The days following Papa’s discussion with Jesus were difficult for Simon and I. Though we vowed to each other to let the matter drop, the question we wanted to ask Papa—who is Jesus?—was on the tip of our tongues. It became a tenet of faith to his disciples, but at the time it was too fantastic to believe. We were Jesus’ family. How could we accept the possibility that he might be the Son of God?
After our encounter with Regulus, Priam, and Falco, it was more important than ever for Papa to keep his sons busy. Before anyone dare protest, Papa quoted an age-old adage “an idle mind is Satan’s playground.” In accordance with Jesus’ parable, he expected all of us to perform our chores. There would be no slackers. Papa would cut the logs, shaping them into the rough parts of tables, benches or stools. Jesus, James, and Joseph would scrape and sand the parts before assembly. Papa would glue and peg the pieces together into furniture. When we were not working in the garden, Simon and I would help rub down and polish the furniture so that we felt as if we had taking part in the finished pieces. James and Joseph might grumble to themselves and Jesus occasionally fall into a quiet prayer, but there were no arguments or hard words spoken between us. When Simon and I were through with our chores, we would scamper down the path to play in the orchard. Mama, aided by the twins, would clean the house, pick vegetables from the garden, and bake bread and pastries for lunch or dinner.
On the day that Abner paid us a visit to inform us that Nehemiah was ready to come home, Papa and his older sons set aside their tools. Mama shouted to Simon and I from the back door that Nehemiah was coming home. I was thrilled. Because this meant that I would divide my time now between Nehemiah and him, Simon was not quite so delighted. As we ran up to the house, I promised Simon that I would give him equal time. It was bad enough that James and Joseph would begin taunting Nehemiah and I when he returned. We didn’t need three brothers stalking us as we played.
Papa insisted that all us be there to accompany Nehemiah as he hobbled home. James and Joseph were less than enthusiastic about the excursion and trailed moodily behind us, as I skipped and pranced ahead of my parents, Jesus, and Simon up the road. When we arrived at Samuel’s house, the Pharisee greeted us on his own two feet. We were led by Samuel, himself, to Nehemiah’s room, where we were met half way by two servants with Nehemiah in tow. He still looked weak and sickly, but there was great joy on his jaundiced face. Jesus and I ran to him and, with the servants nod, now led our adopted brother back down the hall. I felt a twinge of sadness that Simon hung back with Joseph and James, but Mama and Papa more than made up for this by the reception they gave Nehemiah at home. Samuel was unable to make the short trip. He could barely stand up as his servant led him around. Before Abner departed with the fee paid by Samuel, he told us discreetly that it was miracle that the old man was even alive. Nehemiah, he also confessed, was not ready for strenuous activity.
A strange thought filled my head as Nehemiah sat with us at our table. It would be so very nice if my old friends, Uriah and Michael, could be with Nehemiah and my family now. It was not Uriah’s fault that he had Joachim as a father, and Michael, after all, had never had a normal life. Though I might never see Michael again, I had to believe Uriah would find a way to visit his old friends again. As I looked across the table at Simon, I wondered if he would once again romp with me in the woods if Nehemiah joined our games.
After a long rambling prayer by Jesus, which Papa and Mama punctuated with amens, we toasted to Nehemiah’s health, turned our attention to the special stew Mama had cooked up, and broke into idle chatter at the table. Papa complimented Mama’s cooking and discussed with us his plains for remodeling the shop. Though Papa didn’t bring up his name, I wondered if, after all of his fine words, Samuel was going to pay for this enterprise. The twins were fidgeting on their stools, and Simon was staring glumly into his bowel as silence fell over our group.
Into this pause, as we munched and slurped our dinner, Papa asked cheerily through a mouthful of stew. “So Nehemiah, how was it at Samuel’s house?”
“He told me to call him uncle,” Nehemiah answered wanly. “He let me eat anything I wanted and had his servants entertain me. Even though he was sick like me, he made sure someone watched me at all times.”
“Abner has done marvelously.” Mama smiled sweetly. “We are indebted to him for bringing back yours and Simon’s health.”
Nehemiah nodded, but his voice had grown faint. I don’t see how he could agree with Mama’s statement. He didn’t look well at all. For that matter, according to Abner, Samuel was lucky just to be alive. Nehemiah was moving slowly, as convalescents often do, which did not surprise us. We expected him to be weak from his illness. He had barely touched his bowl, however, his hand trembled, and he seemed to drink his juice with difficulty as he lifted his cup. For a moment, I thought my parents would vocalize their concern. Instead, Mama reached across the table to steady his cup. Papa, who sat next to Nehemiah, placed his arm around his shoulders as if to stabilize him, while I reached over to squeeze his free hand.
Breaking the silence this time was Jesus’ voice. “Nehemiah, tell us the truth. . . How do you feel this hour?”
“Not my best,” he confessed. “Abner said it will take time for me to get back my full strength.”
This was an understatement, but Nehemiah put on his best face. His bloodless lips and lackluster eyes belied his smile. Another pause followed as Jesus and my parents looked at each other—a form of “eye talk” in which the raising and lowering of the eyebrows and movement of the pupils signaled various moods. I couldn’t eat anymore and was beginning to feel bored. Abigail and Martha, who had barely touched their meal, were excused and told to go play outside, and Simon, who had bolted his food down was once again falling asleep.
“I think we should have a prayer circle!” Papa piped enthusiastically. “What do you say Mama? Jesus?”
“Another one?” James groaned.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Mama nodded in agreement. “We could form our circle after I clean up the dishes.”
“Yes,” Jesus said thoughtfully, “but what does Nehemiah think about this? Let’s ask him first.”
“Will it be like the one for me last time?” Nehemiah asked dubiously. “I’m not that far gone!”
“No, it won’t be like before,” explained Mama gently, “you can sit right where you are, and we’ll make our circle nearby. I think the Lord will understand.”
“No, no, he must be in the center of the circle, like he was before,” I exclaimed, dragging a stool out onto the floor.
“Good grief,” grumbled Joseph. “Why do we need a prayer circle? Why can’t we pray like everyone else?”
“Because,” Jesus replied, glaring at James and Joseph, “it’s our family’s way.”
“I think Jude’s right,” said Papa, rising up and extending his arms. “We’ll make our circle around Nehemiah while he sits on the stool.”
Quickly, we assisted Mama in clearing off the table, heaping bowls, cups and spoons into the sink Papa had constructed last Spring. When the table was clean, Jesus placed a lamp on it, perhaps for inspiration. Nehemiah struggled to his feet. Papa and I helped seat him on the stool, while Mama motioned for James and Joseph to join in. Already, they were sliding back into their old ways. As Nehemiah sat forlornly on this stool with my arm on his shoulder to keep him from falling off, Mama scurried outside to bring in the twins, whom she warned sternly to keep silent during our prayers.
“Do you think that’s wise?” Papa frowned. “They’ll just fuss and fidget.”
“They’re part of the family,” reasoned Mama, “and not to young to pray.”
“All right everyone, gather in.” Papa snapped his fingers. “Mama take my hand. James, Joseph, Simon, stop grumbling and join the ring.”
Abigail and Martha were on each side of me, which annoyed me greatly. Martha, who joined first with Papa, grabbed Mama’s free hand, but Simon refused to hold Abigail’s hand until Papa reached over and thumped his head. James and Joseph were very annoyed when Jesus clasped their hands on each side of him, and then told them to join respectively with Papa and Simon. When our ring was complete, the circle for prayer seemed tighter than before. As I looked down at Nehemiah in the shadows, I tried to flash him a big grin but my lips twitched into a snarl and I felt myself frowning and shaking my head. This might turn out to be a fiasco. In a few moments, I was certain the twins would be fidgeting so much they would be expelled to the yard. This would make our little circle even smaller. James, Joseph, and Simon were in grouchy moods and would offer little weight in our joint prayers to God. Although I had confidence in our circles after seeing Uriah and Nehemiah rescued from the angel of death, Nehemiah, himself, was not up to this effort, and I doubted if he had the energy to pray.
Jesus once said that, in order for prayers to work, everyone in the circle had to send up their petitions as one great voice. This evening we would be sending up a much smaller voice. . . Would God listen? If it was true, as Jesus said, that life depends upon divine will, what if it was God’s plan that Nehemiah die? Would not this be a cruel joke to him after making him go through another circle of prayer?
“Jesus will you consecrate our ring?” Papa looked at the eldest son.
“Yes, of course, Papa,” he answered softly. “I will grab God’s ear.”
This seemed slightly irreverent to my untutored mind, but I knew that Jesus, as well as my parents, would pray very hard. I decided to give it my best effort too, noting that the twins were standing quietly with their eyes tightly shut.
“Close your eyes, as Jesus once instructed,” Mama ordered the remaining sons.
When everyone’s eyes were closed and heads were bowed, Jesus gave us a prayer that revealed the afterlife, a shadowy realm for us until he began to discover his divinity. I sensed, and I’m sure the others did too, that Nehemiah would be meeting the Lord soon. I could see doubt on everyone face, except Jesus, and yet our prayer circle might be Nehemiah’s only chance. Always Jesus had talked of accepting God’s will, but now he was, we would discover, asking God to change his mind.
“Lord,” he called out in a loud adolescent voice, “we gather here on behalf of the newest member to our family: Nehemiah bar Tobias. We don’t know your mind, but ask, it be your will, that you give back Nehemiah’s health. We, who believe in an afterlife, do not fear death, because we know that God gathers up the righteous. Yet here beneath heaven the righteous are stricken down with the ungodly. The young die as readily as the old. And yet we pray that you spare one frail child. Nehemiah’s health was shaped by his previous home. Here, in our home, he has been given a new family and a new life, and he suffers unjustly because of his past. The young should not parish for the sins of the old. Before being stricken down, a boy should be allowed to grow into a man. We know that heaven is a wondrous place, but please, Lord, give Nehemiah this chance. Listen to our pleas, as one voice, and hold back the Angel of Death for Nehemiah until he has lived a long, productive life.”
“Amen,” we mumbled.
Now that it was our turn, I wondered how we could improve upon his prayer. It had been perfect. With my eyes tightly shut, I saw my white horse again, which always happened when I closed my eyes. Rushes of emotion, which I tried to suppress, flooded uncontrollably into my mind as my parents gave God their requests. I could not hear them, but I could feel tension and heard occasional exhalations and inhalations of breath. Ultimately, I uttered only a very short prayer, myself, over and over again as a chant: “Please spare Nehemiah. . . Please spare Nehemiah.” I saw no reason why Jesus would think of another prayer, himself. Nehemiah, who had sat motionless a few moments, was now ready to fall off his stool. I didn’t expect the twins to do anything but stand in utter torment until given their reprieves. I discovered, as I peeked out at the group, that my other brothers were not trying at all. They were fidgeting even more than the twins. So it seemed to me that, outside of Jesus’ introduction and my simple plea, Nehemiah’s fate would be determined by my parents’ prayers. I saw, after sneaking a peek one last time, Papa and Mama mumbling feverishly. James, Joseph, and Simon, on the other hand, were staring impatiently at the floor. Mama was ignorant, as she prayed, of the distressed state of the twins. Only I, among her children had made a serious effort and, as the moments dragged on, I felt as I if my head would explode.
Reaching out to steady Nehemiah until the ordeal was over, I asked the Lord to end our prayer circle soon. When Jesus was giving his introductory prayer, Papa and Mama had also reached out occasionally to steady Nehemiah on his stool. I was not strong enough to do this alone. Now that they were absorbed in their own prayers, however, he tilted back suddenly, as I lost my hold, and tumbled with a thud onto the floor. Looking down in horror, everyone gasped, released each other’s hand, and reached down in panic to the unconscious boy. My parents, with Jesus help, lifted him up and laid his limp body on the table.
“Oh my Lord,” cried Mama, “it was too much for him.”
“That’s the way he wanted it.” Papa shook his head in dismay.
“It would have been better if he had been lying down during the prayer,” Jesus observed.
Jesus opened Nehemiah’s eyelids to check his pupils.
“Is he dead?” I asked fearfully.
“No,” Jesus said calmly, “his pupils move, which means his brain’s alive.”
“Yes,” Papa nodded with relief, checking his pulse, “and I saw Abner do this once. It means blood is flowing in his veins.”
“He lives,” I exclaimed halfheartedly, “but will he be all right?”
In spite of the signs of life, he remained unconscious, which was not encouraging in spite of what Jesus and Papa had said. Was this God’s answer to us? What if Nehemiah didn’t wake up? Would the Angel of Death enfold Nehemiah in his wings?
“Something must have gone wrong,” Joseph said to James. “Jesus gave us a great prayer.”
“We were all suppose to pray,” Jesus said accusingly. “You and James didn’t even try.”
“They want Nehemiah to die,” I cried. “He and James both do!”
“That’s not true,” Joseph replied defensibly, “I had my eyes closed. I tried to pray!”
“Liar, liar,” I jumped and down excitedly. “I peaked once and saw Joseph and James staring at the floor. They didn’t even try!”
“I’m sorry,” James apologized faintly, “but nothing came.”
“I tried,” Simon said tearfully, “but it got all messed up in my head.
Jesus, I sensed, knew immediately that James and Joseph lied. To Simon, who admitted during previous circles that he had trouble closing his eyes and praying, Jesus gave an understanding nod.
“Simon tells the truth,” he reached out to embrace the fourth brother.
Simon now sobbed in Jesus arms. I stood there close to my oldest brother, wondering why he failed to save Nehemiah and yet saved that silly bird. I could almost hear the Angel of Death, his wings fluttering as he hovered invisibly over the stricken boy. Mama wept along with Simon. Papa grieved quietly, as I stared numbly around the room. Jesus, however, was calm and thoughtful as he looked down at my friend. His voice was barely a whisper, but I heard it as if it had been shouted in my ear “Awaken. Open your eyes. Come back little child. Awaken from your dark sleep.”
Such high expectations filled me. Nehemiah stirred so faintly no one but I, who paid close attention to his movements, noticed the change. His eyelids fluttered, he let out a gasp, then, after countless blinks finally opened his eyes. Once again, as before, when he seemed on death’s door, he just lie there with that deadpan look: awake, but not fully conscious—the very picture of a wasting illness.
“That’s it?” I blurted, looking in disbelief at Jesus and then at the semi-conscious body below.
“Nehemiah will grow stronger,” Jesus announced with a confident smile. “This is God’s will.”
“We should be thankful,” Mama said unconvincingly.
Simon, as I, was confused. My parents appeared to be disappointed too. As James and Joseph slinked out of the room, Papa looked around the kitchen for some wine. For a brief moment, I mentally escaped again on my great white horse, but soon my spirits plunged back down to earth where Nehemiah lay on the table, unresponsive and far worse than before.
Today, I can write that Jesus had, in a more subtle way, saved Nehemiah’s life, but to my brothers and me, who were still children, it seemed as if the prayer circle had misfired this time. More importantly to us, Jesus’ power of healing had fallen short of the expected results. No one really thought that our circle would immediately bring Nehemiah’s health back, but just these last moments I believed that Nehemiah would be sitting up on the table fully alert and talkative, not this glassy-eyed, pasty skinned shadow below.
Once again, as I had when Jesus divinity first brimmed, I ran from the scene—out of the house, across the yard, and into the street with no destination in mind. This time, unlike the first time, I was not angry with Jesus for his airs. I had finally accepted him for not being like the rest of us. He was indeed special—maybe even divine, and so I couldn’t understand why this wasn’t his best effort. Nehemiah was, after all, a person, not a bird. Did it make sense that a mere sparrow could be made whole and not a young boy? And what about Levi, I recalled, feeling a sudden stab of anger. He would save someone who was practically a stranger over our family’s adopted son. Perhaps what my mind was warring against the most was this notion of what the Lord wanted. How could I be angry with Jesus if this was God’s will? It seemed perfectly obvious to me that Nehemiah was not long for this world. Jesus might even have gotten himself into trouble “tempting” God.
During what seemed like an aimless walk, I knew that Nehemiah’s failing health, not any failure of Jesus, was the cause of my sudden flight. I felt helpless against God’s will. When I found myself on the bridge as before, I awakened as would a sleepwalker, realizing my mistake at once. This was not two years ago, when Reuben was not running amuck in the hills and our family were not being guarded by Romans to protect us from he and his gang. Members of Reuben’s gang, including Reuben himself, might very will be out there watching me right now. There was no place for me to go but back home—right now, quickly and without delay. As I ran back home, I first met Longinus riding down the road. Unlike Cornelius, Longinus was not happy to see me at all.
“Jude, you naughty boy,” he scolded, “get home at once!”
“I-I’m sorry Longinus,” I stammered, “I didn’t mean to go this far.”
“Sorry indeed,” he called back sternly, “you’re not safe outside your yard. You stay home and out of those blasted hills!”
As he galloped away on his fine black horse, I would never have imagined the role he would play in Jesus’ life. All that mattered to me this day was that he was responsible for the security of my family. It didn’t matter to me that the prefect Cornelius, himself, had told him to do it. I saw in Longinus scolding more than mere concern for duty. Longinus, like Cornelius, I sensed, without knowing why, had been predisposed toward our family. As the Lord watched over His only begotten son, this would one day be obvious to me. Coming the opposite way now, with looks of concern on their faces was most of my family. Mama had stayed behind to watch over Nehemiah, but following reluctantly behind Papa and Jesus were James, Joseph, and Simon.
“Jude, why did you run out of the house?” Papa lifted me up and shook me gently. “Just after you left, Nehemiah asked for a cup of water.”
“See, I told you. You must be patient.” Jesus ruffled my hair as Papa dropped me on my heels.
“A bird drinks water,” I said thoughtfully. “Is he talking? Can he sit up and walk?”
“Patience!” Papa wagged his finger cheerily. “Let God work this problem out.”
“Mama had to pour water into his mouth,” James grumbled under his breath.
During our walk back home, I was scolded by both Papa and Jesus. Papa’s concern was the same as Longinus; I had no business out here alone. Jesus, however, chided me for my lack of faith. I held both of their hands, suddenly feeling very small. I continued to have this awful feeling that James, Joseph, and Simon would be quite happy if Nehemiah died. As we entered the house, Mama showed her concern for my state of mind, by showering me with kisses and hugs. I couldn’t cry anymore—at least for now. I gave Mama a brave face, as she, as everyone else, ruffled by raven’s nest hair.
That evening, Nehemiah was moved to a soft pallet on the floor. A candle on a small table that had been in my parent’s room flickered eerily nearby. Papa informed us that he would find Abner as soon as possible. This caused Jesus to frown with resignation, but he said nothing as Papa began walking toward the door.
“What if you can’t find him?” Mama seemed unsure. “The sun’s setting. At night Nazareth will be one great dark maze.”
“I’ll check with Samuel’s servants,” replied Papa, “then I’ll ask my friends in town.”
“But what if Abner’s visiting patients in other towns?” Mama sighed heavily. “It would be a fools errand if that’s the case.”
“I’ll take the big lantern and search high and low,” Papa said, reaching for the lamp. “Someone will know where he’s at. If I can’t find him in Nazareth tonight, I’ll begin my search first thing tomorrow morning. Don’t worry, I’ll find him somewhere.”
It sounded stupid to us, and yet Papa opened the door as if he would plunge ahead in his search.
“Joseph,” Mama cried, “you will start your search in the morning!”
“Yes Papa,” Jesus said with concern, “let’s not forget that Reuben’s out there. It’s dangerous to roam around Nazareth at night.”
Mama ran over to grab his sleeve with Jesus close behind.
“But Nehemiah—” Papa began.
“He’ll get better,” promised Jesus. “If you must find Abner, Papa, wait until the morning. Until then, we must trust in our prayers.”
“You’re certain he’ll be all right?” I asked softly. “He doesn’t look all right to me.”
“He’s not all right,” James spat scornfully. “He’s worse off than before!”
“I know,” Jesus said with finality.
Mama led Papa over to the table, sat him down, and poured him a mug of wine. James stood over Nehemiah shaking his head. Joseph sat alongside of the inscrutable Simon, totally bored with it all, while Jesus stood calmly studying everyone in the room. I didn’t understand my brothers’ moods. Was James angry with Jesus for not performing a more spectacular cure? Did he or Joseph even care whether Nehemiah lived or died? How could Jesus be so calm in a crisis? And why was Simon always falling asleep?
Then I saw James crying, and I understood. . . James felt guilty.
“I didn’t pray very well either,” I confessed, hanging my head. “I just said the same thing over and over again. It seems every time I close my eyes for very long I see that big white horse.”
“What’s Jude talking about?” muttered Joseph.
“Jude’s going to be soldier!” said Papa, taking a long swig of wine.
“You tried your best,” Jesus walked over to give me a pat.
“I didn’t pray at all.” James sighed brokenly.
“You’ll do better next time,” Jesus gave him a pat too.
And then I saw Joseph and Simon crying. Papa, who was feeling much better, looked around the room and slammed down his cup.
“Yes, by Moses, Jesus and I will start first thing tomorrow morning. I’ll take James and Joseph along too!”
James and Joseph flashed him looks of dread. Mama now looked at Jesus with that special look only they shared. I might have been only a child, but I knew what those special looks meant. She believed Jesus had prolonged Nehemiah’s life. This was enough for her. I was also good at eavesdropping. Abner had not been optimistic about either Samuel or Nehemiah’s longevity. I heard enough to know how sick they both were. I just couldn’t understand why Mama and Jesus could accept this state of affairs. The word I didn’t know then and seems even inappropriate now was fatalism: whatever will be will be. Nehemiah would either live awhile longer or he would expire sometime in the middle of the night.
Mama sat talking with Papa, who muttered repeatedly that he must go find Abner and take three of his sons. “This is not a good idea,” I heard her murmur softly, as he looked sadly into his cup. “Abner could be anywhere in Galilee right now. He did everything he could for Samuel and Nehemiah. Their lives are in the hands of the Lord.” Papa argued for a few moments in a muted voice, but I no longer cared. Abner couldn’t help poor Nehemiah. . . Only the Lord could save him now.
That night, as we all got ready for bed, I moved as a sleepwalker. The hot water Mama heated for us to wash our faces and hands, my walk to the cloaca, and the nightshirt I pulled over my head, were done in a daze. My mind had been in torment, but I was so distracted by Nehemiah’s plight, I had fallen into a state of shock. I remember my parents, brothers, and sisters moving around me, but I paid them no mind. Jesus seemed concerned with my silence and unfriendliness, but said nothing as he slipped out of the house for a nocturnal walk. Without bidding members of family goodnight, I crawled into my pallet, pulled the coverlet over me, and fell into a deep sleep.
Once again I found myself on my horse, galloping down a road in a far off land. Darkness fell suddenly, but I wasn’t afraid. Occasionally, the thought would come to me, as it in other dreamscapes, that I was asleep. As before, I had “awakened” inside a dream. This time my cape bellowed endlessly in back of me, while the shiny lance I gripped stretched on and on, slicing through the night. When I came to a crest on a hill, I saw the silhouettes of a rider coming from the opposite direction. This time I would meet Longinus, not Cornelius in my dream. When I reined in my horse—a maneuver I had seen the legionnaires do many times, I sat there on my mount, as the centurion came forward with a gloomy look on his face. In the background I saw something that filled me with dread: three crosses on an adjacent hill, surrounded by soldiers and spectators. Judging by their peculiar silhouettes, I could tell that many of the onlookers were Pharisees.
“What is happening Longinus?” I asked in a strangely man-like voice. “Why are those people gathered on the hill?”
I knew the answer to that question—these were executions. Papa had told us about this terrible form of punishment, but I couldn’t believe that crucifixion, an evil, shameful event, would draw such a crowd. Longinus took a long time to reply. When he finally spoke, I was given another riddle, one that would haunt me for many years.
“Is it Reuben and his friends?” I snapped irritably. “Tell me Longinus, who are those people hanging on the crosses?”
“Two thieves,” he answered, rearing up on his horse, “and one whom they called the King of the Jews.”
On that enigmatic note, I awakened beside Simon, who, as always slept peacefully on his back. I could hear James and Joseph somewhere in the shadowy room snoring softly. Across the room, as was our custom, a lamp burned on the table. In the opposite corner of our small house I heard whispers in the area of the kitchen were Mama had placed Nehemiah’s pallet. All I could make out in the shadows was the white tunic of Jesus, which didn’t surprise me, since he was always roaming around at night. With those strange, unsettling scenes and words in mind, I wanted Jesus to interpret my dream as he had once before. After struggling onto my feet, still wrapped in dream imagery, I began walking across the room, almost tripping over James foot. The whispering grew louder as I approached, until I was close enough to see Jesus sitting on a stool, his head bowed. Was he praying? I wondered, freezing in my tracks. If he was praying, I shouldn’t interrupt, especially if he was praying for Nehemiah again. As I watched and listened, however, I saw something that caused me to gasp aloud.
There in the dim light cast by the flickering candle was Jesus bent down in conversation with Nehemiah, whose faint voice was unmistakable. Hearing my intake of breath, Jesus looked back and beaconed me with a crooked finger to approach. I looked down when I reached Jesus and saw Nehemiah, awake, his eyes open, a thin smile on his face.
Kneeling down, I sat mutely beside Jesus, taking one of his Nehemiah’s small hands. They said nothing for awhile, so I forced my trembling lips to speak in order to hear him speak again.
“You’re awake!” I whispered excitedly. “Jesus was right!”
“Of course,” said Jesus, gripping my shoulder, “I’m going to wake Mama. She would never forgive me if she missed this moment. Nehemiah said he was hungry, which is a good thing.”
“Yes,” I clapped my hands, “we’ll have a party.”
“No, let’s not wake the others.” Jesus stood up and helped me to my feet. “I’ll rap gently on our parents door. Be quiet Jude. We don’t want the twins getting up at this hour.”
“All right,” I nodded, “I’m just glad Nehemiah’s awake.”
As I waited for my parents to hear the news, a heady feeling of well-being seemed to sweep away the last vestiges of my dream. During the hushed greeting back to earth that my parents and I gave Nehemiah, fragments of my dream would float back to me, including those troubling words “King of the Jews,” and I reminded myself to one day have Jesus interpret the meaning of this for me.
Hoping he might find Abner the physician at Samuel’s house, Papa paid Samuel a visit the following day. Jesus would go along for company, while Mama would stay home to take care of Nehemiah. James and Joseph had been ordered to finish sanding a table, and Simon and I were instructed to pick weeds in the garden if we were not needed in the shop. Nehemiah was too sick to leave his pallet, so I spent an hour after doing my chores just chatting with him about “the good old days,” when he, Uriah, Michael, and I had romped through the hills. This made him sad now that he was bedridden. Not knowing what else to talk about, I rambled on about how we were going to be soldiers and see the world, until, after several moment of hearing my own voice, I realized that Nehemiah had fallen asleep. Thinking that he might be unconscious, rather than asleep, I awakened him, asked him if he was all right, then said a prayer of thanksgiving after he spoke coherently to me and fell back asleep. Mama scolded me gently for bothering Nehemiah, pulled me up onto my feet, and led me by the hand into the yard.
“Mama,” I asked, as she paused to inspect her garden, “is Nehemiah going to die?”
“It’s in God’s hands,” she murmured with a frown. “I thought you boys were told to tend to my herb garden.” She reached down to yank up a weed. “This is not like you Jude!”
“I’m sorry,” I said, dropping my chin to my chest.
“Well, that’s all right,” she said, ruffling my hair. “You’ve had a lot on your mind.” “Did Simon help you?” She asked, looking around the yard. “. . . Where is that boy?”
“He helped me a little,” I answered slowly, “. . . but he doesn’t want to play with me now that Nehemiah’s back. I think he’s mad at me.”
“I don’t understand that boy.” She shook her head. “Come to think of it Jude, I don’t understand James and Joseph either. You, Jesus, and Papa I understand. You wear your hearts like lamps. You say what you mean and can’t lie.”
This was not quite true, for I had told Mama my share of untruths, but I was moved by her words.
“Somewhere, along the way,” she continued softly, “I failed three of my sons. Your father and I thought we were doing the right thing, but we should have told you all a long time ago.”
I resented my adoption as much as the others but felt honored by what Mama had said. She had compared me to Papa and Jesus, which meant that I was one of her favorites. I wouldn’t tell her what Jesus made me promise not to tell. Though I didn’t understand what it meant, I knew that Jesus had been born from Mama. . . I had also knew that Mama was still a virgin. With such secrets in my mind, how could I fault my parents for having kept theirs?
“I don’t care that I’m adopted,” I looked up brightly. “You and Papa gave us a home. You couldn’t tell us because you were obeying God.”
“From the mouth of children comes wisdom!” She clasped her hands with delight.
She bent down to hug me, kiss my forehead, and, as I expected, ruffle my hair. I would hear her words one day from the mouth of Jesus. Coming from my illiterate mother it sounded very profound. It suddenly occurred to me that, since Jesus was not around, Mama could interpret last night’s dream.
With a honey bun and cup of juice handed to me for my great knowledge, I delicately moved into the subject. Something inside me, which I would later understand as intuition, told me I shouldn’t talk about my dreadful dream, so I tried to keep it simple. Perhaps I only had to mention those strange haunting words.
“Mama,” I began, through a mouthful of bun, “was not Herod, the one you spoke of once, the King of Jews?”
“Yes, of course,” She answered sweetly. “Why do you ask me?”
“I dreamed about those words,” I blurted, after taking a long drink of juice.
“How very strange, Jude,” Mama’s smile began to fade. “It sounds as if this was a nightmare.”
“Yes, it was awful,” it began spilling out of my mouth.
So much for simplicity. I almost lied to her, but her probing stare was too much for me. As Nehemiah stirred on his pallet, Mama left her place at the table momentarily to check on him. I could hear my voice, as if it belonged to someone else. I watched her face turn ghastly pale. She gasped as I spoke, and her hand flew finally up to her mouth.
“I was riding my white horse up a hill,” I said, my heart pounding in my chest. When I reached the top, I met Longinus riding on his black horse the opposite way. . . At the top, I looked across to another hill and saw three crosses, whom I thought might be Reuben and two of his friends. Longinus told me that they were two thieves and the King of the Jews. . . What does this mean Mama? Why would the Romans crucify the King of the Jews?”
“I-I’m not sure,” she answered hesitantly, “. . . It seems as if you might have had a prophetic dream. There are symbols in it I understand: a white horse—a sign of righteousness and a black horse—a sign of evil. David and later Herod were kings of the Jews. Everything I’ve learned about the Torah was taught to me by your Papa, but I don’t remember Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah ever prophesizing that the King of the Jews would be crucified. . . . Who was that other King of the Jews?”
I lost my appetite as I considered the seed of doubt I planted in Mama’s head. Why had I told her those dreadful things? I could have waited and told it to Jesus. He would have laughed, as he had before at her silly dream. This one made no sense even to Mama, who didn’t need any more troubling thoughts in her head.
“I’m sorry I told you about my dream,” I spoke contritely, with tears in my eyes. “Does my dream mean Nehemiah will die?”
“Oh you dear child.” She leaned over to give me a hug. “Let’s not tell Jesus about this dream. Let’s keep it to ourselves.”
“All right Mama.” I nodded obligingly, though telling Jesus is exactly what I had planned to do.
After the special treatment Mama gave me this hour, I would try to keep this secret. She would never forgive me if I let this slip. The more I thought about it, however, the sillier it seemed to me. Three crosses—two of them thieves and one the King of the Jews—what did this mean? With all the talk by the Romans of capturing Reuben and his friends and nailing them to crosses, could this not have drifted into my head as dream imagery so often does? I remember being chased by an angry ram once and then having the same ram chase me in my dream. Papa had once told me that dreams are merely pieces of our life strewn together in a nonsensical way, but, if that was true, why did I have the same dream about the white horse, which I’ve never experienced, over and over again?
One part of last night’s dream haunted me long after my discussion with Mama and my effort to put my dream to rest: the white horse. It was not so easy to explain this away in my mind. Clearly it seemed to me, judging by what Mama said, I rode the horse of righteousness. This thought planted in my mind impressed me very much when I recalled how many times I had dreamed of my white horse. . . . But why had Longinus been in my dream. Why had the good centurion, who rode his black horse, spoke of the King of the Jews? Did this, after all, have meaning too?