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Author: Gwen Hunter

Magdala : Possession's Last Moments

The Pharisee pulled aside from the wailing woman, careful not to touch her. She chattered and keened through rough, cracked lips, her tone dropping down into a moan, a dirge-like refrain as she rocked slowly back and forth. She was filthy and coarse, caked with grime, hair matted, her gums swollen, frothy pink spittle spewed as she sang. But it was her eyes that caught and held his gaze. They were alive with the opaque light of demons and dark places, sorcery and death. They laughed as she reached for him, ragged nails slashing.
      The Pharisee leapt away, gathering his robe to avoid the slightest contact. She cackled louder at the near miss and settled a steely eye on him. He made the mistake of meeting her stare. The spirits in her gaze swirled, coalesced, and gripped him with frozen claws. They pulled and he fell forward, dizzyingly, into her mind, into the long shadows that marked her possession. The wails silenced. The day fell away. Darkness surrounded the Pharisee and he floated, suspended in the uncommon night.
      "Romans did it," a grieving voice deep inside her said. The words resonated within her, almost calm, in defiance of the wild crooning that had come from her mouth. The voice dropped lower and he turned in the dark place, floundering to catch the source of her next words. "Yes, and Romans will do it to you, Pharisee. To you."
      Abruptly he was back in the heat and noise of the market, and he stumbled, arms flailing, away from the mad woman. The demons in her eyes danced. She laughed and spat into the dust at his feet, a few tiny pink globs settling on his sandals. Instantly he thougth of the cost of the temple baths and the purification necessary to clense himself of the woman's filth. The damp of her spit slid to his toes and, suddenly nauseated, he turned away from the mad thing and her demons and her Romans. He fixed, unexpectantly, on the startling eyes of the Nazarene. The Pharisee reversed his course and lowered his gaze to the man's chest as sweat prickled down his spine. In his own way this Jesus was as alive as the strange mad woman cackling between them. The Pharisee stepped back trying to keep away from them both.
      And then a bizarre thing happened. Jesus, the man the Pharisee leaders had sent him to watch, reached down to the filthy, spindly fingers of the devil-possessed woman and took her hands in his own.
      The Pharisee turned away, a grim and exuberant satisfaction replacing the unease in his chest. After less than a day in Magdala, he had his answer. Jesus of Nazareth was ritually unclean. Pharisees need have no fear of a man who would touch filth. He could go home to the temple baths of Jerusalem, purify himself in the grottoes, and bask in the knowledge of a job well done and quickly. Relieved, The Pharisee did not look back to where Jesus stood.
      From the corner, a gangly boy watched, his gaze on the woman. He picked at a scab on his knee, scuffing his bare feet in the dust. She was still possessed, and no threat to them. Satisfied, he too turned away and joined the small trading caravan heading to Capernaum.

Chapter One

She was quiet for a moment. Her inner being so still that she saw her whole soul as God must see her, a tapestry woven of history and possibility and pain. She was broken, torn, there were holes in her soul, threads fluttering in the breeze of God's breath. The tattered cloth was stained and faded. But strangely there was no shame—only an objective awareness of her own incompleteness.
      From the holes in the cloth of her spirit, strange forms emerged, bent and misshapen things, eyes full of hate and anger. As each departed, they stared at her, as if memorizing the openings in her soul for a future return. There were seven of them. Seven beings like nothing she had ever seen. Darkness that made her shiver. As they left, the threads of her soul lifted in the wind of God's breath, seeking their rightful place in the tapestry, waving and whirling as if alive. How very odd.
      Slowly, she opened her eyes, and when the mist cleared from her vision, she found herself gazing into soft, gentle brown eyes, fringed all around with thick, black lashes. There was compassion there, in those eyes, as if he too had seen the inner vision of her and the things that had departed. The tender warmth in his eyes sent a surge of strength into her shredded soul. It was almost as though some of the broken strands of the torn soul-cloth rewove themselves under his stare, which all knew was impossible even for the best weaver. As if still watching outside herself, she watched as the image of her incompleteness took form in the tapestry, shaping into a woman. She stirred, stretched, and stood amid the frayed threads, wobbly as if after a long sleep.
      Hands, still grasping hers, lifted her to her feet. Her legs wouldn't carry her, and she nearly fell, but the brown eyes continued to share their strength, and the hands steadied her. The silence of his gaze was bottomless.
      She never took her eyes from his, but allowed herself to absorb his features. He was dark all over, with tangled black hair pulled back from his face, which was half hidden beneath a dusty beard. He was smiling, and his smile was both gentle and strong, his teeth even and smooth. He was robed in white over dark brown and black, desert clothes, her mind flashed. His hands moved on hers and calluses scraped on her flesh. She smiled. Calluses meant he was real. Her dreams never had calluses.
      The man turned away; his eyes disappeared. His hands released her. The sounds around her clashed together, roaring over her still, calm being. Her vision of herself—for a moment seeming to be of whole cloth, healing, reweaving on a loom—ripped. Ends flaying and flying, her soul disappeared into the roar.
      Human and animal sounds rushed together like waves meeting, crashing over her, sucking her down. Screaming, laughing, braying washed over her, suffocating her, drowning her in the clamor. The stench of dead and putrefying fish filled her nostrils. Someone fell against her and she stumbled, caught herself. Colors danced and swirled—clothing and rugs and fresh fruit and the stuttering images of running children and a trotting donkey. Panic rose in her like bile; she opened her mouth to scream but there was no breath for words. I am alone. She closed her eyes against the bright light, shutting out the myriad colors.
      Brown eyes flooded her memory; calm wrapped around her like a new cloak. Suddenly she knew that if she could find those eyes she would never again be alone. Bare feet apart in the dust, she caught her balance. Opened her eyes again and looked around, recognizing a marketplace.
      The colors steadied and firmed. There was something familiar about the walls and the tents. But the one with the eyes was striding off in the crowd. His white scarf disappearing in the crush. He was lost in it. But she could find him again. She must find him again.
      Slowing often to rest, to catch her breath, she followed where the eyes had led, but the crowd thickened and she was pushed away from its center, to the outer edges where the children played. She turned to go around the crowd, too weak to push through, for surely he was just beyond. But she was so tired. Her breath was wheezing like a sick child's, or like an old woman's lungs, filled with the fluids of death.
      She paused in an alleyway, resting against a clay wall. How long since she had eaten? She rubbed her stomach to ease its cramps and felt ribs, stark and boney.
      "Hey! Demon woman! What visions do you see?"
      Turning, holding to the wall for support, she saw a small boy, perhaps ten years old, and behind him in a ring were others, younger than he. They were laughing.
      "Do you see Romans and dead Jews?"
      "Where is your keeper, demon woman?"
      "My father says she's possessed and if he had the say she would be stoned."
      From somewhere a pebble was thrown and bounced off her temple. Pain spiraled out and she made a small sound, touching the bleeding place. They were joined by other children, running at her, boys, all of them, laughing and throwing stones. She held up her arms to ward them off. A large rock cracked against her elbow; others beat into her clothes. Bruising.
      Frightened, confused, she spun and ran down the twisting alley, blundering into another, pushing between people to escape the pelting. The boys and the reek and noise of the market fell away, but still she ran, her hunger forgotten, her eyes blinded by tears and strands of oily hair. Cold sweat trickled down her sides beneath her arms. Sour perspiration matted her clothes to her frame. A cramp started in her side and pulled at her with hot pinchers. Breathing became a torment and at last she was forced to stop. Gasping, she lay against a wall, the stone rough on her shoulder through her clothes, her fists pressed against her sides. The world whirled around her. And again soft brown eyes touched the edge of her memory. They beckoned.
      After long minutes the pain lessened and she started forward again. The street was packed mud, littered with animal refuse, and as she lifted the hem of her robe to avoid a fresh pile of dung, her eye caught on the fabric in her hand. It was caked with the greasy grime of long accumulation. She pushed the edge of the robe aside and pulled out the dress beneath it. It was so filthy as to be unrecognizable and there were old, dried stains along the hem, like blood. A glance around assured her that the boys had fallen behind. She was safe for the moment.
      She dropped the folds of crusty cloth and looked at her hands. They were black with soot and grease, the skin rough and worn, cracked and split—swollen, as if with little pressure they might bleed and water. Her nails were chipped and cracked, lined all around with filth. She lifted a lock of hair; it was tangled, twisted through with sticks and straw. She shuddered as something ran out of it and into her clothes. Darker things moved more slowly—lice. Their nits clung to each strand.
      Her feet were scratched and blistered as though she had run through briars and stepped into hot ashes. There was a suppurating boil on one ankle. Her boots were gone. So dirty. She must look like the old women by the gates, beggars, dirty diseased vagrants, widows, and bastards who littered the city streets on feast days like the droppings she had just passed. And she had lost her mantle.
      I need a bath. It was a simple thought, but she was vastly pleased to have made it. A bath. The stream near the house was fresh and . . . Her mind veered away. No. Not the stream. Something bad had happened there. There would be another place.
      Her pace increased as she worked her way toward the city walls. She passed fewer people now and was glad, for they looked at her so strangely, increasing her confusion. Was tonight the start of the Sabbath? Or a feast day? She hadn't bathed. Her husband would be ashamed of her. If only she hadn't lost her mantle. A woman's hair and head should be covered. It was almost sundown. She had to hurry. She had to get home.
      Keeping to the shadows, she passed back around the marketplace and out the city gates. The path out of town was well traveled and the smooth dusty earth felt good on her bare feet. She hoped Jason wouldn't be angry that she had lost her shoes. She must have left them at Rebecca's house, but why would she have come out without putting on her shoes? And how had she gotten so dirty? Jason had good cause to be angry. Perhaps she had fallen. Her husband would understand that. And when she told him her secret he would be so excited that all his shouting would be happy. He might buy her another pair of boots, perhaps of red leather.
      She touched her stomach. She would have to eat more. He had wanted another child for so long and he would expect a fat, healthy child again. And this time it would be a girl. A girl. Rebecca had said she would be beautiful and dark like her own mother. Rebecca knew these things. It was a gift. A baby. There were so many things to prepare. If only she weren't so tired.
      Increasing her lagging pace, she rounded the curve in the path. The turnoff was just ahead. Almost running now, she laughed as the path came into view, but the laughter died in her throat. The path was overgrown and choked with weeds, as if it had not been traveled in years. Something was wrong. Maybe she had missed the path. Or was it just ahead? Where was the mark Jason had put on the cedar? Uncertainly, she turned and started to retrace her steps, but stopped, turned again and stepped into the brush. There was the mark, scaled and overgrown with new bark, hidden by the high foliage.
      She gasped, her breath hot in her throat. Prickles of fear started at her scalp and ran down her spine like spiders. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck raised. Something bad. Something . . . Run, her mind whispered, the remembered gibbering of darkness, far more familiar than the path she now trod. Get out of here.
      She swallowed. Ignoring the voice, she stepped along the obscure path that led to her home. And with each slow step her fear increased. The air was warm, yet she shivered. It was too silent. No chickens or fowl clucked, no donkey brayed. The smell of fear and death filled her nostrils. The fear was her own, the death . . . Her mind twisted away from the memory, like a broken thread wisping free from a loom.
      The cedars were tall; she stepped between them lightly. Jason had planted these trees not long ago, intending them to be a shield against the wind when they were grown. Surely they had grown far too fast. Bewildered, she stopped and stared at the clearing. Her house should be here. Right here.
      Her heart beat like the wings of a bird held loosely in a hand. The shadows from the cedars cast long strips of darkness across the clearing. Weeds grew waist high in the center of them, but her house was gone. A stone foundation pushed up through the weeds. Within were the remains of roof and walls. They had caved in. Only a few tall beams were left standing, lonely and stark in the lengthening shadows. But her house was gone.
      Scarcely breathing, she stepped into the brush, slowly, dazed and confused, her feet dragging. She stumbled, bruising her toes against something protruding from the weeds. Carefully, as if any sudden motion would shatter her, she bent to pick it up, her hair sliding forward and hanging to the ground, snarled as old roots. The thing in the ground was cold and rusty, old metal. Her fingers slid along it. Without knowing why, she grabbed it with both hands and pulled. Half buried in earth and tangled weeds, it held at first, then broke away, sending her sprawling. She hit the ground, bruising her hip, and rolled. Dirt showered over her. She lay in the lowering gloom. Overhead, the first stars had appeared in the darkening sky. Head whirling, it was a long moment before it occurred to her to look at what she held.
      It was a sword. Turning the sword, she traced its shape in the murky light. About sixteen inches of blade and six of hilt. Leather covered the grip, the leather cracked and broken. The blade was a bit less than the width of her hand where it joined to the hilt. Rusty, the blade had been nicked, a small irregular place about the size of her little fingernail. But even damaged, a sword was valuable, its loss not to be taken lightly. Its name came to her. A Maintz Gladius. Roman short sword . . .
      Memories tore through her. Sharp and ripping as if tearing through old cloth. That day. She remembered that day. She had rushed into the clearing, exhausted, heart pounding, following the smell of smoke and burned meat. She had tripped over the . . . over the sword. That day and this day melded. Became one.
      The breath she had drawn burned as she breathed heavy smoke, choking. Her throat worked against the spasm. Suffocating, her fingers clenched around the leather of the hilt, twisting. The leather was cracked. Broken. Her swollen skin split, tore. A tiny drop of watery blood trailed across the back of her filthy hand. Slowly, it fell. As it dripped, it caught the last light of day and seemed to draw with it precious air from her laboring lungs. The blood splattered on the ground at her feet.
      "No. Her lips moved, soundlessly. "No . . . No . . ." Holding the sword, she turned to the last standing beam of her home. "Jason. Oh, Yahweh, have mercy! Jason." Tied to the center beam of the ruined house, was her husband. His beloved, precious face, a twisted death-mask, his lips slack and cheeks sunken in, drying clots of blood everywhere. Oh my God. Yahweh! What have they done? Her mind skittered away from the memory. She looked back at the sword in her hand. Romans. Romans had done that to Jason.
      Where was her son? Where, where, where? She looked frantically, tearing her hands in the brush, striking at it with the short sword, rushing through the clearing, calling for him. She saw a flash of red cloth and knelt in the trees. But . . . No! He was gone. Gone.
      The smoke and the reek of burned flesh filled her nostrils. The outer walls of her home, Jason's special labor, smoldered in ruin about her. She turned again to Jason, hanging on the beam
. Tears coursed down her face as the memories plunged into her, twisting, staining, a crimson and violent agony that left her gasping.
      She saw again her own tapestry, frayed and twisted upon the loom of her mind, the cloth writ with her own inner darkness, the savage violence of her own past. The violence of memories that rumbled, thundered, crushed and buried her, leaving her broken and torn. Thousands of memories, superimposed each on the next so that in an instant she saw and relived them all.
      Somewhere, a shrill scream began, growing louder until it beat in her chest and deep in her soul. A high-pitched rhythm that matched her breath, matched her heartbeat. Pain greater than dying whipped through her, ripping like claws. She plunged the sword into the ground again and again, each time screaming . . . screaming.


It was dark when she woke. Her fingers were clamped tightly around the sword. Her mouth was dry and her throat raw; she tasted blood when she cleared it. Her muscles were stiff and cold, creaking as she pushed herself to her feet and slowly stood. It must have been hours since she had eaten; she was weak.
      A stream gurgled nearby and she started toward it, but progress was slow for there was no moon and the countless stars shed only thin light. Weeds held her, grabbing at her dress and hair. Small cedars had sprung up; she stumbled into one and fell. Now too weak to stand, she crawled like a child on hands and knees, her dress ripping, dragging the ground.
      Pushing through the last thick brush, she reached the stream. Water ran past her. It would be cold and fresh, washing away the thirst that gripped her. And yet, here by the stream, the memories still battered her. The baby. She had lost the baby. She had buried the small clot of blood at the base of the tree, there. Her eyes welled and she wept, huge silent sobs. Her breath shuddered in the night.
      Tears felt strange on her face, in her dry eyes. How long since her last tears? It must have been years since the day she had walked into the clearing and saw her life dead and hanging from a tree. That day the pain had come, and now, suddenly, there was no defense against the agony. No anger, no dullness from the passage of time, no death cries or tender words from friends. Not even the empty wail of madness and demons that had once separated her from the memory of her family's death; it was all burned away.
      How long had she kept the pain, the horror, at bay? Years? And why had the gentle eyes in the marketplace forced it all back into her?
      Alone. She was alone. And she had been alone for a long, long time. Her tears dried into cold crusty streaks, the night's cool breeze brushed her. Alone. There was no one.
      Much later she raised herself to crawl the remaining inches to the stream. The water was frigid, numbing her hands as she drank. She could have released her hold on the bank and fallen into the water. It would have been an easy death as the winter-cold snowmelt rushing from the hills carried her body heat away. After a few moments, she wouldn't even have felt the cold. Instead, she crawled from the water's bank, curled into a tight ball and stared into the night sky. Multitudes of stars hung there, uncountable, unknowable. They blurred and danced in her tears. Eventually, the sleep of exhaustion claimed her.


Stones pressed beneath her back. Stones? Muzzy clouds eddied through her, confused and frozen. Slowly, she became aware of light just outside her eyelids, bright as noonday sun. A stream gurgled nearby. She put out a hand to find sand beneath her fingers. She was lying on the ground. She opened her eyes, felt the crack of sleep in the corners. Blue—brighter, more beautiful than any color she had ever seen before, stung her eyes. It was the sky, with soft clouds floating in it, and the sun straight above her.
      Jason . . . And my son, gone. The sky began a slow whirl, speeding and spinning crazily above her. Jason. Dead for so long. My pretty little boy. Gone. Oh my God, my Yahweh.
      Brown eyes floated at the edge of her memory. The brown eyes that had caught her and held her steady. They settled themselves firmly in her memory. There was nothing else, but his calloused hands, strong as they lifted her from the bank of the stream. She was standing. Though she was alone, they carried her. She was too weak to walk alone.
      Her mind seemed detached and floating somewhere above and behind her as she cautiously walked back to the clearing where her house once stood. A distant awareness told her that her body ached, that she was hungry, but the pain was muted. There was nothing she could do about either. Her reality was the immediate—brown eyes and the clearing ahead. Fleetingly, she wondered where Jason was buried. Then that thought too slipped away.
      A peaceful breeze touched her cheek, brushed through her clothes. The wind moved the tree tops so slowly, like dancers. A bird floated by on the breeze. She waited for it to fall. Surely it would fall. Its pace was too sluggish to sustain flight. She turned her head, following it into the brush. It didn't fall.
      The clearing came into view. It was hard to see as the trees wavered and melted. She lifted a hand and touched her face. A tear sparkled on her finger. She wasn't moving well. She had to be careful or she might fall, and the beam was still so far away. Weeds tore at her ankles, hiding them from view. It would be much easier to walk if her feet touched the ground. She stumbled and watched as her arms reached out to break her fall. Slowly she fell, forward, closer to the beam. At last her hands touched the smooth cedar of the tall timber. She felt the jolt as her body's momentum stopped, but distant. She held the beam hard to her chest, resting against it, so close it was difficult to focus.
      There were blood stains on it still. She closed her eyes. Time and space were soughing sounds in her mind, like wind and rain. The past had form and shape within her, its own reality. Time wavered, past and present melding together. She opened her eyes.
      A noise was coming closer, like singing, but no one would sing at a funeral. No one would sing where the dead had hung from a bloody tree. Perhaps it was wailing instead. It is wailing of the mourners. It is time for the mourners. For Jason. For the family she lost. Her whole world was gone.
      The mourners will prepare his body. They will wash Jason and wrap him in spices and fresh cloth
. She turned her head and looked around. There was tall grass and new cedars, piles of rubble. Where was Jason? She had laid him just there, only moments ago.
      He was gone.
      The Romans must have taken him, as they took her son. Romans; had they been here when she came? No, they had left. The Romans were gone. They had destroyed her family and left her no one to mourn. Who would be so cruel as to leave no one to lament?
      Mourners filled the clearing, but without bodies to mourn, they would leave her and she would be alone. She had to speak, to explain. Her mouth hung open, but her throat closed upon the words, aching. Fresh tears coursed down her face
      One of the group stepped forward, her tears blurring his face. "Someone." Her voice was a dry croak. "Someone took his body. But I can't mourn alone. They took him, but you'll stay, won't you? Someone must mourn."
      There was a long pause. "All people mourn."
      She blinked again, dragging a hand across her face, blinking to focus. It was he! The one with the brown eyes. He had carried her here across the clearing from the stream so she would be ready when he came, though that was foolishness beyond bearing. He said again, "All people mourn." She put out a hand, shaking and filthy, toward him. She could rest now, there would be women in the group who could find Jason's body and prepare it. There would be mourners.
      She swayed and he caught her. Carefully, he settled her to the ground. He was speaking. It was a wonderful voice, rich, resonant, with an intensity that made her want to listen. She strained for the words, but she was too tired and caught only the deep tones and something about wounds. Good. He knew about them, about the wound upon her family. Watching his mouth work as he gave orders, it occurred to her how strange to have a man direct a mourning, a ceremony usually left to elder women. But it was right that he should be here; he belonged in this moment.
      "Rest . . ." He said something about rest. She would like to rest, but there was Jason to mourn, and her son who was lost to her, and the baby she had buried. She must not forget the baby she had buried. Tears trickled down her cheeks. She closed her eyes.
      There was movement near her. Looking down she saw that someone was washing a hand. There were cuts on it, long scratches and a deep gouge that was filled with yellow pus. Jason's hand, they were letting her help wash Jason's hand. She loved him. Even with him dead she could feel the pain of the washing; it was both cold and hot where the water entered the cuts. She watched as the hand was dried and a salve spread over the skin. She could feel the soothing release in Jason's hand. Soft strips of cloth were wrapped around the fingers. Where were the herbs? They had left out the herbs.
      "He will stink if you don't wrap him in herbs," she whispered. "There is all that you will need in the cedar trunk."
      A woman who was wrapping the hand looked at her strangely. It was a gray woman. A tender, gentle woman with silvered hair and gray-black eyes. A kinswoman of the man, perhaps. She wore a gray robe. But her head was uncovered, which was unseemly in a mourner. Perhaps they were from a far place. She would be gentle when she told her. But all mourners must be covered. "You have no mantle. It is not seemly that you should go about so."
      "But I used the mantle to bandage your hands. We had no other cloth soft enough for them." Her voice was mild, musical almost. But she had said bandages. Bandages.
      Looking again at her hands wrapped and folded in her lap, she remembered. Jason's body had been taken away. These were her own hands. That is why she felt the water on them so keenly. A single tear rolled down her stained cheek. No body to mourn. Yet the mourners had not left, but stayed to help, and one used her own clothing. She watched as the woman lifted the hem of her soiled robe and prepared to dress her feet as well.
      Kindness was not common. Most mourners cared nothing for the living, only for the bodies and the death, and the excitement of the wailing. Here, there were no bodies, and death had been long ago and gone. The bodies had been taken.
      Time did a small swoop, like the bird floating into the brush without falling. And she understood. The past and the present fell into place with an almost audible click in her mind.
      The gray woman worked for some time, and she caused no pain in her ministrations. She dressed all the sores and inflamed places with a mixture of olive oil, crushed lamb's ear, and the ruined mantle. The woman tore through her soiled dress and washed her filthy body. The woman didn't turn away from even the smallest kindness, leaving her clothed in a clean, soft dress. There were no rough mourning clothes, but soft ones of dark dyed wool. She remembered when Jason had given her the cloth to make them. He had been laughing and singing, praising her; she had given him a son. The son who was now gone. And Jason was dead. His gift felt good on her skin. "I have a mantle of new gray wool. It is yours for your kindness." Thinking for a moment she added, "It is in the chest."
      The gray woman's lips lifted into a small smile, but her eyes never rose from her work. "You should sleep. Sleep is healing," she said.
      Her eyes closed, opened, and slowly closed again. Sleep was close. It was hard to stay awake. Jason. Jason, my love. Bodies mutilated and bleeding, drifted by on the edge of consciousness, bloated and distorted. One, its arms detached but drifting near it, came closer. It rotated to face her, and through slack toothless gums, called her name.
      "Jason!" Jason!" Screaming, she jerked fully awake. "Jason," she whispered.
      "A dream, child. It's only a dream. Sleep. Rest. It was only a dream."
      The gray woman's voice lead her back to dreams. She curled up and allowed sleep to take her. This time there was no blood, no floating bodies. The drifting darkness was a slow tide, pulling her deeper.

Excerpt©2011 Gwen Hunter



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ISBN 978-1-933523-42-2
LCCN 2011961445

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