28 April 2017

Thirty White Stones [1996]


[passage from an untitled novel, written 28 April 1996]
T
here were thirty white stones in the leather bag; all the others were black. To the touch there was no difference among them; no way for the fingers to tell the color. It was in the hands of God, or perhaps left up to the whims of blind chance.
Simon glanced up to encounter the hostile stare of the other Simon, the son of Zebedee. The man gave him a tight smile, a mirthless grimace, and then deliberately turned to the Baptist. “I can understand,” he said flatly, “why a descendent of the ‘House of Joseph’ should draw lots with the rest of us, but why are there women here? What have they to do with these high matters?”
The Baptist gave him a broad grin and shrugged. “Who am I to meddle with the will of God?” he asked. “If it be His will that a woman should sit in the circle of the thirty, then what is it to you?”
The son of Zebedee gave him a look of exasperation. “Are you saying that God’s hand is in that sack? that God’s hand will guide the rocks to the right people?”
“Nothing happens that is not God’s will,” said the Baptist. “But then,” he added, “not everything that happens is God’s will.”
A movement from the other end of the table caught their attention. It was typical of Dositheus, thought Simon, to so effortlessly turn the attention of men. He should have been an actor.
“Can you think of a fairer way to make a decision?” Dositheus put in smoothly. “We are all taking chances just by being here. Is it not an honor merely to be here? Who knows whether the white stone may not be a sentence of death? If God’s hand is not in this, then it is in nothing we have done.”
Simon could not get the hang of the currents in the room. There was something buzzing under the surface, something as real as a rock in the path of a plow. Why was the son of Zebedee so angry? Why was Dositheus not making his usual objections? The conviction grew on him that something was off-center in the business, that the lottery was fixed in some manner he did not understand. But how could that be? He looked over at the Baptist, but John’s expression was bland, open, giving nothing away.
“Enough,” he said abruptly. “It’s been decided. Let’s get this thing over with.”
The Baptist took the leather bag and handed it over to Nicetas, standing close by. He thrust his hand into the bag with a spasmodic jerk, then pulled out his stone. It was black. Expressionlessly he passed it to the next man, a dour Galilean. His stone also was black.
The first man who drew a white stone took it out almost with a look of fear. It was Judas, the man of Kerioth. Something felt wrong there, but Simon was distracted. It was Helena’s turn to draw. He watched her closely.
She closed her eyes, tentatively reached her hand into the sack looking as if though she thought it might contain scorpions or snakes, and pulled out a stone. She did not look at it for a second, then opened her eyes and spread out her hand. It was white.
Across the table the son of Zebedee made a sudden movement—suppressed fury, thought Simon—and he missed seeing the next man draw in consequence.

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