16 January 2017

No Isaiah


[Passage from an untitled novel, written mid-January 1996:]
T
he prophet of the Dead Sea was as shaggy and unkempt as rumor made him, and for the life of him Joseph could not see what the people found in him. “He’s no Isaiah, that’s for sure,” A―― said under his breath before dismounting.
Still there was something unworldly about the scene; the gray-robed half-human shape knee-deep in water, the milling throngs on shore, the endless procession of men and women going up to the water’s edge to be shoved under and—they imagined—to be purged of their sins.
A―― advanced to the shore and shouted to attract the “prophet’s” attention.  The wild man’s eyes met his, examined him, dismissed him, all without an indication of his thoughts, and without interruption to the bizarre rite he administered.  A woman emerged from the water, her hair wet about her shoulders, shrieking incoherently.  “Glory to God in the Highest!” shouted somebody on one shore.
Joseph dismounted, following A―― reluctantly. What did the Temple authorities mean, sending him on this wild goose chase? He felt obscurely disappointed. What had he expected? Did he really think the heavens would open, that angels would appear, that a prophet had come to take away the world’s sins? He laughed at himself, but his laughter tasted bitter.
Now, abruptly, the “prophet’s” eyes met his, and something extraordinary did happen. It was as if he was being examined inside and out; he felt as though his spirit, even his soul, were being examined coldly, dispassionately, by an Intelligence beyond this world, alien and unnatural. As if the sediment of his mind were being stirred up, Joseph felt forgotten sins rise to the surface of his memory and flood him with shame and a sense of overwhelming desolation. He could no longer feel the solid earth under his feet, the rasp of robe against his skin. All reality seemed to be sliding away from him and then—
—and then it was nothing, just the dirty-robed “prophet” and his deluded flock wallowing in the river Jordan. The man gave him an ironic half-smile before returning to his business. Joseph felt embarrassed, humiliated, as though caught masturbat­ing in public. To cover it he strode forward angrily. He was on official business of the Temple, of Yahweh’s House on earth, and no fraud of a prophet was going to keep him by some sort of shell game.
A man officiously blocked his way. “Excuse me,” he said belligerently, “If you’ve come to be baptized, you’ll have to wait your turn. And if you’ve come for anything else, you’re wasting your time as well as ours.”
“And just who are you?” Joseph wanted to know.
“My name is Andrew bar-Zebedee, and I’ve been appointed by the Baptist himself to keep the crowds in order,” said the other man. “More to the point, however, is who you are. Or should I say perhaps, who you think you are.”
“I am Joseph Bar-nabas, and I am sent on important business from the Temple to talk with John, called the Baptist,” said Joseph, nettled. “Will you be so good as to inform him of my arrival?”
Andrew stared at him a moment, apparently consulting some internal manual, then spun on his heel and waded out into the river. He spoke quietly to the Baptist, who nodded, and then raised up his hands for silence, motioning the next candidate to wait. “Friends,” he announced, “we have important visitors.”  Joseph thought there was an odd emphasis on the word important, but could not tell what it was. Was the Baptist being ironic? Was this a code word of some sort? There was a collective inten­sity in his audience which suggested something of the sort, but there were nuances here beyond him.

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