The Remaking of Reuben
On the night we had a special guest at our table, our supper was simple but tasty, with plenty of warm bread and chopped fruit. Papa ate heartily and drank the same fruit juice Mama poured into all of our mugs. Not one word was uttered about “demon drink” nor did Jesus ask God to cure him of his thirst for wine. Our prayer circle on that night, in fact, seemed unnecessary this time. As far as I was concerned Jesus had done his work. After what happened to Reuben and seeing Papa’s improvement this hour, the half-hearted mumblings of Papa, Mama, and the long winded prayer by Jesus was a pointless exercise. It should have been obvious to all of us, with the exception of Reuben, who was still weak and unwell, that Papa was his old self.
And yet Jesus droned loftily, “Lord, we thank you for bringing Papa home. He has endured much for his family. Guide us in our business. Protect us from the evil forces in the world. Please continue to heal Reuben, who has turned from darkness and seeks your light. Bring understanding into the hearts of my brothers, some of whom still harbor resentment for the charitable acts of our parents. . .”
As I listened to Jesus’ censure, I suppressed a grin. I was certain Simon deserved some blame too, and I had spoken against Reuben myself, but Jesus was talking mostly about James and Joseph now. He continued on about other matters, both thanking the Lord and asking for His blessings, but all I could think of was his censure, that had been a long time coming, and the expression on James and Joseph’s faces.
That night, after we all crawled onto our pallets, thoughts spiraled in my head. What had Jesus done to Papa? Had he summoned God’s magic, as he had so many times before? Or had Papa just decided, on his own, to defeat demon drink? All of the questions that came to me before I fell asleep were too much for my tired mind. My last thoughts before I fell asleep defied logic and kept me awake for several moments. . . . What did poor Reuben do in place of using the cloaca? Had he snuck out during the darkness to use it. . . Or, perish the thought, did he do his business in his room? Poor Mama, I thought, setting up and looking around the room. The awful things she has to do!
Everyone, except Jesus and I, were asleep. Simon snored faintly next to me. The darker outlines of James and Joseph were unmoving, but I could see Jesus sitting at the table in the dim light, a small candle casting its glow on his scroll. Without hesitation, I sprang up and shuffled quietly across the room.
“What are you reading Jesus?” I whispered, easing onto a stool.
“Words spoken to the Israelites by the prophet Moses,” Jesus answered shortly. “You should be asleep!”
“I heard about Moses,” I said, ignoring his rebuke. “What did he say?”
“He said many things.” Jesus exhaled heavily. “I found a passage I would like James and Joseph to read.”
“Read it to me Jesus,” I jumped up and down excitedly on my stool.
“All right, but keep it down,” he shushed, looking down at his scroll.
Jesus leaned close, as he read, his voice tickling my ear, “The Lord executes the judgment of the fatherless and widow and loves the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. You must love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt—”
“Why are you laughing?” Jesus eyebrows plunged. “Moses said something very important. Since the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, he was telling the generations that followed they must be charitable to the widow, orphan, and downtrodden. By taking in Mariah, Michael, Nehemiah, and Reuben, our family has done all of these things and has also practiced the forgiveness demanded by God.”
“According to Daniel,” he added, rolling out the scroll, ‘To the Lord belongs mercy and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against him.’ The prophet Nehemiah told us ‘God is ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness.’” “There are many such passages.” He raised a finger instructively. “Even King David, a great sinner himself, wrote of God’s forgiveness. The Lord, who dispenses mercy and kindness, expects the same from us.”
“Whoa,” I gasped, his words spinning in my head, “my friend Nehemiah was named after a great prophet? I don’t think James and Joseph will like this at all. They didn’t want us to help Mariah or adopt Michael and Nehemiah. They sure don’t want Reuben in our house.”
“Shhh!” Jesus placed his finger in front of his lips. “You must not say a word about this to our brothers. Let me read these scriptures to James, Joseph, and Simon, myself. You Jude, have been guilty at times, yourself, but your heart is pure.” “Now, little brother,” he spoke softly yet firmly, “crawl into you pallet. Dream of your big white horse. Tomorrow will be here soon.”
Honored once again by his confidence in me, I obeyed quickly with pounding heart, eager to mount my stead but also excited to embark upon another day. With Jesus as a big brother, I never knew what the day might hold. Among the miracles no one could deny, were the raising of the dead bird and the calling forth of the rain to put out the fire consuming Mariah’s house. The quieting of storms at sea and the curing of the Pharisee’s son, I had not seen, but Jesus had recorded these miracles in his letters from Greece, Rome, and Gaul. There were other instances of Jesus miracles I had been witness to that couldn’t be explained easily as coincidence or chance. Among Jesus miracles, implanted forever in my head, as I fell asleep, was the curing of Papa’s drunkenness. For this miracle, I felt great appreciation for my oldest brother, but also frustration. Slowly it was penetrating my thick skull that God was the author of all wonders, but in my child-like mind Jesus gave himself too little credit for the miracles he performed. Just once I wished he would give me, if no one else, a wink or nod to acknowledge what he had done.
Mama tiptoed back and forth across the floor to check on Reuben, as James, Joseph, and Simon slept through the night. I caught sight of her earlier, as I talked to Jesus but thought nothing of it. It appeared as if Mama was merely making her nightly rounds. Jesus checked on Reuben quite often himself. The passages he read to me proved that he had Reuben on his mind. As I fell asleep contemplating Jesus and my great white horse, I heard Mama’s footsteps scurry pass again, and I looked up just in time to see her pass by with a small lamp. Jesus jumped up immediately to join her in the next room. I could hear Reuben groan like a great wounded lion. A cool gush of wind into the room, as if the kitchen window or one of the doors was open, alerted me in the darkness of a basic change in the room. The back door had been flung open!
“Come back you fool,” Jesus cried in a subdued voice. “The moon is out. The guards will see you running in the dark.”
“James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude,” Mama called frantically, “Reuben is delirious again. “We must grab him and drag him back before he alerts our guards.”
“What’s going on?” Papa called out groggily, lighting the large lamp.
Mama wrung her hands. “Jesus and I were trying to calm Reuben, but he broke away from us and fled from the house.”
“If need be,” Papa’s vowed angrily, “I’ll kill him before he’s seen by our guards.”
All of us raced out the door after Reuben. Jesus had already seized one of his big burly arms, and James and Joseph now grabbed the other. Papa stood in front of him, brandishing his sword awkwardly in both hands. Simon and I huddled beside Mama, who held up the lamp. A great dread filled all of us that a guard would be making his rounds this moment.
“Let me go! I’ll take my chances,” he wailed in a strangled voice. “Believe me, the Romans won’t understand this. All it will take would be one of your children’s playmates being questioned or a neighbor gossiping to a guard and wham! They’d break into your house. It would be a disaster for you folks!”
“Get inside! So help me, ” Papa growled menacingly, “I’ll run you through.”
“Reuben your not thinking clearly,” Mama said gently. “Get into the house before they see you standing here.”
“Papa,” Joseph yelped, “you can’t kill him. You didn’t kill him in the garden when he threatened our family. Let him go. If the Romans find him this close to our house we’re finished—all of us!”
Reuben didn’t sound delirious to me. Mama assumed he was out of his head when he ran off, but he was making sense to everyone else. Papa could no more commit murder than Jesus tell a lie. What convinced Reuben that he was acting foolishly was the sudden clatter of horses hooves on the road in front of our house. Papa cursed angrily under his breath. As James, Joseph, Simon, and I wept, Jesus scolded Reuben for not trusting in the Lord. It was the sound of horses and Mama’s coaxing, however, that finally convinced him to return to the house. I would have preferred Reuben escaping into the hills. With the exception of Jesus, I was certain my brothers felt the same. When the door shut safely behind us and Reuben was led trance-like across the floor, we all heaved sighs of relief, and yet a feeling of hopelessness settled heavily upon us as we sat around the kitchen table contemplating our guest.
“What do we do now?” James groaned. “We can’t keep him in our house. Reuben said so himself. Maybe you were right Papa. You should’ve killed him. It’s him or us.”
“That’s enough James,” Papa rasped, clutching the sword in his lap. “Joseph’s right. I’m not a murderer. I can’t kill him. I had my chance.” “Here Mama,” he said, handing her his weapon, “put this away then get us all a mug of juice.”
The perspiration on his brow and his shaky hands told us that he really wanted a mug of wine. It was no wonder Papa threatened Reuben with a sword. For several moments, as Mama went into the other room to store the sword and bring out the frightened twins, we all sat glaring at Reuben. A twinge of pity filled me, as I watched his head droop. Mama gave Abigail and Martha a handful of sweetmeats she had kept hidden from Simon and I and scooted them off to bed.
“Reuben should lie down,” she called, bringing us a pitcher a juice.
An apron full of mugs clattered as she walked. After setting down mugs then filling them for each of us, she went to fetch a basket of cheese and bread.
“Thank you fine lady,” Reuben murmured, raising his mug shakily to his lips.
“You’re welcome Reuben.” She smiled, nestling beside Papa at the table. “I’m proud of you Joseph,” she whispered, gripping his knuckles. “I’m sorry we don’t have any more wine.”
“This is my fault,” Reuben said, looking forlornly into his cup.
“My drinking’s not your fault,” snarled Papa. “It’s your fault my family has lived in fear and been forced to rely on Rome’s protection. It’s your fault we’re in the dilemma we’re in now!”
“Peace, my husband,” Mama chided him gently. “You can’t blame Reuben for being in our house. You and your sons brought him home. I, with the Lord’s help, have kept him alive.”
“Words!” spat Papa. “Let us deal with facts. The fact is we’re giving sanctuary to a fugitive from our Roman protectors—one of the very men they’ve been protecting us from. Reuben is right, Mary, they won’t understand this. It’s absurd. How long can we keep this secret before one of our neighbors or one our sons’ playmates turns us in?”
James flashed me an accusing look. “I don’t trust Jude’s friends.”
“Can we trust anyone in Nazareth?” Mama uttered a bitter laugh. “Such fair-weather friends!”
“At least I have friends.” I looked at Mama. “James and Joseph’s friends won’t come into our house.”
“Your friends,” James said accusingly, “heard Reuben yell. That’s why they ran. What if they told their parents? What if their parents tell the Romans about what they heard?”
“Stop it James,” snapped Jesus, “this isn’t Jude’s fault.”
“What’re we gonna do?” Joseph gripped his head. “Why did we take Reuben into our house? We should’ve let him rot down there!”
With that said, Reuben rose up shakily and lumbered back to his room. Jesus ran ahead to open the door and help him onto his table. Our family was facing its greatest crisis since Mariah was in our house. As I listened to Mama scold James and Joseph, a notion grew in my mind. It seemed inconceivable that we could hide Reuben indefinitely in our home. He was a giant of a man and the hairiest man I’ve ever seen. To say that he was ugly, however, was unfair. Beneath the grime and rags he wore, after he was cleaned up by Mama and given some of Papa’s clothes, there was an ordinary, big, hairy man. His wooly head and long scraggly beard was bronze colored with streaks of gray. If his beard was cut off and his head shaved, he would no longer stand out like a circus bear. Who knows what lie beneath all that hair? Without even thinking about what I was saying, I laid out my plan. As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized I had found the solution to our problem.
“It’s so simple,” I declared, bouncing up and down. “All we have to do is change his looks. Mama cleaned him up and he’s wearing different clothes, but he still looks like Reuben.”
“He’ll always look like Reuben,” Joseph snarled.
“What are you saying?” Mama studied me a moment.
I thought about what I was going to say. A flicker of humor lit Papa’s dark eyes, as he listened to my plan.
“First Mama shaves off his beard and trims his hair. No one has seen Reuben without all that fuzz. Next we disguise him as someone the Romans wouldn’t pay attention to.”
“That’s where your plan falls apart,” James said mockingly. “What kind of disguise would hide that monstrous head, those bow legs, and trunk sized arms? Like Michael, he has freckles and red hair.”
“It’s a stupid plan,” muttered Joseph. “We can’t disguise that man.”
“Wait a minute,” Mama held up her hand. “I could dye his hair black or brown; that might help. There are many strange-looking men in Galilee with oversized heads and trunk-sized arms.”
“There’s something else James and Joseph have forgotten.” Papa stroked his beard. “Longinus said their men will be pulled out of Nazareth at any time. If this happens it won’t be hard for Reuben to sneak down the Shepherd’s trail and begin a new life.”
“What will he do,” Joseph asked scornfully, “and where will he go? He can’t stay in Nazareth. He must go far away from our town, but do we have to wait until our Roman guards leave?”
Jesus reappeared like a phantom in the room, startling us half out of our wits. “Reuben is unwell,” he said reproachfully. “He can’t leave for awhile. He can barely walk. He told us that he’s a changed man. I think we should give him a chance. When he’s ready, he’ll leave Nazareth and return to Joppa where he grew up as a child. I overheard your plans to change his appearance. I don’t like deception, but we must insure that he can leave safely without being caught.”
James gave Papa a questioning look. “We must wait until the Romans are gone? That might be days, weeks, or months.”
“Perhaps,” he answered curtly. “During the meantime we must be vigilant. No guests.
No one leaves the front and backyard. When Reuben’s sheared, we can claim he’s a relative or friend. Until the Romans pull out, he stays put, and you stay put!”
“What about our friends?” Joseph gave him a forlorn look. “Must we be prisoners too?”
“For awhile.” He smiled grimly. “Our most important problem is Reuben. When he’s feeling better, Mama can begin his transformation. That might require another miracle.”
“Above all, we must be calm,” Jesus said, raising two fingers, “and trust in the Lord.”
“Calm?” grumbled James, “how can we be calm?”
Unlike James and Joseph, Simon and I didn’t have to visit our friends. It was Jethro, Obadiah, Boaz, and Jonah who visited our house. Under the circumstances, Simon and I couldn’t blame my parents for keeping them away. Right now they couldn’t be trusted. In fact no outsiders could be trusted. I felt a measure of pride that they took my suggestion seriously. I tried not to gloat about it, as I sat there sipping my juice, but I had given my family a solution to the problem. James and Joseph whispered back and forth heatedly a few moments, as Simon sat staring blankly into space. Mama had slipped into Reuben’s sick room those moments, and, with Jesus help, began escorting him to the kitchen to discuss my plan. Though I was not given credit for it, Papa winked at me as she explained exactly what we were going to do. Reuben agreed enthusiastically. Tears filled his bloodshot eyes, and, for several moments, we forgot that he was our enemy and a hunted fugitive of Rome.
In the days following our meeting, Reuben was transformed into a clean-shaven, raven-haired eunuch (Papa’s jest) that, in truth, looked nothing like the dirty, hairy, ragged horror whose very name terrorized our family and town. It was learned in idle conversation from Reuben that his father had been Greek, and Reuben could still speak the language. Reuben was twelve years old when he and his Jewish mother fled from her drunken husband to relatives in Nazareth. This revelation heartened all of us, because it meant that Reuben could masquerade as a Greek. Because of our religion and custom, clean-shaven Jews were not common in Galilee, but, according to Papa, it was not uncommon for Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jews to shave off their beard. Reuben’s ability to speak Greek would make his disguise much more believable to anyone stumbling upon our strange guest.
For the first few days, after my plan went into effect, until Reuben’s disguise was perfected, the fiction of our sisters fever kept Simon and my friends away. It was, in Papa’s words, “wait and see.” Simon and I took walks together with our oldest brother, Jesus once again chatting about the plants and animals alongside the path. We still didn’t understand where he learned all this information. Though Simon and I were anxious to rejoin our gang, I didn’t resent Jesus know-it-all airs this time and the fact he distrusted our friends. These were hard times for our family. My fears about Reuben were more important than the boredom I felt. In the days ahead, our friends trickled back to our house and were given news of the improved status of the twins but then sent on their way. Ezra had not returned to our house since his argument with Papa, but Ezra had been angry with Papa many times before. Until Papa felt comfortable with our neighbors and his sons’ playmates, it remained wait and see. Simon and I were restricted to nature hikes with Jesus, while James and Joseph would be kept in isolation until our Roman guards were gone. Because of the hostility of their friends, Papa felt little sympathy for them and promised to extend their isolation indefinitely if Isaac and Jeroboam’s attitudes didn’t change.
During the second week as our ‘Greek guest’ lay low in our house, Simon and I grew restless and bored. Impressed with our efforts at cooperation, Papa relaxed his restrictions, but would not allow our vigilance to wane. The only way my brothers and I could socialize with our friends was to allow Jesus to spy on us when we congregated in our backyard. It was a task Jesus found distasteful but was necessary given Isaac and Jeroboam’s attitude and Simon’s loose tongue. In addition to spying openly on each group, Jesus made random inspections of our property when not assisting Papa in the shop. When he wasn’t snooping on my gang, he was at different corner of the yard spying on James and Joseph’s friends. Though it was an improvement for us, the effect of Papa’s strict control and Jesus’ presence behind every bush and tree became stifling. James, Joseph, and their friends where able to adapt to the front yard as a meeting place. Our friends greatly missed the orchard in back of our yard and the path leading through the hills, yet they, too, begrudgingly accepted the temporary restrictions necessary because of the possibility that bandits still roamed the hills. To keep them from straying into the orchard, it was important for them to believe this threat without question. I still chuckle when I think about this half-truth, which I almost believed myself. One of the bandits everyone feared, Reuben, was no longer on the loose. Who the other bandits might be was left to our imaginations. Ironically, the one event that would greatly relieve our anxieties about detection, the departure of the Romans, would leave us open once more to our enemies. We had been told by Reuben that his own friends were captured by the Romans, along with most of Abbas bar Ibrim’s band, and it appeared as though his son, Jesus Bar Abbas was nothing more than a youth, but what if Reuben was wrong? What if at least one of his friends had escaped to the outskirts of Nazareth? The bandit Abbas bar Ibrim’s son might still be old enough to wield a knife, sword or bow. What if all the other bandits, who escaped, were lurking somewhere in the hills?
During the second and third week of Reuben’s new identity, as a Greek we had dubbed Alexander, these thoughts haunted us, but gradually, as we followed Papa’s instructions and remained vigilant for intruders, we began to feel safe, at least in our own backyard. In James mocking words “With Jesus prayers and Papa’s sword close by, what could we fear?” The truth was, I felt safe having Jesus watch over us. I had seen Papa’s anger against our family’s foes, and, even as a bluff, his great curved sword was a terrible thing. Now that I think about it, with the Romans gone, there would be a fierce protector in our guest. With “Alexander,” Papa and his sons on the attack, an intruder might not have a chance. And yet we dreaded the day that the Romans would leave Nazareth for good. Though we seldom saw our lazy guards, we had grown used to their presence—invisible or not—and the thought of their eventual absence filled us with gloom.