Five people trudged individually yet in an erratic line into the wilderness to spend forty days in quarantine in their individual caves, praying and meditating for their individual reasons.
One was a rather fragile, timid young man from Galilee called Jesus, nicknamed Gally for his accent. He was idealistic and somewhat dopey. Parched and footsore — he’d left his sandals with a shepherd — this Jesus came upon a tent where he might get food and drink before beginning his month and a half of fasting. But no one responded to his call.
Looking inside the tent, he found water and bread and dates and a dying man — Musa, wheezing his final breaths from the ravages of a fever.
“Do not deny me water, cousin,” he said. “Let me take a mouth of it, and you’ll then have forty days of peace from me. I promise it. The merest drop.”
He put his fingertips on Musa’s forehead. He stroked his eyelids with his thumb. “Are you unwell? I am not well myself.”
As I said, a little dopey.
A carpenter’s son who liked praying better than sleep, this Jesus talked himself into drinking some of the water and eating some of the bread and dates that he turned up inside the tent of the dying Musa. He even used some of the water to wash his hands, wet his hair and massage his scalp.
Then — an afterthought — he tipped a little water on Musa’s cheeks and lips. He felt inspirited, newly released from pain, and powerful. He wet the cloth and put it back in place on Musa’s mouth. He shook the water from his hands over Musa’s face, a blessing. “So, here, be well again,” he said, a common greeting for the sick.
Then he left.
From this scene evolves the whole of the story that Jim Crace tells in his 1997 novel Quarantine. As in his other fiction, the action of this novel, page after page, angles and arcs in unexpected ways.
Consider the other four who settle into caves apart from and yet near each other — Aphas who is dying of cancer; Shim, the arrogant Greek; the woman Marta, childless after a decade of marriage; and the “badu” or Bedouin whose name is never revealed.
They have come into this wilderness to spend their time alone — to quarantine themselves away from the human world — yet they spend much of it together. And not just with each other, but also with Miri, the bruised and pregnant wife of Musa, and with Musa, resurrected from his death mat.
Musa has taken it into his mind that the thief who came into his tent and whom he saw through his fever haze — that Jesus — is a healer. And he feels compelled to see him again, talk to him and what else? He doesn’t know.
He enlists the four cave-dwellers to join him many days on a ledge above the cave where this Jesus is spending his time, naked, badgering him with calls to come out. They know he’s there because two of them saw him when they pushed a dead donkey over the edge and it flew past his cave entrance
A donkey seemed to come out of mid-air, falling through the sky at him. It dropped down the precipice to the right of his cave. It turned. It hit the rocks and bounced once more, high above the valley…Its legs were wings. It seemed to have no weight, no eyes. Its head was loose like cloth, as if the bones along its neck were less substantial than the air.
This Jesus, though, hides. He wants nothing to do with their community. He doesn’t want their water nor their food nor their company.
Angels left you calm of spirit when they stepped into your life. Devils left you troubled. Here was a devil then, sent to the wilderness, with death and fever as his friends, attended by four mad, unbelonging souls, to be adversaries to god. Jesus would not come out of the cave, no matter what they said, no matter what their slander was, no matter what they offered him. They’d come to tempt him from the precipice with their thin cries.
He wants god.
“They could fret on insects”
Musa may be a demon. He is certainly not a good man. He forces the four cave-dwellers to pay him rent for use of his land and fees for water from a cistern, created when Miri dug Musa’s grave and an underground spring fed it and Musa had no need of it.
He collects rent and fees, even though he does not own the land or the water. He bullies the four — he is a salesman, after all — and bamboozles them. He beats Miri. He envisions raping Marta.
Yet, the four find him not just frustrating but also fascinating. He can tell a story.
So can Crace.
Anyone looking to him for a re-interpretation of a Bible tale here will come away frustrated. Even so, Quarantine does grapple with the varied experiences of religious faith. Crace’s characters face questions about self-abnegation and self-promotion, about comfort and pain, about hope and stoicism, about violence and death. And also mystery — the badu, throughout the story, is a walking mystery.
Everyone, including Musa and Miri, is changed by the time in the wilderness. Not in ways they expected — at least, most of them. Perhaps the badu had planned from the beginning how he would take his leave.
In Quarantine, Crace tells a very gritty human story, and, as usual, he sets it in a natural world that takes no account of the actions of mere creatures, even those who think, to some degree, about god.
The storm had lifted stones to show their hidden faces. It had made firewood from bushes, and pulled up roots and soil. Lice and termites tumbled in the daylight where the earth was scarred, busy with repairs. The birds were feeding everywhere. Their nests and eggs had been destroyed, but they could fret on insects until their stomachs burst.
It’s a bird-eat-lice world. And it’s a wilderness. And it’s where we live.
Patrick T. Reardon