JUDAS GRIPPED THE DAGGER HILT and slid around the corner, his back against the shadowed building. Tonight, while moon shone brightly enough to light his way, he would flee the monastery. He had to go.
If he didn’t leave now, he’d be no different than the other monks whose souls and bodies shriveled like dates under the merciless desert sun. In time, even their intellects succumbed to the isolation and the hot winds that blasted sand into every crevice of every building, bed and body.
The monks’ destiny was no secret. The desert drove them to insanity.
Rather than lose his mind in the midst of dry winds and equally dry brothers, he would gain the world. Soon, all Byzantium would know the name Judas the Monk. Jesus’ fallen disciple would be remembered no more, and the name Judas would become synonymous with healing, hope and generosity, rather than greed and betrayal.
Like a wary desert leopard, the monastery crouched halfway up Mount Sinai’s rocky slope. Judas eyed the rugged peak and wondered if those who built the hermitage thought they would somehow protect Moses’ sacred encounters with Jehovah. The full moon hovered just above the barren mountain, casting a silver glow against the monastery wall and the noiseless structures contained within.
He pulled the hood of his wool robe over his head, the smell of stale cloth filling his nostrils. He concealed the knife deep within the wide sleeves and listened for activity. Hearing nothing, he stepped onto the worn stone path that ran between the buildings.
A moist clean smell drifted on the wind, the first he’d encountered in months. Perhaps it had rained somewhere. Perhaps he would find that place soon. An owl called into the night, the only sound other than the shuffle of his sandals and palm branches rattling in the breeze.
He passed the cells where the other monks slept. He knew they were desperate for rest before midnight prayers—the latest intolerable creation of the abbot. Empty black windows seemed to stare back at him. He hurried on.
Judas followed the path to the Chapel of the Sacred Bramble. Outside the small sanctuary, a warm wind rustled the sacrosanct bush. As he’d done hundreds of times before, he tried to envision himself in Moses’ sandals, watching the fire of God burn, yet seeing the shrub remain whole and unscathed. But he couldn’t recreate the hallowed moment.
Since he’d arrived at the monastery, he’d witnessed only one miracle. That event had occurred inside the chapel. With a shaking hand, he opened the heavy wooden door, slipped inside and closed it without a sound.
Their order’s tradition maintained that a lamp was to burn in the chapel at all times. But lately, olive oil had been scarce. Darkness smothered the tiny airless room.
Judas blinked as he turned, and then blinked again. The desert held such incredible absence of light, but this was the last time he would have to endure its blinding shroud. He took eight steps forward, imagining the vacant wooden benches on either side of the center aisle, and stopped when he neared the front. The only sound was his heavy breathing.
He sucked in a whiff of sand-scented dust and covered his nostrils with his sleeve. Turning to the left, he took three paces, reached out and wrapped his fingers around a wooden icon he knew stood no taller than his forearm. The Virgin Mary.
Three days ago, Mary had cried. He’d seen her tears during his prayers and later told the abbot. But he’d been rebuffed. The abbot said he believed him but insisted he not tell the others. It was not their place to know.
He’d mulled the abbot’s words for two days. Finally, he understood why his superior failed to comprehend the icon’s potential. The desert had driven him mad. That’s when Judas decided to take Mary to Constantinople, where all would see the wonders of her powers.
With care, he extended the knife, slipped the blade under the base and dislodged the statue from the pedestal.
The door behind him opened.
Judas dropped the statue and spun around. Shadows danced with candlelight in the doorway. He rolled under a bench, praying he hadn’t been seen or heard, and watched a hooded monk shuffle down the aisle, holding a candle in front of him.
When the monk reached the front of the sanctuary, he whispered, “Dear God…” and set the candle on the bench above Judas. Kneeling beside the Virgin’s toppled form, he picked her up and carefully dusted her with his sleeve. Then he ran a finger over her cheeks, as if wiping away tears.
Judas frowned. This monk, a kindly man he’d served and worshiped with for years, knew the Virgin’s secret—and he was obviously about to steal her.
Judas scrambled to his feet and snatched the icon from the other man’s hands.
The monk screeched, “No!” and leapt at Judas, grasping the statue with both hands.
Before his fellow cleric could gain the advantage, Judas drove the dagger deep into his chest. A gagging sound erupted from the man’s throat as both men slipped to the ground. Judas rolled away from the dead monk, lifted the candle from the bench and set it in the icon’s nook. A sticky wetness covered his hand. He wiped it on the fallen monk’s robe.
Footsteps echoed outside.
Judas wrenched the knife from the monk’s chest and stood. He’d killed for the Virgin. He would do it again.
The abbot and Brother Simeon stepped into the doorway. The candles they held illuminated their faces. They stared at him and then moved in unison toward the front.
Judas looked down and saw the knife in one of his hands, the icon in the other. Blood stained both of their robes. He glanced again at Mary’s face. She was watching him with large swollen eyes. Human eyes filled with life. His hands shook, and so did she.
The voice of the abbot penetrated his growing fear. “What happened, Brother Judas? Was Brother John stealing the statue?”
Still staring at the statue, Judas nodded. The accusing eyes penetrated his soul, slashing it in two. He felt as dead as the man at his feet, yet his heart surged in his chest.
He flung the icon against the wall. The wooden figure bounced onto the stone floor and spun in a circle. Still, the Virgin’s reproving gaze remained locked on him.
Judas dropped the knife and shoved past the abbot and Brother Simeon. Sprinting as fast as his robe and sandals allowed, he ran along the monastery walls, past gardens, cells and workrooms to clatter down a narrow flight of steps. He had to escape the desert before it drove him crazy.
Halfway down the stairs, he tripped and fell to the bottom. A wicked crack reverberated through his skull. He tried to get up, but his limbs didn’t respond, and his head was twisted at a horrible angle on the warm stone.
Why couldn’t he breathe? Why couldn’t he move?
The abbot and Brother Simeon knelt beside him. Clutched in the abbot’s hand, Mary turned her face away from Judas.
Black shadows narrowed his vision. He heard Simeon say, “But I saw her gaze, Father.”
“It was not meant for you.”
Though Judas struggled for a breath, his lungs refused to draw in air.
“Quiet.” The abbot held up a hand. “She speaks.” He lifted the icon to his ear.
Judas heard a faint whisper. Did the abbot’s lips move? He didn’t think so.
Simeon asked, “What did she say?”
The abbot sighed. “It seems the desert has driven our dear Brother Judas insane.”
About this story: “Chapel of the Sacred Bramble” was originally published in Passageways: A Short Story Collection ©2014. Later posts to FICTION FRIDAY will feature ICW members’ unpublished stories of 1500 words or less.
Beliefs represented by individual authors are not necessarily shared by all members of ICW.