An excerpt from the HarperCollins book, from part one: Seeker
A horse!" the temple lad cried as he ran in panting for breath. "Quick, come and see."
"Why?" I asked without looking up. I was in the middle of writing, which I did every morning. My scribbles never reached anyone outside this dim, falling-down hut, but that’s of no matter.
"Because he’s huge. Hurry, or somebody might steal him."
"Before you do, you mean?"
The boy was so excited that he kept sloshing his bucket of hot water on the floor. He was permitted to barge into the hut to fill my bath just after dawn.
I frowned at him. "What about detachment?"
"What?" he asked.
"I thought the priest was teaching you not to get so excited."
"That was before the horse."
If you were born high in these mountains, a stray horse is an event. Where would this one be from? The Western empire probably, where huge black stallions are bred. The locals knew animals by the compass. Elephants come from the south, where the jungle begins, and camels from the eastern desert. In all my travels, I had seen only one of these gray monsters, who are like walking walls.
From the north, over the passes, came small, furry ponies, and these were very common – traders used ponies to reach the villages with their goods: hemp, silk, incense, salt, dried meat and flour. The bare necessities plus the silk to adorn a bride in joy or wrap a corpse in sorrow.
I set the ink-laden brush back on its stand and rubbed the black from my fingers. "You’d better put that bucket down before you drown us both," I said. "Then fetch my cloak."
Outside, a storm had swooped down off the high peaks overnight, batting at the stretched animal skins over my windows and leaving another foot of fresh snow. I emerged from the hut and looked around.
More than a horse is here, I thought.
The temple lad couldn’t stand to wait for me and rushed down the trail.
"Find the stranger," I shouted.
The boy whirled around. I was calling with the wind, and at these altitudes my voice could be heard at a long distance.
"What stranger?" the boy called back.
"The one who fell off the horse. Search for him. Search hard, and don’t dawdle."
The temple lad hesitated. He much preferred gawking at a fine huge horse, but finding a body in the snow had its own appeal. He nodded and turned the corner out of sight. The boulders on either side of the trail were large enough for a grown man to disappear into, much less a scrawny boy.
I proceeded slowly after him, but not because of age. I don’t know how old I am. The matter lost its interest long ago. But I can still move without creaking.
I had foreseen the mysterious stranger two days earlier, but not the overnight storm. The snow wouldn’t kill him, but the blast of frigid air that howled off the peaks most likely would. Nobody from the world below anticipates that kind of cold. I’ve helped the villagers rescue the stranded travelers who were fortunate. Only their noses and toes were blackened. They were numb at first after being dragged to shelter, but started screaming with pain as soon as the rescuers warmed them up.
Everyone in my valley has enormous respect for the high peaks and their dangers. But they also revere the mountains, which remind them of how close Heaven is. I don’t need the comfort of Heaven.
The villagers didn’t call on me for rescue work anymore. It disturbed them that an old ascetic who looked like a crooked teak carving could trek in his bare feet when theirs were bound in layers of goatskin and rags. Huddling on long winter nights, they discussed this, and they decided that I had made a pact with a demon. Since there were thousands of local demons, a few could be spared to look after my feet.
I walked down the trail until I heard a faint distant sound in the wind, more like a rodent squeak than a boy’s voice. But I understood its meaning. I veered left where the sound came from and hurried my steps. I had a personal interest in finding the stranger alive.
What I found when I came over the next ridge was a mound in the snow. The temple lad was staring at the mound, which didn’t move.
"I waited for you before kicking it," he said. His face held that mixture of dread and relish that comes over people when they think they’ve discovered a corpse.
"Listen to me. Don’t wish him dead. It doesn’t help," I warned.
Instead of kicking at the mound, the lad knelt and began to sweep it furiously with his hands. The stranger had managed to bury himself under a foot-thick layer of snow, but that wasn’t as surprising as something else. When I finally saw his outlined body, the man was crouched on his knees with clasped hands folded under his chin. The boy had never seen anyone in that posture before.
"Did he seize up like that?" he asked.
I didn’t reply. As I gazed at the body, it impressed me that someone could remain praying to the point of death. The position also told me that this was a Jew, because as you travel east, holy men sit cross-legged when they pray; they don’t kneel.
I told the boy to run down to the village for a sledge, and he obeyed without question. In truth the two of us could have carried the body out on our own. But I needed to be alone. As soon as the temple lad had disappeared, I brought my mouth close to the stranger’s ear, which was still bright pink although covered with frost.
"Stir yourself," I whispered. "I know who you are."
For a moment nothing happened. To all appearances the stranger remained frozen, but I didn’t embrace him to give him warmth from my own body. If this was the visitor I was expecting, it wasn’t necessary. But I granted one small concession. I called the stranger by name.
Most souls will respond when you call their name. A few will come to you even from the shadow of death. The stranger stirred, faintly at first, just enough to shake a dusting of snowflakes from his frost-matted hair. It wasn’t a question of thawing out. Humans aren’t like carp, which can be seen suspended in the ice all winter, only to wriggle back to life when the lakes unfreeze in spring. The stranger had willed himself into total stillness and now willed himself out again. If I had let the boy witness it, he would have been convinced that I was performing black magic.
Jesus lifted his head and stared blankly. He wasn’t quite back in the world. I gradually came into focus.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"It doesn’t matter," I replied.
I tried to help him to his feet. Jesus resisted. "I came only to see one man. If you’re not him, leave me." He was sinewy and strong, even after such an arduous journey, and his resistance pushed me back on my heels.
Jesus didn’t ask about his horse. The tongue he spoke was coarse Greek, the kind used in the marketplace of the Western empire. He must have picked it up on his journeys. I knew some Greek, learned from traders when I was about the stranger’s age, 25 or so.
"Don’t be stubborn," I said. "I came and dug you out. Who else would bother with an ordinary mound of snow?"
Jesus remained wary. "How did you find out my name?"
"Your question answers itself," I said. "The right man would know your name without asking."
Now Jesus smiled, and together we forced his knees to unbend from the cold. He stood up shakily, then immediately fell against my shoulder.
"A moment," he said.
In that moment I took his measure. I stood half a head taller than the mountain villagers, and Jesus was that much taller than me. He wore his dark hair and beard cropped, not trimmed neatly but rough, as a traveler will do when there’s no time for niceties. His brown eyes seemed darker than usual against his pale skin. Pale, one should say, compared with being sun-baked at altitude, where everyone looks like a leather wineskin.
Jesus allowed me to half carry him up the mountain against my shoulder, which told me that he trusted me now. He didn’t ask my name again. A subtle thing, but I took it as a sign of foreknowledge. I prefer strict anonymity. If you want perfect solitude, don’t give out your name and never ask anyone else’s. The local villagers didn’t know my name even after years of proximity, and I forgot theirs as soon as I heard them, even the temple lad’s. Sometimes I called him "Cat," because the boy’s job was to catch the field rats attracted inside the temple by incense and oil.
After half a mile Jesus straightened up and walked on his own. A moment later he broke his silence. "I’ve heard of you by reputation. They say you know everything."
"No, they don’t. They say I’m a stumbling idiot or a demon worshiper. Tell the truth. You saw me in a vision."
Jesus looked surprised.
I said, "You don’t have to hide your knowledge from me." I gave Jesus a look. "Nothing in me is hidden. If you have eyes, you’ll see."
He nodded. The trust between us was now complete.
Soon we reached my wind battered hut. Once inside, I reached up into the rafters and brought down a packet wrapped in dirty linen rags.
"Tea," I said. "The real thing, not the dried barley stalks they boil up around here."
I put a pot of melted snow on the brazier to boil. It made a smoky heat, because for everyday purposes I burned dried dung for fuel. The floor of the hut was plastered with the same dung mixed with straw. Women came in every spring to put down a fresh layer.
Jesus squatted on the floor like a peasant and watched. If I really knew everything, I’d know whether Jesus had learned to sit that way among his people or on his long travels. After the pure air outside, my visitor’s eyes watered from the smoke. I pulled aside one of the dried skins covering the window to let in a breeze.
"One gets used to it," I said.
I had no plans to write down this visit, even though I’d had only a handful like it in twenty years. To look at him, there was nothing special about Jesus. The superstition of the ignorant must make giants and monsters out of those with special destinies. Reality is otherwise. Were the eyes of Jesus as deep as the ocean and as dark as eternity? No. To the initiated there was something in his gaze that words couldn’t express, but the same is true of a desperately poor village girl seeing her newborn baby for the first time and bursting with love. One soul is every soul; only we refuse to see it.
By the same logic, all words are the words of God. People refuse to see that too. Jesus spoke like everyone else. But not everyone else spoke like Jesus, which is a mystery.
That first hour the two of us drank our black tea, brewed properly and strong in the visitor’s honor, not weak the way I usually had it. My supply had to last all winter.
"I think I understand your problem," I said.
"You mean my reason for coming to find you?" asked Jesus.
"They’re the same thing, aren’t they? You found God, and it wasn’t enough. It never is. There’s no hunger worse than eternal hunger."
Jesus didn’t look surprised. The right man would talk like this, without asking preliminary questions. As for me, I’d seen my share of feverish young men who came up the mountain with their visions. They burned out and left very quickly, taking their visions in ashes with them.
"It’s one thing to find God," I said. "It’s another to become God. Isn’t that what you want?"
Jesus looked startled. Unlike the other feverish young men, he had found me not by his own will, but by being guided invisibly, held by the hand like a child.
"I wouldn’t put it that way," he said soberly.
"Why not? You can’t be worrying about blasphemy, not at this point." I laughed; it came out as a short, soft bark. "You’ve already had the word blasphemy thrown at you a hundred times. Don’t worry. Nobody’s looking over your shoulder. When I shut the door, even the local gods have to keep out."
After that exchange we didn’t talk anymore, but sat silently as the teapot hissed on the brazier. Silence isn’t a blank. It’s the pregnant possibility of what is about to be born. Silence is the mystery I deal in. Silence and light. So I had no trouble recognizing the light that Jesus brought with him.
There was more, though. This one’s road had been laid out before he was born. He was still young and had only caught a glimpse of it. But another might be able to see your whole road without tears. That was the reason Jesus had been guided through the snowstorm, to weave our two visions together.
He fell asleep sitting there, overcome with exhaustion. The next morning he began to tell his story to me. As the words poured out, the cold and dark of the hut made the tale seem unreal. But that was to be expected. Jesus long ago suspected that he might be living in a dream.
I heard his tale and saw much more in my mind. Listen to the story and judge for yourself.