The Iscariot

The people in the office kept telling Jane how lucky she was. Her daughter was marrying a young man whom Jane actually liked. In addition, Sammy and Dave had decided to have the ceremony in the chapel of the college where they had both gone to school in North Carolina, so Sammy was taking care of the arrangements for the festivities. Jane did not need to do anything. She was fortunate in other ways too. All of the children – hers and Brian’s – were now out of college and gainfully employed. Sitting in the bucking airliner as it took off from Boston, Jane did not feel particularly lucky, however. She sucked a cherry lifesaver and clutched ridiculously at the armrests of the very machinery that was scaring her to death, thinking simultaneously about her mortality and the continuing condition of her life if she lived through the take-off. Brian was cooperative but not enthusiastic (by a long shot) about going to his step-daughter’s wedding, and the long distance celebration was costing a goodly amount (even though she only had to pay half). And then, of course, she was going to have to spend the weekend with her ex-husband, ex-relatives, as well as her real relatives – and it occurred to her that some of those with whom she shared blood she did not like any better than the in-laws she had divorced along with Jack almost two decades ago.

One thing did feel lucky at the moment; there was a vacant seat in the bank of three to which she and Brian had been assigned. Once the plane had lifted off, they moved to the outer seats, lifted the armrests so they could swing their cramped legs to the middle, and – facing each other in this enforced way – tried hard to ignore the fact that they seemed to have little to say to each other. Jane had been scratching at a crossword puzzle that was too easy to keep her attention, and Brian was reading a magazine or journal article he had printed off the internet. Jane could not tell whether he was reading for work or pleasure.

Brian was a professor of comparative religion at a small liberal arts college that had been founded by strict Methodists in the nineteenth century; few of the current students and almost none of the faculty would have agreed with the beliefs of those early enthusiastic Christians, and Brian helped keep their agnosticism alive with his courses showing that religion had as much to do with geography as it did with revelation. When Jane (then married) had met Brian (married but separated), he was in that heady period just after receiving tenure, enjoying the pleasant realization that a paycheck and an office would be his for the rest of his life. Unlike many tenured faculty members, however, Brian had soon relapsed into a driving need to write and publish; it kept him aloof from the problems of step-children and visitation schedules, and tension over publisher’s deadlines seemed to drive away all other kinds of guilt in those days of court dates, angry ex-spouses, and meddling friends and relatives. Once they had divorced, remarried, and settled into their new life – the life they were still living – Jane barely recognized the impetuous, romantic scholar who had been her partner in escape.

Jane gave in to the long silence and put down the puzzle. “What are you reading?”
Brian looked at her over the top of his glasses without lowering the magazine. He did not look angry at her interruption, but he paused long enough for her to register that she had disturbed his train of thought.

“It’s an article about that newly-discovered Gospel of Judas that they just finished piecing together and translating. You probably heard about it. Very early document that is supposed to be the testimony of Judas – although this is a new kind of Judas. According to this gospel, Judas is the hero. Jesus does warn Judas that he will be cursed for generations on earth, but that, in the end, Judas will be the ‘brightest star in the heavens.’ It is only Judas who can make the sacrifice happen, and he has to do it – he should be honored to do it. Anyway, that’s what the Gospel according to Judas says. We should all be so lucky as to write our own stories.” He finally smiled.

Jane nodded. “I read about that in the National Geographic.” Jane immediately regretted bringing up the source of her knowledge; it was just a reminder that he read scholarly journals while she still read magazines they had originally subscribed to for the benefit of the kids. “Do you think it is real? Do scholars really think it is genuine?”

Brian put on his teacherly face. “Well, we know Mark was not written by Mark, nor Matthew by Matthew, so we can probably doubt whether this was written by Judas. But, it is undeniably as old as some of the gospels we have. A few students were asking about it last semester, so I thought I had better do some research. Mainstream religion is not too happy about it – they’d like to keep Judas in the ninth circle of hell.”

Jane considered Dante’s circles of hell, encouraged that they might actually have a real conversation to pass the flight time. “I always thought poor Judas got a bad rap – it wasn’t as if he had a choice. ‘The devil put it into his heart’ and all that.”

Brian had originally seemed to like the way she knew her Bible, the result of mandatory Sunday school in the strict household of her childhood. She and Brian seldom talked about religion now – or much of anything else.

Brian shrugged. “That’s what the Judas gospel says. Jesus tells him that he will ‘surpass all of the others’ – because he will do what has to be done for the sake of mankind. He betrays Jesus, Jesus gets crucified, we all get redeemed. Interesting.”** He lifted the magazine back up, titled his head up so he was looking through his reading glasses, and let her know that the conversation was over. So much for salvation.

There was no one to meet them at the airport in Charlotte; everyone was too busy with wedding arrangements. With four sets of parents and eight renditions of grandparents, there were simply too many close relatives for individual attention. Jane and Brian picked up their luggage and a rental car and headed out to the countryside and their bed and breakfast. Her luck had held and the bags had arrived (having to get through the weekend without her clothes was another of Jane’s fears), the car rental facility was on site and did not require a shuttle, and the map that Sammy had provided turned out to be easy to follow. There was little conversation other than that necessary for the logistics of their transportation.

Sammy (Samantha) was the youngest of their four children (two of hers, two of his), and the first to get married. Brian and Jane had married when the children were all adolescents, and the step-siblings were not close. Brian’s kids were not due to arrive until the next day, but Sammy’s sister and maid of honor, Nell, had been on site all week. Sammy had arranged some sort of dinner that evening so that all the parents (the groom’s parents were also divorced) could get to know each other. When Jane had left Jack and married Brian, it was these kinds of events that everyone had warned her about. Family events would be difficult and hurtful, they cautioned her. They were right, of course. There had been few occasions so far – mostly graduations – but this would be different. Three days at the same social events were going to strain everyone’s nerves. Nell had always said she would never have a big wedding, as she could not imagine everyone in the same room having a good time. Sammy was determined, however, and seemed to see no reason why everyone should not get along. Jane was with Nell in spirit, but had to try to live up to Sammy’s expectations.

For, in addition to the basic awkwardness of the situation, Jane had to live with her guilt. She had left Jack for Brian, and perhaps been the indirect cause of the final dissolution of Brian’s marriage. Brian’s children (a boy and a girl) had been more accusatory over the years to their father than Sammy and Nell had been to her, but – as far as she could tell – she suffered more guilt. She had tried to talk to Brian about it several times in recent years, but he had difficulty understanding why she was resurrecting the past. All of the children had turned out well, all had good relations with their parents, ex-spouses had all re-married, and there were no longer any disagreements over visitation rights, child support, or college fees. What more could she ask for? She was a lucky woman.

They showered and changed. Brian put on his new sport coat and Jane put on the first of the carefully chosen outfits she had spent countless hours evaluating for this weekend. She stared at herself at the mirror and tried to remember the last time she had seen her ex-husband Jack close-up. Years ago, she often peered through cracks in curtains to stare as he waited in his car to pick up the kids, and she had sometimes glimpsed his familiar figure across high school auditoriums. But it had been a long time. What would she look like to him? Her gray hair was hidden under increasingly blonder salon fixes, and she didn’t weigh any more than she used to, but gravity was gravity. At least his new wife wasn’t younger; Jack was older than Jane was and she had heard that Martha was as old as Jack. She was looking forward to getting a look at Martha also.

She walked into the restaurant on Brian’s arm. Brian had strict instructions not to leave her side until he was given a sign that it was safe. Although Brian lived through all the early months of threats and court appearances with her, he seemed to think that she was overly nervous about meeting up with Jack again.
“He’s a lot older and he’s remarried. I am sure that he will be fine.” He said this is a way that made it clear that he thought Jane was the one who was not “fine.”

Sammy, in fact, was determined that everyone would get along and she had gotten iron-clad guarantees from all the exes – the bride’s and the groom’s – that there would be no scenes. When Sammy had called her mother for such assurance, Jane had bristled. “You don’t need to worry about me.”

Sammy had persevered. “I’m not worried about anyone in particular; I just want your word everyone will try to get along.” Jane gave her word, but did not cease worrying.

There seemed to be no need to worry, however. Sammy loved Mexican food, and this place had both the appropriate décor and a mariachi band. Jane and Brian were among the last to arrive and everyone was already deep into the guacamole and margaritas. Sammy rushed over to hug them and shepherd them along to be introduced to Dave’s parents and step-parents. As they moved toward the congregation at the bar, they immediately came face to face with Jack and Martha, who were talking to an artistic-looking couple (based entirely on their hair – his facial and hers down her back) who turned out to be Dave’s mother and step-father. Jane nodded to Jack and Martha, and turned for introductions to the bohemian pair, speaking the appropriate pleasantries while concentrating on processing her situation and the figures that she could now only see out of the corner of her left eye as she made small talk with the in-laws.

Jack was definitely older. He was nine years older than Jane in any case – already retired. He was much heavier and had not aged well; it actually looked like someone had taken the heel of his hand and pushed down on the back of his head, making him both shorter and squatter, as if he were the Pillsbury doughboy visited by a playful Father Time. His hair was thinning and graying, but not in any distinguished way, and it certainly did not look like he had been worrying about what he would wear to this event. Martha, although clearly (and blessedly) older than Jane, was pleasant-looking with the kind of clear eyes, sturdy posture, and ruddy complexion that told of many hours spent outdoors and very few days hunched over a book or a desk. She had a wonderful chortle than often crescendoed into a hoot, and it was answered by Jack’s deep laugh. Jack’s was a happy rumble which Jane recognized immediately, even though she had not heard it in years and did not even remember hearing very often in the years she was married to him.

She did the rounds with the parents and step-parents, and soon Nell and Sammy were ushering everyone into a room where dinner was to be served. In a further effort to get the families to know each other, Sammy’s family members were seated with Dave’s, and she and Brian found themselves again with the artistic couple, neither of whose names she could remember.

Sammy was glowing; she and Nell both looked happy, which was certainly something to be grateful for. As she heard the laughs of Jack and Martha sing out from the next table, she had the startling thought that her ex-husband was also happy. Jack was older and fatter, but he definitely looked content with life, and Martha looked like a wonderful person to be married to. In fact, of the all the more than two dozen people in the room, Brian looked the least happy. No, even as she thought this she realized that it was probably not true. She was probably the unhappiest-looking person in the room. And it was not just that she looked unhappy.

When Jane had left Jack, broken up a not-so-happy home, she had been sure that she was doing the right thing. But, as things were increasingly not as perfect as she thought they would be, she had suffered from increasing guilt. In their college years, the kids had exacerbated this by the kind of introspection that was prompted by late night discussions in dorm rooms far away from home. In recent years, however, Sammy and Nell had told her that they realized that she and their father were miserable together and that, as bad as it was, in the long run it was the best thing for everyone.

Brian was fairly smug about the evening on the way home. “I told you it would be fine. You worried for nothing. Not a bit of tension – I liked Dave’s father and his wife, but the other two parents were weird – not that it matters, doubt that we’ll run into them much after this weekend. And it’s only ten – hope you don’t want the lights out right away. I’d like to read for a couple of hours.”

Jane knew that this meant that he was indeed going to read for a couple of hours, no matter what she said. She couldn’t sleep with lights on – at home, Brian read in his study at night as he was the night person and she was the morning person. She had learned to always bring a sleeping mask while traveling with him. While its straps made her feel (and probably look) like she was involved in some kind of bondage activity, it usually did the trick. She would take a sleeping pill, in any case. It had been a long day and she knew it would be hard to settle down.

The pill worked until about four that morning, when Jane awoke out of a dream. Such sudden awakenings were the only times Jane could recall dreams, but she certainly remembered this one. She had been in some kind of castle surrounded by water and jetting fountains, and there was a wild, medieval party going on. People were eating, drinking, fondling each other, feeding the numerous dogs that roamed from table to table, and watching some jesters and acrobats who seemed to float above the crowd. Jane was helplessly looking for Brian in the way that you so determinedly try to do in dreams with the same fruitless results of all such nightmare quests. But while Brian was not there, everyone else certainly was. All of the people from dinner last night were participating in the festivities, with the hirsute artistic couple serving in the place of the lord and lady and leading the merriment. Jack and Martha were there with their grinning mouths smeared with gravy. Martha had a little dog in her lap and Jack was feeding the dog from his plate. Sammy and Dave were dancing, and Nell was shamelessly showing her cleavage and her shins to a soldier who appeared to be on duty behind the lord and lady, but was sufficiently at ease to appreciate Nell’s endowments.

Everyone in the dream was wearing elaborate masks, decked with feathers and sequins, and yet Jane had no trouble identifying all of the people from the previous evening’s much more sedate dinner. Jane went from person to person asking for Brian, in tears because she could not find him. Each masked face just laughed her off loudly. No one cared. No one even seemed to know what she was talking about. She finally left the main hall and followed a circular stairwell down to an authentic-looking dungeon. No one was there – no prisoners, no guards. All of the barred doors stood wide open and it was clear that everyone was at the festivities. As she sat on a bench inside of one of the dank cells looking through the rusty, damp bars, her torch went out and she was plunged into frightening darkness which seemed to exclude sound as well as light. She could no longer even hear the sounds of the banquet; there was nothing to guide her back.

Jane awoke to a similar silent darkness, started to panic, and then realized she was still wearing her sleep mask. When she disentangled it from her head and her hair, she saw that it was the early hours of the morning. The summer sun was just beginning to light up the sky, and she could just make out the lines of light between the slats of the blinds covering the windows of their room. Brian was asleep, turned away from her with his head curled into his chest so that all she could see was his heavily breathing back covered with his plaid pajamas. She took a minute to get her bearings in this strange place. North Carolina. Sammy’s wedding tomorrow. Rehearsal dinner tonight. Get-acquainted dinner with the relatives last night. Went well. No problems. The dream.

The dream was easy and it was painful. She had put everyone – Jack, the children, their friends – through an excruciating time when she upset her life to live with Brian. Her first marriage had not been great, and even now she realized that it would never have gotten much better. But it was an established life and it was not just her life. She had feared she was sacrificing the happiness of other people for her own. And now they were happy – seemingly much happier than she was. They were feasting with the lord and lady, while she was still looking for something or someone that she could not find. Jack seemed infinitely happier than when he was married to her – more outgoing, even jolly. It had been good for him. The kids seemed none the worse for wear and divorced parents seemed to be part of the routine – something Sammy and Dave had in common.

Was she the Judas? Had she sold them out for her own happiness – her thirty pieces of silver, thirty days of romance – only to have the greater good devolve upon them? She was glad they were happy, but she doubted it would not absolve her guilt. Not guilt in any eternal sense – but the guilt that she felt when she looked back, when she assessed the situation in a way she had not been able to do in the midst of the passion and hostility of the moment. She slowly realized that some of the guilt could now be transferred to sorrow. For herself. For what she felt she had to do at the time and for the unintended consequences for herself. But she also realized that the sorrow was easier than the guilt. For the unexpected consequences of her actions for the people at the banquet, for their happiness, she was truly grateful.

On the other hand, it would have been more reassuring if they had not all been wearing masks.

**I might note here that Eve gets much the same treatment – if Eve had not caused the downfall of mankind, there could not have been the redemption of Jesus and the intercession of Mary. See the Middle English ballad: “Adam lay ybounden.” For other views of Judas, see the story by Jorge Borges, “Three Versions of Judas.”