Pauls Toutonghi: The Gospel of Judas

Caravaggio’s "The Taking of Christ". Source: newyorker.com

Caravaggio’s “The Taking of Christ”. Source: newyorker.com

He is arrogant.

Like a Jerusalem oak—growing in the most narrow fissure, the most meager soil—that was his arrogance, at first. There was almost nothing to feed it. It was thin and pale and stood apart from the vast landscape of him—a few dry green leaves that were, at most, a distraction, a distraction from that great and beautiful emptiness. Because that’s what was most remarkable about him—that emptiness—vast and open and almost unimaginable.

But now that he’s going to die—and he knows that he’s going to die—the arrogance has blossomed. It is hearty and thriving. It has become a towering thing. When I kiss him I can taste it, sour, like blood on his lips, like the taste of a copper coin. And so I pull back. I turn my face away.

“What?” he says. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” I say.

“Why did you stop, then?”

“Who am I?” I ask him.

“You’re my beloved,” he says, as always.

“Tell me who I am,” I insist. “Say it again, just so I can hear it.”

“You know who you are,” he whispers, pulling my body against his. “You’re my savior.”

I’ve tried to remember the shape of his jaw. I’ve traced it with my fingertips and lingered on the texture of his jawbone, itself—that elemental thing that will remain for so many years after he, himself, is gone. The jawbone that shapes his voice. The jawbone that shelters the slick muscle of his tongue. I want to hold it in my memory—along with the gentle creases at the edges of his eyes, the way he smiles sadly when he tells me something interesting—when he imagines some distant place, or some time other than this one, now.

And so I’ve often asked him, when we’re alone at night, “What will I do when you’re gone?” Or, “We need to leave all of this, the two of us—and go.”

“Go where?”

“Anywhere we want to,” I say.

“They’d find us,” he says. “They’d catch us, eventually.”

“But we’d be together,” I say.

“And how would we afford it?” he says. “How would you pay?”

And I don’t know how to answer. My father was poor; my father’s father was poor; my lineage is many generations of poverty. But of course he knows this. That’s why he says it—just to remind me.

“Quiet,” he tells me, and he pours a cup of water over the steaming heated stones in the bucket beside the door of our tent. “It’s not so bad here,” he says, and he sits down in front of me and rubs warm cinnamon oil into the skin of my shoulders. “I’m the king, here,” he says, “the king of all of them.” And he takes me in his mouth; he puts his hands in the hair of my chest, and I forget about everything else.

There is only the steam, and the cinnamon, and the heat of his body.

I am anointed with the holy spirit.

We come to the house of Simon the Leper.

The sick and the dying line up outside. All day, he is with them. I go to the market and buy him a gift: perfume in an alabaster jar. It’s expensive, but it is something for us, alone. Even as I am shopping, the market seethes with rumors. He’s been arrested; he’s preparing to reunite the twelve tribes of Israel beneath one, golden throne; he’s gone to Rome, where he will have an audience with the emperor.

None of this is true.

I find him at home with the others, eating a meal. I join them. I sit among them—my friends and brothers. We drink wine. We eat lamb and sweet salty yoghurt and flatbread and apricots and rice. We drink more wine. Despite the wine it is a somber meal. We talk intently of the challenges that face us—all of us—as we prepare for a kind of war.

This is my mistake: I leave the jar of perfume on a shelf, where it can be seen. A serving woman—a woman with a child who is ill—seizes it and runs to his side. He is the king, indeed; he holds the possibility of her redemption.

“Please, my Lord,” she says, pouring the perfume in his hair, “please, I beg of you—save my son, my child, my dear small child.”

There is an uproar. The woman is sobbing. A chair topples. The others stand, some of them; they have all been drinking; they do not like that their sense of order has been disturbed. They reproach her, then, they try to shame her however they can. Think of the waste, they say. But they know it is not wasteful.

He holds up his hand.

“Why do you trouble her?” he says, looking directly at me. “She’s done me a great kindness.” He kisses her cheek then, lingering far too long with his lips on her soft skin. “For you have the poor with you, always,” he says. “But—not me—not always.”

When he says this, when he says that word, poor, he gestures to me. And he laughs as he says it—just a shadow of laughter, an echo of it, just enough for me to hear, just enough for the others to notice. I stand apart from them, then, shamed. The poor, they all think—though only a few of them can manage to look towards me. Yes, that’s right. That’s who he really is.

 

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