Today I had word that my brother Ya‘aqôb is dead. I have not seen him for more than thirty years, and now he has been gone three without my knowing. Our last meeting was brief and bitter, in the village house where we both were born. We shouted at each other over our father’s bowed head before I left, putting that land behind me forever and the whole of the Middle Sea between us. And now he is the last of my brothers to die.
I watch a woman—the coppersmith’s wife—on the other side of the square, as she catches hold of her son’s hand and drags him away. He had taken a step or two towards me, where I stand with my jar beside the village well, but she keeps him at a distance. Turning away, she makes the sign of the horns behind her back. What is the coppersmith’s wife to me, that I should care what she thinks? I tip the bucket to fill my jar, and lift it on to my head, a movement as familiar as breathing.
I remember how I used to lean over the well at home, when I was sent by my mother to fetch water, hoping to see my face reflected, but the shaft was deep and the sun behind my head so dazzling that all I could see were dancing stars of light in the dark unknown. And as I walked home with the cool clay jar balanced on my head, the stars still spun before my eyes, making my head dizzy and my steps faltering, so that the water slopped and splashed over my supporting arm and soaked the shoulders of my tunic.
My mother chided me for wasting the precious water, chided me for day-dreaming when there was so much work to be done. They all chided me as lazy and useless, all the family, except for my father, quiet and withdrawn in his workshop, and my eldest brother, Yeshûa.
When I was very small—it must be my earliest memory, I think—I was curled up once in the straw of the goat shed, sobbing with fear and horror. I had done something stupid, I suppose. Broken a cup or torn my clothes. The kind of accident I was always having, for I was a clumsy child. Ya‘aqôb had turned on me, lashing out with the flat of his hand and sending me sprawling.
‘Spawn of the devil!’ he shouted. Perhaps it was his cup I had broken. ‘You care nothing for others. You will suffer for it, all the days of your life!’
I fled in terror for the goat shed, my usual place of refuge. Ya‘aqôb was always so sure of himself, like those ancient prophets, whose words were read to us by the elders in the village synagogue, the kenîshtâ, on the Sabbath. Even burrowed deep into the hot summer scent of the straw, pricked by sharp stems and bitten by fleas, I could not escape my fate. By the time Yeshûa found me, I was gasping uncontrollably for breath, my whole body shaking and drenched with sweat.
He was twelve years older than I and must have been fifteen or sixteen at the time, already tall, but slender, lanky. This was deceptive, for although he never grew broad in the shoulders, with a thick neck and muscular arms like my other brothers, he had a quiet strength, a calm endurance. He picked me up as though I weighed no more than a kitten and cradled me in his arms, wiping my hot, wet face with the edge of his sleeve.
‘Hush, talithâ,’ he said, rocking me like an infant. ‘What terrible matter is this, to bring on such a storm?’
I could barely speak, hiccupping and shaking still in my distress, but I managed to blurt out something about the accident and Ya‘aqôb’s words. His face darkened for a moment and his eyes grew hard with anger. Then he kicked open the door of the shed and carried me outside. Night had come on while I was hidden in the straw, and the breeze that often rose at nightfall cooled my cheeks. It carried down from the hills behind the village the scents of rosemary and juniper, set free on the air by the remorseless sun of the day. Yeshûa hoisted me up till I was sitting on his shoulders, my sticky fingers clutching his black curls for support.
‘Nothing will hurt you if you are truly sorry for the accident, Mariam,’ he said.
Now that I was growing calmer, my stubbornness was returning.
‘Ya‘aqôb should not have said that to me.’ I was petulant. ‘It was an accident. I hate him.’
‘Now, Mariam, you do not mean that. He is your brother and you love him.’
I grunted. I did not feel very loving, but as always when I was with Yeshûa, I felt ashamed of my bad nature and wanted to please him.
‘What must I do then?’ I was ungracious, but Yeshûa didn’t seem to mind.
‘Tell him you are sorry, and kiss his cheek.’
‘He should be sorry too.’
‘If you show that you love him, he will be.’
I wasn’t sure about this, but Yeshûa drew my attention away.
‘Look at all the stars, Mariam. Aren’t they wonderful tonight?’
It was a clear summer’s night, the sky was cloudless and the moon not yet risen. The whole dome of the heavens glittered with the jewelled stars, as I always imagined the palaces of the ancient kings, Solomon and David, must have shone with rubies and sapphires and pearls. I was a fanciful child.
‘Everyone has their own star, Mariam,’ Yeshûa said. ‘Each one of us, a single star of our own.’
‘Which one is mine?’ I asked, tilting my head and leaning back until he had to hitch me higher on his shoulders as I began to slip.
‘That one,’ he said at once, taking his right hand from my ankle and pointing westwards. ‘There. That blue, pulsing star. See how it beats to the rhythm of your heart, and shines with the blue of your eyes.’
I was distracted for a moment from the glories overhead and wriggled on his shoulders so that he grabbed my ankle again to stop me from falling. I leaned forward and whispered in his ear, my lips brushing against his skin.
‘Do I really have blue eyes?’
I had not known this about myself. Almost everyone I knew had brown eyes.
‘Your eyes are blue,’ he assured me, ‘like Father’s, only darker. It’s a special gift. From time to time, someone in our family has blue eyes. It’s rare and wonderful. Perhaps you will be a rare and wonderful person. And it will help you remember which is your star.’
I looked again at the star he had pointed out and as I did so it seemed to grow, outshining all the others in that glorious host. I would always remember it. And I tried to imagine what it would be like, to be a person who was rare and wonderful. Then Ya‘aqôb would have to respect me, and would not dare to call me spawn of the devil.
‘Come,’ said my brother, lifting me off his shoulders and setting my bare feet gently on the stony ground of the yard. ‘You must come and apologise to Ya‘aqôb and finish your supper and go to bed.’
I apologised with as much grace as I could muster and when I was lying awake on my bedroll I seemed to feel my brother’s soft curls between my fingers and his strong brown hands gripping my ankles. When at last I slept, I dreamt that I flew amongst a brilliance of stars.
I still fetch water from a communal well, but I no longer try to find my face in its depths. Now I simply hoist the water jar onto my head and pace slowly back to my house on the outskirts of the village. After so many years, I no longer need to brace the jar with my hand. A straight back, a steady pace and a sense of balance are all that is needed. The women here have never learned the art. They carry their water in wooden buckets, sometimes strung in pairs from a yoke over their shoulders, so that they are bent and humbled as beasts of burden, but to them water is less precious than it was to us. Although the summers are hot and dry here in Gallia Narbonensis, the winter always brings rain enough to feed the rivers and lakes and to replenish the wells. The marshlands a little to the south and west of here are filled with the susurration of restless water all year round, soft murmurs and rustling, like the breathing of some hidden animal.
As I cross the village square, I see the woman and the boy eyeing me askance, but I ignore them and walk on, along the narrow alleyway between the bakehouse and the blacksmith. It is a steep climb up to our small farm and I could spare myself the walk, for we have a well of our own, but late in the summer the water is scanty and sometimes polluted with mud, while the village well always draws clear. It is the habit of a lifetime to labour, to endure, if at the end of it there will be a small spark of pleasure. I will cool the water in the shade of the orchard before I allow myself the reward of a sweet drink. But I am tired, for I rose before dawn to load the donkeys and set off for the market in Massilia. It is a walk of five Roman miles there and five miles back, and when I reach home now with the water I will permit myself to rest for a time under the vine arbour. My mother was right. I am lazy.
Yeshûa was forever comforting me when I was small, defending me, trying to make me understand that my bad behaviour always brought greater grief to me than to anyone else. My love for him was unquestioning, vast and implacable, like the great ocean that lies beyond the Pillars of Hercules, an ineffable part of my being, though its surface was occasionally troubled by waves of emotion—my emotion, for he was always constant in his love for me. When we were older, and he seemed to grow away from me, wrapped up in his own affairs, I was sometimes jealous. I did not want to share him with others, with strangers, some of them dirty, sickly and disreputable.
My love for his friend Yehûdâ, on the other hand, was passionate, restless, and hungry. Even fearful.
Why does the memory play such tricks? If I close my eyes, I cannot picture my brother’s face, though every curve and hollow of it was known and dear to me from infancy. All I can summon up is a glow, like the embers of a welcome fire on a bitter night. There were bitter nights, some winters, high in the hills where our village lay. But his friend Yehûdâ’s face is as clear as if he stood before me, though not with warmth in his eyes nor the joyous laughter of the brief, glad times. It comes to me always as I saw it last, in a shifting pattern of deceitful moonlight and the black shadows of trees, his eyes haunted, in an agony of pain, his voice hoarse with grief.
‘Shall I bring you a drink, Mother Mariam?’
It is my daughter-in-law, Fulvia. She is a dutiful girl. Not clever, but kind and tolerant. It cannot be easy for her, living always under the shadow of an outspoken, opinionated old woman.
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘There’s fresh water from the village well, there, in the shade.’
‘I’ll bring you a glass of the unfermented grape juice. You’ve had a tiring day.’
‘Thank you,’ I say again. My smile, I know, is tired and a little strained. My back is hurting and I regret my walk to the well.
From where I sit under the vine arbour, the whole bay of Massilia is laid out before me, and beyond it the wider sea. Sometimes I wonder whether I married my husband because his farm stood so high and looked so far. A merchant ship with red sails is making its way slowly into the harbour. She will hail from Sidon or Tyre, probably, for the merchants in Phoenicia favour red sails as bringing good fortune. Hardly a child’s breath of wind fills her sails, they belly a little and then collapse, fill and sink. I almost think I can hear the gang-master shouting to the slave-rowers to run out the oars. Yes, there—the blades begin to flash and dip in the sun, and the ship slides a little faster towards the land. They must put their backs into it, the slaves, under the sting of the whip, or the ship will not reach the quayside before dark and must anchor out in the bay.
I spend many hours watching the sea and the life upon it, a curious pastime for one reared so far inland. I had never even seen the Lake of Gennesaret until I was nearly eighteen years old. It seemed a vast wonder to me at the time, though they say it is but thirteen miles long and no more than eight miles wide. A bucketful, a basin, compared with the Middle Sea stretched out below me here. No more than a teardrop, compared with the endless ocean away to the west of Iberia.
Here in Gallia Narbonensis, I go to the market in Massilia twice a week, but not always with the same produce. Today I took peas and honey and cheeses and a basket of eggs, but sometimes it is other vegetables in season, or summer melons. In the autumn, apples and pears, for we have a fine orchard. In the winter there are always the fruits I have dried during the heat of summer, or preserves. This is a mixed farm and I take a delight in the variety, though my elder son, who now does most of the heavy work, has been spending more and more time with his vines for the last ten years. We have several warm, south-facing slopes which nourish the grapes and give a good yield. If it were not for my stubbornness, I know he would turn the whole farm over to viticulture.
When I reached the market down by the harbour at Massilia about an hour or so after dawn this morning, I set up my stall as usual not far from the quays. This is a prime location, for the foreign sailors, some of whom have been weeks at sea, are always glad to buy fresh produce after their poor diet of twice-baked bread, dried meat and salted fish. Business was brisk, and before midday I had sold everything but a few pots of honey. I had also bought sardines, fresh caught from a fisherman I know, which I had wrapped in damp vine leaves and stored under my stall in the shade until it was time to leave. We will grill them over charcoal tonight and eat them with olives and the new bread baked by my daughter-in-law while I was at market, and we will drink some of Manilius’s wine.
I had begun to pack the donkeys’ panniers when two sailors from a ship just docked strolled towards me across the square. At first I paid them no attention, until I realised they were speaking Aramaic.
‘Shalôm to you,’ I said, turning round and addressing them in their own language.
They looked startled and pleased, for I suppose they expected nothing but Latin or Gaulish here, or more likely Greek, for Massilia is an ancient Greek foundation, and most of its inhabitants are still Greek by descent. They began to chatter away like a pair of sparrows—Was I truly an Israelite? What was I doing here in Massilia? When was I last in the Land of Judah? I answered them courteously but evasively: I had left Judah long ago, when I was scarcely more than a girl, and had married a Gaulish farmer here in Gallia Narbonensis.
‘Our ship sailed from Caesarea Maritima, two months ago,’ said the older man. ‘And we’ve been making our way all round the coast of southern Italy, then over to Sicily. We’ll stay here a few days to unload the last of our cargo of olives and oil, before we reload and sail home.’
‘What do you buy here?’ I asked.
‘Wine, mostly,’ his companion said. ‘And anything else that takes the captain’s fancy.’
‘My son Manilius would be glad to sell him wine. He can call on your captain tomorrow.’
The older man nodded.
‘Good. He’s anxious to return quickly. It’s a worrying time at home. A dangerous time.’
There had been several risings, they said, new rebel leaders springing up everywhere. There had been skirmishes with the Roman forces. Soon it would be full-scale war. There had been villages razed to their foundations. There had been executions.
Their words wriggled into my brain like worms, but I would not let them lodge there. Long ago I had turned my back on Judah. Had cut off my past as cleanly as a newly sharpened butcher’s cleaver will slice through a carcass: blood, flesh and bone. What was Judah—or her people—or her tragedies—to me? I had chosen this exile, this severance from my past and all that it had once meant. I was Mariam, widow of Petradix, Roman veteran and farmer of Gallia. The Mariam who once was, that Mariam was dead.
Perhaps an hour later, as I was making my way out of the city, able to ride one of the donkeys, now that I had sold my goods, the younger man appeared suddenly at my side, laying his hand on the donkey’s neck to stop me. I realised that he must have been watching for me, but I was not alarmed, for his smile was warm and genuine.
‘Lady,’ he said, ‘I think we distressed you with our news of home.’
‘My name is Mariam,’ I said. ‘Yes. I was distressed. It is five years at least since I heard anything from those parts.’
From time to time word has reached me, through travellers and merchants, of my former family’s lives and deaths, but I did not call it home. What is my home?
He glanced down at his hand, resting on the donkey’s neck, then he traced, in the dust on its coat, a simple shape, an elongated loop, the symbol of a fish. A moment later he had brushed it away. I might have imagined it.
‘Oh,’ I said.
He looked at me enquiringly, and I traced the same shape on the donkey’s neck. He nodded in satisfaction.
‘I thought so. You are one of the followers of the Christ?’
‘Well . . .’ I would not commit myself to a stranger.
‘I understand,’ he said.
How little, I thought, you can possibly understand.
‘I thought you would want to know more,’ he went on. ‘The rebels have risen against the Roman rule, and against the defilement of holy places. But the seed was partly sown amongst certain of us three years ago when the Christian bishop of Jerusalem was murdered.’
‘Murdered. The Roman procurator died, and before his successor could reach Judah, a new high priest of the Temple was appointed at Jerusalem, Ananus.’
‘Ananus?’ I said. ‘Surely not, after all these years.’
‘Not the same Ananus. Not Ananus “the Great”.’ His mouth twisted bitterly. ‘This one also is an arrogant man, greedy for power and eager to exercise it. He was the brother-in-law of Caiaphas and the fifth son of the “great” Ananus to become high priest amongst us. A man of violent temper and overweening pride in his aristocratic heritage. He arrested the bishop and several of his followers, and condemned them to death for transgressing the Law.’
‘But under Roman occupation the high priest is not permitted—’
‘Exactly. So good men, honest men—some of them followers of the Christ and some not—were outraged at what he had done and laid a complaint before the Syrian legate and King Agrippa. The high priest was removed from office, but there is still unrest.’
‘And who was this bishop of Jerusalem?’
‘A most holy man, who spent most of his life on his knees. He fasted regularly, and when he took food, ate no animal. He mortified his flesh, never cut his hair or shaved his face or washed his body. He drank no wine or other intoxicating liquor. It is said that he knelt praying so much that his knees grew as hardened as a camel’s.’
‘A most holy man,’ I said, hoping that he could not hear the irony in my voice. ‘And what was his name, the bishop of Jerusalem?’
‘Ya‘aqôb the Just,’ he said. ‘Ya‘aqôb ben Yosef. Ya‘aqôb brother of Yeshûa.’
And then he told me how the last of my brothers died.
The Temple guards bundled my brother Ya‘aqôb to the highest point on the roof of the Temple, but their progress was slow, for the old man stumbled from the arthritis in his aged joints and the weakness brought on by the torture he had suffered.
‘You’ll soon be flying like a bird,’ the captain of the guards cried, his small red mouth grinning within the frame of a thick curling beard. He poked the prisoner in the back with the tip of his spear and the old man fell to his knees. He began to mumble something, some kind of a prayer by the sound of it, but they hauled him to his feet and dragged and prodded him to the top of the stairs.
It was a dizzying height, the whole of Jerusalem with its hills and towers, its mighty walls and narrow dirty slums, laid out below them. Ya‘aqôb was confused. Was this vision of the Holy City supposed to mean something? He was not ready for this. He had not performed the proper rituals. He tried to speak to the captain, but two of the strongest guards seized him by shoulders and ankles, and swung him up into the air. His emaciated body was as light as a boy’s.
For a few minutes they amused themselves by swinging the body out over the terrible drop, then back inside the parapet, then out again. The old man was gibbering now, and the guards laughed. There had been little enough to entertain them since Ananus had become high priest, with his new rules, his diktats, his novel interpretations of the Law. Then, at a nod from the captain, on an outward swing, they let the body go.
My brother was wearing nothing but a dirty loincloth, and the rush of wind ripped it away, so that he flew through the air naked as a newborn infant, and crashed on to the unforgiving pavement below.
Making his leisurely way down the stairway to the ground, the captain was relieved the matter was dealt with. He would order the guards to clear away the body and hand it over to the man’s friends if they wanted it. Then he could go home to his wife, his meal and his bed. The body lay sprawled at the foot of the tower, one leg stuck out at an unnatural angle. There was surprisingly little blood. The captain poked the body with his foot and it groaned. Then, unbelievably, it gathered itself together and crawled on to its hands and knees.
The captain jumped back, his heart throbbing violently, a rush of heat bringing out the sweat on his body and turning his stomach. The man was still alive! No one could have survived that fall. No one. He yelled at the guards, yelled at the gawping bystanders, yelled at some men mending the road.
‘Stone him!’ he shrieked. ‘He must be stoned to death!’
They hurried to obey, everyone shocked and terrified by this man who had not died. For an hour they stoned him, till his hair was matted with gore, and every inch of his naked body was battered and bloodied.
And still he would not die.
The captain was almost out of his wits, his eyes stretched wide. He looked around desperately. What could he do? Then he caught sight of a passer-by who had stopped to stare at the gruesome execution. His clothes were stained with fuller’s earth and he carried the club which he used to beat the cloth and soften it.
‘Here, you!’ the captain shouted.
The fuller came reluctantly, cursing himself for having stopped. The captain looked crazy enough to do anything.
‘That club of yours, is it heavy?’
‘Then finish him off. Club him. Smash his skull in.’
The fuller backed away. ‘It will make me unclean.’
‘Do as you’re told,’ the captain yelled, ‘or I’ll have them stone you to death in his place.’
The fuller did as he was told.
And so, finally, Ya‘aqôb died.
I sit here under the vine arbour and watch the Phoenician ship reach harbour and furl her sails. The air is sticky with the sound of my bees and dry with the rasping of the cicadas. My daughter-in-law is cooking the sardines. The smell of them floats out to me here. Let her cook by herself for once. I have done enough for one day. I can hear my grandchildren arguing in the orchard.
The sailor from the Land of Judah told me something else. Now that the Christ sect is spreading to many lands, there is talk of writing down the teachings and the whole story, before all those who were there either forget or die. Paulus, who was a posthumous convert, has been writing letters of guidance and instruction to some of the far-flung churches which have been set up amongst the Gentiles. The letters will be brought together into a book to be copied and circulated. Others are preparing testaments and books of the life, which they call ‘gospels’.
I shut my eyes. My head is aching. From too much sun, perhaps. Or from the story of Ya‘aqôb’s death, which I have not allowed myself to think about until now. A testament. A testimony. Perhaps I should get out my writing quills, buy parchment and ink next time I am in Massilia. I have not lost the art, for Yeshûa taught me well. The Testament of Mariam?