Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana Page 11

The heat in me burnt blindingly fierce. I had risen to my feet, and knocked the stool aside without meaning to do it. I stood there before him but I didn't see him and I didn't see the room.

It was as if I was remembering something, something forgotten all my life. But this wasn't a memory. No, it was something altogether different.

Heathen temples, where are your heathen temples. In no set place or time, I saw temples, and I saw them falling, I heard them falling, collapsing, as air and form and light shifted, as clouds of dust rose like the boiling sky of a tempest, a sky that went on forever - and this shifting, this breaking, this fierce and deafening ruin, moved on like the ever-changing and ceaseless sea.

I closed my eyes. Memories threatened the purity of this inner vision. Memories of my boyhood in Alexandria, of the Roman processions weaving their way towards their shrines with clouds of rose petals swirling in the air and the steady beat of drums, the shiver of sistrums. I heard the singing of the women, and I saw a golden god drifting forward beneath a wavering canopy - and then the vision returned, sweeping up the memory in its mighty current, the vision so huge and vague that it was shaking the whole world as if the mountains around all the great sea were rumbling and spewing fire, and the altars were falling. The altars were crashing down into pieces.

All of this dissolved. The room came back.

I turned and looked at the old man. He looked like leather and bone. No meanness in him. He seemed frail and like a lily held too close to the brazier, like something withering, burning up.

A deep piercing sense of his misery came to me, his years alone in grief for those he'd lost, his fear of failing eyes and failing fingers and failing reason and failing hope.


A humming came to my ears, a humming from every room of the house, a humming from beyond the house, from all the rooms of all the houses - the frail, the sick, the weary, the suffering, the bitter.

Unbearable. But I can bear it. I will bear it.

I'd been looking at him for a long while, but only now realized he was stricken with sadness. He was silently imploring me.

"Come here to me," he begged.

I stood a step nearer, then another step. I watched him reach for my hand and lift my hand. How silken his hand felt, the skin of his palm so thin. He looked up at me.

"When you were twelve years old," he said, "when you came to the Temple to be presented to Israel, I was there. I was one of the Scribes who examined you and all the boys with you. Do you remember me from that time?"

I didn't answer.

"We were questioning you, all you boys, about the Book of Samuel, do you remember this, in particular?" he asked. He was eager and careful with his words. His hand clung to mine. "We were speaking of the story of King Saul, after he's been anointed for the kingship by the prophet Samuel . . . but before anyone knew that Saul was to be King." He stopped, and ran his tongue over his dry lips. But his eyes were fastened to mine.

"Saul fell in with a group of prophets on the road, you remember, and the Spirit came over Saul and Saul went into ecstasy and Saul fell down into a trance among the prophets. And those looking on, those who saw this sight, one of them asked, 'And who is their father?' "

I didn't say anything.

"We asked you boys, we asked you all, to think of that story and tell us, What did this man mean who asked of Saul, 'And who is their father?' The other boys were quick to say that prophets had to come from families of prophets, and that Saul did not, and so it was natural for someone to ask this question."

I kept silent.

"Your answer," he said, "was different from that of the other boys. Do you remember? You said it was an insult, this question. It was an insult from those who had never known ecstasy or the power of the Spirit, those who envied the ones who did. The man who mocked was saying, 'Who are you, Saul, and what is your right to be among the prophets?' "

He studied me, holding my hand as tight as before.

"You remember?"

"I do," I said.

"You said, 'Men scorn what they can't grasp. They suffer in their longing for it.'"

Silence from me.

He drew his left hand out of his robes and now he held my hand with both his hands.

"Why didn't you stay with us in the Temple?" he asked. "We begged you to do it." He sighed. "Think of what you might have done if you had remained in the Temple and studied; think of the boy you were! If only you'd devoted your life to what is written, think what you might have done. I took such delight in you, and we all did, and Old Berekhiah and Sherebiah from Nazareth, how they loved you and wanted you to stay. But what have you become! A carpenter - one of a gang of carpenters. Men who make floors, walls, benches, and tables."

Very slowly I tried to free my hand, but he wouldn't let me go. I moved slowly to his left and saw even more of the light spill down on his upturned face.

"The world swallowed you," he said bitterly. "You left the Temple and the world simply swallowed you. That's what the world does. It swallows everything. One woman's angel is another man's scornful tale. Grass grows over the ruins of villages until one can find nothing of them and trees sprout from the very stones where great houses, houses like this one, once stood. All these books are falling to pieces, aren't they? Look, see the bits of parchment all over my robes. The world swallows the Word of God. You should have stayed and studied Torah! What would your grandfather Joachim say if he knew what you've become?"

He sat back. He let me go. His lips curved into a sneer. He looked up at me though his gray brows were drawn down into a frown. He motioned for me to go away from him.

I stood there.

"Why does the world swallow the Word of God?" I asked. He couldn't hear the heat in my voice. "Why?" I asked. "Are we not a holy people, are we not to be a bright and shining light to the nations? Are we not to bring salvation to the whole world?"

"That is what we are!" he said. "Our Temple is the greatest Temple in the Empire. Who doesn't know this?"

"Our Temple is one of a thousand temples, my lord," I said.

Again came that flash, seemingly of memory, buried memory of some great agitated moment, but it was no memory. "A thousand temples throughout the world," I said, "and every day sacrifice is offered to a thousand gods from one end of the Empire to the other."

He glared at me.

I went on,

"All around us this happens, in the land of Israel this happens. It happens in Tyre, in Sidon, in Ashkelon; it happens in Caesarea Philippi; it happens in Tiberias. And in Antioch and in Corinth and in Rome and in the woods of the great north and in the wilds of Britannia." I took a slow breath. "Are we the light of the nations, my lord?" I demanded.

"What is all that to us!" he countered.

"What is all that? Egypt, Italy, Greece, Germania, Asia, what is all that? It's the world, my lord. That's what it is to us, it's the world to whom we are to be the light, we, our people!"

He was outraged. "What are you saying?"

"It's where I live, my lord," I said. "Not in the Temple, but in the world. And in the world, I learn what the world is and what the world will teach, and I am of the world. The world's made of wood and stone and iron, and I work in it. No, not in the Temple. In the world. And I study Torah; and I pray with the assembly; and on the feasts I go to Jerusalem to stand before the Lord - in the Temple - but this is in the world, all this. In the world. And when it is time for me to do what the Lord has sent me to do in this world, this world which belongs to Him, this world of wood and stone and iron and grass and air, He will reveal it to me. And what this carpenter shall yet build in this world on that day, the Lord knows, and the Lord shall reveal it."

He was speechless.

I took a step back from him. I turned and stared ahead of me. I saw the dust moving in the rays of the noon sunshine. Sparkling in lattices above bookshelves and bookshelves. I thought I saw images in the dust, things moving with purpose, things airy and immense yet guided and patient in their movement.

It seemed the room was filled with others, the beating of their hearts, but they were invisible hearts or not even hearts. Not hearts like my heart or his heart, of flesh and blood.

Leaves rattled at the windows and a cold draft crept across the shining floor. I felt removed and at the same time there, under his roof, standing before him, with my back to him, and I was drifting, yet anchored, and content to be so.

The anger washed out of me.

I turned and looked at him.

He was calm and wondering. He sat collected amid his robes. He sat peering at me as if from a great and safe distance.

When he spoke, it was a murmur.

"All these years," he said, "as I've watched you on the road to Jerusalem, I've wondered, 'What does he think? What does he know?' "

"Do you have an answer?"

"I have hope," he whispered.

I thought about this, and then slowly I nodded.

"I'll write the letter this afternoon," he said. "I have a student here to take the dictation for me. The letter will reach my cousins in Sepphoris this evening. They are widows. They're kind. They'll welcome her."

I bowed and placed my fingers together to show my thanks and my respect. I started to go.

"Come back in three days," he said. "I'll have an answer from them or from someone else. I'll have it in hand. And I'll go with you to see Shemayah on this matter. And if you see the girl herself, you will tell her that all her family - we are all asking after her."

"Thank you, my lord," I said.

I walked fast on the road to Sepphoris.

I wanted to be with my brothers, I wanted to be at work. I wanted to be laying stones one after another, and pouring the grout and smoothing the boards and hammering the nails. I wanted anything but to be with a man with a clever tongue.

But what had he said that my own brothers hadn't said in their own way, or that Jason hadn't said? Oh, he'd been full of privilege and riches and the arrogant power that he held to help Avigail.

But they were asking me the same questions. They were all saying the same things.

I didn't want to go over it in my mind. I didn't want to go over the things he'd said or what I'd seen or felt. And most especially I didn't want to ponder what I'd said to him.

But as I reached the city with all its engulfing voices, its wondrous pounding and clattering and chatter, a thought came to me.

The thought was fresh and like the conversation I'd had.

I'd been looking all this while for signs that rain would come, hadn't I? I'd been looking at the sky, and at the distant trees, and feeling the wind, and the chill of the wind, and hoping to catch just a kiss of moisture on my face.

But maybe I was seeing signs of something else altogether different. Something was indeed coming. It had to be. Here, all around me, were the signals of its approach. It was a building, a pressure, a series of signals of something inevitable - something like the rain for which we'd all prayed, yet something vastly beyond the rain - and something that would take the decades of my life, yes, the years reckoned in feasts and new moons, and even the hours and the minutes - even every single second I'd ever lived - and make use of it.

Chapter Twelve

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, Old Bruria and Aunt Esther tried to get word to Avigail, but could get no answer.

By the time we came back from the city that evening, Silent Hannah had come in. She sat now broken and small and shivering beside Joseph who kept his hand on her bowed head. She looked like a tiny woman under her woolen veils.

"What's the matter with her?" James asked.

My mother said, "She says Avigail is dying."

"Give me some water to wash my hands," I said. "I need the ink and parchment."

I sat down and put a board over my knees for a desk. And I grasped the pen, amazed at how difficult it was. It had been a long time since I'd written anything, and the calluses on my fingers were thick and my hand felt rough and even unsteady. Unsteady.

Ah, what a discovery that was.

I dipped the pen and scratched out the words, simply and fast, and in the smallest possible letters. "You eat and drink now because I say you must. You get up and you take all the water that you can now because I say you must. You eat what you can. I do all that I can do on your behalf, and you do this now for me and for those who love you. Letters have been sent from those who love you to those who love you. You will soon be away from here. Say nothing to your father. Do as I tell you."

I went to Silent Hannah and gave her the parchment. I gestured as I spoke. "From me to Avigail. From me. You give it to her."

She shook her head. She was terrified.

I made the ominous gesture for a scowling Shemayah. I gestured to my eyes. I said: "He can't read it. See? Look at how small are the letters! You give it to Avigail!"

She got up and ran out quickly.

Hours passed. Silent Hannah didn't come back.

But shouts from the street roused all of us from our semi-sleep. We rushed out to discover that the signal fires had just reported the news: peace in Caesarea.

And Pontius Pilate had sent word to Jerusalem to remove the offensive ensigns from the Holy City.

Soon the street was lighted up as it had been on the night the men rode out. People were drinking, dancing, and locking arms. But no one knew the particulars as yet, and no one expected to know. The fires gave the word that the men were returning to their homes all over the country.

There was no sign of life in the house of Shemayah, not even the glimmer of a lamp beneath the door or in the chink of a window.

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