Stones of My Accusers Prologue
Jorah watched as Annika marked the height of the child with the flat of her hand and scored the limestone wall with her thumbnail. The child stood back and watched the addition of his newest notch.
The occasion was a solemn one, Jorah could tell, a mysterious bargain struck between the old woman and the little street scamp. After making the mark, Annika pursed her lips and, with a mistrustful look at the boy, bent to examine the distance between the last notch and the fresh one. The mistrust turned to surprise, and her fists went to her hips. She regarded the child with suspicious interest.
“Well, Jotham. What have you to account for nearly two finger-spans of growth? Are you wearing sandals?”
“No, Annika,” the child said, lifting a foot for examination. “I have been eating the loaves.”
One eyebrow came up. “Every day?”
“Every day,” he nodded, dark eyes large in his thin face.
She glared at him a moment more, then the eyebrow came down. “Good boy.”
His face broke into a sunny smile, and he turned to skip to the tall cupboard in the kitchen. He waited until Annika got there, and she reached to take down a wooden box. Jorah could not see what she gave Jotham, but the boy received it with a smile, then scurried through the kitchen and out the door.
Annika watched him go, smiling fondly. “Little rogue.”
Seated at the table, Jorah looked out the window to watch him dash away. “Little ungrateful wretch. I didn’t hear a thank-you.”
Annika replaced the box. “One thing at a time.” She turned to the shelves and took down the cups to set them on the table. She waved a few fruit flies from the pitcher of watered wine and set it next to the cups, then she set out a loaf of spiced honey cake and fetched a few plates.
Gazing out the window, chin on her fist, Jorah murmured, “It’s hard to think of him as a boy, but he was, you know. A little boy like that.”
Annika hesitated only a second as she sliced the bread. “Which him would you be speaking of?”
“I do. Try and say his name now and again. Else it would be as if he never was.”
Pain surged. As if Nathanael never was? But he was. And never would be again.
Jorah made her lips small to keep them from quivering. Annika was busy with the serving, she would not notice when Jorah pretended to adjust her head covering to wipe away tears.
Three weeks since they had buried Nathanael at Bethany. Three weeks of endless tears, and they did not appear to be slowing. There was too much to grieve over. The loss of the man she would marry. The loss of her old life. The loss of . . . but she could not think about Jesus. She lost him long ago, the day he left their home.
Annika was speaking. “… Family from Sepphoris still interested in your place?” She shook her head and gave a heavy sigh as she slid a slice of honey cake from the knife to a plate. “I never could have imagined such a thing: no tribe of Joseph left in Nazareth. My steps may stop at the well, but my heart will ever wander past it. Up that old hill to that old home.”
“They are interested. But Jude and James do not want to sell until they talk to Simon about it, and he’s off on some crazy lark to Decapolis. They want to talk with Joses and Mother too, but that’s not the reason they’re going to Jerusalem.” No, it was the same old story. People leaving her for God. Jorah never seemed to figure in.
“So,” Annika said as she slid onto the bench across from Jorah. “Caesarea Maritima for you.”
“Someone has to tell her.”
They fell silent. Jorah’s glance kept straying to the uncut portion of Annika’s honey cake. What was it about that loaf…
Annika was right. Soon all of the children of Joseph would be gone from the home forever. In just a few hours, Jorah and James and Judas were leaving, she for Caesarea Maritima, they for Jerusalem. The home would be an empty shell. As she was without Nathanael.
Why would a loaf of bread…
She remembered. This time she could not conceal the tears.
“Child,” Annika said softly, reaching to grasp Jorah’s hand.
“He brought them bread,” Jorah gasped, and bit her lip. Sorrow wrapped around her like an old black garment.
Nathanael had brought them bread, one of Annika’s loaves. He went back to ask the strangers to join their party on the road to Jerusalem, so they would feel safer traveling in a larger company. For bread, they gave him blood, his own. He died days later of the wounds.
Jorah sagged and rested her forehead on the table. Grief upon grief. Nathanael and Jesus, dead within days of each other, both murdered. One was said to have risen again. Well, Jorah never saw him. The other lay beneath a pile of stones in a common grave outside Bethany. No rumors of resurrection there.
Her face became humid with her breath on the table. “I would kill Joab if I could,” she breathed into the old oak. “I would kill him, Annika, God help me I would.”
“I would lend a hand.”
Jorah looked up, scowling. She drew her sleeve across her face. “You would lend a hand,” she snorted.
Annika smiled sadly, cheeks pushing skin into a multitude of soft wrinkles. “You and me both, Jorah. We’ll be the terrors from Nazareth. Instruments of God’s vengeance. What do you say?” She balled her fist and held up her arm to show she still had some muscle.
Jorah couldn’t even smile.
Did everyone change as much as Annika had in the past month? News of Jesus, and news of Nathanael . . . Annika had gained ten years with all the news from Jerusalem. That made her old indeed.
“You would not kill a fly if it bit you twice.” She hated the sound of her own voice. All the crying made her speak through her nose.
Annika snatched her fist from the air. “You would not either,” she retorted. “Judas tells me that boy was not responsible for Nathanael’s death. He said that Joab tried to save him-that he killed the one who attacked Nathanael. Stop making him responsible for your pain. That’s cowardice, Jorah. You are not a coward.”
“Joab could have prevented it!” Jorah spat.
“Jorah, Jorah,” Annika said, voice low. “Sorrow is enough to bear.”
“He was going to marry me, Annika.”
The old woman nodded heavily. “I know, child. I know he loved you.”
Did Nathanael talk about her? Jorah scrubbed her eyes, then poked at the honey cake on her plate. “You knew he loved me?”
“He was addled over you.”
“I didn’t-know if he loved me as-” She swallowed the words and scowled at her plate. She didn’t want to cry; she was tired of sounding ugly.
Honey cake. The way her mind worked these days, sluggish as an overfed ox. Annika told her a soul hobbled in grief moved slowly for a time, like a wounded animal. She felt doubly dosed with pokeweed.
She touched the cake on her plate. Touched the wine cup and watched a fruit fly imbibe on the rim. These days she would do crazy things, like see a flower sprig in the midst of a crying spell. She’d take and hold it close to her face and see satin sparkles, pattern, and color. She’d take an orange peel and squeeze oily spray on her hand, and marvel at the fragrance. She’d examine a pinch of sand. So many colors. How could someone say, “It is the color of sand” when sand was a rainbow up close? Marveling at orange peel and sand did more than speaking with a rabbi.
She picked up a slice of honey cake. “I used to make them exactly as you told me, and mine would always turn out dry,” Jorah murmured. “You probably told me wrong on purpose, else lose your reputation for the best.”
But Annika was in her own thoughts. “Even Judas leaves me,” she grumbled unhappily, “and he is my least favorite. What is Nazareth without a single member of the Joseph clan?” She hesitated. “Jorah. I know what James believes of Jesus. How does Jude feel about . . . the rumors?”
Moist and delicious. Or it would be, if its flavor hadn’t fled at the mention of her oldest brother. Jesus! Oh, God . . . But no-no. Jorah had piled that way with boulders. She set the bread down and brought her palm close to inspect a few crumbs. “Why don’t you ask Jude?”
“Fair enough. One thing at a time.” Whatever she meant by it, Annika left it. “How long will you stay in Caesarea?”
“As long as it takes me to find her.”
“You are sure your father’s cousin still lives there?” “Yes. Simon and Joses visited Thomas on the trip to sell the benches. He lives across the com
mon yard from a famous mosaicist. I should like to visit his workroom. I have a talent for mosaics, you know.” She brushed the crumbs from her palm to her plate.
Jorah looked up.
Annika looked at her long. “You do a good thing. A hard thing. To tell a mother her son is dead . . . I am proud of you, Jorah ben Joseph.”
Jorah hoped her smile did not look fake. Annika would not be proud if she knew the real reason she was going to see the woman.
“Oh. I nearly forgot.” Annika got up and went to her bedroom in the back of the house. When she returned she was folding a long cloth, a narrow linen tablecloth. “I made this for Rivkah. Please take it to her for me.”
Rivkah? But of course. Nathanael’s mother. It was hard to think of her with a name. She who gave him birth . . . she who gave him scars.
“Annika.” Jorah hesitated. “Did you know of Nathanael’s scars?”
Surprise, then wariness came into Annika’s face. “What scars?” she said sharply.
“When Abi and I wrapped Nathanael’s body for burial, we found-” She squeezed her eyes shut. Orange peel fragrance. Flower petals. “There were-scars on his thigh. Old ones. From childhood.” She clenched her teeth. Grains of sand. A mosaic. “Nathanael told James his mother did it. To let the evil out.”
When Jorah looked at Annika, she found she had aged again. She was looking out the window, chin in her hand, tears brimming. “Six different shades of ugly, all of us,” she murmured, and a tear dropped away. “He wanted to tell me. He tried to tell me, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. It would have shamed her more than him.” She sniffed. “Poor thing.”
Through her own tears, Jorah suddenly smiled. “He would have never let anyone call him a poor thing.”
“I wasn’t talking about Nathanael.” Annika wearily pressed her fingers against her eyes.
The smile dropped. “Why is she a poor thing?”
“She hated herself, not Nathanael.” Annika wiped her nose with a fold of her tunic. “Oh, Jorah, what we are capable of. God have mercy on us.”
Jorah could only stare, then look away. Annika could say what she wanted, but she had seen the scars with her own eyes. God would not have mercy on that. Never that.
He’s dead now, Jorah would tell Nathanael’s mother. She knew exactly what tone she would use. She had rehearsed it several times, whispering to a fingerprint of sand. I know what you did. I’ve seen the scars. And now your son is dead. You never deserved him, and now he’s dead.
It was the only thing to give true comfort. The only thing to help her breathe. At the times when the grief would consume her, when she would suffocate and go mad, she would think on these words and allow them to calm her.
She owed it to Nathanael if only to raise a voice against an old, horrific deed. If only to not allow it to go unnoticed. It was God’s justice, after all. God knew what Rivkah had done, and He would expose it through Jorah. It was Jorah’s mitzvah, her responsibility to Nathanael’s memory.
Calmness came, like wine warming her blood, and she actually smiled at Annika.
Annika smiled back, if uncertainly.
Yes, Jorah would go and tell a woman that her son was dead. Let those words score that heart as she had scored Nathanael’s leg. Let her take those words to her grave, as Nathanael took the scars to his.
Nathanael was dead. Joab lived. This is what he knew for now.
The road from Jerusalem would break west, and he would bring Nathanael’s last words to his prostitute mother in Caesarea. Bring them, yes, but how to give them? They were tricky, treacherous words. Not Nathanael’s words at all.
Tricky, too, telling a mother her son was murdered.
Joab sat on his haunches, tunic tight over his knees, trailing his knuckles back and forth in the dirt. He stopped when it made him think of what the doctor said, that Jesus had his fingers in the sand too. He folded his arms instead, and lifted his eyes to the silver box a distance away.
The box on the boulder, with the wrapping cloth splayed beneath, picked up a scrap of the descending sun and put a painful gleam in his eye. He stared at it until white blindness came. He couldn’t see it now, but he knew every detail. The lid was etched with a strange design, pagan symbolism for all he knew. It was inlaid with cut stones of lapis lazuli. Threads of white laced through the indigo stones. Glitters, half the size of sand grains, shone golden in the blue.
Nathanael was dead. Joab lived.
He had fancied the box had powers, maybe, on account of its once holding frankincense for the Teacher. He had brought it to Nathanael, hoping it would save him. It did not. The Teacher was dead too; so much for a magical box. There were crazy rumors he came alive again, and that was much to think on, but Joab couldn’t think past the words he was charged to carry. Why couldn’t they be “Mother-I-love-you,” “See you on the other side,” that kind of thing?
How could he be doing this? He was the son of a dyeworks owner. Lived in Hebron all his life. He knew color. He knew what iron salts and alum could do, he knew which plants produced the best color for the cheapest price, he knew he should never have listened to Avi and his Zealot friends. Everything had been fine until Avi came along. Avi was dead too. Joab lived.
What if Nathanael had been his friend instead of Avi? They wouldn’t have cared about the land and the Romans. They would have paid mind to things at hand-playing tricks on Joab’s older brother, hauling in a good harvest, working hard and laughing hard and getting drunk on occasion and goading each other to talk to a pretty girl and-
The blood and the knife. There was a great deal of blood.
Joab looked away from the box. He had found out things about Nathanael after he was wounded. Found out he had quite a sense of humor, and he was fiercely loyal-that, Joab knew already. He’d discovered that the day Nathanael kicked him out of the carpenter’s shop. And even as Joab had fled the home, he put a backward glance on the house and thought maybe he was in the wrong company . . . that he should have been in the shop, laughing as James did, watching the Zealots run away.
He didn’t know much about Nathanael, he who was loved of Jorah, only that he should not have died. Mostly he knew Nathanael had quality. He learned of the quality in the way Jorah tended Nathanael after he was wounded. The way James, the oldest brother, never left the cart. Learned it by the way Jude, the quiet one, hovered with hawk eyes on the wounds and the way Simon, a fellow he suspected of a normally grim nature, rivaled Avi himself with furious, anxious brooding. What little he learned in words, he learned from Simon, information resentfully given by a man who hated him as much as anyone in that party traveling to Jerusalem for Passover.
Where is he from?
By the sea.
Who are his parents?
He has only a mother, a prostitute.
What is her name?
What do you care? Get out of my sight!
Joab flicked an ant off his toe. Curious that he should think so much about Nathanael. He remembered feeling jealous, watching Nathanael in that cart, even the way he was, slick with sweat and his breath coming hard, face pale against those colorful cushions. Jealous because the way they acted, you would have thought the worst thing in the world was for that apprentice to die. And him trying to act as if his wounds were nothing but an inconvenience.
Nathanael had quality, a mystical kind, the kind the Teacher had. The kind that had Joab heading to a place he had never been, to give a stolen box to someone he had never met, to tell her words he feared would stay in his throat for the consternation of them. The quality made him do it, and the knife and the blood.
Why-he scrubbed up his hair-why did it take that long? Why had he been so blinded to Avi’s madness? Avi’s madness, his own madness . . . why did it take blood to bring the truth? Why were the words these words?
You’re the one, Nathanael had said. You go and tell her, no stones.
Who? What are you talking about?
I don’t understand!
Tell her what Jesus said.
The doctor had taken him aside and told him what Nathanael meant. Told him of Jesus and the adulteress and the ones who would throw the stones. But it was no explanation at all. It drove up new thoughts he wished would stay put. He went to flick another ant, but his fingers left the ant to hesitate over the sand.
What did Jesus write? Was he buying time because his words would change everything? Maybe he was working up the courage to say them. Did he and the woman look at each other, there on the ground, he on one side and she on the other? Did she look at him just as amazed as the others; did she wonder what he was doing? Writing in the sand in the middle of a conversation. What kind of craziness was that? The doctor told the whole story; it was the most troubling thing Joab had ever heard.
Joab wrote no stones in Aramaic, then erased it to write the same in Greek. He would soon be in Caesarea. His father said they spoke mostly Greek where the Romans had set up their government in Palestinia. Avi had refused to speak in Greek. Called it the tongue of the oppressor. Soon, from Joab’s own tongue would fall words in defiance of the Torah he had been raised to revere.
He rose and dusted off his hands. He rewrapped the box and stuffed it in his shoulder sack, slipped the strap over his shoulder, and took up again for Caesarea.
The sack thudded softly on his hip. He hoped it looked like nothing more than an extra set of clothing; a silver box inlaid with lapis lazuli was a prize indeed.
Joab gazed at the green appearing in the brown hills. It was late spring in Judea; color came up everywhere in this tawny land. About this time he usually helped his father and brother bring in the first blossom harvest from the cultivated field, where the bees worked with them. He could hear the hum, smell the sun-warmed flowers. He lifted his face to the sun, closed his eyes, remembering.
Where would he go after Caesarea? It didn’t matter. Catch the next vessel out of the harbor. Go to Rome, go to Gaul. He could never go home. Never again see the field or the bees, because Nathanael was dead and Joab lived. This is what he knew for now.
They had kicked the stones out of place. They had to go far out of their way to do that, up here on the slope facing the sea. The tree was not an obstruction to their beast building project, not even in the way of foot traffic. Not yet. The stones were a warning.
Rivkah knew they watched her replace the stones into the ring around the cedar tree. She thought about spitting, “Fah!” and hissing like a cat, but they might not recognize a good Jewish insult. They would only think her mad, and she was, a little bit, but at least they would not see her fear. When every stone was back in its place, she stood back to look at the tree. It was an eighteen-year-old cedar, nineteen next month. It fared well.
Half the time Rivkah feared she’d come and find the branches stripped. Her worst fear she could not name, because if she allowed the thought it might happen. If God heard the prayers of a prostitute, it wouldn’t.
She looked past the cedar, let her gaze travel every rueful inch to the top of the slope. She did it to torture herself. Ever since the threat came upon Nathanael’s tree, she wished she had planted it at the top. But who could have foreseen Caesarea would grow so much? Eighteen years ago the southeast part of the city was neglected and barren. She had chosen the site for that reason.
She was only fifteen then, and alone. If anyone had seen her plant the tree for her baby boy, they would have scorned her to dust for the hope she had for her son. If she had planted it where her old friends had planted theirs, the tree would have been cut down long ago. By Mother. Or maybe Zakkai.
She ran her hand over the comforting roughness of Nathanael’s tree, then turned and sat against it where she could watch the sea, and more importantly, where she could watch the ugly beast pigs at the worksite.
Two months now Nathanael had been gone. She had much to tell him when he returned. His grandmother died two days after he left. His friend Hepsominah married a rich Egyptian and moved to Alexandria.
Kyria might fret about Nathanael’s long absence, but Rivkah wasn’t worried. He could take care of himself. Wasn’t he her boy? If she was a little mad, so was he, and madness had a curious quality of preservation. If Kyria said she knew Nathanael could take care of himself, it was other people who worried her, well, Rivkah refused to allow Kyria to scare her. Sometimes she screamed in Kyria’s face to force the bad words back and prevent them from creating havoc-something Mother had taught her, and you had to scream yourself hoarse to make it work. She’d stiff-arm Kyria’s evil words and think only on the letter Nathanael had left.
Do not worry about me, Mother. I am going north for a time. I will explain all when I get back. I should return by the next full moon. Ho, the stories I will tell. Just you wait.
If Nathanael did not return by the next full moon, or the next, wasn’t he still her boy? She’d taught him to take care of himself. Kyria taught him things too. From her he learned to hit a gecko at fifty paces.
Rivkah squeaked a yawn and pressed her fist against her mouth. She was used to sleeping at this time of day. At least she had some coin to live on for a while, and enough possessions to sell or trade if things got bad. Or she could live on Kyria; Kyria had lived on her enough times when business was slow, when the Roman garrison was out on field maneuvers. She would sleep here if she had to. Kyria could bring food if she could not leave.
Day after day, brick by brick, the walls of the granary grew. It seeped toward the tree like an incoming tide. Day after day Rivkah went to the Praetorium to try and stop the tide. Day after day she petitioned for Nathanael’s tree. Pilate’s chief secretary, Orion Galerinius, came to expect her visits.
He had a different expression on his face this morning. When he looked up from the table and saw her next in line, his face cleared. You again, he had said, folding his arms and sitting back. Me again, she had replied, folding her arms to copy him. His eyes had a tiny twinkle, and she wanted to say something to make him smile, as she had done before.
He’d have been disappointed had I not shown up, she thought, and the idea made her laugh out loud.
The sound brought attention from a worker at the wall. He leaned toward another worker and said something to make him sneer as well. She made her own sneer six times as ugly-she could hood her amber eyes, fill them with rage, and make them look hellish as a demon-cat. She wished she could scream curses, but couldn’t risk it. Instead she cupped her hands and whispered a curse, then blew the ugly words to the workers and deepened the demon-cat look.
Muttering and sullen, they went back to their work.
The tide seeped daily, brick by brick. So the fear grew, brick by brick. She looked out to the Mediterranean, saw a ship bound for the harbor. Rivkah ground her heels into the earth to push her spine harder on the tree. If God heard the prayers of a prostitute, and Kyria thought maybe He did, then somehow Rivkah would stop the swelling tide. Or she would chain her neck to the trunk and drown with the tree.
Orion tried another note on the pearwood pipe. That was closer. He added it to the last note, and it sounded promising. He wet his lips and started the tune from the beginning, ending with the new note; it didn’t work.
He’d have it right one day, but he wondered if memory played tricks on his ear. It was a tune that had made him lift his head when he passed a stall in the marketplace. He had slowed his steps to hear more, but the crowd carried him on. He passed the same stall on other days, listening, but never heard anyone play there again.
At the rare times he took out his pipe, he closed his workroom door. A closed door to the people of the palace meant serious discussion lay within, and Orion could enjoy a little peace. Duty always made him open the door after no more than a few minutes, but today he was bearing down on half an hour. He played in defiance of the two matters that lay in wait.
Protecting Jews had been a game up until now. Petty defiances that amounted to no more than a stuck-out tongue behind Pilate’s back. Protecting Jews was an easy way to look like a benevolent man, a quick and cheap way, because protecting Jews had never cost him. He lowered the pipe and looked out the window to his bit of the Mediterranean. Hazy out today.
If he brought the matters to Pilate, disaster would come of it. But there was no if about it: the two matters had escalated to the degree that if he did not put them before the governor, Pilate would learn that Orion had delayed them. And that would make Pilate wonder what else Orion did around here. It might expose the gleaners’ program he had granted to the soldier Cornelius for hungry Gentiles-and Jews. It would threaten the little son of the Jewish laundress. It would lay bare his arrangement with a cruelly poor old Jew who paid his taxes in dried-up dates.
So he allowed Jews to eat Pilate’s scraps, so what? The scraps filled the bellies of the Gentiles too. It used to be things were not alarming. Now, anything with a tiny taint of Jew was touchy as a mad scorpion. Things had changed over the last five, six years, he wasn’t sure when or how.
One woman wanted to keep her tree, and one man did not want to work on his holy day. Orion had looked; it was only a tree. Orion had inquired; the man was a hard worker. Simple requests borne from custom. If they were Roman requests from Roman customs, there would have been no delay. But they were Jewish requests, and that is why Orion played his pipe.
It was either the pipe or heavy drinking. A tent filled with poppy smoke sounded nice. Wasn’t he second in command? Couldn’t he ask around for the local poppy tent? He pictured fat pillows and people lolling and laughing. He’d like to loll and laugh. He’d never been in a poppy tent before. He’d never defied Pontius Pilate before. Not like this.
His eyes went to the top of the recessed shelves. He couldn’t see it from where he sat, but upon the top shelf was a small wooden box. In the box was an iron collar, made to fit the neck of an eight-year-old boy. The collar had belonged to his father.
When courage was as scarce as barley after gleaners, Orion thought of the box. He had taken it out only once in the six years of his Palestinia sojourn, when he had to tell a palace slave his wife was dead. He went to reach for the box-
No! He would not bring the matters to Pilate. He did not need a collar to tell him what to do. He’d fire the stonemason and tell them to cut down her tree. What did he care? Gods and goddesses and all their mincing offspring, these people vexed him! Two weeks trying to come up with solutions. He’d wasted enough time. Didn’t he have a palace to run? What did he care? He didn’t care, he was too tired to care.
If he took the matters to Pilate, and only a majestic idiot would, he would have to make them sound fresh from the petitioners-as though the majestic idiot had not taken two weeks to puzzle over them. If the idiot took the matters to Pilate, and only a pox-brained lackwit would, he had to sound casual as he stated the matters . . . as though he didn’t care about the outcome one way or another.
It was only a tree. It was only a day, just one day away from work in a week. They were not unreasonable requests. They were simply wishes. Pilate could grant them as easily as saying hello.
They were Jewish wishes.
Orion rewrapped the pearwood pipe in felt and placed it on the recessed shelf, then pulled his stool to his table. He took a tablet, freshly filled with beeswax. He took a stylus from the vase and picked off old wax. He blew on the stylus and glanced at his bit of the sea. After a hesitation, in which he wondered what poppy smoke was like, he went to work scratching into the wax two new items for the attention of Pontius Pilate.