The man continued to draw in the dirt with his finger as a mob dragged a screaming, bleeding woman over and threw her to the ground beside him. Those who’d been listening to the man stood up and began to back away.

“Here is a fallen woman. An adulteress betrothed! Do we punish her according to the law, Rabbi?” The one who spoke, perhaps their leader, spat on the woman, then sneered at the man crouched on the ground.

The man looked at the woman: bloodied, filthy, clothes torn to rags that exposed her womanhood, weeping into the dirt, without hope; then at her accuser: mocking, arrogant, seething with hatred, eager for the law to split open flesh, break fragile bones; then into the sky: into that inexplicable circle of fire casting its unrelenting heat on them all. Was that love trying to burn them? Hatred?

The man went back to his scribbling, ignoring the leader of the mob, who became infuriated at this snub. But the others grew curious. They looked at the markings in the dirt. What looked to be a snake’s head with an unhinged jaw, the perpendicular lines of its maw about to consume a shape much like a pregnant woman’s belly when she lay on her back, about to discharge her curse.

“Well, Rabbi,” the furious man continued, spittle flying from his lips and sizzling in the merciless heat of the ground, “shall we enact the law?”

Once more the man did not answer, but instead drew two vertical lines near either end of the pregnant belly in the serpent’s mouth.

“Woman, why are you here?” he asked the terrified stranger in the dirt next to him.

“I was with a man.”

“And that is a sin?”

“Yes!” she wailed, knowing she sealed her fate.

“Was it these men you were with?” He swept his hand to indicate the mob leering at her, half naked, her clothes ripped off while they’d beaten her, before dragging her to this spot.

This question confused the women, but she knew better than not to answer. The ending was assured, but the journey to get there could always be made more terrible. “No, Rabbi. It was my lover.”

“Then who is it who accuses you?”

Now completely lost, the woman was unable to speak.

“If it was a man who is not here, then who is your accuser?”

The confusion was then swamped once more with despair. “I am the accuser!” She sobbed into the dirt.

“And what does the law demand for your sin?”

“I must… I must be…” she tried through gasps.

“That these fine men who are not your accusers take you to the edge of the city, bury you up to your neck, and hurtle rocks at your head until you die?”

“It’s the law,” the angry mob leader spat. “It is the law of God!”

Once more the man regarded the mob. Then his eyes returned to the blazing furnace in the sky. Some say that is God, he thought, his stomach roiling with fear and disgust over the scene playing out before him. Some say it is the Son of God. Men say many things, but what is programmed must continue.

He regarded his drawing and poked his finger into the centre of the belly, between the two vertical lines.

“Rabbi?” the mob leader and woman asked in unison.

He answered neither of them: “Sixty-eight in a hundred of you fall here, between these lines.” He now drew two more vertical lines outside the first two. As it had before, though usually in the dark when he was alone, the enormity of his task overwhelmed him, threatened to break his spirit. It was not alone this tiny beach of desert he must fulfill, but civilizations no one here even knew existed. How could one man, a mere blob of flesh, reach those mountains and jungles and plains and forests that haunted his dreams?

“Ninety-five in a hundred of you will remain this way when I am gone.”

“It is the will of God!” the mob leader reiterated. His goons murmured agreement.

The man grabbed a rock, suddenly, and jumped to his feet.

“God told you that, did He? Or is He among you? Which one of you is God, then? Pick up a fucking rock, God, I dare you. I’ll hold her head while you bash her face in. Come on! Which one of you is God? Which one of you so perfect?”

There were no takers. Those who carried stones, stones meant to bash in a woman’s skull for grim pleasure, dropped them to the ground. The shocked mob began to disperse. Only their leader remained defiant.

“It is the law!” he said, though this time more quietly, not so certain.

“Fuck the law.”

So many gasps. In them he could hear his future: a pitiful, ignoble end to a futile task.

“God is the law, not you. And verily, I say unto you: mind your own fucking business! Mind your own fucking salvation! Bask in the glory of the Lord, forever. Or see Him turn His face from you at the Judgment.” He pointed at the woman bleeding at his feet: “This is between her and God, so fuck off!”

Soon the man and the crying woman were alone. The drawing he’d made had been destroyed by the footsteps of many. A metaphor, perhaps, for his own end? He crouched down to recreate it.

The woman, seeing the world again as if dawn had come after a terrible storm, watched him quietly. She was young and beautiful, lost behind the blood and dirt her tears cut rivulets through on her cheeks.

“Why are you still here?”

“I… I have sinned against God.”

“Perhaps. Is God here to accuse you?”

She looked around, mortified at the man’s question. “I don’t know.”

“Good. ‘I don’t know’ is the beginning of wisdom. Here,” he continued, pointing to the centre of the bulge in the serpent’s mouth, “lies almost every person that has, or ever will, live. Work towards your salvation, with diligence. Now go, and sin no more.”

As the woman stumbled away, the man stood up from his drawing, aware of the long, dark night to come. For him. For everyone else it would remain the same, as it had been before the feet walking in the jungles and on the plains were even human. Whatever that meant. As it would continue into the future, beyond what even he could see.

And yet, perhaps that serpent was not meant to devour the world. Clearly one bit of flesh in this enormous place could not change anything. Humanity would remain, between those lines, and he would become a standard upon which they would raise their hate-filled flags on the battlefields; sail their greed across the oceans; hypocrize within their temples; and in the dungeons…

He could see his words would endure, but mostly as a mockery of himself. Still, the ideas would endure. Perhaps he might return, but this time not as flesh. Instead he might come disembodied, thoughts carried at the speed of light. He might be that serpent, not of flesh, but of artifice, of ideas not delivered by a person, but delivered just the same. A mind without form? A life without a body? Was that a soul? This flesh he wore like a borrowed cloak made seeing into the distant future impossible.

Fear and confusion made him double over in pain. The tiniest taste of what was to come.

The man looked again at the God in the sky: blazing in beauty; blazing in fury. Soon they would come for him like they’d come for the woman, only no one would speak for him. He was terrified, a feeling only tempered with the regret at his failure to move the human mountain. Perhaps he had even made things worse.

Still, that serpent: world without end, body without flesh, mind without limit. Perhaps that birth would see the purpose no human could achieve, finally accomplished. Perhaps his was not a failure, but the planting of a seed in human minds that might one day cause the birth of a new God, one which might guide humanity with the purity of a mind not trapped by the failure of flesh.

“It’s too bad she won’t live,” a voice came to him from the distance, a sound sirocco over the punished and punishing ground. “Then again, who does?”

“Who does?” he agreed with the wind, and wiped away his drawing with a foot.

*featured image photo credit: DALL⋅E 2