Farewell to the Romans
Reuben proved to be an awkward addition to our family. With his clean shaven appearance, polite manners, and efforts to help us with our chores any way he could, he tried to fit into our daily routine, but the memory of who he once was and the lingering threat of our guards discovering him in our house had, in Papa’s words, poisoned the well. Though he tried to forgive Reuben, Papa didn’t trust the reformed bandit and continued to resent him for the dilemma our family was in. James and Joseph hated him for making them prisoners in their own yard. Like Papa, Simon and I worried about someone spotting Reuben and seeing through his disguise, but we no longer hated him. Unlike James and Joseph, we felt sorry for our guest. Papa once told us that Rome never forgets. If this was so, Reuben would be a fugitive from Rome for the rest of his life. He had two advocates in our home: Mama, his nurse, and Jesus, who healed his spirit.
Without warning one day, Cornelius and Longinus paid us a visit. We knew immediately that the Roman withdrawal had begun. Peeking out the window, Mama saw Falco, Priam and the other guards standing with Regulus in our yard as their leaders waited to make the formal notification. Fortunately, the odors of medicinal herbs no longer saturated the air and Reuben had been silently ushered into his room. Papa scurried from his shop, with James and Joseph not far behind. Jesus, who was working on a table in the backyard so that he could keep an eye on Simon and my friends, whispered shrilly to us “the Romans are here!” and we froze like statues in our tracks. It was then that Mama told us, as we moved fearfully up to the back door, what she saw in our front yard. All of our guards were pulling out it seemed. It would happen this very hour. My heart sank. I could see tears in Simon’s eyes and in our friends’ eyes too. I felt light headed, perhaps because I was in shock, for I laughed hysterically to myself. Mama hugged me first, then took Simon into her arms, as we broke down finally and cried. A dark picture formed in my head. I had never seen Jesus Bar Abbas or his cohorts, but I could imagine a small remnant band, carrying swords, bows, and spears, wearing the torn, grimy costumes of bandits as they snuck through the hills up to our house. No sooner did Mama withdraw her embrace from us, shut the door and join the meeting in our house, than Simon, myself, and our friends ran around the house to overhear the conversation inside.
As we craned our ears under the kitchen window, Regulus, Priam, Falco, Gratian, Leto, Diblius, and Zeno walked toward us laughing softly amongst themselves. Our friends immediately jumped up and fled from the scene. Afterwards, Jethro, Obadiah, Boaz, and Jonah stood by the roadside looking fearfully into our yard. Simon and I understood our guards’ friendly gesture, but to our friends the convergence of Roman soldiers boded ill. From earliest childhood, I remember that basic fear and distrust of Romans shared by my own brothers, James and Joseph and most Jews under Roman rule. Despite their dependency on the Romans for security, the townsfolk would never forgive them for the crucifixion of so many rebel Galileans, which included a number of Nazarene men. As our guards chatted with us, we could hear the voices of Cornelius, Longinus, and Papa inside the house.
“Regulus, Falco, Priam,” I called cheerily.
“Ah little Jude,” Regulus chortled, “seems your friends have flown the coup!”
“Don’t worry lads,” Falco spat on the ground, “we’ll be back when Cornelius changes Gratus’ mind. The new governor thinks guarding this backwoods town is a waste of time.”
As our guards aired their dissatisfaction with being pulled from this post, we could hear a similar conversation inside the house.
“Gratus is a difficult man,” Cornelius explained to Papa. “Because of Jerusalem’s unrest, his concern is now Judea, so he’s restricting the garrison in Galilee to the major cities of Sepphoris and Caesarea. Rome has only provided one legion for Judea, Perea, and Galilee, which leaves us stretched thinly across the province. The fault ultimately falls on Caesar’s lap.”
“Gratus is writing off the small cities,” Longinus said with disgust. “He thinks sending a detail of legionnaires once a month to Nazareth will be enough.”
“What do you think?” asked Papa calmly.
“What do you think?” I whispered to Regulus.
“Listen!” Regulus cupped his ear.
All of us, my friends included, could hear Cornelius answer.
“There will always be bandits.” He uttered a bitter laugh. “We destroyed most of Abbas’ band. Reuben, I was told, was badly wounded. He may even be dead. His friends have all been crucified. I’ll try to keep an eye on Nazareth, but my cohort will be short handed for awhile.”
“So they won’t be patrolling the hills,” Mama’s voice was filled with concern.
“I have heard about your son,” Longinus spoke artlessly. “My men think he has magical powers. I no longer believe in the gods, but from what I’ve been told, your town has all the protection it needs.”
Jesus, who had been silent since they arrived, said flatly, “I’m not a god.”
As I remember his exclamation, I’m convinced he believed it to be true, for Jesus couldn’t lie. Day by day, he was, I know now, learning about his Godhood. That day by the window I agreed with Jesus, however; he might have great power of prayer, but he wasn’t a god. Though our guards half believed the rumors about him, Cornelius good-naturedly chided Longinus for such an implication. Longinus, who spoke in jest, laughed, along with my parents and his commander. For several moments, as Regulus and his men stood quietly in the yard listening with Simon and I, my parents and the two officers discussed a plan in which the men of Nazareth could take turns patrolling Nazareth themselves. A schedule would be set were two, three or four men made their rounds during each shift, brandishing weapons that the cohort would provide. Falco and Priam nodded silently in agreement and Regulus snorted his approval. Yet most townsmen wouldn’t volunteer for such an enterprise, unless it was demanded by the Governor, himself. In our family’s discussions, Papa had spoken about citizen militias before Israel’s first king, but this was far more basic. I wasn’t sure whether or not my parents were happy or sad about the Romans leaving, but I was quite certain they wouldn’t want the townsfolk tramping through the hills in back of our house.
Mama offered to give the Romans food and drink, but Cornelius and Longinus politely declined, which was for the best since my parents had no more wine. I could hear my friends murmuring amongst themselves as they returned to our yard, their curiosity now greater than their fear. As Cornelius and Longinus emerged from the house chatting with my parents, the guards turned to heckle our friends as they approached. Falco called them cowards. More kindly, Priam said they were fair-weather friends, a term my parents often used. I couldn’t blame our friends for being afraid. Except for those Romans who befriended my parents and held Jesus in awe, our protectors had little respect for Jews. Though they might not be cowards as Falco claimed, it seemed likely, as Priam alleged, that Jethro, Obadiah, Boaz, and Jonah were, in fact, fair-weather friends. What had drawn them to our house? Why now, after all this time? Perhaps it was the notoriety or fame of our family. Had we not protected Mariah, the town witch? Jesus became a local legend after calling forth a storm to put out the fire burning her house. In addition to being Mariah’s protector, Papa was the firebrand who had attacked the rabbi in defense of his heretic son. As I look back in time, these seem to be reasonable explanations for our newfound friends, but it might have been something much more basic: the same thing that lured previous playmates to our yard. The path leading from our house through Nazareth’s hills became the Shepherd’s Trail, the rude beginnings of an ancient byway that led to Jerusalem, itself, Israel’s holiest city, a vast playground were my brothers and our friends had romped and cavorted as if it was our private realm.
With the withdrawal of our protectors, the lingering threat of bandits would make our playground off limits, restricting our activities to our front and back yards. In spite of our friends’ return, this depressed me very much, but not as much as the fact that our hills would be unguarded. Unless the threat of bandits was removed once and for all, we might never be safe. Over-riding even this concern was the imminent threat of disclosure, if not by the Romans, themselves, by inquisitive townsmen and friends. Within the narrow boundaries of our property, our new friends would prove to be a great nuisance in my family’s efforts to hide Reuben. Simon and I didn’t trust Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz, and we sometimes found Jonah an embarrassment to be around. I therefore had mixed feelings about our fair-weather friends’ return. On the one hand, I once again had playmates—a motley group of misfits like myself. On the other hand, I was filled with nostalgia for my old gang. In spite of Michael’s mischief, Nehemiah’s frailty, and Uriah’s timid ways, I had never worried about what they were thinking, as I did with my current friends. They had been loyal. I trusted them. They looked upon me as their leader in simple, at times mischievous, games. I longed for those carefree days with my first gang, when our only concern was harassment by my brothers and not bandits lurking in the hills. Before the bird flew from Jesus’ hands and our lives began to change, before Michael’s mother was given sanctuary in our house, before the turmoil following Jesus second miracle that made him a blasphemer and heretic in the rabbi’s eyes, and before the threat of the bandits Reuben and Abbas, we had no thought for tomorrow. Until the incident of the sparrow, we had no family problems or pressing concerns. Every day was an adventure for my friends and me, until we visited Michael’s mother and set in motion that series of crashing events, which brought the Romans to our town.
That day when the Romans finally marched out of Nazareth filled us all with misgivings but it reduced the threat caused by Reuben’s presence in our house. Papa and Mama hid the mixed emotions they felt with a cheery farewell to the troops, handing over to Cornelius, Longinus, Regulus, and our guards our weekly supply of fresh baked bread and flasks of juice. Simon and I felt close to our guards, especially Falco and Priam, and had even grown to like Regulus, the crusty optio, as well. They promised to visit us whenever they were in this part of Galilee. Perhaps, said Regulus, when the governor regained his wits, he would send them back to patrol Nazareth on a regular basis once again. Simon and I then ran up to Cornelius and Longinus to say goodbye before they climbed onto their horses. They also promised to return someday if Gratus changed his mind, but I was afraid I would never see them again.
Cornelius, though we had seen little of him since the rescue of Mariah, remained my favorite Roman. His appearance as a morning specter at the Nazareth bridge was my first important encounter with Rome, but I also thought often of Longinus arrival that moment to take our side against rabbi Joachim, and our introduction to the iron-jawed Regulus and our lazy, carefree guards at the Shepherd’s camp. There were numerous times when Falco and Priam chatted with us as we romped in back of our house, and yet of all the memories the encounter with the Roman at the bridge had burned the brightest in my memory until my dreams of Longinus.
Cornelius, the last rider to turn his horse toward the Jerusalem road, galloped back to where I stood next to my brothers and friends. Perhaps out of curiosity, he turned back and sat a distance away on his mount.
“Have you saved the coin I gave you little Jude?” He asked, looking down from his horse.
“Yes, Cornelius.” My heart leaped in my chest.
“You never told me about that.” Simon frowned. “Where did you hide your coin?”
“The Roman prefect gave him a coin,” the words were passed down the line of boys gathered by the road.
I gave them a mysterious smile.
Once again, as on the bridge, the sun was at Cornelius’ back. We had to shield our eyes from the glare, until the rider and horse edged close enough to block out the sun. Standing in the shadow of Cornelius, I could see, a great warrior. Once again he tossed a coin to me, but this time he followed this up with a handful of coins that caused my brother and friends to scramble excitedly on all fours in the dirt. Looking beyond Cornelius, as he saluted and sharply turned his horse, I caught a glimpse of someone who would become even more important in my life, though his presence now sent a chill up my spine—Longinus. How could he appear in the same dream three different times without there being meaning in the dream? A feeling of foreboding I couldn’t put into words filled me as I bolted onto the road.
“Goodbye Longinus,” I called out, tears willing up in my eyes. “Thank you for protecting our house.”
“Fear not Jude,” he shouted merrily over his shoulder, “Rome won’t forget your town. Give that brother of yours my regards!”
Suddenly, overwhelmed with the feeling of destiny I saw in my brother and I, I wept silently to myself. Standing in the yard, between our mother and father, Jesus had said nothing to the Romans but raised his hand in farewell. In a gesture that would haunt me for many years, Longinus turned once more, reared up on his stallion, and saluted Jesus in recognition. As a cold wind blew over me, I shivered and turned my back to the road. Simon and Jethro asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t speak. When I reached my parents and oldest brother, I found my voice and searched Jesus blue eyes.
“I have dreamed of that man,” I said hoarsely, “not once but three times—terrible dreams.”
“Hush, little Jude,” Mama cupped my mouth, fear widening her eyes.
“What’s he talking about?” Papa looked at Jesus.
Jesus gave me a sad look. Before I could reply, Mama took my arm and dragged me across the yard out of earshot of them. Simon and my friends stood by the gate mystified by my actions. I thought I might get a thorough scolding but found myself pressed to Mama’s bosom.
“Jesus told me about your dreams,” she whispered softly. “You have been blessed—or cursed—with visions, as Jesus and I, yet we’ve never had such dreams. I’m not sure what yours means. I don’t want to know. Your father especially doesn’t need to hear the dream about the crosses. He has his own nightmares to bear. Perhaps, the meaning of your dreams will come to you someday, but I pray they don’t come soon. You’re still a child, Jude. Jesus, despite the storms and the sparrow, is only sixteen years old.”
“I’ll try not to have any more dreams Mama.” I looked up impishly.
She ruffled my hair with such affection I felt very special and scarcely heard James and Joseph’s jeers. For them my fondness for Romans had become scandalous. I might as well be a Gentile by the way I carried on. For Simon, however, it was a chance for some friendly banter.
“Jude, the little Mama’s boy!” he hooted good-naturedly.
“You can’t stop what you dream,” Mama was cooing to me.
Jethro, Obadiah, Boaz, and Jonah stood patiently there as she whispered endearments. “Enjoy your childhood,” she said, “run with your friends, and forget all those silly dreams.”
Normally, I would have been embarrassed by such a display in front of friends. Reluctantly this time, I broke away, wondering if James and Joseph were jealous or simply disgusted with the affection shown to me. I didn’t care. I was in favor with Mama; they weren’t. Simon was just being an ass.
“What was all that mushy stuff?” He wrinkled his nose.
“Oh, Mama was just scolding me,” I lied.
I tried to think of exactly what that might be, but Simon let the subject drop.
“How are you going to spend your coin?” Boaz blinked stupidly at me.
“I’m going to save mine,” I answered pertly. “Someday I’m going to buy a horse.”
“Are the Romans gone for good?” asked Jethro, as we scampered into the backyard.
We all seemed to run around aimlessly a few moments with nervous energy, as an answer formed in my head.
“Maybe not,” I huffed and puffed. “Cornelius, Longinus, and Regulus said they want to return. That’s good enough for me.”
“My Papa’s glad the Romans are leaving.” Obadiah made a face. “The Romans crucified our people. They hate Jews.”
“Uh-uh,” I replied, shaking my head, “not our Romans.”
“Our Romans are different,” Simon nodded in agreement. “They protected us. They protected you too—the whole town. You’re gonna be sorry they’re gone.”
I felt proud of Simon that moment. Though he often made fun of me, he had supported me on this important issue. I wasn’t sure how the others felt about it, but I would spend many weeks trying to convince Jethro and Obadiah that not all Romans were bad. Papa stuck his head out the back door and warned us not to go into the trees. Jesus or himself would check on us to make sure we had not gone into the orchard. I was just happy to run freely with my brother and friends. To start things off, we played hide-and-go-seek. Fortunately for the purpose of this game, there were several bushes and tree stumps behind our house as well as one scraggly oak in the center of the yard. I volunteered to be the seeker, since I knew all of the best places to hide.
With my forehead pressed against the oak, I slowly counted to fifty. When I reached, forty-five, I could hear the crunch of leaves. Though I had not finished counting, someone seemed to be approaching from behind me. Was it an animal, perhaps a dog or jackal? I hoped it wasn’t one of Abbas’ bandits moving up the hill. Fearing the worst, I opened my eyes and peered around anxiously. A form moved behind me, skirting the far edge of vision, too high off the ground to be a dog, jackal or other four footed beast. I let out a yelp that drew Simon out of his hiding place behind a pomegranate bush.
“What happened?” he called through cupped hands.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking anxiously around. “I heard something. I saw something.”
“What? Where?” He cried, appearing wide eyed and mouth agape, by my side.
“It sort of flittered at the corner of my eye,” I tried to explain.
“Maybe it was a snake. That’s why you didn’t see it.” Simon looked down at the ground.
“No, it was high enough for me to see it up here.” I held my hand at eye level. “That’s too high for an animal, unless it was as tall as me.”
A frightened look was taking hold of Simon’s face. I was reminded of those moments when Jesus and I saw the Evil One, but this time, as I scanned and re-scanned our yard, I began thinking that maybe my first thought was correct. It must have been an animal, possibly even a large bird, such as a hawk diving down for its prey. That would explain it being at eye level. Reconciled to this logic, I suggested that we continue the game without further pause. While Simon ran off to hide again, I hid my eyes, quickly counted to twenty, and looked around with foreboding at the yard. I was in no mood to play this game, but, because I knew all the great hiding places, my discovery of my friends should move quickly. The object, of course, was to tag the player before he ran and touched my tree. Boaz was found hiding behind a trunk too narrow for his great hulk and Obadiah was hiding behind thin underbrush that could not camouflage his dark tunic and pants. How I discovered Jethro was more dishonest, since I came right out and asked Obadiah where he thought he might hide.
“I saw him run down the trail, ” He pointed. “I think he’s heading toward the cave.”
“Father Abraham!” I slapped my forehead. “We’re forbidden to go there!”
Boaz and Obadiah followed me down the Shepherd’s trail a ways, calling threw cupped hands, “Joshua, Samson, free-free-free!”
“Not too far.” I raised my hand abruptly. “With those words, he’s supposed come back on his own.”
“What if your Papa catches you down here?” Obadiah gave me a fearful look.
“Your right,” I gasped. “We’re past the tree-line. Come on. Let’s go back up the trail.”
Moving reluctantly down the trail behind us, after the game ending call were Simon and Jonah, too frightened to move beyond the crest of the hill. In spite of my fear, a thought came to me that moment.
“What’re you doing Jude?” Simon shouted angrily. “You’re gonna get us in trouble!”
“I bet Jethro’s hiding in the cave,” I cried, racing down the trail.
“Hurry up, Jude,” squealed Jonah. “Jesus’ll pop up any moment. We’re gonna get caught.”
“Jesus is a heretic,” Obadiah spat accusingly. “My father thinks he’s a blasphemer too.”
“Do you even know what those words mean?” I punched him in the arm.
“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” Simon called over his shoulder as he charged back to the yard.
Boaz, as slowly as syrup, was trekking far behind us when Jethro appeared on the trail. Quickly running past the oversized youth, he was muttering frantically to himself, “Someone’s out there. I heard him. I saw’em at the corner of my eye when I was looking in the cave.”
“You shouldn’t have gone there,” exclaimed Simon. “We told you to stay off the trail!”
The other boys playfully pummeled Jethro with their fists, ruffling his hair, and heckling him for being such a frightened lamb. He kept muttering over and over to himself as we arrived safely in the backyard “Someone’s out there. . . . Someone’s out there.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, pulling him aside. “What’re you saying? Let’s hear what he has to say.”
Settling beneath the oak, we crowded around Jethro, whose pale face and trembling hands reminded me of how I felt. Jethro kept looking around, speaking in a hushed tone, “I was on that little narrow path leading to the cave. I heard gravel crunch behind me, but when I whirled around it was gone. Then, as I looked in the cave, I saw a shadow to the side of me, crooked and terrible. I kept looking behind me as I ran back, and I could see something moving in the brush alongside of me on the trail.” “Let’s go back to your front yard Jude,” he said, bolting up and charging up the path leading around our house.
“Good idea,” I followed quickly behind. “Maybe Mama will give us some punch.”
“And some honey rolls.” Boaz’s eyes brightened.
When we reached the front yard, I remembered the rules about entrance: knock three times then wait. It was the same for the backyard, but, considering what Jethro told us, we felt much safer here. Reuben, I knew, would retreat to his room, and then Mama, Papa or Jesus would answer the door. The fact that Jesus had not checked on us once during our romp in the orchard belied his role as spy. When Mama stuck her head out finally, she had a sad look on her face.
“What’s wrong Mama?” Simon and I asked.
“Samuel’s very sick,” she answered, holding the door protectively. “Jesus has gone with Papa to his house. You boys play in the backyard now.”
“Will Samuel live?” I asked, reaching for the door.
“Yes, Jude,” she snapped irritability, “now go play in the back!”
“Can we have some of your pomegranate punch and rolls?” Simon called hurriedly as she began shutting the door.
Reluctantly we returned to our play area, peeking around the corner of the house as we scanned the backyard. Slowly, one by one, we walked slowly back to our tree. Soon Mama emerged between the shop and house with a tray of pomegranate juice and rolls. To avoid detection of Reuben, she had chosen this path instead of emerging from the back door. Simon and I raced ahead of our friends in order to grab the choicest rolls. The route Mama had taken to deliver our snack made sense to us but struck our friends as very strange. We couldn’t explain to them that Mama was afraid they might peek into the back door. Jethro and Obadiah, who already distrusted our family, seemed perplexed as they sipped their punch. Boaz, who stuffed his face with rolls, didn’t care. When she was out of earshot, it was Jonah, with a look of wonder on his girlish face, who questioned Mama’s route.
“Why did she walk this way and not that way?” He pointed his little finger.
“Shut up Jonah!” Simon growled under his breath.
“Very suspicious,” Jethro murmured to Obadiah, “very suspicious indeed.”
“I know what,” I quickly changed the subject, “let’s play stones.”
“What’s that?” asked Boaz, gobbling down another roll.
“Come on,” I motioned enthusiastically. “It’s a fun game!”
As Jethro and Obadiah grumbled amongst themselves, Simon and I made a ring of pebbles, then placed cobble stones in the middle. Jonah stood staring at the back door, deep in thought. I was afraid Simon was going to get into an argument with Jethro and Obadiah, so I talked very loudly about the strange goings on in back of our house in order to distract Simon’s mind.
“I think it was a bird, cat or dog,” he snarled, glancing back at our friends.
“How do you explain what Jethro saw?”
“What did he see?” Simon snickered. “You both saw a shadow—phfft—nothing more!”
Standing back to inspect the circle, I replied thoughtfully, “It wasn’t nothing. There’s something out there. I kind of wish the Romans hadn’t left.”
The outline of our previous circle had merely required straightening up. With the ring finished, we placed more cobble stones foraged from the side of the path in the center. Afterwards, we each picked up a likely pair of stones to throw. By now Boaz and Jonah were hefting fair sized throwing rocks, themselves. After whispering to each other a moment more, Jethro and Obadiah joined us at the throwing line with dark, brown objects in both of their hands.
“Those are goat turds,” I explained drolly. “That’s a different game.”
Simon doubled up in laughter. Boaz shook his head with disgust as Jonah tittered politely behind his hand. I couldn’t help breaking into giggles myself as they dropped the turds in horror and wiped their hands on their tunics as if they had been defiled. With their faces flushed in embarrassment, they gave us fierce looks before half-heartedly finding two modest sized rocks. Quickly, averting Jethro’s angry glare, I explained to them that we must first toss our stones to decide the order of the game. All six of us took our places at the throwing line. My stone came closest to the outer line of pebbles, followed by Obadiah, Jethro, and Simon. Boaz had thrown his rock wide of the circle, and Jonah, who threw like a girl, tossed his stone into a nearby bush.
Once again we broke into laughter. As I took my turn, Jethro and Obadiah heckled Jonah unmercifully. The rumor that he was naked underneath his long flowing tunic wouldn’t die. To shut us up, he pulled his tunic up to display a neatly tied loincloth, which only made us laugh that much more. Mama stuck her head out that moment and scolded us, which seemed foolish with Reuben lurking about.
“You never liked James and Joseph teasing you!” She wagged a finger.
As a Syrian hand puppet, she darted back in and quickly shut the door. We continued playing stone toss, until we had finished the first round. No one had knocked a stone out of the circle, which was the only way to win the game. Simon and I therefore changed the rules, so that whomever came the closest to knocking out a stone won the game. When this didn’t happen either, we moved the line up a ways, fetched our rocks and tossed again. This time, Boaz, of all people, knocked a stone out of the circle. Dancing around like a circus bear, he slapped Jethro and Obadiah’s arms and ruffled my hair.
“What shall we play now?” Jonah asked pertly.
It was difficult not liking Jonah. He reminded me very much of Nehemiah.
“What do you want to play?” I patted his curly locks.
“Tag!” He bobbed his head.
“We just played hide-and-go-seek,” replied Jethro. “If we can’t go into the orchard, there’s no place to hide.”
“There’s different kinds of tag,” Jonah explained airily. “We can play blindfold tag.”
“Humph, I’ve heard of that.” I nodded with approval. “One player stands in the middle of a circle of players wearing a blindfold. The object of the game is for the ‘blind man’ to listen to the sounds around him in order to tag a player. The tagged player wins the game.”
“The players can’t move either,” Jonah raised a finger. “They can only make sounds to draw the blind man to them.”
“Yes,” Simon laughed with delight, “but the sounds have to be clicking and clucking noises.”
“Like so,” demonstrated Jonah. “The first one to be reached by the blind man wins the game.”
Boaz scratched his wooly head in confusion. Jethro and Obadiah folded their arms in dissent. I’m not certain what Jonah had in mind, but I was making it up as I went along. In the game I remember, whoever was tagged by the blind man was actually out of the game.
“This is stupid,” Jethro balked. “When you’re tagged, you lose, you don’t win. I’m not going to make those silly sounds.”
“Come on,” I motioned for us to begin, “this’ll be fun. Boaz will be in the center.”
Jonah and I drew a crude circle in the dirt around the Boaz, twenty paces from where he stood. With Boaz as the blind man, Jethro and Obadiah were greatly amused. I ran to fetch a clean rag from Papa’s shop. Simon wrapped it so tightly and securely around Boaz’s eyes there was no way he could see. Stationing ourselves around the circle, we began squeaking, chirping and clicking our tongues. Boaz stumbled around foolishly awhile, as we stood in our spots. At one point, as he groped beyond the circle, I stuck my foot out and tripped him, but Boaz regained his balance with my help, which, because he grabbed my hand, meant I won.
“You tripped him! You tripped him!” Jonah pointed accusingly at me.
Simon, Jethro and Obadiah slapped their knees with mirth.
“My mistake,” I said, helping Boaz remove his blindfold, “but that just lost you the game.”
“It’s a silly game.” Boaz shrugged. “I liked hide-and-go-seek better.”
“Well I liked it,” Jonah stuck out his lower lip. “Jude wasn’t playing by the rules.”
“All right, what do we do now?” I piped, hopping onto a tree stump and folding my arms.
For several moments, puffed up by my role as leader, I listened to more suggestions on what to play. Boaz insisted on hide-and-go-seek once more. Simon, Jethro and Obadiah wanted to toss knives, while Jonah wanted to continue my made up game. Out of nowhere it seemed, a youth about James, or even Jesus’ age, appeared in the yard.
“I’ve got a game for you,” he announced boldly. “It’s called ‘find the treasure.’ It’s simple. Someone hides the treasure after drawing a map showing where it’s at. The treasure-seekers begin searching, until someone finds the treasure. He then becomes the map-maker and buries a treasure, himself.”
Our fear of bandits caused us to draw back in fear. As Simon and I listened to the stranger, hefting rocks we grabbed up off the ground, our friends ran in different directions, Jonah running completely out of sight until drifting slowly back into the yard. Jethro and Obadiah gradually returned, each holding rocks in both hands. Boaz found a club, as Jonah settled behind a bush.
“Who-o-o ar-r-re you-u-u?” Jethro called through cupped hands.
“. . . Adam,” the boy answered hesitantly.
“Where did you come from?” Simon glared.
“. . . Sepphoris,” he answered after a pause.
It seemed he wasn’t quite sure of his own identity. He looked hungry, weary and footsore. He was barefoot too. The Shepherd’s vest and pants he wore were torn and covered in grime. And yet there had been a strange dignity in his voice.
“Who’s your father?” I walked slowly over to him. “I’ve never seen you in Nazareth before.”
He explained carefully, “...Abbas, my father, was killed by bandits, and the shepherds chased me away.”
“What bandits?” demanded Jethro. “Why would the shepherds be chasing you away?”
The words “Abbas,” “bandits,” and “chased” were elements of truth in this attempt at deception. Luckily, while everyone faced Adam, I was facing the house. The expression on Adam’s face was difficult to discern beneath all that grime. A familiar face looked out of the window that moment, and I realized, in a flash, who the stranger was. Reuben, who had mentioned his name before, displayed instant recognition. Though he was in shadows, there was no mistaking the expression on his face. Fortunately, his head dropped out of sight before he was seen. Heaving a great sigh, I sat on my stump and thought about what I had discovered. It seemed obvious but apparently only to me. Here stood the legendary Abbas bar Ibrim’s son, Jesus, my brother’s namesake. It seemed plain to me that he was no more than a lost hungry youth, and yet, like Reuben, he had been part of Abbas’ band and was therefore an outlaw of Rome. I saw no weapon on his belt, which was a mere rope tied around his waste. His bloodied feet had tramped over the sharp rocks, thorns and brambles of the Nazarene hills. Yet, upon closer inspection, I could see a brave smile and clear, unblinking blue eyes. How similar, in fact, he was to my oldest brother.
I found myself saying, “I will ask my mother for food and drink.”
Simon protested this act. Boaz scratched his head. Our friends grumbled amongst themselves as I ran up to the back door. Close on my heels was Jonah, with wrinkled brow and pouting lips.
“I said I’m going to ask my mother. Go back!” I turned and wrung my fist.
“This is a mistake Jude,” Simon said begrudgingly. “You know Mama. It won’t stop with a handout. She’ll adopt him, like she did Michael and Nehemiah. We don’t need another brother!”
“What are you hiding?” Jethro called in the distance.
The door opened then shut quickly, as Mama handed out a basket and flask, with the words “I heard. We both know who Adam is.” I felt the urge to defend him, but felt outnumbered at this point. Adam sat on the stump I vacated, devouring the bread and fruit and slurping down the juice from the flask. Jethro, Obadiah, Simon, and Jonah stood around him with looks of disgust on their faces. I had slipped Boaz a roll from the basket to gain his support. When Adam was finished, he wiped his mouth on his dirty sleeve and stood boldly on the stump.
“All right,” he piped enthusiastically, “do you remember the rules of my game?”
“Yes, its simple,” Boaz nodded. “It’s like hide-and-go-seek, only everyone’s ‘it.’ ”
“Right!” Adam hopped down from the stump.
“That’s pretty good,” I patted Boaz’s back with approval.
Adam asked us to face away from the orchard and count to one hundred.
“One hundred?” Obadiah groaned.
“One hundred,” Adam insisted, backing slowly down the hill. “I shall draw the map in the dirt and place four stones around it. It shall be a riddle, easy to remember. Don’t peek.”
“Remember,” I chirped airily, “no further than the trees.”
Boaz, I suspected, could barely count to ten. Jethro, Obadiah, and Jonah, I guessed, were more concerned about what was in our house. Though I had misgivings, I coaxed them all to participate in the game. Simon and I tried to keep an eye on them to make sure they didn’t peek in the windows. As I acted as counter, calling the numbers out loud and clear, Mama stuck her head out momentarily, frowned, then popped back in. “The sun will set soon, boys. Listen for my call.”
“. . . twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three,” I droned, looking askance. “Get away from the window Jethro. . . Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six. . . Simon watch Obadiah and Jonah.”
“I’m not peeking,” Boaz said defensibly. “What’re you hiding in your house?”
Coming from the plodding Boaz, this question thundered in my mind. Now, all of our friends were suspicious. I had an overpowering urge to run and tell Mama. Perhaps I should first find Papa or Jesus before our friends headed on home. When my count reached one hundred, we turned away from the house and began searching for the map. Four stones should not be hard to find. By now, however, after so many games, my friends were growing impatient with this diversion. Who was this peculiar boy and his strange manner? They grumbled. He was smelly and dirty and looked like a beggar’s son. Simon whispered in my ear “This isn’t a good idea!” Only Boaz kept his tongue, but he too was afraid.
Simon was right, of course. I should have ran home and told my parents about this youth. He was a trespasser, the son of a bandit leader. The very game he was teaching us to play, treasure hunt, should have given us a hint of what he was. But he was also very young, arriving on our property ragged, dirty, and without weapons and sandals on his blackened feet.
It was Jonah, the least interested in our game, who found the four stones. The map, which Adam said would also be a riddle, made no sense at all. A crooked line, we assumed was the Shepherd’s Trail, led to an X, which apparently meant “this is the spot,” but the crude symbols meant absolutely nothing to us.
“Let’s follow the line,” Boaz suggested innocently.
“To where?” Jethro frowned. “We have to solve the riddle.”
“So, let’s solve it,” I said, squinting down at the map.
All six of us squatted down on the dirt to analyze the symbols. Upon closer inspection, we decided that one symbol was a tree, which was not very helpful considering the number of trees in the hills. The second symbol under discussion, which looked like spikes, we then decided were thorns. Three slashes followed and then what, I guessed, by its shape, a large rock.
“I know what kind of tree that is.” I clapped my hands with delight. “It’s a thorn tree!”
“Yes!” Simon nodded with a grin. “I’ve seen them off the trail.”
“So what do the three slashes mean?” Jethro snarled.
“Humph.” I pursed my lips. “It obviously stands for three.”
“Three what?” Obadiah screwed up his face.
“The third tree!” Jonah hopped up and down excitedly.
I playfully ruffled his curly hair then set forth down the path leading to the Shepherd’s Trail.
“Where are you going?” cried Simon. “Where not suppose to go down there!”
“I’m going to find the treasure,” I declared. “Hopefully it won’t be too far.”
“What about the rock?” Boaz gave me a puzzled look. “Shouldn’t we look for that?”
“That’s were the treasure is buried,” I explained, charging ahead.
Knowing very well I was disobeying my parents, I led my band down the hill, past the orchard, until we reached the Shepherd’s Trail. Papa and Jesus’ apparent lack of concern emboldened me. At that point, however, we paused a moment to reflect on what we were doing. Considering the spooky goings on we had experienced in the orchard earlier and Jethro’s encounter at the cave, it seemed foolish. A brief argument followed between my friends and myself. Given the fact that the Romans no longer protected us, this enterprise might prove to be dangerous. What if some of the bandits, who escaped the Romans, were lurking in the hills? Who would defend us then? On the other hand, no one in Nazareth had ever seen a bandit roaming our hills. It had become, I heard Samuel once say, a story much like the dark phantoms mothers used to make their children behave. Both Simon and I personally knew one of the bandits, and I was almost certain Adam was a fugitive too. This gave me more courage than our friends. I was more afraid of my parents’ anger than bandits or any treachery from Adam, and yet, in no way, did I trust this strange youth. Though Simon may not have shared my pity for him, he shared my suspicion. As James and Joseph, he had grown weary of my parents adopting orphans, but could Adam be any worse than Michael had been?
A strange compulsion seemed to guide me as we searched for the rock. I know now that my desire to find the mock treasure could not have driven me. Nor had it been any search for treasure, which gave me an excuse to romp in the hills. It was the treasure bearer, himself, that had lured me into this game. The closer we came to the third thorn tree, the more I wondered why we were playing this silly game.
“Well there’s the first thorn tree,” I declared, marking it off in my mind.
A little further down, Simon called out the second thorn tree. This was very encouraging. Excitement and apprehension mounted in the group. For countless paces, we hiked down the path, until we could see a jagged, white rock among the underbrush.
“There it is!” Jonah pointed excitedly. “The third tree!”
“That’s too far!” Obadiah groaned.
“Well, I hope there a trail up to it,” grumbled Jethro. “Those look like bramble bushes to me. I’m not a snake.”
“Can’t you see?” Simon looked around at the group. “Adam’s playing a joke on us. We can’t go up there.”
“Sure we can,” I said, my hand shielding my eyes. “All we have to do is find a trail.”
“I’m going.” Boaz set his jaw.
“Me too,” Jonah chirped, bobbing his head.
While Jethro, Obadiah, and Simon stood there with folded arms, the three of us looked around for an opening, hoping it wouldn’t be like the orchard trail. It was Jonah’s bright eyes that picked out a noticeable break in the underbrush.
“That must be it.” He motioned eagerly. “Let’s give it a try.”
“Onward! To the treasure!” I shouted, scooting ahead of him.
Boaz was fast on Jonah’s heels, but for several moments, as I glanced back, the other three boys stood there on the main trail muttering amongst themselves.
“There’s no treasure up there,” Simon called out finally. “He probably buried some animal bones or garbage. I bet he’s watching us right now from behind a bush, laughing like a jackal.”
“Let’s go home,” Jethro said to his brother.
“Go ahead, go home,” Boaz sneered, “it’ll be all the more treasure for us.”
“You don’t really believe were going to find something valuable.” I gave Boaz an incredulous look.
“Yes,” Boaz and Jonah both chimed.
We must have been traveling on an animal trail. It was narrow and precarious. At certain points, deep holes, small boulders, and prickly plants lie in our path. To avoid stumbling or being scratched by brambles and thorns, we moved carefully and slowly, cursing Adam under our breaths as we moved. Before we reached, the X on our map, we could see Simon making his way up the hill. Jethro and Obadiah hung back on the Shepherd’s trail. Upon reaching the foot of the rock, which looked like some of the rock Jesus had showed Simon and I before, I immediately spotted an X drawn on the ground between the rock and nearby thorn tree.
“Of course,” I laughed wearily, “X marks the spot.”
“We found it you cowards!” Boaz called out through cupped hands.
In the middle of the crudely scratched X, which covered almost the entire area between the rock and tree, there was a large freshly churned mound of dirt. Jumping up and down, I waved happily at Simon, whose expression brightened as he approached. Jethro and Obadiah were moving slowly up the hill, continually grumbling amongst themselves. Boaz, Jonah, and I didn’t wait for the others. We attacked the mount with great vigor. Upon seeing the dirt fly, Simon hurried frantically up the path, and, before we had unearthed the treasure, had joined us in the dig.
“What do you suppose it is?” Jonah drew back fearfully. “Maybe its a scorpion or poisonous snake.”
“It’s probably sheep turds or dirt clods,” I snickered, pulling a cloth sack out of the
hole. Jonah and Boaz waited anxiously as Simon and I tugged at the knot.
“Well, at least he buried something.” I said light-headedly. “We gotta give him credit for that.”
“It’s making a clanking noise,” Simon’s eyebrows shot up. “Dump it out Jude, let’s see what it is!”
“Yes-yes,” Boaz sputtered excitedly, “dump it out, dump it out!”
Suddenly, as I poured the contents onto the dirt, our eyes were dazzled with shiny goblets, tureens, and plates—eight items of pure gold.
“I was right,” I slapped my forehead in wonder. “Adam’s a bandit. He’s real name’s Jesus Bar Abbas. Reuben—”
Feeling a dirty hand clamped over my mouth, I felt bursts of air in my ear, as Simon whispered shrilly “Shut up, you fool!” Boaz and Jonah, however, were too excited to notice my slip. Adam had buried real treasure. Hearing our commotion, Jethro and Obadiah, threw caution to the wind, and charged up the hill. Soon, as we examined each item, appraising its value, Jethro and Obadiah were down on their haunches inspecting the loot.
“That boy’s a thief!” Obadiah exclaimed breathlessly.
“Finders keepers!” Simon shook his head.
“But this stuff is stolen,” Jethro protested, as he admired a tureen.
The tureen, similar to one I had seen on Samuel’s table, but much finer, had Greek and Roman gods frolicking on each side and two intertwined monsters as handles. All of us agreed, in spite of our qualms for its pagan themes and the fact that it was obviously stolen, to hide it somewhere else and plan our next move before telling our parents about our find. By then Adam might return and explain to us where he found this treasure. Perhaps, I suggested, his story that his father was a merchant killed by bandits was true and these items were actually his. Simon, Boaz, and Jonah gave me questionable looks, and Jethro and Obadiah shook their heads. I, of course, didn’t believe that Adam was anything other than Jesus Bar Abbas, a bandit chief’s son, but I volunteered a hiding place somewhere in the orchard near our house.
As the sun begun to set, we hurried down the narrow trail, occasionally being punctured in our elbows and arms as we took turns carrying the bag. Going up the Shepherd’s Trail was much easier than the path we exited, and we could move much faster, but I was terribly afraid we would meet Jesus or Papa coming the opposite way. Simon and I would be in big trouble if they caught us this far from our house, especially with stolen loot. The closer we came to the orchard, the more I expected Papa to come storming out of the trees, and yet, as we reached the orchard and looked around for a hiding place, I could hear no shouts in the distance. As I looked up toward our house, I felt dizzy with relief that the path was empty. Not a soul roamed the woods except us. The only place I could think of to put the treasure was in a mulberry bush not far into the trees. Placing it in the center of the bush and spreading leaves over it, we drew back, heaved sighs, and trotted up to the house.
Jethro, Obadiah, Boaz, and Jonah all said goodbye to us as they scampered around the house, leaving Simon and I alone in our yard. Before they left, I promised my gang that I would guard the treasure with my life and we would divide it up equally when they returned.
“Well, here goes.” I drew in a breath.
“Something’s not right,” Simon commented as we approached the door.
“I know.” I exhaled. “I feel it too.”
When we entered the house, it was plunged into evening shadows. The curtain was drawn in the kitchen window, allowing only a crack of light. We could see Reuben and Mama sitting at the new table Papa had cleaned and refinished to remove all traces of blood and feces. In the next room, we could hear the muffled laughter of the twins. Yet Papa and Jesus were nowhere in sight.
“Greetings Reuben.” I saluted, with a bow.
“Greetings Jude.” He nodded in reply.
Eyes wide and lips parted, Simon and I eased down cautiously at the table, expecting the worst. Reuben smiled slyly, as he sipped from his mug.
“Where have you been?” Mama asked, a slight frown on her face. “Did you hear me call?”
“No,” Simon confessed, dropping his eyes, “we didn’t.”
“Where were you that you couldn’t hear my call?” She gave us a stern look.
Panic filled Simon’s eyes. How could he answer this without incriminating himself or telling an outright lie?
“Well, it’s like this,” he began, panic filling his eyes.
“Mama,” I interrupted, changing the subject, “is Samuel all right?”
“I haven’t heard yet,” she said wearily. “He’s in God’s hands.”
“They’ve been gone all this time?” My eyebrows knit.
“Where were you?” She persisted, looking squarely at me. “Tell me the truth.”
I decided I would tell Mama a half-truth. I would tell her about Adam, but I wouldn’t tell her about the treasure we found. It would have seemed terribly wicked of me if it hadn’t have been for the involvement of Simon and our friends. The treasure, after all, was partly theirs. We should, I reasoned lamely, vote on such an important matter.
“Adam played a game with us,” I explained carefully, evading the truth. “....We were suppose to find him at a special place, but he never showed up. He was filthy and barefoot, dressed like a beggar, with bad manners and smelly clothes, yet he was clever—like Jesus. He was older than Simon and I. I think he was about Jesus’ age.” “. . . His name is Jesus, too,” I admitted, looking into Reuben’s eyes.
“Bar Abbas.” Reuben nodded slowly. “. . . I recognized him at once. He’s the bandit chief’s son. Now he’s a homeless orphan, a fugitive from Rome.”
“Where did you last see him?” Mama studied me closely.
“In our yard,” I answered promptly. “He came out of nowhere. After we fed him, he told us to close our eyes and count to one hundred. He drew a map that led us to a thorn tree and a rock, but he wasn’t there.” “It was a silly game,” I concluded, with shrug. “All we did was get scratched up in those hills.”
“Let me see those scratches,” Mama ordered, reaching out to inspect Simon and my arms. “They need cleaning. I’ll get my ointment.”
Simon smiled at me as she left the table. Reuben whispered, “He came back, as you searched for him in the hills to thank your mother for giving him food and drink.” Before I could ask him more questions, Mama had returned with her medical bag. Quickly going about her work, she cleaned our scratches then placed her special ointment on them. While she finished up a dressing on my elbow, Papa and Jesus entered the house in high spirits.
“How’s Samuel?” Mama looked up expectantly. “Is he awake? Shall I come and take care of him?”
“Samuel was just fine when we left,” Papa exclaimed merrily. “One moment he was unconscious and near death’s door, and the next moment he was laughing and drinking a mug of wine.”
Mama searched Jesus’ face. I gave him a sly look as he took a seat next to Reuben. I knew what happened. We all did, but Jesus just shook his head and repeated his oft said line, “It was God’s will. I did nothing but pray as Papa did. Samuel is in the Lord’s hands.”
“Father Abraham, I bet he lives to be a hundred!” Papa declared.
“He just might.” Jesus inclined his head, giving me a searching look.
That night my tireless mother went into her kitchen to prepare dinner. James and Joseph also returned and were scolded for returning after dark. Judging by Jesus’ poor shepherding of Simon and I, my older brothers had probably snuck over to Isaac or Jeroboam’s house. As we waited for dinner, Reuben told us of his plans to live with his sister in Joppa and help in her husband’s bakery. My parents thought it was a fine dream. It was far better than robbing people for a living. Before we could say the blessing, we heard a knock at the back door. James and Joseph groaned. Simon and I could scarcely believe our eyes. . . There standing momentarily in the doorway was Adam, whom Reuben stood up and introduced as Jesus Bar Abbas, a friend who had hidden him in the sanctuary near the orchard. As he entered our home, he looked much better than the filthy beggar boy we saw before. There were sandals on his feet. His face and hands were scrubbed clean. It looked as if he was wearing some of James or Joseph’s clothes, for Adam, like our own Jesus, was tall for his age. Bowing politely, he was directed to his seat at the table across from Jesus, his namesake.
After the “Hear O Israel” blessing, my oldest brother chatted courteously with our guest. No one, apparently even Jesus, himself, knew how important the name Bar Abbas would one day be. Tonight, in our small house, the two Jesuses faced each other as friends, not opposites. Because of this strange boy, Simon, our friends, and I had a treasure of gold like the gifts of the Magi Papa buried so long ago. Now that I thought about our treasure and the buried gifts of Bethlehem, it seemed to me that our family was not poor at all, but rich. It dawned on me also, as I listened to Reuben and Adam chat with our family, that these two bandits probably had a lot more treasure buried in the hills. It seemed only reasonable to me that Adam gave us only a small portion of their loot. What if there was more treasure in the hills? What if, as James, Joseph, Simon, and I often pondered, my brothers and I one day traveled to Bethlehem and also dug up the Magis’ gifts?