Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal Chapter 15
Joshua and Balthasar rode into Kabul at a time of night when only cutthroats and whores were about (the whores offering the “cutthroat discount” after midnight to promote business). The old wizard had fallen asleep to the rhythm of his camel’s loping gait, an act that nearly baffled Joshua as much as the whole demon business, as he spent most of his time on camelback trying not to upchuck – seasickness of the desert, they call it. Joshua flicked the old man’s leg with the loose end of his camel’s bridle, and the magus came awake snorting.
“What is it? Are we there?”
“Can you control the demon, old man? Are we close enough for you to regain control?”
Balthasar closed his eyes and Joshua thought that he might be going to sleep again, except his hands began to tremble with some unseen effort. After a few seconds he opened his eyes again. “I can’t tell.”
“Well, you could tell that he was out.”
“That was like a wave of pain in my soul. I’m not in intimate contact with the demon at all times. We are probably too far away still.”
“Horses,” Joshua said. “They’ll be faster. Let’s go wake up the stable master.” Joshua led them through the streets to the stable where we had boarded our camels when we came to town to heal the blinded bandit. There were no lamps burning inside, but a half-naked whore posed seductively in the doorway.
“Special for cutthroats,” she said in Latin. “Two for one, but no refunds if the old man can’t do the business.”
It had been so long since he’d heard the language that it took Joshua a second to respond. “Thank you, but we’re not cutthroats,” Joshua said. He stepped past her and pounded on the door. She ran a fingernail down his back as he waited.
“What are you? Maybe there’s another special.”
Joshua didn’t even look back. “He’s a two-hundred-and-sixty-year-old wizard and I’m either the Messiah or a hopeless faker.”
“Uh, yeah, I think there is a special rate for fakers, but the wizard has to pay full price.”
Joshua could hear stirring inside of the stable master’s house and a voice calling for him to hold his horses, which is what stable masters always say when they make you wait. Joshua turned to the whore and touched her gently on the forehead.
“Go, and sin no more,” he said in Latin.
“Right, and what do I do for a living then, shovel shit?”
Just then the stable master threw open the door. He was short and bowlegged and wore a long mustache that made him look like a dried-up catfish. “What is so important that my wife couldn’t handle it?”
The whore ran her nail across the back of Joshua’s neck as she passed him and stepped into the house. “Missed your chance,” she said.
“Woman, what are you doing out here anyway?” asked the stable master.
Joy scurried out onto the landing and pulled a short, broad-bladed black dagger from the folds of her robe. The ends of the rope ladder were swaying in front of her as the monster descended.
“No, Joy,” I said, reaching out to pull her back into the cave. “You can’t hurt it.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
She turned and grinned at me, then ran the dagger twice over the thick ropes on one side leaving it attached by only a few fibers, then she reached up a few rungs and sliced most of the way through the other side of the ladder. I couldn’t believe how easily she’d cut through the rope.
She stepped back into the passageway and held the blade up so it caught the starlight. “Glass,” she said, “from a volcano. It’s a thousand times sharper than any edge on an iron blade.” She put the dagger away and pulled me back into the passageway, just far enough so we could see the entrance and the landing.
I could hear the monster coming closer, then a huge clawed foot appeared in silhouette in the entrance, then the other foot. We held our breath as the monster reached the cut section of the ladder. Nearly a whole massive thigh was visible now, and one of his talonlike hands was reaching down for a new hold when the ladder snapped. Suddenly the monster hung sideways, swinging from his hold on a single rope in front of the entrance. He looked right at us, the fury in his yellow eyes replaced for a moment by confusion. His leathery bat ears rose in curiosity, and he said, “Hey?” Then the second rope snapped and he plunged out of our view.
We ran out to the landing and looked over the edge. It was at least a thousand feet to the floor of the valley. We could only see several hundred feet down in the dark, but it was several hundred feet of cliff face that was conspicuously monsterless.
“Nice,” I said to Joy.
“We need to go. Now.”
“You don’t think that did it?”
“Did you hear anything hit bottom?”
“No,” I said.
“Neither did I,” she said. “We had better get going.”
We’d left the water skins at the top of the plateau and Joy wanted to grab some from the kitchen but I dragged her toward the front entrance by the collar. “We need to get as far away from here as we can. Dying of thirst is the least of my worries.” Once we were in the main area of the fortress there was enough light to negotiate the hallways without a lamp, which was good, because I wouldn’t let Joy stop to light one. As we rounded the stairway to the third level Joy jerked me back, almost off my feet, and I turned around as mad as a cat.
“What? Let’s get out of here!” I screamed at her.
“No, this is the last level with windows. I’m not going through the front door not knowing if that thing is outside it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, it would take a man on a fast horse a half hour to make it around from the other side.”
“But what if it didn’t fall all the way? What if it climbed back up?”
“That would take hours. Come on, Joy. We could be miles away from here by the time he gets here from the other side.”
“No!” She swept my feet out from under me and I landed flat on my back on the stone floor. By the time I was on my feet again she had run through the front chamber and was hanging out the window. As I approached her she held her finger to her lips. “It’s down there, waiting.”
I pulled her aside and looked down. Sure enough, the beast was looming in front of the iron door, waiting to grab the edge in its claws and rip it open as soon as we threw the bolts.
“Maybe it can’t get in,” I whispered. “It couldn’t get through the other iron door.”
“You didn’t understand the symbols all over that room, did you?”
I shook my head.
“They were containment symbols – to contain a djinn, or a demon. The front door doesn’t have any on it. It won’t hold him back.”
“So why isn’t he coming in?”
“Why chase us when we will come right to him?”
Just then the monster looked up and I threw myself back from the window.
“I don’t think he saw me,” I whispered, spraying Joy with spit.
Then the monster began to whistle. It was a happy tune, lighthearted, something like you might whistle while you were polishing the bleached skull of your latest victim. “I’m not stalking anyone or anything,” the monster said, much louder than would have been required had he been talking to himself. “Nope, not me. Just standing here for a second. Oh well, no one is here, I guess I’ll be on my way.” He began to whistle again and we could hear footsteps getting quieter along with the whistling. They weren’t moving away, they were just getting quieter. Joy and I looked out the window to see the huge beast doing an exaggerated pantomime of walking, just as his whistle fizzled.
“What?” I shouted down, angry now. “Did you think we wouldn’t look?”
The monster shrugged. “It was worth a try. I figured I wasn’t dealing with a genius when you opened the door in the first place.”
“What’d he say? What’d he say?” Joy chanted behind me.
“He said he doesn’t think you’re very smart.”
“Tell him that I’m not the one who has spent all these years locked in the dark playing with myself.”
I pulled back from the window and looked at Joy. “Do you think he could fit though this window?”
She eyed the window. “Yes.”
“Then I’m not going to tell him. It might make him angry.”
Joy pushed me aside, stepped up on the windowsill, turned around and faced me, then pulled up her robe and peed backward out the window. Her balance was amazing. From the growling below, I gathered that her accuracy wasn’t bad either. She finished and jumped down. I looked out the window at the monster, who was shaking urine from its ears like a wet dog.
“Sorry,” I said, “language problem. I didn’t know how to translate.”
The monster growled and the muscles in its shoulders tensed beneath the scales, then it let loose with a punch that sent its fist completely through the iron skin of the door.
“Run,” Joy said.
“The passage to the cliff.”
“You cut the ladder.”
“Just run.” She pulled me along behind her, guiding us through the dark as she had before. “Duck,” she shouted, just a second after I realized that we’d entered the smaller passageway by using the sensitive stone-ceiling-sensing nerves in my forehead. We made it halfway down the passageway to the cliff when I heard the monster hit and curse.
There was a pause, then a horrible grinding noise so intense that we had to shield our ears from the assault. Then came the smell of burning flesh.
Dawn broke just as Joshua and Balthasar rode into the canyon entrance to the fortress.
“How about now?” Joshua asked. “Do you feel the demon now?”
Balthasar shook his head balefully. “We’re too late.” He pointed to where the great round door had once stood. Now it was a pile of bent and broken pieces hanging on what was left of the huge hinges.
“What in the name of Satan have you done?” Joshua said. He jumped off his horse and ran into the fortress, leaving the old man to follow as best he could.
The noise in the narrow passageway was so intense that I cut pieces of cloth from my sleeves with Joy’s dagger and stuffed them in our ears. Then I lit one of the fire sticks to see what the monster was doing. Joy and I stood there, gaped-jawed, watching as the beast worried away at the stone of the passage, his claws moving in a blur of speed, throwing smoke and dust and stone shards into the air as he went, his scales burning from the friction and growing back as fast as they burned away. He hadn’t come far, perhaps five feet toward us, but eventually he would widen the passage enough and pull us out like a badger digging termites out of the nest. I could see now how the fortress had been built without tool marks. The creature moved so quickly – literally wearing away the walls with his claws and scales – that the stone was polished as it was cut.
We had already made two ascents up what was left of the ladder to the top of the plateau, only to have the monster come around and chase us back down it before we could get to the road. The second time he pulled the ladder up, then returned to the interior of the fortress to resume his hellish digging.
“I’ll jump before I’ll let that thing get me,” I said to Joy.
She looked over the edge of the cliff into the endless darkness below. “You do that,” she said. “Let me know how it goes.”
“I will, but first I’ll pray.” And I did. I prayed so hard that beads of sweat popped out on my forehead and ran over my tightly closed eyes. I prayed so hard that even the constant screeching of the monster’s scales against the stone was drowned out. For a moment there, I was sure that it was just me and God. As was his habit with me, God remained quiet, and I suddenly realized how frustrated Joshua must have been, asking always for a path to follow, a course of action, and being answered by nothing but silence.
When I opened my eyes again dawn had broken over the cliff and light was streaming into the passageway. By full daylight the demon was even scarier. There was blood and gore all over him from the massacre of the girls, and even as he relentlessly wore away at the stone, flies buzzed around him, but as each tried to light on him it died instantly and fell to the floor. The stench of rotting flesh and burning scales was almost overwhelming, and that alone nearly sent me over the side of the cliff. The beast was only three or four cubits out of reach from us, and every few minutes he would rear back, then throw his claw forward to try and grab at us.
Joy and I huddled on the landing over the cliff face, looking for any purchase, any handhold that would get us away from the beast: up, down, or sideways across the cliff face. The fear of heights had suddenly become very minor.
I was beginning to be able to feel the breeze from the monster’s talons as he lunged into the narrow opening at us when I heard Balthasar’s deep bass shout from behind the beast. The monster filled the whole opening so I couldn’t see behind it, but he turned around and his spade-tipped tail whipped around us, nearly lacerating our skin as it passed. Joy drew the glass knife from her robe and slashed at the tail, nicking the scales but apparently not causing the monster enough trouble to turn around.
“Balthasar will tame you, you son of a shit-eating lizard!” Joy screamed.
Just then something came shooting through the opening and we ducked out of the way as it sailed into space and fell out of sight to the canyon floor, screeching like a falcon on the dive.
“What was that?” Joy was trying to squint into infinity to see what the monster had thrown.
“That was Balthasar,” I said.
“Oops,” said Joy.
Joshua yanked the great spade-tipped tail and the demon swung around with a ferocious snarl. Joshua held on to the tail even as the demon’s claws whistled by his face.
“What is your name, demon?” Joshua said.
“You won’t live long enough to say it,” said the demon. He raised his claw again to strike.
Joshua yanked his tail and the demon froze. “No. That’s not right. What is your name?”
“My name is Catch,” said the demon, dropping his arm to his side in surrender. “I know you. You’re the kid, aren’t you? They used to talk about you in the old days.”
“Time for you to go home,” Joshua said.
“Can’t I eat those two outside on the ledge first?”
“No. Satan awaits you.”
“They are really irritating. She peed on me.”
“I’d be doing you a favor.”
“You don’t want to hurt them now, do you?”
The demon laid his ears back and bowed his enormous head. “No. I don’t want to hurt them.”
“You’re not angry anymore,” Joshua said.
The monster shook his head, he was already bent nearly double in the narrow passage, but now he prostrated himself before Joshua and covered his eyes with his claws.
“Well, I’m still angry!” Balthasar screamed. Joshua turned to see the old man covered with blood and dirt, his clothes torn from where his broken bones had ripped through them on impact. He was healed now, only minutes after the fall, but not much better for having made the trip.
“You survived that fall?”
“I told you, as long as the demon is on earth, I’m immortal. But that was a first, he’s never been able to hurt me before.”
“He won’t again.”
“You have control over him? Because I don’t.”
Joshua turned around and put his hand on the demon’s head. “This evil creature once beheld the face of God. This monster once served in heaven, obtained beauty, lived in grace, walked in light. Now he is the instrument of suffering. He is hideous of aspect and twisted in nature.”
“Hey, watch it,” said the demon.
“What I was going to say is that you can’t blame him for what he is. He has never had what you or any other human has had. He has never had free will.”
“That is so sad,” said the demon.
“One moment, Catch, I will let you taste that which you have never known. For one moment I will grant you free will.”
The demon sobbed. Joshua took his hand from the demon’s head, then dropped his tail and walked out of the narrow passageway into the fortress hall.
Balthasar stood beside him, waiting for the demon to emerge from the passageway.
“Are you really able to do that? Give him free will?”
“We’ll see, won’t we?”
Catch crawled out of the passageway and stood up, now just ducking his head. Great viscous tears rolled down his scaled cheeks, over his jaws, and dripped to the stone floor, where they sizzled like acid. “Thank you,” he growled.
“Free will,” Balthasar said. “How does that make you feel?”
The demon snatched up the old man like a rag doll and tucked him under his arm. “It makes me feel like throwing you off the fucking cliff again.”
“No,” said Joshua. He leapt forward and touched the demon’s chest. In that instant the air popped as the vacuum where the demon had stood was filled. Balthasar fell to the floor and groaned.
“Well, that free will thing wasn’t such a great idea,” said Balthasar.
“Sorry. Compassion got the better of me.”
“I don’t feel well,” the magus said. He sat down hard on the floor and let out a long dry rasp of breath.
Joy and I came out of the passage to find Joshua bent over Balthasar, who was actively aging as we looked on.
“He’s two hundred and sixty years old,” Joshua said. “With Catch gone, his age is catching up.”
The wizard’s skin had gone ashen and the whites of his eyes were yellow. Joy sat on the floor and gently cradled the old man’s head in her lap.
“Where’s the monster?” I asked.
“Back in hell,” Joshua said. “Help me get Balthasar to his bed. I’ll explain later.”
We carried Balthasar to his bedchamber, where Joy tried to pour some broth into him, but he fell asleep with the bowl at his lips.
“Can you help him?” I asked no one in particular.
Joy shook her head. “He’s not sick. He’s just old.”
“It is written, ‘To every thing there is a season,'” Joshua said. “I can’t change the seasons. Balthasar’s time has come round at last.” Then he looked at Joy and raised his eyebrows. “You peed on the demon?”
“He had no right to complain. Before I came here I knew a man in Hunan who’d pay good money for that.”
Balthasar lingered for ten more days, toward the end looking more like a skeleton wrapped in old leather than a man. In his last days he begged Joshua to forgive him his vanity and he called us to his bedside over and over to tell us the same things, as he would forget what he’d told us only a few hours before.
“You will find Gaspar in the Temple of the Celestial Buddha, in the mountains to the east. There is a map in the library. Gaspar will teach you. He is truly a wise man, not a charlatan like me. He will help you become the man you need to be to do what you must do, Joshua. And Biff, well, you might not turn out terrible. It’s cold where you are going. Buy furs along the way, and trade the camels for the woolly ones with two humps.”
“He’s delirious,” I said.
Joy said, “No, there really are woolly camels with two humps.”
“Joshua,” Balthasar called. “If nothing else, remember the three jewels.” Then the old man closed his eyes and stopped breathing.
“He dead?” I asked.
Joshua put his ear to the old man’s heart. “He’s dead.”
“What was that about three jewels?”
“The three jewels of the Tao: compassion, moderation, and humility. Balthasar said compassion leads to courage, moderation leads to generosity, and humility leads to leadership.”
“Sounds wonky,” I said.
“Compassion,” Joshua whispered, nodding toward Joy, who was silently crying over Balthasar.
I put my arm around her shoulders and she turned and sobbed into my chest. “What will I do now? Balthasar is dead. All of my friends are dead. And you two are leaving.”
“Come with us,” Joshua said.
“Uh, sure, come with us.”
But Joy did not come with us. We stayed in Balthasar’s fortress for another six months, waiting for winter to pass before we went into the high mountains to the east. I cleaned the blood from the girls’ quarters while Joy helped Joshua to translate some of Balthasar’s ancient texts. The three of us shared our meals, and occasionally Joy and I would have a tumble for old times’ sake, but it felt as if the life had gone out of the place. When it came time for us to leave, Joy told us of her decision.
“I can’t go with you to find Gaspar. Women are not allowed in the monastery, and I have no desire to live in the backwater village nearby. Balthasar has left me much gold, and everything in the library, but it does me no good out here in the mountains. I will not stay in this tomb with only the ghosts of my friends for company. Soon Ahmad will come, as he does every spring, and I will have him help me take the treasure and the scrolls to Kabul, where I will buy a large house and hire servants and I will have them bring me young boys to corrupt.”
“I wish I had a plan,” I said.
“Me too,” said Josh.
The three of us celebrated Joshua’s eighteenth birthday with the traditional Chinese food, then the next morning Joshua and I packed up the camels and prepared to head east.
“Are you sure you’ll be all right until Ahmad comes?” Joshua asked Joy.
“Don’t worry about me, you go learn to be a Messiah.” She kissed him hard on the lips. He squirmed to get loose from her and he was still blushing as he climbed onto his camel.
“And you,” she said to me, “you will come to see me in Kabul on your way back to Israel or I will put such a curse on you as you’ll never be free of it.” She took the little ying-yang vial full of poison and antidote from around her neck and put it around mine. It might have seemed a strange gift to anyone else, but I was the sorceress’s apprentice and it seemed perfect to me. She tucked the black glass knife into my sash. “No matter how long it takes, come back and see me. I promise I won’t paint you blue again.”
I promised her and we kissed and I climbed on my camel and Joshua and I rode off. I tried not to look back, once again, to another woman who had stolen my heart.
We rode a half a furlong apart, each of us considering the past and future of our lives, who we had been and who we were going to be, and it was a couple of hours before I caught up with Joshua and broke the silence.
I thought of how Joy had taught me to read and speak Chinese, to mix potions and poisons, to cheat at gambling, to perform slight of hand, and where and how to properly touch a woman. All of it without expecting anything in return. “Are all women stronger and better than me?”
“Yes,” he said.
It was another day before we spoke again.
Torah! Torah! Torah!
WAR CRY OF THE KAMIKAZE RABBIS