The Book of Longings: A Novel (11 page)

“Judas is no son to me,” Father said. “He’s not of my flesh, but adopted from my wife’s family. From this day, he is anathema to me. He is a stranger. If I must, I will declare it before Antipas himself.”

I couldn’t bring myself to look at Mother.

“I will see him punished,” he went on. “There are rumors that Simon and his men hide in Arbel Gorge. I will dispatch soldiers to scavenge every cleft and turn over every rock.”

Standing beside Nathaniel, the worker who’d brought in the branch shifted nervously.
Let him be the spy Judas spoke of. Let him warn my brother.

Father had done a good job of pacifying Nathaniel. Too good, I feared.

After he departed, Father withdrew to his study and Mother dragged me into her room and closed the door. “Why would Judas commit this atrocious act?” she cried. “Why would he call out his name? Didn’t he
know doing so would antagonize Antipas against your father? Did he mean to punish Matthias at the risk of his own life?”

I said nothing, hoping she would spew her shock and alarm and be done with it.

“Have you spoken to Judas? Did you put him up to this?”

“No,” I said, too quickly. I had an outstanding talent for committing deceit, but none for hiding it.

She slapped me hard across my cheek. “Matthias should never have let you leave the house. There will be no more walking the hillsides with Lavi. You will remain at home until the betrothal ceremony.”


If
there’s a ceremony,” I said. And she lifted her hand and struck my other cheek.

xxii.

That evening, as the day spilled the last of its pale lights over the valley, Yaltha and I took once more to the roof. On my cheeks were the rouged imprints of my mother’s hand. Yaltha brushed her fingertip over them. She said, “Did Judas tell you he intended to burn Nathaniel’s grove? Did you know?”

“He swore to do his part to end my betrothal, but I didn’t think he would go so far as this.” I lowered my voice. “I’m glad he did.”

The first chill of the season had arrived. Her shoulders were hunched up like bird wings. She drew her scarf around them. “Tell me, how does destroying Nathaniel’s dates help your cause?”

When I described the bargain between Father and Nathaniel, she said, “I see. By causing your father to lose favor with Antipas, Judas wagers Nathaniel will end the agreement. Yes, it’s cunning.”

For the first time, I tasted hope on the back of my tongue. Then I swallowed and it was gone. I thought of the prayer in my bowl, of my
face inside the tiny sun. I’d cleaved to them as things that might somehow save me and yet doubts repeatedly consumed them.

Frantic for reassurance, I told her about the vision I’d had of my face. “Do you believe it’s a sign I’ll avoid this marriage and realize my hopes?” I waited. The moon shone bright. The rooftop, the sky, and the houses nestled tightly across the city seemed made of glass.

“How can we know the ways of God?” she answered. Her skepticism showed not only in the evasiveness of her words, but in the way her mouth twitched with words she didn’t say.

I persisted. “But a vision such as this can’t mean I’m fated to disappear into Nathaniel’s house to live out my days in misery. It must be a promise of some kind.”

She turned the force of her eyes on me. I watched them gather into small brown cruxes. “Your vision means what you want it to mean. It will mean what you
make
it to mean.”

I stared at her, baffled, perturbed. “Why would God send me a vision if it has no meaning other than what I give to it?”

“What if the point of his sending it is to make you search yourself for the answer?”

Such uncertainty, such unpredictability. “But . . . Aunt.” It was all my lips could manage.

Could we know the ways of God or not? Did he possess an intention for us, his people, as our religion believed, or was it up to us to invent meaning for ourselves? Perhaps nothing was as I’d thought.

Overhead, the black magnitude, the shining, breakable world. Yaltha had made a crack in my certainty about God and his workings. I felt it give way and a crevasse open.

xxiii.

When there were two ivory chips remaining on my reckoning cloth, Lavi and I slipped from the house, despite Mother’s decree, and made our way to the cave where I’d buried my possessions. The sky was in a sunken mood—grayed and heavy and wind-struck. Lavi had pled with me not to venture out. But knowing he put large measure in dreams and omens, I’d told him I’d dreamed a hyena dug up my belongings and I was compelled to go to the cave and reassure myself they were still safely concealed. It was a shameless fabrication. It was true I worried about my writings and my bowl, but that was not the reason for my lie. I hoped to find Jesus.

Arriving at the same hour that I’d found him praying before, I wandered about the little clearing, peering over the outcrops of rock, then searching the cave. There was no trace of him.

After making a display of inspecting my burial spot, I stood with Lavi just inside the cave, studying the heavens. The sun had tunneled so far into the clouds, the world had blackened.

“We should go back,” Lavi said. “Now.” He’d brought a small rolled canopy of thatched palm to protect us if the rains began. I watched as he unfurled it. I had an awful feeling inside, something sad and sodden like the sky.

He was right, we should leave—once the rains began, they would not let up, perhaps for hours. I pulled my mantle over my head, then lifted my eyes toward the balsam grove, and there he was, moving through the trees. He stepped quickly, glancing upward, his tunic a smear of white in the murky light. Drops of rain began to fall. They splatted on the limestone, the treetops, the hard-shell earth, sending up the smell of fertility. As he broke into a run, I stepped back into the shadows. Lavi, seeing him, tensed, setting his jaw.

I said, “He’s of no danger to us. He’s known to me.”

“And did you have a dream of his coming, too?”

Within seconds, the rain became a swarm of locusts, thick and deafening. Jesus bolted into the cave as if coming up out of the sea, his clothes dripping, his hair hanging in dark wet tendrils on his cheeks. His leather belt jangled with tools.

Seeing us, he started. “May I share your refuge or would you have me seek shelter elsewhere?”

“The hillsides belong to everyone,” I answered, pulling the mantle back from my head. “Even if that were not true, I wouldn’t be so cruel as to send you back into the rainstorm.”

Recognition broke across his face. His eyes drifted to my feet. “You are no longer lame?”

I smiled at him. “No. And you, I trust, were not arrested by Herod Antipas’s soldier.”

His smile was a broad, crooked arrangement on his face. “No, I was faster than he was.”

Thunder cracked over our heads. Whenever the sky quaked, women uttered a blessing:
Lord preserve me from the wrath of Lilith.
But I could never bring myself to say it. I would whisper instead,
Lord, bless the roaring
, and that was what rose now to my lips.

He greeted Lavi. “
Shelama
.”

Lavi muttered the greeting back, then moved some distance away to the cave wall, where he sank onto his haunches. His surliness surprised me. He was piqued that I’d lied about the hyena, that I’d spoken to a strange man, that I’d dragged him here at all.

“He’s my servant,” I said, then immediately regretted drawing attention to the difference in our stations. “His name is Lavi,” I added, hoping to sound less supercilious. “I am Ana.”

“I’m Jesus ben Joseph,” he replied, and a disturbance of some kind passed over his face. I didn’t know if it was because I’d appeared
arrogant, or due to the oddity that we should meet again, or something in the utterance of his name.

“I’m glad our paths crossed,” I said. “I’ve wished to thank you for your kindness in the market. You weren’t rewarded very well for it. I hope your head wasn’t hurt badly.”

“It was little more than a scratch.” He smiled and rubbed his forehead. Tiny droplets sheened his brow. He dried them with his cloak, then rubbed the wool over his hair, leaving the locks askew, sprigs everywhere. He looked boyish, and I felt the same hot whirring in my breast as before.

He stepped deeper into the cave, away from the mist and nearer to where I stood.

“You’re a stonemason?” I asked.

He touched the awl that dangled from his belt. “My father was a carpenter and a stonemason. I took up his trade.” Grief flared in his face, and I guessed that speaking the name Joseph moments ago had caused the shadow to enter his eyes. It was for his father he’d prayed the Kaddish that day.

“Did you think me to be a yarn sorter?” he asked, quick to cover his sadness with wit.

“You did seem adept at it.” My tone was teasing, and I saw a ripple of the smile I’d observed earlier.

“I go with my sister Salome to the market when there’s no work of my own to be had. I’ve become an expert with yarn from too much practice. My brothers even more so—they’re the ones who usually accompany her. We don’t let her cross the valley alone.”

“You come from Nazareth, then?”

“Yes, I make door lintels, roof beams, and furniture, but my work doesn’t rival my father’s—there have been few commissions for me there since he died. I’m compelled to come to Sepphoris now to be hired as one of Herod Antipas’s laborers.”

How was it he spoke so freely? I was female, a stranger, the daughter of a wealthy Roman sympathizer, yet he didn’t hold himself apart.

His eyes swept over the cave. “I sometimes stop to pray here on my way. It’s a lonely place . . . except
today
.” He laughed, the soaring sound I’d heard in the market, and it caused me to laugh as well.

“Do you labor on Herod Antipas’s amphitheater?” I asked.

“I cut stone for it in the quarry. When quotas are reached and hiring ceases, I travel to Capernaum and join a band of fishermen on the Sea of Galilee and sell my portion of the catch.”

“You are many things, then. A carpenter, a stonemason, a yarn sorter,
and
a fisherman.”

“I’m all of those,” he said. “But I belong to none of them.”

I wondered if, like me, he possessed a longing for something forbidden to him, but I didn’t ask, for fear of probing too far. Instead I thought of Judas and said, “You don’t mind working for Antipas?”

“I mind my family’s hunger more.”

“It falls on you to feed your sister and brothers?”

“And mother,” he added.

He did not say wife.

He spread his damp cloak on the ground and gestured for me to sit. As I did so, I looked at Lavi, who appeared to sleep. Jesus sat down at a discreet distance, cross-legged, facing the cave opening. For a long interval we watched the rain and the wild, untethered sky without speaking. The nearness of him, his breathing, the way everything I felt inhabited me—I found rapture in these things, in this being together in the lonely place, and all around the thundering world.

He broke the silence by asking about my family. I told him my father had come from Alexandria to serve Herod Antipas as head scribe and counselor, that my mother was the daughter of a cloth merchant in Jerusalem. I confessed I would be beset with loneliness if not for my aunt. I didn’t mention that my brother was a fugitive or that the disagreeable
man he’d seen with me in the market was now my betrothed. I wanted so badly to tell him my writings were buried not far from where he sat, that I was a student, an ink maker, a composer of words, a collector of forgotten stories, but I kept these things inside, too.

“What brought you outside of the city on the day the rains begin?” he wanted to know.

I could not say
You, the reason is you
. “I walk often in the hills,” I told him. “This morning I was impetuous, believing the rains would not arrive so soon.” It was at least a partial truth. “And you? Did you come here to pray? If so, I fear I’ve kept you from it.”

“I don’t mind. I doubt God does either. Lately, I’ve been poor company for him. I bring him nothing but questions and doubts.”

I thought of my conversation with Yaltha on the roof and the doubts about God that had assailed me ever since. “I don’t think doubts are wrong if they are honest,” I said quietly.

He turned his face to mine and his eyes felt different on me. Was it a revelation to him that a girl would presume to instruct a devout Jewish man on the vagaries of devotion? Had he caught a glimpse of me, Ana, the girl at the bottom of the incantation bowl?

His belly groaned. He pulled a pouch from the pocket in his sleeve and removed a flatbread. He broke it into three even pieces and offered a portion to me and the other to Lavi, who had woken.

“You would break bread with a woman and a Gentile?” I said.

“With friends,” he answered, offering me his uneven grin. I allowed myself to smile back and felt something tacit pass between us. The first tiny sprout of our belonging.

We ate our bread. I remember the taste of barley and peasantry in my mouth. The sadness that came to me as the rain lessened.

He walked to the opening and looked at the sky. “The foreman at the quarry will be hiring laborers soon. I must go.”

“May this meeting not be our last,” I said.

“May God will it yet again.”

I watched him hurry away through the balsam grove.

I would never tell him that our meeting in the cave that day was not by chance. I would not reveal I’d seen him there once before as he’d prayed. To the very end I would let him believe God’s hand was in our meeting. Who’s to say? Yaltha’s words remain with me—how can we know the ways of God?

xxiv.

I entered the palace bedecked and perfumed, henna vines on my arms, kohl beneath my eyes, ivory bracelets on my wrists, and silver anklets at my feet. On my head, I wore a gold leaf coronet that was woven intricately into the braids of my hair. My betrothal dress was adorned with twenty-four ornaments, every precious stone commanded by Scripture. Mother had hired the finest seamstress in Sepphoris to sew the gems along the purple bands on my neck and sleeves. I was laden down and sweating like a donkey.

We mounted the steps to Herod Antipas’s great hall beneath a wind-ravaged canopy held aloft by four servants who strained to keep it from flying away. My betrothal ceremony had arrived on a day full of rain and drear. I followed behind my parents, stumbling up the wide stone stairs, holding on to Yaltha’s arm. My aunt had seen to it that I drank a full cup of undiluted wine before setting out, which had caused the edges of things to grow furred and my distress to shrink into something small and mewling.

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