Knife Then — The Testimony of Menahem ben Jair

He crept up behind the holy man. The air was thick with musk meant to hide the filth of humanity. Sunlight streamed in through the narrow windows and scattered across the floor like gold coins given up in offering to the greediest of gods. Yitzhak, the priest, was on his knees, hunched over before the altar, mumbling his devotions in the temple’s inner sanctum. The holy man didn’t break away from his prayer. He crept closer, listening to the shallow rise and fall of Yitzhak’s breathing and the gentle rise and fall of his prayer. There was hope in it, love, and strength. In a matter of heartbeats there would be nothing but empty silence where all of that had been.

The Sicarii paused one step behind the priest.

Yitzhak turned and looked up, startled, hands clasped in his lap. “The god you believe in is a lie,” he told the holy man. They were the last words the priest would ever hear. Yitzhak’s eyes blazed feverishly with fear as the Sicarii gbbed his hair and pulled his head back. In one smooth motion the dagger sliced across his throat. A death rattle escaped Yitzhak’s lips. He clawed at the gash, trying to force the air and blood back inside the flaps of skin. But there was no salvation. The Sicarii released his grip and Yitzhak fell. He was dead before his corpse sprawled across the blood-slick floor.

Menahem never did forget that promise. It burned inside him as the world turned and he grew into a man. It shaped everything he believed. It echoed in every act he performed and every decision he reasoned. In many ways his grandfather’s truth was the core of the man he had become: bitter, brooding, a loner. Menahem ben Jair was an outsider. He took comfort in solitude. He drew strength from isolation. He called no man friend. He had no time for the sects and their new religions. There were thirty or more already in Jerusalem, everyone worshipping their own brand of messiah. Menahem didn’t worship any false gods. He had a mind of his own. He believed one thing, one truth-that his land should be for his people. He had seen his father suffer. He had sat at his knee and listened to tales of the Pharisees spitting at his grandmother and calling her a whore for loving the wrong man.

And then they had killed Jair. That day had changed the boy into the man he was always destined to be.

Menahem ben Jair was Sicarii.

A dagger man.

The world might have turned him into a killer, but in his heart he still yearned to be the boy who had walked into the garden to listen to his father’s lesson.

His mind raced. He looked down at his hands. Shaped like the wings of an angel they were coarse, hardened by life, but they were still beautiful. The blood was gone, but no amount of scrubbing with lye could remove its bitter iron tang from his mind. Still, it did not matter. He scrubbed them for a fifth time. It was strange… usually it was so easy to forget the faces of those he killed, but not this time. The face of Yitzhak Ari burned inside him. He saw it every time he closed his eyes. He couldn’t get it out of his mind.

Menahem was no stranger to death, but this was the first time he had taken the life of a priest.

Yitzhak Ari’s murder wasn’t about faith or fury. It had another purpose entirely. The motivation was as coldly rationalized as the deed itself. His murder was a political killing. It was the opening gambit in a long game of murder and sacrifice where the glittering prize was freedom. The holy man’s blood would be used to rally the faithful against the faithless. The Herodians and the other Roman sympathizers were already venting their outrage at the killing. They were already out in the streets shouting blue murder. Come sunrise that outrage would have brewed over into fervor and fury, and by dawn Jerusalem would run thick with blood.

It was that simple.

But there was still so much Menahem needed to think about, so much that could go wrong before then.

He paced back and forth. Behind him the door opened. The sun behind him transformed his visitor into a solid black silhouette. Menahem recognized his younger brother.

“What do you want?”

“Well, for one thing, I want you to stop pacing up and down like an old woman,” Eleazar grumbled. “Anyone would think you were losing your nerve, brother.”

“Just thinking,” Menahem assured him, though thinking was different from remembering. Thinking was active, remembering was passive. Menahem was not one for passivity. He lived his life. He was committed to it. He made things happen around him. He did not sit back and simply allow things to happen to him.

“No you’re not. I know you. You’re stewing over what the mad whore said, aren’t you? I know you. Look at me. Now listen. She wasn’t a soothsayer, she was raving. Sickness had got into her mind and undone it. That’s the difference. Not all madness is a glimpse of the future. Sometimes it’s just plain old insanity.”

“And sometimes it’s not,” Menahem said. In truth he wasn’t sure what he believed anymore. And that, more than anything, disturbed him. He was used to a life of absolutes.

The mad whore, as Eleazar so colorfully put it, had come stumbling up the siege ramp to the gates of the Masada fortress that morning, and stood there, hammering on the huge wooden doors until her fists were bruised and bloody. At first they had ignored her, assuming she would go away. She didn’t. Instead she had hit the doors all the harder. One of the others had emptied a slop bucket over her head, thinking it would shut her up. It didn’t. She had kept on hammering away on the massive iron-banded doors.

Finally Menahem had opened the door.

Swathed head to toe in rags that barely hid the sores of leprosy, she staggered forward and clutched him by the scruff of the neck. “You’ll be dead before sunrise if you kill the priest,” she rasped. Her breath was rancid. “Listen to me, Menahem son of Jair, listen to me!” He pushed her away. She went sprawling in the dirt. She lay there, her dress hitched up around her waist, dirt getting into the open sores that wept down her thighs. “I have seen your death!”

“And I have seen yours,” he said, turning his back on her. He slammed the heavy door. He stood with his back pressed against wood, breathing hard. He could hear her through the thick wood.

Menahem drew the beam down to lock her out. It didn’t help. She was already inside his head.

Menahem and Eleazar walked out of the small room together and climbed the narrow stair to the ramparts of Masada. The wind howled around them. Despite the plain lying over a thousand feet below the mesa the stronghold was built upon, Menahem could still feel the sand in the wind as it hit his face. The wind had a name: Simoom. The poison wind. It was an apt name. The air was thick with dust. He watched, fascinated by the giant dust devils that were constantly being whipped up and scattered again. They could just as easily have been the ghosts of the desert, the souls he had sent on their way to oblivion. It was easy to see where stories of the great Djinn originated. All it took were a few superstitious minds, the baking desert sun, Simoom, and a supernatural force was born.

He rubbed at the coarse hair of his close-cropped beard. Eleazar was right; the woman’s curse had gotten to him. Now that her words were inside his head they continued to worm away at his confidence. Doubt festered inside him.

There were no birds, he realized, staring into the lowering sun. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but it was a rare enough occurrence for him to notice. Yesterday Menahem would have said he didn’t have a superstitious bone in his body. Today all he could think was that yesterday he had been a fool.

“Walk with me, brother,” he said, turning his back on the Dead Sea and the empty sky that rolled away into the middle distance. “It feels like tonight is a time for truth.”

“You’re not going to die,” Eleazar said again, shaking his head.

“I am, you are, it’s the one given in this life,” Menahem said, managina wry smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

“Ah, so now you are a philosopher? Next you’ll be asking if I ever consider the morality of what we are doing.” Eleazar shook his head. He was more than a decade younger than Menahem. He could see his father in every line of his brother’s face. Sometimes he suspected he could see the old man looking out through Eleazar’s eyes, the similarity was that disconcerting.

“We don’t have the luxury of worrying about morality while our people are still prisoners in their own land. If we don’t kill them, they will kill us. That is just the way it is. Until we are free I am nothing more than the dagger in my hand.”

“So, dagger, why don’t you share this truth of yours, then?”

He did.

They walked a while in silence, Menahem gathering his thoughts. There was a lot he needed to tell, a lot that would have the ring of lies about it, and he needed his brother to believe. For the first time Menahem shared with his younger brother the truth of their grandfather Judas Iscariot. He showed him the thirty Tyrian shekels that were his legacy, and told the true story of the agony of the garden. After all these years protecting the secret, it surprised Menahem how good it felt to unburden himself and to have someone else understand.

“I want you to have the coins,” he finished. “Take them, they are yours.”

Eleazar braced himself against the wall, staring out over the plain. “No,” he said, finally. “If what you say is true, we should use them to honor grandfather, not hide them.”

“And how do you propose we do that?”

Eleazar thought about that for a moment. “We are Sicarii, brother. We are men of the dagger. What better way to preserve his truth than use them to commission the greatest blade ever?”

“Were you listening to anything I said? These coins are cursed. They cannot be spent. Grandfather couldn’t even give them away.”

Eleazar rubbed his thumb and forefinger across the stubble of his chin. He did not have an answer for that. What good were coins that could not be spent? They stood in silence for a few moments longer, until Eleazar grinned. “Humor me a moment,” he sid. “So the coins can’t be used to pay a master weapons smith, but that doesn’t mean the coins themselves can’t be forged into a dagger, does it?”

“A silver dagger?” He thought about it for a moment. There was a certain righteousness to the idea, given that the coins-or rather what they signified-had been one of the major influences behind the founding of the Sicarii. To turn the shekels into a dagger seemed somehow fitting. But silver was such a soft metal, any blade made out of it would be almost useless. But then perhaps a dagger never intended to kill was even more apt a tribute to Judas Iscariot? “Let me think on it.”

He lost the remains of the day in thought. The notion of the dagger appealed to him, so he had Eleazar light the forge fire and promised he would join him soon.

His mind refused to rest. All he could think about was tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It promised to be the defining dawn in the dagger men’s struggle. The harridan’s curse gnawed away at the back of his mind. In killing the priest had he damned them all? No. He refused to believe that. The plan was good. He had gone over it a thousand times. It was simple-misdirection, subterfuge and bloodshed.

Come first light the Sicarii would hit Jerusalem’s supply lines. They would burn the fields and slaughter the cattle. Without food the city would collapse in a matter of days, forcing the people to turn on the besieging Romans. There would be no more weak men out there trying to negotiate peace for the hungry. They would be out there on the streets with one thought: food. That was the shadow play. It turned the eyes away from what they were really doing, and allowed the dagger men to disappear into the ghettos. Once they found the shadows they would be able to orchestrate the true rebellion from the streets, striking only to fade away before the dying was done. Again and again, like vipers, they would attack, sinking their steel teeth into the pilgrims as they shuffled toward the Temple Mount looking for salvation, hitting the priests and the soldiers and leaving them clawing at the dust as they bled out into the road. And they wouldn’t stop until every last Herodian and Roman sycophant was either dead or driven from the city, leaving Jerusalem for the Jews.

It would be glorious. Righteous. More, it would be a fitting memorial for both his father and his grandfather, and would mean even more souls to join them wherever they were now. He refused to think of heaven or some beneficent Maker tending to the spirits of the dead. In Menahem’s mind the afterlife was a place of torment and suffering, Gehenna, with the gates of teshuvah firmly closed. How could it be anything else, built as it was on lies? There was no caring Christian God, no everlasting life in Olam Habah. The only deity he believed in was vengeful, the one who brought the flood to purify his creation, who demanded Abraham murder his own son to prove his fidelity. That was the god who owned the afterlife, the god capable of imagining such hells as the great fiery lake that existed solely to burn the sinners.

And that was a god he could kill for.

Menahem stopped his pacing. The red sun was a fiery glow behind the mountains in the middle distance. This land was his land. He felt a fierce attachment to it. When he died he wanted his blood drained and poured into the dirt so that he could become one with it. Was the woman right? Would he join them in Gehenna tomorrow? Was that his fate? Curiously the thought didn’t frighten him. It wasn’t that he hadn’t resigned himself to dying, more that he was at peace with it. He would leave the world a better place for his people than it was when he had entered it. That was all any man could ask of his life.

Menahem disappeared into one of the dark tower doors that led out of the sun. His footsteps echoed as he rushed down the spiral stair. The air was different, older. It was so much colder than outside, his scalp prickled and his skin crawled. It was only a few years since they had taken Masada by force. The blood of the Romans still stained the sandstone where it had been spilled. It leant the stairs a second set of shadows. How many ghosts still walked the walls? How many death rattles did the old stones remember?

At the bottom of the stairway the passage opened up into an antechamber. Like much of the fortress, the room was devoid of any decoration. There was an archway, lit by flickering torchlight. A draft blew through from outside. Beyond the arch three doors led off into other rooms. Another stair led down deeper to what had been the Romans’ dungeon, and a passage led toward the courtyard. Menahem followed the passage. The torches in two of the sconces had burned out, leaving dark shadows in their place. The passageway curved slightly, following the contours of the mesa. Around the corner, the passage branched into a second one, which in turn led out to the courtyard.

The heat hit him immediately. The temple stood in the shade of Herod’s three-tiered, round palace. When they had taken the fortress they had stripped it of much of its luxury. The bath house had fallen into disuse. The huge palace itself served as barracks for the assassins. Menahem hurried across the courtyard. Like Herod’s great temple in Jerusalem, this one had a variety of entrances. Even here the servants could not worship their Lord side by side with their masters. There was a door for the women, a door for the first-born sons, a door for the priests with their offerings and a door for the commoners. The Sicarii had stripped the temple of all religious trappings and turned it into a sheep croft for no other reason than it amused them.

He pushed open the temple door and went inside.

The air was hot. Uncomfortably so. And it stank of animals. Eleazar had brushed the straw away from around the altar. Behind it sandstone bricks had been built up around a wooden fire to trap the heat. The wood had already burned down to charcoal. His brother was hunched over the fire, feeding it.

Eleazar was the Sicarii smith-the dagger men’s dagger maker. He moved with quiet economy, every movement precisely measured. He didn’t look up as his brother entered. Menahem saw he had made a crude sand cast to pour the molten silver into. It would give the dagger its basic shape. The smith’s hammer lay on the altar. On the floor beside the altar was a bucket of luke-warm water.

Eleazar took the silver coins from Menahem and emptied them into the crucible and fed them to the fire. It didn’t take long for the metal to begin to fuse together. Eleazar removed it from the fire, allowing it to cool slightly, turning his wrist so that he could better see the lump of metal the coins had become before replacing it. This time he left it there until molten, then took the crucible from the flame and emptied the swirling silver liquid into the form. The metal began to solidify immediately, swelling to fill the bar-shaped cavity hollowed out in the sand. As it cooled it lost its luster.

Menahem lost all concept of time as he watched his brother take the silver bar with tongs and beat the metal flat, turning it over and over, each hammer blow shaping it a little more. Sweat dripped from every inch of his brother’s skin. The veins stood out angrily against his muscles. He didn’t stop for a moment, not even to wipe the stinging sweat from his eyes. He returned the silver to the fire, heating the metal until it began to soften and lose its shape, then moving quickly laid it flat on the altar. He took up the hammer and beat it towards its final form. Again and again he turned the silver, beating first on one side and then on the other, flattening it and putting an edge on the blade until even to Menahem’s unskilled eye it began to resemble the dagger it would become.

“As silver is melted in the middle of the furnace, so shall you be melted in the middle thereof; and you shall know that I, the Lord, have poured out my fury on you,” Menahem breathed, the words of Ezekiel’s ministry becoming a prayer on his lips as Eleazar folded the silver, heated it until it was malleable, then beat each fold flat. Each new layer of folds offered the blade more strength.

The sky through the temple window was dark. It could have been any time in the long night.

Eleazar worked on while Menahem watched, fascinated by his brother’s skill. Finally, he was done. He wrapped the hilt with leather, and the dagger was finished.

Menahem took it from his hand.

The blade was curved slightly to resemble a serpent’s tail. The rippled effect on the flat of the blade caught in the moon. It appeared almost as though it had been etched into the metal. There was a beautiful subtlety to it. More, he thought, examining it, there was a truth to it. The blade was strengthened by what appeared to be imperfections in its surface but were in fact the whisper-thin layers between the metal.

The dagger was much like the man wielding it.

Menahem was tempered by the heartbeats of happiness, those fleeting moments of joy and the agonies of disappointment hammered flat around his soul like protective armor.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, holding the dagger reverently.

“How could it be anything else?” bragged Eleazar. “It’s forged from the coins that paid for an entire religion.