407. Christmas Poem

’Twas the night before Christmas, and there in a heap

Lay my typewriter monkeys, unkempt and asleep.

At long last, thank the Lord, they had started to snooze.

They lay chattering faintly and smelling of booze.

And so I, much relieved, at my desk sat to write

On that bright, peaceful, glorious, holy, cold night.

When the silence was broken—a sharp, noisy tap!

On the door some odd stranger had started to rap.

I expected that raven, but there stood a man

With a snappy red sport coat, a neat beard, a tan,

And a trim, slim physique! His thin figure was slick,

But was this dapper fellow the ancient Saint Nick?

“Santa Claus? But you can’t be,” I wondered aloud.

“I am trying to fit with today’s younger crowd,”

Said the man. “Would you tell me now, if you will, please,

If it’s you who look after twelve naughty monkeys.”

“I’m the one,” I admitted. “I’m sorry,” said he.

“They have earned tons of coal. I won’t bring it, you see,

For they start many fires, and black coal is a fuel!

Such a flammable gift would be foolish and cruel.”

“Then what did you bring them?” I inquired, quite depressed.

“I brought twelve fire extinguishers—seemed like the best

Of replacements for something as risky as coal.”

And with that, he set twelve presents down. “Bless my soul!”

He exclaimed. “And I almost forgot! Here for you,

A small box! My dear boy, there’s a gift for you, too.”

And with that, old Saint Nick snapped his fingers and rose.

No more reindeer for him, but a jet. “There he goes,”

I declared as the jet roared away in the night.

To my desk I went, then, and flipped on a soft light.

What nice gift in my box had the kindly elf hid?

A brand-new coffee cup, and a note: “Good luck, kid.”

Do you know what gift would be even better than a fire extinguisher? A donation to Operation Yuletide, of course! We’re raising money to help people this Christmas. There are even rewards and stuff! (As an added perk, Santa Claus* will put donors on his Nice list.) Check it out here!

*Santa Claus does not exist. Any and all claims involving Santa Claus are intended jokes, and thus legally nonbinding. Please do not sue me, my family, or my cat.

They Have Their Exits

A Tragedy

Hector Cage sat alone in a padded room. “Shut up,” he growled, clamping his hands over his ears. “Shut up!” He closed his eyes and ground his teeth together.

“If I hear one more word—one more word—I’m going to scream,” he said.

He screamed.

The door opened. Dr. Lopez stepped into the room to find his patient howling at the ceiling. “Hector!” he said sharply. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve told you and told you and told you, but you won’t listen!”

Dr. Lopez knelt next to the insane man.

“I’m not insane!” screamed Hector, scrambling away from the psychiatrist.

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t. He did.”

The psychiatrist frowned. Hector was getting worse.

The madman giggled hysterically. “Of course I’m getting worse. Weeks in a padded room will do that to anybody. You try living here and see how you like it.”

Dr. Lopez extracted some coins, a pen, and a ring of keys from his pants pocket. After placing the pen behind his ear, he stuffed the rest back into his pocket and searched his coat for a notebook. He found one wedged behind his phone, and carefully fished it out.

Hector had not taken his hands from his eyes.

“You think I’m crazy,” he babbled, “but I can prove the Narrator exists. He said what you have in your pockets. Coins and keys, in your pants pocket. I didn’t look. I swear. He told me.”

Dr. Lopez shrugged. “Nobody said anything, Hector,” he said, speaking in the gentle, condescending tone usually reserved for children. “Are you sure you weren’t peeking through your fingers?”

“Phone,” murmured Hector. “In your coat pocket. I didn’t see it. You never took it out.”

The psychiatrist raised his eyebrows. “You’re a good guesser, Hector. I’m impressed.”

“Didn’t guess,” insisted Hector, shaking his head violently. “Narrator said it was there in your pocket.”

“So the Narrator talks to you,” said Dr. Lopez, taking the pen from behind his ear. He opened the notebook to a blank sheet.

“Not to me,” said Hector. “He narrates the story.”

“What story?”

This story. The story in which we’re characters. I hear him narrating.”

“That reminds me of Shakespeare,” said Dr. Lopez, trying to change the subject. “Shakespeare wrote, ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ Tell me, Hector, have you ever read Shakespeare?”

The psychiatrist disliked Shakespeare, but wanted to steer conversation toward a neutral subject. The patient’s delusions were upsetting him. Hector needed to calm down.

“I do not,” said Hector, sulking. “I have every reason to be upset. Changing the subject won’t change that.”

Dr. Lopez felt an uncomfortable tightness in his chest. Damned heart problems. Why did Hector insist on being so difficult? To keep himself calm, the psychiatrist began sketching in his notebook. A butterfly was the most peaceful thing he could think of. Very slowly and deliberately, he drew a blue morpho in a corner of his notepaper.

“Very slowly and deliberately,” intoned Hector, whose eyes were still shut, “you drew a blue morpho in a corner of your notepaper. The heck is a blue morpho? Some kinda butterfly? Whatever it is, you drew it.”

The psychiatrist shuddered. “Another good guess. You’re good at guessing, Hector.”

“Lucky me,” said Hector.

Dr. Lopez fought to keep his temper. “Hector, I’m going to be honest. I don’t feel well today, and I’m not in the mood for games. I want to help you, but you’ve got to help me. You can start by—”

He stopped for breath, and realized how much the pain in his chest had grown.

“We’re just characters in a story,” said Hector. “You know it, don’t you? I think you just don’t want our story to end. You know that when it does, we won’t exist anymore, except in the memory of the reader.”

Breathing deeply, Dr. Lopez forced himself to calm down. “That’s an interesting idea, Hector, but I don’t believe it’s true.”

“Of course,” mused his patient, “our quaint little story might be a tragedy. It sure isn’t a comedy—hell, do you feel like laughing? Today’s parable might end in our deaths. Even if it doesn’t, we’ll end when it does. We’re screwed either way. The Author will get bored with us, make some new characters, get bored with them, and continue the morbid cycle of creation and abandonment, like a god with ADHD.”

The psychiatrist began to write with short, jerky strokes. The pain in his chest refused to go away.

“Tell me, Hector, what’s the difference between the Author and the Narrator?”

“They’re the same,” said Hector, as if explaining to a toddler that two and two made four. “Use your head, won’t you? Use it while you still can.”

Holding the notebook out of Hector’s sight, Dr. Lopez scribbled the date and the following words:

Patient: Hector Cage. Condition worsening. Still hearing voices. Metafictional delusion persists. Morbidly preoccupied with death and nonexistence—experiencing suicidal ideation? Keep on self-harm watch in Personal Safety Room. Probable diagnoses: depression, schizophrenia

“I do not have schizophrenia!” yelled Hector. “You’ve locked up the only sane man on Earth, and schizophrenia is your best diagnosis? And you think I’m crazy!” He pounded the wall with his fist, and then threw himself on the floor: a shattered wreck.

“I’m not a shattered wreck,” he sobbed to the ceiling.

Dr. Lopez took a few deep breaths. He felt very sick. “Listen, Hector,” he said as gently as he could. “You and I, we’re going to work through this. We’re going to—to—”

He stopped. The pain in his chest had spiked. He fought to breathe, and felt himself blacking out.

Hector sat up. “I guess this is a tragedy,” he said, suddenly calm. “Rough luck.”

Dr. Lopez crumpled to the floor.

Hector stood, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “I’ll get someone,” he sniffled. “Not that it matters.” He stumbled to the door and shouted for help. A nurse came running, and gasped at the sight of the psychiatrist sprawled over the padded floor.

“What did you do?!” she demanded.

“I told the truth,” said Hector. “Better call some help, hadn’t you? There’s a phone in his coat pocket.”

With that, he took off down the hallway.

Ten minutes later, Dr. Lopez was on his way to the emergency room. Nurses and aides gathered in the hallway, chattering with the euphoria of tragedy averted. “You’re a hero, Liz!” cried an assistant, hugging the nurse who called the ambulance. “You saved his life! Dr. Lopez would have died if you hadn’t found him in time.”

“His patient yelled for help,” said the nurse. “The guy ran off in the hubbub. They’re looking for him now, but I kinda hope he gets away. He saved Dr. Lopez—how bad can the guy be?”

“Not so bad, I guess,” replied Hector Cage from beneath a pine tree half a mile down the road. He sat in tall grass, breathing heavily, chewing a clover blossom, and looking up at the big blue sky.

“It’s funny how the madmen are the ones with a grip on reality,” he said. “Poor old Noah and Socrates and Jesus, and all those Minor Prophets. All crazy. Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I’m alive and free, free, free as a bird. No more padded rooms. Just I and the sky and the world at my fingertips.”

Hector spat out his clover, wiped his eyes, and closed them in tired resignation.

“Such a pity I won’t get to enjoy it.”

Author’s Note:

I wrote this one back in college, around five years ago. Those days are a brightly-colored blur. I don’t remember much about this story—I don’t remember much of anything, really—but I recall pondering the idea that a totally self-aware fictional character would probably be locked up as a lunatic.

Think about it. If your neighbor or coworker told you we were all just characters in someone’s story, would you believe her? I wouldn’t. In fact, I’d nope out of there as quickly as possible, and avoid all eye contact with that person in future.

I rescued this story from my personal archive: a dismal place, littered with false starts and abandoned ideas from high school and college. This story seemed salvageable, so I updated and edited it, because recycling is good for the environment. Planet Earth is the only one we’ve got, after all.

Romeo and Juliet and Dave

A Sequel to “A Portrait of the Artist as a Performing Monkey”

“Ave, Imperator! Morituri te salutant,” grumbled Gabriel Green, fumbling with his scarf and scattering snowflakes over the carpet.

The lady at the desk giggled. “I don’t speak Spanish, Mr. Green.”

“Latin,” corrected Gabe. “It means, ‘Hail, Emperor! Those who are about to die salute you.’” He looped the scarf around his neck and pulled it upward like a noose, doing his best impression of a hanged man. “Is Phil in his office?” he asked, somewhat ruining the effect.

“Oh, don’t be such a drama queen,” tittered the secretary. “I’ll let him know you’re here.” She pressed a button and leaned forward to speak into a little microphone on the desk. “Mr. Lector? It’s Mr. Green. Should I send him in?”

“Gabe!” crackled a familiar voice. “Come in, come in, come in! Just the man I wanted to see.”

“You can hang your stuff on the wall over there,” said the secretary, waving vaguely toward some coat hooks on the wall.

“Can I hang myself?” inquired Gabriel. “I mean, will the hooks take my weight, or should I find a sturdy tree?”

Moments later, as he stepped into Phil’s office, Gabriel was met with the comforting smell of old coffee.

“Gabe!” boomed his agent, rising from his desk. “Been waiting for you! Have a cuppa joe. It’s old and sludgy, but I don’t charge.”

Gabriel needed no encouragement. Filling a foam cup, he recited, “Out of the gloom that covers me, when wind is cold and sky is gray, I thank whatever gods may be for coffee on a winter day.”

“That’s good, that’s good,” said Phil, beaming. “An original?”

“From a poem by William Ernest Henley,” admitted Gabriel. “More or less. You wanted to see me?”

Phil motioned to a leather chair across the desk from his own. “Have a seat, Gabe. We gotta talk.”

Gabriel sat down, feeling like a student in the principal’s office. “What have I done this time?”

“The problem’s with your latest book,” said Phil, frowning. “I won’t mince words, Gabe. The Sun and the Spire didn’t sell.”

“It wasn’t exactly a bestseller,” he conceded, “but the critics loved it. The review from The Typewriter Ribbon called it—”

“I don’t care what reviews called it. I call it a loss.” Phil’s tone softened. “Look, Gabe, I love your stuff. You know that. As an agent, I like representing at least one brainy writer for bragging rights. You’re my trophy author.”

“Thanks a lot, Phil.”

“But even trophy authors have to earn a few bucks now and then, and my kids occasionally need to eat. We’re counting on you, Gabe. We need a bestseller: something for Young Adults.”

Gabriel sipped his coffee, stared at his hands, and asked in a small voice, “What did you have in mind?”

“Glad you asked!” exclaimed Phil, slapping his desk. “I’d suggest a vampire novel to entice publishers, but since that’s apparently, ahem, ‘impossible,’ we’ll have to try another angle. How’s a love triangle sound?”

A pained noise, something between a moan and a wail, escaped from somewhere deep inside Gabriel Green.

“You okay?” asked his agent.

“I’ll be damned.”

Phil smirked. “Language, Gabe.”

“A love triangle?”

“You know, a romance where a character has to choose between two lovers. Haven’t you read Twilight or The Hunger Games? They’re hot sellers. They’ve got love triangles.”

“Do you know what else is a hot seller? Romeo and Juliet. Two lovers: great romance. There’s a reason Shakespeare didn’t call it Romeo and Juliet and Dave. Three’s a crowd.”

Phil dismissed the Bard of Avon with a wave. “Shakespeare’s ancient history. We’re talking Young Adults, Gabe. They want love triangles, and publishers want to give them love triangles, and it’s our job to keep publishers happy. Give them a love triangle. And Gabe,” he added, “this time it had better not be impossible.”

Gabriel Green drained his cup, crushed it in his fist, and dropped it in the trashcan as he slunk out of his agent’s office. As he gathered his coat and scarf from their hooks on the wall, the secretary asked, “Where to next, Mr. Green?”

“To find a sturdy tree,” he spat, wrapping his scarf tightly around his neck.

When Gabriel returned to his apartment, he left his winter clothes in a heap on the floor and went straight to the kitchen to brew coffee. Then, reluctantly, he fished a cell phone out of his pants pocket, sifted through his contacts, and selected a number labeled BARBARA.

“Gaby Baby!” cried a breathy voice on the other end of the line.

Gabriel cringed. “Hello, Barbara.”

“When will you learn to call me Babs like everyone else in the universe? Oh, never mind. You haven’t called in forever, Gaby.”

Gabriel,” he corrected. “I’ve been busy: the life of a writer, you know.”

“That’s no reason not to call your big sister now and then,” she pouted. “What do you need? I’m sure you’re not calling because you miss me.”

“I miss you lots,” he lied, “but my reason for calling is that I have some questions about, um, teen romance novels.”

He pulled away the phone from his ear as shrill laughter rang from the earpiece. “You’re writing a teen romance?” gasped his sister. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Since you read a lot of romances,” he persisted, “I thought you might, um, have some pointers.”

“Sex!” she exclaimed. “Put in lots of sex.”

“For heaven’s sake, Barbara, I’m writing for teens. They don’t need sex.”

“But they sure want it,” she replied, and giggled.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” he muttered, and added more loudly, “Moving on, dear sister, what sort of things do writers put in romance novels?”

“Besides sex? Well, the main characters have to be beautiful. The gal should be adorably awkward and clumsy—are you writing this down?—and the guy should have abs, and maybe be a werewolf or a vampire or something.”

“Barbara, I’ve got to go,” said Gabriel. “Something is boiling over on the stove.”

“Wait! Before you go, let me recommend some romances for you. In the Light of the Blood Moon is good, and so is Once Bitten, Twice Loved, and Only a Farm Girl.”

“All right—thanks—bye,” he said, and stuffed his phone back in his pocket. The stove top lay before him, cold and empty, and he grinned crookedly. “A lie is an abomination before the Lord, and an ever-present help in time of trouble. Ah, coffee’s done.”

After a few cups of coffee and a humiliating trip to the library, Gabriel threw himself onto his sofa and picked up Once Bitten, Twice Loved: the first of a short stack of teen romances.

“As Leonard lay burning with fever,” he read aloud from the middle of page sixty-three, “Isabelle sat beside him, her eyes shining with compassion. His hard, flat chest heaved with the effort of breathing. She stroked his raven-black hair. ‘I love you,’ she whispered, but as the words left her lips, she thought guiltily of Alexander. His soft brown eyes and warm smiled filled her mind.

“I think,” added Gabriel, dropping Once Bitten, Twice Loved, “I’m going to be sick.” He lay back on the sofa and closed his eyes. “I can’t do this. Love triangles are an appalling cliché.” Sitting up again, he cast a venomous glance at the stack of romances on the stand beside the sofa, and then moseyed to the window. Snow was falling in the dying light.

“I can’t do this,” he repeated slowly. “Love triangles are an appalling cliché.” His face brightened. “I can’t do this!” he exclaimed, and laughed. “Love triangles are an appalling cliché!”

Six months later, Gabriel Green found himself sitting across the desk from Phil Lector, sipping old coffee from a foam cup, and looking at his hands.

“Gabe, Gabe, what am I going to do with you?” asked his agent, holding up a newspaper. “Ink Blot Quarterly reviewed your book. Listen to this: ‘Gabriel Green’s latest opus, Romeo and Juliet and Dave, is a ruthless satire of contemporary romance novels. It spares no fault or foible of the genre, and deconstructs the cliché of love triangles with vindictive glee.’ I could go on, Gabe, but you get the idea.”

“Did it sell?” asked Gabriel.

“Well, yes,” admitted Phil, and burst into a laugh. “Your book sold in the thousands, and the publisher’s satisfied. You struck gold, you magnificent bastard.”

Gabriel smiled. “Language, Phil.”

“It’s not too early to think about your next book. I hear dystopian fiction is pretty hot in the Young Adult market these days. How does something post-apocalyptic sound?”

Gabriel grabbed the end of his necktie and pulled it upward, pretending to hang himself.

“Excellent!” exclaimed his agent, beaming. “I want the first chapter on my desk next Tuesday.”

Author’s Note:

I’ve been reading the Hunger Games trilogy lately. It has become a pop culture phenomenon, so I decided to find out what all the fuss is about. The books are full of intrigue, near escapes, and… romantic tension. Of course.

The love triangle in the Hunger Games books set me thinking about the ubiquity of complicated romances in Young Adult fiction. That made me want to poke fun at the concept; that, in turn, reminded me of a snarky little story I once wrote poking fun at a literary trend.

This seemed like a fine time for a sequel to “A Portrait of the Artist as a Performing Monkey,” so I brought Gabriel Green out of retirement and put him through a new gauntlet of discomforts. The title of this story, like the last, is a pun on a famous literary work. I would like to chronicle further misadventures of Gabriel Green in a series of short stories, but I’m not sure how many I could write before they became repetitive. At any rate, this one was fun to write!

Thanks for reading!

The Mark of Cain

A Short Story

I first saw Cain Adamson when I was eight years old. He wore a dirty overcoat over jeans and a hideous Christmas sweater. (I think he must have rescued it from a dumpster somewhere.) His clothes were shaded by an enormous hat. As he trundled a wheelbarrow along the old train tracks behind my house, he looked like any other vagrant.

One detail made him stand out, however—Cain was young. Most of the hobos who drifted past my house were grizzled old men. Even at the innocent age of eight, I could tell at a glance that the world had not been kind to them. They were lost, adrift in a cold, hungry world, and their faces showed it.

Cain looked like a man in his twenties. He looked, in fact, like someone impersonating a hobo for a stage play. His costume was perfect, from the muddy coat to the hat fluttering in the breeze. (I expected the wind to snatch it off his head and send it sailing into the sky like a paraglider.) Cain had a convincing prop in the form of his wheelbarrow, which was speckled in rust and covered with an old blanket.

Even the stage was ideal. My house stood on the outskirts of my little Indiana town, and not ten feet past my backyard ran an old set of train tracks. A line of trees lay beyond the tracks, and a cornfield beyond that. Those old tracks were the hobos’ highway: easy to navigate, somewhat sheltered from the wind, and out of sight of the police.

The costume, prop, and stage were flawless. The only problem was with the actor. Cain didn’t make a believable vagrant. He walked with a sense of purpose and urgency that none of his aimless contemporaries shared.

I saw him from my bedroom window, and watched him until he and his wheelbarrow passed out of sight. He made quite an impression on my young mind. My imagination suggested ten thousand stories for this mysterious wanderer. Could he be an undercover detective, or a criminal on the run? Was he a disinherited prince (unlikely in Indiana, but still exciting) or foreign spy?

Imagine, then, my wonder when he walked along those very tracks, going in the same direction, three years later, and again two years after that. His clothes had changed—he wore a beanie cap and leather jacket instead of the hat and overcoat—but I recognized him instantly.

Years passed as steadily as the traffic of vagrants along the tracks behind my house. I drifted from junior high to high school to college. At the weary age of twenty-one, I returned home from college one spring to visit my parents over a long weekend. It was then, as I sat on my back porch drinking coffee early in the morning, that I saw a familiar figure plodding through the mist along the tracks.

Cain had a new wheelbarrow—well, a less ancient wheelbarrow. It was newer than his old one, yet probably older than I. He wore a duster over a bathrobe (which looked exactly as ridiculous as it sounds) and a sweatshirt with slacks, and a cloth cap. As he passed my yard, I stared at his face. It hadn’t changed a bit.

To this moment, I’m not sure what came over me. It was unreal to glimpse this apparition from my childhood, and I suppose I didn’t want him to vanish again until I had found some answers. I set down my coffee, leaped off my porch, and ran out to the tracks to meet Cain Adamson.

“Good morning,” I said.

He looked me up and down. “You smell like coffee,” he said. His voice was as young as his face. “Spare a cup for an old man?”

I returned his searching glance. “Sure,” I replied. “You don’t seem dangerous—or old, come to that. Come on over to my porch, and I’ll get you some breakfast.”

Cain touched the brim of his cap. “I’ll stay just a few minutes,” he said.

“You’re welcome to stay all day.”

“A few minutes,” he repeated. “That’s all I can spare.”

“Well, excuse me,” I scoffed. “I didn’t realize you had such a full schedule, Mr.…?”

“Adamson. Cain Adamson.”

“Well, Mr. Cain Adamson, if you’ll deign to give me a few minutes of your valuable time, I’ll set you up with a bagel and some coffee.”

Cain parked his wheelbarrow in the grass next to my porch. I brought out a bagel, an extra cup, and the coffeepot. “Milk or sugar?” I asked.

“Surprise me,” said Cain, and then sank his teeth into the bagel.

“You’re welcome,” I said. I sat down and motioned to the other porch chair. “Have a seat, Mr. Adamson.”

“I can’t,” he mumbled through a mouthful of bagel.

I felt a touch of annoyance. “Have it your way, then: standing room only. At the very least, will you take off your cap?”

My guest shook his head, and I gave it up.

The sun was beginning to shine through the line of trees across the tracks from my house. Its beams stabbed the mist and crept across the wet grass toward Cain’s wheelbarrow.

“What have you got in there?” I asked.

Cain dusted bagel crumbs from his duster. “See for yourself. May I have another?”

After fetching more bagels, I stepped off the porch and grabbed the blanket covering the wheelbarrow. “Are you sure?” I asked.

Cain shrugged.

I yanked off the blanket. The wheelbarrow contained an incredible jumble of books, jewelry, pictures, and miscellaneous junk, with a sword for good measure.

“Where’d you get this?” I asked, picking up the blade. It was one of the Japanese weapons called katanas—elegant, curved swords used by samurai.

“That old thing?” said Cain with visible pride. “That’s one of Miyamoto Musashi’s swords.”

“Nice try,” I said, smiling, “but there’s no way. Musashi is a legend. This is a nice old sword, but it’s not Musashi’s.”

“It is,” insisted Cain. “He gave it to me.”

It was then I realized Cain must be mentally unbalanced. Many vagrants are.

“Musashi lived hundreds of years ago,” I said. “He lived in Japan. That’s a long way from here.”

“It was 1644,” said Cain.

I stared at him as he selected another bagel. “I bumped into Musashi-san in a cave called Reigandō. Lovely place. Pity I couldn’t stay long. He gave me one of his swords and told me there was honor in wandering, the poor deluded fool.”

I was sure the only deluded fool in the whole business was Cain, but put back the sword without comment. He was clearly out of his mind, and I felt a little resentful that the wanderer from my childhood was nothing more than a crazy hobo. Cain had lost his mystique. Disappointed, I sifted through his treasures in the hope of finding something more interesting than their owner.

“What’s this?” I asked, flipping through a book. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Whose autograph is that in the front? Who is—” I paused, squinting at the signature. “—Stephen Wright? I’ve never heard of him.”

“He’s the Ancient Mariner,” said Cain.

I chuckled bitterly. “Of course he is. Cain, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was written centuries ago. Your edition of the book was printed in 1984. Even if the Mariner had been a real person, which he wasn’t, he would have died ages ago.”

“You haven’t actually read the poem, have you?” asked Cain. “As penance for his sin, the Mariner is cursed to wander the world and tell his story. He’s still wandering, waiting for the Final Judgment.”

I tossed the book back into the wheelbarrow.

“Careful!” said Cain. “That’s my only copy.”

“Where did you meet the Mariner?” I asked sardonically. “Neverland?”

“I met him in Ecuador last year,” replied Cain. “We bumped into each other in a park in Quito—that’s in the Andes Mountains, in case you didn’t know—and kept each other company till we reached Guayaquil on the coast. The book was a parting gift.”

“So you’ve been wandering for hundreds of years,” I concluded, and laughed. “You’re looking pretty good for your age, Cain.”

My guest frowned.

“Have you met many other old wanderers?” I persisted. “I’m guessing Stephen Wright wasn’t exactly a young man—he’s called the Ancient Mariner, after all.”

“I know you’re making fun of me,” said Cain. “For God’s sake, I’m not an idiot. Oh, don’t worry,” he added as I lost my grin, “I’m used to it. At least you’re feeding me. A bit of light mockery is a small price to pay for bagels.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I recognized you from when I was a kid, and I was hoping you were, I don’t know, a spy or an exiled prince or something. You’re just a man, and I was taking out my disappointment on you. I was sure you were someone special—I mean, you haven’t changed a bit in all these years!”

Cain Adamson took a long, contemplative drink of coffee. “I’ve changed a lot,” he murmured. “You just can’t see it.” He took a bite out of his bagel and continued, chewing, “To answer your earlier question, I’ve met a few immortals in my time. There was the Ancient Mariner of course, and the Wandering Jew, and Odysseus.”

“I’ve heard of the Wandering Jew,” I said. “He was cursed to wander forever after mocking Christ on his way to the Crucifixion. Odysseus is another story. He made it safely home to his family. I know it—I’ve read The Odyssey.”

“But have you read Dante’s Inferno?” inquired Cain. “Dante missed a few details, but he got two things right: Odysseus abandoned his home and family for more adventures, and his travels didn’t end well. What Dante never learned was that Odysseus was cursed to wander the earth till its end for his unfaithfulness to his family.”

The sun had risen higher, and the mist was clearing. For a few minutes, Cain and I sat in silence. I drank more coffee. He quietly finished off the last bagel.

“I’m seeing a pattern here,” I said at last. “Your imaginary friends are cursed to wander the world for all time.”

“I wish we were imaginary,” said Cain, and took a final swig of coffee. “Better not to have been born than to spend thousands of years walking back and forth, never stopping for more than a meal or a night’s rest, driven onward by the curse of God! We all deserve it. That doesn’t make it any less hellish. Ah, well,” he sighed. “At least I have my souvenirs.”

I glanced at his rusty wheelbarrow and its jumble of rubbish.

“I’ve been collecting for millennia,” said Cain. “Of course, I’ve thrown away most of it. Gathering souvenirs is hard when all you’ve got is a wheelbarrow! Still, it’s quite a collection. I’ve got a gold piece from Rumiñawi’s lost treasure, and Amelia Earhart’s compass, and an autographed picture of Morgan Freeman. None of it matters, but everyone needs a hobby.”

I stared at him as he rose from his chair, adjusted his duster over his bathrobe—it still looked ridiculous—and moseyed from the porch to his wheelbarrow.

“Goodbye, Cain,” I said. “One last thing before you go. I don’t believe your tall tales of immortal wanderers, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested. What’s your story? How did you end up cursed to wander forever?”

Cain covered his wheelbarrow with its blanket, and then turned to me. “I killed a man,” he said. “Thanks for breakfast,” he added, and lifted his cap in gratitude. For an instant, I saw an ugly mark on his forehead before it was covered again by the dirty cap.

Cain Adamson trundled his wheelbarrow away from my yard, followed the train tracks, and passed out of my life back into legend.

Author’s Note:

Eternal wanderers are an intriguing literary motif. As far back as the book of Genesis in the Bible, people are forced to wander as punishment for their sins. I couldn’t help but notice the way this trope appears throughout literary history, from the Wandering Jew to the unlucky protagonist of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. (“Yes, I’ve read a poem. Try not to faint.”)

The motif of the cursed wanderer begged a question: What if these stories were all true? What if the earth were full of cursed sinners wandering until doomsday? Would they know each other? Would they form a club? How would they cope?

My original intention was to write a novel, perhaps titled Professional Wanderers, with the Wandering Jew as the protagonist and Cain as the villain. In the end, not having the time, I settled for this short story. I like the idea, though. Maybe, when I’m between jobs, I’ll expand this short story into a book… once I write The Eliot Papers and that detective novel, of course.

(I need more time to write.)

This short story was written as a backer reward for a donor to TMTF’s charity fundraiser. My thanks to that gentleman for allowing me to share the story here on the blog!

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Last Chapter: Luke

Chapter Five can be found here.

“Let us pause,” said Luke. “My fingers ache.”

“This was your idea,” said his companion, leaning back and gazing out over the city. From their vantage point upon the housetop, Rome gleamed in the morning light. Armor and chariots flashed as a military procession passed in the distance. The sun turned iron to silver and bronze to gold. It was a splendid sight.

Luke’s companion scratched his nose, evidently unimpressed.

“My dear Luke, you have only yourself to blame if your fingers ache. You insisted on taking notes.”

“A foolish decision,” said Luke. “This may come as a surprise, Paul, but other people are not always as wise as you. Not everyone can be as wise as Paul, whose writings are renowned in Rome and Jerusalem and all the provinces in between.”

“Do you think you are the only one ever to have suffered the pain of aching fingers?” asked Paul. “Every time I wrote a letter I asked, ‘O Lord, how long until you provide your servant with a scribe?’ My life has been difficult here in Rome, you know, but I have one great consolation: our brothers from the synagogue write my letters as I dictate.”

Luke nodded with mock seriousness. “It is certainly a blessing for the churches, which are no longer burdened with the difficulty of deciphering your handwriting. Your letters are hard enough to understand when they are written clearly.”

A moment passed as Luke flexed his fingers and loaded his quill with ink. “I am ready,” he announced. “Where were we? Ah, I remember. We left you dangling from the wall of Damascus in a basket. Paul, would you kindly pay attention? I will never finish my book unless you stay focused.”

“I apologize,” said Paul, rubbing his jaw. “I have a toothache.”

Luke laughed. “A toothache? I thought you were meditating.”

“I was thinking of someone I once knew,” said Paul. “I have thought of him often in past weeks.”

“Tell me.”

“Before my conversion, you know, I went from house to house in Jerusalem arresting all who professed faith in Jesus of Nazareth. One afternoon I raided a home where some of the Lord’s disciples were meeting. There were about a dozen men with me. The moment we entered the house, an old man jumped up and said to the others, ‘We are discovered. Run!’ Then he charged at us.”

Paul chuckled. “Since I was the first to go down, I do not remember exactly what happened. I was later informed our attacker knocked out five of us before he was arrested. The strange thing was that he stopped fighting once the other disciples had escaped. After his arrest, we learned the man’s name was Jehu. He had been a notorious assassin before becoming a disciple of the Messiah.”

“What happened to the man?” asked Luke.

Paul made a chopping motion across his neck. “There was no trial,” he added. “Jehu reminded me of Stephen. Neither was afraid to die. Jehu’s execution made quite an impression.”

“Besides the one he had already made upon your face, I suppose.”

Paul smiled gingerly. “My jaw hurt for weeks. Since then, I think of Jehu every time my teeth ache. You know, there is one thing I shall never forget about him.”


“His eyes.”

“What about them?”

“They were the calmest and kindest I have ever seen.”

Author’s Note:

I enjoy telling a story from multiple perspectives. The Infinity Manuscript, a novella I posted as a serial on this blog, delivered each chapter from a different character’s point of view. As a writer, I like bouncing from one character to another as I tell a story. (I really hope it doesn’t annoy my readers.) This story is another victim of my favorite narrative trick, and it’s been fun for me to describe Jehu’s journey through the eyes of six different characters.

I like to imagine solemn historical figures having a lighter side. We don’t really get to see Luke, Paul or anyone in the New Testament being anything but serious. (Paul occasionally betrays a hint of humor, but not often.) I wonder what kind of things made men like Luke and Paul laugh. I mean, P.G. Wodehouse wasn’t born until 1881. What was funny before Wodehouse?

Thanks for reading!

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Five: Judas

Chapter Four can be found here.

A vast crowd sat in silence. Apart from the words of the rabbi, the only sounds to be heard were the distant twittering of birds and the occasional grunt as someone shifted position on the warm grass.

“There,” said Simon, poking Judas in the ribs. “The man with gray hair.”

Judas glanced at the stranger. “That fossil? You are joking, Simon.”

Simon nudged Judas again. “I am sure. He has aged, but I could never forget those eyes. He looks like a man who has gazed upon all the sorrows of the world.”

Judas watched the stranger for a minute before tugging on Simon’s sleeve. “You are mistaken, Simon. You may pretend to be a zealot, but you cannot pretend that frail old man is Jehu. I grew up hearing stories of an invisible assassin before whom Romans fell like wheat before the scythe. He is not that man.”

The stranger knelt in the grass, his head bowed, listening with half-closed eyes as the rabbi spoke of God’s mysteries. Once the old man glanced toward Judas.

“Is he drunk?” whispered Judas. “There is no life in his eyes.”

Simon stifled a chuckle. “What did you expect? Jehu has killed more men than any Roman legion has ever done. For more than thirty years, Rome has sought him in vain.”

The rabbi lifted up his voice. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”

Judas watched the stranger, overcome by morbid curiosity, wondering how he respond to such mild, peaceful words. The stranger neither moved nor spoke.

Time passed. As listeners came and went, the stranger knelt like a weathered statue, listening. The sun moved slowly overhead.

Beads of sweat ran down Judas’s face. “Is he almost done?” he muttered, glaring at the rabbi. “We are all hungry. He often speaks of spiritual bread, but he never seems to remember that we also need the worldly kind. My body is about to perish of hunger and leave my spirit homeless.”

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” said the rabbi.

“That sounds good,” grumbled Judas.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

“What about our bodies?” whispered Judas. “Will we find rest for them?”

“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

At that moment, Simon gave Judas such a jab in the side that he gasped in pain.

“Simon,” hissed Judas. “You may think you are a zealot, but I refuse to be your target practice.”

“Look at Jehu!” said Simon.

Judas looked. There, kneeling alone in the grass, the most vicious criminal in Judea, the man at whose name Romans cursed and Jews turned pale, wept openly.

Chapter Six can be found here.

Author’s Note:

I am reminded once again that grumpy, snarky characters are much more fun to write than solemn, serious ones. Judas may be kind of a jerk, but I think anyone who has sat through a really long sermon at church can sympathize with his impatience.

Jesus had twelve close disciples, and they were quite an odd bunch. Simon the Zealot presumably hated Rome. Matthew, also called Levi, was a tax collector who probably worked for the Roman authorities. The Gospels tell us the disciples of Jesus sometimes bickered, and I can believe it!

Peter was originally the star of this particular chapter. When he turned out to be such a complainer, I decided Judas Iscariot was a much better fit. After all, disillusionment with the long-awaited Jewish Messiah may have been Judas Iscariot’s motive for betraying Jesus to be executed.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Four: Baraz

Chapter Three can be found here.

“I despise this filthy city.”

Having declared his opinion of Jerusalem, the City of God, Baraz coughed into a linen cloth and peered through the window lattice at the dusty streets.

“What misfortune to be struck with fever! As the others meet with King Herod, I am confined to this detestable hovel. The finest inn in all Jerusalem? Bah! A foul place. Are all the powers of heaven conspiring against me?”

Baraz’s servant chose that unfortunate moment to kick open the door and announce, “There is a visitor to see you, Master. He says he wishes to speak with you about the king of the Jews.”

A paroxysm of coughing overtook Baraz’s mocking laughter. As soon as he could speak again, he growled, “Kindly knock before entering. Are you my servant or a savage? I expect such behavior of a Scythian, but not of you.”

“Master, the king of the Jews—”

“I have no wish to speak with anyone about Herod,” grumbled Baraz. “We may seek his advice, but that does not mean we approve of him.”

“Not Herod, Master,” said the servant, fidgeting. “The king of the Jews.”

Baraz sat bolt upright. “Another king? Could it—bid our guest enter. Quickly! Do not stand there catching flies with your mouth, you simpleton! Bring in the visitor.”

The servant ushered in a man in a dark cloak. After one glance at the visitor, Baraz quietly rose from his stool and sidled behind a table.

“I am not here to hurt you,” said the stranger. “Be thankful, old man.”

Baraz instantly forgot his fear. “I am Baraz, a learned scholar of Persia,” he exclaiming, shaking a finger. “How dare you address me so impudently! Who are you to act with such brazen disrespect?”

“I am an armed man, and I will address you however I please.” Steel gleamed on the stranger’s arm as he pulled up a sleeve.

“Perhaps I spoke in haste,” said Baraz. He motioned toward a dining couch across the room. “You may recline. Do you care for wine or figs?”

Baraz studied the visitor as he filled a goblet with wine and sat upright on the couch. He had the grim, gaunt look of one to whom hardship was no stranger. More peculiar was his listless manner. The visitor’s tone was not menacing as he spoke of sicae. He sounded bored, as though threats were merely a formality.

“My servant tells me you have news of the king of the Jews,” said Baraz.

The man sipped his wine. “All Jerusalem buzzes with rumors of the wise men from the East. They follow the brightest star in the heavens, or so the tale goes. That star has perplexed all Herod’s wise men. It appeared suddenly, burning in the sky over Bethlehem.”

“What of the star?” inquired Baraz, feigning ignorance. “It is one star: a bright one, perhaps, but one of many.”

“It is not wise to bait me, old man,” said the visitor, setting down his goblet.

Baraz retreated a little farther behind the table. “I am not baiting you,” he said. “I merely inquire. Of what interest is the star to… a man in your line of work?”

“Freedom is my line of work,” said the stranger. “My name is Jehu, and I am a zealot.”

“I am unfamiliar with the word.”

“A zealot is either a revolutionary or a criminal. It depends upon whom you ask. I fight to free Israel from her oppressors. I am no rabbi, but even I have heard the prophecies about Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Messiah who will bring peace to Israel. When a sign appears in heaven over such a place, I am very much interested.”

Baraz gazed in puzzlement across the table at the visitor. “Why have you come to me? I am Persian. Forgive me—and kindly keep your weapon in your sleeve—but the peace of Israel is hardly my concern.”

“We both seek the Messiah, the true king of the Jews,” said the visitor. “Herod is a brute. The throne of Israel belongs to the Messiah of God. What I do not understand is why you are concerned.”

In spite of his nervousness, Baraz smiled. “Truth is always my concern. Ours is an ignorant world, is it not? Look out the window at the crowds kicking up dust like cattle. Everyone is a fool. You are a fool, Jehu. I am a fool. We are all fools stumbling in the dark. My companions and I are looking for truth, and we hope it may be found in this king of the Jews.”

“I once met a group of shepherds,” said Jehu, and finished his wine.

“Shepherds,” said Baraz, baffled.

“Shepherds,” repeated Jehu. “About two years ago in Bethlehem. They told me angels had proclaimed the birth of the Messiah: a baby in a manger. It was insanity, but there is something I have never forgotten.”

“What is that?”

“There was a baby in a manger that night. I saw him.”

Baraz could restrain himself no longer. “Jehu, why have you come? Is it upon this baby you have set your hopes? Do you wish for me to find this child, this boy in Bethlehem, to see whether he is the Messiah?”

It was at that moment Baraz saw tears on Jehu’s cheeks.

“I stab and slit and strangle,” said Jehu. “To what end? Rome still grinds Israel into the dust. My efforts are of no use. I am a man trying to hold back the tide of the sea. My soul is stained with blood, old man.”

“Dare I suggest taking up another profession?”

“God forgive me, I cannot stop. I must fight until Israel is free, but I cannot free her. Only the Messiah can save Israel. You are searching for him, and I have come today with one purpose.”

Baraz leaned forward. “Yes?”

“Go to Bethlehem, old man. Find the child in the manger. Help him, so that he can someday rescue Israel. As long as Israel is a slave, so am I.”

“We will find him,” said Baraz.

Without a word, Jehu set down his goblet and left.

Baraz coughed into his cloth and folded it meditatively. “We are nearing the end of our journey, I think,” he murmured. “I do not know whether the Messiah awaits us in Bethlehem, but any place is better than this vile Jerusalem!”

Chapter Five can be found here.

Author’s Note:

Not much is known about the Wise Men, so there’s lots of speculation. They fascinate me. The biblical narrative of Christ’s birth moves along smoothly, and then mysterious men arrive from “the East” in search of a king destined to rule a nation that no longer exists. In the end they deliver their gifts to Jesus, apparently oblivious to the fact that the king of the Jews is the child of peasants. Am I the only one who thinks that’s kind of weird?

Incidentally, grumpy old men are really fun to write. (I’m not much good at serious dialogue; I prefer characters with a sense of humor.) I think Baraz is my favorite character so far.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Three: Caleb

Chapter Two can be found here.

Caleb ran down the street, jostling the others, yelling and whooping and laughing. The night was dark, but the dark did not matter. They had found a light, a light to illuminate Bethlehem and Judea and all the world, a light from which all shadows must flee.

“Halt, you rabble,” called a voice. Caleb stopped and looked around. His companions did the same. They saw no one. The streets, lined with dim buildings, were lit only by faint, flickering threads of lamplight leaking through window lattices. The sky above was a black abyss, untouched by gleam of moon or star.

“Who speaks?” asked Caleb, beaming. “Come, there is no need to be shy.”

“Get inside, you fools,” said the voice, and a man emerged from the gloom. “You must be mad or drunk or possessed by devils. I neither know nor care. However, as a fellow Jew, I give you this advice: get indoors and stay there.”

“We cannot,” said Caleb, and his companions murmured their assent. “We have seen him, and we must spread the news!”

“Seen whom?” demanded the stranger. “What news?”

“The Messiah!” cried one of Caleb’s companions.

The stranger reeled.

“Come, friend, and we will tell everything,” said Caleb, advancing upon the stranger and holding out his hand. “Come with us! We will show you.”

The stranger pulled a sword from beneath his cloak.

Caleb withdrew his hand and backed away. Then, unable to contain his mirth, he burst into a laugh. “Come, come, put it away,” he gasped. “No need for weapons. We mean no harm, friend.”

“Keep your distance,” said the stranger. He pointed the blade at Caleb, but his hand shook. “The Messiah? What in God’s name do you mean?”

“The Messiah,” repeated Caleb. “I cannot make it clearer. The Messiah of God has come to Bethlehem.”

The stranger lowered his sword. “Where is he?” he demanded. “This Messiah—where is he? If God, after so many centuries of silence, has finally given us his chosen leader, I will pledge myself to his service.”

“What is your name, friend?” inquired Caleb.

The question seemed to surprise the stranger. “Jehu the zealot,” he replied.

“I am Caleb the shepherd. These are my fellow shepherds: loyal sons of Jacob. Now that we know each other, let us take you to the Messiah.”

Jehu’s hands stopped shaking, and he wrinkled his nose. “Shepherds,” he muttered. “What a fool I am to be shaken by the gossip of shepherds. I ought to have known you by your smell.”

“Are you coming with us?” inquired Caleb.

“Go to your Messiah,” said Jehu. “If you ask politely, he may give you golden scepters and linen robes to replace your crooks and filthy rags.”

“He is sleeping in a manger,” said one of Caleb’s companions, and Jehu froze.

“What?” he whispered.

“Angels appeared to us as we watched our flocks,” explained Caleb, gesturing toward the fields lost in the darkness somewhere far beyond Bethlehem.

Caleb’s companions broke the silence.

“Brighter than the heart of a furnace!”

“White robes—whiter than I have ever seen—whiter than the clouds of heaven.”

“Like bolts of lightning frozen in the sky!”

“There was one angel,” said Caleb. “Then there were many. They told us of the Messiah, the Christ, the child wrapped in cloths and lying a manger somewhere in the town of David. We found him with his parents in a cave outside Bethlehem.”

“You are fools,” said Jehu. “What of your flocks?”

“Ah, I suppose they are out there somewhere,” said Caleb vaguely. “They no longer matter.”

“They are wiser than you,” said Jehu, and sheathed his sword. “They are witless and wandering, but even your sheep have more sense than to invent stories of angels and a Messiah in a manger. Farewell, and God forgive your insanity.”

Jehu vanished into the darkness. Caleb and his companions stood for a moment, watching. Then someone laughed, and they all laughed, and into the night they ran, ready to tell Bethlehem and Judea and all the world that the Messiah had come.

Chapter Four can be found here.

Author’s Note:

At the time of the Nativity, being a shepherd was not exactly a glorious career. It was a hard, cold, lonely job with few benefits. Shepherds were pretty much the lowest of the low. That’s why it was frankly weird for Christ’s birth to have been announced to shepherds. Angels gave the good news not to kings or priests or philosophers, but to shepherds. Why shepherds? I’m not sure. Christ spent much of his time ministering to lowly people—beggars, lepers and prostitutes, among others—so perhaps it’s not so strange that shepherds were the first to hear the news of his arrival.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter Two: Judith

Chapter One can be found here.

Judith peered through the window and saw nothing. Moon and stars had been obscured by a blanket of clouds. Bethlehem had been plunged into darkness.

“When will Papa get home?” asked Rachel, tugging on Judith’s sleeve.

“Soon,” said Judith, and began to pray silently that her husband came home alive.

The Roman census had made Bethlehem a dangerous place. Bandits multiplied, eager to make a profit from the travelers flooding the roads. Hungry and desperate, many travelers were not above stealing anything they could to survive. It was a time for citizens of Bethlehem to bar their doors, wait and pray for God to guard them.

Judith had spent the day preparing for her husband’s homecoming: baking, cooking, cleaning and not daring to lapse into idleness. Idleness meant worry. Judith kept busy.

Someone hammered on the door, and Rachel flew to open it.

“Wait, child,” said Judith, and called, “Who knocks?”

“It is I, Benjamin, your one and only husband,” called a voice she knew. “Kindly open the door.”

Rachel threw open the door, cried “Papa!” and leapt into Benjamin’s arms. He tottered a few steps backward.

“My dear child,” he said, stroking her hair. “Judith, my love, I am home.”

“You are very late,” said Judith, and grinned. It was hard to be upset with Benjamin.

Benjamin carried Rachel inside. “We have a guest, my love.”

“Any guest is welcome,” said Judith.

Jehu stepped inside.

For an instant, Judith’s face betrayed disgust and fear. Then, speaking in a strained, quiet voice, she said, “Any guest but this one. He must go.”

Benjamin sat down on a cushion with Rachel on his lap. “My love, Jehu has come all the way from Jerusalem. We cannot turn him out into the cold.”

“Yes, we can,” said Judith.

“The night is dark, my love. The clouds covered the lights of heaven as we came into Bethlehem. I cannot leave my cousin to sleep in the streets on a night as gloomy as this.”

“I cannot allow a member of the Sicarii in my house,” said Judith. “He must go.”

Rachel looked up at Benjamin. “Papa, what does Sicarii mean?”

“You need not know,” replied Benjamin, biting his lip. “It is not a matter for children.”

“Tell her, my husband,” said Judith. “Rachel deserves to know what sort of man you have brought into her home tonight.”

Judith may not have been the head of the household, but she always had her way in arguments. Benjamin sighed, as usual, and submitted to his wife’s decision.

“You may sit, Jehu,” he said, making an effort to delay the inevitable. “There is no need for you to stand lifeless in the corner like an idol. For the moment, you are welcome here. Make yourself comfortable.”

Judith glanced fiercely at Benjamin. He held his daughter close and said, “Rachel, do you remember the stories of Joshua and David and the other great warriors of Israel?”

Rachel nodded.

“A Sicarii is a warrior who fights in secret. That is all, my daughter.”

Judith smiled. “I love you, my husband, for making the best of an ugly truth. Rachel, my child, the Sicarii are the dagger-men, murderers with sicae up their sleeves—secret blades to steal the lives of their enemies.”

Rachel stared at Jehu. “He has sicae in his sleeves?” she whispered.

“Well, Jehu?” said Judith. “She asks. Answer my daughter.”

Jehu reached up his right sleeve and withdrew a curved blade. “Just one,” he said. “One is all I need.”

Rachel gazed at Jehu, the grim stranger with a sword at his waist and a knife up his sleeve. “Papa, please let me go,” she whispered.

“My child,” said Benjamin, but stopped as his daughter squirmed in his arms.

“Please let me go,” she whimpered.

Benjamin released his daughter, and Rachel scuttled into a back room.

“Even children fear you, Jehu,” said Judith.

He scowled. “Your daughter fears the dark, dreadful dagger-men of your imagination. You frightened Rachel, not I.”

“Why have you come?” demanded Judith. “What brings you to Bethlehem?”

Jehu smiled, but his smile was darker than his scowl. “The Roman census, of course. Everyone is here for the census.”

“Do not lie to me,” snapped Judith.

“Your husband seemed an easy prey to bandits,” said Jehu. “I could not allow my cousin to travel alone.”

“Closer to the truth, yet no less a lie,” said Judith.

“Is this how you receive guests in Bethlehem, old man?” inquired Jehu. “Your child flees, your wife pries and you sit blinking like a drunkard.”

“Quiet,” said Benjamin, and a shadow of fear came over Judith. She had never heard such anguish in his voice.

“Josiah the priest was murdered yesterday,” continued Benjamin, speaking as though in pain. “A servant of the Most High, stabbed and left to die in the streets. Jerusalem erupted. Riots broke out. By the time the uproar had been quelled, the assassin had vanished. I know now where he has gone.”

“We both know Josiah was the governor’s puppet,” said Jehu, not looking at anyone. “A servant of the Most High? No, old man. A servant of Rome.”

“You killed a priest of God!” cried Benjamin, springing to his feet. He stood a moment, breathing heavily, and then sat down again on his cushion.

“I eliminated a traitor.”

There was a long silence. Judith opened her mouth to speak, but remained silent at a look from her husband. Benjamin, a soft man, seldom asserted his authority. When he did, Judith obeyed. Glaring at Jehu, she said nothing.

When Benjamin spoke, the anger had gone out of his voice. He sounded tired. “Jehu, what have you become? My cousin was not a man with blood on his hands. He was a good lad with bright eyes. Your eyes have become dull, Jehu. They are a drunkard’s eyes. You are intoxicated with blood, and it makes me sad.”

“I fight for our freedom,” protested Jehu. “I fight because I must. Rome grinds Israel into the dust. We must retaliate! What else can we do?”

“We can survive,” said Benjamin. “As we have done for hundreds of years, we can endure. It is not for us to overthrow empires. That is God’s business. We must await the Messiah who will set us free.”

“Will he come?” asked Jehu.

“What are you saying?” demanded Judith. She could not remain silent any longer.

“Will the Messiah come? We have waited hundreds of years. There are no more prophets. There are no more prophecies. The teachers of the law stoop to petty legalism, and God’s own temple is rebuilt as a political maneuver by a pagan king.”

“Do you plan to deliver Israel by murdering her priests?” asked Judith.

Jehu made no reply.

“It is best if you leave,” said Benjamin. “I am sorry, Jehu, but this is no place for you. God’s grace go with you, and may he lead you to a life of peace.”

“Get out,” said Judith.

Jehu opened the door and faded into the night. The lights of heaven had not rekindled, and the darkness was absolute.

Chapter Three can be found here.

Author’s Note:

When my old man told me about the Sicarii, the Jewish dagger-men who murdered their enemies in broad daylight and disappeared into the crowd, I was fascinated. Never mind Assassin’s Creed—this is history!

According to my old man, the Sicarii actually carried concealed blades. They would sidle up to their target in a crowd, slip the blade between the ribs, puncture the heart, withdraw the blade and slip away before anyone noticed them.

My tale of zealots and daggers may seem a bit grim for a Christmas story, but I don’t think it is. The Nativity is depicted as a bright, joyous event, but it came at a dark, dreary time in Jewish history. That’s partly why people were so excited about the Messiah. He would make everything right! He would restore Israel! In the meantime, the Sicarii and the zealots fought back. Everyone else endured, and waited, and hoped.

Nothing defines Christmas more than hope, I think.

Zealot: A Christmas Story – Chapter One: Benjamin

A stout man and a thin man walked the road to Bethlehem in silence. Above them, a full moon shone and stars blazed across the sky. Around them, dusty slopes stretched up into the night, gray in the moonlight, broken by trees and rocks and tufts of grass.

The stout man paused to gaze upward. “Turn your eyes to the stars, Jehu,” he said, puffing and wiping his brow. “Their beauty tonight is beyond compare.”

“To gehenna with the stars,” replied the thin man, looking resolutely downward. “We have no time for them. Keep moving, Benjamin.”

Panting, Benjamin spared enough breath to gasp in indignation. “You must not malign the works of the Most High. The heavens declare the glory of God, as it is written in the psalms. The skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day after day they pour forth speech—”

“Not unlike a fat old man of my acquaintance,” said Jehu, scowling at his companion. “I have heard enough of your prattle. We are near Bethlehem, and I beg you to hold your tongue until we get there.”

They walked on. Wind swished the grass and made branches creak. From over the hills came the faint noise of sheep bleating and men chatting, the sounds of a shepherd’s camp. As Jehu and Benjamin plodded along, their shadows stretched out before them, sharply black in the moonlight.

Jehu brought forth a sword from under his cloak and began to twirl it. Benjamin took a few steps back. “Do not fear me,” said Jehu. He smiled, which Benjamin did not find comforting. “Whom you must fear, Benjamin, are the bandits. Like the accursed Romans, they prey upon the weak and helpless.”

“Are we in danger?” whispered Benjamin.

“You are, perhaps,” said Jehu. “Fortunately for you, I am neither weak nor helpless. Stay close to me and you may live to see the lights of Bethlehem.”

Keeping a wary eye on the sword flashing in the moonlight, Benjamin moved a little closer to Jehu.

At last, as they came over the crest of a hill, they saw the lamps and fires of Bethlehem twinkling like golden stars far ahead. Still gasping for breath, Benjamin mumbled, “God be praised.”

Jehu said nothing and did not put away his sword.

“I am not a nervous man,” said Benjamin nervously. “Nevertheless, I admit to feeling perhaps just an echo of fear on this dark, dangerous road. It is good to see lights ahead. They speak to me of food and fire and wine—God preserve us, what is that?”

Jehu held his sword before him and peered into the darkness. “Benjamin, what do you see?”

“I see a cross. Some poor fool has been crucified.”

Jehu sighed and sheathed his sword. “Your eyes deceive you, old man. It is nothing but a pillar and crossbeam of wood. There is a cave in the rock. Someone must use it for a stable or storehouse. The cross you see is a support to keep the mouth of the cave from crumbling.”

“It is an omen,” said Benjamin, clutching Jehu’s sleeve. “The Almighty gives you this sign, Jehu. Your plans are folly. Turn away from them! Abandon your dreams of revolution, or a cross will become your future.”

“That is not a cross,” said Jehu, tearing his sleeve out of Benjamin’s grip. “That is a pillar and crossbeam. Only a fool—or a poet, which is no different—can look upon it and see an instrument of death. Gather your wits and stop babbling.”

Benjamin rubbed his face, wiping away sweat and tears. “I am concerned for you, Jehu. You were once my cousin, before you forsook all ties to family. You may not value your life, but I do.”

“We have wasted time enough,” said Jehu. “Bethlehem awaits.”

As they passed the mouth of the cave, they were startled by a cry from within.

“Is that the sound of a child?” whispered Benjamin.

Jehu’s face was grim. “There,” he said, pointing.

Moonlight poured into the cave, illuminating all but the farthest corners. The pillar and crossbeam supporting the ceiling cast the ruthless black shadow of a cross. A manger stood in the shadow. A woman knelt beside the manger. A man stood nearby, holding out a lamp that flickered uselessly in the moonlight.

“By Joseph’s bones,” murmured Benjamin. “A baby in a manger. In such dangerous times as these, what spirit of madness possessed these fools to take refuge in a filthy cave?”

“The Roman census,” said Jehu. “These fools left their home and dragged themselves across the country for this, a stable reeking of manure, because Rome told them to. Why does this child have no better bed than a cattle trough? The answer is simple. Rome felt it necessary to know exactly how many people are left in this country for her to grind beneath her heel.”

“You should not say such things, Jehu.”

“Why should I be silent? Look at that child. He lies in the shadow of a cross. He will live in the shadow of a cross. Unless we rise against Rome, we too shall live in the shadow of a cross, that bloody emblem of Roman brutality.”

Having regained his breath, Benjamin heaved a long, sad sigh. “You sound more like a zealot every day, Jehu. You have certainly mastered the rhetoric of the revolutionary. No, I do not wish to hear more,” he added as Jehu opened his mouth to reply. “I do not want to be told of Rome’s cruelties or your plans to repay them. I want safety and supper and a warm bed. I want to go home to my wife and daughter. Let us leave.”

They left the cave.

Chapter Two can be found here.

Author’s Note:

I wrote Zealot: A Christmas Story about a year ago because there are not enough Christmas stories about assassins.

When we think of the first Christmas, a stable and shepherds and wise men are usually the first things to come to our minds. In our imaginations, the Nativity exists in its own little bubble. As I wrote this story, I had great fun giving the Nativity its historical context, from the predictions of ancient prophets to the struggles of brave revolutionaries. At the heart of this story lies one man, a zealot, whose life of blood and secrecy begins to change when he meets a child born in the shadow of a cross.

Zealot: A Christmas Story will be posted in short chapters, one each Wednesday, until early January. Regular TMTF posts will continue to be posted on Mondays and Fridays.

Thanks for reading!