The Return of Michael
In the days following Reuben’s move, Mama balanced her time between visiting the ailing Joachim and checking on the arrangement they had made for Reuben at Samuel’s house. Papa would accompany her, returning to his shop when she went to assist the rabbi’s wife. I heard Mama tell Papa this morning that Hannah was not right in the head. Mama had to do everything. Because of the woman’s moods, Mama was afraid for her daughter Rhoda. If her mother went insane as Mariah had, I suspected Rhoda would be joining our crowded house soon.
While Papa and Mama were gone, Jesus was totally in charge, with complete decision-making capacity in both the shop and home. He kept Simon, Uriah, and I busy until noon picking up wood shavings and trash in front of the shop and tending the garden and likewise forbade James and Joseph to leave their workstations just because the master carpenter was away. Above all, he demanded from the older brothers respect for the new guest in our home. They were not to throw dung or rocks at Uriah or call him names. James and Joseph dare not argue with Jesus as they had before now that our oldest brother was second-in-command. All of us, even Uriah, had to work diligently during the morning hours. The remainder of the day was ours to do with as we pleased, with the following exceptions: we were to stay off the Shepherd’s Trail, stay within the precincts of Nazareth, and stop hunting for treasure in the hills. Jesus made all us, one-by-one, promise to leave Adam’s gold alone.
Grimly, I accepted my fate. Simon, who had forgiven me for being deceived by Adam, had done the same. Since hearing about the hidden treasure, James and Joseph suffered the same “gold fever” afflicting Simon and I. With our friends avoiding us, a strange alliance bound us together. We could not exclude Uriah, after what Jesus had said, so we allowed him to follow us into the orchard. Earlier out of earshot of our guest, I heard James vow to Joseph to one day go to Bethlehem to claim the Magi’s Gifts. It was on all of our minds, but we couldn’t talk about this around Uriah, so we played hide-and-go-seek, with Uriah being “it.” The portly boy had gained respect from me the first night he stayed at our house. He still whined occasionally when he was hungry or tired and whimpered when matters didn’t go his way, but, unlike times past, he proved to be a good sport and made a conscientious effort to play our games correctly, without complaint. When he began looking for my brothers and I, he barely flinched when James and Joseph jumped out from behind their trees frightening him half to death. Several times, when we played team tag and when he was selected to be the “blind man” in the circle, he was tripped and shoved rudely by James, Joseph, and Simon, but he smiled and laughed at them. When we broke for lunch, he didn’t tattle on them to my parents or Jesus, and, the most amazing thing of all, didn’t act like a pig at the table. Normally the little glutton would eat as much as all of us put together, but he had showed restraint in the past few days. This morning he was on his very best behavior.
Today, as we joined hands for a special prayer for both Joachim and Samuel, I took one of Uriah’s hands and Simon begrudgingly took the other. Though Reuben’s name wasn’t mentioned, when Papa prayed that God would pay special attention to Samuel’s house, we knew he had our old enemy in mind. When the circle prayer was completed, we hastily added our amens and plunged into our meal. Uriah, with his pudgy hands folded over his empty plate, asked about the health of our kinsmen Bartholomew.
“Quite well, thank you,” Papa answered carefully. “He’s eager to return home.”
“He reminds me of someone,” Uriah said, as Mama filled his plate. “I can’t place the face, but his voice sounds familiar.”
“Uriah,” I whispered shrilly into his ear, “shut up!”
Uriah smiled slyly at me, but never brought the subject up again. Looking back at this day, I think Uriah would have understood if Papa had told him the truth. Unfortunately, the one betrayal he committed—informing on Mariah after being pressured by his father—hung as a shadow over him in our house. He was, in my brother’s eyes, the mean rabbi’s son. After causing so much trouble, he couldn’t be trusted. It seemed as though Reuben, who had become Bartholomew, the Greek Jew, would always be a secret in our family. Papa couldn’t be sure that Uriah wouldn’t let it slip one day that we had rehabilitated Nazareth’s one-time foe, but I wanted to trust him. One day, when I was certain of his loyalty, I might tell him about Reuben and about the treasure I once found. Like or not, I had, by a process of elimination, wound up with Uriah as my only friend.
I remember hearing Papa say to Mama, as Uriah was using the cloaca that morning, that Samuel’s new tenant, in deed, seemed to be a changed man, but the old man hadn’t trusted the ex-bandit until his guest explained to him his plans for the future. Samuel was impressed with Reuben’s contrite behavior. The one-time tanner confessed all his sins to his host, including ones Samuel had rather not have heard. His desire to make amends with his sister and start a new life working for his brother-in-law in Joppa, did not impress Samuel as much as his ability to speak Greek. When he tested Bartholomew with a few questions, he was surprised to hear a rude but functional form of Koine, the common tongue spoken by Hellenist Jews. This advantage over other Jews, he informed Papa, would allow him to be a traveling merchant or, if he could write Greek words, even become a scribe. Papa had laughed heartily when recalling this. Now at the table, I was amused by their silence at Uriah’s inquiry.
My parents were relieved when Jesus changed the subject entirely with a report of this week’s progress in the shop.
“We have almost finished the new furniture for Hezekiah, Samuel’s friend,” he chatted, after a sip of juice. “Most of the table legs have been sanded and James and Joseph have varnished all of the new stools.” “Simon has been helpful,” he added, giving him a wink, “and Jude is helping me teach Uriah the trade.”
“Wonderful!” Papa reached down to ruffle my hair. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s learning really fast,” I stretched the truth. “Already he can glue stuff together without making a mess.”
“He’s just practicing on discards,” sneered James. “We won’t let him inside the shop.”
“Uh-uh,” Uriah made a face. “Someday I will. Jude said so. He and I cleaned up the wood chips and picked weeds in the garden. I glued a whole bunch of things.”
“Yes, but not inside the shop,” insisted James. “Those boards were in the throwaway pile. You must have used a half a pot of glue.”
“That’s correct,” Jesus smiled sympathetically at Uriah, “but he’s learning.”
Papa thought about this a moment as we sat chewing our food. As usual, the twins sat fidgeting on the bench, eager to scamper outside. Mama looked over at Jesus as he stared into space. I couldn’t imagine the thoughts racing through my oldest brother’s mind, but I could detect scorn on Papa’s face. James, like Joseph, resented having the little fat boy hanging around the shop and Papa had heard this in the tone in James’ voice.
“Are the finished pieces drying in the shop?” He began questioning Joseph and James.
“Yes,” they both answered with a nod.
“Is the table done? Have you varnished the chair we finished for Malachi?”
“All of it’s ready,” James said defensibly. “I tied a string around the furniture with a sign on it that read “wet varnish. I wouldn’t let even Jude inside the shop.”
“I told him to hang the sign,” Jesus explained, tearing off a chunk of bread. “The furniture bonding must dry for several hours.”
“Humph.” Papa gave them all an approving look. “I can see why you kept them out.”
“But you’ll have your day,” he promised Uriah. “And you Jude,” he added, wagging his finger slowly, “shall continue working very hard to make up for that nonsense in the hills.”
“Of course.” I smiled wearily. My punishment had only been deferred during this busy time. Papa had almost told Uriah about the treasure. Uriah’s eyes widened intuitively it seemed, for he gave me another crafty smile.
“What nonsense is he talking about?” He whispered in my ear.
“Please Uriah,” I said under my breath, “shut up!”
It was probably best that Papa didn’t mention the treasure. Uriah would find out soon enough from Jethro or Obadiah if they ever returned to my house. I wasn’t sure Uriah should ever know about the circumstances of where the treasure wound up. Being a rabbi’s son, he might think less of me. Now that Papa, Mama, and Jesus are in heaven, I’m the only one left who knows about the shrine. Adam is dead, so he never returned to reclaim his gold. Except for the record I leave for future generations, the secret in this dark abyss will be interred with my bones. As a young boy, however, I felt greatly tempted to one day to return to the shrine and fetch my gold. Though I would tell no one else about the hiding place, I had every intention of doing just that.
As the other boys played games in the backyard, I was given a special task. After talking to Papa about my mischief near the orchard, Mama decided that he was being too lenient. Her righteous anger was stirred up. To imprint on my mind how wrong it was to even be in such a place, my job would be, in addition to my normal chores, cleaning up the cloaca. Michael, who had tried to steal Papa’s savings, had been forced to do this dirty deed and he ran away. I had the urge to run away too, but this emotion passed, when I found the coins that dropped from Papa’s bag.
Papa had told only Mama about the new location of his money. Because of my long practice of spying on the shepherds, Romans, and family members and my parent’s habit of whispering too loudly when we were supposed to be asleep, I knew exactly where he relocated his bag of coins, but I would never remove the floor board to his shop to steal them. On the other hand, I remembered the old singsong Jewish adage chanted by my brothers “finders keepers.” According to James, who once found an ivory handled knife on the main road, “Unclaimed valuables can be claimed by someone stumbling across them. It’s not stealing unless you see someone drop the valuables and pick them up or deliberately rob that person as a common thief.” So, for the time being, I placed the four coins in a safe place (temporarily in my pocket) with every intention of hiding them with the coins given to me by Cornelius and Longinus. In such a humble way, I began to save for my great adventure, a resolve, born of my punishment, burning in my eyes as I waited for Papa to inspect my work.
“Very good—spotless,” Papa cackled, stroking his sawdust-flecked beard.
“Shall I pick weeds today or go directly to the shop?” I asked in a deadpan voice.
“The furniture pieces have all dried,” Papa answered, leading me by the hand. “Jesus is busy in town, so I shall instruct you, Simon, and Uriah. This morning you will learn the intricacies of sanding, cutting, and shaving.”
“What are intricacies?” I made a face. “Is it hard?”
“I mean the more difficult details of carpentry,” he explained, waving at Joseph and James.
Simon was, as usual, nowhere in sight. I could tell by their “caught-in-the-act” expressions and Uriah’s puckered lip that James and Joseph had been heckling Uriah, but Papa had no patience for nonsense. There was a look of determination on his face, which frightened us as he swept into the shop.
“Where’s that lazy Simon?” He called back to James, who followed at a safe distance.
“I dunno Papa.” James shrugged.
“Have you seen him Joseph? Wasn’t he supposed to help you bond those legs?”
“I’ve not seen him,” Joseph said glumly, as he entered the shop.
“You two,” he snapped impatiently, “finish bonding the table legs. Jude—you go find Simon. You know were he hides. When you return, I’ll show you boys a few tricks.”
With Uriah on my heels, I ran into the backyard and down the trail into the trees. Reminded of my lost treasure, I felt a haunting stab. I was comforted by the clink of coins in my pocket but felt a little guilty about not reporting them to Papa. I had, altogether, only six coins now, barely enough to buy a goat. At some point, between now and bedtime, I had to place the coins with the ones given to me my Cornelius and Longinus. The box I had hidden beneath my special stone in the yard was filled with the trophies of my childhood. The coins I would be adding to my box were not trophies but symbols of my greed.
Suddenly, pricked by my conscience, I was tempted, not by the Evil One but by my better half, to return Papa’s coins. I was guided, I’m certain, by the Spirit of the Lord. Jesus would have called my change of heart righteous temptation. As I spotted Simon idling in the trees and called to him, I was torn by two separate temptations. The bad Jude wanted to hide the coins with my other ‘treasures,’ while the good Jude wanted to return them. For the time being, all I could think of was to keep the coins in my pocket until I used the cloaca again. If the spirit moved me, I could drop them back into the recesses of the floor where I found them. I might even return them to Papa to gain his esteem. It won’t be an outright lie. On the other hand, the Evil One seemed to whisper into my ear, “why not keep them for awhile and make up your mind later.”
“Your Papa’s going to make me a carpenter!” Uriah exclaimed.
“Lucky you,” I sneered.
Uriah gave me a hurt look. “Don’t you want to be a carpenter? Don’t you just love working in wood?”
“No!” I growled. “Why’re you so happy?”
Uriah was already puffing and panting as I we trotted down the hill. I couldn’t elaborate on my answer without sounding ungrateful to my parents, so I cupped my hands and called more loudly to my brother, “Simon, wake up you laggard! Papa wants you in the shop—now!”
“What’s wrong Jude?” Uriah asked as Simon strolled up the path.
“Nothing,” I responded moodily, “I’m just tired. Cleaning the cloaca is hard work.”
“Look what I found,” Simon held up a brightly colored snake. “It looks like the serpent Jesus once cured.”
One would think Simon didn’t have a care in the world. As he fondled the creature, Uriah looked in horror at Simon, the snake, and me.
“Jesus cured a snake—the symbol of Adam’s fall?” He cried in horror.
Simon tossed the serpent at him then. “Welcome back ,” he snarled, “—the old Uriah’s returned.”
Swatting his clothes furiously and stomping his feet, Uriah danced around a moment, causing Simon and I to laugh foolishly for several moments until we had regained our wits. Fortunately, the tiny serpent slid away safely into the leafy ground. Suddenly, to our astonishment, Uriah’s reddened face broke into a smile and he began laughing at himself. Simon and I stopped giggling, wiping our eyes of mirth as we followed him up to the house.
“I’m sorry Uriah.” I patted his back. “That was a dirty trick.”
“That’s all right,” he lied unconvincingly, “I was just pretending.”
“Yeah,” Simon said, socking his arm, “you really had me fooled.”
Together, as a most unlikely trio, we scampered into the shop, finding Papa and Jesus discussing a new contract our oldest brother had made with Solomon, the butcher, in town. James and Joseph were working on the table legs, giving us surly glances as we were given scrapers by Papa and ordered to practice scraping wood. I couldn’t really blame my older brothers for resenting slackers. Evidently the order Jesus had obtained from the butcher was quite large. Solomon, who had inherited a modest fortune from his rich aunt, planned to build a villa on a hill not far from Samuel’s estate. Papa and his sons would not only contract a team of workers to build the house but make many pieces of furniture themselves.
Uriah, Simon, and my contribution to these efforts during this period were minimal at best. Simon and I were quite happy to avoid serious labor. Uriah, however, thought he was doing something important. The fact that it was only practice made no difference to him. He had been allowed to glue boards yesterday. Today he was actually shaping wood. Simon snickered at Uriah’s efforts and James and Joseph looked at the three of us with great contempt, and yet, while they showed displeasure at our new guest, Uriah pulled out a small knife he carried in his belt and begun shaping his board into a figurine. Simon and I continued the boring ritual of rounding out our boards, until Jesus walked over and stood over Uriah watching him work.
“That looks like a person.” He laughed softly. “What would your father think?”
Uriah answered slyly, “Papa said it’s forbidden to make pictures or statues of people and animals, but this is only practice. It doesn’t count.”
Jesus laughed heartily, complimented him on his artistic ability then turned to inspect Simon and my efforts. Simon, who was dozing on his log, had barely made a dent on his board, while I had shaped mine almost to a point.
“My-my are you making a weapon,” he chortled, holding it up and making stabbing motions in the air. “. . . . You’re not very enthusiastic about this kind of work, are you?” He observed, studying my drooping head.
The truth was, of course, I had no desire to be a carpenter. When I didn’t answer, Jesus sat down next to me, looked over at Simon and Uriah, and told us a homily about doing our best. Though I record it on my scroll, it was not listed among his parables. This form of preaching, practiced frequently in his youth, would be important during his mission.
“A master woodworker left his apprentices alone as he went into town. While he was gone two of his best men took advantage of his absence and loafed for a long period of time, while the youngest apprentice, who had much to learn, continued to work diligently to show his master that he was worthy of his pay. When the master returned, he noticed that the first two men had done little during his absence but the third man had continued working while he was gone. Though he knew the first two had talent, he couldn’t trust them, while he could trust the third man, who didn’t need his constant supervision when he wasn’t around.”
“What is the point?” Joseph snarled. “You only mentioned three apprentices. What about us—James and Joseph? Are you seriously saying that lamb turd is trustworthy? He was supposed to use the scraper, but he used his knife. Jude and Simon barely even tried.”
Simon and I stirred uneasily on our logs. Uriah grinned like a circus ape as he carved his board. Jesus ignored Joseph’s grumbling and remained focused upon Simon and I.
“The point is,” he said, pointing to Uriah, “the third worker made the effort and they didn’t. God rewards industrious souls and has little patience for sloth.”
“They, meaning you!” James pointed accusingly at us.
Simon screwed his face up. “What is industrious? What is sloth?”
“Hard work and laziness, respectively.” Jesus gave him a reproachful look.
“What about me?” I stuck out my lip. “I made a spear!”
“Yes,” Jesus answered with a sigh, “but you, little brother, can do better than that.”
Jesus’ homily made Simon and I ashamed. It didn’t help Uriah’s relationship with my brothers, but it pleased Uriah very much to be singled out like this. It made him feel important and special. Smiling shyly up at Jesus, he looked back down at his masterpiece, which was nothing but a formless blob now, and began whittling enthusiastically again. I couldn’t stay angry with Uriah after all the effort he had made. I wouldn’t admit it and neither would Simon, but Jesus had spoken truly. Uriah had a purer soul than us. No one could blame him for his father’s hatred of my family. Perhaps, now that Mama was helping Hannah to keep that dreadful man alive, Joachim would, like Reuben, our ex-enemy, become our friend.
Notwithstanding James and Joseph, whose moods changed like the clouds, we were a forgiving family. My parents had forgiven all of their old enemies. Even Simon had warmed up to Reuben a little and begun treating Uriah as a human being. Jesus had frequently stressed the notion of turning the other cheek, worded differently each time. Today, after leaving Simon and me to reflect upon our sins, I heard him talking to James and Joseph after Papa went into the house. Unfortunately, Uriah was listening too.
“Joachim is a mean spirited man,” James was saying. “The only reason he should live is so we don’t have another adopted brother. We have had enough of them!”
“I shall never forgive Joachim or his fat little son,” Joseph did James one better.
“You’re ridiculous,” Jesus began scolding them, “Uriah’s couldn’t be an orphan; his parents are still alive. Our town wouldn’t let the rabbi’s wife become destitute if Joachim died.” “The point is, my brothers, you are mean spirited.” He wrung his finger. “The Lord wants us to forgive those who persecute us. Mere words should not have the weight of actions, and yet murder and even war result from them. If someone wrongs you James and Joseph, don’t let the offense harden your hearts. You both expect the worst from people, such as Uriah, Michael, and Nehemiah, who are different from you. Even our Roman guards, who never wronged either of you, received your contempt. As you count the wrongs heaped upon you, also count the good. You shall find the scale tipping in favor of blessings almost every time.” “Remember this always,” he said, looking at the workers gathered in the shop. “Welcome the stranger. Give your neighbors the benefit of the doubt. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
There it was! I look back now and realize that Jesus had with this statement, when added to his previous sermons to our family, said just about everything he would say during his earthly mission, short of preaching salvation, itself. Nevertheless, James and Joseph scoffed at his historic words.
“Ah, he’s back—the visionary and prophet!” Joseph exclaimed.
“Are we to understand that we should forgive and turn our cheek to robbers and cutthroats,” spat James. “Are these your own ideas, Jesus, or did God tell you this?”
Jesus winced at their rebuke. Simon just sat there half asleep—in the words of Paul, neither hot nor cold, but Uriah and I were angry with James and Joseph for what they said. I wasn’t quite sure what Jesus meant by “do unto others,” but his doctrine of forgiveness made sense to me.
At almost the same time Papa and Mama were trotting out of the house, Uriah stood up and screamed, “Shut up! Leave Jesus alone! Jesus and your parents forgave my Papa and me—why can’t you?”
“Are you both blind and deaf,” I shouted. “Have you forgotten the Three Magi, the dead bird, and everything else Jesus has done? Even I, the youngest brother, know how special he is. You make fun of him, but you know he’s right. I believe God talks to him every hour of the day. If Jesus said we should forgive our enemies, we must do as he says or we are disobeying God!”
My parents seemed to stand in awe at my words. I wondered if they had also heard Jesus’ speech. I understood, by the frown on his face, that Uriah felt I had gone too far, but even Simon’s spirit had awakened those moments. Jesus walked over and embraced me. Papa and Mama stood in the background grinning with pride.
“Well said little brother,” he whispered huskily.
“Jude should be a rabbi!” Simon ran to our parents. “Papa, Mama—did you hear his words?”
“Yes!” Papa gave Simon a hug.
“We heard Jesus too,” Mama stepped forward to stroke Jesus’ back.
I sank onto my log, as would a bladder filled with escaping air, trying to comprehend what I had said. Once again, as it had happened that moment when Jesus left on his odyssey, the truth about Jesus flashed in my head, but it was just too extraordinary for me to believe. Jesus down-to-earth mannerisms made him seem too human to be divine. Uriah also sat back down, the frown still playing on his face. My other brothers, however, had shrunk into the shadows of the shop, expecting to be admonished for their rash words.
“You, James and Joseph, will never change,” Papa said with disappointment. “Mocking your oldest brother is bad enough, but you’ve forgotten our most important custom: hospitality to our guest. When will you learn? Jesus is right: your hearts have hardened. You scarcely seem like my sons!”
I expected Papa to sentence them to punishment as he had done to me. It sounded quite grave, after hearing him almost disown his sons, and yet, with the wave of his hand in dismissal he did far more to injure their spirits than extra chores or a smack on the head. Looking at them with utter contempt, he returned to the ornate table he was carving. James and Joseph walked dejectedly out of the shop and mulled around aimlessly in the backyard. Until I understood that this was an insult to my brothers, I was upset with Papa’s failure to punish them. Now they were even shirking their duties. I stood there staring with disgust at James and Joseph. Uriah also made a face at them, as did Simon, whose expression seemed also to express disbelief at what had just transpired.
Then, as the three of us continued half-heartedly to practice on our boards, I realized Papa was going to shun his second and third oldest sons. He had grown weary of their moods and fits of anger. Mama and Jesus walked away, hand-in-hand, talking in muted voices, probably about his strange words.
“Hey, let’s go romp in the orchard,” Simon suggested slyly. “James and Joseph won’t bother us now!”
Uriah stuck out his lower lip. “I want to learn more stuff. Your Papa promised to teach us carpentry.”
“All right,” I nodded with a sigh, “let’s go ask him what he wants us to do.”
“Awe, what for?” Simon tossed down his board and shaver. “Papa’s busy. Let’s go play that blind man game or hide-and-go-seek.”
I walked slowly over to the shop, Uriah egging me on but Simon protesting under his breath. I had almost entered the shop when Papa suddenly emerged, almost knocking me out of the way.
“They didn’t finish the legs,” he shouted angrily to Jesus, “—not even close. Where are those two lazy boys?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll go fetch them,” Jesus called from the front yard.
As she walked to the house, Mama laughed softly at something Jesus had said.
“Sir,” Uriah said in a hopeful voice, “we can help finish the legs!”
“Not yet my little apprentice,” he patted Uriah gently as he stormed by. “We’ve got to get this order done. Later, I’ll let Jesus spend some time with you. Go report to Mama. Maybe she’s got some gardening for you to do.”
“Forget that!” Simon muttered under his breath.
“Do we have to?” Uriah gave me a worried look
“Well,” I said with a shrug, “it’s almost noon. Papa forgot about our lessons. Mama went inside. I guess we’re free.”
“I’m hungry,” Uriah groaned. “I wonder what she’s fixing for lunch.”
“We can go pick some berries.” I said, charging ahead. “Mama might put us to work.”
To appease our whiney friend, Simon and I ran ahead of Uriah into a sector of the orchard discovered during our exploits. Uriah was panting like a stray dog. Growing rampant on the remnants of an ancient wall were tangled vines of berries.
“Oh goodie—my favorite!” Uriah squealed with delight. “There like the ones growing near Mariah’s house.”
“We need a bucket,” cried Simon.
“We’re not going up to the house until Mama calls us for lunch.” I replied with finality. “I saw an old pot around here. Michael wanted to smash it, but Nehemiah said it might be valuable.”
“That figures,” Simon sneered.
“Valuable?” Uriah wrinkled his nose. “What was in it?”
“Nothing,” I answered, shielding my eyes from a shaft of sunlight, “but it looked very old, so Nehemiah and I hid it when Michael wasn’t around. I guess I forgot about it.”
Uriah began eating the berries directly off the vine, as Simon and I began searching around the wall. As I looked down into a bush and spotted the rim of the pot, I almost wet my pants. The pot was filled with gold coins. Adam immediately flashed into my mind. You rascal, I thought giggling to myself. He had left me a memento of himself. This time I would tell no one. Reaching and gripping the side of the pot, I pulled it with all of my might to a new location many cubits from its original site. As Uriah and Simon stuffed their mouths with berries, I found a hole in the wall where a large stone had fallen forward, leaving a space just large enough to set my pot. The most difficult job was hefting the stone back into its spot. As I puffed and panted, trying desperately to pull dry brush up to conceal my treasure, Uriah and Simon, their faces splattered with berries, called to me.
“What’re you doing Jude?” Simon frowned. “There’s no berries over there?”
“He’s looking for buried treasure,” Uriah replied innocently.
“The little beast!” I swore under my breath.
“What do you know about our treasure?” Simon blurted, his hand flying to his mouth. “Whoops,” he giggled foolishly, as Uriah trotted over.
Saving me from disclosure was Mama’s voice suddenly calling us to lunch. Uriah’s suspicious expression immediately brightened at the thought of filling his little belly. Realizing he had almost given our secret away, Simon sighed deeply, casting me a contrite look as we ran up to the house. I wanted to thank him for his change of mood. To deflect his attention away from my subterfuge, however, I pretended to be upset with him.
“Simon, you have to be more careful,” I muttered from the corner of my mouth.
“We’re lucky he’s so stupid,” Simon snickered as Uriah skipped and pranced to lunch.
“Oh, he’s not stupid,” I replied slyly. “He lets us think he’s stupid. He proved that to me the other night.”
Before I could tell Simon about my conversation with Uriah, we were approaching the open door where Mama stood, a thin, tired smile on her haggard face. Thoughts raced into my head. I would bring one of Mama’s baskets into the orchard for the berries. When it was possible, I would transport the gold coins to an even safer spot off the trail leading down to the sanctuary. No one wanted to reach into that thorny underbrush. I had promised never to go into the shrine again but the trail, itself, wasn’t off limits, I reasoned, envisioning all my coins. They were mine. Adam had given them to me. This secret I must keep locked in my head until I could one day spend my gold on a fine horse and an exciting adventure around the world.
“Thank you-thank-you-thank-you!” I muttered, running up with outstretched arms.
“You sweet child,” she said, patting my head, “your Papa fixed lunch. It’s not much, just chopped fruit, bread, and goat’s cheese.”
“Yummy,” cried Uriah, scooting passed. “My Mama doesn’t fix lunch at all.”
“I’m having berries with my lunch,” declared Simon.
“Where are James and Joseph?” Papa called from the kitchen. “They know its time for lunch. Have they run off again?”
Simon trotted in with his hands full of berries. Mama scolded him for bringing the messy fruit onto the tile, and Papa ordered him to immediately dump the berries into a mug, which Simon filled to the brim. His face, like Uriah, was smeared with berry juice. How wonderful it would be, I thought light-headedly, to be like Simon or Uriah. Here I was, only eleven years old, with a new stash of gold, and their only concern was the berries growing on the wall. My treasure, I estimated that moment, was worth at least as much as the gold cups and plates hidden in the shrine. Considering the Gifts of the Magi I might claim one day, I was rich. With great excitement, I plopped on the bench beside Uriah, my head swimming with the great adventures ahead riding my white horse and seeing the wonders of the world. As Abigail and Martha reached out on tippy toes to place plates and cups on the table, I patted their blond heads and tweaked their rosy cheeks. I smiled at Uriah, listening without hearing, to his prattling voice. Simon, who had ravenously devoured his berries before the blessing had been spoken, placed a wet berry on Uriah’s knuckles, snickering mischievously as it dribbled over the back of his hand. Uriah’s cry of protest at his prank made me giggle foolishly to myself. James and Joseph, who were in a surly mood after being shunned by Papa and scolded by Mama for shirking their chores, could not dampen my mood as they flashed Uriah, Simon, and me dirty looks.
When Papa called us to join hands for the blessing, I silently thanked the Lord for the special blessing given to me to by my friend Adam. Had not Jesus, himself, once said “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” When I listened to Papa’s unselfish petition to God to restore Joachim and Samuel’s health, I felt ashamed of my own prayer, especially when Jesus jumped in with his own plea that his brothers show more initiative in helping Papa with the projects in the shop. Mama said a few words about Joachim’s wife’s bad attitude, and then, according to the circle of prayer format, we were all suppose to stand there and pray silently to the Lord. I felt stupid thanking God for ill-gotten loot, but, of course, I didn’t steal it. It was Adam and his cohorts who had stolen the gold, not me. If I turned my pot of gold into the Romans or temple priests, they would probably stuff into their own pockets before giving it to the poor. Papa hated religious leaders for their hypocrisy, especially the priests. As much as I liked the Romans, I couldn’t believe they would not keep the money for themselves. I certainly would!
It should be quite plan by now to the reader what sort of fellow I was as a child. As I look back I both smile and cringe at my callous spirit. It was not so much what I did, for, in deed, I don’t recall deliberately doing evil to my family or friends. It’s what I didn’t do at times. I never reported to my parents all the pranks I had seen James, Joseph, and Simon do nor the vandalism and mischief done by Michael. My worst sins of omission where the treasure and the pagan temple, which Papa had forced me to reveal and the pot of gold I found in the berry patch, which I had no intention of disclosing. Didn’t Papa say to his sons once “God helps those who help themselves.” Someday, I told myself as I ate my goat’s cheese and chopped fruit, I might make a sin offerings and a thank offering, though I shared Papa’s dislike of those greedy priests. After all my journeys, if I managed to lay my hands on the Magi’s Gifts, I would buy me a fine mansion like Samuel’s villa. I was not certain how far my pot of gold would go, but it wouldn’t last forever. My most important goal was the white horse galloping in my dreams—everything else was but honey on the roll.
“Jude is acting strange today,” commented Papa, as if I wasn’t here.
“Yes, I noticed that when he came in for lunch.” Mama flashed me a look of concern.
The truth was I wasn’t here, at least not my wits. After finding the treasure, I became a daydreamer. With the discovery of the pot of gold, my daydreams grew to flights of fantasy.
“Jude!” Jesus reached across the table and shook me. “Are you all right?”
“He’s possessed,” Simon cackled.
“I agree,” Joseph snorted. “Something happened to him when Michael was here.”
“Yes, he’s never been the same,” observed James. “Look at all the crazy things he does. We should say a prayer for him. What’s that prayer to call forth demons?”
“I was only joking,” objected Simon.
Papa glared with disgust at James and Joseph yet said nothing. “I understand Jude’s feelings.” He gave me a sympathetic look. “He’s going to do just fine. I’m going to make a carpenter out him yet.” “That goes for Uriah.” He added, raising his mug. “You shall both learn a proper trade!”
“Yes-yes!” Uriah nodded eagerly.
Though I had no intention of doing any such thing, I chimed “A carpenter! A carpenter!”
“Me too,” Simon felt obliged to say.
“Yes, you too!” Papa chortled.
“I thought Jude wanted to be a Roman soldier,” grumbled Joseph. “I’m going to be a scribe!”
“Jude will do many great things,” declared Jesus, raising his mug.
“Let’s make a toast,” Mama joined in.
“I just drank all my juice,” Uriah said with a belch.
Mama filled Uriah’s mug to the brim. Everyone lifted up their mugs, including the grumpy James and Joseph, so that Papa could make a proper toast.
“Here’s for Joachim and Samuel’s health and also for the continued success of our carpentry business. Here’s to the cooperation I expect from all of my sons. Here’s to the happiness and well being of my family, our friend Uriah, and all the fine citizens of Nazareth—may they live long and well!”
Each time he raised his mug, juice spilled out, some of it onto the table and on our upturned faces. If I didn’t know better I might suspect that Papa was drunk. For working so hard, he was in a cheerful mood. Mama, on the other hand, looked totally exhausted after tending to the rabbi and dealing with his unstable wife. Mingled in with my euphoria were feelings of anger—for James and Joseph’s surliness this hour and for the rabbi and his incompetent wife for wearing my poor mother down. I was upset with Uriah for wanting to be a carpenter and with Papa for putting this idea into his head. Yet, with all these irritations, my mind still swam with visions of the future. Always, I rode my great white horse and pictured myself in distant lands. It seems as though the imagery Jesus put into my head about his travels helped to corrupt my innocence. I write this in retrospect, of course, for, at the time I would never have imagined Jesus doing anything wrong. The truth was, of course, Jesus could not have been blamed for my yearning for adventure. His letters from Egypt, Gaul, Cyrene and other lands gave direction to my childlike fantasies, but the desire was already there. Because of Jesus’ letters, I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see—from the great light house and museum of Egypt to the wild land of the Gauls and the enchanting caves of Cyrene.
I awakened from my daydreams, hearing Uriah’s voice again. Still seeped in the imagery, my ears picked up excited bursts from his little mouth, but he was always chattering. Many times I simply ignored it and pretended to be listening to his prattle. This time I should have been listening. After we excused ourselves from the table, I shuffled after him, expecting that we would join Simon in one our many childhood games, but instead he began leading me to the carpenter’s shop.
“Uriah, its after lunch—playtime,” I muttered in disbelief. “I’m not going to work in the shop. I’m going to find Simon and romp in the orchard.”
“But your Papa said he would make us carpenters,” he bleated. “I don’t want to play your silly games. Simon makes fun of me, but Jesus and your Papa are nice to me. I’ll go find him by myself!”
“Uriah,” I snarled, “you’re beginning to get on my nerves!”
The rabbi’s son, in a haughty manner reminding me of his father, marched off without another word. I quickly ran the opposite way, around the house, into the backyard, and down the trail leading into the trees. On the way I met Simon idling on a stone with something in his hand. My first thought was that he had found my new treasure and was holding a handful of coins. When I came closer, though, I saw another small snake in his hands. Such a scene would have shocked Joachim and many religious minded Nazarenes, but it caused me to break into hysterical laughter as I watched the small, brightly colored serpent wind around his fingers and slither up his arm.
“Don’t let our parents see that,” I advised, wiping my eyes with my sleeve.
“Jesus played with a snake.” He grinned madly. “I’m going to make a cage for this one out of sticks and feed it little birds and mice.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” I scolded gently. “Jesus wouldn’t interfere with God’s plan. You shouldn’t either. Let it go free and find its own food. That’s what Jesus would do.”
“I’m bored,” Simon confessed, as little snake wriggled in his hands.
“Let it go.” I stomped my foot. “We’ll go find some more berries.”
“Some of them are really sour.” Simon made a face. “I don’t think they were quite ripe.”
I heaved a sigh of relief after my stupid suggestion. That was the last place I wanted Simon to be. With Uriah pestering Papa about working in the shop, I wanted to get as far away from our yard as possible. Papa might decide to give Uriah and I both an extra learning session in the afternoon. Trotting a ways toward the orchard, I turned briefly to beckon Simon as if I had a great secret. Simon released the snake into a nearby bush and followed me down the trail. I didn’t want to disobey my parents by straying too far, but the further away Simon and I traveled the better. Soon we were on the Shepherd’s trail and I had no idea where I was going nor, for that matter, how I could justify defying my parents as we were. Little did I know what awaited Simon and I down the trail.
For several moments, I led him recklessly down the trail. Simon was worried that we would get into trouble, but I reminded him of the many times we ignored Papa’s rule. He was also afraid for our safety, which I also tried to dismiss. Reuben and his friends had never shown themselves once, I reasoned with him. Now Reuben was our friend and one of the few survivors of Abbas’ band. It was true that the Romans were gone, but, with the exception of Adam, a mere youth, most of the bandits were dead. The remaining fugitives, who would be crucified if they were caught, wouldn’t be stupid enough to return to Nazareth. Simon listened to me, nodding his head as I spoke, yet he looked expectantly at the path ahead, continued to scan each side of trail, and, occasionally looked in back of himself fearfully as if Papa might suddenly appear and reprimand us for breaking the rules.
Finally, after scanning the hillside where we found the treasure, Simon grew weary of walking aimlessly and so did I.
“Let’s go back,” he suggested, wiping his brow. “We can hunt for pomegranates or ripe berries. Its cooler in the orchard. Maybe Mama will give us a snack.”
“I dunno.” I shook my head. “Papa might pull us into the shop.”
“Thanks to your friend Uriah,” growled Simon, “he wants to give us extra training.”
“Uriah wants that,” I said disparagingly. “Can you believe it? He wants to be a carpenter.”
“Well I don’t like it,” Simon growled, “it’s too much work!”
“I don’t either.” I shook my head. “I wanna see the world. I’m gonna find those caves in Cyrene. I bet I could find me some more gold!”
Simon summed it up, as we forged ahead. “If Papa wants to train us, he should do it in the morning, not in the afternoon when we want to play.”
I nodded, filled with sudden misgivings. As we negotiated the winding path and tried to avoid the thorns, Simon added petulantly, “James and Joseph hate Uriah. I don’t care what you say; I think he’s stupid. I really do. He’s not going to be very popular with me if I have to work extra hours so he can learn the trade.”
While I listened to Simon’s complaints, my misgivings continued to mount. As we exited the prickly path, I glanced down the hill and froze in my tracks. “Look,” I shouted to Simon, “do you see that?” Simon’s gaze followed my finger. It was the first stranger I had seen coming from the desert in a very long time. Now that I had brought him to Simon’s attention, he was even more terrified than me.
“It’s one of those bandits!” He cried racing frantically up the trail.
“Maybe it’s just a shepherd,” I offered, gasping for breath. “Why would he be coming off the desert?”
“It’s not a shepherd,” Simon called back. “We can’t see their camp from here. Why would one of those Arabs be walking on the desert—the old Jerusalem trail? Let’s get back to the house and get Papa’s sword.”
“No,” I said, glancing back down the trail. “He’d know where we’d been. Please don’t go racing into the house and let them know we were in the hills.”
Simon agreed by turning up his palms. We stood at a safe distance from the clearing where an intruder could be seen entering the orchard trail. If one appeared, we could easily sound the alarm and make it safely into the house. I was worried that Simon would cry out and alert our parents. Like Simon, I was also worried that a bad man was approaching. As we stood at end of the path that lead up to our house, looking into the orchard, I asked God to prevent the stranger from coming near and also keep Simon from screaming and giving us way.
After sitting beneath a pomegranate bush and peeling the troublesome fruit, I gave Simon one pomegranate and began peeling one for myself. Simon thought it unreasonable when I suggested again that the stranger’s destination was merely the shepherd’s camp. Why would he be coming off the desert in the heat of the day? Anyone coming off the desert was up to no good, he insisted, and I half agreed. Suddenly as I began to doze in the shade, I heard Simon making a croaking noise and looked down the hill to see the stranger breaking finally through the trees.
“I’m getting Papa,” Simon managed finally to say. “Papa will kill him with his sword!”
“No!” I reached out and grabbed his sleeve. “That’s not a bandit. . . Don’t you recognize him?”
Even from a distance I knew who it was. I recognized those blazing green eyes and red hair . . . . It was Michael. He had returned.
My first impulse, when I considered the circumstances of Michael running away, was to fetch my parents or Jesus and let them deal with this boy. Simon, in a panic, insisted upon charging into the house, convinced that one of Abbas’ men was entering out yard.
“Simon! Simon!” I tried reasoning with him. “Look carefully. He’s not a bandit. It’s our old friend Michael.”
“He’s never been my friend,” Simon spat angrily “He hated our family. Papa said he’s a thief. After what we found in the cave and Mariah’s house, I think he’s a devil-worshipper too.”
For a moment, as Michael stood there on the path, I wondered why he would return after all this time. He must have been desperate to come back to Nazareth after the reputation he earned as a mischief-maker. When I shared this thought with Simon, however, he broke away from me finally and began running to the house.
“You better leave Michael!” I shouted hoarsely. “My parents washed their hands of you. Our neighbors might stone you if they know you’re here.”
“Jude,” he called hoarsely, “please listen to me. Don’t run away.”
As he trotted toward me, I backed away fearfully, then dashed frantically to the house. On the way, I met Jesus, who seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Jesus did this often, always appearing when I needed him the most. As he shielded his eyes from the sun, there was a look of alarm on his normally placid face.
“Go in the house,” he ordered gently. “I shall talk with Michael, myself.”
For a brief moment, Jesus gave me a hug. I broke down into sobs in his arms, as I recalled the old Michael—a happy-go-lucky, mischievous child who seemed to care for no one and respected nothing. Glancing back, as Jesus met Michael in our yard, I discovered several arms grabbing me and dragging me inside the house.
“Get in here,” growled James, “we’re not going to put up with him again!”
“This time I hope they stone him!” Joseph wrung his fist.
“I can’t believe it,” Papa was saying to Mama, “after all this time he trots like a stray into our yard. What shall we do? Our custom says we must help a stranger in need, but this isn’t a stranger. This boy is a predator. He and his mother have caused our family much grief.”
“Don’t worry Joseph. We’ll let Jesus handle it,” Mama replied, wringing her hands, “he’ll look into Michael’s heart. He’ll know what to do.”
As I sat down at the table, Joseph whispered accusingly to me, “You were in the hills, weren’t you. Uriah told Papa you ran off. He said you were afraid of doing extra work.”
“I did not,” Uriah groaned, “you’re twisting my words.”
“Leave Jude alone,” Mama chided, appearing by my side, “can’t you see he’s upset? Michael was once his best friend. He was not always a bad boy. He just wants a meal and good night’s sleep.”
“He can’t stay here!” James gnashed his teeth. “He can’t! He mustn’t!”
“James is right Mama,” Joseph reasoned softly. “He’s no good. Don’t forget those things he wrote in the cave and on the walls of the synagogue and Maria’s house and all his mischief and pranks.”
“That little thief tried to rob Papa!” James gripped his forehead in disbelief. “He’d a done it to, if Jesus hadn’t stopped him in his tracks. And you’re going to feed him and let him sleep in our house?”
“He’s really dirty,” commented Simon. “I barely recognized him. If it wasn’t for his red hair, I would’ve thought he was a beggar or leper.”
“You thought he was a bandit at first.” I frowned at him. “What we’re all afraid of now is that he’ll stay and not leave. Look what happened when we took Reuben in.” “My brothers are right this time, Mama.” I squeezed her hand. “Michael can’t stay unless Jesus tells us he’s changed. We’ll soon find out. I’m just afraid Jesus might not look closely enough.”
“Yes, Michael is very devious,” Papa looked thoughtfully down at me.
“He’s an ill wind,” snarled James.
“No, he’s a shadow,” Joseph sneered, “that will bring darkness back into our house.”
I looked across the room at them, shaking my head. “That’s stretching it. Perhaps devious—whatever that means, but Michael isn’t a demon as you imply.” “He’s . . . ,” I searched for the words, “. . . just bad, like fruit spoiled on the vine.”
Papa nodded thoughtfully at this. Settling on the bench across from me, he pursed his lips. “That sounds like something Jesus would say, Jude, but Michael walks in darkness nonetheless. Whether we blame the tree or the fruit doesn’t change the fact that Michael is either good or bad.”
“He’s bad,” Simon decided, folding his arms.
“Is everything black and white and dark and light?” I asked, feeling intimidated by the consensus in the room. “Couldn’t someone be both good and bad—perhaps gray, instead of dark, like the clouds?”
“Dark and bad—an ill wind,” James said with finality, as we heard a knock at the door.
“We shall know soon enough.” Papa’s bushy eyebrows shot up as he stroked his beard.
The sound of knuckles on wood became incessant. Was it Jesus or Michael knocking on the back door?
“I’m scared,” whimpered Uriah. “Let’s not let Michael in the house.”
Slowly, Papa opened the door. The silhouette of Jesus in the sunlight caused everyone to gasp. Once again, without understanding, we saw a glimmer of his godhood. The corona on his tawny locks, I recall, gave him an otherworldly look. After he entered the house, however, this effect faded, and a youth, not yet sprouting a beard, stood amongst us, his serene expression belying the sorrow he felt for a fallen spirit. I could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice, though he tried not to speak unkindly about my old friend.
“He’s very tired, very hungry, and apparently delirious.” He looked squarely at me. “I see great torment in his soul. His mind is filled with chaos.”
“What’s chaos?” Uriah wrinkled his nose.
“Chaos is like clouds bumping together to cause thunder, lightning, and rain,” Jesus answered with a sigh. “You’ve never had chaos Uriah; your spirit is pure.” “Some folks,” he added, glancing at the door, “will have chaos. They walk in darkness and avoid the light.
“Enough with the sermons,” James stomped his foot. “Has Michael changed?”
“He’s a disturbed, unbalanced child,” Jesus answered, staring at the floor.
“What does that mean?” Simon scratched his head.
“It means he’s very unhappy and lost,” Jesus gazed into space. “ . . . Poor Michael. He’s suffered greatly.”
“I think your avoiding the issue.” Joseph placed a hand on Jesus shoulder. “The question is: has Michael changed?”
“Yes, tell us, Jesus,” demanded Papa, “before we let him into our house, ‘what sort of person has Michael become?’ ”
Jesus replied in stages: “His mother disappeared, his relatives threw him out, he had to beg for food in Jerusalem, he was chased, beaten, and shunned, until arriving at our doorstep. The cruel hand of adversity has wrung Michael into a mere shadow of what he once was...We can’t turn him away. The Lord touched my spirit as I spoke to him. We must, as we did for Reuben, trust the will of God—one more time.”
All of us had gathered around Jesus in a tight circle. This was another crisis. This time no one prayed aloud, though I knew Jesus had already talked to God. With eyes shut tightly, my parent’s lips moved silently for only a few moments. James and Joseph glared with impatience at them, Uriah seemed to look for an avenue of escape, and Simon seemed very bored with it all as I tried to pray.
“Please God,” I whispered to myself, “change Michael’s heart. Make him a good boy.”
On that note, Jesus opened the door and called Michael back into our lives. A collective groan arose from our throats. Uriah just stood there blinking stupidly as the filthy youth sauntered into the house. From a ragged silhouette, this specter, upon closer inspection, looked nothing like a child. He had lost all vestiges of his innocence. His face was gaunt, there were bags under his eyes, and his arms, legs, and hands were caked with grime. His long straggling hair was so dirty it was actually a reddish brown. His long, black fingernails had not been trimmed in ages, and his grimy feet were fastened with rope inside mere hunks of leather, which served as sandals. His clothes were mere soiled rags. There were sores on his skin, some of them still festering. There was a yellow tinge to his skin, which I remembered Nehemiah having, and the most serious change that should have touched even James and Joseph’s hard hearts was the haunted, empty look in Michael’s green eyes.
“Father Abraham,” Papa groaned.
Except for Jesus welcoming embrace, which made me cringe, his brothers were silent. Uriah backed away to the other side of the room, and stood there with his mouth agape. As Mama offered him a cup of water, I gave him a simple greeting “Hello Michael. It’s been a long time,” but Michael said nothing. He didn’t even smile or blink his eyes. After gulping down the water, he dropped the cup onto the floor and stared straight ahead.
“Is he all right Mama?” Abigail yanked on her dress.
“He’s acting really spooky,” Uriah’s voice quivered. “Are you sure that’s Michael? He doesn’t look like Michael to me.”
“Joseph,” she ordered quickly, “take the twins outside. Let us know if someone walks up to the house.”
Wide-eyed and fearful, Joseph took Abigail and Martha outside. Uriah was right on his heels. I would have scampered after them if Jesus weren’t standing beside me holding my hand.
“Papa,” Simon blurted, “Michael’s not right in the head,”
“What’s the matter, is he mute?” snarled James.
“That’s enough boys,” Papa stepped forward and extended his forearm in greeting.
Michael still didn’t budge, so Mama gave him a handful of grapes, which he devoured like an animal, not bothering to even wipe his face. As if he had overstayed his welcome, Michael shrank, like a wraith from the room. Before the door shut behind him, Jesus exited the house, calling shrilly “Michael, stop, look at me. . . . That’s it—into my eyes.”
“I’ve seen enough of this,” Papa said, throwing up his hands. “Mama—we must talk. James, take Jude and Simon outside.”
Rudely, annoyed by my defense of Michael, James shoved me out the front door. As we trotted into the garden, Simon and I broke into excited chatter. Joseph, Uriah, and the twins had been sitting on the garden bench and jumped up expectantly as we approached. James was highly agitated with this turn of events. Though he didn’t say so, I know he blamed me for bringing Michael into their lives.
“Is Mama gonna let him stay in our house?” Joseph ran to James.
“I don’t know.” He gripped his head. “This is insane!”
“I wonder what Jesus is saying to Michael.” I looked at Simon. “Remember what he did to Mariah.”
“He put her to sleep,” Simon’s lip curled. “I hope he does more than that.”
“Let’s go find out!” Joseph said, pulling James’ sleeve.
“Come on boys,” I called spiritedly, “let’s spy on them, like we did in the old days. Maybe Jesus is going to perform another miracle—this time inside Michael’s head.”
James laughed hysterically as he followed us around the house. Abigail and Martha stayed with Uriah, who promised to watch them and warn our parents of visitors arriving at the gate. When we peeked around the corner—me on the bottom, Simon hunched over my back, Joseph’s head next, and James head perched on top, we could see Jesus standing over Michael, who lie crumpled on the ground. I remember his words to Michael as we were hurried out of the house: “Michael, stop, look at me. . . . That’s it—into my eyes.” It reminded me of an Egyptian snake charmer, Papa had once told us about, whose magic caused the serpent to freeze then weave back and forth. It appeared as if we were witnessing the first phase of Jesus miracle in which Michael had fallen asleep, as had his mother, Mariah. Now Jesus, the snake charmer, cried out in a booming voice, “Lord God, forgive me for questioning your will. I know what’s wrong with this youth. I’ve seen it before on my journey with Joseph of Arimathea. As your vessel, pour your spirit into me so I may cure this unfortunate soul. . . . In the name of God, the Creator, Lord of heaven and earth, I call upon Michael’s demons to depart. Out-out-out—demons depart!”
“Father Abraham!” gasped Simon. “He’s casting out demons again.”
“Shush!” James thumped his head.
“This is heresy, plain and simple,” Joseph muttered. “I can’t believe my eyes!”
“Shut up—all of you!” I hissed. “Jesus has done this before. I just hope it works.”
“Jude!” Uriah shouted through cupped hands. “Your parents are having a terrible fight.”
At that point, as if the spell had been broken by his outburst, Jesus collapsed onto his knees and dropped his face into his hand. Michael just lay there motionless on the ground.
“You fool! You idiot!” I leaped upon Uriah, throttling him with my fists.
“That’s it, Jude, now punch him in the face,” James egged me on.
I wanted to kill Uriah for destroying Michael’s only chance at being human again. Both James and Joseph were delighted that the little fat boy was getting what for.
“All right, Jude, that’s enough!” Joseph finally jumped in and pulled us apart.
“You’re always spoiling everything with your big mouth.” I screamed in rage. “Why did you have to come to our house?”
Though I had not done much damage to him, Uriah was bawling and gasping for breath, lying in a quivering ball on the ground. Just for good measure, Simon kicked him a few times, himself, grumbling “nice going, fat boy!”
“You think it worked on Michael?” Joseph murmured to James.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged, rudely pulling Uriah up off the ground. “Let’s go find out.”
As I followed my brothers, I was convinced Uriah had broken the spell—Jesus’ communion with God. I had wronged him deeply but was too caught up in the crisis to care. Michael was unconscious. Jesus remained kneeling, clasping his face. Under these circumstances, the fact that my parents were fighting had seemed unimportant to me. I’m certain my brothers felt the same, but we didn’t know then how serious their fight was. Mama had gone too far this time. Uriah ran into the house to tell my parents what I had done, which would make them even more upset. I hated him those moments. An irrational urge filled me, as it had before, to run away. Michael had done it, so had Adam, but then, I asked myself, looking down at the death-like face of Michael, “where had it gotten them? Adam was a fugitive of Rome and Michael had apparently lost his mind.”
We stood there for a while, waiting for Jesus to compose himself. When he looked up to the sky, his face, streaked with tears, was radiant. Once again, as it had in the meadow and by his favorite rock, light played on his upturned face. I noticed, from the corner of my eye movement from the house. I knew my parents would arrive on the scene, but they were approaching slowly, moved as we were by this event.
“Is he all right?” Simon finally asked.
“Jesus,” I cried out in a constricted voice, “is he even alive?”
James shoved him aside and looked down at Michael’s face. “Can’t you see that he’s dead?”
Simon nodded, whistling under his breath. “He looks dead to me!”
“No, I see movement.” Joseph knelt down excitedly beside Michael. “Look there—his hand twitches. There, it’s doing it again. He’s alive! He’s alive!”
“Is he cured though?” I asked, watching Jesus close his eyes. “Are his demons gone? When he wakes up will he be the same Michael who ran away?”
“There was only one demon,” Jesus answered, looking into my eyes. “You saw him in the orchard. He’s been with Michael ever since he left our house. Now Michael’s very tired and very sick. It will take another miracle to bring him back whole. Already I feel as if I have gone against God’s will.”
“That’s nonsense.” Mama came forward, with arms outstretched. “Michael’s still a boy. The Lord will give him one more chance. Have you given up on him too?”
The play of light faded as Jesus gave her a disbelieving frown. “No, of course not,” he replied, unnerved by her display of emotion. After hugging him fiercely, she bent down to attend to her stricken patient, muttering, “We need my potions and some of my herbs.”
“I told you Mary.” Papa wrung his fist. “I will not have that criminal in my house!”
“There-there,” she cooed, examining the unconscious youth, “he’s no harm to us now.”
“He must have done something terrible to be run out of town,” grumbled Papa. “What if he committed a crime in Jerusalem—a robbery or murder? Michael could be fugitive just like Reuben.”
Mama airily dismissed his worries with the wave of her small hand, a trait that maddened poor Papa. We could tell what our parents had been arguing about. It would divide us all greatly in the coming weeks. Though I dreaded the problems in having to hide someone else in our house, I was hopeful that Jesus had cured Michael of his evil ways. James and Joseph protested calling it “casting out demons,” which they felt, for some inexplicable reason, Jesus had no right to perform. I still believed they were jealous of his power. The fact remained, as we carried Michael back to the house, we wouldn’t know if he had changed until he awakened from his dark sleep.
When my parents and older brothers laid Michael on the table in the new room, thoughts of our previous ordeal reeled in my head. All of us, even Mama, groaned with dismay at the hopelessness of our situation. Unlike Reuben, who was injured grievously with recognizable wounds, Mama’s new patient’s malady was unknown. Her potions and herbs she spoke so highly of might not work if Michael had a wasting illness like Nehemiah or had a fever of the brain, which Mama admitted could not be treated by ordinary means. When she gave him that special look, a signal for him to use his power, Jesus frowned. His eyes flashed with anger at her presumption. The room fell silent as he stirred, his gaze saying, “I won’t test the Lord, even for you!” After what he said outside, this should have been clear to her. If Jesus first prayer, to expel Michael’s demon, failed, Mama’s medicine, her own special ‘magic,’ would have to work. Otherwise, as he lay trapped in the dark sleep, it would require a miracle to save my friend.
The word “chaos” that Jesus used to describe Michael’s mind seemed to be appropriate for the state our house was during these hours. Even now, with all that’s happened in my life, I am awed by my parent’s compassion toward the downtrodden. At the time, however, I felt overwhelmed by the urgency. Papa kept telling everyone how important it was that we tell no one about our new guest. As in the case of Reuben, we were giving sanctuary to a rogue who had caused our town much grief. The fact that Michael had never been a threat to our family didn’t overshadow the reputation he had gained from his mischief and the mere fact he was the son of the town witch. After the discovery of what seemed to be diabolical scribbling in Jesus’ cave, Mariah’s house, and on the wall of the town synagogue, Michael was considered by many townsmen to be a greater rogue than Reuben, a mere murderer and thief.
There was an anxious moment for all of us when there was a loud knocking at our front door. It’s difficult for me to explain my emotions during this time. I was frightened, confused, and angry that I our lives were being turned upside down again. Everyone was running in different directions from nervous energy. Mama and Jesus were in the next room with Michael and Papa and the twins were attempting to fix the evening meal, while the rest of us were simply trying to stay out of the way. Papa had sent James and Joseph out to secure the shop, which had been left open during the crisis. After only a few moments, they rushed back into the house fearful of the dilemma their parents had placed all of us in. Once again, James complained, we had to worry about nosey, suspicious neighbors. Simon, Uriah, and I listened to James and Joseph’s grumbling a moment until we heard the commotion on our porch. The sun had almost gone down, which was not the usual hour for a visitation, and we had few friends. Who could it be at this hour? When a voice punctuated the hammering on the door, we realized who it was. It was one of the last persons on earth Papa wanted to see.
“Joseph! Joseph! It’s Ezra,” he shouted gruffly, “open the door!”
“What could he want?” Papa asked, brandishing a large knife he had been using to chop fruit.
“Don’t answer the door,” Mama cried wringing her hands, “Michael’s coming to. He’s making strange noises. How will we explain this to Ezra?”
“I thought his demon was cast out.” I gave Jesus disappointed look.
“He delirious,” Jesus replied simply.
With clear, sober eyes, he glanced around the room as Ezra beat on the door. I stood there expectantly, heart hammering and head swimming, as James, Joseph, and Simon cringed in a far corner of the room. Jesus was our strength. For a brief moment, until our eyes met, I thought I might faint. Uriah sat whimpering at the table. The twins had fled into the other room. Having given her report, Mama was tending to Michael, as Papa hovered, with knife in hand, by the door afraid to respond. Only Jesus remained calm and collected. I will never forget what he said that day.
“Papa,” he called gently, “put the knife away. Ezra will see it in your hand. You must not lie to him this time. Rumors are much more dangerous than the truth.”
“Oh really?” Papa frowned in disbelief. “What shall I tell him? I can’t tell him Michael’s in the house. You want that to get around town?”
“You must tell him what happened—from the beginning,” Jesus explained, taking the knife from his hand. “One falsehood breeds another. The original lie becomes much worse at the end. You are halfway there Papa. Why lie? It will all come out when it becomes impossible to believe.”
Without further comment, Papa unbarred and swung open the door. The evening sun gave Ezra’s husky frame a frightening look—a silhouette fringed with gold, until he walked into the dimly lit room. From a stick set aflame in the oven, Jesus lit an extra lamp, raising it up to capture Ezra’s angry face.
“All right Joseph,” he growled looking around the room, “what’s going on? I have important news. What took you so long to answer the door?”
“Mama’s sick and Papa’s fixing dinner.” I stepped forward boldly.
Jesus hadn’t asked me to tell the truth. Avoiding his disapproving look, I retreated into the shadows as all evil-doers do and allowed James to elaborate on my story.
“Mama has a fever,” he spoke rapidly. “We have her in the next room until we’re sure she’s not contagious.”
Joseph and Simon both nodded vigorously. Papa just stood there sheepishly, trying to sort out his thoughts: should he tell the truth as Jesus insisted or should he lie and save our family from explaining Michael’s presence in our house? What decided the issue was the impatience of our visitor.
He took in the room with a slow rotation of his head, his voice suddenly booming, “The reason I intrude during your evening meal is to bring you grave news!”
Ironically, this ominous introduction brought a prayer of thanksgiving to our lips. Mama had implied that Michael was delirious, though I couldn’t hear him in the next room. I hoped he was still alive, but I was happy he was silent this moment. The terrible news Ezra would give us, I reasoned light-headedly, could not be as bad as the discovery of Michael in our house. After hiding Reuben from him, there’s no telling what he might do. Jesus gave him a cup of fruit juice, which he guzzled down quickly. I couldn’t help grinning and sighing with relief, as he wiped his mouth and handed Jesus back the cup. Papa seemed to be smiling and frowning at the same time. As Uriah continued to whimper, James, Joseph, and Simon whispered threats to him. I gave him a look, myself, as if to say, “You’d better keep your mouth shut!”
After a heart pounding moment in which Ezra glanced with obvious suspicion over at the new room, he thundered “The bandits are back!,” startling everyone out of their wits. Uriah began sniveling loudly. I must have jumped a cubit off the floor. After this dreadful statement, a rush of words poured from Ezra’s mouth: “Bar Abbas’ men were seen by the shepherds after they attacked their camp. Among them, according to Odeh, was Abba’s son Jesus, who he believes is leading what’s left of Abbas’ original band. They robbed the shepherds, injured two of them, and threatened to kill them all if they told the Romans. Odeh said they took a different path than the Shepherd’s Trail, disappearing into the brambles on the hillside facing the old Jerusalem road, perhaps to hide out until morning, but I wouldn’t wager on it. When I went to buy wool from him, his camp was a shambles. This could be a disaster for me, Joseph, and all of us in Nazareth if that handful of men run amuck and aren’t captured soon.” “Come!” He barked, striding back to the door. “Let us ride to the Roman garrison to inform Cornelius and Longinus they’re back. I have borrowed mules from Odeh, who will accompany us. He waits now by your gate. We must hurry Joseph. There’s no telling what those rogues are up to now.”
Papa gave me a frightened look. Once again I almost passed out. Would they go after the gold objects in the sanctuary? Perhaps, as I suspected, there was more treasure in the hills. But what about the pot of gold coins my parents didn’t know about that I had moved to a different location? Half of me prayed that they would find it and leave us alone. The other half hoped they would be satisfied with the cups and plates in the shrine and just leave us be. This was much worse than Ezra finding out about Michael or even the fact that the bandits were back. These bandits, I was certain, would not be satisfied with merely robbing the shepherd’s camp. They were looking for the gold. Although, I had hoped Adam left the coins for me, there seemed to be a good chance his cohorts would come after me when they discovered the pot missing. As Papa hastily gave us orders—eat dinner, clean up the dishes, and make sure our sick mother received a bowl of lentil soup, he was, by Jesus standards, beyond the halfway mark. For my part, I hoped the truth about my parents’ sanctuary to one-time enemies and fugitives remained buried in our house, but I knew Papa was torn by his latest lie.
While Papa grabbed two loafs of bread, a sack of fruit and three flasks of water for Ezra, Odeh, and himself, James, Joseph, Simon, Uriah, and I stood numbly by the door, wondering what came next. I felt some measure of safety with Jesus in the house, my chief concern being the gold coins I hid in the wall. I also felt guilty placing my family in harm’s way. Jesus’ other brothers and especially Uriah were terrified of the threat looming over our house. With the greatest reluctance, Papa followed Ezra out of the house. As soon as the door slammed behind them, Mama stuck her head out of Michael’s room and asked breathlessly, “Are they gone?”
As I stood on a stool looking out the window, I reported grimly, “They’re climbing onto their mules. . . . They’re riding away. . . . It looks like Papa and Ezra are arguing about something.”
“I don’t like that man,” James grumbled unhappily. “Why didn’t he go by himself and leave Papa to protect his family. Our house is closest to the Shepherd’s Trail.”
“Where’s Papa’s sword?” Joseph looked around frantically. “We should all hold a knife in our hand in case they break in.”
“How many times do I have to tell you,” Jesus cried out, “the Lord will protect our house!”
“We could pray,” Mama suggested. “There’s not much I can do for Michael.” “Come, let’s join hands.” She snapped her fingers.
At such times Mama’s presumptions were exasperating. Bandits were roaming the hills yet she wanted a prayer circle. James, Joseph, and Simon protested. Even Jesus recoiled at her suggestion. Only Uriah, deeply afraid, offered her his chubby hand as she stood at the head of the table.
“I thought we were gonna eat dinner.” Simon wrinkled his nose.
“We shall make our blessing a part of our prayer,” she explained reaching out for my hand.
“Papa should be leading us,” James challenged. “Isn’t that part of our tradition?”
“Papa’s busy tonight, but I don’t think God will mind,” she spoke casually, signaling lazily to Jesus with her eyes.
I don’t know how he did it, but he always understood what she wanted. This time, of course, it would be a special prayer for Michael. There were other times, however, when she would silently ask him to do something very specific, outside of our normal routine, as she had earlier when wanted him to use God’s power. It was as if they could read each other’s minds. At that moment, I hoped they couldn’t read mine. It was in turmoil over the treasure I hid in the wall. I felt guilty and a little frightened, though not as frightened as Uriah or my other brothers, for I almost believed Jesus had the power to protect our house. What would he think if he knew what sort of person I had become?
Looking up to the ceiling, which I understood to symbolize heaven, he prayed silently a moment. I can imagine, though I never asked, that he was asking God discreetly to help me mend my ways. Perhaps he also prayed that James and Joseph would stop their mistreatment of our guests. When he was done, with his eyes still shut, he began a long-winded prayer for Michael’s health that I prayed would end soon. Like everyone else, I was hungry. Sometimes I wondered if Jesus ever got hungry. I saw him bleed once, but I don’t remember ever seeing him use the cloaca or get really sick like the rest of us. . . . Perhaps he was divine. As my mind wandered, I heard him finally ask the Lord to bless our meal. A collective sigh went up as we attacked our food. Trying to avoid Jesus and Mama’s eyes, I sat down next to Martha, and immediately began gobbling up the cheese, bread, and chopped fruit, guzzling down the grape juice Mama had managed to prepare this week. As I chatted nervously about Papa’s trip to the Roman camp, Uriah belch happily, an Arab custom that meant the food was good. Since this was a Jewish household, Mama playfully scolded him for his manners, giving me a delayed reply on my concern.
“Don’t you worry about Papa,” she said reassuringly, a frown playing on face. “The Lord protects the righteous.”
I nodded bleakly as I munched on my cheese. The Lord protects the righteous—where had I heard that before? If I had written down all the platitudes uttered by Mama, Papa, and Jesus, it would fill one endless scroll. Even now, as I consider the countless martyrs that died in Jesus’ name, I find that platitude silly. The Lord didn’t protect me from the Persian authorities. I might very well lose my head or be impaled like poor Barnabas. But I felt comfort those moments as I listened to Mama’s assurance that God had been watching over the family of Joseph bar Jacob for a long time. We had all survived bandits, angry townsmen, and the Roman authorities, who wouldn’t understand my parents caring and sheltering a fugitive of Rome.
“So we should be afraid of a handful of starving thieves?” She spread her palms and laughed softly to herself.
“I’ll go get Papa’s sword,” James offered rising from his seat.
“Hah! Papa should have brought that with him.” Joseph shook his head with disgust. “He’s the only one who can handle that heavy weapon.”
“We won’t need Papa’s sword.” Jesus raised his two fingers piously. “He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.
“What?” James gave him a disbelieving look.
Jesus, himself, found his exclamation dubious. Years later, during that terrible night in Gethsemane, he would use those exact words to admonish Peter who had just cut off the ear of one of the guards sent to bring him to the Sanhedrin. That night in Nazareth, however, during our table talk, it was a strange thing for him to say.
“Could Joshua have taken Jericho or David defeated Goliath with that kind of thinking?” challenged James.
“What about Papa’s sword?” Joseph looked at him defiantly. “He would’ve killed Reuben that night!”
“Yes, I recall the passages.” Jesus sighed and looked into his cup. “There were many swords, spears, and arrows used by Joshua and David in their days. I’m troubled by their slaughter of innocent women and children. God’s ways are mysterious, but perhaps now He’s looking for a better way.”
“What does that mean?” snarled James.
“Are you saying that you know God’s will?” Joseph asked a fateful question.
Mama gave Jesus one of her looks—this time to say shut up, you’ve said enough!
Her soft, lilting voice, took on an ominous edge as she cried, “James and Joseph, say no more. We don’t need a sword. Jesus shall protect our house with prayer. Enough with your doubts. I must tend to Michael. You both help your younger brothers clean up the kitchen.”
With mixed emotions I asked, “Is he gonna be all right?”
Half of me wanted him to live. The other half wanted things to get back to normal.
“Don’t worry, Jude.” She patted my head. “Jesus said he’ll recover. We must trust in the Lord!”
“My Papa thinks Jesus is a heretic!” chimed Uriah.
Everyone ignored his outburst except Jesus, who smiled and gave him a hug.
“The question is my little friend.” He gave him a wry look. “Do you think I am?”
Uriah shook his head. “Papa thinks everyone’s a heretic who doesn’t agree with him.”