While we filed in for the evening meal, I realized Tabitha had followed us into the house. I found myself once again holding her little hand. Because it was getting dark, Mama asked Jesus to walk her home. I quickly volunteered to escort her, myself, but she said it would be better if she snuck into her uncle’s house and avoid all the fuss. By now Jared would be drunk and in a surly mood and we would have to give him a lengthy explanation of why she was out so late. Before long, she reassured us, her uncle would be snoring peaceably and not remember her absence the next day. What the old drunk didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt him, she giggled hysterically before scampering out the door. Before Papa gave the blessing, we sat there at the table discussing what Tabitha had so casually said. It had an ominous as well as comic ring. James, Joseph, and Simon laughed when she called Jared an old drunk, but I was worried about my little friend. Uriah, whose heart was pure, could not believe this of the town’s baker.
“He makes such wonderful cakes and pastries.” He shook his head in wonder. “How could he have kept that secret from my papa?”
“The same way Jonah kept her secret from us,” Joseph said with a snicker. “Jared was probably so drunk he never even knew.”
This caused James, Joseph, and Simon to break into giggles again, so Papa called order to our table, uttered a quick blessing, and Mama, with the twins’ assistance, began shoveling stew into our plates. As we ate a strange-looking but hearty stew Papa had whipped up himself and munched on yesterday’s bread (since our guards had eaten tonight’s loaves), we discussed today’s events. The confrontation with the Romans, Jonah/Tabitha’s confession, and then the wonders of Jesus’ secret place seemed hard to surpass. Papa was shocked to hear that Jonah was really a girl, but Mama was not surprised.
“Oh, I suspected something was wrong, all right,” she said with a shrug. “He or she was much too pretty for a boy. I’m worried about that uncle of hers.”
On the subject of what Jesus found in the rocks, Mama was greatly impressed and it was Papa’s turn not to be surprised.”
“Oh, I use to collect those as a child,” he pshawed. “The elders insisted that they were creatures left over from the Flood, but I knew they were much older.”
When we had almost tired of these subjects, Mama, who had slipped out for a few moments to check on her patient, wearily reported about her own experiences today. In spite of her exhaustion, there was a gleam in her eye as she returned to the kitchen. Yet I barely listened to her. I’m not sure if James, Joseph or Simon listened at all.
“Michael opened his eyes while you boys were gone. He closed them again, but then his fingers and toes moved. He moans continually in his sleep. It’s as I thought before. Michael’s sickness, unlike Reuben who had actual wounds, is in his mind.”
So, what else is new? I thought, taking a sip of juice. Papa sighed, and Simon yawned. James, Joseph, Simon, and I continued to work on our stew. Once again, after a faint groan filtered from Michaels’ room, Mama re-checked her patient. This time, when she returned after a brief moment, her voice raised a notch, she clasped her hands with delight, and a more excited utterance flowed out of her mouth. “Michael spoke to me again!”
“Oh,” Papa said lightheartedly, “what did he say?”
“Michael made funny noises today,” Abigail chimed.
“This just happened.” She smiled at Abigail. “I heard it just now.”
“Really?” James looked up from his stew. “Did he lapse into unconsciousness again?”
“No,” Mama smiled slyly, “he’s still awake, just very weak. I’m going to bring him a mug of juice and bowel of stew. Would you all like to take a peek?”
“What?” Everyone cried.
After practically ignoring her throughout our meal, we sat upright on seats, mouth agape and eyes popped wide. Papa took the tray out of her shaking hands. Jesus, who had been inside the room with Michael, called out cheerily, “Behold, our friend Michael!” A lamp sat on the windowsill, its orange light giving Mama’s patient an otherworldly glow, as it did Jesus. The youth lying on the padded table, his head resting on a feather stuffed pillow, looked nothing like the mischievous, fun-loving child I had romped with in the hills. His skin was deathly white, and his lips were cracked and bloodless. His eyes were sunken into his head, with dark circles beneath. As he gazed out from the rim of Gahenna, it seemed obvious as I looked into his unseeing eyes that he would never be the same. Dreadful things had happened to his body and mind. He had escaped the black sleep just to remain in its shadow the rest of his life. . . or so I thought, as I looked down at my old friend.
“Greetings Michael,” I said in a croaking voice.
“Ju-ju-ju...” He tried saying, though his lips hadn’t moved.
“Yes, we’re all Jews,” I tried being glib. A similar exchange had occurred between Nehemiah and I when Nehemiah awakened.
“His mind’s addled,” Joseph said dismissively. “He still looks possessed.”
“No, no,” Jesus said, reaching out to stroke Michael’s matted hair, “the demon has left him, but the battle was hard. It’s the war Michael must win. What matters most is his soul, Michael’s mooring is in his shadowy world.”
“Gibberish,” Joseph grumbled. “He can barely talk.”
“Joseph, leave the room!” Papa’s voice thundered.
“I’m sorry Mama, but it’s true,” James was apologetic, looking away from Michael’s eyes. “The glow in his eyes is lamp light. Behind his eyes there’s darkness and madness. Look at him Mama. He can’t even feed himself.”
“You too, James—out!” Papa pointed toward the door.
Mama raised a spoon of stew up to his mouth. Michael allowed her to shove the spoon in and seemed to chew his food, though the juice dribbled out of his mouth. At that point, he tried to say my name again but made other sounds—squeaks, grunts, and a mewing noise, which upset me very much. Joseph had obediently left the room. I would not have been surprised if he ran away after tonight. James had also taken his leave as Papa demanded, as did Uriah who seemed frightened by what he saw. Simon had always been fascinated my gross matters, and yet Michael’s attempts at talking and his unblinking eyes spooked him too. Suddenly, there were tears streaming down my cheeks. The image of Michael’s withered, listless body shook me deeply. Sobbing behind my fist, the effort to cap my emotions failed. As Papa led me quickly out of the room, the old affection for my lost friend spilled out in one great sputtering shriek.
Just as suddenly, I was surrounded by concerned faces. With Papa’s hand on one of my shoulders and Jesus on the other and Mama bending down to give me her motherly hug, I stood between the three pillars of my life. Uriah was in the background asking, “What’s wrong. Has the demon passed into Jude?” Papa scolded Uriah gently for his remark. As their heads loomed into view, I could see Simon sniveling and even James’ eyes filled with tears. To complete this mental picture, was Joseph mumbling an apology to me. As Jesus took over feeding Michael, the rest of us congregated glumly at the table. Abigail snuggled up on the bench beside me with Martha standing close behind, both looking very much like two German twins I would later see in Rome. I remember them, in their innocence, as being unaffected by this crisis. After everything my poor parents had gone through—the ordeal of Jesus’ divinity, a seemingly endless procession of adopted children, and persecution for the charity shown to a widow and her incorrigible son, they provided even more dangerous care to Reuben, a wanted fugitive of Rome. . . . Now this! I thought, sipping juice from a cup held lovingly in Mama’s hands.
As Papa studied his youngest son, there was a haunted look on his face. The implications of what Michael’s vegetative existence meant to our family was too much for him to bear. So why was everyone comforting me? I know Papa wanted a mug of wine. No one should blame him if he did. And Mama, who was responsible for the care of two patients, after caring for Reuben for so long, was as worn out bodily as Papa was in his mind. I could understand, even as a child, that Mama’s will was stronger than Papa’s. Somehow, by her faith in God and love for her family, she would persevere. Though her body might gradually give out, she would never lose her mind or indomitable will. I could, at the same time, see great frustration in Papa’s eyes. His words those moments summed up everyone’s thoughts on the subject, including Jesus, who sat down at the end of the table as Papa called us to prayer. Before the actual prayer, he explained to us unequivocally that we confronted another serious crisis in our house.
“My family,” he uttered, looking around the table and taking time to stroke Martha’s blond head, “this time Mama’s patient is a youth whose mind is lost and may never return. We had prayed that Michael, after he ran away, would find his way in the world, but he’s back, damaged and discarded after his misadventures, a castaway in the world of the living, still hovering it seems in the land of the dead. I know Jesus believes that Michael’s demon is gone, but we must pray foremost for Michael’s soul. He is a hollow vessel, not alive nor dead. So long as he lives, he’s neither in paradise nor Gahenna. We must ask God to either take this tormented soul or give him one more chance among the living. . . . Let us join hands in prayer.”
Papa’s preamble to our prayer circle for Michael had been brief. His introductory prayer was even more brief: “Lord, if it be your will, take this unfortunate youth into your kingdom or let him recover and start a new life, whole in body and spirit—not this in-between, neither-here-nor-there shadow of a person we see now.”
“Let us hold hands and share our secret prayers with God.” He directed, reaching out to grasp Mama and Jesus’ hands.
This time, following Papa’s example, we reached out to the person next to us as we sat on the table benches. I grasped Abigail tiny hand, as she squirmed in her seat. Uriah reluctantly took mine, still not completely comfortable with our family’s eccentric ways. Contritely, it appeared to me, Joseph, after taking Simon’s hand, made a conscientious effort to petition God as did James who joined with Simon and Martha, both fidgeting with their eyes tightly shut. Mama who held Martha and Papa’s hand, scolded Martha for wiggling so much. After a few moments of circle praying, she excused the twins, who were becoming a distraction, which left me holding Simon’s hand, who distracted me very much. Though Jesus had taught his younger brothers how to pray, Simon wasn’t able to do it in his head without muttering aloud and peeking through the slits of his eyes. He once confessed to me that he couldn’t pray in the total darkness that shutting one’s eyes caused. My prayer, in spite of Simon’s twitching and squirming, remained focused on one simple request. As I sit writing in my cell I can see it flashing in the blackness of my skull: “Lord, make Michael whole again in body and spirit,”—a simplified version of what Papa said in his opening prayer. At one point I looked around to see Jesus and my parents praying feverishly, faces uplifted, lips twitching, with beads of sweat forming on their brows. Joseph and James were trying very hard, themselves, as was Simon in his own plodding way, but Uriah had released my hand and was standing there idly, his eyes wide open, a deadpan expression on his pudgy face.
“Uriah, you’re supposed to be praying!” I whispered into his ear.
“I’m finished,” he replied with a shrug.
“You’re not finished until Papa says amen,” I corrected him. “You’re supposed to keep on praying and say it over and over again while others pray in the circle.”
Uriah had been the subject of one of our circle prayers and I thought he understood. Stung by my rebuke, he clasped my hand, murmured a brief apology to me, shut his eyes again, and, as his lips moved jerkily, returned to his prayer. “Make Michael better! Make Michael better!” I heard him chant. I for one was tired of saying the same thing over and over again, so I began asking the Lord for a horse and whether or not the bandits had left more of their treasure in the hills. When the word amen was uttered from Papa’s lips, I looked around sheepishly, wondering if anyone had overheard my new prayer. Jesus had told me that I must ask for needful things. I felt as if I needed a horse, but asking God to help me find more stolen gold seemed almost blasphemous during this hour.
“Now what?” Uriah muttered.
“We wait,” I said from the corner of my mouth.
Papa stood up, yawned, stretched, and looked fondly back at the kitchen pantry he had built. He needed a mug of wine. Mama, who peered, with blurry eyes, across the room, dreaded her vigil over Michael. Everyone else in the room, except Jesus, who was pure of soul, had probably thought, “Let him live or let him die,” as they prayed. There could be no in between netherworld where he could slowly waste away, while we lied to our friends or tried to explain our behavior to our neighbors when it was obvious we were hiding something in our house. Ezra and his wife Naomi were not stupid. None of the townsmen who snooped around our house or the friends prevented from entering our home could have been completely fooled by the deception. Perhaps the citizens of Nazareth had finally grown used to the strange behavior of Joseph bar Jacob’s family, but the pressures of hiding people in our home—Mariah, Reuben and now Michael weighed heavily on our parents. My brothers and I understood this clearly. Only Uriah, who had escaped a tyrannical father and unhinged mother, felt better off in this unsettling house.
Ironically, I can bear witness now, that my parents were doing God’s work. Jesus was right to scold us for complaining about our own needs during that period of our lives. And yet, with the exception of Uriah, it seemed so unfair to the remainder of us that we had to go through this again. For my friend, who had not suffered through the rescue and sanctuary given to Mariah, the witch, and Mama’s nursing of our one-time enemy Reuben, today’s excitement made his stay with our family an adventure and this episode with Michael a passing affair. He had spoken my own mind when he said, “It’s up to God, not us. Let’s play a game.”
“What?” Simon looked at him in disbelief. “We can’t play in the dark. What shall we play?”
“I know,” I cried, snapping my fingers, “we’ll play the mug game Michael taught me.”
“I’ve never heard of that game.” Simon looked suspiciously at me. “How come you never showed me this before.”
“Yes, Jude,” protested Uriah, “you never showed that to Nehemiah and me.”
“He showed me it just before he ran away,” I struggled momentarily with that bitter memory. “I guess I forgot all about it until now.” “Here’s how it goes,” I said, walking across the room to fetch three mugs. “I take this grape, someone dropped on the floor, place it under a mug, move all three mugs around, and you guess which mug holds the grape.”
“All right,” Simon agreed. “Who goes first.”
“What’s the purpose of the game?” James called from across the room. “Are you gambling for something? That games going to grow old pretty fast.”
“We’ll use pretend money,” I suggested, running to fetch a bunch of grapes. “These will work just fine, and we could eat them when we’re done.”
“I suppose that would be all right,” said Papa, laughing softly to himself.
“As long as it’s all pretend.” Jesus’ eyebrows knit together. “Gambling is a game of chance, not talent or strength.”
During my discipleship, I don’t recall Jesus ever preaching against gambling, in itself. When he spoke to us that night about Michael’s game, he might have thought it was a frivolous way to while away our time, yet he did something that night that reminded me of another episode in which he seemed to frivolously use his powers. Unlike the night he changed Michael’s pagan dice so that they displayed the Hebrew symbol of life, however, Jesus had merely played a trick on us. He walked over to the three mugs, placed a grape beneath one of the mugs, moved them around quickly, and asked me to guess which one hid the grape. Jesus had only made a few movements. I immediately pointed to the first mug. When he lifted up the first mug, the grape wasn’t there. He then lifted up the remaining two mugs and, to our amazement, the space beneath them was also empty.
“How’d you do that?” Uriah squealed with delight.
“Is that magic?” Simon clapped his hands. “It’s gotta be magic! Do it again! This is better than Michael’s dice!”
“Let’s not bring up the dice.” Jesus smiled slyly. “This wasn’t magic, Simon. It was slight of hand—a Syrian magician’s trick. I switched the cups around so fast, you didn’t notice me concealing the grape in my palm.”
He handed the grape to Uriah, who immediately plopped it into his mouth.
“That’s it? There’s no point this time?” Joseph’s mouth dropped in surprise.
“None whatsoever,” Jesus chuckled. “And here’s something else to occupy your time.”
He seemed to present Michael’s dice out of thin air. “There’s a different Hebrew symbol on each side. With a little imagination you can make an interesting game out of the pieces. Who wants to try?”
All of us, even James and Joseph, charged forward with hands outstretched. Suddenly, the cup game and Jesus’ Syrian slight of hand trick were forgotten.
“Each symbol should be given a value, from one to six,” James suggested.
“Exactly.” Joseph nodded, examining the dice. “We can write the equivalents and make rules for the game as we go along.”
I nodded eagerly, happy to see Michael’s dice. “The rules should be simple,” I offered light-heartedly. “Whoever rolls sixes, wins one round of the game, and so forth.”
“How many rounds should there be?” Simon fingered one of the dice.
“As many as we want,” Uriah said enthusiastically. “We’re making up the rules!”
I would one day learn that the game we thought we invented had been played in the time of the Pharaohs, but the wonderful dice had done their magic. In what may not have been a miracle, Jesus had done one more wondrous deed in bringing his brothers closer together that night. Always the advocate of fraternity and family fidelity, his prayers and coaxing united us around a simple game of chance.
Our new crisis and Jesus efforts to divert our attention toward brotherly pursuits included Uriah, whom we suspected would be among us for a long time. I had accepted Uriah, with all his childish quirks, as a member of our family and considered him a loyal friend, perhaps the most loyal of the boys I knew in Nazareth. Tabitha seemed to fill a new, wondrous category too. All this time Jethro and Obadiah’s taunts about Jonah’s girlishness had a solid foundation. He was a girl! I will never forget Nehemiah, whose loss I still feel greatly. Of all my friends in Nazareth, Michael made the greatest impact. Unlike Nehemiah, Uriah, and Tabitha, however, the impact was more harmful than good. As I look back, it seems plan to me that Michael’s stay in our house had sparked a mischievous streak in me. Even after I turned against him for his attitude about my family and attempted theft of Papa’s savings, I was inspired by his inquisitiveness and philosophy on life. The important thing, he had always told me, was “only do what you can get away with” and “don’t get caught.” This philosophy had worked well for Michael until he went after Papa’s savings. Jesus had been aware of Michael’s plans, just as he knew about my lust for treasure. After attempting to keep my treasure all to myself, my guilt had been too much for me, causing my recent fainting episode and disclosure to Papa of my hidden pot of gold. Jesus, I’m quite certain, already knew. So in the end, though tempting when it suited my ends, Michael’s philosophy didn’t work in our house. It was a good thing the shepherd stole my loot. It’s too bad the bandits caught up with him, but the lesson was clear, after our ordeal last night. Had it not been for Jesus’ protective spirit, my greed would have cost my family dearly.
After we gave the Hebraic symbols of the dice numeric values and agreed that we would toss to decide the order of the roll, I found myself in last place and meditating on my dark deeds. As a child, I had been sheltered against the evils of the world, so I naturally magnified my misdeeds into terrible crimes. I had horded other men’s stolen gold, which seemed to make me a thief too. I had, because of my greed, placed my family in danger. What sort of son would do such a thing?
James, who won first toss, rolled a three and a one, followed by Simon, who tossed a four and five. Uriah, then Joseph, both tossed a pair of two’s. Simon thought he would surely win and hooted and did a little dance. Because he couldn’t lose, Jesus remained on the sidelines, as an observer, a warm smile on his face. When the dice were handed to me, I cast them out without fanfare and rolled two sixes, which meant that I had won the first round. Simon stomped his foot, but the other boys congratulated my good fortune. The symbol for the sixes, ironically, were the Chai symbols for life.
On a piece of parchment, Joseph jotted down our scores. The results, though in my favor, failed to make an impact on me, until Jesus reminded me of what they meant.
“Are you all right?” he whispered, holding up the dice. “I don’t believe in omens or luck, but do you know what that means?”
“Yes,” I replied with a sigh, “it means life, but I don’t deserve it. I’ve been really bad, Jesus. I hid treasure that belonged to people the bandits may have killed. A shepherd was also killed after finding my gold. It was blood money, which means that my hands were bloodied—”
“Nonsense, Jude, ” Jesus cut me off. “You’re still a child. Your judgment is faulty, but, in most cases, your heart is pure. In the end, when confronted with evil, you recognize it. You confess your misdeeds. It just a matter of time before you tell the truth.”
“You’ve always have faith in me,” I looked at my oldest brother in awe.
As the game proceeded, I continued to roll the highest scores, which included several more pairs of sixes. Playfully it seemed, Joseph accused Jesus of bewitching my dice. Simon called it an outright miracle that I did so well. I couldn’t disagree with them. The fact that I had rolled “life” so many times made me almost feel immortal. That night, as Michael began showing improvement in his bodily movements and speech, Mama moved with dedication between his room and the table were we congregated, her concern divided between her patient and family. The small improvements Mama reported were not enough to raise our spirits, which was achieved by the games we played while drinking pomegranate juice and eating the grapes intended for the game of mugs.
Papa, who had disappeared as we played mugs, returned with wine on his breath as we finished a round of dice, but no one appeared to notice at first. Uriah, James, Joseph, and I had begun dozing off. Simon was already sound asleep. It was refreshing to see Papa happy and in a good mood. He had been talking to Arturius and Clement, the night guards who relieved Falco and Priam. According to Papa, they weren’t such bad fellows, especially Clement who, like Regulus, claimed his mother was a Jew. Clement had run away from home to join the legions, a story that immediately perked me up. Everyone at the table had been waiting for Mama to return with another progress report. So far we had been told that Michael’s eyes followed her constantly now, he was trying to form sentences, and lastly a tear had formed in his deadpan eyes—all signs of improvement she believed. These small indications, however, seemed insignificant once we dashed into the room to see for ourselves. Though his eyes moved, Michael was still in a dark place. Papa’s sudden, noisy return roused everyone at the table and jolted Simon awake. Interrupted by her tired enthusiasm, I had the sudden urge to hug and kiss my saintly mother, though I was unimpressed with her report. As we listened to Papa relate the exploits of the ‘Jewish guard,’ it seemed likely that he had plied the normally grouchy night guards with wine, which he drank freely himself. We were amused more by his telling of the story than the story itself. He was obviously tipsy, and Mama was not pleased with this at all. Jesus cast him a sad look yet said nothing. I couldn’t blame Papa for his lapse. The look in his eyes and weariness in his voice had been a forewarning to us. Many Jewish men turned to the vine. Uncle Joab had been a drunk and so was Tabitha’s Uncle Jared. It looked very much as if Papa was becoming a drunk too. . . . But Mama wasn’t a drunk, I marveled, watching her shuffle across the room to check on Michael once more.
Gradually, as Papa chattered about the state of affairs in Nazareth and the Roman world, his eyelids fluttered and words slurred until finally, and predictably, he nodded off to sleep. By then Simon and Uriah had drifted away from the table and tumbled onto their pallets. After awhile, James and Joseph, too tired, themselves, to show proper disdain, stood up, smiled faintly at me and took their leave. Finally, as I watched Papa’s head pitch forward, a light-headed giggle escaped my throat as his brow thudded on the table and a snore fluttered out of his beard.
“It’s not funny,” James called from his pallet.
“I know,” I exhaled, “I just don’t want to cry.”
Jesus, after slipping out of the house awhile, re-entered that moment, bolted the door, and walked over to tuck me in. It was sort of a ritual for us during times of trial. As he pulled off my sandals and pulled the blanket over me, he said nothing. I knew he was upset, perhaps because he had prayed so hard for Papa, even more than Mama, and yet when I was tucked in with my head resting on my favorite cushion, he gave me great comfort. I believed his words instantly, without one shred of doubt.
“Listen Jude,” he whispered so only I could hear, “one day Papa, as all mortal men, will meet the Lord, but it will not be by wine. I’ve had a nice chat with the Father. Once again this urge will pass. Our ordeals will end. Please trust in the Father, if not me. . . . Sleep little brother. Dream of your great white horse and the many adventures ahead. Cast the worries of this world from your mind!”
“I trust you Jesus,” I said drowsily. “If you say it’s gonna be all right, I believe you. But what about Michael? . . .Will he stay this way for the rest of his life? . . .Will he live or die?”
“Go to sleep Jude,” he replied, patting my head. “Say one more prayer for Michael before you tumble off to sleep. I’ll lead Papa off to bed and then say one more prayer for him myself.”