A Stranger in the House
On the following day, Diblius, a perimeter guard seldom seen, strolled up the path winding through our yard. Whereas Zeno, his partner, was a big, strapping fellow, Diblius was the smallest soldier I had ever seen, and yet, in spite of his diminutive features, a fierce gaze was permanently frozen on his face. Zeno, who was probably tipsy, often grinned to himself, while Diblius was always serious and never smiled. I don’t think he disliked us anymore than any of the other guards, but he was always in a bad mood. Considering our circumstances, Papa thought it prudent to scurry inside and bring him out a mug of wine, which caused James and Joseph to sneer with disgust behind his back. Diblius took the wine quickly but was disappointed that Papa had not also brought out a loaf of bread. After taking the very bread from our dinner that night and having to stand on the path talking small talk to this shiftless guard, Papa’s mood was even darker than before. James and Joseph dare not say a word. Simon and I, who had been eavesdropping by the corner of the house, watched as Diblius belched, nodded curtly, and, without so much as a thank you, ambled on his way. When he was out of earshot, Joseph took issue with the guard’s attitude, and James complained about Papa giving away Mama’s freshly baked bread.
Papa raised his hand for silence that moment, looking self-consciously down the trail.
“Listen, my sons,” he counseled sternly, “be ever watchful. We haven’t seen Diblius for months. We’ve got a wanted fugitive in our house. Isn’t it a coincidence that he was snooping around this very next day? We’ve got to keep those moochers happy. They might turn on us at any time. In a short while, when they’re gone, if more bandits are sighted, we’ll wish they were back guarding our town. Right now they’re a threat. I can’t trust any of them. You never know who might be walking up that path.”
No one, not even Joseph, could argue with this. Our current circumstances and the fear of bandits took precedence over petty gripes. Convinced that he was talking to us too, Simon and I trotted after them as they entered the house. As our family gathered in the smelly room (except for the twins who were playing in the front yard), Papa whispered something to Mama. She nodded and murmured this information into Jesus ear. Turning to their remaining children, they began barking orders to James, Joseph, Simon, and me.
The threat he posed for our family and the pervasive odor and unsightliness of the unconscious patient in the kitchen had convinced them to move Reuben into the new room built for the oldest son. “Out of sight, out of mind,” quipped Papa as we began our task. James and Joseph grumbled to themselves. Simon and I wrung our hands in despair. As Papa, Jesus, James, Joseph, Simon and I gripped the table, Mama stood by, hands on hips, directing us, as we lugged it across the floor. Above all, she warned, we must not scratch the tile. The table was too wide for the door, so we had to tilt it to the side, while holding Reuben fast and then scooting it in, a most distasteful chore for Jews, who hated defilement by blood. For several moments, as we toiled, it seemed as though our load would not fit through the opening, no matter how much we tilted it this way and that. Nevertheless, after grunting, groaning, and cursing under our breaths, we succeeded in moving Reuben into the new room. Fortunately, the door had been just wide enough to allow this maneuver, and, of course, we had Jesus on our team. The new table, which had benches attached, was made of heavy oak and Reuben was a big, smelly man. To this day I don’t know how we managed this feat. When we were done, we all collapsed onto the floor from emotional stress as much as from exhaustion.
After checking on her patient again, Mama ordered us all to strip to the wastes and begin cleansing ourselves. If my parents had the time and energy, we would have filled the large tub stored in Papa’s shop and, with heated well water, bath one-by-one to do the job right. As it was, my parents retired to the back room to clean themselves thoroughly before preparing dinner, so that we ended up eating our evening meal late that night.
During our hastily prepared meal, after the shortest prayer I remember Papa ever giving, there was barely a word spoken. Everyone was worried about the dilemma my discovery had put us in. My brothers and I were also upset with Jesus for his self-righteous ways. Although I was half serious when I suggested it and it caused hysterical laughter in Simon and James, my suggestion that we hide Jesus was being seriously considered by Papa.
I heard him mutter discreetly to Mama, “Don’t let Jesus answer the door.”
“Shouldn’t we trust him?” Mama gave him a concerned look. “He’s never led us wrong yet.”
“No,” Papa shook his head emphatically, “if the Romans find out about Reuben, we’re in big trouble—even Jesus. Our children will be sold into slavery, and you and I will lose our heads!”
I felt sorry for my oldest brother, but I fully agreed with Papa’s decision that Jesus stay in the background for a while. Jesus would not agree to tell visitors there was sickness in the house. It would, he believed, interrupt Papa’s business. The townsmen would think it was God’s judgment upon us for our heretical ways. Both of these seemed to be good arguments to us. We all knew, however, that it was more basic. Jesus couldn’t lie about anything; it didn’t matter what. It was true, as he insisted, that a claim that there was sickness in our home would quarantine our family, but Papa told the rest of us to simply tell visitors at the door that only the twins were sick—a simple childhood fever. It was common for little children to have such fevers; not all of them were fatal. This would downplay the fear of plague, but, as Papa told us slyly, leave doubt in a visitor’s mind. When this imaginary sickness was over, the twins would emerge and play in the garden as proof that the fever had passed. It was the first time we had seen Papa practice deceit. To make it seem even worse in Jesus’ eyes was the fact he was making his entire family a party to the lie. But we had no choice—Papa had to lie. He also had to hide Jesus. If one of our fair-weather friends or a Roman guard asked him what was going on in our house, my brother would be forced to stand there mutely or run away like a frightened lamb. Short of performing a miracle to bring Reuben’s health suddenly back to him and transport him to a distant place or use his powers to keep unwanted visitors from our house by some sort of spiritual shield, Jesus could do nothing else. To suggest either of these options to my brother would make him think even less of me after my suggestion to Papa that he be kept out of sight. Yet this was precisely the time for Jesus to use his powers to avoid such a mortal sin.
While we finished up dinner, Jesus looked glumly at his plate. Papa had drunk much wine and had already gone to bed. When Mama stood up sleepily and led the twins into the back room, Joseph’s five sons were left sitting at the table. Since Jesus would not willingly inform on us, we had the opportunity to question him, without Mama interfering this time. I’m not proud of it, but I learned much about how my oldest brother thought as James and Joseph began taunting him that hour.
“Tell me Jesus,” Joseph began mockingly, “would you lie to save your brothers’ life?”
“That’s unfair.” Jesus looked up with a frown.
“Is it fair to place our family in danger?” James asked, a snarl playing on his face.
“Why do you test me?” Jesus grabbed the sides of his head. “You know I must do God’s will.”
“Let me ask you this,” I said, recalling Papa’s words, “does God want you to tell the truth, if it means our parents will lose their heads?”
“It’s strange,” Jesus replied, tilting his head, his eyes almost shut, “James and Joseph are mean spirited, but there is no guile in your words.”
“What’s guile?” Simon made a face.
“It means Jude’s concerned more about his family than his own skin.”
Jesus stood up and walked over to the window, which, after Reuben’s transfer to the next room, had been opened to let in fresh air. James and Joseph now taunted Jesus in earnest about his inability to tell a selfless lie. Simon, who appeared to have no original thoughts, himself, sat giggling like a jackal at their latest jabs. Sitting on a stool and looking out into the night, as he had done so often in the past, Jesus ignored their cruel banter and spoke very strangely to us:
“For he is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. We hid our faces from him and esteemed him not, yet he bore our grief and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.”
As Jesus’ voice trailed off into dreamy silence, his eyes peered into another world. Except for an intake of breaths, we were all momentarily speechless. I didn’t understand what Jesus meant, and I don’t think Simon cared, but James and Joseph, who had studied the Torah in synagogue school, recognized his words immediately.
“What did he say?” asked Simon.
I shrugged my shoulders and scratched my head. Joseph’s face was contorted in thought, and there was a dumbfounded expression on James’s face. Because we were within earshot, Simon and I could hear their muted conversation. I’m certain Jesus heard some of it too.
“He quoted from the prophet Isaiah,” Joseph said from the corner of his mouth. “I’ve never understood what that passage meant.”
“Isaiah foretold the coming Messiah,” James shook his head in bewilderment, “but why would he pick those lines?”
“I’ve no idea,” Joseph replied. “He was acting normal until we brought Reuben home. He’s got that look in his eyes. He had it when he was talking to that crowd in front of our house. His head’s back in the clouds, like it was when he wandered the hills.”
Joseph had spoken the truth. Jesus sat this very moment listening to the Lord. It had been a charitable act for our parents to bring Reuben into our house, but it placed our family on dangerous ground, and it was proving to be a crisis of conscience for the oldest son. In spite of Jesus’ stubbornness, I felt sorry for him. The concealment of Reuben, which required lying to visitors—both townsfolk and Romans alike, challenged his principles and triggered his self-righteous attitude about right and wrong.
“Jesus,” James gave him a troubled look, “would you tell the truth if it meant getting us into trouble? Would telling the truth in this case not be a sin? Already, the life a thief and murderer endangers our family, and yet we’re doubly imperiled because you can’t lie.”
James understood our fears. Jesus said nothing, however. There was a look of peace on his face. In deed, as I reflect, as the Son of God, he had nothing to explain. He was without sin. He couldn’t lie. A smile played on his lips. He seemed to be amused by this conversation but had decided not to join in. That James and Joseph had been talking as if Jesus wasn’t here, struck me as stupid. I was glad I hadn’t joined in, though I agreed with what James and Joseph had said.
During those moments, as Mama walked back and forth from the kitchen to the back room while tending Reuben’s wounds, she must have heard Jesus’ words and their criticism of him, and yet she said nothing. As she entered the kitchen to fetch hot water from the stove, she looked knowingly at James and Joseph, but didn’t scold them this time. Looking sheepishly at each other, James and Joseph lapsed into silence that moment. Simon, who was falling asleep, could care less. We sat quietly around the table as Jesus remained on his stool, staring back out the window into the night. What Jesus had said troubled them very much, as it did Mama and me, but Jesus had risen above the criticism. In my eleven-year-old mind the kernel of knowledge pointing to Jesus’ divinity had been borne that day the sparrow flew from his hands and disappeared from our sight. I was still too young to grasp the fine points of theology or comprehend shadowy passages of scripture, but I had the illogical and uncomfortable feeling that when Jesus had been talking about the Suffering Messiah, he was talking about himself.
The first night of Reuben’s stay in our house was uneventful. Not once did we hear a knock on our door. Mama’s patient hovered over Gehenna—neither dead nor really alive, hidden away out of sight in the oldest brother’s room. Once again, we were all crammed together in one space as our parents and the twins slept snuggly in the other room. Our pallets had been hastily tossed onto the cold tile floor and we had been left to fend for ourselves. Despite the surliness of James and Joseph, Simon had, without words, followed my example and made peace with Jesus. Both of us walked over to where he sat at the table reading a scroll. I patted his back gently, waiting politely for him to speak. Simon copied my movements, including my effort to see what he was reading. Though he had been in deep thought, Jesus looked back at us and smiled. Since we couldn’t read Hebrew, it didn’t matter that we were being rude. It might just as well have been pigeon scratches on his scroll.
“It’s a copy of Isaiah given to me by Joseph of Arimathea,” he explained, as we sat down.
“That’s the book James and Joseph were talking about.” I looked at him in amazement. “Is that why you said those funny things?”
“Yes, but I shouldn’t have said that,” he answered, rolling up the scroll.
Simon and I marveled at the silver spool attached to one end of the scroll and the gold-flecked sash that tied it together. I knew there must be a connection between the scroll, Jesus words, and what James and Joseph had said, but I couldn’t yet put it into words.
Suddenly, as we sat there stroking the scroll, Mama emerged from the sick room, carrying her medicine bag and a small lamp.
“Jude, Simon,” she snapped irritability, “go to bed! You’re keeping James and Joseph awake! Climb into your pallets and go to sleep!”
“Jesus never sleeps,” grumbled James.
Simon and I yawned. Joseph called from across the room, “Is Reuben going to die?”
“It’s in God’s hands,” Mama waved dismissively. “Go to sleep boys—all of you!”
Simon needed no coaxing, but I lingered a moment after Jesus took back his scroll.
“Someday,” he said, as I settled on my pallet, “you’ll be able to read the sacred books, yourself. Isaiah, you’ll find, is the most important book.”
“Isaiah told about the Messiah,” I chattered sleepily. “That’s what James and Joseph said. Is the Messiah coming soon, Jesus? Will I see him one day?”
Placing a blanket over me and tucking me in as Mama often did, Jesus murmured gently, “Yes, you’ll see him one day. Now go to sleep Jude. It’s been a tiring day.”
Almost immediately it seemed, as Jesus commanded, I fell asleep and was in a familiar dreamscape. It had been quite awhile since I dreamed of my great white horse. Once again I would meet Longinus in my dream. I reigned in my horse as he galloped toward me, waiting fearfully as he approached. I sensed, as in times past, that I was dreaming. It was the meaning, not the nightmarish imagery that troubled me. I had experienced this dream two times before, shortly after Jesus had returned from his trip with Joseph of Arimathea. I looked beyond the silhouette of the rider and saw three crosses on a hill. Though sunlight fell on patches of the hill, the dark clouds rolling overhead made it seem like night. As Longinus sat on his mount beside me, I didn’t ask him who were hanging on the crosses. Since I had asked this same question before, I already knew the answer. It was, I recalled, searching the centurion’s stony face, two thieves and the King of the Jews.
This time I came straight to the point with the question “Who is the King of the Jews?”
Longinus, who had identified one of the crucified men, shrugged his shoulders but said nothing. I could hear voices in the distance, however, that alarmed me greatly, “You, who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you’re the Son of God!” and then “He saved others but he can’t save himself. He’s the King of the Jews. Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”
Upon hearing those strange words, I awakened beside Simon, as I had the last time I dreamed of the three crosses, but this time I didn’t let it slip to the back of my mind. I jumped up onto my feet and immediately searched for Jesus, so that he could interpret my dream.
This time to my surprise, as I looked around the dimly lit room, Jesus was nowhere in sight. Often he would still be sitting at the table with head bowed, sitting on a stool looking out the window, or wandering outside deep in thought. I tiptoed around searching the sleeping hulks around me and then stuck my head out the window to see if Jesus might be strolling outside. I was forbidden to go outside at night, unless I had to use the cloaca, and could not go out by myself even during the daytime, without an escort, now that we had Reuben as a guest. My brothers and I resented the fact that Jesus had such liberty any time he chose. Slinking back to my pallet, I waited patiently for him to come back into the house. To prevent myself from falling asleep, I didn’t lie down but sat there rigidly on my pallet, keeping my eyes focused on the door. Just as I was about to doze off, Jesus entered the house quietly from the back door and began searching for his pallet, which was not far from mine.
“Jesus,” I whispered crawling over to him, “I had a bad dream. Would you interpret it for me?”
“Well, I’ll do the best I can,” he murmured faintly, pulling my sleeve. “Let’s go over to the table so we don’t wake the others.”
Hunched over the table, in a subdued voice, I related my dream to Jesus almost exactly as it happened in my head: riding my great white horse, the appearance Longinus, the three crosses, and the shouts on the hill. A long pause followed in which Jesus seemed to pray. I sensed at once that I had trodden on forbidden ground. Perhaps this is the reason I failed to mention the ‘King of the Jews.’ I realize now, of course, a part of me was fearful of probing any further into this matter. I had mixed feelings for his answer: both disappointment and relief.
“You have an excellent memory,” he replied, shaking his head in awe, “and you’re a prophet in your own right. But my Father speaks to me now. . . . What do you think He said to me Jude?”
“I don’t know the mind of God,” I replied, with a shrug.
“Yes you do,” Jesus said, with a sigh. “How do you explain the emotions battling in your mind?”
“Why should I be afraid of the truth?”
“The truth?” Jesus seemed to roll the word around in his mouth. “. . . .What you were seeing were glimpses, shadowed in symbols, of the future—prophecy. Only God has pure knowledge of events. Even divine prophecy can be changed by God’s will.”
“So you’re not going to tell me,” I muttered, scratching my head.
“I have answered the best way I know,” he said with finality. “You’ll understand one day, but not now.”
He rose up from the table on that note and led me back to my pallet.
“Sleep little Jude,” he whispered, tucking me back in. “You have been blessed with your visions but also cursed. Dream of your white horse and your Roman friends, for these are children’s dreams. When you have these nightmares, remember this, ‘God decides events as they come, not on the basis of dreams and visions. If the Lord followed the guideposts of our dreams, would our religion not would be a tangled mess?”
What nonsense, I wanted to reply, but instead I bid him goodnight and felt a perplexing relief in the way he interpreted my dream. I lie there beside Simon thinking about his words for a moment more before tumbling back asleep.
When I awakened the following morning, I glimpsed through half-shut eyes movement all around me. Dark images from my dream world floated murkily in my head, and I wasn’t sure I was really awake, until I felt a gentle nudge. Mama, Papa, and Jesus were all up and rousing the rest of us up onto our feet. I was the last one struggling from my pallet. Our immediate chore, Papa ordered, was to help Mama clean the house. We were all eager to return to our normal regimen in spite of our guest, and the urgency in our parents’ voices reminded us of the dilemma we faced. Nevertheless, my head was still in a spin; a sense of dread filled me. The interpretation Jesus gave me for my dream didn’t satisfy my curiosity, and yet I sensed, as I shared in our hasty breakfast, I had escaped a terrible truth. It was the sort of vague and philosophical answer I expected from Jesus. I just hoped I wouldn’t have that awful dream again. Looking back now, I’m not surprised that I hadn’t made the obvious association between Jesus and my dream of the three crosses. It was difficult enough to grasp the possibility that my brother, a carpenter’s son, was the long awaited savior, but the very notion that our nation’s Messiah would be crucified like a common criminal would have been impossible for me to believe.
It was difficult for us to wipe away the smell of blood, urine, and fecal matter from Reuben’s presence in the kitchen which permeated the entire house, but with Jesus, James and Joseph bringing in buckets of water and Simon and my help dumping the buckets into the yard, our parents completed the task of scrubbing the floor in a timely manner so the house would be ready for the prying eyes and noses of guests at our door. When our chores were finished, Simon and I would be allowed to go into the backyard but not be able to play with our friends. While poor Mama was stuck taking care of Reuben, Jesus, James, and Joseph returned to the shop to finish furniture Papa had begun. Occasionally, when the workload was heavy, Simon and I would assist James and Joseph in the shop. Papa divided his time between helping Mama with her patient and supervising the shop. Except for when we saw Mama and, occasionally Papa and Jesus, slip into the patient’s room, our home returned to its original state. James and Joseph’s friends were snobs, and we didn’t have to worry about them, but it was too easy for Simon and my friends to barge into our house, so the doors were barred shut. During this period, we entered the back door of the house after knocking three times and waiting for the door to be unlatched. This rule had to be followed even if we had been in the front yard picking weeds.
Until Papa was sure our secret could be kept from the Romans who tramped frequently up and down the path, Jesus, James, and Joseph would all be working extra time in the shop.
If spotted by our friends, Simon and I would tell them we were being punished and couldn’t play for a while. Because of Reuben’s condition, this might be for a long time. All that mattered during this crisis was keeping our secret hidden. Papa allowed James and Joseph to slip away once and awhile for a break, with the same restrictions, and Jesus would pause in his carpentry to assist Mama in the house.
With our routine set by Papa and under his constant supervision, the days following our rescue of Reuben were difficult for my brothers and me. One morning, after assisting Jesus in the shop, Simon and I worked in Mama’s garden awhile before joining James and Joseph in the kitchen to await news about her patient’s health. Mama had admitted to us that he was close to death. How close he was, however, depended upon whom you asked. Mama remained hopeful that Reuben would live, though none of us could figure out why, while Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said it was in the Lord’s hands. As far as Papa was concerned, it was just a matter of time before he entered Gehenna, and the rest of us were hoping that it would happen soon so we could get on with our lives. When a friend, such as Ezra came over, another fib would be told, the same one we had to tell all visitors: the twins had a fever and we had to quarantine the house until we were certain it was not the plague. This would keep visitors away, but it was not our friends or neighbors that worried Papa the most . . . . It was the Romans.
After lunch, that was even less spectacular than breakfast, Mama returned to her patient. We were all emotionally, if not physically, exhausted. I felt sorry for Mama, whose awful burden was wearing her down. Papa’s drinking had grown steadily worse, and it seemed to be a miracle he was able to work in the shop, supervise everyone, and still help Mama with Reuben, without letting up. One question dominated our minds almost as much as our fear of exposure to the Romans: Why couldn’t Reuben just die? Because he was a fugitive, we had worried all this time how he might wreak vengeance upon us, and now we were worried that he would live, at least long enough to be discovered in our house.
During our vigil that afternoon, a few visitors knocked on our door. Despite our family’s traditional hospitality, they were not welcome today. First came Simon and my friends, who had ran like frightened sheep after we discovered Reuben earlier in the week. I peaked out the window and saw Jethro, Obadiah, Boaz, and Jonah standing sheepishly (as was appropriate) by the door. Papa told them about the “sick twins,” and they departed quickly as sheep again. This struck James and Joseph as humorous, but their friends didn’t come over at all. At least my friends were not ashamed of our house. In spite of James and Joseph ridicule, I couldn’t blame my friends for their hasty retreat. The plague was no laughing matter. As I watched our friends dash away, I wondered how soon I would see them again. If their parents interpreted Papa’s explanation as the plague, it might be a long time. I would be stuck with Simon as my only playmate, unless Uriah snuck over to our house again.
For once we were fortunate we didn’t have a lot of friends. Because of the twins’ supposed illness, there was, as Jesus warned us, a self-imposed quarantine for our house. Hopefully, until the issue of Reuben was resolved, no one would come around. One of the exceptions, of course, was Ezra, Papa’s best friend. Later in the day, as Papa feared, he showed up at our door, a look of concern on his shaggy face. Papa hated lying to him, but we couldn’t trust even Ezra with our secret. After giving him the ‘official fib,’ Papa quickly stepped outside to chat with him. Simon and I crouched below the kitchen window to eavesdrop. Fortunately for us, it was a rather heated argument so we heard everything they said.
“See hear Joseph,” Ezra sputtered angrily, “Naomi saw both of your daughters scampering in the garden just this morning. Boaz, the blacksmith’s son, told me an interesting story yesterday when I stopped at his father’s shop. He said that your boys found a demon near the olive orchard. I wouldn’t have paid heed to that witless oaf if I hadn’t heard the same story from Caleb’s sons on my way home. Jethro and Obadiah told me the very same story. I know those boys; I can’t imagine them making up a story like that.” “What’s going on here, Joseph?” He grew belligerent. “Are the twins actually sick? What’s this nonsense about demons in the orchard? Why can’t you trust me with the truth?”
“Please Ezra,” Papa held up his hands, “you’ll just have to trust me. I’ll explain everything to you at the proper time. I would appreciate it if you would keep your voice down. Our guards might be lurking about.”
“Joseph,” Ezra continued to badger him, “you’re lying to me. What have you got to hide?”
For a brief moment, I thought Papa might just hit his best friend. Simon and I gasped. By now, with nothing else to occupy them, James and Joseph had joined our watch and broke into muted chatter.
“Shut up!” I whispered. “You want us to get caught?”
“Ezra’s going to inform on us,” muttered Joseph, “I just know it. I’ve never trusted that grouchy ol’ man.”
“Papa should not have told him that ridiculous story!” grumbled James.
“I just hope he doesn’t punch him in the nose,” Simon said with wide, unblinking eyes.
Fortunately for Ezra, Papa stormed into the house as his friend muttered angrily to himself.
“For now on,” Papa ordered testily, “if someone knocks, look out the window and see who it is before answering the door. I don’t want that man to charge into my house. This is none of his business!”
“Why did you go outside?” Joseph shook his head in dismay.
“Yes, Papa,” groaned James, “why did you even talk to him? The twins shouldn’t have been playing in the front yard!”
“Papa,” Jesus suggested more delicately, “it would be better if we just didn’t answer the door—period. Let our neighbors draw their own conclusions, now that the rumor the twins’ illness is out.”
Papa looked forlornly around the room, after settling heavily at the table. He wanted more wine, but he didn’t want his family to think he was becoming a drunk. Normally he would wait until we were all occupied and sneak a mug of wine, but we were all cooped up together now, eight pairs of eyes watching his every move.
As James, Joseph, and Simon discussed our dilemma in hushed tones at the other end of the table, I whispered into Papa’s ear, “Go ahead, have a mug of wine.”
“Ah, little Jude. Playing the devil, are we?” he chuckled softly.
“Yes, I’m sorry, Papa.” I gave him a crooked smile.
“That’s all right,” he said, ruffling my hair. “You understand your Papa. God help you, you’re a lot like me, but you mustn’t encourage me to drink wine. We don’t want me to wind up like Uncle Joab.”
“No,” I hung my head.
“Go fetch my jug,” he said from the corner of his mouth, “—the one in the cabinet. You know where it’s at.”
I was honored that I had Papa’s trust. Mama once said, perhaps apologetically as we looked on, that Papa needed wine to preserve his sanity. I had also heard Papa say that, if taken in moderation, wine was good for the blood. I said a little prayer in my mind that he would conquer this demon. I now feared that, given Papa’s workload and many worries, he might grab his chest one day, as Joab had done, and fall dead on the floor. Jesus gave us a suspicious look but said nothing. I’m not sure if James and Joseph even cared, but Simon scampered up and looked expectantly at the pitcher.
“Can I have some too?” he asked impishly.
“Certainly not.” Papa frowned.
In an angry whisper I hissed at him, “it’s wine, you
fool, go away!”
Papa called to him good-naturedly as he walked dejectedly away, and gave him a pat on the head. Simon and I sat there quietly as he sipped his wine. Our discovery of Reuben had greatly interrupted our routine. More than any time in our family’s history, we faced a crisis that threatened our very lives.
I stuck out my lower lip, and my chin fell onto my chest. “This is all my fault. Simon and I should’ve just let Reuben die.”
“Mustn’t say such a thing,” Papa declared with a burp. “It’s our tradition to help wayfarers. We were once strangers in this land.”
“What’s a wayfarer?” Simon winkled his nose.
“It’s another name for a stranger,” answered Papa, pouring himself more wine. “That’s how I’m beginning to feel in this town.”
I knew Papa was serious. The incident of the sparrow had changed everything. He had been anything but a stranger in Nazareth before that day. Until Jesus began acting strangely, my parents gave sanctuary to a witch, and Nazareth’s roofs and gardens felt God’s wrath, Papa, as our family, had been highly esteemed by neighbors and friends. It had started that fateful moment when Jesus opened his hands and released the sparrow. After that event, our lives and Papa’s reputation began to change, for on that day, when the first secret poured from Jesus mouth, we, Joseph’s other sons, knew he had performed a miracle. Papa asked him, “Jesus was that bird really dead?” and Jesus answered very simply, “yes,” admitting in that one word that he was, as Samuel suggested later, touched by God. On that memorable day when we, Joseph’s other sons, began to learn the secrets of our family, I, more than any of my other brothers, understood this fact. The greater truth remained the biggest secret of them all.
It all flashed before my eyes—the sparrow, Mariah, her burning house, the cloud burst over Nazareth, Michael’s antics, the thrashing Papa gave Joachim, Jesus journey with Joseph of Arimathea, and now Reuben unconscious in our house. With such a history, his long hours in the shop, worries for his family’s safety, and constant threat of discovery, was it any wonder Papa had turned to wine?
He was now on his second mug, and both mugs were filled to the brim. What he said about our tradition of helping strangers couldn’t possibly have included someone like Reuben, but I wouldn’t argue with him when he was in his cups. I understood Papa better than anyone except Mama and, of course, Jesus, who knew everything. With my special memory and the visions playing in my head, I sensed I was a part of something really big, but all Papa cared about that moment was the safety of his family. I began feeling regretful for playing the serpent. I should not have encouraged him to drink wine. I remembered the story about Adam and Eve, and how Eve tempted Adam with forbidden fruit, much like I tempted Papa with the forbidden fruit of the vine. Considering the circumstances we were in, I found myself laughing hysterically at such a thought: me, Jude, a serpent. What would Jesus think of such a notion? The rabbi would call me Beelzebub.
The flashbacks of my past sobered me those moments as I looked around the room. We had gone through much together. Until this business about Reuben, we were living normal lives. Once more my brothers and I had a small number of friends. Our parents were no longer snubbed by most of the town. Gradually, over the last few years, they had rebuilt their reputation in Nazareth. Papa’s carpentry shop was becoming successful again with new orders, and his old customers were coming back, requesting repairs for roofs or broken furniture. Even the Pharisees and town elders, who once shunned my parents, gave them begrudging respect for their recovered standing and, after Jesus’ sermon in our front yard, for their incredible son. I was filled with great love for my family but also great fear. Most of the fear, which surrounded our new guest, I clearly understood. That smaller portion—my dreams, which Jesus refused to interpret, I would not understand for many years.
Mama emerged wearily from the new room, with a pan filled with rags and her bag of medicine slung over one arm. She would clean herself up and begin the evening meal ahead of time, so that we could fend for ourselves this evening if Reuben’s condition suddenly changed. A stew was prepared and placed on a slow burning fire. Papa helped her as much as he could in his condition, which included simply chopping up plums and figs and slicing off several slices of bread and cheese. Simon was falling asleep, as we sat at the table. James and Joseph, whose friends shunned our home anyhow, were allowed to dawdle near the shop where they threw knives against a panel of wood. I asked Papa if I could I play in back of the house as long as I stayed close to home. In his light-headed state, he raised his thumb in the Roman manner, though he made me promise not to drift into the front yard.
Simon joined me in a game Michael taught me when he and I had absolutely nothing else to do: pebble toss. A circle of stones, which were plentiful on our property, were set twenty paces away, into which we he tossed small pebbles. The object of the game was to get as close as possible to the center point (a circle scratched in the dirt) with as many pebbles as possible. This game, which I won handily, was followed by a guessing game that Nehemiah and I had played when he was too sick to move about very much. Since I was smarter than Simon I won this game too. One player was allowed forty questions in order to guess what the other player had in his mind. All I had to do was tell Simon whether it was an animal, a plant, or a nonliving thing. Hints were offered at my own discretion in reply to questions such as “Is it very big or very small?” or “Is it far away or close to home?” I naturally started off by picking a nonliving thing, which I knew Simon could not possibly guess. The object in my head was the great lighthouse of Pharos, Jesus visited in his journey. When Simon reached his thirty-ninth guess, however, I felt guilty for tricking him the way I did. When he offered “the Temple in Jerusalem,” after trying everything from sheep dung to the Magi’s’ treasure, I slapped his back and congratulated him.
“That’s it?” He looked at me in disbelief. “I couldn’t think of anything else.”
“Well, you got it boy,” I said, punching his arm. “Now it’s your turn.”
As Simon screwed his face up in thought, Mama stuck her head out the door and waved excitedly to us. Her normally haggard expression had been transformed into a look of surprise and awe. Simon and I scampered up to the house.
“What’s wrong Mama?” I called excitedly. “Is Reuben dead?”
“No, Jude,” she answered, taking us into her arms. “Praise be to God but woe to our future. Our situation has worsened greatly. Reuben has awakened. He is very much alive.”
This news was both terrible and wonderful. When we entered the house we saw Jesus exiting Reuben’s sick room. Had Jesus done this miraculous deed? Or was it just a dreadful fluke? It really didn’t matter as we took turns looking into the smelly room. Reuben actually sat up as he wolfed down a loaf of bread and slurped a mug of juice. It would require many weeks of convalescence for him to be pronounced well, Mama explained to Papa. He should have a proper doctor look after him during this time, but I had that same feeling I had those times when I suspected Jesus had secretly performed a miracle. He would never admit it, so I said nothing, but I raced up and hugged my oldest brother. If nothing else, he had gone into that awful room to help Mama many times.
What blunted our horror and frustration were the contrite words of our unwelcome guest, which left us momentarily speechless.
“Thank you for saving my life.” He looked at Mama. “Thank you for telling your parents where I was.” His bloodshot eyes then fell on me. “Joseph,” his voice rasped, reaching out with both arms, “please forgive me. I’ve wronged you and your family grievously. The Romans say my friends and I tried to kill that soldier, but it was an accident, caused by a loosened boulder, as we attempted to escape. I’ll regret my actions that night until the day I die. It ruined my friends and my lives. I know there are rumors that the band I’d been running with had killed merchants and pilgrims on the road, but I swear to the One God that my own hands have never deliberately harmed another man. That day you saw me in Sepphoris with my friends and members of Abbas’ band, I was a puffed up fool. I’ve always been a fool and now I’m a thief, but I was, like others in the band, sickened by the murder and mutilations Abbas’ men had done. It might be true that I fought Romans, but I’m a thief, not a murderer. My friends paid with their lives. By all that’s holy, I should have been hanging on a cross too, but something incredible happened. Thanks to your family, I’m alive. If you’ll let me depart soon, I’ll leave Galilee forever. I’ll spend the remainder of my life repenting what my cohorts and I have done.”
“Fine words, pretty words,” Papa said with a slight slur, “but can your words wipe away the fear you’ve caused my family and this town? Can your words wipe away your actions which helped make my family outcasts here?”
“Joseph, please,” Mama coaxed, pulling his arm, “Reuben has just awakened from death’s door.”
“He wanted to burn our house down!" cried Joseph.
“And he wanted to kill us,” James bared his teeth. “We’ve lived in fear all this time. He’ll say anything to save his skin!”
“But he said he was sorry,” Jesus grasped Reuben’s outstretched hand. “Our Lord forgives the penitent. Reuben’s still a child of God.”
A collective gasp went up in the tightly packed and malodorous room, as Reuben kissed Jesus’ hand.
“I remember now,” he said in wonder. “I saw you in my dream. I was tumbling into darkness and you reached down to pull me up—”
“What’s he talking about?” Simon frowned.
“He’s afraid of the Romans,” James glared fiercely. “It was a big mistake to take this scoundrel in.”
“There-there,” Mama cooed, “he’s just delirious. Poor dear.”
Mama gently forced him to lie down. Papa stormed from the room, followed by Joseph and James. Simon and I gawked at this apparent miracle. I could scarcely believe, after seeing his terrible wounds, that Reuben was even alive, and yet in this hour he had awakened and just repented his misspent life. It was an incredible speech for a man recently returned from death’s door. I stole a glance at Jesus as he stood there watching Mama administer to Reuben. Jesus didn’t act surprised at all. That sly fellow, I thought with a grin. He did it again! . . . Or did he, I frowned, as he suddenly exited the room. Mama had been nursing Reuben for many hours and continued to do so. Could it be, I asked myself, that her ministrations, and not Jesus’ prayer, saved this man? I would never know the answer to this question. I had, like my other brothers, hoped Reuben would expire soon enough to allow us to bury him and return to the normal pattern of our lives. Now, with no other explanation than it’s God’s will, our mother and oldest brother accepted all this in good spirits, while the rest of us sank into despair.
James, Joseph, Simon, and I felt trapped in this house. It was much worse for Papa, whose heavy responsibilities were turning him into a drunk. Our concern for Papa’s health and Mama’s foolishness made us feel helpless as we paced the floor. A highwaymen and thief wanted by Rome would be convalescing in our home—a man we had every right to hate. He and his friends had cast a shadow over our family and town. My parents’ act of charity toward Mariah and her son gave men like Reuben an excuse to turn against our family. Because of Reuben and his friends’ actions that fateful night, we were forced to rely on Roman protection, which further alienated us from the town, including many of Papa’s friends. Rescuing a witch and having a heretic brother were not enough; now we were giving shelter and aid to a notorious criminal—the very man whose deeds brought the Romans to our town. In spite of all this, while Papa drank wine and we fretted about, Mama continued to fuss over her patient. Jesus, always collected, returned calmly to the shop to finish up a table Papa had begun, as if it was just another day.
As Papa sat at the table clutching his mug, he gradually fell asleep. When his chin was in his beard and he was snoring peacefully, we tiptoed out the back door and snuck around the house to visit Jesus. We had many questions to ask our brother before Papa awakened or Mama discovered we were not in the backyard.
“Did you bring Reuben back as you did Levi and the dead bird?” The words flew out of my mouth.
“Only God resurrects the dead,” Jesus answered with a frown.
“The fact is,” Joseph said accusingly, “you encouraged Mama to cure that evil man. What are we going to do with him now? He’s too sick to walk, but he can’t stay in our house. What if the Romans find out he’s here?”
“Reuben can slip away in the night as Mariah once did,” Jesus said, blowing shavings from a table leg. “He could vanish from our lives, like the wind.”
“Can slip away? Could vanish?” replied James excitedly. “You mean will vanish and soon, don’t you Jesus? The longer he stays in our house, the greater will be the danger. I heard Ezra yelling at Papa. I don’t trust him anymore. What if he talks to the guards? We’ve seen how Rome treats its enemies. This could be the end of all us if they find out!”
“Keep your voice down!” Jesus looked self-consciously out at the street.
At that very moment, Gideon and Ebenezer were passing by our house. Both men stopped and studied our little gathering. It was difficult to read their expressions from a distance, but we had heard Gideon’s criticism of Jesus recently during the gathering in front of our house. We looked at each other in dismay, wondering if they had been eavesdropping on Joseph and James’ words, knowing it was too late if they had. Though Ebenezer had argued sensibly with Jesus that day, Gideon had become irrational and insulting. While the Pharisee motioned for him to move on, he stood staring at us, one hand cupping his ear and one hand over his brow to shield his eyes from the sun. Such brazen efforts at eavesdropping caused Jesus to leave his workbench immediately and go out to the street.
“What are you doing?” James called in disbelief.
“Go inside—all of you!” Jesus pointed angrily. “You’ve done enough damage today. I must attempt to undo what you’ve done!”
Mama suddenly appeared, shooing us angrily into the house, “Go-go-go into the house! We must talk.” “Where’s Jesus?” she asked looking into the empty shop.
“He’s talking to Gideon and Ebenezer,” I chirped, as she pulled me along. “Joseph and James were talking really loud.”
“You foolish boys,” she said, smacking their heads.
“We can’t even go into the shop!” complained James.
“For right now, I want you all in the house!” She gave him another smack.
Simon and I ran ahead to avoid Mama’s blows. James and Joseph were greatly agitated by Mama’s action and ran crying into the woods. I looked back at Jesus and the two men as I followed Simon in. Mama said something that moment I would have expected from Joseph or James. I stopped abruptly, as Simon ran straight through the house and exited into the backyard.
Standing in the doorway and shielding her eyes against the sun, Mama muttered in alarm, “What can Jesus possibly do? Is he planning on using magic on those men?”
“Yes, he is,” I whispered to myself.
“Jesus!” She called mutely, her hand flying up to her mouth.
Papa awakened from his drunken stupor that moment, staggered out the back door, disappearing without a word. I could hear Reuben coughing in his room. Mama hesitated only a moment before rushing to his aid. A thrill ran though me when I considered what she had said. Quietly, as she shuffled into Reuben’s room, I awaited Jesus’ return. Why on earth was Jesus confronting those men? What could he possibly gain? Did Mama really believe he was using ‘magic’ on them? This was the sort of thing my brothers or I might have said in the past, but not Mama. When he entered the house, Jesus flashed me a suspicious look, as if he had read my thoughts.
“Where is everybody?” he asked, sinking wearily onto a stool.
“Papa’s drunk, Mama’s with Reuben, and our brothers ran into the woods,” I answered, my hearting pounding in my chest.
“Well,” he sighed heavily, “we don’t have to worry about Gideon and Ebenezer anymore. They were concerned that Papa wasn’t in his shop today. I can’t imagine why. Those men haven’t done business with us for years.”
“Did you hex those men?” I blurted suddenly. “Mama thinks you used magic on them.”
Jesus shook his head with disappointment. “What were her exact words?”
“She said,” I quoted perfectly, “‘What can Jesus possibly do? Is he planning on using magic on those men?’”
“Humph,” his eyebrows knit, “I doubt if she was serious. I’m not so sure about you. Just when I thought you understood, you say something like that. I’m disappointed in you Jude. Please get it through your thick skull, I’m not a magician or sorcerer. We pray to God for needful things. We don’t use His power to cast spells on our friends.”
“Mama was serious,” I replied petulantly. “She believes in magic too.”
I wasn’t certain about this, but I was greatly annoyed with Jesus’ airs. Unless Gideon and Ebenezer were hard of hearing, they must have overheard Joseph and James’ remarks. My guess had been that Jesus said a prayer asking God to blank out their memories. He might even have threatened them with divine retribution if they told. Then a notion came to me, as I pondered Jesus’ denial. . . . What if Jesus didn’t know? Was it possible that God didn’t need to be asked in order to protect our family? Had this been the reason our parents and Jesus were protected against the plague that struck everyone else in Galilee? Nazareth had been spared the fever that made Jesus brothers and sisters orphans in other towns, just as Jesus had been spared many years ago in Bethlehem because of the angel that visited Papa in his sleep. I didn’t dare mention any of this to Jesus. A sly grin spread across my face as I considered what might be the truth. Nevertheless, an apology seemed to be in order.
“I’m sorry,” I offered lamely, “I don’t really believe in magic,” “. . . very much,” I mumbled, unable to hide my smile.
“You rascal,” laughed Jesus, “you still want me to conjure you up a pony.”
“No,” I giggled foolishly, “a big white horse.”
“Shame on you!” He said, ruffling my hair.
That moment James, Joseph, and Simon, filed one-by-one into the house. Soon afterwards, Mama returned with what she thought was good news. Jesus and I were still laughing when she pranced excitedly into the room. Our brothers stood a distance away, expecting punishment, until Jesus motioned cheerfully for them to sit down.
“I can scarcely believe it.” She clapped her hands with delight. “He’s much better. The fever’s gone completely. He’s as hungry as an ox. Soon he’ll be up and about—as good as new!”
After witnessing Reuben’s miraculous recovery, this was not unexpected. No one doubted that he would improve after that event. Simon and I stared blankly at Mama as James and Joseph turned away in disgust.
“That’s wonderful,” Jesus replied cheerfully. “More of that hearty broth seems in order. When do you think he’ll be on his feet?”
“I don’t know,” she replied wistfully, “maybe soon. He’s tired of laying on that hard table.”
“I don’t understand.” James scratched his head. “That man vowed to destroy us. He’s robbed and killed people, and he’s an enemy of Rome. Why are you so happy, Mama? We’re in great danger because he’s here. I don’t understand. Please explain this to me.”
“Because,” she answered, looking up to the ceiling, “it’s God’s will.”
“It’s God’s will we harbor a criminal?” Joseph muttered in disbelief. “Our people stone men like him. If the Romans catch him, he’ll be crucified.”
“Don’t worry Joseph.” I patted his knuckles. “Jesus will protect our house.”
“God will protect this house,” corrected Jesus. “Please get it right!”
“Same thing,” I replied with a shrug.
Unwittingly speaking the truth, I noted Jesus acknowledgment of my reply. The frown he had given me was replaced by a strange light in his eyes. The fact was, I believed God, and not magic or sorcery, was watching over our house, but like everyone else, except Jesus himself, I couldn’t possibly have believed he was really a manifestation of God. Yet Jesus’ eyebrows rose with illumination, a smile playing on his face.
“Jude,” he said under his breath, “you don’t know how close you are to the truth.”
“I don’t?” I wrinkled my nose. “I thought I did. What is the truth?”
“God reveals truth, not men,” he answered quietly, “when we’re ready or when its time. There are many truths, but only one source. As sunlight through the clouds, it may come in stages or all at once in the clear light of day. The source is God. All other paths are false.”
I had a special bond with Jesus that my brothers didn’t share. I sensed, through my own clouds, a fearful comprehension that Jesus was the path, but, as Jesus correctly foretold, I was not ready and it was not yet my time. The truth, more like a dim shadow in my mind, now filled me with dread. Mama had been quietly scolding James and Joseph when she noticed the look on my face.
“Is Jude all right?” She interrupted herself. “Why’s he frowning like that?”
“Jesus said I was close to the truth,” I answered promptly.
“What truth is this?” Her eyebrows arched then fell down as suspicion lit her blue eyes.
“We’re not the only ones Mama,” Jesus answered thoughtfully, “God reveals his truth to Jude too.”
“What did you tell him?” She gasped, a hand flying to her mouth.
“I told him nothing,” Jesus looked askance at me. “Our Father spoke to my little brother, not me.”
Mama gave him a worried look but said nothing. As I sat there puzzling over his words, Jesus prayed silently to himself, Simon scratched his head, and James and Joseph frowned in disapproval at what they just heard. The recent gathering in front of our, in which he gave that long rambling sermon, had worried Mama and Papa. Our parents wanted our house to return to normalcy, which seemed impossible with Reuben in the next room. This was, we had been told by Papa and Mama, a short-term situation that we could weather if we stuck together and kept the secret locked safely behind our doors. The controversy surrounding the oldest son had seemed to die down until it flared up once more when he preached to the crowd. After his sterling performance, just when it appeared that he was acting normal, he had begun speaking strangely again. We were harboring an outlaw of Rome, shuttered in our home by the fiction that there was sickness inside our house. As I understand it now Jesus, in spite of his support of Reuben’s recovery, felt that he was, by his complicity, a party to this falsehood. Jesus, after all, couldn’t lie. Even at such a time as this, he was above the fray. Such a dilemma and its consequences, like so many in his life, tested Jesus, not yet revealing to him who he was, but reminding him of what he was: a blameless soul, attempting to live a perfect life in an imperfect world.
Once again, I shared with Mama the realization that Jesus performed miracles subtly in so many ways. I still believed he had used his spiritual powers on Gideon and Ebenezer to make them go away. That moment, like so many in the past, I was certain he had read my mind. After a moment of silence, after considering Jesus words to me, Mama rose up suddenly, walked to the end of the table and took his face in her hands. “My son,” she scolded gently, “put these strange words aside. Don’t hurry into a fate none of us understand.”
“I don’t understand it either,” he said, with a shrug. “It’s like I told Jude. It comes through a cloud or a fog—”
“Samuel said that,” I chimed. “I remember him saying before Jesus left on his trip, “‘All the things you’ve seen are like shadows in a fog and God is telling his secrets to us one-by-one. Perhaps we aren’t ready for the answers yet and the Lord will tell us in his own good time.’”
“I said that myself,” Jesus clapped with delight. “You’ve got quite a memory Jude!”
“I thought we put this behind us,” Mama sighed wearily, “at least for awhile—hopefully until you’re fully grown.” “Must God talk to you constantly?” She asked, playfully tousling his hair.
“No,” he answered slowly, “. . . I’m just always listening.”
“I’m listening too,” I looked for approval at Jesus. “I think maybe God talks to me in my dreams.”
Mama gave me an anxious look, as Jesus, moved by this moment, gave me a brotherly hug. As expected, upon hearing our conversation, James and Joseph muttered disapprovingly amongst themselves. Simon sat beside me sound asleep, snoring softly, his forehead touching the table, until the back door suddenly flew open and slammed shut.
Papa now clamored into the house, bringing our current thoughts and emotions to a halt. He was obviously drunk and in a terrible mood. The first thing he did was search Mama’s pantry for more wine and then flash her an accusing look when he found none. At that one instance, caught in the concern in Mama’s eyes, it occurred to us in full force: Papa was becoming a drunkard, just as Uncle Joab had been. I can see it so clearly now as a potential disaster for our family, but that moment, as I watched my father search frantically for more wine, it was just one more crisis we had to confront.
“Where did you hide it?” Papa growled. “I had one more jar.”
“I hid nothing,” Mama said dryly. “You probably drank it.”
“No,” Papa pointed angrily, “I put it right here! Which of you took my jar?”
“James? Joseph? Simon? Jude?” Mama looked obligingly at each of us. “Where’s Papa’s wine?”
James and Joseph shrugged their shoulders. Simon and I exchanged frightened looks. Noting our facial expressions, Mama held her finger up to her lips. As Papa stormed out of the house, Jesus jumped up quickly and followed him out. James and Joseph had looks of contempt on their faces. Simon and I muttered fearfully to ourselves, as Mama bent forward to ask us what was wrong.
“I’m sorry Mama,” I confessed in a whisper, “I once saw Papa pour his wine into an emptied juice jug, but that jug’s empty. He drank it all.”
“You were right Mama,” exclaimed Simon, “Papa has no more wine!”
“Father Abraham,” she muttered, clasping her head, “what are we going to do?”
“Papa got his wine from Samuel.” James jumped up excitedly. “I bet that’s were he’s headed now.”
“Then we must stop him,” Joseph exclaimed, close on his heels, “before he becomes the town drunk.”
Mama wrung her hands and wailed, “It’s all my fault. I should’ve seen it coming. It’s has all been too much for him. You should never have brought Reuben into our house.”
“You?” I grumbled, following them out of the house, “as in me? Are you blaming me Mama? You’re the one who’s keeping him alive!”
“She’s blaming her sons—all of us,” James called over his shoulder, as we began our search.
Mama reached back to clutch my hand and pull me along, cooing, “No-no, it’s really my fault. We must show Papa our love—a united front.”
Unable to find Papa in the backyard or his shop, we scanned the front yard a moment before detouring onto the road. Mama, who was herding us like sheep, was acting addled in the head. When she wasn’t looking, Simon had already broke and ran back to our house. James and Joseph were so mortified by this ordeal, they were quietly weeping to themselves.
“I don’t think this a good idea,” I murmured, as Ichabod and then Eleazar passed us by on the road. “People are looking at us. Papa’s going to be very mad if we try to bring him back.”
“For once Jude’s right.” Joseph took Mama’s other hand. “Come on, let’s turn back before we run into him.”
“Where’s Papa?” Mama looked around with wild, unblinking eyes. “You think Jesus has found him by now?”
Suddenly, without asking permission, both James and Joseph followed Simon’s example and ran home, leaving only me in her clutches on the dusty road. A Roman sentry rode passed us, casting Mama a suspicious look. Mama was friendly enough to the few townsfolk on the road, but her frantic look and quirky motions caused me great embarrassment. We had been forbidden to show ourselves outside of our house in fear of our nosey neighbors, yet here we were approaching Samuel’s house in front of the whole town, searching for Papa, who had staggered off in a drunken state searching for more wine, while Reuben, the outlaw, lie unattended in our house, and the twins, who were suppose to be sick, were probably romping in the front yard in plain sight.
“Mama,” I said, tugging on her perspiring hand, “please, let’s go home. If Papa’s getting more wine, we can’t stop him. Perhaps Jesus prayed hard enough for God to cure him of his demon. Jesus should bring Papa back from Samuel’s house, not us. Let’s give him a chance!”
Mama awakened from her hysteria that instance. “Yes, yes, that’s it Jude. Papa has the demon of drink. We shall make a circle and pray for him when Jesus and he return.”
“All right, this is fine and good,” I said, coaxing her back down the road, “but let’s go home now. You must check on your patient. Reuben might need food and water. We can’t leave James, Joseph, and Simon alone in the house with him. What about the twins? What if they’re in the garden? Our friends might be snooping around. They’re already suspicious. If the Romans discover our secret, we’re sheep dung!”
When we arrived back at the house, we found Jesus standing in front of the shop, perhaps waiting for Papa to return. James and Joseph were nowhere in sight. The twins were playing in the garden, as I feared, and Simon was sitting on the bench, eating a fig. After gathering up Abigail and Martha, Mama ran immediately inside to check on Reuben. With great reluctance, after waving at Jesus, I entered the house, wondering if Papa had made it back home, but the kitchen was empty, so I knocked on the door to the back room. I had the sudden urge to say “never mind” and run into the backyard, instead of confronting our old enemy again, but the door opened. There inside the small, smelly room, stood Mama next to Reuben, who sat on the table, his feet on the bench, a mug of water or juice in one big hand. In spite of the concern Mama had for Papa, a smile played on her haggard face.
“Peace be upon you Jude!” A gravelly voice erupted from his shaggy face.
“Hello,” I said in a small voice.
A beam of light through the window fell on this unlikely pare. With Mama dressed in white alongside of this dark stranger, it seemed as if an angel stood next to an infernal specter, and yet I sensed that I had nothing to fear. Though it could not be seen or even heard, I sensed something different in this gruff-speaking man.
“Where’s Papa?” I could think of nothing else to say.
“We’re going to pray about this,” Mama gave me a hug. “Reuben said he’d pray too.”
I uttered a hysterical laugh. “Is he going to join our prayer circle?”
“No, but Reuben’s going to walk around a bit to loosen up his legs,” she said, helping him off the table.
“I must leave, kind lady,” he announced, moving sluggishly across the floor. “I know these hills quite well. When darkness falls I shall slip quietly out the back door.”
“Nonsense.” Mama waved excitedly. “Have you forgotten our guards? In your condition you wouldn’t make it through the hills. You want to wind up on a cross?”
“No,” he insisted, shaking his head, “but I’ve caused you folks enough grief. My presence is threatening your family. It’s upsetting your sons and driving your poor husband to drink.”
“God has placed you in our hands.” She held up her hand dismissively. “Our family will weather this crisis as it has everything else. We shall gather and pray tonight for Joseph too. With the Lord’s help, he will stop drinking soon.”
This sounded so strange to me I almost laughed. Here stood a man who, in his own words, was a threat to our family, who had caused us only grief and placed a wedge between members of our family, but who, according to Mama, had been placed by God into our hands. If the Romans found out he was in our house, it would the end of us. Our parents would be beheaded or crucified and we would be sold into slavery—at least this is what James and Joseph believed.
“Mama,” I whispered after we left Reuben stretching his legs in the next room, “would it be so bad if we just let him escape?”
“Jude,” she tittered, giving me a playful swat, “you know very well he’d be caught. We can’t have that, can we?”
“Yes,” I replied, dodging an imaginary blow, “Reuben’s a bad man, Mama. He’s just being nice now so we won’t turn him in.”
“It’s the Lord’s will. He’s one of God’s children,” she stated, as if this explained everything.
I laughed hysterically again as Mama led me out the front door. In spite of their reprimand, the twins slipped out of the house, this time into the backyard. Once again we were leaving Reuben alone in the house. What if, in his befuddled state of mind, he answered the front door? It would be over for us, I thought with a shudder—all because of one foolish exploit to impress my friends. Mama, however, was to blame for what was happening today. Without Papa’s restraining hand, she was acting muddle-headed. Disregarding his demand for caution, she led me across the front yard, instead of the back, calling out Jesus name. When she spotted him in front of the shop it seemed as if Jesus had been in a heated discussion with two of his brothers. James and Joseph, with folded arms, had angry looks on their faces. Simon was standing off by himself, totally unconcerned, as the twins frolicked in front of the shop. I broke away from Mama’s nervous grip to join Simon, hoping we might slip away for a few moments to romp in the backyard. Simon had begun to share my hope that Jesus could make all this right. After working diligently to finish Papa’s orders, Jesus was greatly agitated by everyone’s impatience.
“Where’s your father?” Mama looked expectantly at him. “Do you think he’ll return?”
“Yes,” he answered wearily, “he’ll be back soon. He promised me before he left.”
“Sober?” James sneered.
“You shall see.” Jesus gave him a scornful look.
Shielding his eyes against the sun, Jesus turned to scan the road. Samuel’s house, I recalled, sat on the northeastern rim of town. As he reached down and patted my head, I found his confidence comforting. It seemed like common sense that Papa would arrive from that direction, since Samuel’s house was the only place he would find wine. The question was “would he be able to make it home on his own two feet?” James and Joseph, as always, were grumbling under theirs breath. Oblivious even to her daughters, who cavorted openly in the yard, Mama followed Jesus gaze, placing her hand over her eyes to block out the glare. Soon all of us were standing as a family in front of our house, Martha and Abigail ducking ineffectually behind our backs, as a sentry galloped past.
“Jesus.” I looked up expectantly. “Are we gonna have another prayer circle?”
“Yes, Jude,” he replied, ruffling my hair, “when Papa returns.”
“When will that be?” pressed Mama, searching his face. “It’ll be dark soon. I don’t want him to be out in his condition after dark. Please go find him Jesus, before he gets stumbling drunk.”
Jesus answered her stare with a look of disappointment and walked slowly up to the road. I scampered after him but Mama ran up, grabbed my arm and dragged me back to the yard.
“You and Simon go play quietly in back close to the house,” she directed impatiently. “Bring him back to us, Jesus,” she called through cupped hands. “Please find him before night falls. You know what to do.”
I felt sorry for Jesus. Not only did Simon and I expect great things from him, but I could tell that Mama wanted him to use his “power” too. Perhaps she expected Jesus to persuade Papa, using the power of prayer, yet her words, “you know what to do,” implied otherwise. This morning when Jesus talked to Gideon and Ebenezer, Mama had asked whether or not Jesus planned on using magic on them. Had Mama been serious? Now that I think about it, there had been several instances when it seemed as if Mama believed Jesus had the power to change things on his own.
While Simon and I tossed stones, battled each other with make believe swords, and then played our guessing game, night descended upon Nazareth, the moon overhead giving us extra moments to wile away the time. Simon would never guess the animal I had in mind. It was too obvious for him to guess. The animal, of course, was him.
“What?” He gave me a blank look. “I’m not an animal. I’m a person. I would never have guessed myself.”
I quoted from memory, “Jesus told us that in the division of Creation—animal, plant, and non-living things—people are animals. You, our pet goat, and the fleas on Odeh, the shepherd, are animals.”
“Bah!” Simon stomped his foot. “Jesus said a lot of strange things. I don’t remember that. You cheated Jude. I’m not an animal. I’m not! I’m not!”
“Boys,” Mama called from the back door, “come inside for dinner.”
I ran ahead into the house, with Simon hot on my heels. Because I had played another trick on him, I expected a punch in the arm. We both froze in our tracks when we looked across the room and saw Papa sitting at the head of the table, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He appeared calm and there was a smile on his face. We could hear him discussing carpentry with Jesus. Mama, James, Joseph, and the twins took their places at the table, with little comment. At the other end of the table, with his back turned to us, sat a hulking presence. With the important exception that Reuben was sitting at our table, it looked like any other night when we ate dinner. Reuben appeared to be wearing some of Papa’s clothes. He had been scrubbed and tidied up so well he looked like any other hairy, oversized Galilean. Yet I shuddered at the thought of sitting next to him, and was relieved to find that the spaces on each side of him were occupied by Mama and Jesus. Upon closer inspection it seemed as though James and Joseph were in shock. To me, all of this—Papa suddenly sober, Reuben contrite, and Jesus serenely gazing at his family—were what made our family special. It was a specialness focused upon Jesus, our saintly parents, and God and Rome’s protection of our house. If Papa was, in fact, sober, it was one more miracle that pointed to Jesus.
Though I give Mama much of the credit, Reuben’s recovery in body and spirit were also Jesus’ doing. It might be true, according to scriptures, that our prophets performed miracles, but Jesus had been a child when he called upon God to heal the sparrow. He could give credit to God all he wanted, but until we, his disciples, had been given such powers and Jesus performed miracles in Galilee beyond our wildest beliefs, I had never heard of a living man whose prayers had such power. On that day, during our trials and tribulations in Nazareth, Jesus was only sixteen years old, a mere youth. Such events as storms, healings, and thought control that followed in his wake were not mere accidents or the capricious will of God. From hindsight I can see this clearly, but that day when Papa returned sober and our old enemy sat amongst us at our table, my awe for my oldest brother was mostly limited to his miracles in Nazareth and in our own house. The miracles he wrote about in his letters from abroad could not compare with what we saw with our own eyes. He was ours, not yet the world’s. It would be a long time before the glimmer of his divinity would show itself like this again.