The Book of Longings: A Novel (44 page)

•   •   •

that night, even with Yaltha’s chamomile. My thoughts spun. It was the deep of night, but I rose from my mat and stole past Diodora and Yaltha, who were making quiet slumbering sounds.

Standing in the darkened holy room, I felt the finality of being here. My large woolen travel pouch sat on the table, stuffed full. Diodora and Yaltha had watched in silence as I’d packed it. It contained the pouch that held my red thread, Judas’s letter, the mummy portrait, money, two tunics, a cloak, and undergarments. I’d left the new black-and-red Alexandrian dress for Diodora. I would have no use for it anymore.

I could hardly bear to look at the niche where my ten codices were stacked in a beautiful leaning tower with my incantation bowl perched on top. It wasn’t possible to take them with me. I might’ve carried a second bag and squeezed in five codices, maybe six, but something inexplicable inside me wished the books to remain all together. I wanted them here among the Therapeutae, where they might be read and preserved and perhaps cherished. I moved about the room, telling everything goodbye.

Yaltha’s voice came from the doorway. “I will safeguard your words until you return.”

I turned to her. “I will likely never return, Aunt. You know that.”

She nodded, accepting what I’d said without questioning it.

“After I leave, place my writings in the library with the other manuscripts,” I said. “I’m ready now for others to read them.”

She came and stood close to me. “Do you remember the day in Sepphoris when you opened your cedar chest and showed me your writings for the first time?”

“I’ve not forgotten it, nor will I ever forget it,” I said.

“You were something to be reckoned with. Fourteen years old and full of rebellion and longings. You were the most stubborn, determined, ambitious child I’d ever seen. When I saw what was inside your cedar chest, I knew.” She smiled.

“Knew what?”

“That there was also largeness in you. I knew you possessed a generosity of abilities that comes only rarely into the world. You knew it, too, for you wrote of it in your bowl. But we all have some largeness in us, don’t we, Ana?”

“What are you saying, Aunt?”

“What most sets you apart is the spirit in you that rebels and persists. It isn’t the largeness in you that matters most, it’s your passion to bring it forth.”

I gazed at her, but could not speak. I went down on my knees; I don’t know why, except I felt overcome by what she’d said.

She placed her hand on my head. She said, “My own largeness has been to bless yours.”


The coffin lay on the floor in the middle of the woodworking shop smelling of fresh wood. Yaltha, Diodora, and I gathered beside it and stared somberly into the empty cavity.

“Don’t think of it as a coffin,” Diodora advised.

“We mustn’t delay,” Gaius said. “Now that the prayers for Theano are over, members will be lining the path, wanting to proceed behind the wagon as far as the gatehouse. We can’t risk one of them wandering nearby and finding you. Quickly, now.” He gripped my elbow as I stepped into the coffin. I stood there a moment before sitting, unable to think of the wooden box as anything other than what it was. I told myself just not to think at all.

Diodora bent and kissed my cheeks. Then Yaltha. As my aunt hovered over me, I tried to memorize her face. Gaius placed the travel pouch at my feet and the awl in my hand. “Hold on to it.” I lay back and looked up into the bright room. The lid slid over me. Then darkness.

The coffin juddered as Gaius hammered in four nails, causing my head to knock against the bottom. In the stillness that followed, I became aware of two thin beams of light. They reminded me of the fine strands of a spider’s web lit with sunlight and dew. I turned my head and found the source, a tiny perforation on each side. My breathing holes.

The coffin was lifted with a jerk. Unprepared for it, I let out a small cry. “You’ll have to stay quieter than that,” Gaius said, his voice sounding far away.

As they carried me outside, I braced for another jolt, but the coffin
slid smoothly into the wagon. I couldn’t tell when Pamphile climbed in, maybe she was there already, but I heard the donkey bray and felt the lurch of the cart as we started down the hill.

I closed my eyes so as not to see the coffin’s lid, which was a hand’s breadth from my nose. I listened instead to the rumble of the wagon, then to the muffled singing that began to follow us.
Don’t think, don’t think. It will be over soon.

When we made a sharp turn north, the singing receded into the distance and I knew we’d passed the gatehouse and turned onto the road. Moments later, one of the soldiers shouted “Halt!” and the wheels on the cart ground to a stop. The beat of my heart came so hard, I imagined the sound of it streaming out through the air holes. I was afraid to breathe.

The soldier addressed Pamphile. “We were told a man among the Therapeutae died. Where are you taking him?”

It was difficult to hear her answer. “To his family in Alexandria,” I believed she said.

Relief surged through me. I thought we would be waved on now, but the cart didn’t move. The soldiers’ voices drew closer, seeming to move to the back of the cart. A thread of panic began to unravel in me. My eyes flew open, met by the lid of the coffin. I drew a pant and shut them again.
Don’t move. Don’t think.

We lingered an interminable time for reasons I could not deduce. Then I heard one of them say, “There’s nothing back here but the coffin.”

Suddenly the wagon staggered forward.

We plodded on and on, jostling along the rutted road for much longer than seemed necessary. Pamphile had been instructed to stop the cart when the soldiers were out of sight, preferably along a lonely stretch, and free me. The heat inside the coffin had concentrated. I took the awl and knocked against the side of the coffin. I didn’t know whether people might be about, but I no longer cared. I forced the end of the
awl beneath the lid and attempted to pry it upward, but there was not enough room inside for my arms to lift up or press down. I rapped harder on the side. “Pamphile!” I screamed. “Stop now and free me!”

The wagon traveled on for some minutes more before she brought it to a stop.

I heard the split of wood as she pushed her awl under the lid and wrested the coffin open. There was a dazzling rush of light.

•   •   •

for Judea on the fifth of Nisan.



As Lavi and I arrived outside Jerusalem, the slopes of the Kidron Valley came into view lit with a thousand pilgrim campfires. Funnels of pale smoke drifted across the night sky, thick with the smell of roasted lamb. It was the thirteenth of Nisan. Passover.

I had hoped to reach the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha before nightfall, early enough to eat the festival meal with Jesus. I sighed. The meal would be over by now.

Lavi and I had suffered one excruciating delay after another. First, the sea winds deserted us, slowing our ship’s arrival. Then, on foot from Joppa, we had difficulty finding food due to the crowds, forcing us to detour to out-of-the-way villages to buy bread and cheese. We were obstructed for hours in Lydda by Roman soldiers attempting to control the clogged road to Jerusalem. Throughout, I’d practiced in my head what I would say to Judas, reassuring myself he would listen. I was his little sister; he loved me. He’d tried to rescue me from Nathaniel. He’d taken my message to Phasaelis against his own wishes. He would listen and then abandon this madness that would have him betray Jesus.

As I gazed at the hillside, the urgency I felt inside made it difficult to breathe.

Lavi said, “Do you need to rest?” We’d been walking since daybreak.

“My husband and my brother are just beyond this valley,” I said. “I will rest once I see them.”

We walked the last stretch to Bethany in silence. Had I not been so weary, my feet might’ve broken into a run.

“The lamps in the courtyard are still burning,” Lavi said as we reached the house of Jesus’s friends, and now, my friends, too. He pounded on the gate, calling out that Ana, wife of Jesus, had arrived.

I expected to see Jesus hurrying to let us in, but Lazarus came. He looked well, not nearly so yellow and pallid as when I’d seen him before. He greeted me with a kiss. “Come, both of you.”

“Where is Jesus?” I said.

His feet slowed, but he walked on into the courtyard, as if he hadn’t heard. “Mary, Martha,” he called. “Look who’s here.”

The sisters rushed from the house, throwing their arms open. They seemed shorter, their faces rounder. They greeted Lavi with the same warmth they’d once bestowed on Tabitha. Thinking of her, I looked about, but she, too, was nowhere to be seen. I did notice a stack of sleeping mats piled beside the outer wall. Folded on top of them was a worn flaxen cloak.

“You and Lavi must be famished,” Martha said. “I’ll bring what’s left of the Passover meal.”

As she hurried off, I went and picked up the cloak. It bore my poor, uneven weaving. I held the garment to my face—it was filled with his scent. “This belongs to Jesus,” I said to Mary.

She smiled in that serene way of hers. “It’s his, yes.”

“And this as well,” said Lavi, holding up a staff made of olive wood, the one Jesus had carved while sitting beneath the tree in the compound in Nazareth.

I took it, wrapping my fingers around the wood, feeling the smooth, polished place his hand had worn.

“Jesus and his disciples have been staying with us for some time,” Mary said, nodding at the mound of bed mats. “They spend their days in the city and return in the evening to sleep in the courtyard. This past week, each time Jesus came through the gate, he would ask, ‘Has Ana come?’ You seemed very much on his mind.” She smiled at me. I bit hard into my lip.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“He observed Passover in Jerusalem with his disciples.”

“Not here with you?”

“We expected them to share the meal with us, but Jesus changed his mind only this morning, saying he would take Passover alone with his disciples in the city. I admit, it did not please Martha. She’d prepared enough for the lot of them, and I can attest they eat a great deal.” She laughed, and it came out all wrong, high-pitched and uneasy.

“Was Judas among them?”

“Your brother? Yes. He hardly left Jesus’s side, except. . . .”

I waited, but she did not continue. “Except?”

“It’s nothing. It’s just that yesterday when Jesus and the others returned from the city, Judas was not with them. I heard Jesus ask Peter and John if they knew his whereabouts. It was quite late when he finally appeared, and even then he kept to himself. He ate alone over there in the corner.” She pointed across the courtyard. “I thought he didn’t feel well.”

I doubted this odd behavior of Judas’s was nothing, as she’d suggested, though I couldn’t have said what it meant. I was still clutching Jesus’s staff and his cloak, gripping them so tightly I became aware of an ache in my fingers. Relinquishing the items onto a bench, I walked to the gap in the courtyard wall and looked west toward Jerusalem. “Shouldn’t Jesus have returned by now?”

Mary came and stood beside me. “It’s his custom to pray on the Mount of Olives each evening, but even so, he’s long overdue.” Her face
was shadowed, but I saw something there, something more than dismay at his lateness. I saw dread.

“Ana?” The voice came from across the courtyard, one I’d not heard in seven years.

“Tabitha!” I cried, running toward her even as she ran to me. We clung to each other for a long while, her ear pushed against my cheek. We spoke no words, but swayed together—a kind of dance. I closed my eyes, remembering the girls who had danced blind.

“I cannot believe you are here,” she said. “You must never go away again.” The words came out slow, measured, thick-tongued, as if they were too cumbersome for her mouth, but every syllable was there.

“You speak with clarity!” I said.

“I’ve had many years to practice. The tongue is an adaptable creature. It finds a way.”

I took her hands and kissed them.

Martha appeared then, carrying a tray of food, followed by Lazarus with a sloshing pitcher of wine. While Lavi and I cleansed our hands, Mary bid Tabitha to fetch her lyre and play for us. “You have never heard such music,” she told me.

I wanted to hear Tabitha play, I truly did, but not right then. Right then I wanted the four of them to tell me about my husband—the things he’d said and done. I wanted to know about the danger he was in that no one would speak of. I watched Tabitha dash away and said nothing.

Mary was right about one thing—I’d never heard such music. Quick, daring, even funny, the song was about a woman who cut off her torturer’s beard as he slept, causing him to lose his powers. Tabitha danced as she strummed, twirling about the courtyard, graceful as ever, and I thought how much she would love the Therapeutae’s forty-ninth-day rituals. All that endless music and dancing.

When she finished, I set down the nugget of bread I was about to dip in my wine cup and embraced her yet again. She was breathless, her face
flushed bright. “Only yesterday I played my lyre as your husband and his disciples ate. I will not forget what Jesus said to me when I finished my song. He said, ‘Each of us must find a way to love the world. You have found yours.’ He’s very kind, your husband.”

I smiled. “He’s also very insightful—you have indeed found yours.”
The most wounded thing in us always finds a way
, I thought.

I could see in her eyes there was more she wished to confide. “Tabitha,” I whispered. “What is it?”

“For most of the years I’ve been here, I’ve earned coins by weaving widows’ garments, a portion of which I give to Martha for my keep. With the rest of it, I bought a jar of spikenard.”

I wrinkled my forehead, wondering why she would buy such an expensive perfume, then remembered how we’d once dabbed it on each other’s foreheads and made a covenant of friendship.

“The scent held pleasant memories for me,” she said. “Yesterday, though, after Jesus spoke so kindly to me, I fetched it and anointed his feet. I wanted to thank him for what he’d said to me, and the spikenard was all I had.” She glanced behind her at the others, who couldn’t help but hear her. She lowered her voice. “What I did angered your brother. He chastised me, saying I should’ve sold the ointment and given the money to the poor.”

Judas, what happened to you?

“Did Jesus fault him?” I asked, knowing the answer.

“He told Judas to leave me alone, that I’d done a beautiful thing. He said it sharply, and Judas departed in a temper. Oh, Ana, I fear I’ve caused a rift between them.”

I covered her hands with mine. “The rift was already there.” It had, I realized, always been there, buried deep within their differing visions of how to establish God’s kingdom.

I returned to my plate, but I could no longer eat. I looked at Mary, Lazarus, and Martha. “Will you tell me now what troubles you? I know Jesus is in danger. Judas wrote of it in his letter. Tell me what you know.”

Lazarus shifted on the bench between his two sisters. He said, “Jesus has gained much fame, Ana. People believe him to be the Messiah, King of the Jews.”

“I heard of this while I was in Alexandria,” I said, almost relieved that he’d said nothing new. “It concerned me as well. Herod Antipas has spent his life trying to become King of the Jews. If word of this reaches him, he’ll retaliate.”

Silence. Discomfiture. None of them looked at me.

“What is it?” I demanded.

Mary nudged her brother. “Tell her. We should hold nothing back.”

Laying down the lyre, Tabitha caught one of the strings on her finger, the sound like a small whimper. I motioned her to the seat beside me and we sat pressed together.

“Antipas already knows the people call Jesus King of the Jews,” Lazarus said. “There’s not a soul in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard of it, including the Romans. But the governor, Pilate, is an even greater threat than Antipas. He’s known for his brutality. He will crush any threat to peace within the city.”

I shivered, and not from the cold seeping into the night air.

“Last Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey,” he said. “There’s a prophecy that the Messiah king will come into Jerusalem humbly, sitting on an ass.”

I knew the prophecy. We all knew the prophecy. That Jesus had done such a thing rendered me speechless. It was a blatant acceptance of the role. But why did this shock me? I thought of the epiphany he’d had when he was baptized, the revelation that he must act, how he’d gone off with John the Immerser.

“The crowds followed after him,” Lazarus was saying. “They were shouting ‘Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

“We were there,” Mary added. “The people were carried away with jubilation, believing they would soon be delivered from the Romans and
that God’s kingdom would be ushered in. You should have seen them, Ana. They broke branches off the trees and strew them in his path. We walked behind him with his disciples and joined in ourselves.”

If I’d been there, would I have tried to stop him or blessed the fierce need that drove him? I didn’t know; I honestly didn’t know.

Lazarus walked to the wall gap, just as I’d done a short while before, and stared across the valley toward the city as if trying to divine where in the web of narrow, twisting, fevered streets his old friend was. We watched him: his back to us, hands clasped behind him, the relentless way he rubbed his fingers. “Jesus has proclaimed that he is a Messiah,” he said, turning toward us. “He did it believing God will act, but it wasn’t only a religious statement. It was a political one. That’s what worries me most, Ana. Pilate knows the Jewish Messiah is meant to overthrow Rome—he will take it seriously.”

All this time Martha had said nothing, but I saw her sit straighter on the bench and draw a breath. She said, “There is one more thing, Ana. The day after Jesus announced himself on the donkey, he returned to Jerusalem and—tell her, Mary.”

Mary gave her a rueful look. “Yes, he returned to the city and started a . . . a commotion in the Temple.”

“It was more than a commotion,” Martha said. “It was a riot.”

Mary sent her another look of exasperation.

“What do you mean, a riot?” I asked.

“This time, we were not there,” Mary said. “But the disciples said he became angry over the corruption of the money changers and the men who sell the animals for sacrifice.”

Martha broke in. “He upended their tables, scattering coins, and kicked over the seats of the pigeon sellers. He shouted that they’d turned the Temple into a den of thieves. People scrambled to pluck up the coins. The Temple guard was summoned.”

“He wasn’t harmed, was he?”

“No,” said Mary. “Surprisingly, the Temple authorities didn’t apprehend him.”

“Yes, but Caiaphas, the high priest, is set against him now,” Lazarus said. “I don’t like to admit it, but Jesus is very much in danger.”

Tabitha leaned into me. We sat for several moments before I could ask the question. “Do you think they will arrest him?”

“It’s hard to say,” Lazarus answered. “The mood in the city is volatile. Pilate and Caiaphas want nothing more than to be rid of him. Jesus could easily start a revolt.”

“I cannot believe that’s his wish,” I said. My husband was a resister to Rome, but not a violent one. He was not like my brother.

“I wondered about his intention,” Lazarus said. “He seemed to purposely provoke the authorities. But that same night, he stood right here where I’m standing now and told his disciples that whatever happened they would not take up the sword. Judas challenged him, saying, ‘How do you expect to free us from Rome without a fight? You speak of love—how will that rid us of Rome?’ I know he’s your brother, Ana, but he was angry, almost hostile.”

“Judas is a Zealot,” I said. “The Romans murdered his father and sent his mother into slavery. His whole life has been about seeking vengeance.” Even as I said this, I marveled that I made excuses for him. He meant to overthrow the Romans even if he had to hand Jesus over to spark a revolution. There would never be enough excuses for that. Fury surged into my chest. I said, “How did Jesus answer him?”

“He did so sternly. He said, ‘I’ve spoken, Judas.’ That silenced him.”

For a moment I considered pulling Judas’s letter from my travel pouch and reading it to them, but it would do nothing but alarm them more.

Lazarus rested his hand on Martha’s shoulder. He said, “This morning before Jesus left for Jerusalem, I implored him to spend Passover in a quiet fashion and to keep hidden. He agreed. If the authorities seek to arrest him, they will have to find him first.”

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