Jesus' desert odyssey

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Desert dunesForty days he was wandering in the desert. The devil was riding on his back and what a burden it was to bear in all that soft sand, mountains and mountains of shifting sand without solid ground beneath it. The weight of only another devil could send a man to the bottom.

The devil had a black hair tail like a horse and it sat upon the man's shoulders, warding away the flies for both of them. The flies, the circling birds, the ribcage dogs, fine and lean despite mangy coats — some animals were there to remind you of your death.

One desert dog came to walk beside the man. The devil hissed and spat and tightened its legs around his torso, but the man greeted the dog kindly. The dog had no problem looking him in the eye. Its eyes were sharp and black, the eyes of a meat-eater, but not cruel and not ironic.

When I fall you'll eat me, Dog, said the man. He moved one foot after the other and the dog swaggered beside him, panting lightly despite being used to the heat.

Yes, said the dog, but take your time. I'm not too hungry yet.

Forty days is a long time to wait, said the man and at this the devil trilled with laughter, flicking its tail so that it whipped the man in the eye.

Forty days? it snickered, My Lord, you're human remember? This is a desert. I am the devil and that is a dog.

The dog laughed at what the devil had said. It wasn't a wicked laugh but the laugh that a grown-up gives at the antics of a child.

Right enough, said the dog. Right enough.

And they plodded on together, the man and the devil and the dog.

The day began to close and the night sky drew over, littering the desert with millions of ice-cold stars. The sand was already cool on the surface when the man lay down upon it to sleep. His body was a little out of his control now, the way it fell so heavily before him as soon as he decided to rest.

The dog lay down beside him and asked, Aren't you going to eat something?

The man shook his head. His eyes were already shut to the night.

The devil shivered. It had skin like the skin of snail, which had risen into sharp goose pimples, and the sweat coming off it smelt of roasting meat. The devil clung to the man like a fat tick, digging deeper with its claws at every sound of the night, and it did not sleep a wink.

The dog also ate nothing, though this was not its custom, and slept beside the man with its head between its paws, comfortable in the sand. The dog woke to the devil looking at it. The whites of the devil's eyes were wide and it bared its teeth now in a strange nervous gesture.

I'm not like you, said the dog. So you needn't worry.

Not like me, said the devil, but not like him either. I'm watching you.

You'll need to sleep if you're to last the coming day, replied the dog.

The devil spat at the dog, who went easily back to sleep but keeping one eye alert to the devil as any dog would.

*****

At times the devil could not stop chattering. Its teeth would be rattling in its jaw, head clanging up and down with the rate of babble, but all the while it was producing no actual words at all.

The dog was a creature of few words and when it did speak, did not address the man as My Lord. It was a relief to the man, his throat coarse with thirst and his feet blistered raw, to be without the extra burden of being exalted — to be an equal with the dog, walking silently beside it over the molten sand. The creature felt to him a friend, though he knew it awaited his death, and the devil never stopped reminding him of that with a hot, prickled voice in his ear.

The man ate nothing and so the dog ate nothing. When the man couldn't walk any more, the dog continued walking and so the man continued walking. The sun hammered down upon their brows and shadows shifted and dissipated as they approached.

The devil never took a step, though it directed the journey. Sometimes it would ride the man like a chariot with its horny feet curled around his shoulders. At other times it would cower in his arms like a fallen cat and the man held the devil because it was afraid.

Every night the devil gave birth to roast chickens and jacket potatoes and gallons of wine which it swilled and gobbled, sucking the oil from its fingers. It shrugged when the man and dog refused the steaming food. They always refused it, for they knew it was fresh from the devil's arse, but even so their saliva glands opened and wept.

Every night the devil gorged itself with food, in order that it might survive the next day, and every night it was afraid.

The man and the dog had empty stomachs, and in the daytime saw as much of what was not there as what was there, but in the night their vision was clear and neither was afraid of the dark.

My Lord, whispered the devil, close and wet in the man's ear, that dog is going to tear you to pieces as you sleep. You must stay awake.

But the man continued to sleep, every night for 40 nights, with his neck bare to the stars and the dog breathing warmly a short distance away.

The devil said, My Lord, let's eat the dog or at least let's leave it behind.

But instead the man shook the devil from his shoulders and he and the dog walked together to the edge of the desert.

Well it's been 40 days, said the dog, and you haven't fallen.

Sorry Dog, said the man. I know you were hungry.

Don't worry, said the dog. You'll be back.

Right enough, said the man. Right enough. And he walked away. 


Jane Jervis-ReadJane Jervis-Read is a fiction writer from Melbourne. Her work has been published in Cordite Poetry Review, Going Down Swinging and Verandah

Topic tags: Jane Jervis-Read, Fiction


 

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Existing comments

This was a really surprising piece. Great stuff.

The apology to the dog reminds me of Yudhishthira in the Mahabharata refusing to abandon a companion dog to get into Paradise. That was a thin and ugly dog too. (Though it was Dharma in disguise, if I remember correctly.)
Penelope Cottier | 19 October 2011


Thanks Jane it gave me strength to persist with the hard yards.
I include a quote from Eureka Street years ago - lost the exact reference.


Benedict XVI has issued his second encyclical, Spe salvi, 'In hope we are saved'.
'It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt ... that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.'

Indeed we must be prepared to suffer: 'Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical wellbeing, or else my life itself becomes a lie.' He also urges us to recover a sense of a Last Judgment on human history where justice will finally reign. Indeed he notes 'I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life.

Peter Quin | 19 October 2011


why didn't the man at least pet the dog?
Any human would have held him close.
But -oh that's right, he was god.
charlotte Painter | 19 October 2011


What brilliant writing!
David O'Halloan | 19 October 2011


Thanks Jane. This was compelling reading with many layers.
Rachel | 21 October 2011


Well done, Jane, loved the quirkiness of the story - you're very clever!
Nikky Barron | 28 October 2011


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