"This fear for the god, that the enemy would get him, it was very real. Marduk himself had for two hundred years been a prisoner in another city, stolen and taken there, and it had been a great day for Babylon, long before my birth, when Marduk had been recovered and had been brought home."
"Did he ever tell you about it?" I asked.
"No," he said. "But I didn't ask him. We'll come to such things . . .
"As I was saying, I liked roaming about the temple. I took messages to the priests; I waited at table when Belshazzar dined, and I made friends of all the palace crowd, you might say, the eunuchs, the temple slaves, the other pages, and some of the temple prostitutes who were, of course, beautiful women.
"Now all of this work I did in the temple and the palace, there was a Babylonian point to it. The government had a sensible policy. When nch hostages like us, rich deportees, were brought in not only to enhance the culture, young men like me were always picked out to be trained in Babylonian ways. That was so that if or when we were sent back to our own city or some distant province we would be good Babylonians, that is, skilled members of the King's loyal service.
"There were scores of Hebrews at court.
"Nevertheless, I had uncles who went into a fury that my father and I worked at the temple, but my father and I, we would shrug our shoulders and say, 'We don't worship Marduk! We don't eat with the Babylonians. We don't eat the food that the gods have eaten.' And a good deal of the community felt the same way as we did.
, "Let me note here, this eating of food. It's still important for the Hebrews. No? You don't eat with heathens. You didn't then. And you didn't eat anything ever that had once been put before an idol. It was a big thing.
"As good Hebrews, we broke bread only with one another, and our hands were always washed carefully with ritual prayer before we took the food, and afterwards there was not one thing in our lives that was not permeated by our desire to praise Yahweh, our Lord God of Hosts.
"But we had to survive in Babylon. We had every intention of returning rich to our homeland. We had to be strong. And that meant what it has always meant to the Hebrews. You must be powerful enough to disperse without being destroyed."
Again came one of the inevitable pauses. He leant forward and stirred the fire, as people do when they want to think, and want to have the feeling of doing something. Stirring fires can give you that feeling, especially if you aren't drinking anything, clutching your coffee as if that were a full-rime job, the way I was doing.
"You looked then exactly as you look now, didn't you?" I said, though this was a repeat question. It was one of those soft verbal signals: God gave you all the right gifts, young man.
"Yes," he said. "I wanted now to be smooth-faced. I think I told you. But it doesn't seem to be in my luck.
"I came as myself this rime, and I don't know even to this moment who called me. Why now? Why has my body come back around me? Why? I don't know.
"In the past when I was called forth by sorcerers, they made me look the way they wanted, and that could be quite horrible. Seldom if ever did they wait, or take a deep breath, to see what I might look like on my own. I would be summoned in a specific form: 'Azriel, Servant of the Golden Bones which I hold in my hand, come forth in a blaze of fire and consume my enemies. Make of them cinders.' That sort of chant.
"Whatever the case, in answer to your question I looked exactly me same when I died as I do now except for one salient characteristic which had been added to me before my murder, which I will recount later. I am as I died."
"Your father, why was it a mistake to tell him about Marduk? Why? What did all that mean? What did he do to you, Azriel?"
He shook his head. "This is the hardest part for me to tell you, Jonathan Ben Isaac, but I have never told anyone, you know. I never told any master. Does God never forget? Will God deny me forever the Stairway to Heaven?"
"Azriel, let me caution you, simply as an older human being, though my soul may be newborn. Don't be so sure of Heaven. Don't be any more sure of the face of our god than Marduk was sure."
"This means you believe in one and not the other?"
"This means I want to blunt your pain in the telling of what happened. I want to blunt your sense of fatality, and that you are destined for something terrible because of what others have done."
"Wise of you," he said. "And generous in spirit. I am a fool still in so many ways."
"I see. I understand. Let's go back to Babylon, shall we? Can you explain the plot? What did your father have to do with it in the end?"
"Oh, my father and I, what friends we were! He didn't have a better friend than me, and my best friend was Marduk.
"I was the leader on our drinking jaunts, and it was he ... it was only he who could have ever made me do what I did . . . the thing which made me the Servant of the Bones.
"Strange how it all comes together." He fell to murmuring. He was distracted. "They choose ingredients and they blend them, because the potion won't work unless you have everything. The priests alone, they could never have gotten him to do it. Cyrus the Persian? I trusted him as much as any tyrant. And old Nabonidus, what was his advice? He was only there out of some sort of kindness on the part of Cyrus, and cleverness. Everything with the Persian empire was cleverness. Perhaps it's so with all empires."
"Take your time," I said. "Catch your breath."
"Yes ... let me give you pictures of my family. My mother died when I was young. She was very sick, and she cried that she wouldn't live to see Yahweh lift His Face to us again and take us back to Zion. Her people had all been scribes. She herself was a scribe and at one time, I heard, had been something of a prophetess, but this had ceased when she had sons.
"My father missed her unbearably until the last day I ever knew him. He had two Gentile women and so did I; in fact, we shared the same two women most of the time, but this was not for having children or marriage, this was just for fun.
"And at home in the family my father was a hard worker at writing down the psalms and trying to get exact the words we remembered from Jeremiah over which we all argued night and day. My father seldom if ever led the prayers. But he had a beautiful voice, and I can still remember him singing the Lord's praises.
"When we worked in the temple, it was secret between him and me that we thought all idolaters were completely crazy, and why not work for them and humor them?
"As I was explaining, we set the meal out for the god Marduk himself from time to time with the priests. I had many, many friends among the priests, and you know, it was like any group of priests; some believed it all, and some believed nothing. But we drew the veils around the god's table, and then afterwards we took away the food, which of course the god Marduk in his own way had actually savored and fed upon-through fragrance and through the moisture that he could feel-and we helped set up that meal for the members of the royal family, the royal hostages, and the priests and the eunuchs who would eat the god's food, or eat at the King's table.