JERUSALEM 32 A.D.
Hop, flap. "Alms for a leper?"
"Alms for a poor leper?"
"Cock off, will you."
Hop, hop. "Spare a talent for a poor afflicted leper?"
"That's more than my boss makes. Get stuffed."
The leper shuffles over to a wall, tucks himself against it, and scratches idly at his knee. Skin flakes float away on the morning breeze. It's sort of pretty, really. He fishes the shekel out from under his tongue, puts it in his begging bowl, and shakes it. Maybe that will help.
"Alms for an old leper?" Rattle, rattle.
The Fifth Legion clatters by. The leper can't shrink back fast enough, and loses a toe to a centurion's sandal.
He wouldn't miss the toe. He had seven more.
"Pretty lady, spare a coin for a poor leper?"
"Oh, all right, just don't-- don't breathe on me or anything."
"Much obliged, ma'am." The denari and the shekel clink together in the leper's bowl. Not bad for the morning rush.
"Alms for a leper?"
"I don't suppose it's tax deductible," says a well-heeled gentleman.
"Not in my case, no. Never got 'round to joining the Judean branch of the Leper Union."
Oh, here comes a mark. This guy's practically glowing.
"Alms for an old lep-- hey, hey, quit it, what are you doing, get your hand-- hey!"
The guy gives him a beatific smile. "Cured."
"You're cured, my friend." The guy pulls him up on his feet. He stands straight. Nothing hurts. Nothing itches. He's in perfect health. "How do you feel?"
"How do I-- I'm hopping bloody mad, mate, pardon the pun! Who the hell do you think you are?"
"I am Jesus of Nazareth."
"Oh, of course, right, Jesus of Nazareth. You've gone and robbed me of my livelihood, man!"
"I'm a beggar, that's what I do! Look, can't we come to some sort of compromise about this?" The leper hopped from foot to foot, his bandages fluttering. "Come on, let's haggle. You are correct, sir, leprosy is a right pain in the arse, but I can't exactly ply my trade as an able-bodied person, so maybe you could just make me an amputee or something? How about my right foot? I can hobble about on a stump."
"Look, you're cured. It's a miracle, all right?"
"Well, I never asked for it. Maybe you could just make me a bit lame in one leg, a couple days out of the week?"
"There's no pleasing some people." Jesus gives him a watered down version of his previous smile. "Peace be with you." He gathers his friends around him and walks off up the street.
"Yeah, I'll show you peace you bloody--" The leper looks up at the sun. Almost time for the lunch rush.
"Alms for a lep-- I mean, alms for an ex-leper?"
JERUSALEM 34 A.D.
NOT QUITE BAR TIME
"What I'm trying to say," slurs Loretta, draped against the bar, "is that it's all well an' good to commit terroris'acks against our ememeny th'Romans, but woss bein' done for the families, those poor people that our her-heroic martyrs leave be-hic-hind?"
"Yes, you're absolutely right, Loretta, I completely agree!" Judith slams her cup down on the bar, sloshing the last dregs of wine over the lip and down her hand. "It's a did-disgrace, and we must do something!" She blinks at the mess and wipes it on her robe.
Loretta waves at the barman for another round. "So, wha'would be helpful like? I mean, charity starts at home an' all that, but." She pauses to think. "Er. What was I sayin'?"
"What I think y'mean," says Judith, "is that it's the women who are bearing the lion's sh-share of the burden here." Loretta nods. "Not to mix my metaphors. So we needda figure out a way to help the women."
"Yes!" They crash their cups together, spilling wine. "Bottoms up."
They fall into a contemplative silence. The barman tops their cups.
"D'you still want babies, Loretta?" The barman's eyes pop, and he flees to the other side of the bar. Judith drinks deep.
"'Course I do," says Loretta. "But Reg was right, all that time ago, wasn'he? Can't have babies 'cos I'm not really a woman."
"Fuck Reg! Buck up! You can do anything you want!" Judith punches the air with her free hand.
Loretta smiles wanly. "Suppose-- suppose I could have babies, though. That'd be lovely. And suppose other women who want babies could have 'em too. And suppose other other women, the ones who already have enonormous broods, suppose they wouldn't have to have more."
"Like planning for it, or something."
Judith stares at Loretta like she suddenly wants to be Stan again. "That's brilliant. Really, that's brilliant! Grab the power from the powerful and put it in the hands of the powerless!" She grabs Loretta by the front of her tunic. "Loretta, you're a bloody genius!"
Judith slides off her barstool onto unsteady feet. "Women shouldn't have to shackled to the whims of patriarchal expectation! Our bodies are our own! We should be able to plan for the size of family that we want, not exist as packages for our reproductive systems! Loretta, this is big, this is huge, we've got to, I mean, this is going to take some real organization, we need to put the word out and--"
"Closing time, lad-- er. Ladies?" The barman wipes a cup with a rag and can't quite meet Loretta's or Judith's eyes.
"Oh, all right." Loretta loops her arm with Judith's. "I think Ezra's is still open."
JERUSALEM 34 A.D.
Pilate lounges on his chair, contemplating the ceiling of his receiving room. It's very nice; he's just had all the tiling redone. "Hail. Centuwion, what do they want this time?"
"I'm not sure, sir. They appear to have signs."
"Oh well, let's go have a look-see, shall we?"
Pilate and the centurion step onto the balcony, where dozens of Judean citizens sit in the square, holding various signs and looking more unwashed than usual.
"Centuwion, what do theiw signs say? My Awamaic is wudimentawy."
"Uh, I don't read the language, my lord. I suppose we could ask."
"Vewy well." Pilate approaches the railing. "People of Jewusalem! Er... what do youw signs say?"
There is soft tittering among the people, and one of them steps forward bearing an oversized sheet covered in script. She lifts it up so Pilate can see it clearly. "It says, 'SAVE THE DESERT PIPISTRELLE'."
"My deaw lady, I don't know what a desewt pipistwelle is."
The woman holds her sheet even higher. "It's a type of bat. It's endangered."
"I see." Pilate looks at another person with a sign. "And youws, my good man?"
"It says, 'PROTECT THE CROCUS'."
"No no, the crocus. You Romans harvest them to death for your bloody precious saffron, and we refuse to stand for it anymore!"
Other citizens hold up even more signs, angrily shouting about agama lizards, water quality in the Jordan, mountain gazelles, and the delicate balance of a desert ecosystem.
"People, people!" Pilate waves his hands, shushing the crowd. "I shawe youw concewn. Wome is youw fwiend in all things! I assuwe you, this beautiful land is of gweat value to Wome, and we would not see it destwoyed!"
A man with a 'DESERT NOT DENARI' sign and an impressive set of dreadlocks yells, "Rome isn't interested in anything but exploiting the environment for its own financial gain!" There are shouts of support.
"Who are you people, anyway?" Pilate asks, waving at the centurion to bring him a chair. He settles into it, feeling this is going to be a long afternoon.
The woman with the 'SAVE THE DESERT PIPISTRELLE' sign says, "We're the EMEC-JD."
Pilate sighs. "Wepeat that, if you would."
"We're the East Mediterranean Environmental Co-operative, Judean Division," she says. "There's a Syrian Division, an Egyptian Division, a Lebanese Div--"
"Yes, I see--"
"--and we all work together," she says, undeterred. "The Roman Empire is raping the land the Lord gave to us, and we, as custodians of the land and His chosen people, mean to stop you!" She jabs one finger at Pilate, who raises an eyebrow.
"You do, do you?" The people in the square punch the air, shout in the affirmative, and wave their homemade signs. Pilate leans back in his chair. "You and what awmy?"
"The Judean People's Front!"
Rows of helmeted heads pop up over the tops of the buildings bordering the square. Dozens of arrows, pebbles in slingshots, and other varied projectiles are aimed straight at Pilate. A miniature catapult is rolled up the main road. The centurion ducks behind a column.
"Get weinfowcements," Pilate hisses.
"Uh, about half one, sir."
THE JUDEAN HILLS 4 B.C.
EARLY MONDAY MORNING
WELL PAST YOUR BEDTIME
"I spy with my little eye something that begins with S," says Caspar.
Melchior and Balthasar exchange looks.
Caspar wags a finger. "Ah-ah, 'camel shite' starts with a C!" Melchior sighs.
Balthasar says, "I spy with my little eye something that begins with J."
Caspar looks up, down, and around. "Nothing begins with J."
"J for jerk," Balthasar says nastily, glaring at Caspar.
"Hmph. Maybe you should have stayed in Persia."
"Maybe you should fuck off."
There is silence for a long while. Melchior is determined to enjoy it while it lasts.
It doesn't last long. "Fuck, you know, next time we decide out of the bloody blue to make a last minute road trip to Judea, let's not take the fucking camels, all right?" Rosie has been bruising Caspar's arse since Mesopotamia, and that on top of Balthasar's constant negativity, he is not in the best of moods. He tries to keep positive with games to pass the hours, but sometimes he just feels unappreciated.
"Shut up, will you? That's only a slightly more mature way of saying 'are we there yet?'" Balthasar has been putting up with Caspar's incessant bitching and infantile games of 'I Spy' since Mesopotamia, and his patience is wearing thin.
"Both of you knock it off, and keep an eye on the bloody star!" Melchior stares up at the night sky. He fervently wishes they could travel during the daytime, but that's what one gets when one must navigate by the stars. "It's moving, if you hadn't noticed."
"Of course it's moving, stars do that over the course of an evening," Caspar grumbles. "Or have you been faking your astrology degree this whole time?"
"Seriously, look, it's off course."
"Huh. So it is." Balthasar makes a note on a scrap of papyrus. "So what do we do?"
"Look, we can see Jerusalem from here, why don't we just stop and ask the King for directions or something? Who is the King nowadays?" Caspar really wants to stop riding a camel.
"Ask for directions from the King, are you a complete idiot?" Balthasar is sorely tempted to knock Caspar off Rosie. "How are they going to know where a newborn baby is?"
Melchior can see that Caspar is gearing himself up for a fight, so he points up at the stars again. "Look, look at the star! It's actually moving, you can see it!"
They all look up.
The star is moving. Quite fast, actually, in a wonky line across the sky above Jerusalem and out over the hills. It makes a loop-the-loop. They all stare.
Melchior dares to speak. "Is anyone else... confused?" Balthasar and Caspar just nod. "Right... lads, I have a feeling this isn't the star we were meant to follow."
Far above the silent hills, a small yellow spacecraft careens out of control through the planet's upper atmosphere. Its passengers are bulbous, green, one-eyed, and very, very lost. They are also particularly bad pilots.
Down below, the three men watch as the bright dot swerves back through the black toward Jerusalem, makes a couple figure eights, and then travels in infinite circles.
"It could be a sign," says Balthasar.
"A sign of what?" Caspar asks.
Balthasar thinks for a moment. "I've no idea."
Melchior clears his throat. "I suppose we should just keep going, then," he says. "I mean, we must be close."
They all nudge their camels (Caspar with some difficulty as Rosie had become quite content stuffing her face with desert plants) and move off toward Jerusalem.
"I think I've left the frankincense in Assyria."