Jaleesa finished milking and began collecting the eggs into her basket. The sun was beautifully hot and the flowers rejoiced in the clean desert air; the bees, too, were about their work and there would be much honey for all the brethren. She cried out loud a salutation to the god Jehovah who made such wonders possible and waved at all her brothers and sisters. What love there was here: over 900 souls together in the worship of their god.
Vaguely she could remember how the brethren had overthrown the Roman infidels from this place and how more of the brethren had joined them after the evil ones had destroyed the temple of Jehovah in Jerusalem. She fought back the tears that filled her eyes at the very thought of such abominations. Here in the desert, at least they were safe, here in their fortress more than 50 temples high; none of the brethren need go outside their stronghold to witness their holy lands being violated by those devils from foreign lands.
She walked past the cistern which collected all their water and climbed the tower to gaze on that magnificent sea; she hoped some day to bathe in that sea that bore you up and supported you like the hand of Jehovah himself; it was a place of great rapture when time stood still and even now she felt an overwhelming belongingness in the love of the true chosen people of Jehovah.
“Jaleesa, come and see the evil ones in the desert.”
Jaleesa walked quickly across the plateau and looked down at their hated enemies gathering at the base of one of the towers. She felt a pang of horror that these vile creatures who had desecrated the temple should be so close.
‘I must ask Elazar after temple prayers to interpret these mighty events and make sure we are secure here’ she thought.
Friar Martin, like everyone else in the group, sat transfixed as the elder monk began to speak; the wild look in his eyes, his tone of voice and the pallor of his skin in the flickering shadows from the fire made his stories even more spellbinding.
He told of the deprivations that each pilgrim suffered, of the hunger and thirst, the sicknesses and the attacks by bandits that made every one of them gasp. Yet, the older man almost dismissed his sufferings of the journey as irrelevant as he began to speak of their arrival in Rome and the Tenebrae ceremonies of Holy Week.
“And at dusk on the Maundy Thursday of the Holy week of our Blessed Lord, the whole sacred chapel was ablaze with candles and as the choirs began to sing, the candles were slowly extinguished, one by one. How those sacred chants told of forgiveness from the Lord God himself with such sounds and with such mighty words that we understood the total purity of our Saviour’s sacrifice and the eternal wisdom of our God, which poured into each secret soul. Their voices were of the angels and no one could resist them. And all my worldly pains were delivered from me and I was white as snow; now I truly know of my own deliverance and that I too can sit in the company of God with my soul so cleansed by those mighty words. A weight was taken from my shoulders and the stains and darkness of my soul were washed away; I can only pray for an early death to gaze upon the face of God and hear his voice once more.”
The Friars were stunned and could not speak, but just looked on, helpless and devastated upon the face of the man who had heard the voice of God.
Martin was a man of passion and decision; in that very moment he swore to Almighty God Himself that he would go to Rome and hear these chants that stirred the soul like the very voice of God.
Francis gazed into his first beer of the day; it would take four of them to take him to his happy place, a place where he could forget who he was or even re-write the script of his life to make it more acceptable.
‘At least I have loved’ he mused, ‘I have loved with passion and devotion’. The sober voices were still chattering in his head and reminded him that it was some of these passions which had led to his various infidelities and driven his wife away, and others of his passions that had squandered most of his money.
‘..and I was a very good doctor’ he mused. True agreed the voices, but how many do you help to make up for the man you killed and the tragedies that happened to his family? He drunk deeply and awaited deliverance.
He did love his children with a passion and everyone – even his wife – accepted that he had been a good father and would do anything for them. And the grandchildren too – those adorable identical twin boys. Yet would the ‘sins of the (grand) father be visited on his (grand) children?’ He felt it was his doing – somehow (though he knew it was medically impossible) that his grandsons’ kidney failure lay at his door.
“… and I can save one of them” he nodded, for his tests had shown that he had the perfect tissue match to give one of them a living donor kidney; but the transplants were always being delayed because of hospital crises and which of his beloved grandsons was he to save and which to leave to a bleak and uncertain future?
He continued to drink and as sometimes happens in the haze of alcohol an idea began to form…..
Chazzan Elazar led the services; he was handsome and mature and imparted that sense of safety and well-being that comes from being a confident leader.
After the ceremony, he explained to his flock that their own Rabbi had given himself up to total prayer and meditation in this time of crisis and that he – Elazar – would now no longer be a Chazzan but an acting Rabbi to counsel and pray with all the brethren.
Jaleesa felt her heart pound with pride that her special guardian would now be so important to each and every soul in this citadel of god.
Her eyes looked down as she asked him about the monumental times and the danger from the evil ones:
“Have no fears, my child, for Jehovah has appointed this place to his chosen ones and nothing can befall us; we have rocks to throw down on them should they try to climb the heights. We are quite safe.”
Jaleesa nodded and thanked him and risked a glance into his eyes:
“But my child, these are uncertain times and even here without our sacred temple, nothing is quite the same as before. Now I am become Rabbi, I would wish to marry in the traditions of the holy temple.”
Jaleesa felt her heart stop as she tried to suppress the cry of jealousy welling in her soul that someone would be so much closer to Elazar than she.
“…and though you are young, it is you with whom I wish to spend my life.”
Jaleesa felt she might faint….. what to say?
“I thought I was too young… I dared not even think that I might be wife to you…dare I even bless the evil ones that they made this possible… for I have loved you since I first saw you” she finally blurted.
Time stood still as they held each other for the first time.
The priest gave Martin his blessing; the holy vow to complete the pilgrimage had been made so now he could don the pilgrim’s uniform of the broad-brimmed hat, the sclavein that covered him and the scrip to hold his meagre possessions. He stared proudly at the mighty staff that would take him to Rome and back. There was nothing more to be done; he would start the next day and would return re-born after hearing the voice of God.
What pain and privations there were on that journey! What stench and overcrowding on that ship! What hunger and thirst, what bad food and bad water (when they came at all)! Sore feet and blisters, the flies in the swamps…. So much must the true pilgrim endure to reach his goal.
But then all was forgotten as he stood at the gates of Rome and felt the warmth of God’s Holy sun. Tomorrow he would enter in and hear the voice of his creator.
They were always polite, but looking after their sick sons had taken its toll and the greeting was correct and dutiful.
“How are my beautiful boys today?” Francis asked.
“They are OK” said Emma, “though they struggle still with the time on dialysis…. they just want to be normal boys” she added with tears in her eyes; Francis put his arms around her, “It’s going to be OK, honestly it really is… I just know!”
“Will you be around all this week?” he asked.
“Of course” Emma snorted, “how could we possibly get away.”
“May I go and kiss them goodbye?” asked Francis.
“Goodbye? Don’t you mean ‘Good Night’ dad? Sometimes I think you are losing it.”
Francis went upstairs; the twins were sleeping peacefully. He kissed each one on the forehead with a tenderness that said more than they could ever know.
Rabbi Elazar stood up to speak; every one of the brethren was present and it seemed that the very desert itself stopped to hear his words.
“We have been defending our fortress well, and I bless you all for throwing the rocks down onto the evil ones. But now they are using their Jewish captives to build the ramparts and we must not kill our Jewish brothers… this practice must now stop.”
The people nodded, though the realisation that this would mean the end of their resistance was not lost on them.
“Since we long ago resolved never to be the servants of the Romans nor to anyone other than our own true God Jehovah, it is a great favour that He has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely and in a state of freedom.”
Here was a leader any soul would follow unto death.
“There is one small matter”, Elazar smiled and the world smiled with him, “I am betrothed to Jaleesa and our marriage must be brought forward in these exceptional circumstances” he paused, “And as acting Rabbi I have sanctioned this for 5 days from now”.
They all stood and applauded and looked at the radiant Jaleesa who had tears of joy gushing down her face.
Around the campfire, all the pilgrims were rejoiceful that they would enter into the city of Rome the next day; for tonight, however, they would sleep outside the city walls in the warmth of their great fire, knowing that tomorrow their sufferings would be rewarded.
Then a sad old man entered the group on an old donkey; he looked so wizened and broken. Though he spoke in a strange dialect, Martin could follow his message: the Black Death had broken out inside Rome and Rome could not be entered.
The old man went on to say that he had seen the Black Death twice before, yet had survived it, and that he would take food and supplies on his donkey into the city, expecting that God would spare him yet again. At first many others wanted to join him, but the old man went on:
‘I have seen many hundreds of these deaths and not one such death would I lay on my worst enemy. The huge boils and painful suppurations that afflict the groins and armpits and the chattering fevers with the nightmares of hell… then the flesh dies and the blackness creeps up from the fingers and toes, the victim vomits his own blood and death comes as a blessed release.’
The pilgrims fell silent.
“I must go with you” said Martin gazing up to the skies, “The voice of God is calling and I cannot refuse”.
It was the first day of Holy week; in 4 days Martin would hear the hymn and see the candles put out one by one. No matter that the choir was reduced by deaths, for even a whisper of those sacred chants would be sufficient. He would find his total fulfilment in hearing the voice of God and then through death would come to see his Holy Face.
Martin and the old man knocked on the portals and entered the city.
“What a week it’s been, and here I am spending my precious leisure time with you bastards”. The transplant team often spent time together; there was a bond of shared experiences which drew them together even out of working hours.
“The nicest thing of all was today’s transplants – the twins! To give each boy a kidney from a single donor –their grandfather – just brilliant; two transplants in one afternoon… and those kids are just wonderful – what a result!”
“Do you know the back-ground to the donor?” asked a junior.
“Very much so” sighed the surgeon, “he was a doctor – and a pretty good one from all accounts. He actually came to see me yesterday, to make sure I would be on duty today and check some other details; at the time it just seemed a little odd, though now it all makes sense. As you know, the twins were identical and so the tissue match fitted both. His suicide in the hospital forced the hand of everyone to give us immediate theatre time so we could rush the kids in and get the job done! Yes!” he said jubilantly, raising his fist at the joy of getting around the red tape and administrative obstructions.
“I had met him several times before and he always seemed to carry some burden, some sadness around with him… it seemed strange as he was so highly thought of. Funny thing is, the last time I saw him, he looked at ease with himself – I’d even say happy…I guess he must have really loved those boys.”
The surgeon fell silent, respectful of the memory of the deceased: “It was a wonderful thing to do; ‘sicut omnia in mortuo nobile absoluta sunt’: all sins are surely forgiven in such an honourable death!”
“Thou my beloved have stood by me while I ended the lives of so many of our children and as each death tore into my heart, you held my hand and stood firm. Now I must end the life of my only earthly love and then my own, for without thee, this earth has no succour for me.”
“Be brave with your dagger my wondrous husband for your comfort and wisdom have seen our people through these awful times. How proud I have been to share your sorrow and your wonder; how glorious that we had a life together in our last three months of earth; no pain, no hurt can take away from me that which I have shared with thee and I would not change one second of my life from what I have lived. Plunge thy dagger powerfully into my willing flesh and have no regrets at our noble ending.”
A smile of love greeted the dagger into her heart.
Bernard Shevlin 16.9.15
Author’s Notes: the story is called ‘the Stalker’ because death stalks us all – we all must die some day and each day of life brings death a little closer. Only through Love can we truly embrace death and the three stories, I hope, illustrate that. The Jewish story keeps faithfully to the the historical Massada and the mass suicide of 74 AD. The Pilgrimmage is based on the Misere, composed by Gregorio Allegri in c. 1635 and kept under great secrecy in the vatican to be performed only during Holy Week; it was finally transcribed by Mozart and “released” to the world.