Phasaelis arrived the next morning.
As usual she was accompanied by her retinue, but they were escorted by an officer of the court of Herod Antipas. He was, in turn, accompanied by two of Herod’s personal bodyguard, grizzled old Celtic warriors he had acquired after the death of his father Herod. Age had rendered them more family retainers, but none would challenge them without some caution.
The officer, Chuza, was visiting Antipas from Yerushalayim.
As he entered the compound, he tipped his head toward Yohanna, who uncharacteristically blushed and lowered her eyes.
“You know him?” asked Miri, her interest and mischievousness piqued, for Chuza was a handsome and virile man.
“He travelled with us,” said Yohanna, but formalities of greeting the visitors interfered with Miri finding out more about the connection between the handsome stranger and her sister. It was obvious to everyone who was mildly sentient that there was a very strong attraction between Chuza and Yohanna.
“I understand you know my sister,” said Miri as she was introduced to the ambassador from Yerushalayim, “Are you married?”
Chuza flushed, and glanced across at Yohanna, who was torn now between her own curiosity and her frustration with her overly forward sister. “My wife died in childbirth two years ago,” he replied.
“I am sorry to hear that,” said Miri, though the matchmaking possibilities had just increased sevenfold.
“My son also died.” Chuza added, the loss momentarily overwhelming him. Miri reached out and placed her hand firmly on his cheek to calm him.
He was grateful, but Yohanna’s reaction, although not revealed physically, was so palpable, Chuza caught the wave of jealousy that washed over them, and he stepped backwards. Miri linked her arm with Yohanna’s and held her tight though Yohanna tried to withdraw. “My sister is also unwed,” said Miri to Chuza.
“Yes, she told me,” said Chuza, “Though for the life of me I cannot imagine why.”
“She has been waiting for the right man, Chuza,” said Miri, “Perhaps you would care to escort her on her walk.”
“I’m not¾” Yohanna began, but stopped immediately, not being one to miss an opportunity when she saw one.
“I would love to!” declared Chuza delightedly. He suddenly felt the need to cover his enthusiasm. “That is, if you don’t mind,” he said in deference to Yohanna.
Miri stepped away as Phasaelis approached. They hugged and Phasaelis immediately began to fill Miri in on the latest court news.
“A new Procurator will be arriving from Rome,” Phasaelis gushed, as she steered Miri toward a private spot in the olive grove. She waved away her handmaids and whispered to Miri alone. “I have no idea of who he is, but he is a friend of Sejanus, and I have heard he is a tyrant who hates Jews and not to be trusted. Procurator Gratus is at the end of his term, and he has been broken in. Antipas fears the new man will not be as accommodating to the god of the Jews, and is beside himself, for things are going well here, and all we need now is for the Pharisees to stir up the Zelotes. The terrorists have lost favour in Galillee, but if this new man is too heavy handed, it will not be long before the hornets’ nest will be alive with Sicarii and Zelotes.
His brother, Philip, is luckier. Most of his subjects are pretty well Greek and their way of thinking is so Greek, accepting Romans is easier for Decapolis. He’s coming here in the next few days and we will try to think of ways to divert the new Procurator, so that he does not interfere too much in local administration! That is why Chuza has come to Tiberias,” said Phasaelis, finally taking a breath.
“Antipas has asked Chuza to go to Caesarea to meet the new procurator, but we are not certain of his arrival time. It will be extremely important to brief him before he attends ceremonies in Yerushalayim. It wouldn’t take much to upset the people. And Passover is coming! The Romans are quite insensitive to the rest of the world and expect each and everyone to conform to their own narrow vision. They rename foreign gods to match their own beliefs and care little for customs of other lands. Wherever they go, they rebuild the cities to match their own religion and change governments of nations the way Greeks change hats!”
Miri smiled half-heartedly. She was suddenly struck by her own loneliness. And until that time, she had no idea she was lonely. Perhaps it had been the connection of Yohanna and Chuza and the power of their attraction, for she suddenly realized she had not felt that powerful lust and attraction within herself for a long time. It seemed her heart had become stone.
“Are you alright?” asked Phasaelis.
“Yes,” answered Miri, “I’m alright! Come, let’s join the others!”
Chuza and Yohanna had left for their walk, but Eleazar, with his sense of honour, accompanied them. Martha was busy preparing food, and had enlisted Susanna, Yotapah, and even her lazy brothers, Yitzak and Avrahim, to help her.
“Where’s Hulpa when you need her?” she asked fussily.
“She has a day off,” said Miri, “Remember?”
Phasaelis laughed. “We have helpers!” she said and clapped her hands and waved over four slaves that accompanied her. “They are experienced household servants!” she told Martha.
Martha was not enamoured of working with slaves, but the necessity of extra hands allowed her to overlook her distaste. It was not the slave she abhorred but the fact of their enslavement.
“Most inconvenient!” muttered Martha.
Antipas arrived at sunset. He brought a great deal of prepared food with him. Carried by his household, and with the fresh bread, and fruit and stew prepared by Martha, the feast was magnificent.
He took Miri aside.
“I have something for you,” he said with great satisfaction. He produced a small scroll. “It is from your friend in Rome.”
He hovered about her as she read the letter from Agrippina.
“My dear friend,” it began, “I cannot begin to tell you about the terrible affairs that swirl about me. By now, I am sure you have heard about the murder of my dear Germanicus. At last Calpurnius Piso was brought to trial and he still had the balls to open his bowels to the edge of a knife, though I would have loved to be the one to gut him myself. His bitch wife, Plancina, managed to squirm out of the same fate and has been brought under the wing of Livia. I am sure that she orchestrated the death of my dear Germanicus, but I have no way to bring charges against her. As long as she is honoured by Tiberius, there is no way to bring her to task for her crimes, though they are many.
Rome has disintegrated, and there seems no chance for the Senate to bring any kind of democracy to Rome. No criticism of Tiberius can be broached by any, not even Livia. Any tongue, even mildly irreverent, is instantly cut out. The Senate has become a herd of sheep that serve only to say aye to the whims of Tiberius. And Tiberius is no Augustus.
The Senate thrives on bribery, and mercantile interests are now shaping Imperial policy. I am afraid the world is doomed. The men of Rome care only for their immediate needs. As long as they have their luxuries, they care little for how they are obtained. People here have no idea of the danger at the edges of the empire. They care little that their lust for the circus drains the fauna of Africa, or that their daily bread is taken from the farmers of the Fayum at the point of the sword, or for every slave they abduct, ten enemies have been made in every province. People here speak of “Pax Romanus” as though the entire world is at peace, when even in the streets of Rome, criminals abound, and it is no longer safe to walk the streets. Farmers have been dispossessed by the great estates of the senatorial classes and more and more of Rome’s wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
It is an outrage that Tiberius has passed decrees that now allow him to seize citizens and incarcerate them without trial and no limit to the length of stay under arrest. All that we held dear to Rome has been made a mockery. There is no freedom here. Our leader is now infallible, no matter how terrible his decisions, and even criticism backed by direct evidence are disregarded, and suppressed by law.
Livia seems to be in ill health and as much as I hate her, at least she acted from her love of the Roman state, but the new order we have established here cares only for material gain and immediate gratification. The sewers here are clogging with detritus and blood of the victims hooked and dragged down the Wailing Stairs from the Capitoline, less the criminals and more those innocent of any crimes other than to speak badly of the new regime. There is no longer any serious talk of the Senate electing a consul, and it seems that only money can now procure movement in the state.
Unfortunately, Tiberius does not have the intelligence to run the Empire, and cares only for his own strange perversions. He espouses the family values of Roman gods and yet diddles little boys as if they were sweetmeats on a banquet table. His son Drusus has just died, and though it increases the fortunes of my own children, I shudder at the state of Rome by the time he dies. He has retired now to Capri. Though the decrees all bear the seal of Tiberius, it is his second in command, the Praetorian, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, who sets the agenda, and he is motivated only by greed and the money that can be made by shaping government policy. He is motivated only by immorally high profits made by his patrician sponsors at the expense of the equestrian and plebian classes. Even with Sejanus’ prodding Tiberius diddles while Rome burns. He spends his time wandering about his estate and cannot make any decisions without consulting soothsayers who are in the pay of his second in command. He has called my little Caligula, and there was nothing I can do to stop him. I am under house arrest and am afraid for not just my own life but for those of my children. I am trying to spread them out so that they cannot all be murdered at once in their sleep by agents of Sejanus. I cannot begin to tell you the despair that has overcome me.
Do not forget me,
Miri rolled the scroll into a tight cylinder. “You should burn it,” said Antipas, “Your friend is in dire straits.”
“You read it?” asked Miri.
“Of course!” said Antipas, “Do you think I could govern if everyone kept secrets?”
“No, I suppose not,” replied Miri.
“It is important for me to know as much about the events large and small. How could I make any decision without anticipating the consequences?”
“And how do you ensure that?” asked Miri.
“That’s a secret,” said Antipas with a smile. He took Miri’s arm and steered her toward the crowd again. “Your sister and Chuza have taken a shine to each other,” he said.
“So it seems!” said Miri, “Has he spoken to you of her?”
“I have heard of nothing else since he arrived!” replied Antipas, “I would appreciate your getting them married and settled, so that I can speak to him about more important matters.”
“What can be more important than love?” asked Miri.
“What indeed?” asked Antipas, but his look seemed more troubled by the question than his tone revealed.
“Chuza has asked me to marry him!” announced Yohanna over breakfast.
Unfortunately no one shared her excitement over the announcement. Martha was busy preparing bread still, and Sister Miriam absolutely disapproved of a woman shackling herself to a man, and Miri was too hung over to react.
“That’s it?” she asked.
Sister Miriam looked at her with a strange disdain. At that moment Eleazar walked across from the stables.
“What’s it?” He asked innocently.
“I’m getting married,” said Yohanna.
“To who?” asked Eleazar.
Eleazar frowned. “You just met him!” he said with some amazement.
“And?” his mother asked.
Eleazar stuttered, but no actual words left his lips.
“He thinks you should take more time to get married,” translated Sister Miriam.
Martha made some kind of miffed harrump, but that was her usual response to anything when she felt the world was far more frivolous than it should be. This harrump had a little more force than usual, as it was her own mother who seemed to have lost her senses.
Miri felt she should respond, but all she could come up with was, “I don’t feel too well!”
Yohanna stared for a moment at her fingers, stretched them out and clenched them twice into fists, stood up and strode out. Everyone in the courtyard stared at Miri, and she knew all had decided she should follow Yohanna. She groaned, stood up, and without missing a step, dipped a jug into the water jar and splashed the contents over her head as she left the courtyard. She growled to herself and stepped out into the hot sun.
“Yohanna, wait!” she called as she tried to catch up with her sister. Yohanna, however had no intention of waiting and strode down the lane. Luckily for Miri, Susanna was at her post by the sycamore. As there were few passers-by, Susanna made a beeline for Yohanna and offered her some of the bread and dried dates on her platter.
Miri held her hand to her breast as she caught up to her sister.
“Yohanna, I’m sorry!” she gasped, “I’m a little under the weather!”
Yohanna had taken a small flat loaf from Susanna, and breaking a piece off, handed it to Miri. Without thinking, Miri popped it into her mouth. It was dry and stuck to the already fuzzy insides of her mouth.
“Do you have any water?” she asked plaintively, though it came out as “Dubluuuhabbbbennyaterrr?”
Susanna pointed at the fountain, and Miri stumbled toward it, nausea rising in the bottom of her throat, knelt by the fountain, and dipped her face into the pool beside the road. She sucked in as much water as possible and swallowed it greedily. Finally, her thirst quenched and desire for relief sated, she lifted her head from the marble pool, and turned to her sister.
Both Yohanna and Susanna stared at her, shocked at her actions.
“I’m sorry,” she said weakly. She lifted the apron she was wearing and wiped her face, “I guess I drank too much wine last night!”
“Are you sick?” asked Susanna.
“Yes, but I’m getting better,” answered Miri. “I’ll be better soon, Lambkins!”
“Do you want a date?” the little girl asked.
“Maybe later,” answered Miri. She smiled weakly at her sister. “I’m sorry Yohanna, please forgive me! I’m sure you and Chuza will be very happy together!”
“Who’s Chuza?” asked Susaanna.
“Husband?” asked Susanna.
“I’m getting married,” explained Yohanna.
“Like Shimeon and Sarai?” asked Susanna.
“Only better!” declared Yohanna.
Miri narrowed her eyes. “What have you heard about Shimeon?”
“He proposed to you,” she answered.
“You just got here!” blurted Miri, and an instant later, “I never told anyone else!”
“Shimeon wanted to marry you?” asked Susanna, “But he’s already married to Sarai!”
“The walls have ears,” whispered Yohanna, “Martha told me.”
“Martha told¾” cried Miri, “How did she know?”
Hulpa told her,” said Yohanna, and anticipating Miri’s next question, answered, “and Yotapa overheard him ask you.”
Miri gaped. “Does everyone know?”
Yohanna nodded. “Everyone except Shimeon and Sarai!”
“How humiliating!” Miri declared. “Poor Sarai! Poor Shimeon!”
“Well, Shimeon knows he asked you, so Sarai is the only person between Kefar Nahum and the Pillars of Hercules who doesn’t know about it!”
“Oh great Mother!” declared Miri.
“I know I shouldn’t tell you this,” whispered Yohanna, “but Martha thinks you led him on¾”
“Led him?” Miri stopped, for she didn’t like the way the conversation was going. She changed the subject. “So tell me about Chuza!” she urged.
Yohanna flushed. “He’s beautiful!” she exclaimed.
“And he wants to marry you?”
“He has to ask his parents, but he thinks they will grant their blessing.”
“They will be fine with a widow as their son’s spouse?”
Yohanna didn’t answer.
“And three children?”
“I will bear him more!” said Yohanna with a great eagerness that took Miri by surprise. “He is very virile and I¾”
“You laid with him?” asked Miri excitedly.
Yohanna’s mouth slammed shut for she knew she had said more than was prudent for a new bride.
“You have a dowry?” asked Miri.
“My house in Bethany,” said Yohanna, “and Yusef has kept my holdings in Sappho.”
“You still own our old house?”
“Well, the land only,” admitted Yohanna, “the house was razed by Herod’s agents! I rent it to some shepherds to keep their flocks. But it is prime real estate, and is backed by Mount Gerizim.”
“You have an income?”
“Yusef gives me an allowance to run my house,” Yohanna flushed a little. “It will end once he knows I am getting married. He is a man of honour and takes the duty of helping his son’s widow seriously.”
“He is your father-in-law, and may not see the news as good after all he has given you.”
Yohanna shrugged. “Chuza has said he will speak to him,” she answered, “And I think that would be the best approach, but it is Eleazar as my eldest son who will have to consent to my hand. It could be a problem!”
“He’s quite young, still!” Miri sighed, ”It’s possible he may he take your betrothal as betrayal”
“It has been so long, Miriam!” said Yohanna wistfully, “This feels so good!”
The dark look in Eleazar’s eyes betrayed his unhappiness.
“Why does she want to get married?” he asked Miri, “She has children!”
“Marriage is not about children!” said Miri.
Eleazar threw a flat stone out into the lake. It skipped three times.
“Then what else is there?”
Miri shrugged. “Love? Friendship? Sharing. Would you have her be a sad wrinkled widow wrapped in black robes all her life?”
“She no longer wears black,” said Eleazar defensively. He threw another stone. “Three skips!” he said brightly.
“Her dress is not the issue!” said Miri.
“You brought it up!” said Eleazar. He had a natural talent for sophistry and a knack for turning away from an issue and debunking it through peripheral argument. His Aunt Miri, however, was a shrewd negotiator with far more experience in debate.
“Do you think your mother should be happy?” she asked, knowing he had no choice but to answer yes.
Seeing he was trapped, Eleazar deferred his answer.
“Well?” demanded Miri.
“Of course, I want her to be happy!”
“And marrying Chuza will make her so!” said Miri.
“There is no guarantee they will remain so,” he replied.
“True,” said Miri, “And I don’t expect you to understand, but it is far better to embrace love and and have it slip from your fingers than to never have loved at all!”
Eleazar stopped and stared intently at Miri.
“And what will become of her family?” asked Eleazar, “Will she not have more children? And shall they not become more favoured than Martha, Sister Miriam and I?”
“Do you really think she will love you less, Eleazar?” demanded Miri. She wrapped an arm about his shoulders. His baby fat had melted away and his flesh replaced by the beginning hardness of a man’s muscle. “It is not water! Love does not run out even if you turn the pitcher over! If I have a heart full of love for you, is it empty after I deliver on it? Of course not! Love comes not from the heart or the bowels but from the window of your soul, and that window is the opening that connects you to the love of the Great Mother!”
“The Great Mother?” Eleazar withdrew from his aunt, and she realized she was in the land of Yahweh.
“Whatever you call him!” she said with irritation. “Think about the love of God, then! Your Soul is that which he allows you to see of his true nature, and it is there you will find the power of Love! God is Love! And there is more than enough Love there for every child in the world, no matter their condition. Can you not see that?”
Eleazar threw another stone, but it caught a wave and sank.
“You must act from Love and not from Fear!”
“I will think about what you have said,” answered Eleazar finally, “But I would like to speak with Yusef before I give my word!”
And so it came to pass. Chuza presented Eleazar with the official wedding contract, 300 pieces of silver, a goblet of gold, a beautiful golden wedding ring, and a skin of the finest Galilean wine, a gift to him from his future sister-in-law. Eleazar received the gifts and the wedding contract and called Yohanna to drink the wine to signify her acceptance of the proposal. She was not used to drinking a lot, and the consumption of the wine, the best that Miri produced, got the best of her and she had to retire early and take a very long nap.
But not before the date was set.
Yohanna and Chuza were to be married on Lag B’Omer, the eighteenth day of Iyar of the following year. It would be on the first day of the week, and was to be a great social event, and would begin long before the wedding day. It was the last year that the procurator, Valerius Gratus presided over the Passover in Yerushalayim, and the guest list extended from the Roman and Greek notables as far away as Cappadocia, prominent members of the Sanhedrin, as well as Phasaelis and Antipas and their court as well as his half-brothers, Philip the ethnarch in Decapolis and Herod Philip from Joppa and his wife Herodias. Though Haritar was invited, he cited affairs of state, but did designate several of his family to attend the celebration.
Miri came up to help Yohanna prepare for the wedding. After the nuptials, Yohanna would move into Chuza’s house, a substantial palatial home on the northwestern flank of the Temple Mount outside the Hasmonean walls of the city. It was a beautiful estate built in a Greco-Roman style with an incredible colonnaded atrium wrapped about a beautiful garden. The main house had several rooms, and a gorgeous master bedroom overlooking the garden, but so that righteous tongues would not wag, Yohanna remained in her home in Bethany and kept a lamp lit in her window for her paramour. Chuza visited as often as his duties permitted. Eleazar, as Yohanna’s eldest had been given the title to the house in Bethany, and he, in turn had set aside the silver coins plus a gift to match the amount from Yusef as a dowry for Yohanna. Martha had returned to help run the household in Bethany. Sister Miriam remained at Miri’s estate at Tarichae, then traveled down with Miri and Susanna for the wedding.
The road to Yerushalayim was packed with pilgrims from all over the world. The Pesach Haj to Yerushalayim was one that every Jew felt obligated to perform. Wherever they gathered in the world, they faced the Temple in Yerushalayim to pray to Yahweh, and, now, at Passover, thousands of Jews were drawn to the Holy Temple at Yerushalayim. As Miri and her companions neared Bethany, the road became jammed with thickening crowds that eventually congealed near the outskirts of the Holy City, each pilgrim pressed against the next. Animals of every description bawled, balked and yawled and filled the air with their grumps and smells. Sister Miriam guided Hamisha and Shatayim each loaded with gifts, their long ears turned back as they squeezed through the congested traffic. Miri lifted Susanna to her shoulders to avoid the crush of people slowly making their way to Yerushalayim. Every hostel and caravanserai along the way was filled to capacity. Adjoining fields were rented out for a premium and filled with the tents and booths of pilgrims. Flags and pendants marked encampments so long lost tribal relatives could find their way to cousins aunts and uncles. Everywhere sheep and goats were for sale, and such was the demand for paschal lamb, almost anything covered in wool and having four cloven hooves was being eyed as a possible sacrificial korban. Hawkers harangued the passers by with clothes, Passover prayer shawls, head scarves, tefilim, pottery, lamps and any number of souvenirs of the trip to the Holy City.
And beneath the brouhaha of the celebration, and undercurrent flowed between each and every celebrant. Every Jew in the crowd stared at every other with hawkish intensity, searching for the face they would recognize as the Messiah, and the looks between the seekers were deep and knowing. Every encounter, each glance between each and every other person in the crowd, no matter how brief, ran deep, for each searched the Soul of the Other for a sign he was the Anointed One, and inside that glance was an apology for not being the Messiah, and an apology for the intrusion, but that tiny fraction of a connection strengthened their connection with the other for the recognition that each was searching for the true, the one and only, Son of Man, and that one day, perhaps even that day, that hour and that moment, the Messiah would arrive.
The air vibrated with the intensity of the meeting of thousands of souls, and the shouts and voices of the faithful. Prayers floated everywhere and filled Miri’s ears constantly, and the tongues wailing were not just Hebrew, nor Aramaic, but Greek and Latin, Iberian, Kemetic, Nabatean and countless other languages Miri had never heard, yet at this place somehow understood. Despite herself, Miri was carried away with the anticipatory excitement that seemed ready at almost every heartbeat to break into a ecstatic eruption of wild and uncontrolled frenzy. At such a moment there was no doubt in any soul, that at that moment when none could bear the tension anymore, in an orgasmic cosmic rush, the Messiah would appear.
Almost as the thought struck her, the unmistakable sound of organized feet and armour split the crowd and the resentment at the intrusion filled each and every being as the Roman garrison from Caesarea pushed through the pilgrims from the North. The standards of the Legion were covered, but Miri recognized, some of the armour patterns as cohorts of the Twelfth Fulminata. She had seen their graffiti in Alexandria, and she remembered they had been transferred to Syria some time before she returned to Egypt from Hindustan. The voices about her dropped instantly to a resentful and angry growl, for the troops were arriving to ensure that the religious fervour of Passover would not erupt into a spontaneous revolution. Imperial Rome was removing the velvet glove from her Iron Fist, and the Romans before whom the crowd parted were convinced of their righteousness and fully convinced it was their Divine Duty to maintain the Pax Romanus no matter the cost, and the preserve the agreements of non-aggression Rome and her legions had coerced from her provinces. The Romans were met with fear and loathing, with the exception of the street hawkers who pushed commodities at the phalanx of shields and spears, creating a terrible tension amongst the troops, for the Jewish terrorists had a way of acting as friendly merchants before pulling out the thin daggers of the sicarii and attacking them as they were reaching for their purses to purchase a loaf of bread or honeyed dates. And to the foreign eyes of the Roman legionary there was no way to tell friend from foe, for their enemies were the people they felt they were protecting. But despite the distrust and animosity on both sides, when the cavalry cohorts passed by, the proud and strong black Hispanic horses upon which the equestrians rode, strutted with such precision and panache all who saw them were held in thrall. The pageantry overwhelmed the senses, and menacing power radiated from the military column and overwhelmed and stilled the crowd. The Roman supply wagons rumbled through, pulled by teams of oxen of unbelievable size. The ground shook as the Roman artillery units rumbled past, and all stood in awe of the Roman siege engines; a catapult was set out and decorated with cloth bunting, though roped tight, leading three large ballistas. Every piece of armour and harness was polished and the Legionaries’ metal helmets glinted and flashed brightly with the reflected glory of the paschal sun. Bystanders stopped in shock and awe to watch the Roman troops pass by. Miriam spied Valerius, flanked by his officers on fine steeds, riding a beautiful stallion, but he didn’t catch sight of her, and she was disinclined to wave. Finally, the last of the armoured column, Nabatean auxiliaries, cavalry, mounted on both camels and horses, followed by infantry, passed them by.
Miri pulled Hamisha and Shatayim into the wake of the Legion immediately behind the Nabatean infantry. Despite the clouds of dust in the air, Miri preferred traveling in their dust, for the military procession had cut a wide path through the crush of the pilgrims crowding the roadway. Hot, tired, and terribly dusty, Miri, Sister Miriam and Susanna finally arrived in Bethany. Yohanna’s house was far enough within the winding warren of streets away from the main road that the noise of the pilgrims had not penetrated to the courtyard of Yohanna’s home. Eleazar came out to meet them and soon the weary travellers were soaking in a newly filled steaming hot bath.
After cleaning out the unleavened bread from the house and setting out new dishes after breaking the old ones, they made their way with gifts to Chuza’s estate to eat the Passover meal. Everyone arrived dressed in sumptuous regalia, and after exchanging gifts, the meal began. The feast was set about a triclinium in the atrium garden, and all was going well until somehow, at a particularly quiet lull in conversation, Chuza, responding to someone’s question, stated he was not Jewish.
Well, you could have heard a feather drop from a dove’s wing.
Yohanna covered her mouth, for she was afraid she might cry. The air had ceased to flow to Yusef’s lungs, and Eleazar was apopleptic. Sister Miriam broke into a great laugh, that created a greater silence, and the more silent everyone was, the funnier she found the situation.
“I thought you all knew!” declared Chuza, “I’m Nabatean by birth from Perea! Surely you all knew that?”
Yohanna gave Eleazar a warning glance for she could see he was about to declare his outrage at his mother marrying a gentile. Yusef, though not at all happy at the turn of events, was diplomatic enough to keep his tongue.
“Are you intending to become a Jew?” asked Eleazar.
Chuza did not answer, but the question did not seem to be about to be answered in the positive.
“I don’t care whether he is Jewish or Greek,” snapped Yohanna, “we’re getting married!”
“I can’t allow that!” said Eleazar.
“You already have!” shot back Yohanna. “You accepted his betrothal gift, and I have given my consent!”
Eleazar stood up swiftly. “Then you marry without my blessing!” he shouted and stormed out. Yusef stood and bowed to Chuza. “I am sorry, Chuza, Yohanna is my daughter in law and I am not sure I can with a clear conscience support her marriage to you unless you accept the Covenant of Abraham.”
“Do you mean I must submit to circumcision?” asked Chuza.
“It must be so!” said Yusef.
“But I am already circumcised!” said Chuza.
The wind dropped from Yusef’s sails.
Miri and Yohanna exchanged glances, and Miri’s raised eyebrow was met briefly by the corners of Yohanna’s mouth curling upward.
“You are not Jewish though,” said Yusef.
“But should Yohanna and I have children, they shall be Jewish,” replied Chuza, “And though she is not of your bloodline, our offspring would be accepted as Jewish, would they not?” asked Chuza.
“This will make it very difficult to sustain my position in the Sanhedrin,” admitted Yusef, “But your argument does carry some weight.”
“Yusef,” said Yohanna, “I care not for his gods nor even yours! I wish to marry him!”
An intake of breath met her declaration and Yohanna regretted her statement immediately. Though she had been a faithful follower of the Great Mother Astarte, she had maintained the outward appearance of following the path of Yahweh.
“Well, we cannot stand in the way of two admitted pagans getting married could we?” asked Miri.
“You do not believe in the Adonai?” asked Yusef.
“What is in a name?” asked Yohanna, “Would a rose not smell as sweet should we call it a pine nut?”
“No more than an ass would be any less stubborn should we call it a gazelle,” replied Yusef, “I will respect your wishes, but I am sure that your children will not! Without their consent, your life will not be easy, Yohanna.”
“I expect they may come around,” said Yohanna.
“Mother has never been a devout follower of the Lord,” said Sister Miriam, “I shall neither assist in her apostasy nor stand against it. No matter, what I think of her union with Chuza of Perea, I shall follow in the footsteps of the Lord God, and I shall not shun her for acting from Love. Until either lies upon their death bed there is still a chance they may change their ways! As for your position, Yusef, there are many in the Saducees who are as Greek as the Greeks themselves, and you may find yourself with more rather than less allies in the Sanhedrin.”
Chuza smiled. “I would give you odds against that!” He stood up and held his hand out to Yusef. “I will give you my hand in pledge to be as honourable as any son-in-law, Yusef. Will you take my oath?”
Yusef took Chuza’s hand and placed it upon his own thigh.
“I accept your oath,” he said quietly. He turned to the others. “It would be best to keep this conversation private!” he announced. “I will speak with Eleazar!”
“No, I will speak with him!” said Sister Miriam. The force of her words startled the others. “He trusts me,” she added, and turned on her heels and left to hunt down her brother.
“Secrets such as this can be dangerous,” said Melcaart grimly.
“We shall cross that river when we come to it,” said Yusef, but his smile betrayed dark thoughts.
Despite the apostasy of the bride and groom, the marriage plans remained on track, and at the beginning of the Passover, the cleaning of the house of unleavened bread took on greater meaning, for all were aware that both Yohanna and Chuza were cleansing both their household in preparation for their marriage, and the ceremony and search for leavened bread was seen as a bountiful portent of happiness to come. Neither partner was to bring any contamination from their previous lives into their new marriage. Eleazar was still unsettled at the turn of events. For some reason he had never noticed nor considered that his mother was anything but a faithful Jewish mother, and her admission caused him a great deal of concern as to his actual birthright. He left the house early and sought out one of the sages up by the Eastern Gate, and pulled him aside to ask, hypothetically, of course, whether a boy who had successfully undergone his Bar Mitzvah was still Jewish if he discovered his mother was not a faithful follower of the Lord. The sage understood Eleazar’s doubts, though not necessarily the cause, and assured him that the circumcision was his ticket into the fold, not his mother’s belief, and Eleazar returned to Bethany somewhat placated.
The counting of the sheaves began at the sunset of the same day, and the collection of the barley sheaves by the priests of the Temple became a countdown to Yohanna’s wedding, and to begin the marking of the days until the nuptials, Miri and her nieces to walked with Yohanna down to the farm chosen by the Levites from which the barley sheaves were borne up to the Temple. . Miri and her companions each had crowns made of myrtle, decorated with spring flowers for the occasion, and had spent most of the afternoon weaving them together.
It seemed appropriate that they should be celebrating the harvest of the Great Mother at the same time as Yohanna was to be married. As Miri walked beside her sister, she was overwhelmed by a sense that Yohanna was very much the avatar of Astarte. Here they were, Yohanna’s handmaidens, her priestesses, walking beside her as they approached the first harvested sheaf of barley, and each daily omer from that moment, was leading them closer and closer to the day when the Great Goddess, Mother of the Grain, would marry her Chosen One.
A crowd had already gathered in anticipation of the priests’ arrival, and the women were showered with petals as they reached the chosen farm. The farmer and his wife and children stood in their finest clothes by their gate, their ecstasy overflowing, for the father was ready to receive the high priest, and glow in the honour of presenting the first sheaf of the harvest to the Temple. Everyone in the crowd waved palm leaves stripped from local palms despite an ordinance from the council not to do so. At Passover the pilgrim’s zeal overcame all reason and many a local date plantation had been stripped completely of leaves. Most farmers hired guards to keep the zealots from stripping their livelihood, and many a tree had been sacrificed at Pesach. Garlands of spring flowers were strewn everywhere.
As they sat waiting for the priests to arrive to claim the first omer of barley, Yohanna explained the holidays to Susanna who had never seen Yerushalayim before.
“The thirty-third day of the Omer,” she began, “is a special day in the counting of forty-nine days between the spring liberation festival of Pesach, or Passover, and the holiday of Shavuot. On each of the forty-nine days, beginning on the second day of Pesach until Shavout, the priests come here from the Temple to collect a sheaf of barley. On the fiftieth day, Shavuot, they bake fresh baked bread at the Temple, in gratitude for the Mother Earth’s generosity.
But on the thirty-third day, we call it Lag B'Omer because the numbers of the letters, L, A and G adds up to thirty-three. Lag B'Omer falls on the eighteenth day of the month of Iyar. On that day, the Lord of Heaven marries the Great Mother Earth. At their marriage, all the flowers bloom and the birds arrive from their winter nests to sing their wedding songs. Seventeen days before the revelation on Mount Sinai, we celebrate Lag B'Omer with bonfires, dancing, archery contests. Nazorites cut their hair and take their vows, and, rejoicing in the joining of Earth and Heaven, I shall marry Chuza!
Man marries woman, heaven marries earth, and humans wed the divine!
And we gather the harvest. Little boys get their haircut. Just as we cannot prune fruit trees and vines for the first three years of life, boys at three years old have their hair cut on Lag B’Omer.”
“Girls too?” asked Susanna.
“No sweetie,” said Miri, “Girls grow their hair all the time and never cut their hair.”
“You never cut your hair?” asked Susanna.
Miri’s thoughts suddenly turned her head shaving at the temple of Auset. “Sometimes we cut our hair and dedicate it to the Great Mother. Some dedicate an oath to other gods.”
“Can I cut my hair?” asked Susanna.
“When you have a great cause,” said Miri.
“I shall find one,” Susanna said with determination and faith that only a child could muster.
“Of course you will, sweetie,” whispered Miri squeezing her little ward playfully.
“Where does the hair go?” asked Susanna. “Do they keep it in a box?”
“Oh no!” exclaimed Yohanna, “It must be given right away to the Goddess!” She paused for a moment. “Or whatever god,” she added. “It must be given immediately, for if a sorcerer or witch were to get their hands on your cuttings, they would be able to use it to cast spells on you! The boys throw the hair into the bonfires. And people who are sick throw their old clothes into the fire so the evil on them is destroyed. After they take off their old clothes, they must pass through the fire thrice.”
“How do they do that?” asked Susanna.
“Very quickly,” muttered Sister Miriam.
“They run!” said Yohanna. “We throw bundles of myrtle onto the fire for their smell pleases the Elohim, and the smoke cleans them of their malady. After they run through the fire, they must immerse themselves completely in water to wash away their sins!”
“Their sins?” asked Susanna.
“Sometimes we do things that are bad and the gods pass judgment upon those people and afflict them with sickness!”
“So sick people are bad?” asked Susanna.
“It is not that which afflicts them,” said Miri, “It’s just that some people think sickness is a punishment from God, and the sick person is sick because they have done bad things. When we run through the fire, we are telling those people we are sorry for what we have done!”
“And that makes us better?” asked Susanna.
Miri sensed the logic of disease created by past indiscretions was an untenable position from which to discuss the topic with a child, and in the same instant, smiled, for she knew that if an argument could not be explained to a child, then perhaps the supposition itself was probably flawed.
“It is a way to show that we want to change,” she said.
“Exactly!” said Yohanna.
“Pagans!” said Sister Miriam, “Empty meaningless ritual!”
“Then why do we sit here, waiting for the priests to begin the counting of the Omer? Why do we throw branches of myrtle upon the bonfires at Lag B’Omer? Do not discount the meaning in any ritual, Sister Miriam!” lectured Yohanna. “We wave two branches of myrtle at wedding dances in honour of the sacred marriage between Yahweh and the Shekhina. On the First of Nisan, God and Goddess emerge into the world, and on Lag B’Omer we join with Heaven in sacred dance.”
“So that’s why you’re getting married on Lag B’Omer?” asked Susanna. “I want to be married on Lag B’Omer!”
“Well, we’ll do our best for you, Lambkins!” said Miri, and hugged the little girl.
A commotion, the blasting of the shofar and the music of lyres and timbrels announced the approach of the procession of priests from the Temple to collect the next Omer of Barley. A crowd pressed quickly about the field where the barley was collected, and Miri lifted Susanna to her shoulders so the little girl could better watch the collection ritual. The temple Guard pushed into the crowd to make a path for the priests.
On the way back from the collection of the Omer, they cut through the cemetery on the Mount of Olives for it was growing dark, and it saved quite a long detour about the cemetery. They moved swiftly and silently for they would have been deemed unclean by any that saw then enter or leave the graveyard. Just as they were about to leave the cemetery, a group of women passed by along the lane on their way back from Yerushalayim. Yohanna and Miri ducked down behind a tomb to avoid being seen. Susanna, unaware of the taboo on being in contact with dead bodies, remained standing. Miri pulled her down quickly. Susanna began to protest, but Miri covered her mouth and shushed her.
“Why are we hiding?” she whispered when Miri removed her hand from the little girl’s mouth.
“Some people think its wrong to be in a cemetery,” whispered Miri.
“What about him?” asked Susanna pointing into the growing gloom. Miri turned and her heart leaped inside her chest. A hooded stranger stood not three paces from them, so like Anetch, Miri screamed.
Yohanna whirled about at Miri’s shout and the women passing by, instead of investigating, all screamed in unison and ran pell mell up the hill toward the village of Bethany.
The figure vanished, and they were left in an eerie quiet staring out in the dying light at the graves of the faithful, who awaited the coming of the Messiah. It was said the Messiah would appear upon the Mount of Olives, and as the faithful would be resurrected at his coming, the most devout, and incidentally well-to-do, Jews had their bones placed in stone ossuaries as near to the summit of the Mount of Olives as possible so that they would be the first to be reborn at the advent of the Anointed One. The futility of such faith and belief was ironically amusing and painfully sad at once, and Miri was overcome by a melancholy that was to last several days.
Miri received an invitation from Herod Antipas and Phasaelis to attend a banquet at their residence in the palace under the three great towers of Phasaelis, Hippicus and Mariamne. They had already observed the Passover, but this new celebration was to honour Valerius before his replacement was to arrive. Yohanna, was chosen as Miri’s escort, for she was now an object of great curiosity as news of her betrothal to Chuza was now common knowledge amongst the local gentry. There was a certain degree of disapproval of her coming from Bethany, but her relationship to Yusef, a member of the Sanhedrin did stand her in good company.
Still rumours persisted in all manner of explanations of her pedigree, and all were anxious to meet her and pump her for information that would ensure the bearer of news about Chuza’s betrothed would be invited for many a lunch for days to come. Yusef and Melcaart arrived at Bethany to accompany them to the palace, and soon, servants of the Royal Court arrived to escort the guests to the palace and carry their gifts to the Herods. Miri had recently received some exquisite alabaster jars filled with delightful Eastern essences, their delivery from Alexandria expedited by Melcaart, and she brought two particularly delightfully carved Indian jars of spikenard, and they made their way through the Lion’s Gate and south of the Temple Mount. They passed by the hippodrome, silent out of respect for the Passover, and climbed the stairs to the bridge crossing the Tyropoean Valley into the royal quarter. They joined a small but steady stream of guests arriving by all means of transport from coaches and sedan chairs to donkeys, horses and camels. Most however, like Yusef and the rest of the family walked with the royal heralds. Herodian guards, paired with Roman legionaries were posted at strategic intervals so that no guest would be out of line of sight of the constabulary. The streets were crowded with pilgrims and peddlers and the imperial eagle eyes watched everything with an alert intensity.
They were met and searched as they entered the palace, then led into the huge palatial gardens. Fountains sparkled in the sun and guests stood about in small groups catching up and eyeing the newcomers. Before anyone else could reach them, Phasaelis appeared as if by magic and steered Miri and Yohanna away from Yusef into a sheltered alcove.
“I am so glad you could come!” she gushed, “I am supposed to remain hidden until we are announced, but I wanted to see you both before the ceremonies began! They are so boring!” the princess rolled her eyes, “Antipas and Philip are getting ready, immersed in business up to their eyeballs!”
“They are both so mad about building!” she declared, “Phillip talks of Caesarea Phillipi and the rebuilding at Julias, and Antipas tops him with Tiberias and Sepphoris! They are arguing about how much each owes to the Temple for the final construction, and who has done the most so far!”
She took a breath.
“So, how are you?”
Miri filled Phasaelis in on the marriage plans, and Phasaelis insisted she be allowed to help out. Yohanna remained aloof from the others’ excitement, though she shared in it, her eyes constantly searched the crowd in the garden.
“He’s not here yet!” said Phasaelis catching Yohanna scanning the guests, “Antipas has sent him north of the city to meet some guests from Caesarea Maritima! They are Greeks I think!”
Chuza finally arrived just after sunset, as the torches about the garden were lit. The lights twinkled across the garden pools and a trumpet announced the arrival of Antipas and Philip. They entered the court with a regal step, closely followed by a seemingly endless procession of relatives. Philip of Joppa and his wife Herodias were announced. Philip resembled his brother Antipas, only pudgier. Herodias, however, had a dark magnetism that would be the envy of any woman, and they seemed mismatched. Not only did they seem mismatched, but they both seemed to be aware they were not well married. Once the Royal family was seated, Valerius, in whose honour the party was being held, was announced. Once he was ensconced, guests approached with servants to present gifts to the Roman procurator. Each gift was accompanied by vociferous and public oohs and aahs, followed by a constant under the breath critique of the miserliness of the each and every gift.
Finally, Miri’s turn came and she carried the two carved perfume jars to the procurator, and he greeted her warmly, “Miriam, as beautiful as ever!” gushed Valerius, “Of all the things in Palestime I shall miss the most, it will be you!”
“You are too kind, Valerius,” Miri replied, “I shall miss you as well. I have brought you this gift from India, and hope that you will think kindly of me when you use the perfumes.”
“I shall recommend them to my wife,” said Valerius, and then stopped short. He had never mentioned his wife ever to Miri, and up until that moment, she had never thought he had one. She glanced at Phasaelis, who had instantly put two and two together. The princess put her hand to her mouth to stop any sound from leaving it. The heat of betrayal flushed in Miri’s face, and she stepped back quickly from the dais and returned to her place without speaking.
“What’s wrong?” asked Yohanna.
“I have no wish to discuss it!” snapped Miri.
“That bad?” asked Yohanna, “Is there something between you and the Procurator I don’t know about?”
“It is nothing!” said Miri adamantly.
“A very big nothing!” commented Yohanna.
After the presentations were over, Chuza joined Yohanna and Miri. Yusef was engaged by members of the Saducee party who were pushing for reforms of the Law. They were asking for a relaxation of prohibitions within Yerushalayim, so that business could be better conducted without interference from the Temple priests. Yusef was one of a small number of independent provincials whose allegiances could be swayed. The Pharisees were very strong in their opinions and position. His status in the Sanhedrin, therefore, opened him to the views of both sides and he was often consulted by merchants and even the Herodians for his perspective on affairs of state.
Chuza joined the women at their table.
“The Procurator has asked us to join him at his table,” he said happily.
Yohanna and Miri exchanged glances.
“What?” asked Chuza.
“It is nothing!” said Yohanna.
“A very big nothing, it seems!” muttered Chuza, “So, shall we go?”
As they approached the Procurator’s table, he stood and smiled, indicating a place near him for them to sit. He reserved a space beside his for Miri and made a great deferential show of directing her to her seat. Both Antipas, Phasaelis, the two Philips and Herodias and a few of their relatives, were seated at the table.
Niceties and superficial banter were the order of the day, and Miri became irritated at the shallowness of the talk, and became increasingly restless.
“Are you uncomfortable?” asked Phasaelis, noticing her irritation.
“A little, yes,” said Miri.
“Perhaps a walk,” suggested Valerius, “I would be glad to escort you!”
Antipas looked across at Phasaelis, and raised his eyebrow. Herodias frowned at Antipas, who caught her look and cast a warning look that dropped her husband Philip into deep thought, and the ripples at the table were enough to make Yohanna and Chuza exchange questioning looks. Miri lowered her eyes to avoid Yohanna’s gaze and then raised her eyes to meet the expectant look from Valerius.
She was trapped.
“I would love to,” she said lightly.
Once they were away from the table, Miri dropped the façade.
“Your wife?” she hissed at him.
Valerius was nonplussed. “I suppose I should have told you,” he said. “But aren’t most men my age married? It would be very suspect if I were not. I am surprised you did not ask.”
“I¾” said Miri, “¾am extremely disappointed!”
“I can see that,” replied Valerius, “But I am married, and that is that! Were you entertaining thoughts of marriage?”
“I¾” Miri’s beautiful mouth snapped shut. He was right. She had no intention of marrying him.
He saw his advantage and squeezed her arm.
“You look gorgeous tonight,” he said warmly, “That dress is quite fetching!”
They had turned a corner and were now in a long corridor. He pushed her into a side room, and she pushed, not back, but into him, and their lips locked tightly against each other. She was on her back on a desk within a heartbeat and he quickly lifted her robes and pushed deep into her, and they heaved with all their strength against and with each other and in a glorious burst of ecstasy, came together in a long and sustained orgasm. She screamed at the intensity and Valerius placed his huge hand over her mouth and she bit into the flesh of his palm. The momentum of their lovemaking carried them both past the orgasm and their thrusting came gradually to a slow languorous halt. Their energies spent, they lay motionless.
“I will miss you!” whispered Miri.
“And I you, Miriam,” said Valerius. “Once I reach Rome, I shall be moving my fortunes to Gaul.”
“And your wife?”
“She will go with me! It is no longer safe to be in Rome for someone such as I.”
“Not safe?” asked Miri, “But you are Roman! How could it be not safe?”
“The Tribune, Lucius Sejanus has taken power from Tiberius and he is not sympathetic at all to the provinces. Especially the East. He believes that anyone who has traveled to the Middle East has become contaminated, of doubtful loyalty, and regards such people as enemies of Rome.”
“How could that be?” demanded Miri, “You have served Rome well, have you not?”
“I have,” admitted Valerius, “But Sejanus has a xenophobic myopsy and trusts no one but pure Romans, and those who have been exposed to the outer regions he considers sympathizers, and the weakest links in Roman armour. My replacement will not be as tolerant of the Jews as I have been. Sejanus has hand picked him to smash the Jewish Resistance and to purge the land of terrorists. Beware of him for he has a reputation for sadism and cruelty. As a magistrate he sent more men to the galleys and gallows than any ten others.”
“You’ve met him?” asked Miri.
Valerius shook his head. “I know him by reputation only! Should he pass by your gate, I would suggest you retire to your home before he spies you!”
“Are you jealous?” asked Miri playfully.
Valerius garasped her firmly. “I am serious! This man is extremely dangerous! Avoid him at all costs! The world has changed! I have no wish to remain any longer in Rome. My wife and I shall retire to Gaul as soon as I am relieved of my commission, and I shall fade into obscurity.”
“What is her name?” asked Miri.
“My wife?” he asked in surprise.
“Then fuck me one more time,” Miri whispered, “And be on your way!”