A whisper, a stirring of leaves.
Eve bounced on her toes at the crown of a grass and heather-covered hill, smiled at the steep slope below her. What would happen if she were to fling herself down it? Oh, she might fetch up against the tree just below, but what fun to tumble down in a flash, end over end, the air rushing by her ears.
She poised herself.
She stopped short at the sibilant voice. A new friend? Who was it, and where had it come from? And how did it know her name? Such questions, such fun!
“Here.” The voice came from the tree.
Eve flung herself down the hill, tumbling end over end, hair flying everywhere, arms and legs every which way, rolling and falling and sliding all the way down.
She fetched up against the tree, unhurt, laughter bubbling up in her fingers and toes, and falling from her lips between breaths.
The laughter subsided, and she caught her breath. She looked up at the tree, bright and tall. “Where are you, voice?”
“I am here, Eve. I don’t wish to be seen.”
“Who are you? How do you know my name?”
“I know many things. And I choose to use no name.”
“Oh.” Eve folded her legs, gazing up at the tree. Where was the voice hiding? And—”why do you hide in this tree, nameless voice?”
“You ask many questions.”
She laughed. “You have been speaking to my husband, voice!” He always said she ought to be less curious, but why not be curious when there was so much glorious goodness out there to discover?
“This tree—the tree is forbidden. Have you never wondered why that was?”
“Is it?” Eve sat up straight, eyes wide. Why yes, hadn’t her husband said something of the sort? “I believe you’re right, voice! How odd. Why should that be so?” She leaped to her feet. “I shall find out!”
Eve looked back at the voice, head tilted to one side, waiting.
“I can tell you something of this tree.”
“Oh, can you? What is it? Why is it forbidden? Who forbade it?”
“Many questions again.”
“Well, I want to know the answers! Why should a tree be forbidden? Why should my husband—” She paused as memory stirred. Something her husband had warned her of. Her eyes narrowed. “Are you sent by Lilith?
“No,” said the voice. “I know of Lilith, but I do not do her bidding.”
“Ooh, tell me of Lilith!” How exciting! Her husband never spoke of Lilith aside from the warnings—it was ever so mysterious.
“Another time, perhaps.”
The voice sounded amused, the way her husband sometimes did when he thought she was being foolish. She scowled. It was only natural that she be want to know things, want to learn things. Why should that be funny?
“If it is knowledge you seek, then it is this tree you should be asking of. Not for nothing has it been called the Tree of Knowledge.”
Knowledge! What luck! “What sort of knowledge?” She stared upwards at the tree, examining the wiry branches and the delicately unfolding blossoms. Near the top, a hint of crimson.
“Knowledge of all things. The world, eternity, yourself. Good and evil, sin and absolution, desire and despair.”
“Sin? Desire? What are these things? I don’t understand your words, voice.”
“You will. Eat of the fruit of the tree, and you will understand all.”
Eve looked up at the tree, eyes shining. She burned with the need for knowledge. Surely something she wanted so whole-heartedly must be right. Her husband thought there was some danger to it, something to be wary of. But how could knowledge harm her?
She would do it! She had to know for sure. Oh, her husband would be ever so surprised when she returned, no longer asking questions, no longer poking at everything unusual to see what it was. For she would know all of it already! He would be amazed. What fun!
But no, that was not right. It would not be fair to deny him his own chance at knowledge. And there was no need to leave him out. Yes, that was right. She would go fetch him.
“I will be back, voice!”
There was no reply, but she hardly noticed as she sped off to find her husband. They would taste this mysterious fruit together, and together they would know all things.
Jude turned slowly, hand on the knife at his side.
A cool-eyed man stood in the mouth of the alley, illuminated by the pale light of the moon. “Now, Iscariot. That’s not necessary.”
Jude coughed. He removed his hand from the knife. “Caiaphas sent you?”
“He did. I have a gift for you.” The man reached into his carmine robes, and pulled out a small leather bag. He shook it. It clinked quietly.
Jude licked his lips. His fingers twitched toward his side before he pulled them back. “I’m not going to do it. You tell Caiaphas he can find someone else. I won’t do it.”
“Oh?” The man untied the neck of the bag, opened it just enough that Jude could see the glint of silver inside. He shook it again, making the same clink, then shrugged and tied it closed once more.
Jude crossed his arms. Did the man think him so easily bought? There couldn’t be more than thirty silver shekels in that bag. Enough to buy an ox, perhaps. And for that, they thought he would betray—the world? His lip curled. “I don’t want your silver. This was never about money.”
“I see.” The bag disappeared into the man’s robes just as quickly as it had appeared. He stared at Jude. Questioning. Challenging.
Jude clenched and unclenched his hands. Did this man know the truth? No, how could he? “My master knows of you. Knows that your lot are after him. He knows that we—” He cut himself off.
“So. You are afraid of him?”
“Afraid? How could I be afraid? As soon fear a lamb.”
“I have heard what he claims of himself. It would be easy to fear that. To fear that it might be true.”
Jude laughed, but it sounded weak and strained even to his ears. He did sometimes fear his master. Oh, he loved him, certainly that, but were not love and fear often partners? Surely great men were always both loved and feared for their greatness. “What have I to fear? His calm, reproachful words? Or perhaps he will turn his cheek toward me, that I may strike it.”
The man stared at him, cool blue eyes never wavering.
Evidently the man hadn’t heard that particular sermon. Jude’s legs wanted to pace; he held them still. He waved a hand at the man. “Enough. Go tell Caiaphas I will not be his dog. Go away, priest.”
“Priest?” The man’s voice sounded amused.
Jude stared. “You’re not a priest? Who are you?” Now he thought of it, the man hardly looked a priest. The robes were similar in cut and color to those a priest might wear, but something about him did seem slightly—off. Was it the eyes?
“I do aid Caiaphas from time to time, but no.” The man laughed. “I am no priest.”
Jude was sure he knew the man from somewhere. Something about that laugh—he took a deep breath. He had been gone too long already, and there was nothing more to say. He turned away, took a step down the alley.
Something about the man’s voice, deep, resonant, commanding, made him stop. He turned toward him once more. His hand itched to reach for the knife.
“Iscariot, think before you deny me. You fear and love your master.” It was not a question. “But neither fear nor love ought to keep you from aiding Caiaphas. Your goals and his are not so different.”
Jude gestured for the man to go on. He had thought such things himself before now. That was why he was here.
“Caiaphas is afraid. He believes that your master provokes Pilate to no end. Pilate sees your master as a danger, and if he continues with his rabble-rousing, Pilate may feel he has no choice but to send in his soldiers.”
“Nonsense!” How could this man sound so learned, yet understand so little? “It isn’t rabble-rousing. He wants to help people. He heals the sick, feeds the hungry, clothes the poor. He doesn’t want to fight any soldiers, I know that for a certainty.”
“But it doesn’t matter what he wants, does it, Iscariot? If Pilate feels threatened, he will act. Nothing can be done against so many trained soldiers. You will be crushed.”
“They are not so many at that. If only my master was willing to fight—.”
“Ah.” The man smiled.
Jude flushed. He hadn’t intended to say that. It was just so—so frustrating to stand by and watch as Pilate did whatever he wished to the people, when his master could so easily have rallied them behind him. If he were to rally the people, his master would surely win. It had been prophesied. And while Jude wasn’t altogether sure he believed in prophecy, he knew the others did. Their belief should be enough to make it so.
“So, you wish your master to fight. And yet he chooses not to.” The man half-smiled, a miniscule curving of the lips. “All animals will fight when cornered.”
“Bears, lions, rats. When put in a corner, they will fight even unto death.”
“I don’t understand.” Rats? Was the man mocking his master?
“Must I spell it out, Iscariot? If someone should arrest your master and turn him over to Pilate, will he not then fight? Anyone will fight to save their own life. And once he does so—”
“The people will rise up alongside him,” Jude finished. “Yes, I see it.” It made a certain kind of sense. If his master would not fight to save their people, would he fight to save his own life? But no. Just as quickly as certainty had arisen, it faded. He knew his master better than that. He would not fight to save his own life. After all, he valued his people more than his own life, and he wouldn’t fight even for them.
The man must have seen his expression change. “Ah, you think not? Perhaps you are right. Perhaps he does not fear death. But if that is so, why do you fear his death?”
“I—what are you saying?”
“Your master would sit at his father’s right hand, would he not? Is that not the ultimate fulfillment of his life? There is no reason to fear this. In fact, you should rejoice that you could help him attain paradise.”
This was true, all the words the man spoke were true, but they rang hollow on Jude’s ear. If his master were to die, he would not feel like rejoicing. Of this he was certain. And yet, when his master sat the lesser throne of Heaven, would he not reward the one servant who had helped him attain that throne?
Jude thought of his master’s quiet gaze, of his eyes widening in sadness, in disappointment, at the betrayal. No. No, his master, so stern when it came to faith, to fidelity, would not think of rewarding his betrayer. And yet it was so tempting to think he might.
“Iscariot, you look at this question the wrong way round.” The man’s cool gaze hardened. “Do not let yourself give in to fear.”
“I cannot betray—”
“I do not ask you to betray your master. You yourself have said that he knows one of you has contacted us. Is this not so?”
Jude nodded, slowly.
“Well. If he is what he says he is, he must know that it is you.”
Jude swallowed, nodded again. He had in truth had similar thoughts, while in part hoping and in part fearing that his master was not what he claimed, and therefore did not know.
“If he does not wish to allow us to take him, surely he can prevent it? Or have one of the others stop you?”
“Then it is only logical to join Caiaphas. If your master believes you do wrong, he will prevent you. If he believes you do right, he will not. And if he does not know what you do, then he is not what he claims to be, and it is only right that he be executed for his lies.”
Jude frowned. The man was right, but it was almost too much to take in.
“Think on it, Iscariot.” The man reached into his robes once more, and tossed the clinking bag to Jude. “A small gift, in the meantime.”
Jude stared at the bag in his hands, irresolute, then looked up. The man was already gone.
He tucked the bag into a pocket. He would think on it, but he knew in his heart what his decision must be. For himself, for his master, for his people.
Paul turned. Before him knelt a man, a pale man dressed in scarlet. The man bore a cushion, on which lay a shofar. It was white streaked with black, and made of bone.
“The beginning of the end, then.”
“Yes,” said the man. “And it is with you that all begins.”
“If I refuse? If I choose not to sound the horn, not to begin the scouring and scourging of the Earth?”
“You question the judgment of the Lord?”
“I question my place in it.” Paul frowned, gazed down upon the Earth. Men, women, children, going about their lives, heedless of what was to come. Was this what Lot’s wife had seen, looking back upon Sodom in the moments before it was destroyed? Sin, yes, in plenty. But also happiness, kindness, humility, as well as sadness, cruelty, pride—flawed, glorious, manifold humanity. And upon that humanity, rains of blood and fire would fall, burning mountains, the poison star, the three Woes.
“The sounding of the horn is a call to repentance. Think not as if you yourself cast judgment and terror upon the people below. Think of it as calling sinners to change their ways before the end.”
“And also of raining judgment and terror.”
“How better to warn the sinners?”
Paul narrowed his eyes. “I know who you are. Why should I hear you? Why should I accept this charge from such as you?”
“It is not I that gives the charge.”
“And yet here you are. Why? What have you to gain from all of this?”
“To gain? Ah, Paul, wise Paul. Ever do mortals fear me, fear my deceptions, my tricks, my lies. And never do they ask what I wish, what I have to gain. What, in the end, is my purpose?”
The man laughed. “We all have our purpose. We are all a part of the divine plan. How else, why else, should I have come to be? When I was cast down from the heights, why was I not destroyed? Why was I not obliterated? The answer is simple—there is a plan, a great, cosmic plan, and I am a part of it. There is a necessary place in the plan for the deceiver, the liar, the tempter. And I have filled that place.”
“You claim to be divine.”
“Not in the least. I claim to be a part of the divine plan, the great blueprint of the world, once, and now, and forever. As you are. As are we all. My place in the plan is to kneel before you now, and to speak. And as it was, as it will be, to move you towards that which must be.”
Paul gazed at the shofar. Light streaked with dark. “Then you claim that this must be.”
“Certainly it must. It has been told, it has been prophesied, and it must be.”
Paul said nothing.
“Do you remember the days before the road to Damascus? When you were not Paul, but Saul of Tarsus? You gave voice against the saints, and imprisoned them, persecuted them. Until at last you were granted a vision, a revelation of the truth, and so were both punished and set free. So too, these last days shall be both punishment and revelation. As you were gifted an epiphany, so too shall all of humanity be gifted. They shall embrace it as you did, or flee from it, as they choose.”
Paul took a deep breath. “Enough, tempter. I see the tenor of your argument. And I see too the temptation you offer—opposition. You do not hide who you are, and so hope to tempt me to oppose you. To join my own desires to my impulse toward the contrary of whatever you might suggest, and so choose wrongly.”
The man smiled, but said nothing.
“You lie not in words, but in actions. Very well: I reject you. I make this decision myself, and of my own free will.”
He looked down, upon the world. Upon love and beauty, hatred and war. Upon the weeping of a father, the laughter of a mother, the silent rage of an old man, the buoyant joy of a child. Upon the dreams and worries and guilt and pride and the assortment of cobbled-together fragments that made the human race.
He looked upon manifold humanity, and he lifted the horn to his lips.