Authors: Christopher Moore
Tags: #Fiction / General
“Now is not the time, Joshua. Biff would not understand.”
Just hearing her say my name made my heart leap. Early on I developed a little-boy love for Joshua’s mother that sent me into fantasies of marriage and family and future.
“Your father is old, huh, Josh?”
“Not too old.”
“When he dies, will your mother marry his brother?”
“My father has no brothers. Why?”
“No reason. What would you think if your father was shorter than you?”
“But when your father dies, your mother could marry someone shorter than you, and he would be your father. You would have to do what he says.”
“My father will never die. He is eternal.”
“So you say. But I think that when I’m a man, and your father dies, I will take your mother as my wife.”
Joshua made a face now as if he had bitten into an unripe fig. “Don’t say that, Biff.”
“I don’t mind that she’s mad. I like her blue cloak. And her smile. I’ll be a good father, I’ll teach you how to be a stonemason, and I’ll only beat you when you are a snot.”
“I would rather play with lepers than listen to this.” Joshua began to walk away.
“Wait. Be nice to your father, Joshua bar Biff”—my own father used my full name like this when he was trying to make a point—“Is it not the word of Moses that you must honor me?”
Little Joshua spun on his heel. “My name is not Joshua bar Biff, and it is not Joshua bar Joseph either. It’s Joshua bar Jehovah!”
I looked around, hoping that no one had heard him. I didn’t want my only son (I planned to sell Judah and James into slavery) to be stoned to death for uttering the name of God in vain. “Don’t say that again, Josh. I won’t marry your mother.”
“No, you won’t.”
“I forgive you.”
“She will make an excellent concubine.”
Don’t let anyone tell you that the Prince of Peace never struck anyone. In those early days, before he had become who he would be, Joshua smote me in the nose more than once. That was the first time.
Mary would stay my one true love until I saw the Magdalene.
If the people of Nazareth thought Joshua’s mother was mad, there was little said of it out of respect for her husband, Joseph. He was wise in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, and there were few wives in Nazareth who didn’t serve supper in one of his smooth olive-wood bowls. He was fair, strong, and wise. People said that he had once been an Essene, one of
the dour, ascetic Jews who kept to themselves and never married or cut their hair, but he did not congregate with them, and unlike them, he still had the ability to smile.
In those early years, I saw him very little, as he was always in Sepphoris, building structures for the Romans and the Greeks and the landed Jews of that city, but every year, as the Feast of Firsts approached, Joseph would stop his work in the fortress city and stay home carving bowls and spoons to give to the Temple. During the Feast of Firsts, it was the tradition to give first lambs, first grain, and first fruits to the priests of the Temple. Even first sons born during the year were dedicated to the Temple, either by promising them for labor when they were older, or by a gift of money. Craftsmen like my father and Joseph could give things that they made, and in some years my father fashioned mortars and pestles or grinding stones for the tribute, while in others he gave tithes of coin. Some people made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for this feast, but since it fell only seven weeks after Passover, many families could not afford to make the pilgrimage, and the gifts went to our simple village synagogue.
During the weeks leading up to the feast, Joseph sat outside of his house in the shade of an awning he had made, worrying the gnarled olive wood with adze and chisel, while Joshua and I played at his feet. He wore the single-piece tunic that we all wore, a rectangle of fabric with neck hole in the middle, belted with a sash so that the sleeves fell to the elbows and the hem fell to the knees.
“Perhaps this year I should give the Temple my first son, eh, Joshua? Wouldn’t you like to clean the altar after the sacrifices?” He grinned to himself without looking up from his work. “I owe them a first son, you know. We were in Egypt at the Firsts Feast when you were born.”
The idea of coming in contact with blood clearly terrified Joshua, as it would any Jewish boy. “Give them James, Abba, he is your first son.”
Joseph shot a glance my way, to see if I had reacted. I had, but it was because I was considering my own status as a first son, hoping that my father wasn’t thinking along the same lines. “James is a second son. The priests don’t want second sons. It will have to be you.”
Joshua looked at me before he answered, then back at his father. Then he smiled. “But Abba, if you should die, who will take care of Mother if I am at the Temple?”
“Someone will look after her,” I said. “I’m sure of it.”
“I will not die for a long time.” Joseph tugged at his gray beard. “My beard goes white, but there’s a lot of life in me yet.”
“Don’t be so sure, Abba,” Joshua said.
Joseph dropped the bowl he was working on and stared into his hands. “Run along and play, you two,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper.
Joshua stood and walked away. I wanted to throw my arms around the old man, for I had never seen a grown man afraid before and it frightened me too. “Can I help?” I said, pointing to the half-finished bowl that lay in Joseph’s lap.
“You go with Joshua. He needs a friend to teach him to be human. Then I can teach him to be a man.”
The angel wants me to convey more of Joshua’s grace. Grace? I’m trying to write about a six-year-old, for Christ’s sakes, how much grace could he have? It’s not like Joshua walked around professing that he was the Son of God every day of the week. He was a pretty normal kid, for the most part. There was the trick he did with the lizards, and once we found a dead meadowlark and he brought it back to life, and there was the time, when we were eight, when he healed his brother Judah’s fractured skull after a game of “stone the adulteress” got out of hand. (Judah could never get the knack of being an adulteress. He’d stand there stiff as Lot’s wife. You can’t do that. An adulteress has to be wily and nimble-footed.) The miracles Joshua performed were small and quiet, as miracles tend to be, once you get used to them. But trouble came from the miracles that happened around him, without his volition, as it were. Bread and serpents come to mind.
It was a few days before the Passover feast, and many of the families of Nazareth were not making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem that year. There had been little rain through our winter season, so it was going to be a hard year. Many farmers could not afford the time away from their fields to travel to and from the holy city. My father and Joshua’s were both working in Sepphoris, and the Romans wouldn’t give them time off work beyond the actual feast days. My mother had been making the unleavened bread when I came in from playing in the square.
She held a dozen sheets of the flatbread before her and she looked as if she was going to dash it to the floor any second. “Biff, where is your friend Joshua?” My little brothers grinned at me from behind her skirts.
“At home, I suppose. I just left him.”
“What have you boys been doing?”
“Nothing.” I tried to remember if I had done anything that should make her this angry, but nothing came to mind. It was a rare day and I’d made no trouble. Both my little brothers were unscathed as far as I knew.
“What have you done to cause this?” She held out a sheet of the flatbread, and there, in crispy brown relief on the golden crust, was the image of my friend Joshua’s face. She snatched up another sheet of bread, and there, again, was my friend Josh. Graven images—big sin. Josh was smiling. Mother frowned on smiling. “Well? Do I need to go to Joshua’s house and ask his poor, insane mother?”
“I did this. I put Joshua’s face on the bread.” I just hoped that she didn’t ask me how I had done it.
“Your father will punish you when he comes home this evening. Now go, get out of here.”
I could hear my little brother’s giggling as I slunk out the door, but once outside, things worsened. Women were coming away from their baking stones, and each held a sheet of unleavened bread, and each was muttering some variation of “Hey, there’s a kid on my bread.”
I ran to Joshua’s house and stormed in without knocking. Joshua and his brothers were at the table eating. Mary was nursing Joshua’s newest little sister, Miriam.
“You are in big trouble,” I whispered in Josh’s ear with enough force to blow out an eardrum.
Joshua held up the flatbread he was eating and grinned, just like the face on his bread. “It’s a miracle.”
“Tastes good too,” said James, crunching a corner off of his brother’s head.
“It’s all over town, Joshua. Not just your house. Everyone’s bread has your face on it.”
“He is truly the Son of God,” Mary said with a beatific smile.
“Oh, jeez, Mother,” James said.
“Yeah, jeez Mom,” said Judah.
“His mug is all over the Passover feast. We have to do something.” They didn’t seem to get the gravity of the situation. I was already in trouble, and my mother didn’t even suspect anything supernatural. “We have to cut your hair.”
“We cannot cut his hair,” Mary said. She had always let Joshua wear his hair long, like an Essene, saying that he was a Nazarite like Samson. It was just another reason why many of the townspeople thought her mad. The rest of us wore our hair cut short, like the Greeks who had ruled our country since the time of Alexander, and the Romans after them.
“If we cut his hair he looks like the rest of us. We can say it’s someone else on the bread.”
“Moses,” Mary said. “Young Moses.”
“I’ll get a knife.”
“James, Judah, come with me,” I said. “We have to tell the town that the face of Moses has come to visit us for the Passover feast.”
Mary pulled Miriam from her breast, bent, and kissed me on the forehead. “You are a good friend, Biff.”
I almost melted in my sandals, but I caught Joshua frowning at me. “It’s not the truth,” he said.
“It will keep the Pharisees from judging you.”
“I’m not afraid of them,” said the nine-year-old. “I didn’t do this to the bread.”
“Then why take the blame and the punishment for it?”
“I don’t know, seems like I should, doesn’t it?”
“Sit still so your mother can cut your hair.” I dashed out the door, Judah and James on my heels, the three of us bleating like spring lambs.
“Behold! Moses has put his face on the bread for Passover! Behold!”
Miracles. She kissed me. Holy Moses on a matzo! She kissed me.
The miracle of the serpent? It was an omen, in a way, although I can only say that because of what happened between Joshua and the Pharisees later on. At the time, Joshua thought it was the fulfillment of a prophecy, or that’s how we tried to sell it to his mother and father.
It was late summer and we were playing in a wheat field outside of town when Joshua found the nest of vipers.
“A nest of vipers,” Joshua shouted. The wheat was so tall I couldn’t see where he was calling from.
“A pox on your family,” I replied.
“No, there’s a nest of vipers over here. Really.”
“Oh, I thought you were taunting me. Sorry, a pox off of your family.”
I crashed through the wheat to find Joshua standing by a pile of stones a farmer had used to mark the boundary of his field. I screamed and backpedaled so quickly that I lost my balance and fell. A knot of snakes writhed at Joshua’s feet, skating over his sandals and wrapping themselves around his ankles. “Joshua, get away from there.”
“They won’t hurt me. It says so in Isaiah.”
“Just in case they haven’t read the Prophets…”
Joshua stepped aside, sending the snakes scattering, and there, behind him, was the biggest cobra I had ever seen. It reared up until it was taller than my friend, spreading a hood like a cloak.
He smiled. “I’m going to call her Sarah, after Abraham’s wife. These are her children.”
“No kidding? Say good-bye now, Josh.”
“I want to show Mother. She loves prophecy.” With that, he was off toward the village, the giant serpent following him like a shadow. The baby snakes stayed in the nest and I backed slowly away before running after my friend.
I once brought a frog home, hoping to keep him as a pet. Not a large frog, a one-handed frog, quiet and well mannered. My mother made me release him, then cleanse myself in the immersion pool (the mikveh) at the synagogue. Still she wouldn’t let me in the house until after sunset because I was unclean. Joshua led a fourteen-foot-long cobra into his house and his mother squealed with joy. My mother never squealed.
Mary slung the baby to her hip, kneeled in front of her son, and quoted Isaiah: “‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling
together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den.’”
James, Judah, and Elizabeth cowered in the corner, too frightened to cry. I stood outside the doorway watching.
The snake swayed behind Joshua as if preparing to strike. “Her name is Sarah.”
“They were cobras, not asps,” I said. “A whole pile of cobras.”
“Can we keep her?” Joshua asked. “I’ll catch rats for her, and make a bed for her next to Elizabeth’s.”
“Definitely not asps. I’d know an asp if I saw one. Probably not a cockatrice either. I’d say a cobra.” (Actually, I didn’t know an asp from a hole in the ground.)
“Shush, Biff,” Mary said. My heart broke with the harshness in my love’s voice.
Just then Joseph rounded the corner and went through the door before I could catch him. No worry, he was back outside in an instant. “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!”
I checked to see if Joseph’s heart had failed, having quickly decided that once Mary and I were married the snake would have to go, or at least sleep outside, but the burly carpenter seemed only shaken, and a little dusty from his backward dive through the door.
“Not an asp, right?” I asked. “Asps are made small to fit the breasts of Egyptian queens, right?”
Joseph ignored me. “Back away slowly, son. I’ll get a knife from my workshop.”
“She won’t hurt us,” Joshua said. “Her name is Sarah. She’s from Isaiah.”
“It is in the prophecy, Joseph,” Mary said.
I could see Joseph searching his memory for the passage. Although only a layman, he knew his scripture as well as anyone. “I don’t remember the part about Sarah.”
“I don’t think it’s prophecy,” I offered. “It says asps, and that is definitely not an asp. I’d say she’s going to bite Joshua’s ass off if you don’t grab her, Joseph.” (A guy has to try.)
“Can I keep her?” Joshua asked.
Joseph had regained his composure by now. Evidently, once you accept that your wife slept with God, extraordinary events seem sort of commonplace.
“Take her back where you found her, Joshua, the prophecy has been fulfilled now.”
“But I want to keep her.”
“You’re not the boss of me.”
I suspected that Joseph had heard that before. “Just so,” he said, “please take Sarah back where you found her.”
Joshua stormed out of the house, his snake following close behind. Joseph and I gave them a wide berth. “Try not to let anyone see you,” Joseph said. “They won’t understand.”
He was right, of course. On our way out of the village we ran into a gang of older boys, led by Jakan, the son of Iban the Pharisee. They did not understand.
There were perhaps a dozen Pharisees in Nazareth: learned men, working-class teachers, who spent much of their time at the synagogue debating the Law. They were often hired as judges and scribes, and this gave them great influence over the people of the village. So much influence, in fact, that the Romans often used them as mouthpieces to our people. With influence comes power, with power, abuse. Jakan was only the son of a Pharisee. He was only two years older than Joshua and me, but he was well on his way to mastering cruelty. If there is a single joy in having everyone you have ever known two thousand years dead, it is that Jakan is one of them. May his fat crackle in the fires of hell for eternity!
Joshua taught us that we should not hate—a lesson that I was never able to master, along with geometry. Blame Jakan for the former, Euclid for the latter.
Joshua ran behind the houses and shops of the village, the snake behind him by ten steps, and me behind her ten steps more. As he rounded the corner by the smith’s shop, Joshua ran into Jakan, knocking him to the ground.
“You idiot!” Jakan shouted, rising and dusting himself off. His three friends laughed and he spun on them like an angry tiger. “This one needs to have his face washed in dung. Hold him.”
The boys turned their focus on Joshua, two grabbing his arms while the third punched him in the stomach. Jakan turned to look for a pile to rub Joshua’s face in. Sarah slithered around the corner and reared up behind Joshua, spreading her glorious hood wide above our heads.
“Hey,” I called as I rounded the corner. “You guys think this is an asp?” My fear of the snake had changed into a sort of wary affection. She seemed to be smiling. I know I was. Sarah swayed from side to side like a wheat stalk in the wind. The boys dropped Joshua’s arms and ran to Jakan, who had turned and slowly backed away.
“Joshua was talking about asps,” I continued, “but I’d have to say that this here is a cobra.”
Joshua was bent over, still trying to catch his breath, but he looked back at me and grinned.
“Of course, I’m not the son of a Pharisee, but—”
“He’s in league with the serpent!” Jakan screamed. “He consorts with demons!”
“Demons!” the other boys shouted, trying to crowd behind their fat friend.
“I will tell my father of this and you’ll be stoned.”
A voice from behind Jakan said, “What is all this shouting?” And a sweet voice it was.
She came out of the house by the smith’s shop. Her skin shone like copper and she had the light blue eyes of the northern desert people. Wisps of reddish-brown hair showed at the edges of her purple shawl. She couldn’t have been more than nine or ten, but there was something very old in her eyes. I stopped breathing when I saw her.
Jakan puffed up like a toad. “Stay back. These two are consorting with a demon. I will tell the elders and they will be judged.”
She spit at his feet. I had never seen a girl spit before. It was charming. “It looks like a cobra to me.”
“See there, I told you.”
She walked up to Sarah as if she were approaching a fig tree looking for fruit, not a hint of fear, only interest. “You think this is a demon?” she said,
without looking back at Jakan. “Won’t you be embarrassed when the elders find that you mistook a common snake of the field for a demon?”
The girl reached her hand up, and the snake made as if to strike, then lowered its head until its forked tongue was brushing the girl’s fingers. “This is definitely a cobra, little boy. And these two were probably leading it back to the fields where it would help the farmers by eating rats.”
“Yep, that’s what we were doing,” I said.
“Absolutely,” Joshua said.
The girl turned to Jakan and his friends. “A demon?”