We rose with the sun the next morning, broke our fast with bread and more delicious stew from the previous night, and were quickly on our way. The boy had reloaded the animals for us, and we discovered, after only a little distance along the road, that our host had also supplied us with a copious packed lunch to eat along the way. It was no wonder that his inn was always bustling with guests. He was a true master of hospitality because he loved people – all people – and it showed.
[To read the Introduction and Chapter 1: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1/ To read Chapter 2: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/02/07/a-boys-tale-chapter-2/ To read chapter 3: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/02/14/a-boys-tale-chapter-3/ ]
We knew the day ahead would be the most taxing of our trip in both distance and difficulty – a dawn to dusk hike up and down endless hills – but the long walk the day before had been good practice and our rhythm quickly returned. Now and then, the animals complained about all the climbing, but the road was smooth underfoot, and by noon we had arrived at the ruins of Shiloh, where we rested and ate. We agreed to reserve the unexpected bounty from Legolas for our evening meal, and, as planned, took a lunch of cheese and salted fish from our stores.
Once back on the road, the walk was so strenuous – and we were breathing so heavily – that we didn’t talk much; simply put one foot ahead of the other over and over again. The afternoon was long and it was almost dark by the time we caught the first gratifying glimpse of our campsite. We were right on schedule, but not a moment too soon for the donkeys, who had been in open rebellion for the last several stadia.
According to the routine we had long established on these trips, we camped on the edge of a forested park just north of Jacob’s Well, near Sychar. It was a natural stopping place since the waters that flow from the well are some of the sweetest in Palestine, and our thirst – and that of the braying asses – was soon quenched. Mama and I found a good place to tie up and feed the animals, while Papa built a fire and pitched our simple tent – a large blanket draped over a rope strung between two trees, and staked at the corners. At last, our chores done, we relaxed in the glow of the warming flames to relish our well-earned meal.
Legolas had filled the knotted cloth with an array of treats: dried figs, dates, a pomegranate, two loaves of bread (one dark, one golden), a small jar of honey, another of olive oil, grape leaves stuffed with hummus and preserved in brine, goat cheese, a rabbit pie and a smoked leg of pea fowl. It was overly generous – Papa said it was because he had no family of his own to spoil – but we were hungry beyond words, literally, and quietly savored every morsel except the meaty leg, which we put aside for the morning’s meal.
The old soldier had even included a small skin of wine that, mixed with Jacob’s sweet water, made the perfect end to one of the most memorable meals of my long, eventful life.
Filled and physically spent, we slept immediately and, in what seemed only the merest of moments, the sun was up and Papa was already removing the tent right out from over me.
The distance we needed to cover on day three, from Sychar to Jezreel, was even further than the day before, but what a difference! After two days of walking mostly up the dusty hills, we were finally on a long downhill slant, and even the donkeys seemed to dance with us as we descended the verdant Western slope of Mount Gilboa to meet the sprawling green of the Meggido Plain. I know we must have stopped somewhere along the way to take our midday meal, but I don’t remember it.
I do remember singing, laughing a lot, spending time working on my languages with Papa (I was already fluent in four) and doing Scripture drills to keep me sharp for the school days ahead. It was sunny and warm with a cooling breeze and, looking back, may well have been the happiest, most carefree day the three of us ever spent together.
The spring in our step also must have moved us along more swiftly than usual. We had expected to arrive in daylight, but not until the leading edge of sundown marked the Sabbath. As it happened, the sun was still well up in the sky and brightly bathing the view when we rounded the corner to catch our first sight of the winery and Great Aunt Tabaitha’s grand old house. She was my grandmother’s sister on Mama’s side, the only unmarried child of Seth, the Jezreel Winemaker.
As the youngest daughter and last remaining child in the home, the task of caring for her aging parents had fallen upon her shoulders. And, as they had both lasted into their seventies, she was well beyond the marrying years by the time she was freed of her obligations. In recognition of her sacrifice, she had been generously settled upon by her father while he still lived, and she seemed perfectly happy to stay where she was: giving breath and heartbeat to his splendid villa – a wondrous, rambling manse nestled among great swaths of ancient, undulating vineyards – and keeping his dream alive. In those days, Jezreel was said to produce some of the best wines in the Empire, a reputation largely built, it would seem, upon the achievements of my forebears.
Aunt Tabaitha was a stately woman, uncommonly tall, who always held the posture and bearing of a Grecian statue that had somehow come alive. Except for one stubborn coal-black shock in the front, she was blessed with an enormous quantity of lustrous silver hair that was kept pulled back and up, braided and wound around on top of her head in the Roman fashion – which made her seem even more imposing. Mama told me that when her hair fell down from her shoulders it touched the floor, but, of course, I would never have been permitted to see such a sight.
In contrast to her regal appearance, however, she was one of the most unintimidating of women. She rarely stood on ceremony, and her contagious warmth and sparkle always led the way when she entered a room. It seemed forever since I had seen her, and I had been looking forward to it all day. She had the knack of making even the smallest child feel as if he had something to contribute. She expected clarity, honesty and common sense from everyone, including children, and treated all of us – regardless of age – with the same respect. Hers was an example of equanimity that I have never forgotten, and to which I still aspire.
We were in high spirits when we arrived at her house, but when we announced ourselves at the open door, there was only silence.
“Well, this is a first,” Mama said as we ventured further into the entry. “Not a soul anywhere. I hope everything is alright.”
“She’s probably just in the back,” Papa said. “We are earlier than usual.”
“But, then, where are the ser…” Mama was cut short in mid-question.
“Wooooohooooo!” the startling sound came from nowhere specific at first, but rang from wall to wall, “Ooooeeooooo-eeooo, I’m coming, I’m coming!” it came again, louder this time, even as an unruly column of writhing fabric came floating into the courtyard like an oracle’s apparition.
“Ooooo, darling Mary, I’m so glad you’re here,” the ghostly figure with the voice of Aunt Tabaitha continued to wriggle. “I’ve caught my wrap on the hook of my comb and I’m completely stuck. Please, can you help me get this loose?”
Mama ran over and freed her in no time and finally the top of the column of fabric moved down to reveal, first, her upraised arms, then the mound of silver hair with the offending tortoise shell ornament rising up in the back, and, finally, her face and one shoulder appeared as her gown fell into place.
“Thank you so much, my dear. I’m just not used to dressing myself,” she said, pushing her hair back up on top of her head.
“There, now. That’s much better. Dear Niece Mary, Sweet Elijah, and little Markie, though not so little anymore, I see. You’re almost as tall as I am! I’m so sorry no one was here to greet you. Wouldn’t you know, I let the servants have the day off after breakfast so they could get to Pella before sundown, and, well, I’m helpless without them, of course, and you’re so early that I wasn’t even dressed,” she babbled on as she adjusted her belt. “But then, I guess you can see that. And, so, well, here you are! How wonderful! It’s been ages and a day!” Then, taking Mama’s hands in her own, she looked into her eyes and said, “It is so good to see you at long, long last!” No one else I ever met was quite like Aunt Tabaitha.
At first glance, one might be inclined to feel sorry for her, all alone with the servants in that big empty house, but that would have completely misread the situation. For one thing, her brother, Matthias, who had taken over the winery and vineyards when their father had lost his sight late in life, lived only a stone’s throw up a winding road. For another, Aunt Tabaitha was not only one of my favorites; she was also a favorite of everyone in her widespread family.
With twenty-seven nieces and nephews, nearly all of them married with families, someone was always passing through town, and Aunt Tabaitha’s house was likely to be home to at least a few relatives at any given time. This was especially true since Jezreel – once the ancient seat of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel – sits at the junction of two good roads and is “on the way” to many places.
I had always been intrigued by the adroit way Aunt Tabaitha charmed those around her, and eventually came to appreciate that it was because she actually listened – really paid attention – to other people. She cared not only about what they said, but often more importantly, what they left out. She asked loving questions of everyone: who they were, where they came from, where they were going and how they thought they were going to get there. She once told me she never met anyone that she couldn’t learn from, and, at least when I was around, she always made the most of her opportunities. With one notable exception, she was the best listener I ever knew.
As a result, not illogically, she was also one of the most well-informed people in Galilee.
In that sense, at least, she was a kindred spirit to Legolas. Because they both really worked at doing their best for everyone around them, they inspired nothing but the best from others. And, I think because they were both so true to who they were, you just knew you could tell them your deepest secrets and never, ever regret it.
After Papa and I unloaded the donkeys, I took them around to the stable, made sure they were fed and watered, and, by the time I returned, Mama and Aunt Tabaitha were already setting out the Sabbath meal.
“I don’t suppose, by any chance, you remembered to bring me some of that marvelous Engedi cheese?” Aunt Tabaitha asked.
“Of course we did,” Mama looked at me and we shared a smile. She had nearly forgotten, and sent me out for the cheese at the last minute on the morning before we left. “And even better than that, just wait until you taste the smoked oxtail I found. It’s cured by an old herdsman near Jerico and tastes exactly like Granddaddy’s.”
Mama caught my eye again and pointed to the water jar, which I dutifully took out to the courtyard to fill. By the time I returned, the meal was ready. I poured a cup for each of us and joined them at the table, where Mama and Aunt Tabaitha were setting out the oil lamps and preparing to recite the Kiddush. We stilled our minds and hearts as we gave thanks for each other, for the blessing of being together again, and for the food, which we then eagerly sat down to eat.
“Now, Aunt Tabby,” Mama asked as she passed a plate of pickled fish, “what I want to know is: just what is so important in Pella that you let the servants – all of them – desert you like this?”
“Don’t be cross with me, Mary. I know it’s an inconvenience,” Aunt Tabaitha said, “But nobody deserted anyone. In fact, I insisted they go. You know they are like my family – really are family – and it seemed like the right thing to do. I am far from helpless, and quite sure we will all get on just fine without them. We have food on the table, don’t we? And, water to drink?” she nodded in my direction. “We shall do nicely.
“But, to answer your question, sweet Mary, I let them go because they wanted to hear John, the baptizer, who set up camp there a few weeks ago. Surely you have heard of him.”
“Oh, she’s heard of him,” Papa said softly.
“Well,” Aunt Tabaitha continued, “your brothers were through here last week and they went on so about how we all should go hear him that the whole lot of them – Marla, Yoni and both of the girls – have been pestering me about it ever since. Then, Matthias’s stable boy came back from the river yesterday with word that the encampment will be moving back south to Jerico soon, so it was now or never.”
“So it’s true, then,” Mama visibly sagged. “They really have gone over the edge, my brothers, I mean.”
“Now, Mary, don’t go and get yourself all bothered,” Aunt Tabaitha said. “It’s not as bad as all that. I might have gone myself if you hadn’t been on the way. I’ll grant you I have questions – his strange clothes, and all. If he is as good a talker as they say, good enough to get your brothers to sign on, you wouldn’t think he would need to dress all crazy like that to get people’s attention.”
“Well, if that is what he is trying to do, it certainly seems to be working.” Papa said. “I can’t say I’m all that surprised he appealed to Simon, of course.”
Mama gave him a look.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he responded, “I love Simon. He is a good soul, fine father and able fisherman, but you both know he is so gullible he would eat a flax pie if you put honey on it. What I don’t understand is Andrew. Now, there’s the puzzle. He is one of the most clear-headed, well-grounded men I have ever known. Aunt Tab, what did he say?”
She broke off a piece of bread and dipped it in some oil, “Elijah, as usual, your instincts are dead on. Simon is all agog over this whole thing, but I tell you, Andrew seems every bit as committed to this John fellow as his brother. He was quite straightforward, even passionate, or as passionate as he ever gets. Whether you like it or not, they are both fully on board this man’s boat.”
“Oh, poo,” Mama said. “Haven’t we had enough of self-proclaimed prophets? Aren’t there enough Messiahs about?”
Ever since the Romans had occupied Palestine, the idea that a Heavenly Deliverer was due to appear at any time – a Messiah sent by God to reclaim the throne of David – had gained ground among the Jews. So much so, in fact, that quite a number of contenders had already announced themselves with great fanfare, usually on the steps of the Temple or other equally dramatic setting.
In the ordinary scheme of things, a claimant would start strong and, in a few days or weeks, gather about him a loyal coterie of disciples. Then, just when he began to gain a popular following, some scandal or other would uncloak his true, all-too-human nature and leave his fickle flock to scatter like a tree full of startled crows.
Thus, it was no surprise to anyone that yet another of these ‘prophets’ had appeared among us, nor that my mother was upset about her brothers coming under the sway of such a man. What was a surprise was the ease with which Aunt Tabaitha seemed to have accepted it all. Mama suddenly seemed unsure, as if the ground underneath her were shifting.
“So what is it about this man?” she asked. “Why is he any different?”
“Well, all I can tell you is what Andrew told me,” Aunt Tabaitha finally responded after taking a long sip of water. “When they first went to hear him, they had no expectations aside from what the other Capernaum fishermen had told them, but they found themselves astonished. ‘He has many gifts,’ Andrew told us when we all gathered around them to hear. ‘It’s not about the oddity of his dress, though it is odd, but about the light in his eyes,’ he said. ‘It’s not about the beauty of his voice, though it is beautiful, but the truth it reveals. It’s not about the logic of his thought, though it is the essence of clarity, but about the radiance of his spirit. He literally glows.’ That’s what your brother said. He actually said, ‘He glows.’
“And, you know your Aunt Tab. I couldn’t just leave it there so I asked him flat out if he thought this baptizer was the Promised One. But you know what he said?”
“I’m afraid to ask,” Mama said.
“Well, don’t be.” Aunt Tabaitha forged ahead, “He said that, at first, he was so moved by John that thought he just had to be The One.”
“I knew it!” Mama said. “Another pretender!”
“No, no,” Aunt Tabaitha quickly countered. “You see, that was what finally convinced them to give him the benefit of the doubt. It seems he doesn’t mind being called a prophet – indeed, he says he is one – but he refuses to be called ‘Messiah’ and chastises others who claim it for him. ‘No, no, no,’ he told Andrew, ‘I am not even worthy to carry his cloak.’
“Well, that’s refreshing, at least,” Mama said.
“Yes, well, but there is more,” Aunt Tabaitha paused for effect. “Quite a bit more, actually.”
“What do you mean?” Papa took the bait. “More what?”
“More to the story, dear Elijah,” she said, “After Andrew and Simon had dedicated themselves to be this John’s disciples, something happened that no one expected, and, well, there may be a Deliverer in the picture after all, but it’s not John, it’s his cousin, of all things, and, believe it or not, dear children, his cousin is someone that we all know – have known – for years!”
“Oh, dear…” Mama exclaimed, slumping on her couch and finally at a loss for words, defeated as much by Aunt Tabaitha’s delight in the telling as by what she had to say.
“Who?” Papa asked, less nonplussed. “Who knows? We know? What? We know The Messiah? How can that be? Does a god just walk among us leading camels?”
Aunt Tabaitha smiled. “You’re not all that far from the truth, Elijah, dear. But it is a long story, so, first, some wine!” She said as she nodded toward a jar sitting on a table by the wall that had, until then, gone unremarked.