Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana Page 25

And come forward she did.

Swathed in veil upon veil of Egyptian gauze, she stepped into the flaring illumination, her veils encrusted with gold, her arms ornamented with gold, her fingers with glistening and multicolored rings. And through the thick and shimmering mist of white cloth, I could see the distinct glimmer of her dark eyes. The mass of her dark hair fell down over her br**sts beneath these veils, and even on her sandaled feet were great rounded and glittering jewels.

James raised his voice:

"This is Avigail, daughter of Shemayah," he said, "your kinswoman and your sister, and you take her now with the blessing of her father and her brothers and her sisters, to be your wife, in the house of your father, and let her from now on be a sister to you, and may the children you have be as brothers and sisters to you, according to the Law of Moses, and as it is written, let this be done."

The horns sounded, the harps throbbed, and the timbrels beat faster and faster. The women lifted their timbrels now to join the resounding rhythm of those from the street.

Reuben stepped forward as did Avigail, until they stood before each other beneath the canopy, the tears coming silently from Reuben as he reached for the veils of his bride.

James put his hand between the two figures.

Reuben went on speaking to the face he could see distinctly now just in front of him, beneath its sheer drapery.

"Ah, my beloved," he said. "You were set apart for me from the beginning of the world!"

Shemayah was pushed forward by James until he stood at the shoulder of the young groom. Shemayah looked at James as if he were a trapped man and would flee if he could, but then James whispered to him to urge him and Shemayah spoke:

"My daughter is given to you from this day forward and forever," he said, glancing uneasily at James who nodded. Then Shemayah continued: "May the Lord on High guide you both and prosper you both on this night and grant you forever mercy and peace."

Before the shouts of jubilation could silence him, James pitched his voice loud and clear:

"Take Avigail to be your wife in accordance with the law and decree written in the Book of Moses. Take her now and bring her safely to your house and your father. And may the Lord and all the Court of Heaven bless you on your journey home and through this life."

Now came the new and uncontrollable inundation of clapping and cheering.

The women closed ranks around Avigail. Jason drew Reuben back and out of the courtyard with all the men following, except for my uncles and brothers. The canopy was folded only to make it narrow enough to pass through the gateway, and the bride, flanked by all the women of the house, including Little Mary and Little Salome and Silent Hannah, proceeded, with Avigail beneath the canopy. Once in the street the canopy was opened again.

The drone of the horns rose above the faster, more furious thumping of the harp strings. The wooden flutes and pipes rose in sweet, rousing melody.

The whole party moved down past the lighted doorways and the radiant faces, and the clapping hands. Children ran ahead, some carrying lamps dangling from poles. Others carried candles, hugging the flames against the breeze with their tiny hands.

The women lifted their timbrels. Out of yards and doorways came others with their harps and their horns and their timbrels. Here and there came the rattle of the sistrum, the jingling of bells.

Voices rose in singing.

As the crowd reached the open road to Cana, we all beheld the unbelievable spectacle of the torches on either side of us, lining the way, for as far as we could see. Torches moved towards us from the distant slopes and through the dark fields.

The canopy was now spread to its full width. Flower petals were hurled in the air. The music grew stronger and quicker, and as the bride continued, in her phalanx of women, the men on either side, up ahead and behind, began to lock arms and dance.

Reuben and Jason danced to the left and the right, arms locked, one foot stepping to the side over the other, then back again, swaying, gesturing, singing to the rhythm of the music, their outside arms raised above their heads.

Long lines formed to flank the procession, and I fell in, dancing with my uncles and my brothers. Little Shabi and Yaqim and Isaac and the other young ones pivoted and leapt in the air, and clapped their hands heartily.

And with every step, with every turn, we saw the road ahead still ablaze with a wealth of welcoming light. More and more torches approached. More and more villagers joined our ranks.

And so it was until we poured into the enormous rooms of Hananel's house.

He rose from his couch in the great dining room to greet his grandson's bride with open arms. He clasped the hands of James and Shemayah.

"Come in, my daughter!" Hananel declared. "Come in this, my house and your husband's house. Blessed be the Lord who has brought you to us, my daughter, blessed be the memory of your mother, blessed be your father, blessed be my grandson Reuben. Come in now to your home! Welcome, with blessing and joy!"

He turned now and led the way past the blazing candelabra, for the bride and all her women to enter the dining room and other chambers set apart for them, where they would feast and dance, to their heart's content. Linen veils, trimmed in purple and gold and bound with purple and gold tassels, came down to separate the women from the men in the many archways of the banquet room, veils through which laughter and song and music and gaiety could penetrate, while giving the women the freedom to be pale shapes beyond the eyes of boisterous and roaring men.

Under the high ceilings of the house, the music exploded. The horns vied with the pipes in melodies, and the timbrels sounded as before.

Huge tables had been set throughout all the main rooms, round which couches were prepared for Shemayah and all the men of his daughter's family who had come with him, and for Reuben, and for Jason, and for the Rabbis of Cana and of Nazareth, and for a great flock of men of distinction, all beloved of Hananel, all of whom we knew and did not know.

Through the open doorways, we saw great tents spanning the soft grass, and carpets spread everywhere, and tables at which everyone might gather, either on couches or right on the rugs, whichever they desired. Amid all, the candelabra burned with hundreds upon hundreds of tiny flames.

Great platters of food appeared, steam rising from the roasted lamb, the glistening fruit, the hot spiced cakes and honey cakes, the piles of raisins and dates and nuts.

Everywhere, men and women turned to the water jars, and to the servants beside them, to rinse their hands.

A great row of six jars stood in each banquet room. A row of six stood out beneath each tent.

The servants poured the water over the outstretched hands of the guests and offered the clean white linen cloth for drying, catching the old water in silver and gold basins.

The music and the aromas of the rich platters melded and it seemed for a moment to me that - as I stood in the courtyard, in the very middle of it, staring from one feasting group to another, gazing even at the chaste veils that divided us from the dancing figures of the women - I was in a great unbroken universe of pure happiness which no evil could ever approach. We were as a vast field of spring flowers united in one gentle current of tender breeze.

I forgot myself. I was nothing and no one except part of it.

I moved outside, through the ranks of the dancers, past the busy and beautifully laden tables, and I looked - as I always do, as I've always done - for the lamps of Heaven on high.

It seemed to me then that the lamps of Heaven were even here the deep and private treasure of every single soul.

Could I not die now? Could I not dissolve this skin and rise as I'd so often thought of it, weightless and brimming, into the company of the stars?

Oh, if only I could indeed stop time, stop it here, stop it forever with this great banquet, and let all the world come here to this, now, streaming, out of Time and beyond Time, and into this - to join with the dancing, to feast at these abundant tables, to laugh and sing and cry amid these smoking lamps and twinkling candles. If only I could rescue all these, in the midst of this lovely and embracing music, rescue all these - from the blooming youth to the ancient with their patience and their sweetness, and their flush of unexpected and ravishing hope? If only I could hold them in one great embrace?

But it was not to be. Time beat on as the heels of the hands beat the membrane of the timbrels, as the feet stamped the marble, or the soft yielding grass.

Time beat on, and in time, as I'd told the Tempter, yes, as he'd tempted me to stop Time forever - in time, there were things yet unborn. It struck a deep dark shiver in me, a great cold. But it was only the shiver and fear known to any man born.

I did not come to stop it, I did not come to leave it at such a moment of mysterious joy. I came to live it, to surrender to it, to endure it, to discover in it what it was I must do, and whatever it was, well, it had only begun.

I looked around me at the many moist and ruddy faces. I saw Young John and Matthew, and Peter and Andrew, and Nathanael - all of them dancing. I saw Hananel weeping as he clasped his grandson, Reuben, who offered the cup to him to drink, and Jason embracing both of them, Jason so happy, so proud.

My eyes drifted over the whole assembly. Unnoticed I walked through room after room. I walked under the tents. I walked through the courtyard with its huge standing candles, and its high anchored torches. I peered over my shoulder at the soundless masses of gathered women beyond the veils.

I let my mind go before me. It went where the man could not go.

Avigail, veil lifted now that she lay among the children of the bridal chamber only, with Silent Hannah seated on the couch at her feet. Avigail, her eyes closed, as she slept.

I saw in my mind's eye just as clearly and simultaneously that instant in the courtyard at home when Reuben had said to her, "My beloved, you were set apart for me from the beginning of the world."

My heart filled with pain; it was washed in pain.

Farewell, my blessed darling.

I let the grief come. I let it run through my veins. It was not grief for her, but for the absence of her forever, the absence of that intimacy, the absence of that one beating heart that could have been so very close. I let myself know it in the absence, and then I kissed her with all my heart on her tender forehead in the image I held of her, and I let this go. Leave me, I said to this. I can't take you where I am going. I always knew that I couldn't do it. And I let you go now, yes again and for always - I let go of the wanting, I let go of the losing, but not the knowing . . . no, I will never let the knowing of it go.

An hour before dawn Reuben was led to the bridal chamber.

The women had already taken Avigail to the bridal bed. It had been strewn with flowers. Veils of gold surrounded the bed.

Jason embraced Reuben with one last hearty clap of his hands on his shoulders.

And as the door closed behind Reuben, the music found a new delirium, and men danced ever more quickly and with greater spirit, even the old men rising, and some who could barely do it without the hands of sons and grandsons; and it seemed the whole house was once again filled with the earliest and loudest cries of joy.

People were still streaming in from the countryside. They gave away their rustic amazement with wide wondering eyes.

Tables had been set out on the grass for the poor of the villages, and platters of hot bread and bowls of meat pottage were being put out for them. Beggars had been brought in - some of the very lame, who generally gathered at the outside gates of such a banquet hoping for the scraps.

Beyond the veils the long chain of dancing women swayed to the left, step after step after step, then stopped, whirled, and rocked on their feet. Chains of male dancers passed me winding in and out of the arched doorways, round about the central table, behind the proud grandfather who leaned now on Jason's arm. Nathanael sat beside Hananel, and Hananel for all the wine he'd drunk was hammering Nathanael with questions while Jason smiled and dreamed as if it did not matter at all.

Here and there, men glanced at me, especially some of the newcomers, and I heard their confidential questions. Is he the one?

All night I'd been hearing this, if I wanted to hear it. All night I'd caught the turning heads, the quick furtive stares.

Suddenly I sensed that something was wrong.

It was like hearing the first rumble of a storm when no one else hears it. It was that moment when one is tempted to reach out and say, "Be quiet. Let me listen."

But I didn't have to say those words.

I saw now at the far end of the dining room the servants in frantic argument with one another. Two more of the household servants joined with the others. More frantic whispers.

Hananel heard it. He gestured for one of them to come, and whisper the cause of this in his ear.

Shocked, he turned, and struggled to climb to his feet, dismissing Jason who tried halfheartedly and drowsily to assist him. The old man went to the servants. One of them disappeared into the room of the women, and came back again.

Now other servants were gathering. Yes, something was very wrong.

From out of the curtained privacy of the women's banquet room, my mother appeared. She moved along the margins of the room, unnoticed, her eyes lowered, ignoring the drunken men as they danced and laughed in their habitual fashion. She was heading towards Cleopas, her brother, who sat at the large table opposite Hananel's couch. Hananel himself was still in heated argument with his servants, and his pale withered face was turning red.

My mother touched her brother's shoulder. He rose at once. I saw them searching for me.

I stood in the courtyard in the very center of the house. I stood against the candles as I had for a long time.

My mother came to me, and put her hand on my arm. I saw panic in her eyes. She glanced at all the company round, the hundreds gathered under the roof and outdoors in the tents, at those who nudged each other and laughed and talked at the tables quite oblivious to the distant knot of servants, or the expression on my mother's face.

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