A Boy’s Tale: Chapter 9

Photo is of the house reputed to be that of John Mark and his parents, the site of the Last Supper.

Photo is of the house reputed to be that of John Mark and his parents, the site of the Last Supper.

IX

You would think, after our considerable time and effort, that all would have gone smoothly on our last full day of preparation, but that wouldn’t have factored in Aunt Martha. Somewhat prone to overcompensating for her non-existent shortcomings, she had assigned herself the task of preparing an enormous amount of food to take with us, and continued baking all afternoon, right up until dark. It was for this that, fully three times, I was sent into town for ingredients that she was sure she had on hand, until she didn’t.

[For convenience, first eight chapters have been combined into one link: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1  ]

Finally, all was done that could be done and, as we sat for the Monday evening meal, we were pleased with our day’s work. There would only be a few last-minute tasks to check off before we five – plus one mercilessly overloaded donkey – could set out for Cana the next morning.

The trip would be a walk of three hours, and we wanted to arrive well before dark. This was ostensibly to give our hosts ample time to get us settled in before supper, but I had overheard Mama and Aunt Martha, and knew that it was really to make sure the sun would still be well up in the sky when Malchus and Johanna were presented their gifts.

While I was helping Papa load the animal, he remarked off-handedly that we might meet other wedding guests along the road and should keep a look out. Uncle Jonathan added that he fully expected to see old friends, and wouldn’t be surprised to find them walking beside us as we journeyed north.

And though, as it turned out, none of them were known to us, we did begin seeing candidates almost as soon as we had left Nazareth behind. For one thing, there were far more women in route to Cana that day than would ordinarily have been the case, a sure sign of personal, rather than commercial, traffic. And, there were other indications, as well. Compared to the traders and craftsmen who one expected to see on the road, casual travelers were much less meticulous in their dress, and if they had a pack animal, it was almost always a lightly-loaded donkey, lest any lurking highwaymen be tempted. Even though our own ass carried valuable cargo that day, you would not have suspected it by looking at our unimposing group.

With so many people to choose from, we made a game of sorts as we went along, speculating on which of our fellow travelers we would also see the next day at the feast. Right from the start, we discerned far more than we might have expected, and the closer we came to Cana, the more potential guests there seemed to be.

“Well, all of these people can’t be going to the wedding,” Mama said at one point. “I know for a fact that Nathan only invited two-hundred-and-fifty. There must be something else going on in Cana this week, or perhaps in Sepphoris, or beyond.”

“Well that, dear sister, really can’t be,” Aunt Martha said flatly, “or I would know about it.”

“She really would, you know,” Uncle Jonathan added.

By the time we reached the outskirts of Cana we were actually laughing at the absurdity of it all. There were so many people entering the little town that it seemed like we had fallen into some preposterous dream, a perception that grew even stronger once we discovered where they were all so intent upon going.

In spite of Mama’s observation that they couldn’t be, it turned out that all these people – without the least hint of an invitation – really were on their way to the wedding. But, they were not drawn there for the ceremony, or the feast, or even the bride and groom. Most of them, in fact, didn’t even know who was getting married. The only reason they were on their way to Cana was because the story of John and Jesus and the voice in the river had spread across the countryside like locusts on a desert wind until all Galilee had heard it, and everyone wanted to see this “Son of God” for themselves.

And, we knew all of this not because we asked a soul. We didn’t have to. The nearer we came to the gate, the closer we grew to our fellow travelers – close enough to overhear them – and almost everything said on the road that day was talk of Jesus or John or angels or, the favorite, “Could he really be from Nazareth?”

It would seem that Jesus’s complete disappearance into the hills for so long a time had added enough suspense to the tale – spread by fishermen to every town along the lakeshore – that by the time he did reappear, the whole Province was on tip-toe. Consequently, once word got out that he and his followers would be guests at the Cana celebration, there was no stopping the curious, the needy, or those famished for freedom from Roman rule, from moving resolutely toward that place.

So here they came in their hundreds. Somehow they had all gotten it into their heads that this wedding was going to be much more than just a wedding, that the new age, even the New Israel, would be “brought forth in glory,” as we heard one of them say. They were all actually entertaining the idea that our “new Deliverer” – that is to say, the man whom we still considered our boat-building neighbor, not some metaphysical wonderworker – would take advantage of the large gathering to “throw off the Imperial yoke” in some great stroke of power right before their eyes – if they could but get there. They were all determined, even desperate, to see Joshua, and if that meant showing up at a wedding uninvited, the shame of it would be a small price to pay.

Now, this was somewhat disconcerting for our little group. On the one hand, as invited guests, we inevitably looked askance as we gleaned their destination, but on the other, there was something noble in the strength of their convictions. These were strangers doing something that, ordinarily, they wouldn’t dream of doing: go to a wedding uninvited. Indeed, I would almost wager that none of them had ever done such a thing in their entire lives. But on that day, propriety had become the captive of yearning, a yearning so strong it bordered on anguish. These were the Children of Israel still wandering in the desert, so badly burned by the blowing sands of Empire, and so hungry for hope, that even an outlandish rumor had been enough to overtake their usual good sense of propriety.

And, there were as many opinions as there were travelers. Expectations of the Messiah they sought were anything but constant and ranged from a new prophet in the mold of the olden ones, to Heaven’s own General, complete with chariots of fire at his command. And, as I listened, I realized my own expectations were much more modest. For one thing, I already knew him to be a normal human being who had, once upon a time, turned the eye of my mother, not the miraculous deity they envisioned, and for another, it simply didn’t make sense to me. Would any truly divine messenger impose upon a wedding feast to launch a revolution? I doubted it.

All-in-all, it was one of the most memorable, and I can now say, educational, days of my youth, as I witnessed on that road a spontaneous, serendipitous display of behavior having very little to do with reality or common sense. For my still-developing soul, it was a vivid lesson in both the astonishing range of human behavior and the fragility of reason, a lesson that has never grown stale.

Ultimately, in spite of the press, we passed through the Cana gates and reached Malchus and Johanna’s beautiful garden home only a little later than planned. We were never more pleased to have arrived at a destination. “Can you believe all these people? Where did they come from? What are they doing here?” were Johanna’s first words at the gate. It was clear that she had not yet heard.

“We will tell you all about it,” Aunt Martha said, “as soon as we refresh ourselves.” We relieved the donkey of its burden and brought the pack with us into the welcoming courtyard where Malchus was waiting to greet us.

After all the fuss Aunt Martha had made, I was expecting some imposing – even imperious– lord of the manor, but the man who greeted us with a wide smile and open arms was none of that. To begin with, he was short, even shorter than I was, but strong like an ox with veins that stood out against the muscles of his forearms. His dark leathery skin contrasted with his thick crop of close-cut, snow-white hair, but – another surprise – he had adopted the Roman custom and wore no beard at all!

With a glimmer in his eyes and a chuckle in his voice he fairly bounced toward us when we entered. He first tried to take the donkey pack, and looked as if he easily could, but Uncle Jonathan wouldn’t hear of it so instead he came to each of us, in turn, with a welcoming embrace and a look so deep that I felt for an instant like our souls had touched. He was as wise and warm as he was wrinkled and I was immediately drawn to him. He was, I thought, exactly the me that I would someday want to be.

And, Johanna was as enchanting as her husband was impressive. She was the same height as he, and had the same sparkle, only her white hair, tied with a blue ribbon at the nape of her neck, hung in waves all the way down to her waist. The home of Malchus was also unique in at least three other ways. For one thing, though he was one of the wealthiest men in Cana, they had decided to forego keeping household servants and make do for themselves.

“All the children are gone,” Johanna said, “and it just is not that much work. It feels like it did when we were young, just the two of us, working together, making a life. And with him making a mess in the courtyard from dawn to dusk, throwing mud and thorny things about in every direction, servants would just be in the way.”

That was the second thing: their breathtaking courtyard garden. Malchus told us that since his childhood he had been fascinated by the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s hanging gardens and now that the children no longer needed the roof for sleeping, he had the space, time and money to grow one for himself.

From outside the house, all you could see were the almond-colored earthen walls braced by sturdy timbers, but pass through the heavy wooden gate and you moved from the land of sand and baking sun into a magic garden made cool with the foliage of a thousand plants; a place so resplendent with color and perfumed with flowers that it almost seemed to sing. It was as unexpected as it was sublime, and a vision the likes of which I had certainly never seen before that moment, and have rarely seen since. Plantings covered every smidgen of available space, beginning at the entryway and climbing every wall. Banks of irrigated terraces led your eyes right up to the top of the house, and even there the visual feast continued with an actual grove of flowering trees – trees! – looking down like proud parents upon the breathtaking display below. It was a luxuriant, lustrous contrast to the monochromatic world all around it.

Malchus had made it all possible by outfitting the roof with rows of outsized tree boxes constructed of cedar and lined with pitch, and arranged the whole assemblage to show off an international collection gathered from far-off lands that included banks of exotic shrubs and a mind-boggling assortment of flowering rarities.

We were fortunate to arrive at the peak of the early season. The bright yellow double flowers of prickly calycotome were just beginning to fade, Rockrose bushes draped in deep fuchsia blossoms rounded out corners and cascaded over walls, while, rising up behind all the rest, the muted purple buds of the cercis trees were just beginning to pop.

Malchus had placed meandering paths through beds of anemones arranged in wavy rows, broken here and there with red and yellow ranunculae jumping out from behind artfully placed river rocks. There were clumps of silver salvia, swaths of red poppies, an entire area of dormant roses and even, in one back corner, a small pond where tree-ferns and blue irises clung to the muddy edge and lotuses promised to bloom in June.

Of course, none of this was new to Aunt Martha, and, discretion not being her greatest asset, I was impressed that she had managed to keep it all a secret. Her silence was rewarded by our astonishment as she clearly relished watching our jaws drop. I knew it was beautiful, but I was even more impressed when Mama said she had certainly never seen anything to equal it, and Papa made Malchus’s day by commenting that it reminded him of some of the Pharonic gardens along the Nile.

As an importer of every sort of animal fur and skin, Malchus had sent his agents to roam the world on buying trips with two standing instructions: to contract for only the best pelts possible, and to return with as many unusual plant specimens as they could find. He had planted much of his garden with seeds grown as far away as Sicily and Iberia, but preferred to transplant living specimens whenever possible. One dwarf tree from the far western province of Lusitania had been kept alive for six months before it finally reached Cana. Many of the imported plants died, he told us, but many lived, and some of the specimens I found that week in his garden I have never seen again.

Once our enthusiasm was clear, he was eager to show off his watering system. He had brought in a contractor to build it, but it was designed by him to be easily managed. A set of enormous cisterns had been sunk underground so that even during dry periods there would be sufficient water to keep everything alive. From there, it could be brought to the roof using a clever system of ropes, pulleys and buckets, and, early each morning, Malchus would climb to the roof to give the garden its daily drink.

Once it was raised to the level of the roof, the water was directed into a series of baked-clay channels running throughout the gardens. These were designed to deliver just the right flow all the way back down to the ground level, where any overflow was collected in the little pitch-lined pond where the irises grew. The pond also served to trap sediment, which was then used to enrich the soil throughout the garden, and any excess water was channeled back into the cisterns. Malthus’s accomplishment was impressive as a feat of engineering, but it was transporting as a living work of art. Any king, I thought, would cherish such a garden.

We were so taken by surprise and enamored with the beauty before us, that it took some time before Mama remembered to bring out the gifts we had brought, but she recovered herself before we went inside. She had insisted they be the final items Papa packed so they could easily be retrieved, and, as planned, they were well received in the rosy glow of late afternoon. Aunt Martha’s skill at the loom, multiplied by Mama’s skill with a needle, made for some enviable table linens, and Malchus seemed to be as thrilled with the game set as we had hoped he would be. Now that I had met him, I was glad Papa hadn’t let me keep it.

Finally, almost an hour after we had arrived, we made it inside, where the third, and perhaps most remarkable, thing about the house of Malchus became apparent. For four generations, his family had dealt in animal skins, and the lavish use of leathers and furs throughout their home reminded us of that history at every turn. Much of the furniture was covered in hides, some with fur, some without, and the sleeping platforms were piled high with plush pelts that promised to deliver the most luxurious sleep I had ever enjoyed.

Johanna seemed as proud of her furnishings as Malchus was of his garden, and she took great delight in educating us all about the great range of animal life represented in her home. I listened well and learned a lot, but try as I might, I just couldn’t get as excited about dead skins as I had been about the living flowers outside, which sang to me as if every bloom had a voice, and all were joined in marvelous harmonies.

Aunt Martha’s food was next to appear out of the pack, and by the time dark had overtaken us, we were presented with a table overladen with dishes from both Cana and Nazareth. I was getting used to being the least among equals, and ate in relative silence as Aunt Martha spent most of the meal making good on her promise, telling our hosts in great detail the story of John and Joshua ben Joseph, the Voice in the River, and just why all these strange people had suddenly crowded into their little town.

Other than Malchus’s visits to his workshops, Johanna’s daily marketing, and weekly trips to the synagogue, the two of them hardly ever left the beauty of their home and paid little attention to current events. “At my age,” Malchus said, “it seems to me I know everything I need to know. If there’s another war, someone will tell me.” I smiled inside, remembering Legolas’s words of only a few nights before, “I don’t think anybody knows everything yet.”

“So all these people think they are going to Naomi and Johab’s wedding?” Johanna asked. “Do Nathan and Hadassah know?”

“Surely they know by now,” Mama said. “In any event, I’m supposed to go early in the morning to help Naomi get ready, so I’ll make sure they are warned.” Though only second cousins, Mama and Naomi had spent several childhood summers together at Aunt Tabaitha’s, and were dear friends. As soon as Mama had told her we were coming, Naomi had asked her to serve as one of her attendants.

“You know,” Johanna said, “it’s not really a very large place, our sweet Cana, and it is going to be rather hard, with all these people in the streets, to move about. Thank goodness the bride and groom live near each other, or the procession would be impossible.”

“So true,” Mama said. “Of course, if they weren’t neighbors, they might never have met in the first place. Surely, we will have enough room to pass through from Abner’s to Nathan’s. I can’t imagine the street will be that crowded. I mean, that would be just absurd.”

“I wouldn’t be concerned, lovely lady,” Malchus said. “There are more than enough true Canans around to keep you safe, and Abner and Nathan have many friends. You may be assured your path will be clear.”

“Well, the procession is set to start at noon,” Mama said.

“And so it shall,” Malchus decreed, “without hindrance or hitch. Tomorrow, right after breakfast, I will check with Nathan and, if needed, I’ll happily organize the men, myself.”

“I should plan to leave then, too,” Mama added. It will take all morning just to get Naomi ready, not to mention the rest of us!”

“Well, you don’t have far to go, you know,” Johanna said, “We’re very close. Their street is just one over from ours and we share the alleyway in between. In fact, our back gates are right across from each other. It’s a bit of a mess back there – you have to step over the drainage channel – but you’ll find Nathan’s gate directly opposite ours and Abner’s is only two houses down, toward the synagogue.”

“How perfect,” Mama said, “I knew we had come to the right place! I was already getting concerned about moving through that crowd tomorrow morning, and, well, that’s just wonderful news.”

I was also pleased to hear this, but for my own selfish reasons, since it would make it much easier for me to escape the festivities if they got too tiresome.

The meal concluded with a wine imported from Cappadocia and Malchus filled each of our cups to the top. Compared to that served by Legolas, the vintage was far superior, but it was as nothing compared to the cup I had been given by Aunt Tabaitha. I realized I was developing a sense of the comparative merits of different wines. Legolas’s was potable but sharp and bitter, Malchus’s Grecian wine was much more pleasant – flavorful and fruity – but Old Seth’s was, so far, at least, in a category of one.

“What a day,” Papa said as he stifled a yawn and stretched his arms. We were all anticipating an early start and I especially wanted to be up and about to help Malchus with his morning watering. He had already given permission, and I looked forward to following the water as it flowed down its labyrinthine course of terra cotta channels from the roof trees right on down to the soggy irises by the back gate. But, I would have to be up with the sun to do it.

Enticed by the pile of fur allotted me for the purpose, I had already laid out my bedroll in the small back bedroom assigned to me, and I didn’t resist in the least when Mama suggested I join it. I had never had such a bed before, and when I first pulled the cover up to my neck I just lay there on my back, closed my eyes and imagined I was on a cloud. The cloud was floating through the night sky and carrying me to all the exotic places Malchus had mentioned: Malta, Rome, Alexandria, Dalmatia. I’m not sure when my imagined adventure turned into a dream, but I was just steering my cloud into Babylon to rain on the hanging gardens below when Mama shook me awake. It was still so dark she seemed like a shadow.

“I’m letting your father sleep,” she whispered, “but Malchus is already dressed and heading into the courtyard, so if you want to watch him water, you’d better get up.”

By the time she finished the sentence, my head had cleared, and I was up and dressed in two stings of a scorpion. I said a quick good morning to our hostess and Aunt Martha, who were preparing breakfast, then hurriedly climbed to the roof where Malchus was already working his pulleys.

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