The Brother’s Keeper Chapter 1

He did not know what to call them. They were not Essenes, nor were they Zealots. Some were not even Jewish. He watched the latest two retreat down the slope that led to his home. The tall one, the ruder of the two, looked over his shoulder to stare boldly at James. The fact that these pilgrims never got what they came for pleased him greatly. To be sure, the shorter one carried away a pocketful of sawdust, scooped from the floor when he thought James was not looking; no matter. The fool had more sawdust in his head than in his pocket.

They were heading for the village. And how would these visitors find Nazareth? Would they be disappointed to see that it was no different than their own hometown? They would see the same filthy beggars and the same people who did not notice them. The same smelly streets, the same noisy marketplace. They would hear women arguing prices with the merchants. They would see the usual mix of people in typical Galilean villages: Jews, Gentiles, a few strutting Romans, traveling foreigners. They would see people who lived the hard facts of life, people who sweated and smelled like them.

Would they be as disappointed with Nazareth as they always were with James and his family?

James leaned against the workroom doorway and watched until the two disappeared down the hill. When the first of these strangers had come to visit, James and his brothers had treated them politely. Answered questions, showed them around. Pointed out the corner workbench; they always liked to see that. In the beginning the attention was entertaining. It amused them; truth to tell, it even flattered. Nearly three years later, James was no longer amused.

Many carried away tokens of their visit: a curled shaving from the workroom floor, a pebble from the path, a handful of stone chips from a roof roller James was chiseling. Once he caught Jorah giving tours of the home for two copper prutas per person. Though Mother put an end to that, James thought it time for recompense. At least someone had the sense to make these strangers pay for their intrusions.

What did they expect the home to be like? James saw it all the time, the looks that said their Teacher’s home fell short of their expectations.

Those who made it past the workroom, and precious few did, came to the smallyard, an area where the sleeping rooms, the main courtyard, and the workroom converged. In the smallyard was the cistern. If there the stranger turned right, he would walk a few steps through a cool stone passage that opened left into the foreroom where the brothers slept, then the aftroom where Mother and Jorah slept. If instead the stranger went past the smallyard, he would find himself in the courtyard. There he would see Mother’s oven in one corner, those corner walls blackened from smoke. He would see pots to dye wool, pans for cooking, a grindstone for wheat and barley, a small loom for cloth. He would see a shelter of coarse cloth covering half the courtyard, under which Mother and Jorah made food, cleaned and carded wool, and mended baskets, tunics, and sandals.

The strangers would see a home much like their own, if they were neither poor nor rich. They would see nothing remarkable. Nothing to account for an unordinary man in an ordinary world.

But they needed a name. James had a few he called them privately, names of which Mother would not approve. He rubbed his lower lip, looking at the place where the last two had disappeared. The tall one had looked long at James and the home . . . perhaps to put them in his memory to tell his grandchildren.

What would James tell his own?

He shoved off from the doorway to turn into the workroom and noticed the gouge in a ridge of sawdust on the floor. He bent and picked up a handful himself, rubbing the coarse wooden filings between his fingers. What did they do with it? Sprinkle it on sick relatives? He shook it away and went to his bench.

Jesus-ites. Nazarites would work, except it was taken. Nazarenes would fit, but were not all the occupants of Nazareth called Nazarenes? He could just imagine how the villagers would take it, mistaken for followers of Joseph’s son.

He picked up a hunk of cypress, hefted it in his hand, looked down the length of it. Five palms long, four fingers wide. He picked up his measuring stick, ever hearing his father’s voice when he did so-“Twice measured is once cut”-and rechecked the measure. He would soon fashion the length into a replacement support for a threshing sledge. He ran his thumb over a knot, traced calloused fingertips along the grain, then tossed the chunk of wood onto the ground next to the thresher and wearily rubbed his eyebrows.

They came more frequently now-two, three times a week. Some were shy, some as rude as this last visitor. Some came to argue the Torah and the Prophets, some to rouse support for another go at an uprising. Some treated James and his family with a sickening awe, others with pity, as from a strange self-righteousness. He was not sure which he hated more.

Those in the village were too eager to give directions to the seekers. James did not blame them, after all. Fair trade for the notoriety inflicted upon Nazareth. Last week he overheard a merchant giving cheerful directions: “Straight up the main road, past the well; you will come to a home on the left; that would be Eli’s place. The home past that one, up the hill, is Joseph’s place.” The seeker had turned away, with the trader calling after him, “Be sure to ask for a relic! They love to give away relics!” Then he laughed with the customers at his stall.

James knelt and looked under his workbench. In the corner against the wall was a box full of seasoned pieces of wood for carving. He dragged the box to himself and brought it to the top of the bench, where he rummaged through it, holding certain pieces out from under the awning to see them in the sun. He remembered this one with the crook at the end. A remnant of the olive tree he had sectioned off last summer. He had thought to fashion a water dipper out of that crook. He laid it on the table and rummaged some more.

Time was when he was James ben Joseph. Time was when James, Joses, Simon, Judas, Devorah, and Jorah were all children ben Joseph, the carpenter. Now he was James, brother of the scourge of Nazareth.

Here was an oblong chunk of sycamore. Maybe Jude had put it into the box; he didn’t remember it. Perhaps left over from the synagogue project. He turned it over. Make a nice platter, maybe a good oblong bowl. When was the last time he had carved? With jobs and projects and the time-wasting seekers to fill their days, he didn’t often have the leisure for this pastime.

“This is the carpenter’s home?”

He slowly put the piece of sycamore back into the box, resting his hands on the edge.

He looked over his shoulder and squinted at the young man who stood in the doorway, gazing at the workroom. He was younger than James by at least ten years-maybe eighteen or nineteen. He had wild reddish brown hair barely kept in place with a thin leather tie circling his head. A vain attempt at a beard gave him a dusky jawline. When James did not answer, the lad’s wandering gaze came back, showing his brightly colored eyes.

“Is this the carpenter’s-”

“We are bread makers,” James cut him off, with a gesture at the workroom. “What do you think the wood and stone is for?”

On the heel of the young man’s startled look came a grin. “You must be James. Annika said I remind her of you.”

For the first time since the seekers left, the knot inside began to loosen. “You are Nathanael?”

The young man nodded and stepped inside, inhaling deeply. “Smells wonderful in here.” He picked up a handful of stripped cypress bark and held it to his nose, closing his eyes as he breathed deeply. “I love cypress. I’ve missed it.”

James noticed that Nathanael did not kiss the mezuzah fixed to the doorjamb, but he did not care. Religious Jew or non-religious Jew, as long as he was not one of the seekers. Annika hadn’t said much about Nathanael, only that he was new to Nazareth and in need of work.

“Have you worked with wood before?”

“I apprenticed with my uncle. Once in a while.”

Hands clasped behind his back, Nathanael gave himself a tour. He strolled under the shade of the awn¬≠ings, erected at the top of the walls to shelter the work¬≠benches from the late-winter rains. He came first to Judas’ bench, appraising every detail. Most of Jude’s tools were hung neatly on a rack above the bench; some were jumbled less neatly on the table. He passed James’ bench; James watched his amber-hued eyes, a different color for these parts, whisk eagerly over everything. He stopped at Father’s bench near the passage to the smallyard. Father’s bench looked more like what it had become, the catchall spot for odds and ends. Opposite Father’s bench was the fire pit. He crossed the room to the pit, looked it over, then walked past Joses’ bench and Simon’s bench and came to stand at the bench in the corner.

The corner workbench was the only one without wood chips near it. It was as neat and tidy as the day it was left. The tiny wooden boat James had carved when he was seven still lay where it always had, on the shelf above the bench in the corner, tilted on its side. A little vase Jorah had made was on the other side of the shelf. Jesus would put a sprig of fresh herbs or a posy of wildflowers in it.

Nathanael reached for one of the tools. James gave an involuntary start but held fast. It was the first time in three years . . .

Nathanael did not see his reaction. He turned the heavy gouge adze over in his hands, thumbed the curved blade. “It’s a little rusty. Needs a fresh edge. Where is your grinding stone?”

“Outside, by the steps to the roof.” Nathanael started for the door, but James said, “We need to talk first.”

Nathanael stiffened. Studying the adze edge, he said flatly, “You hired someone else.”

James regarded the young man, who now had a defiant set to his jaw. Annika, the woman who could not spare her tongue to save her life, had not offered much information about this lad.

James took a stool and gestured to another by Joses’ bench-away from the corner. “Please, sit. Rest yourself. Don’t I get a full ear of how far our place is every time Annika brings the eggs?”

“What is far?” Nathanael muttered. “She is an old woman.”

On the way to the stool he studied the adze as though he would rather be sharpening it. He took the stool, then looked straight at James with those strange-hued eyes. “If you do not want me, just say it.”

James pulled back. “If we do not want you . . . ? That is not the question. The question is if you want us. Our apprentices come and go. Nobody wants to stay.”

“Why not?”

James cocked his head, squinting at him. “What did Annika tell you about us?”

The lad shrugged. “That you needed an apprentice. And that you have a pretty sister.”

Annika the matchmaker. Annika the meddler. “She did not say anything else?”

“What’s there to say? You need help; I need work.”

A movement at the doorway caught James’ eye. “It isn’t that simple,” he muttered as he took in the group of three now standing at the door.

The familiar knot returned to his stomach, hardening to a fist of iron.

The girl in the middle chittered to the boys next to her in a lordly way, gesturing toward the workroom. Keturah. She used to come for carving lessons, trading cucumbers for instruction. But the young men with her, near Nathanael’s age, he had never seen before. James rose from his stool.

“Hello, James,” the girl said airily, as if she spoke to him in the market all the time. To the boys she said, “That is his brother, the next oldest. His other brothers, Joses and Simon, are still away on a trading trip. Aren’t they, James?” When James did not answer, she chattered on. “Judas just left for Capernaum; he should be back in a week or so.”

She pointed to the corner workbench. “Over there. That is where he worked. He was the one who taught me to carve. He was the best wood-carver in Galilee.”

“Simon is the best,” James stated.

She only glanced at him. “He carved a bowl for my grandmother,” she told the boys. “Finest bowl I have ever seen. It’s her favorite.”

The girl would not be able to tell apart a bowl carved by Simon or-

“Do you have business here, Keturah?” James asked, and reached for his mallet.

Her brown-eyed look flickered over him. “So, you remember my name.” Some of her lordliness softened.

“I remember,” James said quietly.

He used to feel like a lumbering fool around her. Every time she came to the shop, every time he saw her in the marketplace . . . instant idiot is what he would become. But after her favorite wood-carver left, she stopped coming around. And James’ trips to the market became fewer. He glanced at her tunic. She was wearing lavender again.

He realized he did not feel stupid around her anymore, and strangely, the thought brought a flicker of sadness.

She was already pointing out another attraction to the boys.

“Do you have a loom that needs mending?” he said, his voice tight. “Stones to be cut, a tool to be sharpened? Do you have business here, Keturah, or are you here to waste my time?”

He had learned something about the seekers; the ruder he was, the quicker they left. He had never been so rude when his father was alive. He never imagined he could be so rude.

She broke off midsentence to stare at him. “I-no. I was only-”

“I have work to do,” James snapped. He pointed with the mallet to the outdoors beyond them. He did not miss the darkening of her cheeks.

“This is his brother?” one of the lads muttered, looking James up and down as he crossed the threshold and sauntered into the workroom.

“Not much like him, is he, Avi,” the other commented, upper lip pulled to sneer.

The iron fist lurched painfully in James’ stomach, and he gripped the mallet handle convulsively as the hatred flared. They did this. They touched off something inside him that ought never have been touched.

God of Israel, help me now, because I surely want to kill them.

The one called Avi pulled himself tall. “How is it you are not out there with him? Why does not a single brother of his help him?” He snorted. “I would give anything to be one of his twelve. Anything! You are his own brother, and you cannot find the time of day even to listen to him.”

“The Teacher said it himself, Avi.” The other lad shrugged and stepped into the workroom after his friend. “‘A prophet will have honor, but not from those of his own household.'”

God of Israel . . .

Any words but those . . . any words that filtered back to the workroom but those words. The images of the one day Jesus had come back to Nazareth, and what happened in the synagogue . . . the memory rioted his senses, flooding his gut with torment.

“You do not even care.” Avi’s voice dripped scorn, and he shook his head. “This whole village is crazy.”

Keturah’s fists went to her hips. “I did not bring you here to flail your tongue. Come. It is time for us to leave.”

“The greatest leader our people has seen since Judah the Maccabee, and we sit around sawing wood,” Avi scoffed. He brushed past Keturah as he strolled to the bench in the corner.

Now is the time to throw off the Roman yoke! We did it to the cursed Syrian Greeks; we can do it to the cursed Romans. And throw out all the rest of the Gentiles as well. This is our land. God has seen and heard, and the time of the Jew has come once more.”

His dark eyes glittered as he placed both palms lightly on the surface of the workbench, either in wonder or perhaps to infuse himself with residual power.

“The time is coming soon, I can feel it,” he whispered. “He will declare soon, and I will be there when he does.”

Oddly, the rage in James’ stomach diffused and died away.

“Just leave,” James whispered. The crooked piece of olive wood, his whittling knife . . .

Day after day, for nearly three years, he had heard it all. From the passioned Zealots like this one, from the gentler and much more polite Essenes. From the Pharisees, the Sadducees. From other sectarians whose tenets blurred into the rest. From synagogue leaders, and once a Temple leader. Even from Annika the meddler. Everybody had an opinion about Joseph’s son.

Interesting, the effect these people had on his family. They set Simon to studying with fury, draping himself over the family’s two scrolls any chance he could get. They caused gentle Joses to plead and argue. They made Judas hide. And all James wanted to do was carve.

“Five hundred years of foreign domination! Persia, Greece, Egypt . . .”

If it were not for the fact there wasn’t any money in it, not real money, he would carve all day and fashion beauty out of jagged castoffs of sycamore, cedar, and oak. He would save for some fancy imported pieces, get them from Amos in Gaza.

“. . . has heard and He will give us back our land. Jesus is our prophet to speak the word of God and unite us! That’s the key! Unity!”

Satinwood from the East, that sparkled in the sun. Purpleheart from Africa, with a hue so deeply rich and luxuriant no stain could ever match it. Rub it with olive oil is all.

“Somebody needs to talk to him! I have tried, but those fool fishermen will not let me near him. He needs to know the plan! Raziel from Kerioth-”

James looked at Avi sharply. “Do not say that name here.”

“What? You do not wish to have your brother’s name associated with a man of real courage and honor?”

“My brother is not an insurrectionist,” James said between his teeth. He flicked a glance out the workroom door. All it would take was one passing Roman. . . .

“None of his brothers believe in him. They are all cowards,” Avi’s friend said scornfully.

“You are right, Joab.” Avi’s tone oozed disdain. “The only one with courage is the Teacher himself. Out there daily with the people.

On her way to escort out her overly zealous guest, Keturah leaned toward James and whispered, “I am sorry.”

She took Avi’s arm and said, “We must go.” He angrily shook her off.

“Are you all blind? The time is now! We have to be united! All he has to do is say the word, and thousands will be at his side! The cause is everything. Everything! Anyone who does not agree is not Jewish.”

To his left, James caught movement. Jorah stood in the passageway to the smallyard with the sackcloth flap pulled to the side. “What is all the shouting in here?” she demanded, brushing aside a curled wisp of hair with floury fingers.

“With his powers and our swords, we could gouge the side of Rome and bring Caesar’s empire crashing down!”

Jorah rolled her eyes. “Not again,” she groaned, and let the flap fall back into place.

“Never before has Israel seen these miracles! I myself tasted of the bread he brought down from heaven. I have never tasted anything more delicious. Surely a thousand times better than manna.”

James had heard others claim the same, yet Joses had been there that day. He reported that it tasted no different than Mother’s loaves. It was probably where Jesus got the recipe.

“. . . realize what can be done? No need to pack supplies! Do you realize what kind of strategic military advantage that would have? Raziel says all we have to do is-”

“Don’t say that name!” James thundered at him.

“I have to get to Jesus!” Avi thundered back.

“How would you like a personal audience with him?” Nathanael drawled.

The Zealot snapped his mouth shut, blinking in surprise. James slowly turned to stare at the lad on the stool who toyed with the gouge adze.

“You-you could do this?” Avi stammered, with a fast exchange of glances with his friend. “You could get me a personal audience?”

“Of course.” Nathanael shrugged, as if it were a petty thing. He rose from the stool and strolled to Avi at the corner bench, all the while inspecting the curved blade of the heavy adze. He lounged conversationally against the bench, thumbing the adze blade. He lifted the blade even with his eyes, then looked at Avi beyond it and with a wicked smile softly said, “I will give you a chance to experience his healing powers firsthand.”

It had been so long since James had laughed, his own outburst startled him.

The greedy excitement in Avi’s face shriveled to contempt.

Nathanael spread his arms wide, carelessly swinging the adze so that Avi jumped aside. “What?” Nathanael asked innocently. “It’s perfect! What better way to get his attention? He heals you; you tell him the plan . . . brilliant.” He suddenly frowned and puffed out his cheeks. “Of course you might bleed to death before you get to him, and that would not be good. But the cause is everything, right? We have to be willing to take a little risk.” He went to drape his arm about Avi in brotherhood, but Avi ducked away.

James could not stop laughing. He sat down hard in his stool and laughed himself to aching. The curtain flap twitched aside, and Jorah’s wondering face appeared.

Avi was slinking away.

“Avi!” Nathanael reproached, arms wide. “Brother! I said I could get you an audience.” His face lit in sudden inspiration. “We could practice on your friend! Find out exactly how long it takes him to bleed to death. What is your name? Joab? Come here, Joab.” He traced a few practice swoops in the air.

Joab ducked out the door with Avi close behind him. Keturah ran to the doorway, where she stopped and yelled, “My coppers, you thieves!” Over her shoulder she flashed a smile at Nathanael and James, then flew out the door, shouting, “Stop, you thieving cheats!”

James went to the doorway and watched the three race down the path. He laughed again delightedly and yelled, “Look at them run!”

Mother joined Jorah at the curtain, smiling a mystified smile at her boy. “What was that all about?” she said.

Jorah folded her arms and looked at Nathanael, who, with a pleased grin on his face, twirled the adze between both forefingers. James came away from the doorway, shaking his head at Nathanael and chuckling.

“Too bad Judas missed that,” James said.

“I don’t know who you are,” Jorah said to Nathanael, “but I have not heard my brother laugh in forever. For that you will join us for the midmeal.”

Grinning, Nathanael looked from the adze to Jorah, and his grin promptly faltered. James caught the look, and his own smile finally came down. He knew well the look. Probably how he appeared the first time he saw Keturah.

Jorah swept an up-and-down look at Nathanael, then whirled away.

Mother nodded at the young man. “You must be the lad Annika told us about.”

Nathanael straightened and ducked his head respectfully. “Yes, I am.”

Mother folded her arms and, with her eyes twinkling, said, “How do you like living with Annika?”

Nathanael darted a look at James. “I-she-”

“Annika is a wonderful woman; I am sure you have discovered,” Mother said.

“That she is,” Nathanael replied, not meeting her eyes.

“Do join us for the meal,” Mother urged. She glanced at James. “I want to know what made my son laugh.” She disappeared behind the curtain.

Visibly relieved, Nathanael resumed his slouch at the workbench.

James went to the passage and held the curtain aside to watch Mother’s retreat. Then he let the curtain fall back and turned to Nathanael. “Now, what do you really think of Annika?”

Nathanael snorted. “Sounds like you know her.”

James straddled a stool at his bench and picked up the crooked piece of olivewood. “All my life. She is more of an aunt than a family friend. She is a grandmother to every child in Nazareth; they all adore her. The opinions of the adults are different.”

Nathanael hesitated, then said quietly, “I have never met anyone like her.”

James raised his eyes from the wood. He watched the lad look around the shop.

“My uncle never kept his place so neat.” Nathanael shook his head. He jerked a thumb at Jude’s bench. “The amount of tools you have . . . I have never seen so many, let alone so many sizes.”

James pried off a piece of bark from the olivewood. “Tools are a hobby for Judas. We have a decent set for every bench. ‘He who does not teach his son a trade brings him up to be a robber.’ My father used to say that.”

“My father is a drunk.”

James pursed his lips, nodding. He broke off more bark. “Anything else?”

Nathanael folded his arms. “My mother is a whore.”

James shifted his jaw, then offered, “My brother walks on water.”

“Anything else?”

James studied him long before he could answer. He liked what he saw in those strange bright eyes, liked the defiant tilt in the chin. He liked this boy, and he already feared for him.

“Yes, I am afraid there is something else,” James said, resting the olive piece on his lap. “Work for me, and you will regret it. You will be scorned and ridiculed, sometimes refused trade in the marketplace. Some cowards will throw things at you when you pass. They will spread rumors about you and shun you in the synagogue. Some will cross to the other side of the street when they see you coming, people you have known all your life. People who used to be friends.

“Your chances of a decent marriage will be ruined, unless you choose to marry one of the-seekers. You will have more interruptions to your work in one day than you will have visits to the brush. You will deal with fanatics and with fools. And if you are used to being liked, forget about it. Forget all about it, because you will be hated.” He broke off to smile grimly. “Work for me, Nathanael, and your life will be misery.”

A gleam came into Nathanael’s eye, and with it a slow grin. “I have not had such an offer in a long time.”

“I hope you refuse it. I like you.”

Nathanael stretched his legs out and folded his arms. “Let me see . . . they won’t have much chance to shun me in the synagogue since I am a bad Jew and do not go. If they throw things at me, well, I can hit a gecko at fifty paces-I will keep a rock or two handy. Being scorned and such . . .” He lifted his hands and shoulders. “My mother is a whore. I have been scorned since birth. So I hate to disappoint you, but I accept your offer.”

James smiled. “You will live to regret it.”

“From what you tell me, I can only hope so.” He looked about the shop. “Where do you want me?”

James hesitated. All of the other apprentices had worked at Father’s bench, or alongside Judas and James. The corner bench had been vacant for three years.

He had hoped . . .

Jorah called them from the courtyard to the midday meal.

Nathanael looked at James, who waved him on. “I will join you in a moment.”

Nathanael set the gouge adze down on the corner bench and went to the passage. The curtain flap swished behind him.

James lingered to look at the tools hanging above the corner bench.

Sounds and smells drifted into the workshop from the almost-spring day outside: the bray of neighbor Eli’s cantankerous donkey, some children shouting to one another, the fragrance of rain and of wet grasses and of early spring wildflowers. From the courtyard he heard Jorah laugh, heard the soft clatter of a lid on a cook pot.

He remembered the way it used to be. On a day like today it might be his turn to check the barley crop on their terraced strip of land. Or he might have gone to Capernaum with Jude. He might have been on the way home from the late-winter trip to Gaza, back when Jesus and James did much of the trading.

He had not taken a journey since the last one with Jesus, three-and-a-half years ago. James could not even remember the last time he had walked their own land, one terrace up from Eli’s. Simon had taken over the planting and weeding, and in the late spring and summer, the watering. And Jude went on the trips alone, or with Joses. James stayed here, under the sky within these four walls.

“Somebody has to stay,” he whispered to himself.

“James, are you coming?”

“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, I’m coming.”

He tossed the crooked olive piece back into the carving box, set the box on the floor, and shoved it into the corner. He set his mallet on the pegs, then went to the corner bench, where he replaced the gouge adze on the empty peg just so, then adjusted it. He stepped back to look, because he would not see it this way again. Then he saw the tiny, tilted boat on the corner of the shelf.

On sudden furious impulse, he lunged for the toy. He ran out the doorway, stumbling as he went. He reared back and whipped the little boat as far as he could. It sailed long in the air, then bounced and skittered down the slope.

Back To Top