Don’t believe a word I say. I am just the bastard daughter of a Persian courtesan, a lower city locust seller who says little but hears everything. Like these ancient walls of Jerusalem that surround me like a skin, I don’t believe in Gods or prophets. I’m just a cast-off, half breed who spends her days cooking locusts for your pleasure. I am nothing.
He appeared in the market just before the Spring equinox. My mother called it Nowruz, the Persian New Year. But besides the honey cake with candied quince we ate for breakfast, the day was like any other in the brothel that was my home. The Hebrews called it Passover and the Romans, like most every day, called it an opportunity to drink and whore.
From my perch, between the Egyptian weaver’s tapestries and rows of Galilean fish mongers, I observed the market preachers, with their grand prophecies and revelations. But they were only a distraction from my sore hands and back, the toil of locusts and boiling water.
The first day he spoke, the market was abuzz with stories of his miracles; water into wine, the dead brought back to life. Bastet, the Egyptian weaver who sat next to me, laughed as he took a locust from my pile.
“Nothing new in this world, Qimiya, My gods are seldom forgiving or loving.” Few knew me by my given, Persian name. Qimiya, the alchemist.
In the quirky Aramaic of the Nazareans, he promised victory of good over evil, life over death. The same as the Zoroastrian prayers my mother whispered after a day whoring for the high priests and senators. Empty promises to trick the meek and gullible.
The next morning I saw him wandering alone through the market. As he approached, I noticed sleepless shadows around his eyes and a tremor in his right hand. I offered him a locust. He refused. He was fasting, he said in apology.
“You wear the amulet of the Faravahar, the Zoroastrian god of fire. Tell me of your god.”
“It is only a memory of my mother. I know no gods or faith.” I noticed fresh scars on his forearms, as if lashed by palm, then asked him about his miracles. He looked up from examination of my locusts.
“My friends fear the people will not understand. Won’t feel the spirit in my words. So they tell these tales.”
When he preached that day the crowd was large and unsettled. His tremor stopped as he spoke of justice, peace, and mercy. I saw Quintus, the Roman agent who visited the brothel where I still slept. In search of sedition or rebellion, Quintus cast his restless, baleful eyes round the crowd. The courtesans despised Quintus and his repulsive arrogance.
“The crowd will turn, the Romans will destroy him,” Bastet commented. His cynicism annoyed me. I thought to comment on his illicit trade. Denied by commandment the death masks of the Romans, the high priests came to him in grief after death of wife or mistress. With gold in hand, they beseeched him to make taboo images of the dead with his flax linen. It was an ancient Egyptian art his grandfather had taught Bastet, before his exile to Judea.
The Nazarean came to talk each morning, our words like ripples in calm but rising sea. Each hesitation seemed a sorrow, each pause a yearning.
Yearning and sorrow became desire, desire like desert flower in morning dew, fearful of midday sun.
When he left to preach, I heard my mother warn, as she cried herself to sleep. “Trust no one, Qimiya. We are alone.”
The fifth night of that week I dreamt of my mother, leading me across Babylonian plains to her village in eastern Persia, near the base of the great Pamirs. I woke to the groans and cries of the brothel and heard Quintus talking with his harlot.
“The crowds are too large. Pilate is in bad temper at mention his name. He must be silenced. We’ll arrest him tomorrow.”
I ran to the parlor where the courtesans gathered to rest and gossip. I asked where the Nazarean might be.
“Gesthemane,” one replied. “They say he goes to the garden to pray at night.”
I walked past three disciples, sleeping at the gate, and found him pacing as he prayed. He turned to me as I approached.
“I know Qimiya, I know it all. I am terrified.”
“You know nothing,” I cried.
I had a vision of a simple life we might lead, far away from this corrupt city. As I described the vision a tear ran down his cheek. We sat in silence on a wooden bench beneath an olive tree and watched Jerusalem turn its dusky walls to dawn.
Don’t believe their tales. When they nailed him to the cross, his disciples fled from Golgotha in fear of Quintus and his agents. His mother could not bear the sight of his agony. Only I stood at the cross, assuring him he was not alone as his blood soaked the cypress wood. His cries reached Herod’s castle. Then suddenly there was only the sound of rain on mud and stone.
After they took him from the cross I knelt by his body, as if to nurse him back to life, then followed the gentle merchant and his servants as they took him to the tomb. I could not bear the thought that someday memory of him would fade and disappear. I ran to the market and begged Bastet to preserve his image. Just before they rolled the boulder back to close the tomb, Bastet threw the linen across his body.
On the eve of each spring equinox, I take the shroud from my mother’s silver box. I look into his eyes as I caress his linen cheeks. I allow myself to cry and gasp in grief as I place it back and lock the box. My heart again is stone, crumbling slowly into dust.
Image – Wikicommons – public domain. Shroud of Turin