Lotán The Edomite

by Neph


Who is this who comes from Edom,
With garments of glowing colours from Bosra,
Majestic in his apparel,
Marching in the greatness of his strength? [Isaiah 63:1]

Respectfully dedicated
to the memory of RR
ob. February 21st 1980.

The horses were returned to Herod with a lengthy note explaining that the High Priest of Israel was not permitted to ride on a horse.

The dinner party went off very well indeed. From Yannai's point of view it was going to be a boring event because Lotán had not been invited. But for once Herod was charming, suave, civilized, polite and considerate. He paid particular attention to Yannai, laughing with him, joking with him, and generally making Yannai feel that he was someone very special in Herod's eyes.

During the after-dinner conversation, Herod brought up again the matter of the horses. "You know, my young friend," he said to Yannai, "I was very disappointed when you had to return those horses to me. I was very disappointed indeed. But I suppose that rules and regulations are meant to be obeyed. You know, I never knew that the High Priest may not ride a horse. Well, we learn something new every day."

Yannai looked at Herod steadily, now seeing something of the deviousness that Lotán had spoken of. And the more Yannai looked the more he could see in those eyes, in the sallow cheeks, in the mean lines of the mouth, a ruthless despot. This man is not only devious, thought Yannai to himself; he is malicious, he is evil. Meanwhile, unaware of Yannai's wandering thoughts, Herod was continuing his monologue.

"Unfortunately, one of those beautiful horses had to be killed," he said.

"Killed?" asked Yannai, suddenly alert with hidden fears.

"Yes. One of my grooms, a stupid oaf who did not know how to handle a thoroughbred, tried to ride the horse. The horse had not yet been broken in. A very silly thing to do, that was. Anyway, the horse threw the groom and then reared up and trampled him under his hooves. It made a frightful mess in the stables. The man's head was completely mashed. Such a pity. We had to kill the horse after that. So not only did I lose a horse, but I lost a groom as well. The loss of the horse was considerable from the financial point of view."

So, thought Yannai to himself, maybe Lotán was right. Could it have been that the horse was meant to throw me off to my death?

"But enough of these sad matters," said Herod, trying hard to smile but succeeding only in making a grimace. "The weather is changing, isn't it? Jerusalem can be a very cold city in the winter, and that's not easy for us folk whose blood has been thinned by the sun's heat during the summer. That's why I have built myself a winter palace in Jericho. Jericho has a warm climate even in winter. But, of course, you know that, don't you?" Then suddenly, as if the thought had just struck him, he said, "You really should come and spend some time in my winter palace, your Holiness."

"I should?" responded Yannai with little interest.

"Most assuredly you should. You must see the palace itself, of course. But I would like you also to see the beautiful and luxuriant gardens that I have planted around it. Well, Jericho itself is an oasis in the desert, and my palace and its grounds are an oasis within the oasis. Oh, and I most certainly would like to you see the swimming pool I have installed at the end of the gardens."

Yannai's disinterest suddenly became interest. "Swimming pool?" he asked.

"Oh yes, your Holiness. Ahah!" he exclaimed, as if he had suddenly understood something. "Do you like swimming, my young friend?"

"Yes. As a matter of fact, I do."

"Well then, that's settled, isn't it? I shall see that you are invited to spend a week or so at my winter palace just as soon as your duties in the Temple will permit it. That will be so delightful, will it not, my dear?" he added, turning to his wife. Yannai smiled at his sister and Miriam returned him a beautiful smile.

* * * * *

The balmy days of autumn were changing into the blustery days of winter. Jerusalem, perched as it was at the top of a high ridge, could be cold and wet in the short, dark days of winter. That year was particularly cold and wet. Snow had fallen on the heights of Galilee in the north and there had been reports of snow even on the high plateaus of the southern desert. So it could not be expected that Jerusalem would be spared her share of snow. It piled up in the streets and narrow alleys where little children played with the soft white snow in unashamed delight, while their elders trudged through it as they went about their business.

In the mansion fires were lit in all the rooms that were used regularly. Yannai and Lotán were snuggling before the open hearth in their apartment suite with Caleb curled between them when the invitation to spend some time in Herod's palace in Jericho finally arrived. To his joy, Yannai discovered that this time Lotán was invited too. "This couldn't have come at a better time," said Yannai. "I am beginning to get fed up with all this snow and cold. Now we can bask in the warmth of Jericho." And then he added with a wink, "And we will get to swim in a pool in the depths of winter!"

"I don't know, Yannai," said Lotán doubtfully, stroking Caleb's tummy. "I am always very uneasy when you are anywhere near that man."

"Nonsense! He is my brother-in-law. I am the High Priest of Israel. He wouldn't dare to do anything: the people wouldn't stand for it. Besides," he added slyly, "you will be with me this time, to watch over my back."

"I suppose so," answered Lotán rather grudgingly. A messenger was sent to the palace forthwith with a gracious acceptance of the kind invitation.

Jericho lay to the north-east of Jerusalem. The High Priest's party set out on foot from the mansion at first light. Besides Yannai and Lotán there were the four Gallic bodyguards and Caleb. As the wan sun reached its noonday zenith, they began their descent towards Jericho. Warmth began to caress their bodies and smiles returned to their taut faces. Yannai and Lotán were welcomed personally by Miriam. As Yannai kissed his sister he whispered into her ear, "I hope you haven't given us separate rooms."

"Of course not. I know that you and Lotán are inseparable." She smiled and gave her brother a warm kiss on the cheek. "You are looking very well, my dear," she said turning to Lotán. Instead of offering her hand, she took him into her embrace. "Welcome to Jericho. I am delighted that you and Yannai have come."

Her husband joined them. "Look, husband. Our guests have arrived: my brother, Jonathan Aristobulos, and Lotán."

"You are most welcome, my Lord High Priest," said Herod, as cordially as he knew how. "You, too, are welcome, sir," he said coldly to Lotán. Then he called to his chamberlain. "See that these gentlemen are escorted to their apartment and made comfortable."

"Yes, sire."

"Once you have settled in," he said, turning once again to the two boys, "please join us for dinner." He then made a gesture of dismissal to the chamberlain who escorted Yannai and Lotán to their spacious apartment. "Look, Yannai," exclaimed Lotán, as he marched straight to the veranda. "What beautiful gardens! Flowers and fruit trees: dates! I love dates."

Yannai came to join him. "Yes, it is a beautiful garden. But beyond it I can see something even more inviting. Look at that pool! It's huge! I can't wait to swim in it!"

After they had bathed themselves clean from the journey and seen that Caleb was well fed, they dressed for dinner. "Lotán, you look absolutely stunning," exclaimed Yannai. "I could eat you, you are so ... delicious!"

Lotán laughed. "First we must eat our dinner," he said. "Tonight, though, as an extra relish, I will let you get your mouth around some of my more juicy morsals." They kissed and left Caleb to his repast.

There were five in the dinner party. Herod led his four guests into his triclinium. The dinner was served Roman style. Three couches were arranged in a |_|-shape with low tables on the three inner sides. Herod took the top couch and motioned to Yannai to join him there as the most honoured guest. Lotán was allocated the couch to Herod's left which he shared with a man wearing rather strange robes but who seemed to have a kindly face. Opposite them, alone on his couch, was a Roman nobleman.

"Before we start on the hors d'oevre let me introduce all my guests to each other," said Herod. "On the couch next to me is my Lord Jonathan Aristobulos, the High Priest of Israel, a scion of the ancient Hasmonean house," he added with a nod towards the Roman, a nod which was acknowledged almost imperceptibly. Next is His Excellency Publius Cornelius Dolabella, the Roman Prefect of Syria and all Asia, second only in these parts to Marcus Antonius himself. On my left is a very good friend of the High Priest." He did not mention Lotán's name, probably because he couldn't remember it. "Lastly, Master Melchior, a most respected magus who has come all the way from the east, from the Medes and Persians. Master Melchior will be - is - my personal physician and apothecary."

"I am surprised that you need the services of such a person, your majesty," said Dolabella.

"Well, I do suffer from a certain ailment that seems to plague me at recurring intervals. Master Melchior is the best of his kind in the East, one of their very wisest men, and he will, hopefully, keep my ailment under control." Melchior bowed his head in respect.

"And now that we have all been introduced, let us begin our repast," said Herod, with a nod to his chief steward waiting just inside the door. "The ladies, of course," he added, will join us later."

* * * * *

Two days passed pleasantly enough. Yannai spent most of his time in the pool, sometimes alone and sometimes together with his Gallic bodyguard; the soldiers often played the game of keeping a head under water for as long as possible. Yannai, of course, never joined in that game. Lotán was left to his own devices on those occasions. He would take Caleb out for a walk, throwing a stick for him to 'fetch'; or he would jog along, Caleb trotting at his side with his tongue hanging out. By the third day he was bored and he started wandering through the palace, with Caleb at his heels. At one point in his wanderings, he heard from behind a closed door the sound of a liquid bubbling. Intrigued, he knocked on the door, which was opened by Master Melchior, the magus.

"What can I do for you, young man?" he asked.

"I heard a bubbling sound and wondered what it was," replied Lotán, quite straightforwardly.

"Come in, then, young sir, come in."

Lotán entered the room. There was a bed in one corner; the rest of the walls were covered with shelves and cupboards or workbenches. The shelves held dozens of little jars which contained matter of all colours; some contained roots, some petals, some powder and some paste. On one of the workbenches was something that looked like a miniature kiln and on top of it was a pot. It was the liquid in the pot that was being heated by the fire underneath; and it was making the bubbling sound that Lotán had heard.

Lotán stopped, nonplused and enchanted at the same time. Quietly he told Caleb to sit while he himself sat on the stool that was offered him by the magus.

"Let me introduce myself once again," said the magus. "I am Melchior the Mede. I am an apothecary and a healer. I learned my art in the East. I have come here at the request of King Herod to be his physician. In this room I live and in this room I also prepare all my draughts, medications and ointments, as you can see. And who is it whose acquaintance I now have the pleasure of making?"

"I am Lotán the Edomite," replied Lotán.

"Greetings, Lotán the Edomite," said Melchior with a winning smile. "I told you, briefly, how a Mede came to be in this country. Will you tell me your story?"

Lotán briefly recounted the story of how he had arrived in Jerusalem almost four years ago and how he had been befriended by Yannai.

"And won't you introduce me to your companion?" asked Melchior, indicating Caleb. From that moment Lotán decided that Melchior was a person he liked and trusted.

"This is Caleb. Strictly speaking he is Yannai's dog, but we share him. Caleb, this is Master Melchior." Caleb sat on his hind legs and offered a paw which Melchior solemnly took in his hand. "Greetings to you, Caleb," he said. "Would I be wrong in thinking that Caleb is not the only thing that you and Jonathan Aristobulos share?" he asked. Lotán did not understand. "I hope I am not being forward when I suggest that you and Caleb's master also share a bed?" Lotán blushed. "Yes," he said, "we do. And we have done so now for three years."

"Love is a great blessing, a treasure sent from heaven. Not everyone gets to experience true love in their lifetime; and of those who do, not all of them know how to appreciate it. You are a very lucky man, Lotán the Edomite, to have found a deep and abiding love which you are able to reciprocate. Treasure it your whole life through."

"I do, sir, and I will," responded Lotán eagerly.

* * * * *

The following afternoon was sultry. The heat seemed oppressive and made everyone feel uncomfortable. While they were all sipping iced water in the huge atrium, Herod suggested that they all go to the pool. "It's so uncomfortably hot today that I think we all need to bathe in the cool water," he said.

Melchior excused himself. "Your majesty, bathing in pools is not for me. I shall go to my room and see to some preparations which you may well need if you go bathing in this hot weather. Excuse me."

On a whim, Lotán asked, "Can I come with you?"

"Why, of course, young sir. It will be a pleasure to show someone what I do; so few are really interested in the art. Most just want to use the finished product."

"Thank you so much, sir," said Lotán. "Yannai, you go for your swim, you really love doing that. Take Caleb with you: he could do with a bath! I'll see you again this evening."

With that Lotán and Melchior left the party and went to Melchior's room. Yannai, Herod, Dolabella and the four Gauls went down to the pool.

Melchior's room was exactly as it had been the previous day, except that this time there was no potion bubbling on a flame. Lotán glanced out of the sole window in the apartment. He grinned to himself as he saw Yannai and the others making their way through the garden to the pool. Caleb was jumping around at Yannai's feet as they progressed. Melchior spent a good hour explaining to Lotán how he did what he did: the healing properties of plants and how they were prepared. Lotán picked up one jar which looked as if it had the bark of a tree in it. "What's this for?" he asked, showing genuine interest.

"That's willow bark," replied Melchior. "A preparation made from that is very effective in reducing pain and fever."

"And what's this?" asked Lotán, picking up another jar.

"That's root of dandelion," replied the magus. In this manner they went through about ten jars and Melchior patiently explained what each of them could do if prepared properly and administered correctly.

Every now and then Lotán looked out of the window to see how Yannai was enjoying himself. Each time he could see the party splashing around in the pool. Then, one time when he looked up, he saw Herod and Dolabella leaving the party and returning into the palace. 'That's strange,' he thought to himself. A short while later his attention was drawn once again to what was going on in the pool by a prolonged barking from Caleb. He looked out and saw Caleb running along the edge of the pool, barking for all he was worth. He looked for Yannai but he was nowhere to be seen. The four Gauls were there, playing their silly game. Then suddenly Lotán gave a gasp. He could see four Gauls! There should only be three Gauls, because one must be under the water! In a flash he understood what was happening. He gave a shout, a scream, through the window: "No! Yannai!"

Suddenly, Caleb was very quiet and the furious splashing in the water ceased. Then Caleb sat on his hind legs and began to wail incessantly, like a wolf's howl. Lotán rushed out of the room, down the stairs, across the atrium and down the gardens. He arrived at the pool just as the four Gauls were pulling Yannai's lifeless body from the water. "What have you done?" he screamed at the four soldiers. "Yannai, Yannai! Speak to me!" He knelt down beside the body, furiously kissing the wet cheeks and lips. Melchior came running up. He too knelt down and took Yannai's wrist in his hand. Then he looked up at Lotán: "There is no pulse," he said in a whisper. "He is dead."

Lotán screamed again, "No! It can't be! Yannai, come back! Don't leave me like this!" All this time Caleb kept up his wail of mourning for his dead master. Between them Lotán and Caleb were making such a commotion that soon Herod came running to see what had happened.

"Someone stop that hound!" barked Herod, but the moment one of the soldiers came anywhere near him Caleb raised his hackles, bared his teeth and growled so menacingly that the soldier withdrew. "What has happened here?" asked Herod.

"Sire," said on of the Gauls, "we tried to save him, but he kept floundering under the water."

"You lie!" screamed Lotán. "Yannai is an excellent swimmer! He could not have floundered." Then suddenly, he rounded on the soldiers. "You drowned him! You murdered him!"

"Nonsense," said Herod quickly. "They could not kill him: they were his bodyguard. It was an accident, a tragic accident."

"It was no accident," screamed Lotán. "It was murder! From the apothecary's window I saw them kill him. They kept his head under water until he was dead."

"Sire," said one of the soldiers, "we were only following..."

"Silence!" boomed Herod, cutting him short. "I will have none of this. These stalwart lads have done their duty, and that must not be forgotten and will not be forgotten." The soldiers visibly relaxed. "My brother-in-law died in a terrible accident. Clearly, the lad couldn't swim. See to the body, cover it decently. I must go and comfort my wife." With that he turned to go.

Lotán grabbed him by the sleeve, detaining him. "You monster," he screamed at Herod. "You planned this all along. You wanted him dead! You murdered him!"

"Arrest that man!" thundered Herod, but as the soldiers closed in Caleb kept them at bay.

"He is overwrought, Your Majesty," said Melchior. "Let me deal with him." And before another word could be said Melchior whisked Lotán away with Caleb dancing at their heels, barking furiously.

* * * * *

Two men, one older and one much younger, stood on a high rocky crag in the Judean desert keeping watch. Below them was a lonely settlement clinging to the shore of the desolate Dead Sea; there was not a single soul living within a day's journey of the settlement in all directions. "Brother Absalom, I can see two men and a dog approaching from the north. You had better go down and alert the Righteous Teacher of their arrival."

"Very good, brother Hezekiah," said the younger of the two men and forthwith made his way down the cliff side, as nimble as a goat. By the time the two men and the dog reached the entrance to the settlement a welcoming party awaited them.

"Do you come in peace?" asked the leader of the welcoming party.

"Yes, Righteous Teacher, we come in peace. We seek asylum."

"You know who I am?" asked the Righteous Teacher. Melchior threw back his hood and the Righteous Teacher held out his arms to him. "Welcome back, Master Melchior, welcome back to our settlement. It has been a long while."

"A long while, indeed, Righteous Teacher. But I have returned for a short while to enjoy your hospitality."

"You are welcome to share our meagre resources, Master Melchior, you know that. But you said that you seek asylum. What have you done that puts you beyond the law?"

"I have done nothing wrong, Righteous Teacher, and as far as I know the arm of the law has no reason to seek me out. But this young man was witness to a heinous crime. A powerful enemy, the one who ordered the crime, seeks his very life."

"I believe that word may have reached us of the crime of which you speak. It would be better for both you and the young man if we do not learn from your own lips of what happened. While we cannot lie if directly asked, it would never be a falsehood to claim honest ignorance." He winked his wrinkled eye. "I think the best thing would be for both of you to join us in our common refectory. While we eat and you refresh yourselves this young man can tell me all I need to know about him - except, of course, that which I do not need to know."

The Righteous Teacher conducted his guests into a large hall where many men and a very few women already sat at the tables, waiting in silence. When the Righteous Teacher and his guests came in all stood respectfully. The party made its way to a free table. While it was no different from all the other tables, the very fact that it was completely free proclaimed that it was the table of the Righteous Teacher and his guests. When the Teacher sat down, so did everyone else. The teacher made a sign with his hand and bowls of water and napkins were brought for him and his guests to wash and dry their hands. That done the Teacher took a loaf of bread in his hands and said a grace out loud. The assembled body responded with a loud 'Amen' and then the meal began. Everyone ate the same food, which was simple but wholesome. During the meal complete silence was observed. When they had all finished the Teacher once again recited a grace, the company again responded 'Amen' and everyone silently filed out of the refectory.

The Teacher motioned to his guests to follow him and he conducted them into a small room, bare except for a few stools to sit on. "Righteous Teacher," exclaimed Melchior, "where are all your books? Where are all your scrolls? What have you done with your beautiful library?"

"The times are uncertain, Master Melchior, so we have sent all our most important documents away from here. They are hidden, so that if, Heaven forfend, anything happens to our settlement we shall at least be able to recover our most sacred possessions afterwards. And now, young man," he said, turning to Lotán with a kind smile and a twinkling eye, "please introduce yourself to me. Leave nothing out - except what it would be prudent for me not to know."

Lotán told his story. It was very much like the first time he had told his story to the Lady Salomé Alexandra all those years before. As he recalled his first meeting with Yannai his eyes filled with tears which he bravely tried to hold back - but in vain. Melchior explained to the Teacher about the relationship between Lotán and Jonathan Aristobulos and the Teacher nodded his head in understanding. "I share your sadness, Lotán the Edomite. Too few people in this world get to experience a true loving relationship, be they men or women. The ability to love and be loved is a very precious gift from heaven; selfish people, self-centred people, are never vouchsafed that precious gift. You are twice blessed: you have been loved and you have given love with all your heart. Treasure that love for ever."

His kind words made Lotán weep all the more. Until now he had mourned the death of his lover; now he suddenly realised the full extent of his own loss.

The Teacher turned back to Melchior. "Master Melchior, how long will you be staying with us?"

"Righteous Teacher," replied Melchior, "tomorrow morning, at first light, I must return to the palace in Jericho. I must not be gone too long or suspicion will be aroused."

"I understand. It is a great pity that I shall not be able to benefit longer from your visit. Now, what about this young man?"

"He needs to be hidden away until he has changed so much that he will not be recognised. Only then can he return to society."

"Of course, he can stay here as long as he needs to," the Righteous Teacher hastened to assure them both. "But his stay here could last many months, perhaps years. What shall he do here to prevent boredom and madness?"

Master Melchior smiled at Lotán. "Lotán has a lively and curious mind. He has shown great interest in my art as apothecary and healer. You have here men who know that art well. Assign him a teacher. Let him learn well the art of healing and the preparation of medications. I am not getting younger. There will come a day when I shall need an assistant. I can think of no one I would rather lean on, both physically and professionally, than Lotán the Edomite."

"Lotán, do you want to learn to be an apothecary?" asked the Righteous Teacher. "Would you like to be the assistant of Master Melchior?"

Lotán's heart was full of gratitude. He could hardly get the words out of his mouth. "Oh, yes please. I would really love that," he said to the Teacher. Then he turned to Melchior and hugged him tightly. "Thank you, thank you, Master. I shall learn everything that these good people can teach me so that I shall be able to serve you well."

"Well," said the Righteous Teacher, rising, "that seems most satisfactorily arranged. All that is now required, Lotán, is to assign you a good teacher. Now, let me see. I have several very good apothecaries. Brother Reuben? No, he is too old, I think. Brother Simon maybe? Hmm. No, he doesn't have enough patience." Suddenly his face lit up with a smile. "Brother Absalom! Yes, brother Absalom!" He turned to Melchior. "Brother Absalom is young, but one day he will be a very competent healer. Also, he knows the meaning of loss and heartbreak. He will be a very good teacher in more than one sense."

The Righteous Teacher went to the door and clapped his hands once. One of the brothers appeared in the doorway in a few moments. "Ah, Brother Isaac, thank you for being so prompt. Would you please be so kind as to request of Brother Absalom that he join me here in my study?"

Brother Isaac bowed his head and then went off on his errand.

"My dear Lotán," said Melchior, "the time has come for us to part. You shall go off in a few minutes to meet your new teacher and I shall be leaving here at first light. Come, Lotán, hug me!"

Lotán rushed into the waiting arms and kissed Melchior on both cheeks. "Master, you shall be so proud of me, I vow it! But it is so hard to part from you".

"Hush, my son. This is indeed 'goodbye', but it is in no way 'farewell'. I shall come for you as soon as I can."

"There is one thing more that I should mention," said the Teacher. "One of the rules of our brotherhood is that we may not keep animals as pets."

"Caleb!" exclaimed Lotán. "Caleb is Yannai's dog. No, he is my dog now. I cannot abandon him. I will not abandon him. Ever!"

"Of course not," said Melchior patiently. All this time Caleb had been sitting quietly at Lotán's feet. "Caleb, will you come with me?" asked Melchior. To Lotán he said, "He shall live with me until you return to us. He will see that no harm befalls me, won't you Caleb?"

Caleb's tail started wagging furiously. "That's settled then," said Melchior to the Teacher. Lotán knelt down and hugged Caleb to him. "Goodbye for now, Caleb. Look after my Master. I love you. Go with Master Melchior," he said pointing to his Master.

"Come, Caleb," said Melchior, "heel!" Caleb obediently trotted over and sat at Melchior's feet.

At that moment brother Absalom arrived in the doorway. "You sent for me, Righteous Teacher?" he said. The Teacher introduced Lotán indirectly by indicating him with a sweep of his hand while he briefly and succinctly explained to Absalom what his new task would be. Although he listened to the Teacher with respectful attention Absalom did not let his eyes leave Lotán for one second. He saw a young man about his own age and about the same height; but he was swarthy, his skin darkened by the desert sun. Lotán's hair was short and wiry, his mouth nicely proportioned. But what captured Absalom's attention most of all were Lotán's eyes. They were a startling blue, a colour which stood out against the background of his dark skin.

The Teacher's description of the task that awaited Absalom reached its conclusion. When he had finished he asked, "Will you take this duty upon yourself, Brother Absalom?" Absalom looked at Lotán. Both the Teacher and Melchior could see in Absalom's face and in his eyes that some kind of a bond between these two young men was just waiting to be made. With a smile that made his whole face glow Absalom said, "Righteous Teacher, I gladly accept. But it is no duty: it is a pleasure. Come, Lotán, let's go."

With that he put an arm round Lotán's shoulder and guided him through the doorway.

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