George A. Blair
Copyright © 2011
George A. Blair
Under the fig-tree. There he sat, as he had sat almost every day when it did not rain, looking out at the "Sea" of Galilee just below him, watching the clouds make shadows on it as they moved in their leisured restlessness across the landscape, his own "shadow," Ezra, in the sun beside the tree, standing a little behind him and off to the left, just at the edge of his vision, and the scroll Ezra had brought him to read lying on the grass by his right hand.
At least it was not home. Thank God he had this place, where no one at home knew where he was, and he did not have to face what was there!
He closed his eyes in pain at the thought of going back home this evening, to see his mother. He always tried to put the thought of her out of his mind, but as soon as she came into his consciousness, the memory of that appalling event inevitably followed. He had heard that some people actually could not remember something from their childhood that terrified them, but his problem was that he could not forget it. It kept haunting him.
He hated his mother, had hated her ever since he found out what actually was going on on that ghastly night when he was only six and alone in the house with her.
He woke to her screams of terror, and quaked in his bed, pulling the covers over his head, trying not to hear, saying over and over to himself, "Blessed be Judas Maccabeus! Blessed be Judas Maccabeus!" (his hero at the moment), not really with the idea that he would suddenly appear to protect him (which would have terrified him even more), but with a vague notion of recapturing the glow he felt at hearing the story of a brave man.
But the howls--animal howls more than human screams, low-pitched, but clearly from his mother in her bedroom--went on, and finally, he could not stand it, and crept, ready to run he knew not where, ever so softly to her room--and found her sitting up in the bed, staring at the blank wall opposite, pointing and uttering sounds that curdled his blood and froze him to the spot in the doorway.
She turned and noticed someone there, but did not seem to recognize that it was Nathanael, her little son, whom she was supposed to protect. "See!" she shrieked, pointing at the empty wall. "See there! They come through the wall!" There was nothing there.
"Eema! Who?" he wailed. "Where?" He would have dashed off to his room and hid in the bed if he could have moved. "There is no one there," he squeaked, hoping against hope that there was indeed no one. She certainly saw someone--or something.
"They come! They come! Through the wall!" and let out a shriek even worse than all the rest, and fell back on the bed, as if struck, then shaking and shuddering and sobbing. "I wish I were in heaven!" she wailed. "I wish I were dead!"
But her movement released him, and he ran as fast as he could back to the bed, burrowing as far down as he was able, quaking almost as badly as she, convinced that "they" had followed him and were crawling into the bed beside him. "Blessed be Judas Maccabeus! Blessed be Judas Maccabeus! Blessed be David!" And he alternated between Judas Maccabeus and David for the rest of the night.
He did not sleep until it was full day and he could see clearly. She had long since stopped screaming and begun snoring stertorously, but it did not calm him. At least "they" had not killed her. Finally all he could hear was very heavy breathing, and then nothing. Now he lay silent, listening. He wanted to go back to see if "they" had now killed her, but did not dare. Finally, when all was light, and he heard his father walking around (the noise he made opening the door almost made his heart burst through his chest), exhaustion took over, and he lost consciousness.
Even now he broke into a sweat under the fig tree as he recalled that hideous night. His thoughts, having got into the rut, had pursued it to the end.
His mother was not there when he awoke, and his father, gently for once, came to his bed and, instead of berating him for sleeping so late, told him that she was not well, and that she would be gone for a time. The expression on his face made Nathanael think that his mother had committed some fault, and was somehow being punished for it.
A woman came and cared for him after that, and when he asked her about his mother, she feigned not to know, and told him that all would be well, with a voice and an expression that told him that all would never be well again.
His mother eventually returned, and Nathanael avoided her as much as possible--which was not difficult, since she seemed perpetually in a state of half-stupor, except for luminous periods when she was a completely different, wonderful person--for a week or two, and then it would all begin again. A succession of women took care of him in his early childhood. He would not sleep alone any longer; he was terrified of the dark, and screamed and screamed until someone brought a lamp and sat by him until he fell asleep.
One day his father came back from Ethiopia with Ezra, a boy a year or so older than he, and as black as midnight, with only the whites of his eyes and his teeth gleaming in his face that completely disappeared in the least darkness. And his pink tongue. He looked at first almost as frightened as Nathanael, but seemed friendly enough. Nathanael's father told him that he had bought him to be his slave and companion, so that he would have someone to sleep in his room at night, and would learn to be a brave boy. (His father said this rather sternly; he did not approve of a coward, as Nathanael was painfully aware. But he could not help it.)
After the novelty of seeing someone who was black had worn off, Nathanael found this slave very useful. Whenever he was to do something that he feared he could not do, he mostly managed to have Ezra do it; and he also discovered that Ezra was very skilled in making the two of them scarce, so that he really only had to face the family at the evening meal--at which he would be quizzed by his father about what he had been told to do that day and why he had not done it. His father had a trifle more patience with someone lazy than with a coward, whom he absolutely could not stand; and so Nathanael cultivated laziness to keep from doing something his father would not approve of and which he would lecture Nathanael about.
After a time, they found the fig tree close to the shore of the "sea" of Galilee, sheltered from the house far up the hill. Whenever he wanted something there, Ezra could go up to the house and fetch it without letting anyone know what he was taking, or where. He had an incredible knack of not being seen, in spite of how superlatively conspicuous he was--at least in the daytime. Perhaps it was how he survived in Ethiopia before he was caught by the man who sold slaves. When Nathanael once asked him about his parents, he said he never knew that he had any; from all he remembered, he lived on the streets, and it was a step up to be taken by the slave-trader, who at least fed and clothed him so that he would sell well.
It was about three years after Ezra joined him that Nathanael happened to overhear his father talking to his uncle and when he said, "She had the horrors while I was away one night; I came home to her thus in the morning, and I think Nathanael saw her at it," he crept over to the wall to listen. At last he would find out what happened.
"You do not know?" said the uncle.
"He never said a word about it, and I had no way to ask him, but it was obvious. He was in dread of her. How could she?"
"It is a terrible affliction, Talmai, terrible."
"Affliction!" barked the father, making Nathanael quake. But he had to hear. "It is a sin! Dunkenness is a sin! Affliction!" he scoffed. "And why does she do it? Even now she steals coins that I mislay and saves to buy wine! Thank God she never has enough to see things that are not there any longer! But why does she do it? It merely makes her perfectly wretched, and yet she will not stop!"
"She cannot, Talmai, she cannot."
"Cannot! She could if she would only put her mind to it."
The shock of the revelation ran through his whole body. So that was it! "They" were only in his mother's mind. She saw things that were not there. Because she was drunk! His mother was a drunk! That was it! And his mother was a drunk and a sinner--and an unrepentant sinner! His mother! His own mother!" How could she do such a thing to him?
And it was from that moment that Nathanael hated her.
But he hated his father also, for doing nothing to change her, though God knows he seemed to try--but in the same futile way he tried to change Nathanael from being afraid. He shouted at her--or rather screamed at her under his breath, thinking that no one could hear, when the whole huge mansion rang with it.
Nathanael never heard what they said together, because he always covered his ears, and, thank God, they were together so seldom. They were constrained at meals because Nathanael was present, and barely spoke to each other, as the father catechized Nathanael about his "progress."
For Nathanael could not escape all "have-to's"; he had a tutor, and fortunately was quite bright--superbly bright, in fact--and learned with ease and enjoyment. He would get through his day's lessons early, and then have free time to do what he would.
Most of the time. Occasionally his father would have something new for him, such as tending the sheep, so that he could know about what he would be in charge of afterwards (his father had hundreds of sheep, donkeys, and even horses and camels in the estates he owned).
But the sheep frightened him; they were as big as himself at the time. So he went off away from the beasts without thinking to leave Ezra with them--and two of the sheep wandered off, and were lost for two days. His father made it perfectly clear that his must not happen again. He made everything perfectly clear. He stayed with the hated sheep once or twice after that, but they always seemed to realize that he was afraid of them, and acted aggressively around him, though they were as submissive as sheep to everyone else, it seemed--including Ezra, the human black sheep. The rams particularly seemed to pursue him, but Ezra always shooed them off, and Nathanael was certain that he looked on him with contempt, though, of course, a slave would be careful not to show it, lest he be beaten.
And then there was the time he was supposed to ride a horse. He actually got up on the immense brute, his legs barely able to curve around its body, and when he pulled on the reins, the horse looked back at him, as if to say, "And what do you want?" and then ignored him and began to crop the grass. He kicked at him, yanked on the rein to get her head up, and she suddenly reared to get this flear off her back, and the flea dutifully slid off--it was like falling off a roof--and landed on the sandy soil with the horse's feet kicking not a handbreadth away from his face.
And his father saw, of course, and made it perfectly clear that one must master the horse, and that if one showed that he was in control, the horse would obey. Fine. But what if one was a mere flea and not in control, and the horse knew it? But Nathanael pretended to listen. Finally, his father ended with "When you are bigger," and Nathanael could breathe. He had been expecting to be put back up there.
--And so it went, day after day of failure and lecture, with his father more and more exasperated at how lazy he was--since his father could apparently not admit that he was a coward, that was not to be thought of--and he apparently listening without daring to tell him, "I might begin to be able to do these things if you gave me a little encouragement instead of telling me how badly I was doing."
Because that was what his tutor did, and that was why he flew through his studies. He loved to read. Ezra sometimes looked at him wistfully (he was not permitted in the sessions, since it was taken for granted that slaves could not do such things). At every opportunity, he would be off to the fig tree, with a scroll or a codex. He much preferred reading a codex, with its pages one could turn and its compactness, rather than managing the rods that the scroll was wound around. But codices were few. All books, in fact, were few, but his father bought many when the tutor said that they were needed.
Nathanael's favorite was the Book of Job, which he discovered when he was twelve or so. It expressed his life so well. Job, through no fault of his own, had calamity after calamity happen to him, and what did his friends do but what Nathanael's father did--blame him and put the fault on him, when the book made it clear that it was the Lord's caprice for letting Satan have his will with him. And why? No answer. The Lord confronted Job from a whirlwind, just as Job predicted he would, and silenced him as one not knowing what God was up to. The happy ending he found it difficult to believe in, because he could see no happy ending for his own life, and he thought the author put it there just to mollify those who wanted to believe that the world made sense.
But the book showed so clearly that it did not make sense, and that one was not supposed to question it, but simply endure. Nathanael's life made no sense. He should have been loved and caressed by his mother, and she cared for nothing except finding enough money to keep herself in wineskins. He should have been protected and encouraged by his father, but his father's idea of helping him was to point out every little thing that was not perfect and drill it into his mind that that was not the way to do things. He should be doing things rather than just sitting here, reading about other people's troubles. He was rich! He should be happy! And he lived a life of leisured misery.
What had he done to deserve this? Like Job, he knew of no sin, certainly no terrible sin. That other one, Qoheleth, must be right, that everything is futile and a chase after wind. Nothing made sense.
And yet it had to make sense. Perhaps when the Messiah, the prophesied Prince came. But even that made no sense. The same prophet that talked about lions lying down with lambs during that time also talked about the savior being despised and rejected and apparently suffering horribly, taking our sins upon himself.
Nothing made any sense. Nothing. Least of all Scripture.Next