,  and he had invested wisely in some land on the outskirts of Capernaum. Caleb had used the land to build an elaborate series of outhouses. But these were only the petals on the very beautiful flower which was his villa, styled on the homes of those he worked for. 








The offer was not negotiable. Joanna's husband was dead and his brother had done the honourable thing in offering to take her hand in marriage. If he had not done so, there were others in line, but Caleb's intentions were clearly not to allow his older brother's family name to die with him.

In very little time, Joanna would grow used to the elaborate lifestyle of her new home. The prestige of her new husband's social status would somehow make up for his coldness and having a household servant would make up for the lack of conversation. Chats with Elizabeth could run long into the evening, especially on the many days when Caleb was not to return home. Yet, in spite of Elizabeth's good company, Joanna often felt strangely redundant in the villa and the pain of losing Benjamin was still as raw as ever.

Her time with Caleb was simply to be a lit fuse: his fiery temper was often the outcome of long hours spent in the presence of local politicians. Having to kow-tow to a Roman was not Caleb's idea of a dignified existence. Even worse was having to do someone else's dirty work with the locals, although he knew that it paid for his lavish lifestyle... The small amount of patience he had was often worn thin by the time he returned to the villa at night.  Thus, Joanna, slowly but surely, became the victim of his violent temper...

The shape that drew in front of her in the second field was displaying that self-same contempt now. Caleb seemed to hover before her eyes as if in slow motion, as he drew back his arm to slap her across the cheek. The force of the blow sent spirit residue stinging through her and memories of his many beatings came flooding to the surface. As Caleb stung, Benjamin shifted back, as if compelled somehow to defer to the man who had taken his wife and his place in another world. Falling to her knees, Joanna held out her hand towards Benjamin and as their fingers brushed each other again, she was able to transmit to him the telling moment of her one year marriage to his brother...

...Darkness had fallen and Elizabeth had left for her sleeping quarters... Caleb pushed through the door, his speech slurred, his body instantly tall and threatening....Joanna, trying to stay out of his way, was edging into a corner of the cooking area...As he grabbed for her, she was moving deftly,  knocking the large water pot onto his foot, and he was tripping and toppling, like a slow pine tree, onto the cold stone floor...blood was seeping from his head and she was trying to revive him but, before  Elizabeth came in, woken by the commotion, he was gone...the accidental nature of the death was widely accepted and, within days, Joanna wore the black of mourning once again...

Now Benjamin was trying and failing to pull her to her feet and simultaneously fend off his enraged brother. As thunder crackled in the distance, Caleb pushed past him to get to Joanna. She quickly scrambled to her feet and shifted towards the corner of the field. "You ruined me," he was shouting.  "You made me who I am. I cannot escape this field and neither will you."

Joanna was now wedged firmly between the south and east walls. Benjamin had seemingly disappeared and in an instant, Caleb stood menacingly in front of her. His furious fists were raised above his head and his eyes had crumpled into his painful skin. In rage, he brought his right hand thudding down on her head once more, but no blood appeared on Joanna's face. Although fear itself was stalking her, she had felt no pain, and the realisation was an epiphany to her. He could not hurt her...

Yet, even as the thought passed through her mind, he took her by surprise. As she twisted onto her feet, he produced a hunting dagger and stabbed her quickly on the leg. Joanna winced as the flow of blood began to trickle through her white tunic. He was pulling the knife free of her thigh, just as lightning struck. The field flashed white and Caleb stood frozen, in the bright silver beam of light. Immobile in the electric glow, he watched helplessly as several hands emerged through the cornerstone. A second later, they had spirited Joanna through the wall...

The sky calmed once more and as an eerie silence seeped into the second field, Caleb lay face down in the tangled grass...

 
Benjamin’s smiling brown eyes greeted Joanna as she picked herself up from the stony ground. She felt for her thigh, realising that the pain had disappeared. Looking down, she saw that her tunic had returned to brilliant white. Joanna traced Benjamin's glance and realised that that they were not alone. Turning to face another identical golden wall, Joanna saw three men, standing a few metres apart from each other . She recognised them straight away. To their left, on a stone table, sat a petteia board and it was clear by the few stones left in play, that she had interrupted the game near to its conclusion…


Born on three consecutive years, the boys had grown up together. Whilst Benjamin and Caleb helped to bring in income for the growing family by working as labourers in nearby fields, Daniel, Ethan and Simon spent their days fishing by the Sea of Galilee. They enjoyed each other’s company. Daniel and Ethan often played practical jokes at Simon’s expense. They knew that his good nature would ensure that the equilibrium of their relationship would not be unbalanced. When he discovered that he had been tricked, Simon's response would always be a rueful grin and a pat on the back for his brothers. Often, as the sun was setting over the sparkling water, the boys would be seen running home joyfully with their catch. Entering the house, they knew they would be treated as heroes for providing enough fish for the family’s supper. Respect from Benjamin and Caleb was a large part of their motivation, but their mother’s smile and the clapping hands of their two younger brothers also filled them with pride.

The boys were also taken regularly to the synagogue since their father,  Avram ben Moshe, took his role as a Sadducee leader extremely seriously. However, by their teenage years, it became clear that Ethan was the most likely to follow in his footsteps. Gradually, his growing religious fervour replaced the love that he had once felt for his brothers and the three drifted slowly apart. By the time that they died, the only common ground the brothers shared was that each, in turn, had been married to Joanna…

The past is in the past.”  Joanna’s voice resonated around the four walls and its echo seemed to rock the three men. With these six words, she set them swaying as if a tidal wave was riding towards them, ready to sweep them off their feet. All three reached for the nearby wall and gratefully clutched at it. As they did so, Daniel’s hand brushed Ethan’s and suddenly and unexpectedly, their arms were around each other. Tears were flowing down their weather-beaten faces as they sank to their knees…

After Caleb’s death, Daniel had been persuaded by Ethan and his father, to perform the rite of yibbum. On one hand , this was not a difficult decision. In his early twenties he had pursued his love of fishing and bought a small sailing boat, in which, most nights, he trawled the darkness of the Sea of Galilee, searching for an often elusive catch. It was not a lucrative career and the thought of inheriting Caleb’s villa would give him financial stability. On the other hand, however, Daniel, had no interest in being tied down to a life with Joanna, a woman he barely knew. Like a tired gambler, he told himself that it would somehow work out, and agreed to the marriage…

Six months later Ethan faced a difficult decision. Telling his father that Daniel had been seeing women in various ports was his religious duty, but his brother remained his brother. When after days of soul-searching, Ethan brought the situation before his father, Avram ben Moshe’s anger had been swift. Cases like this had always been black and white and for him, religious duty came before family. He had gone to the synagogue and informed his fellow Sadducee leaders. Retribution seemed inevitable.

The punishment was clearly written in the law of Moses. Within hours, Daniel was called before the council of leaders. The verdict was a foregone conclusion and, as the youngest member of the council, it became Ethan’s duty to organise the public stoning.

The next day, in the market place, Daniel was tied to a tree. Ethan hung a sign with the word “adulterer” around his brother’s neck. Then came the endless assault of stones and rocks aimed at Daniel’s increasingly bloodied body. As wailing rose from a place deep within his broken mother, Joanna, watching from afar, could not fight back her own grief at the barbarity she was witnessing. She had never loved Daniel and so, by the same token, she could not muster any hatred towards him now. But anger burned within her towards anyone who could kill someone so callously. When Daniel’s life had gone, his body was untied and carried away. Beside the oak’s thick trunk, a shiny puddle of scarlet blood began to seep through the ground into its roots. 


Ethan’s promotion within the ranks of the Sadducee Council followed swiftly after his marriage to Joanna and his father’s sudden death. The villa became his home and, unlike Daniel and Caleb before him, he spent many hours there, reciting lines which he would utter with less and less enthusiasm at the council or on Sabbath days at the synagogue. He could sense contempt in Joanna, who remained, on the surface, a compliant wife. For her part, she did not wish to lose the property rights which came through her marriage to a ben Moshe. The house was clearly her home more than it was Ethan’s and she was unwilling to jeopardise this, in spite of the contempt she felt towards him. Her companionship, as ever, came in the form of Elizabeth, who, like Joanna, had come to view the villa as her home too and who served Ethan as professionally as she had done Caleb and Daniel before him….

A year passed and Ethan could not shake the image of his dying brother's eyes, appealing to him for help. The picture haunted him and he could not find forgiveness in those he looked to for it. The eyes of his mother and his wife pronounced the same verdict. The prestige of his religious position and the extravagant property he now owned, merely served to loop guilt over and over in his damaged conscience. With no one to turn to, he walked out of Capernaum one day. Holding only a rope he had taken from one of the outhouses, he headed into the fields. Two days later, in the height of summer, a farmer would discover his body hanging from another tall oak tree...


Intermittent sobs echoed into the still, windless field as Daniel and Ethan continued their embrace. Kneeling in the stones, their arms gripped each other in a vice-like bear-hug. In their faces, winter was beginning to thaw.  

Joanna turned to look for Benjamin, but he was nowhere to be seen. Then, for the first time, she noticed Simon. Standing alone, he played the role of the outsider with an experienced nonchalance.  An invisible surge in Joanna's mind brought her to his side. She held out a shaking hand. As before, he touched her. Reconciliation had become a way of life for him and as her fingers brushed his linen tunic, she was welcomed into his arms. Spirit residue, which he tried desperately to stop, passed through her body:

“ It’s the harlot’s husband...come back from Sepphoris to claim a nice bit of land and property...”


“ True….and don’t forget he gets the woman that seems to go through brothers like there’s no tomorrow...” 

Laughter all round. Even the publican seemed to be stifling a grin as Simon tried to sip his ale quietly in the corner.

Joanna's arms clung to Simon's muscular shoulders. Her grip intensified, as she tried with all her might to transfer some of the regret she felt. Simon's sweat seemed to malinger in the airless atmosphere and his eyes could not meet hers. He knew what she would see. He knew that here, in this field, there was no hiding place:

He had returned to Capernaum, after a lengthy exile. Out of a sense of duty, he had agreed to perform the rite of yibbum. After the death of Ethan, it had suddenly hit home that he was now, at the age of 29, the head of the ben Moshe family. His widowed mother remained alive with only his younger twin brothers to support her. 

Leaving his building job behind, he returned to the town of his birth and asked Joanna to marry him, hoping to find a way to support both her and his mother. But his hopes of finding employment in Capernaum had come to nothing. He was not received like a prodigal son. People there had long memories and Simon had left the town for good, eight years  before. Helping to build the town of Sepphoris had been a new opportunity and he had grasped it with both hands, but back in Capernaum, construction was not a thriving industry...  

The quiet whispers slowly found audible expression. Simon was protective of Joanna in a way that only Benjamin had been, and he would not allow her to hear what people said about her... They questioned her role in the deaths of his brothers and although he had tried to ignore the taunts, the words burned into him. Was she guilty? Her quiet manner led him to believe not, but, like Caleb, Daniel and Ethan before him, he felt like he hardly knew this woman he was married to. 

He began to spend more and more hours at the inn, trying to send his sorrows to places that he hoped they would not return from. Instead, he only attracted even more attention.

On his last night, having drunk too much, he finally cracked.  A few months earlier, he would have simply ignored it, but the nagging voice across the room seemed to get louder and louder in his head. He was pointing at Simon and around him laughter was leering out from all around the table:

"Living off his brother's ill-gotten Roman gold...stealing his bed...and his woman...she'll be the end of him too...he's the next in line...for sure...she's one of the devil's brood... "

Simon rose slowly and unsteadily to his feet. Reaching the table, without words, he pushed into the first man he came to. Simon's body had been honed over years of back-breaking work, but the man belonged to a group of farm labourers and this was exactly what they had been waiting for. Like a pack of wolves protecting their brood, they collectively turned on him and dragged him outside.  


The world sounded distant to Simon's ears. He hit the ground and thought it would be easy to get back up. A fist smashed into his left ear and the sting of bone on bone was excruciating. He tasted his own blood on his tongue and immediately another earthquake of punches dulled his mind. All went black. Left for dead in the market square where Daniel had died, his wounds seeped red into the accepting earth.

Joanna's crestfallen eyes roused Simon. He slowly caressed her cheeks and eventually spoke the words she craved: "The past is in the past"

Joanna's face lightened as his kiss breathed his words of forgiveness into her.  

Their thoughts became one as a gust of wind blew a path for them across the field. Hovering soundlessly over the stony ground, they reached  the furthest wall. An arch-shaped opening appeared in the bricks and Benjamin ushered them through.

Joanna and Simon looked back to see Daniel and Ethan framed in the distance. They had resumed their game, but, for the first time, their voices graced the field. Simon recognised it as the excited chatter of their childhood fishing days.

"They need a little more time," said Benjamin, as the archway closed in on itself.

As the stones replaced themselves, Joanna turned to look into the next field. Uncut grass touched her ankles as the gust that had carried her, caught her breath and caused a momentary flicker through her body. When she turned back, Benjamin and Simon had gone. In their places, were two men with identical faces...


Early morning sunshine cast shadows across the huddled, black band of mourners. Joanna wept as Simon's wrapped body was carried into the small rock cavern that she had stood beside so often.  As the covering stone was removed, a strong decomposing stench caught in Joanna's throat. Her tears turned loud and violent. Inside, her stomach twisted. This time there was no need to pretend. She had been shocked by Simon's death.  

Beside her, as before, stood her mother-in-law. The years grew on the old woman's face. Her frail body was now almost willing itself towards the ground. Very soon she would join her family in the cavern.

Next to their mother were the two remaining ben Moshe sons.  Isaac and Jacob each looked at pains to show appropriate grief, whilst Elizabeth, the servant, stood a little way back. As the small group listened intently to the rise and fall of the Rabbi's voice, the same question was in each of their minds. Which of the twins would perform the rite of yibbum?

In the fourth field clouds were pronouncing their own eulogy. Joanna felt uneasy and Isaac and Jacob both had a look of cold indifference in their eyes. United in their hatred, they were circling Joanna. Isaac spoke first:
 "Ungrateful wretch. I rescued you and my reward is this?" 
 "And what did I ever do to you?" added Jacob.

Isaac had always been the extrovert brother and he had taken control of the situation, recognising the obligation that the law of Moses left him with. The goal of yibbum, a child to continue the family name, had proved elusive and Joanna, as before, had little alternative but to comply with the Torah. 

On the day she married Isaac, and during the short months to follow, she was indifferent to the choice. In her eyes, both Isaac and Jacob were still the boys they had been, back when she had first married Benjamin. Sleeping in the same bed as Isaac, it was hard to shake that image from her head. 

"I'm not responsible for this," mouthed Joanna automatically. She could sense that the anger the brothers shared would not disappear.
 "I died too. We're all here for a reason."
Her words did not register.
She tried again: "It wasn't me. I promise you. I'm sorry..."  

In truth, none of the three had foreseen their arrival in the afterlife.

Jacob spent at least as much time at the villa as his brother and Joanna soon began to feel like she had married both of the brothers. Consequently, she started to make herself scarce at every opportunity. On her return from an errand one evening, she discovered the brothers lying dead in their chairs.

Her surprise was genuine, but judgement from the town's religious leaders was swift. Her life would be required to pay for the murders she had committed. She was destined to die the very next day in the market square just as Daniel had died.

That night she unwittingly took the cup mixed with honey and almonds that Elizabeth had used on the brothers. Trying to rid Joanna of the ben Moshe family for good, Elizabeth had only succeeded in framing her for murder. Unwilling to take the blame, the elderly hand's final gift had been to send her friend painlessly into Elysium. 

...As Isaac moved in closer, the wind was sweeping into her. It was calling her and she could not resist. She tried to walk, to keep her feet on the ground, but she was being transported away from the twin brothers' rage. Whirling into the sky, she was taken beyond the golden eastern wall of the field which Jacob and Isaac would share for some time to come.  

Her mind motioned her to a hillside above. Between the reeds, she looked down on the endless, connected line of golden walls and the fields they contained. They stretched as far as her eyes could see. From her vantage point, she could make out the shape of bodies shifting around in the fields. In the fields where two or three bodies moved around, Joanna noticed the varying degrees of light that each emitted.

Beyond the wall and the fields, she could make out a lake which glistened and danced with a brilliant brightness, although, for the first time, she noticed that no sun was visible in this place.

 The leaves of a nearby tree whispered in the wind and she turned to see that Benjamin and Simon were by her side. Benjamin broke the silence:
 "We have come to tell you that you are free. The past is in the past. We leave it there for now.  You are free of marriage. Until the day of the Great Feast, you may remain here, but you can go wherever you want to on this side of the wall. If you are called into a field, act with the grace you have shown so far. We will pray for the freedom of all our brothers and hope that one day at least some of them will join us here."

Joanna tried to move closer to her first love, but her legs had lost the energy which had surged through them in the fields below. When she held out her hands to both men,  Simon and Benjamin reciprocated, but the touch of their fingertips brought no feeling or sensation to Joanna's body. As the men stood gazing across to the lake, Joanna walked a short distance away from them. She sat down in the tall grass to wait... 







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