The Garden of Souls by Cheri Vause

“Four sages entered Paradise: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them: “When you reach the stones of pure marble do not exclaim ‘Water, Water!’” Ben Azzai looked and died. Ben Zoma looked and lost his mind. Elisha ben Abuyah cut the shoots. Only Rabbi Akiva ascended in peace and descended in peace.” The Talmud PROLOGUE In a village outside Jerusalem, Israel, 135 A.C.E. I am a dead man. Akiva scratched the words across a torn piece of parchment, which was stretched over a table made from two clay wine jars and a large piece of wood from an abandoned ox-cart. A faint smell of wine drifted through the cracks in the wood, reminding him his old stomach was as empty as the wine jars. While dismissing the tempting perfume, he dipped his stylus again into the black ink and waited for the bead on the tip to plop back into the pot, for every drop was worth a fortune and he was quickly running out of money and time. Shaping the letters in short, deliberate movements, his hand crept from right to left, aligning each letter to the one before it. For a long moment he stopped to stare at the words as though they were a primal truth and, try as he may to understand them, he knew he never would. The world had gone mad with violence and he seemed to be at the whirling core of it. He felt a sharp pain scrabble inside his chest until it found his heart, making it rattle like a dried up bean in a clay jar. Age had come upon him suddenly in these last few weeks, hurtling itself over him until his bones creaked with the weight of it, or was it, rather, the harrowing millstone of responsibility for all of those deaths at Masada crushing him? He touched the point of his stylus to the parchment and began writing again. I can hear the soldiers marching several streets away as they search for me and the others involved in the rebellion. They most certainly will find me, unless I am able to escape in the next few moments, leaving little time to explain anything to you, but I shall try. A tear slid down his nose and dropped, drowning the letter it fell upon until it was nothing more than a black spot. He wiped his face with his sleeve and continued writing. I am staying in a village somewhere on the outskirts of Be’er Karkom. My life here has been smothering me like an old wool blanket. All the hiding and the reliance upon others to fetch food and supplies has taken its toll on my spirit. I continue to teach, but the number of my students has dwindled to only those brave enough to defy the governor’s edict. General Vespasian will never give up the search for those who escaped Masada, and my name is on the top of the list. I believed in Bar Kokhba, I believed he was our Savior, but, as you know, hindsight has always had better vision. My students each carry a letter to you through my graduates who are scattered about the countryside. I hope that by using this method, one letter will make it through to you. He stopped suddenly, hearing a noise outside the door. He held his breath as his heart drummed in his chest. A dog’s nose peeked through a hole in the wall and snorted. Disinterested, the dog trotted down the mud-soaked alley, oblivious to the fright he caused. Akiva exhaled, placing his hand over his heart, still beating in a furious tattoo of fear. These terror-ridden moments were exhausting him, aging him a year for each moment as they increased in frequency. He knew he must move quickly, but how do you hasten expressing your love? Lowering the stylus to the parchment, he began to shape the letters in quick light strokes.

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