The Book of Longings: A Novel (31 page)

•   •   •

we were to return to Sepphoris to meet Apion, I woke with a rolling sensation in my stomach. I could not eat.

“I fear I will never see you again,” I said to Yaltha.

We were standing beside the wall in the storeroom, where she’d drawn her charcoal calendar, and I saw she’d marked tomorrow, the sixth of Nisan, with her name and the word
, not in Greek, but in Hebrew. She saw me staring at it. “
aren’t finished, child. Only my time here in Nazareth.”

The thought of parting from her, from Mary and Salome, had become a leviathan ache in my chest.

“We will find each other again.” She sounded assured.

“How will I know where you are? How will I get news from you?” Letters were sent by paid couriers who traveled by ship, then by foot, but I would leave soon with Jesus for an itinerant life and it seemed unlikely a letter would ever reach me.

“We’ll find each other,” she repeated. This time she only sounded cryptic.

I went about my work, unconsoled.

Near the middle of the afternoon, Yaltha and I were beneath the olive tree cutting barley stalks, when looking up, I saw Judas at the gate. I lifted my arms in greeting, as Jesus loped across the courtyard to meet him.

The two men came toward Yaltha and me like brothers, their arms draped about each other’s shoulders, yet there was something boding in Judas’s face—I saw it immediately: the tightly pulled smile, his eyes shining with dread, the deep breath he took just before he reached me.

He kissed Yaltha’s cheeks, then mine.

We sat in patches of shade and sun flecks, and when the pleasantries were over, I said, “Must you always bring troubling news?”

Judas’s effort at pretense fell away then. “I wish it were not so,” he said and looked away, delaying, and neither Jesus, nor Yaltha, nor I broke the silence. We waited.

He turned back and fixed his gaze on mine. “Ana, Antipas has ordered your arrest.”

Jesus looked at me, his face gone still, and in a moment of strangeness and disbelief, I smiled at him.

The kitchen steward and the ivory sheet. Antipas has learned of my complicity.
Fear came then, blood rushing up to fill my ears, the wild galloping in my body.
This cannot be.

Jesus slid closer so I could feel the solidness of him, his shoulder against mine. “Why would Antipas arrest her?” he said calmly.

“He accuses her of treachery in the escape of Phasaelis,” Judas said.
“The palace steward who smuggled Ana’s warning to Phasaelis confessed its contents.”

“You are certain of this news?” Yaltha asked Judas. “Is your source reliable?”

Judas scowled at her. “I wouldn’t have alarmed you if I didn’t think it was true. Tiberias is still rife with gossip about Phasaelis. They say the soldiers who took her to Machaerus were put to death along with two of her servants, all of them accused of conspiring. And there is much talk of a warning message carried to Phasaelis on a food tray. I knew this to be Ana’s ivory tablet.”

“But that’s gossip. Do you assume her arrest based on gossip?” Yaltha demanded, and I could see the news had stunned her, too, for she refused to believe it.

“There is more, I’m afraid,” Judas said, a glint of exasperation in his voice. “I heard of an old woman named Joanna, who was Phasaelis’s attendant.”

“I know her,” I said. “She was married to Antipas’s head steward, Chuza.” I remembered her hovering about the first time I met Phasaelis. How young I’d been. Fourteen. Betrothed to Nathaniel.
You are no lamb, and I, too, am no lamb.
I glanced at Jesus. Was he remembering Chuza and the day he’d incited the crowd to stone me? I’d often wondered if we would be married if not for that terrible man.

“Chuza is long dead,” Judas went on. “But Joanna lives among the servants at the palace, partially blind and too old to be of much use, but she’s counted among those who now serve Herodias. She saved herself by condemning Phasaelis and swearing an oath of loyalty to Herodias. When I found her sitting outside the palace walls, she recanted both, saying she knew of Phasaelis’s plot and would have fled with her if she had been younger and had her sight.” He turned to Yaltha. “It was Joanna who told me about the kitchen steward’s confession and of Antipas’s intention to arrest Ana. She heard it from Herodias’s own lips.”

Around us the ordinary world went on: the children at play, James and Simon hewing wood in the workshop, Mary and my sisters-in-law kneading dough near the oven. The day in its courses. My breath hovered painfully over a flame at the back of my throat. “Joanna is certain Antipas will act?”

“He will act, Ana; there’s little doubt of it. King Aretas is mobilizing for war to avenge his daughter. Her escape has set off a cataclysm and Antipas lays blame on everyone who abetted his first wife, including you. To make matters worse, Herodias learned that her new husband was once fascinated by you . . . that he commissioned the mosaic of your face. Joanna told me this as well, and I suspect it was she herself who divulged the information to Herodias as a way of gaining her favor. Herodias is pressing Antipas to arrest you as he did John. I tell you, she will see it done.”

Jesus had been unaccountably silent. He covered my hand with his and squeezed. He and Judas had been displeased when I’d sent the warning to Phasaelis. I tried now to imagine myself not sending it. I couldn’t. With that realization, the fear began to leave my body. There was an incongruous peace in my helplessness, in the knowledge that what was done was done and could not be undone, and even if I could change it, I wouldn’t.

“I’m sorry,” Judas said to me. “I should never have agreed to deliver your message.”

“I don’t wish to question the past,” I said.

“You’re right, little sister. We must think of the future and do so quickly. Joanna believed Antipas’s soldiers would be coming for you in a matter of days. I walked here quickly, but Antipas’s soldiers will come on horseback. They may have been dispatched by now. There’s little time.”

Jesus sat forward. I expected him to say we should go and hide in the Judean hills, as he’d done when John was arrested. It would mean great difficulty, and who knew how long we would have to remain out there in that forsaken wilderness, but what choice was there?

He spoke with firm, measured words. “You must go to Alexandria with your aunt.”

The day was warm, lemon-yellow light brimming, and still a chill swept over me. “Couldn’t we hide in the wilderness as you did before?”

“You will not be safe even there,” he said.

Desperation took hold—I’d been nearly six months without him and the thought of separating again was excruciating. “We could go together to Syria, to Caesarea Philipi, to Decapolis. Antipas has no jurisdiction in those places.”

Jesus’s eyes were afloat with sadness. “My time has come, Ana. I must take up my ministry in Galilee in the wake of John’s movement. It cannot wait.”


“It will be temporary,” Jesus said. “You should remain in Egypt with your uncle Haran until Antipas’s anger and vengeance has cooled. We’ll send a letter to you there when it’s safe to return.”

I stared at him, finally stammering, “But . . . but that could be . . . that could be months. A year, even.”

“I hate to think of being separated from you,” he said. “But you will be safe, and I can carry on my ministry. When you return, you can join me.”

Yaltha placed her hand on my cheek. She said, “Your husband is right. Tomorrow we’ll go to Alexandria, you and I. Jesus has his destiny. Let him fulfill it. You have your destiny, too. Is this not what Sophia wanted all along?”

•   •   •

beneath the olive branches and we sat for what seemed like hours, conspiring. The plan was sealed. At daybreak, Judas would walk with us to Sepphoris, deliver us to Apion, then travel on with us to Caesarea to see us safely aboard the ship to Alexandria.
Jesus had wanted to escort us, but I’d been adamant. “I do not want you to miss your sister’s wedding,” I told him. It was only days away. “Nor do I wish to prolong our goodbye. Let’s say farewell here in the place where we’ve spent these eleven years together.”

I spoke the truth to my husband, but not all the truth. Convincing Apion to take me to Alexandria—and Lavi as well, for he’d begged to accompany us and I meant to bargain for his passage, too—would require another act of bribery and I didn’t wish Jesus to witness it.

When we finally dispersed from beneath the tree, I pulled Judas aside, into the storeroom, and told him about trading Mother’s jewelry for coins. He made no grimace of disapproval—my brother had stolen plenty from the rich to fund his sedition.

“I’m certain Apion will consent to take me and Lavi to Alexandria for a bribe of two thousand drachmae,” I said. “If so, that will leave us with three thousand. Jesus needs a patron to finance his ministry. I wish to divide the remaining money between myself and him. The amount could fund his work for months, perhaps the entire time I’m away. I want you to safeguard his portion, Judas, and you must never tell him where it came from. Promise me.”

He balked a little. “How will I explain it? He will press me to know his patron.”

“Tell him it’s someone in Tiberias. Tell him Joanna sent the coins out of gratitude for our part in saving her mistress. Tell him it’s anonymous. I don’t care, only don’t reveal my part in it.”

“He’s my friend, Ana. I believe in what he’s doing. Jesus is our best hope to find freedom from Rome. I don’t wish to start out lying to him.”

“I hate lying to him, too, but I fear he won’t take the money otherwise.”

“I’ll do as you ask, but let it be known, when it comes to you, I’m too indulgent.”

“One more thing, then,” I said. “You must write to me. Set aside some of the coins to purchase parchments and hire messengers. Send me news of Jesus and summon me as soon as it’s safe to return. Swear it.”

He hugged me to him. “I swear it.”


I dug my incantation bowl from the bottom of the cedar chest, where it had lain neglected and fallow for years. It was the size of a dough bowl, too large for my travel pouch, but I would not leave it behind. Nor my scrolls. When the silver coins were emptied from the large pouch, I would slip the bowl and the scrolls into it. Until then I would carry them in my arms.

I gazed at the wool sack of potsherds on which I’d penned the verses of grief for Susanna. They would have to stay behind.

The afternoon had given way to evening dark. Out in the courtyard, hushed voices. From the doorway, I could see Jesus and his family. In the sky, one lone star, a puncture of light.

“Your wife has acted recklessly,” I heard James say. “Now she will bring Antipas’s soldiers to our door.”

“What are we to say to them?” Simon said.

Jesus clasped a hand on each of their shoulders—that way he had of reminding them they were all brothers. “Tell them the woman they seek no longer lives here. Tell them she has left me and gone away with her brother; we don’t know where.”

“You would have us lie to them?” James asked.

Jesus’s suggestion that they prevaricate about my whereabouts surprised me, too.

Mary had been standing on the periphery, but she stepped before James and Simon. “What Jesus would have you do is help him preserve the life of his wife,” she said sharply. “You will do as he asks of you!”

“We must do as our conscience requires,” said Simon.

Salome made a whimpering sound. A sigh, a cry? I couldn’t tell.

“Let us drink some wine and talk together,” Jesus said.

I closed the door. In the stillness, a great heaviness came over me. I lit the lamps. Jesus would be back soon. Hurriedly, I cleansed my face and hands, donned a clean white garment, and smoothed my hair with oil fragrant with cloves.

Yaltha’s words returned to me:
You have your destiny, too
. They stirred the old longings in me, the terrible need for my own life.

I reopened my chest and retrieved the last of the oven ink, half-f and thick with gum, then pulled a reed pen from my travel pouch. Cross-writing in quick, tiny letters between the lines of my old prayer, I wrote a new prayer inside my incantation bowl.

Sophia, Breath of God, set my eyes on Egypt. Once the land of bondage, let it become the land of freedom. Deliver me to the place of papyri and ink. To the place I will be born.


I woke before daybreak with my head burrowed in the crook of Jesus’s neck. His beard brushed my forehead. Heat radiated from his skin with the scent of wine and salt. I didn’t move. I lay in the dark and drank him in.

The light came slow and limping, never fully arriving. Overhead, thunder—a splintering sound, then another and another, the sky timbers cracking. Jesus stirred, making a soft, droning noise with his lips. I thought he would get up then and pray.

Instead, he said, “Little Thunder, is that you I hear?” And he laughed.

I forced a lilt into my voice, teasing him back. “It’s me, Beloved. I’m roaring at the thought of leaving you behind.”

He turned on his side to face me and I felt that he saw deep inside me. He said, “I bless the largeness in you, Ana.”

“And I bless yours,” I told him.

Then he rose and, opening the door, stared toward the valley with the same deep, pure gaze he’d cast on me. I went to stand beside him and looked in the same direction as he, and it seemed for an instant I saw the world as he did, orphaned and broken and staggeringly beautiful, a thing to be held and put back right.

Parting was fully upon us now. I wished with all my being that we might have gone on together.

We ate in silence. After I dressed and made myself ready for the journey ahead, I opened the goatskin pouch that held the red thread. It was fragile, the thinnest of filaments, but I would wear it this day for him. He helped me tie it onto my wrist.

The family waited in the courtyard. I embraced each of them before Jesus walked with me to the gate, where Judas, Yaltha, and Lavi waited. The drizzle had stopped, but the sky was sodden.

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