[rough draft of the opening of an untitled novel, written 29 April 1990]
omething is going to happen,” said the Astrologer. “Epochs pass. The eras change. One runner falls and another takes up the torch. Something is beginning anew.”
His assistant studied the chart. “I don’t see it,” he complained. “The planets—”
“It’s not in the planets,” said the Astrologer. “I feel it in the crosswinds of empire, in the stretch of the cloth of society, in the currents of the actions of men. The time is ready. Rome is pressed to the breaking-point. Something has to give.”
“Get some sleep,” advised his assistant. “You’ll need your strength when you meet the Emperor.”
“The winds,” muttered the Astrologer. “I feel it in the winds.”
he Emperor Tiberius sweated in the summer night, tossing and turning in his bed despite the sea-breezes that blew in his retreat on the isle of Capri. All Rome stagnated, and flies buzzed around heaps of decomposing garbage in the canyons of the city. Sejanus, yet unfallen, dreamed of extorting another golden tribute in exchange for a distant office. One of his appointees, a Pontius Pilate, discussed with an engineer imported from Macedonia his plans for the construction of a new aqueduct for his tiny province of Judaea, late at night at his residence in Caesarea, on the coast of the Mediterranean sea. And in a nameless cave in the Judaean desert John the Daywasher was having nightmares. And because of his nightmares history would jump channels and flow into a new course.
Because of his nightmares Simon of Gitta would never become a merchant like his father. Because of them Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, would sell his estate. Because of them one Helene would see the inside of a brothel in Tyre, Eleazar of Bethany would lose a fortune, and Saul of Tarsus would be executed in Rome. Because of them Pontius Pilate would be recalled in disgrace to face charges before the emperor. Because of them Salome of Nazareth would prophesy in Egypt, and because John had had his nightmare, her brother would die painfully before his thirty-fifth birthday, and his name would be a curse for thousands of years.
“Still awake, brother?”
John shook his head slowly. “I have been—dreaming. Dreaming, brother—” He paused. “What hour is it?”
“The seven sisters have risen.”
“Then sunrise comes soon.” John took the other’s arm. “Listen, brother,” he said intently, “I have to go—at once.”
The other’s expression did not change. “Go? Why?”
“The Lord wills it. I have dreamed dreams and seen visions, and I know I have been called. Now is the hour.”
“What have you dreamed and what have you seen?”
John shook his head slowly. “I can’t say,” he said helplessly. “There was—”
“Tell me,” said the other intently.
“I saw—I saw—” John groped for words to convey the immensity of his vision. The other waited patiently. “I saw a man winnowing,” he said at last.
“It was the Lord. I think it was the Lord.”
“He was holding a gigantic fork in his hand, tossing the wheat into the air, whole fields of wheat at a time. And a mighty wind was blowing, a storm. And the chaff blew away, and I heard it screaming as it blew, and it screamed with the voices of men.”
“What did the voices say?”
“They were screaming in terror of the fiery pit,” said John. “And the grains of wheat were singing in praise of the storehouse, and the wind was howling. And then the man turned to look at me—that’s when I knew he was no man, but the Lord Himself—he looked at me, and he said, “John, my servant, fire is not quenched with fire, but with water. And through water alone can men be saved.”
“And what happened next?”
“I woke up,” said John. “I woke up and I was cold, and the night was hot.”
“Yes.” The other paused for a moment. “This is not the first time you have had nightmares,” he observed.
“That’s why I have to go,” said John violently. “This is not the first time. He’s coming, coming soon, and I have to be ready for him. Everyone has to be ready for him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” said John. “But I will. He wants me to meet him at the Jordan river.”
“How do you know? Was that in your dream?”
“No.” John paused. “You know my father was a priest.”
“A priest in a temple of thieves. There was a time when I dreamed—but no, it’s not worth the telling.”
“Wait until the morning,” cautioned the other. “Tell the Brethren your dream. Perhaps they will be able to enlighten you.”
“No, I have to go now. I may already have stayed too long. Tell the brethren—” John raised his hand, then let it fall. “Tell the brethren whatever you want. I’ll be at the Jordan River.”
he news drifted out, like ripples on the surface of a quiet pond, from Jericho to Bethany to Bethlehem, that there was a new prophet on the banks of the Jordan. His dress was wild, his words wilder, and no one knew how he stayed alive in the desert. The priests from the temple at Jerusalem sent out a team to investigate, but there was nothing to say. He didn’t claim to be a prophet, let alone the Prophet like Moses that was causing such a stir among the heretical Samaritans, he didn’t claim to be Elijah or Enoch returned from heaven, and especially he didn’t claim the most dangerous rôle of all, that of an anointed king come to rule over the ancient and forgotten Kingdom of David. And yet the crowds came out to see him, to hear him, and to be washed by him in the River Jordan. It all seemed harmless enough—if it weren’t for the crowds.
“There has to be something more to it,” complained