As a child, I had always been seated with the women when attending the Jezreel synagogue, but this time, for the first time, I was proud to sit with Papa and the men. Even so, I found it hard to concentrate on what the rabbi was saying since my head was still spinning from the revelations of the night before. What had my uncles gotten themselves into? Could it really be possible? Could the Messiah – the Messiah! – be a man I had seen coming and going my whole life? I tried to remember the first time I ever saw him, but it was beyond me.
[To read the Introduction and Chapter 1: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1/ To read Chapter 2: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/02/07/a-boys-tale-chapter-2/ To read Chapter 3: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/02/14/a-boys-tale-chapter-3/ To read Chapter 4: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/a-boys-tale-chapter-4/ To read Chapter 5: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/a-boys-tale-chapter-5/%5D
The rabbi’s reading was a passage from one of the Songs of David: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that brings forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”
The prophecy rang in my head. Could John be the one “planted by the rivers?” I remembered the words of Legolas from only a few nights before, “By the fruit it bears shall you know the tree.”
I pictured Joshua at Zebedee’s boatshop and tried to think through what I knew of him. Had there been any indication? Though he had never failed to look up and smile when I entered the work space, he always seemed so intent on what he was doing that I had never actually spoken to him. I knew of his inventions, and my uncles had often talked of his skill with an augur, but I realized I didn’t really know all that much beyond what I had heard from Ruth.
The services ended and we were soon walking back to the big, quiet house. Mama helped Aunt Tabaitha set out a good lunch from the food prepared in anticipation of our visit by the sojourning servants, and we ate our fill of bread, Engedi cheese and Zebedee’s smoked fish.
Before, we had only visited Jezreel in the summertime, when it was my habit to spend the days playing in the vineyards with any cousins who might be about, or perhaps helping the workers in the winery, which fascinated me. But, in mid-winter, there were no cousins to play with, the vines were barren and the winery shuttered, so, once the meal was over, I made my way to my favorite room in all the world: Aunt Tabaitha’s scriptorium.
Just off the entrance to the house, it was a large corner space that had been the seat of my great-grandfather’s business and everything about it smelled of importance. In a flight of visual trickery, the outside-facing walls had been painted over with actual views of the rolling hills and meandering rows of vines you would have seen in summertime if there were open archways instead of walls – only the vines in the frescoes were heavy with clusters of impossibly large grapes. Four actual windows were placed near the roof, two each to the south and west to maximize the light well into the evening hours. In good weather, they were left open and kept the room remarkably warm and bright, but, should the wind shift, heavy, leather-lined shutters of cedar-wood effectively sealed the room from the elements.
But the true wonder of the room lined the interior walls, where, row upon row, Old Seth’s collection of writings, gathered over his lifetime, took pride of place. I often thought how sad it was that he had gone blind in his waning years, when he might have had the time to enjoy his collection. Among the scrolls lining the shelves were scriptures in both Hebrew and Greek – hardly ever found in a private home – and after spending some time reacquainting myself with all the writings at my disposal – everything from years of winery accounts to dramas for the stage from as far away as Athens and Rome – I took advantage of the opportunity to work on my languages. I played a game with myself by reading passages in Hebrew, then translating them into Greek as I thought they should be before comparing my version to the inscribed text. Aunt Tabaitha joined me for a time and seemed genuinely impressed with my abilities, but I saw much room for improvement. I was glad Papa had decided to nap.
The remainder of the afternoon seemed to pass in mere moments, but I kept at it until darkness fell and Mama called me to the evening meal. The talk on that second night was almost all about the wedding to come, and, soon enough, we were all ready for a good sleep: well-fed, well-rested and fully recovered from the first days of our journey. Though Mama still harbored concerns about my uncles – none of which had been assuaged in the slightest by the previous night’s conversation – we were ready to cover more ground. The hike to Nazareth would, thankfully, be shorter than our previous two walking days, but we would once again be heading uphill.
The next morning, for the second day in a row, Papa and I rose with the sun to attend to the animals – Aunt Tabaitha’s as well as our own – since Yoni, the stable man, had gone to Pella with the others. We were more than happy to do it. It was a rare opportunity to give her something she really needed, and I know it brought the two of us closer together as we cleaned stalls and explored the boundaries of our new relationship, now man-to-man rather than father-to-child.
Mama took over the kitchen and served up a hearty breakfast and, after promising to deliver a full report on our return, we said our goodbyes to Aunt Tabaitha and turned north once again.
The foothills of Mount Tabor were not so challenging as the rough terrain we had already conquered, but our donkeys had been spoiled by two easy days and had a lot to say about climbing again. Much to our relief, they never actually balked. The Sunday morning traffic was surprisingly heavy, but it eased as the day wore on and we were making such good time we decided to forego lunch and press on the short distance to Nazareth. We arrived at Aunt Martha’s door just as the family was clearing away their own midday meal.
Aunt Martha, Mama’s sister, had not been overly gifted in face and form. She was a short, stocky woman with a huge heart and a tiny, high-pitched voice that chirped, more like a songbird than a human. She had never been comely and the years of child rearing had taken their toll, but the constant sparkle in her eyes – added to the warmth and love she radiated for everyone – was so overwhelming that it outshone any unhappy superficiality.
She had moved to Nazareth from Capernaum when she married Uncle Jonathan, whose caravansary commanded a good location right by the crossroads and was already well established. As time passed and the family grew, he had built the large, if not luxurious, house that now rose up before us, a house that seemed always to be filled with the echoes of laughing children and the aroma of baking bread.
Aunt Martha had been blessed with two sets of twins. The younger pair, David and Little Jon, were identical boys three years my junior who sported the brightest, reddest hair I have ever seen – even to this day – and were so rambunctious and self-absorbed that I found them hard to be around. On the other hand, the girl twins, who were only a year younger than I, could not have been more different, either from their brothers or each other. They suffered that affliction so common to twins, rhyming names, but that was their only similarity.
With enormous brown eyes, a lithesome form and light brown, almost golden hair, Anna was very pretty but painfully shy, while Manna, who was constantly brimming over with clever ideas and enthusiasm for anything adventurous, was a miniature version of her mother with stubby limbs, deep-set black eyes, and a wide, square face topped by a thicket of tight black curls.
Their little sister, Rachel, still in her crib when we had last visited, would be turning five soon and I looked forward to discovering which of her sisters she would most resemble.
We stood quietly at the door, amused by the sight of the bustling family clearing the table, and it was Manna, not surprisingly, who looked up first. She let out a little squeal and, in an instant, we were surrounded by excited family as everyone tried to embrace us at once.
After their enthusiastic greeting ebbed and our donkeys were unburdened, Uncle Jonathan told David and Little Jon to take them to the caravansary, where they would be stabled until we returned from the wedding. We would use one of Uncle Jonathan’s animals for the trip to Cana. Ours still had the long walk home ahead of them, and we were happy to give them a rest.
It was for Aunt Martha that much of the shopping had been done before we left Jerusalem. This was not unusual since Papa and Uncle Jonathan had a long-standing business arrangement that served both of them well. Uncle Jonathan would scour the newly arriving caravans for the best quality writing and calligraphy supplies, new inks, special vellums and such, while Papa, for his part, would procure whatever the Nazareth family might need from Jerusalem. These exchanges were usually accomplished by consigning the goods to passing caravans, but it was our custom, when traveling as a family, to deliver them in person and save the transport fees.
Much that we had brought on this occasion was related to the week-long wedding festivities, including new clothes in the latest styles for Aunt Martha. But it was not all about the wedding. We had also packed a large bundle of my clothes – quickly outgrown and hardly worn – for the boys, who were just growing into them.
Once Papa had sorted it all out, Mama took Aunt Martha to the back room to delight in all of her new treasures. She had taken great pains to find things that would flatter her sister, and for the next hour, or so, little squeals and giggles echoed through the house as they made their way from hair ornaments to footwear to wraps.
Left to fend for themselves, Papa and Uncle Jonathan were soon deeply engaged in a business discussion and it was no place for me, so I went looking for the girls. I loved them dearly and had missed them greatly in the two years since we had last been together. It was also not lost on me that Nazareth was the very home of Joshua ben Joseph, and I was eager to learn what, if anything, they knew about the recent events involving our uncles and the dramatic new turn in their lives. I found them playing games by the water basin in the courtyard.
As it turned out, thanks to her “best friend” Sela, Manna was even more well-informed than Aunt Tabaitha had been. Sela was the same age as the girls and not only lived right next door to the ben Joseph family home, she was even related by marriage. That house – and the management of the leather repair shop – had only recently been given over by Joshua’s eldest brother James to the next in line, Joseph ben Joseph, whose wife, Priscilla, was also Sela’s aunt. By that time, both James and Jude (the fifth eldest brother) had turned to fishing for Zebedee at Capernaum, so Joshua had moved Mary, his mother, and sister Ruth into a house there – purchased with his caravan earnings – where they would have the protection of at least two of his brothers nearby.
Joshua was the first of nine children born to Mary and Joseph, eight of whom lived to adulthood. James had come next, then eldest daughter Miriam, followed by Joseph (Sela’s uncle), Simon, Martha, Jude, Amos (who had died when only two) and Ruth. Of course, I only knew Ruth at the time of these events, but that was more than enough to have become well-versed in her family lore, or, at least, to have thought I was.
“Did you hear about Joshua ben Joseph?” I asked Manna, as soon as I joined them in the courtyard.
“You mean Jesus? Of course, silly!” she said through giggles, “Don’t you know I know everything that happens around these parts?”
“So tell me!” I said. “Tell me everything.”
She then told the same story we had heard over the Sabbath meal at Aunt Tabaitha’s, right up to, and including, the disappearance of Joshua into the hills.
“So what happened to him,” I asked. “What does Sela say?”
“She’s in the dark, too, they all are,” she replied. “But she did say that story about the angel is true. She said she has always known about it; that Mary had told the story many times around the table, but nobody ever mentioned it outside the family, because, well, it sounds so crazy that nobody really believed her. At least, not until the baptizer let the mouse out of the trap. She also said that every time Jesus went off on one of his adventures, his mother would get all expectant and excited, but, then just get despondent when nothing came of it. Now, with him gone missing, they really don’t know what to think.”
“So where could he be?” I asked. “Surely something bad has happened to him. Why would he disappear like that? Especially now, when he must know he’s stirred up a whirlwind?”
“I guess time will tell,” Manna said, sounding older than her years, “but I do think they’re all getting a little worried. He’s been gone over a month already; simply vanished. Maybe you’re right. He could have been eaten by a lion by now, or fallen down a hole, or joined another caravan. But you, John, will know more very soon, and I expect a full report! You know they’re invited to the wedding.”
“Who’s invited?” I asked.
“All of them: Jesus, Mary, Ruth, James, Jude… Mama said they’re all invited.”
“Really?” My head was suddenly running rampant with possibilities. “Then I guess the mystery will be solved tomorrow,” I said, though I wondered if it really would.
“Aunt Avra and Uncle Reuben, will be there too,” she said. “Everyone is going but us!”
Our Aunt Avra, Mama’s youngest sibling, had married Uncle Jonathan’s business partner only three years before. Uncle Reuben ran a portside location for the family business in Ptolemaus, where the road from Damascus and points east finally reached the sea, about a day’s walk beyond Nazareth.
“I wish we were going,” Manna said. “It’s not fair that you can go, but we can’t.”
“I wish you could, too,” I lamented, and meant it. As the first of our generation to reach adulthood, I was also the only one going to Cana. I was excited and happy to be invited, of course, but since I knew my elders would be occupied with each other, I was fully expecting a week of being left to my own company in a strange town.
“At least Uncle Andrew will be there,” I said. If Aunt Tabaitha was my favorite aunt, Uncle Andrew was my favorite uncle. And, like she, he always had time for me.
“Did I hear my name?” the unmistakable voice came booming from just beyond the gate. “Who is that talking about me?”
© 2015 George Thomas Wilson, all rights reserved.