Actually, It's Jesus, 2: Pachyderm
Jesus was sore everywhere, and felt wrong somehow. Not surprising given what had happened but weird, hard to explain. He decided to keep his eyes closed for a little while longer and try to make sense of the world. Something was poking him in the cheek and his ribs ached a dull throb where something hard was digging into them. He could hear people moving around but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Must have got his bell rung pretty hard, he thought, wondering if he was going to need an ambulance.
His reverie was interrupted by someone shaking him roughly by the shoulders. “Sikotheíte tempelis!” bellowed an unfamiliar voice. His eyes popped open and he sat up. Standing in front of Jesus was an improbably stout man with jet black hair dressed in an equally improbable outfit: a taupe cloak over a dinged-up metal chest protector (with abs!), a red and white kilt, tooled leather shin guards reaching above the knee, and sandals that were laced around the ankles and up underneath the shin guards.
Jesus goggled in confusion, barely having time to register what was in front of him before the angry man clouted him hard across the head. “Skata sta moutra sou, parte ta pragmata sas kai efthygrammisteite!” He gestured rudely next to the straw Jesus had been laying in, where lay a neat pile of gear like he had on. “Viia!” he yelled before stalking off.
Jesus watched his harasser as he cut his way across some grass until he reached another sleeping man who was then woken up the same way. Head swimming, he looked around trying to make sense of things. He was in an open field surrounded by several hundred other men in various states of getting up for the morning. Some of the men were yelling orders and getting men into line, others were eating breakfast, laughing together, pissing into the field. Jesus shivered in the morning chill. It turned out he had been sleeping under a long, narrow piece of rough cloth that looked a lot like the garment the man who woke him had been wearing. He wrapped it around himself against the chill and stood up.
When Jesus straightened up he found himself much closer to the ground than he was used to. His head snapped back like he had stood up too hard and he had to catch his balance. A wave of dizziness and nausea took him and he fell over sideways. This got the attention of a couple guys nearby who started shouting in the same unknown language everyone else was speaking. He looked at them helplessly and threw up into the grass.
One of the men bent down, put his hand on Jesus’s shoulder, and started asking him questions he couldn’t understand. “What the fuck is going on?” Jesus asked him. He drew back, clicked his tongue, and spoke to his friend. They both tensed up, and put their hands on swords he hadn’t yet noticed they were wearing. Jesus remembered the Abe Lincoln quote about not proving you’re a fool and made a loud groan, holding his throat and bugging his eyes a little at the two men. It looked like maybe this helped, a little – they relaxed some although they continued to stare hard.
As a matter of fact, that groan wasn’t much of an act. Jesus hurt like hell, all over, and then there was also this thing about being in an open field full of men dressed up like some sort of weird Ren Faire gathering speaking a language he couldn’t identify and whacking him angrily in the head. It was all too much. He threw up again.
One of the two swordsmen ran off and got the attention of the man who had woken Jesus up, speaking animatedly and pointing in his direction. They both returned and the stout man who Jesus by now took for being in charge clapped his hands on either side of his face and pulled Jesus toward him. He looked at him hard for a moment, scowled, and shoved him sideways before cutting loose with a string of words that were clearly understood by tone alone. He waved again at his belongings and walked away. The two guys cracked up at this.
Jesus laid on his side, wondering what the fuck he was going to do now. The guy who seemed to be in charge was built like a bowling ball and could probably rip his arms off to beat him with them if he wanted to, the other guys weren’t much help, and everybody had swords and spears in case he tried anything. He watched the two guys near him to see what they were doing. After enjoying the show of Jesus getting tossed around by Captain Bowling Ball, they had started to get their gear on, looked like the same kind of stuff Jesus had next to him. Looking busy seemed wise, so Jesus endeavored to get dressed after the fashion of the people around him.
This presented its own set of problems. Lacing up sandals, for example, was not a skill Jesus had ever learned. He looked at the feet of the men around him and did his best, but still spent the better part of the day with his sandals flopping around and the laces all wrapped around his ankles. The shin guard things were a little bit easier to figure out mostly because it was obvious where the laces were supposed to go, but he still had to keep hiking them up and re-tighten the laces. Instead of a shirt he had something like a poncho but shorter, like a hole where the head goes through and that’s it. Next went the belt which was just a strap of leather with a loop in one end. Jesus figured out a knot that worked to hold it and then the belt held his shirt-poncho thing down. The sword was in a sheath that had a strap that went across his shoulders, easy.
Then there was the helmet. Looking it over, Jesus thought that it looked like a great big fucking dong that his head was supposed to go into. It was made out of metal and there was a bit of a brim on the front part, then the back covered the back of his head and stuck down for his ears, all that made sense but the top of it… was a penis. It had a fat part at the end and kind of hung forward over the top of his head. But the other guys were putting their dong-hats on so Jesus put his on too. Crazy as things were Jesus couldn’t help but grin a little at the sight of all of these dudes wandering around a field with big dong-helmets on.
Finally wrapping himself up in the cloak, Jesus was the last guy dressed so all the other guys around were watching. Obviously he had put it on wrong – the moment he did everybody started laughing. One of the guys who was with him at first started prancing around swaying his hips really big and he realized he was wearing his cloak like their women did. Not knowing what else to do, he went with it. If he couldn’t figure out what the hell part of the world he was in he could at least crack a joke, so Jesus started prancing around too but also looking closer at how the other men were wearing their cloaks so he could get it right later.
Caught up as he was in his act, Jesus was caught unawares by a shield, his shield actually, slamming into his face so hard his nose bled. While he was busy acting a fool, Captain Brunswick the human bowling ball had come up to see what the fuss was about and found Jesus, his new least favorite person, in the middle of it all. So he gave Jesus his shield the hard way and then spent the next half a minute giving all the men but Jesus especially a huge ration of shit that once again didn’t require any knowledge of his language to perfectly understand. The men all started to form lines. In the midst of the confusion a soldier got Jesus’s attention and showed him where his spot was – probably saying something like “what the fuck are you doing, get in here!” but Jesus appreciated it just the same. He stepped into his spot and fixed his cloak so it wasn’t a joke for people.
Once they were all lined up the boss man came along down the line inspecting everybody, and stopped in front of Jesus. He looked him up and down, his face red as a tomato, and gave Jesus a good chewing out. He ended it with what sounded like a question, but, not comprehending, Jesus just stared at him. He repeated the question again, and ended it with “Eh?!” so Jesus grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. The tenpin crusher’s face crumpled into a whole new shape and turned purple, then he proceeded to beat the everliving shit out of Jesus, who didn’t expect it and didn’t get a chance to protect himself. Not that it would have mattered – the guy could hit like a train and he did, repeatedly.
Once he had wore himself out he hauled Jesus to the back of the line next to a man who looked way too old to be there and barely had any gear on. The old man looked at Jesus through cloudy eyes and was going to say something but then a shout went up and the line started to move. As quick as they were moving it was all the old man could do to keep from falling so whatever he was going to say never happened. Bossman walked off to one side for a while, probably to make sure Jesus wasn’t going to do anything else stupid and eventually worked his way forward along the line.
The line trudged on for hours. The countryside was familiar-but-different to Jesus. There were hills near and mountains in the distance that looked similar to what he knew in parts of California, but with surprises. Places he expected to be lush were dry, and vice-versa. And although he was no expert, the trees around looked different as well.
Mostly Jesus just tried to make sense out of a morass of things that made no sense. He had just had his ass beat hard, right after having had his ass beat hard, but the sore he felt was mostly a deep sense of tiredness, aching muscles and joints, feet that would have hurt like hell even if he had put his sandals on the right way. As they marched through the day, the tired part began to make sense, and he could see the same tiredness in the men around him. Clearly these men had been on the road for a long time.
Another group of tired-looking men joined in the line behind Jesus and his group. At one point they passed a run-down building that he first took to be an old stable until he noticed some kids looking nervously out at them from the unglazed windows. Jesus had seen a great deal of poverty in his life but nothing like this. In addition to the windows, the sagging roof was covered in grass and looked ready to cave in at any point, and the doorway was covered by nothing more than a flap of worn brown cloth.
The house hit him in a way that the men with swords and sandals and dong-helmets and chest protectors with abs on them didn’t. Thinking back, he realized he hadn’t seen a single road, a single powerline, not even a single airliner flying overhead in the sky. Everything around him screamed to Jesus that he was in the past, but he wasn’t able to get over the one burning, impossible question: How?
As impossible as it was, Jesus found himself on a long march with men dressed like ancient soldiers and a guy in charge who seemed like he was ready to beat him to death if he kept fucking around. Whatever the impossible answer to the impossible question was, Jesus decided that his best move was to avoid pissing anybody else off and see what came of things. His whole life had been a steady drumbeat of completely incomprehensible moments, and while this was by far the most incredible, it was far from the first – or the worst.
They kept marching through the day without stopping for meal breaks or rest. When they had to, men simply pissed on the ground before them as they marched. The day dragged on, the men marched, the scenery slowly brought itself into view and just as slowly fell behind them. The soldiers passed a few more houses, none in better shape than the first Jesus had seen. Only rarely could anybody be seen within and never outside. Clearly the occupants of these homes fled inside when the soldiers appeared, hoping the massive column of armed men would pass them by.
The old man spent the entire day looking as if he were about to keel over at any second, but by some miracle of stringy toughness and will he kept his feet the whole way. Jesus tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to himself, saying “Jesus.” The old man cocked an ear and said “Eh?” so Jesus repeated his name, slightly louder this time.
“Lisous?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face. Jesus tried correcting him but the old man really wanted to make an L sound instead of a J, so Jesus decided it was close enough. He waved at the old man to say his name. “Yassonas” he said. Jesus tried repeating it, the old man tried correcting him, Jesus tried saying it again, and the old man responded by grinning and shrugging. Clearly neither of them would be able to say the other’s name right. Jesus grinned right back.
Not long after, the man in charge grabbed Jesus, spoke gruffly to him, and took away his sword and shield. He then shoved Jesus off in the direction of three men who were wrestling some big pots around near the front of the line. Wanting to show willing (not to mention stay out of reach) Jesus ran up to the group of men.
Once he arrived, one of the men said something to Jesus, who responded with a shrug. The man yelled the same thing again, loudly. Jesus shrugged again and made a groaning noise, holding his throat. The man waved at some pack animals and yelled again. Walking over to the donkeys, Jesus spotted big spoons and other items that could only be for cooking food. This was good news: he’d spent a lot of time in kitchens, much of that with other people who didn’t speak the same language. If there was one thing Jesus could figure out how to do right in this fucked-over situation he found himself in, it was cook, language barrier or no.
He looked back at what the other cooks were setting up and brought what he thought they were going to need next. After a few trips he could see from the reaction of the cooks that he was mostly getting it right. One of the men was a bit more approachable and eventually introduced himself as Balious. Jesus introduced himself back, coming to terms with the fact that he was always going to be Lisous to these people. Correctly perceiving the language barrier, Balious began teaching “Lisous” the names for things.
After a while they had their kitchen set up on some tables somebody had brought over. Balious was in charge of the kitchen and was patient, so aside from a few random screwups the afternoon was smooth. The men all went down to a creek carrying simple buckets, filled them with water, dumped them into the big pots, and got a fire going under them. Balious sent Jesus off with another guy named Arsen to the creek. They both carried baskets with them and at the creek Arsen pulled a green leafy plant out of the water and ate it, beckoning to Jesus to do the same. It was good – watery but crisp, with a nice mustardy kind of flavor. The two men set to work filling their baskets. The water and soft mud of the creek felt good on Jesus’s tired feet.
By the time they returned with their filled baskets there was a dead deer on the ground next to the field kitchen. Jesus pointed at it and Balious said “Dorkas.”
“Dorkas.” Jesus couldn’t suppress a snicker at this, but none of the other guys found it funny – clearly that was just their word for deer. Balious began cleaning the carcass, placing the entrails into some other baskets and sending Jesus back to the creek with Arsen. Turns out they were there to clean out the intestines. Years of kitchen work paid off for Jesus who was mostly fine with everything, although he found cleaning out the large intestine pretty gross. Arsen demonstrated the technique: first he squeezed all the shit out of the intestine, then reached in and turned it inside out and scrubbed it down thoroughly. Looking downstream, Jesus saw a group of men bathing in the water and drinking from it. Ugh.
Back at the kitchen, the men cut up the meat and entrails, throwing most of it into the larger pot. Some of the nicer cuts were set aside. Balious wandered around kicking the dirt until he found a big flat rock and put it in the fire.
Meantime camp was getting set up. It was already colder than the morning had been so men were sent out to gather wood and set up fires. The captain came by and watched the cooks work for a while, mostly staring at Jesus. He talked to Balious for a while and Jesus heard their version of his name a couple times, then the captain wandered off. Balious looked over at Jesus and smiled. Jesus figured he’d put in a good word with the captain.
Once everything was cooking and there was no more work to be done the men sat down in the grass to rest. Jesus laid on his back and looked up at the sky, which was shockingly bright with more stars and more color than Jesus could ever remember seeing. After a few minutes he realized that, for the first time in his life, he was looking at a sky devoid of smog. He could hear the other cooks chatting quietly, and in the distance some men were singing. Jesus let himself relax and take in the moment.
Then he heard a noise – felt it as much as heard it. At first he thought it was his stomach rumbling, but then the sound got louder and sounded like an old motorbike engine. Finally the sound became something he was totally familiar with but couldn’t believe he was hearing. It was the trumpet of an elephant! He sat up and looked down the hill, and no shit, there were about 20 elephants walking up toward the camp. There were minders in front of and beside them guiding the beasts along. Jesus looked at the other cooks but they didn’t seem surprised. Arsen growled “elefades” and made a gesture at them with his thumb sticking out between the fingers of his fist before spitting on the ground in disgust.
The elephant dudes took their animals down to the creek, sending the erstwhile bathers hurrying back up to the camp. There was a lot of trumpeting and splashing around. It sounded like the elephants were happy to be in the water.
Balious called to Jesus and together the two men got the big flat rock out of the fire using some stout branches. Once it was flat on the ground, Balious used the rock to cook the good cuts of meat. Part way through he pulled out a small leather pouch and the other cooks got very quiet. Balious said some words of prayer before reaching into the pouch and carefully sprinkling some of its contents onto the venison steaks. Jesus moved downwind to get a whiff and for all he could tell it was just pepper. But then he looked at Balious and found him glaring at Jesus angrily as he put his pouch away. Jesus wondered if pepper was really that hard to come by.
He went back to work with the other cooks. Balious finished the steaks and left with them, probably to feed the head honchos. The rest of the cooks grabbed ladles and started feeding the soldiers who by now had begun to line up with bowls in hand. The cooks would scoop each man a ladle full of stew and Arsen would then throw some greens on top, which the soldiers seemed to really appreciate. Who was who in the pecking order was clear by watching what went into whose bowl. One man began to object to his portion, but the other soldiers shouted him down menacingly, so he shut up and left with his bowl.
The last guy in line was old Yassonas from the back of the line. By now the first pot was completely empty and the second nearly done so he got his bowl filled with mostly broth and some small chunks of meat, which he seemed happy enough for and happier still to see his marching partner. After Yassonas was fed the cooks helped themselves to the rest of the food – Jesus didn’t have a bowl but Arsen found one for him. Once they were done eating they dumped the pots over and took the utensils down to the creek, steering a wide berth upstream from where the elephants had been. Once all the work was finished they stoked up the cooking fire and settled in for the night.
Arsen woke Jesus up early the next morning and, after watching Jesus struggle to tie his sandals for a minute, laughed and showed him how to do it correctly. Together, they stoked the fire and kicked around to find more flat rocks to put in it. In the meantime, Balious and the other cook were mixing dough in a smallish pot. As soon as the rocks were hot enough, they began laying the dough over them, cooking flatbread out of coarse flour. Jesus nabbed a piece that had fallen off and found that it had a pleasant, almost nutty flavor.
The soldiers came up in dribs and drabs to get their breakfast and were handed flatbread hot off the rocks. As soon as the dough was finished, the cooks began packing up. Arsen and Jesus took the small pot and utensils down to the creek to clean up, then helped finish loading the donkeys.
All the while, Jesus listened to the captain screaming at his men and was glad it wasn’t him. The bruises from the previous morning’s beatings were so painful that he couldn’t even stand up straight.
Forming back up into line, Jesus was glad to see old Yassonas next to him – he hadn’t seen the old man at breakfast, although he doubted that Yassonas would have been able to eat the bread they were serving. In any case, the old man didn’t look any worse off than the day before, although the only way that could have been possible was if he were dead. Jesus wondered why the man was marching with the soldiers in the first place.
This day turned out to be exactly like the day before: the soldiers marched all day without rest and stopped at the end of the day. Seeing the captain headed his way, Jesus waved over to the cooks and the captain simply turned and walked back the way he came. Clearly this was now his job. He went and cooked and cleaned and slept and cooked and cleaned and marched, and did the same thing the next day, and continued in this fashion for a long time. While he picked up enough of the language to get by, Jesus didn’t have any real friends in the crowd – once he was able to function with the other cooks they stopped trying to teach him more of their language. He never learned where they were, or why they were marching, or for how long.
Some days were harder than others. When there wasn’t any game they’d have to cook flatbread for dinner and the soldiers complained. Rarely did they come across any greens as they had that first night. The water was often foul, often far away, and most often both. The line was being kept as close to water as possible but sometimes the landscape made that impossible. At one point virtually every man got a terrible case of the shits and the line had to halt for a day to get over them. Jesus noticed the lines were shorter after that, although he never learned what had been done with those who had died.
After a few weeks of keeping mostly to the plains the line turned in toward the mountains, working its way up a long valley. The days began getting cold and the nights awful – Jesus woke up one night with his arm in the fire after he’d fallen asleep too close to it. The burns were not bad but hurt like hell. As much as they were able, the men would scavenge pelts from the game they had caught and wear them over their cloaks.
One day the line didn’t march, and all the men were sent out to gather supplies. Jesus went to the water with the cooks to fill as many water skins as the donkeys could carry alongside the bundles of firewood others were hanging on their sides. People hunted everything they could find – even rats – and the elephant people were cutting grass and piling it into the baskets the elephants wore on their backs. It appeared that they were preparing to cross the mountain pass that loomed above the column, the sky cutting a notch between craggy snow-covered peaks.
That afternoon, the cooks fed everyone a larger-than-normal portion and then everyone hunkered down for the night.
The next day was rough going. The ground was steep and hard to walk on, with large boulders that had to be detoured around and large rocks that were easily dislodged by a careless soldier, but most of the ground was sharp gravel that readily and painfully invaded everyone’s sandals.
About two thirds of the way up the line reached a small hanging valley and began making camp. This high up there were no trees or tall grass, so for the first time Jesus was able to see the whole army – because that’s what it was – all spread out in front of and behind him. He boggled at the sight. There were at least a couple thousand men out there on the march, plus a herd of donkeys, some horses, and then at the very end of the line the elephants. It was an amazing sight to behold, would be an amazing sight to behold anywhere at any time, and not for the first time Jesus wondered what he was doing there, and then. The hamburger stand with Jason and the bikers couldn’t have been any farther away.
The next day the line started cutting switchbacks up the steep pass. The people in front were making the path as they went – there was a lot of starting and stopping and twice they had to go back the way they had come as the people in the lead ran into some insurmountable obstacle. Toward the top of the pass there was a loud commotion and screams in the line uphill from Jesus. Once they marched further up the hill he saw what the source of the upset was – some rocks had been knocked loose by someone near the front of the line and had rolled down the hill and hit two men. One of them had been hit in the leg, which was misshapen and covered in blood. The other man had been hit in the chest and was dead. As they walked by Jesus looked at the dead man, his skin already gray, his face showing the fear he had felt in his last moment, and his eyes seemed locked onto Jesus’s. He shook off an uncomfortable feeling and continued trudging up the hill.
The line stopped at the top of the pass and made camp. There was no point in looking for supplies – the land was nothing but rocks and gravel. Preparing the kitchen was difficult on account of the wind, which blew nonstop at the top of the pass carrying with it an eerie sound and trying to blow out the cookfires. Balious constructed a rough rock shelter on the windward side of the cookfire and the pots began heating up.
Jesus looked around and in spite of the biting cold found himself in awe of the view. He could see the mountain range they were crossing curving off in both directions, with the crazy shapes of cliffs and peaks poking out all around. Looking back the way they had come he could make out the glimmer of an ocean in the setting sun. The view reminded him of old National Geographic magazines he had read as a kid. Unfortunately it was too cold for him to spend much time taking in the beauty and he hastened back to the fire.
After serving the last of the food, the cooks spent the night in silence, huddled close together next to the cookfire. Jesus didn’t sleep and didn’t think anyone else did either – anyone finding himself close to falling off was sure to be awakened by the incessant trumpeting and rumbling of the elephants giving voice to their unhappiness at the cold and wind. Every now and again the donkeys would add to the bedlam, and Jesus wondered if they too were cold or if they were just fed up with the elephants making so much noise.
The sun finally rose but brought no heat nor any relief from the wind. The cooks wordlessly made their flatbread and shoved it at the soldiers who approached, and then just as wordlessly packed up their kitchen. Jesus’s eyes hurt from squinting so much against the wind and his head hurt from the smoke and lack of sleep the night before. All the men looked like he felt, which is to say dragged through a knothole. Eventually they got back in line – Yassonas barely even able to give a glance – and started down toward the forest on the other side of the pass.
Hiking down long hills is much more arduous than many people expect. One must constantly exert energy to keep from going too fast, and the thigh muscles quickly begin to burn. Meantime the muscles of the back are being held at an awkward angle respective to the hips so they start contributing pain. And when walking closely with others there will be constant slowdowns, which makes those thighs turn into logs of fire. The line of soldiers let out a quiet steady murmur of grunts, groans, and quiet yelps.
Yassonas had brought a walking stick with him from the other side of the pass. Leaning hard on it, he somehow managed to not fall off the mountain. They made a few switchbacks down the pass and the people making the trail must have known they would be murdered if they had to backtrack as the line moved steadily down without interruption or delay.
Jesus would always remember the sounds of that morning: his breath and his heart beating WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP in his ears. There was the whistle of wind passing through the rocks, the grunts and groans of exhausted men trying to move, and the damn elephants bitching and moaning at the back of the line. Jesus began to understand what Arsen had against them.
At long last the line approached the forest, and Jesus gratefully inhaled the scent of pine trees. The other men seemed to feel the same way – everybody started to quicken their pace and their steps seemed a bit easier. Suddenly Yassonas ran about fifteen feet in front of a very alarmed Jesus, who was worried the old man would finally fall and hurt himself. Then he turned up to face Jesus and said “Prosexte!” Jesus looked at him with his by now well-practiced “I don’t understand you” face and the old man screamed the same word again: “Prosexte!” He waved wildly up the hill and Jesus turned around just in time to see a rock the size of a washing machine spinning in midair, heading right for him. He felt the impact and then
Jesus felt heat and could hear voices yelling. There was a loud percussive sound that got louder and faster before dwindling away in the distance. He was laying on his side and hurt like crazy everywhere except for the back of his head, which felt numb. “How the fuck did I survive that?” he wondered. The rock probably weighed a ton and was flying through the air straight at him. He was afraid to open his eyes to see the wreckage of was once his body.
“Hey.” A voice in his ear. “Hey, you OK?” It took him a few seconds to realize the voice was familiar, and speaking English.
Jesus opened one eye just a crack and could see worn asphalt. The pain was too much. He closed his eye again and groaned. Peeking out again after a few moments he beheld the face of Jason, who he hadn’t seen in weeks. Jason looked worried.
“Take it easy,” he said. “There’s an ambulance coming. Don’t move though, OK?”
“How long?” Jesus asked.
“How long was I gone?”
Jason said, “At least like thirty seconds. You were flopping around like a fish the whole time. I thought you were dead.”
Jesus groaned again, and passed out.
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