As a mere child, in spite of Mama’s piety and Samuel’s belief that Jesus was touched by God, the closest I would come to accepting Jesus’ divinity were, in fact, Samuel’s words to me on the day Jesus embarked on his odyssey. I was comforted by this definition, for, in deed, the prophets, themselves, according to Papa, had been touched by God. This didn’t make them divine. We would miss him on his journey with Joseph of Arimathea. On the other hand, there remained Jesus many detractors, such as Rabbi Joachim, Ethan, and Nehemiah’s Aunt Deborah, who were glad to be rid of Jesus for his strange, otherworldly ways.
I would never forgive those townsfolk who shunned Papa for his rescue of Mariah and the personality of his oldest son, but soon after Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus on his journey, I was considering, in my loneliness, after Papa’s coaxing, to forgive certain friends for their actions. Samuel, who was now our family’s benefactor, had convinced Papa that, to regain and expand his business in Nazareth, he must “mend fences,” by reaching out to the silent majority in town, who had merely tolerated men like Reuben when they ran amuck. Papa, who likened the mentality of the Nazarenes to sheep, told me that I should do the same. The only problem with me forgiving Nehemiah and Uriah was the resentment of Michael, who forgave no one for their past deeds.
In the past few days Michael had been spending a lot of time in Jesus’ secret cave. I had gone up there myself with him, but I really didn’t like that scary place. I wanted to romp through the hills, pretending to be warriors like Cornelius or Longinus. We had, in the past, also found small lizards and grasshoppers to play with, when we weren’t eavesdropping on the shepherds, making believe we were Roman spies and they were warlike nomads encroaching upon our land. Hide-and-go seek, archery with homemade bows, knife tossing, and countless other games we played at other times. Though James and Joseph remained aloof, Simon often joined us in our escapades. Unfortunately, as our older brothers, Simon could not warm up to our new brother. Michael’s strange behavior convinced him that my friend was, like his mother, addled in the head. This was upsetting, but I could hardly blame Simon for what I almost believed myself.
One day, not long after Jesus’ departure, I found Papa working on a fine table in his shop. James and Joseph were outside, as I entered, sanding its legs. They sneered at me for my sloth. Simon, as usual, was nowhere to be seen. Bored with my plight, I offered to help with the sanding or finishing of the wood, which made James and Joseph laugh. Papa told them that he was going to take a break, set aside his scraper, and led me out of the shop.
“What’s wrong son?” He looked down at me with a smile.
A flood of words poured out of my mouth: “Michael and Simon won’t play with me. Michael’s acting really weird and saying strange things. Simon says Michael’s addled in the head.”
“Humph,” he snorted, “you know James, Joseph feel the same way. Michael teases the cat and goat. He frightens the twins.” “Frankly,” confessed Papa, “we, Mary and I, don’t know what to do with him. I’m almost tempted to take him to Jerusalem myself. Michael just wants to be with his mother. We can’t blame him for that.”
“I don’t blame him for anything.” I made a face. “He blames us!”
“That’s nonsense,” Papa grumbled. “All we’ve done is to try to help that boy!”
“He doesn’t want our help.” I sighed dejectedly. “He knows my brothers and the townsfolk don’t like him. He thinks his aunt in Jerusalem will let him live with his mother and everything will be all right.”
“Where’s Michael?” asked Papa, looking around the yard. “Is he in the hills again, moping inside Jesus’ cave?”
“I think he’s in the cave.” I heaved a sigh. “He knows were not suppose to leave our property. When I tried to stop him, he hissed at me and doubled up his fist. . . . I think Simon and James must be right.”
Papa nodded sadly, then sat down on the bench he made for our garden. I plopped down next to him and rested my chin on my palms. I was hungry. After his talk with Simon, Papa wanted me to get along with everyone, but I was ready to give up on Michael. Reaching up to an overhanging limb, Papa pulled off two figs and handed one to me.
“This will hold us until lunch,” he announced, splitting open the fig to get at the fruit.
He did it expertly in almost one motion. I did the same, though not as well, much preferring plums or grapes which are much easier to eat. Papa and I now chatted about Jesus. We both wondered how far he would be in his journey by now and how many wondrous things he would see on his trip. Papa asked me if I had thought about his suggestion that I make peace with Uriah and Nehemiah. I admitted that I hadn’t but would consider making peace, if Uriah came over to our home, instead making me going over to Rabbi Joachim’s spooky old house. Papa thought about this a moment and patted my head. Before he asked me if I would make peace with Nehemiah, too, Mama stuck her head out the window to inform us that it was time for lunch.
“We must pray for Michael,” he concluded our chat. “There’s nothing else we can do. I’ve tried to reason with him. I thought having him clean the cloaca would teach him a lesson, but it only made him worse.” “Enough,” he said patting my knee, “let’s go eat!”
“I’m starved!” I cried, following him into the house.
Michael did not come home that night. Papa instructed James, Joseph, Simon, and I to follow him down the shepherd’s path, each of us holding up a lamp to light our path. We hadn’t officially met our guards yet, but Papa saw them making their rounds today and felt much better about going into the hills. Mama, of course, stayed home with the twins, but kept the stew warm for when the errant child returned. After searching the olive orchard, we followed the trail that Jesus had shown us, until we reached the cave. Papa bent down and searched the small cavern with his lantern, then backing out and whistling under his breath, stood there by the entrance, unsure what to do.
“Michael wrote things on the walls,” he uttered finally, “Hebrew letters and strange symbols I don’t understand.” “Michael’s very sick,” he decided, motioning for James to take a look.
“It looks like the scribbling Mariah did,” James observed calmly. “Joseph and I thought she was a witch. It looks as if Michael’s one too.”
Joseph took a more scholarly approach. “I recognize the Hebrew letters, but some of them are upside down. That makes no sense, Papa. I suppose that could be sorcery. The symbol for Israel has been x’d out….Humph, what is that horned beast on the rock?”
“Enough!” Papa pulled Joseph out and shoved me in. “I think it’s important that Jude sees this for himself.”
I took my turn quietly, saddened by what I found, shuddering at the blasphemy scrawled on the rock. As I held my lantern, seeing my silhouette against the opposite wall, the shadow accented the evil room. Papa reached finally and jerked my sleeve. “Out!” he barked. Simon, the last to enter, did so reluctantly at Papa’s prodding, shaking his head in disgust as he summed up what he saw inside the cave. “It doesn’t make sense, Papa—any of it. There’s so much anger and hate. Michael has to be mad!”
“Thank you Simon,” Papa said, raising his lamp high. “You have said it best: anger and hate. But is Michael mad? It’s possible, as Ezra once suggested, that Michael, like his mother, has a demon, if they’re both not simply addled in the head.” “But the fact is,” he sighed deeply, leading us down the hill, “we can’t trust him. He could roll a boulder down on us as Reuben and his friends did to that poor Roman or come flying out of the bushes swinging a club. Your mother has enough to worry about. I’ll not place my sons in danger tonight. I’ll take you boys back to the house and, with God’s help, talk Ezra into helping me with the search.”
Simon seemed quite happy to be going back. James and Joseph grumbled a little, but I think they were secretly happy to be rid of Michael and would not be out trudging in the dark. I felt I should, as Michael’s only friend, protest, but I bit my tongue when I considered how futile this enterprise was. Michael knew these hills almost as well as Jesus. I didn’t think they would find him, but I would pray for his safety nevertheless. Mama was very relieved when James, Joseph, Simon, and I were deposited at the back door, but her relief faded when Papa mumbled a hasty excuse and began walking up the backyard path to the road.
“Joseph,” she gasped, “what’s wrong? Where’s Michael?”
“I don’t know,” Papa answered glumly. “I’m hoping Ezra will join the search. I don’t want our sons to be involved any longer. Ezra and I could search Mariah’s burnt out house. In Michael’s tormented mind, it might seem like a haven to him. If he’s not there, we’ll go down the hillside path leading to the shepherd’s fires. Perhaps Odeh or one of his brothers caught sight of him heading down the old Jerusalem road.” “I’m sorry Jude,” he called to me, “we’ll do our best to find your friend.”
I noticed with a stab of emotion that Papa had referred to Michael as only ‘my friend’ and not my adopted brother, but then Michael had never felt as if he was Joseph and Mary’s adopted son. I broke down and wept in my mother’s embrace. Simon, though he disliked Michael, now wept for my sake. James and Joseph drew close, for a change looking at me with sympathy instead of scorn.
“He’ll come back,” Simon promised. “He always does.”
“Not this time,” I simpered, “not if he doesn’t want to be found.”
Except for the twins, who finally fell asleep, we were all sitting at the kitchen table when Papa and Ezra returned from their search. During the long hours of waiting, we were comforted by Mama’s stories. In chronological order, she first told us about she and Joseph’s flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s soldiers, though she skipped over the most important part preceding this event that we learned about later from Jesus, himself. Perhaps it was because we were afraid to know the truth, but none of us asked mother to explain the gaps in Jesus’ life. Seeing our confusion at her introduction, Mama explained why Herod wanted to harm Jesus. It had to do with prophecy written by the prophets, she presented in a most cavalier manner, though we all knew that Mama couldn’t read. We heard, with trepidation, the story of Herod’s counselors warning him that a new king would be born in Bethlehem, though Mama failed to explain her virgin birth or that Jesus was, in fact, the expected king. I thought I heard our mother wrong, because she said that Jesus was born in a manger. Samuel had mentioned a manger when he related the wool merchant’s tale. James, Joseph, Simon, and I, respectively, mumbled amongst ourselves as Mama chattered: “A manger?” “Isn’t that a poor man’s barn?” “Jesus was born were they bring animals in for shelter.”
Inexplicably, no one brought up the similar story mentioned by Samuel. We hadn’t told Mama about what we saw in the cave, it sat most heavily on our minds. James held his finger up to his lips, when Simon almost blurted it out. We would let Papa break the news to Mama; she had enough on her mind. Mama, in fact, began to ramble, as we discussed this issue amongst ourselves, and her eyelids fluttered, probably because she was exhausted after worrying about Jesus and Michael for so long. Yet she persevered, her voice faint at times as if her mind was in a distant place. Her narrative then grew more bizarre. Herod’s soldiers killed several hundred other babies in his search for Jesus, she told us calmly. The slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem commenced soon after she, Joseph and the infant departed for Egypt. What a dark day in Israel this was! I shivered at this last bit of information, wondering why Mama had kept such a secret from us for so long. The years they spent in Egypt didn’t interest us much nor the blessing of Jesus at the temple that preceded it, but when she told us, out of chronological sequence, about the Magi, who thought he was the expected king and gave them gifts, my brothers and I, whose heads had been drooping, bolted upright on our stools.
“Gifts?” Simon sputtered. “What? Where?”
“Are they valuable?” James leaned forward excitedly. “Are the Magi like kings?”
“Yes and no,” Mama explained with a yawn. “The gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which are valuable, were buried by your father to prevent shepherds, who saw the treasures, from returning and robbing us before we left. The three Magi were not kings but wise men from the East who fallowed a star.”
“Fallowing a star?” I muttered to myself. “That sounds like Samuel’s story…Wise men from East? . . Treasure? . . Several hundred babies murdered because Herod thought Jesus was a king?”
As I listened to my brothers’ questions and my mothers answers, I realized that James and Simon had missed the point entirely. We didn’t know what frankincense and myrrh were, but my brothers were giddy after hearing about the gold. Joseph jumped up and down with great enthusiasm and suggested that they go to Bethlehem and dig it up. The fact that Mama admitted in her state of mind that Herod the Great believed Jesus was a king and three Magi had fallowed a star to find the expected king had been lost in their lust for gold.
I could scarcely believe such a wild tale. My brothers had lost their heads. In their right frame of minds, I was certain my brothers didn’t believe it either. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I was beginning to wonder that moment whether or not Mama, like Mariah, might not be a little addled too. Just when I was about to ask her a few questions about this fantastic story, she moved ahead to her recollections of James, which caught my brothers completely off guard. From what I remember now of her narrative, as I write it down in my chronicle, James’ father had been the brother of Joseph’s mother, which made them cousins—blood kin. Since James father had been our mother’s brother and Joseph’s mother her sister, that made her James and Joseph’s aunt. This was very confusing. She carefully sidestepped the issue of the plague, concentrating on the virtues of James parents and the house that they had lived after his birth. When Joseph asked about his parents, Mama explained that they had lived right next door to James’ parents and that they were fine citizens of Sepphoris too. What else could one say about such simple folks? I wonder now. It was, I write in hindsight, impossible to have lived as interesting an infancy as Jesus, the expected King of the Jews. Nevertheless, during Mama’s reminisces, Simon was next, as she droned on. We learned this time that Simon’s mother was the sister of Papa, which meant that Papa was his uncle, and this made us really confused!
Mama had already told us about the twins parents being killed by bandits. As if embarrassed by their relationship to us, she went on quickly to explain that my first mother, Rebecca was second cousin to her, but Rebecca’s husband Abimelech was unrelated to our family line. This made me the least related of Jesus four brothers (or cousins) to our parents. Though I could have felt slighted by this, I felt no bitterness toward my parents. They had given us a good home. I was, in fact, concerned for Mama’s state of mind. All this prattle about our parents required much more explanation than she was giving it this hour. Small beads of perspiration collected on her brow and she talked much too fast. Even as a young child, I understood her great love for us, but also her feelings of guilt. Joseph still bristled from the beating she gave him for questioning my origin and introducing the subject of our parents. More than any of us, Joseph resented the fact that he was adopted. Not only did Mama blame herself for allowing Jesus to go on his foolhardy journey, but Michael had ran off, without her knowing, and she felt guilty about that too. She felt guilty about so many things, and yet, except for moments of righteous anger, our mother was blameless. Her heart was pure.
Suddenly, as she began rambling about some of the memorable escapades of our lives, Papa and Ezra entered the house. We, her sons, sighed with relief. Fortunately for our peace of minds, Mama never said Jesus would be the future Messiah, only that he would be King of the Jews, which made no sense at all. Both men appeared exhausted and yet Papa tried showing us a cheerful face. Ezra always seemed to have a scowl on his face, so it was difficult to gauge his mood. Tonight he gave Mama a tired greeting and nodded to each one of us as we stood waiting for news of the search. It was obvious that they hadn’t found Michael, but no one dare speak as Papa thanked Ezra and bid him goodnight. Ezra apologized for his hasty exit, explaining that his wife and daughters would be waiting up for him too. After closing the door, Papa stood there a moment staring into space. We knew he was upset. Settling heavily at the table, he heaved a broken sigh, slumping forward on his stool. Rushing forward to grab a seat, we sat as close to Papa as possible. He seemed in no hurry to tell us about what they found. Mama placed her arms around his neck and, whispering “I love you,” kissed his check.
Suddenly, with this coaxing, Papa began to speak.
“Do we have wine?” he murmured discreetly into her ear.
“A little.” She looked apologetically down into his face.
Hysterical laughter swelled in my throat. As he took the wine Mama had saved for him, he was surprised to find the large goblet half full of unwatered wine. Giving her knuckles a thankful pat, he motioned for her to sit down next to him, which meant we all had to move down a seat. The humor I found in this scene passed. Something dark loomed in Papa’s eyes. For a while, he seemed to be gathering his thoughts, yet he sat there for several moments without uttering a word. My eyelids were getting very heavy. Across from me, Simon was nodding off on his stool. I wondered if Papa was falling asleep too.
“We found more markings in Mariah’s burnt out house,” he began, slowly savoring his wine. “They were made with the blood from an animal Michael must have killed. It made me sick. This time he left us a message we could understand: I go to Jerusalem—that’s all. Written in blood! I didn’t even know he could write. Below it were crude pictures of people or infernal beings, also scrawled in blood, and more letters and symbols, which made no sense. Ezra still believes he’s possessed by a demon. I agree with him now. Though Ezra was frightened, I talked him into going down to the shepherd’s camp. I’d forgotten how difficult that path is, especially at night. When we reached their encampment one lonely sentinel, Odeh, himself, told us that he saw a red haired boy with an unlit torch, carrying a sack on one shoulder, walking out into the desert toward the Jerusalem road. Odeh said the boy had passed by before dark, so Michael’s been on the road for several hours. Ezra refused to go any further and I can’t blame him.” “What do I do?” He looked miserably at Mama. “Frankly, after working for so many long hours, I didn’t have the energy, but even if I did I’m not sure I could have found him. Odeh said he had a fierce look on his face. . . . He might just make it Mary. Should I really stop someone from such a quest?”
“No,” Mama said threw clinched teeth, “you will eat one of my loafs, wash up and go to bed!”
“Yes,” James agreed, “you did all you could.”
“We love you Papa,” Simon wiped a tear from his face.
“What about you, Jude?” Papa looked over at me. “You’ve been awfully quiet.”
“He has made his choice,” I gave him a brave smile, though my eyes glistened with tears.
Papa reached across the table to clasp my hand. I will never forget the love I saw in his eyes. That moment I felt as if I was Papa’s favorite again. By now the commotion had awakened Abigail and Martha. The two sleepy-eyed girls stood surveying the crowd, until Mama crooked a finger to invite them in. Everyone, the twins included, gathered around our patriarch, as if he was about to tell us a great tale.
“I know,” Mama clapped her hands. “We shall all have a snack before bed!”
“You too!” she laughed, ruffling the twins’ blond heads. “We shall have a party and sit wondering about all the fine places the oldest son will see.”
“Someday, I shall see the world too,” I piped, as I bit into my roll.
“He wants to be a soldier,” tattled Simon. “He wants to runaway to Rome!”
“The Romans are oppressors!” cried James.
“Really Jude?” Mama gave me a shocked look. “What a strange thing for a Jewish boy to say!”
“Well, I think Jude would make a fine soldier!” Papa seemed to be feeling the effects of the wine. “Let us not forget our friend Cornelius,” he reminded James. “Has not our Roman friend helped us spirit Mariah away and protect our house?”
“Because of our friendship with Romans,” declared Joseph, “we are considered collaborators in our town!”
Papa broke into laughter at Joseph’s outburst. Mama began laughing also, which caused Simon and I to break into giggles again and the twins to titter foolishly at such a display. Soon James and then Joseph, himself, found themselves isolated in their rebellion against Rome and began chuckling too, until the room echoed with laughter from Joseph’s family. This was one of the memories, in spite of the absence of Jesus (and, yes, Michael too), that would give me comfort on my own journeys in the world. Nothing and no one—not Reuben, the tanner, our unforgiving neighbors or Michael running away—could ever stand between us. If only Jesus could be here, I thought, looking around at my brothers, sisters, and parents. That night we felt a mutual loneliness for the oldest child, so we each shared a special moment we had with Jesus. As we munched our rolls and drank water from our well, I waited for my turn. The others talked about silly, mundane things. Mine would be the best of all. . . . I was tempted to tell them about that special night in the orchard when Jesus and I saw the devil, but knowing they wouldn’t believe me, I told them about that wondrous moment, all could agree on, when I stood and watched Jesus make it rain. Mama gently scolded me for not giving God credit, but Papa, in his buoyant mood, understood my heart.
“Mary, Mary,” he purred softly, “Jude’s a child. He sees Jesus as a vessel filled with wondrous power—God’s energy. You, yourself, have trouble with concepts from the Torah and Prophets. Children see only magic in God’s mystery and child-like wonder in miraculous events. How can you explain God’s infinite power to an adult, let alone a child?”
“I think Michael may have influenced Jude,” Mama replied artlessly. “Michael thought Jesus was a great magician. I heard him say so.”
“Well, so does Jude,” Papa laughed, looking sadly into his cup.
James, Joseph, Simon, and I exchanged dubious looks. Mama was quite misinformed, but Papa appeared to be slightly drunk. I hoped Papa was merely poking fun at me. I didn’t think Jesus’ miracles were done by magic. Our parents must have been very tired. Not that long ago, I recall James and Joseph arguing over the very same thing. James had called Jesus a magician and Joseph accused him of being a sorcerer. I could never quite put into words what I felt. For a moment, I wished I had some of Papa’s wine. The truth was, of course, Mama had misunderstood me entirely. Though I would not boast about it around my brothers or to my parents, I understood (or at least I thought I understood) that Jesus had been touched by God. For me, all of Jesus’ miracles and insights, were explained by Samuel, the Pharisee’s, claim.
As I sat there wrapped up in my thoughts, I realized that Papa was right about one thing. There was much I didn’t understand yet. All that information Mama had given us before Papa returned from his search had confused me that much more. Wise men had fallowed a star to find Jesus in a manger. What sort of king was born in a manger? And all those babies murdered because Herod thought Jesus was a king—I found that impossible to believe! As I considered the implications of what Mama, in an unguarded state of mind, spilled out in the last hour, I heard Simon, during a lull, ask Papa about the treasure.
“What treasure?” Papa’s eyes widened.
“The gold, frank-in-stink and myrrh,” Simon stumbled with the words.
“Mary!” He looked in disbelief at her. “We were going to wait until they were older.”
“I’m sorry.” She yawned expansively. “Sometimes the spirit moves me.”
“Mama is very tired,” I found my voice. “The twins should be in bed. Papa should get some sleep too.’
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” agreed Papa, rising sluggishly to his feet.
Poor Papa would have a headache in the morning. My head throbbed right now from lack of sleep. Normally, James, Joseph, Simon, and I would take turns using the cloaca, but I would do my business behind a tree. Mama helped the twins to their feet and received a kiss on the cheek from each of us before we all raced out the door. As I finished up quickly and trotted back to the house, I saw Papa emerging from the shadows, whistling under his breath. With a suddenness that caused me to lose my breath, I saw a shadow at the corner of my eye. When I looked to my left, I saw it hover over the herb garden and then disappear into the dark.
“Michael,” I cried breathlessly, “is that you?”
That moment James, having taken his turn in the cloaca, called out wearily, “Jude, come to bed. Michael’s gone. You heard Papa—he’s on the Jerusalem road. He’s done enough damage to our family. He’s not coming back!”
I ran up to James, impulsively giving him a hug.
“Don’t worry.” he said, patting my back, “the Romans are watching us. I saw a horseman ride by. Reuben wouldn’t dare come back to Nazareth. We’ll never see him again.”
Looking up at his smiling face, I wondered if he was sincere. I was glad he acknowledged our protectors, yet I detected sarcasm in his voice. He thought I was afraid of Reuben. I would not spoil his act of kindness, but it was Michael I now feared.