Baruch son of Reuben sat back against the pillows of his couch and watched the stranger use his bread to push gob after gob of stewed lamb into his mouth. He looks like he's scooping out a hearth, Baruch thought with amusement. I wonder if he is starving or only bad mannered? He's thin enough, so perhaps he is starving.
All that Baruch knew of the stranger was his name and profession. He was a scribe as was Baruch himself. Like many newcomers to Jerusalem he had presented himself at the Temple to ask the Levites where he could find hospitality and the Levite on duty in the outer courtyard of the Temple had sent him to Baruch's house for supper and a bed for the night.
Aside from the good deed of granting hospitality, Baruch enjoyed having guests simply for their entertainment value. He lived alone and his friends and customers had long since given up telling him it was unseemly, let alone physically dangerous, for a man to live without a woman in his household.
Baruch reached across the low table to shove a clay pitcher full of wine in the stranger's direction. The stranger poured himself a goblet full and downed it in two gulps. Then he went back to eating. Baruch admired the intensity with which this man threw food and drink into himself, with a singleness of purpose, taking no break for polite conversation. Baruch wondered if the stranger did everything in his life with such gusto.
"You look like you're shoveling ashes," Baruch observed. Such a remark bordered on impolite but it seemed unlikely that this guest, who had introduced himself upon arrival as Saul son of Damien, was the kind of man to be concerned with niceties.
To Baruch's surprise, Saul son of Damien actually stopped eating at that remark. The thin man swallowed the remnants of what was in his mouth, causing his Adam's apple to slide along his unbearded throat, and peered at his host.
"It's funny you say it that particular way, Baruch ben Reuben. Shoveling ashes. It's a female image, isn't it? It's woman's work to tend the fire - pit. Yet your mind brings that image to you. It suggests you are familiar with the act? Am I right?"
"I live alone," Baruch was more amused than insulted. It was refreshing to be in the company of a man who spoke what he was thinking without pretense. Jerusalem society could be so stuffy sometimes. "I have to do the women's work myself."
"Then who kindles your flame on the Sabbath night?" With this the stranger, Saul, threw a suggestive look at his host, making it clear he was referring to more than to the custom of lighting special lamps for the Sabbath – a task performed always by the mistress of the household. He was also hinting at the tradition of lying with one's wife on Sabbath eve.
The absolute lack of propriety brought out the normally hidden mischievous side of the sedate scribe and he said, with a little smile, "I have to handle my own lamp." Baruch chuckled at his own daring as he said this. To even hint at the act of wasting your seed was taboo in Baruch's circle of friends.
Saul barked with laughter, enjoying the joke as much as he had been enjoying the supper. "You prefer to live alone, then. You'd rather do menial work yourself than have to endure bothersome women.
"You're a keen observer," said Baruch, under his breath so that Saul had to strain to hear him.
"It's my hobby" Saul answered him, "I like to observe the people around me and deduce what I can about their inner lives."
This was getting to be dangerous territory, Baruch decided. He went over to his fire - pit and brought a dish of lentils that hhad been keeping warm on the hearthstones. He set the dish in front of the stranger, hoping Saul ben Damien would turn his attention back to the food and away from thoughts of probing Baruch's inner life.
That night Baruch's sleep was interrupted by the sound of shouting. As he came fully awake he thought someone was calling for help but could not make out clear words, only odd choking cries in the night. Realizing the cries were coming from right inside his own house he jumped up and followed the sounds to the guestroom. He stopped at the hearth first to pick up an iron poker in case he had to face an intruder threatening his household and his guest.
The shouts were indeed coming from the room where Saul slept. Baruch paused outside the room and carefully parted the wool hangings at the doorway just enough to see who was inside.
Saul was alone in his room, shouting in his sleep. Through the narrow slit of the drawn curtains, Baruch watched the skinny man flail about in the bed.
I was right, Baruch thought as he watched Saul toss, writhe and call out words that meant nothing to Baruch in any of the many languages he knew. This stranger does indeed do everything with great gusto. Even sleep.
The movement had uncovered Saul's limbs and Baruch could see not only the man's bare arms, but also his naked feet and shins protruding from the bedclothes.
Baruch stared in fascination while the other man twisted in bed and emitted incoherent cries. Baruch and the men of his class never went out unless they were fully covered from neck to wrists and in robes that reached the ground. Even to sleep and bathe they wore modest linen shifts.
No, he seldom saw another man's bare skin except when those ungodly Romans marched around the city, wearing tunics that barely covered their thighs, with leather thongs twisted about their tanned legs and their lower arms swinging free, glistening in the hot sun.
Baruch dropped the curtain back in place and went back to his own bed, pausing at the hearth to put the poker back in place.
The next morning at breakfast Baruch observed that Saul was not as intent on his food as he had been the night before. That might have been because the fare offered was much less interesting: a simple buckwheat porridge accompanied by warm goat's milk. But it seemed to Baruch that Saul's whole attention this morning was on the third man that shared Baruch's table. Baruch's good friend, Chayim, had arrived just as the host and guest were sitting down to their morning meal.
Saul was listening intently, hanging on the new arrival's every word even though, as Baruch could see it, Chayim the Levite wasn't saying anything particularly interesting. Baruch decided it was just Saul's nature to focus on one thing at a time with his whole attention. Pointed. Intense.
"And so I'm glad you found your way to Baruch's house," Chayim was saying, "Last night when you came to the Temple, I knew as soon as I heard you were a scribe that it would be a good deed to send you to the house of Baruch ben Reuben."
Chayim was fat and flushed with the exertion of eating but Baruch knew that for all his joviality, he was not a stupid man. The job of the Levites took intelligence and solid organizational skills. They tended to the day - to - day operations of the Temple, so that the priests need only concern themselves with matters of ritual.
"He's an excellent host," Saul answered perfunctorily, while carefully eyeing Chayim's every move.
"He's more than that, my friend. Oh, much more than that. He's the best scribe in Jerusalem and the most overworked. My Book of Daniel, Baruch, how long ago since I commissioned that from you? Three months and you still don't have it ready."
Baruch said nothing; Saul seemed to be holding up the conversation. "It's no bad thing for a man to be busy. It keeps one out of trouble," the newcomer opined, in a manner much more overtly polite than he had used to talk to Baruch alone last night.
He's guarded, Baruch thought. Why with Chayim, though, and not with me?
The Levite guffawed. "Trouble? Our Baruch get in trouble? Ha! I should live long enough to see it happen. The best thing for him, I think, would be to get into a little trouble once in a while. He works too hard. Which brings me to why I thought it was a good idea to send you here, Saul ben Damien. That's a Greek name, isn't it? Damien?"
"My father was Greek. I was born and raised in Sparta. When my father died I went with my mother to live in Bat Sheyan. She has family there."
Bat Sheyan was a city built by the Romans near the Sea of Galilee. "Then you must know Latin," said the Levite.
"Well, you have to – to be able to get along in Bat Sheyan. I was well past my bar mitzvah before I ever needed to learn Aramaic."
Aramaic was the language in common use in Jerusalem, although all Jewish males were taught for religious purposes to read and write in the very similar Hebrew.
"And yet you sit here speaking Aramaic with Baruch and me with no accent at all. Amazing. You have a talent for languages."
Was Chayim actually fawning on the stranger? That's how it sounded to Baruch and he wondered what the Chayim was up to.
"It's a blessing that helps in my work," Saul said and Baruch observed that Saul was answering cautiously, not taken in by Chayim's flattery. His opinion of the half - Greek stranger rose. He spoke up for the first time in many minutes. "You're literate in Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew." He was impressed. The stranger's linguistic abilities matched his own.
Chayim paused to eat and drink a little more before continuing, addressing his host for a change. "I was talking about why I sent this man to you specifically. Haven't you guessed my plan by now?"
Baruch and Saul met each other's eyes. A plan? Baruch didn't like the sound of that and neither did Saul, from what Baruch could see in his expression.
"Here you are, Saul ben Damien, newly arrived in the city and you don't know anyone. And here you are, Baruch, with more work than you can handle. Isn't it obvious? You must hire this man to help you out."
"Well, I'm not sure . . ." Baruch began.
"Why not? You're turning away work now – this I know. Even if you pay our Greek friend here as a sub - contractor you'll still come out ahead."
"And if you let this man do the more tedious tasks which I'm sure he won't mind, so as to have work in a strange city, you'll be free to spend time on the more interesting commissions. Like, maybe, the Temple scrolls you promised me," Chayim wound up.
Baruch spooned a few mouthfuls of porridge to stall for time. It was true that he was behind in his orders and it was also true he'd benefit from having a helper. Still he held his tongue, unsure.
Saul answered, "I wasn't really planning on staying in the city long. But if I could find an inexpensive place to stay, it wouldn't be a bad idea to get some Jerusalem experience."
Baruch cleared his throat, partly to clear the slimy grains from his mouth and partly to work up his courage. Then he spoke the words that would change his life.
"I have a big empty house. You're welcome to stay here."
When the Levite finally made ready to leave, Saul remained seated, leaving Baruch to get up and accompany the Levite to the door alone. As Baruch moved off Saul caught his eye and Baruch thought his look was conspiratorial, as though he were deliberately allowing the two old friends a chance to talk about him in private.
Baruch caught himself thinking this and decided he was reading too much into this man's every move. Why should he get up and come to the door with us. I only just now invited him to stay. It's not like it's his own house to see a guest to the door. As Baruch walked through the house towards the door the thought came to him unbidden: it's not as though it's his own house – yet.
The two friends paused in the doorway that led to the outer courtyard.
"Did I ask you to meddle in my affairs?" Baruch blurted out suddenly.
"I'm your friend. I care about you," Chayim replied, no longer jovial, "You're over - worked and you're lonely. This Greek, when he showed up I knew he was just what you needed."
"I need a stray dog?"
"My dear friend, as soon as I saw him and realized what he was . . ."
"What he was?" Baruch interrupted.
"Settle down. I mean a scribe alone in the city and in need of work. I thought of you. I knew he was a gift for you."
"From God, you old temple - worker?" Baruch said, sarcastically.
"God? I have no time to worry about God. I leave that to the priests. I worry about having enough oil for the lamps, keeping the altar shiny and priests' robes mended."
"And the worn out scrolls replaced. I'm sorry, I know I'm behind schedule."
"You need a helper," Chayim lay a puffy hand on Baruch's shoulder.
"I know," the scribe admitted.
"And there's more. You stay alone in this house all day long, copying. Late into the night you're still writing by lamplight. You spend too much time by yourself. This man can be a companion for you."
Baruch eyed his old friend suspiciously.
"And if he doesn't find favour in your eyes, you can always throw him out."
"What do you mean?"
"I know you're lonely," Chayim said, very softly. "What happens in the privacy of your own house – nobody else has to know about it."
Baruch stiffened. Through a tight mouth, barely moving his lips, he breathed, "I don't know what you're talking about."
But the good - natured man only smiled gently back at him. "Of course you don't. I'm a stupid, fat, old man. You can't take anything I say seriously." He drew Baruch in for a quick farewell hug and let himself out into the outer yard. "I'll see myself to the gate. You, go inside and get to work. My Book of Daniel by next week or I'll take you to the courts for breach of contract." With a parting laugh, the Levite lumbered off through the garden, shouting back over his shoulder, "Take care of yourself, Baruch."
Baruch waited to watch him let himself out into the street, then turned back into his house. He saw that while he had been talking with Chayim, his new helper had been busy clearing away the breakfast dishes.
"See, I'm making myself useful already," Saul said, brightly. "I'm earning my keep."
Saul was picking up the goblet Baruch had been using as he said this. Baruch went over, took it out of his hand, drank the last bit of milk out of it and then handed it back for Saul to put in the washing basket for later.
"There," Saul said, "Housework all done. And now, partner, let's get to our real work."
For the second time in so many minutes Baruch went rigid with disapproval of what he was hearing. "You are not my partner." He pronounced every word carefully.
"You're right, you're right. I take things too far." With an ironic, theatrical bow he declaimed, "You are my master and I am your servant."
Baruch turned his back on him and started walking through the house towards his workroom. Not looking at Saul, he said. "You are my helper. I'll feed you and house you and pay you wages. What are they paying scribes in Bat Sheyan these days?
"I'll gladly take whatever you think is fair, Baruch ben Reuben."
This time there was no sarcasm nor teasing in the Greek's voice. Baruch decided to let the comment go at face value for now. "Then, we'll discuss it later. Well, here we are," he said as they found themselves in Baruch's workroom. There were two writing benches set up. "I used to have an apprentice so I had another table made. You'll have good light here."
"You'll have to give me utensils, I'm afraid. I left all my things back in Bat Sheyan."
Baruch looked quizzically at him. Without thinking he began, "Really, I wouldn't move to another city without taking my. . ." He trailed off. "Of course it's none of my business."
Baruch busied himself with gathering ink, stylus, ruler and several rolls of fine parchment from a shelf by his own larger worktable and setting them out for his employee. "I'm going to ask you start with writing some marriage documents. Here's the list of parties for each," he pulled another bit of parchment from a box by his own desk, "and here's a sample of the way I do them," he produced another piece of parchment from another shelf. "I'm so far behind on these. There's an epidemic of weddings this month."
"You say so much about yourself, the way you express things. Epidemic of weddings. Like marriage was a disease. For what it's worth, I agree with you there."
"Do one certificate first and show it to me when you are finished," Baruch said, bluntly.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude."
Saul nodded, then sat down at the workbench Baruch had prepared for him. Baruch decided there was no sense in making any pretense. Saul was certainly direct enough in what he said and did. So Baruch stood and watched while Saul looked over the sample, then studied the list of names he had been given to work with.
Saul looked up at him, once, smiled, and then busied himself with ruling the spaces for the first document with confident, professional strokes. Baruch was satisfied. He sat down to his own table where the Book of Daniel in progress lay waiting.
Saul took about as much time to finish the scroll as Baruch himself would have done, which impressed Baruch, considering the other man was working in an unfamiliar environment with another man's tools. Saul then rose and presented the finished certificate to his employer, his expression deadpan, marred by not so much as a tiny smirk.
Baruch studied it. "Saul ben Damien, this is exquisite. You're going to steal all my customers from me."
"I would never steal from you," he paused, "Baruch." Then he waited to see the other man's reaction to this familiarity.
"Chayim was right. You are a gift to me, Saul."
From time to time, as they were working that morning, Baruch would glance up and look at his new helper. He wasn't at all surprised to see that the half - Greek poured his whole concentration into his work, as with everything else he did. Saul sat hunched at his workbench, his head bent low to the table surface, his forehead crinkled in concentration. They said little. Only once did Saul happen to look up at the same time that Baruch was studying him. Saul broke into a wide grin upon meeting the quieter man's eyes, and the grin said 'See, how well we get along?' as clearly as if Saul had pronounced the words in any of the four languages both men knew. Baruch plunged his head back down to his work and didn't look in Saul's direction for the rest of the morning.
As the days went by, the men worked and ate through the days and into the evenings. Baruch was not one for much conversation and Saul didn't force too much upon him.
As he got to know Saul better, Baruch noticed the man's impulsiveness. When other people were in the house, he showed the same restraint as he had that first morning he met Chayim. But he couldn't seem to hold the pose for very long. In a relaxed state, Saul was as easily diverted as child, but at the same time gave everything he did his full attention while he was doing it. While working he always bent his face low over the parchment, engrossed in what he was doing. When he looked at anything he seemed to look with his whole body, straining his face in the direction of what he was looking at. Or perhaps his eyes were just weak.
During the day, while they were working or eating or just talking, Baruch was happy to have the man around, even though it did seem that Saul often stood closer to him than seemed necessary and touched him more often than work required. They seemed to work together smoothly in concert, the way Baruch always had thought a well - matched husband and wife team should function. In the daytime, Baruch was able to push such thoughts aside as unseemly. Men must not fall in love with other men – it was an abomination.
The nights were different. Baruch lay awake and pictured the other man's spare body undressed, limbs splayed. He formed Saul's clean - shaven face in his mind and considered every feature carefully, though he didn't dare stare at him for too long during the day, lest Saul catch him at it. Saul had such smooth skin on his cheeks and such a beautifully curved chin. Baruch's own chin hadn't been exposed since the hair had first begun to grow on his face, nor had the chins of any of his friends. Raised first as a Greek, and then living among so many Romans in Bat Sheyan, Saul must have come to regard being clean - shaven as normal, but here in Jerusalem it made him look all the more foreign and alluring.
Some nights, when Baruch's self - control faltered, he got up in the night and padded in his bare feet to spy on Saul as he slept. He had an excuse ready should Saul ever awaken and catch him standing there just beyond the bedroom curtain. He could always pretend he had heard Saul cry out in the night and come to investigate, as had been true on that first night they were alone in the house together.
A disturbing nighttime pattern developed that plagued the mild - mannered scribe. On the nights when he could not stop himself he stood watching Saul sleep until his own loins began to tingle and then betray their desires. At that moment, when his feelings became physically evident, Baruch turned away from Saul's room and went out into the enclosed yard of his house to relieve himself of his shameful tensions. Then he would slink back to his room, vowing to stay in his bed the next night.
The number of nights he could keep that vow became fewer and farther between as the weeks went by.
It was one of those dreams in which Baruch was aware that he was asleep and dreaming. Saul's face was close to his, in the dream, surrounded by a shimming halo and beyond the halo all was darkness. Or perhaps it was not a halo at all but just the glow of beauty from the man's smooth face. The light grew brighter. Then brighter. The glow around Saul intensified until it was too much for Baruch's eyes – wide open in the dream – to bear. In the dream he squeezed his eyes shut against the too brilliant light. He squeezed his eyes tighter and tighter, pressing upper lids against lower lids harder and harder until the skin around his eyes hurt.
Then he jolted awake. His eyes stayed shut instinctively against real light pushing through his eyelids. He raised his hand to shield his eyes and then slowly eased one eye open to a mere slit. Through it, he perceived Saul actually standing above him holding a lamp near his face.
"Put that down, you're hurting my eyes!" Baruch cried, turning his head a little from the lamp to protect himself from the light that was so beautiful in the dream but painful now that it assailed him in a waking state.
Saul turned away and set the lamp on a small table across the room. The room darkened just a little to a yellowy glow. It took Baruch a few moments to ease his eyes fully opened and focus on Saul who had returned to stand, silently, by Baruch's bed.
"What are you doing here?"
"Baruch," Saul spoke word with reverence and the other scribe thought perhaps he was beginning to speak a prayer, since many benedictions did indeed begin with the word 'baruch' meaning 'blessed'.
"You came in here to pray? Wait until morning. Go to bed."
"No, I didn't come to pray," said the other man. To Baruch's astonishment, Saul sat down on the very bed on which Baruch slept. Saul reached over and lay his right hand against Baruch's face.
Baruch was so shocked he thought he might still be dreaming. This was impossible. But Saul's hand felt warm and real against Baruch's skin. He reached out and cupped his own hand around Saul's bare shaven jaw. After a moment of holding the other's man face he gently circled his fingers over Saul's cheek.
"Smooth, so smooth." The words were escaping from Baruch's mouth and he could do nothing to hold them in.
No, this wasn't happening. It couldn't be happening. Saul was leaning his face closer and closer to Baruch's, until their lips touched.
I'm kissing him. I'm kissing a man, Baruch thought, astounded at himself and Saul beyond having any feeling about what was going on.
Saul pulled his lips away just enough so that he could speak. "You have the softest beard of any man I've ever known," Saul said, barely in a whisper. "Your hair is so fine, so delicate." And Saul's hand played in his beard, now caressing, now twisting the strands in his fingers, now combing his fingers through it. "Some day, Baruch, I want to see your face. But not now, not now," Saul crooned. He rubbed his own face against Baruch's beard, luxuriating in it.
Baruch didn't move. His brain was too jolted to be able to tell his body how to respond, so his body took over, reacting as it saw fit. Saul let go of Baruch's face and brought his hand to rest instead against his thigh.
"My love, do you think you are the only one who watches in the night? All these long days and nights I've waited and watched and tried to make you understand how much I want you. But, oh my blessed one, my beauty, you are so cautious and correct all the time. I can't stand it anymore."
With this, Saul eased himself into the bed beside Baruch and pressed his own body close. Through the linen shift Saul wore, Baruch could feel his hard passion. He shuddered at the sensation. A wave of fear washed over him and his arousal weakened.
Saul kissed him again and then pushed his hand up under Baruch's garment, took hold of Baruch's manhood and stroked it. Even in his disoriented state, Baruch could tell Saul was skilled in such touches.
"You've never done this with a man, have you?" Saul whispered.
To tell a lie would have required conscious thought of which Baruch was incapable. "No, never. Nor with a woman," he confessed.
"I am your first. That pleases me. You will know from the beginning how love should be."
Saul fell asleep, exhausted. Baruch lay beside him, trying to decide just how he felt. Full but empty. Tingling but numb. Saul let out a grunt and turned over just as the rising sun's first light caught the two of them.
Baruch let out a heavy sigh and sat up. He looked on Saul's sleeping face and couldn't quite decide if he wanted to caress him or strike him. He stood up and walked out into the garden so that he would not be tempted to do either. There, he stood and watched the sky lighten with the coming of day. How could the sun do such a thing, rise as if this day were no different from any other.
How many people can recognize a moment when the assumptions of their lives have changed? It needs the intelligence to know that a life can be based on a certain assumptions, the self - awareness of what those assumptions are and, even more rare, the honesty to admit the assumptions have been wrong.
Baruch was cursed with a mind that was sharp and analytical. Last night it had been dulled with desire but in the morning's cool breeze his mind was clear he knew he was facing a decision point.
Ever since he had grown old enough to consider such things, he knew that women's bodies did not excite him. He had women friends and would have been happy to have one live with him and keep his house for him, as women were meant to do, but he had refrained from offering approach any of his many friends and business acquaintances for the hand of an available daughter. He was an honest and fair man and knew he would never be able to give a woman the satisfactions a woman would expect from a husband.
The desire he ever did feel when he thought of certain men, he knew was shameful and contrary to the will of God. He had reconciled himself to living without love and found satisfaction in relentless work.
To lie with another man, to feel both physical pleasure and also love of the spirit – until last night that hadn't existed as a possibility. This morning he became aware of a new reality, even as the sun rose on this new day. He could love another person. That person could be a man.
His upbringing led him to expect a bolt of lightning as punishment from the Lord but none seemed to be coming. Instead, it was an ordinary morning in his garden, scented with fragrance of the opening narcissus. The values by which he had led his life until last night no longer held, and he truly didn't know how he felt about it.
As he stood in thought he felt a slight tickle at the back of his neck. He whirled around and was face to face with Saul.
"You left me alone." With this, Saul bent towards him and Baruch realized that was what he had just felt must have been the brush of the man's lips against his neck. He pulled back, involuntarily.
"What is it?" Saul asked.
"I just want to think," was Baruch's entirely truthful answer.
"What about? About me?"
Saul slipped both arms around Baruch's waist from behind, Baruch wriggled out of his embrace. "About myself. And the world. About where I belong in it, I suppose."
"On an empty stomach? Come inside and let me make you some breakfast."
Baruch laughed. What he loved about Saul was that for him everything was reflected in the senses, the instincts. He, Baruch, followed a night of impossible exploration with a morning of reflection. Saul followed a night of wild passion with a belly - filling bowl of porridge. He's no less intelligent than I am, Baruch mused, looking in his love's eager eyes. Only that his mind moves in directions opposite to mine. I love him for being what I'm afraid to be.
"I'll go get our dinner in the market, you go deliver the scrolls to Chayim. We'll meet back at home." Before waiting to hear if Baruch agreed with this plan or not, Saul bolted from the outer courtyard of the Temple in the direction of the market to pick up their groceries. Baruch smiled to himself as he watched his love hustle through the crowd. Such an impulsive man. He acted without thinking, letting himself be carried off by any whim. He didn't lie awake at night, as Baruch did, agonizing over the metaphysical implications of his acts. Baruch couldn't have gone chasing after Saul anyway, since his arms were overflowing with scrolls to be delivered to the Temple. For each finished scroll Baruch actually held two – the one he had written and the one Chayim had given him to copy.
With a chuckle of amusement at his love's irrepressible impulsiveness, the scribe looked away from the direction that Saul went and scanned the crowd for Chayim. The Levite was usually near the Temple's outermost entrance at this time of day. Baruch picked him out on the white stone stairway leading to the main gate.
"Chayim! Behold all of your orders – finished."
"Baruch! I haven't seen you for forty days. So this is what you have been doing." Fond as Chayim was of his friend, he hadn't been counting the days. In this context, "forty" represented any large number. "Is this all YOUR work, or is the Greek still helping you?"
"Saul has a skilled hand," Baruch replied, thinking of the different skills of Saul's hand. He felt quick flash of shame, at having such thoughts on the Temple grounds. "But I have taken your advice and given him the boring tasks. I still do the Temple work myself." Although I shouldn't be touching holy books either, sinner as I am, he thought.
As the friends were about to move off together towards Chayim's office when a man unknown to either of them approached.
"Peace to you," said the fellow, "And may I have a few words with you gentlemen?"
There was nothing remarkable about him from what Baruch could observe. A Jew of their own class, perfectly ordinary in dress and appearance.
"And peace to you," Chayim responded, "How can we help you?"
"I've just arrived from Bat Sheyan, and I'm looking for a kinsman of mine," the man began.
The mention of the city Saul was from didn't worry Baruch at first. People came to Jerusalem from all over, there was nothing unusual about anyone coming from the Roman city in the north, nor would it be unusual to come looking for them near the Temple.
"Forgive me, but are you a scribe?"
Even if the man hadn't been looking at Baruch, the question would obviously be directed to Baruch since Chayim was recognizable as a Levite by his striped robe and Baruch just happened to be the one with an armload of scrolls. Baruch inclined his head in acknowledgment of his profession.
"My name is Nathan ben Nun. My kinsman is also a scribe. He would have only come to Jerusalem recently, but perhaps someone in the same profession might know of him: Saul ben Damien."
Baruch desperately wanted to meet Chayim's eyes but the Levite's attention was on the newcomer. Baruch stared at his friend. The concept of telepathy was unknown to him but he somehow felt that if he looked hard enough, Chayim would turn around and face him. This man's presence bode ill, of that Baruch was sure even though he wouldn't have been able to say why he thought that.
"Saul! Of course. A very learned man. A very talented man. Such a man, my friend, makes his mark in the city." Chayim declared this at the top of his lungs, waving his arms.
Baruch continued to stare and try to force Chayim to feel his thoughts. But Chayim ignored him. Be silent, Baruch begged his friend in his mind.
"Saul will be thrilled to know he has a kinsman in the city. Thrilled! This is wonderful." Chayim gushed and Baruch yearned to murder him where he stood.
"Now, where can I tell Saul to find you?" Chayim asked Nathan.
Baruch was so relieved he nearly collapsed on the Temple steps.
The mood of Nathan from Bat Sheyan also changed at that moment. He had been ordinarily courteous but now his voice betrayed an anger he must have been suppressing. "You shield him? Well, that is your choice. There's an inn just inside the David Gate with carvings of vines all around the lintels. That's where I'm staying."
Chayim only stood there, beaming.
"I'll give you a message for Saul," Nathan went on and now that Baruch was more relaxed he noted more about this man's manner, how tense he was, not exactly shaking with rage but vibrating ever so slightly.
"I'll be staying in the city nine more days. He can come speak with me or not, it doesn't matter as long as he hears this news. Tell him you spoke with Nathan. He knows who I am. Tell him my sister is with child. Well, peace to you gentleman." Nathan turned quickly and hurried down the white stone steps.
"Wait!" the Levite called after him, "No other message? That's all?"
"I'll be here nine more days if he wants to know more. Tell him so." With that, he disappeared into the crowd.
Baruch and Chayim watched him go. Baruch waited for Chayim to speak first.
"He's upset. Well, I guess that's understandable. Still, I doubt our Greek friend would have anything to do with his sister's condition."
"He might have something to do with it. He hasn't told me anything about his past. He might have known this man's sister. How would we know?" Baruch was unnerved by the Levite's easy assumption about Saul's preferences. This wasn't the first time Chayim had hinted of such things.
"Of course, of course. Why do I talk such nonsense? I keep telling you, Baruch, pay no attention to anything I say . . ."
"You're just a stupid, fat old man. That's what you always say, but you and I know that is untrue."
"Indeed. I'm not really that fat. Here, let me help you carry those." Chayim relieved Baruch of some of the scrolls and together they headed through the main Temple gate towards his office. "I'll leave it to you to tell Saul about our friend here."
Baruch's feet knew the way from the Temple back to his own home, which was fortunate because by the time he had left Chayim's office with a new scroll to copy, his mind was in no condition to assist with navigation.
The more he tried to talk himself out of being upset, the more upset he became. Why should it mean anything if Saul had known women before? How could it be betrayal if these things happened even before Baruch had met him? Saul talked of "bothersome women" but that didn't mean he hadn't bothered with them himself at some time in his life. And, it seemed, more recently than Baruch might have thought.
His mental turmoil was coloured with his growing guilt. His upbringing had, bit by bit every day, being weighing down the headiness he had felt that morning after he and Saul first made love. To lie with a man was a sin, but he'd been able to tell himself that it was no crime, since there was no victim.
But now, it seemed a victim may have surfaced after all: the sister of an angry man.
A good six gates away from his own house, Baruch's thoughts were distracted by the strong smell of spices. Someone was cooking, using seasonings wholly unfamiliar to Baruch and using quite a bit of them. The smell grew stronger and stronger as Baruch reached his own gate. He opened his gate and the reek permeated his yard. As he pushed open the door to his house, the cooking smell slammed him like a physical blow.
Baruch first took his new commission to his workroom and placed it on his writing table. Only then did he make his way to the kitchen.
"What is that stench?" he demanded of Saul, who was sitting by a wooden table taking sips from a small stone cup.
"You're home! Here, taste this!" Saul's face shone with happiness and sweat from standing over the fire. "There's a new spice merchant – just opened his stall. I got all these new spices. I don't even know what they are called, most of them. I just put a little bit of each in the stew." He held out the cup to Baruch.
Baruch only stood in the doorway of the kitchen and glared at him. "How much did you spend on spices today?"
"You've never asked me about the shopping before. What's wrong?"
"Do you ever think about what you're doing?"
"What?" Saul was genuinely puzzled.
"Any whim that takes you, you go with it! Do you ever think about the consequences of what you do?"
In the weeks they had been together, Baruch had never raised his voice, nor shaken his arms in the air. Saul sobered immediately. He first set down the cup, then stood straight and faced Baruch.
"I try not to, most of the time," he said, in all seriousness. "What are we talking about right now? Surely not about shopping."
"No, we're talking about the daughter of Nun."
"Shoshana? What do you know about her?"
"I know more than you know. At least I pray you do not know. You are a heedless, reckless man, but I cannot think you would have left Bat Sheyan if you had known."
"Known what? Baruch, talk to me. Has she fallen ill? Is she dead?"
"No, she's very much alive."
"Then what are you talking about?"
"Who is this Shoshana? What is she to you?" Baruch screamed the questions at Saul, who quailed before this unaccustomed blasting.
"My wife," Saul whispered, taking a step back.
"My wife." For Baruch's whole adult life he had copied words and absorbed them as he copied. The complex terminology of contracts, the poetry of the prophets, the minutia of the laws of the Scripture, he handled them all with ease. But "my wife", a single word "ish - ti" in both Hebrew and Aramaic, of this word he could make no sense at first.
"You have a wife." Slowly, he found comprehension. "What have you done to me, Saul?"
"To you? I don't understand."
Baruch sank to the bench where Saul had been sitting, and dropped his head into his folded arms. "What have you done to me?" Baruch's face was buried and Saul wasn't at first able to tell that Baruch's anger was spent and he was now weeping. "What have you made of me?"
Saul sat down with his beloved and cradled him in his own arms. "Tell me what upsets you, my love. Only that I have a wife?"
"What have you made of me?" Baruch wailed again. Still in Saul's embrace, he rocked back and forth on the bench. "You've made me an adulterer! An adulterer! I told myself it didn't matter if I sinned – no one else was harmed. But you have a wife. You commit adultery and I do it with you."
Baruch wept on. "What abomination is next for me? Will I bow down to idols? Lie with beasts?"
"Listen to me." Saul caressed Baruch's hair as he held him. "There's no real bond between me and Shoshana. She was the one that bade me leave Bat Sheyan."
Baruch only cried, "It is written in the Scriptures 'Do not lie with a man as with a woman'."
"No woman ever did to you what I do, oh my beautiful love. So it cannot be a sin."
"What about adultery? Do not commit adultery. One the first ten holy laws God gave to Moses, our teacher! I am wretched! Wretched!" Baruch jumped up, ran to his bedroom and flung himself face down on his bed.
Saul followed him there but stood apart from him. "You said Shoshana is neither sick nor dead, but you know something that I don't know. Tell me."
Baruch only continued to weep.
"Tell me, damn you! Can you do nothing but howl like a woman?"
"Do not speak to me of women. Go see Nathan at the Inn of Vines if you want to know the ways of women."
"Nathan is here in Jerusalem?"
"He came looking for you at the Temple. Go find him! Get out of my house! Leave me alone! I was a pious man before I met you and look at me now!"
Saul came closer but still did not touch him. "You are my love. You are to me as the scent of roses."
Baruch only moaned.
"More beautiful than the stars," Saul went on, "More intelligent than the sagest scholar. More skilled than any artisan who ever fashioned fine gold."
"As trusting as a baby," Baruch said between sobs, "I never asked you about your past."
"I would have told you the truth, if you had asked. But you didn't ask because in your heart you knew it didn't matter."
"Leave my house! Go back where you belong!"
"You still haven't told me what Nathan said."
"Ask him yourself," Baruch cried out, "Go to him! I don't want you here. You have made me a criminal and if there is any justice in the world I will be stoned."
Saul stood for another moment trying to decide what to do. Then he bent down at the foot of Baruch's bed and undid the sandals of the prostrate man and slid them off his feet. Softly he said "Don't wear your sandals in bed. And don't fret so much. I will see Nathan and find out what he wants of me. Then, I will come back to you."
It was dark when Saul returned to find Baruch in the same position he had left him – prone on his bed. He lay still now, so still that Saul feared for him, until he saw the slight rise of his shoulders, showing that Baruch was still breathing.
"I'm back," Saul said, briefly, and reached down to touch Baruch's arm.
Baruch shuddered at the touch. "Go away. Go with Nathan back to Bat Sheyan where you belong."
"Even if I were going back, I wouldn't travel with Nathan. He hates me."
Baruch longed to cry out that he hated Saul too, but the words would not come. So Saul spoke them for him.
"And you also hate me right now. Please, Baruch, sit up. Let me explain." He took hold of Baruch's shoulders, flipped the man on his back and then grabbed his arms to pull him into a sitting position.
Baruch's mind was still rolling in turmoil, but his body was exhausted from weeping. He let Saul pull him up, but refused to meet his eyes. "You have a wife. Soon you will have a child. Go tend to your own household."
"I can't be sure the child is mine."
"If you suspect your wife has known another man, you can put her from you. If not, the child is your responsibility. Either way, you must go back and deal with it."
"Beloved, are you ready to listen to my story? Can you be calm and listen?"
Baruch struggled to do just that – be calm. He mimicked Chayim, saying "Tell me, already. What can it hurt?" and forced out just a little smile.
Saul reached for his hand but Baruch snatched it away again.
Saul drew a breath first, then began his tale. "When Nathan told me Shoshana was pregnant I first called him a liar. The woman is barren. She had a husband before me, but he divorced her because she could not bear. I've known Shoshana since we were children. I felt bad for her."
"And so you married her out of pity?"
"No. I'm a good man, though I know you don't think so now, but I'm not that good. She was shamed and wanted another husband but I had no desire for a wife. This, she knew. So she offered me a deal. A business deal, really."
The practical scribe could not help responding to the word "business". His mind cleared a little.
"You've lived a blameless life, ignoring all your desires. You are respectable. And so you have many customers that respect you for your piety as well as for your skill. True?"
Baruch nodded. He had cultivated his respectability and after enough years he knew it defined him to the outside world, no matter what shameful desires he suppressed.
"I don't have your self control, my love. I follow my impulses."
"Yes, you do."
"I never fell in love, as I have with you, but a man has desires . . . Well, word gets around. I developed a reputation, but not for being . . . respectable."
"And you lost your customers. I'm so sorry." And he was. For the first time since hearing Nathan's news, Baruch began to feel a little sympathy for Saul. To lose one's customers was a calamity.
"Not all at once, oh no. But business became very bad. I was telling Shoshana one day that I thought I would have to leave the city and get a new start. That's when she made her offer. It was a good one."
With two quick flicks of his finger, Baruch whisked the last trace of tears from his eyes and leaned forward to hear more.
"She wanted back the life she had – a household of her own and a husband of means. I'm a good scribe. I write a beautiful hand and I'm fast. If I had respectability I could easily have developed a clientele as vast as yours is now. Married to me, she could be the wife of a rich man. She knew I wouldn't care if she bore children or not. She would have a good and easy life."
"And in return, she would bring you respectability. It's a fine bargain. But did she never want you to go in unto her in the night? Women also have desires."
Saul chuckled. "It was part of the deal, that I would go to her bed when she sought the comfort of a man, as long as it wasn't too often. But don't be angry with me for that, Baruch. A man does what he must to get along. I never got any real pleasure from her."
"But you said she was the one who asked you to leave."
Saul was surprised. "You remember that? In all your anger and grief and degradation you remember those words of mine. What a mind for detail. Yes, she cast me out. There was this young man, so beautiful. I didn't love him as I love you, it was only . . . well, you know. But his father was one of my clients and he found out."
"You lay with the son of a client? Saul, you have no discretion, truly."
"You knew that about me from the beginning, my love. The boy's father accused me publicly. I would have been ruined, maybe even stoned. Shoshana is practical, even as you are. It was her idea that I run away and leave all my belongings behind, so that it would look like I had met some violence – maybe at the hands of Shlomo's father. He would be blamed and no one would come looking for me. She is a shrewd woman."
"Shrewd indeed. She kept your house, your money, even your writing implements. And you set forth for Jerusalem, naked as a beggar."
"Where I met Chayim. He's a skillful matchmaker, that Levite friend of yours."
Baruch digested the story. "Is this Nathan lying to you, I wonder, to lure you back to Bat Sheyan? I can't see how he would benefit."
"I don't think so. She has enough of my money and property to feed herself for the rest of her days, so she wouldn't be a burden to the family. The child may be mine. There's really no way to know for sure."
With the distraction of a practical problem, Baruch got a little composure back. "She was barren, but now she is with child. I've heard of it before – that a woman barren with one man conceives with another." In their patriarchal society, even the logical minded Baruch didn't think to express the idea in terms of a husband's infertility. "What did you tell Nathan you would do?"
"Nothing. I have no idea what I'm going to do."
"You must have told him something."
"Baruch, I told him I would speak to him again soon. I have time. He said he would be in Jerusalem a little while." Saul said in a petulant whine.
What little composure Baruch had back, he lost again. "How can you copy a text so exactly but have no precision in any other part of your mind. Nine days, Saul! He told me, a stranger, he would be here for nine days! He must have told you that, but even such a simple detail you cannot keep in your mind!"
Saul ignored the outburst. "I made him promise not to tell anyone he found me alive. He will do that, for Shoshana's sake. There's no shame on her as long as everyone thinks she's a widow. Baruch, I don't know what I'm going to do. You will think of something wise, I know."
With a cry of exasperation, Baruch flung himself back down in his bed. " I can't think of anything more tonight. My mind will soon burst like a rotted melon. Leave me alone. I want to sleep."
"Let me bring you some food first, my love."
"I can't eat what you've made. All those spices. Everything about you is excess, Saul. I'm drowning in you. I beg you, if there is any mercy in your soul, leave me alone. Just go away."
"Rest, then. We'll talk in the morning.
For the next few days Baruch stayed in his bed and waged a war. His body got up only when his bladder or bowels needed relief. Occasionally he felt thirsty and whenever he did, somehow Saul's hand was there, offering a cup of cool water, sometimes milk. The battle consumed Baruch and used up all his strength leaving him no energy to rise from his bed and move around.
At Baruch's core stood a solid bastion, well fortified, built of all his upbringing, all his studies and the years of living a blameless life. Assailing that bastion were two fledgling soldiers, inexperienced but quick and keen: his love for Saul and his conviction that he was entitled to that love. The warring forces might have kept an uneasy peace for the rest of Baruch's life, if Baruch had never learned about Saul's wife. But she was the Helen of the equation, the catalyst for war.
These were not the old days of the patriarchs and matriarchs, when men might have more than one wife, or go in unto their servants as did Abraham our father. These were modern times. Marriage was a sacred contract between two people, Baruch knew well enough having penned hundreds of such documents in his career. A man promises, in writing and before witnesses, to keep himself only for one woman. Adultery was not only contrary to the laws of Moses, it was a breach of contract.
Saul had a legal wife and a child on the way. Could he, Baruch ben Reuben, respectable scribe, holder of Temple contracts, be the one to tell another man to abandon his family? Did it matter that Saul claimed he had left enough money to keep them in comfort? Could Baruch face life without love now that he had experienced it? And so the war raged.
Baruch had no awareness of the passing of time but he did catch, now and again, voices that he knew, talking. Usually they were talking about him. Mostly he heard Saul, urging him to get up. Sometimes Saul shook him. Once Saul even slapped him. But the live man was only a nuisance while the image of Saul and what Saul stood for kept up the fight inside Baruch's breast.
There were other voices and conversations. The other voices were muffled but he heard Saul say, "Well, Baruch ben Reuben has been ill these last few days and he's a little behind schedule. Please come on Friday, just before the sabbath, and I'll have. . . I mean . . . he'll have your documents ready. Oh, no. Nothing serious. Yes, of course I'll tell him. Peace to you, gentlemen. Yes, come on Friday."
Later, hours or days later, it didn't really matter to Baruch, he heard Chayim come into the house.
"Where's Baruch? Enoch told me you said he was sick," Baruch heard Chayim demand of Saul.
"Chayim! Praised be the Lord! You're here! I don't know what's wrong with Baruch. He won't rise from his bed."
"How long has it been?"
"Five days. It started the day he ran into Shoshana's brother."
Even from the distance his mind was from the happening, Baruch could picture how his old friend must be nodding sagely.
"But tell me, how is it you're still in the city? Don't you have to return to Bat Sheyan?"
Baruch heard Saul cough at this and clear his throat. "Oh, you heard about that. Well, I . . . um . . . that's not important right now. The important thing is that you must talk to him. You're his friend of many years, you must know how to get him up."
"My guess is you can get him up much better than I can," Chayim said, more softly, but Baruch could hear his voice clearly because Chayim was coming closer, moving towards his bedroom. "Saul, would you go get some nice strong wine?"
"Oh course. I'll just go to the pantry."
"No, I mean go out to the market and buy some wine."
"Oh, you want me out of the house."
Saul muttered and grumbled but after a moment the sounds diminished and Baruch heard his outer gate bump shut.
Then Baruch bounced slightly as Chayim's bulk indented the bed. But this time Baruch wasn't shocked, knowing his old friend was just here to try to take care of him. He turned so that he could look at Chayim but spoke no greeting.
"Saul's afraid," Chayim told him. "He doesn't know you have these fits of sadness every now and again. As did your father before you. Sit up. Talk to me."
Chayim grabbed hold of his arms and tried to haul him up to a sitting position but Baruch resisted, and flopped back down as soon as Chayim let go of his arms.Chayim shook his head sadly and said, "Lie there, then. But talk to me. You know you need to talk to someone."
Baruch did need just that, and he told all that had happened while Chayim punctuated the telling with his characteristic nods.
"My Baruch," Chayim said gently, when Baruch had finished, "I have done you serious harm even if I meant well. I only wanted to ease your loneliness."
"So, you did know what he was."
"Other than a scribe, my Baruch? Of course I knew. I may be a fat, stupid old man but until today I thought I was a good judge of men. I see now I'm only fat and old and stupid. It never occurred to me that a man like Saul would have a wife."
"But how could you tell? About him or about me?"
Chayim only shrugged. "I just know."
"It's not your fault, Chayim. You didn't force me to fall in love with him."
"No, but I should have realized that you would. I've brought trouble to you, my Baruch, and I wish I could undo it."
"Advise me, then. What is to be done?
"Baruch, if the woman has the status of a widow now, and proven fertile and has money and property besides, some one will take her in. She may even marry again."
"You condone a man abandoning his own seed?"
"Shocking, isn't it? Saul can stay here with you. You can have a good life together if you are both cautious."
That was enough to finally rouse the despondent scribe. "Cautious!" He tried to shout the word but after five days of silence and only these few minutes of whispering with Chayim his throat pained him as he made the attempt. "Cautious? Saul is as heedless as a child! I can't help but love him for it, but it will be our undoing. One day he will do something foolish in public, he will say something without thinking and give us away. And then, Chayim, he'll ruin me. Or worse, he'll stray from me. He loves me now but I cannot hope he will keep himself only unto me for very long. He'll shame me, or himself, in some way, it must happen – he has no discretion. And then I'll lose everything. He must leave. But I don't know how I'll live without him."
"If it must be so, then you'll live as you always have. By work. My Baruch, get out of your bed and work. Start on the Book of Isaiah I gave you to copy. It will soothe you and help you think."
Baruch dropped back into his bed and threw woolen bedclothes over his head. "I don't want to work. I don't want to be soothed. I want only to crawl away and never be seen again."
While Chayim was clucking helplessly and sympathetically, the outer gate creaked open and Saul's voice penetrated the house from the garden as he shouted in warning, "I'm back! I am returned and I'll hear everything you say!"
Baruch snorted in what was as close to amusement as he could come.
"I'll stay in the house for a while. I'll console Saul, he really is distressed over you, and I'll let him feed me and give me wine. Get up, Baruch. Go to work. It will clear your head." With that, Chayim patted Baruch's arm, rose and went out to greet the returned Saul.
Saul was relieved to hear that Baruch had actually taken part in a conversation. "You were talking about me, of course," he observed and then allowed Chayim to steer him away from Baruch's room.
The two settled in the kitchen. At Chayim's request, Saul fetched bread, started warming up some meat and then poured wine. And kept pouring. And Chayim let Saul pour out his own troubles at the same time.
At first Baruch stayed in bed. But the worst of his depression was over and he tried to focus on what they were saying. Chayim and Saul were already finished one wine jug and starting on a second when Baruch rose from his bed and made his unsteady way towards the hallway outside the kitchen. There he stood, leaning for support against the wall, and listened to their talk.
"It's this whole problem of love," Chayim was declaiming, loudly, under the influence of the strong, red wine. "Sometimes I think the Essenes have the right idea. No love of the flesh. Just study and prayer and work."
"Essenes? Who are they?"
"You, my Greek friend, are just too ignorant of life outside your own little affairs. The Essenes are monastics. They live communally, share all their goods, devote themselves to study of the Scriptures and remain celibate."
"Sounds horrible. The idea will never catch on," Saul observed.
"Oh, but it has. There's a huge community of them in Qumran," Chayim spoke of a town near the Dead Sea. "I was talking with some of them one day when they came in to town. I think they were trying to recruit me. They don't marry. They don't know women at all. One of them told me the Shecheenah was his bride."
Standing just outside the room and out of sight, Baruch thought about the Shecheenah. In their male - dominated society, even the mystics seldom referred to this symbol of the female attributes of God. This manifestation of all that was soft, warm, loving and accepting in the Diety was a pleasantly romantic one, but the priests discouraged any talk of the Shecheenah
Opinions varied as to just what the priest found so threatening about the Shecheenah. The most popular notion was that they were afraid people would equate her with the pagan fertility goddess, Astarte, and fall into heathen ways. The Jews of Jerusalem were always careful to avoid any kind of activity that smacked of sinful pagan rites: they always worshipped indoors rather than outside, forbade women from taking active part in religious services and generally favoured the concept of God as powerful
male. "Husbands of the Holy Spirit. That sounds presumptuous," Saul said, downing a fresh cupful. "But surely they'll die out eventually if they don't take wives." "Eventually. But they're pretty active right now and their ranks are growing fast," Chayim told him. "Maybe I should join them, then. The Shecheenah will be a lot less trouble to me than my wife." "If they're smart, they won't let you in. I wish I'd known what a troublemaker you are. You should wear a mark on your brow, like Cain, to warn people." "Listen, you old goat," Saul was truly drunk now, "a good scribe is welcome anywhere. Anywhere." "I thought you loved Baruch and wanted to stay with him." Saul's protest was earnest, if somewhat slurred, "I spoke in jest. I do love Baruch. He's so beautiful, so smart, so perfect." "One cannot choose but love him," the drunken Levite let slip. Saul swayed on his bench and nearly fell off at this. "Why, you lecherous old . . ." "I never touched any man, ever. I never will. But maybe that's why I sent you to him, friend Saul. I wanted him to have at least some love in his life." "You wanted to enjoy him vicariously, through me," Saul mused, in Greek since neither Hebrew nor Aramaic had the right vocabulary for this thought and he never did like the idea of talking about love in Latin. But Chayim only looked at him uncomprehending, so Saul had to render it in a couple of sentences of Aramaic to get the idea across. "The Greeks have a word for that? What a degenerate race! No, I just wanted him to be happy. But look what you've done," Chayim accused, losing more of his control. "Who knows what desperate act you'll drive the poor man to? He loves you and you're bad for him. You're bad for your wife. You're bad for everyone." Latin was the language Saul like best for cursing, so he cut loose a selection of Roman epithets he'd picked up in Bat Sheyan. Chayim didn't know Latin but the general drift of Saul's tirade was clear enough. Chayim let him run down to an incoherent, drunken mumble and then reminded him that he wanted food. Saul brought the meal he had prepared and conversation subsided as the two men who loved Baruch sat and ate in silence.
Opinions varied as to just what the priest found so threatening about the Shecheenah. The most popular notion was that they were afraid people would equate her with the pagan fertility goddess, Astarte, and fall into heathen ways. The Jews of Jerusalem were always careful to avoid any kind of activity that smacked of sinful pagan rites: they always worshipped indoors rather than outside, forbade women from taking active part in religious services and generally favoured the concept of God as powerful male.
"Husbands of the Holy Spirit. That sounds presumptuous," Saul said, downing a fresh cupful. "But surely they'll die out eventually if they don't take wives."
"Eventually. But they're pretty active right now and their ranks are growing fast," Chayim told him.
"Maybe I should join them, then. The Shecheenah will be a lot less trouble to me than my wife."
"If they're smart, they won't let you in. I wish I'd known what a troublemaker you are. You should wear a mark on your brow, like Cain, to warn people."
"Listen, you old goat," Saul was truly drunk now, "a good scribe is welcome anywhere. Anywhere."
"I thought you loved Baruch and wanted to stay with him."
Saul's protest was earnest, if somewhat slurred, "I spoke in jest. I do love Baruch. He's so beautiful, so smart, so perfect."
"One cannot choose but love him," the drunken Levite let slip.
Saul swayed on his bench and nearly fell off at this. "Why, you lecherous old . . ."
"I never touched any man, ever. I never will. But maybe that's why I sent you to him, friend Saul. I wanted him to have at least some love in his life."
"You wanted to enjoy him vicariously, through me," Saul mused, in Greek since neither Hebrew nor Aramaic had the right vocabulary for this thought and he never did like the idea of talking about love in Latin. But Chayim only looked at him uncomprehending, so Saul had to render it in a couple of sentences of Aramaic to get the idea across.
"The Greeks have a word for that? What a degenerate race! No, I just wanted him to be happy. But look what you've done," Chayim accused, losing more of his control. "Who knows what desperate act you'll drive the poor man to? He loves you and you're bad for him. You're bad for your wife. You're bad for everyone."
Latin was the language Saul like best for cursing, so he cut loose a selection of Roman epithets he'd picked up in Bat Sheyan. Chayim didn't know Latin but the general drift of Saul's tirade was clear enough. Chayim let him run down to an incoherent, drunken mumble and then reminded him that he wanted food. Saul brought the meal he had prepared and conversation subsided as the two men who loved Baruch sat and ate in silence.
Baruch's mind was spun as wildly with what he had heard as the other men's minds were spinning with drink.
Unspeakable. Even his most trusted friend was tainted. Was nothing clean anymore? Baruch pressed his forehead against the wall of the hallway. He needed stability. Work. He needed work. Chayim was right about that. Work would help him to get his thoughts in order.
Baruch moved through his own house towards his workroom feeling the wall as he went, as though to find stability in the stone walls, since none could be found in his own life nor, it seemed in the people he cared for most. Only a few weeks ago his life had been as solid and straight as these walls, and then he'd found love.
Looking around the workroom, Baruch deduced what must have been going on for the last several days. On his own writing table was the Book of Isaiah, left untouched since the day he had brought it home from the Temple to copy. Everything else on the shelves had been re - arranged. Pairs of scrolls, each original together with the copies Saul must have made, lay side by side on shelves Baruch used to store finished work before it was delivered to the clients. In another pile were finished legal and trade documents. On Saul's table was a half - finished contract for a shipment of building materials. While all Jewish men could read and write and write Hebrew, it was considered good form to have important documents professionally written by a scribe.
Although Baruch had absorbed, while still in his depressed state, that Saul was doing his work for him, he was surprised to see how much had been done. Saul must have been working day and night, taking time out only to tend to Baruch and, at intervals, try to force him to get up.
Work. Baruch had never copied the writings of the prophet Isaiah before so at least he would have something interesting with which to try to ease himself back into some semblance of normal life. A decision had to be made about what Saul would do and Saul could not be trusted to make a wise decision on his own. But only five days, it seemed, had elapsed since Baruch first took to his bed. A few days still remained before Saul's brother - in - law would leave the city. There was time still.
The scroll with the writings of the prophet Isaiah lay on Baruch's desk where he had left it that day. Saul had not touched this commission, knowing that Baruch guarded the Temple orders always for himself. Baruch settled in at his writing desk, opened the scroll and decided to read it through first.
His mind still shaky and impressionable, Baruch sat and read the prophet's powerful poetry while his friend and his lover were busy eating, drinking and talking. He came upon these words:
Shout, O barren one!
You who bore no child!
Shout aloud for joy
You who did not travail!
For the children of the wife forsaken
Shall outnumber those of the espoused.
Baruch paused and a shiver went through him. Of course. The Lord had sent him guidance at last.
Because Chayim had more bulk than the reed - slender Saul, and could also eat more at a sitting, the effects of the alcohol wore off for him faster than they did for the younger man. While Saul repeatedly nodded, letting his forehead drop to the table and then bouncing upward again as his head stuck wood, it was Chayim that decided someone should go check on Baruch. The Levite found Baruch's bed empty and since he already knew Baruch wasn't in the kitchen the logical place to look for him was his workroom.
There he found Baruch, trying to rule rows of straight lines on a fresh piece of parchment. The scribe's hand shook, weak from five days without food.
Seeing Baruch, Chayim cried out, "You're up! But you always take things too literally. When I said get up and work, I didn't mean you should drag yourself from your bed right to your desk. Eat first and take a bath. You've been sweating in that bed too long." He took hold of Baruch by the shoulders and propelled him out of the workroom.
"Behold, he's out of bed at last!" Chayim proclaimed, as the two came in to the kitchen together.
Saul's head was on the downward part of its circuit. Upon hearing these words, his head jolted up and if Baruch had doubted Saul's devotion, his doubt would have vanished at the expression of joy and relief on his lover's face. With a wordless cry, Saul jumped up and folded Baruch tightly in his arms.
"He should eat something. But something light to start with, since he hasn't eaten in a long time."
Saul let Baruch loose, keeping hold only of one of his arms. Chayim took his other arm and the two settled him onto a wooden bench by the table.
"Beloved, I'll get you some broth," Saul said.
Baruch shuddered a little at hearing Saul use the word "beloved" and then thought that after the conversation he had overhead, there was no reason for pretense in front of Chayim of all people.
"Too spicy," Baruch weakly protested.
"The spicy food is gone, my beautiful one. I finished it off days ago. Here, have this. I made it bland, just the way you like it."
Everything seemed under control for the moment, with Saul feeding and fussing over the Baruch, so Chayim bid them both a brief good - bye and let himself out.
Baruch had made his decision as to what was best in general, but he still needed a little time to think through the details. He worked late into the night, copying and thinking. Saul tried to stay up with him but now it was Saul's mind that was clouded, with drink, while Baruch's brain grew clearer and clearer as he worked out his plan. It was a few hours before dawn when Baruch went to Saul's room.
He could have easily waited until morning, but if he told Saul his decision now, in the dark, at least he would not have to behold the pain in his lover's face.
He shook Saul awake. Saul came to, slowly, and reached out to Baruch, caressing first his arm, and then moving his hand down to rest against Baruch's loins.
Baruch pushed the hand aside. "No, Saul. I've come to talk. I've decided what you're going to do."
Yes, it was good that it was dark. He could never say this to his love in the light. "You are going back to Bat Sheyan."
"No," Saul breathed rather than pronounced the word. "Beloved, don't send me away! Don't you love me?"
"You have a responsibility to your child."
"I told you. I left money for Shoshana and the child. They don't need me. They don't love me. Please let me stay with you."
"Money is not enough, Saul. If you have a son, you must see that he is educated. If you have a daughter you must make sure she is joined to a worthy family. That is your duty to your seed. But, I'm not sending you away. Listen to my plan."
Saul was sitting up now. Baruch could hear him breathing heavily in the dark.
"Don't travel with Nathan. As you said, he hates you. But tomorrow go tell him what you intend and then leave for Bat Sheyan alone. I'll give you money to join a caravan. When you get home, you will liquidate all your assets there in the north and bring your wife here to Jerusalem. A fresh start, Saul."
"But, if I show my face in Bat Sheyan . . ."
"Don't show your face. Hide in your house and let your wife handle everything with the aid of her male relatives. Women can't transact business publicly but it seems she knows what she's doing in money matters."
"But where will I live when I return? With her? With you? I don't want to be apart from you."
Baruch had to stop and summon his courage before going on. He hadn't tried to deceive anyone about anything for so many years that it felt normal to be truthful. He now had to lie to Saul. "I haven't decided that yet. But I will think of something while you are gone. Bring your wife to this house and then we'll go from there." And Baruch prayed silently that the impractical Saul would take this at face value without pushing for specifics.
"I will do as you say. I trust you. But, oh my Baruch, stay in my bed with me for the rest of the night. It's been so long."
Baruch remained where he was, standing beside the bed. "Know this, Saul. I'll love you for as long as I have breath, but as long as you are married we will not lie together. Tomorrow, you will leave for Bat Sheyan."
When Saul was safely gone, Baruch worked. He took nourishment and rest when he needed it so that he could continue to work. The Book of Isaiah grew under his hand day by day and he paid no more attention to the world outside than he did when he had taken to his bed. By day he absorbed the Hebrew letters as he copied them and by night he dreamed of the tall spiky shapes of the consonants. Sometimes he dreamed that graceful lines grew long and encircled him like a giant serpent. Other times they burst into flame and writhed about him, as punishment for his sin. He pushed himself hard. Everything had to be arranged before Saul's return.
Finally, the scroll was finished. There were a few other matters to attend to, but the time came, a month after Saul had left, that Baruch had everything ready.
It was difficult, with the layers of woolen robes that the Jews of Jerusalem wore, to easily tell when someone had gained or lost weight. But Chayim could see Baruch's face was gaunt and pale and his hands were shaking. Unlike Chayim, who had widened quickly upon reaching manhood and retained his imposing girth throughout all the ups and downs of his life, Baruch showed his moods through his body: eating well and gaining weight when happy, quickly growing lean when he was pre - occupied. But Chayim couldn't quite interpret his friend's mental state on this occasion because, as shrunken as Baruch was, he also had an air of calm and peace. Baruch had arrived in Chayim's office with an armload of scrolls and had lined them up neatly on the Levite's desk.
"This is your Book of Isaiah. I've finished copying it," Baruch began.
Chayim was puzzled. "This is the one I gave you. Where's the copy?"
"I'm keeping it. It is going to be my wedding gift to my new bride."
"Bride? What are you talking about? Isn't Saul coming back to live in your house? That's what he told me before he left."
He will come back and live in my house. But I won't be there. I'm going to Qumran, to wed the Shecheenah. I've hired the young nephew of Ebenezer to stay and watch my house until Saul comes with his wife. He's under instructions to tell Saul to report to you upon arrival. Even if the boy forgets, Saul will surely come looking for you when he finds me gone."
"You're going to run away and join the Essenes? Stop and think. It's not like you to do something so desperate," the older man pleaded.
"If I had done only what it was like me to do, I wouldn't be in this situation. Chayim, I'm not doing anything desperate. I plan to live a good long life, if the Lord grants, writing and studying the Scripture."
"As an Essene? What kind of life is that?"
"It's the same life I had before I met Saul. I've always lived more frugally than my means allowed. I've devoted myself to work and lived in chastity. I'll have the same life as I've always known except I won't be alone. I'll have others around me that live the same way. I'm taking my writing utensils and all the cash money I have, which is quite a bit. I heard Saul say a good scribe is welcome anywhere. A scribe with money, well, who would turn me away?"
"You heard that? Did you hear anything else?"
"Nothing we need to talk about, dear friend."
Tears welled in the old Levite's eyes. "I've done this to you. I'm a stupid, meddling old man."
But Baruch only took hold of him and hugged him. "And fat. Don't forget 'fat'," Baruch said with a little laugh. "You did fine, Chayim. If you hadn't sent Saul to me I would have gone through life never having loved. Now, wipe your eyes and pay attention to these documents. I'm leaving them in your care for when Saul returns."
Chayim met Baruch's eyes and found encouragement there, as well as affection.
"Business. Pay attention to business." And Baruch smiled. There was calm happiness in the scribe's face and Chayim began to believe perhaps Baruch knew what he was doing after all.
Baruch pointed to the scrolls one by one as he described them."This document gives ownership of my house and furniture to Saul. I wish I could legally turn them over to his wife, she seems to be the one with some sense. Here are letters to my clients, asking them to give him the contracts they used to give me. He's going to run my practice into the ground, I'm sure, but with the proceeds from his property in the north and my house to live in, he should still be able to take care of his family. Let him keep the Temple contracts, my dear friend, for my sake. But don't tell him where I went."
"I see you have this well - planned, but, surely something else can be worked out. You're so smart, my Baruch. You can find a way for you and Saul to stay together if you only think about it hard enough."
"If Saul were free, maybe. There are priorities in life, Chayim, and love is not the first of them. First a man must honour God and God's laws. Then he must care for his own seed. Maybe it is the Lord's will that Saul met me so I could provide him the means to take care of his family. I don't know. If I study and pray enough, maybe He'll tell me one day whether this is so."
There are no documents left today to describe how Saul reacted when he returned to Jerusalem. We don't know if he ever found out where his lover went, followed him to Qumran and begged him in vain to come back, or if Chayim kept Baruch's whereabouts a secret. No written record of Saul, Shoshana, their child, or Chayim is left to us.
We do have written record of Baruch, although his name does not appear on the documents. His Book of Isaiah, among other texts he copied while he lived with the Essenes, was sealed in a clay jar and left in the caves near Qumran. The dryness of the desert would preserve his scrolls and the work of many others, until they were found nearly two thousand years later and called "The Dead Sea Scrolls". His Book of Isaiah would be one of those that crossed the ocean to be displayed and interpreted in the great museums of the world in, as Shakespeare would later say, states unborn and accents yet unknown.
"All right, gather 'round, gentlemen. Good Master Fraser, good Master Raymond, do you join us for rehearsal, an you have naught else better to do?"
These two members of Will Shakespeare's company were indeed otherwise engaged in the occupation that took up most of their spare time – making out. As long as they did it within the confines of the theatre and only in the company of their fellow thespians and not in the view of paying customers, nobody really minded.
Fraser Benson and Raymond Stanley broke off their embrace and ambled over to the centre of the wooden stage where all the company sat in a rough circle ready to listen to Will give them their instructions.
"I have truly great news, gentlemen. We've been commissioned to perform for Her Majesty at her Twelfth Night celebration."
There were first murmurs of approval, which gradually built into full-blown cheering. This was a major achievement for Will and his company of players.
"She commands of us a comedy, which I have written withal, and it now falls on us to be ready in time. So, I have your parts here. It is set in Italy . . ."
"Another one in Italy. 'Zwounds, but I tire of Italy, Italy, always Italy as the setting," groused a dark-haired actor with the most prominent nose of the company.
"Vance, thou knowest full well the audiences like Italy this year. Why dost thou complain about every meanest thing?"
"I? Complain? 'Sblood!"
Fraser and Raymond had settled down, sitting close together, of course. Raymond turned to Vance, saying, "Oh, sneck up, you whoreson wretch. Let Will tell our parts."
Vance let out a heavy put-upon sigh and subsided.
"Thank you kindly, Raymond. Now, as I was saying, it is set in Italy and we have this damsel, her ship is wracked in a storm and the sweet maid set upon the shore. To get by she . . ."
"Don't tell me, she dresses as a boy. A plague on all these disguised heroines!" whined Vance. "Hast thou no other plot-line in thy addled pate, Will?"
"For the love of God, peace, Vance!" interjected Raymond.
"Thank you again, Raymond. Now Vance, you will play the brother of this unhappy maid. In the plot, the brother and sister are most alike in visage, there will be confusion of identity. Therein lies the comedy. The brother's name is Sebastian. The girl, Viola, she thinks you are drowned. Now, one of you gentlemen must play Viola. I was thinking Fraser, since he is the most comely when dressed in women’s weeds."
Fraser was soft spoken and when he ever did protest something it meant that it was very important to him. Sadly he said, "Let me not play the maiden again, I prithee, Will. Let me play some man this time."
"You have the smoothest face, Fraser. And the most well-fashioned leg."
"Please, an thou lovest me . . ."
"Nay, 'tis Raymond who loves thee, and whenever and wherever he may."
The company all laughed.
"Even so, let Raymond play the woman this time," Fraser suggested.
"I? Play the woman? A pox on that!" protested Raymond.
"Let the whoreson wretch play my sister. It would serve him right," observed Vance.
"But, you said the brother and sister look alike. I look nothing like Vance. Look you, he is dark and I am fair. And he’s got a nose the size of a bull's pizzle."
"True," Will allowed, "But you two are of a height. And the audience will not care. We need but say that you two look alike, and they’ll buy it. They always do. So, it is settled that Raymond will be the lady, Viola. The story goes thus: Viola is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria and she dresses as a man . . ."
"Like we’ve never heard that before," said Vance.
"Peace, you filthy bung. Let me tell it!" Will finally lost patience with the always-complaining Vance. "She dresses as a man and gets a job serving as eunuch to a Duke, by name Orsino. Viola falls in love with the Duke Orsino. So, you may play the Duke, Fraser, and Raymond may love thee. Like there’s aught unusual in that."
Fraser nodded eagerly. He seldom got the chance to play a male, let alone the romantic lead.
"It still likes me not that Raymond and I should be said to look the same. It defies all reason."
"Vance, an thou dost not hold thy tongue, I'll skewer thee! B'yr Lady, peace!"
"Well, I’ve done," Vance muttered.
"God's body, I hope so. Now, to go on with the story: Orsino thinks Viola is an eunuch. He sends her on his behalf to woo another lady, and that lady will be played by Francisco."
A small, dark young man looked up shyly. "Gladly, Master Will."
"Hey," one of the company called out, "Francisco actually looks like Vance. They should be sister and brother." A general rhubarb of commentary rose up in agreement.
Will sank to his knees on the wooden stage and buried his head in his hands. "Will I never have a chance to tell you all your parts? Mark me, all of you!"
Thus appealed to, the men settled down to pay attention. Will regained his composure and stood back up.
"Orsino, that is Fraser, is in love with the Lady Olivia, that is Francisco, and sends Viola, that is Raymond, to woo her on his behalf. But Olivia falls in love with Viola, thinking she is a man. Later, the brother, Sebastian, and that is Vance, encounters Olivia and she thinks he is Viola. So, you see, everybody gets confused."
"I'm certainly confused," put in Vance, but softly enough that all he got from Will was a dirty look.
"But the four are all wed in the end: Francisco with Vance and Raymond with Fraser. This is the main plot. We have the subplot with a fool, a Puritan and ..."
Will went on to assign the rest of the parts. The play was performed on Twelfth Night in front of Elizabeth the First and she approved of it heartily. After the show, she sent a footman to summon Fraser Benson, who had played a most dashing Orsino, to attend to her in her bedchamber. Unfortunately for the Queen, Fraser's interest lay elsewhere, and thus her the validity of her title, The Virgin Queen, was in no way in jeopardy that night.
Second Inspector Stanislaus Kowalski approached the ghetto gate, as he did every Friday evening, carrying a burlap sack. He walked casually up to the young police constable on duty and waited for Maciek to recognize him. Maciek was no longer under Inspector Kowalski's command. He was one of the Polish State Police on temporary assignment to guard one of the twenty-two entrances to the Jewish ghetto, but he still respected and obeyed his former commander. Even so, Kowalski didn't depend on Maciek's loyalty alone to help him get into the ghetto every Friday at suppertime.
"I'll have to look inside that, sir," Maciek announced in a loud, officious voice but he winked at Inspector Kowalski as he said this.
Kowalski opened the sack and Maciek shifted his rifle to his left arm while rummaging with his right hand through the sack. He looks like me fifteen years ago, Kowalski thought, as he watched Maciek pocket the half dozen packages of cigarettes he found. There was also, as there was every week, a plucked, raw chicken at the bottom of the bag, which Maciek understood was to be left there.
"Got a nice Jewess on the inside, sir?" the soldier asked with a friendly leer.
It wasn't unusual for high-ranking police officers to come and go from the ghetto at night. They paid their visits to Jewesses desperate to get more food for their families, or, lately, to keep them from being taken in the deportation trains. This latter favour no officer could really supply, but then who cared? It wasn't as though a Jewess were in any position to make reprisals for a broken promise. Some of them were high class, too - respectable women: modest matrons and demure daughters who wouldn't have dreamed of taking a lover in the old days.
"A real beauty," Kowalski grinned back at the eager boy.
He wasn't lying. Victoria Frimml was considered beautiful by most people who knew her. She didn't look too Jewish, any more than her husband, Benjamin, did, except that they both had dark hair. Victoria was thin and lanky. Kowalski had no real interest in any woman but he did think she’d look all the better for some meat on her bones. Well, there wasn’t much chance of her or Benjamin getting much plumper now that they had to live in the ghetto.
For years Kowalski had gone to the home of his best friend and his wife for Friday night dinner. Benjamin Frimml was formerly Police Corporal Frimml, Kowalski's assistant and confidant. Now Frimml and his wife were just two more Jews in the ghetto - two more waiting to be taken away, deported. But the tradition of Sabbath dinner continued even though the Frimmls had lost their house and were crowded into the ghetto with the rest of Warsaw's Jews.
Corporal Frimml and his wife used to serve Kowalski huge meals on Friday night. Now if Victoria wanted to cook a chicken she had to depend on their old friend to bring them one from the outside. Otherwise they would have to eat what the Frimmls could buy, and that wasn't much anymore. The new tradition was that Kowalski brought the chicken and Victoria cooked it while the men exchanged news of the week before dinner.
"They don't expect much, do they?" the young soldier said with a chuckle and waved Kowalski through the gate with a brief swing of his rifle.
They don't expect anything, Kowalski thought, as he went through the gate in the wall that kept the Jews separate from the decent Poles of Warsaw. They never ask me for anything. That's Benjamin - too proud to ask. Even the chicken I bring for Victoria to cook us every week, even that makes him uncomfortable.
But tonight I'm bringing them something else, something they can't refuse. I'm bringing them the truth. I'll tell Benjamin and he'll help me work out a plan to save them. Benjamin’s smart. He's smarter than me. Together we'll work out some plan. I can't let Benjamin die. I love him. He'll never know how much I love him. That's for me to know and keep secret.
Victoria let him into the Frimml's dingy, two-room apartment and squealed with delight to see him. They hugged and kissed first before Kowalski handed over the sack. Victoria chirped with delight, feigning surprise as usual, and gave him another peck on the cheek before retreating with her prize to the kitchen. "Now you boys have a nice gossip while I get supper ready."
Frimml and Kowalski sat in the other room of the apartment. It served as living room, dining room and bedroom. There were four other such apartments on this second floor of what was once a grand house. Four families shared the toilet on the corridor. Victoria considered herself lucky to have her own tiny kitchen, which she shared only with the cockroaches.
In the living room/bedroom were the few pieces of furniture the Frimmls hadn't sold: a solid dining table of carved oak surrounded by six matching chairs, and a bed, also old and expensive. The room wasn't really big enough to hold even these few remnants of their old life.
For a while they did gossip, in the sense that Kowalski brought his friend up to date on the latest doings in Kowalski's unit. Frimml always wanted to know what was going on. Kowalski figured it helped make him still feel like a policeman and not a loathed outcast.
They sipped vodka as they talked. Kowalski nursed a few millilitres in the bottom of his glass and brought the glass to his lips every now and then to make Frimml think he was, indeed, drinking.
"Let me bring you some more vodka next week," Kowalski pleaded with his friend.
Frimml made his habitual half-smile. "I wouldn't think of it. You're also low on rations on the outside."
"A policeman can always get vodka. Please, Benjamin. Let me do this for you."
Frimml only widened his smile. "I wouldn't let you bring the chicken if it weren't so important to Victoria."
Kowalski looked down, avoiding his friend’s eyes. Benjamin understood that gesture meant Kowalski wanted to talk of something serious. He took another sip of his vodka and leaned forward to listen.
"Benjamin, I found out where the deportation trains are going," Kowalski said, lowering his voice.
"About that, you don’t need to whisper, Stanislaus. We know."
Kowalski was shocked. As far as he knew, the death camps were a dark secret. Very few who weren't directly involved were supposed to know, but Kowalski had overheard fellow officers talk about it. "You know?"
"Word gets around," said Frimml, casually. "We've known for a couple of weeks now. I didn't want to upset you by talking about it. There's nothing you can do."
"Don't say that! I'm going to get you out!" Kowalski cried out. Then he added, "You and Victoria."
Frimml remained calm. "I don't think so. When we first found out, I tried to think of a way you could get us out of the ghetto. I stayed up nights, thinking. Anything you tried to do would get you in trouble. You'd be 'deported' yourself in the end."
"They'll take you away and send you to the camps. You'll die there. I can't let that happen." It was Kowalski who sounded desperate, not his doomed friend.
Frimml took another drink of vodka. That's when Kowalski noticed that he had been drinking this evening as he used to, as though he had as much vodka as he wanted at his disposal. Not at all as though he were saving any for later.
"If we only died there, we'd be lucky," Frimml remarked and took a gulp of his drink, "Vicki’s so beautiful. They wouldn’t kill her right away. They'd use her first."
And you, too, thought Kowalski. My sweet, lovely friend. Yes, they'd use you. And you know it.
"I can't happen," breathed Kowalski, "I won’t let it happen."
"It won't happen. I'm not going to let my wife suffer that. I have a plan."
Wild hope filled Kowalski. "I knew you'd think of something. You're so smart!" In the privacy of his thoughts he added: And beautiful. How can I help but love you? You'll find a way to save alive. Because that's all that matters. I'll never have you but you must stay alive. And your wife, too, for your sake. Because you love her.
"What plan? Can I help?"
Frimml picked up the vodka bottle and refilled his own glass. Then he poured vodka into Kowalski's glass, emptying the bottle. "That's the last of it," he muttered to himself as he set the bottle down.
Then he spoke to Kowalski, "Yes, you're going to help."
"Tell me! How? When?"
"After dinner I'll explain it," Frimml assured him. Then he stood up, took Kowalski by the arms and eased him to his feet. Still gripping Kowalski's arms, he looked straight into his friend's eyes and said, quietly, "We’ll have a nice dinner. We'll have wine. I was saving it for a special occasion. Then I'll tell you the plan."
These days Kowalski only ate a token bit of the food served him on Friday night dinners. They always ate sparingly, knowing the leftovers would feed Benjamin and Victoria Frimml for a couple of days afterwards. So Kowalski was astonished to see Frimml shovel big chunks of meat into his mouth that evening.
This was so out of the ordinary that Kowalski had to blurt out, "You're hungry tonight, Benjamin."
"Tonight is special," said Victoria. She leaned to kiss her husband. Frimml shifted his face as his wife’s lips came near. They kissed full on the lips, long and hard as though Kowalski were not in the room. Then, they broke off.
"Tonight is special," Frimml agreed, his eyes still locked on his wife even though their lips had separated. Then he gave his head a little shake, and turned back to Kowalski.
"You eat up, too, Stanislaus. I want us to have a good meal for once. Eat. I don't want any leftovers tonight."
This had to do with the escape plan, Kowalski decided. His friend was smart and he had a plan. Kowalski played along. "So where's the wine? You promised me wine."
Frimml took another big bite, chewed, and swallowed before answering. "So I did. After we eat, my friend." He looked over to Victoria, meeting her gaze yet again.
At length there was nothing left of the chicken, bread and potatoes. In other days Victoria filled the table with goodies but these days she tended to serve spare portions of even the potatoes and bread. Except for tonight. Tonight she had been lavish even though the fare was plain.
Victoria cleared the table and brought back from the kitchen two glasses half-filled with red wine. She set them on the table and then stood back looking seriously at glasses, as though they were some ceremonial objects.
"I lied to you about the wine, I'm afraid," Frimml told Kowalski. "There's not enough for you. Only for Victoria and me. But we want you here with us when we drink it. Don't we Vicki?”
Victoria Frimml nodded slightly. It filled Kowalski with dread.
"You drink first, and I’ll stay with you. Then I'll drink and Stanislaus will stay with me," Frimml said to his wife.
Tears filled the woman's eyes. "Now?"
Frimml stood up and stayed where he was at the other side of the table. "Now. It’s time."
Kowsalski's dread immobilized him. He wanted to shout, "Wait, what about the plan?" But he couldn't move or speak. He sat watching his friend and his wife. With great deliberation, Victoria picked up one of the glasses and downed the wine in a single gulp.
"Good," Frimml said, "now let's go lie down. Stanislaus, if you'll just wait. This won't take long."
The husband and wife moved slowly towards the bed. Frimml lay down first, flat on his back. Victoria snuggled beside him, curled against his body. He moved one arm and encircled her with it. They lay together without moving and still Kowalski did not know what was going on.
After a time, Frimml gently dislodged his arm from under his wife's neck and sat up. He opened one of her eyes and then eased it shut. (Her face had been buried into his side, so until then Kowalski hadn't known her eyes were closed.) Then Frimml lifted her thin wrist and held it.
Then, Kowalski knew. He'd been stupid with fear until then, or maybe he just hadn't wanted to believe. He jumped to his feet and screamed, "No! Benjamin, no!"
Frimml bent over his wife's face and kissed her forehead. "Wait for me, Vicki." Then to Kowalski he said, "There's no other way, my friend. My dear friend. Victoria's so beautiful. I couldn't let her suffer what would come. And I'm not going to leave her alone. We've decided to escape together."
"No!" Kowalski lunged forward and grabbed Frimml in his arms. "No! Benjamin, I won't let you!"
Frimml was as calm and kindly as a man comforting a distraught child. He held Kowalski close. "You wouldn't have me leave Victoria alone, would you?"
Kowalski fell crying onto his beloved friend's chest. "You had a plan. You said you had a plan."
Frimml caressed Kowalski's hair. "This IS the plan. I waited and watched to make sure Victoria got away safely. Now you do the same for me. I sent her on ahead, that's all."
"Don't do it, Benjamin," Kowalski sobbed. "I love you." He blurted the secret out. Even in his distress he shuddered at the enormity of what he had let slip. He squeezed Frimml more tightly, then suddenly pushed his friend away and dove for the remaining wine glass. Don't let him get it! Don't let Benjamin drink it! He knocked the glass over, spilling the poisoned wine onto the big oak table.
Frimml was only an instant behind him. He shoved Kowalski aside, bent down over the table and started licking the spilled wine. Kowalski grabbed him from behind, trying to pull him away but Frimml, despite the privations of ghetto life, was still a sturdier man than Kowalski and stayed by the table, chasing with his tongue every drop of the spilled liquid he could see. Then, with Kowalski still clinging to him, he straightened.
"I love you," Kowalski repeated, his grief pushing aside any shame.
Frimml turned around and faced him. "Come sit with me." He took Kowalski by the hand and led him towards the bed where his wife lay waiting for Frimml to join her. Kowalski let himself be taken. Frimml lay down on the bed, still holding Kowalski's hand.
"I love you," Kowalski couldn't help repeating. What was there left for him to say?
"I know," said Frimml. "My dear friend, how could I not know?" Frimml drew Kowalski's hand to his own face and kissed his friend's palm. He continued to clutch Kowalski's hand. "I sent Victoria ahead so I could tell you this without her ever knowing. Why should she know? It would only hurt her."
Kowalski sat down with Frimml and pressed his free hand against his friend's face.
"She's the only woman I ever loved," Frimml confessed. "I was a good husband to her. But there was always you. I love you, Stanislaus."
Tears, too many for his eyes to handle, pressed from behind Kowsalski's eyes, throbbed in his head and filled his throat.
"I didn't want to leave without telling you the truth. I couldn't tell you before but now I can because now it doesn't matter anymore." said Frimml and then closed his eyes. He held tightly to Kowalski's hand. Then, after a moment, his grip loosened.
"It matters," Kowalski choked, "My Benjamin. My love. It always matters."
Two lovers cuddle in the night. They have made love and now they rest, sharing soft talk and warmth of each other’s arms.
"You know, Fraser, sometimes I feel like I've known you, like, ages and ages."
"If you've known me that long, Ray, you could start calling me by my first name."
"Your first name is stupid. Benton. I think I called you that, like, once."
"Yes, just once. The first day we met, after you took that bullet for me, you called me 'Benton, buddy'."
"Get out! I never."
"Ray, you did call me that. I remember distinctly."
"No, I mean I didn't take any bullet for you. She shot at me, specifically."
"After you stepped in front of me. Maybe you don't remember."
"I remember everything about that day. Everything. Like, I had to get shot for you to finally call me 'Ray'."
"I still call you 'Ray', so to make it equitable if you wanted to call me . . ."
" . . . 'Benton buddy'? Pass on that. Never mind about the names. What I'm trying to tell you is I feel like we've known each other a lot longer than just a couple of months."
"Maybe we have. There are some cultures that believe in re-incarnation."
"Yeah, but we don't belong to one of those cultures."
"We may have, once."
"Okay, you’re getting metaphysical on me."
(Well, actually, the middle but that's all for now.)