I had been a young man, once. I had known passion and folly in my youth. One such folly was named Ehud.
We’d grown up in the same small village in Judea, but we hadn’t been friends. I was studious, and took my little childhood duties seriously. Ehud was frivolous, ignoring the rabbis to press silly poems into his wax tablet during synagogue. A different one each day. He neglected his chores, yet the village elders accepted this in a way they wouldn’t have from the rest of us. They expected failure from him. He came from a family known for unreliability–his father drank too much and laughed too loudly; his mother was an incurable gossip.
I think he knew about my proclivities before I did. Puberty snuck up on me. One particularly sunny day, trapped in the stuffy confines of the synagogue, I found my lessons strangely unappealing. The synagogue sat at the far end of town, upon a hill overlooking the village. Further past it the hill country began in earnest, turbulent earth covered in sunbaked grasses and the tough flowering shrubs that goats enjoyed. The rabbi’s voice droned in tune with the dancing bees outside. I cast my gaze about the room, skimming over the dozen boys’ faces, until I settled upon Ehud, stylus in hand, nose inches from his tablet. He worked madly, scribbling quick words then immediately rubbing them out, until a line finally met with his mercurial approval and he moved on. His brow creased in concentration, and the tip of his tongue stuck slightly from the corner of his mouth.
I couldn’t look away. Something held me tight, widened my eyes. I wanted to watch him write forever. I wanted to reach out and touch his face, look into his eyes, and ask what was so important he had to get it out onto his tablet right now. I wanted to hear him recite a silly little poem about bleating rabbis, then make a face and laugh before wiping the whole thing away. My pulse quickened, and something shifted strangely in my undergarments.
Ehud paused as if he could feel my gaze on him. He tilted his head up and speared me with eyes still poetry-intense. I froze, holding my breath. Ehud broke into a grin, offered me a slow, exaggerated wink, and turned back to his writing.
After that he began to take more interest in me. Soon I risked my father’s disapproval to follow Ehud on his daily rounds of all the village’s animals. No one had set him on this particular chore. He loved animals, and cared for them unceasingly. Ehud could barely recall half of the Melachot, but he knew every animal in the village on sight, owned or stray. He knew of the Roman practice of keeping pigs. It turned out he knew a lot about the Romans, at least for someone our age.
“They do a lot of things differently,” he said, as he fed carrot stalks to a particularly slow sheep named Darpi. “In Rome, the men sleep with other men, and no one thinks twice about it.”
“So what?” I asked. “Men sleep together all the time.”
Ehud rolled his eyes, the shorthand he’d developed to say he was so knowledgeable in the ways of the world, and my book learning had taught me nothing.
“No… sleep sleep.”
I looked at him blankly.
“They fuck each other,” he explained.
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure how to react to that, which probably told him everything he needed to know. “Their priests don’t stop them?” I knew enough to know that Roman rabbis were called priests, but I didn’t know a thing about how they stopped sodomy.
“Their priests don’t care,” Ehud replied. “They don’t think it’s a sin.”
“Oh. Um. That’s really weird.”
Ehud rolled his eyes again.
What started as stolen glances at synagogue turned into daily rendezvous in the late afternoons. Innocent, at first. Only two teenage boys with an enthusiasm for livestock and fauna. Our excursions quickly became the focus of my young life. My working days became an agony of anticipation. As soon as I finished my work I bolted my dinner and ran for the stables. Without fail I’d find Ehud there, waiting for me, hunched over a wax tablet.
The seasons turned, and our friendship blossomed. Ehud found other things that drew his attention, and disappeared for days at a time, flitting about with his latest passion. I waited, patient and disciplined, and he always returned to me. I didn’t mind. No matter where he went, I was the home he came back to.
Now I lived for the Sabbats. An entire day free to seek out the strays, or follow birds to their nests. One hot day near summer’s end found us lying on our backs in the shade of a fig tree, sheltered deep in the hills, miles from the village. A vault of sheer blue sky rose gloriously over us. Long, forking branches overhead nestled us into the earth. Side by side, we watched the day drift by. Bird song and wind was our conversation.
A nearby gully gave shelter to a family of hares. When a fuzzy gaggle of their young emerged to forage, Ehud’s soft voice rose between us.
“Why do you care so much what they think?” Ehud asked me.
“Who?” I said.
“Them.” Ehud waved vaguely into the sky. “Everyone. You’re always so righteous and obedient. You’re like a sheep sometimes.”
“I am not! My parents don’t approve of me running off with you all the time, but I do that anyway.”
“Only because they know I’ll be gone soon, and they don’t want to make a fuss. If they told you to stop, and they really meant it, you would.”
“I wouldn’t either.” The defense came first, reflexive. It delayed confronting the real concern for just a moment longer. “What do you mean you’ll be gone soon?”
“There’s nothing here for me,” he said. “I don’t want to just live until I die.” I looked at him. He didn’t turn to me, just gazed past the tree’s foliage into the blue. For the first time in my memory, he looked mournful. “I have an uncle in Alexandria. I’m leaving at the end of the summer.”
A jolt of panic sent my heart skipping. I opened my mouth to say something, but there was nothing to say. Of course Ehud wouldn’t stay here. He shone too fiercely for this place.
“That’s not fair,” I managed, blinking stinging heat. “You’re leaving me?” Something in my voice must have caught his attention, he tipped his head to meet my gaze. “Who’ll care for the animals once you’re gone?” I asked. “Who’ll make sure Noam keeps his fence mended? Who’ll rub down old Nan, or bring milk for–”
Ehud rolled onto one elbow and placed a finger on my lips. “You can come with me,” he said. The question glimmered in his eyes, but we both knew I wouldn’t. My family relied on me. I wouldn’t just abandon my entire world. I looked away from him. He sighed and rested his head on my chest.
“I know,” he said. “You’re too dutiful. You’d be lost in a city anyway.”
“The animals won’t know what happened. They’ll think you abandoned them.” I fixed my eyes directly up, refusing to blink, watching the thin canopy above us blurring into a wash of green. Did they mean so little to him?
“Take care of them for me,” he said. “They’re yours now.”
I closed my eyes and struggled to steady my breathing. I felt his head lift from my chest. A moment later the world spun, as I felt his lips pressing against mine for the first time. My breath stopped altogether. I’d woken from dreams like this many nights. I’d never told him. Never told anyone. Warmth flushed through me, racing from his lips to my chest to my loins. Ehud pulled back to let me breathe. I blinked rapidly to clear my vision and saw him inches before me. His eyes sparkled with mischief.
“What are you doing?” I breathed.
“What you always wanted.” He leaned in to kiss me again, one hand caressing the side of my face. I swallowed thickly and met him, parting my lips to taste his. It was like missing a step on a staircase, but the falling never stopped. I raised a trembling hand to his shoulder and pushed at him slightly, until he disengaged.
“We can’t,” I said. “This is wrong.”
“Always so concerned with what they say, what they think,” he chided me, but his voice remained soft. “Do you ever live for you?” Again he came down, and this time he settled his body against my own. I felt his hardness pressing into me. His mouth sought mine, his hands ran slowly down my sides. He slipped a hand under my clothes, grabbed a solid handful of my ass. His kissing grew hungry. His chest rose and fell against my body with increasing urgency.
“Ehud, wait.” I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply to clear my mind. It only brought his scent flooding into me. I wanted to hold it forever. “This is sodomy.”
“Tell me to stop, then,” he said. He pressed his cheek to mine, and buried his face in my hair. His lips brushed my ear as he whispered, “Tell me you don’t want this.” His right hand circled over my hips and reached lower, wrapped around the base of my cock. I gasped and wrapped my arms around his shoulders. He squeezed, tugging gently. “That’s what I thought,” he murmured. Slowly he stroked my cock, as his other hand worked to pull down my small clothes.
“What, what are you doing?” I panted. I felt him sliding down, pulling away from me. I looked down, and saw the most beautiful boy in the world looking up at me through his bangs with an impish smile across his face. I shivered in his grasp.
“Watch,” he said, and he gave me his slow, exaggerated wink. Then he bent his head and took me in his mouth, and for a moment I knew nothing else. A long moan escaped me, drawn from a well of want so deep it swallowed me whole. Ehud’s head rose and fell over my cock with small wet noises. He grabbed my ass with one hand, cupped my balls with the other. Small, happy sounds rose from within him. Warmth and softness enveloped me. Pushing, sliding, and before I knew it my hips bucked uncontrollably. I grabbed his hair and held him tight, thrusting, erupting into this mouth. He moaned on my dick, quivering as I came.
When at last I fell away from him, he sat back with a sealed-lip smile. He cupped both hands before him and spat my come into his palms. He stared at it, fascination dancing over his features. He tipped his hands to see it run, then lifted one hand and poked at it with his fingers. I watched him, still panting. His curiosity was mesmerizing. Then he laughed, and raised his hand high, tipped back his head, and let the gooey secretion drip back into his open mouth.
He turned to me with a delighted grin, and through the warm haze and my pounding heart, I realized I would never see a more beautiful sight. I knew this would be my strongest memory of him.
Of course, I was wrong.
Many years later. Before the uprising and the war. Before I’d left my sick faith. Dozens of men around me, jostling, shouting. Disgust in the air, disgust burning into rage. A stone lay in my chest, cold, where my heart should be. A stone weighed in my hand, heavy, in my icy grip. A hole in the center of the crowd, the eye of the storm, twenty yards across. Empty but for a single weeping man. We churned around him like a boiling sea, hurling abuse, hurling hatred. Stones lay about him.
Ehud. He’d returned, when his father died, to care for his mother. He’d never said how things worked out in Alexandria, shaking his head when I asked. But he had forgotten how to live in Judea. He’d never been that discreet even before he’d left. I should have known he would be found out. A stone flew from the crowd and tore his ear open. It bled black.
He looked up, snot running down his face, eyes swollen. I knew he couldn’t see me through his tears, but his gaze seemed to catch mine. My chest constricted. It was too hot, too tight. This couldn’t be happening. Rabbi Tzuriel caught the look. He looked at me, then back at Ehud. Glanced at the rock held unthrown in my hand. I had no children, no wife. Something troubled his eyes.
A scream of blood and fury rose within me, a revulsion to rival all those around me. I nearly let it free, nearly let my stone fly at Rabbi Tzuriel’s frowning, troubled face. I nearly pounced on Tzuriel and lifted the rock over my head and smashed it down on his head with both hands, roaring hatred.
Instead I crammed that scream deep inside, down into the well of myself. I chose life. I stepped forward and flung my stone at Ehud. It caught him in the mouth, split his lip. Dark syrup poured from the gash, and now Ehud’s tears came clouded and oily. The sweet smell of decomposing bodies filled the air, his cries broke into crow-like squawks. I bent down, grabbed more stones, hurled them one after another, blindly.
A storm of stones fell upon him then, from all sides. Ehud fell to his knees. He tried to shield himself with swollen forearms, his skin bruised entirely black. His fingers broken so many ways they jutted like twisted claws. A jagged stone ripped his shoulder open and pitch spilled forth onto the dirt. I gagged on the stench, and for an instant, between desperate sobbing casts, I saw he had no face. Only the remains of a great beak, broken apart by hurled stones.
And then I was sitting up in my quarters in the Ludus, gasping for air, the sky outside still fully dark. I threw aside my soaked sheets, leaned over, and vomited on the floor.
The dream was even worse twisted like this–Ehud’s execution melding with the monster’s slaying. That sweet stink clung in my nostrils. I squeezed my eyes tight and let sickness wash over me.
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First line of next week’s chapter: The house sat dark when Marcus woke, his heart hammering in his chest.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I remember how surprised I was when I first learned the Romans had no qualms with homosexuality.
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