He looks at me, this self-contained tempest
of a man, with his ruddy jet hair,
his sandblown browned skin and overworn
sheepskin cloak. Through charcoal eyes he looks at me
and speaks, and simple
though he is, and simple though he speaks,
his words coil round me and grip like those
of the most famed oracles and prophets
of Niger and the Nile.
You will be despised, he says, voice level
and taut. You will be mocked, and watched
through mistrusting eyes.
You will be shunned, named “blasphemer.”
His eyes shift like embers, scorching
as they shuffle across my thoughts.
These are the easy things, yes?
Yet they are the most painful,
the most grievous, and not for your own sake
only. You will weep.
You might have no cushion to sleep on,
no cellar for your food,
no home to go back to.
But these are easier things,
you will find: you do not need them.
He pauses – his eyes, though dark before, darker still.
I wonder, sometimes, where this strange man goes when he falls
silent, but fear to ask. When he continues,
his solid cedar voice has become shale
and cracks. It is like the hum of insects now, quiet
You will be called blasphemer, and spat upon,
and shunned – but that is not all.
You will be taken by men of iron breast
and they will call you rebel. (His eyes as embers
have fixed upon my face, and I feel it flush.
His voice has sunk to barely a whisper.)
You know what they do to their rebels.
Their spit will only tease the searing
when they have torn apart your flesh
with their barbed and wiry lines.
But they will not kill you,
They will make a cross-limbed tree – a craft
which they are experts at –
they will clamp your body to the boards
with the weight of their own,
press the half-blunt tip of a rusty stake
to your wrist, and grin.
They will call you rebel.
Two thousand men, he says, and stops.
I cannot look any more at his eyes.
It is as if the flame has been doused
and made into wells cloudy with a swirling
of vapor and the glisten of mist.
Two thousand such trees they built
when I was young. Two thousand
they made to line the road at Sepphoris,
trees of wood and rotten flesh.
Mother never led me by that way,
but I could hear the vultures
and I smelled the stench from Nazareth.
He sets a hand on my arm, heavy,
and it trembles,
but his voice has steadied and is calm.
You will hang there too.
They will name you rebel –
they will not see the difference
though in truth, it might not be that much
for them, unless it be worse. For you
will be like me, and I am a rebel
more dangerous to them than the ordinary sort
who come with schemes and numbers
and their fists.
I can see you do not understand me,
either. But this I can tell you surely:
that the road I am on
leads directly to Sepphoris.
Will you really follow me there?
My body quivers.