Dawn’s light, which we witnessed from our pallets, streamed unmercifully onto the floor as the door to the large room creaked open. A silhouette, we thought at first might be Papa, stood in the doorway. Upon closer inspection, it was too tall and much too brawny to be our father. As I studied the specter, I recalled the shadowy image that Jesus and I had both seen in the olive orchard, but remembered that it had hovered ghost-like over the ground. I heard James and Joseph whispering amongst themselves: “Is it Papa? Is it Ezra?” Who had entered unannounced into our home? Simon was the only one who had not awakened, and lie there peacefully, his hands still folded on his chest—a look of innocence belying his mischievous soul. Another troubling difference with the specter, that even the sleeping Simon noticed, causing his pudgy nose to twitch and eyes to open, was the dreadful smell of the tanner, whose clothes and beard reeked of hide scrapings and putrid blood.
The realization of who this man was, came finally to me—the most sickening revelation, as my thoughts raced back to those terrible moments in front of the rabbi’s house. “Where’s Papa?” Simon yelped. While the rest of us froze on our pallets, we saw Jesus’ face, again disembodied in the morning shadows. The door from the kitchen to the second room was shut, which meant that our parents, Mariah, and the twins were still asleep. Jesus must have been sitting at the wooden table, asleep, with his head resting on his folded arms as he so often did. My other brothers, Michael, and I lie wide-eyed and mouth agape with fear, as we watched him rise slowly to confront the intruder, who surveyed, with silent malevolence, the children in the room.
“What do you want Reuben?” Jesus voice carried a malice we had never heard.
“Where’s Mariah?” the big man shouted. “Bring her out to us or we shall burn your house too!”
“I warn you Reuben,” uttered Jesus, “you’re doing the devil’s work. The Lord shall smote evil doers!”
“You, a mere stripling, warn me?” Reuben laughed.
By now my parents had raced into the room to confront the trespasser. Papa had undoubtedly told Mariah to stay in the back room and keep silent.
“Mary, get my sword,” my father had said loud enough for all to hear, “the one passed down in my family for killing evil doers such as this.”
“You, Joseph, the carpenter, think I came alone?” Reuben called across the room. “Friends,” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, “tell our witch-loving, whore-mongering neighbor why we’re here!”
“Mariah!” came a chorus of men. “Give us Mariah!”
As mother returned obediently with Papa’s long, curved sword, the shadow remained silhouetted in the doorway, an ugly pitted face, with matted beard highlighted by the rising sun. Though he had probably never used this relic of his ancestors, Papa raised it up, shook it menacingly, its blade glinting in the light, then took, what looked like a warriors stance: feet apart, left arm hanging loose, and weapon arm angled for attack.
James and Joseph laughed hysterically. Simon, hiding in the corner, was trembling like a jackal, while Jesus looked as if he just might take matters into his own hands, muster up the power of the Almighty, and blast Reuben to dust.
“Kill him Papa! Chop his head off!” I blurted, not believing what I had just said.
Jesus, with folded arms, nodded with approval at me. “A man has the right to resist evil in his own house.”
“You want to cross blades with me, carpenter?” Reuben stuck out his jaw, “or is that halfwit going to put a hex on me? I’ve got blades for my craft that could skin you both in a flash.”
“Perhaps you do,” snarled Papa, brandishing his sword, “but they’re in that pest hole you call a shop. Leave my house at once or I’ll skewer you like a spring lamb!”
“Really?” Reuben grinned. “You’ll fight us all? There’s more of us coming, you know. Look out of your window and see the hopelessness in your defense of that fornicating witch.”
Papa began inching forward as Reuben held his ground. He looked back and frowned angrily at Jesus, as Jesus moved around to the other side of the room. Avoiding eye contact with Papa, Jesus stopped within the radius of the incoming light, close enough to spit on that awful man. The morning sun gave my oldest brother in his white tunic and cape an otherworldly glow, similar to what I saw last night. I was proud of Papa and Jesus for their bravery. I will never forget seeing Jesus, the “angel,” on one side and Papa, “the warrior,” on the other—each ready to fight evil in their own way, yet I was terrified that my brother and father would be torn to pieces by the mob. We could hear muted voices, as the other stoners considered the drama inside our house. The voices of Deborah and Ethan could be heard ranting in the distance. I followed Michael carefully over to the kitchen, flashing Jesus a worried look. I knew that Papa could send Reuben to Gahenna in one stroke, but Jesus was relying upon his authority with God, which would require another miracle. Had not Uriah, Nehemiah, and I been told in school by Rabbi Joachim “thou shalt not tempt the Lord” and “vengeance is mind sayeth the Lord”? In our garden, trampling my mothers vegetables and herbs and spilling out into the road, loitered a multitude of townsfolk, who had been worked up into stoning fever by Ethan and Deborah, the crone. They had sent their biggest and ugliest associate in to frighten us into giving up Mariah and were waiting for us to cast her out of our house.
Though Papa and Jesus held their ground, it was hardly a stalemate. Papa, we knew, was not a warrior, but Reuben would not dare try anything with his sword pointed at his belly. We needed another miracle. As I looked over expectantly at Jesus, Reuben glanced over his shoulder at the mob, calling in a singsong voice “Listen friends, Joseph’s not listening. I need help in here!”
After stepping on a stool by the window, I became an eyewitness to an incredible pageant in our front yard. I could see only a handful of townsmen actually holding stones—rocks my mother had placed around her plants. All of them were ankle deep in mud. James believed that most of Mariah’s tormentors were spectators. This was probably true yesterday when a group of them broke into the villa and later set it afire.
More timid than Reuben, Josiah and Asa, among the first townsmen to holler “stone her!”, stepped forward a few paces but halted at the threshold of the door. Perhaps they were afraid of the “mad swordsman” inside the house. More likely, I thought, as I peeked over the sill, many of them, as Joseph feared, were just biding their time before rushing in and dragging our guest out.
What were they waiting for? Why did they hesitate so long in our garden and on the nearby road? I saw people arriving I hadn’t before in Nazareth, and yet most of them, like James said, were gawking at our house like spectators at a parade.
At this point, I did something I didn’t do very often—I prayed. I think we all prayed those moments, except Simon, who was too scared to pray. Jesus, I imagined, was praying the hardest. As Reuben was joined by Josiah in the doorway—the two burliest men in town, Papa came forward swinging wildly with his sword. The two interlopers fled the house, as Michael and I cheered with glee. Reuben cried out dramatically “the witch has cast a spell over the carpenter. We might have to burn them out!”
It was then, as I studied their faces, that I realized how correct James had been: the vast majority of the townsfolk in our yard and on the road were idlers, drawn by the commotion at our house. My first hint was the reaction many of them had at Reuben’s terrible solution for expelling our guest. It had been that dumb look I’ve seen in sheep following the shepherd, transformed suddenly into fear when the shepherd turns out to be a wolf.
“Huh, what did he say?” Old Nathan cupped his ear.
“He said ‘we should burn them out!’ ” cackled Deborah. “Don’t worry, he-he-he, they’re just going to smoke her out!”
“But that’s Joseph the carpenter’s house,” Samuel wrung his hands. “Josiah told me they were just going to scare them. That Reuben and his friends are going too far!”
It was that mad-as-an-adder (self-styled patriarch) Ethan, waving his staff, who discredited their cause the most. “Stone them! Stone them all!” his voice shrilled. “Destroy the blasphemers hiding the witch!” This caused even Deborah to wince. The crone laughed hysterically and shook her head, while a large number of spectators began returning to their homes. Papa, his sword at this side, peered out the door, listening, along with Michael, James, Joseph, and I, as Reuben told a small group of men that he was going to find himself a torch.
“Don’t worry, we’re just going to frighten them,” he said too loudly to his friends.
“No, you must be drunk,” Josiah backed away. “I’m not going to be party to this.”
“Me neither!” Asa shook his head.
“All right,” Reuben frowned irritability, “no torch.” “Friends,” he turned to the disintegrating mob, “we all agree that Mariah is a witch and corruptor of children and that Joseph’s family has always been strange. Have we not heard the stories of Joseph’s oldest son Jesus’ sorcery—the claim that he cured a dead bird and cast spells on behalf of God. At the fire at Mariah’s villa, caused, they said, by the wrath of God, witnesses claim they heard Jesus call upon Beelzebub to put out the flames. Do you wonder why Joseph protects that witch when his own son consorts with Satan?”
“Lies!” my father charged out the door. “You filthy swine of a man! You’ve never liked me or my family. You’ve always been jealous for not having my Mary for yourself. Everything that comes out of you mouth is an abomination to the Lord!”
This was more than Reuben, the tanner, could endure. Hefting a shovel that had been leaning against the fence, he brandished it as a weapon, crouched down in an attack position, and began dueling with Papa before the horror-stricken eyes of the townsfolk still loitering in our yard.
“We wanted to stone Mariah,” complained Josiah said to Asa, “not harm Joseph, the town carpenter and his family.”
I could not hear what Deborah, Ethan, and Samuel were muttering amongst themselves, but it appeared, by the way he shook his finger, that Samuel was scolding the other two for their actions this hour. Suddenly and quite belatedly Rabbi Joachim arrived on the scene. We all breathed sighs of relief when it appeared as if everyone was going home. Reuben stood in the garden gnashing his teeth as the rabbi entered our yard.
“Go home Reuben,” he ordered the tanner, “you’ve caused enough trouble today.”
“They’re harboring a witch and fornicator,” Reuben spat bitterly. “That is an unholy house!”
“The only thing unholy here,” Joachim snarled, “is what you and your friends did to Mariah’s house and what you tried to do today.”
Reuben turned once more to gaze menacingly at our house then shuffled dejectedly back to his shop. There was no question in our minds that Reuben was a dangerous man, but he had gone too far and too fast in his efforts to drum up a stoning and had scared his following away.
Handing his sword to mother, Papa composed himself and motioned for the rabbi to enter his house. Carrying the sword in her apron, Mother disappeared in the next room where Mariah was hidden away.
“You’re late,” Papa said bluntly. “We could have used you as a peace maker awhile ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Joachim said contritely, “I should have come earlier, but I asked Samuel to see what all the commotion was about. Uriah’s very sick.” “I think it was something he ate.”
“I didn’t get sick,” I said boldly. “Nehemiah didn’t get sick either. We all ate Mariah’s sweet meats, candied dates, and cheeses. So it must have been all that wine Uriah drank. That would make anyone sick!”
“Is he all right?” asked Papa, motioning for me to shut up.
James, Joseph, Simon, and I snickered amongst ourselves, while Michael laughed aloud. The rabbi walked over, pinched my cheek, and patted me on my head.
“Yes, and Jude’s right,” he said gravely, “but that is not why I’m here.”
I broke into hysterical giggles then, until I felt Jesus presence by my side.
“Be calm,” he whispered so that only I could hear. “This house is protected by the Lord.”
Jesus, I wanted to shout, how can you be so sure? Everything had worked out quite well. While he stood watch near the door, as he did last night, nothing happened in our home, in spite of Reuben intrusion and old Ethan’s attempt to drum up support. But had Jesus really been responsible for protecting our house, as it seemed he was for our escape yesterday and, as Reuben claimed falsely he did through Beelzebub, by putting out the fire? What I heard from the rabbi these moments deflated our collective sense of relief and angered Jesus very much. The little fat man, who had offered no apology for not coming to our aid, now raised a finger accusingly at my farther.
“I don’t approve of vigilantes, Joseph, but you’re harboring an evil doer in your house!”
“What?” Papa’s mouth dropped. “You believe those hate-mongers? I thought you were my friend, Joachim. Is it Mariah’s fault your son’s a little pig?”
“I’m not talking about my son,” Joachim’s face darkened. “I’m talking about what they found in one of Mariah’s rooms: bats wings, crushed grasshoppers, and all manner potion and evil drugs. This is the formulary of witchcraft; do you deny that?”
“Mariah was touched in the head,” Papa explained heatedly. “I told you she was sick. Where is your compassion Joachim? Where is the forgiveness as a man of God.”
“Was?” Joachim wrinkled his nose. “What do you mean was? Isn’t she still sick?”
“No,” answered Papa, glancing over at Jesus, “she’s perfectly normal now and barely remembers her past”
Perfectly normal? This was a revelation to James, Joseph, Simon, Michael, and I. Everyone, except Papa and Jesus, raised their eyebrows and dropped their bottom jaws. Fortunately, the rabbi was more interested in the look our father gave his oldest son or he would have noticed our surprise.
“. . . . And how did this transformation come about?” Joachim uttered with suspicion, after a long pause.
“Jesus prayed,” Papa spoke in almost a whisper.
The rabbi had avoided using the word miracle. Very wisely it seemed to me, Papa used the word prayer instead, which, I heard Jesus once say was something anyone could do to make something happen. But this was not good enough for the self-righteous rabbi.
“I heard about Jesus’ prayers,” he said, stroking his beard. “Jude told Uriah that he cured a dead bird and talks to himself continually, claiming he communicates with God. They say he called upon Beelzebub to make it rain. The townsfolk are cruel, Joseph. They had thought Jesus to be addled in the head, but after last night many of them think he’s a blasphemer and, like Mariah, performs black magic.”
“You have said enough Rabbi Joachim!” Papa exploded in rage. “You have believed the rumor-mongers as you did the hate-mongers over the word of an old friend. I blame you, Joachim, for Mariah almost being stoned. On the word of your son, you incited the elders in town. Now you imply that my oldest son is an evildoer too. Get out of my house! Go, before I throw you out myself!”
“I will go Joseph,” Joachim forced a smile. “But you must rid yourself of that woman before it’s too late. I haven’t heard how you dispersed the crowd today, but it’s plain to me that Reuben and his friends failed. Up until our sons’ meeting with Michael’s mother, most townsfolk thought Mariah might be a witch or whore. Now they’ll know. When the truth about what was found in Mariah’s house spreads throughout Nazareth, a larger group will probably storm your house.”
“Out, hypocrite! Coward! Betrayer!” cried Papa. “How dare you threaten a guest in my house!”
“I threaten no one,” the rabbi said, as he walked out the door. “I come to warn, that’s all. Send Mariah away, rather than get her stoned. Keep close reins on your oldest son, before he goes too far.”
The door was slammed shut behind the rabbi, though he shouted out his advice for all Nazareth to hear. On the verge of crying, I turned to Jesus, who stood gazing off into space. We would learn later that Rabbi Joachim had, that very moment, tripped on his robe and fallen face forward into a puddle of mud. I saw Jesus eyes narrow a brief second, concerned that I was causing his irritation. My lower lip quivered and shoulders slumped. “Jesus, what I told Uriah about you was suppose to be a secret.”
“I know,” he said gently, “but you must be careful whom you trust with a secret.”
Papa sat down on his favorite stool by the table and we crowded around him, Jesus, James, Joseph, Simon, Michael, and I, proud but worried about his stance today. As Jesus stood silently with his arm on Papa’s back, pent-up questions resounded in the room. How could we get Mariah on the road to Jerusalem without her being caught? What would happen to Papa’s business after she’s gone? Why had the rabbi spoken ill of Jesus? Did the townsfolk really believe he was a practitioner of the black arts?
“Enough!” Papa spread his palms. “Don’t worry about my business. I’m the only carpenter and woodworker in town. That’s why Josiah, Asa, and many of the others backed off today. And Mariah, with the Lord’s help, will be safe.” “As for Jesus,” he reached up and patted his hand, “He shall watch over him too. We don’t care what those narrow-minded townsfolk think, do we?”
“No, Papa,” Jesus sighed, “but we care about you.”
At that very moment, the radiant and lovely Maria entered the room. Trailing behind her were the twins, tittering back and forth, and then Mama, a worried look on her face. I must admit even now, after all my travels, that Mariah was the most stunning woman I had ever seen. Mother had scrubbed off her unsightly make-up and cleaned her up as befitting a Jewish matron. A deepening furrow on Mama’s brow, followed by the slightest of frowns was her gentle way of telling us that matters were not right in the world. Today, as a rare event, her anger was spoken aloud.
“We’re moving,” she announced calmly, motioning for Mariah to set down. “After we help settle her in Jerusalem, we can go live with my kinswoman in Sepphoris. I’ve had enough of these Nazarene rustics.”
“That’s where we saw the dancing ladies by Aunt Elizabeth’s house.” Simon clapped his hands with glee.
“That’s the town where crazy old Uncle Ahab lived?” I wrinkled my nose.
Papa was not used to mother speaking her mind. He sat there quietly a moment as we discussed this momentous issue. Only Simon thought this might be a good idea. We knew how hard our father had worked to build up his business in Nazareth. Sepphoris was a big, noisy, and sinful city. We didn’t relish moving to such a strange place, but the thought of what our future might be in Nazareth frightened us too. Jesus didn’t join our chatter. The troubled expression on his face, I imagined, was for all the gossip he had personally generated in town.
“Mary, we’re not moving,” Papa tried to be calm. “We’ve talked about this before. This is our home—where our children grew up. Our friends are here. My business is here. Sepphoris is no place to raise a family.”
“Ah, but you think Nazareth is a good place for our family?” Mary gave him a bitter laugh. “Here we have narrow-minded, hateful, and spiteful fair weather friends, who turn on us because of their ignorance and superstition. Here, in spite of my husband’s generosity in receiving chickens and spring lambs for payment instead of money, our neighbors and friends spit on you because we helped an unfortunate widow and her son. Here, above all, we must constantly worry about our oldest son’s habits, when, in fact, he is already doing God’s work.” “Joseph, do you remember what the Nazarenes almost did to me?” She looked protectively over at Jesus. “Fortunately for us, we had to return to the place of our birth to be taxed—Bethlehem.” “Afterwards,” she said dreamily, “the Lord told you to take us to Egypt. By the time that wicked old Herod died and we were called back to Galilee, the stoning fever had died. We were respectable once more.”
Papa’s face showed deep emotion during Mama’s reminiscence, but, as the Galilean fishermen would say, she had stepped into deep, troubled waters. Already, for our tender ears, she had gone too far.
“Please Mary, the children are confused enough,” Papa shook his head in dismay. “Why must you dredge up all this now. There’s too much to do. Nazareth is not so bad. There are towns in Galilee and Judea much worse. Jesus has promised me he will be more careful. These townsfolk, as you remember, have short memories. This will blow over when Mariah’s safely gone.”
“Joseph,” mother said as kindly as possible, “you’re in denial. When they hear of Mariah’s flight to Jerusalem, our children will not be safe in this town, especially Jesus. Do you remember what Reuben and the rabbi said? Now added to the rescue of Mariah, to fester in their shallow minds, will be the rumor that Jesus called upon Beelzebub to put out that fire.”
Papa and our mother argued for several moments on whether to flee Nazareth or stick it out, when it seemed obvious that we should first be planning Mariah’s escape. Jesus, in spite of Michael’s fears, was greatly worried about Mariah’s safety but, like the rest of us, would not dare interrupt this heated discussion. It was the first time we had seen our parents disagree with each other. What settled the issue temporarily was the sound of knocking on the door.
“Wait,” Jesus cautioned us, “let me look out the window first.”
“Who is it?” Papa asked, as Jesus peeked over the sill.
“Ezra,” Jesus frowned, “and a small, dark fellow dressed like a shepherd.”
“He found us a guide!” Papa jumped up excitedly from the table. “Let them in!”
James opened the door carefully, peeking out first, as Papa’s voice bellowed a greeting.”
“Peace be upon you!” Joseph reached out warmly to grip their hands.
“Peace be upon on the house of Joseph,” the small, dark man bobbed his turbaned head.
Ezra said nothing as our visitor introduced himself to us as Odeh Shabrat. In a very adult like manner Jesus came forward and returned their greeting. James and Joseph bowed politely at the waste, while Simon, Michael, and I stood there gawking at the strange looking man. The look on Ezra’s face told us that his suspicions about Mariah as well as Jesus still festered in his mind. This saddened us, but failed to damper Papa’s enthusiasm this moment.
“Did Ezra explain how we can pay you for your help?” Papa came straight to the point. “If this is satisfactory, can you and your people take Mariah safely to Jerusalem?”
“You are most correct,” he bobbed his head again.
“Are you an Edomite?” I blurted.
“No, my inquisitive friend,” he laughed heartily, “I’m an Arab. The Edomites have always been pagans, like the Syrians and Egyptians. Your people would call us Ishmaelites. Our ancestor, the first son of Abraham, though cast out to wander the desert, was blessed by the Lord. Most of my people are faithful servants of the Most High.”
Jesus smiled at me, Michael giggled, and James clamped his hand onto my mouth, as the three men sat down at the table to discuss the details of the escape. Mother and the twins served our guests a snack of grape juice, goat cheese, bread, and figs. Ezra claimed he had already eaten, but Odeh ate ravenously, as if he had not eaten in days. Having missed our own morning meal, the children were sent outside, while the adults planned out Mariah’s flight. Jesus, who had turned fifteen last summer and recently earned a degree of respect, was not happy with this, but understood the animosity Papa’s friend had toward him. All of us, of course, eavesdropped by crouching below the open window to listen in.
We noticed several townsfolk lurking around our property but none of them were the men who had rallied in Rabbi Joachim’s yard. At one heart stopping point, as we craned our ears, Jesus walked over to Malachi, the village weaver, and asked him if he had business with father. When Ephraim, the potter, and his friend Adonijah were drawn to this exchange, we were reminded of the malice that many townsfolk had for our oldest brother and ran to his defense.
“Go away! Leave our brother alone!” cried James.
“Insolent are these children of Joseph,” remarked Ephraim to Adonijah. “Not only do they harbor evildoers, but, in their mistrust of their neighbors, they insult travelers on the street.”
“Come, come, Ephraim and Adonijah.” Malachi, sneered, bowing politely to Jesus. “Joseph’s children are not to blame for what goes on in this house.”
“I’m not a child,” Jesus snarled. “My father’s house is blessed by the Lord.”
The three men found this quite humorous. Their laughter faded as their corpulent forms retreated gradually down the long road. A few others passed by but none stopped as had Malachi, Ephraim, and Adonijah, while Jesus stood watch in our yard.
While our oldest brother patrolled the garden and perimeter of our home, we continued to eavesdrop on the adults inside. It was more difficult this time to play the role of snoops because of the mud on the ground. The only dry portions of the yard were the large stones in Mama’s trampled garden, the far edge of which found us standing on various rocks, craning our ears. By the periods of silence and indecisive bursts of information it appeared that they, in fact, had no plan. Their attempt to keep their voices low, moreover, turned into a complete failure because of the visitor’s boisterous manner and Papa and Ezra’s frustration with the man.
“Bring the woman through the orchard in the dead of night?” cried Odeh, “What nonsense. My friends and I are not goats!”
“But I thought a shepherd would go after a lost sheep at all hours of the day,” we heard Papa reply. “Surely, with a lantern, you could safely accomplish this feat.”
“Ho-ho, now you jest,” the visitor laughed, “what sort of criminal am I taking charge of?”
“She’s not a criminal,” said Papa. “Mariah’s a victim of vigilantes. She’s kept to herself and never harmed a soul in this town. They tried to stone her and almost burned down her house—”
“No, I’m sorry, my new friend,” he uttered a sarcastic laugh. “To do this at night, especially with a lamp, implies great danger. They will end up stoning us, if they catch us with her on the trail.”
Stepping off our rocks, we edged up closer and closer to the window to hear more clearly the argument inside. For several moments, Papa tried to convince Odeh that most townsfolk were too superstitious to attack them at night. Ezra merely echoed Papa’s words at times, though his tone lacked conviction. He said nothing when Papa told Odeh that Mariah was not a criminal. Mariah could not possibility be spirited away in the daytime, and Odeh, who appeared to be superstitious himself, would not undertake this at night. There was simply no place for this conversation to go, unless Papa and Ezra could change Odeh’s mind, until mother walked back into the room.
We could barely hear her voice. “What if she doesn’t sneak out of town?” she said offhandedly as the men bickered. “What if we hide Mariah in a wool-dealers cart?”
“That’s ridiculous!” Odeh blared. “In broad daylight, when such a journey must take place, you’d be caught and your stowaway would be—” I could picture him making a throat cutting gesture to indicate Mariah’s potential fate.
“So, you think sneaking her through the orchard and over the hills in broad daylight is a better idea?” Papa asked in disbelief. “I don’t think you want to do this at all.”
“Odeh,” Ezra took him to task, “when I told you about our plan, you agreed to hide her in your cart and take her with you to Jerusalem. Now, because you think she’s a criminal, you’ve changed your mind. If you won’t sneak her out of Nazareth at night and you won’t sneak her out in broad daylight, you’re not sneaking her out at all.”
“Ezra, we mustn’t give up!” Papa cried.
Mother told them to keep it down again and they grumbled a few moments, but then silence fell over our house. All of us, except Jesus, were plunged into despair. Certain they would eventually storm our house and take his mother away, Michael began weeping. James, Joseph, and Simon stood up in disgust and walked away. I looked numbly across the yard at Jesus, who sat, with his back turned, on my rock. I was still not sure if Jesus was the miracle worker I saw in front of Mariah’s house—it was such an awesome thing to believe, but that feeling came over me once more that Jesus was up to something. Whether it would be caused by praying to God or his own internal magic, I knew Mariah would be all right. Jesus so much as told me this when he promised that nothing would happen to our father’s house. . . . But how could this be done? I asked myself, looking around the garden and out to the road.
It was then that I saw him again: Cornelius, the Roman I met on the bridge. This time, however, he rode with a column of legionnaires through town. They couldn’t have arrived at a more perfect time. The thought entered my head: I would enlist the aid of the commander! I couldn’t help my foolishness now as I ran from our yard directly into the path of the soldiers.
“Roman soldiers! Roman soldiers!” Simon screamed.
“Jude, you idiot,” cried James, “you’ll be trampled to death!”
As I glanced over my shoulder, Michael, who had been moping in the garden, did a double take as James, Joseph, and Simon dashed across the yard.
“Stop! Cornelius!” I screamed. “Does not Rome protect the widows and children? Please, Cornelius. Our friend is in danger from evil-doers in our town!”
“Yes, yes,” Michael shouted his approval, “stop him Jude. The Romans can save my mother!”
Soon our father, mother, and their visitors were emerging from the house. I remember looking back and seeing Jesus walking calmly toward the road, as if he was not surprised that Cornelius and his troops had shown up at just this hour.
“What’s all the commotion?” snapped Papa.
“Joseph,” mother screeched, “Jude is running after those horsemen!”
“I know that Roman,” exclaimed Odeh, “his name is Cornelius, prefect of the Galilean cohort.”
“How very strange.” Ezra made a face. “Jude acts as if he knows him too.”
The Roman prefect led, what seemed to us, an endless parade of soldiers. Such demonstrations, I would learn later, were necessary to show bumpkins such as ourselves the might of Rome. But now one small child and one splendid warrior in shining armor stopped in the dusty road. For a moment, the similarity of this encounter to my dream last night caused me to gasp. Recognizing me at once, as he drew close, he ordered his column to halt. A broad grin broke his tanned face. By the road, Jesus appraised the situation but went no further.
Looking down from his own white stead, as he had in my dream, Cornelius uttered a robust laugh. “What’s wrong Jude? What could be so important that you would call upon the forces of Rome?”
“Our guest Mariah needs safe passage to Jerusalem.” I explained breathlessly. “Last night they tried to stone her and set her house on fire.”
“Humph, this does sound important!” His smiled faded as he dismounted his horse. “Attempted murder and arson are serious crimes. Is Mariah all right? Who are these incendiaries? Did the house burn to the ground?”
“Thanks to Jesus, she’s alive,” I replied, beckoning to my oldest brother. “He called upon the Most High to put out the fire.”
“Really?” murmured Cornelius, as Jesus approached. “. . . . This must be Mariah’s savior arriving now!”
Inexplicably, a lump arose in my throat. I couldn’t have imagined that the youth on this dusty road would one day become the savior of the world. Now, as I watched him frown and shake his head, I knew he was upset with me. He had made it very clear to us that the Lord, not he, was responsible for saving Mariah and her house. He wouldn’t take credit for any of this. Nevertheless, it was important for me that the Roman officer knew. Now that I think about it, I had unwittingly become the first one to acknowledge his divinity to an official representative of Rome.
“Come Jesus,” I continued to beckon, “Cornelius is a good Roman. He can help us. I know he can!”
“Greetings Cornelius!” Jesus raised his hand and bowed. “My brother has said great things about you and the Roman army to his friends.”
“You don’t say,” the Roman laughed softly, mussing up my hair. “He wants to be a soldier, eh? A Jewish warrior at that.” “Who was that Hebrew fellow,” he winked slyly at Jesus, “what’s-his-name—Joshua? Only you’d be fighting for Rome.”
“Down with Roman oppressors!” “Rome should leave Galilee alone!” James and Joseph shouted from the sidelines.
“James and Joseph—that’s enough!” said Papa, shuffling onto the road. “My apologies sir,” he bowed slightly, extending a flask of water. “My name’s Joseph bar Jacob. Those are my foolish sons. Though many of my people look upon Romans as oppressors, I’ve heard that you’re a good man.”
“Humph, I’m used to this response from these Nazarene rustics,” Cornelius waved impatiently. “But tell me,” he spoke discreetly, bending forward, “what has this Mariah done to be hated so? Has she committed some kind of crime?”
“It’s a long story,” Papa sighed, smiling wearily down at me.
Taking a long swig form the flask, Cornelius handed it up to one of his men, who took a long drink, himself. It seemed unfair to me that the rest of his soldiers could not also have a drink. In spite of this disparity, Papa invited Cornelius into his garden, explaining apologetically that Jewish custom forbade Gentiles into their homes, but he would be happy to bring him bread and wine. The prefect shook his head and, retrieving the emptied flask, handed it back to my father. Standing there in the road, for the entire town to see, several hundred Roman legionnaires had paused in front of Joseph the carpenter’s house. A few passersby now caught sight of my father actually standing next to Cornelius and cupped their ears to hear this confrontation between a Roman officer and a Jew.
That this might seem improper to onlookers was evident by Papa’s actions and the expression on his face. Looking around self-consciously, he seemed embarrassed that the officer had not reacted to his offer, which was, we imagined, an effort at simple hospitality or his desire to conduct their conversation more discreetly in our yard. Ezra, I learned later, had warned Papa, under his breath, to be careful about how this might look to the townsfolk, but I don’t see how my father could have been any more careful than he had been that day. After the execution of thousands of Jewish rebels in Galilee, who had followed Judah the Galilean’s revolt against Rome, many Nazarenes felt that Rome had overreacted. Several dozen local youths were crucified with the other insurrectionist throughout the province. Added to this relatively recent event was a long history of Roman abuse through taxes and the puppet rulers that ruled us on behalf of Rome. With even Ezra, his best friend, frowning with disapproval at this meeting in front of his house, Papa felt the greatest anxiety for their venture now.
Before climbing back onto his horse, Cornelius promised Papa that he would, if he wished, inspect Mariah’s house for himself then meet him later to discuss the problem of escorting her out of town. In a low conspiratorial voice my father gave him directions to the villa. Cornelius told him that he would meet him after sundown on the bridge, which I found somehow very significant. The Roman officer nodded politely, with his instructions memorized, and ordered his troops forward. The column of horsemen trotted up passed our house for a short ways then turned sharply at Cornelius’ command. When the column had passed through a cloud of dust, silhouettes of townsfolk appeared in increasing numbers, drawn to the commotion in front of our house. Emerging from the cloud, familiar faces—Reuben, Josiah, Asa, and others—stared darkly at us yet continued on their way.
James, Joseph, Simon, Michael, mother, and the twins stood quietly at various points in our yard. Odeh, the shepherd, and Ezra, who had mixed emotions about dealing with the Romans, were nowhere in sight. Only Jesus stood unflinchingly by the road as our enemies passed, smiling and frowning at the same time.
“Can I go with you Papa?” I jumped up and down excitedly. “We’ll pretend we’re just out for a walk. Cornelius likes me. He really does. He’s my friend.”
“Oh to be a child again,” sighed Papa, shaking his head.
“Joseph, children,” mother called from the door, “come and eat!”
Jesus laughed softly and ruffled my hair. I knew he wasn’t mad at me, but I could see by their expressions that James and Joseph were upset that I had brought in the Romans. When we entered our little house, the table was being set by Abigail and Martha. Papa was immediately given a cup of wine. Ezra and Odeh were absent, which was just as well, but Papa was angry that Ezra had abandoned him at such a time. Michael rushed to embrace his mother as she entered the room. Mariah was crying, after witnessing from the window the dilemma our family was in.
“I’m sorry I’ve caused so much trouble!” She looked tearfully around the room.
“Nonsense,” said mother, giving her a hug, “the Lord has placed you in our hands.”
“Fear not,” Jesus reached out as if to bless her, “you’re safe in our house.”
“Safe?” James grumbled. “How do you know that? The whole town will be against us because we consort with Romans. Our father will lose his business. We’ll have no friends.”
“The Romans are oppressors!” cried Joseph. “The Romans kill Jews!
Papa jumped up and scolded them severely. “You have insulted our guests with your insensitivity. I should thrash you both for your unbelief. If Jesus and your mother believe our house is safe, our house is safe! Have we not, with Jesus help, prevailed so far? I have heard of this Cornelius. He’s a good man, who has dealt honestly with our town. If the Lord sent him to protect Mariah, I bow to His well. Who are you to question God’s will.”
“Sorry Papa,” they muttered, looking dejectedly at the floor.
“They’re frightened,” noted mother, “but so are we.” “I would like to know,” she said, walking up to grip James and Joseph’s slumping shoulders, “where you got those ideas. Was it Isaac, Malachi the weaver’s son, or Jeroboam, Ephraim the potter’s son? Malachi and Ephraim were among that mob trampling my garden.”
“All of the boys in town believe this,” James confessed. “Jesus doesn’t have to worry, because they’re afraid of him. He just stares at them until they go away. But when Jesus is not around, they tease us and throw sheep dung at us. Someday they’re going to beat me up when I try to defend Joseph, Simon or Jude. It’s not fair Mama. Some of them are bigger than me!”
“They won’t harm you,” said Jesus calmly. “They think I’m a sorcerer and I’ll put a hex on them,” “but the truth is,” he said, looking around the table, “the Lord is watching over my family. You must trust in Him, not me. All things are answered through prayer!”
Papa smiled with great pride at Jesus, a response that would have made me bristle with jealousy a few months ago, but now, as we watched him take his place at the table we were reminded of what Jesus had done before and during the fire. Whether or not he was a great magician or sorcerer or, as he had implied after he cured the dead bird, the Son of God, was beyond the understanding of mere children. Looking back now, I realize that my parents were also confounded by Jesus actions and words.
“You would not harm those boys?” Papa murmured drolly to his oldest son. “You must exercise restraint when dealing with mortal men.” When Jesus shook his head, Papa answered his own question in a loud decisive voice. “No, of course not, you must obey the Most High, but God help anyone who tries to harm you!”
“Jesus never says anything when they tease us,” complained Joseph, “he just gives them that look. It’s like Papa when we’ve done something disappointing him, only Jesus doesn’t get mad.”
Joseph tried to imitate Jesus by folding his arms and frowning severely, but James and then Simon shook their heads and offered their own charades. Our parents and Michael’s mother smiled indulgently. Michael and I laughed. Jesus, however, was not amused.
“I would never harm them, unless they tried to hurt you,” Jesus explained testily. “Is it my fault they think as they do?”
“The fact is,” James explained, “they make fun of us at school because you act so weird. Now the whole town’s mad cause we’re protecting a witch. If the Romans help Mariah escape, they’ll get even madder at us. I can imagine what they’ll say when we go to school!”
“I told you ‘the Lord watches over our house!’” Jesus stomped his foot. “Why can’t you have faith?”
“There-there.” Papa rose up to hug Jesus. “They don’t understand you. Sometimes you overwhelm us all with what you can do.”
“Maybe Jesus should teach some of those boys a lesson,” suggested James.
“Yes, strike them dead with lightning!” I jumped up from my stool.
“No,” said Simon, “he should do what God did to Lot’s wife: turn them into pillars of salt!”
“Papa’s right,” Jesus groaned. “They want me to personally smite the Philistines, when I must follow God’s will.”
“All right!” Papa snapped his fingers. “Problem solved: you’re not going back to school—any of you! Jesus knows the scriptures—better than Joachim. I don’t know why we even bother sending him to school. Jesus will teach you the Torah, and I’ll teach you to be carpenters!”
“Yes,” Mama said, as we gave Papa a dumfounded look. “Remember that Passover in the temple when Jesus showed off his knowledge. As I teach Abigail and Mariah to be homemakers and cooks, he can be you tutor and my kitchen will be your school.”
“Right now,” she motioned impatiently for us to sit back down, “this is a dining area—a place for food. Grab your spoons and cups and let’s eat!”
No one seriously believed that Jesus would teach us the Torah. It was one of those grand ideas Papa had on the spur of the moment when he had too much wine. James, Joseph and Simon would have been poor students. They would have resented Jesus lording his knowledge over them. Frankly, I wasn’t so keen on the idea, myself. So the idea was never brought up again, and we quite forgot about it in the eventful days ahead. Jesus would always share his knowledge with us, whenever it seemed appropriate, but, even if Papa had followed through with his notion of home schooling, it wasn’t in Jesus’ nature to dispense the dry facts of scripture to his brothers when the Living Word was present in his head. There was so many other things distracting us that night. All of our attention was focused on the dilemma we shared as a family, which I recorded in this chronicle as “The Flight to Jerusalem.”
The meal Mama fixed us was eaten quickly, almost expeditiously, as we anticipated Cornelius’ return from Mariah’s house. Papa drank more wine, but appeared to be sober as he discussed his plans for our family school. We had mixed feelings about not returning to synagogue, but realized that it was, considering the mood of the townsfolk, the best course of action. We had no idea then how much we would actually learn from Jesus, whose knowledge we had seen was only a spark of the bonfire that was his mind. All we knew for certain that moment, was that we didn’t want Joachim to be our teacher, so we listened patiently as Papa outlined his concept of the “Jesus school” he hoped to implement in the coming months.
James and Joseph nodded politely at Papa’s ramblings. At such times it was best to just let him carry on. None of us, Jesus included, wanted to turn our kitchen into a classroom. Until the incident of the sparrow, when Jesus actions spooked my brothers and I, nature had been our classroom. Though just an observer then, I couldn’t believe how much Jesus knew. Presently, he had turned from furry and feathered creatures to saving people: Mariah and her son. Though I didn’t know then what I know now about my oldest brother, I sensed that he would do something great one day, as preacher even a prophet as well as a teacher of men. His classroom, of course, would be the world.