Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana Page 10

A great many who lived in the surrounding towns worked these lands - these fields, these orchards, these vineyards. But the greatest pride of the two men was their olive groves. Everywhere I saw these groves and beside them the inevitable mikvah where the men bathed before the harvest because the oil from these olives had to be pure if it was to go to the Temple in Jerusalem, if it was to be sold to the pious Jews of Galilee, or Judea, or the many cities of the Empire.

Students now and then came to Hananel, but he was rumored not to be a patient teacher.

As I came into the house, I saw he was with one of those students now, a young man named Nathanael, who sat quite literally at the old man's feet in the grand room of the house at the far end of the courtyard. I scarcely knew the young man. I'd seen him now and then on the pilgrimages.

I had a look at them both from a distance as I sat in the foyer. A patient slave washed my feet, as I took a drink of water from a limestone cup and gratefully gave it back to him.

"Yeshua," said the slave under his breath. "He's in a rage today. I don't know why he sent for you, but be careful."

"He didn't send for me, my friend," I said. "Please go in and tell him I must speak to him. And I'll wait as long as I have to."

The slave wandered off, shaking his head, and I sat for a moment enjoying the warmth of the sun as it came through the high lattice above the door. The mosaic floor of the courtyard had been our finest work. I studied it now, and I looked slowly at the full, rich potted trees that surrounded the mirrorlike pond in the center.

No pagan nymphs or gods decorated these floors or walls, not for this devout Jew. Only the permissible designs, circles, curlicues, and lilies, which once we had so carefully laid out to decorate a perfect symmetry.

All this was open to the sky, the dusty rainless sky. It was open to the cold. But for a moment it was possible to forget the drought, to look at the shimmering sheet of water, or the fruit glistening on the trees, fresh with droplets from a slave's pitcher, and think that the world outside wasn't parched and dying. And that young men weren't still flowing, by the hundreds, into the distant city of Caesarea.

The sun had warmed the floors and the walls; the heat was sweet and I could feel it creeping over my hands and even my feet as I sat in the shadows.

Finally the young man Nathanael got up and went out, without noticing me. The gate shut with the usual chink.

I said a silent prayer and followed the slave through the small forest of well-watered figs and palms and into the grand library.

A stool had been set there for me, a simple folding stool of leather and polished wood, very fancy, and very comfortable.

I remained standing.

The old man sat at his desk, in a cross-legged Roman chair, his back to the lattice, amid silken pillows, and Babylonian rugs, scrolls heaped before him and bulging from the bookshelves all around him. The walls were bookshelves. His desk had ink and pens and bits and scraps of paper, and a wax tablet. And a stack of codices - those little parchment books with stitched bindings that the Romans called membrane.

The sunshine twinkled in the lattice. The palm fronds outside scratched against it.

The old man was now completely bald, and his eyes very pale, almost gray. He was very cold, though the brazier was heaped high, and the air was as warm as it was fragrant with the scent of cedar.

"Come closer," he said.

I did as he asked. I bowed.

"Yeshua bar Joseph," I said, "from Nazareth, to see you, my lord. I'm grateful that you've received me."

"What do you want!" he said. His voice had leapt out of him sharply with these words. "Well, say it!" he declared. "Tell me."

"On a matter concerning our kinsman, my lord," I said, "Shemayah bar Hyrcanus and his daughter, Avigail."

He sat back or, I should say, collapsed in his heap of wrappings. He looked away from me, then pulled the blankets up tighter around him.

"What news do you have from Caesarea!" he asked.

"None, my lord, that hasn't reached Cana. The Jews are assembled there. It's been many days now. Pilate does not come out to speak to the crowd. The crowd won't go away. That's the last I heard this morning before I left Nazareth."

"Nazareth," he whispered crossly, "where they stone children on the say-so of other children."

I bowed my head.

"Yeshua, sit down on that stool. Don't stand in front of me like a servant. You didn't come here to repair these floors, did you? You came on a matter of our families."

I moved to the stool, and slowly sat as he'd told me to do. I was looking up at him. Perhaps six feet lay between us. He was higher because of all the cushions he required, and I could see that his hand was withered and thin, that the bones of his face all but poked through the flesh.

The air here, near the brazier, was intoxicatingly warm. So was the sun falling on my face, and on the back of his head.

"My lord, I come on a distressing errand," I said.

"That fool Jason," he said, "the nephew of Jacimus, is he in Caesarea?"

"Yes, my lord," I said.

"And has he written from Caesarea?"

"Only the news I've told you, my lord. I spoke with the Rabbi this morning."

Silence. I waited. Finally, I said,

"My lord, what is it you want to know?"

"Simply this," he said. "Whether or not Jason has heard from my grandson, Reuben. Whether or not Jason speaks of my grandson, Reuben. I will not humble myself to ask that wretch such a question, but you I ask in confidence under my roof, here in my house. Does that miserable Greek wanderer speak of my grandson, Reuben?"

"No, my lord. I know they were friends. That's all I know."

"And my grandson could be married this day in Rome or in Antioch or wherever he is, married to a foreign woman, and this to spite me." He bowed his head. His demeanor changed. He seemed to have forgotten I was there, or not to care who I was, had he ever cared. "I brought this on myself," he said. "I did this to myself, put the sea between him and me, put the world between me and the woman he marries and the fruit of her womb, I did this."

I waited.

He turned and looked at me as if waking from a dream.

"And you are going to speak to me of this poor girl, this child, Avigail, whom the bandits pulled off her feet, whom the bandits so brutally frightened."

"Yes, my lord," I said.

"Why? Why come here to me with this, and why you, what do you want me to do about it?" he asked. "Do you think I'm not heartsick for the girl? Pity the man who has a daughter that beautiful, with such a ringing laugh, with such a lovely gift for song and words. I watched her grow up on the road between here and the Temple. Well, what is it, what do you want from me!"

"I'm sorry, my lord, to cause you grief - ."

"Stop it, go on. Why are you here, Yeshua, the Sinless!"

"My lord, the girl is dying in her house. She takes no food and nothing to drink. And the girl is unharmed, except for the insult to her and to her father."

"The fool," he said disgustedly. "Sent for the midwife for his own daughter! Refusing the word of his own daughter!"

I waited.

"Do you know why my son left for Rome, Yeshua bar Joseph? Did that madman Jason tell you?"

"No, my lord. It's never been mentioned."

"Well, you knew that he left."

"I did, but not why," I explained.

"Because he wanted to marry," said the old man. His eyes glittered as he turned to look away. "He wanted to marry, and not into the Jerusalem family to which I had pointed my finger, but a village girl, a lovely little village girl. Avigail."

I lowered my eyes, and I sat still. Again I waited.

"You didn't know this?"

"No, my lord. No one told me," I said. "Perhaps no one knows."

"Oh, they all know," he said. "Jacimus knows."

"Hmmmm, does he?"

"Yes, indeed he does and he knew at the time, and my grandson, on his own, without my blessing, went calling on Shemayah, and that girl no more than thirteen at the time," he said excitedly. He turned this way and that, eyes roving. "And I, I said no, you will not, you will not marry such a young child, not now, and not from Nazareth, I don't care that her father is rich, that her mother was rich, that she's rich. I don't care, you will marry the girl of my choosing of your kindred in Jerusalem. And now this happens! And you come to me about it."

Again his eyes settled on me and he seemed to see me for the first time. I merely looked at him.

"Still playing the village fool, I see," he said. He peered at me as if trying to memorize my face and features.

"My lord, will you write a letter for Avigail, a letter to our kindred in Jerusalem or Sepphoris, or wherever they might be best suited to receive her, to offer her a home of which she can be part? The girl's blameless. The girl's clever. The girl's sweet, and gentle. The girl's modest."

He was surprised. Then he laughed.

"What makes you think Shemayah will let her out of his grip?"

"My lord, if you find such a place, and you write a letter stating this case, if you yourself, Hananel the Judge, should come with us, with the Rabbi and with my father Joseph, we can surely see to it that Avigail is safely taken away to some place very far from Nazareth. A man can say no to the Rabbi in Nazareth. He can say no to the elders in Nazareth. It's not easy to say no to Hananel of Cana, regardless of what's happened before - and I don't know that Shemayah knows anything about your grandson and what happened between you."

"He was for the match," came the flashing response. "Shemayah was for it until my grandson admitted he didn't have my blessing or permission."

"My lord, someone must do something to save this child. She's dying."

I stood up.

"Tell me to whom I can go, what kindred in Sepphoris," I said. "Give a note of introduction. Tell me what household. I'll go there."

"Don't get yourself into a perfect rage," he said, sneering. "Sit down. And be quiet. I'll find a place for her. I know the place. I know more than one."

I sighed, and I murmured a small prayer of thanks.

"Tell me, O pious one," he said. "Why haven't you, yourself, asked for the girl? And don't tell me she's too good for a carpenter. Right now, she's good for nothing."

"She is good," I said. "She's blameless."

"And you, the child of Mary of Joachim and Anna, tell me. I've always wanted to know. Are you a man beneath those robes? A man? You understand me?"

I stared at him. I could feel the heat in my face. I could feel myself begin to tremble, but not to the extent that he could see it. I refused to look away from him.

"A man like other men?" he asked. "You do understand why I ask. Oh, it's not that you don't marry. The prophet Jeremiah didn't marry. But if memory serves me right, and it always does, and I do remember talking in this very place, though not in this house, in another house, with your grandfather Joachim at the time - and if memory serves me right from those days and it does - the angel who announced your birth to your shivering little mother wasn't simply some angel fallen from the Heavenly Court, it was none other than the angel Gabriel."


We stared at one another.

"Gabriel," he said to me. He raised his chin slightly and arched his eyebrows. "The angel Gabriel himself. He came to speak to your mother and to none other, except, as we all know - the prophet Daniel."

The warmth beat in my face; it beat in my chest. I could feel it in the palms of my hands.

"You press me like a grape, my lord," I said, "between your thumb and forefinger." And I know that when pressed in this manner, I may say strange things, things I don't even think in the course of my day-to-day work, things I don't even think when I'm alone . . . or dreaming.

"So I do," he said. "Because I despise you."

"So it seems, my lord."

"Why don't you jump to your feet again?"

"I stay because I'm on an errand."

He laughed with immense satisfaction. He curled his fingers under his chin and looked around him, but not at the heaps of books, or the lattices with their flashes of light and green, or at the pools of light on the marble floor, or the thin sweet smoke rising from the bronze brazier.

What does it take to ransom Avigail?

"Well, you certainly do love this child, don't you?" he asked. "Either that or you are a fool, as people say, but only some people, I should add."

"What must we do to help her?"

"Don't you want to know why I despise you?" he asked.

"Is it your wish that I should know?"

"I know all the stories about you."

"So it seems."

"About the strange doings when you were born, how your family fled to Egypt, about the miserable massacre of those babies in Bethlehem by that madman who called himself our King, about the things you can do."

"Things I can do? I laid this marble floor," I said. "I'm a carpenter. That's the sort of thing I can do."

"Precisely," he said. "And that's why I despise you. And anyone else would too if they had the memory that I have!" He lifted his finger as though instructing a child. "Samson's birth was foretold, not by the angel Gabriel, but by an angel for certain. And Samson was a man. And we know his mighty deeds and repeat them generation after generation. Where are your mighty deeds? Where are your defeated enemies lying dead in heaps, or where are the ruins of the heathen temples that you've brought down with the strength of your arm?"

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