When the evening had come, there came a rich man of Arimathea named Joseph, who himself also was Jesus’s disciple. He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered. And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and departed. And Mary Magdalene was there.
— Matthew 27:57–61
—SCARF ACROSS YOUR FACE, eyes red, you’ve been crying, Maryam, why have you been crying
there’s someone leaning against the door behind you, someone afraid to come in, but you aren’t afraid, you fling your hands over your mouth like I’ve seen you do a thousand times, you cross the room and put your hands on my body and they’re hot, why are your hands so hot
this body is in ruins, I see that now
a coil of intestine hangs out of my side and strips of muscle are peeling off my back and cracked bones in my hands and feet have come through the skin and there’s a streak of shit down one leg, but you don’t recoil from the stiffness of my body or the crusted blood or the smell of excrement, you put your mouth close to my tattered ear like I’m sleeping and you’re rousing me and you whisper, Rabboni.
you turn to the other man and say, How did you—?
I don’t recognize the man in the shadows, don’t know whether they’re my private shadows or the earth’s shadows, don’t know what time it is, day or night
For a price they’ll do anything, he says, anything, except—
I should bring his mother, you say
Let me, he says, We haven’t got much time. There’s a place in the garden. Before dawn we should — if we don’t want them to come and nail him back up.
I remember now what I had forgotten
and you set aside your scarf and fold up the sleeves of your robe
I need water, you say, and linen.
the man calls beyond the door, he lays a hand on my forehead and with the other tries to shut my jaw, wrenched open and unmovable
I hate to see his face like this.
Don’t, you say, I’ll wrap it.
he fades and returns with the smell of resin, the smell makes me think of my mother’s collection of treasures and my father’s too-early death
Not enough, the man says, I’m sorry.
you say, It will be enough.
I said that a hundred times when we were hungry or thirsty, sober when we should have been drunk, awake when we should have been dreaming — It will be enough. — we’ve traded speech, you and I, we’ve infected each other with our meaningless individuality these past months, Maryam and Yeshua, Yeshua and Maryam
the man turns and you put your hands on his shoulders and say, Thank you, Yousef, but Yousef is shaking and you make a sound like a mother comforting her child in the night and he swallows his sob and runs out the door
but still you don’t cry
you turn and look at me, you look and you look and what can I do, unable to move or speak, taken beyond life, I’m pierced, I feel it in my hands and my feet, a burning ring around my scalp, maybe it’s shame for this ruin of a body, maybe shame for how little I know, how much I want your warm hands on my skin again, the things I’ve always wanted, the shame I’ve always carried, and you lean forward on your elbows, hands and face smelling of lemon, and the half-moon scar above your lip, the chipped tooth, these details make me — what is the feeling — homesick for your smile, the best of all smiles, Maryam, you smile more than any of us for the least cause, you smile like a child who hasn’t yet learned, but the thing is you have learned, and still you—
the servant boy comes in with jugs and soap and oil, you kneel and tell him not to be afraid, death isn’t anything to fear, it will come to us all in the end and despite what my body looks like it will come peacefully like sleep, Maryam, you tell him so certainly I almost believe you even though that isn’t what you said to me last night when the storm broke between your smiles and you told me I was an idiot, I’d thought maybe you would weep or pound my chest, beg me or kiss me, but you didn’t, you rolled your tongue over your teeth and asked, Why?
now you circle my body, examining what’s left of me, I have nothing to hide behind, no wish anymore to hide, only a wish to — but no, that’s all lost now, you lift the first jug and the water comes down, so warm, why did the servant boy bother to warm it, doesn’t the servant know I can’t feel it
yet I do feel it
the man in the river poured water over me, baptized me, but the water was shallow and muddy and he held me under so long I opened my eyes and the sun was turning everything to gold, I hadn’t met you yet
or maybe that’s now and you’re baptizing me, maybe the story is beginning all over again
you take a rag and start at my feet, there’s nothing tender about how you scrub, it must be how you scrub yourself, quickly and thoroughly and absently like you’ve done it a thousand times
I remember the first time you washed my feet there was an earthquake, I’d thought it was a private earthquake, but Shimon showed me a crack in the wall that hadn’t been there and we were drunk so we laughed about it, we were always laughing, but we stopped when you arrived, when you bent down to wash my feet and the others hooted and catcalled and I snapped at them and your hands took the skin off my heels and the oil ran slick and your hair was heavy in my lap and you looked up and it was not repentance but triumph I saw in your face, you were kneeling and amid your triumph you bent and kissed my left foot and I felt your weakness there, in the trace of spittle you left behind — Maryam — I have nothing but I still have this memory, it lives in every part of this ruined body, how can a man be memory and nothing more
that’s what I’ll leave behind and what I’ll take with me, the feeling of your mouth, the damp heat, the closest to eternity we came, and I sat there like a fool knowing I had nothing to offer the world beyond what you’d offered me, I sat there dreaming of arthritis and grandchildren and a hot sun coming through a window, you and I grousing about the Roman occupation as we emptied a wineskin, grousing about the priest and his irrelevance, complaints empty of fire or need, bodies happy in the long wait for death
that was the residue of my lust, the thing that made me stand and pace later, the dream of making love to you in old age, the splay of your withered legs, the dream of a long quiet life
you exhale and I smell your breath, there’s something there, a memory, I search but the mind too is growing cold
what is it on your breath
a memory, roasted lamb, walnuts and dates and spices, all of us stretched out at a table, wine and laughter and certainty, you mocking pious Mattay for his awkwardness, he had never before eaten in the presence of a woman
I try to work it out, what happened after, what you did that adds up to the smell of roast lamb on your breath, but you’ve always been the practical one, when we were run out of town or mobbed you’d clap your hands and say, What about an inn? I know a place, not far, or, There’s a grove. Let’s sleep. I know a woman in the next village. We’ll bring water and bread. you always knew someone or something we didn’t because you grew up untethered to home or family and knowing things meant surviving things, like today you knew you’d have to console the others, wail the wails that must be wailed, negotiate for those still held at the governor’s office, and how to do everything on an empty stomach
Let me tell you about Magdala, you say, like we’re stretched out under the olive trees and the future is still a question, I didn’t tell you about my birthplace before because we were so seldom alone. The others wouldn’t have understood, and I knew you would’ve, but that’s the curse, isn’t it? The ones who understand are kept apart from us, and so we hold our stories in, and they burn us up little by little.
I want to agree with you, I want to nod
you dry your hands on your robe and pull your hair into a knot and say, I was there first. With my father. We sold fish in the market. Sometimes we sold five fish in a day, and my father smiled, and we ate so much bread I thought our bellies would burst. We caught the fish together, and I didn’t care that I had to cut their heads off because I loved to see my father smile. There was a place between buildings where we’d warm our hands over a fire, until soldiers came and chased us off. Then my father was gone, and I didn’t know if they’d arrested him or killed him or if the sea had killed him or if he’d killed himself. I threw away the fishing net and sat with my hand out or stuck in my pocket. I measured the days like this: full belly or empty belly. One day an uncle came and found a way to fill his conscience and his purse by cleaning me up and dressing me up and selling me to an old man.
the first man you married, I was always afraid to ask how you felt as a girl of twelve waiting for the old man to come in and strip off your wedding clothes and break open your child’s body, how you felt later as a girl pretending to be a woman, meeting a boy who gave you reason to show your teeth in a thousand smiles, or, later still, your lover gone, stepping over your husband’s stiff unwashed body as you went back to the street with his money in your pocket—
before you can tell me the rest, the servant boy reappears carrying not water but wine, he sets the cup in the midst of my stale blood, when he’s gone you smell it and I envy you the smelling, I envy the way your hair is soaking the sweat off your forehead, as if you hear me you dip two fingers in the wine and put them into my mouth and let the wine trickle down my useless tongue, still covered with vinegar from earlier, what did I tell the others
The next time I taste wine, we’ll be drinking it together in the new kingdom.
and so we are
you take your rag and find the hole in my gut and I thank God’s Name I’m dead and don’t have to feel the way you scrub at the torn skin
I went to the governor, you say, last night, after they arrested you. No one could speak to me. It was too late. The governor had retired. You know how servants are. I stood by the door and shouted until the whole building was awake, and then the governor came down and told me he would have me whipped, and I told him he ought to start right away because I know how to take a beating, and we went on like that for a while. And then he got tired and sat down, and I made myself be quiet and gentle, and I told him whose case he would try tomorrow. Today. I got down on my knees, if you can imagine it, and cried my prettiest tears and begged him for mercy. He said, “How can I grant mercy when I don’t yet have a prisoner?” Knowing his weakness when the crowd wants blood, I said, “If we wait until then, it will be too late.” And he said, “Everyone receives a fair trial in this district. No one will be punished who isn’t guilty.” I said, “Guilty of what? Guilty before whom?” He said, “Before the law.” I remembered what you’d told me when the others were getting ideas: Don’t make up rules because you can’t control yourself without them. Don’t invent a law that will come back to bite you in the ass. I told the governor that, and he said, “I didn’t make the law. I am merely here to uphold it.” So I said, “To hell with the law. The law is an idea. It doesn’t really exist, and using that word won’t absolve you of murder.” Then he bent my wrist back so far he almost snapped it. He was waiting for me to cry out, but I refused to cry out, and now I think that was a mistake, because when you were brought to him, he was still waiting for that cry. If I had given in, maybe he would have been sated and let you go.
just like you to find a way to blame yourself for what happened, when you tried hardest to save me
you clean the shit off my thighs and soak the rag again, if the others were here what would they do, they’d fall down weeping or vomit or run, but here you are with my ugliness and my failure, I was always trying to teach the others to sit amidst wreckage like this, and you already knew how, maybe you will teach them in the end
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver.
— Matthew 26:14–15
THE DOOR SWINGS OPEN and you look for Yousef, but it isn’t him, you move behind the table, the room is darker than it was before, a man says, Yousef told me you were here.
No, you say with your knife voice, one of your friends told you, and I wonder how much it cost for you to learn.
he says, I haven’t got any friends, Maryam. Those men who came told me they would just ask him some questions. I thought, Thirty plus seventy is a hundred, and that will last the teacher a good long time.
the man is speaking to you but looking at me and he twists his thick hands and I know him, the knowing stings through my chest, pools at the tear in my side, I know him and I failed him, he was a stonemason before, he always had a head for numbers, but in a family of stonemasons no one cared, I remember he was proud and nervous when I told him he would be in charge of the accounts, tallying numbers late into the night, scratching each note a second and third time to be sure he was correct, even though the others, Shimon especially, ribbed him, but I would put my hand on his shoulder and tell him never mind, he was doing wonderfully, the others couldn’t do any better, and he would smile with all his teeth, he must have had a bad time of it before to find so much joy living on the road and counting coins
he takes the cup of wine and drains it and wipes his mouth, that’s why sometimes he can’t remember why the coins don’t match his careful tallies, I remember his stained lips from last night, his trembling smile, he was trying to help, he didn’t understand, the world was spinning just a little, he kissed me and I kissed him back, I knew that warm feeling too, I knew why he sought it, I kissed him and wished I hadn’t failed him
Sit down, Yehudah, you say, your eye is on the door, you want the servant to come back so you won’t have to be alone with him, Yehudah sits in a puddle of dirty water and takes my right hand and tries to move the bones under the skin back where they belong
Do you think he— Do you think it hurt?
Yes, I think it hurt tremendously.
Why didn’t he make them stop?
Because he believed it was meant to happen this way.
Then why do you hate me?
Because I don’t believe it was meant to happen this way.
still you have the rag and you reach the torn skin above my eyes, your scrubbing gentle now, Yehudah puts his head down and cries
he says, I want to go back to last night. We were all together and we were going to have a hundred silver coins.
Yes, I want that, too.
you pour the second jug of water over my head and the warmth of it catches me, the pleasure of your hands soaping my hair, rinsing me, drying my skin with a towel
Help me lift him, you say, and Yehudah pushes the chair back and finds his feet, he works one arm under my back and the other under my knees and lifts me, he’s cradling me like I’m his child, I feel his breath and his pulse fluttering, I feel his confusion and his loneliness, his muscles are shaking, but you take your time drying the table and at last the boy comes back with linen and you unroll it like a veil and Yehudah lays me down and I miss the heat of his body as I missed yours before
You say, You should go.
Go back to your family.
I don’t want to go back. There’s nothing left for me.
You can’t stay here.
he stands there waiting for you to change your mind, you melt resin in your hand and rub it with oil onto my feet, my knees, my thighs, my stomach, my chest, and the room smells like sad times and crying relatives
the boy opens the door and holds it, Yehudah walks unsteadily around and sets one finger against your lips and I think he’s about to tell you how sorry he is, but you shake your head, your robe is soaked with sweat and fear, he goes out the door and the servant closes it behind him and drops the latch, you listen to his footsteps, you let out all your breath, I can smell you above the resin, the dampness of your robe, the bitterness of your breath like you’re expelling a night’s worth of screams
the servant clears away the soiled towels and brings a second cup of wine and you thank him and take the hand that Yehudah was holding, you sit there without speaking or moving for a long time, I wonder what you’re thinking about
you say, I should finish wrapping you, Yeshua. I should be crying.
your voice brings me out of the shadows, the room isn’t as dark as it was before, you say, I’ll tell you why I’m not crying. I cried before, but it was for your mother, because of what she had to see. But I’m not sad. I don’t know how to be sad. I only know how to be angry. I’m so angry, Yeshua, that I would take Shimon’s knife and walk — very calmly, you know me! — into the governor’s house and run him through, and then his wife for putting it in his head that he should be obeyed, and then the soldiers — oh, the soldiers. I’d take my time with them. I’d do to them everything they did to you. Maybe I’d leave one or two alive so they could learn how life can be a long nightmare. Then I’d go and find the others, the ones who hurt me and the one who hurt my mother and the ones who hurt your mother before she was married. I’d wipe them out and spit my forgiveness onto their bodies, and the world would be good for a minute.
your voice descends into a whisper, And then I’d find you, Yeshua. You’d be alive again. I’d find you because I should have told you before the end what I want you to say to God’s Name for me. If He’s there. Tell Him I’m angriest at Him. For making creatures that can do what they do to each other, and for not doing anything about it. For watching and letting men prance through His temple in His name, waving incense and enjoining us all to repentance. For me, Yeshua, I want you to spit on His feet, if He has feet, and if He doesn’t, spit back at the earth. I’ll be doing the same thing.
you put your mouth on my left foot and kiss it
I want to put my arms around you and tickle your armpits until you smile again, not to distract you but to remind you — of what, I don’t know, I only want to make you laugh because I’m laughing somewhere inside, not at your anger, which is perfect, but at the fact that I thought I could stand before God’s Name and negotiate for you, you need no negotiator, none of us do, and I forgot that, I forgot what I learned in the desert
I never told you all the things I saw, I knew there was a language wilder and more expansive and more precise and truer than the language we speak, but it was always just out of reach, buried in some fold of memory, I wanted to tell you, but I was forgetting, I’m cursing myself for not trying harder
you begin to wrap my body, maybe you can hear me
of course you can’t hear me
I was curious as a child, my mother said, but that curiosity grew into something else, she dated it to the time I was lost in Jerusalem, did I tell you that story, those lifeless roundabout debates of the elders, I could cry for them, but then I’d have to cry for myself, I thought if I could stuff my head with knowledge of the Scriptures like them, if I could learn every answer, I would be nearer to God’s Name, I didn’t see that paper stacking up to build a prison around me, and how many years did I waste in study, reciting again and again the words of dead prophets, Maryam, I beg you, don’t let anyone write down a word I’ve said
the curiosity turned into a pain like you get when you’ve been walking all day without eating, the pain turned my life into darkness, the weight of it bent me over, I stopped reading, I stopped praying
until I met a man from Qumran who’d come in from the desert, he was skin and bones and filth, the smell of him, he was completely unfit to be around people, he’d been waiting in a cave for God’s Name to speak and he’d heard the Voice at last and I saw something in his eyes that made me hungrier than I’d ever felt so I followed him to the river and he dunked me a dozen times and told me to go to the desert and tell no one and take nothing and if I lived I’d understand what he knew that I didn’t know
so I went, the first few days I stayed in a ravine waiting for a trickle of water and then that was gone, I found a date palm and stripped it and then that was gone, time passed, I stopped counting the days, I was happy to think I would die there and no one would know—
you tuck the linen around me like I’m your child and you’re swaddling me, you bite off a piece of thread and begin sewing the linen shut, I listen to the swish of the needle, the sound of your breathing like a song I wish I could sing with you
—there was a morning the desert was covered in dew, I stumbled away from the place I’d slept, I hadn’t been eating or drinking so I felt thin and all I wanted in the world was to sweat myself out of my body and go somewhere else, be someone else, if I could get free of the body I’d find the trail of God’s Name like the man from Qumran had, I’d find it and I’d follow it and I’d sate that hunger for understanding that has been the curse of my life
the dew was cold, I put my mouth against the sand and tried to lap it up, my tongue was covered in sand, I was laughing, I was so happy about the dew even though I couldn’t find a way to drink it, I rolled around until I was soaked in it and I looked up at the sun and that’s when it happened, I was released from myself, a sheaf of papers unbound and scattered, the old way my mind worked, the fears and the repetitions, the prayers invoked like spells, the grooved paths of misery lifted and the soul, eager and unquestioning, soaring out in every direction
I think I was still laughing even though Yeshua was no more, I took off my robe and lay naked in the desert
the questions that had tormented Yeshua were so ludicrous, like grains of sand, poor Yeshua had been troubling over them like they were huge mountains, the poor world was scurrying here and there troubling over the questions and building walls and swords and temples and slaughtering animals and fighting wars, and for what, any of us could be the Messiah, we didn’t need to make war against Rome, we were all part of God’s Name, and the sand and the wind and the dew and the pile of shit I’d left on the other side of the rock and the saliva that had grown sticky with dehydration and even the damned occupiers, all of it, it was so simple, I’d never known anything so certainly
I woke in the dark much later and I left the desert, I should have stayed, I didn’t realize then that my vision was only the beginning, if I’d stayed another month, another year maybe, the visions would have driven out Yeshua entirely, that sheaf of papers would have been free to blow over the world, but I was hot with the joy of it all, stupid with conviction, I didn’t realize that visions live only in the desert, at the border of civilization they crawl out of your mouth and return to their home in the starving lands
still I tried, you watched me try, Maryam, I tried words and when words failed I tried shouting and when shouting failed I tried touching, kissing, rubbing eyes with my spit, I tried to make people see that all we have to do is turn around, leave that whining precious self behind, let it go and see the wholeness of God’s Name, but people want magic and miracles and kings—
you snap the thread and the linen is stiff around me, you press your nose against my face
—maybe that’s what I meant when I told you that I had to die, maybe it was a way of releasing the frustration of having something to say but no words to say it, when I met you the hunger came back, the certainty of the desert left me, I didn’t know whether a lifetime with you would pull me farther away from that great wholeness, or if in forty or fifty years I’d come up with the words to explain
I asked myself, was it better to die when the love was hot, or old and wrung out by it
someone is knocking at the door, my mother, moving slowly on her diseased leg, her limbs puffed up from the effort
I want to see his face, she says, but you put your arms around her to hold her in place
you say, It’s finished, Mother. The linen has been sewn.
Cut it, then. You can resew it.
I can’t. I’m out of thread. And we have no time.
I need to know it’s him. For sure.
It’s him, Mother.
I wait for her to fight you, but she doesn’t, she understands, you took the last look at my ruined body as your own poison
she studies your work, the snug wrap of the linen, the bits of resin you tucked in every fold
What should we do?
We should put him in the tomb.
you kneel and rest your head on her knees, you love her as much as you loved me, maybe more, I envied you the wine and now I envy you the way you hold my mother’s legs, the way you steady each other, and here I am falling, drifting, where will I land, what is beyond this
I’ve been thinking, Mother. About the others. They weren’t there at the end. They don’t know what happened after the soldiers took him off the cross.
Yes, but they’ve heard.
They’ve heard. They haven’t seen. I don’t want it all to have been for nothing.
Do you believe it was?
I came along for Yeshua, not God’s Name. I don’t believe anything. I don’t know anything. I just want—
You don’t want the others to feel what you are feeling. You always want to protect people. I guess no one was there to protect you when—
Like no one was there to protect you.
my mother thinks and says, No one else has seen him.
she asks, Who?
she sighs and I smell the roasted lamb on her breath too, you fed her, you fed all of us, Maryam, you always could multiply food, you always could make not-enough enough
my mother says, Poor man.
and your knife voice is back when you say, You and Yeshua shared a weakness for him.
And you didn’t?
I’ll get Yousef, my mother says, before someone else finds us here. Let them think there may have been a chance. Let them think he may have—
she leaves, the room is cold, the tomb will be cold, you look at the closed door and the window, I wonder if you’re thinking about Yehudah and what you would like to do to him
you climb onto the table and stretch your body over mine
through the linen I feel your weight, your warmth, smell your body that I could never hold near enough, feel your hair falling over my head, your ribs going in and out, I can’t find a way to draw the air into my own lungs, I can’t find a way to acknowledge the words you whisper against my ear
Why, Yeshua? Why did you let it end this way? Why didn’t you follow me last night when I begged you to? I needed more time. More clarity. More of you. We could have gone anywhere. Lived together ten more years, twenty more years. Why didn’t you come?
and you stiffen as if answering your own questions, because I’m not there to answer, because I never meant to be always answering, because I too was made of questions
It will be enough. you swallow all the other words you want to say and repeat, It will be enough. It will be enough.
after all this, whatever life is still inside me clenches with pain that I thought I’d left behind
Come back, Yeshua. Come back to me. I know we all had lives before you, but I don’t want that life. I don’t want to be that Maryam. No one else will hear my questions. I don’t want you to be the Messiah. I just want you not to be dead, please—
is this hell
the realization of love for one person, one particular person at one particular time, this longing to be one with you instead of the great wholeness of God’s Name
or could it be heaven
could there be pain like this in heaven, could heaven also mean the pain of the body wanting, yearning, aching to be fully animal
or could it be neither heaven nor hell but still earth, still life as I’ve known it, could it be that I’m with you because I’m going to be given a second chance
I wait for you to call me back, Maryam
if you call me I’ll come like Lazar did when I called him, my body will heal, not for love of God’s Name but for love of you, to love you I must have a body and I won’t spend it so frivolously again, I swear
Maryam, you will be my savior after all
the light is coming through the window, reaching for me even as I reach for it
my mother is back with the servant boy and Yousef
Help me lift him, Yousef says
you lift my feet and he lifts my shoulders and we all leave the room together and go into the garden
the morning is cool and the garden smells like pine sap and donkey piss and baking bread, a gardener is washing the steps
you stumble down a hill and I am in your arms and the sun is warm and we are in a cave and the warmth cuts off and you and Yousef set me down hard in the corner
you kneel, I wait for you to call me back
but Yousef drapes a blanket over me, you’re farther away now, I struggle to reach you
Yousef says, We should go.
my mother’s hand runs the length of my body and she whispers something I can’t hear, she gets to her feet and she is gone, you are here, you are still with me in my searching, in my losing you are with me, Maryam, you grip my shoulders under the blanket
you say, I pray I’m wrong about everything, Yeshua, so I can see you again.
you say, I pray I’m wrong.
I wait for you to call me back
but you are gone, where is your voice, what is this silence, Yousef is piling stones outside the entrance and you are helping him, beginning to sweat, the dirt gathering under your fingernails
it’s cold and dark and you are in the garden, your warmth hidden, your face damp against the rocks, you are in the garden
and I am inside, waiting