The Book of Longings: A Novel (30 page)

BOOK: The Book of Longings: A Novel
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“Oh, but he has given it,” I said. “I sent a letter of request to him, but it reached him after you’d departed. In his return message, he expressed his wish for you to see my aunt safely back to Alexandria.”

He hesitated, uncertain. There had hardly been time for such an exchange. “Show me the letter and I will be satisfied.”

I turned to Lavi, who stood a few paces behind me. “Give me Haran’s letter.”

He looked at me, confused.

“You brought it as I instructed, did you not?”

It took a moment. “The letter, oh, yes. Forgive me, I fear I left it behind.”

I made a show of anger. “My servant has failed me,” I said to Apion. “But it’s not a reason to ignore my uncle’s consent. I will pay you, certainly. Would five hundred drachmae suffice?”

Now we would see if he loved money the way I loved words.

The arches of his brows swept up. I saw it the moment it came into his eyes: greed. “I would require at least one thousand drachmae. And I would expect no mention of the transaction to Haran.”

I pretended to debate the matter in my head. “All right, it will be as you say. But you must treat my aunt with respect and kindness or I shall hear of it and report the arrangement to Haran.”

“I will treat her as I would my own aunt,” he pledged.

“When do you anticipate concluding your business and returning to Alexandria?”

“I had thought it would require weeks, but after only a few days I’m ready to finalize the sale of the house. I will leave for Caesarea in five days in order to take passage on the next merchant ship.” He fixed his eyes on the bag strapped across Lavi’s chest. “Shall we complete our business?”

“I will return in five days with my aunt, arriving early in the morning. You will be paid then, not before.”

His lips curled. “Five days, then.”

xxx.

As Lavi and I drew close to the compound, the aroma of roasting lamb filled my nostrils. “Jesus is home,” I said.

“How can you know this?”

“Smell the air, Lavi. A fatted lamb!”

It would require a considerable event, such as the homecoming of her son, for Mary to trade for something as expensive as a lamb.

“How do you know the scent is not from some other courtyard?” Lavi said.

I quickened my pace. “I
know
. I just know.”

I reached the gate winded and flushed. Yaltha was sitting near the courtyard oven, where Mary, Salome, Judith, and Berenice were busy turning the lamb on a spit. I went to my aunt, kneeling down to embrace her. “Your husband is home,” she said. “He arrived last evening. I didn’t tell him about your father, but I explained your absence before James had a chance to give his account of it.”

“I will go to him,” I said. “Where is he?”

“He has been in the workshop all morning. But first, did you persuade Apion?”

“He was persuaded not by me, but by one thousand drachmae.”

“A
thousand
 . . . How did you come by such riches?”

“It’s a long story, and not one I wish overheard. It will keep.”

The women had scarcely greeted me, but as I ran toward the workshop, Judith called out, “If you’d heeded James’s commandment not to leave, you would’ve been here to greet your husband.”

Her tongue was a pestilence. “His commandment? Did James receive it on a stone tablet? Did God speak to him from a burning bush?”

Judith huffed, and I caught sight of Salome swallowing her laugh.

•   •   •

J
ESUS SET DOWN
the cross-saw he was sharpening. I’d not seen him for more than five months and he looked like a stranger. His hair hung long about his shoulders. His skin was darker and razed by desert winds, all the edges of his face severe. He seemed so much older than his thirty years.

“You’ve been gone too long,” I said, letting my hands rest on his
chest. I wanted to feel him, the flesh of him. “And you’re too thin. Is that why Mary has a banquet in the making?”

He kissed my forehead. He said nothing about my red scarf. His only words: “I’ve missed you, Little Thunder.”

We sat down on the workbench. “Yaltha said you were in Sepphoris,” he said. “Tell me all that has happened since I’ve been gone.”

I described Lavi’s unexpected appearance. “He brought me news,” I said. “My father is dead.”

“I’m sorry, Ana. I know what it’s like to lose a father.”

“Mine was nothing like your father,” I said. “When Nazareth treated you as a mamzer, your father protected you. Mine tried to make me the tetrarch’s concubine.”

“Is there nothing good you can say of him?”

Jesus’s capacity for mercy baffled me. I didn’t know if I could give up the wrongs my father had done, the way I hauled them around like an ossuary of precious old bones. Jesus made it seem as if one could just lay them down.

“I can say one thing for him,” I said. “
One
thing. My father sometimes provided me with tutors, papyri, and ink. He begrudgingly indulged my writing. This, more than anything, made me who I am.”

I’d known this simple truth, but putting it into words gave it an unexpected potency. I felt tears start. Finally, tears for my father. Jesus pressed me to him, burying my nose in his tunic, and I smelled the Jordan River flowing beneath his skin.

I removed my scarf and dried my face with it, unloosing my hair, and then went on, wanting to get through the rest of my telling. I spoke of my visit to Sepphoris, what it was like to be inside the house again, of Apion and his agreement to take Yaltha to Alexandria. There were things I didn’t mention—the jewelry, the coins, the lies. When I relayed the news Lavi had brought from the palace, I held back any mention of my ivory sheet and the kitchen steward.

There was, though, information I couldn’t withhold. I hesitated a moment before telling him. “Herodias seeks to have John arrested.”

“John has already been arrested,” he said. “Herod Antipas’s soldiers came for him two weeks ago while he was baptizing at Aenon near Salim. He was taken to the fortress at Machaerus and imprisoned. I don’t think Antipas will set him free.”

My hand went to my mouth. “Will they arrest his disciples?”

He was forever telling me to consider the lilies in the fields, which were never anxious and yet God took care of them. I didn’t wish to hear it. “Don’t tell me not to worry. I’m alarmed for you.”

“John’s disciples have scattered, Ana. I don’t believe they’re looking for us. When John was apprehended, I fled into the Judean desert along with Simon and Andrew, the fishermen, and two others, Philip and Nathanael. We hid there for a week. Even when journeying here to Nazareth, I cut through Samaria to avoid Aenon. I’m being watchful.”

“And Judas? Lavi believes he became one of John’s disciples, too. What do you know of my brother?”

“He joined us late last fall. After John’s arrest, he went to Tiberias in search of news. He promised to come here as soon as he could.”

“Judas is coming?”

“I asked him to meet me here. There are plans I wish to discuss with him . . . about the movement.”

What could he mean? The movement was in disarray. It was over. Jesus was home now. We would go back to the way it had been. I gripped his hand. I had the sense of something awful coalescing around me. “What plans?”

There were squeals at the doorway and three of the children—Judith’s two girls and Berenice’s youngest boy—charged into the workshop in a game of chase. Jesus caught the smallest in his arms and swung him about. When he’d given them each a twirl, he said, “I’ll tell you everything, Ana, but let’s seek a quiet place.”

He led me across the courtyard and through the gate. As we left the village and descended into the valley, I smelled the citrus harvest that signaled the arrival of spring. He began to hum.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“If I tell you, it will not be a surprise.” His eyes were alight. Traces of his playfulness with the children still clung to him.

“As long as you’re not taking me to the fields to consider the lilies, I’ll go willingly.”

His laugh was like a clapper bell, and I felt the months of our separation fall away. When we took the road that led to the eastern gate of Sepphoris, I knew we were going to the cave, but said nothing, wishing him to have his surprise, wanting the lightheartedness to last and last.

We walked through the balsam grove, through the thick, piney smell to the outcrop of rock. My heart did a little stag leap. There it was. It had been ten years.

When we stepped inside the cave, I looked toward the back where I’d once buried thirteen scrolls and my incantation bowl, and even now, they seemed buried to me, languishing in the bottom of my cedar chest. But he was here and I was here—I would lament nothing.

We sat in the opening. I said, “Tell me everything, as you promised.”

His eyes searched mine. “Hear me to the end before you judge.”

“All right, I’ll hear you to the end.” What he would say would change everything—I knew this indelibly.

“After I’d been with John for two months, he came to me one morning and said he believed God had sent me, that I, too, was God’s chosen. Soon after, I began to baptize and preach alongside him. Eventually he moved north to Aenon, where he could slip easily into Decapolis out of Antipas’s reach. But he wanted to reach the whole country and he asked me to remain in the south to preach his message of repentance. A small number of the disciples stayed with me—Simon, Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, and Judas. Multitudes came—you cannot imagine the crowds.
People began to say John and I were the two Messiahs.” He drew a deep breath and I felt it blow warm on my face.

I could see where he was leading, and I didn’t know if I wished to follow. He’d brought me here to the place of our beginnings, but only later would I think of the snake biting its tail, how the beginning becomes the end that becomes the beginning.

“The movement spread like floodwaters,” he said. “Now, though, with John in prison, it has been silenced. I cannot let it die.”

“You mean to take it up on your own?” I said. “It will become
your
movement now?”

“I’ll go forth in my own way. My vision differs from John’s. His mission was to prepare the way for God to throw off Roman rule and establish his government on earth. I hope for this, too, but my mission is to bring God’s kingdom into the hearts of people. The masses came to John, but I will go to them. I’ll not baptize them as he did, but I’ll eat and drink with them. I’ll exalt the lowly and the outcast. I’ll preach God’s nearness. I’ll preach love.”

He’d first told me of his vision of God’s kingdom here in this cave . . . the feast of compassion where everyone was welcome. “God has surely chosen you,” I told him, and I knew it to be true.

He pressed his forehead to mine and left it there. I think of it still, those moments, that leaning upon each other, the tent our lives made together. Then he rose and walked a few paces. I watched him standing there, bladelike, resolute, and felt overcome by it all. There would be no turning back.

He said, “After Salome’s wedding in Cana, I will announce myself at the synagogue in Nazareth, then Judas and I will go to Capernaum. Simon, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael are waiting for me there, and I know of others who may join us—the sons of Zebedee, a tax collector named Matthew.”

I stood. “I will come with you, too. Where you go, I will go.” I meant
those words, but they sounded strangely ill-fated in my ears and I could not account for it.

“You may come, Ana. I have no qualms about women joining us. All are welcome. But there will be difficulties—traveling from village to village with nowhere to lay our heads. We have no patrons or money with which to feed and clothe ourselves. And it will be dangerous. My preaching will set the priests and Pharisees against me. Already there are those who say I’m the new John who’ll rally resistance to Rome. This will certainly reach the ears of Antipas’s spies. He will see me as a messiah who stirs revolution just as he did John.”

“And he’ll arrest you, too,” I said, feeling fear spread through me.

At this most unlikely moment, the crooked grin appeared on his face. He sensed my fear, and wishing to break its spell, he said, “Consider the lilies of the field. They are not anxious, yet God takes care of them. How much more will he take care of you?”

xxxi.

In the days after Jesus’s return, I disappeared into preparations for our departure. Yaltha and I washed her few paltry garments and hung them to dry on pegs in the storeroom. I beat her sleeping mat and sewed a leather cord to it so she could strap it on her back. I filled waterskins, wrapped salted fish, cheese, and dried figs in strips of clean flax, and stuffed her travel pouch full.

I re-stitched our sandals, laying down an extra piece of leather inside. Jesus fashioned new walking staffs out of olive limbs. He insisted we take only one extra tunic each. I packed two along with a small batch of medicinal herbs, then sat awhile, clutching the preventatives that kept me from pregnancy. I wondered if we would ever have a private place to lie together once we’d left here, then tucked what I could fit of the preventatives into the pouch.

I took care to help Mary as she went about her chores, if only to spend time with her. Almost half of her family was leaving—Salome, Jesus, me, and Yaltha—and though she pretended cheerfulness, her sorrow seeped through as she watched Jesus carve the staffs, trying to keep the tremble from her chin, and as she embraced Salome, blinking tears. She baked honey cakes for us. She patted my cheek, saying, “Ana. Dear Ana.”

“Take care of Delilah,” I said to her. “Keep Judith away from her.”

“I will care for your goat myself.”

Lavi asked if he could come with Jesus and me when we left, and I didn’t refuse him. “You’re a free man now,” I told him. “If you come with us, it will be as a follower of Jesus, not a servant.” He nodded, perhaps half understanding what following Jesus meant. He kept the leather bag with my hoard of coins strapped to his chest even when he slept. When Jesus had spoken to me at the cave of the need to finance his ministry, I’d determined to become his patron. The drachmae left over after paying Apion’s bribe would fund him for many months, perhaps a year. I knew, though, if he learned how I’d obtained the money, he might refuse it. What snares my falsehoods were. I would have to layer lie upon lie to find a way to keep my patronage anonymous.

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