THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART IX: CANA
Barnaby had all the tools he needed to make a serious run at becoming the Messiah: a powerful personality, loads of ambition, latent psionic talents, four eager disciples, and The Grail. What he lacked most was a message that would continue to resonate after he stopped talking. The Jewish people were pretty beaten down by their religious beliefs. Priests and prophets had been telling them for centuries how cruel Yahweh was, even to his chosen people; He certainly had an impressive track record to back their claim. So while Barnaby was preaching they were intensely moved, but once they got back home, they couldn’t remember just what it was that had impressed them so.
It took the better part of two years to get on track. The little party, still numbering only a half dozen (Barnaby, four disciples, and The Grail), spent that time wandering from town to town while Barnaby tried out different messages using assorted approaches.
That all dramatically changed in Cana.
* * *
We’d done quite well our first day in Cana. Turn-out was strong, the sermon better than normal, contributions above average. Caught up in the enthusiasm, one of the merchants in the crowd invited us to a wedding party for his daughter. Barnaby was pretty fun at a party, but the combination of the unforeseen guests and an unexpected level of frivolity triggered a crisis: they ran out of wine.
The merchant was embarrassed to the point of helplessness, but his more pragmatic wife came to Barnaby and asked if he could help. Normally, he faced requests for miracles every day and usually just brushed them off, but this was easy pickings—audience drinking, close quarters, and an excuse to hold me while he addressed them. He had the servants bring six large clay jugs and fill them with water, then assembled the entire party in the courtyard. Waving his arms over the water, he called down a blessing on the feast and instructed the servants to start ladling out samples for the guests. “This is the wine of Yahweh,” he told them, “made from the plumpest grapes of wrath. No doubt it will be the finest drink to ever pass your lips.” The crowds were delighted, believing completely that they were imbibing an exceptional vintage. They toasted him over and over as the party got rowdier and wilder on the pretend wine.
By next morning it seemed that the whole town had heard about the miracle, and the crowd that gathered to hear us numbered in the several hundreds. I mean, any holy man could preach, but miracles were a rarity.
We were preaching in a large square, with Barnaby getting fired up and the disciples beginning to work the crowd, when a disturbance interrupted the proceedings. A man came out of one of the houses, dragging a woman by the arm, yelling that he had caught her in the act of adultery. She was scratching and clawing like a wet cat and calling him names that most Jewish women didn’t even know.
Barnaby immediately began to lose his audience. I mean, they were caught up in his sermon and all, and sure they were concerned about spending the rest of eternity in hell, but that was preaching and this was a stoning. They weren’t even particularly subtle about it; those at the edges of the crowd just turned away and followed the pair, while those in the middle looked around for rocks while they waited their turn.
Holding me aloft, Barnaby yelled “Stop!” with enough impact to freeze the crowd. The offended man turned to face us; the woman desisted from her kicking and screaming. Even the babies hushed.
“Bring the woman to me,” Barnaby commanded.
The man threw her over his shoulder and strode through the crowd up to the front. She began beating his back with her fists, but quit when Barnaby demanded she be still. The woman was wearing a short thin shift that revealed a whole lot more than most of the men had even seen, since Yahweh commanded Jewish women to keep their bodies covered even during lovemaking. The more timid turned away in shock or fear; the daring risked His wrath even to the third and fourth generations by taking a good look.
The cuckolded lover dumped her in the sand at the front of the crowd and stepped back. She scrambled to her feet and straightened her hair with her fingers, then dropped her arms and met Barnaby’ gaze. He caught his breath at the sight, broadcasting those ol’ crazed and confused signals of human lust and arousal, something I’d never sensed in him before.
Smug in his righteousness and furious at having been interrupted in his quest for justice, the man spit out his story. And here’s the crazy part—he wasn’t even her husband. He’d been committing adultery with her himself before she’d fled his violent jealousy for a safer prospect. But that didn’t matter one iota to him: he’d followed her until he caught her in the act, and the law was the law. “Master, this woman was taken in adultery,” he declared. “Now Moses in the law commanded us that such should be stoned. What sayest thou?”
Barnaby stood without speaking for a moment, then turned to the woman. “Come forward,” he told her sternly.
She moved closer as if compelled, which of course she was. The crowd pressed forward too, eager to hear what should pass between them.
“What is your name, woman?”
She started to continue her defiance—after all, she was going to be killed no matter what—but something in Barnaby’s manner stopped her. “Sarah of Magdala,” she answered, looking down.
“What you are accused of is a grave sin. The law demands that you be stoned, as this man hath said. Worse, unless you are saved, you are not only doomed in this life, but also to an eternity of torment for your actions.”
At his words she turned pale. “Lord, what must I do to be saved?” she asked.
Barnaby knelt and drew in the sand with his finger. He sketched the outline of a stylized fish which was the sign that hung over Josiah’s, a popular inn and tavern near the center of town. She leaned forward to see what he had drawn, and when she understood his meaning she started a little. But she quickly disguised her reaction, and no one in the crowd noticed. Looking Barnaby squarely in the eye, she gave the slightest nod to indicate her agreement.
Those standing in the front craned their necks to see what he had written, but they were too far away to make out the figure. Barnaby idly drew his hand through the sand, spoiling the outline, then looked directly at the crowd.
“Adultery is a most serious offense, both in the eyes of Yahweh and in the eyes of his people. The law is wise to command death as a punishment. However, let us see what else the law has to say on the topic.”
He smoothed the sand, then drew nine lines with the fifth one tallied. Sarah the Magdalene peered down for a moment, then again gave a slight nod.
Standing up—and incidentally, stepping on the marks as he did—Barnaby commanded the woman to turn and face the crowd. You could hear a collective, muffled groan from the men as they gazed at her fine body concealed only by the thin fabric of her shift. She may not have been Layla, but she was at least in the same class.
“Since Eve, woman has ever been the temptress. Note the rich fullness of her lips awaiting her lover’s kiss, and the fire of the blush that marks her flawless cheeks. See too the fine lines of her legs, the way her muscles ripple under her skin, the way her proud breasts press against her clothing, the dark promise of her loins.”
The crowd was hanging on his words, staring raptly at the woman as Barnaby and I tantalized them. Suddenly Barnaby changed his tone from the seductive timbre of the Song of Solomon poet to the wrathful accusation of Isaiah.
“Ye have heard it said by the prophets and holy men of old, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery:’ but I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And verily, I warn you: if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee, for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that the whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand,” he paused, then thundered the next words with slow emphasis, “or any other part of thy body should cause you to sin, better to cut it off and cast it from thee, that your whole body should not suffer in eternal torment.”
If you could hear detumescence there would have been a tumultuous roar, but as it was, only a vast silence answered this accusation. Barnaby waited a few moments, then picked up a stone and tossed it at the feet of the crowd. “Your thoughts are known to Yahweh, and he will condemn you, not I. Now, go ahead. He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”
He stood staring silently at them, and I would have held my breath if I had any lungs. If Old Gabe was out there, she was a dead woman. But we got away with it; the crowd slowly melted away.
Barnaby commanded Sarah of Magdala to go and sin no more, but I caught a wink as he said it.
That night around the hour of nine, a hooded woman slipped into Josiah’s where Barnaby was waiting. But when she lowered her hood, it wasn’t Sarah but rather a stranger.
“Who the hell are you,” Barnaby wanted to know. “Where’s Sarah?”
“Sarah is my sister, but she is not the one you want. She is perhaps more comely, but she has lived a hard life and is not suitable as a mate for the Messiah. Shall we?”
Barnaby narrowed his eyes and I thought he might make an issue of it. But eventually he shrugged, offered her his arm, and escorted her up the stairs to his room.
THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART IX: OUTTAKES
“So the whole water-into-wine miracle was nothing but a scam?”
I don’t think it started out that way. It had more of a “Hey, watch this!” flavor, like a frat boy stunt. But it kind of spun out of control, and by then there wasn’t much he could’ve done about it. Not that he particularly cared to.
“I guess one good thing about Barnaby is that he wasn’t a true con man. He could have made a killing, selling water at top-of-the-line wine prices to gullible poor folks who couldn’t really afford it.”
Barnaby definitely wasn’t that kind of person, even before Cana. He honestly believed, somewhere deep down inside, that he was called by God. But that hadn’t gelled for him any more than his message, or really, the whole point of his calling. But be patient—he’s about to become a changed man.
* * *
“Wait a minute,” I protested. “You helped Jesus seduce a prostitute, but you would have given me grief if I’d slept with Anne?”
I never said sex was a sin. From what I have experienced vicariously, sex is one the most precious of human experiences. If I ever find another craftsman like Razuni, I’m going to have him recast me with female equipment. Then I’m going to spend the next decade or two being a slut.
My jaw dropped, but she was continuing on before I realized she was pulling my leg.
What I said was that profiting at the expense of others is fundamentally bad. Whatever ‘bad’ means. Or maybe the correct term is ‘evil’. If Barnaby had sold water at wine prices to the lower-class Jews, that would have been evil.
“Well, he could have just helped Sarah because she was in need, not because he wanted to get laid. After all, he was Jesus.”
At that point in his life, Barnaby’s moral sense wasn’t nearly as well defined as yours.
Being compared favorably with Jesus shut me up nicely.
Actually, mine wasn’t either, to be perfectly honest, The Grail surprised me by adding. So I’m not throwing any stones. Besides, Sarah wasn’t technically a prostitute. ‘Kept woman’ would be more accurate. I mean, yes, she made a living from sex, but if you want to get all legalistic about it, so do a lot of wives. Her husband had abandoned her without bothering to divorce her—I never heard why—and she was just trying to survive.
“Plus, like me with Anne, he didn’t actually go through with it. And apparently Mary was a volunteer.”
He definitely got the better end of the bargain there. From that day on she was as faithful as any disciple, never leaving his side until he died.
“So when does he become that changed man you promised?”
Soon, dear. Very soon.