In the months following that special Sabbath, Nehemiah surprised us all. Though he lacked Michael’s imagination and cleverness, he proved to be a better friend. From the beginning, he was eager to become part of our family. He was trustworthy and forthright—qualities Papa admired. He was, in many ways, a perfect son. Where Papa normally had to ask us to do our chores, Nehemiah often volunteered, which made the rest of us jealous but also lessened our load. He would sweep out the shop, pick weeds, and perform the most undesirable task cheerfully, without complaint. Because of his modesty, industriousness, and generous heart, it didn’t take that long for him to fit in. Uriah, however, was another matter. He would never feel comfortable in our house. The pranks that I was afraid James, Joseph, and Simon would pull on Nehemiah were reserved mostly for him. Though I was annoyed that he whined and complained so much, Papa took me aside once and reminded me why this was so. All that poor Uriah learned about behavior he learned from his narrow-minded and embittered father. The truth was, Papa explained, Joachim was, in some ways, merely a grownup version of his son.
Knowing this, I decided I would be patient with Uriah. When James and Joseph teased him, I would frequently take his side, though this made me look foolish after all the bad things I had said about him in the past. Often I would step in when Simon was throwing dried sheep dung or rotten fruit at him and recently, when Papa was away working on Samuel’s fence, I warned Uriah of the honey smeared on the cloaca lid before he sat down. My brothers resented my defense of Uriah, and, sometimes, because Nehemiah and I defended him, they taunted us too. Sometimes the list of insults, pranks, and outright traps I protected Uriah against seemed so burdensome, I wearied of it and told Uriah it would be better for all of us if he just went home. Though Uriah seldom complained, I was tired of defending him and taking his knocks.
But Uriah had a saving quality about his otherwise miserable personality that placed him high on Mama’s list. He was, if nothing else, a flatterer, who, after being a glutton, himself, learned how to cook and bake better than his own mother. Always there to sample Mama’s famous pastries, vegetable dishes or stews, when the rest of us took her for granted, he ingratiated himself into her good graces, finding refuge this way from my brothers’ pranks. This gift from the Lord, as Mama considered it, was stubbornly ignored by my brothers but accepted begrudgingly by Nehemiah and I when we tasted his plum tarts and honey and raisin rolls. It simply wasn’t natural, Nehemiah complained as he wolfed down another tart. Mama, who was an excellent cook and baker but never had the time to experiment, herself, had stuck to the age old Jewish recipes handed down mother two daughter. Now, thanks to Uriah, Mama would bake these treats herself when Uriah was not around, at times exchanging culinary ideas with the junior cook.
For several months, in spite of my parent’s wishes, Papa had been turning a blind eye to our exploits in the hills. Reuben had been gone for over a year, and the threat we once felt seemed long past. With Jesus gone, Nazareth appeared to be at peace with our family. Now that I had Nehemiah and Uriah as friends again, the old games that my gang and I once played had an added dimension with Romans soldiers marching through town. Of course, it wasn’t the same without the thrill-seeking Michael along, and, at times, Uriah got on my nerves. During our adventures, as we pretended to be Roman soldiers killing bandits, taking turns with my hand-made bow and sling, Nehemiah and I had to constantly remind Uriah that it was all just a game. “This is wrong, Jews can’t be Romans” and “We mustn’t pretend to take human life” were the two most irritating of his complaints, until, finally, after several weeks of pretend warfare in the hills, he accepted his role as a soldier and became proficient at killing imaginary foes.
Always lurking behind us or to the side to spoil our fun, however, were my brothers, who we sometimes fantasized were King Herod’s henchmen or villainous Arabs roaming the hills. One day, after they began pelting us with sheep dung, we ran up Jesus’ special trail and waited breathlessly within the cave. This refuge, which Michael had contaminated, was a place where my brothers wouldn’t go after the discoveries made inside. Because I knew Michael’s troubled mind, I wasn’t as afraid as my brothers. Michael, like his mother, was addled in the head. What he wrote on the walls made no more sense than the blasphemies in his mother’s house. Of course, I neglected to tell Nehemiah and Uriah about these scribblings. After the nonsense Joachim and Deborah filled into their heads, neither of my friends would have entered this scary place. But we had no choice. I was tired of being chased through the hills. As we huddled inside the cave, a shaft of morning light streamed into the dark recess just enough to highlight one of the markings: a hideous, horned creature with Hebrew symbols over its head.
“What’s that on the rock?” Nehemiah’s voice quivered.
“Come out you cowards!” Joseph cried in a swaggering voice.
“If nothing more,” James shouted through cupped hands, “send Uriah out, so we can roll his little carcass down the hill.”
“No,” I replied angrily, “Papa told you to leave us alone!”
“They spoil everything,” moaned Uriah.
As Nehemiah’s small, furtive eyes took in the images on the wall, he gasped. Just as he began to panic, I caught his expression and elbowed him gently in the ribs. Uriah was distracted by his own whimpering, so I whispered into Nehemiah’s ear “Please, don’t tell Uriah what you saw!”
“All right,” he murmured with a nod.
“Send out Uriah!” Simon stuck his head in part of the way and screamed.
Uriah bawled loudly, adding fuel to their merriment. My brothers taunted him unmercifully, their pent-up hatred flowing out in one ugly stream. Uriah then grew hysterical as they threw dirt, sticks, and rocks into the cave. Finally, as an arm reached in to fish one of us out, he turned frantically, as if searching for an exit in the back of the cave. Catching sight of the blasphemies on the wall, he began screeching so loudly Nehemiah and I stuffed our fingers in our ears. I wasn’t as afraid as I was annoyed by my brothers repeated harassment. Papa didn’t like informers, but I knew he would want to know about this.
“We’re coming in to get you.” James head loomed at the entrance.
“What do you mean we,” Joseph’s voice cracked. “I’m not going in there!”
“Me neither,” Simon said in a quaking voice. “Ezra said the cave is cursed!”
“What does Ezra know?” sneered James. “He’s never been in Michael’s cave.”
During the crisis, I realized that the cave that had been Jesus discovery was now, because of its defilement, considered Michael’s cave. My brothers held nothing sacred about Jesus now that he was away. Before I could protest against this injustice, though, something dreadful happened that turned our misadventure into a nightmarish ordeal.
I had wondered why Uriah was suddenly quiet, until something skittered over my hand. Sheer panic enveloped me. Uriah was thrashing and clawing mutely on one side of me, while Nehemiah suddenly gasped as the creature fell from my hand onto his lap.
“Something stung me,” Uriah said in a strained voice.
“Where is it?” Nehemiah sprang to his feet. “Something crawled over my legs!” “Scorpion!” I began shouting. “Run for your lives!”
James and Joseph gave way as we charged out of the cave. Simon was already half way down the trail.
“I’ve been stung by a scorpion,” Uriah cried dramatically. “I’m going to die!”
“Scorpion stings aren’t fatal.” James looked down into Uriah’s ashen face. “Mama said they’re like bee stings. She’ll have a potion for this.”
“I’m allergic to bee stings,” Uriah said with deadly calm.
Before collapsing onto the ground, he let out a groan and his eyes rolled back into his head. We looked down in horror as the little fat boy went into convulsions and began foaming from the mouth.
“I thought you said scorpion stings aren’t fatal!” I sank to my knees. “Someone do something, before he chokes to death.”
“We need a piece of wood,” said Nehemiah, searching the underbrush, his small eyes darting to and fro.
James, Joseph, Nehemiah, and I scrambled around on our hands and knees, whimpering fearfully as Uriah quivered on the ground. Simon appeared out of nowhere, a branch held in his hand. “I heard,” he mumbled, breaking it over his knee. “Here, stick this in his mouth.”
While James held Uriah’s bottom jaw and Joseph, with great loathing, pulled open his mouth, Nehemiah set the wood between his teeth. Uriah made ghostly sounds, as I prayed. For the first time since Uriah re-entered our lives, my brothers were looking at him as a person, not an object of ridicule. Not knowing what else to do, I wiped Uriah’s mouth with the corner of my sleeve and patted his raven’s nest of hair. It seemed apparent to everyone that Uriah was dying.
“We’ve got to get him back to the house,” James declared, rising to his feet.
“What if he dies?” asked Simon. “It’s all our fault. Papa won’t ever trust us again.”
“He’s not gonna die,” muttered Joseph. “Mama will make him better. If we treat him real nice, he won’t tell.”
“It’s a little late for that,” grumbled James. “Jude and his friends should never have gone into that cave.”
“Oh, now its our fault?” Nehemiah said in disbelief.
Hysterical laughter erupted from my throat. It would be just like my brothers to blame it on us. With Simon’s trembling help, James and Joseph hefted Uriah’s chubby little frame up and began their awkward trek back to the house. Nehemiah and I ran ahead to inform our parents and also tell them our side of the story. I knew, however, as we ran up to the crest then down the winding path, that my brothers could make a good case for it being directly my fault. Though they had chased us, I had coaxed my friends into the cave. When we arrived, I was frantic. Who should I confess to first, Papa or Mama? Nehemiah, who was remarkably calm, suggested I talk to them at the same time.
It happened that my parents and the twins were sitting in the kitchen, Papa eating a pomegranate as Mama combed Abigail’s long blond hair. Startled as we charged in, my parents sprang up onto their feet, Papa dropping his pomegranate and Mama her comb. Abigail and Martha gave us frightened looks, as a rush of words flowed out of my mouth. Nehemiah merely nodded in agreement to what I said, until I ran out of breath and broke down into tears.
“It’s not Jude’s fault,” he said on my behalf. “All he wanted to do was save us from being covered with dung.”
“Where’s Uriah now?” Mama wrung her hands. “Is he conscious? Are you sure it was a scorpion, not a snake.”
“It was a scorpion,” Nehemiah said with conviction.
“I’ll go help them bring him in.” Papa said, greatly agitated as he moved toward the back door. “You must get one of your remedies ready, Mary. We’ll lie him on the kitchen table when he arrives.”
“It’s all my fault!” I bellowed with grief.
As Papa exited the house, I ran after him sobbing, until he stopped me in my tracks and gave me a good shake.
“Jude, there’s no time for this. This isn’t your fault. I let you play in the hills. I should’ve been clear about you not going back to Jesus’ cave. Now go back in the house with Nehemiah and your mother. Uriah’s fate is in the hands of the Lord!”
For several moments I sat in the kitchen with dark thoughts spiraling in my head. Neither Nehemiah nor Mama could console me. Both Abigail and Martha stood beside me, as was their annoying habit, staring at me with those big crystal blue eyes. The sound of the door flying open was followed by a rush of bodies into the house. Papa was carrying Uriah limply in his arms. Directly behind him were James, Joseph and Simon, bedraggled by their experience, looks of terror on their faces.
Silently, with great tenderness, my parents worked together to save Uriah’s life. While Mama loosened Uriah’s tunic and applied a cold rag to the scorpion’s mark on his neck, Papa lifted the boy’s head up, and with Mama’s help, poured her ingredients into Uriah’s mouth.
“More,” Mama ordered gently, “pour all of it down his throat. I don’t know why Uriah blacked out. Scorpion stings are like bee stings. You children have been stung by bees.”
“That’s what James told us.” Nehemiah nodded, looking around the room. “Wasps are much worse!”
“Bee stings aren’t suppose to make you unconscious,” James said bluntly. “That sure wasn’t any wasp.”
“Uriah is going to die, and it’s all our fault.” Joseph hung his head and wept.
“Shut up—all of you!” Papa looked back angrily. “No more confessions of guilt. This is my fault. A shepherd’s responsible for his flock!”
Jesus would say that same thing someday, and yet it sounded silly to me that moment. I couldn’t picture Papa as a shepherd. He couldn’t control his own sons. My parents had let Michael run wild. Now that Jesus was gone, James and Joseph tormented my friends and I relentlessly, but it was my fault that Uriah was stung. I should never have taken he and Nehemiah into that cave. What would Rabbi Joachim say when he came to fetch his son. What if Uriah died? Shepherd indeed! Papa was not to blame. It was all my fault!
My parents sat back and watched Uriah for signs of wakefulness: an eyelid fluttering or lips moving. Mama checked and rechecked his pulse. Papa gasped when he noted Uriah’s eyes had rolled up into his head. We seemed to hold our collective breaths as Mama blew the breath of life into Uriah’s mouth. When all of this failed, Papa stood up and called out hoarsely “All right, everyone gather around into a circle. We’re going to say a prayer. We’re going to lock our hearts together to let the Lord know how important this young boy is in our lives.”
All of us grasped each other’s hands as we had many times before with the exception that Nehemiah was a part of our circle.
“Lord, this time I’m asking for the greatest gift. I’m asking for life. This boy will die without your intervening hand. Your power is infinite, but your ways are a mystery to us. A wicked man may live, while a good man dies. It’s not for us to question your will. You have the power for all blessings and curses upon the earth. Your reason is not ours to question, only to accept, and yet here I am asking you for one more gift in my blessed life: life.”
“Amen,” we uttered tearfully.
All of us gathered around the table and looked down at Uriah. He looked peaceful. Though Mama checked his pulse again and reassured us he was alive, he looked quite dead to me.
“Forgive me,” I whispered to him. “I should never have taken you into that cave.”
“It’s all our fault!” came Joseph’s refrain.
“Enough with the fault,” Papa groaned, “Uriah’s not dead!”
“No,” murmured Simon, “but he doesn’t look alive either.”
The room darkened as the clouds gathered around the sun, something occurring frequently this time a year, and yet it seemed to be another evil sign. Taken back, James and Joseph, as was their habit, made the sign to ward off he evil eye. Mama put her hand to her mouth. Papa scolded them quietly, though I had seen him do this himself. The sound of my brothers and I weeping made the setting that much gloomier. In a fit of despair, Papa looked up to the ceiling as if to challenge God. Mama scurried over to prevent him from uttering blasphemies at such a time. . . . And then it happened—one of the great events of my childhood. Uriah’s eyes suddenly opened. There was a collective gasp as he looked up into Mama’s face and smiled.
“Thank you Lord,” said Papa, dropping his chin into his beard.
“I’m hungry,” were the first words uttered from our friend.
“Splendid! Extraordinary! Get him one those rolls he taught you to make,” suggested Papa, ruffling Uriah’s black hair.
“We thought you were dead,” I said, taking his chubby hand. “Papa prayed and the Lord must’ve listened. Mama gave you all of her special potion, but our circle of prayer saved your life!”
Papa raised Uriah up into a sitting position so that Mama could feed him a roll, freshly dipped in honey. Uriah still ate like a pig in our eyes. He would always complain and whine at times and get on our nerves, but we would never look at him the same way after today. We had joined together as a family to bring back our friend. The experience reminded us that we, the family of Joseph, were special. It was, however, something Uriah said that would forever prove to us the power of prayer.
“Your bun is as good as mine,” Uriah chattered innocently. “Perhaps some more raisins in the dough are needed, but it was light and flaky. I much prefer honey than plum jam, don’t you?” “I had a funny dream,” he prattled idly, as we crowded around, “. . . I was in this place. . .”
“What place?” Mama murmured, marveling at this miraculous event.
“He’s delirious,” Nehemiah decided, sampling one of the buns.
“Are you sure he didn’t hit his head?” Simon teased.
“. . . . There was light all around me,” Uriah’s voice grew faint. “My grandfather looked down at me. . . and then my grandmother. . . and an angel looked down at me too.”
“Shhh!” Papa motioned for us to be silent. “Listen to him. I’ve heard near death experiences before.” “Go on, Uriah,” he prodded gently, “tell us about the angel in your dream.”
“Angel?” Uriah’s eyes widened. He wiped his mouth and looked for a moment as if he was in a trance. “Did I say angel? . . . No sir, I think he was more than an angel. He had no wings. He was all light, like God.” “And his face,” Uriah struggled with his vision, “I can’t believe it. . . What was that face doing there?”
“Who?” James and Joseph leaned forward with bated breath.
“Uriah, this is nonsense,” Mama uttered a nervous laugh.
“No, let him finish,” insisted Papa. “There may be great meaning in this.”
“Yes, I suppose, if you say so,” Uriah sighed, looking around the room, “but I don’t understand—not a bit. For a while, just before I awakened, his face was all I could see. It was Jesus. When my eyes opened I saw Mary looking down at me. What does all this mean? Is it really important? What was Jesus doing in my dream?”
“You were dead. . . and now you’re alive,” I heard Papa whisper.
For the longest time we stood there watching Uriah wolf down Mama’s rolls, his messy face and sticky hands belying the miracle before our eyes. Papa had suggested that Uriah might have had a near death experience, but then when Uriah implied that he had gone to heaven, he decided that Uriah had actually died and come back to life. I was confused again. That place in Uriah’s dream world so filled with light and containing images of Uriah’s grandparents and Jesus, himself, sounded like some of my dreams. Uriah didn’t appear to have the imagination to invent such a tale, and yet his dream was too fantastic for us to accept. His dream would haunt us all for many years. Its implications are still difficult for me, even as a Apostle, to believe: Jesus as the omnipotent and omnipresent God? Absurd! It would take Jesus own unequivocal words to make Peter, John, and the rest of us believe this.