For earlier chapters in The Book of the Prophet Joshua, look here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Beyond the black river, time is not as it is here. The spirit of Joshua looked back on all the generations before him,
Beyond the black river, time is not as it is here.
The spirit of Joshua looked back on all the generations before him, the nations that fathered the nation that fathered Hadochee. He saw the rise and fall of gods and the worship of gods. In a precious few, he saw the LORD, wooing His people.
Some heard His call, and some were deaf.
The spirit of Joshua also looked forward to the generations yet to come. He saw in their lives the patterns of the past playing into the future and new things emerging. Far beyond, at the furthest distance which the eye of the mortal dead can reach, he saw the day when every thread of fate was gathered up, and the tale of mankind reached its fulfillment.
Beyond the river which men call death, Joshua saw the part he played in receiving what had came before, and in passing it on to those who came after.
And Joshua wept.
Here now is the vision that Joshua saw and brought back from the land of the dead.
A flock of birds flying, a mixed multitude, but plumed in the same colors. They divided, one kind to the high hills to dwell in plenty among the cattle, and another to the dark valley to feed upon death.
A herd without number grazing on an endless plain. Dogs were sent out among them, to divide them, and they drove the sheep to the shepherd’s right hand and the goats to the left. That shepherd held a sword.
Finally Joshua saw the angel of the LORD seated on a stool, shucking corn. He gave the husks to a servant who cast them in a fire. He gave the cobs to another, and these were kept, and planted, and new fields grew, and multiplied, field upon field, until the earth was full of them.
The spirit of Joshua saw all these things and was given the grace to remember them.
“Now do you see why He delayed?” the angel asked.
“Yes,” Joshua said. In the place beyond death, his spirit wept.
“Do you see that it was not for lack of love or of wrath?”
“I see it.”
“You have betrayed Him, Joshua. The LORD owes you no mercy. He owes you death. But He means to give you mercy. Will you defy Him in this?”
“How can I? But what good will His mercy do? How can He use me again? I am a mean and putrid thing, a graveworm feeding on the dead. I am unclean.”
As he said this, Joshua saw his own hands, bathed in blood. But the angel rose from his stool, and the glory of his countenance shone in the land of the dead. His voice thundered.
“The LORD will make you clean.”
A flame went forth from the angel’s mouth, and the spirit of Joshua caught fire. He burned from foot to crown, and the stain of his sins was purged.
But Joshua was not consumed.
The older bargeman looked nervous. He was a lanky Hadochean who had poled the Neches and the Turneddy until he lost count of the years. His young companion was a dark-haired Antian, a foreigner and had no idea how much the others distrusted him.
“Come on, Turo,” the elder said, “We’re wasting time.”
“It’s a man’s life,” the Antian replied.
“He’s already dead.”
They looked down at the river’s latest gift, an old man’s pallid corpse. It clutched a beat-up rifle, but the lanky Hadochean suspected that was just rigor mortis. If Turo was honest, he thought so too.
Sighing, the Antian reached out to close those sightless eyes. It wasn’t right to pitch the old man back in, but the others would probably make him do it. They didn’t like stopping for anything. But as Turo bent over the corpse, it puked a lungful of water in his face.
“Holy shit!” the Hadochean shrieked, stumbling backwards over a crate full of crockery. Turo more or less agreed, but instead of tripping over himself, he stepped calmly back and drew a knife.
Color was returning to the stranger’s face, but his eyes still looked dead.
“Where am I?” he gasped.
“On the Neches,” Turo said. “A little north of High Jasper.”
“Who are you?”
“My friends call me Turo.”
The man stopped spluttering and fixed his gaze on something beyond sight.
“Rodrigo Arturo Esperanza y Cruz?”
“Do I know you?”
“The LORD knows his people. I am Joshua, prophet of the god of Hadochee, and this day you and I will deliver judgment from his hand.”
This time it was Turo’s turn to swear, and he made the gesture his grandmother taught him, the one to ward off the evil eye.
“I am no prophet, sir.”
“No. You are a judge.”
Joshua put a hand on the gunwale and pulled himself carefully to his feet. He held out the broken rifle.
The lanky Hadochean bargeman looked out from behind his crate.
“Man, you’re crazy. That thing’s never gonna shoot.”
“It will shoot,” Joshua said. “Turo, the LORD is not asking. Take it.”
Turo cursed his luck. But a god is a god, and a man is a man. He reached out and took the rifle.
The Hadochean shook his head.
Joshua smiled, turned blindly to the northeast, and raised his left hand.
It began with a single streak of crimson, bright beneath the water. Then a second. Then a third. They wavered, flickered, bright and red and flashing upstream, filling the river with flame. Steam rose, and it boiled, and the streaks flashed out, red serpents on red wings flying, darting from the river to the wooded banks.
They became a stream, and then a flood. Trees caught fire. White smoke billowed into the sky. In a matter of minutes, the fiery serpents had cut a smoky swath through forest, long and straight and narrow.
Joshua raised his left hand higher, and a wind fell on the water, dividing it in two. He extended his right in the direction of Turo.
“If you don’t mind,” the prophet said, “I’d appreciate your help with navigation.”
Turo cursed his luck again, took the old man’s hand, and helped him over the gunwale of the barge and onto the dry river bed. Then they set off to deliver judgment.
Being a judge, Turo learned, was bloody work. When they came to the Serpent’s camp, his worshipers were driven mad with rage. They attacked everything that moved, man or beast, friend or foe. Many lay dead, torn as if by wild animals. But those that lived did their best to kill the prophet.
So Turo raised the gun and pulled the trigger.
By all rights, that gun should not have fired. It was busted up and waterlogged, and he knew it would be better used as a club. But a god is a god and a man is a man, so he did what the prophet said.
It fired, and a savage with a falchion fell to the ground. So Turo worked the lever and fired again.
The work was hard and long. He still had to keep his eyes open and his aim true, but they passed safely through the camp. They made it to the cold remains of an old bonfire, and Joshua stopped to listen.
“Sir,” Turo asked, “What’s wrong with these people?”
“The snakes bit them.”
“The flying snakes?”
“I think the LORD has a sense of irony.”
Someone cursed. Startled, Turo scanned the area until he found a tipped-over throne, and a man lying in the dust behind it. The figure stirred weakly. Joshua reached out a hand and laid it on Turo’s shoulder.
“Take me to him,” the prophet said.
Turo obeyed. He helped the old man over, then guided his hand to the face of the dying priest. Joshua took his head and turned that face towards him. His blind eyes looked down in anger.
“You recognize me, worm?” he asked.
The high priest’s face held no contempt, only fear.
“Yes,” he wheezed.
“The snake bit you,” the prophet said, “But you’re not mad. Not like the others.”
“I cut–cut a deal.”
The pale chest rose and fell with difficulty.
“You asked the Serpent to protect your mind?”
“And that cost you your strength?”
The high priest lifted his chin and spat in Joshua’s face. Joshua let his head fall to the dust and calmly wiped the spit away.
“Listen, worm,” he said. “I want you to know something before you die. I want you to know the truth.”
That last defiance had cost him. Now he was gasping for breath. The prophet continued.
“Even by the law of the Serpent, O man, even by the law of blood, the LORD alone is God.”
The man choked, his eyes bulged, and he spasmed. The spasm passed and he was still.
“Is he dead?” Joshua asked.
Turo nodded, bile rising to his throat as he surveyed the camp all about him. It was filled with corpses.
“Is he?” Joshua repeated.
“Sorry,” Turo said. “I forgot you can’t see. Yes, he’s dead.”
“Good,” the prophet said. Then, after a pause, he added, “Look at his face, Turo. Remember it. This was a man, once. He used to have a name.”
Turo looked down at the corpse and remembered.
Far away, in Ramah, the winds began to shift. The flock that had found Joshua in the wilderness began to disperse, scattering like seeds over the dark-soiled land of Hadochee. Only a few remained in that place, planting themselves in the refuge they had found.
Among them was a boy.
He did not know the Serpent’s terror. He did not know a justice without faith. Murder and war were only distant rumors of a bygone age.
He had a mother and a father, and he had his childhood, and he had his LORD.
His name was John.