House of Secrets
When the twins were asleep, Papa confided to us how nervous he had been about his meeting with Cornelius on the bridge. He had been even more anxious about Cornelius encounter with Mariah in the garden. Mariah spoke only when asked specific questions. The questions were blunt, such as “did you know that you had dried bats, frogs, and lizards in one of your rooms?” and “What were all those powders and fluids on those shelves?” Mariah’s answer that they had been left over from her deceased husband’s craft had not helped, until she was prodded by Papa to explain to the prefect that Jeremiah had been a merchant of pharmacopoeia, which brought a wry smile to the Roman’s stony face. Cornelius informed Papa that she was treading dark waters. Witchcraft was punishable by death in Rome too. The paraphernalia that he and his men found in her burnt out villa had been recognized by the prefect at once. Her answers merely confirmed his worst suspicions. Papa had tried to convince Cornelius in the orchard that Mariah had changed her ways. Though he could not convince him that it had been caused by divine intervention, he promised him that she had given up wine and drugs—the causes of her downfall. But once again Cornelius found this excuse quite lame for what he found in the room. Until Cornelius had actually seen this strange creature, he had been wavering for and against committing some of his men to escorting her to Jerusalem. His annual meeting with the procurator was coming up and he might even make the journey with her himself. Then, in the lamplight of the garden, the face and lilting voice of Mariah had made the difference.
Cornelius, as my brothers and I, believed Mariah to be a witch, yet he forgave her immediately for her dark past. Placing a heavy hand on her delicate shoulder he had asked in good humor (in Papa’s words), “Mariah, do you swear to disavow the black arts and cleave to the religion of your adopted family in Nazareth?” Mariah nodded but said nothing, until nudged gently by Papa. “Yes, I swear!” she responded, dropping her gaze to the ground.
As she sat at the dinner table, Papa reminded us, on Mariah’s behalf, that she had never claimed to be a witch. In spite of the potions in her house, the accusation that she practiced witchcraft had never been proven, so everything was based upon appearances rather than facts. In order to gain the Roman’s confidence, however, she had to disavow the practice, which implied that she had been a witch. If this wasn’t enough for skeptics, there was the Jesus factor, quipped Papa. Though Jesus had, as always, gave credit to the Lord, his prayer had cured her of being touched in the head, and this might have been what was wrong with her all along. This didn’t convince my brothers and I. Mariah might not have claimed to be a witch, but she hadn’t denied it, and the fact is, imprinted indelibly in my mind, she had looked and acted like one. All the apparent evidence—dress, smell, and actions—had been incriminating (to use Papa’s words). In the words of Uncle Zedekiah “if it ba’s like a sheep, it’s a sheep.” In Mariah’s case, the most damning proof if townsmen ever got wind of it was her response to Cornelius question. Ezra had been horrified by what he and Papa discovered, the same reaction displayed by most townsmen, but no one else had heard her disavow witchcraft. The prefect had merely confirmed the worst for us. It was clear that Cornelius would keep this dark secret to himself, because he was an honorable man.
As we listened to Papa’s defense of Mariah, it seemed that he was not convinced, himself, of her innocence. His eyes dropped to the table during his defense, as would someone not telling the truth, yet, when I changed the subject by declaring my desire to be a soldier one day, he looked me squarely in the eyes, wrung his finger, and snapped “Jude, that’s absolute foolishness!”
“Jude is always saying foolish things,” Simon sneered.
“Now, now, little Jude,” said Mama as she and the twins gathered up the dishes and bowls. “You know very well the Romans don’t enlist Jews.”
“Then I’ll change my name so they won’t know.” I screwed my face up into a scowl.
I wished I hadn’t let this slip and swore to never do so again, and yet it got us off this dreadful subject, which, under the circumstances, was leading us nowhere tonight. Despite Papa’s words, Mariah had been a witch, and she might very well still be a witch. Her house had been—and was still—filled with witches’ paraphernalia. A Roman prefect had verified this fact. But soon she would be off the Jerusalem and Michael, my best friend, would be a part of our family. As far as I was concerned, Cornelius had, by his own pronouncement to Mariah, officially made her and her son adopted members of our family.
Michael sat glumly at the table as my mother brought out some of her clothes for Mariah to wear on her journey. If nothing else, she joked, Mariah would be in disguise wearing these old rags. Jesus sat next to me staring at a string he found on the floor. I was afraid to ask him about the dice. Though I had much to learn, I knew pagan symbols when I saw them. My oldest brother had done Michael a favor in changing the Sphinxes to Chai’s. I would let the matter drop.
“Jesus,” I thought a moment, “If I prayed really hard, would the Lord give me a horse?”
“I can remember when you just wanted a pony,” he frowned.
“I want a big white horse like Cornelius,” I whispered, giving him my most winning grin.
“Ah, but do you need it?” he asked me slyly, playing with the string.
“Yes,” I nodded eagerly, “it’s a needful thing!” “I’m going to be a soldier,” I added in a whisper.
“No,” Jesus shook his head, “you heard what Papa said. You don’t need a horse. You want a horse.” “You don’t want to be a soldier, Jude,” his voice lowered discreetly, “you want to join the legions to see the world. This you can do as a merchant as our uncle Zedekiah.”
“I want to see the world as a soldier!” I folded my arms.
Suddenly, to distract me from this uncomfortable subject, Jesus made his string move in and out his fingers as would a tiny a snake. While mother chatted with Mariah in the next room, Papa waited anxiously for Ezra to show up. James, Joseph, and Simon, who had been idling in the large room, came running over to watch the trick.
“Michael, look at this!” I squealed.
“It’s another miracle!” cried Simon.
“It’s not a miracle,” Jesus laughed softly, “it’s merely a slight of hand.”
“Teach me how to do it,” I reached out and flexed my fingers.
Papa was peering nervously out the window. Turning back to the kitchen table, he watched me take the string from Jesus and attempt to make it move on its own.
“So what do we do now?” James looked up at Papa.
“Ezra was going to help me forage for supplies in the burnt out house,” he answered gloomily, “but Cornelius said that, given the mood of the people, it would be too dangerous. So he’s sending soldiers over there late tonight with lanterns to ransack the house for supplies. But Ezra is now worried about his image in Nazareth. First he’s compromised by assisting the rescue of an alleged witch. He will never accept Jesus as anything more than a blasphemer after all our son has done. Now, when I need his friendship the most, he’s worried about my association with the Romans, Gentile contamination, and being caught helping Mariah again.”
“I hope this doesn’t wake up half the town,” commented mother as she entered the room.
“I’m so much trouble,” Mariah murmured self-consciously “You’re sacrificing too much
Jesus looked squarely at me. “Life is filled with sacrifices. You must look beyond yourself. It’s what you do for others, not yourself, that counts.”
“When will I see my mother again?” Michael asked Jesus, as I digested what he just said.
Jesus remained silent. His response to Mariah’s guilt was strange and inappropriate. Was he referring to my ambition to be a soldier or was it something else in the future? I didn’t know then that Jesus had big plans for me, and I was afraid to ask. I continued playing with the string, unable to make it do magic as he had done. It would be a long night for us. Simon slept fitfully on his arm next to me, a snore bubbling out his drooling mouth. Papa had slipped out of the house with a lamp to pace nervously around our yard. No one would get much sleep tonight, but it was important that Mariah slept for her journey, so Mama gave her a heated mug of honey-sweetened goat’s milk, in place of wine, and bedded her down in the next room. Our mother could not sleep at all. That night, because of her sons’ inquisitiveness, we would all learn amazing secrets about our pasts.
Jesus silence spoke loudly. I knew in my heart, not my mind, what his silence meant. Tears welled up in my eyes, but Jesus, with that characteristic tenderness, stopped a flood of words swelling in my throat.
“Hush! Michael’s your brother now,” he whispered in my ear.
“What?” Simon jerked awake. “What did Jesus say?”
“Go back to sleep, you snorting he-goat,” James reached over to thump his head.
Sitting closest to Jesus, Joseph perked up. “I heard it too. You said Michael’s our brother!”
“It’s true,” Jesus admitted, for we knew he wouldn’t lie. “Michael’s one of us now.”
“No Jesus!” James looked at him reproachfully. “We have a big enough family. Our parents aren’t going to adopt him! This house is busting at the seams!”
“Why not?” I looked over protectively at my friend. “You heard what Cornelius said. He’s the prefect of Galilee. His mother might be leaving, but he’s staying with us!”
“Humph, I heard what he said,” grunted Joseph. “He was just being nice.
“We have no choice.” Mama eyed Michael self-consciously. “It’s not like we haven’t done this before,” she blurted. “We’ll make room for him, until Mariah gets settled with her aunt.”
Buried in her sleepy response, was an awful truth. Jesus cast Mama an accusing look that moment, as if to say, “What have you done?” I stared at her in disbelief. In a descending order of intelligence it seemed, James, Joseph, and Simon also caught on. Startled by the commotion, Michael stirred, gazing with blurry-eyes at Mama as she clasped her mouth. And then it happened. One small slip opened the floodgates of another greater secret. Papa, always the peacemaker, who was absent this time, would not be able to stifle mama’s tongue, for Mama, like Jesus, couldn’t lie.
“Huh?” Simon looked at me. “What did she just say?”
“ ‘It’s like we haven’t done this before,’” I quoted exactly.
“What?” James gasped in amazement. “We’re adopted too?”
Joseph just sat there, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. Still half-asleep, Michael was the last one to catch on. In a delayed reaction, Mama realized her mistake. Inexplicably, she blamed James for the slip, then Jesus. Roused from my thoughts, my eyes turned to Jesus for an answer that never came.
“James!” She wrung her finger angrily. “Why do you dredge up this issue? You don’t understand. None of you children can understand yet what this means in our house.” “What did you tell Jude?” she looked down suspiciously at Jesus. “Why do you rush things along? I want you to be a normal, happy boy!”
“Mother,” he said calmly, “I said that Michael will be Jude’s brother now, that’s all.”
“Why would you say that?” Simon screwed up his face.
“Because Michael will be living with us for a long time,” Jesus began to squirm. “How could we not treat him like a member of our house?”
“Well, all right,” she heaved a pent-up sigh, “that makes sense, doesn’t it James?”
“No, not really.” James heaved a broken sigh. “None of this makes any sense.”
Despite his words, James, like myself, understood the implications. Joseph, by his stunned silence, must have understood, too, but for Simon, it came slowly, and Michael didn’t understand what we were talking about at all. Only the twins, who slumbered in the next room, were temporarily shielded from the truth. So far, the notion of adoption didn’t necessarily apply to all of Mama’s children. We wondered, as we studied each other, which one her other children might be adopted. Adoption seemed like such a foreign word in our house; it seemed unbelievable that it included us all. As we sat there, wondering what to say, Mama muttered to herself: “Dear me…Oh dear me,” and Jesus shook his head in disgust. She had given us just enough to (as the Greeks would say) open a Pandora’s box. As the secret dawned on us, however, the full impact didn’t come until Joseph, after studying me awhile, came to an astonishing conclusion.
“You know something,” he said, an element of malice in his voice, “sometimes I’ve wondered if Jude might not be adopted. Like Jesus, he’s not like us. Look at his black hair and midnight eyes—dark as an Arab. I don’t remember him as an infant in our house. When was he born?”
For the first time we could remember, our mother flew into a rage.
“How dare you say such a wicked thing!” she began to slap the top of his head. “You wound him deeply. You ungrateful little complainer, look at his face!
“Mother stop!” Jesus ran to his rescue. “James and I wondered about this too. I’m surprised Joseph can even remember this at all. He was only three years old. The others are too young to remember when you brought Jude home that night. It’s the Lord’s will!”
By now, Abigail and Martha had awakened to the crisis and ran into the room. Lingering behind my parent’s door, though surely awake was Mariah, probably shaken by the noise. Papa who had been at the far edge of our property again, had passed close enough to the window to hear the commotion. I looked out, as I attempted to leap from the window, and screamed at him “Papa, you said I was your favorite. I even look like you. Tell them that this is a lie, and that I’m your real son!”
“Merciful Abraham!” He gave a wounded cry. “Mary, what have you done?”
James, Simon, Michael, and the twins hovered fearfully at the furthest corner of the house. Jesus, after pulling me from the window, was comforting Joseph and me with prayerful words I couldn’t understand.
“Oh Mama!” I bellowed with grief.
“What does this mean?” Joseph rose up from the table, wild eyed, shrugging off Jesus’ embrace. “I’ve often wondered why we all look so different from each other. Only Jesus looks like our mother. The rest of us don’t look like at all. In the garden, after Jesus brought back the sparrow, he said he had two fathers, but we seemed to forget,” “until now!” He looked back at Jesus. “Tell me, the truth!” He pointed accusingly at him. Are you adopted too?”
“He doesn’t know that yet,” Papa’s voice quivered with great emotion. “We never told Jesus this.”
“Then it’s true!” Joseph groaned. “You as much as admitted it.”
“I remember something,” James said, a distant look on his face, “. . . the day Abigail and Martha suddenly appeared in our house as infants. . . We thought nothing of this, because Mama and Papa had come from Sepphoris bearing them in their arms. Ezra’s wife had watched over us after you left. . . . She said Mama had gone to Sepphoris, as she once had to Bethlehem, this time to give birth to baby girls. I wondered then how Naomi knew.” “We’ve been such fools!” He looked around the room at his brothers and sisters.
“It’s true,” Simon sniveled, “Jesus is special.”
Normally stoic in the face of disaster, Jesus now broke down as many fifteen-year-old youths confronted with such a secret, and wept uncontrollably. The twins walked into the kitchen crying with doubt and fear. For several moments, as a confused and sleep-dazed Mariah entered the room in one of Mama’s night dresses, everyone except Papa and Michael’s mother wrung their hands and wept loudly in despair. Mother had gathered her wits up enough to comfort her twins and apologize to Joseph but Joseph would have none of this. James and Simon also shirked off her embrace, something that even I couldn’t do. It appeared as though we had been wrong about her truthfulness.
“Mama,” I buried my face in her bosom, “why did you lie to us all these years.”
“Because,” Papa answered for her, “the Lord willed it. There’s so much you don’t need to know.”
“The Lord willed it?” James cried. “Always in this house I hear those words. Jesus has said it many times. You and Mama say it to cover the truth, but I want to know Papa, right now. Please don’t tell us again that we are too young and we don’t need to know. Are we, your other children, adopted too?”
“Yes,” he answered, dropping his chin into his beard. “The same plague that claimed so many people in Nazareth and wiped out members of Mariah’s family killed my mother and father and your uncle and aunts. Martha and Abigail’s parents, Aunt Rachel and Uncle Abel, were killed by bandits on their trip to Jerusalem. Your mother and I grieve especially for them—they were so young. That would not have happened if Cornelius and his men had been here. It’s one reason why I’m now thankful for Rome’s protective hand.” “. . . The Lord came to me in a dream,” he added, rubbing his temples furiously, “and told me what to do. At the proper time, when Jesus’ path had begun, we were to tell you about your parents and why we felt compelled to take you children into the family of Joseph bar Jacob.”
“But Jesus is still a boy,” our mother protested piteously. “He can’t be ready. What could this mean?”
“My path has already begun,” replied Jesus, wiping his eyes. “I knew it in the garden. I know it now.”
“So,” Joseph’s eyes narrowed to slits, “that’s why Mama favors you. I should’ve known!”
“It’s settled,” Papa said with resignation. “Mama gave birth to Jesus…Sooner or later you boys would’ve figured that out. You’re our children; we love you all!”
Joseph didn’t protest. I think all of us, with the exception of the twins, suspected this all along. After that day in the garden when Jesus began acting strangely, we knew he was not like us. Soon, after Papa’s admittal, there came a great knock at our door. Mother rudely ushered Mariah and the twins into the next room. Papa went to fetch his sword and Jesus planted himself squarely in front of the door, as the rest of us cowered in back of the room.
“It is I, Samuel,” came a hoarse voice, “Joseph, let me in!”
Still holding his sword, Papa swung the door open, expecting an ambush in our yard. All of us prepared ourselves for the worst after this foolish act, but Samuel, tapping a cane and holding a lamp in the opposite hand, wobbled in alone, his hawk-like nose wrinkling and eagle eyes moving restlessly as he took in the people in the room.
“Ho-ho,” he pointed his cane at Papa’s sword, “I haven’t seen one of those since Judah’s rebellion. Please Joseph, put that away. We’ve had our differences, but my weary bones are hardly a threat to you.”
“What do you want?” Papa frowned severely at him.
“I come to warn you,” the old man sat down on a stool, still clutching his lamp.
“Warn me,” Papa looked down with scorn. “Did I not see you in that mob in front of my house?”
“Hah! I spent the whole time in your yard trying to talk those old fools Ethan and Deborah into going home.”
Samuel sat his lamp down on the table and mopped his brow with the edge of his turban. It seemed obvious even to me that the old man was not a threat.
“What do you want?” Jesus asked this time. “There are questions in your mind Samuel. You are a Pharisee, who cannot see past the law.”
“Who are you to take that tone with me?” Samuel grew defensive. “What would a young whelp like you know about the law?”
“Ask the religious men in the temple,” Papa tossed his head. “They thought so!”
“Very well,” Samuel huffed. “I’ll get to the point. There was another attempt to burn Mariah’s house down, perhaps by the same men who set fire to it in the first place. It was a foolish act. The Romans almost arrested Reuben and his friends for being incendiaries. As they emerged from the villa with their loot, carrying a torch, a Roman scout spotted him tossing the torch into the house.”
“Dear Lord,” Papa groaned, “did it burn down?”
“No,” Samuel shook his head, “a company of your Roman friends caught them in the act and stamped out the fire.”
“They’re not our friends!” James shouted.
“What are they going to do with them?” Papa ignored James outburst.
“Humph,” Samuel glanced disdainfully at Jesus, “it seems Reuben and his cohorts, fearing crucifixion or burning, which are the penalties for incendiaries, underestimated the detachment arriving on the scene and tried to make a break for it in back of the villa. Several more soldiers were riding up the path and went in pursuit.”
“What happened next?” Papa asked in a strained voice. “Did they get away?”
Shaken by the dreadful news imparted to us, we approached him as if to comfort him. Only my small fingers found his rough calloused hand as he sat there staring at the floor. Though stunned by his revelation, I loved Papa and wished all this would go away.
“. . . . I’m sorry Joseph,” Samuel answered after a pause, “but I don’t know for sure. Ethan, who stood among the townsfolk watching the whole thing, said the Romans couldn’t ride their horses into the underbrush, or this is what their leader said, and so they came back empty handed. Soldiers on foot are searching for them. Reuben and his friends, Josiah and Asa, are wanted men, Joseph. The Romans never forget. I’ve seen it before. They will make examples of those men.” “But mark my word,” his cane punctuated the air, “this can’t have a good end. Romans must find them and punish them before Reuben takes his revenge out upon your house.”
“You’re correct, Samuel.” Jesus stepped forward. “Reuben’s driven by vengeance, but he’s not a fool. He and his friends know what will happen if they’re caught. The Romans will guard our town. The Lord watches over our house!”
“How do you know this?” the Pharisee snorted. “Are you a prophet too?”
Jesus had spoken strangely again. The remainder of us were left momentarily speechless by the old man’s words. Papa sighed and mopped his brow. A strange light filled Mama’s blue eyes after what Jesus said.
“You look relieved,” Samuel noted, after seeing a guarded smile spread on Papa’s face. “I know what your up to with Mariah, Joseph. Frankly I don’t care. She’s probably touched in the head. But these townsfolk would never forgive you if the Romans crucify those men. They’re a sorry lot, Reuben and his kind, but they’re Nazarenes, who stand by their own. You have to make a choice soon, Joseph. Rome or us!”
“Is that a threat?” Papa sneered. “Did they send you to tell me this?”
“Yes,” Samuel stood up on his crotchety legs, “those who knew the Joseph of old, before he countenanced blasphemy and evil-doers. Not that rabble in town. After hearing about that paraphernalia found in her house, many of the fence-setters you saw walking away yesterday, are ready to storm your house. I don’t want to see them do that Joseph—”
“What exactly do you want?” asked mother walking around to face our guest.
“Dear woman, I want nothing,” he waved irritability, as if swatting at a fly, “but if Joseph goes through with this rescue in league with the Romans, you will not be welcome in Nazareth anymore.”
“What are suggesting then?” Papa leaned down with a snarl. “You want us to turn her over to you?”
“Ah, its true!” Samuel’s eyes popped wide. “I bet she’s in the next room. Let me meet her Joseph. I can tell whether or not she’s a witch.”
“You made your point, Samuel,” Papa’s eyebrows came down like a curse. “You’ve never liked me since I took Mary to Bethlehem. You were one of the ones who accused her of adultery. Get out of my house, you pompous old fool!”
“Papa,” Jesus glanced back at Samuel, “A town meeting is being held at this late hour. They are waiting for his return, half-suspecting what you’ll say. Knowing for certain that she’s still in our house, a group of volunteers will wait until the Romans return to their encampment outside of town and, in the darkness, they’ll strike.” “But God will protect us,” he added quickly, “whether by the Romans or His own hand—”
“Enough!” Mother ran toward Jesus to cup his mouth. “Say no more!”
As Samuel rose onto his shaky legs, there was another knock on the door. Once again Papa lifted his sword up, ready to do battle to protect us from the mob. This time, however, we heard Ezra’s voice on the other side.
“Joseph, open the door,” he said in a muted voice as if he was being pursued. “Please, there’s no time to waste.”
Throwing open the door, Papa barely had time to get out of the way, before Ezra plunged into the house. Upon seeing Samuel setting in the kitchen, Ezra drew back in surprise.
“I knew it,” he exhaled deeply, “they sent someone to warn you. I was there when the Romans chased Reuben and his friends into the hills. Those men gathered in town won’t understand us consorting with Romans, but what else can we do? When Samuel returns to the meeting at Rabbi Joachim’s house, they will act!”
“Oh,” Samuel made a face, “don’t worry Ezra, I’m not going back there. I told them that if I don’t return, Mariah has already been spirited away. The committee is too late to act, if the Romans are on the scene.”
Papa’s eyebrows shot up. “What are you saying? You’re not going to inform on us? Why the change of heart Samuel? You wanted to stone Mary before Jesus was born.”
“That was a long time ago,” Samuel shrugged. “I was wrong then. I hope I’m wrong now.” “The truth is,” he sighed raggedly, “I’m dying, Joseph. A man, such as I, knows when the angel of death is near. I have no energy anymore, no appetite except for wine and candied dates. There’s pain in parts of my old body I didn’t know existed. “There I’ve said it.” He wheezed. “I’ve wronged you and your family. One of the reasons I came to your house is to beg your pardon.”
Flabbergasted by the old man’s sudden change in disposition, our first collective reaction was suspicion. Was not this an excellent ploy to gain our confidence? This could have been, I now write in hindsight, a delaying action so that the forces of darkness had time to descend upon our home, but Samuel wasn’t lying. It took only a few more moments for us to see truth in his watery eyes and trembling voice.
“Why should we believe you?” Papa was the first to speak. “You’ve never talked to us. When passing us on the road, you look the other way.”
“I may not have talked to you,” his voice trembled, “but lately I have worried about your house. You’re a fine carpenter Joseph, and even an old Pharisee like me can see that Jesus is a remarkable son.”
“You would risk your reputation supporting Joseph’s cause,” Ezra gave him a doubtful look. “Come now Samuel, do you take us for fools?”
“No,” Samuel glanced over at Jesus, “unorthodox perhaps, but not a fool. I’m too old to completely change. I’m stubborn and opinionated. Even now I’m in denial for something that attacks the very core of my beliefs. But something gnaws at me I don’t wish to take to my grave. I want peace. I have another. . . greater reason. . . for coming here tonight.”
“Speak!” mother grew impatient.
“Yes, out with it, old man.” Ezra wrung his hands impatiently.
“Very well,” Samuel now turned to look squarely at our oldest brother. “I witnessed the fire. I suspect Reuben and his friend started it. I should have been in a warm bed but I was troubled by these events. Strange, wondrous things were happening across town in the house of Joseph, the carpenter. Rumors fly like sparrows in Nazareth. First I hear from our fat rabbi that Jesus bewitched his family into believing he resurrected a bird. Next came rumors that Jesus walked the hills and valleys near town in communion with God, performing all manner of miracles. A local legend was developing as I sat contemplating the law. I know that most of this you would deny Jesus, but what I saw when the sky opened up over Mariah’s villa troubled me greatly. I saw you raise your hands up to the heavens. They say you called upon Beelzebub or Satan. . . But I don’t believe that now.”
“An old man’s prattle,” grumbled Ezra. “Come to the point Samuel. We have a busy night.”
“The point?” He looked around the room, finding Mary standing in front of the door leading to the back room. “Forgive me,” he said in a strangled voice, “I wronged you. It has taken me all these years to see that, but my time is short now—I must make amends. “But I digress,” he re-directed himself,“. . . . I won’t bring up Mariah again; that’s a closed subject. The issue isn’t her. I remember how our town treated you and Joseph when it was discovered that you were with child. They wanted to stone you, so did I. This feeling in Nazareth stopped when Joseph stepped forward to take responsibility. I learned much later, after you returned with your husband and child, that you had a son—Jesus. Your family grew considerably after your return. It took the townsfolk a long time to accept you back into the fold. Now your son has brought criticism once more to your family, some of which I shared. I shouldn’t repeat the rumors I heard about your trip to Bethlehem. I’m much too set in my way. But I must admit, Jesus is special. Even before the incident of the sparrow, I had the feeling that he wasn’t like other boys. This could be explained by rational thinking, but not Nazareth’s storm…”
Gazing off into space, as old men often do, he paused a moment. “Something happened,” he seemed to change the subject. “It seems unrelated, yet it happened a short while after you and Joseph left Nazareth. A great star appeared in the heavens. According to a rumor, it portended a great event. We, the elders, saw it as a natural phenomena, the confluence of two great stars, nothing more. Then, not long ago, a wool merchant from Bethlehem shared with me a story from his town. He claimed that a great light, which must have been that same star, shown over a manger, where there was born a new king. Shepherds had told him a tale, farfetched I must say, about their visit to the manger where they, themselves, found the child. The great star had led them there. Later, according to the merchant, the star also led three magis to the child, bearing gifts. As you can see, the three accounts have led to the same preposterous conclusion: the birth of a king. The portion about the star over Bethlehem, we agreed was hearsay, coming as it did from the rustic minds of shepherds, who claimed to have been drawn to the manger by command of angels. I also doubt the stories about the magis. Those kinds of men, as you may know, are Gentiles. Undoubtedly, they were talking about a pagan myth.” “….But that star,” he reflected dreamily, “—all of Galilee and Judea saw that!”
He searched my parents’ faces that moment. “Have you heard these stories?” he asked quizzically. “I’ve never given much credence to them, myself.”
Mama shook her head vigorously but said nothing. Papa was also too stunned to speak, and Jesus looked away in puzzlement, as if he didn’t have a clue.
Samuel found their reactions amusing. He smiled at them, his dark eyes twinkling, uttering the most outrageous thing: “Micah prophesized that our Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David—the same city you traveled to that night. I heard that you’re both descendents of David, the King. That would make you and your children royalty…I’ve never believed that rumor.” “Tell me, Joseph and Mary,” he probed, raising an eyebrow, “is that true?”
“Who told you this?” Papa’s voice trembled. “I’ve told no one that. Why are you telling us these things?”
“Forgive me, Joseph.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I was concerned was for your family’s safety. Here I am reciting legends, prattling like an old man.”
“What’s your point?” Ezra frowned.
“Star…Bethlehem…king…House of David, don’t you see?” he laughed querulously.
“No, I don’t,” snorted Ezra. “Just what’re you trying to say?”
Samuel appeared to be on the verge of saying something even more controversial. He became so agitated his mouth seemed to tread water like a fish. The next onrush of words simply couldn’t pass his trembling lips. Our mother and father seemed to be terrified about what came next, but Jesus ran to pour him a cup of water.
“What is he talking about?” I looked around in bewilderment.
“I dunno.” Simon scratched his head.
“I’ve never heard those stories,” James looked at Joseph. ‘Have you?”
Joseph snarled. Still smarting from the drubbing Mama gave him, he replied sarcastically, “Maybe it’s another secret. We have lots of those!”
“No,” I glanced at my siblings, “only one. We’re adopted,…except Jesus.”
The old man frowned at me. “What was that, Jude? You say you’re adopted?”
“Of course,” James nodded, “all of us. You didn’t know that? We’re all orphans—all of us, except the oldest son.” “So tell us Samuel,” he asked the Pharisee, “what’s this have to do with Jesus? What’s he have to do with that star?”
Not realizing how close to the truth he was, Samuel uttered a nervous laugh. No one in the room, even my parents, dare make the connection. The old man’s eyes, having widened progressively with illumination, now clouded with doubt. Second-guessing his needs, Jesus exchanged his water for unwatered wine, yet remained calm as if he, himself, didn’t know.
“You don’t know about this story, do you?” Samuel looked up at him, after gulping the wine. “I saw you shake your head with the other boys.” “Ah hah!” He tossed his head, looking at our parents who stood together now in a fearful embrace. “. . . . You haven’t told them—even Jesus, who was born that cold night.” “This is all very strange,” he exhaled the words. “It challenges everything I know!”
“I think I’ve heard enough of this.” Ezra stood up, yawned and stretched his arms. “It’s nonsense—all of it. Samuel’s no threat to us. I’m going home to get some sleep. Tomorrow morning will be coming soon enough. You should all do the same!”
Papa gave him a perfunctory nod but his mind was locked in on the old man. Only Jesus had the presence of mind to bid him goodnight. The rest of us were stirred by what we were hearing: the greatest secret of them all—only a hair’s breath from the telling, but just too fantastic for our minds to grasp. The troubled look on Ezra’s face told us that Samuel’s words had even made an impact on him.
“Thank you for helping my father,” Jesus called as he exited the house.
“Jesus,” replied Ezra, pausing by the door, “I’ve heard about your gifts. In a rare moment, when your father needed an extra ear, he told me about you. I can’t accept some of it. It defies common sense and goes against everything I believe. I’m deeply disturbed, especially hearing that stuff from Samuel, a Pharisee.” “Peace be upon you Jesus!” were his last words that night.
“May I continue,” the old man looked at his cup. “One more interruption and I may be drunk. This isn’t a bad vintage. It has an exotic, resinous taste.” “Oh yes,” he returned to the subject, “Jesus. I’m well versed in the scriptures. I should be, I’m a Pharisee. There are many verses that foretell a coming deliverer or king, but the one that troubles me the most comes from Isaiah.” “Do you know that one?” He studied the oldest son.
Jesus didn’t reply. He had a trapped look, as a gazelle cornered by a lion, but we sensed that it was not because he didn’t know. He knew all right. The look he passed to our parents told us this. It was as if he was asking them what to do.
Papa stepped forward, still holding mother’s hand. “You dare quote scriptures to him! We appreciate your defense of our home against Ethan and Deborah, but you have spent your entire life as a skeptic. You seem to have many reasons for being here tonight, but one of them, I believe, was to spy on us and then report back to the elders in town.”
As Papa stood enumerating the sins of Nazareth against his family, Samuel stood up, with Jesus help, smiled crookedly at him, and recited a verse from Isaiah, one of Israel’s greatest prophets:
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bare a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
“Immanuel, who’s that?” I looked up at James.
“It’s another name for the Messiah,” offered Jesus. “It means ‘God is with us.’”
“You have much knowledge Jesus,” the old man said, draining his cup, “far too much for a fifteen-year-old youth. I’ll go home and continue my drinking. I have much to consider about tonight.”
With that note of gentle sarcasm added, we were confronted and shouldn’t have hidden from Jesus’ divinity, yet that’s exactly what he did—each one of us, the Pharisee included. Jesus held his lamp as Samuel gathered himself up and wobbled toward the door. All of us, even my shaken parents, came forward to pay respects to Nazareth’s most venerable elder. The old man turned to raise his hand in blessing but thought better when he caught Papa’s icy stare.
“Peace be upon your house Joseph,” he called back.
“Peace indeed,” Papa grumbled.
“I want you to meet my nephew Joseph of Arimathea,” he chatted with Jesus as our brother escorted him up to the road.
James, Joseph, Simon, Michael, and I listened from the window as Jesus promised to meet Samuel’s nephew. We were all in a daze, and yet our oldest brother acted as if he was sending off his best friend. Their conversation faded as Jesus walked a ways with Samuel up the road. We didn’t know then how important the name Joseph of Arimathea would be to us and that our meeting with Samuel, the Pharisee, would effect Jesus’ life.