Though troubled by Michael’s effect on our lives, I still managed to think about my treasure. What if those sneaks, Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz, crept into our backyard and found my pot of gold? How would I know? How would I ever know, if I couldn’t sneak down to the wall and see for myself? I remember giving Uriah an irritated look that moment and thinking, “if it wasn’t for you dogging my trail, I’d go down there after lunch!” As it was, however, Uriah would, in fact, follow me around like dog, until we returned to Samuel’s house.
I tried not to think about Michael and my gold as I began my work. I decided, just as resolutely, I would do better that day. Simon seemed to put a little more effort in his sanding, himself, but Uriah was still struggling. Jesus walked out of the shop, where he had been assisting Papa, looked down at James and Joseph as they continued varnishing stools, and, after nodding with approval at Simon and my small pile of sanded table legs, stopped in front of Uriah.
“Let me see it,” he murmured, reaching out to take the piece of wood. “Not too bad, Uriah, but you’re not sanding with the grain of the wood.” “Do you remember what I said about going against the grain?”
“Yes.” Uriah nodded. “To go against the grain scratches and doesn’t sand the wood.” “You must move with even strokes, like so,” he said, demonstrating awkwardly. “Up and down the length of the wood, not back and forth.”
As I looked over at him, I almost laughed at his crude efforts. He could barely hold the table leg in one hand as the other hand moved the sander up and down the wood.
“He’ll have to be a rabbi,” I whispered to Simon. “He won’t be able to do anything else.”
“He has chubby little fingers,” Simon snickered. “His hands are too fat.”
When I heard Jesus tell him what he thought was wrong, after hearing word-for-word from Uriah what he had been taught, I realized that Simon was correct. According to Jesus, who I strained my ear to hear, Uriah hand was too small and stubby to hold something so large. It was as if he had read Simon and my mind. I watched him show Uriah a better way to hold a table leg: between his legs, moving the sander up and down the wood in slow, even strokes. Once again, within the same hour, I felt ashamed for misjudging a friend, and yet I resented it when, after finishing our work, I couldn’t skulk away to my secret wall. Before Mama had finished preparing her special lunch, I decided to at least try. All I could think of was my pot of gold. It had become such an obsession in my life. As I slipped out the back door, however, right on my heels, like a curse, was my friend Uriah.
“Go away,” I waved angrily, “I want to be alone.”
“What for?” Uriah asked, puffing and panting, as I ran from the house into our backyard.
“I want to pray,” I lied, running faster and faster, as a plan hatched in my mind.
“About what? For Michael? What are you up to Jude?” Uriah’s voice faded behind me as I dashed down the Shepherd’s Trail.”
I would lead him down the trail so far it would take him a long time to come back. During the meantime I would double back, run up over the hill, through the trees to my wall, check it quickly, and then pretend like this was all a joke. Uriah would be angry, but he would get over it if he believed I had merely played a trick on him.
My plan almost worked. Poor Uriah was just cresting the hill when I turned around and ran passed him going the opposite way. He was so winded he couldn’t even scream. For a moment, as I scanned his scarlet face, I almost stopped to make sure he was all right. My greed got the best of me again, though, as I slowed down. As he collapsed into a little ball, I forced my feet back up the trail, running faster and faster, ready to collapse myself, my conscience obliterated by fatigue and my lust for gold.
By the time I had reached the tree line and was heading toward my wall, I saw movement at the corner of my eye. Was it the Evil One? I wondered, as I looked frantically for my special place. Ignoring this distraction, I went straight for the wall, reached down into the dark abyss and felt around for my pot of gold. When my fingers felt the ancient pot and the coins inside, I yelped with joy. Just then a shadow fell over me. It’s Jesus! I thought, a sinking feeling
replacing my happiness. If not Jesus, it was Papa or one of my brothers. The game was over, I told myself, gradually turning my head.
There, towering over me, was none other than Regulus, himself. In spite of his civility recently, like most Romans following the unrest in Sepphoris, he didn’t trust Jews. After the report given to him by Falco and Priam about the incident in our yard, he might be looking for an opportunity to crack one of our heads. Here I was sneaking around, looking for my gold. It was worse than anything I could imagine. I felt both light-headed and heavy at the same time: I couldn’t gather my wits and yet I couldn’t move. I just looked up dumbly at the iron-jawed Roman, certain I had been caught with stolen loot.
“What’re you up to little Jude?” He frowned severely at me.
Suddenly, as if God had taken pity on my foolishness, I spied a patch of berries nearby, grabbed a handful, and stuffed them into my mouth. I had accidentally stuffed some of the leaves as well but I chewed them fiercely, tears rolling down my eyes.
“Picking berries, are you?” He reached down to ruffle my hair.
Pulling my hand away from the pot, I pretended to be grubbing around for more berries, when suddenly I felt a searing pain in my hand.
Jumping up and clutching my hand, I watched the scorpion fall to the ground, euphoric through my pain that I had diverted his attention from the wall. Spitting the mash of berries out of my mouth, I began wailing loudly as my palm swelled up. With expertise, Regulus whipped out a small knife, a white piece of cloth, took my hand, made a small incision on the sting, and then wrapped the cloth around he wound. Slumping limply onto the prickly bush, I felt the strong, bristly Roman pick me up in his arms and carry me through the trees.
As I hovered between wakefulness and unconsciousness, Regulus chatted pleasantly to me as he carried me up to the house: “You seem addled in the head. Has your brother bewitched you? I heard he cast a demon out of your friend....”
His words had a calming effect upon me, which may have been his intention. I remember thanking the optio, sobbing quietly, terrified as the world faded in and out. I had been bitten by a scorpion like Uriah. God would punish me for my sins. Unlike the righteous Uriah, however, I would probably die. From this point on, I barely remember what happened next. I could hear my friend calling faintly to me, “Jude, what happened? Why is Regulus carrying you to the house?” About then I heard Mama scream and Papa cry out “Dear merciful Lord!” and then blackness as I experienced the dark sleep. This time there were no dreams, only a moment of darkness that was actually an indeterminate period of time.
I awakened, surrounded by worried faces. As Nehemiah, Uriah, Reuben, and Michael before me, I lie on the kitchen table. Had they prayed for me as they had for the others? Among the onlookers was Regulus, so I knew it couldn’t have been too long. What was one more dead Jew to him?” Joseph’s diatribes against the Romans must have had some effect upon me in spite of my desire to be a soldier, but this impression was false. Regulus had probably saved my life. Conspicuously missing from the group was Michael, probably hidden in the back room.
“Jude, Jude, you foolish boy,” Mama said, wringing her hands, “what were you doing by the wall?”
“He was eating berries,” Regulus volunteered jovially. “Before that, he was acting quite strange. I watched him stuff berries into his mouth. Some of them weren’t ripe and he was chewing on the leaves.”
“I don’t understand,” Mama said, checking my pupils. “Why were you by yourself? I saw Uriah running up the trail. Where you boys playing tag or hide-and-go-seek?”
“No,” I answered truthfully, “I was exploring. I don’t remember very much.”
“Why were you so far away?” James looked accusingly at Uriah. “If Regulus hadn’t arrived, he could’ve died.”
“Jude played a trick on me,” Uriah replied defensibly. “He ran down the path through the orchard. I ran after him, but when we were on the trail, he doubled back. He was acting addled in the head!”
Glancing at Jesus, Joseph asked a strange thing. “Where do demons go when they leave their hosts?”
“Jude’s not possessed.” Jesus shook his head impatiently. “That’s not how it works. Jude hasn’t led a sinful life. Evil attracts evil. A demon wouldn’t dare enter our home!”
Both Jesus and Joseph had carefully omitted Michael’s name. The less Regulus knew about Michael the better. As my memory oozed back as honey onto a roll, however, I began laughing to myself at the absurdity of what Jesus said. Me, not sinful? Hah! If only he knew! At a latter day, Jesus and his disciples would find that innocent men, women, and children, not just evil souls, could be possessed by demons. I couldn’t blame Joseph for thinking I might be possessed too.
“Are you sure he’s not inhabited by an evil spirit?” He studied my giggling face.
“You blockhead!” hissed Jesus.
“It’s the potion,” Mama explained calmly. “I tried something new—Rachel’s root. I think it’s befuddled his mind.”
“Humph!” Regulus cocked his head, closing one eye. “Are you a witch, like that Jewess Mariah?”
Mama’s hand flew up to her mouth. Everyone, except me, gasped. (Regulus had winked slyly at me.)
“That’s ridiculous, Regulus!” She looked at him in disbelief. “The remedy will bring down his fever, nothing else. It’s not a sorcerer’s brew!”
“Really,” he toyed with her. “Rachel’s root sounds like black magic to me!”
Papa was speechless: Regulus suspected Mama of being a witch! Mama was now forced to defend herself from Regulus’ suspicions by explaining the use of Jewish medicinal herbs and roots. The optio thought about her explanation a moment, and then gave her a curt nod. Papa very wisely brought him a mug of juice. A collective sigh rose up in the room. The very thought of Mama being called a witch had caused hysterical laughter from Simon and Uriah. Though disappointed that his mug was not filled with wine, Regulus was happy to receive a freshly baked loaf of bread and pot of honey, which seemed a bargain for what he had done for me. Mama would explain later that the reason Uriah had been more sick than me was that the scorpion’s venom had entered his bloodstream. Because Regulus had made a quick cut and bled me a moment before tightening the bandage, most of the venom had drained out of my body. After hearing from Simon and Uriah the details of this fateful hour, I would always have a warm place in my heart for the crusty Roman. For a brief moment, as he stared down at me, we exchanged smiles. Wordlessly, with a gentler nod, he seemed to say something. I saw his lips move mutely as he brought his fist up to his chest in a Roman salute. Uriah told me he said ‘vale,’ the Roman word for goodbye, but I’ll never be sure. When he swaggered out of the house, Michael emerged as a skulking shadow from the back room. Simon and Uriah helped me down from the table. Mama brought me a mug of juice as I sat amongst family and friends. Jesus said a prayer of thanksgiving for me. During our excited chatter, Papa confessed his own private thanksgivings for my quick recovery and the amiable departure of Regulus from our house. I’m certain he wanted a mug of wine, but he had held up very well today. I was proud of him for getting the order done for the rich merchant of Nain. I couldn’t help being thankful I still had my pot of gold.
Belatedly, at a time when I had little appetite, Mama called us to the table for her specially prepared lunch, minus a loaf of bread and pot of honey doled out to Regulus. He had deserved much more for saving my life. All was well, as we talked quietly about our blessings and were stirred by Jesus’ reminder that we would be returning that evening to Samuel’s house. For once in my life, I looked forward to lying down on my pallet even if I had to suffer Uriah’s prattle. I had treated him deplorably and needed a long rest. Perhaps I would dream of my white horse again and my pot of gold. Though I can’t explain it now, Regulus had added inspiration to my dream.
That evening, while we waited for Papa to use the cloaca (perhaps to have a swig of wine) and Mama to go round up the girls, Simon tactlessly told Michael about Regulus suspicion that Mama was a witch. I knew better, of course; the optio had told me this secret with his eyes, but I didn’t correct him. Sitting at the end of the table, unmoved at first, Michael’s placid mood suddenly changed after he heard Simon’s news. His eye brows shot up in surprise. A crooked smile contorted his stony face. He snickered under his breath then began giggling so hard he coughed, hiccupped and turned red in the face.
“Welcome back to earth,” James snarled.
“I’m sorry,” Joseph looked ruefully at Jesus, “Jude might not be possessed, but he is.”
“For the last time,” Jesus snapped irritability, “Michael’s evil spirit is gone!”
“We shall see,” replied Joseph gravely, “but I pity poor Elizabeth for having that rogue in her house.”
After sundown, as we sat anxiously at the table, Mama ordered us to gather in the yard to begin our trek back. When there was enough darkness, we would return with Michael after the last sentry rode past. Mama placed her hand on my brow and smiled with pleasure as I entered in the garden. Worried that Papa might have taken a nip, she walked beside him, a lamp in one hand, as Simon and Uriah placed themselves on each side of me to steady my walk. Jesus, who also carried a light, talked quietly to Michael, looking back protectively at me as I navigated on my wobbly legs. Far ahead of us, united again, this time in their concern about Michael’s frame of mind, James and Joseph charged ahead as Tabitha and the twins scampered up and down the line of hikers without a care.
“Oh, to be a that young again, eh Joseph?” James called out loud enough for us to hear.
“Girls are stupid!” Joseph made a face.
“Everyone seems to agree,” Papa said indiscreetly. “Michael’s not right in the head.”
“Everyone except Jesus.” Simon sneered.
I laughed at the ridiculousness of it. Jesus, who should have known better, still believed in Michael. Mama scolded Papa gently for airing his views but I was certain she half believe it herself. What gave her hope was Jesus’ insistence that Michael was suffering the after effects of his “cleansing.” The absence of evil left a void. Such nonsense! I muttered to my brother and friend.
As we converged upon Samuel’s estate, I welcomed the cool interior of his spacious house. I was told that its thick clay walls kept the building cool in the summer but warm in the winter. Cleverly designed louvered windows allowed air to circulate continually and, when shut tightly, prevent the entrance of Galilee’s chilly winds. During the cold months, terracotta piping beneath the floors, heated by a special furnace, made the great estate comfortable and even cozy. I was impressed with its columns, tiled floors, frescos, and potted plants. Each day our family shared Samuel’s house, I discovered a new nook or cranny to explore. Often, as we scampered about, I pretended I was in a great palace in a far off land. Simon and Uriah were two of my officers. Tabitha and the twins were members of my court. Any moment, as we wandered its halls and corridors I would run into an oriental king or the emperor, himself. Samuel’s spacious gardens provided a backdrop for my imagination too. I was one of the Gallic chiefs Jesus had written about, hunting wild boar or a Roman general leading my men through the forest—savage Germans all around. This afternoon, still woozy from Mama’s potion and feeling a burning sensation where Regulus had made his life-saving cut, I fancied myself, more humbly, as a wounded Roman knight being escorted by my slaves and comrades into my house. To reinforce my fantasy was Samuel himself, who singled me out with a fond pat on the head. The crotchety old Pharisee was up and about, ordering the servants to tend to our needs. From the entrance, I could see the long dining room table we had supped at before. Soon, I thought wearily, it would be filled with fine food and drink, which my servants would dish up graciously and my comrade-in-arms would encourage me to eat.
What challenged my fantasy and brought me finally down to earth was our treatment by the servants, themselves. As it turned out, all of us needed baths before our evening meal. Samuel, a strict observer of the law, required cleanliness in his home. Instead of proceeding to the dining hall, we were, in fact, rudely diverted this time to the baths.
“They smell like unshorn sheep,” a servant complained.
“These Galilean rustics are all unwashed!” another quipped.
Papa took offense at these remarks and threatened to report it to Mordechai. The servants, in a groveling manner, apologized for their attempt at levity, promising to keep such ill-timed humor to themselves, but they snickered when they herded us like sheep into the steaming rooms.
“You are whitened sepulchers,” Jesus said with contempt.
As I write down this cryptic reply by a youth who would one day say the same thing to judgmental Pharisees, I can understand why we were all puzzled. To James and Joseph, whose anger was focused upon the servants, the silly rejoinder brought only frowns. I was more concerned by whether or not Papa would actually talk to the chamberlain and decided, when I felt better, to tell Samuel, myself, if Papa failed to do. Mentally flashing back to my fantasy, I envisioned my men dragging the wrongdoers out of the house and nailing them to Samuel’s trees. It was a terrible fantasy, which I later regretted, but I was not in good mood. I was a wounded warrior, who wanted food and rest, and here I was being prodded by common servants into a large pool, along with my Papa, brothers, and friends. In two separated rooms, which Joseph described contemptuously as Roman baths, Mama and the girls and then Papa and the boys were driven. I could hear Mama protest on the other side of the wall and then the girls giggle foolishly as they splashed in the pool. All of the boys, following Papa and Jesus’ reluctant example, removed their sweaty garments.
It was a humiliating experience to strip down in front of my brothers and friends.
Samuel’s rules had been slack until tonight. Papa reminded us that strict Pharisees considered it ritually impure to eat unwashed, and Samuel was aware of the fact that our family had not bathed in many days. Why he picked that one evening to crack down I will never understand, but it soured his relationship with my family. Though Jesus was quick to forgive, I don’t think James and Joseph ever forgave him for this affront. Mama was deeply hurt, and I was certain Papa would always hold a grudge. I for one remember Samuel as a querulous old man, out-spoken but not unfair, judgmental but not lacking mercy and, through my initial shock at being ushered as a dumb beast to a watering hole, I remembered him singling my oldest brother out as touched my God. Somehow, in my dulled state of mind, it helped make our treatment easier to bare. Besides, as Papa confessed, it was the only way we were going to get dinner.
Gathered together in this strange room, wearing only loin clothes, we shivered in embarrassment as Michael dived like a porpoise into the pool. In the next room there was another pool where Mama and the girls now bathed. I couldn’t imagine Mama wearing such skimpy attire. In fact I shuddered at the thought. My thoughts for Tabitha, who I once knew as Jonah, were caused by different emotions. I couldn’t help wonder what she was wearing. Perhaps it was the potion that caused my head to fill with these silly thoughts, but for the first time that I could remember I felt a stirring in my loins. While Papa, my brothers, and I followed Michael’s example, stepping gingerly down the steps into the warm water, Michael seemed to have transformed in the last hour from the empty vessel Jesus called him to a Pandora’s Box of unleashed emotions.
“Are you sure he’s cured?” Papa murmured to Jesus.
“Well, he’s certainly not an empty vessel,” I chimed.
“He’s not possessed,” Simon sneered. “I think he’s addled in the head.”
“Simon’s not far from the truth,” Jesus gave the cavorting Michael a worried look. “The demon has left much wreckage behind.”
“Jesus, one more time,” Joseph’s tone was respectful, “are you sure the demon has left?”
Jesus nodded wearily at his stubborn brother. I could tell by his expression that James agreed with Joseph. Instead of talking about Michael’s mental state, however, James made an important observation about our treatment this evening.
“This is very strange,” he said, looking around the group. “Our host is said to be a strict Pharisee and yet he makes us wash in a Roman bath. Please explain to me Papa how we’re purifying ourselves in this pool.”
“We are being defiled!” Joseph cried.
“Keep your voice down,” Papa shushed him. “I don’t trust those servants. Samuel’s been a hermit for a long time, and his servants aren’t use to visitors in his house.”
“The fact is,” Jesus addressed Joseph, “we’re not being defiled. Samuel’s baths aren’t pagan. Because of our custom of modesty, these pools may not be conventional, but this doesn’t make them wrong. Is it not written ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness?’ It’s the actions of the servants that are wrong? We have been too busy to observe this rule. Our host, as a Pharisee, is merely obeying the law.”
“Jacob’s beard!” James swore. “Is this the price we pay for being under his roof?”
“It appears so.” Jesus sighed.
Papa gave us all a worried look. “Mordechai told me, as we entered, that Samuel’s going to make an announcement that will affect all of your lives. That concerns me more than this bath.”
“What could it be?” Joseph’s eyebrows shot up. “You think he’s going to give us gifts?”
“No, I don’t think that at all.” Papa frowned. “He might just be laying down the rules.”
“What’s wrong with a few rules?” Jesus smiled at James.
The voices around my mind sounded louder than normal because of the drug. I had stopped thinking about Tabitha and began enjoying the great pool. James, Joseph, and Simon were also settling into the comforting warmth of the water. James dunked his head into the water, and Joseph and Simon followed his example, while Michael swam underwater, emerged in a burst of spray, and then laughed gleefully as he splashed water into my face. Unaffected by this disturbance, I smiled at Michael as he was scolded by Papa and Jesus. Uriah, with his nose above the surface, blew a spray of bubbles, moving along like a turtle in the water. I broke into laughter, mustering enough energy to dunk his head as he approached. In spite of his scolding for roughhousing, Michael climbed up the steps and jumped into the pool again. We all moved to the far end of the pool as he thrashed around. The water was not that deep yet Michael pretended to be drowning, at one point remaining submerged for alarming period of time. In spite of the pool’s shallow depth, however, Jesus swam over to Michael with precise arm strokes and fluttering legs, pulled him rudely up from the bottom, and reprimanded him loudly for all to hear.
“You fool!” He cried. “You were given a second chance! Why are you misbehaving now?”
“Where’d you learn how to do that?” James called out to Jesus in surprise.
“I never taught him.” Papa laughed with delight. “Who swims in the Jordan?
“God taught him,” Uriah piped.
“Yes,” I shouted happily, “one more miracle. I bet Jesus could walk on water!”
“Not yet.” Jesus looked back with a grin. “That’ll come later.”
I know he was joking that moment. As if on cue, everyone began splashing wildly in the pool, even Papa, making a mockery of Jesus’ words. Now, as I record the history of my family and Lord, my own words strike me as prophecy. We cheered Jesus as he wrestled playfully with Michael, Simon, and James, his cryptic words lost in the moment, and yet stored away in my mind are those special moments when my oldest brother frolicked like a porpoise with his family and my friends. It seemed as if the old, carefree Michael had returned to us as a normal, mischievous boy.”
As I watched them cavort and the pool water spill onto the Grecian tile, Papa placed his arm around my shoulder. We stood there silently a moment, father and youngest son and I felt very blessed. “You all right now, son?” he asked, giving my head a pat.
“I’m very all right.” I smiled up at him. “Michael’s all right too. He’s just happy to be alive, Papa. I’m glad the old Michael’s back!”
After we dried off, put on clean garments provided by the servants, and were herded, along with Mama and the girls, to the large hall, we were amazed by the banquet provided by Samuel tonight. Clearly, even to the trusting Uriah, this was an ominous display. Papa whispered to Mama that moment, “I wonder what he’s going to say.” “We must trust in the Lord,” Jesus counseled gently. “Samuel has God’s ear.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, sitting next to Jesus. “Does God really have ears?”
“Are you serious?” James grinned in amusement.
“It’s the potion.” Mama reached over and patted my head.
“God hears us, Jude,” Jesus explained, “as a father hears a son. When we share our troubles with him or ask him for a blessing, he hears us. Sometimes he may not answer us at once, but in one way or another he’ll answer our prayers.”
“Here comes the question,” Joseph said mischievously to James.
“What kind of blessings?” I wrinkled my nose.
“Well,” Jesus said, looking around the table, “they’re not for horses or buried treasure.”
We all laughed at Jesus’ jest. Tabitha, who sat next to me, seemed to read my dopey expression. This time I wasn’t thinking about my white horse. Did Tabitha know the effect she had one me? Once again I felt that uncomfortable stirring I had experienced in the pool. While the rest of us were provided modest garments to wear, the servants had given all the girls colorful dresses. Tabitha wore a bright yellow shift tied at the waste with a red sash. She had, when I reflect upon it, doll-like features. Her brown hair, large gray eyes, heart shaped face, and small puckered lips were unlike anyone I’ve ever met.
As we waited for Samuel to arrive at the table, I heard Papa complaining to the chamberlain about our treatment in the pool. Mordechai promised to pass his complaint on to Samuel and talk to the servants, himself. “Papa did it!” I wanted to shout. I looked around at the reaction of the others and saw mostly smiles. Jesus frowned faintly, concerned perhaps that a conflict was brewing in Samuel’s house, but Mama’s soft titters seemed to show approval for Papa’s complaint.
Uriah took this opportunity to inform everyone within earshot that Samuel didn’t like him. The old man always seemed to frown or shake his head when he looked at him. I should have explained to him that Samuel was near-sighted and hard-of-hearing and looked at everyone that way. Instead, I smiled indulgently at Uriah and shook my head.
“You look too much like your father,” James observed. “Samuel has no use for rabbis, especially him.”
“What’s that old passage?” Joseph sneered, “ ‘The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ ”
“Yes,” chuckled James, “like father, like son.”
“Uriah’s a fat little plum! A fat little plum!” Simon chimed in a singsong voice.
“Shush!” Mama waved. “It’s his father he doesn’t like, not Uriah.”
I wanted to tell Joseph that it was Longinus, the centurion, who, during Papa’s confrontation with Joachim, said ‘the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ It was not a passage from the Torah, but an association Longinus made between a father and son. Even with my dulled wits I could see that. I remember Papa saying that Pharisees don’t like rabbis and rabbis don’t like Pharisees or priests, but poor Uriah suffered because he had the misfortune of looking like his father. Though Jesus would use Longinus’ proverb for his disciples one day, it was unfair to apply it to my friend. Joachim had poisoned the well in the town for his son. I had been wrong to tell Uriah he would be a rabbi in Nazareth. His only chance was to learn the craft of carpentry and, when he grew up, move far away from this backwater town.
With these thoughts in mind, I reached over to pat his hand, whispering, “We’re just kidding. You’re one of a kind Uriah. You’re not your father’s son.”
Uriah gave me a studied look but said nothing. He never knew when I would make sport of him. As I recall that hour and others like it, I regret not taking his part. He was, I’m ashamed to say, a comical figure, ripe for taunts and sarcasm—a target for abuse. Yet, like so many other times before and after, his face broke into a smile that evening.
“No, Jude,” he murmured quietly, “I was born of my family’s tree; that’s not my fault. But the seed from the fruit was planted in another garden. Here I grow into my own tree, to do as I want.”
No one heard his reply except me. I record his words now, with the certainty that Uriah had spoken like a philosopher, and yet, at the time, I was almost speechless.
“Uriah...,” I muttered in amazement, “that came from you?”
By the time Samuel arrived at the table, our cheerful moods had become subdued by our hunger and Mordechai’s argument with Papa that the Romans were oppressors in Nazareth. I was surprised that the chamberlain would say such a thing, especially considering Samuel’s acceptance of the Romans as protectors of our town. I was proud of Papa for defending them, but it was obvious by his loud, abusive tone that they were both in their cups. Without explanation for his tardiness, Samuel sat down slowly at the head of the table. He had probably been taking a leisurely bath or just awakened from a late afternoon nap. Though crotchety and querulous, his movements were regal and somewhat condescending. To use a Roman expression, Samuel seemed to present himself as our de facto patriarch by his actions.
“May I have your attention please,” he clinked his cup with a knife. “Before our blessing and fine meal, I have an announcement to make about furthering Joseph bar Jacob children’s education. Though learning a fine craft, they suffer, along with other children in town, from not having a synagogue school. Our unfortunate rabbi is too ill to fulfill his functions as teacher to Nazareth’s youth.” “Well,” he rose up again, with Mordechai’s help, “I might have my differences with Israel’s rabbis, but my good friend, Gamaliel, a student of Hillel, has agreed to share his enlightened teachings with us.”
“Why is he telling us this?” James grumbled.
“Shut up!” Mama hissed.
“Joseph, my good neighbor,” he said in a patronizing voice. “You’re a fine carpenter and your oldest son is a great prodigy whose knowledge confounds my mind, but your remaining sons are growing up almost illiterate, without the proper teaching in the law—”
“I can read!” James objected.
“So can I!” Joseph cried.
“I’ve taught my sons to read,” Papa said indignantly. “I introduced them to the Torah before they learned to walk.”
“Perhaps,” he replied, with a palsied nod, “you introduced them to the Torah. This is all fine and proper, but do they understand it? Do they know our traditions, history, and the fine points of the law?”
“They already know much of our traditions and history,” Papa answered defensibly. “I’ve taught my children at the kitchen table. Don’t forget who their oldest brother is. James and Joseph once told me that they want to study the law, but do all my children need to know what Shammai or Hillel thought?”
“Ah, you said it.” Samuel pointed a crooked finger. “Jesus knows it. My nephew heard him argue with learned men in the temple. Why not have all of your sons become adept in the law?”
“Adept? Now there’s fine word.” Papa laughed sarcastically. “I don’t expect all of my sons to be Pharisees, Samuel. I want them to learn many things I can’t teach them, not all of which are in the Torah: different peoples, places, and animals. Jesus has spent many hours showing his brothers the wonders of God. His journeys to far off lands have brought back knowledge to his younger brothers they might never find out on their own.
“I never studied with Shammai or Hillel,” Jesus said politely.
“What?” Samuel’s almost toothless mouth gaped wide.
“Jesus, no!” Mama whispered, gripping his wrist.
“It’s true,” he insisted, looking into Mama’s eyes.
“Surely, you studied somewhere.” Samuel spread his palms, shaking his head as he sank into his chair. “Where else did you obtain your great wisdom? Did your father teach you all this?”
“No,” confessed Papa, his anger giving way to alarm, “I still find his visit to the temple mind-boggling, yet Joseph of Arimathea was a witness to it. All knowledge seems to be his.”
“That’s absurd!” Samuel cried out in a wavering voice. “He learned it somewhere. The Torah must be read and learned. It doesn’t appear in our mind’s full blown at birth.”
“I’m sorry, Samuel.” Jesus heaved a broken sigh. “.... I just know.”
One more moment of truth in the miraculous childhood of my brother crashed upon us. Though it should have been obvious given the facts, everyone was shocked by what Jesus just said. The subject of our education was temporarily forgotten as Mordechai aired his views.
“In all due respect Joseph,” the chamberlain exclaimed, “Jesus’ ability to engage the Pharisees and scribes must’ve been learned. Did God put all that knowledge in his head?”
“Talk to me,” Jesus said, rising to his feet. “My father’s not on trial here.”
“Why you’re not on trial—either of you.” Samuel raised a quivering hand. “Jesus, you’re touched by God. Mordechai believes this too. But even the prophets had to read and study to become proficient in their work.”
“Where’s it written that Isaiah or Jeremiah were doctors of the law?” Jesus asked calmly. “The prophets got most of their wisdom from the Lord. Prophecy is, after all, revelation, which becomes illumination when written down as the Word, but a prophet doesn’t even have to know how to read.”
“What’s all this gibberish?” Mordechai frowned at Samuel.
“I don’t know.” Samuel gave him a worried look.
Jesus eyes flashed with anger as the Pharisee and chamberlain whispered back and forth. James and Joseph, though resenting their oldest brother’s status, remained silent. Right now both of them resented Samuel’s haughtiness much more. The implications of all this caused me to retreat into my thoughts. I thought about my treasure, my dream horse, and the mysterious girl by my side, but in the end all I could think about is what Jesus said: “I just know.” What did he mean? Wouldn’t that make him a god? Mentally I bit my tongue. It was a good thing I didn’t say that aloud. As I looked around the table, I realized how upset Samuel had made my family. Scowls were frozen on James’ and Joseph’s faces. I couldn’t see Michael and the twins, but Simon and Uriah’s discomfort was plain to see. They were fidgeting badly. Uriah was whimpering at the thought of food. Except for the whispering at the end of the table, the only sound to break this silence was Papa’s voice. He was quite tipsy now.
“Samuel, why are you two whispering?” he protested with a slight slur. “That’s rude! You’re servants treated us badly, herding us like cattle into your baths. You treat me badly now by insulting my family and my son. Why’re you doubting Jesus words? Why’re you treating us with such disrespect?”
“I didn’t plan on this argument,” Samuel’s voice cracked, “but what he said was pure heresy. Knowledge does not come ex tempore. I don’t know how he argued with those Pharisees and scribes, but I can’t believe his pretensions. He’s still a mere youth.”
“There’s nothing mere about our son.” Mama stood up in Jesus’ defense. “We’ve heard him say things no mortal man could know. He’s always saying strange, wonderful things. You’ve heard him Samuel. Sometimes, when he’s hiking with his brothers, he points to a plant or animal, talking about it with such knowledge it’s as if he created it himself.”
Jesus winced. Mama had only made matters worse. Samuel popped up like a Persian stick puppet, crying out “Jesus is not divine!” Mordechai rose up more slowly, mumbling “Heresy! Blasphemy!” staggered by her words, but before Samuel or Mordechai had a chance to admonish my parents or Jesus further, Papa ordered all of us to gather ourselves up—we were going home.
“What about Michael?” James asked, as we stood up and filed out of the room.
“Michael will return with us,” Papa said, opening the great door himself, then motioning impatiently for all of us to begin the trek home. “Mary, Jesus, children—out. I’ve had enough of this overbearing, insufferable old man.”
One-by-one we departed, our hunger unsatisfied yet our principles intact. Michael ran out first, apparently happy to leave. The rest of us, however, had mixed feelings about going home. On the one hand, we were upset by our treatment by the servants and Samuel’s insulting tone. On the other hand, we would miss the fancy quarters and fine food. Beside the fact we lived in an overcrowded house, we were again faced with hiding Michael from the outside world. It was one more dark night for my family, though not the worst. This time we weren’t worried about bandits storming into our home or trying to hide a wanted criminal in our house. Nor could Papa’s decision to break with Samuel be as bad as the ordeal we faced when we hid a witch in our house and were forced to rely on the Romans to escort her, in the dark of night, to the shepherd’s camp. Nevertheless, I would miss the exciting interior of Samuel’s estate and roaming in his enchanted garden and mysterious woods.
James and Joseph, I noted with respect, exited the house after Michael with defiant glares. Samuel had insulted them personally. Yet Tabitha, Uriah, and the twins were sniveling as they followed them out the door. Mama and Jesus were next, but not before Mama gave one of the servants a piece of her mind. The servant laughed foolishly, yet bowed deferentially to us. I was one of the last to leave, being prodded out the door by Papa, who turned to make the sign to ward off the evil eye, with great relish. In spite of its inappropriateness, I look back on this event with great pride. Without asking permission, Papa had confiscated a lamp from Samuel’s house to light our way home. Half drunk, his wits dulled like mine, Papa had stood up to the haughty Pharisee. Reinforcing my feeling of pride on this day is the memory of all us of obediently, without argument, following Papa’s lamp down the walkway toward the road. Michael was given a napkin from Samuel’s table to hide his face from passersby and told to be quiet.
It’s all over, I thought calmly, the effects of Mama’s potion still clinging to my mind. I found myself taking Tabitha’s little hand, listening passively to my parents who were discussing Papa’s decision to leave.
“Joseph.” She shook her head. “Once again you drank too much wine. Was it necessary to make such a fuss?”
“Yes,” he trumpeted, with a proud frown. “Samuel called my son a heretic. He was trying to say Jesus’ God-given knowledge is a lie!”
Everyone had to agree with this, even Uriah, who acted as if he was half-starved. Jesus promised to assist Mama in whipping us up a quick meal when we got home. Michael, who believed he would be abandoned at Samuel’s house as Reuben had been, was jubilant. In a spirit of rebellion, while Jesus supervised Michael, our brothers laughed and cavorted like young children. As Tabitha and I walked hand-in-hand, Martha and Abigail tattled to Mama, but Mama was much too tired to care. In subdued tones, while the twins skipped and pranced up and down the line, my parents continued their discussion. Uriah stopped whimpering, rejuvenated by the thought of food. In a short while, we would be back in our crowded home, freed from Samuel’s tyranny as James and Joseph now saw it. Fearful of the Roman ordinance against congregations, we were forced to walk two-by-twos, another bone of contention for my brothers. It had become a force of habit for Nazarenes such as ourselves, but Mama had to continually scold us to keep in formation. Though they giggled hysterically at our predicament, hunger and anger, two conflicting emotions, caused James and Joseph to grumble amongst themselves and Simon to run crazily up and down our ranks. Then, only a few moments from our home, just as a Roman sentry rode passed, something remarkable happened that would change Papa and Mama’s minds.
“Joseph! Oh Joseph!” Mordechai’s voice rang out.
“What does he want?” Papa snarled.
“It’s the chamberlain,” Simon told James.
“Joseph, be nice.” Mama shook his arm. “Let’s hear what the man has to say.”
“Stingy old man probably wants his lamp back,” grumbled Papa. “He’s never expanded my shop. He’s all talk—no action. He’s not making Pharisees out of my sons.”
“James and I are gonna be scribes!” Joseph exclaimed.
“That’s better?” Jesus muttered to himself.
The horseman galloped passed without issue, which strikes me now as dereliction of duty when I consider how suspicious we all looked: a procession of Jews, one of whom was suspiciously hooded and another shouting at the top of his lungs, and this sentry didn’t give us a second glance. Panting and out of breath, the chamberlain repeated what sounded like a rehearsed speech: “Samuel sends his deepest apologies for insulting the family of Jesus.”
“The family of Jesus?” James muttered. “What happened to the family of Joseph, our father.”
It was the first time I would hear our family described this way. The next time I would hear these words they would be spoken reverentially by the Apostles when discussing Jesus’ life. Perhaps, because they were so surprised by Mordechai’s appearance, my parents overlooked this slight. It seemed evident that Samuel valued Jesus’ good opinion of him even more than Papa’s. Joseph and James were disgruntled by this acknowledgment but let it pass.
“.... Very well, Mordechai,” Papa said, after a long pause, “I’ve always taught my children to forgive foolish souls. You may tell your master that we accept his apology. We remain concerned about Samuel’s health.”
Papa’s response was brilliant. In spite of his tipsiness, he had shown both forgiveness and concern for the Pharisee but also insulted him by saying he was a foolish soul. When airing his concern for the old man’s health, however, I think he was implying that Samuel was addled in the head. I also liked the way he referred to Samuel as Mordechai’s master, though I knew the toady chamberlain, who, out of necessity, shared his master’s opinions, was not to blame for what happened tonight. Mama saw this plainly when she dismissed his apology outright.
“If Samuel wishes to express his regret,” she spoke gracefully, “he can say so himself.”
Papa, in spite of being overridden, nodded with amusement. James and Joseph, in spite being famished, cheered, while Uriah and Simon groaned. We expected that to be the end of it, but Mordechai bowed slightly to Mama and spoke to her directly, “that’s why I’m here mistress. Samuel also wanted me to say ‘pay no attention to a stubborn old man with addled wits. Please give him another chance and return to finish our feast.’”
Mama laughed hysterically. Papa’s mouth dropped wide. I wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Never!” Joseph cried, folding his arms.
“No, no, I thought we’re going back home!” Michael wailed.
Just that moment, the night sentry galloped passed again. Papa jerked the hood back down over Michael’s face. “Not so loud,” I heard him speak firmly. “You’re going to be all right. Have we not taken good care of you? These Romans don’t trust us, Michael. Control yourself!”
Though silenced, Michael continued to grumble, whine, and kick the dirt. Casting us a sideways glance this time, the sentry slowed down, touched his helmet in salute but continued on his way. He must have been drunk not to notice Michael’s tantrum. Jesus took him aside, scolding him more severely than Papa had for making a scene. Mordechai waited patiently as my parents whispered amongst themselves. Though Papa had accepted his apology on behalf of Samuel and Mama had made her point, they were worried about the Pharisee’s designs on their family. We couldn’t tell who was trying to convince whom to accept the chamberlain’s offer. Mama shook her head resolutely and folded her arms and Papa clinched his jaws angrily as if one or them was trying to change the other’s mind. Mordechai was becoming frustrated with their stubbornness and we growing impatient with the delay. We were all hungry—torn, as Jesus commented, between what was right and what was needed. This conflict was, of course, much worse for the self-righteous Joseph and James. It was good that Papa and my brothers cared about our family’s honor, but our home was crowded and, in spite of Papa’s growing business, poorer for the numbers. The single most important reason to go back, however, was Michael’s presence in our house. His very presence restricted our freedom and made it almost impossible to allow neighbors or friends to visit our home. My parents had agreed that this problem wouldn’t be solved until Michael was sheltered in Samuel’s house or foisted upon Aunt Elizabeth—a solution Mama still found hard to accept.
Despite Michael’s protests, he couldn’t stay in our house much longer, and yet today we saw changes in him that indicated to us that the old Michael, we once knew, might be back. Now, as he whined and whimpered inside his hood, I wasn’t sure. My family’s original plan had been to travel to Sepphoris after our visit with Samuel. Until Samuel spoiled it, we thought tonight was going to provide a great send-off for our trip. Secretly, I believe Mama had been hoping that Michael would wind up staying in Samuel’s house instead of coming along. When Papa turned and crooked his finger, we heaved a collective sigh. Mordechai raised his lamp and turned in the direction of Samuel’s house. Mama walked over to Jesus and helped him guide the hooded figure up the road. We were going back! As we followed after Papa, with Mordechai in the forefront, he counseled us to be polite and respectful at the table, but I sensed such great hostility in James, Joseph, and himself, I didn’t see how this was possible.
I was feeling much more clear-headed as we reentered Samuel’s house. Mama’s potion was wearing off, but in its place were pangs of hunger, which I shared with everyone in our group. Once again we had to wait awhile for Samuel to arrive, this time in the anteroom, for reasons we were never told. When we were finally seated by the servants, Samuel slowly reappeared, moving with the speed of a turtle to the head of the table. Mordechai, who followed us into the dining hall, gave his master a signal with his hand. A collective groan went up from members of my family as the old man once again made us wait for our food until he made his speech. Through it all, Mama was most gracious, but the rest of us greeted Samuel with frowns. Papa was beside himself with irritation, and yet he bowed to Mama’s wishes and placed his hand over his cup when the servant attempted to poor him some wine.
“Water only,” he murmured politely.
“Thank you Joseph,” she whispered, as Samuel took his seat.
“You have my gratitude and deepest apologies,” the old man began in a quivering voice. “I have gathered you here tonight to offer you the full hospitality of my house, but also to give the sons of Joseph an excellent education, without the necessity for them to leave home to the distant city of Jerusalem away from their beloved home.”
“What sort of education?” Papa’s eyes widened with alarm. “Please explain.”
“Don’t worry,” he spread his hands, “I won’t make Pharisees out of your sons. All I want for the boys is that they experience the joys and wonders of the Torah and history of their people.”
“Who will be teaching them?” Papa eyed him suspiciously.
“Gamaliel, a gifted young rabbi, who will introduce them to the great philosophies supporting our way of life.” Samuel answered in one labored breath.
“Is he a Pharisee?” Papa’s eyes narrowed to slits.
Samuel hesitated only a few seconds, long enough for Papa to give him an ‘I-thought-so’ look. The answer the old Pharisee gave belied his addled disposition.
“You may not realize it Joseph but one of the main differences between a Pharisee such as myself and a rabbi such as Joachim is wealth. I admit that I’m wealthy, but Gamaliel is relatively poor, and yet he’s the finest teacher I know.” “He also belongs to the school of Hillel, which interprets the Torah liberally rather than through the narrow minded views of Shammai.”
Papa’s eyebrows knitted together. “I gather this Hillel was a Pharisee too.”
“No,” Samuel shook his head vehemently, motioning for the servants to begin, “he was a great rabbi, like Gamaliel. I’m aware of James and Joseph’s plans of being scribes and Jude’s hopes that one day he will ride a fine white horse and see the world. Jesus’ future is too large for me even to imagine, and I have a feeling that Simon will make a fine carpenter one day.
“Not a chance,” Simon grumbled.
“What about me?” Uriah thrust out his lower lip.
“Oh, I heard that you want to be a carpenter too,” Samuel winked.
Uriah nodded vigorously. Michael remained silent, as the Pharisee looked down the table at him. No one expected much out of him. How wrong they would be! Like everyone else that hour, however, I was so hungry I could care less about this conversation.
“What about the other children in Nazareth?” I heard Jesus say.
“What about them?” Samuel answered huffily.
“Since the rabbis’ illness,” Jesus clarified, “not merely my brothers but none of the children in Nazareth are being educated.”
“Are you suggesting that Gamaliel teach all the children in Nazareth?” Samuel asked in disbelief.
“Yes,” Jesus replied with a nod, “that would only be fair. You could use the synagogue. Gamaliel could even preach there to the townsfolk.”
A sigh rose up in the room as the servants brought food in during this exchange. In spite of our great hunger, what Jesus suggested was unacceptable, not only to Samuel but everyone at the table, especially me.
“You would have my enemies at this school?” I looked at Jesus in astonishment.
“Jethro, Obadiah and Boaz aren’t your enemies.” Jesus shook his head.
they are,” Simon cried, “and they’re mine too!”
Uriah nodded in agreement. James and Joseph seconded Simon’s assertion. I could hear Papa and Mama protest under their breaths about the foolishness of Jesus’ plan, and I saw Mordechai take a long gulp of wine. The greatest objection came from Samuel, the benefactor of the school. Standing up shakily on his ancient legs, he studied Jesus, reminding me of a tortoise in the way he moved his head. Convinced of his righteousness, Jesus stared back with unblinking eyes. Deep down in our selfish hearts, we knew he was right.
“You have a charitable heart.” Samuel’s voice cracked and wheezed. “I commend you for this, but your idea isn’t sound. I’m paying Gamaliel to teach members of your family, not the children of our town. I’m not so sure the elders would even accept Hillel’s thinking. Many of them are students of Shammai, a more rigid interpreter of the scriptures and the law.” “I also agree with your brothers.” He singled each of us out with his watery eyes. “Jude, Simon, and Uriah have been intimidated by those ruffians Jethro, Obadiah and Boaz, and I’ve heard about James and Joseph’s hot-headed friends. We don’t need childish dissension or anti-Roman sentiment in Gamaliel’s school.”
Reviewing our mutinous faces, Samuel mumbled a quick blessing and collapsed in his seat. The lamb and fish, now slightly tough from being too long on the spit, were compensated by the many delicacies offered at the table, but the bread was no longer hot and the chilled juice was no longer cold. I made up for the stringy meal by filling myself with stuffed dates, candied fruits, and pastries. I noticed that all of the other children also gorged themselves on sweets. Papa, though he held on for almost an hour, was sorely tempted during a toast made by the Pharisee. After the servant filled his goblet with wine, Mama gave him that look that said, “All right, Joseph, but that’s it—no more!”
Now that Samuel had reassured him that he wouldn’t turn his sons into Pharisees, Papa seemed to accept this restriction, partially for his sons’ benefit but also, I found out later, because he shared Samuel’s concern that Hillel’s philosophy would be offensive to some of the elders in town.
After we finished dinner, Papa, Mama, Samuel, and Mordechai retired to a special chamber for further discussion. Because Jesus was recognized by Samuel as a young man now, he was motioned, rather condescendingly I recall, to tag along. While the girls were led by servants to their room, James and Joseph to theirs, and Uriah and I were directed to the room we had before, my parents and oldest brother became privy to the details of the new school. I’m not sure where Michael wound up, but I assumed he would be sharing a room with Jesus as he had before. Just before we entered our chamber, I saw a furtive shadow in the corridor—probably a servant and wondered light-headedly where Reuben was cloistered in this big house. Would we ever see him again? Perhaps he had already made his way to his sister in Joppa to start a new life. What did it matter as long as he was safely out of Nazareth and our lives?
I was feeling much better, but I was too tired to dwell on Samuel’s silly school. I was going to be a adventurer or soldier. Perhaps I might visit Reuben in Joppa during my travels. I might even visit Simon of Cyrene and explore the Old Ones caves. What did I care for learning the fine points of the Torah or memorizing a lot of Hebrew law? What I wanted to learn was Latin, the language of Rome. Though our guards spoke halting Aramaic, the language of Galilee and Judea, I heard Regulus once tell Papa that only the sentries of the legions stationed in the East could speak the local tongues. Wouldn’t that be something, I thought as I drifted off to sleep, if I could learn Greek and Egyptian too?
While I hovered in that twilight state preceding sleep, Uriah chattered about his concern at being taught by Gamaliel. Normally, as I lie down on my pallet, my thoughts would carry me to that special place where my great white horse and faithful men waited to follow me on a new adventure. There have been many times when my adventures carried me straight into another nightmare that I would want Jesus to interpret, but I was attempting, as Jesus once suggested, to confront my nightmarish specters and dispel them. He had told me not to worry about these specters and concentrate on dreaming pleasant things when I fell asleep. Lately, I hadn’t been very successful. Gradually, in spite of Uriah’s efforts at keeping me awake, I slipped away, his muted voice fading gradually, replaced by that floating sensation preceding sleep. Please God, I thought light-headedly, not another nightmare!
“I heard Papa say that Gamaliel’s a heretic,” my friend jabbered. “He thinks he’s soft on Hebrew law.”
“That’s nice Uriah,” I murmured, feeling my body grow weightless. “Now go to sleep.”
“Some of his ideas, Papa thinks, make him sound like a Gentile.”
“The Romans are pagans, Jude, so are the Greeks.”
“Uriah, ...Shut up!” I muttered, pulling a cushion over my head.
“Blah, blah, blah-blah-blah, blah-blah” Uriah droned.
“Zzzz...zzzz...zzzz...zzzz,” I snored softly, entering my dream world at last.
“Onward my men,” I called out to my troops, “let’s get those thieving bandits before they escape!”