No 15 - September 2001
Shipwrecked Off The Coast Of Malta
We called it “our sailor sickness,” drunk with the usual shakes, out of money, out of work, crawling on our hands and knees across the beach, butt boys to Legionnaires.
Some journeys cost you everything.
We are pragmatic folk, we Jews, fearful sailors. There are times to be inflexible, and deadly sure, especially when it comes to weather. We do not lust for sea adventures, like the Greeks. Our boundaries are self imposed.
It’s self enlightening coping with enclosures.
At sea, dementias leap at you, devour you with dripping fangs. Some consider this dramatic joy, when space rushes up to swallow ship, sight.
In retrospect, I should have stayed in bed and waited for another season. It was the wrong time of year to sail, bitter cold, blustery, high winds beating on the sun, pushing light into deepest shadows. It was our day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Many of us were sick, and apprehensive.
A man was standing on the docks that day, calling himself “Prophet of the New Age! Millennial Redeemer!” He strutted on bandy legs, like a fighting cock, prepared to peck and pacify his disbelievers, for many in the crowd of shape-up seamen openly mocked him. The sun attached a spotlight to his balding pate, and it followed the great man as he prowled the docks in search of an audience.
Enunciating as if trained in Greek oratory, he pronounced himself a high class Hebe, a formidable politico. It would be wise, he said, to hook onto his sails. Then he said he knew about our miserable wives and lives, that he was privy to confession, secret fears.
But he, too, had the baggage of a history, ‘confused beginnings’, and we knew him for what he was, a venal man, a Jew basher and a Jew murderer for his Roman entrepreneurs. In other words, a squealer, a nasty piece of work.
He promised us more gold than we had ever seen, and said he had a date with the Emperor of Rome, he himself, personally, a private audience with the august entity, compensation for his service to the state. The Emperor, he said, would shake his hand, gown him in purple majesty, then as soon as the winds could be rerouted, this little potent Paul would be returned in triumph to take Judea Romana with more pomp than any other prophet in recorded times, backed up by the sword, the mighty muscle of the Empire.
He said he had the knowledge, strength, to burn our rebel bridges to the ground, tear apart mother temple brick by brick and let her loose debris tumble in the yard.
“But I will set you free,” he cried, “you there, in the dark, shivering in the rain, yes, you there, out of work, on the beach.” Saulus Paulus Prophet Paul shouted, “Sail with me, and the sea will obey! Sail here and now and I will show you how the journey glows, show you passion, light to overwhelm your puny senses, make them soar. Now sign! Sail! This world is coming to an end!”
God help us.
We listened to that Greek.
We were poor Jews. We were weak.
Scratching my name in the ship’s registry, I staggered up the gangplank, skinning knuckles, knees, groping for some kind of Jacob’s ladder to help me up and over in minimal purchase, my child dying, my wife sick.
I should have stayed at home and cleansed myself, atoning my stupidities, for a storm began to fly across the early morning of Yom Kippur rising into day, with the sun turning and fleeing for its very life as the mighty hands of God reached out to strangle light.
Sinking to our hands and knees, out of money, out of work, poor Jews, wretched Jews, no hope in sight, war about to break with Rome.
In view of land, but at the edge of open sea, the skies erupted and hell burst loose, as drunken waves attacked our ship, shattering decks before we could furl a sail, or tie a knot. Great walls of spray leaped up to break our bones. We hugged the shoreline as best we could, jerked trembling ropes to guide our ship, but gale force winds drove us to wider waters, pitchblack terror, screaming all the way.
For seven nights, seven days, days as black as nights without one sobering sun, we pitched and rolled as it abandoned on the sea, rudderless, sanity shredding. Prophet Paul, Saulus Paulus, Saulie Paulie, hid below the decks, puking.
In Extremis now, side by side with the Angel of Death, admitting fear, a loathing sinners bear when God confronts them, I struck my chest, and purged myself, confessing to my shaken shipmates. They too could barely breathe, or find their balance. They prayed, but their salvaging words could not be heard above the wreckage of the storm.
Guilty then, all guilty, regardless of the past, accused of running from our duty, war, the greed-acceptance of a bald man’s bribes.
“Blasphemy” I cried, striking my chest, and shipmates agreed with me, “blasphemy to sail this special day unique to Jews, especially despised by Roman Legions.”
Holding hands in a circle, I said “Shipmates, hold hands! Confess the shame in being bumboys to our masters. Now we will dream, and war on tyranny.”
We did so, staring deeply, deliberately, into death’s maw, into the sockets of each man’s dripping skull, until a sanity returned, to ease us with the dying.
It was whispered Roman stooges were everywhere. Any act of dissent would bring forth retribution. By lot, chance, my concern was to follow Paul and shadow him throughout the ship. I trailed him to the lower decks, where in the darkness, supposedly unseen, he wept, and soiled his pants.
“God, save me,” he sobbed. “Save me!”, as if all that mattered in the world above was me! me! me!
When I came near, he was lying on his back, foaming at the mouth, his legs and arms jerking spasmodically. He seemed to be reacting to imaginary blows, as if mobs of men were striking him with rocks, whips.
We are pragmatic sailors, we Jews. We bailed. We emptied bowels, buckets, manned the pumps, shortened sails, cut loose the excess baggage. By God we humbly worked every hour of the day, hoping lessons learned at sea and noble faith would bring us home to shore, safely.
Pain, the year’s poverty, we bear as quiet men. This we have always done. We know our limitations. God made us this way to test the falsities of petty gods, the drama of the open sea. Forgive my cowardice. I thought you fled my side. In naked terror, I blasphemed. Surrendered sparks of hope, the breath of all adventures. Cowardly, I say, for even in the visions sailing on before me now, I see myself cringing, cowering, my friends pitched into the sea. Women with babies at their breasts disappeared over the sides. Then, as now, I could not, would not take that leap to save their souls. Passengers clawed their skin, running up and down the decks, ripping chunks of flesh from of their bleeding faces, soulmates of the living Jonah, consumed by private demons, demonic shame. Into the sea they leaped, driven by the pull of suicide.
Some journeys should be plotted in the brain.
Some journeys should be travelled in the eagle’s eye, the raven’s wing, before the truth sets in aborting hope, bringing briberies, murders in the base camp.
Where you go, and why you go, sometimes wars with wisdom.
Some journeys should be centered in the morning prayer, where paradise lies dreamy on the tongue, the evil gone, devil done, joy
prodigally returned, slipping in a hot, hot soapy tub, mantled by thick steam and luxurious sweat, soaking in a sea of pleasures, mulled wine, soberly singing. This was my journey had I stayed in bed and prayed.
Off the coast of Malta, my ship crashed into the rocks. The rocks gutted us, like wolves’ teeth sheering through a sheep’s belly. Friends floated by, cresting on the foam, eyes wide open. A hundred more I saw sucked into the riptide wash, for the undertow’s a pitiless force of power.
Jewish prisoners were shackled deep below the deck, forty former critics of the Prophet Paul, enemies of state, destined for the Coliseum in Rome. Many were called to ‘play’ there, but Jews were the real crowd pleasers, performing with artistry in the business of their death. Fabulous martyrs, entertainers, Jews would sing counterpoint hosannas to the loud lion’s roar. The Coliseum loved its Jews, and needed more, and more of them.
Swirling seas, above, below, had now pushed on through the forward hatches. The prisoners were screaming to be freed. Spitting, choking, they mangled fingers, legs, fought to break the chains of bondage.
Paul taunted them. Holding up a ring of keys, he baited them with a turn of his wrist. He laughed, and called them to their face, “Jews! Vermin! It is my duty,” he said, “to let you drown!” Guards protected the butcher’s flank.
I remember sinking to my knees, mewling like a weak Jew, a guilty Jew. I should have stayed in bed and never ventured into storm, or at the very least, struck a blow of vengeance like a righteous man.
Some twenty years later, how lightly it flows on the tongue, how simply does the pen swim across the paper, transforming rites of passage into immaculate compression, this same Prophet Paul, who puked his guts and shat his pants, redeemed this journey and revisioned all the facts. In brilliant detail, using brilliant images, he recreated times and places that never existed. Like a master tailor weaving whole cloth from a patchwork of lies, he visioned a uniquely noble venture, a journey of Christian charity, where every single soul was saved, literally spared, sailors, crew, passengers, even the Jewish prisoners bound for circuses in Rome were willed into a magical reprise, a happy ending.
This would-be Messiah, pariah, obliterated names, numbers, laws, demeaned a race of peoples, reduced atonement to a murky mess. Not once did he concern himself with Rome, or war, or genocide inflicted on my Jews. Not once did he, or any of his Christian allies, shed a tear for my Jewish dead. How many were mutilated?
Perhaps a million people slain? A little more, a little less? Perhaps you think the number high, too high you say? Then half it, call it half a million dead. But still too high? Lower then. A quarter million? Less? Still too high? Perhaps two hundred thousand fried and buried? Fifty thousand butchered, left to rot? Perhaps less than that. Twenty five? Twenty? Give me ten? Perhaps you will comply, agree a war transpired someplace? Anyplace? Then how many were crucified? Feet nailed to a tree, arms stretched to the skies?
Who wept for them?
Worse, who weeps for them even now?
Paulus revisioned everything.
His stooges revisioned everything.
They let their lies sprout wings,
maturing into flows of inspiration,
God forgive me. My wife forgive me, sweat of her armpits, nipples, gone in memory, child I never see, do not curse me. The Romans chained me to a rock in the middle of a stone floor. They spat on me, called me ‘Kike!’ When able to bear my own stink, prepared to exist for however long it took me to die, by whim, or act of spite, the jail doors opened up and I was booted out, dismissed. They pushed me through a mile of dungeons, through the catacombs of Rome, and when I emerged, into light, I was bleached white like a leper, wheezing in the lungs.
Why or how they put me on a ship bound for home I do not know. Who paid for it, and why, I do not know. Perhaps I was their penitent prisoner, silent, grim, an example for would be rebels.
Mute, I journeyed on the same seas that had once swept me into tumult, but this time, in total reverse, the sun was bright, the air was clean, the waves obeyed the master mariner, It was a calm voyage arriving home.
I found myself moving where my feet carried me, sailor sick, out of money, work, Jerusalem razed to the ground, the earth on which she stood salted over with bitter ash.
I had to stop, amused by the wreck of a man in front of my eyes, muttering imprecations under his breath. After a while madness stopped. I continued to bleed from gums and anus, all the while tottering on a stick.. They thought I’d disappear and save them the cost of a burial. Who knows about a Jew. Always, always, they misconstrued my rage to keep on living.
So I shuffled into early light, mist of morning, face to face, as sudden as that. I met this Prophet Paul on the road to Emmaus, on the very road where Judas Maccabeus fought the Greeks, gave us that lust for liberty, that gift of justice, here on earth.
He was dressed in a pure white robe made of pure white linen, as if he’d been coifed and delivered unto God like a Nazarite, but a fat one and a bald one, enriched by swollen pride, Roman fee.
He strode Emmaus Road like a cock of the walk, his bronzed pate blazing in the sun, exuding the aura of invincibility. He thought I was some kind of bug, one of those homeless Yids in stinking rags wandering the highways and byways of Judea, for the young are gone, the strong killed off in the war. Only men like me survive. He pushed me out of the way.
There are those who palliate the stench of histories with a softener. They create a mythic symbol, mythic smell to pacify and perfume real vulgarities of shit. One of five thousand filthy things, I was there, rotting in a cage. In appearance kin to cattle, for low we have become, they, we, you dismiss them from your thoughts. We. They. You dismiss your very being, what is left of God’s clay, to curse them, curse the vessel.
Chained to a rock in the middle of a stone floor, my own shit walling me in to mad cities, unable to see, or feet a night from day, a day from ordure, curses battering my cage.
Jew! Pig! Vermin!
to turn my cheek would be a mockery
of ancient faith,
a grotesque lie.
I did not plan this history. I did not sculpt it in any way. My tale unravelled like a skein of yarn tumbling from a table, a feline’s plaything.
Face to face I met this empty man and stared into his eyes, this prophet of the false tongue. There were no meaningful messiahs abroad, and the world was not coming to an end! It was playing out its vulgar variations, how one vile thing begets one viler, as if all of us were descended from a juicy, incestuous family, governed by a maniac.
I tasted gall of such a throbbing, rage rushed through my veins. I was twisting, turning in a stone cell, round and round, grinding imaginary grain, as if I were a dumb, eyeless beast.
Out came my knife, my little sica, and it lay there, quivering in my hand. As suddenly as that storm arose to shatter me with drunken waves, I carved my name, I sliced my Judas up and down the registry of his heart. I did not stop until his flesh was a butchery, and my breathing wheezed inside my chest.
I hid his corpse beneath a pile of rocks, and I ate that night and prayed that night like a starving man, overwhelmed with appetites, driven by the will to feed and fuel them, for the rest of my life.
The next day, I disappeared, for the Romans sent their troops to hunt me down, to hang me from a tree.
I travelled far away.
They never found me.
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