The lambskin pouch dangled from his waist, bouncing against his belly as he walked through the medina, the thirty silver coins inside jingling noisily. Beggars held out palms, but the man shuffled past them, slapping them away. He threaded his way through the maze of narrow streets, his sandaled feet kicking up dust from the filthy worn stories. He walked at a feverish pace, not quite running, his strides long, unbroken.
Small stores and stalls flanked the street on either side of him. Heads turned as he passed. Eyes stole glances when they thought he was unaware.
Did they know?
He started moving faster. There was something that cleaved between the agitated man and his mad shadow. He couldn't escape it. It flowed up and over him. A guilt he could not deny. It was almost tangible.
The streets seemingly went nowhere. They narrowed to slits, to alleys. The man took each turn blindly, not daring to stop, constantly moving.
Around one corner. Then another. Through a gate. A courtyard. Around another corner.
He disappeared behind a double row of tents, huddling in the shadows. He saw eyes everywhere. The smell of charcoal braziers, of baking bread, hung in the air above him, but all the bread in Galilee would not feed his starving soul. The man knew there was no refuge, nowhere to hide.
Where does one go to hide when it is himself he is hiding from?
The man stepped out from behind the tents. There, in the shadows of an alley directly across from him, stood a woman. A child really, no more than thirteen. Has she been watching me all this time? the man asked himself, and he knew she had.
He turned to flee, but something stopped him, held him. The child-woman’s face was buoyed there in the shadows, suspended in the darkness as if it were floating on water. She seemed so near, yet so unattainable. They stood watching one another for a long while. The child-woman’s eyes never left him.
He stared at her coral-colored robe, at the small movement of her hips beneath it. A faint light seeped through the weave of the fabric. She lifted the hem of her garment, sliding the cloth teasingly along her leg. Her hand made a brief, suggestive gesture.
The man felt a rush of excitement, urgent, instant.
The child-woman moved toward him possessively. There was a smile for him in her eyes. The man knew it was deceitful, but still, it was a smile, and in that he took his urgently sought refuge.
The child-woman whispered a few short words into the man’s ear, giggling. She was so young. She moved away from him, beckoning.
"Come," she said in a velvety, belltoned voice, “. . . come. . . .”
The man hesitated and looked around. Then, nodding wordlessly, he followed her.
The childwoman smiled triumphantly.
She took him through a doorway that no longer framed a door, a rectangular ghost. A blanket hung there for privacy. The man stepped along tiles, past cracked and riven walls, down stained steps.
He had never been to a place like this before. It was a secret place, a place of secret desires, secret passions. A candle burned, yellowing the transparent gloom.
The childwoman sat down on a bed of straw with her legs spread wide. Exposed. The man stared past her pointed breasts at her round full throat. He weakened all at once. He dropped his robe to the floor. He was naked save for the lambskin pouch tied around his waist.
The woman closed her eyes. The smile was gone. The Sin had begun.
The man struggled into her, the piercing tip of him parting muscles, opening her. He felt her breath rasping upon his cheek as he moved deeper and deeper into her. She kissed him swiftly, hungrily. But the man would not, could not, kiss her back. For that very day he had betrayed the one he loved with a kiss. And it was that effort of love, that solitary kiss, that had condemned him. Damned him forever.
The man's sunken eyes merely stared down at the female under him, her candlelit cheekbones slick with sweat. Those scarlet lips which slashed across the unmarked whiteness of her fare looked like spilled blood.
He plunged into her with a hurrying, frenzied rhythm. He fell, rose on his knees, fell again. She
lifted to him, arching her back, meeting his thrusts with heavy hips. The bedding straw crunched monotonously with each stab. She cried out. The pain itself had become sweet. He tried to prolong it, gauging himself, feeling rapacious, excitement building. Flies swarmed in the heat before the man's eyes. Buzzing. Hypnotic.
In that charade of love, in the heat of their forbidden passion, the lambskin pouch sandwiched between them mingled with the sweat and juices that poured out of every opening, the coins burrowing into the childwoman's flesh, forging something unspeakable.
The room began to slide past him, breaking up. His breath choked in his throat. Everything went loose inside him. He trembled, shuddered.
And in that millisecond of consummation it was unleashed. At that exact instant, scattered throughout the world, thirty women breached, gave birth, each at the precise moment the others did. None of the women realized what they had unknowingly taken part in; what they had bestowed on an unsuspecting and unprepared world. No one could suspect that the newly born infants that suckled at their breasts after uttering their first cries were each part of a conspiracy, and that the leader of that conspiracy, who lay panting on a bed of straw thousands of miles away, was the one true father of them all.
When the man was finished, spent, he dressed. The childwoman slid her feet to the floor, sat up gracelessly on the bed. She winced. The pouch had irritated her, broken skin. She was bleeding. Three Xshaped welts were already beginning to form on her belly.
She looked up from the wound and thrust out her hand.
The man reached into his bosom and fumbled with the pouch. It was warm, thick and greasy with sweat. He loosened the sash and withdrew one of the thirty silver coins. He went to pay the childwoman, looked down at her outstretched hand, and saw a hideous hallucination, a vision of things to come.
The silver coin had become a nail. A nail that pierced the center of the childwoman's palm.
The man began to wail, a horrid broken scream shattering in his ears. He clenched the coin and ran. He ran stumbling, weaving, mounting steps, that dreadful wail carrying him out into the accusing light of day.
The childwoman ran to the door, pulled aside the curtain, covered her nakedness.
Her lips parted. She called the man by name.
Then it happened—with blinding suddenness.
The man woke, gasping for breath, heart tripping, blinking in the darkness, the silence rushing at him like some unleashed beast.
Beside him the black than awakened and saw the mortal terror mirrored in his companion's haunted blue eyes. He took him in his arms and felt him tremble.
For one endless decade the vacuous cries, that lament of something unburied, had plagued the man, tormented him. They were with him constantly, in sleep. In wake. But now, across the emptiness, in the ruin of his mind, the cries attenuated, spiraling upward. The silence that filled the void of the child's wails deafened his ears. A silence so absolute it shook him.
The only thing worse than hearing the child's anguish was not hearing it at all. The man knew what the silence meant. Feared it. The rapture that through the years had compelled him, on the borderline of madness, across oceans and continents,through jungles and cities, had finally brought him to this great metropolis, to this city of New York, and the last of the Judas Children.
It would end here, he knew. It was inevitable. It was only a matter of time.
“He’s here, Joseph,” he whispered t the black man who cradled him. “His time in the world has come. Matthew is with us again.” He covered his face in the cup of a hand, breath faltering, moisture tracing his eyes. “We must find, Joseph. All our efforts will be undone if we do not stop him. He is the last hope of their kind. We must crush that hope before it is too late. Now comes the most difficult part of all. But this time it will not be out of hate and fear . . . this time it will be with love.”
His eyes sank, reverent. And he wept, knowing the end was near, that very soon now he would be reunited with his son after those twelve long years.