James and Joseph had found their own friends among the older youths in town, but, unlike my companions, their friends, Isaac and Jeroboam, visited our house only once or twice a week. Perhaps because of lingering hostilities, they seldom came inside our house. Because they were big and awkward for their age, Jethro and Obadiah, the tanner’s sons, didn’t fit into our group. Like my brothers and I, who suffered because of our family’s peculiarities, they were outcasts in town, too immature for James and Joseph’s age group yet too old for mine. No one was really certain how old Boaz was, and yet he was, for a different reason, an outcast too. He said he was twelve years old, but I think he was older than that. There were already whiskers on his chin, and yet he was child-like in his behavior and had an infantile face. It was difficult to know how old Jonah, the fourth outcast, was, since he looked like a girl, and yet, despite the embarrassment his presence caused Simon and my friends, he was the least trouble of them all. Like my previous gang, they were, as a whole, a collection of diverse personalities and outsiders, drawn together with nowhere else to go. But they were all I had.
Jesus, who didn’t have any close friends, himself, sometimes joined my gang when we were hiking in the hills. With Jesus popping up unexpectedly and Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz to intimidate them, James and Joseph and their friends rarely harassed us. A drawback to having Jesus’ added protection was that he would not allow any sort of mischief on our exploits. With him around, we couldn’t spy on the Romans or shepherds or set traps for James, Joseph and their friends. In his presence, our games had to be civil, which also meant that we had to respect furry and feathered creatures and not place our lives in peril. Because of the lingering threat of bandit bands in Galilee, our parents’ greatest worry was that we might venture too far into the hills. With Jesus along, this meant we had to play our games between the property line of our front yard and the boundary line of the orchard below our house—a small area for a group of unruly youths.
One day, not long after Papa and his friends visited the Roman camp, when he and Jesus were busy repairing the potter’s roof across town, Simon and I decided to share one of our secret places with our new friends. No one else knew about this, except perhaps Jesus, who knew everything. To avoid detection by our Roman guards, who, like Papa, forbade us to venture too far, we waited until Falco and Priam wandered over to chat with Regulus on the road before sneaking into the orchard and our hidden trail. We also had to keep alert for the appearance of Gratian and Leto, who watched over the Nazareth hills, although these lazy fellows were probably asleep that day or drunk on Odeh’s resinous wine. Many years later I would learn about their sloth from Odeh himself, but for now we skirted the hill fearfully, bush by bush, darting from tree to tree until we snuck up to the head of the narrow trail.
“You expect us to go down there?” Obadiah looked at me in disbelief
“Yes, it’s easy,” I said, moving sideways between cactus and thorns
“Are you sure,” groaned Jethro, “those plants look awfully prickly.”
Simon was next, with Jonah, Jethro, and Obadiah following reluctantly behind. Boaz was too big and clumsy to avoid being scratched and refused to follow us down. As our group descended the forbidding trail with hands held high to avoid contact with the thorns, we could hear him whimper forlornly in the orchard.
“Boaz,” I called back, “hold up your arms, suck in your gut, and walk sideways. Our guards will hear you if you carry on like that.”
Fearful of being caught, Boaz forced himself to endure a few bristles and thorns. By the time he had reached the carved steps leading down to the sanctuary, we were all standing in the shadows looking around at the writing and symbols on the walls. There was a rustling sound in the dark recess untouched by sunlight. Simon and I thought it might be a small animal, but the other boys began scrambling back up the trail.
“What is this evil place?” Obadiah called out.
“Move aside Boaz!” Jethro screamed.
Boaz was scratched and torn by the bushes as he followed Jonah back up the trail, but I was still half convinced it was a mouse or hare. When Simon began to scramble up the side of the sanctuary, however, I was filled with misgivings and began backing away. What if a poisonous snake was slithering my way or this was the lair of a wild beast?
“Who goes there?” I croaked, continuing my retreat.
“Help me,” a voice broke the darkness.
“What was that? Did you hear a voice?” I heard my friends mutter.
“Hel-l-lp me!” the ghostly stranger cried out in a ragged voice, as I scrambled frantically up the trail.
When I reached the top, prickled with cactus needles and scratched by thistles and thorns, I looked down the narrow path into the black sanctuary below. Once again I heard the specter groan, whimper, and call for help. My brother Simon and my friends had abandoned me. I hesitated only a moment before running through the trees. When I broke through the woods, I expected to see my friends waiting for me, but only Simon stood waiting on the path. Regulus, with Falco and Priam accompanying him, was just that moment making his rounds. Slowing down immediately, I fell in step with Simon just as the three Romans trudged down the trail beside our house.
We were both bleeding slightly from various cuts on our arms and legs, but the wounds were mostly on our knees and the tops of our arms. We moved forward, without looking back, as the Romans tramped down the path, having just escaped, by mere moments, from being caught in the act. In spite of this realization, the most important issue for me was the voice I heard in the dark. The call of the optio, though startling, was a reassuring sound. For a brief moment, I was tempted to tell him about what I heard, but something held me back. It was as if another voice in my head shouted “Jude, don’t say a word!”
“You boys stay out of the hills,” Regulus barked. “Falco told me about your exploits. The Shepherd’s Trail is the back door to Nazareth. Until we catch Reuben and Abbas’ son, these hills aren’t safe!”
“Yes sir,” I called back, hoping he wouldn’t see the scratch on my nose, “we’ll tell all our friends.”
“Should we tell them about the noises we heard?” Simon asked from the corner of his mouth.
“No!” I whispered, placing my finger to my lips. “There’s something very strange about this. We’ll ask Papa and Jesus what we should do.”
We could hear Falco discussing our town’s security with Regulus that moment. Behind a pomegranate bush near the back door, we stopped to hear Falco’s complaint.
“I wish Cornelius didn’t have to cut our forces in Nazareth. We don’t know how many of those bandits escaped into these hills. Without those men reassigned by Longinus, we’ll be short handed. We should’ve caught them all when we had a chance!”
“Longinus is just following orders,” snorted Regulus. “Gratus, our new governor, is upset with Cornelius for wasting so many troops. I just hope they don’t have us pull out of Nazareth altogether now that he’s in control.”
This talk might have upset me once, but their discussion was old news to Simon and I. Papa had already told us about the soldiers pulling out of town. Fortunately for us, Papa and Jesus were working on Malachi the potter’s roof. James and Joseph were visiting their friends, and Mama and the twins must have been working in the garden or she would have checked up on us by now. I felt proud that Simon, cowardly by nature, had waited for me on the path, but I was troubled that our friends had ran off like scared sheep.
When we entered the house, Mama had just arrived from the garden with a large basket of vegetables, the twins cavorting behind. Almost immediately, she noticed our scrapes and torn clothing, her hand flying to her mouth.
“Simon! Jude! What happened?” She shuffled over to inspect our wounds. “Did those boys running from our house beat you up?”
“No, Mama,” I said, shaking my head, “they’re are friends. We just ran into some thorns.”
“Thorns?” She looked at us in disbelief. “You both have cactus needles in your clothing. Your clothes are shredded and torn. I see puncture wounds on your skin. Where have you boys been?”
“We fell down a hill near the orchard,” Simon told a half truth, which was, of course, also a half lie.
Mama thought about this a moment as she retrieved her medicines and bandages and began cleaning and dressing our wounds. Our tunics were pulled off of us and pants rolled up far above our knees. Simon yelped as she cleaned his wounds then applied her special potion. Before wrapping some of our wounds in bandages, she gave me the same treatment. After seeing how Simon carried on, I tried to be brave but found tears rolling down my cheeks. As Mama turned to washing the dirt from our faces, arms, hands, and legs, delicately working around our scrapes and cuts, her tender touch belied the angry edge to her voice.
“What is the rest of your story?” She seemed to address us both. “I haven’t seen cactus plants anywhere on our property or in the nearby trees. You boys where roaming the hills again, weren’t you?”
“No, Mama” Simon answered honestly this time, “we didn’t go into the hills.”
“Why are you lying to me?” She gave him a wounded look.
“He’s not lying,” I said, wiping my eyes. “We didn’t get scratched up in the hills.”
Mama held up her hand to silence me, but I knew I had to tell the truth.
“We found a trail near the olive orchard,” the words flew out of my mouth. “The trail led to a dark place with funny carvings on the wall. Today, we heard noises. There was someone in the darkness calling out “help me,” but we all ran away like frightened lambs.”
Mama’s eyes widened with fear. Within a short interval of time, the expression on her gentle face had changed from alarm, to scorn, to panic, and now seemed to register all three emotions at the same time as she considered what I had said.
“You foolish children!” She shook her finger at us. “Why didn’t you tell Regulus about this? What if its one of those bandits they chased into the hills?”
“We weren’t in the hills,” insisted Simon. “There was,” he searched for the words, “someone in our special place.” “Tell her more Jude.” He turned to me.
“He was wounded,” I explained carefully. “He must have crawled down there sometime in the last few days. I was afraid to tell the Romans because I knew they would kill him.”
“Did you recognize his voice?” She asked, walking over to the back door and looking out.
“No, his voice was like a groan or a whine, as if he was in great pain.”
“Dear merciful Lord,” she mumbled, shutting then re-latching the door.
That moment, with her face constricted with emotion, Papa lumbered wearily into the room. Jesus, who was arguing with James and Joseph, was not far behind.
“It’s none of your business,” James was saying. “It’s not our friends’ fault that their parents don’t like our family.”
“But you’re ashamed of your family,” scolded Jesus. “Don’t blame their parents. I think your friends are acting like snobs and they don’t want to come into our house.”
“Jesus is right,” Papa said, collapsing onto a stool. “I’ve done some repairs for Isaac and Jeroboam’s parents. They’re not bad folks. Those friends of yours, James and Joseph, have been influenced by the rabbi’s sermons. I’ve heard Joachim is back to his old ways. While everyone else in town are coming to their senses, they still think Jesus is a blasphemer and heretic.”
“Hatred and intolerance die a hard death,” Jesus replied grimly.
“But how can a rabbi act like that?” Joseph clenched and unclenched his fists. “If it wasn’t for Joachim, hatred and intolerance for us would not have been born.”
Jesus slapped Joseph’s back with approval as they all sat down together in the kitchen. What they were talking about was an old and tired subject. Jesus is a heretic. Jesus is a blasphemer. No one, except Rabbi Joachim, James and Joseph’s silly friends, and crazy Old Ethan cared about that issue anymore. Simon and I were waiting fearfully for Mama to blurt out our discovery. Mama’s expression had softened, but she was still frowning and holding her bag of medicinal paraphernalia in one hand. Papa smiled as she emerged from the afternoon shadows, the sunlight breaking through the window to give her a saintly glow.
“What’s wrong Mary?” he finally asked.
Before she could answer that question, the words poured out of my mouth: “There’s someone below the orchard in a dark hole who’s hurt. He might be dying. He called ‘help me! help me!’ but we ran like scared sheep—”
I had almost got to the part where Simon and I didn’t tell Regulus and Falco what we discovered, when I noticed Papa, Jesus, and my brothers quickly filing out of the house. Mama stood in the kitchen, with Abigail and Martha on each side of her, smiling tolerantly at Simon and me as we followed them out of the door.
“Come on boys,” Papa called, “I want to keep an eye on you.” “James, Joseph—go fetch one of the guards.”
“You can’t do that,” I screamed at my brothers, “they’ll kill him. Falco and Priam will run him through.”
“He’s right Papa,” Jesus reached out gently. “If they show up, they’ll drag him out. He might already be dead. As Jude has said, he called out for help. Let’s go down there and have a look.”
Papa thought for only a brief moment before calling James and Joseph back. Before going any further, Jesus ran into the house to fetch Papa’s sword. The sword, we all knew, would not be used as a weapon but to cut away brush. As we congregated at the edge of the orchard, I called down into the dark recess “Hello! Are you there?”
There was no answer, so I called again. While we waited for the stranger’s response, Papa sent Joseph back to the house for a lamp. By the time Joseph had returned with the lamp, I had called several more times without a reply.
“Maintain a safe distance back there,” Papa instructed. “I’ll go down first. Keep the lamp clear of the brush to avoid setting it ablaze.”
“He must be dead,” Simon declared, as Papa stepped forth brandishing his sword.
“No, listen everyone.” I cupped my ear. “I hear someone groaning and making grunting sounds.”
“That would be me,” said Joseph, following behind with the lamp.
Papa cut a wide path with his ancient sword. It could be used as a formidable weapon if trouble waited below, but it seemed to me that if the trespasser had been a dangerous fugitive he would have dragged himself off to a new hideout by now. Motioning for Joseph to pass the lamp forward, Papa instructed us to stay behind him. The exception was Jesus, who followed him fearlessly into the shadowy pit. As a precaution, the rest of us grabbed handfuls of rocks from the path to use as missiles. James, who brought up the rear, had found a limb, which he brandished as a club.
When we had all collected in the hollow below, Papa gasped aloud at what was carved on the walls. Simon and I gave each other sly smiles as James and Joseph made the sign to ward off the evil eye. Jesus studied the inscriptions with curiosity and understanding.
“This is familiar,” James muttered to himself, “to the markings in Jesus’ cave.”
“Yes, and in Mariah’s house.” Joseph’s eyes were wide with horror.
It’s the old religion,” Papa explained, searching the dark, “the remnant of a civilization our people destroyed.”
“Remember the Evil One we saw in the orchard?” Jesus whispered in my ear.
I nodded, shuddering at the thought. It was one of the many secrets Jesus and I would share. At that point as if to accentuate the presence of evil, we heard a rustling sound, followed by a moan and a gurgling groan. Raising the lamp up high and moving cautiously toward the noise, with his sword clutched in one hand, Papa sounded the darkness “Who goes there? We’re here to help.” Suddenly, as the lantern’s radiance highlighted the depths of the abyss, Papa stepped aside with an intake of breath. Handing the lamp to James, he crouched down into a warlike position. There, looming in the eerie glow, disembodied in darkness, was the bloodied head of Reuben, the tanner-turned-bandit. Below the familiar face and grimy red hair, the dark outline of a broken body was outlined against the rock. By now, James, Joseph, Simon, and I had begun a hasty retreat. Glancing back as I scrambled up the carved steps, I half believed Papa would run his old enemy through, until I realized that we had nothing to fear. Reuben was, as the carvings, a remnant of what he once was. Cautiously, we rejoined Papa and Jesus, as they stood appraising the fugitive below.
Papa knelt down to inspect Reuben’s wounds. “He’s close to death,” he whispered, setting down his sword.
“If his injuries aren’t treated,” Jesus replied gravely, “he’ll soon die.”
Reuben was grimy with dirt and blood. A long cut, probably from a sword slash, ran from his cheek to the side of his neck. An arrow shaft protruded from his shoulder. The lamp was now passed back to Joseph. In the lamplight, we saw no movement whatsoever, except a gurgling sound from his blood spattered mouth. Papa and Jesus agreed that he couldn’t stay in this dark place.
As they discussed how we would transport Reuben back to the house, James wailed, “We must tell the guards. We’ll be punished for helping this man!”
The light shook in Joseph’s hand as he shouted, “Let him die! Let him die!”
“Keep your voices down!” Jesus shushed, waving his arms.
“Since when do you walk away from a dying man?” Papa’s voice trembled. “Shame on you James and Joseph. He’s no threat to anyone now. You’ll both help us carry Reuben back to the house.”
“But that’s Reuben,” Simon muttered to himself, “he wanted to kill us.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I whispered in his ear, “Reuben asked for our help. I just hope it’s not too late!”
While Simon and I, as sentries, pretended to play in the orchard, Jesus was sent back to the house to fetch a large blanket. Papa would remain with Reuben, as James and Joseph stood by nervously wringing their hands. For several moments, as we waited for Jesus to emerge from the house, we scampered madly beneath the trees throwing dirt clods at each other in anticipation that Falco, Priam or one of the other guards would walk up or down the path. Because the Romans had become unpredictable lately and grown lazy with so little to do, we didn’t know which direction they would come from. For all we knew, they might all be napping or lying drunk under a bush or tree. Just when Jesus emerged from the house, Simon and I saw Priam walking lazily up the trail, without a care in the world. Jesus ducked back in before being spotted. Simon fled deep into the woods, leaving me standing alone by the trail.
“Ave, little Jude,” Priam called out cheerily. “Haven’t been romping in the hills, have you?”
“No sir,” I grinned foolishly. “I was playing hide and seek with Simon.”
“Where is Simon?” He looked at me suspiciously. “Why don’t you give him a call.”
“Simon! Oh Simon!” I called in a quivering voice.
Simon broke through the shadows of the trees, a look of abject fear on his face. With my back to Priam, I mouthed the words “Calm down!” Then, when he was close enough to me but far enough away from Priam, I whispered, “Stop acting like a coward!” When he was standing by my side, a snarl played on Priam’s stubbly face. I was certain at that point that Simon was going to give us all away, but then Jesus appeared in our midst, carrying a mug of wine in one hand and a loaf of freshly baked bread in the other.
“Mama wanted to show her appreciation,” he declared calmly, handing the food and drink to the guard. “My brothers are only allowed to go within earshot of the house. They’re not supposed to go into the hills.”
“Well, I could see that they’re good boys,” he said, munching on the bread and sipping on his wine. “Excellent,” he added, raising his mug. “I love Greek wine. Your father’s business must be thriving!”
“It is, it is indeed,” Jesus gave the Roman’s shoulder a pat.
“A fine day to you Jesus.” He grinned. “And to you boys.” He winked knowingly at Simon and me.
As always, Jesus managed not to lie. It was true that we weren’t suppose to go into the hills, but in the mind of the guards what we were doing now would be considered much worse. We didn’t know where Priam was headed that moment, but all three of us heaved great sighs of relief. We had learned that the surest way to dupe a Roman guard was to give him bread and wine, but not all of the Romans we knew would have fallen for that trick. Before he had a chance to tell his superior about his suspicious encounter near the woods, we had to get Reuben into the house. Jesus raced back to grab the blanket. Simon and I ran ahead to tell Papa about our close call. If one of the other guards just happened to be strolling up or down the trail during our transport of Reuben, we would have been considered collaborators helping an enemy of Rome. With this realization burning in our minds, we managed to place the unconscious Reuben in the blanket and carry him speedily back to the house. He groaned continually as we attempted the awkward climb up the steps and up through the ragged trail, until we reached the orchard and lapsed into what seemed deathly silence. As we gripped the blanket and stumbled hurriedly up the path to our back door, Jesus prayed aloud, and James, Joseph, and Papa looked fearfully around for guards as Simon and I fought back the urge to cry.
Even with the path cleared by Papa’s sword, we couldn’t avoid the prickly bushes. All of us received minor scratches that Mama would treat when the time was right. She was waiting for us at the door, so that when we brought Reuben in, she immediately shut and bolted it behind us. Reuben was laid on the table, the blanket remaining below his seemingly lifeless body. Everyone stood back as Mama came forward with her bandages and bag of medicine. Jesus was praying again, as Papa walked over to close the shutters of the kitchen window. Two large lamps were lit at each end of the long table. It took only few moments for Mama to realize just how serious Reuben condition was.
“We need Abner.” She looked up expectantly at Papa.
“By the time we find the physician, Reuben will be dead,” Papa said, sinking wearily onto the bench.
should we care?” James spoke my own thoughts aloud.
“Because the Lord would have it so!” Jesus shot back irritability.
“Then, by all means,” James challenged, snapping his fingers, “make him better!”
“Yes,” sneered Joseph, “you brought a sparrow back to life. Reuben’s still alive. Make that arrow in his chest disappear!”
I thought Mama would rear up as she had before when Jesus had been insulted, but this time she saw unanimity in four of her sons. This man had been our enemy. We had suffered because of him. Our family had felt threatened and forced to rely on the protection of Roman guards. Instead of rebuking James and Joseph, she turned to Jesus, who had been tempted by James and Joseph’s challenge.
“No, Jesus,” she whispered, clutching his trembling hand, “it’s not your time. I shall remove the arrow, and then we shall pray for Reuben as we have prayed for Samuel, Elizabeth, Nehemiah, and Uriah.” “Joseph, my husband,” her voice rose gently, “you must forgive this man enough to pray for him. Jesus is right; it’s the Lord’s will.”
“Wife,” he said, shaking his head, “you test my will. I don’t know what I was thinking in going along with Jesus and Jude. This time an act of kindness will bring down more than the town’s anger against us. If it’s discovered that we’re harboring this man, it will bring down the wrath of Rome. We must let him die of his mortal wounds then place him back into in the abyss in which he was found. If you pull that arrow out, he will probably die from injuries caused by its barbed tip. If you leave it in, as you should, the wound will continue to fester so that he will die naturally, probably very soon judging by his shallow breathing. If it had just been a sword thrust or other wound that could be cleaned and dressed, he might have had a chance. As it stands, though, our old enemy will probably draw his last breath today or tonight.” “Let this lost soul be,” he waved resignedly. “I wish to God, they had never found that dark hole.”
Mama now comforted Simon and I, as we wept after Papa’s words. “Now, now, children, your father’s not blaming you. He’s worried about our safety, but Jesus and I are worried about our family’s spirit. It’s not our way to turn away the least of God’s children, even Reuben who has been our enemy all this time. Is it right that anyone should die alone and in the darkness, after calling out for our help?”
“No,” James said reproachfully, “he called to Jude, Simon and their dumb friends.”
“It’s true,” Joseph pointed at me accusingly, “Simon said your friends thought that place was haunted. So did he. Why did you have to take us down there?”
“What? What did you say about his friends?” Papa jumped up from his stool.
“Did you forget to tell us something?” Jesus looked tolerantly at me.
Mama shook her head in dismay. “This isn’t good, Joseph. They heard his call for help. We have only just recently won over Jethro and Obadiah’s father and mother and Boaz’s parents too. What if those children tell their parents about hearing Reuben’s voice?”
“Mama,” I reached out to calm her, “they’ve never heard Reuben before. It didn’t sound like Reuben to me either. I remember the way he talked: gruff, deep, and unfriendly. What I heard was a moaning, groaning voice, without pride.”
“Is that the only way down into that pit?” Jesus’ eyes widened with concern.
“I dunno,” I shrugged. “It’s the only way I know.”
“There could have been a back way or other entrance,” Jesus declared, rising up and pacing around the room. “Reuben was unconscious when we found him. What if someone else brought him to this hideout, a fellow bandit or friend—”
“There were several men who escaped,” Papa pursed his lips in thought. “It’s possible. Why not?”
“There’s other bandits in our hills?” Joseph slapped his forehead.
“We should have told the Romans,” James groaned. “What if they come looking for Reuben? Why didn’t we leave him where he was?”
Papa looked around, the notion Jesus implanted in his head growing. While his brothers wrung their hands in despair, Jesus did as he always did during a crisis and prayed. Drawing upon her inner courage, Mama now set about the task of removing the arrow shaft from Reuben’s chest. Papa stopped pacing and Jesus ceased praying and, while Mama gripped the broken shaft, held Reuben firmly in place to prevent further injury, as the arrow tip was pulled free of his chest.
“What if our friends’ parents tell the Romans,” Simon muttered, as I grew mesmerized by my mother’s strength.
“This is madness!” James looked around in disbelief.
“Let’s run away from this house, ” Joseph lurched toward the door. “Samuel will give us sanctuary. Come James, Simon, Jude, before our enemies storm our house!”
Something inside me, perhaps the Spirit of the Lord, made me fearless that moment. I could not believe my eyes as I witnessed the shaft and barbed tip emerge from Reuben’s chest. Papa seemed about ready to faint, but Jesus didn’t flinch. Mama calmly set the dreadful missile aside and, sprinkling a white powder on the wound, began winding a bandage around the area, tying it securely at the shoulder. The cut on Reuben’s face was cleaned with a rag, sprinkled with the same powder, but covered with a smaller dressing. Awakening from the vision of my parents and oldest brother ministering to our enemy, I ran across the floor. Joseph was struggling with the board latching our door shut when I placed my smaller body in front of the door. To my great wonder, Simon joined my blockade and, coming to his senses, James attempted to bar Joseph’s exit from the house too.
“Stop it! Stop it!” James wept, gripping his brother around the waste.
“What if they find him in our house?” Joseph muttered hysterically. “The Romans may cut off our heads. The townsfolk might burn our house. His friends could attack us in our sleep.”
“Let us pray,” Papa called hoarsely to his sons. “Reuben’s still alive, but not for long without God’s help.”
“We’re having a prayer circle for Reuben, the bandit,” I announced light-headedly as we gathered hand-in-hand around the table.
James led Joseph into the circle. Simon took my hand without making a joke of it this time. I felt Mama’s warm, comforting fingers in mine. There were not enough supplicants to encircle the table, so Papa reached across awkwardly to grab Mama’s hand and James had to bend forward, with a look of utter distaste, to join with Simon at the other end. This time, because of the patient’s gory appearance, the twins were told to stay in the back room. Papa opened with an introductory prayer that essentially asked God to spare Reuben’s misspent life or at least be merciful upon his soul if he died. Jesus, who stood between Mama and Simon, added a long-winded petition to God for Reuben’s health but also asked for special protection now that the Romans were pulling out.
My prayer was simple: Lord make our enemy well. I don’t know if God listened to my half-hearted attempt or how well my brothers did, but I knew that my parents and oldest brother were praying very hard. When I finally opened my eyes, I could see no change in Reuben. His eyes were half open and pupils fixed. There was no rise or fall of breath or movement from his parted lips. He looked quite dead to us, until Mama performed the test applied to Nehemiah to confirm life or death.
The mirror misted just enough to cause her to gasp, but the rest of us, even Jesus, looked down at our patient with disbelief.
“He’s alive?” Papa’s mouth dropped wide.
“Thank you Lord,” Jesus whispered huskily. “Your wonders never cease.”
“Yeah? What about the sparrow and the Pharisee’s son?” I said, pulling on his robe.
“That was different.” A rapt expression had fallen over Mama’s face.
To this day I don’t see how it was really different. The sparrow, I’m certain, had been quite dead. Jesus curing of Levi in Gaul was documented by himself; it seemed obvious during the reading that Levi had at least been in the dark sleep, that threshold where the soul hovers between life and death. Perhaps, now that I think about it, it was a matter of degree in Mama’s mind. Levi was merely sick, while Reuben had an arrow in his chest and had been slashed by a sword. Yet I saw the sparrow, a crumpled mass in Jesus’ hand, brought back from certain death. Reuben, it should be obvious to everyone, was still in the dark sleep. In my own heart, because of Jesus teachings on our walks in the hills, I held all life as sacred. I recalled a moment when Jesus words “the breath of God is in all living things” implied to me that the sparrow had a soul just like Jews and Gentiles, which meant that his resurrection was every bit as miraculous as keeping a wounded man alive.
Without uttering a command, Papa led us all from the candle lit table into the greater room where he motioned for James and Joseph to set stools around the newly tiled floor. As weary soldiers sharing a hard won victory, we sat around in our circle looking vacantly at the floral mosaics below. Light from the newly constructed back window streamed into the room, casting Jesus’ shadow across the floor, which, now that I reflect upon it, seemed like a remote prelude to the impact he would one day have upon the world. That moment, however, he was a sixteen year old youth, still struggling with his Godhood, at odds with the family of Joseph and his adopted sons.
Mama was the exception this hour. Though it might be small, another miracle had happened in this house today of which she played an integral part.
“Where shall we eat dinner?” grumbled Simon.
“I don’t know.” Papa sighed. “We’ll just have to make do,”
“I know,” Mama tried to sound chipper, “let’s bring our old table back into the house. I’ll rustle us up something to eat. Papa can have a mug of wine.”
“Mark my word,” Joseph muttered to James, “harboring this fugitive is a big mistake.”
“The Lord will watch over our house,” came Jesus refrain.
Reuben remained on the table throughout the evening, more dead than alive. Papa promised us that, as soon as he expired or his condition improved enough to move him some place else, we would be able to use the new table again. Since our patient had bled profusely after Mama pulled out the arrow, however, it would require a great deal of scrubbing and sanding to return the table to its original state. Papa tried to hide his disgust, but I’ve never seen him show less concern for another man. Until then, the old table stored in Papa’s shop was placed in a corner of the large room as far away as possible from the kitchen, which stank from pending death. Already, Papa had selected a secluded spot between the house and shop to bury our guest. Except for Mama’s ministrations and Jesus’ prayer, there was nothing else we could do.
It had been a tiring day for everyone, but we were allowed to go into the front yard before sunset as long as we stayed close to the house. Roman sentries riding past our house could keep an eye on us as we sat in the garden. There, in muted voices, Simon and I discussed the crisis in our home. It wasn’t the first, we agreed. Our protection of Mariah, the town witch, had been worse. Everyone in town knew about that. It had taken a long time for townsmen to get over the drenching Jesus’ prayer gave them. Then there was Michael, Mariah’s’ delinquent son, who brought back the town’s animosity after defiling the synagogue. Papa’s drubbing of the rabbi hadn’t helped nor the continuing actions of out oldest brother. But that was then, I reminded Simon, when our neighbors knew what was going on in our family. So far Reuben was a secret, and we wanted to keep it that way.
Papa, whose nervous energy was best spent working in his shop, kept a close eye on James and Joseph after they were given chores. Occasionally he, Jesus or Mama checked on us to make sure we stayed put where we were. Simon and I had been badly shaken today. As the sun set in a moonless night, we peeked over the window ledge. To facilitate our eavesdropping, only a crack existed between the shutters, just enough for us to steal a glance. Mama sat at the head of the table, her hands folded and head bowed in prayer. As I write it now, “a nearby lamp cast its eerie glow on the face of the mother of God.” That moment, however, all I saw was a kindly, worn-out woman, who never stopped helping someone else, whether it be her beloved Aunt Elizabeth, Reuben, a sworn enemy of our family, or one of the orphans taking refuge in our house.
The sound of galloping on the road was reassuring that moment. It meant that the Romans were still watching over our town. Simon and I had been forbidden to romp in the orchard and even the backyard in case an inquisitive guard passed through, and yet we needed their vigilance more than ever now.
“Come inside Simon and Jude,” Mama tried to sound cheerful, “daylight has fled. It’s time for dinner then bed.”
“All right Mama,” I said, heaving a sigh.
“Here goes,” Simon muttered, holding his nose.
The smell was so bad inside our house we would rather risk loitering outside than suffering the stench. Dreading the interior of our house, we entered reluctantly, bombarded by the smell of incense overlying the distinctive odor of feces and blood. Mama had put burners in various corners of the house, which helped camouflage the smell of pending death. I tried not to look into the kitchen, closing my eyes tightly a moment as the aroma from a nearby burner dulled my senses. What I really wanted, the thought came to me, was a mug of wine. Out of the shadows, Jesus appeared with Abigail and Martha in tow. It appeared as if they were more frightened by what was going on than us. Jesus, who was as weary as my parents, had been entertaining them as Papa finished up an order in the shop. James and Joseph had brought the old table and its stools back into the house, placed a lamp on the tabletop, and sat staring at the flickering light. Today’s discovery had taken its toll on them too. Fearful and anxious, ourselves, Simon and I joined our brothers at the table, each of us holding one of the twins’ tiny hands, while Papa and Jesus began preparing the evening meal. By now, I gathered, our parents had begun worrying about the sanity of Papa’s namesake Joseph. His face was contorted in fear. James had a haunted look, himself, as he looked around the room.
“Is them Romans gonna get us, Jude?” Abigail’s freckled face was streaked with tears.
“No, the Romans are here to protect us.” I looked down with a frown. “Don’t listen to Joseph and James. Regulus, Falco, and Priam are our friends.”
“I’m not so sure.” Simon heaved a sigh.
“You’re not to play with your new friends until this matter ends,” Papa called from the kitchen. “I don’t want them snooping around. You’re not to let them in our yard!”
I wanted to protest his decision, but I dare not argue with him that moment. The truth was, I didn’t trust them either. What if the guards stopped to ask them questions, and they led them to our secret place. For several moments, as Papa served up dinner and Jesus poured juice into our mugs, James and Joseph sat motionless—the first time I could remember them being so quiet. Simon and I calmed our sisters, who were frightened about the strange man in our house. Mama rose up from her vigil, washed her hands thoroughly, and took her place at one end of the table.
“Simon, Jude,” Papa said, his hands on his hips, “your disobedience may have been unintentional. After all, you didn’t leave the orchard and enter the hills as I instructed, but you ventured onto a forbidden path. Do either of you understand how all this might look to the townsfolk and our guards?”
“Yes,” we answered meekly.
“What would the elders think if they knew we were harboring another evildoer?” He asked, reaching down to pat our heads. “How could we explain that our patient is none other than Reuben, our archenemy, who has been such a threat to our town?”
Tears rolled down our cheeks as we considered the danger our family faced.
“My sons,” Papa included James and Joseph in his glance. “Our fair-weather friends, yours and mine, will turn against us if they discover our guest.” “But more important than the elders or our friends,” his voice rose solemnly, “is how this would look to Regulus, Priam, and Falco, our protectors. The Romans would not take lightly to this new act of charity. To contain the terrible secret in our house will require staying close to home and out of sight as much as possible.” “Let them think we have the plague,” he quipped grimly, bending over to embrace the twins. “If playmates come up to the house,” he looked squarely at Simon and I, “simply say ‘we’re not feeling well.’ That won’t be a lie. Let them draw their own conclusions. You must not tell anyone that there’s someone in our house!”
As his eyes traveled around to each of us, we all nodded vigorously. Papa had made his point, but Jesus took issue with his last words.
“You would have them think we have the plague?” He inquired gently. “That would be a lie. Since when do we have to lie to our neighbors and friends?”
“You would tell the Romans the truth?” Papa shook his head in wonder. “Sometimes, Jesus, I think you should come down to earth. The truth would destroy our family this time.”
“The truth shall set you free,” Jesus muttered dubiously.
I felt that I understood my brother’s dilemma. Jesus, who couldn’t lie, was being instructed to do just that. This time I fully agreed with Papa and yet I left my stool and ran to Jesus to receive his blessing on my head. I wanted to believe that he, if not the Romans, would protect our house. What would he do if he was put to the test? How wrong I was, though, to think so shallow of him. I would learn from him one day that this conflict had triggered something in his mind. Revelation flashed on and off momentarily in his head, leaving my sixteen year old brother confused with what would one day shake the foundations of the world.
For now, he was left with the terrible dilemma of having to join our deception against the Romans, inquisitive townsfolk, and our fair-weather friends. In a most heated conversation, Papa and my brothers ganged up on Jesus, who appeared confused by his own words. Jesus could not defend his position about not telling a lie, but he questioned the subterfuge of pretending that we have the plague.
“Do we have to tell our friends that?” His gave us a troubled look. “Our house would be quarantined. This could backfire on you Papa. What about your business? We will be outcasts again, but this time under a cloud of deceit.”
“Cloud of deceit?” Papa was astonished. “This will be temporary Jesus. Reuben will either live or die, and then we’ll go on with our lives.”
“If its God’s will,” replied Jesus grimly, “Reuben will die. But deception lives on like a curse. It becomes a habit to hide adversity. We must trust in the Lord.”
“What do you suggest?” James spat. “Pray the problem away?”
“No,” grumbled Joseph, “prayer is prolonging this. If we’d let him die in the first place, we could’ve buried our secret in the ground.”
Papa looked at Joseph in shock. “Shame on you!” his voice shook. “I can’t believe you said such a thing! I’m not happy with this either, but we have given Reuben sanctuary. The deed is done. It’s a miracle he survived at all.”
“Perhaps God sees a purpose in all this.” Jesus turned palms heavenward. “Who are we to question His will?”
Joseph mumbled an apology, but he wasn’t contrite. Papa’s half-hearted scolding was understandable, since he had already picked out a likely grave plot for Reuben in the yard. Reuben was our enemy. Joseph had merely spoken all of our thoughts, except for what was in Jesus’ mind. A sudden inspiration filled me that came out of my mouth almost as a jest.
“If we want to keep our secret,” I spoke up blithely, “we must hide Jesus too. Jesus can’t lie.”