Tabitha Joins The Family
Mama’s visits to Joachim’s house had become less frequent since Michael demanded so much of her time. She might scurry over to the rabbi’s home to make sure Hannah was giving him his medicine, but after Michael’s return, she had checked up on Joachim much less frequently, including one brief visit yesterday afternoon. Papa had put his foot down. It was time for Hannah to take responsibility. With the job of taking care of her family and two other patients, Mama’s hands were full. As we were told upon their return that afternoon, however, she had talked Papa into dropping by for quick peek at the rabbi after leaving Samuel’s house. In his delirium, Joachim managed to explain that Hannah, who had lost her wits, and her daughter Rhoda, fled the drudgery of his illness to visit relatives in Sepphoris. Even when the rabbi was well in mind and body, Hannah had never fit into our backwater town. Now, because she abandoned her husband, Mama was virtually the only caregiver. As my Roman friends might say, “Sic transit vita nostra.” Fatalistically, she shrugged her shoulders. Papa was beside himself with anger, and yet, out of good conscience, was forced to relent. If she didn’t take care of the rabbi, he might wither away and starve.
Earlier, that very day, as if my parents didn’t have enough problems, Tabitha had arrived at our doorstep. During our noon break right after my parents left for Samuel’s house, I saw her walking dejectedly up to the door. I knew there was something wrong as soon as I caught sight of her. She had, she confessed to Jesus, not eaten that day, so she joined us for the lunch prepared by Jesus and the twins. After what she told us about her drunken uncle previously, Mama had begun to worry about the little girl. It appeared as if Mama’s fears were justified. Tabitha was not merely hungry, she was unwashed. She ate ravenously, as if she had not eaten for a while. Her long chestnut hair had flecks of dough and flour in it and there were smudges of grease on her face. As politely as possible, Jesus handed her a wet towel and helped her spruce herself up between gulps of food.
When my parents returned from their discovery at Joachim’s house, Papa was still smoldering from the implications now that Hannah had fled. Surprisingly enough, Uriah was not nearly as upset as Papa by the fact his mother had abandoned him. Knowing Mama’s big heart, Papa knew she would have to increase her visits to the rabbi’s house. Mama must have given him a mug of wine to calm him down. He sat there sipping the suspicious beverage in his favorite oversized cup. When he had calmed down and began chatting about the improved condition of Samuel and how Reuben/Bartholomew was almost ready to be on his own, Jesus told him and Mama about Tabitha’s plight. Tabitha, who had scampered outside with the twins after lunch, was gently called back into the house. Since Jared had always treated our family well, Papa was still reluctant to make a complaint, but Mama had no scruples against marching over and demanding that the baker take better care of his niece. What stopped her was Tabitha, herself, who insisted that her uncle was just going through a spell. He did this ever so often when he began thinking about his dead wife. It would pass, she promised us. Without Jared, she had nowhere else to go. At that point, everyone, except Uriah gasped. The look on Papa’s face was almost comical. In spite of the numbing effects of wine, his eyes seemed to bulge out of his head. As a fishing treading water, his mouth opened and closed rapidly, though all he made were strange guttural noises. Yet no one laughed because the implications seemed quite clear.
“I’m sure Jared will come around,” James said, a look of panic growing on his face.
“Yes, yes,” Joseph said disingenuously, “the poor man would miss his little niece.”
“And Hannah will return too,” Mama consoled Uriah.
Two disasters appeared to confront us. Simon sat shaking his head at their folly, but Uriah seemed almost pleased. Papa took a long swig of wine, as Mama gently took Tabitha aside. I tried following them out the door but was told to get back in the house. Losing control again, Papa stood up that moment and stomped angrily to his shop. Jesus turned from Michael’s door that moment after peeking in, concerned about Tabitha’s dilemma but more worried about Papa’s lapse. Holding his hand up to signal stop to Simon, Uriah, and me, he waited a moment then followed Papa out the back door. We sat back down at the table and broke into a discussion with James and Joseph about this turn of events.
“Tabitha’s going to be living with us,” Simon announced glumly.
“No she’s not.” James shook his head. “Michael would have to die first. We don’t have enough room.”
“Well, he’s gonna be here for awhile!” Joseph pointed to my friend.
James and Joseph laughed hysterically. Uriah’s face broke into a grin. At this point, I was not certain how I felt.
“What’s the matter with you Uriah?” Simon frowned. “Don’t you miss your mother and father?”
“No.” He made a face. “Papa’s mean to me and Mama’s insane.”
“What about your sister?” I posed the question. “Don’t you miss her?”
“Uh-uh,” snorted Uriah. “Rhoda’s a brat. She’s always getting me into trouble.”
I had heard Uriah complain about his sister before. From what he told me, Rhoda was also deranged. It seemed, after all was said and done, that Uriah, at least, might be permanent. When Mama entered the house with Tabitha in tow, the look on their faces—sympathy and hope—said it all: Tabitha must be rescued from her negligent uncle! Not only would Uriah and, due to circumstances, Michael, become members of our family, but it looked like Tabitha was joining us too.
I was torn between depression and a strange, irrational excitement. I was certain that no other family in Nazareth, or the entire world, had such a household. When Jesus returned from the shop, he tried to be cheerful about our circumstances, but I could tell he was upset about Papa’s drinking. Heaving a pent-up sigh, Mama placed her arm around Tabitha’s shoulders, cleared her throat and announced, “I’m going over and talk to the baker. Tabitha will stay with us until I’m convinced it’s all right at her uncle’s house.” “Jesus, would you come with me?” She reached out for his hand. Without hesitation, Jesus, always the obedient son, left with Mama and Tabitha to confront the little girl’s uncle. With Jesus restraining hand removed, we ran outside to search for Papa. We were all concerned that he was becoming a drunk. After discovering that he was nowhere to be seen in his shop or in either yard, James concluded that he had found himself a nice tree in the hills to set beneath and drink wine. Joseph and Simon agreed, but I remembered one time when Papa got upset like this and visited Samuel. Unless he was too drunk to care, I was certain he would not want himself seen by our Roman guards in such a state. While James, Joseph, and Simon headed into the hills, Uriah and I set out for Samuel’s house. I had been told not to go into town, but the Romans were here now and the very man whom they had originally been sent to protect us from was now our friend.
I can’t claim to have had foresight this time, for no such revelation came into my head, but as Uriah and I walked rapidly up the winding Nazareth road, we were met coming the opposite direction by Mordechai, Samuel’s chief steward. I knew immediately that something was going to happen.
Recognizing us from a distance, he called out “peace be unto the sons of Joseph bar Jacob.”
“Peace be unto the house of Samuel bar Zadok,” I replied, bringing my fist to my chest in a Roman salute.
“Listen, young Jude,” he spoke discreetly, when he was only a few paces away, “we found your Papa wandering in Samuel’s orchard. He’s all right, but he’s too drunk to be seen in town. Samuel understands the problems your family is facing and has decided to share his house with your family. Is your mother at home?”
“Mama went to Jared, the baker’s house, to scold him for not taking care of Tabitha.” I explained in one long breath. “She said Tabitha will be staying with us, as is Uriah, until her uncle’s home is safe.”
“Precisely the point.” Mordechai nodded gravely. “I shall go over there myself and talk with her. Meanwhile, you children head on home. The Romans have been testy lately. You shouldn’t be skulking around town.”
“I told you!” Uriah said under his breath.
When I asked Mordechai if Papa would return home soon, he told me not to worry. Papa was in good hands. That was good enough for me. Thanking our benefactor profusely, I promised him that we would rush home with the good news. Mordechai then turned on his heel without further comment to find the baker’s house. I was so happy about this turn of events, I did a little jig on the way and ruffled Uriah’s hair. This caused him to lose his balance as we ran and almost tumble onto his face. As I looked back at my slow moving friend, I could see a worried scowl on his face.
“Do you know what this means?” I called jubilantly over my shoulder. “Samuel’s house is like a big castle. His garden’s huge, his orchard’s vast, and his table’s filled with fine food!”
“Oh, they won’t let me come.” Uriah huffed and puffed, unable to keep up with me on the road. “There’s too many of us. He doesn’t have that much room. What about Michael? What’s he going to do with him?”
Uriah couldn’t believe our good fortune, but I was in no mood for his doubts, so I dashed ahead of him as fast as I could, until he was far back on the road as I charged through the gate. When I entered the house hoping to tell James, Joseph, and Simon the good news, I screamed in horror, and ran back out of the door. There sitting at the table, as if he had just awakened from a nap, was Michael. In the light from the kitchen window I could see that he was eating a loaf of bread. A mug of juice or water was in front of him. He smiled at me but said nothing as he raised the mug up for a sip. Uriah saw me run madly out of the house and called, out of breath, “what’s wrong. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I sort’ve did!” I collapsed in a sitting position by the gate. “Michael’s in there sitting at the table—not a care in the world. I can’t believe it Uriah. Where is everybody when you need them?”
“Father Abraham!” Uriah cried.
Turning to the source of his gaze, I could see Michael emerge lazily from the house. I knew that my parents wouldn’t like him being exposed like this, but I was in too much shock to complain. He walked out stiffly and blinked fiercely in the sunlight, which indicated that he had, in deed, awakened from a long rest. Other than his sickly pallor and disheveled hair, however, he seemed normal enough, nothing like the wraith greeting us before. James, Joseph, and Simon rounded the far side of the house just in time to see him take several steps.
“Moses’ ghost,” James shrieked, “get him back in the house!”
“Come on boys,” Joseph cried frantically, “let’s go get him.”
“You go get him.” Simon looked at him in disbelief.
Now that most of my brothers were on the scene, Uriah and I felt safe enough to approach Michael, who had taken the liberty of picking a fig and sitting on the garden bench. When we had gathered around the bench, looking down at our family’s latest burden and one of the chief causes of Papa’s return to wine, we had strong emotions about Michael’s sudden return. I remember studying my brother’s expressions. All three of them cast smoldering glares at my old friend, while I was torn between thankfulness that our prayers seemed to have been answered again and resentment at God’s capricious will. He would let an innocent child like Nehemiah waste away, while letting this rascal virtually come back from the dead.
“Welcome back,” I said, scratching my head.
“Greetings Jude.” Michael flashed me an impish smile.
“Mama and Papa won’t like this,” Joseph was shaking his head vehemently. “He might be recognized. Let’s get him inside the house.”
“He’s right.” James snarled at him. “Get back in the house!”
“Is this another miracle?” Uriah asked as we escorted Michael into the house.
“I dunno,” I replied light-headedly. “It was a delayed reaction if it was.”
I think my older brothers would have drug Michael bodily into the house had he resisted. With Michael perched on a stool at the front of the table and the rest of us equally distributed on each row of benches, it almost seemed as if Michael sat in judgment as he confronted our unfriendly stares. Though Jesus would put a good face on it, this development complicated our lives that much more. As I would overhear Joseph say to James, it would have been simpler if Michael had died and was buried in the dead of night. I felt guilty even considering this possibly before, but the question reeled in my mind: “Now that he’s awake, what do we do with him?” Michael was alive and well, at least on the surface. Except for his pale skin and the rings under his eyes, he appeared to be on the mend. Whether or not his sickness might still be inside him, was something we could not know, since he was not acting like his old self—the Michael I knew years ago when his mother was still that mysterious woman on the hill.
The mischievous gleam seemed to be missing from his eyes. Upon closer inspection I realized that he also looked very tired. He had fought long and hard against the Angel of Death and it showed not only in his pallor and eyes but also in the tremor in his hands and faltering speech.
“What was it like?” Uriah broke the silence. “Was it dark there . . . or, like it was for me, a room of light?”
“It was mostly dark,” Michael answered with a shudder, “. . . but the truth is I don’t remember very much.”
“Do you remember arriving in our backyard?” James asked with a snarl.
“What about our Papa’s savings?” sneered Joseph. “Do you remember trying to steal that?”
Michael ignored James and Joseph’s sarcasm. “I remember feeling weak and tired when I arrived and talking to Jude and then to Jesus. . . . It was like looking through smoke or fog and hearing muffled, faraway voices. . . . From that point on, I can only recall snatches of light and sound but mostly darkness.”
“You sound tipsy,” quipped Simon, “like you’ve been drinking Papa’s wine.”
“After what he just went through,” I came to his defense, “he sounds pretty good. It’s amazing that he’s even alive.”
Stopping short of admitting it was a miracle, I nevertheless made a crucial decision that day. Already, it appeared to me that Michael had changed. Jesus had promised as much. I could tell by Uriah’s expression that he was ready to forgive Michael of his transgressions. Could I, Michael’s one-time best friend, do less?
“I forgive you Michael,” I said, reaching out to grasp his trembling hand.
“Me too.” Uriah nodded pertly. “You’re still my friend.”
“How very touching,” scoffed Joseph, “I’d expect that from Jude, but have you forgotten Uriah what he did to your father’s synagogue? They were the same markings of the Evil One he smeared with animal’s blood inside Jesus cave and Michael’s burnt out house.”
“We mustn’t forget,” James jumped in self-righteously, “his mother’s a witch. Is not the fruit like the tree?”
I remember Longinus saying “The fruit is judged by its tree,” and Jesus saying during his mission during my discipleship, “Every tree is judged by its fruit”—a surprisingly similar homily. What James was saying, however, was different, for he was comparing the son to the mother, whereas Longinus and Jesus were giving the father the praise or blame for the son’s deeds. I remembered Longinus saying this to Papa during his confrontation with Joachim in front of his house, and I wondered if James had just misquoted what he heard or had deliberately switched the words around to make his point. If so, he made a good point. Apart from being incorrigible and a thief, Michael couldn’t deny making those dreadful scrawls on the cave and walls of the synagogue and his mother’s house. The questions in my mind were “did Jesus really cast out Michael’s demon?” or “was Michael pretending now?” I prayed inside my head that my old friend would behave himself from now on and not give my parents grief. Uriah and my brothers noticed my eyes being tightly shut and lips moving. James and Joseph snickered at me, but my friends, Uriah and Michael, were moved by my foolishness.
“I could never do that properly,” Michael confessed, a strange light in his green eyes.
“I can, it’s simple,” Uriah boasted, demonstrating comically by shutting his eyes and moving his lips.
“Jesus taught us how to pray,” Simon frowned thoughtfully. “For Michael and me it didn’t take.”
“You can’t pray with you eyes shut?” Joseph looked at him in disbelief.
“What do you think,” Simon looked at Michael, “maybe we just didn’t try hard enough.”
That moment, as Michael sat listening to our chatter, he licked his dried lips, his eyelids fluttered, and he stared into space awhile as if he was returning to his vegetative state. Without coaxing, Simon jumped up, and fetched Michael a mug of juice, indicating those moments that he, too, had forgiven Michael and was willing to embrace him as a friend, if not a member of our family. Michael admitted in a matter-of-fact, listless fashion that he had been a scalawag and burden upon our family and had shocked townsfolk with his silly scribbling, and then, when he came to his greatest crime in my mind—running away from our family and our friendship without so much as a thank you or goodbye, tears formed in his eyes.
For Michael, who had rarely ever shown sincere emotion, this was truly amazing. Even my cynical brothers, James and Joseph, took note of this and pressed forward in their seats, but it was what he said now that surprised us the most.
“Forgive me, my adopted brothers,” he exclaimed, his shoulders shaking and body doubling up into sobs. “I don’t deserve a second chance.”
“Don’t call me brother,” spat James.
“He doesn’t deserve a second chance.” Joseph slammed the table. “It would’ve been better if he’d died.”
Joseph’s outcry, an ill-timed statement of how most of us felt, caused James to wince. Uriah and I immediately denounced his declaration, but it was his cohort James, who scolded him for his outburst.
“Joseph, you don’t mean that.” He looked around as if he expected Jesus or our parents to walk into the room. “That’s a terrible thing to say. He has asked our pardon. His friends, Jude and Uriah have forgiven him. We should at least give him a chance.”
“Thank you,” Michael said to James, reaching out timidly to touch his hand, “I promise to honor your trust.”
“Well, all right.” James cringed, withdrawing his hand. “Let’s take it day-by-day. I’m glad you’re better.”
I knew, from the expression on James’ face, that this was a lie, but I appreciated his begrudging acknowledgment. It took a lot for him to make this small allowance, and it isolated Joseph in his mean spiritedness. Suddenly, as Uriah and I sat there marveling over Michael’s wondrous recovery and James’ change of mind, I remembered why I ran home in the first place.
“Uriah,” I cried, “we forgot to tell them the good news. I had this feeling as we approached Samuel’s—a revelation.”
“Oh yes,” Uriah clapped his pudgy hands, “me too!”
“James, Joseph, Michael,” I announced, placing my hand on Michael’s head.
“Mordechai, Samuel’s chief steward, told us that, because of our crowded home, he’ll open his house to us.” “Do you know what this means?” I looked around at their stunned faces.
“Yum-yum-yum,” Uriah rubbed his hands.
James’ eyes popped wide. “Are you serious? Was Mordechai drunk?”
“No,” I said, giggling foolishly, “but Papa was. Mordechai said he was resting peacefully at Samuel’s house.”
“Then Papa must have told him,” muttered James. “It’s about time that stingy old man helped our family. He has a large estate and plenty of money. Our parents have always been there—night and day—when he needed them. Why shouldn’t he share it with us? Papa would continue to run his shop, while Mama takes care of Samuel. We could help around the place too.”
Joseph, still miffed by James’ rebuke, nodded with approval. “This would solve our problems. We would have more space and better food,” “but what about him?” He pointed rudely at Michael. “What would we do with him?”
“Who cares?” James’ face broke into a grin. “We could disguise him, like we did with Reuben. Reuben’s doing just fine.”
“Don’t worry, Michael. We’ll move you in the dead of night.” I gave him a reassuring pat.
The truth was, however, we didn’t even know whether or not Samuel would accept Michael in his house. Michael might live in our home with Mama or Papa, while the rest of us stayed at Samuel’s estate. The most important thing for us, of course, should be Michael’s return from the dead. I couldn’t wait until Mama and Jesus came home to make this discovery for themselves. When we finally heard a knock, I dashed from the table, raising the board from its latches and throwing open the door, blinking into the radiance of the afternoon sun.
“Dear child, what is wrong?” Mama threw her hand up to her mouth.
“Is everything all right?” Jesus charged into the room, running immediately into the back room.
Tabitha slipped in quietly to stand by my side.
“Michael,” I began out of breath, “he’s awake. He’s alive and well!”
“What?” Mama cried in disbelief. “Michael’s awake?”
She ran to him as if he was a long lost son, embraced him and began praising God deliriously, checking him over—eyes, ears, nose, and mouth—as she often did to a sick daughter or son. James and Joseph were embarrassed by this excess and ran out of the house. Uriah, Tabitha, and I stood there speechless, as Jesus gave us all a hug. What we were all witnessing justified his attempt to cast out Michael’s demon. The important thing—demon or not—was that Michael was back. He sat there, somewhat overcome, himself, by all this attention, patiently allowing Mama to perform several tests on him to make sure he was on the mend.
Afterwards, as James and Joseph drifted back in, we sat with mugs of fruit juice, excitedly chatting about Samuel’s offer and Michael’s return. I assumed that Mordechai told Mama that Papa was “resting” at Samuel’s house. Though it was at the back of everyone’s mind, no one brought up the subject of Papa’s drinking. For the first time in months, all of my brothers sat at the table agreeing on a common subject: Samuel’s offer of hospitality. Tabitha was just glad to be here. Jesus asked us not be greedy about our accommodations, but admitted, as did Joseph, that it would solve many of our problems. The question we dare not lay on the table was “who would go and who would stay?” I wanted to be one of the guests at Samuel’s estate, but I would volunteer to stay home with Michael and, for that matter, Tabitha, if our parents didn’t want to take advantage of Samuel’s hospitality. Until Papa returned home, no decisions could be made, so Uriah, Simon, Tabitha, and I ran outside to romp in the backyard, while Mama and her remaining sons sat discussing these wondrous events.
As I led them back to the wall where we found the berry vines, the urge to check my old hiding place was overpowering. Simon and Uriah rooted happily among the berries hanging in thick, lush rows on the ancient wall, as I drifted toward the bush that marked the spot.
“What are you doing?” asked Tabitha, as I bent down, pried the branches a part and looked into the dark recess.
“I thought I saw something,” I answered lamely. “Stay back—there may be snakes and scorpions!”
There have been many times in my life when I experienced something so mind boggling and unreasonable I felt light-headed and on the verge of fainting, but this seemed impossible to me. . . . There, unmoved, still sitting in the ancient Canaanite pot were my gold coins, screaming in the face of logic, my own promise to Jesus, and seemingly against the very will of God.
“Nothing.” I gasped, falling back onto my rear. “Sweet mother of Jacob,” I swore under my breath, jumping up, taking Tabitha’s hand and pulling her from the orchard.
“Why are you holding my hand?” She smiled sweetly at me.
I was in shock. My body felt weightless and my mind reeled with conflicting thoughts: disbelief, guilt, excitement, and confusion. Temptation mocked my promise to Jesus. I actually felt depressed those moments. Why me God? My mind cried. The little girl walking beside me was my mooring to this world. Her tiny hand was warm and soft. Her bright gray eyes were filled with an innocence I had long ago lost. Before I was forced to muster up another lame response for Tabitha, Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz appeared suddenly in our yard. I sensed immediately why they were here. It was about the treasure I thought Adam had taken back. The looks on their faces told me they had parleyed somewhere and were intent on getting back the gold. I had once thought the big, dumb Boaz might protect me against bullies, but he had the most frightening expression of the three.
“We want our portions of the treasure,” Jethro said through clinched teeth.
“Give us our gold!” cried Obadiah.
Boaz just growled. I could hear Uriah calling to me, “Jude, what’s wrong. What do they want?” Simon ran immediately up to the house to get help. I told Tabitha to go inside but she refused to abandon me.
“Look, Obadiah,” scoffed Jethro, “he’s holding Jonah’s hand. I told you he was a girl!”
“I am a girl,” she spoke up finally. “My name’s Tabitha. I’ve just been pretending all this time. There’s no gold. Leave Jude alone!”
She had temporarily disarmed them. They began laughing so hard they forgot their original mission. I took the cue, gripped Tabitha’s hand, and ran for the back door. Fortunately, Tabitha was a faster runner than me. After breaking away, she was already at the door, holding it open for me, when the three intruders realized their mistake. Quickly barring the door behind us, Tabitha and I listened to Simon explain, out of breath, eyes wide with fear, why the boys were in our yard.
“Yes, yes,” Mama waved impatiently, “we’ve heard all about this. Jesus, James, and Joseph, please make those children go away.”
James and Joseph were delighted with such a chore. Jethro and Obadiah had once threatened to beat them up, but the towns’ youths were afraid of our oldest brother. I just hoped Boaz remembered this fact. He had looked almost possessed as he entered our yard. His small, piggish eyes, moved crazily about as he searched for the ill-gotten gold.
“That’s it,” we heard Jesus shout, “run home, you rascals, before Priam and Falco catch you trespassing in our backyard!”
As Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz were driven from our yard, Simon, Uriah, Tabitha, and I huddled at the table, rolling the dice I found in my pocket. Mama said she was going to check on Joachim once more today and asked Uriah if he would like to come along. For a moment, I thought he would politely decline as he had before and that would be that, but this time he graciously accepted her suggestion. Perhaps he felt guilty that he had ignored his father for so long. Simon and I agreed that it was a good idea, now that his mother and sister were gone and his Papa was alone. When Mama asked the rest of us if we wanted to come, however, we shrank from her as if she had leprosy.
“Uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh,” Simon rotated his head.
“Mama, we shouldn’t have to go.” I said as kindly as possible.
“Rabbi Joachim won’t approve of me.” Tears fell from Tabitha’s large gray eyes.
“What on earth do you mean?” Mama’s eyebrows shot up.
I gave Tabitha a hug. “Nazareth knows her as Jonah. Her uncle let her run around as a boy all this time without anyone catching on.”
“Well, I know that,” Mama tittered airily, “but Joachim’s not the same man—he’s changed. His memory fails him now, but he’s trying very hard. Each day, I see improvement in his body and mind. Even the flight of his wife and daughter has not dampened his spirit. He’d love to have visitors at his house again. Let’s not forget he was once the rabbi of our town.”
“Let’s also not forget,” I replied bitterly, “he turned most of the town against us. Has he ever apologized to you for that?”
“Well, . . . no.” she said with a sigh, “but I know he’s sorry. It’s just some of the things he’s said.” “Why don’t you come along, Jude.” She motioned gently, as she led Uriah to the door.
“Please come,” Uriah called piteously, “my Papa’s never apologized to me, but I knew he was sorry.”
Heaving a great sigh, I stepped forward alone. Neither Simon nor Tabitha had moved a step with me.
“Please don’t be mad.” Tabitha said meekly. “I’m going to stay here with Simon.”
“Give Joachim our regards.” Simon smirked.
As we filed out the door, Jesus, James, and Joseph emerged finally from the backyard. They were laughing as they clapped each other on the shoulders. Jesus informed us, with a wave of his hand, that our fair-weather friends, Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz, had been expelled—poof!—from our yard. Mama then asked him if he would go over to Samuel’s house and bring Papa home. When she asked James and Joseph if they wanted to come along with us, James said it might be interesting, and, to our surprise, Joseph decided to tag along too.
What we discovered at his house changed my feelings toward Joachim. After seeing the pitiful condition he was in, I no longer hated him. Like my brothers, I felt sorry for him. His memory had been damaged by the fever that had gripped him. Now there was an empty shell of the little rabbi, who once cursed our family. His vacant eyes, gaping mouth, and limp right arm, and dragging foot, Mama explained in a murmur, had been caused by his sickness. Later, in my journeys, I learned that these symptoms were caused by a stroke. Uriah wept when it seemed Joachim couldn’t even remember his own son. After a short while, however, he began talking to us from the corner of his mouth, as I did myself when I was being sneaky, only Joachim was struggling to be heard.
“Irling chemenky,” he uttered finally.
“Irling chemenky?” James frowned.
“I think he said thank you,” Mama translated.
“Chemenky! Chemenky!” Joachim croaked.
“I love you to Papa!” Uriah bowed foolishly.
“It sounds like a foreign language to me,” Joseph wrinkled his nose.
“I don’t think so.” I made a face. “It sounds like gibberish. He sounds addled in the head.”
“What does it matter?” Mama asked, pouring him a mug of water. “His speech will clear up. Samuel’s physician has seen this before. He believes Joachim is actually on the mend.”
“Are you sure?” Uriah looked hopefully up at her. “He looks pretty bad.”
“Trust me,” Mama said, patting his head.
While poor Joachim made more croaking noises, we stood around his bed chatting to him, as if he could actually understand. I told him that I forgave him for being such a mean man. His response was “Orgala chemenky.” The key word seemed to be chemenky, whatever that meant. James and Joseph tried to be civil, but couldn’t mask their disgust. As I looked down at the rabbi closely, I barely recognized the cranky, firebrand who almost got Mariah stoned. He looked worse than either Reuben or Michael had been, even when they hovered in the shadow of death. Uriah, I was certain that moment, would be staying with us for a long time.
When we returned home, we found Jesus and Michael in a muted discussion. Jesus, with a hand on Michael’s shoulder, was wagging a finger in front of his nose. As Michael nodded his head, Jesus appeared to be scolding or counseling him about his future. When Mama broke in anxiously to inquire about Papa’s well being, Jesus’ arm moved from Michael’s shoulder, pointing in straight line to the back room.
“Napping is he?” She laughed, tossing back her head.
“Don’t worry, Mama.” Jesus looked up with a grin. “Papa’s much better. The new arrangement with Samuel will make a difference. I’m sure of this.”
“Praise be to God.” She looked at the ceiling, palms upward.
“Michael and I’ve been having a nice chat,” Jesus announced, as Mama plopped down at the table.
“You’re a living, breathing miracle!” She placed a hand on Michael’s brow. “No fever! Your color’s returning. Why, you seem almost normal!”
“Yes, he’s doing a lot better.” Jesus sighed. “How’s the rabbi doing?”
“Joachim’s able to walk a ways and use the privy,” she explained wearily. “I brought the boys over and he attempted to speak. I think he recognized Uriah. His eye movements and tone prove that his mind is whole.” “Your father’s on the mend.” She glanced at Uriah. “It’ll just take time. We shall have a circle prayer tonight for Michael, Joachim, and Samuel, too.”
“Will Papa be up for that?” James asked dubiously. “He’s gonna have a terrible headache when he wakes up.”
Before the evening meal, we had long discussion about Joachim’s convalescence. Though Joachim could walk now and even use the privy on his own, he had difficulty fixing meals for himself. Mama, to our astonishment, had set out on his kitchen table bread, fruit, and cheese to be consumed throughout the week. As often as possible, she told us, she would fix him a proper meal and even clean up his house. Clearly, everyone agreed, Mama needed help. Surely there was at least one other woman in town who could nurse the rabbi. Was he that unpopular now? Jesus suggested that Papa use his restored reputation with many prominent citizens to encourage their wives to take turns nursing the rabbi back to health. This problem, and other family issues, drew my brothers and I closer together. Uriah listened attentively to our discussion. I knew that Mama and Jesus would try to make him feel like a part of our family while his father recuperated, but Uriah was still intimidated by James and Joseph’s glares. Tabitha clung anxiously to me as we talked about Samuel’s offer. I wondered, without making an issue of it, where she fit in. Except for this nagging concern, I shared my brothers’ excitement about living in Samuel’s sumptuous estate. It heartened me that Joseph began treating me civilly after our visit with Joachim. Part of the reason, of course, was our mutual dilemma of a crowded house that now seemed solved by our new living space. There was also our concerns for Papa’s drinking and our overworked mother. The most important issue, Michael, had been solved—by the Good Lord, himself. The unanswered question in everyone’s mind was “what next?”
Out of earshot of Michael, who sat at the table talking again with Jesus, I heard James complain to Joseph, “What do we do now? Disguise him as we did Reuben?”
“Yes, that might work.” I nodded enthusiastically. “He’s older now. She could die his hair black like ours. In a few years he’ll grow whiskers. We’ll pretend he’s one of our cousins.”
“Even so,” replied James, “where’s he gonna stay until then. Will he be sneaking over to Samuel’s estate or hiding in our house? They mustn’t find out he’s living here again. Papa will lose the status he’s regained, if they find out he’s here.”
“The important question,” Joseph said from the corner of his mouth, “has he really changed? What if that helpless look is all an act?”
All of us, at Mama’s insistence, took our muted conversation outside. Tabitha continued to clutch my hand. Uriah had a haunted look, as he mingled with us in the yard. “Don’t worry,” I whispered to him, “this will always be your home.” His eyes misted and a smile twitched on his face. Looking at Tabitha heart-shaped face, I repeated what I said to Uriah and had the urge to kiss her as she looked up at me. When James and Joseph continued their conversation in the orchard, I had heard quite enough of their grumbling about my old friend.
“Give him a chance,” I said irritability. “It’s our parents’ decision that Michael stays. I’ve forgiven him. Why can’t you?”
“I’ve forgiven him.” Simon stepped forth.
“And so have I,” exclaimed Uriah. “Michael was my friend too.”
Tabitha had not known Michael very well but echoed our support.
James and Joseph scoffed at our outbursts and continued walking into the trees.
“Let’em go,” Tabitha sniffled, “they’re mean, brutish boys.”
“They don’t like me either, Jude,” Uriah noted, with a troubled frown. “If my Papa doesn’t get well soon, it’s going to get worse.”
“What about me?” Tabitha’s voice trilled and eyes blinked. “My uncle’s a mean man. He doesn’t want me anymore.”
Uriah and I looked at her in disbelief. Simon, who partially agreed with James and Joseph, had a worried look on his face.
“Is that true?” I studied her face. “I thought Jared was just a drunk. He’s been mean to you?”
“Look at this,” she said, raising her shift.
Simon and Uriah immediately hid their eyes, though Simon peeked through his fingers and Uriah peeped through the crack between his hands. The loincloth beneath Tabitha’s shift couldn’t hide the bruises on her chest, stomach, and legs. After dropping her shift, she showed me the marks on her arms I had missed and an old scratch on the back of her neck.
“Phew, Tabitha,” Uriah said with a giggle, “warn us before doing something like that!”
Simon, his eyes wide and mouth agape, muttered, “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!”
“Your uncle made those marks?” My eyes smoldered with rage.
“Uh-huh.” She bobbed her head.
My voice quivered and fists clinched. “Did my mother see this?”
“Uh-huh,” she answered hesitantly, “...the ones on my arms and legs. Uncle Jared told her I was clumsy.”
“He should be punished.” Uriah made a fierce face.
That moment I felt as if I was standing between two cherubs. Simon giggled foolishly at this pair. Placing my hands on each of their shoulders, I decided in my youthful mind that I would protect my two friends at all costs—Tabitha from a deranged uncle and Uriah from an unstable home. With his mother gone and father addled in the head, Uriah would never be safe again in his house, and poor little Tabitha had no one to take care of her but us. Now, whether or not my brothers accepted them, Uriah and Tabitha were members of our household, and Michael, who had once been part of our family, had apparently returned for good.