Friday, April 3, 2015

Martha's Memory

(I almost never write fiction and have no confidence in that genre, but a recent writing group assignment resulted in the following attempt.)

"Martha and Mary" by Nathan Greene
It is spring again. In years past, I would fill my days watching over the barley harvest and preparing for our Passover feast. This afternoon, I sit by the window as a gentle rain washes over my small garden. When the sun returns tomorrow, I will harvest the peas and tend to the grape vines and fig trees that grace the far corner. Today, I listen to the rain and gaze out over the valley. A mother carries her son past my window, singing softly to him as she makes her way to market.

A memory tickles the back of my mind, and I see myself on that same road, skipping to market hand in hand with a chortling toddler. Mother had matzah to make for the Passover. The house smelled of warm bread, and Lazarus was in fine form already, snatching piles of dough and reaching his chubby hands too close to the fire. Mother laughed and pushed us outdoors. “Off you go,” she said. Try as we might, none of us could find it in our hearts to lecture the laughing boy. With his infectious grin and ready hugs, Lazarus simply left joy in his wake. And so we skipped off down the road to look at the lambs waiting to be purchased for the feast. They bleated behind the gate, oblivious to their starring role in the events of the week.

While Lazarus played with the lambs, I sat on a rock, feeling the sun warm my cheeks. I sensed movement to my left and opened my eyes to see a boy duck around the corner of the enclosure. I knew everyone in Bethany, but this was a stranger, a tall, lanky boy wearing a traveling cloak. Though I lived within walking distance of Jerusalem, we rarely ventured far from our village. Particularly during feast time, Mother worried for our safety among the strangers in the city. I longed to know about far-off Egypt, Rome or Greece. Even Hebron or Galilee sounded exotic to my eleven- year old imagination.

“Where do you come from?” I called, a little surprised at my own boldness.

A face peered around the corner of the stall. Dark eyes sparkled over a sharp nose, and a thin hand pushed a strand of black hair back from the face of a boy probably two years older than I. He seemed pleased to have someone to talk with.

“You looked so peaceful, with your face turned up to the sun,” he said. “I did not wish to frighten you.”

Truthfully, the boy had startled me, but my desire to hear about his travels overcame any shyness. “You look as if you have traveled some distance,” I said. “Where do you call home?”

“Father and I came from Kerioth for the Passover. He has business with friends in the village tonight, but tomorrow we go to Jerusalem.”

I handed the boy a bit of bread, and we chewed in silence for a while, listening to the bleating of the lambs and watching Lazarus throw pebbles into the ditch.

“I love the city during feast time,” the boy reflected, almost to himself.

“I have never seen Jerusalem during Passover, actually,” I admitted. “Mother and Father worry about all of the people. Or maybe they are afraid I will sneak off with a caravan. What is it like?”

The boy proceeded to tell me about the markets, the people from as far away as Ethiopia. He described the noise of the doves in the courtyard of the temple, waiting to be sacrificed. Inns were crowded with pilgrims and merchants. Tradesmen like his father made more profit during Passover than at any other time of the year. My own father had told me about the crowds in the city, of course, but as the boy talked, the music and the prayers, the smells of exotic food and the cries of the beggars came alive. I closed my eyes to imagine the scene.

“You love it, do you not?” I said. It was not a question, really. I could tell by his voice that he could hardly wait to enter the city again. “Tell me your favorite part. Tell me a story.”

The look on his face changed. I worried for a minute that I had said something wrong, but then he spoke quietly, almost reverently. “It was last year,” he began. “It was my first trip to Jerusalem, and Father took me to the temple just before we left town with the other merchants. I listened to the men discussing scripture, arguing about laws and prophecies, comparing the notes of the famous rabbis. I was surprised to see a boy among the men. He was about my age, but when he spoke, the men nodded as if he had said something wise. I walked closer, standing just on the edge of the crowd. An old man, clearly a respected teacher, asked the boy a question. I do not even remember the question or the answer, but I remember the boy’s voice. His voice was not particularly deep, nor did he speak loudly. But somehow, when he spoke, I just had to listen. He knew what he was saying was true, without apology, without doubt. I study the prophecies a great deal, and my father says I know more than most of the men in our synagogue, but this boy…when he spoke, it was as if the prophet Isaiah himself stood in front of me. Suddenly, I understood things I never even imagined before.”

The traveler stopped there, as if embarrassed about his excitement. “Did you speak to him?” I asked.

“No. I just stood there. I was too amazed to open my mouth. But he looked up once, looked straight at me. His eyes were as old as Abraham, and I thought maybe he could see right into my thoughts. He gave a little nod, as if he knew me, as if he knew something in my heart that even I did not know. Then it was time to leave. I will never forget that. I keep thinking someday I will see him again, and I think of all the questions I want to ask.”

Just then, Lazarus threw his arms around my neck, and the spell was broken. The boy stood up, brushing crumbs off his cloak. “I should get back to the market,” he said. “Father will wonder where I have run off to.” And with that, he was gone.

I have thought many times over the years about that afternoon. I do not often call out to strangers, and I realized after he left that I never even asked his name, but the look on his face as he told of his experience in the temple stuck with me. Never in my wildest imaginings did I dream that one day I would once again meet not only the boy from Kerioth but also the remarkable boy from the temple.
Years later, Lazarus ran into my garden one afternoon, his face alive with the excitement of discovery. He was still my laughing boy, but older now, with a young family of his own. “Martha,” he panted.  “Come with me. The grapes can wait, but this cannot!”

Years had passed, but I had never learned to resist the enthusiasm of my favorite brother. I washed my hands in the fountain and followed him to the hillside. A crowd had gathered there, and a man sat in their midst, teaching. He spoke of ordinary things, of planting and harvesting, grains and birds. But the ordinary took on new meaning for me that day. I stood toward the back for a time, but before long I joined Lazarus and our sister Mary at the man’s feet. He challenged us to love even our enemies, and as I sat there in the spell of his voice, I thought I could love even the Romans if he asked me to. He spoke simply, with a power greater than his voice, greater than the words themselves or the challenge they presented. He spoke with authority and with love, with an immense love that I felt envelop all of us on that hillside.

As he spoke, I noticed his companions nearby, sitting in groups of two or three and asking questions from time to time. One man in particular caught my eye. He seemed familiar, like a face from a long distant memory. I thought perhaps he had visited with my father in his shop or worked in the fields during harvest, although his thin hands were not the hands of a laborer. He, too, listened intently to the teacher, pushing his fingers through his black hair from time to time when a point of the discussion particularly engaged him. I had almost located him in my memory when the discussion came to a close and Mary’s voice at my side interrupted my thoughts.

“Jesus,” she said. “We would be honored if you and your friends would take a meal with us.”

The teacher looked at us then and smiled. That evening was the first of many that he dined with us, sometimes in the company of his disciples and sometimes on his own, a weary traveler seeking quiet refuge from the crowds that always seemed to follow him. In time, I remembered his companion as the Passover traveler of my youthful memory. Once, I heard him retell the story of the boy in the temple. Jesus watched him quietly as he spoke, his eyes almost sad. “Judas,” he asked. “Have you found what you were seeking?” Neither man spoke for a minute, and soon the conversation turned to other topics.

For some reason, I never told Judas that I remembered him. If he ever connected me with the young girl of Bethany and her laughing baby brother, he never mentioned it. I had many occasions to see him over the next couple of years, and I began to understand the sadness in Jesus’ eyes as he listened to Judas speak. The sparkle in the eyes and the fire of testimony that had so animated Judas in the beginning began to fade over time. He moved more and more away from the group discussions, preferring to occupy his hours with the administrative affairs of the disciples. Once a dynamic speaker who could capture an audience with his fervor and intellect, he gradually spoke less and less and seemed troubled when Jesus began to talk openly about his calling as the Messiah. Occasionally, I would see Jesus and Judas walking on the hillside together, talking earnestly.

The last time I saw Judas was in Bethany, just days before the awful Friday of the crucifixion. I served dinner and listened as the men spoke. There was a heaviness in the air, like the gloom before a thunderstorm. Jesus himself seemed grieved by a silent sorrow, and he taught with more intensity, as if anxious that we would remember every word. We did not understand when he spoke of his own death, not until later. But we felt his love, and we, too, grieved, without understanding why. As dinner closed, Mary entered the room, weeping. She approached Jesus, and he nodded, almost imperceptibly. She brought out a container of spikenard and worked it gently into his feet, massaging each callous. As she worked quietly, Judas spoke up from the corner of the room.

“How can you allow this, Jesus? Surely it would be better to sell that precious ointment and use the money for the poor?” His eyes, as he looked scornfully at my sister, had finally lost the last vestige of wonder that sparkled in them when we first met. Jesus rebuked him gently, but firmly. He had lessons still to teach us, and Judas had his own part to play in the drama that unfolded over the next week.

1 comment:

  1. I love historical fiction...especially when it's as well-written as this. More, please! ♥