I let the rope slacken; muscles relax; the goat is no longer straining at the halter. We are both too weary to resist one another. For an hour now, I have been treading on grit inside my sandals. I tug the rope once more. The goat stops. I lean down and, balancing on each leg in turn, bang my sandals against a rock and rub the soles of my feet clean. That sandal slapping sound, a drum beat of memory – and I’m almost crushed. But a moment later, back on two feet, I’m standing firm. The rope loose again, and the goat leading.
We have another two hours of light. Normally, I would stop somewhere round here, and do what I have to do. But this time is different. There is no need to worry about whether or not there will be enough light for me to travel back by. In a few days, the moon will be full. Now, though, the prospect of darkness makes me glad. As we walk slowly on together, the goat still out ahead of me, the desert rocks drain the afternoon. They grow brown, lose their definition, cease to be familiar. To my right, a shape like a giant head rears up against the sky. It is a head with horns, two pointing horns of unequal length. Like a billy goat maimed in battle.
But my goat is still whole, though his coat is grimed with red and brown dust, and he is limping – one of his hind legs, I think. My eyes follow his slightly stumbling gait as we walk. He flicks an ear. I wonder if he can still feel the hands of the High Priest on his head, still hear the low voice confessing all our iniquities, and all our transgressions, and all our sins. When the Priest took his hands away, did the goat sense suddenly the weight of his new burden? It is too much, surely, for any creature to bear. Mine, certainly, is far too much for me.
I find myself shivering, as the air sharpens into dusk. Not much longer now. This is the furthest I have ever been inside the desert. The goat, too, may be growing frightened. He’s slowing down. Yes, he saw it before I did. And, as he comes to a halt, I wind the rope round my wrist till it pinches the flesh; pull up beside him. Together, we stare over the precipice. The rocks beneath us lie in shadow, like Gehennah. Who knows what happens afterwards? The goat glances to right and left, as though contemplating his choices. Then he looks down again, takes a step backward. Up close to him now, I take in the rank goat stink. With my free hand, I give his neck a pat – of consolation, or apology, or farewell, I couldn’t say – and feel the stiff, rough hair, and the smear of sweat.
‘Well done, Azazel. You found the place.’
My name is Gad, son of Elkanan and Zillah. Gad was one of Jacob’s many sons. My brother is named for Ashbel, one of the many many grandsons. I live in Jerusalem, by the Temple walls. Though it is many years now since I lost my parents, I still stub my toe against their gravestones, against their dead disapproval. Ours is an ancient family, of the house of Levi: our forefathers daubed the blood of the Paschal lamb on their doorposts in Egypt, to keep the Angel of Death at bay. They fled slavery, following Moses and his brother Aaron, the first High Priest; they crossed the Red Sea; they were there at Sinai. And so they must have been accomplices in crime, too – melting down their jewellery to make the Golden Calf. Those ancestors of mine, who left the place where they were born in search of the Promised Land, will have perished in the wilderness, where the Israelites were made to wander for forty years. When I stand on the Mount of Olives beyond the city walls and contemplate our burying place, I think sometimes of that stony wilderness, and the unmarked graves of the thousand dead. It doesn’t take long to reach the desert from Jerusalem. Soon you are in a barren land where not a drop of water can be found. It is important and necessary to my story that this wilderness is so close to Jerusalem. But we are still moving forward. For now, all I will tell you is that I have often wondered whether I shouldn’t walk out into the desert and find my ancestors there.
And when Jerusalem is busy, and I need a bit of peace, I go through the Dung Gate and climb up into the hills, leaving the city behind. During pilgrim festivals, the gate stays open for longer at night, to let in the people who have been travelling for days to get here. And these are the noisy times when I most need to escape. The streets throng with uncouth visitors who drink too much and barter in strange accents. They set their tents indecently close to the Temple walls, squeezing the air from my home. There’s unholy rivalry between them, believe me, as to who has brought the best offering. Cain and Abel all over again, squabbling over sacrifices. The first fruits that are a gift to the Lord become the pulp of vanity and ill feeling. At Shavuot, I saw one man allow his donkey to stamp its fore-legs straight through a basket load of pomegranates. The sweet pink flesh burst through its brittle casing, juice oozing through the woven reeds, staining the dry ground. There was a fight then, next to the Temple’s western wall. I hurried away, fearful of human blood to be cleansed from the thirsty stones.
For that is what I do. I cleanse away blood. Ashbel and I, coming from the tribe of Levi, are assistants to the priests, and our job is to clean the Temple. The holy of holies can get filthy, believe me. The slaughter of bullocks, rams, goats may seem pleasing to the nostrils of the Almighty. I know nothing of heaven – unless you count the heavenly sensation of my sin in the committing. All I know is that here on earth, in the forecourt, in the inner sanctum, on the altar of sacrifice, we are left with the strewn remains of hide and flesh. Seeping blood permeates the stone; pieces of gut and gristle glisten on the sacrificial slab. The air is sweet with the mingled smells of incense, burnt flesh and raw blood. By the time I am allowed into the sanctum to clean up, the place is black and buzzing with flies. How they get there I don’t know. It is a sealed place, where none but the High Priest may enter. Oh, and yours truly, of course. Ashbel resents the fact that I get to penetrate this most secret cell, while he is left to clean the forecourt, and help out at the tent of meeting. The High Priest selected me, you see. He picked me out. Not drawn by lot, like Azazel, but a conscious choice.
‘Well done, Gad,’ the Priest said, pointing a finger at me. ‘We have found your place.’
It is a sacred post, an honour. I am on the very lowest rung of Jacob’s ladder that reaches to heaven, but at least I’m on the ladder. Or I was, until I sinned. I had crossed the Red Sea, I had seen the man who came closer to the Lord than all others, and then I fell at the Golden Calf. Sturdy on the rungs above me, long robes flowing and threatening to suffocate me, are the priests, who perform the Temple rites. They are God’s chamberlains. I am God’s gutter-snipe. But I have my place. I sluice away death, and the stench of death.
I think the flies enter in the terrified eyes of animals, drinking their tears as they are hauled in for slaughter.
He’s so skilful with his fingers, the High Priest. I’m never allowed in, of course, to watch him chop and flay, but I can tell, from the clean cuts of the flesh I scrub and sweep away that he’s a deft operator, with a very sharp knife.
In the Temple, we have the privilege of unlimited water. The priests have to bathe, you see. They have to be clean when they are performing the Lord’s work. On the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the Day of Atonement, the High Priest bathes himself no fewer than five times. I don’t bathe myself, not in a priestly way. I go to Hezekiah’s Pool to wash and – more important – I am permitted to bring down pitchers of water from the Pools of Bethesda, north of the Temple Mount, as many as I need, for Temple cleansing. The women help me to carry them, though naturally they have to leave their pitchers outside the tent of meeting: they are not permitted to follow me into the Temple.
So many steps to climb. I am forever climbing steps, counting as I toil up with my burdens. I’m in better condition than my brother Ashbel: that’s why I got the job. I’m one in a line of little brothers – Jacob, Joseph, Moses – who brushed ahead of the older sibling. From the top of the Huldat steps that lead up to the southern entrance of the TempleMount, I watched a burial yesterday on the Mount of Olives. Someone who had died that morning. They managed to bury him just before the start of the Fast. I hope he’d slipped in his atonement before he died. The sun was beginning to sink; the sound of mourners floated across the valley to me.
I say a prayer before entering the inner sanctum. I open my eyes; walk in. It is dark inside, veiled from harsh sunlight. I keep my breathing shallow, to avoid inhaling the stink. And when I have swept away the singed hairs and congealed offal, when I have brushed the ashes from the place of burnt sacrifice, and the fallen spices where the censers swung, then I take my pitchers of water and throw them over the blood. The blood-and-water juice spreads pink across the stone floor, finding its way into the small gullies that run on either side, flowing down the drains. Our water system of tunnels, pools and drains is Jerusalem’s most sophisticated engineering device, and I feel a twitch of pride when I remember that my work leads down its hidden pipes and branches. I help the juice on its way, pushing with my brush, swishing on more water, and more, to dilute the dark, heavy blood. When I’ve finished, the priests take over, sprinkling myrrh and hyssop. But that fetid odour never quite goes, however sweet they try to make it.
I enjoy pushing on my twiggy brush, bending over it with the whole weight of my body, and feeling that I am shifting and expelling all that residue before it rots. There is plenty in my own life that rots. My brother says my life stinks. He blames me for everything that went wrong. He keeps turning my face back towards my iniquity. Let me look back then.
The heat runs into my eyes; skids on my skin. It’s one of the hottest summers I can remember. The weather has needled people’s tempers: earlier today, as I politely asked two pilgrims if they would kindly step aside to let me in (I don’t like to boast, I don’t tell them outright that I’m a Levite who works in the Temple), one of them jabbed a sandaled heel into my shin. When I think of you, Tirzah, I still feel a throb of pain in my shin-bone.
The festival of Shavuot is over; the pilgrims are starting to leave, their baskets emptied of their first fruits offering and re-filled with goods and trinkets purchased here in Jerusalem. I have emerged from the place of sacrifice in the inner sanctum, blinking in the white Sivan light that bounces off the stone of the Temple forecourt. I’ve swept the detritus of yesterday’s bullock, my nostrils still itching from incense and burnt flesh. Here, outside in the sunlight, I find no relief: the heat gags me, and the air I gulp is sour with the smell of the living. I watch the last of them drift from the Temple precinct like the smoke of a defunct sacrifice.
It’s time to wash away the blood. The sun has climbed to its halfway post in the sky – signal for the women to come down from the Pools of Bethesda, into which the tunnelled water spills. From pool to precinct they carry their pitchers of water. I walk to the Temple gates to meet them, and to make sure they come no closer. I understand these commandments about women, of course. When I was a child, it was Ashbel who first instructed me. We must beware of the defiling fluids. But what the women bear, as they tread across sun-scorched stone to the Temple where I await them, is pure. Pure water, to cleanse the sanctuary, and the priests who work there.
I stand by the gate, trying to squeeze into a patch of shadow, and listen for the first sounds – the slap of sandal on stone. I like to watch as they round the corner, pitchers perfectly balanced on covered heads, the twist of hips winking through their garments. So much the better that they are not as colourfully dressed as some of the pilgrims who come here from the coast and the southern desert. They are like the brown potter’s ware that they carry, curving, brimming with gifts.
As a Temple acolyte I naturally keep things formal, trying to avoid direct eye contact as they lower their pitchers by the gate for me to carry, one by one, to the forbidden place. Occasionally, a slop of the precious liquid escapes over the brim, when a woman puts down her burden without sufficient care. Then I allow myself a quick glance of reproach. That’s how my eyes first meet yours. It’s not that you are negligent. Of that, I’m certain. I think your pitcher must have knocked against a stone as it reached the ground. For an instant, it wobbles, and a few drops splash over the rim, staining the stones dark. You stoop to right it, and a fold from your robe falls away slightly. I notice the skin on your neck, bright as a pebble in a pool, so different from the sun-dried carapace of the other women. As you rise, I make a point of catching your eye, and my reprimand melts even as my guts dissolve. I am water. That is the moment, Tirzah, when we are both drawn into a dark well of desire. Ashbel would call it a well of defiling fluids.
It is not difficult to find out your father’s name, or where your home is. You live by the road that leads down into the Kidron valley. On the hills above it, your father grazes a small flock of sheep. He considers himself a man of infinitely more substance than a mere cleaner, even a cleaner of the Temple from the house of Levi. That’s when I coin the term ‘purification agent’. These are still the days when I tell Ashbel everything. He likes my idea, putting back his head and roaring with laughter.
‘Purification agents! What a wit, little brother.’ And he takes a large gulp of wine, as though blessing me, and claps me on the back. We’re at Shem’s house near the Jaffa Gate. The weather’s still hot: people and beasts going past make sounds swallowed instantly by the cruel air. So Shem’s answering laugh has no rivals. It’s loud, and somehow lonely, too. No other clear noise nearby to keep it company. He pours re-fills from the wine skin, and we drink some more, and Shem’s laughter is joined by ours.
‘What do you think?’ I put down the hollow gourd from which I’m drinking and lean towards my brother and his friend. ‘Should I ask the priests to change our job title? I mean – if I’m called a purification agent, I sound… important, don’t I?’
‘Important!’ Shem laughs again, and the wine spills down his chin like blood on the Temple wall.
‘No, seriously. Would Moshe ben Yitzhak consider me a more acceptable suitor for his daughter?’
Ashbel taps the side of his nose and winks. He looks for an instant like the blind beggar who sits against the Temple wall. ‘You know, Shem, I met Moshe’s daughter a few days ago. Saw little brother talking to a young lady… couldn’t be doing with that, you know… had to check on her. And I can report that she’s a beauty!’
He raises his gourd to her and, when he’s swilled its contents, smacks his lips together. He doesn’t look like the blind beggar any longer. The beggar doesn’t have those off-cuts of quivering, fatty flesh.
‘So does this beauty have a name?’
I utter your name as quietly as possible – just enough for Shem to catch but not swallow it. But he spits it back carelessly into the hot afternoon.
‘Tirzah… Tirzah bat Moshe? Sweet!’
‘Trust my Gad-boy to set his sights on the most luscious girl in Jerusalem.’
Ashbel’s own wife, Ellisheva, is a good woman, who has already borne him a daughter and a son, and is expecting another. She runs a comfortable home. But she is not beautiful. She is not even very intelligent. Ashbel knows these things, but I have never until now thought that they mattered to him. ‘A woman is a childbearer and a cook. Remember that, Gad-boy, when you come to choose your wife.’ That’s what he said, once upon a time. But now, as we sit drinking wine with Shem, it flashes upon me that my brother is jealous. Not that I have yet come anywhere near to securing you, Tirzah. He is simply jealous of my daring. I have the courage to love. The sun is gentler now; Ashbel should be returning to his wife and family. But he lingers, chewing slowly on the dates and almonds Shem has put out for us, as though trying to make them last into the evening.
‘So, are you going to approach the old man again?’ our host enquires.
‘I’ve already asked Moshe for his daughter’s hand, but he won’t listen. “I’ll work with your flock for seven years, just as Jacob toiled seven years for his Uncle Laban to win Rachel as his bride.” That’s what I said to him. But Moshe ben Yitzhak simply smiled and turned away. It wasn’t a kind smile, I can tell you.’
‘You’ll just have to keep trying, Gad-boy.’
But I didn’t. All my strength went into trying to resist you, Tirzah. We were brought up, both of us, to keep the Lord’s commandments. But it was so very difficult to remain upright, to hold the urn in place, when we yearned for one another with such deep, deep longing. We used to meet by Hezekiah’s Pool, up beyond the Tower of David. I thought of how Abraham’s faithful servant found the perfect wife for his master’s son when Rebecca drew water from the well for him and also for his camels. But my father died, and there is no faithful servant to find me a wife.
One day in spring, ten moons after I first met you, Tirzah, we walked together from the pool and found a place from where we looked down on the city of Jerusalem, the great Temple re-built by Herod rising up at its heart. Scents of pine and rosemary; bright yellow flowers; the lonely bleat of a goat; birdsong. Then, suddenly, a hood of silence – pulled tight. And we turned our back on the Temple view. Under a blossoming almond tree we lay together. Though it was sin, we were pierced, not with guilt, but joy. Later you cleansed yourself in the mikvah, the ritual bath. My lovely priest. But of course that was only the surface of things. Within, our transgression blossomed like the almond tree, swelled with our child.
‘We’ll marry you quickly and quietly.’ That was all Moshe ben Yitzhak said. But the Lord moved more swiftly still, punishing all our iniquities, and all our transgressions, and all our sins. Your sudden death, Tirzah, two days before our wedding, was His verdict on us.
‘The humiliation! Couldn’t you have got it sorted out before her belly swelled like an over-ripe pomegranate?’ Ashbel was furious. ‘You simply got what you deserved. I told you to be patient. To wait. Why did you have to be sticking your prick in where it didn’t belong? Stop that snivelling, little brother. So she died. I’m not going to give you any comfort by trying to pretend it wasn’t you who killed her. We all know it was some kind of…’ He waved his arm, a gesture of dismissal… ‘Some kind of women’s sickness – a complication arising from her…condition. And who got her into that condition?’
I feel myself tremble as a huge wave of grief washes over me. Sensing this, no doubt, Ashbel pushes forward with his onslaught. ‘How can I feel any sympathy for you? Death is everywhere. May I remind you that Ellisheva and I have only recently completed the period of mourning for our second son?’
Born last summer, lost one moon later. I sigh.
My brother presses on, twisting his fingers into the dust. We are sitting in the shade of an olive tree, not far from his home. There are black hairs between his knuckles, which darken as the fingers writhe and the flesh whitens.
‘And there’s another matter. The question of work. It is, I’m sure you’ll appreciate, a disgrace for me to work in the same place as a fornicator. And if that fornicator is my own brother, the shame is trebled on my head. I have never understood why the High Priest chose you to work in the inner sanctum. As the older brother, I am surely entitled to that privilege. The priests, I don’t need to remind you, would relieve you of your duties immediately if they knew the truth. But I intend to keep them in the dark concerning your disgusting story.’
‘Thank you, Ash. I…’
‘Not because I don’t think you deserve to be sacked, but because it’s not in my interests that they should know. I don’t want the miserable fact that you’re my brother to contaminate me in their eyes.’
And he spits out the word ‘contaminate’, spots of saliva hitting the dust. For a moment, I feel a lurch of tender despair as I recall those drops of water from your pitcher staining the stone by the Temple gate.
Ashbel leans forward now, drawing his knees more tightly together as he clasps them with those hair-sprouting fingers. ‘So what I’m asking you to do, little brother… no, what I’m telling you to do is… leave. Leave Jerusalem now. Before you do any more damage to our family, or to the family of any other girl, for that matter. Take your belongings; walk away. Go north to Galilee; go west to the sea; go south to the desert. I don’t care. Don’t tell me where you’re heading. Just disappear.’
And he brings his hands away from his knees, clicking his plump fingers and then pointing at me – pointing at the city gate beyond. That was my brother’s farewell. The last things I took in were the hairs on his knuckles.
The hands of the High Priest are long and slender: I noticed this when he cast the lots. So the fate of two goats was decided. He took a censer of coals from the altar and, half-hidden in a cloud of incense, sprinkled the blood of the first goat seven times, using just the tips of those fine fingers. After that, he smeared the horns of the altar with goat and bullock blood. Then, alone, the High Priest stepped into the holy of holies to make atonement. When he emerged, it was time for that other goat to be touched by cunning hands. No violence here – just the shuddering spirit that transferred pain from the heart of man to the head of beast. The goat received from the High Priest all the sins of the people. And when the goat had taken our sins upon itself, I led it away. I was the appointed one. But I wasn’t chosen by lot. Neither, in this instance, was I chosen because I’m stronger or abler than my brother. No, I’d done as I was told.
‘Please,’ I’d begged, ‘might the High Priest appoint me to take Azazel into the wilderness? It would be such an honour.’
And they had agreed. I’ve still no idea whether or not they knew about us, Tirzah. I think, as the priest bored his eyes, red from smoke, into mine, nodding slightly and fingering the end of his beard, he understood. And he anticipated, too. Don’t worry: I won’t let you down. I’ll do what’s expected of me.
It didn’t take us long to reach the desert. Now a white moon hangs over the precipice. In a few days, the moon will be full, lighting the Succot pilgrims on their way to the Temple. That makes me think of the pillar of fire, which guided my forefathers through the desert in the hours of darkness. I wonder if they died still believing in that Promised Land. Standing with Azazel on the brink, I watch the moon, a morsel bitten from its disc, turn silver. The sun is too cruel, its harsh heat making man and beast and plant droop, sprouting black insects and swelling the putrid before it’s buried. When I try to imagine the Almighty, I picture the moon. Don’t tell anyone that. The moon is watching over me now. It is watching me, as Azazel watches me through slanting yellow eyes. But nothing is said as, in one swift movement worthy of the High Priest himself, I push the goat over the precipice. There’s no time even for a single bleat of surprise. Then I hear the thud of its broken body, smashed like potter’s ware.
I walk on into the desert, under the brightening moon.