A Widow’s Secret
In Nazareth’s synagogue school, Jesus, James, Joseph, and Simon had tried to make friends with boys their own age. Because of the rumors spreading throughout Nazareth about Jesus, there were only a few boys willing to associate now with any of Joseph bar Jacob’s sons. I made friends with other outcasts such as myself, which included Uriah, the rabbi’s son and Nehemiah, a new boy, who, because his parents were both dead, was living with his aunt. Michael, the fourth to join our small gang, didn’t attend school, unless he felt like it. He would, I was certain, have offended the pious Jesus and certainly my mother, for he claimed to be the son of Mariah, the strange woman on the outskirts of town. I heard Papa tell Rabbi Joachim that Mariah’s husband had made a small fortune before he died, but many townsmen believed that she had made her money as a prostitute. Many townsfolk also thought Mariah was a witch. I was still not completely clear on what a prostitute was back then. Since I had such a weird older brother and my own mother appeared to have a shady past, herself, being a witch did not impress me very much. I liked Michael a lot. He was my age and a rebel just like me. When I realized that the Mariah Papa spoke of was, in fact, Michael’s mother, my fondness for this strange boy actually grew.
We were—my gang and I—a motley group of diverse personalities. Not only had I befriended the rabbi’s son and the nephew of a rich, crazy aunt, but my newest friend Michael’s mother might be a prostitute or a witch.
On this day, only a short while after Jesus discovered his new powers, I would find that I had powers too. They were, though I didn’t have a name for them then, called “social powers.” One day, which I record reverently in my journal, I became a follower of Jesus, but on this day three Nazarene boys had become my following. Most importantly, I found a spirit in Michael to match my own. I didn’t need James and John’s approval. My father, who would want me to make my own friends, would be proud that the members of my gang included the rabbi’s son. I knew that he would accept Michael too if that story about his mother was cleared up. Like Papa, I gave Michael’s mother the benefit of the doubt.…Unfortunately, Michael’s own actions made me doubt her even more.
After synagogue school one day, Papa, who saw my friends waiting patiently for me in the garden, frowned yet gave me that familiar nod, as if to say “All right, little Jude, if you must, go and play.” Mother was baking bread that moment. My brothers had begun their chores, while Jesus was wondering dreamily in the hills. Everything had changed after Jesus’ revelations. Because of his worsening moods, my family was, I sensed vaguely, suffering a crisis. Everyone had to carry on and complete their chores, except Jesus. Now, having fed the goat and picked a few weeds, I could romp and play with my friends!
My new friends were called by Papa “Jude’s Gang,” which I felt gave me status among James and Joseph, who had found few friends in town. Simon sometimes tagged along with our older brothers and occasionally joined me in games with my friends. Jesus, who seemed to be in a different world, had no friends at all, except, as James suggested, the invisible angels he talked to in the hills. After the day he discovered his powers, he roamed the hills in a daze, sometimes walking in plain view in our yard. Although we knew he was praying, it looked to many onlookers like he was talking to himself. This embarrassed my parents very much. Papa tried keeping him busy, but he would lapse into periods of reflection and wander away, reappearing in the orchard, hills or near our house. The boys in town, who once made fun of Jesus in the synagogue, became fearful of this strange youth. To impress my brothers, I had made fun of Jesus at times, but I didn’t want my friends making fun of him too. Michael had a strange, reclusive mother and was quite peculiar, himself. If anything, he was curious to find out more about Jesus “magic.” Uriah, however, had been influenced by his father, Rabbi Joachim, who had begun voicing concerns in the synagogue about the rumor that Jesus had resurrected a dead bird. He feared that Jesus was dabbling in blasphemy and heresy. Nehemiah’s Aunt Deborah had gone one step further in telling everyone that Jesus’ power came from Beelzebub, not God. It was obvious to me that two of my friends had misgivings about Jesus, but most townsfolk who heard about Jesus thought he was a harmless eccentric, addled in the head.
The knowledge I carried from that special day told me differently.
Today, as Michael, Nehemiah, Uriah, and I romped in the hills, we saw Jesus walking alone down the Shepherd’s Trail. A favorite game that James, Joseph, Simon, and I played was spying on the shepherds as they sheered their sheep or gathered around a communal fire. This time my friends wanted to spy on Jesus, which I considered quite boring since my brothers and I had done this so many times before. Uriah and Nehemiah wanted to find out if it was true that Jesus was a blasphemer and heretic. Michael was concerned about Jesus magical powers. I was warned by my father not to tease Jesus anymore, which is why I didn’t want my friends to bother Jesus during his sessions with God.
We peeked through a pomegranate bush, whispering back and forth as he stopped and knelt down by a flat stone.
Uriah wrinkled his pudgy nose. “Who’s he talking to? He must be touched in the head.”
“You’re really stupid if you don’t know what my brother’s doing!” my voice shrilled into his ear.
“That tickled,” Uriah broke into giggles.
“He’s praying, of course,” murmured Nehemiah. “The question is ‘to whom?’”
“To God, of course,” I looked at Nehemiah in disbelief. “Your Aunt Deborah’s the one who’s addled in the head!”
“That’s true,” Uriah nodded with a grin. “Papa thinks she’s crazy as a loon.”
“Well, my mother talks to herself,” Michael said almost to himself. “She could be talking to ghosts. Sometimes she awakens screaming in the night.”
“Shut up—all of you!” I whispered angrily. “Leave Jesus alone!”
Turning away in disgust, I listened to their murmurs a few moments longer as Jesus knelt in a prayerful position by the rock. Michael whispered something to Uriah and Nehemiah that I couldn’t hear, which caused all three of them to laugh. While the others had merely been voicing the prejudices of their elders, he was making fun of Jesus. He had been hoping that Jesus was a sorcerer, as his mother was rumored to be, with magical, not supernatural, powers. I was swept with anger then sudden pity and shame for my actions against Jesus in the past. Why did I resent him so much? Was it jealousy because he rarely had to work like the rest of us? Was I annoyed by his piety and high-handed airs? What excuse did I have for shunning him? He had never done anyone any harm. Because of his strange ways, he had no friends, not even among his own brothers, and yet people had begun to look at him with fear and awe.
Something had begun to both change and awaken inside me. I was moved by Jesus’ steadfast piety. It was becoming increasingly difficult to reject the truth.
“Come,” I whispered irritably, “Jesus will see us walking down the path and think we’re spying on him. Let’s not waste any more time playing silly games.”
As we slipped up the path leading to my home, Nehemiah asked discreetly “what shall we do now?”
“. . . I have an idea,” I answered after a long pause.
“Shall we go into town?” asked Uriah.
“No,” I said, glancing back at Michael, who had offended me the most. “I have a better place in mind.”
I had decided upon the perfect adventure. We were all going to meet Mariah, the town witch! I scampered off, without a second thought, staying several paces ahead of my friends and singing an off-key tune. After leading them up Nazareth’s northern path, it became apparent to everyone where we were going this time. Uriah and Nehemiah understood immediately. Though they would soon have misgivings, they followed me eagerly at first, muttering excitedly amongst themselves.
“No, Jude,” Michael shook his head gravely, “this is not a good idea. My mother doesn’t like surprises. She will not talk to you unless,” he struggled with the words, “you warn her in advance.”
“Why do we have to do that?” Nehemiah snarled. “Does she have something to hide?”
“No, that’s not it,” he answered lamely, “my mother isn’t well.”
“Is it contagious?” Uriah sneered. “She never goes anywhere. How could she be sick?”
Uriah, who was more educated than the rest of us, was already ten years old. I didn’t understand what the word contagious meant, but the rabbi had made him suspicious of Mariah. We continued to badger Michael about going to visit his mother, until he flew into a rage, which was aimed especially at me since it had been my idea.
“Why is it important that you meet my mother?” he shouted at me. “I thought you didn’t care about what everyone says!”
“I don’t care,” I reasoned lamely. “Uriah, whose father is our rabbi, cares. Nehemiah, whose rich aunt has offered to pay for the repairs on the synagogue, cares.”
“No one likes my mother,” Michael’s puckered his lip.
“Nah, that’s not true.” Uriah grinned. “No one knows your mother. She never comes out of her house.”
Uriah had made his point. Michael nodded glumly, a frown contorting his face. Mariah’s solitary life had created only gossip in town. He was ashamed of the rumors. As he studied our leering faces, Uriah, Nehemiah, and I looked with embarrassment at the ground. We were not by nature, mean-spirited, just curious. Although no one had actually met Mariah, I remember hearing the stories about the red-haired woman on the hill. If she had come down to the market place, herself, instead of having Michael do all her shopping, we could have gotten to know her. Sometimes, merchants (or so Papa said), would bring goods to her villa, which turned mere gossip into vicious slander. All this I had heard Papa say, but I wondered just how many of these stories Michael had actually heard. There were even stories about him—an incorrigible child, being kept in the care of a witch. I knew about, but had never seen, Michael’s pranks on other children and petty acts of vandalism in town. Hearing these tales from townsmen and occasionally eavesdropping on my parent’s conversation at night had stirred my imagination, but I wanted to give Michael and his mother the benefit of the doubt. Had Michael, who spent the times he was not with his new friends hidden away in his mother’s house, heard the awful rumors about his mother and himself? What if the rumors about his mother and he were true? While we lapsed into silence, trying to think of a good reason for Michael taking us to his house, we continued to walk toward the north end of town, which is where Mariah lived.
“It doesn’t matter what people say.” I patted his slumping shoulders. “We like you, Michael. You’re one of us—our friend!”
Michael’s eyes flashed with anger, as we coaxed him on. “Nazareth shuns me.” “I am,” he searched for words, “….like my mother, not welcome in this town.”
“You visited my house,” chirped Uriah. “We ate a slice of my mother’s cake.”
“And mine too,” nodded Nehemiah pertly. “I introduced you to my aunt.”
“Hah, your aunt wouldn’t talk to me,” he spat bitterly. “Uriah’s mother wasn’t even home.” “And, Jude!” he pointed accusingly. “I’ve never been to yours!”
“All right,” I held out my hands, “I’m sorry Michael. I promise that when you visit our home, you’ll eat dinner with us and my whole family will be there to meet you.”
“No, no,” Michael shook his head vigorously, “your preacher brother and that snooty mother of yours wouldn’t allow that!”
I bristled at his words. Jesus might be strange but I had never seen him act judgmental, and I had never considered my gentle mother to be a snob. I wanted to ask him where he had heard such slander. Evidently there were rumors about my family members too. Just when I was ready to take issue with my temperamental friend, however, as we approached the north end of town, Michael slowed down and almost stopped. Our encouragements, which were self-serving, had only put his back against the wall. He knew very well what his status was in Nazareth. He was (a word I would learn much later) a delinquent youth. His mother, from everything I heard, was considered to be much worse. It was only natural that he didn’t want us to go inside his house to meet her. The look on his face told us this. Suddenly, Michael took to his heels and ran off into the hills. Since I was the swiftest, as will as the smartest, I ran ahead of the other two, hoping to have a conversation with Michael that Uriah and Nehemiah wouldn’t hear.
“Stop Michael,” I called, out of breath, “we’re sorry we upset you. We don’t have to go over there today. I just want to clear this up about you mother. The truth is, Michael, I really want you to meet my folks.”
At this point, the other two boys were still panting and puffing up the hill but I knew I’d have to talk fast. Neither Uriah nor Nehemiah understood this strange boy as I thought I did.
“What’s wrong with him now?” Uriah shouted hoarsely. “What’s he got to hide?”
“Listen, Michael,” I spoke quickly, “all you have to do is bring her out to wave at us, maybe have her say few words. Uriah’s father told him bad things about your mother. Nehemiah’s aunt thinks the same way. Just show us, so we can tell them, that she’s like everyone else, not a bad woman or a witch.”
I wasn’t sure if I had said the right things. By now, scrawny little Nehemiah and portly Uriah were in earshot. Nehemiah was quite upset, but was muttering only to himself. Uriah, who had been furious, collapsed in a fat ball on the side of the trail.
“Don’t ask me to take you there,” Michael whispered, pleading with his eyes. “They won’t understand. You understand Jude, because your family’s strange too, but not them. I don’t know what kind of mood my mother’s in!”
“All right. Stop shaking me.” I extricated myself from his grasp.
“Hey,” Nehemiah cried challengingly, “if you’re mother isn’t a witch, let us see her. Bring her out to us!”
“Yeah,” Uriah groaned, “my Papa thinks your mother’s a whore!”
That was all it took. It was all I could do to stop Michael from running over and kicking the sprawled Uriah to death. He charged the little fat boy, with his fists clinched, nostrils flaring, and face reddened with rage. Uriah cowered in a fetal position on the ground. After encircling Michael with my arms and attempting with great difficulty to hold him at bay, I brought him down onto the ground. Nehemiah, though the smallest of us, finally jumped in to help me, reached down daintily in a token gesture, but was quite ineffectual as Michael fought my hold on the ground.
“Let go of me! So help me, I’ll whoop you too!” he demanded, thrashing about.
“Thanks for nothing, Nehemiah,” I said through clinched teeth as I wrestled with Michael. “Uriah, you outweigh the rest of us, come here and give me a hand!”
“No,” Uriah said, rising up shakily and dusting himself off. “I’m going to tell Papa that Michael’s possessed!”
This made Michael thrash that much more, but I knew he would not hurt me, so I relaxed my grip, which was a mistake because Michael broke loose, rolled over onto the path and came at Uriah again.
“Take it back, you rancid vat of pork,” he cried, pummeling Uriah with his fists.
“Papa! Papa! Papa!” shrieked Uriah.
Suddenly my newfound gang was falling apart. Before Michael had seriously injured Uriah, I wedged in between them and stretched out both arms. A stream of obscenities against Uriah’s own parentage then flowed out of Michael’s mouth. Already Uriah was weeping copiously as Nehemiah joined my blockade, a look of disbelief on his freckled face. It had seemed important to me that we clear up the mystery about Michael’s mother, but I wasn’t so sure now. Judging by Michael’s behavior, he definitely had something to hide. What if Mariah was, in deed, a prostitute? What if I talked him into taking us to his house and his mother turned out to be witch?
Once again, within the space of a few moments, I was forced to save Uriah from Michael’s fists. I was certain that Michael wanted to kill Uriah for what he said, and yet Uriah had merely spoken aloud what was on everyone’s mind. I was thankful that he began attacking Uriah with words instead of actions, but, in insulting Uriah’s mother and sister, Michael had crossed the same line Uriah had crossed and had, in fact, done him one better.
“Stop that, you don’t mean that,” I said, motioning to him for silence, “Uriah’s our friend. I know he shouldn’t have said what he did, but what you’ve said is far worse.”
This line of reasoning stopped Michael’s fist from clenching, but he still had murder in his eyes. Uriah stared at Michael with slack jaws, horrified by his words.
“There, that’s better,” I said, looking back at Uriah. “He’s been a good friend to us Michael. Because he’s the Rabbi’s son, we are protected from many of the big kids in town. Do you remember how he bought us all sweat meats at the baker’s shop?”
“That’s true, Michael,” Nehemiah patted his arm gently “honey buns and fruit-filled rolls.”
“Yes, I remember,” admitted Michael.
Michael nodded faintly, his memory stirred. The rabbi had been so happy that Uriah made some friends, he gave him money to spend after school. One day we ate so many pastries we all had bellyaches, and Nehemiah was violently sick. Yet this recollection did little to stop Michael from staring at Uriah with murder in his eyes. Though I couldn’t put it into words then, I was beginning see something dark in my new friend: a rancor, vindictiveness, and unwillingness to see reason. Nehemiah and I exchanged worried looks. Uriah, however, on his own initiative, stepped forward and disarmed Michael with two simple words.
“I-I’m sorry,” he said, hiccupping and wiping his bloodshot eyes.
“You’re sorry?” Nehemiah flashed Michael a disgusted look.
“Michael, aren’t you sorry for what you said.” I gave him a nudge.
“Come on Michael,” frowned Nehemiah, “what you said about him was worse.”
I couldn’t believe Uriah would really forgive him for calling him a bastard and his mother and sister all those other names, when he had only said Michael’s mother was a whore. And yet, to my disappointment, Michael would not shake Uriah’s hand nor return an apology. His eyes smoldered with rage, his lips quivered and nostrils flared. My misgivings about his unforgiving nature deepened. What he did instead of accepting Uriah’s apology appeared to make up for it, though it didn’t seem like it at first, as he led us up the trail. At first I felt disappointment that he was such poor sport, until I realized where we were going. I looked back at Uriah and Nehemiah as Michael forged ahead, a popeyed expression on my face. I felt sorry for Uriah, but not as sorry as I did for Michael, for he was leading us straight to his house. Soon, we were at the top of a hillock looking ahead at the old villa, which had once been owned by the rich merchant Jeremiah. Jeremiah, who had married the mysterious Mariah, or so the story my father heard goes, died and left the villa to Mariah and her son.
“You want to meet my mother?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder. “All right, come on!”
“No,” I shook my head, “we changed our minds!”
“Yes! Yes!” Uriah and Nehemiah chimed.
“All right, you must wait here a little while,” he said flatly without looking back.
“Very well, Michael,” my voice trembled, “if you insist. We’ll wait as long as you want.”
“I-I think I want to go home,” Uriah had a change of heart.
“Not me,” Nehemiah grinned foolishly, “…I bet she’s all painted up like one of those Greek whores.”
“I think she might be a witch,” Uriah’s face was turning ghastly pale.
This time Michael, who hurried up the path, had not heard the slander. I found Uriah’s change of mind irritating, though my own heart hammered loudly in my chest. For Michael’s sake, I had almost changed my mind, but it was too late. After nearly an hour, in which all three of us relieved ourselves in the bushes and Uriah, always a nose for food, found some wild berries on the hill, we saw Michael emerge from the gate of his mother’s villa and walk slowly back down the path.
“Come, come,” he called, motioning for us to follow him up to his house.
“No, no,” Uriah whimpered, “we could all be murdered. I wanna go home!”
“Yes, Jude, it’s true” nodded Nehemiah impishly, “I bit she’s a cannibal, who feeds on little children caught snooping around her house.”
“Nehemiah,” I said, cuffing him lightly, “you made that up. Tell Uriah that you’re joking.”
“It’s-It’s possible,” Uriah sputtered. “The ancient ones who lived in Galilee offered their children in sacrifice. Their priests burned them up to their gods. My father told me this. What if Mariah practices the old religion. What if she’s waiting with a big club and as soon as we enter bam! –we wind up in the pot?”
Uriah was spooked, but Nehemiah and I tried not to be afraid. I think Nehemiah was much more excited about meeting Michael’s mother than me. I just wanted my new friendships to last. They had almost been destroyed today. For several moments, as Michael waited inside the villa, Nehemiah and I pleaded with Uriah. When he refused to budge, we threatened to leave him behind. He thought about this a moment, looked sadly down the path, then followed us meekly up the hill.
Mariah’s house was built in the Roman manner. Like many of the villas I saw in my travels, it had a familiar floor plan. Unlike the open, pill-mill fashion of Galilean homes, there was a sturdy wall shielding the house from the outside world. Inside the enclosure there were several different room, from simple living quarters to spacious gardens. Unfortunately, the original mansion Jeremiah built was in a state of disrepair. Because of the overgrowth of plants around the perimeter and an accumulation of vines on its walls, the normal, fortress-like appearance of the villa, had a sinister, uninviting appearance. After passing through an entrance hall filled with brush and debris blown in with the wind, we entered the atrium, an open area in the center of the villa that looked as if it had not been attended for years. Vines, untrimmed bushes, and waste-high weeds grew everywhere, and the central fountain, if it could be called such, was covered with a dark green slime. The pagan statuary stationed in the yard bothered us very much. We had never seen statues of naked people. They were covered with mold and slime, which made them frightening and unattractive. One of the statues perched in the center of the fountain had bird droppings dripping over his black face. Shafts of light, streaming with motes, highlighted patches of murals in the background: scenes, of frolicking boys and girls, following a half-man and half-goat creature playing an instrument I would later identify as Pan and his pipes. Such knowledge, of course, is hindsight. My child-like mind didn’t understand the architecture of Roman villas, but it knew when it was confronted with pagan gods. What was all this doing in a Jewish widow’s home?
“This is not a good,” I whispered to myself. “I think we’re making a big mistake.”
Michael whistled shrilly, startling us out of our wits. Cringing fearfully behind us, Uriah whimpered faintly. The sudden shuffling of sandals caused Nehemiah and I to freeze in our tracks. While Uriah expected a witch to swoop down upon us, I was certain that Nehemiah, whose hopes had fallen considerably after entering the garden, still expected a beautiful, painted woman to appear. Frankly, as I watched the darkly clad and veiled figure approach, I was half convinced that Uriah might be correct, until she dropped the veil, which was actually a hood, and I beheld the face of Michael’s mother at last. She was, in deed painted up, as I had feared and Nehemiah hoped, and this might have made her seem like a whore. Yet she was beautiful, I reasoned; where not witches suppose to be ugly crones? Looking back over the years, however, I realize that my first impressions of Mariah, though influenced by what I had heard, were partially correct. Nevertheless this creature, who was, I marveled, Michael’s mother, had a gentle smile. The resemblance was obvious: both mother and son had red hair, milky white skin, and green eyes. There were no warts on Mariah’s lovely nose nor was there a cast in either of her almond-shaped eyes. Upon first glance, I was not certain if she was a prostitute or, for that matter, a witch, but I wanted to believe that we had nothing to fear. I had not even considered that Mariah might also be touched in the head. In spite of its apparent dangers, I wondered, as I glanced around these unhallowed grounds, whether or not this might prove to be a great adventure in our sheltered lives.
I was both terrified and excited. Here we were, Jude’s gang, finally in the mysterious Mariah’s house. What a place! If she wasn’t a witch, she was certainly a heretic, but, by the rabbi’s standards, so was Jesus. We hadn’t been murdered, as Uriah feared or intimidated by what Nehemiah hoped was a prostitute or whore, and yet, despite my calmness and attempts to show no fear, I sensed that Mariah was both a witch and woman of ill repute. It was merely a matter of time before we found out. There was far too much makeup on her face. She wore too much perfume for a matronly woman, and, when she invited us into her house I could smell all manner of herb and smelly condiment, which I imagined were used in sorcery and the black arts. The pagan statuary and murals were, in themselves, enough to condemn her in the eyes of townsfolk. Though my knowledge of these matters was limited to what I overheard from Papa and his customers in his shop, I knew enough to suspect more than heresy. I didn’t want to believe it, but everything around me cried witchcraft! Because of my father’s exposure to clients from all over Galilee, I was more worldly than my friends. Uriah knew more about the Torah than me and Nehemiah seemed to have a scholarly mind, but I had this uncanny ability to get to the “guts” of things, as Simon would tell me one day. Not having a wide vocabulary yet, I had no special name for this instinct; I simply knew it was there, buried deep inside when I needed it. Today my instinct was banging like a gong in my chest.
“Come my little children,” she purred, disappearing from the room, “let me get you something yummy to eat.”
“I-I’m not eating in this place,” said Uriah, shrinking away toward the door.
“Uriah, you’re being rude.” I reached out and grabbed his sleeve. “Mariah is offering us lunch.” “…. Michael,” I murmured through the corner of my mouth, “it’s not something nasty, is it, like toadstools, snails or bugs?”
Michael looked at me in disbelief.
“He’s a witch too!” Uriah wouldn’t budge.
“Come on, you coward,” coaxed Nehemiah, pulling his other sleeve.
Nehemiah showed a brave front at first. Michael led us like trusting lambs down a dark corridor, into a burst of garden light, passed a tangle of overgrown or dead-in-the-pot palms and bushes into a large garden whose ceiling, like the atrium, allowed sunlight to stream down onto patches of ground. For some reason, however, we were led to the most shadowy portion of the garden, an area surrounded by large empty pots painted with garish symbols and designs. When Michael disappeared into the shadows, my original impression of this dark mansion worsened. My excited rush, which had been spoiled by misgivings, was turning into a sickening dread.
“Michael, where are you?” I called out fearfully.
“Yes, Michael, we’re not amused!” Nehemiah’s eager look faded fast from his freckled face.
Uriah was making squeaking noises, too terrified talk.
Michael returned with a large platter that he carried like a village maid on his head. I laughed hysterically, I’m not sure why. Nehemiah merely smiled mutely, while Uriah stood there wide-eyed, with gaping mouth, frozen as a statue in place.
We felt trapped in the den of a witch. We stood in a shadowy corner, in the only sector of the garden not touched by the sun. Michael placed the tray on a short table that was surrounded by several cushions, obviously the spot we would eat our lunch, then went to fetch something else.
“What is this?” I asked bluntly, as he scurried past. “Why are we in the shadows? Can we have some light?”
Michael returned with a second tray holding a pitcher and four cups, which he carried on his arms this time. He set these items down and left the room again, this time I hoped for a light. Bringing a lit lantern into the room and hanging it on a hook, he motioned for us to sit down, which we managed to do in spite of our fears.
Uriah studied the platter gravely until a look of recognition came over his chubby face.
“Cheeses, breads and sweat meats,” he clasped his fat little hands in delight. “What’re those little brown and speckled things?”
“They’re candied dates.” Michael looked at him with amusement.
“Candied dates?” Uriah made a face.
“Try one, it won’t poison you,” coaxed Michael, sampling the platter, himself.
After Michael had taken small portions of almost all the entries on his plate and devoured them at random in front of our eyes, we quickly followed suit. We stuffed ourselves on the candied dates first, since they were foreign to us. I did not normally care that much for cheese, but Mariah had sent out exotic cheeses from Jerusalem and Alexandria that had nuts around the edges and were flavored with all manner of spice. The fruit juice that Michael had brought us tasted like pomegranates but was mixed with wine. We had never drunk wine before and were soon slightly intoxicated by the drink. Since wine, as my father once noted, increased one’s appetite, we were soon, in addition to getting intoxicated, gorging ourselves on everything in sight.
“Where’s your mother?” I asked through a mouthful of cheese. “How come she’s not eating too?”
“My mother’s busy,” Michael looked up lazily from his plate. “She’ll come out later with presents. It’s the custom of our house.”
“Presents?” Nehemiah frowned, munching on a fig. “What kind of custom is this?”
Why would she be giving us presents? I wanted to ask Michael now. Nehemiah seemed to be suspicious too. Uriah, however, was in glutton’s heaven as he rolled this prospect over in his mind.
“Oh goodie-goodie,” he rubbed his greasy hands, “. . . toys, you think? Yum-yum, maybe something to take home to eat!”
Nehemiah and I exchanged worried looks. A dreadful thought entered my head, causing me to lose my appetite and look with horror at my plate. What if Mariah really was a witch? Perhaps Nehemiah’s jest about Mariah being a cannibal was true and she was merely fattening us up. What if, in spite of Michael sampling the platter, the food was drugged…or, worse, poisoned, a slow poison that would not show up for several days? Michael could have known which portions were safe to eat. Nehemiah was having seconds thoughts too. He had a caged look, as he glanced around the room. But Uriah belched loudly, took a long swig from his cup, and sat there staring happily into space.
“Michael, I must know, where’s your mother?” I asked, rising shakily up to my feet.
“She’s busy,” repeated Michael, looking up with irritation this time.
Nehemiah had followed my example. He was terrified as he stood by my side, but unlike Uriah’s performance earlier, I could see no fear in his eyes. Uriah was quite bloated and had drank much more wine punch than us, so he reacted in slow motion to the crisis. So boldly now, after deliberating a moment more, I took matters into my own hands and motioned for the others to follow me out of the room.
“We’re going home,” I said with finality.
“Yes,” Nehemiah said in a croaking voice, “my Auntie wants me home before dusk.”
“But you haven’t received your presents,” Michael said, giving me a wounded look. “I thought you were going to trust me, Jude.” “Please,” he begged all of us now, “wait for your presents. Mama always gives presents to my friends.”
“Yeah,” Uriah uttered with slurred speech. “I wan my preshents—now!”
Uriah appeared to be quite drunk. This was just as well since it kept him in a calm state, but I was worried about that point when we dropped him off at his home. What would Rabbi Joachim say? What would my father say if he smelled wine on my breath? I was very angry with Michael for placing us in this predicament, and yet we had no one to blame but ourselves. We had begged him to see his mother and his house and now here he was begging us to stay. What convinced me that we should make our exit was the sudden appearance of his mother again, this time carrying a large black sack.
“It’s a witches sack!” cried Nehemiah.
“I wan my preshent,” said Uriah again, reaching out with both hands.
Michael, who had been on the verge of crying, brightened at this sight. “See, I told you she would bring presents!” He smiled at me.
I loved my newfound friends. I felt responsible for what was happening in this room. On the one hand, I didn’t want to crush Michael’s feelings, but on the other hand, I feared for Uriah, Nehemiah, and my own safety. What decided the issue, at least temporarily, was the point when Mariah began removing articles from the large black sack. We could scarcely believe our eyes as she presented me with a splendid dagger, with an ivory handle and curved blade, followed by a silken robe for Nehemiah, and a huge pottery jar of candied dates for Uriah. Though Nehemiah made a face at the effeminate looking robe, he politely told Mariah that he would present it as a gift to his aunt in the hope that such a treasure would dull her anger when he arrived home. My dagger, however, which was sharp and deadly looking, I was certain would not dull my parent’s anger at me if they knew where I had just been. Uriah, the happiest recipient of Mariah’s bag of gifts, was drunk on wine. I shuddered at the thought of what Rabbi Joachim would do when he smelled his son’s breath and learned that he had been in Mariah’s home.
As Mariah sat down at the marble table on which our food sat, we had to scrunch together to make room. I felt a delicious naughtiness for my thoughts as her lovely frame brushed next to mine. Guilt for my foolishness and lingering fear crept back into my mind, as spearmint revives an unconscious man. My father used this herb on my mother when she fainted during our visit to Jerusalem after discovering Jesus missing in the caravan heading out of the gate. As my head filled with conflicting thoughts, I did not feel faint and yet I felt dizzy after drinking the wine. Though I was not yet nine years old, I was also stirred by this woman. I didn’t quite understand this feeling. The words hypnotize or spellbound would not have occurred to me then. Nehemiah, who made sure he was on the other side of Mariah, looked around her back at me, with such a popeyed look on his freckled face I wasn’t sure whether it was fear or desire. These moments, which we shared, seemed unbelievable considering our sheltered lives.
Mariah began talking strangely to us then, her jade eyes sparkling as her small, painted mouth moved jerkily around each word. We had to cup our ears, at first, to hear her, but it took only a few moments for Nehemiah and I to wonder whether or not Mariah was, herself, drunk on wine. Michael sat quietly next to me. When I whispered this suspicion into his ear he whispered back, with tears in his eyes, “…no, my mother’s mad.” Knowing the other meaning for this word, I shook my head but kept my suspicions to myself.
To our surprise, Mariah stood up suddenly and fled the room. Even in my own fuzzy state of mind, I thought I knew what was wrong. Mariah might be crazy, but I had smelled her breath and believed she was also quite drunk. Perhaps this is why no one saw her in town. One of my uncles died from drinking unwatered wine. Before he died, he went totally mad. It was one of those family secrets we kept to ourselves. The other secrets, which my brothers and I had learned only recently, seemed to me to be far worse than Michael’s. My oldest brother, who was adopted, thought he was the Son of God. I cannot write down what I suspected of my mother. After all the rumors of witchcraft and ill-repute, it turned out that Michael’s mother was merely drunk and a little touched in the head. . . Or so I thought.
“Does she do this all the time?” I murmured in Michael’s ear. “This has turned out all wrong. Your mother’s sick, Michael. We’re much to young to drink wine.”
“What? What? Where did she go?” sputtered Nehemiah, looking around the room.
“You don’t understand,” Michael said with dejection, “it’s not wine making my mother crazy. It’s her potions—the elixirs my father left in her care. They have driven her mad.”
“Whaz he talkin bout?” Uriah now gave us a slack-jawed look.
“. . . They’re things she uses in her craft,” Michael explained delicately. “. . . My father sold it to townsmen. No one knows about it. Powders for headaches, potions so that husband can please their wives. You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t,” I confessed, “and neither does Uriah and Nehemiah. We’re only children, Michael. What did you mean when you said she uses it for her craft. What craft is that?”
“I doan feel so good,” murmured Uriah.
“You ate and drank like a pig,” Nehemiah sneered, as Mariah re-entered the room.
“What craft, Michael?” I jerked his sleeve anxiously.
This time, as she appeared under a shaft of light through the rafters of the atrium, Michael’s mother seemed to be dressed like a dancing girl. I had seen such a woman in Sepphoris when our family visited my Aunt Elizabeth in that town. This sight had been burned into my memory, resurfacing now in a blaze of scarlet silks, assorted bells, and tambourine music. Mariah’s carefree mood and flimsy attire momentarily canceled out our fears that she was a witch, but could not wipe away our misgivings about what was happening now.
“Mother, stop it!” Michael cried.
“Yes-yes, I saw something like this,” I mumbled excitedly. “Next door to my aunt’s house, at a wedding reception. Before my parents drug us from the balcony, the dancing woman had removed almost all of her veils.”
“You mean she’s gonna get naked?” Nehemiah squealed.
“Wait,” I snapped my fingers, “this is different. . . The dancer in Sepphoris was an Egyptian, dancing to drums and tambourines. Your mother’s just jumping around,” “. . . like she’s possessed.” I searched for the words. “She’s mumbling again. What’s she mumbling, Michael? It sounds like Hebrew, but all garbled up.”
“Oh, mother, you promised,” Michael wrung his hands. “Not in Nazareth. Not in front of my friends!”
And then it came into my head, as a bolt of lighting striking Mount Hebron. Michael had told us about his mother’s craft but failed to explain it. . . It must be witchcraft—what else?”
“Father Abraham,” I cried. “Mariah is a witch! What more proof do we need?”
“Huh?” Nehemiah’s mouth dropped.
“No, no, it’s not true,” Michael shook his head in despair. “It’s the roots and herbs she eats and the potion. . . Her minds not right anymore. Please don’t leave like this.”
Unfortunately, to make matters worse for us, Uriah became sick as Nehemiah and I attempted to exit the villa. Mariah now rushed forward, mumbling those strange words, grabbing my wrist, while Uriah heaved onto the marble floor. Later, Nehemiah would tell me that I screamed like a little girl, but all I cared about during that moment was that awful woman pulling me back into the garden, as Nehemiah and Uriah fled. Nehemiah stopped long enough to promise me that he would tell my father where I was. Down the dark corridor, through the atrium and out the entrance they flew. Michael had grabbed his mother’s arm and tried frantically to loosen her grip but was thrown aside by my captor.
Suddenly Mariah was speaking plainly to me in Aramaic. Her madness, if that’s what is was, had left her momentarily.
“Do not leave,” she implored, “I’m sorry I frightened you. Please let me show you something. . . and you will understand.”
“No, no,” I was now weeping, “Uriah’s right—you’re a witch! You’re going to torture me, put me in a pot, and eat me up!”
“No, Jude, it’s not true, it’s the medicine my mother takes for her illness,” shouted Michael.
“Medicine is a pretty word for it.” I continued to squirm.
“Mother, what is the word for father’s business, tell Jude, so he won’t go back and tell everyone your a witch or whore.”
“Apothecary,” the word rolled out her mouth.
“Never heard of it,” I wiped my eyes. “What is an a-poth-e-cary?”
“Someone who sells herbs and potions to make people well,” explained Michael. “When my father died he left all his medicine in a special room. After my brother and sisters died of the fever, my mother went crazy. When she drinks wine or eats the mushrooms or inhales the smoke of the rope, she’s calm. Until the last few months, she acted normal, but soon after I met my new friends God cursed us, and she worsened.”
Mariah’s grip had slackened as she listened to her son. I realized, as I studied her wide, unblinking eyes, and desperate voice, that Michael had been right all along. Mariah, though a drunk, was also sick. I remembered Papa talking about the fever that struck Nazareth and all of Galilee. I was shocked to hear that Michael lost his brothers and sisters too. How could I blame Mariah, if she was sick in the head?
“Make her let me go,” I looked pleadingly at him. “I will tell my parents what you told me, Michael. But make her let go of my wrist.”
“Mother, please,” Michael wrestled with her hand, “let go. Jude wants to go home.”
Abruptly, so typical of my uncle’s actions when we visited him in Sepphoris, Mariah backed away, fluttered her hands, then flew out of the room. As I reached out to my friend, a thought came into my head, but the words never came. I wanted to say “Michael, come home with me. Leave this dark place!” but I knew he would never abandon his mother. My fear of Mariah was now replaced by dread for her well-being. I was not worried about my own parents. They would not approve of how his mother behaved and would punish me for going to his house, but they would understand after I told them what Michael said. Because of wine, Uncle Ahab had acted strangely too. Of course I would not tell them about the medicine and Mariah’s “craft.” The fact that she had taken up her husband’s business of selling herbs and potions might be taken wrong. In my family chronicle, which I began after I left home, I wrote down words that I had no name for at the time, such as apothecary, herbs, and potions, but even back then, as a child, I knew exactly how all of this would be interpreted. The simple villagers of Nazareth and narrow-minded rabbi would think Mariah was either a witch or woman of ill repute. Had not the rabbi quoted the Torah during our class with “Suffer ye not a witch” and was it not the custom of my people to stone prostitutes and whores?