My legs hurt but I’m not allowed to complain anymore. I’m a big boy so I have to walk. I can’t ride in the cart with Mom and the girls because I’m not a girl. Or a baby. I’m a big boy. I wish we were still having lunch under a tree because we sat down then. But now we have to walk. And not complain. My brothers aren’t complaining anymore either. Maybe their legs don’t even hurt.
‘Think of something else,’ they said. ‘Look at the scenery,’ they said. But it’s all the same now: we’re on a dusty road going up a long slow hill. The dust from the family in front of us is settling to the ground before we get there. The sun behind us sometimes reflects on something shiny in their cart. The ground on both sides is just dirt and small rocks and a few scraggly plants that are also covered in dust. All I can smell is dust, and donkey poo that we have to watch out for on the road. There are a few cedar trees off in the distance. Who cares? My legs hurt. Every muscle aches, especially the front one above my knee. Don’t complain. Think of what a big boy I am walking the whole way.
“Are we almost there?” I ask Dad. I want to sit.
“Why, James? Do your legs hurt?” says Mom from the front seat of the cart.
Mom and Dad both laugh. Dad’s legs don’t hurt because he eats his vegetables, or at least that’s what he said all morning. He’s leading the donkey. The donkey’s legs don’t hurt because donkeys are made to walk, that’s their job. And it’s pulling the cart too, and it’s not complaining. Mom rides in the wagon, but that’s because she’s a girl. And she gets the front seat because she’s the mom. The girls ride in the back of the cart, sitting on top of our tent and clothes and stuff all packed up. They can walk if they feel like it or sit in the cart if they feel like it. It’s not fair.
I’m a big boy so I have to walk, like my brothers. Joshua and Simon are up ahead with Joses, walking a few paces ahead of me. Jude and I are right in front of Dad, where he can keep an eye on us. We’re grounded till we’re 30 if we complain anymore. That’s practically the rest of my life.
“Perhaps another hour,” says Dad. “You’ll see the village from the top of this hill.” The top of the hill is a long way off. It’s not very steep, but we’re not even half way up. There are five families traveling ahead of us, and the first family is just getting near the top. It’s late afternoon and we’ve been walking since morning. My legs hurt. But I can’t complain.
Joshua slows down and waits for us to catch up.
“I know how you feel,” he says quietly so Mom and Dad behind us can’t hear. “My legs hurt a little too. But you get used to it. Tomorrow we won’t even notice. And then the day after that we’ll be there.”
“And once we get there, you’ll meet your cousin John, who’s about Joshua’s age,” says Dad. He hears everything.
“You want to be like your brother, don’t you?” says Mom from the front seat of the cart. “I don’t hear Joshua complaining so much.”
“I’m not complaining!” I don’t want to be grounded for Passover in Jerusalem.
We walk. We’re done with lessons Dad taught when we were walking this morning. I don’t want to ask for more lessons because it’s kinda boring. Except the part where Noah built the ark, that was really neat. Dad promised if I’m good this trip then when we get back I can build a whole table all by myself. My legs hurt. I’ll build it sitting down.
This hill is just rocks and stones and we’re only about halfway up. There are no sheep to count, or rows of trees like a while ago. And there are too many little stones to count. And the weeds and thistles are too small to really count too many. We can’t play I Spy because everything’s brown or grey or kinda grey-green. Think of something else. My legs hurt. I can’t complain. I’m a big boy. Think of something else. Anything.
“Why did the Romans build the roads?” I ask.
“So they could get around easily,” says Dad.
“But why didn’t us Jews build the roads?”
“We did build roads, but the Romans built better roads.”
“Why didn’t we build better roads?”
“We didn’t know how. The Romans figured it out before we did.”
“How did they build them?”
“Well, they packed down earth to make it hard. Then they laid big stones, flat on top, to make the road even harder. Then they put a bit of earth over the stones to make it smooth and not so hard on our feet, but not so much that wheels would get stuck in mud. And you can see the sides of the road are a little bit lower than the middle, that’s to let rain wash off.”
We get to the top of the hill and I look down at a great big sea.
“Whoa! It’s huge!” I can’t believe we’re at a sea. Dad puts his hand on my shoulder and he’s gently pushing me to make sure I keep walking, but I wasn’t even paying attention. I let him lead me. I look from one end of the sea that disappears around some hills way off in the distance, to the other end. I can’t even see all the way because it’s so far. I see some mountains across the sea, just little mountaintops way far, far away. I feel a fresh breeze on my face that doesn’t smell of dust.
“Where are we?” I ask Dad.
“That’s the Sea of Galilee,” says Dad. “See that village by the shore? That’s where we’re staying tonight.”
I look at the village. We’re almost there. I think I can make it. Then I’ll sit.
“What’s that in the water by the village?” I ask. It looks like a skinny piece of land sticking out a little into the sea, with straight branches. I see boats all over the sea but a lot of them are near the village.
“It’s the port,” says Dad. “They make docks to tie the boats when they get in, so they can unload all the fish they catch. Then they make the breakwater around the whole thing to protect the boats from the waves on the sea.”
“Wow!” I look at the breakwater, then back at the boats, then look at the sea again. I didn’t know we were close to the sea. “Can we go see the boats in the port?”
“We’ll walk by there tomorrow morning,” says Dad.
“Awesome! Hey Joshua, guess what?”
“I heard,” he says. He’s smiling. He thinks it’s cool too.
We walk downhill so I can’t see the sea much anymore. There are a bunch of people outside the city wall, in a field off to the right of the gate. I wonder what they’re doing there. There are some people standing on something so they’re higher than the little crowds around them. I wonder what they’re preaching.
We get closer. The higher-up people have their arms stretched wide and they’re holding wood across their shoulders. And there’s a beam behind them that they’re leaning on. Some of them are alone and some have people standing around them looking up at them.
We get closer. I think some of them are sleeping because their heads are leaning forward. But they’re still holding up the wood. I wonder why.
Dad takes my hand and pulls me along a bit.
“Hold Jude’s hand,” he says. I take Jude’s hand.
We get closer. There are some Roman soldiers standing around between all these people on wood platforms and the city gate. I kind of hear voices of people talking but I can’t tell what they’re saying. I hear women crying.
“Dad, what—- ”
“Those are criminals being punished by the Romans,” he says before I can finish asking.
“Why do Romans do that?” I ask.
“It’s their way of punishment,” says Dad.
“They have to stand on those wooden things as punishment?”
“For how long?”
“Until they die.”
We’re close enough that I can see the men on the beams and their hands are tied to the beam. Some beams are like an X and some are like a T. They’re going to stand there until they die. I hear more women crying.
“Why don’t they stone them like they’re supposed to?” I ask. That’s in the Law.
“Because the Romans decided that they should be killed like this for their crimes.”
“Well why don’t they just kill them then? I mean faster?”
“I don’t know.”
Simon and Joses turn to us and wait for us to catch up. They’re both really white. Joses’s eyes are big as plates. They walk on the other side of Dad. Joshua is beside Jude and behind half a step. We’re all walking really close to Dad.
“So those men just stand their tied to the beam until they die?”
“Why do they do that?”
“Because that’s what the Romans do to criminals.”
“Because they’re Romans.”
Simon goes to the side of the road, leans over and throws up. It’s a big noisy gurgle and only a little spit. Dad hands me the reins and steps over to help Simon.
“Keep walking,” he says to us. The donkey’s nose nudges my back. I want to stop and wait for Dad.
“Keep walking,” says Mom, appearing beside me all of a sudden and taking the reins from me in one hand and holding my hand in the other. My sisters are down from the cart too. We’re all crowding around Mom and holding one another’s hands, cloaks, belts, whatever we can hold onto.
“Why don’t they just kill them?” I ask Mom.
“Sometimes they do that too. And sometimes they crucify them, like they’re doing over there,” she says.
“But why do the men have to just stand there until they die? If they’re going to die anyway, why don’t they just kill them?”
“Well, because this is how Romans treat criminals.”
“Why are they so mean?” I don’t get it. They just stand there on a beam until they die. They suffer too much, even if they were criminals.
“What did the men do?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Maybe they robbed someone or killed someone,” says Dad, who’s beside Mom and holding Simon’s hand. Simon has one hand on his stomach and he leans his head on Dad’s arm as we walk.
“There’s a lot of robbers and murderers in this town, then,” I say. I start counting the beams like we counted trees this morning, but then I stop at 10 because it’s just too gross. There must be 50 people dying on beams in that field.
Jude retches and Mom lets go of my hand and takes Jude’s. I go the other side of Jude so he’s beside Mom.
“Just keep walking,” says Dad. “Look at the ground.”
“Hear my cry, O God:
Listen to my prayer.”
Joshua sings quietly. Mom and Dad join in.
“From the end of the earth I call to you
When my heart is faint.”
My heart is faint. I don’t know this song. Jude tries to sing but it’s a hoarse whisper. I try not to look at the field of beams and people dying. Jude is holding really tight to Mom’s hand and leaning on her as he walks.
“Lead me to the rock
That is higher than I.”
Maybe if we climb a high rock we won’t smell the dust and puke and donkey poo and death. Maybe we’ll see the sea and the boats. I’m trying to listen to the song but there’s a sudden loud wailing from the field of Roman beams. I look at Mom. She’s looking at the ground and singing quietly, but loud enough for us to hear.
“For you have been my refuge
A strong tower against the enemy.”
OK, God will be my refuge against the Romans. I should pay attention more in lessons so I can learn these songs.
“Let me dwell in your tent forever.
Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings - Selah!”
We walk. The ground is greener here than up on top of the hill. There’s an olive grove way over on the left just starting to sprout, so I look there, away from the beams. I can’t see the sea anymore because we’re almost as low as the village. We’ll go see the port tomorrow. That’ll be nice.
God will protect me from the Roman beams under his wings on a high rock where there’s a fresh breeze from the sea.
I hear men groaning on the crosses. My stomach churns and ties itself in a knot. I try not to look. I see a woman holding a stick up to one of the men. There’s a rag on the end of the stick and she puts it close to the man’s mouth. He sucks on the rag.
I look away. I try not to listen to the groans. It smells of death and dust and poo and puke. I see one man is dead, he’s hanging by his arms and his face is slumped forward on his chest. And he’s kinda grey. I look away.
I throw up a little in my mouth and swallow it right away. I don’t think Mom noticed. I keep walking.
I look down at my feet and count my steps. We’re almost past the field of beams. I hear moaning and people crying and trying to talk to the people on the beams. Keep walking. Almost past. Maybe I’ll puke once we’re inside the city.
We walk through the gate and into the city.
“Let’s get back onto the cart,” Mom says to the girls. Dad slows down a bit but we can’t stop or we’ll make everyone behind us stop. I wonder if I’m going to puke. Maybe not.
I look around. We’re on a wide street with walls on both sides. There are doors pretty far apart, so the houses must be big here. The family ahead of us is getting farther ahead because we’re going slowly.
“Right, let’s go,” says Dad. We walk a bit faster, back to normal speed. I look through one of the doorways and see a large courtyard with an old lady carrying a tray out of a room at the back.
I don’t know what made me startle - the sudden commotion up ahead or Joshua squeezing my hand. Up ahead, two Roman soldiers are dragging someone out of a doorway. They’re pushing the man down and kicking and hitting him with a club. He’s yelling, “I’m innocent” and “Have mercy,” but they don’t listen. One of the soldiers grabs his shoulder and pulls him so he’s standing up. Then pushes him along the road further into the village.
The family right ahead of us slows down and moves to the left so they don’t get too close to the soldiers. “What are they doing?” I ask Dad, really quietly. I’m not sure why I should be quiet, but I think everyone’s nervous.
“Just keep walking and keep quiet,” says Dad. Joshua’s pulling on my hand and Dad’s pushing me on my back. I push on Jude who’s in front of me.
We follow the family in front of us, slowly, and they follow the soldiers along the road further into the village. I hear the man screaming something, but I can’t tell what he’s saying. I lean over to the right to see past Jude and the family ahead of us, and I see blood pouring down the man’s face. The soldiers are yelling, “Move it” as they swipe at his legs with their club.
The man keeps screaming as they take him around a corner and into a building somewhere. It must have a roof because, after we hear a door slam, we suddenly don’t hear him anymore.
I whisper to Dad, “What happened?” but he just gives me a stern look and purses his lips. He looks worried. Now I’m even more scared. He gives my back a gentle shove.
Dad waves goodbye to the families ahead of us, and leads us around a corner onto a dusty, busy, noisy road. There are a lot of people and shops. They’re acting as if nothing just happened out by the edge of the village. It’s noisy with all the people talking and merchants in their shop doors calling out for customers. I smell fresh baked bread and spices and dirt and a sweaty people smell. Men are sitting at tables outside an inn, drinking wine and talking. I hear some of them laugh. Women are going in and out of the shops, carrying shopping bags and little kids. Older kids are running around like everything’s normal.
I hear thumping footsteps up ahead. The three women in front of us scream and suddenly step and almost jump to the side of the road, pulling their kids with them. Someone yelps. Dad pushes me to the side just as Simon right in front of me jumps to the side. A kid starts crying. Two soldiers come toward us. They’re walking really fast, the one in front swings his club to hit people out of the way. People stop talking. Everyone, even the children, get out of their way. Dad leads the donkey to the side of the road, but not fast enough. A soldier stops right beside us, glares at Dad and snarls, “Get out of the way.” His lip curls and I’m scared he’s going to hit Dad.
“Very sorry,” mumbles Dad, bowing to the soldier. The soldier breathes fast and furiously, glaring at Dad, almost growling at him. Then he glares at Mom, who looks down to fuss with her cloak on her lap. I want to tell the soldier that Dad couldn’t get the donkey out of the way fast enough, and, besides, it’s easier for the soldier to just move one step to the side to get around the cart. But I’m too scared to say anything.
The soldier strides off, swinging his club and it hits my right leg below my bum. I fall over into Dad. He grabs my arm and pulls me up. I stand up but not on my right leg. I look at Dad, blinking, and he’s looking at me with his forehead all wrinkly. Mom is right beside me. I breathe in all shaky and I feel tears on my cheeks. Mom hugs me.
“You’ll be fine in a minute,” she says.
I’m scared. I cry and hold onto Mom. But I only cry for a minute because I want to leave before any more soldiers come.
“Can you stand on that leg?” asks Dad. I try a little and it’s kind of okay. A little more. I lift my left leg up and I can still stand.
“I’m okay. I want to get out of here,” I say. But I’m scared. And it hurts.
“Lean on your brothers,” says Dad. I put one arm around Joshua and another around Simon. We walk in front of Dad as we start down the street.
Dad lets out a long breath.
The people on the street go back to what they were doing as if nothing happened. They start moving again, and talking quietly. We walk past a store and I hear a kid crying inside. I look around to see if anyone else was hit and I think it’s only the kid who’s crying.
We stay close to Mom and Dad. Joses is walking beside the cart. We get to the end of the street and we go into a large town square. There are buildings on all sides of it, and roads at every corner and three roads coming out of the square on the other side from us. There are hardly any people here, just an old couple right across from us and a couple of men on the side walking away from us. My leg is going to have a big bruise. I can walk on it, but I limp. Simon’s holding onto me too tightly and I push him away a little, but he just holds tighter on my waist. Joshua lets me lean my arm across his shoulder and isn’t trying to hold me tight.
“Let go of me,” I tell Simon. I take my arm off from around his shoulder.
There’s a sharp pain just for a second every step I take. I concentrate on it; it’s just when my bum goes in front of my knee, and it makes my knee bend too fast.
I take my arm off of Joshua too. I can limp by myself.
Two soldiers approach - uh oh, are they coming toward us? They’re walking fast and...no, they’re going to pass way in front of us and off to the right. Dad leads us off to the left and they don’t follow us. Phew.
“It feels pretty wide open after that narrow street, doesn’t it?” says Dad, not in a whisper but not totally out loud.
“This is where they have the markets,” he says, “like the one at home.”
Home. There are Roman soldiers at home but they don’t bug us and we don’t bug them. Dad even works for them. But maybe they’ll turn nasty like these soldiers.
“Dad, can we go back to Egypt?” I ask.
“No, son. We belong here. We’ll make the best of it.” He gives my hand a squeeze.
“Almost there,” says Dad.
We go down an even narrower road than the one with all the shops. This road has walls on each side, with courtyards and houses behind the walls. I hear people talking in the courtyards. Some of the gates are open so I look through as we pass, but I don’t stare because it’s not polite to stare into people’s homes. There’s one with bushes and benches to sit, with a house behind. It’s empty. The next one has a low table and lots of cushions; there’s people eating and talking. The next one is a long courtyard with some tools and a workbench at the end.
I wonder what Aunt Martha’s place is like.
We’re almost through the village; there’s only about six gates left before the countryside again when Dad stops at a gate. Joshua holds the donkey while Dad goes to the cart. He helps the girls get down from the back.
“Shalooooom! Shalom! So glad you’re here!” I hear from behind me. I turn around to face the gate. A fat lady runs out, practically tripping on her dress. This must be Aunt Martha.
She runs to Mom and gives her a big hug. She talks even when she’s hugging someone, which I think is really weird. “Mary! So good to see you after all these years!”’
Mom doesn’t say anything, she just hugs Aunt Martha. When they finish hugging, Mom says “Thank you, Martha. It’s so good to see you. Thank you for welcoming me and my family.” Mom has tears in her eyes and she’s practically whispering.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way! And anyone worth their salt would welcome you too!” says Aunt Martha.
“Thank you,” says Mom quietly. Why is Mom like that? Did she do something wrong? The rest of us are smiling because Aunt Martha is so loud and friendly.
She turns to hug Dad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any lady hug Dad, other than Mom, of course. But I guess she’s kind of family. I hear her saying “Oh, Joseph it’s so good to see you” muffled from having her face in Dad’s shoulder. Dad gives her a hug and laughs. “Good to see you too, Martha.”
She lets go of Dad and turns to us. Dad introduces us and she hugs us, saying “My, aren’t you handsome!” and “What a big girl you are!” She only stops talking when Dad says our names.
I’ve never met Aunt Martha or Uncle Jeremiah before. They’re not really relatives. Aunt Martha knew Mom when they both lived at the Temple in Jerusalem.
“This is my husband, Jeremiah,” says Aunt Martha. I didn’t notice him come out. He’s shorter than Dad, and kinda fat. He has shiny twinkly eyes and a goofy smile. I like him already.
He shakes everyone’s hands. “Martha’s told me so much about you. It’s good to meet you all. Mary you look wonderful. Motherhood suits you. Come on in. Dinner’s almost ready.”
A servant, also smiling, leads the donkey to the next gate which I guess leads to the stables. I follow Mom through the gate into the courtyard. There are four men already sitting on the benches. They all stand for Aunt Martha to introduce us.
“So this is Mary,” says one man. He’s kind of old but not too old, just a few grey hairs and wrinkles. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” He’s frowning. He doesn’t reach out to shake Mom’s hand even though Mom has her hand out.
“This is her husband Joseph,” says Aunt Martha.
“You’re a good man,” he says, shaking Dad’s hand.
Mom is looking down and her face is all tense. She takes a deep breath and looks up at Dad. I don’t know why this man doesn’t like Mom. I’ve never even seen him before or heard about him.
Aunt Martha continues the introductions as if nothing happened. The next man does the same thing, but the others shake Mom’s hand. When it’s my turn I don’t want to shake the hands of the two men because they were mean to Mom, but I also want to be polite because we’re guests. And Aunt Martha smiles at me. I like her.
Mom, Aunt Martha, the girls, and Jude and Joshua go inside. I follow them through the courtyard and to the right, then stop, right in the doorway to the kitchen, almost inside. I change my mind. I turn back and stay in the courtyard. I’m a big boy now so I can stay outside with the men. I look around, not knowing what to do. There’s no room on the benches, maybe that means someone has to move over to make room for me but I can’t really ask men the same way I ask my classmates at synagogue. Especially the mean ones.
One bench is along the wall beside the gate we just came through. There’s another bench along the wall beside me that meets the first bench in the corner. There’s a third bench in front of a big tree, facing the other two benches like a triangle with room to get through to the kitchen and gate. Uncle Jeremiah is sitting on that and I think maybe I should ask him to move over a bit. But I see Simon and Joses sitting on the ground in front of Dad, so I go sit beside Simon. No one tells me I have to go inside with the girls. They hardly even notice me.
Joshua comes out with a basin of water and a cloth. He’s already washed his own feet and he likes to wash people’s feet. We can wash our own, and they have a servant, but he just starts with Dad, then Joses, then Simon. When he’s washing mine, the servant shows up after putting the donkey away and bends down to take over, but Joshua gently whispers it’s okay. So they both wash my feet with me helping and we’re smiling because it’s so funny having three people wash my feet. The servant is kinda smiling but he’s also kinda nervous because he might get in trouble. When we’re done, Joshua lets him take the basin and cloth, and scoots over to sit beside me. Jude runs out of the kitchen and sits beside Joshua.
I’m a big boy, sitting outside with the grown-ups before dinner. First time ever. When I was really little I’d be in the kitchen with Mom. Then when I was older we could play outside before dinner, but not too far away. When we’re guests we usually go into the kitchen with Mom. But now I’m sitting in the courtyard with men. Because I’m a big boy.
They’re talking about important stuff, and I better not interrupt or I’ll be sent inside with the girls. I hang my head down to look at my hands on my lap, but my eyes are looking beside me to see what Joshua’s doing. He’s looking at the man who’s talking, so I do the same. I’m a big boy. I’m supposed to just listen, unless they ask me something. If they do, I better say something smart and important or I’ll be sent inside.
“I’m glad Nazareth is quiet,” says one man. Dad nods.
“We’ll have to be careful in Jerusalem,” says the man beside the kitchen door, the second one who was mean to Mom. He’s got a big nose and he’s missing a tooth. I forget his name.
“We’ll be alright as long as we’re just there for Passover,” says the mane by the gate; he was the first one who was mean to Mom.
Some of the men laugh at this. I smile in case they look at me, but I don’t get the joke.
“How have you settled in at Nazareth?” Uncle Jeremiah asks Dad. “Joseph lived in Egypt until last year,” he tells the others.
“We’re settling in, thank you. There’s plenty of work. The boys are in school at the synagogue in the mornings and help me in the workshop in the afternoons. All my children are healthy, thank God.”
I try to think of something important to say in case they ask me something. I figure they’ll ask my older brothers before me, then I’ll say something just as smart and important as them. I hear Aunt Martha laughing in the kitchen. Mom and my sisters are also laughing, but Aunt Martha laughs louder.
“And how did you like Egypt?” asks the man sitting next to Dad.
“Fine. The Romans treated us well, as did the Egyptians. Nazareth is about the same. I notice they’re more aggressive here, though.”
“It’ll get worse the closer you get to Jerusalem. They’re always on the lookout for a revolt,” says the man with the big nose.
“Why did you leave Egypt?” asks the man beside Uncle Jeremiah. He’s pretty fat. I forgot everyone’s names already.
“It wasn’t a matter of leaving Egypt, it was a matter of coming home,” says Dad. “We have family in Nazareth and there’s work there, so when we came home that’s where we decided to set-”