Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana Page 14

Then, from beyond the grove, I heard her give a sudden anguished cry.

Chapter Fourteen


She stood only a few feet in front of me, and beyond on the descending slope there stood a loose and silent crowd.

James, Joses, Simon, my uncle Cleopas, and dozens of other men stood staring up at us. Shabi and Yaqim started forward, but the older boys took hold of them. Only Silent Hannah broke from them nodding and pointing and rushing to Avigail. James stared at me, at her, and me again, and then, his face stricken with grief, he bowed his head.

"No, stop it, all of you, get back," I said as I came forward, passing her, and standing in front of her. Silent Hannah stopped in her tracks. She stared at me, and then back at the crowd. In an instant she seemed to realize what she'd done.

And I realized it as well. She'd sounded the alarm that Avigail had run away. She'd brought them here, and only now did she realize her terrible mistake.

Behind me Avigail murmured a strangled prayer.

More and more men were coming, it seemed from everywhere, out of the fields, from the village, from the far road. Boys were running towards us.

Up from the village came Jason striding with Reuben of Cana beside him.

Someone shouted for the Rabbi. Everyone was shouting for the Rabbi.

James turned and shouted to his sons to get Joseph and the elders this very instant. The name "Shemayah" was bursting from everyone's lips, and suddenly Avigail ran towards me, and in a gesture as fatal as that of Yitra when he had reached for the Orphan, she flung herself against me with both arms.

Stones whizzed through the air, one narrowly missing my ear. Cries of "Hypocrite" and "Harlot" let fly along with the stones.

I turned and sheltered Avigail. James rushed forward and stood in front of us, his arm outstretched. My aunt Esther had arrived with a group of women streaming behind her and she ran forward now as well. She screamed as she backed up into us. The stones stopped.

"Shemayah, Shemayah!" men chanted, even as the crowd broke open to disgorge the Rabbi and Hananel of Cana and two of the elders at their side.

Astonished, the Rabbi looked at us, his eyes moving over every detail of the scene he beheld. I stepped forward, all but shoving James out of my path.

"I tell you, nothing has happened here, but words, words spoken together in quiet there in the grove where I come, where everyone knows that I come!"

"Avigail, do you accuse this man!" cried the Rabbi, his face white with shock.

She shook her head violently. She gasped. "No," she cried. "No, he's innocent. No, he did nothing."

"Then what is this madness!" cried the Rabbi. He turned on the crowd which was now tripling in size, and full of gawking necks and raucous demands to see and to know. "I tell you stop this now and go back down to your homes."

"Go back at once, all of you," cried Jason. "There is nothing to see here. Get away from this place. You're drunken, all of you, with your celebrations! Go home."

But murmurs and grumbling ran rampant in all directions. "Alone, in the grove together, Yeshua and Avigail." I caught it in bits and fragments. I saw Joseph hurrying up the slope. Menachim was all but carrying him. More and more women were running towards us. Avigail had broken into helpless gasping cries.

"Bring her home, now, bring her," I said. But suddenly my brother Joses had his arms around me from the back, and my brother Joseph did too.

"Don't! Stop this," I said.

"Shemayah," Joses said, and there the man was, striding up the hill, parting the crowd, shoving people out of his path.

At the sight of him, Avigail buckled. My aunt Esther tried to hold her, but Avigail doubled over and stumbled backwards and slipped out of Esther's hands.

The Rabbi stepped into Shemayah's path. Shemayah went to strike him, and the farmhands caught his upraised arm. Men seized Jason before he could strike Shemayah, and others grabbed hold of Reuben. It seemed all strove one with the other.

Shemayah threw off those who held him. He glared at his daughter and at me.

He ran at me.

"You'll drink from that broken cup for the rest of your life, you will!" Shemayah cursed. "You filthy cheating liar, you damnable thief."

Avigail shrieked. "No, stop it, he didn't . . . he did nothing!" She stood up, arms out to him. "Father, he did nothing."

"A curse on you," Shemayah shouted at me. My brothers rose up in front of him, blocking him and pushing me backwards. I felt my aunt Salome's arms around me and then the arms of my cousins Silas and Levi.

"Let me go, stop," I declared, but there were too many of them.

"You think my daughter is a harlot that you can do this to her?" Shemayah shouted, straining against the men who held him, his face red.

Over the arms that held me, I could just make out his advancing on Avigail, and grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her so that her head fell back and her veil fell off.

A huge huzzah rose from the crowd, so loud it brought everyone to silence.

Avigail's dark mantle had fallen open. All could see the white gauze of her gold-trimmed gown. Shemayah saw it. Shemayah ripped the mantle from her and flung it to the side.

The shock of the crowd found one huge wordless voice.

Avigail stood horrified, unable to grasp what had happened. Then she looked down at herself, saw for herself what they saw: the frail, gauzy white wedding tunic, embroidered at the sleeves and hem in gold.

Silent Hannah and Shabi grabbed at Avigail's mantle and tried to give it back to her. Shemayah knocked Shabi flat on his back on the grass with his fist.

Avigail stared up at her father. She clutched at the neck of her gown, at the loose strings of gold that had been untied when she came to me, and then suddenly, she let out a low terrible cry.

"Harlot, am I?" she screamed. "Harlot! In my mother's wedding tunic, I am a harlot!"

"Stop her, get her!" I called out. "Rabbi, this is a child."

"Harlot!" she screamed again and then she tore at the neck of her gown. "I am a harlot, yes, I am a harlot, I am your harlot," she sobbed. She staggered backwards free of her father. Free of the children.

"No," I shouted. "Avigail, stop this. Rabbi! Stop this."

Jason struggled, ran forward, and was thrown to the ground by men around him.

Again came that horrid sound, the sound of stones flying. The children screamed in terror. Silent Hannah fell to the ground.

"No, stop this in the name of Heaven!" I cried.

Avigail stepped back again, screaming louder. "Harlot!" she cried. With her own hands like uplifted claws, she tore at her own hair, disheveling it and bringing it down around her face. "Look on this harlot!" she shrieked.

The chorus of judgment rose in frantic and furious shouts and cries. Stones flew past us from everywhere. I fought with all my strength against my brothers as they dragged me to the ground. I felt hands around my knees and my ankles. Struggling, panting, shouting, I was being dragged away.

The shrieking and wailing of the children cut through the hoarse curses and execrations.

"Lord God in Heaven, this cannot happen!" I cried. "Stop this!"

Father, send the rain!

A deafening crack of thunder broke overhead.

The sky darkened, the light dying in front of my eyes as I fell forward onto the stony earth and scrambled to my knees. On came the thunder again, immense and rolling. I stood on my feet. I looked up at the heavy, leaden, gathering clouds.

A knife of lightning blinded me. The crowd gasped with one voice again. The thunder crackled and bore down again.

I saw, before me on the slope, Avigail still standing, Avigail, surrounded by the children, saved by the children - by Isaac and Shabi and Yaqim and Silent Hannah, all of whom clung to her along with countless others, some of them lying at her feet, their sobbing faces turning from her to their petrified parents and from their parents to the boiling sky. My aunt Esther clung to Avigail, her arms over Avigail's head. James rose from the ground, loosed by those who'd held him, and stared stunned at the Heavens.

"Saved," I whispered. I breathed the warm wet wind. Saved. I closed my eyes and fell down on my knees.

The windows of Heaven opened.

The rain came pouring down.

Chapter Fifteen

IT WAS A RAIN SO DENSE and swift it brought the twilight with it, closing up the world in front of men's eyes. James and Esther picked up Avigail, off her feet, that I could see, and James slung her up high over his shoulder, the better to carry her, and all ran for the village or what shelter perhaps that they could find.

With my brothers, I took hold of Joseph, and we hoisted him to our shoulders and rushed down the hill.

We were soaked to the skin before we reached the street, and the street was a running river. Now we had the faintest lanterns to guide us through the shadows, the tramp of feet all around us, people uttering fearful cries now and bits of prayer.

But nothing could prevent us from gaining our courtyard, throwing open the doors of the house, and rushing one and all inside.

Joseph was set down gently and at once, his white hair plastered to his pink scalp. Lamp after lamp was lighted.

The women in a flock carried Avigail deep into the house, her sobs echoing off the walls, and up the stairs into the small rooms of the second floor which belonged to the women alone.

The men fell down exhausted on all sides.

Old Bruria and my mother came with dry robes for us, and together with Little Mary and Mara, who had been with them all the while, went to drying us off, taking our wet clothes, patting down our hair.

James lay back, out of breath, staring at the ceiling. I slumped against the wall.

Old Uncle Alphaeus came in, bewildered and amazed. Then Uncle Cleopas appeared from the outside, dripping and out of breath. The last of the children came in with him. It was he, along with Menachim, who bolted the door.

The rain slammed onto the tile roofs. It rushed in the gutters and down the pipes to the cisterns, and to the mikvah, and to the many jugs beneath the downspouts all round and about the house. It clattered against the wooden shutters. It crashed in gust after gust against the rattling doors.

No one spoke as we rubbed ourselves dry and put on the fresh robes given us. My mother tended to Joseph, gently peeling off the soaked garments. The children heaped up the coals, and went this way and that in their excitement, searching for even more lamps to be lighted in this dense and snug and safe place.

Suddenly there was a crashing fist against the door.

"If he dares," said James, rising to his feet with his hand out. "If he dares come here, I'll kill him."

"Hush, stop it," cried his wife, Mara.

The knock came again, measured, insistent.

A voice came from beyond the paneled wood.

I went to the door and lifted the latch and opened it.

There stood Reuben in his fine linen robes as wet through and through as anyone, and his father, bent beneath a covering of soaked wool, and behind them their horses and their hired men.

James immediately welcomed them into the house.

I went with the hired men and the animals to the stables. The door hadn't been shut. The place was wet, but we soon had the horses unharnessed, and a fresh layer of hay on the ground. The men gestured in thanks. They had their wine, they held up the skins, and told me to go on.

I edged back to the main door, under the overhang, but I was still wet when I came into the house.

Again, my mother greeted me with a dry mantle and I stood against the door, breathing deeply, and catching my breath.

Hananel and his grandson, dressed in fresh dry wool, sat beside the low brazier, opposite Joseph. All had cups of wine in their hands. Joseph gave the blessing now in a hushed voice and bid the guests drink.

The old scholar looked up at me and then to Joseph. Then he tasted the wine and set it down before his crossed ankles.

"Who speaks for the girl now?" he asked.

"Grandfather, please . . ." Reuben said. "I thank you all for your kindness, thank you."

"Who speaks for her?" demanded Hananel. "I won't stay in this miserable town one moment longer than is necessary. For this I came, and on this I now speak."

Joseph gestured to James.

"I speak for her," said James. "My father and I speak for her. And what is it you want to say to me on her account? The girl's our kinswoman."

"Ah, and ours as well," said Hananel. "What do you think I want to say? Why do you think I dragged myself through this downpour? I came here this day with an offer of marriage for the girl on behalf of my grandson, Reuben, who sits here to my right, and who is well known to you, as I am known to you. And I speak now of marriage for my son and this girl. Her evil father has abandoned her before the elders of this village and in plain sight of everyone present, including myself and my grandson, and so if you speak for her, then speak for her now to me."

Joseph laughed.

No one else said a word, or moved, or even breathed very deeply. But Joseph laughed. He looked at the ceiling. His hair was dried now and very white and his eyes were moist in the glimmer from the coals. He laughed as if he was dreaming.

"Ah, Hananel," he said. "How I have missed you, and I didn't even know it."

"Yes, and I've missed you too, Joseph," said Hananel. "Now before any of you clever men say so, allow me to say so: the girl is innocent; she was innocent yesterday; she is innocent today. And the girl is very young."

"Amen," I said.

"But she's not poor," said James without missing a heartbeat. "She has her money from her mother, and she'll have a proper marriage contract hammered out here in this room before she'll be betrothed to anyone or married to anyone, and she will be a bride from this door on her wedding night."

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