Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana Page 4

I had a roll of clean rags with me for a pillow. I crept in and lay down and allowed myself a long slow breath.

I thanked the Lord for this enclosure, for this escape.

I looked up at the play of light in the mesh of faintly moving branches. The winter days faded abruptly. The sky was already colorless. I didn't mind. I knew the way back home plainly enough. But I couldn't stay as long as I wanted. I'd be missed, and someone would come looking for me, and I would be trouble, and that was not what I wanted to be at all. What I wanted was to be alone.

I prayed; I tried to clear my mind. It was fragrant and wholesome here. It was precious. There was no such place in Nazareth as this, and no such place for me in Sepphoris, or Magdala, or Cana, or anyplace in which we worked or ever would work.

And every room in our house was filled.

Little Cleopas, the grandson of my uncle Alphaeus, had married last year to a cousin, Mary, from Capernaum, and they had taken the last of the rooms, and already Mary was carrying a child.

So I was alone. Just for a little while. Alone.

I tried to shake off the atmosphere of the village, the air of recrimination that had settled on people after the stoning; no one wanted to talk about it, but no one could think of anything else. Who had been there? Who had not? And had those children run off to throw in their lot with the brigands, and somebody ought to seek out those brigands and burn them out of their caves.

And of course the brigands had been raiding the villages. That often happened. And now with the drought the price of food was dear. Rumor had it, the brigands had swept down on the smaller hamlets to steal livestock, and to steal wine-sacks and sacks of water. No one ever knew when one of these cutthroat men on horseback would come stomping through our streets.

That was very much the talk in Sepphoris, of brigands in a bad winter. But there was also talk everywhere of Pilate and his soldiers moving sluggishly towards Jerusalem with ensigns bearing the name of Caesar, ensigns which should not pass through the city gates. It was blasphemy to bring such ensigns, bearing the name of an Emperor, into our city. We didn't hold with images; we didn't hold with the name or image of an Emperor who held himself to be a god.

Under the Emperor Augustus Caesar nothing like that had ever happened. No one was really certain that Augustus himself had ever believed he was a god. He went along with it, of course, and there were temples reared in his honor. Perhaps his heir Tiberius didn't believe it either.

But people didn't care about the private views of the Emperor. They cared that those ensigns were being carried by Roman soldiers through Judea, and they didn't like it, and the King's soldiers argued about it, too, outside the palace gates and in the taverns, and in the marketplace, or wherever they might happen to be.

The King himself, Herod Antipas, wasn't in Sepphoris. He was in Tiberias, his new city, a city named for the new Emperor, that Herod had built on the sea. We never went to work in that city. A cloud hung over it; graves had been moved to build it. And once the laborers who hadn't cared about such things had flooded east to work there, we had more work in Sepphoris than we could ever want to do.

We'd always done well in Sepphoris. And the King sometimes came to his palace, and whether he did or not, there was an eternal parade of the highborn through his various chambers, and for their splendid houses, the building never stopped.

Now these rich men and women were as worried about the actions of Pontius Pilate as was anyone else. When it came to Romans taking ensigns into the Holy City, Jews of all walks of life were very simply Jews.

Nobody seemed to know this Pontius Pilate; but everybody despised him.

And meantime, word of the stoning had spread throughout the countryside, and people glanced at us as if we were the miserable mob from Nazareth, or so my brothers and nephews thought as they hurled back their own glances, and people disputed over the cost of grout for the bricks I laid, or the thickness of the plaster stirred in the pot.

Of course people were right to be worried about Pontius Pilate. He was new and he didn't know our ways. Rumor had it the man was of the party of Sejanus, and no one had any great love for Sejanus, because Sejanus ran the world, it seemed, for the retired Emperor Tiberius, and who was Sejanus, men said, except a conniving and vicious soldier, a commander of the Emperor's personal guard?

I didn't want to think about these things. I didn't want to think of Silent Hannah's suffering as she came and went with Avigail, clinging to Avigail's arm. Nor did I want to think of the sadness in Avigail's eyes as she looked at me, a darkling understanding that muted her easy laughter and her once frequent little songs.

But I couldn't shut these thoughts out of my head. Why had I come to the grove? What had I thought I could find here?

For an instant, I fell asleep. Avigail. Don't you know this is Eden? It's not good for a man to be alone!

I woke with a start, in the darkness, bundled up my rags, and went out of the grove to go home.

Far below I saw the twinkling of torches in Nazareth. Winter days meant torches. Men had to work a little while more by lamp or lantern or torch. I found it a cheerful sight.

But where I stood the sky was cloudless, moonless - and beautifully black with the countless stars. "Who can fathom Your goodness, O Lord?" I whispered. "You have taken the fire and out of it fashioned the numberless lamps that decorate the night."

A stillness came over me. The common ache in my arms and shoulders died away. The breeze was chilling yet soothing. Something inside me let go. It had been a long while since I'd savored such a moment, since I'd let the tight prison of my skin dissolve. I felt as if I were moving upward and outward, as if the night were filled with myriad beings and the rhythm of their song drowned out the anxious beating of my heart. The shell of my body was gone. I was in the stars. But my human soul wouldn't let me loose. I reached for human language. "No, I will accomplish this," I said.

I stood on the dry grass beneath the vault of Heaven. I was small. I was isolated and weary. "Lord," I said aloud to the faint breeze. "How long?"

Chapter Seven

TWO LANTERNS WERE BURNING in the courtyard and that was cheerful. I was glad to see it, glad to see my nephew Little Cleopas and his father, Silas, at work on cutting a series of planks. I knew what this was, and it had to be done by tomorrow.

"You look tired, both of you," I said. "Stop now, and I'll do this. I'll cut the wood."

"We can't let you do it," Silas said. "Why should you finish it all alone?" He gestured ominously towards the house. "It has to be done tonight."

"I can do it tonight," I said. "I'm glad to do it. I want to be alone just now with something to do. And Silas, your wife is waiting for you in the doorway. I just saw her. Go on."

Silas nodded and he went off home up the hill. He lived with his wife in the house of our cousin Levi, who was his wife's brother. But Silas' son, Little Cleopas, lived with us.

Little Cleopas gave me a quick embrace and went into the house.

There was plenty of light from the lanterns to see what had to be done here, and the lines drawn had to be perfectly straight. I had the tool for it, the bit of broken pot to mark it. Seven lines to be drawn.

Up came Jason walking into the yard.

His shadow fell over me. I smelled wine.

"You've been avoiding me, Yeshua," he said.

"That's nonsense, my friend," I said. I laughed. I went on with my work. "I've been doing whatever needs to be done. I haven't seen you. Where have you been?"

He paced as he talked. I saw his shadow sharply on the flagstones. He had a cup of wine in his hand. I could hear him take a drink.

"You know where I've been," he said. "How many times have you come up the hill and sat on the floor beside me and insisted I read to you? How many times have I told you the news from Rome and you've hung on every word?"

"That's in summer, Jason, when the days are longer," I said mildly. I carefully drew a straight line.

"Yeshua, the Sinless, you know why I call you this?" he insisted. "It's because everyone loves you, Yeshua, everyone, and no one can bear to love me."

"Not so, Jason. I love you. Your uncle loves you. Almost everyone loves you. You're not hard to love. But sometimes you're hard to understand."

I moved the plank and laid down the next.

"Why doesn't the Lord send rain?" he demanded.

"Why ask me?" I replied, without looking up.

"Yeshua, there are many things I've never told you, things I didn't think bore repeating."

"Perhaps they don't."

"No, I'm not talking about the stupid gossip in this village. I'm talking about other stories, old stories."

I sighed and sat back on my heels. I stared forward beyond him, beyond his slow pacing in the flickering light. He wore beautiful sandals. His sandals were exquisitely made and studded with what appeared to be gold. The tassels of his robe brushed me as he turned and moved like an anxious animal.

"You know I lived with the Essenes," he said. "You know I wanted to be an Essene."

"You've told me," I said.

"You knew I knew your kinsman John bar Zechariah when I lived with the Essenes," he went on. He took another drink.

I decided to try to draw another straight line.

"You've told me this many times, Jason," I said. "Have you had any news from your friends among the Essenes? You'd tell me, wouldn't you, if someone had word of my cousin John."

"Your cousin John's in the wilderness, that's all anyone ever says, in the wilderness, living off the wild things. Nobody's seen him this year at all. Nobody really saw him last year. A man told another man who told another man perhaps he'd seen your cousin John."

I started to draw the line.

"But you know, Yeshua, I never told you everything your cousin told me when I was there living with the community."

"Jason, you have many things on your mind. I scarcely think my cousin John has much to do with it, if he has anything at all." I was trying to draw the line. The line wasn't straight. I took a rag, knotted it, and rubbed at the mark. I'd cut a little too deep, but I kept at it.

"Oh, yes, your cousin John has plenty to do with it," he said, stopping in front of me.

"Move to the left, you're in the light."

He reached around, picked up the lantern by its hook, and set it down right in front of me.

I sat back again, but I didn't look at him. The light was in my eyes.

"All right, Jason, what is it you want to tell me now about my cousin John?"

"I have a mind for poetry, don't I?"

"Without doubt." I rubbed gently at the mark, and watched it slowly fade from the wood. The wood took on a slight luster.

"This is what makes me pick at you," he said, "the words that John entrusted to me, the litanies that he carried in his heart - about you. These litanies he had from his mother's own lips and he recited them each day as he recited the Shema with all Israel, but these litanies were his private prayers. You know what these words were?"

I thought for a moment. "I don't know that I do," I said.

"Very well, then, let me tell you."

"Seems you're determined to do that."

He crouched down now. What a picture he was with his beautifully oiled black hair and his large scowling eyes.

"Before John's birth, your mother came to his mother. She was near Bethany then, and her husband, Zechariah, was still alive. They didn't kill Zechariah till after John was born."

"Yes, this is the story," I said. I went back to trying to draw the line, correctly this time, no mistakes. I cut into the wood with the sharp bit of pottery.

"Your mother told John's mother of the angel who'd come to her," Jason said, leaning close to me.

"Everyone in Nazareth knows that story, Jason," I said, and continued to draw the line.

"No, but your mother," he said, "your mother, standing there in the open space, with her arms around John's mother, your mother, your quiet mother who says so little so seldom, at that moment, she broke into a hymn. She looked beyond to the hills where the prophet Samuel was buried, and from the ancient words of Hannah, she made her hymn."

I stopped my work. I looked up slowly at him.

His voice came reverent and low, and his face was open and kind.

" 'My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. Because He has looked upon the lowliness of His handmaid. Behold, from now on, all ages will call me blessed. The mighty One has done marvelous things for me; and holy is His name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear Him. He's shown might with His arm, scattering the arrogant of mind and heart. He's thrown down rulers from their thrones but lifted up the humble. The hungry He's filled with good things. The rich He's sent away empty. He has had mercy on Israel His servant, remembering His mercy, according to His promise to our fathers. . . .' "

He stopped.

We looked at one another.

"You know this prayer?" he asked.

I didn't answer.

"Well, then," he said sadly. "I'll tell you another - the prayer spoken by John's father, Zechariah, the priest, when John was given his name."

I said nothing.

" 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for He has visited and brought redemption to His people. He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David, His servant, even as He promised through the mouths of the prophets of old.' " He broke off, looking down for a moment. He swallowed and then he went on. " 'Salvation - from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us . . . and you child' - he spoke here of his son John, you understand - 'and you child will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways. . . .' "

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