It was day two of the journey home, and I missed Miriam. On the way to Yerushalayim for the Feast of the Passover our families had walked together, her friendship a welcome comfort on the dry, dusty road. But Yosef, her husband, had been eager to get back home to Nazerat, and my little ones were moving more slowly each day. "Go on ahead," I'd finally told Miriam, midmorning on the first day after the Feast. "I'll bring Yeshua back when we get to Nazarat. Or whenever I run out of food."
Miriam had laughed. Her eldest son, Yeshua, was my eldest son David's constant companion. The boys were inseparable, so much so that when I looked at my family I either saw three children, or five. If Yeshua wasn't around, neither was David.
One, two, three, four, five, I counted in silent rhythm as we walked, one, two, three, four, five. Five children. All present, all accounted for.
I paused for a moment on the dusty trail. Thoughts of Miriam slipped from my mind as I realized my feet were tired, my arms sore, and my overnursed breasts like smoldering coals beneath my dusty robe. One, two, three, four, five, I counted again. One, two, three, four, five.
I arched my back, shifted my daughter's weight from one hip to the other. But as I moved her she awoke, instantly hungry, and began frantically searching for my breast. I sighed and called to my husband.
"Ba'al, we need to stop. Zahara needs to feed again."
He looked at me. "Why can't you just feed her as we walk?"
I closed my eyes and counted four breaths before I answered. It was useless getting angry with him, he'd never nursed a baby. He couldn't understand. Once again, I missed Miriam.
"I've been feeding her as we walk since the passing of the last moon," I finally replied. "My breasts are raw. I cannot nurse her if I cannot pause to rest."
Zahara's rosy lips rooted against my robe. My husband sighed, moved to the side of the path, and sat down in the dirt before motioning me to join him.
"Banim," he called to the children, "we'll stop for a moment and rest now. Zahara needs to eat."
My children were unfazed by the rest; they were young enough to be unaware of the passage of time and would blissfully walk forever as long as they had friends on the path. As Zahara suckled, her older brother Harel came up to me and began patting my chest.
"Em," he sighed, his voice a silky whisper against my skin. "Em...."
I put my hand on his chest and pushed him away, more roughly than I intended, and his brown eyes welled with tears that spilled on to his dusty tunic.
"Oh Harel, I'm sorry," I said. "Em's sorry. But I need to nurse Zahara now, just Zahara. Ask Liat for a drink from her water skin."
He sniffed and toddled off obediently to find his sister Liat, and I felt a pang as I watched him. He had been so young when the Zahara was born - scarcely more than a baby himself.
I watched the hot sun turn to golden flecks in his hair as he stopped to pick up a small rock from the path. One, two, three, I started to breathe as Zahara nursed and the tension drained from my shoulders. One, two, three.
Liat unslung a small water skin from her shoulder and tilted it gently to Harel's lips. Zahara patted my chest as she nursed.
"Liat?" I called. "Have you seen David and Yeshua?" The names rolled off my tongue as one, DavidandYeshua. She looked up at me and shook her head. But I knew they were together, wherever they were, and they'd pop up soon enough when they got hungry. I rolled my head from side to side, taking advantage of the calm of nursing to stretch my aching muscles.
I glanced over at my husband, bending down to talk to Harel. The glints running through Harel's dusty locks were magnified in his father's rumpled brown hair; the resemblance between father and toddling son was keen. I heard them laughing as they held hands and examined a picture Liat was drawing with a stick. My husband traced a strong finger around the impressions she'd left in the dust, smiling, almost caressing her work. Anything could be made beautiful in his eyes.
He was a struggling carpenter before we married, making beautiful things that he sold for a fraction of the cost of his labor. As a bride I would lie beside him at night, pleading with him: make a chair, a workbench. Make something people will use. But my husband had to create beauty. Everywhere he went, everything he touched, became beautiful.
The partnership with Miriam's husband Yosef was our deliverance. I knew the rumors, of course, that Yosef wasn't Yeshua's father, that Yeshua's father was known only to Miriam. But I never paid them any heed. Yosef was a good carpenter, and his partnership with my husband had been our salvation. Yosef did all the practical work, faster than my husband ever could; my husband ornamented, decorated, and embellished to his heart's content. Then Yosef, a shrewd businessman, sold my husband's creations for what they were actually worth. Now the eldest sons of our two families were nearing the age of apprenticeship, and both would be apprenticed as carpenters.
My son David was going to be a good carpenter. He didn't have Yosef's dedication to his work, but neither did he have my husband's artistic bent, and for that I was grateful. My husband would never be a man of great respect in Nazerat, but David could make something of himself. David could grow to be an important man. I sighed as I nursed. That was my prayer for my eldest son.
The sound of running feet interrupted my reverie, and David stood in front of me in all his half-boy, half-man gangliness.
"I'm hungry," he panted, flopping down in the dust beside me. I reached a hand toward his tangled hair but he knocked it away, and I had to content myself with stroking Zahara's fat cheek instead.
"Where's Yeshua?" I asked. David shrugged.
"Answer me when I speak to you. Where's Yeshua?"
"I don't know," he replied, glancing around as if expecting to see him suddenly springing up out of the ground.
"Wasn't he with you?" The merest note of concern colored my voice.
"He was," David said, "but I think he turned back. What's there to eat?"
I ignored his question. "He turned back?" I asked. "What do you mean, he turned back?"
"I don't know," David said again, scratching his foot. "He said there was something he had to do. I think he went back to Yerushalayim."
"To Yerushalayim?" The note of concern was morphing into panic. "David, when? Why?"
"Yesterday sometime. After we ate. No, maybe before. Em, I'm really hungry."
"Why didn't you say something to me then?" I pulled Zahara off my breast. She began to fuss as I looked for my husband, still engrossed in Liat's picture, Harel hanging on his leg. I lifted Zahara up on to my shoulder and began to pat her back.
"I don't know, Em," David answered, a deep sigh rising from his chest. "He just said he had something to do. I figured maybe he was going to walk with his parents. He told me not to come, so I didn't."
"But Yosef and Miriam left before we did," I said. "Why would he be turning back if he was going to find them?" The panic was stronger, nearly full-fledged. Two children wandering out of sight for a bit was one thing, one small boy going back to the city alone was another. An image of Miriam came to my mind, but I closed my eyes and willed it away.
David looked at me expectantly. "Can I have something to eat now? Talmor and Reut found an asp. We're going to see if we can teach it to do tricks."
I gave him a small cake of bread, and let him go back to his friends and their snake. "You boys stay where someone can see you," I called after his retreating back. I moved Zahara to my other shoulder and hurried over to my husband.
"Ba'al, Yeshua's missing." I could hear my voice beginning to tremble.
"Missing?" He looked up at me, unconcerned. "I'm sure he's around here somewhere. Wasn't he with David?"
I told him what David had told me. My husband was as unconcerned as my son. "I wouldn't worry about it," he said. "He'll turn up."
Liat looked up at me, tugging my robe. "Look what I drew, Em!"
"That's beautiful," I told her, absentmindedly. I didn't even look at it.
It was day three of the journey home, and we were now walking back to Yerushalayim.
"Have you seen a young boy? About this tall? His name is Yeshua." The old man I was questioning shook his head, and I clutched Zahara tightly to my chest. Ahead of me I could see Miriam and Yosef, stopping another family with small children. I saw Miriam's anxious face, the woman's sorrowful shake. No one had seen or heard anything of the boy.
I glanced behind me to where my husband was walking, carrying Harel and hurrying Liat and David along beside him. David was carrying the snake. I'd suggested to him that if he was so interested in taking on extra weight he could carry Zahara instead, but my suggestion was met with scorn. Talmor and Reut trusted him with the snake, he said, and he was responsible for bringing it safely back to Nazerat. Back to Nazarat, now by way of Yerushalayim.
We'd questioned David endlessly, but the only thing he thought he remembered was that maybe Yeshua had said something about going back to the temple. All of the boys in his group of friends were shifty on the details; the story seemed to run something along the lines of: "Yeshua was here, and then we saw the snake, and I think he went back. But it was a really big snake! He might have said something about the temple? But Reut caught the snake, and it's huge!"
I ran to catch up with Miriam, Zahara fussing as I jostled her.
"Any news?" Miriam asked. I shook my head. "It wasn't your fault," she continued, her voice soft as the dust whispering against our feet.
"I know," I answered, then stopped. I had no right to let her comfort me.
"I'm so sorry..." I began, but broke off and buried my face into Zahara's moist head. I counted my children, scattered along the path. One, two, three, four. It was an anomalous number, underscoring my guilt.
"I'm so sorry," I whispered again. Why hadn't I noticed he was missing?
Who does Yeshua think he is? The thought sprang unbidden to my mind as we walked, our rapid footsteps now in rhythm, now not. David would never dream of leaving the group and wandering back alone toward the city. And every step we take is a step we'll take again before we reach home.
The gates of the city loomed open in front of us, travelers passing through them on their way home from the feast. Miriam and Yosef ran ahead of my family, in and out among the travelers, asking for Yeshua.
"You go on ahead," my husband said. "We'll wait for you here." He lifted Zahara out of my arms. "I'm sure you'll find him in no time."
Gratefully surrendering Zahara's weight, I ran toward Yosef and Miriam, toward the bright white temple glistening so fiercely in the hot midday sun that I had to shield my eyes as we approached it.
We pounded through the empty outer court, into the women's court. My arms felt empty without Zahara, and I reached out and took Miriam's hand as we ran. An elderly woman was standing alone in the far corner of the court, and as Yosef sprinted up the steps to the men's court we made our way over to her.
"Have you seen a boy?" Miriam asked breathlessly. "A young boy, traveling alone?" The woman turned her head, deep lines creasing her face. She shook her head. Miriam looked around. There was no one left to ask.
High above us in the men's court sat a knot of priests, their deep voices ringing out over the white stone in debate. As I listened, a clear treble voice punctuated their arguments, and I knew the voice at once: Yeshua. I caught my breath and loosed my hold on Miriam's hands. Yeshua was safe.
Yosef's footsteps slowed as he approached the clump of elders. He bowed his head, waited for one to finish speaking, and then looked directly at his son.
"Yeshua," he said, his quiet voice full of authority. "It's time to go home now."
Without a word, the boy stood up and followed his father. There was a lull in the priests' conversation as Yosef and Yeshua descended the steps, their worn sandals slapping in time against the glistening stone. When they reached the bottom, the priests resumed their discussions.
Miriam threw herself at Yeshua.
"Son, why have you treated us like this?" she cried, grabbing him tightly by the shoulders, her face so close to his they were almost touching. The elders glanced over at us again as Miriam's voice ricocheted off the walls. Yosef took one of her arms in his, the other hand still clutching Yeshua, and led them out of the temple.
When we got outside, Miriam threw herself at her son. "Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you!" she cried, trying to embrace, kiss, and shake Yeshua all at once. He gazed at her, his expression unreadable.
I wanted to add my voice to her tirade, but I held my tongue. He wasn't my son.
Yeshua looked from Miriam to Yosef. "Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?"
Miriam pulled her son back into her arms. I glanced toward the city gates and saw my family, waiting for me. The guilt and grief I'd felt over losing Yeshua was hardening into annoyance.
As Yosef placed his large, calloused hand on top of the boy's head and rustled his hair, I realized: Miriam and Yosef weren't upset with Yeshua, not in the way I'd be upset if he were my son. They'd been worried, and were relieved to see him, but that was as far as it went. I felt my annoyance deepening to resentment.
I watched their family walking together as we caught up with my own, and suddenly my anger was so great I snatched Zahara back too quickly from her father, and she began to cry.
What did Yeshua mean, in his "father's house?" I fumed to myself as I prepared to nurse. He was in the middle of the temple, not someone's house, and his father was Yosef of Nazerat. Wasn't he?
"Would David like to walk with us?"
Miriam's small form appeared at my elbow, startling me out of my thoughts.
"Yosef would still like to try and get home quickly," she continued apologetically when I didn't answer. "But David is more than welcome to walk with us." She paused, then smiled up at me. "I promise not to lose him."
I smiled back at her, but my face felt tight. It was far too soon for me to make light of what had happened, what could have happened.
"No, you go on ahead," I finally managed, in a tone that sounded falsely bright even to me. "We'll keep David with us."
I looked at Miriam and suddenly I felt like I didn't even know her.
Liat came over and picked up Harel, who was trying to climb up into my arms while Zahara nursed. Her small feet followed mine, and I could feel her looking at me. Perhaps she'd understood more of our detour than I had given her credit for.
David plied us with ceaseless questions about the care and handling of snakes as the gates of the city grew smaller behind us, and wondered if we could catch up with Talmor and Reut on our journey back home. I assured him that Talmor and Reut were now days ahead of us, but held my tongue and kept myself from adding, thanks to Yeshua.
That night, we camped by the side of the road with another family from Nazerat. After lighting a small fire and cooking our evening meal, I found myself needing to talk about what had happened. As the children settled down to sleep, I stayed up into the night with a woman named Kefira. I'd known her in passing, having seen her at the city well, but we'd never really talked. I usually spent my trips to the well talking to Miriam.
"They didn't even scold him," I told her, pulling my knees into my chest as we sat together around the embers of our dying fire.
"I'm not surprised," Kefira replied. "You know how Miriam is."
"Miriam?" I repeated. "What do you mean?"
"She treats that boy as if he was a prophet," Kefira continued. "Most of us can't stand her."
I wondered who "us" was, and why I wasn't included in the group.
"I would never let my son hang around with Yeshua," Kefira said bluntly.
"Why?" I asked. "David plays with him all the time. They're practically inseparable."
"We know," she said. We again. "But even if the rumors aren't true, they're not doing the family's reputation any good, nor anyone who associates with them."
"You mean the rumors about his father?" I asked. "I thought that was just...." My voice trailed off. I didn't know what I thought it was. Idle chatter? Spite? I looked at Kefira. "Why hasn't anybody ever talked to me about this before?" I wondered, aloud but to myself. Kefira answered me anyway.
"Everybody knows you're Miriam's best friend," she said. "We assumed you didn't care what people thought about your family."
She tucked a stray hair behind her ear, poked the last of the fire with a stick. "I'm sorry," she finally said. "Perhaps I've said too much."
My thoughts continued to torment me long after I'd lain down to sleep beside my husband, Zahara tucked into the crook of one arm and my other arm slung around Harel. Surely she couldn't be right, surely the entire community couldn't feel the way she did about Yeshua? The moon had almost set by the time I fell asleep.
The first morning back in Nazerat, I rejoiced that the journey was behind us. I didn't see Miriam on my way to the well to draw the day's water.
"Ravital!" I called to a woman on the dusty path. "Boker tov." I fell into step beside her. "How are Talmor and Reut?"
She smiled at the mention of her sons. "They're fine," she replied, "and they think David is a hero."
I smiled in return. Amazingly, the snake christened Pinchas had survived the journey home, much to David's delight. I wondered if the story of Yeshua's temple disappearance was fading into the boys' all-encompassing story of the snake's journey from Yerushalayim, and I almost hated to bring up what I so desperately wanted to ask. I took a quick breath.
"Ravital," I said hurriedly, before I could change my mind. "Have you ever doubted if Talmor and Reut should play with Yeshua?"
She was silent for a moment, fingering the rim of the earthenware jug she carried.
"Yes," she finally said. "I've actually been thinking about it a lot lately."
"But why?" I asked. "Just because of the rumor? It hardly seems fair." The sun beat hot upon my covering, and I thought of the not-too-distant day when Liat would be old enough to help me carry water. My children were growing up so fast. "Yeshua is David's closest friend," I said softly.
"I know," Ravital continued. "But if you talk to some of the other women..." She made a gesture with her free hand, taking in the knot of women gathered at the well now visible in the distance. "They think the rumors are true," she said. "And our boys are growing up now. Whom they call their friends is going to matter, very soon."
I mulled over her words and we walked in silence the rest of the way to the well. I had been so angry with Yeshua when we found him in the temple, but not angry enough to cast him out of our lives.
I looked at the women loosely grouped around the well, talking. Part of me was still amazed that these women believed the rumors about Yeshua's father, and part of me was thinking about my friendship with Miriam. Could I let her go? I glanced around me. I could make new friends, but Miriam and I were so close. I didn't want to give her up.
Walking home, I noticed again how the women traveled in small groups. Ravital had found another friend to walk with, and I was walking alone. Without Miriam, I had no one. It was no wonder I'd lost my place in the circles of friendship now spread out around me; I'd given all my time to Miriam.
And Yeshua. I thought of the boy, pictured him as he so often sat around our dinner table laughing with David. I couldn't ask David to give that up.
He's practically my son, I mused as I set my water jug down just inside the door to my home. But instantly in the wake of that thought was another thought, drowning out the first. But he's not my son. And David is. I have to do this. For David.
That night after the evening meal I left Liat rocking Zahara while my husband sang to Harel, and took David outside to sit beside me by the last of the dying fire in our small courtyard. I covered the fire with surrounding ash, damping it, while I worked out how to tell my son what I wanted to say. Finally, I turned to him.
"I don't want you to see Yeshua anymore," I told him abruptly. Too abruptly.
"I don't want you to see Yeshua anymore," I repeated, softer this time.
"But Em, what do you mean? I see him all the time."
"I know, David, I know," I said, trying to convey to him with my tone that this was serious. "But...." I let my voice fade into the growing darkness.
"Abba works with Yosef," David continued. "And Yeshua and I go to temple school together. How am I not supposed to see him?"
I sighed. "I mean I don't want you to associate with him anymore. I don't want you to sit next to him in temple school, I don't want you to walk home with him, I don't want you to speak to him if you can avoid it. It's important, David. For your reputation."
I thought of the circles of women at the well.
My son's brows knit together, and I found myself praying that he would understand, praying that he would hold his tongue and not alert our neighbors to the conversation we were having.
"David, please," I said, reaching for his hand, "try to understand." I wound my fingers around his own, amazed that his hands seemed stronger, rougher, every time I held them. I looked into his eyes, just below my gaze, and realized that soon, my son would reach my height. Soon after, he would surpass it. But for now he was still a child, my child.
"Yeshua..." I began tentatively, then paused. "Yosef might not be his father," I said gently. "That's why I don't want you to be as close to him anymore."
"What does that matter?" David asked. "I don't care who his father is!"
"But other people do." I paused. "And you're growing so fast. Soon you will be a man, and the people with whom you associate will have an influence." David's eyes were murky. "On your reputation," I continued. "On who others think you are." I squeezed his hand.
He didn't answer me.
"I want you to have a good reputation, a strong name." I held his hands tightly, looked into his brown eyes. "I want you to marry a woman with a good name, and Yahweh will bless you with many children. And if we have to stop seeing Miriam and Yeshua for that to happen, then so be it. We need to care what people think about us, about our family."
"Abba doesn't care what anybody says," David finally replied, looking away.
"I know," I said, searching for words into which I could fit my thoughts. "But your father..." I stopped. How could I explain to David what I meant, without dishonoring my tender, beauty-loving husband? I swallowed the thought and gripped my son's hands tighter.
"You have strong hands and a good heart," I said. "You can grow up to be respected. But continuing to be friends with Yeshua is not going to gain you respect." I sighed. "Yeshua is not the kind of boy who grows up to be the man you can be."
David looked at me, and I was stung to see tears in the corners of his eyes.
"But he's my best friend," he said.
Lying awake that night, nursing Zahara on our pallet, I thought over my conversation with David. He'd barely spoken to me the rest of the evening, and I could see the anger burning beneath his smoldering eyes. I avoided my husband's questions as to what was wrong, and took Zahara to bed with me early. When my husband joined me later with a sleeping Harel, I kept my eyes closed and let him assume I was dreaming. But I wasn't dreaming; the visions in my mind were more akin to nightmares.
I could try to get my husband to talk to our son, but David was right: my husband cared as little for the respect of peers as he did. I couldn't explain to him, any more than I could explain to David, that our son had the potential to be what my husband never could. David wasn't a dreamer; he was strong and clever, and good with his mind and his hands. He could make a good match, perhaps the daughter of someone highly respected, and he and his family would have opportunities my husband and I could only dream of.
But David had to learn to guard his reputation. I knew that, even without talking to Kefira or Ravital, even if I didn't want to admit it to myself. David had to learn to guard his reputation, and so did I.
I sighed as Zahara let go of my breast, and I rolled over to where Harel was stretched out in between my husband and me. He wriggled his small body around in his sleep, impossibly taking up even more of our small pallet, then reached out a chubby hand and laid it on my arm. I saw his other hand was similarly holding on to my husband, and I laughed ruefully. Memories of David at his age came flooding back to me, back in the days when he was our only child, when friends and neighbor boys and their fathers didn't matter, when all he needed to be content was the ability to hold on to both of his parents while he slept.
David was growing so fast, and soon Liat would start to look like a woman, and then even little Harel would approach manhood. I pulled Zahara in closer to me and breathed into the folds of her baby neck, loving her for being so small, so innocent and new. I had to make David see how important this was. He could not continue his friendship with Yeshua, and jeopardize his entire future. I was not going to let that happen, even if it meant giving up my friendship with Miriam.
The morning sun was still new enough to be pale when I opened my eyes and slipped from my pallet. Zahara was curled against Harel, their two bodies rising and falling in a mesmerizing rhythm. I watched them for a moment, then pressed my fists against my eyelids. My head hurt from a night spent lying awake, pounding over thoughts in my head as if they were grain I was beating into flour: each thought a kernel shattered with the strike of a rock. David's reputation. My friendship with Miriam. Strike, turn. David's reputation.
Preoccupation made me clumsy, and I fumbled with the ties on my sandals. But if I hurried to the well this morning, perhaps I could avoid seeing Miriam. Perhaps I could put off what I knew I had to do. It wasn't a solution, but it bought me one more day. I grabbed the water jug and made my way toward the door.
As I lifted the latch, I looked behind me. In the corner of the room I could see David sleeping on his pallet, the anger he'd taken to bed with him now quiet as he slept. I mentally traced the curve of his cheekbone, savored the feel of his skin as I gripped my jug. Nothing was going to stand in the way of my son. Nothing. I turned to go.
Perhaps if he made a good match, I thought, the bride-price would be enough that my husband could end his partnership with Yosef. This thought was a new one, and the incessant striking of rocks in my head was momentarily stilled. If I let Miriam go, David could grow up to be important. His marriage could raise our family's esteem. We wouldn't need Yeshua's father, wouldn't need anyone. I started down the path to the well.
"Boker tov!" Miriam's voice halted my footsteps. "You're up early."
I turned to see her standing in her doorway, one hand over her eyes to shield them from the light of the sun as it grew stronger. I smiled, but didn't say anything in return.
"Let me get my jug," Miriam continued, turning. "You won't believe what Yeshua said yesterday!" She disappeared from the doorway, then was back with her jug. "We were almost ready to eat, and he said..."
"Actually, Miriam, I'm in a bit of a hurry," I said, giving what I hoped was an apologetic grin. I started to walk away.
I heard her laughing behind me. "It's okay, I can keep up!" Her footsteps were quick behind me. "Anyway, so Yeshua said..."
I turned and looked at her. "Miriam, I don't really want to hear it."
For a moment, it was absolutely silent.
Just then, I saw Ravital step out on to the path a few houses down.
"Ravital!" I called out, in sheer relief. She lifted a hand and waved to me, and I ran to catch up with her.
"Boker tov!" I called. "May I walk with you?"
"Of course," she replied, then paused, as she looked toward Miriam. Almost against my will, I followed her gaze. Miriam was standing in the middle of the path, her hands clutching her jug, her eyes taking in the scene in that quiet way she had. Her mouth parted as if to say something, and closed again, the story she had been telling now frozen on her lips. She dropped her gaze, then looked up at me. I could see the understanding in her eyes, and as I watched they filled with tears.
I wanted to run back to her, throw my arms around her and apologize, beg to hear the story she was trying to tell me about Yeshua. But I didn't.
David, I said to myself as I turned back to Ravital. This is all for David. Ravital reached out and linked an arm through my own, and together we turned our backs on Miriam. My shoulders ached and my throat felt choked with thick, hot dust.
David, I told myself again, against the tears now smarting in my own eyes. David's future. David's bride.
As Ravital and I walked on together toward the well I snuck one last glance behind me at Miriam, still standing in the middle of the path, hugging her water jar to her chest. She seemed so small. I looked away.
David's reputation. My footsteps fell into an awkward rhythm with Ravital's, the dusty path blurred through my tears. But I forced myself to keep walking. Because if I didn't save my son, who would?