Three times he has had the chance to escape. Or perhaps we should say, three times he has been aware of the cleavages deep within himself and recognized that he can save himself by following one rift. Why can’t he do this, eminently sensible and eminently human course of taking the safe path? Perhaps because it is so human, and he is not – not quite, though he cannot say whether he is less or more.
The first time was in his childhood. Sitting among the old men and their scrolls, he asked questions about their reading, reacted to what they said with a child’s candour. What’s the use of studying all this law, he said, waving his small grubby hand at the scroll. If we know it, if we have it in our heads, why do you have to write it down?
Because it’s the Lord’s way of talking to us, kid. It’s the instructions for making the world the way the Lord wants it.
Like an architect’s plan? Like his notes?
The old men fall silent, struck by this. Yes, one says slowly, the law is to the Lord what the plans are to an architect.
But why, he persists, would WE need them? Wouldn’t they just show us how far from the plan we’ve gone? How much we’ve failed?
But then his father is behind him, sweeping him up off the rug, half-relieved, half-angry, saying There you are, do you know how worried we’ve been? We had to come back for you – everyone else has gone on ahead! Why didn’t you tell us?
Outside, his mother held him very tightly for a long moment, pressing him so hard against her that he could hear the double thrum of her heart and that of the child she carried. Then she pushed him away and looked at him with wan eyes. Couldn’t you have spared a thought for us?
He saw that he had been moved by something larger and greater than simply ignoring time, or an interest in the old men’s eager arguments. Some veil had been thrown over him that closed off the rest of the day and the world and for a while caused him to drift along on an unseen current like a seed blown by a strange wind. This wind was some other, fearful part of himself that he was only rarely aware of. It felt like the short sounds made on the shofar before the greater blast. He himself, he thought, looking at his hands and seeing them with foreign eyes, was and was not this greater thing. He ruthlessly ignored his parents’ fears, their love, their small and hard lives, even his own boy’s body. As for the means by which his everyday self and this greater, whispering thing, were connected, he could not understand it.
He mumbled something to his mother about business and fathers, made promises he hoped to keep, and ran up the line of travellers, hoping to find friends.
He remembers this conversation, and the fatigue in his mother’s eyes ten years later, when he sits on an outcrop looking over the desert, feeling the same fracturing he had felt as a boy. It is many times worse now. He has seen his sisters and sisters-in-law double over, gasping, at the raw shock of bones separating from bones as their skeleton was reorganized around their first child. Perhaps this was what his soul was doing. The second presence he had felt in the temple, closing off the world and brushing the sand away from a path he had never known was there – but which his feet seemed already upon. It is remote, frightening, inflexible, loveless. It whispers that none of this waterless world around him is worth much or for long.
He crouches on the outcrop and longs for something to eat, but he has sworn not to, until hunger has made clear the two voices whispering on either side of the fracture within him. Wild thoughts come and go; stones shimmer and become bread, then stone again. Rock hyraxes skip about like devils. A leopard emerges from a cave and stares in surprise, like a prince waking from his cool sleep to the sight of a beggar, and stalks off.
He wrestles with the other plane of himself. What do you want from me? What’s the point of you – I’m a simple man, meant for a simple life. Leave. You frighten me with myself. I could throw myself off this cliff because I fear what you’ll make me do. But the voice whispers back Do it and angels will catch you. There is no escape from me, because I am your very self. I sound different in the same way that your mother sounds different when she talks to herself. What I want; what I planned – you’ll do.
Weeping, despairing, he asks why this plan involves only suffering and a terrible death. He dreads it, even as the shadows fall across the desert like vast wings. I haven’t asked for any of it! I’ve never asked for anything.
But in the cool night a voice, sounding like a father such as Joseph has never been, assures him. All the kingdoms of the world, and a death worse than any he could foresee.
Ten more years and the voices have separated entirely. He prays to himself, begs himself not to make him go through this thing which looms, both absolutely unbearable and absolutely necessary. It is necessary because only its unbearable nature makes it work. Nothing short of the torture and death of his exhausted body, which was once the little boy rolling on the rugs in the temple, stirring wood shavings in the sun, the dark reflection in the leopard’s eye – only his death can save a world he is only half-convinced deserves saving.
Now, in the night air he smells the perfume of an almond tree someone has planted in the olive grove. The third fracture is clear now. A striation which connects the two planes of himself, this birdlike thing of faith or confidence, which flits between the cold remoteness that forces the cracks, and the man who tires and loves and weeps and cannot follow his friends into old age. He slides down a tree and crouches on the ground, his legs shaking, his stomach watery and protesting.
For a brief second, all times and persons collapse into one. There is a wholeness, the planes of self merge and open into a passageway out, out to life, to ordinariness, to anywhere but this night garden of terrors. Just as rapidly, it decoheres and his triphane self reappears. He becomes aware of firelight around him, a hand on his shoulder, lips on his cheek.