Back In The Shop
In spite of my parents promise that our lives wouldn’t change and we would remain children in their eyes, the Coming of Age feast was suppose to be a turning point in our lives. That we were responsible for our actions and sins seemed reasonable to me, considering the guilt I carried with me about my gold. All of us, I’m certain, except, perhaps, Tabitha, Uriah, and the twins, had been answerable to God long before this day. The notion, however, put forward by Samuel and Gamaliel that we boys had crossed a threshold in which we were to take life more seriously rankled us very much.
The next morning, after Jesus bent down to shake us awake, Uriah, Simon, and I looked up through bleary eyes at the shadowy figure overhead. Inexplicably, I remembered a passage from Genesis we had studied in school, “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day...” I recall feeling a sense of foreboding. I was certain the other initiates felt the same way. Our day had come! The first thing that came out of Uriah’s mouth was “Will, what do we do now?” We were taken back when Simon, of all people, answered half-jokingly “We’re men now. Let’s go find ourselves some maids!” I broke into laughter. Though James normally awakened in a surly mood he laughed at this quip, as did Uriah as he rubbed sleep out of his eyes. “That’s not funny,” Jesus called from the doorway. “No one expects you to suddenly become men. Samuel spoke rashly last night. The rabbi never meant that. But you must take the event seriously. A journey has just begun for you, and more will be expected of you on the road of life.”
Joseph grumbled at his words. James sat there a moment on his pallet shaking his head. We had heard two absurd things this morning. Jesus wanted us to be serious “on the road of life,” and Simon wanted us to go find ourselves some maids. As I record Jesus’ words in my chronicle, his advice makes sound sense: we had to grow up—that was a fact, just not immediately, but gradually, one step at a time. This should have comforted us after hearing Samuel’s speech, and yet we knew that Jesus wanted us to get up off our pallets and share in the responsibilities in Papa’s shop. In this way his lecture was meant to be a prod. After a hasty breakfast of bread, water, and goat cheese, our parents, with Jesus as our shepherd, herded us like sheep out of the house. It was time once more to help Papa with his orders and do our chores. A reminder by Jesus on what would be expected of each of us in order to finish the projects on time, was followed by Papa’s lecture (no doubt inspired by Samuel) that we were no longer children and must start doing our fair share in the shop and helping Mama around the house. Papa’s second demand was directed more at Simon, Uriah, and me. We still did most of Mama’s gardening and performed menial tasks. The first demand, the most important for our advancement, was aimed at our efforts in carpentry as well as our sloth at learning the craft.
Now that we all shared the role of initiates, James and Joseph accepted, with begrudging resignation, their positions as Jesus assistants in Papa’s shop. They were paid more money, but they had more responsibility and were held accountable, like Jesus, for what we produced. Since Simon and I were more advanced woodworkers, we didn’t have to be watched as carefully as Uriah. Uriah had shown enthusiasm for carpentry in the past. All he needed, Jesus reminded us, was a little extra patience. Soon, if given the proper guidance, he would measure up like the rest of us. It might just take a little more time. Once more, as we considered this possibility, we broke into giggles. Even Uriah found this hard to believe. Jesus admonished us sternly, a smile belying his words, “Remember what Papa said, you’re no longer children—so says the Pharisee and our teacher. Do your best. This is all God expects.”
I realized, as did James and Joseph, that Jesus had gently mocked the form of the ceremony while upholding its function, which was to make us more responsible at home and in the shop. In this respect, Gamaliel wanted us to be serious students in his school. We understood, by Papa’s absence, that Jesus was now totally in charge. To offset this ominous fact, was Jesus reminder that we would, as James and Joseph, now receive a daily wage. Of course, he also explained, it wouldn’t be as much as the apprentice woodworkers, since they had to train us and were responsible for a greater share of the work. Because of this fact, it seemed that James and Joseph as full-fledged apprentices, should already be on the road to adulthood, and yet they were, like the rest of us, still children, only a few years older than ourselves. Yesterday, before the ceremony, we did a few chores then ran off to play children’s games, but today we would have to show our older brothers, James and Joseph, greater respect, as we showed Jesus, the eldest son. We would work most of the day in order to make a few mites and learn a trade all of us, except the inept Uriah, wished to avoid. Papa, as owner and master carpenter, would spend most of his time searching for clients and working on his projects, leaving us completely under Jesus’ control.
Considering our diverse personalities, this seemed to be an overly ambitious and unreasonable plan. Our first day as James and Joseph’s assistants had followed a simple breakfast, at which Papa was not present. Mama explained, with great delight, how he dashed off to Ezra’s house to plan their trip to Jerusalem. It was something they had been planning for quite some time, and Papa was excited about the prospects ahead. At the crack of dawn tomorrow, the two men would set off for the Holy City, where they would meet with prospective buyers in order to drum up business. The trip would require a Roman escort, which Longinus had promised to provide the previous week. Samples of Papa’s furniture and Ezra and Naomi’s wool clothing would be packed on several mules, which meant, of course, Mama pointed out, we would all have to be up before dawn to help load the pack animals. Groans had erupted at the table, stifled by Mama’s scolding, turning to grumbles and curses as we filed into the shop.
Jesus stood over us with his hands on his hips, his voice booming that morning, “James, keep an eye on your brothers. Uriah, remember what I told you about even strokes. That’s it Jude, keep up the good work. Remember, men—we’re a team! I shall work on Papa’s tables. Joseph will finish up the stools. While the rest of you continue sanding, James can begin roughing out those blocks of wood.”
“What do I do first?” James frowned at Uriah. “You want me to keep an eye on my brothers, but he’s had a hundred accidents since he started working in the shop.”
“Don’t worry about the others,” replied Jesus patiently, “just Uriah. Joseph’s starting to do fine work. So is Jude. Simon’s a shirker, but I think he can do a good job. When Uriah’s using a shaver or sander, you must make sure he doesn’t cut himself again. I see great promise in him. He has the heart and the will; all he needs is the chance.” “Patience is the key word.” He wrung his finger. “All of us together must guide Uriah, not just James!”
“Promise?” Joseph whispered to James. “What’s he talking about? He sees promise in Uriah? Tabitha would make a better carpenter than him!”
“Ah, but remember,” James quoted Jesus, “he has the heart and the will. We must give him a chance!”
We were all growing annoyed with Jesus’ airs. For a few moments, as our older brother ducked into the shop, Simon grumbled to me, “he’s even more bossy now. We might as well be his slaves.”
“We’re wage-earners.” I shrugged my shoulders. “He’s our leader. Papa expects a lot from the oldest son.”
“What?” James mouth dropped. “This from Jude the slacker and daydreamer. How dare you preach to us?”
Joseph’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Where did you get such wisdom little brother? Not only do you have a perfect memory and learned our language but you’re filled with such bottomless wit.”
“Oh, I’m not perfect,” I maintained, tossing my head, “I have much to learn.”
“How humble of you,” James said succinctly. “Why don’t you teach that numbskull and let us get on with our work.”
“Everyone treats me like a baby,” whimpered Uriah. “No one wants to give me a chance.”
“You’ve had plenty of chances,” snarled Joseph. “How many chances do you want? You had a dozen accidents just this month. You do all the safe, easy work, nothing hard or dangerous, and even that you mess up!”
“Uriah’s improving,” I came to his defense. “He’s learned how to sand wood and apply varnish. Pretty soon Papa will trust him with harder tasks.”
“No, he won’t!” James waved irritably. “Uriah can’t be left alone—not for a moment. We have to watch him constantly just to make sure there’s no sharp instruments in his little fat hands. We can’t turn our back on him for fear he’ll hurt himself or damage the wood.”
“Maybe he should just help Mama in the garden,” Simon replied flatly. “I’m just glad we don’t have to deal with Michael now. He’s not right in the head.”
“Michael’s Samuel’s problem,” snorted Joseph.
“Michael’s everyone’s problem,” spat James.
“More work, less talk.” Jesus’ head emerged suddenly from the shop. “Uriah knows what he’s suppose to do. We have a deadline to meet.”
My brothers had been talking about Uriah as if he wasn’t here. Michael’s moods had been more difficult to deal with than Uriah, but Michael was no longer here. In addition to James, Joseph, and Simon’s distrust of my friends, was their inability to accept him as a member of our family. To his dying day, Nehemiah was never welcomed into our family. Michael, of course, would never fit in. Until last night Reuben (now Bartholomew), who John saw loitering with Michael, had almost been forgotten by everyone, except perhaps Jesus and Mama, who would have adopted Reuben too if she had her way. Now Uriah, as poor Nehemiah, depended solely upon my friendship and my parents’ goodwill.
With Papa and Ezra planning on finding clients in the Holy City, there were many orders for us to fill. Jesus was in no mood for our antics today nor would he tolerant my brothers’ surliness, Uriah’s recklessness nor Simon and my impatience to finish our work so we could run freely in the hills. Yet in spite of the pressure on him now, the oldest brother, though bossy and crisp, kept his cool this hour. Walking with wide strides over to Uriah, he reached down, gently gripped his hand, and pulled him to his feet.
“Today you learn how to join wood by pegs instead of glue,” he announced, leading him into the shop. “We’ll show them what a find carpenter you are!”
“They were being mean to him,” I whispered, looking accusingly at Joseph and James.
Jesus nodded quietly at me.
Simon, who had been unkind, himself, growled under his breath at Uriah’s unsanded boards. In stony silence James stood looking down at their unfinished chores. I continued to sand my project diligently, avoiding their glares. For Jesus benefit, I thought, recalling a homily he gave us at such a time, I would play the good and cheerful worker. Secretly, of course, I would be satisfied just to sneak away for a few moments and check on my gold. Because of the many projects Papa would drum up by his trip, our free time would shrink considerably. We now had to attend school each morning, return home for lunch, then work until dusk. There was little time for our own recreation except for limited activity during the Shabbat and those lulls when all of Papa’s current projects had been completed. In the last several months, such lulls were few and far between. I hadn’t been able to check on my treasure because of Uriah and my brothers’ prying eyes. For all I knew, one of my disgruntled playmates had snuck back into our yard to steal my pot of gold.
After all my fine words to Jesus, the old itch was returning. My mind began wandering as I did my work. The resentment I once had for Uriah returned as Jesus tutored him in the shop. Once again, because I sided with him, Simon appeared to be aligning himself with Joseph and James. In spite of my standing with Gamaliel, reputation as a prodigy like my oldest brother, and the renewed respect of my parents, I was miserable this hour. I was also bored. James and Joseph couldn’t hide their jealousy of me. Thanks to my defense of Uriah, Simon was mad at me too. Restlessness, irritation, and greed grabbed a hold of my spirit. Guilt for my dark secret weighed heavily upon my mind. When Papa returned from Ezra’s house, he took Jesus aside for a short meeting. As I paused in my own sanding to help Uriah slop glue into the table recesses, my eyes wandered to the passage between the shop and house and the trail leading to the wall. James, Joseph, and Simon looked up once awhile to glare at us, as Uriah’s fat little hands began fumbling with the glue, and I pretended to be absorbed in my work.
“No, no, Uriah,” I groaned, pushing him away, “drop the brush. Wipe off your hands before that dries. I’ll glue it. You just hold these pieces together.”
“Your brothers make me nervous,” he complained, wiping his fingers on his shirt.
“Use this, numbskull.” I threw him a rag. “Now let’s finished this project so we can take a break.”
As I slopped on more glue, he announced petulantly, “Jesus is gonna teach me something new. I want to learn to fasten wood with pegs. Someday I’ll learn to sand like him.”
“Jesus is too busy right now,” I said through gritted teeth. “Pay attention to what you’re doing, Uriah. Press the leg down evenly—gripping the end. That’s it. Hold it steady. Stop whining. We got three legs to go!”
I shook my head at Uriah but said nothing. Despite Jesus’ efforts to teach him, he was all thumbs. I had no patience for him today. Though I tried very hard, my heart wasn’t in it. Restlessness, irritation, and greed continued to vex me. As I record my memories, I remember them reeling in my head—plus a fourth emotion, always at the back of my mind: guilt. My secret—a bandit’s gold—festered in my mind, at times crowding out everything else. Competing with my concern for my treasure those moments was the annoyance I felt toward Uriah. There was, despite my efforts to clean him off, glue on his face, arms, and toes. He managed before I took over the gluing process, to leave his fingerprints on one of the legs. I tried using some of Papa’s solvent to clean off the smudges, but there were still faint imprints where he touched the wood.
Despite my irritation with Uriah, we managed to glue all four legs into the table. With the tabletop face down on the ground, I added weights to hold each leg in place as the glue set. Uriah sighed with relief, as we back on our haunches to survey our work. Luckily for us as I cleaned up the mess, James and Joseph had been absorbed in their tasks. Now, as I heard the crunch of gravel, I wondered if Jesus might have watching us all this time. He had a way of appearing out of nowhere to catch one unawares. As his shadow fell over us, he momentarily blotted out the sun. Had I known what I know today, I might have seen an omen in this specter. As it was, the cold breath of fear filled me when the silhouette placed its hands on its hips and cocked its head. Had Jesus read my thoughts somehow or, during that pause he was talking to Papa in the house, slipped out the back way to ferret out my hiding place? I must have been delirious to think such thoughts. I wasn’t even certain Jesus could read minds. With the gentlest laugh, he reached down, pulled Uriah up to his feet and led him to the house.
“James,” he called over his shoulder, “keep an eye on them while I scrub Uriah off.”
Joseph burst into laughter as he was led away. I held my breath as James walked over to inspect our work.
“You thought we wouldn’t see that?” He folded his arms.
“I didn’t do that leg,” I replied defensively, “Uriah did. I did the other three.”
“Look at that!” He pointed accusingly. “I hope we can rub that out. I can’t watch him every moment, Jude. I’ve got my own work to do!”
“He’ a numbskull,” Joseph scoffed. “Two things you never give Uriah: sharp objects and glue.”
“He can’t help it,” I said halfheartedly, “Uriah has fat little hands. He tries to do better. He’s not stupid—just clumsy. I’ve never known anyone as clumsy as him.”
In my reply I had defended but also insulted my friend, and yet I felt exonerated of Uriah’s misdeed. Casting me disgusted looks as if it was my fault, they returned to their jobs. In spite of their presence in the work area and Jesus imminent return, I felt the sudden urge to slip away and make a run for the wall. I had enough of this. I couldn’t concentrate on my task now after watching Uriah almost self-destruct again as a carpenter. Unless Jesus submitted a powerful prayer on his behalf, there was no way Uriah could succeed at this occupation. His enthusiasm for woodwork did not match his intellect. I had been right next to Uriah, trusting him to slop on some glue when he slopped it all over himself. Joseph was right; sharp objects such as chisels or knives, were dangerous in his hands. When not tripping over his two left feet as he worked, he was all thumbs when handling tools, no matter how closely he was watched. He often dropped or spilled things, as if they were mysteriously launched out of his hands. Unless he was under close scrutiny, he would over-sand a surface or injure himself with splinters or drop something heavy onto his foot. He was, James once exclaimed, a disaster in the making. He shouldn’t be allowed one cubit from the shop!
Now, as I attempted to slip away unnoticed, Jesus was nowhere in sight. I knew this was my chance. All I had to worry about was James and Joseph believing that I was going to use the cloaca. I had used this excuse so many time in the past to idle away my time I was surprised that it worked again. I ran directly to the cloaca, my plan being to linger just long enough to sneak along the front of the house, run around the opposite end, and dash into the backyard. After checking my hideout, I would quickly retrace my steps, and emerge from the direction of the cloaca shack as I had done countless times before. Hopefully James and Joseph will have been distracted by their work enough to let pass my tardiness. It was a reckless and foolish plan. Not only would I be seen shirking my work, I might be caught in the act checking on my gold.
Racing through the steps necessary to accomplish my task, I prayed feverishly to God, as if He would actually help me deceive my brothers and allow me to keep my ill-gotten goods. Jesus could emerge from the front door at any time or James and Joseph could become suspicious enough to check the cloaca shack and even search for me in the backyard, and yet, at least for a time, God, in fact, appeared to be with me, when I arrived at that special point in the wall. As I reached into the recess, my heart hammered loudly, I felt that familiar dizziness I had before when I was up to no good, and a flood of recriminations filled me as I touched the ancient pot in which I had put my gold. For a brief moment, the pot, by itself, reassured me that my treasure was safe. In my haste to return to my work station, that seemed good enough for me at first, until, almost as an afterthought, I reached further in and discovered its barren interior. It was empty! Someone had stolen my treasure! Stricken with grief, sadness, and fear—the worst emotions a mortal could feel, I crumpled momentarily onto the ground and wept like a child, which, despite my coming age, I still was. I had been a fool, a liar, and a deceiver. Surely the Lord was punishing me now. If only I had never seen Adam’s gold! The shiny yellow metal had poisoned my spirit. Running blindly in my tears, I headed in the direction I had come from, stumbled over a stump, ran straight into a pomegranate bush, and then found myself, after tripping over my favorite rock, dashing around the house and passed the front door. When I had skirted the house and reached the cloaca shack, I realized I was a sweaty mess. James, Joseph, and Simon would know I had been crying. My first impulse was to run back into the house and tell Mama and Jesus I had been stung by a wasp, but then I would have to display its sting. A safer plan would be to pretend that I was having problems, and sit in the cloaca awhile. What decided the issue was the sound of the door shutting and Jesus counseling Uriah about the quality of his work. I could care less what Jesus was saying. What almost caused me to faint was Papa’s voice, “Jude, where have you been?”
In the short run, the bad news that came next caused a flood of relief in my mind. In the long run, as I reflected upon my sins, it was one more tragedy in my life. It appears as if Mordechai had paid my parents a visit after I snuck into the backyard. The gist of it, as I listened to the voices inside the house was: Michael was gone, and he was nowhere in sight. Members of my family emerged from the front door that moment as I halted, out of breath, in front of the shop.
“Keep it down, boys,” Papa shushed them, as they cavorted in the front yard. “We don’t want our guards to hear.”
“Jude, you missed the good news,” Joseph whispered through cupped hands. “Michael ran away. Nazareth is rid of him once and for all!”
“Our suspicions were correct,” crowed James, “Michael must’ve been thinking about this when John saw him last night.”
“Good riddance,” Simon couldn’t contain his enthusiasm, “he was no damn good!”
“How do we know for sure?” Papa scratched his beard. “Did anyone at Samuel’s house see him take off? How long’s he been gone?”
“You heard Mordechai.” Joseph shrugged. “He’s just gone. End of story—period.”
“I wonder if Reuben was trying to stop him.” Mama sighed, wiping her brow.
“Mary!” Papa wagged his finger. “It’s Bartholomew—not Reuben in case anyone finds out he’s holed up at Samuel’s house.” “Please remember that—all of you.” He looked around the group.
Papa might as well have been speaking Egyptian at that point. I heard what I wanted to hear. I was saved! It wouldn’t take long for them to notice my perspiration and tear streaked face. The loss of my treasure seemed almost secondary to me as a solution to my dilemma surfaced in the crisis: an outright lie—the worst I’ve ever told.
“Listen to me,” I exaggerated my exhaustion, still gasping for breath, “I saw him run in back of the house. I chased him for a while, but he was too fast. He’s gone. I knew he’d run away.”
“What?” Papa’s mouth dropped.
Mama’s hand flew to her mouth.
“It’s true,” I said, avoiding their stares.
“But you went to the cloaca,” Joseph flashed me a suspicious look. “That’s in the front of the house. How did you see him run past?”
“Yes, Jude,” James said with a frown, “what were you doing in the backyard?”
“More importantly.” Papa shook his head. “Why would Michael not just run into Samuel’s woods?”
“I know Michael’s mind,” I answered promptly. “He would pick the Shepherd’s trail, leading to the old Jerusalem road. As I left the cloaca, I saw him run in that direction. He returned to us that way. That’s where he fled.”
“That makes sense to me,” nodded Simon. “Michael’s crazy. I bet he stole some of Samuel’s stuff and sold it to the Arabs.”
I realized light-headedly that at least half of what I told them was probably the truth. It would be just like Michael to pull such a stunt. The question that would never be answered was how? He must have ran away last night or early in the morning. Jesus arrived in our midst, his arm still resting on Uriah’s slumped shoulders. Uriah’s face looked flushed from the scrubbing Mama gave it. Jesus said nothing to me, as I thought he might, but he immediately put doubt upon my claim.
“You don’t know that, Simon.” He heaved a sigh. “Michael would be stupid to run off. He has a home, an education, and, if our town can forgive him, a future in our family. I will pray on this matter. The Lord knows Michael’s heart.”
“We’ll all pray,” Mama said resolutely. “We can have a prayer circle today.”
Papa made no reply. Even Jesus thought this was a bit much. As I listened to James and Joseph grumble about Mama’s suggestion, I continued to shrink morally in front of their eyes, and yet, I was quite certain that only Jesus had any inkling of what I had done. The question foremost in my mind was “Did he know that I was lying now?” Why didn’t the all seeing Jesus know the whereabouts of Michael? What if Michael came strolling into Samuel’s garden, whistling foolishly to himself, as he often did? This thought was like a thunderclap in my head. That would be the end of me in my family’s eyes, I thought, giddy with terror. Mama startled me half out my wits, as her little hands clasped my forehead and felt my pulse.
“What’s wrong with you Jude?” She asked, her voice tinged with suspicion.
Papa had asked me where I had been. That seemed covered at this point. Now Mama was worried about my health. I quickly decided that moment to play on this excuse for my quirky behavior.
“I don’t feel well,” I replied truthfully, my head ringing and stomach wrenched into a knot.
“You never feel well when it comes to work,” Joseph grumbled.
“Uh-uh,” Uriah came to my defense, “Jude worked real hard this morning. We glued a table together and got done really fast.”
“Precisely the point,” James snorted, “a hastily done, sloppy piece of work.”
“Come, sit down my son,” Mama ordered gently. “Simon, go fetch Jude a mug of juice.”
Simon, who would drink liberally from the pitcher, himself, ran swiftly into the house. Tabitha, Martha, and Abigail scampered after him as he returned, drawn by the commotion. Holding the pitcher in one hand and a string of mugs in the other, Simon trudged awkwardly up to us, the mugs clanking on the line and punch spilling onto the ground. On his own accord, Simon sat the pitcher down on a small unfinished table and began pouring each of us a mug of juice. I could see past the family members the silhouette of old Habakkuk ambling down the road. That moment a Roman sentry galloped down the road. Hopefully, my mind wandered, Priam or Falco wouldn’t show up on the scene. Dear Lord, I lamented silently under their scrutiny, I would, in a flash, exchange my role as wonder student for my old gang! After waving at the town elder, Papa stroked his beard with irritation at this interruption in his daily schedule. My brothers slurped down the juice with relish, but Papa would much rather have had a mug of wine. Mama let the twins share the drink given to her by Simon. Uriah gulped his punch down it seemed in one gulp. Simon poured me a mug of juice and stood there a moment, as everyone else finished their drinks, a sly grin on his dirty face. Tabitha lingered in the small crowd, a mug clutched in her tiny hands, staring artlessly at me.
As I sat on the stool brought out by James, the group’s shadow fell as an accusation upon me. James, after his act of civility, gave me his characteristic snarl. Displaying what I recognized as an attitude of distrust, Joseph folded his arms, his nostrils flaring and eyes narrowing to slits. Even Uriah was frowning at me now, though it might have been because of the scrubbing he just received. Only Jesus’ expression was difficult to read. Often in the past his eyes would flash when he was angry. Seldom did his forehead wrinkle in anger, unless something catastrophic occurred. Mama’s face, however, registered disappointment this time, the most troubling expression of them all. As I sipped my juice, Simon grinned mischievously at me. There was a fresh moustache of berry juice on his upper lip and wicked gleam in his eyes. I wasn’t comfortable with the story I gave them. If Michael showed up at Samuel’s house, I thought with trepidation, it must not be from the main road into town. Whatever his intentions for running away in the first place, he must return, as I claimed, through our backyard. It appeared very much to me that Simon, if no one else, was not fooled by my story.
The punch swished tastelessly in my mouth. What I really needed to numb my brain was some of Papa’s wine.
“Are you all right?” Uriah reached out to touch my head. “You’re sweating an awful lot.”
“I’m all right now,” I mumbled. “Please don’t fuss over me.”
“He’s lazy,” grumbled Joseph. “He’ll do anything to get out of work.”
“No, he’s worried about Michael.” Simon gave me a crafty look. “He couldn’t catch him. Michael runs really fast.”
“Where’s Michael?” Uriah blinked stupidly. “I thought he was at Samuel’s.”
“Is that really why you were in the backyard?” James eyes flickered with suspicion. “You told us you were going to the cloaca. Why didn’t you holler when you saw him run past?”
My heart hammered loudly in my chest, and I was very close to tears. It was a wonder I didn’t faint dead away, as I had before. “It happened so fast,” the words poured out deliriously then. “I thought I was imagining it.”—another half-truth, since I had, in fact, made up the whole story.
“This is very strange, very strange indeed.” Papa shook his head again.
“I don’t understand.” Mama’s voice came next. “He was safe at Samuel’s house. Why would that boy he run away?”
“Because he’s Michael,” concluded Simon. “Who knows what goes on in his head.”
“Did he tell you anything?” Papa knelt down to look squarely into my eyes. “Was he unhappy about something. He seemed happy to be back. Michael was given a great opportunity at Rabbi Gamaliel’s school.”
Looking back, I still find it hard to believe that my parents were so naive. Jesus, I was certain, wasn’t fooled. He was just biding his time. Perhaps he was waiting for me to get it off my chest.... If that was the case, I thought light-headedly, he would be waiting a very long time.
“I dunno, Papa,” I shook my head jerkily. “I don’t know where Michael’s at. Perhaps he’s just taking a walk. Maybe he’s out there wandering in the hills like Jesus once did.”
It sounded so stupid that Joseph and Simon began giggling to themselves. James looked at me with disgust, uttering a sour laugh. With the greatest relief, I realized that their dislike for Michael and knowledge of my antics blinded them to my subterfuge. Lately, with school and my concern for my treasure, it was not unusual for me to shirk my work. For that matter, it didn’t seem so unlikely that I would go after my old friend or feel remorse that he was gone, even though this wasn’t true. I had run madly toward the hills, but it was to check on my treasure, now gone. If I felt any remorse if was for the loss of my gold. The notion grew in my crowded mind those moments that Michael had stolen my treasure. That lowly jackal was even smarter than I had thought. It had to be him. I can’t imagine Obadiah, Jethro, or Boaz daring to trespass after the warning given to them by Falco and Priam, not to mention Jesus’ threats. Who else could have emptied my pot of gold? Miserable though I was, unless Jesus spoke up, I was safe. As far as Joseph was concerned, I was a shirker. James was upset because I had let Uriah make another mess. But no one could deny that Michael had not run off. I had, most of them believed, been looking for my friend. I think Mama was hurt that Michael ran away again, but I was certain that Papa felt a measure of relief and James, Joseph, and Simon were grateful that he was gone. Uriah, in his innocence, could care less about Michael either way and seemed to be worried about my state of mind. In their own different ways, as I understood it, Uriah and Simon remained loyal to me, not knowing about the dark secret in my mind. Tabitha and the twins tittered foolishly, with no opinions themselves, running freely into the backyard with no thought for treasure or gold.
Early that afternoon, during John’s visit, our cousin expressed surprise about Michael’s flight. Bartholomew, he informed us, had been talking to Michael in the garden. Both of them became mute when he called to them, and, after a cordial exchange from Bartholomew, bid him goodnight.
“What an odd thing to do,” he commented innocently. “It was as if they had something to hide.”
“Samuel has many odd relatives,” Papa chortled in his beard. “Who knows the mind of youth.”
It was obvious to us that John was curious to know more about this strange man, but the less our cousin knew about Bartholomew, the better. Papa’s untruth would remain the official reason for the unidentified man being in Samuel’s house. Michael was no longer our problem. At least this is what we thought. Hopefully, Bartholomew would stay put and not sneak off like Michael without saying goodbye.
I wept alone that night, unable to tell members of my family what was wrong. When I awakened the next morning, I would make several feeble attempts to come clean with Jesus, but I would fail. The great irony for me was that, for a long time after Michael’s flight, the one person that knew of my greed and deceit, treated me as if nothing had changed whatsoever, and James and Joseph distrusted me even more. There was, they believed, something not right about my story. It didn’t matter that they hated Michael. I swore to my parents, with a clear conscience this time, that I knew nothing of Michael’s plans and would have told them if I knew he was going to flee, and yet neither of them understood how Michael could have slipped away unseen and unheard by the Romans, townsmen, and anyone else except me.