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A Prodigal Tale

He left at night, taking with him a change of clothes, a blanket, and a small bag of money which he found in his father's room. He travelled until dawn and then all of the next day and well into the following night, pursued by thoughts of his angry and vengeful father. His route led south towards the holy city, following the roads he knew from the yearly pilgrimage his family were rich enough to make. The land rose around him in broken shadows, ragged heights of limestone, sparse ground, uncultivated and sporadically populated, the occasional shepherds' village buried in the valleys where goats roamed the scrub.

     On the evening of the third day, exhausted and hungry, he stood watching the sun slip beyond the horizon, casting its last rays over the broad expanse of a lake. His sense of guilt had not left him but thoughts of his angry father had ceased to torment him, diminishing in intensity as the distance from home increased. A mist was rising off the lake. Grass tufts, long and heavy with seeds, stood dry and yellow-silvery in the fading light. Autumn flowers thrust their crowns above the grass, including one of which he did not know the name, a head of pale trumpets spread out on a long stalk, its white petals glowing faintly in the dusk. A tent flap clattered in the rising wind and sand drifted across the clearing, driven in little runs and gusts. He drew the edge of his cloak tighter across his mouth. The sounds of the caravan he had joined earlier that afternoon were to his back. He could hear the mutter of conversation. Blue smoke coiled away from a fire of camel dung. Some of the women were tending a stew of meat and vegetables.

     The sound of feet approaching awakened him. One of the men had come over to ask if he would like some food. He followed to where a group of travellers sat in a circle around the fire and ate gratefully. It was his first meal since leaving home. He watched the others, their faces mostly in shadow, wondering what they thought of him, a stranger who had come amongst them from the hills. Had they believed his story about a religious obligation, a prayer answered? They had accepted him easily enough. They could know nothing for certain.

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     On the eighth day the caravan approached the walls of the city, climbing the steep slopes through small peasant fields and olive groves, past square, flat-roofed, mud houses, the hills stretching away into the distance. His first thought on entering the gate was to find a room. He approached a small inn in one of the unpaved lanes off the main thoroughfare. The room he was offered was small, but he had little money and did not yet know where more would come from. He planned to look for work, to live quietly for a while, until he had thought out what to do. The woman of the inn regarded him out of her round, black eyes, her grey hair tied back from her darkly freckled face. He felt suddenly fearful of her. It was almost as though she knew his reason for being there, knew the whole story of how he came to be standing before her with his cloak and few bundled possessions. Worse still, she seemed complicit in his secret. He had thought to pass as a simple traveller but suddenly confronting this woman's mocking gaze he knew he was marked. A feeling of dread possessed him. He made an excuse about having to change money and went out. She made no reply.

     The shadows of the northern wall engulfed him, its bleak battlements towering above him. The memory of the old woman clung to him like a horrible dream. It was a good hour before he could shake off the sense of panic and fear. He wandered, drifting about the city, until tiredness overcame him. Now he rested on his haunches, his back against a wall in a small street of fruit and vegetable stalls. Out of the passing multitude appeared a dishevelled youth, a dirty blanket around his shoulders. The youth sat beside him and they exchanged hesitant greetings. The other had been longer on the road and his face was thin and lined. They spent the night in a field on the outskirts of the city, the earth uncultivated and full of weeds. His new companion was to show him much in those first few days, opening to him the streets and alleys of the city.

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     That night he had the first of the dreams which for months plagued his sleep; dreams filled with violent and erotic images. In this first dream he was trying to save a child from a life of prostitution and shame. He rode away with her on a mule but then lost her in the darkness only to find her mutilated body lying naked in the road. Many of these dreams were populated with dead women as well as with swords, snakes and flight; ciphers of his guilt. Because the presence of these images was so shocking, he imagined that his secret must be transparent to everyone around him. At night he slept lightly, part of him always mindful lest he should give something away in his mutterings, or wake screaming.

     But at first the effect of these dreams was nothing compared to the poverty. Destitution came hard to him having known only luxury all his life. The small amount of money he had brought with him soon ran out and he was forced to beg in order to feed himself. Then one day he found himself a party to theft. Standing by a butcher's stall, his companion suddenly said to him, 'Quick, run'. Looking up he saw that the boy had seized a chicken from beside the stall. He felt his stomach tense as he broke into a run. They dived into the first alleyway to the right, descending into the shadows, turning right again through a low arch, across a courtyard and over a low wall. Then they ran on down the adjoining lane. His companion must have thought the route out beforehand. They kept running until they were sure they were not being followed. There had been shouts and a half-hearted attempt at pursuit but that seemed all.

     When they eventually stopped it was because they could not run any further. His side was doubled with a stitch, his lungs bursting, his heart swelling as though it would explode. He felt sick and vomited while his chest continued to heave painfully. His companion lay sprawled in a doorway holding his sides. He was laughing and pointing at the pool of vomit. 'Hell, what were you running from?' he asked.

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     After this he stole regularly. Though he ate infrequently it was enough. He slept rough in abandoned houses, in the street, sometimes out in the fields. His poverty depressed him and the dreams became more frequent and intense. He began drinking wine of the cheapest and roughest sort. He was now submerged in the underworld of the city. Most of the people he spent time with were drunkards like himself, living by stealing, the women by hustling. Each had his or her story, elaborated and embellished over so many years the teller no longer knew where the truth ended and the lies began. Though they banded together out of need for each other, few confided the true reason for his being there. Amongst this shifting group of outcasts he had no real friends. He spent a lot of time on his own. Even when with others he was withdrawn, alone in their midst, quietly brooding.

     One particular evening he sat with a group under a tree drinking. He reached out for a jar of wine which stood to his right. His hand found the earthenware jar and he dragged it towards him across the ground. As he did so one of the girls leaned over him.

     'No more,' she said. He tried to fend her off with his arm but found he didn't have the strength. 'You've had enough, you'll be sick again.' She took hold of the neck of the jar as he tried to raise it to his mouth. She was too strong for him and he lay back against the stony earth, the girl's face appearing above him. She was young but little of youthfulness remained to her. He closed his eyes, feeling the tears wanting to come. He lay still, wishing that she might release him from the prison of his silence. If only she would ask him what the matter was, and persist in asking until she had got an answer. But she simply sat there watching him, perhaps angry at his foolishness, or indifferent, not wanting to burden herself with his problems.

     Thus he went on from day to day, finding ways to occupy himself for hours at a stretch. He walked for miles around the city with his head bowed, or simply sat, staring into the dust at his feet. Need of money forced him to beg and to steal. If he was lucky someone would take pity on him and buy him wine. His once smooth and youthful face became sunken and dark, and his eyes, often jaundiced and bloodshot, bulged in their sockets. His clothes were torn and stained, his body thin and bruised.

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     The Feast of Passover came and thousands of pilgrims gathered, filling the inns and camping in the environs of the city. He stayed away from them, knowing his family would be somewhere amidst the throng. For safety he moved outside of the ritually clean areas. His family could not wander here without rendering themselves unclean for the ceremonies and this they would not do. He was secure in his own uncleanness. On the few occasions when he did venture into the city it was never to a place where someone might know him. He did not like to go into the busy thoroughfares. Most of the day he lay in the fields watching. In the distance he could see the steady column of smoke rising from the Temple area. White and blue figures moved in the haze, the sun reflecting from whitewashed walls, the grey smoke rising and dispersing in the clear sky. The noise of the great crowd carried across to him, the sound of voices, of bells and cymbals, and sometimes of chanting.

     He was cut off from it all and the sense of dispossession oppressed him. It was not that he was particularly religious. He had never been fervent in his observance, or strong in his beliefs. What troubled him was not spiritual pain, but simply a sense of no longer belonging. He left the fields and wandered for an hour through the back streets and alleyways where he came on an itinerant preacher proclaiming to anyone who would listen. The holy man was in his mid-twenties, bearded and simply dressed. His face had a severe, ascetic angularity, but his hands were long and slender and he gestured as he spoke with great gentleness. 'A father always has room in his heart to forgive a son who repents,' the preacher was saying. It was a phrase caught in passing and barely registering in his mind. But the words had found a place in his thoughts, like seeds in the crevice of a wall. The encounter lasted a few minutes only and was soon forgotten.

     In the following days his mental condition worsened. Secrets contained for so long were now demanding audience. He had eaten practically nothing for a week and had little appetite. Wine eased his hunger. He had grown thinner, more lethargic, and found it increasingly difficult to concentrate. On the last night of the Feast he had the first of many visions. He was sitting in the corner of an inn completely drunk. A woman he knew came over towards him, her eyes heavily darkened with makeup. He smelled the sweetness of her unwashed body as she placed the palm of her hand against his face.

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     'Why don't you stop drinking?' she asked. He heard someone laughing, he felt nauseous. The woman stroked his cheek, and then his hair, looking into his face. He bowed his head and moved slightly aside. A triangle of light fell from a gap between the curtain and the doorframe, highlighting the head and shoulders of a man across the room. The man was laughing, his mouth wide open and the lips drawn back to reveal an irregular set of decaying teeth. As he tried to focus he saw that there was no flesh on the head at all. The teeth jutted straight out of bone, the lower jaw hanging slack, the eyes empty sockets beneath the shadow of the brow.

     The skull turned towards him grinning with the fixed expression of a mask. He closed his eyes to rid himself of the image, but when he opened them again the skull was still there, staring at him. Then the skull spoke: 'I could tell her all about you,' it said. 'I could tell her everything.' He closed his eyes again and pressed his hands to his ears and this time when he looked again the skull was gone. He rose unsteadily, pushing the girl aside. People watched him uncertainly. When he got outside he was shaking and was violently sick.

     The effect of the vision on his subsequent conduct was marked. He tried over the next few weeks to stay sober, wrestling with the agonising need for drink. He tried to eat though it made him ill. Then by a piece of sheer chance he was offered a job on a farm north of the city. He worked in the dusty fields pruning vines and olive trees, the rough branches cutting his hands. He earned enough for his keep, living on vegetables and bread, which were cooked and served collectively to the labourers.

     He had now stopped drinking but his mental condition continued to deteriorate. He had visions regularly. Often the birds would talk to him, or devils in the form of birds, taunting him with their accusations. On one occasion the roots of an olive tree he was tending became a nest of vipers writhing around his feet. In the midst of the snakes was a woman's brooch. He reached down to pick it up but as he touched the glinting object it turned into a stone and the snakes vanished. After a month of labouring in the fields he was moved to the position of swineherd. He fed the pigs, cleaned out their enclosure and herded them up the hillside where they rooted in the shade of the olive groves. At night he slept with them for warmth.

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     One evening late that summer, at the time of the evening meal, he was sitting apart from the other labourers, absorbed as usual in his own thoughts. The men were huddled on the other side of the courtyard, talking quietly. Suddenly his attention was arrested by the hand gestures of one of them. The man turned towards him and he recognised the preacher he had stopped to listen to months before. The tall figure moved towards him and he heard the words 'the father always has room in his heart.' The preacher's lips did not move. It was as though the words had been spoken directly into his mind. A shadow fell across him and there was the man standing before him, his hands hanging loosely at his sides, the sun behind giving him a kind of aura. The idea of repentance which had lain dormant so long began to shoulder its way into the light of consciousness. When at last the presence faded he wept.

     At the height of the summer, sickness broke out in the community. It struck quickly. Within a week two of the labourers lay dead, their bodies swollen and blotchy. A third man died a day later, and then a child. A grave was dug beyond the farm and fires burned all day. The community was in turmoil. The women wept and prayed for hours together, and there was talk of divine punishment. The priest came several times with incense and there were offerings in an attempt to placate the evil. Seeing and hearing all this filled him with terror. He began to talk to himself, though no one could make out exactly what he was saying. It seemed that he had convinced himself he was the cause of the plague, that he carried the evil now venting itself on those around him. Many thought he was possessed by a devil and wanted to turn him out. There was talk and speculation about his past. It was with some relief that the community awoke one morning to find he had gone.

     It was the child's death that drove him away. She was nine years old. He was present when the father carried the body wrapped in an old cloak from the house. The child's arm had fallen loose from the makeshift shroud and had seemed to point at him. Whichever way the body was turned the arm followed him. The women were keening and hugging each other while the men stood grey faced and upright watching the solemn procession. The father placed the body on top of the fire, while other men threw on more brushwood. The flames leapt, eating at the dry cloth. Some of the wood slipped and the body rolled slightly so that the arm, which had been folded back across the girl's chest, slipped free and lay pointing accusingly at him again. He half expected the child to get up and denounce him. He watched transfixed as the fire enveloped the frail human form. When the fire burned down he helped to shovel the ash into the grave.

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     He left that night, taking some food in a leather satchel and his master's donkey. By the time the sun had begun to rise over the eastern hills he was already descending from the highlands and was miles away from possible pursuers. He rode for several days, drinking from wells and skirting the tiny villages on his route. The sparse terrain had been seared by the long hours of oppressive heat. Only near water did anything green flourish. Everywhere else the vegetation was dry and yellowed. At night he slept dreamlessly.

     All day the sun blazed down on him out of a cloudless sky as he trudged into the evaporating distance of the plains. The road was thick with dust, in places so deep the donkey had difficulty walking and they had to leave the track and go onto the rougher, stonier ground to the side. But it was an interior world which occupied all of his attention. Memories from the past wove themselves into an intricate tapestry in which images of sin and repentance were dominant. He thought once more of the inn keeper's wife and of how his guilt had plunged him into this purgatory. He saw visions repeatedly, of the preacher, of his father, of the dead child.

     He had ridden for five days without eating. His body ached and he was covered with dirt and sweat. The donkey was tired and walked slowly while he rolled in the saddle, slipping at times into a state of semi-consciousness. Parts of the dream of his first night in the city flooded his mind. The girl was with him now, sitting behind on the donkey and he was taking her back home. But they seemed to be going slower and slower. She was complaining that he did not love her, that if he did love her they would be able to go faster. He tried to nudge the donkey into a trot but they seemed to be sinking into the road. Then he felt the girl slip from behind him. By the time he was able to turn round she had fallen unconscious on the ground, her arm pointing accusingly in his direction. She was burning, flames spreading around her. Then the preacher appeared above the fire saying: 'the father always has room in his heart.'

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     He woke suddenly and found that they had stopped in the shadow of a large rock. He pressed the donkey to walk on but the animal refused to move. In the distance he could see a group of low buildings. It was well into the afternoon now and he dismounted and began to stumble towards the village. His eyes stung in the heat and he felt dizzy from lack of food. His lean face looked sickly under its coat of grime as he staggered along the stony track in his ragged tunic. He was mumbling incoherently to himself, and at one point thought he saw the preacher waiting for him by the distant buildings. Then he fell unconscious in the middle of the path.

     The dogs found him four hours later, swollen with plague. The villagers were terrified and left him where he was until they could get a priest. The following morning the holy man approached cautiously, the people of the village a few paces behind. The stranger lay gaunt and grey in the dust. His clothes were nothing but soiled rags, his eyes wide open and staring.

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