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Chapter Four

 

Stoning Fever

 

 

 

I ran faster than I ever had in my short life—faster than when I was chased by angry bees after trifling with their hive, faster than when old Nathan caught Simon and I in his berry patch, and faster even than when I ran to inform on Jesus for breathing life into a dead bird.   But this time I ran, not for myself, but for my friend Michael and especially for his poor mother, Mariah, who might be stoned for witchcraft or being a woman of ill repute.

When I reached my parent’s house it seemed so tiny compared to Mariah’s villa, and yet, as I sat upon my favorite rock to gain my breath and sort out my crowded thoughts, I thanked the Most High for my family, no matter how much I resented my parent’s secrets and oldest brother’s make believe world.  My parents, though strange, loved me.  I’m certain Jesus loved me too.  I was really quite fortunate.  A fever had not taken any of my brothers and sisters’ lives.  Tonight, I would eat some of my mother’s warm bread, drink goat’s milk, and eat lentil stew.  I didn’t need sweet meats and fancy cheese.  The small dagger, which I had left on the table in Mariah’s house, was much too fine for a carpenter’s son, and yet of all the things I had experienced this afternoon, I would miss it the most.

I wasn’t certain which was hammering the loudest my heart or my head, which ached from drinking pomegranate juice and wine.  Walking slowly up to the house, knowing that if Papa wasn’t out fixing someone’s fence or house, he would be in his shop and that Mama would pop her head out to ask where I had been, I found myself accepting my fate bravely, my only fear being that I couldn’t help the mother of my best friend.  It was Simon, himself a great slacker, who spotted me first. 

“Boy are you gonna get it!” he snickered. “Rabbi Joachim is talking to Papa right now!”

“Father Abraham!” I groaned. “Are they in the carpenter’s shop?”

“No,” Simon shook his head gravely, “James, who was helping Papa fix the rabbi’s shed, saw Nehemiah helping Uriah up to his house.  Uriah’s very sick, Jude—drunk on wine.  Nehemiah told Papa and Joachim that Mariah was dressed like a whore and tried to cast a spell on you and your friends.  The rabbi sent old Nathan to alert our neighbors and friends.  I ran back here to find you and bring you to Rabbi Joachim’s house.”

“Are they still there?” I asked in a croaking voice.

“Yes, and Nehemiah’s aunt and half the town!” Simon took my hand and began pulling me across the yard.

“Where are you going?” came a familiar lilting voice.  Mother’s haggard face appeared suddenly in the doorway.

“Everything’s all right Mama,” Simon lied sweetly, “Papa wants to show Jude the Rabbi’s new shed.”

This was half true, of course.  Papa was working on the rabbi’s shed, and he might, when we returned home, take me to his own shed to answer for my behavior today.  Suddenly, as we exited the garden, Jesus emerged from the shadows, his face covered with sweat and hair matted to his head as if he had been walking in the sun for several hours.  Normally, I would have said something clever to my oldest brother, such as “Hey, Jesus been talking to God lately?” or  “Brought any birds back to life?”  But all I could do this time was look at him forlornly as Simon dragged me to my doom.

In what seemed at first to be a typical reaction by Jesus he said something to me that made no sense at all.  Simon laughed but I was in no mood to mock Jesus this time. Now, as I record our family’s history, I must lay aside my pen and reflect upon his words: “Peace be upon Jude, the youngest, who kicks against the goad, so close yet so far from the truth.”

“What’s that suppose to mean?” I asked Simon. “What’s a goad?”

“Who cares,” my captor grumbled, “Jesus is no longer one of us.”

          When Simon brought me up to the rabbi’s house, I could see Papa, my brothers James and Joseph, and several of our neighbors, including Deborah, Nehemiah’s aunt, congregated in the rabbi’s yard.  In the center, barely visible in the midst of these familiar faces and several concerned townsmen, stood the fat rabbi and his fat little son.  Not faraway from them, Nehemiah was being scolded by his aunt.  The little freckled face boy was nodding unhappily as she wrung a bony finger at him.  That moment, perhaps unfairly, I hated Uriah and Nehemiah.  I knew with certainty the story they had told, which was what they saw as the truth.  Mariah would be labeled a witch or whore, as a result of this “truth.”  Recalling Jesus telling me moments ago that I was close to the truth, I wondered fleetingly again what he meant when he told me I was kicking the goad.  It dawned upon me there, before all their dark looks, though I would not recall it for quite some time, that this word was important—one more clue to the mystery that was Jesus, Joseph’s oldest son.  Now, however, as always, Jesus was somewhere else, his head in the clouds.  I was left alone to confront the townsfolk and my father for my misdeeds.

          “Jude!” Papa shouted with a hoarse voice, probably from arguing with Rabbi Joachim for so long. “Is this true?” He beckoned with his hand. “Have you boys been drinking wine at the widow Mariah’s house?  Speak to me boy.  Explain to me why you, Nehemiah and the rabbi’s son would go to such a place?”

          “He talked me into going,” Uriah whimpered. “I didn’t wanna go.”

          “Me neither,” sniveled Nehemiah. “It was Jude’s idea!”

          “I told my nephew she was a witch,” Nehemiah’s aunt wrung her gnarled fist, “but he wouldn’t listen.  Placed a spell on them, she did.  He-he, I was right!  Yes, indeed, I was right!”

          “One thing’s certain,” the rabbi cried indignantly. “After what my son told me, Mariah’s a danger to public morals.”

          “She’s a public menace!” Josiah, the blacksmith, stepped forward.

          “By beguiling our children,” Old Nathan shouted self-righteously, “Mariah has proven herself to be both a whore and a witch.”

          “Ho! Ho!” blared Reuben, the tanner. “You know what we do to witches and fornicators!”

          “Wait a minute,” Joachim’s mouth dropped, “just you hold on Reuben.  We’re just having a friendly meeting here—”

That stupid, pompous little man.  Even now, after all these years, I find Joachim’s behavior shocking.  Already that day the gathering in his yard was getting out of hand.  Accusations about Mariah’s profession, including a blistering indictment by Ethan, a town elder, drowned out his voice.

          “Lies—all of you!” I shouted over the crowd. “Mariah’s merely sick.  Her husband and other children died of the fever.  That would make anyone sick in the head.  Now she has the craving for wine, like Uncle Ahab once did.  That doesn’t make her a whore or a witch!”

My bold defense of Michael’s mother fell on deaf ears.  Rabbi Joachim, though he  seemed to be having second thoughts, began quoting scriptures from the Torah, Nehemiah’s aunt ranted and raved incoherently, and several of our neighbors and prominent townsmen began arguing in favor of stoning Mariah for her sins.  When that dreadful word was uttered by Reuben I hoped my father would step up in Mariah’s defense, but he just stood there, mouth agape, while James and Joseph gave me sympathetic looks.  Simon, however, shoved me through the gate, then walked back down the road.  I disliked Simon even more than Jesus after that day.  Jesus, after all, like Mariah, couldn’t help himself.  When I moved to the center of the small crowd, I looked around, hoping that this would be all the townsmen who showed up for Joachim’s meeting.  Simon had exaggerated in his estimate.  Could a mere a handful of people conduct a proper stoning?  Surely, Mariah should get some sort of trial.

          “I’m sorry Papa,” I said, hanging my head, “Michael wanted us to meet his mother.  She’s really very nice.  I didn’t know she was mad.”

          “But you said she was sick,” the rabbi wagged a chubby finger. “Which is it little Jude—sick or mad?”

          “Both!” I confessed, looking back at my brothers for support. “The medicine made her sick.”

          “Sick, drunk, and mad.” The rabbi sighed. “That’s quite a combination.  Now you call it medicine.” “Let’s look at the facts.” He pursed his lips. “Is Mariah a witch?  A woman of ill-repute?” “Or,” he waved a chubby hand, “as Jude claims, sick in the head—addled by strong wine?” “We mustn’t rush to judgment.” He placed his arms sanctimoniously on his fat stomach. “The Torah counsels mercy for the widow.  Let’s not forget her husband Jeremiah’s gift to the synagogue and the fact Mariah has a son.”

His audience were not impressed with his speech.  Ethan reminded the self-righteous rabbi that the Lord required death for witches and whores.  Reuben seconded this suggestion as did his friends, Josiah and Asa, but no one dare utter that terrible word.  Joachim quoted scriptures that counseled mercy.  Like all hypocrites, he wanted it both ways.  Because of his friendship with Papa and other citizens, he didn’t want to sound like a bloodthirsty fanatic, so, as Papa later quipped, he incited the mob gently.  Unfortunately, the mob gathered in the yard had a mind of its own.  Deep down inside his craven heart, Joachim hoped Mariah would be stoned, and yet he wanted to appear fair-minded.  All his fine words masked a pitiless little man.  At Papa’s signal, James and Joseph, as Simon had done earlier, made their getaway.  Pointing to the road, he frowned grimly.  Papa was the only one who didn’t abandon me, but he remained silent and gave me a sad look that was little comfort now.  Mariah had been an issue in Nazareth for several years.  I wouldn’t learn this until many days after this dreadful event.  All I knew about this unfortunate woman was what I had heard from my friend Michael.  What these people had in mind stunned me as would a blow to the top of my head.

“What say you men?” Deborah did a crotchety jig. “Shall we allow this Jezebel to corrupt our youth?”

It was, I searched for the word in my head, a battle cry.  The rabbi shook his head in dismay as did my father when the men began to chant “Stone her! Stone her!” and Deborah raised her fists to the sky.

“Look what you have done Uriah?” I screamed. “Michael’s our friend.  And you Nehemiah, I can’t believe that you would turn on him too.”

“The issue is not Michael but his wicked mother.” Deborah frowned severely.

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch!” Josiah shook his grimy fist.

“Nor an adulteress!” cried Reuben, the smelly tanner, seconded by Ethan, who shook a long menacing shaft.

“Stone her!  Stone her!” cried the others, which included Esau and Jedidiah, recent customers with furniture orders for my father’s shop.

I wondered if business would cloud my father’s judgment.  Though Papa relied upon his trade as a carpenter, would God allow these people to represent our town?  Quickly into my head, though lacking the proper words, came the notion that Mariah was being judged without a trial, without a majority, and with only the accusations of two drunken little boys.  The effect of the wine still clung to me.  I felt sick to my stomach.  A headache, hard to comprehend at my tender age, had begun deep in my skull.  It would nevertheless, I recall in retrospect, be one of the defining moment in my life.

When I attempted to convey these thoughts to them, I had difficulty explaining myself this time, but I think I made my point.

“You can’t judge Mariah this way,” I tried not to cry.  “It’s not fair.  Because she’s not right in the head, she can’t speak for herself.  If Michael was here he’d explain what’s wrong with his mother.” “They lied when they told you she was a witch and a whore,” I pointed accusingly at my one-time friends. “I was there when Michael told me the truth.  They ran like frightened sheep.  I know what’s wrong with Mariah.  She’s not a bad woman!  And she’s not a witch!” 

 “But you said she was mad,” Deborah tossed her head.

“Sick in the head,” I corrected myself. “Mariah, like Uncle Ahab,” I turned to Papa, “is only touched in the head.”

My father took my hand in his then and looked angrily at the others, until finally finding his voice.

“I believe Mariah is a harmless recluse,” he announced huskily.  “She wanted her son Michael to have friends.  I heard Uriah tell his father this.”  “Rabbi Joachim, you don’t want this to happen in our village.” He looked gravely at him. “I remember a stoning in Bethlehem when I was a child.  The woman who was stoned was a harmless lunatic, like Mariah, not an adulterous or evildoer.  She was, I believe, possessed by demons or perhaps wine.  We should not stone people like that.  Mariah, like her, has stayed to herself and done no wrong.  Jude, Uriah, and Nehemiah should never have talked Michael into taking them to his house.  Michael did not want this.  What he wanted was to please his foolish friends, who must be held partly accountable for what happened today.”

I was proud of my father for making a stand.  It was the longest speech I had ever heard him utter.  Though he had set it into motion, Rabbi Joachim, I remember foggily, was shaking his head.  Papa told me later that the rabbi regretted losing his temper and asking Nathan to alert the town.  It was then that I learned what the word hypocrite meant.  Joachim’s fancy words had failed.  The seven men and one woman standing in his yard had made up their minds.

“Stone her!” they shouted in unison.

“Let’s go get her,” cackled Deborah. “Let’s hear what Mariah has to say!”

I almost felt sorry for Nehemiah.  His aunt was acting like an evil crone.  She had probably frightened him half to death.  But Uriah, who had made a pig out of himself and drank the most wine, had no such excuse.  It was the sight of him, the rabbi’s son, drunk and covered with vomit, not what Nehemiah told Joachim, that made the rabbi call this meeting at his house.  According to Papa, however, he knew very well what the townsfolk would do.  The word traitor, like hypocrite was not in my vocabulary at nine years old, but at a gut level I could see the duplicity of my friends.  They had wanted to visit “the witch on the hill,” and savor her delicacies, but, to keep themselves out of trouble they betrayed her, allowing the adults to believe that they had been bewitched by this “whore.”  Though he was, in fact, to blame for inciting the townsfolk, the rabbi now pretended as if he wanted it all to stop.  As Joachim raised his arms and cried out “judge and ye shall be judged!” the passage he quoted from the Torah was true for him.  Though he attempted to defuse what he had started out of anger instead of truth—a man of God, who had made himself such a judge—it was too late.  As I look back upon this event, I shudder at his words.  Joachim could find nothing concrete in scriptures to protect the mother of my friend.  It seems to me, as I look back upon this time, that Yahweh was essentially a vengeful god.  Such words would come from a greater rabbi, who would preach forgiveness instead of the intolerance I learned about that day.

“Remember what happened to the Moabites, who bore false witness against Ruth.  And Ruth had been a priestess of a pagan belief,” he tried to calm their mood. “Was not Gideon the offspring of a woman of ill repute?  Temper yourselves to the spirit of the law instead of the letter as a great teacher once said.”

Joachim continued his efforts to calm their mood, but he had run out of scriptures.  His audience remembered his sermons all too well.  The Torah was quite black and white on the issue of witchcraft and fornication.  Papa explained all this to me when I was old enough to understand.  Back then in the Rabbi’s front yard, the wrongs I felt were unnamed feelings spiraling out of control in my mind.  I wanted to scream at them and call them names for what they had in mind, but instead I did what was natural for someone my age, I wept.  Unmoved by the rabbi’s and my father’s words or a little boy’s tears, the men now charged down the main road through Nazareth to incite their friends and neighbor with stoning fever.

 

******

“We must warn them Papa,” I told my father as he rushed us away from Joachim’s house.

“I know son,” he sighed raggedly. “But will Mariah listen to us?  She is, after all, quite mad.  We’ll need help—all of you boys and my friend Ezra, who didn’t come to the meeting but lives not far from Mariah’s house.”  “You go fetch your brothers,” he directed letting loose of my hand. “I’ll get Ezra.  Tell this to your brothers, Jude: ‘remember poor Uncle Ahab, who had the drinking sickness.  We couldn’t help him, but we must help Mariah.  The townsmen want to harm Mariah, so we must stop them by taking Mariah into the hills until the stoning fever has passed.’”

Feeling great pride in my father, I ran back toward our home.  Papa knew I had an excellent memory, and would relay exactly what he said.  Of all the citizens of Nazareth I knew Mariah and Michael the best and understood my father’s mind.  Unlike the other Nazarenes I knew, he never judged others for simple failings.  It was, he once said to me, the “greater evils” such as murder, theft, and treason, that mattered, not the weakness of the flesh or spirit, which where punishment enough.  At this hour, I was buoyed by my father’s strength, but would his goodness be enough against the mob those men might gather this hour. 

When I reached our house, I spotted Simon and Joseph in the front yard.  Both of them appeared to waiting for our return.   I called out Papa’s speech excitedly to them and then went into the carpenter’s shop to fetch James.  All the time, I was shouting out the words father had given me plus some of my own.  Simon was hesitant, but James and Joseph, who had been there at the rabbi’s house, didn’t need persuasion.  Jesus, as usual, was wandering in the hills.  We didn’t bother calling to him, since he would not have been much help.  The thought that Jesus might have been able to cure Mariah of her illness would not have occurred to us yet.  The three of us, with Simon trailing reluctantly behind, raced up the road through Nazareth, not stopping until we arrived, panting and nearly delirious at the foot of Mariah’s trail. 

The hills around us were quiet.  There was no commotion inside the villa.  And yet, when we pricked up our ears, we could hear revelry in the more distant town.  A mob was gathering, probably by the market place or near the community well.

“Let’s hurry,” James took charge. “Papa must already be inside with Ezra.  Come on Simon, you and Jude stay together.  Joseph and I will go in first.”

James was spooked at the prospect of entering Mariah’s house.  Once again, as the youngest, I was sent to the end of the line.  Yet I had to coax the cowardly Simon up the trail.  As we passed through the entrance, into the atrium, then stood waiting for Papa to answer James’ call, I was reminded of my earlier impression of this villa.  A shiver ran up my spine.  I felt my legs turning to jelly when I pondered upon what lie in the remainder of the house.  Was it possible that some of the townsmen were already lurking in one of the rooms?  What if Mariah had gone completely berserk and killed Papa and his friend?  A door creaked and when Papa emerged in the shadows, we all yelped like jackals, until his face and tunic caught a shaft of light falling from the atrium roof.  The grim look on our father’s face told us much.  Behind him, another man, we assumed was Ezra, halted in the shadows.

“What’s wrong Papa?” I lurched forward.

“Mariah will not leave her villa.” He sighed heavily.

“We found things in one of her rooms,” Ezra said faintly in the background. “. . . Jars filled with insects, strange potions, signs scrawled on the walls. . . evil things.”

“Now Ezra,” Papa called back to him, “remember that Mariah is sick and evidently quite mad.  I’ve decided what we must do to save her. . . Michael told us that he has relatives in Jerusalem.  What we should really do to save what’s left of Mariah’s reputation is burn this villa to the ground, but there’s no time.  She has great strength in her madness.  We must all together, with Michael’s help, drag her from here and take her deep into the hills.”

We didn’t stop to consider how this action would affect Papa’s business.  There was no time to wonder about the future.  For one misbegotten wench we risked being shunned and ostracized by the town.  The outcome of our rescue, if it happened at all, was totally unknown.  We didn’t even know if we could pull her from her “witches cave,” as Ezra called it, when we found her huddled in a dark corner of a room. 

Michael stood in front of her in an exhausted state of shock.  No one could put a name on what we saw squatting on the floor.  She was still wearing the same dark, gossamer silks she had worn earlier today, but they were disheveled.  Her hair was sticking out in an unsightly explosion.  The kohl and lip paint she had plastered on to greet us was smeared all over her face, so that she looked like a Syrian clown.  Over and over again she continued to mutter those Hebraic-sounding words I heard earlier today, while wringing her hands and occasionally socking her forehead, like mother often does when she has forgotten something important, only Mariah did it with great force.  Blood poured from wounds on her face, arms, and hands.

“I imagine that’s some sort of witches talk,” Ezra remarked as Papa motioned Michael to join us in a united front.

“It’s gibberish,” James shook his head.

“No, its Hebrew,” Joseph said thoughtfully. “I remember such words at school, but Mariah is mixing them with nonsensical words.”

“Come on, let’s move toward her as a united front,” Papa commanded softly. “Ezra, you and I will grab her arms, while the rest of you grab her legs.”

“What about her stuff,” I looked back into the room. “Won’t she need water and food.”

“Don’t worry,” Papa patted my head, “Ezra and I plan on taking her to a caravan trail with provisions, a mule and cart.  We just haven’t figured out how.  Michael told us that he orders his mother’s goods all the time.  There’s plenty of food in her house.  That’s one reason for not burning it.  Ezra knows a shepherd, who would love to stock up on some of her delicacies.  For now we must hide her in the hills.” “All right, I will count to three,” he said, as we watched his every move. “When I reach three—attack!”

Though she merely sat there, gibbering to herself and rolling her eyes, we were fearful of what came next.  Some folks who were touched in the head had the strength of minotaurs, Papa once told us.  My Uncle Ahab, I recalled, had acted very strangely at times and had to be tied up.  So I understood, as Michael dangled a rope in his hands, what my father had in mind.

“We’ll have to bind her ankles and wrists,” Papa explained. “She’s calm now, but as soon as we try to move her, she’ll begin acting as if she’s possessed.”

“Demons,” mused Ezra, as he and father each grabbed a wrist. “Perhaps that has been her problem all along.”

It was one of the possibilities Papa had suggested at the rabbi’s house, though Michael believed his mother was sick from drugs and wine.  I had never seen or heard a person inhabited by demons, but I could imagine would it be like as I witnessed Mariah go berserk.  At the same moment the men gripped her wrists, we attempted to grab her ankles, but Maria showed us a sudden fury that I had only imagined in bad dreams.  James was kicked across the room.  Fortunately for him, he only got a few bruised ribs.  He rose up shakily and made the sign to ward off the evil eye.  As Michael, my brothers, and I managed to fasten the rope on one ankle, we followed the men’s example.  While my father gripped one wrist, Ezra brought it, with the greatest effort, up to the first wrist and bound them together.  To prevent Mariah from biting us, Michael had placed a pot over her head.  This caused hysterical laughter to erupt from our small group.  The imprecations she hurled at us inside the pot now sounded especially unsettling, but at least she would not be able to sink her teeth into our hands.  To keep her silent during her transport, Papa removed the pot and, with Michael’s help, gagged her with one of her veils.

Mariah had been bound thoroughly and was being carried to the cart in back of her villa, which was attached to Ezra’s mule that would carry her to the shepherd’s camp below Nazareth’s hills.  This all seemed too easy for us: running up to Mariah’s villa, barging into her special chamber, and now carting her safely away to the shepherd’s camp.  Suddenly, as we followed Michael down a long dark hall in the villa, with Michael bearing a lamp, we heard voices outside the villa.  The stoners had arrived.  All of Papa’s previous plans (the cart, the mule, and the shepherd’s camp) would be replaced by one frantic dash down the slope behind the villa into the hills.

“This is madness!” Ezra growled, as Mariah thrashed like a fish in a net. “Those men want Mariah’s blood.  They’ll chase us down, pull her away from us, then stone her or hang her on the first tree.  Let the boys drag her into the hills, while we attempt to interfere with their advance.  We’ll pretend to reason with them as if Mariah is hiding inside her house.”

“I can see no other alternative,” sighed Papa. “Before we turn her over to you, get a good grip on her wrists and arms—all four of you.  With her legs tied together and hands and feet bound, all you have to do is pull.  It won’t be easy with her bucking the way she is, but you must get her as far down the hill and into the orchard as possible.  You’ll have to drag her like a sack of wheat.  The grass will cushion her somewhat but you must move quickly, as a team.  Don’t let her break loose!  We will delay them in front of the villa as long as possible.”  “Come Ezra!,” he beaconed, as we began our task, “let’s reason with these foolish men.  Good luck boys!”

I was not much help at this point.  As the other boys struggled with their loads, I tried to support the boy who seemed most in distress.  Back and forth I went, cooing to our captive as I would a caged beast.  At times, Mariah managed to jerk away and was dropped several times, screaming maniacally through her gag.  Michael ordered me to tighten the veil around her mouth least the vigilantes hear her cries and see through Papa and Ezra’s ploy.

I would learn later how brave my father and his friend were.  Papa had counseled Ezra, before defending Mariah to the crowd, not to mention that she might be possessed.  He told Ezra about the stoning of a lunatic he witnessed as a child.  The distinction between demons and witchcraft was unclear in such rustic minds.  Mariah was, he reminded Ezra, in spite of her black art paraphernalia, merely sick in the head, her sickness being caused by drinking too much wine.  By the time Papa finished a long-winded defense of Mariah to a crowd of self-righteous men and Ezra reiterated with his own version of what Papa had just said, we had dragged poor Mariah into an orchard.  I greatly feared for my father’s safety.  What if those bad men attacked him and his friend?  According to Papa, just about the time the stoners finally pushed Mariah’s advocates aside and stormed into her villa, he and Ezra, having gained what they felt was enough time, decided to race around the villa to help us with Mariah, leaving the men to wander around inside looking for their prey.  

Frantically, we searched for a place to hide our captive in the orchard before the men began charging down the hill.  Then suddenly, out of nowhere, Jesus appeared, holding a bird’s nest in his hand.  A hysterical laugh escaped my throat.  James, Joseph, and Simon cursed him for never being around to help.  But Michael looked at my oldest brother and asked, “how can you always be so calm?”

“I’m not calm,” Jesus gave Michael that deadpan look.

“You’re as crazy as her,” I said, moping my brow with my sleeve.

“Jude, Jude,” he said in a singsong voice. “Mariah’s not mad.  Mariah’s mind is wounded by her past.” “Mariah,” he called to the thrashing woman, “be calm!”

With those simple words, Mariah’s body did, in fact, go suddenly limp.

James, Joseph and Simon made the sign to ward off the evil eye, as did I.  Michael pulled the gag from Mariah’s mouth and began wailing with grief.

“She’s dead!  She’s dead!” He cried.

In deed, as we inspected his mother, her eyes had the look of death.  Her skin was white and mouth gaped wide, as if her heart had suddenly given out.

“You’ve killed her!  You’ve killed my mother,” Michael shouted, throttling Jesus’ chest with his fist.

“Wait,” said James, jumping immediately to Jesus’ defense, “she’s breathing.  Foam is bubbling out of her mouth.  I heard about this state.  It’s called the black sleep.”
          By now Papa and Ezra had found us on the trail.  Looks of great dread were frozen on their faces as they approached. 

“They’ll be coming down the hill,” Papa explained through gasping breath. “. . . .The fools will wander around for several moments looking for an exit.  Praise be to the Most High!”

Ezra and Papa looked down at Mariah, noted her open eyes and gaping mouth, and made the same conclusion that everyone except James had made.  Jesus just stood there as if he had not a care in the world.  If what James said was true, Jesus had caused Mariah’s sudden unconsciousness.  I didn’t understand what the black sleep was at that time, but it appeared as if the mere command “be calm” by my oldest brother had caused this state of mind.

With suspicion in his voice, Papa asked “Is she dead or in a dark place?”

“He’s bewitched her!” Michael pointed accusingly.

“A spell has been cast over the town witch,” Joseph muttered with awe.

“It’s the black sleep,” insisted James. “Mariah hovers between life and death.”

“She’ll be all right.” Jesus promised. “I know a place where we can hide her—a cave.  I go there often.”

“Very well,” cried Papa, “to the cave we go!  We’ll all hide, until those fools go away.”

I couldn’t imagine where a cave might be in this terrain, but we followed Jesus without protest.  I would have been much more impressed if he had cured Mariah of her madness, but at least this way she would keep her mouth shut until we found the cave.  Through the trees and up another hill, we raced.  Now that she was so limp, Papa and Ezra took turns carrying Mariah.  I didn’t know Jesus could run so fast.  He seemed clear-headed and didn’t stumble once.  The voices of the men and Deborah, the crone, could be heard in the distance.  It appeared as if the mob was wandering in the area in back of Mariah’s villa, searching for a trail.  This gave us the time we needed to find Jesus’ cave.  Jesus looked back occasionally and motioned us on.  We began to worry as we slogged passed the orchard and up another hill, as Jesus looked frantically this way and that for the spot.

“Is . . . there. . . really. . . a . . . cave?” James asked between gulps of air.

“He’s lost!” Simon wailed. 

“Jesus. . . are you sure?” Papa labored with Mariah in his arms.

“It’s here,” Jesus seemed hysterical, “I know it’s here.”

“Jesus,” Ezra, who was right behind him, tugged his sleeve, “if they break through the orchard, they will see us climbing this hill.  You must find the cave!”

Just when I was certain that the mob would catch sight of us before Jesus found his hiding place, he froze, looked up to the clear sky, and said “thank you Father.”

“What did he say?” Ezra frowned.

“He’s. . . talking. . . to. . . God,” Papa admitted, collapsing, with his load, onto the ground.

“Over there!” Jesus pointed dramatically. “That outcrop on the hill!”

Mariah rolled down the slope a moment before the men could scramble down and drag her back up the slope.  Papa told us all to keep our heads down below the underbrush to avoid being seen.  Each of us crouching behind bushes followed the one in front, as Jesus, crawling expertly through brambles and thorns, arrived at a small, dark opening in the rock.  Because of the foliage in front, it was not difficult for us to creep into the mouth of the cave without being seen.  A sliver of sunlight highlighted the spot.  Due to the darkness inside, however, we halted as Jesus crawled in.  Papa followed shakily, motioning to us weakly with his thumb.  Ezra took his turn with Mariah, handing her into Papa and Jesus’ outstretched arms.  I could not imagine how we could navigate the darkness, until I followed James, Joseph, Simon, and Michael into the cave.

When it was my turn to enter, I felt as if I would step off a precipice into thin air, but the last rays of sunlight fell on the inhabitants’ faces.  Though crowded in the tiny cavern, we were able to squat down together, sinking beyond the beams of light into total darkness.  I could hear the others breathing heavily after our exertion.  Jesus, the only one of us standing, was the only one visible.  A crown of light highlighted his light brown hair.  His deep blue eyes seemed to burn with an inner light.  Though my heart was hardened, as Pharaoh Ramses had been against the Children of Israel, toward Jesus, I sensed even then who he was.  I just couldn’t admit to myself what that might be.  Was this strange boy not Jesus, my brother?  I asked myself, as he wiped dust from his face.  He sweat like us.   He could weep like us.  Once, I had even seen him bleed.  Who was he, a mere youth, the son of a poor carpenter, to have special powers? 

I could barely see Mariah in the shadows.  Though her eyes stared out lifelessly and she was deathly quiet, James claimed she was alive, but I was not so sure.  What had Jesus done to her to make her so quiet?  Would she recover from her state?  Or was her condition unchangeable as it had been for Uncle Ahab shortly before he died?

We could hear shouts in the distance.  The voice of Ethan, the elder with the long white beard, who was probably shaking his staff, was the loudest, but we could also hear Deborah, whom I had mentally labeled “the crone,” Reuben, the burly and smelly tanner, and other townsfolk more distant—all arguing with each other and vowing retribution to Mariah, but none of them with the least suspicion as to where we were.

“How close are they?” Simon whimpered. “Ethan’s voice seems awfully loud.”

“They’ll not find us,” Jesus murmured, reaching down to pat our heads.  “Their voices will fade away.  But they will come back.  Mariah must leave Nazareth.  In Jerusalem she will have a brand new life.”

“How do you know this?” Ezra’s again sounded suspicious. “Are you a prophet?   Moments ago you referred to the Most High as your father.  What outlandish nonsense is this?”

  “Silence, Ezra!” Papa whispered shrilly. “Jesus speaks in riddles.  We’re all God’s children, are we not?  Don’t worry: this hiding place is completely hidden by the brush.” 

As the others, I was afraid.  Michael and Simon were weeping when we heard a rustling sound outside our cave.  Ezra sat grumbling to himself about what he thought were Jesus pretensions, while Papa, because I was the youngest son, reached over several times to squeeze my trembling hand.  The rustling, which could have been a small animal, became a swishing noise, which could, on second thought, be a much larger animal—like a man.  Yet the voices of our tormentors had begun to fade.  Jesus, the only one in the light, was, for this hour, our protector.  Throughout it all, it was evident by his calm expression, he was not afraid.  As he had promised, the mob, who cried out for Mariah’s blood, had turned back.  The rustling and swishing had stopped.  None of us was fooled into thinking that they would not continue the search.  After only a few more moments of sitting in this cramped place, it was Jesus who told us it would be all right to leave.

“Already?” Simon croaked. “How can you so sure?”

“I’m certain,” Jesus replied with great conviction. “I know it as a fact.”

“Now hold on a minute,” Ezra reached up to grab his sleeve. “You can’t know that.  Let’s make absolutely sure they’re gone.”

“Yes-yes,” agreed James fearfully, “at least until they’re off the hill and out of the trees.”

“Very well,” Jesus said obligingly, “but let one of us sneak out and take a peek.”

Rising up from his corner of the cave, Papa restrained Jesus with both arms.

“James and Ezra are right,” he said firmly, “we will wait awhile.  If anyone is going down the hill, it will be me.  You’re all in danger because of my decision to protect Mariah.”

“We’re in danger because of her!” Simon gnashed his teeth.

“Yes, Papa,” agreed Joseph, “we’ll be held accountable by the townsmen and their wives.  How will we explain how Mariah disappeared?”

“Jesus,” Papa gripped his shoulders, bent forward, and kissed his forehead, “we thank you for taking us to your cave.  You appeared at just the perfect time to save this unfortunate woman.  But it’s true—Mariah isn’t out of danger yet.  We’ll have to get her on the road to Jerusalem soon.”  “Joseph is correct, though,” he looked around the darkened cave. “We will suffer ridicule for what we did, but I believe that the mob we heard outside is not representative of all of Nazareth.  I know all of the elders; they’re not all a bunch of cantankerous fools.  Ezra and his family will support us.  Even Joachim regrets what happened today.”

“Soon it will be dark,” Jesus looked into Papa’s shadowed face. “We must leave the cave and make our way home.  Please believe me, when I tell you that it’s safe to leave.  Mariah can stay in our house.  We can bring her and Michael in the back way, through the olive grove, as quiet as mice.”   

“Humph, that just might work,” Papa replied thoughtfully. “But I shall go first.  In the morning we shall plan Mariah and Michael’s escape.  For now, we must be careful and watch our steps.”

He promised to signal us “all clear” with three hoots, the only birdcall my father knew.  For several moments, in which Papa was probably scanning every which-way for signs of the “enemy,” we waited with bated breath.  Jesus was so calm he was getting on our nerves.  Papa’s hoo-hoo-hoo could not come soon enough for me, since I had to relieve myself as soon as we exited the cave.  With only an hour or more of sunlight left, everything had to be accomplished before a dark, moonless night fell on Nazareth.  Mariah had to be hidden until the next morning, but all of Papa and Ezra’s planning would come to naught if we were sighted by vigilantes in town. 

“Are you certain of this trail?” Papa called faintly to Jesus.

“I’m certain,” insisted Jesus, boldly leading the way. “This path winds into the olive orchard in back of our house.  You’ll recognize it Papa when we reach our trees.”

 “Hah!” exclaimed James. “He knows these hills better than the shepherds!”

 “He should,” muttered Simon, “he’s spent enough time here.”

“What did Jesus do to my mother?” Michael whispered to me. “Is he a sorcerer?  How does he know so much?”

 I could not answer Michael.  None of us understood Jesus’ powers.  His ability to lead us to safely was all that mattered to me.  Michael was still not convinced that his mother would be all right, and neither was I.  Looking back over the years, I must admit that my stubbornness clouded my judgment.  Here we were on a trail no one except Jesus had known about after leaving a cave no one had ever seen.  Even Ezra admitted to Papa that he had trekked all over Nazareth’s hills as a child and never seen this terrain.  Though Mariah’s untended gardens and orchard explained the thick tangle of brush and trees, it could not explain Jesus hiding place and the special trail leading almost up to our house.

When the olive orchard loomed ahead on our path, all of the lingering doubts about Jesus navigational abilities vanished completely.  The dark shadows of evening added to our camouflage.   It was easy for us to creep up slowly though the olive trees and up to the house.  It was Ezra’s turn to carry Mariah, so Papa ran quickly ahead to make sure no one was lurking around our house or on the nearby road.  Again he made owl noises, which sounded humorous this time, when Papa suddenly sneezed.  With Mariah in Ezra’s arms and the rest of us moving cautiously up the path, the sound of his footsteps thudding on the path told us he was heading back our way. 

“Go back!  Go back!” He waved his arms. 

“All right,” Ezra muttered, turning wearily on his heels. “What’s wrong Joseph?  You signaled that it was safe.”

“I. . . glimpsed. . . old Samuel. . . walking past,” Papa muttered between gasps for breath.  “. . . He. . . was. . . looking. . . at my house.”

“Samuel’s one of Ethan’s friends,” observed Ezra. “You think he spotted you?”

“I don’t know,” Papa shook his head, “many men his age are as blind as bats.   But there’s still too much light.  It would be wiser to wait until the sun has set, at least until it sinks below the house.”

Knowing that night would soon fall, we all agreed to the delay.  Shuffling wearily down the path, we congregated once more in the olive orchard, each of us hungry, thirsty and ready to drop.  The exception, we noted with slack-jaws, was Jesus, who stood apart from us in the orchard.  Everyone else was upset by our ordeal, and yet my oldest brother was, as always, at peace.  I could not help, even in my state of mind, but to marvel at his strength.

 

******

Perhaps it was because of Jesus’ hiding place and secret trail or because I believed that the loudmouth townsmen, who had wanted to stone Mariah, had simply all gone home, but I was no longer afraid.  In rescuing Mariah from her villa, Papa and Ezra had been very brave, but Jesus, in his own good time, had stopped us from being caught.  After wandering on the outskirts of town, he had accidentally arrived on the scene then, after causing Mariah to fall into unconsciousness, casually found us a place to hide.  I was still half convinced he was not right in the head, and yet I knew we had gone this far because of him.  The trail we took to the olive orchard, as our hideout, came as a great surprise to Ezra, who had wandered these hills so frequently as a child.  But, after Jesus brought life back to a dead bird, we, his brothers, should not have been surprised.  No one had thanked him yet for what he had done.  If I were to say “Jesus, thank you for hiding us,” however, he would not take credit for the deed.  He would tell me that it was the Father acting though him, as he had claimed for the bird.  It was as if, as I write it down, Jesus was a conduit for God, though I now know it’s much more.  Yet there were many questions I wanted to ask Jesus that evening.  As a child, I had many opportunities to acknowledge his divinity.  That evening, I wanted to ask him if this was a miracle as was his curing of the bird or had the cave and trail been there all along.  I had not yet thought to ask him if he was really the Son of God.

As the questions rose in my throat, the old resentments kept the words from pouring from my lips.  Would he make another outlandish claim as he had about the bird?  Would his eyes blaze and would he make me feel so very small? . . . Once again, as a foolish child, I shrank from the sublime.  My dreams of being a soldier were so much easier to understand.  Cornelius, the Roman prefect I met on the bridge, still had greater status in my eyes. 

Turning back to the group, I watched the last fierce gasp of brilliance as the sun set in the west.  Something, at the corner of my eye, flittered passed.  It could have been a night bird or bat.  I wasn’t sure, and at that moment I didn’t care.  I wanted food and a good night’s sleep.  Evening shadows sometimes played tricks on my eyes, and my imagination had always run wild.  Yet I turned in time to see it settle in the shadows, perhaps twenty paces away: a dark, rippling chimera silhouetted against the green.  At first, I thought it might be one of the others, until I studied it for a while.  I glanced back that moment to see my father with Ezra, James, Joseph, and Simon in a huddle by the path leading up to our house.  Mariah, I noted, had been laid gently on the ground in a fetal position.  Jesus stood directly in back of me muttering to himself as usual—I assumed praying, while the dark body seemed to hover inches above the ground.  Michael, I knew, sat next to his mother.  From behind me, I continued to hear Papa, Ezra, James, Joseph, and Simon muttering amongst themselves.  I realized that, like Michael, the dark body could not be any one of them.  Gripped with mounting terror, I wondered if one of the townsmen was in the orchard with others not far away.  I tried to turn and alert the others, but this time I was petrified with fear and my voice froze in my throat.  There was something unnatural about the specter that made me realize, child though I was, that this was an infernal, not a mortal, being.  The evening light, faint as it was, should have highlighted a body moving under the trees, and yet it remained as black as night, undulating ever so subtly, as the shade cast in moonlight.

          Jesus and I had drifted away from the others.  What happened now, I must now conclude was intended only for us, though it was not easy to admit this to myself.

“Do you see it Jude—that shadow in the trees?  Tell me truthfully.” He moved forward, until he was looking at me squarely in the face. “For a moment put away your resentment of me, and tell me what you see!”

“A monster, . . .a demon,” I swallowed heavily, “. . . I’m not sure.”

“It’s the Evil One,” he replied severely.  “Remember this as a sign, when your heart softens and you believe.”  “We shared this miracle together,” he whispered discreetly, hugging me to his chest. “You, Judah Bar Joseph cannot deny what you and I have seen!”

“Get thee behind me Satan!” he called in a shrill whisper.  And the hovering chimera disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared.

Everyone was so used to seeing Jesus act strangely, no one paid attention to the pantomime at our end of the clearing.  After his demonstration, he patted me on the head affectionately, as I often did our pet goat.  It was the first time Jesus had called me by my birth name.  Because of the notoriety of Judah the Galilean and a few other rogues he knew with that name, Papa had begun calling me Jude, the Romanized version of this name.  I had never liked my birth name Judah but Jesus had made it sound important to me.

Though the sun had finally set, I saw his blue eyes clearly as they caught the last rays of the dying sun.  Again they flashed.  Again his face seemed to glow from inner fire.  The specter had vanished completely in the darkness.  As night cloaked our passage, Papa called faintly for us to follow him to the house.  Michael stayed close to Ezra as he carried his mother up the path.  Jesus and I walked together, after he paused a moment to thank the Lord.  I heard the men murmuring to each other as they ascended the trail to our house.  I imagined my brothers were as weary as I, but Jesus marched up the hill beside me, filled with that boundless energy that had carried him over the Nazarene hills.

When we reached the top, we could see over the tops of our plum trees a sight that wiped away the warmth and peace we felt.  Flames were rising into the darkened sky from the far end of town where Mariah’s villa sat.  Though careful not to make a sound, all of us uttered a collective groan.  Michael sat down dejectedly on a tree stump, until Papa came over and prodded he and the rest of us into the house.  In spite of this terrible event, Papa and Ezra settled Mariah in a corner of the large room and told us all to stay inside, until they had seen this disaster for themselves.  Mama and the twins had been watching the conflagration from the front yard, arriving in the house before Papa and Ezra left.

“What have you done, you foolish man?” she scolded Papa.

“They were going to stone her,” he answered simply. “What else could we do?”

“I don’t know,” she muttered, wringing her hands, “but this isn’t good.  I saw a crowd of men and women pass our house, heading toward Mariah’s house.  The whole town is upset about this, even Samuel and his friends!”

“Mary,” he asked, taking her into his arms, “have I ever done anything I thought was wrong in God’s eyes?”

 “Well…no,” she answered indecisively.

“Then you must trust me,” he said sternly. “Until we’re sure of Mariah’s frame of mind, leave her bound on the floor.  We tied her up for her own good.”

“Is she unconscious?” Mama looked down at her.

“Leave her be!” commanded Papa, as he opened the door.

We waited only a few moments after the two men left before slipping out and making our way to the burning house.  Even Jesus disobeyed our father this time.  Mama and the twins said nothing as we departed.  Jesus’ normally calm and mystical demeanor had been replaced by a righteous anger, as I interpret it now.  When Simon, who was afraid to go, mocked him for disobeying our father, Jesus told him it was more important to obey God.  That night I had never seen Jesus so upset.  Michael, who was in a state of shock, stumbled along, as would a drunken man, mumbling to himself.  I reached down several times to steady him, but he jerked away from me in his misery, until Jesus once again said those magical words: “Be calm!”

Michael’s shaky frame immediately steadied and, in spite of the dire circumstances, he gave us all a brave smile.  Though we had no time to properly marvel at this event, it was tucked away in the excellent memory that God gave to me.  When I remember such events, I can recall precise details that most mortal men have long since forgotten.  The problem was I didn’t understand much of what I saw.  This time, however, as I looked at Mariah’s villa, I understood clearly everything I had experienced this day.  I would be ten years old this coming winter, but I felt much older and wiser this hour.  I had not fully understood, because of my youth and stubbornness, the significance of what Jesus had done in Mama’s garden last year, but this time in the orchard Jesus had shared with me his battle with the Evil One.  I could not hear it, but I wondered, as I watched him raise his hands up to the dark, starlit sky, if the devil was not constantly tempting him, as it tempted the prophets of old. 

          Papa and Ezra knew that such a fire would be impossible to put out without a fire brigade, which Nazareth didn’t have.  Even if there were volunteers, which would be sparse in our small village, the chief water sources in Nazareth were located in a few of the resident’s yards, with one large communal well in the center of town.  Michael understood, as we did, the hopelessness of this situation and yet he turned to Jesus now. 

          “You seem to have great powers,” he said with great bitterness, “and yet you could not save my mother’s house.”

          “I claim no such powers,” Jesus frowned.

          “Shut up Michael,” Simon cried, “he’s not to blame.  It’s your crazy mother’s fault.”

          “But I thought your father would stop these men,” he glanced back at Simon. “They were his friends, where they not?  Tell me, Jesus, why would God, whom you know so well, let this happen?”

          “Michael, that’s enough,” scolded James. “We’re sorry your house is on fire.  But your mother’s safe.  You’re safe.  My father and Ezra are going to make sure you and your mother find a new life.  I heard them say so.”

          “What kind of life will that be?” spat Michael. “This is our home.  Our only relative is my aunt Esther and cousin Baruch in Jerusalem.  I hate that old woman.  My cousin is worse.  They won’t let us stay in their fine house.”

          That moment, as Jesus ran ahead to join Papa and Ezra on the path, I tried to comfort Michael by patting his back, but he shook me off, and just stood there glaring at the fire.  Papa motioned for Jesus to go back down the hill.  I hoped that my father and his friend weren’t planning on entering the villa in order to salvage some of merchandise as he planned on doing earlier in order to reimburse the shepherds who would accompany Mariah and her son to Jerusalem.  He was angry with his oldest son for disobeying him, yet said nothing as Jesus stood a short distance, watching the flames rise from the roof.  There he remained with his arms folded as the two men stood at the entrance of Mariah’s villa, before entering the burning house. “Look!” Joseph pointed. “Jesus is very disobedient tonight.”

          “What’s he doing?” sneered Simon. “Calling on the Most High to put out the fire?”      

          As Jesus raised his arms again to the sky, I knew this was exactly what he had in mind.  I said nothing to my brothers or Michael, but I crept up to him, planting myself a short distance behind him, so I could hear his prayer:

          “Oh Lord, Mariah’s son Michael is not to blame for her foolishness, and she’s but a broken spirit without your light.  Please take the darkness from Mariah’s mind.  Give Michael’s spirit strength.  If it be your will Father, stop these flames before they completely destroy her house.  And please watch over Mariah and Michael when they start their lives—”

          Sensing that Jesus’ prayer was close to its end, I scurried back to Michael and my brothers, sensing what came next.  Before I reached the line of spectators gathering at the foot of the hill, I heard thunder.  Reminded of that day in the orchard after Jesus revived the dead bird, I froze in my tracks.  As rain fell upon my upturned face, I quickly retraced my steps, meeting Jesus halfway up the hill.   A faint mist at first, the falling rain transformed into droplets, then splashes of water, until a great deluge poured out of the sky.

          Jesus and I were drenched almost immediately by the downpour.  The white tunic and robe he wore were matted to his frame.  Except for my oldest brother, who stood only a few paces away, it was all a wet blur.  I glanced around in shock at the rainstorm, yet I realized once again I had nothing to fear.  I knew that the fire would soon be out.  I could imagine how the townsmen, terrified by the sudden torrent, would flee like frightened sheep.  I rejoiced at this thought.  After all my travels, I have not seen a cloudburst as complete as the downpour in my home town that night.  My oldest brother had great power!  It was one more defining moment in my relationship with Jesus, completely confounding my young mind.             

          “Thank you Jesus!” I shouted deliriously, embracing his chest.  “Now Papa can pay the shepherds with supplies from Mariah’s house, so they’ll take her away from this awful town!”

          “I’ve done nothing,” said Jesus, patting my head, “that God has not willed.  I’m not a sorcerer or wizard demonstrating his power.  The Lord acts though me; on my own I can do nothing without his authority.  If you pray really hard, your prayers will be answered too.”

          “Will he give me a pony?” I grinned impishly.

          “Jude,” Jesus stroked my hair, “you don’t understand.  He does not want us to ask for selfish things.  If you pray, pray for others—needful things.”

          Through the storm, I could hear his voice clearly, but the rain, falling in great sheets, now stung our eyes and filled our mouths as we talked.  Following Papa, Ezra, Michael, and my other brothers’ example, we found shelter in an unburned portion of the villa, walking immediately into an ongoing argument between Papa and his friend.

          Michael had evidently managed to light a few lamps, whose light gave their faces an eerie glow.

          “This is blasphemy,” Ezra was shouting. “There is but one God capable of miracles!  You seriously believe your son Jesus has performed miracles?”

          “You don’t understand,” my father shook his head, “I said no such thing.”

          “Really?” challenged Ezra “Did you not imply that Jesus caused it to rain?  Earlier today, he miraculously found that cave and trail, and I heard your other sons boast that he revived a dead bird.”

          “No,” I jumped in, after recalling my brother’s words, “the Lord acts through Jesus.  God has given him his power.”

          “What?” Ezra grasped his forehead. “Now your youngest son, a mere child, quotes heresy!” “Where did you hear that nonsense, Jude.” He glared down at me. “Did Jesus tell you that?”

          “Yes,” I nodded excitedly, “and he does have great power, ‘cause God gave it to him.  He said if I prayed real hard, I’d get a pony!”

Ezra made the sign to ward off the evil eye, sputtering in disbelief at what he was hearing in this room.  James, Joseph, Simon, and Michael looked on mutely at this exchange.  I thought my father might hit Ezra to stop his angry flow of words.  Afraid of what I might say next, Jesus frowned and gently squeezed my arm.   I noted, as the others, that the rain has ceased pounding the roof of the villa.  I wondered if it had been called off because of another prayer.  Jesus lips had moved briefly, but I heard no sound.

          “I’m sorry you’re offended,” he said, smiling at Ezra, “but this is strange to me too.  It’s not my choice.  I merely answer to God’s command.  Did not the prophets exercise the Lord’s authority?  You, Ezra, if you have great faith, can exercise his authority too.”

          “You, a mere youth, compare yourself to the prophets?” Ezra found his voice. “You say you exercise God’s authority and claim to do His commands?”

          “Yes, you have said it,” Jesus nodded gravely, “but you don’t understand it all.”   

          “Joseph!” Ezra looked back at my father. “Listen to him.  I thought you were a righteous man, who lives by the Torah.  Jesus has gone further than the prophets, if he claims credit for raising the dead—even a mere bird—or making it rain.  God does not give authority to children, that’s what we have priests and rabbis for.”

            “I’m not righteous,” frowned Papa, “but I know that Jesus, my oldest son, is.  As far as our rabbi is concerned, he’s a fool.  You saw how he acted today.  You also saw how some of our pious citizens wanted to stone that poor woman.  Can you, like them, condemn what you don’t understand?”

          “I condemn no one.” Ezra’s shoulders slackened. “I’m glad I can help Mariah, but I don’t understand your oldest son.  I won’t tell anyone about what I’ve seen and heard, yet I fear for your family Joseph.  Nazarenes are simple folk.  They won’t understand these claims that Jesus has power to change the weather and raise the dead.  They’ll think he’s a blasphemer or sorcerer and won’t accept your fine words.”

          To change the subject, James told us that it had stopped raining.  This was quite obvious to us all.  Despite the silence outside, however, a dark cloud hung over this room.  Everyone was tired and hungry.  It had been a momentous day that Ezra was attempting to spoil.  He muttered an apology to Papa, which Papa accepted graciously, but we knew that things would never be the same.  James and Joseph gave me a weary look, while Simon stared dully into space.  Michael, carrying a lamp, lead the way out of the villa, and we walked out into the chilled night wrapped in our thoughts.  Instead of handing the heavy lamp to one of the men, Michael gave it to Jesus.  Jesus was moved greatly and held it high to light our way.  Looking back over the years, I like to believe that Michael had made a silent statement to my brother—an apology or recognition of what Jesus was.  Jesus would be the light of the world, as John would one day claim, and yet even our father could not imagine who my oldest brother really was.

 

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