There were six cots in the room which used to contain little desks and chairs before the district closed the school and consolidated the students at other sites to reduce expenses. The city took the campus over and leased it to the Eagle and Cross. The blackboards had been taken out, but the wall maps and window blinds remained, and it looked very much like a classroom still.
Josh and Dennis shared the space with four other young men. Josh didn’t like them. For one thing, they weren’t good Christians in his eyes. They did what was expected of them around the compound, yes; they went to chapel and they sat in front of their Bibles and at gatherings they said prayers and sang songs and swayed to the music with their arms upraised, but in the room they spewed profanity and talked crudely about women. For another thing, they treated every bodily function they observed or experienced as an event of singular hilarity. They punched each other in the shoulder, wrapped each other in headlocks, and bashed about the room unsatisfied until something was knocked over, ripped, or broken. Once, all six roommates had been punished as a group because Greg and Allen had roughhoused so wildly that they put several holes in the wallboard while Josh and Dennis stood apart shouting at them to stop.
“You faggots,” the two red-faced boys had responded. Allen had approached Josh with his chin and chest thrust forward and stood toe to toe so that the damp heat emanating from his face suffused Josh’s own. Then Allen swung from his shoulder, past Josh, and rammed his fist into the gypsum, enlarging a hole his head had made five minutes earlier when Greg had lunged and tackled him at the waist. In that earlier moment, they had stopped suddenly, expecting Allen to collapse, and when he didn’t they each barked up a laugh from the pits of their stomachs.
Josh continued to meet Allen’s eyes even as Allen’s fist split the air by his ear, repeating “Jesus is my strength” over and over in his mind.
Dennis stepped between them.
“What are you doing?” he shouted at Allen. “Are you trying to get us thrown out? We’re supposed to be men here, not boys.”
Dennis’s normally cheerful face strained with anxiety at the thought of being drummed out of the Order. He would fight Allen if he had to, but feared escalating the situation into an all-out brawl. Josh, with the added strength of his friend, continued to face Allen down. Greg hung back. He understood the simple physics of the situation. While Allen could probably get the better of Josh, Greg was no match for Dennis, who could out-lift anyone in the flight except Pastor Morton. He also understood the politics. Pastor Morton held Josh and Dennis up to the others as examples of true Christian manhood almost every day.
After some more staring, Allen had said, “You think you’re pretty fucking special, don’t you?” Then he turned away and left the room.
When the time came to report the holes in the walls, none of them would point fingers. They had all been restricted to the compound and assigned to kitchen duty three meals a day for forty days.
After dinner tonight, when Josh and Dennis returned to the BOQ, neither Greg nor Allen nor the other two bunkmates, Alex and Jimmy, were there. Josh surmised they were in the rec room monopolizing the pool table or removing the television from the Sky Angel satellite feed and flipping through the channels for some forbidden image that wasn’t filtered out by the v-chip, perhaps the latest celebrity slut writhing her way through a pantomime of song. Pastor Morton said that such boys had high spirits and needed special guidance, and that we are all in need of God’s forgiveness and grace.
“The good Lord made us all different,” said Pastor Morton. “Earthly justice is only part of His plan. True justice is in heaven. He knows who has done what with His talent. Your earthly reward is doing the most with what He gave you. Asking for more than that is sinful.”
“Then how do we know how to behave if earthly justice is not important? If people are rewarded for behaving badly?” asked Josh.
“It’s all in the Bible. When you are weak and doubting God’s wisdom, read your Bible.”
Josh now went to the bookcase at the end of the long bank of windows whose horizontal blinds were turned flat against the night and picked up the great book. He didn’t understand the pastor, really. The Bible was not a reference and it was hard to find an apposite passage that addressed the confusion of any present moment. So he had taken to reading it cover to cover, relying on faith that its wisdom would reveal itself as time went on. He was in his third cycle now and approaching a favorite part: the book of Joshua, his namesake.
“Aw, man, I can’t sit still,” Dennis said from across the room. “I’m going to the gym. Want to come?”
“No, I’m going to study,” said Josh.
The truth was that Josh didn’t like to go to bed sweaty. Each cadet was honor-bound to use no more than three minutes of hot water a day and he preferred to use his allotment after physical training in the morning. Dennis didn’t mind washing with cold water. Sometimes, he didn’t mind not washing at all, which Josh found repellant, but he didn’t comment. Certainly people at the time of Jesus bathed far less frequently.
Josh began to read. The text, sonorous even when read silently, rolled over him like a wide wheel. Now that he was older, he found its stolid cadence and flatly asserted, unadorned factuality energizing and vivid rather than stultifying and dull. It invited his imagination to conjure the unspoken details—the concussive drone of the rams’ horns that tumbled the walls of Jericho, the color of Joshua’s hair (white), the flash of his sword (bronze), the screams of the heathen women and children as they tried to flee from its sacred edge.
When he got to the verses that cataloged who inherited what part of the promised land, with no descriptors except peculiar names like Bizjothjah and Ziklag, drowsiness began to press on his eyelids. The clock on the wall, still left from school days, read 9:26, an hour and a half before lights out. He marked his place with the red ribbon that was attached to the spine of his Bible, put the book down, stood, and pulled his shaving kit from his locker. He stripped to his tee shirt and boxers and took his kit down the hallway to the latrine. Alex and Jimmy passed him from the other direction. Josh nodded, and they returned the gesture. Alex and Jimmy were tolerable when they were out of Allen’s sphere. Josh had nothing against them, really, except they were too easily influenced.
Josh brushed his teeth and used the toilet. As he washed his hands, he glanced at himself in the mirror, quickly, in a way he hoped that God would not judge as prideful and, having reassured himself of his fitness, retraced his way through the hall and back to the room. Dennis had returned, his grey undershirt saturated with sweat front and back in a v-shaped pattern that mimicked the outline of his torso. Just before ten o’clock, Allen and Greg came into the BOQ. As the door swung inward, Allen was speaking, but he stopped when he and Greg were fully in the room. All six went about their bedtime routines with few words until Dennis said, “Whose turn is it to lead prayer?”
Josh knew it was his own turn, but he said, “Would you like to, Allen?”
Allen, who sat with his back to the others as he removed his socks, snapped his head around.
“Who do you think you are?” he said.
“I’m just offering you my turn,” Josh said.
“You worry about yourself. I’ll lead prayer when it’s my turn. I don’t need your permission.”
“Fine, then,” said Josh. “Let us pray.”
“Let us spray,” said Greg, laughing.
Josh ignored him. He bowed his head and folded his hands at the ends of his relaxed arms, and the others followed. Josh thanked Jesus for the day and for bringing them to the Order and asked for the strength to keep America safe and whole during this time of trial and strife and to preserve her from her enemies without and within.
“Amen,” the others said. Even Allen.
Jimmy flipped the light switch and they all got into their bunks. The cool, worn sheets met the skin of Josh’s legs and arms. After a few minutes, the rustlings subsided as the others drifted off. Dennis began to snore. Behind closed lids, Josh’s eyes moved as his mind opened up upon what he had been reading earlier that night.
The wonder of it, to Josh, was that God had singled out individuals, named individuals, for His special attention. On what basis had He done that? Was there something that made Joshua inherently worthy? There must be, Josh thought. Certainly the language itself conveyed intention and inevitability. God cared. God knew all. The selection couldn’t be random. But there was nothing in the text that said why Joshua, just as there was nothing in the text that said why the Jews. God decided, and that was all.
Joshua of the Old Testament never wondered that he should be talking to God. He accepted it and acted. What power that must be—to have God’s authority to kill, and to know that you yourself were above death until the God-given task had been completed, and that in the afterlife you would be exalted for having done it.
As sleep asserted itself, Josh’s imagination began to range. He became his namesake, charging in from the dust-clouded plains with thousands of berobed and shouting Israelites, swords held high, and before them, thousands of fleeing Jericheans, tripping, trampling one another, terrified and filled with mortal dread, eyes wide, forearms raised pitifully against the weight and whistle of honed metal, curling up in the fetal position after being first laid open, shrieking as their hell-bound souls left their bodies through the gaping crimson splits in their flesh.
Josh began to feel stirred in a way he did not want. It was the same sensation he had had as a child, seven, eight, nine years old, when he and his playmate Danny Mueller would sneak off to one corner of the churchyard by the cyclone fence and pretend to crucify each other. They took turns facing their executioner, stretching their hairless arms out to the side and grabbing the diamond-shaped links. Then whoever was the Roman soldier would pound imaginary spikes into the other’s hands and feet with an imaginary mallet. With each stroke, whether he was the soldier or the Savior, Joshua felt a thrill that burrowed out from somewhere deep in his core and straight to his groin. He would feel the pressure against his zipper and wonder if Danny could see it or if the same thing were happening to him. He instinctively knew that the adults would be outraged if they caught him playing crucifixion and disrespecting Christ by allowing the part of his body he urinated with to do this unbidden thing. He suspected that it would be seen as an outward sign of his taking pleasure in Christ’s suffering and death. In that moment, a word he had never understood instantly became clear: sacrilege. The way the adults spat the word out made him think that it must be a great wrong. But it only enticed him to go deeper into the feeling, to roll it around inside himself just to see what other compelling sensation it might lead him to. Then one day while he was being impaled against the fence he looked Danny full in the eyes and saw a shining in them and a depth that made his chest swell as if he were in a dream, falling but unable to hit the earth. It seemed as if something might burst out from inside him, that whatever was rolling around inside him might be revealed for all to see, far more shocking than nakedness, inexplicable, unspeakable, and that God would see it too, and be angry as he had been angry with Adam and Eve. He had broken away and run to the other end of the churchyard. He promised God that he would never play crucifixion with Danny ever again.
Now, in the slumbering quiet of the BOQ, he felt the tingle that fed on his desire to repress it. He strained his ears to detect if any of the others were awake. No sound disturbed the dark. He prayed silently to God the Father. Lead us not into temptation. But it was Jesus’ beatific face, not the Father’s, that looked down upon him, impassive, youthful, beautiful, like something out of a tinted Victorian photograph. The soft brown eyes above His ruddy cheeks drew Josh in with a promise of warmth and understanding and at the same time pierced his vanity and exposed the weakness behind it. What a smooth brow He had, what placid and complete wisdom it conveyed. And what lay behind those eyes that saw all? Was it condemnation or forgiveness? Warning or permission?
Jesus slowly raised his arms and the white robe fell away, revealing His body and His wounds in all their corporeal beauty. Regard Me, contemplate Me, for this is My Body.
As Josh reached down between his legs, his ears gathered in every perturbation of the atmosphere. The weight of a body shifted among bedclothes. His hand stopped. He waited. Hearing nothing more, he found a quiet rhythm that even his own ears could not detect. His awareness detached from his own body and he and Jesus stood side by side, in the glory of their nakedness, and looked back at himself, suspended in time and space, apart from the flow of reality.
At the moment of release, Jesus swept into the sky, His arms outspread, His white robe hanging loosely from His shoulders and luffing in the wind. Then Josh was standing in the rubble of Jericho, pulling his sword from the body that sprawled in the blood-soaked dust before him.
Josh opened his eyes. He began to fret about the sticky discharge on his sheets and how to guard it from discovery until he could launder his bedding, but something else entered his awareness and nudged that concern aside. It confused him at first. There were no lights outside, no sounds, no digital glows from anything in the room. He knew that the rolling blackouts only happened in the day, at peak use times. Was this a sign? A gust of wind threw raindrops against the window, harshly, like grains of sand. He could just make out the horizontal slats of the window blinds. He felt as if he were in a cell, unable to communicate with the outside, and protected from consequences of his own making by nothing more than a thin pane of glass.