The Matter of Britain
- The Wandering Christian
- Alternate Majors
- The Glimmer Man
THE WANDERING CHRISTIAN
By Kim Newman & Eugene Byrne
'I'm dying,' said the madman next to him.
'So,' Absalom grunted, feeling the arrowhead shift against his ribs, 'there's a lot of that about.'
'No,' said the madman, eyes like candleflames, 'I'm really dying.'
Absalom coughed, bringing up blood. The arrow had dimpled one of his lungs, and he was slowly drowning, he supposed, his blood filling up his lungs. He knew more about doctoring than the barber-surgeons who occasionally came round to see what they could do for the wounded. As a soldier, he was more than familiar with the many ways a man could die.
He tried to remember whether he had seen the madman before, up on the walls of Rome, maybe defending one of the gates. Now, he was bearded and scrawny, his hands pressed on the yellow rag he held to his liver, trying to keep his insides in. His armour and weapons were long gone, passed on to a healthier defender.
'It's the end of time,' he said. 'What date is it?
'The second day of Tammuz.'
'No,' the madman coughed, 'the year? I've forgotten.'
Absalom knew his One True Testament. '4759,' he said. '4759 years since the creation of the world. It's not the end of time at all. The Messiah has not come.'
The madman grimaced, painfully. Absalom realised he really was mad. Twenty-two years of soldiering, and he would die a forgotten hero with only a lunatic for company.
'Even if Rome falls, it will not be the end of time. The Chosen People will endure.'
The madman began to choke, and Absalom thought he was about to pass away, but his coughs changed, turned to bitter laughter. He was beyond pain, beyond everything.
'The Chosen People,' he said, 'the Chosen People ...'
Outside the walls, the Persians were gathered, half-heartedly building their earthen ramps to the edge of the city, barely bothering to launch attacks with their huge wooden siege-towers any more. They were catapaulting rocks and corpses into the city, and firing rains of arrows, but mainly they waited for starvation and disease to do their job for them. At first, Shah Yzdkrt, known as Yzdkrt the Flayer, had decreed that all gentiles would be allowed to pass unharmed through the besieging ranks and, after paying a small tribute, be allowed on their way. But the rumour was that those citizens foolhardy enough to believe him had been meekly led to a glade on the Tevere and slaughtered, their bodies dumped into the river in an attempt to poison the city's water supply. Two months ago, rabbi Judah, a good and humble merchant well known for his charitable works, was sent out to parley with the Persians, taking with him gifts for Yzdkrt and a message of peace from the Emperor.
Yzdkrt had him slowly stripped of his skin, and his hide was stretched out on the ground before the main gate as a reminder to the besieged Romans of the fate the Shah had set aside for them all.
Governor David Cohen was ruthlessly enforcing siege regulations on the populace, military and civilian. Soldiers were on half-rations, all others on quarter-rations. Absalom heard that anyone who used water for washing was being put to death. Certainly, no one had offered to clean his wounds, with the result that even if he didn't drown he'd be eaten up by the mange spreading from the cuts on his body. The wounded were being stacked up in the catacombs, out of sight, but it was impossible to silence their screams. When he had been on patrol up above, everyone had been spooked by the groans coming from under the earth. Now he was with the groaners, and he thought he had a foretaste of Hell. There were a few lamps, but it was mainly gloomy, and some straw had been spread to lie on, but it was filthy with blood and shit. Latrines had been dug, but most of the wounded were unable to get to them without help, and there was no one to help. The tunnels were trickling with sewage.
A few of the more zealous or compassionate rabbis left their other trades or duties and ventured into the catacombs to comfort the dying. Absalom could always hear the low mumble of the kaddish under the screaming.
Rumours were the only entertainment the dying had. Absalom received the rumours from Isaac bar-Samuel to his left and passed them on to the madman as they came his way. It was rumoured that Governor Cohen was expecting an army of relief directly from the North, led by the Emperor in person; that the plague raging in the city had spread to the Persians, and that Yzdkrt himself had succumbed; that the men of Rome, no matter how young or old, were used up, and that the women were being impressed to bear arms against the Zoroastran unbeliever. The madman took it all lightly, laughing as the yellow stain spread up his side.
The rats would have been a problem, only Governor Cohen had organised gangs of children to hunt them for food. The shochets were setting aside the dictates of kashrut and learning to make do with rodentmeat. In the catacombs, where any animal that got within reach of a man deserved the swift death it inevitably got, even the niceties of butchering were being ignored. Raw ratmeat was tough, but chewing something helped lessen the pain.
A new rumour came down from Isaac. Above, it was noontime, but the sky was dark. The sun had been blotted out, and a peculiar sign was visible in the sky, an upright cross, like the skeleton of a kite, stood out in fire against the black. The rabbis and scholars were arguing its significance, and no one could tell whether the sign was meant for the Chosen People inside the walls or the infidel beyond.
Absalom told the madman, and, for the first time, got a reaction out of him.
'It has come. It is time. One thousand years.'
'What's the babbling idiot talking about?' Isaac asked.
Absalom shrugged, feeling a stabbing under his arm as his broken bones shifted.
'I don't know. He's mad.'
There was a lot of that about too.
'No,' the madman said, 'listen ...'
It was quieter than usual. The dying were calming down.
A rabbi scuttled around the corner, bent over by the low roof. He was hardly more than a boy, his beard still thin and wispy. His robes were full of tears, each rip a ritual sign of grief for a dying man he had attended. All the rabbis in the city were looking like beggars these days.
'Hear me,' the madman said, 'hear my confession ...'
'What, what,' said the rabbi, 'confession, what's this, what's this?'
'Is it true about the sky?' Absalom asked.
'Yes,' said the rabbi, 'a rain of blood has fallen, and a lamb with a glowing heart has been seen in the clouds. Most significant.'
'Of course, of course,' said the madman. 'He has returned. It was prophesied.'
'I don't know what you're talking about,' said the rabbi, 'I know all the propehcies by heart, and this is without precedent.'
'Hear me out.'
There was something about the man that persuaded the rabbi. Absalom was interested too, and Isaac. A few of the others, dim shapes in the dark, pulled themselves nearer. The madman seemed to glow. His pain was forgotten, and he let the rag fall away from his festering wound. It was a bad one. Absalom could see into the man's entrails, and could tell they were not healthy. It must have been a swordstroke at one of the gate skirmishes that had done for him. But the madman did not feel the hurt any more. He sat up, and, as he spoke, his eyes glowed brighter ...
* * * * *
My name is Joseph. I was born in Judaea a thousand years ago. No, I'm not mad. Well, maybe I am. A thousand years, a thousand deaths, would send anyone mad. Whatever, I'm a thousand years old.
When I was born, Judaea was ruled by the old Roman Empire. Romans were accustomed to being welcomed, or at least tolerated, as wise and beneficient rulers throughout their imperium. But they could never persuade the Judaeans to accept their rule and there was always a revolt going against them. The biggest of these, led by Judas of Galilee, was against a poll tax the Romans imposed. It was suppressed with efficient brutality. But the Romans never broke the spirit of the Jewish people, the Chosen People ...
In a shithole called Nazareth, there grew up a humble carpenter. We were born in the same year, so we're the same age. He was Yeshua bar-Joseph; called, in the Romanised form, Jesus, son of Joseph. About the age of thirty, He decided to quit His trade and become a travelling preacher. He pulled in the crowds wherever He went. He also gathered a small band of dedicated followers, hangers-on who believed all He said and talked Him up with the rabble, and bully boys who kept Him out of trouble with the priests and the occupation goons. As Yeshua's reputation spread, so did the stories about Him, stories of miracles that He performed - walking on water, raising the dead, curing the sick, the crippled, the blind, the leprous ... Back then, the cure for anything was a miracle. He could also turn water into wine, which made him very, very popular.
His disciples decided that Yeshua was the promised one, the Redeemer, the Messiah of the Jews. Others said He was the son of God. Yeshua the Nazarene, son of Joseph became known as Yeshua the Anointed One. In later years He would be called by the Greek word meaning the anointed one, Christos.
As I said, this was a bad time for Judaea politically; the Messiah, if Yeshua was He - something He never denied - was expected to rescue the country from the Romans.
He also annoyed the priests by saying the Law was only a starting point for moral improvement. His love of ordinary people no matter how much they had sinned and no matter how vile their status, annoyed the clergy even more. The ordinary people, understandably, loved Him. He mixed with harlots and tax-collectors and Samaritans. The scum of the earth. If you want to get a sect together, that's a good way to start. People who've been pissed on all their lives love being told they're something special. Rich people already know they're special.
It wasn't long before everyone in power wanted Yeshua dead. The Romans thought He might be a dangerous revolutionary. The Pharisees disagreed with His preaching. The Sadducees, who were rich and who wanted to placate the Romans and not disturb the status quo, regarded Him as a distasteful upstart with some funny ideas about people being resurrected after death. The Zealots, real diehards who wanted to remove the Romans by force, wanted to use Him as a figurehead for a revolt, even though He renounced the use of violence. His ideas were peace, love, justice and prayer and He preached that the kingdom of God was coming, though He never said when it would arrive. If you want to know what happens to people who preach peace, love and justice, go ask Rabbi Judah.
After three years preaching on the road, Yeshua visited Jerusalem for the first time. Although He was just a hick from up-country Galilee coming to the political and religious centre of Judaea for the first time, He got a spectacular welcome. The mob turned out to see Him arrive. He came riding in on a donkey as if to say 'look, I'm no better than any of the rest of you.' And everyone was expecting Him to do great things. They threw palms to the ground in front of Him and lined the streets, asking him to do magic tricks. A cousin of mine, Jacob the wine merchant, turned up with a cartload of waterbags, and tried to get Him to turn them into wine, and he got beaten up by Peter bar-Jonah, who was Yeshua's strongarm man. That was one of the first things that put me off this so-called Anointed One.
His entry into Jerusalem raised everyone's expectations. And what's more, He had walked into the arms of the Romans and the priests. They would have no trouble getting their hands on Him now.
Everyone waited a few days to see what would happen. In the end, the priests decided to remove Him. One of Yeshua's close friends, Judas, was a Zealot. He wanted Yeshua to raise the people against the Romans, but when it became clear Yeshua would do no such thing, Judas tried to force His hand. He thought that if he led the priests to Yeshua, his friend would be forced to run from them and lead the revolt, or that the people would be so outraged by the sight of Yeshua being put on trial for sedition or blasphemy that they would spontaneously rise up. Judas went to the priests and told them he could set Yeshua up for a nice quiet arrest. The priests agreed, and Judas lead an armed posse of temple guards to Yeshua. But Yeshua, instead of making a hasty escape, went along meekly. Judas started to realise he'd made a big mistake, and emptied a few wineskins in misery.
The next day, Yeshua was taken before the Council of the Sanhedrin, who drew up a series of charges against Him. They wanted Yeshua safely dead, but they couldn't condemn Him to death themselves. They had to make a case that would convince the Romans to execute Him.
The priests, you understand, were not all evil men. Many of them were worried that the Nazarene would lead the whole of Judaea into confrontation with the Romans. This provincial troublemaker might have plunged the whole country into war, and that would have been bad for business for everybody. The high-priest, Caiaphas, told the other council members it was their duty to condemn this one man in order that the rest of the nation should not suffer.
Many members of the council wanted to hang a blasphemy charge on Yeshua, but Caiaphas persuaded them to ignore that, and use the charge that would frighten the Roman authorities most. So they alleged unfairly that He had been inciting revolt against Roman rule. A few days before, Yeshua had thrown a fit in the Temple, and kicked some money-changers out of the Court of the Gentiles, so the small business lobby was against Him. A couple of money-changers were prepared to allege that He was shouting 'death to Caesar' as he roughed them up.
So the Sanhedrin handed Yeshua over to the Romans.
The procurator of Judaea at this time was Pontius Pilate. He was an arrogant, insensitive blockhead. He enjoyed antagonising the Jews, not that that was difficult. I don't even think he always did it deliberately. He was just too stupid to understand all our little sensitivities.
So here he was, confronted with this guy the priests and a lot of the mob wanted put to death. Nobody in the crowd seemed to be a friend of the Nazarene any more. Perhaps everyone was disappointed He hadn't challenged the Romans after all.
Pilate was a Roman, he respected due process of law. And the Nazarene had committed no crime he could see. But he was in a difficult position; much as he enjoyed lording it over his subjects, he didn't want to start a riot, and the mob wanted Yeshua dead. So you'd think he would have no problem just killing the Nazarene quickly, and getting back to the baths or eating grapes or whatever it is that Roman governors did all day. Maybe he was just suspicious and didn't want to do anything until he fully understood what was going on. That would have been a problem, because no one understood what was going on.
Then Pilate's wife interfered. She was Claudia Procula, a granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus, which gives you some idea of how well-connected the procurator was back in Rome. Just as he was sitting in judgement on Yeshua, he got a message from Claudia, claiming that she had just had the worst nightmare ever, and all on account of the Nazarene. In the dream, she foresaw all kinds of terrible things if her husband executed the man. So now Pilate was having real trouble making his mind up, which for him was pretty unusual.
What concluded the argument for Pilate was politics back home. This was the time of the Emperor Tiberias. Tiberias was cracked. He had retired to the island of Capri, surrounding himself with astrologers and quacks. And, if you believe the gossips, a small army of young people to cater to his increasingly bizarre sexual tastes. For a while, the Empire was effectively run by his guard commander, Sejanus, who, given a free hand, set about clearing the way for himself to succeed Tiberias. Every potential rival, including members of the imperial family, were murdered or executed on trumped-up charges. Sejanus' plan worked well enough until the Emperor's sister-in-law managed to get to Capri and tell Tiberias what his Praetorian favourite was really getting up to. So Sejanus was toppled, and there was the usual bloodbath in which all his associates, including his children, were slaughtered. Pontius Pilate, a self-seeking dickhead, had been a supporter of Sejanus. Now, a year or two after the fall of Sejanus, Pilate's loyalty to Caesar is questionable as far as Ceasar is concerned.
Caiaphas knew this, and he whispered to Pilate that Yeshua was setting Himself up as King of Judaea. He added that Pilate could be no friend of Ceasar's if he did not execute the Nazarene. The last thing Pilate needed was a letter from Rome telling him to come home with his will written out in triplicate. He gave his permission for the Nazarene to be put to death. As was the usual practice, Yeshua was taken out and executed at once.
I know, my friends, that we live in a barbaric age in which the days of the great Roman Empire are sometimes looked on fondly, but the way they killed Christos was atrocious. Believe me, Absalom, an arrow in the lungs is a luxurious hot bath next to crucifixion.
That was what the Romans did to Him. It was reserved for those they despised the most. It's the worst possible way I've ever come across for a man to die. No Roman noble or citizen could be crucified because it was considered a form of death unfair for free men. It was for slaves, thives, bandits and - of course - for those who rebelled against Rome.
It all started with a thrashing. The soldiers triced you up and flogged you. They used a long whip with pieces of bone or metal studded in the end. The thong wrapped itself right around the body, tearing off flesh as it went. After three times thirteen lashes - sometimes more - there was more skin hanging off your back and chest than was left hanging on.
Having softened you up like this, they made you lift a heavy wooden beam and stagger off to the place of execution. In Jerusalem at this time, it was a small hill outside the city walls called Golgotha, the Place of Skulls.
Here there was a vertical wooden post six or seven feet high. When you got there, you were invited to drop the beam you'd been carrying. Then the soldiers knocked you over and lay the back of your neck in the middle of the beam. Then they stretched out one of your arms along the beam. A couple of the men held the arm down while another one took one of those big, long four-sided nails and hammered it through your wrist into the wood below.
Having nails through the wrist is extremely painful. Believe me, I know.
After they'd done this with the other arm, the whole execution squad lent a hand to lift up the crossbeam with you hanging from it, yelling your lungs out in agony, or maybe just biting your tongue, determined not to give those filthy bastards any pleasure by letting on you were suffering.
But then you found it very difficult not to yell out when they actually lifted you off the ground.
There was a hole in the middle of the beam roughly under your head. This they slotted into the vertical piece already wedged in the ground.
Now they bent your knees upward until the sole of one foot was pressed flat against the vertical piece. Well fuck my old sandals if they didn't then produce another one of those big nails.
A nail through the foot is more - much more - painful than a nail through the wrist. They hammered it through one foot, and when the point came through the sole of that foot, they hammered it through the other foot and into the wood.
Then they would leave you alone. Some would watch, maybe they would take bets with one another on how long you'd live. After a while, it got boring, and they'd post a guard and go off to get drunk or screw a hog or whatever it was that legionaries did in their time off.
About now, you'd wish that you were back in the barracks being flogged. If, by any strange mischance, you had not gone out of your mind, you might have time to wish they had flogged you harder because the flogging weakened you. And the weaker you were, the sooner you died. And death was the only thing you desired. Death was the only thing left.
You didn't bleed much, but the pain was indescribable. The weight of your body hanging from your wrists pulled your chest upwards as though you'd taken the biggest, deepest breath ever. But you couldn't breathe out. To breathe out, you'd have to push upwards with your legs. Pushing up with your legs was indescribably painful because of that bloody nail running through your feet.
At the same time, there was even more pain coming from cramps in your hands, along your arms and shoulders and chest.
You were in all this pain, and you could hardly breathe. If you were really lucky, you'd bleed, or more likely suffocate, to death in perhaps five hours. If you weren't lucky, it could take days.
And those clever, cunning, oh-so-bloody civilised Romans could vary it. They could hammer a piece of wood into the vertical piece, like a little seat under your arse. That meant it was slightly easier to breathe because you didn't have to push on your legs so much, so you hung there for longer. Or they could tie your arms to the crosspiece as well as nailing them there. That had the same effect. Maybe the sons of bitches used both methods. I've seen poor bastards spend nearly a week dying that way. If the Romans liked you - or your relatives bribed them - they could break your legs. That way, you couldn't push yourself up to breathe even if you wanted to, so you suffocated fairly quickly.
So don't talk to me about the old Roman civilisation. I know they had central heating and straight roads and the greatest army the world has ever known, but at the back of all that they were the biggest shits in creation. Look, if some barbarian king back in the Dark Ages wanted you dead, what did he do? Cut off your head, or bludgeon your brains out, or drown you, or throw you off a high rock. All pretty quick. The Romans, being three times as clever and ten times as organised as any barbarian were a hundred times more savage in their methods of murdering people.
And that's what they did to Yeshua Christos.
Pilate, being Pilate, got his revenge on the priests for blackmailing him. Whenever someone was crucified, the law said that you had to have a plaque on the top saying what crime the victim was condemned for. Pilate ordered that the inscription read 'Yeshua of Nazareth, King of the Jews', and had it written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew to make sure everyone got the message. This was hung around Yeshua's neck when He was on his way to the execution and then it was nailed to the top of the cross.
So how do I know all these things? Well, first, I was there when He was crucified. Secondly, I've been crucified myself. Lots of times. They say you have no memory for pain. That's crap. I shiver every time I pass a carpenter's shop or hear someone hammering. And I'm immortal. Or I was until today.
A thousand years ago, my name was Cartaphilus. I was a good, law-abiding, unimaginative orthodox Jew. And I worked as doorkeeper to Pontius Pilate. He needed doorkeepers because most people who came to visit a Roman governor were either too important to touch a door themselves or too busy crawling and begging to bother with one. The first time I met Yeshua of Nazareth was as he was being led out to be executed. He had just been scourged. The soldiers had put this crown of thorns on Him. They wanted to have their part in annoying the priests as well and were playing up to Pilate's crack about Yeshua being King of the Jews. Yeshua was being led out, struggling under the weight of the cross-piece of the crucifixion-frame.
Now at that time most of what I knew about Him was rumour - that and what my cousin Jacob the wine-merchant said when he dropped in to have his head bandaged. Some people were claiming Yeshua was the Messiah, the king of the Jews. But the high priest Caiaphas had wanted Him condemned to death. Being a good Jew, I figured that anything Caiaphas said must be kosher. If the high priest wanted the Nazarene killed, then he had his good, religious, reasons. So, what can I say? I was an idiot.
The Nazarene was trying to get through the door. I spat on Him. He fell down under the weight of the wooden beam. I put my foot on His back, where He had been whipped and the flesh was hanging off him. I pushed with my foot and told Him to get up and get a move on.
Someone had told me He sacrificed and ate small children. And, back then, I was callous.
He cried out. Then He got up, picked up the beam with some effort and he looked at me. He said, 'I am going quickly to my death. But you will wait a long time for death. You will be waiting until I return.'
I didn't know what to make of this. I didn't think much about it. A couple of soldiers hit Him with the flats of their swords and off He went to Golgotha.
His words didn't sink in at first, then a strange panic overtook me. I realised He'd put some kind of curse on me. Even if He was a blasphemer, He was still some kind of holy man. I was very troubled. An hour and a half after He had spoken to me, I quit my doorkeeper's job for ever.
I ran to Golgotha. He was nailed to his cross in between two Zealots. He was still alive, but quiet, not struggling and groaning as much as the other two. There weren't many other people around, just some ghouls. His disciples had all deserted him. Whether Yeshua was the son of God or not, no man would want to be associated with Him and run the risk winding up nailed to the next-cross-but-one.
There were a few women around. Friends and relatives. And the execution squad was there, playing dice for his posessions. But there was a strange thing, a Roman officer - I don't know if he was in charge of the execution squad - was pacing up and down, looking at the dying man and muttering to himself.
The Centurion looked at me and beckoned me over. In those days, you did everything in your power to avoid those people. They brutalised their own soldiers enough, and they could be lethal to ordinary civilians, especially in a country they could barely control. I was terrified as I walked over to him. But all he did was grab me by the shoulders, look straight into my eyes and say, 'Truly, this man was the son of God.' All he wanted was someone to listen.
The son of God! Only afterwards did I realise what a queer thing this was for a Roman to be saying. Romans believed in lots of Gods. The only people around who believed in one god were we Jews. Maybe the Centurion was Jewish. I don't know.
The son of God!
If the Centurion was right, then I was condemned for ever. I lost my reason. I walked to the foot of the cross and begged the Nazarene to forgive me. But it was too late. He was in too much pain to take any notice.
Then I went over to the women, who were all crying and pulling at their hair and I joined them. One of the whores had seen me kicking Him. They didn't want to know me. I can't blame them for that.
I was too troubled and too ashamed to seek out the Nazarene's friends. Not that he had many at this stage. His male followers were in hiding. Even good old Peter, who was no slouch when it came to beating the crap out of money-changers and wine merchants, was at this moment loudly claiming he had never heard of Yeshua and didn't like him anyway. As for Judas the Zealot, he hanged himself because his plan had gone wrong. I regretted that. In the next few years, he would have been company.
I began to wander. I left my wife and my family and walked first north, towards Galilee. I don't know why. An evil spirit within me told me that I must wander the face of the world until He should return.
The nights were always the worst. As evening drew in and the shadows lengthened, my own shadow would become that of Yeshua struggling under the weight of that wooden beam.
Years later, I heard what happened. The Romans liked to leave corpses hanging to rot as an example to any other would-be offenders. But the Jewish law would not permit bodies to be exposed in this way on the Sabbath, and the day after Yeshua's execution was the Sabbath. Joseph, a man from a place called Arimathea, a rich and influential Jew who was friendly both with Yeshua's family and with Pilate, approached the governor. After the Romans had checked that Yeshua was dead, Joseph got permission to take the body down and he buried It in the tomb he had bought for himself.
A few days later, Yeshua of Nazareth rose from the dead. He visited his frightened followers who took strength from seeing Him again. Some time after that He ascended to Heaven to take his place at the right hand of the Lord.
Don't be so shocked, rabbi. Just because it isn't in your One True Testament doesn't mean it didn't happen.
Yeshua's followers now dispersed throughout the Empire and beyond, spreading the story of how He had come to save man from his sins. Some of them began their work right there in Jerusalem, but they were driven out by the authorities. One of them, a man named Stephen, was stoned to death for blasphemy.
At first, followers of Christos and those they baptised into their faith seemed to be forming a new sect of Judaism, but soon it became clear that there were important differences. One of the others, Philip, met an Ethiopian on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The Ethiopian was an important court official in the service of the queen of his country. He was a eunuch. As you know, a man who is not whole may not become a Jew. The eunuch asked Philip 'Is there anything to prevent me being baptised?' And Philip answered, 'nothing.'
From now on, said the Christians, there would be no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freedmen, men and women. The Ethiopian returned to Nubia and told his fellow citizens the good news.
The number of Christians multiplied rapidly. The faith was taken by the missionaries into Africa and Syria, to Mesopotamia and even as far as India. Syria, with its great cities of Antioch, Damascus and Edessa, became a great centre of the Christian religion.
Don't be ashamed that you've not heard of Christianity. It was a long time ago.
What of me?
My travels took me to Rome where I found a thriving community of believers in the Christian sect. I joined them, and learned more of Yeshua's teachings. I was baptised into their faith, meaning they dunked me in water in a ceremony similar to that of immersion in the mikveh. I changed my name to Joseph in honour of Joseph of Arimathea.
By now, I was almost a hundred years old, though I looked no older than the day on which I had abused our Saviour. My new faith brought me peace of a sort, for Yeshua Christos taught that the most loathesome of sins would be forgiven by the Lord His Father. I had spat on Him and kicked Him, and while I dared not admit this to my comrades I could hope that when He returned I would be forgiven. In those days we all believed His return was imminent. This is what we told one another, and it is what we preached to any who were willing to listen, and many who did not wish to hear. We were a nuisance to some, offensive to others. Some of our number, including Peter the thug, were executed by the authorities. My cousin Jacob the wine-merchant, whose fault all this was, prospered and lived to be 115, at which age he was still fathering children.
We were unsure of our relationship with the orthodox Jews. Most of us considered ourselves a Jewish sect. Others, generally the hotheads, thought we should be completely separate. There were many Jews in Rome and we debated with them whether or not Yeshua had been the Messiah. We believed so, but they did not. On many occasions we fought openly in the streets. We gradually came to realise there was no reconciliation between us.
There was a great fire which wrecked the city centre. The Emperor Nero's new palace was badly damaged. Nero was spendthrift and unpredictable and unpopular, and the rumour went about the market that he had started the fire deliberately. Another story had it that he had done nothing to quench the fires, and had played a lyre and recited his poems as the city burned, for he considered himself a great artist. Having been burned alive and having heard Nero recite in public, I can honestly say I preferred the former experience.
Nero, probably at the suggestion of one of his toadies, wanted to blame the fire on the Jews. The Jews were unpopular in Rome for while their religion was tolerated, they did not worship the Roman Gods. Nero's wife Poppaea discouraged him from persecuting the Jews. She was not Jewish herself, but was sympathetic to them. She said that Nero should instead blame the Christians. Nero readily agreed. We were to be used in the manner of a scape-goat.
Nero, by the way, also ordered the death of the aged Pontius Pilate. I don't know why. Pilate was in Gaul at that time, and the story goes that he was staked out, cut open in a few places and eaten alive by worms. Perhaps this was just wishful thinking on our part.
Nero ordered his brutish Praetorian prefect Tigellinus to do his dirty work. The soldiers came for us and, after trials of sorts in which they seemed more interested in our 'hatred of humanity' than our alleged arson, we were despatched in all manner of ways. Not by crucifixion, but by the sword, or by being sewn into the skins of wild animals and being attacked and eaten by dogs in the circus. That was a good one - it hurt like a bastard. At first, our persecution was popular. People disliked us for our disdain for their gods, and for preaching our own faith so aggressively. Then Nero's excesses turned many to pity, while others were inspired by the way in which we died for our faith. This happened particularly after Nero ordered that Christians be tied to crosses which were set in tubs of oil. This was at night and we were then set ablaze and used like oversized torches to light an avenue through the Emperor's gardens, along which His Talentless Majesty proceeded in his chariot.
I was one of those Christians.
I've said much about suffering already, so I shall spare you a detailed description of what it is to be set in oil and pitch and burned alive. In spite of all the pain and the terror which I and my brothers and sisters experienced, I am proud to say that we all went to our deaths without show of fear and with great joy, for would we not soon be reunited with our Saviour?
But imagine my surprise when, after experiencing considerable physical agony and apparently dying, I woke up the next day as though nothing had happened. In Judaea.
That's a bloody long way from Rome.
Now I began to fully understand the meaning of Yeshua's curse upon me. To atone for my great sin I would have to wander the world of men until His return. This was the first occasion on which I had died and now, I found I had not been granted the release of death but had remained among men. My soul was chained to the earth in the same body and my martyrdom in the Emperor's gardens had not taken.
Whenever I died subsequently, I would not know what happened to my corpse, but I always awoke in the same body - or a similar one - in some new and frequently distant land.
Waking from the dead this first time in Judaea, I soon discovered what my purpose was to be.
I entered Jerusalem and, without bothering to seek out others among the Christian community, I begged food and drink and preached the good news of Christos in public. Within three days the Sanhedrin had me stoned to death as a blasphemer. Again, I did not truly die. I woke up in a different place, Corinth. Again I preached the message of Christos and again, though it took me a few years this time, I was martyred.
At around the same time as the last great Jewish rebellion against Rome, which as you know resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the sack of Jerusalem, I became a professional martyr. At the same time as the Romans were causing the Jews to disperse throughout the world, I, too, travelled, seeking out death. The Voice of the Lord told me that in this way I was doing penance for my sin, that the example shown to others by martyrs would win people over to our Church.
For almost three hundred years after the death of Yeshua, a great many of his followers died martyrs' deaths. Martyrdom was an idea we borrowed from the Jews and turned into a fine art, my friends. Martyrdom, we told ourselves, was a second baptism and a highway to heaven, which indeed it was - for everyone except me. Every time a crowd lynched me, or a magistrate ordered me be burnt, beheaded or savaged by animals, I awoke in a new place and sought out the Christian community and joined it, or simply preached the gospels in the nearest town square.
The persecutions were more intense at some times than at others. When they did occur, they were for a number of reasons.
In the early days, for instance, we would always hold our meetings before dawn. This went against the spirit of the Twelve Tables, which were at the centre of Roman law and which forbade nightly meetings. So the Romans got suspicious of us, thinking we were conspiriring, or committing shameful acts. We would sing or chant, exchange oaths not to commit crimes and we would have a meal in common. This led us to be suspected of magic.
They despised us, too, for the simplicity of our faith. Sophisticated patricians looked down on us because we avoided demonstrative argument, preferring to talk about Yeshua's miracles and re-tell parables they thought were childish. They called us 'Galileans' and mocked our faith as a religion for slaves.
Before too long, they also came to despise many of us for the way in which we sought out martyrdom. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a snobbish old dilettante who fancied himself as a philosopher, said he hated the vulgar and undignified way in which we went to our deaths. Tell me, what were we supposed to do? If wild dogs had chewed his balls off in the circus, I'm sure he would have been really fucking dignified about it.
But I think what annoyed educated pagans most was our certainty that there was only one true God. The Romans tolerated all religions, even the Jews, on the principle that each man should worship in the way he sees most fitting. Now we came along and preached the absolute truth in the face of their ancient deities - gods which had, after all, brought Rome great prosperity and success. And now we working-class upstarts came along saying everyone else was wrong and that we had a monopoly of truth.
All manner of wild rumours circulated about us. They said we worshipped the head of an ass. They said that we met every week to sacrifice and then eat a baby. You can imagine how I felt when I first heard that old chestnut. I couldn't bring myself to sneer at those stupid enough to believe it. After all, I am cursed not only with longevity but with a perfect memory. Now you know why I wasn't too impressed yesterday when Isaac told us the rumour that old Yzdkrt out there dines on babies every Sabbath. Mind you, with him it just might be true.
The Romans also accused us of incest, perhaps from our habit of calling one another 'brother' and 'sister'. They said that we worshipped the genitals of our priests. More damaging were the stories of sexual licence because, I regret, some of these were true.
We were scattered throughout the Empire. Congregations developed with little contact with one another, and there was no unifying authority to establish the detail of our rites and beliefs. Mainly, this made little difference and most Christians lived - or tried to live - good and pious lives. But there were heresies in a few places; some, for example, debated whether Christos had been god or man - He was obviously both - and other points of belief. The worst heresy I ever witnessed was that of the Phibionites.
They lived in Alexandria, and I landed among them the day after I'd had my head cut off in Philadelphia. The sect had been founded by a man named Nicholas of Antioch and their rites took the idea of heavenly love to obscene extremes. They held their wives in common and would, in a travesty of our communion ceremony, smear semen and menstrual blood on their hands offering these as the 'body and blood' of our Redeemer. If any woman among them became pregnant as a result of one of their orgies, they would abort her and eat the foetus mixed with honey and pepper.
It became clear to me that these were not wicked or licentious people. They had just be led tragically astray by Satan, and they sincerely believed that in offering up what they called 'the essence of man' in sacrifice, they were honouring the Lord.
I poisoned them all and prayed for the salvation of their souls. Mine too.
What else was I to do? Had I reported them to the authorities, I would only have been handing them a great propaganda opportunity. They would simply have said, 'Look, this is how all Christians behave.'
I tried in all things to emulate the example of Yeshua, as I had heard from those who knew him and as I read in our sacred books, the Gospels. Though we needed leaders, though we had our elders and priests and bishops, I never sought a position of prominence in the Church because I, who had kicked our Saviour, was never worthy of it. I wanted to be the humblest member of each congregation I joined. At other times, I lived the life of a beggar, travelling the roads and preaching in every town I came to.
I would sometimes go for years on end without being martyred, no matter how much I sought it. At other times, I could be killed ten times in a month. If you are tempted to say that being killed was no penance for me because I would always wake up again, you are mistaken. Almost every time I and my brethren were arrested we suffered torture or humiliation. Death itself was frequently agonising. Though I am still not worthy of God's mercy for abusing his only-begotten son, I have suffered a great deal of phyical pain.
I have been beheaded, starved to death, flayed alive, strangled, hanged, crucified, burned, gored by bulls, bitten by dogs, clawed by leopards, crushed by bears. And that's not counting plague, poison, accident, lightning-bolts, murder, drowning and bad falls.
Frequently, martyrdom was a public spectacle in the local arena, paid for by some fat local worthy to earn popularity by pandering to the blood-lusts of the mob. Carthage was the worst. Once, a Christian woman named Perpetua and her servant-girl Felicitas were sent into the arena to face wild animals. One was just a frail girl, barely out of childhood. The other had given birth a day or two before. Both were half-naked. I watched as the crowd roared its disapproval at this sickening spectacle and offered thanks to the Lord. But it turned out that all they wanted was for the women to be clothed more modestly. When they came back, fully-covered, a few minutes later, the good people of Carthage cheered and appaluded and sat back to enjoy the show, their sense of decency fully intact. Comrades, the greatest burden I carry is that of my sin, but the second-hardest thing for me after that is to follow Yeshua's edict to love all men.
Meanwhile, events in the Roman Empire continued their course, often affecting us. We were never great in number, but by the second century after Yeshua's death, we had a terrible reputation. At the beginning of the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for instance, there was a great plague. Nero, had he known it, had set a vogue, and the Christians were blamed in many places for this pestilence. By now, there was a popular expression, 'the rains fail because of the Christians.'
Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his ridiculous, hedonistic son Commodus. He was besotted by every vice imagainable and, rather than govern, gave himself up to pleasure. He abandoned his father's war with the German tribes, which endangered the security of the borders. He began to believe he was Hercules and became fond of wrestling. When people could take no more of this behaviour, they had him strangled in his sleep by Narcissus, who was a real wrestler. From the point of view of the Romans, Commodus' lack of interest in military matters was a disaster. It was scarcely any better for we Christians, for while the Romans occasionally wished us extinct, the Empire provided something approaching peace and prosperity. The alternatives were much worse, for now barbarians of numerous races and savage beliefs were crowding in on the frontiers.
After Commodus, the next hundred years were like the end of the world. A succession of weak Emperors, always looking behind their backs for treachery, vied for the imperial purple. Usually they were second-rate soldiers. In a period of 50 years, there were 21 Emperors. Only two of them, my friends, died of old age. It's hard to remember the names of any of them, apart from Elagabalus and Valerian. Elagabalus was insane, dominated by his mother and was given to suffocating dinner-guests under rose petals. That one sounds interesting. Valerian was captured by the Persians and flayed alive by King Shapur who had his skin dried and salted and kept on display as a trophy. Yzdkrt outside probably regards Shapur as a hero. People from that part of the world always were keen on skinning people. I don't know why. Anyway, for a Roman Emperor to be captured and to suffer such a humiliating death was terrible. Nobody could feel safe anymore.
I saw none of these things; most Christians eschewed service in the army. Yet on my martyrdom-induced travels, I could tell that the framework of the Empire was rotting. If there were any blessing hidden in this chaos it was that our Church gained more converts. We were always the first to help people in distress with money and labour, and we offered people a vision of hope in a troubled time. People began to respect and even like us. And with the officials distracted by other troubles, we could practise our religion openly in many places.
For all practical purposes, the Empire collapsed. But people clung on to the idea of Empire. Many, many, places that I visited at this time were untouched by war and prospered. Others were less lucky. Even the fortunate regions did not know when the army of one imperial contender or another would march through like a locust-swarm and just requisition what it wanted. Much worse, in the frontier regions, there was the ever-present fear that barbarians, who were jealous of Roman prosperity and eager for human and material plunder, would sweep across the river or the ramparts, killing, burning, and raping everything in their path. I saw it happen often enough. I tell you, you haven't known real discomfort until you've been buggered by a Visigoth.
At the end of the third century after Christos' birth, the Emperor Diocletian restored some order. The government had been organised so that four men ruled together; one in the east, one in the west and their two named successors. Diocletian, Emperor of the East, happened to be the strongest among his own tetrarchy. Need I add that Diocletian was an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians? His persecution had two causes. First, there was an occasion on which the entrails of sacrificial animals looked particularly unpromising and the pagan priests, reaching for the usual excuse, blamed the Christians for it. Second, he consulted the oracle of Apollo at Didyma, who told him that his ability to give advice was being hampered by the Christians. It got to the point where if a man's wife didn't want sex of an evening, she said the Christians had given her a headache. Diocletian passed an edict of persecution, ordering our churches destroyed, our services banned and our scriptures burned. This was in the eastern half of the Empire, and the persecution was ferocious. I got to be burned along with a pile of Gospels in the market place at Caesaraea. The western half of the Empire was relatively unaffected.
Diocletian's sidekick and supposed successor, the Caesar Maximin, was really keen on carrying out his master's edict in the provinces he controlled. He ordered that food on sale in the markets be sprinkled with libations or blood from pagan offerings. Checks on Christians were to be carried out at city gates or public baths. He put about scandalous libels about Christos. Guess what? Christos was supposed to eat babies! Big fucking surprise! Prostitutes were tortured into confessing that they had taken part in Christian orgies and our bishops were ordered into new jobs as shit-shovellers in the imperial stables. However, Maximin's campaign was not a brilliant success. He had to offer tax-breaks to get city authorities to bother persecuting us. There were a very large number of martyrdoms, it is true, and lots of Christians paid bribes or offered sacrifices before a statue of the Emperor in order to save themselves. But most ordinary pagans weren't too bothered about hounding us. Everyone knew by now the stories about child-sacrifice and incest and conspiracy were nonsense - well, most of them did. In many places, Christians had shown more compassion and charity than the rest of the community put together, especially in times of crisis. And there had been plenty of those recently. So what Diocletian and Maximin had hoped would be a killer blow to the Church, at least in the East, was nothing of the sort.
We had our own problems. I've already mentioned how disunified we were. We were now arguing among ourselves on various fine points of belief, and even the persecutions were causing bitter argument. Some said those who had not had the courage to face martyrdom and who had sacrified to the Emperor to save their lives should not be readmitted to the Church. Others pointed out the all-encompassing love of God which welcomes all repentant sinners. It was a bad time for us.
But now, something completely unexpected happened. Diocletian abdicated and the strong man among the tetrarchy turned out to be a man named Constantine. Some years previously, he had been at the head of troops in the north of Britain - a cold, miserable, wet, piss-sodden island that I don't recommend you ever visit. At the same time, I wound up there after being martyred at Edessa under Diocletian's persecution. I had surrendered myself to the pagan soldiers, who told me to look to my safety and hide myself. They took a great deal of persuasion before they would imprison and kill me. In Britain, I had barely got my mouth open and the name of Yeshua out when I was thrown into a pitful of hungry wolves.
Constantine, on the death of his father, was proclaimed tetrarch by his troops, an event I did not witness directly. The other tetrarchs, however, had fallen to fighting among themselves, while Constantine bided his time. For five years, he trained his army and put it about that he was descended from one of the great imperial houses. Then he did something wonderful.
He announced his conversion to Christianity.
It seems he had been impressed by the fortitude, not to say guts, of a Christian missionary he had seen being thrown into a pitful of wolves at York. A year later, he had seen a Christian preaching in Gaul who was the dead image of the first man. That was one of the few times I ever encountered someone from an earlier life in a later one and, typically, I can't remember seeing the future Emperor at either occasion. The wolves, in the first place, and the jeering crowd, in the second, distracted me. Still, that's the nearest I've come to influencing the course of history.
I joined Constantine's army as an infantryman. After all, I had never been martyred in battle before.
There were a few other Christians in the army. Christians had regarded it as forbidden to serve in the imperial forces, but many had done so since soldiering, like being a blacksmith or tailor is a trade and a man cannot be prevented from practising his trade. I knew it was my duty to lend my strength, such as it was, to a Christian commander who might become a Christian Emperor.
Constantine's army was, for the main part, a pagan force, with lots of thick provincials, particularly Germans, and almost no real Romans. The soldiers worshipped German tribal deities, the orthodox Roman gods, or were followers of Mithras. None were upset by Constantine's conversion. The Romans regarded a man's religion as his own business, and it was almost traditional for an Emperor or would-be Emperor to favour a particular cult. So nobody was uncomfortable with the idea of a Christian leader and my comrades-in-arms and I got along well enough once they had beaten me up and twisted my arm until I promised to stop trying to convert them.
Constantine bided his time until at last he broke with the tetrarchy and marched across the Alps to invade Italy. His aim was to overthrow the tetrarch Maxentius, whose base was at Rome.
While Constantine was a Christian, many of his officers consulted soothsayers and astrologers. Not one of them said that the omens for Constantine's success were good. Some predicted outright disaster. There was a Jew, Benjamin, in our platoon, and he went around for days shaking his head and waving his hands whenever anyone asked him how he expected us to do in the war.
We marched into Italy, fought a series of skirmishes and small battles and on each occasion we thrashed that bastard Maxentius. With the remains of his army, Maxentius retreated to Rome and barricaded himself in the city to pass his days and nights furiously sacrificing to his pagan gods and casting spells against Constantine.
Now we reached the outskirts of Rome, expecting that we would have to settle down to a long siege. As you know, this isn't an easy city to take by force and it was no different back then, seven hundred years ago.
But on the day we arrived there was a strange sign in the noonday sun. Not all the soldiers could see it, but many did. It was the sign of the cross, symbol of the love of Christos, set into the middle of the sun's orb.
Does that sound familiar?
Beneath it there appeared a legend in Latin writing. I explained to those of my fellow-soldiers around me - they could not read - that it said, 'by this sign, conquer'.
A message from God! Or so we thought.
Everyone who saw the sign understood it to mean that Christianity was about to win us the war. In camp that night, we talked of nothing else, and the other soldiers were at last interested in hearing what I had to tell them about Christos. Benjamin converted on the spot since, as a Jew, he had a head start on Yeshua's teachings, which extended the One True Testament.
Constantine, who had also seen everything now gave orders that a special banner be made bearing the sign of the cross to be carried at the head of the army. He further ordered that we soldiers paint the sign of the cross on our shields, for had it not said in the sky that we would conquer by that sign? This was an order I complied with joyfully, though many of the other soldiers grumbled because they had already painted the images or symbols of their pagan gods, or the thunderbolts of Zeus, on their shields.
The following day dawned and, before Constantine could set about investing the city properly, Maxentius emerged from the gates to offer us pitched battle.
This looked really promising, because there were 40,000 trained fighting men in our army, while Maxentius could barely muster half that number, and many of them were reluctant conscripts. Even without the sign of the cross in the sky we would have been confident of winning.
The two armies faced one another on a plain to the north of the city crossed by the Tevere. We grunts guessed that Constantine's strategy would be to overwhelm the enemy's flanks, try to surround him, then squeeze Maxentius like an orange in his fist. We were looking forward to the squeezing.
This is indeed how the battle began, with cavalry and infantry at either side advancing first. But then the enemy's heavy cataphract cavalry came charging at our centre, which is where I was posted. This should not have panicked us; we should have set our spears in the ground and presented the enemy with a bristling wall of sharp steel. But something went wrong. In a moment in which the course of history can be made by the irrational behaviour of a few people, somebody panicked and ran. That started everybody off.
Benjamin got about ten yards before some horseman got his lance through him.
Constantine, mounted on his horse behind us, with a man bearing the banner of the cross next to him, tried to rally the troops, but now a rout set in. Men dropped their cross-painted shields and threw down their weapons to make a quicker getaway. It was madness, as even an imbecile would have known had he not been siezed by blind terror. For in running away and refusing to form a wall against the enemy, they simply made it easier for the cavalry to come among them and cut them down like ripe corn.
Constantine tried to close the gap in his line, calling for men to either side to move in and repel the cavalry, but it was too late. Maxentius, siezing his chance, was following up his attack with infantry who were now rushing across to split our army in two. Then the cataphracts reached Constantine himself and overwhelmed him and captured his banner. I heard cheering in the distance and saw the top of the banner above the fighting as it was carried towards Maxentius' lines. I knew we were lost. Moments later, I was beheaded - I think - by a single swordstroke from behind and died again. What we had thought was a sign from God had been a cruel deception by Satan.
So, in my lives, I've been at two sieges of Rome and, each time, I've been with the losing side.
The death of Constantine robbed the Empire of a strong and able ruler who could have restored it to stability and then to glory. His defeat also completely discredited our Church. Maxentius, believing all his sacrifices to the pagan gods had brought him success, ensured his victory, and then deliberately spared the lives of as many of Constantine's soldiers as possible. This was his way of making sure that the story of the Christian God's false promise to Constantine would be spread widely.
Now the persecutions more or less stopped, but the death of Constantine had a powerful effect. The Romans, who judged a deity by its effectiveness, merely laughed at us where they had once hated us. While this was happening, we had become busily caught up in bitter theological arguments among ourselves.
Maxentius was overthrown within a few years by another little general and the Empire, beset on all sides by barbarians, lapsed into painful decline. Some of the barbarians were placated with lands, others with positions of high office, but anyone could see that the Roman Peace had become a hollow joke. The Empire was formally split into Eastern and Western kingdoms a hundred years later.
The Eastern and Western kingdoms fragmented in religion just as they did politically. Many worshipped the old Roman gods, others turned to the ancient Greek ones. The Persian religion of Zoroaster became popular in the Eastern kingdom and was adopted by King Justinian and Queen Eudoxia. Among the common people of the countryside there were spirits older than antiquity to be propitiated at set times of the year. The barbarians, meanwhile, brought in their childish, idiotic cults. In the West, rulers and soldiers remained loyal to Mithras.
The Western kingdom collapsed completely five hundred years ago, and its place was taken by barbarian fiefdoms whose rulers constantly warred with one another while retaining varying amounts of old Roman customs and laws. The Eastern kingdom prospered after a fashion, and the military successes of King Justinian and then King Belisarius kept the barbarians at bay.
I was rarely martyred for my faith now, and for over three hundred years I wandered the world, preaching the gospels. I gained few converts. Most people thought I was a crank to be either pitied or kicked out of town by the nightwatchmen. I travelled as far as India, but the Indians, too, have their ancient gods and would not listen to me.
There were still many Christian communities left in the world, but they were increasingly to be found in isolated places, among more simple, credulous people. It was a very depressing time. At first, people would tell jokes about Constantine's defeat and how stupid and cowardly Christians were. They would say our churches were built of reeds because Mithras-worshippers didn't like pulling down stone buildings. Or they would ask how many Christians it takes to hammer in a nail, and answer none, because the nail usually hammers them. After a while, even the jokes stopped as more and more people just forgot all about the Christians. I think I preferred it when they were still telling jokes about us. Oh, here's another one - why do Chrstians wear big crosses on their tunics? No? It's to make it easier for the archers.
I drifted towards the country that in the time of the Empire had been known as Gaul and part of which was now the kingdom of the Franks. I reverted to my old trade of doorkeeper and found employment at the court of King Charles, son of King Pepin the Short, just after his accession. I had not intended to stay, but I became aware that this was a place in which interesting things were happening.
Charles was everything you would expect a great king to be - a brave and resourceful soldier and a great athlete. He was over six feet tall and very handsome. People always remarked on his keen and expressive eyes, though I never saw anything special in them myself. Charles was also, as kings at that time went, very learned. He could speak Latin and Greek, though he could not, at first, read or write. That's the credit side of his account.
He had a terrible secret, however. Early in his reign, his power went to his head in a strange way. A king can have any woman - or for that matter, any man or boy - he wants. The woman Charles wanted when he was a young man was his sister Iolande. I saw it myself. The worst-kept secret on earth was the fact that Frankish king was sneaking into the chamber of his sister in his big, cold castle at Aachen every night.
What do you do if you see something like that? You can keep your peace, which is what most people did. You can plot to overthrow the King for his shocking, unnatural vice. But in the court of King Charles of the Franks, nobody dared to do that. In any case, morals had sunk to such a low ebb that few were as shocked by this as you might imagine. The third thing is you can plot to lure him away from his vice. That is what a group of courtiers and soldiers, led by Duke Bohemond of Rennes resolved to do.
There was a Jewish banker in town, Abraham of Milan, who occasionally did business with the royal treasury. His daughter was rumoured to be amazingly beautiful, though I have to say that in Aachen in the Dark Ages, that wasn't too difficult. Having both eyes, a nose, and half your teeth would make a Cleopatra of you. Bohemond, who had been one of Pepin the Short's most loyal servants, was disgusted by Charles' incest and determined to lure the King from the bed of his sister. Anything was worth a try, so he and his cronies threatened to kill Abraham and all his family if they didn't get a look at the girl. I was the one who got to take this message to the old banker.
Abraham immediately agreed to help out, and emphasised how delighted he would be to allow a dozen heavily-armed knights into his house to check out his daughter.
The girl's name was Deborah, and the rumours about her were not wrong. Bohemond and his friends turned up and found she had the most beautiful, unblemished complexion you ever saw, blooming like the skin of a healthy baby. Her hair was long and very dark, but not as dark and deep as her eyes. She was fifteen years old and shapely. Every man in that room would gladly have hacked off his right arm with an axe to possess the beautiful Deborah.
Deborah, being a good girl, did as her father commanded and took her clothes off and submitted to inspection. Duke Bohemond, who normally delegated everything, took it on himself to ensure that the girl was in good health all over and was indeed a virgin.
Having been passed fit, she was brought to court at once, masquerading as a servant to Bohemond's wife. Charles noticed her quickly and, better than we dared hope, went wild for her. But Deborah said that there was no way he could have her unless he married her. And there was no way he could marry her unless he became a Jew.
This she said to him for two years. Every Spring, Charles quit his freezing castle to go to war against someone. Each autumn he returned to find Deborah grown more beautiful. And more devious. Deborah would only see the King in the presence of chaperones. 'Convert, marry me and I'm all yours,' she kept saying.
This was a problem for Charles. Like all the Frankish nobility, he had been a worshipper of Mithras all his life. He feared a terrible vengance would be exacted on him if he renounced his fealty now. But, at the end of the second winter, after giving the fair Deborah fabulous gifts, after elevating her father to the position of Royal Treasurer, after giving offices and honours to both the able and the worthless hangers-on in her family and still being unable to get into the girl's velvet skirts, he gave in.
The King's coarse English wool drawers were bursting. His balls were swollen to the size of two men's heads, his prick was hard enough to poleaxe the bullocks whose blood he once bathed in. 'Yes, my love,' he said, steam rising from his britches, 'I will become a Jew.'
Do I sound bitter? No wonder. Deborah and her husband destroyed the one true faith. Because of them I am the last Christian on the face of the earth.
Charles submitted to a bet din, in which the dyanim quickly agreed to consider him for conversion. They were pious men I do not deny, but they were also in fear for their lives. They also had to consider the safety of the large number of Jews in town who had been attracted by stories of all the well-paid jobs to be had at Charles' court. But the dyanim could not, in all decency, allow Charles' conversion right away. They told him, as was the tradition, to start living as a Jew, they gave him instruction in the Jewish faith. That spring, he left to campaign against the Avars of the east, with a group of Jewish teachers in his baggage-train. And no pigs.
While Charles was off fighting, Duke Bohemond had Iolande ambushed while she was out hunting. A couple of heavies jumped her in a quiet corner of a forest and broke her neck, making it look like she had a riding accident. Then the assassins themselves were killed, just to make sure nobody told tales. I should know, I held their horses, and had my throat cut.
That spring and summer, Charles, King of the Franks, learned to read Latin and Hebrew, captured territories the size of Italy, won three major battles and enslaved 150,000 Avar men and women. The news of his sister's death did not bother him. He returned to Aachen convinced he was ready to become a Jew. And who were the dayanim to argue with him?
The person I felt sorry for was the poor fuck who had to circumcise him. He was the most powerful ruler the West had seen in centuries, he had just slaughtered thousands of people, and the only thing he wanted in the world was to get on with his wedding. Someone had to hold a razor to the prick of this lust-bothered tyrant. I often think about the mohel. I don't know what his name was. I should have taken his place. One little slip of the knife and I could have changed the course of history. But having been killed - again - I was still in the process of walking back from Mongolia.
Back in Aachen, everything went smoothly. Charles was dipped into the mikveh, which wasn't such a bad idea because he never washed much, and emerged a fully-fledged Jew. I'm not joking when I say the wedding ceremony began before he was dry and before the scab had fallen from his dick.
Even now, Deborah connived to deprive the King of his conjugal rights. For, as he discovered on retiring, it was her time of the month. She could not, she swore, have foretold this. Her menses were irregular, she said. Deborah was, he had to understand now that he was Jewish, in a state of nidah while her period lasted and for seven days afterwards.
You could go up to the royal bedchamber and see the marks the king's teeth made on the bedpost that first night.
I suppose it made his joy all the more profound when eventually she did let him into her bed. No one saw either of them for a fortnight.
Over the next few years, Charles destroyed the Lombards and took northern Italy. He stormed through the Pyrenees mountain range and defeated the Visigoths and the Sueves, taking the whole of Spain. He moved north and defeated the Saxons and made them his subjects, he took Bavaria and thrust east to push the Avars further back. He was stupendously successful, and even if you want to be mean-spirited about it and point out that there was no serious opposition to him in a lot of the lands he conquered, he alone controlled an area that was now bigger than the old Western Empire. And all the while Deborah was driving him on.
Deborah wanted to start a great dynasty, and for this she had to make something that would last. Charles could hold his Empire together for as long as he lived, which was good enough for him, but was not good enough for Deborah. She soon won him over to her way of seeing things, especially when she started bearing his children.
First, she persuaded him to capture Rome, which was no difficult feat since this place was at that stage owned by some petty princeling who was easily knocked aside. Then in a great ceremony at Hanukah, Charles was crowned a second time. His title was to be Carolus Maximus, Charles the Great, and he was declared Roman Emperor. This gave people great hopes that the new Empire would revive the peace and prosperity of the old one. Charles moved his capital to Rome from Aachen. In a very real sense, that's why we're here now.
Moving the capital to Rome was useful for me. It meant I didn't have to walk so far to get back to where all the action was.
Deborah, meanwhile, found time to have Duke Bohemond of Rennes strangled on manufactured charges of disloyalty, for she never forgot the humiliation he inflicted on her and her father. She never forgot how cold his fingers were. For my part, I'll never forget the look on his face the night before his execution when I visited him in prison. He thought he'd had my throat cut.
To cement his vast imperium together, Deborah decided Charles needed a new class of bureaucrats and officials. Magistrates, tax-gatherers, prison governors, administrators and so forth. She decided that for maximum efficiency these people had to be career professionals, not temporary political appointments. They had to be literate. Aside from a few isolated Christian and pagan monks and scholars, the only literate people existing in anything approaching numbers were Jews. Over a period of years, lots of Jews became imperial officials.
Deborah's plan went further than this. She realised that the ability to read and write confers power, especially back then when perhaps one man in a thousand was literate. Deborah was also mindful of the history of her people, of the suffering and persecution they had endured. She was now able to stop this happening again by putting the Jews in a position of power. Under the Edict of Milan, Charles the Great decreed that only Jews should be allowed to learn and practise the secrets of reading and writing.
It became the law that non-Jews could not own books. The few Christian communities that were left in Charles's Empire had their scriptures confiscated. This, for us, was disastrous, for we knew that over the generations, we would have no way of passing on the knowledge that God had given to us.
Meanwhile, Charles' rule had brought stability, and people began to take peace for granted. Ambitious young men wanted to get on in the world by working for the imperial bureaucracy. To do this, they had to be Jews and they had to learn to read and write. Many, many people began to convert to Judaism. Ambitious parents would send their sons to Jewish schools. At the same time, the prevalance of Judaism at the court, and the large numbers of wise Jewish elders coming to Rome made people realise what a beautiful and ancient religion it is by comparison with the crude superstitions practised by most. Fashionable and sophisticated people flocked to convert.
In a couple of generations, virtually the whole of the official and aristocratic classes and very many townsfolk had become Jews, while out in the countryside, the peasants continued to worship their ancient sprites and will o'the wisps.
In his later years, Charles became very fat, and died one Passover of a surfeit of salt beef. He was succeeded by his eldest son David. David followed the policies of his parents - his mother was still alive looking over his shoulder throughout his reign - and embarked on further conquests. He took Britain and Ireland, for all the good those miserable places would do him. And since he claimed to be ruler of a revived Roman Empire, logic dictated that he retake Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Judaea and those other parts of the old Eastern Empire. He made war on the Byzantine rulers with some success, but never got close to his great ambition of recapturing Judaea, and with it Jerusalem.
David had no sons. He was succeeded by his daughter Ruth, whose first act was to have her grandmother Deborah exiled to Aachen to stop her giving advice all the time. Deborah passed her few remaining years in that old cold castle where it had all started, attended by a few loyal friends. Rumour had it that she kidnapped and ate babies to try and recover her youth and beauty. You can believe that if you want.
Ruth's pagan general Roland led the armies of the Empire against the now-rotten Kingdom of the East and conquered it whole in ten years. Ruth did not marry, and there is no truth in the story that she and Roland were lovers. Roland brought back the Queen of the East, the cruel and vicious Irene to Rome bound in silken cords. Irene was dangerous, even in captivity. Had she not overthrown her own son and put out his eyes with copper needles? There was no telling what a woman like that might get up to. It was the prevailing fashion at Ruth's court for young men to wear their hair long and compose love-poems and gushingly express their chaste romantic attachment to their queen. It didn't take a wise elder to predict that it would only be a matter of time before a cabal among them transferred their affections to the fair queen of the East. In truth, Irene was sixty years old and never had been any kind of beauty. She manipulated these young idiots into conspiring to free her, raise an army and reacapture her lost realm. Most of these pomaded fools wouldn't have known one end of a spear from another, and in any case not one of them could keep a secret. It was enough for Ruth to have Irene's head cut off and sentence her conspirators to work in the royal stables for the rest of their lives where I doubt they ever had the leisure to write poetry about glanders and horse turds.
With the conquest of the Eastern kingdom, the Empire was now whole again and Ruth entered Jerusalem in triumph, accompanied by Roland and the greatest army the world had seen for centuries. I was with them that day, an ordinary infantry soldier once more. I was still there a few weeks later, searching unsuccessfully for any remaining Christian community, when they were discussing rebuilding the Temple and moving the capital of the Empire to Jerusalem, for by now almost everyone of influence, however slight, had joined or been born into, the ranks of the Chosen People.
I was still there when the dreadful plague broke out among the army and the host of officials and religious people who had accompanied Ruth on her triumphal entry. It was suicidal to take so many people into such a small city and cram them all together. Any fool could have seen that it would cause illness, but I suppose it was all forgotten in the excitement. I myself died of it before it struck down both Ruth and her Mithras-worshipping general.
Ruth was succeeded by her cousin Solomon, son of David's younger brother. There were others with claims to the throne, but Solomon wisely judged that Rome was still the centre of government and immediately went there and declared himself Emperor before anyone else could. He then followed tradition and slaughtered all the other members of his family who could compete with him. Solomon declared his intention of keeping the capital in Rome until Jerusalem was plague-free.
Of course, when the plague had cleared from Jerusalem, the Saracens, an energetic people fired by the new religion of Mohammed, attacked out of the east and took the city for their own. The Empire had recaptured Jerusalem for less than three years. Men said this was God's punishment for their pride and arrogance.
Perhaps Solomon was mindful of this, or maybe he was just plain idle. Whatever the case, he made no attempt to retake Jerusalem and settled into a life of lethargy and vice, trying to outdo the splendour of his ancient namesake. Solomon the Magnificent as he was called, imported every conceivable luxury into Rome from the East and made of it a city of unrivalled glory. With peace on most frontiers it was a golden age, in which building and the arts flourished. Solomon himself in later years became more introverted and cranky, for his insatiable appetites left him tortured with the strangury.
Solomon's long reign ended with the succession of his grandson Saul, a young man who rejected the ease of the court and who dreamed of military glory. This was just as well, because there were now predators massing on every frontier who wanted a piece of the Empire. The Saracens soon got the better of us in a great sea battle near Rhodes that left them with unrivalled control of the Mediterranean sea; their allies, the Barbary Pirates now made life hell for merchant seamen. The Saracens had long since taken Egypt and the north coast of Africa and now they moved into Spain where Saul came to meet them with a huge army. But the army, like everything else, had grown soft under Solomon and was defeated in the battle of Salamanca. Saul himself was captured by Saladin, who treated him with hospitality and respect before releasing him. Saul died soon afterwards of shame and a broken heart. He was 32 years old.
Saul had been keen to enforce religious orthodoxy. That sort of thing made life difficult for a person like me who would go around saying the Jews were all wrong and that Yeshua Christos had been the Messiah. Now the religious toleration of earlier years came to an end. One of the artists that Saul patronised, Elihu the Engineer, invented a machine specially to deal with blasphemers. It was like a mill-wheel the paddles of which fired rocks in the blasphemer's general direction. To me fell the honour of being the first person to be killed by Elihu's stoning-engine for saying that this man nobody had heard of had been the Messiah.
I avoided Rome, preferring to stick to less technologically-advanced regions. I preached in the countryside, but a faith without books has no future. I lived among dwindling Chrstian communities in remote places. Then I went and lived in the lands of the Saracens for many years. Strange to relate, I was always treated with courtesy there, for the Saracens are tolerant of all religions and treat madmen with kindness. I won no converts.
Saul's place was taken by his uncle Gideon, our present ruler. He is a learned man, but I don't think he's a big enough bastard to save the Empire. It's been ten years since the Persians and the Saracens joined forces. Now they act like a pair of vultures, picking at the carcase of the Roman Empire. It is an apocalyptic struggle between Jews, Mohammedans and Zoroastrians.
There are no Christians left. The last of them I found in a monastery out on the far west coast of Ireland. These few old men had managed to keep their sacred scriptures hidden from the imperial authorities, but no-one could read them except me. I begged them to break their vows of chastity and try to re-establish the seed of our faith, but they refused, saying I was mad and a heretic. By the time I found them they were in any case too old to be capable of marrying, even if we had found women of child-bearing age willing to have them. I know what you're thinking. The answer is that I found out a long time back that I was incapable of fathering children, for Yeshua's curse had also deprived me of that particular joy. And it's been a good few hundred years since I last derived even a passing pleasure in lying with women - or anything else for that matter.
I buried the last of the Irish monks three years ago, put the scriptures in my sack, took up my staff and started wandering once more, returning as always to Rome.
Now it is a millenium since the birth of Christos, the Persians are hammering at the gates of the eternal city and there is another sign in the sky.
The same sign, perhaps. This time, it should be correctly interpreted. I feel at last that my wanderings are over. Yeshua has returned, to gather up the faithful to himself while the unrighteous shall be cast down.
But where are the faithful?
* * * * *
The light in Joseph's eyes dimmed.
'He's dead,' Absalom said.
The rabbi began to mumble.
'A madman,' someone spat. Isaac had died during the story.
Absalom wondered about Joseph's tale. If it were a fanciful lie, he had taken extraordinary care over it.
'Rabbi,' he asked, 'was what he said ...?'
'Nonsense,' the rabbi said, 'he was maddened, reciting an old folk tale ...'
'This Yeshua Bar-Joseph, the Christos ...'
'I have never heard of him.'
The rabbi was angry, almost afraid. He didn't answer.
Absalom hawked and spat blood.
The ground seemed to be shaking.
Around Joseph's neck were two symbols, a cross and a fish. Absalom reached out to touch them.
The dead man's body rippled like water, and dissolved into the ground.
Astonished, Absalom turned. The rabbi was gone. There had been no witnesses.
Joseph's cross was left.
Obviously, the Christos had not returned. The portent in the sky had been wrong again.
Absalom picked up the cross, and held it tight in one hand. He held it until he died.
© Kim Newman & Eugene Byrne 1990.