A Witch In Hiding
As our family awaited Cornelius’ meeting tonight with Papa on the bridge, Mariah and Michael joined us at the crowded table, each of us sitting on the little stools Papa sold to Galilean peasants. To keep our minds off the crisis, Papa discussed the family’s routine in the coming months, while Mariah sat there looking self-consciously at her hands. This regimen, he explained resignedly, would include everyone in the house, even the twins, who would have to work extra hard to help Mama manage the house. Since Papa might lose much of his clientele, he would have to export his furniture and repair work to neighboring communities. This would require using all of the boys for this expanded enterprise. Jesus, James and Joseph would assist as wood joiners and shapers, whereas the younger boys—Simon, Michael, and I—would help Papa in sanding, shaving, and preparing the various pieces of wood for construction. Almost as an afterthought, Papa voiced his concern about taking us out synagogue school, but his grand plan of a “Jesus School” had been watered down. There was no explanation for this revision. When time was available during our busy schedule, Jesus could expound his knowledge, while Papa continued to teach us his craft. Since Jesus had always shared his wisdom with us during our free time, this was acceptable to James, Joseph, Simon, and I, though Michael made a sour face. Incorporated into our “schooling” would be training in woodwork and carpentry. During our table talks, as he called it now, Mama, who had been self-taught in the scriptures, would sit in with the twins when they were not doing their household chores. Since Papa didn’t mention the word school nor stress this portion of our education, we all, Jesus included, breathed a sigh of relief, yet the basic idea remained. Together, the family of Joseph, the carpenter, would become an island unto itself—a school, a shop, a garden, but still a home.
Jesus insisted on saying a prayer now that sounded very much like a blessing. Though my mind had fallen into a daze, I can remember him looking around at our tired congregation, raising two fingers of his hand—a gesture that would be one of his trademarks, and intoning “May the Lord bless this house and its patriarch Joseph bar Jacob, our mother, Mary, his sons, daughters, and our guests Mariah and Michael of the house of Jeremiah bar Solomon.”
Michael and I were so bored by all this chatter we fidgeted constantly. I was happy that I didn’t have to return to synagogue school, but I didn’t relish being a carpenter the rest of my life. Though I had mixed feelings about it, Papa’s reinterpretation of the “Jesus School” intrigued me.” Did this mean Jesus would take us all on nature hikes, as he had before the incident of the sparrow or would we all be sitting around the table listening to him expound his vast knowledge about religious things? In small doses this was all right, but every day, as in a classroom, would be tiresome for my brothers and me.
At our household meeting, Mariah briefly reminisced, without sordid details, the tragic death years ago of her husband and the remainder of her children from a fever—the same plague, Papa commented, that had taken many of his and mothers brothers and sisters too. Though she remembered her family clearly, she couldn’t recall the point in time when she became touched in the head. I overheard my father confide to my mother, when Mariah was out of the room, his fears that she had at least acted like a witch. I would rather believe, based on the wine I smelled on her breath, it had been nothing more than a long, drunken spell, but I kept thinking about the potions and powders they found in that room. Was all that stuff in her house really medicinal herbs and powders left over from her husband’s business? If so, why had she acted so strangely and remained hidden away for so long? Was it because the death of most of her family had driven her mad? Could it all be a conspiracy of cruel circumstances, as Papa suggested, in which Mariah was misunderstand and condemned purely because of appearances rather than deeds. Even so, as Papa explained those big words to my brothers and me, how had Mariah provided for her son and herself all these years, if not by other means? Witchcraft or prostitution, respectively—concepts I just barely understood, might have allowed her to live as a hermit with her son for this period of time.
Regardless of whether or not Mariah had been cured of a dark, wasting illness or really been a witch, Michael would become one of the family now. As we children rolled dice on the wooden table, the adults had talked quietly. Michael, it was decided, would stay in our house while Mariah settled in Jerusalem with her cousin and aunt. Mariah was saddened that she had to make this decision, but there was, in spite of Cornelius’ help, hazards in such a mission. Among the most obvious was the unspoken possibility that she would get caught somewhere between Nazareth and Jerusalem or, more likely, not be welcome in her aunt and cousin’s house. When or if she was safely settled into her temporary home, she would send for Michael. No one dared speculate whether or not she and her son would ever be able to come back to Nazareth, but, knowing Michael, I was certain this was on his mind.
Watching the sun set finally after such a long day, Papa turned from the window and paced back and forth in the large outer room in anticipation of his meeting with the prefect, as we huddled around the table playing the dice game Michael had taught us this hour. The four small square stones had four different symbols on each side. When matched in different combinations, Michael explained, they prophesized certain events, but they could also be gambled upon, like the Egyptian game of hounds and jackals, which his mother often played with her friends. Jesus now inspected one of the dice and shook his head.
“Michael,” he sighed, “these are used by pagans to foretell the future. Don’t let my father see these. They’ll make him very mad.”
“All right,” Michael replied sheepishly, “we’re only using them as game pieces.”
“But not to gamble.” Jesus wagged his finger.
Michael nodded his head, as James, Joseph, and Simon looked at the pieces with newfound interest.
“Play a game with us, Jesus.” I grabbed his sleeve.
“No,” he said, shaking his head, “that would be cheating.”
“But you would never cheat.” Michael held up the dice. “Please Jesus, just try it one time.”
“Very well,” he laughed softly, giving them a toss.
The highest combination which could be tossed was four Sphinxes. That Jesus might roll this combination would have struck us all as a great trick or miracle, but Jesus went beyond our expectations. . . . He rolled four dice with the het and yod letters from the Hebrew alphabet—the Chai symbol of Judaism. We were stunned. Mariah, the twins, and our parents joined the circle of boys surrounding the transformed game pieces. James and Joseph, who had been learning Hebrew at the synagogue school, recognized the Chai symbol as well as the symbols on the remaining surfaces at once. Because Aramaic was our spoken language, children were taught Hebrew, along with our religion, so that they could read the Torah and understand Jewish history and tradition—subjects Papa hoped Jesus might teach us now that we were not going back to synagogue school. For a moment, we took turns at turning the pieces this way and that before returning them to one of the most important letters in the Hebrew alphabet: het and yod.
“It means life,” said Jesus, looking across the table at Mariah, “. . . everlasting.”
Mariah was dumbfounded by his words. We all were. My parents seemed to shudder at some dark thought they shared. The longer meaning, “the people of Israel live,” is given by rabbis to their congregations, but Jesus’ roll of the dice had been interpreted as simply “life,” which, he would explain later to us, was the root meaning of the Chai symbol of Israel.
“Life everlasting?” we murmured amongst ourselves.
“What is Jesus trying to tell us?” I whispered to Michael.
“My mother will not die,” my friend answered with great conviction, “and she will arrive in Jerusalem safely and not be harmed.”
But this is not what Jesus meant. A pagan game, introduced by a Jewish boy, had been transformed into one of Jesus’ first mysteries. At that moment, however, the children, especially myself, were more interested in the miracle or trick Jesus had just performed. I noted, too, that he hadn’t even prayed, which brought to mind our earlier suspicions that Jesus might be a sorcerer or great magician. It was very difficult for his brothers and even his parents to comprehend just exactly who he was supposed to be. That revelation would come many years later. For now, Jesus had become our hero, after his actions last night. The dead bird, the storm, and the mysterious cave could almost be explained away as coincidence or, in the case of the bird, trickery. But we saw the Sphinxes turn into Chai symbols with our own eyes. There could be no argument that this was a supernatural event. . . . The question remaining, at least for me, was what kind?
Today, as I record my family’s history, after following in his footsteps of Jesus for many years, this question has been answered. Yet even now, as I sit in my prison cell, I’m haunted by those dice. I had not thought so then, but why had Jesus performed such a trivial miracle for us? Had it been merely to purify those pagan game pieces in order to protect Michael’s reputation in our home? They would have, I sensed even then, incriminated Mariah too, since they must have come from her house. What seemed so obvious now to Jesus’ followers—that he was the long expected Messiah and the Son of God—could not have been understood by our unenlightened minds. We were still children. The Chai symbol and the way Jesus identified it as ‘everlasting life’ had provided us with clues to his divinity, which I record as prophecy now. But during that one, incredible moment, when I was ten years old, when it was staring us all the in the face, we gave Jesus blank, puzzled, and troubled looks.
It was Joseph, the third oldest son, who broke the silence after this wondrous event.
“You didn’t pray.” He frowned at Jesus. “You told us to pray for needful things.”
“I always pray,” said Jesus, handing Michael the dice. “These dice have been blessed by the Lord.”
“But you didn’t speak,” observed James.
“And your mouth didn’t even move, ” Simon looked at him in awe.
“My brothers and sisters,” he declared, including Michael in his gaze. “God speaks
loudest in our thoughts. Prayer needs no voice. You need not close yours eyes to be reverent or open your mouth to talk to God.” “Look at me,” he said, looking down at little Abigail and Martha, “I’m praying right now as I look at you.”
This struck the twins as very funny. Papa slipped out the house as Jesus occupied our attention for his rendezvous with Cornelius on the bridge. We hardly noticed his departure, since it was not uncommon for him to take walks in the early evening. For the first time that I could remember my quiet sisters warmed up to the oldest brother, each taking one of his big, long fingered hands. Michael and I looked on with curiosity, as we tried to make sense of the dice. Jesus stood very still that moment until my voice brought him back down to earth.
“What are you praying for?” I asked, tossing the pieces on the floor.
“Some prayers are secret,” Jesus explained, staring off into space.
“I can’t do that,” confessed Michael, taking his turn. “It gets all messed up in my head.”
“I can pray, when I close my eyes tightly and cover my ears, like this,” I demonstrated, wiggling my tongue, “but it must be dark and very quiet.”
Mother smiled with indulgence, as Simon, Michael, and my sisters laughed at my jest. James and Joseph, ignoring my insensitivity, frowned thoughtfully at our oldest brother. Jesus gave me a disappointed look, reached down quickly, and gathered up the offending dice.
“It’s hard to concentrate upon an unspoken prayer,” he conceded wearily. “With all manner of nonsense in your mind, Jude, you must clear your head first and make your prayer short and to the point.”
“Teach us Jesus,” Abigail giggled foolishly.
“Show us how to pray in our heads,” begged Martha, clapping her hands.
“Yes, show us Jesus,” Michael watched him pocket the dice. “Toss another perfect roll!”
“Children,” Jesus instructed gently, “pretend that you’re looking up to an empty blue sky, and that this blank sheet is your mind. Now take a deep breath, let it out, and talk to God as you wish. Greet him as your Father, pray unselfishly, and then thank him with the Amen Papa uses after he prays. This is how you can pray without anyone knowing. Remember that prayer is a private thing. It’s good to share it when gathered for dinner or in fellowship at the synagogue, but prayer is between you and God.”
All of us, Mariah and mother included, stood quietly, as if attempting this experiment. I suspected that James and Joseph were just humoring him. I had already attempted this feat, and I was certain Mama knew how to pray to herself. Michael, however, gave Jesus a worried look, wondering as I, if he would return his dice. Suddenly, as if moved by the Spirit again, Jesus crossed the floor, opened the door, and plunged into the night.
“Jesus, where are you going?” cried mother, racing after him with a lamp.
“God is talking to me, Mother,” we heard his voice fading in the garden. “His light shall I follow. . .”
“He’s doing it again.” Simon rolled his eyes.
“I hope he’s not angry,” Mariah muttered to herself.
“Don’t worry,” I said, looking out the window. “He does this all the time. I bet he can see in the dark.”
“That’s ridiculous, Jude” scolded mother as she re-entered the house. “Jesus is flesh and blood like us. His specialness is in his relationship to God through prayer. You heard him say that.”
“But Mama, you saw him toss the dice,” I looked at her in disbelief.
“Yes,” Michael nodded eagerly, “and Jesus put out the fire burning my mother’s house!”
Mary, the mother of Jesus, mopped her brow with the edge of her apron. After so many quiet years, we were not used to our mother speaking out, but now that the secrets of Jesus divinity were penetrating our minds, a great dread filled her. Though we didn’t understand yet, we could see it in her eyes.
“You children don’t understand,” she said, looking wearily around the room. “We’ve kept it buried for so long, we scarcely believe it ourselves.”
“What Mama?” I jumped up and down excitedly. “Tell us what!”
“Who is this stranger?” Joseph turned to James. “Is this not Jesus, our brother and our father’s son?”
“The question is.” James sprang from his stool. “Where did he learn all this? He’s only fifteen, a year older than me, yet he calls us children. I don’t remember him ever going to school, but he performs miracles and seems to know everything. I used to think he made all that stuff up on our nature hikes, but Jesus can’t lie. He always tells the truth.” “Could it be,” his voice grew distant, “that Jesus really talks to God and has God’s ear? Where does he go at night while we’re sleeping? Does our brother even sleep?”
“Jesus put out the fire,” Michael said with great conviction. “You all saw it!” He pointed to each of us. “Jesus has great power!”
“Na-ah” Joseph waved dismissively. “It can’t be. This is just too strange.”
“Joseph.” I inclined my head. “Remember the bird, the rain and how he put Mariah to sleep? You saw what he did to the dice. I have trouble understanding this myself, but that last miracle,” “Phew!” I slapped my forehead in disbelief. “He changed them right before our eyes!”
“Slight of hand or trickery,” Joseph sneered.
“What,” muttered Michael, “are you serious?”
“I think Jesus was making some kind of point.” I searched my memory. “He said the dice stood for life.”
“He called it eternal life,” mumbled James. “What nonsense!”
“It’s not nonsense,” Michael cried. “He changed those dice!”
“He’s right.” Simon nodded. “I saw him do it.”
“Yes,” James said with resignation, “we all saw it.”
Joseph shook his head mulishly, muttering no-no-no! under his breath.
“What’s so hard to believe?” Michael taunted. “Are you blind as well as deaf? I bet Jesus could turn lead into gold.”
Michael didn’t have a clue. Upon hearing my friend’s heresy, Mama laughed hysterically. Joseph stuck his fingers into his ears and chanted “la-la, la-la-la,” to shut out the truth. But James and Simon, like me, were on that long road to illumination. That moment I wasn’t sure what irritated me more, Michael’s misunderstanding of Jesus or Joseph’s denial. Joseph, I wanted to believe, was just being stubborn. James stood there staring at Mama, as I struggled with the truth—a growing light, wavering in the dark.
“. . . Joseph, James, Michael,” I struggled with the words, “Jesus isn’t like us. It’s not trickery or magic. Maybe the sparrow wasn’t really dead, but he was very sick. The dice, I suppose, could be a slight of hand, like those beggars in Sepphoris, who made coins disappear, but what are the odds of a storm arriving just as Jesus prays. How can you explain the rain?”
“Please Mama,” James stomped his foot, “tell us what Jesus is!”
On this note, before mother could answer, the door flew open, and Papa stood there in the doorway holding a lamp.
“Mary, you promised!” He looked accusingly at her. “They’re too young to understand. Dear Abraham—I’m not sure I understand myself. Until the Lord, Himself, speaks to us, this subject is closed.”
Glancing out the door, Papa motioned to someone in the garden. The air was suddenly charged with expectation. Collectively, as unknowing witnesses, we sensed that another extraordinary event was about to happen in the house of Joseph bar Jacob.
“The Prefect Cornelius is aware of our problem,” he cleared his throat nervously, “but wants to talk to Mariah first.”
“Why?” Mariah’s hand went up to her throat.
Shutting the door lightly, he motioned awkwardly for her to approach. “You must explain to him the miracle that happened to you.”
“What’s wrong?” A look of terror fell over her face.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said, gently taking her arm. “It’s just that you must explain certain
“What things?” mother asked naively. “Why are you making this good man wait in the garden?”
“Because,” James said with great indignation, “he’s a Gentile and a Roman, to boot.”
“Please James,” she sighed wearily, “this is the house of Joseph, who is called a heretic for giving refuge to an unfortunate widow unjustly accused of witchcraft and whose son is thought touched in the head because he talks to God. What does it matter if a kindly Roman, who wants to rescue our guest is given hospitality in our house?”
“He’s a Roman!” echoed Joseph.
“He will defile our house,” James bared his teeth.
“God has given Cornelius a special mission,” we heard Jesus voice from the window.
As my arm rested on the windowsill, Jesus’ hand appeared out of the darkness and ruffled my hair. Thrilled with the prospects of Cornelius being in our humble house, I jumped off the stool I was standing on, dodged around my father, and ran into the darkness, meeting Jesus coming the other way.
“Well,” our father laughed, “that’s settled. Mary and Jesus have spoken.”
“But Papa!” James and Joseph cried.
“Enough!” Papa wagged a finger. “I want you, James and Joseph, to forget all that nonsense the synagogue has been drumming into you about defilement by Gentiles and remember what those animals—our neighbors—wanted to do to Mariah, our guest.”
Jesus led me back into the house, his arm draped around my shoulders. We stood there waiting for our visitor to appear in the doorway. Mariah had disappeared momentarily, until mother pulled her protesting back into the kitchen.
Cornelius swaggered into the house, his cape fluttering slightly, a shiny helmet under his arm, his chiseled features the very epitome of a Roman knight, and I was reminded of what I wanted to do most in this world. My mother had practically told us Jesus’ great secret, yet a thought took hold of me: I wanted to be a soldier and see the world!
“This, my family, is Cornelius, prefect of the Galilean Cohort.” Papa moved to the side and motioned dramatically with an outstretched arm. “Cornelius,” he pointed to us one-by-one, “this is my lovely wife Mary, who is mother to Jesus, James, Joseph, Simon, Jude, Abigail, and Martha. And this is our honored guest Mariah and her son Michael, who is Jude’s best friend.”
Grunting with approval as he scratched his bristly chin, Cornelius surveyed the lot of us, his eyes resting on Mariah, who stood trembling, that look we had seen before returning to her green eyes.
“Mariah,” he said curtly, “I understand you need Rome’s help.”
“Uh huh,” she swallowed hard.
“Now Mariah,” Jesus whispered into her ear, “be calm. Remember, God’s in this house.”
I could see her expression immediately relax. A smile twitched on her face. The tall, dark Roman swaggered over and studied the lovely apparition below him. For a moment I felt great irritation that she, not me, had captured his attention, but then I realized how important it was that the Roman should like Michael’s mother. Even at ten years old I recognized that special spark passed between two friends. This spark, which made Mariah blush, caused a frown to break on Michael’s face, but I gave them both my smile of approval.
“Joseph,” Cornelius raised a finger to his nose, “I must talk to Mariah alone.”
“Very well,” Papa shrugged. “We can all congregate outside. Come family, let’s give Cornelius and Mariah a chance to chat.”
“No, no,” Cornelius shook his head, “this is your house Joseph. I’m well aware of Jewish tradition. We can talk in the garden.” “Joseph,” he reached out and gripped my father’s shoulder, “you’re familiar with this problem. Maybe you should be there too.”
Cornelius led Papa and Mariah through the door. The door shut but we all crowded at the open window in order to eavesdrop on their conversation.
“Is this right Mama?” Jesus asked, tilting his head to listen.
“What if Mariah fails to give a good impression?” she murmured.
“Oh, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” I winked a Michael. “Cornelius gave Mariah that look.”
“Oh,” Simon snarled, “what look is that?”
“The look James gave Sarah, the potter’s daughter.” Joseph tittered.
James punched Joseph’s arm. It appeared as though the three had walked to the end of the garden out of earshot. We could hear nothing outside in the darkness except the chirp of crickets and hooting of an owl, but later Papa would confide to us the Roman’s suspicions. When he, Mariah, and our family’s new friend entered the house, they were all laughing. Mariah had boldly taken the Roman’s hairy arm. Michael, the twins, and I clapped our hands with delight. My mother immediately gave him our largest mug brimming with unwatered wine. As he sipped from the mug, looking across the table at his new charge, he seemed thoroughly at home in our house, but admitted to feeling guilty because of the gossip this might cause. James and Joseph, who sat obediently on their stools sulking, nodded their heads in agreement. Mama, however, explained to him our decision to make him an exception to the rule. He was, she struggled for the words, a “righteous gentile.” When she offered to share our humble table with him, he bowed out politely with the excuse that his servant had dinner waiting for him back at camp. This pleased James and Joseph immensely and caused Papa to sigh with relief. We knew of course that the Roman prefect and his men, who undoubtedly waited on the road, could have demanded a full fledge meal if they wanted, but this Roman, even James and Joseph would have to concede, was different. It seemed to me at least that he wanted very much to say something more to Mariah, but the words never came. Handing the mug back to mother, he bowed graciously to all of us, and swaggered to the door.
“Peace be upon the prefect Cornelius, our family’s new friend,” Papa raised his hand in blessing.
“Ave Joseph,” Cornelius gripped father’s forearm. “Rome will protect Mariah. Make sure that she’s waiting at the place we discussed in the orchard—one hour before dawn.” “Good night my ladies,” he smiled at Mariah and Mama. “May health and good fortune live in this house!”