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Authors: Diana Wallis Taylor

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Mary Magdalene: A Novel (9 page)

BOOK: Mary Magdalene: A Novel
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17

N
athan stood in the boatyard, savoring the signs of spring in the air. The storms of winter had passed and his men were hard at work on three different boats. The smell of fresh-cut wood and resin filled the air. As he spoke to one of the men, he felt a stab of irritation that Zerah had left the yard early—again. He knew Mary’s uncle was headed for his favorite wineshop. Zerah had become even more moody lately and seemed to spend a great deal of time away, yet there appeared to be little Nathan could do about it.

His attention was caught by three strangers who entered the yard, looking around at the boats. Nathan sensed they were related from their similarity of appearance. One younger man was a big, brash fellow, his dark hair barely contained by the headband he wore. The other, younger man was pleasant of face and seemed content to merely watch the proceedings.

Nathan stepped forward with a smile. “Good morning, my friends, can I be of help to you?”

The older man nodded. “I am called Zebedee, and these are my two sons, James and John. We are in need of a new fishing boat. One of ours was severely damaged in a recent storm. I was told to ask for a man named Jared. His reputation is well known.”

Nathan spread his hands. “It is with regret that I must inform you that Jared, my father-in-law, died three years ago. I am Nathan and I would be happy to assist you in any way. Will you join me in the shade for some refreshments?”

Zebedee stroked his beard that was nearly white with streaks of gray. “I see. Perhaps we can still do business.” His piercing eyes beneath heavy brows looked deep into Nathan’s.

“My father-in-law’s brother, my partner, is out of town, but I also handle the sale of the boats.”

Zebedee nodded but did not reply.

James eyed the pitcher Daniel, Nathan’s young helper, had brought. “A poor man’s refreshment,” he muttered.

Nathan smiled. “Perhaps a cup of wine?”

Zebedee tilted his head. “If you could spare some wine, it would be gratefully received, but do not trouble yourself. We will have the milk.”

Nathan kept his face placid, but went to get a bottle of wine from the storage room, then poured it generously into their cups. As they refreshed themselves, Nathan waited patiently, knowing they would discuss business in their own time.

“Tell me, sir, what is the news from Capernaum?” Nathan settled himself and leaned forward to listen.

“All is well, but for a strange man baptizing in the Jordan River. His name is John, a teacher of sorts, dressed in camel skins. It is thought he is possibly Essene, from the desert. He baptizes those who come to him in the river.”

Nathan leaned forward. “Is he a prophet?”

The son called John shrugged. “He says he is preparing the way for one to come.”

“The Messiah?”

Zebedee looked away toward the hills. “It is a strange thought. We have looked for the Messiah from generation to generation, yet here is a man who says that the One who sent him to baptize with water told him to look for the man on whom we see the Spirit descending. He will be the One.”

There was a huff from James. “Words in the wind. Who can believe a wild man who rants as he does?”

John spoke up. “What if what he says is true, James? No one knows the time of the Messiah’s coming, why not now?”

James gave him a scowl of dismissal.

Nathan was intrigued. “I would see this strange man.”

Zebedee glanced at his sons. “It is good that you scoff. I would not have my sons running off to follow some madman.” He turned back to Nathan. “If he is still there when you deliver the boat, you shall have your chance.”

At last Zebedee inquired as to the price of one of the fishing boats nearing completion in the yard. The three men strolled over to watch the work in process. They walked around slowly and Zebedee’s eyes missed nothing of the careful construction. He nodded to his sons and Nathan was sure he’d made a sale.

Nathan named the price and Zebedee appeared to be shocked. “We are but poor fishermen, such a price is more than we can consider.”

And so as the bargaining process began, Nathan enjoyed the banter and the haggling, for thus it was so in his part of the world. A buyer would never consider purchasing an item at the merchant’s first price.

When at last a price had been agreed on, Zebedee still maintained the air of a man who had been duped into paying more than the boat was worth, but the documents were drawn up by Beriah and signed by Zebedee. The nearly completed boats in the yard were already destined for new owners, so Nathan agreed to deliver Zebedee’s boat in two months’ time to the harbor at Capernaum. Zebedee handed Nathan a bag of coins containing half the purchase price of the boat, the other half to be paid when their boat was delivered.

Zebedee looked at him shrewdly. “You drive a good bargain. We will look for you in sixty days.”

When they had gone, Nathan allowed himself a pleased smile. In Zerah’s place he had sold a boat and collected half the price. It would ensure more work for their crew. He turned to his father. “Do you think you have a good place to put this?” He handed him the bag of coins.

Beriah beamed. “I do indeed. It shall be quite safe.”

Knowing Zerah’s penchant for spending money from the boatyard, Nathan and his father had conspired to make a place in the storeroom, behind some bricks, to safeguard Nathan’s portion. Zerah was ever in need of funds, and money seemed to disappear whenever he was aware it existed. With the safety of the business in mind, Nathan felt it was necessary to protect some of their income.

Beriah took the pouch. “You have done well, my son. I will see to this.” They smiled at each other in mutual understanding.

Nathan started home with mixed emotions. Perhaps today would be one of Mary’s good days. He never knew what to expect when he returned at the end of the day. Would he find her greeting him, her eyes alight with love, or would he find her sitting in the courtyard, eyes glazed in pain, unaware he was even there? He thought he knew what he was taking on when they married, but did he? Young and full of love and hope, he’d been convinced that he could find a cure for Mary, picturing children on his knee and a loving household to come home to.

Seven years had passed since their marriage and Mary was no better. Now twenty-three, she had still borne no children. Perhaps HaShem in his mercy had closed her womb. She could not attend events in their neighborhood. Mary was afraid of something happening, and in turn, people were wary when around her. They considered her possessed by the evil one, and Nathan believed it too. She could not even go to synagogue on Shabbat. He made the annual trips to Jerusalem with his father and other men on the three holy days set aside by the Most High, blessed be his name, but Mary remained at home. Friends had tried to persuade him to divorce her and let her mother take care of her.
You are wasting your life
, they said.
Marry again and you can have children.
The thoughts echoed in his head and there were days when he was tempted to do just that. From time to time Mary begged him to divorce her so he could have a normal home life.

Then there were the days when Mary seemed well and his love for her rose up, obliterating any other thoughts. He held her in his arms and knew her sweetness. How could he leave her?

He cried out to the Most High God once again to hear his prayer. As he looked up, the sun was setting in a hazy glow of orange and gold, and suddenly a sense of peace flooded his heart. Someday he would find the way to help Mary. As long as they loved each other, there was still hope. With a lighter step, he hurried home.

18

R
achel lay on her bed, her eyes bright with fever. The loss of Jared five years before and the constant care of Mary were taking their toll on her strength. Mary helped Keturah put cold cloths on her mother’s brow and would not leave her side. Alternating between feeling normal and whimpering in a corner like a small child, Mary tried to sort out the confusion in her mind. For once, her mother, who had been so strong and caring, could not help her.

Her mother’s good heart may have been her undoing, for Rachel had gone to the home of a neighbor to help nurse the mother and three small children who were ill with fever. Two of the children died and the mother hung on to life by a thread. Two days later, as Rachel was preparing to go to the home again, she fell to the floor of their house and was helped to bed by Keturah.

“Dear lady, you are tired. Rest yourself.”

Mary watched from where she sat in the shade. Her mother was ill? She tried to process the thought. Her mother was never ill. She was always there when Mary needed her. Mary stood up, struggled for balance, and shuffled into the house.

Seeing her mother’s face, red with fever, she found herself struggling for breath as terror constricted her heart. She had lost her father. She could not bear to lose her mother also. She would not leave her mother’s side in spite of Nathan’s pleading for her to rest. Huldah came to help. Keturah was now fearful for Mishma. At least at eight, he was at Hebrew school most of the day.

Nathan tried to gently draw Mary away so the other women could minister to her mother, but she turned on him like a wild woman.

“Leave me alone! Don’t touch me!” she screamed at him, her eyes wide like a wild thing.

Hearing the screeching voice, Nathan stared at her and then turned on his heel and rushed out, leaving her in Huldah’s care.

“Now, Mary, sit here by your mother and be a good daughter. She needs you to be calm. You do want to help her, don’t you?”

Mary nodded and slowly sat back down. Now she sat, rocking herself and staring at the still figure in the bed. She tried to stifle the whimpers that slipped out from time to time.

Huldah told Keturah to stay away and keep Mishma as far away from Rachel as possible so they would not catch the fever. Keturah was only too eager to comply. Merab tended Rachel also, allowing Huldah to return home from time to time to see to her family. They took turns staying through the night. Merab was herself weary from tending so many who were sick as the fever tore a tragic swath through the homes in their community.

Two days passed as Mary slept fitfully, hardly aware of those who came and went from the room. She was even oblivious of Nathan who tried again to speak to her and was ignored. When conscious, her eyes never left the face of her mother. She listened to the raspy breathing and watched her mother’s chest slowly move up and down.

Though Huldah whispered to Merab, Mary understood the words. “If she makes it through this night, she has a chance.”

Merab sighed. “I’ve seen the signs so many times. I fear her body is too worn down to resist. Taking care of Mary all these years has made her an old woman before her time. Then when she lost Jared . . .” The woman moved away and Mary couldn’t understand their words anymore. She reached down and took her mother’s hand as if she could will her back to health. Rachel’s hands were so cold.

When Huldah came back in with fresh water to put cold cloths on Rachel’s face and brow, she paused in the doorway. She stood there a moment and then turned on her heel and hurried out.

A short time later, Mary was aware of Nathan squatting next to her and looking into her face. “Beloved, Huldah has brought me sad news. Your mother has gone to join your father. You must come with me.”

Mary turned and stared at him, hearing the words but not comprehending. “I don’t want to leave her. She is better, I know it.” She put her head down on her mother’s breast and with a start realized her mother’s chest was not moving. Rachel was not breathing at all.

Nathan sighed and, with a strong arm around her shoulders, lifted her up. As he forcibly tried to lead her away, she struggled with him. “No, I want to stay.”

“Huldah and Merab will take care of your mother. Come, beloved, come out in the sunshine and sit with me.”

Finally the thoughts and words connected in her mind. Her mother was dead. As Nathan eased her down onto the bench by the fountain, she wrapped her arms around herself and began to moan and rock back and forth.

“Mama, Mama, Mama,” she whimpered over and over, until the whimpered words became a wail of grief.

Nathan looked up as Huldah and Merab passed him with preparations for Rachel’s body. Huldah paused a moment, her dark eyes full of compassion. The question hung in the air unspoken, What will you do now? Jared was gone, Rachel was gone, and Mary was slipping more and more into madness. Now that her mother was gone, what would they do?

Nathan put his face in his hands and wept.

19

Z
erah sat in his usual place, a dark corner of the wineshop where he could watch those passing by. He knew he had work to do at the boatyard, but he resented how Nathan had stepped so quickly into Jared’s place. Those who came from Magdala to buy boats liked the young man’s cheerful manner and asked for him. “Nathan should defer to me. I am the elder,” he grumbled to himself. Yet even as the thoughts struck like darts, Zerah knew Nathan had retained a respectful attitude around him. He could not find fault with Nathan’s work either. He smiled to himself. Perhaps there was still a way to get rid of Nathan and have the business to himself. He would have no trouble with his niece. As sick as Mary was, perhaps she would not live long anyway.

The thoughts of the kidnapping plagued his mind. Was he to blame for Mary’s illness? She had not been like this before the kidnapping. Anger rose up as he realized how he’d been tricked by the kidnappers. He’d gotten none of the bag of gold coins. Those sons of a camel driver had escaped with all of it, and his brother had nearly been murdered. He’d tried in several ways to find the men, but thieves take care of their own and no information was given him, despite an offered bribe of money.

Zerah leaned back against the wall, thinking—he had a young partner challenging his knowledge of the business; a niece, known throughout the town as “Mad Mary”; and his brother and his sister-in-law were dead. He wallowed in his self-pity and continued to allow the merchant to refill his wine cup.

As the sun set and the shadows crept up the walls of the street, he became aware of the merchant standing by his side.

“My friend, perhaps it is time to return to your home. The shadows come and thieves are about. It is not safe for you to remain here.”

A shot of anger rose. He would allow no one to tell him what to do. But just as quickly came the realization that Tubal was a source of much information and a trusted friend. Zerah couldn’t afford to offend him. Rising slowly with Tubal’s help, he straightened himself and began to walk unsteadily toward the door. Lost in his thoughts of revenge, he did not see the Roman soldier staggering down the street toward him. In a moment they collided and the soldier reached for his sword.

“Jewish pig! You would accost a Roman soldier? I’ll cut you down where you stand!” The soldier stood over him, reeking of wine and weaving back and forth. His eyes were bloodshot and blood was running from a scrape on his arm.

Zerah sank to his knees, shaking with fear, knowing his life was about to end. With sudden clarity he realized the position his bitterness and jealousy had put him in. He had nothing but a dagger to defend himself with and that was no match for the Roman broadsword. He closed his eyes, unable even to speak or beg for his life, and waited for the end to come. He could only cry out in his heart,
Oh Most Holy One, blessed be your name, save me!

Through the haze of his thoughts, he heard the voice of Tubal. “Ah, Linus, my Roman friend, you are hurt. Turn into my shop and let me tend your wound. I have fresh wine from the coast.”

The sword wavered as the unsteady soldier listened to Tubal through a drunken haze. Zerah fell to the ground and prostrated himself, remaining motionless. Perhaps the soldier would think him already dead.

Tubal’s voice came again, wheedling. “See, you have done away with the man. We will get rid of the body for you. Come, let me refresh you.”

With great effort, the soldier resheathed his sword, and with a curse and a sharp kick that struck Zerah in the ribs, he allowed Tubal to draw him into the wineshop. As Zerah listened to their footsteps move away on the stone floor, he tried to think what to do. Then someone leaned down and whispered fiercely in his ear,

“Get up, you fool, while you have the chance. He is not looking this way. If you are lucky, when he sobers up, he won’t remember the incident.”

Zerah got up carefully, feeling the sharp pain of his bruised ribs. Tubal was tending to the soldier, who had his back to the entrance. He didn’t need to be told twice. Holding his side against the pain, he ran.

Amazed that he had reached his home without being accosted or robbed, Zerah made his way painfully into the courtyard. His servants, Saffira and Jokim, a husband and wife who cared for his home, hurried to him and helped him to his bed. Saffira bound up his side. It was not the first time he’d come home after too much wine, but he had not come home injured before. They shook their heads and left him to sleep it off.

Zerah woke in the morning to the smell of bread baking in the clay oven. It made his mouth water. He’d thought only of bread as a means to assuage his hunger to go on to better things, but now it soothed him. He lay quietly, contemplating what had happened. He had almost been killed. The realization brought fresh tremors of fear. Then he thought of the frantic prayer he had prayed to HaShem. Had his prayer been heard? He should have been dead, run through with the soldier’s sword, and yet here he was, safe and alive in his own home. What miracle had caused the Holy One to spare his worthless life? He didn’t deserve to live. He was a wretched man who had sinned greatly. In his mind he cringed as he recalled Mary’s bedraggled state and the torment she had suffered over the years from that episode. He could no longer push the knowledge to the back of his mind of his guilt for her mental state. How could he ignore what he had done? His foolish actions and the bungling of the kidnapping years ago had contributed to Mary’s illness.

As he sat up, wincing, the face of Mary, groaning in pain from the headaches, morphed into the face of another woman. Her dark, flowing tresses damp with perspiration, her face contorted in the agony of childbirth. Her eyes that had been filled with love for him, now glazed with pain. Her life was ebbing away and he could do nothing. He put his head in his hands. Hadassah. How he had loved her. The ache in his heart was almost unbearable as he remembered the last moments he held her in his arms, crying out to HaShem to spare her life. His tiny son, born early and not yet ready to enter the world, had been buried only hours before. As Hadassah slumped lifeless, his anger rose against God. They loved each other. They had looked forward to a long life together, children and grandchildren. Now she was taken from him and his bitterness against their God consumed him.

How worthless his life had been these past years, full of himself and his wants. He had gone through the motions in the synagogue, but his heart was far from worship. Now Zerah saw himself as he was, and he shrank back in shame. Why had the Most High, blessed be his name, seen fit to spare his life? He sank to his knees, begging for forgiveness, pouring out his heart to his God. And the cleansing came. He looked up toward the heavens, tears flowing freely down his cheeks, and finally, to his amazement, gentle waves of peace washed over his soul. He raised his arms in thankfulness.

How long he had been on his knees, Zerah didn’t know, but when he opened his eyes, he heard a flock of sparrows in the olive trees nearby chattering to one another. He rose to his feet, feeling more alive than he had since before Hadassah died. He washed his face in a basin of water and put on fresh clothing. HaShem had given him another chance and he would not waste it.

As Zerah stepped from the house, Saffira and Jokim eyed him warily. They knew he was given to moods and watched to see what he would do.

“Ah, a good morning to you both. Is that good bread ready yet? I find I am famished.”

Saffira’s mouth opened and then closed again. She raised her eyebrows toward Jokim, who stood as if in suspended motion with an armload of wood for the fire.

“It will be out of the oven in moments, sir.” She set a platter of ripe figs in front of him and began to slice a round of goat cheese. “You are feeling well this morning?”

He heard the curiosity behind her words. “I am well, Saffira. More so than I have been in a long time. Tell me, what am I paying you and Jokim?”

She named the sum, omitting the fact that it was paltry for the work they did.

“I must increase that, starting today. You should be paid fairly for your work.”

Saffira stared at him, her eyes wide with disbelief.

He chuckled. “No, I have not lost my mind.” He looked up at the sky, where the gold and pink of sunrise was giving way to the deep blue of morning, and stroked his beard. “Perhaps I have instead found it,” he said softly.

BOOK: Mary Magdalene: A Novel
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