Yesterday, the release of an anthology that I have waited a long time for was announced: the Holy C.O.W. (Center of the World) anthology, which is an alternate history collection including stories that concern the Middle East. It ships July 29th.
I’m proud of this because it carries my story “Day Of Atonement” which imagines a historically different relationship between Christians and Jews. I’d especially like to thank my editor, D Avraham and my good friend Cliff Winnig for their insights on Hebrew traditions which were a vital supplement to my research, and made this story much better than it otherwise would have been.
The gobbet of mud struck Yossef below his ear, splattering his neck and robes. For a moment he stood motionless, his anxiety wiped away by shock and growing anger, watching the ochre mud drip down the white cloth of the kittel and the tallis that he wore over his shoulders, his prayer-shawl that his mother had made. The ragged urchin who had thrown it was grinning, and bending to pry more muck from the gutter of the Jerusalem streets.
“Shame!” The voice cracked like a whip through the quiet Wednesday morning. A few peddlers, busy setting up their stalls selling sacrifices and food, paused to stare at its source. Yossef turned, distantly wondering if anyone else could hear how close that voice was to cracking. “Shame on you, boy!” Striding past Yossef, the priest in the rough black habit grabbed the boy’s arm and twisted hard. He howled, and the mud fell. “I am not hurting you, boy,” he said, more calmly. “You but feel a small portion of the pain your sin has brought upon your soul. How do you dare to defile a man, let alone a man of God on the Eve of the Day of Atonement?”
“His people killed Christ, father!”
“Oh?” The priest raised his eyebrows and pointed the boy’s chin firmly at the soldier who stood guard at the Double Gate. “His people helped us defeat the Arabian heretics as well. But if you want to fight, there is an Imperial soldier. They, too, took part in shedding our Savior’s blood. Will you throw your mud at him?” After a moment of silence, he snorted. “I thought not. Your cowardice and unforgiveness shames Christians, not Jews. Get home, and pray to St. Nicodemus for your sins.” The boy ran off to a stall, where a bearded man wore an expression of shame mixed with fury. He dropped his gaze and hauled his son around a corner.
The priest straightened and looked at Yossef. “I am so sorry. Come, let’s get you cleaned up.” He helped Yossef unwind the tallith and folded it neatly. “I don’t suppose you have a spare?”
“There will doubtless be one in the shrine, Matthias,” Yossef said. “It is no great matter.” The tightness in his voice betrayed him, however, and his old friend’s eyes darkened with shame.
“My people should know better,” he said. “We have disgraced ourselves before the Father, and ask your forgiveness.”
“As His mercy is everlasting, so we forgive.” Yossef repeated the ritual formula, and felt his own shame. It was not Matthias’s fault: God forbid, he might have to ask the same of a Christian, someday. Matthias led Yossef up the steps of Constantine’s Church, where it nestled on the southern side of the great wall of the Temple Mount. An acolyte rushed to meet them as Matthias dipped a towel in the basin at the entrance to the nave. Matthias stopped his incipient protest with a hard look.
“I know it’s holy water,” he said evenly. “And what is more holy than lifting up the oppressed?” The acolyte looked suffused, but stepped back in silence.