The Word and The Flesh (7)


Parthian Empire, 1st century AD.

But I had to have an equerry also: and I did. Rachela Erato was still in mourning after her father and her second husband, but I asked three Jewish learned men of Susa whether they did not agree with me that it would be both wise and good -- and a clear sign of good will towards Rome -- to reveal to Marios Maksimos right there, on the bridge, the identity of the Son of Vengeance, the scourge of the uncircumcised in Palestine. As a result of this question, an insightful commentary on the appropriate passage of the Pentateuch (supposedly Mosaic) was speedily discovered, from which commentary it undoubtedly followed that Rachela was sinfully stretching the period of her mourning.

Threats, my dear Markia, are an amazing thing; all actions of the Son of Vengeance fill me with disgust, I admit, and I intend to deal with him in my own way one day, but I do not as a matter of habit reveal secrets with which I have been entrusted. This was obvious and clear to Rachela, but I assumed that she would not be able to convince of it the wise men of Israel, because they, ever since I staged in Harana Ezekiel's play about Moses, consider me capable of every iniquity; and thus, at the price of a mere threat I won the exceptional pleasure of having rested my foot on that same glove, the lifting of which had once exposed me to so many humiliations.

The throwing and picking up of gloves is, I should think, not a Parthian custom: I had not heard of it until I met Rachela Eratona. But Armenian, Alanian and Sarmatian knights practice it widely, even when the object of the challenge is a fortress rather than a person. But I was taught to challenge a city by sending an arrow into the shield above the gate; and to challenge a man by daring words. It's no surprise then that I didn't know what to do when, nearly eighteen years ago, on the Armenian-Adiabenian border a flaming-ruby-red knight followed his question why I schlepp around the world, armed and horseback, when it would behoove me better to stay at home and suck my mother's milk instead, by throwing his net-glove in my direction (the very glove which tonight serves as my inkwell).

Suck my mother's milk?! Indeed, I was barely sixteen then, but Phraates V had been even younger when the crown of the King of Kings was placed upon his head annointed with twenty six oils. As a teenager, it seems, I was able to hide my anger more easily than I can now; and thus, instead of letting my anger carry me, I replied the knight most politely: that I do not schlepp around, but wander as a knight errant, asking all those whom I encounter one question, only one.

"That's very interesting", replied the red knight, "and very sweet. I do the same thing myself. With the difference that, if it were permitted to place the image of a living creature on my shield, I would place on mine the image of a spider, not that of a fly."

And he pointed to my shield, adding that perhaps I mean to compare myself to a wasp rather than a fly, but this is understandable: young boys need to flatter themselves.

I needed to listen to him closely. He spoke -- of course -- Aramaic, but a different dialect of it from the one which had resounded around me as I was growing up in Babylon. But it was sufficiently clear to allow me to suppress my anger a little longer; on my shield I had half the emblem of Elymais, not some insect, as he assumed; and he mistook the anchor hooks for poorly drawn legs and wings of a wasp, or -- even worse! -- a fly. Or he pretended that he mistook them. So I called out to him angrily:

"Ask your question, and then, if you please, close in!"

As for the anger, I was making it up a bit. Too bad -- I had to because I noticed that the red knight's troop somehow, magically grew tenfold or more during our short exchange, while our number remained the same old five -- a eunuch and a Greek grammarian (a refugee from beyond the Euphrates) among them. Yet, I was not sufficiently afraid, not in any measure remotely equal to the danger: I was to learn only later that the red knight's troop was composed entirely of past-masters at the art of unerring and lightening-fast lassoing in of horsemen archers while at full gallop; and that it was not their habit to play with travelers who entered their narrow pass in lighthearted exchanges of knightly "if you please". Hence my suspicion today -- so many years later -- that that meeting with the red knight, that meeting which changed my life in so many dramatic ways -- had not been accidental.

But if it had not been, that fact has never been revealed to me. On the contrary, the red knight behaved in a manner which suggested that even my name was to him a meaningless sound, which was something I had not expected, and which frightened me, even terrified me.


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