He sits on the mountainside, bleak and black, stretching upward to the malefic clouds and downward to the forest, its foliage churning like an ocean hiding teeming secrets. It is a secluded spot, between and behind three rocks cloaked in blue-black mantles, pointing upwards like jagged fingers, accusingly. Or are they teeth pulled out of the gums of the earth before time was, jagged and torn out of the earth, the grimace of everlasting screams inscribed upon their faces, uprooted from some mysterious womb?
He looks up again. A storm is gathering, somewhere a deep rumble echoes as from the belly of a hungry giant, sheet lightning sweeps across the boiling face of the deep above, darkening again and again with each flash of the heavenly lights. A raucous shriek comes to his ears, attuned to every single tingle and turning tone in the atmosphere, crackling and hissing beyond and outside the sacred space he has cleared for himself.
A raven, tossing about on an angry current, spins and swirls out of sight among the crevasses of the mountainside. An omen? He has learnt to do without omens for everything had ever been an omen. With his feet, he clears away some pebbles.
“…Eloi, … Eloi,’’ the winds cry out. Those words, he remembers, he had uttered them when he was thrust out of his mother’s womb covered in blood, tiny arms outstretched, palms wide open, seeking a grasp on something, someone. He remembers, hanging upside down, a hard stroke across his bottom, its sting, its pain, the searing touch of human hands, feminine and forceful, and his cry “Eloi, Eloi ….” Then he is upright again and snuggling into the warmth of his mother’s bosom, a hardness in his mouth turning soft with the first flow of milk, his toothless gums suckling, his little hands groping for a hold, slipping over skin, and her voice saying “Shush, shush, my baby, my beautiful one …”
He is on his knees now, his head with its matted locks buried between his knees. “Shush, shush, shoah, shoah …” There is a roaring in his ears. Like all things, this too will pass, he knows. In prayer, things appear and disappear; only the deciphering of it all is needed. Thunder crashes. Soon it will be wet, but he must pray. He hears loose stones clattering down the mountainside. He breathes in deeply the sharp air.
“Eloi, eloi, why is everything wrong? It has always been wrong,” he cries out, the lips moving agonisedly behind his moustache and beard. The first streaks of grey have appeared in his hair and beard. “It’s all wrong for me, for me alone,” he thinks.
“Not for you, but for all of us, for all of mankind and the angels,” says a voice. “Is it so that you can be the One, if it all were not wrong, who would be there to right it?” the Voice laughs. He shuts his ears and rocks on his knees.
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord, He is One.”
Israel. Jerusalem. All so far away. Here, in Ladakh, his past seemed a dream. Forgotten? Impossible. “If I forget Jerusalem, let my right hand be cut off,” he prays. The wind is become cold, he thinks to himself, drawing himself together tighter in his shawl, dyed a rich red, blue, purple and gold. It is almost as cold as the night he left Palestine with the caravanserai.
“Do not go,” he hears his mother’s voice again, “You are the light of Israel, my son!” But he leaves anyway. The women are weeping but the silence of the night into which the caravan moves out swallows up their sobs.
Of the tales of that journey through the wilderness, who can tell? But they are not for human ears.
He likes to speak to the wind. Ruach. He lifts up his head from between his knees. It will rain and there will be sleet, but let the body obey me, he thinks. He sniffs at the air. He is the dog who would be god. Had he not believed what is written: “You are gods, to whom the word of god is come!”? The wind will scatter his words to the corners of the earth, the time to sow is coming, he knows.
Now in his mind, he is home again. The hut with its white, limestone walls, two rooms, the children who are his brothers and sisters, the smell of wood shavings in the air, the father he never knew as father shaping furniture as usual with chisel and plane. He awakes at four a.m. to his mother’s call, they walk to the well. He looks down over its edge. Deep calls unto deep. The pail glistens in the early light. It splashes into the shadowy depths, the rope creaks on the pulley, his mother breathes deep as she pulls up the pail. She splashes cold water in his face, he rinses out the sleep from his mouth and eyes, embraces him with a kiss to his forehead. Ah, he remembers it all, drinking at the fountainhead of the living waters of memory.
In Marakkesh, the smoke swirls about his face. Hashish, the camel-drivers call it. The opium of the Assassins, a mountain tribe of killers, is good for those who dream and live out their dreams, they tell him. It burns down his throat, explodes in his lungs, courses through his veins, rises red to his eyes. The leader of the caravan is laughing, pot-bellied, hook-nosed, from his thick-lipped sensual mouth flows a stream of vulgar songs and jokes.
“A holy man you are though you do not claim to be one,” he shouts at him, “you brought us luck on our journey, we have become richer today. What shall I offer you as a reward? Why, you shall have the Gorgon, friend, she will be payment enough. There is not a man among us or in Marakkesh or in the East who does not desire her. But she takes for herself only the ones she desires. We are satiated when she dances but you will be hers, for she wants you,” he guffaws, lets out a loud fart and scratches his crotch. The camel-riders join him in his laughter. “And now, it’s time for song and dance, wine and women and the holy man can have the Gorgon at the end of it,” he says and claps his hands.
A hush falls over the room, there is the sound of anklets, a flute pipes up and she enters. Hashish, it makes him perceive things. He gets glimpses of what lies behind the veil, before and behind the passions. His body seems to stretch itself out across the room, across the people, like a sheet wound tight around a corpse and within it he watches the workings of the maggots. The passions spent leaves one spent, he thinks. The passions unspent, where do they lead, what do they do, he wonders.
The Gorgon moves among the men, her favours to bestow, a bit here, a bit there. He sees their swollen eyes, the drink dripping down the lips, the tongues lolling. Her hair is plaited to represent snakes, her eyes are fixed on him. He feels a quickening of the pulse. An ancient one, he hears the whisper. She is Lilith, the one who first was Adam’s bride, the angelic one who left Adam to be the spouse of the Serpent. How she has become like the serpent, he thinks awe-struck.
That sinuousness has grace in it, most subtle grace. Those arms, golden brown and tattooed with strange mudras, those legs like pillars of ivory turning gold with age, those breasts like roes, he watches her dance and she dances for him, not for the others. O Lilith, fallen angel, before Adam received Eve, flesh of his flesh, you captivated him with your beauty for he had spiritual eyes. But being spirit, you could not have him. So you sought a body and you found one and now you have many bodies. To your bodies you enjoin those of men to enslave, he murmurs to himself.
Her golden body gleams with an ethereal glow. The fragrant oils she bathes in spread their mystic scent across the room, the men are in a swoon. Her navel spins like an eye in the midst of her belly, undulating with each ululation of the flutes. When she turns her back to him, he sees the snake tattooed along her spine, its tail disappearing between the cheeks of her buttocks, its slithery length crawling over her shoulder to raise its hood above the cleavage of her breasts. He wonders at the artistry behind the work..
He does not notice the men leaving, fascinated he is by her eyes and her hips, their movements, alive and quick and dangerous, the black holes of her eyes light up with the sign of the conqueror. The red lips part slightly and she pants, the teeth feral-white and inviting. Outside, he imagines, the horses neigh and stamp their feet impatiently.
“She is yours, Adam!’’ He jerks awake, the room is empty, the wineskins scattered, the oil lamps smoldering. Upon her upper lips are small beads of sweat, and dewdrops roll down from the serpent-head to the hidden place between her breasts, he sees. They rise and fall, proud and firm. Her black snake-braids fall on either side of her face, wet and glistening.
They are alone and she watches him with a deep interest. She bites her lower lips, her tongue moves gently across her lips. He is silent. She comes to him and puts her palms to his cheeks. They are embossed with strange patterns, of vines and flowers entwined, in saffron and dark blue. She sheds her bodice, drops her golden skirt and stands up before him. He looks up her thighs, strong and white as ivory, the flat belly, pierced by the eye of the navel, a silver ring in it, a field of golden wheat. He is still.
She kneels beside him, her touch is cool, her lips are fiery as they trace the outline of his eyebrows, the aquiline nose, the stern chin. She imprints a kiss on his forehead, her breath sweet as aloes across his face, the snake-like braids of hair move across his face and shoulders, probing and flicking at his skin with cloven ends, tongues black and ominous.
She removes his clothes one by one, rough and homespun wear, he is like a child in her arms. She runs her fingers through his chest, his matted locks, down to his stomach. His eyes alone are alive, pools of fire, watching, waiting. She lays herself atop him and lowers her lips to his.
The moment her lips touch his, she draws back as if stung.
“You are cold,” she whispers to him. “Cold as marble.” She traces the outline of his face, down his arms. “You are dead,” she whispers as if surprised. She moves her tongue to his right nipple. “You are stone,” she says.
“Marble is white, neutral and cold, it entombs the bold and the old,” he whispers.
“Are you a man?” she asks.
“No more,” he replies.
“Who are you?” she asks, a look of fear crossing her beautiful face.
“I AM,” he replies.
She throws herself back from him as if singed by an unseen fire. Then, gathering courage, she moves a hand forward to touch him at the point of his manhood.
“Do not cling to me,” he says, the warning in his eyes halts her.
“I have made you woman,” he tells her. “I have made every part of you, forged them in the furnace of the knowledge that was before time. Of womankind there are two. One sucks the life out of the marrow of men, the other receives life as a gift from him. See, I place before you life and death. Choose,” he says.
The fragrance of frankincense fills the room. She stands up, anger blazing in her face. “You ask me to choose? I choose to be myself,” she hisses at him.
“Look into my eyes,” he says.
She approaches. Their bodies shimmer and lose their outline, the eyes remain searching, locked.
“What do you see,” he asks.
Her lips draw back in terror. “You are a mirror, I see myself in you and I do not want to see,” she whispers.
“What do you see?” he asks gently.
“Leviathan, cut in pieces. The great dragon, disintegrating. A white sheet lowered from heaven and all the animals are gathered therein. A great bonfire …Who are you?” she asks.
“Put on your clothes and follow me. You will leave being a sorceress, a temptress. You will be a wife and a mother and a sister and a daughter. The time has come to set all things aright, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, so the father of spirits commands,” he says
“No, no,” a low moan comes out of her mouth. “It is too early, I have yet many to devour, to leave them cold and lifeless as marble.”
“Look deeper, Lilith. What do you see? Your hair falling out, every snake pursued to its pit and its head smashed, your sweet breath turning putrid. Disease is in your loins, where are your descendants? If the man of marble is come, embalmed with myrrh, it is wise to surrender your power to one whose authority is absolute.” he counsels.
“You are marble, you are dead, I live, I will live forever,” she spits out venomously and claps her hands.
A sheet of fire comes between them and through it he hears her cry. In the glare of the fire, he sees her body, naked and manacled and chained to the wall. She is blindfolded and writhes under whiplashes administered by three shadowy figures. She thrusts her hips forward and backward again and again as if coupling with an invisible being and strange chants leave her lips. “God is gay, I penetrate myself, I hear the forest call, my dreams are demons, I am bound and cannot come,” she chants. Her body twists this way and that, thrashing about.
From his lips go forth the words “Maranatha anathema.”
The wind howls and the rain comes lashing down upon him as he crouches behind the three rocks rocking in prayer.
“In Marakkesh, I see the trial and torment of the damned. Eloi, Eloi … must I descend into Hades?” he cries.
‘You will, my son,” comes the whispered reply.”You will, but first you must suffer many more things.”
He weeps among the stones. He does not notice that the storm is past, that he is soaking wet, he had wept long. But awakening as out of a dream, he picks up his staff and begins the walk down the mountainside. The three rocks stand as silent witnesses.
Mary would be there, the Magdalene, the one who had forsaken the way of Lilith, the one sworn to follow him.
The children will be home too, he thinks. Where would they have sheltered in the storm, he wonders, but they know well the mountain and its hideouts. The sheep would have kept them warm, he knows.
The children are home. He opens the door of the hut and they are huddled among the sheep. The smell of the sheepskin is strong, there in the dingy corner a little lamb is watching him, eyes awake and clear as the crystal lake in the mountains he had just descended from. Mary is there too, her face radiant at his return.
The children, he thinks, they are accursed for no fault of theirs.
In Varanasi, he has conversed with the sages, the white bearded wise men, dark-skinned and sitting naked on the rocks and in caves or under trees, those who have given up the race for money and honour and sensual pleasure in their search for the ultimate, the absolute.
There is a conclave and he is invited. In the moonlight, he looks at the faces around him. He knows something of their philosophy. They say that everything is a shadow, an illusion, a dream drawn upon the canvas of the whole by a part. When the part gives up the art of painting, the whole picture emerges, they say, only to dissolve into No-Thing.
Someone whispers to the wizened old man in the centre of the circle about him. The old man looks at him keenly. He beckons with his finger. He approaches the sage who informs him with a gesture that he would like to discuss metaphysics with him.
He is silent and attentive.
“We have dispensed with the theory of original sin which you have brought along, young mage,” the sage says. He looks up at him as if waiting for a counter argument.
He holds his peace.
“Delight such as that enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the garden is the sort of delight known by the rocks, the sand, the lilies of the valley, the birds of the air, the droplets of dew, the atoms and the molecules. It was not true delight, satchitananda, Sat alone means the Perfect, the Real. Eden had not even approached Sat, ” the sage continues.
He remains silent.
“There could have been no hankering after a New Earth and New Heaven if there was no Fall,” the sage suggests. “The Fall provokes the ascent of man.”
“There can be no seeking after the kingdom of God if there were no Adversary and no obstacles in the race, no crown of thorns and nine-inch-nails,” the sage says.
He winces. A vision assails him as if shot out from the sage’s mind. Out of the sky, he sees a giant bird descending bat-like upon leathery wings, the talons outstretched towards his head.
“Yes, you see, a seer,” the sage laughs.
“First the dove will descend upon you. Then you will face the bat-winged creature from the abyss, it will be so,” the sage laughs softly as if to himself.
He has nothing to say.
“Before you came, we knew the father as Brahma, from his loins proceeds all creation, from his ejaculations come forth the worlds of minerals, plant kingdoms, the tiniest of creatures, the animals, the angels, the stuff of the cosmos and man. We knew Vishnu the Preserver, whose Word sustains all that is entitled to survive. Then there is Siva, the destroyer, out of whose single eye goes forth the end of the world as we know it. This you call the work of the Paraclete,” he continued.
“You say you have come to save the world, but we understand the cosmic law that he who takes the role of Saviour perforce brings about destruction, first of his own self and then that of the world as we know it. That single eye when it opens results in the emanation of the firebolts that consume all. Your god and ours are all-consuming fire. The difference is, we believe that we are already consumed, everything is, existence is not, god alone is, anything in between is of maya or the devil, the dream-children of the uninitiated, and it is all a cycle,” he continues the discourse .
The young man from the deserts cocks his head, listening to what lies behind those words.
“Now here is a word of wisdom for you, young man. Into blind darkness enter they who worship ignorance; into greater darkness than that, as it were, enter they that delight in knowledge. Those worlds covered with blind darkness are called joyless. The unawakened go thence after death.”
He sits down at the aged man’s feet. The sage nods, accepting the respect shown him.
“The gods consider him to be a knower of Brahman who has no desires, who undertakes no work, who does not bow to others or praise anyone, who remains unchanged, whose work is exhausted.”
The sage is finished, he stands up and bows in reverence towards the young man who thinks he hears a wind hum across the deserts of Palestine. “Ariel, Ariel, woe unto thee, Ariel,” he hears the ancient text whispered in his ears.
“We have known all this before you appeared, aeons before you gave signs of your appearance. Go in peace, my son,” the sage says. “The god who created suffering and showers pain and sorrow and tribulations as blessings upon mankind be with you!”
“I will devour the children for they are like their fathers, they are gone far away from me,” the young man hears the threat reverberate in his head. He takes leave of the sage and hurries back to his hut.
The children, he thinks, the sheep. It will always be thus, they are all being readied for the slaughter. Now they laugh and now they cry. As they grow up, their dreams soar high. But they are condemned beforehand, they will find no joy upon this earth, and all their joys turn to sorrow and ashes, he thinks. So it is written, so it must be.
He remembers the struggle he underwent one night. Mary Magdalene is there beside him.
“Lord, let me be with child by thee,” she pleads.
He looks searchingly into her eyes. A sign from him and she would uncover her nakedness for him. A mist crosses his eyes as he stares at her. Have the seven devils which inhabited her body returned? Would he have to cast them out again? But there is a pale radiance emanating from her face and bosom, the radiance of an innocent woman who desires a child of innocence. A female sheep, a ewe, desiring the swollen belly, as if that is the answer to mankind’s woes. Rather, every child adds to mankind’s woes, condemned to sorrow from birth, condemned to live a life of unfulfilled desires. In the final moment, the child crumbles into dust, the sheep’s blood spills from its slit throat, the fire consumes the fat and bones.
Mary, Mary, you do not know what you ask for, he thinks. There are no children of innocence to be born. Everything is corrupt, everyone is stamped with the hoof-mark of the devil.
I have come to bear witness that the world and everything in it is evil, he mutters.
Why bring children into this world, he asks himself. They are born, they suckle, they grow up, they fall prey to disease and death, they study, they nurture dreams that are foolish, frustration is the lot of man, they fade away like the flowers of the field and perish like lambs on the chopping block.
What hope can I bring to these children who have lost their innocence for no fault of theirs, he wonders.
I will tell them of heaven, a heavenly father, streets paved with gold, angelic choirs, I will offer them power to judge angels, eternal life and the myth of the resurrection-body.
Had he not studied such things in the Torah and the Temple and the synagogues, heard his mother sing of such things to him while he suckled at her breasts?
Then I will tell them that though they may inherit such things, they must first learn to accept the human condition. They must know that I cannot stanch their bleeding, still their cries of pain, he thinks. They must see that nothing comes free, not even heaven, that divinity is gained only by paying a price, that change and decay will be seen all around. One must be perplexed but not despair, all must pass through the valley of the shadow of death, evil is ever-present and sufficient for the day, but it must not be feared, he thinks.
O father, what must I offer them? he cries out.
Offer them forgiveness, forgiveness for every thought they have thought on their own that is not part of my will, that does not rebound to my glory. And offer them deliverance in the slavery and subjugation that I demand of them. That will take away some of the pain of those who are willing to surrender, is the reply.
He hears the notes of a stringed instrument. The blind beggar who wanders from house to house in the village is singing a song, solitary in the night. He listens to the words, they come as some relief to him.
“I died a mineral and became a plant, I died a plant and rose an animal, I died an animal and I was a man. Why should I fear? When was I any less by dying?”
When, indeed, he thinks? He had learnt the secret of philosophy from Socrates. Love of wisdom is to learn the art of dying. I die daily, he thinks.
“Yet once more I shall die as a man, to soar with the blessed angels; but even from angelhood I must pass on. All except god perishes. When I have sacrificed my angel-soul, I shall become that which no mind ever conceived. O let me not exist! For Non-existence proclaims ‘To him we shall return’,” the blind man wails.
When man is not, god is. When man is not, there is none to suffer.
The words hang in the air.
Why must they suffer? he asks.
Because they are all criminals, there is none righteous, they all deserve death, comes the reply.
Is there no other way? he wonders. That man should suffer is a concept that does not appeal to a man of his sensitivity and sensibility.
There is no other way but to bow one’s head and suffer, the Voice continues. Teach them this. Bow down, you lumps of clay with the breath given to you from without. God hates every human desire, god is so full of himself, he cares only that men be filled with himself. He kills men. And for those who yearn to cherish a single human moment, he reserves the worst terrors of the dark for them, he torments them in their dreams and torments them in hell forever.
God hates every human desire, every human ambition. He fulfils only his own desires and ambitions. There can be only one will in the universe. Those who seek another will or self-will, they die. He cares nothing for the dreams of men, he takes care to see that only his dream of the web and warp and woof of the universe and how it should function is true. Those who dare to think differently are cast out and condemned and destroyed. The earth is filled with their bones and he ensures that the wind and the sand will erode and corrode their bones so no trace of their being will remain. God is all in all, the Voice trumpets.
He beats his head against the wall of the hut as he listens to such words. Mary watches him, alarmed at the agony in his face and the blood streaming down his forehead.
“What is it, my lord? Are you sorrowful over my request? I will never ask you such a boon, ever again, if it should pain you so,” she says.
With a loud cry, he flees the hut. Above him, on the dark mountainside, the three rocks stand impassive, impersonal, immobile, sterile shadows against the scowling sheet of the shortening sky.