Maryam’s aunt was quick to sally forth to the roadside hut to keep Yosef’s widow abreast of latest bad and alarming developments. Not bothering to dress up for relatives, she wore what she wore every day--and was more proud of her rags the richer she became. Rapping the mezuzah with her heavily beringed finger, she stepped into Maryam’s house.
Maryam wiped her eyes as Noahdiah finished her long tale of Yeshua’s latest misdeeds and vainglorious acts on the Sabbath--of all days!
“Oh, he’ll go bad like poor Elizabeth’s son, mark my words! I realize the Dearly Departed laid the yoke on the ox dreadfully late--didn’t find you, I mean, until he wasn’t much of a catch himself. Just the same, Yeshua need not have followed his example! You should have let me get him a good Jewish girl, like Nahal’s fourth daughter. Maybe she isn’t one for saucy, citified looks and a turned up nose, but that girl can pick a spent ram out of the flock and carry it on her shoulder all the way in from the fields! She’d make Yeshua rich with her strength, and bear many strapping sons too, all strong like her! But you had your chance and wouldn’t listen to your poor old auntie! Now he’ll go bad, with no woman to guide him to the right path where he’ll make something of himself in this world!”
Relenting a bit, the older woman rose stiffly from Yosef’s chair, where she had sat by way of paying respects to the Departed. First pulling up an expensive Alexandrine bracelet, she put her arm around Maryam’s trembling shoulders.
“He’s saying to everyone he’s the Messiah, but of course we all know better here. You wouldn’t be encouraging him in that abomination, would you, dear? Some people think you have put him up to it, citing your odd behavior at that Cana wedding. I wasn’t there, had business in Caesarea, but I heard everything and don’t believe for a minute a word about that water into wine business. That was just a trick of Yeshua’s in cahoots with the host! And don’t deny it! Just because you’re his mother, it’s no use your defending his follies to me! Imagine, Yosef’s son calling himself the ‘Bread of Heaven’! the ‘Aleph and the Tau!’ and other such fine titles he invented himself! Even Yohanan dared not puff himself up like that! And you should hear how disrespectfully he speaks to our holy men, venerable scribes and doctors of the law of Moses! Why, when they said to him, ‘Teacher, we would like to see your token of proof,’ he answered, ‘A wicked and disloyal generation craves a sign and no sign will be given it except the Sign of a dreamer who is to come again after Me.’”
Noahdiah paused for effect. Then she pressed home. “Have you ever heard such nonsense? ‘The Sign of a Dreamer who is to come again after Yeshua’! What on earth could that mean? We don't need any dreamers in the country! They need to do good Jewish work, not lie around all day and dream!”
Sweeping dramatically to the door in her rag-wrapped feet, she tapped a finger beringed with four rubies and one black adamas to her right temple significantly. Her gesture only brought a greater flood of tears from Maryam. Noahdiah saw her dull-witted but nimble-fingered niece was no good for anything more than weeping, so took her leave rather than waste more valuable time. Old, gray but foxy hairs streamed out beneath a long, trailing, oft-patched black shawl as she shuttled back to town.
Highly pleased that the emperor had unwittingly acceded to the project, which would put Sejanus and Rome on top of the whole world, he continued with his winning streak.
The emperor stared at the directive Sejanus held out for him acknowledge.
“Lucius Aelius, do you not think he has a pretty wife?” Tiberius laughed. He was not above a heavy but playful poke now and then even at a favorite’s penchant for philandering.
Sejanus’s handsome, smooth-shaven face blushed slightly red, then he recovered with a flashing smile and characteristic wit. “Claudia Procula is noble in blood, as we know. One could never guess her age either. Everyone can see the good effect a regular diet of porphura has on the human physique.”
“Everyone?” said the emperor dryly. He took a few steps, then paused. “I have heard tell you are more qualified than others to make that judgment,” he added as he walked away from the staring Sejanus.
After a moment of consideration and frown, the royal favorite shrugged and handed the directive to a bowing Greek secretary. This was a matter of top priority. Palestine, though a petty precinct of Syria Major, was a thorn in the emperor’s flesh and must never again be pressed deeper in the royal side. If that should ever happen, Tiberius would be displeased and high-placed heads would, indeed, roll! Soon steam caravan, however, would move the army quickly now everywhere the tracks were laid down--nobody could stop Roman might now! Nobody! Why should Rome rule only a portion of the world--why not all? This steam wagon caravan was unstoppable! Parthia’s empire would fall like grass before the mower’s scythe, and the whole East would be next!
The slave hurried off to call a courier who would personally deliver the important, secret message direct from the emperor’s hundred-roomed villa to the man in question.
His wife, however, received the messenger with the royal decree at Caesarea. In the governor’s absence in Jerusalem, the wife was as good an authority, she reasoned. So she intercepted the missive, before the courier could stop her. “Thank you for your trouble,” she said, seizing the red portfolio containing the letter. “I will spare you leagues of an already long and arduous journey. I will personally see to it the message is opened only by my dear husband. In a few days Lord Pontius will break divine Caesar’s seal himself.”
The royal courier flushed red, then pale. He knew his life was forfeit if anyone heard of it and objected.
Procula put her hand on his arm as if to steady him. “I swear by my life that only my husband will break the seal!”
Gallantly, he smiled in return. “My wretched life is in your hands, Madame. May we meet again in the Eternal City!”
Procula smiled most charmingly.
“I should like that very much. But my husband’s duties may require our presence here for quite some time yet, unfortunately. Of course, there is always this city. It is a fine place for parties, I find. The setting, I mean, is civilized enough, thanks to the late Herod’s good taste. But society here is frightfully provincial and will never come up to Rome’s. I’ve done the best I could with it, however.”
After a low bow the courier, now with color restored, turned to take leave of the palace.
The moment his back turned Procula ripped into the box.
“At last! At last!” she cried. “Maybe I won’t be an old crone after all when he’s appointed Legate of something truly important, such as ruler over Gaul, or Spain, or Britain!”
The courier heard everything but diplomatically kept walking to a waiting chariot that would take him back to his ship in Herod’s magnificent, marble-walled harbor.
A look of triumph spread across the lady’s carefully painted features as she read her friend’s decree granting full governorial powers to her husband. Now he wouldn’t have to bear the humiliation of having to refer the most important court cases involving capital punishment to either the legate of Syria Major and to Rome. His sphere of power was complete. Though Judaea technically remained a part of Syria Major, the legate was too far off, stationed in Damascus or someplace, to really matter in Palestine. With the power of life and death, he was as good as independent.
This news was too good to keep in Caesarea. How long she had waited and waited! It seemed many times that Sejanus would never be able to pry the emperor out of his immobility and suspicion. Canceling a series of parties, Procula called for preparations to be made for immediate departure. She was going up to Jerusalem and would have the pleasure of telling Pilatus in person of his supreme power.
Since chariots were not at all ladylike, it was slower going for Procula. She was carried by slaves in a splendid, gilt-and-crimson chair all the way from Caesarea to Jerusalem. Her caravan of servants and wardrobe-wagons and mounted soldiery was long and excited much attention along the way.
Maryam also had things on her heart to trouble her brow. Several weeks before, her second son James insisted she make up her mind about the unfinished business of the chair. It took needed space, he declared. Why not sell it? he kept asking. Prodded to the breaking point by Yosef’s first-born, who was, after all, grown to manhood, she had done a very foolish thing. Forsaking her loom and taking her entire family, she left Nazareth to confront Yeshua with Yosef’s chair, the one she dreamed he would occupy one day as Messiah in Jerusalem. She could not demand it in speech, but the chair would say, she thought, everything on her heart and mind. But he refused to come out from the crowds, nor let them pass to him, and so she had gone away humiliated before all and crushed in heart.
Word for word, Noahdiah repeated to Maryam everything Yeshua had said at that terrible time. She had accompanied Maryam, but somehow was able to squeeze through the throng to Yeshua’s vicinity, so she heard what he told Noahdiah’s manservant after he announced that Maryam his mother was waiting to see him with a certain blue chair.
As Noahdiah related it to Maryam a number of times, Yeshua cried out, in the most scornful voice imaginable: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then Maryam’s ungrateful first-born had stretched out his hand to his good-for-nothing followers, saying, “Here are my mother and brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Noahdiah, as it turned out, was far from through with the subject. She repeated saying after saying of Yeshua’s. ‘“Forgive those who persecute you”--can you imagine that? “Bless those who despitefully use you”--ridiculous! A good stout Jewish curse will do much better in that case. “Love your neighbor as yourself”--why, if we did that, we’d have him and his family sitting at our table eating us out of house and home! And I suppose he thinks we should forgive these foreign idolaters and blasphemers, the Romans! They’re out to grind us under their heel and steal our good Jewish money! Forgive them? Never! Never! How could good Jews do that, tell you please? It’s always been eye for eye, tooth for tooth! That’s the divine law of Moses and we are bound to obey it!”
Then, pressing for greater effect, the widow had stamped her feet, raising dust clouds into the beams of light from the window. She had just thought of an old proverb and it seemed admirably suited. “Ha!” she cried. “‘Handsome Aleph will jig with comely Tau, Lord Alpha will lead Lady Omega to the bridal chamber!’ Yes, your Yeshua won’t amount to a hillock of beans unless he learns to respect his elders and the reverend doctors of the law and do right by the temple priests. Mark my words, they’ll see to it he comes to grief some day, if he continues dancing down his present path. Mark my words! He isn’t the first fool who started this way. Nor is he the last!”
But it wasn’t the words about forgiveness that bothered Maryam so much. After his stinging rebuke and rejection concerning the chair, substantially reinforced by Noahdiah’s account, Maryam could see no further reason to object, and one day the place where the chair had stood for years was bare. Rather, the place was taken by a half-finished plow that James was hacking out of some sycamore branch with a dull adz.
Now watching and praying for James’ safe return from wicked, Romanized Sepphoris, memories flooded back. She gazed at his rough approximation of a plow. James was no carpenter! It was evident at a glance. Then she had a sort of revelation as she looked around the drab room and at its unspeakably dreary, worn-out furnishings. Surprised she had not guessed it before, she knew what Yosef had been seeking his whole life, and why he was so mortified at Noahdiah’s rejection. She looked about helplessly for a few moments, wondering how she might get the precious chair back. But even while she was desperately searching for the means Yosef’s first-born returned.
Thick hair tangled and falling in his sweated face, James burst in the open door with money in hand, and thrust it out to Maryam with a lopsided, triumphant grin.
Maryam reeled backwards instinctively. It was foreign silver coinage, after all. It had the blasphemous images of Roman gods and deified emperors, yet it was not pollution from sacrilege that made her draw back in utmost horror. Possibly, it was something worse.
“What’s the matter now?” James blurted out in surprise and annoyance as his old mother continued to retreat into the shadows. “Look at all the money they gave me for it! No miserable lepton or two for herding stupid sheep all day but thirty silver sesterces! They said it was the finest chair they had ever seen! They said they’d add cushions of matching royal blue, fit for King Herod or that bigshot Governor Pil-something in Jerusalem and Caesarea to sit upon! When they asked my price, I thought maybe thirty leptons, so I said thirty and they thought I meant--”
The Queen of Galilee put her fine hands to her face and turned away. She moved dumbly to her loom. There she crouched for some time with numb, paralyzed fingers on her unmoving shuttle, until her bewildered second son left the house to join his brothers in the fields and show them his small fortune.
In his haste James tripped. The Roman coins flew out of his hand. Glinting and flashing they fell into a deep cleft in the rock before the startled eyes of his brothers.
Pilatus, it appeared, had made too many demands on his wife’s ample purse.
“You’ve already spent a fortune of my money!” the lady screamed with controlled accents. “I tell you, I won’t let one sesterce of mine be spent on those public baths and that hippodrome and a “barn” and elevated roadways in the city for that absurd “steam caravan” you’re planning! If you want more money, go to the Temple! Let the chief priests finance you, and then tax the people twice what the project is worth to fill your empty treasury and pay back the loan. Promptly! And to the denarius, do you hear? Do I have to tell you everything you should do? Are you a village idiot?”
“What do you mean by that?” he thundered back, stung by the reference to village idiot.
Furious with his beautiful but arrogant wife, thus it happened that Pilate fatally misstepped. Rather than negotiate a loan to save himself from iminent bankruptcy and foreclosure by Alexandrian bankers, he robbed the Corban with armed troops, saying to his wife that he had no intention of paying the priests’ high interest rates. But his act raised the long-dreaded revolt, which he, as keeper of the peace in Judeaea, was duty-bound by Rome to put down. His troops performed their duties so well that the Temple Court of the Gentiles was filled with slain Jews before the insurrection ended.
Rome’s spy systems worked overtime, but even they weren’t as quick as Herod Antipas’s letter, for the King of Galilee had no love for his rival the new governor. By return post Sejanus sent Pilatus a scathing rebuke, stamped with the aging emperor’s imperial seal.
“Always a petty governor, never a full legate of an imperial province! Is that what you’ve giving me after all my sacrifices? Why, you low-bred equestrian pig! You gutter dog! After what you’ve done, I’ll be gray-haired and toothless and tottering to my cenotaph before you get another promotion!”
He read Sejanus’s communiqué, then glared even more before stalking off in a fury. Jerusalem, having paid much blood and money, found itself with a fine new Roman hippodrome and public baths to rival Herod the Great’s embellishments of the city. He had even made a good start on both the underground and the elevated portions of the roadways for the new steam caravan that Sejanus was planning. But relations did not improve between man and wife. Again, he needed more money--the steam caravan system was devouring his monetary resources by the hour! Again, he stepped on somebody’s toes.
“Yes, I took some of your filthy money and spent it on needed equipment for my troops!” snarled the Governor after his wife confronted him with the domestic shortfall. “I promise to return every bloody sesterce, though you wanted this position more than I. Do you think those greedy cut-throats back in Rome will pay for my troops? No! I have to do it myself! But you know how poor these Judaeans are! I can’t raise enough tax money to keep my troops for six months, much less a year, and still pay what Rome demands each year! Tax farmers I send out are all insolent crooks. I can’t keep killing them for embezzlement if I want somebody to do the job, so I’m stuck with whomever I can get! And they know it, the scurvy dogs! After all, they’re none too eager to do the job, for the people consider them traitors and would just as soon slit their throats as pay Tiberius’s blood money.”
“Quit excusing yourself, you thief! I don’t believe one word, that you spent it on soldiery! It’s that insane steam caravan system, isn’t it? You cannot fool me! It’s become your obsession!”
Now Pilatus hated to be called thief, just as much as he hated her previous reference to village idiot. Though he would not talk about it, his family had been Samnite tribesmen in the hill country, of noble rank. Later, after several hundred years of slow decline in wealth and wits, they were demoted to equestrian rank when they moved to Rome, but they never ceased to remember their former glory. So thief, in his book, was the same as being called a pig, dog, plebeian, and village idiot. He hated it so much he became bold and said things he should have kept to himself.
“Yes,” he hissed, the ring on his hand spitting flame. “You hankered for this position more than I, no doubt thinking appointment to legate was just around the corner. If you recall Caesar’s first letter, he said he was ‘pleased’ to appoint me Governor-elect of Judaea. Might I add, Lucius Aelius Sejanus was pleasured?”
Procula looked as though she had been slapped by a slave. But she was not one to lay down her sword in a tight spot and flee. “What do you mean?” she challenged him, now more ever sure of her aristocratic ground. “And you, a mere equester, should be more careful than to name a great man of the nobility, vastly your superior in rank and breeding, with that low-bred tone of voice!”
Pilatus, instead of becoming more furious, shrugged before his superior wife, who was not only an Etrurian noblewoman but claimed a blood tie to the royal Caesars. The sudden, quicksilver change, afire one moment, ice cold the next, caught Procula off-guard. Exercising a conciliatory tone and Olympian calm worthy of a first-rank statesman, he bowed low to his astonished wife. “I meant only that he would be less a man who could resist your charms, beloved.”
No courtier at Capri, not even Sejanus, could have said it better in the situation. This, for the moment, was the man she had married--a true diplomat! Not some coarse, self-adulatory boor!
Being the patrician she was, Claudia Procula was pleased despite herself. They parted amicably for a change.